The Fucking People – A Bizarre Apocalyptic Novel by Christopher Damitio – Part 2

Here is the link to Part 1 of The Fucking People

Chapter 25

Role Playing

Love. Admiration. Worship.

She stood in front of everyone and all eyes looked lovingly upon her.

Emma felt lower than the lowest dog. There were slaves locked up in a building across the street from where she was being given so much loving adoration.

Emma felt uncomfortable standing before gathered Believers. She wished they would all look away from her. Turn their gaze from the front of the cathedral to somewhere else. Her wish came true.

A thunderous crashing sound took all attention from her. From outside, the sound of surprised shouts and frantic yelling swirled into the cathedral demanding immediate and complete attention. The Bishop had turned pale but he went into action. There was no stunned silence from him as he instantly began taking steps to control whatever situation had arisen.

He was fast and decisive. “Smith, take charge of the men and get ready to fight. Richard, stay with me.” The Bishop missed the look on Richard’s face as Smith was put in charge, but Emma saw it. Richard would be a problem before long. “Smith – get outside. I want every able bodied man to head out that door.” He turned to Emma. “Gather the women here. Arm yourselves and get ready to fight. We don’t know what the situation is yet, but we’ll have it under control soon.”

The Bishop raised his hands to the gathered Believers. Many of them were unsure what to do. A large number of men were heading towards Smith and the door, but most of the women and many of the men were looking to the Bishop for orders. He didn’t disappoint them.

“Rejoice in the Lord. We are blessed with his favor.  Men, head outside and do as Smith tells you. Women, gather here with Mother Emma. Arm yourselves and be ready for the Lord to test us. Right now, we need the power of your prayers. Bow your heads and pray for victory. More may be asked of you very soon. We will prevail.”

The women and the injured men moved towards Emma or bowed their heads where they were and began to pray. The able bodied men poured out the doorway. Emma wanted to find out what was happening, but the Bishop had locked her in place with his words.

“Mother Emma will lead you in these prayers. She is here for you.”

A white hot anger shot through her as she realized she had been imprisoned by the position he had given her. She could only do what he told her – at least for now. The Bishop and Richard were heading towards the door.

“If there is a brick or a club anywhere near you, pick it up and be ready to use it,” she told the people in front of her. “First we are ourselves, then we pray.” The noise from outside had descended into the loud sounds of men fighting.

She wanted to know what was happening. Those around her seemed happy to close their eyes and pray.  What was wrong with these people? Didn’t they have any curiosity about what was going on outside?

She moved closer to the door. Men were still heading outside, there were only so many that could fit through at once. Smith had been among the first to go out, now she saw the Bishop and Richard exit. She was supposed to be gathering the women but she needed to find out what was happening.

Boldness was the key. Several of the Believers were becoming restless as they prayed. No one had gotten up to follow her yet, but it was only a matter of time. Quickly, the sounds of fighting faded. Everything had taken place in less than five minutes. She went out the door, leaving her flock behind her.

Outside there was chaos. She saw at least a dozen men, dead or unconscious on the ground. There was no sign of an enemy, however.

The Bishop was speaking with a filthy brown haired man. She couldn’t quite place him, but judging by the way the Bishop was speaking to him, he was someone he knew and trusted. She caught the Bishop’s words as she came closer.

“…yes, of course, I understand that there was no way to get out Adam, but for the love of God, I wish you would have stayed with them. You were much more valuable as a spy than as a soldier.”

The young man allowed his head to hang for a moment and then lifted it again.

“I’m sorry but you needed the information I learned today. There are other people here. I know where they are. Also, several of the slaves that would have been far too dangerous if they had gone to the other side. This guy,” he pointed at a corpse with it’s head bashed in, “was a chemical engineer. He was talking about making gunpowder from urine.”

The Bishop exploded. “You stupid son of a snake. You killed him?” He didn’t hit the cowering young man, but Emma could tell he wanted to. “We had a guy that could make gunpowder and you killed him?”
Adam cringed and looked up from under his won arm when no blow fell.

“The other guy knows how too.” Adam pointed to a group of prisoners. Tied and bloodied, two men and a woman were lying on the ground, trussed like hogs. “Fred knows how to make gunpowder too. We didn’t need Steve. Fred’s the more valuable one.”

“You should have found a way to let us know about their plans. Because of your inability to figure out a way, twenty slaves have escaped and some of our men have died. Without the slaves, it will be harder to control the rest of …”

The Bishop noticed Emma behind him. He turned on her.

“Emma, what are you doing here?  I told you to stay inside with the women, they need to have someone there, keeping control.”

“People are becoming restless. I don’t know what to tell them. They are upset, nervous, and scared. They need to know what’s happening.”

The Bishop softened and moved closer to her. “Of course. The slaves broke free of their quarters. They killed at least ten of our men and have gotten away in the darkness. We only managed to capture or kill these few.”

Emma tried not to smile. This was good news, but she couldn’t let the Bishop know how she felt. “Should I tell the people that?”

The Bishop looked at her like she was an idiot. “That’s not what they need to hear. Come with me.”

“Richard,” the Bishop snapped at his assistant  “Get Adam cleaned up, he looks like a slave.”

Dark clouds streamed across Richard’s face. Yes, Emma was sure of it, Richard was the Bishop’s biggest problem.

Chapter 26

Christian Soldiers

The Bishop called everyone back into the cathedral. A small group had gone in pursuit of the runaways, but everyone else came back inside. The Bishop stood in front of them, agitation jolting from him like lightning bolts.

“God, our Lord, has heard our prayers. We had no solution to the problem of our rebels. He has spoken. We shall not jail them. We shall not keep them alive. He has shown us that our final solution must be to end their lives or to have them end ours. There is no middle ground. We should all be very thankful for the way that things went and we should thank Jesus for showing us such mercy as he has done on this night.”

They all looked at him, shocked at these words. Thankful for the death outside their doors? Thankful for the escape of the slaves?.He motioned towards the doors behind them.

“I told you earlier, there are other groups. Evil groups who hate us and want to steal and destroy what we have produced.. Tonight, they attacked us. The prisoners did not escape on their own. A large force of men descended on us while we celebrated. They broke down our walls, killed our brave defenders, and set those we had imprisoned from mercy upon the world. This is the message the Lord has sent. We cannot keep prisoners alive for they will be turned against us. Our mercy has been shown as weakness.”

It was all lies. But, they ate the lies up. People want to believe they are right. People want to believe they are good. People want to believe they are powerful. People want to believe they are on the moral side of history. All you have to do is tell them they are and they will believe the most outlandish of evidence that supports their belief.

“We can all be thankful that we were here under the protection of the Lord, in his house. We were kept safe within the walls of the House of God. While we prayed and sat in the fellowship of heaven, filthy demon spawn swept down on those brave souls who stayed outside keeping watch over us.”

Some in the audience looked uncomfortable. Emma couldn’t tell if they were bothered by the idea of demonic attackers or the Bishop’s increasingly supernatural rhetoric. Most of them had no reason to suspect he was lying as only a few had been outside when the ‘attack’ took place. She noted those who looked doubtful. She needed allies. These might be her people.

The Bishop continued. “Twelve martyrs sacrificed themselves to protect you tonight. A dozen men who have gone straight to heaven where they will continue to watch over us, our first guardian angels. While we sat in community, a large number of raiders swept into our lands. Our guardian angels protected us and gave up their lives doing so. One of them, a man named Sanders, tried to do something noble. Sanders knew, like all of us, that the path to redemption is longer for some than for others. He thought the help of the men and women being held was a chance for the condemned to be redeemed. He released the prisoners so they could be redeemed by joining in our defense. Most of them ran away like the animals they are, some of them attacked our protectors! Only one of them chose the path of redemption. This man, a young man named Adam, whom you will meet soon, showed himself worthy of being called a Believer. He proved himself redeemed and has rejoined the free men and women of our community. For his act of mercy, Sanders, however, was killed by those he tried to redeem.”

There were tearful cries in the gathered Believers. The Bishop had turned a crushing and embarrassing defeat into a victory. He had created their community’s first morality play. He was using weakness to create strength in his numbers. Emma watched in awe as his oratory spin and powers of manipulation were put on full display. Having more information gave her true vision into how remarkable the Bishop was.

“We must not, Believers, we must not, let the deaths of these guardian angels be in vain. We will all be asked to make sacrifice, but  our twelve martyrs can act as examples of what we can all give for the glory of our Lord.”

A sweet soprano voice rose from the assembled people. The words of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ were not known by everyone that night, but it would become the anthem for their movement. It would become their battlecry and their anthem. Those who knew the words joined in. Those who did not would learn them. The Bishop’s baritone and Emma’s alto joined the chorus. She knew the words and she wondered how many more of the people before her would end up dying as the Bishop achieved his dreams of power.

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!

The refrain of “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before…” picked up thunderous power as the Believers learned and sang it between the stanzas.

At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;
On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
Brothers lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.

Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

What the saints established that I hold for true.
What the saints believed, that I believe too.
Long as earth endureth, men the faith will hold,
Kingdoms, nations, empires, in destruction rolled.

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
But the church of Jesus constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.

Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.
Glory, laud and honor unto Christ the King,
This through countless ages men and angels sing.

As they sang the refrain one last time, Emma realized that a night of what could have been fear and tragedy had been turned into a night of power and triumph. Emma, too, was caught up in it. She knew better, she recognized it, but such was the power of the unified group of people that she had no choice but to be affected by it. Where before they had been a loosely knit group of strangers, the escape of the slaves and the deaths of the guards had bonded them all into a powerful and cohesive community. The song cemented the bonds.

Emma hoped that Nick and Ben had managed to get away. She hadn’t had a chance to learn about who the casualties were or who had escaped. They might be dead, lying outside in the street, but this was where she had to be. It was where they all had to be. None of them, not even Emma, would have chosen to be anywhere else. The feeling of power and shared sacrifice triggered levels of dopamine in their brains that were more addictive than heroin. They were all hooked. They were all addicted to the Bishop and the power of being ‘Believers’.

Finally, the Bishop led them in prayer asking that they all be granted the strength and courage of the twelve martyrs. He ended with Amen and it was met with a thunderously heartfelt Amen from his congregation. Emma saw through his bullshit, but that didn’t change the fact that she wanted more of it.

Smith came  through the doors. He was out of breath as he rushed forward to the Bishop. The Bishop pulled him to one side and asked “Well?” Emma was the only one close enough to hear.

“We managed to kill several of them, sir. It’s too dark for us to follow them any further. Our torches turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help. Most of them went directly into the parklands. My recommendation is that at first light, we send a unit in each direction and circle the parklands looking for stragglers or hoping to catch them foraging. I think that will give us the best results.”

The Bishop nodded. “Nicely done, Commander Smith.” It was the first rank anyone had been given. “At first light you take one unit. Make Adam your lieutenant and put him in charge of a second unit. He’s a good man and should be able to lead. You’ve done well tonight Commander. Now, I want you to escort Mother Emma and the women to their quarters. We are going to have a meeting of the men. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir.” Smith saluted smartly and marched to where several of his men were waiting.

The Bishop turned to Emma. “Talk to as many of them as you can. I need to know the general state of things amongst them. Problems often rise from within the ranks of women. It’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen.” He nodded at her. “Good night.”

He turned to the Believers again and raised his voice so they could all hear. “It is time for us to bid a good night to all of the womenfolk. Commander Smith and his soldiers will escort the ladies to the new quarters. We will have guards posted all night, so there is no need to worry. We will keep you safe.”

Emma raised her hand and began walking towards Commander Smith. It was a signal that all of the women followed.

The Bishop went on “Men, I need you to stay so we men can discuss defense…and our war plans.”  Their community had solidified into a military camp. One that codified patriarchy in its first actions. Several of the women looked pretty beefed about his, Emma was with them – but now was not the time for rebellion. The Bishop noticed the angry looks but completely misunderstood them. “Don’t worry. We will protect you from any marauders. God’s own troops are defending you. Go with Mother Emma and sleep peacefully and secure.”

Emma held back her gag reflex and smiled sweetly as she spoke to the assembled group. “Come along ladies, the men have a lot of work to do. Let’s not get in their way.”

Chapter 27

Secret Woman Business

The Bishop’s troopers escorted the women to their barracks. Emma caught more than a few roving eyes as the men looked at the women – and the women looked at the men. Some of these women were in heat and it didn’t look like they would have a hard time finding male accomplices if they could escape from the Bishop’s scrutiny. Emma also noted several women who attempted to become invisible – they didn’t want the men to notice them. Both types of women were of interest to her.

Their barracks was surprisingly comfortable thanks to the industriousness of the women in creating pillows and mattresses. They had been able to engage in this work mostly because the men were still in a civilized mode where they hoped to win affection and romance – with this group, it was just a matter of time, however, before men began taking what was not offered. They would have to prepare for that. There were torches to light the rooms.  A closed off room with high, narrow windows towards the back of the building had been designated as the toilet. They would have to find a better solution.

The door was secured behind them. The harem was secured.

She snorted. Of course they were. Men had always seen women as little more than accomplices and baby makers. Emma wasn’t a radical feminist, but she was a firm believer in not accepting less than equal treatment for any reason. That was why she was so bothered by the act she was putting herself through. She was selling out, as a woman and as a human being.

She wondered how these other women were thinking of their situation. How many of them didn’t find it very different than their lives in the world they’d left? At no point in recorded history had women been universally treated with the respect they deserved. There were damn few cultures that had not demeaned women or turned them second class citizens because of their baby making abilities. There had been some matriarchal societies, but most of them had eventually created a higher status for men than for the women who ruled them. Never mind that in hunter gatherer societies it was women who provided the bulk of calories in the diet of family groups, never mind that women carried life within them, and never mind that women scored consistently higher grades than men in every level of schooling.

Maybe it was a good thing that Earth’s societies had been destroyed. Of course, here they were again with the women being denied freedom and relegated to second class citizenship. Not a single woman had been asked to be a warrior. She would fix that issue and there was no reason to tell any of the men about it.

How and why had she been put in charge of them? What did the Bishop want from her? More importantly, how could she protect and organize these women?

There were more than two hundred of them. The Believers numbers had grown incredibly fast. The women to the left of where Emma sat had formed a small group. There were twelve of them. These were the brazen hussies who had been giving the troopers their best come hither eyes. These were the women who would have been both slutty and popular in high school. There were other cliques forming that she wasn’t sure of a motivation for. The women who had attempted to blend in, were scattered, close to groups but not actually in them. She would talk to them first.

Emma stood up and started towards the back of the room.

“Mother Emma!” Oh, Christ, it was Anne.

“Mother Emma. I am so happy to see you. Can you believe they attacked us? Thank Jesus that Sanders and the others were able to protect us!” The girl was flushed and out of breath. Emma started to snap an answer, but clamped her jaws shut and remembered that she wanted to help this girl.

“Yes, you are certainly right. Did you notice that all the prisoners escaped too?” The girl nodded. Why couldn’t this girl think? “Do you think Ben and Nick would have attacked Sanders without a reason?”

“Of course not Emma. I mean, the Bishop said that…oh my God!…Ben and Nick helped kill Sanders! Oh my God Emma, that is terrible. I never would have thought…”

Smacking Anne would be satisfying on so many levels but the girl was useful. She was a tool that could be shaped for a purpose. She would have to use the girl carefully.

“Anne, I want you to know the truth. All those people were being held captive and made to work as slaves. They were mistreated and beaten. They had no choice but to escape. Some of them were killed for trying to escape. Now, I know you are upset about the guards who were killed, but think for a moment, if we hadn’t had slaves, they wouldn’t have died. Isn’t that right?”

Anne wasn’t convinced and Emma had to give her credit. “Not really, Emma. I mean, the raiders came in and killed a lot of those men. It was the raiders.”

Emma kept herself from sighing “Isn’t it obvious that the raiders,” who Emma didn’t believe had been real for even a second, “only came to free the slaves? Once the slaves were free, the raiders left – maybe we had some of their people.”

Anne nodded again. Emma could see the gears turning on that little hamster wheel of a mind. Now she would spring the trap. “So, don’t you think that we need to convince everyone that slavery was what killed those men? Maybe God was giving us a message, just like Noah’s flood, that slavery is not something he will tolerate.”

“I do think that Emma. Did the Bishop tell you that? Wow. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Wow. So Emma, what should we do?” Perfect. Now, Emma had to hold herself back from hugging the girl. Emma the organizer was ready to go into action.

Organizing workers. It was what she had always done best.

Emma smiled. “Okay Anne. This is very important. I want you to explain what I just told you to every woman you can. It’s very important though that you don’t tell them the idea comes from me or from the Bishop. The message comes from God. It’s our job to deliver and spread this message from God. Do you see? The men won’t listen to me. They won’t listen to you. As individual women, we are weak and powerless, but if we all stand as one, the men will have no choice but to listen.”

Chapter 28

The New Union

Making sure Anne knew what to say was impossible but Emma did her best before sending her into the groups of women. Her hope was that Anne would be able to communicate with the more devout women among them. The truth was, Emma was glad to have a foil for the Jesus freaks.

Emma, however, needed to recruit women with a stronger nature. She had seen an olive complected woman moving from group to group and listening to a lot, but saying little. This was someone she needed to get on her side before she had a revolt.

The woman tried to move away from Emma but after a silent game of cat and mouse, Emma managed to corner her away from the ears of others.

“I’d like to talk to you, Sister,”  At first, when she was caught, he woman looked at Emma with a mixture of disgust and fear but quickly masked her features to simplicity and friendliness.

“Mother Emma, what could you possibly want from me?” Emma sat down heavily beside her. She was in her mid thirties, curly black hair, greenish eyes, and a large flat nose. If not for the nose, she would have been a beauty. Her nose was what had made her dangerous.

Bullshit wouldn’t work on this one.

“Let’s cut the act. We’re in big trouble and it’s only a matter of time before these slimeballs start setting up rape camps and polygamous marriages. I’ve been watching you and you know it. You’ve been watching everyone. I’ve got a feeling you might be the smartest chick in the room and if we’re going to get ourselves out of this, I’m going to need your help. Will you help me?” Emma laid her cards on the table.

If she were judging this woman wrong a speech like that would blow her cover. The woman could go straight to the Bishop and cause her big problems. Emma trusted her instincts though and felt a swell of pride at speaking the truth again.

The olive skin woman looked down her big nose at Emma. Emma didn’t move and looked back at her. This moment was key. The eyes looking at her were devouring details, discerning truth, and looking for bullshit. A cautious smile grew on her thin lips and blossomed into something more. Emma hoped the smile indicated trust and a willingness to help. Finally, she spoke.

“My name is  Bella,” she said. “It was a cruel name for an ugly woman in the world we left, but I will keep it because it reflects who I am in spirit and in body. I am Bella. I am beautiful. I may have been wrong about you. You are more than they see. I see you.”

Emma was taken aback by the woman’s words. The power of the short speech brought tears to her eyes. The women embraced, a bond of friendship and trust had been made in those brief moments. Nothing would break it. Nothing else needed to be said about it. Bella pulled back from the hug and began to speak profound intensity and purpose.

“There are five groups among the women.  Some of them have polar opposite views of who we are and what we should do. I don’t know if it’s possible for them all to work together. First, you have the hard core Believers. These are women that will feel lucky to be raped and kept captive by the men. They will betray us in an instant. Lucky for us, they are the extreme minority. There are a couple dozen of them. Next are the religious ones. Religious but without a slave mentality. This, sadly, represents the majority among us. These women have lost everything but their faith – it is all they have left and they cling to it. They will be hard to motivate to action because they believe their God will take care of them. There are more than a hundred that fall into this category – but they are scattered at the moment, not a cohesive group.” Bella indicated women sitting in various places around the room.

Emma marveled at the way that Bella had read her, determined how they fit together, and instantly changed from elusive spy to intelligence chief.

Emma spotted Anne speaking with animation in the midst of a large group of them.

Bella pointed to the vixens. “They will be the easiest to bring to our side, but they may be the most dangerous as well. It might look like these women are all nymphomaniacs, but they are smart enough to realize that a strong man, willing to speak up for you, is a powerful ally. The danger is that these women are closet romantics and some of them will fall in love and spill any beans they have access to.”

Emma looked around. “You said there were five groups…that’s three. Where are the other two?”

Bella laughed and pointed to herself. “Well, there are the women like us. Not many, but a few. Don’t expect them all to trust you, but I think I can bring a couple into our camp right away. And as for the fifth group…” Bella shook her head and laughed.

Emma didn’t see any women that hadn’t been already accounted for.

“The fifth group is the smallest and the most dangerous. It will become the largest. At the moment, it consists of you…and me. Shall we mingle?” Emma laughed too. Bella could have been the bullet that killed her, but instead she was that joyously empty chamber in a game of Russian roulette.

Emma filled her in on everything she knew and the two women devised a plan. Bella wanted to move quickly, but Emma cautioned that sometimes moving slower at first allowed you to  move faster in the end. Force takes time to build. Organizing people takes time, perseverance, and patience.

Emma had first learned about organizing from a migrant farm worker named Hugo. He had labored beside Cesar Chavez in California and absorbed the lessons well enough to climb the ranks of organized labor – and organized crime.

There were definite steps involved in organizing. If you moved too quickly or too openly, the powers that be would squish you like a bug. If you moved too slowly, people became caught up in the struggle to survive and lost interest in the cause. Creating a revolution was like building a fire. Hugo was connected to fire on every level. The joints he smoked, the chilis he ate, the way he made her feel when they lay together in her New Jersey barn, the emotions he built as he identified exploitation of labor in America.

He taught her to build fires. Physically, metaphorically, and emotionally. The first step was to gather your materials. Start with the small and insignificant. The tiniest sparks have to be coaxed into flame on the most fragile tinder. If you try to put too much on too soon, it will die. If you don’t protect it, it will be killed. If you give it just the right amount of air and fuel, it will catch and blaze. If you get it hot enough, you can burn green wood, wet wood, and even glass and metal.

She had abandoned her first husband and their farm to travel through the American South organizing migrant workers with Hugo. She married Hugo two years before she found out that her first husband had divorced her. In the South, they had lit a lot of fires. There were plenty of small town sheriffs that would have loved to have killed them both.

In one of those cruel twists of irony that life loves handing out though, Hugo had been killed by a jealous woman. If Emma had found out about the female fires he’d lit along their trail, she might have killed him herself. Instead, a different fire consumed woman shot him five times with a .45 while he was sleeping with the wife of a fellow laborer. Bastard earned his end. It wasn’t how Emma had thought he would go.

And now, here she was, taking those first lessons learned from him and preparing a fire. First, she needed materials. Anne was a sensation among the religious women. The hard core Believers wouldn’t listen to her abolitionist ideas. Emma saw her approach several of them and they soon sent her on her way. Emma had to give the girl credit, she wasn’t wasting time beating on dead horses.

Bella was still moving through the crowded room. Emma’s plans would have failed without Bella – and if Bella had been against her? She had no doubt she would have been destroyed. Bella spoke with individuals. Powerful individuals. She had a rare knack of identifying leaders and winning them to her side. She then allowed them to bring their followers to her cause.

On more than a few occasions, Emma saw her gesture towards her. She would nod and continue with her own work.

Emma went to the vixens. They were gossiping about the men they’d seen and who they’d like to fuck. She heard a couple of phrases that would make monkeys blush. One of them was encouraging the other girls to protect their new virginity by sticking with oral and anal sex.

They were a hard bunch to peg. Hard core Believers and hard core sluts bound by a love of dick.

The ‘virginity’ girl was quoting scripture about how it was okay to take a man’s cock anywhere but the vagina. That, she insisted, must be saved for marriage but anything else was fair game. It was God’s will.

She got near them and they all stopped talking. They weren’t going to talk about that in front of ‘Mother Emma’. Not unless she could win their trust.

“Girls. We need to make sure that we are the ones who do the choosing with these guys. I know some of you may not like what I am about to say, but you all know it’s true. We’ve got the power between our legs and we need to be clear about it. You gals are some of the mightiest among us and that’s why I’m here to talk to you. I don’t want any of you denying it, cause I can see that you all know it’s true. You girls have harnessed your pussy power and I don’t want you to be ashamed of it.”

There were gasps and then giggles. A big redhead near her said, “Mother Emma, you naughty thing!” the woman cut her voice to a conspiratory whisper “Don’t say it too loud or the men will hear us!” All of them fell into laughter together, even the ones who had pretended to be offended by her.

Organizing several hundred women being held in a locked room by a bunch of chauvinist fundamentalist religious nut jobs led by a wannabe priest with a God-complex wasn’t without its headaches. The vixens took an immediate liking to her and the way she thought about things. Only a few of them had never been exposed to the concept of being in charge without force, otherwise known as ruling with the velvet glove. The hardest part with that bunch was convincing them not to drag one of the troopers in and rape him.

In a short time, Emma confirmed that these chicks knew more about power than Machiavelli. Talking with them was liberating and yet, she didn’t dare tell them that she had slept with the Bishop. That was another sort of power and she wasn’t about to give it up.

The sound of screams dragged her from them. Across the room, two women were attacking Anne. Emma rushed to get there – so did all the other women. None of them tried to stop the women from fighting, not even Emma. She knew better than to jump into a catfight. There were better ways to break them up.

Anne was handling herself surprisingly well. The women attacking her were among the most devout of the Believers. These women’s eyes had followed the Bishop with worship wherever he went. They had crowded during his service like fourteen year old girls at a Beatles concert. One of them was in her forties, the other was slightly younger.

Anne broke free from the younger one trying to hold her. The circle of women around her widened.

“Oh, that’s how it is huh? It’s just me versus them and all the rest of you are going to watch?” Anne had fire in her eyes. There was no sign of the weepy girl Emma had thus far encountered. Anne was crouched down, both hands in front of her in a fighter’s stance. “Well, if that’s the way you want it, but someone should jump in and stop me before I hurt these two.”

The younger of her attackers rushed her but Anne’s feet were faster. She darted to the side, threw a quick jab to the woman’s head and her right leg came around in a sweeping kick that caught the woman behind the knee. The woman’s leg buckled and she started to fall. Anne calmly grabbed her by the head and swiftly brought her knee up to her face. There was an audible crunch.

The older woman was coming from behind. Anne shoved the younger one away and turned with a high kick that caught the older woman in the shoulder. Anne’s head was so close to the floor that her hair swept the ground. Her left leg went straight as her right leg knocked the woman to the side. Anne stood back up. She looked like she was going to make a jumping kick to the woman’s head, but Emma decided it was time to stop the fight.

“Anne. That’s enough! Stand down!” Emma was astounded that the girl she had felt so comfortable slapping had just destroyed two women that were far more fit than she was. Where had the girl learned to fight like that? Why had she let Emma get away with treating her so badly?

“What happened?” Anne dropped out of fight mode. In an instant,  she was looking at Emma with that pleading and pitiful look again. Unbelievable. Her lower lip was quivering.

“Mother Emma,” she seemed so pitiful and small again but Emma swore she saw craftiness and power still lurking in those eyes.  “Our little society is using slaves. I think keeping slaves led to Sanders and those other men being killed. If we hadn’t of had slaves, they would still be alive. This was a message from God. No more slaves.” Anne looked at the assembled women expecting an argument. No one said anything.

“I told that to these two and they said, oh Emma, do I have to repeat it? Make them say it, it was awful.” Emma was thankful the girl held so much respect for her, especially as she looked at the two bloody zealots moaning on the sidelines from Anne’s major ass whooping.

“Anne, tell me what they said. We can’t…umm…wait for them to tell us.”

“Well, okay, first…that one Becky, she said that I was spouting heresy and that by questioning the Bishop, I was putting everyone’s lives in danger. I told her that God had given us the message and we were supposed to pass it on. Then, this other one, Andrea, she started talking really nasty stuff about…oh, I hate to say these things…she said that slavery was the only thing to do with …with…you know with the n-word and the j-word.”

