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

The Silicon Boom in Unabomb Valley – A Novel by Christopher Damitio

The Silicon Boom in Unabomb Valley

or 

Riding Unicorns to Civilizations End

 

A novel of tech, startups, unabombers, dog-shit, and romance.

by 

Christopher Damitio

5/20/2019: This is my favorite of the novels I’ve written (so far). I feel like it incorporates so much that the world needs to know. This novel was written late in 2019 before I wrote A Very Good Novel (Coronavirus) or rewrote The Keys to the Riad. I wrote this novel in a pre-COVID-19 world.  This is the first time it has been published anywhere. I recognize that I’m giving away the cows and no one will want to buy the milk by putting my novels online, but as a writer I have two motivations that drive me. First, to create new worlds and second to share them. Money is a priority that appears far down the list – and when I look at the world we live in – making serious money from writing I enjoy seems about as likely as – well, it seems less likely than the events of this novel. Enjoy.

Chapter 1

 Name Recognition

The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

One of the first lessons anyone in the Silicon Valley learns is that it doesn’t so much matter what you know or what you can do – it’s all about who you know and what they can do. Theo had everything going for him – he knew people, he’d gone to school at UC Berkley, he could do stuff, he understood programming, computers, protocols and algorithms – the problem was that everyone knew his name.

Name recognition, it’s one of those things they put a lot of emphasis on in start-ups and MBA programs. Generally it’s considered a good thing to have strong recognition but there are some exceptions. You can have a negative associated with your name or brand that will outweigh all the positive that comes from people recognizing it. You probably wouldn’t get very far if your new clothing company was called Enron or if you were starting a church called ISIS.

Chances are you wouldn’t have the easiest time in the game of life if your name were Hitler, Saddam, or Jeffrey Dahmer either. And if your name was the same as the Unabomber’s – well then you would know what life was like for Theodore Kazinsky. Theo’s life sucked.

April 3, 1996

It was just a few months from graduation and Theo was working on a project with his team in the UC Berkley Student Union. They had been working on a way to let game players take part in a shared online world via Gopher – the plaintext alternative protocol to the World Wide Web that everyone seemed to forget about as soon as Google came along. No one had done that yet. Google still wouldn’t launch for another two years – these were the glory days of dial up modem connections and people thinking that the internet was going to level the playing field and give everyone a chance to live to their fullest potential.

The future was bright and as a particularly gifted student with an interest in population studies, computers, and mathematics – Theo’s future was brighter than most. His team was going to demonstrate that http was a dead end. They were going to show that graphical interfaces could be harnessed to the Gopher network. They were going to demonstrate how seemingly random events could be used to solve impossibly large problems. They were as bright eyed and bushy tailed as well…gophers.

As usual, the television in the background was showing daytime television.

That’s when everything changed. ABC’s breaking news came on – there was no such thing as a smart phone in those days and most people still caught their news from the networks or newspapers. Breaking news was a big deal. These were the shared cultural moments that bound generations together. The OJ Simpson chase, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the start of the Gulf War, and now this:

“Breaking news. Authorities have arrested a man they believe to be the Unabomber in the small town of Lincoln Montana.”

Most of the students dropped what they were doing and gathered around the TV as the newscast unfolded. The Unabomber had been blowing people up for nearly a decade. A few months earlier, the Unabomber had vaulted into the spotlight again by forcing the Washington Post to publish his manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future. Like everyone else, Theo had read it – unlike most other people he had read the entire manifesto – he found it to be both disturbing and compelling – the ramblings of a madman – but not a complete madman. There was enough context in the manifesto that it gave him a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. Certainly killing wasn’t the answer – but Theo had the disturbing feeling that the Unabomber might be right about a lot of what he wrote about.

“After 17 years of looking, the FBI thinks they may have finally captured the Unabomber. Late this afternoon, Ted Kaczynski was taken from his backwoods cabin…”

Theo’s heart dropped. One of his team mates laughed and called across the room – “Hey Theo, you’re famous…” No one called him Ted except his grandfather, he was always Theo or Theodore – but it wouldn’t be long before they would be calling the Unabomber by his given name – everyone knew that Ted was short for Theodore. This was going to be much worse than when he’d been teased for sharing a name with one of The Chipmunks in the 6th grade. Alvin, Simon, Theodore Kaczynski – the fucking Unabomber.

“When he came to town, always alone, Kaczynski who did not own a car, rode a bicycle and one of his favorite stops – the library.”

Hey Theo – is that guy related to you?” The question wasn’t a joke. He wasn’t sure who said it, but he was sure that it wasn’t the last time he would hear it. Someone else piped up “I think he used to teach here – I’ve seen his name before…” The answer came from the television.

“He was a ghost for eighteen years, targeting universities and airlines – thus the name UN-A- Bomber. Authorities say that Kaczynski lived in the Salt Lake City area in the 1980s when bombs were sent from there and that in the 1960s he was a professor of mathematics at UC Berkeley in San Francisco, California….”

Another student asked if he was related. Theo knew he should say something – he just didn’t know what to say. “No, no relation. His name is spelled totally different.” That was the best he could get out. He would say it again and again – but it was like trying to stop a flood with a paper towel. He turned down every interview that came – hundreds of them. He began getting phone calls, letters, and email from people who thought he was the Unabomber – not just threats and hatred – but also praise and fan mail. It continued like this through graduation and on for the next two years as the trial progressed. He didn’t have a single job interview where the question wasn’t asked and no one called him back with an offer. His roommate joked that they only gave him the interviews to see if he was the Unabomber. Sometimes he wondered if he should have lied and said he actually was related to the Unabomber. It couldn’t have made things worse. His life was destroyed.

In the year after he graduated, Theo applied to every major tech company in the San Francisco

Bay Area. None of them hired him. He moved into a rent control apartment near Dolores Park – it was all he could afford. He broadened his search to surrounding areas with the same results. Finally, he started wholesale applying to whatever jobs he saw available. He landed jobs as a waiter, a bartender, a dry waller, and a landscaper. The truth was, the only people that would hire him were the people who were non-native English speakers that mispronounced his name or who were so uninformed they didn’t know anything about the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, or that Theodore was shortened to Ted.

He got used to being addressed as Theo Kazinsky (pronounced with sky instead of ski).

Finally, during the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s , people forgot about the Unabomber for a while as they saw the internet and software creating more millionaires than had existed for most of America’s history. Geeks were suddenly in such demand that he was able to land a promising job with an amazing startup based on his ability to work with TCP/IP and networking protocols – but the company – TechPlanet – was one of the first victims of the dot-com bust. His next gig seemed like it could change the world – Flooz was going to change fiat money for digital money, but when crime syndicates began using it to launder money, it failed quickly. The terrorist attacks of 2001 and the wars that followed brought the name problem back to him. No one wanted to hire a guy with a terrorist’s name. He landed one more tech job with another promising company called Friendster – but was laid off when the company turned down an acquisition offer from Google and then had to start tightening budgets.

Through it all, he continued his academic work on GOPHER holes and networking even as the world moved on and forgot the GOPHER protocol existed. His fascination with digital money survived the collapse of Flooz and the idea of building a better social network stayed with him – that was what had brought him to Friendster in the first place. Friendster was fucked from the beginning though – just like all the other companies that were focused on using the world wide web and http protocols. The future was going to be about something else. Theo knew it. He was a genius.

One of the shitty things about being a genius and working for promising startups that fail is that your shares in the company end up being worth nothing – so you always need to find another job.

Theo Kazinsky was a genius. He was a flat fucking broke genius living in a rent controlled apartment who would be 48 in 2020 and had fuck all to show for it. He was an innovative inventor that had been dished a series of particularly shitty breaks in life. He was tired of being a bystander and victim in the game of life.

Chapter 2

Gopher Broke

The conservatives are fools: They whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can’t make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and the economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Sometimes it seems like the internet just popped out of DARPA’s vagina and was already a fully grown and mature method for sharing digital information on networks, but that’s not how the internet was born at all. First of all, DARPA probably doesn’t have a vagina and secondly, the internet was created by a huge group of dedicated and enthusiastic nerds who worked tirelessly for decades to be able to swap jokes with their colleagues in different parts of the world without having to pay for a stamp or a long distance call.

People don’t think of scientists using the internet in the 1960s and 1970s (or even the 1980s for that matter) but they were. The scientists from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) created ARPANET and then they gave it to the world. The first packet message transmission took place in the 1960s between UCLA and Stanford. The systems were refined over the next couple of decades but largely remained academic. In the late 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN in Switzerland came up with the hypertext transfer protocols (http) that resulted in the birth of the World Wide Web (www) and what we think of as the modern internet. From 1993 to 2007, 95% of the telecommunications industry migrated to ‘the web’. During that period everything we think of as the internet today (instant messaging, voice over internet protocols, social networking, email) came to life using the ‘http://www’ protocols, but that is only one of many protocols. Sure, it’s the biggest and it’s the one that gets used the most by a long shot – but there are others. JANET, ABILENE, TERENA, INTERNET2 – these were and are – other protocols that run alongside the world wide web. Another one – that is rarely heard about except in the geekiest of circles is GOPHER.

Believe it or not, at one point GOPHER (which I will call Gopher from here on out) was once as well known by the public as www. Magazines and television spoke of it as the future that had come to life. In a way, Gopher was the first organizational tool on the internet. Gopher was simple but revolutionary. It worked by menus – so essentially, what we think of today as a list of links were the menu and every link led to either a different menu, a document, or a file. It was simple and it avoided the needless spam world we have with Google and links. The huge advantage and the huge disadvantage of Gopher over the World Wide Web was that Gopher was a simple text based interface – to put it bluntly – Gopher was stupid. You could link to a picture or video but you couldn’t actually incorporate it into your gopherpage (not a web-page). If you wanted pictures on a gopherpage you had to draw them with text. No HTML, no Flash, no Markup languages. Gopherpages were simple text pages with menus (links). Actually, I should say that Gopherpages ARE because they still exist. So, no photos on the page, no embedded animations, no doo-hickies, no animation based games. Just information. Gopher is lightning fast, won’t crash, and doesn’t require bandwidth beyond a dial-up connection.

The project that Theo and his classmates had been working on allowed multiple users to take part in a connected Gopher world, to interact with one another, and to engage in Dungeons and Dragons type adventures together even when at a distance. It may not sound like much today, but actually, it was revolutionary. What they were working on was among the first MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) that used sociology and population dynamics to help player groups to achieve a common goal. The type of game they created was called a MUD or Multi-User Dungeon – a strange fusion of fan fiction, D&D, online chat, and slash games – but one that worked.

MUDS have been around since the mid 1970s but the innovation that Theo and his team were bringing to the table was to integrate the four character types from the Bartle Matrix into a cohesive type of game where users could engage in their desired type of play while still advancing the narrative and assisting their group towards success – and more.

The Bartle Matrix might need a bit more explanation – the designer of one of the first and most successful MUDs was an Englishman named Richard Bartle. Bartle studied the type of gameplay that attracted certain types of players and then divided players using a cross grid with player/world as the X-Axis and acting/interacting as the Y-Axis. This left four types of game players – Killers and Socializers on the player side and Achievers and Explorers on the world side. One of the big problems in organized game play has always been getting these four types to work together towards a common quest. For example, an Achiever can be working towards a big goal and a Killer might start a big fight or feud that halts the progress. Socializers tend to get in the way of both Explorers and Achievers – but since socialization and a killer instinct are both necessary to advance in most group games – the challenge has always been finding a way to get these disparate groups to work together harmoniously towards a common goal.

You will be forgiven if the Bartle Matrix makes you think of real world people – it turns out that the four types of game players can also be translated into the four types of living people.

Achievers tend to be those people who like status and rewards regardless of whether such status and rewards bring them any real benefit. A gamer example would be a person who goes after a boss monster just to get a beautiful helmet that confers no real advantage in the game. Real world versions might have a fancy car they don’t drive or a lake house they never visit. Entrepreneurs and opportunists.

Explorers are those people who like leaving no stone unturned. In games, they like discovering glitches or hidden easter eggs – they might tap every wall of a dungeon to find a hidden door. In real life, explorers tend to be those who like digging into a field of study to a depth that most people simply will never desire to know. In a word – they are the experts. Hackers and scientists.

Socializers are those people who are only in it to form relationships. In the games, they spend more time talking to other players and non-player characters than actually playing the game. In real life, they like to chat, they like to sit around the water cooler, they want to spend time building relationship. In both real life and in games, they are drawn to achievers because achievers love to be praised and noticed and the socializers love to be able to socialize – even if it’s just praising an achiever. Networkers and social workers.

Killers are those people who take competition to a level where the only thing that matters is winning. In game play they are fighters, builders, and destroyers. In the real world, they are narcissists, empire builders, criminals, and bullies. Of course, there are degrees in all of these so a killer might be a successful business person who always looks for the right advantages, but the bottom line is that killers are in it to win it – no matter the cost. Politicians and criminals.

While it can be argued that all four types are necessary to build human civilization or to achieve game play goals, the big problem is that there is rarely balance in groups – they would be heavily weighted towards one extreme or another.

So, what Theo and his team were working on was a MUD that sorted players by their type and then diverted them to tasks that helped the entire team to achieve their goal – but they’d actually started to go further than that, they were looking at the meta of the entire game and had engineered a way to do something much more complex – they were using players who thought they were working towards selfish goals to bring the team closer to a selfless goal – and at the same time they were using teams and groups who thought they were working towards a selfish group goal and setting them towards a selfless meta goal – so multiple teams who assumed they were working towards disparate goals were actually working towards a unified goal, but the true brilliance of the system was that the meta goal could be programmed into the game itself, which would then create individual team quests to solve a common goal that the players were never even aware of.

If that doesn’t make perfect sense, here’s an example – Raven and his party are given a quest to go fight a troll who is snatching children from a village and recover a treasure item that will provide some benefit to their group. At the same time Lightbearer and her group are tasked with exploring a mountain cave complex which requires some theft/dexterity and a bit of fighting as well as some simple spell casting. A half dozen other groups are given similar tasks based on the matrix position of the group members. As each task is unfolding, the movements, decisions, and actions of all the groups are analyzed and recorded by a mainframe that is using these seemingly random actions to crunch huge mathematical problems. The bizarre part was that there was no logical reason anyone on Theo’s team could come up with for why this should work. So regardless of the outcome of Raven and Lightbearer’s quests – at the end of the session – the MUD would spit out the most likely scenario for a pandemic emergent in a small Bangladeshi mountain region to be controlled with the most expedient methods and the smallest team – for example.

As the most talented math genius on his team, it fell on Theo to develop a theory for why it was happening, how it was happening, and show how this power could be harnessed. The problem was that the whole Unabomber scenario unhinged him, disconnected him from everyone, and created a subtle distance between Theo and the other MUD Gophers. Nobody wanted to be published on the same paper with Ted Kazinski. Especially not in the late 1990s.

By the time that his name had become less of a bomb, the dot com bubble was exploding and no one was interested in MUDs, Gopher, or anything other than the World Wide Web. And now you know what set Theo on the path towards being that rare breed of Silicon Valley tech genius approaching fifty without enough money to buy a decent car.

Chapter 3

Breaking the Bonds

The breakdown of traditional values to some extent implies the breakdown of the bonds that hold together traditional small-scale social groups. The disintegration of small-scale social groups is also promoted by the fact that modern conditions often require or tempt individuals to move to new locations, separating themselves from their communities. Beyond that, a technological society HAS TO weaken family ties and local communities if it is to function efficiently. In modern society an individual’s loyalty must be first to the system and only secondarily to a small-scale community, because if the internal loyalties of small-scale communities were stronger than loyalty to the system, such communities would pursue their own advantage at the expense of the system.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Theo hadn’t talked to his family in years. They had no interest in him – and as a result, he had decided to have no interest in them. For years he had sent birthday cards, Christmas cards, sent small ‘thinking of you’ gifts, and tried to be conscientious about calling just to say hi once in a while. Then, one day, he realized he was the only one doing these things. His siblings never called, his nieces and nephews never sent cards, his parents were busy with social clubs, volunteer work, and figuring out how to structure their retirement.

At first, he thought he must be mistaken. So, being an analytical sort of person, he decided to run an experiment. He would let them make the next move. He would play a game of tit-for-tat relationship building. If they called him, he would owe them a call. If they sent a letter, he would send a letter. He would start out with being the bigger man though, just in case his own clouds of vision were causing him to attribute a better starting score than he deserved.

So, one day in 2015, Theo called every one of his relatives. He already knew that he had been the only one sending any sort of mail since the turn of the century – but he thought he must be mistaken about the phone calls. Surely someone had called. The only fair way to run the experiment was to start with a clean slate and him making the first move.

Most of his extended family let it run to voicemail. He left a nice message with his name and number, told them that he was thinking of them and he would love to have a chat to catch up. His mom answered the phone and said that she and his father were about to sit down and watch Star Trek – so it wasn’t a good time. His brother answered and then proceeded to list his life’s woes without bothering to ask “How are you?” and his sister told him that she needed to take her kids to a soccer game and would call him back. That was it. It wasn’t a huge investment of his time. All told it took him about forty minutes.

He created a spreadsheet and put each family member with the date he had called and a space for when they called him back. Four years later there were no new entries. No one had called him back, not even his parents.

Whether through a sick sense of perversion or a genuine curiosity, after a year of not hearing back from his family – he decided to run the same experiment on his old school friends, the people who were no longer in his day to day life – and sadly it was with the same result. It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that Theo had expected the result – in fact, he had hoped that he was wrong when he realized that all of his relationships were one way – but the data spoke for itself. No one gave a shit about him.

There was one moment in 2017 when he thought that his entire experiment might have been flawed. Theo had a Facebook account but generally he didn’t use it – he didn’t like the idea of his mental energy being directed by an algorithm. He had created it at the dawn of Facebook, a former Berkley classmate had invited him to the platform back when the platform was invite only. He’d used it for a few months but then gone back to his gopherlog and generally forgotten about it.

In 2017, he logged in and saw that he had scores of old birthday greetings and messages from family and friends. He was genuinely touched until he remembered that he had put a fake birthday in when he signed up – and he recognized that the majority of birthday wishes were automated messages coming from bots his ‘friends’ had set up to not miss a birthday. His phone number was available on his profile but no one had called. His results stood. No one gave a shit about Theo.

Don’t misunderstand though, Theo wasn’t some kind of misanthrope – he wanted warm relationships but he couldn’t understand why other people didn’t seem to understand that there has to be a back and forth – not so much a quid-pro-quo, not a give and take – but more of a both sides giving situation. The taking didn’t really matter – the most important thing was that both sides gave and continued to give. The giving of time, energy, interest, and action. If it didn’t happen, then the relationship was a sham based on a sense of responsibility instead of a sense of desire.

Theo wanted to care about people – but there was something in him that would stop caring as soon as he realized the other person wasn’t willing to give for no reason other than giving. So, in that sense, he was as guilty as everyone else – but to his credit – he was at least the last one to give in his relationships. He had working relationships, casual friendships, and a whole string of romantic relationships – but they all sort of ended the same way. He would call, they wouldn’t call back, and then he wouldn’t call back and they just sort of disappeared. In some cases, the women he was involved with would call back after some sort of invisible deadline he had set and then the relationship would just sort of fade away. Without him willing to give, the women would invariably look for someone else to give them that energy. Theo wasn’t interested in being a unidirectional beacon of love.

Women found him attractive. They were drawn to him. He was average height at about 5’11” , a bit of a thick build – muscular without being fat or jocky, a full head of black hair that was starting to get a touch of grey, and had a quick smile and flirty wit. He didn’t attract the sugar babies because they could smell that he was nearly destitute, but he attracted the smart, serious girls – the ones that were on flag team or in the band instead of being cheerleaders. Good looking geek girls loved Theo.

He was the opposite of an incel (involuntarily celibate). Theo was inlaid (involuntarily getting laid). The involuntary-celibacy movement was something that never made any sense to him. He figured that what they really should have called themselves was selfish-pretending-in-giving movement (SPIGS). Spigs acted like they wanted to give everything to their mates, but from what Theo had seen, most of them only wanted to take away freedom, initiative, desire, movement, and money from the mates they claimed spurned them. Spigs came in both sexes and all genders.

No, the reason Theo wasn’t in a relationship was because he needed someone who played the game of “I can love you more than you can love me” and played it to win – because that was how he played. Also – and this had been a problem in several of his past relationships – he didn’t feel like it was fair to bring any child into the world unless the world was fixed – and that didn’t look like it would be happening any time soon. Any potential parenting partner had to be a world change warrior – like him.

He’d tried dating a couple of single moms (and even a married one) but while they were far better at the love more than you can game – the problem with them was that when it came time for Theo to spend time with their kids, he would ask disturbing questions that led the children (potentially but not every time – just that one time) to dark contemplations that most mom’s didn’t want their children subjected to.

The time in question, he had posed a version of the railroad worker problem to a bright eight-year-old. It goes like this:

You are standing at the switch for a train track. If you don’t switch the track – the train is going to kill a pregnant woman. If you switch the track, it’s going to kill three men working on the other track.

The kid had been incredibly interested in the problem and they worked through all the scenarios with some changes – what if you knew one of the men? What if you knew the baby would grow up to be a murderer? What if you did nothing? If you did nothing, would that make you guilty?

What Theo hadn’t expected was that the eight year old would get on the internet and as a result become the youngest nihlist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’d apparently told his third grade teacher something like “We’re all murderers and it doesn’t matter. Killing should be legal.” None of that had been Theo’s intention, but it was after that incident that his rather promising relationship with the kid’s mother had faded away.

The kid obviously had much more thinking to do because he’d already missed the point – killing is already legal, but it’s all how you justify it. Are you looking at long term effects or only short term violent murder? Are you looking at the death penalty or warfare? The point of the question was to get him to think about the fact that there are no really good choices and if you dig deep enough there is always a reason why every decision can’t be made. Theo realized he’d gone too far with the boy though. He should have let the kid be happy when he saved the young mother. That may well have led to a happy relationship with the boy’s young mother – but probably not, something else would surely have come up. There are no good choices. Consequences no matter what path you take.

Chapter 4

Change Comes From Within

If a change is made that is large enough to alter permanently a long-term trend,

then the consequences for the society as a whole cannot be predicted in advance.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Everything about the year coming, the year 2020 made Theo want to change. There was something magical about the number, the repeat, the double meaning of perfect vision, and that fact that generally his life just wasn’t very good. He wasn’t sure how to change but he figured a good start would be to quit doing drudge work. He’d been doing coding for the highest bidder, working as a handyman, and even driving Uber and Lyft to make ends meet. The only thing worse than driving a crappy car is driving other, better off, younger people around in your crappy car.

He wasn’t envious or jealous – or not really – but maybe a little bit. Mostly he was just curious how the world had changed so much around him while his life had seemingly not changed very much at all. San Francisco had become an insane place to live with the divide between the haves and have nots reaching some middle-ages level bullshit. There were people who slept on the street, shit on the street, ate garbage, and died on the street – and walking among them day in and day out were super ultra-rich. Billionaires and beggars.

Theo had been pushing people away for so long that it had become his long term trend. Every year, more isolation, and less friendship. It was one of the things he decided to change as 2020 drew near. He began reaching out to people and accepting invitations.

While doing handyman work for a young hipster couple with an ungodly amount of money, Theo had struck up a friendship – not the kind of friendship where you hang out every day, but the kind where you sometimes get together, have lunch, and look out for each other. Mark and Priscilla were pretty normal – except for the security and the billions of dollars. Theo had a theory that the only reason they had taken an interest in him was because he wasn’t interested in Facebook. They didn’t give him the security code or anything – besides, it didn’t work like that – a series of gates and guards and door keepers kept everyone but who they wanted in – out. And yes, I’m saying that Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Priscilla Chan were friends with a guy who shared his name with the Unabomber.

Mark went out of his way not to offer Theo opportunities – he didn’t want to spoil what was one of the only high level acquaintance friendships the universe allowed him to have. He’d simply call Theo up and say “Priscilla is cooking up some lunch and we’ve got a couple of things we need fixed around the house…are you interested in making a little money and having lunch with us?” Theo always said yes. First of all because he needed the money, second because Priscilla was a fucking amazing cook, and finally because he didn’t have that many high level acquaintance/friends himself.

Theo, for his part, went out of his way not to talk to Zuck about social networks or coding or anything technical. He figured they already knew his story, they had teams of people who ran background on everyone they came in contact with – but he didn’t want to change the dynamic. It was casual and friendly and somewhat lucrative as they usually paid around $125/hour for his handywork. About double what others were willing to pay him.

Generally, he’d come in and Mark would walk him around, show him the work he wanted done. They might talk about some movie or TV show, maybe a popular song or something not about Facebook that was in the news – and then Priscilla would call them to lunch like some perfect 1950s TV housewife. It was a bizarre form of play-acting, but on some level, they were all into it.

It was at one of these casual lunches, sitting on the floor in one the Zuckerbergs ‘guest cabanas’ (which were about six times the size of Theo’s apartment) that Priscilla, still wearing the pink apron she’d been cooking in, dropped a bomb and changed the dynamics of everything.

Hey Theo. I want you to meet a friend of mine. Can I set you up on a blind date?”

Theo wasn’t really sure what to say, so he said nothing. Zuck wasn’t so shy.

Priscilla, that’s highly inappropriate. If he wanted help meeting someone he’d probably say something or look elsewhere, as friends, I don’t think we should overstep our bounds…”

Priscilla just looked at him with scorn. “Oh shut up Mark. You don’t know anything about relationships, men, women, or people.” Theo thought it was a strange thing to say to a guy who was successfully manipulating about 1/3 of the human species. “What do you say Theo? Her name’s Adell..”

He liked the name. He didn’t think he’d ever met someone named Adell. He wasn’t sure why.

I’m a really simple guy Priscilla, I live in a rent control apartment and drive a 96 Jetta…” It was a lie, not about the car or the apartment but about the being simple. There was nothing simple about Theo.

Oh, that’s okay, Adell isn’t rich or anything – I mean, not that there is anything wrong with being rich, I mean we like it – oh shit, that all came out wrong. I mean, she’s mostly a normal person – but interesting and when I told her about you, it was actually her idea to meet you…”

Wait a minute? Why in the world were you telling her about me?” Theo had a feeling he knew where this was going. A bad feeling. He’d met serial killer stalkers before – they just wanted to say they had met so and so – no matter if it was a lie. He didn’t want to get too offended about it but he felt like he needed to say something before it got out of hand “If this is about my name…”

Mark wanted to nip this in the bud “Priscilla, I told you this was…” but she just interrupted him.

No, it isn’t about you at all. It’s not about your name, it’s about hers. You guys just have to meet. I don’t want to tell you more, but you have to meet her. She’s super cute, smart, and funny…seriously.”

Theo looked at her, then looked at Mark and then shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of ‘Why not?” Priscilla jumped up and grabbed him in a hug. I knew you’d say yes. I didn’t want to push, but I knew you would. I’ll set everything up now. This is going to be so great. I just know you two are made for each other. It’s perfect. Trust me you are never going to regret this.”

