As the Founding Leader of the New Era Cult, Felix was delighted to have been recognised for his achievements. ABC, the official magazine of the Alternative Belief Communities was presenting Felix with their Leader of the Year award. It had been a long time coming and Felix had worked tirelessly to make his particular brand of offbeat spirituality the most appealing. New Era was the most popular of the cults in the city. They operated out of a juice bar where those with ripped jeans came to detox themselves into a state of higher consciousness. There was a back room the cult had cleared of lemons, where interested parties could take a short test in several parts. A potential recruit would be blindfolded and given darts to throw at a numerical board. It was testament to the immense psychic abilities of the juice bar clientele that the numbers the darts hit were almost always of deep cosmic significance, showing a true inner affinity with the universe.
Every recruit was special; they got a badge that said so. They got literature to read and a purple bracelet, which doubled as a tracking device. New Era was keen to ensure that none of the chosen ones wandered too far off the course that had been mapped out for them. This was how they got people. Mostly. On occasion they’d dragged people off the street with chloroform, but that was to be avoided where possible. It attracted too much attention and forced Felix’s denial of the inevitable I WAS ABDUCTED BY A NEW AGE DRUG CULT headlines. They were also getting a boost in numbers from the nearby gym, as the sparkling receptionist was a believer. Sweat and the endorphin rush seemed to make people in Lycra highly susceptible to mind control.
Felix hadn’t always wanted to preside over a group of home-grown religious followers, but he had always enjoyed the company of others. As kids, Felix and his schoolmates spent long afternoons pretending to kill each other under grey skies. It was easy then, to be popular. If you had a good bike and were excited by violence you had ready-made friends. He wondered where those boys were now. He wondered if he’d ever get the chance to welcome any of them to his group. He could help them find bliss. He’d make them realise the end of days was upon them and there was no way out other than surrendering to the forces of the solar system. It had been a surprise when the voices in his head first spoke to him. They started as whispers and odd suggestions that there might be something special about him. Then they came loud and clear with purpose and reassurance that he had the power to lead people to their destinies. This interfered significantly with his schoolwork, as it required long periods of meditation and the use of recreational drugs to channel the messages he was getting.
In algebra, Felix leaned over and asked Phil if he’d have a problem with being branded on the forehead with a hot dessert spoon, as he felt that was what the universe wanted. This was one of a number of reports of Felix’s antisocial behaviours. The school outlined their deep concern about his outlandish conduct in many tiresome after school meetings. Felix had bright eyes and a strong low voice, which he’d always found made people listen to him. When he looked at people as he spoke to them, he could visualise the precise moment in which they lost sense of themselves and became open to being guided by his hypnotic charm. He’d saved himself from suspension and being kicked out on a number of occasions, through convincing Miss Reeves to give him another chance, and to let him sit nearer to the windows in class, as he found the superb landscaping of the school garden therapeutic. It was only when Felix led an unauthorised visit to an underground drinking den during his class’ final assessment week that Felix was asked to leave the school. He knew senior management were threatened by his power and that to some extent their hands were tied, since fifteen students had needed to have their stomachs pumped. Felix noticed the Head teacher cower under his adolescent charisma and avoid Felix’s gaze while he explained the expulsion. It didn’t matter to Felix, he’d always found school easy. He had a natural talent for most things, but very little interest in much except drinking and star gazing on his neighbour’s roof. He’d got what he needed from the place; he had a path. Felix’s parents weren’t happy. His father issued a comprehensive beating, already irate about the use of his credit card to order a giant copper ceremonial bowl, which kept stopping the garage door from shutting. So Felix grew a few bruises for his opt out. His mum scowled a lot and smoked.
