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.
THE DAY WAS UPON THEM, sooner than a resolution to their multiple conflicts would be. By the time Nadia stood inside the narrow passageway, waiting for the end of the cycle, Allison and Christoph had reluctantly agreed to join the tribe on their expedition back into the Pit, though neither promised to search for bodies. Christoph claimed he didn’t have anyone to look for because all the bodies in the Pit were strangers. Allison refused to talk about it at all, despite Sid’s continued efforts. Instead they would help the uniforms protect the group despite Fox’s suggestion that there was no reason to assume they would be any good at it.
Heinrich stood directly behind Nadia. He chose her position, a foot inside the narrow passageway, and told her not to move farther forward. Here she couldn’t see anything but a faint glow from the Pit. Nor could she hear the undoubtedly screaming violent people currently overwhelming the place. She suspected that if she moved forward even an inch she would hear them. Before blast day finally arrived, Nadia wondered how Henrich waited near the Pit every week without finding the tense overflow upsetting. Wouldn’t the sight and sound of so much suffering disrupt his focus? It wouldn’t if he deliberately positioned himself to avoid hearing or seeing anyone.
Just as Nadia wondered how she would know the Pit had recycled itself, she felt something strike the Pit floor, vibrating the walls and nearly knocking her off her feet. Farther back in the passageway, Yi Soo let out a little scream, startled by the blast that just hit the Pit. Nadia could see the mushroom cloud rise from the Pit floor, announcing the end of one cycle. Once it began to fall, Nadia stepped forward only to have her motion stopped by Heinrich’s hand on her arm. She was ready to go but she’d forgotten something. The long forgotten whoosh noise announced the fall of the first body. Nadia relaxed back, waiting for the rest to fall.
The plan was simple: get in, spread out, find bodies, pick up bodies and leave. They even intended to scatter themselves along the river because this would allow them to send off bodies simultaneously. As the body falling slowed, Nadia danced a little on the balls of her feet. The tribe organized themselves into smaller groups based on guesses as to who might have bodies in the Pit. Those who’d seen a body they recognized were given high priority as their best chance was to find that body again. Others, the soldiers especially, would have to search for bodies based on ethnicity. Do Jin, for example, knew he was looking for a North Korean. He could describe the uniform for those helping him, giving him extra eyes looking around the Pit. And Woo Bin had actually seen the man in Do Jin’s memory, so he further described the man’s wavy hair and small moles lining his neck. Nadia had no clue when the body falling would end. But Heinrich must have known from experience because once the body of a man in a suit had whooshed by Nadia, he pressed his hand to her back and said, “Go.”
As they thundered into the Pit with Nadia in the lead, the tribe did an excellent job of focusing on their plan. Subgroup A, the Asian group, led by Do Jin, ran for the 11 o’clock area and fanned out. Subgroup B, the soldiers who’d recognized a body, led by Fox, ran for the 9 o’clock area. Subgroup C, more soldiers, led by Abdul, ran for the 1 o’clock area. It was Subgroup D, mostly criminals, led by Nadia, who ran for 4 o’clock. Running from the 12 o’clock stairs to 4 o’clock, Nadia remained focused on the ground. Mostly she was trying not to trip over the bodies. That old noise she’d heard when she watched Heinrich run down the stairs her first day, a small thunder, magnified behind her and echoed off the walls of the Pit. Once she reached the 4 o’clock fire, that sound was gone, replaced by shouted instructions from the leaders to their followers. As she bent over the body of an old woman in mid-scream, she heard two things at the same time. First, she heard Sun, a member of her sub-group, gasp. At that moment she also heard a distant click, clack. More concerned with people than with clicks and clacks, Nadia looked over at Sun first. Sun stared up at something in the direction of the stairs. As the often-used phrase goes, the former mental patient looked like she’d seen a ghost. Nadia followed her vision to the 4 o’clock stairs. The clicks and clacks continued. Nadia could see why. On those stairs was a pair of jeans clad legs descending.
