Travel This Year And Next: Where You Should Consider

Right now you may feel like travel is just a dream away. Something that we once found so easy has now become something we have to plan and account for during the next few months and beyond. We have all just been through a global pandemic, and while it isn’t over yet, things have started to ease and because of that restrictions are beginning to lift. This means that travel is a real possibility now that things have started to ease. 

 

So now that travel is possibly an option when it comes the rest of the year and next, you may be wondering where to go and what to do. We now won’t take travel for granted again. However, if you are starting to dream about it, you might be wondering where to go. With that in mind, here are some of the destinations that you might want to think about for next few months and beyond. 

Image source – Pixabay – CC0 License 

 

Head to Canada to enjoy a winter experience

 

Depending on where you are in the world, winter might not be as you see in a picture perfect scene on a postcard. You might not experience much snow or chilled weather, and in fact, it could just be rather grey and wet. So you might want to book a vacation somewhere in the winter for the real experience. Canada offers the chance to see real snow and enjoy the many activities you can enjoy in the snow, such as skiing, snowboarding or just relaxing and building a snowman. Places like Mont Tremblant in Quebec can offer a relaxing getaway for friends or family to enjoy the slopes and wonder. Canada also has a lot to offer when it comes to cities such as Toronto and Vancouver. It could definitely be a great option to consider. 

 

Travel to Thailand for an amazing value for money getaway

 

Thailand might seem like an extravagant holiday destination, but in fact, once you are there it can offer real value for money. The cost of living in regards to accommodation and food can be very reasonable, meaning it is an achievable holiday to take. Thailand offers the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, but also you can take a more relaxing vacation island hopping to places like Koh Samui or Koh Phangan. Offering beautiful scenery, white sandy beaches, and glorious blue oceans. What more could you want? Some people would say that Thailand isn’t usually a family orientated place, but there are some beautiful destinations perfect for family travel and the slower pace and are an excellent opportunity for children to really relax and bond as a family unit. 

 

Educational destinations in Asia

 

While Asia may not be normally on the list for family travel, places like India, China and Japan can offer excellent vacations where education is at the heart of it. From different cultures and diverse landscapes to learning all about the future technology as most of what we use today comes from locations such as Japan and China. It could give you an excellent opportunity to explain things like this and to learn about different technology elements. Also Indian and Chinese food are two of the inch-loved cuisines that many love, so it definitely gives you a chance to enjoy it more authentically. Further to that, you could think about seeing some of the most iconic sites such as the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall Of China. 

Image source – Pixabay – CC0 License 

 

Do you want to travel to the USA?

 

The USA has many different destinations to visit, and possibly some of them may already be on your bucket list. Locations such as New York, Florida and Las Vegas. However, there are so many other locations that you might want to think about. One question you might have is – how to fly from California during COVID? With the location being on the news in recent months, there are restrictions in place but it is still a location you could travel to in the future. Other places to think about would be Texas and seeing cities like San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. Or even places such as Vermont or Missouri could be locations that you could add to your bucket list for sure. 

 

Explore Australia on a road trip to remember

 

Australia is a vast country and could be seen as one of those places that is a trip of a lifetime to take. So make the most of your time there and take a road trip to explore as much of the country as possible. Perth, Sydney, and Melbourne offer amazing city vibes. Melbourne is, in fact, been voted as the most liveable city in the world and definitely could be a great option to consider for a future visit. But while you are there you must take a swim in the Great Barrier Reef. It is one of the seven wonders of the world and certainly could be a great experience of a lifetime. However, you might want to consider using more time for this type of holiday. The country is so big that you wouldn’t be able to see even half of it during a standard holiday. This could certainly be a trip of a lifetime for sure, and definitely might be a place that you might want to try and go back to more than once. With ease of lockdown travel restrictions to Australia should be lifted soon enough. 

 

Enjoy a cultural experience in Europe

 

Europe really has a lot to offer, and it can certainly be the perfect location for family travel adventures. A cultural stay in Europe means you could take in the sights and sounds of France, the history, and food that Italy has to offer or even enjoy the green landscape that England has to offer. As a family, there can be a lot to do in some of the most culturally enhanced places but there are also some beautiful seaside resorts that you can enjoy. Europe has a lot to offer anyone wanting a vacation with a difference, mixing city history with beach locations you are truly spoilt for choice. 

 

Let’s hope this has offered you a bit of inspiration for your future travel plans. 

 

Making Travel Plans for a Safer Future

With the current pandemic still an ongoing situation that is disrupting travel to many countries, travel lovers are unsure when they might be able to travel freely again. Everyone wants to be safe, but beyond taking responsibility for yourself, you also need to pay attention to the travel rules that many countries have put into place. While some nations are now starting to allow international travel again, there are some that are still restricting travel or are requiring periods of quarantine for new arrivals into the country. While you might not be able to go on a spontaneous trip right now, you can make plans for the future and even careful plans to travel now in some cases.

Here are some of the ways you could be making plans to travel for both now and when things are safer.

Image from Pixabay – CC0 License

Staying Up to Date with the Latest News

If you’re desperate to start traveling again, keeping track of what’s changing day-to-day is a must. Things are changing all the time, and it’s important to stay up to date with the different travel restrictions and guidelines that are in place. There are plenty of places where you can get information about the places you want to travel to or even suggestions for which are the safest countries for traveling right now. Official government travel information can be the best resource much of the time. As well as looking at the information provided by your own government, check out the official government or tourist board information from the place that you want to travel to.

Keep an eye on the news in general, too. You will likely find news items about what changes certain countries are making and what rules they have in place for travelers. These things will be changing gradually over the next few months, and there is a chance that they may not always move forward. Sometimes, restrictions might need to be tightened again if the need arises, so make sure you always have the most recent information.

 

Keep Your Plans Loose

How do you plan to travel when you’re not sure where or when you might be able to go? You most likely don’t want to end up having to quarantine yourself when arriving at your destination, either, which adds another level of complication. It might be best to keep any travel plans as loose as possible for now, especially if you’re planning to travel for fun and not for anything particularly necessary. You might want to make a plan for where you want to go and what you want to do, perhaps even thinking about some rough dates. However, it might not be the right time to book anything just yet.

 

Use Tech to Be Prepared

Technology can always help you with your travels. It makes it easier to plan and book your trips and to get the information that you need both before and during your travels. There’s plenty of tech that could prove to be useful when you’re making plans for travel in the near future. Still traveling? 6 apps could be all that you need to stay organised. Traveling can always be tricky to manage, but it’s even more difficult during this time. The right apps for booking travel and accommodation can make it easier to plan any journey, whether it’s for now or later.

 

Technology can help you to make travel plans in other ways too, even if it’s only through using spreadsheets to stay organised. Spreadsheets can help you to keep track of information, as well as things like budgets and how much you can expect to pay for things where you want to travel.

 

Make Bookings Far in Advance

Do you have a dream trip in mind? Maybe you can’t wait to get out there and see the world, but you know that now isn’t the right time to do it. However, maybe you want to get your next trip locked in now, or you’ve spotted a deal that you don’t want to let pass you by. If you really want to have something to look forward to, it might be a good idea to book a trip far in advance. Booking something for at least a few months down the line will help to improve your chances of being able to go where you want to and do what you want.

 

Take the Time to Save

Waiting for things to go back to normal might have you feeling antsy. However, you can also take advantage of the time that you have available. One of the ways you could benefit from being at home instead of traveling is that you have time to save. Maybe you have a big trip that you’ve always wanted to take, but you’ve never managed to save up for it. Or perhaps you just like the idea of spending a bit more money on your next trip so that you can enjoy a little luxury. Now could be time to do some serious saving and perhaps create a savings plan to help you to reach a specific goal.

 Image from Pixabay - CC0 License
Image from Pixabay – CCO License

Pay Attention to How to Stay Safe

If you are planning to travel anytime soon, you should make sure you know how to stay safe during your travels. Firstly, you need to know about the regulations for your destination, and anywhere you might be passing through. Do you need to wear a face mask and, if so, when and where do you need to wear one? Will you be expected to quarantine or perhaps give the address of where you will be staying? Apart from the official rules and regulations, make yourself aware of the expert advice on how to keep yourself safe and how to help keep other people safe and healthy too.

 

Stay Close to Home

It might not be the best time to travel internationally, right now. But if you really want to get away, traveling close to home could be an option that works for you. In fact, even booking into a hotel close to where you live could be a new way to experience your home. A staycation is the ideal way to do something different and get some time to relax without having to travel too far. You can find new things to do in your own town, or you could travel to the next town or city to see what you can discover.

 

Build Flexibility Into Your Plans

You’re not sure what’s going to happen in the near future, but you still want to book some time away. How can you make plans while still being able to change them if necessary? Paying a little bit more for flexibility could be the key to getting your plans right. Usually, you can pay a higher price for a more flexible booking, whether you’re booking a hotel, flight or something else. If you do want to postpone your trip, rearrange it or even cancel out, you will be able to do so more easily and affordably. You can usually choose from the cheapest and least flexible option for a room or ticket, or a more expensive but more flexible option.


Image from Pixabay – CC0 License

Consider Cancellations Carefully

There might be an occasion when you decide that you do need to cancel a trip that you have planned. Even if there is nothing official stopping you from traveling, you might not feel safe taking your trip because you feel that the risk of infection is too high. If you do cancel, it will be easiest if you have chosen to build some flexibility into your trip. If the things that you have booked have good cancellation terms, it may be easier to cancel and to get your money back if necessary.

Even if you can’t recover your money with a simple refund, there might be other options that allow you to get your money back. If you booked using a credit card, you might be able to get a full refund. Sometimes you might need to put some effort into chasing a refund if you really want one. Another thing to keep in mind is that it can be all about timing, too. If you leave it too late, it will be more difficult to get a refund.

 

Think About Traveling Differently When It’s Time

When everyone can travel freely again, consider how exactly you’re going to approach your travels. Many businesses and communities are being affected by the COVID-19 crisis, and many have not survived or will not survive before it’s over. For those that are left, they will need support to keep going. You might want to consider how you can give your business to local services and communities so that you can support them. You can help to rebuild the places and people that have suffered due to not having the visitor levels that they would usually rely on.

It might be a while before things are back to normal, but that doesn’t have to stop you from making travel plans.

 

The Fucking People – A Bizarre Apocalyptic Novel by Christopher Damitio – Part 1

I wrote this back in 2004. I’m pleased with how the rewrite in (May-June 2020) turned out. Maybe now I can begin on volume 2.

 

Preface

The Bodhisatva were wrong.

They were remarkable souls who after being born countless times managed to achieve the level of human perfection required to move on to the next plane of existence where they could escape the suffering and tragedy of perpetual death and rebirth. Bodhisatva achieved that – but then these remarkable souls made a conscious choice to remain trapped in the cycles of samsara, suffering through death and rebirth even though they did not have to. They chose to suffer so they could help others find the same enlightenment and they chose to help shepherd all conscious beings to the Godhead, the paradise of souls at the end of the universe itself.

They dedicated countless lives and suffered through life after mundane life with this purpose. This ideal of creating and joining with paradise. And yet, somehow it never happened. Utopian dreams, peaceful philosophies, enlightened ideals, and the benevolent forms of rule they created somehow never survived the relentless assault of fascist nightmares, warlike mindsets, destructive tendencies, and corruption of values when faced with human desire.

Selfless sacrifice, lives spent in labor and toil, and innumerable painful deaths never stopped humanity from grinding the poor, exploiting the helpless, and using the power of human desire to turn man against man, man against woman, and even man against child. Was it a result of human nature? Could human nature not be changed? Was humanity as a whole unstable? Or was it a cosmic conspiracy that pitted human complacency against the slow crawl of human evolution?

Through millions of cycles of birth, death, rebirth, and redeath – the bodhisattva persevered. One by one, they grew weary. One by one, they despaired of their mission. One by one, they left the mortal plane to never return. They left, weary of trying and failing. They abandoned humanity. They gave up. They thought humanity could not be saved. They were wrong.

When the last Bodhisattva gave up the task as hopeless and abandoned the world to find his own succor, it was in that generation, in that period, in that tiny slice of reality – the world itself screamed one last time. A primal sob of abandonment expanding through the universe, deep beyond the furthest galaxies, a call that expected no answer. A tidal wave of madness and calamity spreading outward with no end before finally hitting the edge of reality, bouncing back, and bringing with it a new chance as the shit hit the fan.

 

Chapter 1

Ben

Ben’s stomach told him to close the shop soon. He wasn’t ruled by hunger so much as he had decided early in life to flow with his body, trust his instincts, and always consider choices put in front of him. He had been working efficiently all afternoon and if he ignored his body, that efficiency would be lost. He felt the hunger in his gut…and other places. Stepping back from the machine, he surveyed what he had accomplished.

Three large boxes filled with glossy paged catalogues. Perfectly folded and stapled thanks to his labor. Half a box of unfolded, unstapled pages remained. The order sheet indicated that they didn’t have to be completed until 4 pm the next day, but he knew he would finish them before he closed the shop tonight. Putting off a job until later was more difficult than plowing through it. First he would finish the job, then he would eat. With his belly full and the to do list done, he would not have to think about spring catalogs full of tulip bulbs again until next spring.

He smiled at the thought of spring. It had been a particularly cold winter. It would have been a lot colder if he hadn’t learned so many of life’s lessons during his fifty two years.

He caught himself standing idle and once again began to feed the flat pages into the folder/stapling machine while still pondering his life, but no longer idly. It astounded him to see just how maladapted some people were to life. His younger brother, were he still alive, would have closed the shop at the first impulse of bodily desire and not come back until all of his yearnings were completely sated. Teddy had been fired from every job he hadn’t quit. Ben had even had to fire him – twice. Ben sadly relived the memory and continued feeding the quickly diminishing pile of bulb catalogs into the binder.

Teddy had been one extreme. George, their older brother, was another. George worked through his hunger (as Ben was doing now) and didn’t stop until he was mentally or physically incapable of continuing. George had become rich because of his hard work. He lived in a mansion, kept a beautiful wife, was always on the guest list for important social occasions, and spoiled his children with all of their material wants – while ignoring their emotional needs. Ben shook his head thinking about his unhappy sibling in his unhappy life. George denied himself all the real pleasures that life had to offer. His old white butt cheeks were clenched together so tightly that he probably shit diamonds. Ben hated to consider George’s sex life. Enough sex to yield two children but nothing more. George and Ben hadn’t spoke to each other in thirteen years. Ben watched him from afar through the local society pages and hearing the gossip of mutual customers and friends.

Ben and his older brother shared a few acquaintances though they kept very different circles of friends. Everybody needs a printer from time to time and Ben’s shop had a sterling reputation built on years of balancing the hungers of the present against the needs of the future.

Ben’s was a different type of success.

Ben fed the last of the bulb catalogues into the machine. That was that. He shut the machine down and looked around his shop. It was gratifying to recall the day he moved his old offset printing press into this room more than twenty years before. Now that old press was surrounded by a dozen high tech machines that were capable of producing anything a person might need printed. His clients wanted wedding books, invitations, pamphlets, catalogs, greeting cards, manuscripts, and sometimes even an anti-establishment zine or two. The shop was a testament to living a balanced and happy life.

“Not too bad”, he said out loud. His labor had built this.

Moving to his desk to finish the paperwork on the catalog order, he smiled at the picture of his wife. Doris was every bit as responsible for his success as he was. He needed to let her know he would be late.

She answered on the first ring just like she always did. They still had landlines. No cell phones for them. “Hello?”

“Hi Sweetheart, I’ll be working pretty late this evening so don’t bother keeping dinner warm.”

“No Ben, it’s Friday so I figured you’d be late. You’re always late on Fridays.” He heard her frowning on the other end of the line. She certainly knew and he hated lying to her, but it was really for the best. The shared fiction of his Friday nights made it easier for them to continue loving each other.

Something else was bothering her though. He could feel it.  “Ben, I’m worried.  Have you seen the weather?”

“I’ll have a look Dor. Don’t worry. Don’t wait up.” This part always felt bad. That twinge of guilt. It would disappear soon enough, but he hated it.

“Okay Ben, I love you. Don’t be too late, okay?” Of course she knew.

“Okay Doris. I gotta get back to it.” It felt even worse than usual.

As he hung up the phone, the bell on his front door rang as a customer came in. It was the tulip catalog man come to see when the order would be complete. He was surprised when Ben told him they were ready. If he’d followed his stomach, the man would’ve had to wait another day. His instincts had led him the right way.

The two men carried the boxes to the customer’s van. Ben hadn’t been outside since he had arrived that morning. The weather had changed dramatically from the mild early spring day it had started with. A strong gust of wind hit them with a painful sheet of snow as they emerged from the shop. The sky shined with a dark green light in the last minutes of the day.

After stowing all the boxes in the customer’s van, they went back inside to settle up the bill.

“Sign here and we’re good to go,” Ben said. As the man signed, another gust of wind blew the door open and scattered paperwork from the countertop.

“Feels like the end of the world out there,” the man said.

“Nah, I can smell springtime thanks to your tulip catalogs,” Ben told him.

The client left and Ben cleaned the scattered papers and sat at his ancient desk. He opened his old leather bound ledger, a giant book that contained all of his accounts. Ben had a computer, but preferred to use paper and pen. His accountant hated it.  Signing off and entering the figures, the  order was officially finished.

He picked up the phone and dialed.

She answered with that soft French accent that drove him nuts “Alloo?”

“I’m closing the shop and should be there in about twenty minutes, if you’ll have me.”

“Oh, Ben, I was ztarteeng to worry you might not come ce soir because of ze weather. I meese you mon cher!”

“Not for long. See you soon.”

“A tout a l’heure.” That accent drove him wild. He was feeling better. The order was done. His mistress was waiting for him. His wife was…well, she was taken care of. Everything would be fine.

That was when the building collapsed on him.

 

Chapter 2

Collapse

He had never before experienced that bizarre but clichéd slowing down of time that supposedly happens when you are about to die – but then, he had never been close to death. This was different.

One moment he was pushing his glasses up his nose and thinking about how nice dinner followed by a romp in the hay with his French mistress would be, then he became aware of the rafters falling on him. Slowly. It seemed like the fall took minutes, unfortunately, his body was equally slow. He was able to move out from under a huge beam that would have certainly killed him, but unable to get out the front door. In truth, it all took only a few seconds.

He felt a foolish moment’s concern for the machinery, the proofs that his clients had left in his care, and, most foolishly, the accounts book on his desk but then he realized that he was most likely going to die. His hand continued pushing his glasses up his nose in the pure reflexive movement of a man who has been nearly blind without them for most of his life. And he jumped up in slow motion and off to one side before the giant beam smashed his desk into pieces.

He wasn’t the type of man who believed the gods bothered listening to mere human beings.  He didn’t waste a moment praying. Instead he saw the roof rushing towards him. With gratitude, he actually saw his life and recognized that it had been a good one. He’d fathered a half dozen children by four different women who had all loved him. His wife had stood by him through all the trials of life and his many affairs and bastard children. The moment before the weight of the roof crushed him, he wasted just a moment, in thanking whoever might be listening for the love of a woman like Doris.

A life well-lived, last thoughts of his loving and stalwart wife and no regrets. It would have been a nice way to end it all – but he didn’t die.

He regained consciousness pinned under most of what had been his print shop. A pool of blood had leaked from his head and was coagulating next to him. He had been unconscious long enough for the blood to have stopped flowing from the gash in his head. He was lucky to have survived, but then, it wasn’t over yet.

The greenish light he had noticed earlier, suffused everything.  A monstrous howling came from outside where the wind had surpassed category five on the hurricane scale. He was able to free one hand from beneath his body and used start clearing rubble from around him.

“This is not what I had in mind for this evening,” he said under his breath.

Something moved outside of what had once been the door to his shop – just a few feet away, but impossible for him to reach while he was trapped under the rubble. His glasses were gone and the world five feet from him was a blur but he made out three figures moving towards him. The screaming of the wind was punctuated by shrieks of ripping metal, cymbals of shattering glass, and the staccato impact of fast moving objects hitting stationary objects. The pain throughout his body assured him that he was still among the living.

The blurry figures came closer and solidified into shapes he couldn’t make sense of. Finally, he realized they wore protective suits like those of NASA astronauts or CDC hazmat personnel. One of them reached the doorway and pointed to Ben. Clearing the rubble that trapped him took agonizing centuries as each piece filled him with pain. He drifted in and out of consciousness as his own screams joined and merged with the wind. The glaring greenish light flickered and strobed.

The last memory of his shop, the final thing he remembered was being carried and loaded into a shiny metal building in the center of the street – where there had been no building before. . It was something like a three story dome with eight ‘wings’ extending outward from it. On the wings were hundreds of glass capsules. A glass capsule opened as they approached jutting from the solid chrome vehicle. They lay him in it and he took a last look at the result of his life’s work. His print shop was a pile of rubble. Up and down his street, not a single structure was standing. Ben had no way of knowing but it was the same everywhere that night on planet Earth. The destruction of his neighborhood, his town, his state, his country, his world – it was complete.

The glass capsule door began to close and Ben lost consciousness, never again to see the world he had known.

 

Chapter 3

The Darkness

He tried to remember where he was but couldn’t shake the nightmare he’d woken from. He reached for his wife but didn’t find her. Nor did he find his bed, blankets, or anything but the cold concrete of the floor. He opened his eyes to nothing. A darkness so complete it had never felt the light of day. No hint of illumination. Only the darkness.

There was to be no waking from his nightmare.

Yet, if he had been rescued, where were his rescuers? Where was the pod he remembered being loaded into. It all felt more like a dream than a reality. Still, his senses didn’t lie.

He was cold. He was hungry. He was tired as if he’d never slept in a thousand years. His eyes told him nothing except that he was trapped in the inky darkness. His hand in front of his face revealed – nothing. Carefully, he sat up – hands reaching into the black but finding no impediment. He surveyed all around him as far as he could reach and then, finding nothing, he stood. His arms stretched upwards but found nothing to keep him from going full upright. He ran his hands over his body – he was in the dark, naked and alone. No stitch of clothing covered him. His fingertips explored his skull,  searching for the gash he remembered from when his shop had collapsed on him. It wasn’t there. No injuries, no aches, no pains. That didn’t seem right. Maybe this was a dream. A dark and confusing dream.

Under his feet, the floor was bare and chilled. Despite the chill and the dark, he realized that he hadn’t felt this comfortable in his body since his twenties. No aches and pains. For the first time in decades his body felt ache-less. His fingers went back to his head, hoping to find the full head of hair he’d had in his twenties, but no, the receding hairline and halo of baldness was still there.

He moved slowly forward – shuffling so as not to trip and finally discovered a wall which he moved along hoping to find a door.  He found nothing but smooth cold surface. No light switch, no window, no escape. The darkness was so complete he began to wonder if he were blind.

After an agonizingly slow crawl down twenty feet of wall – he found the window. Boxed in, the glass colder than the surrounding wall. He knew the shape, he knew the feel. After spending some time exploring the dimensions, looking for a lintel, measuring the depth of the sill with his hands – he began to imagine that it was slightly less dark than the wall. Soon, he became sure of it. It was a lighter shade of darkness.

The discovery drove him into a frenzy of trying to open it. To no avail.

Debating whether to attempt breaking it proved to be equally tricky. Kicking it might work, but he had no shoes. He didn’t want to punch it and slice open his hands in the darkness. Perhaps an elbow? If he knew where he was or could see his surroundings it would be different. He was paralyzed by not knowing anything. Maybe this was hell.

Maybe he was in a coma. Maybe he was having unconscious battles with his mind. Maybe he was trying to reach his own body from within his mind…Maybe he was in hell.

Grabbing the lintel, he pulled upward with every ounce of his will. It had to open. He needed it to open. He must open it. OPEN DAMMIT!

With that, the old window gave and launched upwards throwing him off balance while at the same time flooding the darkness with a blinding light. He fell backwards covering his eyes and screaming in pain at the burning sensation that was his sight returning. He landed hard, not sure what to expect – hands over his eyes. Suddenly wondering if he were going to be attacked.

That was a strange thought – who would attack him?

Maybe he could wake from his coma now? No. He didn’t feel like he was in a dream or locked in his mind. He was here. This was reality.

A very strange reality that only became stranger as his eyes recovered and revealed where he was. The walls, floor, and ceiling were dull black concrete. It was a room that might have been a prison cell or a photographic dark room – the window glass too was painted black. The light streaming in the now open window revealed a room empty – except for a pile of rubbish and himself.

Behind the heap of midden, a doorway, also painted black. No bars, the lock on his side – this wasn’t a prison cell – but of course, he didn’t know if the door would open. He reached to push his glasses up his nose and for the first time recognized that he didn’t have them – and yet, he could make out the details of the room just fine. Ben had been on the edge of being legally blind for a decade, but here and now he could see everything fine.

He stood back up and moved to the window. It was only opened a few inches, but the light was blinding. He needed to see what was outside. He needed to know where he was. He needed to know something. Anything.

Pushing the lintel higher, then holding his hands over his eyes to dull the blunt pain of the light – he looked outward – and had all his questions answered, but only by more questions. He was looking down from a height of several stories. In front of him lifeless grey buildings  stretched as far as he could see. There was nothing that identified where he was. He was in a room, in a building, in a city – somewhere. The lack of answers was maddening.

Slowly, a realization that was staring at him became a conscious awareness. Those buildings were lifeless. They showed no sign of life. They were dead. The buildings were dead. There was nothing indicative of life about them. No signs, no lights, no flags, no laundry lines, no cars or people moving on the streets. There was nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Had he woke in the abandoned city of Chernobyl? Was he in the Cypriat DMZ?  Was this some abandoned industrial disaster area?   One thing was certain, he wasn’t in Portland any longer. Nothing about this place felt like Maine. Nothing about this place felt like anywhere.

He vainly searched for some distinguishing landmark, but there was nothing. No mountains in the distance.No ocean, lakes, or river. He heard only the sound of his own breath. It formed steam clouds as he let it out. It was cold. He was naked and it was cold. This reality now hit him.

There was no sign of clothing. There was no heater. No blankets. No electrical outlets. No furniture. Nothing but the pile of rubbish. He moved to it – hoping to find something to warm himself with. He was freezing his naked ass off.

At first, it looked like there was nothing useful, but when you realize you have nothing, your definition of something begins to change. It was really a pile of nothing, however – no clothing, no paper, just unidentifiable ‘stuff’.

A long section of what looked like it might have once been a tire pulled away from the top of the pile. It wasn’t a tire. His hands felt a rough, cloth like texture – it looked like rubber but felt and moved like burlap. The piece was larger than he had thought – nearly the size of a poncho about four feet long by two feet wide. It smelled like creosote – it was some kind of tar cloth, maybe a roofing material. None of this mattered to him as he thought it. It was a way to escape the cold. As soon as it was free, it was wrapped around his naked body.

The lack of paper was something he noticed immediately. Paper had always played a significant role in his life and there was no paper in the pile. No discarded packages, no old mail, no crumbled cigarette packs, no candy wrappers. No paper.

Ben had been many places – but he had never seen a place where there was no paper trash in a rubbish pile. It wasn’t the strangest part of his day so far, but it rang a little bell in his head and caused him to consider what sort of reality this might be. Where was the paper?

The pile yielded little in the way of useful materials – a few more pieces of the tar-cloth, a large number of stones and pieces of broken concrete, a two food section of rebar, and many pieces of broken tile – broken into pieces that couldn’t be used for anything he could think of. He wrapped his feet and legs in the cloth, used another pieces as a sort of skirt – wrapping it around himself like a towel and managed to use a sharp tile piece to rip a hole in the center of his ‘poncho’. It wasn’t the end of the world costume he would have chosen, but it would have to do until he could find something better.

He was no longer naked. He was no longer cold. The darkness was dispelled. He was ready to open the door in front of him. A door he had successfully ignored for fear of what he might find on the other side of it.

He imagined opening the door and finding a modern office hard at work. He imagined their surprise as a Mad Max mummy burst into their workplace. He pictured secretaries in 1960s go-go boots standing up and screaming as he burst in upon them. It was a ridiculous flight of fantasy – and it told him he was feeling better.

He was dressed in garbage, covered in dust and dirt, and alone in a strange world that he didn’t understand, but he was feeling better. His laughter roared through the room, against the walls, and echoed back to him. It sounded like a hundred men laughing jovially at a joke that was obviously on him.

Not yet sure he was ready to open the door, he went back to the window. Was there a fire escape? Were there cars or pedestrians now?  Nothing but a confusing grey nightmare. There was nothing below. No fire escape, no ladder, no walkway, no cars, no people, no buses. He could see it all and he could see nothing.

Back to the doorway. He had no choice. There was no other way out of the room. There was nothing else  in the room that might be useful. He walked back and forth across the rough pebbles on the smooth floor. He laughed himself out of laughter and listened as the echoes died away.

Grasping the door, he heard a voice coming faintly from the other side.

“Hello!! Can you hear me? Is there someone there? Hello? Can someone come help me? Help me! Please!”

Ben wondered if the man had been panicked because he had heard Ben’s mad peals laughter tearing through the building.

Chapter 4 

Geographic Anomaly

Ben climbed over the midden heap and pressed his ear against the door. He could hear fine, but he still wanted to be sure, to see if he heard more – or less.

“Hey!!!” he shouted. “I’m over here. I’m going to try to open this door and get to you. Come towards the sound. Can you hear me?” Ben banged on the door with his closed fist. “Everything is going to be fine!”

It was a stupid thing to say and he didn’t know why he said it. Everything was not going to be okay. Nothing was okay. He swallowed an urge to join the man in screaming for help. Nothing was okay. Still, he couldn’t deny relief that someone else was there. He was no longer by himself in a whacked out Russian film experiment – which was what this felt like. Knowing someone else was there made things infinitely better and he said it again “Everything is going to be fine!” Even though he knew it was a lie.

“Hey? Hello? Hey!!!!” Ben called out and banged the door again. The noise on the other side of the door had stopped. No more screaming, no more calling out. Nothing. Silence. He felt the panic rising back up from deep within him. Maybe he had imagined the voice. Maybe it had even been his own voice all along! Confused and disoriented as he was, he didn’t feel crazy. Someone was there. He had heard someone. Finally, a response came.

“I’m here. I’m trapped. Help me! Are you there?” The man’s voice on the other side of the door sounded less hysteric now.

“I’m here,” Ben said. “It may take some time to reach you.” He began pushing and throwing rubble and rubbish out of the way. The hinges of the door were on his side, so he needed to clear it all away to get the door open. Clearing the debris gave him a mission and kept him from thinking about how bizarre the situation was.

“It’s dark here. Do you have a light? Where am I? What is going on? Are you still there?” The man had all the same questions.

“Look for a window and if you can find a chunk of concrete big enough, break it.” Ben realized that a mission would also be helpful on the other side of the door. “The wall on your left should have a window.”

Despite his relief at finding someone else, Ben had the sense that he had found an annoying person or an annoying person had found him. The voice sounded like it was coming from the middle of the room.

“My left or your left? What do you mean, a window? I don’t have any clothes. Where am I? Who are you? Why is it so dark? How do you know there is a window?” The questions kept coming with no break. The man wasn’t moving. He wasn’t looking for a window. He was peppering Ben with questions instead.

Ben kept working at the pile in front of him. He didn’t even know if the door would open once he had cleared it.

“I’m cold. I don’t have any clothes. Can you get me out of here? I don’t want to die. Oh my God, where am I? Why won’t you answer me? ” There was panic and there was a solid edge of whining. If he had seen another door, Ben would have been tempted to abandon this one but it appeared to be his only way out.  Sometimes no company was preferable to bad company. Ben hoped however, that the man might prove to be useful.

“I’m cold,” the voice said. “It’s so cold. Why is it so cold? Who are you? Where are we?”

Ben kept himself from screaming “Shut the fuck up, you useless piece of shit” and instead calmly said “If you break a window – you’ll be able to see. The glass is painted black.” He assumed that the situation in the next room was the same as it had been in this one. “I found old tarps or something that I made into clothes. Break the window and see if you can find anything to help. You need light so find the fucking window and open it or break it.”

An intermittent thunking began. The man was throwing stones at the wall. That would have to stop before he opened the door.

Ben began to feel a warmth from within him. Partly from the work he was doing, partly from the makeshift clothing, and partly from anger at the uselessness of his neighbor. “Don’t just sit there. Open the window. Find something to wrap yourself in. You can use it to get a little warmer. You can’t just sit there.” This guy just needed a mission. Maybe he just needed to take a second to put his head on straight. “I’m Ben.”

“My name is Vlad,” the voice told him “What are we doing here Ben?” The man’s English was accented. Ben noticed it now. He’d never met anyone named Vlad. Maybe they were in Russia. Vlad was a Russian name – but his neighbor spoke English very well – the accent was light.

“I don’t have any answers. I woke in darkness and found a window to open. We need to find our way outside. Did you find a window yet? ” He didn’t think Vlad had moved. The man was useless. He was just sitting there like a turd on the floor.

Then he heard the shattering clatter of glass breaking.

“Ah…the light is so bright.” Good for him. Ben had underestimated him. Maybe he wasn’t such a turd after all.  “Ben, there’s cloth here!” Ben was glad he wouldn’t be rescuing a naked Vlad out of the darkness. The man had saved himself – sort of. Of course they were still trapped in here and had no food and no clear way out, no answers, no idea what was happening.

The space in front of the door was almost cleared. He used his foot to push the last of the debris to the side and lifted the last large pieces of concrete from in front of it. The knob turned easily. Ben heaved on the metal door’s steel handle and the door swung wildly open – he had used much more force than was necessary.

Twenty feet in front of him sat a small brown man wrapped in a blanket sized piece of the strange black cloth. He was in the center of the large room and the dust on the floor showed that he hadn’t gone more than a foot or two in any direction but had found chunks fo concrete and a pile of cloth. The two rooms were nearly identical to each other. The shattered glass from the window lay on the floor. Ben’s instincts for survival kicked in and he realized that wrapping cloth around one end of the shards would give him a passable dagger. All of this in the instant the door opened.

“How long have you been here?” Ben, too wanted answers.

“I don’t know.” Vlad’s dirty face revealed streaks where he had wept. Oh, he was incredibly useless. Ben knew it already and this confirmed it. I woke up and didn’t know what to do. I was scared and alone and afraid to move since I couldn’t see. Then I heard laughter like demons in hell coming to get me. Why were you laughing?” The panic was rising in his voice “Please don’t kill me! Oh my god, are you going to kill me?”

Ben was sure he couldn’t imagine a more annoying companion at the end of the world. “I don’t think I’ll kill you,” but he was tempted because he already hated Vlad. “The laughter was me. I thought I was alone.” Ben strode across the room. Not to Vlad, but to the broken glass so he could begin to make his dagger. He picked up a strip of cloth along the way. What was this cloth? Why was there so much of it?

Vlad watched him walk in the room and then walk away from him. He scrambled to his feet “Hey, I’m over here!” He had been waiting for Ben to help him up. Completely useless. Ben found a good sized shard, picked it up, and began wrapping  the cloth around it. It was crude, but it would work.

Vlad was coming closer, moving behind him. Ben turned to face the man, ready for a fight. He held the glass dagger, ready for anything.

There was silence as Vlad stopped. The two men locked eyes but then Vlad’s eyes strayed to the right, looking out the window behind Ben.

“I don’t think we are in the Costa Rica anymore, Ben. This doesn’t look like Central America.”

Ben lowered the knife. There would be no fight.

 

Chapter 5

Exit

Ben, with little help from his new companion, put together a garbage cloth suit similar to his own for the man, searched the floor the room, and found out very little about what had happened to them. Vlad was useless. Worse than useless. Vlad was a burden.

Ben tried get Vlad to help him tear long strips of cloth and then braid them into a rope. Vlad would forget to tie them, braid them too loosely, or just sit vacantly staring into space. Ben asked him questions but found very little Vlad was willing to talk about. Ben would have thought that Vlad would have been filled with questions just as he was, but he was almost impossible to engage. Ben was starting to think that the man might be mentally damaged.

“You’re Costa Rican?” Ben was not having much luck getting even the simplest information from Vlad.

“Don’t be ridiculous, I’m Dominican. Do I look Costa Rican? Look how dark I am? Did you ever see a Costa Rican this dark? God that is a stupid question.” Vlad was back at the window. “I’ve never seen this part of Costa Rica. Where are we?”

Ben was taken aback by the ferocity of his companions answer. Not just the violence of it, but the certainty Vlad seemed to have that they were still in Costa Rica. Ben had never been to Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic, but he was pretty sure that it didn’t get as cold in either place as it was here, wherever here was. “Don’t you think it’s strange that it’s this cold?”

Vlad turned from the window. He was strivingly thin and dark skinned. Probably in his mid thirties. His large eyes were set back behind a hawkish nose that was a too big for his face. Looking at the man, Ben probably would have guessed that he was Indian or Pakistani – but he was terrible at identifying nationality or ethnic origins.

Vlad looked positively comfortable in the trash-cloth clothing. Ben could not imagine him in any other type of clothes.

“Well,” Vlad answered, “The weather has been getting more  strange all the time. Last year we got hit by seven hurricanes so I don’t see why we wouldn’t get hit by a cold snap. God must hate papayas and sugar because this cold weather is going to destroy all the crops. I don’t care though, this year I don’t have any crops to lose. Everything is already gone.”

Eureka! Information. Ben pressed him for more. “You’re a farmer Vlad? Where did you learn to speak English so well? You barely have an accent. It’s pretty amazing.”

Vlad looked at him like he was stupid again. “I don’t speak English, you idiot. Your Spanish is pretty good for gringo. Am I supposed to have an accent? A farmer’s accent maybe? What about you? Why don’t you have more of an accent? I don’t understand anything anymore. I’ve lost everything including my ability to understand what is going on.” With that, Vlad turned back to the window and gazed out to where the grey light was starting to fade.

Ben hadn’t seen the sun all day. He looked out the window now and felt panic. He still didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know how cold it would get during the night. He didn’t know anything. His explorations had revealed three more rooms that opened off the room they were in. A room on each side.

No bathrooms, no dividing walls inside. Simply four rooms that opened onto a central great room. In every room he had found similar rubbish. Piles of cloth and stone but nothing else.

Within the last room he entered, he found another door. He pushed on it, kicked it, and tried to get his hands on something so that he could pry it open, but all to no purpose. It wouldn’t budge. It was probably the only way out, aside from the long drop out the windows. The rope he was making would allow them to scale out the windows, but Vlad’s inability to help left him with a single rope that was far too short.

Vlad turned towards him again. “Do you think they are going to feed us? I’m starting to get hungry. Aren’t you?”

Ben felt his blood turn cold. “Who? Who would feed us?”

Vlad just stared at him again with a mixture of pity and disdain.

“Vlad, who the hell would feed us? Do you know who brought us here are?” It made sense. Why hadn’t he thought of it before. Someone had brought them here. Put them here. They hadn’t come themselves. Ben had been so preoccupied with getting out that he hadn’t even considered how he had gotten in.  “Vlad. You must tell me what you know. Who did this to us?” Ben grabbed him by the shoulders and gripped him, probably too hard.

“The people holding us prisoner,Ben. The fucking people in your government. Your people Ben.” Ben backed away from the man’s intensity.

Now Vlad was talking. Now he was releasing all he had been holding in. Now he let loose.  “Do you think I am some kind of idiot? Do you think I don’t know why they put you here? I’ve already told them I know nothing. I’ve given them all the names I know. I’ve made up new names. I’ve given names of people who had nothing to do with it. I may be a stupid farmer and an ignorant peasant, but I am not as stupid as you seem to think. I know this is more interrogation. I don’t care. You’ve already taken everything that mattered from me. I have nothing left to give.”

Ben stared at him in shock. “This may be a different kind of interrogation than anything I have ever experienced or heard of, but an interrogation it is. I am not a fool Ben, or whatever your name is. I don’t know what you are trying to get, but I see what is going on. You haven’t fooled me. You bastards have already taken everything else from me, now you want to take away my sanity too? I refuse. You cannot fool me out of reality. I am not going along with this. Tell them to take me back to solitary confinement. Put me back in the detention center. I don’t care. You can kill me, but there is nothing my living body can or will give you.”

Vlad had become larger. Passion burned from his eyes. The despair that had poured from him was no longer there. Ben backed up from the fierceness of Vlad’s verbal assault and put his hand on the glass dagger tucked in his belt. Vlad’s words confused him while making sense at the same time. None of this made sense but suddenly Vlad made much more sense than he had.

Vlad came towards him. Ben held the dagger in front of him, stopping the man – for the moment.

“I don’t think we are in Costa Rica,” he said “I was working in Maine when a storm destroyed my shop. People came and pulled me from the wreckage and then I woke up here…same as you.”

Vlad spit on the floor. “I am sick of your lies, Ben. I know that I was drugged and brought here unconscious. They want you to befriend me. I am supposed to learn to trust you and then to tell you all about my comrades and their plans. I am supposed to let you know who is behind the peasant revolt. I am supposed to tell you all about the conspiracy to overthrow the government. Well, I have news for you Ben. There is no conspiracy, there are no leaders, and you, my friend, can go to hell.”

Ben felt a strange mixture of anger, compassion, and curiosity. “What did you do Vlad?”

“What? You want to hear it again? A signed confession is not enough? Maybe you have more cameras hidden? Maybe you don’t believe me still? Phaw! Of course you don’t believe me. I will tell you again.”

Vlad began a story it was obvious he had told too many times. “I am a simple farmer with a simple life. I work and  pay my taxes to keep my wife and three daughters from starving. We send our oldest daughter to school. Storms destroyed our crops and injured our daughter in her school. When the government refused to help us pay the hospital bills, she was discharged and died.  I blamed the government. I blame the government. I am angry. I used fertilizer from my farm to blow up government offices. I made a bomb from the chemical fertilizer we use. It was me, and me alone.”

Tears were again running down Vlad’s face. “Your government troops retaliated by massacring the people in my village. You killed the innocent. I am the only one who is guilty. You arrested me, tortured me, and refused to believe me. I lied to save my wife and daughters. I gave you the information you wanted. Then, I watched as my wife and daughters were raped and murdered by your soldiers. Kill me or leave me alone so I can kill myself. I don’t know anything else. There is no one else. It was me and I acted alone. What more do you want?”

Ben had no idea what to say, so he went with the truth. “I don’t know anything about that. All I know is I want is to get out of this building before it becomes dark. I don’t blame you for not believing me, but I’m telling you the truth. I don’t know where we are, but we are not in the Dominican Republic an are not in Portland, Maine. I was in my shop getting ready to close for the night. The weather was very strange. Suddenly my building collapsed on me and the next thing I knew, I woke up here. I saw people pulling me from the wreckage, but I lost consciousness. That is all I know. You can believe me or not, come with me or not. It is up to you. I can’t get the other door open by myself. With your help, maybe I can. I need your help to get out of here.”

Vlad didn’t believe a word Ben was saying. How could he? Ben went on.

“I don’t care if you don’t trust me. I don’t care if you don’t want to stay with me. You and me are the only people I’ve seen – inside or outside. There is a heavy door that might lead to stairs. I’ve tried to break it down. I can’t do it alone. I need your help. Let’s get out of this building and get downstairs and then you can go wherever you want. From what you’ve told me you have nothing to lose. I want to get out of this building. Don’t you?”

Vlad looked at him. Ben didn’t know what else to say. He looked back at Vlad. Daylight was fading and there was no telling how much longer it would last.

After what seemed an eternity, Vlad motioned towards the doorways.

“Show me this door you have found Ben.”

 

Chapter 6

Two Men

Vlad had decided, for some reason, to help Ben escape from the building. Ben wasn’t sure whether it was something he had said or a sudden realization about their situation, but the useless Vlad was gone. Once started, his energy was unbreakable. No more sitting in sullen despair, no more outbursts of rage, and no more self pity from this man.

Instead, he carefully examined the door and then he explored every detail of the rooms they were in. He did it all with a no-nonsense demeanor that didn’t encourage conversation. His questions were short, to the point, and infrequent.

“Have you seen anything that we might use as a lever or wedge?”

Ben hadn’t.

“Ben, can you find me a large rock with a somewhat pointy end.”

Ben set about looking for such a stone while marveling at the change in Vlad.

Having made some sort of decision, Vlad was confident and commanding. When Vlad had spoke of being accused of being a leader, Ben had dismissed it as an impossibility as he looked at the cowering husk of a man hunched over in the middle of an empty room. Now, however, he saw a man who could easily have been the leader of a group of revolutionaries.

Imagining the Vlad of earlier that day as a violent revolutionary was impossible, but not so this man. This new awakened Vlad was a human college kids would silkscreen onto t-shirts. The change was profound and complete. It would have been unbelievable had he not witnessed the reality.

A vague memory tickled the edge of his brain. Something about a guerrilla uprising in Costa Rica and a movement that had begun spreading throughout Latin America. It wasn’t generally the kind of story that Ben paid attention to. It fell into the category of third world chaos that he preferred to ignore. In general, Ben had always kept his attention focused closer to him. The wars on terror had done a good job of lumping all anti-government violence together into one giant category called terrorism. The global media had turned every anti-capitalist movement into terrorism. Ben found it all to be mentally exhausting.

After several minutes of searching, he found a sheared stone block that resembled what Vlad had called for. He found the farmer squatting down next to the door with his ear pressed against it. He knocked, listened, and then knocked again.

“I don’t think there is anyone home,” Ben couldn’t resist the words that popped out of his mouth.

Vlad gave him a withering look. “The door is solid. It is perhaps two inches thick. I don’t think we will be able to break it down. Did you find what I asked for?”

Ben handed him the block.

Vlad took it and stood. “I think this will work.”

Vlad lifted the stone and brought it down against the wall. There were sparks as the stone struck and the sound of metal chiming at the impact.

“I thought you said we won’t be able to break it down?” Ben was still reeling from the change that had overcome his companion.

“We can’t break down the door. The door is too strong. I am trying to break the hinges.” Ben hadn’t noticed the hinges.

“Should I do anything?” Ben asked.

Vlad turned and Ben swore he saw a smile in the darkness. “Yes, tear some of that cloth into strips and continue braiding it into some sort of a rope.” Ben did as he was told. He didn’t have long to work on the rope before a heavy crash and a metallic thud brought him back. The door had fallen.

“Ben, bring what you have, we may need it.”

Behind the door were concrete steps in a narrow stairwell. The two men walked down four flights of steps and found another door. Vlad simply pushed and it opened. They emerged in an open lobby facing the street. It was light enough to see the plate glass wall had been broken. They were free, but as he thought it, Ben realized he didn’t have any idea what this freedom meant.

 

Chapter 7

Outside

“Okay Ben. Now we are outside. What’s your plan?” Vlad smiled, though Ben couldn’t be certain if he were smiling at having escaped the building or putting Ben in the hot seat.

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything. You can probably see better than I can, my glasses are gone. I’m blind without them. Do you see anything at all?” Ben was bothered by not having his glasses He was glad that it hadn’t been an issue yet, but he suspected it would cause problems soon enough.

“I see street and buildings.” Vlad’s description offered nothing new to Ben. “We should get out of here.”

A part of Ben felt like running as fast as he could to get as far from all of this as possible. He didn’t though because even from the upstairs vantage point, he hadn’t seen anything worth running to. It was abandoned buildings as far as they could see. From above and from below.

“Where are the other people?” It was Vlad who asked the question they had both been thinking. Vlad walked through the empty room towards the shattered glass wall and the street beyond it. Ben followed, scanning the room for anything that might be useful but seeing nothing.

“Oh my God!” Vlad’s exclamation caught Ben by surprise. Ben hurried to catch up and directed his gaze upward to where Vlad was staring.

They had lost daylight but it wasn’t totally dark. No streetlights or artificial lighting illuminated this empty city which cleared the way for the light source Vlad was staring at. More stars than either man had ever imagined illuminated the sky. Millions and billions of them with no atmospheric pollution, no artificial light, and no distractions. If one were to measure light space versus the dark space in the sky, Ben was pretty sure that light space would add up to more. It was astounding.

The modern world, the world Ben had been living in until very recently, was so saturated with light pollution that only a very tiny fraction of the stars in the sky were visible to the naked eye. Unless you were hundreds of miles from any manmade light source, most stars remained invisible. Seeing these stars, Ben knew that one of two things had happened. All the lights of the world had gone out or unpolluted sky lay above him – for the first time in his life. Even without his glasses, he was able to see more stars than he had ever seen with them.

“Ben, this is the first time I have seen the sky since I was arrested and I don’t know if I have ever seen the sky when it looked like this.” Vlad wept. It was that beautiful. Ben felt a primal joy well up in him – a sense of being alive. What had humans stolen from themselves by illuminating the night. The unfiltered night sky brought feelings that Ben had never known – but should have. It was as if he had discovered a long lost ability to fly or do magic which had been there all along.

“I thank you, Ben,” Vlad said. “I am free. I am alive. Thank you.”

Ben felt tears in his own eyes. He had never felt so small as this moment, both for being under the vastness of the stars and knowing how he had unfairly judged the man beside him.

The richness of the sky fed their souls but did little to calm the grumblings in their empty bellies. Neither food nor water had passed their lips since waking. They would have to search for nourishment. As they set out, there was nothing to distinguish one building from another. It was a wasteland of dark buildings, broken glass, and little else. The street they followed was more dirt than pavement. Ben felt a gnawing discomfort that went beyond hunger or thirst. A few minutes walking and he realized what it was.

“Where are the cars? No garbage cans. No piles of garbage. Where is everything?” He didn’t expect an answer, but his companion had surprised him more than once already.

“Maybe they took everything with them Ben. Everything but us. Maybe they forgot us but remembered to take everything else.” Vlad stopped. “We should shelter in one of these buildings until it gets light. We can see nothing in the dark. We might be passing exactly what we need.”

“I want to get as far from that building we woke up in as possible.” Actually, it would have made sense for them to stay there, but both men wanted to have distance from where they awoke. Maybe it was Vlad’s talk of government agents, torture, and prison. The rooms they had been in, felt like a jail. They had escaped from it and Ben wanted distance.

Vlad seemed hesitant, “I am worried that my fatigue and hunger has led me to trust you too much, Ben. You can follow me, or you can go your own way.”

Vlad turned left down an alleyway. Ben followed him, recognizing that the kind of paranoia Vlad suffered from was contagious. Had Vlad been placed in his general vicinity on purpose?  Maybe Vlad was more than just another prisoner. Yes, the paranoia was contagious. He tried not to create conspiracies. It was enough that he was here. He had no reason to trust Vlad, but it wasn’t like there was anyone else in the world.

Chapter 8

Wildlife

There was no conversation as they quickly hoofed it down one street and then another. Eventually the shapes of the building faces began to differ, but Ben noticed no other changes. Vlad made left and right turns at random and didn’t ask for input. Ben quickly lost track of where he was in relation to where he had been. The buildings had gotten smaller and there were more doors and smaller windows than there had been when they came outside. Vlad’s pace increased. Ben was certain he would pick a building to hole up in soon, but he kept moving forward, turning right, turning right again, turning left, turning right, turning left, and then going straight with no particular order.

Ben was glad to keep moving. He was spooked by the lack of garbage cans and cars. He was probably in a state of stress related shock. For that matter, so was Vlad.

“Hey, Vlad…I need to rest. Are you going someplace specific? Do you have some idea where we are or are you just covering distance?”

Vlad stopped and turned to Ben. “No, I have no ideas. When you said there were no cars, I noticed that there are also no trees. I decided to keep going until I saw a tree. So far, I haven’t seen a single one. I have also been listening for any sound at all, but aside from you and me, there is nothing. Have you noticed that the buildings are different?” He motioned to the buildings around them.

Ben nodded. He was taking in the idea that there were no trees. He’d known that something was off. That was it. It was too hard to reconcile anything at all. No trees, no paper, no signage, no junk food, and as soon as he thought about the junk food, he was reminded that he was thirstier and hungrier than he ever remembered being.

Hadn’t he been about to leave his shop and go eat fancy cheese with Giselle? Hadn’t he been about to bury his senses in the smell of her flesh and the sound of her moans? Hadn’t he just filled the last order of the day? He clenched his fists and ground his teeth enraged for the first time since he had awakened. Anger coursed through him, an unstoppable force demanding release. He lifted his head to the beautiful star filled sky above and let out a primal scream of pain and rage, loss and frustration, agony and confusion.

Vlad was looking at him, head cocked to one side. Ben saw the shock on Vlad’s face but he didn’t care. He didn’t even know this guy. None of this was real. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. This was a nightmare. He began laughing like a maniac. He had never known that being crazy made one feel so god damned thirsty.

Vlad was still watching him. He kept laughing. Vlad rushed him, wrapped him up in a bear hug and lifted him off his feet. He was powerless in the man’s powerful grip.

“Ben, stop it. Take control of yourself. Don’t lose it.” Vlad let go of him and stepped past him. Ben stopped laughing and turned to see what had suddenly caught Vlad’s attention. He heard them before he saw them.

It was a mixture of animal and human noises. There was yelling and the baying of dogs in pursuit. They had just come around the corner and when he saw them, he forgot any hunger or thirst as total and complete terror welled up from his stomach and through his body. Adrenaline flooded his nervous system. It was fight or flight but he realized that his body was giving him no option – it was flight. He turned and ran. Vlad too was running.

They were not alone anymore.

The narrow streets, Ben’s meltdown, and their own movement must have kept them from hearing the noise of the horde behind them as it approached. In the brief moment he had looked, Ben had counted three human figures running towards him. They were not what sent him into a panic. Behind the people, was a huge pack of blood-crazed dogs. It didn’t take a genius to realize that the people were running from the dogs. When the dogs caught them, they were going to be dead. There was no way to fight off a pack that large. There were dozens of dogs.

Ben followed Vlad as he took one turn after another. He heard the mass behind him following. Vlad took a left into a narrow alley, Ben followed, and then disaster. They were in a dead end alleyway that was no more than ten feet across with unassailable side walls. As soon as he turned the corner, Ben saw that Vlad was coming back towards him. He tried to turn and exit the alleyway, but it was too late. The three people behind him nearly knocked him over as they ran around the corner and past him. The dogs were already blocking the exit.

Ben pulled his makeshift knife out and tossed his coil of garbage cloth rope to the ground as he backed away from the dog pack. A large grayish dog lunged at him and Ben jabbed the animal with his glass shard. A loud yelping was soon drowned out by the barking of the pack. The dogs had stopped running. They had their prey cornered.

Ben backed up and risked a glance behind him. He saw Vlad, two women, and a man. The man was tall and black. The women were lighter and shorter. That was all he saw. The pack of canines that was massing in front of him. They were all sizes and shapes. No collars and no love of man. These dogs were hungry and looking for a meal. If the dogs were anywhere near as hungry as he was, things were about to get uglier.

Gripping his glass dagger he continued backing up until he could back up no more. Vlad was on his right, the new man on his left, and the two women further to his left.

“We’re dead if we don’t kill them.” The woman’s voice was gravelly and strong. “We’ve got to let them know who’s boss. Yell at them – make yourselves big. These are still dogs.” She was right. It was their only hope. They all began screaming at the dogs. “Bad dog!” “Go home.”  “Sit!” Ben glanced to his left and saw the woman stepping forward towards the pack. She was thick, not fat, but a solid woman. She wore a piece of cloth wrapped around her torso. As she stepped towards the dogs, a big Dalmatian leapt toward her. Ben didn’t think, he jumped towards the dog knowing that if he didn’t knock it from its trajectory, it would connect with this woman’s throat and send the rest of the dogs into a bloodlust that wouldn’t end until they were all dead.

Just when it seemed that he was too late, his body hit the dog slammed it against the wall. He hit the wall hard with the dog’s body softening the impact. He heard the crunch of the dog’s ribs breaking. Then he was covered with dogs. An ungodly mass of teeth and claws that pulled back as he slashed and stabbed with the glass shard. The other four humans were also under attack. With desperation giving him strength, he fought the dogs off from three sides. The humans were pushed back to the wall behind them. The five of them, side by side, gradually turned the fight from three sides being attacked to a 10-foot wall of humans facing a 10-foot wall of dogs.

Thankfully, this wasn’t a highly organized wolf pack. This was a free for all of hungry dogs that had no idea how to work together. The humans might actually manage to beat the dogs back, despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered, but it was hopeless. There were too many dogs. They were doomed.

 

Chapter 9

Emma

His blue eyes were desperate, pleading, and filled with terror as he looked up at her. That was exactly the way she wanted it.

“Okay, Mr. By-the-book, are you gonna play ball or do I have Jimbo let go?” Emma never got tired of this part of her job. She gave Jimbo a nod. Jimbo, that huge, good natured goofball nodded back with a grin on his face and shifted his grip on Nathan Price, the State of New Jersey’s Chief Postal Inspector. Price felt the pull of gravity on his chain bound legs. It was only about twenty pounds of chain, but they all knew if Jimbo did let go, Price was destined to become a permanent attraction at the bottom of the Ocean City pier. A strong swimmer could carry an extra twenty pounds, but not if it was wrapped around his legs.

Despite appearances, Emma didn’t really have a problem with Price. Interactions between he and Emma had always been pleasant. She liked him. This wasn’t about personal relationships however, this was union business.

The Postal Employees Union was willing to take some pretty drastic measures to take care of members. Sure, sometimes they weren’t able to get the concessions they wanted just like sometimes a disgruntled worker managed to get a semi automatic rifle past security. That was life.

Nathan Price, Chief Postal Inspector of the State of New Jersey, dangled off the end of the pier in Ocean City while Emma outlined how he had managed to put himself in the precarious situation he now found himself in.

“So Nathan, I’m sure this must be confusing. Maybe you don’t understand what is happening here yet. I want you to understand – it’s not personal.  Let me summarize it for you. The union has been negotiating some tricky legislation to allow certain aspects of the USPS to become privatized. As an organization which represents nearly half a million postal workers, union leaders have determined that privatization of certain aspects of the postal service would allow workers to earn more, work less, and overall, enjoy a higher standard of living.You’re a union member, so you understand, the union works for you.”

“The key to getting a better deal for the union is convincing those pricks in Congress that this move is good for the security and safety of the American people. There have been a lot of people that spent a lot of time and money on this Nathan – they’ve done it for you, the union members.” She looked at Price, not sure if he was listening, but seeing that he would agree to just about anything right now.

She looked up at Jimbo, “ You okay Jimbo? You’re not gonna accidentally drop him are ya?”

Jimbo laughed that dumb good-natured laugh of his. “He is feeling pretty heavy boss. Can I? ”

Price was done. “I’ll do it. Whatever you want. I love the union. I’m a member for Christ sake. Tell me what you want!”

Emma lit a cigarette. She knew it was deadly. It had killed her last husband, may he rest in peace, but she liked smoking. Especially when she was working. Smoke breaks like this were worth the cost.

“Nathan H. Price,” she took a drag, savoring the panic as she said his name. “What does the H stand for anyway?”

“Hornblower. It stands for Hornblower.” Jimbo started laughing again – she gave him a look and he stopped. She kept her game face on even though the name was worthy of a guffaw.

“Hornblower? Are you serious? You’re a whistle blower and your name is actually Hornblower? You can’t be serious? You’re like one of those builder guys named Carpenter or a pastry chef called Baker. It wasn’t your fault, it was destiny.” Jimbo laughed again. This time she let him. She liked the contrast of her gravel voice against the deep rumble of Jimbo’s laughter. They worked well together. “How in the world did you get a name like that, Nathan?”

Price was almost done, but she needed to take him a little further. He sputtered an answer to her, desperate to keep from taking a last swim. “My mother read a lot of C.S. Forrester. Horatio Hornblower. I swear. Please, please, bring me up. I’ll do whatever you want. Please.”

“Not quite yet Hornblower. Here’s why the union is a little upset with you.” She took another drag from her Lucky Strike. “We’ve gone to all this trouble to make the world a better place for union members, like you, but  a little bird told us that you have told some key lawmakers that the security of the United States may be at risk by privatizing parts of the USPS. We think that’s a pretty silly accusation, don’t you? I mean, we are uniform wearing Americans. Are you accusing your union of treason?”

It was windy as hell. She was, as always, very appreciative of Jimbo’s strength. He wasn’t stopped by rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail. A true postman in every sense of the word. A wave crashed against the piling. It was nearly high enough to hit Price – he certainly felt the spray.

“I’ll do whatever the Union wants. I swear. I’m loyal. I swear. Just pull me up.”

“I like you Nathan. I’m glad we’ve had this talk but I want you to know that if you don’t do like you say you will, the union is full of people that aren’t as sensitive as I am and who aren’t clouded by personal feelings of affection towards you like I am. I admit, a part of the reason I’m listening to you, is because of the personal working relationship we’ve developed over the years. You’re a good guy and I knew you would do the right thing.”

She gave Jimbo another nod and the big man lifted Price up over the railing. It was amazing to watch the ease with which Jimbo pulled him up and then laid him down on the wet planks. He knelt and unlocked the padlocks that held the chains on Nathan’s legs. Jimbo was the real deal, a total professional.

The weather was giving her a serious case of the creeps. The sky had taken on a sick greenish color that  reflected back to waves that were growing far too fast. This wasn’t a normal storm. A huge wave rattled the eighteen foot pier and a strong gust ripped her cigarette from her hand and sent it flying towards the shore. This weather wasn’t right at all.

“Seems like the gumbo’s about to hit the fan, Boss.” Jimbo was a master of colorful phrases. His usual job was moving freight. He was all man, just a little light in the brains department.

The chains were unlocked and unwound.

“Nathan, you gotta stop talking to those staffers. Legal will get you up to speed on everything tomorrow. Can we drop you off at home?”

Price couldn’t make the transition back to normal as easily as she did. He was still traumatized.

That was it then, they would drop Price off at home and call it a night. Unfortunately, the universe had other plans for them. Without warning, a tugboat that had been blown from its mooring, smashed into the pier, carried by a rogue forty-foot wave that never should have been there.

With an instinct born of chaos, Jimbo grabbed Emma and leapt far enough towards the shore that they weren’t smashed and washed away by the tugboat. Unfortunately for Nathan H. Price – Jimbo hadn’t saved him. In an instant, he was gone into the turbulent and debris ridden water below.

Tossing Emma over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, Jimbo ran full speed down the pier. The tugboat smashed and ground into the pier, destroying it further. Price was simply gone. Now, it was Emma wondering if she was going to die.

A massive tidal wave larger than the last hurtled towards the shore.

It hit them with enough force to send her flying through the air. She tried to get her feet under her, but it was too much for a fifty-five year old woman to suddenly become an acrobat. She felt an impact. Everything went black.

Chapter 10

The Real World

As a young child she hated opening her eyes because of the work the waking world demanded of her. Opening her eyes meant getting dressed, heading to the barn, feeding the cows, milking the cows, and carrying the heavy milk jugs out to where her father could load them into the truck. As a young married woman, it had meant getting dressed and going into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for her first husband, a farmer. As a middle aged woman, it meant going to the post office, sorting letters, and putting them into sacks going to different parts of the country and world. As an older woman, it had gotten better, it meant having breakfast with her third husband and then going to various meetings where they would represent the workers of the Postal Union. Sometimes it meant arranging ‘events’ for those that stood in the way of the Union’s goals. Finally, Emma enjoyed her waking life.

Still, she hated opening her eyes. The world of her dreams was happier by far. In it, she wore big hats, drank tea with pinkie fingers out, and she was allowed to be the grand old baroness who that little farm girl had dreamed so long of becoming.

Emma didn’t want to open her eyes. She didn’t want to discover the truth of what had happened on that Ocean City fishing pier. She didn’t want to know who died or how badly she was injured. She was cold, but it didn’t feel like she was outside. She wasn’t wet. She really didn’t want to open her eyes. She knew, however,  that there wasn’t any choice in the matter. She took several deep breaths, prepared herself for whatever she was about to see, counted to three and….

‘1, 2, 3….’, she opened her eyes and she realized that she must still be asleep. Or perhaps she was dead. She could see nothing. Complete darkness. She lay still, considering what her next move should be. It was dark. The air was a little bit stale.She couldn’t imagine such a detail in an afterlife. If she were not still sleeping and she wasn’t dead, where might she be?

She remembered Price getting washed away and Jimbo trying to save her. It would be nice to think it was a nightmare, but it would also be very foolish. She knew it had been real. Where was she? Her present circumstances made no sense.

She moved an arm upward from where she lay prone. It felt like she was lying on metal. She touched her body and felt her skin. Naked. That was strange. How had that happened. She must be buried under something. The tugboat? But why was she so dry? She reached up again with both arms. Finding nothing above her, she attempted to roll onto her stomach and stand up…only as she rolled over, there was nothing below her. She fell.

She didn’t fall very far. She landed on something that was not as hard as the metal she had been lying on. It felt like…holy crap. It felt like a person.

Her hands frantically felt this person she had just landed on top of. She could feel arms, a chest. It felt like a man. She felt no need to be shy in the silent darkness. Holy cow. It was a man alright. He was a man with huge testicles. She moved her hands away from his genitals and reached up towards the face. His body was warm, she felt breathing.

“Jimbo…is that you Jimbo?” She shook the face. There was a wiry beard on the face, Jimbo was clean shaven. This wasn’t Jimbo. “Hey, can you hear me?” She slapped the face. “Hey, you, wake up!” She was starting to freak out. She felt it. She stopped it. She closed her eyes again. Took a deep breath.

Having learned her lesson, she felt to the sides to make sure there was something there, she didn’t want to drop again.The smooth coolness of a concrete floor to either side. She rolled off the man and knelt by his side. He was breathing. She shook him again.

“Hey, wake up. Hey!” She slapped his face again, gentler now, trying to wake him up.

“Huh, what? Where..? What? Where am I?” He was confused. Good, she hated being the only one that didn’t know what was going on.

“Hey. Wake up. I don’t know where you are. I don’t know where we are. Are you okay? Can you move?”

He was sitting up now. “Why is it so dark? Who are you?” This guy was a real question maker. Great.

“I’m Emma. I don’t know anything. I woke up and we were both here. Are you okay?”

“I think so. I feel like somebody dropped an elephant on me.” She restrained herself from smacking him. Barely. He didn’t know she was the elephant in question. “Emma?”

“Emma. What’s your name? Do you have any idea what we are doing here? Do you know where we are?”

“I’m Nick. We must be in my lab, but what are you doing here Emma? Why are you in my lab?”

“I was sort of hoping you might tell me that Nick. Are there lights in here?”

“Oh, the event. It must have been the event. That must explain it.” She felt him stand up, considered standing with him, but figured it was safer to stay where she was.

“You mean when we all got shuffled off to Buffalo? Is that the event you mean?” Something was definitely wrong here, if she were the type of woman that screamed when things were screwy, she might just start screaming now. Luckily for Nick, that wasn’t who she was.

“Shuffled off to Buffalo? I’m not sure what you mean? You mean we’re in Buffalo?” Obviously, he wasn’t a baseball fan.

“Yeah you numbskull, shuffled off to Buffalo, pushed out of the picture, left to find a new gig, involuntarily relocated…you know? Pushed to the minor leagues. What was the big event you just mentioned.”

He laughed. His laughter felt incredibly out of place. A sort of high pitched snorting. Not a pleasant sound. “The event. It happened! It actually took place.”

Emma was quickly losing patience. “Listen, Genius, was what was the event you mentioned. And how did I get in your god damned lab.”

“The Emma. Hmmm. That’s interesting….” He wasn’t answering her.

“Look Fella, I’ve had enough of your bullshit. Tell me what happened, how I got here, and why I’m not wearing any clothes…now.” She was getting up now, she was going to kick this asshole’s ass from here to next week.

Her anger must have reached him. “Ummm…well…first, it was a magnetic event generated by sunspot activity. Solar storms may have reversed the magnetic axis of the planet. That’s my hypothesis…”

Sunspots? Solar storms? Magnetic axis? Emma felt like sitting down again. Had she died and been condemned to a dark hell of science class?

“The EMA may have caused widespread destruction….” She had never been called ‘The’ Emma before.

“Just Emma is fine. You don’t need to call me ‘The Emma’ and I didn’t destroy anything Bub. Let’s get that straight.”

“Emma…oh, right. You said that’s your name. No, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about the Electro Magnetic Anomaly – the ‘E’ ‘M’ ‘A’ – the EMA.”

“You better start calling it something else, right now.” Her frustration was rising to the surface fast.

“It’s the only name I have for it but I can all it the ‘E’ ‘M’ ‘A’ if it bothers you.”

Nick was strangely detached and reasonable for a naked man who had just been woke in a pitch black room by an angry old naked woman. A normal person should have been more bothered by all of this. She was bothered by all of this. But then, he supposed he knew what had happened, so that could be a part of his matter-of-factness.

“Yes. Call it the EMA, thank you.” She was impatient to hear more and almost sorry she had quibbled on the name, but it would have been confusing.

“I don’t know how you got here or what happened to our clothes, mine are missing too…”

She was glad he couldn’t see her blush at the memory of feeling him up while he lay there unconscious. She blustered “Okay, so where the are we and how did I get here?”

“The acoustics are totally wrong and none of my equipment is here – I don’t know where we are. This isn’t my lab.”

 

Chapter 11

The Band of Three

The situation called for panic. Nine out of ten people would have legitimately been freaking the fuck out. Emma knew this. She had spent a great deal of time studying people and how they reacted to new situations. It was odd that neither she, nor Nick were freaking out. It was a statistical anomoly.

Of course, Emma wasn’t the kind of person who freaks out. Yes, a giant tidal wave coming at her had caused her to run in panic – but that was just a matter of saving her skin. Now in the current situation where layers of darkness were woven into layers of unknown – most people couldn’t cope with that. Emma could. Her mind told her what should be happening here and she acknowledged that it wasn’t. She was a farm girl and as such she was as practical as a dairy cow. Unflappable.

She stood up, careful to test where she stepped. She did not want to fall off another hidden precipice. The job at hand was to find an answer. Any answer would do. A way out of here, a light source, or any other information that she did not currently have. Any answer regarding her current situation was a victory.

Fact: She was stuck in a mystery room.

Fact: Her only companion was Nick, the Nutty Professor.

Fact: They were both nude and in the dark.

Fact: The E.M.A. seemed to be connected to their current situation.

She found the wall with her outstretched hand.

“Hey Nick. I’ve found a wall here.  If you can come to my voice – maybe you can go left and I’ll go right and we can look for a door or light switch.”

She heard him start shuffling towards her.

“Hey, I’m on the wall now, I’ll come toward you,” Nick sounded further away than he had before.

She kept talking – just giving him a stream of information to come towards. “I”m from New Jersey. I work for the Post Office. My husband died a few years ago. I saw a big tidal wave  just before I woke up here. I’m not …”

There was a thud followed by  “Ouch!” Nick had run into something.

“You okay? What is it? What did you find?” Maybe it was something useful. She called again “Nick? You okay? Say something.”

“ I think I may have found the door,” he said, breathing heavily. Whatever he had run into must have hurt. She could hear it in his voice.

“Well, open it,  jackass!” What was he waiting for, she wanted out of wherever they were. She moved towards him, feeling her way slowly. How had they gotten this far apart? She could hear him straining at something. She was almost to him.

“I can’t seem to make this handle turn…it’s stuck.” He was in front of her now. Her hands found what he was straining at. It was a cold metal wheel, the sort of thing you see on submarine hatches.

The idea of a submarine gave her a sudden pause.

“Hey Nickyboy – stop for a second. Shouldn’t we try to figure out what’s on the other side. This thing feels like a submarine hatch to me.” She’d never been in a submarine, but it felt like she could imagine a submarine hatch feeling like. “We don’t want to flood this thing, right? I mean, whatever it is.”

He was still straining. Ignoring her words of caution. “I need your help Emma.”

Throwing her caution to the wind, she pulled on the wheel – more set on getting it to move than on opening it.

“Hey, I’m guessing you are some kind of genius so you already tried this, but have you tried pushing it the other direction? I mean, shouldn’t we be going counterclockwise?” She heard him stop straining.

“If this is a submarine or ship’s hatch ,” he said, “It would be reverse threaded like plumbing. We’re going the right direction.”

Maybe it wasn’t a submarine. Even the idea of being on a submarine made her feel claustrophobic. “Humor me Nick, just try it, maybe it’s not a nautical hatch. You pull while I push.”

It didn’t take much effort. The handle had turned in the new direction easily. She heard a click as the lock disengaged from the large door. She didn’t feel or hear water. She breathed a sigh of relief. She pushed on the door. It was heavy and made of solid metal. It opened with minor creaking and groaning. Light flooded in. It was blinding after the complete darkness they had been in.

“We have found our way outside,” Nick said. Professors weren’t known for their sparkling wit.

The massive vault they were exiting stood whole in the midst of a building that was almost completely destroyed. Emma looked at the bleached dead buildings around her, most of them far better preserved than the ruins they stood in.

Looking back into the vault,  Emma saw a riot of sparkling diamonds, gold coins, and precious metals. They had been locked up in a treasure locker.  They were rich but it looked like the world had ended – so it didn’t really matter. She would have given it all in trade for a pair of boots and some clothes.

“The idea of playing Adam and Eve with you doesn’t appeal to me, Nick. Maybe we should cover up our sensitive parts. Kapish?”

Nick was obviously crazy. He had found a stone and started scrabbling marks on the concrete with it. She looked at the big naked black man as he wrote complex equations in the ruins of civilization.

Emma went back into the vault and salvaged some cloth to wrap around herself. It wasn’t a designer pants suit – but this makeshift toga from a tarp would have to do. She found another piece and brought it back out to Nick.

So far he had covered an area half the size of her living room with complex mathematical equations. He worked back towards where he had started, mumbling to himself,  “This can’t be right, if B is related to the auxiliary magnetic field than C should be showing some sign of variation, or else…”

He squatted down, oblivious to her and his nakedness.

He had not bothered to even look at the huge horde of loot behind them. It would be up to woman to preserve any semblance of decency. It wasn’t that she minded seeing Nick nude, he was tall, thin, and hung like…well…the guy was gifted in more ways than just being able to write equations.

She had a feeling that he was the kind of guy that needed someone to take care of him while he got lost in his work. She noticed massive scars on his forearms. She could see all of him, there were minor scars elsewhere, but his forearms were almost completely made up of scar tissue. Was that from some sort of lab accident?

“Hey, uh, not to disturb your homework Nature Boy, but I thought you might want to put on the latest in holocaust survival fashion. I made it for you myself.” He looked up from his work and smiled a sheepish grin. He was handsome in a boyish sort of way.

He looked down at his nude body, sheepish. “Yeah, I guess I should put something on.”

He wrapped the canvas tarp around himself. “I’ve been doing some figuring based on the readings I took before the E.M.A and it doesn’t add up.” Whatever he was saying wouldn’t make sense to her, but she decided to just listen.  “Even if we had seen solar storms twice as intense as the ones we had, there shouldn’t have been this much destruction. If it had been a polar shift, there should have been more. Something isn’t right…”

“Seriously, Nick, did you really have to do algebra to figure out that this is fucked up? Didn’t you figure that out when we woke up in a dark room full of treasure?”

Nick didn’t understand the nuance of her sarcasm. “I knew something was wrong, of course, but Maxwell’s correction might not have taken in the true conservation of charge within a vacuum…”

On second thought, she didn’t want to listen to this. “Hold it right there Nick. I appreciate what you are saying, I really do. I mean, I think you are probably the guy to figure all this out, but don’t you think we ought to figure out where we are, who else is here, and where we might be able to trade our bountiful resources,” she nodded towards the vault, “for a meal or a bottle of water? I mean, aren’t you interested in figuring any of that out?”

She went on. “Why don’t we close the door of the vault, just in case, you know? We can have a little look and try to get some answers. I’m not saying what you’re doing isn’t important, but we need more immediate answers.”

“What should we do?” he asked her. He was waiting for orders. Good. She was the undisputed leader of a band of two.

Looking over his shoulder, she came to her first decision. “First, I’m thinking we should figure out who this naked chick wandering down the street towards us is.” A small nude woman was staggering towards them. The sun was in her eyes, so she hadn’t seen Emma and Nick yet. Nick turned and saw her at about the same time the woman saw them.

“Oh, Thank God. Oh Thank Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Praise the Lord. I am so happy to see you. Praise Jesus.” The woman ran towards them spewing her religious thanks. She was a tiny thing. Young and pretty, but deranged and traumatized. She tripped on a stone and landed on one knee. She was back up and running towards them again in an instant. “Praise Jesus I’ve found you. There has been some sort of a terrible accident and I don’t know what happened to….” The blood from her knee dribbled down her shin. She stopped. Her voice was small. “Are you the one’s Jesus sent to rescue me?”

She collapsed in the street.

Emma was now the undisputed leader of a band of three.

Chapter 12

Decisions

She didn’t have a problem giving orders.

“Nick, see if you can get her to wake up.”

Emma moved towards the vault. There was no reason to leave it open. This could be the end of the world and the stuff in the vault might not be valuable for survival, but there would definitely still be people who ‘thought’ it was valuable. Now that she knew they weren’t the only people left alive, she needed to be a little more defensive.

Inside the vault, she emptied another bag of valuables In the old world, this would be millions of dollars of loot, but at the moment, the canvas was the most valuable. She closed the door behind her and at least for a moment, felt like she was in control.

“We should move someplace with a little more shade. Also, let’s keep this vault between us.   It never hurts to have a hidden ace, know what I mean?”

Nick sat, looking at the girl – not helping her, just looking at her where she had crumbled. “I don’t think any of that is going to be very useful to us but okay. I would love to see if magnetic dipoles have realigned themselves…”

Emma felt compelled to interrupt his technical chatterboxing. “Hey Professor, I know you want to figure out why all this happened, but trust me, we’ve got to figure out some other things first, cause you know what this chick showing up tells me?”

He didn’t answer, just looked from her to the woman on the ground.

“Her arrival tells me that there are other people here. It also tells me that at least some of them are as confused as we are. I’ve got warning bells going off like crazy in my brain. Not everyone is nice. So, pick up or wake up blondie here because we need to get down the road. We’ve gotta find someplace to call home.”

Nick put his hands under the woman’s armpits and tried to stand her up. He was a big guy, but he wasn’t Jimbo. He didn’t have the same strength or the know-how.

“Not like that you lug,” she was going to have to walk him through this because the woman wasn’t going to wake up. “Slide one arm under her back and the other one under her knees, bend your knees or you’re gonna hurt your back. That’s it, now stand up…no, stop, don’t lift with your back Numnuts, use your legs, they’re stronger. Perfect.” He was standing now with the little woman in his arms.

They wouldn’t have to go far. Just a block or so. She didn’t see any reason to tell Nick to heave the woman over his shoulder in a modified fireman’s carry, he could carry her this way. They would need to find food and watern. For all Emma knew, this woman had passed out from dehydration.

“Okay, follow me.” She walked down the street, looking for someplace inviting. Looking for supplies. Looking for anything. Each building looked more desolate than the last. Most of them were boarded up. There were old apartment buildings ahead that she hoped would offer something. She walked towards them.

Funny how the world worked. If her husbands could see her now, they would all laugh and say that she was finally in her element. Three strangers wake up in a ghost town and walk towards their unknown destiny. It was like a bad Kevin Costner movie where no one got to wash because the future was too dirty. It was like Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had ridden into a communist city and leveled the place. The apartments didn’t seem any closer. That meant that she was moving slow or they were further away than she had thought. She looked to either side of the road they were on. It was about forty feet wide and empty of anything.

Ahead on the right was a boarded up storefront. The rotten wood slats came away easily. Kicking and pulling, she managed to clear an entrance big enough for them to get through. Inside was nothing. A big empty room that stretched off into the darkness.

“Lay her down there Nick.” As soon as she was on the floor, the woman’s blue eyes popped open.

“Jesus sent you to save me.”

Jesus. Emma almost wished the woman were still unconscious.

 

Chapter 13

Rescue

Emma stared out the door to the barren cityscape around them. Skyscrapers in the distance that had seemingly been broken off midway like toys of a disturbed child. Row after row of burned out concrete buildings, some boarded up, some bravely showing fire scarred faces to bright daylight. She had no idea what time it was.

It had been hours since she had awoken in the dark vault. The day had unfolded without the modern obsession towards time. The sky was blue, the shadows were long, the day was winding down.

And now she had to deal with Miss Jesus Love’s Me.

Nick was helping the woman sit up. Her pretty blue eyes were joyous behind big fluttery eyelashes.

She said “Thank you for helping me, Sir, but I think I will be alright now. Oh, praise the Lord, everything is going to be alright now, I think we should pray…”

This had to stop right now. This was the kind of thing Emma refused to put up with. The only possible good thing about the end of the world would be the end of the Bible beaters – and this chick was destroying that.

“Listen Sister, you seem to be a little addled. So toss those little tits and ass of yours into this cloth and we can compare notes. You can pray later. Got it?” The woman’s eyes flashed but she grabbed the offered cloth.

“Well, I’ve never…the nerve of you…why …” Emma let her sputter for two seconds before cutting her off.

“Look, I’ve never either, but we find ourselves in a little bit of a mess here and there really isn’t any time to waste. I don’t know what the hell is going on, but we certainly don’t have the time to sit around a campfire singing Kumbayya and talking about Jesus. What’s your name? Do you know who you are?” Emma had to establish dominance right away. She knew how these girly bitches worked. She also knew that the best way to do that was to fire out a lot of questions and keep this chick on the defensive.

“My name is Anne Hastings. You have no right to talk to me this ….” Emma cut her off again.

“What you think at this point doesn’t matter to me? Got it, Anne? ” Anne looked defiant for a split second before curtly nodding. Emma saw Nick puffing up, probably thinking about voicing some defense towards the sexy little thing. Emma cut him off before he began to speak.

“Nick,” she looked at him intently. “What city are we in? Where are we? Do you know? Where were you when you last knew where you were at?” Perfect, he was sidetracked from his noble intentions by the questions she drilled him with. Get his brain working and he would forget the noble cause of his dick.

