Here’s the continuation of Plan.
Charlie came back to himself like a light bulb switched on after only a moment’s darkness.
He drew a breath. No scent of blood, only stale, reprocessed air. His fingers explored the smooth, unbroken skin at his throat. He was whole.
Charlie might have expected his head to swim or perhaps for his brain to simply freeze up, overloaded by this respite from death. But all he felt was a short moment of relief, a mild quickening of his pulse, and then a sense of dread.
He was back in the death room.
Father Reece consulted his tiny computer, nodding. “You have died once today, Mr. Parkson. Welcome back.”
Charlie said nothing. He felt unbelievably calm. Is this some form of shock, he wondered?
“You should know that we have no memory of your. . . punishment,” said the woman. For us there is no discontinuity. You have not yet left that chair.”
And indeed, there was no blood on the floor where, only a moment ago (a moment ahead?) he had lain, his throat opened to the cool, recycled air, his life leaking out of him like tomato soup from a cracked bowl.
“Mr. Parkson, can you look at us, please?” asked Father Reece.
Charlie tried to raise his eyes to face the Auzor of New York, but found that the effort was too great. They seemed to jitter around the wall behind Reece and then the sealed death room door and then back to the spot on the tiles where he had once and never died.
I’m like a beaten dog, thought Charlie. Like a child whipped from the day he is born for every little offense, whether real or imagined. My calm was a fluke.
In his research, Charlie had found men who had withstood as many as eight deaths and resurrections. Eight times before they chanted the holy rites and took back their oaths against the All-Point and the Church.
And I’m culled in one.
Perhaps he didn’t belong with the others. If he was so weak as to break on the first death, he would be of no use to them in the colony. They needed strong men and women: survivors not reporters.
“I wish to recant,” said Charlie and now his voice broke with the trembling of his body and the fear, which had seemed dammed up before, poured over him like fire.
Father Reece put his computer aside and watched Charlie with his hands folded on the desk.
“Do you have words for us?” he asked.
“Father, please forgive my foolish choices,” said Charlie, feeling every word as if he were speaking to his own father, begging for understanding and love. Yes, it felt real. It was real. “I turned my face from the All-Point. I was vain and I was arrogant. It shall never happen again.” Tears brimmed then spilled onto Charlie’s cheeks.
“Do you believe that all things, from the greatest galaxy to the smallest neutrino shall one day return to the All-Point?”
“I do, Father.”
A moment of silence passed. Father Reece stared at Charlie who looked at the floor, though he could feel the Warrel’s gaze bearing down on the top of his head.
“I do not believe you, Mr. Parkson. Do you believe him, Mr. Humphrey?”
“Please, Father,” said Charlie, finally finding the courage to meet Reece’s gaze, “I’m telling the truth. I believe in the All-Point.”
“Of course you believe,” said Father Reece. “Your own scientists proved its existence long before we brought you the Truth. But you, my son, do not believe in the All-Point’s sentience. You do not believe that the All-Point sacrificed itself to birth creation, spreading its mind through the void like seeds sown upon fertile soil. You think our faith false.”
“No, Father –”
Auzor Reece waved his hands and the guards seized Charlie’s arms.
“Humphrey, tell them I recanted!”
Humphrey looked down at the desk.
Charlie struggled against the guards, but managed only two feeble punches — he was no fighter. One wrapped a well-muscled arm about his chest, the other gripped the back of his head and his chin the way a man might hold a fine piece of art for inspection. In one swift move, the guard holding his head broke Charlie’s neck with a sharp half turn of his body.
Pain was like a living entity inside him — like a second being, filling him up from the inside out — pushing whatever was Charlie to the periphery. The guards dropped him almost in the spot where he had died the first time. His face smashed the floor, breaking a tooth. Charlie tried to rise, but his body would not respond. He wanted to scream — was screaming inside his head — but his mouth only hung open, unresponsive like that of a severely retarded child. A low uuuuuhhhhnnn was the only sound he produced.
And then he realized he was not breathing — could not breath. Unfair. Unfair that he should lose all control of his body, even his lungs, and yet still experience the pain. Why hadn’t his spinal column ripped asunder so the brain could go on agonizing about this second death without the thunderous warnings of bodily damage.
Charlie’s lungs burned. His back, shoulders and neck throbbed with pain, even worse than having his throat slit open.
For a time that might have been minutes or eons, Charlie’s mind whirled about inside his head like a cockroach caught out in the light, scampering from one thought of salvation to another.
But in the end there was no salvation, only the darkness and the cold.
# # #
Again he came to the white room and again Father Reece rejected Charlie’s confession.
This time they burned him.
As he struggled, kicking and screaming and biting, the guards bound his feet and hands together so that his back arched painfully, exposing his chest and belly.
They doused him with something that smelled of petroleum — you can’t beat the old favorites — and one of them set him ablaze with a small cylinder that emitted a long, blue flame.
Where the pain of a broken neck was internal, seeming to push Charlie out of his body, the fire was outside him, worming its way in. Flames melted away his face, chest, and stomach, hissing and popping like bacon. He went blind and even lost his sense of smell — a blessing — long before he died, screaming in pain and outrage. Trussed as he was, there was no way to roll over the flames. He could only lie still and burn.
