The Billion Dreams of God
By D. Krauss
The girl was hiding in a straw hut somewhere on the circus grounds. To reach her, Karl had to cross a lot of traffic. A lot. Flat out suicide. Nonetheless…
He gauged the speed of the oncoming cars and flung himself across the road, somehow spinning his way through the swerving, horn-blowing crazy people and scrambling up the opposite berm until he got purchase on some kudzu growing there. He clung to the sheer red clay wall bordering the road as cars flew past barely three feet from his backside. There was a curb below him but not much of one–barely wide enough for him to drop onto and balance-walk his way to the circus gates.
Miraculously, he landed square on the curb and kept upright. Whew. Okay, let’s do this before you (a) fall, or (b) a big truck with overhanging mirrors knocks you off. Karl danced along the curb like a Wallenda, somehow not getting clipped whenever he pinwheeled his arms to keep his balance. Seemed like every car edged closer to the curb as he did so. Karl was about to lose it when the curb opened into a driveway and he jumped, landing ungracefully on his knees and hands and braced for tire-crushing impact but was far enough away to avoid getting squished.
He looked up. The circus gate was right there.
He stood up and brushed off asphalt and gravel. The gate was fifteen-by-thirty feet of wrought iron with a Bozo-like clown face on top, big red hair sticking out of the sides and an almost-terrifying smile. Almost. Clowns had never frightened Karl. They were too silly. There was an opening in the middle of the gate and several huts and wagons scattered along a path leading away from it. Karl knew which hut–the second one on the right.
He strode through the gate and kicked the flimsy door open. “I’m here to get you out.”
The hut was dim with candlelight and draperies. The girl was standing in the middle, still dressed in her performance tunic, a green brocade of some type, her long blonde hair falling to either side and giving her an enchantress look.
“About time,” she said and hopped on his back. Karl trundled out the hut and back towards the road.
High school reunion.
“He got killed in Vietnam,” the guy said, referring to another guy. Karl didn’t know the guy talking, or the guy who died in Vietnam, or a third guy standing next to the first guy and nodding in confirmation of the death in Vietnam of the guy Karl didn’t know. Didn’t matter; what mattered is that it happened after graduation. “That’s too bad,” Karl said, “he was a good guy.” Karl knew guys who’d died in Vietnam, and they were good guys, so it was a legitimate response. The two guys, standing behind the bar, nodded in agreement, and one of them offered Karl a beer, which he gratefully accepted.
Karl turned and admired the ballroom of this hotel. Wooden floors and paneling and chandeliers and stained glass windows and white cloth-covered tables made it a nice place for a get-together. No one else was here except the two unknown guys and him, but someone was coming through the two sets of doubles doors separating the room from the lobby. A girl…well, after forty years, a woman now, but one who still retained the girlish shape and sexiness of high school. Karl did not know her, either, but it didn’t matter, she was every cute girl he had crushed on or dated or thought he was going to marry forty years ago. The girl’s hand was on the last door and she was looking at him through the glass and Karl warmed.
Karl was walking down one of the concourses at Narita airport when a man dressed in a rather elegant black silk suit emerged from one of the double doors of a private lounge, said, “Here you go,” in an elegant British accent and handed him something. Karl looked at it–a small, rubber-covered device with bumps and a couple of switches. It looked like a high-tech hearing aid. “What is it?” Karl asked.
The man smiled. “That’s for you to figure out.” He wheeled and passed back through the double doors.
Karl studied the hearing aid, fiddled with the buttons, but nothing happened. He shrugged and entered.
The lounge was tasteful, with beige carpeting and expensive chairs and sofas arranged in islands around glass-and-iron coffee tables. One side had a long mahogany bar tended by a Japanese man wearing a white tuxedo. The elegant British man was sitting at one of the coffee tables on the opposite side, next to a beautiful Japanese woman dressed in a rose-colored gown.
Karl walked over and took a seat across from the couple, holding up the hearing aid as he did so.
“Don’t take it apart,” the British man said. “It belonged to my Dad.”
“Where did he get it?”
Karl did not have to ask which war; given their respective ages, the British man’s Dad was in WWII. Karl turned to the woman, who had that particular beauty of a 40-year-old Japanese woman, her hair done up in almost a beehive fashion set off by her diamond teardrop earrings. “Hajimemashite. Doozo yoroshiku. Karl desu ka. Onamae wa?”
Her eyebrows raised. “Nihongo hanashimas ka?”
He shrugged. “Here, I do.”
She smiled. “Keiko,” and held out a bejeweled hand. Karl politely shook it, then turned to the man and held out the hearing aid. “It’s something from Hitler’s V2 program, isn’t it?”
