From the author: There are a lot of cults. If one of them is right, the rest of us are in trouble.
In the overhead mirror I watched my passengers nodding off. The gabble of conversations had been so constant for the last hour that I no longer noticed it; when it died down within a few minutes, my ears rang in the relative quiet and I could focus on my driving.
Humphrey Jessup slumped against the window, sound asleep. Becky Newton's little blonde head was on Humphrey's shoulder. They looked cute, snoring away together. Humphrey's snore was a soft buzz; Becky's surprisingly loud and deep.
Fourteen of the seventeen people on the bus thought we were going to Las Vegas for a seminar and gambling and some shows. The same fourteen people were all either asleep or yawning. Whatever Marcie had dosed the sweet tea with, it worked.
I was driving because I've got a Commercial Class B license. Also because as First Attuned I was privy to our secret plan, whatever it was. In fact I only knew we weren't going to Vegas.
Behind the other passengers, Spencer and Marcie shared the bench seat that went all the way across the back. Marcie'd upholstered the seat in purple velvet from a remnant sale.
It was typical of Spencer's attempts at dominant leadership that he was simultaneously taking the biggest seat, and just sitting quietly in the back of the bus.
That's Spencer Whissel, our cult leader. Cult of Their Hyperdimensional Omnipresent Tendrils, just like it says on the bus. Spencer wants us to call him The Hyperattuned, but nobody does except Marcie.
For a while, Crystine was calling him Spencerus. Somebody soon changed that to "Sponsorus". Not to his face, of course, for fear that it might hurt his feelings and then he might drop the sponsorships. Nobody needs that kind of irony.
Marcie had sewn Spencer's robes out of what I think was drapery fabric. Very plush, gold on purple. A little stiff to move around in. She'd also made him a tall hat like a bishop's mitre, but he kept knocking it off on doorframes and she switched him to a purple mortarboard covered with sequins.
Marcie came forward and stood next to me, holding onto the vertical rail and studying a handheld GPS device.
"Bill, turn there!" She thumped me on the shoulder and pointed to an unmarked dirt road going off to the right, southeast into the Mojave. I slowed to a crawl to make the turn, and kept it down to about 20. The road was more like a trail, just hard-baked rutted dirt. Now the GPS showed our path heading straight toward an anonymous little X.
I'd known Spencer since grade school. He'd always wanted to be a cult leader, ever since he'd read about the Heaven's Gate mass suicide in Social Studies.
Spencer came up with a list of what he felt were desirable attributes for a successful cult. He wrote them on a big poster on the wall of his room:
1) REVELATION: Theological or space alien-related basis for cult beliefs.
2) Dependence upon cult leader. Singular, dynamic leader.
3) Compliance within the cult group. Common jargon, conformity of thought.
4) Devaluing outsiders coupled with belief in great destiny for cult.
5) Followers financially support cult leader.
6) Female followers sexually available to cult leader at all times. No questions asked.
While I was in college he lived above his parents' garage, worked odd jobs and waited for revelation. I'd bring over free pizza from my delivery gig and check on his progress. I asked him once why he didn't just make something up; he looked genuinely shocked. "Bill, that would be like lying to my followers! I thought you understood."
I thought he'd grow out of it. Finally he agreed to let his parents send him to HVAC repair classes. But then two things happened around the same time: Spencer's grandfather died and left him a considerable inheritance; and Spencer fasted for a week and received his revelation.
So he forgot about air conditioning school, moved out and devoted himself full-time to establishing his cult. He also became, according to him, the only person in the world capable of sensing the eight-dimensional tendrils of twelve-dimensional Hyperminds intruding into our reality.
He named me First Attuned, and the Congregation of THOT was born. I never really understood what Spencer was talking about, and wasn't that keen on being First Attuned. But Spencer looked like he was happy for the first time, so I kept coming over and helping out.
Spencer self-published a manifesto about the Hyperminds and their synchronistic union with all thinking beings at every stage of existence. It was a pop-up book, with three-dimensional representations of the benevolent hyperdimensional beings that (he believed) controlled all human history.
We got registered as a church, got a website, cranked out flyers, got interviewed on "So Crazy in SoCal", one of those late-night radio shows.
And here we were three years later, with a bus full of unconscious Attuneds. Almost all with some kind of "sponsorship", meaning they lived rent-free in Spencer's leased "compound" (more of a defunct motel).
They received a pretty generous stipend, too. This was a sad reversal of #5 on Spencer's list. A cult leader definitely shouldn't have to pay people to be in the cult.
