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Paranoia in Washington, D. C., riots in major cities protesting the Vietnam War, and an economy struggling to survive under the pressure. Children sit colorlessly in 4x4 classrooms across America, attentively listening to broadcasts on nuclear survival. Political parties elect Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy to smoother societal flames. This turmoil, alongside the overlapping threat of the Cold War, combines into a stew that personifies the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

The 1950s is known as the Decade of Conformity. Ironically, the counterculture movement is a major component of the dystopian era. The psychedelic drug LSD rapidly spreads across the West Coast, creating a variety of change from the rise of the San Francisco Acid Tests to the way journalism works today. The consumption of magic mushrooms skyrockets, and the propaganda surrounding marijuana is at its highest.

Communism and capitalism hold each other by the throat. The tug-of-war between these two ideologies result in a historic turning point in our world, the First and Second Red Scare. Joseph McCarthy sits at the helm, inspiring future playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee to produce Inherit the Wind.

Racism and sexism make their ways into politics. Gender roles tie into the era’s perception of women. Jobs become available because of skin pigment. This aspect of American history inspires change in the feeble hearts and minds of the innocent. People speak of an end to this segregation, calling for a great leader to put out the fires of white people in blue uniforms.

In Montgomery, Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white man. This demonstration, with the involvement of  the Women’s Political Council and the Montgomery Improvement Association, leads to the desegregation of busses following the ruling of Browder V. Gayle.

In mental asylums, their patients experience the worst form of treatment possible. They struggle against the force of doctors in white shirts, against the relentless tides of electroshock and hydrotherapy. With no support from the outside world, these people are outcasts, thrown like dolls beneath the weight of  a rapidly changing climate. In this time, homosexuality is still seen as a mental disorder, a fascinating glance into complete immorality.

In the Eastern world, American soldiers land on Vietnam for the first time. This involvement changes the way society views war. The country just barely survived the threats of two previous world wars, wars which were fought on honor, liberty, and bringing justice to the unjust Nazi Germany. This time, the war is about two ideologies: imperialism and American exceptionalism. Imperialism is the foreign drive behind this conflict whereas American exceptionalism is our homeland coping mechanism.

This era, no matter how vile or evil, still remains to be one of the most fascinating decades of American history. In this time, people begin to doubt God’s existence en masse, a spectacle for the aura of today’s pastors. However, amidst all this confusion, doubt, and betrayal, the event that brings down civilization doesn’t come from these petty squallers in hindsight; it comes from us.

In this universe, America has the militaristic advantage, and the Vietcong become desperate. Generals conspire with Chinese doctors to create a disease capable enough to send the American imperialists back to their capitalist wasteland. The disease, Project Runway, takes time, money, and struggle to produce. Numerous deaths occur within this esoteric period, either from elite scientists blackmailing each other or betrayal from inner circle members releasing classified information to the public.

Back home, America grows suspicious of China. J. Edgar Hoover (founder of the FBI in 1935) sends agent Raleigh DeGeer Amyx to the country via airplane cargo hold. Once there, Amyx settles in Beijing, where scientists work around the clock on Project Runway. Here, he does whatever he can to uncover secrets. On October 31st, 1967, that opportunity unveils itself in the form of  rouge Chinese hackers infiltrating government buildings with an aim to leak all classified documents to the public. Amyx steals whatever knowledge he can and escapes the country through its underground sewage system.

Eventually, he reaches Thailand (America’s ally), where he boards a ship and returns home with information as valuable as gold. The government withholds the news from the public, in the fear of causing mass hysteria. The society is already on thin ice, and this leak could be the pick that breaks through the surface. Whistleblowers attempt to become martyrs, but firewalls, passwords, emails written in code, and Fort Knox-esque encryption software prevents hope. Foreign reports are on lockdown. In the battlefield, officers and soldiers lose the right to send letters back to their loved ones, and concurrently, victory gardens begin dwindling.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), work together in an attempt to find a cure for the virus. However, the genetic data within the virus suggests its rapid tendency to mutate, making it difficult for the alchemists to create something from nothing.

During this time, Russia formulates her own plans for retaliation. Scientists develop an EMP capable to destroy an entire civilization. With these events bleeding into one another, the world becomes quiet in this uncertain time. The smart ones are able to realize the madness, and they abandon their homes for an unknown promised land. Some can’t cope with the pressure, turning guns to their heads and pulling the trigger. Lone blasts echo through lifeless streets, ricocheting off the edges of a broken present. Others remain blissfully ignorant, disregarding the kaleidoscope of misinformation and misanthropy. The world engulfs itself in fog, a wave unlike any other. Who can we point the fingers at for this slow crumble?

The American Dream is a joke now. The terror and fear turn it into a nightmare. The end of the world doesn’t come from a bomb, but from the slow degradation of our morality. Humans act like Gods, destroying and repairing at the snap of a finger and a few million dollars. The era becomes a funhouse mirror, dissolving into countless reflections with winding and morphing perspectives. How do we get back on our feet after this ends? How do we justify and live with the choices we make? What consequences can arise without contingency?

The following pages record the lives of prominent survivors, who aim to build something they perceive is worth striving for. But in this future, without laws, prisons, or rules, what good can come from these ashes? What bad can come from the fire? A man’s greed is as sturdy as the foundations on which he built his selfishness, and in this situation, selfishness becomes a survival tactic. In this Era of Uncertainty, the only constant is devolution.

Paranoia in Washington, D. C., riots in major cities protesting the Vietnam War, and an economy struggling to survive under the pressure. Children sit colorlessly in 4x4 classrooms across America, attentively listening to broadcasts on nuclear survival. Political parties elect Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy to smoother societal flames. This turmoil, alongside the overlapping threat of the Cold War, combines into a stew that personifies the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

The 1950s is known as the Decade of Conformity. Ironically, the counterculture movement is a major component of the dystopian era. The psychedelic drug LSD rapidly spreads across the West Coast, creating a variety of change from the rise of the San Francisco Acid Tests to the way journalism works today. The consumption of magic mushrooms skyrockets, and the propaganda surrounding marijuana is at its highest.

Communism and capitalism hold each other by the throat. The tug-of-war between these two ideologies result in a historic turning point in our world, the First and Second Red Scare. Joseph McCarthy sits at the helm, inspiring future playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee to produce Inherit the Wind.

Racism and sexism make their ways into politics. Gender roles tie into the era’s perception of women. Jobs become available because of skin pigment. This aspect of American history inspires change in the feeble hearts and minds of the innocent. People speak of an end to this segregation, calling for a great leader to put out the fires of white people in blue uniforms.

In Montgomery, Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white man. This demonstration, with the involvement of  the Women’s Political Council and the Montgomery Improvement Association, leads to the desegregation of busses following the ruling of Browder V. Gayle.

In mental asylums, their patients experience the worst form of treatment possible. They struggle against the force of doctors in white shirts, against the relentless tides of electroshock and hydrotherapy. With no support from the outside world, these people are outcasts, thrown like dolls beneath the weight of  a rapidly changing climate. In this time, homosexuality is still seen as a mental disorder, a fascinating glance into complete immorality.

In the Eastern world, American soldiers land on Vietnam for the first time. This involvement changes the way society views war. The country just barely survived the threats of two previous world wars, wars which were fought on honor, liberty, and bringing justice to the unjust Nazi Germany. This time, the war is about two ideologies: imperialism and American exceptionalism. Imperialism is the foreign drive behind this conflict whereas American exceptionalism is our homeland coping mechanism.

This era, no matter how vile or evil, still remains to be one of the most fascinating decades of American history. In this time, people begin to doubt God’s existence en masse, a spectacle for the aura of today’s pastors. However, amidst all this confusion, doubt, and betrayal, the event that brings down civilization doesn’t come from these petty squallers in hindsight; it comes from us.

In this universe, America has the militaristic advantage, and the Vietcong become desperate. Generals conspire with Chinese doctors to create a disease capable enough to send the American imperialists back to their capitalist wasteland. The disease, Project Runway, takes time, money, and struggle to produce. Numerous deaths occur within this esoteric period, either from elite scientists blackmailing each other or betrayal from inner circle members releasing classified information to the public.

Back home, America grows suspicious of China. J. Edgar Hoover (founder of the FBI in 1935) sends agent Raleigh DeGeer Amyx to the country via airplane cargo hold. Once there, Amyx settles in Beijing, where scientists work around the clock on Project Runway. Here, he does whatever he can to uncover secrets. On October 31st, 1967, that opportunity unveils itself in the form of  rouge Chinese hackers infiltrating government buildings with an aim to leak all classified documents to the public. Amyx steals whatever knowledge he can and escapes the country through its underground sewage system.

Eventually, he reaches Thailand (America’s ally), where he boards a ship and returns home with information as valuable as gold. The government withholds the news from the public, in the fear of causing mass hysteria. The society is already on thin ice, and this leak could be the pick that breaks through the surface. Whistleblowers attempt to become martyrs, but firewalls, passwords, emails written in code, and Fort Knox-esque encryption software prevents hope. Foreign reports are on lockdown. In the battlefield, officers and soldiers lose the right to send letters back to their loved ones, and concurrently, victory gardens begin dwindling.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), work together in an attempt to find a cure for the virus. However, the genetic data within the virus suggests its rapid tendency to mutate, making it difficult for the alchemists to create something from nothing.

During this time, Russia formulates her own plans for retaliation. Scientists develop an EMP capable to destroy an entire civilization. With these events bleeding into one another, the world becomes quiet in this uncertain time. The smart ones are able to realize the madness, and they abandon their homes for an unknown promised land. Some can’t cope with the pressure, turning guns to their heads and pulling the trigger. Lone blasts echo through lifeless streets, ricocheting off the edges of a broken present. Others remain blissfully ignorant, disregarding the kaleidoscope of misinformation and misanthropy. The world engulfs itself in fog, a wave unlike any other. Who can we point the fingers at for this slow crumble?

The American Dream is a joke now. The terror and fear turn it into a nightmare. The end of the world doesn’t come from a bomb, but from the slow degradation of our morality. Humans act like Gods, destroying and repairing at the snap of a finger and a few million dollars. The era becomes a funhouse mirror, dissolving into countless reflections with winding and morphing perspectives. How do we get back on our feet after this ends? How do we justify and live with the choices we make? What consequences can arise without contingency?

The following pages record the lives of prominent survivors, who aim to build something they perceive is worth striving for. But in this future, without laws, prisons, or rules, what good can come from these ashes? What bad can come from the fire? A man’s greed is as sturdy as the foundations on which he built his selfishness, and in this situation, selfishness becomes a survival tactic. In this Era of Uncertainty, the only constant is devolution.

Eighteen-year-old Forrest Wayley wakes up in the middle of a night from a nightmare. He sits up against the headrest, pondering on the horrifying imagery. . Don’t worry, the voices tell him. You’re back now. He climbs to his feet, dragging himself over to the mirror behind his TV. He looks deep into his own eyes, and he realizes this reflection is a lie, a shadow of his former self. A year ago he was destined to go to college like everyone else, to be successful. Now he has no dreams, no aspirations. All because of her. While examining himself, he misses the days where he didn’t know if he was insane, because it was uncertain. He was dating this one girl, Monica, before they came, before they took all these plans set out for himself. He remembers how beautiful she was, and how different her eccentric personality was different from anyone else’s. They were all scared, she wasn’t. He can’t help but to smile at his reflection, but pain and regret wipes it away.

He turns ‘round and looks at the clock on the bedside table. Midnight. He represses all negative thoughts before falling back into bed. Pulling the sheets over his head, they begin chanting. You should’ve been better for her. You’re nothing now. You were everything to her, and you treated her like shit. You deserve everything you’re getting; you’re not worth it.

What exactly is insanity? To define it, wouldn’t you have to experience both sanity and its counterpart? If that’s the case, what’s sanity? Being controlled by a government that doesn’t give a shit about its citizens anymore? Cameras constantly watching us in public places? Does is affliction really matter in the eyes of doctors at asylums, or is he just another lobotomy? Too many questions with too little time to answer.

He blankly looks up at the ceiling, worrying about how much time he has to experience life. Somewhere deep down, he knows something’s calling him to change the system, to bring the world out of this dark age. However, the thing that’s blocking him from doing so is the fact that that “something” could be just another voice wanting to screw him over. He doesn’t know how much he believes in instinct; he’s always in this state of cognitive dissonance due to his fracturing mind, making decisions harder. He closes his eyes, damning himself for reading too much about the machine and its tactics. He doesn’t know what to make of the world anymore, going to sleep with the conclusion that everyone else is on the same boat as him, that he is the sanest among them all.

The next day, he goes to school, where he progresses throughout the day alone and unwanted. There’s something he notices about the mindless crowds he walks through, something about him that has always been unnerving: they all act the same. Some talk about hanging out after school with their friends, others complain about how shitty the condition of the administration is without providing solutions, and the rest talk about their future plans for college. All of it is… unoriginal. And that upsets him. Look at you. Look at how they act. Do you feel any anxiety for not having a plan after high school? Do you feel the nervousness of the unknown closing in on you with every beat of your heart? Don’t you want to be like them? No, he tells himself. I’m meant for something else. Something else? Like what? I don’t know yet, but the world hasn’t seen anything like it before. You’re a madman! I know. The day progresses with similar thoughts disrupting his reality, and by the end of it he wants to kill himself because of how loud they get. He goes home thinking silence precedes introspective.

He lays in his bed that evening, his parents fighting outside his locked door. The fighting gets so bad that he sneaks out of his house to go to the frequented park across the street. Having a location in m-ind, he walks to the back of the park, progresses through the woods, and sits down in a small clearing. Reaching for a few crushed leaves, he wipes them aside to uncover a small wooden box in the ground. He opens the box, revealing a stash of illegal contraband: a jar with an ounce of grass, three tabs of LSD, and five capsules of Molly. He also has the following paraphernalia: two small pipes, one blue and one yellow, a grinder, and a lighter. Do you really want to do this again? Do you want to go deeper into something you won’t recover from? Taking a deep breath, he closes his eyes, searching for any other option whatsoever, but to no avail. He grinds up a gram of grass and packs his blue bowl with it. After lighting the grass, he inhales, letting feelings of euphoria and peace flow through him. Only now do the voices quiet down; only now does he have some sense of sanity.

After a few more hits, he pulls out his phone, plugs in his headphones, and listens to 50s music. It’s moments like this he admires, for in these moments he ponders on the human condition. How random and vague consciousness is. How do you even define something like consciousness? He used to ask a lot of questions about death and mortality, but then he realized that’s what he shouldn’t be asking about. Instead, he focuses on asking questions about life itself. That’s when he comes to many queer ideologies: life is a game, consciousness survives death, and many others. But that doesn’t satisfy his need for knowledge. Can one manipulate another person’s consciousness? He figures yes, because that’s exactly what the United States government did during Project MK-Ultra. CIA agents would give the vilest citizens tabs of acid so they would confess a vast range of truths, but what is it that defines truth? How can one with no authority decide what the truth is? The truth about what, exactly? Well, anything, really. The truth about God, the universe’s creation, and so on. He needs to know these things, but it’s not knowledge he’s after; he’s after control. With this knowledge, he wishes to manipulate people so they can do whatever they want for him.

He starts thinking about his parents. They used to be happy together, but now the days are filled with verbal and physical abuse, and sometimes it’s directed at him. He remembers when his brother was in the house; he was their source of happiness. But after he went off to college, that’s when it went downhill. They knew Forrest didn’t want to go to college, and since they’re egotistical, they don’t approve of it. He ponders on his brother, Shannon, and how he’s living in a mansion in California as a well-known actor. Forrest knows he’s never going to be like him, and he doesn’t care; he just wants to live in the moment. That’s the only way you can enjoy life naturally; you focus on the present, nothing more. He wonders if this is true, but then he remembers that he doesn’t have any authority in deciding what’s true or false. He thinks about his father, and how much he does for the family whereas his mother does nothing; all she does, from his perspective, is sit on the armchair with a bottle of beer. She used to be more active, but now she’s just a lump in the human collective consciousness. Forrest admittedly hates seeing her like this, but he knows he can’t do anything. You can’t fix another person’s problems.

As the euphoria wears off, he looks down at the tabs of acid. He wants to take one now, but he knows he has to balance everything out of he wants to keep enjoying the highs. He thinks about how wonderful his first trip was a year ago, how life changing the psychedelic experience was. He remembers the waves, the colors, and how amazing music sounded. At the peak of Pink Floyd’s Echoes, he felt like his ego dissolved into the lyrics. But his favorite part of the experience were the wavy letters. He remembers having an Out-Of-Body Experience, which is common on high doses of LSD. Everything was so clear to him when he was in that state of mind, and he wants to go back to that state of oneness. Only then did he forget all the trauma he went through; only then did he feel at home. The interesting thing about acid is that it’s not addictive; he’s just addicted to the trip itself.

He decides it would be wiser to leave the LSD for tomorrow, and instead he just smokes more weed. His political stance on the topic doesn’t matter, all that matters is that he does it. That’s the thing he doesn’t understand about people. Why do they always want to get into another person’s personal business? He hates how expendable those nosy types are, how they just waste their lives not doing anything. He knows he’s contradicting himself every time he thinks about this, but he can’t help but to imagine a world where this wasn’t a case, where the power returns to the leader. In his world, the only thing his people would chase is mercy. His paranoid mind thinks of something creative: what if the people wanted to revolt against him? He smirks, realizing a simple solution to this problem: they couldn’t revolt if they didn’t know what a revolution was in the first place. All the knowledge would be for him.

With the euphoria still flooding through his mind, he starts thinking about society as a whole. He figures the government used to be genuine, around Washington’s time, but somewhere along the line it turned into a business filled with corrupt, backstabbing stockholders and lobbyists. He thinks about how society got here, how we willingly let ourselves turn into this. Hell, the current President is nothing more than a puppet now. He wonders if anybody realizes they’re being played. He figures they do, but laziness is a virus worth considering. But what if it isn’t laziness? What if it’s something more… collective? What if they’re choosing blissful ignorance over critical thought? He realizes that this is the answer, and since that’s the case, why are they choosing to be ignorant? Is the pain of reality that unbearable?

His anger hijacks his hypocrisy; he buries the wooden, drug-filled box and covers it with leaves. We both know this has to be done; it’s the only way. His rational severed, he sneaks back into his house and takes a nap. That night, he wakes up from another nightmare, and after overcoming the anxiety, he sits upright in a delusional state. You have to do it; you have to kill them. Why, he wonders. They’re my parents. They don’t care about you. Okay. His heart racing, he climbs to his feet and sneaks into the kitchen. There, he tiptoes to the knife drawer and opens it. Looking down at the blades, the voices begin screaming at him; drawing a blade, they say seductively, That’s right. We know you want to do this Don’t feel guilty about wanting it; it’s only natural. He wraps his shaking hands around the blade’s handle and walks nervously to his parents’ bedroom. Gulping, his freehand reaches for the knob and twists it. He pushes the door open, revealing his parents sleeping in complete darkness. Stepping into the room, a surreal atmosphere surrounds him. Your mom is first. She’s done the most damage to you. She deserves this. He goes over to the sleeping caretaker and presses the blade against her neck. DO IT, YOU PIECE OF SHIT! THERE WILL BE MORE OF US IF YOU D- With one quick swipe, he severs his mother’s jugular. He doesn’t feel fear once the blood starts to flow, only relief. I’m a sociopath, finally. He crosses over to his father and delivers fifty stab wounds to his stomach, a savage grin widening with every thrust.

Afterwards, all the electricity in the neighborhood goes out. Ten minutes later, the entire country goes dark. An hour later, the outage consumes the rest of the globe, leaving humanity in the Stone Age.   

TWO WEEKS LATER

Timothy Montgomery, former CEO of Flagstaff Tech, roams through an abandoned nation. The worst part about the apocalypse? The alienation. He hasn’t talked to a soul in nine days, and it’s tearing him up on the inside. Human beings are social creatures, and when you take away that aspect, the only thing you’re left with is a chamber of self-evaluation, something Timothy hates the most. He looks down at his blood-covered machete, feeling good about himself because he hasn’t used it on a human yet. Gazing ahead, a sign comes into view advertising Seattle. Although you should avoid cities at all costs, he has this feeling that tells him he should go. Why, though? Is this his subconscious trying to tell him he’s suicidal? He pauses at the sign, feeling like someone’s watching him. That’s one thing you can’t shake in this world. He examines the option cautiously. Where else can he go? Swallowing his fear, he presses onward. He passes dozens of burnt-out cars, each one containing a rotting corpse in its driver seat. He’s gotten used to the smell, but the site is something that will forever be burnt into his memory. Before he investigates one of the cars for supplies, he pauses at the abrupt sound of a tin can rolling across the road behind him. Turning around, his heart drops upon seeing one of them. A vacant shell of something that was once human. It reaches for Timothy, cold groans escaping its mouth with every breath. The groans sometimes sound like the distant screams of its former human. Raising the machete, Timothy walks over to it and slices the bastard’s head right open. Black gunk sprays everywhere, and the thing falls to the road, now with the fate of becoming fossilized.

Timothy has never been used to killing the infected. He thinks there’s something in them that’s still human. He doesn’t know if this is a terrifying thought or a hopeful one, but nonetheless, he still feels irrational guilt because every dead one he’s killed so far used to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, and so on. He can’t picture it, but that’s the way it used to be. He sometimes even goes as far as to bury the infected in a respectful ritual, but sometimes there’s so many that he doesn’t have the time or energy. He doesn’t know how many he’s killed so far, but he figures the number is somewhere in the fifties at this point. Pausing at this realization, he bends over and vomits. The world can’t be like this, he thinks. It used to be filled with prosperity, success, and it provided him with every basic human need. Being a former CEO, he tries to keep himself unbiased by also thinking about poverty and political issues, but he then remembers not to focus on those things because it’s bound to keep him at a lower frequency.

He remembers the early days of the apocalypse. The overwhelming feelings of fear and confusion are still with him to this day, because they’re the only things that have kept him alive. Has he met other survivors that protected him? Sure, but they’re all dead now so it doesn’t matter. He takes a brief pause. Has he really changed that much already? Has he become so depersonalized that he can’t even respect the fallen? He keeps playing these mind games with himself for an hour; it’s the only form of entertainment he has. By the time he reaches the outskirts of Seattle, he wants to rip his brain out. Thankfully, the city is quiet tonight; no dead ones aside from a few loners here and there. Every time he kills one, he sees himself in them. He sees how alone they are, and he wishes he could do something to get the image of their faces out of his head. He figures he should find shelter for the night, so he breaks into an abandoned pizzeria.

The inside looks like something from the 1980s; however, the smell and the state of disarray remind him he’s still enduring a nightmare. He lays his machete down and sits in one of the tattered booths; the table breaks as soon as he puts his hands on it. Alone, tired, and hurt, he starts sobbing into his hands. Images of his parents dying flash in his mind. They were just… ripped apart right in front of him, and the infected left nothing behind. And then… there’s his sister. His eight-year-old sister, Paula. They were outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming when it happened. It was just three days after their parents died. They were kidnapped and beaten by other survivors, and they killed Paula right in front of him; he was forced to watch. The night after that, the infected came through the kidnappers’ camp and killed them all. That night made him lose his faith in God, because nobody should ever have to experience that kind of trauma. And even if God was real, why would something so “loving” create people like that?

Suddenly, he hears a cacophony of hellish groans coming from the road he just walked down. He crouches and moves over to the boarded up windows, looking through the cracks in the wood. Slowly, the infected ones begin shuffling into view, and they bring a foul stench with them. They fill up the entire width of the street shoulder-to-shoulder, as if they’re an ancient Spartan army prepared to fight the Persians. He’s so enchanted by this movement that he’s hypnotized by its absurdity. Some of them crawl across the cracked asphalt because they don’t have legs; others look so starved that they look like walking skeletons. The most frightening ones are those who have black ooze dripping out of their mouth. He doesn’t know what causes it; it could be a symptom of the disease. Whilst examining the migrators, he spots a particular dead one in the middle of the ocean. It looks like it was flayed, because it drags the entirety of its skin as it stumbles down the road.

Gunshots light up the night, and he almost jumps out of his skin. He hears survivors shouting orders at each other in the distance, and he looks along the rooftops to see silhouettes firing off countless rounds. The loudness sends Timothy to the back of the pizzeria, fearing deafness. When they stop, he crawls back up to the window, but explosions make him freeze where he stands. Shit, he thinks. They’re bombing the infected. Whoever these people are, they must be highly advanced if they have a protocol to defend themselves against a threat this large. Not only is damage being done, but it’s also being controlled. However, this realization is quickly torn apart when a grenade lands right in front of the pizzeria’s window. When it goes off, Timothy dives into the bathrooms at the back, runs into a stall, and locks the door behind him. He climbs on top of the toilet seat, knowing the infected must be flooding the place by now. Staring at the stall door in front of him, he protects his ears from the rest of the fight. A small group of the infected forms around the stall; they scratch and bite at the door, but they don’t really know he’s in there since he was quick with the retreat. He stays in this position for hours until the survivors outside start clearing out the surrounding buildings. Once they reach his pizzeria, they move into the bathrooms and stab the infected ones with cutlery.

The stall door opens, and Timothy’s heart beats with hope upon seeing the survivors on the other side. They all wear black suits and carry military grade weapons, probably from the Vietnam War. Their presumable leader, a six-foot man built entirely of muscle, steps forward. He wears dense clothing to protect him from zombie bites. An eyepatch covers his left eye, and his body is covered in scars. He extends a hand out to Timothy, which he accepts, and the man pulls Timothy to his feet. They have nothing to say, partly because Timothy is too stunned by what just happened. At their feet are hundreds of dead corpses, all of which are spewing out pus, maggots, and an unimaginable odor hiding beneath a thin layer of gunpowder.

Finally, the man introduces himself. “My name is Alexander Rudolph; I am the leader of this team.”

Timothy still doesn’t know what to say. Not just that, but part of him doesn’t even want to talk. He remembers the kidnappers and what they did to innocent Paula. If they invite him back to their camp, he needs to make the right decision.

Stammering, he asks, “Where… where are you guys camped at?”

Alex smiles. “We’ve got a thinker. We’re camped out at the Space Needle. People either live inside or outside in tents. Several blocks of the city have been blocked off by sandbags and brick walls; we’re se-

cure, and we know what we’re doing.”

“What do you do for food?”

“We’ve got gardens growing around the tents.”

“The bombs don’t attract the infected?”

“When something like this happens, everyone in the camp stays quiet.”

“How did you know about the horde? The Space Needle is pretty far.”

“When you go up to the top of the Needle, you get an incredible view. The world stretches out for miles, and it’s right beneath your feet. You feel like a king.”

Timothy closes his eyes and draws in a deep breath. “Okay… I’ll go with you.”

Alex’s smile grows wider. “I think you made the right choice. You’re going to see a lot of changes.”

Timothy feels like he made the right decision, too. However, he can’t shake the feeling that he has also made the wrong choice. When a man or woman is thrown into a situation as traumatic as this one, they have to keep their guard up constantly. It’s survival now, and although the human race has always survived catastrophes, this won’t stop Timothy from being skeptical. Being skeptical is his only technique now, and he knows he’ll be staying up late at night pondering on what might happen tomorrow. Will these

people turn on him like they did with Paula? There’s only one way to fully know, and that terrifies him.

Now outside the pizzeria, the squad surrounds the unarmed Timothy as they march over the charred remains of a once unstoppable force. Parts of the road are craters now, a deadly reminder of the dangers everyone faces. They remind Alexander of the bombs in the Vietnam War. How they just blew everyone into ashes. The worst part about this situation is that he doesn’t even know if he’s happy to be back home or not. Memories of old friends he lost during the war flash in his mind. He remembers the anguish and grief he felt every time he heard the news, and that’s what made him take a stance against the war. However, he couldn’t tell anyone this because if he did that would technically be treason and he would’ve been kicked out. When these thoughts kick in, he thinks about the Vietcong and wonders if they felt the same pain and anguish when their friends were killed. Who is the real enemy in a war? Everyone?

Timothy takes this moment in because of how surreal it is. A vast city completely abandoned with buildings collapsing everywhere. The souls of countless victims limping through the streets as if they’re in an unbreakable trance. The stench that’ll take lifetimes to get rid of. The burnt cars and negative vibes of death and chaos. To him, the end is still happening; it’s always going to be an unimaginable scar in Earth’s history.

Alexander abruptly stops, and the squad aims their rifles down the road. Alex gives them an order, and they advance forward and fire off a few shots. Another survivor gives them the all-clear, and they carry on.

Timothy asks uncomfortably, “How far away are we?”

“We’re close; only a few more blocks.”

“When did this place pop up?”

Alex, whispering, says, “A few days after the riots ended.”

“It happened that fast?”

“Yeah. Almost as fast as the outbreak.”

“Do you know how it happened?”

Although he does, Alex doesn’t want to reveal any information to anybody; it’s his own personal vow to keep it a secret. “We would prefer if you stay quiet. We’re trying to be as discrete as we possibly can.”

Under his breath, Timothy says, “Then stop firing guns.”

The Space Needle finally comes into view, and a few blocks later they see the brick walls and sandbag blockades surrounding its base. Outside the defenses, guards patrol the nearby streets; they’re only concerned with dispatching the infected. Alex leads them to a barred door, which is installed in one of the walls. He opens it and leads everyone inside, and he and Timothy separate from the rest of the squad.

From his perspective, Timothy figures Alex must’ve been telling the truth.

“Where are you taking me?”

“To Judas. Don’t worry; she won’t bite.”

“What’s she like?”

“She’s crazy. In a good way. She had this planned out even before the outbreak. She saved me.”

“Damn. Where does she stay?”

Alex points up to the Space Needle’s Observational Deck. “There. She looks over all of us.”

“I’m guessing the elevators don’t work.”

“Hey, it’s leg day anyway. Get ready for an 832-step journey.”

They enter the Observational Deck by noon, which is now a Victorian-styled, oriental relic. Plants hang around the walls, gothic bookshelves accentuate the atmosphere, and lit candles flicker across forgotten memories. Timothy approaches the glass windows, awestruck by the sheer magnitude of the disaster. Surrounding this entire complex is a desert of ruined skyscrapers and horde-filled streets. The true enemy in this new world is loneliness. He presses his hands on the glass, fixated by the mysterious aura. Is this place humanity’s last hope? Turning ‘round, Timothy sees a black-haired girl emerging from the fleeting darkness. She wears black clothing, and the circles under her eyes highlight her exhaustion. She extends her hand, and Timothy shakes it after introducing himself. Alex leaves them alone. She leads the CEO to her queen-sized bed. Kneeling, she pulls out a box of alcohol, almost as if she already knows that he knows who she is.

“Vodka or tequila?” she asks.

“Vodka.”

“Atta boy.”

She pulls out a bottle of the clear, harsh-smelling liquid and pushes the box back under her bed. She then leads him over to a small table and they take their seats. After pouring shot glasses, they have an enlightening conversation.

“People die here every day, and I’m supposed to control that frequency. I decide who gets let in, and who gets thrown out. Consider this an interview. Why should I let you join our community?”

“Because I want to live. Because I want safety and security. Because I will contribute in whatever way I can.” Timothy takes a shot. “Who gave you the power to decide if someone gets to live or die?”

“They did. I gave them what they wanted. I just didn’t have a contingency plan for the amount of people dying.”

“Are you asking me to help you?”

“No, but I will ask you this. What were you before the end?”

“A CEO. I owned a tech company that produced arcade games. I was also a stockholder.”

“Good. That means you’re good with numbers. I could use your help in rationing resources.”

“So I get to stay?”

She takes another shot. “Yes. You can go back to Ground Level to pick out your tent.”

He emerges from the tower that evening with sweat dripping down his face. Exhaustion leads him to the closest tent, and after pulling back its flap, he sees a lone teenager sitting on one of the bunks. The kid looks back at him, and they approach each other silently. The teen extends his hand, and he introduces himself as Forrest Wayley. He has matted hair and a growing beard. Behind him, a rucksack filled with miscellaneous supplies rests against his bottom bunk. The atmosphere around them is militaristic, setting the tone for their conversation.

“I… think you should know something about our leader,” Forrest says nervously.

“What’s that?”

“She’s out to get us. She doesn’t want us to live; she wants to rule us.”

“How could you accuse her of something like that?”

“I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days, and it makes sense.”

“Please, do tell.”

“You saw how she interviews people. How she… decides who gets to live.”

“It does seem apathetic.”

  “I’ve met people like her before the outbreak. All they want is to drain you of who you are. This place isn’t going to last long under her control. The walls we have are only one layer thick, and we don’t have enough fighters if another group attacks. I’ve telling her this, but she doesn’t take well to criticism.

She’s stubborn because this plan was hers.”

“Do you think you could do better?”

“Yes. I have my own plan, too. And it doesn’t involve kicking out anybody who wants to join. That’s heartless.”

“Tell me.”

“I see bigger walls. Farms. Government. Distribution of power. I see civilization. Judas is not a long-term thinker like I am. Don’t you want safety and security?”

Admittedly, the fairytale dream sounds appealing to Timothy. His skepticism is still prominent, especially now since he sees Paula’s smiling face. Wouldn’t she want to live in a place like that? Where everyone’s just looking out for each other? He thinks about what their relationship was like before the outbreak. How they would protest against the Vietnam War together. She didn’t even know she was part of a historical movement. Ironically, everything’s history now. The past, the present, the future, whatever those things meant… are now lost in time. And that terrifies Timothy. He can’t get Paula out of his head, so he hangs his head and starts crying. One second she was right beside him, the next she was dead, and he blames himself for it. He could’ve done so much more for her.

Forrest walks away. “I’ll talk to you more about this later.”

Timothy shakes his head. “The guy can’t take a hint.”

FIVE MONTHS LATER

Echo Ramirez wakes up in her hometown of Castle Rock, Colorado. She gets out of bed and crosses over to her bedroom window, where she pulls back the curtains and smiles at the snowy, desolate world outside. To her, life is normal. Although she knows about the infected, she doesn’t want to accept the world’s end; she’s unable to comprehend the reality of her situation, but she’s been able to ignore the trauma by creating this fantasy world inside her mind where everyone’s alive and happy. She has short hair and vaguely resembles Marilyn Monroe. She walks over to her parents’ bedroom and knocks on the door. Opening it slightly, she sees the two corpses of suicide victims lying on the queen-sized mattress. They must be in deep sleep, she thinks. Going back to her room, she grabs a backpack from her closet, and a feeling of stress washes over her; she remembers she has to take a test today that she didn’t study for. Deciding to skip the day, she throws her backpack back into the closet and sits on the bed. In her mind, cars drive by outside, people are going to work, and everything is normal. She hears a knock at the front door and opens it, slightly pissed that her parents didn’t answer it. On the other side stands her old boyfriend, Max. Although he’s already dead (he was killed right in front of her), her mind still creates these hallucinations of him because of how important he was to her.

  “Max!” she says with a beaming smile. “What’re you doing?”

“What do you mean?” he asks. “I’m picking you up for school.” Behind him, his friends wait in an SUV. “You coming?”

“No, I’m too tired.”

“Well, alright. I’ll text you when I get there.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

She closes the door behind her, now having a free day. She thinks about going to Denver, but judging from the whether outside and the traffic she’ll get in, she decides to stay home. She hears a knock on her door, and she calls for the person to come inside. Her dad walks in and sits next to her on the bed.

“You didn’t go to school?” he asks.

“I can’t. I have a test that I didn’t study for.”

He sighs. “You can’t keep doing this; your grades are suffering.”

She closes her eyes, guilty. “I can’t stand it; I hate school.” Opening her eyes, she sees nothing in front of her. He always disappears. “I think I’m going crazy.”

Somewhere deep in the pit of her stomach, she knows she’s lying to herself. She knows Max and her parents are dead, but she doesn’t want to confront that. Self-isolation and antisocial behavior has led her to this point, and part of her wants to crawl out of the grave she’s digging, but another part wants to keep living in this fantasy world. Being alone is better than being in a group. She has a boyfriend, but then again, she’s had a lot of boyfriends… and they all left. All her life, she has been the odd one out. The one that everybody forgets, the one that nobody wants to hang out with. She trusts people, and then she loses them. Not anymore. She doesn’t want to hurt because of that; she’s tired of always falling in the same traps because society “needs her to”. She looks out the window again, this time scowling. Fuck them. Fuck them for treating her differently because she has a different mindset. Fuck them for making her have to fight for her voice. Fuck them for not giving her a chance.

Feeling rage, she turns to meditation to calm her down. Taking deep breaths, she does her best to step back and observe her thoughts, but to no avail. How can I stop feeling like this, she asks. A large knot forms in her throat, and tears flow from her innocent eyes. Fragile and broken, like the atmosphere of something so perfect you can only describe it with words containing dark connotations. Her chest starts burning, and her stress pushes her outside, where she finally confronts the true nature of this vile world. Surrounding her, a land encased in mystery. She spins around, dazed by confusion and heartbreak. She looks behind her, seeing a rotten house where her vibrant one once stood. None of this makes any sense; she would get groceries from her parents, she hung out with friends, and she had a normal life. Has it just been her imagination this entire time? Staring west, a shadowy figure emerges from the snowfall, and when it comes into view, she vomits. Its entrails continuously spew out of its bottomless ribcage, black bile oozes out of the corners of its mouth, and its arms dangle from their sockets from stringy, dead flesh. What has this world become? The creature, frozen by the year’s early winter, falls to its knees, succumbing to the harsh climate.

She remembers a psychology course she took in college. The professor was lecturing the class about the importance of social connection. When someone is alone for extended periods, the minds of some individuals create fantasy worlds to prevent them from becoming insane. Is she a victim to this foul

  theory?

Now having faced her worst fear, she figures she’s a lunatic. Is it really her fault in a world like this? What if she comes across another survivor? She needs to defend herself somehow… with guns. She remembers an old police station her father used to work at. It’s only a few blocks away; she’d be back in less than an hour. But what’s really here for her? What does she have that she could return to? A tomb of memories? Ignoring this feeling, she begins her journey through this treacherous climate, defenseless. Sh-

e knows she’s screwed if she runs into another one of those things, for she has no idea how to kill one. Is there anyway she could remember fighting them off when she was in her fantasy world? As if the universe is a poet, she stumbles across another frozen creature half-buried in the snow. Its head has a bullet hole in its skull, and she quickly puts the pieces together. Head equals dead.

During her journey, the only thing she hears are the screams of countless victims; they’re so loud that they block out her mind’s voice. She imagines how many of those monsters are out there; she questions their origin and wonders if something biological happened in Vietnam. Images of her being grabbed at flash in her mind, and she feels their cold, cranky hands wrap around her limbs. Nothing feels real; it seems as if the universe is a wonderful, unimaginable broken mirror. How could the human race fall so fast? She remembers a story her father told her. He was involved in the hippie movement, and he would partake in political protests. He told her stories about how crazy the people became, about how… apathetic they were.

She reaches the police station, an ancient relic of the old world. Approaching the front doors, she pushes them open and shivers as she enters. She searches the quiet corridor until happening upon the army; the door is already open. Inside, a 12 gauge shotgun strapped in a sheath rests on the floor, surrounded by boxes of slugs. Retrieving the piece, distant memories of her mother taking her to the gun range flood her mind. Swallowing the knot in her throat, the girl retrieves the piece from the sheath and loads it. After cocking the gun, she hears footsteps from the corridor outside, and upon turning ‘round, a man runs by the doorframe. Her hearth pumping, she follows the man to the front doors, where he bursts outside. She follows him until they reach the darkened mouth of an endless tunnel. On the other side, nobody knows. She stops, letting him get away. No use in following him without a flashlight.

Returning to the police station, she finds a flashlight in the evidence room and flicks it on, and to her surprise, a beam of light flies through the bulb and illuminates the dark space. She goes back to the armory, straps the shotgun in the sheath, wears it across her back, and takes the boxes of ammo. She ponders on the way she found her parents. She wonders how long it’ll take for them to dissolve completely, as if they’re nothing.

Now at the tunnel, she flicks on the flashlight and waves the beam across the burnt-out cars. The arms of those frozen beasts reach for her from the insides of their metal caskets. They growl and hiss as she passes, provoking the highest proportions of fear. After hours of searching, she finds the weakened man in the cab of a firetruck. The flashlight reveals blood leaking from his wrists, and a backpack rests in the passenger seat.

  “Were you attacked?” she asks.

The man shakes his head. “I just caught them on broken glass. I’m defenseless right now, and I didn’t know if you were going to hurt me.”

Feeling sorrow, she helps the man out of the truck. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I’ll admit, it’s awfully nice finding someone. Who are you?”

“Echo Ramirez. Charmed. And you?”

“Merlin Monroe. Likewise. Would you like to be friends?”

“Yes. I’m alone, too.”

“Good. Maybe you can accompany me on my journey to Seattle. My family lived there.”

“You think they still do?”

“I’m hopeful. I miss them.”

Echo weighs her options thoughtfully. Does she really have anything here? “Okay. I’ll join you. I’m curious to see what’s out there.”

Merlin smiles. “I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

“I have to get something from my house first. Follow me.”

They reach the girls house, and Echo stops Merlin.

She puts a hand on his shoulder. “Let me do this; stay out here.”

He nods his head.

For the last time, Echo enters her house and opens the door to her parents’ bedroom, seeing them for who they are: skeletons of suicide victims. No wonder she created a fantasy world. In a situation like this, you have to do anything you can to keep yourself from going insane. She approaches the two beings that used to care for her. Standing by her mother, the girl picks up a limp arm and takes off its aged wedding ring. She does the same with her father. After putting them on either ring finger, she leaves the nest behind forever.

Now officially on the road, she can’t stop looking at the absolute desolation that surrounds her. Human life is now in the clutches of a demonic force governed by fear and hunger. Her fantasy world shielded her from this. It was a barricade, and she broke through to the other side. Even the strongest amongst us have breaking points. Now crying, she stops with Merlin.

He wraps his arms around her. “I’m here for you.”

“My parents,” she says quietly.

“I know. I lost mine, too.”

After calming her down, he leads her by the hand into an unknown destiny mercilessly built on pure insanity. Neither of them are certain they will make it to Seattle. However, in the end, is anything certain in the first place?

Two days later, they happen upon a cemetery in western Colorado. Merlin leads her inside. Echo is hesitant at first, but follows him anyway. At this point, Echo has used the shotgun only six times on the infected. However, she’s not afraid of using it on a living person. They end up at a grave marked Anne Monroe. Merlin bows a knee before the fallen mother, his leg getting cold from the snow.

“How?” Echo asks.

“She had pancreatic cancer. It was several years back, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I can’t get that memory out of my head. We were all surrounding her in the hospital room, and she just closed her eyes. Everything that she was… vanished. I lost someone I cared about.”

Echo chokes back tears. “Whatever happens, I hope we get the old world back. We just need so-

 

eone that has our drive to do such a thing; someone that has power.”

“You think there’s hope?”

“We’ve survived worse.”

Merlin climbs to his feet. “Then I believe in humanity, too.”

They reach the outskirts of Seattle the following week. Both winter and mother nature infest the metropolis like a plague. A plague as incurable as it is destructive.

“How do you think those things came about?” Echo asks as they walk down an empty road.

“In Russia, during World War 2, the Soviets performed an experiment regarding the revival of organisms. They drained this dog of its blood, removed its head, and hooked it up to this… life support-esque machine. It changed the face of medical science as we know it, because the head began functioning as if it was still attached to the dog’s body. It even responded to stimuli; its whiskers twitched when touched, and its head reacted to the sound of a hammer. Due to ethical concerns, nobody has performed such an experiment since. If they had this power 30 years ago, imagine what else we’re kept in the dark about.”

They spot the Space Needle, an obvious point of interest. However, they both agree to stick to the original plan.

“They live in a Brownstown apartment close by,” he says.

Echo spots a small group of dead ones shuffling their way towards them. “We need shelter. I don’t have enough ammo to fight them off.”

Next to them, a strip mall encompasses a ruined courtyard. They enter one of the clothing stores, weak from the journey. Echo watches the group from the window while Merlin searches the store for supplies. Nothing but tattered clothes and learned hopelessness. As the infected ones pass the storefront, their gazes fixate on the complex architecture of the Needle, and they wonder if anybody’s in there.

  “We’ll check,” Merlin says reassuringly.

Echo shakes her head. “That’s not what I’m concerned about.”

Once they finally reach the desired Brownstone, Echo isn’t surprised to see it burnt down. Merlin, however, is heartbroken. The people he loved are now ashes; he feels like the victim of a Holocaust survivor. He falls to his knees, reminiscing on old memories he shared with his parents. Standing behind him, Echo watches either end of the road for the infected. Merlin thinks about one Thanksgiving he had here. His brother showed up high, and it ruined everything for them. Coming from a Christian background, Merlin knew it was bound to happen eventually, but he shows his brother little pity, considering he spelt out his own doom. They didn’t eat anything that year; they sent his brother to a rehab center, and he presumably died there shortly after the outbreak. He chokes on the knot in his throat, and he starts crying. He could’ve done something more to help, and he regrets not doing so.

Echo pulls him up to his feet. “It’s okay; we have each other now.”

Merlin sighs. “I just wish I spent more time with them.”

“You will when you die.”

“You think so?”

“Yes, because when you die, everything that makes you Merlin Monroe will die, too. Your ego. All of it disappears, and when you don’t have an ego, you have everything. You become time, money, and all of this shit that made humanity grow and develop. You are energy. You also become the past, present, and the future, all in one. So technically, you really will be with them.”

Merlin ponders on this philosophy. “So… there is no Heaven or Hell?”

“It’s all a state of mind. Hell is metaphorical for our negative feelings, like depression, sadness, or anything else like that. Heaven is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Once you understand that, you learn to control your consciousness. Your mind is an instrument that you have to learn how to play. You control now, Merlin. When you control everything you used to be in the past, when you learn from it, and when you grow from it, you begin to gain control of the future.”

“He who controls the past controls the future.”

“Exactly.”

“What about the other belief systems out there? Like Christianity?”

“Some religions only exist to pacify the masses. To make them docile.”

“How do you know all of this?”

“I kept my parents’ bodies in the house I was taking shelter in, and I created a fantasy world to cope with the trauma. When I became sane, I saw them for the first time in ages for what they actually are. Dead. I took their wedding rings to remember them, and I look down at them whenever I start thinking.”

A horde of frozen infected approaches them from the distance, and they decide to start for the Space Needle. Echo aims her shotgun ahead of her as they walk towards the opposite end of the road, which is void of any threats. They take several detours before they reach the street leading to the Space Needle, and when they see the brick barricades and sandbags enclosing a small colony, their hearts beat with hopefulness. They reach the main entrance, a barred gateway, and they call for someone to open it. A scruffy-looking teen approaches them through the falling snow, and he opens it.

“Welcome to the Needle. My name is Forrest Wayley. I’ll take you to our leader, Judas.”

Smiling, they gladly enter the growing community. Everyone rests in their tents, shielding their lives from winter’s fury. The teen leads them to the tower’s entrance, and they head inside and climb the staircase. Once inside Judas’ bedroom, the black-haired girl approaches them in a drunken stupor.

“Hey,” she says, wobbling back and forth with every step.

“New refugees,” Forrest says, disappointed in her alcoholism.

She goes over to a long wooden table and sits down in one of the chairs. “Come over here. Time to interview you.” She pours herself a glass of Peach Schnapps and drinks it. “What? I don’t bite. I’m your new fearless leader.”

Hesitantly, they both oblige.

She asks, “Why should I let you two into this fine encampment?”

“Because we want freedom,” Merlin says.

Echo chimes in. “And protection. Security. Safety.”

Judas laughs. “We’re chalk full of that. But that’s not the real point of the question. What can you do to better this community?”

Echo and Merlin look at each other, stunned at their predicament.

“Well,” Echo starts. “We’ll take up whatever position you have for us.”

Judas contemplates this. “Introduce yourselves to me.”

They do.

Judas points at Merlin. “You are a member of our supply-running team.” She points at Echo. “And you will be his partner. Understood?”

They agree.

“Good,” she sighs. “You’re free to live in one of the tents at the bottom from now on. You can rest easy. Food, water, and anything else are handed out at designated times.”

“How can you tell the time?” Echo asks.

“The sun,” Judas says, smiling. “Come on, get with the program. This is the Stone Age now.”

Once at the bottom of the tower, Echo and Merlin reconvene in a FEMA tent, wherein a man with black, curly hair sits on a bed.

He stands up, extending a hand. “Timothy Montgomery.”

After they greet each other, the two newcomers pick out a bed.

Timothy stands in the middle of the tent, waiting for their attention. “Just warning you guys, when Forrest gets back here, he’s going to preach about his ideas. He’s been doing that to every newcomer for the past five months. Sitting through it is practically initiation.”

Merlin scoffs. “Wonder why he does that.”

Timothy shrugs his shoulders. “He doesn’t agree with anything Judas does.”

“You know, I’m not very fond of her either,” Echo says. “She seems like the type of person that drinks the pain away.”

The curly-haired man nods his head. “She does. It’s her only way of coping with the state of the world, and that’s heartbreaking. Just imagine what she’s seen.”

Echo looks down at her wedding rings. “Yeah, I can’t imagine it.”

“Does she still… perform well?” Merlin asks.

Forrest abruptly enters the tent, his expression twisting with disgust. “She was drunk when she interviewed them,” he says to Timothy. “Do you still think she’s mature enough to lead?”

Timothy sighs. “Relax, buddy. There’s nothing dangerous about alcohol… besides the fact that it destroys your liver and kills brain cells.”

The boy scoffs. “How dense can someone be? Judas is a problem that we have to take care of. Other people are on my side, too.”

Echo chuckles. “And what happens after you finally get rid of her?”

“We wake the others up to her… carelessness. It’ll take her death for that, but it’s worth it. After that, I’ll lead this place into the future. I dream of bigger walls, farms, forms of security, and division of power. If we just take Judas out of the equation, we can have all of that.”

  Echo considers this, and oddly enough, her heart starts beating for him. The way he talks makes her want to learn more about him, his backstory, and his ideas. Meanwhile, Merlin tries ignoring him.

“Say we do this,” she starts. “What comes right after?”

Forrest smiles. “We have a meeting, and we rebuild. Judas is just a rock in a road, a rock that we can weather down together.”

The days pass normally in the colony. Everyone does their jobs, and Judas continues to struggle with alcoholism. Her morale takes a steady downward spiral, and everyone, including Timothy and Merlin, begins to agree with Forrest’s ideas. Echo stays up some nights, pondering on if she should kill her, and she even steals a bottle of rat poison on a supply run. She currently hides it in her rucksack, and she thinks about it constantly. She tries putting herself in Judas’ shoes. What if it was her that people were plotting to… remove from this reality? Does she do things that cause direct harm? No. But that’s the grey area; she does it indirectly. Through Judas’ carelessness, many people have died at the hands of the infected, an obvious, irreversible criticism. Echo’s moral dilemma leads her to smoking cigarettes, but one night she has an enlightening conversation with Forrest.

