Attributions: to the song "The Awakening," and to William Butler Yeats for the poem. And, of course, to the makers of "Equilibrium." I own nothing but my original characters. Please, please leave a review, so I know how I'm doing!
SOON WE MUST ALL FACE THE CHOICE
BETWEEN WHAT IS
AND WHAT IS
"I dreamed a dream, a silent dream, of a land not far away
Where no bird sang
No steeples rang
And teardrops fell like rain..."
were those who awoke that first day, glanced into the face of the
sunrise, and were
suddenly stricken with a painfully keen surge of wonder and awe that they had never felt
in their lives. It rushed though them like a flood and held them captive, rooting them to
that spot on their bedroom floor, thrills running up and down their spines.
They went into their bathrooms and splashed cold water on their faces, and when the
cool liquid streamed down their cheeks and necks, they jerked back, their eyes widening,
because for the very first time, that sensation caused life and awareness to cascade
through their beings.
They walked out into their sitting rooms and suddenly, with potent astonishment and
realization, registered the unique beauty of the familiar faces they had never
considered before. They called their little ones to their arms. They wept. Their tears
were foreign, startling, but welcome. They were free. Free from the emotionless chains
that had always bound them.
But there were others who shocked into wakefulness at five a.m., screams and gun
shots and moans of agony echoing through their minds. Dreams--dreams of wild violence
and slaughter--now haunted their waking hours. And as they sat there in the dark,
sweating, the horror of the atrocities they had committed with their own hands bombarded
them in a ferocious onslaught that they could not begin to understand.
They instantly knew that they wanted it gone. All they desired was to return to feeling nothing. For they were certain that if they had to live with the screams of those they had murdered ringing through their ears, they would go mad.
"We've found another one," John stated.
"Already? That's two in the past week."
"We're in luck."
Cleric John Preston, his floor-length, black, high-collared, priest-like coat sweeping behind him, strode down the tall-ceilinged corridor, his boots and his partner's echoing against the hard surface, perfectly in sync. John's jaw was set, and his dark eyes focused straight in front of him as he took his even, steady strides, according to the rigid discipline to which he had always been accustomed.
"Where is it this time?"
John glanced over at his partner who had spoken, a handsome, younger man with sandy blonde hair that hung down in his bright blue eyes. He wore a similar coat, but it was dark blue, and only knee-length, indicating a lesser rank.
"In the far north end of the Nether," John answered, his voice deeper than his partner's, and more level. "In a hidden basement."
"I see," was the reply, and the two of them pushed the front doors of the skyscraper open, and stepped out into the warm midafternoon sun.
John took a deep breath of the slight breeze as he descended the dozen stairs, casually surveying his surroundings with a sweeping gaze, as was his custom. The streets were not busy at this time of day, and the sun stood high enough to overreach the heights of the towering, gray buildings that crowded the street.
Waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs was a sleek, black vehicle built for maneuverability, efficiency and speed. John swung around the front of the car, opened the door and slid into the white leather driver's seat. He and his partner's doors slammed shut at the same time, and the engine rumbled smoothly as John turned the key in the ignition.
John did not speak as they drove, but his partner commented occasionally on certain empty buildings or open spaces that could be put to better use. John always looked where his partner pointed, and considered his words, but was not moved to discussion.
After half an hour, they crossed a narrow steel bridge, flanked by battered, abandoned watch-stations, and left the city, entering the Nether. His partner always ceased comment when they passed this border, and merely stared out the windows at the tumbling, foggy ruins. It seemed darker in the Nether, somehow--haunted. Many streets were blocked because of old wreckage, but John knew the swiftest paths through alleys and side streets.
At long last, they pulled up in front of what had been a library, before The War. After shutting the car off, the two men looked up at the brown, desolate brick building for a moment, then got out and climbed up the stairs. Their footsteps on the paving stones echoed flatly through the empty air. Just a hint of a breeze brushed at John's dark hair, but did not displace it. He reached the landing and glanced around behind him. The dead city was utterly quiet, besides the trash fluttering in the barren streets. He swallowed, and his brow tightened slightly.
He turned, and tested the brass doorknob. It clattered in protest. Of course it was locked. He took a step back, briefly set himself, and kicked the door with the flashing force of a battering ram.
