The bright sunlit day created an illusion of warmth and wellbeing, but insidious reality could not be so easily ignored. Beyond the sunny rays, softly rustling leaves, and morning-quiet street, the world was not right.
It was apparent in the lack of people taking their dogs on daily walks, the absence of traffic on the roads, the lonely, empty grocery store aisles, boasting all the produce but none of the buyers. These sights, which had been so common, had slowly disappeared in the past months, and now they were completely gone. Nobody stepped outdoors, nobody drove, nobody shopped in stores. One might think this was all yet another after-effect of the pandemic of 2020, but it’s worse than that – this was a result of the cure.
* * *
Everyone remembers how the pandemic started – the virus that traveled worldwide in a matter of a few short months, with every safety measure enacted after it was too late to control the spread. As a global community, the world was too interconnected to reliably isolate and contain the disease, and the death toll rose daily. In those early days, rife with restrictions and health protocols, all everyone talked about was the vaccine. Scores of pharmaceutical companies worked on developing an effective countermeasure that could immunize the population and defeat the pandemic. Politicians campaigned on promises of the vaccine becoming widely available before the end of the year, and everyone bated their breath and kept sane by thinking about how life would return to normal soon.
But 2021 arrived with little fanfare and delays in the medical trials, and safety measures continued to be the only, if minimally effective, way to curb the virus. Soon, automation replaced most non-emergency essential jobs, with robots stocking food stores and kiosks replacing salespeople. Unemployment grew steadily and the government was forced to offer universal income to stop the daily riots of people who had nothing left to lose. The election in late 2020 had gone in a way nobody could have predicted, and the “elected” government consisted of nobody who had been on the ballot. Everything felt hopeless and returning to normal seemed like a cruel joke that enraged every time it was repeated.
And then, the most unexpected thing happened. After endless delays and countless setbacks that made the whole endeavor seem like a lost cause, a vaccine was approved. The trials had been enormously successful, with 99.9% immunity, and all recorded side-effects were so mild as to seem negligible. Production was fast-tracked worldwide, and lotteries assisted with fair distribution. Within 6 months of vaccine approval, 60% of the world’s population had been immunized, with the rest slated for vaccination before the new year.
2022: The world brought in the new year with rabid excitement, finally able to partake in activities that had been banned for nearly two years. Huge celebrations erupted in all major cities, and people felt like they were truly alive again, as if they had woken from the deepest sleep, Snow White-style. Of course, there were many pandemic changes to adjust to normal world functioning, including employment and education restructuring, governmental role implications, and so forth, but nothing seemed insurmountable after conquering the pandemic.
The death surge was just a trickle at first, scattered across the globe and therefore harder to place within the emerging pattern. But just like the virus, it seemed to spread exponentially. Yet unlike the virus, it appeared to leave no survivors. In short order, communities worldwide deduced that the deaths were associated with the vaccine – but not everyone who had been immunized died, just most of them. The unpredictable nature of the cause-of-death pattern among vaccinated individuals caused a blinding panic. People were used to taking precautions when the threat was outside of themselves, but they had no idea what to do when the danger was already inside.
* * *
The dawn of a new humanity provided chaos, and opportunity. With the majority of the world’s progressive thinkers either dead or banished, the foundations of civilization began to crumble. Religious leaders worldwide preached the evils of scientific progress with a renewed zeal, prosecuting even their own who dared suggest that research had it’s place. Many claimed the death toll was in fact the the rapture, but in reverse – the survivors being God’s chosen.
At an alarming pace, civilians who had not been innoculated turned on those who had, fearing contagion. Unmarked vans began patrolling in the dead of night, violently collecting the vocal few who were so bold as to stand against the church. Camps were constructed for those who had taken the vaccine without complications, victims of a growing certainty that their presence in society was both unholy and dangerous.