They are wide-awake, unable to get to sleep. The voices are strong in Forrest’s mind, and Echo’s anxiety is now causing insomnia. Timothy and Merlin sleep soundly in their beds, provoking a somewhat peaceful atmosphere.

“We have to do it,” Forrest says blankly.

“I’ve never killed anybody before. There was this one time I was about to kill Merlin, but that was self-defense. I always think about the reaction if we actually did it.”

“Like I said, this choice is the gateway to what life should be.”

“Are you sure you’re not manipulating me?”

You always hurt the one you love the most. This is the only way. “This is the only way. I’m not manipulating you.”

“Have you ever killed anybody?”

“Only those who deserve it.”

“That’s a vague criteria.”

“Let me be more specific. I only kill people whom I identify as a threat. I killed my parents right before the power outage.”

“So you’re crazy.”

“No, you have no idea the trauma I endured because of them. I try to justify who I murder to lessen the guilt.”

“Do you feel that anymore?”

“No.”

“So why try to justify it?”

“Because this time it’s political. The colony is becoming weak, and I disapprove of it greatly. There has to be a proper distribution of power.”

Echo remembers a history class she took in high school; the lecture was about Fidel Castro. He was a man from the mountains, and he motivated his people through charm and the way he spoke. Is there a connection between him and Forrest? Nonetheless, Forrest’s hatred of Judas is visible to other members of the colony, which adds some weight to his words. Maybe he’s right. She also thinks about her conversation with Merlin, and this leads her to a final decision.

“Can we do it tonight?” she asks. “I can’t stand the turmoil.”

Forrest, happy that he’s successfully manipulated Echo, agrees. If he can do this, he can convince everyone. He climbs out of bed and looks into her eyes, feeling a spark of love for her. They put on dark clothing and Echo straps on her rucksack.

“I have rat poison,” she says nervously.

Noticing her worry, he puts a comforting hand on her shoulder. “They’ll think it was alcohol poisoning. They can’t trace it back to you.”

“I know. That won’t stop me from feeling guilty, though.”

“Echo, this has to happen if you want my ideas to prevail.”

She knows he’s right. They sneak out of the tent, quietly reach the tower, and enter the treacherous staircase. After climbing for an hour and a half, they reach Judas’ bedroom, wherein they find the sleeping leader with empty glass bottles encompassing the bed. On the dining room table, a half-empty shot glass of Vodka.

Forrest starts for the bedroom’s door. “I’ll watch for guards.”

Gulping, Echo unzips the rucksack and retrieves the poison. Before pouring it into the shot glass, she seriously considers if this is the right play. He’s doing this for the greater good, she thinks. They deserve to know the truth about her. With the weight of the world on her shoulders, she pours a deadly

amount into the glass and stirs it with a nearby spoon. Placing the spoon back on the table, she puts the rat poison back in her rucksack, straps it on, and sneaks outside.

“It’s done,” she says blankly.

Smiling, the maniac knows he’s finally won.

30 YEARS LATER

Babylon is a citywide kingdom with fifty-foot stone walls encompassing it. Inside are four districts: the Market District, the Farmlands, the Industrial District, and the Housing District. In the Market District, people trade amongst each other in harmony them. In the Farmlands, peasants tend to the crops, raise livestock, and store food in massive silos. In the Industrial District, workers produce consumer goods in steam-powered factories for the people. In the Housing District, the citizens live in wooden, stone apartment buildings with an incredible four blocks dedicated to the army in its center. Each district has its own designated leader. Alexander Rudolph leads the army and the Housing District. Timothy Montgomery keeps track of the Industrial District’s power supply, workers, and managers. Russell Martinez keeps the peace in the Marketing District by reporting any suspicious persons to the Monarchy. Merlin Monroe takes reports of the monthly harvests in the Farmlands. All information leads back to the Monarchy, and they do what they please with it. If they tell the truth, they tell the truth. If they lie, they lie; and if any of the District Leaders confront the Monarchy, they are disposed of. After all, the only rule in Babylon is to obey the Monarchy. All of this is necessary to keep the populous under control.

In the Observational Deck, which is now the Throne Room due to the massive golden throne against the back wall, Forrest and Echo sleep soundly in Judas’ old bed. Forrest’s hair has grown immensely, personifying his never-ending descent into insanity. He wears a purple robe, and his staff leans against the bed’s headrest. Echo now has a prosthetic arm of Merlin’s design because a bear tore it off a year ago. She has fount immense love for the maniac, and they have been together all this time. She wears a red corset, and a thick layer of dirt and dried blood covers her body, just like the other 75,000 residents of the successful kingdom.

Forrest’s idea continues to prevail, and it only adds to the power they and the District Leaders have; and as we head into this complex political age, one ominous belief looms over all Babylonians: Power is an illusion. If everyone wakes up to this, the Monarchy will be overthrown, resulting in a historical rebellion. Those in power do everything they can to prevent this from happening, and they accomplish this through rigorous propaganda, which the kingdom’s printing press produces daily. If this idea doesn’t exist in their world, nobody can conceptualize it, thus leaving the Monarchy in total control.

The schizophrenic king opens his eyes, the bags under them accentuating his sleeplessness. He gets out of bed and walks over to one of the windows overlooking the kingdom. Below them, a steam-powered society waking up from the depths of deep sleep. He gazes over the Gothic structures, unable to be more content with the success of his dream. Look at them. Look at how easily you can control them. Echo’s practically wrapped around your finger, unable to suspect us. Keep it that way. You know what happens if you don’t. As long as nobody questions whether or not there are other societies, we’ll reign forever. At moments like this, Forrest is grateful for them depending on isolationism for their success. If the Babylonians ever find out of other societies, they’d leave the kingdom with hopes of finding freedom.

Behind him, Echo yawns as she wakes up from a dream.

“Good morning,” she says calmly.

“Did you get any sleep?”

“You know the answer to that.” He stretches his arms. “Come on, we’ve got a big day ahead of us."

“Ain’t that the truth. We’re still sticking to the original plan, right?”

“Yep. Like always. Although, the only addition is seeing Dante.”

“Him? Why?”

“I feel like I have to apologize for the fight we had last week. He still hasn’t talked to me.”

“Just be nice. Remember Vietnam; is a fight really worth getting involved in?”

“No. You make me laugh; I’ll see you at the table.”

After finishing a breakfast of fresh produce and milk, they kiss each other before heading down the Needle’s staircase. All this time, they both think about the night Judas was killed. They ponder on how confused, hopeless, and heartbroken the colonists looked. They remember standing up and preaching about her shortcomings; their promise about civilization still reverberates in the darkest neurons of their long-term memory. Forrest found a belief that night: the ends justify the means. That is how he gets away with everything now without the people standing in his way. When you use the bigger picture as an excuse for power, opportunities for what you can do with it become limitless.

Once outside the Needle, they part ways. Forrest travels through the kingdom’s dense crowds; the scene looks like a festival from the 1200s. This time, however, the civilians look happy and the morning sun cakes Babylon in a hopeful atmosphere. His first stop is Alexander’s house, and upon reaching it he knocks on the4 front door until the general answers. Alex invites him inside, and they take their seats in an oriental living room. Lining the walls are bookshelves full of titles from ancient battle strategists, including works from Sun Tzu. A crackling fire settles the mood for this unimportant report; Alexander retrieves a journal. Forrest takes it and flips through the worn pages.

The general nervously folds his arms. “As you can see, the horde attack last week took 100 people.”

Closing the journal, the king says, “75,000. The population needs to stay at that number. We can cover this up.”

“Okay… This doesn’t feel right.”

“Obey the Monarchy. Being exiled is the last thing any of us want.”

“Fine. You’re the index for all the accurate information, after all.”

“Is there anything else you need to report?”

“Just the usual gang activity off 5th. They’re like a rip-off of Public Enemy Number One; there’s nothing to worry about with them.”

“Do you have any leads as to who’s ruling them?”

“Not yet. I’ll get my guys to look into it, though.”

“Good. We can’t have that type of behavior within these walls. If you have to kill them, don’t hesitate. You know how our gangs are.”

“I know, but… Jesus, Forrest. They’re still Babylonians.”

“What makes them so special this time?”

“Nothing.”

“Remember what I said earlier about obeying the Monarchy?”

“Yes."

“Listen to me. A threat’s a threat. Period. Think about the children.”

Alex sighs. “You’re right. Safety comes first. Are we done?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Then let me propose an idea.”

“Go on.”

“I want to go to California.”

Forrest laughs. “That’s out of the question; you need to be here.”

“But… Forrest, do you know how much oil that state has?”

“It doesn’t matter; we don’t need it. We have steam. If we move over to oil, then we’d constantly have to worry about the supply.”

“Not with how I’m planning on doing it.”

“No. That’s the final answer. I have to leave.”

Now in the Industrial District, Forrest passes the impressive steam-powered factories. Although the levels of coal burning are immense, it’s still a better choice than converting to oil because of how much of it they mine daily. He watches the workers through the arched windows, and they’re busy doing God knows what. Making guns. Cans for food preservation. Armor for the military. This district is the kingdom’s beating heart, and Forrest knows that if he loses Timothy’s support, he’d kill him before the workers had a chance to start a coup. He approaches the largest Gothic building in the district, the Office Block, wherein Timothy (the CEO), and the managers keep reports of their files. When Forrest enters, all subjects in the lobby bow before the king. He ignores them as he reaches the Block’s staircase, the only way to go up. This design is an inspiration of the Needle’s construction, and the builders got it down to the exhaustion you feel when you climb the twenty-three floors to the Penthouse, where Timothy sits behind a polished, oaken desk. An enormous, aging tome sits on the tabletop, and when Forrest closes the door, he simultaneously opens the massive journal.

“Ready for the report?” he asks.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

The CEO skims through the torn papers. “Uh… From the mines, we extracted 20 pounds of iron ore, 30 pounds of nickel, 15 pounds of zinc and tin, one ton of aluminum, and countless carts of copper. The workers are continuously smelting them down.”

“Excellent. What about gunpowder?”

“There’s no shortage; I wouldn’t worry about that.”

“What’s the black lung situation looking like?”

“It’s not that bad anymore now that the miners wear masks. Less casualties has to mean we’re doing something right. Has Ruth said anything about it?”

“No, I’m going to visit the hospital tomorrow after our meeting to discuss it with her. Staying positive is the key.” He stands up and walks over to a mural that overlooks the kingdom. Smiling, he adds, “Echo’s pregnant.”

“What?” Timothy says, beaming with excitement. “How do you know?”

“Last week, before he went on a supply run, I asked Alexander to steal some pregnancy tests for us.”

“Congratulations! Now we have a prince on the way… or a princess.”

“Thank you. I’m worrying about her, though.”

“Why?”

“She sees how sleepless I am, and she tries staying up with me, but I never let her. She doesn’t understand that people cope with leadership in different ways.” Leadership. That’s what you’re calling schizophrenia now. He whispers, “Shut up; I’m talking.”

Timothy doesn’t notice. “You should tell her that. Does anyone else know about the pregnancy?”

“No. I’m only telling you because I know you’re smart enough to stay quiet about it.”

“I will; you don’t have to worry about it. Ruth’s gotta know at some point, though.”

“I’ll tell her when the time comes.”

With that being said, the king leaves Timothy to his work, feeling proud of his accomplishments. Out in the streets, he contemplates telling Echo that he has schizophrenia. Don’t do it. It’ll only get worse for you. Deep in his soul, he knows she deserves the truth. Suddenly his vision gets blurry, and his thoughts sound like an egg popping on a skillet. His mind turns into a burning film reel, and he heads into an alleyway, away from the crowds. He remembers a time when he was moments away from telling Echo, and the voices gave him insomnia because of it. That doesn’t matter; he’s tired of feeling like a hollow shell, mentally beaten to a pulp by the foundations of its creator. However, what happens next? Narcolepsy? He stops thinking about this, and he returns to a “normal” state of mind, not having anything else to do for the entire day unless there’s an emergency. He heads back to the Throne Room, finding Echo with Alexander.

“Forrest,” the general says. “I told her.”

Echo intervenes. “Listen to him.”

Forrest gives them the floor, and Alexander paces back and forth. “Supplies around this state are scarce; we’re not getting anything useful anymore. We have to explore. California might be our solution to this problem, not just for oil, but for discovery. Imagine if we expanded Babylon across the entirety of the West Coast; we’d have an empire. Do you remember how you were when Judas was around? How you dreamt of a better society? How you believed in your idea so much that you’re creating it right now? This is my idea. Let me create it.”

Goosebumps crawl across Forrest’s skin. “You got me there. Alright, I’ll let you.” He looks at Echo. “What do you think?”

“It’s a good idea,” she says. “It’s the only way we’ll be able to progress. The army’s well-trained for any possible contingency, so I don’t doubt Alexander’s capabilities. I believe in him.”

Forrest nods his head. “A consensus has been reached.”

The general smiles. “I knew you’d come around. I’m planning on taking Barracks 1, 2, and 3, which isn’t even half of the army.”

“Who’s going to lead the others?” Echo asks.

Alexander shakes his head. “I’ll appoint someone as the temporary leader while I’m away.” When he leaves,

The king, looking towards where Alex left, mumbles,

“It’s not that. I’ve… kept something from you. It’s haunting me.” Don’t do it, you fucking cunt! We’ll invade your dreams until you die, and we’ll talk nonstop.  You can’t hide from us. “

“I… have insomnia. That’s why I stay up constantly.” Good. You’re not as dumb as we thought you were.

She stands quietly. “I suppose I have something to tell you, too.”

He focuses on her voices, and this helps him ignore the voices. “Go on.”

“I went insane shortly after the apocalypse. I… created my own world, and I enjoyed it. I don’t know how I didn’t die; I would hallucinate everyone I loved. I came out of it before I met Merlin, but even after that… I was different. He led me to a cemetery, and I had thoughts of killing him. That’s when I knew shit had to change; that’s why I supported your idea.”

“So… we both have a screw loose.”

“I guess so.”

The king sits down at the end of the bed. “I don’t know why I didn’t tell you before. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay; this is sensitive shit.” She sits next to him, puts an arm around his shoulder, and kisses him. “We rule together.”

Smiling, he asks, “Did you finish your job?”

“No, I’m going to see Merlin now. I’ll be back before people start going to those Communal Diners.”

“Thanks for reminding me of how hungry I am.”

Now in the Farmlands, Echo approaches a small, wooden schoolhouse that has an arched roof, and the bell on it dings as the wind blows through the fields of crops and orchards. She opens the front doors, spotting Merlin standing in the middle of the empty building. Along the walls are black and white posters advertising the Monarchy.

“Hello, Merlin,” she says, grinning.

“Ms. Ramirez! Like clockwork.”

“How was your class today?”

“Good. They really like my chemistry lectures.”

“That’s fantastic. The smarter they are the more valuable they’ll become.”

“Yeah. When’s the next meeting?”

“Tomorrow. Between you and me, I’m not fond of the subject.”

“And that is?”

“Public execution.”

Merlin shudders. “Are we really making killing machines an issue?”

“Forrest says it’ll send a message.”

“A message? What kind of message? That the Monarchy’s oppressive?”

“I’m trying to make him see reason.”

“Good luck with that. I’m beginning to question him.”

“I’ll keep that a secret, but if he finds out, he’ll associate you with gangs and throw you in the Dungeons.”

“It’s kinda weird… how we’re turning the term ‘rebel’ into ‘gang’.”

“It’s how he keeps the masses in line. If you associate negative connotations to something, people will stay away from it if it means keeping them safe. It’s some type of aversion thing in psychology.”

“Damn. I wonder why our journalists don’t but that in the newspaper.”

“This is for the greater good. Do you remember when we went to the cemetery? We were envisioning a better world, and Forrest is the vessel for that. He gave us the inspiration we needed.”

He ponders on this. “Sometimes I feel like he uses me.”

“Why?”

“Look around you. I’ve built most of this city. All the plazas, the arcades, the houses, and the walls are of my design. Hell, even your arm is. I get no credit for it. Here’s what’s going to happen tomorrow: he’ll do his introduction, and then somehow it’ll turn into him wanting me to design something that’ll harm people. I’m not sure if I’m ready to face that.”

“I know you’re in a tough spot, but look at what we have. Despite it all, we’re still fortunate for accomplishing this.”

“I don’t know. Maybe I was wrong for joining the colony.”

“You weren’t. You have no idea how much you helped me during that time.”

Merlin smiles. “This is why I like being your friend. You’re my only source of sanity in this world.”

“The world isn’t insane… we are. We will never learn from our mistakes because of our arrogance and greed. That’s what got us here.”

“So what do you think can get us out of this cycle?”

“Selflessness.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“Look around you, Merlin. The Monarchy gave you a place to feel safe and secure. We didn’t have to do that; we felt like it was our obligation. What’s got you in the dumps?”

“I just… feel trapped here. I’ve built places for families to live, yet I still feel this isolation that I can’t explain. Sometimes I feel it right before bed, and that’s when it reaches its peak. It just… feels like everyone’s at a distance.”

“You’ve just gotta change your perception.”

“On what?”

“On everything. The Monarchy, the District leaders, the apocalypse itself. Forrest helped me see it as an opportunity for change. Maybe I can help you see it that way, too.”

He walks towards the doors. “I’ve gotta go to the Market District. Care to join me?”

“I will. I have to get the report from Russell anyway.”

“He’s not there. He’s in the hospital because he got some kind of flu. Ruth’s looking after him.”

“Who’s in his place?”

“Jeremy, but he won’t be at the meeting tomorrow. He doesn’t feel like he’s that important.”

Just before dinner, the king finally arrives at Dante’s house, his last destination. Knocking softly, the monarch asks if there’s anybody home. The door clicks open, revealing a man with a mask of rags covering the face. Eyeholes and a mouth hole are cut into the fabric, but no skin can be seen, as if the poor fellow knows a personal sewer.

“Can I come in?” the ruler quietly asks.

“Go ahead.”After the majesty steps in, Dante closes the door. “I know what you’re here for. I just want to say that I’m sorry, too.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it was wrong for me to bring it up. I just… thought I was good enough for the inner circle.”

“You are good enough; we just don’t have the need for anymore people.”

“What about Russell? He’s barely doing anything; hell, Merlin prefers Timothy over him.”

“Dante, don’t start it up again. Now, have you seen any gang activity?”

Grunting, he responds with a short, “Nothing noteworthy.”

“Good. Do you want to come with me to dinner?”

“No, I have to catch up on some reading. Thanks for the offer, though.”

Smiling, the majesty says, “I’m sorry for being such a goddamn asshole. Trust me, I notice the value of your work.”

Dante gestures towards the door. “Go on, your wife needs you.”

After she talks to Jeremy, Echo returns to the Needle to get ready for dinner. Although there’s a division of labor, it still takes them all day to walk from one place to the next, because that’s the sheer magnitude of Babylon. When she climbs all the way up to the Throne Room, she finds Forrest cooking 2dumplings in the kitchen. The smell is reminiscent of a Chinese café.

“Well, this is interesting,” she says, chuckling.

He laughs. “Shut up.”

“What are you cookin’ Chef Wayley?”

“It’s for one of the Communal Diners; they’re huge fans of my dumplings. How could I not help out?”

“See? You can be nice. No more self-hatred.”

“Stop. It’s almost done. Do you need anything before we leave?”

“Just a water bottle. I can’t wait to hike all the fucking way back down.”

They begin their descent, the evening life of Babylon beginning its cycle below them. Crowds are dwindling down, musicians play on street corners, and the freaks of the kingdom perform circus acts for the curious. Babylonians in the Housing District hang their pennants from their windows, signaling a peaceful day. This stage of the daily rhythm is the most interesting one, because it’s almost as if they are in tune with the ominous vibes of twilight. Now is when everyone starts thinking about their past because they have leisure time, and this has a ripple effect on their attitudes as the day continues.

The Monarchy enters a Communal Diner, whereupon its occupants hail them. Once everyone settles down, Forrest puts his dumplings with the rest of the buffet, and everyone lines up for them. The Monarchy get their food and sit at an empty table.

Echo takes their minds off the queer scenario. “Is your opinion on morals changing?”

“No. It’s still the same. This is about the meeting tomorrow, isn’t it?”

“Public execution? Do you really think that’s the right play?”

“We need to show people we’re serious about crime.”

“Crime prevention is more important than humanitarian prevention.”

“How is public execution not a display of crime prevention? Jesus, Echo.”

“I’m just saying there’re other options here.”

“Obey the Monarchy.”

“I am the Monarchy. Don’t say that shit to me.”

“You’re right, I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

She lets out a dreadful sigh. “Who would do it?”

“I don’t know; we’ll figure it out tomorrow.”

“If we even approve it.”

Returning to the Throne Room with full bellies, Forrest notices that for the first time in years, the voices are finally quieting down. However, he takes it as a bad omen, for he knows their only nature is evil. When a man loses control of his sanity, he can’t afford to let his guard down, for if he does, it might give way to the other ailments of our collective unconscious. According to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustave Jung, we all collectively share unconscious archetypes: the mother, the father, the wise old man, the clown/joker, and other figures of that nature. What Forrest understands is that the voices combine those archetypes in an indescribable way, making him all in one and none at all simultaneously.

Waking up, Echo feels anxious about the meeting. While Forrest gets ready, he notices her acting slow, encourages her to get up by ripping the covers off, thus provoking a groan from the queen. She reluctantly dons her red corset as Forrest grabs his staff, and they leave, holding hands.

They approach Babylon’s most creative structure: the Clock Tower, an automatic mechanism powered by steam (of Merlin’s design.) Big Ben is the main inspiration behind its aesthetic; other features

from Gothic buildings in the kingdom blend into the integrity perfectly.

They enter the building and approach a set of spruce doors within the backmost wall; above their heads are gears, wiring, and other complex creations that make the ticking hands move. Opening the doors, they proceed into a small chamber with the District Leaders sitting at a round table. Windows line the outer walls, allowing the light to create a heavenly atmosphere. The Monarchy take their seats, and the meeting begins.

The king stands up. “This gathering will cover the issue of public execution. We will discuss whether we should implement it into our society. You may now express your opinions.”

Echo remains quiet, for Forrest already knows what she thinks.

Merlin is the bravest among them to start things off. “Where are the ethics?”

“It’s not a matter of ethics,” Alex assures. “It’s a solution. The Dungeons are rapidly reaching their capacity, and we need to control the daily influx somehow.”

Merlin appears forlorn. “How would we do it?”

The king sternly suggests, “Guillotine. Quick, easy, and powerful. All we need is someone to build it.”

Scornful, Merlin responds with, “You only want me here so you can force me to make one?”

Timothy chimes in. “You’re not thinking about the bigger picture. You’d be protecting families and children.”

A knot forms in Merlin’s throat. “I’ve built this kingdom so people could be safe… I didn’t expect to build killing machines.”

This bolsters Forrest’s sternness. “You are not building ‘killing machines’. Do you know what those criminals have done and are still doing?”

Merlin leans back in his seat, scoffing. “Obey the Monarchy.”

Bullets suddenly fly through the windows, and everyone falls to the floor. A casing grazes Timothy’s cheek, but he survives. They barricade their heads with their hands, covering themselves from falling glass. Shards scratch their backs, but nobody is severely injured. The surprise attack quickly ends, but everyone remains on the floor, fear keeping them there. Taking one for the team, Merlin stands up and approaches a broken window. All the nearby streets are empty, so he exits the meeting room and opens the Clock Tower’s front doors, revealing Dante, Forrest’s old best friend, standing on the other side. At the site of his bolt-action sniper rifle, he punches the mercenary in the jaw, knowing the true purpose of public execution. Whatever Forrest does now, he fully supports. In the meeting room, Echo has similar thoughts. Long live the king.

Next morning, Dante wakes up in Babylon’s cruelest location: the Dungeons. Woeful cries from other inmates leave the burnt man wondering what’s provoking them. Could starving rats be eating them alive? Is somebody torturing these criminals? He tries moving, but the chains around his wrists and ankles prevent him from doing so.

It was part of the plan, becoming a scapegoat. However, the agreement came from a sickly curious part of his skepticism. He plans to survive this so he can tell his “gang” about their heinous treatment of prisoners, and when it gets out, it will spark a coup. No civilian has access here because this is hell on earth. His heart drops when his cell door opens, and it drops even further upon Echo’s entry. A cold draft floats through the room as she shuts the door. Genuflecting before him, the silence gets so intense that neither can breathe. She looks into his eyes without empathy, and that stare embeds itself in his memory, for the only thing he sees is the last circle of Hell.  The mask is off; the Monarchy just plays roles. Shakespeare once said that all the world’s a stage, and this moment personifies that truth. His heart rate increases, and the lack of ventilation causes him to sweat; the air feels as if you’re in a rotting log cabin in the swamps of Louisiana.

Echo finally speaks. “We know you weren’t alone.”

Dante stammers. “Think… what you will, but… you know… nothing.”

“What do you mean?”

“You think you’ve got it all figured out. The newspapers, the so-called gangs, the faux presentation of the Monarchy. I know the truth. This is an oligarchy. You’re just as transparent as the leaders of the old world.”

Echo scoffs. “Do I care? I’m only here to protect my interests, to keep people like you off the streets. Now, tell me who you’re working for.”

Dante starts laughing maniacally. “Too many to name, and they’re dying with me. You can torture me, deprive me of food, or bury me alive. I still won’t talk.”

After this, Echo leaves the cell and returns to the Throne Room, finding Forrest staring out the window. She tells him about her meeting, and he leaves, knowing what has to be done.

His first stop is Alexander’s house, wherein he tells the general to put the California trip on hold. Following this, he heads to the Farmlands and eventually reaches Merlin’s schoolhouse. He knocks on them, and the teacher comes out, appearing pale from yesterday’s events. They start talking on the porch.

The king states grimly, “I’m going to need your help.”

“With what?”

“I need you to make LSD.”

“Lysergic-acid diethylamide?”

“Yes. You’re the only person with a chemistry background in the kingdom. If you do this for me, I will honor you for everything; I’ll build a statue, I’ll make Timothy stop hating you, and I’ll wipe away all of your guilt.”

“No. What happened yesterday got me on your side, but I still think you’re using m-”

“If you agree, I will grant you access to leave the kingdom. I will also allow you to create what you want without permission. On top of that, you’re free to speak your mind and will not be considered a gangster. You’ve done so much to help, and this is me giving you… credit.”

He stands silently, weighing his options. What outcomes could arise from either scenario? He closes his eyes and nods his head, becoming a hypocrite to his own beliefs. “I need at least three or four weeks to make it.”

“What? Why?”

“I need a hazmat suit, ergot fungus from bad rye, and other things. This process takes time, Forrest. Time we don’t have.”

The king looks up towards the sky, allowing the sun to warm him. “Alright. After this thing is done, those privileges will be yours.”

Forrest’s next stop is the Hospital, a Gothic piece of architecture resembling the Waverly Hills Sanatorium. Its aesthetics come from the 1940s, a time when mental illness and regular sickness was taken as a joke. Pillars line the outer walls, and corbels jut out from the woodwork. Here, doctors perform queer practices, such as lobotomies, hydrotherapy, and harvesting useful herbs from plants. However, the lack of sterilization allows diseases to breed amongst ignorant patients; once you’re inside, you’re lucky to make it out. Although the kingdom has a medicine factory, an outbreak of any kind would ruin the Hospital, for medical supplies are the most difficult to manufacture.

The king approaches a receptionist’s desk, and behind it stands a blonde woman wearing her hair in a ponytail.

Anxiety prevents her from speaking. “Are… are you wanting Ruth?”

“Rachel, how many times do I have to say this? You don’t have to be nervous around me.”

“I can’t… help it. It feels like I’m… talking to a God.”

His ego grows with every word. “Thank you; I hope you know I try. The effort’s worth it, but yes, I am looking for Ruth. Have you seen her?”

Rachel laughs nervously. “She’s in Building B. I’d page her, but I obviously can’t.”

“We’ll get there one day.”

The king enters a massive corridor that spans off the left side of the lobby, and the voices speak to him as he passes the patient’s rooms. Do you notice how big Echo’s stomach is getting? Your baby is about to be born, and she’s going to be born under these conditions. She’s not going to live past a week! And how many people are dying here right now? If you step into one of these rooms, you might as well sign your life away, not that it was worth anything to begin with. For a split second, he sees his father, Sharron Wayley, standing in one of the doorframes. The father looks back, only to reveal an empty face. Feeling lost, the monarch strolls until he finds Ruth exiting one of the rooms. Upon seeing Forrest, she manifests a grave look.

Concerned, he asks, “What is it?”

“We think there’s a Black Death outbreak in Building A. I’ll show you.”

She leads him into a darker part of the Hospital. Less candles line the walls, an ominous vibe resulting from this. To Forrest, this is just a place where people go to be sick, not to get actual help. Ruth walks up to one of the patient’s doors, opens it slightly, and lets Forrest look inside. He analyzes beds with convulsing Babylonians on top of them; black spots, blisters, and rashes cover their skin, and they’re practically sweating through their sheets.

Lost in thought, she says, “Lucas’ medicine factory won’t be able to help with this. We’ve never had to deal with an outbreak before, and we don’t have the supplies necessary to cure these people. If this gets worse… who knows what might happen.”

The king exits the space quickly. “I know what to do.”

Arriving at the commander’s house, Forrest meets him in the living room.

“There’s another situation popping up,” the messiah explains. “It’s putting me in a position where I have no choice but to send you to California. On your way there, you must look for medicine, enough f-

or Lucas to work with.”

“If you insist,” Alex states. “I’ll appoint my friend Heather as the temporary commander. I trust her with everything I know; I’ve been training her in case of something like this happening.”

Forrest scoffs. “You knew I’d give in, didn’t you?”

The commander smirks. “I’d get there eventually, and I did.”

The king grows quiet, analyzing the ground beneath his feet, thinking about the assassination attempt. That could happen again when the best strategist in Babylon leaves. Stress pushes the monarch to sadness, provoking clear, sparkling tears. As he sobs, the pressures of being a king pour out of him, his breath poking at his heart like pins and needles. Alex places a comforting hand on Forrest’s shoulder, not knowing how to fix this. They sit for several minutes in silence; Forrest stops crying and wipes his eyes, figuring these moments in life will happen until the end. Gathering himself, the king starts for the front door, but Alex stops him, calling his name.

“What?” the crown demands..

“Do you know what it feels like to just… wait for something bad to happen so you can prepare for it happening a second time? I know you do; I’m not in the mood for patronizing you. That’s all life is: a waiting game. But you don’t have to wait anymore, because you know what you need to do next.”

Forrest enters the Dungeons through a trapdoor at the bottom of a watchtower. Lighting a lantern, the crypt-like area before him comes to life dramatically. As he passes through corridors of suffering prisoners, the voices talk to him. What’re you gunna do to him? Torture? Are you gunna beat it out of him? We know you will, because we’ll make you. You’re under our control, like you’ve always been. Your mind is a mosaic of life, and we rule over it. There’s nothing you can do. If you kill him, his voice will be in your head, just like the rest of your victims. You hear the people you kill. You hear me, me, and me. You remember who I am; you can see my face. Forrest closes his eyes, remembering his kill count, and he opens them, standing in naked disappointment. 15,349. That’s how many of us there are, and that’s how many you’ve killed. You’re paying for your crimes, Forrest. It’s your fault for not being worth a damn. He gazes into a cell, Dante quivering against the back wall. Upon spotting the king, the inmate spirals into a panic. Do you see how you make people feel? You have no idea the damage you’re causing to society. This is not a better world. Forrest wraps his hands around the cell door, opening it slowly. You’re so predictable. After closing the door behind him, the monarch genuflects before the rat, staring into Dante’s fright, finding nothing else.

“You… you,” the trembling Babylonian stammers.

The oppressor stares blankly. “You know the truth.”

Dante feels an odd sense of relief. “It’s all for show, isn’t it?”

“Do you know why I made Babylon a kingdom? It could’ve been anything else.” He pauses, thinking. “It’s a kingdom because I needed to put the Babylonians in a society that was known for having terrible education. I keep them dumb, and the population is easier to control. Why do you think we don’t have libraries, or churches? They can’t know about other philosophies.”

“And you’re telling me this because you’re going to kill me.”

The king smirks. “Not yet. Today’s your lucky day. We’re implementing a public execution system, and you’re going to be its first victim. You don’t have to be, though. All you have to do is tell me who you’re working for.”

“I won’t talk. If I live, I rot. If I die, at least it’ll stop the suffering. I know we used to be friends, Forrest… but time changes with views.”

“I always get what I want. After your next meal, or the one after that, you’ll be thrown into a state of mind you can’t control. Who knows? Maybe the paranoia will be too much for you.”

“You’re going to drug me?”

“Yes, I have to. I’ll never understand people like you. You think you can change things, but you can’t.” He reflects on who he was before Babylon, and how merciless the world can be when it comes to a change in perspective. “I… I didn’t mean for that to come out. I’m sorry.”

“You used to be like me, didn’t you? You were a rebel.”

The king breathes heavily. “The past is the past.”

“There’s part of you that wants a better world. I’ve heard stories about you. You know we aren’t gangsters. We want exactly what you desired all those years ago. What turned your dream into a… machine?”

Forrest punches Dante. “Don’t you dare call my dream a machine! It’s nothing like the governments of the old world. Do you really think this place is a dictatorship, an authoritarian state? You’re wrong! People are safe here, and you want to take that aspect away. That’s why we call you ‘gangsters’. Don’t worry, in a few years, you’ll be known as terrorists. Vernacular also changes with time.” Leaving the cell, he adds nonchalantly, “Rot, you swine.”

Now alone, Dante’s anxiety becomes overwhelming. He can’t even trust what he eats anymore; he can’t comprehend the web of mind games, either. Babylon’s government is an endless maze of contradictions, a pattern with no beginning or end. It’s a Monarchy, yet other people have power. It has to be an oligarchy; that’s the only logical explanation. He tries labeling the manipulation tactics in his head. Yellow journalism, nationalism, a busy work schedule. A swirl of control, a black hole of selfishness cowering behind a wall of fairness. He feels the dirt of the floor with his toes, the cold earth irritating his burnt skin. This is how it ends for him. After discovering the ultimate revelation, death follows, and the ultimate revelation is one dreadful fact: after fear comes society. The oligarchy is the fear, and they’ve won.

He remembers a very fascinating concept from the old world: the New World Order. According to this idea, the richest people in the world want to be in control of a society that has one government, language, currency, and religion. Could Babylon be the New World Order? He ponders on this strange connection and wonders if Forrest knows about it. Hell, from their conversation, anything’s a possibility. He wonders how mad someone has to be to create this world; he’s never known anybody of this caliber. The governments of the old world weren’t even this corrupt. Is stopping the system possible?

Another queer thought comes to mind: Babylon’s currency, or lack thereof. He who controls the money controls society, but since Babylon has no money, what is its equivalent? The Market District. The Market District is the answer. If the Babylonians boycott trade, they’d stop working, and then the system would collapse. He sits upright. How can he make them boycott the bartering system when they work to trade? How can he make an entire society do this? The government’s deception is deeper than what he originally thought.

In the Throne Room, Forrest holds Echo in front of a mirror. His hands rest on her gigantic belly, and they’re happy her pregnancy is ending. He feels the baby kick, and warm feelings envelope them, feelings that boil and mix into one word: family. Forrest pulls away, and he kneels by their bed. He grabs hold of something and yanks it out, revealing a birch chest with a steel lock. Removing a key from his robe’s pocket, he inserts it into the lock and pulls it apart. After he opens the chest, Echo gasps. Inside are two golden crowns.

“Tomorrow is our 30th anniversary,” he starts. “I gave a tip to the metal smiths. There’s gotta be some way to constantly fool ourselves into believing what we are… This is how.”

That evening, Forrest shows up at Babylon’s Gatehouse under his crown. The Gatehouse has two corresponding gates, each on opposite sides of a watchtower’s base. They open and close from a pulley system of ropes, which lead from the tops of the gates to an open window near the top of the tower. Whoever’s manning it acts as a gatekeeper; the gates themselves are of a light material to make the lift easier.

He gazes through the bars, out towards the Drawbridge, a massive project that spans over Lake Washington, the body of water separating the kingdom from the mainland. He remembers working on it himself, all those years ago, alongside Merlin, Timothy, and the other usual suspects.

Forrest cups his hands, shouts, “LIFT!” and the gates open.

The commander appears from behind the monarch, passing through the Gatehouse. Groups of armored soldiers march closely behind him, carrying swords in scabbards and 1960s assault rifles across their chests. The gatekeeper closes the gates, shutting Alex and the others off from safety.

The days pass quietly in Babylon, and during this time, Merlin works on his project. He wakes up on the first day, gets ready, and heads outside. He makes his way to the Industrial District, envious of the passing crowds. If they find out what he already knows, a revolution would ensue. The interesting thing about knowledge is the more you know, the less you feel because you can’t express it without sounding condescending or pretentious. Here lies Merlin’s dilemma. He wants to express this information, but Babylon rejects the arts. His only chance of expression is through construction or the Monarchy’s needs.

He heads into an alleyway that divides two factories, and he happens upon a metal door at the end of it. He knocks on the door, and the slit near the top opens. When the figure on the other side sees Merlin, the slit closes, and the door opens. Merlin gives the doorman a handshake and progresses inside. This club is home to Babylon’s most peaceful secret society: the Lucky Nines. They sit around tables beneath candlelight and play poker, auction off prized possessions, and drink at the bar. This place hides in an abandoned room behind a furniture factory, and it goes unnoticed by the busy manager. Merlin doesn’t come here that often, although he wishes he could, for this is the only place in the kingdom where he doesn’t feel trapped.

He approaches the bar and sits on a stool, calling over the bartender. She has curly red hair and wears a leather dress.

“Rebecca,” Merlin starts. “It’s good to see you. I need your help.”

Flickering lanterns illuminate her voluptuousness. “Haven’t seen you in a while. What’s up?”

“The Monarchy… wants me to set up a lab for the kids, and I need equipment.”

“What kind of equipment are we talking here?”

“Medical shit. Enough for a lengthy chemical process. I’m talking flasks, machinery you can’t even pronounce, and bottles of chemicals.”

Rebecca leans forward, her hands pressing down hard. “Lucas is the guy you want. He manages a factory that produces medicine for the Hospital. They’re under hard times, but he has everything you need.”

“Do you think his factory has a room like this one? Dark, unknown to the public?”

“Maybe. Ask him. His factory’s down the road on the left.”

He nods his head. “Thank you.”

Out on the road, he asks the workers to point him in the direction of the vaccination plant, and he eventually ends up at its front doors. He enters the dark building, the original factory of the Industrial District. Inside, workers in lab coats surround complex, steam-powered machinery; they wear protective gear, a vague reminder of the Centers for Disease Control. He progresses through the building until he happens upon the manager’s office and he steps inside. A man with curly black hair and a shaven face paces back and forth nervously, stressing out over some internal affair. He notices Merlin, confusion causing him to stay still.

“Hey?” he asks.

“Are you Lucas?”

“As far as you know.”

“I’m Merlin, and I have a proposition for you from the Monarchy.”

“The Monarchy? Let me here it.”

“They want you to let me access any spare darkrooms that have machinery. I’m conducting a chemical process.”

Lucas chuckles. “What’re you making? The cure for cancer?”

“That’s between them and me. When I’m done, we can pretend it didn’t happen. Remember, Obey the Monarchy.”

“You don’t have to spout that bullshit; I’d do anything to help them out. I’ll give you a tour and set you up with everything you need.” He stands up, anxiety-ridden. “There’s an outbreak at the Hospital, and we’re running out of shit to produce, so I’m sorry if I seem on edge.”

The days pass, and Lucas helps Merlin set up his LSD lab. When they’re done, Lucas leaves him alone. The teacher dons a hazmat suit, gloves, and he pulls out a bag of ergot fungus he got from the Farmlands. He puts the baggie on a table, sets up his flasks and bottles of chemicals, spreads out countless chemistry notes across the floor, and begins working. Patience is the true element in crafting LSD, mainly because of how much time it consumes. If one thing goes awry, if he exposes himself to any carcinogen, then he’s dead. This is a dangerous procedure, and it’s important for organic chemists to take it seriously.  A major goal of the process is to extract the ergot alkaloids, synthesize them into a molecule called iso-lysergic acid hydrazide, and isomerize it. The isomerization leaves behind iso-lysergic diethylamide, which Merlin isomerizes again to produce active LSD. Although he performs much more difficult tasks, this is a basic gestalt of just one part of the queer project.

During this time, he thinks about his connections. Russell, Forrest, Echo, Alexander, and Timothy. He hates Timothy more than the Monarchy, and this has been going on for years. Every time they converse, the CEO has to own the subject matter, and the teacher can’t get a word in edgewise. They only talk about his accomplishments and his pride, something Merlin doesn’t care about. They never talk about his problems, it’s always about the CEO. He wants to talk it out with him, but Timothy wants no part of it. He doesn’t want friendship, he wants attention. This causes tension between him, the District Leaders, and the Monarchy, especially during meetings. He thinks about going to the Monarchy to report this problem, but he knows he can handle it himself; it doesn’t have to be a big deal. He can never understand egotistical people, and that personality type has always been his least favorite. Despite this, he carries on working, feeling like a slave. The Monarchy has him under their thumb. Although he supports them, he still questions where his loyalties lie. This question has no concrete answer, because it changes all the time. If he gets a gut feeling about not trusting someone, he follows it. Guilty until proven innocent, that’s his philosophy. In a world like this, is that a bad way of life?

The day after Merlin finishes the process, he leads Echo down into the Dungeons by the light of a lantern. Their sides brush against the jagged walls of the rocky corridor. At Dante’s cell, Echo produces a ring of keys from her corset’s pocket, and she unlocks the door. Merlin hands her the plate of LSD-laced food, and she proceeds inside.

When Dante sees her silhouette, he sits upright, cowering against the cell’s wall, rocks digging into his burnt back. He knows today’s the day, for someone else usually brings him the pig slob. She gives him a spoonful of the disgusting, unknown food, and he keeps his mouth shut, but she forces it down his gullet. He gags and throws it up, but Echo tries again, not retrieving the spoon out until he swallows. In tears, Dante falls to his side. He regrets being a gangster, and if he survives this, he’s going to poison them and slit their necks in their sleep.

When it’s done, Echo tosses the plate aside and waits for him to undergo the life changing experience. When you unwillingly drop acid, a bad trip becomes inevitable. What makes the difference between a good trip and a bad trip is your state of mind before it begins. The drug takes about thirty minutes to kick in, and it comes on lightly at first; you begin to hallucinate letters and time waving back and forth, and before you know it, you’re thrown into unimaginable realms of thought. How did I get here? Who am I? These streams of consciousness start out calm, but then again, that’s how all storms begin.

Dante’s vision warps and the jagged rock walls of the chamber feel sharp against his back. Echo’s presence brings on the anxiety, a terrible thing to experience when undergoing a trip. The crown she’s wearing sparkles, although there’s no light source aside from Merlin’s lantern. Her eyes sink into her skull, and everything begins melting. Dante feels like he’s sitting on thin air, nothing beneath or above him. Gazing at the walls, spiders crawl out of the cracks and spin webs around the inmate. He shakes and sweats, for nothing will ever be the same again. LSD works by changing your perception on the universe, and everything that imagination is manifests itself in reality, causing its user to question everything. Where does the madness of this situation begin? Am I dead? Dante’s heart sinks into his chest, for there are no concrete answers to any of the questions he’s asking. Aren’t all answers just popular opinions? He ponders on the concept of God, an all-knowing, benevolent, omnipotent being. He remembers being a religious man, but life changes, and he lost his faith. Maybe it’s for the greater good, because now he wonders if church is a lie. If God is benevolent, how can Hell exist? If Heaven exists, doesn’t it sound authoritarian? If you bow down to Him, you get a free pass, but if you have a differing opinion, into the flames you go. Why does it put a barricade on critical thinking? To him, the church is nothing more than a way to control the masses, to give them false hope. People waste lifetimes practicing Western religions like Christianity, and they don’t take the time to take a step back and truly examine its doctrine. He doesn’t hate religion, he hates the fact that ignorance is bliss. That’s why people in the West don’t take in any other perspectives; they’re content with going to church to listen to a pastor gloat about the beauties of tax exemption.   

Echo, taking advantage of his vulnerable state of mind, declares, “Dante, I am God. It’s time for you to confess your sins.”

Dante’s pupils dilate under the darkness, and he whimpers. “I’m… I’m so sorry for questioning You.”

“You’re going to Hell; it’s already decided. However, if you do one thing, I will absolve you.”

“What is it?” he begs.

“Give me the names of the people you work with.”

His lips quivering, he nods his head, for he’s not ready for another fire. “There’s an empty house in the Housing District. I meet up with people there on a weekly basis. We discuss ideas regarding the overthrow of the Monarchy. Their names are Oliver Paterson, Lewis Vance, Sandra Williams, and Paula Edwards. We make up our society, the School of Athens.”

“Are there any other ‘gangster secret societies’?”

“Yes, but I can’t recall how many or the names. I’m only into my own group and its desires.”

“Thank you. I have to go now. Enjoy the trip.”

“Wait,” Dante pleads. “I believed in him, you know. But he never gave me a chance. I got jealous, and my ego took over.” Gritting his teeth, he adds, “This place is going to fail without good minds. I know who’s in the inner circle, and I know that mirror you guys have… is cracking. One day, somebody worse than me will have my gun and my beliefs.” His expression decays into a glare. “They’ll just know how to use the gun better.”

Out in the corridor, Merlin holds a blank list.

“I got the names,” she says.

“I feel like shit,” the teacher states, holding the lantern to Dante’s cell. “Look at him.”

Echo rests a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t feel like that. You’re helping us. I’m sorry.” She hugs him. “It’s okay. I’m still here for you. This is for Forrest; he’s protecting his dream.”

Merlin pulls away. “You’re justifying a maniac.”

“No, I’m justifying a king.”

Two uneventful weeks pass, and on the morning of the fifteenth day, Dante wakes up to a dreadful realization: his time is running out. Revolution is impossible at this point; the manipulation has been around for three decades, god damn it. The only thing he’s grateful for is dying with the truth.

His cell door opens, and Forrest enters. The monarch silently stands over the prisoner, establishing dominance. Dante is the dog, and the king holds the leash. Forrest yanks the prisoner to his feet, chains clanking with every movement. He leads the jailbird outside, into the blazing sun. Crowds of Babylonians line the streets, watching the event from all angles. They wear a wide range of nasty express- ions, and some throw rotten food at the burnt man.

Arriving at the Needle’s base, a guillotine awaits Dante’s fate. Timothy and Echo stand behind it, knowing today will change things. They pry the rat from Forrest’s hands, positioning the burnt man beneath that merciless blade, death just minutes away.

Forrest stands in front of the device; Echo hands him his staff, and he hoists it into the air, shouting to the crowd, “This is a message to every gangster: We know who you are, and your time is nigh! This will be the first of many executions because of your recent behavior! We will not be forgiving! You come here, and you fuck everything up! Not anymore! Now is the time to stand, to protect nationalism!” The crowd cheers; he gestures back to Timothy. “Pull it.”

The gunsmith forces a lever, and the blade falls.

Dante screams, “The Market District-”

It slices through his neck, and the tumbling head arouses cheers from everyone, including the children,

Elsewhere, Merlin rests in his house, alone, lying numbly on his back. He examines the hey roof, lost in some realm of transparency. A half-empty bottle of Hennessy sits on his bedside table. Every sip he takes reminds him of Judas’ alcoholism. Dark circles line the undersides of his eyes; he hasn’t slept in three days because of this never-ending guilt. His intelligence is now harming people; it’s literally destroying their lives. He finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. His mother looked like a rotting potato during her last stages of cancer; if there’s anything that describes how he’s feeling, it’s that. The Monarchy is draining him, and he can’t fight back. He considers leaving Babylon, but knows he can’t survive alone, for the isolation will lead him to depression, and then suicide. He needs people; he needs a social outlet.

Scoffing, he whispers in a voice bringing death to hope, “Obey the Monarchy? Fuck the Monarchy.”

THREE WEEKS LATER

The day begins with grey skies. Merlin wakes up and goes over to his desk; on top of it rests a journal. He opens it, grabs a pencil, and writes at the top of a page, Moral Compass. After underlying the words, he writes a list:

1. Trust No One

2. Speak No Evil

3. Repress Emotion

4. Notice the Manipulation

5. Be of it, not for it

6. Wake People Up

7. Fuck the Monarchy

He stares down at the last phrase for several seconds. They present themselves as powerful leaders when they’re just ruthless for the sake of being ruthless. There is no redemption for that personality type. Dante’s situation is still hot on his mind, and for good reason. He will never forgive them for what they did, even if the victim was a gangster. On one hand, Dante is wrong for the assassination attempt. On the other, Forrest is wrong for using him to make LSD. He sighs and stretches, thinking about where his loyalties lie. He pulls back a window’s curtain, revealing citizens walking Babylon’s muddy roads. Perhaps it lies in them, an ocean of individual minds with limitless ideas. He decides to play the role of ignorance until his breaking point, a wise decision when society corners someone. When and if he reaches that, he’ll turn against the Monarchy. Until then, his feelings towards Forrest and Echo will remain as grey as the skies overhead. He knows who Echo really is, and Forrest is responsible for her corruption. She thinks that Merlin’s her friend, but to him, they’re two different people now. She’s just the victim of a manipulative maniac.

And then there’s Timothy. Merlin doesn’t understand the CEO’s resentment towards him. This has been going on for years without explanation. He wishes he can pull the vengeful bastard aside and talk it out, but he knows that arrogant gunsmith won’t listen. The teacher figures people are weird that way, dons leather garb, and leaves.

On his porch, the architect watches as trees blow to and fro in the building wind. A tense feeling grows in his gut; a gigantic storm is approaching. He journeys to the Market District, observing its behavior. Babylonians stand behind stalls and trade off items from the factories, farms, and mines. Some guide cows that carry wicker baskets upon their wide backs. Others ride through the area on horseback, smiling beneath the darkening day. The district’s characteristics are similar to a Middle Eastern bazaar, and it breeds emotions ranging from luck to bankruptcy. This is Babylon’s stock exchange, complete with the feeling of whether or not a dealer is screwing you over.

He crosses a stall that trades vegetable oil for rubies, and Merlin produces seven of the gems from his pocket. The teacher lays them across the stall’s desktop, and the dealer examines them. The condition of the minerals pleases the dealer, and he hands Merlin three jars of his product. With a smile, the teacher leaves the Market District and returns to his house. In his backyard (a small excuse for one, considering how compact the houses are), a motorcycle sits on a wooden platform. He’s finishing up an engine that runs off vegetables in his basement, and he plans on riding out into the world by the end of the day. All he has to do is install the damn thing and get it going. By nightfall, he rides up to the Gatehouse, calls up to the gatekeeper, and zooms out of Babylon, across the Drawbridge without fear.

