Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fiction: The Mark of His Hands

Today being Easter Sunday, it seemed only right to offer up the following tale, just to set the appropriate mood. 'The Mark of His Hands' was first published back in 2003, in Orb Speculative Fiction, and comes to you courtesy of your very own NecroKeeper, Chuck McKenzie. So, sit back, ease up on the chocolate, and - if you're so inclined - Pray Not to Wake, Should the Lord Your Soul First Take...

The Mark of His Hands

Call it a confession, if you like…

   We brought the capsule down among the hills three kilometres south-west of the Antonia Fortress, and immediately scanned the surrounding area for signs of incursion. For obvious reasons, Church had suspected this event would be an ideal target for extremists, but – much to our relief - we detected no anachronisms. Fulci and I donned our costumes, cloaked the capsule, and set out for the city.
   Long before we reached the Jaffa Gate, we found ourselves caught up in an ever-growing throng of locals heading in the same direction, and ended up being virtually herded towards the marketplace as we entered the city. It was fortunate, then, that our secondary objective was to document that area; our primary objective being to observe the entombment itself, and whatever might occur afterwards.
   You are surprised, of course, that Church would sanction such an operation. In the event we might disprove the story once and for all, what would happen to the faith upon which Church is founded? I myself had no such qualms; a Christian, yes, but a believer only in the historical facts of the event. My role on this expedition was as doctor and historian, Fulci’s job being to verify the actuality – if any – of divine activity at this event, and good luck to him. We live in an age where most, like myself, take the stories not as truth but as parables, examples of the great things achievable through adherence to the moral codes He set down for us. To disprove the story would not be as devastating a revelation as one might expect, as Church well knew.
   And besides, were the event to be shown to be fact… Ah! What that would mean!
   The Sepulchre of Joseph lay half a kilometre back the way we had come, but He would not be taken there for many hours yet, giving us plenty of time to explore the marketplace, which had been hitherto undocumented. Our recordings would add valuable information to the existing files, giving Church a more complete picture of what had occurred in the city on this day.
   And so we activated our nanocorders, and entered the market.
   Those who have never Jumped can scarce imagine the shock of immersing oneself in the culture of another era. For us, it was not merely the experience of unfamiliar surroundings; the immersions prepare you for that. What they don’t prepare you for is the sensory overload that comes with the reality of being in another place and time. The very air smelt different - tasted different - as long-extinct species of plant and animal were boiled for broth. Peoples’ skins had an odd texture. Clothes comprised strange fabrics, textures and colours. Strange languages, some of them perhaps never recorded for future study, assailed our ears. There was the sound of braying animals, sandals against stone, wind whistling through pre-Biblical architecture. The experience could not be any stranger, I would imagine, had the capsule deposited us upon some alien world a billion light-years from Earth.
   But we were professionals, and strolled through the market acting as though this were a common experience for us. Less-experienced agents might have preferred to operate cloaked, but Fulci and I knew the best recordings came through interaction with the locals. And so we moved from stall to stall, chatting to vendors in the local dialect, never buying, politely rejecting the spruikers.
   We had been there perhaps an hour, when Fulci nudged me pointedly. “Hey Savini, look – we seem to have caught somebody’s attention. Over there.” He nodded surreptitiously.
   Without turning my head, I glanced in the direction indicated. Piercing brown eyes glared back at me from an ebony countenance, heavily lined by weather and age; teeth bared in a savage grin; thin, with painfully-hunched shoulders. “The Negro in the tan tunic?”
   “That’s him. Giving us a good looking-over. Why so interested, I wonder?”
   “A pickpocket, perhaps? Sizing us up?”
   Fulci frowned. “Something almost … malevolent about the way he regards us.”
   I sighed inwardly. Seeing demons in the shadows already. “Unpleasant, I grant you, but - ah, he’s realised we’ve seen him. Look, there he goes …”
   Fulci nodded slowly. “Yes. Off to find an easier mark, no doubt.” He did not sound convinced.
   We wandered around for another hour or so, running a casual commentary between ourselves for the benefit of the ‘corders. Occasionally, news runners would jostle their way through the crowds, shouting the progress of the Event. Surprisingly few people seemed to take an interest – surprising only from our retrospective point-of-view, I suppose - but with each report a few would amble off in the direction of the city gates.
   By noon, we felt that we had exhausted the possibilities of the market. The entombment was still several hours away, but there was no harm in getting there early. We were making our way back to the gate, when Fulci grabbed my arm and hissed, “He’s back!”
