A Fragment of Hell

by Dave Hebden

 

“Hello, Frank. It’s me, Arlan. You should be fully awake by now, I think. I’ll bet you have been very anxious. After all, why would you have become conscious while you are still in your suspension pod, right? I know you have probably been struggling and can barely move in that snug little padded vessel so just lie still and my voice will explain everything. It took me quite some time to get this recording just the way I wanted it. I hope it suits.

Now, you know how upset I was when Brenda and I broke up. I will always remember how supportive you pretended to be. My goodness, it was very impressive how well you hid your secret. I thought Brenda’s performance was admirable as well but you see, we had been together for so long that she really couldn’t hide anything from me.

It was such a messy process, wasn’t it? What with you being what I considered a good friend at the time and Brenda being the only love I have ever had, I’m sure you knew it would be difficult for all of us once the truth came out. Of course, that didn’t stop you. Nothing ever stopped you from getting what you wanted, now did it?

I’m sure you remember that day when I finally started to act… what did you call it… “civilized”? Yes, I just suddenly stopped making those annoying calls and leaving those terrible messages all over the place. Perhaps you thought it was because of the success you had in getting me locked up a couple of times. Maybe you were thinking that I had finally come to my senses, that I finally realized that my crude behavior was going to get me nothing but trouble. Well, I’m afraid that wasn’t it at all. Actually it was on that day that I proved out the feasibility of my retribution plan. It took a lot of hard work but, well, here we are.

Where to begin? Well, I recall how elated you were when you were chosen for the Second Colony mission. And when you were able to pull your usual strings to get Brenda to come along you must have just been in Seventh Heaven. How exciting! Being chosen to be on board only the second ship of colonists ever to leave Earth bound for a new world must have been quite a feeling. To be going on that marvelous adventure with someone that loved you so much… how unspeakably wonderful!

I know those poor devils that went on the first ship so many years ago must have been very nervous about their mission. After all, they didn’t know what to expect. They could have awoken to find that Vita Nova wasn’t a habitable planet after all. They would have been doomed to live out their lives in that ship, just floating about a dead world that would remain dead. That not being the case, though, at least they got to spend a little time on the new world which certainly made it far from a wasted mission. I mean they all perished but the information they sent back has made this second mission possible and virtually sure to succeed. To be a member of the first generation of humans to establish a permanent colony on a new world would be an honor unequaled in the lifetime of almost anyone. However, you were afforded an honor that far surpasses that, Frank, and yet you never returned that honor.

Having Brenda fall in love with you was something that you took for granted, that you felt was somehow expected for a man of your stature and importance. Yes, I am sure you loved her as well but as with any other relationship you ever had, it was on your own terms and in your own selfish way. You knew she was enamored by your wealth, your fame, and your good looks and you took full advantage of that fact. You never respected her, simply holding her up as a trophy whenever the cameras were on you. Right to the last, as you were stepping into the suspension module with her, you couldn’t help turning her by the shoulder as you turned yourself for one last wave to the adoring masses, so beautifully adorning the final image of you here on Earth by having that angel at your side. Well, Frank, I am afraid your arrogance has cost you dearly. You see, you are never going to see that new world and you are never going to see Brenda again.

Now, please don’t think I would do something as primitive as to just murder you. That would be much too simple for me and far too lenient a punishment for someone like you. You have spent most of the years of your life using people for whatever they could do to help advance your selfish goals and boost your enormous ego. You have lived almost every waking moment in control of everyone around you. Well, not any more. Even though I am trillions of miles away right now, I am in total control of you. Fancy that.

You see, I had been working as a contractor on the software for this suspension module you are in right now. I saw you many times during your training sessions at the mission center. I know you thought I was far, far away so it is no surprise that you didn’t recognize me in my disguise. Perhaps you recall that man with the oddly puffy face, the full beard, and the port wine stain on his forehead that sat at the console closest to the water station on the promenade? That was me! Yes, I could have done my work from anywhere at the center but it was so much fun to watch you every day as you orchestrated the lives of so many others; smiling and laughing when you were obeyed, scowling and cursing when you weren’t. All the time, I knew that when this moment came, I would have been watching you do more and more to deserve it.