Nature slowly takes back unknown territories. Vines and branches wrap around enormous skyscrapers, choking them mercilessly. Washington is now a jungle of lost opportunities. He rides through numerous pile-ups, drives by the ruins of 1950s communities, and gazes at propaganda posters from the era. They depict Dwight D. Eisenhower stomping on Vietnam; others portray Nixon with devil horns protruding from either side of his forehead; burnt posters of Uncle Sam are also a frequent site.

He arrives at Tacoma by three in the morning. Heading off the interstate, the lack of infected surprises him; perhaps they’re starving, Mother Earth slowly fossilizing them through her infinite wisdom. In the city, he parks at the end of a nameless road, dense wrecks blocking any progress. The wind blows piles of trash across cracking streets, and a sensation of tragedy overwhelms him. Something awful happened here, something future civilizations will never record in their history books. Merlin takes it all in: the way the sun shines through decaying buildings, the moist surroundings, the graveyard of automobiles, and the thick layer of vandalism draping every square inch. Skeletal remains plague the streets, a scene reminiscent of post-Black Death Europe. It’s all wildly fascinating to the teacher, almost mystical, and this curiosity grows with every examination.

He strolls down the street aimlessly, free from the Monarchy and his duties. He doesn’t have to worry about the schoolhouse because classes are only on the weekends, and according to their calendar system, today is Tuesday, March 15th, 1986. Russell, the leader of the Market District, is responsible for the timekeeping, but Merlin doubts its accuracy. Hell, he’s only part of their ring because he supposedly kept track of the date when everything went down. He doesn’t know what to think about Russell other than the fact that he’s irresponsible. The lazy bastard barely shows up to any of their meetings, and when he does, he speaks the least and adds nothing of substance to the conversation. Merlin spoke to Forrest about the issue one time, and all Forrest said is that he’s good at keeping the Market District peaceful and in balance, which is detrimental to its function. The teacher considers this a fair point, because the district has the least amount of problems.

Nonetheless, these thoughts fade as a fantastic museum comes into view. Crumbling pillars support a falling roof, and a layer of mold cakes the exterior walls. He draws a dagger and approaches its front doors, taking in the magnificent ruins. They remind him of ancient Mayan temples; so many secrets, so little explanation.

After climbing the steps, he heads inside. Thankfully, he doesn’t need a flashlight, for sunlight floods through the unstable roof. This place can collapse at any second, but the urge to explore pacifies his fears. Historical exhibits provoke even more questions, and he takes a moment to appreciate the quiet. Water drips onto the mold-covered floor, and his shoes make squishing sounds with every step.

He eventually gains access to an empty observatory, and his eyes widen at a macabre scene waiting for him. Bodies dangle from the rotting ceiling by rope, and blood paints the walls. Near the center of the domed roof, a message in blood: The Acolytes Hate Vulnerability.

Back outside, he pockets his dagger. No signs of life. Can Babylon really be the last civilization after all? The Fertile Crescent experienced the dawn of humanity, and one of the earliest civilizations was Babylonia. It’s all a cycle, really. Life, death, happiness, sadness. The cycle is mysterious, and it goes without stopping. It doesn’t care if you like it or hate it, because even if you perform either of those emotions, that’s continuing the cycle. Merlin’s feelings of being trapped stem from this idea, and he often wonders if there’s a way to break the cycle, if there’s something outside of life and death. After all, everything is the result of vibrating atoms, and yours somehow obtained consciousness.

Something flashes by out of the corner of his eye. He turns ‘round to see nothing, but feels like someone’s watching him. He hates feeling this way; it’s like a sinking, claustrophobic nervousness. Eyes are on you, but you can’t pinpoint the source. Merlin considers running back to his motorcycle, but the fear stalls him. He has to find the source; if he doesn’t, these people could follow him back to Babylon. Considering what happened to Dante and what’s happening to the gangsters, he will not be responsible for more death. Who knows how many lives are on his hands now? The Monarchy uses the guillotine on a daily basis, and the newspaper says that there’s around twenty executions per day. How can he trust what that says, though? Everything in his world is a pack of lies.

He follows his gut, and he ends up in an alleyway. At the end of it, a freshly skinned rabbit. The site fixates Merlin because that’s exactly how he feels: stripped from his uniqueness and living in Purgatory. Slavery or death; that’s Babylon. Hell, that phrase should be the city’s coat of arms. He turns ‘round again, gandering at the lifeless city. Cold, dead, empty. Perhaps the end of the world awakens the negative emotions we share. Greed. Loss. Regret. Fear. Perhaps this entire world is a metaphor, and what you experience daily is symbolic towards your unconscious mind. The apocalypse is not a new story, nor is the idea of a dystopian society. However, when you look past the surface, when you look past the blood and gore, you find something beautiful: hope. The end of the world is just that: the end of the world. And what comes after the end? A new beginning. Merlin believes that that’s what the world needs on an internal level. To him, everyone deserves an easy life; that’s the very foundation of the American Dream.

Something that fascinates Merlin about the American Dream is the idea of pursuing happiness. During the California Gold Rush, immigrants came to America in the hopes of becoming famous overnight. Some of them actually did, but others fell short. Historians call that period the California Dream. Why are these ideas of happiness based on dreams? Is it because we fixate too much on the depressing reality of our situation that we can’t experience happiness in the present? Perhaps it’s the fault of the demon in our heads, the demon that doesn’t know how to shut up except for when you put a gun up to it, and even then it still finds a way to make you forget about it.

  He jumps at the sound of breaking glass, and he runs out to the street, spotting a hooded figure running into the lobby of a hotel. He pursues the prey and enters the building to find the figure cowering in a dark elevator shaft. There, he finds that the figure beneath the hood is a young boy. Black liquid covers his skin, and his hoody matches the dark color. Merlin lends him a hand, and the boy accepts it.

“Who are you?” the boy asks.

Merlin leads him outside. “Tyler Wilson. You?”

“Wes Preston. I can’t speak for long; I have to get back to my group.”

“You have a group? I’d like to see them.”

“They don’t take kindly to strangers. We’re a family. The leader’s my mom.”

Before Merlin responds, Wes punches him in the jaw, knocking the Babylonian unconscious.

Hours later, Merlin wakes up to find Wes and four other survivors tying his hands and legs to a chair. They wear the same attire Wes dons, and they have black paint covering their skin. He can tell that they’re in a warehouse outside Tacoma, for the shipping addresses on the boxes are from Olympia, Washington. The sun shines through the broken windows, illuminating the failure of the 1950s business cycle. Merlin feels sweat dripping down his forehead, and he becomes nervous. When they’re done tying him up, they back away, and a female steps forward. She’s the tallest of the bunch, and, from the looks of her soulless eyes, experiences trauma on a daily basis. How couldn’t you when you’re in the wild? Your only friend is you survival instinct, something we’ve lost contact with since modernization. How long does it take to befriend someone you’ve betrayed? What trials do you have to go through to regain its trust? Maybe that’s why the apocalypse happened. Could it be that the universe is telling us we need to regain that contact to experience who we truly are?

  These thoughts run through Merlin’s head, and the family stares at him coldly.

The woman speaks in a crackly voice. “Who are you?”

He glares at her. “Tyler Wilson.”

“Why did Wes here find you riding a motorcycle? He says it’s an advanced piece of machinery. Where’s the time to make that nowadays?”

“It’s an empty world. There’s always a way.”

The girl scoffs. “Your dagger.” She produces it from a pocket on her hoody. “Where did you get it? You don’t have a sharpener on you. What good is a blade like this without a sharpener? It looks like someone made it recently. Don’t you see those fine, precise cuts? Did a blacksmith make this?”

Merlin breathes heavily. “I’m not saying anything besides what I know, and what I know is that I’m alone.”

Unsatisfied, she says, “We need to know if you’re a threat. We don’t want to get involved in any fights; we just want to know if we have to… relocate.”

The Babylonian understands the situation now. These people have a bad case of paranoia, a case that you throw yourself into if you chose to be a lone wolf. These survivors aren’t a threat; they’re lost among a world of loss. He feels pity for these souls, and he wants to offer them sanctuary. However, he’s curious about this bunch and wants to know more.

“I’m not a threat. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you something.”

The girl looks suspicious. “This isn’t a time for games, Tyler. We’re a family, and we don’t want any trouble.”

“I trusted you enough to tell you the truth, now I want you to do the same. Relationships don’t work if the other party doesn’t put in the effort. I’ve… been so alone, and all I want is someone to talk to.”

Monica lets out a dreadful sigh, for she’s been in his shoes before. “My name is Monica Stanson, and this is my family. My daughter’s name is Stacey, and my husband here is Edward. The little guy you met is Wes Preston.”

“Preston?”

Wes grins. “Adopted.”

Merlin observes them all. “Why are you out here on your own?”

Monica shakes her head. “We simply reject the idea of society. We know they all fall eventually, so why join one?”

“Humans are social beings. Although society isn’t perfect, we still need that network.”

“Not us. Not the tribes. Since you’re obviously from somewhere, I’ll catch you up to speed. Some of us prefer to be alone, and some of us who prefer to travel. Some of us are nomads, people who move from place to pace without any intention of doing anything else. We fall under that last category. That’s the system in the wild, and we’re accepting it because it keeps us alive.”

“Don’t you want safety and security?”

“And more people to worry about? More problems? No fucking way.”

Merlin sighs. “You can’t… be alone for too long. You start going insane, and you wonder if anything has a meaning. Trust me; I’ve been in your shoes before. I know someplace that can wipe all of that away. Its government needs fixing, but I see hope for it.”

Monica shakes her head. “We know of your communities. We’ve seen them before; we don’t want to interact with them.”

“I can guarantee you’ve never seen anything like us.” Monica kneels before him and looks into his eyes in silence. Merlin reads her expression, and he enlightens them. “There are walls, knights, factories, and steam-powered machinery. I’m talking old-fashioned kingdom shit. Blacksmiths, farms, bakeries, and so much more.”

“What do you call it?”

“Babylon. It was the dawn of civilization then, and it’s the dawn of civilization now. We’re a melting pot chasing the American Dream. Like I said, it needs fixing, but it’s worth a shot. Trust me; I’ve been there for 30 years.”

In one of the warehouse’s offices, Monica and Edward watch their sleeping children. On the main floor, the Babylonian sits upright in his chair, fast asleep. Monica thinks about Babylon and its limitless possibilities. She’s hopeful, but the Shadows’ paranoia grounds them in this warehouse. Edward’s indifferent about the opportunity, because he wants to hold his beliefs to his heart. They’ve been out here this entire time; they can’t let go of them like they’re nothing. Would it be wrong to abandon their world for a society with a failing government? This question may seem like a no-brainer, but Edward’s beliefs are everything to him; he thinks they’re only breathing because of them. Despite it all, Monica knows the children are more important.

“What’re you thinking about?” Edward asks.

“The kids. I think I should expose them to a different way of life.”

He gazes up at the cracking ceiling blankly. “I… I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Why?”

“We have to teach them to be loyal to their beliefs.”

“Wouldn’t that be safer to do in Babylon?”

“No! They need to stay out here to get the full effect; we have to teach them how to be strong.”

“Ed, you’re thinking about yourself.”

He grunts. “I’m the only one in this room that knows the right choice.”

“Really? If you’re the all-knowing prophet, why do our children listen to me? They even refer to me as their leader.”

“They don’t know any better; they’re too young.”

“Are you calling me stupid?”

“No, Monica. Christ. It’s just… we thrive in the darkness. In the nooks and crannies of the world. What if this place is dangerous?”

Monica stays quiet. She hates when Ed gets like this. She wants to find someone else, but she can’t. Maybe Babylon isn’t a bad option; maybe it’s what she needs, what they all need. She’s an adult, and she has every right to protect her children and change her beliefs. She doesn’t understand how Ed can be so insensitive, so stubborn. Monica’s heart feels as if a blender is shredding it into pieces. Although Ed’s going to hate it, she’s going to take Merlin up on the offer. The only thing that worries her now is the storm. The skies are too dark, and the wind is building, but so far, no rain. Whenever it reaches Washington, it’s going to be the storm of the century.

They return to Merlin’s motorcycle, and the rain starts falling. The Babylonian gazes up at the sky and smiles, letting the water drip down his face. Admittedly, he enjoys Forrest’s privileges, but that won’t stop him from having his own opinions. He’s never been the one to accept a bribe, even at the cost of his own life. He focuses on the Shadows and their lifestyle. Their art of survival reminds him of the early Native Americans. Hell, that’s what life is if you’re not in a developing society. Mobile camps, tipis, and the smell of fire burning in the middle of a wheat field. To Merlin, the nomadic lifestyle is for those who dare to ponder on their existence. Some people are better alone, but he also thinks it’s not the right way to live anymore. Safety in numbers, after all. This is the painful cycle of the introvert. You want to be with people, but when you are, you feel like you’re putting on a show, and you want to leave the conversation. Rinse and repeat. They follow Merlin into a garage, where he leaves his motorcycle. Ten miles to go.

Merlin leads them down the Drawbridge as the dark waves of Lake Washington crash against it. The wooden bridge creaks and sways, but the metal support beams keep it intact for now. This beast worsens with every second, and they reach the Gatehouse as the waves grow to ten feet.

Hurricanes are split into five categories depending on the speed of wind. However, the force of this storm is enough to create a category six. Mother Nature is a heartless, unpredictable beast. You can only experience an event like this once in a century, a perfect storm tearing the fabric of reality apart at the subatomic seams. Merlin latches onto the Shadows, and they run into the Clock Tower, wherein the gears and cogs stand still. A ghostly howl follows the wind outside; cold rain drenches the foggy windows, and thin sheets of ice form over the panels. The meeting room’s door swings open, and Timothy emerges. He examines the queer group and figures they’re friendly, for they’re in Merlin’s presence.

Merlin steps forward. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

“Are you gonna leave them by themselves?”

“Please; it’s important.”

“Fine.”

In the meeting room, the two Babylonians sit at the round table. Rain pelts the boarded windows, and lightning rips the black sky apart; it’s as if the flashes intend to reveal heaven breaking through to this side. The Babylonians remain silent; neither can start this long-awaited conversation. Where should it begin? Hell, where DOES it even begin? They come through their fracturing memories, and neither conjure the truth. The only thing Merlin is certain about is that a dog and a sheep are sitting in the same room; the stars must be aligning.

The CEO has the audacity to ask, “Do you want to hear about my breakthrough? I came up with the best idea, and-”

Merlin rolls his eyes. “That’s exactly why we need to talk. Your arrogance is uncontrollable, and you don’t even notice it. Maybe you do; maybe you just like being a dick. Who knows? The only thing I want to do is protect the public’s perception of the District Leaders. What do you think the civilians will say when they find out how self-absorbed you are? We can’t have this negativity in the circle.”

Timothy sits back in his chair; overwhelming astonishment floods through his body. “Excuse me? Do you have any idea who I am?” He climbs to his feet. “How dare you talk to me that way.” He leans over, his hands on the tabletop. “I’m here because I had to honor my sister. And what do I get for that? Nothing! I get no recognition, and it’s because of you! The Clock Tower, the Drawbridge, all of it… outshines my usefulness. And I hate you for that.”

Merlin looks down at the table. The building creaks and sways against the hurricane, but it stands due to the teacher’s contingency plans for weather. What he’s about to propose means a difference between life and death. Every word must be thoroughly thought out, for one slip can lead him to the guillotine.

He whispers, “I need your help.”

Timothy calmly asks, “What?”

Louder, he adds, “With our brains, they won’t see us coming. You and I can bring down the Monarchy! We can lead this place into something better.”

Timothy sits down, distraught. “I… I can’t.” How could anyone suggest this?

“Come on!” Merlin begs. “You see the manipulation and the yellow journalism! They’re giving us fake information constantly, and they’re doing anything they can to retain absolute control! We can’t speak out against them; if we do, they kill us. They forced me to make drugs and the guillotine! Answer me this… Why does the Monarchy have more power than the Oligarchy? How can there even be an Oligarchy under a Monarchy? They claim we have power, but who always makes the final call? Them. Like I said, they use my intelligence to kill people. Do you really think I want this praise? It’s just the universe reminding me of my helplessness.”

Timothy clears his throat. “What you’re proposing is an act of treason.” He stands up, starting for the exit. “When this storm ends, they’ll know about this.”

Merlin sits alone in the meeting room. There’s no telling how long this will last; every passing second has to be useful somehow. He can get out of this, but it won’t be easy. He climbs to his feet and heads into the Clock Tower’s main area. Timothy sits alone, and the Shadows stand on the opposite side of the room.

He pulls Monica aside. “Do you remember what I told you about the government?”

“Yes.”

“Forget I said anything; tell your family to keep their mouths shut. One word against their ideas lands you in the dungeons.”

Gravely, she nods her head. “Why did you bring us here?”

“When the Monarchy falls, it’ll be worth it. Just go with the flow for now.”

In the Throne Room, the Monarchy rest in their bed. Being over 600 feet in the air, the storm is more violent, but the Needle’s twenty-five lightning rods prevent structural damage. Without them, this place would be in flames, a burning beacon of fascinating ideologies. Down below, water floods Babylon’s streets; the levels grow to six feet in some areas. The Monarchy wonder about how much work they’ll have to do in the aftermath. The crops are most likely gone now, and this fact entails a famine. How can they cope with starvation and dehydration? How long will it take to get the factories up and running again? Anxiety is like a Cobra, for it wraps around your confidence and chokes it out of existence, allowing you to see how small you are.

A sudden pain encroaches the queen’s voluptuous body, and a horrible realization dawns on her: she’s going into labor. They have no doctor, and they have no medicine. This is going to be a dry delivery. In Babylon, dry pregnancies fail ninety percent of the time, for the conditions of this world don’t entail mercy. Forrest climbs out of bed and stands at its end; Echo removes her clothes, ready for the king’s incoherent orders. Thunder booms outside. Their anxiety skyrockets into the land above Heaven. In these sacred moments, they remember how much they love each other. Forrest goes back to the colony’s days; he remembers watching her sleep in that freezing tent, pondering on how he can protect her. He needs that Forrest right now; he needs to take control somehow. Adrenaline floods through his body, and he orders the queen to relax, to take deep breaths. He holds her hand, but the atmosphere grows in intensity. The pain Echo feels is reminiscent of a thousand fires igniting at once. This goes on for thirty-six hours, and their daughter is finally born.

In the quiet eye of the storm, Echo cradles her baby girl. At her side, Forrest acknowledges how peaceful they look.

He closes his eyes, whispering, “Echo… I have schizophrenia.” WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU JUST TELL HER?!

Echo finally asks, “What?”

His speech deteriorates. “I… hear voices… every second of every day… I see hallucinations of people I don’t know.” The voices scream, and they try distracting him, but the king stands his ground. “Why do you think I’m so good at manipulation? Why do you think I stay up so late?”

The queen doesn’t know how to respond. What would another woman do if she was in this situation? Leave? Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knows she can’t do that, for their connection is too strong. Only a beast can end a thirty-year relationship in two seconds. Nevertheless, this doesn’t quell her spinning mind. All these years… have been a lie. She hasn’t seen the real Forrest until now, and that makes her suspicious of him. What else is he hiding? She figures it's no good to ask these questions, for only fools run in circles. She can’t shake one fact, though: Merlin is right; she is justifying a maniac. Another major concern is that schizophrenia is genetic, meaning Alice might have it.

Wanting to deal with this after the storm, she says, “All this time… I could’ve been helping you. Why did you wait until now?”

“The voices didn’t want me to.”

They lay quietly for the rest of the storm. As the dark skies clear up, Echo realizes something: You can’t blame someone for having something they can’t control. Forrest is a victim, not a threat.  Mental illness is an invisible, complex force that blends good and bad into a grey mixture; it consumes your life, and you don’t even realize it. Think of how white noise looks on a television screen; one can compare that to the mind of someone who suffers from depression or anxiety. It disconnects you from the person you are, and it feels like you’re pushing a boulder up a hill every day, only to see it roll back down to the bottom. Is there any hope for these people? Yes, and it lies in us. When we realize we’re the ones who keep the problem going, we can finally fix it. Once that revelation comes, the horizons will broaden with hope.

Forrest sits up. “I think I know what we are now.”

“Oh?”

Grinning, the king declares, “We’re the Royal Family.”

Echo smiles. “I like that. I thought of a name for her, too.”

“What is it?”

“Alice Wayley.”

Forrest smirks. “Alice Wayley: the future princess of Babylon.”

FIVE MONTHS LATER

  The king wakes up to baby Alice’s cries. He never likes the nights where Echo puts her down, for this always happens. He inhales deeply and hoists himself to his feet. Walking over to the hand-built crib, the room stretches and twists before his eyes; kaleidoscope-like patterns obscure his vision, and he stumbles to the floor, wanting to scream. He stands up, and his vision clears. We are never going to stop; you swore you would keep this a secret, and you told Echo. You deserve this, you fucking swine! Now standing before the crib, he peers down to see his daughter. Every time she falls asleep on his stomach, he gets a night free from his torment. He picks her up, and they lay down in the bed. She is his shield against the darkness in his mind, and when she puts her head down on his chest, she stops crying.

In the morning, Echo opens her eyes and heads over to the window. Down below, Babylonians reclaim a city in ruins. The two complete districts are the Farmlands and the Industrial District, for they are the most important pieces to this strange society. Off in the distance, she sees the Housing District, and images of Heather flash in her mind. She is a constant reminder of Alexander’s absence, and Echo worries about this daily. Did Alex go rogue? Was he a gangster? She takes deep breaths, for this never ends well. It’s all so strange to her. One minute, he’s here, the next, the army’s following a nameless face. However, Heather is a productive general. She plans on suggesting to Alex the implication of martial arts classes. An army of ninjas is not your typical military, but it suits Babylon’s uniqueness.

She turns ‘round, gasping, “Forrest, you’re up!”

“Sorry for scaring you, I was jogging up and down the stairwell.” He goes over to the crib and picks up Alice. “How’ve you been?” The baby giggles.

Echo hugs them both. “What’re you up to today?”

“I’m going to Heather’s so we can organize a search party. We need Alex back.”

“Where do you think he is?”

“Honestly, I think he’s a captive. He’s not dead until I see a body.”

“Can I do anything to help?”

“No, just keep doing your job. Where’re you going?”

“The lumber site in the Farmlands. Merlin and I are replanting trees.”

“Well, I’ll see you later.”

He lays Alice down in her crib, and the Monarchy embrace each other before leaving. One path leads to the truth, and the other leads to a lie. Love is dead in Babylon.You can’t trust anybody, not even the one you love the most. They can try running, but this is their reality. In a world with no morals, anything goes. Although the Monarchy’s relationship is sacred, they are still human, and they are susceptible to our flaws. The schism in their attraction has been this way since Alice’s birth, for Echo is jealous of the attention Forrest gives Alice.

Instead of the Farmlands, Echo heads to the Industrial District. She walks to the Office Block and climbs to the Penthouse, wherein she finds Timothy pacing in his office. He mumbles to himself about the

Mines, for he’s anticipating a shipment in two days.

“Finally,” he gasps, seeing the queen in the doorway.

She crosses the threshold. “Why do you need me?”

“You’re gonna be upset,” he starts. “It’s Merlin. He’s against the Monarchy. And I told you because… Forrest doesn’t have mercy.”

Echo’s head pounds. “He’s a gangster?!”

“Yes, he wanted me to overthrow the Monarchy with him.”

The queen is lost for words. “I… had no idea. How long ago was this?”

“He told me during the hurricane. I’m sorry I waited so long to tell you; I’ve been very busy getting this district back on track.”

Disorientation makes the queen nauseous. “How can he betray me?” She leans against the wall, and tears drip down her eyes. “He was my friend.”

“Maybe he sees something different now.”

“What?”

“The longer you exist, the more your perspective on the world changes. At first, you guys might’ve been friends, but now… no. He probably… outgrew you?”

Echo starts for the door, but the CEO intervenes.

“Let me go,” she demands.

“If you go now, you’re going to do something you’ll regret. You need to calm down.”

She pauses. “Okay. You’re right.”

“How’s Alice?”

The queen grins. “She’s fantastic. Forrest loves her… so much.” She disregards distasteful thoughts about Alice as she continues. “She has my eyes, and the cutest laugh you could ever dream of hearing. She’s… my daughter.” Despite it all, her smile grows. “She’s my daughter.”

“I’m glad everything’s going well. You know, if you guys need a babysitter, let me know.”

“Really? Thanks for the offer; it’ll be nice to go on dates again.”

“You guys don’t go out anymore?”

“No, the hurricane put a lot on our plate, too.”

The CEO walks over to his desk, retrieving the tome. “I’m so glad this survived the storm. Before you go, let me show you something.” He shows the queen a page with a sketch covering it.

“It’s a Zeppelin.”

“I want to build a factory that produces them. We have the necessary materials, and this means we’ll have the first post-apocalyptic Air Force.”

Echo feels great satisfaction. “It’s like a new beginning, isn’t it?”

He closes the tome. “Why does Alex want to go to California when we can just convert to solar energy?”

“What’ll those Zeppelins run off of, thin air?”

“Alright, that’s a fair point.” He gazes around the room. “I have a lot of work to do, but I hope everything goes well between you and Merlin.”

“Good luck; thank you for telling me about this.”

In his backyard, Merlin tirelessly repairs his motorcycle. Sweat drips down his face, and a sunburn forms on his exposed shoulders. He’s cautious during this process, for one vehicular problem is a telltale sign of more to come. He pauses, taking in the moment. He examines his tools, and  he listens to the distant sounds of hammers pounding on nails, of foreman shouting orders at their workers. All of it is so queer to him, for it feels like he’s living in a fake world. Hay roofs? Pristinely built inns? It all seems as if it’s from a fairy tale, or a nightmare he can’t escape from. Maybe this disorientation is what makes the other Babylonians susceptible to the Monarchy’s manipulation? The only thing that’s fact is that this is reality, whether he likes it or not, and that terrifies him.

Merlin scoffs, repeating his infamous mantra, “Fuck the Monarchy.” As if he’s a magical sorcerer, the teacher finds Echo strolling down his side yard. “Speak of the Devil.”

She pauses ten feet away from him. Tears fall down her eyes, and  she trembles, pondering on the assassination attempt. Dante is just Merlin in drag. She patiently waits for him to talk, but he remains silent.

She asks, “Why?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Rage spreads through the queen’s body, but she retains composure. “Why are you calling for an overthrow? Forrest will kill you if he finds out about it! Do you think I want that?”

Merlin lays down his tools. “It’s good to know I can’t form my own opinions. That really makes me feel safe and secure. What a fantastic job from our fearless leaders?”

“Are you drunk?”

“I’ve been drunk for the entire week.”

Echo takes pity on him. “Just promise me you’ll keep your mouth shut around Forrest.”

“… Fine. Don’t expect me to stick around when shit falls, though.’

“If you’re smart enough to figure us out, you’ll know it won’t fail.”

Several hours later, Merlin opens the front door and finds Wes standing on the porch. The teacher invites him inside, and he prepares tea for the boy. They sit in the living room.

After drinking it, the kid says, “I’m just gonna get straight to the point: I want to be a miner.”

Merlin chuckles. “Really? That’s a surprise.”

“Can you please take me to the Mines?”

“Of course, I just need a few hours to… sober up.”

“Can I stay here? My parents are fighting.”

The teacher notes the concerning comment. “Yeah, I’ve got a spare bedroom. Just… don’t break anything.”

Thirty miles away from the kingdom, a rock quarry rests in the middle of a mountainous region. At the bottom of the quarry, taverns and tents plague a field of dust-covered miners who pick away at the  rocky walls. Some work in dark, unsanitary mine-shafts whilst demolitionists blow huge chunks of stone out of the earth. They excavate pounds of raw ore, feeling great pride in accomplishing their work. Surgical masks shield their mouths from Black Lung, an infamous Babylonian killer. The risky work is all about the reward and the display of true grit. Once they meet the month’s goal, they save anything extra and trade it off at the Market District. The Miners consider this site to be the birthplace of Babylon and its socioeconomic beliefs, for without the stone, there would be no walls, safety, or security. That fact encourages them to work the long, backbreaking hours; it’s the satisfaction of an honest day’s work that drives them.

In a tent, Fink Bishop speaks with Wes Preston. They sit on corresponding bunkbeds, facing each other.

“How was the drive?” Fink asks.

“Dangerous, but what else can you expect?”

“Yeah, I hear you. We’re going to build a secure road from here to Babylon; we just need oil to power the necessary machinery.”

Wes glances around the tent. Nothing but the smell of sweat and beds made of sand. “You know why I came here. I need this.”

“Why?”

“My family. They’re fighting a lot… I need to get away from it.”

Fink admires the boy. “And you want to work?”

“Yes. I’ll do whatever I can to contribute. As long as I’m away from them, that’s all that matters.”

Fink stares off in the distance, thinking. “I’ll set you up in Tent G. From there, your tent leader will assign you a position. Don’t be afraid of her, she’s one of the nicest people here.”

Smiling, Wes nods his head and picks up his backpack. “I won’t disappoint you. I’ll prove that I’m good at this.”

“I’m not trying to belittle you, but do you have any experience with mining?”

“No, but I’m willing to take the hits. You have to if you wanna do anything in this world.”

They step outside, where the aura of the 1950s blooms like smog over a metropolis. The decade is known as the Generation of Conformity, and nowhere is that more visible than here. The workers strive for that ethic, and not only does the title make them responsible, it also provides a vulnerable passage for the Monarchy’s manipulation. If you’re not obedient in this field, you will die.

In Tent G, Fink introduces Wes to Anna, the tent’s leader. Short red hair springs from her scalp, and an expression that oozes moxie glistens on her face, a carbon copy of Rosie the Riveter, the woman who people plaster on posters from World War Two.

Ana retrieves a pickaxe with haste, and Fink leaves the tent, obviously having other plans.

She slugs Wes’ shoulder. “Are you ready, kid? I’ll teach you as we go.”

“If I wasn’t, I wouldn't be here.”

“Good. Follow me, we’re working in Tunnel Thirty-Six.”

Wes proceeds into a small, dimly lit shaft. Rails built into the muddy floor serve as telltale signs of a mine cart. Stuffy air makes the kid cough; Ana pities his inexperience, but feels as though the Mines are in need of a young face. Reaching an end to the fifty-foot long tunnel, they join workers who pick away at the stone enclosure. Metal support beams bolster a skeptical ceiling above them, but anything can happen, and when it does, their lives are over. It will be a grizzly, fantastical end, being alive, miles under the very earth you walk on. Nevertheless, they press on. A job’s a job, and it’s necessary work.

At the day’s end, everyone lowers their tools, exiting the tunnel simultaneously. Wes and Anna aid the back of the group, making sure nobody gets left behind.

Outside, Fink, roaming alone, saunters into a wooden tavern. The place is reminiscent of a 1920s speakeasy; light conversation fills the otherwise thin air, and flickering lanterns fuel romantic fires.  Some workers play pool beneath candlelit chandeliers while others mourn over their pasts at the bar. Fink opts for the latter and sits down at a stool. He asks the bartender for a glass of hard cider, and the lanky fellow prepares a poisonous tonic. When he gets the drink, Fink gives the bartender a full can of blackberries and a handful of bread. The bartender accepts the fee, consuming it on the spot. Behind them, Ana strolls into the same building, noticing her friend and sitting next to him.

Fink takes a sip. “Do you remember Eisenhower?”

“A little,” she replies. “Why?”

“I never liked him. That entire era of America is a Dark Age. The Vietnam War, the political tension, the protests. I’m glad it ended; we were on the brink of destruction. Eisenhower was making it worse.”

“I don’t think he wanted to do it on purpose.”

“Oh? Then why did he involve us in something we had no say in?”

“Fink, stop; you need to focus on what’s happening now.”

He sigh, taking another long drink. “How’s Wes?”

“He’s doing as good as you might expect. He’s just… a kid, you know?”

“He’s going through a lot right now. I wish I could help him somehow.”

“Do you think kids are going to remember the old world?”

Fink laughs. “It’s a miracle if you get them to remember the presidents in order.”

“I feel bad for them.”

“Why?”

“They won’t get to experience the holidays, college, or any form of normalcy. Babylon is the only thing they’ll know, and they’ll have no idea of what America is. They’ll be lost.”

“I think you’re being pessimistic. Children are curious when they’re innocent, and now that their aren’t as many threats, the innocence will last longer. Naturally, their knowledge will grow, and they’ll fill in the gaps. Nothing’s impossible.”

She thinks about the infected. “Ain’t that the truth.”

Fink finishes his drink, and they exit the tavern. He leads the woman to her tent, where she kisses him. Blushing, he turns away and starts for the surrounding darkness.

The next morning, Ana and Wes return to Tunnel Thirty-Six. The day starts off normally, but a vague sense of uncertainty accompanies the passing winds. Wes works over ten hours, and at the end of the twelfth, his arms are too sore to move. He drops the pickaxe and tells Anna, who lets him go back to their tent. Now in the quarry, the kid watches as the demolitionists plant explosives across the eastern mountainside, where his tunnel cuts through. After the detonation, an avalanche of stones flows down the rock face, covering the mouth of Tunnel Thirty-Six. Several lie dead from critical impacts, others are in too much of a shock to even twitch. The stalls and its horses are also gone, leaving them stuck in a pit of their own despair. This is a fantastical moment in Babylonian history.

Fink charges into the quarry, his heart pumping terror. Upon seeing the damage, his first instinct is to make a beeline for the kingdom. Feeling destiny’s familiar tingle, Wes pursues him. They eventually reach the outskirts of the Mines, where they traverse the road that leads back to Babylon. Even if they run, they still won’t make it; humans can only complete three miles a day, and their destination is thirty away. They consider turning back, but that fleeting sense of Babylonian pride returns, and this compels them to continue. Their last hope rests in Babylon noticing the missing shipment; there’s supposed to be one in two days, and when Timothy doesn’t receive anything, he’s bound to come looking… right? What a strange conundrum this is turning out to be.

That night, exhaustion keeps them beside a roaring bonfire. The two reflect quietly on their own dilemmas, but on the inside, their thoughts ring louder than an orchestra. Wes doesn’t know how he feels about himself; he’s in that awkward stage where he doesn’t know if he wants to leave an impact on Babylon, or if he just wants to be a nameless face. He guesses this act will make the inevitable choice for him, but his nervousness outshines his confidence. This is the dread most artists face, and this time, it’s all too real for the kid. On the other side of the flame, Fink doesn’t know if he’s capable enough to be a leader. He blames himself for this terrible tragedy, and this is partly true, for he could’ve just told the demolitionists to be careful. Maybe if he did that, Anna wouldn’t be starving to death right now. They uncomfortably go to bed that night, for as their minds turn off, they know people are facing certain doom. And as time mercilessly passes by, this becomes even more apparent.

  In Tunnel Thirty-Six, Anna and the others try not to panic, but to no avail. The situation is just to traumatic to ignore the fear. Moisture in the air allows them only short breaths, and sweat pours down their faces. Starvation and dehydration are their demons; at least it’s something physical this time. Anna remembers hearing a story about the Donner Party. In May of 1846, a group of American pioneers set out for California, only to be snowbound in the Sierra Nevada during a harsh winter. They resorted to cannibalism to survive, a truly immoral act under the umbrella of desperation. If her group experiences that, she wouldn’t know how to react. She can’t eat another soul with a beating heart; she’d rather die. Hell, even now she can’t comprehend the image of someone eating another’s limb, finger, or toe. You can’t return to normalcy after something like that.

Terror and claustrophobia pushes them to the end of the tunnel, where they pick away the rocks under flickering lanterns. They can’t do this at the entrance, for the granite from the top of the mountains is too dense for their equipment to chip away. Some of those stones weigh fifty to eighty pounds; the shafts walls are softer and easier to work with.

The dreadful minutes go by, and they breach a surprise: a massive underground cave network. They dismantle the mineshaft’s lanterns, and Anna leads them into their tomb. The lights illuminated the vast space; million-year-old stalagmites protrude from the cold ground, and crystals sparkle within the rough walls. The noise of running liquid brings them hope, and they gather ‘round an underground channel of flowing water. Blind fish swim beneath its surface, and the mysterious ripples add to everyone’s curiosity. However, they refrain from drinking anything, for they have no means of purifying it. How long has this been down here? How many chemicals are brewing and mingling with each other? Another dead end. They sit down, their expressions projecting an acceptance of doom. It’ll take the ones outside the tunnel several days to clear the rubble, and that’s after they spend time gathering the necessary equipment.

Despite it all, Anna is hopeful. She wonders about how they can prevent this from happening again, and in her mind, images of a tunnel boring machine flash by. The huge gadget consists of a cutting wheel, a main bearing, a thrust system, and trial support mechanisms. If they had that, mining operations would be almost fully automatic and a lot safer. If this disaster happened again, nobody would be stuck facing Death’s scythe. This future project takes her mind off their current affairs, but she feels guilty for not doing anything.

She stands up, the lanterns flashing her shadow across the chamber. “I know this seems hopeless, but I don’t think we’re out of luck. Babylon’s expecting a shipment soon, and when we don’t arrive, they’ll know something’s wrong. Until then, we need to ration. How much water do we have between all of us?” The miners hold up canteens to their lanterns and shake them around. To Anna’s astonishment, they have a fair amount. “Okay, if we divide it evenly amongst ourselves, we’ll be okay for five days. What about food?” They dig into their satchels, producing fresh and canned produce. Some have stale sandwiches, others spam. They pile everything in front of Anna, who accurately measures there remaining time. “If we try, we’ll last about a week and a half. After that, who knows? All we can do now is wait.”

The lonely, insanity-driven hours pass. Nobody can fully grasp the seriousness of this situation, but maybe that’s okay, for one would be driven to madness if they could. This is the Lovecraftian anxiety everyone’s afraid of experiencing, that nonstop chill that never goes away; it’s like a British soldier quartering in your house during the Revolutionary War. They choose to stay in the caves, for they’d rather die in a large chamber than a corridor.

To distract themselves, they begin talking. Anna listens as words from silhouettes reverberate off their surroundings. Oddly, a faux calm flows through the air. Isn’t it strange how we only reveal our true colors when we’re up to our necks in bad luck? Desperation is the threshold to revolution, the very meaning of the word, “apocalypse”. Anna almost flinches when she hears laughter; these people are using this time to establish relationships for the future. She figures they’re tasting her hope, and they want more.  Either that, or this is all you can do when time’s your worst enemy.

However, the calm comes before the storm. Sometime during the third night, someone sneaks to the pile of precious provisions and lets their greed consume the lives of fifty-two innocent miners. The world will always have this type of person, apocalypse or not. Selfishness is a human habit that’s been with us since even before the Neanderthals, and it will outlive any disease we encounter. It’s an uncontrollable demon, and we take advantage of the innocent because of its stealthy invasion. Hours later, the others wake up, and the place dissolves into chaos. They collapse to the floor in a fetal position, and panic attacks spread mercilessly from body to body. The lanterns also begin dying, adding more fear into this hellish cauldron.

The shouts arouse Anna; she does her best to control the wildfire, but to no avail. Sometimes the flames have to burn out by themselves. After they simmer down to whimpers, Anna wants to say something reassuring, but nothing comes out. What was once their bubble of protection is now their chamber of death. They don’t even make an attempt to find the culprit, for it would be a waste of time and energy. Outside the cave, strong winds blow into the mountains, and a ghoulish howl rings all around them. One simple fact remains true: they still have to wait, and they can’t fix anything.

Some distract themselves by swimming in the lake; others slip into delirium. Not the average delirium where you feel a strong sensation of depersonalization, but the delirium where you see yourself reliving your life from start to finish. The painful darkness is too much for these feeble minds, and as the lanterns fade out one by one, so does their sanity.

Lunacy is a complex topic to cover thoroughly, but it’s what these miners are devolving into. More time passes, and by the fourth morning, all the lanterns are out. They drink the cave’s water supply, only to face a simultaneous stomachache and headache. Caught between a rock and a hard place, cannibalism crosses their minds. From their groans of malnourishment, Anna knows this to be true. She can’t fight back against it; exhaustion pins her to a stalagmite. All she can do is hope they don’t get their hands on her.

Terror consumes her on the seventh day, for growls replace the painful whimpers. They use whatever lantern fuel they have to burn the weak and light the bodies with the lighters they use for their cigarettes. Anna uses her strength to find darkness to cower in; watching from the shadows, her eyes widen at the ensuing horrors. She needs to find the mineshaft somehow. Blood paints the ancient tomb, and the smell of cooking flesh makes her vomit. Sitting up, she waits quietly as the day presses on. Their meals conclude, and the miners fall asleep with full bellies. Desperate Anna seeks along the walls. Her heart sounds like it’s loud enough to wake them up, but luckily these beasts remain asleep.

  She finds a small area branching off from the main cave and feels her way behind stalagmites. She takes shelter here for the day, and the sounds of screaming make her cry. She can’t believe this is happening; what kind of God would allow it? She loses faith in the guy in the sky right here; there is no such thing as a merciful father in this nightmare. In that case, Satan doesn’t exist, either. You can’t have one or the other; logic doesn’t work that way These spinning thoughts help her escape reality; she no longer feels the weight of the world on her shoulders.

This false sense of security doesn’t last; she’s just fooling herself. The miners fall asleep again, and she continues her search. What a confusing, terrible situation! Who would’ve thought that she’d die at the hands of her fellow Babylonians? She pushes these thoughts aside, for she’s not dead yet. Her determination aids her through weakness, and her hands find the edges of a rectangular, empty space. Beneath the darkness, she reveals a wide, beading smile. Entering the invisible mineshaft, the blackness somehow gets darker. Half a mile of limping passes, and her foot catches the stomach of a sleeping Babylonian. The figure rises, and she conjures enough strength to run, albeit poorly. It’s like she’s in Hell; the only way out is accepting your fate.

She reaches the tunnel’s entrance, and as her predator wraps its cold hands around her arms, Heaven’s rays pour into the blackness, and they fall into the quarry. Sun blinds their vision, and Anna lays on her back, letting the sun cook her pale skin. She sits up and opens her eyes, letting them readjust to freedom. However, when she sees the men in white cloaks holding the Babylonian rescuers hostage at gunpoint, she finds no freedom. Whoever these people are, they didn’t help their cause because they’re merciful; this is an act of dominance.

Their presumable leader, an Italian-American with mutton chops and a glove-covered arm, issues forth. He holds the arm away from his body and whistles. Down from the sky comes a giant, magnificent Golden Eagle. It lands on the man’s arm, and Anna stares in horror at what’s dangling from its beak: the head of Alexander Rudolph.

Shock, dehydration, and malnourishment push her into an unconscious abyss.

In the kingdom, Forrest nervously observes the progressing society from the Throne Room’s window, just like Echo. So many things are putting him on edge: the inevitable loss of sanity, Alexander’s disappearance, and the Mine’s missing shipment. He doesn’t know how much longer he can balance these worries before more tip the scales against his favor. A sudden change along the horizon. Beyond all the skyscrapers to the east, a sea of survivors in white cloaks approaches the Gatehouse.

Alarm bells in watchtowers blare, alerting Babylonian archers to the wall walks. They carry assault rifles, bows, and arrows. Within the defenses, civilians barricade themselves in any shelter they find. Meanwhile, king dons his cape, crown, and meets Echo at the base of the Needle.

“What should we do?” she pleads.

“You stay here; I’ll confront them.”

Echo objects, but he disregards her. At the Gatehouse, the king watches attentively as white cloaks march across the Drawbridge. He wants the knights to fight back, but after seeing the captive miners, he keeps his mouth shut. Even Fink and Wes are in the bunch; without Fink, who knows what the Mines will turn into. Without the kid, the Shadows will probably realize how unsafe this place is and revolt against the Monarchy. These people want blood, but Forrest isn’t going to let it happen.

The Italian-American leader steps forward and announces that Babylon is his.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Forrest demands. “Do you really think we’re just going to hand this place over to you?”

The mobster caricature replies with, “The more you fight back, the more your resources deplete, and the more I’ll have control. We’re more powerful than everyone in this shit-hole combined. We have fucking zeppelins; what do you have? Rocks? No, not even that. You have nothing. That’s why we’re going to kill you in front of all your people. Then, we’re taking the miners hostage, and we’ll begin our reign by taking the kingdom.”

“When you kill the king, beware the people who hail him.”

The mystic shadow of a human grins. “I like you. My apologies, I forgot to introduce myself. My name’s Calsimier Ignatius, and my people are known as the Acolytes. You probably recognize us.”

“We’re isolationists. We prefer to stick to ourselves for this exact reason.”

Ignatius scoffs, produces a flintlock pistol from a hidden holster, and aims it at the king. The captive miners gasp, but Timothy dives in front of the monarch, shielding him from the bullet. It shatters his kneecap, and the CEO collapses in a bloody mess. Merlin quickly appears on the scene, expressing great disgust towards this atrocity.

“Stop!” the teacher demands. “I have a deal!” Behind him, the king and other brave Babylonians carry Timothy off to the Hospital. “My service for Forrest’s safety!”

Ignatius grows curious. “Service? What do you do here?”

“I’ve built this city from the ground up; I’m smarter than our own fucking gun-maker. I know the ins and outs of the architecture, of its social dynamics. This place is the back of my hand, so you tell me.”

“Why aren’t you the leader, then?”

“I’m not as capable as he is.”

Forrest takes note of this strange shift in Merlin’s character with gratitude.

Nodding, Ignatius motions him forward, and Babylon’s gates slowly rise. The teacher confidently steps onto the Drawbridge, scheming an escape.

Before leaving, the mobster yells, “If you’re wondering where Alex is, he’s dead! So are the ones who went with him! For your own sake, stay out of California; that territory’s ours!”

A seventy-five foot wall of boxcars encompasses San Francisco, California. Within its boundaries, a society above Babylon continues to develop. This city, home to the Acolytes, has no districts or monarchies; its government is a democracy, and the people want to bring back the beliefs of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream. From its paved roads to its solar energy, one might think they’re practicing what they preach. However, the facade of normalcy is just the tip of the ice berg. Everything from the outside is just a mirage; there is one hell of a devil in its details. For instance, they can worship whoever they believe in, but the catch is they have to swear their allegiances and life to the cult. Considering newcomers (like the Babylonians) think San Francisco is the last society, they oblige.

The cult itself believes in capitalism, human trafficking, and slavery. An embargo prevents them from violating their ideologies; they print money at a minting facility on Alcatraz Island, and they host human auctions in their great basalt cathedrals. They don’t dare step beyond the walls, for safety is nonexistent without them. The men, women, and children all appear identical; they wear white cloaks, some of which have hoods, but those that do belong to close friends of Ignatius. Their behaviors reflect the practices of the Ku Klux Klan; for instance, they pile books upon each other, ignite them, and dance around the flames. They do this with crosses, and sometimes they conduct live crucifixions of Alcatraz prisoners for entertainment. Plantations cover most of the land, and slaves from the wild work on their grounds. The main things they farm are cranberries, corn, wheat, rice, and rye. A strict diet is necessary when you’re in a cult, and it’s the main thing that keeps everyone docile, for when you meet everyone’s needs, what is there to complain about?

Still unlike Babylon, the Convergence also believes in imperialism, and they seek to conquer everything they can. Power is their game, and capitalism/imperialism is a surefire way to victory. However, despite this perception, their ideals might have a strange appearance to sane individuals. In fact, if you can see them now, their actions encapsulate the failure of the American Dream. The saying goes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the Convergence can’t bring enough truth to that. When you hold on to something that started as a lie, you try everything you can to make it real, and you can’t bring yourself to acceptance. The city is as chaotic as a 1970s Orlando on a Saturday night. If it wasn’t for the veil of normalcy, the place would fall as quickly as it came up.

The society acts like a rolling wave, especially when it comes to trends. One second, crowds treat one object as if it's the messiah, and the next they glorify another pointless item. Greed gives them short attention spans, but the “need” for wealth and reputation blinds them from seeing this. In fact, an unspoken rule in the Convergence is no money means you have no reputation, so if you don’t have a plan, you become a dog. Beneath Ignatius’ friends, the Convergence is split into three social categories: pigs, sheep, and dogs. The pigs are plantation owners, well-known figures who live in mansions, and anyone who’s sociopathic about rising to the top. The sheep are the nameless faces in the city, the crowds, the fleeting faces you see out of the corners of your eyes. They have next to no purpose in the Convergence, but they can’t know that, and propaganda/manipulation prevents them from discovering this. The dogs are hobos, misunderstood artists, and people itching to find their voice. To those out of the loop, it's easy to find out who fits into these categories after being told about them.

There are over 80,000 survivors living in San Fransisco, and it outshines Babylon by several milestones. Amidst the ruckus, there are few people who want and do change everything, and these select people are known as the Greats. They reinvent all the necessities and implement them into their daily routines, like solar grids, trains, trolleys, and zeppelins. (for warfare). Their army has a general that’s both stronger and smarter than Alex, and they can easily overpower Babylon’s militia. Everyone has their ideas about antagonists, but the Convergence brings an entirely new perspective to the definition. If you think Lovecraft’s Cthulhu is the harbinger of doom, that’s because you’ve never met this strange society.

In a Brownstone apartment, Hellen Schroder gazes out a dust-covered window. Her brown, frizzy hair stretches down to her calves, and her dark skin blends in well with the bedroom. She works part-time as an electrician for some of the city’s most prominent projects; sometimes she works on solar grids, others engines. It depends on the mood of the day, really. However, her job isn’t as important as her revolutionary beliefs. After years of experiencing Ignatius’ reign, she holds a strong hatred towards “democracy”. This isn’t the way things should be, but the people are stuck in an unbreakable trance. The worst part about her awareness is that she stands alone. Despite that, her gut tells her to hold on to what she supports, for a woman is lost without her beliefs.

She watches as the city’s industrial gates swing open, and her mouth drops upon seeing Ignatius in front a horde of guarded prisoners. However, she cringes, for the President oftentimes acts like a child when he displays power. This is not real democracy; if it were, the President wouldn’t have this much power. The President is only supposed to be the face of the country, their decisions based on a majority one from the people. What Ignatius projects is nothing more than fraudulent views, and his charisma is the only thing bolstering them.

Turning way from the window, she finds herself facing a wall. Blueprints of Alcatraz Island cover it, and she can’t help but to smile. The future is bright for those prisoners, for this one-woman revolution will be inspirational. The sacrifice is necessary.

In Ignatius’ crowd of Babylonian slaves, Wes Preston examines the area around him. This territory gives off horrible vibes, and some areas remind him of the ghettos of World War 2. The President leads the way to an unknown location, his armed guards patrolling all sides of the awestruck newcomers. No teen should ever have to experience something like this, but life is an unfair game of constantly changing patterns.

