ORIGINAL FICTION: "Rebirth" by Charlie Starr (2010)

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” said the leader in a hushed voice.

            “You know as well as I do,” replied the other. “It’s the rats, now shut up.”

This man was the less nervous of the two. He could not see, but could easily sense that his partner was scared. He pictured the other in his mind: hunched over as he walked—ready for anything—clutching tightly the shotgun in his hands, ready to pull the trigger at the first sound. The follower was truly the calmer of the two. He stood erect, dangling his gun from a single hand. But still he was cautious. He knew that, if they made much sound or flashed a light, it would bring the rats by the hundreds, and that a couple of shotguns would do little good.

            Neither of them liked travelling through the sewer, but it was necessary whenever a radiation front pushed through the city. It did not happen very often, but sometimes the invisible waves stormed in death-dealing lines ahead of high pressure fronts, like birds had done in flocks before a storm in the old days—before the light and the dying. Radiation belts encircled the entire planet, drifting with the wind. They would come and go like weather, the only difference being that people didn’t get wet in this weather; they just died. It was just such a front that engulfed the city at this time and would not leave for several hours.

Time was against them—made them hurry along more than caution wanted. But they had to reach the shelter before being exposed to too much radiation. Even though all of the survivors had worked up a certain tolerance to it, overexposure could still cause death. So they hurried as slowly as they could, fully aware that the rats could attack at any moment.

The leader was Mike Mc Leon. He was a young man, short and thin—and at that moment terrified. His dirt blonde hair had been working on gradually growing over his shoulders. Like many of the survivors, he had a beard and mustache as it was not easy to keep clean-shaven anymore. Of course a few more minutes outside the shelter might take care of that. But losing his hair was the least of his worries. Behind him walked the man called Benson. His first name was Christopher, but no one called him that—just Benson or Ben. Mike didn’t like him; by his choosing they were rivals (a foolish attitude to have on an earth where a mere few hundred thousand people were left alive). Benson seemed a cold man with no compassion, no feeling at all. Mike didn’t like that. He liked nothing about the man. To Benson, Mike Mc Leon was just a man whom he didn’t get along with. He had a personal policy of never hating a man. Years ago, he had feared some men, respected some men, and forgiven others. But ever since he was sixteen years old, he had hated no one. He wouldn’t allow it.

Benson was 35 years old, medium height with a slightly below average build. His hair was brown and thinning, and, unlike Mike, he had no beard, managing to shave (with difficulty) using a knife.

Suddenly the two men froze.

“Did you hear that?” asked Mike.

“Yes,” replied Benson.

“Turn on the flashlight.”

“No! Wait a minute!” said Benson, his voice hushed but amplified to a loud whisper. Then they heard it again, a low squeak followed by a scratching sound.

“There it is again,” said Mike, this time his voice had risen to normal tone. “Get the flashlight.”

Moving his hand slowly to the back pocket of his tattered Levi’s, Benson grabbed a bulky flashlight, sticking halfway out of the pocket. He was a little afraid now himself and decided to follow Mike’s example in crouching over and clutching tightly to his rifle.

“Do you got the light?” Mike’s voice was urgent.

Benson’s was calm: “Yes, I have the light.”

“Then shine it!”

“Keep your voice down, you’ll have every rat in the city on us.”

Raising the device, Benson pushed the little plastic switch and the light came on. He aimed it toward their front, but they saw nothing. Then another sound came from behind them. Both spun around quickly. Their nerves tensed as the light revealed a small furry animal with a hairless tail sitting up on its hind legs, sniffing slightly at the air. Taking no time to aim, Mike raised his gun and let loose both barrels. The rat gave a short loud squeak before being splattered against a tunnel wall.

“Well,” said Benson matter-of-factly, “now you’ve done it.”

“Too late to change it now. Run!”

With that they went rushing down the tunnel. Silence and darkness were no longer necessary; the rats would be upon them in seconds.

2

Three men and two women sat huddled closely together in silence, waiting for the storm to pass. The shelter was small and dark and as close to the center of the old building as possible. They had scavenged the hulk of the dead city for every scrap of lead they could find to line the walls with.  Here in what had been a conference room (but now served as corporate sleeping quarters), surrounded by offices and hallways they’d converted to various other purposes, they were safe from the radiation.

“Where are they?” said one of the women.

Her voice sounded frightened; it conveyed her feelings. Betty Mc Leon was Mike’s wife since two years before the war. She was small and pale—a weak woman with a wheezing chest. She had suffered the severest dose of radiation poisoning during the war and even now had problems breathing. She constantly coughed and could not go a month without having a serious asthma attack. Her clothes, like those of all the others there, were tattered, torn, and filthy. They had intended on rummaging through the stores in what remained of the mall, but that was across town—a dangerous distance—and now they would have to wait several weeks before anything might be decontaminated again.

She kept her hair cut short with a rusty pair of scissors to help keep from the heat, as did the other woman, or girl. She was a girl, only eighteen. Linda. She wore, still, the same cutoffs and that same tacky-sloganed t-shirt she had worn out to the lake with her boyfriend. She saw him die when bomb induced quakes tore the earth in half beneath his feet—the ground swallowed him whole. Since then she had not been quite sane. She was very quiet and would speak only when spoken to.

“Where could they be?” repeated Betty.

“Don’t worry, they’ll be here,” said the man next to her. “Remember it takes time to get through the sewers.”

His voice was soft and pleasing; he had been a minister before the war, a Presbyterian clergyman. Reverend Thomas Hope was his name. His beard matched the silver and black of his hair. He was tall and broad shouldered and looked more like a wrestler than a man of the cloth. His face was soft and sincere with no rugged features. His eyes were calm, so calm. You could look into them and be engulfed by a world of ease, and nothing mattered anymore until you took your eyes away and the hellish reality of the tilted world took over. His khakis were cut just below the knees; one leg was torn midway up his thigh. His shirt was ripped all over; the sleeves had been torn to his elbows, and he left it unbuttoned, constantly revealing the crucifix he wore about his neck.

The five sat in silence for several more minutes; then finally Mike and Benson entered the room.

“Mike!” Betty cried.

Jumping up off the floor she ran to him and embraced him. He put his free hand around her waist and began to calm her. Benson moved around them and approached the others as they began to stand.

“What happened, Ben?” asked Reverend Tom.

He knew Benson did not like being called Christopher, but Tom could not accept calling a man by his last name, so he settled for Ben.

“Nothing, really, we had to get here through the sewers. It took us a while.”

“That’s not all that happened, Benson, quit playing everything down!” Mike interrupted. “Tell ‘em the rest.”

Then from behind the clergyman, one of the other men asked, “What else happened, Benson?”

Edward Jones, in his late forties, was the oldest of the survivors and considered by unspoken consensus to be the leader of the group.

“We were attacked by the rats.”

The shock registered on their faces.

“You didn’t get bitten, did you?”

Then taking in a deep breath Benson said, “As we were climbing up out of the manhole, almost safe, I did.”

“Well what were you going to do, keep it from me and let the poison kill you!”

“I didn’t want to alarm anybody.”

“Just tell me about it next time,” said Ed in anger. “Alright, quick, where did you get bit?”

As Benson bent down to pull up his pant leg, Ed pulled a long knife from his back pocket.

“I was bitten twice, right he—” He was interrupted by his own amazement. “It’s gone.”

“Gone?” replied Ed. “Try your other leg.”

