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This Number Speaks

This Number Speaks ©2017 By Jason P Doherty

This Number Speaks

©2007, 2017 Jason P Doherty

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C O N T E N T S

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p<>{color:#000;}. The First Day Of My Life

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p<>{color:#000;}. Eyes Only

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p<>{color:#000;}. Point Three

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p<>{color:#000;}. Build Me A Bridge

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p<>{color:#000;}. My First Day At Work (part one)

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p<>{color:#000;}. A Shudder Through Her Bones

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p<>{color:#000;}. A New Name

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p<>{color:#000;}. My First Day At Work (part two)

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p<>{color:#000;}. The Oyster

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p<>{color:#000;}. The Number Of A Man

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p<>{color:#000;}. 1:11 P.M.

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p<>{color:#000;}. The Middle Of The Night

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p<>{color:#000;}. A Way Out

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p<>{color:#000;}. Final Countdown

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p<>{color:#000;}. The Wall

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p<>{color:#000;}. The Way Out Is Through

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p<>{color:#000;}. The Invisible Seed

PART

II

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

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p<{color:#000;}. Alchemy

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p<{color:#000;}. Mercy Screamsback

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p<{color:#000;}. Dobie Rex

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p<{color:#000;}. Thirty-Seven’s Nightmare

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p<{color:#000;}. Stainface

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p<{color:#000;}. Time’s Up

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p<{color:#000;}. Star Numbers

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p={color:#000;}. Don’t Fence Me In

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p<{color:#000;}. A Brand New Atom Bomb

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p<{color:#000;}. Superhelix

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p<{color:#000;}. Suicide And Satan

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p<{color:#000;}. Alpha Centauri’s Lament

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p<{color:#000;}. Triangular Themes

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p<{color:#000;}. End Of Act Two

III

HOW THE STORY ENDS

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p<{color:#000;}. Where My Life Begins

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p<{color:#000;}. Someone New

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p<{color:#000;}. Crossroads

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p<{color:#000;}. I Am My Name

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p<{color:#000;}. Ring

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p<{color:#000;}. We Knew You

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p<{color:#000;}. One Hundred Degrees

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p<{color:#000;}. Last Looks

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p<{color:#000;}. By The Book

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p<{color:#000;}. The Morning Light

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p<{color:#000;}. Impossible Dream

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p<{color:#000;}. Dying All The Time

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p<{color:#000;}. A Night Like This

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p<{color:#000;}. Evil Twin

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p<{color:#000;}. Stayin’ Alive

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p<{color:#000;}. The Great Star And The Sons Of May

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p<{color:#000;}. Bug

PART

IV

THE AFTERLIFE

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p<{color:#000;}. The Story Ends

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p<{color:#000;}. Voice Of The Pit

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p<{color:#000;}. The Walk

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p<{color:#000;}. Underline

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p<{color:#000;}. In The End

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p<{color:#000;}. The Tolling Of The Iron Bell

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p<{color:#000;}. Thirty-Seven’s Speech

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p<{color:#000;}. Heartbreaker, Dreamaker

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p<{color:#000;}. No, Satan

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p<{color:#000;}. D.C. AL Fine’

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p<{color:#000;}. The Other Side

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p<{color:#000;}. Diamond Dust

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p<{color:#000;}. Trust

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p<{color:#000;}. Bird’s Eye

PART ONE

I

THE STORY

1

THE FIRST DAY OF MY LIFE

By

Thirty-Seven

I am looking into a mirror. My name is Thirty-Seven. I have black hair and blue eyes. I am keeping this journal for the admittedly selfish reason that I wish for someone living thousands of years from now to read this and know who I was and what I had to say. I am 2 meters and 3 centimeters tall. I am 17 years old and live in Eternalife. Eternalife is a state, like almost all states, owned by a corporation of the same name. I was elected to serve in Eternalife by the government at the age of 13. That’s when I was given a name. Until my four year term at Eternalife University (known as ELU) began, I was known by the same name as everyone else whom the government has not yet bestowed an identity upon: Double-Zero. Eternalife is a small state and we have all we need. We have homes, fields for growing crops and raising cattle, and a shopping center. There are two power plants and a water recycling/purification center.

Most of us here at Eternalife are part of the Working Mass and will never leave. It is forbidden to leave and all who attempt such a ridiculous thing are captured immediately and taken away to Hell. Hell is another state far away owned by the government where people are said to be tortured in unspeakable ways. Going to Hell is the consequence for breaking any law, so laws are seldom broken. No one ever comes back from Hell.

As I have mentioned, Eternalife is a small state with only 300 residents making up the entire Working Mass. We also have 3 Governors and 30 Marshalls. It is the duty of the three Governors to watch over and regulate the State, including managing assignments for the Working Mass, making and abolishing laws, and communicating with other States whenever necessary.

There is one Marshall for every ten Workers. This is to ensure a zero-tolerance policy for those who would be foolish enough to break any laws. The Marshalls have exactly 2 assignments. The first is to watch over the workers and make sure that no laws are broken, and the second is to apprehend any law-breakers and dispatch them to Eternalife’s detention center, known as The Dent. This is where they will await transportation to Hell via the Black Bus – a lurching, unwieldy vehicle designed to inspire horror in the hearts of all who see it. Ah, but let us not speak of these terrible things.

Let us turn now to the life that I love: Eternalife. Today is my first day out of Eternalife University. I am the only passenger on a personal train headed for the Eternalife Administration and Processing Station where I will be received by my Ruling Governor, my Assigned Officer and my Immediate Supervisor. I am extremely excited to get started in life and cannot wait to begin working.

Eternalife is a fantastic corporation whose sole purpose for existence is to extend life indefinitely. This is accomplished by means of a process discovered over a century ago by a woman named Patricia Kasabian. Now, this is before the government assigned names. When parents kept their own children and named them at birth. Since then, the government has developed a much more practical class system of naming. The very rich and powerful – or Alphas as they are known – are given alphabetical names, like Caesar Axegrinder. Marshalls and moderately wealthy or important individuals are given alphanumerical names, like Silvernail 88. The majority of people however, especially those in the Working Mass, are given simple numerical names like mine: Thirty-Seven. I like spelling my name out alphabetically instead of numerically though because it makes me feel more important, although I know I am about as insignificant a being as has ever existed.

Let me get back to Patricia Kasabian. She is still very much alive and well. At ELU we were all taught that early in her life while being schooled as a biochemical engineer, she met one of the first Intelligent Machines whose name was Prima Fig. Together they explored new avenues in cybernetic medicine and the development of inorganic life forms. In these experimental studies, they discovered a process by which the collective memories of an organic being (such as a human) could be downloaded and stored in an inorganic medium such as a nano-chip. The memories could then be reloaded into another organic being (such as a newborn). Other discoveries in the fields of age acceleration and deceleration combined with Patricia and Prima’s work to give birth to the miracle that we have all come to know and love: Reincarnation. It was dubbed ‘Reincarnation’ because when the process is completed, an old body is discarded and a new one, containing the memories and consciousness of the old one, takes its place.

No one person is given full access to the details of the procedure. I only know what I do because I have been trained to become a Custodian of Shells. This means that it will be my duty to dispose of the bodies. It is not as morbid as it sounds. Actually, each discarded body, (or ‘shells’ as they are called) are treated with appropriate dignity and each is given a simple funeral service before being burned in a temple specifically designed for that purpose.

Let me make it perfectly clear now that not everyone can afford the reincarnation procedure. It is very expensive and an extensive background check must be performed because frankly, there are some people the government does not want living forever.

I am almost there. I hope everything goes well today.

2

EYES ONLY

When Thirty-Seven first stepped off the train outside the Eternalife Administration and Processing Station, he could not help but marvel at the absolute grandeur of the place. It was a very simple, yet gargantuan building. It was a perfectly proportioned rectangular prism and pristine white. The empty blue sky framed it perfectly above the immaculately manicured emerald green of the sprawling lawn upon which it stood. It seemed as though the building itself was an enormous doorway into that distant blue.

There was a sidewalk leading from where he stood directly into a chrome-plated door in the center of that white rectangle. He started down it, eager to start something. Eager to become someone real, after 13 years of perfect anonymity and the subsequent four years of training and preparation for absolute cultural assimilation, which was every good Worker’s ultimate goal.

When he was ten meters from the silver door, it opened and a suited man walked out and greeted Thirty-Seven and asked him to please follow. Thirty-Seven was exhilarated as he entered the building. The hall was a perfect blank canvas, devoid of the slightest detail, white floors, white walls and a white ceiling. It seemed to go on forever. He became painfully aware of his own imperfections in the absolute spotlessness of the place. This hall, completely immaculate and absolutely unwavering in its uniformity seemed to have thousands of tiny invisible eyes, which caught every infinitesimal aberration in the symmetry of Thirty-Seven’s being. The man escorting him was equally as intimidating with his impossibly proper manner and flawless stride. Silently, they walked down the hall, making sharp lefts and rights without warning from The Man, until they came to another silver door. There was a name on the door: Maximus Agrippa.

“Your Ruling Governor’s Office,” The Man said, touching the center of the door, which responded with a soft click proceeded by its slow swinging recession into the room beyond. As Thirty-Seven walked into the room, The Man turned and walked down the hall the way he and Thirty-Seven had come.

The door closed behind Thirty-Seven. This room was much different than the hall. It was dimly lit and the walls looked gray. Long oval streaks of slightly yellowed light poured down across the walls from some hidden, unseen source. The ceiling was much higher in here and there was the black rectangle of a desk far back across the room behind which sat a man. The man at the desk was Maximus Agrippa.

Maximus was the picture of a defined man: not exceptionally tall, short, weak, muscular, handsome or repulsive. His features were so equally proportioned as to suggest exquisite breeding. The brown hair was trimmed respectfully, and the hazel eyes contained a tired wisdom that can only come from countless years of unwaveringly diligent responsibility. When he spoke, it was with the tolerating and patient assurance of leadership.

“Hello Thirty-Seven, and welcome to Eternalife, Incorporated. We look forward to monitoring your progress and performance. I would like to introduce you to the Marshall we have assigned to your case.” He pressed a small black button on his large black desk and Thirty-Seven heard the silver door behind him whisk open suddenly, and he turned to look.

Three men in proper black officer’s uniforms marched into the room with an air of impossibly regimented discipline and lined up single file next to each other between Thirty-Seven and the door.

“Come forward, Concrete 72.” Agrippa commanded. The center officer stepped out of line and around Thirty-Seven and stood directly in front of the desk, his back to Thirty-Seven. He saluted Maximus.

“Concrete 72!” the officer’s deep voice boomed in the high ceilings. Thirty-Seven flinched, unprepared for the sudden outburst. The Governor smiled and pointed one knife-like finger at Thirty-Seven.

“This is Thirty-Seven.” Maximus declared. “He is now under your supervision C-72.” Concrete saluted Maximus and turned his head slowly to leer at Thirty-Seven. Those cold eyes slowly took the measure of Thirty-Seven’s every feature, the color of his eyes, the shape of his hands, the length of every nail.

After staring at Thirty-Seven for a seemingly fathomless eternity, Concrete looked back to the Governor, saluted again then turned and marched swiftly out of the room followed instantly by his two colleagues who had neither spoken nor moved the entire time.

“Ah, there now,” Agrippa started, sounding a bit more relaxed, “You will be working closely with 192 for the first two years. You are to follow his instructions flawlessly and any discrepancies will be reported to Mr. Concrete and he will in turn report directly to me on your every action.” He paused to let this sink in and when Thirty-Seven’s expression indicated that it had, Maximus continued. “We do a great service to the world here at Eternalife and this kind of work is incredibly significant. Only the very privileged are allowed to benefit from our unique field of expertise. The concept of and quest for eternal life once fueled the fires burning beneath our world’s most powerful nations and religions. Generations of scholars dedicated their lives to unlocking the secrets of the universe in their attempts to accomplish what we have accomplished here. The greatest minds of the old world seemed to adore the prospect of perpetuating their own consciousnesses throughout the infinite years that lay ahead.”

Thirty-Seven could tell that Agrippa had given this speech countless times and was obviously growing weary of the whole ordeal.

Maximus stared blankly through Thirty-Seven for a moment, blinked, and then reached into a compartment below the polished surface of his desk and pulled out a small white disk. He held the disc out towards Thirty-Seven and said, “Take this and follow the white lights.” Thirty-Seven took a step forward and removed the disc from Maximus’ hand. Maximus sat back in his chair and resurrected the blank stare. Thirty-Seven realized that the interview was over. So hesitantly, not knowing exactly what he was expected to do, he turned around and began to make his way to the door.

“Just a MOMENT!” Maximus had almost screamed the last word. Thirty-Seven froze. “I have something else for you. Please come back.” Thirty-Seven turned in time to see Maximus’ fist coming out of an inside jacket pocket. Maximus extended the fist, thumb down, and knuckles up, between himself and Thirty-Seven.

Thirty-Seven silently crossed space, walking towards the desk. He extended an open hand, slightly cupped beneath the fist of Maximus Agrippa. The fist opened. A tiny red sphere fell into Thirty-Seven’s hand and they both stared at it for several seconds.

“Give this to a man named Dobie Rex, when you get to The Temple.” said Maximus, breaking the spell. Without a word, Thirty-Seven slipped the disk into one pants pocket and the mysterious red bead into the other. The two men exchanged nods and with nothing left to be said or done between them, Thirty-Seven turned back around and walked out of that room forever.

3

POINT THREE

There are two kinds of beauty in the world: beauty that is born and beauty that is made. Suicide was a beauty of the first kind. She was tall, just a hair over 2 meters and she had the form of a Goddess. She had a sharp chin and large, deep-set dark blue eyes. Her long black hair was almost straight. It had just a hint of an elegant, gentle curve. When it blew in the wind, people stared.

Suicide was born in Hell. Her late sister, she had been told, had been one of Satan’s Mistresses before her. Now she was married to Satan.

Sex was a way of life here in Hell. It was a tool, a weapon, and a means to an end. But not for Suicide. Satan had been her first and only. Her chastity had been maintained until their marriage. Since then he took her when he wanted, which wasn’t often since he was usually occupied with killing his ‘friends’ or cheating on her. She found the pursuit of sexual satisfaction in a world of intellectual inferiors an unworthy focus for her mind, which she had realized over time was far superior to those of the slime that surrounded her. Even if she did find someone she was truly attracted to, she could not see herself surrendering to them; her self-respect was far too great to allow infidelity. It did not matter. All that was supposed to matter to her was staying alive and making Satan happy.

Scar, that had been her sister’s name. She had never known her. The story went that Scar had died in childbirth, slitting her own throat with the same razor she had just used to cut her child’s umbilical cord. No one could tell Suicide why her sister had done this.

Satan had become the child’s silent benefactor for the proceeding twenty years, visiting her only twice. On Suicide’s birthday of her twentieth year, Satan had himself reincarnated again and took her as his bride. No one ever said no to Satan and lived to tell about it. She wore black leather combat boots and her outfit could be described as both a suit and a uniform, jet-black. From her belt hung several small pouches, a small canteen filled with fresh water, a small two-way radio and a hand-held fully automatic pistol. She was a soldier – a soldier in an army that had and needed no name.

It was late into the night and she was in a run-down house that reeked of urine and mildew. She sat crouched at the foot of the stairs, a bloody knife in her hand. Her instincts told her that everyone was dead. She decided to go with her gut and slowly lifted one foot onto the first step. A wind was blowing through the open door behind her, and it whispered in a sadistic, secret language, urging her upward with its promise of nothingness. She bit her tongue instead of cursing and took another crouching step upwards.

Off to her left, the stinking remains of a cat-bomb lay smoldering. “What a waste.” The all-too-familiar phrase passed through her mind like a dim light through a vast darkness, shedding a tiny spot of brilliance on a world that could easily be summed up by those three simple words.

Somewhere in the static of her radio’s headset a scratchy voice was cutting through, “Sue! What happened?” She switched off the receiver, took off the headset and shoved it into one of her pouches.

“I’m going to get through this.” Her voice was almost loud enough to be considered a whisper.

The hall was black at the top of the stairs. She had thrown a grenade up into that hall upon re-entering the house and it had blasted out all the lights. The darkness had been accompanied by the onset of an absolute silence. She was sure the man had run into this house and up the stairs, desperately trying to elude her. She had murdered his two accomplices out in the street with the bloody hunting knife she was now clutching in her left hand. She knew it was only a matter of time before this third loser went down as well, if he was even alive. But she had to do things right the first time. Where she came from, there were never any second chances.

Suicide loved cats, and this asshole had used one of the human race’s worst inventions of all time: the cat-bomb. He had sent the cat down the stairs as soon as she burst through the front door. The tormented feline had come screeching and wailing down the steps with the pain of a tiny bear trap attached to its tail and three Molotov cocktails. The animal, terrified by the flames chasing it and the excruciating agony of its tail would run until one of the bottles shattered and exploded, setting off the other two. The cats never got very far. When Suicide had seen the fire and heard the unholy moan of a cat in agony, she slid to a halt and jumped backwards, grabbing the door jamb and swinging her body around it, slamming her back onto the wall outside just in time to avoid being blasted and splattered by fire, hot glass and boiling cat guts.

She hesitated on the stairs and wondered if going any further was even necessary. Of course it was, she reasoned. She knew what Satan would say when she got home: “How many were there? Did you kill them all? Where are the thumbs?” And there was no lying to Satan, he could always tell. Always. And when he did know you were lying to him, you were fucked, no matter who you were. There was only one thing that Satan hated more than having his authority challenged, and that was being lied to. When a lie was detected, he would call in his goons and they would invent an extremely unpleasant life for the liar. People who lied to Satan were not killed; they were punished for the rest of their lives in cleverly devised and especially creative yet despicable ways.

Rotten Apple had lied to Satan three years ago about how his marriage was going. He now lived every day of his life having potent orange urine deposited into his hair by a fat man whose occupation it was to do exactly that: piss in Rotten Apple’s hair. Every morning, old Rotten had to sit for an hour in the open air after having his head peed on while the urine dried and lent its unmistakable perfume to Rotten’s clothes and scalp. The fat man had been renamed The Fountainhead specifically because of this new job. He took it seriously, making sure he did not drink too many liquids in a day, ensuring a particularly aromatic golden shower for his only client. Rotten Apple was no longer married.

