© 2019 by S.J.Rapala
NON NOBIS SOLUM
"And quiet is the thought of you,
The file on you complete.
Except what we forgot to do,
A thousand kisses deep."
- Leonard Cohen
By the end of the 23rd century the world became completely industrialized and heavily overpopulated. Cities built from concrete and shielded from the raging weather by steel enforced superdomes dotted the planet once covered by lush forests and vast oceans. Countries of the Third World disappeared swallowed by the consumerist societies of the third millennium. The sway of various religious institutions was dwarfed by the influence of the corporate elites. God became a distant memory and churches stood empty. So when He suddenly returned as was prophesized by the Ancients, the world was stunned. Heads of state gathered to decide on a course of action. The Holy See hesitated, suddenly quite comfortable in its earthly domain, before turning in defiance to join the debate. The world was no longer overridden with poverty and disease; it blossomed under the watchful eye of the governments of the G11. God's coming was as unexpected as it was deemed unnecessary.
God, in the meantime, did not raise the dead nor flood the Earth with fire and lightning. He made His home on Proxima Centauri and waited. He sent no message and gave no sign. The signals sent His way disappeared in the cosmic void. But though silent, His shadow stretched over the planet and penetrated even the depths of the superdomes. Every man, woman and child knew and felt His presence. And every man, woman and child, felt His unspoken disdain.
“Jonah?” Sammy’s weary voice broke through the silence of the empty hallway.
“Yeah?” Jonah adjusted the tiny mic so that it hovered just beyond the reach of his lips. He motioned for Baby and Kovac to halt, and the two mercenaries froze with unblinking eyes glued to his face. Their mouths moved slowly as they chewed their gum.
“Are you there, Jonah?” Sammy’s voice was almost pleading and Baby and Kovac exchanged a quick smile. Her voice betrayed too much emotion for a professional telecom.
“I’m not getting you guys on the infrared cam, is everything alright?”
Jonah let the assault rifle hang loose on the strap thus freeing his hand to fiddle with the satellite feed. In his other hand he gripped firmly a conspicuous black bag. Whatever its contents were, their weight was a strain even on his muscular arm as evidenced by the veins bulging on his sinewy forearm and beads of sweat streaking his tall forehead.
“The satellite link must be down,” he mumbled, still playing with the buttons.
“We’re behind a solid six-inch wall,” Baby shrugged. Her motionless glass eyes investigated the empty hallway in both directions. “This place is a fortress.”
The three of them paused and looked around their steel, impossibly clean surroundings.
“Come in Charon, come in, this is Eden!” Sammy repeated. “This is Eden, Charon come in! Guys, are you there? …Shit!” She broke off suddenly.
“Charon here, Eden, do you copy?” Jonah switched the speaker off and turned the volume down in his headset.
“Copy, Jonah, are you alright?” Sammy’s voice was full of relief.
“We’re all good up here, Eden,” Jonah replied calmly. “We’re inside the Anthill.”
“Copy that, Charon! How was the teleport?”
“All good, Eden. The equipment is intact and we’re all in one piece.”
“Good to hear…” Sammy’s voice trailed off into static again and Jonah fumbled helplessly with the buttons for another moment before giving up finally, taking the headset off and stashing it away in one of the deep pockets of his vest.
“They’re orbiting Proxima, so they must be out of our reach now,” he explained. “We should have the link back in a few hours, when they rise over the star again. We’re on our own for the time being.” He eyed the other two mercenaries. This was the first time he saw them because the trio were briefed separately for the mission.
Kovac stood nearly eight feet tall, a freakish assemblage of hydraulic-powered titanium limbs, surgically implanted stainless steel plates, a jungle of exposed life-supporting coils and semi-liquid tubes carrying multi-colored performance enhancing cocktails to his muscles and brain. Jonah read his file prior to the teleport and knew that the merc had survived an explosion that claimed most of his body. The North American Coalition recruited him shortly after the incident, the bargaining chip being millions of crypto to cover the replacements. Kovac agreed from the hospital bed on which his destroyed body was rotting, his only demand being that he design his new frame himself. He held a double PhD in Mechanical and Bio-Engineering from a highly reputable school in the Moscow Superdome, and within a short time he designed a self-sufficient bio-mechanical apparatus to which what remained of his body was surgically attached using state-of-the-art bio-organic technology. The result was monstrous, but efficient and practical at the same time. Long legs were fitted with accelerators and a hydraulic system, and his six armor-plated mechanical arms worked independently, each carrying a switchable selection of weapons and tools. Jonah wondered what sort of arsenal and tool assembly Kovac carried hidden beneath his titanium breastplates. His upper body rotated on a 360-degree axis, allowing him to scour the surroundings in all directions. Only his head retained its human shape, though it was covered with protective steel plates. His eyes, they were his own: sharp and clear as the blue sky, though fitted with long-distance viewing and night vision, they were presently fixed on Jonah. A slightly mocking smile lingered on the merc’s thin and cruel lips. Even though he must have weighed in at close to a thousand pounds, he moved with ease and grace.
Baby presented altogether quite a different sight. Of average size, she was a beautiful young woman and easily attracted the attention of the opposite sex. Her body, however, as plump and fresh as it appeared, was fitted with a double steel hardened liquid membrane injected just beneath her skin. Long shimmering locks that cascaded down her slim back were home to nearly three hundred feet of steel wire that she manipulated with great skill and precision, whether as a tool or a weapon. She seemed perfect, a clear contrast to the grotesque Kovac who stood next to her. But her laser-cut glass eyes were far from human, capable of firing powerful blasts of photons for a continuous sixty seconds before needing a recharge. Tucked away deep in her brain was a virtually inexhaustible power source that allowed Baby to always keep a high level of excited electrons looking for a way to emit energy. It were her eyes, laser mediums at once beautiful and horrible, that made Baby such a dangerous merc. Controlling the energy required great skill and discipline, and Jonah hoped that Baby used chemical suppressors because if agitated, she could easily level a building in twenty seconds flat. He was well versed in the dealings of the black market and knew that the state-of-the- art eyes must have cost her a fortune, close to the national gross product of a small Superdome, and that Baby had to have powerful favor-owing friends because only a handful of dealers were able to acquire this unique product and only one or two surgeons could successfully install them into a human skull.
“Had a good look?” Kovac’s deep voice resonated in the empty steel corridor.
“He’s sizing us up,” Baby added. She gave Jonah a sidelong glance and her eyes gleamed dangerously. Her forehead creased and a scowl passed over her face like a shadow.
“Just looking,” Jonah said with a shrug.
“All the perks money can buy,” Kovac joked. “We’re in a dangerous profession.”
“You look pretty average, though,” Baby said, having had a good look at Jonah herself. “Anything past the exterior?”
“I’ve only added muscle boosters and a Sensum suppressor to control my neurosystem,” he returned. He gripped the rifle tighter, comforted by the weight of the weapon.
“Yeah, I’ve got that, too. The 1300 series,” Baby bragged and Jonah felt slight relief upon hearing this.
“I’ve the Sensum 2K,” he replied matter-of-factly.
“No kidding?” She whistled. “I couldn’t find it anywhere.”
“Must have been looking in the wrong places. Tokyo Superdome’s the hot spot.”
“I couldn’t get in there if I tried,” she said with a chuckle. “They blocked my clearance six months ago after a street war with a few Yakuza blokes. You got the codes?”
