Book Excerpt

ASCENDANTS by Don Schechter

100,000 word science fiction novel.

Prologue – In medias res

The soft glow and deafening silence seemed peaceful at first…

      Sam squinted as his eyes adjusted to the light. His head throbbed as he regained consciousness. Things slowly came into focus and Sam was oddly grateful for the soft darkness around him. He shifted over and realized that he was lying on his back. With every movement he made, his joints, muscles, nerves, skull, and everything in between sung out songs of pain and abuse. Sam’s mind struggled to find the tranquil oblivion that had preceded his waking, but found it escaping him with every passing moment.

      There were no dreams before his eyes had opened. No visions or odd theatrics of an active subconscious, no sense of time; just an undefined space and yet now, it was over. Unintelligible images flickered on a nearby panel, and a tether of some kind was connected to his arm. A familiarity with his overall surroundings took shape.

      Sam had been awakened by some terrible purpose. His memory soon surfaced and solidified as his gaze drifted across the room. He realized that he was lying in a hospital bed in some odd corner of some odd medical facility where unknown individuals had left him to recuperate, with an intravenous tube in his arm and heart monitor attached. Then, the most pressing of all thoughts emerged. He was supposed to be dead.

      Corralling all his remaining strength, he reached out to the small table next to him. His hand pushed past medical scanners, wound re-sealers, a PACT analyzer, and other high-tech medical devices. His fingers closed around a pair of surgical scissors, which he thrust into his wrist and then slid across. This was not his first attempt.

      An alert sounded as the blood poured out of Sam. A nurse rushed in and grabbed the scissors. She attempted to restrain and treat him, but Sam shoved her away and rolled off the bed, crashing to the floor. A second and third nurse charged in and held Sam down. He was injected with sedatives and bound fully to the bed as he fought unconsciousness.

      He was supposed to be dead.

* * *

Book One: The Book of Teller

Chapter One – New Epoch

      “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to Heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life.”

– Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

+25 A.A. By the old calendar, 2060 A.D. Three nights before Sam anticipated death…

      The final days of the old order could have been the set-up for a joke. Within the walls of the Church of The Sacred Trust, a Pastor, Rabbi, and an Imam stood shoulder to shoulder before a sparse gathering of a disheveled homeless flock. Many were in attendance to seek shelter from the elements, while others felt compelled to witness firsthand the closing chapters of their respective beliefs.

      Williams, the de facto spiritual leader of the city’s Christian faith, and the last man standing for his faith, spoke through the din of coughs and uneasy chatter.

      “While it may be easy, in times as trying as these,” he preached, “to believe that God, The Father, has left us and withdrawn his hand and grace, it falls to us, the faithful, to hold fast to the knowledge that The Lord would never and shall never leave us. Nor lead us to ruin.”

      He was a man in good health that had always appeared younger than his years. Even now, in his late sixties, he carried himself with the same poise that had defined him in his youth. Equipped with bold words and confidence in his faith, he found himself standing in front of his smallest Sunday congregation.

      He continued, “For as we know from Psalm 22, ‘In you our fathers trusted and you rescued them. To you they cried out and they escaped. In you they trusted and were not disappointed.’ So, what then can we take from this, as the storms gather outside of our doors and seek to threaten the very foundations of our faith?”

      Those sitting in the pews shifted in their seats, looking up wearily at the priest with sunken eyes. A response came from the woman sitting near the front. She cradled a baby who, Williams noted, hadn’t made a sound since the woman’s arrival, “That God will take care of us?”

      Williams smiled at the woman. “Yes. As our fathers did so look to him in times of woe and want, so too shall we. And we will find ourselves justly rewarded for our faith.”

      Rabbi Teller interrupted, placing a hand on Williams’ shoulder. “And it is also by our own actions within our community, and in solidarity, that we find the strength to survive.” Turning toward the congregants he added, “As it has been our tradition and our obligation to weather the storms of history, it has been by the grace of God that we did so in the company of our neighbors and our friends.”

      The assured voice of the Imam, Waleed Bashir, echoed throughout the church as he offered some final words of consolation.

