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.
MARCUS HAD NADIA GOOD and scared. At the front of the group, she waited for his signal. Given the situation, she could no longer bury the voice in her that represented her aggression. It chanted in time with The Dead at the Indian fire: we need to go, we need to go, we need to go.
Marcus asked Max to find anyone with combat experience and encourage them to act as guards on the edge of the group. Once they were distributed evenly around the oval-shaped crowd, Marcus gave them each a weapon, one of the mostly metal objects Regan and Jesusita found on the platforms. Max ended up with a wrench. Pati insisted that she had combat experience and wanted to help. After a five-minute argument between her and Max on whether being beaten by her husband counted as ‘combat,’ Marcus intervened by asking her to help him at the back of the group. He also gave her a weapon, a screwdriver, and instructions of its best possible uses. Marcus told Nadia that Pati would help her keep track of the outer edge of the group since she was easy to see in her long, flowing, black burqa. It made her the period at the end of their sentence.
Sid volunteered to help Nadia at the front of the group. Now that they were almost ready to go, he joined her, walking with his head facing down. She saw the outline, under his white button up, of some object stuck between his waistband and his stomach.
“What do you have there?” Nadia asked.
“I’ll tell you later,” Sid whispered over the noise of constant talking that came from the group.
Sid had some kind of weapon, Nadia decided. If he felt the need for one, somehow this made her more uneasy. Her little voice continued its rhythmic chant. We need to go, we need to go, we need to go.
As they waited facing the group, Nadia checked the Indians at the 10 o’clock fire. There had to be at least 500 of them—so damn many that the group spilled over the invisible line separating them and the 9 o’clock group. But what could the 9 o’clock group do? There was no challenging that many people and no reasoning with them in the Pit’s hostile increasingly claustrophobic environment. Nadia observed that the Chinese had stayed in place as they chanted, but the Indians were obviously milling around. They seemed to be separating out into three distinct groups, each of equal size. As she watched, they settled into this formation and started to stomp between chants. The stomps vibrated along the ground, reaching Nadia in the center of the Pit.
“Marcus!” Nadia screamed. They were pushing this too close. Do Jin’s double and the concentration camp body were now strapped to two willing group members: Lt. Fox and Jesusita. Nadia caught sight of the two of them, bent over in obvious pain and was flooded with regret. What if this extra burden damaged Fox and Jesusita? She should have carried at least one of those bodies herself. Or they should have left them behind. Nadia never imagined how long it would take to organize Alex’s Tribe of 155 people for one short trip up some stairs. Even now, she couldn’t understand the delay.
“Marcus!” she screamed. “We need to go!”
Marcus stood up on the third step of the 6 o’clock stairs, shrugged and put up one finger to say, ‘give me one minute.’
Nadia thought she might explode with frustration.
As the chanting and stomping grew louder, she chose not to look at the Indians. Her own internal chanting was keeping up (we need to go). She just couldn’t do anything about their timetable. She could barely control her own progress.
“Maybe we should just…start,” Sid asked through gritted teeth.
Nadia repeated what Marcus told her. “We are safer in a big unit.”
Finally, Pati came running around the group yelling something at Sid in Arabic. After a handful of sentences, she returned to her place in the back.
“She says the Americans are trying to convince the back of the group to stay.” Sid explained. “Because their fire will have too few people without us.”
Of course, Nadia thought, without Alex’s Tribe, the North Americans were the second smallest group in the Pit behind South America. Europe, smartly, sought out Asian stragglers, inviting them to their fire to swell their numbers. North America hadn’t sought anyone out because Alex’s Tribe swelled their numbers. Without this group, North America would be vulnerable to attack.
The chanting and stomping from the Indians grew louder and faster. Nadia’s little voice increased its internal chant, its way of begging her to just flee: we need to go, we need to go, we need to go. She looked at Sid. At that moment, the little voice gave her an idea. Just grab him and leave. Leave the others. To Hell with them. They’re slow and useless anyway. It was tempting, alluring, and if Marcus had jumped up onto the third stair again, it would have been too attractive an idea to dismiss.
Marcus waved forward with an angry look on his face. His motion meant, ‘Just go, don’t worry about what’s going on back here, just go.’
“Good enough for me,” Nadia sighed. Her next sentence came out at full volume, addressed to the mass of souls before her. “Everyone, it is time to leave the Pit. Please follow me to the 12 o’clock stairs.”
With that, she turned and took four large steps further into the middle of the Pit.
“Nadia!” Sid yelled. She turned.
Alex’s Tribe had made it less than a step farther into the Pit. An old African woman in front had tripped; several others were helping her up. A British man tried to half-carry a young injured Chinese man whose progress was delayed due to looking around fearfully. And a French woman had stopped entirely because she’d lost her shoe, causing everyone behind her to stop as well.
