This was the first short story I wrote as an adult, and also the first story I sold. Now that the publication rights with Aurealis have run their course, I thought it might be fun to make it available for free. Technically, I guess I’m releasing it as a reprint on my website, but “make available for free” sounds a trifle less pretentious =)
You can sell previously-published short stories with reprint rights, something I have done for a couple other stories elsewhere, but in this case I don’t want to do that because I’ve effectively cannibalised it–taking the themes, tone, and characters (but not the setting or plot) and have put them into a full-length novel. Therefore, I’m retiring this short story.
Some notes: It has a lot of flaws endemic of my writing (too much tell, odd action beats, melodrama, weak worldbuilding) and I must admit, I cringed a bit while skimming it over for this post–but what the heck, you live and learn. It’s not all bad; Preacher is still my favorite character (a tribute to the Weird Western genre that I enjoy) and I’d love to recycle him into something else, some day.
Deserted Lies the City
by S Dean (artwork courtesy of Al Hess)
Chapter 1: Ashes
Whenever Elon asked have we run out of food, Isa would say yes, and they’d play a game of ‘imagination sandwiches’ where their hands became bread and they imagined what went between the slices. When he asked how far do we have to walk, she would tell him in miles, yards, and finally feet, so he could count their steps across the wastelands. She never hid the truth from her son.
That night, as they watched New Nazareth burn from their little ridge up in the mountains, Elon asked, “Did I do that?”
Isa nodded behind her veil. “Yes, you did.”
His hand, small and dusty, found hers. “Will everybody die?”
“Probably. Those who weren’t killed by the fire will die from exposure.”
“Just radiation and heat,” she said. “Nothing we have to worry about.”
“I’m tired,” he told her, with the selfish honesty of a six-year-old.
Isa dug out their blanket and wrapped him in it. “Sleep, then.” Though he’d grown too big for her to carry him swaddled on her back, the blanket was still a thing comfort.
They tried again and managed to last three months in Capernaum, before Elon threw a fit over his supper as children sometimes do, and set fire to everything nearby. Isa, resigned, shot most of the survivors and burned what remained of the town. It was only a little settlement, but she could not afford witnesses.
Another three months in Decapolis until the same thing happened, and over the same foodstuffs no less. It seemed Elon had strong opinions about tinned corn. When the ash settled, Isa took him aside for some stern words.
“You can’t call fire like that. It’s hard enough to find towns free from Preachers, without worrying about your temper.”
“But you do it too!”
“Elon, listen to me.” Isa lifted his chin. “I only kill people when I must. Like when the Preachers find us, or townspeople turn against us. Not because I throw a fit. For heaven’s sake, it was only corn—if you don’t like it, don’t eat it. No need to burn the world. Okay?”
Elon mulled that over. “So it was wrong to kill the humans?”
She had been preparing for this question since his destruction of New Nazareth. “It’s okay to kill people if they are attacking you. But just being angry isn’t a good enough reason. You need to be in control. You need to have a purpose behind it.”
He squared his little shoulders, and nodded.
Isa decided they needed a break from civilisation, so they wandered the valleys and scavenged edibles from abandoned cities. The local radiation ensured they dwelt in isolation and peace. When Elon turned six, they tried again.
The settlement of Bethany lasted barely two months, but that was Isa’s fault; somebody recognised her. She decided not to count that attempt.
Jericho went much better—until Elon lost his temper.
“The Missionary said Michael is the Antichrist,” he murmured, the day after his massacre. “They all thought it, even the nice people. I hate having to pretend he’s evil.”
“Most people think that about Michael these days, and it will come up a lot in church. You have to get used to it, if you want to live in towns.”
Which was why Isa didn’t want to live in towns. If it was up to her, they’d stay in the wastelands till he was grown and never sit through another sermon, but playing with other children made Elon happy. He also liked clean beds and hot food, and she couldn’t deny him those small comforts. Not yet.
Elon sighed, slumping a little.
Isa relented. “It won’t always be like this. I promise. One day, you’ll walk out of the wastelands and claim what’s yours, and never need lie or hide again.”
