Σάββατο, 8 Ιουνίου 2019

Gordon's Torment

A long time ago, artist Gidion Van Der Swaluw and I created a short strip that would be intended as the start to a graphic novel about the last man, living inside an evil supercomputer. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a publisher for it but the pages are still here, for your viewing pleasure..






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Κυριακή, 2 Ιουνίου 2019

Midnight In the Blind Spot of Prometheus

Published in volume 14, issue 25 of Shlock! Magazine 



 
"No more, brother, no more," the Penitent said, before collapsing in the blue-tinted shadow of the hoar-trees.
He lay there, long-limbed and wide-eyed, his arms sprawled across the grim-shrubs, his fingers tangled against their skull-shaped warning facade. In the distance, the clanging, chomping noise of the Wasp came ever closer.
Up. Up, I gestured, but the Penitent stared up at me and nodded softly, pointing down at the red mess that were the soles of his feet, pulling up his dog-skin shirt to show the gangrenous wound, set against his ribs, laid out against his cracked and tearing skin.
"Tired. Hungry," the Penitent said, then nodded back at the stomping, clanking noise the Wasp made, crawling ever closer "doomed."
Close, I gestured again, pointing a patch of celeste colored grass, halfway covering the old sigil from the scripture of the Glow Church: a sun, surrounded by a trinity of gently curving blades.



"For you, close," the Penitent nodded and shoved at me, pointing out into the woods, toward the gently sloping ground. Like honey, the sunlight seeped through the trees, revealing the harsh, grey angles of the forbidden zone beyond.
The old song came to me, in the Church's tongue:
-Thees playse ees nat a playse ov honoor-
Again, I tugged at the Penitent, but he simply shoved me away, his withered arm suddenly filled with newfound strength.
"We'll meet again, won't we? Just ask God; ask Him to bring back the Runner and old Curious too," the Penitent said, groaning like an old man as he stumbled to his feet, fumbling with the row of mono-knives arranged on his belt. He held one up to the light, turning it to check its edge-so thin and sharp it was nearly invisible- and said "just don't forget the Penitent. I won't do well, out in the dark."
Remember, I gestured and the Penitent hissed at me, stomping his feet into the ground like he'd drive away a dog. The Wasp's whirring, skittering noises came closer, rising in frequency, then paused; I thought of it about to pounce, rolling back its hindmost row of legs, compacting its glistening body as it contracted its backside, releasing its stinger. I thought of old Curious' screaming turning into a gurgle as the sting went in and the blue foam came spilling out from the back of his throat and choked him, how his eyes faded into that shade of violet blue and I bolted into the vegetation, toward the forbidden zone.
Somewhere behind me, someone shouted a challenge, halfway heard through the sound of scraping stone. There was the barest whisper of branches of weathered metal and then just the sound of bare feet, slapping on hard, smooth rock, covered in hardy growing vines.
***
"God's stuck in the rock, whipped to it by his yellow regal robes," the Runner said, two days out of the  jungles of the Manhut'tan. They had been fumbling their way across the maze of thorns that had been set up since the days of the Glow Church, surrounding the place they'd called Anathema.
"Nonsense. God ain't stuck in the rock," old Curious spat, always eager to chip in with his knowledge of the Scripture "he's bound in iron, prodded and poked by many-fingered hands."
Drowned, I gestured, but old Curious simply waved  me away.
"I think he's just dozing," the Penitent said, always eager to chime in with a bit of blasphemy. We stared at him in horror, but Penitent just added "he wouldn't be much of a God, getting pushed around like that now would he?"
"Blasphemer," old Curious said and the Penitent shrugged.
"Heretic," the Runner said and the Penitent just waved him away.
"Tell the priest, if you can find one," the Penitent said and the others turned away, in  awkward silence. After all, the Glow Church had been gone a long time, their works and words only half remembered among their generation, all but lost to those born after their time.
Late that night, when we'd pushed past the thorn boundaries and the Penitent and I were stuck trying to map the way against the star-studded heavens, I nodded:
What if? Sleeping? Awake?
"Then I guess all we need to do is ask nicely" the Penitent said.
Eyes? Burning?
"Just don't look him in the face. Tiptoeing round his shadow might do," the Penitent said, his eyes halfway closing as he squinted against the starlight.
Danger? Church, I gestured but the Penitent had already lain himself down, gently snoring as he was sprawled across the wet grass. In the darkness beyond, two rad cats squared off against each other, dancing like fireflies in love.
***

The hard grey blocks at the heart of Anathema came closer, so tall they seemed to breach through the cover of trees, nearly touching the sky. A gash ran across them, one great diagonal slit that cleaved them from cloud cover to the teal moss in the ground, stretching out into the zig-zagging darkness beyond.
Above them, a word of binding, its letters still clinging on to the weathered rock-face. I read it out loud, the sounds coming out of me by rote:

                                                                                             "Waest Izol-esion Pie-lot Plant"

Cyan roots tangled around my foot, twisting my ankle as I came tumbling down into the dirt. For a moment, the world became nothing but a nonsense haze of pain and spinning color as I tumbled down, down and finally crashed into the too-smooth ground beyond.
Stomping out from the clearing, a hundred tiny legs clattering across the iris blue ferns, the Wasp came tumbling out, one eye run though by the Runner's mono-knives, stuck into its glistening skull all the way to the hilt.
Sanctuary, I gestured, making the sign of the Glow Church at it, willing it away. The Wasp paused, bobbed its smooth, flat head and then clicked its mandibles at me, as it came zipping toward the opening, almost too fast to see. I leaped back just as it cleared the distance between us, its carapace slipping through the opening, its legs clattering against the too-smooth surface of the slit before its head finally ground into a spark-spitting halt.
Not you. Never you, I gestured, laughing and the sound was all bent out of shape, even against the constant clatter and whirr or the Wasp's spinning wheel-teeth, the clacking noise of its vicious mandibles.
Forget you. Make sure, I gestured at the Wasp but it only lunged at me, uselessly swiping its mandibles at empty air.
***
"God is Glow. Beyond Him, naught but Dark. Notheen ov valoo iz heer." the Runner said, trailing down the final words of the half-forgotten prayer.
"Thees messetz iz ah wor-neeng ov denjer," the Penitent said, turning away from the makeshift mound of rocks we'd buried old Curious under. The blue foam still trickled out from the openings, seeming to shimmer as it seeped out into the light.
Denjer. Steel ther, I chimed in, making the Sign of the Glow. The Runner patted me on the back, as if to thank me. For all our piety, only old Curious had known the prayers.
"He won't be under there for long," the Runner said, as he followed the Penitent down the hillside, toward the edges of the blue forest. Out in the distance, the thorny spires on which God was bound, stuck out against the fading sunlight "we'll speak to God and he'll unmake it; the famine and the plague and the dead. He'll make it right."
Like prayer, I gestured.
"Aye, like the prayer" the Runner said, smiling.
"Let's hope you don't forget your verses then," the Penitent said.
***
Daylight fades into a sliver of starlight, then daytime comes again. In Anathema, time becomes nonsense and space is nothing but a series of slanted corridors, too-smooth walls covered in halfway faded signs.
Here, the sign of a lake, filled with dead fish, a man dipping in its waters as if in a baptism. Beside it, the sign of the man, coming apart like a paper doll, skin sloughing off him in layers.
Runner. Should have seen, I gesture at no one in particular, thinking of Runner, how he'd filled our water bottles. How many days had we drank from them? How long did I have left?
Past another turn, come the thorns, ascending from the ground. Among them, bird nests are laid out, their bedding withered and blackened. Malformed chicks look up at me, flapping their useless wings against the unforgiving ground. Their parents don't come, even after I take a few of the unhatched eggs and crack them, sucking whatever's in them without looking.
It tastes like old coins and rot, but I gulp it down.
Among the thorns,  there's another threshold, softly glowing. From inside there's the sound of waves, breaking against a shore. It's so small it forces me to crawl through it, across the weathered thorns that scrape at my belly and thighs.
The other side is an empty, warm place, peaceful like a womb. Warm water laps at my feet, making the cuts feel tingly. The floor slopes down into the dark, toward a point of light, revealing a mesh infested with greenish glowing algae that bobs softly in the half-light, so much like a beckoning hand.

