The river flowed into the tunnel, into the darkness.
It didn’t look like a tunnel. Tunnels went somewhere. One look at into that vacant blackness and it seemed unimaginable that this tunnel went anywhere. It looked like a horrible black gash gouged into the world. It looked like rape upon reality, a spiritual terminus.
It was an ugly, squat arch of black brickwork, swarming with moss and lichen. The river had eroded mortar over the years, giving it a slight recess at the waterline.
Bricks. Water. Mundane commonalities. Yet so few men were able to look into that dark tunnel.
The tunnel had upset Daimon Petridis for as long as he could remember.
At four years of age: “Pa, what’s at the end of the tunnel?”
“Uggh…uh….what?” Luke Petridis sat upright on the mossy ground, blinking in the torchlight. Some men sleep for eight hours a day. Luke seemed to do his sleeping in ten or twenty small naps.
“The tunnel, Pa. What’s at the end?”
“Nobody knows, Daim. That’s the truth.”
“How come nobody goes down there?”
“That just isn’t something we do.”
Daimon wrinkled his face in disappointment. Curiosity and nobody to satisfy it.
Footsteps approached, and Deacon Menderhall stood above him. “Excuse me, Luke, am I interrupting anything…?”
Luke woke all the way up. “No, Deacon, not at all.”
The Deacon governed both the spiritual life of the Men Who Survived and their physical lives, right down to as who collected waste, who maintained the hydroponics, who repaired the village’s one working electrical generator, and how many torches could be lit at once without depleting the caves’ air supply. His word was final on everything, and he could make life very hard for you.
“Your son has a very active mind. You should be proud of Daimon. A questing spirit is a gift from God, and not something to be squandered..”
Luke nodded, “uh, thank you. ..”
Deacon Menderhall turned to young Daimon. “Boy, beyond the tunnel lies the afterlife. Heaven and hell. Did you know we float the dead down there?”
“I saw them float momma down there.” Daimon said. “I was on daddy’s shoulders at the fu-ner-wal.”
“Yes, I remember your mother well. She was a good friend to me in life, and that her soul will find rest at the end I have no doubt.”
Deacon Menderhall’s face split into a smile. Daimon was frightened. Normally smiles were nice. But this smile looked…wrong. Vacant and disconnected from the words he was saying. “But it’s not always dead men who journey the tunnel. From time to time, we have occasion to send the living as well.”
Luke interrupted. “Deacon, er, with respect…Daim’s only four years old. Shouldn’t he be a bit older before we teach him about the Clean and Unclean Cross?”
Deacon Menderhall nodded. “Yes, you’re right. I’m sorry, Luke. Well, enjoy your morning, friends, and I’ll see you at Mass at ten.”
Daimon wondered what the Clean and Unclean Cross was.
Soon he’d know more than he’d like.
Daimon grew quickly. He played and explored the caves with the twenty or so other children in the village. There wasn’t much to explore. The caves rose up in sheer walls all around them. The only way out seemed to be the tunnel and the dark river, a lancepoint into the supernatural.
He started school at seven, learning mechanics, electrical repair, English, mathematics, and history. Textbooks and paper were precious commodities among The Men Who Survived, and Daimon was mostly taught verbally. On the rare occasions when he had to write, he was reminded to make his letters as small as possible.
Daimon enjoyed history. He knew that their way of life was unnatural, like a bird instinctively knows that it doesn’t belong in an egg. It made sense to him that once mankind hadn’t lived in underground caves.
He was eight when he met his best friend Timothy.
It was fourth period in history, and the stuttering electric light cast shadows across twenty bored and yawning faces.
Mrs. Watson was teaching them. She was a prodigious woman. Her plunging neckline exposed the curvature of huge pale breasts that strained the lacings on her pinafore. Timothy looked at the breasts and felt uncomfortable and uneasy. He didn’t understand why.
“A question for the class, does anyone know why we’re so careful about disease in the village?”
Some mumbles. Lots of children knew, but nobody wanted to show off.
“For thousands of years, we lived on the surface, in the sunlight. We can’t any more. The reason for this is that disease has rendered the surface of the Earth uninhabitable.
“Sometime in the late twenty first century, which was about two hundred years ago, technology had advanced to the point where a planetwide extinction event could be brought about in a man’s basement. A man with a college education and some persistence could construct virulent, self-replicating disease. And eventually, someone did.”
The sandy-haired boy next to Daimon scribbled something on the side of his textbook, and passed it along. IM TIM
“Whether the man-made virus OB-690 escaped or was deliberately released is unknown. But it spread silently through the animal population, and by the time it started killing humans, it was too late. The world was engulfed in a pandemic. Billions died. Cities were abandoned. We have photos of OB-690 sufferers being piled into mass graves while still alive, because anyone who contracted the disease was the walking dead.”
