The whispering, the whispering again, just before curfew, thought Jack. The voices grew louder as he broke curfew longer than ever before. He lost control and the sounds pulled him along like the wind shifting between the buildings. Then he saw them. Runes, in the old writing before 'they' came, before the rulers brought The Sacks to his world. He moved into the doorway. How could I have missed these? His hands touched the etched surface of the letters releasing the purplish hue that had attracted him in the first place. He remembered the words of his mind mentor: 'You are the one Jack. The one that matters. You cannot shirk. You must come when they call.'
The quake started when he swiped his hand over the letters. Small movements, not enough to bring people long accustomed to tremors, out of the safety of their homes after curfew, shook the entranceway. A swoosh sound filled the sheltered area where he stood. Mist created by the mixture of the night air and the humidity inside the stairwell leading down to a glow like the one he had just removed with a brushing hand movement over the letters. Every step down the whispering in Jack's head became clearer, but clarity wasn't the issue. The voices spoke in an ancient language, likely the language of the runes. If only a human holograph accompanied the sounds, Jack's intuitive powers would figure the sense of the message, but symbols alone didn't communicate. Odors, old smells, almost overcame him. Without evaluating why, he moved to brush his hand over the letters again as he had in the doorway upstairs. He stopped half way. The sounds stopped and repeated themselves.
'The voices're telling me what to do and somehow I knew,' said Jack aloud to the opening door.
The self-satisfied smirk wiped off of his face quickly. A large chest, no a stone burial coffin, stood in front of him. Colored runes decorated its facade and the voices accompanied the words lighting up and darkening. The earth trembled again. Jack's feet shook on the ground and he raised his arms to get his balance to no avail. This time he fell sideways and struck his head on the tomb in front of him because he twisted as he fell. Rubbing his temple, he looked up. The roving lights over the runes stopped as the top of the burial place shifted with the aftershock and then started again when Jack got up and looked into the open space. An amber amulet lay on a pedestal, reflecting the light of the runes that decorated all of the inside of the sepulcher.
Jack reached in and figures rose up on all sides of the amulet. Old men and women dressed in the flowing robes of the time before. He knew this because of the stories his grandparents had told him. As his hand got closer to the pedestal, he looked at figures taking shape around the amulet, and the voices echoed in Jack's language. Just like I thought. They're not speaking in tongues anymore, 'cause I can sense them now. His fingers came closer and he snatched the amber piece into his grasp. Once he had it in his hand, he noticed the heat coming from it. The whispers told him to twist the top and all the holographs made a twisting motion with their hands. Not sure why he put the chain around his neck before he turned the top of the amulet. It split in half and smoke drifted around him, encasing him, giving him the heat of the amulet.
Bitter disappointment threatened to overcome him. He had imagined that the runes would lead him to a solution to finding the prison and The Sacks, but all it gave him was a misty suit. Now he would have to sit out the curfew in this dank hole in the ground. Then it dawned on him. 'I don't feel the cold anymore,' he said aloud. Jack raised his hands up and reached toward the cement grave box. He took in a gasp of air when his hands passed through the stone. He tried it again with the same result then he passed his whole body into the grave. He touched the top of the pedestal where the amulet had lain and the top of the coffin box opened accompanied by the now intelligible uttering of the holographs. The message told him that the mist shielded him. A map melted into his consciousness. Jack knew where the prisons dotted the tundra. His mind communicated with people trudging over the tundra, comatose in their hormone-induced personal hell. Anguished cries filled his mind until the mist asserted itself and found one sane personality to communicate within the camps.
The wretched-looking man smiled for the first time in a century as Jack's astral figure descended into the room where the First One sat in his sack. Jack's otherworldly figure settled near the trapped man who had not communicated for ages. A hormone gas mixture preserved him in a pickled state. His hard opaque skin, barely supple enough to tolerate movement, made turning his head up to view Jack's descent painful, but the pain breathed purpose into his spirit. Thankfully the mist gave Jack and his astral figure telepathic skills. Waiting until the First One learned how to move his lips would have defeated the purpose of conferring with him. Jack required information if he was to break the shackles of the overlords.