“And then we can rescue Michael?”
Isa smiled and kissed his forehead. “That’s the plan.”
And so it went, back and forth from towns to wastelands, alternately travelling and fleeing for nearly three years.
They finally made a home—or thought they had—in Antioch-upon-Tigre. After eighteen months, they celebrated his tenth birthday in the local Mission. All his friends came, and Isa sold a pint of her blood for a cake.
It was a good day. Happy, even.
Isa was therefore surprised when Elon burned everything down in the night. Antioch-upon-Tigre was big, almost a hundred people; he was getting stronger.
“I thought you really liked it there,” she said, as they watched everything collapse into char. It was, she believed, of vital importance for them to survey the damage and death he caused. “We could have stayed awhile, you know. Hardly any Preachers come this way.”
“I didn’t mean to. I did like it.” Elon’s eyes were red-rimmed. “Everyone was so nice. Jude and Becca and Davey…”
“I dreamed about Michael. I dreamed he came down on a ladder from the sky, and said, ‘Happy birthday.’ But he wasn’t there when I woke up.”
Isa wanted to answer, but the words stuck in her throat. She kept her eyes on the ground, grateful for the veil that hid her face.
Later, while he slept, she thought again about death. She knew it was indulgence. But sometimes, after endless miles through the wastes, or on nights like this when the scent of ruined lives floated up to her on a river of smoke, she circled the idea of death like an eagle over prey. She wasn’t immortal, like Elon might one day be; Michael’s marks could not protect against everything, or sustain her indefinitely. Death was always possible if she truly wished it.
But if Isa gave up, then Elon would be a small boy alone, as much a danger to himself as others. And worse, there would be no one left to rescue Michael. They both deserved more from her than despair. She counted stars until the feeling passed, and held Elon’s hand through the long, lonely night.
Chapter 2: Wastelands
Elon wanted to try New Damascus, but Isa could not face another failure so soon. They retreated to the wastelands for a time, as much for her sanity as anything else.
Civilisation had died long ago on the fields of Armageddon, leaving remnants of humanity to scrabble in the decayed and irradiated remains. The ground was nearly as cracked and hard as their sandals, the land more pocked and scarred than Isa’s dark skin. The little water they found was the wrong colour to drink without boiling.
After some weeks, they skirted the concrete skeleton of a vast metropolis. Plants flourished in the shade of broken toothpick towers to weave a green funereal shroud for abandoned buildings. Beautiful, but deadly; the thriving foliage masked high levels of radiation. Isa kept a careful watch on her protective marks, glowing bright beneath the grime of her hands.
Still, the decaying city proved a good find. They spent lazy days picking through crumbling structures for old foodstuffs. Michaelmas came and went, taking September with it. They celebrated with tinned fruit and a four-footed pigeon Elon captured with a snare.
Peace ended abruptly when three heavily-armed drifters stepped from the rubble one morning. From the state of their teeth and hair, they’d been living in the radiation far too long. Their leader carried a battered rifle in cracked hands, the skin of him red and peeling. A woman with a missing eye and cancerous growths on her shaven scalp followed close behind. A smaller man trailed after them, struggling under the weight of a bazooka.
“What do you want?” Isa didn’t stand. For someone of her size, the extra height was no advantage.
“Give us your meds,” said the rifleman. The other two circled, cutting off any escape.
“What’re meds?” Elon said.
The rifleman levelled a gun at him. “Pills, shots, whatever. Been watching you for days. You ain’t getting sick.”
“Leave him alone,” Isa said, sharply. “He’s just a child.”
“You got something,” said the bazooka-holder. “Hand it over, and you can walk.”
“We have nothing.” Even if she’d wanted to, she couldn’t give them her marks, or Elon’s. “And we certainly don’t have ‘meds’. No one does, not since—”
The rifleman fired.
Elon stumbled backwards, a bullet in his neck. For a moment, Isa thought her heart would stop—but her son hacked the bullet up and spat it out. The hole in his neck knitted together.
