It was the first time Harold had ever felt out of place in a room full of books. He admired the architecture, the well angled shelves cleverly placed to maximize the use of natural light filtering in through the yellowed windows. The spiral staircase down the center of the building was a nice touch, too. Of course, the exotic, olive-skinned librarian hadn’t hurt, either. Kiana. A pretty name.
So the problem wasn’t with the place itself. It was Harold. He wore a bulky pack on his shoulders and muddy, loosely laced sneakers on his feet. He hadn’t showered in a day and a half, and the beard growth spurting from his chin and cheeks made him feel more out of place than a beggar in Albert Hall. A few of the library’s guests looked up from their scattered positions at tables, along shelves, on benches. Most smiled. One even nodded. Harold returned the gesture and skittered up the staircase.
As Harold enter the second level of the sprawling rows of books, he sorely wished he’d set a later time with Jack. One hour–no, only fifty minutes now!–was not nearly enough. The sheer vastness of the library’s collection fascinated him. He had expected a meager selection, something hand-picked by whatever shadowy figures were pulling strings behind the curtain. This, though. This was impressive.
He noticed the Sciences section. He felt his feet pulling him in its direction and fought the urge. No. Not now. If he started now he’d never leave, and time was marching away from him steadily with each second. He pressed on.
History. Oh, that would be an interesting one, too. Harold allowed himself a casual stroll down the aisle, glancing at the sub-sections marked by thick paper cards jutting from between the books. Post-Arm, read one of the cards. Harold wondered what ‘Arm’ stood for, and why it occupied such a significant section of the shelf. An arrow pointed away from it towards the right end of the shelf. The first three books on this end had a similar design to them. They were hardcovers, with titles embossed in silver foil into their spines: NE 1-49. NE 50-99. NE 100-149. To the right of these three books, a smaller divider had been added: Topical Reference.
Harold noticed that many of the other sections were organized similarly. On the left side of the shelf, volumes covered fifty-year increments. On the right side, other volumes covered historical events by topic. Harold assumed that the chronological volumes would probably cover the broader, more important historical events, while the topical books would delve into the specifics.
He tugged one of the volumes from the shelf, European Cities. He fanned through the pages. C. Cal. Calleen. Calmet. Calvert. Cambert. Cambrine. Camcolt. Camcorde.
Harold stopped, ran his finger back along the index of names. No Cambridge. Harold could feel an unsettling sensation in the pit of his stomach. He stepped back, taking in a wider view of the shelf. He slid the book back between the others and reached for another, its apparent counterpart in the Pre-Arm section.
Cambridge. Cambridge University. So it did exist in these books! Pulse quickening, Harold slumped over and drank in the words on the page.
The city of Cambridge, home to the once-prominent Cambridge University, was located in the county town of Cambridgeshire, Old England. It was situated on the River Cam, 50 miles north of London. A final government census taken in 2019 showed a population of 157,992 souls (26,322 being students). Cambridge is believed to have been a settlement in ancient Roman times, though its history traces back to the Viking era, where it once served as an important trading center…
Harold grumbled impatiently, scanning farther down the page. Then his eyes caught it. He swallowed hard. He blinked, hoping the words might somehow rearrange themselves on the page. There, several paragraphs down, was the subheading Harold had feared he might find.
Destruction of Cambridge
Cambridge, particularly its university campuses, were areas of intense fighting during the Great Tribulation. With the passage of the initial anti-religious sanctions by the United Nations, the small city became a target of insurgent Islamic and Christian violence. The first building to sustain serious damage was the Cambridge University Library, which was burned to the ground by a coalition of Christian extremists from a neighboring town. Two of the members of the coalition were killed by university staff.
Other university properties, such as the high-tech business cluster known as Silicon Fen, Addenbrooke’s, and the Downing Site experienced similar instances of violence, often between students and student bodies claiming to be Atheist, Christian, and Muslim. The death toll resulting from these clashes is still unknown.
Eventually, Cambridge University and much of the surrounding city’s buildings were destroyed in a sulfur firestorm that ravaged various parts of England during Armageddon…
Harold lowered the book slowly, scarcely able to comprehend the words that bled from the page. The unsettling roiling in his stomach was now a ball of icy lightning, sending shivers though his spine and making his toes and fingers cold. He felt like his limbs had been sleeping and now the blood was flowing back, tingling and pricking and biting beneath his pallid skin.
