Chapter Forty Seven

Sapulpa, Oklahoma, USA

Some things are never forgotten. They may be a sudden, violent event that brands itself on the memory by the sheer unexpectedness of its horror. Or they may be the result of years of suffering that slowly grind the memory into the configuration that makes their grim truth indelible. For the Sampsons, both now over eighty years old, their memories of the dust bowl were moulded by the years they had endured the repeated storms. John Sampson remembered the choking clouds of dust that reduced visibility to a few feet and killed people by filling their lungs with dirt. His father had been a farmer until the great dust storms had literally blown his land away. His crops had gone, his cattle had starved. Only the government Drought Relief Service had saved them by buying the emaciated cattle at well over market price. The starved beasts were too wasted to slaughter for meat, instead, they had been shot and buried.

Ellen’s memories were of a different kind but no less vivid. She remembered the dust that seeped into the house no matter how carefully the doors were closed and sealed. Her mother had soaked strips of sheet in a mixture of flour and water before spreading them over the window and door frames. Every time she had hoped that this would be the storm when she got it right, when the dust wouldn’t fill her house. Every time, she had been heartbreakingly disappointed. The storm would strike their home, the dust would enter and the air inside turn hazy as it permeated every nook and cranny. Ellen Sampson remembered her baby brother choking to death on the dust before he reached his third month of life. Her mother had never recovered from the loss, she had spent days sitting in the one room of their home, listening to the wind howling outside. She’d done that until the day she’d taken the family shotgun and blown out her brains.

The government had done what it could, it had taught the farmers to use new techniques that conserved the soil and trapped water. They had paid the homesteaders a dollar an acre to use ideas such as crop rotation, strip farming, contour plowing and terracing. The payments took the grinding poverty out of the dustbowl but they didn’t solve the basic problem. It had taken the return of regular rain after a decade of drought to do that.

By then, John Sampson and his family had given up and left. They’d become ‘Okies’, migrant workers desperately seeking somewhere they could live and earn a regular wage. For years that had been a seemingly-impossible dream, but it was John Sampson that had achieved the family goal. He had managed, he wasn’t quite sure how, to land a job at the Lockheed aircraft factory. He’d started by sweeping the floor, trying to close his eyes to the dust that reminded him of their lost farm in Oklahoma. Then, he’d been promoted to the assembly line where he’d started to earn real money. By the time war had broken out, he had made it to foreman and the Sampson family lived comfortably. Then, he’d been transferred back to Oklahoma, to help set up a satellite production line in Lawton. That was where he’d met Ellen, one of thousands of young women recruited to help produce the aircraft America needed to win the war. Their marriage had lasted for sixty years.

Some things are never forgotten. John Sampson had driven to the local plaza to collect the week’s groceries, using a significant fraction of his weekly gasoline ration to do it. In some ways, there was a strange comfort in that, the use of coupons and vouchers for their shopping took him back to the days of World War Two when his life had been in front of him. Despite the rationing, he and his wife lived comfortably. They both had good pensions, their children had long left to live their own lives and now only appeared when there was a holiday or a new grandchild to display. So, the weekly shopping trip was no very great imposition. Only, this time Sampson had noted how the wind was already increasing while the sun beat down with a steady leaden glare. Sampson knew that glare well, and as he drove he had watched the horizon upwind. He knew what he was looking for and every time he scanned the horizon he was afraid that he would see it.

“John, there’s something wrong isn’t there?” Ellen Sampson was staring at the horizon as well.

“I’ve got everything we had listed. You know, I really think things are getting a little easier now. I got us two nice steaks for our dinner tonight.” Yes, steak was back in the stores and the gasoline ration had been increased. Sampson felt a little sorry for the people who had bought diesel-engined cars and trucks. Diesel fuel was all taken up by the armed forces and what little they didn’t need was given to other armies that were running short. No diesel for civilians but there was a little gasoline for those who needed it. As senior citizens, the Sampsons had an extra ration allowance. After all, nobody could expect an eighty year old couple to walk five miles to the store.

