A Heart Full Of Dust
Al Bruno III
The village occupied an area that was relatively free of debris and ruined vehicles, it might have once been one of the megalopolis' parks. An armed sentry stood near the bent tree that shaded their dirty spring. The villagers lived in ramshackle huts made from whatever materials could be scavenged. They toiled on their homes or tended to the small gardens outside their tents. A group of naked children kicked a battered Myrmex skull back and forth.
But when the bell began to toll the villagers set aside what they were doing and walked down the well-worn path to the center of the village, to the dome.
The sprawling dome was made from corrugated metal sheets that had been spray-painted white. It was thirty feet high and over a hundred yards across. Villagers filed past the squad of sentries guarding the trio of dilapidated generators and streamed in through the dome's single, equally well-protected entrance. As the bell continued to sound its single mournful note, there was much talk among the villagers of the strangers that had been brought in this morning. Strangers were a rarity in these dark times and news of the outside world was even more of a rarity.
Could this have something to do with the strange clouds that had been seen last night? Could it be that after eight generations the final battle was drawing close? Was it finally time to awaken the Sleeping Messiah?
Expectations were at an all time high. Higher even than the time some years ago now, that it had rained for two full hours.
A hush fell over the villagers as they stepped across the threshold. If they spoke at all it was with reverent whispers and those were covered up by the sound of their feet shuffling over the dome's bare wood floor.
The dome's interior was devoid of furnishings save for a wide platform that rose up out of the floor. Cables snaked along the floor feeding the power from the generators to the Great Relic and the computers that maintained it. A tall man in purple robes knelt on the pulpit, his face was a scaly ruin. This was Surkotchi, their high priest. His acolytes were hard at work around him, readying the sacred manuscripts for the ceremony, manning the computers, and doting on the Great Relic to ensure that the Sleeper was comfortable and undisturbed.
When the entire village was present Surkotchi stood and crossed to the altar, he raised his hands and spoke, his voice sonorous and commanding, “In the Pendaroth’s name.”
The congregation replied, “In the Pendaroth’s heart.”
“A reading from the book of Ezra.” he flipped though the battered tome until he found the appropriate passage. The Great Relic was a clear, fifteen-foot tall cylinder sitting atop a mechanized dias, it hummed gently with power, its dials and switches glowing. The Great Relic was webbed with power cables and sensor wires. The glassteel enclosure was filled with an artificial amniotic fluid; a human shape floated in it, its limbs curled into the fetal position, its long, pale-blond hair swirling around its head like a halo of white gold. “On Thanksgiving Day the proselytes came to the Pendaroth and asked him, 'Where do you want us to prepare the meal for you?'
“'Go to a certain man in the city,' he said the them, 'and tell him- The Pendaroth says, My hour has come. My proselytes and I will celebrate Thanksgiving at your house.'
“The proselytes did as The Pendaroth had told them and prepared the Thanksgiving meal. When it was evening, The Pendaroth and his twelve proselytes sat down to eat. During the meal The Pendaroth said, 'I tell you, one of you will betray me.'
“The proselytes were very upset and began to ask him, 'Surely you don't mean me?
“The Pendaroth answered, 'One who dips his bread in the dish with me will betray me. I will die as the scriptures say he will but how terrible it will be for the man that will betray him! It would have been better for that man if he had never been born!'
“The wandering fool the traitor, spoke up, 'Surely you don't mean me?' he asked.
“The Pendaroth answered, 'So you say.'” Surkotchi closed the book and stared meaningfully at the congregation, “This is the word of the Lord.”
As one voice the villagers answered “Amen.”
The high priest nodded to the guards standing near the entrance and the three strangers were dragged into the center of the congregation. The parishioners eyed them suspiciously.
“The Wandering Fool has returned to us,” Surkotchi pointed an accusing finger at Vagabond, “the traitor is in our midst.”
“Oh my,” Vagabond whimpered as he watched the sea of faces become hostile.
“This is the man that left the Pendaroth dead but dreaming.” Surkotchi 's voice was cold, “This is the man that made the world what it is today.”
“Mother!” Lily said, “Get us out of here!”
“I don't think I've got enough life left in me for that,” Rhea replied, “besides, I've got a plan.”
