The Prophet.com by Brent Knowles
June 12, 2011 Fiction
This is a story about the early years of the post apocalyptic hero Wanderer and tells of his search for his missing wife. He has not yet found his battlesuit and his foes in this tale are his fellow humans, the ones, like him, who have survived the end of days.
by Brent Knowles
The helicopter disappears beyond the horizon and Wanderer returns his attention to the laptop sitting awkwardly on his knees, sharing space with a can of cold beans. He digs into the beans with a plastic spork as he views the web site behind his dust-covered screen. A photo of a large man with wide, powerful eyes, stares back at him.
It surprises him that these remnants of the old order linger still. Web sites: illusory constructs, full of ideas and utterly lacking in physical substance — devoid even of the paper reality of a book. Of course, they too will fade eventually as power grids collapse and the servers of the world die. Well enough. As long as this one site remains, even if only to goad him.
He snaps the laptop shut, drops it into the bag where he carries his dwindling supply of batteries, and stands up, stretching, bones popping back into place. He takes a moment to stare across the badlands surrounding him and with a heavy sigh he picks up his equipment. There’s less than when he started out. He walks. Dust rolls across his boots.
Figures approach Wanderer. He watches them out of his sun-squinting eyes as his hand drops to his gun but he does not worry. They are Scavengers and he is not a corpse. He watches them disappear into the sand dunes and wonders where they came from. Would they trek from Calgary all the way out here? Unless-
Adrenaline raises his pulse. Taking a swig of dry water from his canteen he carries on, wiping a callused hand over his bearded face and catching the pearls of water that cling to it. Ducking his head, he plows through the field of wind towards his destination. He walks for the day. Dusk comes before Salvation. But he knows it is near. He can smell the metal in the air, can almost taste it. That night he sleeps restlessly on sharp earth.
The scene unfolds around him as it often does when sleep threatens to save his sanity. He tastes her briefly as she pulls away and explains her plan — how ludicrous it seemed then. She spins around the room, as youthful and short-lived as a rainbow, spouting the Prophet’s rhetoric. Her cross hangs nakedly over her chest. He reaches for her, but she eludes his grasp, skin sliding against skin as she laughs.
“I always believed. Always.”
“It’s just a fad,” he protests. She giggles contagiously and he cannot help but smile.
“We can be together forever. Like we vowed,” she says, spinning her wedding ring over her finger, reminding herself and him. They make love that night. She is gone the next evening when it becomes clear that he will not join her. When he finally decides to follow it is too late, but there is a question that plagues him now: is it ever too late to find Salvation?
His head throbs as he rises and he feels like he has hardly slept. During the night the dust formed a comforter over him. Rain falls on his face as he opens his eyes.
It is not rain.
A tall man, crooked as a cracked broom, looms over Wanderer, drool spilling from the corners of his mouth. A burnt, fleshy smell nauseates Wanderer as he sits up. The tall shadow does not even blink. He might as well been dead save he speaks a couple words in a hoarse voice.
Wanderer nods his head. He draws his revolver and shoots the creature, this once-man, this Scavenger. Wanderer is on his feet before the body drops to the dry sand. Ignoring the rank smell, Wanderer searches the body but finds only dried meat. He contemplates taking it, but he won’t eat human flesh, not yet.
He pulls out his laptop. In seconds, he connects to the Redemption site. The words are still as cold as when he first viewed them with Julie so long ago, but he can see how they might have emanated warmth to some. To those who needed the security of a god, the site had been a beacon. He had considered the faithful to be a relatively small percentage of humanity when Redemption became big news two years ago.
He had been wrong.
He had found Julie three months after she had departed — or at least what the Scavengers had left of her. Without the engraved cross around her neck, he would never have been able to identify her corpse.
“Goodbye,” he had muttered before emerging from the Redemption Temple, back into Spokane’s chaotic streets. Of his journey back to his house, he remembered little. Weaving through the empty streets, he had been only vaguely aware of the Scavengers, although he had not started to think of them as that at the time. Only later had he realized what had happened to Julie’s body.
The Prophet had developed technology to convert thoughts, experiences, and memories into a digital signal that could be uploaded into a computerized fantasy world. This newborn technology seemed destined only for games and the eccentric but that was never the Prophet’s intention. The Prophet’s acolytes spammed the Internet and clogged online video services with his messages. Angels, he said, had told him how to build his machines. He spoke of redemption and salvation and his lies beguiled the world. They abandoned their physical bodies in the Resurrection Temples and entered Salvation.
The world found itself bereft of the administrators it so desperately needed, the few that remained were not sufficient to manage the chaos of global economies, global politics. Governments collapsed and the rest of civilization followed — no farmers farmed, no factories manufactured, and no shippers shipped. Those who scorned Salvation or those who were considered morally unacceptable were left alive in a world rapidly degenerating. The Prophet had brought a physical Hell along with his digital Salvation.