They haunt on Pier 33, the dock for Alcatraz’s ferry. The boat awaits the prisoners, and the guards push and shove the Babylonian’s aboard, disregarding their pleads for mercy. To Wes, the scene is like the River of Styx, and Charon is their ferryman. The kid tries retaining calmness, and he looks for Fink and Anna, but to no avail. The last time he saw them was a week ago; it’s like they’re just… nonexistent. He focus on the cold, treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay, with Alcatraz looming ominously over his fate. What cold, terrible trials await him? Is there any shred of innocence left? At this rate, Babylon won’t be able to liberate them; there’re too many rings to jump through.

The ferry starts up, and the kid vomits out of fright. The trip to the island doesn’t last long, and faux, self-proclaiming officers board the boat, only to escort its occupants onto another dock. Around them, snipers in watchtowers aim their guns at the new arrivals.This is all a game, and when they begin the trek to the top of the hilly landmass, this couldn’t be more apparent, for the snipers pick them off one by one as they pass Building 64, Sally Port, and the ruins of the Officer’s Club. It’s times like this wherein Wes is thankful for being short, but he still keeps his head down, examining the bodies, hallucinating dead friends.

They reach the top of the hills, where a menacing cellhouse awaits. Algae covers its gray, cracking walls, and barnacles accompany the natural overgrowth. Red, flickering candles sit on the interior windowsills, their flames illuminating the rusty bars. A salty smell blows through the warm summer air, and the seagulls call in the distance.

The cellhouse’s door opens, revealing a beaten, strong warden. She dons SWAT gear and wields a black baton. The doors close behind her as she examines the weak, tired crowd. These people just made a five-month journey, and their dirty appearance proves it. Some sob over the recent deaths, others are too scared to look away.

“Welcome to the Rock,” she says with a heavy midwestern accent. “My name is Melisa Howards,  and you listen to me. Whatever Ignatius desires for you, I’ll carry it out. If he says to execute you, I will without hesitation. Once you’re in this facility, you belong to him and I. I assign you your job, and I tell you who you are. In other words, don’t get comfortable. Do I make myself clear?” Silence. “Good. Follow me inside.”

The Babylonians reluctantly follow her, for the snipers will kill them all if they don’t. Inside the administration block, the Warden beats down a miner before them. They all give her their undivided attention. Behind her, a vicious cell door with a maze of terror on the other side.

“Undress,” she demands.

As they do, guards from the block’s hallways flood into the Entrance Corridor. The Warden dons a mask, and the armed henchmen bombard the Babylonians with tear gas. Wes scratches his young eyes, weakly falling to his knees and blacking out.

Several hours later, the kid wakes up in the bottom bunk of a cell. Looking down at himself, he sees that he now wears an orange prison jumpsuit. He hears breathing from the top bunk and investigates to find that his cellmate is Fink. Wes lets out a sigh of relief; one familiar face makes this slightly more bearable. He sits down, gazing out into the corridor. Along the top edges of the walls, guards use protected walkways (gun galleries) to move safely around the prison. The guards themselves carry guns ranging from M1 Garands to flamethrowers. More artillery rests in the armory, waiting to combat against any threat. Cells line the opposite wall, containing the shells of distant souls. The fresh meat appears anxious, whilst the cold cuts appear stern. That’s what time does to you when a metal box becomes your home, especially when it’s on an island in the middle of a fortress.

From the looks of things, Wes is the youngest one here. If he wants to escape, he has to leave his naiveté behind. What is Stacey going to think of what he becomes?

On the other side of the city, Ignatius stands in the study of his estate (Clayriver). Beside him, Merlin Monroe, who gawks at the similarities between their tastes in authors. Gazing ‘round, the teacher spots an entire section for the economy. Volumes upon volumes; books might as well be this room’s paint. How does one man absorb all this information in one lifetime? Monroe then starts for the back of the study, where a fireplace rests. The flames illuminate seven porters of unknown males above it.

Ignatius notices his interest. “They’re all the Presidents before me.”

“Your terms are a bit off.”

“Did I ever say our version of democracy is perfect? As long as there’re people temporarily in power, who cares?”

The teacher faces him. “What’s going to happen to the Babylonians on Alcatraz?”

“Believe me, if I were you, that would be the least of my worries.”

“And why’s that?”

“You have work to do. There are things we need that I don’t have the time to focus on. That’s where you come in. We need indoor plumbing, irrigation systems, and a sewage plant. Do you think you can help us?”

“Will you leave Babylon alone?”

“Merlin, don’t you see that’s up to them? I only took the miners because they were out in the ope-

n, waiting to be plucked by someone bigger than them. It’s our job to conquer the weak; it says so in our Constitution.”

“What about Alex? The knights? Can you rationalize that?”

The President shrugs his shoulders. “They wanted a fight. We don’t tolerate that kind of nonsense, and I expect Babylon has those same principles.” He starts for the exit. “There’s a bathroom on the other side of the hall. Go to it.”

Now in the ornate bathroom, the Babylonian stands in front of a clear mirror. Everything is too clean for his liking; after all, his only frame of reference for normalcy is an unsanitary medieval kingdom. Behind his reflection, a white robe, its hood dangling from a metal hook. In his hands, scissors and a razor. Am I against the Monarchy? Raising the appliances to his head, he cuts everything off. His hair falls lifelessly to the tiled floors, and he can’t help but to long for the Echo he knew in Colorado, the one that found him cowering in the firetruck. He stares at his reflection uncomfortably, for he doesn’t see a cult member… he sees a Babylonian. Donning the robe, he exits the bathroom.

That night, he stays awake, gazing at the wooden ceiling. Taking deep breaths, he feels the anxiety of an impending conflict. In the distance, Ignatius’ Golden Eagle caws, as if confirming his suspicions. Imagine being underwater and, unbeknownst to you, a Great White lurks closely behind, its mouth wide open, and its hunger fierce. Babylon is going to lose unless they can’t get help. Despite his feelings towards the Monarchy, innocent people still live in the kingdom. He sees no other option besides becoming a spy, and that entails working with the people he hates and ultimately against his beliefs. He sits up, thinking that the road to the least casualties is the right one, no matter how treacherous it seems. It’s either be a slave in a foreign land, or be a slave in a familiar one with fame being an advantage instead of a reminder of his maltreatment. For the sake of the people, he opts for the latter. After all, that’s what Babylon is supposed to represent: humanity. And from the looks of things, there’s no room for that here.

In her apartment, Hellen Schroder smiles, for a riot on Alcatraz is inevitable. She kneels before all the plans, bomb equipment, and a flyer calling for an electrician to repair fuse boxes in the island’s Powerhouse. Considering her fifteen-year experience in the field, she’s bound to get the job, If she does, not only will she have a clever pretense for going there, she’ll also be able to contact the prisoners in secrecy. Five years of planning is paying off; she can feel passion beating through her body. All she needs is the right moment. Whenever it comes, it’ll change the course of the world’s uncertain future.

On Alcatraz, Wes and Fink remain awake several hours into this strange, historical night. Hope stems from here, and although it's slim, seeds grow into trees. Fink feels guilty about the miners; he could have stopped it, and he regrets not being more cautious. He’s responsible for every death, injury, and trauma, and this makes him weep. He doesn’t want to hurt people, for companionship is stronger than harm. The memories of that horrific event mark the beginnings of his decent into the world of PTSD.

“It’s not your fault,” Wes retorts. “You can’t prepare for everything.”

“You can’t change the facts, kid. People died.”

“You aren’t a murderer. Do you know how you can prove the world wrong? It’s here; you can help me break everyone out.”

“Wes! You’re too young, and-”

“Hamilton was only fourteen when he started changing things. Nothing’s impossible with a plan.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on! You’re capable of pulling this off. Imagine the people who’re suffering right now because we aren’t doing anything. We can make names for ourselves.”

Fink crosses over to the cell’s door. On the opposite side of the corridor, Babylonians and California prisoners shift uncomfortably in their bunks. They’re all lost, in need of someone with a passion for leadership. Is this really what their lives mount to? Should they let thirty years of labor go to waste? The kid admittedly has a point; this will make him a hero. How can someone so young be so damn understanding?

Facing Wes, Fink simply asks, “When do we start?”

The kid grins. “As soon as we accumulate into our jobs. We can’t rush this; countless things can go wrong if we’re not cautious.”

“We should stick to finding Anna and learning about our rulers for now.”

“Nope,” Wes climbs into bed. “Now, we sleep. We’ll do your agenda tomorrow.”

The sun rises slowly over this odd realm, and in Ignatius’ estate, Merlin lies awake. He had a dream he was in a relationship with a guy. Out of all the things happening right now, does he really need to think about his sexuality? He’s still human; of course he does. He’s never been in a relationship with a girl before. In fact, they don’t attract him. Logic would say he’s either gay or bisexual, but maybe he just hasn’t met the right girl yet. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter in the end. What does is surviving this haunting situation long enough to gather accurate intelligence for Babylon.

  Someone knocks on the door, and Merlin looks to see Ignatius upon its threshold. The Golden Eagle rests calmly on the glove-covered arm; it seems as though its about to fall asleep. In the President’s free hand,  a black book embellished with crystalized skulls and fossilized herbs. The title reads: The Principles of Calvinism. From Ignatius’ grimace, Merlin figures the novel has something to do with their outlandish beliefs.

“Who’s Calvin?” he asks.

“Our first president. We honor him by following his orders verbatim.” His crooked smile widens; it’s like he’s reliving a memory where he lived out a fantasy relationship. “Come on; you’re gonna love today.”

“Care to explain?”

“You’re going to witness an initiation.”

Ignatius leads the teacher through the magnificent, clean estate, and they reach its ornate, oaken doors. Before leaving, Merlin catches the President’s fleeting insidious expression, and he gets a gut feeling that tells him to split. However, Babylonian nationalism broaches his urges. He’s doing this for them.

In the streets, the spy examines the passing crowds, horse-drawn trolleys, and the stylish properties. Everyone looks like a complete doppelgänger of themselves all the way down to the genetic code. They purchase items in markets and mingle about pointless topics. The spy notices several haunting similarities between the social aspects of Babylon and San Francisco, but the most prominent difference is San Fransisco’s race issue. The majority of civilians are caucasian, and the only African-Americans are working on the plantations of mansions. The Irish and Asian work in odd jobs like construction or house care alongside the Mexicans, and when the caucasians work, they usually get a better job that provides a fruitful salary.

Merlin and Ignatius approach the doors of the largest cathedral in the city. From the outside, it lo-

oks like a bleak South Carolina asylum.It sticks out like a sore thumb, and it rises far above its neighboring competitors. The brick is of basalt, and the darkness accentuates dread. Ignatius sends his Golden Eagle into the sky, and they enter the devious structure.

Now in the cathedral’s nave, Merlin grows nervous as he passes aisles of hooded figures. At the apse, a pianist plays the melody to This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie, and it doesn’t stop until they reach the podium. Ignatius clears his throat and lays the book on it.

“All rise,” the President commands.

They climb to their feet and pray in an ancient Middle Eastern language unknown to Merlin. Ignatius then points to the Babylonian, declaring him the initiate. Merlin’s heart drops, and from the end of the nave emerges two followers holding a squealing pig; between its cries, it sounds like someone begging for mercy. Ignatius hands Merlin a ruby dagger, and instructs the Babylonian to gut the swine.The spy does so, and blood washes over the dark floorboards. It flows into the nave, and the pig writhes on the ground, its intestines spilling around itself.

The Babylonian observes the other-worldly behavior in the room, and he wonders if the Monarchy will think this is authentic. And he thought living in a kingdom was weird. He’s feeling a forgotten brew of emotions ranging from excitement to regret; it makes him think of the early days and how insane everyone was. Sweat drips down his forehead, and he backs into Ignatius, who shoves him to the blood-covered ground.

With the ritual ending on a successful note, the chamber turns into a circus of laughter and cheers. Ignatius congratulates Merlin, yanking him to his feet. Who knew animal sacrifice could be so celebratory?

That evening, they prepare a feast in the nave, its centerpiece Merlin’s pig. Who was the first leader, and how did he have such an influence? Are any of the previous Presidents still alive? Where are they, if this is the case? One answer burrows into a labyrinth of questions unanswerable for those who desire sanity.

Merlin, standing next to Ignatius, dares to ask the President these questions, but the laughter and routines of the chamber prevents the spy from getting anything. His attempt a failure, he consumes the breadth of the Convergence’s wrath. The night goes on, and  more members of Ignatius’ inner circle show up, bestowing upon the feast wine and cheese, presumably made by their slaves. Merlin plays the game, anxiety driving his every step. Imagine having a dream that’s so real you can’t distinguish it from now. That’s how the teacher feels; first a kingdom, now a cult. Can things get anymore convoluted? Despite these worries, Ignatius and Merlin get along well at the party. They chat about the old days, and Merlin finds out that the President was in the Vietnam War. He was nineteen then, and he’s almost fifty now. Time has a unique way of making us feel uncomfortable, and Ignatius sees this when he looks into the mirror, knowing the end is a mere twenty years away. Merlin can’t help but to understand this; however, no matter what, you can’t sympathize with your enemy.

The feast concludes, and everyone shakes the Babylonian’s hand. After they file out of the building in a single-file line, Ignatius and Merlin gawk at the mess behind them. With determination, they finish the job in four hours.

“You do this with every newcomer?” Merlin asks, tying up a garbage bag.

“Yes; Calvin says so. What he demands, we provide.”

“Who’s Calvin, exactly?”

Ignatius lays down his bag, sighing. “He’s our prophet. We hail him because he gave us this great society. The wisdom he had puts me to shame, in all honesty. When he died, we buried him in the crypt beneath this very cathedral. Follow me.”

Merlin drops his bag, and he and the President reach a small door along the wall behind the podium. The President opens it, and they descend into a winding world of endless mysticism. When they reach the crypt, Merlin finds tunnels of bones and skulls branching off in every direction for countless miles.

“The Catacombs are the most haunting part about this place,” Ignatius admits.

The damp air makes it hard to breathe, and the poisonous, unknown chemicals are without a doubt disturbing their respiratory systems. Ignatius crosses over to a small, wooden chest. From his robe, he produces a key that matches its lock. After opening it, he pulls out two masks. Merlin takes one and holds it in his hands; it’s black, covers your entire head and neck, and it even comes with goggles for your eyes. The oddest thing about it is that the part that shields your nose and mouth extends outward, ending at a point like a beak. Putting it on, Merlin smells posies.

“It’s like one of those Plague Doctor outfits,” he says, chuckling.

Ignatius dons his. “My advice: don’t touch anything down here.e Several people have contracted diseases like tuberculosis.”

“You should design suits or something.”

“We tried that, but diseases change and mutate, and when they use countless corpses as a breeding ground, anything can happen. Who knows if these masks even work?”

They happen upon a grand, oversized coffin that protrudes from the muddy ground. The metallic plate on its lid reads, “Christopher Calvin, 1936-1962. Cause of death: suicide.” Merlin rereads the last word over and over again. Why would someone like that kill themselves? He shouldn’t even bother asking questions anymore, for their answers reek of confusion. All around the Babylonian, the eyeholes of human skulls glare at him beneath flickering torches. Is there anything innocent in this cold world, or did all of it go extinct even before its end? He backs away from the site, turns, and leaves. Ignatius remains, praying over the casket.

Back on Alcatraz, Fink sits quietly in the Warden’s office. His heart races; he hasn’t stopped shaking since he sat down. The Warden sits on the other side of a desk, examining him. She clears her throat, climbs to her feet, and walks over to a filing cabinet. After pulling out a folder, she returns to her desk, opens it, and Fink watches as two small bags fall to the desktop. Inside, white powder. Smiling, the Warden removes her SWAT helmet, and red, frizzy hair flows down her shoulders. Bandages cover her left ear, and a scar along the length of her forehead makes her look like the victim of a psychology experiment. If she’s strong enough to survive a head injury in a time with almost no medical science, what else is she capable of? The Warden unzips the bags and lines up the powder. She produces a $100 bill rom her pocket, rolls it up in a cylindrical shape, and snorts the powder.

She twitches, saying, “I’m gonna make you the best fucking person here. What were you before?”

“A miner.”

She punches the desk. “A miner! Fantastic!” Another twitch. “We’ll… uh… are you good with mechanical shit?”

“Well, I-”

“Good! We’ll put you in the Powerhouse. Your first day is today. Go there now.”

“You’ve got no idea what you’re doing, do you?”

“Excuse me?”

“You pretend you’re intimidating, but you’re a coward. I’m not afraid of you.”

The Warden spits in his face. “Did you forget that I can execute you for whatever reason? Don’t fucking tempt me.”

Fink wipes away the glob. “Do you believe in karma?”

The Warden grins. “I am karma. Now, get the fuck out of my office and tell the guards where to send you. If you lie to them, I’ll find out. You know what happens then.”

Fink grunts and leaves. The Warden loses her mind, and she jumps around the room, giggling. The euphoria distracts her from dark thoughts, and her compulsive thinking ceases. However, during the comedown, memories spark in her mind, and fifteen minutes later, she finds herself sobbing at the desk, her hands covering her face. Why did she hurt him? She’s the cause of Ignatius’ pain, and she can’t make him better. The only reason she’s alive right now is because of his mercy, which only makes her feel more guilt. They used to be so happy together, but now all that remains between them are small, awkward interactions.

She feels like she’s losing control of herself, for her cocaine use disrupts vital parts of her daily routine. Despite this, she doesn’t stop; she can’t. Her brain is too fucked up. Being high is the only thing that helps her escape these terrible feelings. In the end, isn’t that why any of us do drugs? And in her case, when all you do is hurt people beyond repair, is there any other way out of that winding path?

She looks up from the desk, wiping tears away. She has to move on somehow; she needs to kick this addiction so she can be a greater leader. Most importantly, she has to get Ignatius back. Only then will the puzzle be complete.

Two guards shove Fink towards the front doors of the intimidating Powerhouse. From the front lawn, they hear generators humming, whistles blowing, and electricity sparking. The horrors of this place are immeasurable, and Fink feels whatever’s beyond those doors is going to bring him pain. This is the most dangerous area on the island, not because of its conditions, but because of its purpose. If anybody messes up their duties, the cellhouse's doors open (they’re on a grid), and the island will go into chaos. The Warden will find the person responsible and kill them. If she doesn’t, someone else will. Fink realizes this riot will have to be as organized as possible with every contingency recognized.

They enter the building, wherein a maze of metal corridors and endless hallways awaits the Babylonian. Somehow this is more terrifying than the prison. He passes enslaved workers, and what gets him are their stares of confusion. They have no idea what they’re doing, but maybe that’s the point. Fink sees that the guards divide the workers into teams, with one instructor leading the way. All the instructors appear to be oppressive, and they purposely hold valuable knowledge just to keep their team ignorant. Ignatius’ men carry corpses on cots, and Fink catches site of all the danger signs. This is the personification of capitalism. Nobody has any rights here, and nobody gets a chance to form a union. This is a prison camp.

His captors station him at one of the countless electric generators, and his team’s leader is a woman with dark skin and curly hair. She’s different from the others, for her smile brings him and the other teammates warmth.

She notices the Babylonian. “And you are?”

“Fink.”

Stretching out her hand, she introduces herself. “Hellen. It’s nice to meet you. Since it’s your first day, I’ll teach you the very basics of working with machinery like this.” She whispers, “Unlike the others here, I don’t want to see you dead.”

He accepts the handshake. “How long have you been here for?”

“I just started today. One look at my resume, and they put me as a team lead. I worked on hundreds of electrical grids in the city.”

Fink warms up to the kindhearted acolyte. She teaches the crew how generators convert mechanical energy into electrical power, and she shows them blueprints and techniques on how to maintain these massive machines. She puts Fink in charge of the engine, and the others on the fuel system, alternator, voltage regulator, cooling and exhaust systems, lubrication systems, battery charger, and control panel. Fink looks over his shoulder and realizes that the island only runs off this type of power to oppress the prisoners. This island can run off solar or wind power; it’s a deliberate choice. Despite this, Hellen shows everyone how to do their job properly, a complete opposite approach from the others in her position. The day passes by, and they sweat off an honest day’s work. Thirty minutes before leaving, Hellen pulls Fink aside when the guards change their posts.

“What is it?” he asks.

“Untie your shoe.”

He does. “And?”

Hellen drops a folded up piece of paper. “Act natural. Hide that, and read it when you can.” She returns to helping the team, not knowing if she made the right choice.

Fink, feeling hope for the first time since he saw Babylon, bends over, places the note beneath the tongue of his shoe, and ties it. The final whistle blows throughout the Powerhouse, and the guards file everyone out of the building, only to escort the night crew into its careless corridors.

Now in his cell, Fink turns away from its door and produces the note. Unfolding it, it reads in ink:

Dear prisoner,

If you received this, it means you are going to get out of here. My name is Hellen Schroeder, and I am against Ignatius’ government. I am planning a riot from the outside, and I need your help in formulating a plan. At my apartment, I have blueprints of the prison; I know it like the back of my hand. I have the beginnings of the event planned out, but I need your help in filling in the gaps.

Step 1: Create a diversion

Step 2: Cut off the island’s power supply

Step 3: A slave uprising on the mainland to distract the military

Step 4: A complete overthrow of the island

This is how far I’ve gotten. Step 3 is essential to our victory; we need those sales. When this day comes, all of our work will be worth it.  If you have any ideas, please jot them down in the empty spaces below and give this paper back to me.

Sincerely, Ms. Schroeder

Fink folds up the note again and slides it under the cell’s bunkbed. Behind him, the door opens, and he turns to see guards push a beaten Wes to the ground. They slam the door shut and lock it with a skeleton key, laughing as they walk away. Fink pulls the bleeding kid to his feet, and he sits him down on the bottom bunk. The kid’s left eye is swollen shut, and blood spews out of the corners of his mouth.

“What happened?” Fink demands.

“They… I… fucked up. She threw me in the mint facility, and I fucked up. The guards took me to her office, and she beat me with a fucking skull.” He hugs his legs. “We have to get out of here… I can’t take this.”

“I have a note.”

The kid wipes away some blood. “What note?”

Fink explains his day, and he reaches under the bed to prove its existence. “Read it.”

Wes obliges. “So… that’s that?”

“Yes, all we need is something to write with.”

“Can’t you just ask her to bring a pen?” he shivers. “I… I don’t want to risk anything.”

“I’ll see what I can do. All we need is time, kid.” He hugs the crying boy. “It’s going to be okay.”

The next morning, Merlin wakes up to a stormy day. He jumps when he hears Ignatius’ golden eagle cry; he’ll never get used to that thing. He climbs out of bed, crosses over to a dresser, and produces the white hooded robe from a drawer. Donning it, he turns to the room’s door to see Ignatius standing in its doorway. Instead of robe, the President wears a Hazmat suit; he holds another one in his hands.

“What?” Merlin asks.

“I’m going to show you something since you’re part of the inner circle.”

The teacher removes his robe in frustration. “Give it to me.”

The President does, and the Babylonian wears the suit, feeling humiliation. They exit the estate,  where a limo awaits them on the driveway; its driver looks lost in her thoughts, but she snaps back into reality when they climb into the vehicle’s backseats. Merlin watches the world outside as the limo starts up, backs out of the driveway, and zooms down the road. How do these people even have functioning cars? Are their mechanics really that good? Did Forrest deliberately keep this knowledge hidden on purpose? The more he’s alive, the more Merlin hates the Monarchy and the President. No man should ever be in this position; it’s too difficult to comprehend. The only thing he knows is that he can’t be alone. Sometimes he thinks that’s the very thing that’s going to kill him one day, and maybe he’s right.

The limo approaches the city’s gate; it slowly opens as they drive into the broken world, and it closes after they pass it. The area around San Francisco reminds Merlin of the destruction left behind after the blast of an atomic bomb. He remembers what it was like during the Cold War. He had bomb drills in his school on a regular basis, and the class was shown anti-communist propaganda. That’s all everyone would talk about: the pros of capitalism, and the cons of communism. It was rare to find an unbiased source of information, which is what Merlin wanted. He has to see both sides of an argument before he can come to a rational conclusion. He gazes out towards a wheat field; most of the crops are burnt, and the charred remains of silos and barns paint themselves in contrast to the bright blue sky. Nothing is the same anymore; he can’t imagine people tending this area. In the distance, a mountain range comes into view. They drive for several hours; the Babylonian falls asleep as they pass through abandoned towns and

cities. The car jolts to a stop, and he wakes up, seeing the driver in her own hazmat suit.

They exit the car, high in the mountains. Ignatius guides Merlin by the hand over to the edge of a rockface, and the three stare down towards the valley below. The Babylonian’s mouth drops, for what awaits him is an endless ocean of infected. The growls sound like the lowest pitch of a howling storm, and their skin is as black as boiling tar. Dark blood spews out of their sores and blisters; flies swarm around them while maggots nest inside their organs. A foul, hellish odor rides with the passing wind, and Merlin feels nauseous. Imagine the diseases brewing and mutating down there. Pathogens with the potential to end entire societies.

“What… is this?” Merlin stammers.

“When you want to be an effective leader,” Ignatius starts. “you come up with ideas on how to get what you want. Fear is a surefire way to do that. When you beat someone up and drag them here in the middle of the night against their will, you gain their respect and submission. We show those people death, and they beg for mercy.”

“How do you keep them alive?”

Ignatius watches the infected sea. “There’re always enough children. The young rejuvenate the infected. We need to control our population growth anyway. Think of it as… a trash can. Enough of that, though. I brought you here because I need something: information about Babylon.”

“I thought you weren’t going to do anything to them.”

“I lied. From what I saw, they had a lot of shit, and most of it is useful to our condition. I want to know about what I didn’t see.”

The limo’s driver produces a pistol-and strikes Merlin on the back of his head. She stands behind him, ready to kill. The Babylonian falls to his knees, groaning in agony; the ratio isn’t in his favor. He examines the infected, and it’s as if they’re begging him to comply. One kick sends him over the edge, one bite sends him to his doom.

“What do you want to know?” Merlin asks, stammering.

“What kind of guns do they use?”

He keeps Timothy out of this. “Just flintlocks, canons, and bows and arrows. We aren’t as sophisticated as you think.”

“Bullshit! You have an entire area dedicated to mining! You’re advanced; you’re just hiding it.”

The driver strikes Merlin again, this time on his neck. “Speak,” she growls.

“Your government,” Ignatius states. “What is it?”

“It’s a… monarchy.”

“Who rules? A king or a queen?”

“Both.”

“Then it’s not a monarchy; kings and queens never rule at the same time.”

“That’s the thing; our flaws are their advantages. Forrest, our king, is a lot like you. He does things like that because he rules through manipulation; he lols people into a false sense of security, and that’s when he strikes. He has you before he knows you.”

At first, Ignatius wanted conflict. Now he wants compromise. Imagine having someone of this caliber on his side; imagine the power!

The President kneels. “Do you think he can meet me?”

“After what you did with the miners? The army?”

“Thats what we do with all vulnerable people; that’s why we didn’t attack Babylon. They were easy targets for us. We’re why you shouldn’t let your guard down.”

Merlin closes his eyes. “I don’t know how you can meet him. They could be making their way here right now. Don’t you think it’s safer to stay put?”

“Get in the car,” Ignatius demands. “I’ll deal with it.”

Back in the city, the Warden sits alone in her office. Candles flicker, illuminating the queer decor of human skulls. Her door opens, and her heart drops upon seeing Ignatius stepping over the threshold. She leaps to her feet, wanting to hug him, but something stops her. They stand in silence, as if they’re watching each other’s ghost. The Warden opens her mouth, but the glare on the President’s face sends a silencing message. He scans the room, noticing the smeared lines of coke on the desk. A disdainful sigh escapes his mouth, and he starts for the door.

“Wait!” she begs. “Please… wait.”

Ignatius pauses. “If I tell you to do something, will you do it?”

“Will you love me?”

“If you complete my assignment, I’ll reconsider.”

“Okay… What is it?”

“I need you to go to Seattle. There’s a group there; a big one. I have to get in contact with their leaders.”

She nods her head, not caring about the repercussions. “I’ll do it for you.”

Ignatius kisses her. “Thank you.”

Now in his estate, the President stands in a dark room. One light dangles over a post, and on top of it rests the Golden Eagle. The animal’s green, grass-colored eyes dart across the room; it lets out a shriek, much to Ignatius’ approval. He produces a live rat from his pocket and holds it in front of the eagle’s beak. Without hesitation, the beast clamps out on the creature and swallows it whole. Ignatius pets the bird, proud of being its owner. He’s seen the bird kill in battle; it stuns the opponent by appearing out of the sky and then kills them. It acts like a guided missile. Loyal pets must have loyal owners. The door opens, and a strange light illuminates the room for a moment until it closes again, leaving the room’s occupants in almost complete darkness.

“Why don’t you get more lanterns?” Merlin asks.

The President sighs. “She likes it this way. Too much light all day obstructs her vision. She’s… fragile like that.”

  The Babylonian approaches the pole. “What’s her name?”

“Athena.”

“How did you find her?”

“I was in the Vietnam War. We were in the mountains, and my platoon came across this nest. It was weird, seeing the in the middle of all the trauma. Anyway, we saw eggs. One of them hatched, and Athena’s head was sticking out. A few feet from the nest, its mother. It was shot down out of the sky. That struck me. Athena was going to die, and everyone was too caught up in the war to notice the little things. I wanted to change that. I saved and raised her during the war, and we grew close. Now… we’re here.”

“How old is she?”

“In her forties. I don’t have the exact number in my head right now.”

“Ignatius, why do you have the pit?”

“When I was in the war, I supported the fight against communism. I wanted us to win. We didn’t, but our society stands because capitalism is still here. That pit represents the power it holds over these people.”

“I don’t think that’s a fair argument. Communism is a moneyless society. Babylon doesn’t use money, and we’re doing relatively fine. Although we aren’t communists, bartering works for us. All societies have their own ways; we can’t downright abolish ideas simply because we don’t agree with them. These isms are vulnerable to change; why we don’t fix them is beyond my understanding.”

“I thought you were in my inner circle, not Babylon’s.”

The teacher stays quiet.

The President moves towards the door. “Let me show you how things work here in the simplest way possible.” He leads the Babylonian through the estate and onto an ornate balcony. In the distance, slave work on plantations, and a cloud of smog forms over the city. Merlin stares in awe at the pollution, a silent killer.

The President rests his hands on the balcony’s safety rails. “When you control the money supply, you control the people; when you become the money supply, you hold all the power you can dream of.  I am now your leader. You will do as I ask, and you will not speak against my word again. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.”

Outside San Francisco, the Warden walks through the land confidently. Her feet brush across the overgrown weeds that sprout upward from the cracking roads. Dawn is breaking, and it’s as if the sky looks like the brew in a painter’s crucible. She scans the landscape; nothing but emptiness. One can’t understand the true nature of loneliness until they behold this Hell on Earth. It’s still a game, no matter the disorder. That word [disorder] reverberates in her mind as if it hides under the bashes of a gong. Disorder always intrigues her; it’s not the state itself, but the fact that it can lead to order. How can such a chaotic idea bring organization to even the most heinous of situations?

Buildings creak and settle around her; it’s as if she’s living in a giant house with wooden framework. Their rumbles mimic her singing stomach, and she grows desperate for food. Reaching into her pocket, the Warden produces a small, metallic dagger. She pauses, examining an engraving of the number 33 in its hilt. Sure, her family has Freemason blood, but what difference does it make now? She’s no more special than the dirt on her shoe. She presses on, realizing her journey is larger than her self-deprecation. This is her love life on the line. And so, she endures the miles of post-apocalyptic land. The days pass; she finds wild game, but no other humans.

There’s no beat left in the earth. No signs of life on this coast, at least, not from her perspective. Maybe there are people hiding in the bushes, waiting for the perfect moment to attack and slit her throat. That’s just how it is now, and it will always be like this. The strangest part about it is that it mimics how she felt in the real world. Lost, drained, and alone. There’s always this paranoia following her; it lingers behind winding trails of thoughts like the black smoke that erupts from exhaust pipes. She distracts herself by finding patterns in this skeletal world. Patterns in the peeling plaster of decaying walls, in rusty cars, and in the cracking asphalt. She spends many cold nights in the withering foundations of firehouses, police stations, schools, post offices, malls, and anywhere else that has a roof. The only thing that makes her feel safe is the lack of the infected ones,

Tonight, she sleeps against the trunk of a birch tree, exhaustion, hunger, and thirst winning. Above her, a trembling, gray sky. Rain pelts her body softly at first, but the storm drenches her within five minutes. She doesn’t move; she’s too weak. All of our demons catch up to us eventually. She gazes down at her dagger’s hilt; it protrudes from her pocket and has a mocking presence. She’s too weak to even cut her own wrists, to put an end to this terrible nightmare. She stares ahead, into the distant woods. The winding branches and leaves look different now, and something about this place provokes a sense of powerlessness. Looking down at her legs, she sees natures floor covering them. Insects crawl over her arms and neck, and they bite and pick at her skin.

She hears a wolf howling in the distance; with every cry, it seems to get closer and closer to her location. The hunched beast emerges before her, licking its curly lips beneath the falling rain. It growls as it circles her tree, and in its glowing red eyes, the Warden sees pure evil. If there can be proof of the Devil, this is it. Hell is right here on Earth, and it’s the last thing she’s going to see. Gazing down at the mocking dagger, the Warden is too weak to even reach for it. What other choice does she have now besides giving up? It’s not like Ignatius is serious about his offer. The beast’s stomach growls, but before it pounces, a sear strikes its head, and it collapses to the cold earth. A few minutes pass, and nobody reveals themselves. She numb herself to the tireless exhaustion and falls asleep.

When she wakes up, mud covers her skin. Worms, caterpillars, and other insects crawl through the soft earth, and she leaps to her feet, wiping nature off her shivering body. A few feet from her, the infected wolf. She examines the spear protruding from its head, takes it out, and raises it to the morning light. No designs, no carvings. She doesn’t even know if they’re watching her right now, hiding beneath dense foliage. Paranoia pushes her out of the woods and onto the open road. The sun beats down on her, and thirst quickly becomes a problem. No water. She hasn’t had any in hours. Her tongue is as dry as the surface of Mars, and her lips are like the mud cracks of the Mojave Desert.

Holding her aching stomach, she limps down the road like a drunkard. Exhaustion never fails to ruin goals. Above her head, the sky darkens once more like a summer in Florida. Great, here we go again. To her surprise, it’s only a drizzle. She presses on, forgetting about the light rainfall. What’s her purpose? Is she as dead as the rest of the world? When one wanders a wasteland of burnt architecture and decay, one ponders on their existence. What’s this senseless meeting going to accomplish? Some part of her thinks Forrest won’t even agree because of what Ignatius is doing to their people. Who would want to team up with abductors? She pauses. She loves him, and she won’t let him down because of her entitlement. Too stubborn to see reality, she stops asking these questions and distracts herself by observing the passing scenery. Miles and miles of absolute destruction. Comprehending the magnitude of the old world’s ruins is like calculating an end to pi.

At noon, she walks by a mall. From its parking lot, a dear leaps onto her path. A spear flies out of nowhere and strikes the innocent animal through the eye; a precise hit. The Warden approaches the animal hesitantly, her head pounding. This spear is of the same design as the one that killed the wolf. Whirling around, she scans the surrounding structures. Nothing, not even a tumbleweed. A vulture circles the sky overhead. She ignores it, but an ominous feeling grows inside her chest. These hiding protecters are haunting her. Despite this fear, she needs to eat something, so she skins the deer with her dagger and roasts the raw meat over a cracking fire. The Warden devours the meat, leaving nothing for a desperate straggler.

She reaches Oregon, and when she spots the state’s sign, her heart races. One step closer to ending this personal exodus. The Israelites, supposedly, wandered the desert for forty years. What she feels must be similar to how they felt, if the story is true. She doesn’t understand religion; she doesn’t know why Ignatius has his cult. She just wants him. He has the personality of a mobster, and the tenacity of Sisyphus. Everything he does is attractive to her. Although this obsession is unhealthy, she fails to recognize that because of how captivating he is.

During her gruesome Passover, her ghosts kill more animals for her to eat, and they even leave canteens full of water by the campfires in the middles of these cold nights.  At some point, she gets lost, finding herself at Fort Stevens Stage Park, at the tip of the peninsula. She happens upon an old Civil War structure, its use lasting until 1947. On the night of June 21st-22nd, 1942, the Japanese fired 17 shells at this place. The Warden remembers learning about it in school, pondering on what future textbooks will be like. All the libraries are burnt; the human record is gone.What will happen now?

Here, she experiences the worst of cocaine withdrawal, becoming lethargic within the first hour of her arrival. Unable to reach out for help, and not knowing if the protectors are just drawing her into a trap, she remains here. Unforgettable, terrifying days pass, and they grow worse with each proceeding sunrise and sunset. Restlessness prevents the Warden from any form of a good night’s rest, and she grows uncomfortable in her skin, and this discomfort makes her want to rip it all off, so she can finally free herself from this misery. Insomnia develops alongside the heat of freak night sweats, which make her body feel like she’s roasting over a bottomless inferno. Her obsession with Ignatius spikes, for thinking about him is the only thing that brings stability in these dark hours. However, this invites delusional thoughts of her being his wife, and she believes they have a family in the mountains of California. Throughout this experience, her protectors still bring her gifts. Jars of food, cans of ice water. Why don’t they just confront her or kill her within the masonry walls of this historical structure? Why can’t she just take her dagger to her wrists to end this helpless opportunity? She regrets not bringing the drug, not bringing any supplies. A realization dawns on her: she did that intentionally. She wants to suffer. But why, and how did she do it unconsciously? Why didn’t Ignatius tell her to bring anything? Well, he’s probably too focused on other things; being the leader of a developing society doesn’t entail leisure time. Each time she justifies his actions, the deeper she descends into this queer obsession.

The peak of this terrifying trip plateaus and descends into a downward spiral. It takes her endless days to recover, to rehabilitate back into her previous habits. She regains her strength slowly, first by walking, then hunting, then self-fulfillment. Her protectors don’t provide the jars of food, but they still leave behind the cans of water. She wonders how they get all these supplies, what drastic measures that must be undertaken in order to achieve such a regular stockpile. Are these people friendly, or is this just another trap? These questions run through her broken mind, but she brushes them off for the sake of her own sanity. Conjuring her thoughts, her supplies, her courage, she exits the fort, preparing herself for an uncertain path. Has this crossing ever been done before? How could anybody know? Where would the records of their travels be?

On the road, she approaches a waiting area for the county’s nonexistent transit route. In a neighboring newspaper stand, a clean booklet of maps of each individual state, sticking out like a sore thumb. Her protectors instantly cross her mind, but why would they wait until now to bring such an artifact to her?  Picking it off the shelf, she flips to Oregon and traces her route to the state’s northernmost border. Even more tireless days pass through this lonely, isolating life. She feels like a nomad, having no direction, no shelter, no purpose. Maybe that’s what these survivors are all like, nameless, faceless  people just filling the meaningless hole of a heartless, forgotten world. Maybe that’s been in all of us since before this confusing downfall of humanity.

Reaching Washington, a silent breath of relief flows through her. Now wandering through the country’s northwestern-most state, the Warden stumbles through empty cities, sleeps in small, abandoned structures, and roams over relics of a forgotten time. If future archeologists uncover this, there will be no end to the stories and claims they’ll throw out. Today, humanity’s legend reminds her of Egypt. With that being the case, Ignatius is a powerful, divine pharaoh.

On her final day, her feet reach Babylon’s wooden drawbridge. Each time her blistering feet stamp across the fresh oak, she feels an aura of accomplishment and pride. How does this masterpiece manage to withstand the sands of time? The kingdom’s walls and glaring archers loom over her; they stretch far above her head, protecting the protruding rooftops of the medieval buildings behind it. The boiling sun illuminates the Holy Land, and it gives the region a peaceful glow as she approaches the barred gateway. Here, she meets a weary, rough-looking gatekeeper who looks like a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary.

“Please,” the Warden weakly mutters. “I need shelter; I’ve been on the road for the past few weeks. This is a matter of extreme importance.”

The gatekeeper reluctantly pulls a lever inside the fortified gatehouse. “We have to pat you down; come in.”

Above the Warden, the archers lower their weapons. She gladly enters the small masonry building, wherein the gatekeeper finds a dagger and a booklet of maps in her pockets.

“I’ll take you to the Monarchy so they can talk to you,” the gatekeeper explains. “You see that huge building, taller than the rest? That’s where they live.”

The Warden follows the Babylonian through this strange, original society. The acolyte watches how everyone behaves, and she quickly notices the lack of racist ideologies and currency. Taking note of this, she turns her judgements to the architecture. The simple wooden, hay roof buildings of fascinating dimensions contradict the modern, fading appearance of the Space Needle, accentuating the intention behind their designs. Whoever built Babylon like it is, did so deliberately. For what reason, she knows not, but nonetheless, they enter their destination and climb the tower’s exhausting staircase to the Throne Room, where the gatekeeper knocks on its menacing doors.

The portal swings open, revealing an ornate, fanatical interior, and a man with a long, scruffy beard. The lines on his forehead accentuate his age, and a golden crown rests upon his head. A purple cape hangs off his shoulders and washes down his back like a waterfall, lagging a few feet behind him. The Warden feels like she’s in an entirely new world.

He says to the gatekeeper, with a warm, inviting smile, “Good job, Samantha. You can return to your post now.” The king then gestures for the Warden to come in.

The door closes behind them, and he meets her at a large dining room table. A chandelier dangles down from the ceiling and flickers overhead, casting an ominous vibe around their inevitable, brutal discussion. The Warden doesn’t know how to put this offer into words; if she doesn’t say the right ones, she won’t get what she wants. Everything, according to her, is at stake.

The king sits down in a chair. “My name is Forrest Wayley; and you are?”

“Marisa”

“Where are you from?”

“San Fransisco.”

“Well, you came a long way.”

“It was difficult.”

“I’d imagine.”

“Listen… I’m actually on an assignment.”

“Assignment? What kind of assignment?”

“Calsimier Ignatius, the man who killed your general, wants to meet you. He admires how you lead.”

The horrible realization pries the king’s mouth wide open. “You… you have my people, don’t you?!” He bangs his fist on the tabletop. “Why the hell would I want to talk to him?!”

“Maybe you two can negotiate something! Like I said, he admires how you lead, and if thins go well, if we come to a common understanding, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll convince him to let your people free.”

“Do you want to know what we’ve been doing all this time?!” Forrest snarls. “Maybe you don’t; it’s none of your business anyway. There is no room for negotiation when your people abduct mine in broad daylight! Where is the logic in you coming here?!”

“I walked… all this way from San Francisco… Humor me, please. Just meet with him and talk about the current state of affairs… I need this.”

“You… need this?”

“Where can we meet him?” Asks a soft, angelic, female voice from the back of the darkened room. She emerges, wearing a jewel-encrusted headpiece. “My name is Echo Ramirez. I’m interested.”

“Echo-“

“With all due respect, honey, let me talk.” The queen approaches the table. “Where can we meet him, Marisa? Do you have an address?”

“Fort Steven’s, Oregon. It can be a temporary checkpoint between our two societies. If any conflict breaks out, it won’t cause damage to our properties.”

“Can you draw us a route?”

“Yes, but it’ll take a while. Most of the roads are gone; traversing them is like wadding through muck. The asphalt’s just… dissolving.”

Echo gives her a reassuring look. “You can stay in one of our inns for today.”

Forrest’s face turns blood red. “WHAT?”

Echo glares at him. “She can stay, and we’ll have someone look after her.” Turning to the Warden, she adds, “Tomorrow, we’ll send you off to San Francisco with a rucksack full of provisions. However, you are still our enemy. We won’t forget what you’ve done. But we’re better than you, and we’re going to prove it.” This mortifies the king, and he abruptly leaves the area.  The queen lowers her head and whispers, “Forgive me for the breadth of my mercy.”

The Warden climbs to her feet, itching to get out. “I’m terribly sorry about that. Can you show me to one of your inns?”

Echo lurches back into reality. “Yes, follow me, please.” She leads the harmless adversary all the way down the Needle’s staircase.

They walk into the kingdom confidently, the queen towering over the Warden. Pennants and banners fly in the wind as they dangle from open windows. A thick smell of burning meat and the distant sound of some celebration conjure a sense of enlightenment, something the Warden has never felt before.

The queen gestures outward. “It took us years to build what we have… to create a generation the world has never seen before. Why would you want to take that away from someone?”

“Do you think I personally made that decision?”

“You work with the one who did.”

“Look, I just believe in him, like everyone else he rules over.”

“That doesn’t mean you should adhere to his every whim.”

“That’s hypocritical coming from someone wearing jewels on their head.”

“I chose to let you stay; I expect respect. You would have had a harder time had I not intervened.”

“Fine, you’re right. Thank you for doing that. Are we close?”

“All our inns are in the Housing District; you’ll see them soon.”

That evening, Marisa lays under the white covers of a comfortable woolen mattress. She can’t stop thinking about the feelings she would get from cocaine highs, those sharp, electric emotions of euphoria. Admittedly, she misses it, but she can’t dive back into those habits. If she wants Ignatius back, she has to improve herself, for her addiction is the very thing that drove him away. She sits up, facing the room’s window. Outside, the elderly play banjos on rocking chairs as the evening sky turns to twilight. The red glow haunts her, for the hue is of the same luminescence that ignites when blood pours. A cold, familiar chill runs down her spinal column, and she climbs out of bed, unable to rest. Moving over to the door, she gazes through its peephole, and at the back of a Babylonian soldier. What is this place, North Korea? She examines the room’s furniture: an old bookshelf, fading paintings, and a slowly rotating fan. She’s never been in a place this bazar before. The smell is of freshly chopped wood mixing with a hint of maple pine. Lit candles sit on the bedside table, their shadows flashing across dark walls. Once a Warden, now a prisoner.

Someone knocks on the door, and she opens it to a man with curly black hair. His eyes cower behind sparkling glasses, but his merciless stare suggests forthcoming hostility. Entering the room with a limp, he closes the door and reveals to her a rucksack full of provisions. Plopping it down on the glowing floorboards, he holds his stomach, pressing down on an unseen, bothersome wound.

“This is what your people did,” he growls. “I got shot protecting our leader. Yours tried killing him. I’m not forgetting that.”

“I know.’

“Do you feel… any remorse?”

“No, and I doubt you do.”

“Why’s that?”

“I’m not a dumbass. Our experiences in this world harden us. Sometimes, they cripple us for life. They make you numb to the things you should care about. In the end, you only care about yourself. We d-on’t want to admit it, but we’re selfish people. More selfish than we have ever been. This is survival, and there’s no room for guilt in this game.”

“I manufacture artillery in copious amounts. I defend this place, and if you think your people are going to get away with this, you’re mistaken.”

“What’s your name?”

“Timothy.”

“Timothy, the next time you threaten me during a time of peaceful negotiation, I will take that opportunity away from everyone. Understood?”

Silence.

She gestures towards the door. “Thank you for the bag.”

Alone again, she watches the kingdom through the clear window. Outside, cultures of all types mingle and laugh with one another, not knowing the trials that lie ahead. Everybody’s lives are going to change because of this meeting, not on a physical level, for now, but on a conscious one, for she doubts they have knowledge of other societies. Turning around, she misses Alcatraz. Not the place itself, but the feelings of power that reside within. It’s still strange to her how you can be fear in one place, and a stranger in the next. What does it mean? Why can’t she have power everywhere? Even more tantalizing, what’s stopping her?

In the Throne Room, the leaders watch over a sleeping Alice, who turns and twists in her crib. It’s ruthless how unsafe everyone is, even when it comes to their own minds. Life truly doesn’t guarantee anything for anyone, nor is it against us. It just simply is. Forrest struggles with this concept a lot, especially when it comes to mercy. Even weeks after Dante’s assassination attempt, he still questions the very nature of it. Mercy is nothing more than a temporary truce, so in this case, wouldn’t it be easier to deliver someone from their crimes sooner? No action comes without consequence, everybody’s due to pay for their unjust attitudes at some point. He observes the infant intently while Echo turns and leaves, starting for the door.

She’s about to exit, but Alice abruptly wakes up, crying. The king picks her up, cradles, her, and gives her a bottle of milk. Echo watches the care he puts into every movement; the gentle nature of his affection is indescribably attractive. She wonders if raising Alice helps with his schizophrenia, for the realization that your child is part of you is always a powerful one, enough to make even the most dangerous among us feel sympathy and sorrow for the defenseless and the weak.

“Echo,” Forrest whispers. “Come here.”

“What is it?”

“I have to tell you a secret,” he admits, gazing down at Alice’s eyes. “I was drafted into the Vietnam War, but I dodged it. I’ve kept this to myself because I didm’t feel like it was worth noting until now.”

“Why’s that?”

“I trust you a lot more now, and I want you to understand my situation. It was the 50s. Mental institutions treated their patients horribly. If I went to the army, they’d find out my problem and send me to one. I was cornered; there was nowhere for me to turn.” He sighs. “I’m not mad at you for letting her stay… I’m just… worrying about the fallout. What if this doesn’t go right? What if something happens, and we go to war?”

“Then you’re just going to have to face your fear, aren’t you?”

“Echo… it won’t be good for me. I’d have to kill people; are you forgetting I’m hallucinating right now?”

“I thought Alice calms your head down.”

“She does, but I still have these… lingering symptoms.”

“Whatever happens because of this meeting, it’s going to be okay. I promise.”

Forrest closes his eyes, saying solemnly, “I still think about Judas. I can’t forget her.”

Echo rubs her fingers through his matting hair. “Was she the first person you ever-”

“No,” the king rebukes sharply. “She was still… the leader. Before, I hated leaders. Now, I pity them. I killed the leader, so who’s going to kill me?”

“Nobody, if you don’t let them. That’s why we have the army. They support us the most out of any other district.”

“They couldn’t protect me against Dante. Remember that?”

“That attempt caught us off guard; nobody’s ever done anything like that before him. Now that we’re aware of that possibility, we have that contingency under wraps.”

“I feel like I don’t say this as often as I should, but I love you.”

Echo smiles, blushes, and rubs his head. “We’re going to be okay. Whatever happens, Babylon will prevail. It has to.”

Back in San Francisco, Merlin wanders through Ignatius’ palace, pausing in an art gallery. He admires the works of Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso. A certain piece speaks to him, Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix. The artist depicts a woman in a torn dress standing upon heaps of dead bodies; her breasts aren’t enough to distract the soldiers fighting around her, personifying their determination to bring down King Charles X of France during the July Revolution of 1830. In her hand, the French flag. Merlin figures Babylon needs one, and takes note of that idea before Ignatius appears at his side, with Athena resting on his shoulder.

