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.
WITH A NEW TEAM, MARCUS always needed time to get to know them and to find what they do best. It had been years since he’d recruited 45 people at a time, but he had a plan for their integration ready. There was a sense of relief from the new recruits as they exited the Pit. The confrontation unnerved them all, and Lauren’s revelations were depressing. But the 45 new recruits were secure in their choice. Marcus reveled in being surrounded by their feeling of connection because even if he hadn’t been on earth in two millennium, it was still nice to work with people who wanted to work with him.
First he led them into the desert, a half mile from the road, to a fire. “I meant what I said about letting our old friends get on with their useless body carrying,” Marcus explained as they walked. “We are going to give them room at the entrance to the Pit to do what they feel they must.”
“We really can’t stop them?” Sun asked as everyone sat down in yet another big circle.
“Why?” Marcus shrugged. “I’ve told them better and they don’t believe me. It’s best to just leave them to it.” Switching gears, he couldn’t help but laugh. “This is usually where I give new people a speech about how big Hell is, but you are not the usual group.” The group smiled and laughed in response. “You’ve seen so much more. So, let’s jump to the advanced version.” Marcus pulled Julian’s pocket watch out of his pocket.
The gold timepiece was new when Julian died and it still looked new hundreds of years later. “A friend gave this to me.” Marcus opened the watch. “This is my metaphor for how I believe the world was made.” He took the face off the watch. “In here you see all these gears working together without a human hand pushing them. I believe that is how the world came to be. The creator made Earth, Hell and the Gate. And now they function without his intervention.” Marcus passed the watch to Lauren, who sat on his left, motioning for her to continue passing it on. “We are stuck with an ancient barbaric world—one more ancient and barbaric than I am.” Lauren snorted a laugh at her boss’s little joke. “So we struggle on without assistance, just human beings trying to keep the gears from breaking down and destroying what little we have. This is the work I’ve invited you into. I keep the place moving, functioning.
“When I died, Hell was overrun. You couldn’t move two feet in this desert without hitting a tent. No one was moving on. The body-dragging cult was around then too, but no one listened to them and there was constant fighting over territory due to the lack of room. Now we have the opposite problem. I blame the purging mechanism in the Pit. It makes it hard to get in and get people out because it arrives so fast. But I do my best, I take who I can and help populate the rest of Hell.
“But enough about me and about Hell. You will see it all soon enough,” Marcus surmised. “I want to know what brought each of you to me.”
It was an old trick and an easy one to pull off. If he could get this group talking, it offered him three advantages: Firstly, if they were talking about themselves and that was never difficult to get people to do, then he wasn’t talking. Their speeches would distract them from how little he’d explained about Hell, allowing him to preserve information for more advantageous situations later. Also, any questions about the Camp needed to be avoided. Nothing he’d said about the Camp was true. Even Lauren only knew half of it. Secondly, they needed to come down from the confrontation in the Pit. Talking through this was the easiest and quickest path. Marcus realized years earlier that these kinds of recruits needed time to speak. They would, undoubtedly, have something in their lives that caused them to cross the Pit. Allowing them to sit down and express that cost Marcus time in the short term but was well worth it. It allowed these 45 people to bond with one another and to feel they were part of something bigger. This team could prove to be stronger than any group of soldiers Marcus recruited. They meant a great deal to one another because of their shared trauma. Their choice to join Marcus’ team also meant a great deal for the same reason. Back in the 1990s, Julian pointed out to Marcus that this kind of recruit belong often looked to Lauren for leadership more often than they looked to Marcus.’ It bothered Marcus for a moment, and then he put it away. These were the strongest and the most loyal of his people. They were worth getting, even if it meant setting his ego aside to get them. And anyway, it’s not as though Lauren would be leaving. Marcus controlled what she saw and knew about his work. This maintained her faith in him and her loyalty. Lastly, Marcus’ next phase of the ‘thinning the herd’ plan wasn’t ready. He needed to stall for time.