“I didn’t mean the stores John. I remember weather like this from when I was a child. There’s a storm coming.” She meant a dust storm but her memories stopped her from using the words.

The couple went inside their home. Ellen started to cook the steaks her husband had brought while he went around the house, ensuring everything was closed down and sealed. He kept the thought to himself but running through his mind also were the memories of the dust bowl and the 1930s. He took comfort in the fact that houses now were very different from the shacks that had been built back then. The windows in their home didn’t have opening frames, they were fixed shut to let the air conditioning work more efficiently. The house had no chimney to let the dust in and the doors all had draft excluders. Perhaps this time it would be different.

By the time they had finished eating, the wind had picked up still further. They were washing the dishes together when Sampson glanced out of the window and saw the sight he had been fearing. The horizon had changed, what had once been an array of fields was now dominated by a reddish-black cloud, one that was sweeping towards them with frightening speed.

“Ellen, it’s a Black Lizard. They’ve come back.”

His wife looked out of the window and saw the cloud of dust approaching. “Oh no. Not again. Please, I don’t think I can stand it, not again.” Tears trickled out of the corners of her eyes as she watched the clouds that were now towering over them, the wind wailing and twisting the dust into strange, abstract patterns. Sampson hugged her as the dust storm hit their house.

The force of the impact shook the whole house, causing shudders to run through the structure. Their oven opened as the door fell down and the newly-washed plates in the sink started rattling with the vibration. What really changed things was the darkness. It was as if a switch had been flipped, the day went from early afternoon to blackest midnight without any warning or transition period. Ellen Sampson panicked as she fumbled for the light switch, then sighed with relief as the main room lights came on. Her husband had remembered how the Black Lizard shut out the light and had known exactly how to reach the switch in the pitch darkness. Outside the howling of the wind picked up as the main body of the storm reached them.

Sampson seated his wife, then pushed an odd-looking circular silver switch on the wall. With the main lights on, the effect wasn’t obvious but the emergency lighting system, battery-powered LED units, were on. A few minutes later, the simple act of foresight was rewarded. The main lights flickered and failed, the overhead power lines outside brought down by the wind and the weight of dust in the air. The couple both remembered when a power failure during a dust-storm had caused their families to sit in total darkness, They’d been forced to sit in the sticky blackness, the dust from the air coating the inside of their mouths and throats. Now, the light from the LED emergency system might not be much but it was enough. It showed where things were so the couple could move around their home and it also showed the air was still clean. So far, at least, the dust was being kept outside.

Sampson took an LED torch, quietly blessing the strange twists in his career that were now standing him in such good stead. After marrying Ellen, he had decided to stay back in Oklahoma and had continued to work in the Lockheed subsidiary. Towards the end of his career, he had taken on a project that most of his colleagues had thought rather ridiculous, trying to find domestic applications for the then-new LED lighting technology. The work had blossomed into a major money-earner and, more importantly, made him a lot of friends in companies marketing LED lighting. As a result, their house was full of systems given to him for “testing”. Some of them were a different patterns of flashlights and one of them allowed him to go safely into the kitchen and bring back a couple of bottles of water.

“Here you are, Ellie. We’ll be fine, we’ve got food, lots of bottled water and more batteries than we can shake a stick at. We’ll just ride the storm out.”

“Why did they have to come back? I thought they had gone for ever.” Ellen Sampson was still crying quietly, more from shock than anything else.

“I bet Yahweh’s got something to do with it.” John Sampson nearly snarled the words out. “This is his work, I’m sure of it. We’ll get him for this, you wait and see.”

News Studio, KOCO Television, Oklahoma City

“Your guardian angel, remember it? The one that was always around to claim the credit for everything good that happened in your life but was always mysteriously absent when everything went wrong? Well, now you’ve got the chance to show it just what you think of it. Contact XY Executive Solutions and put a contract out on your guardian angel. When we humans break into Heaven a team from our covert operations group will be at their head. For just a small down payment and affordable weekly payments they will hunt down and kill your so-called guardian angel. And if the HEA get it first, you get a full refund. So contact XY Executive Solutions today and see your guardian angel gets what it has coming to it.”