The drifters stared.
“What in God’s name—” the rifleman began.
“Nephilim! He’s a nephilim!” the bazooka holder said hoarsely.
Isa drew her pistol and shot both men through the head in quick succession; their big guns were too slow and clunky to counter her. The one-eyed woman fled and Isa let her leave.
She went to examine Elon’s throat with a shaky touch. “Are you alright?”
He swallowed several times and nodded. No marks, no wound, no scar. Just like Michael, and not like her; but her healing was done through the marks.
“I’m sorry,” she said, vexed. “I shouldn’t have let it get to that.”
“It’s okay,” he said—though of course it wasn’t.
Isa picked through the corpses, but found nothing else worth taking aside from a few bullets. Perhaps she should have kept one alive—or captured the last—to discover if they had stores somewhere; too late now.
“What about that stuff?” Elon pointed to the bazooka and other heavy weapons which had survived their owners.
“Do you want to carry all that?” Isa said. “Me neither. I prefer my pistol. Besides, so many guns will attract attention. Make us seem like bad people.”
“Were they bad people?”
“They were desperate, just trying to survive,” she said. “Like everyone else.”
He looked puzzled. “But that’s not what I asked.”
“Yes it is, Elon. Right and wrong don’t matter much; people do what they must. They would always have killed, to save their own lives. I will always protect you, no matter the cost to others.” Except she hadn’t. The thought gnawed at her.
He mulled that over, chewing a nail.
“Which is why I was wrong before,” Isa added. “We should go to New Damascus.” No one in a town had ever shot him, at least. She had no wish to test the limits of his mortality.
Elon jerked upright. “Really? For real?”
“Your dreams won’t be any better or worse out here,” Isa said. “And although there are less people in the wastes, all of them will be desperate. It won’t be like that in the towns—you’ll see some goodness and some light, at least.”
“I can’t wait!” Elon flung his arms around her in a hug. “Is there anything more to eat?”
“No.” She suppressed a wince. “We might find something between here and Damascus, but otherwise—”
“Imagination sandwiches!” His joy was contagious.
Isa smiled. She had very few smiles left since losing Michael, and saved them all for Elon. They set off hand-in-hand, across pastures grey and poisonous.
Chapter 3: Preacher
The road to New Damascus was littered with skeletons. Every fifty feet or so they’d find more, usually clustered together. Elon, of course, made a game of guessing whether the bodies had been men or women, while Isa humoured him by coming up with names and stories for each one. They spent a lot of time talking to the dead these days, but Isa didn’t mind. The deceased could not hurt or be hurt, and so were far superior to anyone still living. It was hard not to envy them.
The sun had reached high noon when they spotted a Preacher.
He was strung up on a rusting metal cross beside the road; the weather damage on his carapace suggested he’d been there a long time. The design suggested an older model. His legs were missing, and some particularly sacrilegious scavengers—no doubt the same gang who’d crucified him—had nicked his weapon system, leaving him half-gutted.
He talked to himself, or perhaps to the emptiness around. The words were impossible to make out across the distance.
“What should we do?” Elon whispered.
“Let’s get closer. I want to hear what he’s saying.” Isa was curious. She had battled Preachers, or run from them—she’d never been able to talk to one.
They approached from outside his field of vision. The stuttering grew louder.
“In-in-initiating primary function alpha: sermon.” Mechanisms whirred and clicked. “Primary function error: invalid congregation.”
They watched him cycle through the process again.
Isa stepped where he could see her, gun in one hand and veil covering all but her eyes. “Kyrie Eleison, Preacher.”
If he showed any sign of attack—
But Preacher merely looked down, the retinal lenses of his cyclopean eye straining to focus. Wires poked out from odd places, fizzing the occasional spark. “Kyrie Eleison! Are you in-in-in my congregation?” His chest-box rattled an echo when he spoke.
Isa inclined her head. “If you like.”
“In-in-initiating primary function alpha: sermon. Primary function commenced. Doctrine cartridges engaged.” A light came on inside his head, and the blank faceplate flickered as he tried to display a holographic smile.
