“The Atheist” by JR of Pig Destroyer
I don’t know what you hate, I suppose it could be anything, but just for a moment imagine that you hate Baseball. As soon as you see it pop up on the television you change the channel in disgust. All of the catching and throwing and running around just seems silly and pointless to you. The crack of the ball against the bat reflexively sends the contents of your stomach surging upwards into the back of your throat. Now imagine that not only are the vast majority of people in the world baseball fans, but that in their fanaticism they have decided; without consulting you; that not only does everyone have to love baseball, but you have to pick a favorite team.
This is my relationship to religion. I was indoctrinated when I was a child, and I wrestled with it through most of my adolescence. My fear of Hell made me fear my own thoughts, my own sexuality. I was taught that man was once perfect, but had since fallen into decadence and degradation. Sometimes they made it seem like almost everything a person could think or do was a sin. Where some saw peace and understanding, I could only see ignorance and xenophobia.
Other people around me would react differently. They were filled with great happiness and fulfillment. They would throw their hands into the air at service, seemingly drunk on God’s love and security. Why couldn’t I feel these things? Was I incomplete? Was I possessed by the Devil? Why did my mind constantly hunger for knowledge and understanding? Perhaps it was like a taste in food or music, maybe one man’s worship is just another man’s boot licking. I guess if you’re going to ask questions like that you have to be prepared to never find the answers.
I was told that humans could not understand the mind of God, any more than a serf might understand the whims of his king. My questions seemed reasonable enough to me. Why would a being who is supposed to be perfectly good exhibit so much jealousy and sadism? How could an all powerful being have an adversary? What about all the people who died before the birth of Jesus? Were they condemned to Hell simply for being born too early to be saved? Why would the creator bestow upon me the faculties of logic and reason if their only use was to send me spiraling to a fiery doom? When I would ask the pastor these questions he would just laugh heartily and pat me on the shoulder. Surely I was too young and naïve to understand the intricacies of scripture. And the more I studied it, the more lazy and made up that it all seemed. I still had to pray for a few more years before I finally realized I was talking to myself.
At some point in my early twenties I decided that I didn’t really care about what happened to me when I died. God or no God, I was going to live my mortal life as a free man. Free to decide for myself what I think is right or wrong. And if this freedom carried with it some eternal punishment then bring it on. I will laugh all the way down to Hell.
So for the last 5 years I’ve been living in the mountains and valleys of West Virginia. By myself, in the wild. Sleeping in deserted bear dens and abandoned coal mines. Hunting with spears and knives and crude traps. Collecting rain water. Surviving as best I can. Evading the locals and dodging the Book Burners.
Far removed from my previous life as a Biology professor at George Mason University. My beautiful wife Eileen was an amateur tennis champion. We had a cookie cutter townhouse in the D.C. Suburbs. A chubby little bulldog named Otto. Good friends, good wine. We snowmobiled in Wisconsin. We sunbathed in Bermuda. We had it good, and we knew it.
Around the same time all that was happening a charismatic televangelist from San Antonio was in the process of changing his Megachurch into a Gigachurch. He called himself Pastor John Hammer. His Sunday morning sermon averaged 30 million viewers. He financed the building of the largest church in history on the outskirts of Omaha, it seats 500,000 people. He would deliver emotional, sweat drenched sermons; falling into the crowd and being passed around like a human collection plate. There were actors dressed as angels and demons, live sheep and lions, laser light shows, celebrity interviews, car giveaways. Pastor Hammer would drape himself with a boa constrictor and speak in tongues, eyes rolling back in his head. Even the non believers had to admit the man was a master showman and a marketing genius. He was the P.T. Barnum of Christianity. A friend of mine described him as a cross between Silvio Burlusconi and Oprah, which I always felt was pretty dead on.
His followers grew from sects into legions. The production only became bigger to accommodate. The money poured in, but people were also donating land, buildings, and entire towns. He purchased two cable networks. One became Christian soap operas and reality shows. The other a top rated “news” channel. He fearlessly introduced religion to the world of endorsements and suddenly Jesus had his first official sports drink.