One hand went to the back of his neck in a reflexive motion she had already noticed that he made when he was thinking. “This morning, I went to work at my lab in Glasgow so the only logical supposition is that we are in Glasgow.”

Emma knew that shock showed on her face “Glasgow? As in Glasgow Scotland? You’ve got to be kidding me, right? This isn’t fucking Scotland. I was at the Jersey Shore this morning and I wouldn’t have forgotten a transatlantic flight. Jesus Christ on a god damn crutch…you’re on the drugs aren’t you Nick?”

Anne broke the silence that followed. “Well, isn’t this just great? No time for prayer but plenty of time to use the Lord’s name in vain? Listen to me you rude old thing. I don’t suppose it occurred to you that maybe the Lord is the only one that really knows what is happening here. You can cuss at me all you want, but it won’t change that I know what I know. I was at work in Lincoln, Nebraska when Judgment Day arrived. Praise the Lord.”

Emma looked curiously at Anne and asked “Where do you think we are now? Are we still in Lincoln?” Nick and Emma both waited to hear what the girl would answer.

“Of course not. The Lord is not going to judge souls in Nebraska. We are in Purgatory and we better start praying to Jesus if we don’t want to end up in Hell.”

The shadows outside getting longer. The light was less intense. Emma had never been religious and she wasn’t about to become religious now. She had worn the stripes of an agnostic for too long. She showed respect to the Catholic Church she was raised in but she had never bought into the talk of divine and she wasn’t about to now.

“Purgatory is as good a name for this city as any other,” she said, reclaiming her composure. “I’m Emma and this is Nick. You may have noticed, we don’t know each other very well. As far as we knew, there was no one else here except the two of us until you showed up. We woke up here several hours ago. Can you tell us where you woke up? Did you see any water or food? Have you seen any other people Anne?” This was how she should have questioned the girl in the first place. She was more rattled than she had imagined possible.

Anne looked at the people in front of her. “Emma…I was at work in Lincoln. It was a slow night at the restaurant and I was having a cigarette with the cooks in the back alley. The weather was horrible. Suddenly, lightning came from everywhere like it was like the end of the world. I closed my eyes, dropped to my knees, and begged forgiveness from Jesus. Then, I woke up on the third floor of one of these buildings. I kicked the boards out of a window and climbed down to the ground. Then, I prayed more. I’ve been walking the streets, praying, and knowing that Jesus would send someone to help me all day. It seemed like a long time, but then, I saw the two of you. And the rest you know…”

Nick spoke before Emma “Did you see anyone else? Did you see water? Or food? Did you see anything?” His voice was raspy. They all needed water.

Anne looked troubled. “I saw a park and there might have been water…I wasn’t thinking too clearly when I first got out of the building I was in…I just wanted to get away from it, but I do think…”

Under her new cloth wrap, Anne’s skin was a bright pink with sunburn. It would hurt later. Now was the time to move.

Anne was useless at retracing her path. She insisted that she had come from the direction opposite of that she had actually come from. Emma decided to go in the direction the girl had first come from, over the protests of Anne. There had to be something there. She was thirsty. There was little talk among them. They walked at least a mile through nondescript groves of concrete buildings seeing nothing that might help them.

Anne was the first to speak. “When I was a Girl Scout, we used to take hikes. One time on the trail in the Grand Canyon, an old Indian that was guiding us told us that rather than drinking water all day, a good way to keep your mouth and throat wet was to put a small pebble in your mouth.” She stopped and grabbed a pebble from the road.

Emma reached for a pebble too, anything would be better than this feeling of cotton mouth. The pebble was about half the size of a marble. She plopped it into her mouth hoping it wasn’t some kind of poison, but really, would death be worse than this? Suddenly, she saw green off to the right. A narrow alleyway led to something that wasn’t the same drab dust color as everything else in Purgatory.

“We may have found your park Ann.” She walked down the tiny alley way.

Anne protested behind her, “I don’t think that was what I saw…”

Emma cut her off “Does it matter? There might be water…” She had been watching for fire hydrants or manhole covers. There were none. There were no drains in the streets. She had seen no bathrooms, no spigots, and not much of anything else beside the dead gray buildings. No trees, no birds, no color. To actually see something that might be alive. To find a park, or water….well…she care if it were the same park Anne had see- it was green.

By the time she reached the end of the alleyway, she was nearly running. There were trees and beyond the thick trunks she could see the sparkle of water. She was going to jump in. She had always thought it silly when thirsty people jumped into water in the movies. Now she got it. She would drink by osmosis. She would drink while covered with water.

Nick ran past her, probably with the same idea. She had never expected to be so happy to see water before. Nick was fast and easily made it into the grove of trees before she did. She would be there soon enough…

He disappeared into the trees and then was coming back, faster, motioning her to turn.

“Go!” he shouted “Run! Go!” She tried to see what he was running from, couldn’t see anything and decided to continue to the water. He was delirious. So was she, nearly…she needed water. She kept running towards the sparkle of the lake beyond the trees. By the time she saw the woman on the shore, it was too late.

Emma could tell that the bloody corpse had been a woman, but barely. The corpse was being torn limb from limb by dozens of dogs. The dogs had heard Nick’s shouts and turned to see Emma crashing through the brush. They scattered before regrouping and charging toward her. Emma turned and ran. They all ran. The dogs were happy to have more prey to chase.

If they had been hungry, she would have been killed quickly. Thanks to the woman on the shore, the dogs were more interested in the chase than the kill. At least for the moment.

Nick and Anne disappeared around a corner and as Emma turned it, the two pelted the beasts with rocks. It pushed them back momentarily, but it didn’t stop them.

There was no choice but to run. Nick passed the two women and then turned to the right into an alleyway. Anne and Emma followed. Ahead of them, two men. One saw them and ran, the other was facing the other way. He turned and saw Nick, Emma, and Anne. He saw the dogs, he too, ran – but it was too late. Nick and the two women followed. Humans, like dogs, have an instinct to form packs – especially when threatened.

Turn after turn, the men led them into narrower and narrower streets. The dogs were becoming more aggressive. Their clamor more bloodthirsty for their prey having grown in number. Emma rounded a corner and came face to face with the two men and a brick wall. It was a dead end. Anne screamed as she realized they could go no further. The dog pack was blocking the exit.

The older of the two new men had a weapon he jabbed at the dogs with.  Why hadn’t she made a weapon? What had she been thinking?

The dogs gathered at the mouth of the dead end alley. There were too many of them. She knew that someone had to do something and she leapt towards the dogs screaming “Go home dogs! Bad dogs. Go home, scurvy mutts, get!” She didn’t see the big Dalmatian leaping at her from the side. Before she was even aware of the dog, the older man with the dagger was leaping to knock it from her path. She watched him hit the wall and go down in a mass of fur and teeth. She backed up to where Nick, Ann, and the other man were cornered against the bricks.

The older man somehow got back up. It gave her a moment of hope but then she saw Anne crumble beneath the fury of the dog attack. A big dog lunged and bit the arm of the second new man.

They were doomed. There were too many dogs and not enough humans. There was no way they could win.

But then the odds flipped.

The dogs were being attacked from behind by a large group of stick wielding people. Emma took advantage of the dogs being distracted to move forward, kicking and punching dogs, to where Anne had gone down. Many of the dogs managed to escape, running past the new mob of attacking humans but not before the dusty street was awash in dog brains and blood.

Emma looked at herself as she helped Anne get back up. She was unsure how much of the blood that covered her was hers and how much of it had come from the dogs but pretty sure most of it was hers. Reaching Emma, the people grabbed her and held her up. Others moved to help her companions.

Anne collapsed again. She was covered with blood. Emma began to feel lightheaded, she was losing consciousness. The dark borders of her vision began closing in.

“The Bishop will be pleased,” she heard a man’s voice say. “We’ve got dog meat and four new recruits. Take them all to the Cathedral, Brother.”

As hard as she tried to retain consciousness, she had lost too much blood. As she looked up, she realized that at some point it had gotten dark and there were a billion stars twinkling above her. Her last conscious thought was a reflection of the man’s words. Why were there only four new recruits? There had been five of them.

Chapter 14

The Believers

As they were led away from the carnage of the dog fight, Ben felt a glimmer of unjustified hope. It was a hope that things were going to return back to the way things were. He hoped that the nightmare of the past hours was just that, a nightmare, a gross misunderstanding about the new nature of reality. As he staggered towards a still unknown future, he hoped that he was moving towards a now impossible sounding past. His hopes were shattered as they got closer to the cathedral.

No one had been in this place longer than Ben. Like all hierarchies, rank had simply been determined by where you opened your eyes. These people had been fortunate enough to open their eyes near this broken and shattered cathedral. Inside the cathedral, one man had opened his eyes and moved into action. The Bishop.

The cathedral was open and filled with light when the Bishop opened his eyes. Looking out the door, the Bishop had seen a lake, he had seen other people waking up, and he had seen the opportunity to take charge. People in chaos will gravitate towards a place of worship. They did so after the shit hit the fan. Upon meeting the first of them to come to the cathedral, the man inside had introduced himself.

“I am Bishop.”

For all who came after, he was ‘The Bishop’, given authority, and called Bishop.

Instinctively, he gathered his flock and put them to work. Within hours, their numbers had grown to near twenty. Arming them with clubs and rocks, he sent out search parties looking for food, water, and other survivors. As evening began to fall, he had brought more than fifty people together. He had built the first community in Purgatory – though, no one but Emma had called it that – yet.

It was Bishop’s quick thinking and organization that saved Ben and his companions from an almost certain death. Without rescue, the dogs would have been too much for them.

When they arrived at the Cathedral, Ben, Nick, and Anne were given water, bandaged, and fed. Vlad was gone. Whether he had been dragged off by the dogs or had somehow managed to escape, Ben had no idea – though he suspected the former. None of their rescuers remembered seeing him.

Ben didn’t have the leisure of conducting an investigation into Vlad’s whereabouts. One of the women had lost a lot of blood and remained unconscious. No one was sure she would make it. When she finally awoke, she was positively ecstatic at being brought back to a cathedral. “Thank Jesus. We have been found by the Believers. The Believers have found us who were lost. Praise be.” Her name was Anne and while he was glad she was making a recovery, Ben would have preferred to have Vlad back with them.

During the night, they were tended to, given food and water, and allowed to sleep within the safe confines of the cathedral. Guards were posted at the doors and torches and bonfires were lit which brought more new ‘recruits’ every hour.

It was Anne who gave name to the group, just as Emma had named the place they all found themselves. They were all among ‘The Believers’ in ‘Purgatory’. The names stuck. Bishop’s people embraced the name. Anne very quickly became one of them.

Bishop interviewed each person brought to the Cathedral. After the light of morning broke, each new member of the growing community was asked to individually sit with Bishop for a sort of placement interview..

Ben’s turn came early. A young blond man shook him awake.

“Excuse me? Hello. Good morning. ” Ben opened his eyes and tried to orient himself. The young man, seeing him awake said “The Bishop would like to talk to you sir. He needs your assistance.”

Ben wondered if it was his age and obvious wisdom that the Bishop had noticed. Thus far he had only seen Bishop from a distance, a stern man who seemed to be all action – issuing orders, assigning duties, and creating society from nothing. Ben straightened his makeshift clothing and was led to a back room in the cathedral where Bishop was waiting. He was an uncommonly tall man with sandy hair going grey on the sides. Ben figured him to be in his late forties or early fifties, but it was hard to tell. He could have been older.

He was met with a strong handshake and a warm smile. “Good Morning, Brother. I am Bishop. I wonder if you might take a walk with me. I think you can help me with something. Please tell me your name.”

“I’m Ben,” the Bishop nodded and walked away. Ben had no choice but to follow the man. He wasn’t religious, never had been. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to call the man Your Holiness or Father so instead he just decided to call him Bishop. It wasn’t clear to Ben whether Bishop was a name or a title as it seemed to be both.

“Thank you for saving us Bishop. If you hadn’t of organized things so quickly, those dogs would probably have killed us all. Thank you.”

The Bishop turned, slowing his walk, and replied warmly. “Thank you Ben. I’m glad we were there for you. We’ve got a big job ahead of us and a lot of people are going to need our help. I need to know that people are willing to help. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, you can count on that. Come, I want to show you where the Lord had the mercy to place us.”

Ben followed the Bishop outside. The Bishop made a sweeping gesture towards the bleak city that surrounded them. “This is an unnatural place Ben. Have you seen that it is made to look like God’s earth, but that it is not?” Ben regarded him curiously.

“The search parties I sent out tell me that they have not found a single sign of humanity in any of the buildings or on any of the streets. There is nothing here Ben. It is like an abandoned Hollywood set. What does that make you think?” Ben was shocked to hear this, he could hardly believe it even though his own experience backed it up.

He could not grasp it. “It would be a very big set. Obviously, there must be something, I mean, look at all these buildings, there is obviously something in them… and aren’t they signs of humanity?”

“What city do you think this is?” The Bishop asked him.

“I’m not sure,” Ben answered.

“That’s right,” the Bishop replied. “No one recognizes it. We have people from all over the world with us and no one recognizes this city. Also, it seems that we all speak the same language – regardless of what language we spoke before.” This was news that shouldn’t have been news to Ben. He had seen this with Vlad.

The Bishop smiled. “No one has ever lived in these buildings Ben. People, did not build them. This is an unnatural place. I’m not convinced it is the actual purgatory, but the name your companion gave it seems to fit. I believe this Purgatory is a trap designed by Satan to make us feel that we can continue on the same way that we have been living. It is all a trap. Do you understand?”

Ben didn’t understand. “Satan?”

The Bishop looked at him intently and then turned. He didn’t know why.

“Come, Brother Ben. I want to show you how the Lord has blessed us, his children.” Ben could see moresearch parties forming up in the street. Smoke from fires where dog meat was being roasted and dog skins were being dried wafted through the air. He followed the Bishop around the corner. The Cathedral was not complete, parts of the roof were gone and there were gaping holes in the broken windows, but for the most part, it was in better shape than other buildings Ben had seen. Shards of stained glass in some of the windows presumably depicted scenes from the lives of the Saints.

As he came around the corner, Ben saw the blessing to which the Bishop referred. Behind the Cathedral stretched a parkland filled with trees and a  lake. A flock of small birds, the first Ben had seen, flitted from the top of one tree to another. The elegance of their coordinated flight made the mass of them seem like a single entity.

“God has put us in this Garden, Brother Ben. We are not going to let evil into it. Not this time. We will not be expelled. We must prove that we have become worthy.”

The Bishop again looked at him, the intensity of his gaze caused Ben some easiness.

“I will need your help to fight our enemies, Brother Ben.”

It was the first Ben had heard of enemies. He wanted to ask many questions, but the look on the Bishop’s face told him all that he needed to know.

Ben didn’t have a choice about whether to help and his questions would not be answered.

 

Chapter 15 

Bonds

Bishop’s interviews were an assessment. They were a chance to size up new recruits and see where they fit in his scheme of things. Ben felt like he had been judged, put in a box, and filed for later use.

After Bishop dismissed him, Ben went to check on the people he had been rescued with. They were strangers, but a bond had grown between them from having survived together. There had been no formal introductions yet, but from talking with others, he knew their names.

Near the front of the cathedral, a group of women were tearing the strange cloth they all wore into strips. The strips were being woven into ropes with much more skill than Ben had used. Ben recognized Nick as he spoke with the weavers.He was talking to a large, plain looking woman who never looked up from her work while she spoke to him.

“…but I don’t understand, aren’t you curious at all what he wants to do with the rope?”

She shook her head. “I don’t need to know. I know he is a good man trying to make things better for all of us. He said make rope and I’m sure he has a good reason for that. If he has to explain all of his reasons to everyone, he wouldn’t have time to get anything done. I have faith in the Bishop and so should you. He saved your life, after all. He is saving all of our lives…”

Ben found it interesting how different people referred to Bishop or THE Bishop. It was a name and a title at the same time.

Nick looked frustrated. “I am grateful, but aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to know how all of this happened?”

At this the woman finally stopped and looked up at him in exasperation. “He already told us how this happened. God brought us here for the final battle and we have to prepare for it. The Rapture has begun. Now, I have work to do…I suggest you find work to do as well.” She went back to her work.

Ben laid his hand on Nick’s shoulder to get the man’s attention. Nick turned and saw him. He looked like he wanted to say more to the woman who was now doing her best to ignore him. Ben led him away.

Ben was interested to hear Nick’s theories about what had happened, but it didn’t feel safe to talk about them openly. After his interview with Bishop, he felt a sort of heavy pressure and control over the group. He wondered if his time with Vlad was coloring his experience now. Either way, he led Nick to a  vacant portion of the big building.

Nick’s scarred arms covered with fresh scabs and wounds from the dogs held his attention as he wondered how the scars had gotten there.

“We’re lucky to have survived. I’m Ben, by the way.” The two men clasped hands.

“I know. My name’s Nick. The women with me were Anne and Emma. Any word on your friend?”

Ben shook his head. “Vlad. He just disappeared. Most of them think the dogs dragged him off, but that doesn’t seem likely to me. I don’t know. Hey, listen, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation over there. I’m curious, have you had a chance to meet with Bishop yet?” Ben didn’t think he had, but he wasn’t sure.

Nick looked wary as he shook his head no.

“Good, listen, I know this might seem odd to you, but you’re a scientist right?” It had been an easy assumption to make based on what he had heard. Nick nodded yes this time.  “I’m sure you know what happened to Copernicus and Galileo right?”

This was clearly within the realm of Nick’s knowledge. He began to speak enthusiastically.

“Of course, they were responsible for correcting misconceptions about man’s place in the Universe, they were expanded upon, corrected, and utilized to create a solid understanding of the role of science, they were exonerated by history and science…”

Ben interrupted him “That’s the thing Nick. Their views were eventually accepted, but along the way, well, let’s just say that they both got the shaft for having views that didn’t line up with that of the Church. The reason I am saying this is because, well, it’s because, even though I bet your ideas about what happened make a lot of sense…I think…that is, well, I just spoke with Bishop, or the Bishop as most here call him,  and I think you might want to tread lightly. These people don’t want to hear about science Nick and I think if you insist on telling them this wasn’t a big religious event, you might get the shaft just like Copernicus.”

Nick was looking at him with disbelief. “Don’t be ridiculous, we aren’t living in the dark ages. Bishop may be a man of faith, but certainly he understands science is not something that can be argued…”

Ben grabbed him by the scarred arms. “Look around. Does this look like enlightened society to you? The dark ages are exactly where we are. Listen to me. No one here argues with Bishop. Did you hear that woman you were talking to? He tells them what has happened and what to do.”

Nick shook his arms loose. “I grew up in a traditional society. When I was a young boy in Kenya, a witch told my grandfather I had been possessed by malignant spirits. He and other villagers, including my parents, watched while the witch held my arms over a fire. Do you know why the witch told them I was possessed?” Ben looked down to the scarred arms. “I had asked the witch why he used gunpowder to create smoke and flash during rituals. I wasn’t supposed to have seen him preparing his packets. I wasn’t supposed to recognize the smell. For this, the witch condemned me to be burned. It was after that I left my village and dedicated myself to learning the truth. I will not listen to lies..”

Ben needed to convince Nick of the danger however. “Nick, Bishop is another witch. Please just keep your ideas to yourself for now or you are going to get burned again. Trust me on this. When he interviews you, tell him that you are a Christian and please, don’t preach any science. It won’t be helpful. In fact, we should really start thinking about leaving.”

Nick pointed to where Emma was sleeping, still recovering from her many wounds. “We can’t leave until she is stronger. I won’t leave her behind.” Ben remembered hearing the raspy cussing of the wounded woman in the alleyway. Somehow, having saved her from the dog had made him feel responsible for her too.

The two sat with Emma through the day as she faded in and out of a delirious consciousness. There was nothing they could do beyond holding her hand, cleaning her wounds, and re-hydrating her. Anne, the other woman that had been with them joined them from time to time and shared news of what she had learned among the Believers.

“I spoke with the Bishop and he told me that he saw all of this coming in a dream. When he saw the storm creating an uncommon aurora borealis, he recognized it as a sign to gather his flock in a shelter they had prepared. God speaks through him, it is a miracle that our Lord has provided us with this prophet to lead us to salvation.” Anne was attractive and had a pleasant personality – her odd outbursts of religious devotion, however, were jarring.

“Did his people come with him?” Ben asked her.

“No. He and his flock are from Idaho – he hasn’t found any of them yet. He thinks God may have already admitted his people to heaven and sent him here to help shepherd others into the path of righteousness.”

“Like a Bodhisatva,” Nick said.

“I’m not sure what a Bodhi – whatever is” Anne said, “but  I prayed to Jesus for help and he brought me the help I needed. The Bishop is a great man!”

Emma stirred into consciousness. “Water. I need water. Please…get me some god-damn water.”

Nick poured water from the knotted stomach of a dog that had been dried over a fire into the woman’s mouth. Ben had to give the Believers credit for innovation and adaptation. They hadn’t wasted any time putting available resources to work. Ben watched, relieved that she was showing signs of recovery.

“That’s one handy trick with the dog stomachs,” Ben said.

Nick laughed. “In Scotland, they use sheep guts. I wish we had a sheep.”

Emma was too out of it to understand what she was drinking from. She drank thirstily and fell back asleep.

“Awful woman, even befouling the Lord’s name in her sleep.” Anne didn’t appear to have much love for Emma.

“We’d better keep Emma away from the Bishop when she wakes up,”  Ben said quietly to Nick. “He doesn’t strike me as tolerant towards religious points of view.”

Anne heard him and added an interesting tidbit to the conversation. “I heard that he’s going to expel those who refuse to believe that the Lord brought us here for a purpose. I’m pretty sure he’s going to make her leave if she ever recovers.” She looked at Ben and Nick, “You two may want to think about that too. People have noticed you whispering together.”

Nick’s big eyes met those of Ben. Neither man had any intention of staying longer than they had to.

 

Chapter 16

Theocracy

On his second day amongst the Believers, Ben was again summoned to see Bishop. This time, he was part of a group. A half dozen dozen men including Nick gathered in Bishop’s ‘office. A young blond man named Richard, entered the room before Bishop joined them. He seemed to be functioning as a sort of secretary or lieutenant.

“Thank you for coming Gentlemen,” Richard said. “Please be seated, the Bishop has important work for all of you to attend to.” Some of the men sat on the stone floor, but others remained standing. Ben noticed an Asian man standing in the back with his arms folded. He didn’t look happy.

“Please, Haruka.” Richard said to him,  “Have a seat and relax. You will be pleased with this. I promise.” Haruka grudgingly sat down with the others. The rest followed suit. Richard stepped through a makeshift curtain over the doorway and disappeared on the other side.

Ben raised his eyebrows to Nick. Nick shook his head, he didn’t know what this was about either. Then Bishop appeared.

“Brothers. Thank you for coming.” From the floor, Bishop’s height was  commanding. “We have a special problem that I need your assistance with. Your community needs you.”

Ben was still astounded at how quickly Bishop had organized and taken control of things.

“Ask your God for help.” This came from Haruka and there were a few nervous snickers that followed it. Haruka was squatting, his arms crossed. Ben could easily surmise that Haruka’s interaction with the Bishop had not been positive.

“Please, Brother Haruka, hear me out. I have talked with all of you and I find that you men in this roomare much more practical than most of us.” Something about the way Bishop said ‘practical’ put Ben on edge. “We are here without many of the things we need and we are going to have to make them. I know that if we work together, we will be able to make life better for all of us.”

The men around Ben seemed in agreement. Even Haruka, an obvious malcontent, nodded his assent.

Bishop continued. “I realize that not all of us have the same beliefs. I know that some of you don’t believe in God…”

“I believe in my God…” Haruka’s voice was strong. “Your God, is not mine.”  He was a young man, like Richard, probably in his early twenties.

Bishop reddened, but kept control. “We need to help one another regardless of ideology or beliefs. Everyone here needs your help. We have women and injured, please who are not as strong or able as you. They need your help.”

Ben felt the manipulation, but also saw the truth. Bishop was right, they needed to work together.

Bishop continued. “Our search parties have found little in the way of supplies or materials. Stone, brick, glass, and this cloth” Bishop touched the curtain he had walked through. “We have heard some of you call it garbage cloth, but we view it as a gift – so we want to call it mana-cloth instead. It is like our mana from heaven.” The cloth was one of those strange mysteries Ben simply couldn’t figure out. Mana cloth was a better name.

“There are things we need. We have made clubs and knives to help defend our community from  predators.” Branches and broken glass. “We need to develop wheels and tools. We need to learn to hunt. We need to protect those who are not as strong as you are. I have asked you here to put your ingenuity and your strength to use for the betterment of us all.”

None of them argued. It made sense.

“Let us focus on creating the things we need. We can  work together and solve the problems that plague us. We need all of you.”

Ben was amazed by the amount invention that emerged from the group over the day. Ben showed the men how he had made his dagger, another man in the group, Adam improved upon this to create hand axes and adzes. Ben managed to construct a rough wheel barrow.

Haruka created a hunting bolo using rope and stones. Bishop took their prototypes so others could replicate them. Theirs was the idea shop, others were the assembly line. A Syrian man named Abdullah created the first bullwhip and demonstrated it to the Bishop. The Bishop was delighted. They were on an inventor’s high and blinded to what was going on around them. As darkness fell, Bishop called them together again.

“Brothers, your inventiveness has helped make it possible for us to prosper. As you know, we have discovered there are deer and rabbits. Our hunters have succeeded with your tools.. We are going to plant gardens. Abdullah has given us the whip. Your innovations in fishing gear make our survival here more assured than ever. You have labored in creation and our numbers have swelled into the hundreds! We will need to house people in neighboring buildings as our community grows. Things are glorious for us. Please join me in prayer as we thank God for his mercy and help.”

Some of the men bowed their heads. Some of them were Believers, but most of this group were atheists, agnostics, or non-Christian. They were proud and not willing to pretend to be something they were not.

Bishop bowed his head, eyes closed, and began to pray out loud. “Lord, Father, Merciful God. We thank you for bringing we Believers together in this land we call Purgatory so that we might prepare for battle against the minions of Darkness. We have tried, oh Father, to bring all forces of light to your side. Please Father, assist these men through the trials that await them and help them to see the truth in your light that has been sent down before them. We long for them to denounce the forces of darkness they worship and join us in Believing that You have placed us here for a reason and we beg your forgiveness for their blasphemy.”

Richard and several other believers had been moving among them, asking certain men, generally those more compliant with Bishop’s belief system, to step outside. Ben had never closed his eyes and as the impact of Bishop’s words hit him, he realized it was too late to pretend.

“We thank you for providing us with their labor, Father. We beg you to show them the wonderful light of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

There was tenseness in the air. A fight was coming. Bishop smiled.

“You have chosen not too embrace the light. You men have been useful but you are dangerous to our community of Believers. Your comrades who have chosen to see the light and become a part of us, they are free and no longer among you. As for you, I pray that you will be redeemed in the work heaven has selected you for.”

Bishop left the room. Instantly, the edges of the room were crowded with Believers armed with knives, spears, bullwhips, and bolos. The purpose of the ropes the women had been making became apparent as Ben and the other non-believers were beaten, tied, and placed under guard within the cathedral. The Lord had selected them be slaves.

There was resistance, but it only led to more brutal beatings. They were herded into a small room with only one exit. Bishop’s men stood ready to brain them with sticks and stones. Judging from the beating they had given Haruka, they were not afraid of breaking any bones.

Their hands were tied behind them. Ben sat with Nick on one side of him and Haruka on the other. The Believers had not gagged them and he felt free to speak. Bishop had looted their innovations and used them to enslave them.

He was determined not to lose hope. If he had to pretend that things were fine, he would do so, but he would not allow the despair he felt creeping into his consciousness gain a foothold.

“Well, it seems we no longer have to hide our opinions on what happened Nick. I never did get a chance to ask you about how your interview with the Bishop went.” Perhaps the best way to overcome the sudden fear he felt was to talk as if he were a free man, in fact, as he said it he realized that he and the others were actually free to dissent now that they had been turned into captives.

Nick looked up at him. His nostrils were flaring as he fired back at Ben, “If this is some kind of I told you so, fine. You told me. I didn’t listen. I see now that you were right. Okay? You were right.”

Ben saw his question may have been taken for derision. “No, definitely not. This is not the time for that kind of thing Nick. I’m not looking for some kind of come-uppance.  I think it might be important to start comparing notes on what this guy has said to each of us. And about what happened to us. These people are totally convinced that this is an act of God and I am certain it was not.”

Nick’s features softened as he realized that Ben was telling the truth. “It’s not the first time in my life that I have believed in the wisdom of authority and had the reality put me in a compromised position, but I really wasn’t expecting this. Not after the conversation I had with him.”

Several of the other men were listening to their conversation. He reminded himself to remain calm and to project a feeling of hope. He needed to affirm that Bishop was wrong. The way he saw it, there were two choices in front of them all: join the Believers or not. It was in his interest to have these men be allies. They might be captives, but the more of them there were, the harder it would be for the Believers to control them.

“Nick, what was your conversation with Bishop like? Start at the beginning and keep your voice a little bit low. They don’t need to know what we are talking about out there.” He jerked his head in the direction of the curtain that separated them from the Believers.

Nick nodded and began. “I should have listened to you Ben. I felt like the Bishop was listening to me with an open mind. He asked me to take a walk with him. While we walked, he asked me why I thought we were here. I told him I had been studying the effects of electromagnetic storms generated by the sun on the polarity of the planet. I told him about the research I was doing in Scotland and how I felt pretty sure that what happened was what is called a polar shift. In a polar shift, the polarity of a planet actually reverses itself, no one is actually sure how it happens, but research has shown that it occurs about every 22,000 years.”

Ben needed to clarify something. “What do storms on the sun have to do with polar shift and what exactly is a polar shift, I mean, what does it do, would it cause storms and that weird light?”

Nick nodded. “It is all about the storms. On the sun are what laypeople call sun spots. Sun spots exist in pairs. They are gigantic, much bigger than our entire planet. These spots circle around each other in cycles. No one is exactly sure what they are or why they do what they do, but the result is that they create gigantic electromagnetic fields that pummel everything in their path, including our planet. Usually, this isn’t a problem as our atmosphere and the radiation between us and the sun manage to keep the effects within a relatively stable range. Every 22,000 years or so, the sun erupts in a multitude of sunspots. Hundreds of them more than have existed throughout our history. The result is a massive series of solar flares that affect everything within range for hundreds of light years in distance. To answer your question, it is these solar flares which batter the magnetic field of Earth with the net result that North becomes South and South becomes North. The poles actually reverse.”

Ben nodded. “Aside from making navigation a little tricky, how does this affect the planet?”

Nick looked a little frustrated at Ben’s ignorance, but he seemed to have forgotten that he was tied up in his enthusiasm to share his knowledge. “Think about it Ben. Nobody really knows what magnetism or even electricity are. The best way to explain it might be to say that magnetism is like a reverse wind. Depending on the polarity of the magnet, it either blows or sucks.”

Adam’s voice came from across the room. “This blows and sucks!” All of the men laughed. They were listening. What might have been a dry lecture a few days ago in the real world was now a lesson in life changing science.

“Okay, so this is really simple.” Nick knew he was talking to the entire room. “You guys have been in a stiff wind before right? The kind of wind that you have to lean into in order to keep from getting knocked down.” There were nods all around. “Imagine you spent 22,000 years bracing into a wind that only blew in one direction. You’d start to feel pretty used to moving around leaning forward, right? Now imagine that before you could blink, the wind changed one hundred and eighty degrees and was blowing just as strong but the opposite direction, what do you think would happen to you?”

Adam’s voice again. “You’d probably do a face plant and eat some gravel.” Everyone murmured in agreement.

Nick drove his point home. “That’s what happened to our planet a couple of days ago. It did a faceplant when the magnetic wind suddenly shifted directions. That’s why the everything went crazy.”

Adam wasn’t completely satisfied. “So how did we get here? And where are we exactly?”

Nick shook his head. “I don’t know. Science did not prepare me for that question. In any event,” he looked at Ben again, “that is what I told the Bishop. He seemed enthusiastic to find answers. He asked me not to tell anyone since he thought it might cause unnecessary worry for people. He wanted to focus on survival. Ben?”

“Yeah Nick.”

“It looks like I got the shaft.”

Adam again provided sarcastic comic relief “You’re not the only one Pal.”

There was more laughter all around. Their spirits had not been broken.

 

Chapter 17

The Rescuers

 

The curtain opened. It was Anne bringing them food. Behind her, six brawny Believers stood ready with clubs in case any of them attempted to leave the room.

“Anne, are you a part of this? Do people know we’ve been jailed? Please, tell us what is going on!” Ben whispered to her.

She gave him a sour look. “The Bishop told us what you were planning. He showed us the weapons he confiscated from you. You should all be ashamed of yourselves. He saves you, brings you here, provides for you, and you hatch a plot to kill him! And he still feeds you! We support and love him. He is a truly good man.”

“What?” Ben felt deflated, he had hoped people knew what was actually happening. Bishop had engineered everything the way he wanted it. The man was a genius. While they worked, he put all of the pieces into play. They were isolated and no one would help them.

Anne laughed. “And he’s going to find anyone else like you too. You’ll be getting new members on your chain gang soon enough.” Now she lowered her voice so that only Ben could hear “Emma is awake and if she doesn’t start showing the Lord some respect, I won’t be able to keep her out of harm’s way.”

“What is he planning to do with us?” Ben asked.

Richard stepped into the room. “Leave the food on the floor and get out.” Anne dumped a pile of charred meat into the center of the floor and scurried away with her head down. Richard surveyed the room “Well, look how far the mighty have fallen,” he sneered. “You atheists, niggers, and nips are going to get it now.” Gone was the deferential young man, replaced with a snarling bigot. He spit on the pile of meat Anne had left behind. “We are creating the Kingdom of Heaven and in the Kingdom, you better figure out your place.” He turned and walked out wearing garbage cloth like an SS uniform.

Ben was the first to take some of the meat. He knelt down and lifted a dog shank with his teeth. Spit or no spit, he was hungry. He backed up to where he had been sitting before and dropped the meat in front of him. “There’s less disease in his spit than in his brain,” he said. “I’ll be damned if I will let that piece of shit ruin my appetite.”  Not all of the men followed Ben’s example. Nick did, Haruka did not. Ben was too busy attempting to eat with no hands to notice what any of the others did.

Guards came through and gave them each several mouthfuls of water. Some of the men lay on cold stone and tried to sleep.

“Nick,” Adam moved closer to where Nick was. “If you were to guess where we are or how we got here, what would you guess?”

“I can’t make a guess at all. I don’t have enough data. Nobody that I know of has ever encountered any sort of situation like this. You have to have a certain amount of data in order to make an educated guess otherwise you are simply wasting your time. I don’t know of anything that would have transported me out of my lab to where we are. In fact, my calculations suggest that nothing like this place should have withstood the polar shift at all. This is beyond what the data suggests…”

Ben listened. He considered mentioning the vehicle and people he had seen from the rubble of his print shop. He hadn’t heard anyone else with a similar experience. They all saw the end of the world and then woke up here with no in between. Maybe it was time to share his story.

Before he could speak, Haruka did. “What does the data say about the people that pulled me out of the Pacific Ocean?”

“What people?” Nick asked. “Who pulled you out of the ocean?”

Haruka sighed in exasperation. “Here we go again. I’ll tell you one thing, it wasn’t angels of God like the Bishop tried to tell me. Like I told him, I came up from a dive and there was a fucking UFO hovering over me. It shot out a net and lifted me into a cargo bay where there were three big guys in white spacesuits. One of em stuck a needle in me as soon as I got up there and the next thing I knew, I woke up in a basement a few blocks from here. I’m pretty certain angels don’t need to sedate anyone with needles.”

Ben leaned towards Haruka. Someone said “People hallucinate in trauma, it kind of sounds like a near death experience…the people probably weren’t real.” Others in the room were agreeing. Ben decided to speak.

“I saw them too. The rescuers. He wasn’t hallucinating.” Ben told what he remembered.

No one else had seen anything and there was still some doubt, but it was harder for the men to dismiss both of their accounts. No one had answers about what had happened to them and no one knew how to  escape. They needed more information.

The next morning, Bishop put them to work clearing rubble from the lobby of an apartment building across from the cathedral. They were isolated from the growing community of the Believers and they had no contact with newcomers who found or were found by the Believers.

They had invented the tools of their own servitude. Bishop had seized total power to exercise his will. Ben lifted a stone block from the ground and placed it in the wheelbarrow. Sweat poured out of his bare skin as he worked in the blistering sun. Around him, the other captives worked just as hard at the same task. Whether Vlad had died or not, he had escaped this. . Vlad had deserved to die a free man, he had spent long enough a prisoner. He had lost enough already. For Ben, Vlad served as a reminder of how much could be stripped away from a human being without depriving them of that spark of spirit that demands freedom. If Vlad had lived, this would have been worse for him than for anyone else. Of that, Ben had no doubt.

“Back to work old man, you’ll get a break when we tell you to take one,” the words were emphasized with the crack of a whip that was near enough Ben’s back to remind him that he was a prisoner. “Idle hands are the devil’s work and the Bishop is doing his best to keep the devil at bay.”

There was laughter from the other overseers watching him work. They were all newcomers who believed every word Bishop and Richard told them. Ben returned to the task at hand while looking at his fellow slaves. Ten more had been thrown in with them at first light. There were fifteen men and seven women total. They had been coerced into labor for the glory and benefit of the Bishop and the Believers.

His wheelbarrow was nearly full. He signaled to an overseer who came down to make sure he had filled it to capacity. The Believers had taken to slavery like fish to water. The cathedral’s exterior walls were rising and expanding. Ben had to give the Bishop credit for getting things done. The man knew how to organize, of course, most fascists do. Ben gritted his teeth and pushed his burden.

Free Believers were using the rocks he brought to repair the cathedral walls. Their population had reached hundreds. No one had found any children yet. The youngest survivors were no younger than twenty.

There were people from all over the world. One would expect that language would have been a problem, but it wasn’t. Everyone spoke the same language now. It sounded like English to English speakers, like Arabic to the Arabs, and like Chinese to the Chinese. Bishop claimed the tower of Babel had dispelled the language of God and replaced it with false tongues. Humanity had been blessed with reconciled language of the divine.

Ben spoke English and French before, now he could speak them interchangeably and anyone could understand him. It still sounded like English and French to him, but to someone who spoke Swahili, it sounded like he was speaking Swahili. This had been why Vlad had been surprised at his lack of an accent. Vlad would have been a valuable ally through this.

Ben pushed his now empty wheelbarrow back to the apartment complex where they were quarrying bricks and stone. Spear and whip armed Believers stood watch, close enough to hit but far enough that they couldn’t be attacked. It was a good system that had kept anyone from escaping so far, but Ben knew that at some point he would get away…or die trying.

He spit into the dust and began to load the wheelbarrow with more stone. He would be leaving soon. He knew it in his bones.

Chapter 18

Slaves

They were given water at the hottest part of the day, but there were no breaks. Ben was used to pacing himself and working long hours, but not the kind of work he was forced to do on this day. The overseers became increasingly brutal as the day went on.

The slaves Ben knew were Nick, Abdullah, Haruka, and Adam. The other four from their original group were Steve, Kim, Samuel, and Soc. Bishop apparently had no bones about making slavery racial. Ben, Adam, and Steve were the only whites among the slaves. The men who had been allowed to go free had all been white. Richard’s was the first racist rant but not the last. Adam was Jewish, Steve was a communist, and Ben wasn’t sure where he fit in but something about him had obviously alarmed Bishop because here he was and here he stayed.

Of the thirteen who had been newly enslaved with them, two were white and eleven were not. Ben didn’t recognize any of them from the time he had been ‘free’ within the cathedral. He presumed that they were all newcomers. He wanted to find out who they were but the overseers watched them all suspiciously from behind blue eyes. Richard and all of the other overseers had blue eyes.

Around noon  when the sun was at its hottest, the captives were herded together into one of the rooms they had finished clearing. Richard was among the captors and Ben decided it was time to get answers.

“What the hell is going on? You people are building a fourth Reich here? This is insanity!”

Several of the big white guards threw him onto the ground and Richard stood over him smiling.

There was a tense moment as the slaves considered their chances, but the guards seemed ready with spears and clubs – the moment passed. Richard’s smile got bigger as he began to speak.

“Ben. I understand why you might be confused. I mean, here you are, a white man, and you are being forced to work like some kind of nigger. It breaks my heart, it really does. That’s why, I want to explain your situation to you.”

Richard motioned to his goons and they picked Ben up from the floor. “We are in a new world with new rules Ben. The Bishop,” he emphasized the name as title, “… is building a new age of freedom and prosperity. The thing is…” Richard stepped closer, Ben tensed. “…the old rules don’t apply anymore. We don’t have to give fake respect to inferior peoples any longer.” His voice lowered “And, guess what else Ben?”

Richards knee smashed into his groin. “We don’t have to put up with atheist hoohaw from people like you anymore either. The Bishop knows who the enemy is Ben, the enemy is Satan and his hordes of godless, white woman raping, non believing, perverts who follow the enemy. The lord has given us this chance to build an army and save all the children from the child molesting Satanists who hold them.” Ben would have fallen to the ground if the men hadn’t held him up. Richard’s voice hammered his brain over the ringing in his ears and the pain in his entire body.

The pain of the moment caused everything to blur. Nick stepped towards him, only to be hit in the face with a club. Haruka was held against the wall. Adam was punched in the face. His own pain became bearable as he was allowed to crumble to the floor. Richard let fly one more insult as he and his goons left.

“If it were up to me, you’d all be dead. You scum should be honored to participate in something so great as the building of Heaven on Earth. The Bishop, in his mercy, has decided to let you cleanse yourself of sin through honest labor. When work on the Cathedral is done, he will give each of you the chance to redeem your souls and become Believers. You can thank God for putting you into the hands of such a merciful man of God instead of leaving it up to me.”

Shortly after this the goons broke them up into seven work groups of three each. There was a woman assigned to each group and that those who had been either vocal about their dissent or physically punished were placed in separate groups as well. Each group contained no more than one man who might pose a physical threat.

Ben’s trio worked well together even though they were not given time to introduce themselves. They removed bricks from crumbling interior walls, loaded them into the barrow, and then one of them would wheel it to where free workers (not slaves) were rebuilding the cathedral walls. Samuel, a large tan man was told to push the first load of bricks. Obviously, the overseers wanted to keep Samuel more physically exhausted, since he was the larger and younger of the two men and therefore, probably the more dangerous. They watched him closely while he pushed the cart out of the room and into the street. It was their careful attention and the noise of the rough cart that gave the woman a chance to introduce herself to Ben.

He hadn’t seen her move, but suddenly, she was there, touching his arm and whispering “I am Sutreyu. There are other people besides these Believers. I will find a way to tell you more later, Ben.” Richard had used his name in front of everyone before attempting to turn him into a soprano. He turned to answer her, but she had already glided away and was busy scraping mortar from between the highest bricks she could reach.

They figured out a system quickly. They would scrape the crumbling mortar from a horizontal row, and then they would push on the wall with a rocking motion until it fell. It was strangely uniform construction. The loose bricks were then loaded in the cart.

She was in her late twenties or early thirties. No taller than five foot and weighed no more than a hundred pounds. She had wrapped cloth around her body like a sarong and used a square piece to create a babushka head scarf that held her voluminous black hair out of the way. As he scraped the grout, he noticed her hands and had to look at her again to see if he had misjudged her age. Sutreyu had the hands of a ninety-year-old woman. Wrinkled, bony, and twisted.

“What people? Do you mean more people that the Believers have not found?”

“Shhh. Do not talk to me. Just work and I will talk to you tonight.”

Ben doubted they would get the chance to be alone in the evening. He was guessing that the last evening’s relative freedom to converse had been a result of the suddenness of their confinement. Still, Sutreyu’s words comforted him as he thought about what they might mean. Maybe she meant that there were people within the community of Believers that were sympathetic to the plight of those who had been wronged. He tried not to let his imagination get the better of him, but could not help feeling buoyed by the knowledge that there might be dissent within the Bishop’s ranks.

The three of them continued with the process of loading bricks and carting them away for the next several hours. The guards silenced any speaking with flicks of their bullwhips – they had gotten very good with the whips very quickly.

In the late afternoon, Samuel was told to take the cart back to the Cathedral. As Samuel moved away from the wall where he and Sutreyu were working, Ben saw the woman place her foot behind Samuel and trip him. The big man tumbled backwards and landed hard. He clutched at his leg and moaned in pain. Ben came closer to see if he was alright, Samuel met his eyes and winked. Ben decided to play along.

He and Sutreyu were both bending over the injured man as he sat up holding his right ankle. The goons were upon them almost instantly.

“We’ll take care of this. Back off!” Samuel stood up and moved towards the wheelbarrow. He limped heavily and favored his left leg. The tip of a whip cracked against his back and he winced but kept limping.

“Doesn’t look broken to me,” one of the guards said. “You,” he motioned to Ben, “take the bricks to the Cathedral this time.” Ben did as he was told, trying to figure out why Sutreyu had tripped Samuel and why Samuel had winked at him. He pushed the barrow out the doorway. It felt like it weighed a million pounds.

Outside, the light was bright. It was obvious the day was coming to a close. Ben came closer to the cathedral and saw work had progressed rapidly. The walls were nearly complete. Free workers had begun constructing a wall, blocking access to the park from anywhere other than the Cathedral. As he looked to the park, he saw a net fly into the air and bring down a bird. The smell of wood smoke barely covered the stench human sewage that was accumulating in the area.

Disease would run rampant through the camp if they didn’t come up with a sanitation system soon. He could have told them how, but he wasn’t going to help the Believers beyond what he was forced to do. They could all get cholera and die choking on their own pollution. After dumping the bricks, Ben prepared to push the cart back to the apartment building when he heard his name.

“Ben!” He turned and saw  Anne. He had misjudged her, she was a stupid, gullible, traitorous bitch and he turned away from her intending to ignore her as she came towards him.

“No talking with the Prisoners.” One of the goons barked at Anne. Ben was glad of the interference.

“I have a message from the Bishop for this man,” Anne said as she continued closer. “Step away from him and allow me to deliver the Bishop’s words.” The goon stepped barely out of earshot. Ben turned as she came near.

“What do you want Anne? ” Ben had no patience would rather go back to labor than face this disgusting girl who mooned over Bishop.

There was fear in her face. “Ben, the…the ..he didn’t send me. It’s Emma. She is awake and wouldn’t listen to me when I told her to keep quiet. She has been spouting blasphemy. She..she woke up and wanted to know about Nick, you, and your friend and I told her…then she wanted to see you and when I told her that you had been arrested she began blaspheming….I, um…I , I , don’t know what to…”

Maybe he was wrong again. Compassion for the girl invaded his sense of disgust. “Why are you telling me this? I can’t do anything about anything…what do you want me to do?”

Anne took a shuddering breath. “I…I know. It’s just that…I , she saved me and I just, I can’t, I owe her…and she…she told me to tell you that.. that..” her sniffling was making it difficult for her to talk. The big goon was looking impatient, Anne’s back was to him, so he couldn’t see the tears on her face but he wouldn’t wait much longer…

The whole reality of his situation was unthinkable, but here he was, a slave, watching a girl struggle with her emotions and waiting for a message of hope.

The words spilled out of her in a single breath. “She told me to make sure you were alright and to tell you that she was going to take care of everything. She said not to worry.” Her breathing again became ragged.

“Great. You’ve told me. I still don’t understand why you are so upset. You’ve done your job. Great, everything is going to be fine. Now I need to get back to work.” He was so annoyed that he wanted to get back to his slavery.

“No,” she gasped. “You don’t understand. She met with the Bishop and …”

Ben looked at her, not understanding.

“Ben, I don’t know what she said, but the Bishop is going to execute her!”

 

 

Chapter 19

Hell on Wheels

Emma had never felt so thirsty. She would have drank horse piss if someone put it in front of her. No one was nearby to make such an offer. She propped herself up on one elbow and tried to figure out where she was.

People were bustling about like busy bees and every one of them was dressed like some sort of medieval peasant. She was wearing the same. She considered slamming her head on the stone floor in order to knock herself back into the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness but thirst drove her to stay awake..

She had never been a person that went in for self delusion anyway, so she looked around to see if she could find a familiar face or someone willing to help her. She saw the Bible beater chick and tried to call out, but her mouth was too dry. She decided to find water on her own.

She tried to stand and the blood rushed from her head. Wobbly. She fought it.

“Anne, your friend is awake…”  A syrupy sweet smile lit Anne’s face as she turned and saw Emma standing there. She dropped what she had been working on and rushed to Emma’s side.

“Praise the Lord, Emma. We thought you might never wake up. You shouldn’t stand up yet, let me help you to sit back down…” The girl was trying to force her to sit but having fought so hard to maintain a standing posture, Emma was loathe to give it up.

“Get me some water…” she croaked, barely audible. Anne ignored her request.

“You need to sit down. You’ve been unconscious for three days.” Anne was still trying to force her to sit. It was not going to happen.

“Water…” she croaked again, unable to complete the rest of what she wanted to say which was “I want some water you little Jesus loving cunt and I’m not going to sit down, so you better take me to some water, now.”

Anne gave up on trying to get her to sit and helped her walk to a brownish sack that sloshed as she picked it up  and poured awful tasting water into Emma’s mouth.

It tasted foul, but it worked wonders on her dried mouth and throat. Emma grabbed the skin and poured more water into her own mouth from it. Other women gathered as she drank.

“…like a miracle…” “…never thought I’d see the dead arise and walk…” “…the Lord can work amazing miracles…” No shortage of weak Christian drivel. Great. It was bad enough having to deal with one of them, now she was stuck in an entire colony.

Taking the water with her, she moved back to where she had awoken. She could tell by the high ceiling and stained glass that she was in a church. Anne motioned for her to sit. Having resisted her efforts for a sufficient amount of time to feel independent, Emma acquiesced.

“I am so glad that you are alive. We didn’t know if you would make it. You bled so much after the dogs…” the girl was gushing. Emma felt an unexpected moment of affection upon seeing Anne’s concern was real.

“It takes more than a bunch of dogs to kill me…” her voice was coming back. She felt weak, but capable. No doubt about it, she would be alright soon. “Listen, um, Anne, right?” the girl nodded. “There is obviously a lot that I missed.  Can you catch me up on where we are, who these people are…”

The girl glanced to where she had been working. “I would love to sit with you, but the Bishop has given us all jobs to do and I really need to finish mine, maybe later….”

Emma held up her hand. “That’s enough. Hold it right there. There’s a padre here? A Bishop? Look, I know you want to be a good girl and all, but I really need you more than the Bishop does right now, you remember Florence Nightingale and Mother Theresa right? Your Bishop will approve of you playing nurse for a while…”

Anne looked to the other women working. “Yes, but..”

Emma felt strength returning as she took charge. “No buts about it Girlie. You are my nurse and I need you to do some things for me. First question, you said I’ve been unconscious for three days, have I eaten anything?”

Anne shook her head no. “We tried to feed you some dog but you wouldn’t…”

Emma interrupted, “No, I don’t imagine I would have…but I’m as hungry as a shipwrecked sailor and I’d eat a god damn albatross in a second, so why don’t you find me something to eat now and come back soon.”

The girl’s face showed offense and confusion. “Emma, I don’t think we have any albatross, but we are in a house of God and cursing like this is unacceptable. I know you’ve been through a lot…”

Here it came again, the girl was a real zealot. “Honey, just get me some food? Okay?” the girl hesitated. This was already tedious.

Finally, Anne smiled “I’m so glad you are awake. I thought you were going to die.” Emma was touched at the girls concern. Maybe she could take it easy on her.

Anne ruined the tender moment, just before she turned to go find food for Emma. “Jesus led me to you so we could find the Bishop and join the Believers together!”

In that moment, Emma knew she had landed in a viper pit.

Anne brought her food and went back to work without giving her any answers. She ate and looked at her surroundings and the people that filled them. She looked at all the people. She needed to know who she was dealing with. There had probably never been a  higher charged or more diverse workplace than the US Postal Service. She was uniquely suited to dealing with  factions, politics, and machinations of power.

There was activity happening all around her. Groups of women were doing industrious ‘women’s work’ throughout the wide open central area of the building. They sat on the floor in groups of five to ten and worked on projects while whispering and giggling to one another. Emma was amazed no one was freaking out, these were women who should have been dealing with intense anxiety over what had happened to their husbands, families, friends, and pets. None of them seemed to be. It was astounding.

The few men she saw entered by the main double doors in the back of the huge room. They skirted around the edges to nasty black cloth curtains. They were big, serious looking guys that were on a mission. These were Jimbo’s. That told her that there was a boss behind the curtain who was giving them orders.

She tried not to think about what she was eating was, but she knew it was dog. Very chewy dog.

This place was organized. Amazingly organized. The men were working on parts of things outside and then bringing them to the women inside for finish work. Next a group of men came inside and took several of the projects that Anne and her group had finished and went back outside. This was a regular fucking assembly line.

She ate slowly, hoping she could ask some questions when someone came to check on her. She didn’t have to wait long. A big arrogant looking blond man with the face of an adolescent boy made a beeline to her from the black curtains.

“Well. It looks like miracles do happen. How are you feeling?” This guy was dangerous. She could tell by the way he carried himself. This whole scene was like walking into a post office where the workers were being run ragged by some power hungry station manager. The guy in front of her exuded a thirst for power.  Ruthlessness. This one was dangerous.  She didn’t have Jimbo or the union here to back her up so she would need to tread carefully.

She tried to sound weak and grateful. The weak part wasn’t hard, as for gratitude, she was starting to think that maybe she would have been better off with the dogs eating her instead of her eating them. “I really don’t know what to think. I’m so….confused. Are you the man who saved me?”

His chest visibly swelled. “I was responsible for those men saving you. I’m Richard.” Yeah, the chest and the name confirmed it. This guy was a real dick. He held his hand to her. She took it and he helped her to stand up. He continued, “It’s been a lot of work. You aren’t the only one who is confused, but we do have answers. God has provided us with all we need and the Bishop has divined God’s plan.”

“Oh,” Emma said. “You’re not the leader? I mean, the Bishop.” She was already sewing dissent and she knew it. This puffed up cock was using someone else’s coattails to raise him to authority but he wanted to be ‘the leader’. If this Bishop person gave Richard any kind of authority,  Emma already knew he was bad news. Things were even worse than she had thought.

“I lead from under the Bishops authority.” He thought himself better than the man he served. He wouldn’t be hard to manipulate. Good. His ego would be her friend.

“Oh, I’m sure you are just being humble. Thank you for saving me.” Not for the first time in her life, Emma was thankful to have grown up a simple country girl that was expected to defer to the ‘more powerful’ sex. She’d learned soon enough about power, but she never forgot that the key to manipulating men was to make them feel powerful. She was hell on wheels when it came to manipulating men. She’d been making men do her bidding longer than this boy had been alive. Still, he was a dangerous one.

“Would you do an older woman the kindness of showing her around? Oh, heavens! I forgot to introduce myself. You must think me terribly rude. I’m Emma.”

“It would be my honor and pleasure to do so Emma. At the moment, however, I have important business with the Bishop. He is very busy, but you’ll meet him soon.” Richard let go of her hand and moved towards the curtains in the front. He was definitely going to be useful.

 

Chapter 20

Religious Talk

“I see you met Richard. Isn’t he just the sweetest? He has been totally helpful to me since we arrived. He is just a really great guy.” Emma felt like puking as Anne mooned like a teenager over a fascist monster.

“Cut the crap Ann. I know what is going on here.I’m not fooled for a second. First of all, where are the people we were rescued with. I’ve been looking around and I haven’t seen Nick or those other two guys. I have a vague memory of seeing the older guy while I was out of it…where are they?” When you are dealing with an Anne, it never worked to let them think you didn’t already know what you were trying to learn from them. If they thought you knew, they lost nothing by telling you.

Anne’s face went through a complex range of emotions before she answered. “Ben and Nick are both okay and they were helping to watch over you when we got here.”

Emma needed to know what the girl was hiding. “Where are they? Out making these stone and wood things or are they part of the hunting party?” They had to be involved in one or the other, it could only help her if Anne thought she had figured it out.

Somehow though, she had screwed up. The girl’s face became smug. “Oh, Emma. You don’t know anything at all do you? I thought maybe Richard had told you, but I see now – you don’t know anything. Jesus has brought us here for a reason, I’m sure you will see that. and everything will be revealed in time.”

Emma took a deep breath to calm herself but then flipped out anyway. “Listen to me you God damned little Jesus freak. Who put that fancy looking sack on you?”

Anne looked down at her clothing. “Um, you did, but..”

“But nothing you ungrateful little twit. Who took you out of the street and probably saved you from dying from too much sun? Huh?” The girl was looking at her in a different way now.

“You did, but..” The smugness was gone. It was a start.

“That’s right. I did. You can thank Jesus and the Bishop and everyone else, but the fact of the matter is that if I hadn’t of saved your sweet little ass, you probably would have been dog food.”  Emma was starting to feel good.

“I’m sorry, I mean, thank you…” the girl was getting that smug look again, “Hey, I have been taking care of you for days and I think that should be…”

“You’ve been taking care of me huh? Is that why I woke up in bloody rags on a stone floor nearly dehydrated? You may be the queen of the bible thumpers, but a nurse you ain’t. After I woke up, you left me so that you could go make your rope tricks…”

Anne interrupted without too much energy now “They’re nets. For fishing and stuff..”

Emma was surprised. There were fish? Why the hell was she eating dog if there were fish? She decided to save that question for another time. She had the advantage and she needed to capitalize on it before she lost it.

“Fine. Nets. Anyway, if you were so grateful, why did you just leave me here?” Emma had the girl on the ropes.

“I just…”

“You just forgot that I saved your life, that’s what. Now, tell me, where are Nick and those guys? What does this Bishop have them doing? Tell me now.”

“Emma, you don’t understand, they weren’t good guys, the Bishop says that..”

“You better tell me where they are, right now.” Emma was feeling much more like herself.

“They’re out getting bricks to fix the cathedral walls. The Bishop says that we need to fix the walls soon before Satan brings…” Anne was desperately trying to justify whatever it was that she hadn’t told Emma yet. Emma could see her eyes shifting around, the girl knew something that she didn’t want Emma to know.

“Where are they? I’m going to see them Ann.” Emma still felt physically weak, but she stood as if she were going to  go outside.

“No! Emma, you can’t! The guards don’t know you and so you can’t get near the slaves….” Anne stopped herself but it was too late. The cat was out of the bag. For a moment, neither of them said anything, it was Emma that broke the silence. She did it calmly. She had broken into the vault of information.

“Okay. Now you can tell me everything. Everything. Start with our arrival.”

Anne turned out to be a great source of information for Emma. She had to put up with a whole lot of drivel about Jesus, miracles, and religious crap, but through that, the girl was a surprisingly accurate source of intel. She loved to talk and anything that was said to her got repeated. She never thought twice about reporting on what she had witnessed or heard. Once Emma had broken through the wall, whatever Anne knew belonged to her.

It didn’t take Anne long to explain what she knew. She told Emma that Ben, Nick, and a bunch of other men had made weapons and had been plotting to kill the Bishop. The Bishop found out about it and placed them under arrest. Now the prisoners were doing hard labor to make up for their sins – as slaves.

Emma didn’t think she could be surprised in this world, but she hadn’t expected this. “You talked with Nick, do you really think that he is the type to want to kill someone? He’s a scientist, a big gentle scientist. What kind of weapons did they have anyway?” Emma was now looking around the room with new eyes. Something had been bothering her, but she hadn’t put her finger on it yet.

“They had spears and whips…the Bishop took them and now his men are using them…I’ve seen the weapons.” Anne was continuing, desperate to convince Emma that she was right to support the Bishop.

It was the word whips that clicked it for Emma. Whips made her think of slaves and slaves (sadly) made her think of African-Americans, and Nick, well, he was English, but he was black. And now he was doing the hard labor of the Believers and …that was when the rest of it clicked. This was a room full of white people. Every person in the room was white.

“Listen to me Ann. They didn’t have any weapons. This may sound funny to you, but tell me, why are all the people here white? Was Nick the only black person that you’ve seen so far?” Emma dropped her voice to a hushed whisper.

“No, of course not, there are all kinds of people here Emma. There are blacks and Mexicans and Indians and Chinese people…I’ve seen them. Don’t be ridiculous.” Anne sounded glib because she was sure of herself again. She was looking around the room as she spoke. “Look, over…huh, that’s weird,” the glibness was rapidly disappearing. “I swear, there were, they must all be working somewhere else, I mean, the Bishop, he wouldn’t….I know, we can ask Richard. He’ll tell us.”

Emma thought of Richard with his puffed ego, blond hair, and blue eyes. All he needed was an armband to be Hitler youth. “Anne. Don’t. Don’t say anything to anyone. Knowing what you know now, puts you in danger. Do you understand me?” Anne looked doubtful but nodded continuing to look around the room for any skin color but white.

“Anne, right now. Go find Nick or the old guy Ben and tell them that I am awake. Tell them I said everything is going to be alright and I will help them. Can you do that?”

Anne shook her head no. “No one is allowed to talk to the prisoners.” It felt better to say prisoners, but her earlier slip had revealed that she knew the truth. “The guards won’t let me talk to them. I’ll get in trouble. ”

Emma grabbed the girl’s arm. “Listen to me. The Bishop has made those men slaves, not prisoners, slaves. Do you understand me? Slaves. It’s just a matter of time before women become property too. Do you want to be a sex slave? You need to do what I tell you. Go tell them I am okay and going to take care of everything. If the guards give you any problem, you tell them that you have a private message from the Bishop. Okay? Are you listening to me?”

“Emma, I don’t think you’re right. I think he wouldn’t do that…I mean, there must be some explanation…” Anne was in a state of shock at seeing the truth. The kool-aid was revealed as poison. Emma tried to be gentle now because she needed the girl as an ally.

“Anne. Slavery is evil right? The Devil quotes scripture to fool the righteous? And do you think that Jesus would sort people by color?” It was hitting the girl, she had been through a lot recently and Emma suspected that she had always been taught to believe what she was told most recently. She was starting to believe Emma.

“Oh my God Emma. Oh Sweet Jesus, please help me, help us all. Oh, Heavenly Father…” Emma smacked her with her open hand. She did it hard enough that it would probably leave a mark.

“Anne. Do what I told you.”

“I will Emma, oh my God, I am so sorry, oh my God…I’ll do it. Emma? What are you going to do? How are you going to fix this?”

Emma smiled. “Oh, that’s easy. I’m going to go see the Bishop.” Emma sent the girl on her errand.

Actually, the Bishop came to see her, led there by Richard. She saw Richard emerge from one of the curtained rooms followed by a tall solemn looking man who slowly proceeded behind Richard to where Emma was waiting. She had intended to request an audience from Richard, but it looked like it was her lucky day. Everyone kept coming to her.

Emma had always been a social chameleon and utilized the skill to make herself fit in wherever she wanted to. Fact of the matter was, most of the time she didn’t want to be considered part of whatever establishment she was in, so it suited her to cuss like a sailor and do whatever it took to have people offended or put off by her. It was amazing how much easier it could be to get in good graces if people thought they had a hand in changing you. She could tell by looking at the Bishop that those sorts of tactics weren’t going to work with him.

Maybe it was because she already knew he was a racist slave maker, or maybe it was something inherent in the man, but she saw him judging her from the moment he emerged and she was certain that of all the people she had ever met, this guy needed a good first impression. She hoped that gooey little freak Anne hadn’t told him too much about her. She didn’t want him to think she was crass. Not at all.

As they came forward, Richard was grinning at her. “Didn’t I tell you he would be excited to meet you? Emma, this is the Bishop.”

Emma had spent a lot of time among Catholics and was no stranger to proper protocol. Technically, she was a Catholic, but only because of an accident of birth and because in her former line of work it helped to be the same religion as most of the heavyweights. Seeing this man’s age, she doubted that he was a bishop before landing wherever they were, he looked no older than forty five. None the less, she greeted him with a curtsey and “It is such an honor to meet you, Your Excellency. Anne and Richard have told me about your hard work. I am in your debt.”

She looked up after a moment and was gratified to see that the man was enjoying her deference Not in the same brash young way as Richard had, but she could see it in his eyes. He wanted more of this kind of behavior. That was certain.

“Emma, we are certainly pleased to finally have you among us in a wakened state. Much has happened in the time you have been here. When Richard informed me that you were awake, I insisted on showing you around myself. Truly we have come into an age of miracles. There were few who thought you would recover from your wounds and yet, in the Lord’s wisdom, here you are. Praise to his name.”

Unlike Anne, who managed to make herself weak with religion by disempowering herself, this man used it to make himself stronger. As he spoke of miracles, Emma had the sense that he was taking personal responsibility for it all. He was praising his name more than God’s. He put her into a tricky spot. She didn’t want Richard to feel bitter towards her and yet she wanted to accept the Bishop’s offer. She had to, actually.

“Oh, Your Excellency, please, I know how busy you must be. I think it would be fine if Richard were to show me around, I would hate to get in the way of any of your important work.” She threw a quick glance and smile at Richard as she said it. She was no longer young and pretty, but no man was resistant to flattery. He smiled back at her. Good.

“Nonsense Emma. We are appreciative of your good sense, but it is equally important to that we learn about each person here. Richard will be able to handle whatever may arise while we walk and talk. You are up to walking?” The Bishop knew how to stroke Richard’s ego too. He was dangerous, but now she knew it was danger with a capital D and several exclamation points. He was Dangerous!!!

“I am still weak, Your Excellency, but I will try. The food you have provided has restored much that I had lost.” If anyone she had worked with could see her now, they would probably die laughing. She might as well have been wearing one of the big Easter hats she kept hidden away in the closets of her apartment. Emma, the Lady. She could play this part and enjoy it.

“Please, take my arm. Emma, while we walk and talk privately, you need not address me so formally, though it is appreciated.” He held his arm out to her.

She took it tentatively. “But what should I call you?”

“Father will do in these informal talks,” he said, not giving up the pleasure of being called Your Excellency in public and no doubt feeling quite large for allowing her to address him as father. She barely kept from snorting. Father my ass. If things went the way she intended them to, he would be calling her Mommy and begging to suck at her saggy old tits in a few days.

She managed to look demure and looked down. “Alright….Father.”

As they walked, Bishop spoke. She had already decided it was a name, not a title.

“I don’t know how much you know about what happened, so please, allow me to explain. Before the rapture took place, God spoke to me. He told me to gather my flock and take them to a place of safety. I did this.”

She wanted to ask him so many questions, what denomination he was (because he certainly wasn’t Catholic), where his flock was, where he had gone, how had God sounded to him, what sort of medication had he been on, and more. Instead, she bit her tongue and listened. The man wanted to talk and she needed to know the what the party line was.

“We braved the storms and trials of the Rapture and the Lord lifted us up into the Heavens. Some were taken to his Kingdom and some, like you and me, we were put here. God has placed us here so that we might be warriors in a final battle against the darkness.”

“Where is here? Where has He put us Father?” she asked him.

“This is the land of in between Emma. This is Purgatory and Limbo. This is the battleground whence the epic struggle between light and dark must take place. The Lord has chosen those he trusts most to come to this empty land and to build Heaven on Earth and an army to defend His Heavenly Hosts.”

What was she supposed to say to this crap? “But why me, Father? Why would God bring an old woman like me here if he were building an army?”

They had stepped outside now. Emma was amazed by what she saw in front of her. Men were building, marching, practicing with whips, spears, and clubs. They looked like dangerous boys playing war. As she looked across the narrow dirt street she could see that a building had been fortified and five men with clubs and whips stood attentively in front of it. To her right she saw a huge pile of cloth that was being added to. Groups of men had formed a fire line coming from a three story building with boarded up windows and a dark doorway to move the cloth to the pile with the most efficiency.

Fires burned in the streets where meat roasted on spits. Dog skins were pegged out in the dirt, feathers being pulled from dead birds and stuffed into knotted bags, and now coming from around the corner, men carrying what looked to be oranges and apples. One of them, seeing the Bishop, ran to him.

“Sir, we have found an orchard in the Parklands. So far we have found apples and oranges and we think we may have also found wheat.” The man handed a small dark orange to the Bishop who smiled broadly.

“Good. Good work Smith. See if you can find men who were farmers and continue to harvest.”

“Yes sir.” Smith turned to go.

“And Smith…” Smith turned back. “Tell no one else the location. We must place guards at the orchard to prevent temptation. We can’t have people helping themselves.” Smith gave a salute and ran to join the men carrying the food indoors. The Bishop continued smiling as he peeled the little orange in his hands.

“As you can see Emma, the Lord has provided for us amply. Of course, his bounty is not free. No, it is not free.” He broke the orange and handed half of it to Emma, a part of her wanted to demand what price he would ask of her for it, but the sweet smell was too much for her to do anything but take the offered fruit. She was barely able to restrain herself from stuffing the whole thing in her mouth and instead peeled off one slice and bit it in half. The juice squirted from the flesh and the only thing that kept her from moaning in pleasure was the knowledge that such a display might taint the view of her that she has thus far so carefully cultivated in the Bishop. None the less, it was the single best moment she had experienced since escaping the tidal wave.

The Bishop was walking again. “Emma, I have the feeling that you are a special case and that the Lord has brought us together for a reason that is beyond the ordinary, if anything in this place can be called ordinary. There is something that is different about you from everyone else. It is something I feel that I must ask you about.”

Emma hadn’t imagined that she had been as convincing as that. There was something else going on. She needed to keep her cool and react the right way.

“Anything Father, you can ask me anything.”

“Good.” She still held his arm as they walked to the left. “I won’t ask you now, there is more that you must want to know. First we will satisfy your curiosity. Tell me Emma, you are of course familiar with the story of Cain and Abel?”

“Of course, Father. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Abel was the good son and Cain the bad one. “ She remembered this from school.

“Good. And what do you know of the son’s of Noah?” Did he plan on teaching her Bible stories?

“Well, I know that Noah and his sons were saved from the flood by getting on an Arc that Noah built by direction of God.”

“That’s a part of it. Yes. Finally, do you know of Abraham and the two men he fathered? Isaac and Ishmael?” What was he getting at here?

“Yes, I am also familiar with this story. Can you tell me why you are asking these things Father?” The man’s intensity level had picked up. He was about to tell her something that he was passionate about. She was glad that he hadn’t mentioned Jesus yet. But she was sure he would.

“Emma, our world was filled with Evil and the word of God was subverted by the worst sources in it. When I was a very young man, God spoke to me and revealed the truth of these and other stories. It is why God has brought me here, to teach the truth. Have you noticed that there are no books here? No bibles, no tracts, none of the diluted and distorted words of Satan have been brought here? God has purified the Earth of evil lies and now he intends that the truth be known.”

Emma was terrified. She tried not to show it. His arms began to wave in expansive gestures, she let go of him and stepped back. This man was insane. He was totally insane. And he was convinced of the divine source of his own words.

He gestured to where they could now see men and women working at tearing down stone and brick walls. Carts were being loaded and large cruel looking white men stood around with whips and clubs. The men and women doing the work were mostly people of color. An Asian man covered in tattoos was tied to a post, unconscious. She was looking at a vision from Dante’s hell.

“God turned Cain black so that all would know of his love for evil. God saw that the sons of Noah, except for Shem, were Sodomites and idol worshippers and he scattered them across the earth making them as yellow as the metals they worshipped and as red as the devils they prayed to. God banished the bastard Ishmael and all of his offspring to fight among themselves in the sands of Arabia and turned them on the Jews who killed his only begotten son.” Spittle flew from his mouth as his sermon of hatred washed over her.

“His chosen people are those who are as pure in color as they are in heart. Emma? Are you ready to tell me what I need to know?”

Emma didn’t have any choice in the matter. The heat, the hate, her weakened condition, and the shock at seeing his face of evil so close that she could smell his dog meat bad breath did what she had earlier fought so hard to avoid.

She fainted.

Chapter 21

The Vichy

This was a very different kind of waking. She lay on a soft mattress in a dark room. Morning light crept past the edges of a doorway curtain but the windowless room remained dark. Emma was surprised to find herself naked, only this time, she was much more comfortable and clean. A piece of the dark cloth was draped over her. She heard voices outside the curtain but could not make out words. It was Anne and Richard. She strained to hear them catching only snippets of the conversation.

“…responsibility towards her…life…I don’t see…things…life of Jesus…” Anne was obviously talking about her. Emma could only hope that she had not said anything to Richard about their previous conversation.

Judging by the quality of her current bedding and Richard’s level tone, she assumed the girl had sense enough to keep quiet. Richard’s words were more hushed than Anne’s but she picked up bursts  “…I don’t know…..strict orders…concerned….he says…” Not enough to get contextual meaning from.

It was maddening. Her eyes adjusted to the light revealing a single doorway. Their voices fell silent. Anne mumbled something and then she heard footsteps as the girl left.

The curtain was swept aside. She closed her eyes, blinded by the light. She pretended to be sleeping. Her last interaction with the Bishop made her nervous as Japanese schoolgirl in a maximum security penitentiary.

“Richard,” the Bishop said, “I won’t need you here while I talk to her.”

The room was silent for several seconds.

“Emma. You can open your eyes. I know that you have been awake for some time now.” How the hell did he know that? Should she try to bluff him? She opened her eyes.

The Bishop held a torch like some hellish angel of death. Shadows danced like dark familiars waiting on mayhem. Emma’s confidence drained away. She had no choice but to push on with the game.

“I’m glad to see you,” she whispered. “When I woke, I thought it had all started over again. What happened…Father?”

The Bishop knelt down beside her. “It was too much to ask of you so soon after waking. I should have known better than to try to show you everything at once.” His tone was gentle, no more racist brimstone, he actually sounded like a priest. “Good Woman. I hope you will forgive my ignoring your frailty and causing you to collapse. I thought you were healed completely by divine grace, but I know that the Lord rarely works such miracles. Are you better now?”

Emma felt okay. Fainting may have been the best thing she could have done. “Where am I? Is this…..Is this your…Is this where you stay Father?”

“Yes. I have made it my personal responsibility to bring you back to health. I sat with you through the night. I hope that you will forgive me for having the women take your clothing and wash you. Your rags were filthy and covered with blood. I had our people make this bed for you. You are a precious gift from the Lord God to this community Emma. The women are happy to do whatever they can to make you more comfortable.”

Emma was confused. She knew she wasn’t the best looking woman among the believers. In fact, she was probably the oldest among them by ten or fifteen years. Why in the world would this guy be treating her like she was some desirable piece of ass? What the hell did he want from her?

“Emma, there is something that I have wanted to ask you about. A curiosity only, but one that might prove valuable to our community. I know you have just awoke, but I must ask now.”

She was still confused. “Father, um, I don’t know…”

“Emma, when you arrived, you and two of your companions were all clothed differently from everyone else that we’ve seen here. Had you noticed?”

She had noticed. Their clothing had been made from the sacks in the vault. It was a different material from the ‘mana cloth’ everyone else wore.

Why was he interested in those sacks?  What did he want?

“Can you help us find more of it? When you arrived, your companions told me that you made their clothing. They tell me that you found the cloth. Where did you find it?”

He was interested in the cloth, but why?

“I found the cloth in the building Nick and I woke up in. There was more of it.”

The Bishop smiled. “Good. I was hoping there was. I think it might be very important. When you are feeling better, we will go out in the city and look for it. You’re companions are unable to point us in the same direction.”

Emma cocked her head to the side. She had to ask. “It’s only cloth, why do you think it is so important?”

He was moving toward the curtain to leave the room. He turned  “It is important, because so far, your cloth is the only thing I’ve seen in this world that was made by human beings.”

With those dramatic words, he made his exit.

Emma felt better much faster than she would have thought possible. The Bishop thought that she hadn’t healed quick enough to be a miracle, but Emma had never healed this quick before. The places where dogs had bit her were practically good as new. Pink skin where she expected scabs and wounds.

She took several deep breaths and realized she felt great. She hadn’t felt this good physically in years. Maybe it was simply the result of having life threatening trauma, or maybe it was something else. She didn’t have answers and she didn’t have time to dwell on it.

Her interactions with the Bishop were difficult. The power and charisma of the man was overwhelming. She felt a deep mental disgust at the same time she felt an undeniable attraction to him. He was a horrid racist megalomaniac who thought that God spoke to him. He was a fake priest. She found herself thinking about him in ways that filled her with self-loathing.

Emma’s clothing was returned to her. It had been washed and sewn into actual clothing. The Bishop’s people had made needle and thread. It wasn’t a summer dress, but it was superior to what she had been wearing. Actually, it was better than what everyone else was still wearing. The Bishop had elevated her status among the Believers . She knew it had something to do with the manmade cloth she wore and she wondered if the Bishop would be disappointed if she showed him the vault. It was the only advantage she possessed and she was loathe to give it up. She needed more information. The smiling woman who brought her clothing had called her Mother and claimed she didn’t know anything.

Emma wasn’t under guard, she could leave the room whenever she wished. She was playing the part of recovery for a bit longer, however, because once she left the room, she would be expected to show where she had found the cloth. She needed Anne. The girl was the best source of information she had.

She poked her head out of the curtain. A bored looking man was sitting nearby either to monitor her actions or make sure she wasn’t disturbed. When he saw her, he stood up straighter and came towards her. Damn if he didn’t almost salute her. Curiouser and curiouser. She recognized him as the man called Smith, who had found the oranges.

“Hey Mr. Smith,” she said to him, not sure whether to play coy or imperious and instead deciding to play it like a young June Cleaver.

The guy smiled a pleasant smile. “Yes, Mother?” There it was again. Was there a memo going around about how to address her?

“Look, um, I have a female problem that I need a hand with…could you…would you be willing to go find Anne for me? I really need her assistance with something that is ..uh…female.” Hopefully Smith was the kind of guy that didn’t want to know anymore about female issues than he needed to. Of course he was, all men were.

“Sure. Wait inside though. I can go find her for you but just stay here, okay Mother?” This was feeling pretty good.

“Yeah, no problem. I don’t really want to go out because of this uh…female problem.”

Smith nearly ran to get away from the ‘female problem’. He didn’t want to know anything else. Good, at least some of the men here were the same as those she had always known. She frowned as she thought of the other men she knew now. The Bishop and Richard on one side and Nick and Ben on the other. She had said she would do something about their situation, she was mostly blustering. Maybe she shouldn’t have had Anne contact them….she honestly didn’t know what she was going to be able to do.

Anne came into the room.

“I was told to come see you Mother?” Even Anne was doing it.  Now she could find out why. Anne looked far too nervous standing in front of her.

“That’s enough of that girl. Why does everyone keep calling me Mother?” Anne let out a breath she had apparently been holding. She looked relieved.

“Oh, Emma, I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I’m so glad to see you. I’m so glad that you are still you. With everything that everyone has been saying about you, I just, I thought that maybe you had changed or that maybe you were….”

Emma hadn’t changed and she interrupted the girl to prove it. “God damn it Anne, what are you talking about?” Emma tried to keep her voice low, but she was already annoyed with the babbling little thing in front of her.

Anne looked shocked and then oddly pleased. “Humph. Well, you can’t be that holy if you are still using the Lord’s name in vain. Please try not to be such a blasphemer Emma. It’s not appropriate.”

Emma was feeling a strong urge to slap the girl, this time with a closed fist.

“After you collapsed, The Bishop had several men carry you back inside. People heard the Bishop talking to Richard. He said you had been brought here for a special reason. The Bishop told us that God brought you to us so that you could make life better here. He said that we should all think of you as a sort of Holy Mother, sort of like Eve in the Garden.”

Emma was flattered and bothered. “Why the hell would he want people to think that? I mean, he just gave me a lot of power right?”

Anne nodded hesitantly, “Well, he gave you a lot of power but you’re still a woman. I mean, you are a woman and woman is here to serve man. And also man needs to be careful of woman because you know, like Eve, it was her that got everyone kicked out of the Garden of Eden. I mean, she talked with the serpent and gave in to temptation and then led to corruption and getting kicked out, so I mean, you are like the first woman. You see?”

The girl was almost gloating as she described the fall of man as woman’s fault. Was she proud of it? Did she actually believe that crap? “Anne, come on, you don’t actually think that woman is created to serve man, do you?”

Anne nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, I do. I really do. I think God made women from man so that he could have a helper. Do you know Emma, I believe it so strongly that I once turned my back on the man I was in love with because he wouldn’t let me be serve him? He wanted us to be equals and that is not God’s plan.”

Emma was in shock. “Anne, that makes no sense. If he told you to be equal, aren’t you obligated to be if you are obligated to serve him as he wishes?”

Confusion filled the girl’s face. She looked almost like she would cry. Emma decided at that moment that she would dedicate some time to righting this girl’s brain. Someone had filled up every one of her brain cells with the most intolerable kind of crap. If she could be saved from it, Emma vowed to do it. But right now was not the time, as tempting as the idea was. She needed to know more. That was the current mission.

“We’ll talk about this more. Okay, so what are people saying about all this then? About me, I mean.”

Anne snapped back to task easily. “Well, they say that you will be in charge of the women. The Bishop is having nearby buildings cleaned out and made ready. One is for the women and one is for the men.” Interesting. Why was he putting this kind of trust in her? But then, she realized, it wasn’t he who had said this part. Hearsay.

“What about the men and women who want to live together? Is there housing for them?” Emma had been wondering if people had begun to pair up yet, this was a good way to approach it.

Anne shook her head. “Oh no Emma, the Bishop says that when the time is right, people will be able to get married, but until then, we must focus on God’s work.”

He had to know that he was setting himself up for rebellion if he denied people the chance to get laid. Maybe they were accepting it now, when the shock of arriving here was stronger than their biological compulsions. You couldn’t stop people from humping like monkeys. Actually, it probably created a dangerous situation for every woman who was by herself.

“Anne, you told Nick that I would take care of everything?” She needed to know.