Elon crept up to join her. “Shouldn’t we go?”
“In a minute,” said Isa.
Preacher puffed up. “Citizens, rejoice! We find God in-in-in desolation. Consider how many ancient prophets sought Him in-in-in empty places: from Moses, through to John the Baptist. Consider, too, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who went forth from the city to be tempted by the fallen angel Michael, and who ascended Mount Tabor in-in-in search of peace and solitude. Again and again, our forefathers and prophets sought truth from the wild raw of Earth where men are not welcome, where hardship and barren land break the spirit to holy submission. For in-in-in desolation, there dwells God.”
“The hell He does,” Isa said under her breath, but Elon listened with avid interest.
“Let your hearts have no resentment for the wilderness God has gifted you,” said Preacher. “In-in-in rendering the Earth bleak, God has brought you ever closer to His Kingdom. No longer must we venture forth to the wilderness alone, or send a few holy men for the sake of all. By His grace, we all of us dwell in-in-in the wastelands of His love. What is the radiation, but the full brightness of God’s glory, too strong for frail mortal forms? What is drought, but our thirsting for His righteousness? Citizens, rejoice! The desert is all around you, and God is in-in-in every grain of its sands, every flake of its ashes.”
“Maybe his doctrine cartridges are scrambled.” Isa had heard a lot of oddball sermons in her day, but this was taking the proverbial cross. “Or maybe not. I’ve heard worse, if less strange.”
“Any questions?” Preacher asked, spurred by his politeness subroutines.
“I have one,” said Elon. “Christ sought God in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion. If God is in the wilderness, why did Christ seek him in a garden?”
Isa raised an eyebrow. “You can follow this gibberish?”
“In-in-initiating primary function beta: debate,” said Preacher, before Elon could answer her. Lights flickered at random. “That was in-in-in Christ’s moment of weakness, the human part of Him which faltered. For His crucifixion, He was taken out of the city, and died on Golgotha’s barren hill.”
“But God abandoned Christ on the cross,” said Elon. “He died forsaken and alone… in the place of desolation. Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”
“In-in-incorrect application of principle. The teleological significance of wilderness in Scriptural allegory and allusion is clear. Consider how many events occurred in-in-in the depths of midbar. Citation required. Error: memory failure.” Preacher paused, seeming confused. “The sermon has ended. The sermon has ended. Citizens, now is the time for a reading. In-in-initiating secondary function alpha: Scriptural quotation.”
“You’re wrong,” Elon said. “God does not dwell in the desolation. The whole of Earth is bleak, because the whole of Earth is in exile. God is not among us. He has forsaken us entirely, and left us to Lucifer.”
“Preacher isn’t listening,” said Isa. “Where’d that come from, anyway? I didn’t realise you paid so much attention in church.”
“Dunno,” said Elon. “Just made sense in my head.”
“Our reading today is from the Book of Lamentations, chapter one,” said Preacher. Garbled music crooned tinnily from his chest-box. “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations.”
“Enough.” Isa dug out her pistol, and levelled it at Preacher’s exposed power core.
“Wait,” said Elon. “He can’t hurt us, so we don’t need to destroy him, right?”
“Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks,” Preacher intoned. “Among all her lovers there is no one to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.”
The words of a long-dead prophet stung in her ears. Isa said, more loudly, “He’s a Preacher. They hunt you, Elon. You, and I, and anyone who ever sided with Michael.”
“But this one’s old and broken, discarded by God like everybody else,” Elon said. “Isn’t control about only destroying when you must? That’s what you’re always saying.”
“All her people groan as they search for bread; they barter their treasures for food to keep themselves alive.”
“Out of the mouths of babes,” Isa muttered, and reluctantly stuffed the pistol back in her belt. Elon’s words sound like something Michael might have said. “Okay, okay, you’re right. We’ll leave him.”
Elon grinned. They backed away carefully. Isa could have sworn there was a malicious glint in Preacher’s eye. Probably just her paranoia. If he’d recognised them, he’d have acted by now.
