In life, we are plagued by the uncertainty of an afterlife, and it is often expected that when we die, everything will suddenly make sense. But when a group of strangers, similar only in their time of death, find themselves in the afterlife, they are faced with more questions than ever before. Are they in Heaven or Hell? If they’re in Heaven, why is there a Nazi wandering around? Why are there no children? If they are in Hell, what universal law did they break? Is there a way to repent and move on to a better eternity? At least one man seems to have some answers. Marcus, a Roman dead for 2,000 years, gains the group’s trust by leading them through the perils of their new reality. But soon it becomes clear that Marcus is only telling them half the story.
L. A. Barnes is public librarian in the southern US. She is a Nerdist podcast listening, South Park loving, Twin Peaks conspiracy theorizing, Stephen King reading and Joss Whedon worshiping geek. The Pit is her first novel. She plans to explore the Watchmaker’s universe through four more novels.
LT. AVERY FOX WAS A GUNNER, which made carrying CC out of the Pit surprisingly easy. In Iraq, he manned a massive machine gun that returned fire when rockets started to fall from the distant mountains. The best shots were when the enemy was actively manning the rocket launchers. While the other soldiers dove undercover, Fox, along with Marsh and Willis, his fellow gunners, remained at their stations, searching in their sights for the enemy. They were so successful at firing on the insurgents manning the launchers that the insurgents started using timed launchers that allowed them to run out of range before the first rocket whizzed away. Fox readily credited this to Marr and Willis, who were the more experienced gunners. Between them they had 25 confirmed kills, Fox only had one. When that last rocket whizzed in, it came straight for Fox, sending him to the platform without his two brothers in arms. Later, during the escape from the Pit, Fox found himself strapped to a motionless body, with scared civilians all around him and an Indian makeshift army bearing down on him in the Pit—not remotely scary by comparison to Iraq. He managed to make his one objective, the 12 o’clock stairs, with only cracking damage on his back.
Outside the Pit, he felt much more lost. First thing, he set CC, the accepted name for the concentration camp body, down against a boulder and searched his perimeter. Alex’s Tribe looked bad. The last remaining Australians in this part of Hell, Sun and Reggie, hobbled past him. The orange jump-suited prisoner lost his left leg, and the former mental patient had to help him walk. A French woman lay on the ground three feet away. She’d lost the entire bottom half of her body. Max sat near her, consoling her as she sobbed without tears. Half of what she said was in French, leading Fox to believe Max’s nodding was just for show; he didn’t understand her.
As Sid ran around counting everyone, Fox eased himself onto the ground. There was so much rock here. The whole Pit was rock; turns out the exterior of the Pit was a mountain and now they were surrounded by boulders. Fox examined the ground beneath him. It was, shockingly, not rock, but a hard gritty soil. The French woman’s crying lulled as Sid declared her and Max “82 and 83.” Once Fox was number 84, Sid was off.
Fox leaned his cheek against the boulder and caught sight of something in his peripheral vision. The boulder behind him had deep grooves carved out in a beautiful design with ugly jagged lines over the top. He could almost recognize the shapes of the beautiful design; it looked like Arabic. His Arabic was very utilitarian. He could recognize a word like bathroom or mosque but not an if/then statement. These words were unreadable because of the jagged lines carved on top of them. Someone carved this message into the boulder and then someone else must have struck it out, stopping the message from being read. Examining the boulder more closely, he realized the entire thing had writing carved in it; the Arabic was just the deepest carving and therefore the easiest to see. There were dozens of languages represented. All the writing was struck out as the Arabic had been. A sense of injustice washed over Fox. This place was hard to understand because it matched nothing he’d been told to expect about the afterlife. But someone (several someones actually) tried to communicate with those who came after them.
This idea was so logical and human; he was automatically incensed by whoever had destroyed the ancestral knowledge.
