The vulture stared at John. It perched on the rusty railing of a dilapidated bridge John wanted to cross. The wooden walkway might be riddled with dry rot, so John stopped the dirt bike on the deserted caliche road. If he let the bike fall into the rocky creek bed twenty feet below, he’d feel guilty. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, his bike. It belonged to anyone in his village who needed it.
He kicked the stand and swung his leg over the seat.
The vulture opened its wings and flapped them with a rattle of feathers before John took a single step.
Because that wasn’t utterly creepy.
It was a vulture, wasn’t it? John’s brow furrowed. What did he know? He’d grown up in New York City, in the Ghetto he and his family had shared with the other minorities. Vultures hadn’t figured prominently in the local fauna. Just rats.
Big, creepy bird, anyway.
John had to pass it to cross the bridge.
On the other side of the bridge, a cliff rose out of the sun-blasted desert. Some kind of broken-down village sat on top of the cliff, along with trees and things only visible from a distance. Since the drought of 2074 had scorched the entire state into a desert, “trees and things” were even more rare in Texas than they had been in the Ghetto.
John needed to check it out. And to do that, he had to pass the vulture that shifted from claw to claw. It reached its neck out. Preparing to fly away or to launch itself at John? Hard to say.
Fine. John had faced down Lucifer himself; he could handle a stupid bird.
He edged closer and climbed onto the railing opposite the bird. No reason to trust the wood bridge at all when he was just as comfortable on the rail.
The bird followed John with its black, beady eyes. It ruffled its feathers with a sound like rattling knives.
Yikes! John nearly lost his footing. Keep it together. Lucifer, remember?
John balanced and resumed his cross.
Of course, John hadn’t known at the time that it had been Lucifer he’d faced, and Michael had shown up to do all the actual “facing down.” Which had been pretty badass. It had been the first time John had seen his “Uncle Mike” in full-on Archangel battle rage.
So, yeah, John moved in social circles that should have precluded being creeped out by a big, flying eater of carrion. Yeah… should have….
The vulture stared at him the entire time.
When John reached the other side of the bridge, he hopped down and flashed the vulture the bird.
“Stupid death eater,” he called. “You eat dead things!”
The vulture leapt into the air.
John would never admit that he’d cringed and shrieked. Never.
The bird flew off.
John faced the cliff. Fifty feet or more high, it would make an imposing climb fraught with loose stones and difficult hand-holds. For the first time in a while, John grinned. He linked his hands and cracked his knuckles.
And up he went. This was more like it. He’d grown up climbing buildings and running the rooftops in the Ghetto. If he could climb it, swing from it, or skip along the edge of it, it belonged to John. This cliff was full of wide spaces and even rocks.
Wait. Was it man-made? Seemed like it. Yikes. Big project.
Woosh! What was that? Motion along the cliff!
Creepy vulture had a friend. They perched on some kind of antennae sticking out of the cliff about twenty feet away.
John closed his eyes and took a deep breath. One vulture was no big deal. Two of them? That could mean something. Sure, he was supposed to figure out these kinds of signs. But why now? He relaxed as best as he could hanging thirty feet in the air, then searched inward the way Michael had taught him.
He reached outward, trying to find—
A vulture squawked.
John startled and nearly lost his foothold. Blast it!
The birds flew away.
John stared after them. Sometimes, stupid birds were just stupid birds.
John reached toward the next handhold. The cliff was definitely artificial. And the top was ringed with foliage. Why had Novida, John’s village, put down stakes in the middle of a hellish dust basin when this place was a day’s ride away?
Well… was it really his village? He’d been there for two years with David and “Uncle Mike.” Everyone treated him like family… but John’s real family was God only knew where. And David and Michael spent most of their time in a cave. Meditating…
Anyway, John needed to check out the mesa of abandoned buildings. Trees and things meant water and a place the villagers could grow food more easily. Novida had water to irrigate, sure, but if this place grew things on its own, farming would… have… to be…
Okay, so Mr. Creepy Vulture had more friends. Okay… he had a lot more friends. Fine. John closed his eyes again. Nothing. Could a tree full of death eaters mean nothing?
John was a Prophet, the kind where the capital P could be heard. But what did that even mean? He had visions of the future that didn’t always make him throw up, and sometimes he could read minds. Because that didn’t freak people out.
Screw it. John settled in to catch his breath from the climb. From the mesa he could see for miles. In the village, everything was flat, low buildings, hardly any trees. Wow, he hadn’t even realized how much he missed looking out over the world.
In the Ghetto, John had run the rooftops almost every day. He’d leapt from building to building, practicing for missions from the Pipeline, a dissident group trying to help the so-called ghetto rats who thought that maybe the American Dream should apply to everyone.
Back then, climbing walls and jumping from one roof to another had been every day ending in Y. He and his friends had done what they could to free the ghettos. Every major city had one, walled-off neighborhoods filled with Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, and queers. The Pipeline hoped to prove that the government had lied, that the disease had been an excuse to seize control. And John had been a kind of leader. Someone his friends looked to for answers.
And who had always been there? Who had always had his back? David. David had always had his back.
