Chapter 1: Obligations
“You are Atlas,” said a voice.
I heard it in my dream. A voice was all around me, but I saw no one. My dream was hazy and confusing, full of bright images flashing in and out of focus. Like all dreams, everything became choppy nonsense, but the voice remained fluid above it all.
It called me Atlas.
“No,” I corrected. “My name is Ati.”
“You are Atlas,” it insisted. “You carry the world on your shoulders.”
“I carry my own agenda,” I replied.
There was a long silence.
“You won’t for long,” it said. “You carry the world with you. You will die.”
I hurried through the streets of Lansing, Michigan, aware that Gustav had targeted me. He was hard to miss, dressed in a wool vest and a long, black coat. His broad shoulders and massive torso towered over pedestrians. Behind him followed his daughter. She was also dressed in dated plain clothes. We loosely referred to Gustav’s people as Puritans because they reflected something from another century. Gustav clearly didn’t belong in the city, and that was not a good sign.
I need to find James…
I reached the rendezvous point at the northwest corner of Washington and Ottawa, and checked my watch. My hand trembled. Shoving it into my pocket, I backed up against a brick wall. Pedestrians sauntered by, paying little attention to me. Laying low was an especially difficult task with Gustav in the area; he preyed on unassuming bystanders. But social immersion was necessary to avoid Humanoids. And they were just as deadly as the Puritans. Running short on time, I was caught in a fatal dilemma.
Where the hell is James?
I checked my watch again. One hour until the shuttle left Earth. Gustav crossed the street, dragging the little girl behind him. He was headed right for me. I knew his background, but never met him face to face. His case file was packed with a history of terrorism, arson, murder – the list went on. Despite knowing what to expect from Gustav, I was not ready for him. My assignment on Earth was already complete, but it looked like I didn’t have a choice. I had to pull an extra shift.
If James and I don’t get out of here, we could end up stranded…
Backslider ships arrived at certain places and times, and they didn’t stay long. Miss your chance and they won’t come looking for you. I couldn’t risk that.
“You there!” yelled Gustav.
“Yes?” I turned, smiling politely. Hiding the fact that I knew him, I masked my impatience. Gustav was no idiot.
“I would like to invite you to a banquet! My people do not hold these festivities often, but the food is remarkable,” he said. As he spoke, his eye twitched and a pungent odor wafted from his mouth.
A banquet. That’s what they called it. He wore large rubber gloves and matching rubber boots. I assumed that was his clean-up gear. Banquets often got messy.
James hurry up…
If I refused Gustav’s invite, god knows how he’d react. He would likely attack me, then drag me off. My slightest hesitation might have compelled him to strike. However, Gustav was cautious, and he knew better than to make a scene. He dreaded the attention of Humanoids, as much as any Backslider.
“So how about it?” he grinned.
Behind him was the little girl, Nadia. She was a petite blonde – probably around four years old. His son was not with them. I assumed the boy was with his mother, Jacqueline. She was one of Gustav’s many wives. And she was just as dangerous.
“Is this your daughter?” I asked.
“Yes, yes. She and my son will be at the banquet, too. Forgive my insistence, but you see we are from a poor community. We are trying to raise funds for our new church,” he explained.
“Of course,” I said. I had to think quickly. If I refused, there was a chance he would try to apprehend me. Pushed to my limits, I would be forced to expose my Backslider allegiance. Gustav would be subdued, but all Humanoids in proximity would bear witness. He suspected I was not from Lansing, so I followed his lead to buy some time.
James appeared at the intersection in a stolen car. He was trying to hurry. I ran out into the middle of the square, flagging him down. Spotting me, James swerved into a parking space. Gustav watched impatiently, gripping Nadia.
“Tom! Tom! It’s so great to see you!” I shouted to James.
He turned off the car and opened his door. Exhausted, he exited the vehicle slowly. James’ light brown hair caught a shimmer of sunlight, right before he nervously ran his fingers over the back of his head. He did not like surprises. Moving toward him, I distanced myself further from Gustav. James looked puzzled, furrowing his brow.