But I digress. As you are well aware, I have always been quite adept at all things technical, especially when it comes to software. I started to conceive my plan as soon as I heard that you were chosen for the mission. I’m not sure how but it just came to me. I had to take the job under a contrived identity but that was not so difficult for someone like me who has done so much work for the security industry. Once I went in and had a look at the suspension module’s control systems, I knew my plan would work. It was then that I stopped harassing you. I’ll bet you were quite pleased that day and probably thought that your conquest of Benda was complete. In retrospect, though, it was the most terrible day that you had ever had for it was precisely then that your fate was sealed. Go figure.

So here you are, Frank, lying in this padded shell unable to move anything but your eyelids. My program is controlling your pod and everything it is doing is masked from the main system by a very fancy little subroutine that I planted there. It will always report all things normal for you. As far as anyone or anything knows, you are and will be soundly in suspension sleep for another 72 years. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

What is going to happen is that my program is going to keep you in a nice, healthy cycle of eight hours of sleep and sixteen hours awake. It is going to provide all the nourishment, muscle stimulation, and waste management services that your body needs to live. I do realize that you will be drawing from the nutrient and oxygen banks and burdening some other systems much more than you would have had you remained in suspension. However, my calculations show that none of these excesses will adversely affect any of the other twelve hundred forty-nine colonists to the slightest degree. The variance will also be within the parameters that the main system has been programmed to handle autonomously without sending out notifications that there is a problem of any kind. I don’t think it would matter if anyone did find out what I had been up to anyway. After all, even in these modern times I am pretty sure no one has ever bothered to put a law on the books that would make it a crime to keep someone alive. Isn’t that deliciously ironic?

You are going to live out your natural life right where you are, Frank. Once you expire, my program will shut down your support system and then it will delete itself without a trace. Although you will probably get agonizingly close to your destination, you will not survive the entire journey as I don’t think you will make it to the ripe old age of one hundred and fifteen. And speaking of ripe, I do pity the poor other colonists that are going to have to open your pod when the ship arrives. That should be a very unpleasant experience to say the least.

You know, there is a Tradition of the Prophet stating that every journey is a fragment of hell. Boy, I guess he got that right in this case, huh? Perhaps at some point you will feel that you are better off dead. I can’t say that I would even hazard a guess as to whether someone like you, no matter what the situation, would ever consider ending their own life. No matter, though, as you have absolutely no way to do so. You could attempt to hold your breath even to the point of unconsciousness but your body will always begin to respire again. You are going to be in control of absolutely nothing except your own thoughts… unless you count blinking, of course. And the thing that satisfies me above all is that you will not be in control of Brenda. She will be very sad, I am sure, when she finds out what happened to you. You can rest assured that there will be no trace of my software and no one will ever know just how it happened. Eventually, she will get over it and I am sure that she will find that one of the other colonists can fill the void. In fact, she might end up with someone a little more selfless and realize that she is actually better off without you. I know I am.

Oh, and one more thing. I remember you telling me more than once that you never wanted me to speak to neither you nor Brenda again. You said in a very angry tone that you could not even stand the sound of my voice. Well, I suppose I could have sardonically granted your wish since having you lie there in silence could become unbearable and even drive you quite mad after a while. I do find that a pleasant thought but here’s something I find even more amusing. Ready?

Hello, Frank. It’s me, Arlan. You should be fully awake by now…”

 

Promise

Promise

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Dave Hebden

 

Eli was walking well ahead of Betsy down the wide path through the forest when he looked back.

“Come on now, girl,” Eli said to his little sister as she struggled to keep up with him. “Gosh darn, you’re slow.”

“I only got little legs, Eli,” Betsy said.

“Well, you’re almost nine years old, now. You ain’t no little girl no more.”