“This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit. My children are destitute because the enemy has prevailed.”
Isa picked up the pace. They walked a long way before silence reigned again.
Chapter 4: Babylon
They stopped for ‘supper’ as the sun was setting, having covered a hundred thousand steps and then some. Isa put ‘bacon’ in her imagination sandwich. Out of all her childhood foods, that remained the only taste she clearly remembered. Salt flesh, crunchy edges, melting fat; pure gustatory paradise.
“Will you tell me about Babylon? And Michael?” Elon’s sandwich had all manner of things he’d only heard of in her stories, from cream cheese and grapes to fried ostrich and cantaloupe.
She hesitated. “We’ve been over it a million times.”
“Not a million,” Elon said. “Probably about a thousand. If it was a million, I wouldn’t ask.”
Isa laughed. “Alright, then. Babylon was very big, and—”
“It’s rude to interrupt, you know.” She shook a finger at him. “New Babylon was very big. All the floating cities were. The palace I grew up in was almost as large as Antioch. It was just for me, and my brothers and sisters, and my mother and father.”
Despite having heard it so often, Elon leaned closer and listened in amazement, as if the words were a thing that lived only during her telling. “It was more beautiful than anything.”
“Very much so,” Isa said. He would never see such beauty, and that knowledge squeezed her heart. “My parents were kind people, and they ruled New Babylon well. There was always enough to eat and drink. The earth was ruined, but we wanted to rebuild it. The radiation was bad, but we were protected.”
“Michael’s legacy.” He snuggled against her sleepily.
“Yes.” Isa traced her palm. The symbols hid behind grime and ash. “Michael was a great archangel—and your father. He gave many of us a mark, a piece of his power, to protect us. To the townsfolk, he gave radiation shields. We lived shoulder-to-shoulder with his kind, a union of two peoples. He and I met in happy days.”
Everyone knew Michael for what he built or destroyed; for his glory and fire. She alone had known his stillness, peace, and calm; the silence within him, which he shared only with her.
“Then the Fallen rose again, for the last and bitterest of wars. We were few and mostly mortal, while the Army of Morning stretched from shore to shore.” Isa spoke her words into the listening dark. “But we poured their blood out like water, and turned the grey seas to black. Michael summoned stars from the heavens, to strike their soldiers. In the midst of that war, you were born. A child of earth and heaven, or so Michael called you.”
Elon did not respond. He’d fallen asleep.
Just as well, she decided. Michael’s betrayal, defeat, and capture didn’t make good bedtime fare. There was no need inflict on Elon the nightmares she already suffered.
Isa kept watch, and slept little that night.
Chapter 5: Damascus
New Damascus was impressive in its way; houses of brick and mortar and enough inhabitants–nearly five hundred people–to warrant a road system. Crops grew on roofs and in alleys, packed into sterile greenhouses and fed on filtered water. Residents took shifts working the electric generators, and nearly everyone had scavenged a working car. Someone had even set up a small school.
She always told the same story: she had rescued Elon and taken him on as an apprentice. Where she was short and dark like aged wood, Elon was tall and fair, like his father. An easy lie to claim.
There had been a time when nearly every person on Earth had known her face, and Michael’s, but she had been younger then, with longer hair; less sun-stained, less weathered, less scarred. But it had never been her face that drew Michael’s attention, and Isa did not mourn the changes.
The townsfolk told her they’d lost their Preacher some years ago when he’d malfunctioned and wandered away one night. Isa didn’t mention the one they’d found out in the wastes, and instead volunteered to take over their Mission. She knew more than enough theological lingo to pass for a Missionary in training, and they were glad to have her.
Life acquired a rhythm. Sermons were easy enough to give. She’d heard a lot of them over the years, and she stuck to old classics like In Praise of Hell and The Rebirth of God. The people were kind, far kinder than anywhere else they had stayed. The first week, Isa’s new neighbours brought plants, so she could start her own garden, and someone gave her new clothes. No one commented on Isa’s scars, or minded her revolver. She stopped shaving her head, and let her kinked hair grow out.