He started Professional wrestling and football organizations with Biblical themes. You could see the Visagoths play the Philistines on Monday Night. Or you could watch Luke tag in Paul for a flying double elbow on Judas. He was giving the people what they wanted.
Behind the television’s flashing colors, the Church worked quietly, acquiring corporations through anonymous front companies and providing an endless stream of cash for conservative candidates at every level of government.
Then, one fateful Sunday in June, Pastor Hammer came out for his sermon, but something was different. His manic charisma was gone, replaced by a brooding intensity. He claimed that the Holy Ghost had visited him in the night and revealed his destiny to him. There was a dramatic pause. The crowd was hushed, in the palm of his hand. He raised his face into the light and proclaimed that God’s will was for him to become President of the United States and the roar of the congregation shook the Earth.
Sure enough, he crushed the Democratic contender in the next election, pulling 78% of the vote. Mere days after the inauguration, a Constitutional Amendment was rushed through Congress proclaiming Christianity the national religion. The Supreme Court upheld the Amendment with a vote of 5 to 4. President Hammer urged all of the Christian denominations to unify beneath the wing of his almighty “American Church”. And damn if they didn’t. That was a crazy time. You couldn’t open your goddamn eyes without seeing a cross or a flag. Or a flag with a cross on it. Or a cross with a flag draped from it.
The education system was dismantled. The libraries and universities were burned to the ground in great orgies of righteous violence. Society began to break down along religious lines. Communities rebuilt themselves around the local churches. 12 hour work days followed by 4 hours of mandatory worship kept the people focused and supervised. Sex was only allowed for the purpose of conception and had to be conducted in the presence of scriptural experts and Church “physicians.” 20% of all male infants are taken by the church for immediate indoctrination. They are “educated” at secret locations and will end up having no knowledge of their birth parents. Most will end up serving as Book Burners, some will become personal bodyguards for Church officials. The really twisted ones will end up as Choirboys. To have your son seized by the Church in this way is considered a great honor.
Lie detector tests were administered at the weekly “confessions.” Anyone who missed a confession was deemed a heretic and marked for subsequent termination by the Book Burners. There were no courts or appeals. No excuses. Non believers either fled, converted, or perished. My parents begged me and my wife to convert. Eileen, who was raised Jewish, agreed. She didn’t want to die. I didn’t blame her.
It was the hardest decision I had ever made. I loved her, but in my heart I knew that I just couldn’t fake it. I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror. Her mouth said she understood, but her eyes said different. I kissed her goodbye. I don’t know if it was the right thing to do. I just know that it’s done.
Most of the time I didn’t even feel human. I became one with my environment, memorizing every aspect of the terrain. I had studied plants and animals my whole life, so I had a bit of a head start as far as understanding things like which snakes are poisonous or which mushrooms are safe to eat, but there was still plenty about surviving in the wild that I had to figure out for myself. I had taught myself how to build fires, create traps, and camouflage myself. Sometimes I would follow the Book Burners around for days, studying their tactics and chain of command. My mind became supremely focused. I probably could have survived out there indefinitely, but I decided that I couldn’t just be alone for the rest of my life. I needed companionship. I needed someone to talk to. Regardless of the dangers, I had to know if there were any more like me.
I’m driving up Rt.9, through what’s left of Harper’s Ferry, toward the West Virginia border. I stole this Chevy truck from the driveway of a deserted house outside of Manassas. There’s a crucifix painted on the back window. Underneath it says “Jesus Saves.” Which, for once I couldn’t argue with, ’cause he did save me from having to walk the last 60 or so miles. It only had a quarter tank of gas when I jumped in and I’m just about down to the fumes.
I’m trying to remember what a coconut tastes like, since I haven’t had one in five years or so, when suddenly a woman in a burqa comes running out of the bushes into the road, dynamite strapped across her stomach, garage door opener in her hand. I have enough time to look her in the eye and jerk the wheel to the left, but not enough time to get out of the way. She detonates, throwing the truck onto its side. I see a shower of sparks beneath me as I skid off the cracked pavement and into the ditch. It takes me a second to work out of my topsy turvy position. I pop out of the passenger side door as if it were the hatch of a submarine. I hear the revving of motorcycle engines. I know exactly what comes next.