“What does the 2K series do?” Kovac asked, his interest peaked.
“Gives you complete control over the neurosystem. If you have the right codes, you can do pretty much anything: override pain, control your emotional state, get an orgasm, you name it, and the interface is tapped wirelessly into your brain so you can manipulate it all with as little as a thought. It’s big with the junkies now, but the codes are expensive and hard to get by. Either you’re filthy rich and have connections, or you’re a gifted hacker with connections. Simple folks can’t tap into that well.”
She finished and looked at Jonah with a renewed interest. “So how many codes have you got?”
“Full house,” he said with a flat smile.
“Bullshit,” Baby scoffed. “It’s illegal to wire more than twenty at the same time, that was the condition G11 put on the GMX Corporation before they launched the project. Unless…” She hesitated and looked him over again from head to toe.
“Unless what?” Kovac prompted.
“Unless he’s got top level clearance,” she finished. “Unless he gets it all from Cloud-9, the G11’s executive branch. They’re the only ones with unlimited supply of gadgets.”
“Would make sense,” the big merc returned. “He’s the top dog in this expedition.”
“Alright, enough of this.” Jonah spent his entire life around mercs, ever since his days back in Graceland, and he knew them to be highly volatile and unpredictable.
Baby stared him down, but simply shrugged her slim shoulders.
“You don’t show any physical adjustments or improvements,” Kovac took over, his bushy brows furrowed. “But you claim to be outfitted with a state-of-the-art, difficult to come-by neuro suppressor system. You also carry around a three hundred year old rifle and,” he pointed with one of his pneumatic arms. “A mystery bag over a hundred pounds heavy. Now, we’re all for following orders, but you have to give us something to go on here, chief.”
“I knew I’ve seen that rifle before,” Baby interrupted.
“Probably in a museum.”
“No, it’s state of the art,” she said with a head shake. “It’s based on the SR-88, a rifle developed by the Singapore Industries back in the 20th century. It went through some changes, was later upgraded to an SR-211 assault rifle before being abandoned altogether as impractical. The design was reused by the Kontororu Corporation, a joint Japanese and North Korean venture, which worked in secret to develop a hand-held weapon capable of producing explosive energy by achieving a nuclear fission reaction. An SR-100NF was born, but it never got past the testing phase because the G11 shut the project down and sent Kontororu packing. Forty years ago, the South Asian Economic Area claimed the patent and pulled the blueprints. Their military industry improved it a little and SR-101NF is the result. That’s the one you’re carrying, a nasty toy, outlawed by the G11 so you don’t see many of them.”
“You sure know your stuff.” Jonah gave a dry smile.
“I’ve seen what it can do at Redwater, back in 2246.” Her voice turned grim.
“You were in Redwater?” Kovac looked at Baby with surprise.
“Want a quick run by?” she asked Jonah, dismissing the merc’s question. Then, without waiting for an answer, she recited: “Fires 1900 standard rounds per minute and launches six nuclear explosives one after another within thirty seconds, each releasing energy equivalent of a million kilotons of TNT. Standard butt is of fixed type, but the SR-101NF is also available with a side-folding type, which I can see yours is fitted with. Made entirely from titanium, so it’s very durable but light, weighing in at barely 2.5 pounds and is less than 800 mm long with the butt folded. Very handy and very deadly. Deadliest one-man weapon ever developed, in fact.”
“Except the H-bomb and laser technology.” John motioned to her eyes.
“You were in Redwater?” Kovac repeated, now slightly annoyed.
“Yeah, I was there when its oxygen suppliers failed and the only Martian arcology became a deathtrap. Over 100,000 people became trapped in a geographical area barely larger than a square mile, three hundred stories high, suffocating because GMX refused to fly in replacement pressure tanks due to costs! Can you imagine? Under the Solar Economic Treaty they were in the right, too, the costs were exuberant and the contract that Redwater signed with them failed to specify the extent of the Corporation’s liability as far as the air circulation system. All the G11 could do was appeal to the board and send the Peacekeeping Corps to evacuate the arcology. Shit!” She spat with disgust. “How do you evac 100,000 people from Mars in less than twelve hours? And where do you put them?” She shrugged and bit her lips down. “The Osiris space station was already overpopulated and long past its carry-on weight limit because the people have been flying in for days, having been warned by the resident engineers. Space stations weren’t designed as refugee camps and at any rate, the others were nowhere near to make it on time. The closest one, Adonis, responded immediately but it took them nearly fifteen hours before they could deploy their teleport shuttles. It was all over by that time. They called it an uprising. People running for their lives, trying to save their families, their children, a fucking uprising!” Baby's full crimson lips tightened and her eyes flashed blue and red.
Jonah watched her closely with feigned disinterest, but acutely aware of the anger simmering behind her hastily given history lesson and hoping that the suppressors were kicking in just about now.
“And the Peacekeepers?” Kovac asked after a moment’s silence during which Baby's eyes returned to their normal color.
“Hah!” She spat again and pointed at Jonah’s rifle. “Cloud-9 ordered them to keep peace at all cost. I came along with a team of mercs, the Death Wingers. I didn’t go solo back then, not yet. They sent us in to clean up after it was all over. I’ve never seen so many burned bodies before or after. Torn to shreds, ridden with bullets, some nearly vaporized from the nuclear blasts. That baby there,” she pointed to the rifle again. “That’s one nasty toy.”
“That’s not how the Redwater incident was reported on Earth.”
“Cloud-9 keeps a lid on it,” Jonah replied instead of Baby. “Security reasons.”
“Right.” She glared at him. “No one weeps for the rebels.”
“No point for the public to know,” he returned. “At any rate, people tend to make a lot of noise, but they really don’t want to be burdened with the responsibility. Much easier to protest from behind the picket lines than make the difficult decisions.”
“Is that what you tell yourself?”
“Look, Cloud-9 and G11 have definitely learned from their mistakes. The SET was put under scrutiny and the Corporation's liability was extended so that nothing like this would ever happen again. Not to mention that all the plans to populate our nearby planets with arcologies were dropped.”
“And the 100,000 people were what, scratched? Hell, why not? There’s another thirty five billion to pick from when another experiment comes up.”
“It’s not like that,” Jonah said shaking his head. “A few are sacrificed to preserve a way of life. People are kept on a need to know basis because if they knew about the things going on behind the scenes, things that are necessarily done to provide them with the security that they require, they’d stir up a riot."
“Tell it to the families of the dead,” Baby said through clenched teeth. “Better yet, tell it to those grade school kids we scraped off the surface of Mars!”
“Cloud-9 has standardized a series of procedures which are enforced in specific situations.” Jonah’s voice betrayed no emotion.
“The standard procedure is to keep everyone in the dark, even during military ops. Even now, Jonah, we’re walking blind here!”
“You’ve been briefed prior to the teleport.”
“We’re here as your backup!” Baby growled. “How’s that for a briefing? You’re the one holding all the cards.”
“You’re mercs.” Jonah’s voice was firm, though still completely calm. “You get your orders, you do your job and you go home with a paycheck. I know how much you’re being paid for this little stint so if your conscience poses a problem, you can set up a fund for the families of Redwater victims and outfit them for life once you get back. The crypto-dollar will get you an upper hand on the exchange rate for a nice bonus, too, so quit complaining.”