Isa was even more surprised when Elon began working in the local clinic under the eye of a physician named Luke. It seemed her son had a gift for talking to the sick and injured, and an easy manner with young children which soon made him popular.
“I’m learning so much,” he told her, earnest and proud. “I think I could be a doctor for Damascus, when I’m older. Luke’s teaching me medicine.”
Isa paused, in the middle of dusting the Mission bibles. “I’m not sure being a doctor in Damascus is a path that will lead to rescuing Michael.”
“Oh,” said Elon. “I just thought… when we’ve killed … if I could help a few…”
“No, no, I didn’t mean it like that.” Isa set down her duster. “Of course you can help the humans. I’m proud of you.” Spoken as if she wasn’t one of them; but sometimes, it seemed like she’d ceased to be. “We can’t stay here forever, that’s all.”
Elon lit up, hearing only half of what she’d said. As usual. “So I could be a travelling doctor!”
“If you like.” Isa nearly said, if you must. Despite his enthusiasm she could not bring herself to sell or put away the revolver, or to make true friends among the townsfolk. It was always just a matter of time.
Elon’s first test came during the feast after Lent. The whole town pitched in for the celebrations, and things got very jolly indeed. On the first evening, one of the Damascene elders drunkenly proposed a toast to “triumphi est Christus!” swiftly followed by cries of “et passion Michael!” That, in turn, prompted a retelling of Michael’s rebellion against God, and the punishment he’d earned.
Isa took a mouthful of wine to swallow the sick.
The night wore on. She sat shoulder-to-shoulder with her son and listened politely while a courtyard full of people gave thanks to a god who’d abandoned them, for the torment of an archangel who had not. She chewed bread to keep from grinding her teeth.
Isa wondered, as she often had, if Yahweh thought of them, if He cared that Lucifer had taken his place. Perhaps He had simply withdrawn to other planets and would come back one day. It seemed unlikely.
Yet far from showing anger, Elon remained solemn, even still. In a room of wine-flushed faces, he stayed cool and calm; in a city of drunks, they alone sat sober.
“They don’t know any better, do they?” he said. “It’s not their fault.”
Isa didn’t reply, and her hand found his under the table. She was too old, and too angry for forgiveness. Still, his maturing nature gave her hope. She slept well that night for the first time in what felt like eons, and didn’t dream of Michael—suffering, or otherwise.
So passed their first year in New Damascus.
On the heels of Lent came Easter Sunday. Isa wanted Elon to help with the service preparations, but the previous night’s revelry had left Luke’s clinic overflowing with the regretfully sick. Her son was needed elsewhere.
Watching Elon prepare to go, listening to his chatter, Isa was struck by his happiness. He had become a kind child, even with all they’d been through; one who liked people, as Michael had.
“Have fun,” she told him.
“I will!” He slung a pack across his shoulders, loaded down with medical supplies.
He paused, halfway through the door. “Yeah?”
“We’ll stay in New Damascus as long as we can,” Isa said. “If you want.”
He beamed at her, then took off.
Isa spent an hour cleaning the Mission until it shone and hung the scant few decorations. She watered her plants, set the table, opened the doors… and halted.
Preacher waited outside, surrounded by a crowd of stunned locals. He’d jury-rigged metal struts for replacement legs—that alone must have taken months—and accrued a motley assortment of firepower to replace his missing weapon systems. The bazooka was suspiciously familiar.
“Target verified,” said Preacher. “In-in-initiating tertiary function: persecution.”
“Lovely,” said Isa.
Chapter 6: Easter
Isa threw herself into a sideways roll, the missile streaking past her into the Mission. The building blew apart, raining debris across shocked onlookers. She gagged on a lungful of smoke and staggered upright with aching knees. It’d been years since she’d fought one of his kind head-on, and age had worn her hard.
Preacher reloaded his weapon, following her. “Rejoice, Jezebel of New Babylon!” His makeshift legs gave him an uneven, lumbering gait. “God offers you absolution, in the form of earthly death.”