“No, I remember I was bitten on my right leg.”

“He’s right,” interrupted Mike. “I saw it, both the bites.”

After a brief pause, Benson rolled his pant leg down.

“See here, the punctures in my pants.”

Ed Jones saw the bite punctures and was amazed. There were two sets of holes in Benson’s pant leg—the kind a rat bite would make. Slowly the others drew closer to see for themselves.

All but quiet Linda. She looked from a distance, sitting and rocking gently on the floor, and then spoke without being spoken to: “He made Benson a little lower than the angels. A little higher than us.”

3

Ty Ferguson stood peering through the eye piece at the night sky. He had found the telescope in an old department store a few years after the war. It was small, about three feet long, and stood on a tripod some five feet off the ground.

Ferguson was the fifth man of the seven survivors. He was taller than the others, except for Reverend Tom. His hair was strawberry blonde, his thin beard darker. He wore army surplus fatigues that were cut off at his thighs and otherwise went shoeless and shirtless. Burn marks, some in the form of scars, some the color of charcoal and one or two yet unhealed and oozing dotted or splotched his otherwise reddish, pale skin—souvenirs of a nuclear holocaust which no one thought would ever happen after the cold war ended way back in the 90’s. But it had; Ty Ferguson was one of countless visible proofs.

For many months past he had been peering through this scope every night, plotting each position of the stars since the earth had been knocked off its axis. The sun now rose in the Northeast in summers where daylight scorched the American plains for 20 hours of every day. But the stars were there; earth had moved, but they had not, at least not in relation to each other. Medieval man had looked upon the heavens in their unmoving sphere and marveled at the unchanging perfection of the Stellatum. Ty took some comfort in the possibility of permanent order, even if it meant ignoring inconvenient facts.

4

The last of them had begun to doze off when Ty Ferguson came staggering through the shelter door, dragging his telescope behind him. He dropped the telescope and fell to his knees, panting heavily. Then he slammed the door closed and the others quickly woke. Ed Jones sat up in his old cot, grabbing the gun he had placed under his pillow. The cot was in the corner nearest the door, away from all the others. He wanted it that way in case they had any trouble. He saw Ty and began to worry. Ty was sweating, breathing heavily; and he was scared, Ed could tell that. Ty looked up at Ed as he approached, then turned his head downward in an attempt to catch his breath and tell Ed what had happened. The others began to stir.

“What happened, Ty?” asked Ed as he knelt beside him.

Benson interrupted Ty’s response: “The rats.”

Ed looked up and saw Benson standing at the other end of the room.

Then Benson repeated, “It was the rats.”

“How do you know?” asked Ed.

“What else could it be?” he replied. “We’ve seen more and more rats since the storm last month than ever before. There’s something going on with those rats.”

“Yes, it’s called multiplication,” Mike quipped.

“He’s right though, they were rats, hundreds of ‘em.” Ty had regained his nerve and his breath; he began to tell them his story.

“I was out with my scope, just like I am every night. Well I was just about to finish up, when I heard something rustling in the dark. I looked out around me but didn’t see nothin’. I could still hear it though, so I kept watchin’. I had a small fire built so I could see to write down on my notepad. Well I looked over to the opposite side of the fire, and that’s when I saw them—a hundred little eyes glowing, reflecting the light of the fire. Then they started poppin’ up everywhere, all around me. And then they started movin’ in; they came within fifteen feet of me and then stopped. There must have been a thousand of ‘em. They just sat there watchin’ me.”

“Then what did you do?” asked Benson; his voice sounded concerned.

“I grabbed my telescope and ran! That’s what I did.”

Benson’s face showed relief as he said, “Then you didn’t hurt them?”

“No—wouldn’t have done any good if I tried. There were too many.”

Standing, Ed walked to where Benson was.

“Does it make any difference, Benson?” asked Ed.

“It might make a difference, and it might not.” Stepping around Ed, he approached Ty, who was just beginning to stand. “Did they attack you?”

“No, they just sat out there.”

“Like, they were watching you.”

“Watching him!” interrupted Mike. “Oh come on, Benson! Those rats are as mindless as you are. It’s obvious they were out there to eat him.”

Benson turned around and saw Mike standing at the other end of the room, a look of disgust on his face.

Taking in a deep breath, Benson replied, “Mr. Mc Leon, those rats came within 15 feet of him. If they had intended to kill him they could have and would have. He was scared, and he hesitated for a moment, and I assure you that that moment would have been enough time for them to get to him before he could even start running.”

There was a moment of silence. Then in a softer tone, Mike replied, “Benson, you’re crazy.”

“That’s enough, Mike,” said Ed. “Benson’s right. Those rats had enough time to kill Ty, and they didn’t. Now I can’t explain why, but they didn’t. What we’ve got to do is ask ourselves how we’re going to survive here with all this increased rat activity—they’ve never come out of the sewers before, not out in the open like this. Benson, you seem to have an idea about these things. What do you suggest?”

Benson thought for a moment, and then said, “Sleep, for now. There is no immediate threat—I think we can wait until tomorrow.” Then raising his voice and addressing everybody: “Right now I suggest we all get some sleep.”

“Alright, then we’ll sleep in shifts,” Ed responded. “We’ll have two people awake throughout the night. He paused for a moment looking around at them. “Okay, who’s first?”

“Me,” said Ty. “I’m too nervous to sleep right now.”

“Alright, you,” then turning to the others, “and who else?”

“Me,” replied Benson.

“Fine then, wake me in four hours.”

Benson acknowledged Ed with a nod.

Ed went into the corner and fell back into his cot; Betty began to turn down the kerosene lamps at the other end of the room. Mike sat down on his blanket on the floor and turned to Reverend Tom, who was lying in a cot next to him.

“What’s with that Benson, Rev?” Mike asked, “He hasn’t been the same ever since that storm last month.”

“I wouldn’t think that you’d care that much about Ben,” replied Tom.

“I don’t, but now he’s worse than he was before.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him; he does seems to have gotten interested in those rats though.”

“Yeah, he’s starting to talk like they’re as smart as we are.”

“Perhaps they are, Mike. After all, they’ve survived a nuclear war much better than we have, and they had no bomb shelters.”

“Yeah, well—” His sentence was interrupted as he looked away toward the other end of the room. “Now what is he doing?”

Reverend Tom looked over and saw the outline of a man standing in the far corner looking upward at something. And as Betty began to lie on the blanket next to Mike, Tom stood up and walked toward Benson. When Mike reached him, he could see that Benson was staring up at the ventilation cover.

“What’s going on, Ben?” he asked.

Benson said nothing. He just stood there staring at the vent. He stood for a few more seconds, then he slowly reached around to his back pocket and, pulling out his flashlight, he lifted it slowly, fumbling around to find the switch. Then, aiming it toward the vent, he flipped the switch and the light came on. There, peering through the slats in the cover, were two glowing red eyes, shimmering from the light. And then the eyes disappeared, followed by a scurrying sound, which slowly faded. The two men stood in silence; then turning his head toward Benson, Mike said, “What was it doing there?”

“Watching, listening,” replied Benson.

“A rat? But why?”

“I don’t know. There’s something behind this, something intelligent. That I do know. I can feel it. I can feel it.”

Lying on her little palette to one side, seemingly oblivious to everything, Linda was trying to invent a palindrome: “ I saw Star Wars…” and she giggled. Then: “Raw rats was I…but that’s not right, Donny. It doesn’t make sense…Sshhh….Oh I see…It will to Benson. Raw rats and straw hats…hmm…those are halos. Benson will take them from angels.”

