The image of a cerebral cortex, in all its grey glory, spanned a banner at the entrance to the Las Vegas auditorium that was about to host Malcolm Van Peterson’s tenth spiritual science conference.
It wasn’t the most appropriate image but he hadn’t seen it and no one was going to mention it.
The conference hall had a capacity of seven hundred.
Only a couple of hundred seats were filled with the usual freaks and sceptics.
They brought some funding in but Sarah knew that they were making a loss.
This was her secret to carry, and a burden that she kept from her father.
Mike sat in the wings with Lori, or Lotus Flower, as she had insisted on being called since New York. He took her pulse and jotted down some notes.
“You’re good to go.”
She beamed back at him, her eyes already showing signs of tripping out on the acid tab she’d taken forty-five minutes earlier.
The chime of a Tibetan gong rang out.
The room hushed.
There was a cough.
The rustle of a popcorn bag.
The bell resonated.
The lights dimmed.
A Buddhist chant and a sub-bass wafted in.
A large avatar of Vishnu, the Hindu god of protection, was lowered onto the stage. The audience applauded and whooped as it settled.
A spotlight shone on Vishnu’s face.
It appeared to both bless and judge the rowdy gathering.
Special Agent Carlton was taking notes at the centre of the auditorium. “What the hell is that?” he laughed to himself when he saw the avatar.
Tadashi was within earshot, just a few seats behind.
Professor Van Peterson walked slowly into view. The music changed to a synthesiser led arpeggiated loop; a deep and dramatic atmospheric drone.
A spotlight followed him to reveal a red armchair at the centre of the stage. The light narrowed as he waited, saying nothing, staring into space.
He looked through the audience like they weren’t even there.
He breathed, shallow and calm.
The professor eventually looked up and blinked in the glare of the spotlight. He composed himself and spoke.
“There have been many thinkers, many revolutionaries, contradictors who were deemed dangerous by the Holy Office. They transcended the obvious and asked questions, offering alternatives to the common ways of thinking. They fought for a system of beliefs that challenged the given doctrine. In the early renaissance of the fifteenth century, Copernicus allowed us to re-evaluate our understanding of the Universe by declaring that the Sun was at its centre, and not the Earth, as was commonly believed. His follower, Galileo, was labelled a heretic for supporting this theory. Together, they ushered in a new age of enlightenment.”
The musical drone continued.
“The Universe is forever expanding, uncharted, and awaiting a new generation of explorers to undertake a voyage into the unknown. We are those voyagers. We are a modern Galileo. We are Copernicus. We are a revolution. We have a right. No. We have a responsibility, as creators of our own existence, to sit on the edge of that existence and to explore, to experiment, and to advance ourselves. But what is advancement? Is it change? Is it understanding? Is it becoming − like a god?”
Several uptight Republicans sat forward in their seats and got up to leave.
Van Peterson noticed them being escorted to the exit by torchlight. His lip quivered but he continued.
“Today we find ourselves with a similar challenge, to ask questions and to uncover the truth, to determine what control we have over our perceived reality, and to re-evaluate the natural laws of humanity. For the first time, we hold this power, right here and right now.”
He took a moment to pull himself together and spotted Sarah standing in the wings.
She held her hand up to wave.
He returned a sad smile that she found strangely alarming.
“Tonight, on this very stage, you will experience the New World.”
A man in the audience whooped and drank his extra-large Coca Cola. Popcorn bags rustled in anticipation of the main event.
“Quantum jumping,” said Van Peterson. His voice was somehow stronger and more confident.
“That is the name on which I have settled. It came to me last night, while discussing our incredible progress with my colleagues, both of whom I hope are in the audience alongside you tonight.”
Heads turned, trying to single out the clever ones.
Carlton slid down in his seat.
“Quantum jumping,” he repeated, searching for hidden meaning in the words. He began to pace the stage.
“Fucking jump already!” shouted a man.
Several people laughed.
Tadashi noted the guilty individual.
The professor ignored the heckler. “This evening, you will witness a new dawn of past life regression. I ask our bold traveller to step forward and to take the seat of sacrifice. Lotus Flower, please come forth.”
There was a ripple of laughter throughout the auditorium.
Mike walked Lori on stage. He held her arm to steady her.
She was completely oblivious of the crowd.
“Woo, Lotus Flower,” someone shouted.
She settled on the chair.
“Earlier this morning, I was talking with Lotus Flower…”
“She’s not a flower,” came a drunken shout.
Van Peterson signalled for the music and his microphone to be made louder. “We have started her journey into the next life. She has been taken to a new level of heightened consciousness. She is standing on the precipice; many lifetimes of history behind, many opportunities ahead. Shall we meet the real her?”
He no longer spoke to the audience.
They were merely eavesdropping on the process.
“Hear my voice, Lotus Flower. Feel your soul expand. Become more than just the one, embrace the many. You are everyone you have ever been. You are complete. You are reaching out across the void, into the realm of formlessness. Feel yourself embrace the arms of the many. They catch you and they comfort you. They raise you up as your body lies dormant, the vessel that is no longer necessary. Their touch is warm to your skin. You are free.”
She sat, perfectly still, eyes closed, and then she spoke.
“We receive you.”
The room fell deathly quiet.
This was exactly what they had come for.
They were captivated.