   Startled, I looked around and caught sight of a black face flanking us from a few metres away, staring intently.
   “There’s something wrong about him.” Fulci’s face was troubled. “I can feel it. Can’t you?”
   I peered at the Negro again. “Well, not wrong - but now that you mention it, he’s obviously no pickpocket. Look at the quality of his clothes. Besides, a good pickpocket wouldn’t make his attentions so obvious, and a bad pickpocket wouldn’t live past the age of ten around here. A slave, then. Or a freedman, more likely.”
   “Still doesn’t explain his interest in us.” Fulci shot me a look. “Perhaps he noticed something in our behaviour that marks us as … anachronistic?”
   A chill ran down my back. “An enemy agent? You’re getting paranoid.”
   Fulci didn’t reply, but as we passed through the gate he drew me swiftly aside, and we watched as the Negro passed us by, vanishing amongst the stream of pedestrians heading towards Golgotha.
   Relief flooded over me. “There you go - an agent wouldn’t have allowed us to lose him so easily.” I was beginning to feel angry now, ashamed at how completely I’d allowed my imagination to run wild.
   Fulci was still staring towards Golgotha. “We need to follow him.”
   “What?” I looked at him incredulously. “Fulci, we don’t have time -”
   “We have plenty of time. Anyway, what if you’re wrong about the Negro? You know the rules.”
   “This is pointless! The scan -” I stopped. Absence of anachronistic technology didn’t guarantee an incursion-free zone. Enemy agents wouldn’t need a staser to ensure the fall of western civilisation; a locally-made blade between the ribs before He reached Golgotha would be just as effective. Of course, to assassinate Him at this point in the day would have virtually no impact upon futurity, given that He was only hours from death anyway. But the rules were very clear; any suspicion of incursion, no matter how slight, must be investigated.
   And so we walked to Golgotha.
   There was a fair crowd gathered when we reached the site, mostly camped out upon rugs, looking for all the world like picnickers on a Sunday outing. On the outskirts, people stood in huddled groups, socialising casually. A few solitary souls gazed at the spectacle below; faithful followers, no doubt, come to witness the death of their leader. Soldiers paced back and forth through the crowd, hands upon their hilts, alert for trouble. And in the centre of all this…
   I had seen the excellent Romero-Coscarelli recordings, of course – indeed, like ourselves, those two would currently be mingling with the crowd at very moment – but nothing could compare to seeing it with my own eyes;
   He hung limply from the crucifix, His face blank and drooling. The agony must have shattered His mind long before we arrived. Massive, wrought-iron pegs had been driven through His wrists, transfixing Him to the patibulum of the crucifix. The crown of thorns had lacerated His temples as effectively as the scourging had lacerated His back. Flies swarmed over Him, His body black with dried blood.
   Below Him, on the edge of the crowd, a woman and a boy clung to one another, united in anguish. Mary and John. At His feet, soldiers played dice in the dust. Above their heads, the titulus; unreadable from where we stood, but I knew the words by heart.
   Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
   Tears stung my eyes. Can you imagine having to witness such an atrocity, knowing His suffering was necessary to forge the world we take for granted? With our technology, we might have prevented this - and to even think such a thing, the insanity of it, brought me out in a cold sweat…
   Fulci was weeping like a child, no doubt for different reasons than I. What was he thinking? That he gazed upon the personification of his God? That to witness this event somehow brought him closer to the Almighty? The thought irritated me immensely. Brushing my eyes dry with my sleeve, I glanced around the site until I found what I was searching for. “There!” I pointed. “Do you see?”
   Fulci blinked away his tears and looked. At the back of the crowd, off to the far left of the site, some enterprising food-vendors had pitched their tents, and in the shadow of one of the nearer stalls stood the Negro, speaking animatedly with one of the soldiers. The soldier, armed with a long spear, was nodding slowly, which seemed to please the Negro greatly. With one hand he rummaged under his tunic, producing a small bottle. With the other hand he held out a small cloth bag, hefting it invitingly. From the way its contents shifted, I guessed it to be full of coins. The soldier smiled, took the bag, then stepped back a few paces and lowered his spear, pointing it towards the Negro’s feet. The Negro grinned, squatted down, and slowly drew the palm of his hand across the bladed edge of the spear, coating the metal in blood. Without bothering to bind the wound, he then unstoppered the bottle and poured its liquid contents over the tip of the spear. The soldier watched the procedure with a blank look on his face; no doubt there were stranger sights to be seen elsewhere in the empire. Apparently finished, the Negro tucked the bottle back under his tunic, bowed to the soldier, and slipped away into the shadows.