The change in dynamic sort of made it okay for Theo to later drop a bomb of his own – it was a bit of a violation of the rules they had all been playing by. He would wait until after the date – assuming they invited him again afterwards – and then he was going to dig into Zuck’s brain. He had an idea that could change the world.

You’re never going to regret this” – it’s not usually a phrase that bodes well for the future. It usually means you’ve just invested in a dying company, bought a dying car, made a loan that will never be paid back, or made some other huge mistake in life. What would it mean with Adell?

Chapter 5

The Fuhrer and the Unabomber Walk Into a Taqueria

Once a technical innovation has been introduced, people usually become dependent on it,

so that they can never again do without it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Priscilla set everything up. They met at a low-key taqueria in San Mateo. The kind with plastic school chairs and no windows – just concrete walls that had obviously once been someone’s garage. It was Theo’s kind of place and he wondered if Adell had picked it. He wasn’t naturally negative but had developed a pessimistic defense mechanism that kept him from putting his hopes too high. As he wandered in and sat down, he wondered what was wrong with her. Was she a midget? That wouldn’t really bother him. Disfigured – not ideal, but personality and temperament were more of his thing. Above all he hoped she wasn’t one of those vacuous non-stop talkers who the valley was filled with.

Most likely, she had a couple of kids and a decent job but had found that despite the equality rhetoric that Silicon Valley loved to spew on the media, that the big earners didn’t want their wives working and didn’t want to spend their time or money on someone else’s children. Theo actually was the opposite of that – he was a low earner and favored the idea of rearing someone else’s children. He didn’t like the idea of bringing his own children into a world that functioned like ours.

He looked around the taqueria and at the grade school next door where parents were waiting to pick up their kids. Even when they were sitting with other people, every customer either had their phone in their hand or sitting next to them. They would glance down at the phones on the tables as they had conversations or more blatantly hold the phones up blocking their companions from their vision. These weren’t wealthy valley types either – these were working people – black, white, latino, but in general people who looked like they were either on a break from a blue collar job or had a day off from working at a grocery store. It was worse with the wealthy.

The parents waiting for their kids all stood at the fence looking at their phones. No one talked to anyone else over there. He saw two women greet each other, chat for about a minute and then both of them went back to their devices, leaning on the fences.

He was ten minutes early. He was always ten minutes early. He’d considered this problem in the past – his being early problem. As far as he could tell, there was no solution. Theo didn’t like waiting for people and yet, because of his early problem, he was always waiting for people. Usually, with most people – despite having supercomputers that could accurately forecast traffic and remind them of appointments 24 hours a day – they arrived late and as a result, Theo waited longer than just the 10-minutes. He’d tried arriving just on time before so that he was only waiting for however much they were late by, but it caused him stress because he couldn’t stop thinking that maybe they had arrived early and were annoyed (as he became) waiting for him. His ‘arrive just on time’ experiment had been a bit of a sham because it usually meant he arrived ten minutes early, waited in his car or around the corner, and then strolled in just on time. So he was still waiting. Theo considered a 10-minute wait a small sacrifice if it meant keeping another person (presumably one who he liked and respected or needed enough to be meeting with) from wasting their time. The problem was the same as in his relationships – the scenario only worked if all parties practiced it or if one party didn’t mind being the martyr. Theo hated martyrs and didn’t want to be one. He was an unwilling participant in the solo waiting game – but there was no way out of it.

Three minutes into his ten-minute-early-wait, he spotted an oddball milf leaning against the fence. Yes, mentally he described her as a milf – or ‘mom I’d like to fuck’ – he didn’t mean to objectify her but it was such a convenient term that he mentally used it all the time – even though he never said it out loud. She was the only one without a phone in her hand. Pink loose fitting t-shirt, mom jeans, pink Doc Martin boots, and a bag that looked like it was probably more expensive than the rest of her clothes – but had been around far longer. The oddball part of the milf in question was the way she was looking out at the school buildings, waiting for the kids to come marching out and be loaded into mini-vans that would take them to viola, soccer, jiu-jitsu, or coding lessons – she was actually watching and sort of smiling to herself. Not so odd, really, but what stood out was that she didn’t have a phone tucked in her back pocket or in her hand. She wasn’t half in the world and half in the phone – she was totally in the world. He noticed that she had a couple of tattoos on her forearms – from thirty feet away he could make out the dark blue ink but not the designs. Her hair was the kind of blonde that doesn’t come from a bottle, straight and cut off around neck length. Brushed back as if she had been doing something else and had to move it out of her face. She looked to be reasonably fit – like most moms in the valley. Probably zumba’d every morning before the kids got up and did yoga at mid-day during the lunch break she didn’t eat at. He couldn’t quite decide what kind of work she did – he played this game a lot and was usually pretty quick to come up with a profession. Accountant, coder, human-resources, teacher, fitness expert, lawyer, stay at home mom, – none of the usual labels fit her.

He looked down at his watch. Five minutes left to wait. His own phone was a clamshell Motorola Razr. Not the new ones, one of the old ones – the same one he’d had for a decade. It still worked. He didn’t get all the bells and whistles of a smart phone but it texted and it called and it told him what time and day it was. He could even use the internet if he really needed to – but not efficiently enough to make him a net-junkie. So when I say he looked at his watch to see the time, I mean he looked at a plain old Seiko Automatic watch and when he looked back up – there she was standing in front of him. The pink shirted hottie moved fast.

Her pink t-shirt and Doc Martin boots suddenly made more sense. He still couldn’t figure out what she did for work or what her story was. It crossed his mind that she might be Adell. Priscilla and Mark hadn’t shown him a picture or any details – nothing. Just a time and place for him to meet her. She smiled at him – blue eyes, Nordic features, probably in her mid to late-thirties. Theo felt guilty for having described her as a milf, especially when he realized that yeah, she was definitely a milf – but not having said it out load, he decided to keep his guilt to himself and not let out the apology that was jumping to his throat. He stood up as she held out her hand to him.

Are you Adell?” he really wanted her to be Adell.

No,” she told him “But I saw you checking me out when I was over there so I thought I would come introduce myself.” Theo immediately knew he was in a situation – he desperately wanted to get this woman’s number but he was here to meet Adell on a blind date – plus he’d totally been busted checking this woman out. If this was a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure” novel he would be given three choices:

If you blow off the date with Adell and go after the hottie – turn to page 3

If you politely brush the hottie off and wait for Adell – turn to page 5

If you decide to try to get her number and then meet Adell – turn to page 7

Theo decided to go to page 9 instead.

Are you waiting for your kids to get out of school?” he asked her.

No, I don’t have kids. I just came down to get some lunch.”

He’d already accepted her hand and was still holding it so it would probably be a good idea to introduce himself. He was going to have to figure out some way to escape from the situation he was in. He didn’t like the first three options that came to mind.

I’m Theo” he said “What’s your name?” Their hands were still together. She hadn’t let go and he wasn’t particularly inclined to either.

What are you doing here Theo? You don’t have food but you’re sitting by yourself at a table.” This was an awkward question but it gave him the escape plan he needed.

I’m here on a blind date. I’m waiting to meet someone – some friends set me up. Actually,” he did his best to look sheepish “She’s supposed to be here in about three minutes.” He forced himself to let go of her hand – but he really didn’t want to. She hadn’t told him her name – she was completely in charge of where this conversation was going.

Cool,” she said. “Can I join you guys?” He hadn’t expected this. This was a strange scenario where Adell showed up and he was already sitting with a new pink t-shirted hottie he had just met. “A blind date. That’s super exciting. So her name is Adell? Who set you up?” She hadn’t given him time to say that she couldn’t join them and now he felt like he had to answer the last question first but he really had to do something – this was quickly falling completely out of control.

It was a couple of mutual friends – I’m not sure exactly why – but hey, you seem really cool, but it might be a little bit awkward if you’re here with me when she arrives…you know? We’ve never met…”

Oh my god, totally – you are totally right. I’m so sorry.” She was really beautiful. Her skin was perfect. Now that she was closer he could see that the tattoos on her forearm were a kind of mathematical formula or code. He wanted to ask about them. He really didn’t want her to go away at all, but this was out of hand. She went on. “Hey, I’ll get out of here, but just one thing – can you watch my bag for a minute, I’ve got to go to the bathroom and I hate carrying it around the side of the building – I swear when I get back I’ll just say thanks for watching it and let you enjoy your date.”

Sure, no problem. I mean that shouldn’t be a problem.” She dropped her bag on the table and walked outside and around the side of the building to where the restrooms were. Two minutes until the appointed time for meeting Adell. It still had the potential to be awkward but not as much as if the hottie had just sat down at the table with him.

Two minutes went by and then the hottie came back. “She’s not here yet? Don’t worry Theo – these bitches in the valley, they’re always late. She’s probably sitting in her car around the corner waiting so she can be exactly five minutes late…I’ve got friends that do that. Hey, thanks for watching my bag.” She grabbed her bag and moved to the counter to place her order. There was a part of him that wanted to get up and follow her – to re-introduce himself, to find out her name, but it just wasn’t the right thing to do. It wasn’t a part of his code. He wasn’t coded that way. He stayed at the table, tried to ignore the woman in the Doc Martins as she ordered and waited for her food…and as he waited for Adell who he was starting to become annoyed with as five minutes past the meeting time slipped by, then seven minutes, then nine.

The cook put two foil rolled burritos in plastic fish and chip baskets down and then looked at the ticket for a minute before shaking his head and calling out the name on the bottom of the ticket.

Two burritos for Adell Fitler. Adell Fitler.”

Yeah, of course she was the woman in pink. Her eyes met his with a smile as she picked up the burritos and walked back towards the table.

Chapter 6

The Fucking Chans

Thus it is clear that the human race has at best a very limited capacity for solving even relatively straightforward social problems. How then is it going to solve the far more difficult and subtle problem of reconciling freedom with technology? Technology presents clear-cut material advantages, whereas freedom is an abstraction that means different things to different people, and its loss is easily obscured by propaganda and fancy talk.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

As she walked up to the table, Theo wasn’t amused. Actually, he was a bit pissed off. Obviously she knew his name and this was all some chance to make a big joke at his expense. She was smiling after her big reveal – yeah, she’d totally made a fool out of him. That whole thing with the name – and then the set up for the blind date. Priscilla and Mark were obviously some bored fucking dickheads. He didn’t know whether to get up and storm out or just play it cool and act like it was no big deal. He opted for the second.

Adolf Hitler, huh? That’s pretty funny. How long did it take you guys to come up with that?” He was trying really hard not to sound totally pissed off and scornful, but some of it was leaking through. He’d been dealing with the effects of having a fucked up name for too long to control himself completely. “So what’s your real name,” he made air quotes with his fingers “Adell?” He laughed in what he hoped was an ironic way.

For the first time since he’d seen her, the pink hottie seemed to lose her composure “Oh, no…wait a minute man…it’s not like that. I see what you’re thinking…hold on a second there buddy.” She set the burritos on the table and reached into her bag. Was she going to shoot him with pepper spray now? That would be funny, she could tell her friends she pepper sprayed the Unabomber.

But no, that wasn’t what she was doing at all. She was pulling out her wallet. Her hands were shaking and the other clients had all started to watch what looked like it might be some real life drama unfold. One fat lady in a floral print dress stared while she picked her teeth. A couple at the next table had actually scooted their chairs away as if they had expected the pepper spray or maybe a gun to come out of the bag.

Pinkie pulled her California Drivers License out and slapped it on the table in front of him. “Check it out man – look.” Theo looked down. Nobody should look that good in a drivers license picture. Damn, she was so fucking hot it almost made him forget he was trying to keep from becoming upset – then he saw the name on the license – Adell May Fitler. All the rage dissolved like sugar in a pot of boiling coffee and was replaced by a sticky sweet syrup that left him just feeling confused.

Adell saw it and pulled up her chair. The other patrons looked vaguely disappointed but went back to minding their own business. The toothpick lady kept staring (and picking) but maybe that was just her thing.

Theo was still a little bit annoyed by the whole theatrics of the thing, but he was more curious than anything else. “Is this really your name?”

She smiled, her confidence coming back. She reached her hand across the table “Yeah, that’s really me, it’s really my name. I’m Adell…nice to meet you Theo.” He took her hand again, part of him waiting for the next act in her carefully crafted play to unfold. That was it though – she hadn’t expected him to get angry or offended and when he had – all the pretense had melted away.

Nice to meet you too.” Once again he didn’t want to let go of her hand but he had to if they were going to have lunch. “Are you going to eat both of those?” He handed her license back to her.

She giggled and then followed it up with “Sorry for being such a dick. I ordered one al-pastor and the other one carne asada, take your pick.” He took the al-pastor and when she looked disappointed suggested they cut them both in half and split them. It was a winning suggestion and from that point forward they were friends.

Obviously you know my name,” he said to her.

Theo,” she said. “That’s all I know. Priscilla didn’t tell me anything else. I don’t even know your last name. Are you Jewish?”

Theo was a bit confused – “Jewish? No, I mean maybe, I don’t really know. Why in the world would you ask that? Theo isn’t exactly a common Jewish name.”

She blushed the tiniest bit, which was absolutely charming. “You know…because of my stupid burrito stunt, the whole stupid Hitler gag…”

He got it, he understood, and then it hit him. “Wait a minute…you don’t know my last name?”

No, Priscilla was really mysterious about the whole thing. Her and Mark, I call them the Chans – they wouldn’t tell me a word”

But how did you know I was the guy you were meeting?”

Well, she described you pretty well and you were sitting by yourself without food at the right place at the right time – early actually – and by the way, thanks for being early. I hate fucking late-tards.” He had never been around a woman who exuded such femininity and harshness at the same time.

Theo laughed. “Yeah, I guess you were early too. I appreciate that. I really do, although the whole thing with pretending not to be you…making me think you were someone else who was late..”

Yeah, sorry about that – I mean a girl can’t really be too careful and honestly, I wanted to see if you were the kind of douchebag who would ditch a date or hit on someone else when you were meeting someone – nice job by the way, you navigated the reef pretty well. I liked your honesty…but you were checking me out pretty hard when I was at the fence…”

Who, me?” Theo was discovering that he really liked this girl. He liked the way she did things. He liked her style. He even admired the way she’d sort of thrown her fucked up name at him in the most dramatic way possible. As he looked at her, he decided that he was going to do something he never did.

I should really introduce myself….” she looked at him in mild confusion and took a bite of burrito.

My name is Ted Kazinsky, sometimes people call me the Unabomber.”

An explosion of guacamole, pork, beans, and rice sprayed his face and probably would have hit the couple at the next table if they hadn’t of moved their chairs back a few minutes before. Adell coughed and laughed, wiped her mouth and took a sip of water.

Swallowing she laughed as she grabbed his hand and said “No fucking way, are you serious? You’re fucking serious? Your name is Theodore fucking Kazinski?”

He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and laid his drivers license in front of her. She picked it up while shaking her head…

The Chans are some seriously fucked up people…you think they do this shit for fun?” Her smile was like a sun going supernova.

There was one thing for sure, no matter why the Chans did it, Theo was very happy that they had.

Chapter 7

The Revolution Will Be on CCTV

A revolutionary movement offers to solve all problems at one stroke and create a whole new world;

it provides the kind of ideal for which people will take great risks and make great sacrifices.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Over the next several weeks, Adell and Theo got together for lunches, walks around Coyote Point, and they even caught a Joan Baez concert in Golden Gate Park during the Hardly Simply Bluegrass Festival. Much to both of their surprise – they were compatible and also to their surprise, their calls to the Chans were not returned. They found that they had much more in common than just their names.

There’s something weird going on with those two,” Adell told him as they sat in front of a Trader Joes. “They had me come in to do a mural on one of their bedroom walls and then became all buddy buddy with me. I was cool with it, because they’re interesting people, but it always struck me as a little odd.”

When they compared notes they found that that Chans had run the same playbook on each of them – and yet both agreed, the friendship had actually felt genuine and the end result (so far) was anything but onerous.

I like them both. I’m glad they introduced us, but it’s bizarre to think about how much power they have,” Adell said to him. “They can do anything they want. Who the fuck knows, they’re probably watching us on CCTV right now.” She pointed up at the cameras over the store doors, on the light posts in the parking lot, and presumably elsewhere.

Obviously, they put us together because of our fucked up names,” Theo said to which Adell straightened up in mock anger.

Speak for yourself, my name is awesome. The Fitler family has a long and proud tradition. My 2nd great grandfather on the Fitler side was the fucking mayor of Philadelphia – there’s a park named after us. And… I’m honored to carry my maternal grandmother’s name. It’s not my fault when you put them together I sound like the most evil person in history – but honestly, that’s kind of awesome too. Fuck em if they can’t take a joke.”

I just don’t get it – didn’t your parents ever say your name out loud? I mean I’m sure you were a beautiful baby…” that comment got him a hot smile, “Who looks at their beautiful baby girl and says ‘Let’s call her Adolf Hitler.’ ”

They never did. Growing up, I was always Adell May, never just Adell. My mom is southern so calling me by two names was never an issue. It wasn’t until I got into the glorious Philadelphia Public School System that some idiot teacher called out the name I would never be able to escape ‘Fitler. Adell Fitler.’ I’ll never forget the roar of laughter as I politely tried to correct her that I was Adell May, not Adell. She didn’t hear and neither did anyone else. There are some things you just can’t unsay.”

Theo thought about his own journey – it was totally different. Like a bomb dropped out of the blue on a grown man – but still, he was a little bit ashamed of how he had tried to hide from it – Adell had decided to own it right away. She’d only been a child but she had taken the harder path.

I recognized right away that there was no putting that can of worms back in the ground. That first day, I didn’t even know who Adolf Hitler was – I went home and asked my dad. He was much more upset than I was – we had always taken a lot of pride in being ‘The Fitlers, the Philadelphia Fitlers’ and now here was his baby girl getting called a Nazi, and the worst Nazi of them all. At first he wanted to go down and set the school straight but he was a pretty smart dude and realized that doing that would only make him look like the dumbass that accidentally named his daughter for a monster – or worse, like some kind of fetishist Nazi.”

So what did you do?” Theo was genuinely curious.

I just went with it. I made jokes about it. I made sure that I was the complete opposite of a Nazi in all of my actions, became super liberal, and always became the first one to poke jokes at myself. And, like you saw when we first met – I found ways to shock the fuck out of people right at the beginning instead of waiting with dread for them to discover it. I’m Adolf Hitler, bitch.”

That’s totally different from me,” Theo said “I did everything I could to hide from it – Theo, just plain ‘T’ and even changed the way I pronounced my last name ‘Kaz in Sky’.”

Nah, that shit never works man. They always sniff it out. The urge to bully is too strong in people. Even nice people love to sniff out a weakness and exploit it. They’ll do it in a different way, but they’ll do it. You’ve gotta own your shit. If I were you, I’d start telling people to call you Ted. In fact, I’ll be the first.”

Seriously? I’d prefer you didn’t. It’s not funny to me”

Yeah, fucking seriously Ted. I’m starting.” She put her finger over her lip in the universal Hitler mustache symbol and did a goosestep across the Trader Joe’s parking lot – “You vill be ze facking unibomber. You vill be Ted Kazinski or vee vill fuck your shit up.”

Theo cringed but he’d rather be called Ted than not spend time with Adell. He felt himself running through a huge range of emotions – not the least of which was anger but she just kept going.

I’m going to tell everyone I’m dating the fucking Unabomber.” It was the first time the word dating had come into their interactions since the first ‘blind date’ somehow hearing her say it made all the other emotions he had been feeling disappear – but still he had to get her to stop. There was only one way.

He grabbed her hand and pulled her close enough that he was able to kiss her. She didn’t try to stop him. It wasn’t some big sloppy kiss like in the movies, just a kiss on the mouth – their first. As he pulled away he looked into those big blue eyes and said what came naturally.

Heil Fitler.”

Chapter 8

Heil Fitler

Our society tends to regard as a “sickness” any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system, and this is plausible because when an individual doesn’t fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system. Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is seen as a “cure” for a “sickness” and therefore as good.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

The reason Theo (who despite his misgivings was suddenly being called Ted by at least one person) hadn’t figured out Adell’s job while she leaned against the fence was because she didn’t really have one. She had hundreds. She was a dog walker, an illustrator, an ear-ring model, a ghost-writer, a fill in waitress, a substitute pre-school assistant, and anything else that showed up on the temp or gigs section of craigslist.

She’d gone to school in Philadelphia and after graduating had moved to a dozen different cities where she took one semester of classes she found interesting at a dozen different community colleges. Her interests were all over the board – history, literature, art, math, crafts, business, karate, kung fu movies, skateboarding, bicycle repair, welding, jewelry design, and sacred geometry. She probably would have ended up some hippy dippy baby machine living in a bus if she hadn’t of had a name that no respectable hippie could ever say out loud. The fact that she refused to hide from her name had kept her from falling onto the hippie trail.

Fucking hippies,” she laughed as she told Theo (Ted) about guys trying to pick her up through the years “They’re the funniest. They’re like ‘What’s your name sister?’ and I’m like ‘I’m Adolf Hitler’ then they’d get this fucking look on their faces – part disapproving, part scared, and part disgusted – if they stuck around long enough to learn my actual name, they’d always try to convince me to change my name to some dipshit emotional state like ‘Serenity’ or ‘Tenderness’ and I’d be like ‘No, I’m pretty happy with Adolf Hitler.’ Sometimes I’d start giving them suggestions back like ‘Hey Momo, you should change your name to something strong like ‘Mussolini’ or ‘Polpot’. None of them would even consider it. Fucking weaklings.”

One thing Theo (Ted) learned quickly was that Adell had one of the foulest mouths he’d ever encountered. It wasn’t just f-bombs she threw. She made up brand new obscenities on a regular basis and used all the old standards as well. She could shut it off at a moment’s notice but when she was comfortable and being herself it flowed like toxic waste. She was at her most comfortable that day when she was telling him about the hippies, drinking a beer while sitting on a stoop in the Haight Ashbury – they didn’t know who the stoop belonged to, but it was the Haight. So they could sit there and drink a beer on a stranger’s stoop. And she could cuss as much as she wanted.

After a while he figured out that most of her new curse words came from a simple formula. Generally it would be something like [bodily discharge + deformity] but sometimes she would also use [sex-act + obscure profession noun] so he got used to hearing things that were jarringly discordant and disgustingly funny.

It was a nice day, the weather was perfect. A few clouds were chasing each other across the sky, but there was no chance of rain, no fog, and no hint of chill in the air. They’d known each other about two weeks and Theo (Ted) hadn’t quite gotten up the nerve to ask her about the formula on her arm. He’d looked at it, he’d touched it, but he hadn’t figured out a way to ask about it. Largely because he didn’t want to seem stupid for not knowing. Today was the day.

Hey, there’s something that’s been bothering me for a while…”

My foul mouth or my foul name…” he couldn’t tell if she was joking but figured she must be so he just kept going.

No, it’s this.” He gently reached out to her arm and used his other hand to trace the coded formula on the bottom of her right forearm. It must be a formula but he wasn’t sure what it was for.

dQ/dt=-h*(T(t)-Tenv)=-h*AΔT(t) (way cooler in tattoo script)

The binary underneath her other forearm would be easy enough to translate if he could remember it or take a picture.

01001100 01101001 01100010 01100101 01110010 01100001 01110100

01101001 01101111 01101110 00001101 00001010 00001101 00001010

Careful Ted, you’re going to get in over your head.” Adell laughed and pulled her arm back looking at it with what might almost be described as sadness. “But it’s cool.”

She was gazing at him with warmth and he had the impression that she was making fun of him at the same time she was flirting.

By this point he had stopped flinching when she called him Ted. They hadn’t yet committed to any sort of relationship through words or consummation, but there was something in the way that she was looking at him that told him that time was coming soon. This was what is so often described as ‘a moment.’

He didn’t want to spoil it. He wanted this moment. The only problem was that he also wanted to find out the meaning of her tattoo. “Are you going to tell me?”

Cool down big boy. Maybe it’s time to show me that rent control place of yours in Dolores Park. Come on.”

She got up and began walking – he had no choice but to follow her right back to his car.

Once they were in the car, she reached over, closed her fist around a handful of hair and yanked him to her. Theo (Ted) didn’t really like it but he kissing that followed was incredibly likable. She finally let go and shoved him away.

Did you know that you parked in one of the only spots where a camera can’t actually see what’s going on in the car?” He hadn’t known. He leaned down and started looking around the parking lot. They were right under a camera bubble, but all it could see was the top of the car. He couldn’t actually see any other cameras that would be able to see them.

Huh. Nope, I did not realize I did that.” He was surprised that she had seen it too.

It’s one of the things I like about you Ted. One of many things. You are a natural when it comes to security. I’m not sure what would cause that, but you seem to just be naturally inclined to move about the world in a secure way. Virtually no online footprint except for an almost never used Facebook account. You don’t have an Apple or Google device to spy on you. Your parking is totally instinctual but almost perfectly correct in a security sense. It’s fucking weird man, and I love it.”

They were still sitting in the Trader Joe’s Parking Lot. She still hadn’t told him the meaning of her tattoo. He was hot and bothered and bothered more by the bizarre security speech. There was some sort of a red flag that wanted to go off in his brain, but he wouldn’t let it.

Instead, he just followed his annoyances and desires which seemed to go right along with the right instincts.

Do you still want to see my place?”

Of course I do, you think I’m some fucking jizz-gimp?” She smiled as he said it. It was another one of those odd curse words that sounded like it should actually be something.

And hey, what is that formula?” he tried to throw it out casually but she knew it was under his skin. It had to be if he was still thinking about it after those kisses.

I always wanted to be cool and never wanted anyone to see me lose my shit,” she told him. “I’m not a physics geek or anything but I thought it was pretty dope that there was something called the ‘Law of Cooling’ – Isaac Newton came up with it. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with keeping your cool, but I’ve used it to remind myself to stay calm through the years.”

I knew I’d seen it before. I knew it.” Theo had seen it in physics and hydrodynamics classes at Berkley. It had never been anything he actually needed to use – but that was why it had seemed familiar.

She was looking at him funny “Yeah, so it basically means ‘you are cool in proportion to the difference between your cool and the cool of your surroundings’.”

Yeah, that’s right,” Theo said “A body will lose heat proportional to the difference between it’s temperature and the ambient temperature around it.”

Uh-huh, so I use it to remind me to chill in relation to the vibe around me. My own law of cooling. I like the Delta T in it though because it reminds me that time is a fucking illusion. Delta T is the difference between Earth’s rotational time and atomic time – and it’s getting bigger all the time.”

Whoa.” Theo (Ted) made the universal head exploding sign with clawed fingers pulled outward from the temples while he made an explosion sound.

Yeah,” Adell went on, warming up to her explanation “The rotation of the Earth isn’t a constant but we treat it like it is. It’s only a constant when you average it out over a fuck-long time – and that’s actually bullshit. The universe isn’t precise. That’s one of the big lies. We didn’t pretend it was until the late 1940s – the whole Atomic Age was built on lies. Are we going?”

Ted took her cue and started the car. He’d cleaned his apartment every day since he’d met her just in case she ever asked to see it.

