Awakening: Dead Forever Book 1

by William Campbell

Copyright © 2010 William Campbell. All Rights Reserved

Chapter 2

I am floating through space. Outer space. Countless points of starlight dot the blackness. The sensation is wonderful, gliding across an expanse of unrestricted nothing, a taste of total freedom. Alone in a calm, there is nothing I must do. I may never grow tired of this experience.

But it can’t be right. My blood should boil. My body should explode. Yet here I am, serene, and without fear. The reason—I am without a body. There is nothing to me. I simply exist, surrounded by endless space.

An immense pull summons me. My bodiless nothing is drawn into a narrow space, long like a straw, that stretches to infinity. Captured by the mysterious force, I am taken away and accelerated to an immeasurable velocity.

My journey ends when a solid object crashes into me. Or I have crashed into it. In either case, the result is pain, which only a body could provide.

Everywhere is dark, thick smoke. I can hardly breathe. Dread strikes—smoke means fire, feeding this burning temperature. I must not die by fire. Beyond the obvious fear of burning alive, there is more—I must avoid fire at all costs.

Another person is present. She is looking for something in a cabinet. Scattered remnants of memory surface. There was a battle, and we are traveling to join others, but our vessel has suffered a malfunction.

The woman hurries across the compartment, darts back again, and stops when she notices me. Her eyes are mesmerizing, tender blue with an electric dazzle. I sense another kind of heat emanating from this beautiful woman—I’ve made a mistake, and she’s unhappy with me.

“What are you doing?” she says. “Put it out.”

I want to say something, but I can’t. I am a spectator, a lifeless rag doll, yet subjected to every unpleasant sensation associated with being here.

“They’ll get us if we burn,” she says. “Hurry! Put it out.”

I don’t understand what she means, but in a way, I might.

An intense flash—the flames surge brighter, roaring out of control. There is no hope of containing the blaze. The small compartment becomes an efficient crematorium.

Somewhere in the flames, I hear her screaming. I don’t want to hear that, anything but that, then I don’t—my ears have melted, and my eyes, I want to cry, but there is nothing left that cries. I am coming undone.

Our vessel collides with something and the compartment explodes. My remains scatter to the wind, a mist of ash going all directions.

I am lost. I no longer have a body.

* * *

A burning sensation is concentrated on my shoulder. Opening the eyes I’m surprised to have, I find Jared poking me with a long stick, painfully hot at one end.

“Stop that!” I cry.

Take me back to the dream, the part without a body, without this antenna of pain reception.

He withdraws the instrument of torture, a telescoping rod that he collapses and slips in his coat. “Nice of you to join us,” he says. “You didn’t have to pass out, you big baby.”

My head is still full of cobwebs. I was having the dream again. I’m not dead. But not much better off, after getting zapped by that damn microwave oven on a stick.

I’m lying on a plush armless sofa, a sort of padded bench. The soft fabric is cool and soothing. I could rest here awhile. The spacious room is dimly lit, walls covered by dark paneling trimmed by lighter molding high above. Beyond the border, the ceiling curves inward, painted so black its height is difficult to estimate. An abyss, leading up rather than down. An unsettling sight, to imagine it was the floor instead.

As I gaze upward, Jared leans into my view. “Everything working in that pea brain of yours?”

“No thanks to you, asshole. What am I doing here?”

“I brought you in, that’s all. You could have come along quietly, you know. There wasn’t any need for all that ruckus.”

When I sit up, a door opens and a Bob enters the room. “We thank you for your assistance with the subject. We shall take over now.”

“I did my part,” Jared says. “When’s the Association planning to keep their end of the bargain?”

“We shall not discuss our arrangement in the presence of the subject.”

“He nearly killed me!”

Nice to know I’ve caused grief for Jared. He’s a damn bastard in my book. The jerk deserves a few lifetimes of grief.

Bob says, “There shall be little delay, I assure you.”

“I want no delays,” Jared says. “We’ve all suffered enough.”

“Excuse me,” I interrupt. “Might I have a say in this? I’d like to go now, if you don’t mind. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I need a bath.”

Jared whirls on me. “I’ve had it with you and all your clowning around. Always a smart-ass remark.” He sandwiches his skull in both hands. “I’m sick and tired of hearing your voice. Shut up, shut up, shut up!

I have annoyed him. Good.

“Ease your mind of the subject,” Bob says. “We shall discuss the terms of our agreement when all is in order.”

“Fine,” Jared says. “Just make it soon.” He goes to the door and Bob follows. On the way out, Jared glances back one last time, his exasperation replaced by a slimy grin and that slippery, casual tone. “Do as you’re told, Carl, and talk to the nice folks. You’re in good hands, trust me.” He snickers and slaps the door shut.

I hope to never see that bastard again, but then, I wouldn’t mind under different circumstances, like when I have the upper hand. I’ll torture him, then I’ll kill him. Twice. Ten. A thousand times.

* * *

Alone, there is time to gather my thoughts. It’s no stretch to imagine these people intend to hurt me further. I need to compose a plan of escape. I require information. I must study the surroundings for a weakness.

My first instinct is to check the door. I wiggle the handle. What was I thinking? They wouldn’t go to all that trouble just to let me walk right out.

I’ve been given a change of clothes, plain white trousers and a button shirt. Bland. Someone even cleaned me up a bit, but nothing to help my greasy hair and beard. I check my arm and expect to find a gory mess, but no, someone has changed the cluster of grimy rags to a proper bandage, taped up nice and clean.

Daylight streams in through a window across the room. No, I’m not crashing through this one. I’m curious as to what’s outside, and windows are good for that, too. Past the glass, the street is five or six floors down, confirming the window as a lousy escape. The sky is the usual gray, no evidence of sun other than a dim glow behind the clouds. I’d guess it’s late afternoon, nearly evening, but I couldn’t say what day it is. There’s no telling how long I was unconscious.