Emma figured she knew what the words were, but she wanted the rest of the women to hear it. This was a pretty good opportunity to alienate the hard core believers and unite the rest of them in something.

“What are those words Anne?” She knew the girl would say it..

Anne blushed.  “Niggers and Jews. She said that’s what all the slaves were. I told her that she was an ignorant bigot. And then, they attacked me. I mean you saw…?”

Emma smiled. Everyone had seen. “Anne, I think you did good. We can’t have any tolerance for racism or hatred in this world. Women have been persecuted and harassed for all of time and it starts with that sort of racism.” She was talking to everyone now. She could see some women nodding in agreement. The vixens were with her. “I don’t know how many of you women have children or husbands, but can you imagine someone describing them as anything less than human.”

Andrea, the older woman had recovered enough to speak, “I don’t know about you, but my kids and kin ain’t no niggers and Jews. If we don’t control them, they will rape us and take everything from us and we will all have to scratch the dirt to pay the Jews for food.” Emma had dealt with her type before, although never quite as satisfyingly as Anne had. This was no time for more physical violence though.

“Hey, are you a Christian woman? Are you a God fearing Christian?” Emma knew what the woman thought she was.

Andrea stood proudly, bloody, but arms on hips finding strength in her faith. “I am a born again Christian and I hold Jesus in my soul. And I know right from wrong.” Emma saw other zealots nodding in agreement. “I seen you over there laughing with them hussies…I seen ya. Well, I’ll tell ya what else I seen, I seen through your little act. I think you might have put the Bishop under some sort of fornicatin spell and it wouldn’t surprise me none if you were some Jewess witch.”

Spit flew from the woman’s mouth as she unleashed the venom of her ignorance. Emma crossed her arms and waited for the woman to finish. Andrea’s ugly hatred was alienating her from most of the women and putting Emma on higher moral ground. There were still plenty though,  who were waiting to hear what Emma had to say and would decide then. She had to balance this right.

“I feel so sorry for you Andrea. Don’t you know that the Jesus you love and admire so much was a Jew? And so was his mother, Mary. And his father, Joseph. And all the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. The disciples, they were Jews. And Mary Magdalene? She was a prostitute. She was a hussy, a ‘loose woman’ that Jesus lifted up from the depths and loved. That is the message of Jesus Christ, didn’t you know that? He was a Jew that thought everyone should treat each other better. If we had a bible, I would read you a few passages from Song of Solomon that are nearly pornographic. Sex isn’t a wicked thing. God didn’t create some people more deserving than others. If he did, he did it by action and not by skin or religion. I really feel so sorry for you and everyone like you, because you know what Andrea? You are an ignorant bigot. Anne was right.”

Emma didn’t wait to hear a response. The round was hers, but the fight, the fight was all Ann’s.

She turned to Anne, Andrea would get no more of her attention.. “Anne, where did you learn to fight like that?”

Anne blushed. “Well, you know, I used to do Zumba but then a mixed martial arts gym opened and I, well, I just liked it a lot more. I’ve never gotten so mad that I used it in a fight before…”

Some of the girls laughed. Emma laughed with them as she asked “Can you teach the rest of us how to fight like that?”

Anne smiled shyly. “I’ll be really happy to try.”

Emma had found her new heavy in the least likely person.

 

 

Chapter 29

Morning Has Broken

Emma didn’t sleep, but by the time morning broke, she was energized. She had gathered her materials well. When the fire started, she would be able to fan the flames and control the blaze. She had no doubt that it would come soon.

While they had felt like prisoners over night with the door closed, with the first light of day the door was unlocked and the women could come and go as they pleased. There were sentries around the edges of the Believer’s growing enclave, but no one paid attention to where the women went or what they did.

Emma stretched in the doorway. Her body didn’t feel as sore as she would have thought after being trounced by Anne. The girl had proven to be a pretty good teacher. Emma had volunteered to be the first pupil. She was the demonstration dummy. She had several bruises and the knowledge of how to escape several holds to show for her aches and pains. Definitely worth it.

The warmth of the early morning light fell softly upon Emma’s skin. She had been so immersed in organizing the women that she had almost forgotten there were still a lot of men to deal with. One man in particular.

She saw him, standing grandly in the street, staring into the distance. His pose painted him instantly as a man of vision and strength. Many of the women were sleeping, but Emma felt no need. She walked to him and put her hand on his shoulder. He turned, startled but then saw it was her, immediately softening the tense posture her touch had brought forth.

The Bishop smiled when he saw her.

“I hope you haven’t forgotten about our plans for today, Emma. We have an adventure ahead of us.”

She had hoped the attack of the night before would have pushed the vault from his mind, but he was still keen on it. What was he going to do with a vault full of jewels and useless money?  She was pretty sure most of them would end up in the hands of her girls before too long anyway.

“I thought plans might have changed,” she said. “I am ready when you are. When will we be going?”

The Bishop turned away from her, towards the cathedral. Richard and a dozen men stood there looking ready to go.

“Is now too soon?” He said it, but it wasn’t a question. She hoped she would be able to find it, then again, a part of her hoped she wouldn’t.

Richard first led the party to the spot where she and the others had been saved from the dogs. It took them about thirty minutes to get there from the cathedral. She wasn’t sure she would have been able to get there on her own but she memorized the route as they went. From there, it was up to her to lead them. She knew where she was leading them, but was surprised at how quickly they came to the vault. They were only a few miles from the Cathedral, but in her memory it had seemed like it was at least a half day’s journey.

The men were nervous and on edge. This would have been a different journey before the attack, but now they knew (or at least believed) that there were armed enemies. Somehow, even the men who had fought the escaping prisoners had convinced themselves that an armed force had invaded their enclave.

The men jumped at sudden sounds and made sudden spins when they thought they saw movement in the buildings around them. They clustered in the road, facing outward. Emma wondered about the wisdom of such a close order battle formation but said nothing. A couple of riflemen would be able to take them all out without too much trouble. Were there rifles somewhere in this world?

It was an inconceivable situation they were in. If someone had told her the world would end and technology would disappear and that only a handful of people would be left –  she would have thought that it would take months before they would start killing and enslaving each other. Her idealistic friends would have called her a cynic for saying basic decency would disappear in so little time. The Bishop and his Believers had started killing and enslaving people within the first days. Absolutely astounding. They had wasted no time recreating the worst of human behavior.

And now, here she was. Not only was she taking this murdering son of a bitch to the only place anyone had seen remnants of the old world, she was fucking him. The old world was gone. The place where guns and germs and weapons of mass destruction had made murder a much simpler affair. Emma found herself silently praying that there were no weapons in the vault. She hadn’t seen anything useful, but now was the moment of truth. They were here.

Everything looked the same as when she had left. Nick’s scrawls still covered the concrete. When the Bishop saw them, he raised his eyebrows.

“It was the black professor who wrote this?” He knew the answer already but she said yes.

She walked across the platform to the vault. She thought about Nick and his theories of what had happened. She hadn’t been willing to listen to him, but now, she wished she would have paid more attention to his scientific mumbo jumbo. Something about giant magnets and the sun and the North Pole. It made more sense than being pawns in a war between good and evil. Emma wanted a simple explanation for what had happened. No such explanation existed.

She hoped Nick hadn’t been killed. The Bishop had not volunteered any more information to her than she had gotten the night before. She had seen that most of the Believer men were gone from the cathedral. Those who were there were either working on the walls or looked unfamiliar with the weapons they held. A small group of competent looking troopers patrolled the perimeters of their camp when they left, but Emma assumed the rest were out hunting the runaways.

She grasped the vault handle, ready to pull, but the Bishop pulled her back.

“No. They may have come back here.” She hadn’t thought of that. It was the closest the Bishop had come to telling her Nick was still alive.

The Bishop turned to his men. “Richard. Open the door.” Again, Emma saw resentment on Richard’s face. She guessed he was angry at not being sent to chase the runaways. Now he was being put in an expendable role.

Richard cautiously opened the door. Everything was as she had left it.

It took them several hours to bring everything that was inside to the outside. Emma was relieved to see that there were no guns. They found currency, gold coins, jewelry, boxes of paperwork, deeds, artwork, and office supplies. There were several razor knives, box cutters – the first metal blades any of them had seen in this world. Overall, it seemed interesting but unspectacular. A vault of worthless valuables from a lost world.

One last box remained. The Bishop opened it and his face erupted with joy.

Emma moved closer to see if the Bishop had found a gun. He had not. To her horror she saw that he had found something much more dangerous.

The Bishop was holding a large old bible.

Chapter 30 

Into the Woods

Ben and the others ran like their lives depended on it. Their lives did depend on it. Ben only heard the pounding of his heart. He saw Abdullah, Leah, and a few others sprinting ahead of him. He hoped that those he couldn’t see were either behind him or heading another direction. He didn’t stop to look. He was sure Believer goons were nipping at his heels.

Straight down a wide street. He wasn’t going to risk another dead end alleyway. He knew if he went far enough he would reach the parklands. The darkness around him continued to infinity. He had no idea how far they had come. Before long, he lost sight of those ahead of him as they pulled further and further away. Maybe they had already turned. He would keep going straight. He didn’t want to  be cornered by the troops he knew were following.

The strength he felt was unnatural. In the five days he had been in this world, he had used his body more than in the fifteen years previous. He should have been one huge body ache, but he felt fine. Had it really only been five days? Being a printer seemed a lifetime ago – and perhaps it was. Ben kept running. He wasn’t winded, his legs weren’t sore, if it hadn’t of been for the people chasing him, he might have laughed. He felt great.

It was time to head into the parkland woods. Who knew how long this wide boulevard would continue. It could turn into a freeway. He had to make the turn. There was a somewhat less wide crossroad to his right. He chanced a glance over his shoulder. He couldn’t see anyone. He heard distant shouts. Nearby it was only his feet hitting the ground and his heart thumping.

He turned from the main road.

In his right hand and was the club he had taken. He was prepared to use it again. Soon there were trees on either side of the road. Buildings became smaller and less frequent. He was on a country road. He kept running. In less than a mile, it narrowed to a dirt trail and began curving right.

That was the same direction as the Cathedral. He had to leave the path. He wouldn’t go back. Finally, he stopped running. He had lost the Believers but he had lost all of the other escapees too. The woods were dark and Ben hadn’t forgotten there were packs of wild dogs about. By himself, he was easy prey for dogs or goons.

He had no choice. He had to keep moving. He kept going straight, heading in what he hoped was the direction of the river and Bridger’s camp. He was no longer running, but his thoughts were moving at a sprinter’s pace. Was Bridger any better than the Bishop? It was possible he was just another petite tyrant setting himself up as king of a tribe. Ben considered the wisdom of putting himself in the hands of another group after winning his freedom. It made sense to be cautious.

Gradually the canopy blocked out the light of the stars overhead. Individual trees had become a forest. He moved slowly forward, each step a gamble. He paused to listen for the sounds of pursuit. There was nothing but the sound of the wind blowing through the treetops. He had escaped, but would he be able to remain free? For the moment, all that mattered was that he had gotten away. Where were the others? Who had made it?

Loren was dead or captured. Samuel was gone. Fred and Steve. He felt guilty for suspecting the men. He had seen Adam’s betrayal. Surely some of them had been captured. However, if he had escaped, he was sure that others were also free.

He wished they’d been able to agree on a meeting point. They had all agreed to go to the river but not to a specific point on it. Adam knew too. He knew where they were headed. Ben didn’t know if anyone else had seen Adam’s treachery. They were all in danger. He had to find the others and let them know.

Adam had known everything they knew. Now, the Believers knew too. Ben had a sudden intuition that the river might be exactly where he shouldn’t go, but what choice did he have? Why hadn’t he suspected Adam? It had never occurred to him that the boy was anything other than a comrade. He had so much to learn. This was all new. New to him and new to everyone – but some seemed to be adapting much quicker than others.

Five days since the world had ended but he might as well think of it as the world starting five days ago. This, after all, was now the only life he had. There was no going back. Not to the world he had known, not to the Believers, and not to the recent past. Onward was the only choice.

He pushed on, alone,  for hours. He had lost his ‘garment’ as he ran. He was a naked man with a club in the forest. He found himself wishing for things he didn’t have. He wished he had clothing. It wasn’t freezing, but it was cold enough. He wished he had food. The slave rations the Believers had fed them had barely been adequate. He wished he had water.

Sometimes wishes come true. Ben came to a stream. The water was cold, but he plunged into it anyway. This was a chance to drink and to bathe. Was this the same stream that was near the Cathedral? If so, was he upstream or downstream? He had no way of knowing. It flowed away from where he had come from. He would follow it downstream.

The cold water felt good. Ben rubbed his body briskly with the icy water. He tried to wipe off the dung and grime of his servitude and escape. There was fine silty sand on the stream bottom. He used it to scour his skin clean. The stream existed  within a break of the trees and he could see billions of stars overhead.

Was Sutreyu be right? Was he looking at the stars from a different world? He had never learned any constellations except for the big dipper and the three stars of Orion’s belt. He couldn’t find them but that didn’t mean much. There were so many stars – it was hard enough for him to find them when he only saw dozens of stars.

As he listened to his thoughts, he became aware that he was thinking of this as somewhere else. He hadn’t been thinking of this place as Earth for several days at least. He decided to trust what Sutreyu had told him.

After all, if he couldn’t trust a woman who appeared in his dreams, who could he trust?

He stepped out of the stream and picked his club up from the bank. He grinned as he caught a reflection of himself in the dark water. Naked man with club. Uggg! It was the first time he had seen himself in this world. He looked as good as he felt. The ripples in the water masked his age. He could still see his grey hair but his body looked younger.

He looked up at the sky, astounded by the number of stars. It was only then, at that moment, five days after waking, that he realized what should have been obvious from the beginning. He didn’t have his glasses and without them, the sky should have been filled with fuzzy blurs of light. Instead, he was able to see each individual star in perfect clarity. Somewhere between Earth and here, wherever here was, his vision had been fixed. He could see. Perfectly.

Chapter 31

Passing the Gate

Ben followed the meandering course of the stream. He hoped it would lead him to the river that separated the Believers from Bridger’s people. He moved with a mixture of what he hoped was the right amount of speed and quiet. Ben figured that he would hear a group of people before they heard him, so he didn’t bother tip-toeing as he went through the woods. He was hungry as hell, but he didn’t expect to find any food while it was still dark. Exhaustion eventually led him to multiple stumbles. He needed to find a safe place to rest until daylight.

He needed to be safe from predators while he slept and out of sight of any humans that might wander by. He had been hoping for a cave but looking up, he realized the perfect resting place had been above him all along. The big pine trees on either side of the river had lots of branches that made them easy to climb. Ben climbed alternating between holding his club in his teeth and balancing it on the branches above him. Soon he was thirty feet above the ground. He found a large forked branch that would hold him from falling, leaned back and closed his eyes. Sleep came quickly.

He was on the stairway leading to the Heavenly City again. Above him the first gate stood, the same gate that had crushed him before. He he was alone, there was no sign of Sutreyu. It was nighttime on the stairs and the stars were bright above him. A full moon cast bluish shadows over the entire mountain. Should he attempt to pass through the gate again?

He didn’t really have a choice unless he wanted to sit still or go down the steps. He was here to go through the gate. He would go through the gate. At the very least he would try.

The steps to the gate were carved from the mountain’s granite body. Each step was smooth from the footsteps of countless pilgrims who had flowed over it for thousands of years. There were small Chinese characters carved into each step, a detail he had missed previously.His ability to read them was shocking but still left him unable to make sense of them. The characters were words and concepts, but they seemed to be random.

Deer. Pillow. Portrait. Flower. Merchant. Making no sense of them, he soon gave up. It took him longer to reach the gate than before and with each step his nervousness grew. Would he be able to pass? It felt deeply important that he do so. Looking upwards towards the mountaintop, he saw the brightly lit palace of Guanyin and deep within his bones, he knew that he must reach it.

First, he must pass the gate. Again, he grew heavier as he came closer. His body wanting to sink into the granite stairs and become one with the mountain. His resistance was painful. He ignored the pain and persevered.

The gate’s massive weight pushed down upon his quickly depleting energy. It took all of his will and strength to press on. His mind became increasingly convinced that his body would not pass but his spirit didn’t listen. Gradually, he felt control of his body shift from mind to spirit. His actions were no longer thought about or considered. The complaining voice of his mind was gently pushed to the side while a greater force enabled him to take another step forward. Suddenly, Ben felt less like the pilot of a vehicle than a passenger within it. The pilot was still him, but completely separate from his mind or identity. The pilot was a deeper and more real part of himself that had been hidden behind the expectations and illusions of ‘the world’.

He was under the gate marveling at the force it exerted on his mind while allowing his spirit to become more present. He could still hear the scared cries of his mind, demanding that he go back, franticly attempting to rule him with fear. He watched his mind and spirit wrestle for control of his body with a detached and neutral observational persona. He was not his mind. He was not his body. He was not his spirit. He was a fourth being – separate from all the others and yet intertwined with them. He was the pilot, the vehicle, the passenger, and something else that was made of all three of the others. There was only one way to describe how Ben felt. For the first time in his life, he understood that he had been sleeping – and now – now he was awake.

And then, he was through the gate. The heaviness disappeared. His mind sprang back into dominance but not at the expense of crushing his spirit. The unbearable heaviness of before was replaced by a buoyancy of the now. He felt like the lightness of his being would lift him in the air. It did not, but he was changed forever He turned, looking back at the gate he had struggled so mightily to pass.

It reflected moonlight from its smooth white stone surface. Nothing marked it as more than stone. It didn’t glow. It didn’t pulse. It didn’t have a sign on it that said ‘Magic Gate’ – but he knew. Now, he understood. His hand reached towards it and a rush of electric vitalization jolted through his body. It was a shocking wave of energy which took every hint of exhaustion from him.

“It’s nice to find freedom, isn’t it?” Sutreyu was above him, on the steps. He turned. She looked at him with a mixture of delight and mischievous curiosity.

He was filled with relief at seeing her. “Did you escape from the Believers?” It didn’t feel odd to mix these worlds they both existed in.

She nodded curtly and the smile disappeared. “Yes. They cannot contain me. I refer to the greater freedom however, not mere freedom of body. That’s not the freedom I meant. The curse of that level is attachment to manifestations of physical being. All humans do it – most never escape it. We become attached to what we think of as ‘our life’.  A marriage of ego and physical possession. My family. My job. My pet. My work. My education. My, my, my. We become anchored in place by these things and unable to move in any sense. We think we own them, but in fact, we allow them to own us. We are the slaves of what we think we possess. “

“To pass the first gate, you had to be free. You had to experience at least one moment of true freedom from the earthly plane of existence. Most people never make it. They reach the point of self definition and they get crushed. You probably still feel like you are attached to those things. You can’t shed lifetimes of habit, but there is now a fundamental difference in the way you are thinking and perceiving versus how you were before. A tiny seed has been woke from a long hibernation. You have demonstrated that you are ready to evolve and the seed within you has begun to germinate. That is how you were able to pass through the gate Ben. That is the freedom of which I spoke. That is the only freedom that truly matters.”

Ben understood. He didn’t need to question what her words meant. It was communication as it was meant to be. She spoke. He heard. Understanding. It was a complete knowing.

The gossamer fabric of her gown caught a wisp of her hair as a gentle evening breeze brought the scent of night blooming jasmine. The moment was perfection. He savored it without vainly seeking to hold it. He let it pass.

He was changed, but he was still grounded in the other plane of reality.

“Were the others able to get away?” She did not chastise him again. She understood his desire to know.

“Some of them. Right now I am with Haruka, Abdullah, Leah, and Nick. We are safe and not far from you. Not everyone was so lucky though. Some were killed, some were captured, and some are still free, but I can’t tell you more than this.” There was sadness in her voice, for a moment, Ben found himself thinking this was only a dream, but he knew better. This was more than a dream. He could warn them!

“Adam betrayed us. Bishop will know where we are going!” It occurred to him that Sutreyu probably knew this already – but he had to be sure. He had to protect them if he could.

“What should I do now?” It was a silly question. He knew the answer, but asked anyway. Lifetimes of habit couldn’t be erased in a moment.

“Read the mountain face and climb to the second gate Ben.” She stood and walked down the steps towards him. There was no room for her to get by him, and nowhere for him to go. He thought she would stop, instead, she passed through him and continued through the gate. The smell of the jasmine filled the air.

He spun and watched her descending.

“I must go now,” she did not turn back to him.

He watched her walk down the steps. Where was she going? It wasn’t his concern. He turned and began to climb.

Huge columns of script became visible as the dawn light illuminated his path.

He read them, knowing that he must understand if he were to continue. They did not make sense or tell a story in the way english words might have. Instead, they were a collection of ideas that when presented together, provided a set of concepts. Despite being able to read them, he wasn’t sure if he were putting them together in the right way.

‘An empty boat. Collision. A full boat. Anger. River. Flood. Emptiness. Peace’

‘A full boat. Collision narrowly avoided. A boat that may be empty or may be full. Captains. Accountability. Anger. Destruction of peace.’

Ben considered the words as he climbed. He thought that it might be a meditation on blame. The captain of the boat that collides with an empty boat has no one to blame and in a sense is at peace. The captain who thinks there might be someone on the other boat however, he destroys the peace even if the collision is avoided. If he cold treat the unknown boat as empty, peace would be restored.

Even if he wasn’t understanding it completely, he hoped that would be able to hold on to the profoundness of this wisdom. It would be important in every life he led.

He could see the second gate. It was far in the distance. Much too far to reach in a single nights sleep.

Chapter 32

Wandering

He heard them before he saw them. Ben didn’t know how long he had slept, but the barking of the dogs dragged him back into consciousness. He opened his eyes and knew exactly where he was. He was sitting in a tree in a forest in the middle of a city with no name but Purgatory which was located on a planet that was apparently not Earth. It would be hard to be more specific than that. He was a lone primate in a tree.

Looking down through the canopy, he was surprised to discover that he had climbed higher than expected in the darkness. Below him, sunlight projected a mottled pattern on the forest floor as it passed through evergreen boughs before encountering the earth’s surface.

He saw at least a dozen dogs in the area. Several drank from the stream while others watched and sniffed. Lookouts. It was amazing that domestic dogs had reverted to pack mentality so quickly and effectively.

Actually, it was his assumption that these were domesticated dogs. These dogs could have been running loose here for years. They might be fourth of fifth generation. He knew nothing about this place. It was frustrating as hell. There were dogs below him, that was the sum of his knowledge.

He was glad he had put himself in the trees. The dogs seemed agitated. Probably, a combination of smelling him in the area married to the fact that the Believers had been killing a lot of dogs. These animals were prey now. If the circumstances were different, he might have chanced throwing his club and trying to kill one from above. He was hungry.

Instead, he stayed quiet and watched as the dogs passed by. None of them looked up and thankfully they were heading upstream. Twenty minutes after they passed, he was sure the area was clear. He made his way to the ground. Taking stock of his situation. He was still a naked man with a club. He’d like to have some sort of a knife, but didn’t have time to learn cave man skills yet. The materials he knew how to use were back in the city.

He drank deeply from the stream. The fresh water soothed his body and calmed his mind. The sound as it flowed over rocks was light. He imagined hearing the laughter of children in it – a sound none of them had heard in this world. He had always kept his child within alive. It was why he had been able to adapt to things here.

He had always loved stories of magic and enchantment. He believed there must be some grain of truth to them. The world, the old world,  had always seemed too logical to be real. As strange as everything had become, he was more comfortable with life here than he had been with life there. It made more sense.

In daylight he was able to move faster. He imagined himself as one of the nervous dogs, watching for signs of danger. His dreams were more than dreams. The dead were no longer completely gone. Young looking women were actually old. Most importantly, the thing he could not forget. Someone or something had brought them here. There was almost certainly a plan in all of this…somewhere.

It was impossible to say what that plan was without knowing who was behind it. Nothing made sense. Earth was destroyed by a polar shift, at least according to Nick. Ben and Haruka had both seen people with high technology. They had both been ‘rescued’. Sutreyu had told him that there were people here who had the ability to watch and evaluate them. He believed her. He had to believe her because she appeared in his dreams and his waking life with knowledge of both. He trusted her and she told him this was not Earth.

Where were they? The Bishop and the Believers thought this was the place between heaven and hell where good would fight evil. What they considered good, he considered evil. He didn’t buy their theory anyway. The Bishop had said it was an unnatural city. This rang true with Ben’s observations. They had found no sign of human habitation, only empty shells of buildings that were missing key human components – like bathrooms. The dogs were a conundrum too. Many of them appeared to be pure bred. If they had been here for generations, he would expect that they would all be mutts. The dogs were probably brought here by the same people who brought the humans. Who were the people that had rescued them? What did they want?

The stream bank was easy to follow. He hoped to find Sutreyu and the others, but so far had seen no sign of them. After several hours of walking, the stream came to a cliff where the water rushed down in a cascade. It wasn’t a tall waterfall, no more than twenty feet, but the cliff was impossible for Ben to scale. He considered jumping into the pool below, but the risk was too high. There was no one to help him if he broke his leg or sprained an ankle. He would go around, through the forest and find another path down.

Twenty minutes after leaving the cataract, he was still being thwarted by a wall of thorny bushes and impassable barriers. He heard voices.

Through the bushes he saw two men walking swiftly through the forest. They looked like Believers. The path they were walking was going to bring them by where he was hiding. He hoped they wouldn’t see him, but it was too late to move. He held his club, ready to fight, but preferring not to. As they got closer, he heard them.

“…the thing I don’t understand is why the Bishop would suddenly put him in charge of a bunch of us that have been loyal to him all along? I mean, I was one of the first hundred and now this guy that was a slave is supposed to be my boss? That’s just not right.”

His second man nodded. “The Bishop knows more than we do. We just have to trust his judgment on these things. I know what you mean, but I’m sure there is a reason for it. Think about it, at least it’s one of the white slaves. I don’t like being told to search the forest by Adam any more than you do, but if the Bishop tells me he’s the boss, he’s the boss. Know what I mean? I don’t want any trouble.”

Adam! These men didn’t know that he had been a spy? Why in the world wouldn’t the Bishop have told them that? Ben wondered how many men were searching through the forest. It seemed foolish to send them out in groups of two. There must be more nearby. The forest was probably crawling with Believers and they were probably all within shouting distance of each other. He was lucky he hadn’t run into more of them.

Unfortunately, the two men in front of him seemed to have found the best way to get where Ben had been heading. In the other world, they would have just been two men having a walk in the woods.

“I hope the Bishop lets us get some action with the women soon. A couple of the guys said they’re not going to wait much longer. Some of the women are totally ready for it. They want it as bad as we do. I’d sure like to have the chance to give it to a couple of em.”

His companion guffawed loudly. A shout came from further out…”Hey, you chickens keep your cackling down.  Hearing you is giving me a case of blue balls.” More laughter from the jungle. Ben had been right. There were Believers all over the place.

He made his way back to the river. Crossing to the other side, he soon found a way down the cliff. He was going to have to be more careful. He was being hunted.

Traveling on the relatively clear stream bank had been convenient, but it was far too exposed for Ben to continue. He followed the stream from the cover of the forest further from the bank. How long would the Believers devote to hunting runaways? He didn’t understand what it was they were trying to accomplish. Were they building an army? Were they rebuilding civilization?

Ben found a big tree loaded with ripe pears.  It was a very welcome surprise.He gathered fruit to take with him but then realized he had no way to carry them. He could carry a pear in one hand and his club in another. He needed gear. He needed clothes. How big were these parklands? Leah had said the city continued on the other side of the woods but maybe he was wandering into an endless forest.

Anything was better than staying near the Believers. The forest around him offered no backpack. He couldn’t make a basket even if the materials were in front of him. He gorged himself on the pears and continued on. He hoped to find more sustenance along the way to wherever it was he was going. On the river bank, he placed a large stone upright to mark where the tree was in case he needed to come back.