And just beyond that, at the edge of the water, the shape of a man, wrapped in yellow tatters.
God? I gesture, but it doesn't respond. It simply drifts, slow as a mountain, toward me and I see that it is gaunt and withered and drowned, like in our prayers so I dip my legs into the water and I swim to him  and I hope I'll remember everything to bring the world back just right.
But more than that, I hope that he'll listen.
***
"Ask for green," a woman said to me, as she handed me the charm that hung from her neck.
"Ask for rain. Clean rain. Water, too," another man said, as he pushed a loaf of bread into the Runner's hands.
"Ask for the lumps to go away!" a hunchbacked woman called out, as old Curious lead us through the press of the crowd.
They asked for game and harvest and a new spring; they asked for cures to their ailments and for their dead to come back and I ran through the names again and again, even as I watched the cracked and drying patch of land we called Dixie fade away in the horizon.
"What are you going to wish for?" the Penitent asked me, as we reached the edge of the Charleoix jungle.
Remember. All of them, I gestured and the Penitent laughed.
"I guess it's a start," he said, as we began to trudge through the ferns, under the fading light.

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:

While this may defeat the original purpose of having the reader research the story themselves, this is actually a short based on the Waste Isolation pilot Plant (WIPP) made by the US government, as an experimental millenia-long warning against approaching nuclear waste dumps to the people of the future.

I hope you enjoyed this short story.


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Robert, Sally And the Wasteland

