Posted on January 4, 2016
I’ve spent so much time working on the Dangerous Thoughts series that I have had zero time to come up with new stories for First Friday Free Fiction. Instead, I’m going spend the next five consecutive Fridays serializing the first volume of the series.
I know I’m behind but the holidays… you get it, right?
One chapter every Friday for five Fridays. Or if you get impatient you can go here and buy Volume 1 for all of 99 cents.
What follows is Chapter 5, the final chapter of Volume 1: Hive from the series Dangerous Thoughts. If you haven’t read Chapters 1, 2, 3 & 4 yet, go here and do so first or you’re going to be really confused.
As usual, all of this is my intellectual property so don’t reproduce this without attribution.
Text Copyright © 2015 Jake MacMillan
All Rights Reserved
1. The trail through the woods did, indeed, lead directly to the mouth of a cave, though it was not the yawning maw he had expected. Instead, the opening was a slit formed by two slabs of granite that appeared to be leaning against each other in an effort not to fall down. The forest was healthy here but a lack of undergrowth allowed him to see a great distance. No horses approached. No knights stalked him. There was nothing here but the cave where his vector would die and the game would effectively end for him.
Wearing just his padded wool shirt and pants, he drew his depleted sword and dropped from the saddle. This was a stupid thing to do. He was quite aware of that. He had no armor and his sword would be able to deliver a single ineffectual blow before it broke into a dozen pieces. Still, he only had the one option which once again made the deciding easy.
Brandishing the sword in front of him, he moved in a slow, alert crouch toward the slit opening of the cave, a green light emanating from inside. He poked his head just far enough inside to get a quick glimpse. It was, indeed, a chapel. Eight rows of pews, four to a side, faced an alter carved out of something that looked very much like solid emerald. Standing behind that alter was the Green Knight, looking very healthy, fully armored, fully armed. He had turned his massive broadsword point down and was standing with his feet slightly apart with his gauntleted hands draped over the sword’s crossguard as if standing behind a cross.
Afraid that he might abandon his quest when the realization of how much he stood lose hit him, Paul entered the chapel while he still had some spine left.
The Green Knight’s voice boomed from his dogfaced helm. “You came. Tell the truth, I am surprised.”
“You fight in open spaces where you can easily retreat. Here you have no Gringolet, no open fields, no easy access to escape.”
“Honestly,” Paul said, “I think I’ve been headed here since the beginning.”
The Green Knight nodded and slipped his gauntlets around his broadsword’s grip. “Prepare to die.”
Paul moved into the aisle, both hands on the hilt of his no longer flaming sword, and desperately tried to think of something clever to get himself out of this bind. Nothing came to him. For all he knew, he had never been meant to survive the Green Knight quest. Maybe his father had talked the programmers into rigging it against him as a way to force him to quit the game and just finally grow up.
The Green Knight raised his blade, stepped around the altar, clomped down the three wooden steps, and came to a stop at the end of the aisle. “I like you, Gawain. Most of the boys who come to me are quickly dealt with and easily forgotten, but you have provided a good bit of distraction. I will miss you when you are gone.”
“My heart sings with joy at your praise,” Paul said, still trying to figure some angle on this confrontation. He noticed that the sconces burned with green flame. Could it be that green flame was the Green Knight’s weakness? That was how the game worked. The big bosses always had an Achilles heel and the game never failed to put it within reach at the crucial moment. Figuring out the final boss was what the game was really all about and, so far, he had found nothing for this boss. Could it be the game had placed the green flame here as a way to win out of an otherwise unwinnable situation? He began to edge along one of the pews toward the side wall where the nearest sconce flickered its emerald flames.
“There you go again, running away,” the Green Knight said, but he decided not to follow. Instead, he remained in the aisle watching with bemused good nature as his quarry darted around in his last minutes before extinction.
Paul exited the pews and stood with his back to the cave wall, the sconce just within reach over his left shoulder. “Did you think I would make it easy for you?”
“Well, I… I had hoped,” the Green Knight said. Still, mistrustful of the boy’s guile, he remained where he was. “You know, I hate to lose a good adversary. There is still a chance you could survive this encounter.”
