“It’s ‘valet’, not ‘varlet’, Great and Glorious One.” Lee completes her exterior vehicle check, eyes flicking across the underground parking lot, as she re-folds the extensible mirror she used to scan the undercarriage. Of course, since she waited a reasonable several minutes a respectable several meters away before even approaching, any little surprises would more than likely have triggered already—and poor Carlos would have been a victim of, probably, automotive immolation rather than godly wrath. Still, it’s always better to be sure. “Can we please get in the car?”
The god climbs in, obligingly enough; luckily, he believes in graciousness—at least toward his ‘right and worshipful devotees’—and is preoccupied with what he considers to be the more important matter at hand, in any case. “Thou’lt smite him for such impertinence, naturally,” he says, settling into the shotgun seat.
“Naturally.” Lee is already inside, has checked the back seat, and is running her hands over and under the dashboard, across the ceiling, beneath the seats, and along the steering column. “Seatbelt, please.”
He grimaces. He doesn’t like seatbelts; they muss his clothes—and he’s particular about his appearance, which he says any self-respecting god should be, in the most elementary practice of noblesse oblige—and what’s more, he’s convinced that no ‘mishap of mortal origin’ could possibly cause sufficient damage to harm his divine presence.
She’s less sure—but would, of course, never actually say so out loud. Instead, she’s concocted the reasoning that her ‘womanish concern’ over his well-being is, in fact, a facet of her reverence toward him, and that indulging her in it therefore constitutes another instance of the noblesse oblige befitting a superior being.
This is a perfect example of the kind of handling that has gotten her praised by her superiors, promoted well beyond her years of experience—and stuck with babysitting duty.
He fastens his seatbelt.
She starts the car.
“In what manner shalt thou chastise him?” he wants to know, as Lee knifes the car among the rows of parking slots; the speed and ‘peculiarity’ of her driving—she’s an extremely offensive driver, and not in any womanish way—used to unnerve him, months ago, but now he barely notices.
“I’ll pluck his nose hairs out one by one, how’s that?” she asks, shoulders flat against the seat, elbows crooked, and hands at nine and three o’clock.
“That doth strike me as both apposite and pleasing, faithful handmaiden,” he says, smiling benevolently at her.
They make it out of the parking lot unmolested.
Again luckily, part of his being a god is that he never actually checks whether she’s meted out the punishments she promises on valets, bellhops, chambermaids, wait staff, and sundry. It’s not exactly that he assumes his orders will be obeyed; it’s that he honestly seems to believe that, since he said it, it’s so or will soon be made so.
All she has to do is come up with creative forms of impermanent torture to tell him about, and request the ‘offending’ party—who may have done anything from patting him on the back to calling him ‘sir’ instead of ‘milord’ or something more grandiloquent—to look appropriately meek at their next encounter, and he’s satisfied.
“Hold!” he cries, actually holding one finger up and leaning forward with dramatic emphasis.
Lee is busily checking her rearview mirror, scanning both sides of the street, and planning ahead in case of trouble at the first intersection; she can’t believe she could possibly have missed anything.
“Was not same chastisement visited upon yon varlet but a fortnight hence?” He’s frowning; this is the kind of thing that troubles him immensely, as it would not do for his subjects to think him uncreative.
“No, Great and Glorious One, that was Brian,” she says, extending her right arm, soccer-mom-style, to ease him properly back against his seat. “This one is Carlos, with the mustache. And it’s ‘valet’.” She would prefer to have him riding in the back, where it’s safer; but he’s proved obstinate on that point, demanding proximity to the windshield view if he’s to subject himself to the close confines of a car.
When they reach the intersection, two cars careen out of the opposite perpendicular streets, to form a barricade across the road.
“Fie!” cries the god. “What fresh impudence be this!?”
But Lee was already half-expecting it, and had been warned—sort of—to boot. She flicks the steering wheel a hair to the right before wrenching it left in a perfect smuggler’s turn, fish-tailing the car about-face into the adjacent lane.
