Life Thief

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Chapter 19

The requiem mass was long. Long, and a little terrifying, performed by old priests robed in black and with long, drawn-out chants in a mournful key. Rows of candles lit the spindly stone church, musty with the dank, still air of any building deep underground. Lyric was used to that. She’d lived underground her whole life. What she wasn’t used to was the solemn intensity, the riveted attention, on what, she couldn’t quite tell. The priests made strange movements, and spoke strange words. The coffin, sitting between the pews and the altar, draped with thick black material, flung a stark shape at her, and she had a hard time looking at it.

Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda…”

Tears kept filling Lyric’s eyes, and she had a hard time seeing, between that and the smoke of the incense and candles. Darkness was another common feature of life underground, yet it seemed, though permeating as always, almost in the background here. Candles were remarkable that way; their insistent tremor made you feel that the darkness was farther away than it really was. The tightness in Lyric’s chest was gone. She had put the rosary Fr. Antonie had given her around her neck, and for some reason it soothed her.

Quando caeli movendi sunt et terra…”

Lyric couldn’t see them, but she knew that Judith and Clifton were here as well. Earlier they had gone out to the compound, cleaning up and organizing St. Vito’s. There was no priest to live there now, so the priests of the Undermine church had given them a dispensation to move the Blessed Sacrament to the monastery, and a few other things that didn’t make a lot of sense to Lyric. Clifton and Judith were back now; they had come in exhausted and disheveled, but they too had dropped away into the silence and darkness. It seemed like the whole world, underground and aboveground, had dropped away.

Dum veneris iudicare saeculum per ignem…”

Lyric shivered. The chants, the movements, the bells ringing, the incense smoke, all blended together, and she put her hands over her head. Long moments of silence passed, in between the bells, and then she heard people moving. She felt someone touch her shoulder, and she lifted her head.

Judith stood there, looking at her with concern. She was in a line of people up the aisle, as they passed the coffin, filing to the front of the church, where the priest was distributing the sacrament. “Are you all right?” Judith whispered.

Lyric nodded. She was thinking about the monastery. She felt cold and far away as she stood up. But instead of getting into the line with Judith and Clifton, she wormed her way through the crowd of people in the smoky darkness towards the back of the church. A choir of two or three was singing an ancient sounding tune, the harmonies as soothing as the chants. Lyric found the confessional at the back of the church. Its door was cracked; no one was in it—they were all in line—and so she went in and shut the door behind her.

The box was small, cramped, warm, a single gas lamp on the floor illuminating it. Its walls were padded and draped with curtains and cushions. Stuffing spilled out of one torn corner of the padding on the door. There was no chair, just a kneeler in front of the screen. Lyric sat down on the kneeler.

A voice filtered out from behind the screen from the priest that was back there. “May the Lord be on your lips and in your heart that you may worthily confess your sins in the name of the Father, the Son and the holy Spirit.”

Lyric took a deep breath, then hesitated.

“How long has it been since your last confession?” the priest’s voice asked.

“Since I was six,” she said, slowly, “since before my parents died.” She started counting off on her fingers. “Eight years… nine years.” Her voice caught, and then words started tumbling out. “My parents died in a supply run. My uncle wasn’t in the Undermine. I got put with another family. After that no one was allowed aboveground anymore unless they were a farm worker. I just read a lot—I got used to it. There weren’t a lot of books, but I read them all. I skipped school. At least twenty times. I didn’t go to church anymore. Not since I was six or seven. I refused to do my chores. Eventually I was put in housing with other kids my own age, and some widows with young children. There were a lot of us because people were always dying. I didn’t steal. Some of the kids did. I lied once in a while to the house mom. Mostly so that I wouldn’t have to come out of my room.”

“I went with my uncle, Quincy, aboveground. He was doing an experiment. He was training raptors. I got scared of them and I ran away, and, that wasn’t a good idea because I could have died out there. Before that, I let the Authority into Quincy’s warehouse so that they got killed.”

“You’ve been away from the Church a long time,” the priest said. “You sound a little like you’re reciting a formula. But are you sorry for your sins? Why did you come in here? Do you want to come back to the Church? Christ is here waiting to heal you, but you have to trust Him.”

