ORIGINAL FICTION:Rebirth

Charlie W. Starr
Charlie W. Starr's picture

 1

            Two men moved slowly through forgotten tunnels, silently creeping with great care through the darkness. Each was strangely aware of the space around him, his senses heightened to their full potential—heightened by fear.

            “Why don’t you turn the flashlight on?” 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.”

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