   Fulci stepped forward, obviously intending pursuit, but I stopped him. “Wait! Look!”
   The soldier stood for a moment, gazing bemusedly at the tip of his spear. Then he raised the weapon, and walked towards the crucifixes. Reaching the foot of His cross, the soldier exchanged a few words with the attendant guard, who stood back, nodding agreeably. The soldier carefully positioned himself beneath the cross, braced himself, then stabbed upwards with his spear.
   There was a half-hearted cheer of approval from the section of the crowd nearest the action. Further back, somebody cried out as if in pain. Fulci shuddered.
   There was no reaction from Him. Comatose, He had not even felt the wound that would hasten His death.
   The pre-chrono historians had got it wrong, of course; they weren’t supposed to have speared Him until after he died, as Romero and Coscarelli had gleefully pointed out. But now, a further development: “Interesting,” I said. “Looks like the Negro bribed the soldier to administer some sort of poison – though the whole thing had the look of a spell, didn’t it? Blood and potions.” I turned to regard Fulci. “Which, I submit, proves the Negro is just some pagan local, not an enemy agent.”
   Fulci’s expression was sullen. “Possibly. But we should still follow him. There’s something evil going on here…”
   And suddenly, I understood.
   I have never believed in Good and Evil, except as philosophical concepts, but Fulci certainly did. And far from believing the Negro to be an enemy agent, he had obviously raised the idea purely to justify following an individual he believed to be supernaturally malign. And in doing that, he had landed a ringside view of the crucifixion – a diversion from our schedule that Church would never have condoned, had we not had the ‘excuse’ of surveilling a possible enemy agent.
  My face burning with anger, I grasped Fulci’s wrist as hard as I could, and was gratified to see his face blanch in pain. “When this operation is concluded,” I hissed, “my official report will include a recommendation that you be submitted for disciplinary action!” Fulci opened his mouth to protest, but I cut him off. “Until then, we will adhere exactly to the mission schedule, and if you so much as suggest another deviation…” I left the threat hanging. In truth, I could not think of anything sufficiently terrible to threaten him with. “Is that understood?”
   Fulci nodded tightly.
   There was nothing more to say on the matter, so we turned and began walking north-west towards the Sepulchre of Joseph.
   Soon after, darkness fell briefly in the middle of the afternoon. We stopped, bowing our heads, until the sun appeared again in the sky. Oddly, I felt nothing. Out of sight, out of mind. I did not look at Fulci to see his reaction.
   By the time we arrived, there were already a couple of guards posted – locals rather than soldiers, probably sent by the Pharisees – so we were obliged to cloak in order to enter the sepulchre. For some reason, one tends to think of His tomb as little more than a cave, but the interior was surprisingly spacious; perhaps ten by ten metres, with a beautifully-carved sarcophagus resting upon a block of stone in the centre. We inspected the tomb for a while, for the benefit of the ‘corders, then sat down on the clean-swept floor in the furthermost corner and waited. After what seemed an eternity, we heard the sound of wailing and crying in the distance, growing slowly closer. Eventually, with the sounds of mourning right outside the tomb, two burly men entered carrying a body in a linen shroud. With obvious haste, they laid out the body inside the sarcophagus and left, pausing only to spit upon the floor. Moments later there with a great grinding sound, and the light vanished.
   We waited for a while, then stood up, de-cloaked and activated our IR implants. Moving over to the body, I proceeded to tear the shroud open along the seam. The stench of preservative spices filled the tomb. Fulci gagged.
   “Are you ready to do this?” I asked.
   He nodded unenthusiastically.
   “Okay, then.” I cleared my throat. “Subject is male. Thirty-five years old. Medium build. Approximately one-hundred and eighty centimetres tall.” I pulled my medscan from the pouch at my belt, activated it, and held it over the body. He was definitely deceased, with no sign of pulse or respiration, and livor mortis had already begun to set in. Cause of death was orthostatic collapse; renal failure due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium. Blood loss due to multiple lacerations had also contributed. Not to mention… I moved the ‘scan to cover the single, deep stab wound under the left-hand ribcage. “Hah.”
   “What?” I could hear the tremor in Fulci’s voice. No doubt he objected to me treating His body so irreverently, and I derived a certain mean pleasure from that.