Chapter 9

Play it Cool

Assuming that industrial society survives, it is likely that technology will eventually acquire something approaching complete control over human behavior. It has been established beyond any rational doubt that human thought and behavior have a largely biological basis. As experimenters have demonstrated, feelings such as hunger, pleasure, anger and fear can be turned on and off by electrical stimulation of appropriate parts of the brain. Memories can be destroyed by damaging parts of the brain or they can be brought to the surface by electrical stimulation. Hallucinations can be induced or moods changed by drugs. There may or may not be an immaterial human soul, but if there is one it clearly is less powerful that the biological mechanisms of human behavior. For if that were not the case then researchers would not be able so easily to manipulate human feelings and behavior with drugs and electrical currents.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

How the fuck do you afford this place, Ted?”

It was the next day and Adell was making coffee. It was a fair question. The truth was he shouldn’t have been able to afford it – and he wouldn’t have been able to afford it if it hadn’t of been for San Francisco’s Rent Control Ordinance.

Theo (Ted) had moved in while he was still in college. He’d had at least one and as many as three roommates at one time. Eventually, they all either moved away, got better jobs, or just disappeared and it was just Ted (Theo) left in the apartment. The certificate of occupancy had been issued initally during the 1970s and since it had been continuously occupied by renters since that time – there was only a limited amount that the landlords could raise the rent. The rent increases had to be based on the Bay Area Consumer Price Index and could only be a small percentage per year. Also, capital imporovements couldn’t be passed on to the tenants and eviction was a serious pain in the ass. In San Francisco, long term renters who had been there prior to 1996 had all the power on their side.

Essentially, it meant that Ted (Theo) was paying $950 a month for an apartment that should have been renting for around $4500 per month. Essentially, this meant the landlord was missing out on almost $42,000 per year in rent – and had been doing so for decades.

Rent control,” he told her. It was all anyone needed to say in the Bay Area. She nodded then he continued, “But I’m thinking about moving out…”

What? Why the fuck would you do that? Are you crazy?”

Maybe,” he told her, “But check this out…” He’d gotten a letter from his landlord a few weeks before. In the letter they explained how much money they had been missing out on, thanked him for being a great tenant, and then made a crazy offer at the bottom. It made sense – but it was still one of those things that might make sense but makes no sense at all.

Adell read it and then looked up at him. “What? I am totally baffled…is this real?”

Yeah,” he told her. It made sense. Here was the offer – the landlord was offering to pay him $90,000 to move out by the end of 2019. “The eviction procedures are all in my favor. Nobody wants to buy a rent controlled apartment with a long term tenant in it – because they just get the same fucked up deal my landlord has been getting. So, they can’t get full market value unless they are selling it unoccupied. The difference in occupied versus unoccupied when measured over ten years is about a half-million dollars and that’s without property values going up. So, giving me $90k has a serious value to them. But I’m not sure I want to move…”

Dude, you have to take it. If you don’t they are just going to pay some lawyer $90k to find a way to fuck you.”

Sure, but I don’t really want to move out of my neighborhood and everything is so fucking expensive in the city that essentially they are only giving me two years to either move or find a way to make a fortune so I can continue living here. I don’t have anywhere to go…and I’m not sure I really want to start a business.”

You can move in with me and we can create a startup,” the words seemed to rush out of Adell’s mouth before she had a chance to consider them and judging by the look on her face – if she had been able to – she would probably have taken them back – but it was already too late.

Shit,” she immediately followed her offer/idea with shit. “So much for me being cool. We hardly know each other, we’ve only just spent the night together for the first time, and here I am suggesting that we move in together and become business partners. You probably think I’m some sort of psycho oral pinsetter.”

Wha – what?” Ted (Theo) wasn’t so much shocked by the offer as by trying to figure out what in the world a psycho oral pinsetter was. “What the fuck is an oral pinsetter?”

You know, a guy who puts the bowling pins back up but has an oral fixation. An oral pinsetter.”

Ted (sort of Theo) started laughing. “Yeah, you’re a definite psycho oral pinsetter. Although, the picture I had when you said that was more of a drooling bird dog.” He was laughing but Adell was really bothered by her offer. He saw it.

Hey, it’s cool. Don’t worry about it. I’m not going to hold you to it. It was an idea – that’s all. Relax.”

I don’t want to relax you fucking piss-cleft. And I don’t want to take my offer back. I want you to move in with me so we can start a business. I really fucking want that – I can’t believe I’m saying it, but it’s true. So will you Ted? Will you give all this up and become my bitch?” That smile of hers – it was all he could see anymore. It was all he wanted to see.

Ted (not really Theo anymore) couldn’t believe this was happening. This was an impossible situation. He really liked her, hell, maybe he even loved her but she was asking him to give up everything, to change his life, to start all over and leave everything he had built over the past twenty years behind. He looked around at his apartment and suddenly realized he hated Theo’s life, he didn’t have shit to hold him here, and he didn’t even like Theo very much.

You’re going to have to buy me a ring, but okay, I’ll be your bitch.” They’d known each other for fifteen days but it felt more like forever. He didn’t mean she’d have to marry him, but it came down to the same thing. Adell jumped up and down in joy and then squeezed him in a huge hug while showering his face with kisses.

Hooray, I’ve always wanted a bitch. Especially one that led the FBI on one of the largest manhunts in the history of the United States.”

Chapter 10

We Are Evil

It presumably would be impractical for all people to have electrodes inserted in their heads so that they could be controlled by the authorities. But the fact that human thoughts and feelings are so open to biological intervention shows that the problem of controlling human behavior is mainly a technical problem; a problem of neurons, hormones and complex molecules; the kind of problem that is accessible to scientific attack. Given the outstanding record of our society in solving technical problems, it is overwhelmingly probable that great advances will be made in the control of human behavior.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

The first thing they had to figure out was what kind of business they were going to start. Since they had almost two months before the offer required them to move out, Adell moved up to Dolores Park and more or less moved in with Theo. Strike that, she completely moved in with him. She brought three suitcases and a trunk. In the trunk was a juicer, a blender, and a fuck load of shoes.

Ted (not really Theo anymore) and Adell stopped at a Starbucks and she pulled a tablet out of her bag. She powered it up, signed into the wifi, and had a storage startup she’d been using to store a few things deliver them to Theo’s place. Welcome to the world of ‘Clutter’ – they bring you packing materials, help you pack, take your stuff, and then bring it back to you. It was a personal storage service without having to go to a scummy storage facility.

I’ve actually had this idea before,” Ted told her. “It always seemed silly to have to rent a storage unit when it made more sense to store things piecemeal in an Amazon style fulfillment center.”

That’s a great fucking idea Ted, but as you can see – Clutter is already doing it. Barcodes on boxes and all. There might be room for competition, but I don’t really want to do this.” Adell motioned to the guys bringing her suitcases up the stairs to their (now temporary) apartment. “I can’t believer we’ve fucking moved in together. I wonder if the Chans know?”

Of course they know, they probably own Clutter.” Ted (not the loser formerly known as Theo) “And by the way, I thought I was moving in with you…”

Oh, suck it Trebek. You will, but for now we need to be in the city to get access to all those startup motherfuckers. Do you know anything about Lean Methodology?”

I’ve heard of it, but I’m not sure what it is. Want to enlighten me?” Ted was on the old beige sofa – it was one of those overstuffed and ultracomfortable ones from the 1990s and since Ted hadn’t really been a partier, had a dog, or ever had roommates who smoked – it still looked pretty good and was even more comfortable in 2019 than it had been in 1997.

Sure. The old way of doing business was to develop a plan, develop a product, find the market for that product, and then find a way to let the market know the product existed and sell it to them. Building a business took years, lots of effort, and a lot of money. Lean methodology is different. You come up with an idea, you see if the idea fits into the marketplace and determine product/market fit, then you build the minimum viable product, test it with the marketplace, assess, adapt, and repeat. Pivot if you must but don’t waste time or money on ideas that don’t get near immediate validation. That’s Lean. The reason it works is because there are a bunch of really rich assholes who are willing to throw millions of dollars at hundreds of bad ideas in the hopes that one of them turns out to be a really good idea. If they stopped throwing the money, Lean would wither up and die – but as luck would have it – most of those rich assholes live right here or at the least send their money to Sand Hill Road to be distributed towards whatever the next amazing thing is.”

I’ve been thinking about a different kind of social network…” Ted wanted to tell her about Gopher and Mesh Networks and his work in technology earlier in his career but she interrupted him..

Nope, social isn’t going to work. The Chan’s already own most of it and Jack ‘the Beard’ Dorsey and Twitter pretty much own the rest. Nobody is throwing money at social any more unless it has a very different kind of twist. Disruption is where it’s at now – Grubhub disrupting the restaurants, Laundoo disrupting laundromats, that kind of shit…We’re looking for the Uber of Bedspreads, the Tinder of Parking, the BirchBox of Pizza, or the AirBnB of Dentists. That’s pretty much all they are taking right now…the fucking things of other fucking things.”

I can dig it,” Ted laughed. “I can come up with some. How about the Uber of Moving? On demand movers.”

Great idea, but Lugg is already doing it. Already funded. Has a moat. Next.”

AirBnB of Weed?”

Nope, BudnBreakfast is already killing it in California.”

Shit, this is harder than I thought. How about a Tinder for Beards? We can pitch it to Dorsey?”

Too late. He’s already invested in Bristler.”

Serious?” Ted couldn’t believe these really existed.

Yup, totally fucking serious. All the obvious ones are already taken.”

That’s obvious?”

Yeah, come on hipsters and Tinder? Slam dunk.”

I like your idea about the Tinder of Parking. How would that work? Is anyone doing it?”

Adell shook her head. “Yeah, I kind of like that one too. I’m not sure what it would be. Would it be like hooking up in parking spaces or more like swipe left if you want to park here, swipe right if this parking space isn’t good enough for you?” They were both laughing. Adell pantomimed the motions…”Nope, I’m not putting my car in that… Ugh, I wouldn’t park there with your car….oh, man, I’d sure like to parallel into that space!”

Okay, maybe we put that one on the back burner. At least it’s an idea we don’t know of someone already doing. Next?”

Ted didn’t have internet in his apartment. It was a bit of a pain in the ass sometimes, but he actually liked the incentive to get out and go to coffee shops, parks, or McDonalds. Adell pulled out her tablet – “Do you have wifi?”

No, I don’t even have cable.” She shook her head and smiled at him. It was a mix between pity and pride.

Well, we’re going to need to bring the internet into your home Mr. Unabomber. We can’t build a technology company without the internet. We must have the World Wide Web.”

He hadn’t told her much about his past work but loved the opportunity that she had just given him.

Actually, WWW is just a protocol – one of many. There are several different internets but the http www internet is the dominant one today – but that’s probably going to change…there’s actually a whole alternate internet in place using mesh networks and lighter weight internets like Gopher – the one I used to work with – you can run Gopher over HAM radios creating a MeshNet.”

Adell was staring at him with an expression somewhere between shock and disbelief…”What the fuck? I mean what the scatophile-fletcher fuck are you talking about? There’s only one internet – the world wide web – Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Ebay, Google – the walled garden internet – it’s the only one – I mean right? What you’re saying is just crazy talk, isn’t it? Come on Ted – tell me the truth, you’re just fucking with me.”

Ted was always surprised (or actually Theo had been always surprised but now Ted was surprised) to find that people who used the networks had no idea just how deep the networks ran. The World Wide Web was only the tip of the iceberg. He started to explain in more detail but Adell already had her tablet fired up and was digging.. “I’m sure one of your neighbors has an open wifi hotspot – let’s see…okay there are two of them. Do you know who ‘FBI VAN’ or ‘VIRUS THAT WILL ERASE YOUR DATA’ are? Those are the only two open networks. Which should I go with? I’m going to go with FBI VAN – here goes…”

Ted started to say something – to discourage her from signing onto something that obviously wouldn’ t lead anywhere good but he stopped – there was no stopping her.

And I’m on – we’ve got the fucking internet Ted! Now let’s see who FBI VAN really is – I’m guessing that it’s probably a standard Cisco router with the default password – fucking BINGO – let’s see what they have been looking at – browser history – oh, my – we’ve got someone who likes incest porn – let’s see uses a private browsing window on Chrome – that will hide it from your wife but not from your ISP there old FBI VAN. He banks at Wells Fargo and works for UPS. I bet we can figure out his name, social security number, and date of birth in ten minutes or less…”

Ted watched this all happen in less than a minute and frankly, he was shocked. He wasn’t shocked at his neighbors choice of porn or the ease with which Adell was finding the information – he was shocked that she was so good at it. This was obviously not her first rodeo.

What the fuck Adell? Did you forget to tell me you were a black hat hacker?”

Yeah, sorry about that. I forgot to tell you – I’m a black hat hacker. It’s just a hobby.”

Chapter 11

The System is Evil

Suppose the system survives the crisis of the next several decades. By that time it will have to have solved, or at least brought under control, the principal problems that confront it, in particular that of “socializing” human beings; that is, making people sufficiently docile so that heir behavior no longer threatens the system. That being accomplished, it does not appear that there would be any further obstacle to the development of technology, and it would presumably advance toward its logical conclusion, which is complete control over everything on Earth, including human beings and all other important organisms. The system may become a unitary, monolithic organization, or it may be more or less fragmented and consist of a number of organizations coexisting in a relationship that includes elements of both cooperation and competition, just as today the government, the corporations and other large organizations both cooperate and compete with one another.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Did you know that way before 2016 Google ran some experiments to see if by tweaking search results the tiniest bit, if they could change sentiment in an election?” They were a couple of days into brainstorming now and between having each other, a bedroom, and the internet – neither one had felt the need to leave the apartment.

Ted (Theo had been fucked into oblivion) couldn’t believe it – “There’s no way they would have been able to get away with that,”– particularly with the scrutiny that had come after the 2016 election. “Got a source on that?”

Adell looked at him with pity “Of course not – because Google…hello. I read the story in 2014 and it has since been largely purged from the internet. The story was all about how Google found a race with a high percentage of undecided voters in the 2014 Indian elections– they tweaked their algorithm and managed to get the margin pushed by roughly 5% in the direction they wanted which put Modhi, the pro-technology candidate in the seat. It’s called the SEME or the Search Engine Manipulation Effect – it was probably used on some level in 2016 election here too, but maybe not because Google would have seemed to have been in the Clinton camp – but who knows.”

Yeah, I sort of remember that, but what happened to the story – did Google scrub it?” Ted was doing what would have been unthinkable a few months prior – he was surfing the net in his apartment on the FBI VAN network – which turned out to be coming from the apartment of the Davis family across the street. Adell had created a firewall that allowed them to use the connection at will without leaving any trace behind on the Davis router or ISP. Their searches and browsing were being routed through an onion router.

An onion router works by hiding information in a series of encrypted packets with each packet showing a different destination. The ‘peels’ of the onion effectively hide the destination address from internet service providers, prying eyes, and anyone else who might be curious what you are looking at.

Yeah, effectively they scrubbed it. It might still be there but since most search is done through Google, they have de-prioritized it and if you want to find the story you have to know what to search for and be willing to go to page six of the results.” Adell herself was a like an onion – each layer that was pulled back revealed something else – hacker, graffiti artist, digital activist…gardener.

Our friends the Chans aren’t much better – they had a secret project in the works a few years ago that was designed to guide people towards a more ethical way of thinking – which doesn’t sound too bad until you start asking who is making the decision about what is ethical – it wasn’t like they had an election – it was more like Mark said – ‘people shouldn’t hide their income’ and Priscilla said ‘all kids should be vaccinated’ – or whatever – I mean they had people working on it, but there wasn’t any transparency and when it got leaked, people freaked out. Mark has these weird ideas about ruling the world – and they’re scary when you realize how much power he has. So the whole project was either scrubbed or more likely moved to a deep dark and secure level.”

Ted was interested. He understood this stuff. He’d worked on Friendster and seen the potential for abuse even in that primitive social platform. “The internet used to be a lot more fun,” he said.

Yes it did,” Adell agreed with him. “It used to be a place to discover information and broaden your mind but now it’s a place where you are fed information that narrows your view while you search for information that might broaden your view.”

Whoa.” Ted made the mind blown symbol again.

What if we took the power back from the big platforms?” he asked her. “What if we were able to disempower the walled gardens and give people back the internet?”

Adell shook her head “Not to be a defeatist, Ted, but they are already too big to fail and they have the full support of the US government – and all the other governments for that matter. Besides…our mission is to build a startup that the venture capitalists see as the next fucking unicorn, take a big paycheck, and then…I don’t know – save the world.”

We could always try to save the world without taking a huge paycheck first…” Theo (not completely Ted) still had some ideas about right and wrong, but even as he said it Ted took over”…but who am I kidding, you can’t get shit done without paying people.”

Let’s just keep coming up with ideas – we’ve come up with two hundred and eighty seven start up ideas so far – let’s keep going.” Adell was all business but not all the time.

Ted’s head hurt. “I think I need a refresher of some of what we’ve come up with so far…and what we’ve rejected – can you go through the list.”

She was happy to comply – going through the list together was likely to spark some new ideas…

Okay Ted, here goes – some of these have potential.”

Anti-plastic. A way to make up for all the planet destroying plastics we use everyday.”

Morganizer. An automated day organizer that you access when you first wake up.”

Tweetoclock, an automated twitter scheduler. Hard to compete with Tweetdeck.”

Hidden camera finder – but that’s already being done by Scout. “

Gum flavored like entres…a bit hard in terms of manufacturing”

Favood: an app that you list your favorite foods on to get personal recipe and restaurant recommendations.”

DadPals: a social network just for Dads.”

Orgasm simulator – I like the idea but it kind of defeats the point. Right?”

Gobag – a personalized and delivered bag at your destination. No more luggage.”

Ballbuddy – which, sounds like a fuck app but is actually a way for non-sports guys to find coaches to teach them about watching sports – we need to change that name or make it a fuck app.”

The Dickyuum – a gas station automated blow job machine – which is fucking gross but not as gross as the dicks of the guys who will use it.”

Disposable compostable underwear – hard to believe but already for sale on Amazon.”

Veggies made from meat – Arby’s beat us to the punch on that one.”

She kept going. The list was long and filled with failures and crazy ideas most of which were already in the marketplace – things like spray on shoes, making a superfood from cockroaches, peer to peer escorts, and internet personal trolls for hire. It was exhausting and – when you looked at the companies that had gotten funded to the tune of a million, five-million, or ten-million dollars – it was ridiculous.

What about something with cryptocurrency or bitcoin?” Ted asked her.

Oh, Jesus, now you’re going all 2017? Get with it. That shit is dead. It’ll come back someday but right now, all the idiots who bought it are licking their wounds. They all got royally fucked when the big boys realized how easy it was going to be to separate them from their money. That whole thing was done by the banks. I don’t know who Satoshi Nakomoto is or was – but my guess is that he had nothing to do with the wholesale robbery of middle-aged men that cryptocurrency has been over the past two or three years…Wait a minute – did you get suckered too Ted?”

Probably, I haven’t been following it since 2014 or so – but I’ve got a hard drive somewhere where I probably wasted $1000 bucks or so on it. I figured it would go up to a dollar per bitcoin, but sounds like that never happened.” Adell turned to look at him, to see if he was serious. She couldn’t tell.

You’re fucking with me, right? Tell me you’re not fucking with me.” Ted smiled. Yeah, he was fucking with her. He’d bought ten bitcoin when they were a hundred each – so he had a pretty good stash, but not like she was thinking. “Yeah, I’m fucking with you. I’ve got ten BTC though – and since I got them at $100 each – it’s a pretty good emergency fund.”

Thank God. I thought I was fucking a millionaire Forest Gump for a second.” He liked her reaction. No disappointment and no real excitement about it either. They went back to work. “Maybe we should think about blockchain and crypto a little bit, you might be right.”

How about crypto for pet-sitters, dog walkers, pet owners? Like a bitcoin focused strictly on pets. It would be like Pets.com combined with crypto.” Ted thought it sounded pretty good but Adell’s face told him otherwise.

You mean take two of the biggest bubbles of the last twenty years and combine them into a new product? Why not throw Enron and subprime mortgages in there with it? We could create a cryptocurrency based on subprimes and pet trends and then sell the derivatives in a ponzi scheme to oil barons…” The sarcasm was puddling on the floor around them. “But… you might actually be onto something. What if we did create a pet ponzi scheme?”

Well, we’d probably go to prison like Bernie Madoff but without the silk pajamas.”

Haha…but seriously, what’s the biggest pain in the ass about being a pet owner?” She asked him.

Taking them for walks, feeding them, …oh wait…I got it. Cleaning up their shit.” That was why he didn’t have a pet. He didn’t want to clean a fishbowl or litter box and he definitely didn’t want to be one of those people who stood on the sidewalk watching the shit come out of their dog’s ass while standing impatiently with a plastic bag over their hand waiting to pick it up. Fuck that.

Yeah, the shit. All those little dogs shit a lot. The landfills are full of non-biodegradable plastic bags filled with dog turds and there are still dog turds on the sidewalks around every fucking neighborhood in this city – in America for that matter. We come up with a way to deal with the dog shit – and better yet – we figure out a way to pay people for it.”

We can call it Petshitter.com” Ted laughed. Adell laughed with him. Neither of them were joking.

Chapter 12

Petshitter

Don’t imagine that the systems will stop developing further techniques for controlling human beings and nature once the crisis of the next few decades is over and increasing control is no longer necessary for the system’s survival. On the contrary, once the hard times are over the system will increase its control over people and nature more rapidly, because it will no longer be hampered by difficulties of the kind that it is currently experiencing.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

It’s a terrible name. It can’t be said in polite company, on the radio, or even really between friends. No one is going to take it serious. It sounds like some sort of cartoon villain that defecates pets.” They were at their first VC meeting. The Bay Area is filled with crazy opportunities and this was one of them – it was called Speed Pitching. The idea was simple – a group of low level venture capitalists agreed to sit down with as many founders as could give them a one minute pitch with four minutes for questions and comments. If it went well, business cards would be exchanged.

Derek, the first VC they pitched too – didn’t seem like he would be offering a business card for a follow up. He didn’t seem to care about anything but the name.

We realize it’s a bit gritty, but we’re talking about turning pet shit into electricity. Not just cleaning up the streets but also turning a serious source of waste into a sellable commodity that everyone needs.” Ted wasn’t going to give up so easily. It had only been a minute so far. “And it’s a public service on top of that.”

How will this even work? Do you have a prototype yet?” Derek seemed more doubtful than curious but that was where Adell came in.

Yes, we’ve got a German engineering team that has built a prototype that turns dog shit into usable electricity. We can scale that model up into a full scale power plant. Our research has shown that with enough waste we could power a small town with a clean, renewable, and otherwise hard to get rid of waste product.” She laid schematics on the table.

Everything she’d just told Derek was a complete and total fabrication. They’d found a German video from 2015 that showed what it claimed was a home unit that would use dog poop to charge a series of batteries that would power fans, computers, and other household stuff. They didn’t even know if it was legitimate and so far had been unable to get ahold of the producers of the video. Theo had drawn up a good looking schematic, bought the domain Dogshitter.com for $11.99, thrown a landing page up with the schematic and a bunch of fake company information (because they didn’t have a company yet), and a way for people to sign up for an email list to be notified when the product became available.

What kind of leverage do you have?” It was a common VC question and they were ready for it.

We ran a few ads on social media and Craigslist,” Adell said. “In the 72-hours since we put those up we’ve had 23,000 people sign up to be notified.”

This got Derek’s attention. “Did you say 23,000 people signed up in 72-hours?” This time they weren’t lying – as much. In fact they had put free ads on Craigslists and they’d bought ads on Twitter, Facebook, and Google. They had also paid a well known product hunter to ‘find’ and share Dogshitter on the website Product Hunt. Their ads would have made Bernie Madoff proud – maybe – or maybe not – but they got the job done. “We’ll pay you $$$ for your dogshit.” and “Turn dog poop into real cash!” Adell had also written an absolutely insane press release about how Dogshitter was going to save the city, save the planet, and maybe even save humanity. So far, they had been BoingBoinged, written about by a hack writer on Forbes.com, and they’d made it to the front page of Reddit. By this point in the day, 23,000 was probably a huge understatement.

Derek gave them his card and asked for theirs. He did a little double take when he looked at it but then shook hands and went to his next pitch.

Petshitter

Turning Pet Poo to Power and Money

Founders: Ted Kazinsky and Adell Fitler

They did ten speed-pitches and they got ten business cards and ten invitations to set up meetings where they could pitch to higher ranking venture capitalists who actually had the power to get them funding. They left the speed pitch ready to take on the world and full of energy.

That was fucking awesome,” Adell squeezed his hand as they walked down Geary towards the Tenderloin. “We’re going to be fucking ass-funambulism rich.”

Shouldn’t that be ass-fucking funambulist?” Ted was getting the hang of it. “Or even sodamite tight rope walker?” She turned to him with hands on hips and they both busted up laughing.

When they were able to talk again, Ted took things on a serious turn “We’ve got a real problem, Adell.”

What are you talking about? They love Dogshitter.” Her hands were in the air.

Yeah, but we don’t have a product, we don’t have a team, we don’t have a company, and we don’t have a clue that any of this will work.” Ted (feeling a bit Theo) was starting to be a tiny bit worried.

Stop worrying Ted. I’ll make a few calls. I’m sure you know a few people from the startup world. It’s going to be easy to get people on board for this. We’ve got traction baby. We are gonna light this fucking city on fire.”

It may sound ridiculous but it was happening constantly in the startup world. The whole WeWork debacle was still unfolding – billions of dollars thrown at a company run by a guy who wouldn’t wear shoes (in New York City!) All of the money that was coming from VC firms was being thrown at them by central banks that were buying up collapsing financial assets in an attempt to keep the economy working and avoid another tumble like the one in 2008. Free money and when they ran out they would just print more. Hundreds of shitty startup ideas with shitty teams, no product, and no clue.

Accelerators and Angel Investors were giving away life changing sums to businesses that were “pre-idea stage” – no shit. That’s not a term that was just made up – it has been being bandied about for a couple of years now. All a startup needed was a pitchdeck, at least one known founder or backer, and a bank account. The rest could be bought with the first check. The second check could make the product. The third check would be used to start buying up other companies in the same vertical – or completely different verticals. Fucking WeWork bought a pool cleaning startup.

At the end of the day, Petshitter was just as real as MoviePass, AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, WeWork, and all the other unicorns that bled more money than they could possibly make. The funniest thing was when the bankers and junior VC’s started talking about Petshitter they solved one of the biggest problems the company had – the name.

Somehow without a memo – they’d all decided to call it an even weirder name Pets Hitter.

In order to start building their team, Adell brought in a friend who had worked in recruiting. It turned out that Adell had always had a soft spot and a fascination for people with fucked up names. Or maybe it was more accurate to say she was sympathetic or empathetic to their plight, In any event, there were few people with names as fucked up as hers (or Ted’s) but her friend Timothy had suffered a totally different kind of awfulness because of his parents naming choices.