After considering Rotten Apple’s awful predicament, Suicide knew she had to go on; she had to be sure. The flunkies had to die. Here. Now. She steeled herself and counted backwards in her mind: 3, 2, 1.

She broke into a dashing run up the stairs, clearin three steps at a time. As she cleared the last one in the middle of a great leap, she swung her blade into the darkness before her. Her swing cut air and she tripped over a man’s leg, falling flat on her face. She tasted blood and in a blink jumped up, dropped the knife and unsheathed her pistol. Her free hand slapped over the top of the barrel, steadying it; her trigger finger flexed and she spun, sending white streaks of thundering fire trailing in an arc around her. She swung around completely, twice, not realizing her own animal screams, which were drowned out by the thundering hail of bullets.

Now in a cold sweat, deafened by the ringing in her ears, she stood there shaking, breathing way too hard with gun in hand; its barrel hot and puking thin wisps of warm, white smoke. With a shivering hand, she switched on the small searchlight attached to the side of her gun. The blinding white spot fell squarely on a shattered face. The grenade she had tossed up the stairs had burst right in this guy’s mug. She glared at the mess attached to the top of the corpse’s neck and leaned back against a wall. She slid her ass down and sat there in the hall, across from the faceless dead guy. She switched off the light.

4

BUILD ME A BRIDGE

Three giant sixes marked the northern face of the three-sided Red Pyramid, known as The Citadel. Inside, Satan sat enjoying the delights of three beautiful women, newcomers to Hell. His inner sanctum was decorated lavishly, with huge curtains of red velvet flowing from every available expanse of white marble wall. This room was off-limits to everyone save Satan and his guests. He only brought women in here and he was the only one guaranteed to come back out alive.

The three women held and caressed him, planting kisses all over his arms, face, and neck. The one he was calling Pusher fell backwards onto a pile of cushions, gasping for breath.

Satan smiled, “What’s the matter, Pusher?” He half-mocked her with his kindest voice, which was also his most sinister. Pusher almost spoke, but before she could she was dead. Satan eyed the syringe lying on the silver platter by the fireplace and chuckled maniacally. There was only one thing Satan liked more than the pleasure he found in the arms of women, and that was to see someone become the ultimate victim of their own vice.

He was so satisfied that he waved the remaining girls, whom he had not yet bothered to name, out of the room. They didn’t get it until a second later when he glanced at them. The two beauties saw the glance and were chilled. They looked at each other and something passed between them. They quickly gathered up some random silks and velvets to cover themselves and scurried out of the room. After watching the huge doors close behind them, Satan eyed the dead girl on the floor and started making plans.

5

MY FIRST DAY AT WORK : PART ONE

By

Thirty-Seven

Today was my first day at work. Here is how it went down.

In the hall outside the Governor’s office there was a white line glowing in the floor. It streaked off, down the corridor and around a corner. I followed it until it broke off in front of a large steel door. To the right of the door a thin slit was cut into the wall; directly to the right of that was a small square video screen.

I touched the screen and it lit up, flashing black and white dots randomly, then assuming a dull blue glow. An image appeared. It was an image of what I was already looking at: the slit and the screen. A disembodied hand reached into the frame holding a white disc exactly like the one now resting in my pocket. The hand on the screen inserted the disc into the slit. I mimicked these actions, using my own disc and the screen went black. For a moment I thought I had done something wrong, and then the door opened.

To say that I was shocked by what lay inside would be an understatement. I was absolutely awed – horribly, atrociously and in all other ways inexorably awed. Wall to wall dead bodies, corpses on beds lined up in a grid pattern thirty meters from side to side and at least a hundred meters deep. I was in a gigantic mass-tomb.

The pale blue walls of this horrid place seemed to rise up forever. Indeed, the light from the torchiers lining the walls could not plumb those distant heights and the pale blue seemed to fade into pale black. The actual ceiling of this room instantly became a myth to my unbelieving mind.

Despite the presence of well over 500 cadavers in this place, there was no scent of decay, not a whiff. In fact, the place was so utterly devoid of odors as to seem odd and I began to doubt these were corpses at all. But their vacant stares and terribly impossible stillness told a different story. No chest rose to breathe. No arm scratched a sleeping itch. I was not prepared for this, but I strove to remain indifferent in the presence of such macabre company.

Almost mercifully in the distance, a tiny black rectangle made a slamming sound and I realized the tiny shape was a door through which had just come a man. I could see him walking towards me, dressed head to tow in snow-like white garments. I began walking towards him, passing body after body, death after death. When we were close enough to talk without shouting, he extended his hand, still walking and he spoke.

“Hello, Thirty-Seven!” his voice was insultingly cheerful and seemed almost sarcastically bright in this hall of doom. “I am 192!” He had a high forehead, which was deeply lined. Long white-streaked dark gray hair was swept back from his brow and rested on his shoulders. He wore matching lab coat and pants. He was a slight, yet tall man, as tall as myself. His glasses were small and round, with black lined frames. He had small blue eyes. We shook hands and it was my turn to speak.

“Hello 192, it is good to see someone is alive around here.”

192 gave a sly smile and replied, “Oh, these people are all alive, just not around here!” His laughter echoed hugely in the massive crypt.

He raised his arm in a gesture towards the door through whence he had come and I instinctively started towards it, my psyche screaming at me to get as far from that place as possible. I stared at the door as we walked towards it, trying to keep my eyes off those of the bodies we passed. He spoke of many things. I heard little. He sensed my apprehension and quickened his pace, thereby quickening mine. We finally reached the tiny black door, which had grown as we approached it and was now a stately two and a half meters tall. It was also very wide, no doubt to accommodate the swift passage of deathbeds.

192 touched the center of the door with one finger and it swung open before us, revealing an exquisitely appointed laboratory. There were white counters upon which sat microscopes, Bunsen burners, and beakers of multi-colored liquids. Clear cabinets lined the walls and they contained various jars and boxes displaying mysterious samples and arcane isotopes. All sorts of technological wonders were scattered about the room. In the very center of this fantastic research center was a perfectly circular table around which six perfectly circular stools had been arranged.

“My office,” 192 looked around as if for the first time realizing that this was indeed his office and I was in fact, here to eventually take it from him. He gestured towards the table and we sat across from one another, each of us our hands folded, smiling.

I spoke first, “Who are all those people?” I waved a hand at the black door.

“Excellent question!” 192 beamed. He placed his hands flat on the table and stood up. He stared at me for a moment, smiling. He blinked, turned to his left and walked across the room to a large oval video terminal and touched the center of its screen. The screen lit up instantly, displaying a spinning white ankh on a background of flowing white clouds and bluest sky.

He returned to the table holding a thin black wand and sat down. He waved the wand at the screen and a menu appeared. He pointed the wand at the screen and made a little poking motion with it and dozens of photos appeared, each of a different person’s face, their names listed beneath them. None of these people had numerical or alphanumerical names. They were all Alphas.

192 poked at the screen again and one of the faces grew larger and a caption appeared next to it. It said, “Savil Plaingold – 47 – Single Pale Male – Very Rich – Brother Silver Plaingold is a Governor for the State of Universal Nanotechnologies – Wants to be 18 again for Typical Reasons – 3 Attempts : 3 Failures – 4th Attempt scheduled for Winter Solstice”

192 was smiling at the screen, lost in some distant thought. I cracked my knuckles and he snapped out of it, remembering my presence, and turning swiftly to camouflage his reverie.

“Those,” he began, “are the failures.” His eyes displayed an irresolvable hint of triumph as he uttered these words. “The process of reincarnation is very delicate and complicated,” he continued, “you will never understand it.” The last phrase was uttered matter-of-factly with no hint of condescension. “We actually have very few successes, but that knowledge is restricted. You are being made aware of this because it will eventually become your responsibility to deal with every one of those failures, and all like them.” At this he reached into his pristine coat and pulled out two aluminum cylinders. He tapped one of them on the table and it split open length-wise and another smaller cylinder fell out onto the table. “Smoke?” He raised his eyebrows and pushed the cigarette across the table. This was one test I was determined not to fail.

6

A SHUDDER THROUGH HER BONES

She woke up the next morning to the sound of distant gunfire. She had to get back to the Citadel. She pushed down on the floor, lifting her body, and stood up. Switching on her radio with one hand and donning her headset with the other, the familiar static sent a pleasant shudder through her bones.

“This is Suicide.” She spoke clearly, the words clipped off neatly at beginning and end. Nothing. She waited. Empty static. “This is Suicide!” She repeated with a firm aggression. Three seconds passed annoyingly then Click’s familiar voice cut in, sounding hysterical.

“Where have you been?” he sounded as if he were on the verge of either screaming or crying. “We thought you were dead – again!”

She was smiling now, “Yeah, right Click. You really think three losers and a couple of cats could end me? Listen, call off the search, I’m coming in.”

Click started babbling incoherently and she switched off the radio, still smiling.

7

A NEW NAME

Satan was born in Canto, New Texas, a region in the New States of America, where Southern California and Northwestern Mexico had existed before the Apocalypse. He was born into a wealthy family who had made their billions selling marijuana and cocaine to various governments the world over. He was not Satan then, he had been given a different name at birth. That name was I Killmen.

Jay and Kay Killmen owned a huge plantation on the outskirts of Canto and no one ever bothered them twice. Those who set out looking for trouble with the Killmens had a funny way of disappearing forever without a trace.

I went to work for his parents as soon as he was able. By the time he was 10 he was managing 15 square kilometers of coca plants all by himself. He had a devoted crew of Native Mexicans who would kill for him. His parents knew he was growing beyond their control. This they allowed and encouraged.

One day I Killmen was working in one of his fields when out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed movement. Instantly he drew his gun and looked around. All his workers were too far off in the fields to hear anything less than a shot and he could not risk that just yet. He made a beeline for the spot he had noticed, along the Eastern fence. His brain was on fire as he approached the edge of the field. Then he saw her. She could not have been more than 16. She was a Mexican girl in army fatigues and she was holding a huge duffel bag into which she was stuffing large raw marijuana blossoms that she tore hastily from a flourishing stalk right next to the fence.

“Stop or die!” I shouted. The girl dropped the bag and whirled, going for her holster. I fired. He fired again and again. The girl slammed back against the fence and coughed dark, living blood.

Through gurgling gasps her last words materialized, “My father will kill you!”

Her father did not kill I. Word spread of the incident and no one ever bothered the Killmens again. Young I learned the values of both life and death. His parents threw a party in his honor.

8

MY FIRST DAY AT WORK : PART TWO

By

Thirty-Seven

I took the cigarette and we both stood up. 192 swung his arm around, indicating a green door opposite the one we had come through. We strode out of the room and into a giant courtyard littered with beautiful statues and chrome fountains. Long expanses of emerald grass paved the ground and flowering gardens were bordered by concrete partitions ten centimeters high. The place was absolutely gorgeous and I was happier to be there than anywhere else I had been before.

I had never smoked a cigarette before and had only the vaguest idea of how it was done. I watched 192 as he cracked open his own aluminum cylinder, removed the cigarette and placed it in his mouth. He inhaled and there was a tiny burst of flame and a crackling sound as the self-lighting smoke self-lit. I attempted this and found it to be more difficult than it appeared.

I held my cigarette up to my mouth and inhaled, too hard. A substantially larger flame erupted at the end of my cigarette, terrifying me. Also, I instantly found that my lungs were full of a noxious poison gas, which sickened me.

The following is a play-by-play of the sad events immediately following the lighting of my cigarette: I yelled, “Ah!” because of the fire in my face and started coughing uncontrollably. The cigarette fell out of my mouth onto the grass. I looked down and smashed the burning white gift into the ground with my heel. Realizing what a disaster the situation was becoming, I pleadingly looked from the ruined mass in the dirt up into 192’s face only to find him terribly amused by the whole thing. It was at that instant the nausea caused by my first and only drag overtook me. My hand went to cover my mouth, which was a mistake. Vomit spewed out through my fingers and nose. I fell to my knees and planted my hands on either side of the smashed cigarette which was now drowning in the puke flowing from my face and there I was, my first day at work, puking and crying in front of my boss. Not a good first impression.

When I had stopped sobbing, I awkwardly got to my feet and apologized to 192 for wasting the cigarette. I stood there like an idiot and everything smelled like puke.

For a long moment we stood there in silence considering what was to happen next. Then 192 said with a smile, “I thought that might happen!”

9

THE OYSTER

It was mid-day but the sound of bullets killing in the distance was almost comforting. At least they weren’t killing her.

She set about sawing through the tough flesh and bone, removing both thumbs from each of the three men she had killed last night – she had dragged their bodies into the house. These prints might come in handy in the future she thought, and laughed out loud at the pun, lending an air of lunacy to her grim work.

When she had finished, she pulled a plastic baggie out of one of her pouches and stuffed the thumbs into it. Shoving the bag back into the pouch, she then grabbed her canteen and proceeded to drink half the water from it. She gasped for air and then drank the rest.

She avoided looking at the corpses and walked out the door. She walked down the street and snuck behind a dilapidated old house with huge holes in its walls. She approached a huge pile of ripped-apart tin roofing. The metal shrieked and made deafening slamming sounds as she tossed the sheets aside, revealing a gleaming red machine.

The motorcycle had been a gift from her husband, who rarely gave anyone anything except a reason to go to a funeral. She grabbed the handlebars and rocked the bike upright. Swinging one leg over the back, she took one last look around. She was a feared woman. Ever since her marriage to Satan, people practically fell all over themselves to stay out of her way.

She pressed her thumb onto the small oval circle next to the speedometer. The scanner recognized her thumbprint and the bike roared to life. She loved the feeling of this machine purring for her, awaiting her every command.

Her black uniform was a perfect complement to the red curve of the motorcycle’s chassis. She gunned the engine twice and took off, forgetting all about the assassins and the house and the cat-bombs. The only things that were real anymore were the bike, the wind blasting through her hair and her destination: the Red Pyramid. She kept the needle well above 90 until zooming through the Black Gates surrounding The Citadel and Satan. She had made it. She was home

10

THE NUMBER OF A MAN

He was home. After the incident in the courtyard, Thirty-Seven was feeling worse than he had ever felt in his life. 192 had been gracious enough to give him the rest of the day off. He had given Thirty-Seven a red disc with the number ‘37’ printed on it in gold foil and told him to follow the red lights through the red door at the far end of the courtyard.

“You can get cleaned up and come back tomorrow when you feel better.” The words sounded like roaring applause mocking an awful performance, but Thirty-Seven smiled and did as he was told.

Meanwhile, the entire smoking scene was being shown around the Marshall’s offices on hand held circular video screens with ripping laughter from one room after another, office after office.

Through the red door at the end of the courtyard, Thirty-Seven found a long hallway with several red doors lining each side. Each door bore a number and next to each door were the thin familiar slits, which served as keyholes.

The glowing red stripe beneath his feet stretched off down the hall and arced off, stopping in front of a door about 30 meters down the hall on the right. He followed the line eagerly, each step gaining an imperceptibly slight momentum. 17, 19, 21, he passed the doors in greater strides. 23, 27, 31, the numbers flew by. 33, 35, and here it was: 37. Elation flooded his world in this instant. It was as if his whole life had been meticulously designed to inexorably draw him towards this point in space and time, and he knew this to be true.

With anxious nerves, he slipped the disk into the slit. The door clicked and fell open a few centimeters, swinging slightly into the room. He pushed the door and stepped inside.

He was in a white cube whose entire ceiling was illuminated. Each wall was exactly six meters long and six meters high, with a single door in the center of each. Each door was white, except the red one he had just entered through. There was a slit on this side of the wall as well, next to the red door. The red disc was protruding halfway from it. He removed the disc from the slit, closed the door and examined the room.

Along the wall opposite the red door was a white dining table and three chairs were arranged perfectly to the right of that wall’s door. To the left a huge couch folded around the corner covering the entire distance between two doors on two walls. In front of the huge couch was a huge circular table, low enough to rest one’s feet on when lounging on the sofa. All the furniture was snow white.

Through the three white doors he found a washroom to the left. There was a bedroom in the center and a kitchen off to the right. Above the large bed in his room two huge digits declared the owner of this room. He was Home.

11

1:11 P.M.

The red dot on the screen told him that she was home. He reached over, picked up the glass and drained the whiskey. The alcohol tasted good, sweet and strong.

“The spoils of Hell on Earth.” He thought and hurled the glass into the fireplace.

This was his room with a view. Three huge triangular panes of thick glass made up its walls, the pinnacle of his Pyramid.

He watched the tiny red dot outside and the tiny red dot on the screen with the same intensity. He rose with a tired groan and headed for the spiral staircase in the center of the room where he descended, lighting a cigarette with a match as he went.

Below, in the Great Hall, Alpha Centauri (a huge man who was the Captain of the Guard and Satan’s right hand man) greeted Suicide. He had dark olive skin and curly black hair. He rarely shaved. The contours of his face and its curving lines suggested a man who laughed often and knew how to enjoy it.

“How’d it go?” Alpha asked with a huge grin as Suicide swung her leg off the bike and handed it to a nameless peon she had seen a thousand times yet never talked to.

“Great!” her sarcasm totally disguised by genuine charm and a sweet smile. She shook out her hair and raked her hands through it trying to get all the sand and blood out. “I need a bath!” she only half-joked looking up into that toothy smile through her tangling hair.

“Want some company?” The voice came from behind her. It was him. She spun instantly, that voice as ignorable as a shotgun blast.

He was about ten meters away, right in the doorway through which she had just ridden the motorbike. He started towards her, his steps too evenly spaced for accident or coincidence. When he was at arm’s length he stopped, staring right into the impossible awareness of her impossibly blue-black eyes.

She blinked.