Armageddon. So that’s what they called it. They believed this Armageddon had been the bringer of paradise and they believed it was an act of God. But what had really happened? Utopias didn’t exist. Whatever this was, it had to have an explanation, and Harold was willing to put money on the fact that something sinister was afoot. It would only be a matter of finding the cracks in the facade. You just had to know where to look.
Every society, regime, town, country, etc., had a leader. Someone who called the shots. It was this leader (or those directly under them) who pulled the strings and made the decisions. So who was in charge here? Harold hadn’t explored much of the town on his own feet, but from his spot on the hill his binoculars had revealed nothing that looked like a government building. No tall, imposing structures with waving flags or political insignias. No signs or posters spouting propaganda. Not even a monument of a founding father.
G is for Government. Harold ran his index finger along the Pre-Arm books, locating the correct volume and flipping frantically through its pages. Government.
The authoritative management and control exercised over the actions of citizens in communities, societies, and states. Also, the person, body of persons, or the organizations constituting the governing authority.
Sure, whatever, thought Harold. It was a standard textbook definition anyone could agree with. He continued down the page. The first subheading caught his eye:
Unlike the human governments established and ruled by imperfect humans in the Old World, the New World is ruled by the spirit creature Jesus Christ, who along with his close associates and spirit-anointed 144,000, manages the Earthly affairs of God’s Kingdom from a heavenly abode. Under theocratic rule, humans live in peaceful, paradisaic conditions, enjoying harmony among their races and within the natural plant and animal habitat as never before experienced under previous human rule. Theocratic rule by the messianic kingdom has also resulted in the following...
Harold shut the book and jammed in back into its nook on the shelf. His mind was reeling, drowning in the choppy seas of thoughts grey and turbulent. No. It simply could not be. Someone had written these books. Someone with great influence... great power... great wealth.
A religious dystopia? Harold thought back to books he’d read in primary school: evil societies dreamed up by Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury. Paradise on the surface, with war and famine lurking somewhere beneath. Peace for the ruling upper class, chaos for everyone else.
But then why did the government hide? Why mask itself in all this theocracy business? And where could he find proof? Harold rubbed the stubble on his chin with the back of his hand. He glanced suddenly at his wrist. Where had the time gone! Had he really been here an hour? Harold hefted his pack back on his shoulders and hurried down the spiral staircase and out of the front door.
Jack held the delicate glass sphere in his hands, turning it over gently to examine the ornate painting inside. He’d seen something like it once, back in Iraq, but this was of a much higher quality. This one was Chinese, and the painting depicted a small child riding through a bamboo forest on the back of a smiling panda. Jack smiled, too. His mind went suddenly back to the Lewis center on the mountain, the quiet Chinese woman who had spoken to him only occasionally. He wondered if she’d ever seen a painted bottle like this.
The vendor smiled up at him politely, waiting for him to speak.
“How much?” Jack finally asked. The woman squinted as if the question didn’t make sense.
“Our whole family does these paintings, we come here to trade for food and supplies. What wares have you brought to trade?” She asked. Jack guessed her age at probably twenty-one. She had a small frame, cropped black hair, and wide, beautiful eyes. Her English was perfect.
“Trade?” Jack asked.
“Right, trade. We usually only do goodstrades, though.”
“Goodstrades? Sorry, I’m not from around here.”
“Oh. You know, trades for goods. Some do servicetrades, they’ll come and help you build something on your house or install those new pipe systems or solar panels, but our family is pretty good at doing that ourselves. So we usually just do goodstrades.”
“Ah, I get it. Interesting,” Jack said. “So everyone here just trades?”
“Um, yeah. You must be from really far away, brother. I thought this is how we were doing this everywhere. Guess not,” the girl smiled. Jack smiled back but felt awkward. He set the sphere down carefully and nodded in appreciation.
“Sorry, I’ve got nothing you’d want. Maybe next time, though, These are really something.”
Still smiling, the girl lifted the sphere from the table and placed it back in Jack’s hands. “My gift. Don’t worry about the trade.”
“No, no, I couldn’t accept that,” Jack said, handing it back.
“Please. Take it. We have more than we need and you look like you’ve come a long way. Think of it as a welcome present.”