The congregation began to advance on them, they were surrounded. “I don't suppose,” Vagabond began, “you'd like to let us in on this plan of yours?”
“That,” Rhea smiled, “would be telling.”
Surkotchi shouted, “Take a look at him my flock! Look upon the face of pure evil!”
“Doesn't anyone like me these days?” Vagabond grumbled.
“I like you.” Lily took his hand.
He returned her smile, staring deeply into her eyes. They might only be a preprogrammed sequence of pixels but still, there was something about them...
One of the parishioners threw a boot, it smacked into Vagabond's head. Lily caught him as he fell forward but his weight dragged them both to their knees. They were pelted with anything else the congregation could think to throw.
“Wait!” Surkotchi shouted, “There will be no stoneings within the church!”
Some listened but the situation was escalating beyond his control. The guards took the high priest's shout as a signal and waded in but the crowd held them at bay.
Blows began to rain down on Vagabond and Lily. He wondered briefly if things really had gotten out of control or if Rhea had planned to sell him out all along. “Let go!” he said trying to push himself out of Lily's arms,” It's me they want!”
But she wouldn't release him, instead she tried to shield him with her body, taking the blows meant for him on her back and monitor.
The first muffled thumps were unheard.
The congregation tried to pry Vagabond from Lily's arms but she held fast, ignoring their kicks and punches.
“Lily! Let go of me!”
“No! Never!” the expression on her screen was desperate.
One industrious parishioner had torn up one of the hardwood floorboards. He swung it, missing Vagabond and striking Lily.
The muffled thumps continued, increasing in intensity.
Lily was flat on her back, her screen cracked and flickering wildly, her face shattered, fragmented. The sight set Vagabond in a fury. Shaking off the hands restraining him he dove at her assailant only to disappear beneath a pile of bodies.
The crowd lifted him up, someone punched him, someone spit in his face, they pulled his hair out by the handful.
Surkotchi cried out with alarm, some of the mob glanced to the pulpit and stopped dead, in seconds they were all staring with disbelief.
The Sleeper had woken. He was hammering on the glassteel walls of the Great Relic, his mouth moving as he tried to speak. Rhea stood to one side, her remaining hand on the Great Relic, the fingertips glowing. Twin trails of blood ran from her nose as she whispered an incantation under her breath.
The congregation forgot about the Hanged Man, they as well as Surkotchi and his acolytes and the guards dropped to their knees. This was the miracle they had prayed for! The Pendaroth would awaken and lead them to Paradise!
Crawling trough the faithful, Vagabond knelt at Lily's side and took her cool hand in his, “Are you all right?”
Her voice was wounded, uneven, “Hard to see, where are you?”
“I'm right here,” he stroked her monitor, “I'm holding your hand.”
“I wish I could feel you,” she ran her other hand over her cracked screen, “I wish I could feel something.”
Rhea took her hand away from the Great Relic and the Sleeper became still again. “Now that I've got your attention,” she began, “I hope you realize that if you piss me off I can just as easily turn this thing into the world’s biggest lava lamp,” she paused, letting this sink in, “Now I am perfectly willing to help you birth your little Messiah but only if you promise to leave my daughter and..” her expression turned sour, as though she had just taken a mouthful of something rancid, “...my son-in-law alone.”
Surkotchi stood and crossed to her, “But he's the Wandering Fool.”
“No, he's not. He just...looks like him.” she wiped the blood from her face with the bandage on her stump.
“So what do you want in return for your help?” the crowd began to stir as they talked but he stilled them with a gesture.
“One of your people to guide us through the wasteland, to the Myrmex hive. Preferably one of the ones you and your priests have augmented.”
His jaw dropped, “How do you know about-”
“We'll talk further in my hut,” he clapped his hands twice and a pair of guards came running. He pointed to Vagabond and Lily, “Take these two and lock them in the storehouse, no one beside myself is to be allowed in to see them.”
The guards bowed and dragged them off.
He turned his attention to the congregation, “And as for the rest of you, stay exactly where you are and pray that the Sleeper will be awoken. And pray that he will forgive you for disobeying me.”
The congregation began to pray, Surkotchi led Rhea off towards his hut, “One question.”
“Yes?” she turned to look after Vagabond and Lily.
“What's a lava lamp?”