Second Death - Chapter 1 (free read)
This is Jake's journal. It's classified because of where Jake was when he wrote it. I can't tell you much about how he smuggled it up because I don't want to make it harder for him to send information to me in the future. Except for changing names and a few other details to protect the identities of the living and the dead, this is exactly what my husband wrote.
Are You Evil?
Recall the coyote and roadrunner cartoon. Was the coyote evil?
Are you evil?
Which is worse: endless pain or endless boredom?
Which would you prefer: a painless early death or a long life of suffering?
Have you ever prayed for something horrible to happen to another person?
Suppose the universe really is “turtles all the way down.” How would knowledge of this cosmic truth affect your career choices?
If Jesus was drafted into the US Army, what rank would he rise to?
Would you sacrifice your life to save a loved one from agonizing pain?
And so on. For two hours. I sat on a stool in an empty chamber. The questions were read to me through a speaker and I answered to a mirrored wall.
I passed the interview.
Twenty of us showed up for the intake interview. Men and women, active duty and civilian, who each thought it was a good idea to apply for a six-month post with quadruple hazard pay. In other words, twenty government workers whose financial problems were serious enough to drive them to an ultra-high-risk post for a few extra bucks.
We chatted and compared notes in the waiting room. All of us had applied for the same job: Refugee Operation Manager. Nobody but me had experience in humanitarian aid or refugee management. The group was mostly a mixture of consular officers from State, civil affairs folks from DoD, and health officers from the Centers for Disease Control.
We had a few things in common, though. We all had security clearances. And we were all desperate to earn that hazard pay. Some of us had children in college. Some had a sick relative. Some had fallen far behind in their bills. I had all three of those burdens. My daughter Cara had just started college and Lara’s multiple sclerosis got bad enough that she had to quit her job. On top of that, our mortgage was crushing us financially. I had to take this post.
Whatever qualities they were probing for with their weirdo questions must be rare. After waiting for two hours, fifteen folks were told that they “lacked the unique worldview required for this post.” Those lacking the appropriate perspective on life or whatever were thanked for their time and sent home.
The five of us who were “lucky” enough to possess the required mental framework to handle this post got to stick around in the waiting area for another two hours. We passed the time by eyeing each other suspiciously, wondering what kind of people these were to have passed this test. I mean, I know I'm cool, but anyone else who passed that test had to have multiple interacting personality disorders.
The same staffer who sent the rejected candidates home finally returned pushing a cart loaded with food service trays and a stack of folded grey clothing. She apologized for making us wait. Then told us that the food was a specially-prepared high-calorie and high-protein stew. “Eat as much of it as you can and then change into the uniforms. When you're done eating and in uniform, I'll escort you to the descent chamber.”
I asked her what a descent chamber was. Her answer was terse: “You'll receive a full mission briefing after descent. For now, please just eat and suit up.”
I asked her why we couldn't get a mission briefing now, so we knew what we were getting into.
She stood up straight and took a deep breath. When she spoke, she spoke carefully — I was getting the pre-canned spiel. “We have found, through evidence-based analyses, that briefing candidates after descent optimizes our attrition rate.”
“Oh, I get it!” My fellow selectee, a woman I now knew as Karen, interrupted. “Everyone quits if you tell them what’s up before they get there. Nice.”
The strain in the staffer’s smile told us that Karen had hit the nail on the head. “If all goes well, you'll be at post and briefed within the next ninety minutes.”
Ninety minutes? We were in friggin' Maryland. I had no idea how we could get anywhere in the world dangerous enough to rate quadruple hazard pay in ninety minutes.
The stew was thick and chewy. Taste and edibility were sacrificed at the altar of protein content and calorie count. We joked about the food as we got into uniform. “Quadruple hazard pay won't be enough if they make us eat this at every meal!” Ha ha.
There were no changing rooms, so we took turns ducking into the bathroom to put on our uniforms. My grey uniform fit loosely. Aside from the American flag patch on the shoulders, it bore no insignias or any other markings. I looked more like a janitor than a ... what? What was I supposed to be doing in this job? The job announcement was for a Refugee Operations Manager. But in my 20 years in humanitarian aid, I never had to wear unmarked battle fatigues to work.