They’d shared every adventure. Every mission for the pipeline had meant the two of them running the rooftops together, high above the ordinary lives of the people below.
And then the Ghetto had burned. And now John was stuck in the middle of nowhere, alone. The family and friends who’d survived the destruction of the Ghetto lived far, far away, and David spent all his time in a cave trying to find himself. Literally…
Blast it and burn it! The past was past. Where was John, now? He looked around.
Near a tiny village on top of a cliff. Lots of trees and stuff, and no reason the even tinier, needier village of Novida, Texas hadn’t taken over this spot.
All caught up.
Huh. Interesting building. Something…
Something wrong with it…
Something… dark… poisoned…
John relaxed. He centered… nothing more specific hit him.
Just… something bad…
The village seemed deserted. Like, a decade deserted. John focused on the abandoned building. Well, it wasn’t as if he’d never broken into someplace he didn’t belong…
The grating protecting the fragile window should be a no-brainer. He climbed into the window well and yanked on the metal bars. Oh… Okay, it wouldn’t be easy, but he’d—
Wait. Movement. What was that? The light shifted. Dust moved.
Something appeared. A boy!
What the hell? A ghost? A vision?
John lost his balance. He fell onto his ass.
A vulture squeezed out of the window, squawked at John, and flew off. It could mean anything. John saw things. It’s what made him a Prophet with a capital P. He saw things other people didn’t see.
But what did it mean? Boy. Fedora. Vulture.
Hell, they’d all worn fedoras back in the Ghetto. And suits! They’d lived in a state of constant danger, but… when it came to parties, they all managed to find suits and fedoras…. and they’d had a hell of a lot of fun. So many friends who’d loved him. Damn… And John missed every one of them…
Wait… that one time… Juneteenth… They’d had a dance in Novida. And David had found a suit to borrow, and a hat. And he’d been a vision out of their past, from the Ghetto, where things had been deadlier but simpler.
And they’d danced all day and all night until dawn out there in the desert with their new friends. It had almost seemed like home. Almost…
But David… he spent so much time in that damn cave. While John liked their new friends, they weren’t as close. Not like the people he’d grown up with, who knew his every secret… who’d met an angel the same day John had met him. Who understood all the insane crap in John’s life.
How do you let people in when you have to hide everything? The folks in Novida. They were good folks. But they couldn’t know. They could never find out.
What should he tell them? “Oh, David’s out in the desert trying to find God.”
Literally. David had been God. Well, the Son of God.
They’d cloned him. Jesus.
And that was David. The clone of Jesus Christ.
And whatever he did was the kind of thing that gave Important a capital letter.
So how could John whine about feeling lonely? Which is why he’d jumped on the dirt bike and ridden into the middle of nowhere. Trying to figure out his purpose. David was the Son of God. Great. Why the hell did he need John?
All that was the past. What was his present? A boy in a fedora. Death-eating carrion. Okay. John was no slouch. He had training. He was a Prophet, right?
The boy. What had he looked like? John closed his eyes. He relaxed.
And he saw the boy. Several adults around him very confused. What was a pale, little boy doing at the edge of a town in the Indian Nation?
The boy didn’t know. His parents were dead. A strange man had looked after him for a bit, then driven him out to the bridge in the desert and left him there.
The adults were confused, but he was a little boy. They couldn’t turn him away.
John snapped into himself and the vision hit him in the gut, as they usually did, and his stomach emptied itself. Ugh. Throwing up sucked, too. And he’d left all his water with the bike. Nice.
He left the puke in a puddle and moved around the building, sifting through the vision. The boy was important. Obviously. He’d met with the village elders in that building. That’s why John had seen him there. But why? And what did it have to do with the vultures?
The world rippled a bit, like waves of heat over a road. Yikes. Time for a break. John found a new perch. The visions, the real ones, always left him tired.
As always, his thoughts drifted to David, blast it. John could use someone at his back.
This one time, they’d had to sneak into a gambling joint outside the Ghetto, where the White people lived… during broad daylight, since the games always happened at night. Apparently, a certain politician had a pretty bad gambling habit, the details of which would make it easy to convince her to change her vote on cases that affected the rights of minorities. The Pipeline wanted those details.
So John and David had taken the mission. Duh. They would have done whatever they could to help. David had taken the back of the building.
And John had gone through the alley.
The least protected access to the interior was on the roof, as usual. How many respectable folks expected someone to reach the top of a ten-story building in a respectable neighborhood? So John and David had agreed to meet there.
As soon as John reached the roof, he spotted David running to their rendezvous.
But he wasn’t the only one heading toward the gambling den for rich White folks.
“Dicks,” John had whispered into David’s ear piece. “South wall. Lay low.”
Dickerson’s goons were the private muscle the President employed when problems needed to “go away,” problems like ghetto rats who demanded to be treated like human beings. Something must have leaked. Someone must have given up the mission.
“We need to abort,” David had said. “Reconvene at the safe point.”
What? They could still make it work, couldn’t—
“John, please.” David’s voice had brooked no disagreement. “We’re done.”