Feeling eyes on him, Fox turned to see Max watching him while the French woman continued to jabber on. Turning back, he did some calculations. Max was one of Marcus’ people. Max had found Fox when he first died. Once Fox had exited the stairs, a body had fallen behind him. Max had pulled him out of the body’s path deftly and then introduced himself. Max had let Fox believe he too was Newly Dead. Marcus and his people had lied to them. The only reason Fox hadn’t raised a protest about it so far was because they didn’t know their surroundings and the liars claimed they did. Fox rearranged himself to look forward causally. Max returned to nodding for the French woman.
There might be more writing. Perhaps the saboteur hadn’t destroyed it all. Of course the question was how to look without Max noticing. Fox felt in charge of the care and keeping of CC. Leaving the body might look odd. He couldn’t see more than ten feet away from his face because there was no fire up here and therefore no light. Just as he was considering inching away in small movements, Max excused himself from Frenchie to go talk to Marcus. Grateful for the gimmie, Fox set out on his search.
The first dozen boulders looked like the first. It seemed as though every written language on earth was represented. For a moment, Fox considered that this might just be variations on ‘Avery was here ‘06.’ But then why render it unreadable? It occurred to him that if he were leaving a message, seeing the other defaced messages would make him want to hide his where the defacer wouldn’t look and gamble that some intrepid person would search until they found it. Following that theory, he began squeezing himself between boulders to look in harder to carve places. On the back and underside of a boulder against Pit Mountain, he found what he was looking for. In tiny English was the following:
1 - FIND YOUR BODY
2 - TAKE IT TO THE RIVER
3 - LET IT GO
Fox remained in the crevice he’d crawled into to read the message as he thought it over. Find your body? What body? Did they all have duplicates like Do Jin? And what river? So far all they’d seen was rock, mountain and grit. He felt but could not see someone walk up to his boulder. Their foot touched his. He considered who it might be as there were 120+ options. He was hoping it was a member of Alex’s Tribe—one of 120, not one of four. He hoped in vain.
“Find something interesting?” Max asked.
The one law was a hard sell. But Max needed to sell that and more to Fox. In front of him was a golden opportunity. Once he realized what Fox had seen, he dutifully went straight to Marcus with the information.
Marcus gave him leave to intervene on his own because he was currently busy manipulating Sid and Nadia. Max now had permission to speak to a member of Alex’s Tribe without supervision or suspicion.
When Max died in 1991, his first encounter with Marcus was a rare one. Marcus tried to be the observer in the Pit, always watching, listening, evaluating The Newly Dead and, of course, choosing among them. But Max saw Marcus first, without Marcus observing him in turn. Max’s eye was drawn to Marcus because of his face. For some reason, Marcus’ face was powerfully familiar to Max. It felt like he’d seen it long ago. Later, he would joke that he’d seen it in another life without realizing how right that statement was. That first day in the Pit, Max didn’t notice the chaos around him or the chanting from the 11 o’clock fire, he just saw Marcus. As the Pit prepared for its first battle of the week, Max watched Marcus lead a young woman out of the Pit via the 12 o’clock stairs.
Under the cover of the first battle, Max followed the familiar face and its recruit up the 12 o’clock stairs. He hesitated at the end of the narrow passageway, listening to Marcus give a speech about Hell.
“When we die and go to the Pit,” Marcus told the woman, “we don’t realize how large Hell really is.” Marcus and the woman walked down the road as he explained his version of Hell. In five minutes, Max was able to exit the passageway unseen.
After years facing the loneliness of the desert, random confusion that came from recovered memories and the viciousness of the guards in The Camp, Max found his way to the City. Most of The Dead in Hell congregate there. It was there that he found his purpose and began his training. The work that would fill his afterlife was lonelier than all those years in the desert but far more fulfilling. Now he could share that work with Fox.
“Come out from there,” Max said to Fox, who was sandwiched between a boulder and a mountain, “I need to talk to you while Marcus is distracted.”
