The Pillar [ Story by Ely Buendia ]

The Pillar

August 08, 2010 by Ely Buendia
Images by Arnold Arre

The Boeing 797 Harrier’s engines sputtered and wheezed in midair. It was showing its age. In the thick smog, the aircraft’s red spotlight moved across the black swirling waters like some giant eye weeping in the night. An electronic female voice filled the cabin.

We have reached Island One of the Solimar Clusters, Drop Zone 1. It is now 9:45 in the evening. The temperature outside is 25 °C. Passengers 34, 35, and 40 please prepare for deployment.

A young couple in front quietly reached for two identical briefcases in their compartments and hurried back to their seats, clutching their precious cargo tightly to their chests. I wondered what brought them here. They looked like tourists—an absurdity in these parts. Although this was my first time to set foot on the Clusters, the birthplace of my forefathers, I was not exactly here for the sights.
30 seconds to deployment. The hatch at my feet silently slid open.

“Goodbye and good luck,” chirped the German woman beside me, flashing her perfect 200-year-old teeth. It was still disconcerting to encounter a Bicentenarian, let alone spend hours in a cramped space beside one. With their veneer of casual artificiality they were as insufferable as bots and clones. I strained for a synthetic smile of my own but abandoned all effort as my seat straightened itself and I finally slid through the opening on the floor and into the relative comfort of the egg underneath.

Depressurizing. Ten seconds to deployment. Please standby. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero. Three loud pops in succession as the eggs, baggage in tow, shot from the Harrier’s belly. A few seconds later I was bobbing pleasantly on the waves, watching through the egg’s translucent steel shell as the Harrier finished rehydrating. With a burst of blue flame it shot into the night sky. Please remain seated, scanning vitals. Processing. Please standby, you will be harvested shortly. Thank you for flying Virgin Galactic. Welcome to The People’s Republic of Solimar. I took my phone out of my jacket and called Maria. She was clearly still very upset.

“I had to take this assignment, we both know that,” I crooned. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

When the hoverbarge finally arrived to fish us out of the water, I reassured her that the risks were definitely worth the rewards, and that all our troubles would soon be over. I punched in a Tactile Kiss on the screen and pressed Send. She smiled when she received it, but I could sense that she was needlessly, instinctively calculating the cost. Typical. But no matter. She can calculate all she wants. In a mere week we will be able to afford such luxuries and much, much more.

Once inside the hoverbarge I was hustled into a dimly lit room by a soldier in red overalls. The Solimarian flag, with its stark red banner and white sun, was hanging on the far wall, a symbol of the nation’s bloody past and its turbulent present. The Customs Officer was studying my file on the holodesk, a large German Shepherd panting by his side. After what seemed like an eternity he said, without looking at me, “You are a Brownie. I don’t like Brownies.”

I was expecting this, but not from a Customs Officer. “Brownie” was a derogatory term for a person with Solimarian descent but different citizenship. In the past decade the connotation had devolved into something more unsavory. A deserter. A traitor. Ever since the burgeoning of nationalism in the country (which sprouted during The Flood and was famously exemplified by the Name Change Plebiscite during the latter part of the century) there had been a marked distaste for anything at odds with the new world order. Brownies were particularly reviled. Recently it had taken on a fanatical quality, with reports (all unsubstantiated) of riots, lynchings, and even disappearances.

“I’ll be gone in a week,” I stated.
“You’ll be gone in 15 hours.”

Outside, standing on the barge’s bow, I called my broker, and told him about the deadline. “You’re lucky they fished you out of the water,” he chuckled. “Make the best of it. Like I said, I have a feeling this isn’t exclusive so watch your back, there might be other collectors. Our contact over there should be able to help you out. Eat something real. Stay out of the Sun’s way. And for God’s sake don’t call me again, O.K.?”

“I missed you,” I said and hung up. I did not really intend to stay long, especially after the warm welcome. “If I don’t see you back in this office in that time,” warned the Customs Officer, “I will personally come after you and kick you out of the Clusters myself, Brownie!” Fair enough. Still, finding the package in 15 hours was a tall order. It could be anywhere by now. A few days before, a FedEx plane malfunctioned and dropped some of its payload at the wrong address – at the Southern tip of the Clusters. Intended for Indonesia, it was laughably off-target. When automatons screw up it’s always the hapless humans who have to do the cleaning up. This was usually a simple affair but the homing signals have long been disabled, and now the package could be on any of the 50 odd small islands that comprise the Southern Sector. The anonymous client offered no description of the item, a bad sign. I was provided a number that I would call only upon finding said item. After confirmation my money would be wired to my account. It was all rather shady, but there a hefty down payment had already been paid, and really, who was I kidding? I would do this job just for the brand new phone they supplied me.