“Hell, you know just about everything?” Kovac added.
“I’m on a need to know basis, too.”
“But you seem to know everything. You know what we’re doing here on Proxima Centauri? Do you, Jonah?”
“We watch the news, too, we know He’s here. Why are we here though?”
Heavy silence followed Baby’s last question.
“You’re here as my backup,” Jonah said. “That’s all you need to know.”
“I don’t like this,” Kovac announced dispassionately. He rotated his body to look both ways of the long, dimly lit corridor that extended further than even his long-distance vision could penetrate.
“What’s to like?” Baby snapped, her dangerous eyes still fixed on Jonah. “We’ve been teleported into some vague stronghold 4.2 light years away from Earth, we don’t know what we’re doing here or what we’re up against. The satellite link has been severed and we’re on our own. Jonah has on him a weapon capable of deploying nuclear explosives and he’s carrying a handbag that, by my guess, is hiding something nasty as well. What’s to like?” She repeated with a sneer.
“We’re moving out.” Jonah's flat statement put an end to the conversation.
From the palm of his hand, he opened a 3-D visual projection of the stronghold and beckoned them to gather around the image hovering two feet above the floor.
“We’ve been looking at it from the moment it first appeared,” he said.
“Looks twisted,” Kovac said and shook his head with disbelief.
“It’s built according to the principles of deconstructivism.” Jonah stated and then, seeing their puzzled stares, he went on to explain. “Deconstructivism started out in the second part of the 20th century as a trend in art, literature and architecture, both as a response to the ordered and constructed styles of the previous periods as well as a means of reflecting the society’s decaying way of life. It hung around for a few decades, but it was only promoted by a handful of theorists so eventually, as the society grew more global, formulism began to slowly take over and, as we all know, it eventually replaced all other trends. As far as architecture goes, structures built along the ideas of deconstructivism were characterized by fragmented, non-linear designs which dislocated certain elements. The intent was to distort vision and to disorient anyone looking for order in the controlled chaos. The visual appearance of buildings was always unpredictable and difficult to understand.”
“Well, why do you think He built it like that?” Baby studied the image and its myriad angels, slopes and unpredictable turns. “You think He’s trying to tell us something?”
“We call it the Anthill,” Jonah continued. “And He didn’t actually built it, it just, uhm… appeared suddenly.”
“Right.” Kovac nodded after a short pause. “That makes sense.”
Baby scoffed and then asked, “Why do you think He chose Proxima? It’s classed as a flare star, it’s not very hospitable. The surface temperature can change within minutes.”
”It’s the closest star to our solar system,” Kovac suggested.
“So what? You think He wants us to come in and pay a visit?”
The big merc simply shrugged his many shoulders, thus expressing his inability to comprehend the thought patterns of a supreme being.
“Now, we’ve been monitoring the structure since it appeared and there seems to be no life anywhere in it,” Jonah continued. “Nothing has moved or stirred, nothing. But here,” his finger disappeared in the holographic image and pointed to a spot deep in the underground corridors of the stronghold, “We can’t penetrate the walls of this chamber. Our technology just isn’t good enough to break through whatever shield He put around it.”
“So our mission is to see what’s in there?” Baby watched Jonah withdraw his hand. It was followed by trail of bluish particles that slowly dispersed in the air. The image itself was adjusting rapidly and rebuilding the elements deformed by Jonah’s intrusion.
“No,” he returned.
“Ok,” Kovac scratched the metal plate that covered his head as if he had an itch. “What is our mission then?”
“As far as you two are concerned, you are to take me all the way to this place,” Jonah pointed again. “Roughly two hundred feet away from the chamber, give or take a bit if you account for Anthill’s unpredictability. Then you’ll call on Eden, they’ll pinpoint your location and teleport you back.”
“With the satellite down?”
“It’ll be back on shortly,” Jonah assured them.
“So we’re firepower?” Kovac asked.
“Basically,” Jonah replied. “I’ll be staying behind to do my bit and that’s all. Walk in the park. And don’t ask me what my bit is, because I can’t tell you.”
“Classified?” Baby sneered.
“You said the Anthill is unpredictable?” Kovac asked. “What do you mean?”
“Like I said, we’ve been watching it since it came about and even though there has been no life spotted, uhm…,” He hesitated again, “There is movement.”
“You mean the stronghold itself?”
“Yeah, sort of, it’s shifting and changing its layout. The outer shell seems pretty stable, but inside, it’s a big mess, you know, with hallways disappearing, changing directions, and taking sharp angles all of a sudden. Our logistics team has been trying to figure it out, but there is no pattern there, it’s just… chaos, you know?”
“So you can’t trust this?” Baby pointed to the image still floating before them.
“More or less,” Jonah replied. “Twelve satellites pass over Proxima, every two to six minutes depending on their flight pattern and we’re hooked into an automatic upload so we’ll be getting constant updates on the changes happening. We can’t rely on it too much, though. We noticed when two or more satellites overlapped and took images at the same time that the structure appeared different to each.”
“It’s a camouflage, then,” Kovac said. “Appears different to each viewer or camera, depending on their positions. The real shape is hidden beneath it.”
“No.” Jonah again shook his head. “We’ve probed the building itself and it’s as real as it gets. Some sort of foreign material, strong as hell, nothing that we know. They’re still trying to figure out its composition and properties, but there’s a couple elements there which they can’t classify. What they do know is that it’s several hundred gigapascales harder than aggregated diamond nanorods and about 15% denser as well, meaning that is heavy. Flexible at the same time, too, the way it changes shape, they can’t put the two together and it’s got them scratching their heads and just building terminology for now to be able to even talk about it. They’re not really sure of its properties yet, it’s completely unpredictable, but they already have a name for it.” He paused for effect, then finished: “Quintessence.”
“The fifth element?” Baby looked up in surprise.
“Wow, they're really bringing it down to basics, no?”
“Occam's razor, you know, simple is perfect. Why look any further? I think the name fits pretty well.”
”So is that the way science will be done from now on? If you can't understand it, just slap a label on it? If that’s how it is to be, we might have to rethink all of scientific theories and thoughts, going all the way back to the 19th century. Relativity, evolution…”
“Creationism is suddenly looking like a pretty safe bet,” Jonah interrupted with an attempt at humor that went astray. “Anyway.” He picked up after a short pause, “Given the turn of events, there may be no more science being done after this. Anywhere.”
“Why else would He come down here?”
“Anything else about this quintessence?” Kovac asked impatiently, having already made it clear before that the ways of gods were foreign to him.
“It’s able to arrange its particle so as to allow a maximum amount of light to pass through. As you can see, there are no artificial lights in the hallway, it’s just the way it is.”
“If it can modulate its composition like that, then it can shut down the light.”
“It’s not an organic entity as far as we know and surely not an intelligent one. It’s not like it can pull a dirty trick on us, it’s just the way it... is,” Jonah repeated.
“Either way, we’ve got night vision,” Kovac said with a shrug. “Anything else?”
“One of the things they can say almost for sure is that its atoms are capable of occupying same space at the same time.”
“That’s not possible!” Baby exclaimed.
“Think again where you are,” Jonah replied. “This place just popped up out of thin air. I’d stay clear of words like impossible.”
“We’re talking about the fourth dimension here, then.”