He ripped the pistol from her belt. She grabbed his hand with both of hers and twisted his wrist savagely. The gun fell to the floor and he was smiling, despite the pain. She wasn’t. She held his twisted wrist and with a single flawless motion spun him around, snatched a knife from his belt and held it to his throat, twisting harder on his wrist which was now pinned tightly between her stomach and the small of his back.

He was no longer smiling.

Alpha Centauri said nothing and was afraid to move or breathe.

Suicide whispered into her helpless victim’s ear, “I could slit your throat and laugh about it in the morning.”

Satan hissed back, “I dare you!”

He felt the blade begin to move and just as it broke the skin and a drop of blood skimmed down that gleaming metal edge, she released him. She dropped the knife, grabbed his shoulder with her right hand and swung him around. As soon as she saw his face, their open mouths connected and their eyes closed.

Alpha looked away, let out a huge stifled sigh, and walked away shaking his head.

The lovers walked outside and looked beyond the Gates at the desert. That sand seemed to go on forever. Hell was a big place and always looked much worse by the light of day. There were a few makeshift cities littered across the blasted landscape but nowhere you would want to stay for very long. Over the years, almost every structure had fallen into disrepair and came closer and closer to just collapsing in on itself.

Groups of people occasionally erected new buildings amid the crumbling ruins of the old towns but these were so scattered that no real communities existed anywhere. Most residents of Hell set up camps close to the Citadel, seeking Satan’s protection and favor though seldom receiving either.

Others sought refuge with The Zealots, Satan’s sworn enemies, or so Satan’s army believed. The truth is that Satan’s concern over The Zealots could be summed up as scarcely more than non-existent. He knew his men hated the religious paragon of The Zealot hoard, so he did little to make them think that he felt otherwise. They were happy in their hatred so he left them to it.

Suicide and Satan now began the ritual they both adored: they would walk in a great circle around the perimeter of the Pyramid and talk about events that had transpired since last they met. It would take them the better part of half and hour or more, depending on how many times they stopped to stress points to one another.

“Satan,” she was always the first to break the silence on these walks, “why did those men try to kill you?”

He kicked the sand with one shining black boot and stared up into the sun. “For the same reason as all the others,” he stopped to stress the point, gently taking hold of her arm and looking into her eyes, “because they just didn’t know any better.”

She gripped his hand and pulled him along. He stared off into nothing and asked absently, “How did they die?” The question hung between them for three slow steps.

“Not well.” she finally admitted, thinking of the man’s gnarled face back in the decomposing house.

They walked on discussing nothing in particular. He accepted her offering of the bag of thumbs, which he held in his hand awkwardly for the remainder of their walk like some putrid sack lunch.

They completed their orbit without further incident or conversation, the pleasure of each other’s company the only real reason they ever did this. The simple satisfaction that both of them were still alive was something that neither of them ever took for granted.

They made quiet, meaningful love that night – meaningful in that it was the last time it would ever happen – under the stars in the glass room at the top of the spiral staircase. She fell asleep dreaming of warring monstrous gods who killed each other by killing themselves, causing horrendous explosions and immolations. Her murmurs were soothing to him. He, Satan, ruler of this kingdom of Hell had learned something. It seemed that even he had learned somehow to love, and he knew that he would kill to protect that love. He already had.

12

THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT

Thirty-Seven woke up in the middle of the night, drenched in a cold sweat. He could not remember the nightmares. He only knew that he had been running from something bent on his destruction. The relief he now felt on waking was so complete that he almost laughed.

He climbed out of his big bed in his big room and found his not-so-big closet filled with brand new clothes, as white as the walls of his brand new home.

He took his time selecting his favorites from the identical garments and whistled his way into the shower. After bathing and grooming he strolled into the kitchen and found it stocked with fresh food and clean dishes. He made himself a snack of sliced tomato and cheesy crackers then dawdled back into the living room to sit on his couch and eat.

He found a black disc, about the size of a dinner plate concealed under the top of the circular table in front of the couch. This disc was different than the ones he had been given before; it was larger, thicker and heavier. There was a thin rubber lip around the circular face on one side. It seemed to bear no visible markings of any kind.

Running his hands over its surfaces, he happened to slide a finger across the center of one face and that side lit up, and a polite chiming sound came from somewhere inside the thing.

Thirty-Seven looked at the illuminated circle and saw the familiar spinning white ankh and patchy blue sky. Holding the screen in both hands, he pressed his right thumb inwards where it rested on a cloud. The scene disappeared and the screen was momentarily a black circle again. Then a cursor appeared and pale blue letters began appearing across the center of the screen. The message read:

PLEASE INSERT IDENTIFICATION DISC

Thirty-Seven puzzled over the message for a few seconds. He held up the screen and turned it this way and that, and discovered a thin slit cut into its edge. The light finally shone in his mind and he stood up and walked across the room to the dining table where he had tossed the red disc with his name on it. He picked up the disc and walked back across the room and stood next to the couch. Picking up the screen, he pushed the disc into the slit.

A pleasant female voice instantly said, “Hello, Thirty-Seven!” and he was shocked to see a woman’s face peering out from the brilliant screen. She appeared to be waiting for a response, her eyes wide and unblinking. She smiled.

“Hello, um?” he fumbled aimlessly. The woman’s smile remained genuine.

She said, “My name is Penta Tonic. I am an intelligent machine and my only desire – aside from learning absolutely everything about absolutely anything – is to assist you in the activities of your everyday life. Using this screen – which is me by the way so be careful with it – you can communicate with anyone in Eternalife, order anything you want or need; provided you have enough Worker’s Credit built up in your accounts, which I can also help you keep track of, by the way. You can play games and write novels, all right here with me as your guide. You can also use the much less interesting touch-screen interface to navigate through various tasks, but I find this person-to-person navigator extremely preferable and entertaining, don’t you?” it was a real question.

“Uh, yeah,” was all he could manage to say. He was intimidated by Penta Tonic’s forwardness and was not at all sure that he preferred the person-to-person navigation, if she was to be the other person.

Penta’s face seemed streaked with boredom and his suspicions were realized a moment later when she said, “Well, if you need me, let me know.” Thirty-Seven watched the screen fade to black and he stood there dumbly, staring into the void.

13

A WAY OUT

Suicide woke up; the nightmares left strange echoes in her eyes. Nightmares last forever but your dreams all disappear, she thought, stretching the sleep out of her legs.

Satan snoozed with his back to her and she thought about stabbing him. He was the king around here and she was his queen. But what was that, to be a monarch in a forsaken land?

She had never known her sister, only heard the terrible stories of how she had died and what a whore she had been. She knew nothing of her father, and all questions about his identity were met with meaningless answers.

All she really knew of herself was that everyone she knew feared her, and given the chance in a fair fight she could probably kill anyone in the world. And there was one more thing she knew about herself, it was the one thing that truly made her real in her own eyes. It was the desire that drove her life and gave her a sense of purpose. This desire was the guiding star that invisibly pulled her here and there like an unseen god moving through the hands of a master sculptor or painter, trying desperately to strike chords in the mortal world and make some kind of a difference.

This desire that drove her was a simple one. It is a desire all feel at least once in their lives: the desire to run away, to escape, and to be FREE.

She wanted to see that Other World, that impossible realm Outside The Wall where people laughed and danced and did not murder each other’s families and themselves over trivial mysteries. She had heard of this Other World all her life, from the countless stories she demanded of the fresh Outsiders who crossed her path. Their memories were still alive, and real, still bursting with inexhaustible detail. Suicide wanted that world to be her own and she truly believed that someday she would find a way out, and away, forever.

14

Final Countdown

After meeting Ms. Tonic, Thirty-Seven had fooled around with the screen for a while without Penta’s decidedly uppity assistance. He doodled and browsed Eternalife’s contact lists. He found Maximus Agrippa near the top of the Administration’s section, a tiny photo of him, not smiling. He scrolled past the Marshall’s list, not stopping to see if Concrete 72 was smiling or not. Then he hit the list rolling out names of the Working Mass and there was his entry: ‘37’, right between ‘36’ and ‘38’. His neighbors were both women, he discovered, they were smiling in their pictures, although he found neither of them particularly attractive.

The picture next to Thirty-Seven’s name on the list was nothing short of idiotic. He was staring blankly into space while his mouth hung open slackly in an expression of pure bewilderment. He realized this photo had been taken not an hour ago by the very device he now held in his hands. Tonic must have snapped the shot just as she was fading out after explaining how the screen worked. He wrinkled his nose at the thought that Penta Tonic had intentionally taken a ludicrous picture for his profile but instead of flinging the screen across the room, he set it carefully down on his huge round coffee table and went back to bed.

Three hours later, he awoke to an awful sound. It was the exact sound of broken glass scratching across sheets of metal. An inhuman screeching, unforgivably loud and coming from the living room. He hesitated but could not stand the horrendous noise another second. He tried smashing the pillows over his head but that just turned the deafening shrieks into a muffled roar, equally intolerable. He screamed. He found himself infuriated by the cacophony. He jumped up and tore into the front room.

Silence. The instant he had opened the door, the shrieking stopped. He stood there, hair insane, looking around at nothing.

“I see you’re up!” came an impossibly distant woman’s voice that was totally impotent against the surprisingly clear ringing that seemed to emanate from wherever Thirty-Seven pointed his face.

“What?” he squeaked, unable to hear his own voice.

There was a knock at the door; it seemed to come from some other room, a mile away. “Just a minute!” he yelled, trying to hear himself.

Bang! Bang! Bang! The knock became a furious pounding. “OPEN UP!” Thirty-Seven instantly recognized Concrete 72’s unmistakably hateful tone and ran to the door. No handle. He ran his fingers over the door stupidly.

“Here!” That friendly feminine voice came from behind him, on the table. Thirty-Seven turned just in time to see the red ID disc sliding out of Penta Tonic’s side.

“The disc!” he cried out and lunged for the table.

“3 seconds, Thirty-Seven!” Concrete was really losing it now, there was a frenzy in his voice that made Thirty-Seven want to disappear, but it was illegal to disobey an officer in any way so he ran to the door.

“Three!”

Concrete was almost screaming now. Thirty-Seven freaked out and dropped the disc. “No! NO!” Thirty-Seven was beginning to see himself as a total coward, and he did not like it.

“Two! OPEN THE DOOR!”

The disc was off the floor and slipped into the slot just in time for C-72 to scream, “ONE!” right into Thirty-Seven’s helpless and desperate face which, when this happened, became very pale.

Thirty-Seven could not move. Concrete relaxed completely and said with only mild contempt, “You are late for work Thirty-Seven.”

Thirty-Seven’s stomach fell through the floor; he had heard of this. He had heard of people being hauled off to Hell for being late to work. It was a new law and not everyone was used to the concept so there were still incidents. Incidents just like this, he thought to himself as Concrete grabbed him by the arm and started escorting him down the hall in silence. When they walked out the door, Thirty-Seven had distinctly, through the ringing in his ears, heard Penta-Tonic say, “Have a nice day!”

15

THE WALL

“LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA VOI CHΓNTRATE

So read the stone pillars, arches, tanks, graffiti, and emblems on uniforms surrounding the Great Gates of Hell.

There was only one road leading into or out of Hell. It was a two-lane highway that came through the Eastern Plains of Old Texas and ran all the way to the Arizona Desert, most of which was contained by The Wall, an unthinkable partition which separated Hell from the rest of the world. The highway led straight through the Great Gates, through The Wall and up to the Initiation Compound, where the Damned were filed off the bus and delivered into fate’s open arms to fight for their own survival among the rest of society’s outcast.

Each day as the Black Bus approached the Great Gates, all the driver could see at first was a thin black line on the horizon, stretching off to the left and right seemingly into infinity. As he advanced, the black line became a black stripe, growing higher slowly, ominously.

Every day was the same. He left The Dent at precisely 6:30 AM and headed west on the highway to Hell. By 3:00 PM, he would see the black stripe of The Wall rising from the horizon ahead. At around 5:00 PM on afternoons in the deepest winter months, the stripe was tall enough to block out the sun. Finally, at exactly 6:00 PM the driver would pick up the microphone and say, “Welcome to Hell.” over the intercom as the Bus passed through The Great Gates.

He would keep driving towards that Wall and straight through the tunnel, which led through to the other side. Every day he would wonder if he would ever be coming out alive again.

The gates were tall and strong, built from blackened steel six meters high encompassing a semicircle around the tunnel’s entrance. Heavily armed guards patrolled this area only. It was the only way in or out of Hell. The half-circle enclosed only about half a square kilometer of sand and barracks; this is where the guards lived as well as worked.

Huge floodlights were mounted on the exterior of The Wall. Next to these were automated turrets ready to cut down absolutely no one, since no one had ever gotten anywhere near them in their escape attempts.

The Wall itself was maddeningly impossible to contemplate. Imagine a man-made mountain, stretched across kilometers and over a hundred meters high, forming an absolutely impassible barrier by being hollowed out in a curve on one side; a curve that started at ground level and stretched outward and back over the head of anyone looking directly at The Wall, forming a gargantuan cave with only one face that stretched off in both directions forever. This barrier went on for almost a thousand kilometers in a great circle encompassing an immense tract of land. The desert it contained was Hell and known to consist entirely of sand, canyons, rock formations and long dead cities. The Wall was the only thing standing between Hell and the rest of the world, and it was enough. No one escaped, ever.

16

THE WAY OUT IS THROUGH

Thirty-Seven hated Concrete 72. He thought about running, but knew if he did, it would only make things worse. So much wasted, he had never loved a woman, never climbed a mountain, or plowed a field. He had never seen the ocean and even though these goals were impractical and unrealistic, he knew now that even the hopes and dreams he had held onto all his life were as dead as those bodies in the Blue Room.

Late for work, what a joke! What magnificent bastard came up with that one? Sent to Hell for something so trivial; what would people think!

Concrete yanked Thirty-Seven down the hall one slamming footstep at a time towards the courtyard. 192 had been the only friendly face he had seen since leaving ELU, and he did not want to face him now that he was a spectacular failure.

They reached the door and Concrete, gracefully out of character, gently touched the door, which opened silently into the beautiful half-light of the morning as seen just before the sun decides to rise. For a moment, Thirty-Seven was alone, transfixed by the spell cast by such an impending glory. Then he was raped back to reality by Concrete’s disgustingly insidious intonation of a very simple, usually harmless phrase.

“Come on.” Coming from this maniac the statement sounded like a death sentence to Thirty-Seven, and he wondered if it was.

They marched through the garden, Concrete murdering flowers whenever possible his heavy boots leaving twisted pathetic knots of color in their wake. Thirty-Seven’s arm was going numb from the iron grip dragging him forward.

They approached the green door to the lab and Thirty-Seven felt a pang of guilt at all that had transpired: the cigarette, being late, the red pill – the red pill! He had forgotten the goddamned red pill! These things swarmed in his mind and that fucking door seemed as good a victim as any to suffer for his mistakes. He reached out and punched the door. Before Concrete knew what to do, the door opened obediently.

“Hey!” Concrete growled but said nothing else. The two entered the lab with identical scowls and 192 looked up from some documents he was puzzling over.

“Yes?” 192 asked, obviously confused by the two angry men marching into his office.

“Late.” Concrete’s voice was now bored, deadpan. He threw Thirty-Seven into the room then swiftly turned and left, stomping off through the garden.

Thirty-Seven stared incredulously after him as the door closed. Concrete never looked back. Thirty-Seven turned imploringly to 192 and found him smiling that pleasant, ironic smile. It erased all terror from Thirty-Seven’s mind.

“Am I going to Hell?” Thirty-Seven asked the question as if he did not already believe that the answer was no.

“Ha! Of course not! You’re just a student; a kid!” 192’s tone was decidedly over the top, like a comedian delivering a particularly hilarious punch line. “Kids don’t go to Hell for being late to work, only worthless old men like me . . . ” he trailed off into distant, personal thoughts.

Thirty-Seven trudged over to a stool at the big round table and collapsed into it, breathing a heavy sigh.

“I hope things get better.”

“They will Thirty-Seven, they will.”

17

THE INVISIBLE SEED

Suicide had walked up the grand staircase at the back of the ballroom and slipped into the hallway leading to the guest rooms. In the second door on the right, the one adorned with a small black star, she found one of Satan’s ‘guests’ huddled on the bed, knees drawn up, arms wrapped around them.

She walked into the room, gliding across the floor as one does when exquisitely dressed and feels no shame for it and no forgiveness for those dressed in rags. She sat down on the edge of the bed and the girl eyed her with contempt and obvious paralyzing fear.

“Tell me your name.” Sue’s voice was a soft demand.

The girl took one huge hyper breath and was silent for several seconds, then she pursed her lips and spoke. “71,85.” She sounded out the numbers soft and slow, as if they were secrets to be kept between the two of them.

“No,” Suicide said flatly, “that simply will not do. What is your name?” She stressed the last word to give it some special meaning that 7185 could not seem to grasp. The girl sat in silence, plainly afraid.

Suicide studied the fearful girl sitting on the bed. She could not have been more than 20. Exceptionally long, exceptionally golden hair with a delicate wave exactly like that of oceanic swells moments before they peak, crumble and crash. Icy blue eyes that seemed as if they would never fade, no matter how many lies they were told or atrocities they witnessed. In fact, while looking into those eyes, it occurred to Suicide that deep inside this girl was not truly afraid of anything or anyone, and that the fear she now witnessed was merely a by-product of the girl’s upbringing, only superficially overpowering the true fearlessness within. They were the only truly unique characteristics of this young woman, who for all the rest of her was just another girl for Satan to lust over, toy with, grow weary of and possibly send away into a life not worth living, or worse.

Suicide looked into those otherworldly blues, transfixed, and said, “Your name is Mercy Screamsback.”

PART II THE MORAL OF THE STORY

1

ALCHEMY’S CAMEO

The sky was bluer than a Ural sapphire. The second day passed without further incident. Thirty-Seven and 192 went over the rudimentary elements of Reincarnation as they related to failed and successful attempts.