“How could that possibly be true when you’re indestructible in this chapel?” Paul asked.
“A deal could be struck.”
“A deal, yes,” the Green Knight said. “A deal that benefits both of us.”
“What could you want from me besides my internal organs?”
“As I said, you’ve been a good adversary. Maybe you could act as coach to other boys who reach my quest.”
“Yes,” the Green Knight said, his reasonable tone completely at odds with the booming but slightly muffled baritone coming from behind the dogface visor. “You could provide them with a more fulfilling experience.”
“And what would I provide to you?”
“Not much and not even every time,” the Green Knight said, “but every now and then if one of the boys gets a little too proficient you could provide him with some bad information. Or you could provide me with some good information about him.”
“You want me to rig the game for you,” Paul said. Some part of him had hoped he might be able to deal his way out of this but now he saw this was a Devil’s bargain. Some earthly riches for his eternal soul. It was very little different from the deals the Green Lady had offered him. At this point, he was willing to believe the two of them had been in cahoots the whole time and that defeat of the Green Knight had never been the quest at all. Instead, this whole mission had been about temptation and weakness. “Everyone keeps offering me everything I want and all I have to give in return is the only thing I hold dear.”
“Your soul? There is no soul in this world,” the Green Knight said. “This life is but a dream.”
There it was again. The Green Knight had just referenced the game in the context of being in the game. Paul had never seen this behavior before. He said, “I carry my soul with me no matter where I go.”
“Then you are about to carry it no longer in this world,” the Green Knight said, now pushing along the pew toward the boy. “Though I must admit it will give me no pleasure to…”
Paul reached up with the tip of his sword and lifted the iron sconce from the cave wall and flung it at the Green Knight. It struck him in the chest, spilling its flaming contents all over his armor. In just a moment, as if he had been doused in kerosene, the Green Knight was consumed in a pillar of flame. He writhed in agony and cried out in bellows of… laughter?
After a dramatic moment struggling with the flames, he dropped the act. The flames disappeared. The Green Knight faced the boy once again with nothing changed, no damage taken. “I have to say that I am even more impressed now. For you to think that you would somehow at the very last moment figure out my critical weakness and survive this contest even though you are nearly naked and mostly unarmed is a special kind of optimism. That is seeing the glass more than half full, my friend. Bravo.”
His back against the wall and nowhere left to run, Paul came face to face with his own virtual mortality. His actual life meant less than nothing to him, but losing Gawain would slit him up the middle and spill his innards in a steaming pile on the ground in front of him. Life without Gawain, he realized in this crystalline moment, was no life at all.
“Ready to deal now?” the Green Knight asked.
He was. In his heart he was ready to make any deal not to lose his alter ego, his escape hatch out of his horrible life, but as much as he was a thinking man he was also a stubborn boy. At that moment, the Green Knight looked very much like his father taunting and berating and testing him, trying to break his will. No matter the pain or the punishment, he had never surrendered to his father’s predations and he wasn’t about to start now.
He didn’t even bother to make peace with his decision. He was so filled up with stubbornness, he just screwed up his face and spit on the Green Knight’s boots. “Go to hell.”
“I’m sure we’ll see each other there at some point,” the Green Knight said, wielding his sword in lazy figure eights in front of him. “Let’s see who gets there first.” Then he raised his heavy blade high overhead to deliver a killing blow.
Paul lifted his sword’s hilt and turned the blade down, crouching behind it in the classic defensive position against a strike to the head. When he raised his arms, the sash the Green Lady had given him fell free of his hand and fluttered to the stone floor.
Against all logic, the Green Knight stopped his attack at the top of the arc and goggled down with his dogface visor at the strip of green satin falling in ripples to the floor, seeming to be obsessed with every undulation. Finally, his sword still parked overhead, he swiveled his massive helm at Paul and growled, “What did you do?”
2. Paul, still crouched against the coming deathblow, was confused by the question. “What do you mean?”
“Did you kill her?”
“My wife, you imbecile. Did you kill my wife?” Uncannily, the Green Knight’s voice broke when he made this demand.
“No,” Paul said. “I left her completely alive.”