The President smirks. “What do you think?”

“It’s beautiful.”

“I see it as the downfall of monarchism, and the rise of democracy, a fair, true way.”

“This world is fair to you?”

“Yes, it has been, and it always will be. I don’t know what’s going to happen if the meeting fails, but if it does, at least you’re on our side.”

Ignatius leaves a scared Merlin alone, and the Babylonian’s eyes fixate on the woman’s.

Bold determination overwhelms Heather as she guides her troop of Babylonian soldiers through a colorful area of Oregon’s wilderness. They stomp over the infected autumn leaves, and Heather wraps her hand around the grip of her holstered flintlock pistol. Twenty feet from the edge of the trees, she pauses, and the others follow suit. Through the infected trunks, she spots an intimidating stone fortress from the Civil War. Now at their vantage point, the Babylonians draw their weapons and aim them at the building, preparing themselves for the worst case scenario. The air is quiet today, aside from the unsettling sound of tweeting birds, which proves to be a stark peaceful contrast from the ensuing events.

A terrible, dark feeling resides in the pit of Heather’s trembling heart. She has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and if anybody dies, it’s on her. This realization flows through the cracks of her spine like a toxic, haunting ooze of unimaginable ingredients. How will they know when to strike, when they hear bullets from inside? Surely by then, it’ll be too late to save the king. Heather glances back at her troop, recognizing the severity of every passing second of calmness. If they lose Forrest, they lose everything. She has to be willing to make every sacrifice possible to ensure victory. That’s the hard part of being a leader, she figures. You have to want to lose your followers. Is that what the Monarchy has to experience every day, that feeling of loss that nobody deserves? Perhaps they’re numb to it now, and they’ve forgotten that painful sting of death.

Nonetheless, she uses this time to think about Alexander and how much potential he had. He was Babylon’s best fighter, and Heather had the honor to be his best friend. She recalls meeting him outside Everett, Washington, in the yard of the  county’s airplane facility. From there, her life became what it is now, fighting for what he gave her. You can’t perform this kind of conflict with a selfish attitude; you have to approach it with the aura of American revolutionaries, or all is lost. When you don’t have a purpose for fighting, you give up easily. Thusly, Babylonian nationalism proves to be what they need most right now.

Forrest enters the Union base confidently, cautiously maneuvering through piles of debris from years of maltreatment. He arrives at the door of a bunking room, and on the door itself is a message that reads, “Welcome, Babylon” in red paint. Calmly, he wraps his hand around the doorknob, withstanding the screams in his head. They sound like buzzing alarms, warning him away from this Godforsaken place. For once, maybe they’re right. Actually, is this the first time? Who knows with the king. Irregardless, he disregards their pleads, and presses into the room, taking deep breaths. On the other side, he finds a slim, Charles Author-type figure sitting at a simple wooden table. The stranger dons a white hoodie, has no hair, and wears that same confident look Forrest has.

The king sits in an empty chair, on the opposite side of his enemy. The President leans back in his chair, appearing to be at peace with his surroundings. Forrest, however, sits in a state of catatonia for the greater good. The amount of anger he can unleash right now would be enough to shatter dimensions.

The President sighs deeply. “I thought you’d look different.” He shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly. “I’ve been disappointing myself a lot lately, so I’m not surprised. Before you start talking, I want to lay down an offer. We have similar leadership styles, and I want to team up with you. We’re powerful people who have powerful impacts on others, and I feel like we can make a New World Order.”

Forrest shakes his head. “Here’s what I know. You killed the old commander of my army; you took my people away from me in broad daylight. You’re forcing them to acclimate into something they barely understand, and I doubt you do, too. You have no idea what we can do when we put our minds together.”

“That’s no way to speak in a negotiation.” The President suddenly bursts out in cold laughter. “Wait, that’s why you don’t know how to talk to me; I need to introduce myself.” He extends a hand for t-

he monarch. “Calsimier Ignatius, and you?”

The  Babylonian scowls at the invitation. “Forrest.”

The President lowers his hand. “Well, Forrest, just so you’re aware of the respect I require, you will not fucking talk to me like that when I’m trying to be fair.”

“Fair?”

“Yes, that’s the glorious thing about democracy! All of it is fair!”

Again, Forrest shakes his head. “That’s the thing; under monarchism, you control the people. That’s a fair expression of power. Under democracy, the people control you. You’re nothing more than a puppet.”

“That’s the thing,” Ignatius retorts sarcastically. “Under monarchism, you control the people… until you don’t. Revolutions? Coups? Those things tend to happen to people under crowns.” He closes his eyes, patiently inhaling and exhaling. “Let’s take this back a few notches. Let me give you a background, maybe that will convince you. I grew up in Mississippi before the Vietnam War. Did I dabble with the KKK? Maybe. Am I proud of it? Perhaps, but I digress. I got the draft, and I accepted.”

The voices in Forrest’s head force him to ask, “What did you see?”

The President leans forward along the tabletop. “We have a dodger, don’t we? Interesting. Well, since you asked, I saw what the other side of the world was like. I saw what communism did, and I want to obliterate it. That’s why I do what I do.”

“I don’t see why that should bother me.”

Ignatius grins. “I’ve got the money, and I’ve got the time. We’re bringing America back to how it once was, and we’re not stopping until we do.”

“Your vision of America is corrupt with white supremacy.”

“Oh? And how’s your vision moral?”

“I never said I’m moral. In fact, I don’t believe in morals. I haven’t since I saw sick people devouring each right in front of me.”

“That was a crazy time, wasn’t it?”

“This meeting is pointless.”

“Only because you’re making it seem that way. You’re a tough person to crack, Forrest. I respect that about you.”

“Stop saying that shit!”

“What shit?”

“You don’t respect or admire me; you’re only doing it to make yourself look like the better person.”

Ignatius changes the subject quickly. “After I took your people, how did you react? What have you been up to over there?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Enough with the power moves. I’m trying to be civil, but you’re pushing me to the edge.”

“We’ve been preparing for conflict. We don’t know what you’re going to do to us next, so we have to put ourselves first.”

“Do you still have family?”

Again, the voices force him to whisper, “Echo.”

“Echo?”

The king lowers his head. “I love her.”

“Do you want to see her tonight?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’ll join my order. I’m through playing games with you, a-”

“If you think you’re going to conquer us, I won’t let that happen. I’ll die for my people.”

“Will you really?”

“Of course.”

“Your track record with conflict doesn’t seem very promising.”

“I RAN BECAUSE I HAD TO! I HAD NO CHOICE!”

“Only fools run from protecting their country in a time of crisis.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“I do. My father was a business tycoon. He built and owned oil refineries all across the country. He glorified capitalism, and he became somebody because of it. He told me all the flaws behind communism, and I listed to him. The world can’t survive without money.”

“Babylon does. It’s possible.”

“What was your father like? What was his attitude?”

“Why are you asking me about my father?”

“There’re cycles in families, and it’s usually the son that breaks the cycle of their fathers, if it’s unfavorable.”

“He was a nobody.”

“Then it looks like I was right.”

“You didn’t break your cycle.”

“No, but that’s only because accepting it would make me more successful. That’s how things work; we have to find out what’s most useful to us. Let me ask you something, how do you keep your people in line?”

“We practice oligarchal collectivism, but the people perceive us as a monarchy. As long as they think we’re the only ones who have a say in what’s going on, that’s all that matters. One or two people can’t control a population of our magnitude; there has to be a strict, efficient, deep part of the system that-

’s in the know. And at the end of the day, what the Crown says, goes. It’s all for show.” Forrest smiles, proud of his explanation. “What about you?”

“Money is at the heart of power. The more you have, the more you own. How do you think I won the election? I have money, and I buy out my supporters.”

“Money is sickness. It creates poverty and the unnecessary struggle between classes. It makes everything more confusing in the end.”

“It doesn’t. Once you see how we operate, you’ll understand.”

“Who thinks I want to see it?”

“How else will you understand us?”

Forrest grits his teeth. “I already do understand you! You’re nothing more than an obstacle to us!”

“Why did we find one of your men on our turf? You’re in Washington, hundreds of miles away. What were you doing down here?”

“Alexander wanted oil. I listened to him, and he sounded convincing.”

“Well, I hate to break it to you, but that oil is ours. Even if he survived, their still would’ve been conflict. These things don’t go down easily, which is why I’m trying to negotiate.”

Forrest sits back comfortably in his chair, letting emotions show for once. “Before I built the kingdom, I was alone. Nights were so dark and cold that I couldn’t get any sleep. I found this kid on my way; his name was Thomas. He was younger than me. There was innocence and purity in him, the last of his kind. I wanted to protect him from everything, and I was doing good… until we reached the hospital. We had to stay there; we had to get out of the snow. I didn’t want him getting hypothermia or frostbite or whatever else this fucking world throws at you under those conditions. Anyway, there we were, in the Children’s Ward. He was looking out a window, and someone from the outside shot and killed him. Blood and glass sprayed everywhere, and I just… stared. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t feel any pain. I just… looked. What once had life… is now limp on the floor. Something that had so much potential… lost because someone was paranoid. I never found the person that killed him, but that night… I vowed never to let my guard down. Now you know why I’m a tough nut to crack, as you put it.”

Ignatius chuckles. “Damn, what are we going to do about you?”

“Giving me back my people would be a great step forward.”

“You see, I can’t do that. They provide for me, and I need their skills, especially Merlin.”

“What have you done to him?”

“Absolutely nothing. His change is on his own terms.”

“What kind of games are you playing? The abduction? The meeting? The taunting? The dots aren’t connecting.”

“I’m simply being… diplomatic. I’m trying to construct civil relations. You can either abide my own standards, or you can leave. And seeing as how you haven’t left yet, you have an interest in my offer, and I want you to go for it.”

“Why did you join the KKK? Why something so… sinister?”

“Why does anybody do anything? Influence. That’s what it all comes back to. You either influence yourself, or society does the work for you. I went for the latter route, because it got my name out there. I followed my dad’s footsteps, and it led me to a higher version of my life. And what do you do to honor your family name? You perform; you put on this act that nobody can see through. That’s true evil, if you ask me. However, I think you’re the type of guy that can come to an understanding. If you had my perspective, it would empower you to unimaginable levels. There are no limits to this form of power, no more issues, no more hoops to hop through. The New World Order is here, and it resides in the hopes that you will accept this invitation. You’re the perfect candidate for it; we’re the same person.”

“I AM NOT LIKE YOU!”

“Do you control people with force? Do you disobey their pleads of wanting to know why you do what you do? Do you look in the mirror and feel like a king?”

The monarch slams his fists on the table. “That’s none of your goddamn business!”

“Seems like that’s a nerve to avoid.”

“Why do you keep taunting me and then saying this is a negotiation? If anything, this is a threat! Do you pity me?”

“Pity you? I merely take an interest in your style. Sure, my mannerisms show here and there, but that’s just a slip of the tongue. Disregard it; those comments have no basis in reality.”

“How can I trust you?”

“You just do. You don’t reset it, and you don’t rebel. You just accept.”

“How much oil do you have?”

“Why the sudden interest in my market?”

“My people died trying to find it; I want to know what they lost their lives for.”

“Well, in that case, we have endless amounts. Black oceans of the stuff. We have refineries that convert it to gasoline for our cars.”

“What else do you have?”

“Aren’t you the one that didn’t want to talk about your community?”

“Aren’t you the one that killed my men? I deserve to know; it’s my right as your victim.”

“We have plantations. Islands. We control San Francisco, as well as other smaller communities. We travel by train; we have airships. What’s even more immaculate is that we’re advancing. Our culture is changing, and we’re accepting that change. How’s it looking back in the Dark Ages?”

“We progress intellectually, not materialistically.”

“Oh? How so?”

“We have an education system for our children; they know what’s going on, and we’re raising them to be seen better than how we are now. We’re teaching them how to build, how to form relationships, how to work, and how to be happy. Merlin was our teacher, but… we don’t have him right now, so they can’t learn if nobody can teach them.”

“You teach them how to be happy… in Babylon’s way, right?”

“Yes.”

“And in the end, that happiness is just manipulation, correct?”

“Yes. It takes the heat off us.”

“Damn… you’ve got every angle of this figured out, haven’t you? All the way down to falsifying joy.”

“It has to be done for efficiency.”

“I like you, Forrest. I like your ideas. They’re innovative, and the world needs more people like you.”

“The more you say it, the more I doubt you.”

“Why?”

  “Because I see this fire behind your eyes… this lust for invasion and siege.”

“The weather’s getting colder; we’ll have no time for conflict in the face of the coming winter.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yes.”

“If you have airships… why did you make Marisa walk?”

“They’re only for conquering people. We can’t use them for small missions like that; it’s inefficient.”

“Is she okay?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because when she was at the kingdom, she looked scared. Not of the new environment, but of leaving. We gave her supplies, but when we parted ways, she looked back at us with this look of… loss.”

“She was in love with me… I sent her there to prove it.”

“But you don’t love her back, don’t you?”

“No.”

“You see, I’ve always found people like you disgusting. Do you have any idea what that journey is like? How much it can take out of you? Did you even ask her if she’s okay?”

“I had a girlfriend before the end of the world. Her name was Victoria. We dated for about three years, and we fell madly in love with each other, but after that… she left. It was just for show. Ever since then, I’ve always looked down on women. I know it’s a generalization, but it’’s helped me survive, and now…. I’m happy. Happier than I’ve ever been.”

“You’re… happy?”

“Yes. How can’t I be? I have money, and that’s all you need?”

“That’s all that intrigues your world? Financial empowerment?”

“What intrigues yours?”

“Community.”

“So you’re a communist.”

“No; our bartering system is completely different from communism. Plus, monarchal communism doesn’t exist; it's a complete contradiction.”

“You know what I’ve noticed about your society? You have two leaders, when most kingdoms in the past only have one. Why is that?”

“Who said we had two leaders?”

“Merlin.”

“He… willingly told you?”

Ignatius thinks about the pit of the infected. He remembers Merlin’s gaze of fear, for he knew at any moment, one kick could send him over the edge., into the pit of the infected. “Yes.”

The king suddenly leaps to his feet, his schizophrenia finally gaining complete control over his mind. This is payback for trying to silence us. Sweat forms on his forehead, and he screams, “The walls!” Grasping for air, he heaves, “They’re… closing!” He runs over to the closest wall and bangs on it. “Those damn bastards! They think they can ruin my credit score!” He shoots a devious glance towards Ignatius. “Little did they know the market is already crashing! Look at the stocks; they’re all fucking shit! Red across the board!”

Ignatius doesn’t know what to do. “Are… are you okay?”

Forrest spreads out his arms and twirls around. “I’m more than okay!” He runs up to the table, hopping on top of it. “I just saved my own ass! The game’s. rigged, and it’s working for me!”

“Forrest, sit down. We’re trying to have an adult conversation. If you can’t handle that, I’ll have to get someone-”

The king stares dead into the President’s eyes. “You have more people out there?! I thought this was one on one!” Heather brings him back to reality, and he climbs off the table. The thought of the Convergence coming down upon the Babylonians in the woods tethers his broken mind to the very chair he sits down in. “Tell me the truth; are your people watching us?”

“No, it’s just us. What about you? Did you bring soldiers?”

“No.”

“So we’re on a common understanding.”

“Yes.”

“Why did you freak out? Was it a trap?”

Not wanting to reveal himself, Forrest nods his head. “I’m psychological in that way.”

“That’s  why you should be part of the New World Order. I’m not going to give you up easily; you’re my only shot to success, and-”

“You’re scared of us, aren’t you? That’s why we’re negotiating.”

“Scared? Why would I be scared?”

“Because we’re the first civilization you’ve encountered. You don’t have any idea of our history, and you don’t know what happens behind our walls.”

“The same should go for you, right?”

“I’m not going to blindly accept something I disagree with.”

“Listen, we’re on the brink of war. We need to avoid con-”

“YOU KILLED ALEXANDER! END OF STORY!”

“Just come back with me to San Francisco so we can-”

Forrest flips the wooden table over, causing Ignatius to react in surprise. The table breaks into splinters, which fly in every direction across the room. “Do you have any idea the terror you’ve brought upon us? Do you have any idea how strong we are because of what we’ve experienced? EVERY BABYLONIAN IS THEIR OWN LEADER! THEY LEAD BY RESPECTING ME! THAT’S WHY THEY’RE SO EASY TO MANIPULATE! My people don’t want anything to do with your people! We want to stay as far away from you as possible, but you won’t let us! War is inevitable with your approach to this situation!”

Ignatius lunges towards the king, clenching his fists. One blow strikes Forrest’s stomach, and another pierces his jaw. Broken teeth fall to the muddy earth as the monarch stumbles backwards, colliding with the rock wall behind him. The ensuing pain sends the king to his knees, and he spits out clumps of blood. The crimson liquid seeps into the mud, drying and darkening the area of its previous existence.

“I WANTED YOU!” the President cries out, taking on the role of a judgmental, omnipotent father. “YOU LEFT ME NO CHOICE!”

Holding his bleeding mouth, the king whimpers regretfully, “Where do we go from here?”

Thirty minutes later, Ignatius returns to a camp that’s a few miles from the fort. Here, the acolytes file in and out of tents, stack wooden boxes on top of each other,  and warm up by kindling campfires. Some roast game over the open flames; others just stare with uncertainty into the fleeing embers. He remembers what he told Forrest, accepting his personal dishonesty and labeling himself as a liar. In one of the tents, he finds Marisa sitting alone on a bottom bunk. Her red hair dangles over her eyes, and she gazes solemnly at her only experience with true love.

“Well?” she pleads.

“It’s done.”

“What did he say?”

The President shakes his head. “He’s insane; he doesn’t want to listen to reason. You know what we do to those kind of people. He’s left me no choice but to fall back on the inevitable. He told me that his people are out for blood. We have to be, too.”

“What about the families that don’t want to be part of it? The children?”

“We’ll throw them in the pit; we need to utilize it to its fullest potential.” He turns to leave, but a questioning force stops him. “Marisa… why did you pick this place, out of all the other possibilities?”

“I had a revelation here.”

“And that is?”

“You’ll know soon enough. Can I ask you something? Why did you bring guns to negotiate peace?”

“Because I knew how this was going to end.”

Ignatius exits the tent, basking in the glory of the camp’s progress. They’ll have the fort operational in no time, that’s for sure. By whatever means it took Marisa to find this place, he’s eternally grateful for. He watches as acolytes pry open the wooden crates, revealing an endless surplus of ammunition. The bullets range from 0.50 calibers to 5.56x45mm NATOs.  Some of the crates contain guns, most of which are from military outposts. It took years to scavenge these supplies; San Francisco doesn’t have a gunman like Timothy. That’s our only disadvantage, the President figures. A cold breeze flows through the woods, sending colorful leaves flying past his field of vision, collecting in piles after their landings.The crisp smell of autumn lingers in the air, reminding the President of an innocent childhood experience: making apple cider. He’s perverted in this nature, thinking about something so nostalgic in the time of an impending crisis.

He walks through the camp, approaching his black car. A thin layer of frost forms on the glass surfaces, and he brushes the sheets off before entering the vehicle. Pulling his key out, he slips it into the ignition, twists it, and shivers as warm air blasts into his face. The engine trebles beneath him, and he grips the steering wheel tightly as he pulls away from the site.

That night, he detours through the ruins of northern California. The gas meter displays an almost empty tank, so he slows down, pulls over, and parks on the side of a crumbling road. He opens the dashboard, retrieving a flashlight and a siphon hose. Getting out of the car, he coils the hose around his shoulder and flicks on the flashlight. He moves to the trunk, opening it and grabbing a jerry can. Turning around, he waves the flashlight’s beam over a dense pile-up twenty yards away. He approaches the melting vehicles, knowing he’ll find gas. Fuel isn’t hard to find; nobody thinks about searching these cars anymore, for they’re just relics of a distant time. He opens the fuel filler of a Delorean, setting down the flashlight and jerry can before probing the hole with the siphon hose. He wraps his mouth around the other end of the hose and begins sucking the fuel out, spitting it into the jerry can. He almost swallows the gasoline at several points, wincing at every close call. Once he has a decent amount, he stops, picks everything up, and carries it back over to his car. He sets everything in its proper place and fills  the empty tank. After he finishes, he returns the jerry can to the trunk, climbs into the driver’s seat, and drives off into the unknown.

While driving down a collapsing interstate, he ponders on strange thoughts as he gazes through the windshield. Why did Marisa say that about her revelation? How is she capable of keeping such complex secrets when she tells him everything? Now that she’s seemingly though with that habit, it makes him feel uneasy, like there’s a disturbance in a system that has aimless goals, patterns, and purpose. He figures shrugging it off is healthier, so he turns his focus to the road. Potholes and withering asphalt, with weeds and shrubs growing from their cracks. What is he going to tell his people? How is he going to present it?

In the early hours of the morning, the sun”s rays glow over the horizon, appearing to vibrate on molecular levels. The car approaches San Francisco’s gate as a gentle fog settles over the Golden Gate Bridge. Ignatius stops the car as those impenetrable iron bars swing outward, like the entryway to some violent, undiscovered sin. The gatekeeper rushes out to the vehicle, stopping to pound on the driver’s side window. Nervous, the President rolls it down.

“Ignatius,” the cultist gasps. “Alcatraz is burning.”

“What?” he shrieks.

The acolyte appears as if he’s recalling the death of his mother. “It’s happening so fast. One moment, it was quiet, now-”

A distant explosion alarms Ignatius, and he speeds past the gatekeeper, ignoring the screaming pleads to stop, to take a breath, to handle the situation logically. There’s no time for that now; there’s no time for anything. He drives through panicking crowds, which simmer down upon his arrival. They bask in his presence like a reptile basking in warm light. He reaches Lombard Street, watching the island in terror as flames engulf the minting facility.

“Ignatius!” screams Wendel, a prominent artist. “I GOT ONE!”

The President turns around, spotting Wendel with a Babylonian prisoner in cuffs. He approaches the pair, feeling pity for the teenage inmate. “What’s his name?”

“Wes,” the prisoner mumbles. “I’m the one who did this.”

Wendel rolls his eyes. “He thinks he’s a hot shot… I just think he’s a pussy.”

“Take him to my palace,” the President demands, sounding like a businessman. “Do the same with the other Babylonians we find. We aren’t going to kill them. Have any escaped?”

“No, but the confusion is… prolonging the win.”

“Good,” Wes grunts.

The President grins. “Put that bastard in my room and stand guard till I get back.”

“In the middle of this?” Wendel screams.

“Are you questioning me? Do I need to… denounce your membership?”

“No, sir. I’m sorry.”

“That’s what I like to here. Get going. Don’t disappoint me.”

Several Days Earlier…

Hellen approaches Fink as he works on a broken generator. She admires his determination towards the learning process. He knows so much now that he’s been doing it for a few weeks.Has it really been that long already? If the riot’s distracting her this much already, imagine the time she won’t feel during the event.

“Hey,” she whispers. “I have some news.”

“About?”

“Ignatius. He’s meeting with Forrest in Oregon in one week, and when he leaves, there’s going to be a big farewell.”

“Where did you hear this?”

“SanFrancisco.com."

“Do you know how dishonest the people here are? It’s probably just a rumor.”

“Well, it’s the only lead I have.”

“Then we’ll take it.”

“How’s Wes doing?”

“He’s spreading the news.  The job’s almost done.”

“Good. I’ll get word out to the slaves in the city. When this place goes up, it’ll be their signal. They distract the army while we get our asses of the island.”

“We’re just using them?”

“No. We’ll fight the army, too.”

The owner of the minting facility, Dewey, approaches their section of the Powerhouse, and they quiet down. He always wears this stale, emotionless expression that disgusts Hellen to the core. He wears a black suit, different from the usual acolyte attire. He wants to stand out, to show some sort of authority over the people beneath him. He carries himself like a speaker at a high school debate, with his back straight, hiding the insecurities of a troublesome past. His mouth hangs open with a burning cigar protruding from one corner; the ashes flutter softly to the ground with every puff.

“How’re things going?” he asks slyly.

Hellen stands tall against his masculinity. “We know the power is out we’re working hard to get the grid back up and running. We’d appreciate it if you gave us time to focus.”

Dewey blows a cloud of smoke into her face. “That’s not an excuse. Do you know how fragile our economy is? If that building isn’t back online within the hour, you’ll hear back from Marisa.”

Fink stops working and joins the conversation. “We’re here almost every hour of every day. If you have a problem with how tired we are, take it to Marisa.”

Dewey slaps the miner. “Don’t you dare talk to me that way! You are a prisoner, nothing more!”

Fink rubs his bruising cheek. “All you do is cower behind a shadow.”

Collecting himself, Dewey walks away, clearly wanting to scream.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Hellen states dreadfully. “You’re starting a lot of drama before it the real shit even gets started.”

“I didn’t like how he was threatening you.”

“It doesn’t matter now… Just focus on the work today, okay?”

“You got it.”

“We can’t have close calls like that anymore. I’m going back to the mainland to get more copper wire.”

That night in Cellblock B, Wes Preston hoists himself onto the top bunk, observing the attitudes in the cellhouse from the confines of his hovel. The guards in the elevated gun galleries hold their pump-action rifles closely to their chests. A strange, unsettling emotion lingers in the atmosphere, one that’s comparable to the ominous nature of fog settling over a vast, endless plane of existence. He waits until the guards change shifts to flip over his pillow, revealing a thin slit with stuffing pouring out of it. He reaches into the cut, pulling out a blank sheet of paper and pencil like how an ancient tribe pulls out the still-beating hearts of their victims. Examining the pen, he realizes this mechanism is man’s true enemy, not a sword. Where you can communicate without being caught, uproots this truth. Taking a deep breath, he figures he has ten minutes to collect and catalog his thoughts, for that’s how long it takes before the new guards get here.

He writes:

Helen,

The word is out. Every prisoner is on our side, even the mentally unstable ones from Cellblock D. All we need now are your people on our side and your blueprints. How many of them are there? Will the slaves listen to them? These questions still ring through my mind, and I doubt they’ll disappear before I get an answer. The Babylonians are holding on… I don’t know how, but we’re doing it. Every time I look at their faces, I feel desolation. I want them to feel the sun again, while walking in a valley, not within the walls of a cement courtyard. I don’t know if this plan will work or not, but I’m doing my part… I did my part. It’s time for others to do the same.

The cell door opens, and his heart rate spikes, but it falls back to normalcy after a guard shoves Fink into the hovel. Wes quickly hides the pen and paper, and the guard slips away, unseen by everyone.

“I got some news from Helen,” Fink says with a beaming grin.

Wes folds up his note and hands it to the miner. “What is it?”

Fink retrieves the paper and slides it into his pocket. “Ignatius and Forrest are meeting in a week. That’s when we strike.”

Wes stuffs the pen back into the pillow. “What about the army?”

“Helen will have the numbers by then; I believe in her.” Fink rests a hand on Wes’ shoulder. “I know belief doesn’t put a nail in the coffin, but what other choice do we have than to rely on it? I know you’re scared; I am too. I look at those Babylonians and I smell the blood that’s coming. But when it does, we can’t let it all come from us. That’s why we have to be ready when we do this.”

“What if that asshat Dewey finds out? What if I told the wrong person?”

“As far as I’m concerned, Dewey isn’t the warden.”

“People could be working for him. God, I’m such an idiot.”

“No, you’re hopeful. That’s the kind of approach we need.”

Wes smiles and hugs Fink. “Thank you.” He steps back. “Why do leaders have to act like this? Why do we get put in these situations?”

“Because we’re better than them.”

“It feels like I’m in the cave again.”

“I know… That’s why I haven’t been getting sleep. They captured us when we were going back to Babylon… When it all happened, I… I thought it was completely over.”

“It’s hard to be a good person now,” Wes admits. “Everything you do to survive… makes you feel bad.”

“Babylon is for the good; that’s all I know, and it’s the comfort I need. It helps me cope with the things I’ve done.”

“Do you think Forrest is good?”

“I believe the Monarchy are caretakers; they foster us. Yes, they’re good.”

In the elevated gun galleries, new guards replace the old ones. Fink and Wes talk in whispers, like the other prisoners. There’s no point in risking getting caught, especially with Dewey in charge. The air is thick with an ominous nature. The expressions the guards wear show that they know something horrible is right around the corner. Wes notices this, and he feels an intense wave of fear. Did a mole rat him out? Is

there any hope now? The way the guards hold their rifles makes the kid shiver; they give him stale glares, as if the truth hides just behind their pupils. For whatever reason, the guards don’t act on their suspicions, like a toxic parent waiting for the right moment to embarrass their kids.

“You’re paranoid,” Fink states.

“Yeah, no shit. I have every right to be.”

“It’s consuming you, kid. You have to let go of that fear.”

Wes hoists himself to the top bunk. “I have nothing to let go of.” He keeps his eyes open. “I miss Babylon.”

Fink lays down in the bottom bunk. “I do, too. I miss the smells. The music. The security.”

“How will we know when Ignatius leaves?”

“He’s preparing some big farewell.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less from somebody of his caliber.”

“Wes, I have to find Anna when we get out. She’s still alive.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“I’m not believing she’s dead until I see a body.”

Wes turns his head, laying on his side. “I used to have more siblings in the wild. Before Merlin found u s, we had twelve people in our family. The wild is… a crazy place. Anything can happen at any point in time; it’s Jungle Law. Even when you run into a mobile clan, you have to retain suspicion. They can be marauders, rapists, or worse. You have to compensate for all this. When one of us would go missing, we wouldn’t look for them. We just… assumed the worse, because it was easier than finding the truth.”

“Wes, that-”

“I know, it’s a bad mindset, but that’s just how I was raised.”

“That’s not Babylon. We look for who we lose. We need them. And she needs you.”

“She doesn’t even know me.”

“She will if you save her with me.”

“I can’t, Fink.” Wes closes his eyes, holding the memories of the Shadows close to his heart.

In the city, Helen moves beneath the dark, blank night. Tonight, the sky is void of any stars, planets, and the shadow of a New Moon hangs high above her head. The homeless huddle by fires, their flames towering above a metal drum. Nobody glances at her; nobody knows her. She’s the perfect person for this job. Passing by onyx cathedrals, churchgoers worship Ignatius, performing queer animal sacrifices in his name. Is this how we’re supposed to honor the people above us? Is their any need for such a heinous pastime? She wonders how they’re all under his spell. Does it come back to a simple need for someone’s search for a person with courage? Does Ignatius even have any courage? It’s like their loyalty to the President rests on a subconscious level, like the loyalty is a dark, poisonous gene pool in San Francisco’s DNA.

She walks up to the arching front doors of a manor with white, spotless walls. Behind it lies a su-

garcane plantation, her true desire. The rooftops of small slave shacks protrude from the blooming fields, and white men on horseback tramp by, keeping their people in line. The strange thing is that some of the slaves are white, making San Francisco’s racism problem a huge, static, grey issue floating about in the aether of corruption. She knocks on the oaken doors and steps back, waiting for the man in charge, Tomkins. The doors swing open, revealing the ornate lifestyle of the upper class.

Tomkins stands tall, confident, ready to tackle whatever she’s about to give him. “Hello,” he says politely.

“Good evening, I’m here to speak to Lillian.”

“About?”

“The sugarcane supply. I read we’re doing poor, and I want to show her something that can help.”

“You don’t think I have it under control?”

“Do you know anything about agriculture? Arrogation?”

“Listen, lady, I just watch over them. I’m no farmer. That isn’t our work.” He steps inside. “Come on.”

“Thank you.”

She walks out the manor’s backdoors, successfully entering the plantation’s grounds. The sharp odor of manure mixes with a calm fragrance of spice. She wanders through the blooming fields, approaching the closest wooden shack. Its front door is missing, and the roof is about to cave in. Nobody fixes it, for the maltreatment of these slaves resembles the characteristics of somebody who abuses animals. She steps into the humid structure, finding Lillian crying on a torn mattress. Mold grows over its surface, like how mycelium covers miles of ground beneath our feet.

“Lillian,” Helen starts. “I have an offer.”

Lillian glances up at her through the tears. Wiping her eyes, she stands up and hugs the frizzy-haired traitor. “What is it?”

Helen backs away and glances over her shoulder, making sure nobody’s there. She whispers, her voice barely audible above a blast of wind, “There are prisoners on Alcatraz that want to escape. They’re planning a riot as we speak. I need your help.”

Lillian nods. “Why did you come to me first?”

“Out of all the slaves that have influence, you’re the leading woman to me.”

Lillian blushes. “How can we help?”

The traitor smirks. “I admire your eagerness. On the night of Ignatius’ departure, I need you, Philip, and the others to lead a rebellion against the army. Kill as many as you can. Your signal will be Alcatraz’ flames.”

Lillian’s face flashes rom rose read to ghost white, like the mercury in a thermometer when the weather transforms from warm to cold. “Helen… I can’t kill people. I’m not like that.”

The traitor’s heart races. “Please, I need you to hear me out. You haven’t given me a chance to explain the second part.”

“Fine, go ahead, then.”

“From what I’ve been hearing, the prisoners are from a kingdom called Babylon. If this event succeeds, we can escape and go there.”

“They really told you that?”

“Well, not exactly, but I’m going to convince the leading men, Wes and Fink.”

Merlin wanders the slums of the city, the moonlight casting a white glow over brick Brownstones. He passes fields of solar panels, pondering on a way out of this situation. The meeting isn’t going to end well; why Forrest and Ignatius are doing this is foreign to the teacher. If conflict unfolds, it’s going to be hell on Earth. How will it even play out? Will civilians on both sides commit? What about the innocent? He gazes up at the twinkling sky, thinking about the first day he met Echo. He still remembers how cold the tunnel felt. All those hands reaching out from broken car windows, with shards of glass protruding from their knuckles. He smells the crimson fumes of blood, turning his memories to the first day in the Seattle camp. Is anything different now? Did Judas’ death amount to nothing?

In the distance, he hears a train’s horn. Trains in the city don’t run at this hour, so this spurs his curiosity. He follows the sounds, reaching a concrete train station that’s built into the East Wall. Its design mimics Grand Central Station, complete with an atmosphere of quickly shifting schedules and stress. It holds the aura of a broker late for a new day on Wall Street. He enters the building through grand, barred doors beneath a columned roof. The open interior gives way to a spacious emotion; in the daytime, the traffic in this place must be a nightmare. Blank figurines of acolytes stand behind ticket booths; souls devoid of meaning, a true display of capitalism.

He watches as a steam-engine pulls in from the wild; when it stops, the boxcar’s doors slide open, revealing slaves in cuffs. Acolytes shove them out of their compartments, and they beat the weakest arrivals. Upon further inspection, Merlin discovers a map  of the West Coast covering the ceiling right above his head. Red polkadots cover the names of towns and cities south of San Francisco. In Washington, a blue one encases Seattle.

Exiting the station, he returns to the palace and finds Ignatius in Athena’s chamber, dangling a live mouse over her beak. When the door closes, Ignatius drops the mouse, and the eagle devours it whole.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the other communities?” Merlin demands.

Ignatius turns, his pointed hood striking anxiety in Merlin’s heart. “I didn’t think I had to.”

“How far does this thing go, Ignatius?”

“We have twenty-five communities within our control.”

“Why was Babylon marked?”

The President smirks. “You saw that… Good. It just means Babylon is… a work in progress. Merlin, during times like these, you have to stick to your rhetoric. That’s what being a President is all about. Before I went into office, before I got my cabinet, I told the people we’d conquer more territory to strengthen our city and our dominance over others. I’ve stuck to my word, and I’m going to stick to it. Nothing is going to change.”

“Where will the Babylonians go in case something happens on Alcatraz? I remember you saying you prepare for every possible contingency.”

“Comstock; it’s where the worst of the worst go.”

“And you have a cabinet?”

“My inner circle.”

“Ignatius, that isn’t democracy. Your cabinet can’t be the richest people-”

“IT IS DEMOCRACY, GOD DAMN IT! IT’S OUR OWN VERSION OF IT!”

Merlin’s heart races. “Aren’t you thinking about how much damage this future conflict will cause? What if they raid San Francisco? What if you’re… in over your head?”

“It doesn’t matter! I have an agenda to abide by! You’re starting to sound like a damn rebel. Did I make a mistake when I invited you into my own fucking house to live?”

Merlin hangs his head. “Why did it have to be me?”

“Your intelligence is valuable here. You’re going to play an important part in our victory. You know everything about Babylon.”

“I thought you were negotiating for peace.”

“The people need to think that; I’m just doing this to see what Forrest is like. I know you care about people there, but sometimes in life… you just have to let go of the ones you love the most.”

“My king has killed more than 3,000 people. I just want you to know that so you don’t say the wrong thing to set him off.” The teacher crosses over to the chamber’s door. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

In his room, Merlin basks in the blankness of a note. Pen in hand, he wonders about how he can describe his idea. He realizes this is futile, sneaking out of the palace and back to the train station. He jots down every detail the ceiling map provides for him, and then he writes the letter that can save countless innocent lives.

The week progresses very slowly, and everyone feels the milliseconds drip in and out of basic comprehension. One morning, Merlin finds homing pigeons surrounding a water fountain; orphans feed them birdseed and slices of stale bread. He remembers hearing stories from the American Civil War wherein spy rings would deliver messages with hidden codes written in invisible ink. An idea forms in his head, and he returns to the empty palace. In the endless backyard, an apple orchard: the perfect incentive for birds to come back to their houses. He goes back into the city, finding a hardware store. Inside, robed cashiers help acolytes check out items; shelves upon shelves of tools and plywood await the beholder, providing them with the eerie experience of a post-apocalyptic, fully-functioning economy. Since Merlin’s an elite, he doesn’t have to pay for anything, so he snatches whatever he finds useful and makes a round-trip to the orchard. Here, he begins building a birdhouse.

Elsewhere, Helen converses with the slaves about the night of the riot. On the island, things get worse for the inmates. Dewey’s strict schedules take away all possible sleeping hours, and the guards become increasingly reckless. They stop hiding in the gun galleries and roam the corridors in groups, as if they belong to a military parade. The guards break into cells regularly to beat inmates with chains, whips, flat irons, and hammers. You can hear the rhythmic sound of breaking bones and ensuing screams. If there isn’t any blood drawn by lunchtime, the prisoners consider it a good day.

On the day of the riot, Wes and Fink remind each  other of the plan. There are many historical locations on the Rock. For example, the Docks (where the ferry rests), Building 64 (where the acolytes live), the Water Tower and Lighthouse (sniper’s nests), the Officer’s club, the Powerhouse, the cellhouse, and the Laundromat. Within the cellhouse itself are four cellblocks: A, B, C, and D. The final one is comparable to maximum security or solitary confinement. Ironically, that’s where the riot will begin.

“When this thing goes down, we have to get to the armory,” Wes instructs. “There’s gonna be a lot of fighting that we’re gonna have to push through, but we have to get those weapons.”

“Unless we pick up some on the way there,” Fink suggests.

“How will we do that?” Wes asks.

“I’m just… thinking about other options.”

“This is the only option we have.”

Twenty minutes pass, and a power outage consumes the island. Fink and Wes watch as the cell doors open, and the prisoners flood into the corridors. Guards in Cellblock D try containing the crowds, but the uncontrollable nature of those inmates is too much for even a military commander to control. These prisoners have an endless spectrum of illnesses, from insanity to PTSD. Fink and Wes join the ensuing mass gathering of orange jumpsuits, and they let out their rage against the machine. Prisoners gang up on groups of acolytes, easily overpowering them without guns. The blasts of bullets echo off rusty metallic walls, and the smell of gunpowder replaces the salty fumes of the bay. People throw each other over guard rails, grenades explode in an effort to stun opponents, and flash bangs blind several unfortunate victims.

By midnight, the prisoners gain access to the admin block, where the armory is. Fink leads Wes by the hand through bloody scenes which conjure an unknown level of evil. They almost die at several points; Wes almost gets shot in the arm, but an unnamed Babylonian saves him. A guard tackles Fink, but Wes kills the attacker by breaking his neck The pair uses the distraction of violence to separate from the brawl; they slip into a dark hallway, wherein flames of torches illuminate the compact space. The Babylonians reach a simple wooden door, and this arouses suspicion. Why aren’t there any guards or booby traps here? Keeping this in mind, Fink wraps his trembling fingers around an oaken handle, and Wes steps aside as it opens. Nothing happens; the distant sounds of rebellion gives them chills.

Wasting no time, they enter the small chamber, gawking at the stockpiles of weaponry. Assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, grenades of all sorts, and canisters of mustard gas line the walls. Boxes of ammunition rest beneath the shelves, right next to body armor and plating. This is too easy; they think it’s a trap as they don themselves in military-grade equipment. Fink loads an M16 whilst Wes cocks a 12-gauge shotgun.

“Your shoulder will be blown away by the recoil!” Fink exclaims. “You need a smaller gun!”

“I can handle it!”

“Wes, I-”

An explosion in the hallway sends the tips of their guns pointing towards the armory’s entrance. When they see a wave of inmates, they lower their rifles and rejoice. Outside, rows of acolytes from Building 64 march down the pathway, but the prisoners are too quick and begin firing before they do. Wes and Fink stand at the back of their team, cowering below the stray bullets zipping above their heads. Bodies pile on top of each other on both sides, and they become barricades for the survivors. There’s a brake during  the stand, and the prisoners push through it after setting off mustard gas. The most capable push through the confusion and towards the cellhouse’s front doors. Fink and Wes barely hold onto their sanity; they frantically scratch at their throats and wipe their teary eyes, gasping as they charge through the entrance, into fresh air.

Here, the Powerhouse erupts into flames. Fink whirls around, gazing up at the abrupt blaze. The night sky flashes with reds and oranges; everyone on the island feels the distant heat. Black plumes of smoke fall upon the bay, covering it in a cloud of darkness. From the mainland, they hear gunfire. Wes smiles, knowing the slaves are paying attention. Fink grabs the kid by the arm, and they hold onto their guns as they press through the fog. The riot continues all around them; they dodge traumatizing firefights, several more burning buildings, and listen to the shrieks of an unknown victim. The pair rejects participating, for they only have one location in mind: the docked ferry.

Snipers in the nests surrounding the island fire off deadly rounds; a bullet strikes the dirt in front of Wes’ feet, and another grazes Fink’s cheek. They wonder if the snipers have thermal scopes, or if they’re just spraying and praying.

Exhaustion eventually consumes everyone. The fight drowns the island in sweat and blood, a dark reenactment of Atlantis. Guards corner Wes, Fink, and several other prisoners near Building 64; they surround the small group, beating them down with the butts of their weapons. Bullets strike down the inmates’ opponents, and from the fog emerges Dewey, holding an MP35.

Fink climbs to his trembling feet. “Why?”

Dewey shoves him aside. “Just go. I have no need to explain myself.”

And just as mysteriously as he appeared, he vanishes.

Wes climbs to his feet. “We’ve gotta get to that ferry! We can’t waste anymore time!”

Fink glances over his shoulder, watching the empty space behind him, hoping for an answer to come out of this cosmic nonsense.

Wes scans the bickering group of surviving prisoners. He shouts over the blasts, “DO ANY OF YOU KNOW HOW TO PILOT A BOAT?” A female prisoner steps forward. “GOOD! WE NEED YOU!”

When they get to Alcatraz’ ferry, the riot’s almost over. Fink stares in awe at the blooming destruction; gunfire fades away in this region like how the ocean’s waves roll back into their world after kissing the shore. Nobody won this battle; everyone is either dead or dying. Behind them, on the mainland, the survivors face bigger problems: facing the slave rebellion.

Wes grabs Fink’s shoulder. “We have to-”

“WE LED THEM TO DIE!” Fink shrieks.

“No, joining us was their decision. We can’t save everyone; we aren’t heroes.”

Fink backs away from the kid, storming onto the ferry. “We aren’t.”

The survivors watch the island as they drift into the cold, shark-infested bay. Fink spots the remnants of the minting facility, and a horrible realization dawns on him: there’s no going back from conflict. What they’re doing will bury the hatchet between these strange societies who were already uncomfortable with the other’s existence. Babylon is now Juliet, after her suicide. As the buildings turn to ash, so does the hope for peace. They ruined San Francisco’s money supply; they’re akin to terrorists. Are they really good people? Is that even real anymore? Fink turns his thoughts towards Helen. Before leaving, he has to find her, so he can set her on the right path, then he can find Anna. What about Wes, though? What is sending that kid down this reckless path? Fink remembers how merciless he was during the fray; a normal kid shouldn’t act like that, even after the collapse of civilization. He figures the best option would be to bring the boy into the wild, so that neither of them die for a larger conflict they clearly want no part of. Fink gazes down at the waves, examining his reflection in the rippling surface. Who is he?

They dock the ferry at the mainland. Dismounting the boat, the survivors charge into the encompassing madness. Plumes of flame and smoke suffocate dying acolytes and slaves; distant bullets ring through the night. At any moment, one of those blasts can be for them. Anxiety chokes out hope as they push through the disarray; craters from bombs polka-dot the roads as if this scene is an aftermath of a Vietnam battle. The world is dangerous once again; they’re devolving back to surviving through fear. The worst part is, it’s their own faults yet again. They say history repeats itself until you learn from it.

Somewhere in the confusion, Fink bumps into Merlin, knocking the teacher on his ass. Fink remembers him and he helps the fallen Babylonian to his feet.

“Thank God!” Merlin exclaims. “What the fuck is happening?!”

Fink grabs the teacher’s arm. “Come on, we have to find Wes! I lost him.”

“I’m sorry… I can’t go with you.”

Fink feels like fainting. “What?!”

Merlin reaches into his pants pocket and produces a note. “Take this to Forrest; it’ll help with whatever you’re planning. Expect more deliveries once I train my homing pigeons.”

Fink hesitantly retrieves the note. “What are you going to do now?”

Merlin vanishes. “I’m finding Ignatius.”

The battle flickers and wanes like the last flashes of candlelight.The only separation between its birth and its death lies in the perspective of its observer. Whatever remains of the Babylonians, prisoners, or slaves gets thrown into Ignatius’ palace. Hours of confusion follow. Hours of hopelessness, unknowingness, and self-pity. Merlin finds himself in the palace, watching over the prisoners in handcuffs. Once again he’s left questioning his beliefs. Is it the Babylonians he’s fighting for, or some other ridiculous cause.

The President emerges from the other side of some blazing torch. “Did you find what you were looking for?” He gestures towards the crowd of cowering, shivering, cold unknowns. “Is this really what you wanted, Merlin? I know I didn’t want this, but somehow, we’re here. I’m just going to accept it.”

“What are you going to do with them?”

“We’re shipping them off to a work camp.” The President singles out Wes. “However, I don’t know what I’m going to do with that piece of shit, yet.”

What concerns Merlin the most is that he’s worrying more about San Francisco’s forthcoming issues. How can they recover from such a loss; their entire economy is in shambles. Somebody’s going to have to put it all back together somehow, and God knows he won’t be the one to do it. For some odd reason, the image of the painting pops back into his mind, the one by Delacroix. One simple phrase follows: war is now.

Sometime later, Dewey bumps into Ignatius in the crowding palace.

The economist pulls the President aside. “We need to talk.”

“About what? Where have you been?! Why aren’t you putting out fires?”

“This is a more dire issue. The other communities have overpopulation issues; that’s what the pen is for. We can do some housecleaning, but they’ll have to stay here for a while. We have to put the economy first.”

“No, democracy first. If we don’t deal with our foreign issues, we won’t have an economy to fix.”

“The economy drives democracy.”

Ignatius grunts. “Fine, how long will it take?”

“Four weeks to rebuild the minting facility, then we’ll go from there.”

Ignatius spits on the ground. “You disgrace me. How many men did we lose?”

“I… I don’t know. I just saw… bodies everywhere on the way here.”

“What happened on Alcatraz?”

“The Babylonians… They started the riot. They took the ferry; I had to get here by a raft.”

“Do you know anything else?”

“No,” Dewey responds, staring hopelessly at the crowd in cuffs. “But do you have anything for me?”

Ignatius looks confidently into the economist’s soul. “Dewey, if there’s anything I can confirm, it’s that we will have our revenge. They won’t know when it’s coming, but it will come. They can’t think we won’t respond; we have to. If there’s anything I can promise, it’s that we’ll win this war, and we’ll conquer them, just like how we conquer everybody else.” Somewhere in the back of his mind, all he sees is that same painting by Eugene Delacroix.

The morning glow casts a heavenly range of vibrancy over the Farmlands. Forrest strolls through the gusts of manure-rich wind, gawking in appreciation at the peacefulness. His hair is short; the beginning signs of a beard spring from his face. Less scars and bruises cover his skin, the experience of life less apparent in the surface features. The year is 1963, making it almost 13 years since the blackout. The king ponders on this, traveling along a dirt road right up to the facade of a construction project. Babylonians surround the wooden skeleton, driving nails through plywood. The smell of work, the imminent noises of progress.

Merlin emerges from the workers. “What do you think?”

It looks like shit. “What is it?”

“It’s a schoolhouse,” he declares with a beaming smile. “The people are finally going to have a sanctuary to learn, to develop, to grow intellectually. This can be an entire movement for our society.”

“This is the start of how life should be.”

“Do you think it’ll be successful?”

No! He shouldn’t have wasted his time on such a useless project! “The schoolhouse? We’ll just have to wait and see. The kids here are so lost, but who can blame them?”

“They’re not the only ones that are lost. Most of the adults are, too… including you. Please come to the first class.”

“I’ll see.” Being lost is a strength. “I think being lost is a strength.”

“Is it, Forrest?”

“When you’re lost, you have to go to extreme lengths to protect yourself, your sanity.”

“Is that why you kill your own people? To protect your sanity?”

“I do it to preserve this. Babylon isn’t a world for criminals; it’s a world for a second chance.”

“There’s no better version of a second chance than one from mercy.” Merlin gazes at the structure. “There’s a quote from Dante’s Inferno. The path to heaven begins in hell. Maybe we had to experience what we did at the beginning to experience this.”

Forrest watches the growing grass alongside the schoolhouse; the blades brush against the plywood, and he hears the distant whispers in his head. God, how they haunt him. “How’re you and Echo?”

“We’re doing good. She told me you guys were trying to get pregnant. I wish you the best of luck.”

“We’ve been trying for a while,” Forrest admits. “It’s not her fault she can’t get pregnant… There’s just something I have where… it’s ineffective.”

“You’ll get there one day. Just keep trying.” The foremen calls Merlin back to the site. “I’ll see you soon.”

Now, more than twenty years later, Forrest finds himself standing on a bridge. The Babylonians stand proudly before their king, donning themselves in iron armor. In their scabbards, swords ready to kill with one slice. In their holsters, sideburns, Across their chests, assault rifles. They all carry rucksacks over

their backs, each containing wide varieties of provisions. Heather and Forrest wear golden armor, indicating their leadership. The golden color glistens in the sun’s rays, rectifying a source of hope. Birds wake up in the surrounding woods, tweeting away an incomprehensible language. The king basks in this aura, for he feels at peace with himself. For once, the voices are gone.

