Sunday, March 9, 2014

Celebration Station: Day 9-Paul Mannering

Day 9

Today we visit with Paul Mannering as he continues his tale, The Exodus Conspiracy.


 The audience chamber was the largest room Moses had ever seen. Pillars of polished white stone rose up and spread into perfect arches that created open windows to the outer-gardens. The fresh breeze carried with it the scents of date palms, jasmine and scented oils. A line of guardian golems stood behind Pharaoh. Giant men clad in hardened iron, strong enough to resist a shot from a steam canon and armed with axes and swords that could split a boulder and reap men like wheat.

“Pharaoh!” Aaron declared, startling the royal court with his sudden outburst. “Yahweh, God of Jacob, of Isaac and of Abraham, commands us to your presence!”

The face of Pharaoh was gilded in gold and lapis-lazuli, each of his eyes were a hand span across and glittered with the facet of a single, giant, polished emerald. With a slow and ponderous turn the eyes turned from their gaze at the morning sun and regarded the two dripping wet men that stood in the wide audience chamber.

“Who speaks to us? We who are the sun and the moon? God of desert and water? Father of all the people of Khem? Giver of life to child, beast and machine?” the voice that boomed from the giant head was the voice of a god. The courtiers of Pharaoh bowed their heads.

“M-m-my n-n-name is Mo-mo-muh-moses,” the mechanical sheepherder stuttered. The pharaoh led the laughter that echoed around the court.

Aaron scowled and stepped forward, “Quiet!” he bellowed, sending the guardian golems shuffling in iron-footed agitation.

Silence fell over the gathering and the pharaoh’s eyes moved to regard Aaron more closely. No one had commanded him in such a manner in his entire life. “Who dares speak in our presence?” The pharaoh demanded.

“I am Aaron and this is my brother, Moses. We are ordered by Yahweh, the one true god, to command you, great pharaoh, to release the Israelites from their bondage!”

“Our people are not in bondage. We hold no slaves,” The head of Pharaoh nodded and the gathered court tittered in unison.

“L-l-let my p-up-up-puh-people go!” Moses blurted. The roar of laughter from the court crushed him into a blushing silence.

“Will you obey the word of the Lord God?” Aaron addressed the Pharaoh.

“We shall not; your god has no power in Khem.” Pharaoh’s gaze returned to guiding the sun in its course, indicating an end to the interruption.

Aaron’s grip on his staff tightened until the wood creaked, “You must free the Israelites from their endless labors. Allow them to travel into the desert, there to give thanks to the Lord God for three days and nights.”

“And let the machines fall idle? Let the stones remain uncut and the bread unbaked?” the magicians of the Pharaoh’s court came forward. Modification of their bodies elevated them towards the essence of divinity. Their bodies were a tapestry that defined the Khemites mastery of the spring and the machine. The first mage’s legs were gone and he sat embedded in a stove like engine. With a small chimney at the rear for the boiler smoke to escape and four wheels at the bottom that he steered by twisting his torso to adjust the tension of guiding cables.

The second had replaced his left arm with a simulacrum of ivory and red glass. It was beautifully crafted to resemble the musculature of a natural limb, with the skin pared away. The third wore crafted goggles with glass lenses that whirred in and out melded with the flesh of his face. A dozen flexible tubes of unknown purpose ran from the top of his head, down his back and returned to his flesh in the lower region of his spine. The third mage wore only a simple loincloth and his skin was a tattooed pattern of machina artistry. His entire body was an illustration of the cogs and clockworks of a complex automaton, as if he himself were not a living creature of breath and blood, but a constructed mechanical driven by Hebrew technology.

“Throw d-down your staff,” Moses muttered.

“What?” Aaron said.

Throw d-down your st-staff.”

Aaron shrugged and tossed the stick on the floor. As it struck the marble slabs, the staff changed into a writhing mechanical serpent. Screams of shock and fear rang out across the court; the face of Pharaoh did not tremble. Fear was for mortal souls, not the living incarnation of Ra.

The crowd pressed back from the rearing snake. In unison the trio of sorcerers of the Pharaoh raised their own staffs and cast them to the floor. Three writhing machina sprang up from where the sticks fell. The face of Pharaoh twisted into a mechanical smile and he spoke with the delighted of a child, “You see!? Your god has no power here!”