“So you plucked her purity like a ripe cherry straight from the branch?” His voice rose an octave into something close to irate lunacy now.
“No,” Paul said again. “I didn’t touch her.”
“Then how come you to possess her most intimate girdle?” He was towering over Paul now, the massive armored forearms quivering with rage even as they held his sword aloft.
“She gave it to me as a gift,” Paul said, now thoroughly confused. “She said it would protect me.”
The Green Knight slowly lowered his sword and turned away. From the way his shoulders sagged and his head was bowed, he appeared to have become instantly hopeless. His sword went clattering to the stone floor, suddenly abandoned, as he wandered into the aisle between the pews. Eventually, he came to the alter where he knelt in silent prayer.
As Paul watched, the green began to fade from his armor, replaced in rapidly expanding splotches with the dull black of aged steel. The sconces burned more and more yellow until they contained nothing more exotic than the flames of normal torchlight. And finally the altar turned from chiseled emerald to roughhewn oak. Looking around at the chapel, he could see that all its magic had simply evaporated.
“Stand up,” Paul said.
“I prefer that you kill me while I pray,” the knight said. “It’s not cowardice. It’s just that I must reconcile myself to the bitter truth that my curse is finally broken and yet I will still never see my lady love again.”
“Stand up,” Paul repeated.
When the knight stood and turned to face him, Paul placed the tip of his sword against the breastplate of his ruined armor. “Yield and be defeated.”
“Yield?” the knight said. “That was not our deal.”
“It most certainly was. You specifically challenged me to defeat you four times, lastly in your Green Chapel. Now, yield and be defeated so you can go home to your wife.”
The knight removed his helmet and Paul saw his face for the first time. It was the face of a perennially sad man, square and muscular but run through with lines at the eyes and mouth. His sagging, bushy eyebrows were so heavy they nearly covered his eyes. “You won’t get the victory.”
“I don’t care about the victory,” Paul said. “I’m leaving all this behind anyway.”
The knight stared at him quizzically. “That’s stupid and pointless.”
“I know. Yield and be defeated.”
Now, finally and at long last, a smile began to break across the knight’s big square face. “I yield,” he said in a whisper. “I am defeated.”
Paul sheathed his sword. “Now go home to your lady.”
The knight eyed him for a moment and then patted him on the shoulder as he passed by on his way to the cave opening. “Don’t come round the cottage tonight, lad,” he called out in a happy bellow. “It’s going to be noisy!”
3. Back at the great hall, Paul saw on the scoreboard that he was now ranked 9th overall. It was definitely time to sell his vector. His original goal had been to take first place before making the sale, but he had only narrowly survived his encounter with the Green Knight. Whatever the game had in store for him next would be twice as bad which meant it was far more likely he would be killed.
Bertilak’s voice came from behind him. “Name your price. Name it, my son, and I will pay it.”
Paul decided it might be better if the other players didn’t overhear a conversation about selling a vector. The practice might not be strictly illegal but it was most likely frowned upon. “We should talk about this someplace private.”
“Very good,” Bertilak said. “Yes, very good. Meet me in the lobby of the IGE building in five minutes.”
“The IGE building?” This immediately made him suspicious.
“The only territory online that isn’t heavily patrolled by the church,” Bertilak said. “We don’t have official business there so we can’t get further than the lobby, but that should be safe enough.”
“Okay… I guess.”
Bertilak smiled at him, raised his hand to tip an imaginary hat, and strolled away whistling a song Paul didn’t recognize.
Paul watched him go, frothing in a lather of uncertainty. He didn’t know Bertilak, didn’t know who he was or if he even had the money he was promising. He had chosen to sell his vector without knowing if it was legal or not. Looking at it now, he realized he had simply made a desperate leap for a rope of salvation he couldn’t even see. When you were going down in quicksand, every rope dangling overhead seemed like it came from Heaven, even if it wasn’t a rope at all, but was a serpent instead.
He was ashamed of himself and embarrassed by his actions. He was acting like every idiot in every cautionary fairy tale ever told, a fool who pinned his hopes on the pretty promises of a shady stranger only to find himself plummeting from a beanstalk, attacked by a wolf, eaten by a witch.
