Michael bolted awake to the spatter of water and the rustle of leaves near his head. The sun was coming up, and Benny was relieving himself. He quickly rolled out of the way.
“Benny!” he shouted, “Move away from the camp when you want to do something like that. And while we’re at it, never ever un-holster that thing in my presence again!”
Benny chuckled at the thrill of Michael’s discomfort. “Here, have some breakfast,” he said, chucking an apple toward Michael.
“No thanks,” Michael snapped, batting it away. “I know where your hands have been.” He jumped up and picked an apple for himself.
“It will be daylight soon, and we probably have a good eight miles to Fiumicino. Once I finish this apple and move a respectable distance from the camp to attend to my needs, we should get going.” He ate around the apple quickly in big bites. The first taste was sour, but he grew to like it as he ate.
The road conditions were the same nightmare they had been before, but at least it was daylight. The visage wasn’t pretty. As far as the eye could see, cars were in a tangled heap. It was an apocalyptic nightmare worse than any Michael had seen in the science fiction movies he loved as a kid.
“It will be slow going,” Michael said as they mounted their bikes. “At least we can choose the path of least resistance. There’s less wreckage on the median strip, but we’ll have to be careful of bodies. It looks like everyone moved to the center to duke it out when the Dark Awakening hit.”
“They’ll smell by now,” Benny offered, turning up his nose.
“Well, then you won’t be tempted to eat them,” Michael sniped as he put his bike in gear.
It was as he had suspected, slow going. And as Benny had predicted, nauseating. The smell was nearly unbearable in the rising heat of the day. Michael was forever swatting at flies drawn to the stench.
Those were the good moments. Too many times people had died in bunches. The only away around was to move the bodies. Their smell and the pudginess of their bloated flesh assaulted Michael every time. His eyes stung, but he feared to wipe at them after touching the rotting bodies. Of course, Benny stayed on his bike waiting for Michael to clear the way. Michael wanted to challenge him to help, but then asked, “What’s the use?” Benny had never helped at anything other than finishing the last bit of dessert. Benny: Pope Peter! What a disaster!
When they got to ride a while without moving bodies, Michael’s mind inevitably went to the circumstances that had left him here with the most evil man he had known … well, second most evil man. There was always Isa, the beast who shared his DNA. Each time he got to this point, he would force himself to think about something else.
At times he would pray for the souls of the dead people around them, victims of a plot too insidious to even mention. “Lord, are their souls responsible for the things done by multiple personalities forced upon them?” he would ask. He doubted he would know the answer this side of heaven.
They were able to proceed at a pace of around a mile an hour. Neither wanted to stop for a rest in the stench. They just kept on keeping on until they finally found themselves at Fiumicino. It had been cordoned off with military vehicles.
Benny pulled out his satellite phone and dialed. Hanging it up, he said, “Our pilot will be out to get us in a few minutes.” He crawled off his bike and rubbed his backside. “If I never do that again, I won’t be too disappointed.”
He sat in the grass in the shade of a tree. If there had been any bodies here, the military had cleared them. The grass smelled sweet to Michael as he sat there too.
Within a short period of time, a golf cart appeared at the gate. The driver looked to be about fifty years old with a deep receding hairline and graying temples. He jumped from the cart and spoke briefly to a soldier who then opened the gate. They motioned Benny and Michael through. The man with the cart looked them over and introduced himself as their pilot.
Michael became suddenly aware of how ragged he and Benny looked. He buttoned the top button on his shirt and inserted the plastic priestly collar. It didn’t do anything for the mud and grass stains or the smell of decay rising from him, but at least it identified him as a priest. Benny looked even worse in only a mud-stained tee shirt, but when he extended his hand to reveal the papal ring, he garnered instant respect.
“I’m Enrico Passamente, Holiness. You look as if you have been through a tough time, but not to worry. You are in good hands now.” He led them to the cart. Michael took the catbird seat and Benny lumbered into the back.
“These are interesting times, are they not, Father?” Enrico asked as they sped through the airport. He spoke English well, with only a slight accent, and the occasional peppering of an Italian word.
“Yes,” Michael said distractedly. His attention was drawn to servicemen in masks unceremoniously filling body bags and moving them to a growing pile at the other end of the concourse.
“There was an uncontrollable mob in the public spaces,” Enrico said as he saw Michael’s expression. “The only way for the military to secure the space was to shoot them.”
“This is horrible,” Michael said. The magnitude of destruction never ceased to amaze him.
“Fortunately, the insanity did not reach the hangers. The Vatican plane is safe, as am I and your copilot Annamaria DiCenzio. The runways didn’t fare so well. When the panic started, some planes were taking off and some were landing. Most made it through all right, but some were suddenly without pilot or copilot, and they crashed.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone. “Some people I know say they vanished. Poof. No more pilot. Sounds impossibile, but that’s what they say …”
“We had some vanishings at the Vatican as well,” Michael said. He looked over his shoulder to see Benny’s eyes were shut in a catnap.
Enrico looked closely at Michael and nodded. They rode in silence for a few seconds. “Anyway,” Enrico picked up the conversation, “the army cleared two runways—one out and one in. Atlanta is pretty much the same, but they think they will have two more open by the time we arrive.”
“Air traffic will be pretty jammed up then,” Michael said.
“What traffic?” Enrico said waving his arm. “Only government flights permitted now. We have clearer skies than ever since I’ve flown. And that’s a long time now, Signore.”
“So it sounds like Atlanta got hit by the same madness,” Michael said with a wince and a prayer that Gabe’s kids were okay.
“Same. Maybe a little worse. America got hit hard. Everyone in government but the President got killed by the crazies.”
“What?” Michael asked in astonishment.
“Sí. It’s true. Nobody but the President left. When America coughs the world gets the flu, Father. Between you and me, most Europeans think this President’s a little bit pazzo—crazy in the head—but we’re happy to have him around. Somebody got to get control of all those nukes.”
“He’s the only one left? That unbelievable!”
“But believe it. Two days ago, I wouldn’t have believed any of this, but it’s a new world, Father.”
They exited the terminal and Enrico drove the cart up to the Gulfstream’s stairs, where copilot Annamaria waited for them. She had long, blond hair and a kind smile.
“Holiness,” she cooed, “Let me help you.” She took Benny’s hand and stumbled a bit as Benny let her lift his bulk from the seat.
“Times are tough,” Annamaria said, “but we managed to find a hot meal for you and a bottle of wine. You will feel better with something on your stomach, no?”
Benny’s expression lightened significantly at the mention of food. Michael realized he was famished as well. In short order, they were seated in plush, leather-clad club seats. With no traffic, they took off immediately and reached cruising altitude quickly. Before they knew it, there was a steaming bowl of pasta and a glass of wine in front of each of them. . . .