Humiliated, Moses ducked his head and started for the exit, Aaron stood his ground. “Your wizards are powerful Pharaoh. But they cannot match the power of the Lord God.” Aaron’s serpent whirred forward and struck at the nearest conjuration. As the court watched, terrified of the magic being played out before them, Aaron’s snake devoured the first sorcerer’s staff and then the second of the wizard’s serpents was swallowed whole. The snake of Aaron grew larger and snapped its fangs at the final staff. The sorcerer desperately waved his hands and poured his power into the living staff. Aaron’s power was greater and his snake struck down the remaining serpent. The court fell silent as the last serpent fell. Aaron’s staff then returned to his hand and he switched it back to stick mode once again.

“Let m-my p-puh-people go!” Moses demanded of Pharaoh again.

The ruler of Khem was humiliated in front of his own people, “Never!” the great head shrieked.

Aaron watched the distant rooftops, near hidden in the haze. Somewhere out there a light flashed. “Moses,” he said, striding over to where his brother stood trembling with fury. “Watch this.” Aaron walked to the nearest fountain where pure water cascaded, cooling the desert warmed air. Plunging his staff into the torrent, the court watched as the water turned to oil, the stinking black liquid that lubricated the great machines, now gushed from every spring and fountain. The ebony torrent spread to every container, well and watering hole, until even the mighty Nile herself thickened and turned black. A foul stench fell over the palace, the buzzing of flies and the cries of horrified people reached the ears of the court.

“W-will you listen to the w-wuh-word of God?” Moses called to the Pharaoh.

“Get out!” the Pharaoh roared. Aaron and Moses shrugged, and with a confidence Moses did not feel, the brothers strode out of the Pharaoh’s court.

“How l-long do we w-wait for him to c-c-c-come to his sen-senses?” Moses asked.

“It can’t take long. Even a great kingdom like Khem cannot survive without water,” Aaron replied.

Moses nodded, the streets were filled with panicked citizens, men and women ran from well to well, crying out to each other as each bucket drawn up from the cool depths was found to be filled with the blood of the mechanicals. The two brothers wandered towards the shore of the Nile. The hundreds of barges, freight boats and fishing scows that lined the stone docks had been abandoned by terrified crew fleeing the black water. White shapes bobbed to the surface along the length of the sluggishly flowing river. The sailors and fishermen still thronging the bank and docks in a terrified mob, cried out to Pharaoh as the tide of oil brought dead fish washing up in their thousands on the mud beach.

“I h-hope this w-works,” Moses said.

“And quickly,” Aaron added. “We’re going to be stoned if the word gets out we are responsible.”

They made their way through the city to the Hebrew quarter, which at this time of day was mostly empty, the inhabitants hard at work on the worksites and pyramids of their masters. The few people Moses saw cowered in the shadows and the splashes of oil from knocked over water containers raised a stink that covered the squalor of the inhabitants.

“Wait here, I’m going to scout around,” Aaron said. By the time Moses had found the words to ask where his brother might be going at a time like this, he had already vanished into the smog.

“Brothers and sis-si-sisters!” Moses called to the mud huts. “I am Mo-Mo-Moses.

My b-brother Ah-aaron and I have been sent by the Lord God to dem-mm-mand that Pharaoh release His cho-cho-chosen people from their slavery!” A few people came out into the afternoon sunlight, watching with suspicion the stranger who stood in the street and preached.

“Go away!” A woman called, “You will bring the Pharaoh’s guard down upon us!”

“Have faith in the L-Lord! Your d-d-d-deliverance is at hand!” Moses shouted back. “The p-power of Yahweh has come to K-k-khem in the sign of the waters! The black wa-war-water you see is God’s c-c-command to Pharaoh!”

“How do you know that?” A man on a crutch hobbled out of a hovel and glared at the sheptech.

“I am G-g-god’s messenger. My brother struck the water with his staff and it turned to machine blood!” Moses forgot himself in his excitement to deliver the Lord’s message to the Israelites.

“You? You did this?” The cripple lurched forward, the others took up the cry and soon a small mob was forming around Moses.

“W-w-w-we are he-here to set you f-f-f-ree!” Moses shouted over the angry voices. “The Lord God has sent us!” he cried out. The first stones flew, snatched from the dusty ground, and within moments a hail of rocks were crashing down around his head.

Aaron made quick time through the narrow streets, he knew where he was going and after knocking on a rough-hewn doorpost he slipped past the ragged curtain and into the gloomy interior.

“Aaron,” Ben stood up from the table where he had been drinking wine, his hands were stained black with oil.