Lyric started to cry. “Fr. Antonie is dead.”

“Did you trust Fr. Antonie?”

“Yes… he found Quincy and brought him back. He fought off dinosaurs all by himself. He helped everyone. He helped me at Quincy’s trial. And then he stopped the Authority from killing Quincy… and they killed him instead. He did that for Quincy. Why would he do that?”

“Fr. Antonie,” the priest said, “was a priest, just like me. As priests, we give up living our lives for ourselves, and we hang ourselves upon the cross with Jesus. We give our lives to serve His Holy Church, in roles that He appointed. We take vows of chastity, of poverty, and of obedience. We live for love of Him, and bring Him and the love of Him to all human beings. This is the role of a priest—we work tirelessly for this. Fr. Antonie was a channel for the grace of God in your life—in many peoples’ lives. I knew him well. He was a beacon of safety and salvation for many amid an aboveground desert full of terror and death. To save a life, to stop an injustice, to protect the sanctity of God and his own person or that of others, a priest is not afraid to die.”

Lyric felt her tears dry up as a curious feeling settled itself on her heart. “He wasn’t afraid,” she said, as if realizing it for the first time.

“No, he wasn’t, and so now we commend him to God with our prayers, as there he has gone. I don’t think God has been displeased with him or his actions. He was in the state of grace, I think we can be confident. He was not afraid, and you must not be afraid either. God will protect you, and give you His life to live, just as He did for His faithful priest.”

Lyric nodded, then remembered that the priest couldn’t see her behind that screen. “Yes,” she said.

“Trust Him,” the priest said. “Is there anything else you want to confess?”

“I… I can’t think of anything,” Lyric said.

“Then,” the priest said, “I’m going to absolve your sins and bring you back into the Church. You’ll be with Jesus, then, with His Mother and all the saints, including Fr. Antonie. Say your act of contrition.”

Lyric couldn’t remember what an act of contrition was. But then, pinned to the wall down low by the gas lamp, she saw it, written out on a piece of paper.

“O my God,” she began, “I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins…”

~*~*~

The Circuit Board was full of smoke. Tobacco smoke from pipes, and kerosene from the lamps—the steam-powered ventilator was down, along with the rest of the Undermine’s power. Not one of the patrons of the Board seemed to care, though. Most were on sofas, jammed around tables, drinking, eating, talking. It was a young crowd tonight, a few older men with beards occupying the corners. Some of them might even have been off-duty Authority. Just about everyone came to the Board at one time or another.

Jathan couldn’t imagine how it was in the kitchen. With no real safe way to pipe gas most everyone cooked with coal or wood, and without the ventilator working…

Still, his meal came out as timely and delicious as always. He’d barely taken two bites when a young man in spectacles appeared out of nowhere and sat down next to him. The young man was well-dressed, and a bit flabby and pale, but he acted like he’d known Jathan for years. “Listen,” he said. “Have you heard what the Authority did?”

Immediately the image of Fr. Antonie’s bloodied face jumped into Jathan’s mind. He winced. “No,” he said. Technically that was true. He hadn’t heard anything. He’d seen it. “What did they do?”

“They’ve shut down the power, because of an attack on the east groundlock. They tried to execute the perpetrator—he was using trained dinosaurs to attack us. But here’s the thing—a priest tried to intervene, and they killed him too. Who’s working for human freedom now?” The young man frowned, adjusting his spectacles. “The Authority is going to drive out the Church. The priests don’t listen to them.”

“Is that the official story?” Jathan asked.

“Of course not,” the young man said. “There isn’t an official story yet, but they’ll release one, and it won’t be that.”

Jathan regarded the young man. The soft face was earnest behind his spectacles. “Have you ever been aboveground?” he asked.

The young man shook his head. “It’s too dangerous, and you know, of course, the Authority doesn’t really let anyone out there who doesn’t have business to be out there. I’m an accountant.” He smiled, and it was a pale expression. “Have you?”

