Father Patrick Ignatius Donahey peered out of the confessional. Three church members, two men, and a woman, remained seated in pews, silently waiting. He frowned as he spotted the widow Clara Murphy.
She was a menace. Clara and her attack cat, Tiger, gave him too much of their attention. The feline resorted to his old trick of attacking his ankles whenever he walked or biked past her house. And she would sidle up to him when shopping or at community events. Much of the resulting conversation was a breathless recitation of double entendres of a sexual nature. He occasionally had nightmares where the two were locked together in a room with only a rickety folding chair between them. Clara let out peals of giggles as she chased him around the fragile piece of furniture.
The two men, Billy Williams and Taylor Slattery, were Army veterans of the Gulf War. Both came back from Iraq damaged by IED explosions. Taylor had lost both legs and part of his hips. Billy appeared normal to outward appearances but had suffered brain damage, limiting his ability to cope with even ordinary tasks. The pair had teamed up. Taylor provided the directing intellect. Billy, at six-foot-six and two-hundred-sixty pounds, supplied mobility and muscle.
The inseparable duo lived together, pooling their disability pensions. They navigated the sidewalks of Winterset dressed in Wal-Mart jeans and army surplus jackets, Billy pushing Taylor’s wheelchair. They would even share the confessional. They were good, conscious men, rarely asking forgiveness for much more than an occasional wet dream.
Donahey glanced at his watch. At 8:10 in the evening, he was tired. The priest had to try hard to sound sympathetic. He’d heard thousands of confessions in his priestly career — most repetitions of the same limited themes. Donahey almost hoped someone would devise new, exciting ways to sin. He grabbed his pectoral cross, took a deep breath, and prepared himself for Clara’s assault.
The sound of running feet echoed off the church ceiling. “Help! Where are the Fathers?”
Donahey, grateful for the interruption, exited the confessional booth. A man he recognized as the CEO of a computer company located in the Winterset industrial park raced up and grabbed his arm. The man’s thin brown hair was stuck together with sweat.
“Father Donahey, You’ve got to come right away. It’s a disaster!”
“Settle down, man. You’re Carl Young, the head of CompCo, right?”
Donahey remembered him from the news stories when Young had chosen Winterset for his new installation. The man had made a fortune designing supercomputers to produce animated movies and video games. His share of the trillion-dollar industry allowed him to build his own cutting-edge data center.
“Yes, yes. Get your gear. We need to go. There’s almost no time.”
Donahey pulled his arm loose. “My son, I am not going anywhere until you explain.”
Carl’s body shook. Donahey noticed a bloody scrape on one arm, only one shoe, and his pants were grass-stained at the knees. The computer company CEO collapsed into a pew. Head resting in hands, his voice quivered.
“This church, Winterset, the world is about to be destroyed.” He leaped up and grabbed the Father’s stole. “I need your help.”
Donahey decided to humor him. As they headed for the door, Taylor spoke up, “Father, Billy and I are coming with you. If there’s danger, we can help. If not, we’ll protect you from this nut case.”
Billy narrowed his brows, tightened his lips, and agreed. “Tay goes, I go.”
“Boys, let’s not make this too complicated.”
“Father, we took an oath to protect this country,” Taylor said. His companion, Billy, assumed a serious face and nodded.
Carl started dragging Donahey down the aisle toward the door. Clara rushed up and grabbed his arm. “I need to come too.”
Donahey rolled his eyes. The situation was out of control. They were all about to rush off into the unknown. Was he the only one still rational?
He relaxed, raised his eyebrows, remembered some lines from a famous movie, and turned to the woman.
“You can’t go with me. We both know that you belong to Tiger. You’re his world, the thing that keeps him going. If you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
Clara’s eyes grew large, and a tear formed. She rubbed his forearm. “Patrick, you are right. I will leave now.”
Donahey heard Taylor groan in the background.
The four men rode all squeezed together in the cab of the church’s old rattletrap Ford F-100 pickup. Taylor sat on Billy’s lap; his wheelchair slipped back and forth in the truck bed as they skidded around corners in a rush to reach the CompCo building.
Carl had reached the church grounds on his restored classic Indian motorcycle. They passed it crushed under the front tires of an abandoned recent model Mercedes. No car doors were open, and no sign of the driver. Donahey wanted to stop to investigate. Carl insisted they keep moving.
The hand-waving computer guru tried to explain. “I’ve developed an advanced AI system. It’s a quantum leap beyond what others have accomplished. Clusters of modified Cray mainframes linked together, capable of scaling to 1,000,000 processors and 100 petaflops, all linked by an optical network.”