The barge seemed to be going in circles. The smog was poking at my nostrils like a playground bully, with fingers that smelled of spices and garbage. I tied the silk cravat that Maria gave me around my face bandit style, but as my eyes had begun to sting I decided to go back inside the passenger cabin. There I saw the young couple again, sitting contentedly. They didn’t seem to notice me.

When I looked out the porthole the noxious haze had thinned and shapes began to appear. Remnants of old buildings submerged in the water, every room and every window of that room overflowing with “tenants”. It was a common sight around the world. I looked up and saw children jumping off the rooftops and diving several stories down to the muddy water, laughing as they did so. In some places of the world, reality still began with childhood’s end.

All manner of seafaring ships dotted the coastline of Island One from end to end. Beyond it, the city of Manila jutted out of the horizon. Leaving the water steaming in its wake, the hoverbarge glided over the port’s concrete runway and parked in one of the few empty spaces still visible. “Passengers disembark!”

As soon as my feet touched the ground vendors hawking sea jewelry swarmed around me. A crucifix made from pearls caught my eye. It reminded me of my mother. “How much?”
“500 pesos, boss.”

I pulled out my phone and printed the amount. The newly minted cash slowly slid out. The barge’s twin fans fired up and propelled it through the crowd of pedestrians. In one of its windows I caught a glimpse of the Customs Officer eyeing me with open contempt. I nodded to him as he and the vehicle finally disappeared around the corner. The horde that had made way for the official swarmed across the space, a living red sea collapsing on itself, blotting out the passage of Moses.

I checked my watch. A full three hours had passed since the drop. Where was the contact? He was supposed to meet me here. I pulled the ersatz pearl crucifix from my pocket and examined it. For a brief moment I was the normal vacationer, captivated by his first local acquisition. This couldn’t be real, could it? I put it away as soon as my watch beeped to herald another half hour of being stood up. This was no good. After one last look around I headed into the narrow street that the barge disappeared into. My plan was to find transportation to South Sector and then, well, ask around.

The cable car fell on the ground with a crash. There was a hail of nails. The BOA just kept shooting until it ran out of projectiles. And then silence.

It was easier said than done. The maps I downloaded were sorely outdated for a city that literally changed its landscape every few minutes. China’s equally antiquated COMPASS navsystem wasn’t working here. I was better off blind. It was impossible to walk without stepping on the heels of the people in front of you or without getting tripped by the ones behind you. The citizens trudged along a very narrow road, the sides of which were lined with vendors, rubble, and trash in equal amounts. From time to time you had to literally flatten yourself against a wall as a police hovercar passed. Everywhere there was construction and deconstruction. Walls and bridges were being demolished (some collapsed of their own will) or erected to suit the needs of the moment. Space was precious, not to mention expensive, and so constant rearranging was required. The frequent solar typhoons and earthquakes also kept things unstable, to put it mildly. But the old model BOA constructors with their Swiss-knife bag of tricks and versatile hydraulic tendrils were still surprisingly adaptive and resourceful. They utilized as materials anything they could get their grubby metal claws on, including garbage and mud, which were plentiful. Apart from operating heavier machinery like concrete cannons, they created canals, catwalks and canopies while directing traffic at the same time.

It was cleverly chaotic. The strain of maintaining a small island that was constantly on the verge of collapse was undoubtedly too much, even for non-sentients. When a water pipe exploded, one attendant bot appeared undecided on what plan of action to take. As if from mental exhaustion, it finally settled on plugging the gushing hole with one of its digits and there it remained, a very expensive stopper.

Detour, detour. Construction in progress. This way please, blared a red BOA, its yellow lights flashing, directing our herd to the right. Trying not to be pushed off by the milling horde behind me I found myself on the edge of a small canal. Muddy water sluggishly coursed through it. I watched as a silver BOA assembled a makeshift bridge across the canal. After the last bolt was fastened, I was the first to test its handiwork. Scampering across, I was surprised to find that the BOA had stopped dead in its tracks in the middle of the bridge, blocking the way. I stood there waiting for the bot to move but it did not. The line behind me was already shoving and yelling, so I tried to push it but it probably weighed 300 pounds.