He flushed several rabbits as he made his way through the woods. He would be glad to eat something besides dog. Towards midday, he had a near miss with the dogs. Several dogs, their noses raised into the wind, were trotting up the far bank. He scrambled up a tree. The dogs didn’t hear him over the sound of the rushing water and luckily, the wind was blowing towards him, so they didn’t catch his scent.

What other sorts of animals lived in these woods? Was he in danger of being attacked by them?  The stream was filled with fish. There were schools of fry and now and then a larger fish would snatch an insect from the surface of the water. He had seen several types of birds. He’d never been much of a birdwatcher, but he thought the big blue ones that made so much noise were either jays or jackdaws. The black birds with the peach colored breasts were robins. He thought that he had seen a hawk, but it disappeared in the big trees too soon for him to be sure.

It had been hours since he saw the Believers and he was considering moving back to the stream bank to move faster. If he encountered more of the dogs he would scramble to the trees to avoid them. Besides, having a club made him feel like the dogs might choose other game over him. He was certainly seeing enough of it out here.

He came across several more fruit trees. A stunted orange tree, apples, and even a cherry tree. The first few he found, he stuffed himself in case he didn’t find more, but soon he began to feel more confident he would be able to find food when he became hungry.

The forest was becoming thicker and harder to navigate. He could no longer navigate through the thick brush. He would have to walk along the stream bank and possibly through the stream. He stepped towards the water and the brush parted on the other side. It was too late for him to hide from the five people who crashed through the bushes and ran towards him.

At first, they didn’t see him but there was no reason to hide.

Abdullah turned to help Sutreyu and Nick through the hole in the brush. Haruka and Leah emerged from the bushes further up stream.

They looked like they had been running at full speed.

Haruka looked across the stream and spotted Ben. He jumped, but then smiled as realized who it was. “Ben!”

Ben would have loved to have exchanged pleasantries with them, but there was no time. Obviously they were being pursued.

“Believers?” it was possible they were being chased by dogs or someone else, but Ben knew it must be the Bishop’s people.

Leah answered him. “Yeah. We were trying to find the edge of the forest. We came out of the brush and they were right in front of us. I can’t believe we didn’t hear them.”

“I can’t believe we didn’t smell them.” It was Abdullah this time. “No one is stopping them from bathing and yet…they do not.”

“Are you sure they saw you?” He had to assume that they had, but it was possible they hadn’t.

Haruka nodded his head. “Yeah, they definitely saw us. We need to move. Quickly.”

“Okay. Let’s go.” Ben ran down the riverbank in a fast jog. The forest was impassable where he had come from and they couldn’t go back towards the Believers. This was the only way.

They ran until the forest opened up. Big pines like the one he had spent the previous night in blocked out the daylight. They needed to go up. Ben was glad to be rejoined with them.

“We should go up into the trees.”

Abdullah loped to the largest tree, wrapped his whip over his shoulders and began to climb. The others followed. Nick, Lea, and Sutreyu were already climbing. Haruka came beside Ben. He gripped Ben’s shoulder affectionately and nodded his approval at Ben’s plan.

“It’s good to see you Ben. Sutreyu told us you were fine, but it was hard to know. You go next, I’ll come up last.” Ben handed Haruka his club and climbed into the lowest branches. Haruka handed him their two clubs and came up to him. They seesawed up the limbs that way until they were high over the forest floor.

Six primates in a tree waiting for whatever or whoever came next.

 

Chapter 33

Atrocities

They all sat in the tree, watching, listening, and hoping they wouldn’t see Believer’s come crashing through the brush. Time crawled and ten minutes seemed like forever.

It seemed like an eternity as they looked at each other and scouted the ground below. Then they began to hear them. First, just a the sound of brush, then the sound of voices, then what sounded like a mob of people. Believer after believer came out of the forest and milled about on the banks of the stream. Some of them drank from the stream, others flopped onto the ground – glad to be out of the thick underbrush. A few of them looked at the now hopelessly trampled ground searching for clues as to where their prey had gone.

“Was it the slaves or a group of forest people?” It was a stocky man who spoke with some authority. He was one of the latest to arrive. He was asking a skinny guy, one of the first who had arrived. Ben counted thirty seven men and more were coming. Jesus, he hoped they didn’t look up.

“Yeah, we’re sure. We saw the chink and the raghead and a couple of women, it was definitely them.” The skinny guy was nondescript and probably in his mid twenties or early thirties. Ben instinctively knew he was dangerous. This was a guy he didn’t want anything to do with.

“Is that why you’re so keen on catching them White? You chasing pussy?” The stocky man  laughed as he said it. “Those two we already caught are ready for more. You don’t have to work so hard, hoss.”

White moved like a snake striking. The stocky man didn’t know what hit him. He was on the ground and White was standing over him ready to hit him again. “You men are made of a weak moral fiber. You are fornicators and rapists. You tell your crude jokes and do your foul deeds, but do not, I repeat, do not think that I am one of you. We are not the same, hoss.” Sarcasm dripped from the word as he said it. “Talk to me like that again and I will kill you. That is a promise you can take to the bank.”

White turned his back on the stocky man who Ben would ever after think of as Hoss. White walked to the water, squatted down, cupped his hands and drank from them. Ben definitely wanted nothing to do with this guy. White struck Ben as the most dangerous type of hypocrite, the self righteous kind.

More Believers emerged from the brush. Apparently these were the stragglers. Ben couldn’t figure out who was in charge. Finally, the men he had seen earlier arrived with two trussed and vacant eyed women. The women were covered with blood, scratches, and bruises. There was no doubt they had been raped. Some of the Believers appeared uncomfortable at seeing them, others looked at them with lust. White didn’t look at them at all.

Adam was the last to arrive. Ben heard one of his companions in the tree catch their breath. Adam, clean, dressed like a Believer, and obviously in charge – he didn’t appear to have any concern for the women, despite having been captive with them. Ben tried to remember their names Freya was the dark haired one. The other one, who was a bit younger,  he wasn’t sure of. He had seen her, but didn’t know her name.

“Any sign of them?” Adam asked the assembled men with confidence that  they would provide him an answer. Several of the men jumped to do so. He was clearly in charge.

“No Sir.” “Nothing that we’ve seen.” “They may have gotten away from us this time, Sir.”

White squatted on the bank and said nothing. He stood slowly and moved to where Adam and the slave women were standing. In his hand was a glass dagger similar to the one Ben had initially made. Adam watched him coming cautiously. As White got closer, Ben could see that Adam was becoming nervous. Finally, he spoke.

“What is it White? Do you have something to say?”

White just kept moving forward – silently. Adam scrambled up but White was too fast. Like lightning he lunged forward, grabbed the younger woman by the hair, yanked her off balance, and sliced her throat with the sharp edge of his knife. Blood sprayed out of her jugular hitting Adam and Freya. Freya began to scream hysterically. Adam backed away. White plunged his dagger into the woman – over and over. It was the most horrifying thing Ben had ever seen – far worse than even the death of Samuel. Ben heard some of his companions gasp and turned to them with his finger on his lips. There was no danger of anyone looking upward – all eyes were on White.

“What the fuck? Have you lost your mind?” Adam was still backing away. Freya was still screaming. Ben hoped that someone among the Believers would do something, there was nothing he or anyone in the tree could do except watch in horror.

White didn’t seem any different than he had before. “Don’t worry Captain. I killed her. She caused enough of us to stain our souls.” He dropped the girl’s body and spit on it. “Thou shalt not tempt me into fornication again, Bitch.”

White had turned towards Freya now. “This bitch has gotta go too.”  White made a lunge towards Freya but was hit from behind by Hoss. Freya’s screams filled the forest. White went down, but it took several more men to subdue him. “You stupid sons of bitches, you want her to tell the Bishop what we done? Huh? You want her to cause him to cast us all out and turn us to slaves too?”

White squirmed and fought but was finally subdued. His words had reached the Believers. They had raped these women and now they must kill them. Freya looked down at the corpse,  blood still flowed from her sliced neck. She began screaming again.

“Somebody gag her.” Adam pointed at a group of men. “Don’t hurt her. You understand me?”

White struggled more from where six men held him down. “You’ve got to kill her!”

Adam motioned to White. “Gag him too. Crazy fucking freak. Tie that motherfucker up. Damn.”

White was bound and gagged and then laid on the ground. From his prone position, he saw Ben and the others in the tree above him. He renewed his struggling. Ben could only hope that he would remain gagged. His furious struggle brought the attention of Hoss, who leaned down and  knocked White unconscious with a powerful punch directly into his face.

Freya was gagged and White was unconscious. It was quiet. None of the Believers spoke. Finally, Adam broke the silence.

“He’s right. We can’t take her back.”

Someone asked. “Should we kill her.”

Adam shook his head in disgust. “No. We’re not going to do anything to her. We’re leaving her here. The dogs can kill her. We’ll tell the Bishop the truth, we killed one of the escapees but the rest of them got away from us.”

“What about him?” Hoss motioned to White’s unconscious body. “Should we leave him too?”

“No, he’s our scapegoat.” Adam turned to a group of men. “Grab him but keep him tied up for now. Let’s go home.”

It was only a few minutes and they were all gone.

Freya lay on the ground sobbing. The lifeless body next to her witness to the atrocities of man.

 

Chapter 34

Progression

The sounds of the Believers crashing through the jungle kept them in the trees far longer than any of them wanted but none of them were willing to climb down to help Freya until they were sure the Believers were gone. Ben could hardly believe the horrors they had witnessed. The only good news was that he wasn’t becoming numb to it.

After they had descended, Ben moved to help Freya but Sutreyu stopped him. She took charge.

“No. She has been touched by too many men already. Leah, help me untie her. Haruka and Nick, get sturdy branches to make a litter for her, she will need to be carried. We can tie it together with the rope they trussed her with.”

Sutreyu stopped moving and gave them a look of the utmost seriousness. “I am going to put her into a hypnotic trance so that she can have time to let her brain recover. She sees nothing but horror right now. She won’t be able to walk for a while. Don’t talk to her. Just let her recover.”

She turned to Ben and Abdullah. “You two, take this poor girl’s body somewhere peaceful. We can’t bury her, but at least we can put her in a peaceful place where she won’t be bothered by people. Don’t worry about animals finding her, they will, no matter what you do.”

No one argued with her. They were all relieved to be given something to do. Grabbing the dead girl under her armpits Ben lifted her up while Abdullah took her feet. He had expected her to be heavier. Her head fell backward on him, exposing the gruesome smile White had carved in her neck. They carried her towards the jungle.

Somehow, their task was easier if they spoke. Ben began “I actually thought Adam was one of us. I trusted him.”

Abdullah shook his head. “Don’t blame yourself. We all did. No one has ever experienced anything like what we are going through. I don’t know why the Bishop was so much better prepared than all of us. I feel as if I, especially, should have been prepared for his treachery.”

There was a large fallen tree rotting on the ground. Ben backed towards it. He was struggling to keep his hold on the body. The weight of her body had grown as they carried her. She now felt like she weighed four hundred pounds.

Where the roots of the tree had been, there was a crevice big enough to put her body in. It was the obvious choice. They laid the body down and Abdullah removed the garment from her. Ben was horrified. He couldn’t understand what he was seeing until Abdullah handed the garment to him. Ben wrapped it around himself.

Ben was no longer naked but now he was covered with her blood. He could wash off, but it was horrible. It was necessary. They lowered her into the hole, feet first. They laid brush and logs over the hole in an  attempt to cover her up. It was hardly a proper burial and Sutreyu was right, there was no hiding her corpse from the animals. At least no human would disturb her here.

“May she rest in peace. I didn’t know her, but she didn’t deserve any of this. Good lord.” Ben could not hold back his tears. He was barely able to hold himself from a complete collapse but somehow limited himself to a few sobs and the tears that ran down his dirty face.

Abdullah nodded. “None of us deserve this Ben. May the world get better for all of us. Inshallah.”

They had brought her quite a distance from the others. Now they began the walk back. Abdullah’s words clicked in his brain.

“Abdullah, were you a cop or something? Why did you say you should have noticed problems.”

Abdullah laughed. “I was a warrior of jihad. I was what your media would have called a terrorist but what my people referred to as a freedom fighter.”

Abdullah’s voice was laughing but his eyes were serious.

“You were a terrorist?” Ben couldn’t believe that this gentle man had been a monster.

Abdullah shook his head. “Your government might have called me a terrorist, but that was not me. I was a fisherman. A son. A father. A husband. I was a man who watched everything he loved destroyed. I was a man who chose to fight for the freedom of my people and to save others from the suffering I had borne. Now however, I am none of those things. We are nothing here except what we choose to be.”

Ben had considered this. The labels that applied to him in the old world no longer applied in this one. he was no longer a printer. He was no longer a man who cheated on his wife. He was no longer a brother, a son, or anything else he had been on Earth. The things which had defined him were gone. He was a man wrapped in a bloody cloth. It was possible that he was becoming a friend. He was an escaped slave. This world created brand new definitions and erased those of the past.

“What are you now? If you are none of those things you were?” Ben wondered what this slender man in front of him would say.

Abdullah smiled with no irony. “I am exactly what I should have become in the last world Ben. I am a seeker. We must get back because the others will be waiting.” They were soon with the others where conversation was hushed by the presence of Freya.

They all washed in the stream. The blood came off, but Ben felt like it was still there. Like it would never go away.

With Freya on the improvised litter, they set off downstream. Sutreyu had put the girl into a deep sleep and the rigors of the trail did nothing to wake her. They took turns carrying her. When Sutreyu and Leah insisted on carrying the litter, there was a small flurry of words as Haruka and Nick both insisted that the men should do the carrying.

“I mean no disrespect,” Haruka said, “but we need to move quickly and I am afraid that the two of you need to conserve your strength.”

This sparked outrage from Leah. “I probably outweigh you by thirty pounds and I’m more than capable of carrying her…and you, if need be.”

Leah wasn’t fat, but she was a big woman. She had wide shoulders, strong arms, and finely muscled legs. Ben had tried not to stare while she bathed in the river. She was an Amazonian picture of perfection. As beautiful as a fashion model and no doubt as strong as she said.

Nick made the poor decision to jump in on Haruka’s side. “The human male body is designed for carrying heavy loads, but the human female is not built for this purpose.”

Sutreyu smiled and stepped in the middle of the three of them. “And yet it is women who carry every human life. Leah and I will carry our sister. Women have always carried the burdens of the world. We carry water, tents, children, food, and other burdens. Women plow fields, harvest crops, and are more than capable of even men’s harshest labors. Certainly, you haven’t forgotten what the women of Okinawa,” she looked at Haruka as she said this and turned to Nick, “or Senegal are capable of doing. Stand aside and disrespect your mothers no more.”

Clouds of memory crossed both men’s faces. Her words shut them both up – instantly. They made way for the women to carry Freya.

Ben wondered if anyone else knew that Sutreyu was a century old? She and Leah carried Freya until it was nearly dark. Ben and Abdullah had both struggled with the litter after only an hour, but as the women carried it, they moved with ease and Ben didn’t see a single bead of sweat upon either of them.

The stream had widened considerably by the time darkness began creeping into the daylight sky. The stream flowed with enough force to create a safe barrier on one side of them. It had become a small river. Ben searched for trees that would be suitable for them to sleep in, but wondered how they would bring the still unconscious Freya into the canopy with them.

“Tonight, we are safe from the Believers – they have gone back to their cathedral.” Abdullah spoke softly. “I propose that we rest here and take turns standing watch. It’s the eve of the seventh day here and we must rest.”

Even if he had disagreed, Ben was too exhausted. They found a grassy bank alongside the river and laid Freya upon it. Ben found a pear tree bursting with fruit. Leah pulled clumps of watercress from the stream. Haruka returned to their camp with a bird’s nest and four eggs. Nick pulled various barks from trees, broke sticks, and in an amazingly short amount of time had built a fire with a pointy stick and some stringy bark. He put the point of the stick on the bark and rubbed it vigorously between his hands until a puff of grey smoke arose from the pile of tinder he had placed next to it.

When Ben expressed his amazement, Nick looked embarrassed. “This was how we did it when I was a kid.” Abdullah appeared and interrupted any conversation that might have followed.

“Ah, good, fire! I was afraid we would be forced to eat Sushi. I prefer my fish cooked.” He held a half dozen fish impaled on a stick. Ben was amazed by these people he was with. They had pulled so much food from the land!  He thought of the Believers eating dog meat in the cathedral and smiled. They, like so many people he had known, were prisoners of their own fear, greed, and their mentality of scarcity.

This, on the other hand, this feast shaping up before them was provided by the universe for anyone who was willing to accept a mentality of abundance. If not for what they had witnessed today, this might have been a celebration. Sutreyu had sat with her hands upon Freya’s head while the others foraged. She now stood up.

“She will sleep through this night. Tomorrow, she will not remember what she experienced today. The cost of the experience was too much for her. Someday, she may remember, but for now, we must all swear to never let her know what we have seen or what we suspect happened to her. We shall carry the pain which would otherwise kill her. We must never let her know.”

The power of Sutreyu’s words and voice allowed for no argument. Ben didn’t know how to look at her. Her face and form were beautiful, but beyond that, her essence was something he could almost call divine. He saw an old wise woman and a young beautiful woman at the same time when he looked at her.

“I see that you have all contributed to this meal. I am unwilling to not contribute something myself.” They all started to reassure her that there was no need, that what she was doing was enough, but she disappeared into the now dark surroundings.

It was only minutes before she was back with wild onions and several large flat pieces of bark.

“Plates and a bit of spice for this meal.” Ben could not have been more amazed.

Ben savored the food and enjoyed the companionship of these people. It was the first chance for most of them to compare stories of who they were and what they thought had happened.

Ben started it shortly after the food was gone. “I was in my print shop getting ready to have dinner with a friend when the shop collapsed on me. Where were all of you?”

Nick went next. “I was in Glasgow, I was studying the effects of sunspot magnetism on the earth’s polarity.”

Ben still had a hard time grasping that they were all from different places. “So you were in Scotland, I was in the U.S, what about you Leah?”

Leah hesitated and Ben thought he might have seen embarrassment flash across her face. After the briefest pause she said “I was doing a photo shoot for Prada in Milan. When the weather started going weird, my agent decided to throw a sort of hurricane party, and then…well…you guys know what happened.”

Abdullah’s eyebrows raised to the tree tops. “You’re a fashion model?”

She laughed. “Yeah, I know. I’m pretty big, but that’s the thing, nobody wants to see those anorexic little things anymore, or, at least they didn’t…” Everyone was quiet as they remembered where they were. This wasn’t a camping trip. “So anyway, what about you Abdullah, what did you do?”

“The men in my family have been fishermen for generations. My family has always been on the water. In the times of the Phoenicians, we were merchants and traders, but history has a way of changing things. As we are all aware of now…” He coughed into his hand. The small fire between them all cast shadows that danced upon the water. “I am curious about my friend Haruka. You were military, yes?”

Haruka shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t suppose it matters anymore so I might as well tell you. I was a commando with the Japanese SDF, that’s Self Defense Force, we were doing a survey of certain islands in the Philippines. They didn’t tell us exactly why, but among those of us doing it, we were all pretty sure that Japan was looking at recreating a little bit of our old empire.”

Ben was flabbergasted. “But isn’t Japan forbidden to use their forces offensively by their constitution?”

Haruka shrugged. “Sure, but that constitution was written by a woman from Kansas during a decade of your country occupying mine. Japan has the third largest military in the world. The United States opened the door for a new empire as soon as they started inviting Japanese troops to assist as peacekeepers in the Middle East and Africa. Things change…I mean, they did. So, yeah, our best guess was that the US and Japan were divvying up all the hotspots in the Pacific and this was the first recon…anyway, I was doing a scuba recon near Mindanao when the water currents began going crazy. I was supposed to stay down for a much longer time, but it was just too dangerous, I did a controlled ascent to the surface, and when I got there someone was waiting for me.”

Sutreyu interrupted anything else he might have said. “I think that someone was waiting for all of us. That is why we are here. I must tell you something that may be difficult for you to hear.” The hair on the back of Ben’s neck rose. He had wondered what she would say when it was her turn to speak.

Her voice was strong and clear without being loud. The crackling of the fire kept time with the natural rhythm of her voice.

“For thousands of years, human beings have sensed that there was more to reality than that which their senses could inform them about. Mysticism, science, philosophy, and religion have all tried to explain what men and women have felt from the dawn of time. Other worlds have never been as far away as most people believe. In fact, certain human beings have always been able to see just how small a place existence really is, and this is what I must tell you now, not all human beings come from the same world as we six. I am from China. Like you, I was born on Earth. Unlike you, I have journeyed to the places that are near it and I have met with the beings who exist in those places. Some of them. “

“I do not know if words exist to describe what I have experienced nor what has happened to you…and me, but I shall try. Imagine the ocean covered with gigantic waves. The waves do not travel in only one direction. All directions and each wave with a story it must find. Within each wave are many things, pieces of seaweed, driftwood, coconuts, a myriad of objects carried on an undefined journey until some other force acts upon them and takes them to a different wave.”

“Earth is simply one of those waves. It exists in an ocean filled with countless other waves – other worlds. Each of us, have spent our lives, living on this wave called Earth hurtling towards its own story. I want to remind you that waves do not die, they are simply transformed into other waves, or combined with, other waves, but the universe does not make them disappear. Sometimes, however, a wave encounters a landmass. The chaos that ensues when a wave strikes land is tremendous.”

They were all rapt, watching her ancient hands while her voice told the story. Her hands told the same story but with different words, Ben could picture the ocean of worlds she described between them.

“Have you seen giant waves hitting cliffs? The violence is catastrophic and yet, there is beauty in it and beauty left in its aftermath. This is what happened to the wave we called Earth. It has hit a cliff face on a huge landmass and is in the process of creating a new kind of beauty.”

“But what about us?” Leah asked. “How did we get here?”

Sutreyu went on. “That is the most difficult part to explain or understand, of course. I will try to tell you what I know. It is important to keep thinking in terms of this ocean of waves. So far, we have only thought of one wave called Earth, but I want you to consider the other waves for a moment…are they not all connected to one another by the same ocean? Mankind has spent existence searching for ways to understand, reach, and see all of these other waves. It has taken all of human kind’s time on Earth to understand the forces required to even recognize them. For nearly all of history, the majority of the spectrum of light has been invisible to humans. Do you suppose that all had become visible? I tell you, it had not. Not to the eye.”

“This is as much as I know, though I know you will not be satisfied with my answers. Our wave smashed into the shore, those of us here, were carried from it and brought to another wave. This is where we are. To keep using our analogy of waves, it is as if we were bits of plankton or coconuts about to smash onto the cliffs, but at the last moment, a whale moved through the wave, drawing us past the fate of our planet and bringing us back out to sea where we were ejected onto a new wave. That is where we are and how we got here.”

Ben said. “I saw them,” Ben said. “They were human and they had technology. I saw the ship!”

Haruka stood up. “I saw them too. Though I can’t say who they were. Can you tell us more?”

Sutreyu remained sitting. “I suspect we were not all brought here by the same whale. There is more than one whale involved in this. I suspect that we are being used to achieve some purpose that we do not know. I also suspect that it will not be long before we come face to face with them.”

Abdullah was still seated cross-legged, his chin resting in his hand. “How can you know all of this? Can you tell us more?”

Sutreyu turned as she looked at each of them. “I know all of this from the stars. I cannot tell you more. This is as much as I can put into words.”

Conversation continued for some time but with no more revelations. Ben was more confused than before. He volunteered to take the first watch while the others somehow managed to find their way to sleep.

 

Chapter 35

Oceans

The Bishop rode a wave of ecstasy.

The discovery of his bible had washed away his every doubt. His was a triumphant procession as they carried the contents of the vault back to the cathedral. The certitude of a Caesar was his as he pored over the holy words on the journey home. Multiple times, he called halt to the trek so that he could share the wisdom he pulled from his book. And his book it was, no one else had been allowed to touch it from the moment he had discovered it.

Emma might have been annoyed by his scriptural recitations except for the entertaining theatricality of the man – and the aptness of the passages he read.

“The Lord has foretold all of this in Jeremiah chapter 23.” The Bishop called another halt as he read to them in a booming and confident voice. The men welcomed the chance to lower their burdens upon the bone dry road. “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord. You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing.

There were plenty of people missing, as far as Emma could tell, but she kept her tongue. The population of planet Earth had been almost 8-billion and judging by what she had seen so far – there weren’t even a million people here, but then again, maybe every other city was jammed with people- if there were other cities.

The Bishop was more convinced of his own mission than anyone she had ever met. So much so that she had been brought on board, despite her complete disagreement with everything he had done so far. Of course, she was on board for her own reasons.

Hugo, her late husband,  had sworn that “the Devil quotes scripture” was a quote from Shakespeare, but she had also heard it attributed to a dozen other cynics, including Jesus Christ. Now, she wasn’t so much concerned with the source of it as the truth. The proof was in front of her. This man was a devil and scripture was deadly stuff. People must have evolved a genetic trust for men who read to them from books. Didn’t they know books could lie as easily as men did? The words all came from the same place.

She considered how this was going to affect her flock of hens. The loners and hussies wouldn’t have any trouble remaining independent when the Bishop held his bible high. They knew words were only as good as the deeds that followed them. Anne and the other women like her, would have a harder time. She was worried about their reaction because she could already see what it would be. Scripture would justify anything and everything for them. The Bishop was a master of manipulation and Emma had no doubt he would manipulate the words in his book to mean whatever he wanted them to. It was the power of the book and it always had been. The words could mean anything – they relied on the power of the preacher. His power to ‘save’ had just gone up by a factor of a thousand.

At the cathedral, there was a rush of activity. They were met by Smith on the edge of the encampment. He must have been waiting.

“Sir…your grace…I’ve got to speak with you immediately.” Smith was disturbed. The Bishop, however would not be kept from sharing his joy.

“Smith, the Lord has given us his word.” The Bishop held the bible out in front of him.

Smith glanced down at it and gave an insincere smile, but quickly got back to his point. “Your Grace, I  must insist that I be allowed to speak with you in private immediately.”

“You are speaking with me Smith. What is it?” The Bishop was annoyed now.

He wanted to tell the  Believers he had been granted sole access to the word of God. Smith was interrupting his imagined moment of adulation.

Emma knew that Smith had been sent after the runway slaves earlier in the day and she could see that he had something important to say. The Bishop needed some help getting grounded back in reality.

She stepped towards Smith while speaking to the Bishop. “Your Eminence, perhaps I can listen to his report while you share the good news?”

The Bishop’s eyes darted from her to Smith and back again. He began to speak, paused, then flipped his bible open and began to read.

“Numbers 22:35 ‘And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.” His eyes saw nothing as he looked at Emma and Smith, he was bedazzled by the book he held. “Yes, go. Thou shalt speak to Emma. She will tell me all later. Now, I must speak to everyone.”

Richard was beside him, fuming at having been passed over in the chain of command – again. “Richard. Bring everyone to the cathedral. We must all speak and give thanks to the Lord for he has brought us here and reunited us in this land.”

Richard stalked away unhappily. The Bishop walked into the cathedral, his tall form was bent over with his nose buried deep in his bible. The men carrying the vault’s contents followed him.

Emma turned to Smith. “What is it?”

Smith wasn’t happy with the way this had unfolded.  “Mother Emma, I really must protest, the Bishop needs to know…”

Good, pious Emma could no longer contain her. “God dammit, Smith. Spit it out. Can’t you see that the Bishop doesn’t give two shits about anything but that book in his hand? He won’t hear a word you say. He’s shit-face drunk on the word of God at the moment and won’t hear a word you say – so you need to tell me.” Droplets flew from Emma’s mouth as she spoke. Smith, was noticeably shocked by the change in her demeanor. It was the first time she had exposed herself among the Believers.

He looked at her with a newfound respect. “Okay, listen…here’s the thing. This morning we set out in two directions circling the park like the Bishop told us too. I don’t know what Adam found because he went the opposite direction from me. What we found was six of the slaves coming out of the parklands five or six miles from here. We chased them through the city for quite a while, but they were fast and we didn’t catch them. We kept after them for most of the day but were unsuccessful at catching them.”