On the sidewalk below, people move along going about their business, but the scene is creepy. They wear matching suits, black coats and white shirts, thin black ties, and they carry slim briefcases. They look like a colony of ants, scattering all directions without colliding as they serve a higher purpose, like the queen ant or something. The sight of businessmen scurrying about downtown should come as no surprise. The disturbing part is how closely they resemble one another, like the Bobs—they all look the same. But not like the Bobs, those goons don’t wear ties. But still, these folks have their own brand of sameness, like a matching fleet of corporate associates late for an important meeting. Although they dress different, the businessmen share one feature with the Bobs—the black helmet hairstyle. Blended in the crowd are women as well, conforming as the men do, wearing smart business suits all black, except for knee-high skirts instead of slacks, and their longer hair is assembled into a bun.

The room is filled with rows of matching furniture, dark red armless sofas with tufted padding. A number of poor souls could occupy this space at the same time, but I’m the sole occupant for now. Across the room is a flat screen mounted to the wall. I step closer, find the power switch, and the screen brightens with a video image. I ease back, sit on a padded bench, and watch.

“You too can have all this,” a man says. “Now how much would you pay? Well don’t answer yet, you also get…”

The scene is a kitchen with a guy wearing an apron and chefs hat, operating a countertop appliance. He tosses in vegetables and the gadget spits out neatly diced chunks. Now he grinds some meat. And the entire time talking, talking, he never stops talking. Next he demonstrates an array of attachments, then shows off plastic bowls for mixing ingredients. He insists that I must have all this, as everyone else does.

“You get all this for the amazing low price…”

For a bunch of plastic garbage?

“Three easy payments of…”

Three? One is too much for the whole thing. He keeps talking and talking, it seems without a single breath between words or sentences.

“Call in the next fifteen minutes and we’ll also include…”

More? Oh, just more plastic crap, big deal.

“Operators are standing by.”

The mountain of plastic garbage one will receive appears endless. A phone number zips past faster than anyone could possibly read, though he does repeat it six or more times during the final seconds, and the program ends.

Now an attractive woman fills the screen. That’s better.

“Feminine odor can ruin that crucial first encounter. Avoid embarrassment and maintain status among your peers. Regular douching with the fresh, springtime scent of…”

She’s not talking about what I think she’s talking about, is she? That’s disgusting. Now she’s going to show us how it works. No, I can’t watch this.

I spring up and switch the channel. Now an older fellow comes on.

“John Thompson here with some helpful hints for improving your home.”

He’s in the backyard of a house. This show looks better, maybe even something of educational value, like a do-it-yourself remodeling program.

“The color you choose for your home is an important decision. Here we have Jackensteen’s Brand Extra Durable Exterior House Paint, available in approved colors, now on sale at your local…”

This show has zero value. They only want to sell more products.

Armed with a bucket and a brush, he paints a small area on the back of the house—the same color it’s already painted. The camera backs away to shows the entire neighborhood. What? Every house is painted the same boring gray color.

I feel violated, invaded, infected with the desire of others, that I desire what they choose I desire, which I don’t and never did in the first place. A creepy feeling, like getting brainwashed. I turn the stupid thing off.

Back to the window, I gaze down at the sidewalk and the flock of individuals moving past, all of them anything but individual. Don’t tell me I have to join these mindless drones that have no sense of variety. I resist that, but I may be without a choice, which is the sickening part. I would never choose that lifestyle. It’s not right, not where I belong. But why would I think that? The feeling is unjustified, without a clear memory giving reason to feel anything. But still, I feel a detached memory—I am not one of these people.

Little good it does. The baseless notion lacks any answer, such as how to escape. It only tells me that I must.

* * *

The door opens and two Bobs haul in another fellow. They toss him onto one of the padded benches, then exit and lock the door. The poor guy slumps over, either severely beaten or just plain tired. He’s had a rough time, hair mussed and skin dirty, covered with scrapes and bruises. He’s wearing the same white trousers and button shirt, like me. A fellow loser?

“You okay?” I ask.

He looks up. “Huh? Oh, I don’t know, not really.” He tries to straighten up, groans and grimaces, and reaches around to rub his back.

I move closer. “What happened to you?”

“I don’t understand,” he says. “I was minding my own business and some guys wanted to talk. But they were scary, so I ran. I guess I shouldn’t have run. Maybe I’d be all right if I just didn’t run.”

Stalked by the goon patrol is one thing, but to see another in pain, having suffered the same, now that hurts. The bonds of friendship form quickly when you share a similar experience, perhaps more so when the experience is unpleasant.

I sit down across from him. “What’s your name?”

“Me?” His tired eyes focus on me. “Vincent, but you can call me Vinnie.”

“Okay, Vinnie. I’m Carl, but you can call me Carl.”

His eyes pinch and he sinks inward, as if replaying my words, trying to make sense of them.

“Vinnie, I’m just kidding. It’s a joke.”

That probably wasn’t such a good idea and only confirms how lousy I am with jokes. I should know better, but sometimes I can’t help it.

“Oh, I get it, ha,” he says, hardly a laugh, then he scans the room.

“There’s no other exit.” I point to the door. “And that one’s locked, so it looks like we’re stuck here awhile. I wouldn’t suggest the window, either. We’re up a few floors, probably just bust our necks.”

He looks around the room, nods a few times, then sighs. “We’ll just have to tell them what they want to know and hope they let us go after that.”

Nice optimism, though difficult to share. “I don’t know, Vinnie. After the rough treatment so far, I doubt the rest will be much different.”

“Maybe, but that was probably because we ran. I guess you could be right, heck, I don’t know. But if you are, what difference does it make? I don’t think there’s any way out besides talking to them. What happens next is beyond our control.”

