Nixon and I stagger up to the grotto level. It's like a battlefield. The smoke has largely cleared and the lights are on, but many of them have been shot up. The tombs are pocked with bullet craters, and the forms of dead men lie slumped in niches and sprawled in bloody piles. None of them look presidential.

We turn west and mount the steps to the central altar. All at once Aaron Burr sprints into the chamber from the north and draws up short. He has a cutlass in one hand and an Uzi in the other. "Hello," he says, looking faintly puzzled.

And then Jefferson flies in from the south. He has a flamethrower strapped to his back. Where did the third president of the United States get a flamethrower? Sometimes it is best not to ask certain questions. "Hello," says Jefferson, including Burr in his greeting.

"It would seem," Burr says, "that our weapons are hardly suitable for a gentleman's mode of dueling."

"Absolutely," agrees Jefferson. "For instance, it's almost impossible for me to miss you with this thing."

"You were a terrible president," Burr remarks.

"And you were the worst vice-president," Jefferson replies. There is a pregnant pause.

"Hey, you know what we need right now?" says Nixon brightly.

"What?" I ask.

"Floor!" says Nixon. He drags me to the ground, a split second before bullets fly and gouts of flame fill the grottoes.

"So they were running mates?" I ask Nixon, who's on top of me. He smells like old leather and Brylcreem.

"Yeah," mutters Nixon. "Used to be that veeps got the Process too, just in case. But then things soured between Burr and Jefferson; that was the end of that tradition."

The fight moves off to the east. "We should get out of here," I tell Nixon.

"Yeah, gimme a second," says Nixon. He rolls off me stiffly. He's weeping a little black fluid again.

"How's your head?" I ask, concerned.

"Head's fine," grumbles Nixon. "Burr just shot me in the ass."

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I can feel my fingertips breaking. The small bones in my fingers are shearing off, or at least that's what it feels like. I cling to the narrow handhold, my entire body limp, my face pressed flat against the mosaic-tiled wall.

I want to let go. I need to let go. But I know that when I drop to the floor, Burr's crystals will turn the room into a fireworks show, and then the explosive charge will go off. That will be all she wrote for me. So, I hang on desperately, hoping for some kind of a last-second reprieve. Teddy might show up, or the police could arrive. I pray for a miracle. And what better place to pray, I figure, than under the Vatican City?

I laugh silently, my chest heaving against the cool flat stonework.

And then I stop. I have heard something. A faint sound, a scraping. No, it's nothing. Yes, there it is again. A swish, then a thump. A pause, then it repeats. Swish, thump. Swish, thump. The sound is soft, but it's growing louder.

In the pitch dark, your imagination runs away with you. Anything could be happening. With the light gone, the ancient dead of Sheol could be emerging from secret holes, clawing and shuffling forward to inspect this intruder in their underground domain. The swishing grows louder; the thumping sounds close. I feel a faint stirring of air on my face.

There is something in the room with me.

SWISH. Something slides across the smooth stone floor. I can hear the delicate flash crystals skittering, but none of them go off. THUMP. Something puts its substantial weight on the floor, prepares to drag itself forwards again.

No, I say to myself. Not like this. SWISH. I don’t want to die in agony, hanging like a side of meat. THUMP. I could jump down, take my chances with the crystals, run into the darkness and maybe escape. SWISH, right under me. SOMETHING BRUSHES MY LEG. That does it. I'm going to…

"Let go."

I almost jump out of my skin. The voice sounds thick, mushy, but somehow familiar. There is a sudden light, blinding me. I peek out of slitted eyes. The floor below me has been swept of crystals.

The flashlight turns to shine its beam on a ruined face. It's Nixon. Nixon, the Miracle.

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For your consideration: The Harrowing of Hell.

Burr drags me down the steps into the darkness. I want to feel carefully ahead of me, so as not to lose my footing, but Burr won't let me slow down.