Horns blare. Curses resound.
“I did mention, Great and Glorious One—” she uses this honorific when she’s contradicting, instructing, scolding, or otherwise addressing him in any matter that might be construed as disrespectful— “having gotten a warning that those heathens who want to use your awesome power for clandestine purposes may be after us again, which is why we needed to leave the hotel.”
“Spake thou such?” He’s frowning again; Lee would be impressed that he’s handsome even when he does this, except that she’s seen him practicing his expressions in various mirrors—the least a god owes his followers is a majestic visage, he says. “Mine attention, whilst puissant, didst focus mightily elsewhere for a time.”
And this, too, might be interpreted as a sort of warning; she does focus her attention, so that when she catches sight of the two more cars already parked across the road ahead—its presumable passengers braced in textbook shooting positions behind and beside it—she’s more than ready.
“Flat against the seat-back, feet on the floor, please, G.A.G.O.,” she reminds him.
She’s not only ready, in fact, but a little insulted—doesn’t she rate a bit more than amateur hour at the intel club? Any half-trained idiot knows that parking the cars nose-to-nose is practically an invitation for a static pit maneuver, a precision strike on the rear bumper that will make the car so struck pivot on its front wheel, negating the erstwhile ‘roadblock’. It’s such a basic move that she almost doesn’t do it, suspecting a trap-within-a-trap.
“Smite them!” cheers the god. “Visit mine wrath upon yon infidels!”
She does; at least three of the gunmen are ‘smote’, as her car, front end crumpled but still running, plows through.
For a god, there’s a startling number of things he doesn’t know: that ‘Lee’, for instance, is only a convenient pan-ethnic name she favors, since her mongrel Filipino heritage allows her to approximate a wide variety of ethnicities, as needed; that the acronym ‘G.A.G.O.’—which she calls him in times of heightened stress or heightened familiarity—spells, in her native language, a term that is not in the least respectful; that she, in fact, represents an organization of heathens—by his lights, anyway—who want to use his awesome power for clandestine purposes.
On the other hand, to be fair, she is an intelligence operative who has, so far, still failed to confirm arguably the most critical piece of intelligence in this scenario: whether or not he is, in fact, a god. True, that isn’t really her assignment; as a matter of fact, her actual assignment, after only a little more than two years in the field, had essentially been just to hold his hand for a day or two, until his scheduled handler—the latest in a series of agents who quit or were rejected, in disgust either way—arrived to take over the post.
But he’d taken a shine to her, and thereafter refused to have anyone else as his ‘companion’—and he’d gotten his way, which he often does, because no one, still, is quite sure if he is or isn’t the god he claims to be.
These are the things Lee knows or has heard:
He has some form of precognition or prescience. Personally, she’s only seen it manifested in very vague ways that might easily have been coincidence, but she’s been told—by quite unreliable sources, unfortunately, given her now-elevated-but-still-far-from-stratospheric security clearance—that the agency has pulled back on fundraising, having gleaned winning lottery ticket numbers from chance utterances of his on the surveillance recordings not once, not twice, but three times. Of course, according to those same sources, this system has failed about ten times as often, but even assuming the analysts are reading his offhand comments right, statistically, that’s still pretty impressive.
He can eat and drink things of scalding temperature without even noticing. She knows this because he once wolfed down a piece of chicken ala kiev before she could warn him that the room service waiter had warned her that the melted butter inside was still piping hot. Since then, she has served his morning coffee hotter and hotter every day, to the point where it’s practically still boiling as she pours it in the cup; he’s only complained that the taste was bitter once, and ordered her to chastise herself, albeit gently.
His speech is semi-archaic—he refers to ‘Iran’ as ‘Persia’, among various foibles, which include refusing to reveal his name to anyone until they ‘doth prove themselves worthy’—but erratically so, such that the specialists are unable to pin down what era or even what nation he hails or purportedly hails from. That he might be some kind of Saxon or Briton god seems a safe guess, except that some of the linguists have pointed out that he may simply be adapting to the surroundings in which he has found himself, hence his jumbled syntax.