The descent chamber, whatever that was, apparently existed deep under the same building where we had our intake interviews. The five of us, now wearing our shabby, moondust-grey military fatigues, were led through long hallways and down broad stairwells. As we made our way deeper into the facility, I noticed a subtle change in the way the security was organized.
In the interview area, building security was tight, but still consisted of the usual stuff designed to keep unauthorized people out. Access was controlled by security vestibules with entry/exit interlocks, doors that opened only when the security officer behind them buzzed you in, and that sort of thing. But deep in the facility everything changed. The reinforced doors, the vestibules, and the turnstiles and mantrap portals were all organized to carefully control exit, not entry.
The signs posted next to the doors we passed were also unsettling: Portal Operations, Hospice Care, Advanced Theology & Ethics, Cartography. Finally, the hallway ended at a huge metal door labeled Descent.
Our escort turned to us. “One of the major selection criteria for this post is an ability to follow instructions. Now is the time to exercise your above-average instruction-following skills. Listen carefully.”
We listened very carefully.
“In a moment I will open this door. We will enter a large interior space, about the size of a gymnasium. I will close this door as soon as we are all inside. Two shapes are painted on the floor exactly two-hundred fifteen feet from this door: a red circle and a blue square. Walk into the red circle. If, at any time, you choose not to continue to your post, you may walk to the blue square. If you enter the blue square, you will be debriefed and sent home. A man at a desk near the red circle will call you forward one at a time to give you your descent instructions and fare. After you receive your descent instructions and fare you will have one last chance to move to the blue square. Once you enter the portal, you will not be able to leave until your ascent, six months from now.”
She opened the door. We stepped into the dim space beyond.
I spent maybe four minutes in the descent chamber. Those four minutes completely unraveled my understanding of the universe. I thought the crazy questions they asked at my interview – Jesus in the US Army? Endless pain vs. endless boredom? – were just a verbal Rorschach test to see what I’d say. I didn’t think they were asking me questions about actual, concrete situations.
We shuffled through the door and looked around with dumb, open-mouthed expressions. For five or ten seconds, my brain produced no conscious, coherent thoughts. There was too much information to assimilate. When my scattered mental activity finally coalesced into something that could be considered a thought, it was a dumb one. I thought about my neighbor when I was growing up: Kenny Timmerman.
I worked hard in high school, and graduated third in my class. My senior year I took AP chemistry and AP physics at the same time. The workload was insane. My neighbor Kenny, on the other hand, put his teenage effort into being the best metal-head-slacker that he could be. He wore a black leather jacket every day, no matter what the weather. He had decorated the jacket himself – it was adorned with patches featuring upside down crosses and what I assume were the names of hyper-obscure metal bands written in nearly-unreadably ornate gothic letters. On the back, Kenny had set silver studs in the shape of a pentagram – an upside-down star inside a circle.
Whenever I saw Kenny – at the bus stop or the mall – I would indulge in thoughts about how much better-off I would eventually be than Kenny, due to my diligent investment in my studies, and my work ethic. What I saw in that huge dark room dug into the Maryland bedrock annihilated that line of thinking.
Kenny, who sacrificed his academic studies to instead focus on perfecting his unique combination of screaming, sticking out his tongue, and making the metal-goat-devil sign with his thumbs and pinkies, had come far, far closer to uncovering the true reality than I had with my studies of science. In the Descent Chamber, I realized that chemistry and physics were silly diversions to keep mankind from approaching the real truth of the universe.
Although the descent chamber was a simple rectangular space, it clearly had a front and back. We entered through a door on the right side of the room. To our left, the rear of the chamber, was a huge, hundred-foot-long window of glass. The well-lit space behind the glass was filled with rows of men and women sitting behind desks laden with computer monitors, phones, and other electronic gear. Houston space-control from the 1969 Apollo program, with updated computers and screens.