Nadia searched the Pit for Heinrich. In preparation, he’d told them they didn’t need to worry about The Newly Dead rushing down into the Pit. In the last few decades of entering the Pit routinely, it had never happened. But as Heinrich rushed over to Nadia, jumping over the bodies deftly, he didn’t look surprised. In fact, he looked angry. It was as though a truce had been broken. Nadia returned her gaze to the figure entering the Pit. The jeans were topped off by a green t-shirt. The body of the person, who was probably male, looked slight—nonthreatening. Nadia didn’t need to see his face to greet him by name. No matter, his face came into view just then anyway.
“Marcus,” she groaned.
“Well, well. Aren’t you all so organized?” Marcus observed from the bottom of the 4 o’clock stairs. Behind him, several other people were walking down the 4 o’clock stairs. Clearly he’d brought the rest of his recruiting team “And all of you willing to follow….” He spoke loud enough for the group to hear, but it didn’t matter, everyone gathered behind Nadia. “…Heinrich.”
Finally Marcus addressed Nadia directly. “What are you thinking following this,” he indicated Heinrich, “mother fucker.” Then he giggled to himself as though calling Heinrich a mother fucker was especially funny.
Behind him, Lauren, Regan and Max entered the Pit. “It’s Hell, Marcus,” Nadia offered in her most professional adversarial voice, “seems the best place to follow a Nazi, if ever there was one.”
“And you don’t look happy to see me?” Marcus asked with mock hurt.
“Not happy—not worried, either,” Nadia answered. “After all, there are more of us than there are of you.”
Marcus smiled and added, “We’ll see about that.” Then he spoke louder to the whole group. “Do we all know why we are here? Did you put your Dead heads together and figure it out?”
“We all took the life of another person,” Sun retorted, unfazed.
“Good.” Marcus clasped his hands together, “and all by yourselves.”
“You never would have told us, would you have?” Nadia realized.
“Information is all that I have, Nadia,” Marcus explained. Heinrich snorted behind her, implying he knew Marcus was lying. “And despite what some people might tell you, I do give it out for free. You see, I know things and I can exchange that for goods and services. But I am not a monster. I don’t hold back information that might harm you in the moment. And I often lead people to a place where they can discover things on their own, like I did for Allison and Christoph.”
“And where were you leading Alex?” Nadia interrupted.
“I wanted Alex. I miss Alex. But in a way, I am not sorry he’s gone,” Marcus responded. “You didn’t understand the danger you were in until that happened. It lit a fire under you and Sid. You wouldn’t have accomplished this much, you never would have come this far without that event.”
This convinced Nadia of absolutely nothing. It must have showed.
“Fine. Why don’t I give you a few more free nuggets of info—things that can inform your afterlife and hopefully lead you to better choices,” Marcus offered to the whole group.
“No,” Heinrich answered. “Don’t let him talk.”
“Heinrich,” Marcus seethed, “you made your choice. You listened to me and chose not to work with me. You don’t get to make that choice for anyone else.”
“I don’t trust you enough to listen to you,” Nadia summed up.
“But you owe me,” Marcus reminded her. “Me and mine got your people out of this Pit less than a week ago as a favor to you and Sid. Now I am calling in that debt.”
Sun whispered to Nadia, “We should let him talk.” Based on the murmurs behind her, Nadia suspected the group was leaning toward Sun’s opinion. She nodded to Marcus, prompting him to continue.
“Thank you,” Marcus began. “First of all, you don’t understand how fucked up this universe is. Yes, you are all here for killing someone. That is true. And it doesn’t matter how little malice you held in your heart or how accidental your murder was—all killers come here. But what you don’t understand is that only killers come here. This is the only law in the universe that counts. Think about that for a moment—let it sink in. Here in Hell we call it the one law. We might as well call it the only law. And it means that all the other things done to you over the course of your life, all the actions someone else took that negatively affected you, have been treated as though they were nothing.