Fox came around the curve of rock looking suspicious, and Max reminded himself that Fox had a right to be. Now he had to reverse everything they had done since he met Fox.
Max pulled Fox aside, finding a spot just within sight of the group but out of their hearing. He sat Fox down to begin the information bomb he was about to drop.
“What is this?” Fox demanded. “Are you the one who carved out the writing? People were trying to help each other….”
“No,” Max interrupted, “that wasn’t me. It was probably someone acting on Marcus’ orders. The writing isn’t enough for you to understand why you are here but it might help you believe the truth when I offer it to you.”
“The truth?” Fox asked. “We both have truths; are mine the same as yours?”
Max smiled at the reference. “I hope so. But first I need to tell you about my real boss, the man who is going to remake Hell and finally end Marcus’ two thousand year reign. I need to tell you about Virgil Offgood.”
“What do we do now?” Nadia asked Marcus and Sid. Then to Marcus she added, “you seem to have all the answers. What do we do now?”
Alex’s Tribe was broken beyond repair. Nadia wondered why she didn’t listen to her aggression more often. It never would have encouraged her to reenter the Pit; she thought that was a selfless act. A selfless act that got 30 people in their tribe destroyed. Now her aggression remained silent, as if it had given up speaking to her out of anger.
“I don’t know everything,” Marcus spat back. “For example, I still don’t know why we brought those two bodies out of the Pit.”
“Do you want to gloat because it cost us as many people as you said it would?” Sid rushed to Nadia’s aid.
“No need to gloat when one is right. I warned you, the plan costs us 20 people. The bodies cost us 5 people each,” Marcus responded.
Nadia remained silent.
“The next time you want to act self-righteous and ask me why I don’t trust you, and I still don’t trust you, I’m citing this particular gloating session over the shards of 30 people as my main reason.” Sid offered.
“Why did you bring that body, Nadia?” Marcus demanded. All three of them knew he meant CC. “What purpose does it serve?”
“Stop asking,” Sid retorted.
“Do you not want the answer?” Marcus asked Sid. “I bet you don’t. Your analytical mind must see it even if you don’t acknowledge it. You went and pulled that body from the pile where we hid it, for her. You know, while you were shifting dozens of bodies in favor of one specific body, you must have put it together.”
“Shut up you twat,” Sid responded.
“Ah, name calling…fabulous.” Marcus stood up. Sid responded by standing as well, a more effective gesture given Sid’s 6 feet vs. Marcus’ 5’7. As he moved, his shirt moved with him, briefly revealing the outline of whatever was in his waistband. Nadia noted that Marcus’ gaze flicked to the unknown object and then back to Sid’s face. It was quick—so quick that Nadia doubted herself for a moment. Her aggression pushed back, assuring her that she should be watchful of this sort of quick movement from Marcus.
“Yes, you’re taller than I am. Are you quite proud?” Marcus offered sarcastically. Then he turned to Nadia, who still sat on the ground. “I want an answer. I’ve risked myself and my people to bring your group and those two bodies out of the Pit. I didn’t demand one while we were in danger, so now that we are safe, I want one. Why did you bring that body?”
“In case we needed it.” From the ground, she sat in a ball, arms around the knees, glaring at her accuser.
Unlike the men, she didn’t need to stand to exert her power. She gained ground with Marcus by remaining unmoved.
“Needed for what?” Marcus elaborated.
Nadia shook her head.
“Or should I say needed it for whom?” Marcus tried. In a flash, an expression came over Sid’s face that looked like disgust. Nadia saw it and felt more disappointed by that than by anything Marcus could throw at her.
“We need it in case we have to deal with him,” Nadia seethed. “In case we run into him or he corners us—”
“Say his name,” Marcus interrupted.
“The Nazi,” Sid said through his teeth at Marcus. “Happy now?”