The Britisher nodded, impressed. “It is. An experimental guidance system, in fact. How did you know?”
“Your Dad was obviously an officer because, look at you.” Here the Britisher bowed in his chair. “And this is obviously very advanced tech. The only advanced programs running back then were German.”
Both the Britisher and Keiko applauded politely. The man took the hearing aid back from Karl and squirreled it into a shirt pocket. “Now,” Keiko said, “figure out who we are.”
Karl studied them. “Did you meet here?”
“No,” Keiko said.
“London?” he asked the Britisher, who shook his head no.
Both looked surprised and pleased.
“You are both royalty,” Karl said. He pointed at the Britisher. “You, lesser ranked, viscount or a baron.” The man flourished an acknowledging hand. “But you.” Karl turned to her. “You’re a princess.”
She dimpled. “How did you know?”
“Your clothes. Your manners. Your jewelry. Two people from such different cultures would have met in boarding schools, the best being in Switzerland, which cater primarily to royalty. And you are both interested in high-tech investments, so you both have the education and resources to pursue it.”
Both applauded politely again, and Keiko ordered martinis all around. They drank and discussed the latest in space technologies until Karl’s flight was called.
Karl stood on the porch and frowned. There were now four zombies across the street, one of them in a military uniform, which meant the local Guard unit had been overrun. They were aimless and stumbling but heading in his direction so, obviously, the opposition was gathering strength. Karl held up his palms and mixed the rain with a bit of sun and formed a ball of lightning, and he pitched it across the street and watched the zombies evaporate. That should do for now. There was something immediately on his head, and he reached up and pulled off a Redskins ball cap. He chuckled. Magic always had consequences.
He walked back in the house and up to the table where Fred, Zippo, and Kennedy were filling out forms and taking phone calls. “Look what I got,” Karl said as he flourished the cap. The three of them laughed. “Serves you right,” Kennedy said.
“Gotta warn you guys, there were four this time.”
“Hmm.” Zippo was grim. “They’re getting stronger.”
“Yep.” Karl pitched the cap onto a nearby couch. “How’s the sign-ups going?”
“Pretty good,” Kennedy said as he entered another name on the list. “We’ve got most of the East Coast on board and good noises from some of the factions in the south.”
Karl made an appreciative noise. “You guys rock.”
They beamed at him, Fred literally, and ended up with a Ravens cap on his head. “Pffht,” Karl snorted and they all laughed.
“If you were a fan of a real football team, you wouldn’t have these problems,” Zippo said.
“Somebody has to be.” This got appreciative chuckles from the others. “When the rest call in, tell them about the new zombies. That should get the undecideds to break for us.”
“Not so sure about the Southrons,” Kennedy said in a wry voice. “They might like having slaves again.” He turned his already black skin five shades darker, and got a Giants cap.
“Pish, and would you guys stop it? If I switch teams, y’all will end up with Eagles caps!” Which elicited howls of derision and rejoinders like: “God, no, I hate cheesesteaks!” “Lose ten IQ points if that happens!” “Please, do! I’ve always wanted to look stupid!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Karl said, then looked at Kennedy. “I’m pretty sure all those old racists time traveled, Ken. They’re sipping mint juleps and shooting at Fort Sumter even as we speak. Shouldn’t be an issue.”
“Whatever you say, boss man!” Kennedy became Rochester, voice and eyes and all, and there was a Dallas cap.
Karl tsked and spun on his heels and lurched into the living room, howls of laughter behind him.
The old man had a travois attached to his shoulders and maneuvered it clumsily over a brass lantern sticking out of the ground, the way so narrowed by two brick buildings forming the passageway that there was no way around. It didn’t get caught, though, and Karl was relieved: now he wouldn’t have to help the old man drag the travois off it.
He shifted the halberd to his other shoulder and adjusted the furs, trying to cut the ice wind trying to cut him in half. The snow was angled halfway up the sides of the wall so that the passageway resembled a white oval, but it was packed down by previous traffic and the going wasn’t that bad. That is, if the old man would move.
He glanced back. The rest of the squad was still with him, hunched against the cold, their halberds skewed and, in a couple of cases, dragging. Karl frowned. “Look alive,” he snarled and then half-ran to the travois. “Where are you going?” he asked the old man.
The old man did not answer, simply pointed up the passageway. “Is there food?” Karl asked. The old man nodded and smiled. “All right, we’re going with you, then,” and he waved the squad forward.
It took about an hour to reach a spot where the buildings thinned enough they could spread out. There were wider alleys between the next sets of buildings, but they looked distinctly uninventing, especially when Karl caught furtive movements down them.. Great. This was the last place he wanted to get into a battle. “How much further?” he asked the old man.