I was thinking of turning back when all of a sudden the BOA’s head turned 180 degrees to face me. I jumped back, startled. Then its lights began to flash, its tendrils started flailing wildly, and then through its powerful speaker it spoke in a monotone loudness that rattled my brain. Rise up! You are being lied to! End false nationalism! Our leaders are spitting on the graves of our forefathers! Abolish segregation! Repeal the Manpower Act! Forced labor is a crime! Save our families! Save our children! Rise up! Rise up!

The hacked bot continued its high-pitched ranting. There was a ripple of sound and I was in the center. I fell back, covering my ears. “Somebody stop that thing!” the people screamed. A group of men from the other side of the bridge threw rocks and swung at the constructor with steel poles but it only seemed to get more agitated. With its tendrils it grabbed one of the attackers and crushed his skull. End false nationalism! Whoever the hacker was must have uploaded some kind of defensive program. Abolish segregation! It grabbed a man and cut him in half with a circular saw, flinging the body parts all over the canal.

Then it started shooting steel bolts. There was a sickening sound as skin and concrete alike were pierced. Bodies flew and fell like confetti. Some were inadvertently nailed to the walls, caught in a grotesque death pose. Repeal the Manpower Act! I hugged the ground. There was nowhere to go.

“Over here!”

Above the din I thought I heard someone shout my name. A young voice was calling me. I looked around and saw a teenage boy hunkered inside a small concrete box.

“Over here!” he shouted, grinning.

I ran towards him without thinking, the sound of nails, screams, and chanting ringing in my ears. I was certain the BOA was tracking me, poised to impale me at any moment. Save our children! Now.

Desperately I dove in. The steel door slammed behind me.

“You’re O.K.! We’re safe here!” The boy helped me up. As I dusted myself off I saw that the small box was actually a bathroom. “Look!” The boy exclaimed. I peered out of a small slit. Outside, the dust had finally settled. There was blood everywhere and not one soul standing. Only the chants of the wayward bot filled the air, its ironic death mantra on repeat, maddeningly looped. Rise up! Rise up! it screamed at the motionless bodies strewn on the ground.

There was a zipping noise from above. I looked up just in time to see a cable car stopping right above the demented BOA constructor. It was suspended from a very thin but obviously strong cable, practically invisible from the ground, which I surmised was part of the network of cables crisscrossing the whole city. This was an expressway accessible only to officials and a select group of citizens.

Inside the small cabin of the cable car were three fully armored men. “Kaheros,” the boy murmured beside me, breathless with excitement. He was referring to the grim-looking squad about to take on the BOA. Cashiers? After a while it made sense. One of them took out a magnetic grenade and threw it nonchalantly out of the cabin. It arced in the air and made a loud clunk as it stuck to the BOA’s metal body. I covered my already abused ears and braced for the shockwave.


When I looked out once more there was a lot of smoke but nothing had changed. The old model BOA constructor was still standing. Its infernal ranting had thankfully stopped, as about the only thing that the explosion damaged was its speakers. The older the tougher I thought, and it was not going gently. Two of its tendrils darted upward and snipped the cables. The cable car fell on the ground with a crash. There was a hail of nails. The BOA just kept shooting until it ran out of projectiles. And then silence.

When the BOA rolled slowly toward the cable car for the kill, a sound like that of a giant vacuum sucking the very moisture out of the air came from inside. It made me prick up my ears. “Squirt guns,” the boy whispered, sounding like an overzealous sports commentator now. A very fine jet of what looked like water hit the BOA on the chest where its battery was. Two more highly concentrated, high velocity jets of liquid burst from the cable car, neatly boring holes and patterns through the bot’s metal skin like piss on snow. And then it was over. The kaheros emerged from the cabin, their “squirt guns” still trained on their target. They moved silently, making hand signals as they slinked closer and closer until one of them had had enough procedure and summarily kicked the heap of metal off the edge of the canal, where it was carried away by the sluggish water. “What the hell, Romano?” growled the squad leader. Romano sniffed.

“I’m sorry I did not catch you at the port. So many people you see.”