Daimon furtively scribbled I’m Daimon, and the boy called Tim nodded.
“In the last days, news reports become fractured. Some men tried to hide in the mountains, but there was no escape. There was always a cat or dog or refugee that slipped past their quarantines. As time went on, the strongholds became fewer and fewer.
“At some point, a man observed that humans could no longer live anywhere where he might come in contact with the disease. So he took a few dozen followers and went underground, into the deep caves. And he sealed the tunnels behind him.”
A grin appeared on the sandy-haired boy’s face. He started drawing something on his textbook.
“This man was the first Deacon. He had prepared his people well. They had air purifiers and light and shelter and the means to grow food. With no contact with the outside world, there was no chance that OB-690 could enter the underground village. They began calling themselves The Men Who Survived.”
Daimon tried to look but Tim covered the book with his hand so that he couldn’t see the drawing.
“The village was constructed over an underground river. Some men followed the river, and found that it lead to a new, mysterious tunnel that was not found on any map. The first Deacon believed this to be a sign, and that the tunnel was God’s stamp of approval upon the Deacon’s plan for humankind. As a result, the Deacon took it upon himself to reconstruct society, reshaping it into the picture of morality and circumspection that we see before us today.”
Tim had finished his masterpiece. A crude caricature of Mrs Watson, her breasts exaggerated to colossal size. Underneath the drawing was the caption MRS TITSON.
Daimon giggled, partly at the drawing and mostly at Tim’s wanton misuse of paper. Tim shushed him, but Mrs Watson had heard.
“Do I not have your complete attention, Daimon and Timothy?”
Their teacher’s eyes were on them. Timothy snapped shut his schoolbook a little too quickly.
“Do you have something in there you’d like to show us, Timothy Childress?” Mrs Watson asked. This was bad. She was now taking determined strides towards the back of the class.
She loomed over them like a spectre. “Give that book to me, Timothy”. Tim tried to hide it under his desk. “I said give it to me!” She snatched the schoolbook out of his hands, and began thumbing through it.
Pages turned, and Tim and Daimon sat like soldiers waiting for a bouncing bombshell to land.
Finally, Mrs Watson stopped on a page. There was a small intake of breath.
“Mrs Watson” Timothy said, with an apologetic tone that damned his words as they left his mouth “I didn’t draw that, I just found it and…”
“Don’t say anything, Timothy. I don’t want to hear it. You are a disgusting little boy, and you will be punished. I will be speaking to your father about this, and suggest that he talk to Deacon Menderhall.”
Timothy started to blubber and stammer. His gaze met with Daimon’s for a second, and Daimon felt a stab of pity.
Without thinking, he jumped into the path of the grenade. “Mrs Watson” Daimon said.
“Yes?” A vein pulsed on Mrs Watson’s neck.
“Mrs Watson, he didn’t draw that picture. I was with him the whole time, and that picture was there when he picked up the book.”
Mrs Watson cocked a skeptical eyebrow.
Daimon was ready to further plead Timothy’s case, but then it dawned on him: he was going about this wrong. They were sitting together, so Mrs Watson thought they were friends. And friends stood up for each other.
Instead, he put a look of studied indifference on his face, and shrugged. “He’s a dumb kid, and I wish I wasn’t sitting with him. But I just thought I’d tell you that he didn’t draw the picture.”
There was thirty seconds of silence, and then Mrs Watson grunted something, and returned to the front of the class.
There would be detention, maybe, but nobody’s father would hear of this.
Timothy beamed at Daimon. His savior.
This unthinking, impulsive act won him a steady friend in Timothy. They could not have been better matched.
Timothy had a chaotic streak that was manna to Daimon in the dreary, all-days-the-same world of The Men Who Survived. He had read on a book once that all roads lead to Rome. He didn’t know where Rome was, but he did know that all stolen tools, all broken windows, and all overturned wheelbarrows led back to Timothy Childress.
Whenever Tim was caught at some new mischief, Daimon was in the point position, armed with alibis and explanations and excuses. It seemed there was no hole Daimon couldn’t pull his friend out of. The boys played and grew together, feeding each other in a kind of spiritual symbiosis.
One thing Daimon could never persuade Timothy to do was swim into the mouth of the tunnel. Daimon himself was afraid of the tunnel…but if his fear was the common cold, Tim’s fear was OB-690.
Daimon was fascinated by mankind’s graveyarded past.
