The moving red lips of the news-anchor introduced clips of the mob outside the Magisterum. Even with the sound off, Sophia could hear the hate that twisted their faces as they screamed for a conviction. It echoed in her memory.
The room was dark. The sun had set and she’d not bothered to flip on a light. A pile of cereal bowls filled the battered coffee table – the milk had dried into hard rings around the bottom.
She hugged her knees to her chest.
Why were they still talking about him? – why was she still watching?
The screen split in half, and the anchor’s studied expression of interest and intelligence slid to one square.
She found the remote and Rael Hudson’s modulated voice filled the room.
“… his Eminence’s authority?”
The man in the other panel nodded, his eyes appropriately grave, but the corner of his mouth twitched, and he pressed his steepled fingers against his chin.
The blue banner identified him as Tony Moore, advisor to Grand Magister Avron II.
“Sure. With the President Day nuclear threat to the north and drought in the south, his Eminence’s authority undermined – by anyone – posed a national threat.”
“Mr. Moore, there are a few who might accuse the trial of being unfair.”
He smiled patently.
“As I mentioned, his Eminence foresaw the danger of his words.” He ran a hand over his chin. “Really, he was quite merciful. Not only did he release all of Salvare’s supporters, he even gave the man his day in public court. There’s precedent for such dangers to be summarily shot – supporters re-educated.”
Hudson nodded gravely.
“The Bradyn case?”
“Sure. Internal Ops stormed the compound, shot Bradyn, arrested all the adults.”
“So why so lenient on the Salvare people?”
He smiled again.
“Bradyn had convinced some of the most influential businessmen in the country to join him. Even a magister. But Salvare?” He snorted. “He’s only gathered a handful of college dropouts, convenience store workers, blue-collar workers and a couple prostitutes – course, the last two I understand.”
“So there are some perks to … ”
Her phone vibrated on the table. She punched the red button, and the buzzing stopped. Her mother’s face thumbnail lingered on the screen for another few seconds.
So she hadn’t meant that threat.
Missed call. New text. Inbox 92 percent full.
The phone had been a present from them the summer before college. They bought it the day after the letter came.
She’d torn it open with shaking hands.
Miss Sophia Dun,
On behalf of the Avron University Board of Regents, I am pleased to inform you that you have been awarded the Chancellor’s Scholarship of ɸ95,000 a year, for outstanding academic achievement and a stellar history of civic involvement ….
She’d worked six years for this, but almost fainted as she held the fake parchment paper over the kitchen table.
Her mom had squealed and cried. Her dad had gushed about how she would change the world. She just ran her thumb over the texturized paper, staring at the number. The estimated cost of attendance was ɸ89,000 a year.
Salvare had visited Avron the fall of her sophmore year. And he’d invited her to come with him.
She couldn’t blame her dad for shouting when she’d called from the back of the old Rambler van – her feet propped up on a sleeping bag, and her head resting against someone’s duffle. Or her mother for crying.
She would have yelled back if Salvare hadn’t caught her eye in the rear view mirror. He arched a dark eyebrow and shook his head slightly.
Respect them, he’d warned her. His father had entrusted her to them, even now, when she was ready to make her own decisions. She would never outgrow the Ordinance to honor and respect.
“Mom. Please –”
Her mother cried and yelled. Finally, she grew quiet, and her voice brittle.
“Don’t come back to us when it all falls apart. We tried to warn you.”
The phone buzzed again on the table. Salvare’s voice echoed in her ear.
“She gave birth to you and so loves you dearly. It’s what makes her so afraid for you. She doesn’t understand.”
She glanced back up at the silent TV, biting her lip.
Apparently, neither did I.
Had her mom been right?
A smiling Brian Conner picture materialized in a corner of the TV screen. She un-muted, and sat up.
“ … sources say the Internal Ops have warned him not to leave the city.”
Back to Moore.
“Right. Conner is under consideration for re-education. What confuses me about the man is, if he’d kept it a secret that long, why now? The man is dead.”
Hudson’s red lips puckered with pretend concern.
“A misguided sense of … ?”
Conner had driven up to the curb in front of the prison in a black limousine.
Cameras flashed and video had rolled from the shaken fleet of news vehicles as he stepped out into the wind and lashing rain and walked inside. She’d been there. So had Shawn and Tom and Maureen.
He’d quietly introduced himself to the warden, and informed him he would be paying the body claim fee. Then he’d told Maureen that he would cover all funeral expenses.
“I was – ” He cleared his throat. “This is too late, but I want the world to know, anyway. It’s the only way left to show – him. I did listen.”