“Tell me your wishes, ancient ones?” asked Van Peterson.
“We have been waiting for the one to lead us into the light.”
“The light that brightens the passage to your dimension.”
“Do you see the passage?” asked Van Peterson.
“How long have you lived this life?” he asked.
“Since the existence of existence itself.”
Van Peterson caught Mike’s eye. He looked uncomfortable.
“And where are you now?”
“I am here, and I am now.”
“Woo!” shouted a lone heckler, only to feel Tadashi’s firm grip on his shoulder. “What do you see?”
“Yaoyorozu no Kami,” she replied in a voice that was beginning to sound unlike her own.
Agent Carlton stood up.
“Get down,” hissed an audience member. “You’re blocking the view.”
Carlton ignored him and moved forward a few seats, his eyes locked on Lori.
“The uncountable infinite gods,” she continued. “The gods that reside in everything. They have been betrayed.”
Dust drifted across the spotlight beam; a microscopic particle in an infinite Universe.
“The eight immortals have no right to rule as they claim.”
“Tell me about the eight immortals? Who are they,” asked Van Peterson.
“Izanami and Izanagi; they have transcended the void. They do not belong in mortality. There will be a choice, a choice to repair the broken fragments of the afterlife, to return the immortals to their rightful place as slaves of the shadow wielder, or to witness the earth and sky tear each other apart, leaving the chaos of darkness.” Her voice became more aggressive. “We send a warrior demon to return them to Hōrai, where they shall be judged by the great Oracle. We send a Tengu.”
“Woo, a Tengu!” shouted a voice in the auditorium.
“You are a drip of water in the cold pool that spreads underfoot. We are the guardians of your death.”
There was silence followed by a burst of uncomfortable laughter.
Van Peterson was assessing the situation. He quickly made his decision.
“You must return to us now, Lotus Flower,” he said. He looked to Mike, who was waiting in the wings.
“She stays,” said the voice.
“You will not keep her,” shouted Van Peterson.
The audience rustled, shocked by his outburst.
Mike took a step forward.
Sarah stopped him. “Wait,” she whispered. “Not yet.”
“This is not acceptable, ancient ones,” demanded Van Peterson, appearing flustered.
Mike shook his head and pushed free. He rushed on stage, carrying a tray of implements. He took a syringe, tapped it and injected Lori’s arm.
“Hey, little lady,” he whispered. “That’s enough fun for today. Come back to us now, ok?”
“Professor?” she called out, weak and frightened.
“Follow my voice.” Van Peterson held her hand.
Her body jolted in a spasm and her voice changed pitch.
Lori fell unconscious.
The professor let out a frustrated cry. He was losing her.
Mike felt the hairs on the back of his neck shiver and turn cold.
“We are the Protogenoi. We are the first-born. We are the primordial gods; Chaos, Chronos, Oceanus, Gaea, Hemera and Nyx. You have opened the passage. Soon, we will awaken and take back our ancient birthright.” The voice was no longer hers. “You know how this ends, mortal?”
Van Peterson looked defeated, aware that the voice was now coming from no fixed position. He knew the answer. He could barely speak. “With a sacrifice,” he replied.
The audience were stone cold, silent.
A shadow flickered off stage.
Mike felt a sensation curl deep in his stomach − the feeling of impending dread.
Carlton moved to the front of house and stood at the side of the stage, anticipating the first move of a skilful opponent.
Tadashi watched, fascinated.
“I am not afraid of you,” said Van Peterson, with a new found confidence.
The lights in the auditorium went out.
There was total darkness.
The audience began to mutter.
Then, spontaneously, they broke into rapturous applause.
More people joined in until they were all cheering the showman and his magnificent Las Vegas spectacle.
The emergency lights flickered on.
Mike and Van Peterson lifted Lori to her feet and carried her off stage.
There was whooping and shouting. Cries of bravo! Cowboy whistles. The stamping of excited feet. The crowd were shouting for more. Cheers and hooting. Excited squeals. A baying snarl. A terrified scream. The rip of bloody flesh and the pounding of otherworldly claws on mortal ground.
“Bring on the dancing girls!” shouted a man as a creature loomed up in front of him. His smile turned to an anxious laugh just before his head was ripped clean from its torso.
Mike and Van Peterson stood in the wings.
They watched the slaughter consume everything in its path as it washed over the auditorium.
There was terrified screaming, pushing and scratching, and the trampling of feet.
It was a desperate struggle in the darkness.
People ran but were cut down in seconds.
Tadashi had climbed up on stage and was standing, transfixed, right in the middle of it all.
“Hey, you!” shouted Carlton. “Get the hell out of here.”
There was a growl from behind.
The agent pushed a woman out of the way and threw himself to the floor, only to hear her scream as she was struck down.
There was an audible crack, the flurry of movement, and the auditorium suddenly filled with small, winged creatures that hovered in the air.
They were insects − grey moths.
Mike and Carlton watched, amazed, as the moths created a faint blue aura around each human form.
The auditorium filled with tall, blue, circular vortexes, each completely covering an audience member.
He felt a blow to the back of his head and Mike fell to the floor, unconscious.
Carlton scrambled out of the building, leaving them all for dead.
The flurry ceased as quickly as it had begun, and the threat vanished, along with the entire audience.