I looked at the boy, who was maybe 15 or 16 and had perfect teeth. “You’re the contact?”

“Yes, boss! My name is Dante. Dante Akiaten.”

I shook his hand. “We must go,” he continued. “Your package. No time to lose.”

When he opened the bathroom door one of the kaheros, Romano, was waiting for us. “Arms,” he said, activating a laser in his helmet. Dante stretched his right arm out. The laser scanned the barcode printed on the skin of his forearm. “That expires tomorrow.” Dante promised to have his ID renewed first thing in the morning.

“You.” I rolled up my sleeve and showed him my arm. It took a few passes before the laser was able to read my barcode. When the familiar confirmation tone sounded, the kahero regarded me and said, ‘What’s your business in the Clusters?”
“Sight-seeing?” I replied innocently.

“Better get going then, Brownie” he scoffed. “So much to see, so little time.” He turned and joined his teammates who were busy examining the bodies.
Dante grabbed my arm. “Let’s go, boss. We must go somewhere quiet and safe.”

We walked further north until we reached downtown, my guide weaving through the crowd and me straining my neck like a blind ostrich above the sea of people to avoid losing him. I caught sight of the island city’s few skyscrapers, each standing on a very slim, precarious-looking column that made them look like giant popsicles. Underneath one such building I rented a pneumatic cubicle, which included a mini toilet, two chairs and a table, and a compact holoTV. A local soap was on.

In between chewing the fruit-flavored wafers I gave him and keeping track of the soap’s story, Dante told me what he’d learned. From various sources he was able to confirm that there was indeed misfired cargo found somewhere in the Southern sector a week before. As such things automatically wind up in the black market, he checked there first. The only new arrivals were lingerie, some toys, and a host of holograph players. “Are you sure? Anything perishable?” I asked. “The lingerie was,” Dante said, still gorging on the red wafers.

He tried tracking down the source of the goods, which was not easy since found goods often changed hands before they ended up being sold. This trail quickly turned cold as well.

“But, last night, I got hold of this.” The kid wiped his hands, reached into his back pocket and handed me a photo.

“What’s this?” I asked. It was a hazy picture of the night sky. I ran my finger along its edge until the controls appeared and pressed play. The picture began to move. The clouds parted and from the opening something fell very fast. The video ended. I watched it again. “My friend recorded it,” Dante explained. “He is a, what do you call it, a weather hobbyist. Anyways, it is on an island a few kilometers away from where the FedEx packages were found, but still in the Southern sector.”

I told Dante to relax, even though I myself was far from calm. They started to move in on us like slinky panthers. I scanned the area for an escape route, but there was none. The gang closed in.

This struck me as odd. I could think of no reason why another package would land so far away from the reported point. Could the FedEx data be mistaken? Or was it a different thing altogether? Maybe I should have the right mind to just check out the market for myself. Still, I’ve been in this business too damn long not know a window when I saw one.

“What’s the island called?” I asked Dante.


“Can you take me there?”

It was almost midnight. Amazingly, the endless wave of people that overwhelmed the streets earlier had now dwindled to a trickle. The whole city was preparing for lights out. In a matter of minutes, everything would shut down.

“Hurry boss,” Dante huffed as we walked briskly along the now almost deserted street. “It is going to be very, very dark. We do not want to get caught out here when it is lights out. Come on!”

We reached a dead end. I heard my watch beep. Midnight. An alarm loud enough to be heard throughout the city sounded. I saw a woman and a boy in a corner hurriedly covering themselves up with pieces of cardboard and garbage. And then all the lights went out. There was a sound like a giant machine turning off.
Both the darkness and the silence unnerved me. “Boss, help me,” whispered Dante. He was trying to lift a manhole cover. As I was pushing the iron lid aside I heard gunshots. People running. They were getting closer. Dante climbed inside the hole in the ground and I followed. I managed to close the lid just as the gunshots passed over us.

Once my feet touched the wet floor Dante provided a little light with glow sticks, one of which he gave me. I held it out and saw that the underground sewer was also filled with people. They were huddled so close together I had to walk over them to advance. They looked at us with empty eyes. Up on the ceiling, people slept inside plastic sacks, suspended like vampire bats. I followed Dante through the sewers in silence. At the end of a tunnel we stopped and waited. And then like a ghost it appeared. A small wooden boat with a single man rowing it. The man was old but muscular, without any trace of enhancements or upgrades on his body.