Maureen hadn’t spoken for hours. Her face was pale, and dark rings hung under her eyes. They probably all looked that way.
Maureen pressed her lips together and nodded.
Shawn offered his hand.
“Welcome.” He dropped his arm to his side and looked away. “Frankly, I – ” He shook his head. “What a waste.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“All of us,” he snapped bitterly, waving his hand in a circle. “What are we doing here? What are you doing here?”
Conner wrinkled his forehead.
“I told you –”
“He’s dead Conner. Dead. Why does it matter if they cremate him and plug him in the prison grave yard or if he’s embalmed in some tycoon’s crypt?”
He shook his head and stalked off down the cinderblock corridor. His footsteps clicked on the polished concrete until he disappeared around a corner.
“I’m sorry – if my offer is offensive –”
Tom shook his head.
“No. We all appreciate it. Thank you. If it’s the last thing we can do for him –”
A strangled sob made them all turn. Maureen had collapsed onto the bench behind her and now sat rocking back and forth, hugging herself and weeping. Sophia knelt beside her, then glanced back at Conner.
“You can do one other thing. For him, I mean.”
“Help me get her home?”
“My limo’s out front.”
In the ride back here, to Maureen’s apartment, Sophia had been shocked at how dark the sky was, even without the limo’s tint, and at the heavy winds that ripped out tree branches. Several old buildings had been damaged by the earthquake. Only half the streetlights were lit, and whole sections of the city seemed to have lost power. A siren sounded from some other street.
On the flickering screen, Hudson was signing off. The NiteReel emblem flashed across the screen, then disappeared into a spinning backdrop of computer generated shapes.
Her eyelids drooped, but whenever she shut them, that face floated in her mind. It wasn’t Salvare – well it was, but he might have been a wax dummy. A cruel caricature of the man.
The mortician had drained his body of blood, and replaced it with preservative. He’d painted over the bruises and discolorations with makeup – injuries from the inquiry. Only the split lip still showed, even stitched and painted.
The inquiry had been in secret, but when they brought him out to the defendant stand in the Magisterum, there was blood on his face, and his mouth was swollen. Dark circles hung under his eyes, which, on the big screens, looked yellow and dilated. They’d been using their interrogation drugs.
He seemed unsteady on his feet, and stumbled at the step. The policeman caught him by his cuffed wrists and yanked up.
She clenched her hands around the plastic armrests of the theater style seat. He must be waiting to make his move until the cameras were on him.
He’d made a dry well gush when he’d waved his hand. Any moment, he’d straighten his shoulders and smile. The cuffs would fall off, and he would call out the Grand Magister for a mob boss and put the Chancellor on trial for treason.
The Grand Magister entered, draped with his dark purple robes, and everyone rose. She would have remained obstinately sitting, but Salvare looked right at her, and shook his head.
She pushed to her feet. How long would he let this charade go on?
His Eminence waved a plump hand, and the room sat.
The Internal director stepped forward and bowed.
“Your Eminence, allow me to present the traitor Salvare de Saio. After an extensive inquiry, we could extract no explanation for his crimes. Therefore they stand as follows.”
He rattled off a list of half truths, lies, and a few of Salvare’s more unfortunate statements. Salvare had ignored her warnings about the press – they’d taken everything he said, twisted it, spliced it – or ran it out of context.
Her fingernails bit into the palms of her hands as she clenched them, waiting for him to make his move, but Salvare just stood there, swaying, and looking more pale and exhausted by the moment.
The Intel man finally ended, with a scathing declaration.
“He claims to be a god – equal to the Great One, and convinces others of that lie.”
The Grand Magister feigned shock – as if he cared a whit.
“Salvare, you have refused to answer – I give you one more chance – are you a god?”
Salvare seemed to pull out of wherever his mind was, fixed the plump little man with his gaze and smiled.
“Before the Ordinances were given, I am.”
His voice was soft but strong, and it filled the whole room with a resonance that captured even the policemen in its power for a moment. Then a wave of angry whispers swept through the Magisterum. All around Sophia, people rocked forward in their seats, horror on their faces.
His Eminence shook himself, barely concealing delight. He opened a hand.
“Need we prolong this hearing further?”
Now. Now was Salvare’s time to act. But still he stood there, a great weight hanging in the wrinkles between his eyes – sadness. He was looking at the magisteri in their plush seats and the police.