The Muslim bandits come screaming out from a dirt road, about a quarter mile behind me. Two of the bikes have AK-47s mounted on front, the triggers crudely rigged to levers on the handlebars. AK’s aren’t the most accurate guns to begin with, especially when they’re fastened to the front of a banged up motorcycle. The third bike has a sidecar with a man shouldering an RPG. Their loose clothing shudders in the wind, their long robes flow behind them in the tire smoke.
Their war cries are shrill and mad.
They probably expect me to panic, run, and be cut down from behind. That’s probably what happens 99% of the time. I happen to be the other 1%. I reach into my bag and pull out a mason jar full of old motor oil. I wait until it’s too late for them to swerve and I spike the jar down across the pavement. None of them are able to avoid it. The bike with the sidecar flips, and turns its two passengers into one gory, red skid mark. Another rider loses control and hits the ditch full throttle, throwing him into a tree, killing him instantly. The third rider manages to right himself and keeps coming at me, guns full auto. The bullets rip into the back of my truck. I take careful aim with my M-1 and put a round through his center of mass, knocking him off the back of the bike, which skids past me down the road.
I jump down and check the bodies first. Make sure they’re properly dead. I take a canteen and a lighter off the guy I shot. I find the RPG laying on the shoulder of the road. I glance over at the wreckage of the sidecar. It’s just a smorgasbord of bloody entrails and twisted metal. I start searching through it but it’s just too much of a mess.
I turn over the last body and immediately I recognize him. I try to make myself not recognize him but it’s too late for that. His name was Anwar and he had been a student of mine. The goatee was a little different, but it was definitely him. I remember that he came to me after class one day and we had a spirited discussion about the ethics of cloning that really stuck with me. He had confessed to me his dream of becoming a pediatrician, of helping sick children in the developing world. So much for dreams, apparently. I get choked up for a second, but I didn’t make it this far by being overly emotional. I steel myself and turn away. I have to be cold if I’m going to survive.
His bike doesn’t seem too damaged at first glance. I stand it up and inspect it. The front wheel is just too jacked up. Damn.
I collect my things and start walking. I’ve been on the road too long anyway, it’s time to go overland.
The Christians are pretty easy to avoid, as they stay in close proximity to their respective churches for protection. The highways are almost exclusively used by supply trucks and their Book Burner escorts. And of course the Muslim bandits trying to ambush them. Out here in the woods it’s just me and the animals. Or so I thought.
Perched on a high ridge I detect some movement in the valley below. I take a closer look with the binoculars. Two young Asian men are netting fish in a creek. They’re dressed in green robes and their heads are shaved completely bald. I work my way silently down the slope and take up a second surveillance position. They catch several Black Crappies and Bluegills. I’m impressed by their skill.
Eventually I follow them back to a secluded little holler nestled between two gigantic mountains. There was about a dozen of them, seven girls, four boys, and one older man with a long beard who seemed to be the leader. A tiny, forgotten Buddhist sect living in the West Virginia mountains. I felt like I was gazing upon a species long thought extinct, like a Dodo or a Caspian tiger. I thought about what would happen to them if the Book Burners found this place. The screams of torture, the burning flesh. They seemed so peaceful and content as they ate their fish and berries, it was extremely difficult for me to stop watching. As I laid awake in the darkness I entertained the idea of approaching them, not to join them but just to have a conversation, just to be around a group of people who weren’t trying to shoot me or bludgeon me to death in the name of God. Then again, who knows? Maybe my presence would frighten them and they would try to kill me anyway.
At dawn I slipped out of the valley undetected.