"We are souls trapped in wax-like bodies for an eternity," he communicated.
Jack's other looked out the entrance of the cave where the First One sat, immortalized, breathing like a live Madame Tussaud's figure. What he saw was nightmarish. Somnambulant beings floating aimlessly, thousands, no millions of them, somehow kept alive but imprisoned in dull wax bodies and drifting on wave after wave of heated air filled with hormones.
"How can we bring them back?" asked Jack.
"Do you have it?"
"What? This?" asked Jack.
His hand cradled the amulet and showed it to the First One. The First One trembled and reached into his own pocket. He took a body carved from the same wax-like material as all of the prisoners. He showed Jack the space in the core of his statue.
"That's why the amulet's in the shape of a heart," said Jack.
"Give the statue life, give it its heart. Its mind holds the key to our freedom."
"I'm not here. I have to find a way to get here and breath life into all of your hearts."
"You're here. I know you're here. I can see you."
The First One broke down. Tears rolled down his face.
"Lifetimes of waiting, hoping and they tricked me anyway."
He sobbed, but Jack saw a way to give the First One hope. He willed his astral self to break its own chains. Without knowing either how he managed to overcome the limitations of the lifelessness of his astral self and his ignorance of the runes, the old language, Jack's astral other printed: 'I am coming. We are one', on the sickly wax of the First One's chest.
The First One touched his chest, felt the runes, knew their meaning and hoped as much as necessary to last another century of waiting. The astral figure disappeared and with it the runes on the First One's chest, but the memory was enough, enough to sustain him.
Absentmindedly Jack turned the knob on the top of his amulet and the mist around him slowly dissipated and returned to its home. Dawn waited for Jack outside the crypt. He just didn't know it yet. I'll chance the curfew again. I have to report this. He moved towards the stairway and the door swooshed open before him. The outer door above him had swooshed as well. Bright sunlight streamed into the dark stairwell. Jack took a deep breath and sprang up the concrete stairs. As he reached the top, a tremor shook the earth. It grew in magnitude. He lunged out into the streets, the structure collapsed burying the evidence of his journey's starting place. His hand went to the amulet and it comforted him. The way looked clear now, despite the quake's destruction. How to get to the location etched in his mind remained an enigma, but it was logistics now. Somehow the First One and he would forge a strategy starting with inserting the amulet in the space fitting it in the First One's prison.
Not surprisingly, the world outside The Sacks continued turning while Jack evaded curfew and met his holy grail. The morning's quake, though large enough to tumble disused structures, changed nothing. Jack looked around without looking around. He met no one's eyes and breathed carefully in through his nose and out through slightly parted lips, so the heart beat monitors wouldn’t catch him in his subterfuge. Jack's experience in the night gave him reason to search, for that matter reason to live. His self-imposed aim to free the prisoners in The Sacks had just jumped into the realm of the real. The mist in his heart-shaped amulet, a means to almost any end, provided fodder, no more than food for thought, it supplied that most valuable of commodities, privacy, even secrecy. "I can travel on guard transports," he said to himself, forgetting about reporting.
Then he noticed a lurking one moving out of hiding and approaching him. He didn't dare look into the guard's slits. Something, probably just habit, kept him moving the way everyone moved at shift change time, head down using his peripheral vision. The guard passed by him an grabbed the man behind Jack. Everyone around picked up their pace. No one wanted to be involved. The citizen acquiesced, sure of his fate, or so Jack thought as he continued walking, controlling his breath. Instead of going to his workplace, Jack found a tunnel that led to a transportation hub. He recalled the word on the sign from the map in his head and knew he must start the process when he saw it: 'Gulag Transport'. He had passed it without noticing thousands of times in his twenty-seven years living in the metals mining district. Today the sign flashed at him because of the information in his head.