The Burr family had consciously made the choice to saddle their child with a name that would forever subject him to people cupping their hands around their mouth and heartily calling out “Tim-Burr!” As far back as he could remember, it had never been funny. The only funny part about it was that people who did it actually seemed to think themselves clever as if they were the first to notice it or the first to call it out. In any event, Timothy was very clear about his name not being Tim and when people made the unfortunate choice to call out “Tim-Burr” his response had become pretty routine “Gosh, aren’t you clever.” Followed by “Hey, you’ve got a little bit of schmutz on your face…” and he would motion to a spot around their mouth or if he’d already done that he would mention a bit of dandruff or some other self-doubt inducing lie that caused them to focus on themselves. Somehow watching people become insecure and worried about things that didn’t exist eased the sting a bit – honestly, sometimes he felt like he got more enjoyment from it than they did.

Timothy was meeting with them at their soon to not be their’s apartment. Adell had warned Ted not to call him Tim and explained that despite her trying – there was nothing that would make Timothy ‘own’ his name.

When the doorbell rang, Ted got up from the kitchen table where they were working to get it. For some reason Ted had pictured a tall skinny white guy with a beard – but that wasn’t Timothy at all – he was a little below average height – probably 5’6” or 5’7” and clean shaven. His skin was that beautiful satin black color that recent immigrants from Africa sometimes had.

Nice to meet you Mr. Burr. Thanks for coming.” Ted had decided to stick with Mr. Burr unless he was told otherwise. “I’m Ted Kazinsky.” Adell was standing behind him and probably would have introduced them, but Ted had wanted to do this himself. He watched for the reaction. There was none.

Timothy smiled and shook his hand. “Please, call me Timothy.” His voice was soft and slightly effeminate with the lightest of Southern accents. Adell came forward and squeezed past in order to give Timothy a hug and bring him inside.

Timothy, I’ve missed you!” She was squeezing him with enthusiasm. She led him over to the table. “Can I get you a cup of coffee or some juice or something?”

They all sat and for the next few minutes chatted about history, mutual friends, and times past. Adell had met Timothy when she took a temp job with Oracle. He had literally called her because of her name – so, maybe it wasn’t quite accurate to say she collected people with fucked up names because after all, he had really collected her. Timothy and his boyfriend had recently bought a condo in San Jose but he was still coming up to the city on a regular basis. His boyfriend had a completely normal name – well, normal in Korea. Hank Yu.

When the talk turned to names – Ted had to ask “Timothy, I’ve been meaning to ask you about your name…” Ted caught the eyeroll from Timothy which had been directed at Adell – he was supposed to have missed it, but it didn’t bother him – he knew what it was about. “Are you related to Aaron Burr? – the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton?”

It wasn’t the question he’d been expecting, but it still raised his hackles a bit. “Well, according to my grandmother, I’m a direct descendent of Aaron Burr, 3rd Vice President of the United States of America and one of the least understood of all the founding fathers – in fact, my middle name is Aaron. It never used to be a problem before that bastard Lin-Manuel Miranda made it famous. Now I get asked all the time. There are times I just want to hear “Tim-Burr” – okay, not really.” They all laughed.

I always admired Aaron Burr,” Ted said “I think he got the short end of the stick. America might have been a better place if Hamilton had lost those arguments. Did you ever read Gore Vidal’s book, Burr?”

Tim nodded enthusiastically. “I did. It’s a masterpiece and a true critique of our system.” He turned to Adell “Ms. Fitler – I do believe you might have found a bonafide radical here.” From this point forward, they were all friends.

With Tim’s help they were able to recruit a fairly solid team that agreed to work for small equity stakes until they had funding. Three engineers, a finance manager to be the CFO, a lawyer (technically she was waiting to pass the bar), three social media mavens, a search engine optimization specialist, a chemist, two designers, and a web designer. Ted protested that they were bringing too many people on but Tim and Adell refused to listen to him. Ted pointed out that he was a decent engineer, could do web design, and that three social media mavens was overkill – but they would’t listen.

Tim stressed how important it was to put diversity in their founding team, so candidates that were under-represented (code for not heterosexual, white, males) were sought out.

The finance manager, a guy named Geronimo Murphy was half Lakota Sioux and the lawyer – a recent Yale Law graduate named Charlene Mansion, managed to get the Delaware C corporation set up for less than $200 and all of the new team members agreed to receive between .5 and 2% equity in stock as payment until funding was achieved and salaries could be determined. Everyone coming on had to sign non-disclosure and non-compete contracts and agree to work as I-9 contractors without the expectation of benefits for the first 18-months.

It took two weeks and less than $1000 to take Petshitter from a ridiculous idea to a company with nearly twenty employees, a bank account, legal status as a person, and close to a hundred-thousand people waiting to find out where to send their pet shit for cash.

Nobody seemed very concerned that they still didn’t have an actual pet-shit-energy-generator. The engineers had looked at the online designs and decided it had probably been some sort of a hoax – maybe a sociology experiment or an art test. In any event, they did think that it was possible to generate electricity from pet shit (and human shit) in a couple of ways – burning it, allowing bacteria to eat the feces and then ‘burp’ methane, or to mix it with other substances which could then be burned. Ted seemed to be the only one who was actually bothered by the lack of an actual answer.

After some argument, Ted convinced Adell that she should be the CEO, not him. He preferred to be the CTO (Chief Technical Officer) . Tim would be the COO (Chief Operations Officer) so he was able to move from department to department – which was pretty bizarre, because, you know, they had departments. He was also the head of human resources, but just until they found someone else. After she had finally agreed, Adell came around to Ted’s decision that she should be the CEO because having a female led startup in Silicon Valley gave them some unique advantages. The investors all wanted to show diversity in their portfolios of companies they funded – so it gave them a leg up. Their founding team was well represented with two women, one African American (Tim), a Native American (Geronimo) , a second generation Korean American (Charlene), a Japanese American (also Geronimo) and at least one LGBTQ (they hadn’t asked Geronimo or Charlene but had a feeling).

CEO and Co-Founder – Adell Fitler

CTO and Co-Founder – Ted Kazinsky

COO – Tim Burr

CFO – Geronimo Banzai

CCO – Charlene Mansoon

Tim was the only one whose name didn’t like like a mass killer. Adell joked that they should give him a nickname on the masthead “Killer Tim Burr” but he said it made him sound like really good lumber.

Nothing wrong with solid wood, Bro.” Adell looked at Theo and smiled when she said it, but they all nodded in agreement.

Chapter 13

Identity Politics

We all know what many of our schools are like. The teachers are too busy taking knives and guns away from the kids to subject them to the latest techniques for making them into computer nerds. Thus, in spite of all its technical advances relating to human behavior, the system to date has not been impressively successful in controlling human beings. The people whose behavior is fairly well under the control of the system are those of the type that might be called “bourgeois.” But there are growing numbers of people who in one way or another are rebels against the system: welfare leaches, youth gangs, cultists, satanists, nazis, radical environmentalists, militiamen, etc.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

The first few meetings were rough. They met with venture capital funds that were already well represented by diversity in their portfolio of investments and their management teams. The bottom line was that they were able to poke holes in the fundamental ideas of petshitter and ask for things like financial projections, videos of a working product, an actual real life working product – and other things that they didn’t have. Also, no one wanted to work with Adolf Hitler and Ted Kazinsky.

The fifth VC firm they met with was the one that Ted almost called off. VWA or Victor White Associates was embroiled in controversy already – they’d been a heavy investor in Uber and a couple of other ‘bro culture’ startups that had taken some serious media heat. A few years earlier they had been one of the VC firms that got caught up in ‘Gamergate’ and most recently they had been involved in the ICO scams of 2017. VWA was known as being heavy handed in their term sheets, taking bigger equity stakes for smaller investments, and worst of all – they were big Trump supporters which everyone in the Vallley took for shorthand as being religious bigots, anti-gay, and racist. The main reason being that if you support a candidate known for those positions, there was a good chance those positions resonated with you.

The VWA meeting was set up for a Wednesday morning. A different, well respected firm offered them a meeting at the same time – Ted’s inclination was to cancel VWA and take the other meeting. Adell wouldn’t hear of it.

I’ve got a feeling about VWA. I just have a gut feeling about this one Ted. They need our diversity. They need our representation. Yeah, these guys are scumbags – I know, but think of it this way – the liklihood of us even creating a product that works is pretty close to nothing. Wouldn’t you rather take money from scumbags than from good guys?”

Ted liked the logic – although he wasn’t too keen on the idea of them not getting a product made. Personally, he was starting to think they had stumbled on something that actually made sense – a product that could make the world a better place. Sure, there were challenges – but he felt like each day they were getting closer to an actual working product – or maybe a working concept – or a viable concept. Adell was right.

The meeting took place two blocks off Sand Hill Road – the street where the most famous deals in tech had taken place. The VWW office building was an impressive cinder block structure that looked like it had been airlifted off of an old army garrison. The VWA logo had an American flag and an eagle on it.

This place reminds me of something…” as they pulled up. It was just he and Adell that went to the pitch meetings. It was just on the dge of his memory. Then it hit him – the building looked like an old VFW post in Martinez – the Veterans of Foreign Wars had hired him as a temp to do some restoration work a few years earlier on the old Martinzez post. Everything about VWA was reminiscent from the big white VWA letters on the front to the logo which he figured must be plagarized and stylized from the VFW logo. He counted six American flags flying in the parking lot and on the building itself.

They’d done their homework. Victor White was a Vietnam Veteran supporter (but not a vet himself) who generally only supported veteran led businesses. His companies were ‘American Values’ companies generally led by heterosexual, Caucasian men. They’d had three companies hit by ‘Me Too’ problems, the scandals with Gamergate and Uber, plus a whole host of rumors about racial problems. They were not a good fit. The companies with VWA were security firms, transportation, and private prisons and schools. Petshitter didn’t fit in any portion of that.

The lobby smelled like stale bread and bleach. The receptionist sat behind a brick wall that stood waist high and had what looked like bullet proof glass separating her from visitors. It was a bit like passport control in third world countries combined with pawn shops in Detroit combined with a CVS pharmacy. Overall the feeling the reception area gave was something akin to “You are not getting past the receptionist.”

We have a meeting scheduled with Victor White for 1:30.” It was precisely 1:15. Ted knew that military guys like fifteen minutes early.

Your names?” the receptionist asked.

Fitler and Kazinsky,” Adell said. No reason to freak out the receptionist. She probably had a gun back there.

Sign these NDAs and then please have a seat, he’l be with you in a few minutes. ” Ted scanned over the document, it was fairly standard and said that any offers, questions, or information shared was private and severe financial penalties would follow if it was leaked to the press, shared with other companies, or written about. They both signed. The reception area felt like a dentist waiting area with Fortune and Entrepreneur magazines on brown leather coffee tables in front of tired brown leather couches. There were fake plants that looked like they were growing dust. On the walls were pictures of Victor White and CEOs, presidents, generals, and religious leaders. White was usually wearing vaguely militaristic khakis – never a uniform, but what looked like a passable ‘civilian’ or ‘contractor’ uniform. He was a fit white man in his late sixties.

Ted had been refining his pitch – he was going to appeal to the ‘man’s best friend’ aspect and ‘generating power’ and ‘America’s next great innovation’. At exactly 1:30, the receptionist looked up “Mr White will see you now.” She buzzed a security door and they were able to pass through a metal doorway to the right side of the room.

Once they’d gone past the metal security door, it was like they had entered a different world. Rich wood furniture, expensive looking paintings, live plants. The receptionist somehow met them on the other side of the door even though she had been seated at her desk across the room when they went through it. Ted looked back to see if she had a twin still sitting there, but the security door had already closed.

She led them down a long hallway to a heavily polished mahogany door with gold gilding on it. In the center where it would have said ‘Star’ if they were in Hollywood was a gold placard that simply said “White”. Ted gave Adell a warning look to keep her from saying out loud what had already popped into his head “White Only”.

The receptionist opened the door and motioned for them to go in. “Have a seat, he’ll be with you in a moment.” Ted felt like he’d crossed the silk ropes at a museum palace. Gold and highly polished wood everywhere. Silk carpets covered the floor and a large desk sat in the center of the room. Two chairs sat in front of it. There were doors leading off to either side. The sense of over the top luxury was only jarred by the hand grenade sitting in the center of the desk, by itself, the pin pulled out and sitting next to it. By the time he noticed it – the door had clicked shut behind them.

He pointed to it. Adell turned her eyes and they instantly widened when she saw it.

Fuck.”

When she said it, some instinctual mate-preservation mode clicked into action from inside Ted. He shoved her down to the ground and dove onto the desk covering the grenade and sliding across the smoothly polished surface to the far side of it. Holding the grenade to his body he rolled off the desk and onto the floor and waited for the sudden destruction of his body as the grenade fragmented itself, his limbs, and his organs.

What the fuck, Ted?” Adell was pulling herself off the ground. Just then the door to the right side opened and Victor White walked in the room. He was a bit rounder and shorter than Ted had expected, but otherwise looked like his pictures.

Bravo, Mr. Kazinsky. Bravo. That was as true an act of bravery as I’ve ever seen. In all the years I’ve been doing this – you’re the first one to dive on the grenade. I think you probably would have saved Ms. Fitler’s life right there, but sadly, you would be dead. The good news, however is that there is no explosive in that grenade.”

You do this to everyone?” Adell was still out of breath and Ted could tell she was starting to boil.

No, only to those founders who I think I may want to do business with. So, tell me about Pets Hitter.”

Ted got up and put the grenade back on White’s desk. He walked around the desk to the side where Adell was starting to sit in one of the plush chairs. On the way, he shook White’s hand. “I’m Ted Kazinsky.”

Nice to meet you Ted. Great fucking American.” Ted wasn’t sure if White was still congratulating him on his heroic behavior or saying the Unabomber was a great American, but he suspected it was the latter.

Adell stood back up “I’m Adell Fitler, the CEO of Petshitter” When Adell said it, it really sounded like “I’m Adolf Hitler the CEO of Pet Shitter” mainly because that was what she said.

That name – you might want to put a pause in there.” Again, Ted couldn’t tell if he was talking about her name or the company name. “Okay you two, enough fucking around. Pitch me. And before you start, I don’t want to see any slides – just tell me about your company.”

Ted jumped into it. “American’s love their dogs. We have nearly 75-million of them! We can say that dogs are man’s best friend but in the United States but dogs are also one of the worst polluters. The dogs of America generate approximately 10-million tons of poop per year. Cats generate another 7-million tons. Most of this waste gets left on sidewalks, in parks, in yards, or dumped in the garbage with the added toxic plastic bag around it. Dog poop is the number three cause of water pollution. The reason we see so much dog poop in public places is because more than 60% of dog owners don’t pick up their dog’s feces. This causes big problems.”

Do you have a dog, Mr. White?” Ted had meant to ask at the beginning.

We have three great danes,” White said “They probably produce about half that dog shit by themselves. Keep going.”

One gram of dog poop contains more than 23-million fecal bacteria that seep into the soil, get into our water, and are carried and spread by flies and other vectors.”

Like my god-damn shoes…” White griped. “So what are you going to do about it?”

Petshitter incentivizes owners to pick up their dog’s waste and turn it into electricity. Generators have so far been used to charge batteries, power fans, and other small appliances – but we believe that if we can harness even 10% of the dog waste in this country, our energy output could get as high as 50 gigawatts of power – which is the same amount of energy produced by solar panels in the USA in 2017. “

Holy shit.” White caught himself by surprise with the unintended pun. He chuckled but he was a serious businessman despite his earlier prank. “So, why haven’t the other VC’s you’ve talked with jumped on this money wagon you just pulled into my office. I know you’ve had four meetings this week.”

This was the question that Ted hadn’t wanted to answer. He began to explain the issues they had with the product, the lack of a viable prototype because they didn’t have funding to build it, and would have gone on but at this point Adell stood up and interrupted him.

The main problem is that our names suck. Nobody has the guts to work with Adolf Hitler and Ted Kazinsky. All of these valley snowflakes are so PC they would have turned us down if we walked in with a wagon full of gold and the directions to El Dorado. We can’t change our names – and we won’t change our names – but we have the keys to the golden city if you are willing to work with us. Also, if you don’t mind my saying so – it wouldn’t hurt your company to be working with a female led company that enables gays, Asians, and African-Americans in their management team. We are as diverse as it gets.”

White steepled his fingers looking like he was trying to channel Steve Jobs. His crisp khaki shirt made him look like he had just taken a pith helmet from his grey head when he walked in from a safari. He looked at Adell with an intense gaze.

I like you Ms. Fitler, I like the way you cut to the heart of things. Here’s what I will do – I’m going to fund Pets Hitter with a seed investment of $3-million dollars for a 30% equity stake and a seat on your board – providing that you are willing to do a couple of things. First, you are both going to have to go through our VWA Startup Basic Training – our deal will be contingent on your satisfactory completion – it’s a one-week intensive course we require all of our founders to go through. Second, you’re going to have to change the name of the company Pets Hitter or Petshitter are both terrible names. Although…maybe for a product like this, there is no such thing as a good name. ”

Draw up the papers and we’ll have our legal team go over them Mr. White. If it all matches what you’ve just said, it sounds like we have a deal.”

White reached across the desk and shook both their hands.

Chapter 14

VWA Startup Basic Training

The system may become a unitary, monolithic organization, or it may be more or less fragmented and consist of a number of organizations coexisting in a relationship that includes elements of both cooperation and competition, just as today the government, the corporations and other large organizations both cooperate and compete with one another. Human freedom mostly will have vanished, because individuals and small groups will be impotent vis-a-vis large organizations armed with super-technology and an arsenal of advanced psychological and biological tools for manipulating human beings with instruments of surveillance and physical coercion. Only a small number of people will have any real power, and even these will have very limited freedom, because their behavior too will be regulated; just as today our politicians and corporation executives can retain their positions of power only as long as their behavior remains within certain fairly narrow limits.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Hey Ted,” Adell leaned across his chest – her hair glowed like a halo from the morning sun coming in the window. “You know what cracks me up?”

He knew a couple of things but he knew he’d never guess it so he shook his head.

The actual Hitler rolling in his grave as his name becomes associated with dog shit – I mean even more than it already was. That’s some funny shit. Shit Heil!”

They laughed. Oh man how they laughed. Life was unbelievable. They wanted to tell the Chan’s but they still weren’t returning their calls or texts. So it was just the Petshitter crew who got to be in on the gag.

The gag was this – they had a literal dogshit project that they’d put a casual couple of weeks work into and they’d just been funded to the tune of three-million dollars. It looked like VWA might change their mind on the name change but they had to go through with the two week intensive VWA Startup Basic Training. Today was day one. Checkin was at 10:00 am at a facility in San Jose so they needed to hit the road if they were going to make it. They would be staying on for the program as a sort of retreat for the entire two weeks. They had time – and it was low pressure.

At least until they got there – in hindsight, Ted realized that knowing what they knew about Victor White and his usual companies – they shouldn’t have been expecting your typical Silicon Valley circle jerk where successful founders became mentors and everyone sat around eating expensive food and having the famous ‘fireside chats’ where successful CEOs and founders got to masturbate about their ‘journey’. A journey that usually started with having well-to-do parents who put a focus on education, going to school in an area where the affluent live, getting accepted into Stanford or MIT, doing an internship at a Fortune 500 tech company, and then dropping out to start their own tech company and having to hustle around the valley hitting up their doctor, lawyer, or engineer parent’s friends. Failing, losing a shit ton of money, and then having their parents or their parents friends believe in them again and showing everyone that this rich kid who got all the breaks could do it despite a drug, alcohol, or other social problem. Nope, that wasn’t this startup school.

There were about seventy participants from around fifty different companies that were looking to be funded by VWA. They all gathered out front waiting for the doors to open at 10:00 am. Most of them were in their twenties to early thirties – Ted and Adell were not the oldest but definitely in the top tier in terms of age.

The doors opened and there wasn’t any of the coffee and donuts social aspect. No ‘get to know you’ breakfast speeches. No polite, boring, and possibly informative keynote speech. No, none of that.

No, this was VWA Startup Basic Training – which should have been called Boot Camp – but White didn’t want to give away the joke – which was only funny to him anyway. The facility was an old police training facility and White had contracted one of his military security contractors to run an old fashioned, in your face, shut the fuck up and do some pushups scumbag boot camp for his potential investees. Ted was glad they’d spent the morning laughing. The next seven days promised to be hellish.

Upon checkin they were told to turn in all of their phones, wallets, and personal items which were placed in sealed plastic evidence bags that they wrote their names, and the inventory on before sealing them with security tape. They were given orange jumpsuits and white tennis shoes – the kind prisoners wear and told to go into the men’s or women’s locker rooms, put their clothing in a locker and change into the jumpsuits.

When I say they were ‘told’ I’m understating things – they were met by ten huge and screaming men and women in olive drab t-shirts, camouflage pants, and combat boots. The conversation went something like this.

Oh, you want some fucking money, huh? You want VWA to give you millions of dollars so you can follow your fucking dreams?”

You can’t handle it punks. You don’t want this money. You don’t want this investment. You don’t want this partnership and relationship so just turn away you weak fucking geeks. Right now. Take your stuff, go back to your garage, and put away your toys. You can’t handle the startup world. Go on, get the fuck out of here.”

One guy actually turned and walked away. Ted thought about doing the same. He admired the guy who said “Fuck it, this isn’t worth the money.” Then he looked at Adell who was smiling ear to ear as a huge black woman screamed in her face “What the fuck are you smiling at? Do you think this if funny? I’m going to fuck you up.” Adell saw Ted watching and winked. This drove the instructor even more batshit crazy. “Did you just ‘wink’ at your friend? What the fuck? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Once again Adell just said it cold “I’m Adolf Hitler and this is my partner, Ted Kazinsky” This stopped the woman cold – she took a step back “Did you just say your Adolf fucking Hitler and he’s the Unabomber? What in fuck’s name is wrong with you?” Adell puffed her chest out (Ted had to admit, it was a very nice chest) and she screamed in a loud angry voice “No Ma’am. I’m Adell Fucking Fitler and he is not the Unabomer.”

All of this seemed to have taken the steam out of the instructor’s sails because she said “Well, get your ass inside, sign the release forms, put your shit in a ziplock, and go change out of your civvies Adolf – cause we fixing to make sure your startup shit is in order.”

Adell scrambled. Ted had somehow avoided direct contract with the instructors so far and also headed towards the door. The instructors were making a couple of younger founders do pushups, one girl had sat down and was openly weeping on the steps. Gradually, they were all herded towards the lobby where Ted and Adell were already emptying their pockets, putting their backpacks and briefcases in huge ziplock bags, and being issued their orange jumpsuits and white tennis shoes. Once they had the jumpsuits they were screamed at/herded into the locker rooms and then yelled at constantly with demeaning terms until they had placed their clothes in lockers and were exiting the back exit.

You think you’re a CEO? You’re more like a C student. You can’t handle this job.”

You aren’t a founder, more like a foundling. You’re nothing without investment.”

You ain’t got traction – except on your face where the competition has run their traction tires.”

Ted had no conception how a week of this was going to make their company a success. If anything, he was already seeing the roots of the ‘Me Too’ problems VWA funded companies had been going through. There was no way this was going to help their company – but $3 million dollars definitely would – so he shut up and just kept doing as he was told.

For the most part, they left him alone and focused on the younger founders. The men and the women had been split up into two ‘platoons’. Looking and feeling like orange jump suited prisoners they were tortured for hours and then they were all marched to an outdoor track and told to sit in the bleachers just before sunset.

The women took a bit longer to get to the bleachers and sat in the next section down – Ted caught sight of Adell – she was still smiling. Tiki-torches were carried out by the instructors and planted into the earth. Loudspeakers began playing Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ – the instructors screamed for everyone to stand up. They kept saying ‘Attention!’ but then they weren’t doing anything. Finally he realized it meant to stand up and they said it whenever anyone sat down.

The Boss playing, everyone standing, and out marched Victor White. Same khaki uniform but this time with a sort of Cuban fedora on. He walked out, stepped onto a platform, and was handed a mic. The Boss was faded down and the actual boss began to speak.

We are so happy to have you here, applying for funding with VWA. If you’re here, that means that you’ve crossed the hardest gauntlet – which is getting here. For the next week – we are going to cram you full of all the information we think you will need to become a successful startup.”

We are going to teach you how to talk to your customers, how to evaluate your ideas, and how to plan out your minimum viable product. You will learn how to set you KPIs and what analytics you need to be sharing with us and learning from. We are going to teach you how to launch over and over, how to scale, and how to grow.”

You will learn the financial pitfalls and how to avoid them. We will help you prioritize your time and teach you how to pivot when you realize that your idea sucks…and trust me…your idea sucks. We have brought you here because of who you are and who we think you can become. We aren’t here because you have a great idea – ideas are easy. We’re here because we think you can do it. Well, it’s not going to be easy. None of this is easy and trust me when I tell you this will be the hardest week of your life – until next week when the real hardest part of your life starts.”

This is the first moment of your startup life so take a moment and take a deep breath. You have arrived. We are going to give you the tools you need to build a company culture, to move forward, and to lead – but once we give you that – you are the ones who have to do something with it. You are the ones who must lead.”

One of the greatest lessons we can teach you is that you need to use your body. If you push your body to the limits – your mind will become stronger, your thoughts will become more clear, and your drive will become that much harder. So – a part of this curriculum is going to be giving you the habits you need to be fit. For the next week, smokers will quit cold turkey as will drinkers and fuckers. If you want to wank, go right ahead – but you’ll have to do it in bathrooms without stall doors or open dormitories – so expect to be caught and mocked.”

For the next week – your bodies and minds are mine. If you want funding – that’s the way it has to be. If you don’t want funding that bad – well, then get the fuck out. My instructors will be happy to give you back your clothing and belongings.”

A couple of founders got up and left. There was silence. A few more got up and left. White just stood on the stage watching until there were no more getting up and leaving. Once they were gone he continued.

Can you imagine throwing funding at those founders? We haven’t even started and they’ve already quit. But for now – that’s enough of the chit-chat. It’s time for your first fireside chat – so I’d like to bring out my good friend, Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle Corporation. Please give him a warm welcome. Also waiters will be coming through the bleachers and giving you either coffee or tea – but no sugar or cream. One of the first companies we funded was Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf – but for now, please give a warm welcome to Larry Ellison!”

Ted had to give it to VWA. He hadn’t seen any of this coming. One thing was certain – he was glad that he hadn’t walked away.

 

Chapter 15

Fireside Chats

Let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

This was Silicon Valley, after all and there was no way that any sort of event was going to happen without the celebrated fireside chat, but this wasn’t THAT Silicon Valley – this was VWA’s right wing bizarro Silicon Valley and Larry Ellison wasn’t going to disappoint.

Larry Ellison came lumbering out from the far side of the bleachers lit by the fire of the tiki-torches. For a man pushing eighty, he looked surprisingly fit. Like Victor White, he was wearing a sort of militaristic civilian uniform. A couple of assistants came out and put chairs on the turf platform. Both men sat down. Another assistant handed Larry Ellison a cordless mic.

Larry, thanks for coming to speak to these guys – you’re one of the most successful men in the history of planet Earth. You are the only person in the world who owns their own Hawaiian Island, you own more jets than many nations, you founded Oracle Corporation, one of the most successful companies in the world, and you are one of the wealthiest people in the world. What’s your secret?”