I’m working my way through the outskirts of what used to be Hagerstown, MD. Now it’s called “Lordstown” apparently. I’m sure they got exclusive rights to that name. I’m searching a long deserted farmhouse that’s been picked pretty clean. There’s a couple things here I might be able to do something with, like a half full can of WD-40, but nothing too exciting. The coast seems relatively clear, so I decide to sit out on the deck and “enjoy” some cold raccoon stew.
All of a sudden I hear all this commotion coming up the road. The sound of flesh being whipped. The slow grinding of large wheels. Over the top evangelizing.
I quickly pack away my things and find cover behind a thick Hickory. I break out the binoculars and keep watch on the road. About five minutes later they come into view. Fifty men in loin clothes chained together, pulling a wheeled, wooden crucifix about a hundred feet long. The men are constantly whipped by sweaty, leather clad handlers who walk alongside, hurling obscenities and gobs of spit at them. They may seem like prisoners, but that’s not the case. They are all men of affluent backgrounds who gleefully paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and pull the sacred cross to New Golgotha, formerly Arlington National Cemetery, and before that the estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The real heretic is hunched naked in a wrought iron cage at the intersection of the cross. He is a white man with gray hair, maybe early 60’s. In addition to his own filth he seems to be covered in rotten fruit and garbage. No doubt hurled at him by the inhabitants of Lordstown. This is what’s known as a Crucifixion Tour. When the Church has obtained a particularly famous or stubborn prisoner, they like to send him or her around the countryside so several towns can have a chance to see them interrogated, tortured, humiliated, what have you; before they are taken to the execution grounds where two of the lucky cross bearers will be chosen by President Hammer himself to be crucified alongside the heretic. Followers will do practically anything for this esteemed honor. The waiting list runs well into the thousands.
Every tour has a High Priest, always at the front of the convoy. His entire body is gouged with hundreds of crucifix scars. He walks with an ornate staff and wears a stocking like mask that can show images at his command. It can give him the visage of Jesus or the Devil. It can show clouds or fire or gnashing teeth. Perfect for hammering sermons into superstitious minds.
Bringing up the rear is a squad of Book Burners in their signature black armor. Four with flamethrowers. Six with M-16s. They’re specially selected for Bigfoot like size and canine like obedience. Perfect thugs. Intimidating but stupid, easy to confuse. The one in the red trench coat is the dangerous one. The Choirboy. A direct liaison to the church, they have two primary missions. The first is the one that everyone knows about: the conversion/extermination of heretics and the destruction of any blasphemous material. Their other, lesser known mission is to scout young children for the personal amusement of the church hierarchy. They are selected for their cunning and ruthlessness. They revel in torture and bloodshed. The sunlight glistens off his immaculate, crimson uniform. His mask bears the image of a bloodthirsty demon. My blood boils at the sight of him.
I trail them for the next several hours. It isn’t hard since they travel at a crawl. Despite being horribly outnumbered, I feel the urge to hit them with everything I got. One part of me wants to attempt a rescue. The other part of me just wants a suicidal bloodbath. Also, I’m tired of carrying this damn RPG around. I decide to attack at dawn.
I’ve got them in my sights as the first rays of light crack the horizon. I wait till the Book Burners are as concentrated as possible and I let the rocket fly. The explosion ignites three of the flamethrowers, setting off a series of blasts so violent and absurd that it’s almost surreal. One of them goes streaming off over the treetops like a roman candle. Three of the Book Burners are just running around on fire. It’s complete chaos. I lob in a couple of homemade nail bombs and quickly move to my next firing position.
I survey the area. I only count two left, and they’re both shooting in the wrong direction. Idiots. The two head shots are academic at this point. So much for superior numbers.
Most of the cross dragging lowlifes are dead, I knife the few that aren’t. 30.06 rounds don’t just grow on trees, you know. The priest and his handlers are blackened and torn asunder. The prisoner seems to be okay. I’m about to climb up onto the cross and free him when the Choirboy slashes my lower back with a nasty looking dagger. I curse myself silently. I should have accounted for him before I advanced. He has a bunch of nails stuck in his face. The left side of his body is severely burned. His war scream gives me pause.