“No Emma, I told Ben, the older guy. I don’t think he believed me. And Emma, I think that you must be wrong. Ben is white, so why has he been made a slave? I’ve been thinking about it and I think the Bishop is a good man. Richard too. There must be another explanation.” Unbelievable. Emma really did have her work cut out for her with this girl. It probably didn’t do her any good to have her wandering around with explosive information though.

“You are probably right Anne. Let’s forget about all that. Can you tell me what else is happening with everyone?”

The girl described several petty rivalries that had come up between women. She told how some of the men doing labor intensive work had begun to grumble about the ease with which the guards got to exist. She told how the work on the Cathedral was now mostly aesthetic and how the wall around the park was progressing.

“…and now the Bishop has said that we need to build the wall faster than before because  raiders actually attacked the guards in the orchard …”

Emma had been paying attention but had started to think of what she needed to do to make her own position stronger when Anne mentioned the raiders. She almost let it slip past without noticing it.

“Anne…whoa…hold on, did you say raiders?” Emma had to confirm it.

“Yes, they’re terrible. At first everyone said they were apes but one of the women, Kristin, told me that when she was getting water, she saw guards coming back with prisoners. She said they were normal people, but other people have told me that Kristin lies and only made it up. She said that she saw them lock the men up in one of the buildings and that they put the women with the slaves, I mean, the prisoners. We’re supposed to call them prisoners, not slaves.”

Of course, other people were organizing and had survived too. Trapped amongst the Believers she had almost forgotten  they had all appeared on their own. Of course there were other people and other groups, the question was, how were they organized and how many of them were there.

The vault was not as important as getting to see more of this city she was in. She would take the Bishop and the Believers to the vault.

She had time to wonder if it was the right decision.

During the day, she met with several of the Believer women and found that on the whole, they were insane. Out of all that she talked to, only one professed any sort of doubt about the course that the Bishop had set them on. Emma no longer voiced her dissent. She had the chance to gain some real power here and the good that she could do with it outweighed the good that would come about if she rocked the boat.

It made her feel like a collaborator. Not a good feeling.  Is this what it was like for the Vichy French after Hitler invaded? Had they hoped that they would be able to do more good by enmeshing themselves in the dominant power structure than the resistance had been able to do fighting it? She hoped the course she had chosen was the right one, but there was no way to know. She could change her mind later. In the meantime, she would try to ease the suffering of those around her.

She tried to start conversations with the men she encountered during the day, but they seemed to go out of their way to avoid her. Those she was able to engage were courteous but offered no answers to her questions. She looked for Richard or the Bishop, but neither of them was anywhere to be found. The women told her what they knew which was a combination of rumor and fact.

The number of new recruits had slowed to a trickle. Several small groups had left the Believers. Emma tried not to think about concentration camps or mass executions, but knew that neither of the men in charge would hesitate to kill those who were not with them completely. You were either with them or you were against them. That equated to being a Believer, a slave of the Believers, dead, or if you got away, a raider.

Nick and Ben were still slaves and still alive. The slaves were housed in one of the buildings across from the Cathedral. Emma thought it likely that they would be in the building with guards posted. The tattooed Asian man was no longer lashed to the wall.

She was filled with wonder as she looked at what the Believers had re-invented in this city that had nothing but buildings and garbage cloth.

There were clothes, needles, thread, spears, daggers, knives, wheelbarrows, picks, shovels, bags, shoes, bowls, cups, nets, whips, ropes, and blankets. They had killed dogs, small pigs, birds, fish, and some sort of rodent she didn’t recognize. They had found apples and oranges, wheat, lettuce, carrots, blackberries, and a sort of small banana. The cathedral looked more like a cathedral now. Someone had built an alter and put a large rough crucifix on it. She wondered when the Bishop would start holding mass.

In the late afternoon, the Bishop and Richard came into the cathedral covered in sweat. They both  looked upset. In addition to the room that Emma was staying in, there were several more rooms that opened off behind the alter. The two men and five of their warriors went into one of them in quite a hurry. They stayed inside about a half hour. After the meeting, the Bishop came to Emma. The other six dispersed in all directions on what seemed to be very urgent business.

“Emma, please come back into the room so that I can have a word with you.” She followed without a word. This was the way Believer women behaved, not that she intended to conform that much, but the situation seemed too immediate for her to offer any resistance now.

He looked directly at her. She had expected the urgency she had just witnessed to be in his face, but it was not. He smiled.

“I am very happy to see you. You look like you have made great progress in healing. The Lord truly loves you Emma. There is no doubt about that.” If she had been able to, she would have slapped herself for it, but she found herself blushing and bashful at his smile and kind words. Snap out of it girl. He is evil! And maybe that was a part of it…in any event, she wanted to vomit all over herself as she responded.

“I’m happy to see you too Father. Is everything alright?” She knew something was up, but was he going to tell her what it was?

“Yes. Everything is working out perfectly. Emma, you may have gotten a sense of this today, but I want you to know that you are going to be to the leader of the women. You are going to be our people’s Mother. I am confessor and master and you will answer to no one except to me. I hope that this situation suits you?” She could understand Anne wanting to believe him. There really was something comforting about him, about his authority. She tried to remind herself of the Vichy again as she looked in his face.

“Are you sure that I am the right woman for the responsibility?” It was like playacting the role she had always truly wanted. “I am willing but you must be sure.”

“That is why you are perfectly suited to lead Emma.” What did that mean? His words always sounded authentic even when they were contradictory. “In a short while, we will be having our first service and Mass. The Believers will gather in the Cathedral and I will make some announcements that will be shocking and even terrifying for many. They will need you to provide warmth and comfort to them. And Emma,” he moved closer to her. She was surprised as his arms went around her and his mouth moved towards hers while finishing his sentence, “…so will I.”

If she hadn’t of been so excited she would have been nauseated. As it was, she was both. She kissed him back. She hadn’t seen this coming.

Emma wondered if the after sex glow she felt was visible to everyone who looked at her. If so, the mass of Believers on the floor in front of the alter probably thought it was a halo of holiness. She and Richard sat to one side of the Bishop as he stood behind the alter. He spoke to his people, their people, she corrected herself.

A dozen men were standing guard during the Bishop’s Mass. They guarded the slaves, the cathedral, and the store house.

Emma knew she would have to find a way to escape soon. But would she? And did she really? She was disgusted with herself for fucking the Bishop, but she knew that she would do so again. And again, and again. She had become less likely to betray him, instantly,  and more likely to allow him to convince her that the propaganda he was spouting had any basis in reality. This was how biology worked.

The Bishop opened the meeting with a long prayer of questionable value. She was surprised to hear little of his hate mongering in it, but realized that hatred was best spread through peer pressure and indirect reference. If you were too obvious about creating the ‘other’, people might question how similar they themselves were to those being persecuted. The Bishop was smart, he was skirting around the edges of his racist theories of the Divine and allowing people to learn to hate on their own.

“…and we ask you, oh Father, to continue to shed your blessings upon us, your Believers, so that we might survive the ordeals and challenges that lie ahead of us. And we thank you for these gifts you have bestowed upon us and the love you have shown us. We Praise Thy Name. Amen.”

Many of the Believers had been drawn to tears as the Bishop talked about the loved ones they had left behind, the world they had left, and the hardships they had thus far endured. Shared adversity bonded everyone in the room to the man that stood before them. Emma felt it, she hoped that some in the room were smart enough to realize that the Bishop was using group psychology on them and binding them in a different sort of rope than the slaves who were secured across the street. The noise of sniffles and crying were drowned out by a united answer to the Bishop’s amen.

“AMEN!” It was thunderous. It was unanimous. It was terrifying.

Emma opened her eyes and saw worshipful looks being directed at the Bishop, Richard, and her. This was madness.

The Bishop got to the meat and bones of this meeting.

“As some of you know, probably all of you,” the Bishop was deadly serious, “ we are not the only people here. The forces of Evil have been gathering and organizing even as we have tried to bring some beauty and goodness into this world.” Emma thought again of the slaves across the road and shuddered as the audience nodded.

“Today, these forces became more bold. Today, several of the people we call ‘Raiders’ tried to enter one of our orchards. Rest easy though and know we were able to repel them and we were able to kill them.” A gasp went up from the audience. Emma was certain that these Christian people would be as aghast as she that the Bishop claimed a wild orchard as their own and now had killed people seeking the food it offered. The audience went still.

And then they began to applaud. She couldn’t believe this! They were applauding murder. They were applauding the hoarding of food and denial of resources to anyone that was not a part of their group. They knew nothing of these people and now, they were cheering at the news of their death. It might have been people they knew, it might have been their families. And still, here they were, applauding and cheering. The Bishop said that these ‘Raiders’ were evil, so they must be.

“Because of the increasing aggressiveness of the Raiders, we are all going to have to pull together and make some sacrifices. I know that the Lord puts these challenges in front of us in order to test us and make us stronger. I know he will find us all willing to come together as Believers willing to sacrifice whatever we have to so that His will is done. It won’t be easy and I know not everyone will be pleased at what we now have to do, but please remember that God has given us everything and so we should be willing to give him everything…and more.”

There was more applause. They were applauding him as he told them that he was going to make their life more restrictive and demand more of them. Emma saw people cheering who earlier in the day had complained about the inequality between guards and workers. This was madness. How was he doing this to them. Why were they allowing him to? Didn’t they hear what he was saying?

“As of tonight, we have constructed secure dormitories for the men and women. The women will be housed in the buildings on the right side of the Cathedral and the men will be housed in the buildings on the left side. We are working on solving the problem of sewers and waste, for the moment, we will all have to deal with things as they are. The doors of both dormitories will be secured from the outside for your protection. We are doing everything we can to make sure that you are safe. Your safety is the priority of us all.”

More applause, slightly less this time.

A man Emma had seen working on the walls stood up.

“Who is securing the doors? Are we locked in?” There was a quiet pause in the audience as the Bishop listened and then replied.

“Aren’t you a Believer, Brother?” There was no other question the Bishop could have asked that would have refuted the man so completely. There was only one answer he could give.

“Of course I am.” The man wanted to say more, but dared not. The Bishop had more to say.

“And that is why your are precious in the eyes of the Lord and of this community.” The Bishop’s voice raised. “We who have been brought here were chosen precisely because we are Believers. The Lord has chosen you, my son, to hold his banner. He has chosen you to defend His Name, His commandments, and His love for humanity. Is there anything that you would not sacrifice for your God?”

“Of course not,” the worker was trapped. “Anything.”

“And that is the way that these warriors and guards amongst you feel as well. Just as you work each day to make this community more secure, they will work each night to protect you, all of you, from outside threats. These men are willing to give their lives to protect you. They will face whatever may come at you from the darkness, and they will lay down their bodies in order to further the peace and security of the Lord. We all make sacrifices and these men are willing, like all of you, I am sure, to make the ultimate sacrifice.” The Bishop gestured to the outside walls of the room where the guards and warriors stood.

Emma noted that the main body of Believers were surrounded by armed men loyal to the Bishop and figured that this was not a coincidence. The Bishop surprised her constantly with his preparedness. In the process, she was filled with more terror of what was to come.

“So, is there any man or woman here that is not willing to make their difficult job easier? By securing the population in the dormitories and enacting a strict curfew, we ensure that these brave men will know who is with them and who is against them. We must be certain that we can recognize our enemies.”

The man sat. He had been defeated. He may have been the only person who truly felt the threat of the Bishop’s words – and he had been noticed. The rest of the crowd cheered as the Bishop informed them they would be locked up each night. They clapped as he told them if they left the dormitories they would likely be killed. They gave him more power even as he told them he was taking away their freedom.

The applause was deafening. Hallelujahs filled the air. Bile filled Emma’s stomach.

The Bishop introduced Emma to the community at large.

“Now, I want you to know that the Lord has heard our cries and granted us one who will soothe the woes of this harsh existence. Please, allow me to introduce the woman who the Lord in his wisdom has sent before us to minister to our emotions and needs. Mother Emma, please stand so everyone can see you.”

There was no escaping it now. She was Vichy.

Chapter 22

Into the Mystic

Ben didn’t trust Anne. She didn’t realize where loyalty to one person or cause would limit her ability to be loyal to another person or cause – and that was problematic. Many people had the same issue, she wasn’t the only one. Whether it was loyalty for a cause or a person, standing on the fence was a limiting move. If you allowed your values or loyalties to swing where the wind blew the weathercock, you were certain of only one thing. A lightning strike.

As he pushed the wheelbarrow back to where Samuel and Sutreyu were dismantling the walls, Ben evaluated his fellow slaves. Ben was certain that Sutreyu had a set moral position. For her, there would be no doubt about which side of the fence she lived upon. Ben was a reader, a seeker, and in his quest for knowledge he had delved deeply into reincarnation and past lives. Those who gained difficult wisdom in past lives were reincarnated with that knowledge – in some form. Sutreyu’s hands looked like they had lived a hundred lives, but her voice and eyes conveyed a number that was in the thousands.

There was no sign this life would get easier. They worked until the last bit of daylight faded . They were not given time to rest or communicate. Finally, they were escorted, one group at a time, to the jail that had been prepared for them. The jail they had been forced to prepare. Their hands and feet were not tied as they were pushed into the dark building three and four persons at a time.

Ben stumbled over soft bodies in the darkness. There was no light. No windows. No vision. A hand grasped his arm and led him forward. In the darkness he heard moans from people who had reached delirium. The cries of these people held no hope.

“Can you go on?” the man’s voice was familiar, but at the present moment, he didn’t recognize it.

“I need to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Can I sit somewhere?”

“Yes but I must get you away from the doorway. The deranged and broken have thrown themselves down in the entrance. We are trying to get the rest of you out of the way so that we can avoid stepping, sitting, and lying on each other.”

“Is there a way out?” This man knew things. It was worth asking.

“Not that we have found yet, but I am glad to hear it is on your mind. We cannot give up hope or we might as well give up life. Sit and rest, allow your eyes to adjust, I will be back. When you are able, you can help if you desire.”

Ben sank onto the cold stone floor. The man’s voice was very familiar, but he couldn’t place it in the darkness. He would know soon enough. He waited for others to be led to where he sat, but no one came. He wanted to help, but was unable to rally his body from a sitting position. He heard people, but they were in the distance, not in close proximity. It was blackness where he sat and his eyes were slow to adjust. Who had led him here?

He decided to wait a few minutes and if no one came, he would seek out other people. More prisoners being shoved into the building.  It was in front of him, but muffled as if he there were a wall between his position and the doorway.

With concentrated effort, he felt his way along the wall. A part of his brain was asking if he were reliving his first moments in Purgatory. This time, he could find no exit, he could find no windows. The walls were smooth plaster under his hands. The wall seemed impossibly long, impossibly straight, impossibly smooth. The sounds of other people disappeared. He kept going, knowing there must be a way out of the room. He didn’t want to go backwards, the path forward would take him somewhere.

Now there was noise. Now it sounded as if people were all around him, whispering, crying, and pleading. Ben pounded on the wall. He heard similar pounding repeated from all sides.

“Can you hear me?” He yelled into the darkness.

There was a response but the words were too distant to understand. He felt high and low for any break in the smooth plaster. He found nothing. Nothing but smooth, cold wall.

Where was the man who had led him here? Had he been placed in a solitary confinement? Was he to be separated from the others?

This train of thought reminded him of Vlad. And then he knew. The voice that had led him here belonged to Vlad!

Ben was too exhausted to continue. He lay on the floor and closed his eyes. He had been in a state of constant stress since the storm. Escaping, discovering, making sense of the senseless, being chased by dogs, and being put into slavery. He had every reason to be exhausted.  He put his head on his arm. In seconds he was asleep. Ben fell into slumber that only the tired, hungry, and enslaved can know. Sleep was the only freedom he had.

He was no longer alone. He was no longer in the long walled room. It was no longer night. It was no longer dark. And he was no longer allowed to close his eyes and be free of the world that had been borne from everything he knew.

Ben sat on a stone stairway. Thousands of steps upward and thousands of steps downward. Downward, a haze of pollution trapped beneath an inversion layer below him. The steps led into it. Upward, a white palace. The steps faded before the palace, but he was certain that it was where they led. So many steps. To either side, ragged cliffs and sparse yellow grass preventing any choice other than up or down.

This impossible terrain had been conquered by someone. Ben saw giant Chinese characters painted on sheer cliff faces. He had always appreciated the beauty of the script but never seen it with such understanding before. The characters were balanced without symmetry. Long columns of bright red characters providing a message to travelers on this lonely endless stairway.

“I thought you might be able to read the characters,” a woman’s voice said from behind him. “Do you know what it means?”

Sutreyu was standing where she had not been moments before. She smiled at him as he turned towards her. She wore a red silk gown that flowed around her like a thousand gossamer veils.

“Sutreyu?” he gasped.

“Yes. I told you I would find a way to talk to you. Are you ready?” She spoke calmly.

“Where are we?” He knew he was in a dream, but he also knew he wasn’t.

“We are somewhere between the birthplace of Lao Tzu and Confucius between Heaven and Earth, between sleep and wakefulness. You see China’s Shangxi Province, but what you see is not where we are. Can you read the characters?” Her voice was soothing and urgent at the same time.

Ben looked to the cliff face again. “A drunken man who falls from a wagon, is bruised but not destroyed. His bones are like the bones of other men, but his fall is different. His spirit is entire. He is not aware of getting into a wagon or falling out of one.”

“That’s right.” She sounded pleased. “It’s a story from Lau Tzu. I want you to remember it. It will be important. We must climb the stairs Ben. There is more that I need to show you.”

In his waking life he was breaking walls and in his sleep he was climbing never ending stairways. His body did not feel fatigue here though. He felt completely renewed. It was wonderful.

Sutreyu spoke as they climbed. “It is the palace of Guanyin. She has many names throughout the world, she is the Goddess of Mercy and Healing. For thousands of years, pilgrims in China have climbed these steps when they were in need of favors from her. She can offer compassion to those who suffer, mercy to those who are condemned, and health to those who are sick.”

“Why am I going to see her?” .

“You are not going to see her. You are becoming aware of her.” Sutreyu continued, “What you are going to see is important and you must not doubt it later.”

The steps continued on forever. A huge marble archway that stood over the stairway. It was visible over a rise where the stairs leveled and disappeared from view. “What is that?” he asked.

“It is what you are here to see,” she whispered. “It is the first of the gateways one must pass through in order to reach the Heavenly City.”

“I thought you said that these stairs lead to the Palace of Guanyin?” The archway was white but built like a Japanese Toraji Gate. Toraji were used to separate the sacred from the profane. He had read about them.

“They do. Eventually. But, if one wants to visit the Gods, one must pass certain obstacles. You must figure out how to pass this gate Ben.” Her voice was more distant.

He turned and saw that she was walking away from him, down the stairs.

“Hey, where are you going? I thought you said you were going to tell me about the other people? What about the people besides the Believers?”

“I can only tell you this much. Slaves are not allowed in Heaven, one must have freedom to join the Free. Guanyin is above, looking down, but she will not bestow her gifts upon those who are not worthy. Think of this and all you have learned and you will find your way.” She continued down the stairs.

“Where are you going? Why are you going down the stairs?” He needed to understand, why she would send him up and then return down them.

She turned and smiled at him again. “What was it your friend said to you? When you are ready, you can help. These are wise words. As for me, I am ready and I have to go downward. There are others who need to be guided here.” He watched until she disappeared into the mist.

When she was gone, he began to climb the stairs again. He reached the gate and tried to pass beneath it. He took one step and felt the newfound buoyancy in his limbs disappear. The next step brought back all of the exhaustion he had felt before sleeping. He struggled to take a third step but his body was buried in exhaustion. He could not. He sensed something above him, a massive force, crushing him further and further into the ground until he was left with his tired and battered body lying exhausted on a stone floor for a dreamless night of much needed rest.

 

Chapter 23

Plotting

 

Nick was shaking him. The tall man’s dark features were relieved when Ben opened his eyes. There was pale light coming under the rough wooden door the Believers had barricaded them in with.The room was roughly twenty feet long by twenty five feet wide. It was packed with people.

The enslaved sat against walls or lay prone on the floor – often overlapping. The moans of those who had suffered the most the day before filled all the empty spaces. Except for the door he had been shoved through, there were no exits from the room. The walls and ceiling were rough concrete. He was about ten feet from the doorway.

“How did I get back here Nick?” Nick looked at him curiously with a tilted head.

“The same way we all got in here Ben. They herded us from work and shoved us all in here. You were unconscious almost instantly. I thought you’d had a heart attack or died. I sat with you the whole night and tried to wake you up multiple times. I’ve never seen anyone sleep that deeply!”

Ben shook his head like an angry bull. “No, I mean how did I get back in here. When I came in, Vlad took me…” Nick’s face changed from concern to alarm. Vlad was dead.  Ben decided that explaining was going to be too complex. “I’m okay, I had these dreams that were…they were so real.”

“I’ve had them too,” Nick said. “The dreams of the other world seem so much more real than the nightmare of this one. This is a life that I never thought I would see. As a child,  I left a country of superstition and have devoted myself to science and rational thought ever since. I thought slavery was an American issue because the British academic circles I moved in were color blind. And yet here we are in slavery. I would much rather believe in my dreams.”

Ben could see Samuel across the room, leaning against the wall – working out. This sucked. He hated this world. He wanted to be free. Maybe it wasn’t the world he hated. He hated the Believers. They were what stood between him and freedom.

“We’ve got to get out of here Nick. Anne said not to worry because Emma was going to take care of everything for us, but I don’t think we can count on that. We need to make a move and we need to do it soon. Every moment we wait, the Believers figure out how to lock us in more securely. This might be the only time we have to plan anything. Have you talked with others? Fill me in.”

Nick hadn’t talked with anyone.

Ben was surprised at how rested he felt. He was equally surprised at the sense of urgency that leapt into his actions. He looked for other people he knew. He could see Adam, Haruka, Abdullah, and Samuel all sitting near one another. That was where he needed to be.

He stood up.

“Most of us slept like the dead last night,” Nick said “Yesterday was more work and stress than anyone ever expected to deal with. People started stirring about twenty minutes ago with the first light.”

Ben was all action. “We must wake everyone here, Nick. There are other people and other groups out there and we need to find them. We need to get away from these people. ” His dreams had reminded him that the Believers were not the only option for society in Purgatory. There was hope in action. He would earn his freedom or die trying.

He began to weave his way through the room to where Samuel was still doing exercise. Nick followed. He felt Haruka’s eyes following him. From the corner of his vision, he saw Haruka tap Abdullah and point to them. Adam was next to him now.

“Looks like you’re on a mission Ben.” Adam’s tone was wary. Ben realized his face expressed his grim determination. He had crossed the room with a purpose and direction that probably looked alarming. He took a breath, tried to relax his face, and smiled. They probably thought he was going to attack them.

Several of the men and women he didn’t know yet had approached. The energy of this meeting spread like an electric current in saltwater. Everyone in the room was watching to see what would unfold. Sutreyu had come near. He felt her presence. He didn’t dare look at her.

He needed to do something he had never wanted to do. Something he still didn’t want to do. Something that had to be done. Suddenly he understood history. He understood the power of circumstances beating down like a blacksmith’s hammer to forge identities and bring about change.

He had to lead. He had to become a leader.

“Things have gone from bad to worse and they are not getting better.” His voice sounded loud and confident. It was him, but it didn’t sound like him. “Things are getting much worse. I don’t know most of you or how most of you came to be here, but I know you aren’t slaves. You aren’t meant to be treated this way. This is not our fate and we cannot accept it as such. These aren’t the only people in this world. They can’t be.  ”

“They’re not.” The woman was a tall, dirty blond. Her hair was as blond as corn silk and she was crusted with dirt and grime. She was so dirty and blended into the dim light so well that he hadn’t noticed her before. “Across the river there is at least one other group as big as this group. There are probably others too.”

Everyone was looking at her. It was amazing he hadn’t noticed her. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” her voice showed no doubt “I’m  Leah and I’m positive.” She was tall. At least as tall as Ben at five foot ten inches. She moved closer to the core group, her hair was forming dreadlocks and she wore no clothes. She wore mud like a garment. She was magnificent.

“How can you be sure they are there?” Nick asked the question.

Leah laughed. “Because until yesterday, I was a part of them. We have a base across the river but we set up a camp outside of the city. Bridger, that’s the guy in charge, figured we should send out scouting parties to see if we could find other people or food. We sure as hell didn’t expect to get jumped by your Believers.”

“How many of you are there? Are there others from your group here?” Haruka was looking around the room.

Leah shook her head. “There were three of us and I don’t know what happened to the other two. Your people hit us hard. They may have killed them. I hope they got away and let Bridger know.”

“Not our people,” Ben jumped back in the conversation. “We are captives. Definitely not our people.” Hope blossomed suddenly. “Do you think Bridger will come looking for you? Do you think he will send search parties to find you?”

Leah shook her head. “No way. We had to convince him that we should come into the city in the first place. He won’t send more people, but if we can reach him, these Jesus freaks won’t dare try to follow us. We’d massacre them.”

Abdullah laughed. “I would like to see that. I would pay money to watch it.” Several others laughed in agreement.

The Believers would be coming to put them to work soon.

“We’ve go to escape”, Ben said..”It’s the only option besides being worked to death.”

“Do you have a plan?” Haruka leaned forward, interested.  Ben realized he didn’t have a plan. He had intended to rally people but they wanted a plan. They needed a plan. There was no doubt about that now.

Saying no would kill the spark of hope. He didn’t have a plan, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one.

“You look like a man with a plan,” he said to Haruka. It was a gamble. “How can we help?”

Haruka didn’t disappoint. He smiled and leaned forward “Tonight when they bring us back here…”

That was as far as he got. Bright light flooded into the chamber as the wooden door was yanked open.

A cruel voice yelled “First group out the door by the count of three or you get a lash for every second you miss it by.”

There was no time to speak. It was time to work.

The work was no less grueling but the anticipation and knowledge that Haruka had a plan gave him a strength and hope that got him through the back breaking ordeals of the day. Groups were heavily segregated from one another and the only two people he had any contact with over the entire day were Samuel and Sutreyu. Like him, they knew nothing of Haruka’s plan.

In a rare moment without an overseer, Ben cornered Sutreyu. “Did you have strange dreams last night?”

Sutreyu smiled at him and softly said “No. I had no dreams.” The sound of the guard returning cut the conversation off.

He needed to believe something had happened last night. It was too real. This morning, he felt destiny shaping him. It was exhilarating. Like nothing he had ever experienced.

Through the day, Samuel would take three cart loads to the areas where the wall was under construction and then Ben would take one. Ben considered lodging a protest about this being unfair to his big companion, but in a rare moment of selfish rationalism decided that given the present constraints, it was as fair as could be hoped for. Samuel was younger and much stronger – and he didn’t seem to mind. Even taking a single barrow-full tapped all of the strength Ben had.

After a seeming eternity of labor, Ben again had another brief second with Sutreyu. Having spent far too many hours alone with his labor and his thought, he could not restrain himself from asking that which he needed to know.

“Did we talk last night?” He whispered it, hoping the guard would not return before he could get an answer.

Her laughter startled him.

“Silly man. I sat by your motionless body for hours to make sure that no one stepped on it.” He wasn’t sure whether to feel relief of disappointment. She went on. “It was as if you were a drunk that left this world for another. Are you drinking again, my friend? Would you like me to load you into the cart when Samuel returns?”

He had started to turn to his work as she said it. He wheeled about, but she was already working at prying three large bricks from each other with a sharp piece of stone – back to him. She had answered him. He knew to stop asking.

He had always sensed it but never completely understood. Life gives you the answers you want. If you wanted to know something, the answer was usually as plain as day. The problem for most people was that they wanted more direct answers than life was willing to give them. He had seen curiousity drive sane people to the brink of insanity. There was little more maddening than demanding answers from a universe which spoke in its own language.

There was no more time to talk. On his next turn at the wheelbarrow, he saw Emma walking through the dusty streets wearing what looked like the first real clothes he had seen. A sharp pang of disappointment stabbed him as he realized that she had been sucked into the cult-like community of Believers. The thought of the people Leah had spoken of kept him from despairing . A group living in a wilderness beyond the river led by a man named Bridger. The universe spoke a language that was obvious to those who listened.

Ben’s dreams remained clear in his mind. He tried to make sense of their meanings. A room with no exit with endlessly smooth walls. A stairway that offered a painful way up or an easy way down. A changed way of seeing things that left one unaware but unable to be affected by the immediate. The symbols had been powerful.

A prisoner leading him to confinement, a leader directing him up while she went down, and a rite of passage that demanded more than he could give.Ben considered these messages. He thought of the life he had lived. He woke.

A voice screamed in his brain, overcoming his thoughts of the past and present. “You are ALIVE!” the voice shouted. “For all of your days you have searched for meaning and reason. For all of your existence you have sought that which is fulfilling. For the first time in your life, you are not simply counting one more day that you are not dead. YOU ARE ALIVE!”

The voice was his. The voice was right. His present conditions were worse than he had ever imagined they could be. He was a slave being forced to labor for a cult. And yet, he would not trade where he was for a year of time in the world he had left. It was insanity! He was exactly where he wanted to be, exactly where he needed to be. He knew this with every fibre of his being. He had spent his entire life searching for something that made his efforts meaningful and in slavery, he had found it. Nothing in his life had equaled the need to free himself from bondage. He had never been so alive.

Tonight….he would find what freedom truly meant. Tonight, he would be free.

Chapter 24

Nothing Left to Lose

Something strange was happening with the Believers.

There was at least an hour of daylight left but suddenly, the crew bosses demanded they complete the load they were on. They would go back to the prison room. Ben wondered if Haruka’s plot had been discovered but then reminded himself he didn’t know anything about the plan. Haruka might say his plan was to break down the door and run as fast as they could in different directions – which might work for at least a few of them. He laughed to himself.

The overseer moved towards him. “Something you think is funny, rebel scum?”

Ben kept working but idly wondered if this man had watched Star Wars as a child and dreamed of becoming a storm trooper. The guard was waiting for an answer or at least waiting for an excuse to unleash a beating.

“I choked on some dust,” he lied.

“Choke on this, faggot.” The guards club smashed into Ben’s side. Ben felt the wind leave him and struggled to stay standing.

“You knocked that one out of the park Sanders. Nice hit.” Obviously, he couldn’t expect help from the other guards. They found this funny. Samuel returned with the barrow and the guards turned their attention to him. The big man worked in a methodical way, head down, obviously not looking for trouble. He was rocking a large brick wall back and forth, it looked like it would fall soon.

Sanders wasn’t done tormenting Ben. “Wanna have some more laughs? I bet you wish you had a God you could ask for help. Fucking atheist.” The club was coming down on him again. At that moment, he remembered the words written on the cliff. He allowed his body to crumble under him with no resistance and no tensing for the pain. The club hit a body that moved with it. It hurt less but looked like a far more powerful blow to the watching goons as Ben crumbled to the ground.

“Oh, that had to hurt,” one of them laughed. “Nice one Sanders. I bet you broke something there.” Ben stayed down hoping that the beating would not continue. Seconds later, the wall Samuel had been pushing collapsed. Noise, dust, and most importantly for Ben, distraction.

Sutreyu whispered in his ear “Stay down. It is not time yet. Stay on the ground.” Her voice was calm. It wasn’t hard for him to stay down.

A brick come like a rocket into Sander’s face. His nose exploded with an audible crunch. A blossom of blood spewed from the man’s face. He screamed in pain as Samuel flew onto him like a vengeful wind. His fists were pounding pistons. Ben tried to pull himself up but was weighted down by the body of Sutreyu who had thrown herself atop him. The two goons moved quickly to help their asshole friend as Samuel pummeled him.

Ben wanted to help. He managed to pull himself up on all fours with Sutreyu holding onto his back like a parasitic tortoise. One of the goons wrapped his whip around Samuel’s neck like a garrote. The other beat Samuel’s head with his club. Ben prepared to launch himself at the one with the club. The goon turned to him, club raised.

“Back off old man. It’s not your turn yet.” Samuel was gasping for breath. His face was bluish.

Ben stepped backwards. Sutreyu had dismounted his back and was pulling him away. Sanders lifted himself from the pile of rubble Samuel had knocked him into. His face was unrecognizable. He wiped the blood from his eyes and picked up his club. He smiled through the blood as he brought the club high over his head. Ben stepped a further step back.

Sanders brought the heavy club down on Samuel’s head. Sander’s brutal action was a surprise to everyone. The guard holding the whip jumped away as Samuel’s head was turned into a bloody pulp by blow after blow from Sanders. Both of the other goons watched in stunned silence. Ben heard Sutreyu gasp behind him.

This could easily turn into a massacre if the other guards decided to turn the violence towards Ben and Sutreyu.There was nothing they could do.

Sanders ripped the garbage cloth from Samuel’s lifeless body and wiped his blood drenched face and hands clean. There was blood everywhere. Sanders looked like the monster he was, covered with brains and blood. He smiled. He actually smiled.

“Take these two back to their cell.” The goons did as Sanders told them.

Ben and Sutreyu were shoved into the cell room. Samuel lay where he had fallen. Free from bondage. Free from life. Ben  had a feeling they were all going to die.

In his fifty two years, Ben had never seen anything like the brutal murder of Samuel. He had seen people die while he was in the service. In the two years he spent in Vietnam, he had seen men blown up, shot, and burned. It had been war that somehow made it less terrible than what he had just seen.

Samuel had attacked the guard to save Ben from a beating.

Ben realized how close he had come to having his ticket punched. If it hadn’t of been Samuel, it might well of been him. He sat in the dark room, no delirium to help him escape this time. He and Sutreyu were alone, the first to be brought back. The small woman sat next to him on the wet floor. The room was fetid with the stench of twenty people from the night before. There was no toilet in their cell. Most of them had tried to go in the corners, but it was everywhere. There was no escaping it, not without escaping.

Sutreyu spoke. “There was nothing you could have done. It was his time. He knew that when he made the decision. Each of us is faced in each instant with the choice of our actions. Do we do it, or do we not? There is only one answer.”

“Yes, in hindsight.” Ben felt bitter towards he. If she had not weighted him down, he may have drawn some of the blows and been able to save Samuel.

“If you prefer to think of it like that, yes. But there are other ways of thinking. Me, for instance, I had the feeling that keeping you alive was more important than trying to save Samuel. You may not like it, but I made the decision and now we are both stuck with it. My decision was already made before I even thought of it, that is one of the views that is different from the way you are thinking of things.”

“You are arguing against free will? You think that all of this is predetermined?” Ben had always considered himself a disciple of John Locke. The future was a blank Slater, not predetermined. He felt that each human being was born with a blank slate that would be filled by the course of their actions. He believed in free will and had never understood why anyone would disempower themselves by believing otherwise.

“One has to think beyond the body if one wants to understand the full ramifications of free will. Ben, if you pick up a rock with your right hand, are you then able to pick up something else with the same hand?”

“No. I mean, I could drop what is in my hand..”

“But the fact is that you are no longer able to make the choice to pick something up without making a different choice before hand. Does that mean that you no longer have free will?”

“Of course not, I still have the choice of my action…”

“Yes, but that choice is limited by actions you have already made. If you choose to go outside without your shoes, you can no longer choose to put them on if they are inside without making a choice or a series of choices in between the present and the action you want to take in the future. You still have free will, but you are limited by both the time and the space of the actions you have already chosen.”

“Yes, I understand that, but there is a point where you make an initial choice. We all start with a blank slate.”

“Do you really think that? Have you ever thought about what you are saying would mean? If each human starts as a blank slate and then as time moves forward creates a narrower and narrower set of choices for themselves, doesn’t it mean that your entire life is determined by the choices you made when you were an infant or a toddler?”

“Well, you could look at it that way, but parents have something to do with those early decisions. They are really more responsible for our young choices than we are…”

“So, you want to believe that you have free will, but only over the course your children’s lives will take? Do you really give your parents all the credit and all of the blame for the person you have become?”

Ben was stumped. He had painted himself into a corner. He could continue to argue, but he had lost faith in the belief he had so ardently believed in his previous life. A lifetime belief of thinking each person was responsible for making themselves had been shattered. He was at a loss and he had spent years learning that when you find yourself at a loss for understanding or words, it was best to stop arguing and start listening. Had he figured that out himself or was it something his parents had told him?

He called it the first rule of holes. When you found yourself in a hole, the first rule was to stop digging.

“Ben, have you ever considered that maybe the soul is something that inhabits the body but that is not dependent on it? These people who have us held captive, they have focused all of their belief and energy on a flawed picture of the soul existing within the body and then leaving this plane of existence when the body is no longer functioning. They see life as a one way ticket with no starting point and one of two destinations. Have you ever asked yourself what the starting point might be?”

Ben was appreciative of her questions. His mind was aware of what he had just witnessed, but was occupied with solving the riddles that Sutreyu put before him. He welcomed the distraction from the far too real present.

“Do you mean reincarnation?” he asked.

“In a way, yes. Have you ever considered that maybe the first influence on your decision making was not your parents, but maybe it was actually you. I don’t mean the you that is growing older each day, the you that has worldly goals, the lusty you. I mean, you. Y-O-U. The you that is still there if you imagine your body disappearing. Do you really think that when your body dies, you disappear?”

Ben felt goose bumps sprout on his arms. He thought of Vlad leading him to a room that didn’t exist. Was that what he had experienced ? Was it Vlad without the body of Vlad? His thoughts turned inward until he realized that Sutreyu was still talking.

“…and that was when I knew that I must travel to the temple of Guanyin.” Her words brought him back to the steps he had seen her on in his dream.

“Did you say you went to the temple of Guanyin?” he asked “Up all the stairs and through the gates?”

She smiled. “Yes. I know. It is a place you know of. I will start again. I want you to pay attention Ben. There is something in my past that tells me that I must tell you this story now. It is something that you need to hear.”

Ben nodded. She began again.

“In my life, I was drawn to the stars. As a child, they would tell me stories as I looked at them. I could see pictures of things that had happened and things that were still in the future. Not long ago, I began to see images that were unfamiliar and not in a form that I could understand. I saw the things that I considered important in my life disappear and I knew that a sort of death would be coming soon, not just for me, but for many. I saw suffering and hardship in the sky and it was then that I decided to make the long journey from my village near Cheng-du to the palace of Guanyin and the Holy Mountain.”

“It took me months of travel on foot, begging as I went for the food that sustained me. Finally, I reached Mount Taishan and began the pilgrimage up the six thousand, six hundred, and sixty-six steps that would lead me to the Heavenly City. In the Heavenly City I was met by the Priestess of Guanyin who led me and other’s who had seen the same signs to the Temple of the Goddess. We sat surrounded by clouds. For two weeks, our numbers grew until there were fifty of us, old women who had seen the signs in the stars that led us there.”

Ben was startled by her words. “But you are not an old woman. I doubt you are more than twenty?”

Sutreyu laughed and held up her hands. “No, Ben. You have seen my hands And you know that you are wrong. These hands have held five generations of my descendants. I have buried husbands, sons, and grandsons who died while I still lived. Guanyin is merciful, she has granted me a new youth, but left these hundred year old hands to remind me of the folly of thinking one’s existence is taking place only in one body.”

Ben said no more.

“There are other people here Ben. Not people like you or me. People like those that brought you here. There are people who are watching everything we do and evaluating our actions. I tell you Ben, I have seen the stars here. They are not our stars.”

Ben remembered seeing them too. Looking up at the billions of stars overhead after he and Vlad had gained an exit from the first building. He had seen the stars here too.

Sutreyu went on. “I have spent this lifetime and many others studying the stars and their positions in the night sky Ben. I have watched lives unfold and destinies revealed in them. I know them better than I know these wrinkled old hands and I tell you now, that the stars that will shine above us tonight, are not the stars of the world we have known.”

Sutreyu fell into silence. Ben had nothing to say.

The rest of the slaves were soon shoved into the cell. Ben watched anxiously for Haruka and Nick. Abdullah was one of the first to join them. He too was impatient to find out the details of Haruka’s plan. Ben’s group was not the only one to suffer increased brutality at the hands of the guards.

A group working near Abdullah had been attacked and beaten by ten Believers. When he tried to help, Abdullah was whipped. Ben imagined the frustration Abdullah felt when he was beat by whips he had taught the Believers to make and use.

“I did not see who it was they were beating.” Abdullah and Ben both stood. It felt as if the two men were so ready to be free that they could not waste a moment to sit and rest their weary and beaten bodies.

“My friend,” Abdullah said to him, “What should we do if Haruka does not return? Have you thought of what we should do if his plan is not one which we can execute?”

They needed an alternative plan.

“They killed Samuel today,” the others would need to know.

Abdullah’s eyes widened, but he said nothing. He was not surprised by the news.

Ben continued “Samuel pushed a large wall down today and used the destruction to injure one of the guards. Perhaps if we all were to push on one of these walls together, we could not knock it down.” It was not an elegant plan, but short of running out the doorway and being hit one at a time, it was the best that Ben had been able to come up with.

Abdullah put his arm on Ben’s shoulder affectionately. “It might bring down the rest of the building on us. It will be nice if we don’t have to try. Let us hope that Haruka’s plan involves less….uncertainty.”

At last, Haruka was shoved into the cell. The guards were particularly hard on him and he did a face plant into the ground. He lifted himself up. On his face, was a huge grin. He wiped the soil and waste from his arms. Like most of the men, Haruka wore nothing but a simple waistcloth. He wiped his hands on it.

Abdullah, Ben, and all the other’s gathered around him. They all knew that tonight was the night they were going to escape. Ben wondered if the Believers knew it too. Was Bishop cagey enough to have put an informant among them?  Ben looked around the room, wondering if one of them were a Believer and if so who? And why?

There had been fifteen men and seven women. Ben knew Sutreyu, Haruka, Adam, Nick, Abdullah, and now Leah. He was also familiar with several of the other men, Singh, Kim, Bill, Lee, Dennis, Remy, and Thomas. He was fairly certain that none of them were Believers. The other five women were Jennifer, Freya, Loren, Mary, and Emby. Ben felt confident that Bishop would not have sent a Believer woman among them. He looked at the men. It would only be someone who was white. The Bishop had convinced some of the whites from the inventor group to join him, perhaps he had convinced one more? There were three white guys among them. Ben, Fred, Steve, and Adam. Ben looked closely at the three men. They were sitting together in the corner speaking quietly, was it possible they were all working for the Believers?

Ben stopped himself. It had only been a moment’s speculation, but he could already see how dangerous it was. Maybe they were whispering about how they thought Ben was the informer. Speculation and suspicion would get him nowhere. It would get all of them nowhere. Ben knew it would not go away. Rumors do not disappear easily. They simply increase.

If the Believers wanted them to destroy themselves, all they had to do was put them in a room and wait for accusations and suspicions to fly. They had to escape now.

“Haruka, do you have a plan?” Ben sounded as desperate as he felt. There was no time to waste. Waiting would only make them physically and mentally weaker.

Haruka nodded. He was young, probably not even thirty yet. He licked his lips. “These people are fools. They have made many mistakes. Have you seen any technology aside from what we gave them?”

No one had.

They all gathered around Haruka. He sat. Steve and Fred were visible in the back of the group, listening but not coming too near. They were definitely outsiders. Ben watched them as the whole group began to interact.

“That’s right. They have been too busy building and making us build to have any further innovations. Abdullah, they use your whips and they use clubs, but these are primitive weapons. I think they have intentionally kept us low in number and I wonder what has happened to those who have spoken for us. I don’t think it can be good. Basically, all they have over us, is numbers. Numbers and the innovations that we gave them.”

Everyone nodded. Numbers and weapons were always superior to no numbers and no weapons. Did he have a plan or didn’t he? Haruka saw the look of impatience on Ben’s face.

“Don’t worry. I have a plan, but I hate to give away all my secrets at once. You never know who might be listening.” He looked around the room knowingly. Ben had been right, he wasn’t the only one thinking of infiltrators. Now everyone was thinking about it.

“We need to act fast. We must act now.” Ben couldn’t believe that he was the only one who felt impatient for action. “What is your plan?”

Haruka laughed. “My plan? Do you really want me to tell you my plan?” He stood and moved towards Ben. Ben braced himself for an attack, but Haruka only came close to his face. “My plan, Ben, is that we break down that door and run as fast as we can in different directions. I suggest we do it right now.”

For a moment, Ben thought Haruka was joking, but somehow the man’s bad breath blowing warmly in his face felt far too serious to allow him to be joking.

“Haruka, why don’t we break down the entire wall and then kill as many of those goons as we can?”

A current was running through the room. Adam stepped forward, he had taken a severe beating. He held out his hand.

“The Bishop needs to die!”

All hands were thrown into the center and it was all they could do to keep from cheering.

Haruka remained in front of the door, limiting access to anyone who might have wanted to notify the guards about their plans.

Over the next forty five minutes, Ben learned more about hand to hand combat than he would have ever thought possible. Haruka demonstrated the most vulnerable targets and how to hit them.  He told them to focus on the points that were not protected by fat or muscle.

“Focus on the joints,” he said. The joints took the least amount of force to destroy. He told them to go for the eyes, throat, groin, and knees with whatever they had available. He demonstrated a sort of karate chop that used the full weight of the body.

Abdullah explained that the Believers were not efficient with the whips. They used full range motion of the arm, but Abdullah insisted that it was much more efficient to use the motion of the body with a snapping of the wrist. Singh, Steve, and Fred were all three trying to make whips from the shreds of clothing that the slaves still possessed.

Leah, the woman from Bridger’s camp made a radical suggestion.

“Before, we make our move, I suggest that all of us rub our bodies with the shit and piss from the corners. It make us less desirable to touch and harder to hold onto if they try to grab us. I suggest we all pee as much as we can before we do anything.” Ben understood why she was so filthy now. It was self defense, a necessary weapon for a woman in a harsh land.

They had done all they could to prepare. It was now or never. Abdullah, Singh, and Fred were  armed with clumsy whips. There was one thing they had to know before they began. Ben was surprised at being the first to ask.

“Leah…these people you told us about. Bridger’s bunch, how far are they? Do you know what direction they are from here? How do we reach them?”

Leah grinned at him. “I wondered if you were all going to go running in whatever direction the Jesus freaks chased you in. Listen, everyone,” as they had all been doing, she whispered. It was amazing that none of the goons had told them to shut up. “Bridger and his people, our people, they are a good hike away from here. On the other side of the parklands, there is more city. That is where the Holy Rollers grabbed me. Further beyond that, straight towards the where the sun sets, there is a pretty big river. We haven’t found any way across it other than swimming, so if you don’t swim…well, you’re gonna have to cross that bridge when you come to it. Find the river.”

They had identified one wall as being weakest. There was still no certainty that they would be able to knock it down. If they failed, they would tear down the door and try to get out before the goons could rally. Either way, they would need weapons.

They would form into groups of five and six once they were all out.

Ben was worried about Adam. He had taken one hell of a beating from the Bishop’s men today and seemed consumed with revenge. Ben hoped the young man would give up on revenge and focus on escape. Adam, Soc, and the woman, Emby were all in the same slave group and had all been beaten. Adam had approached Sutreyu and Ben about joining with his group and going after the Bishop. He was set on revenge. Ben had dissuaded him, but there was still that look in his eye.

Fred and Steve had also expressed a desire to go after the Bishop. There were some looks going between the five of them that could mean trouble for everyone.

The plan was to get out, find weapons of some sort,  and to run. They couldn’t hope to defeat the huge number of Believer troops, their only hope was to run. They also agreed that once the wall came down or the door came off – it was every small group for themselves.

They agreed to meet on the other side of the park. Ben’s small group was composed of Sutreyu, Abdullah, Loren, and Freya. The third group was Haruka, Leah, Thomas, Singh, Jennifer, and Nick. The final group was composed of Bill, Kim, Remy, Lee, Thomas, and Mary. Each group assembled on a portion of wall and began to push. The wall moved a little, but not much.

There was an very slight movement to the wall that made them all feel hopeful.

Somehow, Ben had become the leader. He nodded his head and mouthed the count “One…two…three…” This time the wall moved quite a bit and made a significant amount of noise. There was a startled cry from the goons outside. The jig was up.

“Keep going, keep pushing,” Ben shouted. It was useless to try to hide their actions. They were pushing on a huge brick wall that had god knows how many pounds of pressure on it from above. Their only hope was to put more pressure on it from the side than was coming down. The wall would have no choice but to buckle and hopefully it wouldn’t bring the building down with it.

Then it happened. Ben had a flash of his print shop coming down around him as the brick wall burst from the people pressure coming from inside. The startled guards jumped backwards in the torchlight. The cathedral was lit up like a Christmas tree. Ben could see some of the guards were pinned  under the wall. He picked up a brick and moved forward with the rest of the escapees. The noise was astounding. Whatever was going on in the cathedral, it wouldn’t be more than a few moments before every Believer in that church came streaming out with the fury of the Bishop pushing them from behind. There was no time to waste.

They launched at the goons. Between the fierceness of their assault and his confusion over what was happening, the goons didn’t stand a chance. Ben took a club and looked for another target.  Adam’s group was heading straight for the Cathedral.

“Stick to the plan,” he yelled after them, but they seemed intent on getting the Bishop, no matter how hopeless the cause. A guard with a whip came at him. Ben smashed the man in the knee with his club. The guy went down screaming. Ben felt the joint torn apart at the force of his blow. Sutreyu took the man’s club and Loren took his knife. Loren was a youngish Mexican woman who had expressed enthusiasm at escaping and no qualms about covering herself with sewage to do so.

Ben looked towards Adams group again. They were closer to the Cathedral now. Idiots. He saw a club strike Loren in the side of the head. She went down. He didn’t have time to help herup. It was Sanders.

Ben and Sanders faced each other like gunfighters in the dusty streets of Purgatory. Ben wanted vengeance. Sanders remembered him and was ready add him to his list of kills. This was the moment he had been waiting for. This was the moment when he was to be tested. His words, shouted at Adam, went through his head “Stick to the Plan.”

Ben shook his head angrily. “Screw the plan.”

If anyone heard him, they were too busy to acknowledge him. Ben shoved the club forward straight at Sanders exposed throat. Sanders had been expecting a wild swing and was caught off guard by the jab at his unprotected and vulnerable throat. Ben had expected his lunge to be blocked, but Sanders was caught completely off guard.

The crunch of his windpipe wasn’t nearly as loud the noise around them, but the vibrations on his club made it sound like an earthquake to Ben. To Ben, it was like a choir of angels shouting “Yes!” Ben pushed forward as if he were shoving towards a target two feet beyond Sanders. He felt the man go down under his weight and didn’t take the pressure from the man’s throat until he felt the impact of the ground under them.

He rolled off Sanders and jumped to his feet, ready for a fight, but Sanders was dead. He looked left where Haruka and his group had defeated the goons who had come at them. On his right, Kim’s group had taken down three guards. Several more of the goons had been taken out of the fight by the force of the wall. There had been fewer guards than they expected – most of them had gone into the cathedral.

Ben turned toward the cathedral where all hell was breaking loose as hundreds of Believers swarmed out the doors. Adam’s group was about to be overwhelmed. Several of the fastest goons who had come out first were almost on them. Adam and Fred both had clubs. Fred raised his club, ready to attack but Adam’s stick came down on the back of Fred’s head. Ben saw it all happen in an instant. Adam was the mole. Abdullah gave the order they needed to hear.

“Run!”

**********

This is the end of Part 1.

Part 2  of The Fucking People

The Fucking People – A Bizarre Apocalyptic Novel by Christopher Damitio – Part 2

Here is the link to Part 1 of The Fucking People

Chapter 25

Role Playing

Love. Admiration. Worship.

She stood in front of everyone and all eyes looked lovingly upon her.

Emma felt lower than the lowest dog. There were slaves locked up in a building across the street from where she was being given so much loving adoration.

Emma felt uncomfortable standing before gathered Believers. She wished they would all look away from her. Turn their gaze from the front of the cathedral to somewhere else. Her wish came true.

A thunderous crashing sound took all attention from her. From outside, the sound of surprised shouts and frantic yelling swirled into the cathedral demanding immediate and complete attention. The Bishop had turned pale but he went into action. There was no stunned silence from him as he instantly began taking steps to control whatever situation had arisen.

He was fast and decisive. “Smith, take charge of the men and get ready to fight. Richard, stay with me.” The Bishop missed the look on Richard’s face as Smith was put in charge, but Emma saw it. Richard would be a problem before long. “Smith – get outside. I want every able bodied man to head out that door.” He turned to Emma. “Gather the women here. Arm yourselves and get ready to fight. We don’t know what the situation is yet, but we’ll have it under control soon.”

The Bishop raised his hands to the gathered Believers. Many of them were unsure what to do. A large number of men were heading towards Smith and the door, but most of the women and many of the men were looking to the Bishop for orders. He didn’t disappoint them.

“Rejoice in the Lord. We are blessed with his favor.  Men, head outside and do as Smith tells you. Women, gather here with Mother Emma. Arm yourselves and be ready for the Lord to test us. Right now, we need the power of your prayers. Bow your heads and pray for victory. More may be asked of you very soon. We will prevail.”

The women and the injured men moved towards Emma or bowed their heads where they were and began to pray. The able bodied men poured out the doorway. Emma wanted to find out what was happening, but the Bishop had locked her in place with his words.

“Mother Emma will lead you in these prayers. She is here for you.”

A white hot anger shot through her as she realized she had been imprisoned by the position he had given her. She could only do what he told her – at least for now. The Bishop and Richard were heading towards the door.

“If there is a brick or a club anywhere near you, pick it up and be ready to use it,” she told the people in front of her. “First we are ourselves, then we pray.” The noise from outside had descended into the loud sounds of men fighting.

She wanted to know what was happening. Those around her seemed happy to close their eyes and pray.  What was wrong with these people? Didn’t they have any curiosity about what was going on outside?

She moved closer to the door. Men were still heading outside, there were only so many that could fit through at once. Smith had been among the first to go out, now she saw the Bishop and Richard exit. She was supposed to be gathering the women but she needed to find out what was happening.

Boldness was the key. Several of the Believers were becoming restless as they prayed. No one had gotten up to follow her yet, but it was only a matter of time. Quickly, the sounds of fighting faded. Everything had taken place in less than five minutes. She went out the door, leaving her flock behind her.

Outside there was chaos. She saw at least a dozen men, dead or unconscious on the ground. There was no sign of an enemy, however.

The Bishop was speaking with a filthy brown haired man. She couldn’t quite place him, but judging by the way the Bishop was speaking to him, he was someone he knew and trusted. She caught the Bishop’s words as she came closer.

“…yes, of course, I understand that there was no way to get out Adam, but for the love of God, I wish you would have stayed with them. You were much more valuable as a spy than as a soldier.”

The young man allowed his head to hang for a moment and then lifted it again.

“I’m sorry but you needed the information I learned today. There are other people here. I know where they are. Also, several of the slaves that would have been far too dangerous if they had gone to the other side. This guy,” he pointed at a corpse with it’s head bashed in, “was a chemical engineer. He was talking about making gunpowder from urine.”

The Bishop exploded. “You stupid son of a snake. You killed him?” He didn’t hit the cowering young man, but Emma could tell he wanted to. “We had a guy that could make gunpowder and you killed him?”
Adam cringed and looked up from under his won arm when no blow fell.

“The other guy knows how too.” Adam pointed to a group of prisoners. Tied and bloodied, two men and a woman were lying on the ground, trussed like hogs. “Fred knows how to make gunpowder too. We didn’t need Steve. Fred’s the more valuable one.”

“You should have found a way to let us know about their plans. Because of your inability to figure out a way, twenty slaves have escaped and some of our men have died. Without the slaves, it will be harder to control the rest of …”

The Bishop noticed Emma behind him. He turned on her.

“Emma, what are you doing here?  I told you to stay inside with the women, they need to have someone there, keeping control.”

“People are becoming restless. I don’t know what to tell them. They are upset, nervous, and scared. They need to know what’s happening.”

The Bishop softened and moved closer to her. “Of course. The slaves broke free of their quarters. They killed at least ten of our men and have gotten away in the darkness. We only managed to capture or kill these few.”

Emma tried not to smile. This was good news, but she couldn’t let the Bishop know how she felt. “Should I tell the people that?”

The Bishop looked at her like she was an idiot. “That’s not what they need to hear. Come with me.”

“Richard,” the Bishop snapped at his assistant  “Get Adam cleaned up, he looks like a slave.”

Dark clouds streamed across Richard’s face. Yes, Emma was sure of it, Richard was the Bishop’s biggest problem.

Chapter 26

Christian Soldiers

The Bishop called everyone back into the cathedral. A small group had gone in pursuit of the runaways, but everyone else came back inside. The Bishop stood in front of them, agitation jolting from him like lightning bolts.

“God, our Lord, has heard our prayers. We had no solution to the problem of our rebels. He has spoken. We shall not jail them. We shall not keep them alive. He has shown us that our final solution must be to end their lives or to have them end ours. There is no middle ground. We should all be very thankful for the way that things went and we should thank Jesus for showing us such mercy as he has done on this night.”

They all looked at him, shocked at these words. Thankful for the death outside their doors? Thankful for the escape of the slaves?.He motioned towards the doors behind them.

“I told you earlier, there are other groups. Evil groups who hate us and want to steal and destroy what we have produced.. Tonight, they attacked us. The prisoners did not escape on their own. A large force of men descended on us while we celebrated. They broke down our walls, killed our brave defenders, and set those we had imprisoned from mercy upon the world. This is the message the Lord has sent. We cannot keep prisoners alive for they will be turned against us. Our mercy has been shown as weakness.”

It was all lies. But, they ate the lies up. People want to believe they are right. People want to believe they are good. People want to believe they are powerful. People want to believe they are on the moral side of history. All you have to do is tell them they are and they will believe the most outlandish of evidence that supports their belief.

“We can all be thankful that we were here under the protection of the Lord, in his house. We were kept safe within the walls of the House of God. While we prayed and sat in the fellowship of heaven, filthy demon spawn swept down on those brave souls who stayed outside keeping watch over us.”

Some in the audience looked uncomfortable. Emma couldn’t tell if they were bothered by the idea of demonic attackers or the Bishop’s increasingly supernatural rhetoric. Most of them had no reason to suspect he was lying as only a few had been outside when the ‘attack’ took place. She noted those who looked doubtful. She needed allies. These might be her people.

The Bishop continued. “Twelve martyrs sacrificed themselves to protect you tonight. A dozen men who have gone straight to heaven where they will continue to watch over us, our first guardian angels. While we sat in community, a large number of raiders swept into our lands. Our guardian angels protected us and gave up their lives doing so. One of them, a man named Sanders, tried to do something noble. Sanders knew, like all of us, that the path to redemption is longer for some than for others. He thought the help of the men and women being held was a chance for the condemned to be redeemed. He released the prisoners so they could be redeemed by joining in our defense. Most of them ran away like the animals they are, some of them attacked our protectors! Only one of them chose the path of redemption. This man, a young man named Adam, whom you will meet soon, showed himself worthy of being called a Believer. He proved himself redeemed and has rejoined the free men and women of our community. For his act of mercy, Sanders, however, was killed by those he tried to redeem.”

There were tearful cries in the gathered Believers. The Bishop had turned a crushing and embarrassing defeat into a victory. He had created their community’s first morality play. He was using weakness to create strength in his numbers. Emma watched in awe as his oratory spin and powers of manipulation were put on full display. Having more information gave her true vision into how remarkable the Bishop was.

“We must not, Believers, we must not, let the deaths of these guardian angels be in vain. We will all be asked to make sacrifice, but  our twelve martyrs can act as examples of what we can all give for the glory of our Lord.”

A sweet soprano voice rose from the assembled people. The words of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ were not known by everyone that night, but it would become the anthem for their movement. It would become their battlecry and their anthem. Those who knew the words joined in. Those who did not would learn them. The Bishop’s baritone and Emma’s alto joined the chorus. She knew the words and she wondered how many more of the people before her would end up dying as the Bishop achieved his dreams of power.

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!

The refrain of “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before…” picked up thunderous power as the Believers learned and sang it between the stanzas.

At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;
On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
Brothers lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.

Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

What the saints established that I hold for true.
What the saints believed, that I believe too.
Long as earth endureth, men the faith will hold,
Kingdoms, nations, empires, in destruction rolled.

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
But the church of Jesus constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.

Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.
Glory, laud and honor unto Christ the King,
This through countless ages men and angels sing.

As they sang the refrain one last time, Emma realized that a night of what could have been fear and tragedy had been turned into a night of power and triumph. Emma, too, was caught up in it. She knew better, she recognized it, but such was the power of the unified group of people that she had no choice but to be affected by it. Where before they had been a loosely knit group of strangers, the escape of the slaves and the deaths of the guards had bonded them all into a powerful and cohesive community. The song cemented the bonds.

Emma hoped that Nick and Ben had managed to get away. She hadn’t had a chance to learn about who the casualties were or who had escaped. They might be dead, lying outside in the street, but this was where she had to be. It was where they all had to be. None of them, not even Emma, would have chosen to be anywhere else. The feeling of power and shared sacrifice triggered levels of dopamine in their brains that were more addictive than heroin. They were all hooked. They were all addicted to the Bishop and the power of being ‘Believers’.

Finally, the Bishop led them in prayer asking that they all be granted the strength and courage of the twelve martyrs. He ended with Amen and it was met with a thunderously heartfelt Amen from his congregation. Emma saw through his bullshit, but that didn’t change the fact that she wanted more of it.

Smith came  through the doors. He was out of breath as he rushed forward to the Bishop. The Bishop pulled him to one side and asked “Well?” Emma was the only one close enough to hear.

“We managed to kill several of them, sir. It’s too dark for us to follow them any further. Our torches turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help. Most of them went directly into the parklands. My recommendation is that at first light, we send a unit in each direction and circle the parklands looking for stragglers or hoping to catch them foraging. I think that will give us the best results.”

The Bishop nodded. “Nicely done, Commander Smith.” It was the first rank anyone had been given. “At first light you take one unit. Make Adam your lieutenant and put him in charge of a second unit. He’s a good man and should be able to lead. You’ve done well tonight Commander. Now, I want you to escort Mother Emma and the women to their quarters. We are going to have a meeting of the men. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir.” Smith saluted smartly and marched to where several of his men were waiting.

The Bishop turned to Emma. “Talk to as many of them as you can. I need to know the general state of things amongst them. Problems often rise from within the ranks of women. It’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen.” He nodded at her. “Good night.”

He turned to the Believers again and raised his voice so they could all hear. “It is time for us to bid a good night to all of the womenfolk. Commander Smith and his soldiers will escort the ladies to the new quarters. We will have guards posted all night, so there is no need to worry. We will keep you safe.”

Emma raised her hand and began walking towards Commander Smith. It was a signal that all of the women followed.

The Bishop went on “Men, I need you to stay so we men can discuss defense…and our war plans.”  Their community had solidified into a military camp. One that codified patriarchy in its first actions. Several of the women looked pretty beefed about his, Emma was with them – but now was not the time for rebellion. The Bishop noticed the angry looks but completely misunderstood them. “Don’t worry. We will protect you from any marauders. God’s own troops are defending you. Go with Mother Emma and sleep peacefully and secure.”

Emma held back her gag reflex and smiled sweetly as she spoke to the assembled group. “Come along ladies, the men have a lot of work to do. Let’s not get in their way.”

Chapter 27

Secret Woman Business

The Bishop’s troopers escorted the women to their barracks. Emma caught more than a few roving eyes as the men looked at the women – and the women looked at the men. Some of these women were in heat and it didn’t look like they would have a hard time finding male accomplices if they could escape from the Bishop’s scrutiny. Emma also noted several women who attempted to become invisible – they didn’t want the men to notice them. Both types of women were of interest to her.

Their barracks was surprisingly comfortable thanks to the industriousness of the women in creating pillows and mattresses. They had been able to engage in this work mostly because the men were still in a civilized mode where they hoped to win affection and romance – with this group, it was just a matter of time, however, before men began taking what was not offered. They would have to prepare for that. There were torches to light the rooms.  A closed off room with high, narrow windows towards the back of the building had been designated as the toilet. They would have to find a better solution.

The door was secured behind them. The harem was secured.

She snorted. Of course they were. Men had always seen women as little more than accomplices and baby makers. Emma wasn’t a radical feminist, but she was a firm believer in not accepting less than equal treatment for any reason. That was why she was so bothered by the act she was putting herself through. She was selling out, as a woman and as a human being.

She wondered how these other women were thinking of their situation. How many of them didn’t find it very different than their lives in the world they’d left? At no point in recorded history had women been universally treated with the respect they deserved. There were damn few cultures that had not demeaned women or turned them second class citizens because of their baby making abilities. There had been some matriarchal societies, but most of them had eventually created a higher status for men than for the women who ruled them. Never mind that in hunter gatherer societies it was women who provided the bulk of calories in the diet of family groups, never mind that women carried life within them, and never mind that women scored consistently higher grades than men in every level of schooling.

Maybe it was a good thing that Earth’s societies had been destroyed. Of course, here they were again with the women being denied freedom and relegated to second class citizenship. Not a single woman had been asked to be a warrior. She would fix that issue and there was no reason to tell any of the men about it.

How and why had she been put in charge of them? What did the Bishop want from her? More importantly, how could she protect and organize these women?

There were more than two hundred of them. The Believers numbers had grown incredibly fast. The women to the left of where Emma sat had formed a small group. There were twelve of them. These were the brazen hussies who had been giving the troopers their best come hither eyes. These were the women who would have been both slutty and popular in high school. There were other cliques forming that she wasn’t sure of a motivation for. The women who had attempted to blend in, were scattered, close to groups but not actually in them. She would talk to them first.

Emma stood up and started towards the back of the room.

“Mother Emma!” Oh, Christ, it was Anne.

“Mother Emma. I am so happy to see you. Can you believe they attacked us? Thank Jesus that Sanders and the others were able to protect us!” The girl was flushed and out of breath. Emma started to snap an answer, but clamped her jaws shut and remembered that she wanted to help this girl.

“Yes, you are certainly right. Did you notice that all the prisoners escaped too?” The girl nodded. Why couldn’t this girl think? “Do you think Ben and Nick would have attacked Sanders without a reason?”

“Of course not Emma. I mean, the Bishop said that…oh my God!…Ben and Nick helped kill Sanders! Oh my God Emma, that is terrible. I never would have thought…”

Smacking Anne would be satisfying on so many levels but the girl was useful. She was a tool that could be shaped for a purpose. She would have to use the girl carefully.

“Anne, I want you to know the truth. All those people were being held captive and made to work as slaves. They were mistreated and beaten. They had no choice but to escape. Some of them were killed for trying to escape. Now, I know you are upset about the guards who were killed, but think for a moment, if we hadn’t had slaves, they wouldn’t have died. Isn’t that right?”

Anne wasn’t convinced and Emma had to give her credit. “Not really, Emma. I mean, the raiders came in and killed a lot of those men. It was the raiders.”

Emma kept herself from sighing “Isn’t it obvious that the raiders,” who Emma didn’t believe had been real for even a second, “only came to free the slaves? Once the slaves were free, the raiders left – maybe we had some of their people.”

Anne nodded again. Emma could see the gears turning on that little hamster wheel of a mind. Now she would spring the trap. “So, don’t you think that we need to convince everyone that slavery was what killed those men? Maybe God was giving us a message, just like Noah’s flood, that slavery is not something he will tolerate.”

“I do think that Emma. Did the Bishop tell you that? Wow. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Wow. So Emma, what should we do?” Perfect. Now, Emma had to hold herself back from hugging the girl. Emma the organizer was ready to go into action.

Organizing workers. It was what she had always done best.

Emma smiled. “Okay Anne. This is very important. I want you to explain what I just told you to every woman you can. It’s very important though that you don’t tell them the idea comes from me or from the Bishop. The message comes from God. It’s our job to deliver and spread this message from God. Do you see? The men won’t listen to me. They won’t listen to you. As individual women, we are weak and powerless, but if we all stand as one, the men will have no choice but to listen.”

Chapter 28

The New Union

Making sure Anne knew what to say was impossible but Emma did her best before sending her into the groups of women. Her hope was that Anne would be able to communicate with the more devout women among them. The truth was, Emma was glad to have a foil for the Jesus freaks.

Emma, however, needed to recruit women with a stronger nature. She had seen an olive complected woman moving from group to group and listening to a lot, but saying little. This was someone she needed to get on her side before she had a revolt.

The woman tried to move away from Emma but after a silent game of cat and mouse, Emma managed to corner her away from the ears of others.

“I’d like to talk to you, Sister,”  At first, when she was caught, he woman looked at Emma with a mixture of disgust and fear but quickly masked her features to simplicity and friendliness.

“Mother Emma, what could you possibly want from me?” Emma sat down heavily beside her. She was in her mid thirties, curly black hair, greenish eyes, and a large flat nose. If not for the nose, she would have been a beauty. Her nose was what had made her dangerous.

Bullshit wouldn’t work on this one.

“Let’s cut the act. We’re in big trouble and it’s only a matter of time before these slimeballs start setting up rape camps and polygamous marriages. I’ve been watching you and you know it. You’ve been watching everyone. I’ve got a feeling you might be the smartest chick in the room and if we’re going to get ourselves out of this, I’m going to need your help. Will you help me?” Emma laid her cards on the table.

If she were judging this woman wrong a speech like that would blow her cover. The woman could go straight to the Bishop and cause her big problems. Emma trusted her instincts though and felt a swell of pride at speaking the truth again.

The olive skin woman looked down her big nose at Emma. Emma didn’t move and looked back at her. This moment was key. The eyes looking at her were devouring details, discerning truth, and looking for bullshit. A cautious smile grew on her thin lips and blossomed into something more. Emma hoped the smile indicated trust and a willingness to help. Finally, she spoke.

“My name is  Bella,” she said. “It was a cruel name for an ugly woman in the world we left, but I will keep it because it reflects who I am in spirit and in body. I am Bella. I am beautiful. I may have been wrong about you. You are more than they see. I see you.”

Emma was taken aback by the woman’s words. The power of the short speech brought tears to her eyes. The women embraced, a bond of friendship and trust had been made in those brief moments. Nothing would break it. Nothing else needed to be said about it. Bella pulled back from the hug and began to speak profound intensity and purpose.

“There are five groups among the women.  Some of them have polar opposite views of who we are and what we should do. I don’t know if it’s possible for them all to work together. First, you have the hard core Believers. These are women that will feel lucky to be raped and kept captive by the men. They will betray us in an instant. Lucky for us, they are the extreme minority. There are a couple dozen of them. Next are the religious ones. Religious but without a slave mentality. This, sadly, represents the majority among us. These women have lost everything but their faith – it is all they have left and they cling to it. They will be hard to motivate to action because they believe their God will take care of them. There are more than a hundred that fall into this category – but they are scattered at the moment, not a cohesive group.” Bella indicated women sitting in various places around the room.

Emma marveled at the way that Bella had read her, determined how they fit together, and instantly changed from elusive spy to intelligence chief.

Emma spotted Anne speaking with animation in the midst of a large group of them.

Bella pointed to the vixens. “They will be the easiest to bring to our side, but they may be the most dangerous as well. It might look like these women are all nymphomaniacs, but they are smart enough to realize that a strong man, willing to speak up for you, is a powerful ally. The danger is that these women are closet romantics and some of them will fall in love and spill any beans they have access to.”

Emma looked around. “You said there were five groups…that’s three. Where are the other two?”

Bella laughed and pointed to herself. “Well, there are the women like us. Not many, but a few. Don’t expect them all to trust you, but I think I can bring a couple into our camp right away. And as for the fifth group…” Bella shook her head and laughed.

Emma didn’t see any women that hadn’t been already accounted for.

“The fifth group is the smallest and the most dangerous. It will become the largest. At the moment, it consists of you…and me. Shall we mingle?” Emma laughed too. Bella could have been the bullet that killed her, but instead she was that joyously empty chamber in a game of Russian roulette.

Emma filled her in on everything she knew and the two women devised a plan. Bella wanted to move quickly, but Emma cautioned that sometimes moving slower at first allowed you to  move faster in the end. Force takes time to build. Organizing people takes time, perseverance, and patience.

Emma had first learned about organizing from a migrant farm worker named Hugo. He had labored beside Cesar Chavez in California and absorbed the lessons well enough to climb the ranks of organized labor – and organized crime.

There were definite steps involved in organizing. If you moved too quickly or too openly, the powers that be would squish you like a bug. If you moved too slowly, people became caught up in the struggle to survive and lost interest in the cause. Creating a revolution was like building a fire. Hugo was connected to fire on every level. The joints he smoked, the chilis he ate, the way he made her feel when they lay together in her New Jersey barn, the emotions he built as he identified exploitation of labor in America.

He taught her to build fires. Physically, metaphorically, and emotionally. The first step was to gather your materials. Start with the small and insignificant. The tiniest sparks have to be coaxed into flame on the most fragile tinder. If you try to put too much on too soon, it will die. If you don’t protect it, it will be killed. If you give it just the right amount of air and fuel, it will catch and blaze. If you get it hot enough, you can burn green wood, wet wood, and even glass and metal.

She had abandoned her first husband and their farm to travel through the American South organizing migrant workers with Hugo. She married Hugo two years before she found out that her first husband had divorced her. In the South, they had lit a lot of fires. There were plenty of small town sheriffs that would have loved to have killed them both.

In one of those cruel twists of irony that life loves handing out though, Hugo had been killed by a jealous woman. If Emma had found out about the female fires he’d lit along their trail, she might have killed him herself. Instead, a different fire consumed woman shot him five times with a .45 while he was sleeping with the wife of a fellow laborer. Bastard earned his end. It wasn’t how Emma had thought he would go.

And now, here she was, taking those first lessons learned from him and preparing a fire. First, she needed materials. Anne was a sensation among the religious women. The hard core Believers wouldn’t listen to her abolitionist ideas. Emma saw her approach several of them and they soon sent her on her way. Emma had to give the girl credit, she wasn’t wasting time beating on dead horses.

Bella was still moving through the crowded room. Emma’s plans would have failed without Bella – and if Bella had been against her? She had no doubt she would have been destroyed. Bella spoke with individuals. Powerful individuals. She had a rare knack of identifying leaders and winning them to her side. She then allowed them to bring their followers to her cause.

On more than a few occasions, Emma saw her gesture towards her. She would nod and continue with her own work.

Emma went to the vixens. They were gossiping about the men they’d seen and who they’d like to fuck. She heard a couple of phrases that would make monkeys blush. One of them was encouraging the other girls to protect their new virginity by sticking with oral and anal sex.

They were a hard bunch to peg. Hard core Believers and hard core sluts bound by a love of dick.

The ‘virginity’ girl was quoting scripture about how it was okay to take a man’s cock anywhere but the vagina. That, she insisted, must be saved for marriage but anything else was fair game. It was God’s will.

She got near them and they all stopped talking. They weren’t going to talk about that in front of ‘Mother Emma’. Not unless she could win their trust.

“Girls. We need to make sure that we are the ones who do the choosing with these guys. I know some of you may not like what I am about to say, but you all know it’s true. We’ve got the power between our legs and we need to be clear about it. You gals are some of the mightiest among us and that’s why I’m here to talk to you. I don’t want any of you denying it, cause I can see that you all know it’s true. You girls have harnessed your pussy power and I don’t want you to be ashamed of it.”

There were gasps and then giggles. A big redhead near her said, “Mother Emma, you naughty thing!” the woman cut her voice to a conspiratory whisper “Don’t say it too loud or the men will hear us!” All of them fell into laughter together, even the ones who had pretended to be offended by her.

Organizing several hundred women being held in a locked room by a bunch of chauvinist fundamentalist religious nut jobs led by a wannabe priest with a God-complex wasn’t without its headaches. The vixens took an immediate liking to her and the way she thought about things. Only a few of them had never been exposed to the concept of being in charge without force, otherwise known as ruling with the velvet glove. The hardest part with that bunch was convincing them not to drag one of the troopers in and rape him.

In a short time, Emma confirmed that these chicks knew more about power than Machiavelli. Talking with them was liberating and yet, she didn’t dare tell them that she had slept with the Bishop. That was another sort of power and she wasn’t about to give it up.

The sound of screams dragged her from them. Across the room, two women were attacking Anne. Emma rushed to get there – so did all the other women. None of them tried to stop the women from fighting, not even Emma. She knew better than to jump into a catfight. There were better ways to break them up.

Anne was handling herself surprisingly well. The women attacking her were among the most devout of the Believers. These women’s eyes had followed the Bishop with worship wherever he went. They had crowded during his service like fourteen year old girls at a Beatles concert. One of them was in her forties, the other was slightly younger.

Anne broke free from the younger one trying to hold her. The circle of women around her widened.

“Oh, that’s how it is huh? It’s just me versus them and all the rest of you are going to watch?” Anne had fire in her eyes. There was no sign of the weepy girl Emma had thus far encountered. Anne was crouched down, both hands in front of her in a fighter’s stance. “Well, if that’s the way you want it, but someone should jump in and stop me before I hurt these two.”

The younger of her attackers rushed her but Anne’s feet were faster. She darted to the side, threw a quick jab to the woman’s head and her right leg came around in a sweeping kick that caught the woman behind the knee. The woman’s leg buckled and she started to fall. Anne calmly grabbed her by the head and swiftly brought her knee up to her face. There was an audible crunch.

The older woman was coming from behind. Anne shoved the younger one away and turned with a high kick that caught the older woman in the shoulder. Anne’s head was so close to the floor that her hair swept the ground. Her left leg went straight as her right leg knocked the woman to the side. Anne stood back up. She looked like she was going to make a jumping kick to the woman’s head, but Emma decided it was time to stop the fight.

“Anne. That’s enough! Stand down!” Emma was astounded that the girl she had felt so comfortable slapping had just destroyed two women that were far more fit than she was. Where had the girl learned to fight like that? Why had she let Emma get away with treating her so badly?

“What happened?” Anne dropped out of fight mode. In an instant,  she was looking at Emma with that pleading and pitiful look again. Unbelievable. Her lower lip was quivering.

“Mother Emma,” she seemed so pitiful and small again but Emma swore she saw craftiness and power still lurking in those eyes.  “Our little society is using slaves. I think keeping slaves led to Sanders and those other men being killed. If we hadn’t of had slaves, they would still be alive. This was a message from God. No more slaves.” Anne looked at the assembled women expecting an argument. No one said anything.

“I told that to these two and they said, oh Emma, do I have to repeat it? Make them say it, it was awful.” Emma was thankful the girl held so much respect for her, especially as she looked at the two bloody zealots moaning on the sidelines from Anne’s major ass whooping.

“Anne, tell me what they said. We can’t…umm…wait for them to tell us.”

“Well, okay, first…that one Becky, she said that I was spouting heresy and that by questioning the Bishop, I was putting everyone’s lives in danger. I told her that God had given us the message and we were supposed to pass it on. Then, this other one, Andrea, she started talking really nasty stuff about…oh, I hate to say these things…she said that slavery was the only thing to do with …with…you know with the n-word and the j-word.”

Emma figured she knew what the words were, but she wanted the rest of the women to hear it. This was a pretty good opportunity to alienate the hard core believers and unite the rest of them in something.

“What are those words Anne?” She knew the girl would say it..

Anne blushed.  “Niggers and Jews. She said that’s what all the slaves were. I told her that she was an ignorant bigot. And then, they attacked me. I mean you saw…?”

Emma smiled. Everyone had seen. “Anne, I think you did good. We can’t have any tolerance for racism or hatred in this world. Women have been persecuted and harassed for all of time and it starts with that sort of racism.” She was talking to everyone now. She could see some women nodding in agreement. The vixens were with her. “I don’t know how many of you women have children or husbands, but can you imagine someone describing them as anything less than human.”

Andrea, the older woman had recovered enough to speak, “I don’t know about you, but my kids and kin ain’t no niggers and Jews. If we don’t control them, they will rape us and take everything from us and we will all have to scratch the dirt to pay the Jews for food.” Emma had dealt with her type before, although never quite as satisfyingly as Anne had. This was no time for more physical violence though.

“Hey, are you a Christian woman? Are you a God fearing Christian?” Emma knew what the woman thought she was.

Andrea stood proudly, bloody, but arms on hips finding strength in her faith. “I am a born again Christian and I hold Jesus in my soul. And I know right from wrong.” Emma saw other zealots nodding in agreement. “I seen you over there laughing with them hussies…I seen ya. Well, I’ll tell ya what else I seen, I seen through your little act. I think you might have put the Bishop under some sort of fornicatin spell and it wouldn’t surprise me none if you were some Jewess witch.”

Spit flew from the woman’s mouth as she unleashed the venom of her ignorance. Emma crossed her arms and waited for the woman to finish. Andrea’s ugly hatred was alienating her from most of the women and putting Emma on higher moral ground. There were still plenty though,  who were waiting to hear what Emma had to say and would decide then. She had to balance this right.

“I feel so sorry for you Andrea. Don’t you know that the Jesus you love and admire so much was a Jew? And so was his mother, Mary. And his father, Joseph. And all the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. The disciples, they were Jews. And Mary Magdalene? She was a prostitute. She was a hussy, a ‘loose woman’ that Jesus lifted up from the depths and loved. That is the message of Jesus Christ, didn’t you know that? He was a Jew that thought everyone should treat each other better. If we had a bible, I would read you a few passages from Song of Solomon that are nearly pornographic. Sex isn’t a wicked thing. God didn’t create some people more deserving than others. If he did, he did it by action and not by skin or religion. I really feel so sorry for you and everyone like you, because you know what Andrea? You are an ignorant bigot. Anne was right.”

Emma didn’t wait to hear a response. The round was hers, but the fight, the fight was all Ann’s.

She turned to Anne, Andrea would get no more of her attention.. “Anne, where did you learn to fight like that?”

Anne blushed. “Well, you know, I used to do Zumba but then a mixed martial arts gym opened and I, well, I just liked it a lot more. I’ve never gotten so mad that I used it in a fight before…”

Some of the girls laughed. Emma laughed with them as she asked “Can you teach the rest of us how to fight like that?”