“Were you ever robbed? That feeling is awful, isn’t it? If you house is robbed while you are away, it always makes you want to clean every surface, scrub everything that stranger touched that belonged to you. Have you ever been cheated on, lied to, disrespected, disregarded? All that is nothing in the eyes of whoever made our universe. Your pain means nothing in the grand scheme of things. And isn’t that just a slap in the face?
“Even on earth those crimes are often considered minor. They ache hearts but don’t break bones. They don’t disrupt the normal functions of life. There are bigger crimes,” Marcus stopped to smile at Lauren and then returned to his speech, “but we’ll get to those in a minute.
“One of the things Heinrich cannot describe for you is the other place. They call it the Gate. No one here calls it Heaven after they understand this place. The idea of that place as Heaven is sacrilegious and soul sucking if you know what’s going on up there. Because anyone who doesn’t come here goes there. I’ve never been there. The full implications of the one law didn’t sink in for me until I met Lauren. That place…” he shook his head, “no, I should let her tell you. She’s seen it. I haven’t.”
Much to Nadia’s surprise, Marcus stepped back and Lauren, who’d spoken only a handful of sentences in front of Nadia, stepped forward to speak.
“When I died, I went to the Gate.” Lauren began. “The people I ran into up there were not who I’d expected—they were who I’d feared would be there: my father and my grandfather.
“Growing up in my house with those two men, I felt like a billiard ball, tossed around a table, constantly being played with or against something. My father found fault with me every day, and when he did, I had to be punished. Weird thing was, when I did nothing, I also had to be punished. And when he had a bad day, I had to be punished. I’ve been thrown against walls, dragged by my wrist from one room to another till the bone gave, choked, denied food, smacked and kicked. It was the same for my brothers. But when my father was especially tired of me, he heaped on a punishment my brothers didn’t have to suffer. He left me alone with my grandfather.
“I can’t explain to you how much I wish I were not a girl—how much I wish I’d never sprouted even the tiniest of breasts—how I wish I had a probe instead of a hole to explore. My grandfather was big on exploring. And if I objected, I was offered the one solace in the nightmare, a glass of juice that burned when I drank it and magically made me pass out, leaving my grandfather to do things to me that hopefully I wouldn’t be able to remember.
“When I died, I went to the Gate, and that was who was waiting for me: my vindictive father and my rapist grandfather. This one law thing, it means the child beaters, the wife beaters, the child molesters and the rapists are all given a free pass. The damage they do is somehow nothing.
“The truth is I belong down here. A year before I died, I drove my boyfriend home from a party, drunk out of my mind. I hit a woman walking along the side of the road. When we got out to check her, we thought she was dead. And Joe said to me, ‘Let’s bury her. She looks homeless; no one will know.’ And we did. A week later, a dog found the body. The news said her autopsy proved the cause of death was being buried alive. She was still alive when we put her in the ground.
“It was my fault. I was driving. I was drunk. But because Joe suggested burying her and that was what actually ended her life, I went to the Gate when I died. That’s how unfair the execution of the one law is. It’s all details.
“I would rather be here with all of you because I belong here. I killed someone too. And I understand murder. It isn’t always a cold, calculated thing. Many of us killed someone by accident. Even Heinrich, I want to hate him with that thing on his arm, but it’s not easy to. How much of it was chance? How much of it was situation? If he had been born near Birmingham like me, would he still be here?
“You can end another person’s life by accident. But no one accidentally molests a child. There is no accidental rape. I would rather be here with these real people like me instead of being up there with the real monsters.
“As soon as I realized there was another section of the afterlife, I found out how to get down here. I got lucky someone had just done it, so there were rumors swirling. You ride the Waterfall down; that’s how you get down here. That’s how I came to be where I am.” Lauren’s speech settled on the tribe, sapping anybody-carrying energy they’d had moments earlier. What was redemption worth if it meant living with monsters worse than the ones in Hell? The new information was so off putting in fact, that Nadia didn’t notice as Lauren stepped back and Marcus resumed his position, addressing them all.
