“So when's the spaceship coming?”
“After we finish dinner, Laurence,” Major Doubleday replied with his sonorous voice and easy smile, “It's a long trip. We'll have to have our stomachs full if we want to survive the cryostasis.”
“Does it matter if our hat is on straight. I'm afraid mine might get crooked,” Betty Wagner confessed. She had lost much of her hair to old age alopecia but none of her vanity, choosing to wear the stepped pyramid cap on top of a silver wig. The result was a tilting ziggurat about to tumble over her left ear. She looked ridiculous but it was diminished when the word was considered in the relative sense. The assembled, all thirteen of them, looked like a broke ass Devo fan club reunion.
“No, Betty. All that matters is that you wore it today. The shape and the materials will transmit your consciousness to the space ship. Once we get to the homeworld, our Heavenly Travelers will be able to transfer your body into a younger clone.”
“Oh, that would be quite nice,” Old Mrs. Wagner cooed, grabbing a scoop of mashed peas with a gnarled claw of a hand. It shook tremulously and she lost half the cargo in the four inches between plate and bowl. Mortified, she sought to hide her embarrassment with a bowed head. The Major, or Father Prime as he now insisted upon being called, reached out and put his hand over hers.
“Sister Betty, this is no time to be saddened by the deterioration of flesh. In tomorrow's universe, the embarrassment of today will be yesterday's forgotten memory. The Travelers would want you to look forward to tomorrow's youth. Can you do that for me, Betty?”
The old woman looked up sheepishly at Father Prime and nodded. If the blood flowed like it used to, her face would be blushing cherry red, yet her thinned lipped smile was genuine. She had been a magazine model once, when lingerie looked more like chastity belts than Fredrick's of Hollywood. There was nothing she wouldn't give to have those days back.
“Now, everyone, be sure to try the London broil. Mother Prime has made it with her special sauce. It really is to die for.”
Mrs. Doubleday looked over at her husband and smiled sweetly.
“Oh, Rog—Father Prime, flattery will get you no where!”
Major Doubleday smiled back at his wife and took a second helping of the thinly sliced meat. It really did look tender.
“You must tell us what you marinate it in, Char—Mother Prime. It is delicious,” Rosalie Escudero insisted, “I don't know what the Travelers will let us take, but I'll be sure to ask for a double helping of this.”
“Oh Sister Rosalie, it's just teriyaki and love.”
They all had a good chuckle at that. All of them but Marvin.
Marvin wasn't supposed to be there. It was all a big mix up. Marvin was an atheist. Still is, really. However, when talk of the Rapture got to the fever pitch and his neighbors were paying hundreds of dollars for their dogs to be left in the care of the unelect, he'd developed a curious interest in Revelations. He had never been much of a reader, but by the time he finished Tribulation Force he got the general gist of how things were going to go. Airline pilots would be taken up into heaven wholesale, sending their passengers to their descending doom. Kirk Cameron would have a job as a crack journalist. Vigo the Carpathian would be head of the UN and that was only the beginning of their trouble.
It wasn't that he really believed, but he had started to grow concerned. When he heard that Major Doubleday had contact with extraterrestrials, Marvin knew that he had his ticket out. Enlightened beings would, of course, be able to get them out of dodge before the whole Rapture thing would take place. Hell, at the time, he honestly started to believe that maybe the Rapture was actually a promise by aliens that got garbled up by their ancestors. A promise to take good people far away to learn their technology and wisdom. Primitive people would mistake an advanced race for gods and angels, after all. It really made a whole lot of sense when you thought about the breaking seals as some kind of metaphor for war and poverty and disease. There was way too much of that here anyway.
And even if the Rapture was all bunk who would want to stay here and pay taxes and be a bank teller when interstellar travel was at the tip of your fingers?
Then Harold Camping was wrong. Then he was wrong a second time. Lastly, Father Prime let them know how they were going to hitch a ride on the spaceship.
Marvin was already six grand deep when the bomb was dropped. The Travelers aren't exactly corporeal beings like humans. See, even with their advanced technology, space is inhospitable. There's radiation, black holes, solar flares, micro meteors that can puncture the hull of the spacecraft. And extrasolar space—who even knows what's in the deep? So the Travelers got around this by turning themselves into energy beings. That way they could shoot around the galaxy here and there without having to waste away in a physical body or be vulnerable to the hazards of galactic travel. Which begs the question: how does one become energy to hitch a ride on their ship?
By dying of course.
Marvin wasn't too keen on that. Father Prime had said a lot of mumbo jumbo about humans really being energy, citing everything from quantum physics to Deepak Chopra. Simply put, the body was just a vessel for that cosmic energy. By leaving it behind they could ride a spaceship. A spaceship with energy astronauts. It made sense, he supposed, except for the dying part.
When he first raised his... concerns with Father Prime, Doubleday had taken him into his study and poured him a glass of foul tasting brown liquor. Marvin wasn't a drinker, but he downed it any way because that's what people in movies do right before they saw the hard truth. It burned his throat and made his chest so warm he started to sweat. He almost threw up.
Father Prime sat next to him with his own glass and put a hand on his knees.
“See this, Marvin?” he asked.
“No Marvin, the library. Do you see it?”
Marvin had seen it. He'd seen it a bunch of times. It was a round room with a few high windows and warm lights from some desk lamps. There was a fire place that the Major liked to light in winter. The books were old and fancy looking with leather bindings and they sat on tall, dark, wooden book cases. It smelled like cigars and oak.