Anne smiled shyly. “I’ll be really happy to try.”

Emma had found her new heavy in the least likely person.

 

 

Chapter 29

Morning Has Broken

Emma didn’t sleep, but by the time morning broke, she was energized. She had gathered her materials well. When the fire started, she would be able to fan the flames and control the blaze. She had no doubt that it would come soon.

While they had felt like prisoners over night with the door closed, with the first light of day the door was unlocked and the women could come and go as they pleased. There were sentries around the edges of the Believer’s growing enclave, but no one paid attention to where the women went or what they did.

Emma stretched in the doorway. Her body didn’t feel as sore as she would have thought after being trounced by Anne. The girl had proven to be a pretty good teacher. Emma had volunteered to be the first pupil. She was the demonstration dummy. She had several bruises and the knowledge of how to escape several holds to show for her aches and pains. Definitely worth it.

The warmth of the early morning light fell softly upon Emma’s skin. She had been so immersed in organizing the women that she had almost forgotten there were still a lot of men to deal with. One man in particular.

She saw him, standing grandly in the street, staring into the distance. His pose painted him instantly as a man of vision and strength. Many of the women were sleeping, but Emma felt no need. She walked to him and put her hand on his shoulder. He turned, startled but then saw it was her, immediately softening the tense posture her touch had brought forth.

The Bishop smiled when he saw her.

“I hope you haven’t forgotten about our plans for today, Emma. We have an adventure ahead of us.”

She had hoped the attack of the night before would have pushed the vault from his mind, but he was still keen on it. What was he going to do with a vault full of jewels and useless money?  She was pretty sure most of them would end up in the hands of her girls before too long anyway.

“I thought plans might have changed,” she said. “I am ready when you are. When will we be going?”

The Bishop turned away from her, towards the cathedral. Richard and a dozen men stood there looking ready to go.

“Is now too soon?” He said it, but it wasn’t a question. She hoped she would be able to find it, then again, a part of her hoped she wouldn’t.

Richard first led the party to the spot where she and the others had been saved from the dogs. It took them about thirty minutes to get there from the cathedral. She wasn’t sure she would have been able to get there on her own but she memorized the route as they went. From there, it was up to her to lead them. She knew where she was leading them, but was surprised at how quickly they came to the vault. They were only a few miles from the Cathedral, but in her memory it had seemed like it was at least a half day’s journey.

The men were nervous and on edge. This would have been a different journey before the attack, but now they knew (or at least believed) that there were armed enemies. Somehow, even the men who had fought the escaping prisoners had convinced themselves that an armed force had invaded their enclave.

The men jumped at sudden sounds and made sudden spins when they thought they saw movement in the buildings around them. They clustered in the road, facing outward. Emma wondered about the wisdom of such a close order battle formation but said nothing. A couple of riflemen would be able to take them all out without too much trouble. Were there rifles somewhere in this world?

It was an inconceivable situation they were in. If someone had told her the world would end and technology would disappear and that only a handful of people would be left –  she would have thought that it would take months before they would start killing and enslaving each other. Her idealistic friends would have called her a cynic for saying basic decency would disappear in so little time. The Bishop and his Believers had started killing and enslaving people within the first days. Absolutely astounding. They had wasted no time recreating the worst of human behavior.

And now, here she was. Not only was she taking this murdering son of a bitch to the only place anyone had seen remnants of the old world, she was fucking him. The old world was gone. The place where guns and germs and weapons of mass destruction had made murder a much simpler affair. Emma found herself silently praying that there were no weapons in the vault. She hadn’t seen anything useful, but now was the moment of truth. They were here.

Everything looked the same as when she had left. Nick’s scrawls still covered the concrete. When the Bishop saw them, he raised his eyebrows.

“It was the black professor who wrote this?” He knew the answer already but she said yes.

She walked across the platform to the vault. She thought about Nick and his theories of what had happened. She hadn’t been willing to listen to him, but now, she wished she would have paid more attention to his scientific mumbo jumbo. Something about giant magnets and the sun and the North Pole. It made more sense than being pawns in a war between good and evil. Emma wanted a simple explanation for what had happened. No such explanation existed.

She hoped Nick hadn’t been killed. The Bishop had not volunteered any more information to her than she had gotten the night before. She had seen that most of the Believer men were gone from the cathedral. Those who were there were either working on the walls or looked unfamiliar with the weapons they held. A small group of competent looking troopers patrolled the perimeters of their camp when they left, but Emma assumed the rest were out hunting the runaways.

She grasped the vault handle, ready to pull, but the Bishop pulled her back.

“No. They may have come back here.” She hadn’t thought of that. It was the closest the Bishop had come to telling her Nick was still alive.

The Bishop turned to his men. “Richard. Open the door.” Again, Emma saw resentment on Richard’s face. She guessed he was angry at not being sent to chase the runaways. Now he was being put in an expendable role.

Richard cautiously opened the door. Everything was as she had left it.

It took them several hours to bring everything that was inside to the outside. Emma was relieved to see that there were no guns. They found currency, gold coins, jewelry, boxes of paperwork, deeds, artwork, and office supplies. There were several razor knives, box cutters – the first metal blades any of them had seen in this world. Overall, it seemed interesting but unspectacular. A vault of worthless valuables from a lost world.

One last box remained. The Bishop opened it and his face erupted with joy.

Emma moved closer to see if the Bishop had found a gun. He had not. To her horror she saw that he had found something much more dangerous.

The Bishop was holding a large old bible.

Chapter 30 

Into the Woods

Ben and the others ran like their lives depended on it. Their lives did depend on it. Ben only heard the pounding of his heart. He saw Abdullah, Leah, and a few others sprinting ahead of him. He hoped that those he couldn’t see were either behind him or heading another direction. He didn’t stop to look. He was sure Believer goons were nipping at his heels.

Straight down a wide street. He wasn’t going to risk another dead end alleyway. He knew if he went far enough he would reach the parklands. The darkness around him continued to infinity. He had no idea how far they had come. Before long, he lost sight of those ahead of him as they pulled further and further away. Maybe they had already turned. He would keep going straight. He didn’t want to  be cornered by the troops he knew were following.

The strength he felt was unnatural. In the five days he had been in this world, he had used his body more than in the fifteen years previous. He should have been one huge body ache, but he felt fine. Had it really only been five days? Being a printer seemed a lifetime ago – and perhaps it was. Ben kept running. He wasn’t winded, his legs weren’t sore, if it hadn’t of been for the people chasing him, he might have laughed. He felt great.

It was time to head into the parkland woods. Who knew how long this wide boulevard would continue. It could turn into a freeway. He had to make the turn. There was a somewhat less wide crossroad to his right. He chanced a glance over his shoulder. He couldn’t see anyone. He heard distant shouts. Nearby it was only his feet hitting the ground and his heart thumping.

He turned from the main road.

In his right hand and was the club he had taken. He was prepared to use it again. Soon there were trees on either side of the road. Buildings became smaller and less frequent. He was on a country road. He kept running. In less than a mile, it narrowed to a dirt trail and began curving right.

That was the same direction as the Cathedral. He had to leave the path. He wouldn’t go back. Finally, he stopped running. He had lost the Believers but he had lost all of the other escapees too. The woods were dark and Ben hadn’t forgotten there were packs of wild dogs about. By himself, he was easy prey for dogs or goons.

He had no choice. He had to keep moving. He kept going straight, heading in what he hoped was the direction of the river and Bridger’s camp. He was no longer running, but his thoughts were moving at a sprinter’s pace. Was Bridger any better than the Bishop? It was possible he was just another petite tyrant setting himself up as king of a tribe. Ben considered the wisdom of putting himself in the hands of another group after winning his freedom. It made sense to be cautious.

Gradually the canopy blocked out the light of the stars overhead. Individual trees had become a forest. He moved slowly forward, each step a gamble. He paused to listen for the sounds of pursuit. There was nothing but the sound of the wind blowing through the treetops. He had escaped, but would he be able to remain free? For the moment, all that mattered was that he had gotten away. Where were the others? Who had made it?

Loren was dead or captured. Samuel was gone. Fred and Steve. He felt guilty for suspecting the men. He had seen Adam’s betrayal. Surely some of them had been captured. However, if he had escaped, he was sure that others were also free.

He wished they’d been able to agree on a meeting point. They had all agreed to go to the river but not to a specific point on it. Adam knew too. He knew where they were headed. Ben didn’t know if anyone else had seen Adam’s treachery. They were all in danger. He had to find the others and let them know.

Adam had known everything they knew. Now, the Believers knew too. Ben had a sudden intuition that the river might be exactly where he shouldn’t go, but what choice did he have? Why hadn’t he suspected Adam? It had never occurred to him that the boy was anything other than a comrade. He had so much to learn. This was all new. New to him and new to everyone – but some seemed to be adapting much quicker than others.

Five days since the world had ended but he might as well think of it as the world starting five days ago. This, after all, was now the only life he had. There was no going back. Not to the world he had known, not to the Believers, and not to the recent past. Onward was the only choice.

He pushed on, alone,  for hours. He had lost his ‘garment’ as he ran. He was a naked man with a club in the forest. He found himself wishing for things he didn’t have. He wished he had clothing. It wasn’t freezing, but it was cold enough. He wished he had food. The slave rations the Believers had fed them had barely been adequate. He wished he had water.

Sometimes wishes come true. Ben came to a stream. The water was cold, but he plunged into it anyway. This was a chance to drink and to bathe. Was this the same stream that was near the Cathedral? If so, was he upstream or downstream? He had no way of knowing. It flowed away from where he had come from. He would follow it downstream.

The cold water felt good. Ben rubbed his body briskly with the icy water. He tried to wipe off the dung and grime of his servitude and escape. There was fine silty sand on the stream bottom. He used it to scour his skin clean. The stream existed  within a break of the trees and he could see billions of stars overhead.

Was Sutreyu be right? Was he looking at the stars from a different world? He had never learned any constellations except for the big dipper and the three stars of Orion’s belt. He couldn’t find them but that didn’t mean much. There were so many stars – it was hard enough for him to find them when he only saw dozens of stars.

As he listened to his thoughts, he became aware that he was thinking of this as somewhere else. He hadn’t been thinking of this place as Earth for several days at least. He decided to trust what Sutreyu had told him.

After all, if he couldn’t trust a woman who appeared in his dreams, who could he trust?

He stepped out of the stream and picked his club up from the bank. He grinned as he caught a reflection of himself in the dark water. Naked man with club. Uggg! It was the first time he had seen himself in this world. He looked as good as he felt. The ripples in the water masked his age. He could still see his grey hair but his body looked younger.

He looked up at the sky, astounded by the number of stars. It was only then, at that moment, five days after waking, that he realized what should have been obvious from the beginning. He didn’t have his glasses and without them, the sky should have been filled with fuzzy blurs of light. Instead, he was able to see each individual star in perfect clarity. Somewhere between Earth and here, wherever here was, his vision had been fixed. He could see. Perfectly.

Chapter 31

Passing the Gate

Ben followed the meandering course of the stream. He hoped it would lead him to the river that separated the Believers from Bridger’s people. He moved with a mixture of what he hoped was the right amount of speed and quiet. Ben figured that he would hear a group of people before they heard him, so he didn’t bother tip-toeing as he went through the woods. He was hungry as hell, but he didn’t expect to find any food while it was still dark. Exhaustion eventually led him to multiple stumbles. He needed to find a safe place to rest until daylight.

He needed to be safe from predators while he slept and out of sight of any humans that might wander by. He had been hoping for a cave but looking up, he realized the perfect resting place had been above him all along. The big pine trees on either side of the river had lots of branches that made them easy to climb. Ben climbed alternating between holding his club in his teeth and balancing it on the branches above him. Soon he was thirty feet above the ground. He found a large forked branch that would hold him from falling, leaned back and closed his eyes. Sleep came quickly.

He was on the stairway leading to the Heavenly City again. Above him the first gate stood, the same gate that had crushed him before. He he was alone, there was no sign of Sutreyu. It was nighttime on the stairs and the stars were bright above him. A full moon cast bluish shadows over the entire mountain. Should he attempt to pass through the gate again?

He didn’t really have a choice unless he wanted to sit still or go down the steps. He was here to go through the gate. He would go through the gate. At the very least he would try.

The steps to the gate were carved from the mountain’s granite body. Each step was smooth from the footsteps of countless pilgrims who had flowed over it for thousands of years. There were small Chinese characters carved into each step, a detail he had missed previously.His ability to read them was shocking but still left him unable to make sense of them. The characters were words and concepts, but they seemed to be random.

Deer. Pillow. Portrait. Flower. Merchant. Making no sense of them, he soon gave up. It took him longer to reach the gate than before and with each step his nervousness grew. Would he be able to pass? It felt deeply important that he do so. Looking upwards towards the mountaintop, he saw the brightly lit palace of Guanyin and deep within his bones, he knew that he must reach it.

First, he must pass the gate. Again, he grew heavier as he came closer. His body wanting to sink into the granite stairs and become one with the mountain. His resistance was painful. He ignored the pain and persevered.

The gate’s massive weight pushed down upon his quickly depleting energy. It took all of his will and strength to press on. His mind became increasingly convinced that his body would not pass but his spirit didn’t listen. Gradually, he felt control of his body shift from mind to spirit. His actions were no longer thought about or considered. The complaining voice of his mind was gently pushed to the side while a greater force enabled him to take another step forward. Suddenly, Ben felt less like the pilot of a vehicle than a passenger within it. The pilot was still him, but completely separate from his mind or identity. The pilot was a deeper and more real part of himself that had been hidden behind the expectations and illusions of ‘the world’.

He was under the gate marveling at the force it exerted on his mind while allowing his spirit to become more present. He could still hear the scared cries of his mind, demanding that he go back, franticly attempting to rule him with fear. He watched his mind and spirit wrestle for control of his body with a detached and neutral observational persona. He was not his mind. He was not his body. He was not his spirit. He was a fourth being – separate from all the others and yet intertwined with them. He was the pilot, the vehicle, the passenger, and something else that was made of all three of the others. There was only one way to describe how Ben felt. For the first time in his life, he understood that he had been sleeping – and now – now he was awake.

And then, he was through the gate. The heaviness disappeared. His mind sprang back into dominance but not at the expense of crushing his spirit. The unbearable heaviness of before was replaced by a buoyancy of the now. He felt like the lightness of his being would lift him in the air. It did not, but he was changed forever He turned, looking back at the gate he had struggled so mightily to pass.

It reflected moonlight from its smooth white stone surface. Nothing marked it as more than stone. It didn’t glow. It didn’t pulse. It didn’t have a sign on it that said ‘Magic Gate’ – but he knew. Now, he understood. His hand reached towards it and a rush of electric vitalization jolted through his body. It was a shocking wave of energy which took every hint of exhaustion from him.

“It’s nice to find freedom, isn’t it?” Sutreyu was above him, on the steps. He turned. She looked at him with a mixture of delight and mischievous curiosity.

He was filled with relief at seeing her. “Did you escape from the Believers?” It didn’t feel odd to mix these worlds they both existed in.

She nodded curtly and the smile disappeared. “Yes. They cannot contain me. I refer to the greater freedom however, not mere freedom of body. That’s not the freedom I meant. The curse of that level is attachment to manifestations of physical being. All humans do it – most never escape it. We become attached to what we think of as ‘our life’.  A marriage of ego and physical possession. My family. My job. My pet. My work. My education. My, my, my. We become anchored in place by these things and unable to move in any sense. We think we own them, but in fact, we allow them to own us. We are the slaves of what we think we possess. “

“To pass the first gate, you had to be free. You had to experience at least one moment of true freedom from the earthly plane of existence. Most people never make it. They reach the point of self definition and they get crushed. You probably still feel like you are attached to those things. You can’t shed lifetimes of habit, but there is now a fundamental difference in the way you are thinking and perceiving versus how you were before. A tiny seed has been woke from a long hibernation. You have demonstrated that you are ready to evolve and the seed within you has begun to germinate. That is how you were able to pass through the gate Ben. That is the freedom of which I spoke. That is the only freedom that truly matters.”

Ben understood. He didn’t need to question what her words meant. It was communication as it was meant to be. She spoke. He heard. Understanding. It was a complete knowing.

The gossamer fabric of her gown caught a wisp of her hair as a gentle evening breeze brought the scent of night blooming jasmine. The moment was perfection. He savored it without vainly seeking to hold it. He let it pass.

He was changed, but he was still grounded in the other plane of reality.

“Were the others able to get away?” She did not chastise him again. She understood his desire to know.

“Some of them. Right now I am with Haruka, Abdullah, Leah, and Nick. We are safe and not far from you. Not everyone was so lucky though. Some were killed, some were captured, and some are still free, but I can’t tell you more than this.” There was sadness in her voice, for a moment, Ben found himself thinking this was only a dream, but he knew better. This was more than a dream. He could warn them!

“Adam betrayed us. Bishop will know where we are going!” It occurred to him that Sutreyu probably knew this already – but he had to be sure. He had to protect them if he could.

“What should I do now?” It was a silly question. He knew the answer, but asked anyway. Lifetimes of habit couldn’t be erased in a moment.

“Read the mountain face and climb to the second gate Ben.” She stood and walked down the steps towards him. There was no room for her to get by him, and nowhere for him to go. He thought she would stop, instead, she passed through him and continued through the gate. The smell of the jasmine filled the air.

He spun and watched her descending.

“I must go now,” she did not turn back to him.

He watched her walk down the steps. Where was she going? It wasn’t his concern. He turned and began to climb.

Huge columns of script became visible as the dawn light illuminated his path.

He read them, knowing that he must understand if he were to continue. They did not make sense or tell a story in the way english words might have. Instead, they were a collection of ideas that when presented together, provided a set of concepts. Despite being able to read them, he wasn’t sure if he were putting them together in the right way.

‘An empty boat. Collision. A full boat. Anger. River. Flood. Emptiness. Peace’

‘A full boat. Collision narrowly avoided. A boat that may be empty or may be full. Captains. Accountability. Anger. Destruction of peace.’

Ben considered the words as he climbed. He thought that it might be a meditation on blame. The captain of the boat that collides with an empty boat has no one to blame and in a sense is at peace. The captain who thinks there might be someone on the other boat however, he destroys the peace even if the collision is avoided. If he cold treat the unknown boat as empty, peace would be restored.

Even if he wasn’t understanding it completely, he hoped that would be able to hold on to the profoundness of this wisdom. It would be important in every life he led.

He could see the second gate. It was far in the distance. Much too far to reach in a single nights sleep.

Chapter 32

Wandering

He heard them before he saw them. Ben didn’t know how long he had slept, but the barking of the dogs dragged him back into consciousness. He opened his eyes and knew exactly where he was. He was sitting in a tree in a forest in the middle of a city with no name but Purgatory which was located on a planet that was apparently not Earth. It would be hard to be more specific than that. He was a lone primate in a tree.

Looking down through the canopy, he was surprised to discover that he had climbed higher than expected in the darkness. Below him, sunlight projected a mottled pattern on the forest floor as it passed through evergreen boughs before encountering the earth’s surface.

He saw at least a dozen dogs in the area. Several drank from the stream while others watched and sniffed. Lookouts. It was amazing that domestic dogs had reverted to pack mentality so quickly and effectively.

Actually, it was his assumption that these were domesticated dogs. These dogs could have been running loose here for years. They might be fourth of fifth generation. He knew nothing about this place. It was frustrating as hell. There were dogs below him, that was the sum of his knowledge.

He was glad he had put himself in the trees. The dogs seemed agitated. Probably, a combination of smelling him in the area married to the fact that the Believers had been killing a lot of dogs. These animals were prey now. If the circumstances were different, he might have chanced throwing his club and trying to kill one from above. He was hungry.

Instead, he stayed quiet and watched as the dogs passed by. None of them looked up and thankfully they were heading upstream. Twenty minutes after they passed, he was sure the area was clear. He made his way to the ground. Taking stock of his situation. He was still a naked man with a club. He’d like to have some sort of a knife, but didn’t have time to learn cave man skills yet. The materials he knew how to use were back in the city.

He drank deeply from the stream. The fresh water soothed his body and calmed his mind. The sound as it flowed over rocks was light. He imagined hearing the laughter of children in it – a sound none of them had heard in this world. He had always kept his child within alive. It was why he had been able to adapt to things here.

He had always loved stories of magic and enchantment. He believed there must be some grain of truth to them. The world, the old world,  had always seemed too logical to be real. As strange as everything had become, he was more comfortable with life here than he had been with life there. It made more sense.

In daylight he was able to move faster. He imagined himself as one of the nervous dogs, watching for signs of danger. His dreams were more than dreams. The dead were no longer completely gone. Young looking women were actually old. Most importantly, the thing he could not forget. Someone or something had brought them here. There was almost certainly a plan in all of this…somewhere.

It was impossible to say what that plan was without knowing who was behind it. Nothing made sense. Earth was destroyed by a polar shift, at least according to Nick. Ben and Haruka had both seen people with high technology. They had both been ‘rescued’. Sutreyu had told him that there were people here who had the ability to watch and evaluate them. He believed her. He had to believe her because she appeared in his dreams and his waking life with knowledge of both. He trusted her and she told him this was not Earth.

Where were they? The Bishop and the Believers thought this was the place between heaven and hell where good would fight evil. What they considered good, he considered evil. He didn’t buy their theory anyway. The Bishop had said it was an unnatural city. This rang true with Ben’s observations. They had found no sign of human habitation, only empty shells of buildings that were missing key human components – like bathrooms. The dogs were a conundrum too. Many of them appeared to be pure bred. If they had been here for generations, he would expect that they would all be mutts. The dogs were probably brought here by the same people who brought the humans. Who were the people that had rescued them? What did they want?

The stream bank was easy to follow. He hoped to find Sutreyu and the others, but so far had seen no sign of them. After several hours of walking, the stream came to a cliff where the water rushed down in a cascade. It wasn’t a tall waterfall, no more than twenty feet, but the cliff was impossible for Ben to scale. He considered jumping into the pool below, but the risk was too high. There was no one to help him if he broke his leg or sprained an ankle. He would go around, through the forest and find another path down.

Twenty minutes after leaving the cataract, he was still being thwarted by a wall of thorny bushes and impassable barriers. He heard voices.

Through the bushes he saw two men walking swiftly through the forest. They looked like Believers. The path they were walking was going to bring them by where he was hiding. He hoped they wouldn’t see him, but it was too late to move. He held his club, ready to fight, but preferring not to. As they got closer, he heard them.

“…the thing I don’t understand is why the Bishop would suddenly put him in charge of a bunch of us that have been loyal to him all along? I mean, I was one of the first hundred and now this guy that was a slave is supposed to be my boss? That’s just not right.”

His second man nodded. “The Bishop knows more than we do. We just have to trust his judgment on these things. I know what you mean, but I’m sure there is a reason for it. Think about it, at least it’s one of the white slaves. I don’t like being told to search the forest by Adam any more than you do, but if the Bishop tells me he’s the boss, he’s the boss. Know what I mean? I don’t want any trouble.”

Adam! These men didn’t know that he had been a spy? Why in the world wouldn’t the Bishop have told them that? Ben wondered how many men were searching through the forest. It seemed foolish to send them out in groups of two. There must be more nearby. The forest was probably crawling with Believers and they were probably all within shouting distance of each other. He was lucky he hadn’t run into more of them.

Unfortunately, the two men in front of him seemed to have found the best way to get where Ben had been heading. In the other world, they would have just been two men having a walk in the woods.

“I hope the Bishop lets us get some action with the women soon. A couple of the guys said they’re not going to wait much longer. Some of the women are totally ready for it. They want it as bad as we do. I’d sure like to have the chance to give it to a couple of em.”

His companion guffawed loudly. A shout came from further out…”Hey, you chickens keep your cackling down.  Hearing you is giving me a case of blue balls.” More laughter from the jungle. Ben had been right. There were Believers all over the place.

He made his way back to the river. Crossing to the other side, he soon found a way down the cliff. He was going to have to be more careful. He was being hunted.

Traveling on the relatively clear stream bank had been convenient, but it was far too exposed for Ben to continue. He followed the stream from the cover of the forest further from the bank. How long would the Believers devote to hunting runaways? He didn’t understand what it was they were trying to accomplish. Were they building an army? Were they rebuilding civilization?

Ben found a big tree loaded with ripe pears.  It was a very welcome surprise.He gathered fruit to take with him but then realized he had no way to carry them. He could carry a pear in one hand and his club in another. He needed gear. He needed clothes. How big were these parklands? Leah had said the city continued on the other side of the woods but maybe he was wandering into an endless forest.

Anything was better than staying near the Believers. The forest around him offered no backpack. He couldn’t make a basket even if the materials were in front of him. He gorged himself on the pears and continued on. He hoped to find more sustenance along the way to wherever it was he was going. On the river bank, he placed a large stone upright to mark where the tree was in case he needed to come back.

He flushed several rabbits as he made his way through the woods. He would be glad to eat something besides dog. Towards midday, he had a near miss with the dogs. Several dogs, their noses raised into the wind, were trotting up the far bank. He scrambled up a tree. The dogs didn’t hear him over the sound of the rushing water and luckily, the wind was blowing towards him, so they didn’t catch his scent.

What other sorts of animals lived in these woods? Was he in danger of being attacked by them?  The stream was filled with fish. There were schools of fry and now and then a larger fish would snatch an insect from the surface of the water. He had seen several types of birds. He’d never been much of a birdwatcher, but he thought the big blue ones that made so much noise were either jays or jackdaws. The black birds with the peach colored breasts were robins. He thought that he had seen a hawk, but it disappeared in the big trees too soon for him to be sure.

It had been hours since he saw the Believers and he was considering moving back to the stream bank to move faster. If he encountered more of the dogs he would scramble to the trees to avoid them. Besides, having a club made him feel like the dogs might choose other game over him. He was certainly seeing enough of it out here.

He came across several more fruit trees. A stunted orange tree, apples, and even a cherry tree. The first few he found, he stuffed himself in case he didn’t find more, but soon he began to feel more confident he would be able to find food when he became hungry.

The forest was becoming thicker and harder to navigate. He could no longer navigate through the thick brush. He would have to walk along the stream bank and possibly through the stream. He stepped towards the water and the brush parted on the other side. It was too late for him to hide from the five people who crashed through the bushes and ran towards him.

At first, they didn’t see him but there was no reason to hide.

Abdullah turned to help Sutreyu and Nick through the hole in the brush. Haruka and Leah emerged from the bushes further up stream.

They looked like they had been running at full speed.

Haruka looked across the stream and spotted Ben. He jumped, but then smiled as realized who it was. “Ben!”

Ben would have loved to have exchanged pleasantries with them, but there was no time. Obviously they were being pursued.

“Believers?” it was possible they were being chased by dogs or someone else, but Ben knew it must be the Bishop’s people.

Leah answered him. “Yeah. We were trying to find the edge of the forest. We came out of the brush and they were right in front of us. I can’t believe we didn’t hear them.”

“I can’t believe we didn’t smell them.” It was Abdullah this time. “No one is stopping them from bathing and yet…they do not.”

“Are you sure they saw you?” He had to assume that they had, but it was possible they hadn’t.

Haruka nodded his head. “Yeah, they definitely saw us. We need to move. Quickly.”

“Okay. Let’s go.” Ben ran down the riverbank in a fast jog. The forest was impassable where he had come from and they couldn’t go back towards the Believers. This was the only way.

They ran until the forest opened up. Big pines like the one he had spent the previous night in blocked out the daylight. They needed to go up. Ben was glad to be rejoined with them.

“We should go up into the trees.”

Abdullah loped to the largest tree, wrapped his whip over his shoulders and began to climb. The others followed. Nick, Lea, and Sutreyu were already climbing. Haruka came beside Ben. He gripped Ben’s shoulder affectionately and nodded his approval at Ben’s plan.

“It’s good to see you Ben. Sutreyu told us you were fine, but it was hard to know. You go next, I’ll come up last.” Ben handed Haruka his club and climbed into the lowest branches. Haruka handed him their two clubs and came up to him. They seesawed up the limbs that way until they were high over the forest floor.

Six primates in a tree waiting for whatever or whoever came next.

 

Chapter 33

Atrocities

They all sat in the tree, watching, listening, and hoping they wouldn’t see Believer’s come crashing through the brush. Time crawled and ten minutes seemed like forever.

It seemed like an eternity as they looked at each other and scouted the ground below. Then they began to hear them. First, just a the sound of brush, then the sound of voices, then what sounded like a mob of people. Believer after believer came out of the forest and milled about on the banks of the stream. Some of them drank from the stream, others flopped onto the ground – glad to be out of the thick underbrush. A few of them looked at the now hopelessly trampled ground searching for clues as to where their prey had gone.

“Was it the slaves or a group of forest people?” It was a stocky man who spoke with some authority. He was one of the latest to arrive. He was asking a skinny guy, one of the first who had arrived. Ben counted thirty seven men and more were coming. Jesus, he hoped they didn’t look up.

“Yeah, we’re sure. We saw the chink and the raghead and a couple of women, it was definitely them.” The skinny guy was nondescript and probably in his mid twenties or early thirties. Ben instinctively knew he was dangerous. This was a guy he didn’t want anything to do with.

“Is that why you’re so keen on catching them White? You chasing pussy?” The stocky man  laughed as he said it. “Those two we already caught are ready for more. You don’t have to work so hard, hoss.”

White moved like a snake striking. The stocky man didn’t know what hit him. He was on the ground and White was standing over him ready to hit him again. “You men are made of a weak moral fiber. You are fornicators and rapists. You tell your crude jokes and do your foul deeds, but do not, I repeat, do not think that I am one of you. We are not the same, hoss.” Sarcasm dripped from the word as he said it. “Talk to me like that again and I will kill you. That is a promise you can take to the bank.”

White turned his back on the stocky man who Ben would ever after think of as Hoss. White walked to the water, squatted down, cupped his hands and drank from them. Ben definitely wanted nothing to do with this guy. White struck Ben as the most dangerous type of hypocrite, the self righteous kind.

More Believers emerged from the brush. Apparently these were the stragglers. Ben couldn’t figure out who was in charge. Finally, the men he had seen earlier arrived with two trussed and vacant eyed women. The women were covered with blood, scratches, and bruises. There was no doubt they had been raped. Some of the Believers appeared uncomfortable at seeing them, others looked at them with lust. White didn’t look at them at all.

Adam was the last to arrive. Ben heard one of his companions in the tree catch their breath. Adam, clean, dressed like a Believer, and obviously in charge – he didn’t appear to have any concern for the women, despite having been captive with them. Ben tried to remember their names Freya was the dark haired one. The other one, who was a bit younger,  he wasn’t sure of. He had seen her, but didn’t know her name.

“Any sign of them?” Adam asked the assembled men with confidence that  they would provide him an answer. Several of the men jumped to do so. He was clearly in charge.

“No Sir.” “Nothing that we’ve seen.” “They may have gotten away from us this time, Sir.”

White squatted on the bank and said nothing. He stood slowly and moved to where Adam and the slave women were standing. In his hand was a glass dagger similar to the one Ben had initially made. Adam watched him coming cautiously. As White got closer, Ben could see that Adam was becoming nervous. Finally, he spoke.

“What is it White? Do you have something to say?”

White just kept moving forward – silently. Adam scrambled up but White was too fast. Like lightning he lunged forward, grabbed the younger woman by the hair, yanked her off balance, and sliced her throat with the sharp edge of his knife. Blood sprayed out of her jugular hitting Adam and Freya. Freya began to scream hysterically. Adam backed away. White plunged his dagger into the woman – over and over. It was the most horrifying thing Ben had ever seen – far worse than even the death of Samuel. Ben heard some of his companions gasp and turned to them with his finger on his lips. There was no danger of anyone looking upward – all eyes were on White.

“What the fuck? Have you lost your mind?” Adam was still backing away. Freya was still screaming. Ben hoped that someone among the Believers would do something, there was nothing he or anyone in the tree could do except watch in horror.

White didn’t seem any different than he had before. “Don’t worry Captain. I killed her. She caused enough of us to stain our souls.” He dropped the girl’s body and spit on it. “Thou shalt not tempt me into fornication again, Bitch.”

White had turned towards Freya now. “This bitch has gotta go too.”  White made a lunge towards Freya but was hit from behind by Hoss. Freya’s screams filled the forest. White went down, but it took several more men to subdue him. “You stupid sons of bitches, you want her to tell the Bishop what we done? Huh? You want her to cause him to cast us all out and turn us to slaves too?”

White squirmed and fought but was finally subdued. His words had reached the Believers. They had raped these women and now they must kill them. Freya looked down at the corpse,  blood still flowed from her sliced neck. She began screaming again.

“Somebody gag her.” Adam pointed at a group of men. “Don’t hurt her. You understand me?”

White struggled more from where six men held him down. “You’ve got to kill her!”

Adam motioned to White. “Gag him too. Crazy fucking freak. Tie that motherfucker up. Damn.”

White was bound and gagged and then laid on the ground. From his prone position, he saw Ben and the others in the tree above him. He renewed his struggling. Ben could only hope that he would remain gagged. His furious struggle brought the attention of Hoss, who leaned down and  knocked White unconscious with a powerful punch directly into his face.

Freya was gagged and White was unconscious. It was quiet. None of the Believers spoke. Finally, Adam broke the silence.

“He’s right. We can’t take her back.”

Someone asked. “Should we kill her.”

Adam shook his head in disgust. “No. We’re not going to do anything to her. We’re leaving her here. The dogs can kill her. We’ll tell the Bishop the truth, we killed one of the escapees but the rest of them got away from us.”

“What about him?” Hoss motioned to White’s unconscious body. “Should we leave him too?”

“No, he’s our scapegoat.” Adam turned to a group of men. “Grab him but keep him tied up for now. Let’s go home.”

It was only a few minutes and they were all gone.

Freya lay on the ground sobbing. The lifeless body next to her witness to the atrocities of man.

 

Chapter 34

Progression

The sounds of the Believers crashing through the jungle kept them in the trees far longer than any of them wanted but none of them were willing to climb down to help Freya until they were sure the Believers were gone. Ben could hardly believe the horrors they had witnessed. The only good news was that he wasn’t becoming numb to it.

After they had descended, Ben moved to help Freya but Sutreyu stopped him. She took charge.

“No. She has been touched by too many men already. Leah, help me untie her. Haruka and Nick, get sturdy branches to make a litter for her, she will need to be carried. We can tie it together with the rope they trussed her with.”

Sutreyu stopped moving and gave them a look of the utmost seriousness. “I am going to put her into a hypnotic trance so that she can have time to let her brain recover. She sees nothing but horror right now. She won’t be able to walk for a while. Don’t talk to her. Just let her recover.”

She turned to Ben and Abdullah. “You two, take this poor girl’s body somewhere peaceful. We can’t bury her, but at least we can put her in a peaceful place where she won’t be bothered by people. Don’t worry about animals finding her, they will, no matter what you do.”

No one argued with her. They were all relieved to be given something to do. Grabbing the dead girl under her armpits Ben lifted her up while Abdullah took her feet. He had expected her to be heavier. Her head fell backward on him, exposing the gruesome smile White had carved in her neck. They carried her towards the jungle.

Somehow, their task was easier if they spoke. Ben began “I actually thought Adam was one of us. I trusted him.”

Abdullah shook his head. “Don’t blame yourself. We all did. No one has ever experienced anything like what we are going through. I don’t know why the Bishop was so much better prepared than all of us. I feel as if I, especially, should have been prepared for his treachery.”

There was a large fallen tree rotting on the ground. Ben backed towards it. He was struggling to keep his hold on the body. The weight of her body had grown as they carried her. She now felt like she weighed four hundred pounds.

Where the roots of the tree had been, there was a crevice big enough to put her body in. It was the obvious choice. They laid the body down and Abdullah removed the garment from her. Ben was horrified. He couldn’t understand what he was seeing until Abdullah handed the garment to him. Ben wrapped it around himself.

Ben was no longer naked but now he was covered with her blood. He could wash off, but it was horrible. It was necessary. They lowered her into the hole, feet first. They laid brush and logs over the hole in an  attempt to cover her up. It was hardly a proper burial and Sutreyu was right, there was no hiding her corpse from the animals. At least no human would disturb her here.

“May she rest in peace. I didn’t know her, but she didn’t deserve any of this. Good lord.” Ben could not hold back his tears. He was barely able to hold himself from a complete collapse but somehow limited himself to a few sobs and the tears that ran down his dirty face.

Abdullah nodded. “None of us deserve this Ben. May the world get better for all of us. Inshallah.”

They had brought her quite a distance from the others. Now they began the walk back. Abdullah’s words clicked in his brain.

“Abdullah, were you a cop or something? Why did you say you should have noticed problems.”

Abdullah laughed. “I was a warrior of jihad. I was what your media would have called a terrorist but what my people referred to as a freedom fighter.”

Abdullah’s voice was laughing but his eyes were serious.

“You were a terrorist?” Ben couldn’t believe that this gentle man had been a monster.

Abdullah shook his head. “Your government might have called me a terrorist, but that was not me. I was a fisherman. A son. A father. A husband. I was a man who watched everything he loved destroyed. I was a man who chose to fight for the freedom of my people and to save others from the suffering I had borne. Now however, I am none of those things. We are nothing here except what we choose to be.”

Ben had considered this. The labels that applied to him in the old world no longer applied in this one. he was no longer a printer. He was no longer a man who cheated on his wife. He was no longer a brother, a son, or anything else he had been on Earth. The things which had defined him were gone. He was a man wrapped in a bloody cloth. It was possible that he was becoming a friend. He was an escaped slave. This world created brand new definitions and erased those of the past.

“What are you now? If you are none of those things you were?” Ben wondered what this slender man in front of him would say.

Abdullah smiled with no irony. “I am exactly what I should have become in the last world Ben. I am a seeker. We must get back because the others will be waiting.” They were soon with the others where conversation was hushed by the presence of Freya.

They all washed in the stream. The blood came off, but Ben felt like it was still there. Like it would never go away.

With Freya on the improvised litter, they set off downstream. Sutreyu had put the girl into a deep sleep and the rigors of the trail did nothing to wake her. They took turns carrying her. When Sutreyu and Leah insisted on carrying the litter, there was a small flurry of words as Haruka and Nick both insisted that the men should do the carrying.

“I mean no disrespect,” Haruka said, “but we need to move quickly and I am afraid that the two of you need to conserve your strength.”

This sparked outrage from Leah. “I probably outweigh you by thirty pounds and I’m more than capable of carrying her…and you, if need be.”

Leah wasn’t fat, but she was a big woman. She had wide shoulders, strong arms, and finely muscled legs. Ben had tried not to stare while she bathed in the river. She was an Amazonian picture of perfection. As beautiful as a fashion model and no doubt as strong as she said.

Nick made the poor decision to jump in on Haruka’s side. “The human male body is designed for carrying heavy loads, but the human female is not built for this purpose.”

Sutreyu smiled and stepped in the middle of the three of them. “And yet it is women who carry every human life. Leah and I will carry our sister. Women have always carried the burdens of the world. We carry water, tents, children, food, and other burdens. Women plow fields, harvest crops, and are more than capable of even men’s harshest labors. Certainly, you haven’t forgotten what the women of Okinawa,” she looked at Haruka as she said this and turned to Nick, “or Senegal are capable of doing. Stand aside and disrespect your mothers no more.”

Clouds of memory crossed both men’s faces. Her words shut them both up – instantly. They made way for the women to carry Freya.

Ben wondered if anyone else knew that Sutreyu was a century old? She and Leah carried Freya until it was nearly dark. Ben and Abdullah had both struggled with the litter after only an hour, but as the women carried it, they moved with ease and Ben didn’t see a single bead of sweat upon either of them.

The stream had widened considerably by the time darkness began creeping into the daylight sky. The stream flowed with enough force to create a safe barrier on one side of them. It had become a small river. Ben searched for trees that would be suitable for them to sleep in, but wondered how they would bring the still unconscious Freya into the canopy with them.

“Tonight, we are safe from the Believers – they have gone back to their cathedral.” Abdullah spoke softly. “I propose that we rest here and take turns standing watch. It’s the eve of the seventh day here and we must rest.”

Even if he had disagreed, Ben was too exhausted. They found a grassy bank alongside the river and laid Freya upon it. Ben found a pear tree bursting with fruit. Leah pulled clumps of watercress from the stream. Haruka returned to their camp with a bird’s nest and four eggs. Nick pulled various barks from trees, broke sticks, and in an amazingly short amount of time had built a fire with a pointy stick and some stringy bark. He put the point of the stick on the bark and rubbed it vigorously between his hands until a puff of grey smoke arose from the pile of tinder he had placed next to it.

When Ben expressed his amazement, Nick looked embarrassed. “This was how we did it when I was a kid.” Abdullah appeared and interrupted any conversation that might have followed.

“Ah, good, fire! I was afraid we would be forced to eat Sushi. I prefer my fish cooked.” He held a half dozen fish impaled on a stick. Ben was amazed by these people he was with. They had pulled so much food from the land!  He thought of the Believers eating dog meat in the cathedral and smiled. They, like so many people he had known, were prisoners of their own fear, greed, and their mentality of scarcity.

This, on the other hand, this feast shaping up before them was provided by the universe for anyone who was willing to accept a mentality of abundance. If not for what they had witnessed today, this might have been a celebration. Sutreyu had sat with her hands upon Freya’s head while the others foraged. She now stood up.

“She will sleep through this night. Tomorrow, she will not remember what she experienced today. The cost of the experience was too much for her. Someday, she may remember, but for now, we must all swear to never let her know what we have seen or what we suspect happened to her. We shall carry the pain which would otherwise kill her. We must never let her know.”

The power of Sutreyu’s words and voice allowed for no argument. Ben didn’t know how to look at her. Her face and form were beautiful, but beyond that, her essence was something he could almost call divine. He saw an old wise woman and a young beautiful woman at the same time when he looked at her.

“I see that you have all contributed to this meal. I am unwilling to not contribute something myself.” They all started to reassure her that there was no need, that what she was doing was enough, but she disappeared into the now dark surroundings.

It was only minutes before she was back with wild onions and several large flat pieces of bark.

“Plates and a bit of spice for this meal.” Ben could not have been more amazed.

Ben savored the food and enjoyed the companionship of these people. It was the first chance for most of them to compare stories of who they were and what they thought had happened.

Ben started it shortly after the food was gone. “I was in my print shop getting ready to have dinner with a friend when the shop collapsed on me. Where were all of you?”

Nick went next. “I was in Glasgow, I was studying the effects of sunspot magnetism on the earth’s polarity.”

Ben still had a hard time grasping that they were all from different places. “So you were in Scotland, I was in the U.S, what about you Leah?”

Leah hesitated and Ben thought he might have seen embarrassment flash across her face. After the briefest pause she said “I was doing a photo shoot for Prada in Milan. When the weather started going weird, my agent decided to throw a sort of hurricane party, and then…well…you guys know what happened.”

Abdullah’s eyebrows raised to the tree tops. “You’re a fashion model?”

She laughed. “Yeah, I know. I’m pretty big, but that’s the thing, nobody wants to see those anorexic little things anymore, or, at least they didn’t…” Everyone was quiet as they remembered where they were. This wasn’t a camping trip. “So anyway, what about you Abdullah, what did you do?”

“The men in my family have been fishermen for generations. My family has always been on the water. In the times of the Phoenicians, we were merchants and traders, but history has a way of changing things. As we are all aware of now…” He coughed into his hand. The small fire between them all cast shadows that danced upon the water. “I am curious about my friend Haruka. You were military, yes?”

Haruka shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t suppose it matters anymore so I might as well tell you. I was a commando with the Japanese SDF, that’s Self Defense Force, we were doing a survey of certain islands in the Philippines. They didn’t tell us exactly why, but among those of us doing it, we were all pretty sure that Japan was looking at recreating a little bit of our old empire.”

Ben was flabbergasted. “But isn’t Japan forbidden to use their forces offensively by their constitution?”

Haruka shrugged. “Sure, but that constitution was written by a woman from Kansas during a decade of your country occupying mine. Japan has the third largest military in the world. The United States opened the door for a new empire as soon as they started inviting Japanese troops to assist as peacekeepers in the Middle East and Africa. Things change…I mean, they did. So, yeah, our best guess was that the US and Japan were divvying up all the hotspots in the Pacific and this was the first recon…anyway, I was doing a scuba recon near Mindanao when the water currents began going crazy. I was supposed to stay down for a much longer time, but it was just too dangerous, I did a controlled ascent to the surface, and when I got there someone was waiting for me.”

Sutreyu interrupted anything else he might have said. “I think that someone was waiting for all of us. That is why we are here. I must tell you something that may be difficult for you to hear.” The hair on the back of Ben’s neck rose. He had wondered what she would say when it was her turn to speak.

Her voice was strong and clear without being loud. The crackling of the fire kept time with the natural rhythm of her voice.

“For thousands of years, human beings have sensed that there was more to reality than that which their senses could inform them about. Mysticism, science, philosophy, and religion have all tried to explain what men and women have felt from the dawn of time. Other worlds have never been as far away as most people believe. In fact, certain human beings have always been able to see just how small a place existence really is, and this is what I must tell you now, not all human beings come from the same world as we six. I am from China. Like you, I was born on Earth. Unlike you, I have journeyed to the places that are near it and I have met with the beings who exist in those places. Some of them. “

“I do not know if words exist to describe what I have experienced nor what has happened to you…and me, but I shall try. Imagine the ocean covered with gigantic waves. The waves do not travel in only one direction. All directions and each wave with a story it must find. Within each wave are many things, pieces of seaweed, driftwood, coconuts, a myriad of objects carried on an undefined journey until some other force acts upon them and takes them to a different wave.”

“Earth is simply one of those waves. It exists in an ocean filled with countless other waves – other worlds. Each of us, have spent our lives, living on this wave called Earth hurtling towards its own story. I want to remind you that waves do not die, they are simply transformed into other waves, or combined with, other waves, but the universe does not make them disappear. Sometimes, however, a wave encounters a landmass. The chaos that ensues when a wave strikes land is tremendous.”

They were all rapt, watching her ancient hands while her voice told the story. Her hands told the same story but with different words, Ben could picture the ocean of worlds she described between them.

“Have you seen giant waves hitting cliffs? The violence is catastrophic and yet, there is beauty in it and beauty left in its aftermath. This is what happened to the wave we called Earth. It has hit a cliff face on a huge landmass and is in the process of creating a new kind of beauty.”

“But what about us?” Leah asked. “How did we get here?”

Sutreyu went on. “That is the most difficult part to explain or understand, of course. I will try to tell you what I know. It is important to keep thinking in terms of this ocean of waves. So far, we have only thought of one wave called Earth, but I want you to consider the other waves for a moment…are they not all connected to one another by the same ocean? Mankind has spent existence searching for ways to understand, reach, and see all of these other waves. It has taken all of human kind’s time on Earth to understand the forces required to even recognize them. For nearly all of history, the majority of the spectrum of light has been invisible to humans. Do you suppose that all had become visible? I tell you, it had not. Not to the eye.”

“This is as much as I know, though I know you will not be satisfied with my answers. Our wave smashed into the shore, those of us here, were carried from it and brought to another wave. This is where we are. To keep using our analogy of waves, it is as if we were bits of plankton or coconuts about to smash onto the cliffs, but at the last moment, a whale moved through the wave, drawing us past the fate of our planet and bringing us back out to sea where we were ejected onto a new wave. That is where we are and how we got here.”

Ben said. “I saw them,” Ben said. “They were human and they had technology. I saw the ship!”

Haruka stood up. “I saw them too. Though I can’t say who they were. Can you tell us more?”

Sutreyu remained sitting. “I suspect we were not all brought here by the same whale. There is more than one whale involved in this. I suspect that we are being used to achieve some purpose that we do not know. I also suspect that it will not be long before we come face to face with them.”

Abdullah was still seated cross-legged, his chin resting in his hand. “How can you know all of this? Can you tell us more?”

Sutreyu turned as she looked at each of them. “I know all of this from the stars. I cannot tell you more. This is as much as I can put into words.”

Conversation continued for some time but with no more revelations. Ben was more confused than before. He volunteered to take the first watch while the others somehow managed to find their way to sleep.

 

Chapter 35

Oceans

The Bishop rode a wave of ecstasy.

The discovery of his bible had washed away his every doubt. His was a triumphant procession as they carried the contents of the vault back to the cathedral. The certitude of a Caesar was his as he pored over the holy words on the journey home. Multiple times, he called halt to the trek so that he could share the wisdom he pulled from his book. And his book it was, no one else had been allowed to touch it from the moment he had discovered it.

Emma might have been annoyed by his scriptural recitations except for the entertaining theatricality of the man – and the aptness of the passages he read.

“The Lord has foretold all of this in Jeremiah chapter 23.” The Bishop called another halt as he read to them in a booming and confident voice. The men welcomed the chance to lower their burdens upon the bone dry road. “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord. You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing.

There were plenty of people missing, as far as Emma could tell, but she kept her tongue. The population of planet Earth had been almost 8-billion and judging by what she had seen so far – there weren’t even a million people here, but then again, maybe every other city was jammed with people- if there were other cities.

The Bishop was more convinced of his own mission than anyone she had ever met. So much so that she had been brought on board, despite her complete disagreement with everything he had done so far. Of course, she was on board for her own reasons.

Hugo, her late husband,  had sworn that “the Devil quotes scripture” was a quote from Shakespeare, but she had also heard it attributed to a dozen other cynics, including Jesus Christ. Now, she wasn’t so much concerned with the source of it as the truth. The proof was in front of her. This man was a devil and scripture was deadly stuff. People must have evolved a genetic trust for men who read to them from books. Didn’t they know books could lie as easily as men did? The words all came from the same place.

She considered how this was going to affect her flock of hens. The loners and hussies wouldn’t have any trouble remaining independent when the Bishop held his bible high. They knew words were only as good as the deeds that followed them. Anne and the other women like her, would have a harder time. She was worried about their reaction because she could already see what it would be. Scripture would justify anything and everything for them. The Bishop was a master of manipulation and Emma had no doubt he would manipulate the words in his book to mean whatever he wanted them to. It was the power of the book and it always had been. The words could mean anything – they relied on the power of the preacher. His power to ‘save’ had just gone up by a factor of a thousand.

At the cathedral, there was a rush of activity. They were met by Smith on the edge of the encampment. He must have been waiting.

“Sir…your grace…I’ve got to speak with you immediately.” Smith was disturbed. The Bishop, however would not be kept from sharing his joy.

“Smith, the Lord has given us his word.” The Bishop held the bible out in front of him.

Smith glanced down at it and gave an insincere smile, but quickly got back to his point. “Your Grace, I  must insist that I be allowed to speak with you in private immediately.”

“You are speaking with me Smith. What is it?” The Bishop was annoyed now.

He wanted to tell the  Believers he had been granted sole access to the word of God. Smith was interrupting his imagined moment of adulation.

Emma knew that Smith had been sent after the runway slaves earlier in the day and she could see that he had something important to say. The Bishop needed some help getting grounded back in reality.

She stepped towards Smith while speaking to the Bishop. “Your Eminence, perhaps I can listen to his report while you share the good news?”

The Bishop’s eyes darted from her to Smith and back again. He began to speak, paused, then flipped his bible open and began to read.

“Numbers 22:35 ‘And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.” His eyes saw nothing as he looked at Emma and Smith, he was bedazzled by the book he held. “Yes, go. Thou shalt speak to Emma. She will tell me all later. Now, I must speak to everyone.”

Richard was beside him, fuming at having been passed over in the chain of command – again. “Richard. Bring everyone to the cathedral. We must all speak and give thanks to the Lord for he has brought us here and reunited us in this land.”

Richard stalked away unhappily. The Bishop walked into the cathedral, his tall form was bent over with his nose buried deep in his bible. The men carrying the vault’s contents followed him.

Emma turned to Smith. “What is it?”

Smith wasn’t happy with the way this had unfolded.  “Mother Emma, I really must protest, the Bishop needs to know…”

Good, pious Emma could no longer contain her. “God dammit, Smith. Spit it out. Can’t you see that the Bishop doesn’t give two shits about anything but that book in his hand? He won’t hear a word you say. He’s shit-face drunk on the word of God at the moment and won’t hear a word you say – so you need to tell me.” Droplets flew from Emma’s mouth as she spoke. Smith, was noticeably shocked by the change in her demeanor. It was the first time she had exposed herself among the Believers.

He looked at her with a newfound respect. “Okay, listen…here’s the thing. This morning we set out in two directions circling the park like the Bishop told us too. I don’t know what Adam found because he went the opposite direction from me. What we found was six of the slaves coming out of the parklands five or six miles from here. We chased them through the city for quite a while, but they were fast and we didn’t catch them. We kept after them for most of the day but were unsuccessful at catching them.”

“Okay, so you didn’t catch them?  So what? They’re not going to come back here and they got away from you. It isn’t really the end of the world, right? I mean we all lived through that last week, right?” Emma’s tone was harsh. She was glad that they’d gotten away. This martinet was so worried about his job that he wasn’t thinking of his humanity. Like the rest of them.

“No. It’s not the slaves I’m worried about. That’s not what I need to tell him about. The slaves are the least of our worries.”

“Smith. You seem pretty shook up over not having caught some escaped slaves…”

“Listen to me,” his face had become red with anger and frustration, “We kept following them and eventually, we reached the edge of the city. We reached a shoreline. We came to a beach and a salt water ocean. There were waves and nothing but blue for as far as I could see.”

Emma still didn’t see anything to be upset about. “You found the ocean. Smith, cut to the chase, what is the big deal?”

He took a big breath. “Once we got to the sand, we could see their tracks and the tracks of the people who I think captured them. We’re not alone here. We saw their footprints.“

Emma still didn’t see why the man was so upset. There were people here. They knew that. “Did you get an idea of how many of them there were?” Emma was glad to hear that there were more people here, it was comforting to know that the Believers were not the only option.

“There were a lot of them, too many to count, but that’s not the issue. The issue is,” Smith couldn’t contain himself any longer. There was no way to say it except to say it. “They were captured by fucking giants. Those footprints were twice as long as any human prints I’ve ever seen.”

Once again, Emma was aware of just how good she was at handling life when it got weird as fuck.

Chapter 36

Giants

Emma was certain that there was an explanation but had a hard time believing Smith’s story. She believed he had seen giant footprints, but probably the slaves had been smart enough to know that a bunch of violent religious fanatics thrown into an already unbelievable situation, would be more than ready to believe in supernatural beings. She could picture Nick making huge footprints in the sand and watching from some hidden vantage point as the Believers fled in panic. She smiled to herself.

She sent Smith to gather his men and bring them to the cathedral. He hadn’t struck her as the type to be so superstitious and gullible, but this situation was beyond anyone. Giants!

The smile on her face disappeared. She was the one who had to go tell the Bishop.The slaves had escaped and there were giants. Actually, it sounded biblical. The Bishop was probably going to buy it – or at the least turn it to his advantage.

After all, hadn’t the boy king David had to slay the giant Goliath! She hated to give him more power, but this would certainly do it. She was interrupted by the arrival of Adam and his ‘troops’. They had apparently been successful as they led several men, hands behind their backs and tied together.Not seeing the Bishop, Adam came to her. She didn’t like him, but hid it from her face. She was pleased that he recognized her authority.

“We’ve captured several but most of the rest of them got away. Have you seen the Bishop?” Emma compared Adam and his men with the group that had been led by Smith. Smith’s men looked tired and freaked out, these men looked on edge. They were much more grim and much less freaked out. Emma guessed that their day had not involved giants or the beach.

“He’s in the cathedral. Tell me what happened.” Adam looked at her with complete and total disdain. So much for recognizing her authority.

“I need to see the Bishop.” He turned and walked towards the cathedral. His men dispersed into small groups. There was tension among them. Not all of them appeared to be friendly with one another.

Finally, she looked at the prisoners. Three men. None whom she knew. They had all  been severely beaten. A short bearish man led them to where the slaves were being held. They were openly called slaves now. With the addition of the captured, there were eight men and one woman held captive. The bearish man shoved one of the slaves to the ground as he brought all three to the men standing guard over the others.

“Watch out for this one. He lies. He is extremely dangerous. If you take your eyes off him for a second, he will get free and kill someone. We should have killed him and left him for the dogs…” The man in question was thin and had small eyes. He was one of two fair skinned slaves.

Things had gotten a lot worse in twenty-four hours. She felt a sense of fear growing. It hadn’t gotten as bad as it was going to. She knew when disaster loomed.

Adam came out of the cathedral and called some of his men over before going back inside.Within moments, his men were ordering everyone inside. She needed to tell the Bishop what Smith had related to her. At the very least, it might cause him to fall deeper into the pit that the bible had opened up for him today. She didn’t know if that would be good or bad.

Inside, space was filling up quickly. The alter area was packed with gold, silver, jewels, and worthless bundles of currency. This place was starting to look more like a real church all the time. She wondered how long it would be before they had enough of an economy to start tithing.

She didn’t see the Bishop. He must be in his quarters. She had vowed she would not go there again, but this was different. She needed to get him this information. She needed to find out what Adam and his troops had encountered today that had so changed them.

Adam was on his knees in front of the Bishop. Her first thought was a blowjob but she quickly realized that it was not a sex act. She had felt a moment of intense jealousy. That was not good. The Bishop was praying over him and clenched his head forcefully. Adam was sobbing.

“…and though we know that your servant has done evil, he has repented Lord and asks for your forgiveness and strength in this time of need.”

The Bishops raised right hand came down on Adam’s forehead. The force of it knocked him backwards. He didn’t try to catch himself but fell to the floor. The Bishop saw Emma. The look he gave her was sharp but before he could rebuke her, she lowered her head. “Your Grace, I’m sorry to intrude, but it is most urgent I tell you of what Smith found.”

He nodded and turned to Adam. “Make sure everyone is in the cathedral.”

“Shall I leave guards with the slaves?” Adam stood shooting Emma a look that she didn’t understand. What had he done?

“No. Bring the prisoners in. We won’t have a repeat of last night. I want everyone to hear what I have to say.” Adam left.

The Bishop turned to her. “I have allowed evil to come in our midst.” He turned to her. “They captured several female slaves today.”

“No, it was three men. I saw them.” There hadn’t been any women, Emma was sure of it.

“The women are dead Emma. It is my fault. I gave in to the temptation of the flesh so how could they not? I brought this about.” His eyes glazed over,  but then he snapped out of it. “Among those captured today were two black hearted jezebels. They cast a spell of lust over the men and led them to fornicate and disgrace themselves in the eyes of the Lord.”

She didn’t have time to process what he was saying. He went on . “I don’t blame you Emma.” Blame her? “We must pray to the Lord for forgiveness. We must never give in to such temptation again.”

The women, what had happened to the women? She dared not ask. She knew. Raped and murdered and then blamed for their own rape and murder. Bastards! That was what was wrong with the men outside. They were rapists and murderers.

She struggled to control herself. She had known it was coming but it had started sooner than she had thought. She had to stay in control. She channeled her anger into giving this lunatic news that would drive him over the edge.

“I have alarming news from Smith. We have a bigger problem.”  Paternalistic, self righteous, son of a god-damn bitch.

His eyes looked at her in disbelief. “What could be worse than my men being corrupted?” The fate of the women was no concern of his.

The words sounded ridiculous but she said them with gravity. “There are giants here. Smith and his men found giants.”

The Bishop picked up his bible from the rough table it sat upon and clutched it to his breast.

“God have mercy on our souls, he’s brought back the giants!” The Bishop said.

Emma imagined a giant snapping the Bishop in half. She’d been losing sight of it, but she knew which side she was on.

The entire community of Believers was gathered in the cathedral – with their slaves. The slaves, still gagged, were shoved and prodded into the back where unhappy goons surrounded them. The foul stench of the assembled masses was overpowering to Emma as she sat cross legged in the front row with the Bishop’s most important and trusted advisors. How had she ended up here?

This could not continue, but it had to. She’d had no time to speak with the women.

The stacks of money and jewels from the vault stood on the alter like holy objects. The firelight of torches reflected from gold and silver coins. In old pirate movies this was where greedy crew members would slowly start to kill one another to possess the treasure. They usually ended up dead or stuck somewhere where the gold did them no good. Sort of like here. All the money in the world and nowhere to spend it.

The Believers began singing that damn Christian Soldiers song again. It had all gone too far and she was through cooperating in any way that didn’t immediately benefit her or her people, the women. No one needed to be comfortable right now. If they knew what had happened, none of them would be.

The Bishop climbed the alter. He wore long black robes made that day.  The cloth was colored with a dye the women had made from berries they found in the parklands. He was a  perfect picture of priestliness. His tall, sallow visage grim like the reaper. Death stood before her and he began to speak.

“My People. My Believers. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. For all time, man yearned to understand how the Lord, our God, could reward those who are his most devout, with such harsh punishment and tests of faith. Today, in this world, this land of purgatory and limbo, we find ourselves in no less of a situation. We too, are faced with such questions as we sit in the bounty of the Lord and suffer.”

“For suffer we must. Suffer we will, but not without the comfort of the Lord to help us through such challenging days. For the Lord, Our God, hath provided us with means and the Word to bring us through to the golden land that awaits us.”

He gestured to the riches piled around him. “I am sure that all of you have noticed that today, thanks to Mother Emma, the Lord has brought us the most fabulous wealth any of us have seen. In the world we left, such riches could be used to build glorious monuments to God and to exalt His name above all others.”

“But I tell you now. These things are worthless here. Do you think that all of this wealth before you will satisfy your thirst? Will it sate your hunger? Do you imagine that any of this,” his arm swept widely over the pile, “can provide the barest measure of safety to you?” Now his arms, both of them, were lifted over his head. Emma’s image of Death looking down on her from above was more pronounced. The arms came down to the piles and grasped handfuls of bills.

“Nay, I tell you. This is the downfall of the last world brought here by Our God to demonstrate the folly of man. For why should we lust after riches when water flows nearby? Why should we hoard gold when fruit sits on the trees?  Why should we chase worthless paper with worthless words printed on it?” he threw the handfuls of hundred dollar notes among the Believers. Some of them reached for them, others let them fall to the floor. “I tell you, the Lord has given us all we need. He has provided us with his Word.”

The Bishop grabbed his bible and lifted it overhead. “Today, I was not deceived by the false wealth laid around me. I was not tempted by the worthless treasure. For I knew, that the Lord God had left real treasure in that vault. The Lord had told me that I would find his word where the old woman awoke. He appeared to me in a fiery form and spoke to me. Many of you have asked why Mother Emma is so special. It is because, my people, she is a messenger of the one true God.”

Everything began to make more sense to Emma. She suddenly understood why the Bishop had put her in his quarters. She understood why he had been so interested in her. She understood why he had seemed so interested in the vault. But wait a minute, somebody, that is God, to him anyway, had called her an old woman? She was offended and more than a little frightened.

As the pieces clicked together she became more outraged and even more terrified. What kind of a God condoned racism, sexism, murder, slavery, and rape? What kind of a holy man has intercourse with God’s chosen messenger? She could feel terror traveling up and down her spine. She knew the answer.

The kind of God that the Old Testament spoke of. The god of genocide. The god of vengeance. The god of punishment. Oh no, this was definitely not good..

The Bishop was still talking and she, like everyone else, was paying very close attention to him but for very different reasons.

“Hidden in all this rubbish before you, was one gem. One book, the only book in this world. Beneath the gold and jewels, beneath the glitter and flash, lay this…” the bible was held up before him, “the word of god. God has given his people his word. He has provided us with the most powerful tool known in the universe. And I tell you this, my people, he has provided us with it, just in time.”

The Believers were all crowding forward. The Bishop held in his hand,  a holy book, the holy book. This bible was of supernatural origin and was holier than any Emma had ever heard of. It was power. Incredible power.

“For when Satan came to tempt Jesus, as is written in Luke 4, it was the Word of God alone that allowed Jesus to defeat the enemy. When the Holy Spirit instructed Paul to defend the faith, he gave him a sword to do so, that sword is the word. The armor we must all wear is our faith. And as it is said in this sword of God, Romans 8:31, ‘If God is with me, who can be against me!’”

The Bishop hadn’t needed the Bible, but now that he had it, there was going to be no stopping him.

“Believers! I would have you hear the God’s Word in Deuteronomy 8:23 ‘And thou shalt remember all the ways which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldst keep his commandments, or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.”

“It is in such a wilderness that we find ourselves on this, the eve of our seventh day. And while I would have you rejoice in the knowledge that the Lord God is amongst us and has provided us with sword, armor, and mana from Heaven. Still, he will challenge us and still he will cause us to be humbled and to suffer. For it is up to us to live and to prove our will is strong and to create an Army for God in this new world that will raise our souls to eternal life.”

There was a current running through the room. The Bishop had affected them all. Not all of them were ready to swear fealty and confirm their faith, but they were all affected. Many of them must be as terrified as she was. Despite everything that had happened, somehow she had not thought that supernatural intervention was any more real here than it had been on Earth. Obviously she had been wrong, either here or back on Earth.

“And, my Children. He has provided for us at a time that may prove the eve of darkness for us. I know that many of you are suffering. I know that many of you have sinned. I will tell you that today, today many challenges were placed before the firm of faith and that many tests were failed on this day. We have learned much today, my flock, my people. I want to assure you, that you are about to know the truth. For the picture you see, is not complete. Now, now that you are clothed in the Armor of Faith and now that you know that we have the Sword of God to defend us. Now I will tell you. May the Lord give us Strength.”

The room was quivering. Emma could see soldiers, guilty of rape and murder shifting on their feet. She could see Smith, off to her left, looking concerned and nervous. She could see Adam and Richard off to her right. Neither man looked as joyful as she would have expected the Bishop’s sermon thus far to have made them.

“Today, our brave soldiers were beset by witchcraft of the most foul kind. These brave men suffered enchantment and were led to see things that did not exist.” She saw Adam and his men begin to look a little less uncomfortable. The bastard was letting them off the hook. “These men were led unto temptation by Satan himself and many of them yielded. However, I will tell you that our God is a merciful God, and if you ask for forgiveness, he looks to your heart and if you are sincere, it is granted.”

She looked to the other side. Smith looked puzzled and slightly annoyed. It took her a moment to understand why, but then it hit her, of course. He thought the Bishop was saying he had made up seeing the giant footsteps. He looked at her then turned away and tightened his jaw.

“But this foul enchantment is not all that He has put in our path on this day. Our men also found something that would set fear into the hearts of the bravest warriors, were it not for the sword that God has put into our hands. For while we thought that perhaps this land was a place where the Lord had raised us from the dead, it seems it is also a Land where the Enemy has been able to raise his forces. Forces we thought defeated long ago by the power of God through a shepherd boy. Yes, I will draw your thoughts to the story of David who became the king of all of God’s people. The shepherd boy who slew a giant named Goliath. Goliath was a Philistine and the Word of God tells us that they were the children of whores and fallen angels. They once ruled the Earth and now I must tell you, today, we have found that they are here. The giants have returned.”

There were gasps and then silence. They were thinking that giants were stories, stories were myths, and so the Bishop must not mean what he was saying. Then, they were thinking that they were living in a world called Purgatory and listening to a man who God spoke to. She could hear the mental confusion.

The Bishop paused just long enough to allow such thoughts but then, he went on. “I am not using symbols, I am not creating stories, these are not, as some used to claim on Earth, morality stories. This,” again he held up the bible, “this is the Word of God and today, we are living in perilous times. God gave us six days to prepare, and on the seventh day, we will rest and keep the Sabbath. I tell you now, we are in a perilous world of sorcery, demons, and giants. Our only hope, is to pray and to use the weapons of God to strike down our enemies. If our faith is strong, we will prevail.”

The Bishop’s voice raised.

“There will be time to discuss these things later. For now, for now we must pray and ask the Lord for forgiveness and strength. Bow your heads.”

The Bishop began to pray. For hours, men and women prayed, moved forward to the alter, and asked for forgiveness for their sins. Emma caught the Bishop looking at her several times. His eyes beckoned her to come forward like the others and beg forgiveness for her sins. She could tell he wanted her to ask for forgiveness.

She would rather burn in hell.

 

Chapter 37

Women’s Lib

The Bishop didn’t speak to her when the womenfolk were escorted to their barracks, she wasn’t surprised. The air was abuzz with chatter as the women digested all that had been revealed. Bella and Anne were on either side of her as they were locked up for the night.

“Can you believe it?” Anne spoke in glowing tones, amazed at the wonders of giants and witches. Her face was like that of a child who had just learned that Santa Claus was real.

“What a lot of horse shit.” Bella had detected the manipulation. She was like the slightly older child told to sit on Santa’s lap at a mall Santa’s village.

There they were, one on each side of her, and Emma, like the truth, somewhere in the middle. She looked from one to the other. These women were her right and left hands. She would never have believed that she would need to rely on Anne, but already she could see that the girl was unbelievably valuable as an ally. Not only was she hell on wheels in a fight, but she had also done nice work in polarizing the women that Emma would have been scorned by. The women on the fence.

Bella was tough, she was strong, and she was independent. Her loyalty would last only as long as it was deserved. That was one of the qualities Emma liked best in her people. It kept her doing the right thing and thinking about how to do more of it.

“Sisters. We need to talk. I’m not going to spend a lot of time rehashing what we just heard, but Anne, you need to know the condensed version of reality. First, those men who sinned are probably guilty of raping and killing those women who escaped. Second, the devil quotes scripture and I’m pretty certain if the Bishop isn’t the Devil, he certainly serves him. Third,  I don’t know if there are giants or not, no one does, Smith saw big footprints, that’s all. And finally, fourth, things are going to get a lot worse and we need to take as many women as will come with us and get the hell out of here.” Emma looked at them both.

Bella was nodding her head in agreement. Anne wasn’t quite there yet.

“But what about the men? I mean, we need them to protect us, right?” Her head was cocked to one side like a beautiful cocker spaniel waiting for an abusive owner to feed it.

Emma grabbed Anne’s hands. “Listen to me Honey. Asking those men to protect us is like asking a fox to guard the henhouse. These guys got us locked in a room and they can take us one by one and rape and kill us if we don’t do what they say. The raping has started and once it begins, it doesn’t end. That’s the lesson of history. All those rapists just got a pass. The Bishop and his god just forgave them. That’s the reality of the situation. We need to get out of here, arm ourselves, and handle our own security. That is the truth. Those women were raped and killed. Our lives are worthless. You showed us all last night that women don’t have to be defenseless. There’s other women here that have had a self defense course, but there is no way any of us can defend ourselves against the situation we are in now. Anne, you gotta trust me. There might be some men you can trust, but you can’t trust any of them more than you can trust another woman at a time like this.”

Anne looked slightly less doubtful. She set her jaw and determination showed on her face.

“Okay, so what do we do?” Emma felt proud of the girl. She wasn’t the only one. Bella grabbed Anne and hugged her.

“I knew you had it in you kiddo. I just knew it.” Anne looked a little shocked, but pleased.

There was no time to have a conversation that wasn’t focused on their liberation.

“Last night was a good first step. If things hadn’t of changed so quickly, we would be able to take our time and bring things around to the way we want them. Unfortunately, they have changed and we no longer have the luxury of time. Bella, how many of the loners will follow your lead?”

Bella looked around the room. “Well, it depends on what you have in mind, but if it involves getting away from the Believers, I would say that you can count on all of us. Once we’re away from here, most of em will probably split out on their own, but if we need them, we’ve probably got thirty women that will do whatever they have to in order to get away from the Believers.”

Emma nodded. “Okay, that means if all the hussies are with us, and I think they will be, we can probably count on close to fifty. Anne, how many of the women you’ve spoken with actually want to be here? How many want to leave?”

Anne considered for a moment before she answered. “Hmm, I don’t think most of them mind being here at all. There were only a few who said they wanted to get away from here – ten at most.”

“They said that?” Emma and Bella both asked it.

“Yeah, a few of them actually said they were thinking of running off but they were scared from the idea because they saw how quickly the Bishop sent people after the slaves.”

“You see?” Emma asked the girl. “We’re already in the same boat as the slaves. We don’t have time. Anne, find all those women and bring them to me. Bella, find ten strong capable women and bring them here too. And if either of you know of anyone else with self defense skills, I need to talk with them. Now go. Be back here in fifteen minutes or less.” The two left and Emma went to where the hussies had sat down in another gossip circle. She heard them talking about giant anatomy as she joined them.

“Hey, I know this is a little out of the blue, but I bet some of you girls know how to defend yourself from a man don’t you?” She wasn’t surprised when they all nodded. If you wanted to play in the ocean, it was always a good idea to know how to swim.

“I’m curious, why in the world would you need to defend yourselves against men?” Emma loved the Socratic method, ask a question to get an answer you already knew and often an answer you knew you wanted. She got it from the redhead.

“Well, that’s an easy one Emma. Everyone knows that if you let a man take the whole cow, he’ll never pay for the milk. It’s part of a man’s nature though to try to take the whole cow isn’t it girls?” There were giggles and nods. She was a smart one, this redhead. She was a big boned Irish girl named Niev. Emma marked her for important things.

“Well, I just want to point out to you that right now, we are like a bunch of fat cows locked up in a barn. Those men out there can take the milk, the butter, and the cheese and there isn’t a thing we can do about it. We’re sitting ducks, or cows that is, and if they want to they can take us to the slaughterhouse.”

There was only one snort of disbelief.

“Now, Mother Emma, what makes you think they would do anything like that?” It was the scripture quoting hussy.

Emma didn’t have to answer, Niev did.

“Because they are men, Love. It’s in their nature.”

The girls recognized this as wisdom. Niev thought for a moment and then asked “But what can we do about that, Emma, we seem to be stuck?”

Emma considered holding back, but that had never been her nature. Besides, she figured these girls were smart enough to want to keep what power they possessed.

“We escape ladies. We wait until the men are busy doing something else and we all walk away. We have a silent revolution and leave the men to figure out why we left.”

By the time the sun rose, they had a plan set up. Niev and all the hussies were with her. Bella recruited thirty-three of the loners. That made fifty-two women. Anne surprised everyone by convincing fifty-five women to take part in the escape. Emma would have preferred to have all the women with them, but she suspected that many of them would leave with them if the escape was a success. The biggest concern, of course, was that someone would tell the Bishop.

To lower the chances of that happening, Emma gave each of the three groups only a part of the total plan. Bella would lead the loners, Niev would lead the hussies, and Anne would lead the religious ones. Anne was the weakest link in the plan and it was hard to give her control of the largest unit, but Emma had no other choice. Of the women Anne had brought only a few trusted Emma. The bulk looked to Anne for their lead. The girl’s fighting skills and training made her a leader.

Emma was fairly certain that everyone knew their part. Niev and Bella understood that the Bishop might take Emma out of action at any point.  She made sure they could act without her.  There was a contingency plan – as there always should be.

The doors opened and sunlight pulled the sleep from their eyes. The women filed out and moved towards the parklands to answer nature’s call and wash up if possible. Unfortunately, they were stopped by the Bishop. He stood on the steps of the cathedral almost as if he had been waiting for them.

“Good Morning, Sisters. The Lord wishes you well on this day and so do I. It will be a very important day for you. The men will accompany you to the stream so that you may wash yourselves in preparation for all that awaits you. Please, do not be concerned with modesty as these men are your brothers…and more. We have made plans all through the night with your best interests in our hearts and thoughts, Sisters. We were all brought into this world naked and we shall endeavor to avoid the stains upon our souls we might be tempted to otherwise make. When you are through bathing, we will have a prayer meeting here and we shall all break the nights fast together in the eyes of the Lord.”

Emma wandered what the hell the bastard had planned and plotted through the night. The Bishop avoided her eyes. She would get no chance to ask him. She didn’t really want to get near him anyway. Did they already know what the women had in mind? How could they? There was no way. No one had left. This was something else.

They moved to the stream and did as they were told. It was a pleasure to be able to wash and none of them protested. The men were courteous and well mannered, more than usual anyway. At the stream, they turned their backs and told the women to call if they were needed. It felt more like they were being protected than guarded.

Emma reminded herself that farmers and ranchers always guard their livestock.

The washing wasn’t an overly long affair. Emma was approached by several of the women who were concerned about the plan she had put in motion, but she shushed them and assured them to not worry about a thing. They just needed to remember their roles.

At the cathedral, the Bishop and all of the men were smiling broadly. Emma felt like the foxes were about to have a feast on the chicken’s they’d invited to dinner. The smile of the Cheshire Cat hides sharp teeth, but she had no clue what was going to happen next.

The Bishop led them in some simple prayers. He read from his bible about the Exodus and how Moses had led his people from slavery. He flipped the book to another chapter and began to read.

“Hebrew 13:4 ‘Give honor to marriage, and remain faithful to one another in marriage. God will surely judge people who are immoral and those who commit adultery.’ Certainly, many of us were married in the world we left. Those marriages, my friends, ended when we awoke here. The Lord has told us to be married in this world too. It is with great pleasure that I can tell you, Believers, that today, we will be having a wedding. Today, man and woman will be united in holiest matrimony.”

There were murmurs of pleasure at the thought of a wedding. Emma wasn’t so pleased – she had a feeling that she might be the ‘lucky’ bride. Many of the women were trying to figure out who the lucky couple was. While a wedding did not necessarily ruin their plans, it could certainly make them more difficult. The men were all smiling at the women’s confusion. There had never been more paternalistic smiles. Emma suddenly had an uncomfortable idea of what was happening and who it was happening to. Yes, to her.

“Your Eminence,” she called out, “who is it that is getting married?”

The Bishop’s smile stretched from ear to ear.

“You are,” he said. “All of you are.”

 

Chapter 38

Matrimony

Frankly, Emma was shocked at how easily the women agreed to this idea. There were some grumbles, but not as much of a reaction as the Bishop was probably expecting. In a way, Emma had helped diffuse the situation by having found the women who were unhappy with the Believers and plotting an escape with them. If she hadn’t of already set a plan in motion, there very well might have been a riot. As it was, she suspected that the number of women who sympathized with her and the other malcontents had just gotten considerably larger.

It was nice of them to call it marriage, but Emma and every other thinking woman knew that it was little more than religiously condoned sex slaves being assigned to each of the men. She was curious what method was going to be used to assign couples, would they draw lots?

The Bishop was still smiling. He stood on the steps, looking over the women, knowing that many of them would be unhappy. He was prepared with more verses from the Bible.

“My children, this is indeed a day of rest and worship. I know that many of you may be feeling doubts about the course God has set before you. I ask you as Christians to look within your heart and know that God, in all of His merciful wisdom, has prepared this place for you and wants you to find joy and love. I would you remind you of his words in first Timothy chapter two, verse fifteen where the Lord says that woman will be saved through bearing children…”

A woman called out from the back “A lot of us have already done our child bearing.”

The Bishop’s smile disappeared for only a moment. He began again. “In this world, we have all been given a chance to begin again. God wants us to multiply. Have you not missed the laughter of children? Have you not lamented for the hugs of your children?” Many of the women began to sob at this – likely those who had left families and children behind. “We are beset on all sides by demons and monsters and we must keep his scripture. God commands that man and woman should be joined in union. He has made it clear to me that this world will not tolerate the sins that had become acceptable in the last.”

Niev looked like she might have passed the limit of keeping quiet. Emma couldn’t let her explode. She stepped to the Bishop and then turned, facing the women.

“Sisters, we must stand together or we will fall. Listen to his words. There is no room for anything but unity among us.” It was a double message. She hoped the Bishop would think she was including everyone in her we’s and us’s. She hoped the women would understand that she was not including the men.

Despite herself, she was unable to keep from stoking the fires of resentment just a little bit more. When she had been organizing in religious communities, she had often had misogynistic preacher types throw I Timothy 2 at her. It was a favorite with male chauvinist bible thumpers.

“You should read them the first part of that Chapter, your grace. I think it starts at verse eleven.” She smiled at him. Revenge was sweet, even if it was ill advised.

The Bishop was unhappy about it, but he was cornered. He read from the book. She was fairly certain he didn’t need the book for those lines because he probably had them memorized like all the other chauvinists.

“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent; for Adam was formed first and then Eve,” he stopped and cleared his throat. “Of course, what we are going to be doing today has nothing to do with such doctrine…today, man will be joined with woman – not woman pulled from man.”

Emma sensed that a few women had just realized what they were in for. She pressed him further.

“Of course,” she was submissive here – which made her message that much louder “What about in Peter chapter three where God exhorts women to be submissive to their husbands in all things? I think all the women need to be reminded of that. ” His face was turning red. He hadn’t expected her to know scripture – and certainly he hadn’t expected to be challenged with it in such a way.

He exploded. “Mother Emma, the same verse you quote cautions women to have a gentle and quiet spirit, I suggest you cultivate that immediately. The Word of God is very clear that Man is the head of the household just as Christ is the head of the Church. God makes this very clear in Ephesians.” His glare lingered on her for a moment before he was able to bring the smile back to his face and carry on with the ‘joyous news’ of the Believers doctrine of sexual slavery.

Emma restrained herself from responding. It would only make things worse. She didn’t want to endanger escape any further than it already was. The wedding day announcement had made things more complicated, but she was sure that she could make everything come together. There were a few extra bumps in the road, but the road to liberation was still unblocked. Besides, she was morbidly curious how the Bishop intended for this farce to work out. How was he going to pair them?

The Bishop regained control of himself and carried on. “First, I would ask, are there any men and women who have found themselves drawn toward one another. Women, if you have selected a mate, now is the time for you to move to him.”

Holy Cow! He was having the women choose? This really put her and every other woman on the spot. They had two choices, it seemed, pick a mate or else be assigned one. She wondered if the Bishop would give the men a chance to choose next. She was certain that the Bishop intended her to pick him. Should she? Could that possibly help her? Crap.

What was her best option? She saw all of the women going through the same thought process. Even those who were completely against what was happening were in a position of having to consider what their best option was. There were a number of women around the Bishop already. Mostly they were the hard core Believers, but she saw a few of Anne’s crowd moving that way too. She felt a pang of jealousy and that decided her.