“Good to see you again brother,” Aaron embraced the man and grinned. “Your timing was immaculate,” he added.

Ben shrugged, “We are but the hammers that struck the blow. The true credit goes to you and the Elders for concocting such a diabolical plan.” He poured two mugs of wine and handed one to Aaron who took it and raised the goblet in salute.

“To the success of Operation Exodus,” Aaron said. They drank together.

“It went off without a hitch.” Ben said, swirling the remaining wine in his cup. “We broke into the main oil pipeline and diverted enough of the flow into the city’s reservoirs to foul the water supply for a couple of days.”

“Timing and a good dose of luck were on our side this time,” Aaron said.

“Is it true that your own brother is taking the fall?” Ben asked.

“Yes, Moses, the burning bush and voice of God convinced him.”

“Your b-b-brother fell for it?” Ben asked, mimicking Moses’s stutter.

“Do not underestimate him. Moses may be slow of speech, but he is a wise and devout man. He truly believes he is doing the Lord’s work. We must ensure that he never stops believing that. Without Moses suspicion could easily fall to us.”

Ben nodded and sipped his drink, “Our people will be free. We have the next plague lined up.”

“The frogs are ready?” Aaron asked.

“Yes. Berel has been overseeing the breeding program. We have millions of frogs in hidden cages up and down the river. At your command we unleash green hell.”

“I will bring Pharaoh and Moses to the river in the morning. Now I must get back to by brother. I left him soaking up the local ambience in the market square.” Aaron took his leave and hurried back through the narrow streets. An angry mob was forming where he left Moses and it sounded like someone was being attacked with stones and angry curses.

Fearing the worst, Aaron pushed his way through the crowd and found Moses dodging missiles and stuttering so badly he could not be understood. Seizing his brother’s arm, Aaron shouted, “As a wise sheptech once said, let’s get the flock out of here!” Moses nodded and arms over their heads, they ran through the crowd. They lost the stone throwers among the narrow streets between the mud-brick hovels. Haggard looking people watched them from the shadows, their lips already dry and cracked from thirst. Babies suckled at withered breasts and young children wept salt on their grime streaked cheeks.

“Wh-wa-what have we d-d-d-one?” Moses asked, gasping for breath as they stumbled to a halt.

“God’s will,” Aaron replied. “The Israelites shall suffer, not from the Lord’s hand, but from the cold-heart of the Pharaoh. The lesson learned will be harsh, but it will remain with us forever.”

“Our p-p-p-people’s suffering is increased te-te-ten-fold, how c-c-can the Lord heap this upon them when they are already in such p-p-p-pain?” Moses turned away from the dying children and with Aaron on his heels he hurried back through the city towards the Pharaoh’s palace.

“Your God has no power here,” the head of Pharaoh intoned from its throne. The hand of pharaoh moved with a smooth mechanical grace as he gestured for his sorcerers to come forward.

They each demonstrated in turn that they could cleanse the oil-filled containers with a simple process of filtering and distillation. The trio of sorcerers sneered at the brothers and Pharaoh’s golden face contorted and shook as he giggled in a girlish way.

“You’re god is nothing!” he shrilled.

“Now w-what?” Moses whispered to Aaron.

“Have faith,” Aaron whispered. “Oh great Pharaoh, the Lord God commands you to release his chosen people. If you refuse, you shall feel his wrath again.”

“Do your worst,” Pharaoh said.

“Come with us to the Nile,” Aaron said, “Bring your courtiers and your sorcerers.” Moses and Aaron led a strange procession. When the Pharaoh travelled outside the palace walls a vast army of supporters swung into action. Musicians, guards with rifles and flamethrowers, the towering golems, and a village of courtiers and slaves were all swept along in a grand clanking parade.

At the water’s edge, the fishermen of Khem fell to their knees and worshipped Pharaoh, giving their thanks for his divine power, which had cleansed the water of the Nile.

“Is the Lord speaking to you now?” Aaron asked Moses. His brother had a distracted look on his face, one ear cocked as if listening to a distant strain of music.

“Moses?” Aaron said again.

“Aaron, pass your staff over the waters, this is the command of the Lord,” Moses spoke in a voice that echoed with a power he did not possess. “Pharaoh, again the Lord God calls upon you to let his chosen people go into the desert to worship him. If you do not let my people go, a plague of frogs will rise in the land of Khem. The frogs will come into your homes, your ovens, your beds. Your halls and your kitchens will teem with them. The Lord God commands you once again, let my people go.”