"Even so did the dead descend unto Sheol, the pit," Burr says melodramatically. His voice echoes in the close confines and pitch blackness. "That was what early Christians believed, anyway. When you died, there wasn't really a Heaven or Hell. There was just the old Hebrew notion of a final resting place for souls. All this business about heaven and hell is strictly a New Testament matter."

"Where are we going?" I interrupt.

"I told you," said Burr. "We're going down into the pit. The final resting place."

"I'm useless to you, even as a hostage," I say desperately. "The Chiefs won't give a shit; they'll shoot us both if it'll take you down."

"I know. I know," says Burr reassuringly. "I have another use for you."

We reach the bottom and walk a ways. There's uneven terrain, a few short steps up and down, several squeezes through narrow gaps. I curse Burr roundly, in part out of envy for his Process-altered eyes, the rest because he's a bastard. Burr accepts all this in silence.

He releases me into an open space. There's a flash of light, and I shield my eyes. Burr has broken a glowstick; it illuminates the chamber greenly. The murals on the walls are faded, but I can still make out the Eye of Horus and other Egyptian motifs. A sandwich of steel plates has been drilled into the center of the floor, and the detonator wire snakes into a bundle held in its center. It's a shaped charge, even I know that – a big one, designed to blast downwards.

"Behold the door to the Underworld," says Burr. "We're going to blow it open."

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"Why?" I ask simply.

"I think you have the wrong idea," says Burr. "I'm not going to blow up the Basilica of Saint Peter. The Chiefs are."

"No they aren't," I say obstinately. "They don’t have anything to blow it up with."

"That's good to know," says Burr. Oh, well done, moron.

"No," Burr continues, "I guess technically they're not actually going to do the blowing up, but they'll take the credit for it. That's why I've lured them here, chasing after old Formosus again. No insult intended, Your Grace."

"None taken," Formosus replies mildly.

"We have a little selective demolition to do here," continues Burr, "and it struck me we could kill two birds with one stone. By luring in the Chiefs to their doom and giving them the rap for destroying the Vatican, I can have my cake, and they can eat me too." Burr looks very satisfied with himself.

"Oh, for the love of Pete," snarls Nixon. He's still sprawled on the floor, having recovered the use of his mouth well ahead of any other motor control. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a bad guy who keeps his victims alive so he can tell them his dumb-ass plan."

"I entirely agree," says Burr. He draws his pistol, cocks it, and blows off the top of Nixon's head.

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Nixon leads the way down the spiral staircase, the fragment of the spearhead that killed Christ thrust out in front of him. I follow close behind. I have no illusions about my chances if I get separated from the ex-President. Nevertheless, I take pride in not wanting to retreat. The story is here, not back outside the Basilica of Saint Peter. I came here to report, and dammit that's what I'm going to do.

"So how come that thing was so effective on those zombie priests, huh?" I ask.

"Don't ask me stupid science questions," snarls Nixon irritably. "I dunno, I think the Romans made it with something that screws up the weird shit that makes the Process and the Juice work."

"You used to be a smart President," I complain. "What happened?"

"I'm still smart," Nixon protests. "I just smartly shoot people."

Something occurs to me. "Hey, wait a second," I say. "If the Romans made the Spear of Longinus that way, does that mean that Jesus had the Process on him?"

Nixon half turns and points at me with the knife. "You didn't hear that from me," he growls. "And even if you had, that information would have been classified."

"He did rise again," I muse.

"Think less about that," Nixon advises. "Think more about keeping quiet and keeping your eyes open."

We emerge into a sunken shrine to Saint Andrew. Four tapers light the place, forcing me to turn down my night-vision goggles. A low ceilinged passage exits the far wall. There's a delicate brass gate closing off the egress. It's standing open a foot.

"They staggered that-a-way," Nixon says confidently, trotting to the gateway. As he reaches it, twin leads shoot out from the dark passage and strike the Chief in the chest. "JESUS!" he shouts, but then he falls to the ground, his body convulsing.

