The voice wound its way through the darkened bedroom as Karen opened herself up to its message. Soothing and gentle in its vibrations, it cradled her in an angelic embrace.
She had heard the same voice in her dreams now for the third night in a row, but this dream seemed more intense than the two previous. More resonant, clearer this time, it sounded as though the speaker were in the room, instead of perched high up in the heavens as it was before.
Only when the voice dissipated did she grasp why this one was different. This time she was awake. She was sitting up in her bed with her arms outstretched toward the ceiling, towards Heaven. She didn't remember raising her arms, but up until a few moments ago she also thought she was asleep. Bringing her arms down slowly, she felt warmth so deep it gave new energy to her spirit. Thank you God, she thought to herself, thank you.
Karen's husband stirred to consciousness as the bedroom light awakened him six hours prematurely. When his eyes started to focus, he could see Karen throwing on clothes. He looked over at the alarm clock and read the time: 11:42 PM.
"Karen," Michael started, "what in God's name are..."
"I understand, Michael. I understand," Karen announced as she began to put on her shoes.
Michael sat up. "Understand what?"
"The dreams," Karen answered with growing enthusiasm. "Only they are not dreams. At least, tonight's wasn't. Maybe the other two weren't either. I don't know. But I know what they mean." Karen finished tying her shoes and started to move towards the door.
Michael was uncertain if he was awake enough to leap out of bed and prevent his wife's exit, but he managed it, stumbling only once on his own slippers. Placing his hands reverently on Karen's shoulders, he said, "Slow down, Karen. Now tell me what you think the dreams mean." Michael was well aware of Karen's dreams, as they had spent the past two days talking of nothing else.
"They're about understanding... Michael. I know now why we never had children." Michael seemed taken aback by the remark, as Karen continued. "All my life I've always known that God had a higher purpose for me. That I was put here to do something for the Lord. We never had children because that would interfere with my true destiny -- my calling."
Michael responded in a tender voice. "We never had children because I'm sterile, sweetheart."
"And who made you that way?"
Michael sighed as he could see where her faith-based reasoning was going.
"God did," she continued. "Remember when we thought that God was punishing us by making us childless? Now I know that it was all a part of the plan."
"God's plan for us, Michael. I've been chosen."
"Chosen for what?"
"To do something divine. To do the Lords work."
"Can you be a little more specific?"
"I don't know exactly what I'll be doing for the Lord's, but I know where it all begins and when."
"And where and when is that?"
With absolute determination in her voice Karen said, "Kettlemen's Clearing at midnight. Get dressed. We have less than fifteen minutes to get there."
Michael let his hands fall from her shoulders and focused on the absolute joy in his wife's eyes. He had seen this look before, but never as intense. He knew that if Karen believed the Lord wanted her to stomp around in the woods at night, there wasn't a force in Heaven or on Earth to prevent her from the pilgrimage. This wouldn't be the first holy or divinely inspired journey for the couple, but it would be the shortest.
Kettleman's Clearing, so named for the family that burned to death in their house on Christmas Eve, was nestled about three hundred yards past a thicket of woods behind Karen and Michael's two-story barnyard style home.
As he had been in the past, Michael was prepared to journey with his wife wherever her beliefs took them. Several years back, when Karen read that a young girl had discovered the image of the virgin Mary in her pink cotton candy, the young couple had driven more then ten hours so that Karen could say a prayer over the blessed confection.
And only last year they had flown to Minneapolis to view a bed sheet at a Laundromat. It had come out of a dryer with scorch marks that made the sheet hauntingly resembled the Shroud of Turin.
In both instances, Karen believed she was getting the calling, but each time she walked away disappointed. That disappointment never shook her faith, not even for a moment. That was one of the things Michael loved about her. Her unshakable devotion to her spirituality no matter how disappointing it sometimes was, made Michael feel special just to be around her. On some level, even he thought she was blessed in some way.
"Okay," Michael said. "Just give me a minute to put some shoes on. Michael jumped into his sneakers and pulled his robe off the bathroom door.
A minute later, the couple was carving a path through the woods behind their house, with only a single flashlight to chase away the darkness. Although there was a full moon, a blanket of clouds masked the satellite's full brilliance, reducing it to a soft glow watching overhead.
"I don't mean to question your interpretation," Michael said while moving some tree branches out of Karen's path, "but why do you believe it was the voice of our Lord calling to you?"
"I wish I could say it's just a feeling I had, but it isn't. Remember when I told you the story of when I was a little girl and I died?"
"When you fell through the ice? I remember."
"I was revived after almost ten minutes under water, and the only thing I remember is a bright light -- a kind of tunnel, and this beautiful angelic voice that spoke to me." Karen stopped and looked intensely at her husband. "Michael, it was the same voice."
"Well, what exactly did it say?"
"You mean the exact words?"
"That is why I know the message is divine, because it never uses words. Only meaning. It's like music playing in your head. No words. Just understanding." Karen started walking again and even picked up the pace.