“Okay, so you didn’t catch them?  So what? They’re not going to come back here and they got away from you. It isn’t really the end of the world, right? I mean we all lived through that last week, right?” Emma’s tone was harsh. She was glad that they’d gotten away. This martinet was so worried about his job that he wasn’t thinking of his humanity. Like the rest of them.

“No. It’s not the slaves I’m worried about. That’s not what I need to tell him about. The slaves are the least of our worries.”

“Smith. You seem pretty shook up over not having caught some escaped slaves…”

“Listen to me,” his face had become red with anger and frustration, “We kept following them and eventually, we reached the edge of the city. We reached a shoreline. We came to a beach and a salt water ocean. There were waves and nothing but blue for as far as I could see.”

Emma still didn’t see anything to be upset about. “You found the ocean. Smith, cut to the chase, what is the big deal?”

He took a big breath. “Once we got to the sand, we could see their tracks and the tracks of the people who I think captured them. We’re not alone here. We saw their footprints.“

Emma still didn’t see why the man was so upset. There were people here. They knew that. “Did you get an idea of how many of them there were?” Emma was glad to hear that there were more people here, it was comforting to know that the Believers were not the only option.

“There were a lot of them, too many to count, but that’s not the issue. The issue is,” Smith couldn’t contain himself any longer. There was no way to say it except to say it. “They were captured by fucking giants. Those footprints were twice as long as any human prints I’ve ever seen.”

Once again, Emma was aware of just how good she was at handling life when it got weird as fuck.

Chapter 36

Giants

Emma was certain that there was an explanation but had a hard time believing Smith’s story. She believed he had seen giant footprints, but probably the slaves had been smart enough to know that a bunch of violent religious fanatics thrown into an already unbelievable situation, would be more than ready to believe in supernatural beings. She could picture Nick making huge footprints in the sand and watching from some hidden vantage point as the Believers fled in panic. She smiled to herself.

She sent Smith to gather his men and bring them to the cathedral. He hadn’t struck her as the type to be so superstitious and gullible, but this situation was beyond anyone. Giants!

The smile on her face disappeared. She was the one who had to go tell the Bishop.The slaves had escaped and there were giants. Actually, it sounded biblical. The Bishop was probably going to buy it – or at the least turn it to his advantage.

After all, hadn’t the boy king David had to slay the giant Goliath! She hated to give him more power, but this would certainly do it. She was interrupted by the arrival of Adam and his ‘troops’. They had apparently been successful as they led several men, hands behind their backs and tied together.Not seeing the Bishop, Adam came to her. She didn’t like him, but hid it from her face. She was pleased that he recognized her authority.

“We’ve captured several but most of the rest of them got away. Have you seen the Bishop?” Emma compared Adam and his men with the group that had been led by Smith. Smith’s men looked tired and freaked out, these men looked on edge. They were much more grim and much less freaked out. Emma guessed that their day had not involved giants or the beach.

“He’s in the cathedral. Tell me what happened.” Adam looked at her with complete and total disdain. So much for recognizing her authority.

“I need to see the Bishop.” He turned and walked towards the cathedral. His men dispersed into small groups. There was tension among them. Not all of them appeared to be friendly with one another.

Finally, she looked at the prisoners. Three men. None whom she knew. They had all  been severely beaten. A short bearish man led them to where the slaves were being held. They were openly called slaves now. With the addition of the captured, there were eight men and one woman held captive. The bearish man shoved one of the slaves to the ground as he brought all three to the men standing guard over the others.

“Watch out for this one. He lies. He is extremely dangerous. If you take your eyes off him for a second, he will get free and kill someone. We should have killed him and left him for the dogs…” The man in question was thin and had small eyes. He was one of two fair skinned slaves.

Things had gotten a lot worse in twenty-four hours. She felt a sense of fear growing. It hadn’t gotten as bad as it was going to. She knew when disaster loomed.

Adam came out of the cathedral and called some of his men over before going back inside.Within moments, his men were ordering everyone inside. She needed to tell the Bishop what Smith had related to her. At the very least, it might cause him to fall deeper into the pit that the bible had opened up for him today. She didn’t know if that would be good or bad.

Inside, space was filling up quickly. The alter area was packed with gold, silver, jewels, and worthless bundles of currency. This place was starting to look more like a real church all the time. She wondered how long it would be before they had enough of an economy to start tithing.

She didn’t see the Bishop. He must be in his quarters. She had vowed she would not go there again, but this was different. She needed to get him this information. She needed to find out what Adam and his troops had encountered today that had so changed them.

Adam was on his knees in front of the Bishop. Her first thought was a blowjob but she quickly realized that it was not a sex act. She had felt a moment of intense jealousy. That was not good. The Bishop was praying over him and clenched his head forcefully. Adam was sobbing.

“…and though we know that your servant has done evil, he has repented Lord and asks for your forgiveness and strength in this time of need.”

The Bishops raised right hand came down on Adam’s forehead. The force of it knocked him backwards. He didn’t try to catch himself but fell to the floor. The Bishop saw Emma. The look he gave her was sharp but before he could rebuke her, she lowered her head. “Your Grace, I’m sorry to intrude, but it is most urgent I tell you of what Smith found.”

He nodded and turned to Adam. “Make sure everyone is in the cathedral.”

“Shall I leave guards with the slaves?” Adam stood shooting Emma a look that she didn’t understand. What had he done?

“No. Bring the prisoners in. We won’t have a repeat of last night. I want everyone to hear what I have to say.” Adam left.

The Bishop turned to her. “I have allowed evil to come in our midst.” He turned to her. “They captured several female slaves today.”

“No, it was three men. I saw them.” There hadn’t been any women, Emma was sure of it.

“The women are dead Emma. It is my fault. I gave in to the temptation of the flesh so how could they not? I brought this about.” His eyes glazed over,  but then he snapped out of it. “Among those captured today were two black hearted jezebels. They cast a spell of lust over the men and led them to fornicate and disgrace themselves in the eyes of the Lord.”

She didn’t have time to process what he was saying. He went on . “I don’t blame you Emma.” Blame her? “We must pray to the Lord for forgiveness. We must never give in to such temptation again.”

The women, what had happened to the women? She dared not ask. She knew. Raped and murdered and then blamed for their own rape and murder. Bastards! That was what was wrong with the men outside. They were rapists and murderers.

She struggled to control herself. She had known it was coming but it had started sooner than she had thought. She had to stay in control. She channeled her anger into giving this lunatic news that would drive him over the edge.

“I have alarming news from Smith. We have a bigger problem.”  Paternalistic, self righteous, son of a god-damn bitch.

His eyes looked at her in disbelief. “What could be worse than my men being corrupted?” The fate of the women was no concern of his.

The words sounded ridiculous but she said them with gravity. “There are giants here. Smith and his men found giants.”

The Bishop picked up his bible from the rough table it sat upon and clutched it to his breast.

“God have mercy on our souls, he’s brought back the giants!” The Bishop said.

Emma imagined a giant snapping the Bishop in half. She’d been losing sight of it, but she knew which side she was on.

The entire community of Believers was gathered in the cathedral – with their slaves. The slaves, still gagged, were shoved and prodded into the back where unhappy goons surrounded them. The foul stench of the assembled masses was overpowering to Emma as she sat cross legged in the front row with the Bishop’s most important and trusted advisors. How had she ended up here?

This could not continue, but it had to. She’d had no time to speak with the women.

The stacks of money and jewels from the vault stood on the alter like holy objects. The firelight of torches reflected from gold and silver coins. In old pirate movies this was where greedy crew members would slowly start to kill one another to possess the treasure. They usually ended up dead or stuck somewhere where the gold did them no good. Sort of like here. All the money in the world and nowhere to spend it.

The Believers began singing that damn Christian Soldiers song again. It had all gone too far and she was through cooperating in any way that didn’t immediately benefit her or her people, the women. No one needed to be comfortable right now. If they knew what had happened, none of them would be.

The Bishop climbed the alter. He wore long black robes made that day.  The cloth was colored with a dye the women had made from berries they found in the parklands. He was a  perfect picture of priestliness. His tall, sallow visage grim like the reaper. Death stood before her and he began to speak.

“My People. My Believers. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. For all time, man yearned to understand how the Lord, our God, could reward those who are his most devout, with such harsh punishment and tests of faith. Today, in this world, this land of purgatory and limbo, we find ourselves in no less of a situation. We too, are faced with such questions as we sit in the bounty of the Lord and suffer.”

“For suffer we must. Suffer we will, but not without the comfort of the Lord to help us through such challenging days. For the Lord, Our God, hath provided us with means and the Word to bring us through to the golden land that awaits us.”

He gestured to the riches piled around him. “I am sure that all of you have noticed that today, thanks to Mother Emma, the Lord has brought us the most fabulous wealth any of us have seen. In the world we left, such riches could be used to build glorious monuments to God and to exalt His name above all others.”

“But I tell you now. These things are worthless here. Do you think that all of this wealth before you will satisfy your thirst? Will it sate your hunger? Do you imagine that any of this,” his arm swept widely over the pile, “can provide the barest measure of safety to you?” Now his arms, both of them, were lifted over his head. Emma’s image of Death looking down on her from above was more pronounced. The arms came down to the piles and grasped handfuls of bills.

“Nay, I tell you. This is the downfall of the last world brought here by Our God to demonstrate the folly of man. For why should we lust after riches when water flows nearby? Why should we hoard gold when fruit sits on the trees?  Why should we chase worthless paper with worthless words printed on it?” he threw the handfuls of hundred dollar notes among the Believers. Some of them reached for them, others let them fall to the floor. “I tell you, the Lord has given us all we need. He has provided us with his Word.”

The Bishop grabbed his bible and lifted it overhead. “Today, I was not deceived by the false wealth laid around me. I was not tempted by the worthless treasure. For I knew, that the Lord God had left real treasure in that vault. The Lord had told me that I would find his word where the old woman awoke. He appeared to me in a fiery form and spoke to me. Many of you have asked why Mother Emma is so special. It is because, my people, she is a messenger of the one true God.”

Everything began to make more sense to Emma. She suddenly understood why the Bishop had put her in his quarters. She understood why he had been so interested in her. She understood why he had seemed so interested in the vault. But wait a minute, somebody, that is God, to him anyway, had called her an old woman? She was offended and more than a little frightened.

As the pieces clicked together she became more outraged and even more terrified. What kind of a God condoned racism, sexism, murder, slavery, and rape? What kind of a holy man has intercourse with God’s chosen messenger? She could feel terror traveling up and down her spine. She knew the answer.

The kind of God that the Old Testament spoke of. The god of genocide. The god of vengeance. The god of punishment. Oh no, this was definitely not good..

The Bishop was still talking and she, like everyone else, was paying very close attention to him but for very different reasons.

“Hidden in all this rubbish before you, was one gem. One book, the only book in this world. Beneath the gold and jewels, beneath the glitter and flash, lay this…” the bible was held up before him, “the word of god. God has given his people his word. He has provided us with the most powerful tool known in the universe. And I tell you this, my people, he has provided us with it, just in time.”

The Believers were all crowding forward. The Bishop held in his hand,  a holy book, the holy book. This bible was of supernatural origin and was holier than any Emma had ever heard of. It was power. Incredible power.

“For when Satan came to tempt Jesus, as is written in Luke 4, it was the Word of God alone that allowed Jesus to defeat the enemy. When the Holy Spirit instructed Paul to defend the faith, he gave him a sword to do so, that sword is the word. The armor we must all wear is our faith. And as it is said in this sword of God, Romans 8:31, ‘If God is with me, who can be against me!’”

The Bishop hadn’t needed the Bible, but now that he had it, there was going to be no stopping him.

“Believers! I would have you hear the God’s Word in Deuteronomy 8:23 ‘And thou shalt remember all the ways which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldst keep his commandments, or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.”

“It is in such a wilderness that we find ourselves on this, the eve of our seventh day. And while I would have you rejoice in the knowledge that the Lord God is amongst us and has provided us with sword, armor, and mana from Heaven. Still, he will challenge us and still he will cause us to be humbled and to suffer. For it is up to us to live and to prove our will is strong and to create an Army for God in this new world that will raise our souls to eternal life.”

There was a current running through the room. The Bishop had affected them all. Not all of them were ready to swear fealty and confirm their faith, but they were all affected. Many of them must be as terrified as she was. Despite everything that had happened, somehow she had not thought that supernatural intervention was any more real here than it had been on Earth. Obviously she had been wrong, either here or back on Earth.

“And, my Children. He has provided for us at a time that may prove the eve of darkness for us. I know that many of you are suffering. I know that many of you have sinned. I will tell you that today, today many challenges were placed before the firm of faith and that many tests were failed on this day. We have learned much today, my flock, my people. I want to assure you, that you are about to know the truth. For the picture you see, is not complete. Now, now that you are clothed in the Armor of Faith and now that you know that we have the Sword of God to defend us. Now I will tell you. May the Lord give us Strength.”

The room was quivering. Emma could see soldiers, guilty of rape and murder shifting on their feet. She could see Smith, off to her left, looking concerned and nervous. She could see Adam and Richard off to her right. Neither man looked as joyful as she would have expected the Bishop’s sermon thus far to have made them.

“Today, our brave soldiers were beset by witchcraft of the most foul kind. These brave men suffered enchantment and were led to see things that did not exist.” She saw Adam and his men begin to look a little less uncomfortable. The bastard was letting them off the hook. “These men were led unto temptation by Satan himself and many of them yielded. However, I will tell you that our God is a merciful God, and if you ask for forgiveness, he looks to your heart and if you are sincere, it is granted.”

She looked to the other side. Smith looked puzzled and slightly annoyed. It took her a moment to understand why, but then it hit her, of course. He thought the Bishop was saying he had made up seeing the giant footsteps. He looked at her then turned away and tightened his jaw.

“But this foul enchantment is not all that He has put in our path on this day. Our men also found something that would set fear into the hearts of the bravest warriors, were it not for the sword that God has put into our hands. For while we thought that perhaps this land was a place where the Lord had raised us from the dead, it seems it is also a Land where the Enemy has been able to raise his forces. Forces we thought defeated long ago by the power of God through a shepherd boy. Yes, I will draw your thoughts to the story of David who became the king of all of God’s people. The shepherd boy who slew a giant named Goliath. Goliath was a Philistine and the Word of God tells us that they were the children of whores and fallen angels. They once ruled the Earth and now I must tell you, today, we have found that they are here. The giants have returned.”

There were gasps and then silence. They were thinking that giants were stories, stories were myths, and so the Bishop must not mean what he was saying. Then, they were thinking that they were living in a world called Purgatory and listening to a man who God spoke to. She could hear the mental confusion.

The Bishop paused just long enough to allow such thoughts but then, he went on. “I am not using symbols, I am not creating stories, these are not, as some used to claim on Earth, morality stories. This,” again he held up the bible, “this is the Word of God and today, we are living in perilous times. God gave us six days to prepare, and on the seventh day, we will rest and keep the Sabbath. I tell you now, we are in a perilous world of sorcery, demons, and giants. Our only hope, is to pray and to use the weapons of God to strike down our enemies. If our faith is strong, we will prevail.”

The Bishop’s voice raised.

“There will be time to discuss these things later. For now, for now we must pray and ask the Lord for forgiveness and strength. Bow your heads.”

The Bishop began to pray. For hours, men and women prayed, moved forward to the alter, and asked for forgiveness for their sins. Emma caught the Bishop looking at her several times. His eyes beckoned her to come forward like the others and beg forgiveness for her sins. She could tell he wanted her to ask for forgiveness.

She would rather burn in hell.

 

Chapter 37

Women’s Lib

The Bishop didn’t speak to her when the womenfolk were escorted to their barracks, she wasn’t surprised. The air was abuzz with chatter as the women digested all that had been revealed. Bella and Anne were on either side of her as they were locked up for the night.

“Can you believe it?” Anne spoke in glowing tones, amazed at the wonders of giants and witches. Her face was like that of a child who had just learned that Santa Claus was real.

“What a lot of horse shit.” Bella had detected the manipulation. She was like the slightly older child told to sit on Santa’s lap at a mall Santa’s village.

There they were, one on each side of her, and Emma, like the truth, somewhere in the middle. She looked from one to the other. These women were her right and left hands. She would never have believed that she would need to rely on Anne, but already she could see that the girl was unbelievably valuable as an ally. Not only was she hell on wheels in a fight, but she had also done nice work in polarizing the women that Emma would have been scorned by. The women on the fence.

Bella was tough, she was strong, and she was independent. Her loyalty would last only as long as it was deserved. That was one of the qualities Emma liked best in her people. It kept her doing the right thing and thinking about how to do more of it.

“Sisters. We need to talk. I’m not going to spend a lot of time rehashing what we just heard, but Anne, you need to know the condensed version of reality. First, those men who sinned are probably guilty of raping and killing those women who escaped. Second, the devil quotes scripture and I’m pretty certain if the Bishop isn’t the Devil, he certainly serves him. Third,  I don’t know if there are giants or not, no one does, Smith saw big footprints, that’s all. And finally, fourth, things are going to get a lot worse and we need to take as many women as will come with us and get the hell out of here.” Emma looked at them both.

Bella was nodding her head in agreement. Anne wasn’t quite there yet.

“But what about the men? I mean, we need them to protect us, right?” Her head was cocked to one side like a beautiful cocker spaniel waiting for an abusive owner to feed it.

Emma grabbed Anne’s hands. “Listen to me Honey. Asking those men to protect us is like asking a fox to guard the henhouse. These guys got us locked in a room and they can take us one by one and rape and kill us if we don’t do what they say. The raping has started and once it begins, it doesn’t end. That’s the lesson of history. All those rapists just got a pass. The Bishop and his god just forgave them. That’s the reality of the situation. We need to get out of here, arm ourselves, and handle our own security. That is the truth. Those women were raped and killed. Our lives are worthless. You showed us all last night that women don’t have to be defenseless. There’s other women here that have had a self defense course, but there is no way any of us can defend ourselves against the situation we are in now. Anne, you gotta trust me. There might be some men you can trust, but you can’t trust any of them more than you can trust another woman at a time like this.”

Anne looked slightly less doubtful. She set her jaw and determination showed on her face.

“Okay, so what do we do?” Emma felt proud of the girl. She wasn’t the only one. Bella grabbed Anne and hugged her.

“I knew you had it in you kiddo. I just knew it.” Anne looked a little shocked, but pleased.

There was no time to have a conversation that wasn’t focused on their liberation.

“Last night was a good first step. If things hadn’t of changed so quickly, we would be able to take our time and bring things around to the way we want them. Unfortunately, they have changed and we no longer have the luxury of time. Bella, how many of the loners will follow your lead?”

Bella looked around the room. “Well, it depends on what you have in mind, but if it involves getting away from the Believers, I would say that you can count on all of us. Once we’re away from here, most of em will probably split out on their own, but if we need them, we’ve probably got thirty women that will do whatever they have to in order to get away from the Believers.”

Emma nodded. “Okay, that means if all the hussies are with us, and I think they will be, we can probably count on close to fifty. Anne, how many of the women you’ve spoken with actually want to be here? How many want to leave?”

Anne considered for a moment before she answered. “Hmm, I don’t think most of them mind being here at all. There were only a few who said they wanted to get away from here – ten at most.”

“They said that?” Emma and Bella both asked it.

“Yeah, a few of them actually said they were thinking of running off but they were scared from the idea because they saw how quickly the Bishop sent people after the slaves.”

“You see?” Emma asked the girl. “We’re already in the same boat as the slaves. We don’t have time. Anne, find all those women and bring them to me. Bella, find ten strong capable women and bring them here too. And if either of you know of anyone else with self defense skills, I need to talk with them. Now go. Be back here in fifteen minutes or less.” The two left and Emma went to where the hussies had sat down in another gossip circle. She heard them talking about giant anatomy as she joined them.

“Hey, I know this is a little out of the blue, but I bet some of you girls know how to defend yourself from a man don’t you?” She wasn’t surprised when they all nodded. If you wanted to play in the ocean, it was always a good idea to know how to swim.

“I’m curious, why in the world would you need to defend yourselves against men?” Emma loved the Socratic method, ask a question to get an answer you already knew and often an answer you knew you wanted. She got it from the redhead.

“Well, that’s an easy one Emma. Everyone knows that if you let a man take the whole cow, he’ll never pay for the milk. It’s part of a man’s nature though to try to take the whole cow isn’t it girls?” There were giggles and nods. She was a smart one, this redhead. She was a big boned Irish girl named Niev. Emma marked her for important things.

“Well, I just want to point out to you that right now, we are like a bunch of fat cows locked up in a barn. Those men out there can take the milk, the butter, and the cheese and there isn’t a thing we can do about it. We’re sitting ducks, or cows that is, and if they want to they can take us to the slaughterhouse.”

There was only one snort of disbelief.

“Now, Mother Emma, what makes you think they would do anything like that?” It was the scripture quoting hussy.

Emma didn’t have to answer, Niev did.

“Because they are men, Love. It’s in their nature.”

The girls recognized this as wisdom. Niev thought for a moment and then asked “But what can we do about that, Emma, we seem to be stuck?”

Emma considered holding back, but that had never been her nature. Besides, she figured these girls were smart enough to want to keep what power they possessed.

“We escape ladies. We wait until the men are busy doing something else and we all walk away. We have a silent revolution and leave the men to figure out why we left.”

By the time the sun rose, they had a plan set up. Niev and all the hussies were with her. Bella recruited thirty-three of the loners. That made fifty-two women. Anne surprised everyone by convincing fifty-five women to take part in the escape. Emma would have preferred to have all the women with them, but she suspected that many of them would leave with them if the escape was a success. The biggest concern, of course, was that someone would tell the Bishop.

To lower the chances of that happening, Emma gave each of the three groups only a part of the total plan. Bella would lead the loners, Niev would lead the hussies, and Anne would lead the religious ones. Anne was the weakest link in the plan and it was hard to give her control of the largest unit, but Emma had no other choice. Of the women Anne had brought only a few trusted Emma. The bulk looked to Anne for their lead. The girl’s fighting skills and training made her a leader.

Emma was fairly certain that everyone knew their part. Niev and Bella understood that the Bishop might take Emma out of action at any point.  She made sure they could act without her.  There was a contingency plan – as there always should be.

The doors opened and sunlight pulled the sleep from their eyes. The women filed out and moved towards the parklands to answer nature’s call and wash up if possible. Unfortunately, they were stopped by the Bishop. He stood on the steps of the cathedral almost as if he had been waiting for them.

“Good Morning, Sisters. The Lord wishes you well on this day and so do I. It will be a very important day for you. The men will accompany you to the stream so that you may wash yourselves in preparation for all that awaits you. Please, do not be concerned with modesty as these men are your brothers…and more. We have made plans all through the night with your best interests in our hearts and thoughts, Sisters. We were all brought into this world naked and we shall endeavor to avoid the stains upon our souls we might be tempted to otherwise make. When you are through bathing, we will have a prayer meeting here and we shall all break the nights fast together in the eyes of the Lord.”

Emma wandered what the hell the bastard had planned and plotted through the night. The Bishop avoided her eyes. She would get no chance to ask him. She didn’t really want to get near him anyway. Did they already know what the women had in mind? How could they? There was no way. No one had left. This was something else.

They moved to the stream and did as they were told. It was a pleasure to be able to wash and none of them protested. The men were courteous and well mannered, more than usual anyway. At the stream, they turned their backs and told the women to call if they were needed. It felt more like they were being protected than guarded.

Emma reminded herself that farmers and ranchers always guard their livestock.

The washing wasn’t an overly long affair. Emma was approached by several of the women who were concerned about the plan she had put in motion, but she shushed them and assured them to not worry about a thing. They just needed to remember their roles.

At the cathedral, the Bishop and all of the men were smiling broadly. Emma felt like the foxes were about to have a feast on the chicken’s they’d invited to dinner. The smile of the Cheshire Cat hides sharp teeth, but she had no clue what was going to happen next.

The Bishop led them in some simple prayers. He read from his bible about the Exodus and how Moses had led his people from slavery. He flipped the book to another chapter and began to read.

“Hebrew 13:4 ‘Give honor to marriage, and remain faithful to one another in marriage. God will surely judge people who are immoral and those who commit adultery.’ Certainly, many of us were married in the world we left. Those marriages, my friends, ended when we awoke here. The Lord has told us to be married in this world too. It is with great pleasure that I can tell you, Believers, that today, we will be having a wedding. Today, man and woman will be united in holiest matrimony.”

There were murmurs of pleasure at the thought of a wedding. Emma wasn’t so pleased – she had a feeling that she might be the ‘lucky’ bride. Many of the women were trying to figure out who the lucky couple was. While a wedding did not necessarily ruin their plans, it could certainly make them more difficult. The men were all smiling at the women’s confusion. There had never been more paternalistic smiles. Emma suddenly had an uncomfortable idea of what was happening and who it was happening to. Yes, to her.

“Your Eminence,” she called out, “who is it that is getting married?”

The Bishop’s smile stretched from ear to ear.

“You are,” he said. “All of you are.”

 

Chapter 38

Matrimony

Frankly, Emma was shocked at how easily the women agreed to this idea. There were some grumbles, but not as much of a reaction as the Bishop was probably expecting. In a way, Emma had helped diffuse the situation by having found the women who were unhappy with the Believers and plotting an escape with them. If she hadn’t of already set a plan in motion, there very well might have been a riot. As it was, she suspected that the number of women who sympathized with her and the other malcontents had just gotten considerably larger.

It was nice of them to call it marriage, but Emma and every other thinking woman knew that it was little more than religiously condoned sex slaves being assigned to each of the men. She was curious what method was going to be used to assign couples, would they draw lots?

The Bishop was still smiling. He stood on the steps, looking over the women, knowing that many of them would be unhappy. He was prepared with more verses from the Bible.

“My children, this is indeed a day of rest and worship. I know that many of you may be feeling doubts about the course God has set before you. I ask you as Christians to look within your heart and know that God, in all of His merciful wisdom, has prepared this place for you and wants you to find joy and love. I would you remind you of his words in first Timothy chapter two, verse fifteen where the Lord says that woman will be saved through bearing children…”

A woman called out from the back “A lot of us have already done our child bearing.”

The Bishop’s smile disappeared for only a moment. He began again. “In this world, we have all been given a chance to begin again. God wants us to multiply. Have you not missed the laughter of children? Have you not lamented for the hugs of your children?” Many of the women began to sob at this – likely those who had left families and children behind. “We are beset on all sides by demons and monsters and we must keep his scripture. God commands that man and woman should be joined in union. He has made it clear to me that this world will not tolerate the sins that had become acceptable in the last.”

Niev looked like she might have passed the limit of keeping quiet. Emma couldn’t let her explode. She stepped to the Bishop and then turned, facing the women.

“Sisters, we must stand together or we will fall. Listen to his words. There is no room for anything but unity among us.” It was a double message. She hoped the Bishop would think she was including everyone in her we’s and us’s. She hoped the women would understand that she was not including the men.

Despite herself, she was unable to keep from stoking the fires of resentment just a little bit more. When she had been organizing in religious communities, she had often had misogynistic preacher types throw I Timothy 2 at her. It was a favorite with male chauvinist bible thumpers.

“You should read them the first part of that Chapter, your grace. I think it starts at verse eleven.” She smiled at him. Revenge was sweet, even if it was ill advised.

The Bishop was unhappy about it, but he was cornered. He read from the book. She was fairly certain he didn’t need the book for those lines because he probably had them memorized like all the other chauvinists.

“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent; for Adam was formed first and then Eve,” he stopped and cleared his throat. “Of course, what we are going to be doing today has nothing to do with such doctrine…today, man will be joined with woman – not woman pulled from man.”

Emma sensed that a few women had just realized what they were in for. She pressed him further.