Huh. Apparently tasers still work on the undead. Who knew?

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For your consideration: A floor plan of St. Peter's Basilica.

We set down in the traffic circle of Plaza San Marta. It's still dark – just the way Jefferson wants it. Something about the Process lets the former presidents see well in the dark. The Chiefs pile out of the chopper, all joking set aside. The former Presidents of the United States, once on a mission, are all business.

"Out," says Delano. I'm the last man on the helicopter.

"Give me a minute," I say, fumbling with my kit. I don't have a rifle and grenades and combat knife like the Chiefs, but I do have body armor and a helmet and night-vision goggles.

"Out," repeats Delano. "I gotta lift off."

"Why?" I ask.

"I dunno," says Delano, frowning faintly. "Something smells funny. When it springs, I want to be up, not down. Get out of my goddamn bird."

I get out. Legs or no legs, nobody argues with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Jefferson is arguing with some serious-looking padres in black robes. They're all standing around outside the Sacristy. The priests all look fairly queasy. I guess I can sympathize. Undead priests roaming through your holiest of holies has got to be a little disturbing.

The argument turns heated. I realize they aren't speaking Italian; Jefferson's talking in fluent Latin. Shouting, actually. He gives up and gathers the Chiefs around him.

"Formosus is in the Basilica," Jefferson reports. "Word from the big dog," he adds, "is no fire."

Lincoln's massive brow furrows. That's all the reaction anybody will ever get out of that guy. Lincoln scares me in ways the other Chiefs don't.

"No fire," repeats Jefferson. "That means no grenades, no pyrotechnics, and no live ammunition inside the Basilica."

"That's crazy," gripes Nixon. "What are we supposed to do, slap Formosus until he lays over?"

"We'll bring him out manually," says Jefferson, "and we'll torch him out here."

"I do not like a plan," Teddy growls dangerously, "that I cannot distinguish from the absence of a plan."

"Yeah," sighs Jefferson. "Me neither."

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You know the drill. Start writing without knowing where I'm going. Write at least 1000 words and look for an exit. Repeat until done.

It is four AM in northern Italy. The sky is dark and the city of Milano is still asleep. I'm still mostly asleep myself. But there's a lot of activity on the American airbase where we're stationed. Also, the unit I'm embedded with never sleeps. I drink coffee and rub the sleep out of my eyes. This is no time for snoozing. It's Go time.

We are moving out. A mission has come down from somewhere on high. The Green Berets are completely unsuitable for this kind of action. The Navy Seals are too weak, probably doing things like eating and breathing and sleeping at unreasonable hours of the morning. Only one branch of the armed forces has the skills, training and personnel applicable to the task at hand. That branch does not exist.

It's going to be a six-man strike force. I make the seventh. The Chiefs are totally fine with a relatively green reporter riding along during fairly extreme missions. I've flown with military units of all sorts, and most of them display an extreme reluctance to expose civilians to danger. The Chiefs are completely opposite in this regard. They want me to come along. I have come to believe that this is because they want me to get killed. The Chiefs would find this amusing.

Delano is already in the chopper warming it up. Apart from the rotors spinning above me, there's no way to tell the craft is on, let alone occupied. The thing is black, slick and angular, makes absolutely no noise, and has no lights on. I'm not certain it even has any lights.

Teddy and the rest emerge from the hangar with their kits. Teddy is burly with massive arms and shoulders, a bodybuilder's physique completely at odds with his thick wire-frame glasses. Teddy takes my coffee cup away and drops the butt of his cigar into it.

"Don't want to drink too much of that, boyo," he warns. "Can't have you needing to pee mid-flight. Might jeopardize the mission." He grins, slaps me on the shoulder and hands me back my coffee.

I throw the cup on the tarmac and wait my turn, boarding the chopper behind the other Chiefs. Easy for Teddy to talk about peeing. Teddy peed his last almost a hundred years ago, a decade after leaving office as President of the United States.

Read more... )



September 2012

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