He could be right, except the part about what happens next. The future is not written, and what happens next is not beyond my control. I can change it.

“So tell me, Carl, what’s your story?”

“About the same as yours, Vinnie. I was minding my own business and they wanted to talk, but I had other ideas. So I ran. Didn’t do me much good, I ended up here anyway.”

“Looks like we’re in the same boat. Wonder what’s so interesting about us. Tell me, Carl, what do you do for a living? Maybe that has something to do with it.”

“Nothing special, whatever I can get each day. I load trucks a lot, and trains, too. All sorts of boxes, I don’t even know what’s in them, not that I care. As long as they pay me at the end of the day, I’m happy.”

Not much of a life, I know, but alive and loading boxes is better than dead inside one, six feet underground.

“Yeah,” he says, “I done some of that too, now and then. Keeps you fit anyway.” He goes on to describe a variety of odd jobs, cleaning parking lots, washing cars and unloading trucks, all sorts of miscellany similar to my varied attempts at squeaking out a meager living. So much in common, I’m surprised we hadn’t met before. But the similarity of our lives fails to explain why anyone would want to talk with us so badly. It makes no sense. We’re both losers.

“So tell me, Carl, where did you grow up?”

The question itself is a sad reminder. “The thing is, I don’t really know.”

“Why’s that?”

“I had an accident a while back, I’m not even sure what happened. All I know is I woke up in the hospital with my head in bandages and a migraine so bad I couldn’t see straight. Some brain injury that required surgery. The whole deal really messed up my memory. I can’t recall anything before that.”

“Then you don’t remember growing up.”

“Sometimes I get flashes like a dream, probably just nonsense imaginary stuff. I don’t think it really matters anyway. I doubt my life was anything important before that anyhow. I was probably loading boxes and one fell on me, or some dumb thing like that. Maybe I got hit by a train, who knows. Who cares?”

“Somebody must care.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Come on, Carl, you must have someone who visited you in the hospital.”

“Nope, no one. I’m a nobody, without any friends or family. No, not a single person cared about me, no visitors at all, just the doctors and nurses. I guess they cared, they put me back together pretty good. I felt okay after that, well, except for the migraines. Damn painful. Just something I have to deal with. I shouldn’t complain. I could’ve ended up a vegetable, kept alive by weird little machines.”

“Yeah, that’s an awful way to go through the rest of your life. Good thing you can still walk around and do stuff, but it sure stinks not remembering. So you’re sure, you can’t remember anything before that.”

I know his type, so lonely and desperate for a conversation, they never let one die. On and on, long past the obvious conclusion.

“I’m telling you, Vinnie, it’s all gone. It makes me dull and boring, I know, having no grand stories to tell about things I did or places I went, but I doubt anything exciting ever happened to me anyway.”

He sinks inward like he’s calculating something. Perhaps a clue that explains our being here together. “Are you absolutely positive?” he asks. “You don’t remember even one thing before the accident.”

It’s like he doesn’t believe me. “I told you, I don’t remember. Really.”

He aims a blank stare at me, as if judging my sincerity. Then he says, “Okay, as long as you’re really sure.”

“What about you, Vinnie? Where did you grow up?”

He rises from the bench rather easily, as though his pain has suddenly disappeared. “That’s not important,” he says, approaching the door. “Don’t worry about me. There’s nothing to tell that matters at this point.”

What’s with him? Mister Conversation when I’m the subject, now he’s got other things to do.

He presses a button next to the door, leans closer, and speaks into an intercom. “He’s ready. Come and get him.”

* * *

To think I may have finally found a friend. No, I have sucker tattooed across my forehead. The door pops open and Vinnie slips through without so much as a good-bye. It was all a charade. What was so important that I might say?

Three Bobs march in and they don’t look happy. One is holding a strange device.

“Put out your hands,” he says.

“What, are they on fire?”

My sincere confusion is contagious—the Bobs look mystified. I inspect my hands, which appear fine. Bob extends the strange device. Oh, I should have known, they want to restrain me. I must be dangerous.

“What if I don’t want to?”

The Bobs exchange befuddled glances, as though no one has ever questioned their commands. They don’t know what to do.

Then one of them gets a bright idea. “If you do not, we will put out your hands for you.”

This guy’s a real genius. Who taught these goons to handle things? They’re a bunch of idiots.

“I don’t want to. Now what happens?”

Again they look to one another, unsure of the proper course of action. Then a realization comes to them. They grab my arms, pull hard, and wrestle the device over my wrists.

“Hey, whoa there, no need for that. Take it easy, I was just funnin’ with y’all.”

They are not amused. They haul me out the door, adding loads of unnecessary roughness. Looks like I made them mad.

We enter a long corridor that leads somewhere, but the thing is, I don’t want to know where. My doom is just beyond the next door, I’m sure of it. Torture, pain, and without a doubt, my last moments alive.

* * *

After a distance along the corridor, we arrive at a door that the Bobs slam open and haul me through. The room is identical to the last, the same dark paneling, the same black ceiling like an abyss leading upward, but the open space lacks the rows of padded benches.

Men are seated behind a wide table, silent with their hands folded. Thirteen in all. The lack of variety continues—they all look the same. Not like the Bobs, these guys resemble the businessmen roaming the streets of downtown, but dressed more elite than the masses, they appear men of higher status, wearing exquisite gray suits few could afford, perfectly knotted neckties, and pressed white dress shirts. Nothing casual about these refined gents, but they do share one feature with the Bobs—the black helmet hairstyle.

A single chair is facing the table, and next to it is a smaller table where a strange device is set up, some sort of electronic console, surely an instrument of torture. The Bobs wrestle me into the chair, again using unnecessary force. They don’t seem to realize that I’m perfectly capable of sitting down all by myself.