Everyone in the ten-person-wide tunnel looked forward. Some carried their neoprene suits and wore their slit glasses in their hair. Others were suited up, grim guards not talking to each other, but not lurking either. Half of them walked towards to transports and the smell of diesel engines. The other half walked the way Jack had come on their way home from a shift in The Sacks. Some like Jack had no neoprene suit and the system had just co-opted them, like 'Capos' Jack had heard about from his grandfather. People who tried desperately to survive a terrible death in another period of tyranny in humankind's past, in the twentieth century, whenever that was, thought Jack.
Unlike the men and women around him, Jack's mind was spinning at hyper speed while he maintained his heartbeat. His hand reached around the amulet and twisted. Sink or swim. The mist coiled up around him. At first he didn't feel anything. Then the map in his mind projected clearly in front of him on the back of the slit glasses that had materialized with the rising mist. He recalled thinking he needed a neoprene suit but hadn't yet made the connection between his thought and the suit's ability to manifest his thoughts and desires. Transport seventy eight blinked in the upper corner of his slit glasses just as he approached a large sign listing transport locations. He walked in the stated direction and had no trouble finding his way. He climbed up the steps to the horizontal take-off craft and sat in the seat assigned to him. It never occurred to him to question the instructions in his glasses. The mist remained unseen, but Jack's suit fooled everyone. He was one of them on his way to the First One's prison. Together they would start the ball rolling. Where it would roll, he didn't know, but he was certain that it must start rolling before any more people succumbed to The Sacks, to the hormone-induced hell that destroyed everyone who fell under its sway. Things fell into place so neatly, Jack started to doubt, but he had to believe fate desired to work out his role.
"You must be the new one," said a disinterested suited guard without glancing up from his plate viewer.
Jack nodded and cleared his throat.
"Your first posting?"
"Well, this is your seat until I come back or someone relieves you. It's usually ten days, but then they told you that, didn't they?"
Somehow Jack knew it was a test. Some greater being hovered over him, feeding him appropriate information directly into his consciousness exactly when he needed it. Soon Jack would know that the suit permitted telepathic communication over enormous distances and that there was indeed an overseer, a being helping him along the way. It would be the 'who' that would surprise him.
"No, they said you'd fill me in on the details."
They looked at each other. The guard raised his head and the red of his slits showed clearly. Jack burst out laughing and the guard snickered too.
"You'll do well here. Took me a year to pull a stunt like that. See you," he said as he passed the viewer to Jack.
"My code entry expires right now. Yours starts. You might like where I was. I left a marker."
"In ten, then."
"Ten, it is."
The guard vacated his swivel perch. And made his way to the waiting transport. He didn't look back. Jack sat down. He could see the floating boxed. A sickly smell permeated the air and music penetrated into his booth. He could barely hear it. Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered listening to music like that while his grandparents did something called tango. He cocked his head and had to resist the temptation to open the window in front of him in order to hear better. Opening the window would let the hormone in and turn Jack into a zombie like the rest of them, or at least that's what he thought, because he didn't yet understand the full power of the mist. He turned on the viewer and set about looking like a guard. Inside his mind a kernel of thought surprised him. Why didn't I think of that, he thought. You did, Jack. You did.
Again Jack laughed aloud. The viewer showed him a slapstick comedy starring Buster Keaton. All guards loved Keaton and now he knew they laughed aloud at nonsense. Jack's astral separated from his body. Its chord contained the mist. The astral started searching, seeking out the First One. Why is the first prisoner different than any of the others? Jack asked himself.
A wavering yet intense sound filled his mind while the astral continued unhindered.
"They gave only the First One hope, in the form of a tiny box with a space in it. They told him he would be free and his freedom would release all of the other prisoners if someone appeared with an amulet shaped perfectly to fit the space in the box. All he had to do was imprison all of the others with his powers of telepathy and the hormone and wait for the rescuer, or he could succumb to the hormone and leave the task of First One to the next telepath they caught. He became Charon that day. Look out the window. Do you see the river. He guides all of the prisoners across the rivers Styx and Acheron. This is an alien's view, the overlord's vision of human mythology," said an omnipotent voice.