This was how people ended up in terrible, inescapable situations where all their choices were bad ones. Where would he be if he turned down Bertilak’s offer? He would be right back in the hive where he could spend the rest of his life watching the light dim in his sister’s eyes as her betrothed beat the hope and joy out of her. At some point he would become so desperate he would do something worse than tossing Thomas off a catwalk and he would be honor killed for certain. Then he would be dead and Mary would be no better off.
His only other option was to pass the Intra-Galactic entrance exam. But what that any less a fantasy? They were only testing him so he couldn’t come back on them with complaints when he got his rejection letter. And even if the test was legitimate, he had been keeping one tiny but terrifying fact out of his train of thought: The training facility was in Canada. If he passed the test, how would he even get there? He would have to somehow escape the hive, which would be difficult, and then escape the United States of America, which would be impossible.
That brought him back to Bertilak’s offer. If he of the unidentifiable accent and big promises actually had the money he was offering and wasn’t just a plant from the Missionary trying to entrap Paul in a mortal sin, then he was either a high powered businessman or a criminal of some kind. Those just happened to be the two kinds of people who could help him and Mary get away.
So, even though there was only a 10 percent chance he wasn’t trading his vector for a handful of magic beans, it was the only choice left to him. He shortcut his way directly to the plaza outside the Intra-Galactic building, consigned to his fate whatever it might be.
He walked through the front doors into the wide open spaces of the lobby and looked around. Bertilak, although his vector’s name was now displaying as Blaylock again, was standing by the reception desk. He beckoned Paul to join him with a wave of his hand.
“Why here?” Paul asked as he approached. “How do you even know about this place?”
Bertilak/Blaylock smiled broadly. “I dabble in business things. They aren’t mouthy about it, but Intra-Galactic makes the lobby available to anyone who wants to do deals without the church leaning in for their pound of flesh.” He took Paul by the arm and moved him across the marble floor to a wall made entirely of glass that looked out on a gently rolling Scottish heath. “Now, you being from the hive and all, we’re going to have to do this transaction in the physical world.”
“The physical world?” Paul said.
“Have you got a bank account online?”
“I don’t have any kind of bank account.”
“Exactly,” Blaylock said. “You come to my office in the real world and I will set you up with an off-shore account no one inside the walls of Pax Americana will ever know about and another one, an American one, that will automatically draw from that offshore account whenever you spend money. It’ll be perfect. Untraceable. Do we have a deal?”
Paul tried to imagine himself leaving the hive, going outside, traveling among the redlegs. It didn’t seem like something he would do. After all this time dreaming of escape, he suddenly realized that he didn’t even know if he could take the first step.
“Oh, silly me,” Blaylock said, patting Paul on the arm. “We haven’t discussed a price yet. What’s your number, my son?”
Paul tried to clear his head, tried to force the image of himself stepping through the metal doors that led onto the street outside the hive. It was a thing so unreal it was hard to imagine it. Finally, he stammered out, “I want to save my sister… and myself. I want to get us out. Of the hive.”
Blaylock raised his eyebrows at this but the prospect didn’t quail him. “I’m not saying I won’t help you, you see, but I am worried that you’re not thinking this all the way through. If you leave the hive you’ll have to leave the country. And if you leave the country you will never be able to come back. You’ll never see parents or family or friends or lovers ever again.”
Paul thought of his overbearing father and his facile but helpless mother and of Thomas, Mary’s brutal betrothed. “That will be fine.”
“I see,” Blaylock said. He thought for a moment and then said, “Where to?”
“Canada? I don’t really care, I just want to get away, but I always thought Canada would be where I would go.”
Blaylock shrugged. “It’s doable, but it won’t be cheap. You won’t have much money left when you’re done.”
“I can work. I’m not lazy. I don’t want to be rich, I just want to be free.”
“Yeah, don’t we all, mate? Okay, you’ll need a coyote…”
“A handler. Someone who knows the way around this type of problem,” Blaylock said. “They’re highly unreliable, more likely to kill you and take your money than actually get you across the border in most cases, but I happen to know one you can trust. For him, it’s $75,000 per person.”
“Okay, I want $200,000 for Gawain,” Paul said.