Dante knelt beside the boat and spoke with the old man in a hushed tone. The man shook his head vigorously while throwing sidelong glances at me. It took a while before he was persuaded to let me board his boat.

We drifted through the tunnels, and the sound of the wooden oars caressing the waters resonated within the dark, dank enclosure. It was soothing, yet a feeling of dread would not leave me. Something about the video Dante showed me did not seem right. I watched it again. The speed and trajectory of the object simply was not consistent with parcel misfires. Whatever it was, it did not come from a FedEx plane, but there was no doubt in my mind that it was the package I was looking for.

Our boat emerged from the sewers at one in the morning. When we came to a rusted radio tower the old man instructed us to hide under a sheet of canvas. Lying absolutely still, I heard someone from the tower bark orders, and as bright light seeped through our none too convincing camouflage I was certain this would be the end of my journey. I was amazed to feel the boat moving again, and when we finally removed our cover it was just water all around. Dante smiled at me. “We are safe now, boss. No more hanky-panky! Ha ha ha!” I laughed too, but more at his choice of words. Although I saw a slight apprehension in his eyes when I asked him to take me to Pulanglupa, he always exhibited a gung-ho attitude, and possessed an infectious optimism that was lacking in most of the Solimarians I’ve encountered so far. Whether it was a mere byproduct of his youth remains to be seen. I was not surprised when he told me that he dreamed of becoming a kahero himself, like his father before him. It was as natural as breathing air. But in Dante’s world it wasn’t just mere hero worship. Becoming a kahero meant power, prestige, the possibility of owning your very own plot of land. And maybe, just maybe, the chance of gaining entrance to the gates of Mount Elysium itself, the proverbial Eden to the far north.

The determined boy now sitting in front of me was a long way from that dream. In fact, he was going in the exact opposite direction. “We are near,” he said to me. Again the unease that flashed on his face vanished quickly. He faced forward again and egged the old man on. An hour’s worth of paddling did not show any kind of effect on our formidable ferryman. Only the mangroves that had cropped up, and the mossy water, slowed our progress. But when the thicket became too dense we decided to wade through the tangled roots on foot, even though the water was still chest deep. I gave the boatman his money and watched as he rowed away.

The sign read PULANGLUPA RESERVATION/OFF LIMITS. Exactly whom it was off limits to was not clear. Human rights activists? Wealthy eccentrics? Mischievous kids playing dare? Maybe desperate men like me? There were no walls or gates, although the forbidding swamp that we just crossed would obviate the need for such things.

I followed Dante up a muddy path until we reached the edge of a bluff. “We are here,” he announced. I looked down. The site looked nothing like a reservation. It was a 200-hectare smoking bowl of red soil covered in tons of waste. It was a gigantic landfill. This, however, was also inaccurate, since there was no sign of heavy machinery anywhere—no bulldozers and compactors that would do any landfilling any time soon. And why would there be? Unless somebody planned to bury the thousands of cursed souls who happened to call this awful pit home.

They were the Unmarked, the Invisibles, the Nameless, and they slept in makeshift tents and shacks, in steel barrels piled on high like humungous honeycombs against the canyons of debris. Amidst the rubbish and stench, I marveled at how organized it started to look. As Dante and I walked deeper into the pit, streets and lampposts began to appear, stairs took shape, and the levels of the bowl became more discernible, all of it sculpted from the detritus of modern civilization. Its spitting, rotting, stinking image.

Although we were not sure that the package was there, gravity and I’m not exactly sure what led us inexorably to the center of the pit. We had been walking nonstop since the mangroves, and I decided to take a breather. Wiping the sweat from my forehead I pulled down the cravat that covered my face. Incredibly, the stench did not bother me anymore. I sat on the ground. Looking around I noticed for the first time the thousands of yellow boxes scattered all over the site. I grabbed one from a pile and examined it. The label on it said VEGETABLE WAFERS PROPERTY OF THE GOVERNMENT OF SOLIMAR. Inside, there were wafers virtually untouched and still edible.