“Come on, Bob, take it easy. I’m not resisting here, am I?” Bob slams my ass down and cinches straps over my wrists and ankles. “Hey, Bob, where’d you get that jacket? Bob’s House of Fine Plastic? You could’ve done better, you know, maybe some actual leather. Couldn’t afford the real thing, is that it? Ouch! Okay, okay, I’m sitting already.”

The Bobs pull the straps extra tight. I must be dangerous all right, and they’re not taking any chances. Having completed the task of securing me to the chair, the brutes step back, their ugly expressions full of disgust. Good, I have annoyed them.

This must be how criminals are handled. But I’m no criminal. I was minding my own business before all this. I did nothing to hurt anyone. Well, until they unleashed the manhunt. But my criminal acts are justified—that was all self-defense. Besides, I didn’t crush them, the building did.

I wonder about this chair. Could it be an electric chair? I’m going to be fried while they watch my skin boil and pop, peeling off my crispy frame right before their eyes. That might be entertaining for some people. Not me. But then, I won’t be the one watching.

At the far end of the room, another door opens and a man enters. He carries a black satchel, which upon arriving, he sets on the floor below the small table next to the chair. Finally, someone who looks different from the rest. A doctor, judging by the white lab coat, but more than that, he has wiry gray hair sticking out the back of his head, while the front half is completely bald. He looks funny like a clown and I want to laugh, but I can’t, too scared for that. The half-crazed professor is preparing for a mad experiment, and clearly, the focus of that experiment is me. He wears horn-rimmed glasses with thick lenses that only amplify his menacing glare. Those glasses alone would make anyone look evil. He’s also the first person in this crowd with facial hair. He has a rather pointy goatee to match his rather pointy nose. An ugly man.

He comes near and speaks in a raspy voice. “Let us have a look at that wound, shall we?” He clutches my arm and squeezes it like I’m made of putty.

“Ouch! Is that necessary? It’s fine already, leave it alone.”

His eyes go wide, shocked by my suggestion. “Oh no, we must make sure that all is in order. We do not want your wound to become infected, that would be most unfortunate. Let us have a closer look.” He rips the bandage from my arm, not in a gentle fashion as would a person with an ounce of compassion, no, he tears the thing off in one vicious yank.

Yow! Can’t you have a heart?”

My new inflictor of pain hesitates, befuddled by my remark. “I do have a heart, right here.” He points to his chest. “If I did not, I would not be alive, now would I. You are quite an odd creature. What is the source of these strange idioms? If only I had more time to study your kind.”

One of the businessmen stands. “Enough! You will cease unnecessary conversation with the subject. Complete your inspection and prepare the equipment.”

Tempted with defiance, the doctor glares at the businessman, then he changes his mind and cowers. Yeah, I’d do what I’m told, too. That guy looks scary.

The doctor returns to my wound, his eyeballs giant past the thick lenses of his glasses. He studies intently, as though searching for traces of bacteria invisible to the naked eye. He pokes and prods, examines further, then satisfied, reports his findings. “He is healthy. The injury is repaired.”

These people are truly creepy. They have nearly killed me in an effort to bring me here, and now I’m strapped to this chair, which has to be an instrument of execution. But they want to make sure I’m healthy, before making me entirely unhealthy, the ultimate unhealthy—dead. Ironic, like disinfecting the needle before administering a lethal injection.

The doctor shifts to the small table and prepares the electronic device. He puts in a roll of paper that sticks out one end, then pulls the unwinding sheet over a flat area beneath a suspended needle. He adjusts controls then pulls out thin leads that end in half a dozen circular pads. He opens my shirt and applies the pads to my chest, shoulders, and forehead. More wires end in a pair of thimble-like cones that he slips over my fingertips.

My heartbeat rises to thunder. My body is having the natural reaction to impending harm. I’m strapped to this chair and here I will die, it’s that simple. There’s no way out, might as well relax and let it happen. Regardless, the flow of adrenaline begins. Preparing itself for the coming torture, this body believes it can survive. I fail to see how.

* * *

The far door opens and a woman enters, carrying a small device with keypad. An older lady, she is dressed like the men, but with a knee-high skirt and her hair in a bun. Her heels snap the floor as she walks across the room, then she seats herself at the table.

One of the men rises, the one who scolded the doctor. “We are ready to begin,” he says, standing firm with hands like tripods, fingers spread atop the table. He seems to be in charge. The ready-to-begin prologue is a clue, but even when silent, he exudes an authoritative presence.

“Carl, we are going to ask you some questions, and you must be completely honest. Rest assured, your responses will be held in the strictest confidence. It is vital that we know your every thought, anything that may come to mind. Do you understand?”

“Not really.”

“All we ask is that you try.” He lowers back to sitting, hands folded atop the table and staring at me, his expression drained of all emotion.

At least he’s talking to me, not about me while I’m sitting right here. This time I’m not a thing, or subject to be discussed, and he speaks in a calm, reassuring tone. I wish I was as calm. I’m not even close, greased by sweat while my heart works overtime, straining to pump the terror out. The machine on the table seems to agree. The needle scribbles wildly, drawing peaks and valleys across the rolling paper.

Given the circumstances, I realize what this situation represents. The businessmen are like a group of attorneys, or a panel of judges. The woman is recording what we speak, typing our words into her small device. The doctor is tracking my physical condition.

“Am I on trial?”

“No, Carl, you are not on trial. We simply have questions for you, that is all.”

“What kind of questions?”

“Specific questions that we will ask, which we hope, will expose your considerations, so that we may confirm your state of mind before advancing to the next process.”

Something about this reeks of sinister intent, but his calm demeanor is contagious. The scribbling needle seems to agree, drawing a nearly flat line across the slowly rolling paper.

“Look, I can appreciate that you have questions, but I have plenty of my own. And I don’t like being tricked, either. What was all that nonsense with Vinnie?”