Blaylock laughed. “Well, ballsy, aren’t we?”
“You said I could name my price. That’s the cost of getting me and my sister out of the country with enough left over for other stuff until we can find work in Canada.”
“No, I’m good with it, my son,” Blaylock said, chuckling. “I just like your sense of brio, if you get me.” He reached into his vector’s pocket and pulled out a business card. “Meet me here during business hours as soon as you can. I’ll have everything ready.”
Paul took the virtual business card and turned it to face him.
221B Baker Street
Baltimore Heart, BWR Corridor
“Baltimore?” Paul said.
“How will I get to Baltimore?”
Blaylock patted him on the shoulder and said, “Like everyone else, mate, take the red line.”
Paul watched him go with a sagging feeling in his spirits. This crazy man wanted him to go outside. He would have to travel from the DC heart to the Baltimore heart on his own. How would he do that? He didn’t even know how such things were done. He had a vague understanding that his city was broken up into three major centers, called hearts, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Richmond, but he had no idea how people traveled between them. He wasn’t even sure he knew how to get out of the hive. Were the big metal doors routinely locked? Would an alarm sound if he tried to open them? Would he take one step and find the Missionary waiting outside to take him to Central Inquisition?
He choked off his panic and forced himself to think straight by reminding himself that, even though it appeared from the outside to be one large problem, it was actually many smaller ones that needed to be tackled in order. First off, he needed to figure out how to get out of the hive. Secondly, he needed to find out how to travel between hearts. Thirdly, he needed to figure out how to locate 221B Baker Street in Baltimore. That second task also broke down into several smaller problems; like understanding the layout of the city, and how people traveled around it, and how long he might be out there before he got his money and found this coyote Blaylock had talked about.
That was all stuff he could explore through a series of Trinity searches. That was good. That was doable. Or at least not impossible. He calmed himself further by taking a deep breath. The first thing he needed to do was talk to Mary. If he was going to disappear, even for a short period of time, she needed to know he would be coming back for her. Otherwise, she, like everyone else in the hive, would just assume his father had honor killed him and recycled his body. He sent a message to her saying they should meet at the sock hop as soon as possible. She replied she could be there in thirty minutes.
The delay was a good thing. It would give him a half hour to figure out how he was going to tell her he was leaving the hive without completely freaking her out.
4. Paul settled himself at an empty table as far from the dance floor as possible and returned to puzzling out the answer to the second Intra-Galactic test while he waited for Mary.
Where had he left off with this? He had tried simple alphabetic substitution with no luck and had decided that the answer to this puzzle lay in the first puzzle. He wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think he had gotten any further than that.
So what was there about the first puzzle that would inform the second one? The first puzzle had used geometric shapes to form letters that spelled out ABSOLUTE POWER. The second puzzle was all numbers. There didn’t seem to be any obvious mathematical progression and he had tried letter substitution with no luck. Well, if the truth was in the first puzzle, he needed more information about that puzzle. He brought up a window and did a Trinity search for “Absolute Power.”
He got an avalanche of hits having to do with rhetoric from the Reformation used by proponents who had insisted that absolute power could not come from humans in any form and especially not in the form of the corporations who ran the world. Instead, they asserted that authority must come from a higher power and since there was only one higher power, it had to come from God. Their God, to be specific.
Preferring not to go through hundreds of pages of hits for basically the same references, he decided to refine the search to remove anything linked to the Reformation. This search yielded a page of hits referencing a quote by some historian named Lord Acton. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
He returned his attention to the string of numbers again. The first number was 3. 3 mapped to C. The next word in the phrase was Corrupts which also began with a C. But the second number was a 1 which mapped to A and that didn’t fit. He spent a minute looking from the word CORRUPTS to the string of digits before he realized that the second letter of CORRUPTS was O which was the 15th letter of the alphabet. Stupid! Stupid! He had forgotten that you couldn’t map the entire alphabet with single digits.
Shaking his head at his own stupidity, he typed in the letters C-O-R-R-U-P-T-S at the bottom of the page. Once again, the paper went up in a sudden flash and was gone. He had no idea how many hoops he still had to jump through but he had two behind him now.