“Maybe. It could be that we just don’t have the cognitive capabilities to recognize it,” Jonah agreed. “It’s a possibility. That would explain why we can’t access certain parts of the Anthill, our instruments are not designed to take those readings.”
“Neither are we,” Baby added. “What appears as controlled chaos to us may be in fact a very ordered structure if you take into account a fourth dimension. But neither us nor the tools designed by us, no matter how advanced, can get a grip on it.”
“Ok,” Kovac said and waived one of his long metal arms. A small puff of air appeared beneath its elbow joint and the end bit, thus far an automatic weapon, disappeared and was replaced by a three-fingered metal hand. “So we’re in a gigantic stronghold made of an unclassifiable material, possibly the fifth element, which is capable of occupying same space and time, changing, shifting positions and refashioning itself according to no pattern at all? And maybe we’re inside a four-dimensional model as well?” He sighed. “It’s a little much to wrap your head around. Blows your mind, so to speak.”
“Actually,” Baby said with a wry smile. “You’re not far from the truth. It's said that if our under-developed minds ever came in contact with a fourth dimension, they would implode. Too many things to register by a limited number of senses. Boom!” She giggled nervously.
Kovac ignored her and asked. “How are we to move through this thing, then?”
“I’ve the coordinates and we’ll be moving using an SPS.”
“Can you trust that?”
“The Solar Positioning System pinpoints our location relative to several thousand satellites spread around our entire solar system and broadcasting precisely timed signals to receivers. As long as we’re on the surface of Proxima, it will locate us and we can use our location to move toward the correct coordinates.”
“What if we step off Proxima?”
“What do you mean?”
“Fourth dimension offers a hell of a lot of possibilities that we know nothing about.”
“Let’s mind our step, then, no?” Jonah turned the holographic image off.
Having double-checked the SPS, he started down the corridor toward its invisible end. He allowed his rifle to hang loose on the shoulder strap, gripped tighter the bag he carried in his other hand and took long strides without looking back, safe in the knowledge that the mercs watched his back. Kovac’s heavy metallic steps resonated through the empty hallway.
The walls of the corridor were completely flat. Jonah placed the tips of his fingers on the walls as he walked forward and dragged them along the smooth surface. There was nothing to even cling his fingernails to. The walls were fashioned out of a single piece of material, there were no joints, screws or bolts, nothing that would suggest any craftsmanship whatsoever. As if the entire place was simply shaped from a gigantic and very flexible piece of metal.
The hallways turned several times, first right, then left, then left again. Jonah halted soon after because the corridor ended in a T-intersection. He consulted the SPS and turned right.
Continuing to walk, he glanced at the instrument from time to time, making sure they headed in the right direction. Kovac’s metallic steps stayed further behind.
“He’s making sure we’re not being followed.” Baby answered his questioning look.
“Nothing out here,” Jonah shrugged.
“Then why bring backup?” She cast an angry stare. “Let us do our job, mate.”
They walked for some time longer, this time arm in arm because this corridor was wide enough to allow for it.
“You’re from New South Wales.” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Yeah,” she replied with a nod.
“I didn’t spend much time there.” She stopped and reached into her vest pocket to bring out a protein bar. “You hungry?” she asked, offering it to him. He shook his head and she continued. “Yeah, my parents died in the Chinese-Australian wars. An H-bomb was dropped on our city and wiped it out. I was with my relatives in the superdome, so we were saved from the blast, but everyone who happened to be outside of it evaporated.”
“Why? You didn’t kill them.” She shook her head, putting the golden waves of her hair into motion. “Anyway, my family couldn’t support me, times were harsh, my uncle was a lowly bookkeeper in the corporate infrastructure. I joined the Death Wingers when I was fourteen.”
“They train over in the Kyoto School, no?”
“Yeah,” she said. “One of the best places to learn to be a merc.”
“For me it was Graceland.”
“Bloody Yank!" She laughed. “The Striped Stars, isn’t that what they call your squad?”
“It's got a good ring to it. Anyway, I guess it doesn't matter where you're from, we're all mercs at the end of the day. We all serve.”
"Non nobis solum," Baby repeated the mercenary mantra.
"Woo-ah!" Jonah added with a small smile.
They walked in silence for a moment. Baby chewed hard on the bar.
“It was tough as hell, though, right?” she asked quietly after swallowing the last bite.
“Most of us had little choice. My parents owned a small shop in the Miami Superdome, but the corporate sharks took a big bite and pushed us into poverty. My old man put a gun to his head. Mum died soon after in a drive-by. It was a choice: do tricks on the streets or join a boot camp. Graceland opened its doors for me, saw the potential. But yeah, it was hell.”
“Kyoto was no picnic, either,” Baby said. “Why do you think I put in the steel membrane? Had enough of the beatings.” She slammed her fist against the wall with such strength that the whole corridor rumbled, turned to Jonah and displayed her pearly white teeth in a wicked smile. “Last time they tried to beat me, they broke their legs against mine.”
“You like this gig, right?”
“I was beaten and raped as a girl," she said with a shrug. “Kyoto was hard, but they gave me the power to stand up for myself. They gave me the skills, the weapons and the technology. They gave me attitude and confidence. No one had touched me for fifteen years, not because I stay clear of a good fight. Yeah, I like being a merc. We’re not ordinary people, Jonah.”
He checked the SPS again and then turned into the nearest hallway that branched off from the one they were in.
“I wanted to be ordinary,” he stated with a sigh, then stopped and put the instrument away. “Better wait for Kovac so he doesn’t wander off.”
“What’s ordinary?” she asked, leaning against the smooth wall beside him.
“Wife, kids,” Jonah said. “You know, keeping a low profile.”
“Instead, you seem to be on pretty good terms with Cloud-9,” Baby returned with a scoff. “You don’t get to that point by keeping a low profile.”
A scowl passed over his face. "Things change," he said.
Before she could ask anything else, Kovac’s heavy steps echoed through the hallway again and soon he appeared from behind the corner.
“Hell, this place has more turns and corners than I can count,” he said. “You’re keeping us on track?”
“We’re good.” Jonah checked the SPS again. “Though we haven’t really moved much closer. We’re inching our way forward, but it seems that sometimes we’re walking in circles.”
He turned on the image of the Anthill again and they studied it in silence for a moment.
“Well, it’s changed, see here?” Jonah said and pointed. “This is a hallway we walked through and it seems that as we made it to the end, it shifted and threw us off, right into here.”
“Christ, we’re further from the target now than we were before!”
“Be careful,” Jonah told Kovac with a strange smile. “Don’t use His name in vain, not in here anyway.”
The big merc grumbled something, but not loud enough for them to hear.
“Look, we knew this wasn’t going to be easy.” Jonah turned the image off again. “We might be here for a few days before we get there. We have to keep moving, though.”
They continued on for some time longer. Baby seemed to gravitate to Jonah and she kept close to him. She trusted Kovac to cover their backs, but she wanted to stay with Jonah in case he encountered anything that might be in front of them. Her laser-fitted eyes studied the long corridor opening up without an end, but there was nothing. Each hall resembled the next and the entire structure was completely void of life or any signs of it ever being here. A maze of empty corridors; she thought its name, the Anthill, to be particularly accurate. She felt like a tiny insect crawling around inside a massive structure.
“So who’s the girl?” Baby asked suddenly, surprising Jonah.
“The telecom, who is she?”