“I apologize for his part in this, but it was necessary. Our questions must be answered under precise conditions, to ensure that you attain the proper end result.”

“You could just ask. What’s with all the deception? Why not send in a counselor or something, instead of the big act.”

The needle jerks and scrawls a few jagged slopes.

“Again I apologize,” he says, “but it was necessary, and I hope that will suffice as an explanation.”

It doesn’t, but somehow I doubt arguing over it will do any good at this point.

“Fine, but who are you people, and what do you want with me?”

The leader glances at the other businessmen. They nod. The leader says, “We are members of the Association, the body governing this system, and many others. We are entrusted with maintaining the conformity of our civilization, here and beyond. This is an ideal handed down by our ancestors that we take great pride in carrying forth into future generations. The program in which you are enrolled exists to establish individual consistency within our organized society. We take great pains to eliminate variation from the populace, a social flaw that causes confusion and unmanageable cultural problems. Our goal is a pure society, rid of these negative aspects, bringing contentment to the peoples we govern.”

I don’t like the sound of this. I’d call it wiping out the dissidents. Sure, they’ve removed every scrap of variation and created the most boring society anyone could possibly imagine.

“That’s swell. What’s it got to do with me?”

“You are no different from the many citizens we process on a daily basis. The program is for your own benefit, helping you understand the value of conformity, and in doing so, eliminate the harmful deviations you have acquired, all of which are cause for unrest, for you, and those around you. We are pleased to inform you that your journey is nearly at an end. After a series of questions, your processing will be completed, and you will be free to go.”

I like the free to go part, though rather doubt their definition of free matches my own. These creeps are oppressive, and proud of it. However, that opinion needs to stay private. Better to cooperate, and in the process, learn all I can about these pigs.

“Okay, let’s get started.”

The leader almost smiles. “Very good, Carl. I can see by your eagerness to participate that you have advanced to a higher state of consciousness. I am proud of you.”

Proud of me? Oh please, don’t make me sick.

“Let’s just get on with it.”

“Very well,” he says. “For our first question, please, tell us what you know about death.”

My heart jumps. “I wouldn’t know. I’m not dead yet, and I’d really like to stay that way.”

Though a few close calls thanks to the goon patrol. Is that what they want? Right, have me experience near-death just so I can describe the terror. A bunch of sadistic bastards. The doctor’s machine goes wild, the needle scrawling peaks and valleys across the paper. Is that thing reading my mind? I hope not. They won’t like what’s hiding in here.

“Of course you are not dead,” the leader says. “But please, Carl, tell us your beliefs. What happens when a person dies? Where do they go?”

“They don’t go anywhere. They turn into worm food.”

The needle scribbles a few peaks, then calms down. The businessmen glance at the doctor. He nods, and they appear satisfied.

“Very good, Carl. Now, let us explore the concept a bit further. Tell us what you know about Heaven and Hell.”

“Everybody knows about Heaven and Hell, that’s easy. Heaven is where the good people go, and the bad people go to Hell.”

“Go when?” he asks.

“When they die. Okay, so their body is worm food, but they get to spend eternity someplace else.”

“Tell us, Carl, where would you like to spend eternity?”

A dumb question. Like anyone wants to burn in Hell.

“Heaven, of course.”

The needle jerks, making jagged lines across the rolling paper, now collecting on the floor. The businessmen glance at the doctor. He nods, and they appear satisfied.

The leader asks, “Did you consider that Hell is unpleasant?”

That thing is reading my mind.

“Of course I did. Hell sucks, everybody knows that.”

The scribbling needle calms down. Now I understand, there’s no use in lying. It’s all on that paper rolling onto the floor.

“Now tell us, Carl, which was your first thought? That Heaven would be pleasurable, or that Hell is not?”

“How awful Hell would be. I don’t want to go there. I want to be good and go to Heaven instead. I’m sure it’s way better.”

“When you considered how terrible Hell would be, how did that make you feel?”

“Like I’m burning alive, that’s how. I don’t want to go there, really, I don’t. Going to Hell is the worst thing that could possibly happen to anyone. I’m scared just thinking about it.”

The businessmen crack small grins. Are they pleased? Or gloating? They didn’t even glance at the doctor. My words were enough to satisfy them this time.

“Very good, Carl. I am proud of you.”

I’m going to vomit if he says that one more time. He’s not proud of me. No, he’s proud of what he has done to me.

* * *

All this talk of the afterlife has triggered an excruciating migraine.

“Hey, doc,” I call out. “Got something for pain?”

The doctor is perplexed. “Doc? What is that?”

I think to myself, You! Ya dumb-ass!

The needle goes berserk and catches his attention.

“Sir, my head hurts. Do you have any drugs?” Maybe he’ll understand that. Most doctors do, and seem to enjoy the query.

“Oh, yes, of course.” He rummages through his little case.

Another businessman stands. “No! There will be no intoxication during the interview.”

Thanks a lot, pal. I’d like to share this fine pain, via a swift kick upside his head.

The drug-forbidding businessman returns to his seat, and the doctor cowers over his weird machine.

The leader says, “Now, Carl, we have one topic remaining.”

Good, we’re almost done. Thank—

“God,” he says. “Tell us what you know about God.”

A jolt of terror stabs my heart. They’re plugged into my mind. They’re invading my thoughts.

“I’m not sure, other than we’d better please Him, or we’re not going to Heaven. Right?”

What do I know of the Almighty God? Only that I should fear Him more than these creeps.

“Do you fear God?” he asks.

Again my thoughts are invaded. This intrusion is sickening. My heart sinks to join a foul knot forming in my stomach.

“I do, more than anything else. He will send me to Hell if I do not please Him.”