She stepped to where Richard was surrounded by a number of pretty women. She pushed a few of them out of the way to get to him. The Bishops eyes followed her. He was not pleased by this betrayal.

Not all of the men were pleased either. There were many whom no woman wanted. These were mostly those who had exhibited cruelty or other outward forms of ugliness. The top men, not surprisingly, were the Bishop, Richard, Smith, and Adam. Women gravitate towards power – it’s a form of protection.

If she had known this was going to happen, she could have planned something really spectacular. As it was, she was winging it. Here she was, at her age, trying to snatch a powerful baby from the cradle!

Richard saw her and raised his eyebrows in surprise. He moved toward her “I would have thought you would pick the Bishop, Mother Emma? Perhaps you should do that now.”

She smiled at him. “Why should I pick anyone besides the best man Richard? If I am to have a master, I choose you.” Several of the girls around him pointed out that they were picking him too. Some of them were downright cruel in pointing out that they were younger, better looking, and would make better wives.

Emma had to give the Bishop credit. He had created a situation where the women had to fight each other in order to get the best situations. The man was brilliant. If it hadn’t of been for the plans hatched in the women’s dormitory, most of the women would be begging the man of their choice to marry them. Evil bastard. He had turned Sadie Hawkins into a power play.

The Bishop raised his hands. “My People. The Lord will not condone some having so much while others have so little. Now it is the time for Man to exercise his authority.”

If it had been on television this would have been fun to watch but living it meant the stakes were incredibly high. They all paid attention as the Bishop continued.

“Those men who have been chosen by more than one woman. Now is the time for you to choose from those women in front of you. Those women who are not chosen will move on to someone else.” He gave Richard a loaded look, Emma could guess the meaning. “As for me, Ladies, I am sorry, but my bride has already been chosen for me. You will have to find someone else.”

There was more scrambling about as women who didn’t think they had a chance with their first choice moved to their second choice. Emma moved closer to Richard, “Are you going to let him tell you who you can choose? If you don’t take me now, you are much less of a man than I thought and I am better off with him. I will only marry the most powerful man here.”

She was pleased that she knew this man’s ego so well. Of the women standing around him, he would be out of his mind to pick Emma. She was older, not as attractive, nothing but trouble, and not nearly as religious as some of the others. And yet, she had seen Richard’s discontent as the Bishop told him what to do. She felt sure he would pick her.

Other men had made their choices. The Bishop was looking at both of them. He had a look that was somewhere between astonishment and confusion on his face. Richard looked from the Bishop to Emma and then back at the Bishop. He made his choice.

“I pick Emma for my wife.” Emma smiled and moved to him, throwing her arms around him in a show of feminine relief. She had briefly seen a black expression cover the Bishop’s face. He wasn’t the only one. Many of the men who had not been picked looked like they were ready to move in and grab the women they wanted. This was getting ugly.

The Bishop raised his voice in an attempt to keep control of the process. “Believers, it is well to remember that we are still visible in the eyes of the Lord. Have faith. The Lord will provide for all. He is wise in his ways.” He was not pleased at having Emma choose Richard. Richard however was standing taller than she had seen him yet. His act of defiance had puffed him up and made him more confidant than he had a right to be.

The Bishop motioned to her. “Emma. Come. Enough of this game. You have already been chosen to be my bride.” She hadn’t been sure he would stake his claim on her. She knew it was a status thing. He had raised her above the other women, to have her marry anyone else would take away from his authority. She looked at Richard with what she hoped was a pleading look and began to move toward the Bishop.

Richard did as she had hoped. He grabbed her by the arm and shouted to the Bishop.

“She has chosen me, Bishop, and I her. Find another bride. There are still many that will have you.”

Emma had somehow managed to engineer the key moment in all of this. There was suddenly a power play of the greatest proportions going on among the Believers. All eyes watched as the two men faced one another.

“Would you allow any man here to claim the chosen bride of another? There are more men here than just you,” Richard said with a heavy emphasis on men and you, “who are unhappy that they were not chosen by the woman they desired. She has chosen me and you cannot have her.”

The Bishop straightened his back and stood taller. He looked at Richard and Emma and then to the rest of the Believers. Richard was right, there were plenty of men that were watching what the Bishop would do in order to determine their own actions. Chaos could quickly ensue. The Bishop had to admit defeat in order to maintain control. “Let no man tear asunder that which God has joined. This is the word of God and it is true for all of us.”

Bella had picked a man she had seen working with wood outside the cathedral. No goons for her, it looked like most of the loners had chosen artisans rather than warriors. The hussies had all chosen warriors. Niev had picked Adam and Anne had picked Smith. Emma almost approved of that match. It was a shame none of these couples would get the chance to see how life together would be.

She was surprised the Bishop had caved so easily. It was almost disappointing. She had been hoping for fist fights among the men but instead the Bishop continued his matchmaking rounds until all but a few of the men were paired up. There were more men than women and those left unclaimed were the most brutal of them all. She wondered how long it would be before they decided to do some tearing asunder.

The Bishop was also alone – he had sent the women around him to select other mates. He had chosen no one. “For myself, though some may have thought otherwise, I will marry the spirit of the Lord. God is my bride and groom. My flesh is joined with that of the Lord and this is how it should be. For you men who are still bachelors, you can rest assured that God will provide brides for you soon. Your brides are coming!”

“We must prepare the wedding feast from what we have already stored. I exhort all of you to bring all of the provisions and supplies here while we prepare to join you in the eyes of God. Do not be hasty to find the marital bliss of union, for soon, we will commit you to your marriage beds.”

Emma definitely heard some grumbling from the brutal goons who were realizing they were the only ones who wouldn’t be getting laid tonight. She needed to signal her co-conspirators and she needed to make sure the time was right when she did it.

The Bishop gestured to Richard and Emma. “Come inside, both of you, I think that you both may be laboring under a mistaken assumption and I would like to make things clear to you. Also, I can use both of your assistance in preparing for the joyous event to come.”

The Bishop went into the cathedral. Richard and Emma followed while everyone else did as the Bishop had said. Emma figured if she had been on Earth, it would have been Thursday, but apparently it was Sunday here.

She had no doubt that this would be the most interesting Sunday she had ever spent in a church.

As soon as they were all inside the Bishop turned on them both. “I don’t know what either of you thought you were doing, but it ends right now. The two of you will be married and that’s the end of it. You’ve picked your poison and frankly Emma, after the way you’ve behaved recently, I feel relieved to not have you. I hope you both live happily ever after. Richard, step into the back room.There is no need for your future bride to witness this.”

Richard puffed his chest out and stood defiantly. “I will…”

The Bishop backhanded his face.

“You will do what I tell you to do, you sniveling little snot. I’ve had enough of your attitude. If it weren’t for me giving you some sort of rank you would probably be dead or eating dirt in the forest. You are nothing without me? Do you understand that Richard? You are nothing. Do you think the MEN out there would listen to a word from you if I were out of the picture? Don’t fool yourself boy. They would eat you alive. You are nothing.”

Richard’s puffed up ego was deflated instantly. He was meek and compliant again. The Bishop was right, the goons would rip Richard apart if he tried to tell them what to do without the authority of the Bishop behind him. Richard would have thrived in a Washington D.C. political environment, but this was the Wild West and he was not made for it. Emma gave him credit for being smart enough to realize it, though she had enjoyed playing the two against each other while she could.

“Richard, follow me. Emma, wait here. We won’t be long.” They walked to the back leaving Emma standing in front of the alter. The piles of currency sat under the rough hewn crucifix like tinder under a log. Her course of action became clear.

With the Bishop and Richard out of the room, Emma found a sharp edged glass dagger. She set it aside nearby. Next she brought torches to the alter from where they stood near the stone walls.

She paused. It was now or never. She had always wondered what it would feel like to burn through millions of dollars. Now she knew. It would feel good. The flames hesitated but soon made up their mind and the pile was burning.

She picked up the dagger and moved to the doorway the Bishop and Richard had gone through. Standing just outside of it, she did her best to sound like a woman in panic.

“Oh my God. Help! A fire!” It wasn’t academy award material but it did the trick. Richard  rushed past her to where the flames were growing larger. As the Bishop came out, she stepped behind him and put the knife to his throat. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.

“Don’t move or I will slice your throat open. If the cut doesn’t kill you, the infection from this dirty blade probably will.” Richard turned towards them. She didn’t know what to make of the look on his face.

“Emma, no. It’s alright, he didn’t do anything to me…” Hilarious! Richard thought this was all about her love for him. She considered further using him, but quickly discarded the idea. He was the Bishop’s puppy and she had gotten as much mileage from his rebellion as she could.

“Sorry to disappoint you Richard, but I’m calling off the wedding. This isn’t really about you.” The Bishop hadn’t moved.

“Okay now ‘Father’, I want you to walk slowly towards the door. Richard, move ahead of us. That’s right.” The fire was burning, it wouldn’t last long, but she could use it still. The look on Richard’s face was pure confusion.

“What should I do?” He wasn’t asking her, he was asking the Bishop who was slowly moving towards him with Emma’s knife at his throat.

Now the Bishop spoke. His voice was soft and calm. “Do what she says Richard. Don’t worry. The Lord will protect us from this…this whore.”

“Easy Padre, the knife will cut.” She applied pressure and felt him wince as the glass point bit into his flesh. “Richard, move slowly to the doorway. I want you to step out and yell ‘Fire!’. Then I want you to get off the steps and out of the way, got it?”

“Why are you doing this?” He really was a naïve little thing. He didn’t understand that things like slavery and bondage didn’t hold much attraction for a modern woman.

“Just move and do what I told you asshole.” It was nice to be herself again.

At the doorway he shouted ‘Fire!’ and then he jumped out of the way. Next (this would crack Emma up later when she remembered it later) he yelled “She’s got the Bishop!” She hadn’t told him to say that. Richard had never been in danger but the panic in his voice was undeniable.

She didn’t have time to laugh now. This was crunch time. She stepped to where everyone could see her and the knife she held to the Bishop’s throat.

“That’s right. I have the Bishop and if you don’t all do what I say, I will kill him.” She pushed the blade of her knife against his throat . “You better tell them to do what I say.”

The Bishop held up his big hands.

“Do not worry. The Lord will see us through this and this….” The pressure of the knife kept him from calling her a whore again, “..this woman will not get away with her acts of evil.”

Smoke drifted from the Cathedral. Emma needed to act fast.

“Bella, Anne, Niev…up here, now.” The three women had been waiting and were there almost instantly.

“Bella, tie his hands. Anne, take the knife and if he tries to get away, kill him.”

“My Child, no, do not listen to her…” Emma laughed out loud now.

“You still think you have control, don’t you?” None of this had been part of their original plan. They had intended to sneak away. This was hardly the silent revolution she had plotted but Emma had to think the women were with her.

She didn’t need the men to know that this was a women’s revolt though. Not yet.

Bella tied the Bishops hands and Anne took the knife.

“Niev, get another knife. Good. Both of you. Watch him.” A lot of this was going to depend on the Believers and the Bishop wanting to keep the Bishop alive. If he thought he could escape to Heaven, it would never work. She had a feeling, he wasn’t in a big hurry to meet his maker.

Emma stepped away from where the three women now held the Bishop. On the steps of the cathedral she was safe from being bum rushed by the goons, but she could see them considering their options. Luckily, not all of them liked being under the Bishop’s control and they were waiting to see what she would say.

“Listen to me carefully. If we will kill him. His blood will be on your hands.” They were definitely listening. Men, women, those who wanted to stay, and those who wanted to go.

“First of all, I want everyone who is holding any kind of a weapon to pass it forward and toss it in front of the steps.” Whips, clubs, knives, and spears began to get handed forward and thrown into a pile. Disarmament was a start. There were some holdouts, but for the most part, they didn’t want the Bishop to be killed.

“Good. Just take it easy and everything is going to work out just fine. Okay, next, I want all of the men to get on your knees.” She saw most of the men looking at each other. This could quickly become a problem if she didn’t get them under control right away.

The Bishop was ghostly pale.  His hands were tied in front of him and three knives were ready to finish him at a word from Emma. Her voice was low – she was enjoying herself – finally.  “Tell them to get on their knees or we’re gonna cut your dick off.”

She motioned to Anne “Stand him up and rip those robes off.”  The girl made him stand.

Emma moved closer and with her eyes, stopped Anne from pulling off the robes. Speaking in that low and intimidating tone again she said to him “I’ll make a Eunuch of you in front of them all.”

“You’ll die, they’d kill you…” he still wasn’t a hundred percent compliant.

“Tell them.” He paused but he must have seen the truth in her eyes. She was really going to do it.

“Believers. Have faith. Do as she says.” There were definitely some men that weren’t’ too happy about it, but they all got on their knees. Emma shoved the Bishop back down. Now she addressed the women.

“Sisters. I know you are scared and confused. Do what I tell you. Use whatever is near you.  Tie all of the men’s hands behind them. There is plenty of rope around here. Use whips, rope, whatever you can find. Do it quickly.”

Many of the women were against her, but there wasn’t much she could do about that right now. She just had to act.

“Bella, call your people here.”

Bella gave a whistle and a couple of dozen women moved forward from the crowd.

Emma motioned from them to the pile of weapons.

“Arm yourselves.” They did.

Emma wished she could know what kind of thoughts were going through the men’s heads.

“Your people now Niev.”

The redhead let out a blood curdling scream. The hussies all moved forward to the weapons cache.

“Liberation is at hand Ladies. Arm yourselves.”

Once they were armed, she looked at Anne. If these women opted to stay, it could all fall apart. The girls around her would be outnumbered and Anne’s people could destroy the entire thing. Emma didn’t really have a choice, she had to trust her.

“Anne.”

Anne gave a ear splitting Comanche yell. A huge number of Believer women moved forward. Emma looked at the girl in astonishment not just because of the mass of women she had called, but also because of the incredible volume of her yell.

Anne looked proud and said just loud enough for Emma and those close to her to hear. “I’m part Cherokee.”

Again, Emma indicated that the women should take weapons.

“This is what is happening here. It’s simple. We are women. We are not slaves. We are not property and we are not livestock. God did not create women to be servants. If you believe that he did, you are welcome to stay here. As for the rest of us…we are leaving.”

There was more smoke coming from the cathedral. The fire must have spread.

“Can we come with you?” this from one of the men, she thought it might have been the man Bella had chosen earlier.

“Sorry boys. Maybe later. At the moment, we need some girl time. No boys allowed.”

“What will you do with the Bishop? Please let him go.” It was one of the Believer women who had not joined them.

There were still around fifty women standing near the men they had chosen. Emma couldn’t understand this kind of woman at all, she never had been able to. They were as foreign to her as men were to women. Women of course, her kind anyway, understood men very well.

She called out to them. “You are welcome to come with us or you can stay. We’re not going to tie you up. If you want to stay go to the women’s dormitories now. Help the men up to their feet and head to the dorms. The Bishop is going to come with us for a little while but if you do what we say, we will release him soon. When we get far enough away that we feel like we don’t need him anymore, we’ll let him go. I give you my word on that.”

The women who had chosen to stay started helping the men up. The women with weapons looked to Emma.

“I want you armed girls to make sure all these nice Believer folks move into the women’s dorms. If any of them try anything or get close to you, I want you to let ‘em have it.”

“The Lord will punish you for this, you will burn in eternal Hellfire…” The Bishop had found his voice again.

“Bella…gag him.”

A big smile appeared under Bella’s big nose. “With pleasure, Comrade.”

It was surprisingly easy to herd the Believers into the dormitory. Several of the men got clobbered with clubs as they called the women by various insulting names – but there was no counter-revolt. These people were not revolutionaries. The revolutionaries had been made into slaves, scattered, or killed by the Believers. These were sheep and bullies.

There was one more thing to do before they set off to find their new home.

Emma walked across to the slave quarters and opened the door.

They were all brought outside and had their bonds cut loose. The lone female, Emby, was invited to join the women. She quickly grabbed a club.

“As for you men, you are free to go. I suggest you get as far from here as you can before the Believers get free.”

All but one of the men thanked them and then disappeared in various directions. The lone white man among the slaves had glared at Emma as his bonds were cut. He turned and walked away without a word. Emma felt a shiver travel down her spine.

It was time to go.

 

Chapter 39

Pitfall

The river widened and the woods began to thin but ahead they could see a stand of pines that stood far taller than the trees around it. This was obviously where the river was leading them. They traveled as fast as they could without much in the way of conversation. Freya woke oblivious to all that had happened since the escape. Her questions had answers, but none they were willing to tell her. During a rest break, Sutreyu and Freya sat apart from the others. Ben heard a portion of their conversation as Sutreyu deflected questions about what had happened. .

“Do you know what happened after we escaped?”

Sutreyu answered “Each of us made our way into the forest. The Believer’s were looking for us. We are lucky to have gotten away and found each other. I know that much. Have you tried these pears? Never in my life did I taste anything like this. Maybe, I’ve just forgotten what a pear tastes like. Were they always this good?”

Soon the two were chatting away about food and family. Things they may have forgotten were forgotten. No one wanted to be responsible for giving the girl any idea about what had happened to her but when the time came, it would have to be Sutreyu that told her.

Moving again, they walked in a line along the bank. Far enough from one another to discourage conversation but close enough to assist if necessary. Haruka led. Ben was about fifty feet behind him, the others were spaced about ten feet apart trailing behind. The river disappeared around a bend. Ben heard the sound of rushing water. A stand of trees blocked the view.

Haruka disappeared around the bend and then was running back towards Ben. It wasn’t alarm or fear on his face.

“Ben,” he said in a slightly out of breath voice. “You’ve got to see this. I’ve never…it’s like…come on.” Haruka led him around the bend. He remembered the first time he had seen Niagara Falls as a young man. It had taken his breath away in the same manner. He expected that it was something along that line.

But it wasn’t.

Nothing like this existed on Earth. It was impossible. There was no arguing that it was here and that it was real but everything he knew told him that it shouldn’t be.. The two men stood staring as the rest of their party emerged around the bend in ones and twos.

The water disappeared into a bottomless black pit that looked to be at least a mile across. The noise was deafening. No one said a word anyway. The water from the river poured several hundred feet into the chasm before an ink black darkness swallowed it. Around the pit, the noise was deafening, but it was projected upwards in a cone of sound that faded in decibels only a short distance from the edge. A mist of water carrying rainbows and cool air stood above the pit and reflected the dark cold from below into the warm afternoon sun.

Tall stands of pine trees surrounded the pit on Ben’s right side and wound around it before meeting an equally giant river on the far side and thinning out. To the left, a third giant river poured into the sieve. The woods thinned to this side before reaching a city not too unlike that they had left behind. It was framed by the river on one side and forest growing behind it.

This changed everything. Ben was sure that this discovery was a key to understanding this world.

As the mist fell on him, he realized that it had not rained once in the time they had been here. He had seen clouds in the sky, but none of them bearing the telltales of stormy weather. He wondered if there were seasons here and if so, what they were like. This was late summer – judging by the weather and the fruit but a cold winter could be coming. No one knew. Maybe there were no seasons here at all.

For ten minutes, they stood peering at the remarkable pit falls unable to speak or be heard and unable to move forward. The tall trees ended in a line just before the other side of the pit which must have stretched at least a mile in diameter. After days of nothing but forest they could see the abandoned buildings to their left. Ben now realized that the forest and parklands were every bit as artificial as the city.

The pit falls showed this without a doubt. This had been created. He laughed as he realized the wonder in front of him had just named itself. The Pit Falls. At this point, he could almost draw a map. No matter if they had a name from anyone else, Ben would always think of the forest surrounding Pit Falls as Pitfall Forest. It was the Pitfall River they had been following. There could be no other name. It was completely appropriate.

They were far from the Believers now. The Believers existed behind them, where they saw the sun rise each morning – to the East. They had been traveling West towards the mysterious Bridger. Nick had objected to their calling directions by conventional names since they didn’t have a magnetic bearing to confirm such cardinal points, but he was over ruled. Now, the Pit Falls gave them no choice but to turn South towards what Ben was thinking of as Pitfall Town. The great river Leah had told them about must be the one that emptied into the falls from the other side of Pitfall Town. Ben estimated there was a mile between the Pitfall River and Bridger’s River and an equal distance from each to the third unreachable river. The Unreachable River.

As they walked into Pitfall Town, the buildings had the same deserted feel of dereliction as those in Cathedral City. They were not as tall or close together but oozed the same artificiality.

Leah pointed. “See the mountains? This must be Bridger’s River.”

This was good news. Just as the Pitfall River had widened out to an impossible to cross width – this one had too. The Unreachable River did the same, but there was no way to reach it. It had stands of forest on either side and they were trapped between Bridger’s River and the Pitfall River.

The far off blue and purple mountains rose behind the buildings in front of them. Ben had always loved being able to see the distant hills. As a boy, hills had meant freedom, mystery, and wilderness. As a man, they had meant the same things but in a completely different way. It was one thing he had always appreciated about growing older. As each mystery was solved, each level of maturity reached, or each wilderness explored…there was always another one further off. Ben smiled.

“I’ve always loved the mountains,” he said out loud. He felt a wave of enthusiasm and hope move through the people around him. These people had become the closest thing he had to a family. In this world, they were his oldest acquaintances. Ben corrected himself. They were his oldest friends. Funny the way the sight of mountains in the distance had put things in perspective.

Ben realized everyone was looking at him. He couldn’t understand why. Had he said something he didn’t remember?

There was an uncomfortable silence. Haruka, still wearing the amazed look of wonder he had when he led Ben to the Pit Falls broke the silence. “Ben, what should we do?”

They wanted him to lead. It was a position he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. His six companions, his six friends, were looking to him to decide. Somehow, even though they often overruled him, he had become the leader of this band. His decisions could no longer be based on what was best for Ben. They had to be based on what was best for all of them.

He didn’t answer right away. There was time to consider alternatives. The forest was behind them. They still had the litter they had carried Freya on the previous day only now it was loaded with fruit. They needed weapons. They needed to outfit themselves.

The buildings contained raw materials that could be converted into the things they needed. The forest contained more things they needed. He was tempted to rush forward in the hope of finding Bridger and his people, but his enthusiasm for this plan was tempered by the memory of Vlad being killed by dogs and by the brutality of the Believers.

“I am as impatient as any of you to reach Bridger, but there are certain advantages to us pausing here. Leah has told us we will be welcomed by Bridger, but we need to be prepared in case we are not. Things might have changed there – as they changed with the Believers.” He would not make the same mistake he had made with the Believers twice.

“We should pause here. We have been moving fast and hard. I think we should not count on being welcomed with open arms. Judging by what we were able to find in the buildings on the other side of the forest, we will find things we can make weapons and tools out of in the ones here – and I think we all need a bit of a rest.”

Ben hadn’t given up hope that Bridger would welcome them. Bridger would be more likely to welcome a group that could take care of itself with more respect than a ragged group of refugees. He intended to make sure they were prepared to defend themselves or to walk away if the situation was not right. None of them would be slaves again, he would do everything in his power to protect them. They were his family.

“How long will we stay?” It was Freya asking. “Aren’t we in danger if we wait too long?”

Ben nodded. He wondered if she had any idea how much danger they were in.

“Yes. And we shouldn’t ignore the possibility that there may be people or groups of people here. However, I think we might be in more danger if we aren’t equipped with the best equipment we can make from what we have around us. That is worth at least a day or two – maybe more. We have some of the best innovators in the world here with us. Let’s do a quick survey of the nearest buildings so we don’t get surprised. We know the path back to the Pitfall River – so we should use that as an emergency escape route. I’m fairly certain no one is behind us. I suggest we set our base camp in the second building in, right over there.” Ben pointed to a three story building. “If someone should come from behind us, that gives us at least a building’s head start to figure out what we are doing.

Hearing no objection he went on. “After we’ve scouted the vicinity – I suggest we prepare to do some hunting. Meat and skins will be useful. Hopefully just a day or two. I want Haruka, Leah, and Abdullah to be our scouts and hunters. You three are the strongest among us and best suited as hunters. Stay together. Work as a team. If you see any food plants or trees, be sure to remember where they are so we can utilize them.”

“What about the rest of us Ben?” Nick asked

“You, Sutreyu, Freya, and I are going to search the urban areas for cloth, glass, and anything else we can find. We are going to make rope, put wheels on this litter, improve our weapons, and hopefully, find out a little more about where we are before we go someplace else. We’re going to need to be innovative, industrious, and hopefully invisible to anyone that might be in the area.”

Ben was already felt the weight of leadership. If something happened to any of them, it was his fault. He was the one making the call to wait and prepare rather than rushing as fast as possible to an unknown people that might or might not be friendly.

“Does anyone have any objections or suggestions?” He was sure someone would object to his plans. He waited, but no one did. They were waiting to hear more.

“Okay. Let’s get started.”

He turned and walked towards the second building hoping he could keep them safe.

 

Chapter 40 

Best Friend

Ben looked at the cart in front of him. Two days and two nights had gone by quickly and he was not disappointed with what they had accomplished. The cart if front of him was more than just a makeshift stretcher with tightly wound and bound cloth wheels. It may well have been the greatest technological innovation in this world.

The wheels were more than a foot in diameter. They had found masses of the mana cloth inside the nearby buildings and wound it onto straight five-foot logs. Because of the volume of the stuff, they had been able to create large spongy wheels of it. One on each end of the branch gave them two wheels on an axle.

Two axles, four wheels, a clearance of around ten inches, and a central frame tied to the middle and the result was what Ben stared at proudly. More of a wagon than a cart and because of the light weight of the mana cloth, it was easy to move, even when they had loaded a substantial amount of food, water, and other things they had found on their explorations of Pitfall Town.

As in Cathedral City, they had found wood, concrete, brick, broken glass, and plenty of mana cloth.

The weapons they made were superior to anything the Believers had been equipped with. Abdullah carried a weighted whip. The rest of them had glass tipped spears, glass daggers, and clubs embedded with glass shards.

They had improvised primitive functional clothing and had created simple rucksacks. They had supplies to last for several days. It was probably too much, but Ben would rather be too well prepared than not well enough.

In their initial survey for materials, the scavengers had found a total of eighteen strange pieces of something. The pieces had been scattered on the ground floor of the first building, the one Ben had opted to leave vacant as a safety measure. They were thin, between six and ten feet long, and ultra light. When the hunters had returned, Abdullah pulled the pieces into piles and looked down the length of each one. He laughed in disbelief as he counted the pieces and examined them for breaks or weakness.

“Do you know what they are for Abdullah? Are they useful?” Ben had never seen the man so excited before.

The Arab laughed. “Useful? They are of no use to us at all where we are now, however… I have not seen anything like these since I was a very young man. My grandfather had one that we would sometimes…” he stopped. “You don’t have any idea what this is? What these pieces belong to?”

Ben shook his head. “I wouldn’t be standing here looking so confused if I did…are you alright?”

Abdullah’s smile got bigger. “My friends, I am sorry, I see that you are truly confused at my excitement. I will explain. No, better perhaps if I show you.” He began arranging the pieces on the ground. “Does this look like anything to you?”

They couldn’t see it so Abdullah told them. “This is the frame of a dhow. It is the skeleton of a traditional Syrian boat.”

Ben remained confused. “I think I see the shape, but where is the rest of it? What I mean is, can we use it for anything? Is this shell useful to us?”

Abdullah had nodded again. “Yes my friend. We have the difficult parts here, I am not familiar with this material, but it is superior. We can cover the frame.”

Ben hadn’t been so certain. “From what?”

“From cloth covered in sap or animal fat. Do not worry, we have everything we need.”

And so they had a wagon and on the wagon they had a boat – or at least the pieces of a boat. Abdullah insisted they bring it – and enough mana cloth to cover it. Their two days had yielded a bountiful amount of supplies. They were clothed, armed, had food and water to spare. They had a wagon and a boat. Now it was time to leave Pitfall Town. The wagon would only go so far before they would have to abandon it. The dhow was useless to launch in a river that flowed into a massive black pit. It was possible they were wasting their time and energy with both – but they persisted.

Like pioneers heading into an unknown future, they were leaving the comforts of a frontier they knew for one they did not. Ben recognized that he was being a bit melodramatic, yet, he felt a small tinge of sadness at leaving this place. It had been a place without distress – but that couldn’t last forever. They’d had several encounters with dogs and one night a large animal had roared in the streets. None of them had ever heard anything like it.

They had stood inside ready to defend themselves if it attacked, but after several minutes of fierce growling, it had moved on. They had not seen it – but it sounded large and terrifying.

Leah’s best guess was that Bridger and his people were up this new river – which they had taken to calling Bridger’s River. That took them in a southwesterly direction. They walked two in front pulling the wagon , two in back to push if necessary, and one on each side to keep watch and prevent tips and spills. One person would take point. It was a defensive and functional formation.

They could stay here and build – but they were vulnerable to the Believers. They needed a larger tribe. They needed to reach Bridger – if only to warn his people about the Believers and the nightmare society they were building.

He closed the door on the building they had stayed in. It was a crude door of logs tied together and hinged with rope, but it was a door. He felt proud of it. His intention was to lead this group to Bridger. If things there felt right, he would stay. If they didn’t,  he intended to return to Pitfall Town and create a home for himself and anyone who wanted to join him.

They were ready to leave and assembled at the wagon. Sutreyu was gone. Where was she?

A part of him had hoped that she and he would have grown closer because of the shared bond of his dreams. It had not happened, she was friendly, but distant. When she had not been working, she had sat next to Pit Falls where conversation was impossible. When she was working, she was focused and unavailable for conversation. She was the literal woman of his dreams, but there was to be no romance. Where was she?

It had been too long for her to have been on a toilet break. He became worried.

“Sutreyu!” He yelled her name. Picking up on his panic, the others also began to call for her. He was on the edge of breaking up into search parties when she appeared.

She carried a bundle in her arms that shifted as if it had life of its own.

What in the world had she found? Had she found a child?

She held the bundle towards him. He leaned close and pulled the cloth back. His heart leapt when a head emerged from the cloth and licked his hand.

He had forgotten dogs could be friendly.

Sutreyu laughed. “This is Hydro. He’s my new best friend.”

And of course, they all fell in love with him.

Hydro, the dog, was an instant favorite with everyone. He couldn’t have been more than four months old. He was weaned, but definitely still a puppy. He was a cute little guy that stood a bit over twelve inches at his back and probably weighed twenty pounds. He would be a big dog. His fur was mostly white sprinkled with grey and black. His big floppy ears framed a smiling face with a permanent black eye.

Sutreyu tied a rope around his neck and lashed him to the wagon. He strained against the rope and it looked to Ben like Hydro was pulling the wagon by himself. Ben wondered if it might be possible at some point to use dogs as draft animals. He knew that they had been used in Earth’s far north, but had no idea how effective they would be here. He filed the idea away for the future.

At the moment, he and Leah were the draft animals – with Hydro assisting a little.

The wagon worked better than Ben had hoped. They had a ‘flat tire’ shortly after they began when some of the rope coiled on the log axle had come untied and slipped to the side. In ten minutes, the rope was recoiled, retied, and they were back on their way. The soft tires performed admirably on the pitted trails.

Over the past several days, Ben had  been surprised by Leah. She had described herself as a fashion model but that was only the barest surface of her history. Currently, between breaks where she scratched Hydro’s soft ears, she was entertaining her yoke-mate with colorful stories from her interesting past.

“The idea of me being a model would have made me laugh when I was a teenager. I was a big haole girl. I mean, I always knew I was pretty, but I was big, you know? I surfed, I played volleyball, I was the center for the my junior high basketball team…the boy’s team!”

Ben interrupted, “What’s a haole?” He’d never heard the word.

She laughed. Her laugh was bigger than she was. The kind of loud guffaw you expected to hear from an obnoxious fat woman. Somehow she made it appealing.

“Ha, whatsamatta? You nevah come Hawaii-nei for make tourist?” She spoke rapidly with a singsong lilt. Ben marveled again that somehow they all spoke the same, clear, unaccented language.  Yet people were able to twist it into dialects that made it sound foreign or regional. And their were foreign words. Perhaps words that had no suitable translation.

“No. I never wanted to. Maybe if there hadn’t been any tourists…”

She laughed again. “Wat? You wouldda been da first tourist?..No, sorry Ben, I wondered if I would still be able to talk pidgin. Guess so. So in Hawaii, a haole is a white person but there’s a lot more to it than that. The word carries the baggage of colonization, invasion, and otherness. It’s not hate-speech, but it is a loaded word – culturally speaking. So it’s not the same as saying white or Caucasian.”

“So if you’re a how-lee, you can never be local? Seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it?” Ben had always been offended by racism of any type.

Leah looked at him with her head tilted sideways. “Was the world we left was ever fair? Just was what it was, right?” Ben still had a hard time referring to Earth and the life he had there in the past tense. It seemed like it should still be there, but he, like everyone, knew it wasn’t.

He realized that rather than having made things more complicated, the cataclysm had actually simplified them. Suddenly there were a lot of answers to a lot of questions that no longer mattered.

Mankind was not alone in the universe. Life existed on other planets. The world had definitely come to an end on a specific date. He wondered if anyone had predicted it. Had the New Years predictions in the supermarket tabloids been right about the world ending for once?

He thought of all the things people had made themselves miserable about. Would they have done the same things if they had known it was all going to crash against some figurative cliff? What might he have done differently if he had known it was all going to end? Would he have cheated on his wife if he had known it was all going to end?

It didn’t matter. It was done. It was all done. That was that. Now mattered. Then did not.

Ben had given up regrets in his mid thirties. Until then, he had spent his whole life reliving mistakes and triumphs and wondering what might have happened if he had done things differently. Instead of being present or planning for the future, he had wasted some of the best years of his life looking backwards.

He had envied the careless abandon of his younger brother and the plodding determination of his older. He had watched their lives closer than his own and endlessly compared his decisions with theirs. It had been no way to live. He had suffered for decisions he could no longer change and created imaginary pasts that could never become reality.

His life had not been terrible. He hadn’t been living in a wooden box, he had continued to roll out a past and examine it from the future and in the process missed fully experiencing the present. One day, he had found himself sitting in a bistro staring at an empty glass and listening to his thoughts.

“I wish I would have slept with that pretty woman I used to see at George’s cocktail parties,” was the thought going through his head as a different pretty waitress with a foreign accent asked him if he wanted another drink. He could tell by the way she was smiling at him that she was interested in him. He wondered if he would later regret not seeing where her smile would lead to…and then it hit him. This was an insane way to live. He was creating regrets and living them before they happened. It wasn’t some event to look back on. It was now.

In that moment, his life changed. He said yes to the drink and when she brought it back, he tasked her name. It was the moment he gave up the past and began living the present.

“Giselle,” she had said. That was how it happened.

The track stretched on for miles and the mountains stood lit by the late afternoon light. Since leaving the Falls, they had seen no sign of humans. Pitfall Town had been deserted. There were sometimes buildings along the track. They paused to explore some of them but found nothing extraordinary and no sign that anyone had passed by.

Sutreyu had taken Hydro to explore one of them while they rested but now she came rushing back.

“You should come see this right away.” She turned and left them looking after her in bewilderment.

The building was lit by the sun low in the sky to the west. They followed her inside where Ben felt her grab his sleeve. “It’s very dark, follow me. There are steps.” For a moment, Ben had an odd sense of deja-vu he couldn’t place while he followed Sutreyu up the steps – he could hear the others behind him. If it hadn’t of been so creepy, he might have smiled when he realized it was real deja-vu.

They emerged on a rooftop. Their elevation proved sufficient to see over the trees and buildings to the distant horizon.

To the southwest, a thick column of black smoke rose into sky. He could see the sun shimmering on the water of what had to be Bridger’s river – but it was beyond the smoke. They knew Bridger’s people were on the other side of the river, the big question was, who was on this side of it?

No one had to be convinced that it was a good idea to stop for the night, with the exception of Hydro. The dog, like most puppies, had boundless energy. Ben was glad to see how quickly he had become accustomed to domestication. Sutreyu insisted on keeping him tied, just in case he should hear the call of the wild beckoning him.

They set camp on the rooftop Sutreyu had found. The weather wasn’t cold and they opted for no fire and since it would have provided a beacon to anyone who saw it. They secured the wagon out of sight from the main road and settled in for the night. There was the faint glow of flames at the base of the smoke column that was somehow inviting and terrifying at the same time. The column of smoke in the distance had brought several different reactions.

“It’s Bridger.” Leah was ecstatic at seeing the river and sure it was the people she had left providing a beacon for those who were looking for shelter. “It’s just the kind of thing he would do. I know I said that he wasn’t very keen on this side of the river, but I have a feeling. Why else would anyone create such an obvious signal?”

Haruka was suspicious. “To draw whomever saw it into a trap. Why search for enemies when you can bring them to you?” The more time he spent around Haruka, the more impressed Ben was with his critical thinking. It was Haruka who had devised their marching formation. He was a master tactician. Ben knew that some of that was a result of his commando training, but suspected that his skills had drawn him to his profession and not the other way around.

Nick, on the other hand, was an alien to Ben. He appreciated the man’s insight into natural laws and occurrences, but was unable to think about things with any sort of empathy. Ben suspected he might be on the autistic spectrum but knew very little about such things.

“It might have nothing to do with humans at all,” Nick said.  “It could be some sort of natural phenomenon.”

Ben found Nick’s idea to be unlikely. If it had been some sort of forest fire it would have grown, moved, or gone out. Forest fires didn’t send continuous black columns of smoke straight up from the same spot.

Ben was interested in the ideas being presented. He had found that sometimes one could over think what lay ahead, yet, there had been just enough times when it had saved his ass that he continued to do it.

Abdullah was indifferent to the entire conversation. “No amount of speculation will tell us what lies ahead. I suggest we simply approach it cautiously tomorrow and we rest as much as we can before doing so. It is perhaps four hours ahead of us. While we sleep tonight, the person on watch can devise a plan. In the morning, we can compare ideas and choose a course to follow.””

They were all exhausted, it would be dark soon, and it was pointless to stay awake in the dark speculating. They drew straws for the watch order. Haruka drew first watch followed by Freya, Nick, Abdullah, Sutreyu, and Leah. Ben was given the final watch.

He didn’t mind. He had always enjoyed being the first person awake in the morning. In the busy world they had left, he had found it to be the only time you could find solitude. From about four a.m. to sunrise, Earth was populated by a select few. Ben was usually among them.

 

Chapter 41

Chu Bai

Ben was back on the steps looking upward towards the second gate. The morning sun was hot on his face as he trudged up the stone flight, one step at a time. The steps were worn smooth by the passage of time. Each of them had been carefully cut from the stone of the mountain and the mountain itself had often played a part in how the steps were cut. They were not even. One step would be five inches tall, the next one twenty four inches, and the next nine or ten. There was no chance for a mindless rhythm.

Ideograms he could read as words but which still seemed completely random to him were inscribed into each step. He tried to keep track of them and see if some pattern emerged, but it did not. Flame, goose, opal, window, fish, twig. It was simply a random ordering of words. They did not tell a story, they didn’t fit into one category, and they held no meaning beyond themselves that he could piece together.

Closer to the gate, he observed it was much larger than the first. Shiny green material that glistened in the sunlight as if it were wet. A row of lanterns burned on top of it. The flame of each lantern was clear and bright despite the bright morning sunlight. Seven lanterns. Ancient looking symbols were carved deeply into the jade gate. These seemed far older and more meaningful than characters – they were true pictograms. Animals with human heads, snakes swallowing their own tails, and all manner of geometric shapes.

The trail split into three separate tracks that each led through the gate. There was the path through the center, the path to the right, and the path to the left. The side-paths looked more heavily traveled than the center path.

The one to the right was deepest and most worn. From where he stood it went through the gate and then slightly downhill to a stone alter covered in offerings. Fruit, glass beads, figurines, dolls, incense, and coins were scattered on this stone alter. From the alter it rejoined with the main trail.

The path to the left went through the gate and then cut through a giant tumble of rocks that had formed a wall next to the gate. The trail led over the wall and then met the main trail on the other side. It looked like a moderately difficult climb. If the lanterns had to be reached, climbing up the trail to the left and then accessing the top of the gate seemed a possibility.

The two paths diverged from the main track directly in front of him. He would have to choose. He  remembered the feeling of being crushed by the first gate when he had tried to pass through it without

The path through the center looked easiest but he suspected there was nothing easy about passing through the gate. The first gate had  been painful and difficult, he expected nothing less here. Intuitively, he knew that he must choose the correct path. He also knew that Sutreyu would not show up to offer him advice.

The gate had been built to go through. That was the function of gates. The path to the right was the most traveled path and it went to a stone covered with the offerings of pilgrims. The path to the left looked looked the most difficult but looked more traveled than the center path through the gate. Why?

His older brother would have chosen the tried and true path – he would have gone to the alter, paid the toll, and moved forward. His younger brother would have scrambled up the difficult path reasoning that more risk meant more reward. This, however, wasn’t about what they would have done. He knew what path he had to take – but he didn’t want to take it. He sat, looking at the three trails – weighing the options for what felt like hours. He had to make a decision. He didn’t know the consequences. He had to choose – but how?

The least traveled appeared easiest and was probably not the correct path but he had to take it. It was the least traveled path for a reason – but he didn’t know what stopped so many from taking it. The danger was not apparent to him – though it had been to others. He might not be ready for it, but he had to try it. He was forced by the knowledge that the gate was designed to be gone through.

His body expected to feel the weight of the world bearing down upon him. With dread, he took each step, expecting disaster. Then, he was through the gate. Had he made the wrong choice?  Was it this simple? He walked to where the trails re-merged.

There was a high step here. He turned and sat looking down at the gate he had just come through.

“Sometimes moving forward is not as hard as we expect it to be.” Sutreyu walked through the gate on the same path he had chosen.

“Was it the right choice?” He hoped she would tell him. He felt like he had missed the point of the gate.

She looked happy. She stepped off the trail and down to the stone covered with offerings. She picked up a tray which held a teapot and two cups from the alter.  He had not noticed this particular offering before. She carried them to the wide step he sat on. She poured steaming tea from the pot, picked up one of the glasses, and offered it to him.

He took it. The smell of jasmine was everywhere. It came from the tea, it came from her, it was in the air itself. Heavenly.

“You know the answer, but I will speak it for you. The path is not important, only the decision to move forward. There are no wrong choices. Intention and action. If you choose, than you have succeeded in creating your intentions. How long did you spend looking at the three paths Ben?”

He sipped his tea and answered. “It felt like hours, but was only a minute or two. No more than that. I felt like I should take more time but that has never been my way.”

She laughed. “The first time I spent three days here trying to decide. I watched hundreds of pilgrims go by me. The first I asked told me that the obvious path was to the left because we must overcome difficulty. I was ready to follow him when an old woman arrived and told me that he was wrong and the path to the right was the only choice because it was important that we offer something, even if it is symbolic, to the Gods above. No one I met took the middle path because we had all felt the pain that passing through the first gate had brought us.”

“Which path did you choose?”

“Like you Ben, I chose the middle path. My intention was to pass through the gate.”

“What if I had gone around the gate?” He wanted to know. Would it have taken him off the path completely? Would it have kept him from reaching the top?

She laughed again. “You would have reached this point. You would have turned and wondered what might have happened if you had taken a different path. Then, you might have gone back and come through the gate or you might not have. Yet, you would always wonder what might have happened if you had stayed true to your course.”

“Would you have told me all of this if I hadn’t come through the gate?” He knew what she meant. It was the story about regrets again. He had chosen the path of least regret.

“Yes Ben, I would have told you and you would have been able to continue to the same destination, but you would always wonder if it was different. You would always wonder if I had told you only what those who don’t take the path through the gate are told.”

He considered her words. “But can’t I now wonder the same thing about the other paths?”

She nodded. “Yes, but you won’t. Those are not the path you were following. They are side paths. For someone else, that is not true. Do you see what I mean?”

It was his turn to nod. “What about the story of the boats on the river? What does that have to do with this gate?”

“What do anger, responsibility, blame, remorse and control have to do with pursuing intention? Not everything here makes sense Ben. It is much like everywhere else in that regard. We do not always get the answers to all of our questions. We don’t get to know what the results of the choices we have not made are. Not everything is clear to everyone. I will tell you this though. Like the waking world, there is meaning in everything here.”

Her gown moved like a living thing in the breeze. The purple and green silk of it shimmered and flowed. Ben once again admired the lines of her profile and the strength of her jaw.

“The woman who left an offering. She was certain of her path and she followed it. The man who sought adversity to prove his worthiness, he was also certain and he did so. You and I made the only choice we could. Does it surprise you to know that many who came here traveled all three paths, but then turned back and left the mountain? Uncertainty always leads backwards. It is connected to responsibility, purpose, and sense of self.”

A cloud covered the sun and a light rain fell on them. Ben sipped his tea in silence feeling renewed.

“What will you do now, Ben?”

He stood.

“I will climb.”

He looked towards the mountain top and then back at her but she was already gone.

He climbed for hours, finally seeing a huge cliff face covered with Chinese characters. A stream trickled down the rocks and led into a stand of bamboo. He sipped from the tiny waterway and considered the story carved into the rocks. It read:

“Chu Bai, the simple stone carver encountered a wealthy merchant in a fabulous litter on the road from the quarry. He wished that such luxury could be his.

Chu Bai, the wealthy merchant paid his taxes to the Governor and wished for such wealth.

Lord Chu Bai desired the sun’s power.

Chu Bai, the sun itself, was blocked by a cloud and envied such ability.

The cloud Chu Bai was pushed by the wind and wished such power was his.

Chu Bai the wind was defeated by the stone cliff face which turned him away no matter how hard he blew. Chu Bai the wind wished for the power to alter stone.

Chu Bai the powerful stone carver passed by the merchant in his litter.

 

Chapter 42

Whales and Arrows

“Ben, time to get up. Your watch.” Leah gently brought him back to the waking life. He opened his eyes, rolled over, and sat up. She smiled at him with tired eyes.

“Anything unusual?” he asked, feeling fairly certain that the answer was no.

“Everything is unusual here. Sometimes, I forget just how unusual it all is, but I think the answer you are looking for is, not really. The fire in the distance flares once in a while. The wind has been fairly calm. Everyone has been sleeping peacefully. I thought that maybe I would keep the watch until dawn, but I can’t keep my eyes open.”

Ben pulled his cloak tighter around himself. The breeze gave him a chill. He was glad she had woke him. He also appreciated that she had considered taking his watch.

“You can close them now. I’m solidly back in this world.” He had known that he wouldn’t be able to reach the third gate in one night anyway. “Here, the blankets are still warm.”

She climbed under the blankets he had vacated and he pulled them over her and on impulse kissed her on the forehead. “Sweet dreams how-lee girl.”

Ben surveyed the rooftop. Everyone was there. Hydro raised his head as Ben walked by, probably to see who it was, then quickly buried it again under his tail. He was curled up next to the evenly breathing form of Sutreyu. Ben wondered where she was right now. Was she guiding someone else up the stairs of the Holy Mountain? Was she somewhere else?

He wasn’t surprised to see Freya curled up with Haruka. Over the past few days the two had been drawn together. He had watched the friendship grow between them with approval but also a certain amount of worry. He knew how difficult relationships could be. The early stages were always idealistic and rosy, but so many people managed to move into adversity far too quickly. Still, he liked what he was seeing between them, not that it was any of his business. Even as the leader there were certain areas that needed to be off limits.

He looked towards the fire burning in the distance. Leah was right. Periodically it would flare up as if new fuel had been added. It was too far away, but if he stared long enough, he could almost imagine figures moving around it. Shadows dancing around it in an orgy of carnality. Fauns, satyrs, faeries, and dryads celebrating the freedom of darkness and the heat of light.

Another reason Ben had always loved this time of the late night and the early morning, was because it was the period between dark and light. If you were awake, you crossed the border. The time when the magic of the world was still alive. He had looked towards the same fire in the evening and imagined nothing more fantastic than scraggily humans feeding logs to the flames. He smiled to himself. Different parts of the day had different powers – it was inarguable.

His musings were interrupted by the sound of whispers. He thought they were coming from someone in his group, but a quick look showed all of them all asleep, even Hydro. The whisperings continued. Was it just the wind?

He moved to the edge of the building and looked down into the street. Darkness and shadows hid where the whispers were coming from below. It was not the wind. He could see nothing, but the voices were clear.

Neither sex nor age were apparent but heard the conversation. There were two conversing – and maybe more. If he moved to wake the others, he would miss the opportunity to hear what they were saying and possibly scare them into silence.

“Do you think he will come?” a voice whispered.

“Of course he will. He has no choice. It is the only way.” A second voice answered.

“And the other?”

“She brings him.”

“Do you trust her?”

“Do we have a choice?”

“Is it going to work?”

“Will he stay there and wait for them? I worry about his…unpredictability.”

“They do not know we are involved.”

“Some of them do.”

“Most of them don’t.”

“Tomorrow?”

The voices were fading. He heard no footsteps but it was obvious they were moving away.

“Yes, tomorrow.”

“And then?”

“And then more…”

“Yes…”

Ben wanted to hear more but wasn’t sure how to go about that. The whisperings had started soft and gotten louder as if the speakers were moving towards him. Now they had faded until they were gone. He had no idea what direction they had come from or gone in – only that they were gone.

He tried to control his breathing. What did it mean? Who was it? Who were they talking about? Him? Who else were they referring to? Why were they here? Had he just imagined the whole thing? Had he fallen asleep and dreamed the whispery conversation he had just heard? No, he was awake. It had been real. He had no idea what it could mean. Maybe it didn’t mean anything.

The sun was defining the border of daylight. The sky to the east was beginning to show color and the light of the stars was beginning to fade. Somewhere, not too far away, a bird’s song sounded. It’s volume and suddenness caused him to jump. Should he tell anyone what he had heard?

The black smoke still rose into the sky but the flames slowly faded. Not for the first time, he had an ominous feeling as he watched it. Whether the voices had been referring to him or not, they had been right. He had to move towards it. He didn’t think it could be the Believers, but it might be. He wanted it to be Bridger and his people – but there was no guarantee of anything.

They needed to know who it was. He figured his bunch would be able to spot their bunch first. Whoever was controlling the smoke wanted to be seen. That was a certainty. There was no choice, the path they had chosen moved to where the fire burned. They could skirt around the sides, but it would do no good. They needed to know who it was and what they wanted.

Sutreyu was beside him. He hadn’t noticed her waking. “You heard them?” she asked.

He turned from where he had been watching the smoke with the same intensity as his thoughts. “Yes. Who are they?”

She turned towards the smoke now., away from him. “Do you remember when I told you about the ocean of worlds to explain what happened to us?”

“Yes.”

“I told you how the whales had drawn us in like plankton and ejected us into this world?”

“Yes. I remember.” Ben was looking at her as she looked towards the smoke. She turned and looked at him with something like sadness filling her eyes.

“Those were the whales.”

He turned to look where the voices might have gone and when he turned back, Sutreyu was gone, back where she had been, Hydro curled up next to her as if she had not been awake at all.

——

Ben told no one else what he had heard. Telling the rest of his tribe could only make things more confusing than they needed to be. He didn’t want them to have to decide whether they believed he had heard the voices, had dreamed the voices, or had imagined the voices. He didn’t want to explain about his dreams or to have to call out Sutreyu as some sort of mystic.

He finished his watch trying to imagine who the whales were. Sutreyu was unwilling or unable to tell him more. He knew that she would not tell him more. The voices had belonged to those who had brought them here. She had told him all that he was ready to know.

The rest of his tribe woke and they began preparations for the coming day. Food and water were shared around and soon they were ready to depart. The wagon was brought from where they had stashed it during the night. No one had questioned where they were headed yet. They all knew.

“We’re going to go to where the smoke is,” Ben told them. It was unnecessary. They all nodded. No one was surprised and no one objected. Objections would have only come if he had told them they were going somewhere else.

He continued. “Our wisest course is to head straight there. When we are close, we can hide the wagon and scout the area. We know they are there, but they cannot know we are coming. Even if they are expecting someone, they cannot know where we are coming from. If it is Bridger, I don’t think we should rush forward without assessing the situation. Things may well have changed since you were there last…” He gestured towards Leah. She nodded her assent.

Abdullah moved forward. “Perhaps upstream some ways, I could begin assembling the dhow. Most of us could stay behind and work on the boat while one or two scout the area where the fire is. The current here is already mild and the water is navigable.”

Abdullah’s suggestion was wise. One or two scouts were less likely to be seen than seven people and a dog. It made sense.

“Agreed.” Upriver would take them southwest where the fire continued to send black smoke skyward.

The hours passed by without event as they took turns at various positions pushing forward. The buildings around them became smaller and spaced further apart like suburbs, but instead of ranch style homes the buildings were smaller versions of the same drab concrete boxes they had seen elsewhere in Purgatory. It was like nowhere Ben had ever seen. It was as if someone had taken a photograph of one part of a city and then tried to reconstruct the entire city using only what was shown in the photo.

The river widened and flattened. It was huge. The column of smoke also became more massive as they got closer. Ben presumed that the source of the fire was the trees and brush which filled the vacant areas between buildings. The roads had become too narrow and rough for their wagon. This was where they would build the dhow.

Strange looking trees now appeared with more frequency and in larger numbers. During a rest he leaned against one. When he attempted to stand, he felt something pulling him back down. Abdullah, watching him from nearby began to laugh as Ben struggled forward. Ben made it upright, turned,  and saw strands of a white gummy substance stretched between his cloak and the tree trunk.

With his glass dagger, he sliced the gooey strands. Abdullah had moved forward and now crumbled one of the leaves from the tree. When he opened his hand the big round leaf had cracked open and released more of the sticky sap. The pieces stuck to his hand. When he pulled them away they left the more of the tacky strands that Ben had just severed.

“Remarkable,” the Arab said. “I have not seen this variety before, but there is a similar tree which is grown in Malaysia. It doesn’t produce nearly as much sap as this one, but I think it may be from the same family.”

“What’s the tree?” It was Freya who asked. They had all gathered to watch.

Abdullah smiled. “The Malaysian tree? It has many names, but I think most people call it a rubber tree. We will have to experiment with it, but I think this sap can be used in the same way as latex rubber, the sap of the rubber tree.”

Ben looked around. There were no shortage of the trees. He suddenly remembered seeing pictures of French rubber plantations. As he recalled, the sap had to boiled in order to be used. It required huge fires.

“Is it possible that the fire ahead of us is an operation to process rubber?” He was stating it as much as he was asking. It made perfect sense. It wasn’t a beacon. It was a side effect of manufacturing. It made him feel much safer to have a possible practical purpose in mind for the smoke column. If it were the case, it probably meant that it wasn’t a trap. None the less, they still needed to proceed with caution.

Leah looked a little disappointed at Ben’s revelation. “Bridger still might be using it as a signal,” she said. It was possible. Obviously, it must have occurred to whomever was creating it, that the fire was a beacon. Ben remembered the words he had heard the night before. It had occurred to others as well.

He kept his anxiety to himself but was fairly certain that they all felt it anyway.

The landscape ahead had become a thick rubber forest with an occasional building emerging from it. Brownish white boxes one or two floors. Most had doors windows. Some had no obvious way to get inside.

The river itself was perhaps a half mile wide here and the current had become deceptively slow. Ben knew that if that much water was flowing, it was possible that there were deadly undercurrents. There was no sign of humans along the banks. The mud showed paw prints of several kinds of animals, but they had seen no human tracks.

The smoke was rising no more than a mile from where they were.

Abdullah was keen to begun experimenting with the latex sap and mana cloth.

“We may be able to simply crush the leaves and stick them to the cloth in order to create a waterproof shell for our dhow.” He had already started assembling the skeleton of the boat. It was about fifteen feet long. There were three long pieces that formed the keel, port, and starboard rails. Five ribs ran from the rails to the keel on each side. Several struts ran through the center from port to starboard. It was a simple but elegant design and the extreme lightness of the material it was made from had made transporting it easy. Ben tried not to wonder at how ‘lucky’ they had been to find it. Luck may not have been a factor at all.

Ben and Leah moved towards the fire while the other five worked on assembling the boat. Abdullah thought they could have it completed by the time it got dark if the latex leaves worked as he thought they would. Ben had no doubt that he and Leah would be back well before that.

They walked almost silently down the river bank, the soft soil on the bank muffling their steps. As they came close to their destination, Ben motioned that they should stop.

“Leah,” he said “If you recognize the people there, assuming of course that there are people there, we can approach them and make contact. There’s something I should tell you before we meet anyone…”

She moved closer to him. “You don’t have to tell me Ben. I know.”

She knew about the aliens? Ben was confused. Did everyone know?

“Ben, before you say anything, I care about you, but I have to know how things are with Bridger first. He and I had something and I need to know if we still do. That’s the kind of woman I am.”

She’d thought he was going to profess his love!  He tried not to smile. Instead he nodded and tried to look disappointed. That had not gone the way he had intended at all. She was an attractive girl, but she was far too young for him.

Maybe this was the universe telling him that she didn’t need to know about the ‘whales’ at the fire.

“I understand,” he said. She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.

“Thank you.” It was melodramatic whispering but despite himself he felt a flush on his cheek where she had kissed him. There were far worse things than being let down easy by a fashion model you weren’t really interested in the first place.

The inched closer to the fire through the brush. It was huge. The heat of it could be felt fifty yards away. The smell of acrid smoke wafted their way when the wind shifted and Ben’s eyes watered as they crept through the brush to the clearing where the fire raged.

On the edge of the clearing, undetected, Ben parted the brush and saw a broad shouldered man throwing latex trunks onto a huge burning pile of bubbling flames. Black smoke poured from the fire like it was burning tires, which in a way it was. The solitary man now turned towards them. He had long brown hair, a scraggily beard, and huge brown eyes. Ben turned to Leah to ask if it was Bridger, but she was already up and running towards him. So much for observation.

“Bridger!” She shouted his name and Ben saw alarm on the man’s face. He recognized her.

“Don’t shoot!” Bridger shouted. The flash of arrows were already hurtling towards her. “She’s one of ours!”

The trap had sprung. Three arrows were protruding from Leah where she lay on the ground.

“I’ve got another one here!” A woman’s voice came from behind Ben. He turned, lifting his hands. Two men and a woman aimed cocked bows at him.

“Move into the open,” the woman said. She looked fierce and ready to kill. “Move slowly and keep your hands where I can see them.”

Ben did as he was told.

 

Chapter 43

Ends and Means

The women were escaping towards an unknown future and leaving forced matrimony behind. They were well equipped and well supplied thanks to the stores that had been brought out for the wedding feast. There was no reason to stop and plenty of reason to keep moving. It was a forced march.

Anne, Bella, and Niev moved among the women they represented and brought questions and concerns to Emma who marched at the front of the female deserters. The women were understandably concerned with how long they were going to march, where they were going, or what she had in mind. Emma had no answers except “To a better future.”

Emma hadn’t planned much beyond getting away. She knew that it wouldn’t be long before the Believers managed to escape the barracks. She knew they would come and rescue the Bishop rather than waiting for his release. She considered letting him go, but knew he would send people after them and that he was the best bargaining chip they had. He was the only bargaining chip they had and she would rather not have him plotting her capture.

If they were brought back to the Cathedral, it would be a fate worse than death. She knew that. Not all the women would agree with that assessment, but she knew that after being turned into actual slaves they would eventually come to the realization. She hoped to keep that from happening.

Anne’s people were particularly upset with the rapid pace that Emma was setting. A small delegation of upset women followed the girl to the head of the column to demand specifics of her plan. Anne looked slightly exasperated with them, but hadn’t been able to escape their insistance on confronting Emma. The girl was new to leadership, but somehow she was doing things right. She would learn that sometimes you had to let your people take their own heads.

Emma didn’t stop moving as she explained the situation to the women around her. “You might think we are safe because we have taken weapons, have the Bishop as a hostage, and left them locked in the dormitory, but I want you ladies to know that you are wrong about all that. We are not safe.”

She took a breath and continued. “Those women are going to untie the men. I’m certain they already have. The men are going break down the door or go through the wall and get out, just like the slaves did. Do you think they are going to be very happy at having been bested by a bunch of women? Think of the men we are talking about here. These are the same guys smiling at the thought of getting laid earlier. They are going to come after us and if they catch us…well…think about it.”

It didn’t take them long to stop complaining and keep moving.

Several hours into their march, Emma heard a commotion from the rear of the formation. Yells turned to cheers and then a communal jeering that moved gradually towards Emma, at the front. She called a halt and waited for the object of commotion.

Bella broke through the women pushing a trussed up man, wet with spit from the women he had passed through. Bella shoved Smith towards Emma. The Bishop, still tied, gagged, and surrounded by a number of women carrying dangerous objects, watched with her.

“We caught him sneaking behind us,” she said. “He insists that he is alone and says that he needs to talk to you.”

Emma was surprised to see him. She would of thought he would be organizing a search party. She hoped that he wasn’t the scout of a larger party. She had thought they had more of a lead. They had to get further away before nightfall.

“I thought I made it clear that no boys were allowed on this excursion,” she said, bringing chuckles from several of the women. Smith’s turned red as several jeers were directed at him.

Emma kept herself from taunting the man further. He had been decent to them. One of the better Believers. “What do you want Smith?”

He stared at her in defiance. “I’m here to warn you. They are loose and they are going to come after you.”

She shook her head. “Thanks for the warning, but I kind of figured as much. Anything else?”

He broke free of the women that held him. “You don’t understand. Things have already gotten much worse. You put a horrible chain of events in motion.”

The thing she hated about Smith was that he had such a hard time getting to the point. She could tell he had something to say, the man was just unable to come out and get directly to it. He needed to be led there. It was exasperating.

“Take a deep breath. Breathe. Good. We can take a minute or two. Tell me what happened. Start with us leaving.” She didn’t feel like they did have any time to spare, especially since Smith had caught up with them so fast. “Wait, first, how did you catch up to us so fast?”

Smith looked to his left and his right seeing the stern faces of women all around him. “I ran,” he said, “as soon as he let us out and started killing people, I ran.”

Emma tried to grasp what he had just said. She felt panic beginning in her ranks and held up her hand.

“Everyone stay calm. Smith. Talk. Start when we left.”

“Alright. After you locked us up, the women untied everyone. It took no more than ten minutes for everyone to be free and putting a plan together. Adam had everyone pushing on the walls, but they weren’t going to fall. We were going to try ram the door but then he opened it from the outside.”

Emma hadn’t thought of that possibility. Someone had released the Believers.

“Who was it? You said he started killing people…who?”  Bella jumped into the interrogation. It wasn’t clear if she were asking who the killer was or who was killed. They needed to know the answers to both questions.

Smith shook his head. “White. First he killed Adam but then he kept going. He was the one who released us and started the killing.”

Emma didn’t know who White was. “Who?”

“The white slave,” Smith said. “He was one of Adam’s men before. His name is White. You let him go.”

Emma knew exactly which slave he meant. It hadn’t occurred to her that any of the slaves would release the Believers. Why would they?

Smith went on. “He opened the door and told everyone to come outside. Adam was the first out the door and as soon as he walked out, White gutted him. I got outside he was standing over Adam’s body with a knife in one hand and the Bishop’s bible in the other.”

At hearing this the Bishop began to struggle in his bonds and try to talk through his gag. It was a distraction Emma didn’t need.

“Anne, put him in a choke hold or something. Smith, keep going.”

He did. “He was standing over Adam’s body screaming about Babylon, betrayal, and punishment from God being delivered. He said that the Bishop had been a false prophet who had been corrupted by the Whore of Babylon.” The Bishop made another attempt at struggling that was quickly stopped by Anne. Emma almost felt sorry for him.

“Wait a minute. You said killing people? Who else did he kill?” Emma wanted to make sure she had understood him correctly.

“Yeah, he had everyone worked up and ordered some of the men he knew to grab some of Adam’s troops. He said they were guilty of heresy and sodomy and that Adam and the Bishop had protected them. He said if they had more time, they would crucify them, but instead he just told the crowd to kill them. They did. They ripped them apart. It might have been the single worst thing I have ever witnessed.” Emma had seen the blood on his clothes. She wondered if he had taken part in the carnage.

“He told everyone to find weapons. That’s when I managed to slip away. They’re coming after you. He said they’re going to bring two crosses . One for you…and one for him.” Smith pointed to the Bishop.

Emma had made some big mistakes in her life but she wondered now if she had ever made a mistake as bad as letting White go.

But, of course, knowledge is power. Even when the knowledge is that some nut job is coming after you to nail you to a cross and watch birds pluck your eyeballs out. Knowing they were coming made things  easier in some ways. It was one less unknown. They needed to move.

Emma considered letting Smith go. He had risked his neck to get away and bring word of what was happening. The more she thought about it, the less happy she was with the idea of releasing him. If he were caught by White’s Believer’s whatever advantage they had in knowing about them would be nullified. So, she had him tied up and made him march beside the Bishop.

Anne, the woman who had almost become Smith’s wife, kept clear of him. Emma wasn’t entirely sure why, but decided not to interfere. After a brief conference with her commanders, Emma decided to push on into the night. The stars overhead made it possible to move through the streets of Purgatory, they didn’t need to stop for supplies.They needed to put as much distance between themselves and those pursuing them as possible. From what Smith had told them, there would be no pursuit until the following morning at the earliest.

The women were exhausted but Emma pushed them until they refused to go further. Finally, the prospect of moving forward took more morale than it provided distance she stopped. She sent several of the loner women to scout a spot to make camp. They would stop, rest until dawn, and then push forward again.

Her scouts reported that the forest was not far off to their left. Ahead and right were countless numbers of the drab apartment like buildings that served as the main feature of urban Purgatory. The woods might offer resources to them, but it was safer to occupy the buildings. A system of rotating watches were designated and the women wearily laid down their burdens.

The burden of leadership, however, didn’t allow her to fall into the exhausted sleep that many of the women found though. She called a war council of her lieutenants. Several other women had shown themselves to be exceptional in the trying circumstances they had all faced so far and joined her circle. Her war room was a dead end alley with her loyal hussies and loners standing watch over the entrance. Smith and the Bishop were both brought for interrogation.

“Ladies, let’s get down to business. How are things with the women at large? Is the news that Smith brought common knowledge yet?” Emma looked at the women around her.

“Do you think it’s a good idea to have them here while we talk?” This came from Patsy, a dark haired Believer woman- make that former Believer who had taken on the role of Anne’s lieutenant.

“You’re right, we don’t need them to know all of our plans, but for the moment, I think we will benefit from having them here. Okay, back to my question.” Emma didn’t intend to give the men any information that would endanger her people.

Patsy spoke first. “Most of the girls know Smith is here. There are rumors that we are being pursued. A lot of the girls think that if we let him go,” she jerked her thumb towards the Bishop, “the Believers will be satisfied and then we can figure out a way to negotiate with them. Many of them think that reconciliation is still an option.”

Emma was shocked to hear this. “You mean they want to go back?” She looked at the other women around her. “What about the women around you?”

Anne nodded. “At least half the women that came with me think that rejoining the Believers is our best option. They aren’t aware of everything that has happened since we left. They think that if we were to negotiate with the Believers, we could improve the position of women among them and we could get back to building lives.”

Niev spoke next. “My girls won’t put themselves back in control of anyone else. I’ve heard some of them say the best thing to do is let the Bishop know how we want to be treated, make him promise to change things, and then to release him. Later, if we see that certain things are happening like the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and no forced marriages…then we could reintegrate with the Believers.”

This position sounded more reasonable, but neither idea was workable now that she and the Bishop were both being pursued with the intention of being crucified. “What about the loners?” She looked at Bella.

Bella smiled. “We want to get as far away from the Cathedral as we can and to never go back. There has been some talk of killing the two of them as a message to anyone that followed us. I might add, that such a message would eliminate the possibility of a reunification…if that was ever possible at all.”

Emma was relieved to know that at least one group was against rejoining with the lunatics behind them.

“Okay. What about our options at the moment? Will the women fight if they need to? Can they?”

Anne took this question. “It’s tough to say. Like Patsy said there are a lot of women that, well, I would almost say they regret leaving. I don’t think we can count on them to fight against anyone, unless…” she wiped a strand of hair out of her face.

“Unless what?” Emma grabbed onto the glimmer of hope that was held in front of her.

Anne looked suddenly bashful, but continued. “Well, unless they knew there was something better out there. I mean, you have to realize that, I mean, well, this,” she gestured expansively while she said it, “this place is pretty terrifying if you stop and think about it and maybe being forced to be part of a community isn’t the worst option…I mean, giants and witches and who knows what else. Those escaped slaves are still on the loose, there are probably other groups and who knows what kind of twisted things they do. Sex cults or Satanists or you know….minorities.”

This girl still needed a lot of help. She was helpful though. If Anne was experiencing these fears, it was certain that many of the other women were also. It was ridiculous to Emma, this idea of staying with a known evil rather than facing an unknown future, but she had certainly seen plenty of otherwise intelligent and rational people fall into the same trap.

Niev gave a little laugh. “They just need to know that there are other men. I mean, we did leave a lot of decent guys back there, some of them even wanted to come with us. At least Anne’s managed to catch up to us.” Niev looked toward the girl and gave an exaggerated wink. Emma thought she saw something flicker across Smith’s face where he was sitting, but couldn’t be certain.

It was Bella’s turn now. “Some of the women feel like they might be safer if they slipped off by themselves. This is especially true of those who know that you and the Bishop have a bounty on you.”

Emma had hoped things wouldn’t be this complicated.

“Okay, Bella, Anne, grab those men and bring them over here.” The Bishop and Smith were now dragged closer to where the women sat in council.

“Listen Padre. I’m going to have the girl take the gag out of your mouth now.” He nodded. “I don’t want to hear any of that Whore of Babylon stuff coming from you, I don’t want to hear any preaching, and I want to make sure that you know that if you don’t cooperate we’re going to gag you again and leave you behind as a peace offering for White to crucify. We might even leave you on a cross.”

The Bishop’s eyes were wide, not with fright but with anger. He nodded his agreement with the conditions she had set. Emma gave Anne approval and the gag was removed.

“Do you see what you have done, foolish woman?” he was going to go on, but Emma raised her hand to stop him.

“Stop. That is not how this goes. I’m going to ask you some questions and you are going to answer them. Got it?” When he said nothing she looked at Anne. “Anne, hurt him a little.”

The girl hesitated then grabbed one of his hands and twisted it, just a little. She saw him try to resist the pain, but it was too much for him. “Okay,” He gasped.

“Good. First question. What’s your name?”

“I am the Bishop, you have no right…” Emma gave Anne a signal, he saw it and answered before the pain began. “Paul. Paul Jenkins.”

It was a nice name. She was surprised it had taken this long for her to hear it.

“Good. Nice to meet you Paul.” She tried not to let the sarcasm drip through. “I’d love to find out more about your past life, but unfortunately, that will have to wait. Paul, we need to know a few things about this life. First, what do you know about the other groups here? How many are there?”

“I don’t know anything about…” Emma didn’t even need to signal Anne this time, the girl was simply getting in touch with her inner sadist… “Ten. He said there are ten areas. I don’t know how many groups. Really, there are just us and the ones on the other side that I know about…”

Emma was fascinated at how the almost mystical power of the Bishop had disappeared when she learned his name. He was just a tall scared man named Paul Jenkins. A man that didn’t want to suffer any pain. The words he was saying almost slipped past her, Bella however didn’t miss them.

“Hold it Paul. Slow down. Okay, first things first. What one’s on the other side? What do you know about them? How many? Where are they? Who are they?”

He looked like he was thinking of resisting again but then he saw the twisted little smile on Anne’s face. “We know that there is another group on the other side of the forest. We captured some of their people early on. One group or possibly two. We don’t know for sure. The people we…questioned…weren’t very helpful. They came from across a big river and my best guess is that there are perhaps a hundred, maybe less. We captured a few early and then there were no more. They may have all died or left.”

He was giving the information too easily. Nothing that he said could be guaranteed as the truth. It was pointless to talk to him. His eyes shifted back and forth, what else had he said?

“Now about that other part,” Emma saw something close to panic appear on his face. “You said that He told you about ten areas? Who?”

Defiance rose on his face. Paul was gone and the Bishop was back. “Who? Him! The Angel of the Lord! Oh, how foolish I was to lose faith, how foolish to allow myself to feel fear! He will not abandon me. You ask who? I tell you, the Angel of God. It was he who told me where to find God’s word, he that told me how to build my flock. It is he that will save me from your clutches, Foolish Whore!” There he went again. “Jezebels. Prostitutes of Gomorrah. Filthy Babylonian sluts. Do you know what you have done? Have you any idea of the evil you have released? You have put the words and flock of the Lord in the hands of the Enemy. Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil. I renounce you. I rebuke you.” His voice was rising in volume and strength.

“Anne,” Emma tried not to panic as the intensity of the Bishop’s words picked up, “do something. Shut him up.” Emma saw that the girl was twisting the Bishop’s hands far enough that it had to hurt. “Shut him up!”

“I call upon the Lord God almighty to put a curse upon these women. For all who do not rise immediately and help his servant, a fiery death awaits, do not stand…” Bella succeeded with the gag where Anne had failed with torture. Emma was suddenly terrified.

“Get him out of here. Put double guards on him.” Several women carried him out of the meeting. Emma looked at Smith who had observed the whole meeting and interrogation.

“Anything you want to add?” She was completely exhausted. Exhausted and traumatized. She found refuge in acting as if she were unaffected.

Smith cleared his throat and began. “Please, listen to everything I am about to say. When I woke up on this world, I was scared and alone. I found the Believers after a few days of sneaking through buildings. I watched what the Bishop was building and realized that it was better than hiding. I have tried to do my best for everyone here. A part of that was by being loyal to the person in charge. Even when I didn’t agree with his ideas or methods. I thought that by building a society, any society, I was creating something that would benefit everyone eventually. Now I see that I was wrong. He’s a madman. I should have seen it before, but I was too blinded by what I perceived to be my own duty and my own fear.”

“There is another group. We’ve known about them for a while, but we’re not sure exactly where they are or how many. I don’t know about anything else that he was telling you. Listen to me though, I was blinded by the idea that the ends justified the means. I was wrong. I think that the reasons you left were good, but if you are going to start torturing, killing, and letting the ends justify your means…well, then you are really no better than the Bishop or White.”

Emma stared at the man for a moment. She picked up her knife and walked towards where he stood. Anne stepped between them.

“Anne, get out of my way.”

The girl hesitatedfor a moment then stepped aside. “Emma, if you hurt him…”

Emma didn’t wait to hear what else Anne would say. She stepped to Smith and slashed the ropes which held his hands together.

“You’re a free man Smith. You can do what you want. Stay or go.” She turned and started to walk out of the alley but turned back with one last thought. “Oh, and one more thing. You’re right. The ends never justify the means. Thank you.”

 

Chapter 44

Comrades

Emma had two surprises when she woke at dawn the next morning. She opened her eyes and saw Anne squatting beside her. Smith was only a few feet away. The first surprise was that Smith had decided to stay with them. She had expected that he would leave during the night.

Anne spoke first. “Emma, I need to talk with you.”

Emma still made the girl nervous and that meant she was still in power. This wasn’t a counter-revolution.

She didn’t have to be psychic to know that Smith was what Anne wanted to talk about. .

“Well, I was wondering if, maybe, you might consider letting Hector, umm that is Smith, umm, Emma, can he stay with us? Please.” Hector Smith shuffled uneasily from one foot to the other throughout the girl’s request.

Smith spoke now. “I can be useful. I know the women don’t trust me, but I can help.” They both looked at her, waiting for a reply.

Emma got up from her spot on the ground. “Tell me Smith, what is a woman’s role?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Whatever she wants it to be. My mother was a lawyer, my oldest sister runs, or ran a company, and I’ve always thought of women as capable of doing whatever it is they want to do. It’s how I was raised.”

Emma believed him. “Can you take orders from a woman?”

He actually laughed. “I’ve been taking orders from women my whole life. I am the youngest of five siblings. I am also the only boy. I can definitely take orders from a woman.”

“What was it you did back in the real world Smith?” She had wondered this before.

Anne answered. “He was an architect Emma, just like I was going to be.”

Bella and Niev arrived. Both women were out of breath and looked terrified. This was the second surprise.

Bella spoke “Emma, the Bishop is gone!” Niev bobbed her head in agreement.

Emma couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “What?” She turned on Smith. “Where is he? You did this, didn’t you?”

Smith looked as surprised as Emma felt. He was either one hell of an actor or he really didn’t know anything about this. Still, he was the prime suspect. “I don’t, I didn’t…”

Anne jumped to his defense. “Emma, he couldn’t have had anything to do with it. He was with me all night.” They both looked embarrassed at the admission.

Niev spoke now. “The girls that were watching him…”

Emma interrupted. “Are they alright? Did they go with him…?” She was panicking, the power that he had demonstrated last night when he had found himself again, the intensity, now this…she recognized that she was shook up and took a deep breath, determined not to interrupt any more, just to listen.

Niev went on. “They’re all good girls Emma. None of them would have let him go. They were keeping him separate from everyone else. We did like you said, we doubled the guard on him. Just a little while ago, I found two of the girls I had assigned to watch him sitting together and having what seemed to be a very pleasant conversation.” The big redhead paused to take a breath.

“Did they tell you what happened? Why weren’t they still guarding him? Go on.” Emma felt like she was missing something.

Niev continued “That’s the thing Emma. All the girls that were supposed to be watching him have no memory of being assigned that duty. None of them remember a thing. They deny that they had anything to do with the Bishop. Emma, they’re good girls, they wouldn’t have let him go.”

Bella spoke now. “These were women I trusted, they weren’t Believers.”

Emma couldn’t take more of this. “What are you saying? Are you telling me he hypnotized them? Bella, do you think it’s possible your girls decided to kill him? I’m trying really hard to understand this. Really, I am.”

They didn’t have answers. He was gone. No one knew how he had escaped or where he had gone. Their best trackers could find no trace of him leaving their camp. She hadn’t known exactly what to do with him – so in a way, it was a relief to no longer have to. She hadn’t felt like she could safely let him go, but at the same time he had become more of a liability than an asset. None of her people had been injured. In many ways, it was the best possible situation. The problem was she didn’t know what had happened and that limited her ability to trust anyone.

She turned to Smith. “You can stay. Don’t try to order anyone around. Do what you’re told. Got it?”

She turned to her lieutenants. “Get everyone up. We’re heading towards the river today. Spread it among your people that we are heading towards another group and we don’t know what to expect. If anyone asks, tell them we let the Bishop go – not that he escaped. We’ve got to find this other group before we get caught by the fanatics behind us.”

They scattered to do as she told them. Emma tried not to think about where the Bishop might be.

They moved quickly and soon the parklands forest was on their left side and the abandoned buildings of Cathedral City on the right. Emma was more of a wreck than she admitted to anyone. The weight of responsibility for all of these women was a heavy burden. It wasn’t something that she carried lightly. Worse, she didn’t know if her willingness to shoulder the burden of leadership would be met with loyalty and appreciation or with bitterness and betrayal.

She had organized them into columns before beginning to march. Four long columns led by her four lieutenants. Smith was free to walk wherever he liked. He stayed close to Anne. Emma was sure that that was at least partly because of the less than stellar welcome he had received when he arrived the day before. Of course, it was obvious that he liked the girl too.

Emma had done some shuffling around with the bulk of Anne’s group. It was too much for the girl to handle alone. Patsy took command of half of them.  A few were placed with Niev and a few more with Bella. Emma wasn’t sure whether the best option was to put those she didn’t trust among those she did or to keep them to themselves. She had always believed in the bad apple spoiling the barrel, but she couldn’t risk isolating them into a separate group. For the most part, Anne kept the bad apples.

Before they began marching she had spoken to all the assembled women.

“I know some of you aren’t real sure what to call me. I’m not your mother so let’s cut the Mother Emma crap. I’m nobody’s mother. You women are all adults. You can call me comrade, because that’s what we are and that’s what I am. We are in this together. We are comrades looking for as good a life together as we can find. If any of you can’t stand to work with the rest of us anymore, you are welcome to leave and do whatever you like. I wouldn’t recommend going back to the Believers, but if you must, you must. If you want to stay, you will need to work together. At the moment, I’ve taken authority and there are a few very capable women who are helping me to make decisions on your behalf. They are also your comrades. If you have problems, take it to the these women and they will bring it to me. If you want to leave, now is the time.”

She had thought there would be a few. She had hoped it actually, but none of them volunteered. In a way, it was better. There was safety in numbers. As for the bad apples, well, maybe she was wrong about that.

“Three cheers for Comrade Emma!” It was Niev who began the cheer. The women were loud and excited. Even Smith was clapping. That night, her scouts again found a secure area and they posted plenty of guards.

“Shut up, you fools. You’ll bring the world down on us!” She scolded them, but how could she not be pleased?

By afternoon the following day, they had followed the forest edge as it brought them to the river. Emma was surprised to see what looked like a rainbow shimmering above a point several miles ahead of them. It was odd, there were no clouds in the sky. The weather since they had arrived had been perfect – which was also odd.

“Smith,” she called him over. “Have you heard about this? Know what it is?” She pointed to the phenomenon. She hoped that his scouting duties might have given him information about what lay ahead of them.

“Unfortunately Comrade, my duties took me in the other direction. I have no idea what lies this way. Do you think it might be important?” Smith was nervous talking with her but he did seem to want to help. That was good.

“I hope so but I have no idea.” It was as good a beacon as any.

When they came closer to it, they were all amazed to find the Pit Falls. A river that plunged into a giant hole in the ground and disappeared. They would stop here. She sent scouts out to find the best place for them to camp for the night.

She was not surprised when the scouts returned to tell her that they had found several things. They were close to an abandoned town and inside of it indications of people were all over the area. Footprints, the rough telltales of manufacturing, and even what appeared to be the tracks of some sort of vehicle.

“Any sign of the people themselves?” She asked Bella who was relaying the information to her from the scouts.

“No. Just signs that they are gone. It looks like they were heading the same direction we want to go.”