As public services ended, cities failed. The once proud monuments of progressive metropoli fell to disrepair, and then just fell. Those who had enough to barter commissioned transport to what the church had deemed Holy Cities, only to arrive to unbridled masses of refugees. Within the massive walls that were being erected, life became a struggle for all, as most of the tech and health care professionals had perished.
The belief that the virus was a boon was soon common, and those who had not yet been infected were so, intentionally. The people who would not submit were murdered or exiled, and their children injected with the disease. Over time, the smell of garbage and death in the streets slowly turned from revolting, to annoying, to normal. In spite of it all, humanity tenuously held on.
* * *
It was subtle at first, undetectable at a young age. The health care professionals that remained had few theories and even fewer answers, and medical discovery as a whole had been all but abandoned. One thing, however, was clear. Something was wrong with the babies.
The mortality rate was disheartening to say the least, and certainly the resurgence of smallpox and polio in the overpopulated cities had taken its toll, but this was different. The first wave of children since covid had spread were happy, healthy, and broken in ways that could never be anticipated.
Few would speak before five years of age. Many lacked the focus to learn to read and write, and most were incapable of basic mathematics. While distressing, the world’s powers declared these children “marked by God”, unburdened by the trivial matters of humanity.
The church, behind closed doors, employed what scientists remained to find the cause. It did not take them long, but their work would never find the light of day.
* * *
A 20% loss in higher brain function in the first generation. That’s what the numbers said. The technology no longer existed to properly account for the drop, but it was heavily theorized that the dormant covid virus was capable of editing the genetic makeup of humans. 20% was horrid, but acceptable. These people were functional, able to complete simple tasks, and didn’t ask many questions; that was, until the second generation came.
The issue was compounded. Children were born unable to breathe, some didn’t know how to blink, or swallow. Parents who were barely competent enough to tend to their own needs couldn’t raise their children, and the death camps that had been deserted for decades reopened as “care centers” for abandoned or difficult cases. Those with all their faculties looked on in horror as millions of children were shipped off to live in captivity as feral animals.
The churches, which had enjoyed relative omnipotence for several decades, fell. Entire generations of people incapable of processing the idea of an all-powerful being led to their demise, and with it, the last semblance of centralized power on Earth. With every sunset, mankind was sliding closer to the brink.
The wet thwack from the next room caused Brother Cadbeau’s pen to scratch across the page. Oh dear, he thought. At least these aren’t meant to be pretty records. Just accurate.
He wrapped the pen in a scrap of cloth and hurried to the next room. The door was sitting ajar, and the young maldroit was on the floor, blood seeping from a wound on their head. There was no sign on Tiva, the balding sallow-faced apprentice who was supposed to be on watch for the night. Once again, he had strapped the maldroit’s jacket on tight, but hadn’t bothered with the belts on the cot. And now they were hurt again, so soon after the black eyes had faded.
“Oh Jay, Jay, you poor thing,” moaned Brother Cadbeau. He grabbed a stained napkin from the untouched meal of plain rice and rubbery broccoli, and began to clean the wound with water from the unmoved tin cup. The maldroit stiffened and attempted to scoot away, grunting and scraping along the rough stone floor. “Jay! It’s Cadbeau! Brother Cadbeau!” he cried, and put his hand in front of their face. Jay stopped struggling, craned their head forward to sniff. Then they turned back to Cadbeau, unblinking eyes wide with relief.
* * *
They had been caught attempting to leave the library with a copy of the histories. The struggle had been terrible, and nine brothers were needed to hold them down–
remember when there were nine of us here?
–while the Abbot performed the operation. Cadbeau had been chosen to hold a shoulder, and he received the brunt of the screaming. “You could have saved us!” they screeched. “You had all the answers in here and you kept them for yourselves! For your fucking liar god!”
The rest of the abuse was along the same track, nothing worse than anything random beggars had yelled through the gates. The Abbot withdrew from his leather tool pouch a long slender point of metal. The young thief stopped struggling at the sight of the pick, their dark brown eyes now wide, a slight tremble. They looked straight to Cadbeau, who failed to look away. A tear ran down the thief’s pockmarked face.