As food dwindled some desperate survivors broke into the Resurrection Temples and ate human flesh, over the years these Scavengers have become little more than animals. For months Wanderer has seen no sign of life, of real life, other than the Scavengers and the occasional helicopter. The last acolytes of the Prophet, he supposes, maintaining the Salvation sites across the world.
His eyes skim over the text before him, although he surely should have memorized it by now, given the number of times he has viewed it.
Salvation sites, located around the planet, hold the souls of those awaiting the Resurrection. No more will they have to suffer the physical pains of a material world. After Judgment these righteous souls will be restored to their bodies and will rule a new world. A better world.
The page does not explain how their cannibalized bodies will be restored and Wanderer suspects the Prophet had not predicted the Scavengers.
Through the net, we will transfer your soul to the nearest Salvation site. These sites are to remain hidden from detection.
Living in an abandoned office building, with a collection of canned food and a handful of other survivors, Wanderer had finally traced the connection from the Spokane temple to the nearest server housing a Salvation site. That knowledge had set him upon this trail.
If he is right, it will be here, in the middle of the badlands near Calgary. If he is wrong? Does that really matter? He walks for the day and a couple more. Only once does he see the helicopter, a tiny speck far from him.
The Scavengers make their home on the outside of the fortress, makeshift lean-tos resting against a towering metal edifice, like a medieval castle, with peasants camped outside of its walls. Salvation awaits him.
He fires a clip into the sleeping Scavengers, killing several of them and sending the rest of them to flight. Their dark, twisting bodies skitter into the vast badlands. One of the shot Scavengers jiggles and moans as Wanderer passes by.
A small keypad, soiled with oily fingerprints, huddles in the nook of a doorway. A huge slab of metal blocks the way into Salvation. Judging from the gunpowder burns, knife wounds, and door dents a few Scavengers have tried to gain entrance to this sacred depository of human souls. And what would they do, Wanderer wonders, would they seek the truth, as he now does?
Early on in his travels, Wanderer had noticed that the web page counter for the Redemption site acted odd. Instead of counting the number of visitors to the page, it counted down — each day it dropped another number. Today it read 512. It was the only number that held a connection to the Redemption site.
He punches the number into the keypad.
An audible click alerts him to his success. He pushes against the door and it opens inwards. Wanderer enters. His hand slides along the wall until it passes over a sensor. Light fills the large hallway and a dozen exits appear before him. After taking a moment to shut the door, Wanderer follows the hallway that will lead him to his destiny.
She dances in front of him, her legs spinning her across the green meadow. A cool wind caresses his back and neck as he approaches. He feels… relaxed. This is unexpected, unusual. He watches his dead wife silently from the trees, his eyes wet with tears. Finally he gathers his courage and approaches her.
“Julie,” he whispers.
She stops, facing away from him as a measurable tension tightens her posture. She turns slowly, weeping before even seeing him. “It can’t be-“
They embrace, both of them sobbing for different reasons.
“You believe, you’ve been accepted!” She wipes at her tears with the back of her hand as a smile grows on her face. “You have joined me in paradise.”
“It is a paradise,” he says, “but I-“
She presses her palm against his lips. “Come there is so much to show you.” She grabs his protesting hand and pulls him away from his words. She drags him past trees, resting bears and frolicking fawns. He comes across a village in the trees where the people wave and smile at him warmly.
The houses are a part of the trees themselves and Wanderer amazes himself by running his hands along their smooth, polished exteriors. They are so beautiful. Julie stops in front of one. She tells him it is her home, their home.
Although not large, the house boasts useful simplicity. Hardwood floors carry Wanderer past a modern living room, through a kitchen with all the usual amenities, and into a small study with a computer. The amazed part of his brain wonders at this peaceful coexistence of technology and nature until the rational part reminds him that he is simply inside the brains of a software program. It is all illusion. Anything is possible here.
“At first it was strange,” Julie admits, “when we entered Salvation, to await the Judgment of the world. The Prophet says that we waited a thousand years for the Earth to become whole again. A thousand, can you even imagine? And finally it was judged time for us to return and we found this.” She spreads her arms wide about her, encompassing the room, the village, the forest, and the world in one significant gesture.
He opens his mouth to speak again. To dispel the illusions, to reveal the secret — no Julie, this is not the real world. You’re dead. Inside a computer.
Instead, they make love.
The next morning sunlight spills in from the bedroom window, warming the two of them as they cuddle in each other’s arms. He is the bearer of truth, the one who sees past the shadows of this artificial cave. But she is happy and this makes him happy too. Still Wanderer cannot move past his troubling thoughts.
This world’s existence remains contingent on the continuation of the outside world. As long as the computers and their power supply function the people within will remain happy for eternity. Yet, could he live here, knowing it was an illusion? Again, the Prophet’s website reminds him: “and you, who know the truth, can you live without shouting it? Do you not have a responsibility to tell others so they will know?”
Julie stirs in his arms and he watches her wake with all the beauty and grace of a blooming flower. She is at peace and happy, happier than any person has ever been. He can leave her now.