Published in in the Tales of the Zombie War webzine



The first time Robert saw Sally, it was through the scope of his hunting rifle. Joey hadn’t gotten himself killed yet.
“Let them at ‘er!” Joey’s voice echoed in Robert’s mind like a cartoon devil. “She’s a screamer, she’s gonna draw ‘em all on her, give us time to gather  the supplies and get the hell out!” Robert found himself earnestly considering this option and put his finger on the trigger.
He lined up the crosshairs to the back of her head, aiming for the tiny patch of exposed scalp where her pitch-black hair parted. His eyes traced the supple line of her neck, taking note of every tendon, every muscle as they clenched in unison under her skin. It made the walking cadavers that surrounded her seem all the more gruesome by comparison.
Robert was about to squeeze the trigger and watch the familiar red blossom materialize in the back of her head, when she turned her back toward her unliving hunters and ran. Her eyes were like November clouds, pregnant with rain. Without missing a beat, Robert aimed slightly to the left and planted a fine crimson flower on the forehead of one of the creatures, just as it was about to grab her.
She sprinted for cover. Of the remaining cadavers, two were distracted by the sound of Robert’s rifle and gave up the chase. Three stayed on target. Robert followed Sally’s progress through his scope, as she closed the distance toward him and Joey. It had been a while since he had seen a woman, though for the life of him, he could not say how long (his watch had finally given up on him on October the 21st, six months into the end of the world). She seemed almost unreal in his eyes: the set of her jaw, the lines on her face, the swelling of her breasts against her jumper…
Robert almost missed the cadaver that jumped out of the bushes and very nearly sank its teeth into her arm. His shot got it in the jaw, the bullet running through the bone, sending its teeth flying around. She kept running.
“Go get her” Robert uttered and Joey complied immediately. He may have been a golden boy once upon a time, but now that civilization was gone Robert was calling the shots. She had just reached the base of the cliff where he and Joey had taken cover. The five remaining dead were making their way toward it as well.
He lowered his gun and looked down at Joey, who was busy fending off two of the dead with his crowbar in hand, swinging it around like a madman. She kept on climbing past him, eyes fixed on Robert, on the safe haven at the top. Joey’s crowbar sank in a cadaver’s head and he fought to hold onto it. Another moved in and grabbed him by his shirt collar, ripping it off.
Robert thought of Joey’s fit body, his toned muscles and how they must have looked in the cadaver’s eyes at that moment: like bavette on his arms and side, butler’s steak on his chest. Sure he’d lose a bit of flavor (what with the dead not bothering with cooking their meals) but that wouldn’t make him any less desirable. Robert took his time, cocking his rifle and slowly brought the scope to eye level, when Joey let out a scream, kicked the remaining cadaver in the chest and sent it tumbling down onto the rocks. The he followed Sally all the way up, to Robert’s position.
“Thank you.” she panted.
“Don’t mention it.” Robert replied. He had already holstered his rifle.
“They’re coming up the hill! We need to go, now!” Joey shouted, pointing at the remaining cadavers, shambling up the rock face. Robert tossed him a backpack and they went down another path, easily avoiding their dead pursuers. Robert kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead all the way to camp. Sally didn’t make a sound. Joey wouldn’t shut up.
“What the hell, man?” he whispered in Robert’s ear. “You had that stiff. I know you had it, why didn’t you take the shot?”
“You were in the way.”
“Oh, that’s bull! Back in Mesa, you took that one down through the store window and it was right next to me!”
“You weren’t in the way then.”
“I could have died, you bastard!”
“You didn’t though.” he said as they reached camp. It was nothing more than an old RV, set by an abandoned mine, its entrance long since collapsed. Robert thought back to when they’d first found it: about the man-shaped bundle under the sheets that smelled like week-old garbage with the consistency of roadkill cats. Robert had smacked it once on the head, cracked it open to make sure. Joey put him in a sack and buried him under some rocks to keep the vultures away.
Now, the inside of the RV smelled like old sweat and machine lubricant. Sally didn’t seem to mind. She just crossed her hands and stared as Robert and Joey moved around, taking off the equipment, sorting out their supplies.
“I’m Sally” she said and her voice barely even registered over the clink of bottles and tin cans on wood. When she spoke again, Robert was sorting through half a dozen containers of antibiotics.
“I’m Sally” she said again and they both stopped. It was as if the previous events hadn’t even left a dent on their lives, as if the only woman they’d seen after a year of constantly fighting for their lives in the middle of the apocalypse hadn’t existed until she was heard that exact moment. They turned to look at her and she shrunk. She hung her head and kept talking.
“I used to be a kindergarten teacher, so I guess I’m not real good with a gun.” she said. “But I know first aid and I can cook, if I can get a fire going!” she added. “I don’t want to be a burden. I don’t want you to kick me out.” she muttered.
“No one’s kicking you out.” Joey said and Robert felt suddenly cheated. He saw him put his arms around Sally and holding her, calming her down, reassuring her merely an hour after he had tried to convince Robert to leave her to the dead. “You’re among friends now.”
Robert nodded and smiled. Jealousy writhed and cracked its tail inside his guts like a frightened viper. He didn’t say a word. Sally kept talking for a while. Joey kept holding her.
“I came from Phoenix. I was with a group of people. We’d holed up in a fallout shelter. When food ran out, we…thought we could risk it. But Phoenix had got it way worse than we thought. We almost didn’t make it out that time.”
“Sh, sh, it’s okay, it’s okay…”
“There was this man with us, Ian Collins. He was Special Forces, SEAL or something. He kept us together. Those that were left of us after we almost got ourselves killed back then. There were six of us. We’d been about a dozen in the bunker.”
“You don’t have to go on if you don’t want to…” Joey cooed, but Sally went on:
“Ian helped us get out of there. He had what it took. We didn’t. There was a kid with us, little boy called Malcolm. He’d been bitten by one of the dead. His mom was a friend of mine, she made me swear I’d hide it. But I told Ian. And Ian waited until we’d gotten out of town and then he…”
She didn’t cry. She teared up a bit, but she didn’t cry. Hard as nails, thought Robert.
“Malcolm’s mom never forgave Ian. She tried to kill him once or twice. Ian never hit her, not once. I did, when she tried to shoot him in the back. He was our only chance. Then we reached the gas station by the interstate and there was a herd of the dead there, just out of sight. Ian didn’t see them, so they bit him and then they bit everyone else.”
“How did you get away?” asked Joey, feigning interest.
“We didn’t. I was lucky, just ran. You guys got me out of it.” she smiled at Robert. “Was it you? The guy who shot Ian, when he was about to bite me?”  Robert nodded yes. Sally smiled at him.
“So who did I kill? With the crowbar?” asked Joey.
“Mr. Wilder. He was an asshole.”
Joey laughed along with Sally and Robert went on with setting up the supplies. By the time he was done packing the antibiotics on the shelf, Sally was laughing at some of Joey’s made-up survival stories. While Robert was busy cleaning his gun and checking his ammo, Joey had cracked open the last bottle of whiskey in the world and was chugging it down with her.
Robert was halfway through reassembling his rifle while Joey and Sally were writhing on the bed, tearing their clothes off each other. Robert finished his work and left the RV. There was thunder in his head.
He took first watch and counted the time by Joey and Sally’s moans. By what he reckoned was Sally’s third orgasm, he knocked on the door and half-dragged Joey outside. Sally was sleeping on the bed, the moon peeking through the window at her naked form. Robert suddenly felt a strange longing, a desperate urge to have her, but he knew this wasn’t the way things were. Even now, even at the end of the world, he knew he couldn’t make her pick him.
And why would she pick him? Why pick a wiry, balding survivalist over a pre-disaster golden boy? Why choose tenderloin over rib-steak? Why pick the man who saved her life over the pretty bastard who took her for bait?