“I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I can’t help you without the truth. The rapists, child molesters, wife beaters and child beaters all roam around at the Gate unmonitored. If they murdered their victims, then of course they come here. And they pass before my eyes. If I recognize them for what they are, I deal with them very simply—some might even say passively. I leave them here, in the Pit, and let the blast destroy them. When I make a mistake, and I am human therefore I make mistakes, I have a more aggressive solution.”
Marcus raised his hand in Heinrich’s direction and offered a censored version of the history of Hell.
“Earth produced a solution I never would have dreamed up on my own. In 1935, a prison erupted from the ground here in Hell. The place was a reflection of something genocidal that the Germans dreamed up. Then the Germans began to lose the war and die. Prison guards were dropping from the sky. Some of them slipped past me. It was bound to happen. To this day, rapists and child molesters slip past me too. But all the sudden there were dozens of swastika-laden psychos roaming Hell unchecked. So I made a difficult moral compromise.
“Up to that point, I’d kept the unsavory monsters who beat and rape and molest in the City. But they kept getting out and running amok.” He paused for a labored (and staged) breath. “It was a mess. And then once the Nazis were also running around, Hell started to look and feel the way we all expected it to when we were on Earth. So I solved both problems with one decision: the monsters would be housed in the prison camp and the Nazis would be their guards. I told the Nazis who these people were and why they must be contained. Then I placed them between the monsters and everyone else in Hell. And as much as I disagree with the Nazis on almost every subject, I have to admit, they make amazing guards. There hasn’t been a breakout since they took over.
“That’s why I wanted Heinrich. He trained most of the men and women currently guarding the Camp. They spoke highly of him. But instead of using his questionable skills for a noble purpose, he chose a much crazier, more fanatical and entirely selfish route. The path he is on serves none of you. The cult leaders he will introduce you to will only accept you if you become like him. Self-hating, emotionally gutted and unquestioning. Dragging around bodies is dangerous, damaging and a waste of time. I’ve never seen anyone leave Hell. There is no mercy to be had here kids. And even if there was…wait, Lauren, you forgot to mention your grandmother.”
Lauren stepped forward, shrugging.
“Not much to tell, really.” She announced to the crowd. “My mum’s mum was lovely and kind. She died when I was six. When I got to the Gate, she wasn’t there. I never got out of my dad or the grandmonster what happened. She just wasn’t there.”
The first verbal disturbances (gasps and whispers) rumbled through the tribe. Again, Lauren stepped back and let Marcus have the floor.
“So even if you could leave,” Marcus concluded, “there is no guarantee your loved ones will wait for you at the Gate. But, I’ve made an existence for myself and others here in Hell. There is work, there are goods to be traded, there is art and music and even sex and love. All of it feeds us here. And yes there is violence. And people may cheat you or lie to you. Because human nature is what it is and I am not a god. I cannot remake human beings. I accept people as they are and try to find a place for them in our world.”
Finally, Nadia saw where he was going, why he’d met them here, but it was too late to stop it.
“I always need people. And you have proved yourselves to be amazingly capable. You could do well on my team. You could make contributions that will bring meaning to your existence. And it won’t be all work, I promise. If you do well, you will be rewarded. If you join my team you will find others I’ve recruited who can be your friends, confidants and lovers.
“Heinrich would have worked with me eventually,” Marcus continued, “I genuinely believe that. But he chose fanaticism over order. I don’t want it for him. But that’s not my choice. I don’t want it for you either. Please don’t make the wrong choice. Please come with us. I promise we will make it worth it.”
With that Marcus stepped back, waiting for the reaction.