Jack looked at the scene in front of him. His secret education contained images of Hell in mythological times, in the times before they came. He never knew if those images represented reality or just early man's efforts to make sense of reality.
"Wasn't there payment to cross?"
The voice showed its appreciation with a guffaw, then proceeded to talk again.
"You studied well."
"My mind remembers everything without effort. I am not responsible."
"The result is what's important. Yes. They give the First One a small spray of hormone antidote for every prisoner that arrives and crosses the rivers into this alien-created hell. Along with the box, he hopes as a result."
"Is there anything I should know"?
"The First One is not whole. Be wary of his words."
"What do you mean by not whole?"
The voice disappeared. The astral had found the First One. It nudged the First One out of its slumber. The way to his location appeared on Jack's glasses and insignia of higher rank materialized on his chest flare, a patch containing information and permits. Jack had just become a General Inspector. He got up, commanded the astral to return and take his place in front of the viewer in the booth over the junction of the rivers, watching the First One's collection point as the souls boarded his boat, paid with a small cube containing antidote, and sat waiting for their floating coffins to arrive on the other side of the river. The First One had thousands of doubles collecting his tribute and performing his selfish enslavement of the citizens.
Following a circuitous route, Jack, the General Inspector, arrived at a plain-looking structure. Faint light passed through what appeared to be windows. He opened the entrance by passing his hand over the runes on the wall. It swooshed in the same way that the door had swooshed when he entered the crypt. The smell of death almost overwhelmed him when he entered the expansive room. It was not what he was expecting. The back of a man with stringy, dirty grey hair and a velvet frock coat down to his knees let out a howl. A steamy beverage of an unknown kind splashed all around his feet as he dropped it. Mist rose all around him and the bar he had been facing disappeared. He turned and his face was a grotesque hand-painted mask of opaque coloring with red lips and charcoaled eyes, but oddly charismatic.
"What were you expecting? You think you're the only one with a bag of tricks? Speak man. I haven't spoken to anyone for a dog's age. Cat got your tongue?"
Jack froze inside but the suit took over for him.
"What should I call you?"
"Baal will do. Don't you recognize this place?"
Jack now understood the oracle's advice. He would have to trick a madman into giving him the box to place the amulet in and fooling a madman was no easy task, so Jack belched and farted as loudly as his memory of belching and farting would permit. Baal cocked his head back a little and then tossed it back fully, tearing his head from his body and holding it cradled under his left arm. Jack willed himself to disappear and extended a thousand hands to tickle an unsuspecting Baal. The subterfuge worked. Baal laughed hysterically and the scene the two of them were existing inside slowly subsided. A simple wooden table, two chairs, some ale in two large mugs covered with ancient writing and a buxom serving girl holding a refill appeared. Baal appeared on one of the chairs.
"Thank you for that. Laughing gave me a thirst," he said as he slapped the serving wench's buttocks.
Jack thought to maintain an advantage by remaining invisible, but Baal quickly disabused that idea by taking some powder out of his pocket and throwing it Jack's direction. Jack appeared and looked at his hands.
"I've had centuries to play by myself with this misty suit of ours. Come on sit and enjoy some ale or maybe a wench."
Jack sipped the ale and then took a large swallow. Its alcohol level making itself felt after the first gulp.
"The wench?" asked Baal.
Jack shook his head.
"Lucky sod," said Baal.
Just then a black snake forced its way out of the serving girl's mouth and the air in her body deflated revealing a rubberized, flattened out version of her former self. Neither of them laughed this time.
"Show it to me," said Baal.
Jack had replaced himself with a double before Baal forced him to reveal himself and now the double stalled. Baal cursed and the double he had placed in the chair disappeared in a puff of smoke.
"Touché. Doubles never need women. I should've noticed but the greatest sin of the gods got the better of me. Come out. We can talk now."
Jack had seen enough. He retreated to his cabin watching the rivers Styx and Acheron. His double melted when he arrived. Jack took his place in front of the viewer and thought of his next move. How can I trick a delusional soul who thinks he's the devil? I can't forget he's been down here for years and years all by himself. Can he still make friends? Just then a memory flooded into Jack's mind. His grandfather was holding Jack, a toddler, back behind his legs. A man leaned over the body of a woman lying in an impossible position on the ground. He was stroking her hair and speaking to the victim as though she heard him.