“Yes," Jathan said. “Unfortunately. If you’ve never been—you were born down here, I suppose?” The young man nodded, and Jathan shrugged and continued. “It’s dangerous, you’re right. You’ve got no idea what they’re protecting us from up there, the Authority. Maybe they don’t do a good job. Maybe they even do bad things. But out there, it’s worse.”

The young man stared at him, then slowly shook his head. “You’re wrong,” he said.

Jathan didn't answer for a minute, and took another bite of his food. He chewed and swallowed, then looked at the young man. “How do you know?” he asked. “You’ve never been up there. You’ve never seen a dinosaur.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the young man said, quietly. “Some things are wrong no matter what’s going on aboveground.”

The door of the Circuit Board opened, and a burly man with a neatly trimmed beard walked in. He didn’t speak to anyone, but headed for an empty table near the door. It took Jathan a minute to recognize his face—he honestly hadn’t seen it much, behind the Authority mask. It was Oscar.

“Excuse me,” Jathan said to the young man, and taking his plate, he crossed over to Oscar’s table. Oscar tilted his head back to watch him, his eyes wary and alert like a cornered animal’s. Jathan gestured to the empty chair. “May I join you?”

With a shrug, Oscar threw a hand in a gesture towards the chair. “Who are you?”

“Jathan Russell,” Jathan said, sitting down. “You know me. I was with—“

“That’s right,” Oscar said, coolly. “That’s right. So you were.”

A waitress, dressed in a gown, corset, and apron done in what would have been elaborate colors had the light been better and the air less smoky, approached their table with a smile. “Welcome to the Circuit Board, sir. Can I get you anything?”

“Taro whiskey,” Oscar said. “Just one.”

“Yes, sir. And how is your meal, sir?” The waitress smiled at Jathan. He squinted up at her through the smoke. She was young, probably pretty under all that makeup.

“It’s great,” he said. He watched her as she glided off, stopping to talk to the young man at the table he’d abandoned. Jathan wondered what it must be like, never to have been aboveground, never to have seen a dinosaur. He decided he probably couldn’t imagine it. Probably Oscar couldn’t, either. Jathan found himself trying to catch Oscar’s eye. Oscar gave him a cold glance.

“Did you leave the Authority?” Jathan asked.

“That’s none of your business,” Oscar said, his voice surprisingly mild.

“I’m concerned,” Jathan said, “about the Authority. I know you guys operate really well out there, aboveground. You saved my life a few times, while we were trying to get back to the Pious Valley. I’m indebted to you, really. Thanks for that.”

Oscar laughed. “You think it’s a good job? Watching your friends die, all the time? My mother’s been wound up like a ball spring twisted too tight for years. Yes, I left. And that’s why. I don’t want to watch people die anymore. I’ll stay down here.”

“I heard,” Jathan said, “that the Authority is going to tighten its hand against the Church and probably against the observers, too.”

“Probably,” Oscar said, with a shrug.

“You don’t seem to care,” Jathan said.

“Why should I care? I wanted Quincy dead. I probably even wanted de Vries dead. No one in the Authority liked him. But it’s different when you watch him die in front of you.” Oscar pulled a bag of tobacco from his pocket and a paper, and began to roll a cigarette. The waitress returned with his drink as he lit it, and he nodded to her.

“He saved my life,” Jathan said, feeling his throat tighten. “He didn’t deserve to die.”

“No, he didn’t,” Oscar said. “Neither did Frederic. Neither did Dusty, Omer, Harrison, Dennis, Brenton, or Gary. We don’t get to decide who dies. The Authority likes to think it gets to decide. But it doesn’t. Or all of those men would not be dead. The Revonet got to decide. The dinosaurs it made decide who’s going to die. Life—zip, gone. All we can do is hide down here. Aboveground? Sure, we’ve got to go up there. Let people go up there and die if they want to. I’m not going anymore.”

Jathan just stared at him. Oscar stared right back, puffing on his cigarette. Finally Jathan said, “Well, have they fixed the boiler problem yet?”

Oscar leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Almost. Boiler operation should be back to normal by tomorrow morning. We’ll be all right.” Picking up his glass of whiskey, he offered the cigarette to Jathan. “Have a taste. This is the good stuff.”