I draw my Bowie knife and we stalk each other in circles, he keeps daring me to make the first move. Finally he lunges and gets me across the wrist, followed by a backhanded slash below my collarbone. I cut him along the ribs as he moves past. I throw a punch and he slices my bicep open, instinctively I dive in and tackle him. We end up scrapping on the ground for a second before he’s able to kick me away. We both get up quickly, he rushes at me and I sidestep, burying my blade to the hilt in the side of his neck. The blood drains like a faucet. He gurgles and collapses. I kick him in the side three or four times. I’m so pissed that I let him carve me up this bad. Nothing life threatening, but still. So pissed.
I pull his mask off. I want to look him in the eye. I guess he could be in his twenties but he looks about 16. His hair is fire engine red and his face is covered with freckles. He doesn’t look like he could even be remotely dangerous. No wonder they make them wear masks.
You almost killed me, kid.
I drop the mask on his chest.
I dig the keys out of his pocket and unlock the cage. The man looks at me for a second and then smiles, “That was really something, my boy! Bloody good. Bloody good indeed! You’re quite the one man army.” The Queen’s English, no doubt about it. He shakes my hand vigorously. “I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you! I would say you were a godsend, but that would be a bit daft, wouldn’t it?” He hops down and starts putting a makeshift outfit together. “Professor Timothy Cambridge, at your service. Former head of the physics department at the University of Colorado, Boulder. And you would be?”
It had been years since anyone had asked me my name. I actually had to think about it for a second. “My name’s Andy…Professor Andy Deacon.”
“And what are you a professor of, Andy Deacon?”
“Biology. George Mason University.”
“Splendid!” he pats me on the shoulder, “We shall have much to talk about my friend.” He grabs a 9mm off one of the Book Burners. We start walking away but then he stops suddenly and runs back over to the Choirboy’s body.
I shout back, “We have to go now! That smoke’s visible for miles!”
“Just a second…Ha! There!” He pulls a thin, shiny case out of the Choirboy’s trench coat. He stands up, opens the case, lights up a cigarette, and then calmly, triumphantly walks back over to me. He holds out the case. “You want one?”
“Yeah. Actually I do.”
“Tell me, Andy…where were you headed before you happened upon our little traveling sideshow?”
“Nowhere in particular, really. Just north. Canada, if I could make it that far. I figured, if you’re trying to escape religion in America, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to head South.”
“No, I suppose it doesn’t. Well, it just so happens that me and my ill fated companions had been traveling north to Vermont. If you were to assist me in reaching that destination, I could make it worth your while.”
“What’s in Vermont?”
“A way out of this hellhole.”
Around dusk we come upon a cabin that seems deserted and set up camp for the night. We decide against starting a fire. I manage to get all my cuts stitched up, the Professor helps me with the one on my lower back. I still can’t believe he managed to escape with just scratches and bruises. By all rights he should have been immolated. We eat deer jerky and blackberries and talk about old television shows that we’ll probably never see again. I set up a defensive position at the front window and keep watch. The forest chatters with crickets and toads.
I start emptying my backpack, looking for this red lighter I thought I had. The Professor points at a small leather bag. “What’s in there? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Some books I’ve come across while scavenging. Here, check it out.” I toss it to him. He opens it and pulls out 5 books. “Huckleberry Finn”, “Naked Lunch”, “Guerrilla Warfare”, “Journey to the End of the Night”, and “On the Origin of Species”, which he holds up, shaking his head in disbelief. “You do realize the Bishops would have you buggered to death in public if they found this?”
I shrug. “I guess I never plan on being taken alive. Besides, it could be the last copy on Earth for all I know.” I take a long drink from my canteen. “So tell me more about what’s in Vermont. Is there some sort of fortress or bunker there? Tunnels?”
“Nothing quite so crude or temporary, I assure you. The closest thing I could liken it to would be a spaceship, but even that would not do it justice.”
“Not this time, my boy. You’ll just have to see it for yourself.”