The essence of a successful counter argument is preparation and research. On Earth, Nadia was a master at preparation and research. Her colleges laughed at her whenever they found her looking up a case law for an offence she should already have memorized. She countered this teasing with her argument that she wanted the exact wording as compared to the current case. She often chided her assistant if the younger woman brought her last year’s study on the root of juvenile delinquency because she needed this year’s. Only the best and most current research would provide the best and most convincing argument.
For the first time, Nadia saw how truly fucked she’d been in Hell. Marcus controlled the conversation and flow of information from day one. And Nadia was left to flounder behind him. He introduced them to the violence of the Pit. He showed them the exit. He let them get hurt without telling them how to heal themselves. And then he let them run off to Heinrich. Even though she believed Heinrich offered his version of the truth, it wasn’t lost on Nadia how little Heinrich had interacted with the rest of Hell. Real information might have been gleaned from Deborah or Virgil, but Nadia had been busy looking the other way. If she had exited the Pit with the concentration camp body and looked at that road, would she have wanted to go down it? Deborah was further down that road. Instead she exited the Pit and Marcus staged a fight with her about CC, leading her to think about Heinrich. Then he gave her the correct information (for once) of where Heinrich could be found. They were broken, terrified and lost. Marcus told them nothing about a kind victim of the Holocaust who would have spoken to them no matter who they were. Instead he counted on Nadia’s adversarial nature to let her think she wanted to reach Heinrich on her own. Deborah spoke better English than Heinrich. Deborah had a broader view of Hell. Instead Nadia went running, dragging the tribe behind her, toward a man with broken English who rarely left the Waterfall: a former fanatic with a fanatical symbol displayed on his arm who now only did one thing, methodically and unquestioningly. And now she’d led them once again, exactly to where Marcus wanted them. How can she be prepared in a situation when this man was one step ahead of her the whole way? After a lifetime of arguing her way through the information she knew, it was time to make it up on her feet as she spoke.
With Marcus’ final play finally revealed, Nadia scrambled for a counter argument. She stepped forward and turned to address the tribe.
“I think I’ve failed you. Maybe Alex would have done a better job in seeing Marcus for who he is. And maybe that is why I think Alex is no longer with us. He was a danger to Marcus, to his ideas, and to his plans for us. So Marcus took care of the problem.”
In reaction, Marcus sighed and shook his head.
“Alex brought this group together to look for answers, and we’ve found them. We have no obligation to one another beyond this moment. But what was the point of looking for answers? Why were we asking why we are here? I think we came together from the beginning looking for redemption. We all define it a little differently. Alex, Jesusita, Sid and all the other faithful might tell us that God shows mercy if we repent. That’s not what I think. I’m not against the idea of merciful gods. I just think redemption implies that a thing is over and nothing is ever really over.
“When I was 13 and my friend killed herself, I went to the funeral and apologized to her parents. I didn’t mean to; I didn’t know what else to say and they looked so drained and destroyed. It tumbled out of my mouth. That was how I faced my crime as a child. While I was at university, my brother died, and I began to realize I would never talk to him again. I would see something that reminded me of him, something that might have made him laugh, and I wanted to tell him. But he wasn’t around to call anymore. And he never would be again. At that age, I started to understand death. And I had to reexamine what happened and what it meant that Peggy would never come home from school and sit at the kitchen table to tell her mother about her day. I had to face my crime again. Even though I thought I’d put it away and I thought it was done, it came back. A few years ago, my partner and I decided, once and for all, that we didn’t want children. It was a decision that hovered behind us for years, but we didn’t really want it, and being gay meant we weren’t going to reproduce accidentally; we had to seek it out. In the end we decided we didn’t want it enough. It wasn’t upsetting, unless you are my mother. It wasn’t a big row, but it was done. And then I thought about Peggy, as I often do, and the fact that she didn’t get that choice. She would never reach an age of weighing pros and cons with someone she loved in the kitchen of trying to imagine her life this way or that, the calm struggle of adulthood. So even then my crime had not left me.