“Actually, his name is Heinrich. He tortured that man in life and now you are going to use that body as a bargaining chip,” Marcus summed up. “Nadia, let me give you a little warning before you wander down the path you are headed, I’ve attempted to contact Heinrich several times. He is, as you’ve seen, methodical, driven and the most amazingly hard worker I’ve ever witnessed, so why wouldn’t I want him with me.”
“I didn’t realize you hate the Jews,” Sid responded.
“Shut up, Sid. I responded to his drive not his politics. So I sent people to talk to him. I sent people to negotiate.”
“Did you send a treaty for him to sign and then stomp his big boots all over Europe anyway?” Sid snarked.
“Shut up, Sid.” Marcus continued. “I sent people to destroy him. Would you like to know what happened?”
“Can we stop you from telling us?” Sid threw in.
Marcus closed his eyes for a moment in response to Sid’s incessant interruptions and then addressed Nadia. “They never came back. Any of them. So I have to ask you, in response to your choice to bring that body up here, what do you hope to accomplish by having something Heinrich wants?”
“I want another view of Hell.” Nadia stood to respond, calmly. “You cannot be our only guide. I need another opinion.”
Fox reeled at the facts that lay before him. He could digest them if he had time, but Max just kept talking—kept getting in the way of Fox’s thinking.
“He’s evil. No one moves on because of Marcus. No one leaves Hell because of him. Look what he does in the Pit,” Max ranted. “Someone should be down there telling The Dead where the exit is and why they are here. Instead he chooses a few and leaves the rest to destruction.”
Putting up his hand to stop the constant stream of words, Fox rose from his spot on the ground and walked a few paces away. If he were on Earth, he’d throw up. Instead, he bent over and groaned.
“Look, we don’t have much time,” Max insisted. “You need to know this. He likes you and he wants everyone in a uniform he can get. Anyone with combat experience is coveted right now.”
Fox finally stood up straight and faced Max. “That’s true of your people too. That’s one you can’t lay on Marcus.”
“Yes, of course,” Max answered. “But he’s evil and we’re not. We are facing a massive war. We are fighting for the soul of everyone in Hell. You know what side you want to be on.”
It was true, Fox believed in evil. Evil was real and had to be stopped. That was why he had joined the Marines. That was what all his work and sacrifice in boot camp had been for. He followed his grandfather, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner from WWII, into the military to live up to the family legacy. And the few facts he’d observed on his own, Marcus knowing the way out and not telling anyone for example, bore Max out. Still it was overwhelming.
“Look, at some point, he may let Lauren talk. This moves a lot of people. I haven’t heard what Marcus calls her truth. Then you will have a choice—a false one. He won’t mention Virgil or the war or good or evil or anything like that. It’s just ‘come work with me’ or ‘go on your way.’”
“Except we don’t go on our way if we don’t choose him?” Fox asked.
“Of course not. You choose wrong, he destroys you,” Max answered. “If you choose us, if you choose Virgil, then you will be welcomed. And in that way, we are nothing like Marcus. He will still destroy anyone who is inconvenient or useless. Virgil takes anyone who comes to him.”
But Fox was hung up on something Max said earlier. “Lauren’s truth? So she won’t lie? She’s not like him?”
“It’s not important. If you stay together, because this group is so large, some of you are bound to survive.” Max spoke very quickly now, trying to get it all out before they were interrupted. “Protect everyone you can. Fight if you have to. But avoid it if possible because Marcus doesn’t start fair fights. He’d rather run than face an even playing field. So if you can, you are better off grabbing everyone and running.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Fox promised. “I want to meet Virgil. I’m not sold on this war. I can’t have just your word to rely on.”
Max nodded. “I understand.”
It occurred to Fox that he’d spent no time with Lauren. She was always off with her Australians or talking with Marcus. Surprisingly for a recruiter, she kept to herself.
“What about Lauren is so persuasive?” Fox wondered aloud.