Robert lay on the bunk bed that night, his back to Sally. When Joey walked in, Robert kept himself wondering exactly how much pressure it would take to break a man’s neck with a single blow. They made love and Robert kept feigning sleep.
***
“When are you going to tell her?”
“Tell her what?”
“That you wanted to leave her to the dead. That I was the one who thought we should save her.”
“Hey, hey, man! We both did it, okay? We both risked our asses for her.”
“Yes, but you were the one who wanted to leave her.”
“That was then, this is now”
“She’s a screamer. She’s gonna draw every one of ‘em to her! Isn’t that what you said?”
“Jesus Christ, what is this shit? Where did this-oh you bastard. Oh, you bastard. You’re jealous, aren’t you? You’re jealous she picked me over you!”
In his mind, Robert’s fist smashed against Joey’s jaw, spit and blood fanning out of his split lips.
“Piss off, Joey.”
“You’re jealous because she picked me! You just can’t get over the fact that she’d rather have me than you, aren’t you?”
In Robert’s head, Joey pinned on the ground and the rock in his hands was rugged and just the right size. He brought it down on Joey’s skull and watched it cave in, popping an eye in the process.
“Shut up, Joey”
“Hey man, you were there! You saw me, I just saw a chance and I jumped at it! The lady made a choice is all!”
In Robert’s thoughts, he had taken his bowie knife and cut Joey’s tendons and left him there to bleed out, the scent and his screams drawing in every dead and vulture for miles around to feast on his living brain.
“Will you shut up? We’re exposed here.”
“Okay. You’re not mad, are you?”
In the confines of his head, Robert was killing Joey over and over again.
“No”
“Okay, then.”
***
Sally was hunched over an old cooking pot, stirring its contents with an old wooden ladle Joey had found inside an abandoned department store. Chunks of canned meat were floating inside the stew. Sally was muttering an old song under her breath. Joey was in the RV.
“Met a possum in the road, blind as he could be…”
Robert patted the handle of his rifle. He joined in:
“Jumped the fence and whipped my dog and bristled up at me.”
Sally laughed and Robert laughed right along with her. She sounded like the clinking of fine china. He sounded like steel beads rolling down a lead pipe.
“You don’t think we could find ourselves a banjo, do you?” asked Sally.
“I don’t play the banjo.”
“Neither do I. Joey used to play the piano, though. Got himself an award, back when it meant something.”
The thing inside Robert coiled again and spit poison into his brain. The words rushed out his mouth before they were even outlines in his mind.
“Joey wanted to leave you to the dead, back when we first saw you. I was the one who saved you.” Sally fell silent all of a sudden. The fire ebbed. Only the stew kept gurgling, oblivious to the dramatic tension of the moment.
“You’re a liar. A dirty goddamn liar.” she said but even Robert (who never was much of a judge of character) could tell she didn’t believe a word of what she’d said. Sally walked inside the RV. She and Joey didn’t make love that night or any other night since then. She wouldn’t talk to Robert either.
***
Joey got himself killed about a week later. Robert’s only regret was that he had almost nothing to do with it.
They were crossing the Fiesta Mall on their way to Best Buy, looking for ammo and propane tanks for the RV. Joey was in a foul mood and accidentally tripped over a carefully set stack of paint cans, which tumbled and thundered across the empty space, stirring up every cadaver inside the building.
They ran all the way to the third floor and locked themselves inside a gun store, but by that time the massed horde outside had grown so large it wouldn’t have any trouble bursting through the door and devouring them. Joey started praying. Robert looked for a way out instead.
“We’re going to die.”
 “No, we aren’t. There’s a door in the back, leads to the storage. We can take the stairs all the way down and run through the parking lot. I just need you to-”
“Just tell me this: you told her, didn’t you?”
 “Joey, shut up, okay? I need you to-”
“You did! You told her everything! Goddamn you, man, how could you do this to me?”
“You never deserved her, you stupid bastard.”
As if following some unspoken cue, the dead burst in through the reinforced door that moment. Their putrid mass rolled inside the store and Joey barely had time to scream as cold, rotting fingers went for his hair and clothes. He fought with the terrible strength that comes from desperation, but it was hardly a contest. Joey was pulled into the mass and he became sirloin and rib steak and juicy bavette, wrapped in cotton threads.
Robert ran across the store, back into storage, made his way to the ground floor and then ran from the mall all the way across Mesa to camp. Sally was waiting outside the RV. She knew exactly what had happened.
“Where’s Joey?”
“There was nothing I could do.”
“How the hell did it happen?”
 “Dead got him.”
“Was he alive, when they...bit down?”
“No” Robert lied. “Shot him in the head. He didn’t feel a thing.”
Sally walked away from him and sat by the mine’s entrance. Robert knew there was no point in trying to console her. He rummaged through Joey’s stuff, kept the useful ones and fed the rest to a fire.
“You hated him, didn’t you? Because I picked him over you.” Sally’s voice came from behind him like a condemnation slipping through the lips of a Fury.
“Yes. But I didn’t kill him.”
“No. You didn’t. What the hell am I going to do?”
“You can leave, you know. I wouldn’t blame you.”
“Leave? And go where, exactly? Mesa’s swarming with the dead and even if I chose to leave this place, I wouldn’t know where to go. I can’t shoot, I can’t hunt, I can’t survive out there.” They were both silent for a while.
“I need you.” she said.
It wasn’t an I love you, or even a half-hearted I want you. It was a desperate, short sob, barely over a whisper. But it worked. Robert looked at Sally and pulled her in his arms. They made something that certainly wasn’t love.
*** 
As Arizona summer retreated in the wake of winter, so did Robert and Sally. Mesa was tapped out, filled with the dead and the RV was hardly a proper refuge for winter. They trekked across the interstate, avoiding human contact (what little there was).
They spent the winter in the penthouse of an abandoned apartment building in Tempe. Robert tossed the corpses of the old couple that lived there into the street. He taught Sally how to scavenge for food.
In the spring, they left Tempe, which was suddenly drawing a large crowd of bandits, come to hunt for stragglers. They headed for Phoenix. Sally had to learn how to handle a gun.
In the summer, Phoenix smelled like an abattoir as big as the world. The dead were starting to rot and crumble. There was a fire that engulfed half the city, so they sought refuge in South Mountain. By the middle of July, Sally would set her own traps and bring some game back to camp.
In the fall, the world was silent. Sally hadn’t seen another person for days. Robert would let her handle a gun on her own and she knew she didn’t need him. She sneaked up on him while he was sleeping, holding the bowie knife that she used for skinning rabbits.
All she had to do was drag the blade across his neck. Give him a big red smile.
But the desire for revenge that had given her the strength to stick with Robert was no longer there. No matter how long and deep she searched her soul in that long instant she found out that murder was no longer in her heart. She didn’t love Robert but she didn’t want him dead either. She found herself lingering in that strange state between necessity and love.    
Robert’s eyes opened at that instant, transfixing her.
And she brought the knife down, driving it through his throat and into the ground, twisting it as he choked on his own blood.
He moved his hand slowly, wrapping his fingers around her wrist, gently squeezing
Sally clawed at his face, forcing him to release his grip and drove the knife through his eye and into his brain
She let go, the knife slipping from her fingers falling to the ground
She reached out and grabbed his neck and choked him until his tongue slid out of his mouth, lifeless and bloated
Robert got up and held her and there was a terrible weight in her chest that suddenly lifted, a door in her heart that was locked for a very long time and was now open
Before he knew it, she grabbed the knife and plunged it into his back
And Sally felt herself tilt and sway inside her own head, the emotional equilibrium broken, tumbling down inside her own mind, until the tears came and she held Robert tightly.
She wept, he held her and then they were finally at peace there, at the end of the world.