“Now, I’m Dead. This is a new phase of existence. Heinrich tells me my redemption is found in finding Peggy’s body and carrying it to the river. I believe Heinrich. I believe Heinrich believes what he tells me. And I will do as he has bid. Even then, I will remember her. I will think of her. Carrying Peggy’s body to the river is not how I magic myself from an unpleasant place to the perfect one. It is merely how I face what I have done at this stage. It doesn’t need to be anything more than that.
“I want you to understand that I don’t trust Marcus. I feel he has manipulated us from the beginning. Everything he says must be treated as suspect. In fact,” Nadia paused, unconsciously turning her head in Lauren’s direction and then back to the tribe, “everything any of us tells you is heavily warped by our own perspectives. It must be viewed through that lens. “It turns out there is no great cosmic justice who sees my work and agrees I’ve balanced out my crimes. So what? That fact won’t stop my guilt. I still have to face it. I still want to be forgiven.” The last word broke Nadia. She took a moment to steady herself before continuing with a voice choked by real emotion and imaginary tears. “I have to do this. If you don’t…I honestly don’t know what to say.”
Something occurred to her; she spun on her heel and addressed Marcus. “I’ve never asked you. And that wasn’t something you offered willingly was it?”
“What?” Marcus asked.
“Who did you kill?” Nadia offered the question as calmly as she could. She didn’t realize until that moment how badly she wanted this piece of information and how much it might illuminate the portrait of Marcus she was building in her thoughts.
With a shrug, Marcus offered the truth. “A friend.” Nadia waited for more. Marcus offered her nothing.
Finally she pressed him. “Are you sorry?”
The sigh was clearly staged; the eye roll was not. “He would’ve done the same to me if the situation had been reversed.”
“And that justifies it?” Nadia demanded.
“No, that’s what makes it done—over—not worth discussing,” Marcus answered.
As Marcus explained the Camp and the Nazis and all that bullshit, he’d set up their choice as one of order vs. chaos. Nadia found her counter agreement in his non-answer. She offered it to the group with as much manipulation as she suspected her enemy of.
“There you have it ladies and gentleman: what separates us. I am sorry for what I’ve done,” Nadia concluded. Behind her, Lauren let out an angry hiss. “And these people are not. I accept that I am here because of my actions on Earth. I am willing to commit my afterlife to contrition. If you know who you killed and you are sorry for what you’ve done, you need to come with me. Because this man will never help you seek forgiveness.”
With that, Nadia stepped aside and let the group make its choice.
Sun was the first to walk across the Pit and stand behind Marcus. Reggie watched her, dumbfounded. Once he realized what it meant, he stepped forward, trying to get her attention. In response, she crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head.
Yi Soo’s defection caused the loudest reaction. Do Jin tried following her the short distance between the two groups, pulling on her arm. Shaking him off, she joined Sun and Lauren, looking defiant. Woo Bin walked into the gap between the tribe and Marcus’ team, fell to his knees and gave a traditional deep bow. Rising from it, he cried without tears, repeating a word in Korean. Then he went back into his bow. Again he rose, crying and repeating the word. This time Do Jin began shouting across the Pit in Korean while Woo Bin performed more bows, all to no avail; Yi Soo remained where she chose to be.
Then a painfully large group walked over to Marcus’ team together. Many of them were holding hands. They seemed to have decided to support each other’s choice with numbers. Nadia counted 40 in all, 22 women, 18 men. The men in particular wore masks of non-expression that implied their decision was not to be questioned or discussed.
But after all this, it was Allison and Christoph’s defection that hurt Nadia the most. Sid, of course, tried to intervene. Allison was not to be dissuaded. Christoph kissed Allison on the head as soon as they were safe with their new group. Marcus smiled and welcomed them. Nadia wondered if he’d wanted them all along.
After the two groups were newly deflated and expanded, Marcus told the remains of Alex’s Tribe that they were free to carry on trying to find their bodies but that he and his people would be leaving. Max was the last member of Marcus’ team to mount the 12 o’clock stairs. Once he disappeared, the place was silent.