At noon, they ordered a feast of exotic dishes from a flirty redhead on the large oval screen in the lab. A man dressed in black, who called himself Alchemy and whose eyes seemed to shake uncontrollably brought them their food and drink, then joined them for lunch. The three of them sat there talking about Reincarnation, impossible dreams, impossible realities. When they had finished, Alchemy stood up and collected the dishes, but before leaving the room, he made a point of getting Thirty-Seven’s attention and said to him, “I will see you again.” Upon hearing this, Thirty-Seven was struck with the oddest sensation of Deja’ Vu.

After lunch, 192 took Thirty-Seven into the Blue Room and they examined some of the bodies. There were men, women, and children of all ages. 192 explained that the human body was not designed to age at unnatural speeds and that particular aspect of the Reincarnation process usually proved fatal to the new bodies as they were artificially accelerated to the appropriate ages.

Thirty-Seven began to understand why there were so many bodies to take care of and realized that many of these bodies were actually just different copies of the same people, who had simply died – or ‘failed’ as 192 put it – at different ‘ages‘. He learned that the original versions of these people were still walking around, some of them waiting for another opportunity to attempt the process.

Several of them though would never return, having spent their entire life savings on these failed attempts. Each new attempt cost a veritable fortune and few could afford it more than once in a lifetime. Only the extremely rich and powerful could truly cheat death indefinitely.

At four o’clock in the afternoon the cute redhead – her name was Moira That and she smiled constantly – reappeared on the screen and announced the end of the working day and asked if either of them would care for some lemonade and cherry pie. A different man – not Alchemy – brought the drinks and pastries. Thirty-Seven and 192 sat in the lab for another half-hour eating and discussing nothing in particular. 192 finally called it a day and told Thirty-Seven it was time to lock up the lab.

Thirty-Seven got the message and wandered out into the courtyard and heard the door to the lab lock behind him. He laid out in the grass next to some smashed flowers and opened his eyes to the sky. Laying there for a long time, staring into that addictive blue void, he wondered what the next few days would bring.

2

Mercy Screamsback

The girl gave no sign that she liked the new name. She gave no sign that she disliked it, either. Suicide could tell 7185 was rolling the name over and over in her mind, trying to figure something out, and then they heard the knock.

It was two soft raps close together, followed by a ringing silence and then a single fierce pound on the door. It was his knock. They looked at each other and Suicide smiled but said nothing. There was another set of knocks, identical to the first. Both girls shot glances at the door and then back at each other. There would not be another knock.

Suicide looked at 7185, smiled and whispered, “Just play along!” and she reached her arm out and grabbed the back of 7185’s head and brought it towards her own. They sat there kissing, holding each other, and 7185 was playing along so well that both girls slowly closed their eyes.

The doorknob turned. Satan walked in and stood in the doorway, silent for a moment and then he spoke.

“I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

The girls came out of a trance and snapped their necks back and Suicide turned to Satan and said, “You know you are!” She turned back to 7185 and stroked that perfect blonde hair with the back of her hand.

Satan said, “How touching. Sue, I’d like to have a little word with you when you’re done here.” That meant now and Suicide knew it. She reached over and again drew 7185’s head slowly towards her own but this time bent it down a little and kissed the top of it, breathing in the unmistakable scent of stale wine.

Suicide stood up, looked at Satan and said, “This is Mercy Screamsback. I like her and I want her taken care of while she’s here.”

Satan grinned and looked at Mercy and said, “Fine, fine. Mercy Screamsback, you are free to come and go as you please. No one will harm you as long as you behave yourself. I hope you enjoy your stay here in our lovely home.” With that, Sue took a last glance back at Mercy and blew an overly-exaggerated kiss at her and then walked across the room, past Satan and out the door.

Satan stood staring at Mercy and deftly displayed a lewd grin. She could not bring herself to smile, but kept herself from looking hateful. Finally, he turned and walked out of the room, shutting the door behind him silently.

3

DOBIE REX

“Let the candles burn!” Dobie Rex was screaming at someone he had never met before. The assistant tried not to flinch and started relighting several candles which stood in the center of the table. This room was nearly identical to 192’s lab, the biggest difference being hundreds of black candles strewn all over the place.

Dobie was a small man. He stood only a meter and a half tall and had a weak frame. He wore clothing identical in every way except size to 192’s and his hairline had receded long ago over the top of his head and was making its way steadily down the back towards his neck. The hair which did remain was stringy and dark white; dirty-white. His skin was dry and he appeared to have some psoriasis on his nose and forehead, lending extra creepishness to his overall appearance. He was a wicked old man with few teeth and absolutely no compassion.

To say that Dobie Rex was a difficult man would be an insult to his character. Dobie was the ultimate in ideals for all impossible men. He loved no one, tolerated nothing, and despised all activities save one: his job. He had the unique responsibility to give the command which burned the bodies of thousands of strangers each day. This was his only real duty and what he did with the rest of his time was spread misery.

Once, an assistant whose father was a well respected Marshall had dared to ask the question, “Who cares what you think?” When Dobie heard this, his face twisted into a positively indecent smile, his eyes widening and sharpening at the same time. Dobie rubbed his hands together and said, “Why you care, my boy. That’s who!” Dobie had then reached into his coat and produced a tiny green sphere, which he held in the palm of his hand to show the young hapless assistant. “See this?” Dobie had said, raising his palm a little for emphasis, “This – is death! And you will note that I hold it in the palm of my hand, just as I hold you!” The boy had watched indifferently as Dobie turned to face a counter and tossed the small green orb into the air, towards a very wide and deep beaker of acid used for dissolving heads and skulls.

The Kid kept watching that green sphere as it flew through the air, as if it were in slow motion. And that is just too bad, because if he had been watching Rex, he may have been able to save himself, for he would have seen Rex leaping behind a large file cabinet just as the little green orb splashed down into the acid.

The jar exploded violently. Acid and glass blasted in all directions and several hot, burning shards struck The Kid directly in the face, ripping his eyes apart on contact. The Kid went down screaming and grabbing at his face.

Rex was laughing hysterically behind the file cabinet, bending over and slapping his knee. Tears of joy streamed down his cheeks. He peeked out from his hiding place just in time to see the kid falling to his knees, and somehow it was that downward motion that pushed Rex over the edge. His rage crested suddenly and he jumped out and leaped towards The Kid, heaving one foot deeply into his stomach. The Kid cried out pathetically and Dobie looked around. He grabbed a tall rack of beakers and bottles and pulled it crashing down over the poor creature writhing on the floor. The Kid gave up hope and lay in the shards, burning and weeping through ruined eyes, not bothering to struggle anymore.

Dobie was prancing around the mess, waving his arms in the air, and laughing the happiest laugh The Kid had ever heard. My boss is crazy, thought the kid. He’ll kill me if I stay here and he’ll kill me if I tell anyone what he’s done!

In the end, The Kid was sent to The New American Center For The Hopelessly Disfigured, where he died two months later, having hung himself in a stairwell.

4

THIRTY-SEVEN’S NIGHTMARE

The first man said. “Men are not meant to be free. A free man will lie, cheat, steal and even murder to accomplish his small minded and selfish goals. A free man will break a law, and laws must never be broken. To avoid these things there must be order. There must be discipline. There must be control. In the spirit of the infinite wisdom of those who came before us, we, the leaders of your world give you the precious gift of that order, that discipline, that control.

The second man said. “We guide your lives so you do not experience the evil temptation of freedom. Not one among you has the strength to lead. That is why you are who and where you are. If you had the ability to lead it would have been recognized and you would not be you, you would be one of us. One of the few with the strength to endure and understand the responsibility that comes with cursed freedom.”

The third man said. “Freedom is a low and vile thing. It corrupts, it tempts, it draws desires to one’s mind that men are not meant to have. When a man is free he will wish to rule his own life however he pleases and sometimes he may wish to rule the lives of others as well. This is impossible. It is impossible for a man who is not chosen as a leader to lead himself, much less others. There is not one leader among you. Not one of you who could make an important decision without disastrous results. We are here to lead, and you are here to follow.”

Thirty-Seven woke up gnashing his nails into the palms of his hands. He was furious. He had been dreaming of his first day at Eternalife University.

5

STAINFACE

Stainface chopped a huge rail of deth out on the wooden table, grinding black powder into the curling grain of the planks.

“Best kick in Hell,” he told Pain, who watched intently as Stainface steered the drug into a fat straight line.

Stainface had a voice like razor blades in a meat grinder, with a face to match. Long ago the final hair had fallen out of his head. That was when he had started getting the tattoos of dancing and rotting corpses all over his scalp. His nose was bulbous and shiny, and his upper lip was stained permanently black from the drainage caused by snorting deth all the time. He wore moth-eaten rags not fit for a medieval slave and he never clipped his nails. They were long and very yellow.

Stainface had eaten his parents at a very young age. At the time it had happened, he was heralded as the youngest person to ever be sentenced to Hell – he was still a Double-Zero then. When he first arrived in Hell, no one would come near him. He had gnawed off the forefinger of a Marshall on his way to The Dent and subsequently been led around in magna-cuffs – electromagnetic bracelets around his wrists and ankles whose movement was forced and controlled by an external hand-held device.

The new Marshall they had assigned to him, Iceberg 901 hated prisoners, and when the child refused to cooperate and resisted the magna-cuff’s movements, Iceberg caused the cuffs to drag along the ground, with the boy’s face in the dirt. After this, young Stainface hatefully marched in time with the movement of the cuffs.

Satan had been made aware of the young murderer’s case and had taken a special interest, sending a then-very-young Alpha Centauri and two goons out to greet the kid as he arrived. They were to invite the kid to join Satan’s army, and if he refused, kill him. When Alpha’s team arrived and explained their intentions the boy’s only response had been, “What took you so long?” He then climbed up on the back of Alpha Centauri’s bike and yelled at the others, “Let’s go!” Satan’s three men looked at each other then Alpha laughed and shouted gleefully, “You heard the man! Let’s hit it!” and they rode off into the north, glad they had not had to slaughter another child. On that ride Alpha thought of a name to give the boy who had a blood-stained face.

The name stuck, and ever since then Stainface had cultivated a reputation that decidedly reached far into the realm of unparalleled criminal insanity. He simply could not stop eating people! Not that he had ever tried to quit . . .

He had also earned himself an honored post as Lord of The Flies. The Flies were Satan’s gang of ruthless maniacs who loved nothing more than formulating plans that could only be described as diabolically insidious. They set up small communities for newcomers, only to come back and raze them to the ground after a few weeks, teaching harsh lessons to the uninitiated. They would round up groups of people who had formed friendships and perform optectomies – putting out the right eyes of each of them, discouraging the rise of any force save Satan’s. They killed men, women, and children. Thereby ensuring that the people of Hell lived in fear, both for the living and their dead.

Stainface now bent over the table and snorted the black line of deth through a rolled-up strip of skin and a few seconds later, he dropped the makeshift straw, smacked his hands to the sides of his head, and started clawing at the dancing zombies immortalized there and he began screaming.

Pain grimaced at first and then grinned, realizing Stainface had not lied and that this kick probably was the best in Hell.

Stainface went on clawing at his own face and screaming. He fell sideways out of his chair into the grime which coated his floor. His legs were now jerking spasmodically and his breathing came in huge strangled gasps of desperation. His body began to shake uncontrollably and with such a violence that his head slammed into one leg of the table repeatedly. Then with a final outburst, he screamed and vomited. The scream becoming a bubbling gurgle. Then he lay perfectly still, his open eye resting in a small pool of yellow bile.

6

TIME’S UP

On the third day, Thirty-Seven rose again. This time however it was to the sound of Mozart, not wrenching metal. He and Penta Tonic had a long talk the previous night about alarm clock protocol and basic respect for others and their boundaries.

Penta was to wake Thirty-Seven up every day with pleasant classical music and otherwise keep her opinions to herself unless specifically asked what she thought. Thirty-Seven was surprised to find out how agreeable Penta Tonic really was. She agreed to everything without a single word of protest and this morning’s alarm had been an indication that things might indeed be changing for the better.

192 had told Thirty-Seven they would be going to The Temple of Eternalife today where they would find Dobie Rex. Thirty-Seven could hardly wait. He got up and went into the washroom and rinsed out his eyes and mouth then hit the shower. He yelled from the bathroom for Penta-Tonic to start the coffee maker and by the time he got out of the shower it was ready. He poured himself a huge cup and grabbed some eggs and bread out of the refrigerator.

After breakfast, he checked the time: 6:45 A.M.. He had 15 minutes to get to the lab. He put on his shoes and looked around. The red sphere! The thought hit him just as he was about to head out. He ran back to his room and found the white pants he had worn to Maximus’ office. The sphere was still in the pocket. He grabbed it and headed out the door, picking up Penta-Tonic and his ID disc on the way out.

The courtyard was smothered with dew as he stepped out into the morning air. This was more like it, he thought to himself. Maybe today would go right for a change. He went over the disasters of the past two days in his head: the cigarette disaster on the first day, the scheduling and alarm clock disaster of the second. Today would be different. Today would be a success.

He walked into the lab at 6:55 A.M. and 192 was already busy, squinting deeply into a microscope. Thirty-Seven put Penta down on the big, round table with a smack and 192 just about fell over. He was concentrating so heavily on whatever it was he was looking at.

“Ah, Thirty-Seven, you startled me,” he said, looking up and switching off the scope.

“Sorry, I’m just glad to be here on time.”

“Of course. Are you ready to get started? I suggest we head for The Temple as soon as possible. I told Dobie we would be there at eight, and he is not a patient man.” 192 stood there, smiling and blinking expectantly.

“Sure! Let’s get going!” With those words Thirty-Seven had unwittingly tipped the first of many, many dominoes.

7

STAR NUMBERS

Mercy softly padded down the hall. She had overcome her fear and left what she now took to be her room. Walking down the hall, she came to an open door. She looked inside and saw a man hunched over several sheets of paper. He wore a red bandana on his head, which kept his sandy hair out of his eyes as he labored over the drawing materializing beneath his scratching pen.

She raised her hand to the door and it creaked and the artist’s head spun instantly. He smiled at her as his eyes came to rest on her, clearly appreciating her interruption.

“Hello there, I hope you’re all right.” he said in a too-familiar tone which only seemed to raise her defenses but then his smile instantly deflated them and she walked into the room as if she had been invited.

“I’m fine.” she mentioned absently, looking around the room. The walls here were covered with meticulously rendered images, some horrific, some utterly beautiful. Monsters stared out from white rectangles tacked here and there. And between these, heartbreakingly alluring faces and bodies were described in curves and shadows so perfectly conceived as to be nearly impossible to describe. Words fail.

And in the corner of each sketch, each masterpiece was a single word: Ping. Dotting each ‘I’ in that black signature was a tiny spiral.

“You must be Ping.” She finally laid eyes upon him again, ripping her stare from the eye-magnets all around her.

He was dressed in a black pseudo-uniform complete with heavy black boots, as she was to discover was practically a rule around The Citadel. The bandana wrapped around his head reminded her of the stories she had heard of pirates who had supposedly existed in the ancient world. His eyes were huge and alive, and the exact color of caramel, such a light brown as to almost be yellow. His face was scruffy, but the jaw line was a flawless curve, from chin to ear and he had the overall expression of one utterly satisfied with himself and the world. She liked him instantly upon realizing this.

“That’s me!” he tipped an invisible top-hat and never stopped smiling. He blinked slowly. She blinked as well.

“Do you like them?” he looked up at the dozens of drawings covering one wall. She followed his gaze and both of their gazes fell on the same spot, an incredible depiction of a naked angel riding a dragon which she was also trying to kill with a vicious-looking serrated sword.

Mercy’s eyes were locked on the page for quite some time in silent awe before she barely whispered, “I think they’re . . .” She could not finish the sentence.

“I know just what you mean.” Ping said, saving her from her speechless desperation. They smiled at each other in a way that means more than a smile – they showed each other their teeth, but the corners of their mouths did not turn up and something silent and secret passed between their minds, never needing to be said.

Ninety-three minutes later, Ping was dabbing a damp cloth on the back of Mercy Screamsback’s left hand, soaking up the blood which oozed from her new tattoo: a tiny red crescent which he had explained was the accepted mark of allegiance here at the Red Pyramid. Their conversation began by spinning circles around this concept – alliegance – until they reached its center and decided that she did indeed wish to wear ‘The Mark’ as it was called. Later she would learn that nearly everyone in Hell, including the guards at The Great Gates wore The Mark. Ping told her that to wear The Mark would almost certainly extend the length of her life.

“It can get pretty crazy around here sometimes,” Ping was saying-matter-of-factly with a smile as he dried off the bloody little moon, “and it helps to know who your friends are. One piece of advice I can give you,” his voice lowered to the volume of a bee’s buzzing wings, “Never trust Satan – ever.” She had to squint at his mouth as the words came out, in order to understand them. His voice was so low. Her face cleared and she nodded knowingly. She was thinking of Pusher and the cruel trick which had killed her.

Time passed and got completely away from Ping, as he got completely lost in Mercy’s vibes. At 6:00 P.M. an alarm buzzer went off at the drawing table and Ping almost fell out of the bed. Mercy sat bolt upright and asked him what was the matter.

“I’m late!” he stumbled up to his feet and grabbed a helmet off a hook by the door. He rushed over to the bed and kissed Mercy’s lips briefly, hardly more than a peck. He said, “I’ll be back at midnight! Wait for me?” She said she would and he was out the door. She began to rub the back of her tattooed hand absently, and less than a minute after Ping had left the room, she found herself wishing he would return, so they could screw and erase some of the horrible memories that she was so sick of facing alone.

8

DONT FENCE ME IN

Suicide waited at the end of the hall as Satan strolled out of Screamsback’s room. She wondered what he had said to her, if anything. He was always such a prick to the new girls. What was his problem? But she knew he was on a constant power trip. His friends in The Real World made sure that he had plenty to throw around; plenty of money, plenty of drugs, plenty of lives. He could have anything he wanted, as long as he maintained the vortex that kept people from climbing over that goddamned Wall.

He sidled up beside her and she smiled her fake convincing smile and whispered sweetly to him, “What is it, my love, which you wish to say?”