“Of course,” she was submissive here – which made her message that much louder “What about in Peter chapter three where God exhorts women to be submissive to their husbands in all things? I think all the women need to be reminded of that. ” His face was turning red. He hadn’t expected her to know scripture – and certainly he hadn’t expected to be challenged with it in such a way.

He exploded. “Mother Emma, the same verse you quote cautions women to have a gentle and quiet spirit, I suggest you cultivate that immediately. The Word of God is very clear that Man is the head of the household just as Christ is the head of the Church. God makes this very clear in Ephesians.” His glare lingered on her for a moment before he was able to bring the smile back to his face and carry on with the ‘joyous news’ of the Believers doctrine of sexual slavery.

Emma restrained herself from responding. It would only make things worse. She didn’t want to endanger escape any further than it already was. The wedding day announcement had made things more complicated, but she was sure that she could make everything come together. There were a few extra bumps in the road, but the road to liberation was still unblocked. Besides, she was morbidly curious how the Bishop intended for this farce to work out. How was he going to pair them?

The Bishop regained control of himself and carried on. “First, I would ask, are there any men and women who have found themselves drawn toward one another. Women, if you have selected a mate, now is the time for you to move to him.”

Holy Cow! He was having the women choose? This really put her and every other woman on the spot. They had two choices, it seemed, pick a mate or else be assigned one. She wondered if the Bishop would give the men a chance to choose next. She was certain that the Bishop intended her to pick him. Should she? Could that possibly help her? Crap.

What was her best option? She saw all of the women going through the same thought process. Even those who were completely against what was happening were in a position of having to consider what their best option was. There were a number of women around the Bishop already. Mostly they were the hard core Believers, but she saw a few of Anne’s crowd moving that way too. She felt a pang of jealousy and that decided her.

She stepped to where Richard was surrounded by a number of pretty women. She pushed a few of them out of the way to get to him. The Bishops eyes followed her. He was not pleased by this betrayal.

Not all of the men were pleased either. There were many whom no woman wanted. These were mostly those who had exhibited cruelty or other outward forms of ugliness. The top men, not surprisingly, were the Bishop, Richard, Smith, and Adam. Women gravitate towards power – it’s a form of protection.

If she had known this was going to happen, she could have planned something really spectacular. As it was, she was winging it. Here she was, at her age, trying to snatch a powerful baby from the cradle!

Richard saw her and raised his eyebrows in surprise. He moved toward her “I would have thought you would pick the Bishop, Mother Emma? Perhaps you should do that now.”

She smiled at him. “Why should I pick anyone besides the best man Richard? If I am to have a master, I choose you.” Several of the girls around him pointed out that they were picking him too. Some of them were downright cruel in pointing out that they were younger, better looking, and would make better wives.

Emma had to give the Bishop credit. He had created a situation where the women had to fight each other in order to get the best situations. The man was brilliant. If it hadn’t of been for the plans hatched in the women’s dormitory, most of the women would be begging the man of their choice to marry them. Evil bastard. He had turned Sadie Hawkins into a power play.

The Bishop raised his hands. “My People. The Lord will not condone some having so much while others have so little. Now it is the time for Man to exercise his authority.”

If it had been on television this would have been fun to watch but living it meant the stakes were incredibly high. They all paid attention as the Bishop continued.

“Those men who have been chosen by more than one woman. Now is the time for you to choose from those women in front of you. Those women who are not chosen will move on to someone else.” He gave Richard a loaded look, Emma could guess the meaning. “As for me, Ladies, I am sorry, but my bride has already been chosen for me. You will have to find someone else.”

There was more scrambling about as women who didn’t think they had a chance with their first choice moved to their second choice. Emma moved closer to Richard, “Are you going to let him tell you who you can choose? If you don’t take me now, you are much less of a man than I thought and I am better off with him. I will only marry the most powerful man here.”

She was pleased that she knew this man’s ego so well. Of the women standing around him, he would be out of his mind to pick Emma. She was older, not as attractive, nothing but trouble, and not nearly as religious as some of the others. And yet, she had seen Richard’s discontent as the Bishop told him what to do. She felt sure he would pick her.

Other men had made their choices. The Bishop was looking at both of them. He had a look that was somewhere between astonishment and confusion on his face. Richard looked from the Bishop to Emma and then back at the Bishop. He made his choice.

“I pick Emma for my wife.” Emma smiled and moved to him, throwing her arms around him in a show of feminine relief. She had briefly seen a black expression cover the Bishop’s face. He wasn’t the only one. Many of the men who had not been picked looked like they were ready to move in and grab the women they wanted. This was getting ugly.

The Bishop raised his voice in an attempt to keep control of the process. “Believers, it is well to remember that we are still visible in the eyes of the Lord. Have faith. The Lord will provide for all. He is wise in his ways.” He was not pleased at having Emma choose Richard. Richard however was standing taller than she had seen him yet. His act of defiance had puffed him up and made him more confidant than he had a right to be.

The Bishop motioned to her. “Emma. Come. Enough of this game. You have already been chosen to be my bride.” She hadn’t been sure he would stake his claim on her. She knew it was a status thing. He had raised her above the other women, to have her marry anyone else would take away from his authority. She looked at Richard with what she hoped was a pleading look and began to move toward the Bishop.

Richard did as she had hoped. He grabbed her by the arm and shouted to the Bishop.

“She has chosen me, Bishop, and I her. Find another bride. There are still many that will have you.”

Emma had somehow managed to engineer the key moment in all of this. There was suddenly a power play of the greatest proportions going on among the Believers. All eyes watched as the two men faced one another.

“Would you allow any man here to claim the chosen bride of another? There are more men here than just you,” Richard said with a heavy emphasis on men and you, “who are unhappy that they were not chosen by the woman they desired. She has chosen me and you cannot have her.”

The Bishop straightened his back and stood taller. He looked at Richard and Emma and then to the rest of the Believers. Richard was right, there were plenty of men that were watching what the Bishop would do in order to determine their own actions. Chaos could quickly ensue. The Bishop had to admit defeat in order to maintain control. “Let no man tear asunder that which God has joined. This is the word of God and it is true for all of us.”

Bella had picked a man she had seen working with wood outside the cathedral. No goons for her, it looked like most of the loners had chosen artisans rather than warriors. The hussies had all chosen warriors. Niev had picked Adam and Anne had picked Smith. Emma almost approved of that match. It was a shame none of these couples would get the chance to see how life together would be.

She was surprised the Bishop had caved so easily. It was almost disappointing. She had been hoping for fist fights among the men but instead the Bishop continued his matchmaking rounds until all but a few of the men were paired up. There were more men than women and those left unclaimed were the most brutal of them all. She wondered how long it would be before they decided to do some tearing asunder.

The Bishop was also alone – he had sent the women around him to select other mates. He had chosen no one. “For myself, though some may have thought otherwise, I will marry the spirit of the Lord. God is my bride and groom. My flesh is joined with that of the Lord and this is how it should be. For you men who are still bachelors, you can rest assured that God will provide brides for you soon. Your brides are coming!”

“We must prepare the wedding feast from what we have already stored. I exhort all of you to bring all of the provisions and supplies here while we prepare to join you in the eyes of God. Do not be hasty to find the marital bliss of union, for soon, we will commit you to your marriage beds.”

Emma definitely heard some grumbling from the brutal goons who were realizing they were the only ones who wouldn’t be getting laid tonight. She needed to signal her co-conspirators and she needed to make sure the time was right when she did it.

The Bishop gestured to Richard and Emma. “Come inside, both of you, I think that you both may be laboring under a mistaken assumption and I would like to make things clear to you. Also, I can use both of your assistance in preparing for the joyous event to come.”

The Bishop went into the cathedral. Richard and Emma followed while everyone else did as the Bishop had said. Emma figured if she had been on Earth, it would have been Thursday, but apparently it was Sunday here.

She had no doubt that this would be the most interesting Sunday she had ever spent in a church.

As soon as they were all inside the Bishop turned on them both. “I don’t know what either of you thought you were doing, but it ends right now. The two of you will be married and that’s the end of it. You’ve picked your poison and frankly Emma, after the way you’ve behaved recently, I feel relieved to not have you. I hope you both live happily ever after. Richard, step into the back room.There is no need for your future bride to witness this.”

Richard puffed his chest out and stood defiantly. “I will…”

The Bishop backhanded his face.

“You will do what I tell you to do, you sniveling little snot. I’ve had enough of your attitude. If it weren’t for me giving you some sort of rank you would probably be dead or eating dirt in the forest. You are nothing without me? Do you understand that Richard? You are nothing. Do you think the MEN out there would listen to a word from you if I were out of the picture? Don’t fool yourself boy. They would eat you alive. You are nothing.”

Richard’s puffed up ego was deflated instantly. He was meek and compliant again. The Bishop was right, the goons would rip Richard apart if he tried to tell them what to do without the authority of the Bishop behind him. Richard would have thrived in a Washington D.C. political environment, but this was the Wild West and he was not made for it. Emma gave him credit for being smart enough to realize it, though she had enjoyed playing the two against each other while she could.

“Richard, follow me. Emma, wait here. We won’t be long.” They walked to the back leaving Emma standing in front of the alter. The piles of currency sat under the rough hewn crucifix like tinder under a log. Her course of action became clear.

With the Bishop and Richard out of the room, Emma found a sharp edged glass dagger. She set it aside nearby. Next she brought torches to the alter from where they stood near the stone walls.

She paused. It was now or never. She had always wondered what it would feel like to burn through millions of dollars. Now she knew. It would feel good. The flames hesitated but soon made up their mind and the pile was burning.

She picked up the dagger and moved to the doorway the Bishop and Richard had gone through. Standing just outside of it, she did her best to sound like a woman in panic.

“Oh my God. Help! A fire!” It wasn’t academy award material but it did the trick. Richard  rushed past her to where the flames were growing larger. As the Bishop came out, she stepped behind him and put the knife to his throat. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.

“Don’t move or I will slice your throat open. If the cut doesn’t kill you, the infection from this dirty blade probably will.” Richard turned towards them. She didn’t know what to make of the look on his face.

“Emma, no. It’s alright, he didn’t do anything to me…” Hilarious! Richard thought this was all about her love for him. She considered further using him, but quickly discarded the idea. He was the Bishop’s puppy and she had gotten as much mileage from his rebellion as she could.

“Sorry to disappoint you Richard, but I’m calling off the wedding. This isn’t really about you.” The Bishop hadn’t moved.

“Okay now ‘Father’, I want you to walk slowly towards the door. Richard, move ahead of us. That’s right.” The fire was burning, it wouldn’t last long, but she could use it still. The look on Richard’s face was pure confusion.

“What should I do?” He wasn’t asking her, he was asking the Bishop who was slowly moving towards him with Emma’s knife at his throat.

Now the Bishop spoke. His voice was soft and calm. “Do what she says Richard. Don’t worry. The Lord will protect us from this…this whore.”

“Easy Padre, the knife will cut.” She applied pressure and felt him wince as the glass point bit into his flesh. “Richard, move slowly to the doorway. I want you to step out and yell ‘Fire!’. Then I want you to get off the steps and out of the way, got it?”

“Why are you doing this?” He really was a naïve little thing. He didn’t understand that things like slavery and bondage didn’t hold much attraction for a modern woman.

“Just move and do what I told you asshole.” It was nice to be herself again.

At the doorway he shouted ‘Fire!’ and then he jumped out of the way. Next (this would crack Emma up later when she remembered it later) he yelled “She’s got the Bishop!” She hadn’t told him to say that. Richard had never been in danger but the panic in his voice was undeniable.

She didn’t have time to laugh now. This was crunch time. She stepped to where everyone could see her and the knife she held to the Bishop’s throat.

“That’s right. I have the Bishop and if you don’t all do what I say, I will kill him.” She pushed the blade of her knife against his throat . “You better tell them to do what I say.”

The Bishop held up his big hands.

“Do not worry. The Lord will see us through this and this….” The pressure of the knife kept him from calling her a whore again, “..this woman will not get away with her acts of evil.”

Smoke drifted from the Cathedral. Emma needed to act fast.

“Bella, Anne, Niev…up here, now.” The three women had been waiting and were there almost instantly.

“Bella, tie his hands. Anne, take the knife and if he tries to get away, kill him.”

“My Child, no, do not listen to her…” Emma laughed out loud now.

“You still think you have control, don’t you?” None of this had been part of their original plan. They had intended to sneak away. This was hardly the silent revolution she had plotted but Emma had to think the women were with her.

She didn’t need the men to know that this was a women’s revolt though. Not yet.

Bella tied the Bishops hands and Anne took the knife.

“Niev, get another knife. Good. Both of you. Watch him.” A lot of this was going to depend on the Believers and the Bishop wanting to keep the Bishop alive. If he thought he could escape to Heaven, it would never work. She had a feeling, he wasn’t in a big hurry to meet his maker.

Emma stepped away from where the three women now held the Bishop. On the steps of the cathedral she was safe from being bum rushed by the goons, but she could see them considering their options. Luckily, not all of them liked being under the Bishop’s control and they were waiting to see what she would say.

“Listen to me carefully. If we will kill him. His blood will be on your hands.” They were definitely listening. Men, women, those who wanted to stay, and those who wanted to go.

“First of all, I want everyone who is holding any kind of a weapon to pass it forward and toss it in front of the steps.” Whips, clubs, knives, and spears began to get handed forward and thrown into a pile. Disarmament was a start. There were some holdouts, but for the most part, they didn’t want the Bishop to be killed.

“Good. Just take it easy and everything is going to work out just fine. Okay, next, I want all of the men to get on your knees.” She saw most of the men looking at each other. This could quickly become a problem if she didn’t get them under control right away.

The Bishop was ghostly pale.  His hands were tied in front of him and three knives were ready to finish him at a word from Emma. Her voice was low – she was enjoying herself – finally.  “Tell them to get on their knees or we’re gonna cut your dick off.”

She motioned to Anne “Stand him up and rip those robes off.”  The girl made him stand.

Emma moved closer and with her eyes, stopped Anne from pulling off the robes. Speaking in that low and intimidating tone again she said to him “I’ll make a Eunuch of you in front of them all.”

“You’ll die, they’d kill you…” he still wasn’t a hundred percent compliant.

“Tell them.” He paused but he must have seen the truth in her eyes. She was really going to do it.

“Believers. Have faith. Do as she says.” There were definitely some men that weren’t’ too happy about it, but they all got on their knees. Emma shoved the Bishop back down. Now she addressed the women.

“Sisters. I know you are scared and confused. Do what I tell you. Use whatever is near you.  Tie all of the men’s hands behind them. There is plenty of rope around here. Use whips, rope, whatever you can find. Do it quickly.”

Many of the women were against her, but there wasn’t much she could do about that right now. She just had to act.

“Bella, call your people here.”

Bella gave a whistle and a couple of dozen women moved forward from the crowd.

Emma motioned from them to the pile of weapons.

“Arm yourselves.” They did.

Emma wished she could know what kind of thoughts were going through the men’s heads.

“Your people now Niev.”

The redhead let out a blood curdling scream. The hussies all moved forward to the weapons cache.

“Liberation is at hand Ladies. Arm yourselves.”

Once they were armed, she looked at Anne. If these women opted to stay, it could all fall apart. The girls around her would be outnumbered and Anne’s people could destroy the entire thing. Emma didn’t really have a choice, she had to trust her.

“Anne.”

Anne gave a ear splitting Comanche yell. A huge number of Believer women moved forward. Emma looked at the girl in astonishment not just because of the mass of women she had called, but also because of the incredible volume of her yell.

Anne looked proud and said just loud enough for Emma and those close to her to hear. “I’m part Cherokee.”

Again, Emma indicated that the women should take weapons.

“This is what is happening here. It’s simple. We are women. We are not slaves. We are not property and we are not livestock. God did not create women to be servants. If you believe that he did, you are welcome to stay here. As for the rest of us…we are leaving.”

There was more smoke coming from the cathedral. The fire must have spread.

“Can we come with you?” this from one of the men, she thought it might have been the man Bella had chosen earlier.

“Sorry boys. Maybe later. At the moment, we need some girl time. No boys allowed.”

“What will you do with the Bishop? Please let him go.” It was one of the Believer women who had not joined them.

There were still around fifty women standing near the men they had chosen. Emma couldn’t understand this kind of woman at all, she never had been able to. They were as foreign to her as men were to women. Women of course, her kind anyway, understood men very well.

She called out to them. “You are welcome to come with us or you can stay. We’re not going to tie you up. If you want to stay go to the women’s dormitories now. Help the men up to their feet and head to the dorms. The Bishop is going to come with us for a little while but if you do what we say, we will release him soon. When we get far enough away that we feel like we don’t need him anymore, we’ll let him go. I give you my word on that.”

The women who had chosen to stay started helping the men up. The women with weapons looked to Emma.

“I want you armed girls to make sure all these nice Believer folks move into the women’s dorms. If any of them try anything or get close to you, I want you to let ‘em have it.”

“The Lord will punish you for this, you will burn in eternal Hellfire…” The Bishop had found his voice again.

“Bella…gag him.”

A big smile appeared under Bella’s big nose. “With pleasure, Comrade.”

It was surprisingly easy to herd the Believers into the dormitory. Several of the men got clobbered with clubs as they called the women by various insulting names – but there was no counter-revolt. These people were not revolutionaries. The revolutionaries had been made into slaves, scattered, or killed by the Believers. These were sheep and bullies.

There was one more thing to do before they set off to find their new home.

Emma walked across to the slave quarters and opened the door.

They were all brought outside and had their bonds cut loose. The lone female, Emby, was invited to join the women. She quickly grabbed a club.

“As for you men, you are free to go. I suggest you get as far from here as you can before the Believers get free.”

All but one of the men thanked them and then disappeared in various directions. The lone white man among the slaves had glared at Emma as his bonds were cut. He turned and walked away without a word. Emma felt a shiver travel down her spine.

It was time to go.

 

Chapter 39

Pitfall

The river widened and the woods began to thin but ahead they could see a stand of pines that stood far taller than the trees around it. This was obviously where the river was leading them. They traveled as fast as they could without much in the way of conversation. Freya woke oblivious to all that had happened since the escape. Her questions had answers, but none they were willing to tell her. During a rest break, Sutreyu and Freya sat apart from the others. Ben heard a portion of their conversation as Sutreyu deflected questions about what had happened. .

“Do you know what happened after we escaped?”

Sutreyu answered “Each of us made our way into the forest. The Believer’s were looking for us. We are lucky to have gotten away and found each other. I know that much. Have you tried these pears? Never in my life did I taste anything like this. Maybe, I’ve just forgotten what a pear tastes like. Were they always this good?”

Soon the two were chatting away about food and family. Things they may have forgotten were forgotten. No one wanted to be responsible for giving the girl any idea about what had happened to her but when the time came, it would have to be Sutreyu that told her.

Moving again, they walked in a line along the bank. Far enough from one another to discourage conversation but close enough to assist if necessary. Haruka led. Ben was about fifty feet behind him, the others were spaced about ten feet apart trailing behind. The river disappeared around a bend. Ben heard the sound of rushing water. A stand of trees blocked the view.

Haruka disappeared around the bend and then was running back towards Ben. It wasn’t alarm or fear on his face.

“Ben,” he said in a slightly out of breath voice. “You’ve got to see this. I’ve never…it’s like…come on.” Haruka led him around the bend. He remembered the first time he had seen Niagara Falls as a young man. It had taken his breath away in the same manner. He expected that it was something along that line.

But it wasn’t.

Nothing like this existed on Earth. It was impossible. There was no arguing that it was here and that it was real but everything he knew told him that it shouldn’t be.. The two men stood staring as the rest of their party emerged around the bend in ones and twos.

The water disappeared into a bottomless black pit that looked to be at least a mile across. The noise was deafening. No one said a word anyway. The water from the river poured several hundred feet into the chasm before an ink black darkness swallowed it. Around the pit, the noise was deafening, but it was projected upwards in a cone of sound that faded in decibels only a short distance from the edge. A mist of water carrying rainbows and cool air stood above the pit and reflected the dark cold from below into the warm afternoon sun.

Tall stands of pine trees surrounded the pit on Ben’s right side and wound around it before meeting an equally giant river on the far side and thinning out. To the left, a third giant river poured into the sieve. The woods thinned to this side before reaching a city not too unlike that they had left behind. It was framed by the river on one side and forest growing behind it.

This changed everything. Ben was sure that this discovery was a key to understanding this world.

As the mist fell on him, he realized that it had not rained once in the time they had been here. He had seen clouds in the sky, but none of them bearing the telltales of stormy weather. He wondered if there were seasons here and if so, what they were like. This was late summer – judging by the weather and the fruit but a cold winter could be coming. No one knew. Maybe there were no seasons here at all.

For ten minutes, they stood peering at the remarkable pit falls unable to speak or be heard and unable to move forward. The tall trees ended in a line just before the other side of the pit which must have stretched at least a mile in diameter. After days of nothing but forest they could see the abandoned buildings to their left. Ben now realized that the forest and parklands were every bit as artificial as the city.

The pit falls showed this without a doubt. This had been created. He laughed as he realized the wonder in front of him had just named itself. The Pit Falls. At this point, he could almost draw a map. No matter if they had a name from anyone else, Ben would always think of the forest surrounding Pit Falls as Pitfall Forest. It was the Pitfall River they had been following. There could be no other name. It was completely appropriate.

They were far from the Believers now. The Believers existed behind them, where they saw the sun rise each morning – to the East. They had been traveling West towards the mysterious Bridger. Nick had objected to their calling directions by conventional names since they didn’t have a magnetic bearing to confirm such cardinal points, but he was over ruled. Now, the Pit Falls gave them no choice but to turn South towards what Ben was thinking of as Pitfall Town. The great river Leah had told them about must be the one that emptied into the falls from the other side of Pitfall Town. Ben estimated there was a mile between the Pitfall River and Bridger’s River and an equal distance from each to the third unreachable river. The Unreachable River.

As they walked into Pitfall Town, the buildings had the same deserted feel of dereliction as those in Cathedral City. They were not as tall or close together but oozed the same artificiality.

Leah pointed. “See the mountains? This must be Bridger’s River.”

This was good news. Just as the Pitfall River had widened out to an impossible to cross width – this one had too. The Unreachable River did the same, but there was no way to reach it. It had stands of forest on either side and they were trapped between Bridger’s River and the Pitfall River.

The far off blue and purple mountains rose behind the buildings in front of them. Ben had always loved being able to see the distant hills. As a boy, hills had meant freedom, mystery, and wilderness. As a man, they had meant the same things but in a completely different way. It was one thing he had always appreciated about growing older. As each mystery was solved, each level of maturity reached, or each wilderness explored…there was always another one further off. Ben smiled.

“I’ve always loved the mountains,” he said out loud. He felt a wave of enthusiasm and hope move through the people around him. These people had become the closest thing he had to a family. In this world, they were his oldest acquaintances. Ben corrected himself. They were his oldest friends. Funny the way the sight of mountains in the distance had put things in perspective.

Ben realized everyone was looking at him. He couldn’t understand why. Had he said something he didn’t remember?

There was an uncomfortable silence. Haruka, still wearing the amazed look of wonder he had when he led Ben to the Pit Falls broke the silence. “Ben, what should we do?”

They wanted him to lead. It was a position he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. His six companions, his six friends, were looking to him to decide. Somehow, even though they often overruled him, he had become the leader of this band. His decisions could no longer be based on what was best for Ben. They had to be based on what was best for all of them.

He didn’t answer right away. There was time to consider alternatives. The forest was behind them. They still had the litter they had carried Freya on the previous day only now it was loaded with fruit. They needed weapons. They needed to outfit themselves.

The buildings contained raw materials that could be converted into the things they needed. The forest contained more things they needed. He was tempted to rush forward in the hope of finding Bridger and his people, but his enthusiasm for this plan was tempered by the memory of Vlad being killed by dogs and by the brutality of the Believers.

“I am as impatient as any of you to reach Bridger, but there are certain advantages to us pausing here. Leah has told us we will be welcomed by Bridger, but we need to be prepared in case we are not. Things might have changed there – as they changed with the Believers.” He would not make the same mistake he had made with the Believers twice.

“We should pause here. We have been moving fast and hard. I think we should not count on being welcomed with open arms. Judging by what we were able to find in the buildings on the other side of the forest, we will find things we can make weapons and tools out of in the ones here – and I think we all need a bit of a rest.”

Ben hadn’t given up hope that Bridger would welcome them. Bridger would be more likely to welcome a group that could take care of itself with more respect than a ragged group of refugees. He intended to make sure they were prepared to defend themselves or to walk away if the situation was not right. None of them would be slaves again, he would do everything in his power to protect them. They were his family.

“How long will we stay?” It was Freya asking. “Aren’t we in danger if we wait too long?”

Ben nodded. He wondered if she had any idea how much danger they were in.

“Yes. And we shouldn’t ignore the possibility that there may be people or groups of people here. However, I think we might be in more danger if we aren’t equipped with the best equipment we can make from what we have around us. That is worth at least a day or two – maybe more. We have some of the best innovators in the world here with us. Let’s do a quick survey of the nearest buildings so we don’t get surprised. We know the path back to the Pitfall River – so we should use that as an emergency escape route. I’m fairly certain no one is behind us. I suggest we set our base camp in the second building in, right over there.” Ben pointed to a three story building. “If someone should come from behind us, that gives us at least a building’s head start to figure out what we are doing.

Hearing no objection he went on. “After we’ve scouted the vicinity – I suggest we prepare to do some hunting. Meat and skins will be useful. Hopefully just a day or two. I want Haruka, Leah, and Abdullah to be our scouts and hunters. You three are the strongest among us and best suited as hunters. Stay together. Work as a team. If you see any food plants or trees, be sure to remember where they are so we can utilize them.”

“What about the rest of us Ben?” Nick asked

“You, Sutreyu, Freya, and I are going to search the urban areas for cloth, glass, and anything else we can find. We are going to make rope, put wheels on this litter, improve our weapons, and hopefully, find out a little more about where we are before we go someplace else. We’re going to need to be innovative, industrious, and hopefully invisible to anyone that might be in the area.”

Ben was already felt the weight of leadership. If something happened to any of them, it was his fault. He was the one making the call to wait and prepare rather than rushing as fast as possible to an unknown people that might or might not be friendly.

“Does anyone have any objections or suggestions?” He was sure someone would object to his plans. He waited, but no one did. They were waiting to hear more.

“Okay. Let’s get started.”

He turned and walked towards the second building hoping he could keep them safe.

 

Chapter 40 

Best Friend

Ben looked at the cart in front of him. Two days and two nights had gone by quickly and he was not disappointed with what they had accomplished. The cart if front of him was more than just a makeshift stretcher with tightly wound and bound cloth wheels. It may well have been the greatest technological innovation in this world.

The wheels were more than a foot in diameter. They had found masses of the mana cloth inside the nearby buildings and wound it onto straight five-foot logs. Because of the volume of the stuff, they had been able to create large spongy wheels of it. One on each end of the branch gave them two wheels on an axle.

Two axles, four wheels, a clearance of around ten inches, and a central frame tied to the middle and the result was what Ben stared at proudly. More of a wagon than a cart and because of the light weight of the mana cloth, it was easy to move, even when they had loaded a substantial amount of food, water, and other things they had found on their explorations of Pitfall Town.

As in Cathedral City, they had found wood, concrete, brick, broken glass, and plenty of mana cloth.

The weapons they made were superior to anything the Believers had been equipped with. Abdullah carried a weighted whip. The rest of them had glass tipped spears, glass daggers, and clubs embedded with glass shards.

They had improvised primitive functional clothing and had created simple rucksacks. They had supplies to last for several days. It was probably too much, but Ben would rather be too well prepared than not well enough.