Reeling from the 45-person defection she’d just witnessed, Nadia put her hand to her face and had a good cry. Sid put his arm around her, whispering things about getting people back. After a minute, someone touched her arm to make her look up.
Before her were those who’d stayed. Pati and her cousin Abdul were still with them. At that moment, Pati seemed agitated, pointing at the ground and hissing something in Arabic. Later, Sid would translate her rant. It detailed her plans to make it to the Gate so she could clean the place out. Do Jin and Woo Bin were beside themselves with grief. Woo Bin felt, rightly, that Yi Soo’s choice was his fault. Nadia suspected there was something cultural in their need to protect her, but she left it alone. The person who’d touched her arm to summon her from non-tears was Lt. Fox. Behind him were more than a dozen figures in similar shades of green and brown. All the uniforms had stayed.
“We kept all the soldiers,” Nadia whispered to Sid. “How did that happen?”
Fox overheard her. “I had a chat with my brothers and sisters. They saw things my way,” he explained.
“You aren’t telling me something,” Nadia prompted.
Coming closer, Fox whispered, “I can’t. You have to trust me on this.”
Too relieved to argue, Nadia nodded instead.
The remains of Alex’s Tribe resumed their search for bodies because what else was there to do? It should’ve occurred to them that the platforms were especially quiet, but they’d been wrapped up in their choice drama and failed to notice. The silence at 11 o’clock should’ve been downright shocking given that platform’s connection to most of China, the Korean Peninsula and Japan. On any normal day, it was the busiest stairs and fire. As Do Jin resumed searching for the North Korean he’d killed, it didn’t occur to him that no one had come down since the blast.
When someone finally did arrive, it was not by his own power. Yato fell down the stairs, tumbling off the platform, hitting the center of the stairs and then crashing into the floor of the Pit. His legs gave beneath him on impact. For a moment, he lay there with his head down, just a torso, hunched. The whole Pit stared as he placed one cracked hand onto the ground to pull himself up. He raised his head and let out a wail that echoed across the Pit.
Woo Bin went to the crying old Japanese man on the ground. Do Jin took the stairs two at a time. On the platform he’d fallen to a week earlier, he found out two new things about Hell. First, The Newly Dead do not hear those in the Pit unless they step to the edge of the platform. In turn, those in the Pit do not hear what is happening on the platform until they step up onto it. Once he rose to eye level with the platform floor, he saw the problem. Hundreds of people were piled up on top of one another, struggling. They’d all fallen so suddenly and all together that no one had a chance to get up and out of the way before another Dead person fell on top of them. The second thing Do Jin found was that by looking up at the sky as a person falls from Earth, a tiny patch of earth is visible through the rift. This tiny patch is a view of the place where that person died. As dozens of people fell all at once, Do Jin saw a single view of the Earth: water.
There was no handling this situation alone. Do Jin ran back down the stairs to summon help. Everyone, realizing something was happening, headed to meet him at the base.
“I think there’s been something…” Do Jin grappled for a theory, “…maybe another tsunami. People are dying too fast.”
“We can leave,” Heinrich offered. “The Pit does more…” he made the noise of the blast, “…when this happens.”
It took Nadia a beat to grasp his suggestion. “You’re saying we leave them and the blast will come clean them out?”
“In a day, I think,” Heinrich answered.
“No.” Nadia cut him off. “We’ll make a chain, start passing people down—”
“It is dangerous,” Heinrich interrupted.
“Heinrich, ask yourself, would Marcus help them?” she countered.
“No,” Heinrich responded with absolute certainty.
“Then this is what we must do.”