Emma considered her words before speaking. “I think this is good news. We can be pretty sure it’s not the Believers. They wouldn’t have gotten ahead of us so fast. We knew there were supposed to be people over here. Looks like maybe we found em. Any ideas about where we should bivouac?” Emma had fallen into using all the military terms she had heard in years of watching movies. The words were the only one’s that fit. Camping sounded too relaxing.

“Someone put a door on one of the buildings. I don’t really like the idea of locking ourselves up in it though. My suggestion is that we sleep on the main road, post plenty of guards, and move out early in the morning.” Bella was right. Once again, Emma was grateful Bella had decided to work with her.

“Good work Comrade. We’ll follow your suggestion.” Emma was thankful that she didn’t have to make every decision. There was a difference between making a decision and approving a decision. Some people never understood that though.

Chapter 45

The Battle Begins

It was a day filled with amazing revelations. The Pit Falls alone would have marked the day in her memory but they had also found evidence of humans and a new town. This was her first proof that there were other people besides the Believers in this world. The revelation that they had some sort of vehicle was also hopeful. The Believers had nothing like that yet.

Smith soon brought another astounding piece of information. Among the throw offs that the group ahead of them had left behind, Smith had found the remains of a fire. Under the cold ash on the surface, hot coals still smoldering.

“How did you know to look?” she asked him.

“I caught the barest smell of smoke and where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.” It made sense. Later she would come to think of the statement as almost psychic in its implications. At the time however, she was more concerned with the conclusion it forced upon them. The people who had left this place had left recently. The smoldering coals meant they had missed them by a day at most.

Emma had her people search the area much more thoroughly. She didn’t want to get caught by surprise if they returned. Bella assured her that they were gone. Bella was also convinced that this had been a transitory stop and wasn’t a home base.

“There are no more than ten of them. It looks like they probably came from the woods, made what they needed here, and then they left. Emma…I think we both know who these people are.” Once again, Bella had sniffed out the solution to a mystery.

Emma nodded. “It makes sense. It’s the escaped prisoners. They came straight through the forest, paused here, and are moving towards the river and freedom. Didn’t the Bishop say that some of the prisoners had come from another group?”

Bella nodded. “It raises certain problems. We all know that they were treated incredibly harshly. They will never trust us – in fact, they will likely try to kill us. They were enslaved, beaten, hunted, killed, and raped. While that was going on, most of us were free to make an issue about it…and didn’t. Not in a way they would know about anyway. If they reach these other people first…”

Emma saw where the woman was going. “Crap. We’re going to be walking into an enemy camp.” Emma had just realized what they would look like to the escapees. She was the Bishop’s consort. Mother Emma. The freaking Whore of Babylon. Her only hope was that Nick had made it, that with his help she would be able to convince them that she had always intended to help them.

Crucifying fanatics behind her, pissed off former slaves ahead of her, and an escape artist holy man missing in action – somewhere. She could expect that the former slaves would prejudice whoever it was they were heading towards against her. There was no going back. Her dreams of creating a heavily armed matriarchy weren’t going to work out. She could already sense the group around her beginning to splinter. The only thing holding them together was the desire to reach another group.

There was only one choice. They had to reach the new group before it was completely poisoned against them. Even if she herself had to take the blame and go out on her own, maybe she could deliver these women from the evil of the Believers. Forward. The only choice.

They had set up a spartan camp in the streets near the falls. Most of the women took the opportunity the nearby river presented and bathed for the first time since wedding day. In the three days since the women’s revolt, they had traveled fast through dusty roads, slept on the ground, and done a great deal of very unladylike sweating. They were filthy.

As the last daylight faded from the west, Emma was reminded of Smith’s words. It was then, far in the distance, that she noticed a thin stream of smoke curling into the sky. Judging from the blackness of the smoke against the almost white light of the sky, she figured it was a fire that was meant to be seen.

“Bella, do you see that?” Bella turned and looked towards the west.

“Um hmm,” she said, “and where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.”

“Get a good sleep tonight. We leave at the first light. No breaks, no stops. We’re going straight to that fire . They will certainly be expecting someone, but maybe they’ll be surprised to find that it’s us.”

——

It took them all of the next day to reach the fire. The pace was unrelenting but the women didn’t complain as the column of smoke grew larger and larger. The fire was perhaps a mile off, straight ahead of them and there was no more than an hour left in the day. Smith and Bella tried to persuade her to take a cautious approach and to scout out the fire and who was keeping it, but they just didn’t have the time to spare. With less than an hour of daylight left, they had to move quickly. She didn’t want the darkness to obscure her plans.

She had a plan, but no one else knew it. It was her burden to bear. Emma didn’t feel as though she could allow anyone to see the bundle of stress inside her. When her lieutenants asked what she planned, she told them to trust her. They did – and she hoped that their trust hadn’t been misplaced. They were close to the fire now.

Now it was time to reveal her battle plans.

“Niev, Patsy, Anne. I want you three to stay here with most of the women. Bella, you, me, and Smith,” despite her intentions, she had found herself trusting the man more as they traveled. Part of it was seeing the sincerity that he exuded in everything he did, another part was that he was a damn talented guy. “We’re going to try to find out who we are dealing with. We don’t know how many of them there are, who they are, what they want, or anything else. We need to find out.”

It sounded plausible, even to her. She knew better though. No one questioned her. She didn’t think they suspected anything.

“You girls staying here. I want a tight perimeter. Stay quiet, no fires, try not to make any noise. I know that’s nearly impossible, but it is essential. We should be back by dark. I’d prefer to think that the people ahead of us aren’t hostile, but it is possible. Sit tight. Be prepared.”

“Emma?” It was Anne. “What do we do if…if…you don’t come back? I mean, should we attack them?”

Emma had thought about it. She didn’t have a plan. If she didn’t come back that almost certainly meant that the people they were dealing with weren’t friendly. She was either dead or captured. If that was the case, she didn’t see much point in beginning a war. If her plan didn’t work, she didn’t think anything would.

“If we don’t come back, wait until morning and then I want you to get out of here. I have a feeling the Believers aren’t far behind us and despite what some of the women seem to think, they are not safe. They’ll see this signal fire too and they’ll be heading this way. If we aren’t back by morning, just move out quickly and don’t do anything stupid. If these people are unfriendly, it serves them right to draw the Believers right to them.”

It wasn’t really a plan, but it was something. She hoped that it wouldn’t come to that.

“Okay…that’s about it then. We’ll see you soon.” Emma motioned to Bella and Smith. It was time for them to go.

Anne rushed to Emma and gave her a big hug. “Be careful.” It started a round of hugging among the women. None of them knew if they would see each other again. Smith too, was hugged, last but not least by Anne, who kissed him on the lips.

“Come back,” she said to him.

“Don’t worry. We will.”

Emma wished she shared the man’s confidence. She was fairly certain she wouldn’t be coming back though she hoped Smith and Bella would.

They stepped off towards the big fire. The women at the camp set up a defensive perimeter.

They weren’t far out when Bella stepped next to Emma and whispered to her. “I know what you are planning. I’d try to talk you out of it, but I think it might be the only chance we have.”

Emma kept walking and said nothing. She had already learned it was pointless to deny the truth to Bella. The woman could sense a false statement from miles away. She was glad Bella was going to go along with her.

When they came closer to the fire, Emma called a halt. Now it was time to brief Smith and Bella on their roles.

“Smith, approach from below. Bella, go to the other side and come from above. No matter what you see, do not reveal yourselves. Watch, listen, and don’t get caught. Got it?”

They both agreed. Bella gave Emma’s arm an approving squeeze before she headed off.

Emma went straight towards the fire.

She tried to stay out of sight as she moved towards where the fire burned. She heard the sound of men’s voices and the occasional moan of a woman. That didn’t seem to be a good sign.

She peered around a tree and saw two men sitting in front of a fire. One of them, a big bearded man was leaning over a third figure that lay between them. An arrow stuck from the leg of the woman. Emma wasn’t surprised to see the technology people developed to kill one another was improved upon daily.

She looked at the second man. She knew who he was. It was Ben! He held the girl down while the bearded man tried to extract the arrow from the girl between them. The girl moaned again. It was the moment of truth for Emma. This was her big moment.

She raised her hands and walked from behind the tree. “I urgently need to speak to the two of you.”

Both men looked up in shock.

“Stop!” Several people stepped from the edges of the clearing with arrows pointed at her. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea.

The bearded man turned to Ben. “Is she one of yours?”

Ben shook his head. “No, she belongs to the Bishop.”

The night was pierced by the sound of screams. It was coming from the direction Emma had come from, from where she had left the women. These weren’t screams of fear – they were screams of women diving into battle. A huge racket ensued immediately – the sounds of women – and men in battle for their lives.

So much for her plan. It had all seemed to be going the way she wanted it to…or maybe not.

There were arrows pointed at her. Ben and Bridger had jumped to their feet. Leah, the woman on the ground sat up and yanked the arrow out of herself. There were several more bloody arrows lying next to her. The all looked at Emma as if they were waiting for an explanation for the cacophony that had risen behind her as if on cue.

“I left my people bivouacked behind me. Are they being attacked by your people?” It was a logical question. She saw something like relief flash across both men’s faces.

Ben spoke. “When you say your people, do you mean the Believers?”

She wasn’t in a position of authority here with arrows pointed at her, but she needed to know the answer to the question she had just asked.

“No, just the women, are they being attacked by your people? We’re being chased by the Believers.” It was the bearded man she was asking. She didn’t think that Ben’s handful of escapees were capable of mounting an attack the size of what she heard behind them.

The bearded man looked around him at the bow wielding people in the clearing. “We had no idea you were here. I think it’s safe to say that my people aren’t involved in this. Who are you?”

The sounds of battle were coming closer.

“We don’t have time for this. If that isn’t your people attacking us, then it must be the Believers and that means that we’re all in trouble.”

Ben stood with his arms crossed. “Aren’t the Believers your people? I know this might not seem to be the best time, but you better explain things. From the sounds of it, whoever that is, is moving closer.”

The battle was getting closer. There was no way around it though, she needed to explain things. Quickly.

“Okay. In a nutshell, here goes. The Bishop decided to marry all the women to the men and essentially  turn us all into sex slaves a few days ago. Most of us didn’t like that idea. We revolted and took the Bishop hostage. We locked up the men and the women who didn’t want to come with us, freed all the slaves, and fled. One of the slaves we freed, a man called White,” Emma saw shock on Ben’s face. She kept going. “He took over the Believers. He has been pursuing us for days with the intention of literally crucifying me and the Bishop. I thought we were further ahead of them but they must have seen your fire and come directly here. It must be he the Believers who are attacking my women behind us. We saw your fire, had heard that there was another group. My plan was to beg you to take in all the women even if you refused to take me. We didn’t know they were so close. Now, I think it’s a matter of you are either with us or with them.”

Ben moved closer, he’d uncrossed his arms.  “Was White a rangy looking guy with close set eyes? He wasn’t a slave.” Ben turned to Bridger. “He’s the guy I was telling you about. The murderer!” He turned back towards Emma. “You say he’s in charge now?”

Emma nodded. The pieces were starting to click together in her head.

Bridger, the bearded man motioned to his people to lower their bows. “What about the Bishop? You still have him? You came forward alone?”

Emma hoped they would believe her. “He escaped several days ago. We don’t know how. He just vanished. I came alone.”

“Except for me.” She turned and saw Smith step from the Bushes. His hands were raised and he moved to where Emma stood.

“And me.” Bella emerged from the other side.

The sounds of the battle faded. Not like the battle was drifting away, but more like the battle had ended.

Convergence was happening.

Chapter 46

Begending

Emma probably would have been filled with arrows as a result of her stunt if Ben and Leah hadn’t of arrived fifteen minutes earlier. As it was Leah had been lucky. The arrows, thanks to flaws in their design, hadn’t embedded themselves terribly deep – even the one in her leg was only slightly worse than a puncture wound. She had yanked it out on her own. She was one hell of a woman. Bridger was a lucky man to have her.

Bridger, once he realized he had filled the woman he loved with arrows, seemed as noble as Leah had represented him to be. He had given Ben permission to merge his group into Bridger’s.

Leah had been part of Bridger’s motivation in building the signal in the first place. Someone he trusted a great deal had suggested it. That was as far as they’d gotten when Emma showed up.

Emma had brought a pack of vicious dogs behind her that killed his friend Vlad the first time he’d encountered her. The meeting had led to Ben becoming a slave while Emma had become a master. Despite that, he was almost happy to see her. Then he realized she had brought a war behind her this time.

“Can we trust her?” Bridger asked Ben. The two men had felt instant camaraderie. Theirs was a meeting of equals.

“We don’t have a choice,” Ben answered. “If we can, we should gather our people and get the hell out of here. This fire of yours is drawing more than you bargained for.”

Emma jumped in the conversation.

“Please, you’ve got to help us. He will rape and kill them.” Emma looked from Bridger to Ben and then to the dozen people that held their bows nervously. “I left Anne in charge…”

Bridger interrupted. “How many people did you leave behind? How many were following you? I don’t even know who won. It’s not fair to ask my people to sacrifice themselves in a battle that isn’t theirs with so many unknowns. From what you’ve told us, this is Believer versus Believer and it’s none of our business – yet. We need to get back to the other side of the river and deal with whoever comes out on top from there. Ben, how far is your group?”

An unnatural silence descended on the clearing. The volume of it held Ben’s tongue. Then the silence was broken.

“Hello the fire.” It was White.

He came striding into the firelight as if he were coming among friends. Daylight was gone now and as he came closer, he smiled broadly at everyone. White had the audacity to motion at the people holding the bows that they should lower their arrows. None of them did.

“I overheard some of your conversation from over there.” As White spoke, Ben instinctively moved away from the man. If evil had a smell, White carried it with him. “I think it’s a fine idea that ya’ll mind your own business and we’ll tend to ours.”

Ben might not have noticed the Bible in White’s hands in other circumstances, but he had become accustomed to the idea that there was no printed matter here and it caught his attention.

“That racket you heard a while ago, it was an internal situation. A religious disagreement between our womenfolk and our menfolk, if you get my drift. I’d just like to let ya’ll know that we done settled our dif’rences now.” He laughed. “Turns out a lot of them women weren’t all that anxious to live like lesbian communists like this one here was trying to force on em.” He motioned towards Emma with his thumb.

White picked out Bridger as the guy in charge. “Looks like you’re the head honcho round here.” He held out his hand and stepped towards Bridger. “I’m Rudy White. Folks call me White.”

Bridger made as if he was going to shake the man’s hand, but Ben spoke. “Bridger. Don’t. Don’t go near him. The man is poison.”

White scowled at Ben. “Is that right? Is that what you think? Listen here friend. I saw you up in them trees a while back. Don’t think I don’t recognize you. I saw you hiding like a chicken in the bushes. I know you may have formed a sort of bad opinion of me and I want to show you that you’re wrong. See, we got us a little problem I think we might be able to help each other with.”

“Lookee here, Mr. Bridger. In the process of reuniting our little family, we had us that little skirmish y’all probably heard a while ago. A few people died and well, we had to disarm a few very angry ladies. The way I figure it, they’re gonna be nothing but trouble for us, but they’d prob’ly like it if we was to let em come with you. Now, I know you got these folks here with the bows and arrows, and that you probably got a bunch more over on that other side of the river. The thing is, the way I see it, you don’t have many more of ‘em on this side. You see what I’m saying here?”

Ben was pretty sure that White was correct. No matter what else White might be, he was a very able observer and seemed to be an exceedingly good tactician. Bridger had left most of his people in the town they were building across the river. He hadn’t expected to get involved in a god damn war. He had only wanted to rescue his lost girlfriend.

White went on. “Now, I ain’t really the kind of guy that likes to take advantage. After all, the good book here, it says to love thy neighbor, right? And ain’t that what we is? Just neighbors that live on dif’frent sides of the river. So listen here, Mr. Bridger, here’s what I’m offering. I got several hundred very riled up men back there that are still looking for a fight. The womenfolk ran better than they fought. I also got prob’ly fifty women that don’t want to go back home with us. We can’t just let em go. You know what they say, ‘Women, can’t live with em, can’t kill em’. Ben had never heard that particular misogynistic turn of the phrase. What say you and I make us a trade?”

Bridger was cautious. “A trade? What kind of trade?”

White smiled like a used car salesman about to close a deal. His bumpkin act hid a shrewd intellect.

“Give me them two…” He pointed to Smith and Emma. “I got me some business to settle with those two on a count of the fact that they were the ones that caused all this ruckus. In return, I’ll give you all the women we don’t want. Then, all ya’ll just swim across that river back there and mind your own business. You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine. Fair enough?”

Bridger was silent, considering. “If I refuse?”

White gave that big gap tooth grin. “Well, that would be stupid, friend. If you refuse, we gonna be forced to kill them problem women and then we gonna kill you and everyone here. Then, after we rest a bit, we’ll prob’ly have to cross the river and kill all them folks. I imagine it might become a problem. But there ain’t no need for all of that. This is one o them situations where you gots to consider what they call ‘the greater good’. ”

“Take the deal. He’s not bluffing. ” Emma was speaking now. “He’ll do it. Those girls don’t deserve to die, maybe I do, I don’t know, I led them here. It’s my fault and I’ll take the consequences. Take the deal.”

“How do I know you’ll keep your end of things?” Bridger asked White.

“Well, I wouldn’t lie with my hand on the good book, would I?” Ben had already seen him do much worse.

“Done. Send the women to us.”

White shook his head. “Uh-uh. Sorry Capt’n. first you and your people go. We’ll send the women after you.” White pressed his advantage. “Also, you can leave them fancy bows and arrows behind. Y’all better get going.”

Bridger didn’t really have a choice. White had them and he knew it. Ben felt like he had just lost the most important battle of his life and he hadn’t even had a chance to fight.

The fire flared as a huge yell erupted from the dark woods around the clearing. Hundreds of people, men and women, moved in around them. It was the Believers. Bridger had to surrender and accept the terms or they’d all be slaughtered..

White’s face erupted in anger and he turned towards the Believers closing in on them. “I ordered you people to stay behind. Stop!” They didn’t stop. White had lost control.

The circle closed tighter.  A tall figure broke from the ranks and pointed a long arm at White.

“Antichrist! You shall not prevail!” It was the Bishop. Somehow, he was back in control. Ben didn’t know if things had just gotten better or worse. They were trapped by the Believers and the deal they had been about to make was no longer on the table.

Bridger, his archers, Leah, Ben, Emma, Smith, and Bella were pushed into tight circle. They were vastly outnumbered. The Believers formed a ring of at least fifty feet in diameter around them. They didn’t have a chance.

The Bishop raised his hand and Richard broke from the edges. Two men carrying a crucifix followed him.

The Bishop approached White who held the Bible before him like a weapon.

“Be gone Satan!” White shouted.

Several men jumped from behind and grabbed White. The Bishop snatched the bible. “This is mine.” Turning to Richard, the Bishop pointed at White, “Crucify him.” He said it as casually as he might have said ‘Tie him up’ or ‘Grab some milk while you’re out.’

They set about the task and the Bishop turned his attention towards the group clustered in the middle.

“Emma, it would give me great pleasure to do the same to you, but, unfortunately, I would have another rebellion on my hands if I did.”

“Where did you come from? How did….? What the fuck is going on? ” Emma didn’t even know what question to ask.

“Many of the women regretted leaving,” the Bishop explained. “The women you posted as guards had no love for me but they thought you might have me killed and they let me go. Each night while you slept, I plotted my counter rebellion within your own camp. During the day, I followed from a distance but each night, the loyal Believers helped me.  As White pointed out, a number of women remain loyal to you, but the majority would rather be with us.”

“How did you take control of the men? We heard the battle. White was in charge.” Ben could barely keep up with the pace that things were happening.

The Bishop looked at Ben and, unbelievably, smiled. “I feel as if I owe you an apology or maybe a thank you. You have helped me in more ways than you know. The battle was real. There were a few casualties, but my people would not massacre each other at the order of a madman. They are and always have been my flock. They knew I would return. They are my people.”

“What about the women loyal to me, the prisoners…what do you intend to do with them?”Ben looked at Emma and could almost see her flashing between two personas. It was almost as if reality were warping and two different avatars were fighting to occupy her space. He had to give Emma credit. She had been willing to sacrifice herself for those who followed her. He had apparently misjudged her.

“Yes, we have them.” The Bishop’s statement was punctuated horrific screams as White had thick wooden stakes pounded through his hands and feet. He was bound and nailed to the crucifix. The Bishop’s voice still had that ‘grab some milk’ quality to it. “It was nice of him to bring the crosses, don’t you think? Did I mention there are two?”

Ben’s blood went cold. The Bishop had someone in mind for a second crucifixion.

The Bishop smiled.

Bridger stepped forward. “What will you do with us?”

“Bridger. I’ve heard a lot about you. The Lord works in mysterious ways, Brother. I thought you were my enemy, but it turns out that the real enemy was within my own house.” White was struggling on the cross which lay on the ground. Several men began digging a hole. No one paid attention to his pleas.

“The Lord is merciful and so am I. I am going to let you go.”

They were all shocked by this. There must be a catch. The Bishop went on.

“Hopefully this will be the last time we see each other.” The Bishop cleared his throat. “Outside of this circle are a number of women that do not wish to stay among the Believers. There are also quite a few men that do not want to be a part of our community. Take them and leave now. Cross the river, return to your people, and go in peace. My people and I will return to our Cathedral. Those who do not wish to be a part of what we are building, can go with you. I realize now that we cannot force those who are not Believers to become so. This side of the river is our land. The other side is yours. It is my hope that in time we can establish trade and friendly relations – but for now, this is how it must be. Go now.”

A gap in the ranks of the Believers opened and  Ben, Emma, Smith, Bella, Leah, Bridger, and Bridger’s people filed out of the circle of Believers. There would be no battle here. As they left, the hole was deep enough for the crucifix with White on it to be stood up. White’s screams followed them. The agonized torture of his cries sapped the will of anyone who might have considered fighting.

The Bishop did as he had promised. He didn’t even ask to take their weapons. Beyond the fire, there was a joyful and sad reunion between Emma and a woman named Niev. Niev brought the news of those who had died, among them a woman named Patsy. Anne rushed to Smith and embraced him. It was as simple as that, they were allowed to leave. All who wanted to go joined them. Survival and freedom had been the only reason they had chosen to fight and when complete liberty was granted, none of them felt the need to continue the cycle of violence.

Those who wished to stay among the Believers, did so. They numbered in the hundreds. Those who wished to leave, perhaps seventy or eighty walked away.

Ben led them to where Abdullah, Sutreyu, Hydro and the others in his band had been waiting anxiously. Haruka had insisted they wait until morning to find out what had happened, but Ben brought them news and many refugees before the light of dawn. They were far enough from the Believers and the giant fire that they were no longer in danger – but Emma insisted on setting guards and establishing a secure perimeter.

Abdullah’s boat worked. It had to be bailed constantly, but using it and the long coils of rope from the wagon’s wheels they were able to create a ferry which they used to transport everyone to Bridger’s side of the river in a relatively short time. They worked for as long as it took, hoping that the Bishop wouldn’t change his mind and attack. Finally, with everyone on the safe side of the river and the boat dragged far up the shore. They found a sheltered place and Ben collapsed into sleep.

Chapter 47

The Third Gate

Ben looked upward towards the Heavenly City and the temple of Guanyin. What mysteries would be explained there? As he climbed up the steps he looked at each word engraved as a character in each step. They still made no sense to him. They still seemed random and devoid of order or meaning.

Apple, eyes, road, mist, triangle, milk. They made no more sense than the events he had recently witnessed in the waking world. Had they really been saved by the Bishop? He had thought the man completely evil and yet, the Bishop give them more than White had offered in a moment when he had complete control. Ben was sure White would have killed them all, regardless of what he said. He had seen the man kill an innocent woman in cold blood. White had planned to crucify Emma.

Ben shuddered as he remembered the man’s screams as stakes went through this hands and feet. He felt no joy in the memory of White’s agony. When he had recounted White’s fate to his tribe, Freya said “Good. The bastard deserved it.”

Ben lifted his legs one after the other as he climbed up the randomly marked steps. The gate came faster than he thought possible. On the far side of it he could see narrow dirt streets filled with people. Shops were doing brisk trade in caged birds, fruit, and other items. He hadn’t expected there to actually be a city at the top of the mountain. Where had all of these people come from?

This time, he would simply step through the gate. He was bare steps away from it when a familiar voice commanded him.

“Stop.”

The figure ahead of him wore a full cloak with a heavy hood. He couldn’t make out any features under the shadows of the cowl. The voice was neither male nor female but seemed to speak from inside his head.

“Why do you wish to enter the Heavenly City?”

He didn’t know the answer. That of course, was the answer.

“I want answers.” He said.

“Which questions do you follow?” the figure asked him.

“Who are you?” Ben asked.

“I am the Keeper of the Third Gate. Which questions do you follow?”

Ben had no idea what was expected of him. Was this another test? “What is the meaning of the symbols on each step?” he asked.

Laughter. “The symbols represent change. With each step there is change. Just as each step represents a specific change, each step in life is also a series of never ending changes. I am surprised, though not entirely displeased that you ask such questions. Haven’t you only recently seen that things are not what you thought they were? Haven’t you seen the flows of change in action?”

Ben thought of the many changes he had gone through in such a short time. From printer to inventor to slave to leader. He had thought he understood people only to learn that he hadn’t understood them at all. He had thought Vlad was a cringing coward. He had thought Sutreyu a young woman. He had thought Adam his friend and Emma a traitor. Yes. Change every step of the way.

It raised another question in him. “If everything is in a state of change how can one have faith? How can you believe in anything if you are in a constant state of doubt?”

The figure sat on the steps beyond the gate. “This is a better question. The answer is complicated but perhaps I can explain this in terms you will understand. Doubt is the tool one uses to explore faith. If I told you a glowing ember would not burn you, would you believe me?”

Ben thought about it. “I would probably need to check for myself. No offense.”

“Let’s say you checked and it was not hot. Let’s say that I hand you a hundred glowing embers and you checked each one and found I told the truth. Would you believe me when I handed you the next one?”

Ben answered quickly. “Yes.”

More laughter. “Do you see how doubt builds faith? And yet, the coal might be hot. All things change.”

Ben was confused. “Do you mean I shouldn’t trust you?”

“You don’t even know who I am. How can you trust me? But I can reveal myself enough to give you faith and to answer your doubt. If we have no doubt we can have no faith. Do you understand?”

Ben nodded. “Does any of this have to do with getting through the third gate?”

More laughter. “No. Nothing at all. Do you have more questions?”

Ben considered whether to ask his next question. “Who are the whales? Why did they rescue us? What do they want?”

No laughter this time. “Well, that is a question. You were all going to die.”

Ben said nothing.

“We saw a chance that you might still be able to achieve your purpose.”

Ben spoke. “You’re one of them.”

“I’m not, not one of them. I’m something different.”

“What do you, what do they want?”

“We seek what you should seek, a perfect human society.”

Ben was frustrated. “Then why would you bring people like the Bishop and White?”

The Keeper of the Third Gate threw back her hood. It was Sutreyu. Ben had suspected it all along. After all, she was the only one he had met on this path.

“Faith and doubt. Change. Things that are not challenged do not change. They rot.” Her voice was no longer in his head.

“Sutreyu? Who are you? Why am I here?”

She motioned for him through the gate. “Come into the Heavenly City Ben. We have a lot to talk about before you wake.”

The Begending

A Very Good Novel (Coronavirus) by Christopher Damitio

(Author notes have been moved to the bottom since I’ve finished the novel)

If you prefer to listen to novels instead of reading them, here’s the link to my podcast on iTunes – Vagobond Podcast Adventures

 

 

A Very Good Novel (Coronavirus)

by Christopher Damitio

 

Prologue – A History of the World and Her Apes

Once upon a time there was a beautiful planet filled with chaotic and beautiful landscapes, flora, fauna, and amazing oceanic and geologic events. Things pretty much went the way things go on any planet with life – there were good times, there were bad times, there were mass extinctions, there were cataclysmic events that included but were not limited to meteors, tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, ice ages, and much more. And so it went…

The planet produced life in abundance – and killed that life in abundance. Sometimes the planet used one form of life to kill other forms of life. Sometimes, the planet took a break and simply enjoyed a necessary state of homeostasis.

It was during one of these periods of restful equilibrium that the monkeys and apes started fucking things up. It’s a long story and it’s been told many times – I don’t want to bore you with all the details so I’m going to summarize it in as little space as possible.

Purgatoria were built to fuck. They fucked and they fucked and they fucked. As a result of always fucking and always looking for something else to fuck – these little fuckers spread throughout Eurasia and Africa and became the common ancestor for all of the family of animals known as primates. The primates all kept their ancestor’s proclivities for making new descendants and also for filling pretty much any unoccupied ecological niche they might come across. This led to the diversity of primates knows as lemurs, lorises, bush babies, tarsiers, old world monkeys, new world monkeys, and apes. While each of those branches is interesting, it’s the apes we will focus on because they also kept doing what they did best – which eventually led to many different  species of ‘human’ living at the same emergent time. This was all in the blink of the planet’s eye, so she didn’t really notice.

The human species interbred, migrated, adapted, and began to fight for space. A particularly nasty branch of the humans fucked, killed, ate, and exterminated all the other branches. Bye bye Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo rhodesiensis, Neanderthal, Denisovan, Homo florensis, and Homo luzonensis – and hello Homo sapiens – the one and only survivor of the great human wars. There can only be one – at least there can only be one if the winner is Homo sapiens because these things were the most illogical and selfish creatures that planet had ever spawned.

Oh, I can hear you right now…but wait, I’m one of those – you (me) you’re one of those! We’re not so bad. Think about Martin Luther King and Jesus and Helen Keller and ….

Okay, yes, I admit it. Some of us, some humans are good – but unfortunately, that is a weak aberration from the species norm, not the default setting. Those good humans – they deserve to be worshipped, revered, and treated with respect – listened to. It’s true, there are some very very very very very good humans – and they usually get killed by the others, then, when they are dead their message or their life is twisted around and used to help some other human either literally or metaphorically fuck as many other humans as possible. In truth, the only thing that kept the human species going was the fact that they loved to fuck so much – and the natural result of that was more humans and since they didn’t blink at incest for most of their existence, they didn’t blink at any atrocity that most other animals avoided – in fact – they became progressively more and more brutal, vicious, and conniving, while also becoming completely insane and – frankly – fucking evil. Humans were evil.

In the space of a few thousand years they wiped out the other human species, created huge tribal empires, dehumanized each other, normalized enslaving and committing genocide upon one another, and developed mad genius processes that included but were not limited to chemical warfare, nuclear warfare, wage slavery, corporate capitalism, and industrial production paired with military conquest. These were things that no sane animal would think of – but, as we’ve established – these were not rational animals – they were completely and totally fucking insane.

So, moving on – they poisoned rivers, lakes, oceans, the sky, the land, and each other. They literally shit where they ate over and over and then coined phrases of remarkable wisdom such as ‘Don’t shit where you eat”. They leveled mountains, flattened forests, exterminated entire species, caged everything they could, enslaved each other using chains, whips, guns, technology, and psychological techniques – and – and this is the amazing part – the whole while they were doing this they were patting themselves on the back and congratulating themselves on ‘progress’.  They wrote declarations and manifestos and they declared human rights and universal brotherhood – and all the whole they came up with new ways to stick it to each other.

Jesus and Buddha and others came and said wise things that generally came down to “Don’t treat each other like shit because you don’t want to be treated like shit and neither does anyone else”. Jesus got nailed to some sticks and Buddha got fed some rancid meat. JP Morgan came along and said “Hey, these guns are really cheap and they blow up in your face if you try to shoot them, but I can buy them cheap and sell them to the people fighting against slavery (but really most of them were probably fighting for other reasons – but let’s not go there) and make a huge profit.” And he did, and the people worshipped him for it, just as they had worshipped the slave owning traitor who founded their country and all the tyrants, kings, dictators, and despots of the past.

Yes, I hear you again “Slave owning traitor? You mean the founder of the United States? General George Washington?” Yes, a man who bought and sold other humans and swore an oath more than once to support the King of England and then betrayed that oath and led an uprising so he could make more profit and buy more slaves.

In any event, I don’t mean to pick on ‘General’ Washington. He was no worse than most of the other power hungry men around him and considerably better than many – depending on how you define the term better.  In any event, he started a country, defined a way of rule and made sure that the power stayed in his court – until he was pretty sure that the power he had was secure – then he nobly stepped away.

For the next two hundred and forty four years his country ran with a charade that they were the defenders of man, the beacon of liberty, and the bastion of hope and democracy. All the while, his country was enslaving, committing genocide, breaking treaties, stealing land, raping, pillaging, and figuring out new ways to do all of the above without sounding like the bad guy. If ever there was a winner of the war on hearts and minds, it was the United States of America from about 1776-2016. Even when they fought wars for made up reasons or invaded countries to take their resources – the USA always was able to justify itself as the ‘policeman of the world’ or the ‘defender of democracy’ – which is pretty funny if you think about it and ignore the millions of dead and suffering that came from it. The USA developed the atomic bomb and even though the war was more or less over – dropped a couple of them on Japan, just to make sure they knew they had lost – the 100,000 killed in the firebombing of Tokyo just wasn’t enough.

I could go on – I could justify what I am saying, I could point to sources and references – but justification is one of the things we do best and if you don’t want to agree with me, I have confidence that your ability to justify your position will be at least equal to my ability to justify mine. Humans can steal from a poor person (a person much poorer than themselves) and then find a good reason for why that was the right thing to do. It’s amazing and it’s true – so I will quit trying to justify. I don’t want to get bogged down in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan – I want to tell my story.

Technology and corporate capitalism created a perfect storm for total human control. It was easy to convince almost all of the humans that they deserved to have a better life than all of the other humans. It was easy to convince almost all of those humans that they had a chance to have a better life than all of those other humans. And with that done – it was easy to get all the humans to point their fingers at each other and blame those with less power than themselves for them not having as much power as they wanted.

Social media and data analytics made it easy to manipulate huge swaths of the population. The bizarre result was millions of poor people voting for an exploitive billionaire, millions of ‘business people’ voting for a business person who had lost far more than he had created, millions of ‘Christians’ to vote for the least Christian person ever, millions of Jewish people to vote for a guy who repeatedly made Nazi references, and millions of women to vote for a rapist.

In truth, Donald John Trump, was the pinnacle of human evolution. He was everything that humans had been heading towards since those long ago days when multiple human species were clubbed to death by Homo sapiens. If ever there was a perfect example of humanity, Trump was it. And after the election of 2016, he finally took his place as the most powerful primate in the world. One thing was certain, he was never going to let go of that power.

Chapter 1 – The Pinnacle of Human Evolution and Conceit

Donald Trump was sitting on top of the world. He was the most powerful human being in the history of planet earth.  He controlled enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet hundreds of times. He had created his own branch of the military – Space Force. He had vanquished his enemies, never apologized for his wrongs, and most importantly proved everyone who had dissed him in the early 2000s as completely and totally wrong.

There was one reason he was at the top. It was pure and simple. Just one thing and one thing only: hatred.

His father had taught him from the beginning, there was no force more powerful than hatred. You had to hate the people above you and you had to hate the people below you. You had to hate your enemies and you had to hate your friends. When you could embrace your hatred and harness it – there was no place it couldn’t take you.

He had always wanted to be at the top. The definition had changed through the years. He wanted to be the most eligible bachelor, to be the youngest casino owner, the youngest NFL team owner, the king of steaks, the greatest deal maker – he’d gone after each prize with gusto and when he was denied, he filed it away in his hate category. He hated women, he hated people of color, he hated poor people, he hated working people, he hated those wealthier than him, he hated loyalists, he hated enemies, he hated friends, he hated colleagues – there were very few people he didn’t hate – but there were a few. These treasured few he looked up to – these were the men (only men) who did whatever they wanted, however they wanted, whenever they wanted. He told himself and others that he was one of them, bragged about being able to just grab a woman and kiss her or grab her by the pussy – but he knew he was lying to himself. In actuality, he knew he was limited – but he never wanted to admit it.

Then, one night in 2011, just when he thought that he might finally be approaching that peak he had wanted – he was sitting with the global elites, he was surrounded by the press, enjoying the attention of the paparazzi, and invited to a gala by a sitting U.S. President that he had been denigrating and questioning the authority of. There he sat, in his tuxedo, already a seething mass of hatred, but admittedly one that was feeling a particular type of satisfaction at having become a celebrity, becoming famous, slept with women of all ages, been the guest and helper of kings and presidents – there he sat in all of his glory – and then it happened.

President Obama decided to take his revenge for the whole ‘birther’ movement that Trump had fanned from a ridiculous conspiracy theory to a full fledged political movement.  Obama was merciless – mocking Trump’s hit television show ‘The Apprentice’ and his ability to be a leader:

“But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’John or Meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that keep me up at night. Well handled sir. Well handled.”

Oh there was more, there was so much more. The laughter, the mocking, the shame in having to sit there, face turning red, and grimace his way through it. He’d thought he knew what hatred felt like, he’d thought he might be achieving a level where he could find some satisfaction, but no. Not now. Now he was on a mission. He would destroy everything that Obama had built. He would destroy the media that was laughing at him. He would destroy the country that both represented. He would destroy everything. He would wipe out the environmentalists, the casinos, the NFL, and every country that had ever offended him. He would ruin everyone and everything. There was no one better to do it. He was a unique product of total hatred. The world was going to pay for making him feel bad.

Trump’s family history publicly said that his father was born in New York City and his mother was a Scottish immigrant. It claimed that they were descendants of the German Drumpfs and had been in the USA for a long time, but it was a lie. Fred Trump and his wife were both German and they had come to the USA towards the end of World War II when it became obvious that Germany was going to lose. Charles Lindbergh and Evander Bush had helped find a look alike in New York City while Nazi loyalists had put ‘the bunker plan’ into action with two more look a-likes.

Replacing Fred and Mary Trump with the Fuhrer and his wife wasn’t difficult. The Fuhrer liked that Fred’s middle name was ‘Christ’ and he never let his children know that he was the ‘chosen one’. The children were still young and after a short while, they came to believe that the Hitlers actually were their parents – albeit more strict and with accents they didn’t remember. Donald, and Robert were the only actual biological children of the new ‘Trumps’ but Elizabeth, Maryanne and Fred, Jr. never knew that. All they knew was that they were becoming incredibly rich and their parents were more distant than they’d been before.

So there is the dirty secret. The pinnacle of hatred. The product of Nazi genetic breeding. The child of the most evil human to ever walk the earth. And a person who was indoctrinated into a way of thinking that contained none of those sparks of humanity that make it worth saving – no compassion, no humility, no understanding, no forgiveness.

Those that knew his secret history poured their resources into supporting him both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras. Those who shared his hatred joined with him and rallied behind him. Every string that could be pulled was pulled, every favor that could be called was called, every remnant of fascist power and every back handed move that could be made was made. People died, people lied, algorithms did their work, and defying all expectations and all rational explanation, Trump won.

Donald J. Trump became the 45th (and last) President of the United States of America. Even at that point, it wasn’t too late – but there was no play in the playbook, no precedent, no thought experiment that had been laid out for a situation like this – and the plan, the plan had been being prepared for more than sixty years. Every eventuality had been thought out, every detour or deviation had been thought of, every detail had been considered. Trump was almost as clueless as everyone else – but his handlers knew what they were doing and they knew how to make his actions lead to their desired outcomes.

 

Chapter 2 – Viral Apes on Parade

 

Yes, things were going very well for ‘The Donald’ and his entire cohort – those white Americans born between 1945 and 1965 – also known as ‘The Baby Boomers’. Through the years, there had been an effort to include people of color in the ‘baby boomer’ cohort – but everyone knew, at least on some level, that it was a lie. They might be ‘of’ the generation but they were no more a part of it than they had been a part of the white classrooms that were integrated during that period.

Under the Trump presidency, things went very well for the baby boomers, just as it always had. They were given more benefits, their savings grew in value, their homes (bought for a fraction of annual income) grew in value to the point where they were worth much more than the same annual income adjusted for inflation. A series of ‘tragedies’ allowed them to use their fluid wealth to hoard what should have been that of later generations and then to scoop up whatever gains those generations might have made. As the next generation ‘Gen X’ came of age, started earning, and appeared to be poised to profit greatly from the boom in technology – a series of lawsuits, anti-trust cases, and mergers ‘releveled’ the playing field and allowed the boomers to ‘reclaim’ their position on top before it was even lost. When protests and a movement for environmental and social justice in the late 1990s threatened the status quo and the power structures, the boomers began attacking the same freedoms they had been granted by their elders – the right to peacefully assemble, the right to protest, the right to demand change.

When tragedy struck on September 11th, 2001, the same boomers who claimed to have protested against the Vietnam War, piled into attacking Iraq and Afghanistan and sending two generations into a state of permanent post-traumatic-stress-disorder. They bought Krispy Kreme donut stock, rallied around war as being good for the economy, and proceeded to use easy credit to buy up everything on every block. A few years later, seeing that Gen X and minorities in their own birth cohort were also using the same easy credit, they engineered credit default swaps, ballooned the real estate market, and exploded the economy. Generally white baby boomers had enough to weather the storm and equally generally Gen X and minorities did not – their ‘assets’ i.e. homes were scooped up and turned into vacation rentals.

There was another period – from 2008 to 2011 where it looked like they might be losing their grip – the ‘sharing economy’ the ‘startup culture’ and ‘social media’ all seemed out of baby boomer grasp – but, using their superior buying power and the ‘unfortunate’ circumstances of Gen X and Millennials, they bought them – everything from the experts to the businesses themselves. In cases where money wasn’t the goal such as a bizarrely successful experiment called ‘couchsurfing’ they monetized the same concept by investing in AirBnB. It was a baby boomer owned and operated business now. At this point the boomers started buying up what had been reasonably priced rentals and turned them into illegal over-priced holiday houses It was a huge win for the boomers – not only had they ruined couch surfing but they had become the majority stakeholders in the ‘sharing (ha ha)’ economy, managed to buy most of the housing inventory, and raised rents at the same time. They were the land lording generation and just like their fearless leader – they profited the most from the Trump presidency.

As with Trump, the whole generation operated on a ‘plausible deniability’ concept that allowed them to do whatever they wanted and deny it later. There were no better deniers than the baby boomers and there were no better baby boomers than Donald J. Trump.  From the time he was elected his people made moves to shore up his power and make sure that he kept it. Meanwhile he set about dismantling the Obama years, destroying the media, punishing his enemies, and engaging in what can only be called madman diplomacy as he alternated between trading insults and gifts with the world’s despots, created key imbalances in the U.S. Federal bureaucracy, and manufactured stock market booms and busts while his investment team reaped all of the rewards.

Look, I could go on, but this is all history – so you can look at it from whatever perspective you want. By the end of 2019 Trump was one of the five richest men on the planet but on paper he made sure to rank far lower. His attacks on Amazon were dual purpose – he drove prices artificially down and then bought shares before driving them to new artificial highs. He wanted to destroy and dethrone, Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man – but at the same time, he wanted to profit from his company and harness the power it wielded. Gradually, the true oligarchs of the world realized that Trump was in charge and they stopped attacking him – there was a tacit truce that was finalized when the richest companies in the world were symbolically arranged into Trump’s campaign acronym MAGA which stood for the openly racist Make America Great Again or the trillion dollar companies he had made truce with Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon.

Those who paid attention already knew that Trump wasn’t going to step aside even if he lost the election of 2020. The other side of that equation was the simple fact that Trump was not going to lose the election of 2020. All of the necessary ‘winning’ components had been put in place before the end of 2019. An artificially pumped up economy (that only benefitted the top 1%), all time low unemployment numbers (combined with all time high debt and all time low buying power when wages were adjusted for inflation), and a political machine that had control of the electronic infrastructure of America. Amazon had finally come on board with the plum of the Pentagon JEDI contract being dangled in front of it. Trump had everything to gain and nothing to lose because it was all completely rigged.

Obama had been castrated and his policies had been dismantled. State and Federal courts all over the country had been stacked with Trump loyalist judges. The foreign service and justice departments had been gutted. The military had been neutered and all the prominent voices within it had been discredited. The Democratic Party had effectively been split into two – one side far left and the other side closer to far right. The Republican Party had been purged of anyone who didn’t have complete loyalty towards The Donald. Trump had destroyed trade relationships, isolated and offended allies, walked away from treaties and agreements – and whipped his country into a frenzy of conspiracy theories, xenophobia, and (for those who truly believed in things like social or environmental justice) despair. He was pro-pollution for profit, pro environmental-degradation for profit, anti-science, anti-truth, and made himself more orange in every appearance just to fuck with people.

Nothing could stop him. He was indomitable. He was large and in charge.

There was only one problem – the planet had begun to pay attention. The apes had become a toxic infestation. She’d been working slowly, trying to change them, trying to encourage them, trying to reach them. Some of them were evolving – they were seeing themselves as part of a bigger picture, they were noticing the interconnectedness of everything, they were breaking down the walls that separated them from one another, from other living things, and from the totality of her many systems and processes. Given a thousand years, she would have been able to gently mold them into a healthy synergy – but starting in about 2016, she realized that she didn’t have a thousand years. If she wanted to save the apes (and the bears, and the elephants, and all the other mammals, marsupials, birds, fish, and reptiles..) she would have to be more drastic. She didn’t have time to mold her chosen into a new way of being – the work would continue, but in the meantime – there were two things that had to be eliminated: baby boomers and capitalism.

Chapter 3 – Sweet Sugar Magnolia

The planet’s name was Gaia.

She was a beautiful planet and considered to be among the most intelligent by all the other planets, though most of them wouldn’t admit it. While other planets had focused on creating dramatic geologic features, gaseous rings, or amazing temperature physics – she had focused on using the tiniest particles to create the most dramatic change.

She was patient. Over 4.5 billion years, she had cobbled together something called life – an insignificant recipe of basic elements and then utilized it to reshape the land, the air, the climate – everything. Gaia was a beautiful genius.

Technically, it’s not quite correct to say that she was a planet – the planet was more like an outward manifestation of who she was – much like a person can be seen by the world as being represented by their body, but actually, they are a complex series of systems that result in a particular consciousness that interacts with physical reality.

It was the same for Gaia. She was a complex series of systems that resulted in a particular consciousness. I can hear you again…I hear you becoming skeptical of my hippie talk. I understand, I hear where you are coming from – but look, before I lose you – let me give a quick explanation. Here’s why you have never met Gaia (even though you have), here’s why you never heard her speak (even though you have), and here is why this just sounds like hippie dippy bullshit – because it is hippie dippy bullshit.

Bottom line is this – Gaia is too big for you to see. Your brain cannot comprehend her. Even if you were to have a face to face conversation with her, you would not believe your senses. Let me put it another way…have you ever had a conversation with your mitochondria? Have you ever tried to explain something to your DNA? Or, on a totally bigger level – do you think it’s possible to reason with your pre-frontal cortex?

You are simply a tiny little part of Gaia. You, me, and even Donald Trump – we’re all little bits of the same mega-consciousness. That consciousness is Gaia – and unlike you and your mitochondria or you and Gaia – she actually has the capabilities to recognize us, see us, communicate with us, direct us, and even kill us. Gaia. If you haven’t been before, it might be time to start paying attention to that name.

The planet’s name was Gaia but she preferred to think of herself as Sugar Magnolia. Yes, Gaia was a Grateful Dead fan.

She’s got everything delightful, she’s got everything I need,
A breeze in the pines and the sun and bright moonlight, lazing in the sunshine yes
indeed.

I told you this was some hippie dippy bullshit (but it’s not) and here is the proof. In general, people were incapable of recognizing her – but there were those who did. Astronauts looking at her from outer space – they felt the connection and the loss at being disconnected. Their vision broadened and gave them the chance to see her, they learned where home really was (and what it was). It wasn’t just the astronauts though – psychonauts frequenty met her.

I mentioned early that Gaia was patient, that she worked with life, that she used her creations to shape her creation – Gaia is the true intelligent design master. I also mentioned earlier how awful the baby boomers were – an entire generation that turned to the dark side – except they didn’t ALL turn to the dark side. There were plenty of baby boomers who met Gaia and then moved forward – they tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. They ate mushrooms, consumed LSD, smoked weed, practiced free love, and reshaped their own DNA and more importantly their consciousness got bent into new forms.

Here’s something the scientists won’t tell you (because how could they) but consciousness transfer is every bit as important as genetic transfer. A parent’s consciousness is every bit as inherited as their DNA but here’s the biggest kick – consciousness transfer is a never ending process and it isn’t reliant on blood relation. Have you ever noticed that when you are with a group of people who think differently than you do, that your opinions start to change and form into a form more like theirs? That’s the consciousness pool. Your reality is shaped by the reality of those around you – that’s the reason that religious movements are born and spread (among other things). It’s the reason why good ideas happen simultaneously at distant points – the consciousness pools aren’t exactly ‘physical’ and so they are not constrained by the same physical properties.

Gaia wasn’t a tyrant. She gave her creations free will but she also shaped and encouraged them towards her overall plan and design. Mystics and hippies have been tapping into that shit for centuries. The aberrant consciousness pools were never really a problem because they were geographically limited and  overall not too damaging to her end game. That started to change with the baby boomers though.

Technology allowed them to form much bigger consciousness pools, the rogue consciousness’ got bigger and bigger – this led to problems. Around the time of World War I, she saw the problem beginning – roads and efficient transport were shrinking her working consciousness pools and growing the rogues. Simple enough, she tweaked one of the smallest life forms, a virus, and killed millions while the humans killed each other.

Gaia took no pleasure in watching her creations destroyed. Once the process began however, it was difficult to stop – the rogue pools were impossible to destroy. They could go dormant but all it would take was a new charismatic human to open them up again. The World War II propaganda machines caused her to take note and then the increasing use of radio and television to create huge negative pools of greed, envy, lust, and pride. These were not helpful to her.

She had encouraged Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, and scores of other mystics – she had talked with them, taught them, given them charismatic boosts of energy – and then watched as their movements and teachings were perverted, twisted, and used for the opposite of what she had intended them.

In the chaos following the Second World War, she brought the teachings together and encouraged the use of psychedelics, opioids, and marijuana to open humans up to her message. Many of them heard – from the commune makers to the back to the lander to the hitchhikers and the American Hindus and Buddhists – they heard. They saw. They responded. By the middle of the 1960s children were being born with drastically rewired consciousness – they were permanently connected to the Gaia pools.

The children of the elders and boomers were not the same as their parents. Many of the boomers themselves were no longer the same as the rest of their cohort. They watched in disbelief as their fellows tuned out, turned off, and climbed back in the god-awful machine of capitalism that the rogue pools had created. The children, as they grew suffered from a complete and total cognitive dissonance as their parents turned away from the values they were given and became ‘the baby boomers’.

So, it’s not really fair to call the Grateful Dead a bunch of baby boomers. It’s not fair to refer to those who are still woke (or even those recently re-awoken) as baby boomers. Just as it is not fair to refer to those younger gens absorbed into the Chaos pools as anything other than boomers. The words simply don’t exist to make sense of it – so, we must adapt the words we have.

We will simply call them what we have already been calling them – those absorbed into the Chaos pools, we will call ‘boomers’ regardless of age, race, religion or other physical data. I understand that this will be offensive to many, but I don’t really care. At this period in time, it makes sense for ‘boomer’ to be an offensive insult. So, on the one side of things you have boomers and their God-King-President Donald J. Trump.

On the other side you have those in the Gaia pools whom we shall call Gaiaists. They too were made up of people from all generations, walks of life, religions, and races (but really they were all of the same race, the human race). The Gaiaists didn’t have a leader, there was no flag to rally to, there was no military ready to kill for them – but they had Gaia on their side as well as many children and a guy named Bob – and that was really all that mattered.

 

Chapter 4 – A Sack of Potatoes

Bob was shaped like a sack of flour, had skin that was about the same color as the flour bag, and had hair that went from long on his ears and body to missing on top of his head. Bob didn’t like having ‘jobs’ and was generally considered to be a pretty good guy by those who knew him. He wasn’t handsome, ugly, or remarkable in any particular way. Bob was neither alpha nor beta. Like his name, he just sort of was. Maybe if he had been Robert or Bobby, there might have ended up being something interesting about him, but no, he was just Bob.

Perhaps it’s not fair to say there was nothing interesting about Bob. Bob had lots of ideas. Bob generally saw connections between things that a sane person would never connect. Bob was also very good at figuring out how to get through life without having to do much that he didn’t want to do. On the one hand, Bob was like the most privileged royalty to have ever walked the planet in that he didn’t have to scrabble for his sustenance, bow to anyone (nor kiss the boot), nor spend his life doing things he didn’t want to do only to die having done nothing that he wanted to do. On the other hand, Bob was a nobody – which was part of his secret of success. No one really noticed Bob. No one offered him promotions or opportunities, he wasn’t pursued by beautiful women, and he only rarely was fucked with by anyone – because he wasn’t the type of person people fucked with, he was the kind of person people walked by without ever having noticed they walked by.

On the rare occasion that anyone did fuck with Bob, it generally ended bad for them. Even though he drove a shitty car, didn’t have any real money to speak of, was completely devoid of any sort of functional power in the world, and for all intents and purposes was just one of many on the bottom tiers of society – he walked the earth as if he owned it. Maybe it was because he was ignored most of the time and allowed to do whatever he might want or maybe, as he had thought a time or two, he was the reincarnation of Caesar, Napoleon, or Genghis Khan. Reincarnation was a tricky subject though – because he also felt like he might be the reincarnation of a slave, an abused woman, or a hanged criminal.

All of that reincarnation stuff aside (because Bob wasn’t even sure if he believed in such a thing, he was pretty sure he didn’t in fact, but not so sure as to be sure it wasn’t a thing after all – so maybe he sort of believed in it – sometimes) – but, yes, all of that aside – it didn’t go well for anyone to fuck with Bob. Imagine what happened when you fucked with Genghis Khan….you’d get your head lopped off or be drawn and quartered, but since Bob wasn’t Genghis Khan and didn’t have horses, an army, or minions – he just had to figure out how to ruin people.

Now I want to be clear here, Bob wasn’t a bad guy – in fact, he was a good guy. Bob helped people, took care of people, tried as hard as anyone to avoid any kind of conflict whatsoever. Bob was more likely to be correct in a disagreement over something but defer that he was incorrect just to avoid a conflict, because conflict never led to anything good. So, if you wanted to tell Bob that Ben Franklin was a homosexual and Bob knew for a fact that Franklin was actually a straight or bisexual person – Bob would probably gently correct you. If you were the kind of person who then let it go then that was that. If you were the kind of person that continued to argue -the kind who had to be right – well, then Bob would let you be right and you would be able to walk off and feel superior for being correct even if you were wrong. However, if you were the kind of person who would then mock Bob or lord over him that you were right and he was wrong or push things even further – well, then, that meant you probably would get what you deserved – and in a situation like that – Bob was the arbiter of both judgment and punishment.

What would that punishment be? It really depended. He wasn’t above leaving hard core pornography with some asshat’s name on it in a place where their wife or business associates might find it. He had been known to use profiles linking to his perps in forums where that was sure to lead to their identity being stolen. He’d once met a racist asshole who insisted on spouting his views publicly even when asked politely to stop – it was no fault of Bob’s (but really it was) that the racist was later reported to the Department of Homeland Security as being a member of an Islamic terrorist organization. And once in a while, if the circumstances were right and the punishment were called for, Bob would go ahead and up and kill a motherfucker.

So that was Bob.

Oh…one more thing that I really should mention – Bob had met Gaia. In fact, it was Bob who first called her Sugar Magnolia.

Bob was an old time dead head. He’d been born just a bit to late to enjoy the heyday of the hippies but the good part about that was that he missed all the freaky Charles Manson bullshit. So, he wasn’t a hippie but he grew up listening to the Grateful Dead, caught shows when he could, cooked grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches in concert parking lots once in a while – and generally did a lot of drugs – at least until he didn’t.

Bob took shitloads of LSD, ate crates full of magic mushrooms, and smoked at least as much weed as Snoop Doggy Dogg – okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration – he smoked a lot of weed, but no one has smoked that much. Anyway, he was so tuned in, turned on, and dropped out that there was nowhere else for him to drop out of. In fact, he’d tuned in and turned on so much that it was starting to get boring.  Bob could dose LSD through a convention and eat shrooms like they were corn chips. It was starting to get boring and he was wondering when he was going to die so he could find out if the reincarnations shit was real or just a myth.

That was when he met Doctor. Doctor doesn’t really play much of a role in this story, at least not yet and he didn’t play much of a role in Bob’s overall story either. Bob was sitting on a bench, tripping out, listening to the birds in the park. He noticed a guy in a funny hat was suddenly sitting next to him.

“LSD is done” the man said.

“Excuse me?” Bob was pretty certain he had misheard and maybe let his trip rearrange the words.

“I said LSD is done. That shit is over. It’s boring. It doesn’t do any more than what it’s done.”

“Who are you?” Bob asked. He wasn’t really one to mince words and he was tripping balls.

“I’m Doctor.” the man said. His hat had a propeller on it. Bob was sure he wasn’t tripping that.

“Doctor who? or maybe Doctor of what?” Bob asked.

“No, Doctor Who is a TV show and I’m not a Doctor of What. I’m a Doctor of Which.”

“A Witch Doctor?” Bob hazarded. The propeller didn’t seem to be connected to the hat after all, it just sort of hovered over him.

“No. Which way. Never mind. It doesn’t matter. LSD is done. You need to move on.”

“Where?” Bob looked around, seeing the trail and wondering where this strange apparition was sending him.

“No, which. Which drug. Which drug? Salvia divinorum. Go smoke the shit out of that. LSD is done. Go smoke the shit out of some salvia.”

Bob had heard of Salvia divinorum, but he didn’t know where to get any. He wasn’t really sure what it did or where he could get it.

“Where?” Bob wasn’t really monosyllabic, but he was tripping balls, remember? He wasn’t even sure that Doctor was real. “Where get?” He managed to get the second syllable out.

“Here.” Doctor reached up into the propeller, which Bob was happy to see, didn’t slice off his hand and spray blood everywhere – though as he thought about that it might have been interesting to see the droplets glistening in the sun. Doctor pulled his hand down and now it had a bag filled with dried green herbs. Doctor handed it to him.

“Smoke the shit out of that. She want’s to meet you.” Doctor got up and Bob looked down into his hand to see if the herbs were still there – they were. He looked up to protest or say thanks but Doctor was gone. He looked down the trail in either direction – and he saw no one. He checked to see if the herbs were still in his hand – they were.

Given the circumstances and everything that had happened, Bob didn’t feel like he could do anything except wait for the LSD to wear off and then go home and smoke the shit out of the Salvia divinorum that Doctor had given him.

 

Chapter 5 – Mystic Dimensional Smoking

Bob didn’t know Gaia, he couldn’t give two shits about Donald Trump – or any other politician or celebrity – and he didn’t really care about anything at all. None of that meant he was a bad guy or wasn’t a decent human being – he would help old ladies carry their groceries to their cars (and refuse any tip that might be offered) and do other nice things – he genuinely liked helping people. He simply didn’t really care about anything that was outside of his immediate personal experience. Sure, he thought it was terrible that people should suffer for any reason but in general they were outside of any sort of range he might be able to make a difference in – or that was what he thought. All of that was about to change.

Bob went home to his little sub-basement studio apartment, sat down on his old shitty brown cloth sofa and pulled out the bag of herbs. They had a vague licorice smell and he wasn’t entirely sure that what he was about to do was a good idea – he got out his old pipe, filled up the bowl with salvia, and sat there with it in his hands – wondering if what he was about to do was the stupidest thing he had ever done. That would be a hard truth to find, Bob had done lots of stupid shit in his life.

He looked around his crappy little apartment. Not filthy, he kept it clean, just old and crappy. It had seen better days. He pulled out his phone and looked up ‘Salvia’.

He found that it was a member of the mint family and was said to cause intense hallucinations. there had never been any reported deaths or overdoses from it. That was all he really needed to know.  He held the pipe up to his mouth, lit the lighter, and then decided he would go somewhere else.

Bob liked being outside and in relative solitude when he tripped – so he hiked up the hill through his suburban neighborhood until he reached the dirt road that wandered off through the valleys – it had been an old logging road but the suburbs kept pushing back on it. A half mile outside of the suburbs, he got past the ‘beauty strip’ the trees that had been left standing so citizens wouldn’t get upset about the clear cutting. Once past the beauty strip, he walked through the clear cut which was about two miles wide and twenty years old – small growth was coming back. He found a huge old stump and sat on it.

He was looking down on the entire clearcut valley, miles and miles of earth that had been stripped of trees. Limbs and stumps thrust upwards like bones of long dead warriors who had fought and died on this battlefield. Once again, Bob pulled out the pipe.

He looked down the valley, made sure there was no one else within his field of vision. He listened to the birds calling. He lit the lighter, brought it to the pipe, and took a huge fucking hit. It was strong, acrid, and bitter. He held it in his lungs for about forty seconds before exhaling it into the gentle breeze that was blowing from behind him and into the valley below. The smoke wafted upwards on the breeze and began to dissipate and then…

Bob felt a melting-whooshing-blending-motion sort of feeling, he heard a sound that could only be described as shwoenge – that was sort of what it sounded like but it actually encompassed all sounds and suddenly there he was at the bottom of the valley looking up at himself nearly a half mile away. He was on a different stump, this one with lots of small trees growing out of it and an old coke can smashed into what had been the bark. Bob looked at the can, looked at his hands, looked up at himself a half mile away, and stood up on the stump.

“What the fuck man?” He reached down and pulled the coke can out from between the bark and the stump – he was looking at it intently and then shwoenge – he was back up at the top of the valley looking down at where he had just been. Bob had been a tripper for a long time, but he had never had a trip like that…he looked at his hands – still holding the pipe. They began to shake…

And then they stopped…it was roughly five minutes after he had taken the hit and he was now feeling no effects from it whatsoever.

He stuck the pipe into his pocket and began the long walk through the clearcut down to the stump that he  had hallucinated he was standing on. It took nearly forty minutes to get there, he had to navigate around brush and detritus. He didn’t expect to find anything there, but he had to see. He had never hiked down this valley before.

When he got there, he was surprised to see the stump just as he had imagined it. He began to wonder if maybe Salvia didn’t vastly improve vision and then induce hallucination that way. Closer to the stump he stopped. The flattened old coke can was there – and it was clear that it had been removed from between the bark and the stump. Heightened vision didn’t explain this. Bob didn’t know what explained this. Bob was now tripping the fuck out with no drugs involved.

Bob went back to his apartment and did just what a normal person would not have done – he loaded his vaporizing bong full of salvia and began to smoke the shit out of it.

The first hit was a triple and he felt himself fall into the brown and tan fabric of his couch. The pattern began swirling around him and he felt like he was in a vortex – again, a normal person would have reacted one way, but Bob went the other. Where a normal person would have freaked out, grasped for control and tried to climb out of the couch vortex, Bob didn’t do that – he calmly reached to where he knew the vaporizer was, picked it up and had another triple hit. The party bowl on it would be good for at least ten hits.

The vortex became faster and he walked out onto a grassy field where a black haired woman in a simple white dress was standing, looking off into the distance – he felt himself being sucked out of the vortex and forced himself to hit the vaporizer again. He walked to her. She turned and gave him the most beautiful smile he had ever seen. He could smell every bit of her – her smell was the best thing he had ever experienced – it was like waking from a bad dream and realizing you were at home in your bed but a thousand times better.

“Hi Bob, I’m Gaia,” her voice was the same sensory overload as her smell and the sight of her, it was as if she were the first real thing he had ever seen. He remembered the vaporizer and reached to hit it. Her voice stopped him “You don’t need to do that now, I’ve got you.”

“Sweet Sugar Magnolia,” Bob said. It was more of an exclamation of delight and surprise than anything else.

“You can call me that if you like,” she said and looking thoughtful, “In fact, yes, call me that, I really like it. Call me Sweet Sugar Magnolia.”

Bob felt an intense sense of clarity – so much so that he didn’t feel any need to ask who she was or what he was doing there. He did, however, need to know one thing. “Is this hallucination?” he asked her. “Is this the salvia?”

She laughed – it was the sound of a silver bell symphony. “No. I’m real. You know who I am. The salvia was just a way for you to get here – most never manage, but you pulled it off very quickly. I knew you would.”

“What does the salvia do?” He asked her. That was something which he was not clear on at all.

“It’s full name is salvia Divinorum,” she told him. “It is the divine sage. I made it purely and simply as a way  to communicate with you … and other creatures. Salvia erases the artificial barriers between dimensions. There is only one dimension, of course, but to give your world the experience of causality, we have split the dimensions and when you do that, the barriers are a natural by product.”

“I don’t understand.” Bob never had a problem admitting he didn’t know something. He didn’t know almost everything. He could never figure out why anyone would pretend otherwise.

“In the clearcut…” she began.

“You were there?”

She smiled warmly. “Of course I was there, salvia was there and besides, there really aren’t any places that I’m not – at least on this world. So, in the clearcut, you managed to erase the second dimension – you were suddenly able to be at many points at the same time – just as an electron.”

“But wait, I wasn’t at many points at the same time, I was in one place and then another…”

Gaia looked at him “Yes, of course, I forgot – your kind are trapped with the 4th dimension…there is no escaping it. However, trust me Bob, you were in many places at the same time but because of your own brain structure and the observation principle – you can only rationalize that you were in one place, then another, then back again. You were Schroedinger’s Ape.”

“Why am I here?” He didn’t know if he was asking a positional statement or a deeply philosophical statement because he was asking both at the same time.

“I made you,” she told him. “I made your world. I created and then created the impetus for life to create itself – and I set life free. This has been a wonderful process – but unfortunately, I made a couple of mistakes…and now they are either going to get taken care of or they are going to destroy everything we’ve created.”

“We’ve created?” Bob was confused, she had just said that she created everything.

“Of course. I created and then I set my creations to create in the impetus of what I had created and what resulted from it. I didn’t create bird nests…birds created those.”

“So what’s the problem?” he asked her – for some very strange reason, he felt confident that he understood what she had just explained. Bob never felt like that – he nearly always had questions on questions on questions.

“The problem is that I created a backup system to save all the work that gets done and somehow that backup system got cloned, corrupted, and is now saving data in a way that goes against all of the original principles of my design.”

“This is all a computer program?” Bob was starting to have questions again..

“No, I’m just trying to give you a metaphor you can understand. Imagine that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak create a perfect Apple computer. They share it with the world. Slowly the board of Apple is infiltrated by people who want to exploit user data, brainwash users, and turn them into Windows users. Finally, they fire Jobs and Woz and hire Bill Gates to run Apple. At that point, if you buy an Apple are you buying an Mac or buying a PC?”

Bob made the ‘mind-blown’ gesture with his cupped fingers pushing outwards from his head.

Gaia went on “So, here I am with my creation – let’s just call it an apple. Everything was going along just fine and then I began paying attention and it seems that some ass-hat is trying to turn my Macintosh into a fucking PC!” The intensity of her anger as she explained this could only be felt as flames erupting from her eyes, ears, mouth, nose, fingers, toes, and head. “I need you to stop him before he turns Apple into Microsoft!”

“You want me to kill Bill Gates?” Bob wasn’t offering – he was baffled and feeling the power of listening to an all knowing, all seeing, all there is being as she tried to explain a complex universal situation to an acid dropping, sub-genius, fire-making ape.

The flames disappeared and she was laughing. “No, no, no. Not at all. Bill Gates is one of the good guys – I mean, not always but he’s coming around and really making the change. No, Bill Gates isn’t the ass-hat. It’s not him. And besides, I don’t want you to kill anyone -”

Bob felt an intense sense of relief. He didn’t want to kill anyone.

She continued “…No, I need you to build the army of light, lead them to the battle where they will struggle with the army of darkness, and then…after your army has defeated the dark – then I want you to  obliterate Donald Trump’s soul, but killing him won’t be a good enough solution.”

There was a beautiful silver tone, deep and resonant. Bob felt everything shake. Sweet Sugar Magnolia/Gaia looked at him with love and said “I can’t keep you hear any longer – don’t worry, you’ll figure out what to do. If you get confused or tripped up – remember that moving towards your opponent is often the best defense.”

Bob was on his couch holding the vaporizer – it was still smoking. He looked at the clock on his stove and realized he had been gone for three minutes. He had never felt more rested or alive in his life.

Chapter 6 –The Dread Postman Roberts

The postman was the messenger of anxiety and fear. Generally, Bob wasn’t a nervous sort of person, but when he saw the postman getting out of his mail truck and walking up the porch steps to put mail in the post box, it never felt good. All of his deepest hidden turmoil would rise to the surface and roil his consciousness in an avalanche of loose stone and broken vicissitude. Bob had never trusted the post office.

The United States Postal Service was more than just a government division that delivers letters from one place to another. The USPS by itself stood as one of the top one hundred economies in the world and generated more income than all but the largest companies the world had ever borne witness to. The USPS maintains a fleet of a quarter million vehicles, an army of more than a million employees and retirees, as well as airplanes, big rigs, base-yards, and a network of more than 31,000 post offices and 10,000 private contractor mail shops. Mail is a big business and big business means big money. When there is big money, one should know that exploitation, greed, graft, and violence will follow. In a business pulling and pushing mountains of cash, there was sure to be both corruption and bosses.

The Postal Employees Union was one of the most ruthless mafia syndicates on the planet and the postal inspection corps were their gestapo. It was no easy thing to prevent postal workers from blowing each other away in one of the highest stress business environments the world had ever seen – and sometimes, they had to take side-jobs in order to make sure that everyone kept getting paid and the illusion of domesticity prevailed in the “free” world. Only the Federal Government and Walmart employed more American civilians than the USPS…think about that for a moment.

Bob had spent far longer than a moment thinking of it. The result was a deep seated dread for both the post office and mail carriers. Nothing is so dangerous as the truth and it meant that he was never able to enjoy banal flavored thinking such as considering an everyday postman as some friendly and harmless bozo in short pants and a doorless truck.

The post-office was the the victim of government mandated shake downs for more than a century, all while being forced to fund its own operations and pre-fund retirement and healthcare for an army of workers. This required more than just good business sense and fiduciary responsibility – it required ruthlessness and the ability to diversify and hide in plain sight while being regarded as harmless. Far from being harmless, the USPS holds more true power than any U.S. government agency in that it is ruled by a ten-member board who appoint a Postmaster General and make decisions with sovereign immunity, eminent domain powers, the ability to negotiate postal treaties with foreign nations, and an exclusive right to deliver 1st and 3rd Class mail. It is also in a unique partnership with all branches of the U.S. Military and jointly operates both the Army Postal and the Fleet Postal Offices – giving it immense power to influence military decisions and leadership. The US Post Office is not subject to antitrust laws and operates independently of the U.S. Government.

The U.S. Post Office is a deadly serious business – and Bob knew it. This is why the methodical approach of postman Zeta Roberts as he climbed the steps to reach Bob’s porch and slid several letters through the slot in the door drove Bob to do something he didn’t know he was capable of in the face of such a horror inspiring moment. Usually, Bob would pull the blinds, shut out the lights, and listen for the steps to fade as the postman went away – but not today. Today was different. Bob was different.

He opened the door.

Zeta Roberts, the postman, looked at Bob in surprise. This had never happened before. Bob had always pulled the blinds and pretended not to be home. Zeta was a non-threatening African American man in postman shorts and white trainers. He was clean shaven, his uniform was neatly pressed and cleaned, and he was quick with a smile. The power of the uniform was that white people generally didn’t notice Zeta when he was wearing it – or if they did notice him, they didn’t notice him as a man or more specifically as a black man or even more specifically for most white people – as a threat to their property, women, or safety.

Zeta knew for a fact that it was the uniform because on his days off, he was treated completely differently – in many cases by the same people! Zeta had frequent interactions with the people on his route while he was in uniform – always friendly, always good natured. He had walked the same route on his days off and the experience was totally different. Several times people had called the police on him – saying there was a suspicious person prowling around. More than once, dogs had ‘accidentally’ been released from the yard. Worst of all were the looks of suspicion and violence he received from guys working in their yards, looking out their windows, or walking with their wives. No friendly waves or banter from them. Out of the uniform, none of them recognized him. Well, that wasn’t exactly true – Bob was the one person who had recognized him and suspiciously asked “Have they got you doing undercover work?”

Zeta felt a connection to Bob because most of the letters that came to him were addressed to ‘Robert’. They shared that name. Zeta didn’t think Bob had ever noticed the color of his skin. Bob simply saw the uniform and Zeta’s impression was that he didn’t like it. So, when Bob opened the door, it was a surprise.

Zeta smelled marijuana smoke wafting out. He looked at Bob.

Bob considered what to say, but since he was a little bit stoned, he considered it longer than was comfortable.

Zeta held the three pieces of mail out to Bob. Bob took them, looked at them and then looked back up at Zeta. Both men’s eyes widened at what neither of them knew was about to happen. Eyes do that sometimes, reflect the future before the future is the present.

“I’m terrified of your organization,” Bob said. “I understand the scope of what you people do.”

There was a specific response that postal workers were taught for dealing with this type of question.

“No need to fear, Sir. We deliver the mail. That’s all.”

“Bullshit, I know they tell you to day that,” Bob responded. “The USPS is an army and I need your help. Donald Trump has to be stopped.”

Zeta was used to hearing some bullshit from the people on his route, but this was truth. “Yeah, Preach.”

He waited to hear more from Bob, but Bob didn’t seem to have words ready to speak, and that was okay. Zeta had been waiting for this moment since Trump got elected in 2016. Not one person on his route had ever asked what he thought about Trump or given him the ability to speak the words that came out of his mouth next.

“He’s going to kill us all if we don’t stop him. That motherfucker is pure evil.” That was that, simple words between a postman and a stoner on the porch of a not so great house. In that moment, more than a friendship was born – the tides of history shifted. No longer was it a one sided war being played out for an audience unaware they were a part of the performance. Things were happening on all sides now – heading towards an inevitable confrontation that would determine the fate of all mankind.

Chapter 7 – A Very Good Novel Coronavirus

We all know what happened in 2020. A coronavirus emerged and became a pandemic changing the world forever. We know what happened but we have not been told the details. Allow me now to enlighten you on the complete and total history of the coronavirus known as COVID-19.

Russia had been developing a deadly coronavirus that would uniquely target American weaknesses such as obesity, high blood pressure, and heart conditions. China had been working with several strains of coronavirus in an effort to create targeted viral attacks – something that would hit Tibetans or Taiwanese without damaging Han Chinese. The United States of America was also working on several virus strains that had the potential to tilt a global conflict in whatever direction they wanted – without the media circus of another never ending war..

Meanwhile, the flu virus and several wild coronavirus strains were doing their own thing in nature. Mutating, spreading, developing, changing, and killing. I’m not going to give you a textbook course here – viruses are not exactly alive…they lack cell structure among other things, but like living creatures, they carry genetic material, reproduce, and evolve.  Viruses are better described as a different kind of living thing – one that is both helpful and deadly to the living. Viruses are fascinating because they are so close to being living things – but just don’t quite fit. Essentially, a virus is a parasite to living things because it requires living things to live (or whatever it is that a virus does).

Not all viruses are deadly though – some of them are neutral and others actually are beneficial. There are trillions of viruses in every human body (yes trillions with a ‘T’). Viruses are a driver of evolution and they sometimes even protect a host. A quick word on hosts, no virus can survive without a host – the virus needs an actual living thing to reproduce itself – that thing is the host. Some viruses protect the host such as phages which are viruses that kill harmful bacteria. There are many, many viruses and not all of them are bad. Some viruses are good.

Essentially, this is the story of a very good coronavirus.

Late in 2019, Gaia realized that genocide was coming. It might come from the Chinese, it might come from the Russians, it might come from ISIS or it might come from the USA, but the bottom line was – it was coming. Gaia didn’t want to see any of her creations destroyed, not even the apes – and especially not in hatred. She knew the power of hatred and how it could quickly grow and spiral out of control while killing everything in the path it took. Hatred was a kind of virus as well, it needed a host and was generally toxic to all who encountered it.

Gaia saw the hatred – it was like a very funny broadway play that everyone liked and then the theater caught on fire and everyone died. Except it wasn’t funny. It was leading to dramatic climate change, mass extinction events, and a destruction of her work. Someone was going to release a virus and it was going to be awful – imagine something that would let every person that got it spread it to three more – and then would kill 60% of those who got it. A disease that would kill 2/3 of the human population in a matter of weeks. That was what the US Government was working on.

Trump and his cronies had created a virus which they would release in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia – then they would bring it home and release it in areas where voters weren’t ‘loyal’ to Trump. I’ve mentioned previously that Trump wore orange makeup just to annoy his detractors – but at the root of that was something else – he was pumped so full of experimental vaccines that his cellular structure had actually changed. A part of his orangeness was just him – he was an orange man. An evil orange man. An evil orange motherfucker of a man.

Trumps initial plan was to release it just prior to the 2020 election and then in the midst of an emergency global pandemic – to call off the elections. It was an awful plan if you were human, it was a wonderful plan if you were orange and named Donald Trump.

Gaia decided to do something – the best thing to do would be to beat him to the punch. Trump’s virus was a coronavirus with elements of Ebola that was air spread and used rats as a vector. It was terrible – she couldn’t let it do what it was designed for. Meanwhile, the Russian’s were continuing to sew the threads of American destruction. They planned to introduce their own coronavirus in New York City.

She worked her magic. A coronavirus in Asian fruit bats had been getting ready to jump species so she brought the bats into contact with a pangolin. The pangolin is a cute little armadillo type of animal that many Chinese people believe has magical properties that make its body parts into medicine – it is also believed by some Chinese men to be a dick enlarger. As a result, the pangolin is one of the most heavily trafficked  animals in Asia.

Now, here are some fun facts – pangolins and armadillos are two of the only animals in the world that can cross infect viruses to humans. Here’s another fun fact, animal parts don’t make your dick larger. If you have a small dick, you are stuck with it. Armadillos can contract and spread leprosy. Pangolins can carry coronavirus.  The bat coronavirus was harmless to the pangolins and it spread through the population quickly. Before long, a number of infected pangolins were captured by humans to sell to guys who were ashamed of their genitals. They were taken to Wuhan where they were sold in one of the ‘wet markets’ and subsequently infected the rest of the pangolin in that area. This was all according to Gaia’s plan because Wuhan was where the Chinese were developing their viral weapons. It was the type of misdirection which gods and conscious planets typically engage in.

It’s easy for a virus to jump from Pangolin to human but it would have been harder for it to jump from bat to human – that was why she used the pangolin. At the same time as this was happening, the Russian virus was being released in Southern Europe and New York. The U.S. was releasing a time limited version of their virus in Iran and Wuhan before unleashing it on Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East.

By design, Gaia’s virus was far faster to spread. You might be thinking “What the fuck? How is that a good coronavirus or a very good coronavirus?” Here’s the answer. Gaia’s virus conferred immunity to the Russian, Chinese,  and the US viruses – which were far deadlier than hers. You were there, you know how it played out – the Wuhan virus came on quick, it looked like a nightmare for China – then, from out of nowhere – suddenly Italy, then Iran, Spain, France and New York City blossomed into deadly hot spots with much higher mortality. It was the Russian and American virus doing most of the killing.

Gaia’s virus flew from China to the world. It spread quickly and invisibly from September to February. It went from Wuhan to all of Asia, then to Hawaii, California, British Columbia, Washington State, and Australia. The infection rate was insanely high – the symptoms for most people consisted of the worst case of influenza they had ever experienced – and then they were okay. Meanwhile, the Russian and US viruses (which I’ll just call viRus) moved slowly west into Europe and the Middle of the USA – where the viRUS met Gaia’s coronavirus (we’ll call it Gairus) – there were far fewer infections and deaths than where the viRus spread alone. It was a lifesaving virus – and yes – the worst flu of your life sometimes kills you – but if you survived it – you were immune to the viRus. If you caught the Gairus, you were immune to other coronavirus strains if you survived, but if you caught the viRus you could still catch the Gairus but if you caught the Gairus first, then you were good to go.

That’s the story you haven’t been told before – COVID-19 is not a single coronavirus – the pandemic was actually three pandemics happening at the same time – one started by Russia, one started by the USA, and the third started by Gaia. Since all the major players felt they had something to hide – none of them shared information effectively and as a result, none of them figured out what was going on. They all simply had to react. They had to act surprised, they had to downplay, they had to hide their own culpability (because the Chinese thought the Gairus had escaped from their lab, the US thought it was the virus they had released in Iran, and the Russians thought it was their New York virus unleashed.)

Some seemingly crazy decision-making starts to make a lot more sense when you recognize what really happened. The U.S. virus was supposed to be a quick hitter and then mutate to a form that would not survive – which is why the Trump administration continually downplayed the virus until the numbers were such that they could not ignore them any longer. The Russian virus wasn’t supposed to affect people  of Slavic descent which explains why Vladimir Putin acted with such disregard for the virus reaching Russia. The Chinese virus (never actually released) had not been a planned event. So all three major powers had more than a little to hide – or at least thought they did. Each thought they were responsible for the pandemic, each scrambled to keep the rest of the world from discovering the part they either played or thought they played.

Without the Gairus – the death toll would have been in the tens of millions in a very short time. As it was, the Gairus did what it was supposed to do. First, it gave immunity to all coronavirus’ to those who survived it, second it shut down the world’s industrial civilization – everything from commuting to industrial farming to air travel – shut down completely or dramatically. The air cleared, the animals had a holiday, the environment made massive reversals against a century of hardcore damage from industrial civilization. Finally, Gaia usually stayed out of ape politics – but because of the rise of Donald Trump and chaos pool ideologies – the entire balance of her planet had been destroyed. As we know, this was one of a few times she decided to step in and put her weight on one side. The coronavirus shutdown was meant to show the apes (humans) that they had been lied to. This was an opportunity for all of them to stop, observe, learn, and discover the truth. They had been lied to about the benefits of their ‘civilization’, the limits of what could be done to make life better, the ability of ‘business’ to stop making bad decisions and start making planet positive ones, and most importantly that their leaders were corrupt, ignorant, and filled with hatred for their own kind (and all other kinds).