Jack stood there, towering over the small woman, stunned and speechless.
“Thanks,” he finally managed.
“You’re welcome. See you in the next garden,” she said, tilting her head to one side. Jack mimicked the gesture.
“See you in the next garden,” he repeated.
Jack wrapped the glass sphere carefully in one of his flannel shirts, tying the sleeves together to keep it safe and snug in his pack. He glanced at his watch. Already twenty-five minutes gone. He scolded himself for allowing the distraction and reviewed the mental checklist of items they needed. Determined, he returned to the main aisle through the bazaar, scanning the stalls for food.
It was then, out of the corner of his eye, that he saw something that made his heart nearly stop. He turned and watched intently, trying to see past a sea of moving heads. He gasped. There, just beyond the edge of the market where he and Harold had been standing moments ago, stood Charlie and his son, Daniel.
They were looking right at Jack, and pointing.
Jack turned on his heel, ducking through carts and stalls as he darted for the other end of the market. He heard his boots crash into something beneath him that sounded like pottery, heard the scream of one of the patrons. Don’t stop, Jack thought. Don’t look back. Just keep going.
Jack leaped over a table of fruit. Melons exploded as they hit the ground, sending their wet stickiness into the air and against the shoppers’ clothes. More screams. Shocked faces watched as he passed. Finally Jack came to the barrier, a simple, waist-high wooden fence that separated the bazaar from the forest boundary. Jack reached out his arm, planting it on one of the fence posts as he threw his legs up and over the rail.
Jack’s boots landed in the soft grass. Only a few more yards. Jack’s legs pumped hard. The tree line raced forward to meet him. Jack turned to look back, just this once, just to see if the men had managed to follow him. And there, standing on the other side of the rail, stood the young Chinese woman with the glass spheres. Her eyes didn’t understand. She was frowning.
As Jack plunged into the forest, he failed to see the tall man standing just to the left of one of the wooden fence posts. He wore a long dark coat and a hat which he removed quietly to smooth back his slicked red hair. He watched carefully as Jack bounded away and was quickly swallowed up in the heavy thicket of a damp, looming forest.
Daniel was sure it had been him. He could swear by it. It had only been an instant–a ghost of a face in a crowd of heads–but Daniel had seen him. He’d seen Jack. But then the face was gone.
“Are you sure?” Charlie asked as he followed his son around the wooden fence and through the entrance into the bazaar.
“Yes. And I’m sure he saw me. Then he turned and ran.”
Daniel worked his way through the stalls, back to the place he’d seen Jack. Yes, this was right where Jack had been standing. To his right had been the woven baskets, ceramics on the left. This was it.
“I think he ran this way,” Daniel said, pointing straight through the crowd.
“Think? Didn’t you see him?” Charlie said, sounding irritated.
“Well I saw his face but there were too many people. I couldn’t see which direction he left in.” When Jack had turned his head had blended instantly into the crowd of colorful headwear and smiling faces. It had been impossible to determine how he’d moved. Suddenly though, Daniel realized it wasn’t necessary.
“Look!” he said, patting his father’s arm with the back of one hand and motioning ahead and to their left. Ten yards in front of them, a man and a woman gathered oranges from the ground into a purple bushel. Behind them, a man appeared to be holding shards of broken pottery.
“Let’s go talk to them,” Charlie said.
Daniel and Charlie moved through the crowd, which was growing by the minute as vendors moved into their stalls, pulling large carts covered in waxed canvas and neoprene tarps. They both realized that it would be impossible to recover Jack’s trail if they didn’t work quickly.
“Excuse me,” Daniel said, bending down to help the man recover a squashed plum from the ground. The man turned slowly. He was frowning.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but did a man just come through here? Probably carrying a backpack, about this tall?” Daniel asked, raising his hand slightly above his own height.
“You mean run through here? Yes. Knocked most of our fruit right onto the ground, too. He a friend of yours?”
“Well when you see him tell him to be more cautious next time. We just lost fruit, but the Benzes had some of their ceramics knocked over. They only brought a few, you see?”
Daniel glanced over at the next stall, where a doleful man swept fragments of broken vases into a paper bag. Daniel was overcome by a wave of guilt.