“I don’t know,” he muttered, clearly lost for words.
“Yeah,” she snickered. “I may be a merc, but I’m a woman too and I know the sound of a girl pining for her lover. Don’t bullshit me, Jonah.”
He walked on for some time without replying as if mulling something over in his mind. Finally, after taking a few more turns while keeping an eye on the SPS, he put the instrument away and turned to face Baby.
“Sammy’s my wife,” he said.
“Oh,” she gasped. “I didn’t see that one coming. I was thinking along the lines of, you know, superhero meets lowly girl, shows her a good time, goes off with another, and she longs for him to come back…” She laughed awkwardly. “So you're married, then?”
“Long time ago,” he replied grimly.
“Oh again.” Baby stopped and Jonah thought she blushed. “I’m not having a good day here. Foot in mouth.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
They walked in silence for some time, but Baby could not resist.
“Things didn’t work out with the old lady?" she asked after a pause. "Stuff like that happens, Jonah, I’ve seen it before. It’s the line of work we’re in, hard to keep a family.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Hell, why are we talking about this?!” he exploded abruptly and turned to face her. His eyes were blood-streaked. “What do you care anyway?”
“Just making conversation. Ease off the trigger there, big boy,” Baby said with a scowl, and pointed to his rifle-wielding arm.
Jonah let the weapon hang loose again and exhaled deeply.
“Sorry, I just…” he started.
“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, mate. No pressure here, the last thing I need to see again is what this little toy of yours can do,” she tried a joke, but Jonah remained serious. Standing by the wall, his shoulders sloped under the weight of the bag that he carried, he suddenly appeared to her like a lost schoolboy and she wondered whether he was using the Sensum to manipulate his emotional state.
“Look.” Something broke inside him and he started talking suddenly, glancing around as if to make sure that no one else could hear him. “Graceland was hell, but it helped me survive. But then I wanted out, I wanted a normal life. Sammy…” His voice wandered off. He rested his head against the wall, suddenly tired. “She showed me a way out, you know? She pulled me out of all this, this… carnage. She made me human again, you know what that means? Make a human out of a merc? Have him forget his past, what he’s done?”
“Yeah,” Baby whispered.
He wiped the sweat off his forehead. Baby noticed his hands were shaking. He put the bag down and slid his back down the wall until he was sitting on the cold floor. She sat opposite to him and watched him stare at the ceiling for a long time. Then he looked straight into her eyes, his own feverish.
“Sammy gave me a new life,” he continued and the words came out rapidly, as if he wanted to get them off his chest. “Look, you’re going back to Earth after this and we’re not going to see each other anymore, I can tell you, right? I have to tell someone, I can’t carry this shit around forever.”
“Sammy and I were happy, you know? I was out of it, I stashed my boosters and weapons away, put on a suit and went to work. NYC Superdome. We were happy and I could forget about living at the old Miami docks and cutting coke in the underground labs, or turning tricks for high-profile businessmen who never left without giving you a good beating on top of a wad of crypto. I could forget about Graceland and the death that they taught me to deliver. I could forget about the people I killed for money. Even the nightmares were fading, the faces of the dead were slowly fading from my dreams. Sammy was my salvation.”
Baby did not interrupt and allowed the man to talk. Her intuition told her that Jonah carried a secret, a burden that suffocated him and stifled his screams for help.
“Then,” he continued, slower now, his voice slightly hesitant. “We wanted a child, you know? NYC has a pretty lenient policy because it still has plenty of space, the engineers took into account exponential population growth and they not only went five hundred stories into the sky, but into the ground as well, creating living space for thousands more. The Superdome’s supply system is high-tech and the dome itself is one of the economic superpowers, so a couple may have one child if they fulfill certain specifications. Standard stuff, you know, income level, job security and social status. The Eugenic Code is in full swing, so you have to pass tests for hereditary diseases and racial purity, but that was all fine, Sammy and I got an eighteen-month window of opportunity to bring a child into the world.” Jonah paused, short of breath. “And we did. We did.”
He paused again and turned his face away. Baby thought she saw his chin quiver, but she was not sure because he quickly hid his face in his hands, remaining still like that for some time.
“So you have a child?” she asked softly after a long moment of silence.
“We had a daughter.” Jonah raised his head and she saw that his eyes were moist. But his face, his face was twisted with such hatred, such vicious anger, that she instinctively tried to back away, only to lean harder against the wall behind her back.
“Her name was Alyson,” he continued, his fists clenched so hard his knuckles turned white. “She lived for three days… Three days!” He slammed his fist against the floor. Baby saw his knuckles break and bleed, but Jonah failed to notice. Then his voice broke again. “Then she went away... Just like that, she went away, just quietly, at night. We were with her all the time, you know, she was so tiny, so vulnerable, so beautiful, Christ! She just slipped away, quietly like a little bird, you know? She never even opened her eyes to look at us, she just… She couldn’t, you know, she was too weak. Her little heart, she was missing a chamber and it just couldn’t do the work, she was just…” He sobbed and hid his face in his hands again.
Baby moved in beside him and put her arm around his head. Jonah grasped it and held it close to him, sobbing and muttering, his voice broken. She had tears in her eyes as well.
“I couldn’t protect her,” he continued after regaining some composure. He now stared blankly at the wall before him, blind fury slowly fading from his face, displaced by an ice-like quality. A chemical cocktail spread over his neuro-system and soothed the rage and the pain. His eyes stopped burning and his gaze hardened.
“I couldn’t save her,” he said. “She just went away.”
They sat in silence for some time.
“Sammy and I, we just couldn’t get it together after that, you know? We grew distant, we grew apart." He paused. “I just couldn’t go on. So when Cloud-9 put in a call, searching for mercs to do an impossible mission, I signed up. Even though I promised Sammy to never go back to that life, I signed up and two days later I was being briefed about the Pluto expedition. When I got back after ten months, Sammy was gone.”
“And now she’s a telecom on the Eden space station?”
“She was always pretty damn good,” Jonah said with a soft smile. “She worked in the private sector for some time, but she got the call, too, eventually. Not from Cloud-9, but from the North American Coalition to start work on the space stations. They only take the best. Eden, I think it’s just coincidence that she works there now.”
“Maybe a sign?” Baby suggested.
“Too late now.” Jonah patted the black bag that he kept under his hand. His lips curled into a strange smile, warm but menacing. She looked at him questioningly, but he did not offer an explanation. They heard Kovac’s metallic steps approach slowly.
“Well, he’s taking his sweet time,” Baby joked. “Use your Sensum again, Jonah. You're a mess.”
He did and within seconds, his heart ceased pounding, the sweat receded, and he was confident and reassured. He exhaled deeply once and then again.
“Good stuff,” Baby commented. “What I wouldn’t give for that. Multiple orgasms, here I come.” She gave a forced laughter.
Kovac’s steps grew louder and his gigantic figure appeared at the end of the corridor.
“What are you two yapping about?” he asked good-naturedly as he approached.
“We’re just waiting for your fat metal ass to haul itself all the way down here,” Baby returned with frustration. She watched Jonah from the corner of her eye as he calmly rose to his feet and gripped the bag with his left hand.
“Let’s get a move on it,” he ordered and started forward. “Plenty of ways to go.”