Michael fell in line behind her. "I guess I just don't understand why God wants us to go to a clearing where people died on the anniversary eve of our savior's birth... and in the middle of the night."
"I don't have that answer, Michael, but I do know that all will be revealed and that our true purpose will be made clear. I've received the calling, and you as my husband must walk with me on this path to God's greater glory," Karen finished as they emerged from the woods into Kettelmen's Clearing.
The clearing was about a hundred yards in diameter with all that remained of the Kettlemen's house, a concrete foundation, resting almost dead center. Arising from the foundation were two fire-scarred brick chimneys. Karen moved quickly over to the remnants of the Kettlemen's house as Michael suspiciously looked around.
As they met up again in the center of the foundation, approximately where the Kettelmen's kitchen and dinning room would have been forty years ago, Michael asked, "What now?"
"I don't know."
Michael seemed a bit surprised at Karen's sudden uncertainty. Up until then, she had been so positive about everything, but before Michael could respond, they both heard a twig snap in the distance. Spinning on his heel, Michael whirled around and peered into the darkness. Karen pointed the flashlight in the direction of Michael's gaze.
"You heard that, right?" Michael said with a slight tremble.
"Yes. What was it?"
More twigs snapping and the shuffling of feet could now be heard. It seemed to be coming from the woods on the opposite side of their entrance. It was getting louder. It was coming closer.
"Can you see anything?" Michael said.
"No. God Michael, what is it?"
"I don't know," Michael returned quickly as he thought about looking around for a weapon. Suddenly, something started to take form in the darkness. It lumbered under great weight and was having difficulty moving through the thicket. On either side of the robust silhouette were two smaller creatures crawling through the woods, sometimes on all fours and at other times walking erect.
"What the hell?" Michael whispered to himself as he looked back at his wife. Their eyes met and for a moment, it looked as if they were having an unspoken conversation. The topic was fight or flee. Before they reached a decision, a familiar sound echoed from the woods.
"Hello," came the voice of a middle-aged woman. Looking back, they could see a stout figure of a woman with two children in tow, emerging from the woods. Karen squinted for a moment. "It's Anne Carson and her two boys."
"Anne Carson. She plays the organ at our church." Attending an evangelical church the size of the one Michael and Karen went to, made it impossible to know every member. Karen recognized most of the members and knew more than half by name, but knew less then a quarter personally. Anne was not one she knew personally.
Karen did her best to light the path with the flashlight for the new arrivals as they moved towards the foundation. Michael helped the round woman up, and escorted them to where Karen was. The conversation was fast. Karen and Michael learned that Anne had the same dreams and received the same instruction. And like Karen, she believed the message to be divine.
"I brought my boys along, 'cause, well, I couldn't leave them home alone. What would the Lord think of me then?" She smiled through pudgy cheeks. "I just wish I had thought enough ahead to bring a flashlight."
Michael looked down at the two boys who could not be older than eight or ten. They looked tired and confused. Tromping through the woods in the dark had rattled them a bit, but they were unharmed.
Michael looked over at Karen and saw that she was focused towards the woods where Anne had emerged. Those woods were a bit thicker than the ones they had come through, but she could see soft lights bouncing up and down. There were four, five, maybe ten flashlights making their way through.
In a few minutes, people began to emerge and Karen's face started to lose its sparkle. It was the kind of thing that only a husband would notice. And he did. He moved over and put his arm around her.
"I'm sorry," he said
"For what," she whispered back.
"I could see it on your face. You thought you were the only one -- the chosen one."
"That would be selfish. God punishes the selfish," Karen answered as Michael searched for something encouraging to say.
"The Lord needs many shepherds to tend his flock and you are so lucky to have been chosen to be one." Karen smiled and embraced her husband as the first of the newcomers stepped up onto the blackened foundation.
It was an amazing assemblage of individuals. Only the most righteous and God-fearing representing several different faiths had been summoned. There was Father Mitchell, from Our Lady of the Divine Embrace, and Rabbi Gordon from the town's only Synagogue. The nation of Islam was represented with Mr. and Mrs. Nashiri. Twenty-eight in all had assembled either by the heavenly voice or by association to someone who had heard it. Conversations moved through the small crowd like a snake through the grass.
"I thought that when I heard the calling for the first time as a teenager, I had been touched by the hand of God. But it was never so clear as it was tonight," announced Father Mitchell. Sounds of acknowledgment moved around the group.
"For once, I agree with Father Mitchell," Rabbi Gordon said while smiling at his good friend and theological rival for the town's soul. "There is no question that Yahweh has brought us to this place."
"Glory be to God," someone said from the back.
"But why?" Michael asserted himself.
Faces, only illuminated by flashlights, looked at Michael as if he had just said something blasphemous. Karen stepped in front of him. "Forgive him. He did not hear the Lord's voice. I did."
Expressions of understanding moved through the group and Father Mitchell spoke to Michael. "We have all received the calling, and it told us our true purpose is going to be revealed. A purpose that will be for the glory of God. And since you are here, I'm sure the Lord wants you to do his bidding as well."