It was Dante who called my attention to the five figures silently watching us from both ends of the street. Each had what seemed to be a long, blunt weapon in its hand. I told Dante to relax, even though I myself was far from calm. They started to move in on us like slinky panthers. I scanned the area for an escape route, but there was none. The gang closed in. All the members were about Dante’s age but they were almost bald, each and every one of them. What little was left of their hair clung pitifully to their scalp in patches and strands. Dante squirmed as two of them grabbed him and forced him to the ground. A baseball bat was raised, ready to deal the deadly blow. But it stayed in the air as the sound of a small bell pierced the night. Our attackers suddenly abandoned us and ran in the direction of the sound. There was something pleasant in that sound that transformed the atmosphere. Instead of running away we sought it out.

We turned a corner in time to catch the skinheads milling around a colorfully painted last-century ice cream cart. Behind it, ringing the bell incessantly, was a man wearing a battered straw hat. “Ice cream time! Ice cream time!” he sang merrily while the skinheads giggled like children. When he saw us he put the bell down and reached inside the cart. He took out a fistful of wafers and gave each skinhead a piece. They chomped on the yellow things ravenously, but a few seconds later they were all retching, spewing yellow sludge on the ground.

“Waste not, want not,” the man in the straw hat said with a shrug. He was probably six feet tall, and was obviously white. He moved as if in slow motion, and talked in a jarring Southern accent. “I bid you welcome brothers,” he said, bowing. “My name is Nehemiah, and I know why you’ve come.” Before I could say anything he rang his bell again and ordered the skinheads to escort us. “Take our friends to the cathedral. They are tired.” He went back to his cart and rolled it away, merrily ringing his bell as he went along.

At the bottom of the landfill, in its center, was a clearing—a perfect circle about twenty meters across. Chairs of all shapes and sizes were arranged around a mound, on top of which stood a metal column ten feet tall. A rusty steel beam was attached to it horizontally to form a cross. The skinheads knelt on an improvised pew, began to pray, and paid us no more attention.

There was an altar, its white cloth painted with a quasi-mystical symbol – an eye inside a sun. But it was the cross that intrigued me. I examined its black cylindrical shape. It was smooth, cool to the touch, glowing ethereally by the light of the torches. It was not something that you would usually find in a trash heap. I knelt down to look at its base, brushing the dirt aside with my hands. My heart skipped a beat. Clearly embossed on the metal were the words NAUTILUS II STATE OF ISRAEL. For a long time I just stared at these words, questions swimming in my head. However, the beep from my watch quickly reminded me why I was here. I was not here to ask questions. I was here to find something and dial a number once I found it. I took out my phone and found the number. There was ringing on the other end. A male voice answered. “Hello? Do you have visual?”


“Please standby. I am tracking you right now.” Silence. Then a different voice came on, deeper, more urgent. “Listen to me. Follow my instructions to the letter. The phone is magnetic. Attach it to the Nautilus now.”

“Hold up,” I said. Instead of asking why I should do such a thing, natural greed took over me. “I believe our agreement was for a visual confirmation only.” My instincts were dead on. I had found the right package. New cards had been dealt. It was time to play my hand. “Any additional detail must be compensated accordingly.”

Silence. Then the man on the phone laughed. It did not make me feel good. “Yes, yes. Of course. How much do you want my friend?”
I was careless. Didn’t my broker tell me to watch my back? I turned when I heard a grunt. The baseball bat was up in the air again. There was no bell to stop its coming down this time.

The pain woke me up. It was excruciating. I felt blood trickling down my face. I did not want to open my eyes, but it was the only part of my body that I could move. When I did, I was temporarily blinded by the light of day. The first thing I wanted to know was what was causing my hands so much pain. But I did not have to look: I could feel the thick iron bolts through my palms. They lifted me up. Stretched on the steel beam, my arms were ready to be ripped from their sockets. There was not enough air in my lungs to speak, let alone cry for help. A sigh was all I could muster.

My eyes moved down, looking for Dante. I saw him bound and gagged on a chair, sitting in the congregation of hairless worshippers. A bell started ringing. And then I saw Nehemiah walking on the aisle, flanked by two skinheads. He was now wearing a white robe and a chef’s hat. One of the skinheads was holding an overhauled squirt gun, the other a blowtorch. I closed my eyes and thought of Maria. I tried to imagine myself getting off a cab, running to the front door, ringing the doorbell and shouting, “You’ll never guess what happened!” as she saw me. Suddenly flashes of white pearls danced in my head. They made the shape of the Sun and exploded, leaving a gaping hole on my palm. The bell wouldn’t stop ringing. I cried.