Their questions have reached a dark place where caustic emotions brew. I fear God may be watching over our conversation this very instant, judging my every word, even my thoughts, and He stands poised to punish me if I select an improper response, even an unsatisfactory consideration. I have broken out in a cold sweat. My heart is racing. I’m trembling, the needle is swinging across the paper. They have triggered a terror in me I did not realize exists—an embedded, gruesome fear—I must please God, or He will send me to Hell, without question or reprieve, ever. I cannot imagine any thought more terrifying. Absolute, eternal damnation.

The fear is intense, yet I fail to understand it. If God loves me, why would He send me to Hell? Why would He punish me at all? Perhaps He doesn’t love me. No, I must not have these thoughts. I will be punished for even thinking such a thing. Could I be so bad as to deserve eternal damnation? I don’t know, but I’m not taking any chances. I will be good and make God happy.

The leader says, “Very good, Carl. You have become well-adjusted. God should be quite pleased with your obedience. You need not worry. You will not be visiting Hell any time soon.”

Any time soon? That small window of possibility remains open. As long as I behave in the future, and keep myself out of trouble, I’ll also keep myself out of Hell. I must ensure above all else, that every waking moment, I am as good as good can be.

“I’ve answered your questions. Can I go now?”

“A final process remains,” he says. “Have patience. Your enrollment in the program is nearly at an end.”

* * *

The doctor removes the pads from my chest, forehead and shoulders, then he packs his gear and collects the paper piled on the floor. The woman who recorded our conversation rises and exits through the far door, and the doctor follows her out.

It appears our little chat is over. The businessmen remain seated with their hands folded. The leader leans to the fellow beside him and whispers something, probably about me and what happens next. The final process I assume, which remains an unsettling mystery. They said I’d be free to go, but somehow, that freedom could be to go somewhere I wouldn’t choose.

The Bobs return and release my restraints. They yank me out of the chair and hold tight.

“It’s okay, Bob,” I say to one, then his partner, “And you too, Bob, don’t worry. I’m not running away this time.”

The goons aren’t taking any chances. They secure another restraint over my wrists and fasten the device with excessive force.

“My name is not Bob,” one of them says, then points to his buddy. “And neither is his, you stupid creature. You will cease referring to agents in this manner immediately.”

I have annoyed him. Good. I’d like to annoy him to death.

“Okay, then what’s your name? Maybe if you introduced yourself properly, I’d know what to call you.”

“That is not important.”

Sure, all the fuss over the proper name and he still doesn’t tell. In that case, I’m sticking with Bob. But then, Dickhead might work, too.

“Don’t I have a right to know who’s roughing me up? I might want to file a complaint. I think every one of you should give me your names. You’re all in big trouble.”

“Enough!” he hollers. “You will be silent.” He points to the door, and the others take every opportunity to slam me into the doorframe on the way out, inflicting additional pain that they seem to enjoy dispensing.

Boy, they’re pissed off. Maybe I should stop calling them Bob.

* * *

After an exhausting trek through a maze of corridors and stairwells, I’m completely lost. Each passage resembles every other, just like the strange people inhabiting this place. Perhaps that is the final process—confuse my sense of direction until I’m thoroughly disoriented. If so, it’s working. I can’t tell which way is which, except that we have been steadily descending. Every stairwell goes down.

Venturing still lower, I begin to wonder—how far down are we to go? We must be underground by now. Hey, hang on, we’re not going to…

Could it be? Could a doorway to the underworld exist below this building? Nah, that’s nonsense. We’re going to the basement. The parking garage. They’re going to give me a lift. But on second thought, a gateway to the underworld is more plausible.

The stairwell ends at a massive steel door. Could it be the door to Hell? No, that’s idiotic. They pull the door open, an enormous slab a foot thick, like a vault. A door such as this could withstand some heavy abuse, like the fires of Hell.

Stop that! It’s not the door to Hell.

Beyond the opening is a black void. Hell’s not black, right? Hell glows, it’s on fire.

The Bobs remove my restraint and shove me through the doorway, into darkness. The door booms shut and the echo fades, giving way to sharp ringing in my ears. That too fades, and I stand alone in a dead calm of silence.

* * *

What is that smell? Nasty. The stench is like burnt dog hair, though I couldn’t qualify that statement. Can’t say I’ve ever barbecued a dog before. But still, the hideous odor is like singed hair mixed with the rotting flesh of an animal. It sure smells like hell.

As my eyes adjust to the darkness, the room’s details slowly form. A strange place, not really a room, and it sure stinks bad with that foul odor staining the cool air. The space is round, like a giant tube standing on end, pointing to the sky. Suspended across the tube is a platform constructed of metal mesh, through which gases or liquids could flow easily. Past the grated decking, the view below is utter blackness. The bottom could be ten feet down, or a mile.

Beyond the round opening high above, there is night sky, but something is different—the darkness is sprinkled with starlight. A wonderful sight, igniting fine memories of lazy evenings spent gazing into the heavens. I haven’t seen stars like that since—

What? I’ve never seen a starry night. Not since the accident. Perhaps my previous life was not so dull after all. The sight of starlight has sparked a lost memory.

Along the platform are guardrails, surely to keep us poor losers from accidentally falling to the bottom, however far down that may be. The metal railing is sticky and covered with soot, and it’s cold, like it’s been inside a freezer.

I peer over the side and search for the bottom. From the eerie quiet, a faint noise begins, coming from below. A low roar, like a furnace igniting. Warm air rises from the depths, and a dim orange glow spreads out far below.

It is Hell.

The dream, the dread—I can’t die by fire. My heart pounds, the flow of adrenaline begins. I am in complete agreement with my body—we will not burn. I search for a hold along the walls, hoping to climb out, and find the surface coated with soot and the sticky remains of every victim who stood here before me. No! There must be a way out of this tube. This tube? This tube is a smokestack. I’ll be ash blowing in the wind, and that was their intent all along. I have to get out of here, then I’m going to kill every last one of them.