Her stomach twisted into a painful knot. Since the cavalcade of flashing blue and red lights had split last night’s peace, she’d been sure that this moment would be his greatest. He’d told them yesterday morning that victory could look like defeat – what better way to show his power then at a moment when he pretended to be the weakest.
His head dropped till his chin rested against his chest. Had they done something to him in the inquiry? Had their drugs muddied his mind?
The knot threatened to turn into panic.
He had to snap out of it. He was running out of time.
The police closed around him, and marched through the crowd. Out into the hall.
As they pushed through, she lost sight of them in the press of bodies. The crowds on the Magisterum, who’d watched over massive screens, were being held back by police with riot shields as they shoved him in a car.
Where had this hate come from? Her stomach lurched.
The crowd closed around behind the cavalcade and they moved off toward the prison. They swept her along, down the middle of the road. The yellow dashes moved past under her feet.
The execution would be broadcast. He would do it then.
Maureen had been let in, along with Tom and Shawn. She was admitted as his media rep.
She would tell the world about how he’d blasted through the walls of the prison with a word, freeing all of Chancellor Ravin’s political prisoners. The executioner would fall on his knees and beg for forgiveness. Salvare would smile and grant it.
He was already shackled to the chair when they were escorted into the chamber for a brief goodbye. His t-shirt was gone, and wires were taped to his chest with round white stickers. A monitor overhead traced his jagged heartbeat. It was racing.
His eyes were filled with such pain as she had never seen when they entered. Fear slammed down her optimism, and tightened around her chest like an iron band. Now, up close, he seemed frail. Helpless. His breath came in gasps.
His voice was weak when he asked Tom to care for his mother.
Shawn shook his head. His voice rasped with fear and exhaustion.
“What are you doing? – you can end this.”
“Trust me Shawn.”
The guards returned.
They were lead to a bench in the hall, across from a window reenforced by a wire grid.
Maureen turned her back and rested her lined forehead against the cool cinderblock.
Tom placed an arm around her shoulders, also looking away.
Shawn, fists clenched at his sides, paced up and down. His face was set in a stony mask.
Sophia made a note of all these little details on her phone. She wanted to throw up. She wanted to cry. So she focused on taking notes.
“Fill a notebook with narrative,” a professor had told her once. Maybe Salvare would still pull out of this.
The man in a white coat and blue Nitrile gloves entered the room. He tied a rubber tourniquet around Salvare’s arm. He slid an IV into a dark vein. Connected a drip. Liquid started to flow.
A second monitor flickered on. The screen showed a blood toxicity scale, starting in green, and ending in red. The indicator sat at the bottom of the green.
White Coat attached another tube to his other arm.
The toxicity level jumped to the middle of the green.
Salvare’s lips moved, and the speaker over the viewing window carried his voice.
“Father, forgive them.”
His face contorted in pain. His arms and legs pushed feebly against the shackles. The toxin must be affecting him early.
His rasping voice.
“Father! Father! Why do you turn away?”
He was wrong. I was wrong.
His eyes opened, seemed to look right at her, then closed.
The heart monitor, that had been bouncing wildly went flat. Just like that.
The toxicity level held in the green.
White Coat wrinkled his forehead and fumbled with the sensors, unfazed that the most incredible man who’d ever lived had just died.
The walls and floor lurched, as if they’d turned into water. She thought for a moment that she was fainting.
Someone screamed about an earthquake. A peal of thunder echoed through the corridors.
She dropped to her hands and knees on the rolling concrete.
An alarm sounded. Someone ran past. The prison seemed undamaged – new building regulations.
No one else seemed to notice White Coat – but as he pushed off the floor of the chamber, he stared at Salvare’s gray face. Horror filled his own face.
Over his head, the monitors were still on. The flat white line still ran on.
Now you see him. She hoped he’d go throw himself off the top of the prison – or take a bottle of sleeping pills like the rat Andy. Not that it matters anymore.
The mortician had used a canister of makeup to hide the gray – It was all a hideous game, this pretense that he was just sleeping – sleeping with formaldehyde for blood, nestled in silk pillows. They could be nails for all Salvare cared.
Conner had arranged for a public viewing, but no one came, so they sat there together in the empty room. She’d come because she had too. This would be her last piece – possibly of her career. Her credibility was shredded.
The viewing room was decorated in dark maroon. The plush carpet that absorbed the heaviest footfall. The chairs. Even the heavy window drapings.
He’d bought enough white flowers to empty a florist shop. They filled the dais, spilled down the stairs, and draped across the polished mahogany wood of the coffin.
He sat on the bottom step, chin in hands.
“I hoped someone would be brave enough to come.”
