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.
Now that everyone is dead and in Hell, it's time for Marcus to decide if he wants Sid, Nadia, Christoph, Allison and Alex on his team. Or if he would rather just leave them in The Pit to be destroyed.
The Pit: Watchmaker’s Hell: Book One
WHAT MARCUS DOESN’T WANT THEM TO SEE
Marcus, Allison, Alex, Sid, Nadia & Christoph
The Pit, Hell
MARCUS TAUGHT HIS TEAM THAT the first day in the Pit was the most important. The purge, which now looked like a mushroom cloud, cleared out the Pit when it became full every seven days. In reality this only gave them two days to recruit people because the fighting over limited space usually began at the end of the second day. The fighting usually lasted a day or two until the Pit became too full to stage a battle. By then Marcus and his team were either gone with their new recruits or waiting up on the platforms for the next cycle to begin.
Marcus stepped down into the Pit behind Alex. Usually The Newly Dead experience a mental breakdown on the first day, making them harder to evaluate. Marcus would have to keep Alex and Allison moving to prevent this. Alex was military, which made him especially attractive as a recruit. But he also wore a patch over where his heart had been that featured his name and a prominent cross. Even after hundreds of years, this symbol annoyed Marcus. The symbol referenced a thing he’d actually seen in life: a crucifixion. Among Marcus’ people this was a dishonorable execution, reserved for the lowest level of thief and vagrant. Why the world embraced it as a symbol for a religion was beyond him. He’d also found those who wore it especially prone to martyrdom. Martyrdom managed to be entirely useless for his purposes, partly because he could just resurrect someone if he needed to and because at its core, it was a selfish act. I sacrifice myself for the sake of others, all martyrs’ exclaim. Instead of doing something alone and attention seeking, Marcus thought, why not remain with your community and get shit done? And that was always what Marcus looked for: people who got shit done.
Alex surprised Marcus by immediately reaching out to the neighboring stairs. “Greetings,” he called to the three people at the base of the 7 o’clock stairs. “I think I’m going to need to shake Madame Oy’s hand.”
Marcus laughed. He too was inclined to like anyone who threw things at Heinrich. That was his favorite part of a new week. So if Alex went straight for ‘Madame Oy’ it might imply he had decent taste, a virtue as far as Marcus was concerned.
The process of evaluation always involved equal parts observation and redirection. The new world of the Pit, the new bodies and the shock of death were all fascinating. Marcus wanted to be the person to tell his recruits what Hell was and what it all meant. Left to their own devices, people would simply make up reasons for things. There were those who died and then sat in the Pit waiting for Jesus to come to them. Jesus didn’t come; the purge came instead and destroyed them. Others decided death was just a weird hallucination, becoming passive, waiting for the hallucination to end so they could return to real life. Then there were those who were bound to seek out Virgil. Certain questions led people in that direction. It was fine to ask questions, in Marcus’ opinion, so long as they asked the right questions and let Marcus answer them. Early redirection was key in keeping his potential recruits in a non-Virgil direction. The two objects of interest that elicited questions in the first hours were the bodies and Heinrich. Keeping those around him thinking negatively or fearfully about Heinrich was very helpful. After all, Heinrich and Virgil were allies and disciples of Deborah. To be against Heinrich was to be for Marcus. The other object of interest was the bodies. They often became a catalyst for The Dead to ask all the wrong questions. And if they made the connection between Heinrich and his bodies, that sent them away from Marcus fast.
When Marcus entered the Pit, Allison was still on the stairs behind him. As she stepped off the first stair, Marcus was distracted. The tall, dark-skinned man was looking at him all wrong, eyes narrowed, head slightly tilted, jaw tight. Something about Marcus instantly put this man off. Before Marcus could read his expression, he heard a whoosh noise announcing that the exact thing he didn’t want to happen had just happened.
A body fell directly on top of Allison, causing everyone to look over.
As they entered the Pit, Sid stepped down off the stairs second, with Nadia in front of him and Christoph behind him.
“Greetings!” an American accent called from the next stairs over. “I think I’m going to need to shake Madame Oy’s hand.”
Sid laughed. It would seem Nadia had already made a friend. Then Sid saw two things that caused him concern. First a young man entered the Pit behind the green jump-suited American who’d called out to Nadia. Looking at the young man’s face gave Sid a sudden sharp feeling of danger. But the young man’s face looked average in every way. His nose was a little large for his small round face but other than that he was unremarkable. Yet Sid wanted to run away the second he saw him and kept looking away compulsively when he tried to analyze the cause. What was that? After several glances, Sid forced himself to really look at the apparent abomination. It was the eyes. The young man’s eyes were brown, smallish and overwhelmed by his nose. The problem with them was that they were perfect.