A new sound comes from above, a sonorous humming and another low roar. But this sound is not fire. A strange machine is hovering above the smokestack. A flimsy rope ladder is thrown from an open hatch. Someone is leaning out. A woman.

“Adam,” she calls. “Grab the ladder.”

Who is Adam? It doesn’t matter. She’s offering a way out and I’m taking it.

“Bring it lower!” I shout.

The ladder dangles from an aircraft straining to hover steady. I climb onto the metal railing, standing precariously on the thin edge, and reach for the ladder. It swings past, beyond my grasp, then the aircraft dips and the ladder plunges—I snatch hold of it. The aircraft is smacked by a sudden gust, shoots up fast, and I’m yanked airborne.

“Hang on!” the woman calls.

The jolt is too much—the rough cord slips through my fingers. I crash into the guardrail, except—the wrong side. I have missed the platform and now face a fiery death.

Adam!” she screams.

My outstretched hand passes over the railing, my one chance. Fingers hook, too little I fear, but determination ignites. I seize hold of the railing, halting my descent, and nearly ripping my arm from the socket.

The hot railing scalds my palm. Flames shoot up and brighten the round space. Black soot covers the featureless walls, platform, and guardrails.

The rope ladder swings past, just out of reach. The woman is on her way down.

“Hang on!” she calls. “I’m coming.”

Wow, look at that! She is totally hot. What am I thinking? I’m about to die, and what am I doing? I must be out of my mind. But I can’t help it, she looks that good. Tight black shorts, I mean short, baring muscular thighs all the way up, blending perfectly into shapely hips that sway with her marvelous backside as she hurries down the ladder. Gadgets surround her trim waist, hanging from a thick belt that matches her big, bad-ass black boots. As she reaches the ladder’s end, she twists halfway, flinging dark pigtails as she clings to the flimsy rungs, one arm intertwined while the other fiddles through her belt of goodies. Her tight sleeveless top reveals the rest of her feminine features, not particularly abundant, yet incredibly arousing, most notable the tantalizing treats the sheer garment fails to conceal.

Okay, enough of that. But I can’t help it. The sight of any female so gorgeous lets me forget the pain—the scorching heat burning my eyes, hand fried by the guardrail, and one arm nearly plucked from my torso. All gone for one brief moment. Then the pain comes alive as reality steals the moment away.

“Hold still, Adam, I’ll get you.”

There she goes again, calling me Adam. Perhaps this is a case of mistaken identity. I’m not going to say anything. No sense in spoiling my rescue just because I’m the wrong guy.

She pulls a device from her belt. It looks like a gun.

My shoes start smoldering. Kicking my feet, I strain to extinguish the fiery footwear.

“Stop squirming,” she says. “Sit still already.”

Sit? Right, I’ll just whip out a chair.”

Couldn’t help it, sarcasm took over. Better to die laughing—even at a bad joke—than to never laugh at all.

“You are such a smart-ass.” She smiles, almost giggling. “Just hold still.”

The joke wasn’t too bad, she gets it. A nice change from the humor-impaired people I’ve had to deal with lately. Then she points her gun at me.

“What are you doing with that?” I ask.

“Just shut up and be still.” She squints one eye to improve her aim.

Eyes tight, hiding from my demise, I pray that life’s behavior scores well enough to put me in Heaven. Here comes my last moment alive.

A small pop and something slings around my waist, slapping hard like a whip.

“Ouch! Is that necessary?”

Around my waist is a thin wire that she is fastening to the ladder.

“Would you rather be toast?”

Her device wasn’t a gun after all. Or, a wire-gun, I suppose.

“Well?” she says, focused on my hand clutching the guardrail. “Let’s go.”

A determined stare reveals her impatience. More convincing is her gorgeous smile, a great incentive to join her.

I let go of the hot railing. Snared by the wire, I swing away as she clings to the ladder, both of us dangling like a disjointed puppet over the rising inferno. She waves at the hovering aircraft and we are hoisted skyward, though faster would be better. Hungry flames shoot up, chasing after us, and the platform below is engulfed by a roaring blaze. I would be toast now if not for this woman, she wasn’t kidding. She hurries up the ladder, reeled in one jerking yank after another, drawing us closer to the open hatch.

The flames cease instantly. Down below, panels snap open and hiss, breathing out an invisible barrier made of nothing more than air. Then opposing nozzles project and unleash streams of milky substance, concentrating on the torched platform. I would have drowned in that deluge. Or rather my remains, a swirling cloud of ash. The devices below would be containing those ashes. Why?

A shape is forming. The strange object grows larger as the streams crash into one another, and the process creates a giant ice cube. The guardrails now look frosty, which explains the initial coldness. Just before I arrived, another poor soul stood on that platform and was cremated.

A loud bang comes from above and the ladder flies sideways. I’m flung into a wall, bounce off, then crash into another. A mechanism has struck the aircraft, which strains to recover, engines whining as it repositions over the smokestack. The ladder is reeled in fast, yanking the wire tighter around my belly, and I go soaring upward. Walls of soot stream past as I rise toward better air, clearing heat and smoke from my lungs and burning eyes. My ascent eases and I hang weightless for a split-second, fearing a rapid descent comes next, back to the death trap. Arms reach out and haul me into the aircraft.

* * *

Three bodies tumble across the compartment and crash. The woman untangles herself from me and another guy, then jumps up and shouts into a corridor, “David! Get us out of here.”

“Wait!” I cry. “I want to see what happens to the ice.”

I don’t know what gave me the idea I could start barking orders, but I have to know what this program is all about, especially that ice.