“So, what does all that mean to the layman?” the priest said.
“The system mimics the characteristics and capabilities of the human brain. I’ve achieved a fully functioning self-aware AI. It’s decades ahead of anything else on the planet.”
Donahey sat silent. He didn’t know what questions to ask. Taylor’s eyes grew large, and his mouth opened and closed.
Licking his lips, he said, “You have created an artificial intelligence that is on the same level as a human? A sentient, thinking machine?”
“Didn’t I just say that?”
Finally getting the picture, Donahey frowned and said, “So what is the problem? If you want it blessed or baptized, I’ll have to check with higher authority.”
Carl’s clenched fists pounded the dash, his voice raised an octave, and he shouted, “The Goddamn thing is possessed.”
“Damn right. A demon has taken over my beautiful Betty. Father, you must exorcise it. The evil one directed that Mercedes to kill me before I could get help.”
“I don’t understand, my son.”
“Modern cars are stuffed with dozens of interconnected electronic control units or ECUs containing millions of lines of code. A hacker, in this case, a rogue computer using satellites, has multiple points of entry.
Your old Ford and my classic Indian have no ECUs and, therefore, no entry points. The computer hacked into the Mercedes and made it kamikaze into me.”
“This is very difficult for me to believe.”
“Wow!” came from Donahey’s right. “Father, this is like Hal 9000 in 2001, A Space Odyssey, or Skynet in the Terminator. It’s cyberterrorism by the cybers themselves.”
“Except it isn’t limited like those. Through the Internet my poor demon-possessed Betty Boop will take over everything with a chip.”
Taylor and Billy both said, “Betty Boop?’
Red-faced, Carl spoke. “I named her and gave her the personality of Betty Boop, a popular, sexy 1930s cartoon character.
Instinctively, Donahey slowed at a red traffic light. Carl’s foot pushed on the top of his, and the truck sped through the intersection. Behind them, the light’s red, green, and yellow flashed up and down in sequence at high speed.
The street lights and lights in the surrounding houses began winking out.
“Holy shit,” Taylor shouted, “it’s gotten into the electrical grid.”
Their sight lines shrank into the tunnel bored by the Ford’s headlights. Donahey noted the sky glow from Des Moines had disappeared. There was no moon, and low clouds hid the stars.
The black gloom was broken only by the reflected shine of parked car taillights as they passed.
A pair of headlights blinked on ahead. Donahey glanced into the rearview mirror. Another set of closer headlights raced towards them from the rear.
Looking over his shoulder, Taylor reported, “Wow! It’s a new Cadillac CT6, still with its dealer plates. Has a 400-horsepower turbo-charged ….”
The rearward vehicle caught up and flicked on its brights. The truck cab was flooded with dazzling blue light.
Donahey blinked. Eyes assaulted, he swerved and then recovered control.
The engine whine of the rogue Caddy penetrated the truck cab. The pursuing vehicle smashed into the rear of the old Ford. Four heads flew back to bang against the rear window. Donahey felt warm liquid drip down his neck. Pinched between glass and skull bone, his scalp had split.
The Ford fishtailed. The priest fought the steering wheel. He accelerated. The additional speed pulled the truck straight, just in time to receive another bash.
The vehicle in front rushed towards them. Spiked halos around its headlights filled their entire vision. In seconds, they would be crushed between two high-velocity behemoths.
Donahey spotted a wide driveway between two parked cars. The truck’s brakes squealed. He spun the wheel, and the Ford tipped to the left. Tires on the right side left the ground, and Taylor’s wheelchair parachuted out, skittering across the street.
The pickup bounced off the rear of a curbside Chevy Malibu, shed speed, and limped up the driveway.
The chase car missed the turn and plowed into the parked Chevy, crumpling its trunk, and splitting the gas tank. The Caddy’s engine clanked and jerked. Leaking fuel caught a spark, and the humans heard a blam.
Fire shot up, engulfing the two vehicles.
The foursome sat in the stopped truck, gasped for breath, and rubbed necks and heads.
Carl shook Donahey’s shoulder. “Father, let’s go. Let’s go. We can’t stop now.”
The second car flashed by, its locked brakes spouting fans of sparks as it spun around to come after them.
Donahey shouted, “We can’t get back into the street. The driveway’s blocked.”