 

5

With his .45 in one hand and a scavenged army grenade in the other, Ed Jones quietly made his way through the dark sewer systems of what had once been a city of lights so bright they would douse the stars. Little was left, and the night ruled there again. The project of controlling the rat population had been going well since the incident with Ty a week before. The final step was ready. All week they had been burning the rats out with gasoline and explosives which they had salvaged from various places in the city. Now they were going to use controlled explosions to collapse all the tunnels within a mile radius of their refuge. Ed was meeting Benson at the other end of this particular tunnel where the final link for detonation would be made.

Slowly, silently, he made his way through. None of them had ever been this deep into the sewers. There was a light ahead of him, just around the next bend. “There he is,” he thought. But when he rounded the bend he saw that the source of the light was from nothing that might belong to Benson or any of the other survivors. There, in the center of the tunnel, illuminated by a light which seemed to have no source, stood a strange obelisk, a pillar of white. Ed paused, puzzled. He looked about him. Nothing else out of the ordinary. He thought he should turn and walk away but thought as much that he should approach the structure. He chose the latter.

The obelisk was five feet high; its shape was roughly rectangular but wider at the bottom and tapering toward the top. When he reached it he could still not decide where the source was which illuminated it. Was it coming from the ceiling? From the obelisk itself? Then, stranger still, there was something on top of the pillar. A necklace lay there: a gold chain with a wedge-shaped medallion on it, like a quarter of a circular pendant with the last three-fourths missing. A mystical blue aura danced around it. Ed picked it up by the chain and raised it to the light. Without quite knowing why, he put the chain around his neck, and, with a last glance at the obelisk, walked on through the corridor.

Darkness thickened as he moved away from the pillar. His curiosity had been replaced by heightened awareness, and he had drawn his gun again. As he walked quietly through the tunnel, Ed kept eyeing the pendant. The blue aura was still there, illuminating the wedge clearly. Then the aura began to fade; slowly, steadily, it faded completely. And then they came.

Thousands of them surged through the darkness behind him. He could hear their squeaking and squealing a hundred yards away. The rats. Ed ran—faster than he had ever run before. But the rats were getting closer. His only chance was to reach a manhole before the rats reached him. And then as if this thought were a signal, the sound of squeaks and squeals began to come from the other end of the tunnel as well. Ed froze. There was no place left to run. He stood there, waiting. And the rats came closer—thousands of them—moving in for the kill. Then as suddenly as they began, the sounds stopped. Ed listened, carefully, but he could hear nothing. Still he sensed they were out there, watching him. But why? What were they waiting for?

Ed waited and wondered for another minute, and then the answer came to him. The rats were waiting for the fear to leave—for it to leave…Ed. He knew this. And somehow, in knowing, the fear no longer existed. He stood erect, tall and proud—a smile stretched across his face. He pulled the pin from the grenade and threw it aside. Then the squeaks and squeals rose again; the rats came closer, and Edward Jones was ready to die.

6

Benson had made the final hook up in the operation to blow up the sewer system, and now awaited Ed Jones, who had planted the last charge in the chain. Ed was late. If he did not come soon, Benson would go looking for him.

The minutes passed and Ed did not show. Benson became curious—not worried, just curious. He decided to go after Ed and started out down the tunnel. His pace was quick, quicker than it should have been. He was making enough noise to attract every rat in the city, and he had no weapon. But he wasn’t afraid. A feeling in the back of his head told him that there was no danger, and the urge to find Ed grew. Minutes passed, perhaps even an hour; Benson did not know. He was about to turn back and give up on Ed when a stench suddenly hit him. A powerful, choking smell filled his nostrils. First smoke—as if from an explosion, then a grotesque odor which for a moment made him gag. It was the stench of raw flesh and blood, rotting away among sewage and acids. Raw rats and burned man. The smell was unbearable, and Benson began to breathe through his mouth hoping to avoid it. The smoke thickened as he moved further down the tunnel, and his eyes began to water. Occasionally he breathed in through his nose, and every time he did the stench was stronger. After only seconds, he could take no more; the smoke was too thick, the air too foul, and he couldn’t see anything anyway. He turned around and started to walk away.

Then suddenly, the smoke cleared, light appeared all around him in the tunnel and it seemed to have no source. It was just there. Benson began breathing normally; the stench was gone. He turned and started back the way he’d been going. There were hundreds of dead rats scattered about. Blood was everywhere. The dead bodies were mangled, heads and limbs were gone. Benson slid and slipped his way across the blood covered floor, slowly making his way to the center of the carnage, where lay a large mass of flesh and bones surrounded by blood-drenched, tattered cloth.

Beside the mass lay a wedge-shaped gold medallion and chain. It lay in a pool of blood, but, when Benson picked it up, he noticed that it was unstained, dry, and cool to the touch. Then a strange feeling came over him. He suddenly became aware of everything around him. Every molecule in the air, every small corpse scattered about the floor flashed before his eyes in intricate detail. Every tiny limb, every drop of blood, and every piece of grenade shrapnel lodged itself in his mind. He slowly stood and placed the medallion around his neck. The awareness grew stronger and more conscious.

Benson began pulling all the information that he had learned from this newly found awareness together, formulating the events that had taken place here only a few minutes before. The rats came, they must have cut Ed off on both sides of the tunnel. He never had a chance. Yet still he fought. Ed had thrown the grenade—it was all he’d had to fight with. The smoke had been thick, Benson could sense that. How could Ed have even seen what he was fighting? It probably didn’t matter since, after he had thrown the grenade, there was little else he could do. But Benson sensed even more. He could feel holes in the floor. Bullet holes. Ed must have fired his gun several times. It was futile. The rats tore him apart.

“Can you understand me now?”

The voice was like a whisper. But it penetrated through to Benson’s mind, breaking his concentration. He looked down the tunnel beyond the light. Though he could not see anything, he could sense that there was something there. He could sense a body—large and powerful. No…bodies. Benson sensed not one but many bodies. Yet they seemed to be one—a single great person-ness made up of a thousand disparate selves.

“Can you understand me now?”

It was communicating with him.

“I can sense your thoughts, but I cannot hear your voice. How?”

“I have no other way of communicating with you; I cannot explain how I do it.”

“Because I wouldn’t understand, or because you don’t know?”

“That is a very good question.”

But Benson received no other answer.

He then asked, “Who are you?”

“I have come to bring you the medallion so that you may understand the journey you are about to take.”

“You control the rats, don’t you?”

“In a sense.”

“Why did you have them kill Ed, and why have they been threatening us?”

“The one who was your leader took the medallion before I could get it to you. He had to be stopped.”

“Why have you been threatening us?”

“I have not been threatening you. Only studying you. You are the ones attacking with your guns and your explosives.”

Benson thought about this for a moment. Reviewing events of the past several months, he realized the voice was right. In his head he sensed agreement; the being beyond the light was reading his thoughts.

Benson continued: “What do you want with me?”

“To give you the medallion.”

“What do I do with it?”

“You will learn.”

“Tell me now.”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“I do not know why you are supposed to have it. Only that it is of great importance that you have it.”

“You don’t know. Then may I assume that someone other than yourself wants me to have it?”

“You assume correctly. I have been ordered to give the medallion to you.”