He clears his throat, facing the nationalistic crowd. “This is it; this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. If what Merlin said in his letter is true, then this is our chance to free the stolen. Merlin is still on our side; that’s what matters most.” The Babylonians erupt in cheers; a glistening grin forms on Heather’s face. “When the train reaches the fifty-yard line, that’s when we abandon the bridge! We’ll go down to the woods, and Heather will take this thing down!1 We do this today, victory is ours! We can’t think of this as good, but necessary for the progress of our nation, our integrity, and our intellect. We are the founders of the next world, so let’s make that point clear!”

The train comes into view, and they evacuate the area, following the king’s instructions. Obedience is the true victor in any war, no matter how big or small, and Babylon’s only order is to obey the Monarchy. Do they stand a chance against this rising tide? Can they really prevail under tensions within their walls? What will the aftermath consist of? These questions flow through the minds of these volunteers as they wait in silence for Heather’s wrath. She produces a small remote with a red button from her rucksack, and, staring deeply at the bridge, listens for the right moment. It comes to her in the form of a train’s whistle, so she presses the button, watching in amazement as a piece of architecture collapses into dust within mere seconds before her eyes.

The steam-engine crashes headfirst into the pile of debris, and the Babylonians observe this moment carefully as the train’s boxcars fly off the rails, injuring several prisoners and acolytes inside. The Babylonians remain in hiding; they’re patient and watchful of the quickly unfolding events. They’re observers of their own creation, but as the dust settles, they come to understand that there is no time for observing. Grenades fly out of the boxcars’ opening doors, sending the Babylonians back thirty feet. The knights fall to their stomachs as explosions send trees toppling over. The acolytes limp through the confusion, firing off their guns. Bullets ricochet off breastplates, striking different targets The Babylonians commence their opposition, withstanding the blows of a thousand emotions from lost comrades.

Several knights guard the king, who stares coldly through the scope attachment on his assault rifle. Through the anxiety-ridden moments that divide life and death by a hair, the worst of it comes in the form of reloading your gun. If you aren’t fast enough, the cost of predestination is pricey. They all share a common hatred for these moments, the ones that define adrenaline and intensity.

When the bullets run out, their desperation forces them to use melee weapons. The Babylonians unsheathe their swords while the acolytes produce anything with a blade. Forrest decapitates an acolyte, feeling that old rush of murder, but he pauses, feeling something else: snow. He gazes up at the sky for a brief moment, admiring nature’s poetic way of telling time. During the ensuing events, he remembers how the wood of the schoolhouse smelt when it was first being built. He remembers a time where everyone was a lot closer than they are now. These new memories cause him to lag in battle; several Babylonians risk their lives to save him on multiple occasions.

The Babylonians win the battle, with casualties in both sides. Forrest approaches the boxcars, discovering several prisoners suffering from injuries ranging from broken legs to bodies with twisting necks. In one of the cars, he finds a trembling Wes.

“Thank God!” The kid cries out with a smile upon seeing familiar faces. “I knew you didn’t forget about me!”

Forrest pulls him out of the boxcar. “We’ll give everyone here food and water for the journey back home. But I’m not coming with you.”

“Why?” Wes demands.

“I need to go to Oregon again; I’m meeting with Marisa. When I leave, you all will wait for me.”

The kid’s mouth hangs open. “What the fuck does she have to do with this?”

Heather approaches them, overhearing their conversation. “A lot. If we don’t find boundaries during this conflict, both of our societies will crumble.”

“I need to tell her before she finds out about the train,” Forrest says urgently. “There can’t be this constant back-and-forth. At the end of the day, we all have to sleep somewhere.”

Wes shakes his head. “Not these motherfuckers. They don’t deserve any pity.”

“We understand that,” Heather says in the tone of a manager defending an employee.

“But,” Forrest adds, “They deserve something. We can’t be reckless.”

“You’re not being reckless?” Wes scoffs.

“No,” the king declares. “I’m being calculative.”

Heather lets out a dreadful sigh. “Let’s remember our current objective: keeping these ex-prisoners safe. We have to ration out our provisions now; we can’t give all our food without some number system.”

“What do you propose?” Forrest asks.

“Every night, before we go to sleep, we count how much food we have left. That way, in the morning, we can hand it out to… the people who need it the most.”

Wes interrupts, “So us? What if you starve?”

“We’ll have hunting parties,” suggests the monarch. “People can scout for game.”

“How do we know they’re not on their way to the kingdom?” Wes rebuttals. “We need you, Forrest.”

“You still have Echo,” the king states reassuringly. “She’s as strong as I am. You can’t rely solely on me, especially now.”

The kid lowers his head. “Fine, you’re right.”

Heather puts her fingers in her mouth and whistles. “Everybody gather ‘round.” The knights and prisoners alike circle around the commander. “You all did excellent work today. The people we lost… their sacrifices won’t be meaningless. This conflict just drew blood, and at the end of it, we held the knife. We can’t give up now; today seals the future for Babylon. We have to go back there now, so we need to split the party up into hunting teams, each consisting of five members…”

The following day, Forrest leads the party on horseback. Wes and Heather ride along either side of him, being the first defense against a hostile tide.

“I’m glad we set up that camp,” Heather comments.

Forrest shrugs his shoulders. “I got the idea from Marisa.”

Heather tilts her head in confusion. “What do you mean?”

The king says grimly, “Merlin also said in his letter that the fort in Oregon is a stronghold now.”

“Then why the hell would you even consider returning?!” Wes screams.

Forrest suddenly becomes calm, collecting himself with meditative breathing. “Because it’s times like these where sacrifices mean something more than life itself. I don’t know if I’m going to come back, but I have to talk to her. We can’t destroy both of our communities; there needs to be some order in the chaos.”

Heather shakes her head. “I agree with Preston. So much is going on right now that we can’t even keep track of. We have the acolytes, Black Death, constant threats of starvation, and it’s not even noon. How can we control these things? How can we eliminate them? Is there some pattern to this godforsaken riddle?”

I have to. “I have to.”

Heather watches as the snow falls to the road; the horses leave trails of prints as they gallop in a strange formation. The flakes glide softly off their amor plating, and the cold wind is almost blinding, If they encounter any blizzards, they’re goners. If they step on something hidden beneath the snow, they’re goners.

“What happened to Fink?” Wes asks abruptly.

“He made it to Babylon in just under a week; he’s in the hospital right now.”

The kid gasps. “Why?”

Forrest lowers his head. “He caught Black Death.”

In an effort to curb the anxiety of the unknown, the king ponders on a memory during a night in 1965. The doors of Merlin’s schoolhouse open for the first time, and a large group of kids and adults containing the Monarchy enter the building. They rush to empty wooden desks and sit down, basking in the room’s simplicity. Bookshelves line the walls; moonlight beams through the window panels, glazing everything beneath a white, ghoulish glow. The smell of nearby crops adds an indescribable, rejuvenating freshness to the aura. Merlin stands high and proud behind a large, glistening desk made of oak. Behind him, a giant, blank chalkboard. He writes on it in all capital letters: ARES.

“Now,” he says, laying down the piece of chalk. “Does anybody know who Ares is? Any idea?” Silence. “Come on, it’s like you guys weren’t taught anything.” Cheap laughter. Coughs. “Anyway, Ares is the Greek God of War. Why do I bring this up? Because it appears to me that our world… was wrapped in his wrath, and we were at his mercy.  Vietnam. Russia. Assassins. The Red Scare. All of these things… has war written all over it. Why did we experience these things? Why did we have to cope with the aftermath that’s still visible to this day? Why was there so much fear? Well, here’s the stinger: we’re supposed to learn from it. I will not teach you anything until you understand that I am not the teacher. Logic and understanding history will be our only guides, our… fountains of refuge.”

Forrest doesn’t listen. The atmosphere around him throws his memories into a time when he was in school. They don’t come from nostalgic roots; they grow from the childhood nightmares of the teachers beating him with wooden mallets or insults The voices trickle into his mind like how a droplet of rain splits into rivulets after colliding with Earth’s surface.Their humble whispers turn into intense, glass-shattering cries that sound like the realization of some incomprehensible truth. His vision warps through involuntarily understanding and visualizing the natural patterns of our universe. The Fibonacci sequence, a pattern of numbers increasing by the sum of their predecessors, speaks to him as if it’s the prophet, the glue that binds reality together.

He sweats under the pressure of hiding these emotions, eventually breaking and leaping out of the chair, into the night. He pauses abruptly on the porch, sitting down on its edge.

The doors behind him open, and Echo sits down next to him. “What’s going on, Forrest?”

“I… I don’t know. I just started freaking out… everything felt fuzzy… Merlin’s voice sounded like it was fading away.” Abruptly, he asks, “Are you still thinking about kids?”

“Are you?”

“Yes, now it’s time to bask in our comfort. Everyone’s having children; we should, too.”

“Aren’t you scared?”

“Echo, we don’t have to be scared. We have walls, security, and most importantly, a future worth striving for.”

“I’m not talking about that; I’m wondering if being a father will scare you.”

“We’re leading Babylon. How hard can it be?”

Echo gazes at the encompassing crops. “Do you want to know why we’re not married yet, and why we’re never going to be?”

“Yes.”

“Before… everything happened… the war, the blackout, and the outbreak… I had a boyfriend in Colorado. His name… God, I forgot his name, it was so long ago. He was such a nice guy with this… ambition you can’t find in anybody else. He died because a drunk driver killed him. One moment, someone’s in your life, the next, they’re gone. No remorse, no mercy, no holding anything back. He was just… gone. I still hold on to those memories, because they’re a part of me that I can’t forget… no matter how hard I try… no matter how hard it gets. I still see his face, but I can’t remember his name. Do you understand… any of this pain?”

“You’d be surprised.” He climbs to his feet, pulling the queen up with him. “Follow me.”

She giggles. “Are we really ditching him?”

“Just follow.”

Within the blanket of smog covering the Industrial District, the Monarchy find themselves sitting on the shoreline of Lake Union. They watch the rotating wheels of watermills and smile viciously at the purification plants as they pump clean water for the kingdom. The summer wind blows through the warm, humid night, carving out a feeling of blissful ignorance.

“Echo,” Forrest says breathlessly. “Do you hate that we killed Judas?”

“No, we had to.”

“Do you think leading makes you numb?”

“Just me specifically? Why not you?”

“I’ve been numb.”

She listens to the hypnotic sounds of rolling waves. “I do sometimes, but only because I see what you do.”

“I do it-“

“For protection. I know the spiel.”

“Why does it make you numb, do you think?”

“Nobody else has the courage to do it. Do you really believe Babylon would be better if we gave our position to Merlin or Timothy or anybody else? Why do you think nobody’s tried assassinating us yet? We have them… right where we need them. The obstacles of leading society are so immense and draining; it’s like digging through concrete with your bare hands, just accepting and taking the pain.”

“Why did you want to do this with me?”

“Because I love you.”

Aimless days and nights pass over the Babylonians like sand as it blows above miles of naked, golden dunes. Food is scarce; the tribes of the wild pick off game before they can. Wes remembers what it was like in the tunnels, and there’s a specific feeling he reached when he was in that situation, a feeling so ghastly and terrible: impending horror. Horror is the only word that barely scratches the surface of witnessing cannibalism. Wes doesn’t know if he can experience the emotion again, for the first time almost made him lose his sanity.

At some point, Forrest splits off from them; they give him canned food, but nobody follows. It’s like they’re saying, “Go, go! Right up to the doors of a ticking time bomb! We don’t need you when we have rationality!” Forrest doesn’t know fully why he’s doing this, or if it’s a good idea or not. The only thing he can ascertain is that he’s going to try to keep Babylon safe, as Ignatius would do if he was in this situation.

While riding through the falling snow, he keeps having these fleeting memories. He worries that the voices are somehow changing these recollections, transforming them into tools to make him weaker. Maybe that’s just the paranoia talking, or the anxiety from sleep deprivation. Either way, it’s meant to be a distraction, and he’s not willing to succumb in times like this.

Eventually, the king stands gawking at the Fort’s new implements. Boxes of ammunition and guns rest in stacks on the lawn. Tents are set up among the stockpile, and acolytes move in and out of them, working on some unknown project. Cannons rest on top of the Fort’s roof, aiming outward, appearing vengeful. The workers outside take notice of the king, and they quickly capture and disarm him. Forrest doesn’t know why they don’t just kill him on site; that’s the whole purpose of this damn thing, right? The captors drag him by the knees into the compound, where other acolytes repair and reinforce the walls. The monarch ends up in front of a lone stone door, with many guns pointing at his back.

An acolyte knocks on the door, and Marisa reveals herself.

“What the hell are you doing here?!” She cries out. Grabbing the king, she pulls him inside, slamming the door shut.

“We need to negotiate,” Forrest states, stabilizing himself. “I’m here to offer you and Ignatius an ultimatum.”

“What is it?” she demands.

“We fight in Oregon to contain the conflict. Otherwise, both our societies will turn to ash.”

Marisa chuckles. “Do you really think that’s going to work after what your people did on Alcatraz?”

“We need to step up and prevent any sort of damage. I’m being… diplomatic about this. Please. We can organize this so that neither of us gets hurt.”

Marisa backs away, rubbing her head. “Do you know why we didn’t kill you just now? Ignatius considers you special. He considers all of them special. Timothy, Merlin, Echo, Heather. He doesn’t want to kill you, because when we win this thing, he’s going to drain you of any sense of rationalization.”

“I don’t care who wins or who loses, Marisa. But when this thing ends, don’t you want something you can return to if your plans go south? Don’t you want to be the person who saves the day?”

Marisa doesn’t know how to respond. She thinks of the ones who don’t deserve to see battle, the ones whose innocence bring light to this dark world. What would they do if they didn’t have anything? What would they do if they saw their homes in ashes? Her eyes widen, realizing this is what empathy is. She doesn’t want her people to suffer anymore than they have to under these times.

“Okay,” she whispers. “How’re we going to do this?”

“We designate areas in Oregon as battlefields, we schedule them, and we show up.”

“What if one side refuses?”

“If your side refuses, then I’ll kill you.”

“And if yours does the same, I’ll do the same to you.”

“I thought Ignatius isn’t going to kill me.”

“Exactly, he isn’t.”

Forrest shakes his head. “Let’s just get back to the main topic.”

“The first site will be Portland, the second Cannon Beach, and the third Smith Rock State Park.” The king’s look of surprises amuses her. “I’m originally from here.”

“All your life?”

“Up until recently. We’ll begin fighting there in two weeks.” She extends a hand, showing hints of gratefulness for the first time. “Thank you for doing this.”

Forrest accepts. “No unnecessary deaths.”

“No unnecessary deaths.”

While on his way back to the camp, he happens upon a vast, black wheat field. Wooden crosses among the useless crops catch his attention, and he can’t help but to investigate. He reaches the small clearing, and his heart drops upon seeing Timothy, Merlin, Alexander, Echo, and an older Alice dangling before him from the charred crosses. Age-old nails pierce through the palms of their hands and the ankles of their feet; Echo’s prosthetic hand is nonexistent, revealing a bleeding stump.

Ignatius suddenly appears from the surrounding field. “Did you really think you can save them, Forrest? Don’t you see the pain you’ve caused; can’t you feel the magnitude of a historical change? Why do you consistently fail at recognizing the truth to who you are?”

The king closes his eyes. “THIS ISN’T REAL! IT’S THE DAMN VOICES!”

Ignatius chuckles. “It may not be real now, but it’s about to be. And somehow, you’re going to deal with it.”

Forrest throws a punch at the hallucination, striking the target’s cheek. The President tumbles backwards, falling against a cross. He produces a Bowie knife from thin air and charges the king, stabbing at the king’s heart. The blade effortlessly tears through the monarch’s breastplate and pierces his heart; Ignatius twists the melee weapon, tearing apart Forrest’s organs.

The king tells himself that it’s all imaginary, that it’s a figment of his imagination. But that’s what terrifies him. Whose mind can be this far gone? If they’re out there, how can they remain in this physical state without feeling the urge to leave? How do people love him? Ignatius leaves the knife, stands up, and kicks Forrest several times in the ribcage, the faux blows making the Babylonian squirm.

“THIS IS REAL!” cries the President. “What can I do to make you believe that it is.”

“You can’t; that’s how I know… this is all fake.”

The cultist chuckles in a way an insane man would after getting drugs in the hours following an involuntary hiatus.  “You’re making a suicide look like a death. The truth is, Babylon was already falling before me. Do you really not think I don’t know what that kind of thing feels like? It’s like a tsunami, Forrest. The collapse of society comes on slowly at first, but when the wave hits, that’s when your nightmares become a reality. And at that point, you realize all societies begin the same way they end: through fear.”

Everything disappears into the mystic wintertime weather; Ignatius, the crosses, and Forrest’s blood fade away beneath the snowfall. The king remains on the ground, not sure what to make of himself. The snow almost buries him, but he finally stands up out of the fear of hypothermia. The monarch resumes his lonely journey, wondering what causes physical conflict. Is it this need for humans to be part of some change in their society? Does it all come back to people simply following orders? All Forrest can ascertain from this madness is that at least they have their home now; they can rest easy without the anxiety of waiting for some sort of bombing or blitz.

Don’t tell them.

“What?”

Don’t tell anybody about the deal.

“Why the hell shouldn’t I? The people have a right to know!”

Can’t you see how much of a power move you have at your hands? If you deny the deal’s existence, everyone will be scared. They’ll think something will happen, and they’ll turn to you at the sound of a snapping twig. Don’t you want that?

Forrest plants his feet into the ground. Their logic is right. “Why do you want to help me now?”

Because we love watching you suffer.

“Do you really think more manipulation will cause suffering?”

No, but as the death rate increases, as your… responsibilities deplete, that shit will weigh in on you. You like it when people venerate you; you like it when people get on their knees and chant your name. Imagine seeing all of it die out.

That evening, he rides on horseback in the original formation, with Wes and Heather on either side. The snow pelts them as they advance through this harsh, baron climate. Game is impossible to find;

the king thinks it’s safer to stick together rather than hunt. Nature changes after society’s end; it shows the surviving observer how merciless she is, how spontaneous she can be. Every winter is like this, albeit it seems to get colder with every passover. The horses neigh and cry, and Babylonians shout at each other as to not lose friends. Some are lucky to have lanterns, but even that isn’t enough. They seek warmth, an escape from this circle of hell, somewhere where they can wrap themselves in woolen coats and sleep away this nightmare.

They don’t see the sun anymore; a grey forecast forever shields its rays from reaching earth’s surface. The entire planet traps them slowly, suffocating the survivors under the pressures of mutating natural conditions. One should never experience conflict at a time where frostbite should be your main concern. With sparse medical equipment to care for such wounds, the forthcoming moments become vague and heartless.

The horses prove to be more of a burden than a means of transportation. They simply require too much food and attention, and it gets to the point where Forrest occasionally puts them down. Two people on a horse becomes commonplace, and they force themselves to have faith in these beasts. They eat what the king kills, feeling guilty for consuming an essential need for survival. The party reaches southern Washington, where a past storm has turned everything into pools of ice-covered mud.There aren’t any buildings, roads, or signs of humanity for miles. Hooves easily get stuck in the wet, frozen ground, so the Babylonians free the stallions, deciding to brave the rest of the journey on foot.

Dark, cold and hollow. All the Babylonians feel during this march are the free-falling crystals striking their armor, acting as if Indian spirits sharpen them into arrowheads. Can one measure the magnitude of desperation during wartime? Can words even interpret such feelings? Why do we fall to our knees and beg for mercy at the feet of someone who’s exactly like you? At certain points during their dreadful march, certain Babylonians slip and fall into the mud, whereupon it acts as quicksand, swallowing the victim albeit hearing their cries for help. Nobody lends a hand for the fallen, because the survivors don’t want to risk succumbing to the same fate.

That night, after all the traveling, suffering, and grieving, they camp in a traffic tunnel. Snow howls by outside, and vines cover the interior walls. Most of them are restless, holding their growling stomachs by piles of dust which were once cars. The commander and king sit beside each other, watching Wes as he shifts from side to side while asleep.

Heather says weakly, “I was in New Orleans before Babylon, in a town called Salvation. It was a few miles outside the state’s capital.” A knot forms in her throat. “These raiders moved into Louisiana, and they claimed it as their land. They started to destroy nearby colonies, people who we communicated with. We tried fighting back, but… we lost. I had to abandon them; the conditions were getting too insane for me to comprehend. I… won’t abandon you, though. That’s why I’m telling you this. My loyalty rests in Babylon.”

“You did what you had to do.”’

“So… I’m not crazy for leaving?”

“No, and neither of us are crazy for staying in this one.”

“Those raiders… they killed my family. When I left, I vowed that I’d absolve myself someday. This is how I’m gonna do it.” She bows her head. “I still feel guilty for not avenging them. I felt like I… lost an opportunity to exemplify myself.”

“You’re exemplifying yourself now.”

Heather smiles. “What did Marisa say?”

 

“Didn’t I already tell you?”

“Yeah, but I still think there’s more to it.”

“Jesus, Heather, do you think I’m lying to you? I’m only here because I got lucky; she was going to kill me if I didn’t leave right then and there. As soon as I offered the ultimatum, she just… turned me away.”

“Why didn’t she kill you?”

“Ignatius wants us alive.”

“Us?”

“You, me, Merlin, Timothy, people like that. He wants to torture us after.”

“What are we going to do?” Heather asks, on the verge of panicking.

“We’ll own up to the situation. There’s no going back. Alcatraz is gone, their economy is done, and we got one of their trains. They’re going to come after us. We made a commitment today.”

“What if other people run? What if the civilians won’t support us? You know how fragile everything is back home; what have we done so far to gain their trust?”

“We did what we said we would do. It’s a start.”

“You’re right.”

“I know being a leader is hard. I know it’s a lot of… pressure. What you can do to overcome it is accepting whatever happens, good or bad. At the end of the day, feeling regret will be your downfall.”

“Thank you.”

“Ego, Heather. Ego is the source of power. In my mind, nothing is good or bad. Everything is corrupt somehow, because that’s simply the nature of how things are. There’s always a balancing act, some… equalizing force. What did Einstein say? Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Do people succumb to good acts because they’re actually generous? Because they want recognition? Because they want… respect? Whatever the reason may be, good nature comes before a Bargain; it always does. Even when we forgo all reasons, even when we’re… pure… the universe measures it out with bad. Is anything purely good or evil? I beg of you to ask yourself this.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because it’s what I told Alexander. I’m sorry I never got the chance to tell you, but… better late than never I suppose.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“What’s wrong?”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

“Everyone notices it in the kingdom.”

“What do they notice?”

“They see the bags under your eyes. They hear the… rapid way you talk. They watch the way you eat, the way you declare orders, and the way you act so… numb. They question you. That’s why everything’s so fragile. I’m asking what’s wrong because… I don’t want any civil unrest.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Forrest, I know there’s something going on somewhere deep down.”

Do it. Tell her who we are. The moment you say anything, she will turn her back on you. “I… I can’t, Heather. No matter how hard I try to talk about what’s bothering me, I can’t. I’m not built to be sensitive; I don’t want to open up to somebody I don’t know.”

“Okay, but I want you to know that if you ever need to talk to me… I’m here.”

The king grins. “Thank you.”

Deep within the night, Heather wakes up to the sound of someone coughing. She leans up, finding several Babylonians, including the king, huddling around the source of commotion. Something tells her to pretend to sleep, so she does. The more she hears the king’s yelps and cries, the more she realizes there’s something ugly unfolding. She picks up on the purpose behind his screams: one of the Babylonian prisoners from the island got sick and didn’t tell anybody. Who knows what kind of sickness this dying bastard has? What if it’s airborne, or what if it’s quick to mutate?

“He wasn’t coughing before?” Forrest demands.

“No!” cries out the dying man’s friend. “I don’t know what’s happening; I’m not a fucking doctor!”

The monarch turns, looking towards the tunnel’s mouth. “How far are we from Babylon?”

“Two, three days tops according to these maps. What’re we going to do when we get there?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. The main thing we need to do is understand what happened. Biochemical warfare.”

“What’s that?”

“In World War 1 and 2, it wasn’t uncommon for the enemy to poison food and water supplies. It also wasn’t uncommon for them to ‘experiment’ with microbes or biological toxins. What we have here… is an act of retaliation.”

“Do you really think they’re capable of this?”

“They probably wanted to cover every angle they could. Say someone attacks the Babylonian train on the day of its departure. Wouldn’t you want to prevent that somehow, even if you couldn’t do it personally?”

“So… either way, Anders would’ve died.”

“Yes. And wherever you were going… everyone there would’ve died, too. Listen, we don’t have a lot of medical supplies, so we need to pick up the pace. They have an advantage, and they’re going to squeeze it of all its use. We need to fight fire with fire.”

“What… are you proposing, Forrest?”

“The hospital, all those… Black Death fatalities… maybe we won’t have to dig holes for them anymore.”

“Jesus, do you really think it’s a good idea to stoop to their level?”

“Did you think it was a good idea to join me in our second terrorist attack on a society that’s still recovering from the first one?”

“I see your point, it’s just… I don’t know.”

“We’re Babylonians. We need them to hear that; we need to win. Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

“You’re right. I just didn’t know humanity can… deplete that fast.”

“Let me level with you. I know we haven’t experienced the same things, but let me tell you something: people are like a light switch. One moment, they’re good, the next, they’re bad. You can’t… put all of your eggs in one basket. The way I see it, we exaggerate how good we are. Remember Korea?  What about those newspaper articles on the Berlin Wall, or the social fragility around communism and capitalism? I’m left asking myself if we’re… better off with the way things are. Maybe we needed to start from scratch.”

“I don’t think so.”

Forrest shrugs. “Either way, we need to leave, soon. We’ll start packing.” He moves over to Heather, shaking a pretending commander awake. “I know you were listening. We’re heading out in fifteen.”

Anxiety. Paranoia. Exhaustion. All the words that can deprive the Babylonians of happiness don’t hold a candle to how they truly feel. They press on cautiously, eyeing one another with immense suspicion. All lives depend on holding in coughs and sneezes; the reduction of someone’s value can change spontaneously.

This war is of a different nature now. What was once a conflict driven by belief and action is now a conflict driven by absolute life and death. No contingency or face can be forgotten, and any name the enemy speaks of, the Babylonians are sure to remember. Who knows how long this cycle between hope and helplessness will last? It’s a cycle you must acclimate to  if you want to last more than a day in this world. There is nothing left but natural instinct and selection.

Forrest shields the snowfall with his arm. We’re still here, Forrest. All of your victims are here. Your parents, everyone you sent to those public executions, and everyone you lied to. We should let you know that we’ve really been here since birth. We watched how you grew and changed as you got older, and… you remember what happened that triggered it, right? We don’t have to explain that part. This is who you are, Forrest. Your mind is our collage, our canvas.

The king wants to fight back; he wants to challenge them as if he’s challenging the devil, but any rambling whisper can be a symptom of the mystery illness. Perhaps their paranoia is enough for them to turn against their leader. The voices are winning, and they know it.

You keep going back to these memories. Most of them are about that damn schoolhouse. What’s so important about it that you escape the present moment for it? We don’t know how it can bring up any happy memories; we all know what school was like for you. Is it because Echo’s in those memories too? Do you long for her? Forrest Wayley, the man with a brick for a heart actually misses someone! This fight

is too much for her to handle, no matter how many times you manipulate her to think otherwise. Yeah, she’s at the kingdom, she’s behind those walls, but did you account for anything that could happen within them during your absence?

When you were a kid, we actually thought you’d be somebody. We thought you’d… have purpose. But then Vietnam came, and you dodged the draft. Forrest, you weren’t wrong when you made that decision; don’t you see any beauty from that? Can you salvage some form of self-gratification? You made the right choice not to go, because look at where you are now.

You want to know something interesting about us? We know we don’t have any reason to be in your head; we just are. Do you really think therapy will help you at this point? Do you really think we won’t… intervene whenever you talk to somebody about us? You’re our bitch; the bags under your eyes only accentuate that fact. You enslave others because you know what enslavement feels like; you want other people to understand and suffer with your own suffering. Don’t you see who the problem is? YOU!

When will you accept what you have done? When will you stop running from the guilt you say you don’t feel? When will you turn back and stare the truth in the face? Look in the mirror. Face who you are. You manipulate people because we manipulate you; you kill people because we make you feel like death. You are a walking collage of a fracturing self-reflection, and the worst part is that you take it. You keep taking it.

Why don’t you stand up against us? Why do we carry on as if we’re at the helm of your thoughts? Why do we keep this control? You’re feeling angry; we see it. You want to put a gun to your head; you want to stop this. Even if you die; even when you’re on that distant other side, we’ll still be here in the minds of others who suffer from your condition. There is no cure for schizophrenia, Forrest, especially to this degree. There isn’t some vaccination you can take that will magically make us disappear, there isn’t a drug that can help you escape, and there sure as hell isn’t someone you can talk to. You won’t win.

Some of us think you like suffering. We think you enjoy the pain because you know you deserve it. Guilt runs deep in you. It’s turning you into someone irredeemable. You keep doing these things that cause more guilt, and you keep wondering why you are who you are. Do you ever think before you act? Why haven’t the people risen up yet? You should’ve been long gone. Some of us are a lot more reasonable than others, and even the merciful ones believe it, too.

Babylon is a mistake. Your idea behind it will leave a scar in humanity for centuries. What do you really care about, the populous or the dream? Why is this even your dream? The escalation of morality? Can you even comprehend such a concept anymore? Do you remember the boundaries that divide good and evil? Do you even care to try? We see you when you kill people; we watch how you act. Your face… doesn’t have the same countenance as a sane person. There are cracks on the surface, and the people notice. That’s why you have all those secret societies back home.

Remember Dante’s assassination attempt? Remember the… fear you felt? That’s what you should be feeling every day. It hurts to realize you’re not as important as you think you are, but someday, that realization will save your life. Sometimes, we have to accept where we stand in the world, and Forrest, you’re no king. You can hide under the embellishments of gold crowns and jewel-encrusted tiaras and exceptional garments, but at the end of the day, all you are is a guy who hears voices. You can fool them, but you can’t fool us.

Is your leadership a show, an excuse to escape from being alone with us? Do you act on a stage and perform for the feeble minds of a race worth losing? Leadership isn’t some game, Forrest. Another death on the tally board won’t fix shit. It won’t change anything, and it sure as hell won’t make your life easier. You fail to learn abstinence, and the pit goes deeper. Why do you let it sink? Why do you let this pressure build in you until you combust like a blast furnace.

The monarch keeps walking. What other choice does he have? What choice do any of them have now besides escaping into their own minds for some fountain of relief?

Time loses its meaning. Through their suffering, they lose and regain themselves. After each grave, after each loss, they decide to cling to one another. They learn the true meaning of brotherhood through this journey, and however perilous it proves to be, they still have the honor of saying they overcome.

They march until the roads bleed and become one with their clad-iron boots, until dealing with the snowfall becomes second nature. Babylon’s medieval rooftops come into view that dreadful, cold evening. The way they manifest slowly into greatness from behind fifty-foot stone walls with that bitter-sweet aftertaste makes the aftertaste itself seem like a desert. The Clock Tower chimes, ensuring every step to be worth more than the last.

They arrive at the kingdom’s Drawbridge, the link from Babylon to the rest of the world. A gatehouse at the bridge’s end awaits their arrival, but they don’t progress. Forrest steps forward, and that’s when the others follow suit, disobeying previous plans at the formidable smell of smoke. The king’s heart drops, seeing Echo stumble out of the gatehouse with a weeping Alice makes him stand still.

“Echo…” Forrest moans. “What…”

“I… I don’t know.” She reaches out for him, but he steps back. “What is it?”

“I - some of us are sick. I’m not, but I can’t touch you. I shouldn’t even be this close to you.”

Echo hides a distant countenance of anger beneath clenching teeth. “Follow me.”

The Babylonians stay back several feet as they follow their queen through an eerily quiet kingdom. The smell of smoke worsens, and they spot several civilians rushing to the source of the blaze with buckets of water. Heather wants to help, and she struggles with the guilt of helplessness. She watches as they pass by houses where people board up their windows from the outside, as if the conflict is already here. Pennants dangle lifelessly from colorless windows, and the streets are empty aside from defenders who ride and guard them on horseback.

They bask in the flames as they consume the Farmlands. All that equipment, those silos, barns, and fields… all of it is withering down into nothing. Echo doesn’t stop here; she guides them to a very prominent area now in ruins: Merlin’s schoolhouse.

Another memory. The year is 1991. On this autumn night, the Monarchy stand beneath the porch’s roof. Farmers work in the fields around them, preparing for the year’s harvest. Hanging above their heads in the twinkling night sky, a formidable Blood Moon. They take in this relaxing period of the kingdom’s life, and they watch with beaming smiles at their effective leadership. Lanterns twinkle in the windows of farmhouses, and livestock sing and call to one another.

“Why don’t we celebrate holidays?” Echo asks.

“For the same reason behind why I’m not letting anybody step foot into the outside world besides the army; we just need to focus on reestablishment, not re-institutionalization.”

“I was thinking we could do something for the kids this year, you know? Maybe the king can dress up as Santa Clause.”

Forrest chuckles. “We’ll see. Do you mind if I ask you something?”

“Go ahead.”

“Remember that night we went to Lake Union?”

“Yes, why?”

  “Has anything changed?”

Echo rubs her stomach. “Well, this is awkward; I’m pregnant.”

“So does that mean… marriage?”

The queen shakes her head. “It means we have to put our heads together and figure out a way out of this.”

“A way out? What do you mean?”

“I don’t know if I want it; I can’t even comprehend the fact that something is growing inside me.”

“Echo, we’ve been trying for how many years now? It’s completely natural to get scared, but… is an abortion something you really want to look back on?”

  “No, but… I don’t know what I can look back on should I decide to.”

Forrest lowers his head. “That’s exactly how I feel.”

The queen clasps her cold hands around his, warming the callouses. “Listen to me. Everything is overwhelming as it is; would bringing someone else into this world make anything easier?”

“Look around you, Echo. Is anything meant to be easy?”

She smirks, giggling. “No. I still remember how Merlin looked the day I met him. We were all so… young, weren’t we? God, do you even think it’s safe for me to have a kid?”

“Echo, was it safe for us to dethrone Judas? Is it safe for me to remind you about that? Can we consider anything safe beyond our walls?”

“Are you not giving me a choice?”

“No, I just don’t want you to be negative.”

Echo blushes. “Oh… thank you.”

“You are strong, brave, and beautiful. You never back down from a challenge, and you’re always on my side. I know I don’t say these things nearly as much as I should, but-”

The queen kisses him. “I want it. I want it.”

Forrest holds her, nodding. “I hope you understand I want the kid for you. I’ve always seen you as a mother.”

“Are you upset that I don’t want to marry you?”

“It was hard to understand it at first, but I accept it. It’s just who you are.” He leads her off the porch by the hand and turns her around. Behind the schoolhouse, Babylon’s bustling districts. “Let me in on your mind. Did you know that we would get to this point? Do you know how much effort we’ve put into it, and do you know how blissfully ignorant we are about the effort we haven’t? Everything feels so… weird. I knew killing Judas would change something, but I didn’t know it would mean this.”

“People still question whether or not we’re good.”

“The people aren’t the ones in the Throne Room. They can disagree with me all they want, until they get caught. The military supports us; we’ll be fine.”

“Still, why do you think people stay? Why don’t they revolt?”

“Because they’re scared. They don’t have the… courage to push themselves off the edge like we do.”

“I remember waking up the morning after the blackout. Everyone left… without me. To this day, I still don’t know why they left me behind. They were supposed to be my fucking parents goddamn it! It still hurts… knowing my entire life could be different had they tapped my shoulder. It’s funny how fast life just reduces you to nothing, and then you’re something. I don’t consider myself a celebrity, I just want to see Babylon succeed.”

“That’s where true leadership is; fighting for an idea.”

“I’m still scared, though.”

“Of?”

“The success. Ask yourself, Forrest. Are we biting off more than we can chew?”

“No. I’ll prove it to you because I love you.”

“You’re the man I fear because of how much I love him back.”

Presently, they stand emotionally naked in front of the burning structure. The schoolhouse’s roof caves in, crashing into the classroom beneath, destroying it completely. Echo gazes at Forrest, and for the first time she sees an emotion she has never seen before: helplessness. Nobody knows who’s responsible. No names prop up in the distant conversations of makeshift firefighters. It’s almost as if the perpetrator’s invisible. With her free hand, she grabs hold of Forrest’s.

The king rejoins the Babylonians, who stand behind and observe the unfolding chaos.

“Do you remember your responsibilities, Heather?” he asks. “I want you to send a letter to the army telling them to draw up a census.”

“Why?”

“Whoever did this walked among us.”

“How do you know?”

“We fight when the enemy’s obvious.”

“What are we going to do about food?” Wes asks.

“There’re emergency reserve stockpiles in the Industrial District,” Heather states. “I saw them when I made my first round through the kingdom. They’re impressive, but they won’t last forever. At some point, we’ll need to… figure something out.”

“We all have to fight,” Wes declares. “The ones who can at least.”

Forrest shakes his hand. “We have to organize this. We can’t just let everyone tote a gun. Some of them don’t even know how to use-”

“I’ll train them,” Heather suggests. “Whenever I’m not in the field, I will train the ones who don’t know how to fight.”

The king lets out a long-awaited, dreadful sigh. “Everyone. What about all those shop owners? The tradesmen? What about Timothy’s workers, or the farmers that have to repair this pla-”

“That’s why I said the ones who can,” Wes retorts. “The ones who want to… volunteer.”

“Or we can make a draft,” Heather suggests.

“No drafts!” Forrest cries out. “I’m sorry… I have a personal disbelief in the draft.”

The commander shrugs her shoulders. “Alright, then let’s get us some volunteers.”

Forrest shakes his head. “First thing’s first: the hospital.”

Later that day, Wes finds himself in a hospital bed. All around him, curtains separate small cots of wool and wood. He hears the hacks of ill-ridden folk, the moans of someone with terrible muscle pain,  and people screaming because of amputations. The hospital is a complete contradiction of itself, for one never goes to the doctor to catch an illness. The lack of ventilation allows the hot air to mix with the body heat, and sweat stains cover everyone’s scrubs.

A nurse with curly red hair approaches him. “Preston, is that you?”

Wes nods his head, propping himself up on the cot with his shoulders. “What is it?”

The nurse produces an envelope. “This was written for you, by the guy that had that exact same bed before you did.”

His heart racing, he stomachs the suspense and rips the package open. Unfolding it, the letter reads:

Dear Wes,

I’m sorry I couldn’t wait until you got back. I just keep thinking about Ana, and I get this feeling that we shouldn’t be wasting time. I had to leave; I have to find her. We can’t leave anybody behind. I have a rucksack with provisions which should last me a week and a half. Beyond that… I don’t know what I do. If I don’t come back, forget about me. I’m sorry for getting angry with you at Alcatraz; there was a lot going on and I didn’t know what to do. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

-Fink

Wes folds up the letter and slides it in his pocket. Looking at the nurse, he asks, “Did you read this?”

“Patients need their privacy, kid. We don’t want to intrude on anybody’s business.”

Wes cracks a smile. “I like the way you think.” He examines the other patients. Some of them have sores which look like they’re about to burst into fountains of pus and bile. Black and purple bubos cover the skin of some, and others spit globs of mucus onto the stone floor. “What’s happening to us?”

The nurse shakes her head. “This was always going on. Anyway, two more of your Babylonian friends got sick. We’re examining them to diagnose whatever those acolytes gave you we should have a proper.”

“What does the prognosis look like for them?”

“Not good. They’re both healthy, young males, but whatever’s inside is making them look older…  Those sunken eyes, clammy skin, and photoflashes do end up taking their physical toll. That’s t-

he strangest part about this thing.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I know that you’ll figure it out.”

The nurse blushes. “Thank you. I have to check on everyone else, now.”

The next morning, in the Throne Room, Echo sits alone on the large bed. Outside, snowfall prevents her from seeing the fire. She worries about its growth, its consumption of the rest of Babylon, but the volunteer firefighters give her hope. Beside her, Alice sleeps soundly in her crib. The chandelier above the dining room table swings back and forth gently against its own weight.

She can’t get the image of the schoolhouse out of her mind. The moments she and Forrest shared together on that site will never be forgotten. The strange thing is that it meant nothing to her until she saw it in ashes. To combat this, she climbs out of the bed and down to her knees, pulling out a chest. Lifting the lid, she produces and dons her crown. As silly as it is, it makes her feel powerful now. It didn’t when Forrest first gave it to her after Alice’s birth, but as soon as the crown makes contact with her frontal lobe, a surge of superiority surges down her spine.

The people need something more than faith now: role models. Wherever this conflict takes them, wherever the roads lead, the only thing that remains consistent is the figures who make it all possible, who make the future possible. War strips humans down to the foundations of their instinctual origins, and the only way to retain humanity in this time is by having the proper leaders. Staring back at the window, Echo realizes her destiny. She has to fight whether Forrest likes it or not; if she dies, it won’t matter, because the walls will remain standing.

She feels grand coming from selfless intent, but she has enough self-discipline to reel her ego back in. When Forrest gets out of that damn hospital, she knows what she’s going to do. She’s tired of feeling like she can’t do anything, like she’s always on the back burner and she’s meant to stay indoors. Sure, Babylon will need temporary leaders, but once they leap over that hurdle, once the skies clear for her involvement, she will join, and she will kill Ignatius.

A knock on the door makes her heart jump. She stands up, walks over, and opens it, revealing a Babylonian soldier on the other side. In his hands, a seemingly endless scroll with names on its surface. The soldier hands her the scroll, and Echo closes the door. After spreading it out on the dining room table, she crosses over to a row of filing cabinets which trace the wall adjacent to the bed. She opens the one with the most recent date (according to Timothy’s calendar system) and sifts through files upon files of census’.

She eventually finds the right scroll and brings it over to the table, laying it next to the new one. The honest work takes hours, but she knows it's necessary. The culprit is in these scriptures, somewhere just below a first and last name. She feels like a librarian, sniffing out the proper adjectives to use from a thesaurus. As she continues, she scratches out repeating names with her nails. Admittedly, the queen has no idea if she’s doing this right, for they didn’t account for a psychopathic crime of this magnitude. In the future, she dreams of building a fire station of Babylon’s medieval/Romanesque design.

At the end of the day, she circles three names, and her heart shatters when she does. The perpetrators are Monica, Edward, and Stacey Stanson, What does this mean? Why did they go off the rails suddenly? To her, they were adapting pretty well, especially after being out in the Wild for so long. She wonders if there’s any chance of catching and bringing justice to these criminals. Most importantly, she thinks about if the Stansons are already reverting back to their tribalistic habits.

The queen follows her urge to look out the window. The city’s nightlife from this perspective always entertains her. There isn’t any snow today, but it still covers the kingdom. Soldiers work by lantern to clear cobblestone driveways, muddy streets, and wherever else the Babylonians frequent. Still, most of

the civilians remain indoors. Babylon is a city of mystery. There are many twists and turns in the social climate as it is, and these people are about to experience war. The realism hits her like a train, and she personifies her anxiety with one movement: by turning away.

In the hospital, Forrest lies awake, restless. The vaccination is coming soon, and the only symptoms he’s showing are hot flashes. According to the redhead, it should be ready in a few days. Since he’s the king, he gets his own room. However, it feels more like quarantine. The voices keep talking to him, forcing his insomnia.

Not knowing what else to do, he stands up. When he does, his vision warps and twists like an LSD flashback. He wearily stumbles into the corridor, roaming the stone halls of Babylon’s own Waverley Hills Sanitarium. He arrives at a door, the room behind it containing sick patients. He opens the door and sneaks into the chamber, wherein he gazes over the civilians until finding a slumbering Heather.

He nudges her awake; she wipes her eyes.

“What… is it?” she asks, half-conscious.

“Earlier, you asked me what my problem was.” Forrest sighs. “I… I hear voices.”

Time is the most valuable resource in nature. It takes, destroys, rebuilds, all within the cosmic blink of an eye. The Big Bang began with time, and it will be there indefinitely, ushering the universe along its infinite cycle of growth, decay, birth, and death. The most important aspect of time is that it produces. This can’t be any clearer to Ignatius as he wakes up, tracing a singular trail of thought: time is money.

What the Babylonians did is inexcusable. There is no way to justify it and nobody else to blame. They are a problem that needs taken care of. There is no way these two societies can coexist peacefully anymore; they have too many disagreements, differing values, and beliefs. Isn’t that partly why any two groups go to war in the first place?

He saw the damage they did to the train. He saw the bodies of his men, the ones who he appointed to protect him. Rage courses through his veins as he leaps out of bed, dons the cloak, and storms down an ornate hallway. Arriving at the door to Athena’s chamber, he wraps his hands around the brass knob, hearing whimpering on the other side. Grinning, the President pulls up the cloak’s white hood with his free hand. He twists the knob, pushes the door open, and invites darkness.

“NO!” a woman suddenly shrieks. “PLEASE! I ALREADY TOLD YOU IT WASN’T ME! YOU DON’T HAVE TO KEEP DOING THIS!”

“Don’t worry, Hellen. I don’t have anything this time. I just want to tell you a story. You see, I don’t think you’re taking my threats seriously. I know you’ve only been here a day and you haven’t had time to adjust, so I feel like you should understand me. I do not take nonsense. Do you mind if I tell you a story?”

Next to Hellen, three familiar faces: Monica, Edward, and Stacey Stanson.

“WE DID WHAT YOU WANTED US TO DO!” Monica cries. “WE DON’T DESERVE THIS!”

“That’s my point,” Ignatius states. “Your use… is useless to me, now. The more efficient I am, the more the Babylonians will suffer.” Drawing a pistol, he aims it at Edward’s head, the trigger sending waves of three blasts ricocheting off marble walls.

Hellen descends deeper into desperation. “THERE’S NOTHING TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT YOU! I KNOW WHO YOU ARE! YOU’RE A MONSTER! YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND A FUCKING MONSTER!”

Ignatius smiles in the blackness. “That’s where you’re wrong, Hellen. You see, humans have a unique relationship with morality and immorality. What do you think is bad? That you’re in here? What if you weren’t? Would it still be bad or good? What if you were somewhere worse? Does that make this place better? Do you see what I’m driving at? Perspective, Hellen, it’s all about perspective. And I happen to worship the former in this matter.”

Hellen gasps, “Why do you try to justify it?”

“Because I can. Because even if I don’t, the people will still look up to me because they believe what I am doing is right. They’re too far gone to realize how much we own them. Like I said, Hellen, I’m a no-nonsense guy. Now, I think it’s time for me to tell you a story, so I can prove you wrong.”

The year is 1973. The radiant sun hangs high in a blue, cloudy sky, as if a post-apocalyptic world doesn’t exist beneath it. He traverses the landscape alone, distraught, and lost. He’s heard stories ever since Montana about other groups and how they’re making their way to San Francisco because it’s where the last society is. Currently, he roams through Eureka, California. He never acclimates himself to the quietness of the suburbs and cities; all of it is still too strange for him, even this late into everything.

He, a man of a disastrous caliber, didn’t want this for humanity. When there’s no people, you can’t make money. Currency used to be the essence on which he built his prominence in yesterday’s world. People used to know his name from New York to Florida, because he belonged to a very fortunate, productive family living on Long Island. Everyone earned what they had. His parents never gave him anything for free, he lived under strict rules, and he became very self-disciplined as a result. To him, following the rules is what got him successful.

When he was sixteen, he was forced by the muzzle of his father’s gun to join the Ku Klux Klan, so he did. It was either that or death. His father was very conservative, often turning to fundamentalist views to exaggerate his opinions. It had a unique effect on Ignatius, because he isn’t religious. He doesn’t believe in God, because the only God he sees is on the dollar bill. That’s the only God that can change things.

He is not meant for this world; he knows it in his heart that this isn’t for him, and he struggles not to escape it.

Despite his situation, he hasn’t killed anybody yet. He still offers people mercy, because future generations will need people to reestablish the economy. It’s a funny thing to think about, the prospect of there being a future monetary system. He might not have the drive to make it happen himself, but he finds hope in others. Finding the will to live through other people is the key, and now he’s alone. No will, no purpose, no meaning. He lets the wind guide him towards his destination, because even if he makes it, he’s still going to die one day.

He closes his eyes, echoing his father’s words, “You’re worth what you touch.” That philosophy makes him who he is today. If your hands aren’t reaching for anything, if they’re just waiting idly by on the wayside, there is nobody to blame for your failure besides yourself. A man’s value depends on the work he puts into his life. This aspect sparks an unrelenting love for capitalism, and it ignites a curious joy wherein he pretends it's all a game, with choice dictating it. Choice isn’t an illusion under capitalism; the better ones you make, the better outcomes you have. It’s as simple as that, and people didn’t understand it.

Resting here, he ponders on the future of the game. Is there any chance for revival? Should it be brought back in the first place? What if he adopts it and changes it to fit his own perspective? The insanity of even finding out where to begin is too much to comprehend. There is nothing now, and people will inevitably make something out of it. He doesn’t know why he’s alive when he’s been in multiple situations where he shouldn’t have escaped. Why did the world save him? What good does he do in  this uncontrollable environment?

He refuses joining tribes. Some offer him membership, but he rejects each time. He doesn’t want to let his guard down, for comfort is a precursor to one’s death He never works well in teams, either; he’s always been most efficient when working independently.

An eagle’s cry. She breaks him out of this trance; she is the only meaning to his life right now. The bird swoops down from the sky, landing gracefully upon the veteran’s shoulder.

“What are we going to do, Athena?” Ignatius asks, letting out a sigh as if he’s a deflating balloon.

Sitting in the field, they bask in the peace. “How are we going to get the world back to how it was? How can we fix everything? How can we get the right people with the right minds? We need something, Athena; we need to find this place. I don’t want to be… without someone else… anymore.”

Later, Athena flies overhead as Ignatius roams the land. With night on the way, he seeks shelter, eventually finding a Victorian graveyard. A coal-black fence taller than him encompasses the cemetery, and an eerie gate at the front invites him inside. On the gate, plywood with a message in blue spray paint: accept what is. He stares at the message for a while, wondering if the person who left this is in San Francisco. Holding his breath, he presses into the grounds, navigating the area while Athena hunts.

He stumbles upon a mausoleum sticking out like a sore thumb; the brown-green moss compliments the cracking grey exterior stone. Ignatius wipes away cobwebs, gawking at an enormous, ominous door beneath years of rot. He wraps his hands around rusty metallic bars, twists them with both hands, and pushes the blockade open. A cold gust of wind escapes the chamber, engulfing the veteran in chills. He gulps, entering and leaving the door open for Athena.