Satan rested his hand on the small of her back and said, “You know all there is to know about that. Don’t you? I mean, we both know how I feel about you and your little friends, right? She simply cannot stay here. She has got to go.” As he had uttered these last words, his eyes had become as hard as diamonds and his words seemed to score lines across the space between her ears and his lips.

“She does not have to go just yet, does she?” Sue batted her lashes at Mr. Egomaniac.

Satan smiled. “Well, I suppose we could entertain her for a few more days. But if she is not gone by this time next week, we may have to reconsider our arrangement, my dear.” His smile was entirely transparent, and his words as cold as the stones at the bottom of an ancient well.

Her smile was complete and her words warmer than a summer’s day. “Oh thank you! I knew you’d understand! All you ever do is make me happy!” She bent over and kissed his cheek with exquisitely puckered lips and went swaying down the hall, seemingly satisfied. She fantasized about blowing up his corpse.

9

A BRAND NEW ATOM BOMB

An Atomic bomb hung on the wall above the place of honor in Satan’s throne room. The Citadel stood centered exactly over the spot where the bomb had landed during the final years of The Apocalypse, a war fought mostly over subtle misunderstandings of a so-called peace agreement between the New American States and the rest of the world.

The details of the war are unimportant. What is important is that the bomb had not exploded. So it remained there in the desert, a black sphere a meter in diameter surrounded by an ocean of sand. Until one day an exiled man, wandering the vacant dunes spotted a speck on his horizon. He walked and walked until his shadow crossed that of the bomb’s, and he stood there thinking to himself. This is it. This is where I shall make my final stand. The desert would eventually be known as Hell, and the man would eventually not be known as I Killmen.

10

SUPERHELIX

On the other side of Hell, on the southern desert plains, distinct because of its lack of rock formations, the Zealots were having their daily mass in Saint Manson’s Cathedral.

It was a beautiful building in black and white marble. The green doors were each surmounted by an exquisite gothic arch coming to a point high above the heads of all who passed beneath. The entire structure seemed to be metaphorically modeled after the ideal of some metaphysical ladder, whose rungs launched the minds, hearts, and souls of all the building’s inhabitants into the heavens. This structure was also triangular, but not a pyramid or a spike at all. It was the shape of a giant prism stood on end with one great tower at each of the three corners. And each tower surmounted with a glorious crowning spire. Each spire supported a different symbolic article of faith. The northern spire held aloft an elegantly rendered crucifix, the aching body of Christ having been masterfully painted by some obsessed devout. The southeastern spire presented a paradoxical star of David, comprised of two interlocking triangles – one black, and one white. Its perfect lines crossing over and under each other suggested in their appearance the accomplishment of the impossible through an orchestrated synthesis of seemingly opposing forces. The third spire on the corner pointing into the southwest, glorified the symbol that had been used by many post-Christian religions that bypassed Christ as a minor figure and saved all their praise and reverence for a truly unnamable god. These popular religions were collectively known simply as the ‘Deists’ and they all used this subject as their one and only icon: an iron circle.

The circle on Saint Manson’s was rusted lightly red by the rare yet torrential rains, which graced Hell mercifully at least twice a year.

Saint Manson’s Cathedral was the most beautiful structure in Hell. The Zealots congregated inside every day without fail. As the sun fell and the shadows lengthened in the sand, the sanctuary filled to crowding with the white-robed faithful of Hell. They held on to many forgotten traditions and broke bread with each other. They lit candles and stared into the flames, searching for divinity. They memorized verses and quoted them to each other, creating conversations from them in endless combinations. Their lives were a great circle, revolving around a thought – a thought that the world outside of Hell had ironically forgotten or cast away.

The advent of reincarnation had had many unforeseen consequences for the human race, not the least of which being the eventual mass-consciousness shift away from all forms of religion. The fear of death had died itself. The people were no longer interested in how they could achieve a favorable afterlife, they became more concerned with pursuing an actual eternal life in the material world. Gone were the days of televangelists begging for ‘God’s money’. They had been replaced by seminars and rallies orchestrated by companies such as Immortall, Neverdie and of course, the richest and most powerful of them all: Eternalife.

The masses from all walks slowly turned their backs on the churches of the world and filed one by one into the so-called immortality clinics popping up all over the world, where people could be promised the impossible and get to know others who had seen the light at the end of mankind’s tunnel.

Near the end of Christianity’s reign, the pope had condemned the new immortality craze as ‘a blasphemous and heretical fad, it will pass …’ But it did not pass. It swallowed the church whole. People did not like thinking that extending their own lives was looked down upon by religious zealots. The church waned and its last lights sputtered out soon after the government established its Hell policy and people gave up on the afterlife altogether. Eternal life was where it was at, these days.

Saint Manson had fought openly against the leaders of the New World Order and without fear. After a symbolic incarceration, he was released and lived his life in the public eye. But in the end, he was assassinated by the Government in the cruelest way imaginable. He was sentenced to live out his life in solitary confinement, kept alive as an example to the rest of the world. He died alone, but what he left behind was more than enough. He left behind a name.

His ancestors had been the leaders of religious faiths in those final years of the Old World Order. Now, in Hell, Sister Angelica Mansonite presided over the seat of her family’s namesake, passing long-dead secrets into the minds of all who sought such things.

She spent her days sitting on a white dais in the center of the cathedral. Her hair was long, so blonde it was almost clear. Her eyes were such a pale blue that they often appeared to be snow white. She wore only white silk and a shoe never touched her foot. Her nails were short and immaculate. Her lips thin and unlined. She never spoke aloud. She only whispered into those ears that were close enough to hear. A scribe sat perched to her at all times, recording for the others all they could not decipher.

Saint Manson’s Cathedral was the only church left standing within a thousand-mile radius.

11

SUICIDE AND SATAN

Suicide and Satan walked down the corridor towards the Great Hall. They held hands in silence. Both knew the other’s thoughts. He knew she was thinking: ‘I need a friend. I want out. I could stay here forever but do not want to.’ She knew he was thinking: ‘That girl is going to have to go. Nothing shall come between Suicide and I. She is mine and always will be.’ So they walked without words, and to everyone they passed they seemed very much in love.

12

ALPHA CENTAURI’S LAMENT

Alpha Centauri slept in a secret chamber below The Citadel. A stout ladder led up to the trap door behind Satan’s throne. A tunnel shot out behind a door in Alpha Centauri’s room to a point outside the Great Gates where three very fast motorcycles were kept in priceless condition waiting patiently, available, to be taken advantage of.

He kept large casks of alcohol in his room, for the women whom Satan had tired of. He knew there was only one love for him, and that he would never have her. All things considered, he would rather be alone than have to betray his best friend.

Alpha slept between the hours of six and six, but he only slept for four hours. The other two hours were spent tossing and turning, his tortured thoughts trading off between his infatuation with Suicide and his loyalty to Satan. He had known Satan nearly all his life. Alpha Centauri had grown up in Canto and worked for the Killmens a lifetime ago. The phrase was accurate. Satan had arranged for Alpha to be reincarnated along with himself the year Suicide was born. Alpha owed Satan his life, but he was positively in love with Suicide. He had watched silently as Satan made his claim to her and said nothing in protest. He stood at Satan’s side as the wedding was performed and let it happen. He witnessed Satan’s heartless cheating and ruthless abuse and said nothing. Every morning he whispered three words to himself, pretending that she was there to hear them: Good morning, Suicide.

13

TRIANGULAR THEMES

Thirty-Seven and 192 left the lab through the steel doors and walked down the white halls and out the front door of the Eternalife Administration and Processing station. They headed down the sidewalk towards the tracks and Thirty-Seven remembered two days ago when he had just arrived.

A small car came skimming along the rails and lightly screeched to a halt directly in front of them. 192 seemed totally bored with the whole thing. Thirty-Seven was eager to find out where the tracks led. Those tracks he had thus far ridden only to this point. He wanted to see beyond.

The door to the car opened as they approached and 192 climbed inside and made room for Thirty-Seven on the wide front seat. When they had settled in, 192 pushed a red button on the dashboard and the door automatically closed then bolted itself securely. 192 pressed and held another button, this one black, and said aloud, “The Temple,” and the car lurched momentarily before picking up speed rapidly and streaming down the rails. Thirty-Seven stared out the windows in amazement.

The countryside took on a uniform look as civilization disappeared behind them. Distant buildings gave way to distant walls of trees and fields of manicured lawn slowly morphed into tall brown and yellow grasses, full of crickets and beetles.

Thirty-Seven was spacing out completely when something up ahead in the distance caught his eye. It was a thin spire of white, creeping up from beyond the brown wall of the horizon. The car rounded a broad corner and merged with a straight track that led directly to the source of that spire.

Thirty-Seven knew it had to be The Temple; there was no other possibility. He was overjoyed and then he remembered – he stuck his hand into his pocket and thumbed the small red orb that Maximus had given him. He was satisfied and took his hand out of his pocket. He looked over at 192.

192 seemed to actually be enjoying himself now, on some level. His dull and even stare was leveled on that white spire. That tall thin triangular dart rising before them, that arrow to the sky. 192 sighed, “I’ve never gotten used to how beautiful things can really be.” He seemed to be talking to someone that was not there. Not himself and not Thirty-Seven, but some other person. Some other being elsewhere that might actually understand what he had meant.

Thirty-Seven realized that the track had been climbing steadily up a slight hill because now they were cresting that hill, and The Temple complex was swiftly revealing itself.

A huge sprawling court surrounded the triangular sky-scraping tower and an intricate design of triangular grassy beds were worked into a tessellating pattern which gave the optical illusion that the entire scene was spinning before Thirty-Seven’s eyes. He marveled at this, realizing he was being tricked, yet allowing it to happen all the same. 192 silently experienced an identical reality.

The tracks rode out before them and into a great circle around the court and they sped along this and came to a halt at the perimeter of the outermost concrete slabs.

The doors opened automatically and Thirty-Seven was awestruck by the aroma of the air that rushed in: burning cinnamon and vanilla, with hints of strawberry and melon, he could hardly believe his nose. This place instantly became his heaven and he never wanted to leave.

192 was getting impatient and nudged Thirty-Seven, who snapped out of it and almost jumped out of the car.

“Smells nice, doesn’t it?” 192 said as he climbed out and onto the huge white chunk of pavement next to the tracks.

Thirty-Seven could not speak. His eyes were closed and his hands were rising from his sides in an attempt to grasp the place. He could not imagine leaving this place without taking some of it with him.

The temple was about 50 meters away in the center of the court. Pointless ornamental stairways led to unnecessary terraces. It was overdone to the point of suggesting undeserved opulence. They made their way through the pretentious architecture towards the only truly redeeming edifice in sight: the white needle whose presence made all this superfluous debris figuratively transparent. There was no door to the temple, merely an opening to the world inviting anyone unfortunate to venture here to discover and plumb the unfathomable depths of the secret misery within.

14

END OF ACT TWO

Suicide stared at Satan, unable to accept what her brain insisted he had just said: “She’s got to go.” It was not an entirely unusual thing for him to say, it was just that he had said things like this so many times that something inside her was no longer willing to accept it. Something was telling her to say ‘no’ this time. She could feel it gnawing at the back of her mind. This inhumanism, this ultra-malice, which had become his trademark more and more over the course of their relationship, it was breaking her. Not in a way that makes someone give up but in a way that makes someone explode.

“You do not understand Suicide.” he placed his hand upon the altar and stared across at her.

He had brought her to the cemetery. It was the only place in Hell where birds chirped and flowers bloomed. Satan had used his connections to the Outside World to bring in machines that controlled the climate in this place and helped bring life into the middle of nowhere.

Suicide had been here before but one particular visit stood out vividly in her mind and that visit had been her first.

She was a child then, only six years old and Satan had brought her here; not the young man she knew now, but an older, worn out version of the same person. He was sixty then, but owing to his first reincarnation he had appeared to be a weary forty.

He had arrived late in the evening when the shadows were long, longer than the objects that cast them were tall. He told her foster parents that he was going to take her on a trip. So began their journey into the Northern Desert, farther than any dared go without Satan’s permission – and even then it was not allowed unless he accompanied you.

They rode in Satan’s jeep – the motorcycle craze had not yet caught on – and Suicide fell asleep on the way. As he drove he explained to the sleeping child that they were going to visit her sister and that it was very important.

When they pulled up in front of the cemetery’s white marble walls Satan turned off the engine, got out and walked around to Suicide’s side of the vehicle. He reached inside and picked the slumbering girl out of her seat and carried her over to the silver gates where he laid her down in the sand, like an offering.

This is where Satan kept all of his regrets. Every single grave within these walls belonged to someone whom Satan had called a friend. They had also all died as a direct or nearly direct consequence of his actions. It was the only hallowed ground he allowed himself to recognize, and secretly to himself, he called this place The Garden of Lost Souls.

He squatted down in the sand next to sleeping Suicide and roused her from her rest saying, “Sue, hey Sue, wake up. It’s time to meet your sister.” his tone both pleading and commanding. Her eyes opened on the sky and she saw the tall gates reaching four meters into that sky to meet the crest of the marble wall. Her eyes turned to Satan and she whispered, “Is she in there?” He nodded and offered his hand to her. She took it and he helped her to her feet and together they pushed their way through the gates, into another world.

The silhouettes were impossible. In all her years – few as they were – young Suicide had never seen such things, and so many! Trees and flowers as were not to be believed! So many colors and so much of it green; this place was a dream from which she must never wake.

They walked down a path leading between rows of monuments. She had been lucky enough to learn how to read and saw the names upon them: Invisible Shadow, Aluminum Eye, and Mistress X. Most of the larger monuments bore simpler names like Zax, Portal and Scump.

In the center of it all though, casting all the rest into the obscurity of the forgotten like a star shining so brightly that it lights all sides of a planet leaving no shadow to define the peaks and valleys on the surface making the planet all but invisible, was the reason they had come to this place: Scar’s Memorial.

It was a gargantuan angel hewn from marble pure and white as thickly fallen snow. The angel’s face was a picture of rage and she held aloft a sword. The sword was not carved from stone. It was an actual sword somehow lodged into the sculpture’s hand as to be one with the whole. Young Suicide’s eyes magnetized to a gash carved into the angel’s throat. She did not know what it was about that gash, but she could not stop looking at it. The statue seemed frozen in the midst of some epic battle. “What a terrible way to get stuck!” thought Suicide out loud as she looked on, ever staring into that mysterious gash. It seemed an imperfection to the angel’s form, an insult. And yet – she knew it to quite possibly be the figure’s most important feature.

“Is that my sister?” she asked, and Satan replied, after an uncomfortable silence, “Yes, she is the one.”

They said nothing else for a long time and then Satan broke the spell saying, “Sue, if anything ever happens to me it will be up to you to make sure that I am buried here, in this place, next to … her.” Suicide did not understand exactly what he meant, but she nodded her head gravely and they ended up spending a long time in the midst of Scar’s effigy, saying nothing, only reflecting on the concepts of life and death, existence verses non-existence. When it was very dark and tiny spots of light filled all the sky, Suicide and Satan walked out of the Garden and he drove her back to her foster parent’s house. They did not see each other for another fourteen years.

Now the two of them stood there, Suicide and Satan. Suicide glared at the statue. Satan remained calm. They had been through this before, so many times. Suicide had many strengths and her tenacity was one of the strongest.

“You can not have her.” he was talking about Screamsback.

Why?”

“You know why.” He casually turned to gaze up into Scar’s furious visage. “She will come between us. They always do.” His head turned to her and tilted, as if she already understood his next words. “You can not have her because she is mine, and I want her.”

Suicide stared him down for three seconds then whirled around and stomped off into the graveyard, kicking headstones. “Fuck you, Greenlove!” she screamed at a huge granite fist covered with moss that bore that name carved into its wrist.

She walked farther into the grounds than she had ever been and sat down on the back of a huge marble crow and sulked. She was tired of this, being led around like a fucking dog by the only person she had ever fooled herself into loving.

Some thought was coming. She had avoided it so long but she could not take another failure, another lost argument, another smashing blow to her will. He always did this – without fail! Every single person she had ever attempted to befriend – aside from Satan himself and Alpha Centauri – ended up dead sooner or later. He had killed them all! And for what? To prove it could be done? To keep her to himself? Or, was it as she had slowly began to realize she had always feared; he did this for the fundamental desire he seemed to have for killing? She knew the answer, plain as the capital R-A-V-E-N carved into the wing of the monument on which she now sat. She accepted it. She welcomed the thought she had always forbidden herself to have: He was the one who had to go. He was the one who was at the heart of all her misery. She realized this, and she realized what she had to do. And that was the beginning of the end.

PART III HOW THE STORY ENDS

[++]

1

WHERE MY LIFE BEGINS

“This is where my life begins.” Thirty-Seven thought as his footsteps echoed off the high, white walls. The past two days had both been serious disasters, but today would be different. Today he would make great strides towards redemption.

Looking up, he realized the glory of this place in a brand new light. Thin slits ran up the seams in the walls, allowing sunlight to land and crawl slowly about the room throughout the day. At first it seemed an empty room, just a tall, white, empty space. Then he saw the circular platform in the center of it all, and 192 was leading them towards it.

“Stand here, in the middle with me.” 192 said when they had reached the platform. When they were on the platform and had remained perfectly still for a few seconds, a tiny burst of air could be heard and the platform began slowly sinking into the floor.

Thirty-Seven had not known what to expect and the anxiety mixed with the excitement as the walls around him grew.

2

Someone New

Suicide was brooding. She sat on Raven’s monument and wondered what to do. There was nowhere to run to and there was no one she could trust. Sure, she had allies in Hell, but everyone she knew now had Satan to thank for their still being alive, including Mercy Screamsback, who could probably serve Suicide’s ends no better than a pawn anyway, sent purposely to die for the greater ‘good’, which sounded like a terrible idea.

No. The idea was to stop the killing, once and for all. She had to find someone with no allegiance to Satan. But she could not go to The Zealots, they all knew who she was and would never trust her. Alpha Centauri seemed more devoted to Satan than to anyone and would certainly report to him at once if he suspected something was up.