“By whom?”

“I wish that I could satisfy your curiosity, but I know so very little. I can only say that all of your questions will be answered. Go to your friends now; tell them that I will bother them no more. But tell them to leave me alone.”

“What do you mean? Have we bothered you?”

 “Can you not sense my body?”

“Only the rats and the unified control you have over them.”

“Do you wish to see me?”

“Yes.”

“Very well.”

Then Benson could sense the huge mass of rats moving toward him.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m coming into the light.”

“I only sense rats.”

“I am there.”

“But I still cannot sense you.”

“Then you will soon see me.”

Benson began to back away as the rats drew nearer.

“Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you.”

“Then why are you sending the rats toward me?”

“Wait a few seconds more and you will see.”

Every muscle in Benson’s body tensed as the impulse to fear returned to him. He stood ready to run at the first sign of an attack. Endless moments passed till the rats drew closer and came finally into the light. A thousand rats piled into the lighted area. A sea of red eyes stared up at Benson—one massive body of rodents. It moved to the center of the lighted tunnel and stopped there, completely silent.

“Have I satisfied your curiosity?”

Benson looked beyond the rats into the darkness, but he could see nothing. “Where are you?” he asked.

“Right in front of you.”

“I don’t understand. I only see these rats.”

“Of course. I am the rats.”

7

The sun’s rays beat down mercilessly upon three men as they walked the war-wasted terrain. Benson walked ahead of the others, less fatigued by the heat. He looked as if he were being pulled forward by an invisible force. He carried double the weight of the others in his pack, yet he never faltered in step. Behind him, Tom Hope and Mike Mc Leon did their best to keep up.

Mike was as hot inside as out: “This is it! Boy, I’ve really had it! What does that fool think he’s doing, dragging us out here in the middle of nowhere?”

“You didn’t have to come, Mike,” Tom replied.

“What do you mean, I didn’t have to come? You saw what he was doing down in that tunnel. He was standing there talking to a bunch of rats!”

“And the rats were listening.”

“Well they were sure doing something. They seemed to be under his control. They wouldn’t attack him.”

“Perhaps they didn’t want to attack him. Perhaps they just wanted to give him something.”

“Give him something! Are you crazy? A bunch of rats!”

Tom was silent for a moment, then: “Mike, when was the first time you saw that medallion around Ben’s neck?”

“What, the pizza slice? In the tunnel when we found him with the rats. Why?”

“Did you notice how it glowed as we walked away with him?”

“No.”

“Did you bother to ask Ben where he got it?”

“No, I didn’t; get to the point.”

“I asked him where he got it.”

“What’d he say?”

“He said, ‘It gave it to me.’”

“Did he mean the rats?”

“Maybe. Wouldn’t say. Maybe like us he doesn’t know.”

Oh, I’ll bet he knows. He’s looking for something out here, Tom. I don’t know what it is, but it’s got to be powerful. I have the feeling that, if I find this thing whatever it is, I’ll somehow be able to deliver my wife and me from this hell they made for us.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because whatever it is, part of it’s in Benson. He isn’t normal, but he isn’t crazy. Although I have my doubts.”

“And your frustrations,” added Tom.

Mike ignored him: “I don’t understand it. I’m afraid of it, but I feel it’s my only hope.”

“Then I believe you’ve answered your own question.”

“What question?”

“What that fool thinks he’s doing dragging us out in the middle of nowhere.”

“Yeah?”

“He brought us out here because he’s looking for something. And I think he wants us to see it.”

Ahead of them Benson had stopped at the top of a small rise and was peering into the distance.

“Look, Tom, he’s stopped.”

“Looks like he’s spotted something.”

They quickened their pace up the rise. At the top they viewed a line of mountains, twenty or so miles away, which they had been walking toward for several days. They looked out for several moments, seeing nothing else. Mike began to turn to Benson, to ask what he was looking for, when something caught his eye. He looked again and saw a reflection near the rim of the mountains.

“Out there!” Mike said, pointing. Tom followed Mike’s arm and saw the reflection.

“It looks metallic,” he conjectured.

Mike turned to Benson, saying, “What do you think it is, Benson?”

Benson stood silent for a moment. Then he finally said, “Step two.”

Mike was puzzled. “What do you mean step two?” Benson began walking down the side of the rise. Mike called out, “Benson! What do you mean by step two!”

Benson did not slow. He merely turned his head slightly and said, “We can be there before nightfall.”

8

They walked for several hours. Over every rise the reflection became clearer and a shape more definite. Mike puzzled over what Benson had said. “What’s step two?” He had no idea and so wondered what he had gotten himself into.

They walked for a few more hours until the object, now not too far distant, was clearly visible: a rectangular pillar, an obelisk, familiar in shape to Benson’s eyes, stood in the middle of nowhere, glittering in the sunlight. It had four sides and was wider at the base—about ten feet on each side. The sides slanted upward and met at a smaller flat top at a height of almost thirty feet.

The three men reached the pillar at dusk. They stood before it, one next to another. Benson stared at it, trying to discover its hidden purpose. His sense of awareness had continued to grow since he first saw the object reflecting the sunlight into the distance. Yet he could sense nothing about the obelisk. No strange power emanating from it. No sense of a hollow interior, or a door that might lead to it. All he could feel in his mind was…it was wonder; it was awe. And he felt it in the minds of the other as well.

“What is it, Benson?” asked Mike, breaking the silence. Benson didn’t move. Mike moved between the obelisk and Benson. Benson’s eyes focused off the obelisk and onto his companion. “You’ve brought us far enough without telling us what we’re doing or where we’re going. I want to know what that thing is, and I want to know it now!”

Benson shifted his gaze from Mike to the obelisk, and back to Mike again. “Do you want the truth?”

“Yeah, I want the truth!”

Benson smiled slightly and said, “I don’t know what it is.”

Leaving him stunned, Benson stepped around Mike and toward the obelisk. Tom chuckled at the expression on Mike’s face, an expression which said, That idiot has brought us out here to find something, and he doesn’t even know what he’s found. Mike turned around and saw Benson unloading his pack twenty or so feet from the obelisk.

Benson looked back: “You asked me for the truth, and I told you,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be looking for out here. All I know is I’ve been led here.”

“Led by what!” Mike demanded.

“I don’t know that either. Whatever I’m going to find out here, this is the place I’m going to find it. Or it’s the place I’m supposed to start. That’s all I know. Now it’ll be dark soon. Unpack your gear.”

Mike wanted to continue the argument, but a gentle hand on the shoulder, a peaceful smile from Tom, and the clergyman’s reassuring, “It’s okay, Mike,”—spoken with soft confidence—soothed Mike’s frustration for a moment. “We’ll take care of our friends and family,” Tom added. “We’ll see this through—whatever it is—to the end.”

 9

Darkness fell. Mike and Tom sat close to a small fire. A tent, large enough for three, was pitched nearby. Benson stood in the darkness near the obelisk, staring at its shape intently. He could sense so very little about it—just a large block with only one property: it was taking up space. Through his heightened awareness he could feel no heat, no cold, not even density or mass. This was impossible given the one thing he could sense: that space was occupied where the obelisk stood. He focused for several hours in the night, centering all his newfound powers of perception on the obelisk. Then a foreign thought interrupted his own, coming to him just shy of a word: sleep.

“Ben, Mike has been asleep for some time now. I’m tired too. Why don’t you call it a night?”