I opened my eyes again. Nehemiah was now at the altar, his arms raised in ritualistic fervor, his voice dripping with maniacal blood. The flock echoed his every word. “Lord Lord Almighty Sun Lord!” Repeat. I shut my eyes again, as if doing so would silence the world. “Thank you Lord!” It was obvious from the very beginning. “Bless this Sacrament which we are about to receive!” So obvious.

When I heard the unmistakable sound of the squirt gun’s compressor I couldn’t help looking down again. Perhaps it was simply morbid curiosity; maybe it was hope that it would end sooner, that maybe it would take me over the threshold and bring me ecstasy instead. I caught a glimpse of Dante, his eyes frozen in terror. I actually felt more sorry for him. He was the only one left seated now, as everyone had formed a long line before the altar, eager for their unholy communion.

Nehemiah turned to face me. I saw nothing in his eyes that resembled hope. Hunger, I told myself. It was only hunger. The squirt gun’s jet of liquid ripped the skin below my knees and continued like a depraved cyclone ravaging every nerve in my body. I screamed but no sound came out. Then ungodly heat followed. The smell of burnt flesh wafted upwards. It did not end soon. Ecstasy did not come.

“The sun will come out, tomorrow…”

The midday heat beat upon my face. Damn you, Sun. Why did you have to wake me? Didn’t you see the sign on the door?
“So you gotta hang on till tomorrow, come what may…”

Nehemiah’s trembling baritone floated above the chorus, never faltering.

“Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you, tomorrow…” He signaled to his two altar boys as he sang. They walked over to Dante and raised him to his feet. He looked up at me, perhaps to see if I was still alive, perhaps to say goodbye. Then he was gone. I heard the squirt gun come to life once more. “You’re only a day…a…way…”

Gunshots. Screams. Men in red overalls came cascading down into the pit. The flock scattered, trying to jump into holes like mice. Nehemiah fell to the ground, revealing a barren scalp beneath the chef’s hat. I heard the sound of a dog barking. Out of the bedlam emerged one familiar face. He walked confidently up the aisle and kicked the altar out of the way; I saw my shoes fly. He took off his Ray-Bans, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and looked up at me contemptuously. “Time’s up, Brownie,” the Customs Officer said.

Alone now, in the cabin of the hovercraft, watching Pulanglupa recede into the mists of memory. As if the two stumps where my legs used to be could be of any use, the redcoats still saw it fit to handcuff me to my stretcher. Under the circumstances I was not about to complain. I could even appreciate the bolts of agony that shot through my body as the morphine began to wear off. If I could feel pain, I was still alive.

Dante escaped being flayed alive but was facing jail time for vagrancy and God knows what else. Aiding and abetting an idiot, probably. No more hanky-panky for him for the time being. Not one soul on the island was arrested. Well, the redcoats tell me I was not supposed to be there in the first place. Nehemiah and his followers were left behind, free to live in fear of the Sun and lose their hair in peace. Besides, they already were in prison.

None of it mattered. Since I broke the law I was not allowed the benefit of proper Regeneration facilities. I’ve already passed beyond the marker, so there was no hope for me ever growing back my legs. They were going to send me off in a goddamn wheelchair. Artificial limbs? Forget it. My prospects included walking around on a set of metal rods like a clown on stilts, spending the rest of my days trying to pay off everything at the Archives. Yes, it was all worth singing about.

There was a knock on the door. The young couple who looked like tourists came in, carrying their identical briefcases. They stood beside my stretcher. Only the woman talked.

“What do you know about your employer.”

I stared out the window. None of it mattered.

“We traced the last call you made. It was to a location in Manila. Unfortunately that location does not exist anymore.”

Who cares, I thought to myself. Who cares if somebody wanted to obliterate a whole populace living in a landfill? I had no delusions about my worth or the times we lived in. All life was expendable.

The woman took out a piece of paper from her briefcase and placed it on my hand. “You will be detained for more debriefing at headquarters once you reach your country.” They finally left, closing the door quietly behind them. I studied the paper. For the first time since arriving in the Clusters, I felt I had control. I looked out the window again. The Sun was sinking now, turning the sea to gold. The hovercraft’s floodlights came on. In moments the earth would be clothed in darkness.

source :