Mary dropped into the seat across the table from him. “What?”
He put his hands on the table to indicate he wanted to speak in code. “I am going to get us out of the hive.”
She just stared at him.
“I’m serious. I have the money and I have the contacts. I’m setting it up now.”
“That’s… not possible.”
“It is,” he said. “I’ve been working on it. But I need to disappear for a time to make it all happen.”
“No,” she said.
“Don’t do this.”
“It’s a trick,” she said. “You’ve been duped. It’s a lie. It’s the Missionary entrapping you. There is no way this could be real. No one escapes the hive.”
“I have to try,” he said.
“No, you don’t,” she replied, leaning forward to add urgency to her message. “Life in the hive is hard, yes, but it’s better than the alternative. Paul, don’t be led astray. Not for me. I’m fine. I will be a good wife to Thomas and it won’t be that bad…”
“Do you hear yourself?” he asked. “Not that bad? You’ll be a good wife to Thomas? You’re becoming our mother right in front of my eyes and I won’t let that happen.”
“Don’t do anything stupid…”
“It’s already done,” he said. “Stupid or not, I’ve made all the arrangements. I just have to disappear for a little while to get everything in order. Then I’ll come back for you.”
“I know Father will make it hard on you when I’m gone but try to stay strong. Just keep remembering that I’m coming back for you.”
“You’re serious? You’re actually serious about this? It’s a real thing?”
“I don’t know, but whatever happens I’m coming back for you. Just don’t get killed while I’m gone.”
“This is not smart,” she said, locking eyes with him.
“The time has come to do something stupid.”
She smiled and reached across the table to touch his hand.
“Watching the contact,” a nearby matron called and snapped her penance rod at their vectors’ hands.
Paul snatched the rod out of the air and then handed it back to her, saying, “She’s my sister.” Then he stood up and walked out of the sock hop without looking back.
The matron’s vector stood there discombobulated for a moment and then realized she hadn’t gotten Paul’s name. She ran out after him but he had already left the simulation by the time she reached the street. When she got back, Mary had also left. Realizing any report of this would just make her look foolish, she decided to forget about it.
5. Paul waited for the visor to snap into the ceiling and then reached back and pulled himself out of the tube in one easy motion. He slid down the ladder and landed quietly on the catwalk, slipping past his parents’ tube without getting caught this time, and then slid down various other ladders until he was on the ground floor. From here, the tube stacks looked like enormous battery cells. And they were, in a way. Their function was to sap the life out of the people who lived in them a little bit at a time, day after day until there was nothing left.
He hopped over a railing and dropped ten feet to the concrete floor. It was dark and wet down where only maintenance workers dared to tread. He slipped into an access tunnel that ran under the floor between two tube walls and covered its length at a dead run while trying to be as quiet as possible. There was a more direct route to the doors, the one the men used when they were going out to do their blacklegging, but it was wide open and the last thing he wanted was for his father, or someone who knew his father, to spot him before he got there.
When he got to the end of the tunnel, he stopped and listened for anyone who might be hanging around under the catwalk. Nothing. This wasn’t a place kids used for privacy. He only knew about it from helping his father reboot routers.
He poked his head out slowly and looked both ways. Clear and clear. Moving on tiptoe, he ran the length of the passage under the catwalk as quietly and quickly as he could. Then, hearing footfalls overhead, he ducked into the next maintenance tunnel and huddled there until the person passed by.
His heart rattled around in his chest like a bat in a birdcage and his body was filled with an electric energy that kept driving him forward no matter how scared he got.
The next tunnel led him under the tube wall nearest the front of the building. He stopped to make sure he was alone and then climbed onto the catwalk and followed it to the end where he jumped the rail and landed in a silent crouch on the concrete floor. The doors were waiting for him around the next corner. There would be trouble if they were locked, but he was relatively sure they weren’t. No one in their right mind wanted to break into the hive and no one inside – apart from him – had the courage to leave.
If he was right, if the door wasn’t locked, then he was about to go beyond the walls for the first time in his life. The air caught in his lungs for a moment with the fear and awe of the idea of being outside.