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Runneth Dry

Published in Schlock! Magazine



"Hole's dried out"
"What do you mean, 'dried out'? It's not filled with anything, it's just...a hole."
"Yeah, um, it's still...out, though."
"Did you check inside?"
"Yes, yes we did."
"You need to go way in there, you know. Past the elbow."
"We did that, yeah. Came back with nothing."
"Did you try a drone?"
"We tried drones, we tried clamps, we tried perispopic robot arms. We even brought in Kevin, that weird guy from Logistics..."
"Kev the Noodle? Did he get anything?"
"Not a damn thing. So we got to digging. Sent in a few boys with jackhammers, then a couple of excavators, then we blew the rest of the way down and we still got nothing."
"Did you ask Kevin to try then?"
"He was the first one in, last guy out."
"Good man, Kevin."


"Point is, there was nothing don there. Nothing but a whole load of dust and empty air. There's still a deeper, narrower point, but we haven't had a chance to get a depth reading yet."
"Can't you just...make it wider?
"Not unless we want the government to get a whiff of what we're doing. Besides, one of the guys in the prospecting  team thinks we're about to hit a sandstone bank. If we keep going, the sinkhole could swallow up HQ in the blink of an eye."
"What if we made a new Hole?"
"What in god's name are you talking about?"
"Simon and I, we didn't...find this hole. We dug it, you know. Back when we were kids. It's how we found the Perpetual battery prototype. If we could just..."
"I don't think you made the Hole, sir. Or if you did, I don't think that's the reason why it kept spilling out all those artifacts for the past 60 years. Sir, I think we...what are you doing?"
"I'm ringing Margaret. She ought to know where Simon's kept his toy shovels. He loved those things to bits, God bless his soul..."
"Sir, I think it would perhaps be best if we just...came clean."
"No. No, no no no..."
"If you will let me finish..."
"No. Out of the question."
"Sir, if we make the first move, we can control the narrative. We can spin this in our favor."
"Spin this in our favor? What the hell is so favorable about 'fraud finds tech in Hole'?"
"Try 'young dreamers stumble upon the future'."
"Try 'high school dropout steals tech he dug up and hires nerds to reverse engineer it'."
"Try 'tech giant proof of Many-world interpretation'."
"And how are we going to spin this to the auditors exactly? When they decide to contest our patents, or start looking into where those R&D subsidies really ended up? Unless you think I bought the board all those Bermuda vacation homes out of my own pocket."
"Oh."
"Damn right, oh. So if you don't want to end up penniless and afraid in a prison cell for the rest of your days, I suggest you get digging."
"Unless..."
"No more of this narrative nonsense, please."
"Unless it's not just a Hole."
"Of course it's not just a Hole, damn it. How many Holes can do what this one's been doing?"
"What if it's a wormhole? An Einstein-Rosen Bridge? "
"Uh..."
"What if it's traversable? I mean, where the hell else did all those thingamabobs came from, if not from another universe?"
"Then how come nothing else is coming through? How come no-one else came through, these past 60 years?"
"Could be, whoever's on the other side was treating this like the Voyager. One-way communication, real slow-like and now they're waiting for some sort of confirmation...made it so only living things could cross through, God I don't know but it's worth a shot, isn't it?"
"So what, we just slip on over and ask politely? What if they refuse?"
"We'd still have proven the existence of parallel worlds, maybe get a Nobel and live off the book royalties. And if push comes to shove, we can always just let the board buy us out."
"DeVries was a bit eager to see me off this company last quarter...you think he'd make a good fall guy?"
"The best, sir."
"How soon do you think we can get a man down there?"
"Kevin should be good to go; should take a couple more hours if we fit him with an EVA SUIT, for good measure."
"No, might as well rip the bandaid. Get our man down there so we can get to the bottom of this."
"Thank you sir. To be honest, I'd taken the liberty of doing so before reaching you. I was hoping you'd agree to this."
"So Kevin..."
"He's crossed the threshold an hour ago, contacted us through his attached tether. He made contact, sir. Kevin made contact with another universe!"
"So reel him in, then! Let's see what our boy's got for us! You think they want to discuss terms? Set up a contact post?"
"Site-team says Kevin's come back with a message."
"Well, what are you waiting for? Send it over..."
"Sir, site-team hasn't even had a chance to quarantine this yet..."
"Then get a damn picture, send it to my phone, beam it to my damn brain, just do it now goddamn it!"
"They're sending it up as we speak...bringing it up on the conference monitor and...oh."
OUT OF FREE STUFF. BRING VIRGINS.
"Get DeVries on the phone."


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Buzz

Published in Schlock! Magazine


We're two weeks out of exiting Q-space, halfway through slingshotting along the orbit of Kepler-186f when I finally hear the buzzing.
BbbzzzzZZZZzzt
It flashes across my ear, the sound of it like the crack of a tiny bullwhip and from the corner of my eye, I catch it: the tiny black shape, wobbling through the air, miniscule wings beating too fast to see.
It bobs in the dry, recycled air of the command module once, twice, then finally lands near a dried patch of mayo, stuck among the blinking lights of panel #3.
"No. No freaking way," I whisper, as I watch the first fly to make it outside of the Home System rub its front and hind legs in anticipation of the feast. Its tiny, compound eyes seem to almost glisten in the off-blue light of the simulated evening in the module.
Eyes glued to the fly, I reach out for something to swat it with: my hands trace the hard angles of one of the command tablets, a sheaf of laminated protocol papers, an edible plastic mug.
Finally, my fingers get tangled into a length of super-elastic hose that Tanaka had salvaged off the old food processor, its ends weighed down by squeeze-toy silicone balls. It's lacking some spread, but it should more than make up for it impact-wise.
"Atta boy, you stay right there..." I whisper, almost too soft to hear, as I pull back the rubbery length and line it up with the fly, pulling back as far as it will go. I hold back my breath to steady myself and let go, the stretch-toy whipping through the air as quick as a bullet.
Splap!
The weighed end slaps into Panel #3, just as the fly launches off the polymer paneling, letting the switches surrounding it take the bulk of the blow. Three of them flip at once and the lights in the command module flip to a sepia yellow, letting out a shrill alarm.
Jettisoning biome 4J , the ship's AI voice comes in and I flick the switches back into place all at once, before our entire farming strip gets launched into the cold, outer dark.
BbbzzzZZZZZZzzt!
The buzzing comes again, as soon as the alarm has faded, the fly zipping past me to land on a cryostasis-regulating touchscreen, zipping off it just as the stretch-toy slaps at the controls. All at once, the AI begins the process of thawing Alvarez and the rest of the Shift-3 crew and I have to scramble to get them back under before they go into cardiac arrest.
I whip the stretch-toy one last time, aiming at the fly, perched in a corner of the control module, well away from any panels, dials and screens, only for the weighted end to bounce right back off the smooth polymer walls and slap me right in the eye.
"Oh, your mother!" I shout just as white-hot pain lances into my brain and I whip the stretch-toy around like a madman, hear it slapping against the ceiling uselessly, then slap at the door controls and turn the air conditioning way up, until the artificial breeze shoos the fly out the door and into the ship proper, where it can't do any more damage.
"How the hell did you even get here?" I call out to the fly, as I watch it meld into the  shadows lingering in the twists and turns of the ship's bridge "thought the pencil-necks back home sterilized the food, put all our clothes through UV just to keep you out. Hell, they flash-freeze the seeds, you know that?"
Creeping into my field of view, the fly crawls out of the dark and onto the crescent shaped reinforced glass pane of the research lab. I whip the stretch-toy at it, missing it by a hair's breadth, the end of it slapping the security lock. The lab's door slides open, letting out a gust of cold, dead air.
"Unless..." I say, following the fly inside the room, watching it circle the gleaming counters, the spotless surfaces of unbelievably expensive medical equipment, before finally settling near a row of perfectly arranged beakers, connected by some inexplicably intricate series of tubes, a ruby-red liquid slowly dripping through them "you overwintered. Curled your little larva body up into a ball and slowed down your metabolism so you'd keep warm. It's how your kind got around, in the refrigerator days."
Again, the stretch-toy slaps at empty space were the fly used to be and one of the beakers gets thrown out of balance, let loose from the contraption. It spins slowly into the diminished gravity and I grab it out of the air but the rest of the liquid's started shooting out of the gap in the tubing and is punching a hole through the counter and into the flooring below.
Warning. Containment compromised. Engaging emergency measures.
A stream of acrid blue smoke starts to pour out of the vents as the doors start to close and the fly and I race for the gap, clearing the bridge just as the lab's magnetically locked doors clamp shut behind us. I go for a cheap shot, but the fly whips around me once, twice, then charges just as I try to go for a rebound shot. The end slaps against a jutting bit of plastic, then smacks me right in the liver.
It takes 20 seconds for the pain to kick in, just as the fly makes a victory lap around me then heads off toward the biomes. Pain washes over me like rolling flame and I crumple like a rag doll onto the floor, trying to catch my breath.
How can I say this nicely, Wong's voice echoes in my head as she's ticking off boxes during the last psych evaluation; you have trouble...letting things go?
But the company needed somebody that had handled 6 months' worth of in-transit isolation before and they wanted them cheap and Wong's diagnosis helped me get the job even if they did pay me a pittance and now here I was...
"Up against a shiksha fly!" I roar and step into the biomes, snapping away at the water regulators (letting a stream of lukewarm recycled water hit me in the face) and knocking down the tardigrade glass casing (the glass crunching painfully under my ship loafers) and popping off the oxygen regulator's cap (which caused a brief fire as it brushed by a length of temporarily exposed heating coils).
We pirouette, the fly and I, twisting and turning like poltergeists in love until the fly zipps right beside my ear just as the stretch-toy smacks me in the chin. I bite down on my tongue hard but keep myself from blacking out against the pain, as I watch the fly zip inside the fungal enclosure, laid out against the airlock.
"Goh yoo, yoo widdle noodgeh," I managed against my swollen tongue, as I shut down the door to the enclosure. The fly lands behind the glass, uselessly searching for a way out of the maglocked door, even as I fumble for the big red lever that causes the entire enclosure to bathe in red light and the ship AI to go:
Jettisonning biome 32D; unauthorized activity detected, please...
And I slapp my thumb against the DNA lock, bypassing the dumb machine, watching as the room hisses like a dying serpent and everything shudders then goes quiet right before the airlock opens up into the great yawning cosmos and the entire enclosure goes hurtling of out into the nothing, tumbling away into the cold and the dark.
In the space between the blinks of an eye, I catch the fly looking up at me, its compound eyes glistening with escaping moisture, as its legs are ripped away from the glass and it becomes just a speck of black against the stars. I stick my face against the glass and check, again and again, keeping the airlock open well past the safety limit until I am sure the biome is nice and empty.
I've only just closed the airlock against the AI's protestations about possible critical pressure loss, when the buzzing comes again, from somewhere near the legume patch, louder than before:
BbbzzzzZZZZzzt