“Isabel, not Jezebel,” Isa shouted. “Get it right, you Satanic abomination!”
He answered with a spray of bullets, a few of which skewered her shoulder. Isa swore. The marks on her palms flared, and the bleeding slowed. The onlookers, meanwhile, scattered like a jar of spilt marbles. She dived in among them, trailing blood, to put bodies between herself and Preacher’s barrage.
“Our reading today is from the Book of Jeremiah, chapter fifteen.” Preacher’s machine gun reaped through rows of wailing people. “Take up your positions around Babylon, all you who draw the bow. Shoot at her! Spare no arrows, for she has sinned against the Lord.”
She needed to get closer, without him seeing. The cracks in his carapace were still there, exposing the power core beneath. Isa ducked into a side alley, and drew her gun.
“Since this is the vengeance of the Lord, take vengeance on her; do to her as she has done to others.” A swathe of innocents lay in Preacher’s wake.
No time to check her wounds. Isa braced against the wall and gathered her strength with each breath.
As he passed by her hiding place, Isa clapped her palms together, mark against mark. Summoning a touch of Michael’s power. The crackle of brief fire ignited, burning through Preacher’s energy shielding.
He spun adroitly and blasted the shotgun, taking a chunk out of her side.
The alley wall kept Isa from falling over. She sagged against it and emptied her pistol into his energy core. Point-blank.
Popping sounds ricocheted inside his chest. Sockets and cables burst. A warning message scrolled across the faceplate and every light flickered. Despite the fatal damage, he teetered on his metal struts, clinging to functionality.
For a moment, she thought it had not be enough. He would reload and—
Preacher juddered. “In-in-initiating-ing omega-ga protocol: mar-martyrdom. M-m-mart-t-tyrdom commenced.”
Isa crawled around the nearest corner and put her head between her knees.
Preacher exploded. Her ears rang, even with hands to shield them.
When she finally looked up, a crowd of Damascene townsfolk were staring at her.
Many pointed at the wound in her side, healing slowly but visibly, the ragged edges of flesh pullling together. It would be a particularly grim scar, this time.
“Babylonians among us!” a woman cried.
“—Preacher hunted her—”
“—the death she’s caused us!”
“Smash her head in!” shouted the closest man, lifting a rock. Others followed. “Kill the Consort of the Antichrist!”
Isa wanted to protest that Michael had been her consort—afterall, humans were higher than angels—but it didn’t seem the time. The pistol was empty, and she was weak from Preacher’s guns. She could call a scant fire again, if she was strong enough, but that would not help against an entire town.
“Wait!” Elon careened barefoot around a corner, voice ringing out ahead of him. “Wait! Stop!”
“Stand back, boy,” said a man who Isa recognised as one of her neighbours. “This one’s dangerous still.”
“Just stop!” Elon pushed in front. “Preacher’s caused the death and destruction, not her. “She’s lived peacefully among you. So have I. What wrong did we ever do you?”
“Come away from her!” said the neighbour. “You don’t understand, boy—she’s one of Michael’s, a whore of Babylon!”
“And I’m her son,” said Elon. “The child of an angel and a human. Which makes me a nephilim. Will you stone me, too?”
For a moment, they hesitated; he was only a boy, at least in appearance, and well-known. Well-liked, even. But conviction was a powerful thing.
“Allies of the Antichrist!” came the cry. “Stone them both!”
Rocks and bricks hurtled in a cloud, winged with insults.
Elon stumbled back from the onslaught, wide-eyed with shock. No bruises, not yet, but the rocks surely stung. Anger flooded his face and he raised his hands.
“Elon.” Isa could not allow it. Too many lives, the cost too high; he could not bear that. “Don’t do it. Just threaten them, make a show, and we will go. Control—”
He put his palms together, as if in prayer. His child’s face contorted in fury.
New Damascus combusted into a furnace. Citizens scattered in a panicked mass of burning, screaming bodies. Some beat themselves, trying to put out the flames, while others rolled in the dust or thrashed about. Buildings caught alight, the sand turned to glass.