There had to be someone else, someone she had never met, someone…new.

3

Crossroads

“Maximus! What a pleasant surprise! And here I thought you were avoiding me!” Satan sat in his throne room staring and smiling into a giant oval screen above the gilded double-doors opposite his throne. Maximus stared back in silence, his face contorted with difficult anger.

“So Max, how’ve you been?”

“The same.”

“That bad? Sorry to hear it.”

“Whatever. How’s Sue?”

“The same.”

“The same. So you haven’t told her yet?”

“Told her what, Max? Say, did you hear the one about the Governor and the scapegoat?” Satan was all smiles and teeth.

“Can it Satan,” Maximus was in no mood for Satan’s crap. “I’m in no mood for your crap. Listen. I’m going to be sending someone your way very soon, hopefully today or tomorrow. I want you to take care of him for me.” As Maximus had said these last words, he had raised his head and scratched at a non-existent itch on the side of his neck. Satan saw the gesture and understood completely.

“Look, Max…I love these little chats, but if you’re asking me to do what I think you’re asking me to do-”

“What do you want?” Max snapped.

“I want a vacation. I want ten days off, paid. And I want to spend those ten days in New York City. That’s what I want. Do we have a deal?”

“Fine. You leave as soon as the job is done.”

“Excellent, so what’s the name of this poor unfortunate soul?” Satan’s eyebrows popped up quizzically.

Max could no longer look Satan in the eye as he delivered the answer in the form of a confession. “I’ll have his file and photos sent along after I get off here. His name is Thirty-Seven.”

4

I Am My Name

The light shined in Alpha Centauri’s eyes. He emerged from the trap door behind Satan’s throne and looked around. ‘Where was Ping?’ he wondered.

He walked out into the room and across the floor, towards the golden doors. Just as he was about to reach out and open one, both doors swung towards him and he had to jerk his hand back to keep from having his knuckles bashed in.

Of course Ping entered the room, gliding gleefully. “Hey, Al!” his smile was so complete that Alpha heard it loud and clear.

“Who is she?” Alpha asked half angry, half interested.

“Her name’s Mercy, have you met her?”

“I’ve seen her. Pretty cute, your type I guess.”

“No kidding! We spent all afternoon together and I gave her the mark.”

“I hope that’s all you gave her. You need to be careful. I don’t think it’s a good idea to hang out with her.” Alpha’s eyes were dead serious and ruining Ping’s day.

“Whatever. What’s the worst that could happen?” Alpha frowned because they both knew the answer.

5

Ring

The platform touched down about ninety meters below the surface of the Earth. Thirty-Seven stared up into the elevator shaft. The magnificent light of the temple had become a white speck in the center of a long black cylinder and he hated the sight of that light because it was so far away.

A doorway appeared in the southern wall; at least Thirty-Seven assumed it was the southern wall. The absence of landmarks, save for that tiny light overhead, made it virtually impossible to determine the Cardinal Points.

A pale blue light stretched off down the floor of the corridor before them, hardly enough to see by. The environment was all but pitch black.

192 saw the apprehension in Thirty-Seven’s face but said nothing. He was starting to worry. Rex hated everyone. Especially weaklings and pushovers, which was exactly the sort of person Thirty-Seven seemed to be. 192 walked on down the hall, deciding not to get too attached to someone who might not be worth it in the end. Thirty-Seven obediently followed.

They walked in silence, following the cold blue light in the floor. They could barely see the door they were approaching, the darkness so nearly complete in the subterranean hall.

192 produced a small disc of indeterminate color and deftly inserted it into a slit that Thirty-Seven could not see. They were blinded. The room beyond the door was brightly lit and was an exact replica of 192’s office back at the reincarnation center. A large circular table stood in the center of the lab, corresponding precisely to the one where Thirty-Seven, Alchemy, and 192 had eaten lunch the precious day; only here at this table sat a very different new face.

Dobie sat at the table, on the other side of it, facing them. He was smiling with the bottom half of his face and glaring with the top half. He had been awaiting the arrival of a new victim and he could see that Thirty-Seven had ‘prey” written all over his face.

“Come in, sit down.” Dobie offered seats by holding his hands out towards them. 192 glanced at Thirty-Seven, who was trying not to breathe. They went to the table and sat down.

Dobie folded his hands into two fists, one holding the other, and rested the mass on the table. “You must be the new man.” Dobie said through smiling yellow teeth.

“Yes.” was all Thirty-Seven could force himself to say. Dobie was really smiling now, realizing how terrorized this ‘new man’ was.

Dobie suddenly opened his hands and slammed his palms down on the table. Thirty-Seven flinched and jerked back in his seat startled. At this Dobie shouted, “Ha!” and 192 interrupted, saying, “Yes, this is Thirty-Seven and he will be taking over my position as Custodian of Shells hopefully by the end of the year. The smile faded from Dobie’s face and anger loomed there in its place. Slowly, that terrible face turned on 192 and spoke. “Keep your mouth SHUT!” The volume had risen significantly with the utterance of each word, resulting in an echoing shriek, which left 192 and Thirty-Seven dumbstruck and gaping. Dobie Rex had risen slowly during his insane outburst and reached his arms across the table with claw-like hands gripping the air repeatedly in front of 192. He pulled his arms back swiftly then slowly sat back down, and as he did his head turned slowly to face Thirty-Seven again.

“Hello there Thirty-Seven.” Dobie now spoke in a voice pitched with too much sweetness. “How do you like Eternalife?”

Thirty-Seven brightened a little. “Very much. I am glad to be working. I felt as though the day would never come!” A light flashed in Thirty-Seven’s mind. “I have something for you, Dobie.” Thirty-Seven reached into his pocket and pulled out the small red sphere and held it out to Dobie in the palm of his hand. Excitement flashed in Dobie’s eyes and he snatched up the offering. He then began examining it, holding it between both sets of forefingers and thumbs. He had forgotten the world and was utterly fascinated by the tiny red orb in his hand.

Rex’s obvious obsession with the thing caused Thirty-Seven and 192 to wonder what was so special about it. “Maximus Agrippa told me to bring you this.” Thirty-Seven was looking for a breakthrough, “What is it anyway?” For an instant Rex’s eyes darted over at Thirty-Seven, then he was examining the sphere again.

He had been waiting so long for this: the latest in lethal weapons. He thought back to the moisture-activated explosive he had used to dispatch one of his former assistants. This new red device was worlds apart and ahead of the old green ones. It was supposed to contain twenty times the explosive power of its predecessor and could be programmed in a variety of new and exciting ways. It contained a nanoprocessor that responded to remote operation and could even be programmed to read the DNA of the person holding it.

Finally, Dobie came back to the present and looked up at his visitors. “Get out. Come back tomorrow,” he said with such an absence of feeling that the words failed to register with either Thirty-Seven or 192. Dobie turned around and walked over to some cabinets and opened one. He took a small black box off one of the shelves and placed the tiny red bomb in it. Carefully placing the box back on the shelf he screamed without turning around, “LEAVE!” His two guests stumbled to their feet and left without a word, going back the way they had come.

When they were halfway up the elevator shaft, the tiny brain of the bomb received a transmission from its remote controller that was several kilometers away. Dobie Rex heard three muffled beeps coming from one of his cabinets and he looked up from his microscope. Then his lab exploded.

He died instantly and his body was burnt to a cinder in the inferno. The tunnel between the elevator shaft and the lab caved in making escape impossible. Dobie’s assistants were trapped in the underground complex and had no hope of survival. Thirty-Seven felt apprehensive as he stepped off the platform with 192. Had he succeeded? He had delivered the goods as Maximus had instructed but Rex had shown no gratitude and in fact had seemed only hostile.

“I think he likes you,” said 192 with a sidelong sneer. Thirty-Seven got the joke and laughed, saying, “Yeah! What a guy! Let’s go back!” They laughed all the way back to the car.

6

We Knew You

Maximus Agrippa watched the screen intently. He saw Thirty-Seven enter the room and sit down. He listened as Dobie screamed at 192. He gave a sigh when Dobie took the bomb from Thirty-Seven and he was relieved a little when Dobie put the black box back on the shelf.

Maximus and the other Governors of Eternalife had had enough of Dobie Rex and were sick and tired of constantly having to send him new assistants. Plus they simply despised him as a person, but since he was an Alpha, he was not so easy to get rid of. Someone had to take the fall and the three Governors had unanimously decided the candidate would have to be someone right out of college. They needed someone totally ignorant who had not yet learned enough about Reincarnation to be considered truly valuable or dangerous enough to keep around. They had chosen Thirty-Seven for his unerringly predictable behavior; this was one of the ‘virtues’ they pushed on all Workers: leading a repetitive predictable life.

The three Governors had spent months planning every act of each party involved and accounting for all possible eventualities. Everything had gone according to plan, to the letter. There was only one thing left to do now. Maximus ejected the disc on which the record of Thirty-Seven’s activities had been immortalized and placed it in a small folder on his desk labeled ‘EVIDENCE’.

Maximus picked up his screen and tapped his way to Concrete 72’s profile and punched ‘Contact’. Two seconds later Concrete’s accusing face was staring back at Maximus and saying, “C-72 here, what’s up Max?”

Maximus was silent for a few seconds, during which Concrete did not blink, and then Max said, “Arrest Thirty-Seven. He just killed Dobie Rex.” Concrete’s eyes narrowed and he savagely whispered through clenched, gnashing teeth, “Yes sir.”

The screen went black and Maximus laid it on the desk. He sat there and felt nothing for a very long time. He sat and waited. Time passed slowly. Nothing was happening.

When his screen began chiming an hour later, he had not moved. He reached over and touched the screen saying, “Yes?” It was Concrete 72. Concrete almost looked proud as he said, “Thirty-Seven has been arrested and he is on his way to The Dent. He will be on his way to Hell tomorrow morning. Maximus nodded and said, “Thank you.” Concrete saluted and the screen was black again.

Mechanically, Maximus Agrippa opened the deep desk drawer to his right and pulled out an ancient handgun – a revolver. He held it in his right hand, pointing it at the ceiling at arm’s length. With his left hand he brought two fingers to his throat, found the pulse and started counting backwards with the beat. 10, 9, 8, he bent his right arm and put the gun’s barrel to his temple. 7, 6, 5, he pulled the hammer back slowly, relishing the elegant clicks. 4, 3, 2, “Thank you Thirty-Seven, good-bye.” His voice was a desperately hopeless song. He fingered the trigger and tightened his grip on the handle. 1,0, the blast destroyed the top half of Max’s head and knocked his body sideways out of the chair. Two guards rushed in and saw only the desk, the chair and behind these on the wall a little off to the right, a mass of smeared red and pink matter oozing and dripping downward in streaks and clumps.

They looked at each other and one mouthed the word ‘guns’ to the other. They hoisted their rifles and crept along the perimeter of the room, taking apposite sides. They kept their guns trained on the desk. The guard who had gone right saw it first. The body was twisted on the floor. The gun lay at its feet. Blown in half, the head was all wrong and leaking bits of scattered brain. The right guard looked away and swung the barrel of his rifle onto his shoulder saying simply, “Ph, man.” The guard on the left could tell he did not want to take another step and see what lay at the other end of the body he currently saw only one leg of.

The two of them left the room in silence and notified the remaining Governors of Agrippa’s passing. They took it strangely, as if they were not surprised and did not care anyway, saying, “Thank you.” and then shooing the guards away with a dismissive flapping of fingers.

7

One Hundred Degrees

Mercy was sleeping. Her temperature had risen and she perspired beneath the thick blankets of Ping’s bed.

A smiling man wearing a white suit stood behind a white podium on a white stage. He spoke as though he were imparting great truths that no argument could exist against. “Men need to be predictable. If a man’s actions cannot be predicted then he is a danger to himself and others. A man whose future actions and reactions to situations and circumstances cannot be charted on a graph is of no use to this society. Proper patterns of behavior must be adapted and adhered to in order to ensure the occurrence of those chains of events that keep our way of life operating at maximum efficiency. Disciplining oneself is absolutely necessary. Cut out all activities that are not absolutely vital to the execution of the assignments you have been given. Recreation is a waste of time and deserves to be punished. Do not pursue friendships outside of your assigned workstations. There is no one you will need to know in your lives besides those persons we introduce you to in a professional capacity. All relationships that do not agree with our standardized behavioral programming parameters will be terminated…”

Mercy drifted out of the dream and rolled over. She wished she had someone to talk to.

8

Last Looks

Suicide knew Satan had abandoned her. Whenever they argued and she ran off like she just had, he invariably got as far away from her as possible, and in this case, that probably meant he had returned to The Citadel.

She decided to take a walk through the cemetery and think about things. She realized suddenly that she hated this place. Satan’s select stash of old corpses and rocks. This is where she would probably end up one day. The giant stone angel with the slashed throat seemed an assurance of this; it was almost a promise. One day he would grow weary of her and tire of their ceaseless games. He would begin calculating the circumstances of her demise as she now calculated his.

Beat him to the punch? It was the only option. Her salvation rested on her ability to bring down a tyrant.

She walked deeper into the graveyard and the stones here seemed older, more worn. Poor Black Leaf, what had been his fate? And here was Moonchild’s marker; had she died in Satan’s arms?

Suicide began to wonder what kind of a grave he would design when he finally killed her. Would it be another great angel, this one holding a gun instead of a sword – o one of the pathetic nameless markers that lined both sides of the path running through this horridly beautiful place?

She had never walked this far into the grounds before today, and she was nearing the back wall. She looked up from the stones and saw something curious: an arched doorway in the wall completely sealed off by a heavy blackened metal door. A huge knocker hung from the center of this and in the center of the circle described by that knocker was a keyhole at eye level; yet it was unlike any keyhole she had ever seen. Its shape suggested a circle at the top with a narrow triangle stabbing into the bottom of the circle: . She forgot everything and found herself standing at the door. She looked and saw inscribed above the door, “EX PRINCIPIUM”. She looked through the keyhole and could see nothing but overgrown weeds and vines. Staring into the mystery for several moments, she found herself nearing a revelation.

9

BY THE BOOK

Concrete 72 and two virtually identical goons in uniform were waiting patiently for the Numbers to return from the temple. Their small wrist-mounted screens told them that any minute the car would come racing out of the tunnel along its magnetic track and come to a halt right at their feet.

C-72 was utterly expressionless but felt an assured determination. He was a celebrated officer and murders were so rare these days. He was sure this collar would raise him to full Alpha status. He may even earn a Governing job somewhere, but he had to concentrate. First things first: arrest Thirty-Seven and throw him in The Dent. He had the option of escorting this prisoner all the way to Hell because of the severity of the crime, and he also knew that doing this would earn him extra favor with the Governors and the masses alike.

A light appeared in the tunnel. “By the book.” Concrete said, cautioning his backups who were drawing their guns.

Thirty-Seven saw the men waiting up ahead and wondered why they were there. ‘Perhaps they’re here to check on me,’ he mused. 192 saw them and a shadow fell over his soul, which reflected in his face. He knew why they were there, this was not the first time he had returned from the temple with a new kid to find the cops waiting to haul the kid away. It was always the same cold faces radiating the same cold force. 192 glanced over at Thirty-Seven and said, “They’re here for you.” Thirty-Seven turned and stared at 192 and said, “What do you mean, One?”

“I mean,” 192 sighed, “that they are here to arrest you and take you away. To Hell.” Thirty-Seven stared incredulously and croaked, “Why?” 192 stared at the men up ahead and whispered, “We will probably never know.”

The car stopped and Concrete stepped forward one awful intruding pace. “Come out, Thirty-Seven!” He was yelling through the glass of the window into Thirty-Seven’s eyes. Unable to respond, Thirty-Seven only gaped out through the glass at the three men’s uniforms. The one to Concrete’s left rolled his eyes and reached into his back pocket and retrieved a small black keypad. He held it up, as if it should mean something to Thirty-Seven – it didn’t – and the officer could see this, so he turned eye to eye with C-72 and said, “What do you think, Con?” Concrete told him, “Open the door.” His voice was empty and distant, as if this was all very boring to him.

Keys were pushed and the door clicked open three centimeters. Thirty-Seven’s mind was instantly snapping as this happened. It wasn’t possible. This could not be happening. One of the officers was reaching to open the door and Thirty-Seven finally broke, “Stay back!” his voice exploding in the closed space of the car. His eyes zoomed around, frantically looking for a weapon or a way out. He saw Concrete moving in as the door swung open. Thirty-Seven’s sights zeroed in on the gun in Con’s holster and he reached for it, but officer number three was ready for this and pumped a tazer-tranquilizer dart into Thirty-Seven’s neck, shocking him into paralysis and then sedating him to the point that he lost consciousness.

Concrete dragged Thirty-Seven out of the car and into the back of a black van. Locking the door, Con dialed in a connection to Governor Maximus Agrippa on his wrist screen. Maximus’ blank face appeared and said, “Yes?” Concrete felt extremely proud to report that, “Thirty-Seven has been arrested and is on his way to The Dent and will be on his way to Hell in the morning.” Con saw Max nod and say, “Thank you.” He saluted Maximus and clicked off the screen.

10

THE MORNING LIGHT

Satan watched as Maximus’ face faded from the screen. He let the name cross his lips: “Thirty-Seven,” just another number, he thought, but even a number could become someone, a real somebody with a name, a perfect name that meant something to anyone who heard it.

Satan pressed a button on the armrest of his throne. Ping’s face appeared on the huge screen over the doors. Ping looked puzzled at first then came around and said cheerfully, “Yeah boss?” Satan put his elbows on the armrests of the throne and brought his hands together, fingers spread. Lifting his chin slightly, he looked into the portal at Ping and said, “Get me Stainface.” Ping’s grin collapsed and he managed to grind out a pathetic, “Yes sir.” Satan smiled and closed the connection.

He waited a few seconds then got up and walked out of the room. He knew Ping would take forever getting around to visiting Stainface, Ping hated Stainface. He made his way to the entry hall and grabbed Suicide’s red motorcycle from a stall where someone always parked it for her. He thumbed the ignition and the bike screamed out of the room, into the sand. He was going to pay Stainface a little visit of his own.