A year earlier, Sid had tried his luck with dating for the first time since he became sober. A friend at work introduced him to Glenda, a tattooed animator for children’s educational videos. She was interesting to talk to, artistic and had a tongue stud providing new and exotic sensations when used for good or evil. She showed him the studio where she used new software to design little amorphous blobs that taught children how nice it was to share. To demonstrate the software’s capabilities, she drew herself. The image was accurate but odd—disturbing. In response to Sid’s aversion to the image, Glenda explained about an animation concept called uncanny valley, when an image is so lifelike that it becomes creepy. Part of the negative reaction, she told him, is the perfection of the image. While beauty is symmetry, a truly symmetrical face still feels wrong because human beings never develop that way. Everyone has one hand that is larger than the other, one ear that sits higher on the head and one eye that is a slightly different size and or shape than the other. Seeing an image of human perfection elicits revulsion because on an instinctive level, we know it is wrong.
That was the problem with the young man’s eyes. They were too perfect. Each eye was the exact same shape, the exact same size and the exact same distance from the bridge of his nose. Glenda had said that eyes are one of the hardest parts of the human face to illustrate because they are so important. Get the eyes right, she told him, and you can get the rest of the face wrong with the audience still able to recognize who’s been illustrated. Get the eyes wrong and no matter what else you get right, the subject won’t be discernible for the audience. Someone got this young man’s eyes wrong. It was subtle, and the rest of the face was very lifelike, realistic. But his eyes filled Sid with a deep uneasiness.
As Sid tore his focus away from the young man’s overly perfect eyes, he spotted the second thing that caused him concern: the young woman on the stairs. She had to be close to Alice’s age, no more than a few years older. At that moment, she walked down the stairs alone and the image caused a feeling of loss in Sid. Searching the area, he saw none of the others, neither creepy eyes nor the jump-suited American attending to her. Nadia headed toward the jump-suited American to shake hands. Behind him Christoph drew in a sharp breath.
“God, that girl’s young,” Christoph muttered to himself. “I think I know her.”
“Do you?” Sid asked.
Christoph squinted in her direction. After a moment, he shook his head. “No idea where. Too old, can’t remember anything anymore.”
Sid gave a snorting laugh. “She shouldn’t be…” he began and then the girl stepped off the stairs to be promptly flattened by a falling body.
“I’m Nadia, how do you do.” Nadia shook the man’s hand.
“Alex Powell, I…uh do as well as can be expected when dead,” the jump-suited man responded.
The whoosh announced the arrival of the body that fell on the girl behind Alex. At first the American boy tried to pull it off her himself while the girl screamed and groaned. The men—Alex, Christoph and Sid—ran over to help. Nadia hung back, scanning the Pit, looking at the spray of bodies on the Pit floor.
“There are so many of them,” she said to herself.
“One, two, three,” Alex called out as they lifted the clearly dense, heavy body off the girl. She curled inward and then scuttled from the scene crab-like.
“You’re hurt,” the boy exclaimed, pointing at the girl. The men followed his gaze and his concern toward the young woman now introducing herself as Allison.
“Brand new body,” Allison moaned, looking at the cracks all over her hands. “And I’m already broken.”
In Nadia’s peripheral vision she saw Alex stand up and look at the platform he’d come from. From the Pit, the platforms were too dark to see, leaving Nadia to wonder what drew his attention to that shadowed entrance. With Alex distracted by who knows what and the boy and Sid and Christoph musing on how to repair the cracks covering Allison’s face, neck, arms and hands, Nadia bent down to examine the man who fell on her.
“She’s damaged,” Nadia called out, “but he doesn’t have a scratch on him.” The others looked over. “What does that mean?”
Nadia knelt on the ground next to the body. It was male, approximately forty and of European descent. He had bold blue eyes staring up, stunned at the starless sky. The men had found him heavy, so Nadia picked up his arm and dropped it. It was dense; far denser than her body felt.
The young man came over, introduced himself as Marcus, and said, “It should smell or something.”
Nadia sniffed. “Nothing. You’re assuming that he’s dead.”
“It fell on her,” Marcus argued, “and it didn’t even twitch.”
“True,” Christoph answered as he knelt next to the body, looking it over. “Modern clothes. Not like the one the Nazi wanted.” He tried to shake the arm. “Sir, sir, please respond sir.” No response.
“I don’t think there’s anyone home,” Sid thought out loud.
“There are hundreds of them,” Alex offered as he looked around the Pit.
“Like trash or something,” Marcus tried.
“All right,” Nadia squatted closer to the face. “I’m going to try something a bit…drastic.” Drawing her hand back over her head, she swung it down with all the force she had, slapping him hard across the face. They waited for a response—nothing. “No cracks. She gets cracks,” Nadia pointed to Allison, who’d joined them in the circle around the body. “He doesn’t.”