Either that, or, of course, he’s just a charlatan.
But if he isn’t, then they can’t afford to lose him to some other agency or country. And while there’s even the slightest doubt that he isn’t—even if his actual, practical worth has yet to be determined—then they need to keep him safe, happy, and on their side.
Which is why she’s stuck watching his back, making his coffee, indulging his whims—and buying his cupcakes.
“Great and Glorious One,” she says, smiling brightly as she makes sure her blazer is still draped discreetly over the Glock 26 tucked into the small of her back—the 23 is in her shoulder holster, of course; there’s a reason operatives like wearing jackets, and it isn’t to present a majestic visage. “I hate to rush you, but there are people after us, and—”
“Thou wert the one, handmaiden, who didst suggest abandoning yon self-propelling chariot,” he says, not even gazing up from the pastry display to look at her.
Then again, no one is looking at her; the salesgirl is all but draped over the glass counter to drool at him, which is what happens to salespeople everywhere. Lee’s decided that this is evidence of divinity, only to the extent that anyone who looks like the lovechild of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise would be likely to elicit this effect.
“That was because a car which looks like an accordion isn’t much use in evading pursuit.” She’s keeping her voice down; she figures one of them ought to, and it’s never going to be him. “And I know I said we needed to lie low for a while and just wait to be picked up, but it’s been over an hour, G.A.G.O., and this is hardly an ideal place. We need to keep moving.”
“How canst thou say such locale be less than idyllic?” he booms. “Only feast thine eyes upon the beauty contained herein, beloved Lee!”
The salesgirl, who was beaming at the ‘beauty herein’ bit, is now glaring daggers at her over the ‘beloved Lee’ part.
“He means ‘beloved’ like people love their dogs.” She doesn’t know why she feels the need to explain these things.
“Ah, the simple yet elegant lusciousness that doth be vanilla!” he continues. “The velvety excess that maketh chocolate decadence! And, oh—What doth be piña colada again, handmaiden?”
“Pineapple—a tart and sweet, but not citrusy tropical fruit—coconut, and alcohol, Great and Glorious One.” She’s annoyed, naturally, at having to define the flavor profile of a cocktail-inspired cupcake for him, while they are technically, if hardly literally, on the run, but she learned quickly that pressuring him accomplishes absolutely nothing positive. Even so, she’s severely tempted—as she often is but never does—to hit him.
Judging from the red dot dancing around his pristinely-un-mussed locks—despite their having come from a car wreck, previously—so does someone else.
“Everybody down!” She hollers, slamming bodily into the god and bearing him along with her onto the pastel-tiled floor—he’s nearly a foot taller and correspondingly heavier than her, but she knows what she’s doing; it’s all a matter of balance and leverage.
She hits the ground and keeps rolling, as bullets strafe the small store. The storefront window is the first to go, followed by the display case; glass goes flying, as do icing, bits of cake, and absurdly gaily-colored cupcake wrappers. There’s blood, too, as someone who can’t follow damned instructions gets hit; she hopes it wasn’t the salesgirl, but as long as it wasn’t herself or her asset, she’ll take it.
The god is saying something, but she can’t make out what. She’s been in situations like this only a few times before, but enough to know how everything goes strange in the clutch; it’s like she has all the time in the world to draw her guns, to find a corner where she can brace herself in front of him—the ruined counter in front of her—but no time at all to make sense of who she’s barreling past or stepping over, or what anyone is trying to say.
All she can hear is gunfire and glass.
When the men come charging in, after the initial salvo, it’s almost like a video game—it’s that distant, and she’s that calm. As much as she and her charge can’t get out, their attackers can only get in through a very limited entry space, and she’s prepared and situated, so she has the advantage in the short term.