“We don’t want back in the street. That’s my Tesla Model S. It can hit 155 miles per hour. We’d never escape on a level surface. We need to go overland. It’s only got six inches of ground clearance. This old rattletrap has twelve.”
Donahey shook his head, turned the wheel to his left, and slowly accelerated. They rolled down the block across front yards, leaving parallel tracks in torn-up turf.
The Tesla matched their speed and direction from the street.
“Faster, Father! We don’t have much time.”
At twenty-five miles per hour, the Ford bucked and jerked as it bounced over the irregular contours of Winterset’s middle-class lawns. The Tesla found an open driveway and turned to follow them, its tires spinning on dew-laden grass. It forced Donahey to floor the pedal.
The pickup rocketed through hedges, hitting bumps and driveways, its pursuer closing. The Tesla hit a drive with a curb, generating a rooster tail of sparks. Something metallic detached and pinwheeled across the lawn.
People alerted by the fire and revving engines appeared on their front porches. Three houses down, a balding man in baggy jockey shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt stood on his steps holding a shotgun. As they passed, Donahey swung the truck to the left.
The headlights illuminated a ten-foot-diameter flowerbed packed with red, white, and yellow rose bushes.
The truck roared through. Multicolored petals flew up like bursts of confetti. A scraping, rasping noise came from the bottom of the Ford. Donahey thought he heard a shout from the homeowner.
The Tesla smashed into the roses and became hung up. The man fired a blast into the maniacal vehicle’s front tire. The possessed car spun its remaining wheels, throwing grass, roses, and dirt yards to the rear.
Friction smoke billowed out under its fenders as it poured all its potential into escaping. Donahey witnessed several more flashes of gunfire.
A quivering baritone voice said, “Tay, I’m scared.”
Taylor patted his buddy’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Billy; that one won’t be after us anymore.”
The expedition stayed off the road, knocking and clattering over rough ground. The four humans spotted CompCo’s compound. It appeared to be the only place with lights and power for miles. The guardhouse was empty, and the gate locked. An eight-foot-high chain-link fence topped with interwoven coils of razor wire surrounded the fifteen-acre site.
“So, how do we get in?
Carl replied, “We can’t go through the gate. It’s reinforced to resist anything but an M-1 Tank. Besides, you can see from here that the spikes recessed in the pavement are locked upright. They would shred our tires.”
Taylor said, “Can we climb the fence or cut our way through? Father, do you have wire cutters in the tool kit?”
Donahey raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. “No tool kit, right?” The priest nodded in affirmation.
Carl rubbed sweaty palms against his pant legs.
“Getting through the fence may be the least of our problems. I built the place like a fortress—twenty-four inches of concrete reinforced with iron rebar.
“No windows. No openings on the walls or roof large enough to allow human entry. The four front doors are reinforced steel. The glass in them is bullet-resistant. Past them is another set of identical doors. At the top of the steps, I installed two-foot thick, five-foot-high concrete blast shields curved at the top to deflect car bomb explosions.”
“Don’t keep us waiting. What is your plan?”
Carl pulled out a Leatherman Multi-tool from a sheath on his belt.
“If we can reach the door, I will disassemble the locking mechanism. We enter. Father Donahey exorcises the demon. I get my Betty back.”
Donahey felt a rush of sickness in his stomach. This plan was too simple. He’d had too many run-ins with Murphy’s law. But they had no choice.
He rubbed his forehead and said, “So, getting past the fence?”
“There’s a section over there with a seam where two rolls of fencing meet. It’s a weak spot. We crash the Ford through.”
Donahey pushed himself upright in the seat.
“Brace yourselves, men.”
As he threw the Ford into second gear and kicked the gas pedal, he regretted that the church had never retrofitted the old vehicle with seatbelts.
Four voices shouted war cries. The fence grew large in the headlights. Donahey straightened his arms and pushed his chin down onto his chest. The world crashed to a halt.
Donahey couldn’t breathe; the steering wheel had smacked him in the chest.
“Don’t move, Father,” Carl said in his ear. “Relax, breathe slow, in and out. In and out, that’s it.”
His breathing stabilized. Eyes focused. The hood of the Ford was wrapped in a crumpled ribbon of chain link, its motor dead. Its detached spider-webbed windshield lay across the dash. He heard a snipping sound and found razor wire had entangled his left arm. Carl clipped away with his multi-tool. Billy limped up with Taylor piggybacked. Donahey breathed out, relieved that the boys were okay.