Father Mitchell seemed to be taking over the group. Something he was used to. "Everyone," he began. "As the Lord's chosen ones, let us join hands and pray."
With excitement, everyone formed a circle grasping the hands of those on either side. Karen looked at Michael and smiled. "It won't be long now. I can feel it."
Before Father Mitchell had finished the prayer, a ray of light descended from the night sky, taking everyone by surprise. Father Mitchell saw the light and continued to lead the prayer, even though many in the group were no longer bowing their heads.
Most looked up to the heavens, where the clouds, so thick a minute ago, were now parting like the Red Sea, directly over the circle. Gasps of excitement exploded as the golden ray of circular light began to expand, moving towards the chosen ones.
In the span of a moment, the heavenly glow had encompassed them all and it felt warm and inviting. Before the chosen ones could fully enjoy the warmth, a new sensation started. From deep in their insides they could feel a tingling. A pulling feeling running along the frame of their bodies followed the sensation.
Before most had realized it, their feet had left the ground. The circle was rising. As some of the chosen looked down, the cold realization began to take hold that they were now marionettes who knew very little about the puppet master. Panic started to spread and the circle severed in a dozen places.
Karen looked at Michael and saw that fear had consumed his face. She managed to grab Michael's free hand and pulled him close to her. "It's going to be all right, Michael. Just have faith," she smiled. "Have faith."
Michael seemed to relax a bit, and could only think of one thing to say. "I love you," he said as they continued to drift heavenward. They held each other and let the power of their faith take them over.
Just after dawn, Anne Carson's two boys drifted out of unconscious, as thick morning fog glided through Kettlemen's Clearing. The older of the two got to his feet first, stumbled slightly, then righted himself. Seeing his younger sibling struggling to sit up, he bent down and said, "Are you all right?"
The younger boy wiped his eyes. "I think so. Where's mamma?"
The oldest looked around. It was only then that he realized that they were all alone. "I don't know," he said. "Come on, get up."
As the two made their way back through the woods from which they had come, the youngest boy asked, "Do you think God didn't want us? Were we bad?"
Chief Operations Officer Rallec swam along the main corridor of the Inock Survey and Exploratory vessel, as it prepared to break away from the remote solar system's gravitational pull. The staff meeting he called was the final piece of administration he had to do before they started the long journey home, and he was eager to get past it.
He swam through the hard water door and entered the briefing room. Taking his place on a piece of furniture that served as a chair for his species, he brought a webbed tentacle down on the table bringing the meeting to order. The dozen or so attendees went through the topics systematically, and within minutes, they had reached the final points on the agenda.
The topic of 'Secured Inventory' rounded out the meeting, and when it came to the final supply brought on board, Rallec showed growing interest. In a language resembling whale song, Rallec asked, "How did the Automated Herding System function?"
"Very well," explained Supply Officer Balleo. "I think with some minor adjustments it will be a real asset to deep space exploration. We were able to herd twenty-eight medium-sized brain bipeds to a remote location and secure them without disrupting the environment."
"Interesting," Rallec declared with some genuine regard. "I'm still not very clear on how it works."
"It analyzes a civilization, and based on the findings, it crafts a message that, in this case the bipeds would find so alluring they would not even question it. I imagine the message will vary from planet to planet. After a time, the message becomes a beacon and this herds the animals to a specific location," relayed Balleo.
"Fascinating," grinned Rallec as he glanced down at his data shell. "But I see a discrepancy in your haul. You said you herded twenty-eight bipeds, but only twenty-six were taken aboard."
"Even in this remote end of the galaxy, we are still bound by the Harvesting of Alien Species Limitations Act," Balleo reminded the room. "Two of the animals were under weight. Most likely due to age. They were thrown back."
Sounds of disapproval moved through the room as Rallec raised a tentacle. "Now, now. It is reasonable to have harvesting limitations. If there weren't, then there might not be enough bipeds for the next Inocks who come this way. We have twenty-six healthy adult animals, which should last us 'til we reach Alben Five. Now, speaking of dinner, when will they be ready?"
"Should be soon," Balleo announced. "I saw several of the animals being de-boned in the galley on my swim over."
"Excellent," Rallec said with delight. Rubbing a tentacle over three of his six stomachs he said, "I'm so hungry I could eat one of my wives."
Kevin Anderson has been writing in the Advertising and Marketing field for nearly 13 years. At the tail end of last year he started writing a steady stream of short stories as a creative outlet. With a gritty pulp fiction style and over a dozen short stories completed, he has been (or will soon be) published in the Pop Culture magazine Semi-OK, The Harrow, Writer Online, the Canadian monthly anthology - Thirteen Stories, Black Satellite published by Dark Tree Press, Rogue Worlds and R. Douglas Weber's anthology - Black Spiral.
When not writing he loves to photograph and make rubbings of headstones, collect records, monster movies, monster toys and spend time with his daughter Avalon Rain and wife Hope, whom he married on Halloween 1999. For the most current information on the writings of Kevin Anderson please visit his web site.
Published by permission of the author.