In their initial survey for materials, the scavengers had found a total of eighteen strange pieces of something. The pieces had been scattered on the ground floor of the first building, the one Ben had opted to leave vacant as a safety measure. They were thin, between six and ten feet long, and ultra light. When the hunters had returned, Abdullah pulled the pieces into piles and looked down the length of each one. He laughed in disbelief as he counted the pieces and examined them for breaks or weakness.

“Do you know what they are for Abdullah? Are they useful?” Ben had never seen the man so excited before.

The Arab laughed. “Useful? They are of no use to us at all where we are now, however… I have not seen anything like these since I was a very young man. My grandfather had one that we would sometimes…” he stopped. “You don’t have any idea what this is? What these pieces belong to?”

Ben shook his head. “I wouldn’t be standing here looking so confused if I did…are you alright?”

Abdullah’s smile got bigger. “My friends, I am sorry, I see that you are truly confused at my excitement. I will explain. No, better perhaps if I show you.” He began arranging the pieces on the ground. “Does this look like anything to you?”

They couldn’t see it so Abdullah told them. “This is the frame of a dhow. It is the skeleton of a traditional Syrian boat.”

Ben remained confused. “I think I see the shape, but where is the rest of it? What I mean is, can we use it for anything? Is this shell useful to us?”

Abdullah had nodded again. “Yes my friend. We have the difficult parts here, I am not familiar with this material, but it is superior. We can cover the frame.”

Ben hadn’t been so certain. “From what?”

“From cloth covered in sap or animal fat. Do not worry, we have everything we need.”

And so they had a wagon and on the wagon they had a boat – or at least the pieces of a boat. Abdullah insisted they bring it – and enough mana cloth to cover it. Their two days had yielded a bountiful amount of supplies. They were clothed, armed, had food and water to spare. They had a wagon and a boat. Now it was time to leave Pitfall Town. The wagon would only go so far before they would have to abandon it. The dhow was useless to launch in a river that flowed into a massive black pit. It was possible they were wasting their time and energy with both – but they persisted.

Like pioneers heading into an unknown future, they were leaving the comforts of a frontier they knew for one they did not. Ben recognized that he was being a bit melodramatic, yet, he felt a small tinge of sadness at leaving this place. It had been a place without distress – but that couldn’t last forever. They’d had several encounters with dogs and one night a large animal had roared in the streets. None of them had ever heard anything like it.

They had stood inside ready to defend themselves if it attacked, but after several minutes of fierce growling, it had moved on. They had not seen it – but it sounded large and terrifying.

Leah’s best guess was that Bridger and his people were up this new river – which they had taken to calling Bridger’s River. That took them in a southwesterly direction. They walked two in front pulling the wagon , two in back to push if necessary, and one on each side to keep watch and prevent tips and spills. One person would take point. It was a defensive and functional formation.

They could stay here and build – but they were vulnerable to the Believers. They needed a larger tribe. They needed to reach Bridger – if only to warn his people about the Believers and the nightmare society they were building.

He closed the door on the building they had stayed in. It was a crude door of logs tied together and hinged with rope, but it was a door. He felt proud of it. His intention was to lead this group to Bridger. If things there felt right, he would stay. If they didn’t,  he intended to return to Pitfall Town and create a home for himself and anyone who wanted to join him.

They were ready to leave and assembled at the wagon. Sutreyu was gone. Where was she?

A part of him had hoped that she and he would have grown closer because of the shared bond of his dreams. It had not happened, she was friendly, but distant. When she had not been working, she had sat next to Pit Falls where conversation was impossible. When she was working, she was focused and unavailable for conversation. She was the literal woman of his dreams, but there was to be no romance. Where was she?

It had been too long for her to have been on a toilet break. He became worried.

“Sutreyu!” He yelled her name. Picking up on his panic, the others also began to call for her. He was on the edge of breaking up into search parties when she appeared.

She carried a bundle in her arms that shifted as if it had life of its own.

What in the world had she found? Had she found a child?

She held the bundle towards him. He leaned close and pulled the cloth back. His heart leapt when a head emerged from the cloth and licked his hand.

He had forgotten dogs could be friendly.

Sutreyu laughed. “This is Hydro. He’s my new best friend.”

And of course, they all fell in love with him.

Hydro, the dog, was an instant favorite with everyone. He couldn’t have been more than four months old. He was weaned, but definitely still a puppy. He was a cute little guy that stood a bit over twelve inches at his back and probably weighed twenty pounds. He would be a big dog. His fur was mostly white sprinkled with grey and black. His big floppy ears framed a smiling face with a permanent black eye.

Sutreyu tied a rope around his neck and lashed him to the wagon. He strained against the rope and it looked to Ben like Hydro was pulling the wagon by himself. Ben wondered if it might be possible at some point to use dogs as draft animals. He knew that they had been used in Earth’s far north, but had no idea how effective they would be here. He filed the idea away for the future.

At the moment, he and Leah were the draft animals – with Hydro assisting a little.

The wagon worked better than Ben had hoped. They had a ‘flat tire’ shortly after they began when some of the rope coiled on the log axle had come untied and slipped to the side. In ten minutes, the rope was recoiled, retied, and they were back on their way. The soft tires performed admirably on the pitted trails.

Over the past several days, Ben had  been surprised by Leah. She had described herself as a fashion model but that was only the barest surface of her history. Currently, between breaks where she scratched Hydro’s soft ears, she was entertaining her yoke-mate with colorful stories from her interesting past.

“The idea of me being a model would have made me laugh when I was a teenager. I was a big haole girl. I mean, I always knew I was pretty, but I was big, you know? I surfed, I played volleyball, I was the center for the my junior high basketball team…the boy’s team!”

Ben interrupted, “What’s a haole?” He’d never heard the word.

She laughed. Her laugh was bigger than she was. The kind of loud guffaw you expected to hear from an obnoxious fat woman. Somehow she made it appealing.

“Ha, whatsamatta? You nevah come Hawaii-nei for make tourist?” She spoke rapidly with a singsong lilt. Ben marveled again that somehow they all spoke the same, clear, unaccented language.  Yet people were able to twist it into dialects that made it sound foreign or regional. And their were foreign words. Perhaps words that had no suitable translation.

“No. I never wanted to. Maybe if there hadn’t been any tourists…”

She laughed again. “Wat? You wouldda been da first tourist?..No, sorry Ben, I wondered if I would still be able to talk pidgin. Guess so. So in Hawaii, a haole is a white person but there’s a lot more to it than that. The word carries the baggage of colonization, invasion, and otherness. It’s not hate-speech, but it is a loaded word – culturally speaking. So it’s not the same as saying white or Caucasian.”

“So if you’re a how-lee, you can never be local? Seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it?” Ben had always been offended by racism of any type.

Leah looked at him with her head tilted sideways. “Was the world we left was ever fair? Just was what it was, right?” Ben still had a hard time referring to Earth and the life he had there in the past tense. It seemed like it should still be there, but he, like everyone, knew it wasn’t.

He realized that rather than having made things more complicated, the cataclysm had actually simplified them. Suddenly there were a lot of answers to a lot of questions that no longer mattered.

Mankind was not alone in the universe. Life existed on other planets. The world had definitely come to an end on a specific date. He wondered if anyone had predicted it. Had the New Years predictions in the supermarket tabloids been right about the world ending for once?

He thought of all the things people had made themselves miserable about. Would they have done the same things if they had known it was all going to crash against some figurative cliff? What might he have done differently if he had known it was all going to end? Would he have cheated on his wife if he had known it was all going to end?

It didn’t matter. It was done. It was all done. That was that. Now mattered. Then did not.

Ben had given up regrets in his mid thirties. Until then, he had spent his whole life reliving mistakes and triumphs and wondering what might have happened if he had done things differently. Instead of being present or planning for the future, he had wasted some of the best years of his life looking backwards.

He had envied the careless abandon of his younger brother and the plodding determination of his older. He had watched their lives closer than his own and endlessly compared his decisions with theirs. It had been no way to live. He had suffered for decisions he could no longer change and created imaginary pasts that could never become reality.

His life had not been terrible. He hadn’t been living in a wooden box, he had continued to roll out a past and examine it from the future and in the process missed fully experiencing the present. One day, he had found himself sitting in a bistro staring at an empty glass and listening to his thoughts.

“I wish I would have slept with that pretty woman I used to see at George’s cocktail parties,” was the thought going through his head as a different pretty waitress with a foreign accent asked him if he wanted another drink. He could tell by the way she was smiling at him that she was interested in him. He wondered if he would later regret not seeing where her smile would lead to…and then it hit him. This was an insane way to live. He was creating regrets and living them before they happened. It wasn’t some event to look back on. It was now.

In that moment, his life changed. He said yes to the drink and when she brought it back, he tasked her name. It was the moment he gave up the past and began living the present.

“Giselle,” she had said. That was how it happened.

The track stretched on for miles and the mountains stood lit by the late afternoon light. Since leaving the Falls, they had seen no sign of humans. Pitfall Town had been deserted. There were sometimes buildings along the track. They paused to explore some of them but found nothing extraordinary and no sign that anyone had passed by.

Sutreyu had taken Hydro to explore one of them while they rested but now she came rushing back.

“You should come see this right away.” She turned and left them looking after her in bewilderment.

The building was lit by the sun low in the sky to the west. They followed her inside where Ben felt her grab his sleeve. “It’s very dark, follow me. There are steps.” For a moment, Ben had an odd sense of deja-vu he couldn’t place while he followed Sutreyu up the steps – he could hear the others behind him. If it hadn’t of been so creepy, he might have smiled when he realized it was real deja-vu.

They emerged on a rooftop. Their elevation proved sufficient to see over the trees and buildings to the distant horizon.

To the southwest, a thick column of black smoke rose into sky. He could see the sun shimmering on the water of what had to be Bridger’s river – but it was beyond the smoke. They knew Bridger’s people were on the other side of the river, the big question was, who was on this side of it?

No one had to be convinced that it was a good idea to stop for the night, with the exception of Hydro. The dog, like most puppies, had boundless energy. Ben was glad to see how quickly he had become accustomed to domestication. Sutreyu insisted on keeping him tied, just in case he should hear the call of the wild beckoning him.

They set camp on the rooftop Sutreyu had found. The weather wasn’t cold and they opted for no fire and since it would have provided a beacon to anyone who saw it. They secured the wagon out of sight from the main road and settled in for the night. There was the faint glow of flames at the base of the smoke column that was somehow inviting and terrifying at the same time. The column of smoke in the distance had brought several different reactions.

“It’s Bridger.” Leah was ecstatic at seeing the river and sure it was the people she had left providing a beacon for those who were looking for shelter. “It’s just the kind of thing he would do. I know I said that he wasn’t very keen on this side of the river, but I have a feeling. Why else would anyone create such an obvious signal?”

Haruka was suspicious. “To draw whomever saw it into a trap. Why search for enemies when you can bring them to you?” The more time he spent around Haruka, the more impressed Ben was with his critical thinking. It was Haruka who had devised their marching formation. He was a master tactician. Ben knew that some of that was a result of his commando training, but suspected that his skills had drawn him to his profession and not the other way around.

Nick, on the other hand, was an alien to Ben. He appreciated the man’s insight into natural laws and occurrences, but was unable to think about things with any sort of empathy. Ben suspected he might be on the autistic spectrum but knew very little about such things.

“It might have nothing to do with humans at all,” Nick said.  “It could be some sort of natural phenomenon.”

Ben found Nick’s idea to be unlikely. If it had been some sort of forest fire it would have grown, moved, or gone out. Forest fires didn’t send continuous black columns of smoke straight up from the same spot.

Ben was interested in the ideas being presented. He had found that sometimes one could over think what lay ahead, yet, there had been just enough times when it had saved his ass that he continued to do it.

Abdullah was indifferent to the entire conversation. “No amount of speculation will tell us what lies ahead. I suggest we simply approach it cautiously tomorrow and we rest as much as we can before doing so. It is perhaps four hours ahead of us. While we sleep tonight, the person on watch can devise a plan. In the morning, we can compare ideas and choose a course to follow.””

They were all exhausted, it would be dark soon, and it was pointless to stay awake in the dark speculating. They drew straws for the watch order. Haruka drew first watch followed by Freya, Nick, Abdullah, Sutreyu, and Leah. Ben was given the final watch.

He didn’t mind. He had always enjoyed being the first person awake in the morning. In the busy world they had left, he had found it to be the only time you could find solitude. From about four a.m. to sunrise, Earth was populated by a select few. Ben was usually among them.

 

Chapter 41

Chu Bai

Ben was back on the steps looking upward towards the second gate. The morning sun was hot on his face as he trudged up the stone flight, one step at a time. The steps were worn smooth by the passage of time. Each of them had been carefully cut from the stone of the mountain and the mountain itself had often played a part in how the steps were cut. They were not even. One step would be five inches tall, the next one twenty four inches, and the next nine or ten. There was no chance for a mindless rhythm.

Ideograms he could read as words but which still seemed completely random to him were inscribed into each step. He tried to keep track of them and see if some pattern emerged, but it did not. Flame, goose, opal, window, fish, twig. It was simply a random ordering of words. They did not tell a story, they didn’t fit into one category, and they held no meaning beyond themselves that he could piece together.

Closer to the gate, he observed it was much larger than the first. Shiny green material that glistened in the sunlight as if it were wet. A row of lanterns burned on top of it. The flame of each lantern was clear and bright despite the bright morning sunlight. Seven lanterns. Ancient looking symbols were carved deeply into the jade gate. These seemed far older and more meaningful than characters – they were true pictograms. Animals with human heads, snakes swallowing their own tails, and all manner of geometric shapes.

The trail split into three separate tracks that each led through the gate. There was the path through the center, the path to the right, and the path to the left. The side-paths looked more heavily traveled than the center path.

The one to the right was deepest and most worn. From where he stood it went through the gate and then slightly downhill to a stone alter covered in offerings. Fruit, glass beads, figurines, dolls, incense, and coins were scattered on this stone alter. From the alter it rejoined with the main trail.

The path to the left went through the gate and then cut through a giant tumble of rocks that had formed a wall next to the gate. The trail led over the wall and then met the main trail on the other side. It looked like a moderately difficult climb. If the lanterns had to be reached, climbing up the trail to the left and then accessing the top of the gate seemed a possibility.

The two paths diverged from the main track directly in front of him. He would have to choose. He  remembered the feeling of being crushed by the first gate when he had tried to pass through it without

The path through the center looked easiest but he suspected there was nothing easy about passing through the gate. The first gate had  been painful and difficult, he expected nothing less here. Intuitively, he knew that he must choose the correct path. He also knew that Sutreyu would not show up to offer him advice.

The gate had been built to go through. That was the function of gates. The path to the right was the most traveled path and it went to a stone covered with the offerings of pilgrims. The path to the left looked looked the most difficult but looked more traveled than the center path through the gate. Why?

His older brother would have chosen the tried and true path – he would have gone to the alter, paid the toll, and moved forward. His younger brother would have scrambled up the difficult path reasoning that more risk meant more reward. This, however, wasn’t about what they would have done. He knew what path he had to take – but he didn’t want to take it. He sat, looking at the three trails – weighing the options for what felt like hours. He had to make a decision. He didn’t know the consequences. He had to choose – but how?

The least traveled appeared easiest and was probably not the correct path but he had to take it. It was the least traveled path for a reason – but he didn’t know what stopped so many from taking it. The danger was not apparent to him – though it had been to others. He might not be ready for it, but he had to try it. He was forced by the knowledge that the gate was designed to be gone through.

His body expected to feel the weight of the world bearing down upon him. With dread, he took each step, expecting disaster. Then, he was through the gate. Had he made the wrong choice?  Was it this simple? He walked to where the trails re-merged.

There was a high step here. He turned and sat looking down at the gate he had just come through.

“Sometimes moving forward is not as hard as we expect it to be.” Sutreyu walked through the gate on the same path he had chosen.

“Was it the right choice?” He hoped she would tell him. He felt like he had missed the point of the gate.

She looked happy. She stepped off the trail and down to the stone covered with offerings. She picked up a tray which held a teapot and two cups from the alter.  He had not noticed this particular offering before. She carried them to the wide step he sat on. She poured steaming tea from the pot, picked up one of the glasses, and offered it to him.

He took it. The smell of jasmine was everywhere. It came from the tea, it came from her, it was in the air itself. Heavenly.

“You know the answer, but I will speak it for you. The path is not important, only the decision to move forward. There are no wrong choices. Intention and action. If you choose, than you have succeeded in creating your intentions. How long did you spend looking at the three paths Ben?”

He sipped his tea and answered. “It felt like hours, but was only a minute or two. No more than that. I felt like I should take more time but that has never been my way.”

She laughed. “The first time I spent three days here trying to decide. I watched hundreds of pilgrims go by me. The first I asked told me that the obvious path was to the left because we must overcome difficulty. I was ready to follow him when an old woman arrived and told me that he was wrong and the path to the right was the only choice because it was important that we offer something, even if it is symbolic, to the Gods above. No one I met took the middle path because we had all felt the pain that passing through the first gate had brought us.”

“Which path did you choose?”

“Like you Ben, I chose the middle path. My intention was to pass through the gate.”

“What if I had gone around the gate?” He wanted to know. Would it have taken him off the path completely? Would it have kept him from reaching the top?

She laughed again. “You would have reached this point. You would have turned and wondered what might have happened if you had taken a different path. Then, you might have gone back and come through the gate or you might not have. Yet, you would always wonder what might have happened if you had stayed true to your course.”

“Would you have told me all of this if I hadn’t come through the gate?” He knew what she meant. It was the story about regrets again. He had chosen the path of least regret.

“Yes Ben, I would have told you and you would have been able to continue to the same destination, but you would always wonder if it was different. You would always wonder if I had told you only what those who don’t take the path through the gate are told.”

He considered her words. “But can’t I now wonder the same thing about the other paths?”

She nodded. “Yes, but you won’t. Those are not the path you were following. They are side paths. For someone else, that is not true. Do you see what I mean?”

It was his turn to nod. “What about the story of the boats on the river? What does that have to do with this gate?”

“What do anger, responsibility, blame, remorse and control have to do with pursuing intention? Not everything here makes sense Ben. It is much like everywhere else in that regard. We do not always get the answers to all of our questions. We don’t get to know what the results of the choices we have not made are. Not everything is clear to everyone. I will tell you this though. Like the waking world, there is meaning in everything here.”

Her gown moved like a living thing in the breeze. The purple and green silk of it shimmered and flowed. Ben once again admired the lines of her profile and the strength of her jaw.

“The woman who left an offering. She was certain of her path and she followed it. The man who sought adversity to prove his worthiness, he was also certain and he did so. You and I made the only choice we could. Does it surprise you to know that many who came here traveled all three paths, but then turned back and left the mountain? Uncertainty always leads backwards. It is connected to responsibility, purpose, and sense of self.”

A cloud covered the sun and a light rain fell on them. Ben sipped his tea in silence feeling renewed.

“What will you do now, Ben?”

He stood.

“I will climb.”

He looked towards the mountain top and then back at her but she was already gone.

He climbed for hours, finally seeing a huge cliff face covered with Chinese characters. A stream trickled down the rocks and led into a stand of bamboo. He sipped from the tiny waterway and considered the story carved into the rocks. It read:

“Chu Bai, the simple stone carver encountered a wealthy merchant in a fabulous litter on the road from the quarry. He wished that such luxury could be his.

Chu Bai, the wealthy merchant paid his taxes to the Governor and wished for such wealth.

Lord Chu Bai desired the sun’s power.

Chu Bai, the sun itself, was blocked by a cloud and envied such ability.

The cloud Chu Bai was pushed by the wind and wished such power was his.

Chu Bai the wind was defeated by the stone cliff face which turned him away no matter how hard he blew. Chu Bai the wind wished for the power to alter stone.

Chu Bai the powerful stone carver passed by the merchant in his litter.

 

Chapter 42

Whales and Arrows

“Ben, time to get up. Your watch.” Leah gently brought him back to the waking life. He opened his eyes, rolled over, and sat up. She smiled at him with tired eyes.

“Anything unusual?” he asked, feeling fairly certain that the answer was no.

“Everything is unusual here. Sometimes, I forget just how unusual it all is, but I think the answer you are looking for is, not really. The fire in the distance flares once in a while. The wind has been fairly calm. Everyone has been sleeping peacefully. I thought that maybe I would keep the watch until dawn, but I can’t keep my eyes open.”

Ben pulled his cloak tighter around himself. The breeze gave him a chill. He was glad she had woke him. He also appreciated that she had considered taking his watch.

“You can close them now. I’m solidly back in this world.” He had known that he wouldn’t be able to reach the third gate in one night anyway. “Here, the blankets are still warm.”

She climbed under the blankets he had vacated and he pulled them over her and on impulse kissed her on the forehead. “Sweet dreams how-lee girl.”

Ben surveyed the rooftop. Everyone was there. Hydro raised his head as Ben walked by, probably to see who it was, then quickly buried it again under his tail. He was curled up next to the evenly breathing form of Sutreyu. Ben wondered where she was right now. Was she guiding someone else up the stairs of the Holy Mountain? Was she somewhere else?

He wasn’t surprised to see Freya curled up with Haruka. Over the past few days the two had been drawn together. He had watched the friendship grow between them with approval but also a certain amount of worry. He knew how difficult relationships could be. The early stages were always idealistic and rosy, but so many people managed to move into adversity far too quickly. Still, he liked what he was seeing between them, not that it was any of his business. Even as the leader there were certain areas that needed to be off limits.

He looked towards the fire burning in the distance. Leah was right. Periodically it would flare up as if new fuel had been added. It was too far away, but if he stared long enough, he could almost imagine figures moving around it. Shadows dancing around it in an orgy of carnality. Fauns, satyrs, faeries, and dryads celebrating the freedom of darkness and the heat of light.

Another reason Ben had always loved this time of the late night and the early morning, was because it was the period between dark and light. If you were awake, you crossed the border. The time when the magic of the world was still alive. He had looked towards the same fire in the evening and imagined nothing more fantastic than scraggily humans feeding logs to the flames. He smiled to himself. Different parts of the day had different powers – it was inarguable.

His musings were interrupted by the sound of whispers. He thought they were coming from someone in his group, but a quick look showed all of them all asleep, even Hydro. The whisperings continued. Was it just the wind?

He moved to the edge of the building and looked down into the street. Darkness and shadows hid where the whispers were coming from below. It was not the wind. He could see nothing, but the voices were clear.

Neither sex nor age were apparent but heard the conversation. There were two conversing – and maybe more. If he moved to wake the others, he would miss the opportunity to hear what they were saying and possibly scare them into silence.

“Do you think he will come?” a voice whispered.

“Of course he will. He has no choice. It is the only way.” A second voice answered.

“And the other?”

“She brings him.”

“Do you trust her?”

“Do we have a choice?”

“Is it going to work?”

“Will he stay there and wait for them? I worry about his…unpredictability.”

“They do not know we are involved.”

“Some of them do.”

“Most of them don’t.”

“Tomorrow?”

The voices were fading. He heard no footsteps but it was obvious they were moving away.

“Yes, tomorrow.”

“And then?”

“And then more…”

“Yes…”

Ben wanted to hear more but wasn’t sure how to go about that. The whisperings had started soft and gotten louder as if the speakers were moving towards him. Now they had faded until they were gone. He had no idea what direction they had come from or gone in – only that they were gone.

He tried to control his breathing. What did it mean? Who was it? Who were they talking about? Him? Who else were they referring to? Why were they here? Had he just imagined the whole thing? Had he fallen asleep and dreamed the whispery conversation he had just heard? No, he was awake. It had been real. He had no idea what it could mean. Maybe it didn’t mean anything.

The sun was defining the border of daylight. The sky to the east was beginning to show color and the light of the stars was beginning to fade. Somewhere, not too far away, a bird’s song sounded. It’s volume and suddenness caused him to jump. Should he tell anyone what he had heard?

The black smoke still rose into the sky but the flames slowly faded. Not for the first time, he had an ominous feeling as he watched it. Whether the voices had been referring to him or not, they had been right. He had to move towards it. He didn’t think it could be the Believers, but it might be. He wanted it to be Bridger and his people – but there was no guarantee of anything.

They needed to know who it was. He figured his bunch would be able to spot their bunch first. Whoever was controlling the smoke wanted to be seen. That was a certainty. There was no choice, the path they had chosen moved to where the fire burned. They could skirt around the sides, but it would do no good. They needed to know who it was and what they wanted.

Sutreyu was beside him. He hadn’t noticed her waking. “You heard them?” she asked.

He turned from where he had been watching the smoke with the same intensity as his thoughts. “Yes. Who are they?”

She turned towards the smoke now., away from him. “Do you remember when I told you about the ocean of worlds to explain what happened to us?”

“Yes.”

“I told you how the whales had drawn us in like plankton and ejected us into this world?”

“Yes. I remember.” Ben was looking at her as she looked towards the smoke. She turned and looked at him with something like sadness filling her eyes.

“Those were the whales.”

He turned to look where the voices might have gone and when he turned back, Sutreyu was gone, back where she had been, Hydro curled up next to her as if she had not been awake at all.

——

Ben told no one else what he had heard. Telling the rest of his tribe could only make things more confusing than they needed to be. He didn’t want them to have to decide whether they believed he had heard the voices, had dreamed the voices, or had imagined the voices. He didn’t want to explain about his dreams or to have to call out Sutreyu as some sort of mystic.

He finished his watch trying to imagine who the whales were. Sutreyu was unwilling or unable to tell him more. He knew that she would not tell him more. The voices had belonged to those who had brought them here. She had told him all that he was ready to know.

The rest of his tribe woke and they began preparations for the coming day. Food and water were shared around and soon they were ready to depart. The wagon was brought from where they had stashed it during the night. No one had questioned where they were headed yet. They all knew.

“We’re going to go to where the smoke is,” Ben told them. It was unnecessary. They all nodded. No one was surprised and no one objected. Objections would have only come if he had told them they were going somewhere else.

He continued. “Our wisest course is to head straight there. When we are close, we can hide the wagon and scout the area. We know they are there, but they cannot know we are coming. Even if they are expecting someone, they cannot know where we are coming from. If it is Bridger, I don’t think we should rush forward without assessing the situation. Things may well have changed since you were there last…” He gestured towards Leah. She nodded her assent.

Abdullah moved forward. “Perhaps upstream some ways, I could begin assembling the dhow. Most of us could stay behind and work on the boat while one or two scout the area where the fire is. The current here is already mild and the water is navigable.”

Abdullah’s suggestion was wise. One or two scouts were less likely to be seen than seven people and a dog. It made sense.

“Agreed.” Upriver would take them southwest where the fire continued to send black smoke skyward.

The hours passed by without event as they took turns at various positions pushing forward. The buildings around them became smaller and spaced further apart like suburbs, but instead of ranch style homes the buildings were smaller versions of the same drab concrete boxes they had seen elsewhere in Purgatory. It was like nowhere Ben had ever seen. It was as if someone had taken a photograph of one part of a city and then tried to reconstruct the entire city using only what was shown in the photo.

The river widened and flattened. It was huge. The column of smoke also became more massive as they got closer. Ben presumed that the source of the fire was the trees and brush which filled the vacant areas between buildings. The roads had become too narrow and rough for their wagon. This was where they would build the dhow.

Strange looking trees now appeared with more frequency and in larger numbers. During a rest he leaned against one. When he attempted to stand, he felt something pulling him back down. Abdullah, watching him from nearby began to laugh as Ben struggled forward. Ben made it upright, turned,  and saw strands of a white gummy substance stretched between his cloak and the tree trunk.

With his glass dagger, he sliced the gooey strands. Abdullah had moved forward and now crumbled one of the leaves from the tree. When he opened his hand the big round leaf had cracked open and released more of the sticky sap. The pieces stuck to his hand. When he pulled them away they left the more of the tacky strands that Ben had just severed.

“Remarkable,” the Arab said. “I have not seen this variety before, but there is a similar tree which is grown in Malaysia. It doesn’t produce nearly as much sap as this one, but I think it may be from the same family.”