It splintered, burst open, and banged against the inside wall. He stepped inside, feeling his partner right on his shoulder. He heard his partner slide his gun out of his holster.
"Relax, Thomas," John urged, glancing around the dusty, cobwebbed entryway. "I'll protect you."
"Mhum." Thomas did not sound as if he believed him. The corners of John's mouth twitched upward slightly, and he continued farther in.
Glass littered the floor, doubtlessly from some old raid when all the pictures in frames had been broken. The shards crunched beneath the men's feet as they made their way swiftly yet cautiously forward. John took another deep breath, paused a moment, then turned left and passed the threshold of a broken wooden door.
All that lay beyond was a small, mostly bare, white office. A single window in the north wall bore some curtains, and as all the glass had been smashed out of the window, the curtains rustled a little with the outside air. A wooden desk lay upturned in the center of the tan linoleum floor, and one ceiling fan hung awry. Papers littered the tiles.
"You think--" Thomas began. John nodded.
"It's here somewhere."
He reached out his hand, and touched the painted wall with his bare fingertips. He never wore gloves, anymore. He stepped in, following the wall, running his hand softly against it, his head lowered, his eyes unfocused. The blank papers rustled beneath his steps. He closed his eyes.
His sensitive fingers picked up every tiny bump, crack and flaw in the paint. When he arrived in the corner, he paused, and thoughtfully ran his forefinger up and down the corner crack, and then he continued along the south wall. The only sound was his own breathing, and the flicker of a single stray paper.
He halted as his fingers encountered an odd ridge. He raised his arm and followed it, just barely, with his fingertips, finding that it ascended and descended vertically. He lifted his head and turned it toward Thomas. He raised his eyebrows.
"We've got it."
He leaned into the wall as Thomas approached. John tapped the hard surface with his fingertips, heard it resonate oddly, and then, with his previous confident ease, stepped back, set his stance, and kicked a hole straight through the wall.
The hidden door collapsed with a snap. It was in fact made of plywood, and crumbled like cardboard. A cloud of fine dust flew up in the air, and Thomas waved a hand in front of his face to keep from inhaling it. John merely stood there, trying to peer into the dimness beyond.
Thomas stepped forward, holding his gun at the ready, and eased his head through the opening.
"Well..." he said slowly. "You were right, as always."
John ventured through the gap, and found himself at the top of seven stairs. Down below him was a cache of EC-10--Emotional Content--just like so many other such hoards that he had seen before. Silently, he descended the steps, and swept a trained eye over all of their findings:
Four beautifully hand-crafted, dark-wood vanities with mirrors; three oil lamps and two little, electric bedside lamps; a whole set of shelves filled with delicate glass knick-knacks--like ladies in flowing dresses, little black dogs, tigers, and small clocks; an intricately-decorated brass typewriter; an antique sleigh bed covered in a hand-sewn quilt; a pink, long-legged crib filled with baby dolls; colored bottles of perfume; several pictures in frames on the walls; and a knot-rug on the floor. Several boxes were also stacked beneath the legs of the vanities.
Wordlessly, John approached the shelves of knick-knacks, for one of them on top had caught his eye.
It was a black, prancing horse, with a gold mane, tail and hooves. He gingerly reached out and picked it up, then held it in both hands, running his fingers along the smoothness of the glass and his gaze over the glimmer of the paint in the light.
Suddenly, Thomas let out a laugh. John started slightly and turned to him. Thomas held several thin booklets in his hands that he had gotten out of a box, and was thumbing through the first one.
"Take a look at this!" Thomas approached him and held it out. "I think you'll get a kick out of this. It's basically a book of pictures about a man who climbs up walls with his fingers."
John set the horse down and took the book from his partner.
"Spiderman," he murmured, glancing over the cover, which bore an illustration of a man in a red body suit scaling the side of a skyscraper on his hands and knees. The edges of John's mouth twitched upward again.
"Isn't that funny?" Thomas wanted to know. John nodded.
"Yeah, it is."
"Cleric," Thomas approached and slapped an arm around John's shoulders. John's brow furrowed at the unaccustomed contact. Thomas lowered his boyish, narrow face and cocked an eyebrow, speaking in a confidential tone.