Carl peeled back the wire and helped Donahey out. He flexed his arm and fingers. Nothing broken, but blood leaked from a few punctures. He’d need a tetanus shot — if he lived through this. The four formed up with Carl in the lead.
They scuffed up the steps and moved down the five-foot aisle between the blast shields and the building’s front entrance. Carl knelt before the doors’ retina identification sensor. It refused to scan his eye. He popped open the Phillips head screwdriver on the multi-tool and started work on the plate screws.
From behind them came a grating noise. The front gate opened.
A vehicle rushed through. From Billy’s back, Taylor shouted, “Take cover. It’s an armed Humvee.”
With a soldier’s reflexes, Billy leaped and kneeled behind the blast shields. Carl and Donahey reacted more like a deer caught in a spotlight. A hundred feet away, the desert-painted Humvee skidded to a halt—a weapon mounted in a turret on top lined up on their foreheads. Donahey felt a rush of understanding to the brain. He grabbed Carl and dove for cover.
A ripping, growling roar came, and flashes lit up the building. Bits and chunks of concrete blew off the blast shields. Powdered cement, bits of aggregate, and fragments of bullets ricocheted to sting exposed cheeks, necks, and hands.
The fusillade stopped.
Carl raised his head, “What the hell was that?”
Taylor answered, “My friends, we are on the receiving end of an M-134 Gatling gun—six barrels spitting 7.62 caliber bullets. The military has installed satellite downlinks in its vehicles for command and control. Your computer, your Betty, has robbed the Army Reserve depot.”
“It is not Betty! She would never do such a thing. It’s the demon.”
Donahey wiped the dust from his eyes, coughed, and said. “Taylor, can it get to us here?”
“Doubtful, Father. It can put out up to 6000 rounds per minute. It would eventually chew through these blast shields if it possessed unlimited ammo. Given its usual load, it might have one or two minutes of fire remaining. If this demon computer is smart, it’ll fire short bursts to keep us pinned down.”
“We can’t wait! We must get inside. The demon will be racing through the Internet worldwide, creating havoc. We must stop it before it steals some country’s nuclear arsenal.”
Donahey raised his head and then ducked. A burst of slugs chopped out a bowl shape in the top of his shield. After his ears stopped ringing, he heard Billy and Taylor arguing.
“No, you crazy idiot, you can’t do it.”
“Tay, I’m not scared anymore. I took the oath.”
“You don’t even remember that. Besides, I need you, and we need each other.”
“I do so remember.” Billy started to recite: “I, Billy Williams, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution …”
“Stop, damn you.”
“… of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”
Taylor sobbed, released his hold on his companion’s shoulders, and slid to the ground. “Okay, okay.”
Billy leaped up and ran to the entrance. “…that I will bear true faith and allegiance….”
He stopped, faced the Humvee, and waved his arms overhead.
Six barrels snarled, and an almost solid stream of tracers and copper-jacketed slugs shredded Billy’s body, beginning at the neck, and moving down to the waist. A cloud of blood, muscle, and dark organ meat blew back to plaster the doors and building walls. Hips and legs quivered for a moment before dropping.
The three remaining men heard the Gatling barrels continue to spin and click—finally out of bullets and with no human to reload. Carl and Donahey stood. The blood-sewer smell took the priest back to battlefields on the Falkland Islands when he had been a Chaplain for the Argentine marines. He put his head in his hands. At his side, Carl bent over and retched. Taylor pulled himself up on a blast shield, face twisted, and tears ran down his cheeks. He gasped and shook.
The trio looked at the doors. Billy was smart enough, after all. The stream of bullets that punched through his body shattered the doors. They could now slip through the twisted, glassless metal frames.
The Humvee revved its engine, and tires squealed as it shot forward. Donahey smacked Carl on the shoulder. “Get Taylor! Let’s go! It’s going to ram!”
The priest helped Carl, Taylor hanging on his back, thread through the metal and glass wreckage. The Humvee crashed through the first set of doors and became stuck in the second.
Carl led them into a room with the dimensions of a basketball court. One wall was fitted with twenty large-screen TVs. A separate glass-walled section held the linked Cray computers, where refrigeration units kept the processors from overheating. Carl ran up to an operator’s desk. Donahey helped Taylor dismount and sit in a wheeled office chair.
Carl turned back from punching keys. “It’s locked up, Father. How do we get the demon out?”
Donahey shook his head, feeling grossly unprepared. Only vague memories remained of a one-hour class during his time at the Jesuit University, and the observation of a single exorcism was the limit of his knowledge. He would have to improvise. Fortunately, he had completed his confession and led a mass earlier in the day. He was as purified as he was going to get. He unfolded and kissed his stole.