“What’s the tree?” It was Freya who asked. They had all gathered to watch.

Abdullah smiled. “The Malaysian tree? It has many names, but I think most people call it a rubber tree. We will have to experiment with it, but I think this sap can be used in the same way as latex rubber, the sap of the rubber tree.”

Ben looked around. There were no shortage of the trees. He suddenly remembered seeing pictures of French rubber plantations. As he recalled, the sap had to boiled in order to be used. It required huge fires.

“Is it possible that the fire ahead of us is an operation to process rubber?” He was stating it as much as he was asking. It made perfect sense. It wasn’t a beacon. It was a side effect of manufacturing. It made him feel much safer to have a possible practical purpose in mind for the smoke column. If it were the case, it probably meant that it wasn’t a trap. None the less, they still needed to proceed with caution.

Leah looked a little disappointed at Ben’s revelation. “Bridger still might be using it as a signal,” she said. It was possible. Obviously, it must have occurred to whomever was creating it, that the fire was a beacon. Ben remembered the words he had heard the night before. It had occurred to others as well.

He kept his anxiety to himself but was fairly certain that they all felt it anyway.

The landscape ahead had become a thick rubber forest with an occasional building emerging from it. Brownish white boxes one or two floors. Most had doors windows. Some had no obvious way to get inside.

The river itself was perhaps a half mile wide here and the current had become deceptively slow. Ben knew that if that much water was flowing, it was possible that there were deadly undercurrents. There was no sign of humans along the banks. The mud showed paw prints of several kinds of animals, but they had seen no human tracks.

The smoke was rising no more than a mile from where they were.

Abdullah was keen to begun experimenting with the latex sap and mana cloth.

“We may be able to simply crush the leaves and stick them to the cloth in order to create a waterproof shell for our dhow.” He had already started assembling the skeleton of the boat. It was about fifteen feet long. There were three long pieces that formed the keel, port, and starboard rails. Five ribs ran from the rails to the keel on each side. Several struts ran through the center from port to starboard. It was a simple but elegant design and the extreme lightness of the material it was made from had made transporting it easy. Ben tried not to wonder at how ‘lucky’ they had been to find it. Luck may not have been a factor at all.

Ben and Leah moved towards the fire while the other five worked on assembling the boat. Abdullah thought they could have it completed by the time it got dark if the latex leaves worked as he thought they would. Ben had no doubt that he and Leah would be back well before that.

They walked almost silently down the river bank, the soft soil on the bank muffling their steps. As they came close to their destination, Ben motioned that they should stop.

“Leah,” he said “If you recognize the people there, assuming of course that there are people there, we can approach them and make contact. There’s something I should tell you before we meet anyone…”

She moved closer to him. “You don’t have to tell me Ben. I know.”

She knew about the aliens? Ben was confused. Did everyone know?

“Ben, before you say anything, I care about you, but I have to know how things are with Bridger first. He and I had something and I need to know if we still do. That’s the kind of woman I am.”

She’d thought he was going to profess his love!  He tried not to smile. Instead he nodded and tried to look disappointed. That had not gone the way he had intended at all. She was an attractive girl, but she was far too young for him.

Maybe this was the universe telling him that she didn’t need to know about the ‘whales’ at the fire.

“I understand,” he said. She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.

“Thank you.” It was melodramatic whispering but despite himself he felt a flush on his cheek where she had kissed him. There were far worse things than being let down easy by a fashion model you weren’t really interested in the first place.

The inched closer to the fire through the brush. It was huge. The heat of it could be felt fifty yards away. The smell of acrid smoke wafted their way when the wind shifted and Ben’s eyes watered as they crept through the brush to the clearing where the fire raged.

On the edge of the clearing, undetected, Ben parted the brush and saw a broad shouldered man throwing latex trunks onto a huge burning pile of bubbling flames. Black smoke poured from the fire like it was burning tires, which in a way it was. The solitary man now turned towards them. He had long brown hair, a scraggily beard, and huge brown eyes. Ben turned to Leah to ask if it was Bridger, but she was already up and running towards him. So much for observation.

“Bridger!” She shouted his name and Ben saw alarm on the man’s face. He recognized her.

“Don’t shoot!” Bridger shouted. The flash of arrows were already hurtling towards her. “She’s one of ours!”

The trap had sprung. Three arrows were protruding from Leah where she lay on the ground.

“I’ve got another one here!” A woman’s voice came from behind Ben. He turned, lifting his hands. Two men and a woman aimed cocked bows at him.

“Move into the open,” the woman said. She looked fierce and ready to kill. “Move slowly and keep your hands where I can see them.”

Ben did as he was told.

 

Chapter 43

Ends and Means

The women were escaping towards an unknown future and leaving forced matrimony behind. They were well equipped and well supplied thanks to the stores that had been brought out for the wedding feast. There was no reason to stop and plenty of reason to keep moving. It was a forced march.

Anne, Bella, and Niev moved among the women they represented and brought questions and concerns to Emma who marched at the front of the female deserters. The women were understandably concerned with how long they were going to march, where they were going, or what she had in mind. Emma had no answers except “To a better future.”

Emma hadn’t planned much beyond getting away. She knew that it wouldn’t be long before the Believers managed to escape the barracks. She knew they would come and rescue the Bishop rather than waiting for his release. She considered letting him go, but knew he would send people after them and that he was the best bargaining chip they had. He was the only bargaining chip they had and she would rather not have him plotting her capture.

If they were brought back to the Cathedral, it would be a fate worse than death. She knew that. Not all the women would agree with that assessment, but she knew that after being turned into actual slaves they would eventually come to the realization. She hoped to keep that from happening.

Anne’s people were particularly upset with the rapid pace that Emma was setting. A small delegation of upset women followed the girl to the head of the column to demand specifics of her plan. Anne looked slightly exasperated with them, but hadn’t been able to escape their insistance on confronting Emma. The girl was new to leadership, but somehow she was doing things right. She would learn that sometimes you had to let your people take their own heads.

Emma didn’t stop moving as she explained the situation to the women around her. “You might think we are safe because we have taken weapons, have the Bishop as a hostage, and left them locked in the dormitory, but I want you ladies to know that you are wrong about all that. We are not safe.”

She took a breath and continued. “Those women are going to untie the men. I’m certain they already have. The men are going break down the door or go through the wall and get out, just like the slaves did. Do you think they are going to be very happy at having been bested by a bunch of women? Think of the men we are talking about here. These are the same guys smiling at the thought of getting laid earlier. They are going to come after us and if they catch us…well…think about it.”

It didn’t take them long to stop complaining and keep moving.

Several hours into their march, Emma heard a commotion from the rear of the formation. Yells turned to cheers and then a communal jeering that moved gradually towards Emma, at the front. She called a halt and waited for the object of commotion.

Bella broke through the women pushing a trussed up man, wet with spit from the women he had passed through. Bella shoved Smith towards Emma. The Bishop, still tied, gagged, and surrounded by a number of women carrying dangerous objects, watched with her.

“We caught him sneaking behind us,” she said. “He insists that he is alone and says that he needs to talk to you.”

Emma was surprised to see him. She would of thought he would be organizing a search party. She hoped that he wasn’t the scout of a larger party. She had thought they had more of a lead. They had to get further away before nightfall.

“I thought I made it clear that no boys were allowed on this excursion,” she said, bringing chuckles from several of the women. Smith’s turned red as several jeers were directed at him.

Emma kept herself from taunting the man further. He had been decent to them. One of the better Believers. “What do you want Smith?”

He stared at her in defiance. “I’m here to warn you. They are loose and they are going to come after you.”

She shook her head. “Thanks for the warning, but I kind of figured as much. Anything else?”

He broke free of the women that held him. “You don’t understand. Things have already gotten much worse. You put a horrible chain of events in motion.”

The thing she hated about Smith was that he had such a hard time getting to the point. She could tell he had something to say, the man was just unable to come out and get directly to it. He needed to be led there. It was exasperating.

“Take a deep breath. Breathe. Good. We can take a minute or two. Tell me what happened. Start with us leaving.” She didn’t feel like they did have any time to spare, especially since Smith had caught up with them so fast. “Wait, first, how did you catch up to us so fast?”

Smith looked to his left and his right seeing the stern faces of women all around him. “I ran,” he said, “as soon as he let us out and started killing people, I ran.”

Emma tried to grasp what he had just said. She felt panic beginning in her ranks and held up her hand.

“Everyone stay calm. Smith. Talk. Start when we left.”

“Alright. After you locked us up, the women untied everyone. It took no more than ten minutes for everyone to be free and putting a plan together. Adam had everyone pushing on the walls, but they weren’t going to fall. We were going to try ram the door but then he opened it from the outside.”

Emma hadn’t thought of that possibility. Someone had released the Believers.

“Who was it? You said he started killing people…who?”  Bella jumped into the interrogation. It wasn’t clear if she were asking who the killer was or who was killed. They needed to know the answers to both questions.

Smith shook his head. “White. First he killed Adam but then he kept going. He was the one who released us and started the killing.”

Emma didn’t know who White was. “Who?”

“The white slave,” Smith said. “He was one of Adam’s men before. His name is White. You let him go.”

Emma knew exactly which slave he meant. It hadn’t occurred to her that any of the slaves would release the Believers. Why would they?

Smith went on. “He opened the door and told everyone to come outside. Adam was the first out the door and as soon as he walked out, White gutted him. I got outside he was standing over Adam’s body with a knife in one hand and the Bishop’s bible in the other.”

At hearing this the Bishop began to struggle in his bonds and try to talk through his gag. It was a distraction Emma didn’t need.

“Anne, put him in a choke hold or something. Smith, keep going.”

He did. “He was standing over Adam’s body screaming about Babylon, betrayal, and punishment from God being delivered. He said that the Bishop had been a false prophet who had been corrupted by the Whore of Babylon.” The Bishop made another attempt at struggling that was quickly stopped by Anne. Emma almost felt sorry for him.

“Wait a minute. You said killing people? Who else did he kill?” Emma wanted to make sure she had understood him correctly.

“Yeah, he had everyone worked up and ordered some of the men he knew to grab some of Adam’s troops. He said they were guilty of heresy and sodomy and that Adam and the Bishop had protected them. He said if they had more time, they would crucify them, but instead he just told the crowd to kill them. They did. They ripped them apart. It might have been the single worst thing I have ever witnessed.” Emma had seen the blood on his clothes. She wondered if he had taken part in the carnage.

“He told everyone to find weapons. That’s when I managed to slip away. They’re coming after you. He said they’re going to bring two crosses . One for you…and one for him.” Smith pointed to the Bishop.

Emma had made some big mistakes in her life but she wondered now if she had ever made a mistake as bad as letting White go.

But, of course, knowledge is power. Even when the knowledge is that some nut job is coming after you to nail you to a cross and watch birds pluck your eyeballs out. Knowing they were coming made things  easier in some ways. It was one less unknown. They needed to move.

Emma considered letting Smith go. He had risked his neck to get away and bring word of what was happening. The more she thought about it, the less happy she was with the idea of releasing him. If he were caught by White’s Believer’s whatever advantage they had in knowing about them would be nullified. So, she had him tied up and made him march beside the Bishop.

Anne, the woman who had almost become Smith’s wife, kept clear of him. Emma wasn’t entirely sure why, but decided not to interfere. After a brief conference with her commanders, Emma decided to push on into the night. The stars overhead made it possible to move through the streets of Purgatory, they didn’t need to stop for supplies.They needed to put as much distance between themselves and those pursuing them as possible. From what Smith had told them, there would be no pursuit until the following morning at the earliest.

The women were exhausted but Emma pushed them until they refused to go further. Finally, the prospect of moving forward took more morale than it provided distance she stopped. She sent several of the loner women to scout a spot to make camp. They would stop, rest until dawn, and then push forward again.

Her scouts reported that the forest was not far off to their left. Ahead and right were countless numbers of the drab apartment like buildings that served as the main feature of urban Purgatory. The woods might offer resources to them, but it was safer to occupy the buildings. A system of rotating watches were designated and the women wearily laid down their burdens.

The burden of leadership, however, didn’t allow her to fall into the exhausted sleep that many of the women found though. She called a war council of her lieutenants. Several other women had shown themselves to be exceptional in the trying circumstances they had all faced so far and joined her circle. Her war room was a dead end alley with her loyal hussies and loners standing watch over the entrance. Smith and the Bishop were both brought for interrogation.

“Ladies, let’s get down to business. How are things with the women at large? Is the news that Smith brought common knowledge yet?” Emma looked at the women around her.

“Do you think it’s a good idea to have them here while we talk?” This came from Patsy, a dark haired Believer woman- make that former Believer who had taken on the role of Anne’s lieutenant.

“You’re right, we don’t need them to know all of our plans, but for the moment, I think we will benefit from having them here. Okay, back to my question.” Emma didn’t intend to give the men any information that would endanger her people.

Patsy spoke first. “Most of the girls know Smith is here. There are rumors that we are being pursued. A lot of the girls think that if we let him go,” she jerked her thumb towards the Bishop, “the Believers will be satisfied and then we can figure out a way to negotiate with them. Many of them think that reconciliation is still an option.”

Emma was shocked to hear this. “You mean they want to go back?” She looked at the other women around her. “What about the women around you?”

Anne nodded. “At least half the women that came with me think that rejoining the Believers is our best option. They aren’t aware of everything that has happened since we left. They think that if we were to negotiate with the Believers, we could improve the position of women among them and we could get back to building lives.”

Niev spoke next. “My girls won’t put themselves back in control of anyone else. I’ve heard some of them say the best thing to do is let the Bishop know how we want to be treated, make him promise to change things, and then to release him. Later, if we see that certain things are happening like the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and no forced marriages…then we could reintegrate with the Believers.”

This position sounded more reasonable, but neither idea was workable now that she and the Bishop were both being pursued with the intention of being crucified. “What about the loners?” She looked at Bella.

Bella smiled. “We want to get as far away from the Cathedral as we can and to never go back. There has been some talk of killing the two of them as a message to anyone that followed us. I might add, that such a message would eliminate the possibility of a reunification…if that was ever possible at all.”

Emma was relieved to know that at least one group was against rejoining with the lunatics behind them.

“Okay. What about our options at the moment? Will the women fight if they need to? Can they?”

Anne took this question. “It’s tough to say. Like Patsy said there are a lot of women that, well, I would almost say they regret leaving. I don’t think we can count on them to fight against anyone, unless…” she wiped a strand of hair out of her face.

“Unless what?” Emma grabbed onto the glimmer of hope that was held in front of her.

Anne looked suddenly bashful, but continued. “Well, unless they knew there was something better out there. I mean, you have to realize that, I mean, well, this,” she gestured expansively while she said it, “this place is pretty terrifying if you stop and think about it and maybe being forced to be part of a community isn’t the worst option…I mean, giants and witches and who knows what else. Those escaped slaves are still on the loose, there are probably other groups and who knows what kind of twisted things they do. Sex cults or Satanists or you know….minorities.”

This girl still needed a lot of help. She was helpful though. If Anne was experiencing these fears, it was certain that many of the other women were also. It was ridiculous to Emma, this idea of staying with a known evil rather than facing an unknown future, but she had certainly seen plenty of otherwise intelligent and rational people fall into the same trap.

Niev gave a little laugh. “They just need to know that there are other men. I mean, we did leave a lot of decent guys back there, some of them even wanted to come with us. At least Anne’s managed to catch up to us.” Niev looked toward the girl and gave an exaggerated wink. Emma thought she saw something flicker across Smith’s face where he was sitting, but couldn’t be certain.

It was Bella’s turn now. “Some of the women feel like they might be safer if they slipped off by themselves. This is especially true of those who know that you and the Bishop have a bounty on you.”

Emma had hoped things wouldn’t be this complicated.

“Okay, Bella, Anne, grab those men and bring them over here.” The Bishop and Smith were now dragged closer to where the women sat in council.

“Listen Padre. I’m going to have the girl take the gag out of your mouth now.” He nodded. “I don’t want to hear any of that Whore of Babylon stuff coming from you, I don’t want to hear any preaching, and I want to make sure that you know that if you don’t cooperate we’re going to gag you again and leave you behind as a peace offering for White to crucify. We might even leave you on a cross.”

The Bishop’s eyes were wide, not with fright but with anger. He nodded his agreement with the conditions she had set. Emma gave Anne approval and the gag was removed.

“Do you see what you have done, foolish woman?” he was going to go on, but Emma raised her hand to stop him.

“Stop. That is not how this goes. I’m going to ask you some questions and you are going to answer them. Got it?” When he said nothing she looked at Anne. “Anne, hurt him a little.”

The girl hesitated then grabbed one of his hands and twisted it, just a little. She saw him try to resist the pain, but it was too much for him. “Okay,” He gasped.

“Good. First question. What’s your name?”

“I am the Bishop, you have no right…” Emma gave Anne a signal, he saw it and answered before the pain began. “Paul. Paul Jenkins.”

It was a nice name. She was surprised it had taken this long for her to hear it.

“Good. Nice to meet you Paul.” She tried not to let the sarcasm drip through. “I’d love to find out more about your past life, but unfortunately, that will have to wait. Paul, we need to know a few things about this life. First, what do you know about the other groups here? How many are there?”

“I don’t know anything about…” Emma didn’t even need to signal Anne this time, the girl was simply getting in touch with her inner sadist… “Ten. He said there are ten areas. I don’t know how many groups. Really, there are just us and the ones on the other side that I know about…”

Emma was fascinated at how the almost mystical power of the Bishop had disappeared when she learned his name. He was just a tall scared man named Paul Jenkins. A man that didn’t want to suffer any pain. The words he was saying almost slipped past her, Bella however didn’t miss them.

“Hold it Paul. Slow down. Okay, first things first. What one’s on the other side? What do you know about them? How many? Where are they? Who are they?”

He looked like he was thinking of resisting again but then he saw the twisted little smile on Anne’s face. “We know that there is another group on the other side of the forest. We captured some of their people early on. One group or possibly two. We don’t know for sure. The people we…questioned…weren’t very helpful. They came from across a big river and my best guess is that there are perhaps a hundred, maybe less. We captured a few early and then there were no more. They may have all died or left.”

He was giving the information too easily. Nothing that he said could be guaranteed as the truth. It was pointless to talk to him. His eyes shifted back and forth, what else had he said?

“Now about that other part,” Emma saw something close to panic appear on his face. “You said that He told you about ten areas? Who?”

Defiance rose on his face. Paul was gone and the Bishop was back. “Who? Him! The Angel of the Lord! Oh, how foolish I was to lose faith, how foolish to allow myself to feel fear! He will not abandon me. You ask who? I tell you, the Angel of God. It was he who told me where to find God’s word, he that told me how to build my flock. It is he that will save me from your clutches, Foolish Whore!” There he went again. “Jezebels. Prostitutes of Gomorrah. Filthy Babylonian sluts. Do you know what you have done? Have you any idea of the evil you have released? You have put the words and flock of the Lord in the hands of the Enemy. Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil. I renounce you. I rebuke you.” His voice was rising in volume and strength.

“Anne,” Emma tried not to panic as the intensity of the Bishop’s words picked up, “do something. Shut him up.” Emma saw that the girl was twisting the Bishop’s hands far enough that it had to hurt. “Shut him up!”

“I call upon the Lord God almighty to put a curse upon these women. For all who do not rise immediately and help his servant, a fiery death awaits, do not stand…” Bella succeeded with the gag where Anne had failed with torture. Emma was suddenly terrified.

“Get him out of here. Put double guards on him.” Several women carried him out of the meeting. Emma looked at Smith who had observed the whole meeting and interrogation.

“Anything you want to add?” She was completely exhausted. Exhausted and traumatized. She found refuge in acting as if she were unaffected.

Smith cleared his throat and began. “Please, listen to everything I am about to say. When I woke up on this world, I was scared and alone. I found the Believers after a few days of sneaking through buildings. I watched what the Bishop was building and realized that it was better than hiding. I have tried to do my best for everyone here. A part of that was by being loyal to the person in charge. Even when I didn’t agree with his ideas or methods. I thought that by building a society, any society, I was creating something that would benefit everyone eventually. Now I see that I was wrong. He’s a madman. I should have seen it before, but I was too blinded by what I perceived to be my own duty and my own fear.”

“There is another group. We’ve known about them for a while, but we’re not sure exactly where they are or how many. I don’t know about anything else that he was telling you. Listen to me though, I was blinded by the idea that the ends justified the means. I was wrong. I think that the reasons you left were good, but if you are going to start torturing, killing, and letting the ends justify your means…well, then you are really no better than the Bishop or White.”

Emma stared at the man for a moment. She picked up her knife and walked towards where he stood. Anne stepped between them.

“Anne, get out of my way.”

The girl hesitatedfor a moment then stepped aside. “Emma, if you hurt him…”

Emma didn’t wait to hear what else Anne would say. She stepped to Smith and slashed the ropes which held his hands together.

“You’re a free man Smith. You can do what you want. Stay or go.” She turned and started to walk out of the alley but turned back with one last thought. “Oh, and one more thing. You’re right. The ends never justify the means. Thank you.”

 

Chapter 44

Comrades

Emma had two surprises when she woke at dawn the next morning. She opened her eyes and saw Anne squatting beside her. Smith was only a few feet away. The first surprise was that Smith had decided to stay with them. She had expected that he would leave during the night.

Anne spoke first. “Emma, I need to talk with you.”

Emma still made the girl nervous and that meant she was still in power. This wasn’t a counter-revolution.

She didn’t have to be psychic to know that Smith was what Anne wanted to talk about. .

“Well, I was wondering if, maybe, you might consider letting Hector, umm that is Smith, umm, Emma, can he stay with us? Please.” Hector Smith shuffled uneasily from one foot to the other throughout the girl’s request.

Smith spoke now. “I can be useful. I know the women don’t trust me, but I can help.” They both looked at her, waiting for a reply.

Emma got up from her spot on the ground. “Tell me Smith, what is a woman’s role?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Whatever she wants it to be. My mother was a lawyer, my oldest sister runs, or ran a company, and I’ve always thought of women as capable of doing whatever it is they want to do. It’s how I was raised.”

Emma believed him. “Can you take orders from a woman?”

He actually laughed. “I’ve been taking orders from women my whole life. I am the youngest of five siblings. I am also the only boy. I can definitely take orders from a woman.”

“What was it you did back in the real world Smith?” She had wondered this before.

Anne answered. “He was an architect Emma, just like I was going to be.”

Bella and Niev arrived. Both women were out of breath and looked terrified. This was the second surprise.

Bella spoke “Emma, the Bishop is gone!” Niev bobbed her head in agreement.

Emma couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “What?” She turned on Smith. “Where is he? You did this, didn’t you?”

Smith looked as surprised as Emma felt. He was either one hell of an actor or he really didn’t know anything about this. Still, he was the prime suspect. “I don’t, I didn’t…”

Anne jumped to his defense. “Emma, he couldn’t have had anything to do with it. He was with me all night.” They both looked embarrassed at the admission.

Niev spoke now. “The girls that were watching him…”

Emma interrupted. “Are they alright? Did they go with him…?” She was panicking, the power that he had demonstrated last night when he had found himself again, the intensity, now this…she recognized that she was shook up and took a deep breath, determined not to interrupt any more, just to listen.

Niev went on. “They’re all good girls Emma. None of them would have let him go. They were keeping him separate from everyone else. We did like you said, we doubled the guard on him. Just a little while ago, I found two of the girls I had assigned to watch him sitting together and having what seemed to be a very pleasant conversation.” The big redhead paused to take a breath.

“Did they tell you what happened? Why weren’t they still guarding him? Go on.” Emma felt like she was missing something.

Niev continued “That’s the thing Emma. All the girls that were supposed to be watching him have no memory of being assigned that duty. None of them remember a thing. They deny that they had anything to do with the Bishop. Emma, they’re good girls, they wouldn’t have let him go.”

Bella spoke now. “These were women I trusted, they weren’t Believers.”

Emma couldn’t take more of this. “What are you saying? Are you telling me he hypnotized them? Bella, do you think it’s possible your girls decided to kill him? I’m trying really hard to understand this. Really, I am.”

They didn’t have answers. He was gone. No one knew how he had escaped or where he had gone. Their best trackers could find no trace of him leaving their camp. She hadn’t known exactly what to do with him – so in a way, it was a relief to no longer have to. She hadn’t felt like she could safely let him go, but at the same time he had become more of a liability than an asset. None of her people had been injured. In many ways, it was the best possible situation. The problem was she didn’t know what had happened and that limited her ability to trust anyone.

She turned to Smith. “You can stay. Don’t try to order anyone around. Do what you’re told. Got it?”

She turned to her lieutenants. “Get everyone up. We’re heading towards the river today. Spread it among your people that we are heading towards another group and we don’t know what to expect. If anyone asks, tell them we let the Bishop go – not that he escaped. We’ve got to find this other group before we get caught by the fanatics behind us.”

They scattered to do as she told them. Emma tried not to think about where the Bishop might be.

They moved quickly and soon the parklands forest was on their left side and the abandoned buildings of Cathedral City on the right. Emma was more of a wreck than she admitted to anyone. The weight of responsibility for all of these women was a heavy burden. It wasn’t something that she carried lightly. Worse, she didn’t know if her willingness to shoulder the burden of leadership would be met with loyalty and appreciation or with bitterness and betrayal.

She had organized them into columns before beginning to march. Four long columns led by her four lieutenants. Smith was free to walk wherever he liked. He stayed close to Anne. Emma was sure that that was at least partly because of the less than stellar welcome he had received when he arrived the day before. Of course, it was obvious that he liked the girl too.

Emma had done some shuffling around with the bulk of Anne’s group. It was too much for the girl to handle alone. Patsy took command of half of them.  A few were placed with Niev and a few more with Bella. Emma wasn’t sure whether the best option was to put those she didn’t trust among those she did or to keep them to themselves. She had always believed in the bad apple spoiling the barrel, but she couldn’t risk isolating them into a separate group. For the most part, Anne kept the bad apples.

Before they began marching she had spoken to all the assembled women.

“I know some of you aren’t real sure what to call me. I’m not your mother so let’s cut the Mother Emma crap. I’m nobody’s mother. You women are all adults. You can call me comrade, because that’s what we are and that’s what I am. We are in this together. We are comrades looking for as good a life together as we can find. If any of you can’t stand to work with the rest of us anymore, you are welcome to leave and do whatever you like. I wouldn’t recommend going back to the Believers, but if you must, you must. If you want to stay, you will need to work together. At the moment, I’ve taken authority and there are a few very capable women who are helping me to make decisions on your behalf. They are also your comrades. If you have problems, take it to the these women and they will bring it to me. If you want to leave, now is the time.”

She had thought there would be a few. She had hoped it actually, but none of them volunteered. In a way, it was better. There was safety in numbers. As for the bad apples, well, maybe she was wrong about that.

“Three cheers for Comrade Emma!” It was Niev who began the cheer. The women were loud and excited. Even Smith was clapping. That night, her scouts again found a secure area and they posted plenty of guards.

“Shut up, you fools. You’ll bring the world down on us!” She scolded them, but how could she not be pleased?

By afternoon the following day, they had followed the forest edge as it brought them to the river. Emma was surprised to see what looked like a rainbow shimmering above a point several miles ahead of them. It was odd, there were no clouds in the sky. The weather since they had arrived had been perfect – which was also odd.

“Smith,” she called him over. “Have you heard about this? Know what it is?” She pointed to the phenomenon. She hoped that his scouting duties might have given him information about what lay ahead of them.

“Unfortunately Comrade, my duties took me in the other direction. I have no idea what lies this way. Do you think it might be important?” Smith was nervous talking with her but he did seem to want to help. That was good.

“I hope so but I have no idea.” It was as good a beacon as any.

When they came closer to it, they were all amazed to find the Pit Falls. A river that plunged into a giant hole in the ground and disappeared. They would stop here. She sent scouts out to find the best place for them to camp for the night.