The Men Who Survived kept a museum. Daimon went there as often as he was allowed. There were books and pictures and statues and tools and plaques. So much. Not nearly enough.
One day, he was deep in the thrall of an old newspaper article. A shot of a huge crowd at a political rally held his attention so firmly that he didn’t notice Tim leaning over his shoulder. “Woah, shit…look at all the people.”
Daimon stared at the crowd in the picture. Thousands! Tens of thousands!
“How come they didn’t suffocate?” Tim asked.
“There’s lots of air aboveground.” Daimon said. “They didn’t have to watch their oxygen like we do in the caves.”
“I just can’t believe it…how could there have been so many people?”
“I read in a book that there were seven billion people alive once. I don’t believe it. I think they made it up.”
“Yeah, I bet they did.” Timothy said. “Hey, Morris Fletcher wants us for a few hours. He says that if we help fix the water hoses to his hydroponic gardens we can have twelve strawberries each.”
“He’s got a ton of strawberries. I bet we could take fifteen and he wouldn’t notice.”
The years marched on, and The Men Who Survived continued their subterranean existence. Bland, tasteless food was grown in artificial soil. Things broke down and were inexpertly repaired. It was hard to escape the feeling that the village was winding down, somehow.
“Son, there’s a reason we’ve never called ourselves The Men Who Thrived.” Luke Petridis told his son one day.
One year, on Daimon’s twelfth birthday, the last surviving power generator began to stutter and falter. Nobody was really sure what to do. There was talk of whether the village could sustain itself without electric lights and heating and oxygen filtration. Nobody had answers any more sophisticated than “maybe.”
That year, Deacon Menderhall announced that, to seek God’s favor, they would once again observe the Clean and Unclean Cross.
Daimon and Timothy were selected by the Deacon to perform the rite.
When Luke heard, his face turned ashen white. He walked out of the room, and went by the riverside to stare into the tunnel.
Daimon followed him. He asked what the Clean and Unclean Cross.
This time, he got an answer.
The Clean and Unclean Cross serves a twofold purpose. It gives worthy Survivors a chance to elevate themselves spiritually, and it allows the village to expunge collective sins and malaises.
A crucifix, made of two dovetailed posts of wood.
One person on each side, tied at hand and foot. These people are of equal weight, and, very importantly, they are friends.
A heavy but buoyant weight is attached to the base of the cross. Ballast.
The cross is tilted on its side, and then carefully placed into the flowing water of the river, with one of the cross-spars underwater.
The two crucified people would now be half submerged in the icy water, one on each side, staring away in opposite directions. The center of gravity would keep their heads far enough above water to breath. The stabilising ballast will keep the cross standing on its side in the water, but perhaps even now bad thoughts are occuring. What if it falls on me?
You’d be face down in the water with your hands and feet tied.
The current would take the sideways floating cross, and its two victims, on a journey down the tunnel. A slave ship with no slavers. You cannot not see where you’re going, and will not be able to move your arms and legs.
Then, the sound that changes eveything. clunk.
The stabilising weight is attached to the cross by a water-soluble adhesive. After a period of time, some minutes perhaps, the water will dissolve the glue and the weight will fall from the cross.
The cross is now wobbly, balancing unsteadily on its side.
A thought inevitably enters one person’s mind.
What if he decides to kill me?
Yes. A sudden twist of the torso and one person could tip the cross over on the other person. He’d lying safe on his back, breathing air. The other person would scream his life away underwater.
The cross starts to wobble more and more.
Each deviation in the cross’s equilibrium is a railspike of fear.
Is that your friend? Is he trying to gently save his life…and gently end yours?
Surely not. Surely not.
Soon, you realise something awful. The cross will fall one way or another no matter what you do.
The Clean and Unclean Cross always takes a victim. No matter how carefully the two of you balance the cross, it will eventually tip and drown somebody.
The wobbling intensifies still more. Ugly thoughts enter your head. Every hard word and every stab in the back will loom and magnify itself in your head. A friend? Some friend. Even now he’s trying to tip the cross over on to you, and he thinks you don’t notice
Perhaps you won’t think those thoughts about your friend. One hopes not. The two of you will part company within a couple of minutes. And he’s thinking the same things about you. Every wobble seems to be coming from your side.
The Clean and Unclean Cross hinges upon one question: who is the weaker man?
Who will be the first to snap, tip the cross over, and drown his friend on the other side?
This is the pivot upon which the fate of two souls are decided. The drowned man goes to heaven. The murderer goes to hell.
Sometimes, Daimon felt so disconnected from the world that he thought he was in a dream, wide awake. That was fine. Dreaming was not so bad.