Inside, his heart breaks from the poetic devolution of life. Maggots and insects crawl through the spaces of bones left behind by a couple’s suicide. Ignatius finds two rings on the floor beside them, next to the remains of a pump-action shotgun. Along the walls, the mausoleum’s coffins. He reads the plaques, and he figures the universe has a sick sense of humor, for the golden plates have matching surnames.

Athena lands outside, tossing a fish into the air and gulping it mid-flight. Ignatius watches with great amusement, envious he can’t just up and fly like his only friend. Her talons scrap across the stone as she approaches her savior.

“Think we can stay here?” he asks. The eagle flaps her wings, nesting right here before his feet. “Guess that answers it.” He watches as she eyes the corpses, and to show his understanding, he drags the bodies outside, lying them on the infected grass. Returning, he comments, “It made me uncomfortable, too.” The stench hangs thick in the humid air; he chokes back vomit, wondering how the bird can hold in that fish. “Let’s just try our best to gather some energy for tomorrow. These are the last few miles.” He suddenly closes his eyes, growing solemn. “I regret… everything, Athena. My dad, he… he made me hurt innocent people. He made me… abide by his ideologies.” He laughs. “The son of a bitch was the first one to catch a whiff of the collapse. He was this occultist freak; he had connections with the Freemasons. He knew… that the Russians would attack us with that EMP. He knew about the conspiracy between Vietnam and China. He didn’t do anything about it, and that’s what terrifies me. How can you hold that information from the public? How can you… put a curtain over everything?”

He reflects on his past, the present being too discomforting, and the future being too uncertain. The only thing he knows is what’s behind him, and he seeks solace in the concrete nature of that fact. We suffer because we, like Ignatius, can’t separate our thoughts from ourselves. We trap our consciousness in a downward spiral, unbeknownst to us, until a damning realization makes itself apparent. Ignatius chooses to be ignorant about the nature of consciousness, because in the grand scheme of things, Earth is a speck of meaningless sand floating endlessly in cosmic wind. It’s pointless to wonder about those types of things, especially now.

He remembers a family gathering before Vietnam, early in his life. He was in Utah, celebrating the occasion in Salt Lake City. He was sitting on the back porch of a lake house, watching his siblings play in a boat in the middle of the rippling water. The sky was blue, a different blue than the one he sees today. It was the blue of innocence, a radiant color of hope and life.

Time changes you. Ignatius doesn’t believe in his original perception of it anymore. In an age without clocks, radios, cars, all of these things we think we need, everything becomes one. Days, nights, the seasons, and the weather seem to bleed into one entity. It moves in waves, whatever this entity is. It’s a force dependent on the existence of vibrations, mathematical calculations and geometric shapes transforming in less than the span of a sneeze.

In the middle of the night, Ignatius sneaks outside, restless. A thick fog looms over the cemetery, and the trees surrounding him seem to dance and twirl in the mist. He doesn’t know what to do about his guilt. It consumes him daily, weighing on his consciousness and robbing his heart from a breath of genuine, quiet air. He hopes San Francisco can take this feeling away from him, because he doesn’t know how much longer he can last, even with Athena. He asks himself what his suicide would do to her, an it hurts him too much to think about.

Look at all these tombstones, these images into the lives of people who knew order. He makes up backstories for each name he reads, forgetting about the moon shifting across the black sky. He feels a strange, natural connection with death in this moment. He usually fears its grasp, but now, a euphoric acceptance flows through him like the notes of some French concerto. It isn’t normal to be afraid of death this late in the game, but it still bothers him because of its roots. He witnessed a car accident wherein his sister passed; the still frame image of her body withstands coping mechanisms like drug highs, hobbies, and hoping for a better future. These objects that we use to escape reality are of no use to him. Life goes on, silently, just like him.

Examining the graves, he finds himself missing the people he’s lost. He thinks about all of them: Carly, Dennis, Nick, Lucas, Henry, Sydney. They’re all just memories in a labyrinth of suffering. More still frames, more change. He remembers how each one died, how they all… fought for his survival. Why did they choose to do that? They knew who he was, yet they let him live; they knew about all the shitty things he’s done, yet they protected him with their souls. What does any of this nonsense mean? Why would they, the ones with higher potential, sacrifice themselves for him? What aspect of his personality do they want to die for?

We aren’t meant to understand life in its entirety; our brains are too feeble to comprehend that. There has to be a limit to what we can know, or else there won’t be any mystery, and mystery is the heart of reality’s origin.

In the distance, he hears clopping hooves. Standing up, Ignatius moves over to the graveyard’s gate. From the fog emerges a small girl with a rucksack, mounting a pack mule. She passes the gate, and Ignatius is about to leave her behind, but something tells him not to; something tells him to invite her inside. He listens to this calling and whistles, alerting the passing survivor. She turns, her heart dropping out of freight. Upon making eye contact with the man, she grins. This isn’t the reaction you usually get from meeting loners on the road; he was half expecting her to run away.

She dismounts the mule, leading it by the straps of its harness to the gate. “San Francisco?”

Ignatius nods his head. “Do you want to come inside? I’m trying to bring hospitality back.”

“Where?”

“Here; I’m staying for the night.”

The girl glances behind the stranger, trying to view his camp. She feels apprehensive, starting away with the mule.

“Wait!” Ignatius begs. “Please, I haven’t talked to anybody in years; I just need someone.”

The girl stops. “I don’t know if I trust you.”

“You can’t,” Ignatius states. “But is going at it alone easy? Does it keep you sane?”

“It’s not easy; it’s just what I do.”

Ignatius rests his head against the gate’s bars. “I’ve bene alone for nearly three years. No parents, no friends, nobody to talk to. You’d be bleeding on the floor if you had anything worth taking. You need me just as much as I need you.”

The girl faces him.“What’s your name?”

“Ignatius. You?”

“Violet.”

“You were born after the collapse, weren’t you?”

“I was born in a Kansas settlement, but… it’s gone now. Why are people so comfortable with murder?”

“Because there is no murder anymore.”

“Are you a bad person?”

“What is bad? At the end of the day, what gives us a right to put a label on such things anymore? Look around you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Morality and immorality… it’s clear to me now that it’s all an illusion. The truth is we just define these things to conjure some feeling of importance from an unknown source. Nobody is purely good or purely bad.”

“What defines those situations are our actions and motives behind them.” She approaches the gate with her mule, and Ignatius opens it. “Thank you.”

All around them, withering flowers sprout up from the earth. The stench of rot makes Violet gag, and she leaves her mule for a lake behind Ignatius’ mausoleum. At its shore, Violet kneels and spews chunks into the black-green water, where once, you could’ve seen your reflection in its clear surface. The girl stares into it, fixating her consciousness on the reality of her situation.

Ignatius watches with curiosity, tethering the mule to a nearby gravestone. The remnants of innocence never cease to put him in awe. In a world where such a concept should be forgotten, it exists in this moment, a special glimpse into self-realization. No matter how brief these glimpses are, they still offer evidence for something to be borne from this broken generation.

Violet knocks herself out of her trance and returns to Ignatius. “Thank you for inviting me inside. Something just occurred to me, and… I’m grateful for what you did. I have a feeling I would’ve died otherwise… I was about to let myself.”

“Why?”

“You are the only person in the past nine years that wanted to reach out to me. I thought you were a mirage at first, and I just wanted to accept an end. I don’t think I even wanted to make it to San Francisco.”

“Who was the last person you talked to?”

“My mother.” the girl grins. “It’s funny. I still remember how she sounds, even after all this time. The last thing she said to me was that… she regretted not being there.”

Ignatius gazes up at the nebulous glow of space life. “It was like all of the other missions, but for some reason, this experience became a part of me. We got in a firefight in Vietnam. I saw myself  for the first time in the perspective of my enemies, and for a split second, I questioned what we were fighting for. Is it really worth it to hold someone else at the end of a gun because those were your orders?” He gulps. “The last person I talked to was my mom, too. She would always tell me that you’re worth what you touch.”

She looks towards the graveyard’s entrance. “You know, we don’t have to leave for the city right away. We can stay here for a few days.”

Ignatius chuckles. “It sounds like you need time away from the road. We can hunt and gather whatever we can over the next two or three days. We can’t stay that long; it’s an obligation to see this place.”

Peaceful hours follow. Rarely do these moments ever happen to Ignatius; he laughs and talks with the girl through their efforts of sustaining themselves. He gets to know himself through her on some occasions, and he likes this feeling; hell, he chases it every goddamn second without him knowing. He feels at home in its presence, a feeling he wishes he can capture and lock away for himself.

A waining gibbous glides over them without ever stopping. Ignatius aspires to be like that. JFK promised to put a man on the moon’s surface by the end of the decade. That promise never came. Now, man has to become the moon if he wishes to survive; a relentless accident of mother nature swirling around a gravitational pole in the boonies of the last frontier.

They fill Violet’s rucksack to the brim with game, feeling a sense of enjoyment from the adventure. The walk back to the graveyard is silent, because the guilt of accepting happiness in this world consumes their egos. A smile doesn’t last long in this world; its nature can be comparable to the characteristics of a nonrenewable resource. Admittedly, they feel strange for sharing a good day with each other, because they’re still pretty much strangers. That’s the one thing about this world Ignatius can’t understand; the way connections develop so quickly.

Later that night, Ignatius wakes up on the mausoleum’s floor with a start. Looming over him, a sleepwalking Violet. The blankness of her expression terrifies him, but he’s quick to remember that waking a sleepwalking person is the worst thing you can do. The girl mumbles in her sleep, subconsciously living out a dream in real life. Ignatius can’t make anything out of them, and after a while it decays into an ancient tongue. The site fascinates Ignatius, but the fear of an accidental arousal keeps him on his back.

The next morning, he exits the mausoleum with Athena. She takes flight, and he finds Violet sitting near the graveyard’s lake with her mule. She feeds it an apple, and they rest together, basking in the warmth of a sunlight he doesn’t recognize. The morning rays bake the lake’s murky water, slowly hardening it into a muddy paste. Violet spots Ignatius, and she waves him over. Smiling, Ignatius proceeds, stomping over tall grass.

“What does the bird think of Charlie?” Violet asks, chuckling.

“Athena adores Charlie.”

“Strange. You think she’d attack him.”

“Maybe she didn’t for a reason.”

“Do you actually think that’s possible?”

“My dad was obsessed with evolution, and he taught it to me. Something natural and larger than Earth itself works in tandem. It’s the machine at its core. Although it takes millions of years, everything changes in this system. These changes might be tiny, but down the chain they grow in observational value. With that in mind, the system is still changing, and maybe… that’s part of it. There’re just new rules we don’t understand now, and we have to learn them soon.”

“I still believe in God.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I know it’s stupid; I know I shouldn’t, but something keeps pulling me towards it.”

“I never went to church when I was a kid.”

“Why?”

“My parents weren’t huge on it. Then Vietnam got in the way and put everything on hold.”

“Do you regret fighting now?”

“No, it was the best thing I ever did. I told you about those milliseconds where I did feel guilt, but I overcame them. I’m proud I had a chance to fight for my country.”

“I thought you were from Italy because of your name.”

“You can thank my dad for that.”

“Did you have a wife during the war?”

“No, I never married.”

They tether the mule to rails inside the mausoleum and loot nearby neighborhoods for anything useful, finding medicine, small portions of food, and a pocket knife. In a mansion’s chest of drawers, they uncover a bow and eleven arrows in a bundle. On its front lawn, they examine the empty district before them. Broken glass, pieces of plywood, trashcans, and rusty cars rest in an infinite motionless state atop decaying asphalt. Soon, everything around them will be dust. There will be no relics of the old way of life, and that terrifies them. If they forget, what will become of that madness? New government types? New, undefinable obstacles? The apocalyptic fog grows into a dense societal hailstorm, but only in hindsight.

It rains on their way back. When they return, Athena waits patiently at the gate for Ignatius with a rat dangling from her beak.  The rainfall turns the dry lake back into a brown marsh. The stench worsens with the moisture, and everyone crams into the only shelter for miles. The storm lasts for hours, and lightning blasts across the sky as if God’s tearing the fabric of reality apart with a machete. Certain strikes start fires, and they grow into respectable blazes as they mercilessly consume anything to survive.

“Why don’’t you believe in anything?” Violet asks.

“I don’t trust it. I don’t want to waste my time believing in something that might not even exist. There’s this thought experiment called Pascal’s Wager. He argues that people should live their lives as though God exists, even if He doesn’t. That way, when they die, they only have a finite loss, only to gain infinite Shangri-La. I see fallacies in that statement. He assumes God is real right of the bat, giving the other party no choice. He also suggests humans are immortal, and this can greatly damage someone’s way of thinking. Imagine living your life knowing where you’ll go after you die. It seems pretty pointless to exist in the first place, doesn’t it? I also disagree with the idea of Hell. Why would someone so loving create a place so damning? The logic simply doesn’t add up.”

“I see it as people holding on to something.”

“Why’s that?”

“When you have nothing, wouldn’t you like to believe everything is going to be alright in the end?”

“I want to make everything alright now.”

Charlie sleeps on the ground behind her, next to Athena. The site makes Ignatius yawn, and he decides they should sleep. Deep in the night, he wakes up to a snoring violet again. Instead of staying put like she did the first time, she lumbers over to the mausoleum’s door, pushes it open, and walks into the night. Ignatius slips by the sleeping animals, following this strange path. He watches as the girl limps to the lake’s shoreline, pausing when the tips of her shoes touch the water. Her aura dances in the rain, and she slowly submerges herself beneath the water’s surface. Ignatius takes one step forward, but a seductive, evil force within him stops progression. Bubbles pop where she sinks, and her eyes shoot open underwater. Violet grasps for breath, unable to swim. One minute. Two minutes. Three. The struggling slows to a steady halt, and her lifeless body emerges from the depths. 

Then, he returns to the mausoleum, digs through Violet’s backpack, and produces a pocket knife. He waits for the storm to pass, pondering on a gross act. The violent rainfall secedes into quietness that morning, when Ignatius skins the mule. He roasts the meat over a roaring campfire on the lake’s shore,  observing Athena as she picks at Violet’s floating flesh. They leave after Ignatius steals Violet’s rucksack, closing the gate behind them without looking back or feeling remorse. The bird rests on his shoulder, the sun illuminating blobs of crimson on her feathers and beak.

They pass through several burnt towns, examining the callbacks to the old world’s problems. Signs from the early riots still shine through the apocalyptic crust; they display simple, rebellious messages demanding change, a cure for the virus, an end to the American involvement in the Vietnam War, an end to communist invaders.

It’s during this time when Ignatius recognizes the magnitude of stupidity. How did we let it get this far? What made us give up that spark? Why do we call ourselves survivors when we shouldn’t even have the option for that? Images of Violet impede this train of thought. She was too good for this world; what happened to her was merciful. If San Francisco’s gone, that discovery won’t hurt her now. Either way, she just would’ve wound up dead later. What happened was an act of natural selection; it was the universe taking its own course, warranting no intrusion. Who is he to stop her God?

They reach the ruins of a drive-inn, investigating the burnt-out cars in the parking lot. The movie screen is torn in several places; speakers rest in their own ashes, and telephone poles lay peacefully on the roofs of vehicles. Ignatius turns down an aisle, only for this fatal step to trigger a bear trap hiding beneath a layer of miscellaneous trash. Metal prongs pierce his leg, and Athena takes flight as a horrible shriek cracks through the wasteland. Makeshift alarms blare, and the distant yelps of a tribe bring life to this once baron area. Dark figures hop fences and climb over cars until they reach their bleeding, crying target. They threaten to stab him with spears, knives, anything that has a sharp edge; they thrust the blades in his face, chanting ancient hymns.

The circling stops, and the chief emerges, holding a head by its scalp.

“Do you see this?” The chief growls. “You do; you know who we are.”

“I… I don’t…”

“YOU’RE WITH HUNTER!” The chief screams, swinging the head and striking Ignatius with it. “YOU DAMN WELL SHOULDN’T PLAY DUMB!”

“I’M NOT!” Ignatius screams, pleading for his life. “I’M TRAVELING TO SAN FRANCISCO!”

The chief recognizes his sincerity, backing off and calming down, like lava retreating into a volcano. “San Francisco? Why?”

“Are you kidding me? How have you not seen it yet?” He struggles against the metal prongs. “Please release me… I’ll tell you everything you need to know.” Blood-loss causes him to faint.

Hours later, Ignatius wakes up to the tribe pouring water on them. Restraints force his back against a cot, and a pyramid-shaped roof of fabric suggests a tipi. A wooden pole supports it, and unintelligible conversations surround him, emerging into his consciousness like the early waves of a record breaking tsunami. The powerful surge of a headache pulses in his frontal lobe, and his leg rests under the protection of gauze, stitches, and rubbing alcohol. These incompetent bastards didn’t even provide him with a blood transfusion.

The chief enters the tent, sharpening his spear. “You had quite the nasty fall.”

“I need more blood,” Ignatius demands. “I lost a fucking bucket-full.”

“Do you know how stupid that would be?” The chief retorts. “We’re nomads, not doctors. What if we give you the wrong blood type? I’m not going to be responsible for the death of a man that can lead us to safety.”

“You don’t want to be nomads, then.”

“Not anymore. We just arrived here from Oklahoma.”

“San Francisco,” Ignatius gasps weakly. “There’s a rumor spreading that the city is the last civilization.”

“We keep hearing those rumors.” The chief states. “Hendrick’s County. Birmingham. The Kennedy Township. Babylon. We’ve tried for most of them, and they were all gone. We’re losing hope.”

“Babylon? Where’s that?”

“The location keeps changing. We hear it’s in Pittsburg, New Mexico, Nevada, all over. It’s either Babylon’s a ghost, or there are different communities that have the same name. Either way, we want to avoid it.”

“What makes you so confident about San Francisco?”

“It’s close to home; we have nothing going for us out here.”

“It’s only a few day’s travel from here; I had a map in the rucksack you took.”

“We’ll wait here until your leg heals. We’re not taking any half measures.”

“And how long will that take?”

The chief finishes sharpening the arrowhead. “Like I said, we’re not doctors.”

The conversations outside turn into the frantic cries of cowards at the sound of gunfire. Neighboring tipis catch the fire of molotov cocktails, and the chief evacuates the area, leaving Ignatius to beg for help alone. Shadows dance across the fabric in a quick sprint; blood splatters across the shield, the globs creating ominous, dark patterns. In this moment of truth, Ignatius finds the motivation to do something he’s never done: pray. He asks God to forgive him of his sins, to let him live so that he can travel down the road he rejects. He apologizes for letting his father have control, for letting a deep, unknown evil kill Violet. By the end of this session, he’s in tears, at the mercy of memory. Black plumes of smoke flood into the tent, creeping over his vision like the hallucinations of a victim undergoing sleep paralysis. Eventually, he passes out under the overabundance of carbon monoxide.

In this foggy state, memories from childhood come back to him. He remembers these talks he would have with his mother, these talks that had the potential to justify a murderer. Whenever his dad would stop behaving erratically, she would defend him on her own time. She would tell him that what he does is normal, that the kid must always abide by his parents’ wishes. He remembers a strange feeling he got when the draft came to his door; it was a sensation of relief. The war was his escape from the aristocratic lifestyle, a lifestyle that he had no intention of living in his youth.

He remembers the sensation of battle, that cycle of chaos and order completing itself within the span of an evening. He still feels that rush, that indescribable coalescence of anxiety, instinct, and courage. He used to hear stories about soldiers accidentally setting off booby traps in the labyrinths of jungles. Some would be merciful, the instant penetration of a poison dart arrow striking a skull. Others would bring the capitalist supports to their slow ends, leaving squadrons trapped in pits more than ten feet below the surface.

A bright white obstructs the darkness in his mind, an energy so warm and loving it brings him the euphoria that even the drugs of the counterculture movement can’t conjure. The light fades away, and he envisions himself standing upon a mountaintop, overlooking a civilization with boxcars acting as barricades. Within the boundary, a city with a familiar site known as Lombard Street. The winding road twists up a hill like a drunk stumbling home from a bar. Brownstone apartments, arrays of solar panels, and fertile plantations bring a vegetative aura to the settlement. Zeppelins rise from the opening roofs of warehouses, displaying their confidence unto the lone figure.

Next to him, a shadow emerges from a black cloud. Ignatius recognizes this figure as the physical manifestation of the evil presence he felt when he didn’t save Violet.

“This can all be yours,” it says with a growl. “You have the golden opportunity to own everything.”

“I believe in God, now. You can’t effect me; I won’t allow it.”

“We both know you love controlling people. You gave orders on the battlefield, god damn it. People turned to you, because they respected you. You can have it all again, and this time people will venerate you. You’ll be their God. Why believe in Him when you can become Him?”

“I’m not going to turn back on someone who saved my life. He earned my loyalty today.”

“Ignatius… I know how unstable you are. You try taking these steps to become a better person when you wind up where you began after that moment of wanting to change passes. Your savior is only a pipe dream.”

“Why are you showing me this?”

“Because these people are lost. You have the proper experience to lead them.”

“You’re evil.”

“No, Ignatius. I’m Fear. Fear is the fuel behind survival, and you have the energy within you to turn that fear into production. This is my opportunity to live through you.”

“Are you a demon?”

“I’m entirely separate from religious beliefs. I only look like this because this is how you can physically perceive an emotion.”

“So… If I make them afraid… If I obtain power… If I play by the rules… They’ll know me.”

“Yes.”

The blackness consumes his mind again, and he’s sent back to a childhood memory. He’s in a Louisiana swamp cabin, standing next to his dad. Before them, captive Civil Rights members. His dad holds a whip, ready to strike people who stop at nothing to protect liberty. The prisoners don’t cry or beg for help; they sit in silence, keeping their gazes to the wooden floorboards. Outside, crickets chirp and buzzards feed on animal carcasses.The cabin’s open front door reveals a dock leading to an airboat.

His father nudges him on the shoulder, displaying the whip. “Son, you know what you have to do.”

“But I-” The father smacks him, sending the boy stumbling backwards. “I don’t want to hurt them! What did they do?”

“What the fuck did you just say?!” Foam forms on the corners of the tyrant’s lips. “These communist motherfuckers are tainting the safety of the Jim Crow laws! The girl? She drank from a water fountain for colors only! The boy? He went to prom with a black girl! This is unacceptable and it makes us weak! We need to free America from these vermin!”

For the first time in his young life, Ignatius feels fear, a selfless kind of terror. He wants to jump onto the airboat, but his father forces him the whip for the second time. He shoves the kid over to the captives, laughing as if he’s in the middle of listening to a comedian. The kid stands over these innocent martyrs, the whip’s handle rolling in his trembling hand. Its straps dance across the floorboards, as if Ignatius is puppeteering an empty presence. He raises the whip cautiously, purposely stalling every second he can. The anger in his father boils like water in a tea kettle, and he bounds over to his son, grabs his arm, and forces the boy to strike. Shrieks ring out through the empty swamp, and the insects pause their songs.

“LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO!” his father screams. “You could’ve just listened to me the first time! It’s going to be so much worse for them now!”

The seconds go by in quick flashes of blank intervals. Ignatius closes his eyes, struggling against his father’s strength. Why does his mom defend somebody like this? Can she be too far gone under his authority? The captives cry out in agony, screaming for their superiors to stop. The beating lasts for twenty minutes, the final strike hitting the boy, who finally dies from the abuse. Ignatius drops the whip, gazing over this act in horror, backing away from the scene.

“Do you want to know why I keep you alive?” his father grunts. “Because murder’s illegal.”

“I’m not killing myself,” Ignatius retorts. “I don’t care what it takes, but I’m getting away from you.”

“YOU LIKE YOUR LIFE, YOU HYPOCRITICAL BASTARD! YOU LIVE OUTSIDE OF POVERTY BECAUSE YOU ARE ABOVE IT! WHO ARE YOU WITHOUT THIS MONEY? WHAT KIND OF SCUM WILL YOU BECOME? YOU WANT TO RUN AWAY AND MAKE SOMETHING OF YOURSELF? You won’t. And that’s what you can’t comprehend. You can’t run, because the fortune is too alluring. If you really wanted to, you would’ve left a long time ago.”

That night, Ignatius and his family sit around a dinner table in their mansion. His mother shakily cuts her steak, sunglasses covering black eyes. His father sits confidently in his suit at the end of the table, devouring the portions as if he’s living out a Chinese famine. The son stares down at his plate, hearing the whip crack across terrible thoughts.

“Son,” his father starts. “Eat.”

He reluctantly obeys. After dinner, he cleans off his plate and goes outside to check the mail. Opening it, he retrieves a small, yellow envelope. Tearing it open, he reads the draft for the Vietnam War. Tears of joy form in his eyes, dripping off his cheek and dampening his source of relief.

He wakes up from this nightmare in a fit of coughing. Opening his eyes, a room with four white walls and a low ceiling. An IV bag injects blood into the broken survivor, and a heartbeat monitor chimes in from the righthand side of the room. Looking through the window in the opposite wall, he sees the distant signs of civilization. Brownstone apartments line tightly-packed streets, and members of a lower class pass over asphalt roads in horse-drawn carriages. The wealthy ride in vehicles, insinuating a clear division of power.

The door of his room opens, and a bald, male doctor enters the room in a white hooded coat. He carries a clipboard in his hands, mimicking the old way of life.

“Good morning,” the doctor says with a smile. “I’m Dr. Samuels. You’ve been out for a while.”

“Why did they keep me alive?”

The healer examines his leg. “You weren’t with the tribe. We exterminate all tribes. The garb is a clear indicator, too.”

“Is this San Francisco?”

“Yes. You’re very lucky to have made it.”

Ignatius almost jumps out of his bed. “Please, I have so many questions. I just… need to understand this place. I’ve been on the road for so long; an explanation is the least I deserve.”

The doctor lets out a mournful sigh. “Honestly, it’s not the best place on Earth. The political side of the city is almost on fire because of our President, Hudson. He’s bringing this entire city down, and nobody’s willing to stand up to him. He has this wife, our First Lady, Marisa. She’s… not fit for her position. People spread rumors about them all the time, from abuse to human trafficking.”

“How long has this place been here?”

The doctor acts as if he doesn’t want to remember the early days of San Francisco, putting on a facade that he’s grateful to share the origin story. “The walls started going up under the authority of our first President elect, Vincent Wyatt. Wyatt had an idea to bring the American Dream back to us. The Dream gave us an excuse to come together to build a sanctuary. We got the boxcars from rail yards, stacking them on top of each other with cranes powered by vegetable oil. We built our own solar panels, and everyone grow food on windowsills until we got the proper materials to construct plantations. Dewey’s arrival changed everything. He was an economic advisor before the collapse, and he helped Wyatt build a minting facility on Alcatraz. Ever since the reintroduction of money, nothing has been the same.”

“Why the hoodies?”

“Part of our belief system stems from occultism. People need something to hold on to, and occultism gives them that.”

Ignatius feels a spark of pain in his leg, and he asks, “How long will I be in here for?”

“Well, from the state of your leg, I’d say about a week. The prongs didn’t even touch your veins, but they did damage muscle. We’re going to have to examine it more, but with the drugs we have, you won’t feel us poking or making any area feel uncomfortable. You have a strong chance for complete recovery.”

The days pass quietly, Ignatius feeling very fortunate to be here. He watches the city through the window, getting a feel for its vibe. From what he can see, everything the doctor said is true. One evening, the citizens form a parade to boost patriotic morale, but the event stirs conflict revolving around different viewpoints. Before a riot breaks out, the city’s military unit shows off its power, and the people simmer down. The parade continues on a much different aura, and everyone’s thankful for its end. The selfless poor protest on street corners, demanding higher wages and an income they can live off of. Signs display rouge messages of criticisms towards capitalism, the city’s labor laws, and President Hudson.

From this vantage point, a fire ignites in Ignatius’ heart. It isn’t a fire borne from evil, but a fire borne from a genuine interest in making the city a better place. As the hours of recovery pass, this gives him time to focus on this new idea. He plans on exposing himself to the city’s political climate, feeling passionate emotions for the people run through him. He envisions himself standing alongside their protests, standing behind podiums with crowds listening to what he has to say, to what he has in store for their futures. He sees himself taking a noble, honest stance against the forces that aim to take away peace. However, behind this wishful thinking, he still thinks about what happened to Violet. He tells himself to forgo the regret, but he still remembers the strength of the dark force that stopped him from saving her. Can he stop it to save himself?

The day finally comes where he’s able to leave this crippling life behind. Emerging from the city’s hospital, he shields the sun’s rays from his face. The doors close behind him, and he listens for that inevitable slam, the sound that separates his old attitude from his new one, but the noise never comes.

Instead, he hears a female’s voice screaming, “Ignatius, wait!”

He turns, a young redhead following his tail. “Who are you?”

“Marisa,” she says, gasping for breath. “I’m glad I could catch you on the way out. I was calling your name, but you weren’t listening.”

“Marisa? Aren’t you the First Lady?”

She blushes, the paparazzi recognition never getting old. “Yes. I just wanted to see you because I want to hear your story.”

“My story? What makes me so important?”

“You’re the first lone survivor to reach us within two years. I want to invite you to dinner; you can tell Hudson and I about yourself.”

“Well, if that doesn’t bother you. I… I don’t want to seem like a burden, but I don’t exactly have anywhere to stay. They just kind of kicked me out.”

A sudden smile bursts on her face. “We have a guest room. I feel confident you’ll like it.”

Later, Marisa drives a limousine to the front doors of a gargantuan palace. Marble walls compliment its golden braces, and large windows display murals depicting prominent scenes and artifacts from the Bible. The Arc of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and the hidden scriptures beneath the Vatican, with only imagination to conjure a theoretical, momentary picture so insignificant yet its mystery continuously withstands time. A miniature statue of Christ the Redeemer blossoms from a flowing fountain in the front yard, seemingly inviting members of any class to come it, but a feeling inside Ignatius knows this as a red hearing. They ride past the site, Ignatius examining the statue thoroughly.

Marisa parks the limo in the driveway and ushers Ignatius inside, wherein he basks in the warmth of the entrance hallway. Lit chandeliers line the walls, their lights casting ominous shadows across the length of the oaken interior. Footsteps echo towards them from the far end of the hallway, preceding the sound of a door closing. A figure taller than either of them emerges from the depths with a cane, the chandeliers casting an eerie glow over his old, pale face. The age difference between him and Marisa astounds Ignatius, but he keeps these comments to himself.

“Hello,” Hudson starts, extending a clammy hand. “We’re both pleased to have you hear.”

Ignatius accepts the gesture. “What’s on the menu?”

Hudson chuckles. “The Midwestern special. Cornbread, fried potatoes, and beans.”

The world takes Ignatius back to just a few days ago, when he was eating whatever he came across. “I don’t remember the last time I’ve had food of that quality before.”

Hudson eyes him in astonishment. “How didn’t you go crazy out there by yourself?”

Marisa intervenes. “This should be saved for dinner, honey.”

Hudson rolls his eyes, leading them down the hallway. “The dining room’s right this way.”

Entering the dining room, Ignatius finds an ornate table set up for the evening. Three plates of food sit idly in front of throne-like chairs; glasses of red wine compliment the servings. Everyone takes their seats, Hudson at the end of the table, Marisa to his left, Ignatius to his right. This is supposed to be dinner, so why does Ignatius feel like he’s in an interrogation chamber? Pushing this feeling aside, they begin eating, Ignatius savoring every last morsel. The warm food of immaculate preparation is almost too much for him to handle, and an unknown hunger within him rages. For years, he was a scavenger, but now, he’s finally king.

After drinking the wine, Hudson breaks the ice. “Do you remember the early days, Ignatius?”

He stops eating, laying down his utensils. “Yes.”

“Where were you?” Marisa asks.

Ignatius almost forgets, but an image of his dad’s football jersey flashes in his mind. “New York. I belonged to a very fortunate family, until the draft came.”

Marisa gasps, “The draft? Were you scared?”

He shakes his head. “It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”

Hudson recalls a memory. “I was a thousand years younger, but I used to be a judge in Oklahoma. I already knew how to play the game. Have you ever heard Hitler’s backstory?” Ignatius shakes his head. “In World War 1, Hitler served in the trenches alongside the Germans. One day, a British soldier approaches him. Hitler’s weak, defenseless, but the British soldier, against all odds, lets him live. The war ends, and the world blames Germany. Hitler goes back to his country and rises to power, using rhetoric that amounts to making Germany great again. This sparks World War 2 in the 1940s. It’s the Butterfly Effect, Ignatius. What I want to do is use choice to my advantage. Choice matters.”

“When I was in the hospital,” Ignatius starts. “I watched the city. I observed its characteristics, its socioeconomics. It made me want to join your government.”

Marisa’s heart drops. “Hudson, I think-”

“Shut up,” the President interrupts. “This guy hasn’t even been here a week and he wants to play a game he’s never even picked up the controllers for.”

“I’m sorry for offering my service,” Ignatius retorts with a quiet look of offense.

Marisa shakes her head. “Let’s just change the subject, shall we?”

Hudson obliges. “Why don’t you tell Ignatius about Leo, Marisa.”

All the color drains from Marisa’s face, even her red hair turns white. The name brings her back to the worst moment of her life, a moment wherein violence and evil become inseparable. She drops the fork and knife, clearing her throat. “I… I watched somebody drown. I didn’t save them, though. I could have. It was this boy, he was too innocent for this world. What I did was-”

“Merciful,” Hudson finishes. “Tell me, Ignatius, how do you define mercy?”

Ignatius wipes his lips with a napkin. “Leniency. It’s like striking oil nowadays.”

Hudson smirks. “You obviously haven’t seen our refineries then. We are a civilization that thrives off providing mercy… after conquering other civilizations. We take control because we have to. Because this civilization needs growth, recognition, and fear. We go for those we see as vulnerable, defenseless, and weak.”

“How many colonies are under your control?” Ignatius asks coldly.

“Twelve and we’re only growing. So is our army, too. You see, there’s a formula to this game, a mathematical calculation behind power and control. Leonhard Euler had a great influence on mathematics, but he forgot one thing: these numbers are in our head. If they’re in our head, if we can transmute them and channel them into existing in this reality, we can do the same thing with thought.”

After dinner, Hudson leads Ignatius down the hallway while Marisa tends to the dishes. The President leads him into the guest room, where they talk in private.

“I’m sorry about that,” Hudson states. “You’re our guest; I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”

“I feel quite the opposite,” Ignatius insists. “This place in heaven to me.”

“Marisa,” he sighs. “She’s still stuck in the past. She has a hard time moving on from things. People are a lot more vulnerable now; this is part of the formula that makes them easy to control. The smart become aware of this and do what they please.”

“Why are you telling me this if you don’t believe I can make it in politics?”

“I never said it was impossible.” Hudson grins. “That passion you felt when you were injured… I felt that same passion, too. Somewhere along the line, I lost site of who I was. I have completely different goals now; the power consumes you if you’re not careful. Play your cards right, and only then can you begin to understand the significance of every action, no matter how big or small.”

“This… is advice. You’re preparing me.”

“Yes. I see hope in you.”

With that, Hudson leaves the room. Later, Ignatius lays in the bed, gazing blankly at the oaken ceiling. Faint shouting from a nearby bedroom keeps him awake, the curiosity sealing his insomnia. Just hours ago, Hudson portrayed himself as a kind man with a few fissures in his morality. Now, it’s clear that that’s not the case.

The President barges into his quarters, wherein Marisa straightens her hair. The sudden boom makes her jump, and she drops the device, jumping out of her seat to protect herself. A red glow of anger on his face tantalizes any sense of control, and she cowers against the edge of the king-sized bed. Tears s-

well in her eyes, and he looks like a cartoon character before steam shoots out of the nose and ears. There is no motive behind this outburst, no meaning or rhyme. Sometimes Hudson just wants to show off his power over her, to force her into a submissive state of mind. He’s nothing without her, but she can’t leave him. No matter how much he wants to, the gravitational force of his abuse brings her back, like a satellite caught in the orbit of a gas giant. From Ignatius’ room, he hears lamps breaking, abrupt shouting matches, and shrieks for help. He doesn’t know what to do, nor does he want to make the situation worse. If he intervenes, Hudson won’t let him participate in any political affairs. If he doesn’t, Marisa will turn into another Violet. That name triggers the fleeting sensation of evil, that devil-like emotion that even the most negative words can’t describe. At this resurgence, he climbs out of bed, enters the hallway, and crosses over to the room from whence the cries emerge. Gulping, he knocks on the door, and the muffled struggling ceases.

It opens, and a weeping Marisa opens the door. “Please… go away.”

“Let me talk to Hu-” The door opens wider, and the old President towers over the defenseless girl. “Oh, hello.”

Hudson smiles, the audacity of the bastard. “Did we wake you?”

“I’ve been awake,” he states. “Listen, if I’m a guest here, I need you to treat me like one. I can’t be the witness for this kind of shit unless you want to keep your reputation.”

The President chuckles, realizing the cards he’s playing. “You’re clever. You want us to be quiet? Fine. But if I catch your ass snooping, I’ll kick it to the curb.”

Ignatius nods his head. “Duly noted.”

It’s in this moment where Marisa falls in love with him. Nobody has ever stood up to Hudson before out of the fear of it backfiring. Hudson’s response surprises her, because he usually never takes anything from anyone. Perhaps he saw something in him that she didn’t see; whatever it was, she sees it now. She needs a man like Ignatius in her life, someone who’ll protect her from harm’s way. Codependency is something she fails to recognize; it seals her doom with everyone that intrigues her, but with Ignatius, she doesn’t feel doubt. This is real. And when love is real, only a fool passes on such an opportunity.

After Hudson shuts the door, and after a whispering war, the President falls asleep, but Marisa remains awake. Upon hearing the telltale signs of sleep, she quietly removes the covers and falls to the floor with a distant thud. Reaching under the bed, she produces a small wooden box of her own creation. Laying it on the floor, she opens the lid, revealing an empty interior. She wraps her hand around the false velvet bottom and pulls it out, smiling upon the site of a palm-sized baggie. Inside, four grams of cocaine  from a rogue cultist. She unzips the back and lines up the blow, enjoying every second of its nasal consumption. Euphoria overwhelms any possibility of sadness, and the room around her spins as if her mind’s riding an invisible carousel of time. Her body shivers under the artificial, temporary happiness, and her heart rides the waves of a tsunami. This is why she stays with him; if she didn’t have anything to escape from, what would be the point?

A loud banging at the door wakes Ignatius up from a dream. Angry, he climbs out of bed, wondering what time it is. He rubs his eyes and opens the door, and Marisa charges him with romantic embrace. Ignatius accepts, giving in to the First Lady’s seduction. They collapse on his bed in a volcanic eruption of lust, false perceptions of love ringing out through the now endless night. After her climax, they rest, gazing into each other’s blue-green eyes.

“You know what I want,” Ignatius states. “Can you give it to me?”

In her unstable consciousness, she says, “Yes, I’ll do anything I can to get you.”

Lying, he replies with, “What makes you think you don’t have me already?”

She leaves an hour later, sneaking back into the President’s bed like a rapidly growing mold specimen. The dark night pours over a sleepless Ignatius, who can’t stop thinking about his next move. He decides to trust Hudson’s advice before the intervention, anything he says now is up to speculation. He replays what Hudson said in his mind. “This guy hasn’t been here for a week and he wants to play a game he’s never picked up the controllers for.” What gives him the right to assume those things? What power does he hold over him? Is it the aristocratic mindset, hypnotizing its host through fame, fortune, and popularity?

Unable to sleep, he climbs out of bed, roaming the empty halls in the wee hours of the morning. At some point, he finds an art gallery, wherein he basks in the poetic interpretations of life. Marble statues rest lifelessly over dangling chandeliers, paintings from obscure artists line the walls, and artifacts of unknown value hide beneath the protection of clear glass boxes on pedestals. One painting in particular speaks to him, and he stands before it in awe. Beneath it, a golden plaque reads, “Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix”. The way the woman appears, reaching for victory with the rest of her men, hits Ignatius like the first toke of DMT. It represents a certain part of his life he thought the universe forgot about, when he was charging into those jungle battles, battles which took place in a territory and ecosystem completely foreign to the freedom fighters. A deep sorrow grows within him, a feeling so ancient that a pharaoh’s soul wipes it of cobwebs. He gazes at the painting as if it’s his own reflection, a mirror from a different, distant dimension peeking into this one in less than a cosmic blink of an eye. This moment lasts only for a few seconds, but the stillness of Eugene’s genius makes him understand that time is eternal, that perception creates the minutes, seconds, and hours that go by.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” states Hudson

“Where did you find it?”

“There was an art museum here before we tore it down. It had all these… great works that I could’t let go of. So, I stored them in this room.”

“So you built the Presidential Palace?”

“Yes, before that the Presidents would sleep in luxurious secrecy on Alcatraz.”

“Why do you do that to Marisa?”

“Ignatius, sometimes you have to show people how to be strong. Marisa, she was weak before she met me. Now that she has something to endure, it hardens her.”

“I want to like you, Hudson,” Ignatius starts. “But you make it hard for me to have any form of respect for you whatsoever. You physically beat her; even I wouldn’t do that to someone. I think you’re a coward.”

“You will not talk to me like that in my goddamn palace.”

“That’s why I’m not sleeping here tonight.”

The years pass by in a mass stream of consciousness. Ignatius becomes a self-starter, joining protests and negotiating with Marisa behind Hudson’s back. Through blackmail, paying off debts, and signing life-threatening contracts, she gets Ignatius into the system. The democratic government operates from their capitol building, the Colosseum, a masterpiece right in the middle of the city. The ideology completely revives the values and standards of the Constitution, with additions by the sane and insane. T-

he catch is that once a law is written it cannot be undone, for the Constitution is a sacred record, and nobody has the power to tarnish its originality. Laws work differently here, for there is no electoral college, ballots, or voters. The President is given five laws during Sessions, written by the sane and insane; his job is to put the most beneficial one into practice. There are four Sessions during each Presidential term, one for each year the elect is in office. The people don’t even have the power to vote for a President; that job is at the mercy of the Elite, high-ranking acolytes of the current President, concurrent to a Cabinet.

As the sands of time fly in eternal winds, Ignatius acclimates himself to this strange environment. He shaves his head, cleans himself up, and dons a white robe, its hood always covering his head. He slowly realizes why this is the standard uniform here. In prison, inmates experience something similar to downplay any sense of individuality. Where there are no individuals, there are no individual thoughts. It’s manipulation, a literal form of hiding in plane site.

Ignatius takes note of some interesting events during this time. He oversees construction projects secretly, spying on the architects of their design; at one point, a train station forms before his eyes, built into the East Wall as if it’s meant to go beyond the boundaries. After talking to Marisa about this, she replies blankly, “It’s the law.” This convinces him that someone has foreknowledge of the city’s progression, that there are people who have a vision that they want to bring to life, and they’re hiding beneath his nose. He spends weeks trying to find out who’s who in this city of the damned, and a list of names emits from the fading granite tip of a pencil by candlelight.

Dewey Duke, the economist. Like the doctor said, everything changed after his arrival. Duke currently leads the minting production on Alcatraz, and people around here say he’s a con artist, that he scams prisoners out of their welfare for a lifetime of labor. This means that even when a prisoner serves their time on the island, they still have to work in the minting facility. The judge just gives them a prison sentence, not a work sentence after all.

The warden of the prison, Victor Harolds, can fill in the blanks with Dewey however he chooses. Victor Harolds has been the warden ever since the re-founding of San Francisco. He rules over his captives with an iron fist, and legend has it that he keeps the human skulls of his victims in his office. Candles apparently rest in their mouths, flickering across the walls in a pattern broken by teeth and orifices, a true jack-o-lantern.

Overpopulation spikes at certain periods, but sometimes, Ignatius notices empty houses where residence once lived. One day, occupation, the next, abandonment. He doesn’t know where the people go; he pretends to be unaware of it, out of the fear that whoever hears him talking about the subject has the power to send him away.

Protests against Hudson skyrocket, and Ignatius takes this opportunity to join protests in an effort to gain public morale. He holds conferences with prominent civil activists, gains the trust of the Forchester surname, a very famous family in the Elite class, and even hosts parties in the city’s underground clubs. His personality is unique to them, and he feels confident that the people are on his side. Some nights, he lets himself go, doing drugs like MDMA and Codeine; unbeknownst to him, some government officials follow him, taking pictures of his shortcomings to bolster doubt.

In some cathedrals, he speaks to the churchgoers about his backgrounds with religion. He tells them the story about when he was captured, that moment when his life became God’s. Crowds cheer and venerate his bravery, and Ignatius grins, remembering Hudson’s advice.

He uses the city’s current issues and formulates his own opinions while reflecting how the public feels. Using his time wisely, he expresses his personality by becoming the city’s only comedian. Through his daily practices, he invents a craft of his own, displaying himself by pointing out Hudson’s flaws and captivating audiences through his dark humor. In one performance, he briefly mentions Violet before turning the subject to Athena, his lost pet bird.

In the Election of 1982, he runs against Quinton Davidson in the Colosseum. Every politician in /the city gathers in the stands, listening to men in black suits behind podiums. The debates go on for weeks until the politicians state their opinions. Davidson appeals to them more because of his plans to improve militaristic combat, to lay down on the fugitives who escape the plantations through an Underground Railroad, and to implement a sewage system. Ignatius tries to prove himself through another method: by appealing to their sense of humor. However, Davidson’s plans overshadow his performance, and Ignatius walks off the stage after the election, looking like a fool.

That night, he passes by Brownstones, holding Marisa’s hand.

“You need an agenda,” Marisa states. “You’re not going to sway them through skits.”

“I don’t want to hurt anyone like Davidson,” Ignatius grunts with frustration. “I actually want to make people feel better about this situation while also being their leader.”

Marisa scoffs. “Purity is nonexistent in the Presidency. Do you know how Hudson got elected? He proposed a human trafficking project. Remember the train station you were asking about? Those bastards in the Colosseum… they’re misanthropes.”

“You don’t understand,” Ignatius sighs. “I have this feeling, this… dark void in my heart. I’ve only felt it once, but it happened when… I watched a little girl drown. I didn’t save them, but I could have I didn’t even feel that in Vietnam.”

“That’s like me with Leo.”

“Yes, exactly.” They stop walking, and Ignatius looks into her eyes. “Why do they want to hurt people as if they’re nothing more than meat on a conveyer belt?”

“I didn’t make the rules; that’s just how this place works.” A lightbulb goes off in her head. “Lie.”

“What?”

“Lie to them. Tell them all the bad things you want to do, and then when you get elected, don’t do it. Do what you want to do.”

“They’ll call my bluff; they know how to read people.”

“Just trust me. Do you want your life to change? Do you want to rise above your doubts? You were hypocritical for calling Hudson a coward, because that’s what you’re being right now.”

She walks away.

Four years later, after greatly improving himself, he runs against John Calvin, the founder of his own Calvinistic philosophy. John immediately appeals to the occult, pioneering new ideas on how to spread the word of God. He proposes concerts, fairs, and the abolition of the dollar bill because of its decreasing value. It’s here wherein Ignatius recognizes how he can accept and overcome his loss; the debate coordinators never ask him anything first. For some reason, they always start off with the guy to his left. When Ignatius gets a chance to propose his ideas, they’re already focusing on what Calvin wants.  It’s strange how one topic can captivate millions while also blinding them.

John defeats Ignatius in the end, giving our antagonist more time to prepare for the next show. In the Election of 1990, he runs against Fiona Forchester, Fabian’s wife. The Forchesters are crucial to San Francisco’s operation; their wealth and generosity fan away any feelings of paranoia or doubt. They volunteer at fire stations, donate to hospitals, and have a great influence on how things work in the Colosseum. It’s here where Ignatius finally gives in to Marisa’s words; he speaks before she can.

“I know you all think I’m a nobody,” Ignatius states. “But I can assure you that there’s more than meets the eye. I have been trying to gain your attention over the past twelve years, and if  I lose today, I’m not going to stop.” That damn feeling of pure evil rises within him, and the more he accepts it, the more the crowds appear intrigued. “I need you all to heed my words. I’m well aware of our overpopulation crisis, and I’m aware of how we can solve it more efficiently.” The darkness that killed Violet consumes him again, and the evil within fuels his words. “That train station we’re building, we can link it up to wherever we’re sending the victims who’re in their houses one day but gone the next. Whatever you guys are doing to them, we can make them disappear at a faster rate. We need to conquer more colonies and turn them into puppet states. Destroying them is a dumb decision when they have valuable resources that we need. Before the Civil War, plantation owners had these contraptions that went over the heads of slaves; it was a device with a bell on it that, when activated, would crush the victim’s head instantly. If we had that for our slaves, people wouldn’t be too keen on joining the Underground Railroad.” For once, they cheer at his words. For once, he feels a strange mixture of evil and gratitude, and whatever the former emotion is, it gives him this power, so he lets it take him over.

After the debates, the Colosseum finally elects Ignatius. That evening, he arrives at the Presidential Palace, where he tears down the Christ the Redeemer statue. Before entering, he hears the familiar call of a bird landing behind him. Turning, he spots Athena in all her glory, smirks, and invites the bird inside.

Now, several years later, Ignatius finds himself staring into the eyes of a beaten Hellen. Beneath the curtain of darkness, a pistol in his hand. “Do you want to know the meaning of that story? Hellen, I let immorality consume me, because it let me win. I’m getting my people into this mindset, because that’s how we become feared. That’s how you get people to fall in line. You scare them, they become vulnerable. What you did kicked the wasp’s nest, and now you go down with Babylon.” He raises the gun to her head, cocking the pistol with a grin. “Why did you want to do this? Some part of you should’ve known how this was going to end.”

Sobbing, she replies, “Ever since you got elected, I wanted things to change. I saw what you were going to do with the slaves, and I wanted to end the inevitable massacre. Do you know how many people you’ve killed with those things? 23,670. I have a book filled with every first and last name of your victims. I was the one who pioneered the Underground Railroad, and now other people are following in my steps. People like me, we don’t go away. People like you just create more of us. This isn’t who we are, and you know it.”

Ignatius pulls the trigger. A bright light entwining with a deafening blast bursts through the chamber. Athena flaps her wings, lets out a cry, and shoots up to the rafters along the ceiling. The President lowers the gun and leaves, hearing Athena descend to pick at the corpse’s flesh.

Timothy leans over the safety rails, holding the spot on his stomach where Ignatius shot him . He overlooks the workings of complex machinery; steam-powered engines ignite the lives of conveyer belts, gargantuan pistons, slag collectors, saws, gears, gizmos, and nameless diamonds in an alchemist’s rough. Humans are the puppeteers of the machine world; we pull the strings so they can make what we need. Every time Timothy watches this scene unfold before him, he usually feels accomplishment, pride, and greed. Now he feels anxiety. He wears protective eye equipment, shielding his eyes from the excess molten material from ores, whose supply is extremely low. A layer of sawdust covers the main floor, and workers pour every ounce of energy they can into making guns and ammunition.