Pharaoh merely sneered, “Your words have no power here Hebrew.”

At Moses’s nod, Aaron waved his staff over the waters of the Nile. The conspirators of Operation Exodus had been breeding frogs for over a year. As Aaron’s staff waved, they opened the pens and cages and freed an amphibian horde along the riverbank. A buzzing sound rose in the distance, and then from the mud and the rushes came a slithering and a croaking. The chorus rose and became a deafening roar. The water seethed and rippled, frogs burst from the mud and the papyrus. The ground itself heaved with the passing flood of the small animals. People laughed and cried out in mock disgust. Still more frogs poured out of the waters of the Nile, they were crushed underfoot and people began to slip in the slime of their smeared bodies.

“Pharaoh!” Moses shouted over the growing noise of panic and pandemonium. “Will y-y-y-you allow my p-p-p-eople to go into the de-de-de-desert for three d-d-days and worship the Lord G-god?”

The Pharaoh, who’s golden visage was being overrun with the hopping frogs, shrieked, “Fine! Go on your wretched way! But this plague must end!”

“To p-prove to you this is the Lord’s c-co-command, you shall ch-choose when this plague shall end,” Moses declared.

“As soon as possible! Let it end as soon as possible!”

“Very well, the frogs shall d-die with the rising of the sun t-tomorrow. As Pharaoh has d-d-decreed, so the Lord G-god shall mote it be!” Moses struck the earth with his staff, the splatting sound had less of an impact on the crowd than he had hoped.

Moses and Aaron slipped away into the crowd, stepping around mechanicals that swept the streets, gathering up great scoops of squirming frogs and filling the air with the smell of their crushed bodies. Every house and hovel spent the evening sweeping the croaking frogs from their hearths and beds.

The sorcerers of the Pharaoh proved their worth to their god king again by demonstrating how easily clockwork frogs could be fabricated and the throne room was soon swarming with wind-up frogs and their living counterparts.

Disposing of the swarming amphibians proved beyond their engineering mastery however, and Pharaoh fumed while his golems swept the throne room clear of the latest infestation. Reports came to him of the preparations of the Israelites, they were packing for their three day journey into the desert.

"Never," Pharaoh snarled, his voice drowned out by the croaking calls of the frogs.


In the morning the first of the Hebrews leaving the city found the gates barred and soldiers of the Pharaoh turned them back with rifle butts and warning shots fired into the dust.

Aaron and Moses hurried through the milling throng, the angry voices turning to despair as their people saw the promise of freedom, even for only three days, denied them. The brothers promised their people they would go to speak with Pharaoh immediately, and they found him in his throne room, now finally clear of frogs, though the stench of their dead bodies hung over the land like a fog.

"Great Pharaoh!" Aaron shouted across the hall, "Why are you preventing our people from leaving the city?"

"They are needed," Pharaoh responded. "The streets are filled with dead frogs! The stink that lies across the city is causing grief!"

"G-g-god will send another pah-pah-plague," Moses warned. "His wrath will grow with every p-p-p-p-passing day."

"As will mine!" Pharaoh thundered, his gilded face quivering with anger.

Aaron slipped his hands into his robes and pulled the strings on the bags strapped to his legs, a trickle of lice started dropping to the floor. He pulled on Moses's sleeve, "Come brother, if we stay here even the Lord may not be able to protect us."

Moses allowed Aaron to lead him outside, a spreading swarm of tiny biting insects spreading across the throne room.

Moses slapped at his arm, “Lice?” he asked, peering at the tiny red smear on his skin. "Aaron, strike your rod upon the dust, a plague of lice shall rise and infest the land of Khem."

"Seriously? Frogs didn't change the Pharaoh's mind and you think lice will?"

Moses just stared at his brother until, with a sigh, Aaron struck his staff on the ground.

The brothers gave the Pharaoh the day to experience the new plague, and in the heat of the evening they appeared before him again. The god king was in a foul temper, his skin itched and reddened from the constant bites of the lice. The golems were useless against such a tiny adversary.

"G-god co-com-commands you to let my p-p-p-people go into the d-duh-desert Pharaoh," Moses said.

"Never!" Pharaoh shrieked while scratching furiously.

Aaron and Moses retreated to the Hebrew quarter to consider what to do next. "What does the Lord say?" Aaron asked his brother.

"He is silent. W-we must see his will en-enacted. We m-mmm-may not understand his entire p-p-plan until it has come to pa-pa-pass."