I tried to talk to him about that. Hell, we could at least get the lazy bums panhandling at the airport for us. Nope; he didn't care what they did as long as they attended Morning Attunement and Evening Alignment, which I had to help run. (So far, nobody had reached anywhere close to Spencer's hyperattuned level; at least, nobody could see the damn tendrils.)
Meanwhile I was holding down a regular job and giving up half my evenings and weekends at THOT HQ. You'd think a cult would be a fun hobby, but it was turning into a chore. Boring. Practically a job.
Spencer didn't have any better luck with #6: unfettered sexual access to the female acolytes. I honestly think if he'd been a little less shy, he could have managed at least a small harem. Crystine and Melissa probably would have gone for it.
But, the day Marcie showed up at a meeting, that was it. Inside of a week she was shacked up with Spencer in his private room, picking out his wardrobe and grooming his eyebrows.
After that, they were practically conjoined, and I was shut out of decision-making, for whatever that's worth. Somehow that hurt. I'd never believed in Their Hyperdimensional Tendrils, but nobody likes being shut out.
When Spencer called me in to tell me about his planned "surprise", I actually felt grateful to be back in the inner circle. I didn't even question the wisdom of putting everybody to sleep with drugged tea. Compared to most of the things Spencer said, it sounded normal enough.
But now, driving down an unmarked road in the desert to an unknown destination, it occurred to me I might be an accessory to 14 counts of kidnapping. Or worse --
I slowed to a stop. Marcie started forward again, her brow creased with the vertical line of annoyance I was getting used to. "Why are we stopping?"
I took a look at the nearest passenger, plump Rowena Bundt. She was curled up on her bench seat, sound asleep and emitting a soft buzzing snore. I looked up at Marcie. "What did you give them?" I had to speak up; a sudden hard wind was tossing sand against the windows and making the bus creak back and forth on its shocks.
She leaned over Rowena and peeled back an eyelid. "Couple of different things. Don't worry. They'll be fine."
I looked back to where Spencer still sat on his velvet bus seat. "Spence, promise me you're not pulling a Jim Jones."
He laughed. "Bill, chill. Let's get them where we're going, get them underground, and when they wake up everything will be cool."
"Ah, huh. Right. Underground?"
"About 30 meters."
"End of the world."
By this time we were almost shouting, even though I'd walked back and was standing right in front of him. The wind was howling now.
In the rear window, behind Spencer's head, I saw darkness. I knelt on the seat and cupped my hands against the glass, peering between them. It wasn't just the sand blowing locally; in the far distance behind us, something like a vast black whirling column of soot sprawled across what should be Bakersfield.
Spencer was looking back as well. "Oh, that? That's nothing. Bill, we better get moving. Just follow the GPS."
The black column was streaked with flashes of lightning.
"Yeah, let's do that."
I wished, then, that I had the simultaneous perspective on all moments in my existence that Spencer said the Hyperminds enjoyed. Then I'd know if these were my last minutes. I wished I were asleep like our 14 happy culties.
I've never appreciated GPS so much. Visibility to our front was a matter of yards. Fortunately it was flatland, with only a very shallow ditch edging the road. Marcie held the GPS up and I managed to keep us on a straight line toward our objective.
We were crawling, practically at a walk, seemingly still in a bubble of howling, swirling sand. After an indeterminate time I felt Marcie slapping the top of my head. "Stop!"
Our dotted-line path was right on top of the X. I put the brake on. Ahead of us and a little to the right was what looked like a lighthouse, if a lighthouse were a blue glowing fountain of mist rising from the ground up to the sky.
Spencer had come up to join us. "There it is."
"Which is what again?" Thumps on the roof; and on the hood ahead of us, green lumps were falling. "Jesus, what the hell is that? Is it actually raining frogs, Spence?"
Spencer laughed again. "Of course not, that's ridiculous. Those green things are enormous individual cells."
"They are?" I couldn't hear myself, and raised my voice. "Really, no shit?"
"Absolutely. Actually they're just the three-dimensional tips of hyperdimensional cells. Falling all over the landmass of the planet now. They'll crawl around, find each other, and clump together to form an unbelievably huge animal thing."
"They should come together somewhere in Asia, I think. Kind of a god-beast."
"Right." I found I was crying like a child. I turned to Marcie. "Is this real?"
She slapped me, pretty hard. "Feel that?"
"Hey, hey. Take it easy, guys." Spencer rubbed my shoulders. "No point getting all worked up, eh?"
We waited until the thumping stopped. Sure enough the green lumps were rolling around, joining into larger and larger masses, the biggest ones lurching away on elephantine pseudopods.
I felt about done crying. "Spence, all that hyper-tendril stuff is real?"
"What a thing for my First Attuned to ask! Bill, you're a trip, I swear."
"Okay." I pulled a deep breath in. "Always figured you were just crazy."