The Abbot grabbed their short hair and, trapping the head beneath his forearm, brought the pick towards the eye socket. The monks chanted the songs of their savior.
* * *
A pungent, sour smell filled Cadbeau’s nose, and he looked down at the dark stains on the pants of Jay. At least a day without getting changed, he thought. He was sure that Tiva only stayed at the dying monastery not out of obligation to the remaining maldroits, but because he wanted the minimal room and board this position could provide. Goddamn you, Tiva, he thought, then shame burned his cheeks. I wonder if God’s listening at this point, anyway. I wonder if He’s bored with damning us.
After a cleaning and changing, Jay was beginning to relax. Cadbeau saw their eyes darting toward the food on the end table. He scooped some rice onto a spoon, flicked away a curious roach that had begun to approach the plate, and brought the spoon to Jay’s mouth. The rice was soon gone, after Jay’s mouth completely enveloped the spoon and their teeth clinked against the metal. It was a fast motion, like a lizard snapping at a bug, as if they expected him to pull it away.
Goddamn you, Tiva.
* * *
“I don’t know why you named her. You haven’t named any of the other maldroits in here,” sneered Tiva. He was leaning in the copyroom’s doorway, putting his usual delay into his care-taking rounds. Any other day, Cadbeau would have given a gentle request for Tiva to get on his with duties. Jay’s condition was still fresh in his mind from the night before, and he felt his calm demeanor slip.
“We didn’t make any of the other maldroits. We are the reason for why Jay is the way they are.” he said, a slight sigh of exasperation.
“She is. She.” Tiva said with a scoff. “I don’t care how bent she made herself look, there’s no changing what’s between her legs.”
Cadbeau paused his writing, staring at the wall. He flipped a few pages forward into the half-empty book and wrote a few words in large script. He held up the book for Tiva to see. Tiva chuckled. “Only in your dreams, Cadbeau.”
“Exactly what will happen in Cadbeau’s dreams, Tiva?”
The face of the Abbot, long and dour, had appeared behind the apprentice’s shoulder. Tiva’s cocksure demeanor melted away, and he immediately made himself as small and penitent as his inexplicable belly would allow. “Oh, it’s nothing, Abbot. Please excuse me, I must get to my rounds.”
“Oh, don’t let me interrupt. You seem so invested in this conversation. You may continue it after I leave. Brother Cadbeau,” said the Abbot as he strode into the room, his dull gray robes trailing on the floor. “How is your transcription coming?”
The Abbot peered down at the page that was open in front of Cadbeau, with the words SUCK MY DICK written in the largest script that would fit on the page. The brow furrowed, then lightened with clarity.
“Tiva!” said the Abbot. “You can read! Why were you hiding that light under a bushel?”
Tiva’s jaw tightened, a pinched smile being forced into place for appearances. Cadbeau held his own face neutral. He knew there would be more time to smile after this conversation.
* * *
Jay’s room was the last stop for tonight, and Cadbeau was late. He had to bury a maldroit who had choked on their own tongue. Passing the copyroom, the sour look he saw on Tiva’s face as the newly promoted apprentice finished his shift gave Cadbeau a great lift; an energy that had long since disappeared from reciting prayers and singing hymns.
He found them strapped down and restrained—unsoiled, thankfully. Jay’s head had shot upright at the sound of the open door, and a huge smile as they recognized Cadbeau. He pinched his lips with his fingers, and nodded. Jay nodded back. He shut the door, and quietly undid every restraint. Jay sat up and gave him a tight hug—he managed to hold back the tears this time. Cadbeau gestured to the spoon & plate of rice on the end table, and stood back.