Today was the opposite. He had never felt more awake in his life. Scores of incongruous things leaped out at things, forming a surreal collage of consciousness.
The texture of the rocky walls. The leaping and flickering flames of torches. The cross, angular and forbidding.
The greying Deacon Menderhall, speaking in a quavering voice that didn’t match at all with his spiritual authority.
“Daimon Petridis and Timothy Childress, please rise and present your hands.”
Daimon was lashed to one side, Tim to the other. Now all he could hear of his friend was terrified and uneven breathing. They had been allowed to spend one last morning together. They had spoken about ten words each.
The rough, untreated pine scraped at his skin, the hard cordage cut into his circulation.
He saw the Survivors ringing them. Their stares were strange. This was the last time he would see any of them.
His father Luke was not among them. He had not been able to face this strange parting. Daimon understood, and forgave.
Vertigo rocked him as the cross was picked up by twenty Survivors and then turned on its side. From his new horizontal view of the world he could see them carry him towards the river and the tunnel.
The tunnel. From his sideways view, Daimon could crane his neck and see those bricks approaching. He hated the bricks, but the knowledge that he would soon be in total darkness was even worse.
The shuffling Survivors reached the waters edge, and dropped the cross on its side into the water with a splash .
It swayed, lurched, and wobbled. Daimon heard Tim scream…and then the cross was stable. They were floating, Daimon with his right side underwater, Tim with his left.
God, the water was cold!
The Survivors pushed the cross into the river’s current, and then they were sailing down the tunnel.
Motion. The gentle rocking of the cross. Small wavelets lapped at Daimon’s face. They were leaving the light of the village forever.
Daimon twisted his neck out of the water and yelled. “Tim, can you hear me?!”
“Don’t move! If you try to wriggle, you might unbalance the cross even with the weight attached!”
Tim said a number of incomprehensible half-sentences, and then lapsed into silence. Daimon was terrified, but Tim was simply not coping at all.
The tunnel swallowed them. In the dimming light, Daimon saw an all-enveloping sheath of mottled brickwork covering them on every side.
The light of the village receded and receded, and then they were in darkness.
Alone with the gently lapping water, the creaking of the cross, and their thundering heartbeats.
Soon there was another sound. Clunk.
The double-crucified children continued their blind, rudderless journey down the tunnel.
The cross was not being held upright by a weight any more, and now it was extremely wobbly. Each wave shook and juddered the cross, threatening to tip it out of this unnatural equilibrium.
Daimon could hear Tim hyperventilating ten inches away. He tried to steady his breath…and slow down his racing thoughts.
“Tim, we have to keep this cross steady. If you feel it tip your way, try to knock it back, but only a little! We can balance this. We can survive.”
Daimon uttered these words, and at the same time was struck by the idea that they had been spoken many, many times.
They were blind. There was simply no light at all in the tunnel. Water drenched every inch of their clothing.
A wavelet slapped the cross, and Daimon shrieked a bit as he felt the spar above his head tilt over him slightly. He jerked his body back, and the cross righted itself.
Timothy now seemed fully awake to the living nightmare they were in. “I won’t tip the cross over you, Daim, I’d never do that, I’d never…”
Daimon spat out a mouthful of cold, brackish water. “Yes! Shut up and just balance the cross!” Daimon was badly shaken by his narrow escape. Even worse, a thought had entered his head.
Timothy was lighter than him. Timothy wouldn’t have to deliberately tip the cross. Even if he did nothing, simple physics would drown Daimon in the end. He was the heavier load of the two and the cross would eventually fall on his side.
He groaned, and felt an expanding ball of panic begin to well up in his chest. “Shit…shit…shit…”
“Daim? Are you OK?”
“Yeah, yeah, just balance the fucking cross!”
Maybe Tim thought was telling the truth, but the wobbling was getting worse and worse. The cross was now highly unstable. Daimon did not think it would stay upright for much longer.
The tunnel seemed to be getting narrow. The water was flowing faster and current was becoming more violent. How long did they have left? A minute? Even that long?
Daimon blinked water out of his eyes. It might have been riverwater, sweat, tears, or all three. Icy torrents buffeted them from all directions. The cross leaped and bucked like an animal. Daimon was shaking, just shaking uncontrollably.
His death. His death.
He saw himself with apocalyptic clarity, lying face down in the water, thrashing against his bonds until the skin tore off his wrists and ankles, feeling crushing pressure below and unyielding wood above, having icy water flow into his lungs, going grey-blue-black under the cruel hand of suffocation.
“I’M SORRY! I…JUST…CAN’T…DO…IT!” Daimon screamed, his voice rebounding off the tunnel walls.