"I know that you're amused, deep down somewhere," he said quietly. His eyebrow arched higher. "But you're really going to have to practice that smile. It's weak."
Reflexively, John suddenly grinned and chuckled. Thomas laughed and gave him a shake.
"See! I knew you could do it."
"I'm working on it," John told him. Thomas slapped him on the back.
"I'll go upstairs and call the trucks, if you want to start organizing things in to breakables and non-breakables." Thomas started toward the stairs. John nodded.
"Thank you," he said sincerely. Thomas grinned back at him.
"You're lucky I leave the fun part to you." And he hopped up the stairs and stepped into the office.
"Restoration, this is Cleric and Disciple, do you read?"
He apparently received an answer.
"Good! If you follow our vehicle's tracking signal," he continued. "We've found an untouched cache that needs to be picked up."
John watched his partner's shadow for a moment, sliding his hand into his pocket and fingering a soft, red ribbon he always kept there.
Thomas had a lot to teach him. He thanked God he had the chance to learn.
"He's home!" Lisa Preston raced to her apartment's front door at the sound of the bell, her blue day dress swishing around her knees, and her long brunette curls bouncing. But she was not tall enough yet to release the lock. "Robbie!" she shouted. "Robbie, I need help!"
"All right, all right," Robbie, her slightly older brother, sighed, coming out of his room, paint smudged across his nose. His brown hair was disheveled, very different from the style he had been forced to wear during The Senseless Time. He also had long ago discarded his black wardrobe, and now wore a prized pair of jeans and a long t-shirt. Robbie hurried across the carpeted sitting room, reached over his sister's head and opened the door.
Their father stood there, his head lowered, his hands behind his back. His mouth was curved upward, just slightly. Lisa gasped and beamed.
"What did you bring, what did you bring?"
"Patience, patience," John teased in a low voice, stepped inside, and Lisa grabbed at his long coat, trying to see behind him.
"Just a second, Lisa, I'll get to you," John assured her. "For Robbie..." He brought his right hand out from behind him, and held out the Spiderman booklets. Robbie eyed them with interest.
"I've heard of these!" he exclaimed, taking them in both hands. "They're very famous--at least the other boys say so." He looked up at his father gravely. "Thank you, John."
For the second time that day, John chuckled, and impulsively tousled his son's hair. Robbie looked surprised.
"Don't be so serious, Robbie," John regarded his son pointedly. "You and I need to work on that. Especially with things like..." He gestured to the pamphlets. "...comic books."
"Comic books!" Robbie snapped his fingers. "That's what they're called!"
"What about me?" Lisa insisted. John, still keeping the next object hidden, stepped over to stand in front of the black couch. Lisa followed him, and stood in front of him expectantly. John had no trouble in smiling this time, as he gazed down at his daughter's big, long-lashed brown eyes and soft face. Slowly, he brought the glass horse out from behind his back. Lisa's mouth fell open and she gasped slowly.
"Ooooh," she breathed.
"Careful," John instructed. "It's glass, so it will break."
"What is it?" Lisa whispered, taking it from him very carefully and studying it.
"It's a horse," John explained, easing down to sit on the couch, brushing the tails of his coat out of the way.
"What's a horse?" Lisa's eyes remained riveted on the figurine, her brow delicately creased, but she moved in and leaned back against the inside of her father's knee. Naturally, he gathered her up, wrapping his left arm around her and lifting her legs onto his lap with his right. He leaned the side of his head against her forehead.
"It's a big animal--they still have a few, out in the country," he explained quietly. "They run in fields...and I've heard people keep them as pets and ride them."
Lisa gasped again and looked up at him, wide-eyed.
John sat back a little, smiled again and nodded, his eyes taking in her every feature. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw Robbie lie down on his stomach on the carpet, right by John's feet, and open up one of the comics. Lisa leaned closer to John, and whispered to him.
"Can we get one?"
This time, John really did laugh, and the sound rang through the room.
"C'mon, where would we put it, Lisa?" Robbie countered.
"We could get someplace!" Lisa snapped back. John brushed a hand over his face to hide his mouth.