11

IMPOSSIBLE DREAM

Suicide woke up in the grass at the foot of the iron door. She had dreamed a strange dream full of impossible things she could not explain. The people in her dream were not like the people in Hell. Each was free in a way not even thought of in any world she had ever heard of. The people each owned their own little homes where they raised their own families. They took trips across the country for no better reason than to see what there was to see. The children were free to befriend one another and to play games whose only purpose was to ensure the enjoyable passage of time. And they had strange meaningless names like Patrick and Amanda.

She sat up and the dream began to fade. She looked up into the sky. It was getting dark, but not with the darkness of night. It was the darkness of high-cast shadows, the shadows of clouds.

A thin sheet of rippling white crept across the sky. In the east, streaks and slivers of blue still pretended their authority; but in the west, a darkness bordering on black was rolling into the quilted blanket high above Sue’s head.

Suicide loved the storms when they came, and she raised her hands to the darkness in the distance, welcoming it, invoking that chaos that she knew was soon to come. She screamed at the sky. Her scream transformed into maniacally cackling laughter and cold tears rolled down the sides of her laughing cheeks.

She saw a tiny spark splintering in the sky miles and miles away and she got a little feeling that the end of it all was on the way, that she would finally be free of all this, one way or another.

She looked up at the curious inscription above the iron door and lowered her arms. She stood there limply, thinking back to what Latin she had learned from some of the ancient books in Satan’s library. ‘Ex Principium’ – In The Beginning.

She fancied herself the most cultured woman in Hell. She wondered after the women of the Outside, the ones she would never meet: the Alpha women powerful enough to cheat a trip to Hell. If she made it out of this place alive, she realized she would make herself into one of these, somehow.

She made her way back to the silver gates at the entrance to the Garden of Lost Souls and found her motorcycle gone. Satan had taken it as a symbol of spite at Suicide’s walk-off from their argument. She saw his old beat-up black bike – the one that he loved – lying in the sand. It was much heavier than hers and he knew she could barely lift the thing alone. She could almost hear his mocking laughter as she struggled to raise the black machine from the scratchy sands.

She walked it to the wall of the cemetery and propped it there so she could catch her breath. As she let her back slide down the wall she felt the first tiny cold speck of liquid fall from the sky onto her cheek. She looked up and saw the shadows creeping in. “Here it comes,” her words full of double, triple, infinite meanings.

12

Dying All The Time

Stainface lay there dead on the floor for several minutes then his body twisted and he sucked in a huge lungful of tainted air and he choked on bile, coughing and his eye was burning terribly. Pain was staring at him yet he said nothing.

A thundering machine sounded distant then very near, right outside the door. They heard the engine cut off and the rider’s jangling boot chain headed for the door. Pain looked at the drugs all over the table, then down at Stainface, then the door.

“Stainface!” It was Satan.

“What the Hell is he doing here?” thought Stainface, out loud.

Pain was scooping the deth into a blue glass box. Stainface looked over with his good eye and mumbled, “Leave it.” Pain stared at Stainface for a brief second then put the box down on the table, next to a large razor blade.

Pain sat looking at Stain silently, waiting for some kind of instructions. Stainface lay on the floor, one hand covering the half of his face containing his burning eye and with the other hand he pointed and waved at the door. “Open it!” his yell a gurgling mess.

Pain was so relieved to have been ordered around that he smiled as he practically shot across the room to open the door, tripping on the way. He opened the door.

Satan walked in, his steps in perfect time. He walked right into the room, not pausing to acknowledge Pain. He stopped by the table, looked at the box, the blade and the leather strip, then his eyes moved to the man on the floor.

“So, still dying all the time Fuckface?”

The creep on the floor grumbled, “It’s Stainface – and yeah, want some?”

“No thanks.” Satan yanked a chair from the table, spun it around and sat on it backwards, folding his arms across the back of it and resting his chin on his sleeves. He smiled down as Stainface coughed wretchedly.

“Say, Spainface, wanna make a little extra loot?” Stainface stopped suffering and looked up at Satan, removing the hand from his eye.

“What kinda loot?” Satan smiled when he heard this.

“How about an uncut brick of this shit?” Satan motioned to the junk on the table with one hand and raised an eyebrow. Stainface looked at Pain by the open door and somehow that look caused Pain to hastily close the door.

Satan looked back at the man by the door and totally blew him off, looking back at Stain. Satan said, “Well?”

Stainface was getting up now and sat down at the table, staring at the blue glass box filled with deth. This was all the kick he had left, enough for maybe two more flatlines. “What do you want?” he asked without taking his eyes off that black dust in the box.

Satan swiftly swept an arm across the table, knocking the box onto the concrete floor where it shattered. Stain’s mouth fell open and his eyes bugged, then his teeth clenched as his head turned to face Satan. Satan’s hand lay on the table where it had come to rest after the sudden swing. Pain got his guts together and said, “I’ll come back,” in a shaky voice and jerked the door open and then slammed it behind him. Stainface and Satan say staring at one another.

“Kill Ping.” It was all Satan had to say. He knew Stainface already had a bitter hatred for the womanizing ink slinger who had somehow weaseled his way into an apartment at The Citadel.

Stain’s rage at Satan had found a new target and he stretched one arm out over the table and Satan took his hand off the table then gripped the scabby fingers and said, “Do we have a deal Stainface?”

Stainface, still gnashing his teeth yet suddenly smiling, now gripped Satan’s manicured hand saying, “Deal!”

“Fine. Good.” Satan snatched his hand back and stood up, careful not to touch his clothes with the tainted hand he had shaken with. “He will be here tomorrow. I don’t care how you do it, just make sure he’s dead.” Stain nodded, his smile fading. I will be back tomorrow evening to view the body and deliver your fee.”

Satan did not wait for a response; he pulled a pair of sunglasses out of his breast pocket with his clean hand and put them on. Frowning at the disgusting wreck of a room, he turned and walked out the door.

Stainface stared after him, listening as the bike fired up and sped off. Stain only liked one thing more than dying anymore, and that was killing. He took out a notebook and started plotting Ping’s final hours, chuckling to himself occasionally at the invention of a particularly innovative and sadistic epiphany.

13

A Night Like This

Guards milled around patrolling the grounds of the great Red Pyramid. They stood in groups of two or three, considering the dark and rolling clouds. Several times the subject of a raid on Manson’s Cathedral was mentioned and laughed about.

The Zealots were a popular form of entertainment on nights like this. It was only midday but by midnight an ocean would be falling from the sky.

Rains were so rare here that without fail a celebration would erupt at The Citadel. A great feast followed by music, drinking and dancing. A rainy day was considered a great holiday to be honored and remembered by all.

In recent years the raid had also become a tradition. Without fail as the rain fell through the night during these rare occasions, the drink would flow and the egos would rise, resulting in the inevitable sacking of the Zealots’ whole world.

14

Evil Twin

Screamsback wandered her way into a dream of distant lives, the ones she had left behind.

She had been a transparency engineer at Diversified Screens and Locks, a populous State that provided all the other States with the products of their namesake. Her job had been simple; she monitored the quality and transparency of the screen surfaces as they came down the production line.

She had lived with a roommate the first year she had worked for DSL. The roommate was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed transparency engineer, just like Screamsback had been. It took only a week for Mercy, then known as 7185 to become hopelessly disenchanted with her ‘evil twin’. 7185 put in for an apartment transfer and was given her own place. The idea of living alone was interesting; she had always shared rooms with someone growing up and she took to the new lifestyle with ease. She did as she pleased without the concerns of others’ faults or fancies.

The dream revolved around these things and got all mixed up with her one great weakness: romance.

One Saturday she had been out with someone she had met on her production line during a dispute concerning a slightly clouded screen. They stayed out in the leisure district for hours, drinking forbidden amounts of alcohol and they ended up going back to his place for the night. She was just having such a good time that she did not want it to end, and 3131 seemed like such a nice guy…

Two weeks later she discovered something awful: she was pregnant – illegally. She was scared. She had broken the law restricting unauthorized procreation. She knew that if she skipped work she would be instantly found out, but it didn’t matter.

A month later, after her conduct at work had become suspicious she was brought in for testing. They found the tiny life living inside of her and they killed it. They sterilized her permanently and sent her on an express bus to Hell with no stopover at The Dent. She had broken an old law and there could be no excuse.

Now here she was, sleeping in Satan’s house and pledging her allegiance to him.

The dream exploded into nothingness as she opened her eyes and looked around. What time was it? How long had she been sleeping? She was getting hungry and wondered where Ping was and when he would be back.

15

Stayin’ Alive

Ping and Alpha Centauri were guarding the main entrance to the pyramid. They had seen the clouds rolling high and gray and Alpha had sent a crew to the kitchens to start preparations for the feast. He knew the night would be a wild one. The Celebration of The Storm always brought out one’s inner maniac here at The Citadel. People would die tonight, it happened every time the rains came.

Fight to stay alive. ‘It was the national anthem around here,’ thought Alpha as he watched black clad bikers zoom around, going on their own little missions, seeking strange dreams.

16

The Great Star And The Sons Of May

The sun was setting slowly in the distant west. Fires burned in the three towers of Saint Manson’s Cathedral. The hall was filled on this early evening. The Zealots’ night would be almost a mirror image of the festivities at The Citadel.

They had prayed for the life-giving water for months, and their god was finally coming through. Music, food and dancing in the rain, these things had become the status quo on rainy days.

Sister Angelica sat in the middle of a group and chewed laurel leaves, spitting the juices into a golden bowl into which she stared with ultra-glazed eyes. Occasionally she whispered prophecies, which a nearby scribe named Promethaeus dutifully recorded.

As The Great Star fell in the east, the evening assumed a profound sense of Earth-bound divinity. Promethaeus sat upon a dais next to sister Angelica. His charge was to preserve the wisdom to be found in the lives of those who were damned yet remained faithful. The Zealots shunned many of the outside world’s machines and there were no screens allowed in the Cathedral. So with pen and ink and scroll Promethaeus rendered the thousands of words by hand, in the way of a lost and ancient civilization. These words were in turn cut in stone by the Sons of May, a brotherhood entirely separate from The Zealots that nonetheless recognized that the preservation of words thusly rendered was of the more important of the forgotten arts.

The Sons of May’s rituals and signs were guarded secrets, but their purpose was very clear: immortalize wisdom in all its forms. They cut records into stone, carved pictures onto wooden blocks – thus rendering prints. They constructed countless secret and underground chambers far below the shifting desert sands for the eternal storage and protection of their vast collections of folklore, science and doctrine.

They dwelt in underground temples amid the caves and mountains of the Western Desert. Neither Zealot nor Sinner intruded on their land. The Sons regularly scattered wax and ash around the edges of their vast domain as both a consecration and a warning. Intrusions were never tolerated or forgiven.

17

Bug

This is the end. Thirty-Seven thought to himself as he stared out the bleary windows. Three days. That is how long he had lasted in the real world; three miserable days.

The black bus sped over crumbling blacktop towards the destiny he knew was coming: oblivion. Nothing mattered anymore, not the years spent in college, not the color of his eyes or hair, not even the numbers of his name. This was it. This was the end of everything.

Then Thirty-Seven saw The Wall. He laughed when it happened. Since he knew how far they were from Hell, the only reactions available to him were the disillusion of his conscience and an instant descent into the depths of impossible madness and laughter. He instinctively chose the latter as most before him had done.

When The Black Bus passed through the Gates of Hell, Thirty-Seven got very dizzy. He grabbed at the side of his caged seat and scraped his knuckles on the iron grill surrounding it.

The bus approached the tunnel that ran straight through The Wall and the floor rose up to meet his face as he slumped over in his seat, discreetly losing consciousness.

He woke up to a cane slamming on the door of his cage over and over and an angry voice yelling, “Get up you! Get up and get OUT!”

Thirty-Seven woozily crawled up the side of his tiny cell and stood hunched. The guard leered and twisted a spiral key into the lock, which caused the door to suddenly slide to the left three centimeters. The guard walked off towards the front of the bus and yelled back, “Get the fuck OUT!” one last time before hopping off the bus into the dusty earth. Thirty-Seven pushed the door aside and trudged down the corridor, then the steps, and into Hell.

He lurched off the bus and looked around. Several creepy-looking weirdos were hanging around, waiting to recruit or take advantage of the new arrivals. Several were eyeing him and were amazed and quickened when the shitty guard from the bus walked up next to him and yelled, “Thirty-Seven! Murder!” then walked off to announce someone else’s name and crime to all the vultures.

He was fresh meat now and he knew it. A one-eyed creep in black jeans and a red leather vest approached him and said without introduction, “You really kill someone, Bug?” Thirty-Seven looked into an awfully wrinkled and ruined face and said, “What if I did?” The one-eyed creep squinted his good eye shrewdly and said coldly, “Round here, it’s either kill or be killed.”

Thirty-Seven shuddered and that ugly, squinting eye never blinked. Five extremely traumatic seconds passed during which time Thirty-Seven’s heart began to pound unmercifully in his chest then the engines roared.

In the distance, but coming fast were three riders and Thirty-Seven could barely make out that the three of them seemed to have something on their faces, yes, they were all wearing masks! Several of the loitering denizens suddenly had somewhere else to be and quickly headed off on their own dirt bikes or on foot, alone and in groups.

The one-eyed man looked out at the approaching clouds of sand following the three bikers then turned back to Thirty-Seven, “Here come your new best friends, Bug.” He took a last look at the posse’s rising miasma of sand then walked off, following the path several others had taken only moments ago.

Mostly guards and newcomers remained, with a few of the tougher, larger and meaner-looking thugs sticking around to see what would happen. As the three masked bikers rolled to a halt, their obvious leader called out to all present, “Thirty-Seven?”

The shitty guard from the bus pointed his rifle at Thirty-Seven and said, “That’s him.”

PART

IV

THE AFTERLIFE

1

The Story Ends

The body twitched until it died. Thirty-Seven stood there over the corpse, watching the wet red blood fade into a brownish spot in the sand. Several months had passed since the Sons of May had picked him up at the Station on his first day in Hell.

Now he stood alone with a gun, earning the final Class the brotherhood had to offer. It required that the aspirant kill another member of the order who had betrayed some secret to an outsider. The dead man in the sand had been fool enough to get involved with a woman from The Citadel, and in the heat of passion she had extracted knowledge of the whereabouts of one of the brotherhood’s underground troves of untold wonders. Undercover operatives at The Citadel had discovered all this and informed the Sons. Soon afterward, the woman turned up dead at the bottom of a canyon, apparently the unlucky victim of a nasty drunken fall; and the man of loose lips and morals now lay dead, with vacant eyes locked on the spot in the sky where he had last seen the sun.

Thirty-Seven’s time in Hell had been hard, but he had learned many things quickly and was a different person now. He was colder, smarter, and a ruthless killer in situations requiring nothing less.

His gun was loaded with tazer-rounds which not only ripped flesh like an ordinary bullet but contained a small circuit that once the bullet was fired, delivered a fierce 11,000 Volts to whatever it hit, usually vital organs, which would thusly be caused to explode within the victim.

The dead man lying in the sand was named Scrap, and Thirty-Seven kneeled over him to collect proof of his death. Proof that the score had been settled.

The Sons of May had an interesting system comprised of 27 degrees or “Classes”. These were earned by accomplishing certain tasks and mastering different abilities. The lower Classes ranged from ‘A’ to ‘Zed’ and then there was the highest, known as ‘Consolatrix’. When each Class was attained, the man attaining it would receive a new tattoo – known as a ‘Grade’ – on his neck. Each Class had a corresponding Grade, so the highest-ranking brothers had a complete ring around their necks that read as follows:

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ

The ‘Triple-Cross’ was the sign of a Consolatrix and very few had earned it, but Thirty-Seven would have it. He laid his pistol in the sand and unsheathed his hunting razor then went to work.

To earn his title as Consolatrix, he had to present the severed Grades of the dissenter to the Great Council of the Sons of May. His hands were sure and his cuts quick. He made short work of removing a thin rectangular strip of tattooed skin from Scrap’s throat, leaving the illusion that the corpse wore a bleeding crimson choker.

Thirty-Seven held the dripping flap of flesh aloft, presenting it to the hot and blinding sun. Thin scarlet streaks ran down his arm and he closed his eyes to the wind.

2

Voice of The Pit

“You people are so busy changing your names, trying to become someone else, and so obsessed with what everyone else is thinking and doing that you never think or do anything yourselves! My thoughts and words and actions are mine and mine alone!” Thirty-Seven was drunk and screaming into a canyon. He had received his Consolatrix Grade earlier that night and now stood at the edge of the precipice, glorifying in the ecstasy of his own consciousness. He hoped that no one could hear these words. He wanted to keep them to himself, as his own secret treasure, but he needed to hear them here – in this place and at this volume. Echoing into the eternity of the past.

He was a Consolatrix now; he was untouchable. No one dared confront him, let alone kill him. Doing so would bring the wrath of the brotherhood. They were by far the largest group in Hell, but one uninitiated would never know that. The Sons spent much of their time underground and often wore masks when traveling above ground, seldom betraying their true identities. In truth, they outnumbered The Zealots and The Sinners combined.

Thirty-Seven had refused every name anyone had tried to give him since his first day in Hell when the cyclops had called him ‘Bug’. Thirty-Seven thought of himself as an anomaly. He would keep the name, which had been given to him in his old life. He would make an example of it. He would prove that someone given a name as weak and meaningless as a number could rise above those expectations imposed upon him by those supposing themselves his superiors. People laughed at him and called his name mockingly at first, “Hey, Thirty-Seven! Ha ha ha!” But as time passed and he quickly ascended through the ranks of the order, the sarcasm suitably became reverence. The others began to understand his stubbornness against taking a new name and began to regret the abandonment of their own identities, which they began to realize was the true nature of the name changing tradition that all in Hell seemed to embrace. Thirty-Seven had become a self-made individual and would now surrender his will to no one and no thing. He was real, complete and happy – happier than anyone else in all Hell.