“Thomas! Oh my! You absolutely must join me for a banquet. This fine gentleman has invited us.” I motioned to Gustav who lingered on the street corner.
Gripping James’ arm, I whispered, “Follow my lead. We are in some serious shit.”
“What?” he whispered back, aggravated.
“He’s a Puritan. Probably armed. Trust me,” I mumbled.
“A banquet? Sounds wonderful!” James yelled. He made certain Gustav heard him from across the street.
Meanwhile, Gustav motioned for us to follow him. He dragged Nadia down the busy sidewalk and turned a corner. I knew the building would be close by. Puritans did not stray far from their killing grounds. We followed.
“Pick up the pace,” I whispered. “We can’t waste a second once we’re inside. We have to think fast or we’re stranded.”
“Or dead,” added James.
I felt caught up in a sick joke, clueless as to what type of weapons Gustav carried. Despite their stereotype, Puritans packed more than a bible and a pitchfork. I was sure he had the upper hand. Though I’d been assigned to study Gustav’s congregation, my research wasn’t extensive. Having little time to wonder, we arrived at the banquet hall. Linked arm-in-arm, James and I entered through the doors. Then, I remembered Nadia.
“We should grab the girl. She’s harmless,” I whispered. James nodded.
Approaching another Puritan, Gustav let go of Nadia. They scanned the hall with wide eyes, smiling at the size of the crowd. I led James to where she had wandered.
“We would love to sit by you!” I said, snatching Nadia roughly by her delicate arm. She screamed as a noisy crowd bustled about the room. Gustav took no notice. Holding the girl, I looked around the banquet area. Long tables were set with empty dinner plates and empty wine glasses. Guests sat around, mumbling curiously.
They were not Puritans. No, they were chosen to die, unaware of the conflicts between Backsliders, Puritans, and Humanoids. They were innocent.
Near each corner of each table crowded Puritan men and women, dressed in customary garb. They had something twisted planned for the guests. Waiting, my grip remaining firm on Nadia, I questioned what was about to unfold. Jacqueline appeared, standing with Gustav and their son, Beckett. She raised her chin and shouted above the crowd.
“Everyone, be silent!”
Voices reluctantly died down as two Puritan men closed the hall doors. Guests shifted in their seats uncomfortably as the men visibly locked the exits. Whispers begged an explanation, but no one stepped forward. Jacqueline cleared her throat and spoke, again, to the crowd.
“Thank you,” she said. “On behalf of my congregation, I would like to welcome you. But I regret to inform you that this banquet is a celebration of virtue, and you will be the offering. This is penance. Penance for those we have lost to The Disease.”
“She means the Marburg virus,” I whispered to James. “Killed hundreds of Puritans during the first evacuation. Versinon engineered it, but…”
“…but now they blame us,” he said.
At the end of each table, Gustav’s men pulled syringes from their coats. Gasps filled the room, and guests began to clamor. Their worried mutters switched to shouting and crying. Gustav roared above them, ordering everyone to remain seated and silent. As my grip on Nadia tightened, she wailed explosively, trying to free herself.
“Nadia, darling, don’t cry,” I said.
Hearing his daughter, Gustav shouted, “I’ll have you bound and burned! Let her go!”
James drew his gun and aimed at Beckett. He fired, but with no intent to kill. Beckett’s left knee blew out, causing him to collapse. Jacqueline frantically reached for the child as he flailed and screamed. During the commotion, I grabbed the syringe from her hand and pushed it against Nadia’s neck.
“Let these people go,” I ordered. “Your boy is already injured. If you wish to tend to his wounds and save Nadia from a painful death, release these people. Release us.”
Gustav howled angrily and lunged at me. Quick with his gun, James switched aim and fired again. Two bullets exploded from the side of Gustav’s head. The enormous man fell dead at my feet. An infected pool of blood poured from his skull to the floor. I stepped out of the way.