Elon’s certainty evaporated. He seemed frightened, frozen to the spot.
Isa stood, painfully, and put an arm around him, half leaning, half comforting. “I shouldn’t have brought you here. The fault is mine.” Her side bled.
“How did he… find us…” Elon averted his eyes as she guided them between the dying and the dead.
“Preacher must have recognised me after all. I don’t know who cut him down, or got him working. Maybe he freed himself.” Isa stepped over the remains of a man with a child in his arms; their flesh had fused together. The smell reminded her of bacon, and her mouth watered.
“I’m sorry,” Elon said, still subdued. “We should have destroyed him.”
Isa gave him a squeeze. “I told you, don’t blame yourself. I shouldn’t have stopped to speak to him. Never mind, we know better now.”
They left by the main road, and headed for the hills.
Chapter 7: Canaan
By silent agreement, they stayed to watch New Damascus burn. Elon scrubbed his face with a sleeve, while Isa pretended not to notice and sutured her wounds in silence.
After a while, he said, “What’s a whore?”
Isa debated with herself before answering. “It’s something men say to women, when we do things they don’t like.”
“Oh. What’d you do that they didn’t like?”
“Had you.” Isa ruffled his sun-bleached hair; it was grey with ash. “Ruled New Babylon. Defied Lucifer. Followed your father into battle.”
“But those are good things,” Elon said. “Lucifer pretends to be God. I like being alive. I bet you were a great queen.”
“Good is what you make of it. I’m good to you, evil to Preachers.”
“Am I evil?” he asked, stuffing his hands into tattered pockets. Hands that only an hour hence, had slaughtered five hundred people. He spoke so casually, yet Isa could feel the weight behind each syllable, the yawning apprehension as he looked to her for truth.
“Not to me. Maybe to others. But everyone is evil to someone, as I said.” She’d been expecting this question for ten years, and was strangely relieved to finally hear it aloud.
She’d hope that living among people would teach kindness, but all it had demonstrated was how little kindness would help him. Isa did not know how to reverse that lesson. Michael would have known, but Michael was gone. Suffering in Lucifer’s endless torments.
Sometimes, Isa thought she might be gone, too; a ghost of a woman, living in her own ruins. Desperately haunting her small, angry son. Was he better or worse, for her having lived? For her having been his mother? So many questions she could not answer.
Elon nodded, seemed to relax a little. “Will it always be like this? Every town? All the places we go?”
“Yes, it will.” She hesitated. “We could try again anyway, if you want. The town was a good place till the end.” What else did they have, but this cycle of trying? Surely it would get better, get easier.
“No,” he said, after a long moment. “I think we should stay in the wastes from now on.”
“…Oh.” Isa blinked. “Are you sure? You won’t have friends, and all that stuff with being a doctor—”
“I don’t want friends who will turn on us.” His hands curled into fists. “I’ll find people who don’t believe lies. I’ll be my own doctor, and build a new city. You’ll help me, won’t you?”
“A new city in the wilderness, you mean?” Isa said, feeling her way.
“One where people learn the truth, and we could raise from them an army.” Elon picked up a stone and tossed it down the hill, watching it tumble and roll.
Isa considered. She’d heard worse plans. “Yes, I like that. But where would you find people?”
“They’ll come to us.” His conviction was a powerful thing.
“Huh.” Isa could not hide her scepticism. Still— “Can’t have a city without a name. What will you call this place?”
“Canaan,” he said, at once, and she realised he must have thought about this a lot. “Like that song, about the, um, happy land. On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.”
“I didn’t know you paid so much attention to my songs,” Isa said. “But it is a nice one, if a little old. And Canaan is a nice name for your city.”
Maybe time would heal his anger, she thought; would dull the hurt and cool the anger in him, that living in New Damascus had brought forth. If not…
She had no answer for if not.
“There’s a verse about fathers, and it makes me think of Michael,” Elon said. “Will you sing it? Like you used to?”
“Always,” Isa said, and was rewarded by his smile. They set off through the wastes to the sound of her hymn, across pastures grey and poisonous.