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Σάββατο, 1 Ιουνίου 2019

The God Of Familiar Pastures

Published in Issue 13, Volume 11 of Schlock! Magazine 


The Penitent came to the Holy Mountain on Good Friday, bounding across the steep rocky slopes in defiance of gravity. He weaved across the crumbling rooftops of abandoned monasteries with infinite grace. Father Procopius was the first one to see him, as he exited the temple with the Epitaph rocking on his shoulders. Johnny the junkie, his nephew and only other person with whom Procopius shared the monastery shouldered the rest of its weight, clumsily struggling with the hewn wood balanced on his shoulders.

The Penitent appeared gigantic at first, his immense size stretching from one end of the horizon to another. It was a thing of impossible, alien beauty; a creature with a body that seemed to be made out of molten glass, translucent and radiant and infinitely malleable. In the blink of an eye, it began to decrease in size: first, it was as big as Mount Athos. In a heartbeat, it was as tall as a cathedral. By the time the Penitent's webbed toes crunched on the churchyard gravel, it was at eye-level with Procopius, a halo of light as radiant as the sun hanging above its featureless head.

Johnny began to howl at the sight of the Penitent. The Epitaph rocked violently as he let go, the effigy of Christ inside rattling. Stretching one hand gracefully, the Penitent grapsed the Epitaph and stopped its descent. Peace it said without speaking, raising one arm with five fingers outstretched, waving hello like a child. Procopius' heart jumped in his chest.

"We wish to finish our procession. Then we will talk." he spoke, marvelling at how level his voice sounded, even at the sight of the alien. He had seen others; footage of strange creatures broadcast from distant planets, blessed with strange intelligence. But he had never seen an other-worlder up close before. The Penitent's broadcast was measured, understanding. Procopius shouldered the Epitaph on his shoulder, its weight signigificantly reduced. Johnny skampered in the distance. The Penitent took his place without question. Taking the first step, Procopius began to sing the Epitaph dirge:

To the grave they set you
Oh Christus,
And the Hosts of angels hail,
Praises sung to your Descent


Procopius sang the psalm, keeping the tempo with every step. He sang with all his might, but still it was only his voice that echoed across Mount Athos. Two decades ago, the monastery processions would stretch along Athos, the gilded lanterns of the monks girding the harsh rock in a spiral of flickering lights. The singing of the pious would make Chalkidiki shudder, as they stuggled up the craggy narrow paths to the top of the mountain, there to lay Christ to rest. But mankind had long since lost interest in the God of the Earth, choosing instead to climb on gleaming vessels and head for the new pastures of the cosmos. Some had chosen to make their homes in the underground cities of the Moon. The criminals and the unwanted had established themselves in the domed colonies of Mars. And the dreamers, the visionaries and the daredevils had boarded black arks that skirted beneath the surface of space itself, heading for the distant pastures of the super-Earths.

Woe, Light of the World!
Woe, oh Light of mine!
My tormented Jesus
Cried the stricken Virgin

His brothers, the other monks, went the same way. Procopius saw them all go, saw the tinted windows of the monsteries go dark like empty sockets, the procession dwindle in numbers every year. Some said they would board the arks to bring the word of God to a new flock so they could strengthen their resolve as they toiled beaneath an alien sun. Others said they'd look for God themselves, perhaps hoping that Heaven was a place floating freely in the cosmos. The rest -these offered no excuse- left when the Church's coffers began to run dry. But he stayed. For three long, lonely years he stayed to take care of Johnny the junkie, the blight of his brother's life. For three long years, Procopius kept the faith alive, performed the rituals and fasted as he was supposed to, going through the motions even as the cancer in his bowels gnawed at him. Not once had he doubted the sanity of his actions.

Procopius climbed the final steps, setting the Epitaph at the top of Mount Athos, the Penitent mirroring his motions flawlessly. It kneeled before him, bowing its head, perhaps following some subtle hint or a deeply-rooted instict. Procopius sang the final verses, as he removed the effigy of Christ and placed it inside the symbolic grave hewn into the living rock:

We honor thee, oh weeping Virgin
we honor thee, oh Christus
we stand vigil at your Son's grave,
oh God above.