Jay scooted over to the end table, keeping their eyes on the gray-haired monk. Some rice was pinched in their fingers, and brought to their mouth. Cadbeau held up a finger; Jay’s hand froze, their mouth open. Cadbeau brought a ratty, yellowed book out from underneath his own simple robe. He held it up for Jay to see. The rice was returned to the plate, and the spoon was grabbed. Coordination was still subpar, and half of the rice ended up spilled on the floor and in Jay’s lap, but it was an improvement. They cradled the tin cup in both hands and slurped the water with great gusto. Cadbeau widened his eyes and pinched his lips with his fingers again, pleading for silence. Jay’s eyes widened—they nodded, and slurped quietly.
The meal completed, Cadbeau sat on the cot and opened the book. Jay leaned over and attempted to grab at a page—a successful grab, which tore a page as Cadbeau tried to move the book away. He gasped. The paper hung out of the book, held by a slim tab.
Cadbeau felt himself shaking, a desire to scream and slash at everything insight. He had to clench his fist, digging his dirty nails deep into his own palm. Jay immediately curled up, arms wrapped over their head for protection.
The one thing I have left. The one thing I saved from—
His hand floated on its own, over to Jay’s shoulder. They were both trembling now; he felt it when his hand came to a gentle rest on the maldroit’s skin-and-bones frame. Cadbeau took a jagged breath, holding it until he felt the calm return to his chest. He then whispered, “If you are a dreamer, come in…”
He felt their muscles relax under his hand, their breathing slow down. He continued to read with a soft quiver in his voice, a few drops of water leaving dark circles on the pages.
Far below the monastery, a pair of eyes peered up through the darkness. Every night for the past three months that same pair of eyes looked up, glaring, cursing. Jane knew that Sam was up there. She felt it. The rage started welling, fists clenched. How many nights had they sat in this exact spot, looking up at that exact building, guessing about the secrets it held?
“Okay calm down…” She turned her thoughts away from the monastery, and imagined Same beside her. Holding hands, resting her head on his shoulder, listening to his breathing. Spending that time with Sam had been her only escape from this wrenched realty.
“I have to go,” she hoped her prayer would reach him, “but I am coming to find you.”
* * *
It was windy, when she approached the south side of the monastery. The outside wall was more foreboding up close. Between that and the wind, for a moment Jane considered putting it off, but it was dark and cloudy, and she wanted to find him. A narrow path between the wall and the sheer cliff was barely visible in the dim night, but she knew it was there. “That’s how I’d sneak in.” Sam had told her during one of their plotting sessions. Jane imagined him, light footed but sure, effortlessly walking the path and she followed.
After six small steps, Jane realized this was not going to be as easy as she had imagined it. At it’s widest it was maybe the size of her forearm, but it felt more like she was trying to balance on the edge of a pen. And the wind… it had seemed like an inconvenience before. Now each gust felt like it might rip her off her tenuous perch. Jane shuffled her right foot forward feeling every small, gravely pebble. She shifted her weight, testing the footing. Satisfied, she released her grip and slid her hand along the stone, looking for any nook to dig her fingers into. The wind felt like it was picking up, but she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just her heart beating in her ears. She finally found a small handhold and dug her fingers in deep.
Another small step and Jane could see light coming from around a corner. “Oh thank fucking God, a window.” The site of the end invigorated her. She stepped quicker now, sliding hand and foot along the narrow ridge. Right foot forward, right hand…up, fingertips barely grazing the windowsill. Just one more step and that’s when the rocks under her back food shifted and her left hand lost it’s grip. Disbelief was all that passed through her mind as she looked down. Darkness was all she could see. Then…Sam. His face looking up at her as it had so many nights when they sat below this building. Looking up and smiling.
Her hand reached out to touch his cheek but only felt the rocky ledge. Out of instinct Jane closed her grip around the stone and held on for her life.