In answer, the old man swerved into a non-descript building and flung off the travois, beckoning Karl to follow him through a doorway hung with skins. He did. The room inside was dark and smoky, a big iron pot boiling in the middle from which the aroma of a good stew wafted. Karl couldn’t help drooling. A couple of women and children dressed in undone furs sat around it, watching Karl with blank faces. Whether they needed to be afraid of him or not had yet to be determined. Karl nodded at them and went back outside.
It didn’t look like a museum. “It looks like a warehouse,” Chris said, frowning at the industrial cement walls looming over them.
“What do you think a museum is?” Karl said and pushed through the giant iron-clad doors that even he had to admit were akin more to a steel factory entrance than a gallery. But, once inside…
“Holy moly,” Chris said, wonder in his eyes as he spun from one exhibit to the other.
“Tolja.” Karl couldn’t help sounding smug.
Chris ran to an alcove where a box-like piece of equipment, well over six feet tall, stood “What is all this stuff?”
“It’s old weather equipment. A lot of it I used back when I was in the Weather Service.” He patted the box affectionately. “This is an FPS-77.”
“A radar. One of the first ones that painted an image on the tube.” He tapped the blank screen in the middle of the console. “It replaced the CPS-9, which was a continuous sweep radar. You know, like the ones you see in old movies with blips showing up every time the arm goes around?” Karl looked about. “I’ll bet there’s one around here somewhere.”
Chris put an admiring hand on the shelf below the scope. “Which was better?”
“Depended on what you wanted to do.” Karl pulled the chair out and sat down. He caressed the knobs and then switched the radar on, listening with satisfaction as the tubes warmed up. “If you wanted to keep a weather eye out” ―he chuckled― “then the CP-9 was better. But, if you wanted a record…” with a flourish, Karl turned the toggle switch over and held it for about thirty seconds as the screen brightened and painted the images.
“What’s that?” Chris pointed at a blur on the upper left of the Plan Position Indicator.
“Looks like a thunderstorm forming about ten clicks out.” He waited thirty seconds. “Now watch this.” And he painted the screen again.
The blur had shifted in their direction and was now more definite. He glanced at the Range Height Indicator. Up to 50,000 feet. “Yep, a thunderstorm.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Chris said.
“It is.” Karl pushed back from the scope and stood up. “I wonder if they have an RBC here.” He leaned back and peered down one of the hallways.
“A Rotating Beam Ceilometer. It measures cloud heights. Let’s go see.” Karl headed to the left, Chris in tow.
Karl wasn’t sure what to do. He could stay on old 522 and end up at Port Republic via Interstate 64, or cut over to 340 and go the country route. “Flip a coin,” he told himself and did so mentally and 340 won. He cut the wheel hard and was on the exit, which spun around a small hill…
…and right into a traffic jam.
“Great,” Karl muttered and stared at the sea of brake lights and tail fins in front of him. Now he was going to be late, arriving at the hotel the same time as everyone else, which meant it would take him about four or five hours to set up. Goodbye good night’s sleep.
Fuming, Karl glanced to the right and saw a factory complex behind a steel fence. They probably have good coffee in there. So, Karl slipped out of traffic and through the open gate and into a parking spot near a side door. He went in.
There was a large open floor with big machinery parts stacked all over the place. Teams were here and there assembling even bigger machines out of the big parts. A very pretty black woman with a nice ‘fro was bolting together two large steel frames. “What’s that for?” Karl asked her.
She turned a set of the most beautiful blue eyes on him, and Karl was in love. She grinned. “Photon torpedo bank,” she said.
Yep, definitely in love. He grinned back. “Captain Kirk or Picard?”
“Picard.” Said with no hesitation.
“Ah.” Karl snapped disappointed fingers. “I’m a Captain Kirk guy, myself.”
She nodded, appraising him with those cool blue eyes. “Must be a generational thing.” And she grinned again.
Karl laughed. “Oh, that’s good. Real good.” And he returned the appraising look. “What’s your name?”
“Seven of nine.”
“Oh, stop it!” he laughed and the two of them doubled over with mirth and she offered him some of the industrial coffee and Karl decided to stay and help with the assembly. Couldn’t get through the traffic, anyway.
Karl was in bed with two naked Japanese women and they kept brushing him with their breasts and legs―inadvertently, as best as he could tell―which was annoying because it was distracting, and Karl wanted to concentrate on the noises outside. The girls were talking to each other about some upcoming show or event they were going to, but Karl was too intent on the noises to understand what they were saying. What was going on out there?