The woman sighs, annoyed with me, and it’s familiar, like I’ve annoyed her before. “Okay, but be quick about it.” She turns away and relays instructions to the pilot. “David, hang on, Adam wants to see something. But keep away from that thing. I don’t want it smacking us again.”

The aircraft shoots up. I get untangled from the wire, then lean out the open hatch. The machinery that collided with the aircraft is a giant crane. It lowers into the smokestack, pulls out the cube, then swings to one side and extends its boom, transporting the ice to another area, out of view.

“Turn this thing around,” I say. “I want to see where the ice goes.”

The woman shouts into the corridor, “David, turn us around. He wants to see where it’s putting that thing.”

“Okay,” a voice replies. “Hang on.”

I assume that corridor leads to the cockpit, and further assume that voice belongs to David, the pilot. I once knew a David, I think, but can’t quite remember. But I’m sure I know a guy named Dave, and might even recall—yes, he was a pilot. Here comes another migraine.

The aircraft rotates and the crane comes into view. The ice with my name on it is lowered into a corrugated metal container, similar to a train car but without wheels. Spread across an enormous platform, countless containers are stacked one atop another, the highest with their lids open as blocks of ice are dropped in.

The crane returns to the smokestack and retrieves another cube just that fast, and there is not one crane, nor one smokestack. Dozens of the dark cylinders line the backside of the building, and half as many cranes shift between them. The tubes periodically spit flame followed by a puff of smoke, then a crane lifts out the frosty cargo.

Someone taps my shoulder. I swing around and find the lovely woman pointing to her wrist, at a nonexistent timepiece. “Time’s up. We have to get out of here.”

She’s right—I’m sightseeing when we should be gone, before more trouble shows up. The Bobs won’t be happy with my escape and will likely arrive any minute to show us just how unhappy they can be.

“Okay, we can go now.”

How is it that I’m giving orders and approving actions? I just got here.

The woman pulls me in and secures the hatch, then hollers into the corridor, “Go, David, go!

* * *

The aircraft shoots ahead so fast I’m knocked to the deck, flat on my back. The woman follows, toppling over to land on my chest, her lips just above mine. An instinctual urge to keep her safe, I curl an arm around her and hold tight. The contact is arousing, her chest to mine, and in my grasp, toned muscle flowing along her spine.

“Did you miss me?” she asks.

Do we know each other? I wouldn’t mind knowing her. She’s awesome.

“I’m not sure,” I say. “I mean, not sure who you are.”

“Oh, right, I almost forgot. You don’t know a bunch of stuff.”

As if I need to be reminded. Reminded of all I can’t remind myself—of anything. What I know, who I know, hell, I’m not even sure who I am anymore. I feel like a science experiment, testing how the subject turns out if tortured by an endless dose of ignorance.

“You’re damn right I don’t know a bunch of stuff. Like who you are, and this other guy, and what the hell’s going on. I want answers!”

She sits up to straddle my waist. “Adam, it’s me, Madison. You know, your—”

“Maddie!” the other fellow shouts. “Knock it off. Don’t be talking like that before he’s ready. You know how it works.”

More people talking about me in the third person. Enough of this crap.

“And you!” I holler at her nerdy partner. “Who are you? Don’t talk to her about me. Talk to me if you have something to say about me.”

I shove Madison off. She gets up and casts a disbelieving stare. Too bad, girl, I have better things to do than lie under you.

The other fellow approaches, a scrawny runt with stringy hair crossing his brow, hair he keeps pushing to one side, an annoying nervous habit. He wears baggy shorts a few sizes too large, perhaps all he could find or afford. His chicken legs descend from the giant shorts, into black socks and red sneakers. What a goofball. An oversized tee-shirt hangs from his wiry frame, decorated by crazy artwork. I can’t make out what it’s supposed to be, maybe a logo, but really just a splash of color with orange fabric for a backdrop.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he says. “I didn’t mean to upset you. We need to do a few things first, then we’ll help you understand everything, I promise. Oh, and I’m Matthew, by the way, but you can call me Matt.”

Sir? Did he just call me sir? He is a bit younger. Perhaps it’s that respect for your elders nonsense. But I’m not that much older than him.

“Okay, Matt. I’m Carl, but you can call—”

Wait—that didn’t work on the last guy. My corny joke went right over his head. I should refrain, though it seems to be working this time. Matt has already started chuckling.

“Call you Carl?” he asks. “I’d prefer Adam, and yeah, that lame joke of yours works with Adam, too.”

“Now hold on, you’re doing the same thing, talking about stuff before I’m ready. What makes you so special? And what the hell am I not ready for?”

“Sorry, sir, I’m just excited to see you again, the same way Maddie is. Please forgive me. We need to get out, I mean, fix you up, okay?”

“Quit apologizing! And quit calling me sir. You know I hate that.”

He does? How do I know he knows? Weird.

“We need to fix your wounds,” he says. “Then we’ll explain everything.” He points to my hand.

I had almost forgotten in all the commotion. Again the inescapable pain mechanism turns on. Upon inspecting my burnt palm, oh how the pain comes alive.

“We need to put you under, sir. Oops, I’m sor— I mean, put you—”

“Under what?”

“You know, right? Well I guess maybe not. Under… while we take out… I mean, while we fix you up, okay?”

“Take out what?” I ask, just as a migraine erupts. Here comes that truck driving through.

Madison shoves him out of the way. “Matt, just shut up. Let me handle this.” She draws near, holding a slender metallic vial. “I’m sorry, honey. Don’t be mad at me, this is necessary.”

She pokes me in the neck with her sinister device. It burns. Something flows from the tiny shaft, into my body, and I begin to feel fuzzy. Now what have I gotten myself into? I’m about to fall, Matt is moving behind me, and Madison helps him catch my limp body. I feel light and free, an enjoyable sensation, almost like floating through space, but at the same time, I’m scared.

I’m afraid I’ve been tricked again.