“I’m thinking of my last lead. Something like ‘millions of views on VidU. Thousands of seats filled. Hundreds of devotees. Two said goodbye.’” She twisted a corner of her mouth. “Yeah. Maudlin.”
He smiled sadly.
“I’d watch him on my smart phone and tablet computer, in my leather chair, surrounded by opulence, and I wanted to join – but I had so much to lose – you know?”
She raised her head.
He dropped his head back into his hands.
“It didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered. It’s dark out there. It’s dark in here.”
A knock sounded at the door, and one of the funeral directors entered quietly, walking in that slow, practiced way that made him seem ethereal.
“Are you ready?”
The coffin was closed and sealed, then wheeled to the hearse.
A steady gray rain fell outside.
Conner owned a large plot inside a high iron fence that was unlocked by the keeper. A hole had already been dug in the turf, and a canopy had been set up. The hole edges were covered with green tarp, and the coffin was placed on the apparatus. Conner nodded, and the director pressed a button. The casket ground it’s way down into the hole, to nestle in the larger concrete casing that already waited down there – eight feet below. That was the regulation.
She insisted on staying – sitting in Conner’s limo – to see the concrete topper lowered into the grave. It was sealed. The backhoe replaced the dirt. The sod was unrolled.
And that was it.
Conner had taken her back to Maureen’s apartment.
Her phone buzzed.
Mom again. Ignore.
She hugged her knees to her chest. The room was cold. Her head ached and her eyes burned.
It was cold.
Someone was shaking her shoulder. She opened her eyes and rubbed them. Maureen’s tearstained face solidified.
“The sun’s rising. Let’s take a walk.”
She sat up. The television was still flickering. The curtains shown with a dull gold and pink. She shivered and yawned.
Her voice rasped.
Maureen pursed her lips.
“I want to – I need to see my son’s grave. Show me.”
She wanted to protest – her throat hurt, her eyes burned, and her head floated, but she nodded, yawning again, and pushed unsteadily to her feet.
The morning air was cold, but with a hint of heat to come. The sun filled the sky with a brilliant orange.
The rain and earthquake were more appropriate.
The city streets were empty. The wind and earthquake damage had been cleaned up.
Inside the cemetery gate, Sophia lead the way through the trees to the inner fence.
Where it had been.
Some force had torn it apart, tossing the twisted iron fragments away from the center.
She looked at it for a moment, bewildered.
What – ?
Something cold settled in her stomach, and she sprinted to where she’d left that hump of disturbed sod.
A giant crater had been blown in the ground, and at the center sat the splintered coffin. The wood lay in torn fragments and the silk in shreds. The explosion had come from the inside – everything was spread from that internal point.
Someone planted a bomb in his body? A final insult? But would a bomb leave the wood unburned?
Maureen clutched her hand.
“Where’s his body?”
“Torn to bits?”
She shook her head.
“There’s coffin and concrete and dirt.”
“Are you ladies looking for something?”
They spun and saw a man approaching. The first rays of the rising sun shone on his face and white shirt.
Sophia waved a hand at the destruction.
“What happened? Where is the body?”
He came closer, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
His eyes met hers. Eyes like twin universes. She could dive into them and be lost forever.
For a moment, it felt like all of life on earth froze. The sky turned into the ground, and the grass grew from the sky. Trees grew down and water flowed up.
She’d seen his heart flatline. She’d seen him in the coffin. She’d seen it placed in the ground and covered with dirt.
The emotion was strong, she wasn’t even sure it if was joy – it was so concentrated – it hurt.
She sprinted forward. His warm, firm arms closed around her back.
He laughed, and the sun danced in the sky.
Maureen joined them in the hug. Sophia never wanted the moment to end.
A light breaze pulled on her hair.
The birds sang in the treetops.
Her phone buzzed.
He pulled away, his brown eyes twinkling.
“Answer it –it’s your mother.”
She opened her mouth to protest, then laughed and punched the green button.
“Sophia?” Her voice sounded hysterical. “Where are you?”
“I’m – I’m with Salvare.” She was laughing. And sobbing. “He’s alive mom. I saw them put him in the ground, and now it’s a giant crater, and he’s right here.”
Silence on the other end, then –
“Where are you? We’ll come get you – it’ll be okay.”
“Mom – I’m not insane. He’s right here.”
“Just tell me where you are.”
“Clavin Cemetery – in Travil.”
The other end went dead.
She shrugged and slipped the phone back into her pocket.
He spread his arms.
“Do what my father made you to do – write your story, and tell the world.”