“Yeah, well, we been out here for two days and my nine-year-old legs is real tired. And don’t tell me your ’leven-year-old legs ain’t, too.”

“Sure they are but I wanna get to the lookout. Don’t you?”

“Sure I do. We still got time, Eli.”

“Well, not much,” said Eli, stopping to look at his wristwatch and letting his sister catch up. “Only ’bout nine hours and a few minutes and we still got eleven or twelve miles to go.”

Eli adjusted the heavy pack on his back and started walking again, now side-by-side with his sister.

“Ain’t it beautiful out here, Betsy?”

“Sure is. Real nice day.”

“Well, it’s the very last one so that’s how it should be.”

“How is everybody so sure about that, Eli?”

“Pa said every real smart person in the world tried to think of somethin’ to stop it and nobody could. Now it’s a sure thing and no mistake.”

“But you said when it happens, it ain’t gonna hurt none, right?” said Betsy, reaching out and holding her brother’s hand.

“You won’t feel nothin’, Betsy. I promise. I told ya that a million times,” Eli said looking at her and squeezing her hand.

Betsy smiled and the two of them kept walking.

* * * * *

“What’s it gonna be like in heaven, Eli?” asked Betsy.

“Well, Pa says it’s likely different for everybody. He says ya can’t listen to them old stories about clouds and angels floatin’ around or nothin’. Might be heaven is just that we get to have Ma back again and we can all sit down for Sunday dinner. I sure wouldn’t mind if that’s what it was.”

“Me, neither. Fact, I wouldn’t even mind havin’ old weird Uncle Wyatt there again, a-scratchin’ himself in front of everybody.”

Eli snickered, and then laughed out loud. Betsy laughed along with him.

As they walked along the path, it began to climb steadily through the forest.

“How come I don’t feel sad, Eli?” asked Betsy, a little out of breath.

Eli stopped ahead of Betsy and turned. He took her by both hands.

“Remember when Ma died, Bets? ’Member how sad we all were? Heck, the whole town was bawlin’ for a week. Everybody loved Ma, ’specially us. That’s who’s sad when someone dies, right? The folks that’s left behind, like we were. Well, mighty soon there ain’t gonna be no one left to be sad. I won’t be sad for losin’ you and you won’t be sad for losin’ me. Even better, maybe we won’t lose each other at all. Maybe we’ll be havin’ that Sunday dinner tomorrow, even though it’s only Thursday.”

Eli smiled down at his sister. He let go of one of her hands and tapped her on the nose.

“Now, let’s git!” he said, turning and climbing up the path again.

* * * * *

Eli dug through his backpack as he and Betsy sat on the ground with their backs against the trunk of a large oak tree.

“Here it is,” he said as he pulled out a candy bar and handed it to his sister.

“Mmm, Butterfinger! My favorite in the whole world,” she said as she tore off the wrapper and took a big bite.

“I know. That’s why I grabbed it in that store this morning,” said Eli, continuing to rummage through his backpack.

Betsy stopped chewing and frowned.

“Did ya have to shoot that guy, Eli?”

“Look, Bets, ’fore we left the house I promised Pa that I wouldn’t let you get hurt by nothin’ or nobody. That guy had a bad mind. Soon as I saw him comin’ near you with that look, I knew what he was fixin’ to do.”

“He sure looked surprised when that bullet hit him,” said Betsy with a mouthful of chocolate, looking at the ground and still not chewing.

“Yeah, he wasn’t expectin’ a kid to have a gun, I guess,” said Eli, finally digging a snack of his own out of his backpack. “That’s why Pa gave it to me when we left. He knew there’d be folks runnin’ ’round with bad minds. Ya gotta remember, Betsy. There’s folks that don’t believe in the hereafter, so they figure they don’t got no one to answer to no more. Some’ll do what they please while they can.”

“I saw it on TV that there’s lots of trouble all over the place,” said Betsy as she started to eat her candy bar again. “There was lots of folks just sittin’ in church, too.”