“We should see if he has,” Christoph began, “all of his parts.”
The women were confused by this comment, and the men laughed. “Why would we do that?” Nadia asked.
“You see,” Sid explained in him in his most dignified queen’s English. “As we were descending into this hole, I noticed a certain part of me that is no longer with me…moving on its own and providing me with comfort at its continued existence.”
Allison looked as though she had no idea what that meant. Nadia caught on a little faster. “Your penis is missing?” The men laughed. Sid nodded while frowning. “All of you?” She looked at them each in turn. Pulling the waistband of her slacks forward, she took a peek. Allison did the same.
“Oh, man,” Allison complained.
“Well?” Christoph asked the ladies.
“I now resemble a Barbie doll,” Nadia responded to more laughter.
“But do you have…” Sid struggled with the intimate subject. “Your little…bit…that is the um….”
“My clitoris is gone, if that’s what you’re asking,” Nadia responded.
“Yes, that’s what I wanted to know.” Sid sighed. “I feel as though I’ve lost a limb.”
“You did not lose a sodding limb,” Nadia laughed. “Not on your most well-endowed day.”
“You don’t know. It may have been a great redwood of a penis, but now it’s gone. It was a foot long and gave raptures of pleasure to every woman it’s ever known, and now it’s gone. It was my dearest friend and my lifelong companion and now it’s gone. Please be quiet while I mourn.”
“We should check.” Christoph pointed to the body’s crotch area.
Marcus didn’t laugh outwardly but he found this funny. The Newly Dead, upon discovering his real identity, often asked him why their new bodies lacked genitals. In fact, men often asked this before asking why everyone was of equal strength or why they didn’t have insides any more. This was one of the few things in Hell that Marcus had little insight on. He’d heard dozens of theories over the years and repeated a few of them. Our bodies are so shell-like that a small appendage would just crack off. Or, we need to be doing shit, not masturbating. Or, God is a woman and she is angry. That last one circulated for three hundred years until some suffragette in the early twentieth century pointed out that her lack of clitoris was as great a loss as any penis and therefore God must be gender indifferent. There was also a rumor from the 5th century that the afterlife represented a short stop on the way to a spirit-only plane of existence. The bodies were simpler versions of the originals as a transition from the one extreme - a heavy earth bound body - to the other extreme, not having a body at all. The outward signs of gender were still there, basic size, shape of hips, breasts and shoulders but the genitals themselves were unnecessary and part of what humanity needed to let go of in order to ascend to a higher, blah, blah, blah. Marcus shut that shit down fast. He destroyed everyone who repeated that rumor and has never repeated it himself. But in 2011, Christoph had the odd distinction of being the first person to ask whether the bodies scattered all over Hell had genitals.
“Why though?” Nadia asked.
“If I can’t have mine, he can’t have his either,” Christoph answered, looking cross.
Nadia laughed. “Fine. Would the gentlemen like to….”
“No.” All four men answered in unison.
“Allison, you tug the pants up and I shall peek,” Nadia ordered. They performed the necessary actions “Nothing,” Nadia told the group at large. “He is Ken as I am Barbie.”
“People are going to trip over all of them. They’ll get hurt.” Marcus observed.
Nadia answered with a solemn nod. “True. We should make a respectful pile, perhaps.”
“Let’s get it up,” Marcus declared.
Nadia thought the strangest thing. Was the kid trying to get them to call the bodies ‘it’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’? Or was this just her aggressive nature looking for someone to argue with? It really might be. She was in a strange setting, fearful and confused. It made sense to her that her psyche was creating conflict. She shook it off the uncomfortable feeling. After all, death makes most people uncomfortable. It must comfort Marcus to change the pronoun that way; she didn’t need to judge him for it.
Allison distracted the others from Nadia’s suggestion. She leaned over the body, staring intently at the face. “What’s wrong dear?” Sid asked her.
Allison said something that Nadia would later swear elicited a sneer from Marcus. “I think I recognize him.”
Worn Path, Hell
Heinrich knelt, one knee on the ground with the body on his back. Some of the objects thrown at him in the Pit had cracked his back, leaving it weak. A shoulder piece broke off and fell into him. His shell body was deteriorating faster than he could move. It didn’t matter.
He tried to remember his spot in the chant. Where was he just before the body became too heavy and he had to kneel down? He couldn’t remember. Might as well start at the beginning. “Hashem, Hashem, God, merciful and gracious.” Heinrich stood up and cried out from the pain of the body’s weight on his newly cracked knee. “Long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation.” He forced himself to move forward. “Forgiving….” He never could remember what came next. “Something and something and sin, who cleanses.” If Heinrich could make it to the Waterfall he would be cleansed, if only temporarily.