* * *
The window dropped Jane into a dark hallway. Left felt like it went back towards the front, so she went right. The hall smelled like stale incense. It was a welcome change from the rot she was used to. The hall wound past dozens of empty rooms. Some had books, others were filled with broken furniture. Where were the people? There weren’t even signs of life. Jane was so engrossed in her search she didn’t notice the incense fade and get replaced by the scent of antiseptic. She turned left down another hallway. The rooms here were different. One that looked like a doctor’s office, the next a surgical room. Jane’s concerned deepened. What if Sam wasn’t here? What if he had just left? The faint sound of a man’s voice snapped her out of her thoughts. The first sign of life. Her steps lightened as she crept towards the sound. It sounded like someone telling a story.
The sound led her down another hallway. The rooms here were dark, door closed. Each door had a tiny window. She peered into the darkness, trying to make out a shape. Another storage room? No…Jane tried to stifle a gasp, these rooms were cells. In each room, was a bed, and a tiny table. Some had people sleeping, others were empty. She looked in each room searching desperately for any sign that one of these prisoners could be her Sam, but it was impossible to tell without going in. The voice was getting louder, definitely reading something. The voice was coming from the only room with a light on. Jane’s heart was pounding. This was it, she peeked through the tiny window. Without a doubt, that was Sam, sitting on the bed. He was wearing a white robe that was practically a burlap sack and pants tied up with a drawstring. But his face…was just a shadow. Sam was sitting there, but he was already gone.
The voice was coming from a fat man sitting in chair against the wall. He was reading from a large, handwritten tome. Rage welled in Jane’s belly. These people DESTROYED Sam, and this FAT FUCK IS JUST SITTING THERE READING!? She slammed the door open. “WHAT DID YOU DO TO HIM?!” She roared at stunned man.
Cadbeau didn’t react immediately. He hadn’t heard the sound of a woman’s voice in nearly a decade, at least not in the same room as he was, so it almost didn’t register to him. When it did though, he stood up with such a start that he dropped the book on the floor. It landed with a loud thud, which was enough to send Sam crashing after it, hands grasping for it as if it was the first water seen after days in the desert. Cadbeau’s mind was instantly split, unsure whether to focus on the woman screaming at him from the doorway or the fate of the only remnant of the past he had been able to save. His indecision left a window for Sam to take hold of the book and retreat back into the corner of the room. Sam grasped the book tightly to his chest, seemingly unaware of the woman who had given him the opportunity to seize it.
“SAM! SAM! AND WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU? WHAT DID YOU DO TO HIM?!” she once again bellowed at Cadbeau.
Cadbeau now had both hands up, palms out, one pointed at Sam and one at the woman screaming at him in the doorway. His eyes darted back and forth unsure of where to focus. His heart raced, and he stumbled trying to find words.
“Jay, put it down” he began but stopped as the Jane began to edge closer to Sam, who was now huddled in the corner holding so tightly to the book that Cadbeau worried he would damage it. “Wait, STOP” he redirected, now focused on Jane. His eyes now darted around the room searching for anything he could use to gain control of the situation. “PLEASE, BOTH OF YOU, STOP”.
Jane continued to move slowly but purposefully towards Sam, never taking eyes off the monk standing opposite her. By this time Sam had taken notice that someone else was in the room, and his focus had turned to her. His grip had loosened on the book and his neck and back had loosened so that his head could peer up at her from his position on the floor.
Cadbeau’s eyes, between frantically darting back and forth between Sam and Jane, had finally set upon a candlestick just to his left. He reached for it as quickly as he could, but to ensure he could grab it he had to take his eyes off Jane for just a moment. In doing so he afforded her the opportunity to close the final distance between her and Sam.
They now all three were panting, out of breath despite having only moved a matter of feet. Cadbeau stood with the heavy brass candlestick raised above his head, and Jane had crouched to cradle Sam’s head in her arms. Sam was whimpering but did not fight her embrace. In fact, his posture seemed to open with her touch. He finally looked up at her, his tear-soaked face seemingly searching to place her. His face looked strained as she finally took her eyes off of the monk menacing the candlestick to look down at him.