“Stay clear of my ass and I’ll stay clear of yours, sweet-cake,” Kovac muttered quietly enough to be sure that Baby did not hear him. The last thing he needed was for her to unload a couple of photon missiles into him.
They allowed Jonah to move a few steps ahead of them. He walked with confidence for a long time, now and then taking out the SPS receiver and checking their coordinates.
“What do you reckon is in that bag of his?” Kovac asked when he was sure that Jonah was too far ahead to hear them.
“I’ll be damned if I know, but let me tell you something, I don’t want to be here when he opens it up,” Baby replied. “I’m all for getting him to the destination and then teleporting our asses out of here as quickly as possible. And the satellite feed better be working properly, because I want to be back on Eden before this whole place goes up in flames.”
Kovac walked quietly for a moment, mulling over her words.
“You reckon it’s a bomb?” he asked finally. They stopped.
“Put two and two together, big guy,” she snapped. “They’ve located the place where He’s staying, they sent in their top dog who’s on a classified mission and whose task requires him to stay behind after the rest of the team goes packing and evacs? Not to mention that this guy is off the deep end, has a few loose wires in his head and has little to lose.”
“Jonah?” Kovac raised his brows in surprise.
“He’s borderline psychotic, shifting in and out of hysteria,” she said. “Maybe he’s got a grudge against the Big Guy, too, I don’t know.”
“So you think they want to off this place with Him in it?” The big merc seemed to have a much more difficult time accepting it than Baby.
“Have you spotted any fucking parades in His honor down on Earth? ‘Welcome home’ banners, cheerleaders and fireworks?”
“What's a polite way to greet a deity?" Kovac asked helplessly.
“Maybe with an H-bomb,” Baby replied with a scoff.
“They can’t seriously think this will do the job?”
“Maybe they have another ace up their sleeves? Maybe they figure they have nothing to lose anyway? The old backyard is going up in flames either way, it’s the end of the land of milk and honey, and time to line up to the right or the left. Why not go out with a big bang and show Him that we mean business? And if the gamble works and they do off Him in the process, think about how they’ll be patting each other on their backs.” Baby’s voice was grim.
“Genocide, regicide, what do you call this? Deicide? I’ve heard it all now.” Kovac scratched his head.
“Gods have been killed before.”
“Not like this they haven’t,” Kovac objected and after a moment’s silence, he asked, “So what do we do?”
“I’m doing my job, cashing in my paycheck and going off to have a good time.”
“And Jonah? We just let him go on with this?”
“What do you think, mate?” she demanded angrily. “Why do you think he carries that nuke-disposer on his shoulder? You want to go up against that?”
“You could disable him with your photons,” Kovac returned.
“And risk setting off the bomb before I’m out of here? Forget it, big man. I’m seeing this through to the end, taking my ticket back to the station and locking myself in a room with a new Sensum model, waiting for the end of the world. Besides,” she paused before adding after a moment. “I wouldn’t want to hurt Jonah. He has issues that he needs to sort out on his own and if this is the way he thinks he’ll do it, I’m not going to stop him.”
“A personal agenda, then? He’s not just a pawn?”
“He knows he’s being used. But something tells me they didn’t have to convince him to take this mission on.”
“Must have it pretty bad, then.”
“Yeah.” She raised her head and looked after Jonah because they suddenly heard his voice calling them. Her eyes narrowed and she readied them to fire, but Kovac put his heavy hand on her shoulder.
“He’s alright.” His long-distance vision enabled him to see Jonah standing in the middle of an empty corridor and looking at the SPS with disbelief.
“What’s wrong?” Baby asked when they approached.
“Something’s messed up,” Jonah muttered and shook his head. “This can’t be right.”
“What is it?”
“Take a look.” He handed her the device. Baby looked on, her forehead creased.
“We’re on the opposite side of Proxima,” she announced finally, looking questioningly at her companions.
“What, the star did a sideways flip?” Kovac joked.
Jonah was busy turning on the Anthill's holograph. He expanded the image to include the entire star and they lowered their heads over the projection to have a closer look.
“It’s changed positions,” Baby said as she compared the image with the coordinates that the SPS receiver was giving her. “The Anthill is now on the opposite side of Proxima.”
“Shit!” Jonah cursed.
“You mean this whole bloody place moved?” Kovac gasped and when Baby nodded, he added, “Anybody felt anything?”
“I’ll check the images updated from the satellites in the last twenty minutes. I keep checking the SPS, so it couldn’t have happened any earlier than that.”
They watched him flip frantically through the dozen or so images.
“This means our destination coordinates are useless,” Kovac muttered.
“If the Anthill did a simple 180 then we could still figure them out, but by the looks of it, it’s in a completely new place, who knows where on Proxima? The star’s diameter is 1.5 that of Jupiter so it should give you a pretty good idea of her size. Needle in a haystack.”
“Here, see?” Jonah stopped and studied the image. “Here it’s still in the old place, see? But the next image.” He forwarded to the next one and they stared at an empty spot.
“Holy shit, it’s like it was never there!” Kovac exclaimed.
“How long between the two images?”
“There’s a few more empty images, but then Eden must have located the new position and reset the satellites because we’ve been getting correct uploads for the past eight minutes.”
“So they’re on top of things, that’s good news.”
“We should be back online with them shortly, too,” Jonah added. “If the Anthill changed its position, then we should be on the same side of the star as them, more or less.”
Just now, as if in response, Jonah’s headset beeped and flashed green in his pocket, notifying him that the equipment was working again. He snatched it quickly and put it on.
“Sammy?” he spat into the microphone.
“Jonah, thank God…!” Her pleasant voice rang in his ears. “Do you read me, over?”
“Loud and clear, Eden, loud and clear,” he smiled and gave a thumbs up to Baby and Kovac. “Good to hear your voice again. Over.”
“Is everything alright down there? When it disappeared, we all thought we lost you! The infrared cams are still not working, they’re not getting through the walls. Over.”
“No, everything is fine down here, piece of cake so far. We didn’t feel it move, we’re just now realizing the new location. Over.”
“We have a new set of coordinates for you.” Sammy’s voice was calm and professional.
“We thought you might.” Jonah was quickly jotting them down. He then repeated them back into the mic to make sure they were correct. “You’re a gem, Sammy, thanks. Be sure to keep in touch,” he finished.
“I’ll be checking in every fifteen, over and out.”
“Ok, looks like more walking,” Jonah announced when he put the headset away. Kovac groaned. “The good news for you is that they managed to stabilize the feed and we’re not going to be losing them again, so they’ll be able to pick you guys up as soon as we reach the hot spot.”
“Hot spot?” Baby muttered when Jonah was already several paces ahead of them. “How fitting…” She chuckled quietly.
Kovac looked at her thoughtfully, but said nothing. He set his heavy legs into motion and followed Jonah into another endless, sterile corridor. His footsteps thundered against the smooth, faceless walls of the stronghold. Baby shrugged, adjusted her backpack and started after her two companions.
Sixty-five hours later, Jonah stood motionless and watched the two mercs disintegrate before his very eyes. Their designer bodies slowly faded from the empty hallway, quietly slipping away into oblivion, another memory that he was soon to forget altogether. Eden had their location pinpointed and Sammy was presently teleporting them back into the orbit. Kovac raised one of his massive arms in farewell and Jonah returned the gesture hesitantly. Baby did not move and she did not look at him. Her eyes were fixed on the solid steel wall that shot up behind him, high into the suddenly invisible ceiling. The hallway had opened up and led them into a cavernous chamber, the roof of which was lost from their sight, even from the big merc’s long distance vision. Three, four miles up? The wall signified the end of their trip, their mission was over. Beyond this wall their instruments could not venture.