“I’m truly sorry about that. I wish we had something to offer you, but we’ve left our house in such a rush, and–“
“It’s fine, it’s fine. It shouldn’t come from you anyways. What was he running from?” The man asked, tossing a shard of fruit into a wastebasket and wiping his hands with a towel looped through his belt.
“We’re not sure, either. It’s kind of a long story, but basically–“ Daniel paused as a hand gripped his shoulder. He turned to see his father’s face.
“We’re sorry about the fruit, brother, but we’re in quite a hurry,” Charlie said as he tugged on his son’s arm.
“Wait,” Daniel said, pulling away. “Was he alone when you saw him?” Daniel asked the fruit vendor. The man shrugged.
“I only saw him, yeah. But it was fast. He ran like he was scared for his life.”
“And he ran that way?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah, but I didn’t watch him for long. He was just here one instant and gone the next. Maybe you should talk to the folks over there.”
“We will,” Daniel said. “Thank you so much.”
Charlie considered something for a second, then pulled a notepad from his pack. He scribbled a few numbers and words on a small sheet of paper and handed it to the vendor. “My name’s Charlie Lewis and this is my son, Daniel. We’ve got a center up on the hill to the east. If you’re ever in the area please stop by. We’re very sorry about all this.”
The man took the paper and nodded.
“I’ll bet he headed back to the forest,” Daniel whispered to his father when they’d taken a few more steps.
“What is going through that boy’s mind?” Charlie groaned as he scanned the crowded bazaar.
“If we talk to all the vendors it’s going to take time. I say we just go check out the woods and see if we can find clues. Maybe footprints or something. The grass should still have dew on it this early in the morning,” Daniel offered. His father looked at him in silence for a few long moments.
“Okay,” Charlie finally said. “That’s a good idea.”
The two turned back and made their way to the entrance of the bazaar. There was so much to look at here, many of them things that Daniel had never seen before. Mechanical things that could do tasks. Chairs that folded into beds. Pretty things. Artwork. Sculptures. Instruments. Things to eat. A thousand sights, smells, and sounds to vie for his attention. But now was not the time. They needed to find Jack and Harold.
Harold checked his watch for the fourth time. He had been explicit in his instructions to Jack. He was to get the food and get out. There had been no time to spare. The first stirrings of anxiety came over him. Harold turned to survey the two paths that intersected at the point where he stood. He watched the faces of strangers coming and going and wondered if some of the eyes were watching him back.
The crowd had grown considerably since Harold and Jack had first arrived in the small town. Many of the people were funneling excitedly into the bazaar. Perhaps that was it, then. Perhaps Jack was caught in the human traffic. Harold rubbed his chin with the back of his hand and grumbled. This was not a time to be late.
Just how much time they actually had Harold could only guess. Had a warrant been put out for their arrest? Had secret words been whispered into telephone receivers offering a bounty for their capture? Might the doors to one of these buildings open up at any moment, spouting troops of guards sent to haul the fugitives away into the mysterious bowels of this dystopia? Harold’s mind reeled with paranoia. His eyes narrowed as they roved about the walls, the cafe patrons, and the sea of heads swirling amidst the bazaar.
Hurry, Jack. Please hurry.
But with each passing moment, Harold’s discomfort and fear edged towards fury. Prickly green tension swapped for a lava red rage. For in his anger was power, and in his power was a sense of control.
Then again, maybe Jack had simply been a traitor waiting for the moment to spring. Hadn’t there been signs all along? The conspicuous denial of Harold’s claims of conspiracy? The gutless defense of their surroundings? Some soldier! So that was it, then. Harold was on his own.
Not that it’d be any great loss. Harold had his own supplies–food tins, a sleeping bag, a flashlight, and the map. He’d be fine on his own; He didn’t need Jack to survive. He’d been the one to plan the excursion in the first place. Harold spat vehemently onto the dirt road, pushing a small brown plume of dust into the air at his feet.
One last glance into the crowded bazaar...
And there, between intersecting walls of bodies and clothing, Harold thought he saw something. He stepped closer to the fence, one, two. Leaned his head forward, peering at the faces. The crowd split for an instant. It was long enough. There, standing not forty yards ahead, was Charlie and his son.