“Oh Sam!” she said as she finally gave in and embraced him as tightly as she could. Her arms wrapped around his neck, squeezing every ounce of energy she could into him.
The embrace she had so long yearned for was interrupted from the other side of the room. “STOP! DON’T MAKE ME USE THIS” yelled Cadbeau, but his voice cracked halfway through his threat. “Could I even use this if I wanted to?” he thought as the words came out of his mouth.
“Go ahead and try it!” Jane snarled from across the room. Tears streamed silently down her face, but she did not appear shaken. She was resolute. She hadn’t come all this way to back down, and if she had to fight some monk to keep her Sam, or whatever was left of him, she would.
Cadbeau’s mind had been racing this whole time, and Jane’s response seemed to finally help him land on a path forward. “I just want the book, please, it’s all I have” he managed to squeeze out, as penitently as he could. “It’s all I have”, he thought, but what of Jay? Up until a moment ago he believed that to be something of his as well, but suddenly that was all called into question.
Jane seemed mildly shocked by this, but managed to collect herself and reply “THEN PUT DOWN THE FUCKING CANDLESTICK”
Cadbeau slowly complied, his eyes locked unblinking on Jane as he did, and the room that was so tense not 20 seconds ago seemed to begin clear.
“You want the book, I want him” Jane stated purposefully as the candlestick finally sat with a thud on the floor in front of Cadbeau.
“But…” Cadbeau began. Could he really let Jay… or is it Sam… go so easily? Thoughts of all the nights he had stayed up reading, all the changings and care that had gone into simply keeping him alive, came rushing into his head.
These thoughts, however, were cut abruptly short by Jane’s demand “Get us out of here and you can have your fucking book”. She looked down at Sam, his eyes still searching her face. “Give me the book Sam” she said lovingly, as if she was talking to the same person Sam had been when he came into the monastery all that time ago. Miraculously, his grip loosened. Even Jane was surprised. Did he really recognize her, or was it just the tone of her voice? Was he still in there?
But there was no time for that now, Jane’s mind now had one goal in mind – get the fuck out. She held the book up. “You want it, how do we get out?”
Cadbeau stood there, still dumbstruck by the whole situation. After a few seconds he finally collected himself enough to squeak out “Right out the door, right again down the long corridor, then left out the big door. There’s a wooden bar you’ll have to lift out of the doorway to get it to open. It’s heavy, I could come with and…”
“You follow us and I’ll kill you” Jane replied before he could even finish. She set to work trying to get Sam to stand, and found she could get him upright, although cowering. She started to coax him toward the door she had come in. “Right, right, left, door” she was repeating to herself in her head. No way was she getting lost in this place after coming this far. “Right, right, left, door”.
“My book!” Cadbeau shrieked as they began to slowly make their way through the door. Jane dropped it unceremoniously on the floor and kicked it towards him.
As she pulled Sam towards the door, he seemed to realize they were going somewhere and started to comply. Slowly his steps became longer, and Jane didn’t have to use as much force to steer his direction.
As they emerged from the doorway through which Jane had just entered a matter of minutes ago – searing pain. As Jane fell to the ground her hands instinctively grasped her head, the source of the pain, and she noticed another man standing just outside the doorway. As she struggled to hold onto consciousness, the last thing she heard was the monk inside the room yell “Tiva!”. Then darkness.
* * *
When Jane woke up, she saw nothing but bright light. “Am I dead?” she wondered, as her eyes struggled to focus on anything. Soon, she realized the light was coming from above, and that she was strapped down to a table.
“Quickly, she’s coming to” the Abbot said, which started the other men Jane was slowly realizing were in the room with her scurrying about. Just about the time she had fully come to, the Abbot stood over her with a long slender point of metal. Jane shuddered instinctively.
“Everything is going to be alright” the Abbot said as he smiled above her.