Jaya picked up the girl two miles past the burning car, that Buick Cutlass with the carbonized skeletons in the front seats, fire crews already working on it. The girl wore a calico dress, muddy rain boots, cradled a blanket-wrapped bundle to her chest, and hopped in as soon as Jaya pulled the truck cab alongside.
No questions. Jaya had a chrome revolver under the driver seat and a combat vet’s paranoia of strangers and strange objects on roadsides, but she recognized a half-starved underage runaway when she saw one. It was the same the world over, from Arkansas to Afghanistan, anywhere a clan of men tried to install a patriarchal hardline.
She eased back out into traffic. A line of emergency vehicles passed them going the other way. Calico’s front was dark with damp spots that smelled like sour milk, and the bundle made liquid sloshing noises whenever it squirmed in her arms. Jaya side-eyed them. The hell was that?
Jaya drove until dusk—watching her mirrors the whole time—then pulled into a motel. She brought the gun in with her. Calico sat cross-legged on the single bed and shrugged down the top of her dress, unabashedly revealing pale freckles and dark nipples, then brought the bundle up to her tit. The pose reminded Jaya of Old Masters’ paintings of the Madonna embracing the lamb. A white snout poked out of the blanket and began to suckle. When it was done, Calico took it to the bathroom and came back a few minutes later with empty arms and her clothing back in place.
She put a finger to her lips. “He’s sleeping.”
“’Bout time you tell me what your deal is.”
A fairly well-worn tale—on the run from a person in power above her. Everyone within 200 miles of the state line knew about the Reverend Dolphin, so-called because he’d been knee-deep in marine mammal/LSD communication experiments several decades ago. Then he’d had an encounter on a mountainside, and upon that spot had built a church, and around that church a compound, and from that compound ran a lucrative TV ministry of healing and revelations. The church’s billboards lined Jaya’s regular route.
Way she told it: shortly into her tenure as the reverend’s handmaiden, Calico had lifted the trapdoor in the church’s basement, which led to the cave system beneath the mountain, and found—
“And those two in the car—who were they?” Jaya asked.
“What happened to them?”
Calico shrugged. “God works in mysterious ways.” Seemed like she didn’t want to talk about it. Well, Jaya thought, hearts and minds took time, and one person with a pistol wasn’t going to undo an entire organized religion, anyway.
Jaya used truckers’ pills to keep herself awake all night, watching the barcode passage of headlights through the window blinds, gun in hand, while the others slept, until she, too, dozed sitting upright in the bed next to the girl’s curled form.
A noise outside woke her, at first hardly distinguishable from the white noise of interstate traffic, but then louder and closer, approaching and accelerating. Jaya opened the door and stepped out, looked up. The sound, loud as a helicopter but the wrong pitch. She’d picked up the ability to identify aircraft purely by their rotor sound on her desert tours—a low-flying object hovered overhead, about the size of a Reaper drone. Streetlight reflected off a domed cockpit, and she glimpsed a long tail, but all other details of its body were hidden in the dark.
Something—the cockpit, a spotlight, or a weapons pod—rotated to focus on her. Cold adrenaline filled her guts. The long tail curled forward between its skids and from the end of it sprayed a violent liquid, like an industrial fire sprinkler, coating the motel parking lot in something thicker than water. Jaya stepped back and shut the door. Suddenly had to use the bathroom. While she sat on the toilet, heard soft squelching from behind the shower curtain. She flushed, buttoned up, hesitated.
Swiftly threw aside the curtain, and screamed. Another noise behind her, Calico creeping up. “The hell is this?” Jaya shouted.
“Shh,” the girl said. “Don’t wake him.” She looked adoringly at the giant maggot, squirming in its own juices and her milk.
Battle-hardened Jaya backed away from the tub. Ain’t never anything like this before. She fetched up against the wall. The rain outside was climbing up the window and creeping under the front door. Viscous liquid ran in rivulets up the walls of the motel room. Calico said, “Careful, the gods are indirect and indiscriminate inseminators.”
“God in three persons—he lives within us in myiasis; the dragonfly of the Holy Spirit descends upon our heads; the estimated mass of all maggots on Earth is 3×1017, omnipresent. Behold here, the Son of God.”
Something wet slipped under Jaya’s pant leg. She tried to shake it loose, but felt it crawl past her knee and farther up the inside of her thigh. No! she shouted inside her head, but her outer self clamped down a calm facade and searched instead for targets. The loud engine noise returned, and Jaya saw the domed compound eyes focus on her as the griffinfly filled the motel window. “So then, who is that?”
Jaya, a lapsed Buddhist, thumbed back the hammer on her gun.