"You are sounding more like a Rabbi with each passing day," Aaron said.

"I'm not s-sure what is w-w-w-worse, the l-lice or the flies," Moses said, brushing away the buzzing insects.

"It's the dead fish and frogs," Aaron replied. "The flies are born in their rotting flesh."

"With so m-mmm-m-many dead fish and frogs, the flies will b-b-b-become a p-p-p-plague," Moses growled.

"Brother you are a genius! Truly this is the Lord's plan. Come on, we have to see the Pharaoh before someone else takes the credit."

They hurried through the streets swarming with lice and flies, Jackals had come in from the desert and joined the rats that also lurked in the shadows, feasting on the swollen frog corpses that lay too thick for anyone to carry away.

"Flies!" Aaron shouted to the Pharaoh.

"And w-w-wild beasts!" Moses added.

Aaron nodded, "The fourth plague is upon the land of Khem!"

"Are you r-r-ready to rec-c-c-consider?" Moses asked the Pharaoh.

"No!" the god king screamed and summoned his sorcerers. The clockwork machina that clicked and whirred on their bodies made a discordant racket against the ambience of the fly swarms that rose in ever-greater numbers from the decay in the streets and riverbanks.

"Show them the power of Pharaoh!" the king demanded. The sorcerers trembled and slapped at the lice that seethed and crawled over their bodies and in their hair. "We cannot stop this plague oh great Pharaoh, this is truly the finger of God!"

"I am God! I am the only god!" Pharaoh screamed at his sorcerers. "Destroy them! Destroy that fool!" A golem stepped forward, gears grinding, its massive hands swept down and snatched the babbling sorcerer with wheels for legs from the floor. With the ease of a man crushing an egg, the sorcerer was slowly squeezed in a great fist until blood and viscera oozed out from between the metal fingers and dripped on the floor.

"The Lord G-god c-c-commands you to release his p-p-p-people Pharaoh! If you do not, a great p-p-pestilence will b-b-b-befall your livestock! Your cattle, horses, sheep and goats. All will die!" Moses had to shout to be heard over the screams of the courtiers, and again the two Hebrews made a rapid get-away in the confusion and panic of the court in uproar.

Aaron’s mind was racing, the plan was for boils next. Where did Moses get the idea of a disease striking down the animals?

"Are you sure the Lord is sending a plague upon the livestock of Khem?" Aaron asked as they ducked into an alleyway, avoiding a patrol of the Pharaoh's soldiers.

"The Lord says, the beasts of the desert, they carry disease, this will spread among the livestock of the Khemites. The animals that have come to scavenge the dead, they will bring pestilence upon the beasts of the field and the livestock of Khem."

"Well that's great and I don't mean to criticize the Lord, but this all seems entirely natural. Khem has suffered disasters before, great storms, droughts, plagues. Wouldn't it be better if the Lord could bring something truly terrible down on their heads?"

"Like w-what? H-h-hail in the m-m-m-m-middle of the drought? D-d-da-darkness at noon?" Moses spluttered.

"Now we're talking," Aaron nodded.

"The Lord G-god does not t-t-take his orders from y-y-y-you or m-m-m-muh-me or anyone else. He's the Lord God."

"Prayer," Aaron said, folding his arms.


"Prayer, what is the purpose of prayer if the Lord cannot be swayed by the supplications of the faithful?"

"That's d-d-different," Moses said.

"Really? Do you think our brothers and sisters don't look up from their endless toil under the cruel sun and pray for salvation every day?"

"Of c-course they d-do and the Lord hears their p-p-prayers."

"So why in Jacob's name is he messing around with conjurer’s tricks and stuff that happens every dry season anyway?"

"We c-cannot q-question the L-lord. We mmm-must have faith," Moses said.

"I have faith brother," Aaron gripped Moses by the shoulders, "But I don't know how much time we have. Do you think the Lord will let the livestock of his people die as well? The water was bad enough, and the flies and the lice." Aaron absently slapped at a biting insect on his neck.

"The L-lord will p-p-provide," Moses said.
Return tomorrow for the last installment of Paul's story!


Paul Mannering is an award winning writer living in Wellington, New Zealand
Paul has published dozens of short stories and radio plays in a range of genres across many different international markets. He has edited a collection of horror fiction, published his own collection and his first novel.
In 2007 he co-founded BrokenSea Audio Productions, which podcasts free audio drama each week to an audience of millions. Paul lives with his wife Damaris and their two cats.

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