“People get really stunned by the fact that when she died, she didn’t go to Hell. She died and went to the Gate.” Max offered this as a thing of little importance but it was huge to Fox. He assumed it would be to others as well.
The Gate was the other place reserved for those who died and did not violate the one law in life. It was the closest thing the afterlife had to Heaven.
“I’m not risking my people again, Nadia,” Marcus yelled as he walked into the center of Alex’s Tribe. “Not for this fool’s errand.”
“There are so many of us,” Nadia followed and argued. “What could he do?”
“Your people are injured. He can accomplish a great deal if he is intact and you are incapacitated,” Marcus responded. “I never sent only one person to talk to him—always groups of two or three. None of them came back.”
“We only have your word for that.” Sid shrugged as he said it.
Marcus gave him a long critical look. “You aren’t exactly his kind of person. If you know what I mean.”
“Am I still brown?” Sid retorted. “Aren’t any mirrors down here, mate. I hadn’t realized.”
“He’s a person, Marcus,” Nadia explained. “Maybe a brutal one, maybe a racist one, but he is still a person.”
Fox and Max entered the center of the group from an unknown area down the road.
“Who are we talking about?” Fox asked.
“The Nazi,” Sid answered. “Nadia wants to seek him out.” His voice betrayed none of his reluctance because he wouldn’t show that to Marcus.
Unseen by the three principal aggressors of the argument, a small signal passed from Max to Fox. Max tugged his ear and left the area to go sit with Lauren. Fox answered with the smallest of nods.
“He died in uniform, so he’s been here 60 years.” Fox explained, though he looked like he might be sick. “Are we all going on this little mission?”
Nadia nodded. “We need numbers.”
Fox still looked tense but resigned to the new destination. “We need to pair the injured up with someone who can carry them or help them walk.”
Nadia pointed to Fox as he rallied the other soldiers into organizing the group for travel. “We have our protectors. They are willing to come. Now will you—”
“I’m not going with you.” Marcus cut her off. “None of my people are going with you.” He turned to Max. “Max, help Lauren up. We’re leaving.”
“You don’t have to leave in a huff,” Nadia pleaded. “You said you’ve tried to talk to him. Try with us. Come with us and offer him whatever you want.”
Marcus looked past Nadia at Sid’s face. “And the two of you will be ok with me doing that?”
Nadia gave Sid a reproachful look. In response, Sid just shook his head. Turning back to Marcus, she responded, “You’re business is none of mine.”
“I want your business to be mine. That’s the problem. But you are off on this….” Marcus trailed off. “At the end of the day, you still don’t trust me, do you?” His eyes went to Nadia first then Sid. “My people were hurt helping yours. I’ve risked myself trying to convince 150 or your friends to follow one simple instruction: ‘Walk up the 12 o’clock stairs.’ And still, I’m the weirdo with the funny eyes.”
For a moment, it was clear Nadia wanted to protest, but Sid walked into her peripheral vision. His defiant expression left her mute. Of course Sid still didn’t trust Marcus.
“It’s not just the eyes,” Sid responded.
Marcus gave the slow nod of ‘I can’t do anything about this’ and told them, “Fine. Heinrich lives down the worn path that way.” Marcus indicated the direction “When not grabbing bodies in the Pit, he is near a waterfall and a small campfire. The Waterfall is beautiful but I haven’t seen it in years, thanks to him.” Speaking to the rest of his quartet, he said, “We are leaving.”
A short argument erupted in Spanish from nearer the narrow passageway. Jesusita wanted Regan to stay with the group. Regan ended the argument in English with, “No, I don’t want to talk to that man.”
Max helped the one-legged Lauren walk over to Marcus.
“Good luck,” Marcus offered Sid and Nadia.
“You’re not going to call in the favor I owe you?” Nadia asked.
“Not now,” Marcus spat back. “I will do it when it suits me.” With that, he and his three team members walked off, leaving Alex’s Tribe alone in a new world they didn’t understand.