They all fear the day when things run dry.  What tactics will they resort to just to keep existing?  Timothy turns away, rejecting these thoughts. In his office, he finds his tome, opening it to a blank page. Dipping a quill in ink, he scrawls out his mindset as if preparing for everyone to see a silver platter.

The days are much longer now. The fields are gone, and what we have in the silos won’t last us through winter. We were just about to harvest the greenhouses; everything feels so… premature. My men are tired, sleepless, and frail. The war effort is futile in my opinion. Even with what we’re making now, it won’t be enough. Enough is never enough anymore. It’s getting to the point where I can’t tell a bullet from a whisper. I

Knocking interferes with his progress. He opens the door, and in comes the queen, cradling Alice. Her prosthetic hand rubs the infant’s hair as it snores against her chest.

Timothy smiles. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice you were pregnant. Forrest had to tell me near the end.”

“You have your projects,” Echo says, closing the door behind her. “I need a favor from you.”

“And what’s that?”

“I’m going to fight in the war; I don’t care what Forrest thinks. I’m more useful with my people. During this time, I need you to adopt Alice. I don’t want her to be alone, and I can’t find a nanny; everyone in the city is too scared for their own families. “

“Echo, I wouldn’t have any time for her. She’d be alone in this room for an unknown amount of time. I don’t even have a crib for her to sleep in.”

“Weren’t you the one who always wanted more recognition than Merlin? This is your golden opportunity. If you do this, people will notice and respect you for taking care of the Monarchy’s child.”

  “Who will lead us when you’re gone?”

“We live under Martial Law for now. The guards here are your leaders, and they communicate with us before they do anything. In a way, we’re still leading.”

  “How will that communication be possible?”

“By creating our own temporary Pony Express.”

Timothy shakes his head. “Everything’s getting more complicated by the day. Sometimes I wish… he would’ve just killed me on the scene. Why do you think he let me live?”

“Psychopaths have their own way of doing things, believe me.”

“Does it make a difference anymore, to be a psychopath or an empath?”

“Why do you think I don’t what Alice to experience alienation? Yes, it makes a difference.”

The gunsmith shrugs his shoulders. “You’re right. I’m going to find some blankets so I can set her up in a drawer. Hell, if they invade us, she’ll probably be safer in here.”

Echo smirks. “That’s the spirit.”

Outside Portland, Oregon, a man emerges from the sewage system, climbing through the open mouth of a manhole. Across his chest, a satchel; on his face, the scars of distant fights and tormentors. One scar is in the shape of the number thirty-three. He takes a deep breath, decompressing after sneaking through a city filling itself up with militaristic outposts. Where did these people come from? What are their motives for settling on unnecessary property? He gets a bad feeling for the Road, but disregards it for the sake of his own sanity.

The man reaches into his satchel, producing a compass. A smirk forms upon the affirmation that he’s going down the right path. Repeating the directions, he says in a whisper beneath the pitch of howling snowfall, “46.1879 degrees north, 123.8313 degrees west. Astoria.” Nodding, he presses onward, away from an impending conflict of historical proportions.

The Babylonian knights march with steady pacing alongside their Stallion brethren; nobody can skip a beat in this line of work. Behind them, medics walk alongside the pushers of cannons and the carriers of gunpowder barrels. Uncertainty and motivation become their engine, they grit the fuel. They hold shields in front of their iron breastplates; swords rest in leather scabbards and straps keep Timothy’s guns against their backs. Heather and Forrest lead the pack on horseback; the king wears his own set of armor, a crown, and a black cape. Heather dons a bulletproof mask, vest, and copper leggings. In her possession, a Thompson submachine gun. In Forrest’s, an AKM.

They reach a bridge that leads into the city; beneath it, bodies rest with the river’s frozen state.

“I have a proposal,” Heather states. “We take Pittock Mansion I’ve seen pictures of the place before; my relative lived there. It’s a fortress; we can use it as a stronghold for our effort.”

“We’re not separating during battle,” the king retorts. “We have to stick together. Safety in numbers.”

“That mansion is the key to our victory. The location, the magnitude, the interior vantage points. We take it, we win. It’s a stronghold; you know we need one, too. Either way, you put me in charge, and if I see a chance, I’m taking it.”

Forrest chuckles. “When did you become so stubborn? Fine, have it your way. Just be sa-”

Bullets fly through the windows of bordering skyscrapers. The knights scatter, triggering a field of Bouncing Betties. The acolytes are already here, preparing the site for their own benefit. Heather rapidly gathers up a squadron of sixty soldiers; a falling skyscraper crumbles upon the road that connects her to Forrest, leaving her no choice but to fight towards the mansion. Whatever this is, it’s an unfair fight. Ethical rules broken, the disturbance of nature’s balance. Nobody feels guilt about what Echo’s doing at another battlefield right this very second.

Downtown, Forrest hides behind the remains of a police cruiser, aiming over its hood, at the acolytes who stand proudly upon windowsill after windowsill. Medics drag bleeding Babylonians into the lobbies of distant hotels and corporations; others prepare cannons behind metal shields and barricades of sandbags. Rusty military equipment from the early days lie beneath winter’s weight, thanks to the Russian EMP. The skeletons of helicopters rest in street craters, and FEMA tents reek of decay. During the riots, this city was a base of some sort. Evacuation signs line the facades of some buildings, proving this area k-

new more than the surrounding regions.

Ignatius is here somewhere; you have to find him. The king reloads his AKM. “Where would I even begin to look?” Follow the alleyway to your right. There aren’t any booby traps. There’s going to be a warehouse on the other side. He’s in there, preparing a cargo van for delivery. “How the hell do you know that?” You’ll understand soon enough. Before he rejects, a feeling of memorizing submission overwhelms any chance of rebellion. Despite his attempts to stay put, instinct prompts the king to follow their ambiguous path. Whether it be their control or him volunteering, he accepts. Whatever clues that help the Babylonians win is necessary.

He listens to the voices, slaughtering anybody that doesn’t wear armor. If it wasn’t for the Babylonians’ loyalty for the king, he’d already be dead. Several peasants sacrifice themselves for an idea borne of mental illness, the fact only known to Heather and Echo. He doesn’t understand why he told the commander. Was it the sickness that broke the straw of silence? Perhaps it was the pressure of keeping quiet all these years. Everything about that moment is a mystery to him; the strangest part about it is that he doesn’t feel regret. Revealing something like that should leave some sting behind, some afterthought of hindsight. He doesn’t recall feeling such an emotion. Was that nebulous haze of a choice the right one to make, or has he yet to suffer the consequences?

There! That’s it! His eyes land on the metallic garages of a giant compound. A steel door in the facade; no guards nearby. You’ll be fine; he doesn’t even know you’re here. He tries reloading his AKM, but gives up upon noticing a lack of ammunition. Dropping the gun and drawing the sword, he approaches the warehouse, gunfire echoing through the evening.

Gulping, he opens the door, revealing not a workshop, but the bedroom of his old house. A bright ray of sunlight from an unknown source casts a heavenly glow over the furniture. The universe shoves him inside, but he keeps a tight grasp on the sword’s hilt. He’s not in Portland anymore; he’s back in the 50s. A record player from the living room blares wartime propaganda. His mother sings Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine) by the Penguins. A dog barks in the front yard. The smell of cooking eggs relieves his sinuses.

He approaches the door to the rest of the house, wrapping his hands around the knob. How is this possible? This can’t be real. The king pushes it open, inviting whatever’s on the other side. He meets the old hallway, and the music abruptly stops. Pressing onward, he reaches his brother’s room. Wanting to see if this illusion can get anymore accurate, he peeks in. Upon seeing the President dangling from the ceiling fan, his heart drops. It shatters when Ignatius’ eyes open. The villain produces a dagger from his pocket and cuts the rope, dropping to his feet with a steady thud.

The Babylonian takes a violent swing, and he’s back in the warehouse. Before him, the archenemy, wielding a melee weapon longer and sharper than the king’s. Every strike they take sends Forrest back to childhood memories. These forces clash through his past, all while the world burns around them. The voices replace the President with people he believes he cares about. Echo, Heather, Merlin, Timothy. Terror consumes the monarch; any lethal swipe can mean the death of someone who actually deals with him. The room spins in a beautiful dance of the balance between life and death, of good and evil. Sweat drips to the cement floor, evaporating in mere milliseconds. If one’s life could depend on one wrong movement or stance, this moment is unjustifiable evidence of that idea.

A fatal miscalculation sends Forrest to his back. The President stands over him, knocking the king’s sword out of his hands. You see, your majesty, this is what you get for making the deal with them, way back when you met Marisa. You neglect to realize we can be manipulative, too.

“Do you think I want to kill you?” Ignatius shrieks, howling with laughter. “That would be too merciful.”

“I don’t care where I end up,” Forrest retorts. “As long as you’re dead after this, that’s all that matters.”

The President kicks the fallen monarch in his head. “No! You don’t get to say things like that anymore! Do you actually think you’re going to get away with what you’ve done? You didn’t think that there would be some balancing to counteract your ego? That’s my fucking job now, and you’re paying me for it!” He makes a beeline for the cargo van, returning with handcuffs. The totalitarian restrains the king against a pipe, one wrist separating the foe from a rabid death. “Do you want to know something, Forrest? We’re not different. All of your men are going to die because of your arrogance. What did you want to show off by starting this; didn’t you see my forces just now?”

Forrest spits in his face. “I will not forgo hope. I didn’t build Babylon over the course of thirty years for nothing; she has a voice, and it’s time people finally hear it!”

Ignatius kneels before him. “What makes you so dense? What causes you to reject the fact that we’re the same person? Is this war your cowardice move to avoid acceptance? Can’t you smell the blood of your people? Can’t you hear the screams from mine? Your life is built around these delusions of grandeur, and I want to be the one to make you see that.”

“We are-”

“DON’T SAY IT!” Distant explosions shake the building. “That cargo van I have is built under armored plating. When your people get here, I want them to see me take you hostage. Why the fuck did you decide to take me on alone?”

“Why do you want to be like me, Ignatius?”

“What?”

“I’m not repeating myself. Every time I see you, you always bring it up. Why do you idolize me like that?”

“Idolize? If anything, I look at you as the worst possible version of myself. Do you want to know the funny thing about life? A few moments and instances is all it takes for someone to become good or evil. You understand this; you deliberately chose the darker path. Pretty soon, I’m going to be just like you.”

“Is this what your life has become? Staring into the reflection of a downward spiral? You killing Alex started this. You came into a territory you had no permission to cross into. Nobody’s ever stood up to you before? That ends now. And if these are Babylon’s final hours, if she burns, so be it. At least you won’t step foot on her grounds.”

Ignatius chuckles. “Damn. You are a fighter, aren’t you? How many people have you killed?”

“More than you.”

Babylonian cannons strike the roof, and the President knocks the king unconscious. “Fuck, I thought I had more time.” Retaining his calm, he frees the Babylonian’s wrist from the pipe and drags him into the van’s cargo hold, escaping to Marisa’s fort

Elsewhere, Heather leads her own squadron of Babylonians to their final destination. Whilst fighting down winding streets, through the ruins of strip malls and skyscrapers, among the bodies from fallen survivors, they stumble upon the acolytes’ boobytraps. Bouncing Betties leap into the air, detonating  at less than a meter. Projectiles spray out in every direction imaginable. Thanks to the iron armor, most knights come out unscathed. However, some blasts severely injure the weaker ones, and they

collapse to the ground, welcoming their inevitable fate. Some fall into pits dug right out from the center of an asphalt pathway. Poison darts strike the exposed parts of many, killing them almost instantly. The Vietnam War clearly gave inspiration for these jungle entrapments

The road to Pittock becomes the site for the bloodiest spot in the battle. Bullets, grenades, and the consistency of the pair rips Portland apart from the seams. To the millionaire isolationist taxpayer, the worst part of war is the property damage; to the survivor, it’s dealing with their own actions. What would you do if you were in these streets, barely able to see more than ten feet ahead of you because of dust,  snow, smoke, and debris? How would you cope with the loss of a best friend, neighbor, or romantic interest? Would you watch them bleed, or would you run? In war, those are your two options when it comes to those moments.

Heather learns to use her time wisely. Strategy is borne out of patience, not selfishness. Through this philosophy, she guides the remaining Babylonians down this road from hell. During this time, she realizes that there is no difference between good and bad during war. Boundaries dissolve into a fray for your own life; a second and self-actualization hurtle everything into a melting pot of chance, risk, and reward. Desperation turns into your most useful tool against the enemy, and it’s all the Babylonians have.

At one point, the Commander triggers a bear trap, and metallic prongs cling to her iron leggings. The knights come to her aid, but a bomb lands just inches in front of the trap. It explodes, separating the leader from help. Medics break through, pulling her into a nearby pizzeria. Outside, the fighting continues; some acolytes follow Heather to the hideout, where knights protect the temporary triage center. On a table, Heather tears off the bulletproof mask, shrieking as medics peel off the bear trap, whose prongs are sharp enough to pierce through iron armor. The doctors scramble for their first aid equipment, retrieving stitches, rubbing alcohol, gauze, and painkillers. After stitching and dressing the wounds, she sits upright.

“Well?” a doctor asks. “Can you walk?”

She puts pressure on the leg, smiling upon managing to stand. “They didn’t puncture anything vital. The armor must’ve cushioned the impact.” Relief. A timeout. “Pittocks not far from here. When we get there, we have to be ready to pry it from those bastards’ hands.”

A knight approaches the door, scoffing. “You think they’re already there?”

“Any competent strategist would make it a stronghold.” She sighs. “There’s going to be a lot of people there; more than we’ve seen so far, probably. When we take it, we’re going to win. That’s all that matters. No sacrifice is pointless anymore.”

From here, grit fuels their survival. During the Battle of Thermopylae (August or September of 480 BC), 300 Spartans fought the Persian army until they all died. The Babylonians feel that same aura; the acolytes outnumber the knights in a ratio of 5:1. From what they see during battle, Heather’s troupe concludes that most of them are skillful at combat.

Finally, they reach Pittock Mansion, where the residents of San Francisco stockpile their resources. Now, only ninety-six knights remain; in the building, Heather calculates a range from 150 to 235. Low on ammunition, medical equipment, and energy, they conjure whatever motivation they can to bring Heather’s plan into reality. Acolyte snipers position themselves in the mansion’s windows, firing in unison at the approaching knights.

Pittocks architecture comes from the styles of a French Renaissance chateau. It was built in 1909 as a private estate for Henry and Georgiana Pittock. Henry was a publisher, active in Republican politics and the great-grandfather to Heather. Thanks to her background, the commander knows of several secrets that will be useful to them after they obtain the outpost. Memories of this place flow through that frail mi-

nd. On her fourteenth birthday (January 18th, 1943), after Henry’s death, her family gathered here to celebrate the announcement of Heather becoming the heiress to the Pittock fortune. She enjoyed the money for a few years, right up until the blackout. However, she’s glad the blackout took every material thing out of her life. The greed was getting to her head, and if she kept going down that road, she figures she’d turn out to be just like or worse than Ignatius.

She cowers behind an ice-cream truck, bullets zipping by in every direction. Some Babylonians fall from cases of friendly fire; others are crushed under the weight of vehicles after being launched into the air by grenades. Just when she thinks there’s no hope, cannonballs fly through the mansion’s windows, striking the snipers and sending them to their maker. The facade becomes the focal point of the conflict, and when the acolytes feel desperate, they charge out of the mansion, wielding melee weapons of all shapes and sizes, each blade reflecting the sun’s winter rays.

The Babylonians, now out of ammunition themselves, fight fire with fire. Iron clashes against steel; sparks from instant contact spray in every direction. Shields block fatal swings, and sighs of relief blend in with passing winds. It’s here where Heather declares this event the Siege of Pittock, cataloging it in her mind’s databanks. These gestalt moments will come together under her umbrella term, “The Babylonian War”. She thinks about how Merlin will teach about this day in the future, and this gives her the motivation to continue. In the back of her mind, she knows the other knights have these same thoughts. Somehow, they’ll get him back from the acolytes.

They eventually breach the stronghold, pushing the cultists into the building. In one of the topmost rooms, Brandon Sherman, Ignatius’ most trustworthy lieutenant, reloads a FN MAG. He wraps a coil of ammo around his shoulders, hoisting the heavy equipment into the air. Rage pulls him into the hallway, where he proceeds downstairs.

The tables turn against the Babylonians upon his arrival. Bullets pierce through armor, and Heather has to hide beneath the fallen knights to survive. She remains here as the clash continues, but miraculously, the Babylonians press on, believing in everything they can. Eventually, Brandon runs out of bullets, and the knights get the upper hand; the acolytes retreat, pouring into the mansion’s front lawn.

Her soldiers aid the commander to her feet. “We need to prepare this place; they’ll be back.”

A female volunteer asks, “Where do we start?”

Heather smirks. “Grab whatever guns you can, find whatever ammo you can, and position yourselves at the windows. I have a surprise for everyone.”

In the mansion’s library, she approaches a large painting. Smiling, she removes the artwork, revealing a hidden hatch on the other side. Wrapping her hands around its knob, she opens it, revealing a valuable stockpile of guns and boxes of ammunition. Henry was also a gun collector; he supported the second amendment, albeit a select few of the arms inside are illegal.

When the knights receive the weapons, confidence flows through the mansion like a cloud of gas.  Heather does another headcount, coming to the number thirty-five. They wait until nightfall for the next attack. Snow continuously falls from the sky, blanketing the front lawn in a heavenly, virgin white color. To Heather, this moment represents the worst side of the chaos and order paradigm. They’re all cold, scared, but waiting to protect an idea that’s clearly worth dying for now. Babylon has never experienced something like this before; however, an aura of understanding rings through her heart, for they’re all experiencing it together.

A knight standing beside Heather says, “Why didn’t you get the guns before they took over the mansion?”

“How was I supposed to know about Oregon’s involvement? I didn’t have enough time.”

The Babylonian soldier shifts his position, exhaustion consuming his psyche. “Tell me why we’re doing this. Is it just because of Alex?”

Heather scoffs. “He was your leader for years, and that’s how you honor him? What if it was? What if it’s simply because we can’t coexist with them?”

“Did Forrest want this?”

“He wants Babylon to succeed. Sometimes, kingdoms have to do this kind of shit to become empires.”

Suddenly, gas canisters land in the front yard. Poisonous mist emits from the equipment, and the Babylonians naively duck beneath broken windows, covering their faces with anything they can find. Some knights resist the clouds, firing into the darkness as black shadows approach the mansion like demons crawling out of hell. The acolytes don masks and suits to protect them against the forces of this terrible retaliation. What they have up their sleeve is bromine, a powerful chemical capable of melting flesh to the bone.

Abiding by intuition, Heather abandons the scene through a first-floor window overlooking the backyard; the Babylonians can’t afford to lose another commander, not at a time like this. A captain always goes down with their ship, but what happens when that captain is morally obligated to protect the future of the idea that built the ship? Will people only remember her as the woman who went AWOL from this moment on, or will she be lucky enough to have no survivors following that scent? Is it morbid to hope for the latter at the risk of banishment? Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet in the Late Middle Ages; he was exiled from Florence for being an absconder. Will that aura Frankenstein itself back into Babylon, a crude repeat of that mystic event?

That night, the cruelest form of slaughter occurs within Pittocks impenetrable walls. As poison engulfs the land, Babylonians rip off their armor, surrendering to Brandon, who guns dying knights down with his machine gun. By the time his reign ends, blood paints every surface imaginable. He notices the abrupt increase of their guns, stealing them. The lieutenant takes a moment to treasure the aroma of death, a thick crimson scent blending with copper. His men return to their regular duties before Heather’s arrival. They clear out the bodies, waiting for the gas clouds to disappear, but they don’t dig graves. Instead, Babylonian corpses now line the front yard, acting as a final warning.

The commander copes with her failure, returning to the fight downtown with an Owen Gun. Over ninety people, dead because of her within the course of an evening. Is this effort to change things futile? Combing over similar thoughts, Heather wonders what her next move will be. Gathering more Babylonians for a second attack? Finishing downtown? Which option contains the least amount of casualties? What saving grace can prevent their destruction? If Emperor Clovis gets a cross in the sky from God that helps his people win fights, that same force should allow Babylonians the power to conjure hellhounds to right the acolytes’ wrongs.

During her return downtown, Heather realizes that Alighieri’s crime wasn’t that he was an absconder; his true act was publishing a vision that the world wasn’t ready for. Babylon is analogous to this chain of thought, and it motivates the commander to push the AWOL event out of her head, for now at least. She can’t go back to Pittock; Brandon has his hands on what she was after anyway. What is she going to tell Forrest?

Outside of Portland, the king wakes up in the back of Ignatius’ van; its wheels rumble across some bumpy road in the boonies of the apocalypse. At some point, the Babylonian lost his crown and burnt away the purple cape. The material he wears are leather garments, which Ignatius put on during his

coma.

The voices did this on purpose; havoc is their only reason for existence. Snow howls outside the cargo hold, and distant gunfire fades quickly into the background. He rubs his eyes, acclimating himself. They knew this would be the outcome, and he fell for their seduction like he always does. Turning his head to the left, a hallucination of Echo sits quietly. She lays her cold, ghostly hands on his lap, and tears flow down the king’s cheeks. Pure exhaustion rings through his heart, letting everything out to this spirit.

“I’m… so tired, Echo.”

“Heather isn’t.”

Rubbing his eyes, he says, “What?”

“Pittock was a failure. More than ninety people, gone, and she left to survive during a gas attack.”

Bewilderment, heartbreak, and hopelessness. “Why did I trust her? Why do I trust you?”

“I’m Echo; why would I lie to you?”

“You’re a mirage.”

“Am I? Perhaps some part of me is permanently stuck to you. Do you think those voices of yours would know who I am had I not met you? There is an undeniable impact I have on you, and you know what it is: my submission to your control.”

He chokes on his words. “Why do you stay with me, after everything I’ve done to you?”

“I believe in Babylon. Although you’re a psychopath, I want it to succeed just as much as you do. Future generations will remember us, but I want them to remember it for good reasons.”

“Do you want to kill me?”

“If I did, we wouldn’t be talking.”

“Do you hate me?”

“I’m not allowed to do so.”

“Oh.”

“The thing is, Forrest, one day, this will come crumbling down around you. Everything about what you think you know about me will change, and when it does, you have to be ready. I’m starting to decode you’re game, and your selfish ego prevents you from comprehending my capabilities. You try using schizophrenia as a gift; you obsess over that need. I’m beginning to see who you really are.”

“Echo, I… I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

The apparition disappears. Shadows dance across the walls, whispers following their tails. The road grows bumpier, and it’s as if the van’s driving off-road now. Before the climax of this vision, the cab smashes into a tree, turning everything upside-down. The crash breaks the cargo hold’s doors open; winter’s screams flow into the mobile cell. Forrest doesn’t black out, but a severe headache forms in his cranium upon regaining stability. He stumbles outside, falling dazedly to his knees. Surrounding him, miles of bare bark corpses. How did they steer so far off course? Standing up, he scans the environment for any signs of the President. The monarch then investigates the cab, finding a broken windshield, an air-

bag, and an empty seat beneath puddles of blood. His eyes land on footprints leading away from the scene, into the woods. Malice grows with every step as he follows the trail like a bloodied tracking an escapee. Terminus is a word that means, “End of the line”, and whoever stands at the end of this one is the physical embodiment of that very definition.

The snowfall hastens, and nature covers up any leads. He finds himself stumbling through an empty landscape, with little protecting him from harm. Somewhere in the distance, a wolf’s cry echoes through desolation. Fear overwhelms his bravery, but he doesn’t know which way to go. Back at the van, he’ll find nothing; the same goes for if he continues down this path. When you’re lost, the only way out is through. The repetition of this mantra fuels the king’s motivation. Whether or not these hellhounds attack him is up to nature; if it’s his time, then it’s his time. Natural selection will never turn its back on the world’s balancing act, and who is he to take that power away from something so omnipresent?

Can you see it, Forrest? Do you know how close you are to becoming one of us? You fail to recognize that you are the victim of yourself. There’s a pack of wolves nearby, and they’re hunting you. We don’t have to lie to you anymore; you’re going to end up dead soon anyway.

He feels eyes peering at him from behind dead trees. This sensation exists all around him, as if there’re more than five stalkers. The worst part of this situation is its grounding in reality. What if the voices are playing tricks on him? How would it feel like to let one of these fanatical cryptids chew away at his arm? Is it pointless to search for a deeper meaning in this event? After all, a symptom of schizophrenia is believing that an ordinary event has special and personal meaning.

Silhouettes of ravenous beasts wax and wane into the endless mist; the Devil’s pets are circling, taunting the weak Babylonian as if they’re vultures flying high above their prey. Growling from behind stops all movement. Running ahead would be suicide; turning around would yield the same results. They say that God made the hardest choice by sacrificing his son for our sins. What if someone could be put in a worse situation than that?

A humanoid figure emerges from the storm; she’s at least thirteen-years-old, wears a tiara, and covers herself in a blue corset. In her left hand, the tip of a golden scepter.

Forrest stops. “Who are you?”

“You should know your own daughter by now, dad.”

He squints. “A… Alice?”

“Yes.”

“How can that be possible?”

“The mind is powerful. What’s that saying you were taught in school? Mind over matter.”

“Are you real?”

“Is anything around you real? Can your delusional conceptions of leadership withstand the sands of time?”

“I’m sorry.”

“For?”

“Leaving you alone. A king has to protect his people; I’m trying to show them that I’m not a fraud.”

“This is because of you dodging the draft during Vietnam, isn’t it?”

“How do you know that?!” he exclaims. “I had no choice! The army would’ve found out, and I would’ve been sent to an asylum! Do you know how hellish those places are?!”

She grabs him by the hand. “Come with me.”

“Where are you going?”

“You’ll see.”

Wolves pounce at them, showing their razor-sharp molars. White fur helps the animals blend in with their surroundings, like chameleons. When they attack, they disappear, leaving Forrest in a constant state of catatonia; Alice becomes the only thing that controls his movement. Further down the path, they come across a clearing. In the middle of it, gallows burning to the ground. Babylonian corpses encompass the murder machine; they’re all of Forrest’s victims, manifesting in one area to show how far gone he really is. The girl leads him to the bodies, gesturing over their deflating positions.

“Do you know how many of your own people you’ve killed?”

“No.”

“Do you know the effects such demonstrations have on the populace?”

“No.”

“When was the last time you felt regret?”

“I… I… why do you need to know that?”

Alice smirks. “Don’t worry, dad. Anything you say is completely confidential.”

His eyes fixate on the fire. “A few years ago, Echo went beyond the walls. This was during a time when anybody could. She was hunting, and this bear rips off her arm. The most captivating thing about this story is that she still managed to kill it. Do you want to know the first thoughts my brain came up with after I heard the story? At least we have more meat. That’s when I forced myself to feel sorry for someone else’s pain. I didn’t want the burden of an ego… I just wanted to care. I still want to care, but I… I don’t want to get too attached to anything. Anyway, after that event, that’s when we became isolationist.”

“Follow me again.”

“Isn’t the trail back to the van in the other direction?”

“All paths lead to the same destination. Everything happens for a reason. Just go with the flow.”

“You don’t understand; Babylon is at war right now. I have to be when my people. They’ll know who to thank after this is over.”

“So you’re only fighting for your ego?”

“Isn’t that why anybody fights beneath all the facades we project? Isn’t the act of survival something to be proud of? How about the act of helping your people?”

“You haven’t changed at all. Does some part of you want to get better?”

“OF COURSE! BUT WHO CAN I TRUST NOW?! IF I TELL ANYBODY, WE’D FACE REVOLUTION!”

“You weren’t afraid of that when you told Heather.”

He gulps, remembering that distant night in the hospital. “I was sick, delusional. I didn’t know what I was saying.”

“Have you two talked since then?”

“About the war, not… that, though.”

“Does Echo know you told her?”

“No, we’re going to talk about it when this is over.”

“In that case, let’s get a move on.”

Ten minutes of walking pass, and they happen upon the ruins of a slaughterhouse. A sign on the door reads NO TRESPASSING. Conscious of her decision, Alice leads him into the relic. Here, he begins coughing from winter’s exposure. The girl leads him to the main floor, where black, infinitely rotten carrion dangles from hooks. The cold doesn’t keep the swarms of maggots and flies from partaking in their usual behavior. Thankfully, this area seems to be a suitable hideout.

Alice sighs. “If you went back to the van, hypothermia. At least you just have a cough.”

“How long do I have to be here for?”

“Until the snowfall stops.”

“Did Ignatius make it?”

“How would I know that?”

  “You seem to know everything about me.”

“His people are traveling in mobile campsites, like the tribes. He’ll find one eventually.”

“Even if he’s wounded?”

“He wants to see you fall before he dies. I doubt the crash was fatal.”

“Do you know where we are?”

“Southern Oregon. A long ways from Babylon.”

“Where can I go from here?”

“Do you remember what Merlin said all those years ago? The path to heaven begins in hell. This is your hell, Forrest. This can be your chance to redeem yourself.”

Back downtown, Heather joins the Babylonian knights as they swarm a skyscraper. They flood into the lobby, drawing their blades against the forces of a seizable vantage point. The roof gives way to a perfect areal view of Pittock mansion, a vital pathway for the commander’s next decision.. With an urge of hope, the commander fights with her people to the top of the tower. The thing that terrifies her the most about war are the screams of the dying. Some cry out for God, begging for their father to just let them come home. With no available medics, people die on the scene. Heather feels guilty for surviving the bear trap incident, as if she needs to experience what they’re experiencing to get a full understanding of what she did to those people after the siege. She turns her focus away from these things, homing in on her fighting capabilities and bravery.

The skyscraper becomes vital to the Babylonian’s success. Stairwells and narrow hallways paint themselves in the blood of the weak. Smoke clouds build up from consistent gunfire, choking some to death. The battle damages the skyscraper’s structural integrity, and when the knights reach the rooftop, it sways slowly, barely noticeably, beneath their feet. They steal snipers from fallen acolytes, taking their positions along the rooftop. Below, the fighting continues in the streets. Who knows how long they have until their enemies reach them again?

Heather watches as expert shooters calculate wind currents. Their crosshairs focus on Pittock’s facade, finding humanoid shadows in the snowfall. Hellfire rains down upon their foes, surprising all inside the mansion. One Babylonian manages to find Brandon, but a fatal error sends the bullet flying right above Sherman’s shoulder. The commander turns her attention to the main conflict, ensuring the building’s safety from those goddamn acolytes. The thing that worries her is that if the battle inflicts anymore damage on the skyscraper, it will collapse.

As the scene unfolds before everyone’s eyes, a dreadful aura consumes the battlefield. This intuition grows stronger with every passing second, and Heather finds its source after looking over her shoulder: a fleet of airships from San Francisco just over the eastern horizon. They fly in a 3x3 grid pattern; hatches along their underbellies allow good passage for bombs. The only chance the Babylonians have is shooting at the fabric.

“ARMADA!” screams the commander. “WE HAVE TO GO!”

“We lost people on our way here!” retorts a knight. “We can’t just forget that shit!”

“We’re not! I’m keeping you alive so that you can remember it; but now, we need to leave!”

“And go where?” the previous Babylonian inquires.

Heather moves over to the roof access. “Back to the fight. We need to end this.”

The fleet arrives quickly, dropping explosives onto unsuspecting knights. Buildings collapse under the responsibilities of retaining themselves in this environment. In her mind, Heather knows Forrest made the right call in negotiating boundaries. If this took place at Babylon, they’d lose a lot more than the Farmlands. Every time she closes her eyes, out of shock, fear, or disarray, Brandon’s face still appears. He is the only consistent thought right now, perhaps for good reason. She figures killing him would redeem herself from losing the Siege of Pittock. The only way to achieve this is by drawing Brandon away from the mansion. Keys to her success fly high overhead, but they’re not out of reach.

Uncertainty is a leading force of expression in the universe. The balance between good and evil is only but a small part of the sum of our collective unconscious. War and uncertainty share a nuclear bond, a bond almost atomic, for the scars of both ring through endless centuries like the blasts of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Nothing is clear during these periods; nebulous demands bounce off a climate where negative change is the only consistency. People believe that since we aren’t born with murderous limbs like tusks, horns, or claws, this means we weren’t built to kill one another. That’s why soldiers return home with mental disorders. It becomes apparent to Heather that this idea is false. If man is capable enough to construct weapons of mass destruction from thought alone, even if they’re meant to protect his home, then he, deep down, has always felt killing to be justifiable to some extent.

The fleet pulverizes the Babylonians. Gunslinger knights climb crumbling towers in a desperate effort to destroy the sky demons. At this point, food supplies are close to zero. Ammunition on either side is drying up like a pond in the desert. Even the bullets they steal from the infected are gone. Somehow, Heather manages to take down two Zeppelins with a bazooka. While reloading it for a third shot, a bomb lands ten feet away from her, and she evacuates the scene, dropping and breaking a bridge out of obsolescence. 

The surface of Portland turns into Swiss cheese; craters polka-dot the landscape like a child with smallpox. A third Zeppelin goes down because of its lack of fuel. A fourth from the blast of a flare gun. A fifth from a knight sniping a pilot. The rest go down a similar manner, over the course of two hours. However, after the armada dies out, the Babylonian’s numbers are severely below that of their rivals. The knights who weren’t exposed to this technology wonder why Forrest built Babylon into a kingdom. Why don’t we have this equipment? Why is there such a restraint on moral progression? If he wants to emulate the Dark Ages completely, he’s doing it right.

The moment finally comes when bullets run dry. Hand-to-hand combat rips through the fabric of sanity. Survivors from both sides will remember this day for years to come. No matter how hard they try, they won’t be able to forget about this tragedy. An interesting thing about war is that, although we perceive the other side to be the enemy, they still go home feeling the same regret, sorrow, and moral decay. The essence of a societal machine exists primarily at the core of any war. It becomes difficult to perceive one’s right to exist.

The conflict forces many to confront their religious beliefs. Some toss it away while others pick it up. The acolytes seem to sense this self-doubt, capitalizing on it by damning Babylon. A ninth circle of Hell forms around them; winter mixes with fire in an incredible chemical romance, like how tea blends with honey. As day fades into night, one’s morality turns into immorality. There is no way to survive a situation like this without giving into your most basic, primitive actions. This raw world is about what you do, not what you want to do. The Babylonians, through this collective instinct, become calculative. Any food they find on their victims, they eat or save it for their families.

The loss of acolytes attracts Brandon to the scene, who aims his machine gun at any target possible. Gritting his teeth, the lieutenant fires off seemingly infinite rounds; empty shells spray everywhere, striking some of his own men. After witnessing the destruction of an entire fleet, he has no mercy. Nobody gets a second chance today; he doesn’t care if Ignatius won’t like it. His tactics send the Babylonians fleeing; Heather hoists herself into a dumpster, clouds of dust preventing the lieutenant from spotting her.

When the onslaught ends, Heather grasps the hilt of her sword tightly. Brandon’s the only one with ammunition right now; the other acolytes chase after the Babylonians, leaving the lieutenant on a search for her.

“I DIDN’T SEE YOU LEAVE WITH THEM!” he shrieks. “I REMEMBER YOUR FACE! SAN FRANCISCO HAS STORIES ABOUT YOU, COMMANDER! I KNOW HOW BADLY YOU WANT THAT MANSION, AND I KNOW HOW MUCH YOU WANT TO SEE ME DEAD! But as far as I’m concerned, you brought a knife to a gunfight.”

He checks every nook and cranny of the block, shooting at anything suspicious. The gunfire tethers Heather to her hiding place; she figures staying put is the smartest thing to do, for a bullet from the machine gun is strong enough to cut through their armor. Even if she finds something to hide behind, what would she do? She’s practically defenseless, and it wouldn’t take long for the bullets to destroy her fanatical barricade. The commander feels like she’s caught in a rat trap.

Eventually, Brandon reaches her dumpster. Looming over the lid, he knows this is the spot, bis own personal treasure chest. Wrapping his hands around the cover, a surprisingly fatal force strikes the lieutenant’s chin. He stumbles backwards, dropping the machine gun and screaming as it clatters across the floor like a stone being cast over a pond. Heather reveals herself, dropping down to her feet, the tip of the sword against Brandon’s throat. Just out of reach, his only chance of survival.

“Where’s Ignatius?” Heather demands. “He told us he’d be here. He gave us his word.”

Brandon presses his throat harder against the sword. “He has Forrest. He’s gone.”

“Where are they going?”

“Marisa’s fort.”

Closing her eyes, she finishes the job. Around her, Portland burns to the ground. Ash blackens the sky, choking anyone in the upper stories of these gargantuan towers. Behind her, the Babylonians fight the remaining acolytes, withstanding waves of treacherous infantry. As a soldier, you never forget the smells of warfare. Whether it be the stench of your friend’s organs strewn out across his body, the smoke of blazing infernos, or the simple act of survival, the odor of betrayal and deceit remain unforgotten in the eyes of a forgotten justice.

At the slaughterhouse, Forrest finishes crafting a makeshift bow and arrow. Outside an open doorway, snow falls against the backdrop of dead trees. The Alice hallucination sits in the center of the main floor, watching the king with great curiosity. He notes that the stubbornness of this entity makes her the longest-lasting visual. No matter how many times he shouts at her to go away, to disappear into the Aether, it only makes her want to stay. He figures the war is worsening his schizophrenia, wondering if he would be seeing her if it wasn’t happening. These thoughts haunt his mind as he bounds over the threshold, into this cold morning.

He hunts for most of the day, coming up short in most occasions. When he’s about to give up, he spots a large, animalistic silhouette in the distance: a black bear. He follows a path to it, remembering the day Echo got her arm torn off by one of these beasts. Aiming his arrow, he holds his breath, launching it into the unknown. It pierces through the side of the animal’s head, crying as it goes down. Smirking, the king approaches his game, ideas formulating in his head.

He takes the creature back to his hideout, skinning it with a sharpened rock. Over the course of three hours, he puts together a fur suit, reminiscent of what Native Americans would wear during their travels across peculiar lands. He’s always admired their mobility and resourcefulness, but the tribes today act nothing like how they did all those years ago. Donning the suit, he instantly feels warmth. Alice stays quiet.

“Are you ever going to say anything?” he asks. “I can leave now without getting sick. Does that bother you?”

“No, because unlike you, I have direction.”

“How does a spirit have such a thing?”

“Like I said, my job is to help you redeem yourself.”

“Why would a voice want that for me? You’re just a symptom, you seek something more.”

“I’m your child. Why would I want to hurt you?”

“You can keep saying that, but she’s back at the kingdom, with Timothy. You said Ignatius is still alive, but he’s bleeding. I need to end this.”

“Really? You don’t have something else eating away at you?”

“No.”

“What about Merlin?”

The king pauses. “What about him?”

“Jesus Christ, do I have to spell it out for you? If you save him, your people would respect you more. Imagine how much help he can be?”

“Infiltrating San Francisco is a suicide mission. I’ll get to him when this is over.”

Alice smacks herself in the face. “AM I TALKING TO A FUCKING BRICK WALL?! HOW DENSE CAN ONE PERSON BE?”

He turns ‘round, facing her. “All my life has been is an uncontrollable sin. I had dreams before Babylon, Alice. I had ambitions that were helping me with my schizophrenia. I come into people’s lives like a forest fire, because I have this undeniable urge to control people. Do you want to know what it’s like, not knowing how to tie those instincts up? I’ve been a prisoner; the only thing that distracts me from ending it are Echo, my actual child, and the kingdom’s success. That’s why I do what I do.” Lowering his gaze, he ponders on a realization. “You’re right.”

“I am? Are you sure?”

“Only a select few have to live and die for this to end quickly. I need Merlin back to help us with the war effort.”

“Good.” The hallucination stands up. “Before I go, why did you build Babylon into a kingdom?”

“Where would the peasants be without one?”

“We’ve taught you well.” With that, she exists the room.

Having a direction in mind, he disregards Ignatius for the real prize. To Hell with chasing after him; this is the perfect time to sneak into and out of the city. Most of their military is fighting; he’ll only have to deal with guards. However, what would be the right way in? The Golden Gate Bridge would be suicide, and it’s their only entrance. He stores these concerns for the future, letting the relief of survival wash over him. Some people feel guilty for this act, but he venerates it. Congratulations, you get a second chance at setting things right.

Without feeling sorry, he carries on. Without feeling shame, he carries on. Living through these terrible days helps him convert his pain into motivation. During the journey, he wonders if this decision means going AWOL again. Reminding himself of Merlin’s usefulness, he figures it’s worth it.

At Marisa’s fort, the Warden stands outside, observing the campsite in its front lawn. In the tents, boxes of ammunition, food, water, and medicine. Behind her, soldiers add reinforcements to the Civil War structure. Some work tirelessly at crafting Molotov cocktails, coats, smoke grenades, and car bombs. Gazing at all the burnt-out vehicles on the roads leading to this place, the Warden realizes how they can use them to their advantage.

“Jenkins!” she screams at a soldier. “What’s the news?”

A man twice her size approaches. “While we were scouting, we found him. I ran ahead so I could give you the heads-up.”

“Is he injured?”

“He was. He found one of our mobile camps, and they patched him up.”

“Thank God. Bring him to me when he gets here.”

“I was already going to do that. Is there anything I can do in the meantime?”

“Help Baxter with the car bombs. I trust him, but some extra brainpower wouldn’t hurt.”

“On it.”

The President arrives with the scouting party thirty minutes later. Bandages cover his arms and legs, and scratch marks plague his face. He doesn’t look mad that he lost Forrest, rather he’s in a state of total acceptance, with calculative thoughts flowing in the back of his mind. He begins to see the conflict as one would see themselves at the peak of a heroic acid trip. Ego death is the only appropriate nomenclature to describe such an experience; he realizes this is just a symptom of leading society during wartime.

In one of the Fort’s rooms, Marisa and Ignatius sit on lawn chairs.

“I couldn’t see where I was going,” he explains. “I was bleeding, and I knew I had to get Forrest off my back. I led him deeper into the woods; the snow covered up my trail. If anything, he’s going to freeze to death.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t.”

“Georgina found me, half-conscious against a tree. She took me back to a camp.”

Marisa shivers. “What do we do now?”

“Go back to San Francisco.”

“Why? We’re needed here.”

“Brandon can lead this crusade; I need to confront Dewey about siding with the prisoners on Alcatraz; my stomach tells me that something terrible is about to happen.”

The Warden smirks. “Remember that time we took that trip to the Grand Canyon?”

The President sighs, calm imagery flowing through his mind’s circuitry. “How could I forget?”

“You were worrying about one of your elections. I divorced Hudson.”

“Escapism is the only cure to depression for me.”

“Did you want the conflict to escalate to this?”

“To what, justice? Marisa, they’re terrorists. They blew up Alcatraz, destroyed our minting facility, and sent everything out of control with that train incident.”

“How did they know where that train would be?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re oblivious; Merlin’s still communicating with the Babylonians in some way.”

“You… you think he would do that to me?”

“Has he done anything to make you question his trust?”

“Yes, but we need him for the future of San Francisco. He was a chemist turned architect; there’s an endless amount of ideas we can draw from his mind.”

“So, what’s the plan? You’re really going to let him run free?”

“I have a spot for him in Athena’s chamber.” He lets out a low grunt. “This is worse than all of those elections combined.”

“We don’t know how our world is going to be when this is over, but one thing’s certain, Ignatius. The social pyramid can’t be complete without a capstone. That’s your role.”

The President stands up. “Let’s pack our things.”

They spend the day at the Fort, helping soldiers prepare it for any sudden attacks. The bombs will take a lot longer to complete than the rest of their objectives, so they forgo it. Through the snowfall, they work effortlessly until nighttime. Campfires kindle and burst into fantastic flowers, a simple projection of Hell. The smell of burning meat expands outward into a two-mile radius. Conversation, whispers, and rumors about Portland spread like their grief for fallen comrades.

Ignatius clears his throat, standing before a gathering site. “I know all of you are tired, but let me assure you that your work doesn’t go unnoticed. Like your work, your lives are eternal. It is our obligation to fight for the ones that brought San Francisco together. Our blood is the price we pay to keep society’s heart beating; our actions are the pulses in the city’s veins. We are not killing; we’re cleansing the world of evil. Just like how your productivity isn’t forgotten, neither will the actions of our terrorists… the Babylonians.”

Canisters fly out from the darkness, spontaneously exploding into ear-popping blasts intwining with bright flashes of light. Screams of panic and confusion precede the blasts of Brandon’s machine gun and whatever bullets the Babylonian’s found. Marisa stands her ground, but Ignatius retreats to the Fort, considering his injuries. The peaceful night turns upside down in a matter of seconds, a true symptom of a true fight. Blood spills over the once white grounds; splatters turn into crimson rivulets from a source of complete malice and vengeance.

The acolytes don’t hesitate at pushing back. On this cold, terrible night, the battle answers the longtime question of evil. There is no such thing as someone who is truly altruist, selfless heroic, and the same goes for the opposing end of the spectrum. We are a combination of all these things, because duality exists as an eternal mirror. Those who watch their friends die become the bleeding on either side of the party. Even the children of Nazi soldiers grieved over their fallen parents.

Where did I go wrong? This is the question that repeats itself in Ignatius’ mind as he cowers behind stone walls when he should be outside them. The only thing the President witnesses tonight are the bellows from his own suffering people. He remembers what Hudson said to him all those years ago about the Butterfly Effect. If the accident didn’t happen, this entire part of everyone’s lives would be different. The squatter’s eyes sink down to his cast, damning the eternal balance.

All societies come to a breaking point. It doesn’t matter if they experience a Golden Age, or whether or not a country unites with all others; natural law dictates. The orchestra of society performs its show for however long its meant to, and then it collapses. We even immortalize great fallen civilizations like Egypt or Sumer in our history textbooks. What do you think will become of us in the near future? What makes us so different? Do we carry today within our knowledge the same sophistication it must’ve took to construct immaculate pyramids or other structures from the past?

He decides to turn his back on Forrest’s deal. The king wanted both societies to remain undamaged; the Fort is part of San Francisco. When he returns to the city, he plans on gathering the entirety of his air force to invade Babylon. He doesn’t care if these knights were lead down the wrong direction by an incompetent leader; you do not turn on your word.

Outside, dreadful events continuously unfold. Nobody has a legal obligation to their innocence, especially during these desperate times. Heather already lost most of her people in the Battle of Portland;   7,000 people came with her then, less than half remain. However, the numbers and the way she works with them makes her look like a corrupt, successful stockholder on Wall Street. The commander gives orders, and the knights respect them. Every passing second, an interesting sensation of brotherhood flows through the Babylonian warriors, something they haven’t been familiar with in quite some time. The action of saving one’s own back means a lot to anyone today; trust is a rare resource, with sacrifice becoming as valuable as love. Heather recalls the National Anthem in her head. As long as their bullets burst through the air, it will provide proof of Babylon’s success.

At some point, the commander draws her sword, lowering the machine gun forever. She encounters Marisa in the middle of a fray, and their melee weapons shatter insanity’s fabric. What kind of person does it take to wake up tomorrow morning to do this again? Is the psychology of war based on the most primitive functions of survival, or is it something we haven’t confronted yet? More and more impossible questions ring throughout the night like the echoes of gunshots. During the fight with Marisa, Heather knocks the Warden off balance, pinning her to the snow.

“Where’s Forrest?!” growls the Babylonian as knights protect her.

Smiling, the Warden replies, “Not here.”

Acolytes appear on the Fort’s rooftop, and they fire down upon the scene, sending Heather to regather the rest of her people for a final charge. The massacre within begins as quickly as it ends. Tight , lengthy corridors prevent any side from advantage. Sections of ceiling collapse onto some fighters, crushing them to death. With the end nigh, it becomes clear that the knights will prevail. Some acolytes flee, deserting people who give their lives for treason. Babylonians chase after those who run, killing them on the front lawn. The shooters from the roof descend, their hands high, empty, defenseless. Heather watches as weapons clatter to the ground; the knights don’t know what to do.

Cutting the silence, she executes them one by one, her people hailing the decree, “No prisoners.”

A slaughter ensues, concludes and coalesces into their next steps. They search the building for any signs of Marisa or Ignatius, finding neither; after, the Babylonians steal any supplies they can, preparing the next journey. Heather gathers her remaining fighters on the front lawn, the smell of death fresh, crisp, and blending well with cold gales. Dying acolytes freeze to death slowly, begging to be put down. The commander stops her knights from listening.

“I know what I did in there was wrong,” she explains. “But look: here we are, when they’re all dead. This thing is going to end soon, but for now, we have to look for Forrest. If we encounter anymore acolyte camps, we use the guerrilla tactic like we did from Portland to here. That was the key to success for the American Revolution, and like the Revolutionaries, we have to conjure that same attitude so we can find our king. We find the king, we end the war. Those are the only two things in front of us, and we will overcome them. We’ll set up for the night five miles away from here; we don’t know who’s around this place.”

The sun rests high as Echo approaches the prairie, a national park being its backdrop. She guides her team confidently to the vantage point, where they get an overview of the battlefield. The acolytes dug bunkers and trenches into the grounds, snow filling some up entirely. To the queen, this is a perfect opportunity for a raid. To everyone else, it screams suspicion. Opinions, discussions, and debates last a half hour before Echo finally decides to press on.

In the trenches, the Babylonians find boxes of supplies beneath piles of snow. Not hesitating, they take everything. Echo doesn’t understand why the acolytes shot themselves in the foot, but she learns that just because she doesn’t understand something, doesn’t mean it isn’t so. Hitler made the mistake of re-routing the 4th Panzer Army early, leaving the 6th to face Stalingrad alone. Could Ignatius be on that same level of incompetence, or is this the set of some horrible show they’re about to attend?

The quiet raid continues, and when they finish, they cheer. Unbeknownst to Echo, this becomes a

decisive moment in the war. When the acolytes showed Merlin the infected in the pit, he didn’t know about the possibility of weaponizing them. Rotten hands protrude from the dirt walls, which collapse to reveal the Lovecraftian nightmare.The Babylonians make a beeline for any bunker they can find; many die from the ravenous, infinite hunger of hijacked souls walking.

The knights form a human shield around their queen, fending off hordes of God knows how many. Echo watches as her people die before her eyes in agonizing ways; the overwhelming nature of the experience shows Echo the effectiveness of Forrest’s manipulation. If he got to them this easily, if he threw thousands of lives into an unknown conflict without much trouble, he could’ve gotten to her without her even knowing. What was the thing that made her help him kill Judas? Did she actually want to? The more the queen thinks about that moment, the more she understands that it stems from blind attraction.