Most of the floor was used to form what I can only describe as a defensive line. Pillboxes and concrete barriers were installed in patterns reminiscent of the arrangement of cannons in fifteenth-century fortifications. Dozens – maybe hundreds – of grey-fatigued soldiers were manning these positions. Rifles, rocket launchers, every kind of weapon an infantry regiment might need were on display. Concrete towers built against the walls held anti-aircraft cannons. All this weaponry was trained on the front of the room.
The front wall validated Kenny Timmerman’s adolescence. It validated the Spanish Inquisition. It validated Tipper Gore’s stance on music censorship. It validated the Salem Witch Trials.
Mounted on the wall in the front of the room was a fifty-foot-tall, glowing-red star inscribed in a circle. A pentagram. The center of the star was a perfectly pentagonal black pit leading into the wall.
“Walk to the red circle.” The words were directed at me, but I didn’t walk anywhere. My mind was too jammed to process the staffer’s instructions. “Sir. Please walk to the red circle.”
I followed her pointing finger. A bright red circle, large enough to hold fifty people, was painted on the floor directly in front of the pentagram. I looked around in near-panic for the blue square. I found it near the rear of the chamber.
“Sir. Please walk to the red circle.”
I started walking. My legs shook, but I kept my balance. I glanced behind me. Two of my fellow “chosen ones” had followed me. But an older man I only knew as Kent was running towards the blue square.
I had a better view of the pentagram from inside the red circle. The pentagram was traced out by thick metal wires glowing red from heat. It looked like an enormous, Satanic, electric stove burner. From the vantage point of the red circle, I could perceive some of the details of the pentagram’s construction. The wall it was mounted on was made of metal panels. I could see the seams between the panels and the heads of the bolts that held them in place. Electrical conduit was routed to the vertices of the star. Small, high-voltage warning signs, and stickers that said Portal-Certified Personnel Only were affixed to the metal surface at regular intervals. The black pentagonal hole leading into the wall remained featureless, however. It was a perfectly formed, perfectly black hole, with no features visible inside.
A rolling metal staircase was pushed against the glowing star, giving access to the pentagonal tunnel in the center. A man with a crew cut sat behind a desk at the base of the stairs. He wore a white, short-sleeved, button-up shirt and a black tie. Two or three pens poked out of his shirt pocket. He removed his glasses and cleaned them with a small cloth as our group, now only four, arrived in the circle. The desk was as ordinary a desk as they make – the same grey-painted steel desk found at the head of every public-school classroom in the country.
The man at the desk read out our names from a stack of paperwork. “Bolens!” He shouted to be heard clearly from the desk, fifty feet from our red circle.
“He’s in the blue square!” The woman next to me apparently had learned Kent’s last name.
The man at the desk put the folder down and picked up another. “Clark!”
The woman who knew Kent’s last name left the circle and slowly walked to the desk. She spoke with the man for a minute, then turned and walked back to us. “No damn way,” she said as walked past, heading to the blue square.
The middle-aged man who introduced himself as Charles when we met this morning, trudged to the desk. He spoke to mister shirt-and-tie for a minute, zipped something into the breast pocket of his grey uniform, then dutifully climbed the stairs. Charles reached the top of the stairs, took a last look behind him, and stepped into the black hole.
I took a deep breath and walked out of the red circle, towards the desk and the looming pentagram behind it. The heat from the glowing red wires grew noticeably with each step towards the desk.
I focused on desk-man’s face. A thin, fifty-something guy with a greying flat-top. A shirt and tie out of the 1950s. He looked bored. Another day at the office. He handed me two heavy silver coins the size of casino chips and said “zip these into your breast pocket. Do not remove them or unzip your pocket.” He spoke clearly and deliberately, like he was reading someone the instructions for defusing a bomb.
“Climb the stairs, enter the tunnel, and walk forward,” he continued in the same deliberate tone. “Do not speak the names of the dead. Do not pray. Say yes if you understand these instructions.”
“Yes.” I understood what to do. But why? Don't pray?
“Enter the tunnel.”
I climbed the steps and entered the tunnel.
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Second Death is available on Kindle and in paperback.