Their bodies became transparent and he could already see through them the corridor that had led them to this point. Then they faded altogether. The last thing Jonah vaguely noted were Baby’s long shimmering locks gracefully cascading down her back as she turned her head away, refusing to look at him in this last moment of their strange venture, a point in space and time where their paths had briefly crossed. She carried with her the Sensum 2K that Jonah gave her with a small smile just prior to the teleport.
“Won’t be needing it,” he whispered. She took it hesitantly without looking at him and then stuffed into one of her vest pockets.
“Thanks,” she breathed.
“Tell her I love her.” Jonah touched her wrist.
“You tell her," Baby snapped back, freed her arm and turned away.
Then she was gone and along with her the big man, whose infectious and good-natured humor had kept their sanity in check over the past two and a half days. Jonah was now left alone with nothing more than the fast beating of his heart to measure out the rhythm of his life, a life that was quickly winding down. The Dexidren they had all taken throughout the mission was making his heart pound and the palms of his hands sweat profusely. He placed the black bag he still carried with him on the floor with a sigh of relief. With the mercs gone he could stop watching it every moment, worried that one of them might try to take it from him. He knew that they had guessed its contents and he was glad that they chose not to use force against him.
Jonah rested his back against the flat wall and was comforted by a tingling sensation that the matter, quintessence, emanated. He closed his eyes and felt the wall quietly change shape behind him to wrap perfectly around the curve of his back. The quintessential touch was gentle and soft, and Jonah slowly drifted off, carried forth by a wave of overwhelming fatigue. Then his headset cracked and he heard Sammy’s voice.
“Eden here, come in, Charon.” She was so close, he thought. Yet, there were hundreds of thousands of miles between them. And so many unspoken words. So many forgotten dreams and broken promises. So much hurt. “We got them, Charon, no problems, over.”
Jonah opened his bloodshot eyes and adjusted the mic with a weary hand.
“I hear you, Sammy.”
“Keep me posted on your location, we’re having trouble locking the signal down. When you’re ready to teleport, give us a go ahead and I’ll find you, over.”
He wetted his broken lips and turned to look at the solid wall rising a hundred or so feet away from him. It shot up to the roof of the chamber and he tried to follow its smooth path, but its top was shrouded in darkness thicker than ink. He thought the darkness to be descending on him slowly, like a giant raven spreading his wings and slowly lowering down, cloaking his world and readying it for the absolute night which was soon to follow. A fraction of a second of immense light, a light so bright that God Himself would have to shield His eyes, followed by a darkness so black as to be found only in a void.
“Talk to me, baby," she pleaded. She sensed something.
“I’m sorry, love,” he whispered. Too many things were left unsaid. And there was a baby girl that they buried together and over whose tiny grave they wept together. More had died on that day than their beautiful daughter. They died, too, the both of them.
“Jonah?” Sammy’s voice broke. “Baby, talk to me, please…”
“I’ll see you soon, doll, I promise,” he breathed into the microphone. “I love you both so much, you know that? Maybe we’ll all see each other soon…” He paused and steadied his trembling hands against his knees. “Maybe… Maybe we’ll see her soon, too, baby, you know?”
“JONAH!” She screamed into his ear and he could picture her small fists beating against the liquid glass panel of her telecom station. “Jonah, you can’t do this to me! You can’t leave me alone again, Jonah…!”
He tore the headset off with a painful grunt and threw it violently against the wall. The hundred pieces it shattered into floated slowly through the air in slow motion before quietly settling on the smooth quintessential floor of the corridor. He gave a silent cry of pain and hid his head in his hands. Tears streaked his grim face and like small beads from a broken necklace they escaped from beneath his fingers, slowly making their way down to his quivering chin.
“Fuck!” He slammed his head against the wall with a hard thud. “Fuck! Fuck!”
Slowly he allowed his weary and limp body to slide down until he laid sideways on the warm, welcoming floor. The link was severed. Nothing held him back or connected him to the land of the living anymore.
With trembling hands, he reached into his vest pocket and brought out a vial of Dexidren. He popped two pills and waited. He needed a boost, he needed to energize if he was to finish this thing.
Jonah slowly returned to a sitting position, closed his eyes and leaned against the wall. Did he take too many pills over the past few hours? He knew the side effects. Irritability, nervousness, restlessness, insomnia, fatigue, depression… He was a wreck. It took great effort on his part to keep his composure during the exhausting and debilitating venture through the maze of shifting corridors. Having relied heavily on the neuro suppressor over the last couple of days, just to be able to comply with standard op procedures and to perform basic recon tasks, Jonah now felt its lack. He missed the soothing wave of confidence he could achieve with a simple thought. Jonah exhaled deeply and suddenly burst into hysterical laughter. They put a bomb powerful enough to wipe out an entire star into his hands! How badly did they want to get rid of God? How could they be sure he would go through with it?
Yes, but they knew him, no? He had never recovered from the death of his daughter. Over her tiny grave, he denounced God and promised vengeance. Friends had to pry him away from the grave. The rain was terrible and it poured down on his head. Was it God weeping over a small child? Jonah’s fists were clenched so tight that his knuckles had turned a deathly white. Mud had gotten beneath his fingernails during the hours he had spent clawing furiously at the silent earth in utter despair, rebelling against His decision, denouncing Him over and over again in blind fury. People dispersed slowly following the quiet ceremony, looking over their shoulders with pity, feeling sorry for the mountain of hurt felt by this lonely father. Even Sammy left eventually, after pleading with him for hours to let it be. Let it be, she said. She left a small bouquet of flowers that soon faded under the weight of the rain. He shook off the priest’s hand and cursed him to hell. The clergyman made a sign of the cross and left him in peace.
She would have been five this winter.
Jonah wanted vengeance. For the pictures that were never taken. For the pony that never felt the tiny weight on his back. For the toys that were never used. The crib that was never slept in. The lullabies that were never sung. Sammy’s tears. The life they never had. The family they would never be.
He opened his bag and studied the mechanism. Although trained in explosives, this one was too complicated for him, presenting him with a myriad of wires and microprocessors. It was designed by an international group of engineers, authorized by the G11 and the major religions of the world, most notably represented by the Rome, Jerusalem and the Mecca Superdomes, and financed by a corporate fund set up especially for this reason by the six major world corporations. And then entrusted into his care. All he had to do was turn it on. A five minute countdown would follow and… And then what? The end of the world, maybe. A world with no God, perhaps. Or, maybe, a world with a God rejected by His flock who would leave quietly, without a reply?
None of this really concerned Jonah. He did not care what the world would be like after the bomb exploded. What mattered is that he would even the score and slip into the void. The world after the bomb would be a world without his vengeance in it. Without its ugliness and hatred, without its clenched teeth and the blood on his knuckles, without the memory of a tiny baby girl dying and him unable to stop it. Unable to help her. It was to be a world without him in it. Vengeance was ugly and it had made him ugly, too, ugly and cowardly and willing to commit the most terrible deeds, at the very thought of which most people shuddered with fear. How could the world be worst off after he was gone?