Nadia was dumbfounded. She’d given the order (finally!) for them to move, and they barely moved. Where do these people think they are, Narnia? A fucking battle is imminent and they’re stopping for shoes. You risked reentering the Pit for these people, her aggression reminded her. You owe Marcus a favor for these people. And for what? To save them? How were you planning on saving them from themselves?
It was a good question, and Nadia didn’t have an answer. Instead, her thoughts were interrupted by the sudden quickening of the chants at the 10 o’clock fire.
She didn’t look over there, but she saw everyone at the front of the group do so. With their attention focused on the reason she was tense and they should be tense, she screamed at them again.
“We need to run for the 12 o’clock stairs, people. Now!” she bellowed.
The front of the group began their lumbering run across the Pit. Naturally this was the moment when the Indians turned out from the fire and let out a war cry.
Suddenly, Nadia needed to do a calculation: forward or back? The Indians would run from their fire for the 5 o’clock area in the next second. Which way is safer, toward our goal or back home? Unable to think clearly, Nadia went with her goal. She motioned toward the 12 o’clock stairs and yelled, “Run!” It was the wrong choice.
A third of the Indians at 10 o’clock rushed from their fire. They collided with the first few members of Alex’s Tribe running for the 12 o’clock stairs, knocking down anyone in their way. Nadia gasped as the African woman went down like a bowling pin. The Indians trampled her legs. Other members of Alex’s Tribe kicked her accidentally as they rushed past. Sid grabbed her arm, pulling her up. The bottom half of her body stayed on the ground as she reached up and circled her arms around his neck.
“Nadia, stick with the plan.” That was Marcus’ voice but Nadia couldn’t see him. What is the plan, she thought in a panic. Oh yes, her position was at the base of the stairs.
She ran there as Sid mounted the stairs and then stopped. The people in front of them on the stairs weren’t moving. He handed the African woman over to someone else. The stairs were one meter wide, just wide enough for the group to climb single file. Sid clung to the edge of the stairs as he climbed up to see what the problem was. Halfway up, he lost his balance. The French woman grabbed his shirt and held him to her, stopping him from falling down into the Pit. After that, he’d climbed into shadow. Nadia could no longer see him.
In the distance, Nadia heard the screaming and crunching coming from the 5 o’clock fire. She ignored this. Nearer to her she heard more crunching as shards of Alex’s Tribe lay on the ground near everyone’s feet. Nadia tried to ignore this as well.
Now Alex’s Tribe queued for the stairs, stretching across the center of the Pit. Nadia could see black fabric billowing near the 6 o’clock area. Marcus was right, Pati worked well to signal the end of the group. It was then that she heard the second war cry.
Another third of the Indians ran from their fire. They headed straight for the center of Alex’s Tribe. This time they were no longer content with just knocking people over. They put their heads down and barreled through as Nadia watched helplessly. Lt. Fox, holding CC on his back, fell over and tucked himself into a ball, trying not to get trampled.
At the top of the stairs, Sid found the problem. The first members of the group to face the narrow passageway had panicked and refused to enter. Sid shoved past them, grabbed the first person in line and shouted for everyone to follow him. Then he ran. He kept shouting through the passageway, entreating the others to follow his voice. They were safe if they followed his voice. Everyone would make it out of the Pit if they would just follow his voice. No matter what they thought or how they felt, they needed to run to the sound of his voice.
Nadia wanted to crawl into a ball and cry. Watching everyone she was trying to protect get bowled over was as good as a punch to her non-existent gut. But motion next to her right arm stopped her collapse. The people on the stairs were running. Sid fixed the bottleneck and now they were really, truly escaping.
As Pati, the period at the end of their sentence, reached the center of the Pit, the Indians let out their third war cry. The last third rushed from their fire. Panic rose in Nadia as she saw the attackers rush toward the small oval of black fabric. The first one to run at Pati got a surprise in the form of a swipe across the torso. Pati had used the screw driver to puncture and tear his shell skin. The nearest last group member, except for Pati, Marcus and Nadia, made it to the bottom of the 12 o’clock stairs. The injured attacker faced Pati with an incredulous expression. He raised his fist to strike her. Instead, she swiped him again, across the tops of his thighs. Again, shock came across his face. He swayed like he might fall. Marcus pulled on Pati’s arm, yelling something at her in Arabic. With Nadia, he and Pati ran up the stairs before anyone could follow.
“How many?” Marcus asked Sid as soon as he saw him. “We need to do a count and see how many we lost.”
Nadia wanted to argue, but she’d seen and ignored shards of people on the Pit floor. How many were grabbed by another group member and saved? How many were trampled and lost?
Sid returned from the count with his head hanging. The count could not be good.
“Before we left, there were 155 of us. That’s including your team,” Sid explained to Marcus. “Now we have 124. We lost more than 30 people.”