It sounded like a few people were installing something big and heavy and metallic right outside his door, like a central heating system or something. Lots of metal screeches against the wood floor, lots of grunts as men pushed the metal causing the screeches, bangings of wrenches and men shouting directions and coordinations to each other: “To the right! More to the right!” “Yo, need to fit this, right now!” “Who’s got the back?”
What the hell?
Karl was worried that whatever was going on in the hallway would end up blocking the door. Not that being trapped in a room with two naked Japanese women was a bad prospect, it’s just that there were other things Karl wanted to do today. Like, visit the National Palace, get some actual honest-to-God sushi, maybe take an aimless ride on the subway giggling at how the Japanese crammed the cars. Maybe even go with the girls to wherever they were going tonight.
The one on his left side shifted, and her breast caressed his shoulder, and Karl forgot about the noises for a moment. “I think I’m going to wear the black dress,” she was saying to the girl on his right.
“The sheer one?”
Left girl nodded vigorously, sending breasts into exquisite jiggles on his forearm and shifted a leg across his legs and oh, my my. “Then I’ll wear the silver one!” Right girl squealed and dropped an arm across Karl’s stomach.
Why the girls were speaking English, Karl couldn’t figure. The conversation did not include him, and they could chirp happily along in Japanese about any detail they wished, even ones concerning him, without him knowing because this time, he didn’t speak Japanese. Perhaps it was politeness. The Japanese were a very polite people.
“Did you know,” he said to them, “that it’s considered very rude to use the pronoun ‘I’ in the Japanese language?”
They both blinked at him. “So what time should we leave?” Left Girl said, picking up the conversation right where Karl had interrupted.
“That’d be best.”
Outside the door, clanging started and rose to an almost deafening crescendo as the men shouted and strained and complained: “You’re holding it too high!” “I can’t get in here!” “Where’d you learn to do this, a cereal box?” Which Karl thought an odd insult.
“I don’t think we’re going anywhere,” he said and pointed at the door and got naked Japanese girl against his knee for the trouble.
Right girl waved an airy hand. “Don’t worry about them,” she said. “Should we go ahead and make a reservation?”
Karl looked at her. “For what?”
Playful slap at an area a little too sensitive for that. “Not you. Her.”
Karl settled in and listened to the girls and the construction and felt rather content.
“Are you an American?”
Great, Karl thought. Here he was in some third-world hellhole bathroom, or what passed for a bathroom, in midstream of an incredibly wicked piss that had at least three more minutes to completion, and some yahoo behind him was getting political. “What’s it to ya?” he called over his shoulder.
“We’re Venezuelans,” the same belligerent voice that had asked his nationality, the pronoun indicating that more than one jagoff was behind him. Any second, a knife to the kidney. Karl could always turn around and pee on them, but that might end up exacerbating the situation.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said to the broken tiles smeared with god knows what in front of his face. “You getting enough to eat? Heat for the homes? No one you know has been shot down by the National Guard yet, have they?”
Talk about exacerbating the situation. There was shuffling, and Karl knew they were moving on him. “C’mon, guys, just a few more seconds. I hate to beat people up on a full bladder.”
Karl was about to launch straight backward, urine fountaining, as he caught the two jagoffs high on their chests, and oh boy, this was gonna be a knock down, drag out, and his son was calling him. Chris, you do have one lousy sense of timing.
What could the kid want? And why was he pulling him back? This was so wonderful. So wonderful.
Karl didn’t recognize that voice. Wait. Yes. Dr. WhatsHisName. Peters, yeah, that’s it. Amazing how quickly one forgets things quickly unimportant.
As expected, the leap backwards had so surprised the Venezuelans that they lost their footing and sprawled on the ooze-covered floor, and Karl could not help laughing. Getting beat up was now the least of these jagoff’s problems. Hepatitis was.
“Did he just laugh?” Chris asked, incredulous. Well, yeah, son, this is hilarious.
A flurry of activity, far worse than whoever was installing the heating system outside his naked Japanese girl room, with calls and commands that Karl didn’t really understand, and lights, so bright, and it felt like someone had just dropped a safe on his chest, and Karl did two things he did not want to do: He took in a breath and opened his eyes.
“Oh my God, he’s ALIVE!” that last a shriek from Melissa, Chris’s unfortunate wife. Probably thinks she’s just been cheated out of the vast Svenson fortune. He chuckled.
“He’s choking!” And there was more bustling and things being done to him that Karl simply did not appreciate and snatches of things like “…goddamn miracle…back from the dead…what’d you see, Dad, what’d you see?”
“Stop,” Karl said, clearly, forcefully, and surprisingly loud enough to freeze everyone. He opened his eyes. Chris was there, in focus except for the edges.
“It’s dreams,” Karl said. “All dreams.”