Jonah wheeled around cat-like, his rifle-wielding arm extended forward and the muzzle pointed at the little girl who stood several paces away. He blinked hard. Curly blond hair, a small heart-shaped face, innocent blue eyes that looked at him with trust and confidence. A simple dress and sandals on her small feet. He blinked again, but the image of the child did not disappear.
“Daddy?” she repeated, her childish voice strangely soft against the polished walls of the maze of sterile corridors around them. “Daddy, what are you doing?”
His arm quivered under the weight of the rifle, then it failed and Jonah allowed it to drop.
“What is this?...” He stammered and stumbled back, tripping over his precious bag. He would have fallen to the floor, but in the last moment he leaned against the wall. “What is this trickery?”
His eyes were glued to the child’s face. The little girl could not have been more than four or five and he had never seen her before in his life, but… she was familiar. Her infinitely blue eyes studied him with trust and sympathy. She placed her small hands behind her back and rocked back and forth on her heels.
“It’s ok, daddy,” she said with a smile. “It’s me.”
“What?” he breathed with exasperation. Her face, her eyes, her chin, her small nose, where did he see all that before? Where, where?
“It’s me, daddy."
Sweat streaked his forehead and he rubbed it away absentmindedly. His mind worked frantically, attempting to piece things together, and to cling to the remaining bit of sanity.
“It’s me, daddy,” the child repeated. A sharp-shooting pain exploded in his chest, then Jonah sobbed and dropped to one knee.
“Why are you doing this?!” he screamed at the hollow space above him. “Damn you! Damn you!” He dropped the rifle and hid his face inside his hands, sobbing uncontrollably.
“It’s ok, daddy." He felt small arms embrace him and draw him closer. “It’s me, Alyson. It’s ok, daddy, it’s really me.” He felt her small lips kiss his forehead.
Jonah opened his eyes and through the tears he looked at the child’s face. The little girl smiled and held his stare. Her eyes were full of trust and love. Yes, the high cheekbones, the full lips, how could he not see it immediately? She was Sammy's mirror image.
He reached out and gathered her in his arms, this tiny being who was so miraculously, so unexpectedly returned to him. His eyes did not lie. Nor did his hands when he held her close, when he felt her warmth, when he buried his face in the curly waves of her golden hair, breathing in this miracle, sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. She returned the embrace as well as she could, standing on her tiptoes and holding on to him for dear life. Long, long time neither one of them moved, they simply relished each other’s company and touch, and cherished the moment that was to take them into the forever.
“How can this… How can you be…” Jonah started awkwardly when he finally pulled away from her. “Where did you come from?”
Alyson gave him a childish smile, turned around and pointed. He looked over her head and stared at a crack that appeared in the massive wall behind which lay the end of his journey, his destination and his destiny. Intense light seeped through it, so blindingly white that he was unable to look straight at it. The narrow gap rose straight from the ground up, up into the night above them, and disappeared in the gathering darkness.
“He sent me for you,” Alyson said after a pause.
Jonah looked back at the child before him, his daughter, his flesh and blood, the same daughter whom he had mourned for five long years. She stood before him, again rocking back and forth on her heels, a childish smile on her pretty face.
“Really?” he asked hesitantly.
“Yes, daddy,” she replied with an energetic nod. “He said that you needed my help, that you needed me to guide you. Are you lost, daddy?”
Tears gathered in his eyes again and he rubbed them away quickly, embarrassed.
“Are you ok, daddy?”
“Yes, honey.” He smiled and reached out for her. She took his hand, her small hand lost in his. “Yes, I think I may be a little lost.”
“He said you might be."
Jonah sat on the floor and she nestled herself in his lap. “Oh, honey,” he sighed and stroke her hair. Tears rolled down his face. “There’s so much I want to tell you, so much I want to ask you about…”
“That’s ok, daddy, we’ll have plenty of time.”
“Yeah!” She clapped her hands in excitement. “I missed you so much, and mummy too, you know? But I couldn’t come to see you before because you were away, but He always said that when I was a little older I would see you and mummy both, right? And now He said that I’m old enough, that I understand a lot and that we can all be together again. And we will be soon, mummy will come soon too, along with everybody else.”
“Yeah?” So Sammy would be with them, too, Jonah thought. It was as he wanted.
She stopped abruptly and looked up at him, suddenly saddened.
“I wasn’t supposed to ask you, but…” She hesitated and Jonah had to hold back a smile, so mature she seemed, so adult-like.
“What is it, love?”
“Why…” Alyson hesitated again and looked away. Finally, she looked straight into his eyes and asked, “Why did you and mummy have to go away? It was such a horribly long time and I missed you so much! It’s nice here, but I really wanted to be with you!”
“Oh, honey.” He sighed and held her close again, feeling her small heart beat fast against his. “We didn’t want to go anywhere, we didn’t want to leave you at all, you understand that? We just…” He was looking for words. “I guess we just didn’t have a choice. If we could, love, we would have taken you with us.”
“But you knew He would take care of me, right? So it was ok?”
“Yes.” Jonah looked away. “We knew that you’d be ok.”
“That’s what He said." She gave him a big, bright smile. “He said that I couldn’t go with you because it would be too hard for me, that maybe even you wouldn’t be able to protect me. So you asked Him to take care of me until you got back.”
“Yeah." He wiped away the tears that gathered in his eyes again. “That’s how it was, love. And He took care of you?”
“Oh, it’s been great!” She rocked back and forth on his lap. “There is so much stuff to do, so many great people there, it’s really fun, you’ll love it, too!”
“Tell me something, honey." It was Jonah’s turn to hesitate now. “What’s He like?”
“Oh, He is sooo great, really!” She clapped her hands again. “Like, when you first meet Him, He’s a little scary, you know, just ‘cause He’s so big, but once you get to know Him, He’s just this cuddly teddy bear!” She laughed. “We play together all the time, He’s really good at hide and seek, you know, you’d think He wouldn’t be, but He is! And He’s great, He really takes care of all us, He’s so nice.”
“All of you?” Jonah repeated.
“Well, yes.” A little wrinkle appeared at the top of her small nose when she searched for words. “Yes, all of us, you know. We’re all there, everybody. Everybody except you guys.”
“Yes, but He says that we’ll all be together in a few days and that we’ll all go away then, together, like a family.”
“Go away, love? Where to?”
“Back home, daddy." She smiled and jumped off his lap. She reached out for his hand and he handed it to her. “We can all go home then.”
She pulled him slightly and Jonah rose to his feet. Led by a small girl, he slowly neared the intense light.
“Aren’t you taking that with you, daddy?” Alyson pointed at the black bag that remained behind them, carelessly thrown to the floor. Jonah looked at it for a short time. He then shrugged his shoulders and turned back to his daughter. He picked her up and seated her on his back. She squealed and pulled his hair playfully.
“No, honey,” he said. “I don’t need that anymore.”
Then, without any more hesitation, Jonah started for the light. He halted only once more and turned his head to look up at Alyson.
“Do you think He’ll be happy to meet me?”
“Oh, yeah!” Her small legs kicked the air. “Of course, daddy! He loves you so much, you know, because you’re my daddy and I love you!”
Jonah smiled through the tears again and then with no more delay, he took long strides to reach the light opening before him. He closed his eyes just before he entered and then… the light was all around him, blinding, intense, and warm… Beautiful.