It takes us about two weeks to make it the rest of the way. We narrowly avoid being lynched by the townspeople of Wilkes-Barre, and there’s another close shave with a pack of wolves near Vanderwhacker Mountain in upstate New York, but generally we manage to keep things clandestine. It’s a gorgeous, shimmering morning when we enter the town limits of Craftsbury, VT. The Professor takes the lead as we walk down the main street. The town is dead quiet, reeking of desolation. I wonder if everyone has been taken in by the Book Burners, but I look over at the Professor and he doesn’t seem troubled at all by our surroundings. In fact, I can sense his excitement as we approach a small, blue house five blocks over from the main drag. I see him mouthing the number as we approach, “22245”. We walk through the gate of a white picket fence and around to the backyard. The Professor heads toward a big willow tree in the center of the yard. He stands with his back to it and paces twenty steps out toward the woods. I see him reach down and he opens a trap door. He waves at me to come along. My heart is racing, I have no idea what to expect.
We climb down into a small room, the walls and floor are metal, stainless steel, I think. There is a heavy, riveted door with a covered slit in it. The cover slides back and a pair of suspicious eyes size us up. He says “Password.” in a tone that suggests we better have it on the first try. The Professor just smiles and replies, “Sagan.” The eye slit closes, the bolts are thrown, and the massive door slowly hisses open, like it’s got a hydraulic lock of some kind. There are two guards in blue uniforms carrying strange, hi-tech looking rifles. I’ve never seen anything like them. The Professor asks for Alexa. One of the guards summons her with his radio. A door opens down the hall and a young woman steps out, with short, dark hair and horn rimmed glasses.
“Uncle Timmy! I thought you were done for!” She embraces the Professor warmly. Then turns her attention to me. Maybe I just haven’t seen a woman up close in a while, but her presence intoxicates me. The Professor chimes in, “Alexa, this is Andy Deacon, Professor of Biology and the only reason I’m not feeding the vultures in Virginia right now.”
She gives me a look that says she’s impressed, “Well, Professor Deacon, perhaps my Uncle can tell us all about your heroism over some dinner. In the meantime, I bet you two would like to get cleaned up.”
I’m led to a small room with a bed and a lamp. I drop my bags on the floor, stand my rifle up in the corner. There’s a bathroom in the back. I look at myself in the mirror. My beard is ragged, almost a foot long. My clothes barely qualify as rags. Hopefully I still have skin lurking beneath all those layers of filth. I pull out my Bowie knife and shave for the first time in 5 ½ years. I sit down in the shower and almost fall asleep under the hot water. It’s relaxing beyond words. When I look in the mirror again I don’t recognize myself. I look like a new man.
Perhaps I am a new man.
After an extravagant dinner of roast chicken and lobster, and several glasses of wine, Alexa offers to show me around the complex. She shows me the lab, the greenhouse, the factory areas where they construct their machines. There’s also a swimming pool, a game room, a gym, and a room full of musical instruments. She shows me a database containing thousands of books, films, and albums. The complete works of Faulkner, Kafka, Hemingway. I’m nearly brought to tears. It’s basically a futuristic hotel stashed beneath the Vermont hills. Alexa holds onto my arm tightly as she leads me through the narrow corridors. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was attracted to me.
We come upon a towering double door with a keypad beside it. Alexa punches in the code and the doors reveal a monstrous saucer the size of an office building. It’s a sleek and elegant looking machine.
“How does it work? Anti-gravity or something?”
She shakes her head. “Once I was able to reconcile General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, a whole new realm of science opened up to us. I figured out a way to convert matter to energy, project it over extremely long distances, and then reconstitute it.”
“So this thing travels…”
“At the speed of light. Exactly.”
She grins, “Way.”
It takes me a second to decide what question to ask next. I’ve got so many. “What’s the destination?”
“A star called ‘Kepler-11.’ It has several orbiting planets, one of which looks to be a paradise.”
“When do we leave?” I ask eagerly.
“Next Thursday. 10:00 AM sharp.”
I looked down at her gorgeous brown eyes, and it felt like I was gazing into the future.