      “Insha’Allah, Allah ulaalekem. This will be known and remembered, insha’Allah, God willing, that our faiths in the one true God, blessed be his name, will not be erased from this world, or the memory of it, insha’Allah. With his might and goodness, we shall prevail, insha’Allah. As-Salaam-Alaikum …”

      As the Islamic blessings of ‘God Willing’ and ‘Peace be unto you’ left his lips, understood only in their general meaning by those listening, a small band of men and women gathered outside of the broad, red double doors at the entrance to this old house of worship. The intruders believed their intentions to be pure; however, it was truly deep-rooted malevolence and zealotry which spurred them through the doors.

      They entered, hearing the echo of Williams’ call, “All rise.”

      “Oh no,” said Devon, the man at the helm of the company. His eyes flashed with manic pride. “Please don’t get up on our account.” The group strode down the aisle, past the pews.

      Rabbi Teller stepped forward. “This is a house of worship and quiet contemplation. Not a place for Institute propaganda.” He insisted. “We asked you not to return. Why must you persist in terrorizing us?”

      Devon scoffed. “Because of those doors. No matter how much you blind yourselves with ignorance, those doors cannot keep the truth out,” his voice rose and boomed with the righteous authority typically reserved for men of cloth. He addressed the congregants. “Those doors cannot shield you from the light of truth. The righteousness of scientific certainty!” He redirected his growing ire toward the three who stood at the pulpit. “You! You continue to recite your nonsense, drawn from irrelevant and outdated myths about saints, apostles, and false prophets. You seek to silence the voices that have seen. These people come here to share what the Institute’s Viewing Rooms have proven.” Devon shot his arm out and pointed to the crowd. “These poor people you so disgustingly refer to as sheep deserve the truth. You cannot stand in the way any longer.”

      “We have heard all about what you have seen,” Teller thundered, “and it is nothing short of the destruction of mankind!”

      “Then hear from me,” spoke a young woman from the small band, eyes sincere. Although twenty-five, she spoke to the trio of older holy men as if their equal, “I have seen that place which your faiths’ founders, and every one of you who has come since, have lied about. You survive on belief. Belief gives you hope.” She moved slowly towards them. “But your belief isnothing more than hope. You hope your childish beliefs are true. You place a misguided certainty in them, but they constantly struggle against doubt. That is the nature of faith. What I have seen, what we have seen…it hasn’t inspired belief. It hasn’t given us faith. It has given us clarity. Your fears, the ones which drive you here to seek comfort in unanswerable questions, they’re so unnecessary. The proof of Ascension has given us the peace you have been seeking.”

      Devon smiled as he embraced her. Addressing the congregation, his voice started softly before crescendoing. “I was born a Biomass and when I die, my body will rot. All that I am will end. This is all the life I have. But I have glimpsed at what lies ahead for the Ascendants. It is not the life you lead. It is the blood you bleed.”

      Every word astounded the clergy. Not that it shook their faith, but in her eyes was mirrored a fanaticism they, as theologians, knew well; a fanaticism reflected in an increasing number of faces promising peace and certainty. The holy men knew what was upon them.

* * *

In a nearby alleyway…

      A man’s body crumbled behind a dumpster to the cold, wet concrete. Two older men, despite being of well-weathered temperaments, trembled with adrenaline after having taken a life. Handguns pointed down at the corpse, they looked to one another.

      “And that’s it.” Said one.

      “Indeed.” The second responded, “You ready for the next part?”

      Taking a deep breath, the first nodded to his friend, “I am. I am.”

      The two men gripped one another in the firm embrace of long-time comrades and friends. While neither would ever admit it to the other, both shed tears before breaking apart. The friends looked each other in the eye, several feet of concrete between them.

      “Count of three?” asked the first.

      “Yeah.” Answered the second.

      “Alright. Three, two, one…”

      His friend lifted the pistol to the center of the other man’s forehead. The .45 caliber bullet neatly shattered the front of his skull, leaving a small and precise hole. The bullet left a gaping wound, spraying blood and brain matter all over the damp brick wall behind him. The adrenaline-fueled gunman turned the gun to rest on his own forehead, then fired. The force of the bullet propelled him towards the dumpster.