“You go ahead and sleep, Tom,” answered Benson. “I’ll come in a few more minutes.”

“Alright,” answered Tom. He crawled into the tent and quickly fell asleep.

Benson stood for a few minutes more, trying to gather a glimmer of insight into the obelisk, but nothing happened. The night was passing in silence. Benson broke his concentration on the obelisk and crawled into the tent. Sleep.

 He had perfect control of his dreaming. He was sitting on a boulder, setting the monsters and shadows of a normal subconscious aside. Instead he deliberately reviewed the events of the past few weeks: first the encounter with the rats, and receiving the medallion; second, his compulsion to leave the city and go east; and now, finding an obelisk which looked exactly like its smaller counterpart in the sewer tunnels.

“The medallion,” he thought, “is the key.”

When he had first put the medallion on, his awareness had grown, and he could talk to the rats. And they had just wanted to get the medallion to him. Then the medallion—or something wordlessly communicating through it—compelled Benson to come to this place. The medallion was the link between Benson and whoever wanted him there. But what would happen? For the moment, it seemed the medallion would take him no further. His awareness, though still great, was now useless to him. Some part of the journey was over. All he could do was wait for the next part to begin.

Benson sat up awake. “The next part,” he said aloud. “Step two.”

Something clicked in his mind. He left the tent; the East was hinting at the possibility of dawn—the dream had been short, the sleep long.

“There is something missing,” he said to the rocks about him. “I’ve got to have something else before I can go on. That’s why the medallion won’t take me anywhere else.”

He walked toward the obelisk.

“The first step is over and the medallion has done its job. I need something from this obelisk. When I get it, I can go on.”

He stood a foot from a structure that was and wasn’t there.

“But what is it I need?”

Then he reached out to touch the obelisk and his hand passed right through. He drew back quickly, in surprise, and another thought came to his head: “It cannot be sensed because it is not part of the first step.”

“There must be an inside.”

With that, Benson threw himself at the pillar wall. Any creature rising with the sun and looking toward the obelisk would have seen no one there.

10

Benson stumbled and fell on his stomach. He had expected to be knocked out by a solid wall, only half believing he would pass through. He noticed the floor first—smooth and cold. Then he looked around but could see nothing. He was surrounded by darkness. Cautiously, he stood up and turned in what he thought was the direction from which he had come. He reached out for the wall but could feel nothing. Hands extended, Benson walked a few feet in that direction. His hands did not pass through to the outside. His senses began to work. He thought at first that he would sense nothing. But his awareness was working better on the inside of the obelisk than on the outside (whatever that meant). He began to separate and digest, in his mind, a series of facts about the surrounding area. The air was fresh and cool, containing oxygen, nitrogen, and smaller amounts of other gases. Air pressure was normal: fourteen point seven pounds per square inch. Though the air was fresh, there was no sense of circulation. He could not feel boundaries—neither ceiling nor walls. The darkness stretched to infinity in his mind’s eye, and then fell back on itself.

But there was one more thing: an object standing somewhere in the distance to his left. He could not, however, tell how far away. Either his sense of distance was being distorted, or this darkness existed without a link to space and time.

“Distance,” thought Benson, “doesn’t exist in this place.”

He hoped direction, at least, did, and he took a cautious step toward the object. Then another, and another. Each step he took seemed to bring him twenty steps closer to the thing. Becoming suddenly curious, he hurried his pace; however, as he walked faster, the sense of distance between himself and the object seemed to become greater. For a moment he stopped. Then he took another step. The object drew near again. He began walking slowly. The slower Benson walked, the nearer the object came. The shape of the object became clearer in his mind as he approached it: another pillar. It was shaped like the huge obelisk which he believed himself to be in. But it was only five feet tall. There was light—he could sense it around the obelisk. No place of emission. Just light. Another step and he could see a dot of white in the distance. The pillar had shape, density, and weight. Benson caught this. He could not, however, penetrate the type of material that made up the structure.

“But it’s like the one in the sewer,” he concluded.

Another few steps and he could see the obelisk clearly now, standing white in a cage of light. He would have thought, “fifty feet away,” but that he no longer found space a reliable constant.

Benson took another step and stopped. He was within arms-reach of the pillar. He himself was surrounded by the white light. He looked at the shape before him and noticed an object on top which he had not sensed before. It was a golden quarter circle, a wedge that was shaped exactly like the medallion about his neck. He picked it up. His new super senses could not acknowledge the wedge’s existence, but it was real to his touch and to his sight.

Holding the wedge before him with his left hand, Benson grabbed the medallion at his chest and lifted it next to this new piece for comparison. Only then did he notice the medallion had changed. The eye piece through which the chain around Benson’s neck ran was no longer in the center of the medallion’s curved edge. It had moved to one side of the medallion allowing it to hang lopsided from the chain. Benson thought the hint rather obvious, especially considering how completely un-obvious his journey had been so far. He took the hint, fitting the new wedge to the chain side of the medallion.

There was a burst of light, and Benson released the two shapes, temporarily startled. When he looked at the medallion again, he saw that the two pieces had joined into a half circle. Then the medallion began to emanate a bright blue light. Suddenly he felt something surge through his body and the floor fell out from under his feet. The darkness faded to gray light. Wind blew in all directions. Benson lost all of his new sensing abilities. He was blown around like a feather with no way of controlling his movement.

Images began to flash before him. He saw a boy sitting on a rock, then a huge explosion, then himself standing in the rain. Hundreds of images passed in an instant: flowers reaching toward him like houseplants to window light, caterpillars weaving chrysalis cocoons, the changing shadows of a canyon wall, and the motion of stars around unchanging Polaris. At last, he made out two men walking in the desert and then sunrise. However, this vision didn’t end. He was watching the morning dawn. The sky was pale blue, and pink and orange toward the rising sun. Benson was standing on earth. Yet it seemed to him to be far away. He looked around for the obelisk and for the tent where the others were but could not see them. Then he noticed something on the ground beside him: a small obelisk like the big one in the desert. It was only a few inches tall. He stood staring down at it. Then he looked up at the sun coming over the mountains. Then back at the miniscule pillar. Finally he raised his foot and brought it down on the obelisk. Next, Christopher Benson fell.

11

Tom woke and saw sunlight outside the tent. He sat up and looked down at Mike who was asleep on top of his sleeping bag. Tom crawled out of the tent and stood up, intending to call out for Benson, but he was stopped by what he saw. The obelisk was gone. In its place there was a pile of rubble. It looked as if the obelisk had been crushed. Benson sat on top of the rubble staring out at the mountains. Tom stared as well—at Benson. Tom was baffled and frightened. Something was happening to his friend that he could not understand. Curiosity finally overcame his fear, and he moved toward the rubble heap.

“Ben,” Tom called. “What happened?”

Benson said nothing. He just sat staring out at the mountains. Tom came up to him and looked at him for a long time. Benson had been crying. His eyes were bloodshot and watering.

“What happened, Ben?”

“I’ve got to leave,” Benson answered.  “I’ve got to go now—into the mountains.”
            “Why, Ben? Why must you go? What happened here last night? What’s out there Ben?” Benson looked at Tom for a long time. Staring at each other, they exchanged thoughts with their eyes that left both of them, for the moment, content.

Then at last Tom said, “Will you need your gear?”

“No. Tell Mike all that you can. Follow me if you want to. If you lose me, go back to the city.”

They looked at each other for another moment, and then Benson stood up and walked away.