It took hours and was back-cracking work. Apparently the tsunami hit Japan just before the blast. Nadia discovered the victims’ country of origin by process of elimination. They formed a line going up the stairs. Heinrich stood on the platform removing Newly Dead from the top of the people pile and passing them down the line until they were safe at the bottom. Then waiting members of the group carried them up to the river to heal. When no one in the group could speak to the victims, they double-checked everyone’s country of origin, especially those who’d fallen to this platform a week earlier. The only country not represented was Japan.
Every part of the process was a struggle. At the top, the victims reacted badly to seeing Heinrich’s huge, swastika-laden form looming over them. Once they were passed down the stairs, they were handed off to people who looked normal, meaning not especially strong. With their mindsets still on Earth mode, they couldn’t imagine that tiny Pati could carry a beefy Japanese man very far. Then the river posed the final and largest struggle. Yato, specifically, fought like Hell the minute he saw all that water. After dying from a crushing world-ending ocean wave, it took time to convince them that this water would help, not hurt. As the rescue efforts continued, each problem improved slightly. First, those carrying the victims to the river made a point of showing them those already in the river, healed. Next, the healed exited the river and began to help carry their countrymen out of the Pit. Finally, the people on the bottom of the platform’s pile watched Heinrich pick up others and gently hand them over to someone else without hurting that person over and over again. They began to suspect he meant no harm. In fact, the last handful fought being handed off from him. As a result, Heinrich carried several of them down the stairs himself.
Meanwhile, Do Jin organized others to clean the platform. There was a mess of arms and legs everywhere that needed to be tossed off to clear the thing.
As Heinrich carried the last tsunami victim down the stairs, he found the man especially comfortable with him. The man’s name was Hiro, and due to his service for Japan sixty five years earlier, he had surprising language skills. Because their two nations were allied, Hiro’s commander had learned and then taught his men to speak German. Hiro looped his hand through Heinrich’s red armband to steady himself as the loss of his left leg and arm made him feel weighted wrong. At the base of the stairs, he saw the pile of limbs Do Jin created. Pointing, he asked if they could look for his arm. Attached might be his father’s antique watch, and he hated to lose it.
At that time, Pati reentered the Pit, having helped a young Japanese woman with red hair into the river. Naturally, she sought her group. Several people were still on the platform, helping Do Jin clean. Abdul continued his search for his body; clearly she should go help her cousin. But she saw something that put her off aiding Abdul. Heinrich and an old Japanese man were crouched on the Pit floor, sifting through a pile of limbs. Yards away, a man at the base of the 7 o’clock stairs stared at them. Pati wondered why. Did the man know Heinrich or the Japanese man? The 7 o’clock stairs connected to the European platform. The look on the European man’s face implied malice. With dread, Pati followed his gaze more closely and realized he wasn’t staring at Heinrich’s face. He was staring at the garish red armband with the swastika on it.
The European crossed the distance to Heinrich before Pati could cross the distance to the European. He grabbed Heinrich and pulled him to his feet. Pati shoved herself between the two men, separating them. As she tossed the European away, Heinrich backed up with his hands in the air. Pati pointed to this and then motioned for the European to shoo. The European disregarded this request without any consideration and moved around Pati to attack Heinrich again. Pati shoved him a second time. She shouted in Arabic for the man to ‘Fuck off.’ Again, Heinrich put his hands in the air. From the ground, Hiro began throwing arms and legs while shouting similar obscenities in Japanese. For a moment, the European looked chastised and Pati backed down. As she turned away, she saw the European’s face change and whirled back around. By then he’d almost made it to Heinrich. Pati jumped on his back, only to be tossed off the next second. Tired of dealing with the Nazi’s burqa-laden bodyguard, the European punched Pati in the face. And then Heinrich lost his shit. Grabbing the European, Heinrich threw him against the wall and began punching him repeatedly in the face. By the time Pati had pulled Heinrich off him, the man’s face was gone, a jagged edged lining where it ought to have been. Pati tried pulling Heinrich aside to calm down, but he would have none of it. He tossed her hands off him and ran for the 12 o’clock stairs.