COVID-19 was a tragic event that killed far too many good people. The viRus’ unleashed by the US and Russia were responsible for the majority of those deaths. The Gairus, on the other hand, also killed far too many in China, the West Coast of the USA, Japan, and other Asian countries – but the lives it saved from the viRus were in the billions. This is why we refer to it as ‘a very good novel coronavirus’.

 

 

Chapter 8 – The World According to Trump

The coronavirus pandemic was as welcome to Donald Trump as the proverbial turd in the punchbowl.  If you aren’t familiar with that particular metaphor, it should be easy to put together. In any event, 2020 started with Trump feeling amazingly triumphant – and at first he thought COVID-19 was going to add to that.

To understand that, you need to understand exactly how Donald John Trump viewed the world. It wasn’t a complex worldview but unless you understand it, you can never understand the motivations that drove Trump to the seemingly insane decisions he frequently made.

Trump was the original ‘Daddy’s Boy’. Some people say that isn’t a thing, but in Trump’s case, it actually was. Donald John Trump was created in a laboratory. His mother’s egg was removed from her body, the nucleus of it was removed, and that nucleus was replaced with a strand of his father’s DNA. ‘Fred Trump’ and his son Donald shared almost identical DNA. As a result of this, ‘Fred’ (I’ll stop using ironic quotes since we all know who Fred really was) put a huge amount of pressure on little Donny.

From the beginning, Donald Trump was told that he was the best and if he didn’t live up to that it was because he wasn’t trying hard enough. There was one person in the world who needed to be pleased with him above all others, his father. Young Donald Trump was encouraged to walk all over his siblings to earn his father’s love, he was praised only when he did something that made his father proud. In general, this meant earning power, prestige, and at the same time – taking power and prestige from those less deserving of it – i.e. everyone except Fred Trump -especially those who were not of the same Germanic heritage.

You would think that the death of Fred Trump would have taken a lot of pressure off of Donald, but it wasn’t the case. Instead he felt like his father was now aware of his past transgressions and there was nothing he could do to hide himself from the ever-judging eye of his deceased dad. Many were and are the evening when Donald John Trump stares into the mirror, looking for the image of his father, hoping that he can finally get a proud word of praise. Trump would sometimes try to speak in his father’s voice and heap compliments on himself – but this always failed and ended with him berating himself for his many failures and finally weeping into the mirror “I’m sorry Papa, please forgive me. I’m sorry I’m such a piece of shit, Papa. Please Papa, please – just kill me, I don’t deserve your love, I only deserve to suffer for being such a dumpkoff of a Trumpkoff.”

When there is only one person (a dead person, no less) who matters to you – that pretty much opens the door to doing whatever you want to the rest of the people in the world. In his world, Trump stood at the pinnacle of a bunch of sub-humans and his dead father stood above him as a sort of unappeasable sun-god that demanded more and more sacrifice. Trump was eager to sacrifice all of those below him – not only was it easier than sacrificing himself, it was fun.

The Russians had video tape of him sodomizing and urinating on prostitutes ranging in age from twelve to sixty – but they would never use it. Trump had tapes of his own and the one thing the Russians would never forgive was learning that their leader was a homosexual. It had taken him time to acquire it, but the U.S. Presidency allows you more power than any other position on the planet. Once he had it, he ‘reset’ the relationship with Russia very quickly. It had freed him from being Putin’s puppet.

It was that action and the helter-skelter series of bizarre diplomatic decisions that followed which led the Russian president to decide on ‘Operation New York’.  Trump in the meantime had acquired a weaponized coronavirus from his friend Kim Jong Un with the intent to release it in Iran. His ridiculously still-principled generals, however refused to deploy the virus without a safeguard – this was why the half-life of the virus had been chemically shortened in the American version. His plan was that later in the year, they would release the virus in the USA and throw the elections into turmoil.

Trump’s plan was simple – his operatives would release the virus in Iran and in Wuhan. Trump and his people knew about the weapons virus lab in Wuhan and by releasing the virus there simultaneously with the release in Iran, they were able to create a situation where the virus could be painted as a ‘Chinese virus’. All eyes would turn to China. With that, the ‘Chinese Virus’ would be on the loose and no one would look twice when he released it in blue states.

Trump hated China more than anywhere (except Hawaii, he hated Hawaii more). He hated himself for desperately desiring the approval of Chinese President Xi Jinping – and he resented the hell out of it. The Chinese had risen out of nowhere from a backwater country full of what he considered worthless peasants to become a challenge to his world dominatory plans. He’d already been sticking it to China with his trade war, the currency war was on the way, and now he was going to halt their economy.

So, as we’ve seen – the Gaia virus was already circulating in Asia and the Western U.S. – which people thought was a particularly bad flue season. The Chinese had already figured out that it was something more and it was around this very moment that both Trump and Putin independently decided to strike. Trump’s virus was staged in Wuhan first and then after a week, agents released it into the cafes of Tehran. Seeing that a virus was loose inspired Putin to pull the trigger because he could easily blame it on the Chinese. His virus was planted in New York, Milan, Paris, and Barcelona several weeks after the Chinese noticed the U.S. virus- and the casualties began piling up immediately.

Trump and his people had expected that their virus would kill millions in China. He absolutely loved the moment when he was able to kick them in the teeth by shutting down air travel from China and other Asian countries. He expected a virus that would last a couple of weeks at which point he would get to offer Xi Jinping a welcome hand from the USA.

The U.S. stock markets were on fire as Trump had his federal reserve pump billions into them. He had effectively manuevered the Democratic Party into nominating Joe Biden as their candidate – a demented old man who only had to speak to discredit himself.  Much like Trump himself but without the power of Trump’s hatred to propel himself forward nor the power of the presidency to cheat and win. Trump was on top of the world.

But at that point, Gaia’s virus started fucking things up. Instead of millions dying, the Chinese seemed to be getting the virus under control. The immunity wasn’t complete – but 4,500 deaths were just a tiny number compared to the millions that were expected. The Iran virus met with less resistance but Gaia’s work had spread there as well – economic, political, and familial relationships between the two countries have been friendly for generations – and as a result, a limited amount of immunity was there from Gaia’s work. 5,700 Iranians died – but the cost would have been millions if Trump’s plan had succeeded.

Putin’s plan, on the other hand – was working far better. The Russian virus had very little competition in New York and Southern Europe – since it was tailor made for fat, diabetic Americans – it worked well on fat, diabetic Europeans as well.  Trump had no idea what was happening.

First, the virus he had sent to China and Iran didn’t do the job it was sent to do – and then it started killing people where he hadn’t sent it. Trump resisted calls to close borders, shut down airlines from Europe, or take any other precaution – he was sure this was his virus and it would die out in a few weeks.  But then, it didn’t. He was losing political capital faster than he could keep it. He was also losing money that he had fought hard to cheat from the American people – the stock markets were crashing – that was ultimately what led him to act.

Trump ordered his evil  Vizier, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin to start printing money and spending it in the stock markets as fast as possible. He was damned if he would let his ill gotten gains fall into the hands of some other villain. He shut down flights from Europe, ordered governors to shut down their states, and began looking at ways he could use this crisis to shore up his power.

The triple virus whammy had way more staying power than he had expected and powerful blue state governors were using the absence of Trump to speak to ever larger audiences. Trump had to get in front of this – so he gathered up the smart people he hadn’t yet fired or discredited and forced them all to stand on the stage with him and look like hypocrites as they made recommendations that none of them followed.

The American people were glad to see their leader standing in front of them, but quickly realized they were watching a madman as he praised a meme of himself playing the fiddle while the country burned, made impossible proclamations like “We will be open by Easter” or “The power of the President is absolute power” or “Isn’t there some way we can spray sunshine or disinfectant on the victims?” It only got worse from there. His orange face (made orange by experimental vaccines and makeup) got oranger and oranger and the American people became more and more aware of just how insane he actually was. Even his diehard supporters, the ones who had cheered when he said he could go out in the street and shoot a stranger and they would still follow him, began to have doubts.

Still, they took his lead and started gathering in churches, having protests, and refusing to wear protective gear. No one could accuse them of being smart, but they were loyal to their racist ideologies, that was for certain.

Trump’s Russian handler (and wife), Melania told Putin that Trump had totally gone over the rails and there was no more handling him. He was a madman on the loose and no one was in charge of him any longer. She tried to weather the storm and protect their son Baron (who also carried some Stalin DNA, by the way) – the heir apparent of the entire Trump empire. Ivanka knew this – which was why she had worked so hard to build her own brands and marry into another fortune. Don Jr. and Eric had no clue – they thought they were going to be in the will but they were essentially in the same boat as Fred, Jr. and Robert had been in the earlier generation. Tiffany, like Trump’s sisters – had seen the writing on the wall early and did her best to make a life on her own.

The coronavirus was fucking up his plans – he was losing money, he was losing respect, and his enemies  Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk were all getting richer while he lost money – showing once again that they were better than he was. Trump once again started attacking Amazon – this time through the post office. He would destroy the post office if it meant he could knock Amazon and Bezos down a few notches.

The world according to Donald J. Trump was that he was the chosen one and the whole world was out to get him. He wasn’t chosen to save anyone or protect anything – he was chosen to be the best – that was it and if it cost everyone else so that he was alone, just one big orange man that was incapable of zipping his own pants – that was fine. He was going to win.

There were just a couple of problems – he’d pissed off the planet, she’d recruited Bob, and Trump made a terrible miscalculation late in April that changed the odds considerably – he decided to start fucking with the post office. Nobody fucks with the post office.

 

Chapter 9 – Don’t Mess with the Post Office

 

On April 24th, Donald Trump said “The Post Office is a joke.” It wasn’t the first time he had said such things but this time, he had gone too far. In his quest to one-up Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and The Washington Post (a paper that was notoriously critical of him), Trump was going after the U.S. Post Office. “Every time they deliver a package for Amazon, they lose money.” Again, it wasn’t the first time he had said such things – but it was the context.

The United States was in a self-induced  financial crisis over shutting down the entire country in an panicked effort to control the spread of Covid-19. Bailout money was being handed out on an unprecedented scale. Trump was not against bailing out companies that he or his family had invested in – but when it came to bailing out the post office, he refused. Bailing out the post office was the same thing as handing Jeff Bezos a big fat check. A check that would make him that much more successful and wealthy than Trump. Unthinkable.

Technically, his advisors had told him to leave Bezos and Amazon alone. Hanging the U.S. Pentagon’s JEDI contract over in front of Amazon had finally gotten them to sign off on the MAGA pact – but things were still tenuous. Technically, the JEDI contract had already gone to Microsoft’s Azure cloud division – but there were deals in the works to strip a large portion of that away from them and hand it to Amazon. Trump hated the whole thing. He was trying to find a way he could attack Amazon and then any he had done so.

He’d attacked Amazon with some success in 2018 which had gradually eroded away. He’d forced ‘his generals’ in the Pentagon to give the JEDI contract to Microsoft instead of Amazon and he never missed an opportunity to take a swipe at The Washington Post. None of it had impacted Bezo’s portion as the richest (and most successful) man in the world which Trump took as a direct insult.

So, when the post office approached the treasury and requested financial assistance to continue paying pensions, delivering the mail, and doing everything else the post office did – Trump didn’t see a foundational institution of U.S. history – instead he saw a chance to stick it to that fucking Bezos.

He had a secondary reason, that actually might have been more compelling than the primary but which carried less emotional ammunition – the Democrats were increasingly clamoring for a mail in vote in the 2020 election – something that would hurt all the ‘traditional’ election rigging that all of his cronies were engaged in.

The USPS Postal Union almost immediately began a counter campaign “US Mail Not For Sale.” Postal workers across the nation began mobilizing and organizing on a scale not seen before. The Postmaster General (incidentally, the second highest paid Federal employee – second only to the President himself) unsealed the plan which had been prepared for a moment such as this. The plan had been started by Ben Franklin himself and further developed by every Postmaster General since – it was simply called ‘Re-Orientation Plan 1-75″  or ROP-1-75 the 75 stood for each term of a Postmaster General. Megan J. Brennan was the first female Postmaster General, but it was the 75th term of the office. Ben Franklin had been first.

Within 24 hours, the post office was on the largest hiring spree in the history of the USA. The majority of new hires were military veterans with combat experience. The justification for this hiring spree was to deal with increased home delivery as a result of stay at home orders and people using services such as Amazon, Ebay, etc.

The Union presented a petition to congress which demanded “urgent and ongoing financial support from the federal government during this public health and economic crisis.” In the petition, they documented the extremely high number of veterans who relied on the post office to take care of their families. It was a threat, but congress (and no one else) actually saw it as such.

Trump was holding a $10 million dollar loan over the post office while he tried to get them to hurt his rivals. The Postal Service was having none of it. Postal training took on some new and unique characteristics. It was customary to train new postal workers in how to deal with an active shooter, dogs, or other dangerous situations – but with the new situation on the ground – a whole new threat level was included under the justification that stay at home orders were making people a little stir-crazy.

Tax day had been pushed back from April 14th to July 14th. While a large number of Americans filed electronically – there were still a majority who used the post office to send in their taxes. This little fact might have been an important one for Trump to remember when he began to attack the post office – that and the fact that all of the campaign materials he was using the pandemic as an excuse to send out to voters on the government’s dime – they were all supposed to be delivered by the post office as well. He would have been surprised to find that most of the cards with his name and picture on them were still sitting in bags marked ‘delivery delayed due to COVID-19’.


After that first encounter on Bob’s porch, Bob and Zeta became good friends. In the early days of the pandemic, before social distancing came into play, Zeta would come over on his off days and the two would smoke weed and talk about the state of the world. Zeta had been a psychonaut before starting to work at the post office and much to Bob’s surprise – he knew quite a bit about salvia.

“She’s pretty well documented, man.” Zeta said to Bob after hearing about his salvia experience with Gaia. “She appears to people either dressed in white or green. Some people think she is the Virgin Mary while others claim she is a Mazatec goddess. I thought I saw her once, but every time I’ve smoked salvia – I’ve felt her there. Tell me more.”

Bob told Zeta everything. When he finished, he waited to hear his new friend express either concern or a desire to no longer be friends. Instead, Zeta was all in.

“Yes. I knew it. I knew that motherfucker was the antichrist. I could feel it in my bones. To be honest, all black people, we all know it. Maybe all brown people – or all people. The people that choose to follow him – they aren’t just delusional man, they’re fucking evil. It’s like they aren’t even real people anymore – it’s like they’ve given him their souls and now they can only do what he tells them to do.”

Bob wasn’t surprised to hear this, but what came next was a shocker.

“She gave you a mission man. You have to take it. We have to do this. We need to clean you up and get you presentable, man – because no one is going to follow the lead or take orders from some dirty hippie,” Zeta looked at Bob with something like shock at his own words. “Sorry, I mean, you do kind of fit the bill for the dirty hippie thing.”

Bob had never influenced anyone else to do anything in his life. He had a shocked look on his face which Zeta had misinterpreted – he wasn’t shocked at being called a dirty hippie- that was how he self-identified. He was shocked at the realization that he was no longer a lone unit in the world. Zeta had joined him, he was part of a team – and not only that – Zeta had acknowledged him as the leader of the team – and seemed to think he had it in him to lead more people. This was shocking!

Bob didn’t know, but he had been changed in many ways by his encounter with Gaia. She had dosed him with a huge level of charisma and an infectious ability to influence other people. If Bob had come out of the trip and engaged in becoming the best vacuum or used car salesman in the world, he would have succeeded. If he would have entered politics or religion – his success would have been astounding. Bob was a slacker though – and that was part of the reason she had chosen him. Most leaders lead by shaping the views of their followers but Bob would lead by letting his followers shape the views of their movement. He was charisma without an agenda – something that is so rare in the world that it doesn’t even have a name. There were leaders who had tapped into it before – but none of them had the same historical circumstances, nor true urgency that existed in the world Bob was in.

“Cleaned up?” Bob asked. “What sort of look should I go for?”

“Let’s workshop this,” Zeta said. “I’d like you to meet some friends of mine.”

When Gaia set Bob loose in the world, it was a dangerous gamble. She knew that he was a ticking time bomb and if he had been recruited by racists, religionists, or any other group with a negative political agenda – he would have become a powerful force for evil. Gaia, however, knew a thing or two about balance – the world was far too heavily weighted towards the negative at the time she met Bob. The universe always sought balance and a sense of equilibrium. Gaia had high confidence that Bob would end up being a heavy hitter on the side of the light. The world would bring Bob to where he needed to be and he would act as a weight on the side of goodness. She knew this was the outcome, but at the same time – even when you are a conscious planet – it is impossible to know the future. Playing dice with the universe is always a gamble because there are no known outcomes – only probabilities.

 

Chapter 10: Our Dear Leader

Zeta’s friends were mostly postal workers. They instantly clicked with Bob – as just about anyone would do now that he was a charismatic magnet. In the early days of the pandemic, they met in cafes and restaurants. One of them suggested they should start taking walks together, an idea which Bob liked. Once Bob liked it, they all liked it. You might think that a postman wouldn’t want to do more walking when his route was done, but the truth was, most mail deliverers loved the long walks that the post office afforded them and they were ready for more. Bob met dozens of new friends who introduced him to dozens more. The daily walks became more like group outings.

Bob’s makeover wasn’t extreme. His hair and beard were trimmed to an ‘older hipster’ style. As for his clothing style- which had tended to be shorts, jeans, or tie-dye t-shirts – that had to go away – but it didn’t change into Brooks Brother’s suits. Bob now wore chinos and black t-shirts and if it was too cold for a t-shirt, he would throw on a stripped down Eisenhower-style postal jacket that lacked all the mail man insignia. It was a vaguely military look that hinged on a Northwest back to the earth theme. His Birkenstocks had been replaced with a pair of black sneakers.The daily walks started shaping his body into something that looked less like a sack of potatoes and more like a middle-aged man.

Just weeks into his friendship with Zeta, Bob realized that he didn’t want to smoke weed any longer – he preferred to have his mood and thoughts sitting in a more transparent part of his brain – he didn’t feel the need to cloud his thoughts and his daily spikes of inspiration were far more powerful now than the surges of color that used to pass for thinking.

In the weeks before stay at home orders were put into place, Zeta suggested that they set up a Discord server where Bob could meet and interact with more friends and friends of friends who were being brought into his orbit of influence. Zeta called it ‘PostBox’. Bob was having fun meeting people, sharing ideas, and most importantly – having ideas shared with him. The best part about it was that ideas would come to him and then in his mind they would be blended together into a sort of cosmic idea smoothie which he would then share with others and then the process would begin again. It was non-stop but here was one example of how it went.

“What if we all just stopped paying taxes?” someone asked in the Discord group.

Bob liked the idea “I’ve never paid taxes,” he told the group. ” Still, it’s always bothered me that all that money that other people are paying would go towards institutions, and people that are enslaving us.”

“Yeah, it would be great if we could send the money from taxes to where we wanted to send it.” This came from a woman named Dee who was a postal worker in Denver – about a thousand miles away from where Bob and Zeta were in Sacramento. The Discord group had grown to about 1200 members and each of them kept inviting more. Bob would login to group voice chat each night and look at the numbers as they got bigger.

“Well, you do work for the post office,” Bob joked. “Can’t you send it wherever you want?”

Everyone laughed but it inspired a comment from Reggie, a postal clerk in the Greater Boston Area. “You know, we had a clerk who accidentally mis-spelled the street on a change of address form – for three months we were printing out and sticking labels that said Peach Street instead of Peace Street. I’m pretty sure those kind of mistakes happen all the time.”

“That’s hilarious,” Bob laughed. “Too bad we’re not hackers – we could hack into the servers and really cause some chaos.”

To be clear, at this time – no one was plotting revolution. They were just a big group of people who all really liked Bob and enjoyed spending time together – with him. It wasn’t like Bob had told everyone about Gaia and Salvia and his mission to destroy Donald Trump – he’d told Zeta and a couple of other ‘woke’ new friends – but mostly no one knew why this had become their new favorite time of the day, it just had.

A guy who hadn’t said anything before suddenly jumped in on the text boards. “Hey guys,” screen name postalnerd typed “That’s not funny – it’s hard enough for those of us in the USPS technology division to make things work the way they are supposed to. We don’t need you hacking into our systems. If you did that, we might have to restart the COBOL mainframe – lol \_O_/”

“Hey postalnerd, there are actually people in the Postal IT division? I thought it was all run by robots. Lol. ” Dee asked. “My nephew is the tech lead at a startup here in Denver – can you get him a job in your division when his startup fails?”

“Sounds good to me,” postalnerd wrote “Geeks need to take care of each other. You should invite him to the boards here. As a matter of fact, maybe we should start a special IT section.”

“Oh, I’d invite him but he doesn’t work for the post office (yet)” Dee responded.

“You don’t have to work for the USPS to be here, do you?” Bob was genuine in asking – genuinely naive because they were all there because of him. He was concerned he was going to get kicked out though “I mean, I don’t work for the post office.”

This inspired a lot of LOLs on the boards and then a fairly serious debate about whether there should be any sort of restrictions on who could join. Ultimately, it was decided that the boards should be open to anyone that was invited by a member of the boards. postalnerd set up an IT section which he/she called ‘GeekBox’. Dee’s nephew and quite a few more tech minded folks were invited to it. Generally, postalnerd ran GeekBox and took it upon him/herself to come and update the regular group (and Bob) in the PostBox. The success of GeekBox inspired the creation of a dozen other ‘divisions’ under PostBox.

PostBox now had GeekBox, MoneyBox for finance professionals, VetBox for those who had served or were serving in the military, MedBox for those who wanted to discuss healthcare or medical issues, LunchBox for the foodies, and even SchoolBox for people to talk about kids, schools, college, and education. There were many more boxes and each of them formed independently and for some reason – probably because it was what postalnerd had done – they all came and reported what they were doing, news, events, ideas etc to Bob. Bob never asked them to – it just happened, organically.

Since there was a lot of ‘noise’ in the main group as thousands began to join every day, postalnerd set up a private server called ‘BoxTops’ where box leaders would present any developments – to Bob who was invited to the server as ‘owner’.

When the stay at home orders began to be issued – Bob had around twenty new friends in his Sacramento neighborhood of Arden Arcade. Somehow, they had overcome his fear and distrust of the USPS and made him a brother-in-arms. When every other person in the country was told to stay home, the postal workers were still going out, door to door, delivering mail and gathering news. It wasn’t always Zeta who came to Bob’s porch, sometimes it was Phil, other days it was Mae – but they were all friends now. Behind their masks, they smiled when Bob came out to greet them. They stood on the stoop and updated him about local politics and developments in the lockdown orders. He heard firsthand about Governor Gavin Newsom’s plans for the State of California. Bob didn’t realize it, but he was one of the best informed people in the world in regards to new developments in the pandemic, politics, and power. People don’t think about it, but the post office is everywhere.

With the advent of the stay at home orders, the Discord Server exploded. Bob found it harder and harder to interact with everyone who sent him messages – but he tried to respond to as many as he had time for. Some of these were friendly hellos, more and more started to feel like fan-letters, and a few of them crossed the lines to become either terrifying or inspiring. On the general PostBox board – users gave a name to when Bob would respond to a new user’s comment – they called it a ‘BobFlash’ and it was a sort of badge of honor as in:

Congratulations PenguinGirl, you’ve been BobFlashed!

Bob thought the whole thing was silly, but it made him more considerate and careful in his replies and responses. Gradually, his time on the Discord came to be spent more on the BoxTops section and less on the general board – but he always tried to spend at least twenty minutes to an hour on the general boards, responding to newbies, talking with online friends who hadn’t migrated to the Box Departments. The growth of PostBox was astounding, but more astounding was the organic way that it came to be organized. The BoxTops assigned users to scour the general boards for new recruits, each BoxTop head found themselves in the position of managing hundreds or thousands of users – and as such they had to appoint captains, lieutenants, and sergeants-major. – this rank structure came from VetBox.

The head of Vetbox was a Seattle postman who called himself ColonelPotter on the boards. He shared his organizational structure on the BoxTops board.

“Since I’m the Colonel, my second in command will be a Lieutenant Colonel. Captains will be in charge of specific sections and lieutenants will act as their secretary and assistant. Sergeants-Major are in charge of moderation and ‘boots on the ground’ operations. I know that this might be difficult for those who served in different branches to get used to – but you’re going to have to.”

A surprising number of the BoxTops had been U.S. Marines and found this system to be comfortable. Those who didn’t have a military background – learned it. Those who didn’t like it – quickly changed their mind when Bob said “That’s so cool. I’m a general conscientious objector to war – but this seems like a good way to organize.” His comment inspired a lot of laughter and the BoxTops all agreed that from that point forward Bob would carry the honorary rank of CO General which was short for conscientious objector general and was shortened further to the honorific Cogen.

In a little less than five months, Bob had gone from a tripped out hippie to the leader of an Army – but he had no idea. Bob was enjoying what was happening, he knew that it felt good and he had never felt so happy, but if you had told him he was the leader of a movement, the commanding general of an army, the father of a revolution – he would have laughed merrily and told you that you were crazy.

There were wheels in motion and events were moving faster and faster. It was at this point, on April 24th, that Donald Trump insulted the post office and pushed the process into high gear. Bob’s work was already moving forward (mostly without him noticing) but when Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan instigated ROP-1-75 – things moved into high gear.

 

Chapter 11 – The Power of Human Contortion

The first months of the pandemic were a surreal journey for everyone who survived them. By May, there were over three million cases in the world and nearly a quarter million of those who had caught it were dead. The entire world went on lockdown (except for Sweden where people responsibly did that which they needed to do despite the lack of a Big Brother telling issuing and enforcing orders). Schools were closed, billions of jobs were lost, martial law was enacted in many countries – and not surprisingly, those countries that were heading towards totalitarianism – accelerated their fascist march.

There were many tragic and beautiful moments. An Italian city on lockdown coming together and singing from their windows, healthcare workers without adequate protective gear flying to distant regions to risk their lives saving strangers, and the U.S. Navy Captain of an aircraft carrier who sacrificed his career so that his men wouldn’t be abandoned as the virus ravaged them in the confined quarters of the ship. There was the public tragedy of the dying and dead – especially in places like the Lombardy region of Italy and New York City, where mass graves were dug in parks and loved ones corpses were stored in refrigerator trucks when graveyards, crematoriums, and morgues exceeded their capacity. There was also the semi-private tragedy as students were suddenly denied classrooms and parents were fired, laid off, furloughed, or just ‘let go’. And there was the private tragedy as families decided which bills to pay or not pay, who would venture out to buy food, and in many cases who would eat and who would go hungry.

In places like India and the Philippines, a lockdown order essentially meant a starvation order. In the United States – people complained far louder and for less reason – generally. The U.S. and Australia had food and supply shortages in the early days – things like protective masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper flew off shelves and were hoarded by the scared and the greedy. Profiteers marked prices up as high as they could and sold their goods on Amazon, Ebay, and Facebook. As the dying continued and grew in scope, governments made a show of cracking down – but really the only cracking down that initially needed to be done was amongst the most desperate – those who needed food or medicine.

Trump had initially called for the American virus to be a genocidal killer but heroes in the lab, just a few of those many who silently resisted his evil and perhaps saved us all, engineered the virus to affect only those who had reached adulthood. The American virus was designed to spare children – despite Trump’s wishes. The Russian virus also functioned that way – not by design but because it was built to attack the obese and infirm, which generally meant it bypassed children. Gaia’s coronavirus infected all who came in contact with it, but the mortality rate was low because a healthy immune system generally survived the harsh viral attacks.

Months into the pandemic – some of the benefits became clear. People noticed deer and foxes walking through their neighborhoods, polluted air cleared up in cities where commuters usually drove gas guzzling cars to stressed out work places, the oceans and lakes turned clear. Wildlife was thriving. Bees which had been on the verge of extinction reproduced in fantastic numbers. Manatees, dolphins, and whales again felt free to explore areas that had been death traps before. A couple months of reduced human excess was all that it took for the planet to begin recovery. The humans too felt something shift. Parents who had only seen their children between work and school suddenly were faced with the people they were responsible for. Parents had to become teachers. People had to stay at home, they had to look at themselves and each other.

Sociologists said that a record number of divorces, domestic abuse, and other family atrocities would result from people being on lockdown – and to some extent, these predictions proved true but not to the levels that the scientists had expected. In fact, most relationships improved. A big part of this was because capitalism itself had been shut down. Humans, who are, after all, just brilliant apes – had months to rediscover that. Just as the dolphins were rediscovering inlets, bays, rivers, and coves – the humans were rediscovering their own nature which had been twisted and bent into a perverse eat-work-sleep-die form. Mothers and fathers rediscovered their children, children discovered their parents (often for the first time) as they embraced art, music, creativity, and finding ways to enjoy their time together instead of simply marking calendars and looking at clocks.

There was astounding unemployment. Trump, of course, used the pandemic as an opportunity to promote himself. He made sure that his name was on the relief checks sent out to help people while also making sure that the checks were the minimum amount possible – the big bucks went to bailing out his companies and the companies of his donors and supporters. Not content to have his name only on the checks, he also had the treasury modify form letters that made it appear as if he had personally sent the money to taxpayers. That was how he felt about it, so he might as well make it reality. The letter was a formality that had to be sent in order to detail the payments and where they came from.Trump saw an opportunity to ingratiate himself to the voters and over the objections of his lawyers inserted several phrases containing the word “I” which very much made it seem as if he were sending money from his own accounts. Something, by the way, which he would never do. He would rather watch people die.

Those ‘stimulus’ checks were a lifeline for many families. Rent still had to be paid and groceries still had to be bought. It wasn’t enough for more than a month or two at most though. State unemployment systems floundered and failed. Many of them were still running on software from the 1980s and the influx of millions of claims were impossible to process.

Financial concerns were undermining the joy of being human that many people were rediscovering or as was often the case – discovering for the first time. Capitalism had always been a tricky master. On the one hand, it raised the ‘standard of living’ for broad swaths of the population but on the other it took away broader liberties and freedoms. “Have a car,” the banker said “Enjoy, we’ll help you finance it.” And with a single step – the worker was locked into the system. The capitalization of medicine created a similar trap. “Have a baby,” the doctor would say. “Buy a house,” said the realtor. Family, home, and career had all become ways to keep workers in the system, too busy to complain, and too sedated with gadgets and stress to mount a viable resistance.

Apes weren’t made to operate on a system of non-stop productivity. During those first three months of the pandemic, people learned that without overtly knowing what they were learning. They found the time to play, learn, sit, contemplate, exercise (without the frenetic anxiety of a gym), and love one another. It was a horrible time but for many, it was the best of times. There was an internal confliction they could not understand. They were happy at a time that they shouldn’t have been and they couldn’t admit it.

And of course – it couldn’t continue. Capitalism thrives on busy-ness and business requires devotion and attention. The economy had to move back into action or it might never recover. Everyone knew that and everyone said it, but no one thought to ask “Why should it? What happens if it doesn’t?” That was unthinkable in a society built on greed and profit. Behind the scenes forces went into play – not just to restart the economy, but also to restart the Russian virus.

Putin hadn’t expected his country to be hit by coronavirus and when it did, his first reaction was panic. Gradually, as the Gaia virus spread, he realized that it wasn’t going to be another Russia or New York situation in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Looking at the situation in the USA, his scientists explained that the lockdown procedures were working. Americans were flattening the curve by staying home, limiting exposure, and taking precautionary measures. It had to stop.

“What can we do?” he asked the head of his foreign intelligence.

“Let’s use the Trump voters,” was the unanimous suggestion. If Donald Trump had still been his puppet, Putin would have objected. Using Trump voters was a dangerous tactic that would almost certainly result in Trump losing the popular vote (again) when the elections of 2020 happened.  However, since Trump had gone rogue, was no longer in control of the Kremlin, and his election wouldn’t necessarily benefit Putin or his oligarchs any further – it seemed like an easy fix. At heart, Putin was a communist (though one corrupted by power and wealth) so the idea of killing a huge number of pro-capitalist buffoons was appealing on more than one level.

They dubbed it “Operatsiya Amerikanskaya Svoboda” or, in English “Operation American Freedom.” It was exceedingly easy to put into place. Using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – Russian cyber trolls created and promoted conspiracy theories about how the lockdowns in American cities were violations of constitutional rights and the erosion of American freedoms. They created fake movements and protests where people demanded the right to return to work and the right to return to how the world had been. It was MAGA all over again – sometimes using the same slogans and operatives. They promoted racism against Asians, Latinos, and Blacks by spreading stories about how the Chinese had started the virus, illegal immigrants were bringing the virus across borders, and African-Americans were more likely to spread the virus. They handed off protests to actual local organizers who were more than eager to call the lockdowns a conspiracy. They called it Q, 5G, and Article 21 – among other things. Since the campaign was rushed – they utilized old tired slogans, in some cases recycling leftist slogans into right wing slogans such as “My body, my choice” which had been a left wing feminist rally cry and now was coopted into a right wing rally cry.

The Russian campaign exceeded expectations with tens of thousands of ‘lockdown protestors’ crowding into spaces without social distancing. While they didn’t have enough active agents to introduce the Russian virus into every crowd, they were able to get it into many. Fat American MAGA patriots crowded around state capitols all over the country while Putin and his advisors laughed and ate candy corn (Russians love candy corn, a fact that no one can explain).

The best part was that Trump and Republican lawmakers, always ready to pander to their base, picked up the rally cries and amplified them. As a final insult that almost caused him to choke on his candy corn, Putin suggested that they set the largest rallies for May 1st. May 1st, commonly called May Day around the world is International Workers Day, the most important holiday in Communism and Socialism.  The United States had banned the holiday and created a watered down ‘Labor Day’ in September because of riots and deaths associated with it during the early 1900s. Putin was bringing it back with a little help from social media and a bunch of stupid fat capitalist dogs.

 

Chapter 12 – An Army Assembled

At this point in our story, there is a lot going on. The entire world is under lockdown, three strains of coronavirus are attacking the human population. The Russians are trying to destroy America. Donald Trump is trying to pull himself further up while using the combined wealth and magnitude of the United States of America, the MAGA companies, and his own ruthless organization – while trying at the same time to destroy the heads of the MAGA companies, the poor people, people of color, non-Christians, and  many more with their own power. Bob was stumbling his way into becoming a revolutionary leader, the U.S. Post Office was covertly assembling the largest guerrilla army ever conceived – and the planet’s consciousness was trying to prevent a climate change/mass extinction by becoming involved in a fight against fascism, corporate capitalism, and negative consciousness pools that were turning humans from a pretty terrible species to an even worse one.  Yes, there’s a lot going on…

But wait, there’s more…

The first months of the pandemic made it impossible for any of the politicians and power figures in the United States to ignore a truth that had been staring them in the face for almost four years – Donald Trump wasn’t going anywhere. It didn’t matter if he lost the electoral college, the popular vote, or both – he was not going to step aside. While Democrats had impeached him, he had shored up his defenses in the Republican Party, the courts, and the departments of Justice, Interior, Commerce, Transportation, Treasury, Energy, Agriculture, and Homeland Security. He had gutted the leadership in the Departments of Defense, the State Department, and Labor. The Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development were all but meaningless at this point as his appointees destroyed them without his even having to suggest anything. He had unconfirmed appointees running most things and when they displeased him, he could fire them without notice and put another loyalist in their place. The Post Office was outside of his control – as it had been taken down from the cabinet level in 1971 by President Richard Nixon who had been afraid the Postmaster General was spying on him.

Within the Armed Forces of the United States, there was a growing discontent among the non-white troops as they recognized that their communities were being discriminated against. Promotions had turned subtly racist after the first year of Trump’s presidency with white soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines being raised up with more and more frequency. This, led to an interesting situation as more and more troops of color were subtly encouraged to leave the service. Without ‘hot’ wars going, the mostly white upper leadership had little use for cannon fodder. None of this was said overtly, of course, but the troops knew what was going on.

For those who were dedicated ‘lifers’ working towards a retirement at 20 years or later – this was problematic. Many of them were offered early retirement while others were encouraged to leave the active duty military and become part of their state’s National Guard. Even after the deployments of the past 30 years where reservists had been activated for longer and longer periods – there was still a feeling amongst active duty service members that the ‘weekend warriors’ were an inferior part of the armed forces. So, when guys who had served 18 years or more were ‘encouraged’ to finish up their terms of service in the guard – it built a shitload of resentment. A lot of them left the armed forces all together and served the last couple of years in federal civilian jobs – like the post office, the FAA, or working in the prison system as correctional officers.

An interesting division of power lies between the states and the federal government in the USA. Governors have a huge amount of executive authority within their states and while federal law is the ‘law of the land’, states are not under obligation to comply with anything that isn’t written into the constitution of the United States. A leftover from the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars was a deep distrust of federal power and thus – each state was actually an autonomous entity within a confederation of states who agreed upon a shared set of rules.

The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief of the U.S. armed forces. Each Governor is the Commander in Chief of their states National Guard.  This strange state of affairs came about in 1878 after governors of the former Confederate States of America used their political clout to have the 7th Cavalry (and all other federal troops) disempowered to enforce the constitution within the confines of the United States of America. Essentially, the 7th Cavalry had been created to make sure that African Americans in the former confederacy were not being treated like 2nd class citizens. The law that ended it was called the Posse Comitatus Act.

It was the later ‘Dick Act’ (I”m not joking) that allowed Governors to use state militias, now called National Guard within their own states. An agreement between the states and the federal government allows the U.S. government to ‘federalize’ National Guard troops in return for paying for the training and equipment of those troops – an expense which used to fall on the states. This is the reason that state troops ‘reservists’ go through the same training as federal troops ‘active duty’.

Every day, Donald Trump demonstrated just what kind of human being he was, just how much responsibility he felt towards states that weren’t ‘loyal’ to him, and where his loyalties really lay. No surprise that during this chaos there were those who were looking at what it would mean to secede from his country. If Donald Trump was going to continue to rule, there were more than a few governors who began looking at alternatives to remaining a part of the United States.

One of those governors was Gavin Newsom of California. Newsom was part of a political dynasty which some called a political mafia. Four San Francisco families have controlled California, the world’s 5th largest economy, for most of the past fifty years. Newsom was the former Mayor of San Francisco and inherited the governorship from his father’s good friend Jerry Brown, who had taken it from Ronald Reagan back in the 1970s after his father Pat Brown was displaced by Reagan. Newsom’s aunt, Nancy Pelosi was the powerful Speaker of the House – third in line for the Presidency in the event that something should happen to Donald Trump and his Vice President Mike Pence. The three families were also deeply entwined with Senator Diane Feinstein – heiress of another family that had gotten wealthy from their political connections. It was the Newsom, Brown, Pelosi, and Feinstein families who had controlled California for decades. They were not about to let some third rate carnival barker like Trump take any part of their sovereignty. Newsom was making plans.

California has always maintained armed checkpoints between neighbor states. These are called ‘Agricultural Inspection Points’ but in truth they are militarized borders. As Pelosi and Trump came into more and more conflict in Washington, D.C., Pelosi had briefed her nephew and the other families about the danger that Trump posed. Trump had never managed to get a foothold in California – but he wanted one. Every time he came to the state, embarrassing situations. Trump had managed to buy 30% of the Bank of America Center in San Francisco (his share valued at almost 1/2 a billion dollars) but he still wasn’t welcome in the city and despite owning a mansion in Beverly Hills and the Trump National Golf Club in Los Angeles – he was still greeted with jeers and boos when he set foot in the city. Donald Trump hated California and he wanted to bring it to it’s knees – the problem was, California as a state was more powerful than he was – even as the President of the United States.

When Trump began to go full dictator, Newsom’s California was going to be ready. In addition, his administration had been engaging in good old fashioned state craft by developing agreements, treaties, and working relationships with the governors of Washington, Oregon, New York, and Nevada. He’d also managed to make inroads with Alaska’s Republican Governor as Trump began to trample on state rights during the pandemic.

Newsom had three planned prongs of attack. First, the tech gatekeepers in Silicon Valley were Californians first and Americans second (with the exception of Larry Ellison and many of the venture capitalist firms). Second, Newsom cultivated powerful relationships with the leadership of the California National Guard. Finally, California had independent trade and immigration agreements with Mexico, Canada, Japan, and China – and these opened the door to other agreements.

When Gavin Newsom activated the California National Guard, he had no intention of ever deactivating them – in fact, he planned on expanding them.

Chapter 13 – The Invisible Fleet

There’s not much that is more invisible than a postman. Like other delivery drivers, taxi drivers, and utility workers, they can go anywhere and do anything. No one really pays attention to the invisible fleet as it moves around the country at will and does the essential work that keeps things going. During the pandemic there was a lot of talk about ‘essential workers’ and it was no surprise to the USPS that people usually mentioned store clerks, healthcare workers, plumbers, cops, and firemen – and completely forgot about the postal service.

Megan Brennan, the USPS Postmaster General didn’t mind – in fact, she liked it. She was a tough as nails woman who had put in her licks over 33 years prior to moving into the executive leadership of the world’s largest private logistics organization. The Post Office had been shadow banking for years and during that time had made some rather peculiar investments from the sidelines. The Postal Union was one of the largest private investors in Academi, formerly known as Blackwater – a mercenary for hire security contractor. This gave Brennan unique access to a level of intelligence that was usually reserved for heads of state. The USPS was also a major investor in other security contractors such as Triple Canopy, Aegis Defense Services, Defion International, Andrews International, International Intelligence LTD, as well as Pinkerton, Brinks, ADT, Securitas, and Booz Allen Hamilton. All of these companies provided paid on demand services to the private sector that were equal to or better than those provided by their government counterparts.

The USPS pension fund is gargantuan – especially since a 2006 law had required that it be funded 75 years in advance. Since that time, Brennan had been building a shadow fund that was heavily invested in private sector security contractors while building a public fund that was more traditional. While the traditional pension fund did what it was supposed to, the shadow fund bought influence, information, and favors.

The USPS postal fleet of delivery vehicles consisted of mostly Grumman LLV (long life vehicle) that people usually associate with the post office. Like mail carriers – people tended not to notice the LLVs and when they did they thought of them as odd, funny, and quirky – but in truth, these were serious heavy duty vehicles and Brennan had spent years working with engineers to develop a plan to turn them into military grade vehicles. If there was an apocalyptic event, the postal service was prepared. Changing a mild mannered LLV into a Mad Max vehicle wasn’t the stretch you might think. The LLV was built on a Chevy S-10 Blazer Chasis and had a workhorse GM Iron Duke engine, an exceptionally tight turn radius, and low gearing that was made to haul cargos up to 1000 pounds in any conditions and any grade. If one were to add light armor, gun ports, and tire shields – they would be more efficient in a gorilla war than the average hummer. Of course, it wasn’t an everything type of vehicle so in 2015 Brennan had put out an RFP for new designs and then selected a number of private engineering firms to build the new fleet. By the time COVID-19 entered the picture she had selected two amphibious units, three motorcycle units, an autonomous big rig, and Tesla’s Cybertruck which was slightly modified for postal use.

The USPS didn’t have a navy or an Air Force, but when it came to an army – the ranks of the post office were filled with veterans who had done it all. And besides, what was the point of creating a private Air Force when you could just buy into one? Actually, Brennan and the USPS had bought into two of them. Air USA, owned by Megan’s friend Don Kirlin had the largest private fleet of fighter aircraft in the world. With everything from Russian Mig aircraft to a fleet of state of the technological art FA-4 Hornets that were acquired in early 2020 from the Australian RAF which was upgrading it’s entire Air Force. Her brother-in-law, Joe Ford was the Chief Executive of another private Air Force, Draken International out of Lakeland, Florida with over 70 tactical military aircraft. Both Draken and Air USA were more than 40% owned by the shadow USPS pension fund which meant that Megan was the majority voice on both.

The reason both companies existed was to engage with Airborne Adversary Support for the US armed forces – they played the bad guys in training exercises. It was called Joint Terminal Attack Controller training known as JTAC for short.

The USPS had always preferred to contract out to other companies with airplanes and had routinely been using passenger airlines to transport mail for decades. In fact, far from competing with UPS/Fedex – the USPS was actually their largest customer and the shadow pension fund was a huge investor.

One problem with the shadow fund was that the money had to be accounted for – which was the reason that the post office looked like such a huge bleeder when the books were examined.

So, as you can see, the USPS had an army and an Air Force – but as for a Navy, Brennan’s father had been a Navy Commander and one thing he had always told her was that the Navy was a leftover from an earlier age. In the event of a real conflict, logistics would need to be done by air and ships would be sitting ducks to any enemy with advanced enough missile or air capability. She wasn’t worried about having a navy.

Why was she doing it? Why was she building this invisible army and shadow military complex? The answer was simple. Brennan was a patriot. She’d always believed that the only thing that would save the United States from eventual tyranny was a well armed militia. She wasn’t some 2nd Amendment gun nut – though she did have a huge collection of firearms. No, government forces would always be able to outgun even the most heavily armed militia because private citizens or groups who armed themselves to the level required for self defense, would immediately be identified as a threat and eliminated. It happened in Waco, Ruby Ridge, and Antelope, Oregon when the Rajneeshis began arming themselves. It happened in hundreds of other little enclaves that you never heard about as well.

No, the 2nd Amendment wouldn’t save America, but the USPS might. Megan Brennan would be ready if her country needed her. Even more impressive than the armed postal service was the Postal Intelligence Service. Think about it – the Post Office, knew EVERYTHING. Mail carriers go everywhere and everyone gets mail. The USPS had a larger fingerprint database than the FBI – in fact, they had the fingerprints of just about everyone in the FBI – because everyone uses the post office and no one thinks about leaving their fingerprints on a piece of mail. The intelligence section routinely read the mail of the most important people in the world – they didn’t have to do any cloak and dagger routine to get it because it was freely given to them!

During a cash crunch in the 1980’s the Post Office had developed very lucrative contracts with the drug cartels. Yes, sending drugs through the mail is illegal and if the postal inspector finds you, heavy fines and jail time will result – but the postal inspector works for the post office. There were countless ways that the USPS was able to generate money for ‘side-projects’.

Hopefully, by this time, I’ve made my point – the United States Postal Service is a dangerous organization and in the wrong hands – it could easily topple governments. Bob’s paranoia of the post office hadn’t been misplaced – in fact, he was one of the few seeing the forest for the trees. By May Day, however, Bob was a fan – he had been warmly embraced and welcomed by legions of postal workers. So many, in fact, that he had repeatedly popped up on the radar of the Postal Intelligence Service.

Megan had been advised that there was some strange activity happening online centered around a relatively unknown figure in California. Relatively unknown because Bob had stopped using his last name in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected. He didn’t pay taxes, he paid his rent in cash to the woman who lived in the other half of the duplex he occupied, and since he was paranoid about the post office for decades – he had routinely worn gloves when he did anything having to do with the mail going out.

You can imagine Megan’s reaction when she was told that an unknown person was building an online army composed mostly of USPS employees.

She picked up her phone and buzzed her secretary.

“Richard, book me a flight to San Francisco and a meeting with Governor Newsom in Sacramento,” she told him. Then to herself “Let’s see what’s going on with the Bob character…maybe we can use this.”

Chapter 14 – The Greatest Salesman the World Has Known

Bob was having the time of his life. For years, he had convinced himself that he was an introvert, but now, with a lockdown going on amidst a full scale pandemic – he was making more friends than he had ever thought possible – in the real world. Of course, almost all of his new friendships were online but such was the power of the internet that he was face to face with them, had long conversations with them, and even stepped away to do some actual work once in a while. That and he was quite happy now when the mail carriers showed up.

One issue was that there were a lot of questions that kept coming up about Bob’s past. People wanted to know about this person they felt compelled to follow. Using his newfound charisma, Bob usually deflected the requests with “That’s not important right now, we need to focus on …” whatever the next thing or the task at hand was.

What’s your last name, Bob?

Where did you grow up, Bob?

What kind of work did you do, Bob?

The questions kept coming and he knew that at some point he was going to have to give answers, but the truth was, he was pretty happy not thinking about those things – he had built a life around not thinking of those things. Those things were too painful to think about. He knew, however, that he was going to have to come to terms with them. He was going to have to start talking about them and that meant that he needed to think about them.

Bob grew up on the South Side of Chicago. There was nothing ordinary about his childhood although at first glance it may sound typical. Growing up he was surrounded by family – lots and lots of family. His father had a soft spot for Bob and wanted to bring him into the family business so Bob spent a lot of time going on runs with his dad, helping with the garage, and when he entered his teens – assisting his dad with odd jobs – and eventually earning enough trust that he was sent out on his own. That was when things blew up – literally.

Bob’s dad was William E. Dauber, called Billy by most of his friends and family. Billy was one of the most notorious Chicago mobsters of the post World War II era. Billy was known and respected far and wide for two things – running one of the most profitable chop-shop rings in the history of organized crime and also being one of the most prolific hitmen to ever pick up a gun.

Bob stole cars starting at age eleven. When he turned 14, his father took him along on a hit. It was Bob who pulled the trigger that day. Over the next three years, Bob lost count of the number of people he killed. He never liked it, but he wanted to please his father and like any teenager who looked up to his dad – he would do anything for his father’s approval.

It was September of 1986 when everything went wrong. Bob had become friends with a low level hitman and loan collector named John Ficarotta. Ficarotta was a known union leader but he had to earn his stripes. As such, Bob and he were often sent together to take care of problems with bookies, gamblers, pimps or upstart underbosses. Their job was easy, collect the money or kill the target and get rid of the bodies. The problem was that a couple of Ficarotta’s past jobs had been found buried in shallow cornfield graves. The evidence found with them raised a whole series of issues that threatened wide swathes of the Chicago family.

Bob and Ficarotta were assigned a routine juice squeeze from a small time bookie. Moments before this particular trip, Bob’s father pulled him aside and dropped this bombshell “Ficarotta is the target, don’t mess this up Bobby.” It was the only time Bob had ever been called anything but Bob – it felt like a rite of passage, it was his moment, his coming of age. As they pulled up to the bookie’s shop – Bob pulled out his .38 and put a shot into Ficarotta’s head. Ficarotta was driving and his window was down which should have made this an easy no mess hit. Bob would dump the body on the street and the bookie would get the blame.

But something went wrong. Ficarotta didn’t die, he didn’t even go unconscious. The bullet had somehow gone straight through his head without doing life ending damage. Realizing now that he was the hit, Ficarotta got out of the car and began to run. Bob chased after him getting off two more shots. Even back then, Bob wasn’t known for his svelte body or athletic abilities – Ficarotta easily outran him despite having one bullet in the head and two in the body. Somehow, he managed to lose Bob and in the meantime, Bob had been seen in broad daylight chasing and shooting a known union under-boss. Ficorotta might die of his wounds, but Bob was a dead man. A series of car bombs in the following weeks were the heralds of a full gang war. One that he had started.

Bob had been running from that day for 33 years. As soon as he realized that Ficorotta had gotten away from him, Bob ditched his gun and caught a taxi to Union Station. There was no going back. Bob knew that nothing could save him from death after screwing up this job. Nothing but disappearing.

He bought a train ticket to Denver and never looked back. In Denver he changed everything about himself – he grew out his beard, got rid of his tailored clothes and started dressing in youth casual street clothes. Looking around Denver, he decided that there were two directions he could go – he could adopt the gutter-punk street style or he could fall in with the neo-hippie deadheads he saw walking their dogs, hanging out in cafes, and sleeping in overcrowded flop houses. The hippie ethos fit more with his sloppy manner (which had largely been held in check by his upbringing). And that’s when he became the Bob we know.

Surrounding himself with hippies, he was almost immediately drawn into their consciousness pool and truly became a different person than who he had been while surrounded by mobsters. The over-riding rules he kept were not using his last name, not filling out paperwork, and staying away from any kind of union – including the postal union. Bob began to go to local shows, started smoking dope, and developed a variety of small time methods for generating enough money to live on. New ‘Deadhead’ friends encouraged him to join them on a pilgrimage to Oakland, California to see a series of live Dead shows in December of 1986.

Once there, he was hooked. Living amongst the Dead was the perfect way to disappear since there was almost no overlap between Deadheads and the Chicago Mob. Bob peddled LSD and magic mushrooms, sold weed, made grilled cheese sandwiches, and scalped tickets to earn. He was smart enough to realize he could arbitrage multiple items between cities and make more than enough to live on. He didn’t have a bank account, a telephone, a mailing address, or a driver’s license.

As the years passed, he followed the dead nearly everywhere they went – but not to Chicago, never to Chicago. That was the reason he missed their last two shows. Frontman Jerry Garcia died after performing at Chicago’s Soldier Field in July of 1995. Bob had spent nearly a decade of his life being a deadhead and with the death of Jerry, he was at a loss as to what to do with his life. There were new bands and new groupies but he was getting too old for the life he was living. He had a box filled with money – enough to retire on if he did it right – so that was what he decided to do.

He’d enjoyed California far more than anywhere else so he decided to hang his hat there and hoped that nine years was enough that the heat from Chicago would have died down. During all of his time away, Bob had followed as the Chicago outfit was tried, sentenced, and murdered. Much of the subsequent violence was a result of his fuck up with Ficorotta – but he never saw mention of his name or family in any of the stories.

Settling in San Francisco would have eaten through his box of cash in a couple of years, so instead he went inland to Sacramento. He liked the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter – it was like Chicago but without the humidity. He found a widow willing to rent to him for cash and moved into the apartment where he lived at the beginning of this tale.

After 33 years of hiding, Bob was out in plain site – but he hadn’t given up all of his secrets yet. He agonized over whether to use his own name – it was something he desperately wanted to do, but it was too dangerous. People had already asked if he came from Chicago because of his accent – he’d tried desperately to get rid of it over the years – but when you’re from the south side of Chicago, you can’t ever really get rid of your accent – it will come through.

During the 1990s, he’d been introduced to the Church of the Sub Genius by some Deadhead acquaintances. It was a spoof religion founded by ‘the greatest salesman the world had ever seen who has cheated death several times’. All of the church’s tenets were pushing the limits of silliness – but there was some deep truth in it that Bob had liked. He had also been amused by the name of the fictional founder because it was so close to his own. He was Bob Dauber and the founder of the Church of the Subgenius was J.R. “Bob” Dobbs.

It was with amusement that he decided to adopt the name as his own. If people wanted to know who he was, what he had done, and where he was from he would be pleased to tell them that he was Bob Dobbs, the greatest salesman the world had ever known, and he came from Peoria, Illinois. There were plenty of people who would get the joke, but the majority of the world would miss it – and he was going to play it straight.

 

Chapter 15 – The Three Rs

The May Day protests were a huge flop despite the valiant efforts of republicans, racists, and Russians. All three groups had tried to bring crowds out – but for different reasons.

The Russians wanted the chance to spread fear, doubt, and more cases of their COVID-19 virus.  Using their huge troll farms in Siberia – they built huge social media groups, sponsored movements from thin air, and did their best to make the posts go viral. Unfortunately, the big social media companies were under intense pressure to identify and weed out Russian bots and propaganda – their algorithms largely did a great job of censoring the Russian operation – along with also censoring a huge number of actual people who were trying to share valuable information about government abuses of power during the lockdown.

Republicans were taking the lead of their mighty orange leader ( the Orange-u-tan?) and pushing hard for cities, states, and counties to reopen right away. Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming all decided to open their states back up on or around May Day (some of them pushed for the Monday following on May 4th). It was no coincidence that all of these (except Montana) were states with Republican governors. Montana is the outlier but their governor, Steve Bullock is largely a Republican in Democrat clothing. The order had gone out from Donald Trump, the federal government was not going to renew the stay at home orders in May and any Republicans who did not follow his lead, would have their loyalty questioned. A number of Republican governors in the Northeast chose to keep their states on lockdown because the virus was raging in them. Trump vowed to have his revenge on them for not ending their lockdowns.

The governor of Vermont extended his stay-at-home order but ‘vowed’ to get many people back to work on May 4th – he was trying to dodge a bullet, but Trump would never forgive him. He knew that he would have a Trump backed challenger in the next election – as would all the governors who hadn’t complied with orders.

The racists were the third R in the protests. Early on the racists and neo-nazis had been trying to use the virus as a weapon against communities of color. So called Nazi ‘martyrs’ had voluntarily contracted the disease and then traveled to black, Latino, and Asian owned businesses is cities, towns and neighborhoods that were largely non-white. Now they were trying to militarize protests. They showed up with guns, MAGA gear, and the hope that they could pick a fight with anyone. They engaged in what can only be called ‘virus macho’ by refusing to wear masks, insisting on shaking hands and hugging, and defying stay-at-home orders. Their macho can only be described as foolish because the virus didn’t notice their bravado and if it had wouldn’t have cared. Later, they were to die in large numbers – not only because of the Russian virus but also because of measles. A large number of those who showed up to the May Day protests were anti-vaxxers who carried the measles virus – something which a lot of the younger racists had never been vaccinated for because there were conspiracy theories which claimed that it had been developed from a young African man who had contracted the disease and survived. No self-respecting hate-mongering racist is going to voluntarily have African DNA injected into them (which, by the way, is not how vaccines work or how the MMR vaccine was developed.)

The protests were largely a dud because people were rightly frightened to assemble in large numbers. Only the thickest of people left their homes and gathered around state capitols. In Hawaii, several hundred white people gathered with signs demanding their freedom and liberty – which was amusing to the Native Hawaiians who had had their freedom and liberty stripped and overthrown by America a century before. In Michigan, militiamen showed up with guns and made great photo ops for the news services who were desperate to find new stories to keep people doom-scrolling on their electronic devices. In California, white people from the interior of the state gathered in beach towns and defied the beach closures while coast residents watched them get sunburned and dehydrated. None of the protests did anything that encouraged anyone that wasn’t already out protesting.

The funniest part was that they were gathering on a day that celebrated the rights of workers and they were demanding to be exploited during a pandemic and sent back to work. The protestors showed up with swastikas, confederate flags, MAGA hats, Trump flags, and assault weapons. Trump quickly tweeted that they were ‘very good people’.

Of course there were plenty of Christians sporting signs that said things like “Jesus is my vaccine” and “Only Christ Can Save You from COVID-19” or even “COVID-19 is the Antichrist and the Vaccine is 666”. Of course, there were some less than clever gymnastics such as “Cleared of Virus I.D. = COVID – universals government tracking.”

The protests in Sacramento were among the strangest because they were largely organized and dominated by anti-vaccination organizations. It was a bizarre mixture of tea party activists, old hippies, and gun rights groups – not typically three groups you would see together. Somehow, chanting along with the NRA and Tea-Party activists – there were a large number of PETA (people for the ethical treatment of animals) who were there protesting the animals that would be used to test any potential vaccine. COVID-19 was building an absolutely bizarre assemblage of bed-fellows.

All in all – it was a massive experiment in human sacrifice – and it was about to get even more bizarre.

 

Chapter 16 – Idle Hands are the Devil’s Work

From the beginning, people thought that the Pandemic was going to be the worst thing to happen in 2020. They were wrong. There were going to be far worse things. After the first few weeks of the emergency, those in charge started to realize that there was a cascading effect that was impossible to stop – they had to engage in serious ‘perception management’ to keep the world from exploding.

First of all, as every child of a religious grandmother knows ‘Idle hands are the devil’s work’ and what that phrase means is that if you don’t keep apes busy – they turn their attention to causing mischief, problems, and in many cases creating problems.  With more than 60 million unemployed in the USA and another 50 million now ‘under-employed’ there were a lot of idle apes looking for something to do. The first weeks it was fairly easy to keep them occupied with Tiger King, a scandalous big cat documentary on Netflix. That was good for the first couple of weeks. Binge watching other shows and movies kept many occupied.

The lockdown meant that all the things that government/industry had used as control systems to keep the apes busy were no longer available – gyms were closed, malls were closed, beauty salons and spas were closed, parks were closed. Most importantly – work was shut down. With work shut down it was impossible to keep humans busy and when humans weren’t kept busy – they usually started planning how to take what wasn’t theirs (but should have been) or destroy what kept them busy in the first place. No one had ever bothered to see what humans would do if they managed to get free of the control systems – because that would have meant destroying the control systems and destroying the control systems would have ended the control of the vast majority by the powerful few – something that had been a danger in the past, but had never actually come to pass.

The American Revolution had never been about ending control systems – it was about replacing the controllers with new controllers. The French Revolution was a nearly successful destruction of control systems – but they were quickly restored. The labor movement, Marxism, and actual true socialism were huge threats to the control systems at various points in history – but they were absorbed and co-opted by those who controlled the control systems. The rise of cultural revolutionary movements in the 1960s, 1990s, and after the financial crisis of 2008 were all dangers to the control systems – that had been dealt with by the same methods – infiltration, subversion, subjugation, absorption, and cooption.

The best control system of all was a classic. “Look at all the bright shiny things you can have – and all you have to do is work and be a good citizen.” COVID-19 stripped that away as people suddenly realized – ‘Hey, wait a minute – they can just spend three trillion dollars and send everyone in America a couple of grand at the drop of a hat?” and “Why are they willing to keep me from becoming homeless now, when before it was impossible?” and “We can offer free healthcare to everyone, but we just don’t?”

A great many apes were at home and deciding “If the landlord wants me to move and I can’t pay the rent, I’m just not going to move.” This quickly led to “I’m not going to pay the rent and I’m not going to move.” And finally “This is my house and I’m not leaving it unless they kill me.”

Other apes were realizing “Why am I going to work every day for minimum wage? Unemployment pays more and there is plenty of food being handed out.” Still others were enjoying their time away from work and realizing just how much they had been promised by the control systems through the years and just how little had been delivered.

The idle hands were feeling the pull of the devil’s work – or more aptly – the exploited hands were discovering what liberty might look like.

Even worse, the biggest control system of them all had been completely shut down and there was no indicator that they would be opening soon. Schools and universities were shuttered and students were at home, being given time to share ideas and worldview on the internet without teacher supervision or the heavily utilized ‘peer shame’ that schools had developed to discourage critical thinking and independent thought. Depending on how long society remained lockered, the damage to conformity and normalization could be immense.

The global economy was the most imminent of the real problems. With the economy crashing and governments either showing their hand by the fact that they could give their populations better lives, or showing their hand by their inability to protect or give better lives – either way, the power of governments to sway the masses was being diminished.

Unemployment numbers went ever skyward and mutual aid societies formed in towns, neighborhoods, and apartment blocks. As the threat of dying from the coronavirus went down (never mind that the threat of catching it had gone up) people began to gently defy stay at home orders. They talked with neighbors, met with friends, and began to re-socialize in a totally different way than before.

These weren’t the lockdown protestors waving their flags and carrying their guns – these were just people visiting with parents, friends, and neighbors. These weren’t huge gatherings of strangers, these were known people who had been in known lockdowns. There were some cases of community spread – but mostly just of the Gaia virus.

Landlords went bankrupt, homeowners went underwater,  and banks waited impatiently for the all clear to send out foreclosure and eviction notices. Little did they know that they would be met with a stark refusal to vacate properties. Mega-corporate businesses waited to re-open the economy so they could restart tourism, start collecting credit payments again, and start the consumer low self esteem binge buying again – but that would never happen.

People had realized that they didn’t have to pay their credit cards off, that they could bake their own bread, and that buying things just filled their house with useless crap they wouldn’t need if the end of the world should actually come around.

The control systems were becoming obsolete. It was a terrifying reality for the power masters. They went into overdrive to create political controversy, to factionalize people, and to drive people into opposing camps again – but one thing that the prospect of the coronavirus killing everyone had done – was to make I much harder to tribalize the poor against the middle class because suddenly they realized just how far down the totem pole they all were. They were all fucked together and they could all look upward from any point on the planet and see all of those who were not fucked with them.

Chapter 17 – The General Rides Alone

Megan Brennan was the only person on her Delta flight. She flew first class, but she had never enjoyed a flight like this before. The crew celebrated having a passenger – it turned out that many flights had been making trips sans passengers but with more cargo than usual. The mail, after all, had to be delivered – as did meat, fish, milk, eggs, and other perishables. Prior to speaking with the crew, she hadn’t known exactly how much commercial airlines relied on cargo to make their daily revenue – of course, none of them were making money at this point.

Landing in San Francisco, she was cognizant of how massive SFO really was. Without the people – it was huge. She was met at the gate by a delegation of Bay Area postmasters. They loaded her in a waiting golf cart and ferried her to a waiting Lincoln Towncar. She didn’t have to ask about her bags, she knew they would be gathered up and brought to her hotel.

The postmasters were clamoring for meetings. She was in California for two major things  – first to meet with Governor Newsom and formulate plans to deal with the Trump situation and second to find out about the mysterious Bob situation and deal with that. However, the Postmaster General couldn’t come to California and not have meetings in San Francisco. There were major policy decisions that had to be made in terms of masks, social distancing, handling the mail, and handling retirements and playing politics with union leaders and career postal workers.

She would be in San Francisco for the first day, head to Sacramento for two days, and then return to San Francisco for two more days before flying back to the East Coast. She was confident that she would be able to take care of everything in the time she had allotted. Megan was always confident.

The first day’s meetings were routine. The next day her Lincoln transported her to Sacramento. The drive from San Francisco to Sacramento always amazed her. It was easy to think of California as nothing but a bunch of cities -San Diego, Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Francisco, Oakland – but when one actually got in a car and began to travel between them – the vastness and diversity of the state became apparent. The relatively short two hour drive from the Bay Area to Sacramento was filled with farmland, rivers, foothills, and lakes. California was a vast state – larger than most countries in the world. Built on fortunes made of gold, oil, and dreams – there was no place like it.

As her car came into Sacramento, the feeling of awe was replaced by one of confusion. Given all that California was – Sacramento, the capital, should have been a combination of New York City and Washington DC – but it wasn’t. This feeling always came to her because Sacramento was more like a small midwest city. Yes, once one went into the capital district it became more impressive – but she had always felt like the buildings should be taller and the crowds should be larger – and more fashionable. Of course, Sacramento was a compromise – it was the seat of political power between the economic interests of agriculture, resource extraction, film, tech, and transport. Also, Sacramento had to toe a fine line between showing power and not offending the federal government with such a display. She understood it, but it still left her with a feeling of confusion.

The meeting with Governor Newsom went about as she had expected. He didn’t lay all of his cards out on the table, but it was clear he was preparing for big moves. Everyone knew that he planned on throwing his hat in the ring for President of the USA in 2024, but that was a long way off and with Trump and Coronavirus creating chaos at scales the country had never seen, there was no guarantee that there would even be a United States in 2024.  Newsom was building alliances and making alternate plans, just in case. There was no better ally to have than the United States Post Office – though, the same could also be said of the State of California.

“I recently heard that the Postmaster General used to be a cabinet level position, ” Newsom said after the pleasantries had been exchanged. “Why did that end?”

“It was Nixon,” Megan explained. “He was terrified that the post office was going to mount a campaign against him. He didn’t want the PG to have any extra information or influence. Did you know it was Nixon that first suggested that postal workers could wear shorts? It was part of a smear campaign to delegitimize the post office, to make people take the power of the mail less seriously.”

“Were his fears legitimate?” Newsom looked searchingly in her face. “Do you think the post office could really be a threat to the most powerful person in the world?”

Megan saw it as a trick question. “Do you really think the President is the most powerful person in the world?”

“Who else would it be?” Newsom seemed interested in her answer, maybe it hadn’t of been a trick question.

She picked her words carefully. “It could be any number of people, depending on the needs and circumstances of the world,” she said. “And besides, power requires the consent and agreement -or at least fear, of those who give it. I’m not sure that the current President is nearly as powerful as he thinks he is – but his sycophants certainly don’t tell him that.”

Newsom laughed. “I guess we are narrowing down to the heart of the matter. Let me rephrase my original question – let’s see, how can I say this?  Uhmmm…would the post office ever consider moving their headquarters to California?”

Megan smiled “I’m afraid the needs of the postal service require that we keep our corporate headquarters close to the halls of power, so as long as power resides in Washington D.C, we will need to keep our offices there – but we do have quite a large footprint here, Governor. In fact, some of our contingency plans involve just such a move. In the event of an East Coast invasion or if Washington DC were wiped out by a nuclear bomb – we actually have a backup HQ in San Francisco that would be ready to roll out.”

“Interesting,” Newsom looked at her nodding. “I wasn’t aware of that. God forbid that anything like that should happen though. I’m curious about the post offices relationship with the IRS…how close is that? ”

She kept herself from spitting, barely. “The treasury has been abandoning us for years. Ever since electronic payments became normalized, they’ve been waiting for the day they could tell us to go shove it. Still, that day is a long way off…roughly 30% of Americans still pay taxes by mail – although the lions share is automatically deducted from paychecks. Still – that’s tens of millions people sending checks that    average to about $1200 each – so that’s a lot of money.”

“Yes, indeed. A lot of money. That’s a big responsibility. But back to my original question, do you think Nixon was right to feel threatened by the post office?”

“Absolutely,” Megan said. “Never underestimate the power of the mail.”

“I will remember that, Postmaster General,” Newsom suddenly remembered that it was she who had arranged this meeting. “I’m curious as to why you wanted to have this meeting. What can I help you with?”

For Megan Brennan, it was already clear that their interests were aligned, there was no need to continue to play coy “On behalf of the United States Post Office, I’d like to invite the State of California to secede from the United States of America. If you choose to accept this invitation, you can expect the full support of the USPS and, going back to our conversation previously – we’d be happy to move our HQ to California – as long as California were to become the seat of North American power.”

Newsom’s jaw had dropped. He was a politician and politicians never laid out their tits on the table the way that Postmaster General Brennan just had. He couldn’t even conceive of how to answer her.

Brennan stood up. “There’s no need for a response. I just wanted you to know where we stand. I have another appointment that I need to keep this afternoon. Thank you for taking the time to see me Governor. I look forward to working closely with you in the future.”

Brennan walked out of the Governor’s Mansion and got into her car. “Take me to the address in Arden Arcade,” she told the driver. “I need to meet someone there.”

Chapter 18 – Wheels Within Wheels

Bob was looking at the daily ‘Box Tops’ reports when he got a ping marked urgent from PostalNerd, the head of GeekBox. 

Urgent: Just found out that the Postmaster General – Megan Brennan is on her way to see you. I have no idea what this is about, but you should be careful. She is one of the most powerful people in the country and for some reason – she is heading your way with an ETA of about eight minutes. 

This message demonstrated the power of Bob’s new network. Brennan hadn’t told anyone outside of her secretary and her driver that she was heading to see Bob. Rather than the surprise visit she had expected it to be, when she arrived, Bob was waiting for her.

The black Lincoln Towncar pulled up and Bob was on the porch. He gave her a friendly wave as she stepped out. When she began walking towards the porch, he stood up, looking rather smart in his Eisenhower postal jacket (without insignia of course). He stepped off the porch and walked towards her.

“Postmaster General Brennan, I’m so glad to finally meet you. It’s a real honor to have you here at my humble abode.”

Bob was trying to be friendly and had no idea how off-putting it was to her that he had just called her out. She couldn’t figure out how he knew who she was. She still didn’t know who he was. This was not how she had pictured this meeting going. She had pictured it more along the lines of she swooped in, dominated the conversation, found out who this guy was, and knocked him out of the picture. That idea, however, was suddenly out the window. Bob put his hand over his heart and gave a small bow. She returned the gesture, which confused her as it was a new gesture to her. It was something Bob had started doing since the pandemic had started. As she did it, she realized that it made sense. It was a good thing.

“If you’d like to join me on my porch for a cup of tea, I’d love to get to know each other.”

Megan was completely thrown off. Without meaning to, Bob had completely unsettled her and taken the lead in a meeting that he was supposed to be surprised with.

“That would be nice, Mr. Uh…I’m sorry, I don’t know your last name.” Despite digging, she had been unable to come up with anything other than Bob, Robert, or Bob Current Resident. Bob had done well keeping his identity on the downlow from the Chicago Mob. Fear had been a great motivator. Since his meeting with Gaia, however, he no longer was afraid – but still, he was cautious. That was why he was sticking with a pseudonym.

“It’s Dobbs,” he told her. “Robert Dobbs. Please excuse my manners, I just feel like I already know you. You must have that effect on a lot of people”

In fact, she did not. Megan Brennan had quite the opposite effect on people. Even her family often struggled to feel connected to her – she was a stranger to the world – even those who knew her best. There was no room for vulnerability if you were going to be in charge. She was always in charge, except for now – for some reason, she had lost the initiative and she wasn’t exactly sure what to do about it.

“Mr. Dobbs,” she said, trying to reassert herself. “I’m sure you know why I’m here. I hope that we can work things out. As the head of the Postal Service, I’ve been made aware of some unsettling things and you seem to be at the center of it. I’d like to understand what is happening – because frankly, I’m not sure what your intentions are.”

Bob was leading her onto the porch. “Please, call me Bob. Do you mind if I call you Meg? I’ve always like that name. It’s strong. Did you ever read Little Women?”

She had. It had been one of her driving motivators in making sure that people knew her name was Megan. As a girl, she had been charmed by the idea of being named after Meg (she was). Meg was the prettiest, most charming, and most perfect of the ‘little women’. However, as a young woman, she realized that Meg was a symbol of the powerless domesticity of women and she vowed to never be led into the trap of becoming ‘Meg’ the domestic housewife, mother, and servant to her own role.

“I have,” she said, again trying to assert her authority in this conversation . “I prefer to be called Postmaster General.” Despite a lifetime of resisting when people tried to call her Meg, she had almost succumbed and told him he could call her Meg. She had never felt such charisma before. The closest she had gotten to it was with Bill Clinton. Clinton had a way of making everyone in a room agree with him – even if they didn’t. She didn’t feel any sort of attraction to Bob, it wasn’t that kind of thing, it was more like she wanted him to give her his approval – despite having just met him. This was a dangerous man and she needed to be on her guard.

“Oh, okay,” Bob said cheerily. “I’ll be right back, I put the kettle on when I found out you were coming.” Again, she was completely thrown off. How had he known she was coming? This was supposed to be a surprise drop-by. She sat in one of the faded wood Adirondack chairs on the porch. It was a craftsman style house probably built in the 1930s that had been split into a duplex at some point in the 1960s or 70s.

When he came back out, he had a battered teapot that gave off an aroma of Earl Grey tea – the smell of Bergamot was strong. It was her favorite tea. Bob hadn’t known this, but it just happened to be his favorite too. Megan was sure that somehow he knew. She had to get the initiative back. “We’ll have to take our masks off to drink the tea,” he said to her “But I’m not sick. Are you?”

“No,” she replied. “I think we should be okay, but let’s not share a cup, alright?” She laughed lightly and Bob gave an appreciative chuckle. Unmasked in front of one another, it was time to get down to brass tacks.

“Mr. Dobbs, What is your interest in the post office?” She was going to take control.

Bob set the tea down on the small table between them and poured it into two mismatched and chipped teacups before he sat down and answered.  He looked directly at her. The blue of his eyes had the intensity of a laser but also exuded a sort of warmth that caused her to relax even though she didn’t want to.

“To be perfectly honest,” he began “I’ve been suspicious of the post office for years. I always felt like it was the basis for a huge sort of illumanatus conspiracy. It just has too much power, too many moving parts, and controls too many things that people aren’t aware of. The USPS is the perfect shadow government.” He took a sip of tea. Megan felt herself tensing up. The post office had always had it’s share of conspiracy nuts, but she needed to remind herself that this one had somehow taken control of a part of the actual machinery.

“Recently, however,” Bob continued, “I’ve had my view shifted considerably. It seems like a lot of my suspicions were true but I was missing key information that caused me to fall to the wrong conclusions.”

“I’m glad to hear that you’ve seen the error in your ways,” Megan said. It probably wasn’t the right thing to say, but she needed to keep him going – she had to understand what was motivating this man.

“You see,” Bob went on, “I always thought the post office was part of some dark conspiracy to enslave humankind, to control the levers of power, and to destroy democratic rule – but that was wrong. The truth, as it usually is, is much more complex. The post office is the ultimate safeguard. When the founding fathers set up the country, they weren’t trying to create a democracy – they were trying to shift the power from one elite class to another. Franklin, who set up the post office, he knew this – he was the first Postmaster General and he never really agreed with the slave-owning founders about how they were doing things. He built the post office to act as a counterweight and in the event of dictatorship or a fall, the post office was designed to save everything.” Bob was excited as he explained and then as he looked at her, he suddenly recollected to whom he was speaking…he began to blush…

Megan J. Brennan had not expected to be shocked on this visit. She had not expected to be surprised. She had expected to knock on the door, find out who this person was, and then put him in his place. Instead, she was sitting with a cup of tea and listening to a man that had no possible way of knowing tell her the deepest secrets of the United States Postal Service. Even when she saw him blush and realized that it was her chance to take control of the situation, she found herself unable to do so. In fact, she found herself wanting to ease his embarrassment.

“It’s okay Mr. Dobbs,” she said soothingly (which was not a tone she used very often), “Please keep going. I’m curious as to how you learned this information and what you propose to do with it.”

Bob overcame his embarrassment and looked at her. “I’m sorry. You’re the Postmaster General and I’m telling you things that you obviously already know – I’m sure you know the answer to these questions already.”

“No,” she said, uncharacteristically revealing her hand “Please keep going. I want to know more.”

“Well, I don’t want to freak you out with the details but suffice to say that in the past few months, I’ve learned just how important and powerful the post office really is. I don’t think that would particularly matter except for the fact that Donald Trump is trying to destroy it. If the USPS falls, the United States of America falls with it. If the United States falls, there is no telling what he will do with that power. You asked what I intend to do and the answer to that is truthfully ‘I don’t know’ – I just know that he has to be stopped. We’ve been working on a couple of different ideas that might have some merit…” At some point in this meeting, the new Bob had decided to trust Megan J. Brennan. The old Bob would never have revealed any of this to her. He would have seen her as a powerful piece controlled by the U.S. Government and the dark forces that hid in the shadows and made moves against all that was good. This was not the old sack of potatoes Bob, however, this was Bob Dobbs, the Conscientious Objector General.

Megan latched onto a data point “We? Who are you working with? That’s what I’m trying to understand. I don’t really understand where you fit in any of this? Who are you, Mr. Dobbs?”

Bob didn’t have any intention of deceiving her, but neither did he intend to reveal who he really was. “I’m nobody, Postmaster General and as to the ‘we’ – I’m talking about a bunch of my friends on the Discord server – in the PostBox.”

For just a moment, Megan heard the ramblings of a crazy person ‘friends on the discord server in the post box’ sounded like the ravings of a lunatic. She momentarily flash-considered that she was sitting on the porch of a madman, drinking tea, and engaging in what the post office had always condemned as conspiracy theory. She had to remind herself that somehow Bob had known she was coming and somehow he had just told her the most closely held secret of the USPS. She couldn’t afford to discount him as a nut job but neither could she afford to trust him – even though she deeply wanted to.

“The discord postbox?” she queried, not quite getting it right.

“Oh, sorry. Our message board. I can invite you if you want. I’d love to have you on it – I mean if you don’t mind being part of something that so many of your lower ranking employees take part in..I can see where that might be problematic.”

He was right, it would be problematic. Megan was no longer entirely sure what she was doing or why. “Co-workers, Bob,” she said to him, using his first name for the first time. “They’re my co-workers, not my employees. No one owns the post office. Yes, I’d love an invite. Do you mind if I use a fake name and email though? Because you’re right, it might cause some issues if people knew I were there.” Not the least of which would be with the federal government.

“Sure,” Bob told her. “Let me get a pen so I can write down your details.” Bob got up and went back inside. While he was inside, Zeta arrived with the days mail. She knew who he was because she had studied Bob’s route before coming but she didn’t introduce herself. Zeta looked at her through his mask.  She had pulled her mask back up when she saw him approaching.  He’d noticed the black car and driver as he walked up – the curiosity was deep, but he would wait to find out from Bob until later. He nodded in her direction. She nodded back. She looked familiar to him (as she should have since her picture hung in every post office in America) but the mask made it almost impossible for him to recognize her – that and the fact that the last thing he would expect was the Postmaster General to be drinking tea on Bob’s porch. Zeta slid the letters through the door and continued on his route.

Bob came back out, still not wearing a mask “Okay,” he said with pen and pad in hand “What’s your email?”

“It’s fuzzybunny272@protonmail.com she told him,” Bob didn’t even show a hint of a smile as he wrote it down.

“Like this?” he held it in front of her so she could see it.

“Perfect,” she told him “Please keep my identity between the two of us.”

“Sure,” Bob said innocently “I’ll need to let my Colonels know, but we’ll keep it on a Top Secret level – need to know only.”

Megan couldn’t show the alarm she felt when he mentioned his Colonels. Until that moment in their conversation, she had somehow convinced herself that he was just a well-meaning kook who had stumbled upon secrets he shouldn’t have known. When he mentioned Colonels and ‘need to know’ it reminded her of why she had come – this man was building an army and it was largely from within her organization.

“Can we get a selfie?” she asked him

“We’ve already broken the distancing protocols, so I don’t see why not.” She stood up, pulled her phone from her pocket and leaned in for the classic two person selfie. She would have his picture run through multiple databases before the day was done. As she looked at her phone she realized that she had received multiple text messages while her ringer/buzzer had been switched into meeting mode.

As she left, she wasn’t sure what she felt. It was a range of emotions that ran from panic to happiness – but over all of it was a feeling of dread that she was losing control of more than just the meeting she had just had.

Back in the car with meeting mode turned off, her phone began buzzing – multiple texts coming in all at once.

This was on May 6th – technically, she had offered her resignation back in October of 2019, but the Board of Governors had been unable to agree on a new Postmaster General because it was split between three Trump appointees and three Obama appointees. It was a evenly split board and the Obama appointed side refused to give the position to a Trump appointee and the Trump appointees refused to allow another liberal postmaster from a blue state.