“Yes, Maj—Father Prime. I see it.”
“In here is the sum of human knowledge,” he said. He then pulled out his phone, “Even more of it is in here. And we can have it any time. And all of this—all we have ever been and ever will be in our lifetimes, is not even a fragment of a sliver of a minuscule percent of the Travelers' knowledge.”
That seemed to stand to reason to Marvin.
“Now I know what they are asking can seem scary, Marvin. Heck, I was pretty scared when they told me myself. But all they're asking, Brother, is that you be willing to part with the familiar in exchange for the extraordinary. Do you think you can do that, Marvin?”
“I don't know.”
“You know what's familiar, Marvin? Pain. Like the pain you feel when people look at you different for walking with crutches. There's fear too. Like the fear we all have walking around at night. It's loneliness, like the way we feel like we can't really share who we are with other people, having to rely on imperfect words to translate our ideas. How many misunderstandings could be resolved if only we could share exactly how we feel? And it's boredom. Boredom is the mind killer, Marvin. It's what causes us to do irrational things. And you and I both know that your job at the bank, your efficiency Van Nuys, the lack of attention you get for being the special person that you are, they are making you deeply, deeply bored.
“The Travelers promise us something different. A world without pain or fear or loneliness. A place where we can connect on a spiritual level. A chance to see the infinite wonders of the universe. True freedom, Marvin. And freedom,” the Major noted as he rolled up his sleeve, revealing a long diagonal scar that crossed his forearm, “Sometimes comes at a cost. I know that. You might not yet, but I have to ask you to trust me. The price is worth it.”
Marvin felt a little better but he wasn't completely assured. The Major promised that if he still had second thoughts, he could get his money back. Father Prime was real sad and disappointed when he said it, like his dog was dying, but really he was saying to Marvin that he would miss him. No one ever missed Marvin. When he went home that night he got caught up at a police barricade. Someone had been stabbed during a robbery. He decided then that he would be brave.
Which is how Marvin ended up wearing a white robe and red plastic pyramid hat to beam his thoughts up to aliens while a self proclaimed Father Prime exhorted him to double portions of London broil.
“Brother Marvin, are you ok? You've hardly touched your food.”
It was an understatement. Marvin hadn't touched any of his food.
“I'm... I'm not really hungry, Father Prime.”
“Now, Marvin, are you feeling a bit nervous about the trip?”
Marvin admitted so with a brief nod of his head.
“We've talked about this Marvin.”
“I know, but--”
“Brothers and Sisters, our friend Brother Marvin is feeling attached to this world and is afraid of the next. Why don't we help them by reminding him what we have to look forward to?”
“Never being hungry,” Mother Prime began.
“No credit card bills or student debt,” Laurence figured with a smile.
“No war,” Gerry the amputee volunteered.
“Being young again, forever,” Mrs. Wagner smiled.
“Seeing your loved ones again,” Rosalie said softly.
“No fear,” the Major reminded him.
“Where are we going?” Marvin asked.
“Klaxzog Twenty Six. You know that Marvin.”
“How are we getting there.”
“On the Travelers' Ark.”
“And what do the Travelers look like?”
The Major looked at Marvin with a level stare. He wasn't so fatherly right now.
“I don't know, Marvin,” he admitted after a moment's pause, “No one on Earth does. When they appear in my dreams, they come to me as my good friend Dan. We were in Iraq together. A mortar took him in Fallujah. We were as close as brothers. They come to me as Dan so I know that I can trust them. But they are energy, Marvin. Energy like heat or electricity or gravity or the waves of the ocean. I don't know what that will really look like. I don't imagine it will look like much we've seen at all. Heck, Marvin, we may not have eyes to perceive visually any more.
“But they'll be there. Sure as the sun will rise. They'll have a one way ticket to discovery for you, Marvin. Think of it—all the mysteries of the universe revealed! And we'll be there with you. We'll be with you the whole way. Don't you want to come with us?”
His throat was dry. Marvin didn't like to be disagreeable. He took a sip of his Kool-Aid. He didn't drink wine like the rest of them. It gave him headaches.
“I'm, I'm not very hungry, Father Prime,” he mumbled with his eyes downwards.
“You've got to eat, Marvin!” Mrs. Wagner enjoined, “You've got to eat or you won't survive the cryostasis!”
“It's ok, Sister Betty. It's Marvin's choice. He's transmitting his thoughts like the rest of us. Let's hope that's enough.”
It was supposed to be a festive occasion. The last meal among old friends before a new life. Marvin had ruined it. He felt terrible. They finished the meal in silence.
Even though Marvin wasn't going, Mother Prime showed him to a room in the second floor. He had a cot next to Gerry, since neither of them could climb to the second bunk. As he laid down to sleep, he wondered if he'd see his friends tomorrow. Would they be gone, taken from their sheets like the Rapture? Or would they be cold and stiff as boards, just empty shells where people had been? He was kind of sad he wouldn't be going with them. He was relieved too.
It was hot in the room. Desert hot. Around midnight he felt very sweaty and thirsty and wished he had more Kool-Aid. Marvin thought he could hear his heart beat like an off time drum. He was tired too—the tired that can't sleep but also can't lift a hand. The room spun. Breathing was hard and he felt giddy. The last thing Marvin remembered before closing his eyes was the fragment of a whisper, a call just beyond his hearing, and he knew then that the Travelers were going to take him anyway.