Harold staggered back. Cold fear washed over his fiery anger, putting it out. He moved quickly back along the path he’d come when they first entered the town. Don’t run, Harold told himself. That will only cause alarm. Move quickly, move quickly, get to the trees!
Harold’s feet moved with controlled speed as the tree line crept ever forward. A young couple converged on his path from a road to the left. In one swift, unthinking moment Harold looked, smiled, nodded. The couple greeted him back. But there was something odd about the man’s look as he tilted his head and grinned. Something that covered Harold in a sheet of icy terror.
Harold pushed the feeling away and continued walking, quickening his pace ever so slightly as he passed. Behind him, he could hear their heels scrape against the dirt road as they stopped. They were turning now, and he could feel their gaze burning into the back of his neck.
Then the man’s voice reached over Harold’s shoulder, stopping him cold.
Harold froze. A single word. But it was an iron fist that held him in an unyielding grip.
“E-excuse me?” He muttered without turning to look.
“Harold? Harold Dawson?”
“Me?” Harold’s voice trembled. The discomfort was physically painful.
“Yes, are you Harold?”
Harold’s mind raced. There was no aggression in the voice, but he didn’t dare to turn and look. He struggled to recall the faces he’d just seen, for the briefest instant. How did they know them? Had they met?
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. The words were nearly incoherent. “I think you have me mistaken for someone else.”
“Oh,” said the voice. He sounded disappointed. “Sorry, then.”
“Yes. No problem. I’ll be seeing you,” Harold said, managing to turn slightly back to the couple. They could only glance his profile as he nodded.
Harold heard low whispers between the couple as the trees came closer and closer. He waited, knowing at any moment they would come after him. How did they know him! Harold imagined sirens wailing his name into the sky, helicopters shining great milky blue beams of light into the canopy, hunting down the fugitive that had been seen in Clive!
Harold stormed his way into the thicket, hearing twigs and branches snap as he charged at the darkness, a great unstoppable machine. Harold cursed his fate and ran. It was all he could do. He didn’t look back. He ran with a speed that surprised himself, he ran with a swiftness he hadn’t felt in decades.
Thoughts and fears blurred into the background as Harold leapt over logs and rocks and dodged beneath branches and leaves. But Harold missed the vine. It had grown between two trees at waist-height, and it snagged on his thigh as he dashed past. The thorny vine snapped apart and whipped against Harold’s leg, biting past the fabric of his pants and into the flesh of his legs. Harold howled in pain and tumbled into the dirt. He reached down frantically, clawing at the vines with his hands. He tried to pull them from his leg, slashing the skin of his palms and wrists.
Harold cursed in fear and pain. Beads of blood swelled and trickled from his wounds. He clasped his hands together and held them to his chest. He tore a sleeve from his shirt and wrapped it around his palms. The adrenaline was gone now. Harold glanced around, trying to get his bearings. The town and the clearing and the bazaar were nowhere to be seen. There were no paths or trails. Harold had run deep into the woods and was lost.
The forest around Harold was thick and full. In every direction, trees sprouted endlessly from an earth blanketed in mulch. There was no uphill or downhill. The ground was flat. Harold spun, forgetting which direction he’d been running from or to. The scenery in every direction looked the same. Harold felt a cold droplet on his face and looked up. The sky darkened and groaned.
Against all reason, Harold slogged still further on. His hands and leg throbbed with pain. His head felt light and dizzy. His feet dragged across the moldered forest floor. In his disoriented and battered state, Harold failed to note the curious brown thread poking from beneath a layer of faded red and brown leaves. It was strung from the base of one tree to the dead stump of another, not ten feet away. Dazed and winded, Harold stepped right into it.
There was a deafening crack from somewhere high above as a branch gave way, sending a shower of dead leaves into the air like birds taking flight. A net filled with rocks dropped from somewhere behind him, and Harold watched in bewilderment as the leaves on the forest floor erupted into the air as a rope twanged taut like a flexed muscle.
The rope cinched with a snap around Harold’s ankle and yanked his fee from under him, slamming his body onto the ground. It dragged him over a tangle of sticks and rocks and dirt and leaves. Harold’s arms flailed, desperate for purchase. He scrambled with bandaged hands at trees and weeds as they slid past, but he was moving too fast. Something rushed up to meet him, something dark and heavy, and there was a sharp pain in his head, and then darkness. Only darkness.