The advertisement faded away and the monitor screen switched back the news desks. Brandon Breyer looked up from the piles of paper accumulating on his desk. “Well, our latest sponsor is certainly offering an unexpected new service. Anita, do you have the latest on the dust storm?”

“I do Brandon, and its plural, dust storms, now. We have reports of other dust storms forming in China, Canada and Australia. Locally, the storm here is hitting most of the southern half of our state and things are pretty bad. Our reporter JiaoJiao Shen is out in the town of Sapulpa. I believe she is on the line now. JiaoJiao, what’s it like out there?”

The screen was blank, at first it appeared the video link wasn’t working but swirling patterns showed that the cameras were sending footage, it was just that the dust was blanking everything out. What did come through was the audio link. “Well, it’s really horrible Anita. The dust here is so thick that visibility is down to three or four feet. The crew, all of us, are holding on to each others belts to make sure we don’t get separated. Nobody dares take a chance on driving, just down the road from here, an ambulance tried to get to a car accident and drove straight into a utility pole. Took the power out to quite a few houses around here. The wind has slackened a little bit but we have to fight it all the time.”

“Are you all right JiaoJiao? Your voice sounds very muffled.”

“We’re lucky Anita, we were all in Hell a couple of weeks ago and we brought our dust masks back from there. So we’ve got goggles and breathing filters. But, some of the local people got caught in the open and they’re in a bad way. The good news is, people inside seem to be all right, houses built these days are much more dust-proof than the ones back in the 1930s. We’ve telephoned a few local residents and the consensus is they’re doing OK, they’ll just ride the storm out. There’s one old couple just over the road from here who remember the original dustbowl and they’re determined to stick this one out.”

“Thank you JiaoJiao. Well, we’ve just had a release in from DIMO( N) Public Relations. Preliminary samples of the dust suggest that it’s a mixture of Earth and Hell Dust. To find out what that means, we’re going to Norman Baines, Director of Research at DIMO(N). Mr Baines, what is the significance of the mixed dust?”

“Hi Anita, good to talk to you again. Well, this proved that the dust storm is not a natural occurrence. We know that there was a windstorm brewing up today, I think your own weather forecast predicted that, and that somebody opened a portal from Hell and dumped a whole mass of helldust through that portal into the wind stream. That acted as a seed for the dust storm. The hell dust ground up against human soil and abraded it to much finer particles and that set the scene for the storms. It’s the same basic mechanism that was seen in the 1930s dustbowl but the actions taken after that tragedy have prevented similar dust-storms. So, somebody had to find another way to start one.”

“Somebody being Yahweh?”

“We have to recognize he is the most likely suspect, yes, Anita.”

“Well, Sir, that raises another question. Were the 1930s dustbowl his work as well?”

“It’s certainly a possibility although it is more likely that the 1930s storms were normal events and the similarity is pure coincidence. Of course, the 1930s dustbowl may have given him this idea.”

“If it was Yahweh, Mister Baines, what is he trying to do and what do we plan to do about it?”

“That’s two questions Anita. What is he trying to achieve? Well, these dust storms are undoubtedly the Fifth Bowl of Wrath. Revelation speaks of people sitting in a great darkness and chewing their tongues with pain. They’re certainly sitting in darkness and in the 1930s, people choked on the dust and that could be described as chewing their tongues. I’ve been asked by my technical staff to pass out a warning and could I ask your station to assist in this. The dust-charged atmosphere is causing a lot of static to build up and touching a metal object may well result in a severe electrical shock. Also, the spark may ignite inflammable vapor. So, even after the storm passes, a lot of care will still be needed.

“Now, as to what we plan to do about it. We plan to kill Yahweh of course. We’ll get him, you can be sure of that. We’re humans, we don’t worship self-proclaimed gods any more. We tolerate them if they don’t annoy us and we whack them if they do.”

The newsroom staff burst out laughing. “Mister Baines, that is the clearest statement of intent we’ve ever heard out of a Government department. Thank you for your time and patience. Brandon?”

