By Curtis C. Chen
Travis stumbled through the alley, tripping over fetid piles of garbage and skittering masses that might have been insects or rodents. He didn't stop. He didn't look back. A light flashed to his left, and he sprang right to avoid it.
He found himself in a wide boulevard, facing speeding cars and pedestrians. The tide of people swept him up and carried him to a street corner, where he clutched at a lamp-post.
And then somebody recognized him.
They shouted his title, not his name—nobody used his name anymore—and eyes widened as they registered his face, the peculiar pattern of white streaks in his beard, the unnatural color and texture of his eyes.
The crowd swarmed around Travis, and he climbed the lamp-post. Hands reached out for him, and the murmur of reverence began building to a demanding cacophony. This was how it always happened.
A squeal of tires against pavement and a wet crunch silenced the crowd. Then their noise resumed, but with a different focus.
The injured man lay in the street, one hand still outstretched toward the lamp-post. Blood ran down his face, and pink foam escaped his mouth with every ragged exhalation.
A woman turned to Travis. "Help him!" she called out. "You can save him!"
And then the entire crowd took up the call, asking Travis to do what he could not.
"No!" he replied. "I can't! You don't know what you're asking!"
The people ignored him. They seized his ankles and pulled him to the ground. They grappled him to the injured man and placed Travis' palms on the man's head and chest.
"Please," Travis said, weeping. "Please don't."
But the crowd was no longer listening to him, if they ever had.
An alien power surged through Travis' arms, and he closed his eyes.
"Where is he?" asked Sergeant Roberts, skidding to a halt at the scene of the accident. "Where did he go?"
The crowd glared at the soldiers.
"You'll never catch him," one woman said. "He will save us."
Roberts knelt beside the injured man. "Like he saved this one? Medic!"
Airman Collier ran forward and waved a scanner over the man. "Just like the others," she said. "Superficial wounds have been healed, but he's still bleeding internally. We need to get him into surgery."
"Infidels!" the woman cried. "You will not desecrate him! He has been touched by God!"
The crowd closed in, threatening the soldiers. Roberts raised his weapon.
"Sarge!" Collier said, standing up. "Let me handle this?"
Roberts hesitated, then nodded. Collier raised her arms above her head.
"It is a miracle!" she shouted. "We carry this man to temple! Praise God! Let Him lead the way!"
The crowd echoed her proclamations, waved their arms, and began shuffling down the street. Collier stepped back and leaned in close to Roberts.
"We make a show of putting this guy on the stretcher," she whispered. "Then, when the mob's thinned out, we pick him up and run the other way."
Roberts lowered his weapon. "You're a regular miracle worker yourself, Collier."
Photo: Rats & Jesus by andrewneher, February, 2008