      Unlike in so many a movie, no screams were heard, and no sirens blared. No panicked pedestrians fled the scene. Instead, all that could be heard, had there been anyone alive nearby to hear it, was the hard rain pattering down on three gunshot victims and a grimy dumpster.

* * *

      In the rectory of the church just off to the side of the main hall, Rabbi Teller took a seat, feeling troubled. The two cramped rooms housed the dirty, injured, and sick. They lingered quietly as his daughter Rebecca, a physician, tended to their maladies. She looked to her father, concerned.

      “Are you okay, dad?” she asked, stripping off a pair of blue exam gloves.

      He replied, “Me? I’m fine. It’s good to see you. I’m glad you could make time to help out. I know it’s not easy between the kids and the hospital shifts.”

      “It’s really not a problem. Are you sure you’re okay? Did something happen?”

      He considered whether or not to burden his daughter with news of the radicals who had interrupted his service. “It’s just…the world I once knew seems truly gone now. It’s all changed, and I can barely make sense of it. Maybe I’ve just lived too long.”

      “Dad, come on.” Rebecca said, put off by such talk.

      The old Rabbi waved it off. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t say such things, I know. How are those beautiful grandchildren of mine?”

      “One is twenty-three and apparently knows everything,” she said, shaking her head.

      Her father smiled broadly. “Maya is causing you some trouble?” It was as much a knowing statement as a question.

      Rebecca nodded as she pulled on a fresh set of exam gloves.

      “Good,” he chuckled. “Now you know how I felt. And how is little Hannah?”

      “Sweet as ever. Quiet, though. She misses you.”

      “I’ll visit her soon. Things have been so hectic lately I’m afraid I’ve lost track of time a bit.” He watched as his daughter strode over to a nearby cot where a young woman sat silently. She was bloodied and beaten, staring blankly into space. When this woman had arrived at the rectory door earlier that day, the Rabbi had done his best to help her settle in prior to the service.

      “What happened to you?” Rebecca asked.

      The woman said nothing.

      “She hasn’t spoken a word since she arrived. Wouldn’t eat anything either,” the Rabbi said.

      Rebecca kept her focus on the woman. She crouched down and took the woman’s hands in her own. The woman’s terrified gaze met hers.

      “Who did this to you?” Rebecca asked tenderly.

      The woman spoke with a delicate, broken voice, “Br…breeders.” Her hushed tone was laced with terror.

      “Breeders?” Rebecca furrowed her brow. “I don’t understand. What are breeders?”

      The woman was silent. Rebecca turned to her father. The Rabbi wore a grave expression. “Dad?”

      “We’ve heard rumors about these terrible people and the terrible things they do. They’re said to inhabit dark, underground locations where they do unspeakable things to people. Mostly women,” he replied.

      “All women…they’re all women,” the young woman whispered. “And no one escapes. No one escapes. No one makes it out,” her tone turned hysterical.

      Rebecca grasped her hands firmly. “But you did. And you’re here now. You’re safe.”

      The Rabbi looked about the cramped quarters of the makeshift shelter. Cots and bunks lined the walls with no spaces between them. A dirty, miserable person sat on each bunk, some with obvious injuries and others still coughing and groaning from untreated illness. “Every day it gets worse here. Each day there’s a little less room, a little less food, and a little less medicine to help these people. I honestly don’t know if I can keep going. These days I’m an old man taking up space. What good am I?”

      Cleaning off a laceration on the young woman’s arm, Rebecca replied, “Dad, these people have a place, this place, because of you. You’re the only one who would help them and not a single person among them would likely be alive here otherwise. You should be proud of what you’ve done. Besides, you have what many of them have lost.”

      “And what’s that?”

      “Hope. Faith. A belief that there’s a reason to keep living.”

      “Rebecca,” he beamed proudly at his daughter. “Sometimes I could swear you were my Jessica.”

      “I thought she was a skeptic.” Rebecca playfully needled her father.

      “Yes, but she had faith in her family. And so should you.” He rose from his seat. “Give me a second, would you?”

       As his daughter continued her work, the Rabbi strode into an adjacent room. He approached a closet out of earshot.

      “Maybe it’s time to come out of your hiding spot,” he whispered to the door.

      From the closet came a muffled young woman’s voice. “No.”