An even more distant part of her has the luxury of wondering why they—if there’s even one single ‘they’—have switched from trying to capture him to trying to kill him, but again, figuring that out isn’t her job. This is.
There are ten men, and she only has a total of twenty-three rounds, so she has to make them count. It doesn’t matter, though, that she gets a few of them only in the kevlar, and one or two not at all; it’s enough to make some fall and some back off, to reconsider their strategy—they really are amateurs, she thinks, not to have known she wouldn’t make it easy for them—enough time for her to hustle herself and the god out through the back door.
Which is when she discovers her own critical damned rookie mistake, because the stupid cupcake shop has no back door.
Around four rounds left, by her estimation, and they can’t get out.
Their opponents can’t get in without losing more guys, of course, but that doesn’t really mean anything, because there’s still at least one sniper out there, and the minute they get up—
The god gets up.
He says something—the gunfire’s stopped, for now, but she still can’t make herself understand his words. He stretches one hand out—in grandiose fashion, naturally, clearly with every expectation that something astounding will result.
But nothing happens—and then, not one, not two, but three red dots are chasing their way across his clothes and skin.
In that same continuing strangeness of time, Lee has long enough to try and tell herself that, when she signed up to serve God and country, this was hardly the god she was pledging herself to. But her legs aren’t listening to her brain, apparently—maybe they can’t hear anything, either—because she’s standing up too, even though her own stupid kevlar isn’t going to be worth a thing, not with her unprotected head conveniently served on a proverbial platter to even the most pathetically-trained sniper.
But it’s her job.
All she can do is block his body with hers, and throw her arms up in front of her face, palms outward.
And a brilliant, blazing radiance erupts from her hands, outward, past the quivering salesgirl; out the ruined storefront and, impossibly, around its corner; across the street and over buildings, to three distinct rooftops.
By the time she manages to lower her arms, the light is gone, even the little dancing red ones. She’s able to hear again, as well, though there’s nothing much to listen to, beyond the still-distant sound of sirens and several of the customers whimpering.
No one is hurt any worse than they were from the shootings—she’s pretty sure they’re all going to live, though she only has the most basic, patch-up sort of medical training—but every bit of glass in the entire shop is completely melted and fused. She can only imagine what must have happened to people; obviously, she should go outside and find out, but she can’t quite bring herself to move that much, just yet.
The god is fastidiously wiping icing off his Armani shirt—his skin and hair are miraculously, in evidently the literal sense, untouched—and then he licks it off his fingers, with apparent utter delight.
“What—happened?” is all she’s able to say.
“Most beloved of wenches,” he says, beaming smugly, “thou smote them.”
Lee has no idea how she’s going to explain this in her report, but no one can say she hasn’t been doing her job.
Nikki Alfar can barely sustain coherent thought—much less write—without nicotine. Despite this handicap, she has managed to earn three Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, a Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award, a Mariner Award from the US-based Bewildering Stories, and selection as one of twelve ‘Filipina writers of note’ by the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings. She’s been a judge for the Philippines Free Press literary awards and, for many years, co-edited the groundbreaking, critically-acclaimed annual anthology series Philippine Speculative Fiction.
Her first short story collection—Now, Then, and Elsewhen—is forthcoming. Otherwise, her fiction has been published nationally and internationally, online and in print, including the magazines Fantasy, Bewildering Stories, and Our Own Voice; the anthologies A Time for Dragons, Night Monkeys, Ruin and Resolve, Sawi, Tales of Fantasy & Enchantment, and The Farthest Shore; as well as the podcast sites Pakinggan Pilipinas and—soon—Drabblecast. Her short story, ‘Bearing Fruit’, was named one of the world’s best short speculative fiction pieces of the year in Lois Tilton’s 2010 roundup for Locus magazine, while ‘Emberwild’ received an honorable mention in the international Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror in 2008.
For all this and more, she thanks her husband and fellow writer Dean, their daughters Rowan and Sage, and the good people at the Marlboro company.
The above image is from here.