When Felix found out he was the winner of the ABC award, he immediately had to face the harsh truth that his followers would not be able to join him as he received it. The magazine had a strict policy of senior leadership only for their awards weekend. In the early days, they had not insisted on this and the hotel’s Convention Wing was overrun by a frightening mix of loyal believers. There was messy animal sacrifice in the lobby and a meeting room was put out of action by a cleansing bonfire. Competitive chanting reached such volume and intensity that the foundations of the building took minor structural damage. It was chaos and the concierge went ballistic. Felix had watched him red faced and ranting in reception to a man with painted horns. Since then, the attendees had been restricted and it was a far more civilised affair. They had the occasional candle theft, but nothing they couldn’t handle. Felix felt the absence of his congregation. They were a part of him and he’d sown his seed in all of them. He was delighted in how they’d grown; they’d become everything he always knew they could be. He’d opened their hearts and they were so grateful for it. Felix thought particularly about Ashby. When he’d met her she was so young. She’d been easy to recruit because, although she’d taken her share of depravity, she hadn’t been fully corrupted by the world. Ashby still had joy dripping from her pores and the energy to take on the wildest of suggestions. Her enthusiasm and intelligence was astounding. She’d grasped all six of the sacred principles in a matter of months, an achievement which took others years to fully master. As a result he was able to fast track her enlightenment. Felix structured an intense induction into the New Era collective. This involved light interrogation, followed by time standing against the wall of sadness. There was the loneliness vigil, where followers locked Ashby in a shed for six hours. Ultimately, the culmination of it all was the ritualistic re-enactment of past sins. Around a blazing fire, the new recruit was encouraged to demonstrate all of the bad things she had done, and act them out, while everyone watched and chanted. It was a crazed and erotic display and the humiliation purified her. Felix realised he was entranced with the girl. When she’d shed her dark past and been cleaned by the mouths of the believers, Felix took her away and told her she should be with him, that he could offer her total self realisation. She accepted and he let her swallow his sincerity.
Felix had been fortunate to father many New Era children. It had been established from the start that there was no higher honour than for him to choose women from the group to be the bearers of his babies. He’d always had a voracious appetite for sharing his mystical seed with the group. Joaquin had been the first of the sons, and while Felix never admitted it publicly, he had a particular affection for his eldest. He had nicknamed him Grey Star and sat up with him late into the night, talking about the sky and about how one day they’d all be up there together, brightly burning orbs of wonder dotted through constellations. Joaquin listened attentively until he fell asleep, and Felix lay down beside him and stroked his hair, whispering dreams and premonitions in his ear.
The living quarters and Holy Chamber of the cult amounted to a couple of disused barns and a hut on the green space next to the golf course. The Pebble Brook Golf Club was not happy about a group of fanatical weirdoes occupying the fields nearby. They were a conservative establishment that took a hard line even on members wearing non-regulation headbands. They had worked too long and hard at cementing the rules to have their peaceful greens tainted with the dishevelled insanity of the ‘space crazies’ as they frequently referred to them. They had initially tried to take legal action, but after some extremely thorough research it was discovered the land did not in fact belong to the golf club and Felix’s followers were allowed to remain. There’d been incidents. A New Era moon procession had crawled en masse on all fours through Hole 15 to get to the river during a tournament final and the entire game had to be replayed. It wasn’t unusual for early riser golfers to discover solitary naked believers, shrouded in sand and sleeping in the bunkers. It was also off putting to those dedicated to improving their handicap to hear the hysterical wailing of sacrificed chickens while trying to putt a clean shot from the green. New Era didn’t believe in killing animals, but chickens were an exception, representing a fragile earthy evil. On feast nights it was always Coq au Vin. The Golf Club responded by installing an electric fence and stern signs around the borders of the course. This was quickly abandoned when a junior club member was electrocuted attempting to retrieve a misfired long shot in the brush. Mostly there was little the Golf Club could do, but the activities of their chanting neighbours remained at the top of the agenda at every AGM.
Before the awards started, the afternoon held the opportunity for guests to peruse merchandise stalls. There were robes, for every function, in many colours and sizes. New Era didn’t go for robes, preferring the tracksuits Felix had issued to them, in either yellow or white, because Felix felt they were more dynamic. Nakedness was also encouraged, unless an aura cleansing took place, in which case a robe was useful for soaking up spillages, and provided easy access to all orifices. Metallic telepathy helmets and large introspection goggles were also on sale. Felix had always mocked those he saw buying these items, muttering to himself about them being suckers. There were some other stalls offering recently vacated secure compounds for sale to the highest bidder, the usual UFO relics and a web design company who promised to increase the social media presence of any cult leaders who showed an interest. Felix had never dabbled with this; he felt technology to be a distraction, since it would all melt away when the fireballs came anyway. New Era didn’t even watch TV; they had more important things to do. When the group were weary from a three-hour incantation binge they often craved some relaxed entertainment. Luckily, Felix had developed a conceptual puppet show that was largely allegorical. He had a dog puppet representing humankind, which got beaten up a lot by the crocodile puppet, embodying the world’s delusions. The show was well received, and Felix found the process of designing new performances to be tiring but inspiring. It had become a lengthy saga, since he’d been using these puppets for the last five years. One of the group members, Paisley, had even adapted some of the puppet show storylines into song.