"What?" Lisa objected. "Robbie and I would take care of it!"
"You two don't even play that much with my dog," John pointed out.
"Your dog?" both children exclaimed, and then began a simultaneously running petition about how often they fed him, brushed him and walked him compared to the duties John fulfilled concerning him.
"Now listen," John set Lisa down and stood up, raising his eyebrows. "I did a little thing called saving the dog's life...so that's qualification enough."
"Okay then," Robbie sneered good-naturedly. "You can clean up the trash that he tore up in the kitchen."
The good humor fell from John's face instantly.
Lisa burst into a fit of giggles and Robbie shook his head.
"Robbie's lying," Lisa confessed, hiding behind her horse.
"Well, where is the dog, then?" John questioned.
"He's shut in my room," Robbie answered, glancing back down at his comic. John's eyebrows came together.
Robbie looked up at him.
"He stepped in paint and walked all over," he explained calmly. "Since the floor in my room is tile, I can clean it up later, but I didn't want him tracking it on the carpet."
"That was thoughtful of you," John commented as he swiftly headed toward his son's room. He heard his children get up and follow him.
"Careful--" Robbie warned, just as John opened the door.
Their dog, Jack, sat in the middle of the room, wagging his tail rapidly, his tongue hanging out. The children had taught Jack early on not to bark, because before, it was not safe to own an animal. John stepped forward with a word of greeting and grabbed the long-haired dog's ears, shaking them in a friendly manner. The young dog did let out a little yip as John straightened and looked around.
All the furniture was draped in sheets, as was the floor. Small cans of paint were scattered everywhere, and John saw that Robbie had dragged the kitchen table in here. He was about to express some irritation--when he looked up.
"Oh," he breathed. The entire ceiling was painted with a half-finished mural of muscled figures and flowing garments.
"It's like the picture in the book you brought me last week," Robbie explained, coming up to stand beside him and gaze upward as well. "Something called the Sistine Chapel. I can't do it nearly as well as...whoever, of course," Robbie amended. "But I thought it would be...fun?"
"Robbie," John murmured. "This is amazing."
Robbie's face relaxed and he spoke faster.
"You can see it much better this way. I have to get down from the table sometimes because it hurts my neck, but if you lie on the bed--" He flopped down on his back on the bed and folded his hands on his chest. "Then it looks good." He patted the space next to him. John hesitated a moment, then picked his way around the paint cans, sat down on the edge of the bed and laid back.
"Yes," he whispered, going over every inch of the ceiling. His chest tightened. "Yes, it does."
"Is someone going to let me in?" The voice came from outside the front door.
"Tom!" Lisa exclaimed, and bolted out of Robbie's room. Robbie hopped up and followed her.
"Lisa, don't run!" he commanded. "You'll drop your horse and break it."
"I'm not gonna break it!" she answered back.
"Stay," Robbie instructed the dog. Obediently, Jack sat down, and Robbie left the room. John sighed, got up and trailed after his kids. The dog barked impatiently, but did not move from his spot.
John entered the sitting room and found Thomas squatting down in front of Lisa as she held out her treasure for him to see.
"You want to take very special care of that," Thomas advised her. "There aren't many of them in the world."
"I will," she promised.
"Go put it in your room and then we'll go," John told her. Keeping her eyes on her figurine, she paced back to the hallway. Thomas stood up.
"Anything good this time?" Robbie questioned him. Thomas nodded.
"Oh, yeah. Lots," Thomas told him. "The things we found last week will be up for grabs, too--and there were a lot of toy models and action-figures that I saw."
Robbie's face lit up.
"Good," he affirmed.
"I'm ready!" Lisa came trotting out, and Thomas grabbed her, spun her around, and lifted her, shrieking, up to sit on his shoulders.
"Okay, let's go!" Thomas opened the door, and the four of them left the apartment.
"I haven't seen Lydia around lately," John commented as they headed down the curving hallway. Thomas cleared his throat and didn't look at him.
"I'm...not really talking with her right now."
"I'm not sure she's right for me." Thomas glanced at him around Lisa's leg. "Do you know what I mean?"
"No," John looked straight ahead. His hand was in his pocket again, fingering the ribbon.