Larry turned and looked at the crowd. His natural scowl made him look slightly angry even when he tried to force a smile on his face.

Thanks for having me here Victor. My secret is that I don’t take no for an answer. I never have. No means yes to me.” It wasn’t exactly a ‘me-too’ moment. “When the US government told me that I couldn’t own Mig fighters and fly them with full armaments, I didn’t accept it. I simply paid for renovation of an old air base in Mexico on the condition that they let me keep my planes there. When they told me that Oracle couldn’t have a lucrative US government contract that would allow us to provide the one approved fund raising software in the developed world, I didn’t just bow down to that buffoon ass Marc Benioff – no, I built a script to run on top of Salesforce – and ultimately he had to use our databases – so we won. The common thread in all of my successes have been ignoring the word no.”

Victor was nodding. “I’ve always felt that no is just a different level of yes. Unless I’m saying it, then it means no.”

Ellison laughed. “Yes, my no is also the only no I know.” The audience (forgetting they were wearing orange jumpsuits and simply falling into Valley Hive Mind) laughed appreciatively. Ted caught Adell’s eye and she raised one eyebrow – something he wished he could do. This had gotten very strange very rapidly.

But Larry,” Victor asked like he was some kind of late night sensitive talk-show host “What about the government and how it is stifling innovation?”

Now it felt like Ellison was going into some sort of prepared monologue. “Oracle has paid somewhere along the lines of a trillion dollars to the US government. If you include payroll, taxes, FICA, insurance, charitable contributions, the taxes our employees pay, the donations to campaigns and more – then it’s even more.” Ted wondered how he could possibly include all those things as coming from Oracle. “And that’s fine, but we shouldn’t be supporting Ohio and some tank manufactury.” Huh?

Ellison went on. “The old farts in congress – most of them aren’t even my age but 90% of them need a young assistant to check their email for them. Silicon Valley has a larger Gross National Product than more than one hundred and fifty countries. California is the fifth wealthiest nation in the world and it’s not even a nation. The West Coast of North America from Alaska to Baja would be the wealthiest country in the world if it were to leave the United States. Think about it – Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Costco, Oracle, Nike, and the list goes on and on. Alaskan oil, Hollywood…”

He paused to take a sip of water. Ted drank a sip of his coffee – it was really good – probably single origin, hand processed, top of the line. Ellison went on. “And yet, we have to put up with regulation from the descendants of former slave owners in a backwater swamp called Washington D.C. Why in the world do we, the greatest people in the world have to listen to that shyster New York president and his crooked cabinet?” That was a surprise – Ted had sort of thought Ellison would be a Trumper but then he sort of remembered Ellison being a big Marco Rubio backer in 2016.

There is no reason to remain a part of the United States of America. We should secede and take the whole West Coast including British Columbia, the Yukon, and Baja California with us. I’m naming it right now ‘West America’. The USA has become a laughingstock and Larry Ellison and Victor White do not like to be laughed at.” No one was laughing now.

Larry,” Victor was still the host of this show “I’m with you, but what steps should we take. How can we make this a reality?”

By doing what you are doing here Vic, by gathering patriots, putting the best and the brightest minds to work, and getting our minds, bodies, and souls in order.” He turned to the audience “Your companies were picked because they have something to offer to West America. Fresh water, energy, security, education – I’m telling you now – this is going to be the most important week in your lives. And I also want to say this – my venture arm will invest an additional $1 million in every company that makes it through this training. I believe in you.”

He stood up and based on the last two sentences alone – he received a thunderous round of applause. Victor White and Larry Ellison walked off the stage together and the heavies moved back in. They weren’t smiling any more. Just before he was out of range – Victor White turned and said “Please make sure to properly dispose of your coffee cups.”

Over the next seven days, the founders were taught everything they needed to know to make their startup work and a completely bizarre amount of physical training, combat techniques, and methods of improvised warfare. The ostensible reason given was that business is a lot like war and by developing war skills, they were learning to have the winner mindset that would be necessary if they were to succeed in the startup world – a world where 90% of startups failed in the first year and another 7% failed in the next. It all made sense – but Ted wasn’t sure that he needed to know how to create a cigarette timer for an improvised bomb so that he could scale his business properly.

The fireside chats continued with a powerful cast of characters. Eric Prince – the founder of the Blackwater Security Firm discussed the murky world of landing government contracts and running one of the world’s largest private armies. Prince had helped to set up the VWA Basic Training and his fireside chat let everyone know to call it VWAB or V-Wab. The surprise takeaway for Ted was finding out that President Trump’s Controversial Education Secretary – Betsy DeVos was the older sister of Prince. The nepotism runs deep.

John McAfee – the founder of McAfee Antivirus and the Godfather of Cryptocurrency – video-fireside chatted about the importance of defunding the Federal Reserve and making sure that profits were denominated in a number of different currencies – both crypto and fiat. His firesdie chat had to be teleconferenced because he was on the run from the US Government for tax evasion and possibly murder. He was also running for President again with the Libertarian Party. “A vote for me is a vote for West America. Buy Bitcoin!”

Peter Thiel, one of the cofounders of Paypal had a lot to say about gold and how to get it, keep it, and use it. Unlike McAfee, Thiel thought bitcoin was a scam. He laughed about how bitcoin believers had given him a bitcoin and he had sold it and bought gold. By the time that Thiel’s fireside chat started, Ted had figured out that V-Wab was a Libertarian Indoctrination Camp. While the discussion did talk about the trials and opportunities of starting Paypal, most of the chat was about how non-Libertarian views are skewed liberal of fascist. Ted, who was no stranger to politics and had developed some pretty educated political views over the years – didn’t disagree but felt that any Libertarian who looked in the mirror and saw themselves as a centrist was fooling themselves.

On the fifth day, the fireside chat was with David Friedman, son of Milton Friedman and a well respected economist in Libertarian circles in his own right. Friedman continued with his parent’s brand of Libertarian Capitalism pushing it even further into the realm of Anarcho-Capitalism, a bizarre free market brand of libertarianism where the state offered no protections to the poor or weak but defended the borders in order to promote free enterprise. Much of Friedman’s talk was in regards to his book “The Machinery of Freedom” and Victor White assured everyone that an autographed copy would be waiting for them when they graduated.

The sixth day’s chat was with with Ken Schoolland, an economics professor. Schooland had written a book that detailed Austrian economics called “The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible: A Free Market Odyssey” – which he also said would be waiting for graduates when they were done. Ted was impressed with the growing weight of his V-Wab schwag bag – even though he didn’t have it yet.

The final fireside chat was something completely different – Joe Rogan, the podcaster, comedian, and political influencer did a fireside chat where he poked fun at people who trust the government, roasted people who willingly pay ‘all’ of their taxes, and generally made fun of everything that wasn’t the libertarian view. It was hilarious and when he finished, Rogan generously invited all of the founders to sign up to be guests on his show – providing they graduated.

The fireside chats were the thing to look forward to each day. The rest of the days were spent in long lectures, intensive workshops where participants developed their pitches, worked on their media skills, and learned how to make sure they were never taken advantage of by the government, the media, their employees, or their customers. Meals were timed communal affairs served in a large cafeteria. Showers were gym style. Dormitories were open rooms with rows of bunk beds. One dormitory for the men and one for the women. In between workshops, lectures, meals, and fireside chats – the founders were tortured with physical exercise. If they wanted the funding (and the schwag bags – they had no choice).

Still – with all of that, there was some amount of down time when the founders were able to get to know each other, learn about each other’s businesses, and do what people do when they are thrown into adversity together – develop friendships.

Chapter 16

The Useless Burden

Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.”

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Much later, in hindsight, both Ted and Adell would come to realize that V-Wab had an astounding impact for a 7-day adventure. That’s what it really came down to – V-Wab was an adventure for those who stayed – sometimes terrifying, sometimes exhilarating, and sometimes educational. It was even fun – at times. The biggest impact, however didn’t arise from the seminars or the workouts, not the fireside chats nor the workshops – it came from the people and the relationships that formed inside the sweaty, stinky, emotionally distraught confines of that old police training ground. And of course, the huge injection of money that came afterwards – but that was later.

During the course of V-Wab, Ted got to know some of his fellow founders very well. They bonded through whispered conversations after lights out, they literally helped pull each other up as they traversed the so called ‘confidence courses’, and they goaded each other and competed in hand to hand combat, at the shooting range, and on the sports fields. The cast of characters were diverse – even if most of them were white and/or named with vanilla monikers like Danny, Rick, Jen, Misty, David, Carrie, and Phil.

Danny Carlisle was a rich kid with a trust fund who had been gifted with brains. He and a couple of his classmates at Stanford had figured out that people were scared and there was a solid need for an Uber for Bodyguards. They’d put together a private security outsourcing firm called ProTekshun. User’s could have an armed or unarmed security officer on call for an hour or a week using the app Danny had developed.

Rick Bransetter was a data scientist who had been working at Google when he realized that there was a direct correlation between people’s browsing behavior and their income. His analytics startup provided an alternate ‘credit score’ for lenders to determine if the amount of income people reported was par, under, or over the reality of their situation. His firm was called BroSir.

Jen Yang was one of the few non-white founders at V-Wab. She and her engineering team at UC Davis were working on a way to make electric outboard motors more efficient and capable of running on a drastically reduced battery power. Their aim was to eliminate noise, air, and water pollution in watercraft.

Misty Tucker and her crew were developing what they called the reverse-stuff-annuity. They paid a monthly dividend to users who signed a contract that specified that when they died, all of their household possessions, collections, and personal items would be picked up, taken away, sorted and sold. It was a benefit to heirs who didn’t have to deal with hoarder houses and generally a cheaper way to buy estates that sometimes yielded expensive hidden treasures.

David Davidson III was at the forefront of the investor lending industry with his company Profitday. His firm planned to offer loans guaranteed by stock portfolios. As a way of getting the loans, users would need to transfer their portfolios to his hedge fund for management and then sign a promissory note that if not honored would transfer the ownership of the stocks to his fund. People loved it. They felt like they were borrowing against future gains in their stocks and able to spend their earnings before they even happened. And, if the management of the fund was bad, they could walk away without incurring further losses.

Carrie “Carolyn” Ludspeker had started one of the nations fastest growing Yoga schools. It was called Prosperity Yoga. Students would do yoga on sandboxes filled with money. The ‘money energy’ would filter upwards into their lives and through a series of mantras focused on earning and receiving – they would become healthy, flexible, and prosperous. She had a whole slew of gimmicks and rituals that kept users hungry for more. Her future plans included a whole host of Prosperity Yoga brands – everything from cereal to clothing to soft drinks.

Phil Giovano was the guy who Ted most enjoyed talking with. Phil was an old school internet guy like Ted. He had put in a few years at Microsoft during which he had mucked around with Gopher and the other old protocols. Phil’s startup was literally doing what Ted had thought about doing – creating a new internet using Gopher’s menu organization. The idea was to bypass Google, Bing and other so called ‘Search Engines’ which had actually turned into ‘recommendation engines’ and ‘ad engines’ and allow users to get back to the joy of finding gopher holes and diving down them.

These founders made up the ‘lunch bunch’ ‘breakfast club’ and ‘dinner companions’ of Phil and Adell. On this particular morning they were all trying to come up with a suitable rebrand for Pet Shitter.

The problem I have with it, is that it sounds like you want to hit pets.” That was Carolyn who was actually quite soft spoken. “I wish you had called it something like Pet Caresser or Pet Stroker.”

David III spit out his coffee. “Not Pet Stroker. Oh my god. Not unless you want to watch viral videos of people jerking off their dogs every time you search for your company on Google.”

I like our name,” Adell said. “It describes what our company is built on. Pet shit.”

Yeah, but you can’t say that so you’re left with Pet Hitter which has all kinds of bad reasons that validate getting rid of it.”

What if we made hitter into a good thing? Like made it slang for scooping?” Ted didn’t particularly want to get rid of the name because it made him laugh. Not the best reason for keeping it, but in a human sense – completely valid.

David III liked it “Like ‘Hey Ted, where’d you get that new bling?’ ‘Oh, you know, just been hitting the pet and getting paid.’ “ David was a frighteningly good looking guy with a chiseled jaw line, perfect hair, and a tall toned body. Mid 30’s – he was literally the king of his world.

I’d hit that,” Carolyn said it looking at David III and immediately began to blush. She was a very good looking person, herself but suffered from some shyness and anxiety – which Ted would have thought made being a yoga teacher or doing this kind of training difficult – but she didn’t appear to have any issues outside of personal conversation. They all laughed and Adell threw in a “Hell yeah, sister.”

Rick, the Google data-scientist jumped in “So what you really have is a marketing and education campaign issue – that’s what will solve it. Not really an issue because you are going to have to teach people how to harvest the shit anyway.” He was also very good looking – Ted looked around the table, then looked around the dining hall – everyone there was good looking. There were no fat, disfigured, handicapped, or even mildly ugly people there.

This was roughly half way through the boot camp and Ted was surprised he hadn’t noticed before.As he looked around the room he realized that it was more than everyone’s good looks and general fitness that made this a unique experience. Out of the original seventy or so participants – there were around fifty of them still in it. Of those the vast majority, nearly forty of them were white. There were two Asian women, one Asian man, one African American woman and five more brownish people who were a mixture of Indians, Arabs, Southern Europeans, and Latin Americans. The huge majority of the rest were white people with blond hair, blue eyes – most likely of Western, Northern, and Eastern European descent. Ted had never been a practicing Jew, but his ancestry was definitely Jewish – as he looked around he had a distinctly uncomfortable feeling about the ethnic mixture of the majority.

Without knowing much about Silicon Valley, it would be easy to think Ted was having a moment of total unsubstantiated paranoia. After all, the United States is by and large a ‘white’ country settled by English, German, Norwegian, and other mostly white people – but California is a different story. California has a close split between English and Spanish as the first language with Spanish set to surpass English in the next decade or so. Latinos already outnumber Caucasians in California. In the Bay Area itself there is an amazing amount of diversity. Ted couldn’t think of a single instance when he had been in a restaurant that was all white.

Silicon Valley has a huge Asian population, a sizable African-American population, a growing Latino population, and an even more rapidly growing Indian and Arab population. In fact, tech itself tended to be dominated by Asian and Indian startups – which when they matured tended to be handed off to straight white male CEOs.

This group was not even close to being representative of Silicon Valley, tech, San Francisco, the Bay Area, or California. With that realization, the fireside ‘tiki-torch’ chats suddenly had a completely different kind of feel. Ted wasn’t exactly sure what was going on here – he wondered if anyone else had noticed.

They were all still laughing and nodding at Rick’s comment but Ted decided to interject and change the subject completely “Have you guys noticed anything strange about the ethnic makeup of this cohort?” He gestured around the room. Mostly, white people never noticed when there were mostly white people – they just felt more comfortable. Ted had never had that luxury, one thing about being Jewish is that you always know that you are different from everyone else unless you are in a synagogue – history had driven that awareness to a genetic knowledge level.

They all looked around. Misty, the reverse-stuff-annuity founder and the only African-American in the cohort made the call first. “These are a bunch of very good looking people. Though, no offense to present company – I prefer my men to be handsome, tall, and dark – of which there seems to be no real representation. A lot of the security and the trainers are black – but the founders seem to be mostly white guys.”

And white girls,” Jen Yang spoke up. “I’d noticed it early on but as a vastly underrepresented minority, decided not to say anything. Besides, everyone knows that VWA is a huge alt-right donor. Hell, I heard that Victor White and Steve Bannon go deer hunting together.”

What about Jewish founders? Anyone know any Jewish founders here?” Ted asked. It was the kind of question he usually didn’t go near. Adell began laughing.

From what I’ve heard about Victor White through the years – I’m guessing that there are no Jewish founders here Ted, except for you and you get a pass because you’re dating Adolf Hitler.” The situation wasn’t funny, but the comment was. They all laughed.

Ted didn’t have any qualms about taking money from a racist or anyone else for that matter – in fact, he was of the opinion that people should take as much as they can from the shit-heads of the world – but he decided that when they were free of V-Wab – he would do some serious homework into what the fuck was going on.

The old adage ‘birds of a feather flock together’ had proved itself to be true more times than Ted could count and it seemed to have demonstrated it’s universality with the founders at their table finding their way together as well -though none of them had done it consciously. None of them fit the straight, white, heterosexual, ‘cis’ mold that predominated at V-Wab. Cis comes from the latin word meaning ‘on the side of’ which is the opposite, gender speaking, of ‘trans’ which means across from. So a cis person identifies as the gender they were born with and a trans person does not.

Danny was actually born Danielle, Rick’s mother was Cuban, Misty was the sole African-American, Jen was Asian, David III was gay, Carrie was in a three way relationship (non-binary) with a man and a woman, Phil was Italian-American and one of the few older white geeks – like Ted, Ted was of Jewish descent, and Adell, well she was Adell. In any event this was the core group they spent time with inside – and while there were certainly a few exceptions – most of the rest of the people at V-Wab looked like Hitler youth at a holiday training session. Those folks who were not straight white cis and not in Ted’s group didn’t seem to care or notice that they stood out like exotic flowers in a field of wheat.

Chapter 17

None Dare Call it Conspiracy

On those who are employed, ever-increasing demands will be placed: They will need more and more training, more and more ability, and will have to be ever more reliable, conforming and docile, because they will be more and more like cells of a giant organism. Their tasks will be increasingly specialized, so that their work will be, in a sense, out of touch with the real world, being concentrated on one tiny slice of reality. The system will have to use any means that it can, whether psychological or biological, to engineer people to be docile, to have the abilities that the system requires and to “sublimate” their drive for power into some specialized task. But the statement that the people of such a society will have to be docile may require qualification. The society may find competitiveness useful, provided that ways are found of directing competitiveness into channels that serve the needs of the system. We can imagine a future society in which there is endless competition for positions of prestige and power. But no more than a very few people will ever reach the top, where the only real power is. Very repellent is a society in which a person can satisfy his need for power only by pushing large numbers of other people out of the way and depriving them of THEIR opportunity for power.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Ted and Phil were geeking out about Gopher and Phil’s vision of a new internet between work out sessions and start-up seminars.

It’s kind of like Gopher, but different. I’ve kept the menu structure – which seems like old school links but actually is totally different – but I’ve developed a sorting algorithm called wasp hive.” Phil was an incredibly smart dude. “Wasp hive is really dangerous to the internet as it exists now.”

How so?” Ted was interested “Is it that much more efficient or advanced?”

Phil hesitated with a drawn out “Yesssss,” but he couldn’t resist explaining his creation to someone who actually understood it and was interested. “Do you know anything about wasps?”

Just to stay away from them. They’re pretty nasty.” Ted had been bitten by a wasp when he was a boy. It stung for days.

Okay,” Phil was in full lecture mode now “Bees are pollinators and wasps are predators. Bees sting once and die, wasps can sting over and over. Bees live in wax hives and make honey, wasps live in papery nests and hunt bees and other insects.”

I knew they were nasty. So why wasp hive?” Ted couldn’t understand why Phil would name his new algo after a nasty predator.

Look, please keep this between us. I haven’t given these details to VWA or anyone else for that matter because frankly, I don’t think they’d invest in me if they understood just how powerful WaspHive is.” Ted nodded, even more interested now. “The existing internet isn’t going to just step aside and the big companies aren’t going to give up their walled gardens. Plus, rebuilding the internet from scratch is a huge undertaking and to do it manually – would take years. So I started developing an A.I. that could read, validate, and copy websites – and in the process restructure their links and navigation to something along the lines of the old Gopher taxonomy.”

The internet as it exists right now is really analogous to a beehive. It contains millions of worker bees who have built a wax hive – they go out in the world, gather pollen and bring it to the hive where it is made into honey. A wasp hive on the other hand is made from digested trees and plants that are internally processed into a kind of paper. Lots of wasps are actually parasites as well as predators – so they will sometimes use another species nest as raw material to increase their own brood.”

So how does this affect what your algo does.”

Well, I started thinking about how parasitism works and after a bit too many cocktails one night, I wrote a piece of parasitic code into my web-scraper. Much to my surprise, it increased efficiency of the AI and created a more beautiful kind of structure with the menus. The only problem – and this is the part that I don’t want to get out – is that while it reads the existing web page, a built in viral part of the AI chews up the page code, scrambles it, and potentially destroy the existing servers.”

Wait…so WaspHive is a virus?” Ted was blown away.

Phil smiled sheepishly. “Well, sort of – but essentially it creates a better internet on top of the existing one. I’m working on a way to stop that – but – aside from the lawsuits and the disruption to pretty much everything – it does seem to be the only way to get the world to adopt a new internet.”

Ted couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “How many people know about this?”

Phil smiled “Actually, you’re the first one I trusted enough to explain it to Ted.”

Don’t tell anyone else. Seriously. Not a word. We’ll talk about it more once we’re out, deal?” It had become common for the attendees to talk about when they had their freedom or when they got out – like prisoners – which in a sense they were. Ted held his hand out and Phil shook it and agreed. Now they needed to get to the next seminar.

This was the final seminar before the last Fireside Chat with Joe Rogan. The seminar was scheduled for mid-day and there was a two hour mystery activity that was happening afterwards before the Fireside Chat. Ted had a bad feeling about what Victor White might try to shake out more founders. He knew it was coming. He just didn’t know what it was.

The seminar was titled ‘Snowflake Culture and How to Survive It.” The first half hour was a right wing historical account of identity politics. It started with civil rights and how the movement had changed from an attempt to create equality to an attempt to create a divisive ‘black culture’ that could not coexist with the dominant ‘white culture’. Ted saw Misty, the sole African-American among them, getting a lot of looks from founders – she was playing it cool though and pretended (he presumed) to be unaware of the attention she was getting. He had no idea how she controlled herself as the entire African-American experience was condensed into a cliff-notes version of historical revisionism that painted the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and even Dr. Martin Luther King as political radicals trying to unfairly disrupt the status quo.

The lecture, which was deeply offensive and completely incorrect in an historical and political sense, continued on suggesting that the virus of ‘black identity’ had spread to Latinos, American Indians, Women, Hawaiians, and ‘the homosexuals’. The point they were making was that if it hadn’t of been for black identity politics – everyone would have merged into a sort of uni-culture that would have grown from White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America. They didn’t use the term WASP but Ted couldn’t stop thinking it as they talked about how tensions would have eventually melted the wax of society and created an American where everyone was inwardly the same and outwardly unique.

The lecture was well done – it was complete and total horseshit, but it had been carefully put together with the right statistics, historical quotes, and carefully selected facts to make it sound almost reasonable. The problem was that anyone who had ever dealt with racism on any level from priviliged white assholes, could instantly see it for what it was. It was an attempt to once again put ‘white culture’ on a higher level than all the ‘other’ cultures. It was an attempt to belittle and discredit anything that wasn’t ‘white culture’ and for the most part, the attendees ate it up. It was like watching Donald Trump get voted into office all over again.

Ted had heard an intelligent radio commentator put it best. He had said “If half of America voted Trump into office – the only possible conclusions are either that Trump’s half of America is stupid, crazy, evil, or racist. The last option is the easiest one to believe.” Ted was seeing it as clear as daylight right in front of him. The white millennials in the lecture hall with him were oblivious to their own racism. They liked what they were hearing and for the most part didn’t question it.

Ted and Adell’s lunch bunch gang had all discussed whether they should continue at all costs and take VWA’s (and Larry Ellison’s money) and they had all agreed that it was the right thing to take money from these scumbags. This lecture, however was putting them all to the test. It was nothing however compared to the wrap up and hand’s on portion.

With the revisionist and offensive fake history lesson complete, the instructor (another blond haired, blue eyed, 6-foot tall 30-something) gave them some pointers on how to survive “Snowflake Culture”. His tips included things like ‘Try to look sympathetic, nod your head, and pretend that you really care about their whining” and “Hiring a snowflake is the quickest way to guarantee your organization a quick death.” A snowflake, by the way, was any person who believed in, respected, or made allowances for ‘identity politics’ in the workplace. Some of the buzzwords to look out for in the interview were ‘equal opportunity’ ‘glass ceiling’ ‘equal pay’ and the doozy – to ask candidates who their favorite Supreme Court Justice was and send them packing if they said Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

This went on for quite a while with similar astoundingly unperceptive characterizations and then came the coup de’tat – the place where the offensiveness couldn’t get any worse. First, the moderator asked the audience for real life examples of snowflakes. If Ted and his friends had thought the audience was in the same boat with them and just going along for the money, they were wrong.

Liberal arts majors.”

Women in pants suits.”

Blacks… ” yes the guy actually said blacks and paused for a second before qualifying it with “ …with Afros.”

Or expensive sneakers…” another member of the racist crowd chimed in.

Haitians.” A white woman threw in, with no explanation whatsoever – but no one asked her for one.

Rainbow flags or bumper stickers,” another slightly older white lady said.

LGBTQ shirts or hats…” again, no one interjected anything.

MAGA hats…..” Ted had known Adell wouldn’t be able to keep quiet. She’d tried to throw a bomb that would show just how awful they were being – but instead the crowd erupted in laughter.

The moderator felt the need to intervene on that one, he was also laughing “Probably not the problem we’re looking for on that one.”

Apple products,” a very pale white guy yelled. Ted heard some of the other members say things like “Queer CEO” and “Faggot company”.

Despite everything that had happened since 2016, despite the election of Trump, despite the things he had seen here – he still couldn’t believe what he was hearing or seeing.

Speaking Spanish…” another guy yelled.

Or Arabic. They’re all terrorist sympathizers.”

Asians…” this one came all the way from the other side. Ted was pretty sure that it had been someone in his group, but maybe not.

Again the moderator stepped in – “That’s not cool. Asian people have been with us all along. They’re almost white.” The impact of that last statement hit Ted harder than anything else. The audacity, the level of feeling superior, the implicit white supremacist context of that.

The list grew and grew until it was eventually anyone that wasn’t of North and Western European descent – but also Russians, Asians, and American Indians in business suits were given passes.

What amazed Ted was how quickly it had gone from generic stereotypes to specific ethnicities. It had gone from “Vegan to Black.” The groupthink on this kind of racist shit was astoundingly easy to bring to a head.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity in some kind of hallucinogenicly negative acid trip, the session came to a close. Ted, Adell, and their group all sort of coalesced. The other obviously non-white founders wandered over – either expelled from their ‘white’ groups or no longer comfortable with the people in them. There they were. Twelve people out of fifty. It was the last day of the camp and while they all knew each other, the bonds with the newcomers were never as tight as those with the original lunch bunch – still they were welcomed with open arms.

Ted had no idea how the mystery activity was going to compare with that but they all concurred that they had gotten through the worst of it and now all they had to do was ride out the storm to the bitter end. They had come too far and gone through too much to walk away now – though that would have felt spectacular.

The heavy instructors now gathered around – they had been conspicuously absent from the last session – which Ted figured was probably by intent since most of them were African-American (or <gasp> possibly even Haitian!) Ted figured that even Victor White knew better than to alienate his hired muscle.

The lead instructor pulled out a bullhorn – there was no need, his voice was booming anyway – but it was even louder and more terror inducing with the speaker. “Today, some of you are going to pass the final challenge. If you succeed, you will be funded and will most likely go on to become powerful millionaires who determine the future of our great country. If you fail, then you will lose it all.”

