The LLSTA theme played over the end credits. A minor chord introduced an image of a Hurricane Planet. This enemy of humanity, a blood-colored space-orb of biological and mechanical parts, swallowed stars and smacked spaceships from of the sky. Scarlet spots speckled the black background of space—another trillion Hurricane Planets like it, or larger. Each was like a single cell in the cosmic horror called the Hurricane.
Jay rubbed his eyes and squinted at the credits but the names of artists and animators squirmed and resisted interpretation. “Faith, I think I’m having a stroke.”
“No! JayJay!” Faith draped herself over the back of the couch and stretched to her full length. “The bug-stick is making you paranoid. Just enjoy it!”
Jay licked his teeth. His mouth had dried. He reached for the remote and, after struggling with the hieroglyphs, pressed the menu button. “Oh, here’s the problem. The names are in Japanese. We watched the whole episode in Japanese. We didn’t even have the subtitles on.”
“Ha!” Faith laughed until she ran out of breath. “I think I understood the plot anyway. But that’s the kind of thing that happens on crickets.”
After switching the language back to English Jay moved the menu cursor to the final episode. He did not select it. “So, what’s going on between you and Beatrice? Are you two dating?”
“Well, yeah, but it’s complicated.” Faith looked away.
“She carries that bible everywhere she goes,” said Jay. “Her family seems pretty religious. Is that making dating difficult?”
“You didn’t hear it from me,” said Faith, “but BeatBax breaks out the bible for unwanted male attention. If she doesn’t want to turn someone down she can play the pastor’s daughter routine until they lose interest. In truth, she’s fine dating a girl and hiding it from her parents. We’ve even talked about smoking crickets before.”
“So what’s complicated?”
“Dainty thinks religions are cool. He likes the pastor’s daughter routine,” she sighed. “And I like Dainty. I wish dating weren’t complicated. I just want to hold all my friends in a big cuddle-ball.” Faith held Jay’s hand. Jay squeezed back and Faith smiled. “Crickets help you open up sometimes.”
“You know a lot about crickets. Are you sure you haven’t smoked before?”
“What are you talking about?” Faith couldn’t tell lies while upside-down, folded backwards over the couch. Her poker face broke and she giggled. “You caught me. I’ve smoked a cricket before, but just once, I swear. I wanted to share the experience with you.”
“It’s really something.” Jay searched for words to describe it but found none. He made a sound effect and an exploding motion with his hands. “Where did you smoke your first?”
Faith kicked the air. “You’ve met my uncle before, right? He came down from Wyoming for a weekend last semester, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember,” said Jay. “I don’t think I could forget.”
“Well, he is the black sheep of the Featherways.”
“He asked if I believed in aliens. He had quite a bit to say on the matter.”
“He’s had an interesting life.”
“The inside of his fedora was lined with tinfoil.”
“Some people like tinfoil,” insisted Faith. “Anyway, I visited him last month in Sheridan, Wyoming, and that’s where I smoked my first cricket. Let me explain.”
“Smell that air?” Her uncle stuck his head out the driver’s side window and inhaled. He secured his fedora against the wind with his left hand and steered the truck with his right. “That’s Sheridan air! The higher we drive up the Bighorn mountains the better it gets!”
Faith only smelled the exhaust from her uncle’s beat-up truck. Still, the mountain range was beautiful and freshly-melted snow encouraged a healthy layer of greenery. “What are we doing all the way up here?”
“Your mom made me promise to take you to the college. Look, there it is!” He pointed at buildings dotting the mountainside. “Near the border to Bighorn National Forest. Pop the glove box; there’s a bunch of talks today. Choose one that looks good.”
Faith opened the glove box to find a brochure. It listed the day’s events at Sheridan Cliff-Side College, including guest lectures. “Does SC-SC have an art program?”
“I dunno. I mostly sit in the library and tell sorority chicks about my theory.” He made a hairpin turn to follow the mountain road.
“This lecture looks neat,” said Faith, whipped against the door by the g-force of the turn. “It’s a group of monks from Sheridan. I like the way each monk has a different colored robe.”
“What? There aren’t any monks here in Sheridan. Wyoming isn’t their style. You mean Indians? There are a couple Indian tribes in Sheridan.”
“Not Sheridan, Wyoming. A series of islands also called Sheridan—it’s hard to spot them on the world-map in the brochure. They’re tucked into the bottom-right corner with New Zealand. The most isolated islands in the world.” She showed him the brochure as he pulled into the college parking lot. “See? These cute flightless birds live only on the islands and the monks consider them sacred.”
“I should give a lecture on religion. I’d blow the whole thing open.” Her uncle parked. At 4,000 feet elevation, the valleys below held Bighorn National Forest like a bowl of trees. “Did I ever tell you my theory?”
“Yes, you have,” said Faith, firmly, as they stepped from the truck.
“It just makes sense. All religions are cargo cults. You know, cargo cults. When we dropped aid on island tribes in World War Two some tribes built fake airplanes out of scraps. They hoped statues would bring the sky-gods back. Right?”
“Okay,” Faith said uneasily. They walked into a lecture hall.
“So if aliens exist (and they do) and they’ve been to earth (and they have) then that’s proof all religions secretly worship aliens and churches don’t even know it.” He tapped his temple and flashed Faith the tinfoil in his fedora. “The aliens want to make us dependent on them. You have to keep them out of your mind.”
“Cool,” said Faith, not regarding her uncle’s theory but the monks gathered by the stage. The monks, male and female in roughly equal proportion, each wore solid-colored robes. Some wore cool colors, some warm. None were below forty years old and some were over eighty or ninety. They had all variety of skin colors and tones; some were black, some copper-brown, some brick-red or yellow-tan, some pink, and others so pale they looked blue. Most were bald.
Their leader sat cross-legged in a worn wheelchair. They wore a hooded navy-blue robe and a silver mask. The mask had an embossed beak and two buggy eyes like a watchful bird. The silver bird-mask surveyed the audience until another monk (an elderly man with tanned, leathery skin and robes like a clear sky) took the podium and addressed the crowd:
“Thank you for allowing us to speak at Sheridan Cliff-Side College.” The elderly, sky-clad monk leaned on a cane taller than himself, a curious object smooth along the shaft but with ten black spots encircling a gnarled top. “We come from the Islands of Sheridan, located between New Zealand, Chile, and Antarctica, a location called Point Nemo. The name Nemo, Latin for no-one, belies the solitude we enjoy on Earth’s most secluded islands.”
He waited for a reaction. Someone coughed.
“There we worship the animals, the plants, the mountains, and the clouds,” he said, “though sometimes we worship nothing at all. It is my honor to introduce my teacher, and the teacher of all teachers, Virgil Blue. They will provide their famous silent lesson. Then we will leave and never return.”