“Let them go!” I shouted, “Or I will inject this into your daughter!”
Jacqueline and I stared one another down.
“You witch!” she screamed. “Look what you have brought upon us! I know what you are! Backsliders! You brought The Disease with you!”
“Your husband is dead,” I replied. “Keep it up and you will have no family left.”
“Let us go,” James ordered, pointing his gun at her.
Suddenly, a Puritan man grabbed a terrified guest, pulling him away from a table. The Puritan shouted, “Praise be to Jesus Christ, glory in his name…”
“No!” I objected, flinching as if to press the needle deeper into Nadia’s neck, but I could not bring myself to kill the child. The Puritan continued to speak as the man protested, twisting and fighting to get away.
“… glory to Him… in the highest.”
As the Puritan injected the poison, the innocent man cried out for help. But it was too late. James switched aim, firing on the Puritan. Catching his chest, he fell to the floor. Blood trickled through his fingers as the bullet dug its way through his lungs. He collapsed, facedown, choking like a dying animal. Meanwhile, the innocent man squirmed on the ground, writhing in agony from the poison. James fired once more, ending his pain.
“We will kill you,” I said, glaring at Jacqueline. She begged me to remove the needle from her daughter’s neck. “We aren’t alone. And we are trained to fight. So either let us go, or you will certainly lose your children.”
The Puritans slowly dropped their syringes, lifting their arms to indicate surrender. Meanwhile, the hostages sat at the tables wide-eyed and frightened, unable to move.
“Get out,” I ordered them. They stared back at me, motionless, in shock.
Attempting to snap them out of it, James pointed his gun to the ceiling and fired.
“Get the hell out of here! NOW!” he yelled.
One by one, hostages slowly rose to their feet. Their gradual movement quickly changed to a desperate scramble for the door. Shoving one another, they clawed their way to the exit.
I thrust Nadia into her mother’s arms.
“How did you know about us?” Jacqueline asked.
I hadn’t known. I knew about the Puritans and their war against the Council, but not about the banquet. I didn’t know they scheduled it to happen that day. We never planned on crashing it. I was too proud to admit that to her.
“I’ve been following you. You and your husband were part of a long and tedious assignment,” I replied. “I guess we are officially enemies now. It didn’t have to be this way.”
I tossed the syringe to her feet. James and I hurried toward the door. He kept his gun pointed at the crowd of Puritans as we moved. Jacqueline stood apart from the chaos, glaring at us. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Blocking out the horror, Nadia buried her face in her mother’s long, wool skirt. Beckett remained in the corner, screaming and clutching his damaged knee.
As we closed the doors behind us, James gave me a hard look.
“We can’t do missions like this, Ati,” he said. “We had one job to do. In and out. Can’t you just wait at a fucking street corner without getting into trouble?”
“I didn’t plan this!” I snapped.
He looked at me quizzically. I shrugged, throwing my hands in the air.
“So, you had no idea about this?”
“I didn’t know about this,” I insisted, pointing at the banquet hall.
James nodded, closing his eyes as if trying to get his thoughts straight.
A dirty, wooden plank poked out of a dumpster. Walking over, I grabbed it, and slid it through the handles of the door. Dusting my hands off, I sighed.
“We still have time to get to the ship. Let’s hurry,” said James. Leaving the alley, we hopped into his car. As Lansing disappeared into the horizon behind me, I closed my eyes, reflecting on the events of those gruesome forty minutes – the end of what had already been a very difficult trip.
This was not a good day…
It’s complicated, just as my story is complicated. We are taught to believe in one thing, and question nothing else. We are taught to follow certain rules, and fight for what we think is just. But, we are sheep. Our flock scatters and starves. We eat each other. We run. If we go back, we fight. And most often, we die.
But I am dead already.
I am buried in ice.
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© 2011 Trista DiGiuseppi
Illustrations and Cover Design by Trista DiGiuseppi
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Printed in the United States of America
First printing, 2011