Upon his request to express why they’d crossed the Pit, Allison spoke first. “I can’t see myself in that group with that man,” she explained. Marcus clarified that she meant Heinrich. “He imprisoned my mother. Even if it was a past life, I can’t stand next to him. I just can’t stand it.” Naturally, this was only part of the truth.
Christoph admitted that his reasons included everything Allison said. But also, “I don’t want to be around rapists. It is prevalent on college campuses and often handled terribly by the universities.” He shot the smallest glance at Yi Soo.
“In New York, they offered little to no counseling for the victims. I watched young women leave school, losing a vital opportunity to better themselves through education because of something that was done to them—something that should be condemned and never tolerated. I feel like going to the Gate would be walking back into that deliberately. And I won’t do it.”
In a subtle way, Christoph’s speech was meant to prompt Yi Soo to open up. Because she had explained the incident itself earlier, this time she discussed the aftermath. She admitted to leaving NYU two weeks after the incident, abandoning her scholarship. “I couldn’t sleep, even after I returned to Korea. And my bed was my enemy for a very long time. It is so odd; that man went nowhere near my bed. But I would lay down at night, alone in the dark, and I just couldn’t stand to let myself fall asleep. I can’t exist in a society without a prison.” There were murmurs of agreement all around. “It’s the most horrible idea I’ve ever heard.”
At that point there was a lull, and Regan did something right, for once, filling it with her own story. As a child she was abused, routinely, by her uncle. “I know all men are not like him. I know that in my mind, but in my heart, it doesn’t feel true. And I feel like we have to look out for each other—to weed these people out. Like, Lauren telling us about the Gate is her looking out for us.”
As each person spoke, the speaker became more confident. Marcus’ suspicions were correct; most of the stories resembled Regan’s and Yi Soo’s. After each person spoke, Marcus watched how their body language changed. Some held hands with their neighbors as they spoke. Others finished their stories and let out huge sighs. The men spoke last and required the most prompting. While they too had had experiences with sexual violence, they had spoken of it even less in life than the women. Marcus would never understand how the supposed progression of the world had left so many reluctant to speak about a thing that needed to be discussed.
Finally, Sun offered her version of events. “It was a facility, that’s what we called it, not an institution. But I was institutionalized; the word you use doesn’t matter. And I was at the mercy of whomever the institution hired.” Over the years, she’d been raped three times by two different staff members. “It was part of the life; it happened to most of the women I know in every institution I was in.” She paused, clearly growing angry. “But even that is only part of it. What I really resent is Nadia claiming she’s sorry and we’re not.” The murmurs of assent became louder. “I was a kid. I was nuts. Not cute euphemism nuts—not mood disorder has trouble every few weeks or so nuts—but genuine disruption to my brain development nuts. You know why I killed that kid? He had a toy I wanted. I didn’t actually want him dead. I didn’t understand dead. And it wasn’t a mistake I made; it was a disease I had no release from until I died. This idea that they are sorry and we are not is a load of bullshit. I’m here because I’m not atoning for something that is not my fault.”
The conclusion of Sun’s speech was met with cheers all around.
All new recruits would be tested at some point. Marcus intended this group for the City since few modern, non-violent people started out in any of the other areas. But two among their number already had a desire Marcus could help fulfill. And he had a task they could do for him in exchange.
“I want you to know,” Marcus offered to Allison and Christoph once he’d pulled them away from the group, “that I’ve wanted the two of you from the beginning.”
Christoph gave Allison a self-satisfied little smile because of course he’d wanted them.
“I think it will be nice to have a historian around,” Marcus added.
In response, Christoph laughed. “Why?”
“Ok, this is strange, but I’m losing my Latin,” Marcus explained. “There are all these words I used every day and now they are just gone. I didn’t notice them leave, so I couldn’t stop it. For example, I’ve spent the last few months trying to remember the word for the dress my mother wore every day and I still can’t.”
“Was it a tunica?” Christoph offered.
“No, that was the first layer. The last was a palla. I can’t remember the name of the one in the middle.”
“A stola?” Christoph asked in his best professor voice.