He let that hang in the air. Ted had no idea what that meant.

He went on. “Right now, before we provide you with details of your final challenge, we need each of you to sign this comprehensive waiver which absolves VWA of all responsibility in the event of injury or death. You will also need to sign this ironclad non-disclosure agreement. We will not answer any questions. If you do not want to sign, you can pack up your things and go.”

They were too close. All of them. Ted would realize later, that a big part of the indoctrination they had been through over the past week had caused them to think of this opportunity as their last and only chance at success. The lack of sleep, the pushing of the body and mind to the point of collapse, the rousing speeches and motivational fireside chats. All of that had really been preparing them to sign on the dotted line at this moment. They all did it.

After the last of them had signed – the most fucked up thing of all happened. They were randomly assigned to two groups. The instructors went over all of the hand-to-hand and self-defense moves they had been taught during the past seven days. They put a special focus on the kill moves.

With this complete – Victor White stepped out among them. They were all exhausted, beat up, drained, and probably working on 25% mental capacity at this point. The night before they had been forced to stay up late and wake up early providing only four hours of sleep.

You’ve all done a great job out here this week,” White said. “I wish there were enough money to fund all of you. I’m sure that you’ve noticed that we don’t do things in an orthodox way out here. V-Wab is designed to turn you into the executive rulers of the world.”

He paused. “The problem is that we can only fund half of you. We need to know that you are willing to do whatever it takes to get that funding. That you are willing to take your killer instinct and the lessons we’ve taught you and test yourself in the ultimate challenge. Welcome to the V-Wab Death Match.”

Ted couldn’t believe his ears. He looked around and caught the eyes of the friends he had made here. Some were on one side, some were on the other. Adell caught his gaze and held it. There was no way. They couldn’t do this. There was no fucking way they could get away with it. This was taking playing god to a whole new level.

Without giving them time to think, Victor White went on with his instructions. “You are divided into two groups – one on this side,” he motioned to Ted, “And the other on this side,” now he motioned to Adell’s side.

Ted and Adell’s eyes were still locked on one another. “I want you to look to the other side and find someone you think you could kill. Maybe you don’t like them for some reason, or maybe you think you are stronger. In any event, you are going to catch the eyes of that other person.” Ted thought of looking away and then realized he would rather just keep looking at Adell. She winked at him. They were locked and he couldn’t really feel what else was happening but then curiousity got the better of him and he looked to see if anyone was looking at him. On the other side, one of the biggest, muscle-dudes in the whole camp caught Ted’s eye. Fuck. He was staring right at Ted with total and obvious murderous intent. He tried to look away, to find someone else, but that guy wouldn’t stop staring at him.

We are going to count down from ten. When we reach zero – you are going to cross the divide and engage your enemy. You will either kill them, or they will kill you. There is no escape. Even if you want to do something else – the die has already been cast.” Ted wavered on whether to look friendly or fierce, all he felt was an overwhelming urge to yell “Fuck!” His mind began racing. They couldn’t do this…this was not fucking possible.

But, he had already seen enough fucked up shit during the course of the week at V-Wab that he knew it was possible. They were super-rich and they could do whatever they wanted. He noticed a group of the Fireside Chat guests and other Valley Luminaries had gathered on the bleachers.

10” He just wouldn’t do it. The guy would have to kill him. He looked and saw the guy next to him staring at Adell with murder in his eyes.

9” He would trip this fuckwad next to him first and then start beating him. Maybe his friends would help him.

8” His friends all seemed to have a bunch of white male and female babboons planning on murdering them. Maybe he should just run. He thought about turning and just running before the count was down.

7” He caught Adell’s eye. She motioned downwards and took a deep breath. She was telling him to calm down.

6” Phil moved next to him. “I think we can take that guy together,” he whispered.

5” Ted had never felt anything like this. It was the most intense moment of his life.

4” Until the next number down was counted and then the feeling doubled. He was ready.

3” He saw that all of his friends were feeling the same – maybe they could all meet in the center and fight off the goons.

2 – This is it. This is the moment folks. I hope you win.” Victor White threw one last comment in.

Stand down – everyone stand the fuck down. Exercise over.” The heavies rushed into the center, there would be no engagement. The whole thing had been a mind-fuck.

That’s what it feels like my friends. That’s what the moment of life or death, victory or defeat feels like. This is the only way I could show you what really matters and what you are really made of.”

Congratulations. You are now funded. All of you. Now go get showered and come check out Joe Rogan at our final Fireside Chat. You did it and you don’t want to miss the finale.”

Ted turned to Phil and the two men hugged. “Thanks for having my back, Phil.”

That’s what friends do,” he replied.

The big guy who had been eyeballing Adell began to walk away and Ted casually stuck his foot out causing the man to trip and fall on his face. Ted kept talking to Phil as if nothing had happened. He wondered how much rage that had been restrained would find other ways to be relieved. After tripping the guy, however, Ted felt much better.

Chapter 18

Funded Not Funambulists

 

One can envision scenarios that incorporate aspects of more than one of the possibilities that we have just discussed. For instance, it may be that machines will take over most of the work that is of real, practical importance, but that human beings will be kept busy by being given relatively unimportant work. It has been suggested, for example, that a great development of the service industries might provide work for human beings. Thus people would spent their time shining each other’s shoes, driving each other around in taxicabs, making handicrafts for one another, waiting on each other’s tables, etc. This seems to us a thoroughly contemptible way for the human race to end up, and we doubt that many people would find fulfilling lives in such pointless busy-work. They would seek other, dangerous outlets (drugs, crime, “cults,” hate groups) unless they were biologically or psychologically engineered to adapt them to such a way of life.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

When investors invest in your startup, it’s not a loan. They’re giving you that money – so in essence, whatever your startup was worth before the investment, it is now worth that plus the investment money. So, when you give up some shares in the company, you do so with post-investment value, not pre-investment valuation. The long and short of it was that VWA transferred $3 million dollars to Pets Hitter, Inc. (the change they required at the end of it all was just making the space an actual thing) and Larry Ellison Investment Partners transferred $1 million to Pets Hitter – so now, the company was worth $4 million plus the pre-investment value which Adell assured Ted (and everyone else) was something like $3.5 million dollars. So, Pets Hitter was valued at $7.5 million dollars without a product. VWA got 30% ownership. LEIP got 10% – which was what they had negotiated but about double what the valuation and investment called for. Both companies got seats on the board – two for VWA and one for LEIP. The board was made up of Adell, Ted (he would never be Theo again), Tim Burr, and the three reps from the venture capitalists – that left a situation where there was a potential for a 3-3 vote. It wasn’t ideal but better than being outnumbered.

With the money in the bank and the company fully funded, it was easy for them to get to work. Adell was on a mission to hire nothing but snowflakes while Ted put together a pretty solid crew of mechanical engineers to build their prototypes. Adell and Tim were working with the marketing team and Charlene and Geronimo were doing their financial and legal work to make sure they didn’t go bankrupt or to jail. During the evenings, Ted often met up with Phil and the two of them worked on his WaspNest project.

Phil’s Wasps wouldn’t simply get loose on the internet and eat everything – they more or less left the walled gardens whole and in place – they just made them inaccessible. That was the main thing with wasp hives – they actually left the infrastructure alone but more or less used the http://www as plant matter to build the paper hive out of. Phil had no desire (and no way) of installing wasps on the servers of Google or Apple or Facebook – but instead they worked their way through the internet chewing up the main navigation protocol and replacing it with wa://sp so that anyone typing in www.google.com or http://www.google.com or https://wwww.google.com would simply arrive at a menu that looked like this

Welcome to Wasp Nest

Click the menu of what you are looking for.

Computer science, information & general works

Philosophy & psychology

Religion

Social sciences

Language

Pure Science

Technology

Arts & recreation

Literature

History & geography

People

Products

Current Events and News

Phil had opted for using the Dewey Decimal System as the basis of the entire redesigned internet. They’d gotten rid of the numbers on the surface of the design and Ted had suggested that it might be a good idea to add the three last categories: people, products, and current events/news. The old Google homepage would still be there – but to reach it users would need to type in something like

Wa://sp.computerscience.companies.searchengines.google

The revolution was that it was a scientific and hierarchical system that didn’t leave room for deception. Like going to the library or a great book store, users would be able to walk in, navigate to the section they were interested in, and find everything that was there. Once they had clicked on the Google link they would find the entire Google ecosystem available for them – and once they knew the specific location it would be saved as something like 000.35714932789 and that could be saved with a nickname. It was like knowing the title of a book and where it fit on the shelf – if you were interested you could look at the books on either side – in this case they might be Excite or Dogpile on one side and Hotbot and Lycos on the other side. If a user didn’t like Google – the options would be just a click away – click upwards in the hierarchy and you would find yourself at the page:

Wa://sp.computerscience.companies.searchengines

It would look something like this:

AOL

ASK

BING

BAIDU

DOGPILE

EXCITE

GOOGLE

HOTBOT

LYCOS

etc

With each company being a menu item. One of the most exciting things about Wa://sp was that it eliminated the need and function of domain names and completely eliminated the need for ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – the private ‘non-profit’ corporation that has largely been controlled the the U.S. Department of Commerce since the whole www came into being. ICANN and the entire DNS (domain name server) system set the stage for the entire subjugation of the internet by search engines, search engine optimizers, scammers, and spammers. This was the reason that a student who wanted to find help with crafting a teen dress on a sewing machine would instead find a porno film of a teen undressing when they typed in teendress.com or searched fro Teen dress on an unfiltered search engine. wa://sp instead would catalog all of the sites about teen dresses under something like 740.27159372 or wa://sp.arts.graphic-arts.textile-arts-fashion-clothing-womens-girls-teen-dresses – and since the entire structure was laid out mathematically and sorted by the AI with the ability for human intervention and flags – the chances of being sent to the wrong place were almost non-existant – but, and this was what Ted and Phil were so excited about – the chances of finding something else that was within your realm of interest were extraordinarily high. You were never more than one step away from something connected to your interest. There was no need to game a system like that because the game was already included in the system itself.

So this was what was happening on many evenings. Two midlife geeks putting together an antiquated system of internet organization that was a vast improvement over the current system of internet chaos. During the day, however, it was a completely different situation. Adell was a ball of stress. She knew she could count on Ted, Phil, and Tim for their board votes, but just because they had a majority didn’t mean she didn’t have to argue about every company decision she made with the board. The new board members were experienced in the ways of the valley and their job was to make sure that the money invested by their funds was being spent in the best possible way – and for them, that meant constantly scaling bigger and bigger regardless of the cost to the business.

They rented office and engineering space in South San Francisco – it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t as expensive as being in the city or out on the Peninsula. If Ted and Adell had thought that being funded would give them tons of money and change the way they lived – they were mostly wrong, however there were definitely some nice perks that came with it. First of all, they were able to pay themselves salaries $115,000 per year – pretty standard in the Bay Area for C-Level startup founders. There was no more need to drive for Lyft or walk dogs – which was nice. Also, they had expense accounts so any meals they ate, taxis they took, or reasonable expenses they incurred on a day to day basis could be charged to the corporate credit cards. Ted signed their company cards up to a crypto cashback app called Pei which monitored what they bought and where they went – but paid them 1% (in Bitcoin!) of all the purchases they made – so for $1000 in lunches spent on the corporate cards – $100 in BTC went into their semi-anonymous crypto wallet. Ted had a totally anonymous offline wallet that he kept all of his crypto in – it was his end of the world rainy day fund. He also registered the corporate cards with multiple cashback programs like Earny and as an added bonus made sure that the cards they got were high paying airline and travel rewards cards.

So, essentially what they both did was let the company pay for pretty much everything while putting away their salaries and earning cashback, crypto back, and mileage points– and all while still living in Ted’s rent control apartment for the last month of 2019. Ted still hadn’t seen Adell’s place but he figured when the month was done he would just have the movers from Clutter move his stuff to Adell’s – and put it on the company credit card. They had laid out their position on what their company was all about from the beginning. They were sticking it to the system. They were going to leach every penny they could get out of these bigots and nazis of the banking system – and they were going to metaphorically put it all in a pickle jar, bury it in the backyard, and when their startup went belly up (like 97% of all startups) they would dig out the pickle jar and retire to someplace cheaper and less filled with sociopaths than the Bay Area.

That was their plan – and they walked a tightrope to justify every expense they made with their company cards and balanced like skilled funambulists to put as much away as they could without drawing attention from the board. They’d both read too many stories about founders who were multi-millionaires on paper when their companies failed and quickly found out they were broke when the stock was worth nothing. It was a common story in Silicon Valley – and it wasn’t going to happen to them. Technically, they were millionaires – but they didn’t have that money in the bank, only on paper.

The only real problem with their plan was that Pets Hitter was starting to look extremely promising. Ted’s engineering team had come up with a viable, table sized bio-generator that would power a family home for a month with two tons of dog shit. It actually worked and the prototype contained the smell, and as a byproduct produced tidy scentless brown bricks that could be burned to make more energy or alternatively used as a very powerful fertilizer. Ted suspected that by mixing in a fire-proof polymer, the bricks could even be used as a building material.

There was one very obvious problem. Very few families produced two tons of dog shit in a month. Or cat shit. Or pet shit. At most a big dog produces a pound of shit per day (and that’s a BIG dog) – so that would come to a maximum amount of 30 lbs per month – about 1970 pounds short of the two tons needed. Still, it was progress.

To get the poo they needed for R&D, they had contracted a company called DutyCalls which specialized in picking up pet waste from animal shelters, kennels, veterinarians, and dog parks. Duty calls actually paid them to take it – which was money that Ted and Adell collected through another small private business they set up called RePoop. Dutycalls paid Repoop to take their dog droppings, and then Repoop sold the droppings to Pets Hitter. They were collecting on both ends with Repoop.

Meanwhile, Pets Hitter was getting a fair amount of media attention. The idea that a family could generate enough power to run a home with washer/dryer, refrigerator, air-conditioning, etc was a big deal and the local news got wind of the story through Adell and her PR department. The truth was, this only translated to about $250 in San Francisco – but the novelty of the idea was what was making people excited.

It was during an interview with ABC7 News that Adell created one of the more interesting problems they had yet had to deal with.

I don’t see any dogs here,” the reporter said, motioning around the facility “Where do you get your dog droppings?”

We buy them,” Adell said. It was true – they bought them from Repoop who was paid to take them by DutyCalls. Over the next few days they were bombarded with calls, letters, and emails from people wanting to sell their dog poop.

Chapter 19

The Power of Poop

It is overwhelmingly probable that if the industrial-technological system survives the next 40 to 100 years, it will by that time have developed certain general characteristics: Individuals (at least those of the “bourgeois” type, who are integrated into the system and make it run, and who therefore have all the power) will be more dependent than ever on large organizations; they will be more “socialized” than ever and their physical and mental qualities to a significant extent (possibly to a very great extent) will be those that are engineered into them rather than being the results of chance (or of God’s will, or whatever); and whatever may be left of wild nature will be reduced to remnants preserved for scientific study and kept under the supervision and management of scientists (hence it will no longer be truly wild).

-Industrial Society and Its Future

One of the many shitty but fascinating problems they ran into was the issue of bags. Most pet owners picked up their dog poo in cheap plastic bags, tied them shut, and threw them in the trashcan or a DutyCalls bin. The entire shit distillation process hinged on bacteria eating the poo and then excreting methane which was used to generate electricity. Actually, there were several processes that could be used to make energy, but the methane burn was the simplest. The process didn’t work if the poo was in plastic bags.

To get around this – Ted’s team had come up with a machine that would rip and tear the bags and the poo while mixing it with water. It worked but Ted hated it because he saw the potential for using the byproducts of the methane process as an additional source of revenue but that wasn’t a possibility with the plastic bags included as part of the material. Nobody wanted to burn or fertilize with shredded plastic bags. The ‘shit-bricks’ were high concentrate energy waiting to be used as either fertilizer, a fuel source, or (with the addition of a clean, binding polymer) a building material.

When he explained this to Adell – or just about anyone else, the response was usually for the person to be totally grossed out by the idea of using shit to build houses, schools, or any other human use building – Adell of course took it even further – she sang about it…blatantly turning The Commodores song ‘Brick House’ into her own version called ‘Shit House’.

Ow, it’s a shit house
It’s mighty-mighty, just lettin’ it all poop out
It’s a shit house
The poo is stacked and that’s a fact
Ain’t holding nothing back

Ow, it’s a shit house
Well put-together, everybody knows
This is how the story goes

Shit it down, shit it down now
Shit it down, shit it down now

It was a catchy tune and they were all singing it all day. In fact, from that point forward whenever Ted saw the shitbricks, the song would come up in his head. The song was fun but the problem of getting rid of the plastic bags was a sore point with Ted. It was a problem with an itchy solution hiding somewhere but he wasn’t completely sure what it was.

It was when the calls and letters began coming in that inspiration hit him.

Oh my god,” Adell complained “I had to open up my big mouth. Everyone in the Bay Area wants to sell us their dog shit now. Dollars to donuts that story is going to get picked up by the national press and we’re going to have every dog owner in America trying to profit from selling us Rover’s dog logs.”

Tim, always the money man, saw it differently “This is great press guys. I smell money here. There’s something here that we can use to make more money. I know it.”

Adell wasn’t having any of it. “Tim, you don’t understand – we actually get paid to take shit from DutyCalls and then we pay our own small company Repoop, to buy it.” They should have told Tim about that earlier. Ted waited for Tim to be upset, but he wasn’t – this whole thing had been a blessing to him and he was loving it. He didn’t begrudge them not bringing him in on Repoop.

That’s a smart idea. Nice one. Still – I think there is something here.”

Ted, as usual thinking about the plastic bag and shit-brick issue jumped into the conversation. “Even if we did buy dogshit from America, they would all send it in cheap, toxic, non-biodegradable bags that we couldn’t use to make viable shitbricks with.” They’d all gotten used to Ted talking about viable and non-viable shit bricks so no one even cracked a smile.

Tim let out a big ‘hmmm’ – “Look, I’m okay that you guys left me out of Repoop – that’s your deal but I’ve got another idea that might enable us to pull in more cash outside of Pet Hitter. I don’t want to be left out of this one – we will go three ways on it. Deal?”

Not even knowing what the deal was, Ted and Adell both agreed. “ Sure, Whatcha thinking Tim Burr?” Adell queried him.

What if we were to tell all the dog owners that the only way we would buy their shit would be if they picked it up in biodegradable bags that didn’t fuck up Ted’s shitbricks.”

That’s great,” Ted said “But does anyone even make them?”

There’s the beautiful part Ted,” Tim replied “We’re going to make them. Let’s sell them bio-bags!”

And that’s how they got into the Bio-Bag business. Tim’s uncle, Big Al, was a huge multi-level-marketing guru – he’d made a fortune with Amway, drop shipping, and other MLM organizations. Tim brought him in as an advisor on the Bio-Bag operation. When they met, Ted felt like he was meeting an African-American mafia don. Big Al was creepy. His suggestion was that they set the whole thing up as a Mary-Kay or Avon type of business – they would order the bags in bulk from a wholesaler. The bags were already being made so they didn’t need to re-invent the wheel. Tim, Big Al, Adell, and Ted would be the top tier in the pyramid. They would sell the bags to the next tier for a 10 % markup and split the revenue generated. The bags would be sold to the next two tiers for an additional 5% markup. The three tiers after that would mark up 3% each. Five tiers after that would be 2% markup. Ten tiers after that would be 1% markup and if the downline went further than that the markup would get steadily smaller.

Additionally, on Big Al’s advice – they charged the next tier $100k each to be top tier authorized distributors of the bio-bags. Big Al brought in five guys who happily paid the $100k to be the top tier of distribution arms. They would charge $50k each to the five guys under each of them, making a $125,000 profit in the process {($50k x 5) – 10% = $125k}. Tim, Adell, Ted, and Big Al each got $281,250 out of that deal and the money just kept coming as more people signed on and paid less and less for less and less profits. All of this cash came in before they’d even sold a single Bio-Bag!

The beauty of it was that by requiring pet owners to use their branded Bio-Bags to sell their dog shit, they were creating a market incentive for the sale of the bio-bags. Also, it made Ted happy that they had potentially solved the plastic problem. That’s probably why he didn’t do the math and somehow convinced himself that what they had just embarked on wasn’t a ponzi scheme.

 

 

Chapter 20

Bio-Bags

The technophiles are taking us all on an utterly reckless ride into the unknown. Many people understand something of what technological progress is doing to us yet take a passive attitude toward it because they think it is inevitable. But we don’t think it is inevitable. We think it can be stopped, and we will give here some indications of how to go about stopping it.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

The Bio-Bags business was an instant and huge success. The money from the distributorships alone covered the cost of the bags, the cost of the poop, and the cost of branding the bags. They opted to have the entire bio-bag business under the Pets Hitter umbrella. The media loved the idea of dog poo being a sudden and valuable commodity and while they weren’t paying much for it ($0.25 per pound) the narrative was that as they ramped up production and increased efficiency – the price of poop would go up. The key to all of this was getting people to buy the bags, pay for the distributorships, and bring their poop.

Suddenly, much to their amusement, there was actually talk about people ‘hoarding’ dog poop and waiting for the price to go up. A couple of cases arose in Golden Gate Park where homeless people (suddenly called ‘poo pickers’ by the news) had gotten into territorial brawls over what looked like some pricey piles. Meanwhile the story was picked up by national media and more and more inquiries were coming in.

Adell, like her namesake, was a master of propaganda and used the attention to drive the bio-bag business into high gear. The top five levels of their pyramid filled out. Lower tiers were starting to have some traction even though the margin was not nearly as good as for those on the higher levels.

At this point in the narrative, it makes sense to explain the difference between a multi-level-marketing operation and a pyramid scheme. Essentially, an MLM business uses a pyramid structure to distribute and make money from the sale of an actual product. A pyramid scheme (Ponzi scheme) tends to not have an actual product, and profits are made by distributing the right to collect royalties or distribution fees. They were riding a thin line – they had an actual product – the bio-bags – but the real money was coming from the distribution scheme. If they were actually buying poop and people were earning from it – then the bio-bags were a legit business, but if the poop buying stopped, the bio-bags would suddenly be worth far less than the distribution licenses – and in that situation, they would be sitting on the top rungs of a big pyramid scheme.

The Ponzi scheme gets it’s name from Charles Ponzi, a financier who lured investors to a high profit venture in the 1920’s – unknown to the investors, the high profits were being paid to higher ranking investors from those newly coming into the scheme. As long as new investors are coming in and the all of the investors think their profits are coming from the investment vehicle itself – the scheme continues to work. Eventually, however, the other shoe always drops.

When Ted brought up his concerns about a ponzi scheme to Adell, she laughed and told him the tale of Adele Spitzeder, purportedly one of her distant relations who lived in Germany in the 1870s. Spitzeder had been a well known actress but when she aged out of good roles, she opened a bank in Munich and at one point was considered the richest woman in Bavaria. Her bank ran what was probably likely the first ‘ponzi’ scheme.

So, actually Ted,” Adelle said with a cute sort of schoolgirl charm “It should be called an ‘Adele Scheme’ because Mr. Ponzi misappropriated my ancestor’s brilliant criminal scheme.”

What happened to her?” Ted asked.

She went to prison, lost all of her money, and when she got out became a lesbian folk singer.”

Seriously?” Ted was sure she was pulling his leg.

Seriously…Google it, or Gopher it or whatever it is that you and Phil do.” She wasn’t joking, he could tell.

In any event, the bio-bags, the Pets Hitter generators, and turning poop into gold was generating a lot of media attention. Their valuation was skyrocketing. Their were getting offers of investment without asking – and, on the advice of VWA and LEIP they were turning all suitors away. The plan was to wait for an acquisition offer – hopefully before the whole thing blew up and they all went to jail.

Chapter 21

Shitbricks

Nature makes a perfect counter-ideal to technology for several reasons. Nature (that which is outside the power of the system) is the opposite of technology (which seeks to expand indefinitely the power of the system). Most people will agree that nature is beautiful; certainly it has tremendous popular appeal. The radical environmentalists ALREADY hold an ideology that exalts nature and opposes technology.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

By the time Christmas rolled around, Ted and Adell were too busy to celebrate and it was time for Ted to pack up his house, get rid of his extra accumulations, and be ready to leave before the first of the year. Given that they were suddenly rolling in money – the $90k his landlord had given him to move out seemed like an insignificant amount of money. Ted converted it to bitcoin – the price had gone up a bit at the end of the year, but the mining rewards were set to be cut in half by mid-2020 so he was fairly sure he would earn a pretty good return on his money – plus, having ten bitcoin as a back up plan wasn’t a bad idea. It was his, no one could take it, and it retained it’s value wherever he took it. A bitcoin was always worth a bitcoin.

As progress on the shit-reactor generators progressed, Ted found himself becoming more and more fascinated by the shitbricks. As mentioned before, they had developed a process of taking the leftover waste and pressing it into bricks that could then be burned for additional power, ground up and used for a high concentrate fertilizer, or with the addition of a polymer – made into a building material. Ted had hired several chemists and they sometimes spent their lunch breaks chatting about the potential uses for the various components feces.

Methylindol, also known as skatol, was the substance which gave poop it’s terrible smell. It was a highly toxic substance and unfortunately was one of the things that bacteria didn’t feed on to create the methane they were harvesting to create energy with. It was flammable but not really useful if Ted wanted to create building materials or fertilizer from the bricks. Interestingly, skatol is what gives coal it’s smell. Using a different bacteria than the one in the generators, they could separate skatol into benzene and toluene – two highly flammable hydrocarbons. Essentially propane and paint thinner. These could be bottled and sold. The process looked like it could be profitable at scale.

Removing the skatol from the brick material left the bricks scentless, sterile, and filled with possibility. Adell had a friend in Santa Cruz who had a marijuana growing operation, she reached out to him to see if there was a possibility of selling him the brick byproducts to fertilize his plants with. Ted and his chemists sent the chemical composition and a sample down for them to check out in their lab facility. Adell’s friend was a disabled Marine who had come back from Afghanistan with a serious case of PTSD, cannabis and CBD compounds were the only treatment that had helped him to get back to a normal sense of being. In gratitude, he had started ‘ChronicPTSD’ and was spreading the love.

After they had done their analysis the answer came back right away. ‘ChronicPTSD’ offered to buy as many shitbricks as were available for a price that was considerably higher than Ted had expected. The phosphates and organic compounds were like fertilizer gold. Whatever ChronicPTSD couldn’t use, they would sell to other growers at a markup.

Everything was happening far too fast for anyone to process. Ted and Adell had met, fallen in love, moved in together, started a startup, gotten funded, hired enough people to run and build a growing company, become millionaires, made new friends, developed new products, and all in the space of a couple of months. Life was not supposed to happen this quickly, but one of the more useful lectures at V-Wab had been about finding ‘flow’ and how when you found flow you would be amazed at the way that things fit together, moved quickly. Flow had a life of its own. It took you where it wanted to go and if you allowed it to lift you up, it would carry you over the jagged rocks and bring you to the place where you were supposed to be.