"Well, we all are, right? Come on, Bill, we gotta get busy. Here." He handed me a pair of protective goggles and put on a pair himself. His had sequins on them; mine didn't.
Spencer had me open the door, and he hopped out, holding his sequined mortarboard on with one hand, his sparkly robes swirling. I followed, somehow feeling safer sticking close to my impractical, delusional friend, the guy I'd tried to help out since high school because I felt a little sorry for him. Spencer, who talked to god-things living nine dimensions upstairs.
The sand was blowing hard enough to sting, but I didn't feel it. Behind us, marking the coast, was an endless black roiling wall stretching up out of sight, shot through with spinning columns of blinding white light.
Spencer watched with me for a moment. "Poor people in L.A. I think it's flipping the whole coastline upside down. Maybe inside-out."
"Well, that's fucked-up."
"Won't last long."
"This sucks. I don't like Hyperminds."
"If you can get their perspective, Bill, it all makes sense. You'd be doing the same thing if you were them."
We approached the blue column of mist; as we got close it was almost too bright to look at. Spencer didn't pause, but walked right into it; at his touch the mist seemed to part from the ground; it all rushed skyward and was gone, revealing -- something.
"What the fuck is that, Spence? What am I looking at?"
"Basically, a hole."
We were both walking around it. "What shape is it? Can't make it out --"
"-- Right, you want it to be a sphere or something, but it keeps sliding sideways -- never mind. For our purposes, it's a hole."
"Is it like a birth canal?"
Spencer had his patient look on. "Sure, that's as good a metaphor as any. Why not?"
"I'm calling it the Big Space Vagina." That got a laugh out of him, and I startled myself by joining.
"Feel better now, Bill?"
He rapped me on the chest. "C'mon, big guy, let's haul 'em off the bus."
We went back to the bus and started carrying out the sleeping passengers. I could handle the smaller ones by myself, but for the rest it was damn awkward. Marcie didn't care for physical labor, so she needlessly supervised while Spencer and I carried them between us one at a time and laid them down on the sand. I told him, "Far as I'm concerned, they're doing us as much good now as they ever did."
"Trust me, they've all got a purpose."
I turned the bus closer so its headlights would illuminate the ground. The giant nightmare shroud over the coast was stretching up, over our heads now, blotting out any hint of the sky.
"It's dark." Somehow stating the obvious provided a little comfort.
"Yeah, pretty dark from here on. We've got about half an hour. Let's go ahead and put, say, Mitch in there and make sure it works."
We hoisted up Mitch Endersol and, counting to three together, basically hurled him at the thing. A little off-center. As soon as he touched the Vagina, it seemed to draw him in like a pipette drawing up blood. A sharp snap and he was gone.
"Jesus! Did it really stretch him out like spaghetti? Didn't it look that way to you, Spence?"
"Optical illusion. Trust me, he's right as rain."
Fourteen unconscious loads, into the Vadge. Pitch black all around. The wind had stopped. It was snowing hard. The only sound was us.
"Jesus, Spence, that's like an eighty-degree drop. Great, why not? What's next?" My teeth were chattering; my back was killing me.
Spence pointed to the Vagina, and looked at Marcie. "Ladies first."
For the first time since I'd known her, she was at a loss for words. Finally she managed a smile. "Is it warmer there?"
"Yes and no. Come on, we'll go together." He put his arm around her.
Suddenly I didn't want to be the last person on the planet. "W-what about me?"
Spencer spoke over his shoulder as they walked up to the Hole. "You can follow us, or let the atmosphere freeze on top of you."
I didn't move, and he paused and came back to put his hand on my shoulder. "I'll miss it too, Man. But in five minutes there'll be nothing human left alive on this world. I hope you come with us, Bill."
So they went, and when a snowflake burned on my hand and I knew it was dry ice freezing out of the air, I followed. Wish I'd been unconscious, like all you guys. Yeah, you're welcome.
Okay, you know what happened after that, and I'm sure as hell not going to try and find words to describe it. But I hope this little journal will forestall any bitching about missing the end of the world, because you didn't miss much. It's gone. It's over, all but the crying.
And now, since I don't intend to hand-letter fourteen copies of this, you can just pass it around, and then I want it back, and I don't want any of the aforementioned bitching or moaning.
In fact I'll be stacking zee's while you read this, and y'all should get some rest too, just lie down on the things that look like giant open sores. I mean like toast with jelly, that's more what it looks like.
Save your strength, because we'll need it. Spencer'll have your instructions in the morning or whatever we call it.
We're the Chosen. You picked the one cult that was actually fact-based, and here we are. Suck it up.
This story originally appeared in Schlock Magazine.