And that was before John had known about the whole Son of God thing. Before he’d found out that David had knowledge beyond the normal. But he’d still trusted him. With his life. David had always been there for him. Since birth.
Until now. Until he’d chosen to spend every waking moment trying to find God.
Damn. That sounded selfish. David needed to find his inner God to save humanity. Or something deep and profound like that. John understood that. He just missed him.
Okay. John had stuff he could do here and now. He had a mystery. A kid in a fedora and a bunch of stupid vultures.
And a village his new family should love. But didn’t.
John explored the huts. All of which had boarded windows and padlocks, because those would somehow prevent exploration.
John picked a hut at random and grabbed the padlock. He pulled with all his strength, and the door sprayed open into fragments. The deadly sun had rendered the entire frame into fragile balsa-wood wannabe. But inside… nothing.
Should he try climbing across the roofs to see what secrets the rooftops held? No, tin roofs… rusted. That just screamed disaster.
And tetanus. Could David cure tetanus? Probably, but why invite ridicule? So no jumps from roof to roof. But he could explore any of the buildings with no more than a strong pull on a sun-blasted door frame.
A second building. Empty.
A third. The same. Empty. Every building. What the what? The mesa was filled with boarded-over houses and a few empty storefronts.
Why would an entire city vacate, and why would Novida have avoided an obviously… better…
What was that? It looked like an oven, an ancient oven, thirty feet tall and made from the same wide stones that provided the foundation for the mesa.
And that’s what it had been… a structure called a “kiln” meant to burn limestone into something that made concrete a thing. Somehow. But the bodies had piled up…
Somehow, they’d needed to eliminate them…
The smoke and the ash… and the skulls…
The sun flickered and died, drowned in the ash and dust thrown up by the kiln. Bodies shoved into the gaping stone maws by people in hazmat suits, thousands of Native Americans burned because they’d died of the Virus.
And the boy. He’d had asthma. The man who’d found him, who’d brought him to the mesa, he’d given him an inhaler.
“This will end your asthma problems forever,” the man had promised. Middle-aged and fit, he’d seemed ancient to the little boy.
And the inhaler had infected him with the airborne version of HIV.
A vulture cried out. The real world slammed back hard.
John vomited more than ever before. He couldn’t stop. Long after his stomach had emptied, it kept convulsing.
Blast it and burn it, that’s why no one lived on the mesa. Why his village, why Novida struggled in a vast desert when this oasis could resolve so many of their problems. The government had sent a child, a little boy who’d been infected with an airborne version of HIV, they sent him here to slaughter the entire village. It was no different than when the government had infected Indian blankets.
Who wanted to live on that cursed land? It was worse than the old trope of building a house on a Native American burial ground, which would have been funny if it hadn’t been so true.
John’s entire body hurt, now. Maybe he shouldn’t have gone off into the desert. Maybe he shouldn’t have tried to figure out the truth of this place. Maybe he should have left well enough alone.
He found a new perch to think it all through.
How had this slaughter been kept a secret? Why didn’t anyone know someone had done it on purpose? The government spread an airborne version of HIV to kill people. John couldn’t prove it… but he knew. He knew it for a fact. And that made it all the more likely that he could find the proof because he knew it was somewhere out there to be found.
And if they did it here… then chances were they’d done it…
When HIV first went airborne, five million had died in the Bay Area. Five million.
Millions more across the nation. That’s how President Clement had declared martial law, how he’d convinced the world that confining “high-risk” populations was in the national interest, how he’d made the ghettos.
It had been the beginning of the end. And John had seen it happen here. He’d lived it.
Everyone suspected. Everyone had theories.
But John? John knew. Maybe that was his purpose, the reason he had the damn Prophet Powers, no matter how much David hated the phrase… to find this oasis in the desert and uncover its horrific secrets… To reveal the truth where no one else was able, or willing, to show it…
And there was that stupid vulture. What was it trying to say?
Death. Death lived here. Death would always live here as long as no one knew what had happened. As long as no one uncovered the truth.
And while David withdrew to his cave to meditate and find God, while David lived in the ultimate Big Picture… maybe John was meant to work here, in the heat and the dust and the ash. Maybe his job was to make sense of the world while David tried to make sense of the universe.
And that meant that John did have a purpose. He might not be the Son of God… but he could help. He could do things no one else could. He would soldier on, on his own. He would do his best to fight the good fight until he felt David’s hand on his shoulder…
And then he did. A hand on his shoulder!
John didn’t jump. He knew that touch.
He sucked in a deep breath. “Seriously,” he said. “You waited this long?” He glanced around. “You have any idea how messed up this place is? I have so much to tell you.”
Because David likely had no idea. Being the Son of God didn’t mean the little douchebag wasn’t frequently utterly clueless.
David smiled. “I’m really glad to see you again, too.” He hugged John. “I missed you.”
John sighed. The tightness of David’s arms melted any resistance. “I missed you, too.”
John Robert Mack lives and breathes in San Antonio, Texas. At least, this year. He sort of pays the bills by teaching dance but continues to build a business writing stuff, taking pictures of stuff, and designing stuff. Although unmarried and with no children of his own, he has nephews he loves and hopes one day to spoil.