“I’ll pray for you,” said Tom and he watched his friend walk away. He felt strangely content. This was because Tom had seen something when he peered into Benson’s eyes. He had witnessed what a man looks like who has seen his own destiny—exactly as it is going to take place—and answered it yes. The heaviness of Being was upon Christopher Benson. And it was bearable.

Benson had seen something too, looking into his friend’s eyes. It was a prayer. It had meant something. Perhaps enough to help Christopher Benson through stage three.

12

The sun stood high as Mike Mc Leon and the Reverend Thomas Hope made their way over cactus-covered, orange rock. They had argued for some time about whether they would go back to the city or follow Benson. Mike, upon hearing what Benson had told Tom, was ready to return to his wife. Whatever it was Benson had found, Mike had missed, so he thought. Tom, however, in seeing and talking with Benson, knew that he had only found a part of what he was looking for. Tom wanted to go on. He suggested that Mike should go back without him, but Mike felt that he should stay with Tom and make sure he didn’t get hurt. Mike found this surge of conscience in himself thoroughly annoying. So they went in search of Benson together, climbing over hills that were growing into mountains.

Night came. They had searched and called for Benson but had not seen anything of him. Their only hope now was that Benson would see the light of their fire and try to reach them. Mike sat at the fire cooking a freshly caught rattlesnake while Tom looked on, lost in thought. The moon was full and every feature of the surrounding terrain clearly visible.

“Very visible,” thought Tom—so much so that what he only thought he was seeing at first quickly snapped him out of his reverie. He looked more carefully into the distance and saw red light filling the sky. Wind began to blow, and clouds appeared—not from a single direction in the form of a weather front, but above their heads, out of nowhere.

“What’s going on?” Mike had also noticed the change.

“I don’t know,” replied Tom.

They stood up and stared at the sky. The wind blew harder and lightning began to flash. The moon disappeared in the clouds, and the whole area was immersed in dark crimson brightness. The wind whipped in and out from every direction, now, blowing so hard that they had to struggle to stand up. Then it rained—a deluge pouring upon them all at once. Tom dropped to his knees and began to pray while Mike stood on the verge of panic. Hell had relocated itself to space and time, and Mike and Tom had been caught in the move. The ground began to rumble and a fissure cracked open in front of them, spewing fire and lava. Then from this fissure came a horrible vision appearing all too real.

A mammoth creature rose from the earth, spewing forth fire and dripping saliva which burned the rock beneath it. It had eyes of firelight surrounded by almost liquid skin that arranged and rearranged itself along a man-like skeletal structure.

Mike screamed: “What’s happening!”

The creature was not more than fifty feet away from them. Mike turned to run.

“It’s alright!” Tom answered.

He stood with a smile on his face, as if his prayer had been answered. “Mike, we’re seeing a vision, but you must believe that it’s real.”

“Who cares what it is! Let’s just get out of here!”

“No wait! You must understand that our faith is being tested here! Our faith in God and in the struggle between good and evil!” Tom was calm but had to shout above the roaring wind. “As long as we believe that—that the struggle exists—we don’t have to be afraid!” Tom paused for a moment and then looking up he pointed saying, “See!”

Out of the sky a white light approached. It came closer and began to take form. A great warrior dressed in white came down, brandishing a sword.

The warrior came down, driving his sword through the creature. It had no effect. The creature, the illusion of evil, attacked the great image of good, tackling him to the ground. Mike and Tom stood by watching in fear. The giants wrestled each other, toppling trees and boulders as they rolled across them. The sound of thunder was replaced by the sound of the two gladiators fighting.

“Do you see, Mike?” said Tom, not turning his eyes. “It’s an avatar of a thing more real than our own eyes—a struggle painted outside and taking place inside even now. Invisible made visible—our faith is being tested here.” Tom’s fear was calmed and he understood, saying to himself, “It’s faith versus sight. And the unseen isn’t belief but in-sight. God’s sight.”

“But why?” replied Mike. “Why is it being tested, and who is testing us?”

Before Tom could reply, the shock of a great scream hit them. The creature of evil had driven the sword of the warrior through his heart. The warrior disappeared, and the creature turned immediately toward the mortal witnesses. Mike again turned to run, but Tom grabbed him by the arm.

“There’s no more running, Mike. We’re taking the place of the icon of good.”

“What do you mean? We need to run!”

“We can’t run from it! You asked who is testing us? God is testing us. You asked why? It is because we have reached the end of the journey. Our lives on earth are soon to be lost.”

The creature began walking toward them.

“It can’t be,” Mike whispered fearfully.

“It is,” replied Tom.

“You don’t know that. How can you know?”

“God has told me.”

“There is no God, Tom! Nuclear genocide should have taught you that!”

“There is a devil right in front of your eyes, Mike. What else could palpable evil mean than transcendent Good?”

“I don’t want to die, Tom.” Mike began to cry. “I have a wife.”

“She will be cared for.”

“You don’t know that; I can’t die now, I can’t.”

“Listen to me!” Tom grabbed Mike and shook him. The creature was coming closer. “It has been decided! We must believe that! We must fight for good in hope of what’s to come!”

“But it’s not fair! Why would God do this?”

“The fight between evil and the Good, Mike. The illusion may be before us but the battle is very real inside us. You must believe, and you must fight with me now!”

“We can’t beat this thing!”

“That’s already been done. Fight for new life, Mike. Fight for home!”

“No. No. Noooo!”

The wind swept Mike away, dashing him against the rock.

The creature stood above Tom, staring down at him. Tom prayed for a moment for Mike’s soul. For a moment he wished they hadn’t had to be kept from Benson’s ultimate purpose. But Mike had always longed for eternity and had always known the only road by which anyone could get there. A great power surged through his body as Tom leapt out at the creature, striking it in the leg and forcing it and himself to fall into the fiery abyss. The blow was death dealing. Life giving.

13

Tears mixed with drops of rain on Christopher Benson’s face as he watched the explosion on the mountain below him. His companions were gone. He turned away, looking up toward the higher mountain peaks. There above him, silhouetted in the flashes of lightning, was the shadowed figure of a man. Benson climbed. Questions filled his mind, questions which he could not answer. He could not sense the man’s presence, only his own. His heightened awareness seemed to be working perfectly. Every rock, every raindrop, each bolt of lightning he experienced with fullest detail. But not the man. Benson saw him; otherwise he wasn’t there.

Drawing near, Benson thought he recognized something about the figure before him—something was familiar. When the lightning revealed to him the features of the man’s face, Benson understood what he had recognized. The man in front of him was Christopher Benson. The face, at least, was Benson’s face, the body, the clothes were Benson’s. But still there was something different, and he knew he wasn’t standing before a Carrolline looking glass.

Silently, they examined each other, drenched in the rain, man facing man, image facing Benson, Benson facing himself.

“Who are you?” Benson’s tone was flat. His sorrow and fear were gone—replaced by a sudden desire, a feeling of resolution.

“I am you and that which isn’t you. I am your hatred, and your anger; I am your lust, your pride, your greed. I am all of the sins you have kept locked within the innermost reaches of your heart. And I am your love, your pity, and your faith. I am the joys which you have hidden from yourself to keep your evils away from those who would suffer from what you see as mere proximity—what all others would call relationship. You have lived a life under God, but have lived it without His help. And so you have never risked love. Your heart’s always been your own. Now it’s time to surrender it.”