The first of her texts came from Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman – one of the other Obama Appointees

“Just found out that Postmaster Inspector David Williams has resigned…which means we are officially outnumbered on the Board of Governors.”  

Williams had been the vice-president of the board. He was an important ally. He was in charge of the intelligence division. Somehow, they had gotten to him. She’d ignored her phone while she met with Bob. It wouldn’t have made any difference, this was all done because she was two thousand miles away.

They’re calling an emergency meeting!!!” Strohman’s texts sounded like the panic he must have felt.

She was feeling the panic as she read through the texts but she wasn’t going to call anyone before she knew what was happening.

They’ve done it,” Strohman wrote. “They’ve made Louis DeJoy the new Postmaster General. Vote was three to one with one absentee. They tried to make the position effective immediately but I brought up the protocols, Senate confirmation, transition period, etc. I’d guess we have two weeks maximum to put things in order.

“Motherfucker,” Megan said. “Mo-ther fuck-er.”  She thought she had been angry before, when she offered her resignation in October, but that was nothing compared to this. She wasn’t ready for this, but thank god she had made this trip and laid the groundwork she had. They might be able to delay things until the end of the month but in all likelihood, that son of a bitch Mitch McConnell would be pushing this thing through within days instead of weeks.

The rest of the texts were either gloating from the other board members, notes from her secretary, and other concerned parties.

The first call she made was to David Williams. He probably wouldn’t be able to tell her how they had gotten to him, but he would have taken the proper precautions. He was a careful man and they had planned for an eventuality of some kind, even if it wasn’t this.

He answered on the first ring with no greeting. “I guess you got the news…”

“Yes, I just heard. David, I’m calling because I want to make sure everything is okay. Are you alright?”  This was bullshit and they both knew it. “What happened?”

“I just felt like it was time to stop beating myself against the wall. The past nineteen years have felt like twenty seven and I think I’m getting old. I just want to relax with my grandkids when Christmas comes and enjoy some eggnog.”

They both knew her job had just gotten more complex.

“Okay Megan. It was nice working with you. Maybe I’ll see you at one of the company parties.”

That was it. She had it. “Well, I just wanted to make sure you are okay. It looks like I’ll be able to enjoy myself soon too.”

They both hung up.

She wrote the password down “19eggnog27parties.”

The post office had just been fucked but it wouldn’t go down without a fight.

 

Chapter 19 – Coast to Coast

The pandemic restrictions were being lifted faster than the virus was contracting. Bob followed the case count and was shocked to see that not only were the number of deaths per day going up both globally and in the USA, but also that doctors were logging new symptoms. One of the most curious aspects of the new deaths was the fact that a majority of new intakes to most major hospitals seemed to be coming from sheltering in place in their homes.

At first, this data made him think that maybe lifting restrictions was a good idea, then he took a trip to the grocery store. Bob clearly saw where people were getting infected. At the store, shoppers were lined up in a winding stanchion that put them into close contact and proximity with hundreds of other shoppers for an extended period. Bob stood in the line for over an hour and counted how many of his fellow shoppers he was within a dozen feet of by the time he got to the front door – 162. Yes, the guidelines called 6′ a safe distance, but that number seemed arbitrary and when he asked the MedBox about it they said that those guidelines had been set in the 1950s and 12′ was considered a likely infection zone. Inside the store, Bob was forced to be in far closer proximity to right around fifty other shoppers just walking through the aisles. This was where people were getting sick. He was sure of it.

There was something else that was off though, the more he looked at the data, the more he was sure of it. The number of deaths in the USA stayed right around 2000 per day from the moment the President started talking about re-opening the country. It ranged from 1700 to 2100 on a non linear basis. There was monkey business going on somewhere – Bob was sure that the actual number of deaths was being mis-reported but since the data was coming from so many places – that seemed like a particularly hard conclusion to validate.

Then, someone on the Postbox mentioned that their county coroner had been sacked and replaced because he had been appointed by a previous administration. That was when it hit him – city and county coroners were political appointments. So were state medical examiners.  The job of both positions is to log the deaths in their jurisdiction with the cause and if foul play was suspected – to get an inquest into the circumstances. That was it. The political appointees were doing what they were told.

It was a powerful epiphany. Bob put out a call through the message boards to find the party affiliation of the coroners and medical examiners in the largest jurisdictions across the country. Next, he and a team of data scientists who were finding themselves particularly bored with being locked down correlated the death rates in counties across the country with party affiliation of the coroners and medical examiners. The results were shocking – Republican counties and states had around the same number of deaths as their Democrat counterparts but the causes of death were highly divergent. Red states and counties had far higher cancer, ‘natural cause’, and other non-pandemic illnesses than blue states. Blue states and counties had far higher pandemic related deaths. Looking at the numbers, one could easily deduce that the pandemic was less deadly in Republican controlled areas – or that the books were being cooked. Diving deeper, they found that since the calls to ‘re-open’ had begun – the number of deaths from non-pandemic causes had been skyrocketing in red areas. The result was that daily COVID-19 deaths were staying within the range of 1700-2100 deaths per day.

It was a lie that was becoming harder for the administration to keep as the numbers continued to grow. Bob and his crew were estimating the number of deaths per day in the USA were closer to 4000 in the beginning of May. The Trump administration was also having a hard time keeping the lie and began to soften the public with gradual incremental increases mentioned in each briefing. The master of lies said “We can expect the daily death toll to rise up to 3000 deaths per day by June,”  on one day and then the next “We’re looking at around 3100 cases every day after the economy opens but we think it’s worth it.” Meanwhile, he had chosen the Guns n Roses tune “Live and Let Die” as his theme song. A choice that Bob found to be more than a little disturbing, but one which the president’s fans embraced. Bob assumed that it was the rich who would live and the poor who would die. The president’s supporters must have thought it was a different split – maybe us and them.

The Russian virus was doing an amazing amount of damage and the shelter in place orders were actually restricting the spread of the Gaia virus in dense urban areas. It was a perfect storm of tragedy for those in the Northeast and probably for those in Southern cities as well – but those numbers were more difficult to suss out.

Back at home, Bob heard a knock on the door. It was Zeta.

He opened the door and Zeta came in and removed his mask.

“Aren’t you afraid you might have the virus?” Bob asked. It was the right question. People thought they were protecting themselves with masks but in fact, they were protecting others. Zeta was putting Bob at risk by taking off his mask.

“Oh man,” Zeta said, realizing his mistake and grabbing for his mask, ” Sorry Bob.”  Bob reached out and stopped him before he could put the mask on.

“No problem, let’s take the chance – I need to talk to you.”  Bob wasn’t worried about catching the virus. He wore a mask when he went out, but that was to protect others in case he did have it. If someone was comfortable going maskless with him in his home, he was fine with it too.

Zeta flopped onto the couch. He wasn’t in his postal uniform, so this must be a day off.

“I had a visitor yesterday,” Bob started.

Zeta couldn’t help commenting “Yes, I saw your lady friend on the porch. Are you in love buddy? You going to ask Dr. Zeta for some love advice?” They both laughed…

“No,” Bob finally said, “It’s more complicated. That was Megan Brennan, the Postmaster General of the United States of America.”

“What???” Zeta was flipping his wig now. “That lady on your porch was Megan Brennan? What the fuck was she doing here Bob?” Zeta didn’t know if this was good or bad – but it couldn’t be anything in between. “What was the US Postmaster General doing on your shitty ass porch Bob?”

“I’m not really sure, it turns out.”  Bob had thought about the meeting and debated whether to invite fuzzybunny272 onto the servers. “She was concerned with my interest in the USPS and after I told her about the Discord servers, she wanted to be invited onto them. Mostly though, she seemed like she wanted to know who I am.”

“Wait, wait, wait. Let me get this straight – the USPG came to your house to introduce herself to you and get an invitation onto your message boards? Is that what I’m hearing?” Zeta didn’t know what to think of this information – she was his boss, but a boss so high up that he had never expected to see her.  Or her to see him, she’d seen him delivering the mail. That was when he remembered the news he’d heard that morning at the depot.

“She got replaced yesterday,” he told Bob. “I wonder if that has any connection to her coming here. Holy shit Bob, did you get the PG fired?”

Bob didn’t think that was likely – but he was shocked to hear that she had been replaced. “She got fired?”

Zeta explained the whole situation – one thing postmen were good at was the transmission of scuttlebutt. It wasn’t just the mail that the USPS delivered. “I heard the whole thing is because Trump wants to use the USPS to fuck with Amazon and she had refused. I mean, she resigned back in October and they announced they were seeking a replacement, but it seems weird that it would happen the same day she came here.”

“So she’s gone?” Bob asked. It made him sad. He had liked her.

“No, it’s a government thing so the transition can take a while. There will be at least some period where the new boss takes over and the old boss transfers out.”

“Should I invite her to the PostBox server? What do you think Zeta? I’ve been debating this by myself for 24 hours.”

Zeta nodded enthusiastically “Yeah, you definitely should. She’s an old school hard-ass though. If she were staying in post, I would advise that you think about it but since she’s leaving and obviously the enemy of our enemy – I think she’ll bring a lot to the table. Definitely bring her in.”

“Good,” Bob said “I wanted to, but I didn’t want to jump the gun on this.” He walked over to the kitchen table and sat down in front of his laptop. Looking at the note with her email address he subvocalized his actions “Invite new member, enter email, fuzzybunny227@protonmail.com, and send invite.”

Zeta was laughing “The most hard ass woman on the planet has fuzzybunny227 as her email? That’s some funny shit.”

“You want to hear something really funny?” Bob asked. “Gaia prefers Apple to Microsoft…” Both men collapsed in laughter.

Zeta squeezed out “Of course she does but does that make Steve Jobs the snake in Eden?” They both laughed for a moment more before realizing how weirdly profound that statement was.

The PostBox community had ballooned – it now included nearly a million members. The newly hired veterans were flocking to VetBox and it had been compartmentalized into several divisions consisting of regiments which were made up of platoons. The organizational structure was proving to be a lifeline – but one big problem was that a lot of the newly hired vets were Trumpists.

With an open invitation system, they had known that this might become a problem but with the explosion in members there was also an explosion in those who supported the president. ColonelPotter, who now had the rank of Sub-General had wisely suggested that they create ‘Trump Regiments’ and other ‘pro-Trump’ sections within the major divisions. This idea allowed the Trumpists to largely self segregate and exist within their own bubbles. The Trump areas of PostBox were ecstatic at the news that Brennan was on the way out. Those sections of the server were filled with badly photoshopped porn and crude memes along with sensationalist conspiracy theories that seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with vaccine conspiracies, child molesting conspiracies, and Bill Gates.

The BoxTops were all careful about who they brought into trusted circles. There was danger of infiltration in the bottom tiers, but the top of the pyramid was a safe zone. As long as everything was filtered downward in the proper way, there was little danger from within.

FuzzyBunny272 quickly moved up the ranks. Had she been staying in her job, she would have been alarmed at the complexity and depth of the PostBox organization, but since she was leaving, she found it exhilarating. While she hadn’t identified herself, the power of her voice was quickly identified by group commanders and she was promoted to moderator, invited to the next level, promoted again, and so forth. In a relatively short period of time (5 days) she was attending meetings of the BoxTops and making suggestions. They all knew who she was and while it may have contributed a small amount to her incredibly rapid rise, mostly it was the force of her own personality that had brought her there.

“I’d be fired for telling you all about this,” she wrote “But have you ever heard of RoP-1-75 ?”

This was when they learned the truth about the post office. She was telling a handful of people that she mostly only knew by screen name about the most heavily guarded secret of the post office. At this point, there were two reasons for that. First, if she was going to use it – she only had days and she would need their help. Second, if she wasn’t – she was damned if she would let Trump and his stooge DeJoy have it. She had decided to break with tradition and not inform her successor about the protocols. He would be the postmaster, but only the postmaster who had the publicly listed duties, nothing else.

There was another reason she was spending so much time and energy on the PostBox. It was the perfect place to plan a postal strike.

 

Chapter 20: The Great American Re-Opening

Using a steady stream of positive spin, a confusing story of a weakened virus in the face of the death toll and virus count both rising, and the rallying cry of “Work is a right and Prisoners are not Free!” the Trump administration somehow managed to force large portions of the country to ‘re-open for business’ regardless of what the experts suggested, the governors wanted to do, or the people were in favor of. American’s felt they had no choice but to go back to work and so they filled the offices, streets, movie theaters, restaurants, and everywhere else even as their countrymen died in ever greater numbers.

Rather than focusing on the depressing news – the mainstream media began increasing coverage of the amazing stock rally as the economy responded to people going back to work. Never mind that there was a complete and total disconnect between people working and stocks rallying. The main reason that stocks were rallying was because the Federal Reserve was pumping trillions of dollars into it. The people going back to work didn’t have the extra money to pay for Uber, restaurants, or luxuries of any sort. It was a hand to mouth existence for most workers and with the added exposure to the virus – a sometimes deadly one.

By mid-June, the states stretching east from Washington, Oregon, and California  all the way to New York and Pennsylvania were all open. The south was completely open. Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New England were all still in lockdown as they tried to deal with the continued body count that was piling up in trucks, parks, and walk in refrigerators.. The three west coast states plus Nevada and Hawaii were slowly easing restrictions but generally discouraging people from leaving home – it was a more cautious approach than the rest of the country was taking. Alaska was pretty well on its own and as open as it had ever been – just not to tourists. The Governor of Alaska put a moratorium on cruise ships.

The rest of the country from Arizona to Florida to Ohio, North Dakota, and Iowa – they all just threw caution to the winds and latched onto the Trump agenda and began screaming about the success of the Great American Re-Opening. During the day, people filled the beaches in the Carolinas, Florida, and Texas.  Nascar was the first event to make a comeback and the crowds were thick. Bars and restaurants filled with people and the shopping malls from Memphis to Phoenix to Atlanta were all filled with happy throngs of people.

The stock market really was booming and with the lockdowns lifted, credit card companies and banks began offering increased lines of credit, special cash advances, and easier approval for rewards cards.

The rest of the world watched in shocked awe as Americans in the re-opened areas ditched social distancing, masks, and any sort of pandemic protocols.The American gamble appeared to be paying off. The first day of summer in mid-June was an ecstatic holiday. Trump’s approval rating in these areas hit the highest marks of his presidency.

Behind the scenes, the Russian and American viruses had now met and were figuring out how to interact together. It was a classic love story – where two strangers meet and soon, a baby follows. The evolved virus that came from that meeting was deadlier than ever – it used existing health conditions to infiltrate and occupy a host with an incubation time of 25 days, when it began to spread – the mortality jumped from 4% to 70%. When the virus became active 7 out of 10 who got it would be dead within 48 hours.  Thankfully, it was only transmissable starting about three days before it became active in the host. Those who had already been exposed to the Gaia virus, were still immune.

The problem was, the parts of the country that were ecstatically re-opened were the exact parts of the country that hadn’t been exposed to the Gaia virus – the wide open spaces, the rural communities, the small towns where people thought they had dodged a bullet. The cities and urban areas were actually going to be alright with this second wave – but the countryside was devastated.

It started in Galveston, Texas and spread upward into the country like a reverse Mississippi River. From June 1st to June 26th – eight million people caught the new strain – by the end of June nearly five million of them were dead. The same people who had been celebrating winning their freedom back were now either being weeped over or weeping over their own dead.

Trump continued to play “Live and Let Die” and screamed blame at the Chinese, California, and Canada. “It’s the three C’s, he yelled into his podium’s microphone. They’re out to get me. They’re all out to get me. I’ve done everything, I’ve handled this perfect, but it will never be good enough for California or their friends in Canada and China.”

The entire country went back into lockdown, this time a huddled down and terrified lockdown as the new strain continued to rip its way through the mid-West and into the Rocky Mountains and the South.  Trumps ‘smart doctors’ abandoned him during his daily briefings and he now had a rotating cast of white people in white coats who made pronouncements that usually included a phrase similar to ” …if we had listened to the President…”

In truth, those who had continued to ‘hunker down’, worn masks, and kept proper social distancing were largely unaffected by the new strain – so one might draw some conclusions from all that death. 7 out of 10 of those who had not taken precautions were either dead or soon would be.

Trump ignored the pain and suffering and promised that there would be an ‘amazing’ 4th of July celebration for the country. The ‘Great American Re-Opening’ turned out to be less like a celebration of a return to normal and more like ripping the scab off of life threatening arterial wounds. America was re-open…for infection and death.

 

Chapter 21: The Grand California Tax Scheme

Federal and state taxes had been pushed back to July 15th – it was an unprecedented move, but one that had seemed necessary at the height of the first pandemic scare. As the second wave of death screamed across the nation, politicians used their media allies to remind people that America could only keep running if everyone did their part – and a big part of that was paying taxes.

Essentially, the first relief effort of the US government had given trillions of dollars to corporations with virtually no limitations, no means testing, and no oversight – this right on the heels of $2 trillion dollars in corporate tax cuts. This huge theft was approved by the American people in return for a $1200 per adult payout which came from the taxes that the bottom half of Americans pay. The average American felt grateful for a deal that had ripped them off – and most of them never even realized they had been scammed.

In any event, the country and the states were now in the deep red and it was bad policy to stop collecting taxes – so word went out that despite the new waves of death, taxes would be collected. One big problem, however was that the IRS was as devastated by the pandemic as every other federal agency. The U.S. government had a policy of keeping those kinds of numbers a secret, but in this case, there had been far too many government accountants who lived in DC, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware – some of the hardest hit areas.

As a result, the federal government enlisted the states to assist in the processing of federal returns. The scheme was pitched as a way to increase state employment, put the country back to work, and take care of business at the same time. In fact, it wasn’t a bad idea – but it did open the door to several possibilities that the government missed.

The scheme worked like this – electronic federal returns would be processed by the IRS. Returns that were mailed in would be diverted to state tax offices where they would be processed, logged, and electronically forwarded to the federal IRS offices. Tax payments from checks or money orders would be deposited in federal IRS accounts by state agencies.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Governor Newsom of California decided to make his move. The California State Tax Board opened up an account through Wells Fargo (a California bank)  under the name ‘Internal Revenue Service – California’ doing business as ‘IRS-CA’ and ‘IRS’. As federal returns were filed and documented, California’s top state accountants deposited the checks and payments made out to the IRS into the new account. This was not the way the federal government had detailed the process.

Furthermore (thanks to Bob and the PostBox), huge numbers of tax returns from other states were ‘accidentally’ forwarded to the California tax division. For those working in the newly quadrulpled in size tax board, the process was relatively simple – and since these were mostly new hires from other diverse fields – there were no questions asked. Returns from all over the country were pouring into Sacramento.

Every envelope was opened. Check payments were entered in a database with social security numbers and amount of tax due, regardless of state of residence, and then the checks were turned in to supervisors who deposited them in the IRS-CA account. Returns without checks were forwarded to the federal IRS offices, and returns from other states were forwarded to ‘red state’ offices – often the wrong state. The purpose of all this forwarding and mistake making was simple – the federal IRS needed to be kept unaware of what was happening for as long as possible.

In order for the huge volume of returns to be shifted to California, the USPS needed to bring large numbers of postal fleet vehicles into California from neighboring western states. Newly purchased vehicles from the South and South-Eastern seaboard were also shipped into California to help with the mail glut. All of these arrangements had been made prior to Postmaster General DeJoy taking over and since he was largely engaged in doing the administration’s business – it all flew under his radar.

The truth was DeJoy was a good businessman but he didn’t have the knowledge necessary to be a Postmaster General and his predecessor left without giving him any of the usual guidance on what the job entailed or how to do it. Shortly after he had taken over, all of the liberal members of the Postal Board of Directors had resigned – there was a distinct lack of experience and knowledge in postal HQ – at least experience and knowledge that DeJoy or the administration could benefit from. DeJoy was kept busy by orders from the administration.

Due to the rolling death tide of the pandemic smashing its way through the South and Midwest, California took the unprecedented step of sealing her borders. Governors Inslee and Brown of Washington and Oregon quickly followed suit. Nevada began taking measures to begin the same process. The only vehicles allowed into California were postal vehicles and cargo transport. California residents living abroad or in other states were informed that if they were to return to the state they would be placed under mandatory 30 day quarantines. The state closed its borders to tourists, non-residents, and non-essential business.

California’s connections to the outside world were now either through the USPS or electronic.

Newsom activated the entire California National Guard to assist in closing borders. The California Highway Patrol, state and county sheriffs, state and local police departments, and other state agencies were activated at the highest level and hired as many as applied. Out of state prisoners were furloughed if they accepted free passage out of the state on Greyhound buses to Idaho, Arizona, or Utah. Prisoners from Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, and Hawaii were kept as a courtesy to neighboring states.

This state of affairs began taking place in the last part of June and accelerated in the days leading up to the 4th of July. Trump’s Independence Day celebration of a re-opened America was shaping up into the worst disaster the country had ever witnessed – millions were dying and yet, the red state governors and Trump supporters continued to re-open, they continued to listen to (and believe) his lies, and when he said the deaths were a conspiracy theory put on by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos – they began to burn effigies of the billionaires in the streets.

Through the National Guard, Newsom and his supporters were able to infiltrate the high commands of all the U.S. military bases in California. California has thirty-two U.S. military bases covering all branches of the U.S. Military.  The US Air Force had Beale, Edwards, Travis, El Segundo, March, McClellan, and Vandenberg. The Army had Forts McClellan and many more. The Marines had Camp Pendleton, 29 Palms and more. The Navy and Coast Guard had installations stretching from San Diego all the way to Eureka.

The Governors of Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Nevada followed similar tactics. They weren’t planning insurrection – they were simply taking steps to protect their states from the ‘stable genius’ in the White House and whatever mad plans he might formulate. Far off Hawaii had the trickiest time of it – with a civilian population of just over 1.1 million and 12 bases housing up to a quarter million troops, their families, contractors, and non-uniform personnel. Despite it not being his state, this was a problem that Newsom spent a lot of time considering.

Despite the chaos outside of California’s borders, the tax returns kept flowing into the state and the tax payments kept piling up in the IRS-CA accounts. No one outside of those who had set it up seemed to notice.

On the 4th of July, President Trump finally was able to hold the huge military parade he had been clamoring for since coming to office. Tanks and missiles were paraded down the streets of Washington DC, jets spewing red, white, and blue left trails in the sky, and Trump stood on a dias at the Washington Monument standing tall, looking regal with his orange chin held high watching his military show the world its might.

His speech began well.

“My friends. My fellow Americans. We have suffered greatly. No other people have ever suffered so much and with so much bravery.”

And of course it veered into self-aggrandizement.

“No other president in the history of this country, no other leader in the history of the world has given as much or sacrificed as much as I have. The greatest economy the world has ever known, the greatest military, the world has ever seen, the most beautiful people,” he looked at his daughter Ivanka with what could only be described as lust, “the world has ever known.”

He trailed off, lost in fantasy or thought but then picked up the thread…

“We deserve better than we have been given. We deserve a better system. We deserve better leaders. We deserve better media. The media has been on a crusade to demonize me, to make me a mockery, to turn you – my people – against me. The media and the democrats in the House and Senate have made fools of the American people – they dared to impeach me in the house, they wasted billions of dollars trying to turn you against me. I am you and you are mine – we are one. The failed New York Times, the awful Amazon Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC – they have all failed you. They have given you lies when you needed hope. None of them have mentioned the plots and conspiracies of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos to destabilize our great country.”

It was like no other 4th of July speech in the history of America.

“I won’t fail you. I will sacrifice everything for you. God Bless America. I’m going to fix all of these problems for you. I will make the stock market rise like a rocket. Our 401ks will be bigger than ever. We will defeat the Chinese and Make America Greater than Ever Before!”

No mention of the pandemic, the people who were starving, the tens of millions of unemployed, no mention of the destroyed relationships with Canada, the European Union, Australia, Asian, and African countries. Just the usual dreamy self-promotion – until it wasn’t.

“My fellow Americans,” Trump’s voice became serious. “We face unprecedented challenges. Our amazing intelligence officers in the Secret Service have uncovered a number of plots to overthrow our great country- you know about some of them. Working with ICE and Border agents, we have unearthed plots against our government and against me, your glorious leader. I don’t want you to worry, however, as we speak ICE agents are arresting both Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. We’ve discovered that they were conspiring with Mexico and China to destroy our election process with vote tampering and fraud. I don’t know if former President’s Obama and Bush were a part of this – but for their sake, I hope they were not. We are looking into things and I want you to know that we are discovering some very dangerous things about our country – believe me, we will not leave any stone unturned.”

He again began to sound casual and breezy “I want you to know that we are doing everything we can to defend our democracy and to protect our country. We will be postponing elections until 2021 while we work to find the rat’s nests of conspirators and traitors who tried to take all of this,” he motioned his hands “from me – and you.”

“We are working with the newly re-organized post office and the bureau of elections to set up national voting by mail which should be ready to implement in early 2021. The post office is declaring its own independence from Amazon today and will no longer be giving free shipping to that billionaire traitor Jeff Bezos. I’ve appointed Roger Stone, the man I recently pardoned after he was unfairly arrested and imprisoned by Democrats, to head a media inquiry board with the power to nationalize and take editorial control of subversive media organizations. Inspector Stone has recommended that we immediately nationalize and take control of the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC. Our agents have been working quietly this morning to take control of the situation.”

“I don’t want you to worry, America. We will have fair elections, an end to fake news, and a better future. Our founding fathers would be so proud of the job I’m doing here. I just wish that my own dear father could witness this moment. God Bless America and God Bless you, Americans. Happy Independence Day.”

The crowds roared as bands began to play and jets screamed overhead at altitudes that Trump had insisted on despite the safety concerns of the pilots and the FAA.

CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, and the New York Times all published and aired glowing reports of President Trump’s glorious speech. Taking the hint, other media outlets followed suit with only a few daring to bring up the fact that Donald Trump had just arrested his political opponents and taken control of the media.

There was panic in the military, panic in the editorial rooms of the media, panic in the post office, and panic in Mexico and China. Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, the two richest men in the world, didn’t panic. They activated their private security forces. Former Postmaster General Megan Brennan also did not panic. She had already activated RoP-1-75 back in May, now she brought it online.

Chapter 22: The Foreclosure and Eviction Pandemic 

On the 6th of July, the Trump administration passed word to state and local governments that any moratoriums on evictions or foreclosures had to be lifted. Most states had put measures into place back in April that made it illegal for landlords to evict tenants for non-payment of rent and which made it illegal for banks to foreclose for lack of mortgage payments.

The banks and landlords had been clamoring to get eviction and foreclosure authority back. Trump believed that it made sense to end all of the pandemic measures. He declared the country ‘open for business’ and demanded that California and other states re-open their borders, theme parks, and airports.

Tens of thousands of eviction notices went out across the Southeast, the South, the Midwest, and the Southwest. Foreclosure proceedings were started in numbers that hadn’t been seen since the Great Recession back in 2008 and quickly exceeded those numbers. If all of the eviction and foreclosure notices that were generated in the following two weeks had been complied with – there would have been millions of newly minted homeless across the country.

California and the block of states who stood with her, chose not to comply. Governor Newsom had been referring to California as a nation and a nation-state for quite a long time. In his daily briefing, Trump demanded that the states comply.

“Failure to comply will be seen as treason,” he declared. It was the moment Newsom had been waiting for. He called a news conference – it was ignored by the Trump controlled media but live streamed on Facebook, Twitter, CBS, and ABC. Most of the world got it.

He began by reading the the opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence –

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

With that, Newsom got to the heart of the matter.

“We in California have watched in horror while the President of the United States has imprisoned his political opponents, alienated our allies, put children in cages, enforced racist and misogynist policies and destroyed the very heart of the United States of America. We, and our allies, in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Hawaii among other states have borne witness to the tragedy and sadness as our nation has been ripped apart by the pandemic, extreme wealth disparity, racism, and hatred for our fellow human beings. We can watch and hope for this horror to abate no longer.”

“From this moment, California is declaring her secession from the United States of America. We are breaking from the union. The California National Guard has secured all military bases and equipment within our borders. All United States federal employees, troops, and equipment have been conscripted into the nation of California’s service. We call on all states who share our cause, to join us in a new confederal union. For those who choose not to be citizens of California, we offer free passage to you from our country. We do not seek war and we hope that our differences with the United States can be resolved peacefully and with diplomacy, but we can no longer trust that the intentions of the United States government represent the best interests of our people.”

“The California treasury has decided that it is no longer appropriate nor safe to use American currency and we have converted all of our dollar holdings to Bitcoin because we have evaluated it and consider it safer than any other monetary unit. Over the next 30-days, Californians are encouraged to exchange their U.S. dollar holdings for Bitcoin through the treasury, Coinbase, or other California controlled exchanges.”

“For those Americans outside of California who have family serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, we do not want you to worry. We are giving service members the choice of continuing to serve in return for citizenship in the Nation of California or safe passage with their civilian belongings to our borders.”

Through a series of secret negotiations with high ranking U.S. military officials not friendly to the Trump regime, Newsom had come to this arrangement. Those officers and high ranking enlisted who were unwilling or known to be Trump supporters, had been rounded up and incarcerated in the hours before Newsom’s announcement. There were surprisingly few of the educated officer elites who were not alarmed by Trump’s actions on the 4th of July – and for most of them, California offered a lifeline that far exceeded the risks of continuing to serve a deranged and power mad President Trump.

Newsom motioned to the sidelines, off camera. A number of Generals and Admirals joined him on the stage. “I’d like to introduce our California Joint Chiefs of Staff – who are currently in control of every military installation in the State of California. This, by the way, was a bloodless transfer of power.” One of the Admirals stepped forward and whispered in Newsom’s ear. Newsom smiled.

“I have good news,” he said. “Our allies in the Kingdom of Hawaii and the newly formed country of Cascadia – which was formerly the states of Washington and Oregon – they have joined our cause. Admiral Yoast tells me that all military installations in Hawaii and Cascadia have also undergone a peaceful change of power.”

Newsom became serious “These are unprecedented times. The President of the United States has called us traitors and rebels, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our loyalty has never been stronger but it is not to the bankers, the corporate elites, or the blood sucking leaches who have sent people to their deaths for the cause of profits. Our loyalty is to our people. The Trump decrees which would have turned tens of millions of Californians, Hawaiians, and Cascadians out into the streets, and which would have made our citizens homeless and put them in unfathomable danger – these were unconstitutional and unjust. It is our hope, that someday, the great nation which was the USA can be re-united and leave behind the legacies of slavery, racism, genocide, greed, theft, and economic injustice behind. Perhaps it is no coincidence, that the states that fought for slavery now stand with Trump and his cronies. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the plains states where government genocide was used as policy against Native Americans stand with Trump. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Nazis and racists flock to his banner.”

“This is a sad day for America,” Newsom said “The Experiment has failed. However, take hope in the fact that California, Cascadia, and Hawaii stand ready to right the wrongs of the past. As we look to the poor, the exploited, the tired, and the hungry who are being exploited and used – we Californians will continue working to defeat the pandemic, to defeat racism, and to defeat poverty, hatred, injustice. It is with great hope that we look to the future when we can once again open our borders and declare to the world “Give us your poor, your tired, your hungry.”

Newsom ended the conference with the former heads of California’s FBI, CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies bringing him documents, shaking his hand, and chatting with him. All of this was planned theater meant to show the Trump regime that it no longer had any sort of legitimate power in California. As the country where Hollywood lives, California, there were no shortages of talented propagandists – and Newsom was quick to put them all to work.

With almost no exceptions, the leadership and Trump supporting rank and file of ICE, the Border Patrol, and the other armed services were taken into custody and housed with other high ranking Trump loyalists at the former Tule Lake Isolation Center, Alcatraz, and ICE immigrant detention centers throughout the state. The immigrants being held in detention centers were immediately released regardless of nationality.

Trump’s reaction was, of course, outrage. He demanded that nuclear missiles be prepared – only to be reminded that California, Cascadia, and Hawaii were also in control of nukes. Trump raged for days about how this had been allowed to happen. He vowed that it would not continue and began purges within the military within days.

There were a mass of defections of high ranking officers and enlisted within the first week of California’s independence, not from California, but to it. Troops who were originally from California deserted almost immediately and set off to their home state using military equipment and transport. Newsom had debated calling California troops back or getting word through the troops before declaring independence but the risk of word being leaked was too high.

California troops concentrated on the desert counties in Southern California first, rounding up known Trump supporters and those with white-nationalist or militia sympathies. Newsom knew that the more sparsely populated counties in the far north of California would be a future mess that would have to be cleaned up. Within days, the ‘State of Jefferson’ spanning the border between Oregon and California had declared Independence from California and sworn loyalty to the United States. Newsom didn’t want a shooting war and coordinated with Oregon to set up a blockade around ‘Jefferson’. In Oregon and Washington the Governors faced similar issues east of the Cascade Mountains. There were some skirmishes, but for the most part, Newsom and the other governors had done a good job of taking care of outliers before they knew what was happening.

Nevada requested annexation to the Nation of California. California troops moved in and fortified the new Eastern border pushing into Arizona as far as Mesquite, Kingman, and Yuma. This fulfilled a couple of security features including bringing the Marine base in Yuma into California’s borders. There was no resistance from the troops stationed there. It also put Lake Havasu under California control and created a border composed mostly of Native American Reservation lands.

The countries of France, Germany, Italy, China, Canada, Mexico, and smaller countries from Latin America, Africa, and Asia quickly offered recognition and began negotiating for trade and diplomatic relations. Russia, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Brazil, India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan all condemned the secessions and refused to have any dealings with the new nations. It didn’t really matter – the world was mostly shut down.

Meanwhile, in what was left of the United States, evictions and foreclosures were moving forward on a mass scale while the revived pandemic spread like fire in a newspaper factory. Trump raged behind closed doors, powerless to take revenge. His fast reaction with the purges, however, had saved him from similar uprisings in the Northeast, Michigan, and Illinois. There were still 45 states in the USA, but just barely.

Chapter 23: Walk, Don’t Run!

Things were happening faster than anyone could have predicted, but if the pandemic taught us anything, it was that people were capable of adapting to any situation much faster than they thought they could.

On the heels of the California secession, the USPS declared a general strike and walk out. On the surface this was a demand for higher pay and more PPE (personal protective equipment) to be issued. Beneath the surface, it was RoP-1-75 being put into play.

RoP-1-75 had several purposes and layers. The most important was the re-headquartering of the USPS. This had been put into play after the threat of Washington DC or other major cities being destroyed by a nuclear weapon materialized. The entire command and control structure of the USPS could be easily replicated in multiple cities. There was an entire secondary and tertiary command structure set up. The new Postmaster General had no idea that any of this existed since Megan Brennan had not updated him. Using the password she had gotten from former Chief Postal Inspector  David Williams, Brennan activated the emergency system.

She logged into the RoP-1-75 emergency command center. Her credentials were still good and no new super-user had been created since she had decided to stop the chain of custody.  The entire emergency command center was something else DeJoy was unaware of. She ticked the box labeled ‘REHQ’ and entered the password “19eggnog27parties.”

She was asked multiple times if she was sure, which she was and finally the screen gave her a choice of where she wanted to move command and control of the USPS. The options were New York City, Denver, Austin, Chicago, and San Francisco. There were also options to ‘split’ and ‘disperse’ command and control. Each city had a command team that had been put in place and approved by herself and David Williams at the beginning of her tenure as Postmaster General. DeJoy had not been in his new office long enough to start changing up the regional branch leadership teams, although he had fired nearly all of Brennan’s team in the DC HQ. She selected ‘disperse’.  Effectively, the USPS had just been carved into five fully functional organizations. Since she had already accepted the role of Postmaster General in Newsom’s California – she still held authority.

Despite the revolt, the USPS had kept operating in both the United States and the breakaway countries. Trump, Dejoy, and the rest of the Trumpist organization still hadn’t realized the threat that the postal service represented. They were about to learn.

Next she selected ‘walk out’ from the drop down menu. Under cause she wrote ‘Better wages and more PPE issued’. The pandemic was still raging – so it made sense.  As an afterthought she wrote ‘Solidarity with Evicted Residents’. She ticked one more box before logging out ‘Arm’. This action was perhaps the most significant – under the cover of a walkout, postal vehicles would be upgraded to military standards, sidearms and weapons would be issued from postal armories, and all postal workers were authorized to carry weapons and use deadly force. Standing contracts with the mercenary armies were activated. The main purpose of this was to protect postal interests, but essentially, it gave each regional Postmaster General a standing army. In effect, she had just created five armies. The DC HeadQuarters was left out of all of these decisions since the disperse order was supposed to only be initiated if DC was destroyed. This was fine, because it was now filled with DeJoy’s cronies and they would not have complied anyway.

When she had learned that she had been displaced in the USPS, Brennan had decided to stay in California. It was a good decision, her San Francisco office was an upgrade from the dump she had worked from in DC and the upgrade in technology she got by coming to Silicon Valley was like living in a new century.

Things happen fast in Silicon Valley. Within days of Independence, a San Francisco Stock Exchange was up and running. The entire systems was run on the ‘0x’ blockchain. California based companies (and those that wanted to continue doing business in California) were required to convert shares to the ‘0x’ platform. These shares were issued into blockchain wallets of customers or if the customers didn’t have wallets, were held in trust on the public blockchain.

The US dollar to Bitcoin conversion had issued crypto wallets to every registered California citizen using the social security number to create public keys. By the end of July, Wells Fargo had brought their crypto division online and all California funds and California accounts had been converted to Bitcoin which were held in conservancy by a joint venture of Wells Fargo and Coinbase with the Nation of California.

The opening of the San Francisco Stock Exchange (SFSE) and the conversion to ‘0x’ shares caused panic in the equities markets on the East Coast. There was a rush on cryptocurrency companies and California based corporate valuations went through the roof. Amazon shares had plummeted on the news that the USPS would no longer be subsidizing shipping but the SFSE gave a boost to Amazon and other Cascadian companies as well – among them Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco, Nike, Boeing, and T-Mobile. Shares were still trading on the NYSE – but power was shifting to the west.

Trump’s attempts to have ‘rebel’ held companies blacklisted failed as no one wanted to give up their shares of Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft or the hundreds of other tech and logistics companies that were headquartered in California, Cascadia, or Hawaii.

To put things in perspective, it makes sense to throw some numbers at you. The United States is the world’s largest economy – this didn’t change when the five states left. Prior to the split, the USA represented about 24% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). China, the number two economy represented about 15% of the world’s GDP. California, Cascadia, and Hawaii represented  about 20% of the U.S. gross domestic product – so, when you factor those numbers out of the U.S. GDP, you are left with the U.S.A still being the world’s largest economy – but instead of leading by 9%, the USA now was within spitting distance of China – Here were how the new world order stacked up.

#1 – USA generating 19% of the world’s economy

#2  – China generating 16% of the world’s economy

#3 – Japan generating 6% of the world’s economy

#4 – California, Cascadia, & Hawaii (CC&H)  generating 5% of the world’s economy

#5 – Germany generating atom 4.5% of the world’s economy

Followed by India, the UK, France, Brazil, and Italy.

CC&H was now the 4th largest economy in the world and in terms of military powers it ranked right around the same area because of the navy it had commandeered in San Diego and Hawaii and the nuclear arsenal and Air Force it now controlled  in California, Hawaii, and Washington. The entire balance of world power had just shifted. Russia had been knocked out of the top 10 economies. Putin was pissed but as the coronavirus ravaged Russia, there was nothing he could do but watch from afar.

One of the first things Newsom had done upon taking power was shutting down the Russian spy operation. Russian owned and influenced conservative networks were nationalized, Russian troll farms were shut down on the social networks with rapid executive legislation, and known Russian operatives were rounded up and interred with the Trumpists or released into Arizona or Utah.

By the end of July, the Post Office had been divided and the USA central command of it had been neutered thanks to the disperse order. Since the walkout had been ordered, Dejoy and Washington DC were still oblivious to the fact that they were no longer in control. CC&H had signed non-aggression treaties with Japan, China, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and most of the European nations. The IRS was scrambling to make sense of the confusion that had come from delaying tax payments, the revolt of CC&H, and the chaos of COVID-19. Eviction and foreclosure notices were flying out of courts and sheriff’s offices across the remaining 45 states. Mostly they were being ignored, but the number of homeless in places where they were being enforced doubled, tripled, and quadrupled rapidly.

The number of unemployed and homeless was impossible to count due to everything that was happening but the last numbers in the old United States (representing June) were released and showed that unemployment had reached right around 40% of eligible workers and nearly 50% when including those who stopped looking for work.

Military fortifications had been quickly constructed along the borders of Idaho, Utah, and Arizona. Arizona had lost some territory to California before anyone had really understood what was going on. Tribal zones in Arizona and former Nevada became quasi neutral zones where citizen exchanges took place as CC&H citizens made their way home and non-CC&H citizens headed back into the USA. Tribal organizations were enjoying an economic boom and because of the pandemic were exercising more autonomy than at any time in the history of the USA.

While many expected that the citizen exchanges would cause yet another wave of the deadly pandemic that had swept through the heartland of the USA, it never happened. Instead, Gaia’s virus spread faster than ever to the areas where it had not yet been exposed. As August began, the deadly pandemic started by Russia and Trumpists had largely been neutralized – but the changes it had caused would never go away.

Bob watched everything that was happening with a sense of powerlessness. He was a bigger part of everything than he knew – the Postbox and the organization he had spawned had made it possible for the Post Office and Newsom to do much more than even they understood. It wasn’t over for Bob though. He still had a role to play.

As he watched news footage of people being evicted from their homes and postal workers marching in strike lines, he had the most important idea of his life. Thankfully, he immediately posted it onto the  PostBox server.

“What if we used postal picket lines to keep people from being evicted? What if we harnessed the awesome logistics power of the post office to deliver food, medical supplies, and end hunger? What if we turned the postal service into an army for the betterment of humanity? ”

In truth, every postal worker is a hero. It was no surprise that his ideas exploded on the PostBox and spread like wildfire through the striking postal workers. Everyone from leadership (but not in DC) to the lowest ranks loved the idea. Their energy fed Bob’s energy. He was fired up.

“I’m going to leave California and walk across America to end poverty and homelessness,” Bob virtually screamed onto the server. Gaia’s words came back to him, ‘Sometimes the best tactic is to move towards your enemy.’

“I’m walking to Washington D.C.” Millions of his followers decided that they would take part too. It was a literal movement – of people from one place to many other places.

Chapter 24 – The Virus Defeated and Gaia’s Blessing

Bob’s journey started in mid-September. He crossed the border in Mesquite, California which had previously been Mesquite, Arizona. Arizona itself had wavered with requesting annexation as a huge number of residents had been Californians originally but had moved to Arizona to escape higher taxes and to have a lower cost of living. They were, for the most part, too old to move again or too poor. Ultimately, the conservative leaning government of Arizona had decided to remain where they were while understanding that was a precarious position between a rock and a hard place. Mesquite itself had been cut in half with a part of the town on each side of the border.

Zeta drove Bob to the border town in a postal jeep. Zeta and many others had offered to go with Bob but he had refused. He thought it was better for him to start this journey on his own. In Mesquite, the California border guards made sure that Bob understood that the borders of California were still sealed by the quarantine and if he wanted to return, he would need to quarantine for 30 days. Bob signed the agreement.

He walked into Mesquite and was met by a Postbox delegation of about a dozen people. They helped him navigate through US customs, a situation that had become tricky if you had a California driver’s license. The entire experience was a bit nerve wracking because by necessity, social distancing was difficult at borders. The group that met him offered to drive him to wherever he wanted.

“Are there any evictions due to happen today?” he asked. There were three physical evictions that were meant to take place that day. Arizona sheriff’s were assembling now to physically remove one family.  The papers were going to be delivered today to a dozen others.

“Let’s go to the eviction,” Bob said “That family needs our help.”

I don’t want it to sound like Bob was alone in this. The PostBox community had become overwhelmingly enthusiastic. They had made signs and banners. They had assembled the PVC pipes, handcuffs, and ropes they would need to do an effective sit in and blockade. Also, there were armed postal workers standing by in case things became violent. The idea was to have non-violent protest but if things did turn violent to keep the upper hand and protect the protestors.

There were about thirty people assembled at the house.

Bob didn’t know it, but when he had met Gaia, she had infected him with a super-bug. The super-bug was a mutated variation of Gaia’s coronavirus that boosted immune response, created proteins that nullified the virulent nature of any coronavirus, and massively boosted the ability of the body to create Vitamin D from sunlight. Bob was, in effect, a walking vaccination. Anyone who came into contact with him, became immune from coronavirus. Bob was incredibly contagious. He was the virulent vector – but in a good way.

The striking postal workers began picketing on the sidewalk with a couple of different signs.

“Better Pay, More Protection”

“Postal Workers Love American Families”

“The Post Office Works for Families”

and

“No Evictions, No Foreclosures”

“USPS vs. Homelessness”

“Hell no! Not on my Route!”

That last one had been Zeta’s idea. Actually it had been his words when the evictions were announced. Bob had suggested they be used on a sign.

Within an hour there were over a hundred people gathered. The other residents of the neighborhood soon joined them. Social distancing just wasn’t going to happen, no matter how hard they tried. It went against human nature. Humans were a hugging, touching, stroking, kissing, and embracing species at heart. When humans’ actually touched one another, the violent urge left them. It was a part of why things had gone so wrong – modern human society before coronavirus was too distant, too cold, and too disconnected. People needed warmth from other people.

In this case, there were two people in the crowd who were carrying the deadly virus but didn’t know it. It jumped from them to others and from those others to others. In two weeks time, a large number of this crowd would have been dead – except Bob was there. Bob smacked people on the back, accepted a hug from the home owner, and had to shake hands multiple times with PostBox members who came to meet him. It’s easy to condemn people for not being cautious, but the truth is, social distancing goes against our every instinct.

Protests sprang up in front of the other houses due to be foreclosed or served eviction notices. The sheriffs were told that they would not be allowed to do their job. Looking at the crowd and seeing the openly armed postal workers watching from the sidelines, the sheriffs decided that discretion was the better part of valor. They didn’t want to go into that crowd of people and risk their lives. They didn’t know that Bob’s super-virus was spreading like wildfire through the crowd. It was an extremely sturdy virus and was transferred by touch, air, and possibly even by smiles.

Bob was ferried between the protests and in each place he closely interacted with everyone he came into contact with. The media came out and social media influencers shot phone footage and shared it to their networks. There was a lot of condemnation for the unsafe distancing and breaking of protocols, but  such was the exuberance at the sites that those who were there decided it was worth it, whatever the cost.

The truth is that humanity had mostly reached a place where life was no longer worth living if it had to continue on the way it was. People wanted to either get their lives back or end their lives.  There was also a hidden factor in that Bob’s virus had a narcotic effect on people who contracted it. They became happy and carefree in regards to life or death. Their brains were flooded with dopamine.

Over the course of the day, the protests turned into more of a street party. Those who came outside and joined caught Bob’s virus. In many cases ,they then took it to the people they cared about. Only those who were the most rigid, the most scared, and the most socially distant avoided Bob’s disease. This ultimately resulted in two scenarios – they eventually caught the deadly coronavirus and died awful deaths or they remained isolated until someone brought them Bob’s virus which created a desire to touch and be close to others – but not in a creepy way!

The movement spread quickly – as did Bob’s virus. Postal workers and neighbors across America began to blockade evictions and foreclosures. Governor’s threatened to use the National Guard but found that when they tried to activate them, they didn’t show up. Trump declared that he would be bringing U.S. troops into the situation but his commanders and officer corps accurately gauged that their troops would mutiny if forced to evict children and seniors during a pandemic.

Bob’s original plan of walking across America had to be thrown out the window – it was too big and it would take too long. Instead, he was carried like a package by the United States Post Office from city to city and town to town. From Mesquite he went to Phoenix, Tucson, Green Valley, and Prescott.  Up into Salt Lake City and then to Denver,Colorado and Lincoln, Nebraska before heading directly to Chicago and then into Michigan. In Detroit and Flint, Bob was met by huge crowds. Bob’s virus exploded into African American communities and created a soaring joy that was like nothing that had been felt since the Emancipation Proclamation. It wasn’t Bob that caused this, it was the empowerment of standing together and taking control of their communities.

From Michigan he traveled to New York. New York, the original American epicenter of the virus was a shadow of itself. The streets were empty, those who ventured out wore masks and moved with a caution borne of great calamity. Bob and his entourage walked across the Manhattan Bridge. At this point, there were hundreds who had traveled with him and as they walked, people came to their windows, ventured out of their doors, and slowly and with caution joined the procession. At first they followed and kept to the edges but as they became infected by both Bob’s virus and the spirit of the moment – they fell in together.

Over the six weeks since he had begun, the signs had grown and changed. The originals were still there but now they were joined by

“People over profits”

“Not my 1%”

“End Billionaires”

“My Home NOT Your Dividend”

There was a shared sense of solidarity and common purpose as they marched into Manhattan. As they came upon wall street, trucks filled with workers moved to the famous bronze bull and began to dismantle it. The windows of the New York Stock Exchange were painted over with pictures of flowers and children. The ‘Mighty Girl’ statue was joined by statues of a ‘Mighty Boy’, ‘Mighty Mother’, ‘Mighty Father’, and ‘Mighty Grandparents’. This was not a destructive riot. It was calm and deliberate work. The graffiti artists weren’t tagging gang names, they were tagging messages of empowerment.

During the course of Bob’s trip across America, he had become famous. The media interviewed him about why he was doing it, what he was trying to accomplish. In the South and many deep red states ‘Anti-Bob’ sentiment was running riot. Red state governors were threatening to arrest or kill him on the spot if he entered their states.

In Chicago, he had avoided doing any interviews – but it was already too late. He had been spotted and identified. People knew who he was. Bob centered conspiracy theories rose from everywhere. Who was Bob? Was he a revolutionary? Did he work for Newsom? What was his connection to the post office?

While Bob was celebrating with the people of New York City, word came from the Attorney General of the United States that an indictment and arrest warrant had been issued for Bob ‘Bobby’ Dauber, a murderous mafia boss from the south side of Chicago. The U.S. Justice Department gave a big upgrade to Bob’s mafia resume and made him sound like some kind of Al Capone. Just about everything they claimed to be truth were lies. According to the indictment, ‘Bobby Dauber’ had been the head of the Dauber crime cartel and was responsible for the gangland executions of hundreds of his family’s enemies. The only victim listed on the indictment that Bob had actually killed was John Ficarotta, but the U.S. Justice Department has never been shy about truth getting in the way of an indictment.

The Justice Department wasn’t stupid and they had noticed that something was off with the U.S. Post Office and that there was a big connection between the USPS and Bob. According to them, Bob’s gang had infiltrated the Postal Union and taken control of the nation’s mail to deliver drugs, weapons, and other contraband. Taking things even further, the indictment made connections between  the ‘Dauber Family’ and such notables as Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsom, Bill Gates, and of course Jeff Bezos. One could see the hand of the president all over the new conspiracy theory.

First Bob had become a hero and now – he was public enemy number one.

Very little of it was true and Bob’s followers would have defended him to the death but when a troop of FBI agents walked up to Bob and informed him that he was under arrest, Bob held up his hand hand and told his followers and friends that it was okay.

He had intended to go all the way to Washington, DC, but it wasn’t going to happen now.

“This is what is meant to happen,” he said. In truth, while much of what they had accused him of were nothing but lies, it actually was a relief to be able to acknowledge who he really was, who he had been, and who he had become.

The Trump administration used Bob’s arrest as an excuse to immediately begin purging the Post Office, starting with the unfortunate Postmaster General DeJoy. Bob was transported to Ryker’s Island and placed in maximum security. In the process of being arrested and transported, he infected members of the FBI and once in the prison, he was patient zero in a prison wide outbreak – of the Bob virus.

The Trump purges were largely successful at arresting and disempowering those who actually supported Trump. As for those who were against him and/or ‘with’ Bob, they were no longer easy to find, easy to arrest, or willing to allow themselves to be taken as Bob had.

California at first unequivocally denied any association with Bob. The leadership of the Post Office (in the USA) and the Postal Union both denied having ever heard of Bob. Reports came out of Chicago that the Dauber family had never been ‘bosses’ in any sense of the word. The news had brought the movement Bob had started to a screeching halt – but then, something amazing happened.

People started to lie.

Former President Barack Obama claimed that Bob had been a key intelligence resource under his administration and had made it possible to end the mafia rule of Chicago. No one knows why he decided to do it, maybe it was just to get under Trump’s skin or maybe he just saw an opportunity to undermine the Trump regime.

In any event, New York Governor Mario Cuomo followed suit and said that Bob had been responsible for New York cleaning up gangland. At this point, it was becoming cool to support Bob. Plus, his disease was spreading like oil on water. Everywhere it went, people felt a renewed sense of hope and a sudden desire to help and interact with other people.

President Newsom was the next to join the party, releasing what he said were ‘classified’ documents that detailed how Bob had been working with the former State of California to root out white supremacists, Mexican cartels, and methamphetamine rings.

The Trump controlled media didn’t share any of this information but it rolled out to people through text messages, social networks, and underground networks.  Bob’s jailers began treating him with a lot more courtesy and respect than prisoners at Ryker’s Island usually get. So much so, that it was noticed by their superiors who were monitoring the situation from Washington D.C. by video link. As Bob’s virus spread through the general population, Rykers Island became a very different place with both guards and hardened criminals helping each other whenever they could.

The cities Bob had visited were re-opening without anyone’s permission. The social distancing guidelines were being ignored. Life was returning to what it had been  before and the evictions and foreclosures were either ignored or legislated out of existence. The southern states remained in lockdown, borders were tightly controlled, and the Trump purges continued in the military, the post office, universities, and police departments. Non-white neighborhoods and cities were cordoned off. As October ended there was a clear divide between the North and South United States. The South, the Midwest, and much of the Rocky Mountain States were still fiercely loyal to Trump and the god awful things he stood for.

On a dark and moonless Halloween night, a black helicopter landed on Ryker’s Island. Bob was shackled, hooded, and led out of the prison and loaded into the chopper. One would have thought he was Osama Bin Laden given the security precautions that had been taken – not just some deadhead who had been forced into a life of crime as a young man but who had escaped to eventually embrace a life of love.

I do want to be clear about something here. Bob wasn’t a hero. In fact, Bob had done some seriously awful things right up to the time he met Gaia – sure, maybe he had done them to people that deserved it, but the fact that he had done those things at all showed what kind of a human being he was. It was only when he met Gaia that Bob truly embraced a life of love. She flipped the switch in him. She taught him the universal lesson that all humans can learn, but that most never understood or bothered thinking about – it was this.

A human soul consciousness can never find satisfaction until it is working for the satisfaction of all human souls and the consciousness totality.

That was it. That was the meaning of life. It was the complete opposite of what experience in ‘the world’ taught a person to go after. Experiencing the world taught people that the only way to succeed was to look out for yourself and your own. Only if you took everything that you wanted or thought you deserved could you find true happiness and satisfaction. That was the big lie the world told everyone.

The truth was hidden but for those who found it, it became obvious. The only way to move forward was to become a part of the whole. As long as you were an isolated unit – you were trapped in an unsatisfying existence – no matter how much you took, controlled, or owned. It was why Trump, Bezos and all those other billionaires kept taking more and more – because they were still focused on themselves.

Hopefully you understand that.

The helicopter flew off into the Darkness taking Bob to his fate. He was on his way to Washington DC.

 

Chapter 25: A Capital No More

Bob couldn’t see it because he was in a black helicopter on a black night wearing a black hood, but Washington DC was a mess. The streets had been destroyed by Trump’s military parade and the city was in lockdown from the virus and siege mode from the evictions. The eviction notices had gone out in DC and the police and District of Columbia National Guard had gone out to enforce the evictions.

It was not a good idea. DC was the one place in the nation where the post office was not on the side of the people. Sure, there were plenty of individual postal workers who went out to picket and protest and stop the evictions, but the DC HQ was not behind them. Hell, Trump had turned the old DC post office into a hotel. As a result, those who attempted to blockade evictions were met with force and had two choices, fight or run. They chose to fight.

Fires sprang up all over the city. Snipers began firing at police and guard units. The whole city was declared under martial law. The White House was surrounded by tanks and concertina wire. Trump had already fled to Florida with his entire family. Business would be conducted from Mar a Lago, the so called ‘Winter White House’ even though it was only the first of November.

The black helicopter flew over DC and landed at Dulles and Bob was transported to a black SUV which took him to 935 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the headquarters of the FBI. He was led inside the building, taken down an elevator, and pushed into a cell. The hood and handcuffs were finally removed. After his eyes adjusted to the dim light, Bob realized he was in a sort of dungeon.

An old man and old woman sat huddled together in the next cell with an army blanket draped over their shoulders. Bob looked to see if there were any guards but they appeared to have been abandoned and left on their own.

The old man began coughing. The old woman didn’t say a word or make a move.

“Are you alright sir?” Bob asked. “Are you okay? Should we call for help?”

At this the old woman raised her head and began to cackle. Her laugh was brittle and on the edge of a hysterical madness. “Who you gonna call? Nobody is coming to help us. What do you think this is, the Hilton?”

Bob recognized her voice. It was Hillary Clinton.

The man next to her began coughing again and then started to mutter “If you wanna be the champ, you can’t stop fighting. You have to keep going. That’s what I said to her and then she got in the car and I never saw her again. It was the saddest moment of my whole damn sad life.” His voice trailed off. He wasn’t talking to anyone, he was just talking.

“It’s okay, Joe,” Clinton said to him. “It’ll all be okay buddy. Don’t worry, Bill’s coming. He’ll come.”

Bob had been thrown in the deepest darkest hole the United States of America had along with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. There were other doors, other prisoners, but none of them spoke or could be seen in the dark.

Gradually, however, things began to change. The mood inside the room lightened. Bob, after all, was the vector for the Bob virus and it tended to make people see the bright side of things. Those who had been suffering from Covid-19 symptoms, began to feel better – it wasn’t an immediate process, but it was an immediate effect on the consciousness.

“Do you really think Bill is coming?” Bob asked. He had forgotten that they had no idea who he was.

“Sure, he’s coming,” Hillary told him. She stared daggers at him. She tightened her arm around Biden. “He’ll be here buddy. He’s coming.”

Bob shut up.

The sound of the elevator doors opening caused him to turn. A beautiful white light spilled into the room and a female figure marched purposefully forward. Bob couldn’t see her features because of the light behind her. As she got closer, Bob realized he knew her, he knew who this was.

She stepped up to the cell he was locked in and used a key to unlock the door.

“Come on Bob,” Megan Brennan said to him “You’re not done yet.” She turned and began to walk away.

Bob stopped her “Wait, Megan..” he motioned to where Clinton and Biden were sitting in their cell, “What about them?”

“They’re not my priority,” Brennan told him, “but here.” She handed him the ring of keys she had released him with. Bob found one stamped with the numbers on the cell door. He unlocked it.

“Come on, Bob.” Megan said to him. “We don’t have time for them. Let’s go.”

Bob waved goodbye and rushed to follow Megan J. Brennan, the Postmaster General of California, Cascadia, and Hawaii who was rescuing him from a cage in Washington, DC – for some reason.

As the elevator climbed to the ground floors, she briefed him. “Some of our people saw you get taken. I still have friends in high places in Washington DC but there was no way they were going to let anyone besides me take you out of here.” As they walked through the building, they were ignored. It was like they were invisible.

Bob waved his hand in front of his face. “They don’t see us?”

Brennan laughed. “The FBI only sees what they are supposed to see. Everyone here saw you taken into a deep dark hole – but that’s all they were ordered to see. Anything else is just extra paperwork.”

Walking out the front door, Brennan was met by a team of tactical mercenaries.

“Ma’am, we need to get you out of this city. It’s not safe and our window is closing.”

“Fine,” Brennan said. “Say goodbye Washington, DC, Bob.” They were about to load into a black SUV but Bob hesitated.

“Wait,” he said “I can’t leave. I have to stop Donald Trump.”

“Too late,” Brennan told him. “He’s already flown the coop and is running things from Florida.”

As they drove past burning cars through streets where clashes were intensifying by the minute, Bob had his first and last look at Washington, DC. Crowds were pushing closer to the White House and the sound of automatic gunfire rang out. The caravan of black vehicles sped up.

“I can help them,” Bob said.

“No,” Brennan told him. “You’re needed elsewhere. Trust me, this city will take care of itself and I feel bad for anyone who gets in the way.”

The majority of the population in Washington, DC is African American. You would never guess that if you were watching films or news though because outside of DC, the only neighborhoods that people see or hear about are the affluent neighborhoods – because of social inequality and the injustice of wealth distribution as well as the racist nature of American life in the first place. The majority of the citizens of Washington, DC were tired of being treated like second class citizens.

The White House and many of the most iconic of the monuments in Washington, DC had been built with slave labor. The citizens of DC had never forgotten it though the rest of the USA and the world seemed okay with forgetting about it. Today was the day of reckoning.

Before the night was over, Washington, DC would collapse and the White House would be on fire. It would be Hillary Clinton who struck the match. She emerged from the FBI dungeons on a mission. She was fully infected with the Bob virus and the smile never left her face. Her natural charisma was enhanced by the feelings of positivity the Bob virus created and the long crippling fears of overstepping her power or underplaying her authority were gone (the same fears, by the way, that had caused so many to view her as insincere or untrustworthy.)

When Hillary Clinton stepped out of that dungeon with poor Joe Biden and a ragtag band of Donald Trump’s political enemies trailing behind her, there was nothing anyone could do to stop her.  “Let’s burn this motherfucker down!” she screamed. The city’s population quickly declared “I’m with her!”

By that point, Brennan was on her way back to CC&H and Bob was in a convoy heading to Florida. The drive would take somewhere around 16 hours with no stops and perfect conditions, but because they had to avoid certain hazards on the way, Bob would arrive on November 3rd – which would have been Election Day, if there were going to be elections.

Chapter 26: Election Day 

By the time Bob reached Florida, the deadly virus had been mostly defeated in California, Cascadia, and Hawaii. The Bob virus had spread through the new nation quickly bringing hope, a renewed sense of energy, and a true desire to work together as a species to overcome the challenges that had for so long kept us apart. The pockets of resistance, like the State of Jefferson and those areas east of the Cascade Mountains had been devastated by the deadly virus and with no human connections to the Bob virus, mortality was on display as the corpses piled up. CC&H offered to send humanitarian aid, medicine, and medical equipment but those offers were refused. Groups like Doctors Without Borders tried to infiltrate and were either shot at, or in the case of one unfortunate delegation – were captured, lynched, and left hanging as a warning to others.

East of CC&H, the deadly virus did its work through Montana, the Dakotas, bloody Kansas, Ohio, and the states of the former Confederacy. The Bob virus entered pockets of the South as people from Chicago, Detroit, Flint, New York City, and DC  braved the deadly virus to take care of or rescue family members in Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama. These were mostly African American communities and since the rise of Trumpism had coincided with a rise in racism and an isolation and new segregation of black from white – the Bob virus was generally only benefitting people of color in the red states. As for the white people – just like in the State of Jefferson – they died in droves. Their increased mortality rate only drove them to further extremes of fear, hate, and anger. They didn’t have the cure but they had enough blame to last until Judgment Day.

The Bob virus had also moved from Mesquite to Native American tribal lands and Latino communities in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. A funny thing about Texas that many people outside of Texas don’t know – despite the deep Southern drawl, Texas tends to be one of the least racist places in the former USA. Sure, there were pockets of elite whiteism and pockets of backwoods ignorance – but for the most part, the average white Texan has too many non-white neighbors, co-workers, and family members to ignore the fact that people are just people. As a result, the Bob virus spread pretty heavily through Texas sparing much of the population.

Not so with Florida. If there was a capital of the Deep South, it was Florida and with the fall of Washington, DC and Trumps move to Mar a Lago, Florida had become the de-facto capital of the United States of America. Crossing the border from Georgia, Bob was astounded by the number of military vehicles and checkpoints they had to go through. At one point, they had to stop in St Augustin and transfer out of the black SUVs and into a green Lexus. Bob was given new identity papers that identified him as Robert Jordan of Jupiter, Florida. His escort didn’t engage in conversation with him. They didn’t answer his questions and they didn’t ask him what he wanted. They had been hired by Megan Brennan to get Bob to Mar a Lago – and that was all they were interested in doing.

“Robert Jordan was a major donor to the Trump campaign and is a longtime member of the Mar a Lago Country Club,” his handler told him. “You look enough like him that you shouldn’t have any issues unless you are introduced or run into someone who knew him and they hear your name.”

“What happened to him?” Bob asked.

“You don’t need to know that,” he was told.

Mar a Lago had military checkpoints set up. Ever since a crazed opera singer had tried to run the gates back in 2019, it was treated the same way as Camp David or other Presidential Retreats. It had not yet moved to biometric security however and since it was an active country club, members were allowed to access all but those areas now designated as ‘Presidential’. Using his membership card, Bob’s handler was able to drive Bob right in. He dropped Bob off at the clubhouse and drove away.

Bob had no idea what he was supposed to do. He had no idea what was expected of him. All he knew was that he was here and somewhere Trump was here. That just left finding him. Bob didn’t have a gun or any sort of weapon. He was wearing a pair of eyeglasses with clear lenses and ‘golf attire’. He certainly didn’t look anything like himself – but it wouldn’t be long before someone was bound to recognize him.

As I’ve mentioned, it was Election Day. November 03, 2020. President Trump was preparing to address the nation. It was on every TV in the clubhouse. Bob had no idea where Trump might actually be, but he figured he would watch the address.

As usual, Trump’s speech sounded almost normal as it began.

“My fellow Americans, great great really truly wonderful Americans…” but quickly became Trumpian. “Our nation faces unprecedented challenges and while I promise you that we will overcome these challenges because as we speak I am massing our military in Florida so that we can take back what is ours…but I won’t be giving away any military details like that idiot Obama or evil Hillary Clinton did, we won’t be discussing our war plans on television for the enemy to prepare.” It was like he had two sides of his mouth and they didn’t work together to coordinate his ideas – one gave the plans away while the other denied it. “Our beautiful white city has been destroyed by black hordes. Washington, DC is gone but let’s be honest, it was a dump anyway – not a beautiful place like this. Mar a Lago is the most beautiful place on earth and I bought it for a song, one of the most amazing deals in history, better than the purchase of Alaska or the Louisiana purchase, because have you been to Louisiana? Not nice.”  As usual, Trump’s knowledge of history (or lack of it) was irrelevant – it was only what he felt or wanted to say that mattered. “So, Washington, DC is gone. We’re thinking about nuking it to just really clean it up and completely sever the connection, but some people…” he looked menacingly off camera “still think we need to wait.”

There had never been a speech like it. “Today is Election Day and I know that we have postponed our glorious election but I have a special treat for you, a real surprise that is going to blow your minds. The people are going to be so happy, so, so, happy – just the happiest people. Since the other candidates had to be arrested, we’ve disqualified them. That means, actually, that we no longer have to have an election because – get ready for it – I’ve won! You’ve elected me President again and with the largest majority of any president in history. Bigger than Washington or Lincoln and better.”

“So, it’s a day that is filled with many challenges which I can assure you we will overcome. First of all, I’d like to assure everyone that we’ve uncovered information that definitively proves that the pandemic was a liberal plot all along. There was no pandemic – this is literally just the worst flu season that we’ve ever had. I’ve had the entire Coronavirus task force arrested and they will likely be court-martialed and executed within days for enabling the breakaway states in the West to disrespect me and our country in this way.”

Even judging Trump’s speeches by his previous speeches – this one was beyond the pale.

“The good news though, is that the pandemic is over. We have the green light to completely and totally reopen our country. And the good news doesn’t stop there. Our country is still the largest and greatest country the world has ever known,” which technically, it wasn’t since a few months earlier it had been larger and greater by far, but never mind – he went on. “The USA is the greatest country in the world with the greatest leader in the world. Because you’ve given me your confidence and approval with 100% of all the votes cast going to me,” no votes had been cast, so he technically wasn’t lying – for once. “I’ve decided to take your mandate and your trust and use my executive powers to make this country even greater. First of all, I’m sorry to tell you that Vice President Mike Pence has died. He was a great man, but you don’t need to worry – I’ve appointed my son in law, Jared Kushner to replace him. Jared come on out here.”  Pence had died of coronavirus a few days before. The news had been exciting for Trump because he could now make this announcement.

“As you know, Jared is the very lucky man married to my gorgeous daughter Ivanka.” He motioned for the camera to point to Ivanka. “Isn’t she gorgeous? So sexy. It’s hard to believe she’s had kids with that body.” He called the camera back to him and Kushner on the stage. “As you know, Jared created peace in the Middle East and solved the Palestinian problem. He’s the best kind of Jew and you know, the Jews are really really great. They’ve never really been the problem some people thought they were, it was just a matter of being able to make deals with them, to negotiate because let me tell you, they love money. They love money more than anyone, except maybe for me, but the Jews, they are really shrewd and great negotiators but not as good as Jared. And you know, I’ve always felt bad about Ivanka not taking Jared’s families last name – okay, not really because why would she give up such a great name but I did feel bad about Jared not being able to be a real part of my family. To me, he’s always been a Trump. So I want to use my executive powers to formally rename him right here in front of you all. Ladies and gentlemen, your new vice-president – Mr. Jared Kushner Trump.”

There were all kinds of constitutional problems going on with this circus, but Trump didn’t care. This was his moment.

He went on “Also, since DC is such a hellhole – especially now. I’ve decided to use my second executive order of this new term to name Mar a Lago as the new capitol of the United States. Trust me, it’s much much nicer than DC was. We only let the best people in this place, really and truly exclusive.” Bob looked around. There were a couple dozen old white people in the clubhouse with him. They were all dressed in golf attire, they all had cocktails in their hands despite it being 10 am. He noticed there were now Secret Service agents at the door, checking everyone who came in to make sure they had proper IDs.

Trump’s speech continued. “Also, as you know, I own this property and since it wouldn’t really make sense to have some future president live on property I own, it seems like the only reasonable way to fix that issue is to make myself President for life. The elections this year were really spectacular and had all kinds of issues with cheating and misleading the voters and we’ve come up with a way to fix that. The President for Life position solves all of these problems. No more cheating on presidential elections, no more electoral college – which wasn’t even a university but more like a community college. Instead of having these ridiculous elections, I’ll just appoint a successor to take over when I die. You won’t have to worry about voting ever again. When I die ( a long, long time from now), Jared and Ivanka will take over until Baron is old enough to be king.” Trump didn’t seem to notice his slip, or maybe he didn’t care. Eric and Don Jr. were both caught off guard by this announcement, but there was nothing they could do about it.

You might be thinking ‘the people would never stand for all of this, there would be riots in the streets’ but you have to remember that the only ones actually watching him were Trump supporters. They loved it. They ate it up. They posted to social media glowing messages like “Trump solves voter fraud” and “Finally, a capitol I’d like to visit” and even “I <heart> Prince Baron”. They were ecstatic. They cheered at all of the watch parties and spread the deadly virus to each other with high fives and hugs. Finally, America had its own aristocracy.

“So, my fellow Americans and Trump supporters, our country is greater than ever before. We’ve won. I bet you never thought you could win so much before Donald Trump came around. I once told you that we’d win so much you’d get tired of winning – but guess what – we’re just going to keep winning. God Bless America and especially God Bless me and my family.”

Trump walked offstage and the news switched over to glowing commentators on the USA owned and controlled networks who talked about the ‘masterful use of power’ and the ‘amazing new USA that was born today’.

Bob was simply confused. There was no way he would be able to get to Trump. The people around him were ecstatic – partly because of the news, but mostly because the Bob virus was spreading to them. It didn’t discriminate. Bob had probably saved them from a horrible death, but again, he didn’t know he was even carrying or spreading the virus.  Even if Bob could reach Trump, he wasn’t going to kill him. That just wasn’t who he was anymore. It was pointless, there was no reason for him to be there. Bob sat nursing a drink for the next hour – not sure what to do. He was at a complete loss.

Still here he was and Gaia’s advice was all he had – move toward your enemy. Bob walked up to the secret service agent at the door. “I’d like to speak with the President. I have information about California that will help him.”

The agent looked searchingly at him for a moment and then asked with a bit of suspicion “What’s your name?”

Bob took off the clear lens glasses “Dauber. Bob Dauber.”

The agent pulled his gun “I knew you looked familiar.” Bob was handcuffed and led away. The agent he’d spoken to was on his walkie talkie reporting the situation. He listened intently into his earpiece and then stopped the agents leading Bob away.

“The boss wants to see him. Right away.”

Bob was put on the back of a golf cart and driven to Trump’s palace. He was strip searched and hosed off with bleach water before being given an orange prisoner’s jump suit and led into the Presidential Office.

Trump was there. He was more orange than he appeared on TV. The experimental vaccines he had been given were turning him more orange by the day, Bob could see where he had washed the ‘not so orange’ makeup off after his address. Even for Trump, the color had become too much. It was unreal.

Bob was shoved into a seat.

Trump turned his back to Bob and looked out the window at the rolling green hills of his golf course. Finally, he turned back to Bob.

“You must think I’m pretty stupid,” Trump said. “You’ve caused all kinds of problems for me  with the eviction protests. Why in the world would I believe that you had come to help me?”

Well, that was that. Bob didn’t have an answer so he decided to just be a smart-ass.  “I was really inspired by your speech. ” Never mind that he had snuck onto Mar a Lago disguised as someone else or escaped from the FBI dungeon.

To his surprise, Trump ate it up. “Yes, it was very good wasn’t it. Probably the most important moment in the history of the world. I’m not surprised it inspired you.”

Bob had no words.

“Well, out with it then. What do you know? How can you help me?”

Bob was still speechless. He didn’t have anything planned. He didn’t actually have any sort of information. He searched the furthest reaches of his mind for anything that he could say and he suddenly remembered a book he had read back in the 1980s called Ecotopia by a guy named Ernest Callenbach. In the book, the Pacific Northwest secedes and plants nukes under major US cities in order to retain their independence. It was a good book.

“California has planted suitcase nukes under all of the Trump properties in the USA,” Bob said. “As soon as you begin the invasion, they plan to blow them all up.”

“I already knew about that,” Trump lied. “We’re never going to invade we just wanted them to waste a bunch of nukes.” Bob was lying, of course – he’d just made it up. Stolen a plot line from a book. “Do you have any new information for me?”

“That was it, Sir.” Bob added the sir at the last minute. He knew that Trump would eat it up.

Trump did. He sat just a bit higher. “Thank you for trying to help.”

Trump called out to the two agents at the door “Get this man off my property. Give him $10,000 and dump him at the gate.”

“Sir, don’t you think we should question him? He may have more intel…” the agent looked at his partner dubiously.

“No, he tried to help but he doesn’t know anything else.” At this point, like all liars, Trump was more concerned about his lie being discovered than anything else. He’d told Bob he knew about the nukes and now it was only Bob and more information that could reveal that he didn’t actually know anything about the nukes. “Get him out of here and do what I’ve said.”

Everyone around Trump had learned the lesson of not doing what he said. Bob was led out of the room. As he walked out the door Trump said to him “I appreciate your gesture of trying to tell me something that you thought I didn’t know but which I totally did already know about. Now get out of my country.”

The last thing Bob heard before the door closed was Trump picking up the phone and saying “Call the Joint Chiefs of Staff immediately, get my generals in here right away.”

Bob was taken to the gates of Mar a Lago and given $10,000 US dollars. It was really weird. Since the US was now ‘completely re-opened’ he was able to buy a used car and drive back to Arizona, stopping along the way in New Orleans, Texas, and Albuquerque. Bob’s story was done, he was ready to go home, he was ready to move to the next phase of his life.

Chapter 27: Aftermath

Gaia’s revenge was slow and painful. The experimental vaccines that Trump had taken had not only protected him from the deadly virus but also caused his body to react in a particularly nasty way when it was exposed to the Bob virus. Trump’s body began to strangle itself on a cellular level. Oxygen and nutrients that would have usually fed cells were instead locked out. Trump’s body began to waste away from the inside out.

After his meeting with Bob, Trump and his military advisers had called off the planned invasion of California until such a time that they could ascertain whether or not there were actually nukes under all of the Trump properties. The joint chiefs and generals were all relieved to have an excuse as a second civil war was the last thing that anyone besides Trump wanted.

During the following weeks as Trump’s health worsened, Jared, now called Trump II by most of those around him stepped up and began to have a much more important role. The Bob virus had all but wiped out all of the coronavirus’ in the USA. As much as it could, life was returning to normal. The hardest hit areas tended to be those like the State of Jefferson where there was little contact with the outside world and people were white, racist, and not very healthy.

Throughout the former United States, millions upon millions of white baby boomers had died. All of the viruses had largely left millennials and younger generations intact. This was the great Boomer Death. Only in California, Cascadia & Hawaii were there any significant numbers of that generation left and those were – can we say – the good boomers.

The CC&H renamed itself “The Bear and Salmon Republic” when Alaska asked to join. There was nothing that the former USA could do to stop it. The Bear and Salmon Republic flag was a bear with one paw on a salmon looking up at a Big Dipper composed of seven stars on a dark blue field. The stars represented Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and two additional stars representing the Native American nations within the country – the consolidated tribes of the mainland and those of Alaska. The State of Jefferson simply disappeared as if it had never existed in the first place. American Samoa, Guam, and the Solomon Islands were absorbed into the state of Hawaii.

Donald John Trump died on New Years Eve just two seconds before the dawn of 2021. He was among the most satisfied humans to have ever lived for he had achieved his dream of creating a kingdom, destroying his enemies, and being the most important person in the history of planet Earth. Even if there were holes in that story he told himself as he lay dying, he refused to see them and no one was going to correct him.

Jared Kushner Trump was sworn into power as Trump II on the 1st of January, 2021.  His first official act was to rename the office of First Lady to Empress. By this act, he came to be known as Emperor Trump II, even though his official title remained ‘President’.

Within hours of his taking power, the states of New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois , Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and all of New England had left the United States and declared themselves the real  ‘United States of America’ with a co-Presidency of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton and Philadelphia as the capital. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands joined the new union as full states almost immediately. The country was immediately recognized by The Bear and Salmon Republic, Canada, Mexico, China, Europe, and the rest of the world except Russia.

Emperor Trump II (previously known as Jared) saw a great opportunity in this and before the first week of 2021 was through declared that the remaining states under his rule would now be known as Trumpland in honor of his dear, departed father-in-law. Most of the states in Trumpland were very happy with this arrangement. African-Americans in ‘Trumpland’ almost immediately began a second ‘great migration’ to the north and the west. They weren’t going to stick around and see what life in Trumpland would be like – they’d already experienced slavery, Jim Crow, and now four years of hell in Trumpland-lite (aka The USA from 2016-2020).

Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado provided one last geo-political surprise when the block formally announced a request to be annexed by Mexico. Mexico wasted no time tearing down Trump’s flimsy border wall and moving in to protect and claim her new states.

There was now a five state North America that no one had seen coming. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, events had taken a life of their own and change had happened (as real change always does) faster than seemed possible.

As 2021 dawned North America consisted of The Bear and Salmon Republic, Canada, Mexico, The USA, and Trumpland. The balance of power had shifted in the world. China was now the dominant power on the planet followed by the Trumpland, the Bear and Salmon Republic, Mexico, and the the USA. There was no telling what the future held, but it was brighter than it had been at the dawn of 2020.


Gaia looked at the world. She had failed to destroy the chaos pools. Despite the death of Trump and the defeat of the baby boomers, she had failed to destroy capitalism as well. Still, the world was a better place. Mexico was now a world power representing Latinos within the family of nations. The power of the former USA and corporate capitalism had been broken with finance being split between New York and San Francisco. The New USA and the Bear and Salmon Republic were both much more to her liking than the old USA had been and she expected that once the recovery from 2020 began both countries would take a more measured approach with an understanding of the delicate balance the planet required to provide an ecosystem for all who lived on it. 

Trumpland sat like a red blight on the continent but it was surrounded by Mexico and the Caribbean to the south, the New USA and Canada to the north, and the Bear and Salmon Republic to the west. So, it was contained – and it kept the new nations from going at each other’s throats.

Gaia was happy, despite not succeeding at all she had sought. A year of humans being sidelined by the virus had given the planet some much needed recovery time and breathing room. A year of no war, limited pollution, and limited manufacture and busy-ness was a great start. Gaia was happy. She still had work to do, but this was a great beginning. 

The End of Book 1

 

Notes from Real Life

I’ve written this book in lockdown as the world reels from the real life coronavirus. I recognize that hundreds of thousands of people have died from this pandemic even as I write this. I don’t mean any disrespect to those who have or may die or those who have lost loved ones, friends, or colleagues during this tragedy. I realize that my book may be offensive to those who hold different political views than me. That’s the world we live in. Hopefully we will, as a people, recover from this madness and hopefully, we will learn to make better decisions about what kind of future we apes want to live in.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed my book.

Christopher Damitio 05/11/2020

 

Update 5/11/2020 – I’ve completed the first draft. The book stands at a little over 50,000 words and the narrative is complete. I’m sure many of you will be offended by this – my only advice is to share it with your other friends who will be offended so you can share the outrage together.

Update: 5/8/2020 – I’ve been writing this novel for just over three weeks now. It’s up to nearly 40,000 words. One of the big challenges has been fitting real world events into a narrative structure that runs on real world but with some alternate

4/16/2020 I’ve decided to write this novel – so I might as well write it in public. I’ve stuck it to the front page of Vagobond.com and we’ll see how it goes. I’ve just set it up so you can type in aVeryGoodNovel.com and it will bring you here. This is a work in progress – as I write this, it’s not even really much of an idea – just something I’ve decided to do. I don’t have any characters, situations, or anything else in mind. What you are seeing is my live draft written while sheltering in place, living in our tiny apartment with my wife and daughter, and generally just going through what everyone is going through right now.

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