The sky had grown dark, clouds covered the moonlight, and off into the very near horizon, a storm gathered.
Billy-Bob pulled the sleeping bag over his head not only to block the sounds of the wind, but to silence the noise echoing off the cave walls. Keeping him from his slumber was the sound of rhythmic breathing from the others, the sounds of bodies and sleeping bags rustling, and the incessant wind echoing off hard rock. While in Afghanistan, Billy-Bob had grown accustomed to sleeping outdoors. In heat, in cold, under any conditions—with the grumbling of fellow soldiers complaining loudly about aches, pains and the wounds they had gathered during the war. But in this cave, with these strangers—yes, he still considered his new found family “strangers”—the sounds here grew not fainter, but louder as they echoed off the stone: as if the sounds were being relayed by invisible town criers carrying a message deep into the abyss, or straight to the Devil himself.
“I can sleep anywhere,” he’d told himself, “That’s what soldiers do. Why can’t I sleep here?”
Billy-Bob unzipped his bag to peer at his new-found friends. Paul and Lasseter were motionless. Dead to the world. Akira was throbbing like a slow arrhythmic heartbeat. The very ground beneath her seemed to come alive.
“Was the gravel moving?”
Billy-Bob stared hard the dark light. The shadows must be playing tricks with his eyes. Not his eyes—his mind. Or was Paul in there playing with his consciousness.
Through the shadows, he stared at Akira. His body tensed.
Akira was sitting upright, talking. Her lips were moving but here eyes were far off in some distant land.
“It’s…it’s not possible.”
“You don’t think you’re any insect?” she whispered softly. The town criers carried her voice deep into the earth. “Entire generations of Billy-Bob’s volunteered to die in wars—wars fought not over principles, or freedom—but for money, power and resources. To help a handful of your white men get wealthy. Crony crackpot capitalism turned you into an insect slave long ago.”
“Guys, guys! Come-on guys, wake up!”
Billy-Bob’s voice was barely above a whisper, his head turning desperately toward Paul and Lasseter as his right hand reached for a Glock that wasn’t there.
Paul and Lasseter moved slightly. Akira pulsated imperceptibly faster. The clouds parted and moonlight lit the cave floor.
Through the shadows, Billy-Bob could see that it wasn’t the ground that had come alive. It wasn’t the gravel or the stone or the rock slabs that suddenly had become animated. Akira had attracted the dark soul of the desert—the insects and the pests and the vermin.
The vermin swarmed towards her as if she were nectar, swarming and crawling and covering her as if to drink of her essence.
Black widows, tarantulas, mice and rats; spiders of every kind, ants—both red and black—came out of the rock and out of the stones; crawling and creeping straight towards her.
And flies. Flies swarmed as if attracted by the smell of dead flesh.
Sensing Billy-Bob’s revulsion, Akira stared directly at him. Her eyes glowed hot red.
“Don’t you like my pets? They’re you. They’re insects.” Her face twisted into a rictus smile.
“I want you to see how I see you.”
“We’re not insects!” Billy-Bob screamed, hoping Paul or Lasseter would wake up.
He tried to stand, but her eyes held him down.
“For every school in the world, you have ten churches. Churches turn you into insects. Churches turn you into mindless slaves. You not only allow it, you enjoy it.”
Akira stood, moonlight casting her long shadow along the rocks.
Horrified, Billy-Bob screamed for help. Paul and Lasseter awoke, startled.
Laying on his stomach, Paul peered into the oncoming eyes of two deadly serpents—genus Crotalus atrox—Western diamondback rattlesnakes—coming straight at him.
Akira extended her palms.
“Come to me, my pets.”
The snakes crawled onto Akira’s arms. Their tongues flickering. Their fangs glistened.
Akira raised her arms high enough to allow their dusty tails to brush against Billy-Bob’s skin.
“Nine-Billion people live on this planet,” Akira continued. “Six-billion believe in one of hundreds of your religions.”
“Akira, stop! What are you doing?” Paul pleaded, his booming voice finally waking Lasseter.
“Look how he cowers faced with what he doesn’t understand,” Akira glared at Billy-Bob as the rattler brushed against his arm.
“Get the motherfucking snakes out of the motherfucking cave!” Lasseter yelled.
“Look how he cowers!”
Lasseter firmly pointed to the snakes, then pointed to the ground. Akira shook her head in disagreement.
“But it is not the snake he fears!”
“He fears the symbolism! He fears what the snakes represent!”
“Akira, my love, just drop the snakes and tell us what you’re getting at…”
“Look at this soldier quiver! With six billion people brainwashed by religion, we must choose religious language and religious symbols to communicate! Forget science. Forget facts. Give them ol’ time religion and we’ll get our point across.”
Akira dropped the snakes, and to Paul and Lasseter’s relief, both slithered away quickly.
“After running all your quantum simulations, this is your conclusion?” Lasseter asked, sounding dreary.
Paul didn’t wait for an answer. He reached down and helped poor Billy-Bob to his feet. He could see the soldier had become completely unglued. Paul smiled gently and tried to fill his voice with honey:
“Welcome to the new Eden.”