“How?”

“Grace, Christopher” the simulacrum smiled.

“Grace?”

“Accept the grace that covers imperfections. That’s first.”

“What’s next?”

“Confront the feelings imperfections will engender. Choose to risk.”

At that the man lifted up before Benson a gleaming two-edged sword, the silver blade extending two feet from a golden hilt. He turned the hilt toward Benson and said, “Take it.”

Cautiously, Benson took the sword in hand and raised it above his head, examining its every feature. Images flashed before his eyes: of raped women, and unwed mothers; of thieves, and gang riots; of murder and disaster; of politicians and wars; of rich and starving; and of the destruction of the earth.

“This evil must be fought,” Benson thought.

Then there were more images: of young lovers strolling in the moonlight and laughing together; of the same lovers, later, brokenhearted, filled with anger for each other; of people sitting in church, and then going home to their liquor, their family quarrels, their football parties, their hatred for their fellow man, and their hypocrisy against the Word. Before Benson’s mind were images of the seesaw patterns of emotions which caused righteousness and love on the one hand and false, consuming love and hatred on the other. Benson lowered the sword.

“I can’t,” he said. “I don’t want to become like them.”

“You must accept the vehement passions which you have denied because of fear. You must become a whole being by facing the things you would not allow yourself, confronting evil within yourself, and allowing the change to come.”

  “But how, I don’t know how, what if I fail?” Benson was afraid. He hadn’t feared his circumstances. He had been calm even in the face of this odyssey. But he had fooled himself into thinking he therefore feared so little. All along he had feared himself. The truth of it was a hammer to an anvil of self deception. Something in him cracked.

“It’s time to become a whole person, Christopher, to confront everything inside. If you can’t do it, you’ll always be less than whole; you’ll be eaten up and spit out.”

With those words came a swarm of rats from behind the surrounding rocks. Hundreds of the rodents poured out from nowhere. They sprung upon the man who was and wasn’t Benson, ripping the flesh from his ankles and feet, and forcing him to the ground in seconds.

He spoke is last words: “Sometimes the only faith needed is faith enough to surrender.” Then the rats swarmed over his body, tearing it apart.

Benson watched in terror as the man’s body was transformed into a mass of mutilated flesh, blood—which poured down the mountainside along with the rain—and bone underneath a raging sea of living teeth. Then, once more, a feeling of resolve came over him. He raised his head toward the sky and gave out a cry which blotted out the thunder and echoed in the mountains for miles.

“Alright!” he screamed, and raising the sword, the hilt held high above his head, he drove it into the mass that had once been the man whom he was not…and now was.

Far away in a ruined city of the meadows, an oracle prophesied in her dreams: “I saw Star Wars raw rats was I…I saw star wars raw rats was I…I saw raw rats…I was…I was not…now was…now won.

14

The sun stood high in the desert sky, dotted by buzzards circling at the base of the mountain range; carefully they eyed the prospect for their next meal.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

His body was shattered, almost all of his bones broken. How he had survived the explosion he did not know or care.

“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”

He was sprawled, chest down on the ground, gasping for air, unable to move.

“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

He could barely speak, using the only ounce of strength remaining in his body to pray.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Thomas Hope was dying.

“Deliver us from evil.”

A soft breeze responded, cooling the sweat upon his face.

“For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever…”

A cloud shielded his eye from the sun.

“…amen.”

“It’s time to go, Tom.”

He thought he was dreaming, but the voice sounded so real.

“Tom.”

He slowly raised his head, and looked at the ground in front of him. His eyes focused on a pair of bare feet sticking out from beneath a white coat. A new strength came to his body, and he was able to push himself up off the ground. He raised his head higher, and looked up into a bronzed face.

“It’s time to go home.”

His voice was gentle and pleasing; His eyes softened Tom’s heart. He reached down and took Tom’s arm and lifted him to his feet. Tom looked at the smiling face and smiled back. The pain was gone.

“Let’s go, son.”

The breeze became a steady wind at their backs as they walked together toward the mountains. The bronze man placed a hand on Tom’s shoulder, the curls of his white-woolen hair tossing lightly in the breeze. They walked with heads held high. A ladder appeared before them and a great wheel descended. The buzzards up on high saw two men in motion; then they saw shadows in the whirlwind. Then even the shadows faded and the men were no more.

15

“How did I get here?”

Benson was high up on a mountain standing on a wide ledge. Part of the mountain there had seemingly been cut away to give the space a circular shape. Flower-withered weeds lined the circle completely, and a stomach-high pillar with a broad, flat top stood in its center. Benson’s awareness activated immediately. Every grain of sand, every bush, each crevice in the rock, and each molecule of air around him found its way into his consciousness. It all seemed normal, except for the medallion.

He sensed an increase in the area and weight of the object hanging at his chest. He looked down and saw that the golden half circle dangling at the chain’s end was now a circle of three quarters.

“You no doubt have questions that need answering, Christopher Benson.”

Benson looked up to see a young man dressed in blue jeans, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes, sitting on the obelisk.

“I know you,” said Benson. He recognized the boy immediately.

“Of course, I am Christopher Benson, sixteen years old. I am the you that existed so many years ago until the day you lashed out in a fit of fearful rage at another boy.”

“He was a bully.”

 “He intended to beat you up.”

“He fell.”

“And hit his head on the metal corner of a bicycle rack.”

“It was an accident.”

“So the police said.”

“He hit me first.”

“So the witnesses said.”

“They let me go.”

“But you couldn’t let go. How could any boy?”

“How could I?”

“It changed you forever.”

“Yes, it did.”

“You hid your feelings for the rest of your life.”

“Out of fear I might hurt someone else.”

“But that’s changed now.”

“It has.”

“Now you are whole.”

“I am.”

“How do you feel?”

“Good.”

“You truly do.”

Benson hadn’t realized it till just then: “I feel better now than I have felt in years before. For the first time in my life I feel...well I feel, don’t I?”

“You have completed the third step. You have accepted your faults and your fallenness. Grace be upon you. You are ready for the next step.”

“Yes. But I have questions that need answering.”

“Doubtless you do.”

Benson approached the rock and stood before the boy, gazing into his eyes. They looked so much alike. Benson’s features were sharper, his body larger and rougher, but it was plain to see that, if the young man were to grow to Benson’s age, survive radiation poisoning, and starve his way through a post-apocalyptic world, they would look exactly alike.

“Why did my friends die?”

“They could come no further. The steps you take now, you must take alone.”

“But is that a reason to kill two people? Tom, at least, deserved better than that. He should be here before you, not me.”

“He is not dead. Your friends were given an opportunity to live, not die. The one called Mike did not believe this was so. Your friend Tom, however, was saved. He did not die; he was taken. He is not here in your place because he was far more ready than you are. Yours is a different destiny. You are called, Christopher Benson; you are a one-in-a-billion man. And so your destiny will be very different from that of any other man.”

“I have seen that destiny.”

“Then you know that the next step in the process will be even harder than the one before and that the one before was almost impossible for you.”

“I do. But I’m not afraid anymore. I have my champion, you see. Tom is alive—you said it yourself—and I saw in him the prayer that would see me through.”

“But this time you will have to win a battle in which the victor loses, and the loser wins. You will face an opponent like yourself. Called. One in a billion. The one of you who loses will rest. The other will not enjoy peace until countless years have passed. Do you understand, Christopher Benson? The desire now is to lose.”