“That’s it! You see,” Marcus gave him a pat on the chest, “this is why I’m so glad you’re here.”
Allison beamed and wrapped her arm around Christoph’s waist.
“Now, my reason for pulling you aside is that I have a special task for you. There is something that lost lovers in Hell often want and think they cannot have.” Marcus’ favorite part was next, the hook: “The ability to truly express physical affection.”
While Christoph’s expression read as doubtful, Allison listened with rapt attention. The phrase, ‘physical affection’ had caused her to let out a little gasp.
“You can call it sex,” Marcus continued, “or love making or rubbing of bodies, whatever you want. But it is the right of any two humans who have ever loved and, this might surprise you, it remains your right even here.”
“How do we…” began Allison.
Marcus’ stern teacher face stopped her. “In this team we earn things. There is something small you can do for me that will earn you the information and,” he gave them a knowing smirk, “the opportunity to use it.”
“This is too good to be true,” Christoph responded with narrowed eyes.
“It’s not, I assure you,” Marcus countered. “The thing I ask you to do is unpleasant. You will not enjoy it. It may even disturb you slightly. Therefore, I will explain a little more about existence and destruction in Hell to soften the task.
“Here in Hell, we see bodies destroyed, and the knee jerk reaction is that the soul, without a body, must disappear. This is not the case. We did not disappear when we died on Earth; we do not disappear when we are destroyed in Hell. Anyone who’s been destroyed can be brought back. But just as we don’t appreciate our lives on Earth, sometimes choosing instead to bemoan what we don’t have, sometimes in Hell, people don’t appreciate their existence and the people around them. Sometimes to punish a team member, I send them away for a while. When I feel their time is equal to their lack of appreciation, I bring them back. I find this process helps my team work at their maximum capacity.”
“That sounds reasonable to me,” Allison offered.
“I don’t like this,” Christoph mumbled.
“What’s wrong?” Allison demanded. She leaned in to whisper, “Think about what he’s offering us.”
“And the price we have to pay?” Christoph asked Marcus.
“Is small I assure you. You will be done and making love in a matter of hours,” Marcus responded.
The struggle on Christoph’s face let Marcus know he could get to the old professor.
Meanwhile, Allison did some of the persuading for him. She wrapped her arms around her lover and leaned her face into his neck, whispering more things Marcus didn’t need to hear.
“You don’t understand what he’s going to ask next,” Christoph retorted to Allison’s pleas.
In response, she leaned back and groaned, “I don’t care.”
Christoph shook his head. “Allison, he’s going to ask us to kill someone.”
With that, Allison looked at Marcus for confirmation. Knowing he had the two of them where he wanted them, Marcus’ response was a small shrug.
The reinforcements arrived: 20 guards in plain clothes, just as Marcus ordered. They looked uncomfortable but resigned. Perhaps plain clothes didn’t suit them, but Marcus didn’t care. A day out of their uniforms wouldn’t hurt them. Max led them to the Pit’s entrance, away from the eyes of the new recruits, and waited for Marcus to join them. Next, Allison and Christoph were sent off on their task in the desert with Lauren and Regan. As far as Regan knew, they were off to collect hidden weapons, which was half right. She was intensely happy about taking a week off the Pit and incorrectly assumed it was due to the large number of recruits they’d reeled in. She even went so far as to suggest that her presence helped the effort, but that comment was quickly cut off by a look from Lauren. Finally, Marcus was free to give Max his messages.
“Take the new recruits to the City,” Marcus told Max. “Find out who’s running things in Julian’s absence. Tell them I will be there in no more than three days. Then find me in the Camp to relay the information.”
Naturally, Max would relay all this to Virgil long before returning to Marcus, but unable to express that, instead, he nodded.
As Max turned to leave, he heard something that made him stop. Thundering steps echoed out of the narrow passageway. Then Heinrich burst out, running down the worn path with his face in his hands. The guards waiting nearby pointed and laughed.
“Well that was freebee,” Marcus said to Max and the camp guards. He didn’t notice that Max was the only one in the know who wasn’t laughing. “Our work just got easier.”