"Well, I didn't expect you would," Thomas said lightly. "But someday you'll meet someone, and you'll think you know her, right down to her heart, and she'll think that she knows you too--that you have a connection. But then you don't. And after a while, it goes away. And you look for someone else."
John shook his head.
"What?" Thomas demanded.
"You're right. I have no idea what you're talking about." And John's hand closed around the ribbon, as if it was about to slip out of his grasp.
On their way to descending a long flight of stairs to the market courtyard, the four traipsed along a balcony walkway overlooking a large, white gymnasium. John slowed and approached the railing, surveying the sight below.
A hundred men sparred in pairs down below, or practiced the precise art of the gun kata, or refined their ground fighting skills. For an instant, it looked exactly like the training sessions of the Tetragrammaton--until one man unexpectedly flipped his partner on his back, and both of them burst out laughing. The utterance echoed against the hard surfaces, and a few others glanced over and joined in the amusement, throwing out a few good-natured taunts.
John turned to see a white-haired, stocky, uniformed man approaching them swiftly, holding a clipboard.
"You are just the man I've been wanting to see," the man told him. John inclined his head.
"Officer Branon. Good afternoon."
The man seemed slightly out of breath, but in good humor as he stopped before them and addressed them all.
"Good day, Prestons! Hello, Thomas." He leaned forward. "How are you liking your assigned position?"
"What's not to like?" Thomas grinned, lifting Lisa off his shoulders and setting her down. "I get to learn from the best."
"Yes, the president's idea of pairing Clerics with Undergroundsmen in mentorship was a brilliant idea," Branon turned to observe the sparring on the lower level. "The Undergroundsmen are quickly learning how to protect themselves and their families, and the Clerics are picking up common necessaries--such as handshakes, jokes and horseplay."
"You can't live without that."
Branon laughed deeply.
"No, you certainly can't." He turned to address John. "And I must say that the new training program you developed has been working marvelously."
John's eyebrows went up.
"I am glad to hear it."
"Yes, yes--it is proving much more effective in teaching the simple self-defense maneuvers quickly, rather than spending years of repetition." Branon paused a moment, then frowned. "But I am sorry to say that we do not have the retention we would have liked."
John's gaze sharpened.
"What do you mean?"
"Out of a hundred and fifty, twenty Clerics have quit the mentorship, you see," he told him. John looked at him sideways.
"For what reason?"
Branson shrugged a trifle stiffly.
"They told me they wished to pursue other interests." Branson glanced up at him. "They told me they were tired of fighting."
John scanned the lines of men once more and nodded slowly.
John leaned against one doorframe, arms crossed over his broad chest, and Thomas leaned against the opposite as they gazed out over the large courtyard market. The sunlight reached half of it, making a person squint if he glanced into those reaches. All around the perimeter of the courtyard, venders had set up booths, and were selling or trading the EC-10. There was a booth for table-cloths, one for toys, one for chinaware, another for lamps, another for picture frames, and many more. Hundreds of people milled around, talking, laughing, and bartering. John watched them carefully, and also cast a wary look overhead once in a while. He and Thomas were in charge of keeping this area of the apartment complex secure. He felt the small guns he always wore press against his forearms, and others, which were strapped inside his coat, press against his chest. He also wore a handgun in each boot, and against each hip. He had been wearing these weapons for so many years he barely felt them unless he thought about it. It was all he knew.
"My son is painting his ceiling," John said, just loud enough for Thomas to hear, while he watched his children run from vender to vender.
"Really?" Thomas answered, glancing at the second story windows across the way. John nodded.
"Like the Sistine Chapel."
Thomas did stare at him this time. John did not meet his gaze.
"It makes me wonder..." John mused, his voice tightening slightly. "If I...had been given the chance...what could I have done?" He looked at Thomas. "What else could I have learned besides how to shoot a gun?"
Thomas faced him squarely.
"Listen, you may not be able to hold a paintbrush," Thomas said slowly. "But you mastered your weapons--and because you did, you made it possible for kids to paint on ceilings if they want to." Thomas turned back to the crowd. "That's just as important."
John nodded wordlessly, then shifted. The gun on his left side was cold against his ribs.