“I’M SORRY, TIM! I CAN’T BE BRAVE! I…CAN’T…DO….IT!”
With a sudden jerk, Daimon torqued his body hard to the right. The cross absorbed his force…and then tipped.
Tim had time for a disbelieving squawk and then the cross slammed down on top of him in an explosion of spume.
Daimon was now lying on his back, spread-eagled on the cross, staring straight up into darkness, feeling his best friend kick and thrash and spasm on the other side. The cross shook under Tim’s underwater death throes.
A few seconds and it will all be over, a few more seconds and it will all be over. Daimon kept running this thought through his mind like a skipping record player for over a minute. And then Tim was quiet.
Quiet. No. Daimon didn’t want quiet. He wanted his friend back. He wanted to undo what he’d just done.
Daimon opened his mouth to lick his lips, and then found deafening screams coming out of his mouth instead. They burst from him like blood pouring from a wound.
“NO! NO!!! NNNOOOOOOOO!!!!!”
He yelled himself hoarse. He had failed, the cross had found him Unclean, and he was a murderer.
The cross sped down the tunnel like an arrow aimed at the hereafter. Daimon moaned and sobbed, tears streaming out his eyes like water from a hateful well. Murder, and an eternity of suffering in which to contemplate it. Out of cowardice he had drowned a boy who was closer than family.
“I don’t want to live. Please God, I don’t want to live. Take me instead.” Daimon cried.
Through tears, he realised something. He could see.
Dark brickwork was speeding past him above him. Murky water frothed and churned under him. He was getting closer to the light.
Daimon screamed one final time, the scream echoing senselessly in the tunnel, and then laid his head down. Black squirming stars were appearing in his vision, obscuring it. Hell had begun.
Waves of dizziness overwhelmed Daimon, and he felt himself slipping away.
James Kilborn dry-swallowed another aspirin, and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. Then, he picked up a heavy cardboard box, lifted it to chest height, and threw it on the flatbed trailer with enough force to rock it on its leaf springs. Some of the workers moved boxes. James waged war on them. Every box loaded onto the flatbed trailer took him closer to punch-out time.
“Say, Renwick, you and the missus still got that Thailand trip planned?”
His friend grinned, showing tobacco-yellowed teeth. “We’re flyin’ out tomorrow. Two weeks of spas and massages. You got any leave coming up?”
“I got death coming up too, and I think it might get there sooner.” James picked up another box. The fucking things got heavier all the time. “Why are you going to Thailand with your wife? Take it from me, buddy, you want to claim it’s a business trip and that the company is only puttin’ up accommodation for one person. Adventure awaits.”
“Women today are smarter than that, and you’d know that if you ever got your dick wet. Still, I like your spirit.”
Suddenly, James heard a funny sounding clunk form behind him. It came from the shore of the river that flowed out of the mountain.
He walked over to the riverbank, and stooped to investigate.
A child of about twelve. He was wearing old, frayed clothes, and there was foam on his lips. He was unconscious, and twitched and spasmed like a dying insect.
His movement was greatly restricted.
The boy was tied to a cross, bound at hand and foot. The cross floated in the water, and one of the spars had gotten caught on a sandbank.
James was struck by sense that his eyes were fooling him.
“Renwick, you gotta come over here.”
Renwick hunkered. A look of remembrance settled over his face. Not bafflement or surprise or confusion. Just the look of a man seeing the past return. “Shit…it’s happened again.”
James suddenly felt like screaming. “What’s happened, Renwick? What…what is this?”
Renwick spoke softly. “James, you haven’t been working here long. I have. I’ve seen this happen once before. Ten years ago, a cross floated out of the tunnel with a person tied to each side of it.”
“Yeah. And I bet you that if we turned this cross over, we’d find a dead body.”
Renwick continued. “I remember the last time. I was looking forward to an early punch-out, and then I saw the cross. There was a kid tied to it no older than this one. I fuckin’ panicked. I called emergency services, I called security, I called everyone.
“They untied the boy…and he was raving mad. Kept telling us that he’d killed his best friend, and that he was in hell. That was all he’d tell us…no, it all he really seemed to know.”
James shivered. “I’ll untie him. You call the EMTs.”
Renwick nodded, looking feeble and sad. He strode over to a concrete pylon holding up a section of the rock face they were working near.
Bolted to the pylon was a notice. A smiley-faced cartoon workman, and underneath were the words 99.83% OF THE POPULATION IS IMMUNE TO OB-690, BUT FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE PLEASE WASH YOUR HANDS AND AVOID UNNECESSARY BODILY CONTACT. THANKS!
James looked down the dark tunnel.
“I wonder what’s on the other side?”