“But for the sake of the other, what I must want most is to win.”

“That is why you have been made whole. You are at last able. Now, are you willing?”

“Yes.”

“Your opponent has the same conviction. The battle will be fierce.”

16

He was on a circular ledge, near a stomach-high obelisk, overlooking a flat plain of yellow rock which stretched out as far as the eye could see. But he was not home. The chain of mountains among which he stood extended in an arc toward the horizon where the sky, though blue, was dotted by two suns.

“Another planet,” he thought. “I’m on another planet.”

He sat down, dangling his feet over the cliff edge, and scanned the plain. Memories came to him: of a boy sprawled on a sidewalk, a pool of blood forming around his head; of a lonely young college student who had hidden his heart in fear—too afraid, even, to risk love. “To ask her out on a date,” he said aloud. He remembered the nuclear winter and the surprising nuclear desert which no one had predicted. He remembered rats and the events which led him to this place. Then the memories stopped, and he noticed a lone figure out on the plain.

Benson made his way down the mountainside. He said a silent prayer as he approached his fellow journeyman. His body was tense, his breath short and quick, his adrenaline making his heart pound. For the first time since he was sixteen, he prepared to fight another person. But not a human one.

He looked human—enough to indicate masculine gender to Benson’s eyes. His skin and hair were white. His eyes were sparkling blue, and they literally reflected the sunlight. His face was round and smooth—the barest ridge of a nose and no protruding lips—agreeable, but also unusual enough for Benson to be certain this man wasn’t human at all.

“It seems strange,” said the other in a soft voice, “that for such an important event as this, one of us will be chosen based on a simple battle of physical strength and endurance. It’s ironic.”

“Yes it is,” answered Benson. “But, then again, this whole adventure has been one huge irony.”

“Mmm, yes. I’ve cared so little for adventure in my life time.”

Benson chuckled: “I know exactly what you mean.”

They fell silent and for a long time stood staring at each other.

Then the alien concluded: “I love you.”

“And I love you,” Benson replied and threw himself at his opponent.

They fell to the ground, their hands clenched about each others’ throats. An aura of energy began to dance around their bodies, crackling as they struggled. The energy increased their physical power. Benson rolled up on top of the alien, whose neck was near to being crushed by the enormous new strength surging through Benson’s hands. Then the white-skinned man released his grip on Benson’s neck and swung his fisted hands at Benson’s temples who released his grip in a spasm of pain. At this the alien thrust both his palms into Benson’s chest, hurling him fifty feet through the air.

The smooth-faced man sprang to his feet and leapt after Benson. Seeing this, the man from Earth shot his hands into the hard ground and, tearing out a large chunk of earth, threw it at his opponent before he had landed. The rock brought the alien down with a pounce, and once again Benson threw himself at his foe. In this way, the battle continued into night.

Morning. A hint of the first sun’s dawn outlined the horizon. On the foothill between mountain and desert plain, an ever growing crater had been ripped into existence where the combatants had waged battle for hours. Piles of rubble lay strewn about the hillside and out to the plain. Benson and the alien were exhausted, yet neither was willing to give up the battle; their love was too great. They sat in the crater opposite each other, exhausted and panting heavily. The blue auras that danced about their bodies were almost gone.

“Life,” thought the smooth-faced man, “belongs to him. I must win the battle.” And as he rose to his feet: “God give me the strength.” Then he began to stagger across the crater toward Benson.

Meanwhile, Benson was once again caught up in remembering. He thought of the bully from school walking toward him while he knelt unchaining his ten-speed. As the alien neared he thought what he had been thinking back then: “Be quiet and then quick. He won’t expect you to fight first, let alone fight back.” Benson the boy stood and stepped back from his bike while Benson the man looked at the chaos of rock around him and noticed a long cut of solid stone protruding from the crater a few feet away. “You can do this. You can do this.” The alien was preparing to spring, and the bully said: “Come ‘ere, Benson. I wanna talk to you.” The bully came nearer, and the alien leapt. “Knock him into the bikes, and he’ll fall over and you’ll be on top of him and if you have to use the bike chain….” Benson threw his palms forward with all his might, stepping into the push before his enemy, his friend, knew what happened. The boy fell to the blacktop, his head striking the base of the bike rack. The man fell to the ground—energy and aura exhausted—his head striking the line of protruding rock. It was self defense; the boy had punched Benson once before. It was an accident. The bike chain would not have been. It was selfless defense—as deliberate as any sacrificial love. Benson grabbed a rock fragment and lifted it in both hands.

But when he looked at his opponent, the soft face and sparkling eyes were gone. Instead, lying on the ground before Christopher Benson was the face and body of Thomas Hope. Benson was stunned.

“You wouldn’t hit me, would you Ben?” said Tom with a smile.

Benson fell to his knees, his hands still holding the rock above his head. He looked at the bloodied face of his friend Thomas Hope.

“Tom, what have I done to you?”

“It’s alright, Ben. Help me up, will you?”

Benson began to lower the rock but stopped when he noticed Tom’s eyes—those calm eyes which you could look into and forget the hellish reality of the world—they were not there. And Benson knew that this was not Tom Hope but an illusion created by his opponent.

He raised the rock higher, and screaming the words, “Forgive me!” crushed the skull of the creature whom he loved enough to die for. The battle was lost.

Before he had time for anguish, there was a slight flash of light at Benson’s chest. He looked down at the medallion, still hanging about his neck, and saw that the fourth piece was in place—the golden circle complete. Then he was floating in space, the bright spheres of a billion stars all about him. He could not breathe but felt no pain in his lungs. And the stars began to sing as it happened:

Heat—temperature rising in his body, hotter and hotter. Christopher Benson felt his body expanding while the heat intensified. Expanding—larger than the earth, hotter and hotter. Then he felt molecules changing and energy surging. His body was set ablaze as, from the center of his ever-condensing, expanding mass, he could feel hydrogen merging to form helium, and the awesome power of nuclear fusion was no longer an apocalyptic ending to the world. It was genesis; it was life. He joined in the song.

17

Ty Fergusson stood staring into the eyepiece of his telescope which was aimed skyward at the starlit night. Betty sat on a curb nearby, gazing into a fire they had built near the shelter in the city and wondering where Mike had been all of these weeks. Linda sat nearby looking at a picture of Donny, her dead boyfriend.

“Well, how ‘bout that,” said Ty.

Betty looked up. “How about what?”

“Oh nothin’ much for us, I guess. But for the universe—it’s that star up there, the bright one.”

“What about it, Ty?”

“It’s not supposed to be there. It appeared there a few weeks ago and I’m sure that it’s not a planet, or an old satellite. There’s never been a star there—anyway, not one we could see from earth. If it fades it’s maybe the light of an ancient nova. If not, it’s a different kind of light—come to earth for the first time. I think we’re seein’ the birth of a brand new star in the heavens.”

“I’d rather we saw Mike.” Betty could think of nothing else.

Ty turned to her with a reassuring smile and said, “Don’t worry. They’ll be back soon.”

“I hope so; I pray it.”

With that Ty turned back to his telescope and peered once more at the new star, and raising his head, still smiling, recited Sunday school memory: “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord.”

Linda smiled too, even as a tear splashed on the picture. “He made Benson a little lower than the heavens,” she said. “But not anymore. Now he’s a warrior. Now he’s judging angels.”

Copyright 2010,2011 Charlie W. Starr

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