“Yeah, like Pa. That’s where he is right now, I’ll wager.”

“How come he didn’t have us stay with him?” Betsy asked and put the last of the candy bar in her mouth.

“Pa said he wanted us to do whatever we wanted. He said we’re kids and kids don’t like sittin’ in church much. I reckon he’s right about that.”

“Yeah, he sure is.”

“Well, we’ve always wanted to see that lookout by the river that Ma painted, right, Betsy? Since Pa never wanted to go back there after Ma passed, this is our chance.”

“They drove out in a car when they went, right?” asked Betsy.

“Yup. And I’ll tell ya, if I was a little bigger, Pa probably would have let me drive his truck out there. But we both love campin’ and bein’ in the woods and all. I got a compass and a map so I’m pretty sure there’ll be no gettin’ lost. And it’s been fun so far, right, Bets?”

“I guess. Kinda tired, though. And sometimes I get scared at night.”

“Well, ya got me with ya, girl. And I got this here gun. Pa said he thought we’d be safe anyways ’cause most of the trouble’s gonna be where all the people are… in the big cities and the like.”

“We haven’t seen a soul since we left that store, sure enough,” said Betsy.

“Well, we better get moseyin’ along again,” Eli said as he stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants.

* * * * *

“It’s just on the other side of that rise over yonder, Betsy!” Eli said as he pointed across the small valley in front of them to a ridge covered with tall pines.

“What time ya got, Eli? It’s gonna be a darn shame comin’ all the way out here and not gettin’ to sit a while and enjoy the view.”

“It’s almost seven o’clock, Bets. We still got an hour and a half. Come on, let’s go!” Eli shouted back as he hurried down the slope into the valley.

Betsy did her best to keep up with Eli, even as her own little backpack was starting to weigh her down. Eli slowed down when the land started to rise again. Betsy caught up to him as he struggled up the hill towards the top of the ridge. Finally, they came into a clearing on the top of the hill. Both stood silent, their breath heaving in their chests.

“I declare,” said Eli as he slung the pack off of his back and let it thud to the ground. He stood up and took in the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

“Wow,” said Betsy. “Looks just like Ma’s picture.”

Far below them, the waters of a wide river meandered through a sweeping vista of farmland and forest. The summer sun looked fat and swollen as it hung above the horizon off to their left, shining on the ribbon of the river with a red glow.

“I bet we can see for twenty miles,” said Eli, now standing with his left hand on his hip and his right around his sister’s shoulders.

“Gracious, Eli! I sure am glad we came here,” Betsy said, reaching up and taking his right hand in hers.

“And we still got a little over an hour,” Eli said looking at his watch.

They both sat down on the ground.

* * * * *

“So what’s it gonna be like, Eli?” asked Betsy.

Eli could hear the fear in her voice.

“I’m scared, too Betsy. At least a little. But Pa says that when it happens, it’s gonna be right quick. You ain’t even gonna know about it. I promise, okay?”

“Okay, Eli. I believe you.”

As they sat and watched the last sunset, they were mostly silent. They lived old moments in their minds and occasionally smiled, one at the other. They held hands as Betsy rocked gently back and forth.

“You hungry, Bets?” asked Eli as he got up and went to his backpack.

“Nah,” said Betsy as she watched him for a moment and then looked back out at the river and the sunset.

Eli came back and sat next to her on her left, his right hand on the ground behind her.

“Just about time,” said Eli as he looked at his watch again.

“I love you, Eli Hamilton,” Betsy said.

“I love you, Betsy Hamilton.”

Far off in the distance, there was a deep rumbling sound that started to build quickly as the ground trembled slightly. On the horizon off to their right, the sky began to quickly discolor. Eli looked at the back of Betsy’s neck, focusing on the mark that Pa had made just below the base of her skull. He lifted the pistol slowly and pointed it at its target as Betsy was still looking out anxiously at the sky, wondering what would happen next.