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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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, 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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!”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the end of Part 1.