Wanderer watches from the shadows. The men, two acolytes and a taller figure whose face has remained turned away since entering the room, move about, monitoring the Salvation machines. He studies what they do, because after he kills them, he’ll be responsible for this place. It would be easier if he just left it to fall apart, but he won’t do that, not to Julie.
Forever will last as long as possible.
Two shots and the acolytes fall, the taller man turns and Wanderer sees his face… it is too familiar, like an unwanted tattoo. Magazines. Television. The Internet. That face had been plastered everywhere, the idiotically joyful countenance of a madman. The Prophet’s eyes widen, worn wrinkles creasing.
Neither speak. The Prophet’s blue eyes dart back towards the machines as if to reassure himself that the stranger has not done any damage to his phantom world.
Finally the Prophet breaks, asks hopefully, “You’ve come for Salvation?”
Hardly. He knows this kind of man, he knows that if he starts talking, the Prophet will turn his words, will twist his thoughts. Wanderer shakes his head.
“Then what?” The Prophet takes a step towards the doorway. The helicopter waits outside. The look Wanderer gives the Prophet tells the priest that he would never make the run.
“To tell them the truth,” Wanderer says, gesturing with a slight nod of his head to the machines.
Now the Prophet’s eyes widen. “For what purpose? To torment them? They’ve achieved what I promised. Resurrection.”
“Murdering them… trapping them inside the machines… hardly a Resurrection.”
The Prophet laughs. “Literalness always ruins faith. The song of angels, sung to me for so many years, it has told me the Truth. This is what God intended, stranger. I am merely his tool.”
“And the survivors? Those Scavengers?”
The Prophet shrugs. “Every world has its demons.”
“Is that what they are?” Wanderer asks, gesturing to outside the compound, “Is that what I am?”
The Prophet does not answer him and so Wanderer fires the gun, catching him in the leg. The Prophet cries out in pain, collapses. Wanderer stands over him, gun leveled at the man’s head.
“Why are you doing this? I gave humankind eternal life, I created souls for them, the ones that accepted me. I followed God’s will.”
Wanderer grabs the Prophet and deposits him onto the Salvation chair.
“You dumb fuck. Why would God want us all to die? You’ve exterminated the entire fucking species! Strap those on, now.”
The Prophet hesitates but finally obeys, clipping several diodes to his forehead. Wanderer jams the long, silver needle into the base of the man’s skull. It is still bloody from when Wanderer had used it a few hours previous.
“Don’t do this to me…”
Wanderer hesitates at the console, ready to send the Prophet into his own world.
“Why not? It is your paradise, why wouldn’t you want to live there?”
The Prophet does not answer him, but instead asks his own question, one hand pressed over his bleeding leg, “You entered Salvation and yet did not stay. Why?”
“I could not live there knowing the truth, and I could not tell those inside the truth, because they can no longer leave. I am not cruel.”
“But you’re forcing me, when you know I know the truth!”
Wanderer shrugs. “Then maybe I am a little cruel, I suppose.” He punches buttons, begins the process.
“They won’t understand!” The Prophet wails as the drugs begin to flow in through the cranium drip.
“What?” Wanderer growls.
“The Angels, they’re coming.”
Wanderer shakes his head. “You’re just a fool who chanced upon technology that would have been best kept from us. There are no Angels.”
“Listen to me. They’ve spoken to me in my dreams, for years, decades! The plans for the salvation system, everything, they gave them to me. They’ve been hidden, waiting for the Resurrection to begin; else they’d be discovered. Now no one watches the skies… they can come. Finally.”
Wanderer almost stops the process, cocking his head, wondering. His hand begins to shake.
“What are these Angels?”
The Prophet’s eyes grow dim, his words slurring. “I do not know… but they are divine and I so wanted to meet them. They won’t understand if I am not here. You must not…”
But the Prophet is gone.
Wanderer imagines spacecraft drifting towards Earth and shudders. Could it be? An elaborate ploy orchestrated by some alien species?
And then he thinks of the Prophet’s website counter, decrementing every day. Is it a timer for the arrival of these Angels?
If so, there is not much time to prepare.
Later, after feeding the Prophet and his acolytes to the Scavengers, Wanderer stares out at the vast stars covering the nighttime sky. There is temptation to return to Salvation, to Julie, but he knows the truth: his wandering is far from finished.
About the Author
Thank you for reading this story and I hope you enjoyed it. I am a recent winner of the Writers of the Future Contest and have a dozen or so short stories published. I am a former game designer with the role-playing game developer BioWare (Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age) and I regularly blog about writing and game design at http://blog.brentknowles.com. Please stop by and say hi!
Discover other stories by Brent Knowles at Smashwords.com
The Tale of Lady Spite
The End of the Road (Another Wanderer Story!)
A Ragman’s Vow
From the Sea
From the Sea and Other Stories
Digital Rights (Writers of the Future Winning Story)
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