With the ritual done, Procopius turned to the kneeling Penitent, studying its inhuman beauty, its unworldly form. Only now, with his duties completed, did he grasp the strangeness of situtation: the  uneathly creature that had come to him on this day of mourning for...what? What could a thing like it want with an lonely old monk?

Forgiveness, said the creature without words, broadcasting a simple message to Procopius' mind. A world that spun around a hungry red star, its surface paved with gleaming cities. A race of things like the Penitent, reaching out across the length and breadth of the Universe and then...

...then the secret of Creation, unraveled at last. Young, questing minds pulling and pushing at the edges of the cosmos and finding the traces of the blueprint underneath. The knowledge for fine atomic manipulation, transmutation of base matter to anything. The Logos of the Creator bestowed to the multitudes, depriving matter and fortune and hunger and thirst of any meaning. Paradise, if only for a moment. The almost-gods, spreading out across the length and breadth of the Universe-their Universe- like a plague, sucking suns dry, extinguishing galaxies to sate their endless, pointless greed. Light-years worth of life and light folding into themselves, extinguished until finally everything becomes dark and cold. What is left of Creation cannibalizes itself in a frenzy of heat-death. Only the Penitent remains.

"Come inside." Procopius said to the Penitent, placing a hand on its shoulders. Its flesh felt cool and smooth like fine porcelain. "Don't stay out in the cold." The Pentitent followed in the monk’s footsteps, the two of them a solemn procession. When they returned, Johnny had disappeared inside the monastery. From the crashing sounds inside, Procopius knew that he was rummaging pointlessly through the pharmaceutical supplies again; perhaps looking for something to ease the devil that gnawed at his brain. Procopius led the Penitent through the Chruch and into the mess hall. Rummaging through the kitchens, he rustled a plain dish of bread and olives, with a jar of honey. Perhaps the pentitent had no use for food or drink, but he felt duty-bound like a host to do so.

"Can you speak? Like a man, I mean." Procopius said softly. The Penitent examined the monk for a moment, looked past the man's eyes, traversed the fold of his brain and then spoke in impeccable Greek through a newly-formed mouth.

"Yes"

"I have very little to offer you, in way of answers. If it's widsom you seek, then perhaps I am the wrong man to ask. As for faith, I can safely say that there are more pious men than I in the Universe. Why have you come here?" Procopius asked.

"To seek penance." the Penitent said "to find forgiveness for the crimes of my race."

"I cannot absolve anyone's sins, not even my own. That is God's work, not mine."

"You are the last of your kind in this place. The others have either abandoned their purpose or decided to tread the path of plenty. You are alone, as I am alone. I have nowhere else to turn to." the Penitent said, its voice like clinging glass.

"Then stay and be welcome. All I can offer is understanding." Procopius said. Johnny stumbled inside the mess hall, shaking like a frightened animal. Opening his mouth, the young man let out a shrill, animal cry and then collapsed on the floor. "And patience." Procopius said, as he made his way to his nephew and struggled to drag him by the armpits. The Penitent grasped Johnny's ankles and they carried him to his bed.

"It will have to do." the Penitent said, as they laid him to rest.

***

The Holy Light did not come from Jerusalem the next day. The
Archbishop himself had boarded an off-world ark along with the rest of his flock, abandoned the Holy Sepulchre and the city of God to the hands of the people that lingered. Procopius throught of the ancient bronze-cast candelabras smoldering pointlessly in the ancient tamples, the wax dripping down on the cave floor where Christ was laid to rest, the divine light sputtering as the
candle-wick waned. Two thousand years of tradition, sputtering and hissing and finally disappearing. His heart grew faint at the thought.

Treading lightly across the stone floors, Procopius headed from the inner sanctum. A tiny flame burned in the cast-iron vigil, the last vestige of the Holy Light left in all of Mounth Athos. Fresh candle in hand, Procopius leaned closely and lit up the  fuse with infinite care before setting it on the notch in the wall above the gilded Gospel book. Perhaps the Archbishop would have frowned at such shoddy practice, but then again the Archbishop had abandoned his appointe place so who was he to judge?

In the vigil, the last vestige of the Holy Light hissed, sputtered and went out with a tiny little sound. Procopius found this to be eerily appropriate.

“I can make more.” the Penitent said softly, peeking into the inner sanctum. “All you have to do is ask.”

“It is not mere fire. It's the light from Jerusalem.” Procopius said softly, biting his lip as he felt his bowels knot themselves in his gut. Closing his eyes, he felt the needle-sharp teeth of
the cancer as they raked across his insides. “A symbol of his testament with man.”
“I know. I went through your Scriptures last night, studied them in detail. I know how to create it. For me, it is a simple process.” the Penitent went on “I can make a pillar of Holy Light, synthesize it out of clean mountain air.”

“Thank you, but I'll make do with what I have.” Procopius said, picking up the gospel. With trembling hands, he began to leaf through it, seeking the hymns for Good Saturday to begin his lonely ritual.

“I can cure you, too.” the Penitent said. “The thing that afflicts you, it is nothing to me. I can remove it with a touch if you will let me. I could restore the damage, if you want. Make you younger.”

“Why don't you take a seat? I'm about to start Mass.”

“You want to die?” the Penitent asked, prickling up his newly-formed eyebrows. Procopius saw his own expression in them, knew that the Penitent had picked it up from his mind.

“I want to live on my own terms. Deliver myself to God in my own time.”

“What good would that do?” the Penitent said. Procopius strode out of the inner sanctum, ignoring him. He began to sing the first verses of the hymn, preaching to an empty church. The Pentitent's shoulders sagged like a petulant child's. It stepped out of the hall in great bounds. Procopius watched the light of the Penitent's halo recede. The gnawing in his bowels became sharper, stronger. Perhaps the cancer had redoubled his efforts, feeding off his anger.

***

When Mass was done, Procopius replaced the fuse on the vigil and relit it with the Holy Light. The Penitent had not come back. The monk feared that perhaps he had somehow slighted it, treating it like an arrogant child when he should have shown some understanding.

Making his way to the cells Procopius heard a long, anguished cry. It pierced through the monastery, a keening noise that bore into his soul. He knew that sound, had heard it years ago; when he had visited his brother's house in Athens and tread through the blighted threshold on the day that Johnny first suffered his near-fatal overdose. The boy's room smelled like concentrated fear and old sweat. The boy's mother had burst through the door and held him even as Johnny spewed black bile on her lap, the needle still sticking out from his arm.

Procopius found the Penitent leaned over Johnny, cradling him in his arms.