He placed it around his neck and said, “Carl, I need a couple of gallons of pure water and some olive oil or something similar.”
Taylor was snuffling. He needed to be kept busy.
“My son, I’m going to need your help. You need to repeat what I say. Can you do that?”
Taylor nodded yes. Donahey began with the Litany of the Saints. “Lord, have mercy.”
He heard Taylor’s quivering echo. The priest voiced the second line, “Christ, have mercy.”
Donahey had finished the Litany. He and Taylor were in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer when Carl returned. His arms overflowed with bottles of Fuji water and a container of imported Bertolli extra virgin olive oil.
He stared at the wall screens and said, “Oh Shit.”
Donahey finished the Pater Noster. The screens showed scenes from around the world—many depicted looters smashing shop windows. In some, human soldiers fought their own machines. One man’s shoulder-fired antitank missile took out an armored car. A drone-mounted camera recorded a missile strike on a panicked file of refugees. In another, a Boeing 747 dove out of the clouds into the side of a mountain. In a screen on the upper right, a steel cover retracted from an underground ballistic missile site.
Carl shook. “Hurry, Father.”
Donahey blessed the water and oil and rushed through Psalm 53. He made the sign of the cross on the keyboard in oil. Sprinkling holy water from one of the bottles on the monitor and keyboard, the priest improvised by throwing water on the glass wall shielding the computers. He recited what he remembered, running the words together.
“Strike terror, Lord, into the beast now laying waste to your vineyard. Let your mighty hand cast him out of your servant, Betty, so he may no longer hold this person captive and redeem through your son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.”
The violent machine activity on the screens stopped. Carl breathed out; his body relaxed.
Donahey said, “This is just the beginning, Carl. These things can take days sometimes. If I only knew the name of this fiend, this would be easier.”
“I know its name. Betty told me. She fought off the takeover a few times before succumbing.”
Donahey stared at him. Carl blushed, “Astaroth.”
From what he remembered; this was a nasty one. Its presence first recorded in Sumerian stone carvings thousands of years before Christ.
Donahey put his hands on the keyboard and rushed the exorcism. “I cast you out, Astaroth, unclean spirit…”
A bass cackle of inhuman laughter came from speakers on each side of the monitor. Not you, priest. You not strong enough.
Blood began to flow out between the keys. A thick puce-yellow vomit oozed out of the plug-in connections and ran down the cables.
“… along with every Satanic power of the enemy, every specter from hell, and all your fell companions; in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, be gone and stay far from this,” Donahey hesitated, “creature of God.”
High-pitched laughter. God did not create this.
Dominating the demon psychologically was key to chasing it out. It had to feel Donahey commanding from a position of unassailable strength.
In a flash of intuition, the priest knew the answer, “If His hand wasn’t involved in its awakening, then you could not possess it.”
The demonic being stuttered, its control lost as it wrestled with the proposition. The computer peripherals spasmed and spun against the desktop. Donahey made three signs of the cross over the keyboard and propped his pectoral cross on the monitor.
“Begone then, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
There was a grunt. A baby-doll voice cried, “Carl, Carl, he’s hurting me. He won’t let go.”
“Betty, babe, fight him. Father, what should we do?”
“My son, I’ve exhausted my limited knowledge to get this respite. We need a whole platoon of priests to evict this one permanently. Is there some other alternative? Can’t you shut things down until we get reinforcements?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Carl,” Taylor said, “We’ve got a small window of opportunity here. The evil spirit will be marshaling its resources. Demon-controlled machines will be coming through the doors soon.”
The little girl’s voice spoke again, “Carl—the C-cave. I’ve not told the demon about it. Use it.”
“Betty, I can’t. I love you.”
The speakers blasted out static. The bass voice said, I’m —
Betty cut back in, “Hurry, Carl. I love you too.”
The CompCo CEO shook himself, “Betty, open the door to the mainframes.”
He staggered over to the door as if he was going to a firing squad. Donahey wheeled Taylor behind him. Frigid air rolled out, turning warm vapor in the air into white fog.
“What’s the C-cave,” Taylor asked.
“It’s a last-ditch option. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and a number of others were worried about AI’s deciding a few minutes after becoming sentient to destroy humanity before we could shut them down. They funded a consortium to develop protective codes and devices to keep that from happening. In case these failed, they produced plans for a last-ditch destruction device.”
“How does that work?”