Exhilarated and terrified, he stepped out of the tunnel into the assembly area where the men took up their weapons before they went out blacklegging.
His father was waiting for him. Thirty feet across the unadorned concrete floor, standing by the double doors with his arms crossed, James Corday waited with a fury that boiled and boiled in a pit of vengeful patience. The instinct to flee crossed Paul’s mind but quickly faded when he felt someone shove him from behind. He turned and saw that Thomas’s father, Rev Greer, had fallen into place behind him. It was a trap, after all.
“Go on, boy,” Rev Greer said. He looked both thrilled and disappointed at the prospect of what was about to happen to the boy who had broken his son’s arm.
Paul turned back toward the doors. His father waved for him to come closer. He did so with leaden muscles. The dread in him became a sticky paste that gummed up his works to the point where he was barely coordinated enough to put one foot in front of the other.
“Did you really believe I wouldn’t keep track of your net traffic?” his father asked as he approached. “You of all people. I made an extra effort to keep track of what you were up to.”
Paul said nothing. His eyes wide, his heart palpitating in his chest, he still knew better than to speak to his father in a situation like this. This was a moment for preaching, not for taking questions.
“Sneaking out like a thief in the night,” his father said, bobbing his head with reassurance that this was exactly what he had expected of his worthless offspring. “For once, just say something. You don’t have the guts to fight me, at least have the guts to say something.”
Paul knew it was a trap but he felt he wouldn’t be allowed out of this moment if he didn’t say something. There were so many things to say, so many heartaches and betrayals and disappointments to speak about but none of them could actually be spoken aloud. He couldn’t air his dirty laundry with his father. He couldn’t accuse his father of being evil. Finally, he said, “I don’t believe the same things you believe.”
“You don’t know what you believe,” his father said. “Your heart has been corrupted since birth, boy. You were lost to me long before the day you chose to betray our faith.”
“I still believe,” Paul said.
“In what?” He gestured over his shoulder at the doors. “In a life of sin out there with the redlegs?”
“There are more options than that,” Paul said. “Not every good Christian is a Primitive.”
Rev Greer smacked him across the back of the head so hard he fell to one knee. “Blasphemer.”
He got to his feet, stars swimming in front of his eyes for a moment. “But the government isn’t just…”
“Just because we had to allow the weaker faiths to join us in making this country, doesn’t mean the other ‘branches’ of the faith are our equal,” his father said dismissively. “I wouldn’t trade a handful of redlegs for a pair of Methodists. The church that runs this country and the Missionary that keep it running are all made up of true believers. The rest of them are just politicians, creatures as wicked and flexible as the corporate devils who sat in their places before the Reformation.”
“I have to believe there’s more than that to God,” Paul said. He was driven to both knees by the blow this time. He took a moment to check in on his consciousness to see if he was going to pass out and then thanked God that Rev Greer was only using his fist. If the old brute had been armed with a bat, Paul would already be dealing with brain damage. He struggled unsteadily back to his feet. “So what now?”
His father smiled bitterly. “You think you’re going to find freedom out there? I’ve been out there, son. Those redlegs will kill you and eat you on the first day.”
“Yes, sir,” Paul said, stubbornly refusing to be bated into joining an argument he knew he couldn’t win.
James Corday appeared to think about the situation for a moment and then shrugged and opened the doors. Sunlight, dim and diffuse and oddly colored, spilled in through the opening.
“You’re letting him go?” Rev Greer yelped in surprise.
“I’m letting someone else take care of him for me,” James Corday replied. Then to Paul: “Go on. Go find your freedom in the intestinal tract of some degenerate.”
Paul was sure this was a trick, that his father would produce a hidden axe handle and crush his skull at the last moment, but there weren’t any other options so he put his head down and made his way toward the door. As he approached, he clenched his entire body, waiting for a blow that never came.
A moment later, he was conscious of how the air felt different on his skin and smelled odd in his nostrils. Unfortunately and running completely counter to his expectations, neither thing was an improvement. The smell curdled in his nose like spoiled methane and the air seemed to eat his skin like millions of microscopic piranha. He opened his eyes to find himself standing on a sidewalk in yellow light just as the doors clanged shut behind him.