# # #
After the burning, they hanged him. It wasn’t the fast drop of an old fashioned gallows. It was a long, slow suffocation as the guards hoisted him up with a thin wire attached to a pulley in the ceiling. Even in his pain, he had a moment to wonder which would come first: death by suffocation or decapitation. Fortunately, he lost consciousness before he could find out.
# # #
Many deaths followed.
Once, they impaled him with a long metal tube sharpened at one end.
After that the guards beat him to death with their shock-clubs.
On the next go they flayed the skin off his bones. The guards carried in a long, hard plastic table with leather hospital cuffs for wrists and ankles. When he saw it, Charlie went into a panic. He managed to injure one of the guards, landing a solid punch to the Warrel’s throat completely by accident. Enraged, both guards wailed on Charlie with their shock-clubs until he lay unconscious on the floor. Charlie awoke bound hand and foot to the table
A robot — something that walked on six articulated legs and carried four multi-tooled arms on its thick body — entered the death room. It peered at Charlie with six black bug eyes, made some internal choice that might have been arbitrary, then set to work, slicing off his skin (prison jumper and all) in long strings, using a red hot blade built into one of its black arms. The smell of burnt flesh once again filled the room.
Charlie didn’t die until the last, when it set about scraping out his eye sockets and raking off his nose.
# # #
Faith, Charlie learned, was a commodity. And like all commodities, it cost some people dearly, while others enjoyed plenty without ever knowing its real worth.
The Warrels commanded faith. They came to Earth some three hundred years before and conquered the human race in a mostly bloodless battle. It was, or so the Warrels said, the quickest way to spread their faith — by conquering a foe then teaching them of the All-Point. After mankind saw that he was no match for the Warrel’s superior technology, he submitted and the aliens set about dismantling every institution of faith within human society, replacing them with Pointism and often borrowing from them to dress up their religion in clothes a human might recognize.
And was that really so bad, after all? Charlie didn’t think so. His ancestors had fought wars, committed genocides and turned much of the Earth into a garbage pile. They had invented medicines and foodstuffs sufficient to cure and feed the entire race, but did they? Never. Only after the Warrels arrived and forced men to care about their neighbors did any of that come about. Had any religion of man done that?
Within a hundred years, the Warrels had a generation of true believers. And so what if not all humans embraced the Church of the All-Point? Did all Warrels believe? Charlie doubted it. But men, and that included aliens, knew what was good for them. Everyone saw how hunger ended and peace prevailed. Everyone saw diseases wiped from the planet and global economies prospering. So what if you had to attend the All-Point church twice a week? Everyone else was there.
Charlie had been no great man of the faith. It wasn’t required of him. In fact, he gave it very little thought. Faith was for zealots; for those strange people who found ways to bring up the All-Point in everyday conversation as if there was anyone left to convert.
In fact, he had never known the actual feeling of faith, until he discovered the human resistance and its plans to overthrow the Warrel occupation of Earth.
At first it had been an exposé; the story that would make his career, maybe even get him noticed by the big players in Church politics. But then he started to listen; started to feel the power of the words spoken at little meetings in dive restaurants and on secure computer conferences.
In those places Charlie found faith, but it wasn’t in some god; it was faith in humanity — the strength of human beings to survive and ultimately overcome stacked odds.
But the Warrels controlled faith on Earth. They said who had it and who did not. It was the only commodity of any real worth left on the planet, and the Warrels owned every bit of it. Faith in humanity was weak, but Warrel domination was infinite.
This was the reason he recanted with his pure heart. This was the reason he gave up at the last, turning every ounce of himself against the resistance in his fear.
“I believe,” said Charlie in a voice that quavered. Though this body had never suffered death, not in this timeline, he remembered each one with perfect clarity. He could not help but react.
“Do you really?” asked Father Reece.
Tears spilled unbidden down Charlie’s face.
“Have we punished you many times, Mr. Parkson?” asked Father Reece. He hadn’t yet looked at his paper-thin computer.
“Eighteen times,” whispered Charlie.
Father Reece nodded. “You’ve exhausted our means of punishment,” he said. “We have a list, a predetermined set of methods, starting with slitting a heathen’s throat. Drowning you, the eighteenth punishment, was our last. Few ever defy us to this extreme.”
“Father, I am no longer defiant. I repent before you. Please, make this madness stop before it drives me out of my mind. I’ll tell you everything.”
“Why can’t you believe?” asked the woman.
“I do believe!”
One of the guards placed a warning hand on Charlie’s shoulder and he sank back into his chair. He hadn’t realized he had stood up.
“No, Mr. Parkson, you do not. You have not convinced us. You favor us with your words, but your soul is aloof, separated from the All-Point,” said Father Reece.
“I want to believe,” Charlie’s voice came out softly, like a child ashamed.
“And yet that is not enough,” said Father Reece. “All matter, all energy shall one day return to the All-Point and in that day we shall be reconciled. We shall be one with all: one mind and one soul. Can’t you hear these words and know that they are true?”
No, he could not. The cosmos might end up in the big crunch. All things might crumble into one solitary dot, but that dot was not God.
“Yes,” he lied. “Yes, I can believe it. I do believe it.”
Father Reece was already shaking his head and the woman looked forlorn.