Felix became bored of the relentless attempts to sell him things he didn’t need and decided to return to his room for a nap. He didn’t like the silence of the hotel room, or the air conditioning. He felt his mind being poisoned. He called reception to come and deactivate it. He thought about what his followers would be doing right now. He’d left strict instructions that they should carry on as normal while he was away. Felix had put Brandon in charge of ensuring that the meteor shards in the Holy Chamber were only removed from their container for a maximum of five minutes or there was a risk of radiation sickness.
Felix had seen the meteor crash and burn the night after his mother died. She’d been sick for a long time with cancer and he remembered her mainly coughing and crying. Felix’s dad coped poorly with the illness and was out of the house most of the time destroying his liver and telling his friends that his wife had really become a drain on him, but what could he do, he’d married her. When she let him, Felix nursed his mother and tried to get her to eat something. She studied him closely and got angry when he spoke, because he told her he sensed her mind fading and that was ok because the cosmos would guide her. When she died his father told him to leave. He was drawn to the woods and the river, and that was where he was walking when he saw the meteor explode in white brightness somewhere among the trees. There was fire you could see for miles. The heat was intense and the crater was unapproachable, but he was able to collect glowing fragments that scattered the ground in the longer grass. He took water from the river and carried pieces away with him in a bucket.
Brandon had been the first to view the pieces of meteorite Felix had retrieved. They met at a Lizard Syrup concert. It had been very difficult for Felix after being made homeless and he found it harder to connect with people. He’d got really into the Psychedelic Wet Jazz scene, where musicians jammed relentlessly for several hours, while being repeatedly doused with water. Brandon was a fan and Felix had seen him whirling at the base of the stage many times. They had argued furiously about their top five favourite sax soloists, over home-distilled gin. Once the alcohol kicked in neither of them could structure a sentence without bursting into uncontrollable laughter. They’d bonded in this drunken breakdown and became friends. Brandon allowed Felix to move in with him and together they took Felix’s prophecies and energy and funnelled it into the concepts that would define the New Era collective.
Brandon found Felix addictive. Their sleep was minimal, while the rest of their time was spent discussing the possibility that all life on earth was simply preparation for eventual evaporation, to one day join with the essence of the universe. The voices made it clear to Felix that the world would end soon and humanity would be vaporised, but that was fine, because the fabric of their being would become the galaxies of the future. They had to start cleansing themselves, so that only the purist and most beautiful residue of existence would be translated into their celestial bodies. They abstained from booze and limited their diets to things with high mineral contents. Masturbation was tolerated, but only if coarse crystals were used to bring them to sore ejaculation. Brandon typed out Felix’s premonitions and the wisdom the voices in his head imparted. They produced badly photocopied texts containing these ideas, which they distributed at Wet Jazz gigs as well as forcing them upon the baristas of the local coffee house. Those they met, who showed an interest, and who were wowed by the tranquillity of Felix’s disposition were invited to come and view the Meteor which Felix had named Cecilia, after his mother. Over the course of some months, they had a group of five or six regulars who sat around in Brandon’s living room and listened attentively to the truth as Felix interpreted it. It was better that the group expanded because they were able to gain financial donations, which allowed them to buy matching tracksuits and to strike a deal with Fruit Nation, purveyors of the freshest of contemporary juice concoctions, to set up a concession in the store. They went there each weekend and offered casual chats, basic meditation, back rubs, cosmic profiling and hair braiding to juiced-up customers. The owner was keen to exploit the marketing opportunities provided by his sympathy for alternative lifestyles, pointing out to those who asked that he was preserving the hippie spirit of the community. The sales of energising shakes had increased considerably. When the place got busier, he allowed them to move into the back room for more intensive sessions.