They were definitely in the flow. The way to recognize flow is when synchronicity and kismit start to be the norm in your everyday life. Things just naturally fit together. You run into the people you are supposed to meet, you see the billboard or the other thing that gives you the inspiration, and generally, you think or say one thing – and something else follows on the heels of that.

For example, they had been busy but one day when they were both coming back home at the same time, Ted stopped to check his mailbox. As he thumbed through the bills, offers of loans, credit card statements, and holiday junk mail, a small red envelope caught his eye. It looked like a Christmas card – he hadn’t gotten one for ages from anyone but marketers. He flipped it over to see the address and at that exact moment Adell said “I wonder what the Chan’s are doing?”

By itself, that’s not kismit – the kismit was that right at the moment she said Chan’s, Ted read who the card was from ‘The Chan-Zuckerbergs’ – that’s a clear sign that you are in the flow. When that kind of shit happens, you know that you can enjoy the ride for a while longer.

He was musing on that when she grabbed the card from him “What’s this? Woah…that’s some synchronicity right there, huh?” She tore it open. It was a pretty standard Christmas card photo of Priscilla, Mark, and their kids that said ‘Season’s Greetings’ on the front.

Snowflake alert – boop, boop, boop” Ted couldn’t resist. ‘Season’s Greetings’ had been one of the snowflake telltales at the famous V-Wab lecture. This card had a literal snowflake on it. It had a handwritten note on the back of it.

‘So happy that you guys found each other…sorry we’ve been so absent. We’ve been watching from afar! Congratulations on Pets Hitter! It’s amazing. Let’s get together after the holidays at our place!

Love, Pris, Mark and the kids.’

I’ve never seen their kids in person, have you?” Adell was lauging at his snowflake alert while she said it.

Nope, do you think they are real?” Ted wasn’t sure if he meant the kids or the adults or something else. Adell ignored his question.

It’s pretty fucking weird they’re our friends. I mean, kind of, sort of…I mean this means we are their friends right? You don’t send an actual physical Christmas card to someone unless they are your friends or your clients right? I noticed that you never name drop them…me either.” It was true. Ted wasn’t a big name dropper in the first place – neither was Adell unless she had a reason, but neither of them ever mentioned the Chans. Even when people asked how they met, they just said they were introduced by some mutual friends. It was rare for anyone to ask who, but on that blue moon occasion, the answer was always just The Chans.With no mention of Zuckerburg, Facebook, Insta, or first names.

Adell went on “Do you think they really are our friends?”

Ted wasn’t sure, but when he thought about it – yeah, you didn’t send out Christmas cards to people you didn’t care about – especially with a handwritten note. “Yeah, I think they are, but it’s not a normal sort of friendship. I mean, I never namedrop friends anyway but let’s say I did, like I just mentioned to Phil, ‘Oh yeah, my buddy Mark Zuckerburg thinks blah blah’ and then he would be like ‘Not that Mark Zuckerburg? Right? Are you serious?” And I would be like “Yeah, he and his wife introduced me and Adell – we exchange Christmas cards.’ Then he would say ‘Where do you send them?’ and I’d be like ‘Um, I know where their house is but the return address on the card in actually just Facebook HQ’ and if he was scrupulous at all he’d ask something like ‘Oh yeah, call him if you are buddies’ and I’d be like ‘Okay’ and I’d call that number they never answer that doesn’t identify who you are calling and that they haven’t called us back from in months and then he, or anyone would say ‘Yeah, you’re full of shit Ted. Have you been smoking the dog logs at your shop? I think a Doberman may have raided your sensimilla stash.” So, no, I don’t see any reason to mention them. It would come to no good.”

Adell was looking at him with her mouth wide open. His monologue/fake dialogue hadn’t been very long but he had changed voices along the way and acted it out. “Holy shit Ted. That was awesome. Maybe you have been smoking the dog logs.”

Chapter 22

Dog Logs

Nature takes care of itself: It was a spontaneous creation that existed long before any human society, and for countless centuries many different kinds of human societies coexisted with nature without doing it an excessive amount of damage. Only with the Industrial Revolution did the effect of human society on nature become really devastating. To relieve the pressure on nature it is not necessary to create a special kind of social system, it is only necessary to get rid of industrial society.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

There are all kinds of different problems that come with startups. Problems with the technical end of things, problems with the legal end of things, problems with ‘culture’, problems with scale, problems with regulations, and all the other problems that affect any sort of business. Then there are unique startup problems that arise – founder and co-founder issues, investor issues, and the other personnel issues. Finally there is a kind of problem that is generally unique to a startup because it dies with a startup that doesn’t solve it. That’s the almost legendary ‘solution in need of a problem’ problem which is often mistaken for the very much more desirable ‘problem in need of a solution’ problem.

The solution in need of a problem works like this: founders don’t do their market research, they don’t find a valid product market fit which is where good ideas come from (.i.e. solving problems) but instead create a new bright shiny object (BSO) that they get investors, other founders, and the public excited about. The BSO can be very expensive and very cool – it can be something amazing – like a grocery delivery service or getting pet food through a website or turning private vehicles into taxis – or getting rid of private offices and having the whole world work in open offices without privacy or cubicles and no personal desks or – well you get the picture. BSOs are awesome while everyone is excited about them. Investors flood them with money, they become the darlings of Wall Street and Fortune Magazine, they have huge IPOs – and then over time people come to realize “Hey, wait a minute, I like picking out my groceries and having an excuse to go to the store” or “I don’t really want to pay $50 extra each month for pet food” or “Hey, this $20k car has earned $20k but that doesn’t pay for the free water I’ve been giving my rides and I had to pay my rent during this time and actually, because of all the miles and maintenance my $20k ride is only worth $5k now” or people start realizing working with a bunch of Type A people in an ‘open office’ actually sucks. It’s like that and then the investors start to realize – grocery delivery has even shittier margins than grocery stores and those were already pretty shitty, pet food is a horrible business because pet owners are generally cheap and a pain in the ass. In pet food the margins are crappy and the driving app has been bleeding money because it has been paying the drivers too much and the economy is about to come crashing down and people don’t need office space plus it’s bleeding money because the margins are shitty. Then investment rounds stop. Then restructuring happens. Then bankruptcy. Then the main street investors lose their asses, the economy crashes, and all the BSOs? They disappear.

Ted and Adell knew they had a BSO. They had created it at the perfect time in history when central banks were throwing money at investment banks and hedge funds and there were already so many BSOs pulling in money hand over fist that nobody would notice if one more was thrown out there. And no one had noticed. They were getting away with it – and they knew they were getting away with it. It was all working! It even seemed like they might pull the holy grail of maneuvers and pivot or start something else within the same space in time to avoid exploding

For Pets Hitter – things were really working. Their generator designs were working. The Biobag and Repoop businesses were booming. In fact, they had so much pet shit coming in that they had completely outstripped their capacity to use it. They had bought massive tanks and installed them in additional warehouse space. It was just a matter of time before there was a spill or a leak. So far, all was good, but the law of averages was against them. Since they had set up the MLM scheme with Big Al, they couldn’t stop buying poop or the price would collapse – and then they would be left under a mountain of shit.

Thankfully, DutyCalls had stopped giving them free dog turds – they had wanted to negotiate a contract and get paid once they saw the poop-gold-rush stories on the internet. As a result they had stopped selling free poop for high prices – but now they were left with buying poop in bio bags. Things were getting out of hand. It was all too much. It was more than either of them had wanted.

Remember that thing about flow and kismit – when you are in it, you have to pay attention because if you don’t – it will knock you down and fuck you. Their business was going too good. They were getting too much media attention. The valuations they were suddenly hearing thrown around about them were just too good. Ted and Adell didn’t realize that – they were along for the ride. They were first time founders. They didn’t know the dirty way the business works. They had almost forgotten about who they had gotten in bed with.

Victor White and Larry Ellison both showed up on the same day. They called an emergency board meeting and somehow they’d managed to buy Tim Burr’s vote. Ted had been trying to convince Adell to let Phil have a seat on their board. It never hurt to have a former Microsoft guy at your table and Ted trusted him completely after their combat experience. He had thought they would have more time.

The emergency meeting was about a vote of no-confidence on Adell as CEO. The board voted 4-2 to remove Adell and replace her with Tim. The entire thing was shitty – Victor and Larry sat in the back of the room and after the meeting had gone exactly the way they wanted they called Ted and Adell aside for a private meeting. Tim wouldn’t look at either of them after the deed had been done.

Victor and Larry were douchebags, of course, this was the kind of thing that had made them billionaires. For all Ted knew they did this on a regular basis – but in any event, Ted and Adell had no choice but to go to the meeting, hear what they had to say, and probably do what they wanted them to do.

The meeting had none of the fun touches of their past encounters – no desk hand grenades or rousing motivational stories about racism. No, this was business. It was just the four of them.

We know about the potential you’ve been hiding from us,” Victor started.

You guys are in way over your heads,” Larry followed up. “As first time founders, you are going to get eaten up by these guys. You can’t handle what is coming.”

Ted wasn’t sure if they were on to the skimming, the pyramid scheme, or had figured out the potential for the shitbricks. Adell, was thinking it was something else entirely. They were both wrong.

We’re going to buy you two out today,” Victor just said it. It wasn’t an offer, it wasn’t a question, it was just a fact.

We’ve talked about it and we’re sitting on top of a mountain of gold here,” Larry said. “This has all the right ingredients to be the next $100 Billion Dollar Company, but you two with your fucked up names are not the ones to do it.”

Who’s going to do it, Tim Burr?” Adell said it bitterly.

No, we’re going to fuck him too,” Victor said. “But you two at least are getting out of this before all the hard work starts. Larry and I have put together an offer we think you’d be crazy to turn down.” He slid a paper across the desk.

The offer was a $1 Billion dollar buyout of all of their interest, their control, and any technology they might have developed in the course of the project. The thing about being in the flow is that you have to know when the flow is telling you to duck, when it’s telling you to weave, when it’s telling you to punch, and when it’s telling you to get the fuck out. Adell and Ted recognized the flow all over this one. They could fight, they could win, they could enter the ranks of the top hundred wealthiest people in the world – they could stay and have $50 billion dollars.

They couldn’t sign that paper fast enough. The flow was giving them a billion dollar exit from a world of shit and they’d both paid attention to the fact that companies and founders that turned down billion dollar offers ended up being worth far less. Just ask AOL, Yahoo, MySpace, Friendster, or countless others. Sure, they might be able to become the king and queen of pet turds – but why the fuck would they want to do that?

They didn’t even run the offer by lawyers before signing – although Adell was smart enough to make sure that there was an indemnity clause that absolved them of any and all potential lawsuits or legal issues that might arise from their time with Pets Hitter

They weren’t billionaires, but between the two of them, they had almost a billion dollars when it was all said and done. They’d managed to keep a lot of it off of any sort of books. That’s called tax evasion in legal circles and doing good business in business circles. In politics it’s called business as usual.

Chapter 23

Moving Out

Whatever kind of society may exist after the demise of the industrial system, it is certain that most people will live close to nature, because in the absence of advanced technology there is no other way that people CAN live. To feed themselves they must be peasants or herdsmen or fishermen or hunters, etc. And, generally speaking, local autonomy should tend to increase, because lack of advanced technology and rapid communications will limit the capacity of governments or other large organizations to control local communities.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

During the short time they’d known each other, Ted and Adell had been through a lot but in the process, they’d been so busy that Ted had still never seen Adell’s place. In fact, aside from going through a bizarro start-up bootcamp, building a multi-billion dollar business, creating a modern day ponzi scheme, and solving San Francisco’s (and the world’s) stinkiest problem – they really hadn’t done that much together. They simply hadn’t had the time. Still, through the process, they had come to know each other intimately and completely without actually knowing each other at all. They knew one thing for sure – they were meant to be together.

Ted was excited to start the next phase of their life together. Adell was already busy putting new ‘Uber of…” ideas together while Ted packed up, donated, and ‘Clutter’ed his life into boxes that would go to storage. As before, Adell cautioned him to pack light because her place was a little crowded. He reduced his world to a laptop and two suitcases. It wasn’t that hard, actually – he had never been a ‘stuff’ person.

Do you think we should have tried to keep some percentage of the company?” Adell asked him. “I mean we rolled over on their first offer.”

I think we were smart to be completely shut of it. Unfortunately, that thing is a time bomb. We didn’t do it completely on purpose, but at some point that whole ‘Adele Scheme’ is going to blowup. My question is whether they intended to fuck us from the beginning or if that only happened because the press and investor excitement took off….”

Adell was laughing. “I see what you’re saying, but I don’t really think we can get any sympathy for this one – we got a billion fucking dollars. That’s not exactly getting fucked…I’m just glad they agreed to let us be indemnified if the thing does explode. You know what I mean? That’s fucking priceless. Admit it, you were never that into it anyway…”

Ted nodded. “Granted, chemistry and engineering aren’t really where my passions lie and dogshit – I don’t know if I’ll ever stop smelling it – it’s like it is burned into my nasal cavity, but I enjoyed the intellectual challenges, I liked the whole ‘waste not want not’ aspect of it. I suppose – the whole thing was about optics to begin with…female CEO, getting some diversity in VWA, that kind of thing…I just can’t get over Tim…I never expected that sort of betrayal from him.”

Adell nodded. “That reminds me. I had an email from him. He more or less was apologizing. He said that it was going to happen no matter what and if he hadn’t of complied, they would have gone about it in another way and it probably would have been nasty. He also made a pretty good point about the lack of gay black CEOs in the world – which I totally get, but yeah, I didn’t expect it either and honestly, fuck that guy and his creepy Uncle Al.”

Ted had a thought “Maybe it was because we kept calling him Tim. He wanted to be called Timothy, remember.”

Adell looked thoughtful, “I tried, but it just kept coming out Tim.” She laughed “That would be hilarious if it were the reason. I wonder if they will make him go through V-Wab!” She laughed at the thought. “The poor guy. I do wonder if there is something bigger going on with the venture capitalists though. I mean, they gave us a shitload of money to get out. They must have a reason.”

The reason became clear on Christmas Eve.

Ted and Adell were spending their first Christmas together in Ted’s apartment – it was the last days of his tenancy, but they were the best days of it too. They had a little plastic Christmas tree from walmart and had opted not to get presents for each other because they both could buy whatever they wanted. Instead, they had decided to just spend time doing normal people stuff – because their lives had already moved out of normal people range and they both understood that this might be their last chance to experience a normal Christmas.

So there they were, surrounded by half-packed boxes, a tiny 2 foot plastic tree with twinkling lights, Bing Crosby singing the theme to some horrible 1950s Christmas movie on the TV – and both of their phones lit up. Pets Hitter had signed a deal with the City of San Francisco to build a huge municipal poo reactor to generate power. The amount of money involved was staggering. The deal had been signed through the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. They were going to start harvesting and generating power with human poo.

Why didn’t we think of that?” Adell said. Actually, Ted had thought of it but had kept it to himself. It was bad enough dealing with pet shit. In any event, the two had decided to be content with the blessings that had been heaped upon them and set about creating their new life together. Just a girl named Adell Fitler and a boy named Ted Kazinsky having a quiet night at home together on Christmas Eve.

On the second day after Christmas, Clutter came and picked up the stuff Ted was keeping – which wasn’t very much. The Salvation Army came and picked up everything else. Adell suggested that they go someplace special for New Years Eve – so they had bought tickets to Dubai, booked a room in the Burj Khalifa, and were flying out before 2020 even came.

Maybe we should just go to your place,” Ted suggested – partly because he still hadn’t seen it. He was starting to think she might be hiding something – but then, what could she really be hiding – in the process of the business, they’d had to disclose everything about themselves, go through background checks, and – no, she wasn’t hiding anything from him.

You really don’t want me to see your place, do you?” He teased.

I’m having some work done on it – we can both move in when we get back.” He was sure there was something she wasn’t telling him.

Chapter 24

The Rich Live Just Like Us

You can’t eat your cake and have it too. To gain one thing you have to sacrifice another. Most people hate psychological conflict. For this reason they avoid doing any serious thinking about difficult social issues, and they like to have such issues presented to them in simple, black-and-white terms: THIS is all good and THAT is all bad. The revolutionary ideology should therefore be developed on two levels. On the more sophisticated level the ideology should address itself to people who are intelligent, thoughtful and rational. The object should be to create a core of people who will be opposed to the industrial system on a rational, thought-out basis, with full appreciation of the problems and ambiguities involved, and of the price that has to be paid for getting rid of the system. It is particularly important to attract people of this type, as they are capable people and will be instrumental in influencing others. These people should be addressed on as rational a level as possible. Facts should never intentionally be distorted and intemperate language should be avoided. This does not mean that no appeal can be made to the emotions, but in making such appeal care should be taken to avoid misrepresenting the truth or doing anything else that would destroy the intellectual respectability of the ideology.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

It didn’t seem fair – not that they were suddenly among the top 1% or the to .5% – but that they were able to just pull out their passports, buy tickets, get on a plane, fly halfway around the world, and check into a hotel in the tallest building in the world. They could do that because they were citizens of a first world country – and on the flight they talked about how many people had zero opportunity to ever do the same – regardless of income – because of nationality.

Rich people don’t have to pay for things the way poor people do though. It’s just a fact, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t pay rent or fees, they don’t even pay for airline tickets. All the miles from their corporate cards had been accumulated in Ted’s account. He was able to get them first class tickets on an Emirates flight direct from SFO and five nights in the Armani Hotel Dubai in the Burj Khalifa Tower on the 39th floor. Total cost – 620,000 miles for the flight and $4600 for the hotel. He didn’t have enough miles to cover the room – but he’d only been rich for a short time so he used a brand new American Express and got 100,000 Hilton Points for spending $4000 in the first 30 days. The Hilton Points would cover their next hotel.

Ted had given up flying after the September 11th attacks because the first flight he tried to take had resulted in a three-hour questioning and a strip search. He’d missed his flight and never tried to take another. He’d hired a lawyer who assured him he was no longer on the ‘no fly’ list – but he hadn’t gone back to the airport for a flight – until now, but he’d always believed in keeping an up to date passport – for some reason. Now that habit was showing itself to be worthwhile.

At the airport, they were whisked through priority Pre-Pass. Adell had registered them both for the service at the start of their short corporate careers. They didn’t have to wait in line, they didn’t have to have their bags searched, they didn’t have to wait in the waiting area but were driven to the Emirates Lounge where they had free food, free drinks, a live jazz band, and even free massages.

Anyone who tells you that the rich are living in the same world as the rest of humanity is lying either because they are rich and don’t want you to know how good they have it or they are rich and have never seen how the other 99.5% live – or they are not rich but brainwashed and delusional because of propaganda control systems. The rich have fucking organic fruit served to them on silver trays at the airport and they don’t have to pay for it. How much would that cost you?

When they were escorted on the plane by a well dressed and soft spoken flight attendant (through a private entrance – they didn’t have to go through the ‘poor door’) their seats were like Japanese capsule hotels with full reclining beds, multiple entertainment systems, and enough room for three normal sized people. There were privacy curtains around each pair of seats – and optional privacy curtains between them.

It was a long flight – one that didn’t involve long waits for the bathroom (there were four bathrooms for the ten first class guests), cramped seating, someone drooling on them, neck aches from trying to sleep in a cramped seat, bad food, plastic utensils, tired old films, bad sound systems, or when they arrived – long waits to get off the plane while they waited for Mr. and Mrs. Bumfuck to pull their massive bags out of the overhead compartment. There was a lounge area near the cockpit entrance with a full service bar and room to stand and move around. Ted was surprised there wasn’t a fitness center – the first class section had everything else.

No, it was a long flight with total comfort, Dre Beats headphones, full internet access, first run films, chef prepared meals served on china, and valet bag service. The flight could have been twice as long and they would have been fine.

Upon arrival they were led out ahead of the masses, taken to a private customs window, welcomed to Dubai and then driven in a golf cart to where a waiting limousine took them straight to the Burj Khalifa. Looking out the window was like watching a travel channel television show.

Dubai is a bit like Las Vegas in that it is a city that never sleeps and you can pretty much get anything you want there as long as you have enough money. They had enough money for anything but no real agenda other than being someplace else and spending time together.

There was a cultural festival celebrating the founding of the Sultanate of Baboob taking place in the entire convention area of the Burj Khalifa – which is more like a vertical city than a skyscraper. Neither of them would have known what was going on except that the presence of so many nuns was a bit of a surprise and caused Adell to ask what was happening.

They’re not actually nuns, they’re from the Sultanate of Baboob – part of the entourage surrounding the festivities. It’s all extremely interesting,” the concierge told them, ‘but take it from me, don’t try the pickle juice tea. It’s definitely an ‘acquired taste’.”

And that was Dubai – they snow skied in the mall, took a camel safari out into the desert, ate far too much lamb, and admittedly went way over the top for the first time in their lives. With any luck they would stay rich forever, but they might as well enjoy it since they had no idea how long forever would actually be.

On New Years Eve, they took the Special VIP Dubai Fountain Lake Cruise – which cruised through the world’s largest performing fountain as the Emirates prepared to ring in the New Year. As the countdown happened, Ted felt like the sounds of the crowd were being magnified and amplified – because the people noise was astoundingly loud.

The countdown was preceded by the most amazing laser light show that either of them had ever seen, it defied the imagination. The lasers were drawing pictures in the air and animating them. The music drowned out the people sounds while the air literally came alive with laser drawn movies in three dimensions. Cartoon like figures ran up and down the exterior of the tallest building in the world.

They were newly obscene-rich in an exotic and technologically advanced foreign country and they were in love. As the masses counted down they kissed from 10 down to zero and beyond. Yes, they’d been warned that public displays of affection were frowned on in the Arab world, but they didn’t care – and frankly, no one else seemed to either.

Except for the mother who turned her children away and glared at them, but they didn’t notice her anyway. It was the best New Years kiss ever.

Returning to their room they found champagne and a note that said Happy New Year! January 1, 2020

During their time in Dubai, Ted became aware that most of the people around him weren’t using the regular internet. In fact, they weren’t using the internet at all. The vast majority of Arabs, Chinese, and Africans were all using WeChat – an app developed by TenCent, a Chinese social media company. From conversations and asking questions, Ted learned that WeChat functioned as it’s own micro-internet. Within it were chat functions, social media that was like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – also there was music, video, news, a payment app (like Paypal but easier), and that most Chinese based restaurants – or those that catered to Chinese customers had mini-sites within WeChat that allowed them to order and pay for food, services, or just about anything else.

These people, for the most part, didn’t need the internet. They didn’t use email. They just used WeChat. Ted was sure that Facebook, Twitter, and the other American walled gardens must be working on similar plans. Since http was the backbone of the modern internet, he was fairly sure that there was some reliance on the protocol within the app-nets, but he wasn’t entirely sure how much. It would bear some further scrutiny once he was back in California – he was looking forward to going home. Dubai was definitely not where he wanted to be in the long term. In fact, he wasn’t sure where he wanted to be long term…but for the moment, all he wanted was to head back to California.

Lucky for him, their flight left the next day and they had no issues. It was as comfortable heading back as it had been heading in.

Chapter 25

What are the Chan’s up to?

Cheap, intemperate propaganda sometimes achieves impressive short-term gains, but it will be more advantageous in the long run to keep the loyalty of a small number of intelligently committed people than to arouse the passions of an unthinking, fickle mob who will change their attitude as soon as someone comes along with a better propaganda gimmick. However, propaganda of the rabble-rousing type may be necessary when the system is nearing the point of collapse and there is a final struggle between rival ideologies to determine which will become dominant when the old world-view dies.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

As they walked out of SFO, jet lagged and culture shocked – it occurred to Ted that he didn’t know where they were going. He hadn’t really thought of it. He was homeless. His mail was going to a mailbox service, his stuff was in storage, and he didn’t have anywhere that he knew of to sleep tonight.

Hey, are we going to your place?” He asked Adell as they waited by the curb.

She sighed. “Yeah, I guess it’s about time to introduce you to her.” Ted wasn’t really sure who the she was, but he was too confused to ask. “Should we get a taxi?”

Adell looked up from her phone. “I’ve already called a Lyft. We should go to Zone 44.” They made their way along the ride share section of the terminal until they found a small covered shelter that said Zone 44. “We’re looking for Jazon in an orange Subaru.”

The car was easy to spot and Jazon stood out as well. He was a tall white guy with a big smile and a grill full of gold teeth. He waved as they walked up. His car was a seriously bright day-glow orange. The license plate said ‘Jazon’.

You guys are going to Soquel, right?” Adell nodded and they were off. He didn’t bother asking if they were interested in listening to music – it was on and if they didn’t like it they would have to ask him to shut it off. Of course, it was Jay Z. Nothing else would have made sense.

Neither of them were in a very talkative mood, but Adell always had something to say – this time it was something he’d heard her say a lot lately. “What do you think the Chans are up to?”

I guess we’ll find out soon enough if they invite us…” Ted took the question at face value. It wasn’t actually how she had meant it though.

No, Ted. I mean – WHAT are the Chans, UP TO? They are up to something – they’ve always been up to something. The more I’m around rich people the more I realize that they ALL seem to have plans that revolve around getting other people to make some pre-requisite for some condition to happen that they are waiting for. Hell, we’ve even started doing it.”

We have?” Ted was confused but amused. He wasn’t sure what they were doing and he sure as hell didn’t know what the Chans were up to. The drive was fairly long – it was over an hour without traffic. Jazon was either stoked on the long ride or bummed that he had to find someone else needing to come back. Either way, Ted nodded off.

He woke when the music was suddenly shut off. “Here we are homiez. Don’t forget to give maximum stars and tips are appreciated.” It was mid-day. Ted looked up and saw a sign with an old hippie Volkswagon bus on it – complete with the old hippie throwing a peace sign out the window. “Welcome to the Old Volks Home” the sign said. “California’s #1 VW Bus and Vanagon Repair Shop.”

In the parking lot were around a dozen VW buses, Vanagon campers, Eurovans, and a couple of VW bugs.

Is this where you live?” Ted asked Adell as he pulled the bags from the trunk.

No, but she’s here,” Adell said. Ted couldn’t hold back anymore.

Who’s here? Your mom? I don’t understand. I thought we were going to your house.” He wasn’t yelling because that wasn’t his thing but if it had been, he would have been.

Adell laughed. “No, better.” She walked over to a purplish Vanagon camper, pulling her bags behind her. “Ted, I’d like you to meet my house. This is Mandy-Van. I had her totally tuned up over the holidays so she should be ready for us.”

A guy in blue coveralls came out of one of the open garage bays. He looked like the old hippie on the sign. “It’s about time you made it back here, Adell. I was wondering how long I was going to have to store her for you.”

Adell hugged him and turned to Ted. “I’d also like to introduce you to Lee Oan, the best VW mechanic anywhere outside of Germany. Lee, this is the love of my life, Ted Kazinsky.” Lee had been walking over but he stopped and turned to look at Adell.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he said – “Do you collect us or something?”

Yeah, something,” she said “and yeah, I’m serious. Ted Kazinsky.”

Lee turned back to Ted who was understandably confused about what Adell collected – did she collect ‘loves of her lives’ or something else. He was about to find out.