“Political news now. Washington is still reeling from the results of the special election in Massachussetts. Now, over to our correspondent Nikole Killion in Hell who is discussing the implications of the result with the late Senator Edward Kennedy.”

Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.

“Just what is the impact of this storm?” President Obama was terse, it was already being reported that the dust storm that had started in Oklahoma was swinging across the country and would reach Washington soon.

“It’s pretty bad Sir. The problem is that once the dust-storms start, they’re quite hard to stop. Each storm pulverizes the ground into smaller and smaller particles that are smoothed off by abrasion as they are carried by the wind. That means they are easier to lift by the wind and they stay up longer once lifted. So, once the first storm has formed, it makes things progressively easier for other storms to follow.

“Now, as to the longer-term effects, these storms are bad news. They’ll hit agricultural production that’s already been hammered by the weather attacks we’ve been suffering for over a year now. The Oklahoma panhandle is technically semi-arid and its productivity isn’t high so losses there won’t be too bad. It’s the overflow of dust into richer ground that’s the real problem. We were just getting on top of the food supply problem as well and were able to increase the rations. Now, it looks like we’ll have to reverse the increase at the very least.”

Obama’s mouth twisted in distaste for that idea. “That’ll be a hard one to sell. We should never have passed that ration increase. Better to have kept things as they were and stored the extra.”

“With hindsight, yes Sir. But, people need a lift. This long stalemate is wearing the people down. Anyway, back to the dust storms. The real problem was people caught outside by the leading edge of the storm. That contained a very high proportion of Helldust. Helldust is mostly powdered pumice and breathing it is extremely dangerous for first-life humans. We can expect a lot of those people to develop severe silicosis very soon. Since it is our opinion these storms will continue for some time now their formation cycle has been jump-started, we’d better start distributing breathing masks and goggles as well as tinfoil hats. Fortunately, we already have very good masks and goggles in production for the armed forces.”

There was a long pause as the people at the meeting made ‘action-it” notes. “Doctor Surlethe, have you and your teams got any additional information for us?”

“We’re still hunting for a way into Heaven Sir. The information we got from monitoring Michael’s jumps proved to be a bust. I’m afraid we got overconfident with the way we walked all over Satan and his forces; Michael-Lan appears to be a really bright boy. What we are beginning to learn is that there appear to be an almost infinite number of bubble-worlds in Universe-Two. We could start jumping around in them at random but we’re reluctant to do that. We don’t know what we would run into and another war is something we really don’t need right now.”

“We do have one bit of good news Sir. If you like rice that is. ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, have offered to put 20 percent of their rice production into a common pool to help out countries whose own food production is inadequate.” The Secretary for Agriculture paused and thought quickly. “I don’t say we should call on their generosity now, but it’s a start. And, of course, paddy fields won’t get wiped out by dust-storms.”

“They got hit by the Third Bowl though.” Doctor Surlethe was also considering the implications of the proposed food bank. “But that’s a thing of the past now. We dealt with it. This is the Fifth Bowl, no doubt about that. Just two more to go and Heaven’s pretty much shot its bolt. If we can ride them out, we’ll be in a much better position.”

“What are the next two bowls? Can we prepare for them?”

“The next one is a bit odd. It seems to be just the river Euphrates drying up. Of course, back in the day, the Tigris and Euphrates pretty much marked the known world for those who were writing the fables. So, one or both drying up would be a real disaster. Now, losing one would be more of an annoyance. The Seventh is a bit more worrying. It speaks of massive earthquakes and boulders falling from the skies. The Russians are looking at the last part of that, they have nuclear-tipped surface-to-air missiles that may provide a defense against boulders dropping in on us. What worries us are the Beasts. We nailed the Leopard Beast and saw off the Scarlet Beast. There’s the Lamb Beast and the Dragon to come. Given the way the severity of the threats is escalating, they’re likely to be a real problem. Then, there’s that Israeli rogue sub out there somewhere. We want her dead and dead fast. So does the Israeli government.

“Our guess is that when the Bowls of Wrath and the Beasts have run their course, that’s when we get invaded by the Angelic host. One way or the other, Mister President, I’d say we’re getting close to the end-game on this.”