Together, over a decade, Felix and Brandon built a collective of people mesmerised by the world view Felix prophesised. Brandon was diligent in recruitment. He had a particular skill for coercing teenage runaways to contemplate the beliefs New Era offered. Sometimes he had to use gin and Rohypnol, but Felix never asked about that. It brought more girls to the congregation, which was advantageous for avoiding the misconception that New Era was a gay self-help group. Eventually the dynamic between Brandon and Felix shifted, becoming a master-student relationship and these clearly defined roles settled under their skins.
Felix woke suddenly; momentarily convinced he’d slept through the awards presentation. When he checked the time he felt reassured and considered what he might say when he took the podium in the conference suite. He wanted to be gracious and leave people feeling they’d made the right decision in choosing him. He wanted to impart the idea that he had a clear vision, someone who was driving his followers forward towards the end times with a full heart and devotion. The speech also needed to be short. In previous years, there had been no specific time allocated for speeches, and the leader of the Rose River cult had spoken for three hours, in which he rambled on about the government and mind control, pesticides, the inconsistent texture of hummus, waiting times at the post office and the seditious activities of trees. He ended the monologue carving a star into his navel with a butter knife, drenching the stage and lectern with blood. It was unappealing, and had been no surprise to anyone when the following year he appeared in the list of those whose deaths had been a great loss to the community. Since then, speeches were kept to a ten-minute limit and were prohibited from containing self-harm. Tranquiliser darts were readied for anyone who defied regulations.
On the walk up to the podium, Felix felt the deep forces of the infinite move inside him. The voices said this was the culmination of all he’d achieved; it showed how brave he’d been to be so receptive to the wisdom of the universe. On stage, with many eyes on him, he smiled, breathed and waited for the applause to die down. He held aloft the trophy, a bronze statuette of a figure with arms outstretched. Then he spoke. He was thankful for the recognition; it wasn’t easy to stay focused on a path that so many had dismissed as insane or illogical. He gave thanks for his followers, those who’d seen in him the people they could become, and had entrusted him with the task of bringing them to enlightenment. He spoke about his father, who he’d not seen since being turned out of his home and how he wished his dad could have contemplated something other than the contents of a bottle. Felix mentioned his mother, her death and how he’d always been driven by the desire to weave a family whose physical bodies would die away, but whose light and substance would be held together eternally. He hoped his mother’s spirit would fold into his somewhere out there in the ether. He felt oddly alone on the stage and it took him by surprise when he started to cry. Felix went back to his seat and gnawed on a radish, while the standing ovation continued.
Felix would’ve preferred not to stay the night at the hotel. But travelling back in the late evening was far too inconvenient, and his followers would be deep into a moon trance by now. He didn’t sleep and the voices in his head had fallen silent. An emptiness tore at him and he curled himself up in the corner of the room, holding tightly to the Leader of the Year T shirt he’d been given. When the sun came up Felix felt better—refreshed and excited about getting back to his people and to normality.
He returned to a hero’s welcome. The New Era fellowship gathered around him and waited to hear about everything. He told them it had gone well, that he’d been able to broadcast their message and their knowledge to a lot of people. He told them how amazed people had been by what they’d accomplished and how there was no doubt that the sacrifices they’d made were now being repaid. He then spent time with Joaquin, who showed his father an amulet he’d made from a rusted nail. Felix kissed him and for a moment felt a powerful urge to send him away. The boy was clever and could probably do anything he wanted, but then he’d never get to shape the fabric of the universe, and he’d be lost to Felix forever. Instead he told him to fetch the largest of the chickens and Joaquin dutifully marched off. The night was clear and sprinkled stars high above them as they celebrated. A couple of the followers reported they’d seen comets and that this must be significant. Felix told them they were right, relying now on his instincts since the voices that guided him were noticeably absent. The comets, he said, were a symbol of the resonance with the stars the group had attained. As the end times came upon them, they could be assured that they’d take their place at the centre of the universe. He watched Ashby smile at him from across the fire. The rest of the followers sang and joked. The special fruit punch was brought out, and the believers all drank, while in the floodlights the neighbouring golfers sent their clean shots skywards.