      “There’s no reason for you to be hiding like this. Let your mother know you’re helping. It’s a wonderful thing and I know she’d be very proud of you.”

      “Just tell me when she leaves.”

      Rebecca finished with her patient and joined her father near the closet.

      “Dad…are you…talking to a closet?” she asked, incredulous.

      “Oh. No,” he replied. Thinking quickly, he pulled out a black jacket, identical to the one he was wearing. “Just praying as I get a fresh jacket. I’m afraid this one is a bit…ripe.” The Rabbi swapped his sports coat, sparing a knowing glance and a raised eyebrow to the face just beyond his daughter’s view.

      “Well, Dad, I just got called in and it sounds like I’m going to be there all night. I’m going to drop Hannah off at her friend’s house, so she has a ride to school in the morning. Will you be okay here without me?”

      “Of course, of course. You go. Save the world some more. Just do try to get some rest, darling. You need to take care of yourself, too.” The old man said, kissing his daughter on the cheek. As she grabbed her bag and coat, Rabbi Teller watched until she left. He opened the closet door fully. “It’s safe,” he said, exasperated. “You can come out now, Maya.”

      From behind a row of coats emerged Rebecca’s oldest daughter, Maya. A slender, petite woman of twenty-three, Maya wore her dark hair cropped short, framing her face which constantly sported a scowl. Her grandfather placed a kiss on her forehead.

      “Don’t you think twenty-three is a bit old to be hiding from your mother in a closet?” he asked.

      “She doesn’t need to know everything I’m up to.” She replied defiantly. “Besides, weren’t you the one who said good deeds…”

      “Mitzvahs,” the old rabbi interjected.

      “Right, mitzvahs…weren’t you the one who said those done out of sight and without praise were the purest kinds?”

      “Ah! You’ve got me there. But seriously, Maya, try getting along with her a bit more. Usually rebellion like this is for teenagers. Your twenties are when you’re supposed to play nice while asking your mother for help with laundry and rent,” he said in a chiding yet warm grandfatherly tone. “Wait, you’re still living at home, right?”

      “Most of the time, yeah. Work is tough and money is tight. You know how it goes.”

      “I know how it goes. Listen, I should get back out there. Are you going to be okay here by yourself?”

      “I’ll be fine for the rest of the day. I think I can handle it. Thanks.”

      Again, the old man kissed his granddaughter on the forehead and then shuffled through a door leading onto the church floor. Maya strolled towards the woman who sat on her cot lightly rubbing her bandage. She produced a small folding knife from her pocket. Maya held the knife out, offering it to the traumatized woman.

      “Next time, fight back.” Maya insisted.

      The woman nodded shyly as she took the knife from Maya.

 Maya could tell she was grateful. Her knuckles turned white, clutching the knife. Maya slipped out of the back door and scurried down the dim street.

      She knew what they would tell her. What all of them would say at this moment. Her mother, her sister, her grandfather, every counselor, professor, cop, preacher, and prostitute she might meet, all saying the same thing. They’d tell her to ‘be careful out there, Maya.’

      Her hand slipped into her jacket pocket in search of her protection. It was something she went to great lengths to obtain, and even greater lengths to make functional. From the rare casings, restoring the chambers, as well as ensuring the hammer worked properly, it proved to be far more challenging than expected. This work thrust her deeper into the underworld of back alley trade in order to secure the device she would ultimately need.

      The thrill and terror required to obtain a properly cracked and hacked slate tablet, as intense as it was, was dwarfed by her first time accessing the dark web slatenet where off-channel and prohibited content was hosted. Ranging from bomb-making and other terrorist tutorials to banned crackpot theories about methods by which Biomasses might be made Ascendants, the depravation to which she found herself exposed brought her to tears as often as it terrified her.

      However, after considerable searching and building some mental fortitude, she finally found what she was after. All she needed was a full set of nail files and patience. Her efforts bore fruit after only a week of meticulous work.

      Maya walked the darkened streets alone, well aware of some of the dangers that lurked in the shadows. She knew that anything could happen at any moment. Yet, she felt confident, thumbing the hammer of her thirty-eight-caliber pistol, that she was far more dangerous.

* * *

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©2020 Don Schechter