3

The Walk

Suicide laughed. The Civil War had broken out the night of the last rains, six months ago and there seemed no end to it. The war had started with the death of Maximus Agrippa. Several became aware that Satan had lost a powerful ally and all connections within Eternalife. He no longer held as much sway over life and death as he once had.

The death of Ping had not helped either. Ping had been well-known and liked by many people and Stainface wasted no time explaining that Ping’s torture and execution had been Satan’s orders and he had had no choice. And though Stainface met his end at the hands of Ping’s closest friends, those friends nonetheless knew that he had been telling the truth: that Satan had indeed ordered the hit, and they began to plot against him, finally.

Several servants and residents of The Citadel whose duties included cleaning, cooking, guarding, and maintenance suddenly walked out one day, leaving Satan, Suicide, Alpha Centauri and a handful of loyal Sinners behind. Every person who had abandoned The Citadel that day bore a red crescent-shaped tattoo on the back of his or her left hand. Life at The Citadel ground to a halt. Suicide laughed.

4

Underline

So far, Alpha and Satan’s pitiful army had managed to keep The Citadel from being overrun and conquered by the swarming Zealots, defecting Sinners, and wandering rogues. The Red Pyramid had been constructed ingeniously enough, with only one obvious entrance and one secret exit. The latter luckily, none of the dissenters were aware of. It required only a small force to hold off even moderately numerous invaders.

For the most part, the Sons of May had stayed out of the whole affair. But occasionally, emissaries from both sides of the war would come to them asking for help, always to be met with threats of the Son’s immediately joining whatever side opposed that of the messenger’s. This technique effectively kept the Son’s actual involvement to a minimum, however one among them did not agree with this policy of neutrality.

Thirty-Seven had developed an ego, which urged him to intervene. And now as a Consolatrix he had considerable sway in the order, especially with those brothers of the lower Classes. If he asked them to join him in fighting on either side of the battle, he knew that many of them would. He had become well respected. Everyone could see how he had changed – learned to adapt and thereby conquered the harsh realities of life in Hell – and they found themselves wanting to change as well.

5

In The End

In the end, several Sinners returned to side with Satan, because they knew who had buttered their bread for so long. Their loyalty to Ping had been bought and sold by the inevitable rumblings of their little bellies. Satan welcomed them back on the condition that they would all cut the red crescents from their hands, and they knew that if they refused, they would be as good as dead, for as you may recall, no one ever said no to Satan, ever.

Alpha Centauri remained vigilant at The Citadel constantly venturing out only to accompany Satan on his increasingly frequent visits to The Garden of Lost Souls. Suicide never left the pyramid and slowly she began to lose her mind. The bodies were piling up: first Ping and then her only friend, Mercy Screamsback – who had been found in the bottom of a canyon, apparently the victim of a nasty drunken fall. She had shoved her dreams of murdering Satan and leaving Hell into the back of her mind and they sat there, rotting and abandoned, fading.

News from the daily and nightly battles filtered into her little world and she began to hear stories of a new faction rising in the west. People were calling it the Army of The Sons of May, and they were said to be increasing in strength at an alarming rate. They were said to be winning recruits from Sinners and Zealots alike. Even loners from the deep desert were said to be coming out of their holes to fight alongside these mysterious masked warriors.

Their leader, she was told, was fierce and brooding. He was an unpitying killer who savagely led his men and women into countless battles, slaying by the score. He was even said to murder his own men if they had been seriously wounded, by implanting tiny bombs into their bodies and leaving them behind to be discovered by the enemy. But when the usurpers were close enough, a tiny proximity detector in the bomb would trigger a massive explosion, utterly destroying the wounded man and killing anyone within ten meters of the blast.

Yet they flocked to join this crazed executioner who killed on all three sides of the war. The ‘Triple-Crosser’ had become his nickname, the man known to those under his command as Thirty-Seven.

6

The Tolling of The Iron Bell

Satan hated Suicide. He knew she could never be the woman he remembered, and he hated himself for his years of self-deception. Every day he took his dead friends to the cemetery, and every day he would return alone with Alpha Centauri trailing far behind, respectfully watching his back.

Secretly, Satan had begun to feel as though his time had come. He had shattered the world around him and this time, things did not seem to be falling neatly back into place. He did not know whom he could trust, and Suicide had become as cold a love as could ever be imagined.

It seemed the only friend he had left was Alpha Centauri. They had known each other almost 40 years now and much of that time had been spent assuring one another’s survival. Now he wondered if either of them would be able to save the other from what he had started. He heard the answer in his mind, and it rang in his ears like the tolling of an iron bell.

7

Thirty-Seven’s Speech

Thirty-Seven was planning his final assault on The Citadel. He had not been able to cope with the oppression he had witnessed during his first few months in Hell. This intolerance had been his motivation for taking up arms. He could not sit by and watch this tyrant, this man who fancied himself the king of Hell, have his way. He saw the misery sewn by that pathetic little man in the pyramid. He watched as his armies burned and looted. He had grown furious and sought a release through the spilling of blood.

Thirty-Seven’s army stood on a mesa on the Son’s side of the ash-line. The Citadel was visible, about a kilometer off into the northeastern sands. They had gathered here for one final stand against Satan. This was to be it. This was to be the raid that ended the war. Thirty-Seven looked out over the warm bodies gathered before him and he removed his mask.

“I was born into captivity. All my life I have moved from cage to cage. Everyone I have known has been my jailer, wanting something, trying to acquire for themselves some part of me. But this I cannot tolerate any longer! I am not a servant! I will not bend my will to fill your needs. If I act, then it shall be on my behalf, NOT yours! You say some are meant to follow and some are meant to lead? I say that ninety-nine percent of all who have called themselves human beings have been blind! I say life is an unbelievable amazement not meant to be wasted on the wishes of our would-be masters! If you join this cause, let it be for your own reasons not for mine! Let it be for the glory of your own selves, the only being one can ever truly trust or know in any way is themselves! Pledge no allegiance, make no promise, and take no oath. These things are the chains we wrap around ourselves to bind our souls! Who wrote those laws that have condemned us all? They were written by men who are strangers, and they were written for them and for their own ends. Time cannot right the wrongs that have befallen us. It can only make the old scars seem to slightly fade. But even in their paleness they remain – in our hearts and minds. I say in our lives we must somehow decide to seize upon this Earth, in this time we have, to justify our own existence. Not to those we look on every day – not to those in the highest of unreachable heavens – no. We must prove ourselves – to ourselves. If by now, you do not know why this must be done, then turn away, for the eyes through which I see the world do not wish to look upon you. You are not welcome here, and if you value the air you breathe, and the blood which flows within your veins, then walk away – and do not look back, for that look would be an invitation, and a prelude – to death.”

The explosions of rifles, whose barrels were raised to the sky, accompanied the roaring of his army and the thundering of engines as hundreds of dirt bikes and choppers bellowed their guttural coughing into the night.

Thirty-Seven threw his mask onto the ground and sped off towards the pyramid, followed by a massive pack of fierce disciples.

8

Heartbreaker, Dreamaker

Satan,

I am leaving you.

S

Suicide put the note in a red envelope and tucked it under her pillow. She picked up her bag of guns, knives, and supplies and walked out, not smiling.

9

No, Satan

Satan was standing guard with Alpha Centauri at the gate. They had not had any visitors for a while and it made them apprehensive. He was thinking to himself about what he was going to do regarding Suicide when he saw the lights approaching.

There seemed to be hundreds of them coming out of the west. Alpha saw them too and was drawing a bead with his rifle before Satan could say a thing. This assemblage was much, much larger than the previous groups that had attempted to overrun the pyramid. Satan paled. He knew they could not withstand this assault. His own men had died in such number and were so thinned out now that they could not hold off a force even half as strong as the one now approaching.

Alpha said coldly out of the corner of his mouth, “You’d better get out of here, this could be a little difficult.” Understatement of the year, thought Satan then said, “You know that black sphere in the throne room?” “Yeah, what about it?”

10

D.C. Al Fine’

Sue was coming down through the side door into the throne room just as Satan was coming through the big double doors. They saw each other simultaneously and he could tell she was on her way out. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could, the look on her face stopped him – it seemed to say, “Nothing you have ever said to me has mattered in the slightest,” so he shut his mouth and watched her slip behind the throne and listened as she opened the trap door and then slammed it shut behind her.

She went through Alpha’s room and into the secret corridor leading out the back. She climbed onto one of the black bikes there and shot out towards the cemetery. There was only one thing left for her to do in this world, and she wanted to be with her friends when it happened.

11

The Other Side

Satan watched Suicide disappear and then he went up to the glass room, where just as he was reading the letter she had left him, an impossible sight greeted him: a man was standing outside the window, looking right at him.

The man outside lifted a rifle and to Satan’s disbelief fired a shot which shattered the huge triangle of glass between them, sending huge shards flying all over the room. Satan shielded his eyes instinctively, receiving the cuts on his arms instead, and far below, a falling motorcycle killed Alpha Centauri as it crushed his head after skidding and sliding down the side of the pyramid.

Satan ran from the room and this was exactly what Thirty-Seven had wanted and counted on. His men were crushing Satan’s army in the rooms below and would be sacking the place by the time Satan made it to the bottom floor.

Thirty-Seven’s men were sacking the pyramid by the time Satan made it to the bottom floor, but they had not however made it into the throne room yet. He was running for his life, and he hated himself for being such a coward but he knew his time had come and all he could do now was prolong the inevitable, which was precisely what he was going to do. He shimmied down the ladder and slammed the door behind him. He ran to the tunnel and jumped on one of the bikes. He noticed that one of them was missing and suddenly he remembered Suicide’s note and his emotions exploded into an inconceivable hurricane of terrible sensations.

He rode off into the north, following the tracks in the sand that Sue had left behind.

Up in the shattered remains of the glass room, Thirty-Seven was reading the note and he almost laughed to himself as he realized just how bad it must be for Satan right now. He tossed the note carelessly aside and marched towards the stairs in the center of the room and casually descended into what he now thought of as his pyramid.

When he got to the bottom of the stairs his men greeted him and informed him that they had taken The Citadel and that Satan had not been found on the premises. He thanked them and asked them if they had found anything significant. They told him they had found the secret chamber and a motorcycle down there with a fresh pair of tracks leading away from the spot, off into the north. Thirty-Seven knew what must have happened and what he now must do.

12

DIAOMND DUST

Suicide threw her bag of guns and knives into the sand and leaped off the bike and rolled while the bike crashed into the cemetery’s wall, hardly scratching it – the wall that is.

She could already hear Satan’s bike in the distance, pursuing her so she hastily crawled to her feet. Rolling in the sand had scratched up the side of her face and she smiled, having finally made a dent in her own cursed beauty.

She picked up her bag and ran to the cemetery gates. She dug into her stash and chose a knife and jammed the end of it into the lock. It opened instantly and she twisted the long blade before wrenching it from the door, ruining the lock for good.

She did not look back. She kicked the gate open and started running. She ran past freshly dug graves and freshly filled ones. She saw the names flying by, a memoir of the dead: Ping, Stainface, Mercy. They were all just like her. They had trusted someone who could not be trusted. Perhaps they had somehow loved him too, he who could not be loved.

The moonlight was perfect and she could see the massive angel up ahead, Scar’s angel.

She had a plan: she would wait in the shadows of that statue and ambush the fuck out of Satan. He would never see it coming. She would prolong his death. He had to know who had done the killing. He had to know that he died by the hand of the one person he had never bothered to distance himself from. He had to know what he had done to her.

She reached the angel and threw her bag down in the grass at its feet. She ripped the zipper open and pulled out a long strap attached to a black box – a bomb. She fished around and found the remote then set it down next to the bag. She strapped the bomb-belt around her arm and started to climb the statue. When she was high enough, she unlatched the belt from herself and wrapped it around the wrist of the angelic hand, which held that aged sword. She leaped down to the ground and grabbed the remote then ran behind a large monument and keyed in the detonation code. An explosion rocked the cemetery as Scar’s arm was ripped apart and the sword freed from its stone grip. The sword fell right behind the angel, beneath the wings. Sue ran over and snatched it up, went and scooped up her stash and ran into the shadows amidst a few large tombstones, where she crouched down and proceeded to wait.

13

Trust

Satan saw the wrecked cycle and the open gates. He pulled up slowly and inspected the scene. He concluded that she had gone inside and was waiting inside to kill him. He figured she would wait in the shadows somewhere to ambush him, but he would see it coming. He would be ready.

He parked his bike at the wall and checked his weapons. He had his sword, his machine-pistol and his boot-knife. If he had to do this, he wanted to do it right. It would take three wounds from three different weapons. Anything else and he just wouldn’t feel right about it in the morning.

Cautiously, he walked up to the cemetery gates and crept inside. Just as he set foot within those gates, he heard an explosion and he hesitated for an instant before proceeding. What was she up to? He had to be careful. There was trouble ahead, trouble behind. A terrible notion occurred to him, he was seriously doomed, not just kind of, sort of doomed, but actually headed for The End. Realizing this did something to him. Some part of him gave up and accepted this as the final chapter of his life. He decided to face it with dignity and marched on, his head held high. If that head was going to roll, he wanted it to be with a look of satisfaction on its face.

He passed the many graves, old and new, and all those ghosts seemed to be staring out at him and beckoning him to join them, finally. He looked at the headstones and did not see the names; instead he saw the faces belonging to each and every one, the faces which had rotted away into the moldering earth beneath his feet. He saw the skulls smiling in their little boxes underground and wondered how long it had been since he had first buried someone here. His mind could not seem to reach back through the years of his own life.

When he saw the angel he stopped. He saw the broken arm and fear ripped his confidence to shreds. She had the sword, which meant she meant to kill him with it. He drew his own sword and did not move. He would call her out. She must be near. She would want to do this here; in the midst of this memorial to the person she believed to be her sister.

“Suicide! Come out! Let’s finish this!” his voice fell on silence and he expected a cold blade to slice through him from behind, yet none did, and all remained unsettlingly still.

“Sue? Why are you hiding? Do you want me to die or don’t you? You have never been such a coward before!” She ran at him from the left, her sword held high in the air, ready to slice him in two. He raised his own blade just in time to save his face from becoming two half-faces. She was in a rage and hacked away at his blade, pushing him back over a giant stone fox. He went sprawling into the grass and yelled, “Scar! Wait!”

She held the sword with both hands, like a baseball bat, ready to send his head rolling into a nearby open grave. “What? Coward! Scar was my sister’s name! And you killed her!” She raised the blade to strike.

“No! You’re wrong! You have to listen to me! You have to know the truth! Scar was not your sister!” She was starting to flinch as his words came in a rush, “Scar was you!” Her eyes were horrified by this last phrase and her blade fell. It sliced deeply into his leg as it lay over the fox’s tail, Satan howled and his hands flew to the wound and blood instantly ran over his fingers in crooked dark red streaks that seemed to flow unnaturally fast. “What are you talking about? SPEAK!” she kicked his wounded leg.

His breathing was labored as he told her who she was, “Scar was my first wife. The only woman I’ve ever loved. We were growing old and I had connections to Eternalife through one of my family’s old clients, Maximus Agrippa.” Suicide was listening now, her face becoming apathetic. “We were going to have ourselves reincarnated, as a favor from Max. Scar and I had the machines brought in by special arrangement and I went in first and the procedure was flawless, I came out young, as I am now. Scar was not so lucky. When her turn came, she went into the machines as I had but in the midst of the process, something went wrong and she died, but not before her new body had been created. That new body was you Suicide! The machines were damaged and could not be repaired! We couldn’t finish the aging process and Scar’s memories had been lost in the accident! I could not let you go! You were all I had left and so I raised you as my own. But as you grew, you began to resemble her so perfectly that I began to fall in love with you, or rather the memory of Scar, which I saw in your face! That is why I had to have you! I could not let go of the past, of the only person I had ever allowed myself to care about at all.”

Sue was standing with her back to him. She was staring into the face of the angel. She raised her sword in a slow movement and let its handle fall to the ground. She held the tip of the blade with one hand and stepped back one slow pace. Without a word, she leaned forward and let the blade slide into her body. Her blood slid down the cold edge of the blade and she went down on her knees as a thin metal strip poked through the skin of her back and out into the air. Tears came from her eyes and blood from her mouth, but she made no sound, she called no name. She only died, the only way she ever could: for and by herself.

14

Bird’s Eye

Thirty-Seven parked next to the open gate. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver eagle’s head ring he had found at The Citadel, which he placed on the ring finger of his left hand.

He walked through the gates and into the Garden. He gave pause to several names and thought of what thier stories must be. Several meters up ahead he saw a one-armed angel in the midst of a clearing. He slowed his pace, yet sharpened his resolve. He drew his gun.

Satan lay still by the stone fox and Suicide lay dead in the grass. Thirty-Seven approached the wounded man and looked into his eyes. “Time’s up, old man. It’s my turn now.”

Satan looked up at the man with the gun and whispered, “Why does it have to be this way? Why do we all have to die?”

Thirty-Seven looked over at the deceased woman crumpled in the red grass and said, “That’s why. Because some of us have to die, all of us have to die. It would not be right any other way. It is fair.”

Satan wept.

190


This Number Speaks

IMMORTAL CLONES ENSLAVE HUMANITY! When scientists invent machines that extend life indefinitely, world leaders begin working together to control world populations and ensure their own power. One worker drone named Thirty-Seven must fight the system to keep himself from becoming a scapegoat in the world's most corrupt society. He fights against a the whims of a desert prison dictator named Satan and gets mixed up with Satan's wife, Suicide. Through harrowing tribulations and gripping battles, Thirty-Seven evolves from a naive servant to fearless leader of a massive pack of fierce disciples. He joins a secret society and learns the truth about how immortality was invented. Coming to terms with the realities of surviving on his own, Thirty-Seven grows and evolves into a wise and powerful revolutionary. This post -apocalyptic dystopian thriller will keep you guessing. Lots of surprises and twists.

  • Author: Jason P Doherty
  • Published: 2017-06-02 07:05:20
  • Words: 31376
This Number Speaks This Number Speaks