“I didn't know! I didn't...” the Penitent pleaded. All around him, syringes were scattered in a crude circle. All of them empty. Johnny was convulsing in the Penitent's arms, shivering. His eyes had rolled back in his sockets. Procopius shoved the Penitent aside, cupped Johnny's head in his hands.

“Lay him down.” Procopius ordered the Penitent and leaned over Johnny's mouth. He began to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, stopping every now and then to pump at his nephew's chest. Blood pumped out of the puncture-points across the veins of his arms, the blood and the drugs mixing into a faint pink hue.
“Tell me what to do!” The Penitent pleaded, panicking. Procopius grasped one of its hands, placed it at the back of Johnny's head.

“Hold him.” Procopius muttered, blowing back the breath of life into Johnny's mouth, pumping, blowing, pumping again. Johnny began to convulse, his body shuddering, every muscle in his body jerking spastically. “Hold him!” Procopius howled at the Penitent, cupping Johnny's head in his hands. “No.” he muttered under his breath as he watched the boy's eyes shift back to focus for one moment, his mouth gaping wide before he spewed black bile onto his chin and then finally fell lifeless, to the floor. The monk's hands dropped to his nephew's chest. His lip trembled as the body slumped in the Penitent's hands, lifeless and still.

“What's wrong?” the Penitent asked, uncomprehending.

***

Johnny's funeral was a simple affair. The Penitent made a hollow in the rocky ground with a wave of its hand to put the plain wooden casket that Procopius had picked from the monastery's mausoleum. Procopius did not speak to the Penitent all through the procession, reading instead through his book of psalms. When it was done, the Penitent replaced the rock around the body, burying Johnny into the living rock of Mount Athos.

“You cannot bring back the dead.” Procopius said hoarsely, his voice breaking. “Can you?”

“No.” the Penitent responded, bowing its head in shame.

“Then what good are you?”

“I am not your God!” the Penitent protested. “Whatever you think I am, I am not omnipotent!”

“No-one is omnipotent.” Procopius said, his voice seething with rage. “There is no creature in this Universe, in any Universe, that isn't bound by death. I know I am not. I know that Johnny wasn't. And you? You who can make pillars of Holy Light? Are you immortal?”

“How could I be?” the Penitent said, shrinking before the monk's gaze. “How could anyone be?”

“Then you are a fool! A child! A monkey, toying with the foundations of the Universe! Your gluttony killed the place you came from, left you alone! Why would you do the same for my nephew? Why would you throw away his life like this?”

“Because I was needed!” the Penitent howled, falling to its knees. “Because I wanted to be needed!”

“Then you should know” Procopius said, leaning into the Penitent, staring into its almond-shaped eyes “that I don't need you. I'll never need you. I would rather have the cancer eat away at my bowels for all eternity than to ever have you hand anything to me on a silver platter. When I die, I will die on my own terms.”

And with that, the monk began to walk toward the monastery, fighting back his tears. Behind him, the Penitent curled itself up into a ball, shrunk in size until it was barely larger than an infant. It shuddered and convulsed, like a kitten fighting off nightmares. The sight of it made the monk’s heart go weak with pity. He called to it:

“I have no need for your moping either! Come, help me with evening Mass!”

***

The Penitent sat solemnly, watching with sheer fascination as
Procopius sang the hymn of Good Saturday, bearing the tiny flame of Holy Light across the church. The monk anointed the thresholds with the sign of the cross, lit the chandeliers and the rows of virgin candles. When he was done, the entire church was lit up, the flickering lights shining through the tinted glass windows against the encroaching darkness of the night. Procopius assumed the Abbot's place in the pulpit and read from the Gospel the story that he had heard a thousand times, of the Ascent of Christ up the rocky slopes of Hades to the world of the quick; the angel that greeted the mourning women, the word of resurrection spreading like wildfire.

The Penitent leaned closer, eyes wide, taking in every moment. Procopius lingered, the words sticking to his throat. There was a fire in his brain, all-consuming and terrible. A black egg of hatred was hatching in his heart for the Penitent, but he knew that the egg was as toxic as the cancer eating away at him. There was bile in his throat, but a lifetime of bitterness had taught him to fight it back. Johnny had been lost to him, but then again Johnny had been lost for a long time now, given in to the needs of a wasting useless body that hungered for poison. The boy had been abandoned by his parents and Procopius had been in turn abandoned by his brothers to keep vigil. Out of every creature in the length and breadth of Creation, he had nothing left but the Penitent. And even it, for all its awesome power, was little more than a child in need of guidance.

Singing at the top of his lungs, Procopius spoke the hymn of joy, the words of resurrection:

Christ has risen
from the dead
The kingdom of Hades conquered
Through sacrifice he gave eternal life
to the multitudes

The Penitent stood up as Procopius embraced him. There were no fireworks tonight, no joyous choir. The Holy Light didn't pass from hand to hand all across the length and breadth of Greece. But there was a small chapel on Mount Athos and a monk's voice and the Penitent and it would have to do.

***

On the dawn of Sunday, the Penitent asked the question that had been bothering it, as it leaned over the fire where Procopius was roasting a leg of lamb:

“Why would you be a monk, if you are not a man of faith? You told me when I first saw you, but I knew when I looked into your mind.”

“What does faith have to do with anything?” Procopius answered, looking into the Penitent's eyes.

“Everything, I would guess. Why else would you stay here, alone on
a mountain? Sing hymns on your own when your brothers have fled to seek God elsewhere? Why sacrifice your life to something that you don't really believe in?”

“Because others believe. Because God believes in others. I am only the middle man, a mediator. Look around you.” Procopius said, sweeping all of Mount Athos and Chalkidiki in a single motion. “All this around you but all this in here as well,” Procopius said, plaing his plm against his chest “this is Greece. This is what people think of, when they think of God. When a single part of it ceases to be, a tiny part of God goes with it as well.”

“And what will happen? If you are gone and there is no one to replace you?” the Penitent asked, worried.

“Someone will come, to fill the void. Someone who will know what this place means and they will look through the Gospels and search through the rituals. Who will speak the prayers and make their own processions.”

“Someone pious?”

“Someone good.” Procopius said, splitting the lamb with the Penitent. “Here, eat. I have brought wine as well. Today, we celebrate the Resurrection. Tomorrow, we can worry all we want.”

The Penitent looked down at the plain clay pot where the steaming bit of meat lay, took the wine glass in its hand, examined the sweet nectar against the sunlight. Procopius ate like a man destined to die; his eyes taking in the craggy rocks, the sea far away, the sky and the night beyond the blue where his brethren and his people had gone to, seeking new pastures.

“I am not pious. But perhaps you can show me how to be good.” The Penitent said.

“It's a start.” Procopius agreed.

They had their meal in silence, looking out at the Greece around them, above them, inside them. They didn't find God there, but others would. And that would be enough.


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