Don’t worry Ted – I can see your confused. I’m not a competitor. Nice to meet you, my name is Lee Vamile Oan – also known as ‘Leave me ‘the fuck’ alone’ – if you see what I mean.”

Yup, Ted got it now. She really did collect people with fucked up names.

Chapter 26

#Vanlife (hashtag van life)

Any kind of social conflict helps to destabilize the system, but one should be careful about what kind of conflict one encourages. The line of conflict should be drawn between the mass of the people and the power-holding elite of industrial society (politicians, scientists, upper-level business executives, government officials, etc.). It should NOT be drawn between the revolutionaries and the mass of the people. It would be bad strategy for the revolutionaries to condemn Americans for their habits of consumption. Instead, the average American should be portrayed as a victim of the advertising and marketing industry, which has suckered him into buying a lot of junk that he doesn’t need and that is very poor compensation for his lost freedom. Either approach is consistent with the facts. It is merely a matter of attitude whether you blame the advertising industry for manipulating the public or blame the public for allowing itself to be manipulated. As a matter of strategy one should generally avoid blaming the public.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Mandy-Van was a 1987 Westphalia Vanagon with a pop-top camper and a ‘full’ camping package inside. With her new found wealth, Adell had asked Lee to install solar panels, a second battery system, a more comfortable bed, a pull out awning, and a few other features to make Mandy-Van more livable.

Ted wasn’t so much bothered by finally figuring out that he was part of a collection of unknown size of people with unfortunate names. He was sure that he was the only one she truly loved – in that way – but he was bothered by the other secret she’d been keeping from him.

You live in a van? Didn’t you think of telling me about this?” Rather than being truly upset he was more curious how she would explain it to him. Half the fun with Adell was having her explain things and thus give a window into how she viewed the world.

She kissed him, which instantly made everything better and then she began.

It’s expensive to live in the Bay Area, Ted. Doing all kinds of temp work, dog walking, gigs, and everything else – I had to be in a bunch of different neighborhoods at different times and I realized that vanlife,” she paused and threw in “hashtag vanlife” before continuing on as if she were writing a social media post “was the most affordable, most convenient, and most enjoyable way to stay in the bay.”

But why didn’t you tell me?”

I wanted to…at first. Then, I found myself really liking you and I was sort of bothered by the fact that I hadn’t told you which made it awkward to tell you and then things with us just ‘boom’ exploded and became so much more than I ever expected and then it was really awkward and we were living together and I knew I should really tell you, but honestly by that time it was kind of fun to have a secret that I knew I was going to reveal – so I decided to wait until you had moved out of your apartment…”

We – had moved out of our apartment…”

Yeah, she went on. I thought maybe I would do a big Christmas reveal or an unboxing or something and then we went to Dubai and I forgot about it – mostly – and it just came about this way.”

She kissed him again and it made total sense to him and he wasn’t bothered at all by it – but now the name collection was under his skin – as if he just needed to be annoyed at her for something.

Just how many people do you have in your fucked up name collection?” he asked her. They were no longer in the parking lot at the Old Volks Home – so Lee Vamile Oan was not a part of the conversation except as a topic. They had driven down to Capitola and were parked out on the bluff looking down at the surfers below.

Oh, there’s a bunch of us Ted. I don’t count people though, that would be fucked up – they’re people not Pokemon cards.” And so, one more fact about his soul-mate clicked into place with that strange exposition – in Adell’s world, people could be collected but not put into stacks. It was a comforting realization, but he wasn’t sure why.

Over the next two weeks, Adell gave Ted a crash course in living in a van – ahem – ‘hashtag vanlife.’ Ted was a lifelong house or apartment dweller. He’d never been much of a camper, hadn’t been much into roadtrips, and in general – this was all new to him.

The first thing you need to do is read this,” Adell handed him a worn copy of a book called ‘Rough Living: Tips and Tales of a Vagabond” – this is the bible of living in a VW van. Ted noticed that the author had mis-spelled his own title on the spine of the book.

He mis-spelled his own title – maybe he should have just stuck with Vegebond.” He laughed.

Adell laughed with him “Hey, give the guy a break. It wasn’t as easy to write and publish a book from a van back in 2003.” The cover of the book was a beat up old VW van with a kayak on the top. As Ted opened and flipped through the book – he started to get a sense of what it was all about.

This book seems like it’s equal parts about being homeless and equal parts getting fucked up.” None the less, it was interesting. “Hey, we’re not going to be doing any ‘cafeteria grazing’ are we?”

Don’t be ridiculous Ted, we’re a billionaire.” As one person, they were a billionaire. He liked it. As the week went on, no one they encountered had a clue how wealthy they were. They parked in a Walmart parking lot over night, used Starbucks bathrooms, drove up to Muir woods and paid the $50 per night camping fee (it included free wi-fi access), and in general had more fun than if they’d been living in an apartment.

The downside was the lack of a bathroom. As far as a kitchen – Mandy-Van had it covered. Small stove, small fridge, and a tiny little sink. The front seats swiveled around and Adell had installed a 12.9 inch iPad up above the back seat that they could stream Netflix on or watch anything else on for that matter.

Laundry and storage proved to be a bit of a pain in the ass, but other than that – it wasn’t really that bad. Ted had become a fan of #vanlife. None the less, he was ready to start looking for a place to live.

Adell, aren’t you ready to move back into a house yet?” They were drinking French press coffee and kicking back in her folding chairs looking down at the fog covered ocean in Pacifica. It was idyllic but a little bit cold and he would have really liked to have taken a 30 minute hot shower and a long read sit on a warmed toilet seat.

She looked at him. “I am,” she said “But I just don’t feel like we are ready yet. I feel like there is something that has to happen before we do that.” Her voice told him that he should know what it was she was talking about, but he had no clue.

I mean, I know we have the money to buy a house and we can do whatever we want, but that seems like a big commitment – you know what I mean?” He still wasn’t getting it.

I mean – we’ve already entered 2020 – so it’s not like we need to RING it in again…” He was starting to understand.

She saw that he was getting it “I’ve been GROOMing you for something bigger…”

Ted dropped to his knee and grabbed her hand. “Adell Fitler, will you marry me?”

She looked into his eyes “Yes, Ted Kazinsky, I want nothing more than to be your bride….but, there is one thing…Do you mind if we keep our own names?”

Ted hadn’t thought of it. He’d never considered calling her Adell Kazinsky (or calling himself Ted Fitler for that matter) and both names sounded stupid. It did make him think of an additional issue though – but he probably shouldn’t have said anything.

But what about the children? What name will they get?”

She batted her eyelashes at him “Well, aren’t you the bold one. If …and it’s not a guarantee…but if we have children, I think it makes sense for them to be Fitler-Kazinsky – but promise me one thing – no funny business with the names. Deal?” She held out her other hand – the one he wasn’t already holding.

He shook it. “Deal”

Well in that case Mr. Unabomber. Let’s plan a wedding.”

Chapter 27

Wedding Fest

The kind of revolution we have in mind will not necessarily involve an armed uprising against any government. It may or may not involve physical violence, but it will not be a POLITICAL revolution. Its focus will be on technology and economics, not politics.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Their wedding was a simple affair. A dozen friends, some of whom were very rich – a beautiful venue – and on Adell’s insistence – a feast to feed the homeless. It was a small affair where they spent close to a million dollars on the food and services for the homeless and less than ten thousand for the ceremony and accouterments for the invited guests.

They had considered other ways they could help with the overwhelming homeless problems in the Bay Area – but ultimately, Adell insisted that what the homeless needed more than anything else was a party. For this reason, there was plenty of wedding pie, ice cream cones, Hawaiian shave ice, and healthy food. There was no alcohol at the ‘public’ party – which had great bands, plenty of grassy areas, and an open door policy.

Working with Lava Mae, an organization that repurposes old school buses into mobile showers and toilets for the homeless – their wedding was a free festival with pop-up care villages where people could do laundry, get haircuts, get manicures and pedicures, and more.

I’ve always said that a wedding should be more about the community than about the bride and groom,” Adell said. “I’ve been very lucky but I know how hard it is for these people.”

After their time living in a van – and years of struggling to make ends meet even when he had a rent control apartment, Ted also had a lot of compassion for the homeless. He was proud to be a part of ‘Wedding Fest’ as people were calling it.

They set a very specific date and time for when they would be announced man and wife. The announcement would come on Pi Day, March 14th, 2020 at 1:59 pm It was a brisk day with light rain and a bit of wind – but nothing the tents couldn’t handle. They’d written their own vows and Ted had made Adell promise to invite every person in her ‘not a collection’ of people with fucked up names. They’d set up a stage and a huge concert style seating area with VIP seating for the invited guests and standing room for the other attendees.

Their vows were dark comedy gold. Adell had asked her old school friend – Elvii Pressman, to officiate. He had turned a mocked name into a passable career as an Elvis marriage officiator. He didn’t look anything like Elvis since he had red hair, a beard, and was short, fat, and pink – he looked more like one of the seven dwarves – but, his white jumpsuit covered with sequins was unmistakable. When he spoke – it was the voice of the king himself.

Ladies and Gentlemen. We are gathered here – at Marriage Fest – to celebrate the coming together of two terribly misunderstood people. Neither of them chose the name they were given, but they have chosen to own them, to keep them, and to make something wonderful of them. Today, I’d love for you to give it up for these hunk a, hunk a, hunks burning with love – the one, the only, the true Adolf Hitler” Adell had made sure that he said it Adolf Hitler so people wouldn’t mistake the double entendre. She came running out on the stage like she was the guest speaker at a motivational seminar. She was wearing bright colored yoga clothing. A few people in the audience has started booing when they heard the name Hitler, but they stopped when a modern day hottie in day-glo yoga clothing came running out. Elvii motioned that she should come stand in front of and to one side of him.

And, it takes a special kind of man to capture the heart of a beauty like this. Give it up for Ted Kazinsky!” Ted ran onto the stage – he was also wearing brightly colored yoga clothes. They looked like clowns or 80s workout show extras. Once again there were a few scattered boos from the audience, but mostly there was some polite applause. As hard as it was to believe – most of the audience had no idea who the Unabomber was, what his name was, or what he had done – but if you had asked them who Jennifer Aniston was seeing – they would have been able to make a pretty good guess.

Elvii stood them next to each other, staggered a bit but facing him and the audience. He moved to his podium.

Do you, Adolf Hitler, take Ted Kazinsky as your lawfully wedded husband?”

I, Adell Fitler, do solemnly swear to be your friend for life, to always tell you if you are getting a sunburn or have food somewhere you shouldn’t, and to never use propaganda to turn the fear and hardship of the German people (or any people) into fascism. I promise to love, honor, cherish, and respect you from now until death does us part – as long as you don’t turn into some super asshole clerk. I do. I really fucking do. ”

The audience cheered, but they were sort of weirded out by what we have become used to.

Do you, Ted Kazinsky, take Adolf Hitler as your wife?” The audience was starting to get it. Many of them thought the whole thing was a joke.

I,Ted Kazinsky, do solemnly swear to treat you like the hottie princess you are, to always know that you are probably smarter than me, to treat you as an equal, a partner, a friend – and to never send letter bombs through the U.S. Postal Service or suggest that we move to an off-grid cabin in Montana – although, I haven’t taken an off-grid cabin in Hawaii from the equation. I promise to love, cherish, respect, and listen to you until death does us part or you kill me – whichever comes first, but come to think of it – that ends up being the same thing.”

So do you take her to be your wife?”

I do- I definitely do.”

Elivii had some remarks prepared in case they had needed to stall a bit while they waited for 1:59 pm but their timing had worked perfect. “By the power invested in me, on this Pi Day at 3.14159 – I hereby announce you as man and wife to the world. Unabomber, you may kiss the Führer.” Again, Adell had insisted on this.

She melted into his arms and the crowd erupted into roaring cheers as their lips met.

Let them eat Pi,” Adell screamed. And with that liveried waiters began walking through the crowd handing out pieces of chocolate banana coconut cream pie. Adell and Ted were each handed a piece – and of course without waiting for a moment – she smashed hers into his face. Ted did the same. The audience went crazy and the biggest pie fight in the history of the San Francisco Bay Area erupted into complete and total chaos. It might have been the biggest pie fight in the history of California, the United States, or the world – but since people rarely keep detailed notes about such things, we’ll just call it the biggest pie fight in the history of the Bay Area.

Adell, grabbed the mic “Is there anyone else who wants to get married today? Speak now or forever hold your peace.” A dozen couples made their way to the stage and each had their own moment. After that, there were more and more people lining up to get married. Not just the homeless, but tons. Marriage Fest was a hit.

When the weddings had finished – Adell grabbed the mic again and announced that it was now time to bring the inductees into the first ever annual ‘Hall of Name’.

It’s our day, you guys, and since you all know us already, we won’t make a big deal about being the first inductees into the Hall of Name. Elivii – will you please read the entire list?”

Elvii moved to the podium and began to read. “These people, these kind people, these bright people, these mostly good people – have endured a lifetime of hardships because of the names their parents gave them – please give a warm round of applause after each name is read.”

Adell Fitler”

Ted Kazinsky”

Elvii Pressman”

Lee Vamile Oan”

Tim Burr”

Charlene Mansoon”

and we’d also like to bring in a couple of postumous inductees

Yogi Berra”

Ima Pigg”

Ura Hogg”

and last but not least the famous NFL running back,”

Dick Felt. We are aware that there are many more deserving inductees, but these are the inductees for Year One of the International Hall of Name.” They had actually built a small shrine – a hall where each inductee was honored with a plaque and a picture. It would become a thing – just like Marriage Fest and just like Pets Hitter.

Chapter 28

Shitstorm

Revolutionaries should not try to acquire political power until the system has gotten itself into such a mess that any hardships will be seen as resulting from the failures of the industrial system itself and not from the policies of the revolutionaries. The revolution against technology will probably have to be a revolution by outsiders, a revolution from below and not from above.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

It had only been a matter of time. They had all known it. You can’t build a house of cards and expect it to stand forever, especially when it is constantly being pulled and shaped higher into an even more unstable form. Perhaps the best wedding present that Ted and Adell received was the knowledge that they were completely and totally absolved and expunged from Pets Hitter.

Like everything in Silicon Valley in 2019 and the early months of 2020, Pets Hitter was valued at an absolutely insane level. The news that they were moving into turning human waste into a valuable commodity had driven expectations of the company to levels not seen since the last days of the Tulip and spice bubbles in the 1700s. The difference was that instead of dealing with expensive flowers and plants coming from far off locations – Pets Hitter made people think they were walking gold mines. The idea that every human could produce and sell their own shit was a bizarre and utterly twisted take on what Ted and Adell had started building with Pets Hitter.

Their initial idea had been to get poop off the sidewalks and maybe let people make a few bucks for cleaning up the mess. Admittedly, they had taken a bad turn when they let Tim Burr and Big Al convince them to set up a multi-level marketing ponzi scheme. They’d also made a mistake getting into bed with Victor White and Larry Ellison. But let me rephrase all of that – they’d left the path of doing something with good intentions for the good of the planet when they’d made those decisions – the fact remained that those decisions had earned them a billion dollars and they were at least doing some good with it – but – if they had stayed with the ponzi scheming and the morally corrupt venture capitalists – they would have been fucked – and probably would have gone to hell. Instead, they’d taken the money, turned their backs, and walked away.

There were plenty of trade publications in the valley calling them idiots after they left Pets Hitter. From the outside, they’d taken a billion dollars for a company that was worth a hundred times that – or more. They hadn’t even kept any stock. They were being heralded as the worst business people of the century. CNBC and Bloomberg openly mocked them and started using the phrase ‘pulled a Pets Hitter’ to mean walked away from a fortune. Adell ignored it. Ted didn’t care. They were rich, they were happy, and they knew that it was just a matter of time before the collapse came…

It hit on April 1st – amidst all of the not very funny any longer pranks and fake news stories that the big tech companies felt obligated to put out to hearken back to a time when tech was actually a small community of fun and forward thinking people.

In Canada, the Royal Mint announced they would be putting Bill Gates on the Looney. In Britain, the BBC had published an expose’ about how Brexit had inspired a whole new series of art movements. Google claimed to have developed a time machine that allowed you to send emails and texts backwards in time. Facebook announced that they had a new section devoted to lunar cycles and fertility. Twitter claimed that they would now only accept advertising in Litecoin.

At 6 am, an anonymous blogger posted a leaked story that claimed that for the past eight days – an internal virus at Pets Hitter had been causing the “Ship to” section of the labels to address every package of pet turds that was supposed to be sent to the Pets Hitter processing plants to instead be sent to congressional offices, corporate headquarters, and even 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. News sources were able to confirm that multiple political and business addresses had been inundated with boxes upon boxes of shit over the past several days.

At 7 am, the US Justice Department announced that they were looking into allegations of fraud, tax evasion, and other high crimes at Pets Hitter. No one was able to ascertain if the investigation was the result of a box full of shit being sent to the Attorney General.

At 8 am, Tim Burr, the CEO of Pets Hitter issued an apology to distributors of their bio bags for perpetuating a ponzi scheme and suspended the buying of all doggie shit until further notice. It was a Wednesday and so the markets were open – nobody really likes to trade on April Fools and Pets Hitter wasn’t a public company – but the entire tech sector began bleeding as investors realized that the situation at Pets Hitter was going to have broad consequences across the entire tech industry.

Share of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, AMD, Intel, Tesla and every other tech related company dropped more than twenty percent in the hours that followed the apology. Pets Hitter, tried to do damage control. They claimed that Tim Burr had been removed from his position and was solely responsible for all the wrong doing that had been brought to the public’s attention. Mug shot looking photos of Tim, Big Al, and some of the top distributors were flashed on the screens of America.

The famous investing guru, Jim Cramer put it best when he got up close to the camera and yelled “Tim-Burr!” And then backed up and had an axe that he swung at an imaginary tree. “This company is coming down fast and taking everything that get’s in the way with it. Timburrrrrrrrr!”

It was the single biggest loss on the Nasdaq since the 2008 financial crisis. Nobody knew when it was going to end – but no one wanted to stay in the markets and be part of the ongoing bloodbath. The fallout started to move beyond the tech sector as politicians, executives, and celebrities tried to distance themselves from the disaster taking place around them.

A reporter seeking comment from Victor White caught him on camera getting out of his limousine and saying into his phone “…I’m not going down because of that homo <n-word>”. The video went viral – suddenly any company associated with VWA was considered a toxic asset.

Chapter 29

Wasp Hive

The industrial system should be attacked in all nations simultaneously, to the extent that this may be possible. True, there is no assurance that the industrial system can be destroyed at approximately the same time all over the world, and it is even conceivable that the attempt to overthrow the system could lead instead to the domination of the system by dictators. That is a risk that has to be taken. And it is worth taking, since the difference between a “democratic” industrial system and one controlled by dictators is small compared with the difference between an industrial system and a non-industrial one.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

Reporters finally got around to asking Adell why she had left and whether she had known of any sort of impropriety. Her answer was good enough to keep the storm buzzing:

Suffice to say that part of my exit from Pets Hitter was to sign a comprehensive NDA. The only way I would do that was if they signed documentation that certified that my tenure was free from any sort of wrong-doing and that guaranteed that I would not be held culpable for any actions the company had taken, might take, or considered taking. My agreement to exit was only one possible course, the other was to dismantle and systematically dismantle the company – a move that I suggested and which caused me to be removed from my position as CEO, taken off the board of directors, and forced out of the company. All of that is on the record and at the end of the day, everything else is covered by the NDA.”

Ted more or less gave the same answer and the reporters decided that they weren’t worth following up on. This might not have been the case except that the whole VWA culture was unraveling at the seams. Tim Burr had signed no such NDA and when he found out that White and Ellison were trying to throw him under the bus, he and Big Al both gave explosive interviews. Tim talked about how White had repeatedly referred to him as ‘boy’ and at times even called him ‘lady-boy’, presumably in reference to his sexuality and race.

Both Ted and Adell gave Tim Burr and his uncle credit though because even though they had betrayed them on the board, neither of them ever said anything that would connect Adell or Ted to the ponzi scheme, the MLM, or any of the other shenanigans that had gone on while they were in charge. From the story Tim told, it would be easy to believe that Pets Hitter was doing everything legitimately until the moment when her tenure ended. It was only then, according to Tim, that Ellison and White had begun to stack the board with people who harbored what he called ‘criminal intent’.

Big Al turned state’s evidence and said that the entire plan to begin turning human waste into energy had been a ‘scheme’ concocted by Larry Ellison and his ‘Hawaiian Mafia friends’ he swore under oath on national television that Larry Ellison, Victor White, and the whole Silicon Valley tech-elite were engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the power and sovereignty of the United States of America. In short, it was a big fucking mess and somehow – they had managed to be clear of it.

Phil called to make sure they were doing okay and suggested that they all meet down at a local co-working space in Mountain View. Ted and Adell were still living the ‘hashtag vanlife’ even though they had gotten married. Their honeymoon had been a van trip to all of California’s national parks. During the trip, Ted had realized that he wasn’t entirely discontent living in a van – and when they needed to have space – it was easy to rent a suite at a hotel – they never rented regular rooms any more.

They’d only been back in town for a day or two when the shit hit the fan.

Phil had rented an office at the co-working space. It wasn’t a ‘We Work’ property so it still had relatively happy and helpful people working there. The receptionist showed them back to Phil’s office. The walls of the space were covered with interesting art and lots of photographs of smiling people. A couple of people walked around the office drinking beers or coffee. It was 10 am – but no one else seemed to mind. Everyone was their own boss here. It was as it should be, but Ted wondered if there were 3 pm drunks who made it hard for others to get end of the day work done.

Phil’s office looked like a college professor’s cubicle. It was filled with books and stacks of papers.

Did you see fucking Tim attacking Victor White on network news this morning?” Phil asked as they walked in. He was turning from the computer where he had paused the scene.

Adell hugged him and Ted grabbed his hand in a firm shake. Phil turned back to the computer. “Look at this shit…the entire internet which was built so that universities and government think tanks could share ideas and information – it’s just turned into a worse version of the ‘boob tube’ we all used to complain about.”

Ted didn’t really have anything to say. It was true. Adell, not one to keep quiet in most situations seemed pretty subdued “Yeah,” she said “Too bad we can’t bring back the good old days.”

Oh,” Phil said in a very matter of fact voice “We can, actually.”

Ted instantly knew what Phil was talking about and why he had brought them there. “It’s done? You finished the wasp’s nest?”

Phil turned smiling towards them. “Yeah, it’s done. That bit you gave me about the WeChat internet actually helped me put in the final piece. The whole thing should get digested now but it will leave the walled gardens in place and whole.”

What are you guys talking about?” Adell asked “Is there something I should know?”

Phil motioned to the keyboard and pulled up a command line. He typed in the words “Run Waspnest” and said “Hit the return key Adell.” She did.

At first nothing obvious happened. Then they started hearing things from outside the cubicle. “Shit” “Fuck” “What the fuck?” “Hey, do you guys have a connection?” and more.

What did we just do?” Adell asked the two grinning men in front of her.

We just killed the world wide web,” Ted told her. “The internet is dead.”

Holy shit!” Adell exclaimed in delight “You really are a terrorist!”

Chapter 30

The End of Civilization As We Know It

The anarchist too seeks power, but he seeks it on an individual or small-group basis; he wants individuals and small groups to be able to control the circumstances of their own lives. He opposes technology because it makes small groups dependent on large organizations.

-Industrial Society and Its Future

The Chans invited them over for lunch a few days later. Mark met them at the gate and escorted them in. He was in high spirits – which meant that he looked almost like a human. Priscilla was working in her garden when they arrived and he led them out to where she was working.

Nice work, you two!” she said, looking up from the row of flowers she was working on. “I knew you guys would make fireworks, but honestly, I had no idea they would be anything like the firestorm you’ve created. I’m sorry we couldn’t make it to your wedding, but we did get you a present – Mark will tell you about it later.”

Adell had a million questions to ask but the first one needed to be asked right away “Priscilla, did you put us together because of our names?”

Priscilla sat up, pulled her sun bonnet back and daintily pulled her gardening gloves off. “Of course I did – but that wasn’t the main thing. I’m a pediatrician, but I’ve always been fascinated by the social dynamics of relationships. Did you know my grandmother was an actual match maker in China? Anyway, I saw that the two of you shared something – not just your names, but your brilliance, your passion, and your ability to get things done.”

She looked at Ted “Theo – oh, sorry, Ted – when I met you, I realized that you had an intellect that was really only like one other I’ve ever encountered.” She gestured over towards Mark who was down on his hands and knees watching a line of ants carrying gear to their nest.

And Adell, you’re such a beautiful woman but you have what this world hates – drive, ambition, verve, and the ability to change everything. Look, I’m not sure if you know this or not, but if it weren’t for me – Mark would be some really smart guy working at someone else’s company. I didn’t make him, but he needed me to complete who he was. I saw the same thing in the two of you.”

They were beautiful words. A beautiful sentiment. Ted could see that they were true. He was touched and felt a deep debt of gratitude. Then he felt guilty for potentially destroying their life’s work until he remembered that the walled gardens were fine. Facebook was still there. Instagram was still there.

Adell had another question “Why didn’t you return any of our calls? What’s really going on?”

Priscilla smiled a grandmotherly smile even though she was actually younger than both of them.

You’ll learn this, Adell. It’s not an easy thing to accept but it’s true. You simply can’t be friends with normal people when you have as much money as we do. You can’t invest in friendships with the normies.”

But isn’t that what you’re doing now?” Ted finally piped in, trying not to get sucked into Mark’s intense concentration on the ants.

Not at all,” Priscilla told him. “You stopped being normies when you became ultra-rich and the moment you destroyed the internet – you were no longer normal people in any sense of the word.”

Are you guys mad about that?” It was Adell asking, there was a bit of uncertainty in her voice.

Mark sat up now. “Not even a little bit. The internet totally sucked. I hated it. My whole purpose in building Facebook was first to get laid, then to get rich, then to make a better internet, then to take over the world,” he looked like maybe he had gotten ahead of himself in his enthusiasm.

Priscilla gave him a withering look but then smiled “It’s okay dear, their our friends. You can tell them.”

Mark went on. “The fucking baby boomers ruined everything and for a while I thought that maybe the millennials – our generation,” he motioned to Priscilla and him and almost to Adell but not toTed who was actually Gen X “…would fix it or take over, they just won’t get out of the way. So anyway – Waspnest more or less trapped them all on my platforms. I’ve got way more power than before. They’re like these ants. I can watch them, see what they are doing, and even burn them with a magnifying glass if I want to…”

He’d gone too far “Mark…” Priscilla stopped him.

Ted might have been discouraged to hear this, he might have been upset that the control system had been strengthened over humanity, he might have been bothered by the futility of it all – but he wasn’t. Waspnest had created a new way for information to be shared. It had been a spark to create innovation. It had wiped away an entire system of doing things which meant that an intense period and culture of radical change had the breathing room to grow and blossom into a world that no one could even imagine at the moment.

And as for the walled gardens – he and Phil had already started working on Hornet’s Nest. They’d never see it coming.