Jathan took it, dragged on it. It did taste good.

~*~*~

Every leap, every jolt, hurt. Raptors ran on their toes, and their feet and ankles were great shock absorbers—they were leapers—but Quincy’s knee had begun to bleed again through the bandage. Not like he cared. His whole leg could fall off, and he wasn’t sure he would care.

His hands, holding onto Sparky’s harness through the raptor’s feathery coat, felt numb, white-knuckled from the tightness of his grip. The sweat pouring from his skin dried quickly in the breeze, as he tugged, begged—gritted his teeth through the pain—don’t you take me to the ruins. Don’t you dare.

But Sparky paid no attention to his feeble directing. The animal was streaking up the mountain road now, but then leapt off of it to take cover in the woods that flanked it. Quincy shut his eyes and concentrated on holding on. It wouldn’t do, to fall off here. Sparky would stop at some point.

And stop he finally did, as his pace leveled out, the cooler air of high elevations making Quincy shiver with the exposure of his bare feet and now insufficient clothing. The bellows of kentrosaurs tore the air. Sparky shrieked in reply, and Quincy dared to open his eyes.

The sight of the thick stone towers of the monastery greeted his eyes just before the sun hit them painfully. Still Sparky didn’t move, but stood there, shrieking. Quincy forced his eyes open again. The monks wouldn’t approach Sparky. Of course they wouldn’t. He would have to get himself over there.

“Good job, Sparky,” he whispered. “Thank you.” Letting go of the harness, he tumbled to the ground, throwing up a cloud of dust from the road.

Sparky hooted, and paced in a fast line for a moment, snarling at the kentrosaurs. The herd was ambling closer, infuriated at this sudden intrusion. Quincy lay where he was, crippling pain shooting through his leg. “Sparky,” he managed, weakly. He wasn’t sure the animal heard him, over its aggressive vocal exchange with the kentrosaurs. “Sparky. Get out of here.”

Sparky may not have heard, or understood, but he was left without much choice. Snarling, he darted back and forth, moving farther away, drawing the herd away from where Quincy lay.

Throbbing spikes of pain ran up and down Quincy’s leg, and back, but he kept his eyes riveted on the approaching herd of kentrosaurs, and the hopping raptor. Sparky knew how to stay out of danger, but would he get trampled when they—suddenly a pair of hands came out of nowhere, catching hold of Quincy’s shirt and vest. Startled, he looked up, into the bearded face of Brother Augustine. A jolt of fear shot through him. “What—“

“It’s all right,” Brother Augustine said. “Let’s go. Yes, I know you’re injured. We’ll take it slow.”

Quincy looked over the monk’s hood. Sparky was still shrieking at the kentrosaurs. Distracted, then, still. But for how long? The raptors could move with incredible speed. Just a moment for the animal to notice an unbonded human being, and Brother Augustine would—

“Come on,” Brother Augustine. “Don’t worry about it. Look at me, not at it.” The monk slung an arm under Quincy’s shoulders, and pulled him up with surprising strength. After a moment of disorientation, Quincy got his good foot under him and maneuvered himself to help. He held onto the dark colored habit that the monk wore; scratchy, long lengths of thick cloth that smelled of sweat. How did they even move in these things?

Move they did, though. Brother Augustine practically carried him across the road, around the angry herd of kentrosaurs, heading for the steps of the monastery. At least, Quincy thought, as he held onto Brother Augustine, that if the raptor charged he would be there as something of a body shield, and perhaps that—

Then they were up the steps, Brother Augustine threw back the big doors, and then they were inside. Brother Augustine set Quincy down carefully on a wooden bench by the door, and then he shut the doors and barred them.

Silence swam around him. Oh, the shrieks and roars of the dinosaurs outside could still be heard. But he only heard them now through an expanse of silence, thanks to the monastery’s thick stone walls. The sunlight winked through the barred windows, and Quincy closed his eyes.

“Quincy,” Brother Augustine’s voice filtered in through the silence. “Your leg.”

“God take the leg,” Quincy murmured. “He can have it all. I’m free.”

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