She was not surprised when the scouts returned to tell her that they had found several things. They were close to an abandoned town and inside of it indications of people were all over the area. Footprints, the rough telltales of manufacturing, and even what appeared to be the tracks of some sort of vehicle.

“Any sign of the people themselves?” She asked Bella who was relaying the information to her from the scouts.

“No. Just signs that they are gone. It looks like they were heading the same direction we want to go.”

Emma considered her words before speaking. “I think this is good news. We can be pretty sure it’s not the Believers. They wouldn’t have gotten ahead of us so fast. We knew there were supposed to be people over here. Looks like maybe we found em. Any ideas about where we should bivouac?” Emma had fallen into using all the military terms she had heard in years of watching movies. The words were the only one’s that fit. Camping sounded too relaxing.

“Someone put a door on one of the buildings. I don’t really like the idea of locking ourselves up in it though. My suggestion is that we sleep on the main road, post plenty of guards, and move out early in the morning.” Bella was right. Once again, Emma was grateful Bella had decided to work with her.

“Good work Comrade. We’ll follow your suggestion.” Emma was thankful that she didn’t have to make every decision. There was a difference between making a decision and approving a decision. Some people never understood that though.

Chapter 45

The Battle Begins

It was a day filled with amazing revelations. The Pit Falls alone would have marked the day in her memory but they had also found evidence of humans and a new town. This was her first proof that there were other people besides the Believers in this world. The revelation that they had some sort of vehicle was also hopeful. The Believers had nothing like that yet.

Smith soon brought another astounding piece of information. Among the throw offs that the group ahead of them had left behind, Smith had found the remains of a fire. Under the cold ash on the surface, hot coals still smoldering.

“How did you know to look?” she asked him.

“I caught the barest smell of smoke and where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.” It made sense. Later she would come to think of the statement as almost psychic in its implications. At the time however, she was more concerned with the conclusion it forced upon them. The people who had left this place had left recently. The smoldering coals meant they had missed them by a day at most.

Emma had her people search the area much more thoroughly. She didn’t want to get caught by surprise if they returned. Bella assured her that they were gone. Bella was also convinced that this had been a transitory stop and wasn’t a home base.

“There are no more than ten of them. It looks like they probably came from the woods, made what they needed here, and then they left. Emma…I think we both know who these people are.” Once again, Bella had sniffed out the solution to a mystery.

Emma nodded. “It makes sense. It’s the escaped prisoners. They came straight through the forest, paused here, and are moving towards the river and freedom. Didn’t the Bishop say that some of the prisoners had come from another group?”

Bella nodded. “It raises certain problems. We all know that they were treated incredibly harshly. They will never trust us – in fact, they will likely try to kill us. They were enslaved, beaten, hunted, killed, and raped. While that was going on, most of us were free to make an issue about it…and didn’t. Not in a way they would know about anyway. If they reach these other people first…”

Emma saw where the woman was going. “Crap. We’re going to be walking into an enemy camp.” Emma had just realized what they would look like to the escapees. She was the Bishop’s consort. Mother Emma. The freaking Whore of Babylon. Her only hope was that Nick had made it, that with his help she would be able to convince them that she had always intended to help them.

Crucifying fanatics behind her, pissed off former slaves ahead of her, and an escape artist holy man missing in action – somewhere. She could expect that the former slaves would prejudice whoever it was they were heading towards against her. There was no going back. Her dreams of creating a heavily armed matriarchy weren’t going to work out. She could already sense the group around her beginning to splinter. The only thing holding them together was the desire to reach another group.

There was only one choice. They had to reach the new group before it was completely poisoned against them. Even if she herself had to take the blame and go out on her own, maybe she could deliver these women from the evil of the Believers. Forward. The only choice.

They had set up a spartan camp in the streets near the falls. Most of the women took the opportunity the nearby river presented and bathed for the first time since wedding day. In the three days since the women’s revolt, they had traveled fast through dusty roads, slept on the ground, and done a great deal of very unladylike sweating. They were filthy.

As the last daylight faded from the west, Emma was reminded of Smith’s words. It was then, far in the distance, that she noticed a thin stream of smoke curling into the sky. Judging from the blackness of the smoke against the almost white light of the sky, she figured it was a fire that was meant to be seen.

“Bella, do you see that?” Bella turned and looked towards the west.

“Um hmm,” she said, “and where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.”

“Get a good sleep tonight. We leave at the first light. No breaks, no stops. We’re going straight to that fire . They will certainly be expecting someone, but maybe they’ll be surprised to find that it’s us.”

——

It took them all of the next day to reach the fire. The pace was unrelenting but the women didn’t complain as the column of smoke grew larger and larger. The fire was perhaps a mile off, straight ahead of them and there was no more than an hour left in the day. Smith and Bella tried to persuade her to take a cautious approach and to scout out the fire and who was keeping it, but they just didn’t have the time to spare. With less than an hour of daylight left, they had to move quickly. She didn’t want the darkness to obscure her plans.

She had a plan, but no one else knew it. It was her burden to bear. Emma didn’t feel as though she could allow anyone to see the bundle of stress inside her. When her lieutenants asked what she planned, she told them to trust her. They did – and she hoped that their trust hadn’t been misplaced. They were close to the fire now.

Now it was time to reveal her battle plans.

“Niev, Patsy, Anne. I want you three to stay here with most of the women. Bella, you, me, and Smith,” despite her intentions, she had found herself trusting the man more as they traveled. Part of it was seeing the sincerity that he exuded in everything he did, another part was that he was a damn talented guy. “We’re going to try to find out who we are dealing with. We don’t know how many of them there are, who they are, what they want, or anything else. We need to find out.”

It sounded plausible, even to her. She knew better though. No one questioned her. She didn’t think they suspected anything.

“You girls staying here. I want a tight perimeter. Stay quiet, no fires, try not to make any noise. I know that’s nearly impossible, but it is essential. We should be back by dark. I’d prefer to think that the people ahead of us aren’t hostile, but it is possible. Sit tight. Be prepared.”

“Emma?” It was Anne. “What do we do if…if…you don’t come back? I mean, should we attack them?”

Emma had thought about it. She didn’t have a plan. If she didn’t come back that almost certainly meant that the people they were dealing with weren’t friendly. She was either dead or captured. If that was the case, she didn’t see much point in beginning a war. If her plan didn’t work, she didn’t think anything would.

“If we don’t come back, wait until morning and then I want you to get out of here. I have a feeling the Believers aren’t far behind us and despite what some of the women seem to think, they are not safe. They’ll see this signal fire too and they’ll be heading this way. If we aren’t back by morning, just move out quickly and don’t do anything stupid. If these people are unfriendly, it serves them right to draw the Believers right to them.”

It wasn’t really a plan, but it was something. She hoped that it wouldn’t come to that.

“Okay…that’s about it then. We’ll see you soon.” Emma motioned to Bella and Smith. It was time for them to go.

Anne rushed to Emma and gave her a big hug. “Be careful.” It started a round of hugging among the women. None of them knew if they would see each other again. Smith too, was hugged, last but not least by Anne, who kissed him on the lips.

“Come back,” she said to him.

“Don’t worry. We will.”

Emma wished she shared the man’s confidence. She was fairly certain she wouldn’t be coming back though she hoped Smith and Bella would.

They stepped off towards the big fire. The women at the camp set up a defensive perimeter.

They weren’t far out when Bella stepped next to Emma and whispered to her. “I know what you are planning. I’d try to talk you out of it, but I think it might be the only chance we have.”

Emma kept walking and said nothing. She had already learned it was pointless to deny the truth to Bella. The woman could sense a false statement from miles away. She was glad Bella was going to go along with her.

When they came closer to the fire, Emma called a halt. Now it was time to brief Smith and Bella on their roles.

“Smith, approach from below. Bella, go to the other side and come from above. No matter what you see, do not reveal yourselves. Watch, listen, and don’t get caught. Got it?”

They both agreed. Bella gave Emma’s arm an approving squeeze before she headed off.

Emma went straight towards the fire.

She tried to stay out of sight as she moved towards where the fire burned. She heard the sound of men’s voices and the occasional moan of a woman. That didn’t seem to be a good sign.

She peered around a tree and saw two men sitting in front of a fire. One of them, a big bearded man was leaning over a third figure that lay between them. An arrow stuck from the leg of the woman. Emma wasn’t surprised to see the technology people developed to kill one another was improved upon daily.

She looked at the second man. She knew who he was. It was Ben! He held the girl down while the bearded man tried to extract the arrow from the girl between them. The girl moaned again. It was the moment of truth for Emma. This was her big moment.

She raised her hands and walked from behind the tree. “I urgently need to speak to the two of you.”

Both men looked up in shock.

“Stop!” Several people stepped from the edges of the clearing with arrows pointed at her. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea.

The bearded man turned to Ben. “Is she one of yours?”

Ben shook his head. “No, she belongs to the Bishop.”

The night was pierced by the sound of screams. It was coming from the direction Emma had come from, from where she had left the women. These weren’t screams of fear – they were screams of women diving into battle. A huge racket ensued immediately – the sounds of women – and men in battle for their lives.

So much for her plan. It had all seemed to be going the way she wanted it to…or maybe not.

There were arrows pointed at her. Ben and Bridger had jumped to their feet. Leah, the woman on the ground sat up and yanked the arrow out of herself. There were several more bloody arrows lying next to her. The all looked at Emma as if they were waiting for an explanation for the cacophony that had risen behind her as if on cue.

“I left my people bivouacked behind me. Are they being attacked by your people?” It was a logical question. She saw something like relief flash across both men’s faces.

Ben spoke. “When you say your people, do you mean the Believers?”

She wasn’t in a position of authority here with arrows pointed at her, but she needed to know the answer to the question she had just asked.

“No, just the women, are they being attacked by your people? We’re being chased by the Believers.” It was the bearded man she was asking. She didn’t think that Ben’s handful of escapees were capable of mounting an attack the size of what she heard behind them.

The bearded man looked around him at the bow wielding people in the clearing. “We had no idea you were here. I think it’s safe to say that my people aren’t involved in this. Who are you?”

The sounds of battle were coming closer.

“We don’t have time for this. If that isn’t your people attacking us, then it must be the Believers and that means that we’re all in trouble.”

Ben stood with his arms crossed. “Aren’t the Believers your people? I know this might not seem to be the best time, but you better explain things. From the sounds of it, whoever that is, is moving closer.”

The battle was getting closer. There was no way around it though, she needed to explain things. Quickly.

“Okay. In a nutshell, here goes. The Bishop decided to marry all the women to the men and essentially  turn us all into sex slaves a few days ago. Most of us didn’t like that idea. We revolted and took the Bishop hostage. We locked up the men and the women who didn’t want to come with us, freed all the slaves, and fled. One of the slaves we freed, a man called White,” Emma saw shock on Ben’s face. She kept going. “He took over the Believers. He has been pursuing us for days with the intention of literally crucifying me and the Bishop. I thought we were further ahead of them but they must have seen your fire and come directly here. It must be he the Believers who are attacking my women behind us. We saw your fire, had heard that there was another group. My plan was to beg you to take in all the women even if you refused to take me. We didn’t know they were so close. Now, I think it’s a matter of you are either with us or with them.”

Ben moved closer, he’d uncrossed his arms.  “Was White a rangy looking guy with close set eyes? He wasn’t a slave.” Ben turned to Bridger. “He’s the guy I was telling you about. The murderer!” He turned back towards Emma. “You say he’s in charge now?”

Emma nodded. The pieces were starting to click together in her head.

Bridger, the bearded man motioned to his people to lower their bows. “What about the Bishop? You still have him? You came forward alone?”

Emma hoped they would believe her. “He escaped several days ago. We don’t know how. He just vanished. I came alone.”

“Except for me.” She turned and saw Smith step from the Bushes. His hands were raised and he moved to where Emma stood.

“And me.” Bella emerged from the other side.

The sounds of the battle faded. Not like the battle was drifting away, but more like the battle had ended.

Convergence was happening.

Chapter 46

Begending

Emma probably would have been filled with arrows as a result of her stunt if Ben and Leah hadn’t of arrived fifteen minutes earlier. As it was Leah had been lucky. The arrows, thanks to flaws in their design, hadn’t embedded themselves terribly deep – even the one in her leg was only slightly worse than a puncture wound. She had yanked it out on her own. She was one hell of a woman. Bridger was a lucky man to have her.

Bridger, once he realized he had filled the woman he loved with arrows, seemed as noble as Leah had represented him to be. He had given Ben permission to merge his group into Bridger’s.

Leah had been part of Bridger’s motivation in building the signal in the first place. Someone he trusted a great deal had suggested it. That was as far as they’d gotten when Emma showed up.

Emma had brought a pack of vicious dogs behind her that killed his friend Vlad the first time he’d encountered her. The meeting had led to Ben becoming a slave while Emma had become a master. Despite that, he was almost happy to see her. Then he realized she had brought a war behind her this time.

“Can we trust her?” Bridger asked Ben. The two men had felt instant camaraderie. Theirs was a meeting of equals.

“We don’t have a choice,” Ben answered. “If we can, we should gather our people and get the hell out of here. This fire of yours is drawing more than you bargained for.”

Emma jumped in the conversation.

“Please, you’ve got to help us. He will rape and kill them.” Emma looked from Bridger to Ben and then to the dozen people that held their bows nervously. “I left Anne in charge…”

Bridger interrupted. “How many people did you leave behind? How many were following you? I don’t even know who won. It’s not fair to ask my people to sacrifice themselves in a battle that isn’t theirs with so many unknowns. From what you’ve told us, this is Believer versus Believer and it’s none of our business – yet. We need to get back to the other side of the river and deal with whoever comes out on top from there. Ben, how far is your group?”

An unnatural silence descended on the clearing. The volume of it held Ben’s tongue. Then the silence was broken.

“Hello the fire.” It was White.

He came striding into the firelight as if he were coming among friends. Daylight was gone now and as he came closer, he smiled broadly at everyone. White had the audacity to motion at the people holding the bows that they should lower their arrows. None of them did.

“I overheard some of your conversation from over there.” As White spoke, Ben instinctively moved away from the man. If evil had a smell, White carried it with him. “I think it’s a fine idea that ya’ll mind your own business and we’ll tend to ours.”

Ben might not have noticed the Bible in White’s hands in other circumstances, but he had become accustomed to the idea that there was no printed matter here and it caught his attention.

“That racket you heard a while ago, it was an internal situation. A religious disagreement between our womenfolk and our menfolk, if you get my drift. I’d just like to let ya’ll know that we done settled our dif’rences now.” He laughed. “Turns out a lot of them women weren’t all that anxious to live like lesbian communists like this one here was trying to force on em.” He motioned towards Emma with his thumb.

White picked out Bridger as the guy in charge. “Looks like you’re the head honcho round here.” He held out his hand and stepped towards Bridger. “I’m Rudy White. Folks call me White.”

Bridger made as if he was going to shake the man’s hand, but Ben spoke. “Bridger. Don’t. Don’t go near him. The man is poison.”

White scowled at Ben. “Is that right? Is that what you think? Listen here friend. I saw you up in them trees a while back. Don’t think I don’t recognize you. I saw you hiding like a chicken in the bushes. I know you may have formed a sort of bad opinion of me and I want to show you that you’re wrong. See, we got us a little problem I think we might be able to help each other with.”

“Lookee here, Mr. Bridger. In the process of reuniting our little family, we had us that little skirmish y’all probably heard a while ago. A few people died and well, we had to disarm a few very angry ladies. The way I figure it, they’re gonna be nothing but trouble for us, but they’d prob’ly like it if we was to let em come with you. Now, I know you got these folks here with the bows and arrows, and that you probably got a bunch more over on that other side of the river. The thing is, the way I see it, you don’t have many more of ‘em on this side. You see what I’m saying here?”

Ben was pretty sure that White was correct. No matter what else White might be, he was a very able observer and seemed to be an exceedingly good tactician. Bridger had left most of his people in the town they were building across the river. He hadn’t expected to get involved in a god damn war. He had only wanted to rescue his lost girlfriend.

White went on. “Now, I ain’t really the kind of guy that likes to take advantage. After all, the good book here, it says to love thy neighbor, right? And ain’t that what we is? Just neighbors that live on dif’frent sides of the river. So listen here, Mr. Bridger, here’s what I’m offering. I got several hundred very riled up men back there that are still looking for a fight. The womenfolk ran better than they fought. I also got prob’ly fifty women that don’t want to go back home with us. We can’t just let em go. You know what they say, ‘Women, can’t live with em, can’t kill em’. Ben had never heard that particular misogynistic turn of the phrase. What say you and I make us a trade?”

Bridger was cautious. “A trade? What kind of trade?”

White smiled like a used car salesman about to close a deal. His bumpkin act hid a shrewd intellect.

“Give me them two…” He pointed to Smith and Emma. “I got me some business to settle with those two on a count of the fact that they were the ones that caused all this ruckus. In return, I’ll give you all the women we don’t want. Then, all ya’ll just swim across that river back there and mind your own business. You stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine. Fair enough?”

Bridger was silent, considering. “If I refuse?”

White gave that big gap tooth grin. “Well, that would be stupid, friend. If you refuse, we gonna be forced to kill them problem women and then we gonna kill you and everyone here. Then, after we rest a bit, we’ll prob’ly have to cross the river and kill all them folks. I imagine it might become a problem. But there ain’t no need for all of that. This is one o them situations where you gots to consider what they call ‘the greater good’. ”

“Take the deal. He’s not bluffing. ” Emma was speaking now. “He’ll do it. Those girls don’t deserve to die, maybe I do, I don’t know, I led them here. It’s my fault and I’ll take the consequences. Take the deal.”

“How do I know you’ll keep your end of things?” Bridger asked White.

“Well, I wouldn’t lie with my hand on the good book, would I?” Ben had already seen him do much worse.

“Done. Send the women to us.”

White shook his head. “Uh-uh. Sorry Capt’n. first you and your people go. We’ll send the women after you.” White pressed his advantage. “Also, you can leave them fancy bows and arrows behind. Y’all better get going.”

Bridger didn’t really have a choice. White had them and he knew it. Ben felt like he had just lost the most important battle of his life and he hadn’t even had a chance to fight.

The fire flared as a huge yell erupted from the dark woods around the clearing. Hundreds of people, men and women, moved in around them. It was the Believers. Bridger had to surrender and accept the terms or they’d all be slaughtered..

White’s face erupted in anger and he turned towards the Believers closing in on them. “I ordered you people to stay behind. Stop!” They didn’t stop. White had lost control.

The circle closed tighter.  A tall figure broke from the ranks and pointed a long arm at White.

“Antichrist! You shall not prevail!” It was the Bishop. Somehow, he was back in control. Ben didn’t know if things had just gotten better or worse. They were trapped by the Believers and the deal they had been about to make was no longer on the table.

Bridger, his archers, Leah, Ben, Emma, Smith, and Bella were pushed into tight circle. They were vastly outnumbered. The Believers formed a ring of at least fifty feet in diameter around them. They didn’t have a chance.

The Bishop raised his hand and Richard broke from the edges. Two men carrying a crucifix followed him.

The Bishop approached White who held the Bible before him like a weapon.

“Be gone Satan!” White shouted.

Several men jumped from behind and grabbed White. The Bishop snatched the bible. “This is mine.” Turning to Richard, the Bishop pointed at White, “Crucify him.” He said it as casually as he might have said ‘Tie him up’ or ‘Grab some milk while you’re out.’

They set about the task and the Bishop turned his attention towards the group clustered in the middle.

“Emma, it would give me great pleasure to do the same to you, but, unfortunately, I would have another rebellion on my hands if I did.”

“Where did you come from? How did….? What the fuck is going on? ” Emma didn’t even know what question to ask.

“Many of the women regretted leaving,” the Bishop explained. “The women you posted as guards had no love for me but they thought you might have me killed and they let me go. Each night while you slept, I plotted my counter rebellion within your own camp. During the day, I followed from a distance but each night, the loyal Believers helped me.  As White pointed out, a number of women remain loyal to you, but the majority would rather be with us.”

“How did you take control of the men? We heard the battle. White was in charge.” Ben could barely keep up with the pace that things were happening.

The Bishop looked at Ben and, unbelievably, smiled. “I feel as if I owe you an apology or maybe a thank you. You have helped me in more ways than you know. The battle was real. There were a few casualties, but my people would not massacre each other at the order of a madman. They are and always have been my flock. They knew I would return. They are my people.”

“What about the women loyal to me, the prisoners…what do you intend to do with them?”Ben looked at Emma and could almost see her flashing between two personas. It was almost as if reality were warping and two different avatars were fighting to occupy her space. He had to give Emma credit. She had been willing to sacrifice herself for those who followed her. He had apparently misjudged her.

“Yes, we have them.” The Bishop’s statement was punctuated horrific screams as White had thick wooden stakes pounded through his hands and feet. He was bound and nailed to the crucifix. The Bishop’s voice still had that ‘grab some milk’ quality to it. “It was nice of him to bring the crosses, don’t you think? Did I mention there are two?”

Ben’s blood went cold. The Bishop had someone in mind for a second crucifixion.

The Bishop smiled.

Bridger stepped forward. “What will you do with us?”

“Bridger. I’ve heard a lot about you. The Lord works in mysterious ways, Brother. I thought you were my enemy, but it turns out that the real enemy was within my own house.” White was struggling on the cross which lay on the ground. Several men began digging a hole. No one paid attention to his pleas.

“The Lord is merciful and so am I. I am going to let you go.”

They were all shocked by this. There must be a catch. The Bishop went on.

“Hopefully this will be the last time we see each other.” The Bishop cleared his throat. “Outside of this circle are a number of women that do not wish to stay among the Believers. There are also quite a few men that do not want to be a part of our community. Take them and leave now. Cross the river, return to your people, and go in peace. My people and I will return to our Cathedral. Those who do not wish to be a part of what we are building, can go with you. I realize now that we cannot force those who are not Believers to become so. This side of the river is our land. The other side is yours. It is my hope that in time we can establish trade and friendly relations – but for now, this is how it must be. Go now.”

A gap in the ranks of the Believers opened and  Ben, Emma, Smith, Bella, Leah, Bridger, and Bridger’s people filed out of the circle of Believers. There would be no battle here. As they left, the hole was deep enough for the crucifix with White on it to be stood up. White’s screams followed them. The agonized torture of his cries sapped the will of anyone who might have considered fighting.

The Bishop did as he had promised. He didn’t even ask to take their weapons. Beyond the fire, there was a joyful and sad reunion between Emma and a woman named Niev. Niev brought the news of those who had died, among them a woman named Patsy. Anne rushed to Smith and embraced him. It was as simple as that, they were allowed to leave. All who wanted to go joined them. Survival and freedom had been the only reason they had chosen to fight and when complete liberty was granted, none of them felt the need to continue the cycle of violence.

Those who wished to stay among the Believers, did so. They numbered in the hundreds. Those who wished to leave, perhaps seventy or eighty walked away.

Ben led them to where Abdullah, Sutreyu, Hydro and the others in his band had been waiting anxiously. Haruka had insisted they wait until morning to find out what had happened, but Ben brought them news and many refugees before the light of dawn. They were far enough from the Believers and the giant fire that they were no longer in danger – but Emma insisted on setting guards and establishing a secure perimeter.

Abdullah’s boat worked. It had to be bailed constantly, but using it and the long coils of rope from the wagon’s wheels they were able to create a ferry which they used to transport everyone to Bridger’s side of the river in a relatively short time. They worked for as long as it took, hoping that the Bishop wouldn’t change his mind and attack. Finally, with everyone on the safe side of the river and the boat dragged far up the shore. They found a sheltered place and Ben collapsed into sleep.

Chapter 47

The Third Gate

Ben looked upward towards the Heavenly City and the temple of Guanyin. What mysteries would be explained there? As he climbed up the steps he looked at each word engraved as a character in each step. They still made no sense to him. They still seemed random and devoid of order or meaning.

Apple, eyes, road, mist, triangle, milk. They made no more sense than the events he had recently witnessed in the waking world. Had they really been saved by the Bishop? He had thought the man completely evil and yet, the Bishop give them more than White had offered in a moment when he had complete control. Ben was sure White would have killed them all, regardless of what he said. He had seen the man kill an innocent woman in cold blood. White had planned to crucify Emma.

Ben shuddered as he remembered the man’s screams as stakes went through this hands and feet. He felt no joy in the memory of White’s agony. When he had recounted White’s fate to his tribe, Freya said “Good. The bastard deserved it.”

Ben lifted his legs one after the other as he climbed up the randomly marked steps. The gate came faster than he thought possible. On the far side of it he could see narrow dirt streets filled with people. Shops were doing brisk trade in caged birds, fruit, and other items. He hadn’t expected there to actually be a city at the top of the mountain. Where had all of these people come from?

This time, he would simply step through the gate. He was bare steps away from it when a familiar voice commanded him.

“Stop.”

The figure ahead of him wore a full cloak with a heavy hood. He couldn’t make out any features under the shadows of the cowl. The voice was neither male nor female but seemed to speak from inside his head.

“Why do you wish to enter the Heavenly City?”

He didn’t know the answer. That of course, was the answer.

“I want answers.” He said.

“Which questions do you follow?” the figure asked him.

“Who are you?” Ben asked.

“I am the Keeper of the Third Gate. Which questions do you follow?”

Ben had no idea what was expected of him. Was this another test? “What is the meaning of the symbols on each step?” he asked.

Laughter. “The symbols represent change. With each step there is change. Just as each step represents a specific change, each step in life is also a series of never ending changes. I am surprised, though not entirely displeased that you ask such questions. Haven’t you only recently seen that things are not what you thought they were? Haven’t you seen the flows of change in action?”

Ben thought of the many changes he had gone through in such a short time. From printer to inventor to slave to leader. He had thought he understood people only to learn that he hadn’t understood them at all. He had thought Vlad was a cringing coward. He had thought Sutreyu a young woman. He had thought Adam his friend and Emma a traitor. Yes. Change every step of the way.

It raised another question in him. “If everything is in a state of change how can one have faith? How can you believe in anything if you are in a constant state of doubt?”

The figure sat on the steps beyond the gate. “This is a better question. The answer is complicated but perhaps I can explain this in terms you will understand. Doubt is the tool one uses to explore faith. If I told you a glowing ember would not burn you, would you believe me?”

Ben thought about it. “I would probably need to check for myself. No offense.”

“Let’s say you checked and it was not hot. Let’s say that I hand you a hundred glowing embers and you checked each one and found I told the truth. Would you believe me when I handed you the next one?”

Ben answered quickly. “Yes.”

More laughter. “Do you see how doubt builds faith? And yet, the coal might be hot. All things change.”

Ben was confused. “Do you mean I shouldn’t trust you?”

“You don’t even know who I am. How can you trust me? But I can reveal myself enough to give you faith and to answer your doubt. If we have no doubt we can have no faith. Do you understand?”

Ben nodded. “Does any of this have to do with getting through the third gate?”

More laughter. “No. Nothing at all. Do you have more questions?”

Ben considered whether to ask his next question. “Who are the whales? Why did they rescue us? What do they want?”

No laughter this time. “Well, that is a question. You were all going to die.”

Ben said nothing.

“We saw a chance that you might still be able to achieve your purpose.”

Ben spoke. “You’re one of them.”

“I’m not, not one of them. I’m something different.”

“What do you, what do they want?”

“We seek what you should seek, a perfect human society.”

Ben was frustrated. “Then why would you bring people like the Bishop and White?”

The Keeper of the Third Gate threw back her hood. It was Sutreyu. Ben had suspected it all along. After all, she was the only one he had met on this path.

“Faith and doubt. Change. Things that are not challenged do not change. They rot.” Her voice was no longer in his head.

“Sutreyu? Who are you? Why am I here?”

She motioned for him through the gate. “Come into the Heavenly City Ben. We have a lot to talk about before you wake.”

The Begending

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