"I gave you your pills, dear and the doctor taught me how to administer the massage treatment. You're fine now. It's time to go," said the man as turned and he looked into Jack's eyes with a hollow stare.
Jack's dreams remained plagued by that intent look for months after the day his grandfather talked the poor man out of his belief that his wife would get up and leave with him. Why's this memory bothering me now? What a fool I am sometimes. Jack stood up again and found his way back to the building where Baal lived. The whole walk back the conversation between his grandfather and the bereaved man ran through Jack's head. He changed his approach and knocked gently on the door. Baal opened it and made a grandiose gesture of ushering Jack into his home.
Jack reached into his pocket and used slight of hand to conjure a photo album of his youth that he always carried with him. He used projection technology to show a slideshow on the wall of First Ones' home. Baal looked on with raised eyebrows but the gibberish coming out of his mouth stopped.
"Since we're going to spend time here, I thought you'd like to see my life story in pictures," added Jack, somewhat wistfully.
The slideshow progressed from Jack's childhood with his grand parent's dominating the caretaker role. For fear that talking would start Baal blathering about his delusions, Jack let the pictures tell his story. Baal took deep breaths and often alternated looking at Jack and then at the pictures.
"I see it. These really are you as a child."
It was the first sane thing the First One had said. Jack hazarded a question.
"Do you have any images we could exchange. I'd love to explore your past too."
A puzzled look passed over Baal's face. He turned his head sideways as a puppy might when asked to fetch a ball.
"Who are you?" continued the First One, curiosity tingeing his question.
Jack shifted the focus back to Baal.
"Do you remember your childhood and your parents?"
"So long ago," Baal replied, longingly.
Jack noticed a calm look overcoming the tortured man's eyes. Baal breathed in more deeply and his head dropped into his hands. Tears flowed out, but still Jack refrained from entering too quickly into an obviously conciliatory move.
"Look Baal. There's my baby sister and my dog. I haven't looked at these slides for ages. Thanks for watching with me."
Baal looked up, bleary-eyed. The images in front of him attracted his attention again. He stood up, walked over to the wall and touched the chipped surface where the projector displayed the images. He rubbed his fingers together as if he could feel the texture of the people. Then he turned around and walked towards a dresser on the far wall. In the bottom drawer, he searched through the clothes there and produced two objects. A large flat object that Jack knew to be a book of sorts because of the unique education his grandfather gave him and a small dark box made of a long disappeared natural material, wood. Jack's heart jumped when he saw the box but he forced himself to pay attention only to the book in Baal's right hand. Baal slipped the box into the pocket of his frock coat and sat on the ground beside Jack. He opened the book to the first page. Jack looked down at page after page of discolored images glued into the pre-digital slideshow. Jack expressed interest, but Baal only turned the pages. He did not comment. When they arrived at the last page, the First One turned his head up to look into Jack's eyes.
"Do you have the amulet?"
Jack pulled on the chain around his neck and showed the semi-transparent, heart-shaped object to Baal. Ball reached into his pocket and produced the box. He slid the top along its grooves and the inside contained an opening made of the same otherworldly material as the amulet. Jack pressed the talisman into the opening and both he an the First One held the box as it shook with unexplainable energy.
"Not a trick. You're actually the one," shouted Baal.
Jack just held onto the box with his head bent over it because of the chain. Thankfully the chain is long enough. First the propulsive energy blew down the walls of Baal's home. Then the coffins floating around on the other sides of the two rivers all dropped out of their dance. Rubbery looking people plopped onto the ground as if they were coming out of suspended animation. All kneeled and faced Baal and Jack. One in front of the other pulled a long Excalibur from his coffin. He then knelt holding the sword up with his eyes cast down. Jack looked at Baal.
"Not I. You. It is you they want. You must lead them. I too will do your bidding."