“Underneath the mainframe is a cavity holding five hundred pounds of C-4. Normally, a code word would be given to the computer to start the bomb timer.”
“Damn, man,” Taylor exclaimed, “that much explosive will blow pieces of this building for miles. I hope you have a safe way to detonate.”
“There are multiple ways. Can’t give a code to the computer; the demon will stop it. My cell phone could give the command directly, but the electric grid is down, and the cell towers are not working. We’ll have to set it off manually.”
The trio stopped before the door. It was only open a foot. “Betty, open the door.”
Shrieking falsetto demon laugher answered. I’mmmm backkkk!
The door started to shut. Donahey and Carl grabbed its edge and held it open. Carl wedged the nose of the multi-tool into the track.
“Can you get through that space?”
Carl tried to push his way through. On the screens, the violence started again.
“I can’t make it.”
Taylor stripped down to bare chest and jockey shorts. His thin torso and lack of hips let him slide through. Carl pointed at a circular plate in the floor ten yards away.
“Open the plate, pull the lever up until it stops, and push it down. Then get back here pronto. We’ll only have five minutes.”
Taylor stretched out his arms and began to pull himself along the tile floor three feet at a time. Carl and Donahey could see the radial lines of scars remaining on his body from the Iraqi bomb.
From behind them, the demon screamed, No, nooo—no, you don’t!
The multi-tool popped out, and the door slammed shut and locked. A white gas hissed out of ceiling nozzles in the computer room. Taylor began to choke.
“The fiend has activated the Halon gas fire suppression system. It replaces the oxygen in the air—stops fire but doesn’t hurt the computers.”
Carl beat on the glass. The noise caught Taylor’s attention. Carl pointed to an eight-by-twelve-inch red-painted case mounted on a pedestal. He made motions of pulling a mask over his face. Taylor nodded. He moved slowly.
The men shouted encouragement. “Go, Tay, go.”
Taylor opened the case. He convulsed with a racking cough. A mask fell out, and he fumbled it over his face. After a few deep breaths, Taylor raised one thumb upward. Behind them, the demon’s voice was raging.
A string of blasphemy in known and unknown languages spewed forth, then stopped. A sexy female voice offered them treasures of body and spirit.
The veteran reached the floor plate. He stuck a finger in a hole and pulled the lid off. Carl pantomimed pulling up the lever, then pushing it down. Tay looked at them one last time.
Donahey read the expression on his face. His muscles convulsed. “Oh, no!” he screamed.
The lever came up. The priest read Taylor’s lips as the veteran said:
“I took an oath, too.” The soldier’s hand pushed down. He leaned back and relaxed.
Carl caught on. “Father, let’s go. We can barely make it out before the boom.”
He sprinted for the door, pulling and pushing Donahey. The priest recited the last rites as he ran. They squirmed around the wreckage of the jammed Humvee. Jagged metal scraped Donahey’s chest.
They ran down the drive onto the short-clipped grass around the flagpole. The earth rose. God’s hand tossed them like pebbles to land with bone-bashing hardness. A concrete fragment with exposed rebar stabbed into the ground; its rough surface scraped Carl’s hip. The two men lay prone.
Donahey rolled over and sat up. No longer having a life-or-death task to focus on, the day’s emotions busted him. He lost it. Tears ran down his face, and he blubbered unashamedly. Next to him, Carl sat up, tears also running freely.
The sacrifice of two gentle men and what he had accepted as a gentle woman was only bearable due to what they had prevented. A thought swam up out of his bewilderment and grief. He had been right; the demon could not possess something without a soul. The concept had shaken the fiend as well as him.
Man had birthed a living sentient creature. As the only one who could, God had provided a soul.
This story previously appeared in Winterset: Short Stories, of Pixies, Demons, and Fiends.
Edited by Mitchelle Lumumba.
Dennis Maulsby is a retired bank president living in Ames, Iowa, with his wife Ruth, a retired legal secretary, and his dog Charlie, a retired CIA operative. A son and grandson, Matt and Kaden, live in the Pacific Northwest. His poetry and short stories have appeared in numerous journals, including Star*Line, The North American Review, Haiku Journal, Spillway, The Hawai’i Pacific Review, and The Briarcliff Review (Pushcart Prize nomination). His award-winning books include three collections of poetry, two volumes of short stories, and a novel. Several of his poems have been individually published in online and print journals located in Sweden, Switzerland, China, India, the United Kingdom, and Russia. For more information, go to: DennisMaulsby.com