   “That stuff the Negro put on the blade. Weird concoction. Puffer-fish venom, belladonna, a few herbal extracts. Highly narcotic, likely to induce psychotic delirium, slow respiration and heartbeat. Not very effective as a poison, but in His weakened state I suppose -” I glanced at the ‘scan again. “Ah. Hematohidrosis. Ruptured blood vessels in his sweat glands.” I gave Fulci a look. “Makes it look as though he was sweating blood prior to death.”
   Fulci nodded bleakly. Another mystery solved, for what it was worth.
   “Nothing else unusual,” I continued. “Healthy, for the age he lived in. And we already know what his last meal comprised -”
   “Sh!” Fulci interrupted. “What was that?”
   We stood motionless in the dark, listening.
   The sound of grinding stone, accompanied by the grunt of human exertion.
   “Cloak!” whispered Fulci, and I followed his lead as the stone rolled aside. Of course, I had expected this intrusion - after all, if He had not risen from the dead, then somebody must have taken the body – but I was surprised to find it occurring so soon. Another of my pre-conceptions, that the body had vanished on the third day. The report of the holy women three days hence would obviously result from sheer hysteria over the theft, rather than from anything they might actually see.
    There was a pause. Then, the jingle of coins, instantly explaining how the grave-robber had managed to get past the guards. And they, no doubt, would support the tale of resurrection as a means of hiding their involvement in the crime.
   A figure appeared at the tomb entrance, face illuminated by the light of a flaming torch, and I felt Fulci stiffen beside me.
   It was the Negro.
   He walked confidently into the tomb, torch raised high to illuminate the interior. Then he noticed the open shroud and stopped dead in his tracks, peering around suspiciously. He seemed to pause as his gaze swept over us – impossible, of course, as we were completely invisible – and I chided myself for an overactive imagination. And yet, for a moment, it truly seemed that his gaze met mine. I blinked, and this seemed to break the spell.
   Muttering to himself, the Negro moved over to the sarcophagus and examined the body intently, pulling the eyelids open to inspect the sightless orbs. Apparently satisfied by what he saw, he reached beneath his tunic and withdrew a small leather pouch, tied with a drawstring. Stepping back, he squatted down on his haunches, pulled the bag open, and tipped the contents out onto the floor; tiny bones – chicken bones, perhaps – which the Negro began to arrange into a small circle. That done, he produced a piece of chalk, and began to draw something within the circle. It took me a moment to recognise the design.
   A pentagram.
   Immediately sensing what Fulci’s reaction would be – to rush forward and destroy the offending scrawl with his sandal - I put out an arm to hold him back. The Negro turned slightly, as though aware of movement behind him, grinned, and resumed his ceremony. We watched as he dug a palmful of yellow powder from a pouch at his waist, sprinkling it over the pentagram, then touched his torch to the circle. The powder began to smoke, a musty odour filling the room, and my head seemed to spin. Clearly the powder had narcotic properties.
   The Negro began to chant, a weird rhythmic babble that rose and fell in pitch and volume. And suddenly I felt a chill. Not a physical chill, but the feeling of something fundamentally wrong. Even as I berated myself for such foolishness, an unreasoning horror gripped me, and with it, a sudden dread certainty that we had been chosen as players in this obscene ritual, lured in by our misdirected suspicion of the Negro – for what dark purpose?
   Numbed by fear, I was only vaguely aware of the chanting reaching a crescendo as the Negro produced a handful of crimson powder from another pouch, and flung it into the smoking circle. There was a flash of violet flame, and the torch was suddenly extinguished.
   At the same instant, my implant crashed. I spun around, groping blindly in the dark.
   What occurred next –
   Well, let me tell it as I remember.
   As the powder ignited, the shadows in the tomb leapt and twisted, making the body in the sarcophagus appear to writhe with unholy life. Disoriented by the sudden darkness that followed, I sought Fulci’s arm, and heard a malicious cackling, followed by a scuttling sound. Somebody gasped loudly; Fulci, I assumed - although later I would think how it had sounded not so much like a gasp of shock, more a desperate sucking of breath into lungs bereft of oxygen. Then, the tearing of fabric, and the thud of unshod feet hitting the floor. The Negro shouted something from the entrance.
   I had a sudden sense of someone passing in front of me. And there was an odour; nothing I could identify exactly, although I was instantly reminded of the smell of old leaf-litter. Again, a chill. Physical, this time, as though a refrigerator door had opened before me. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. Something wrong.
   And then, something in the darkness beside me hissed.
   At that, Fulci shrieked. Briefly. Choked into silence. Something heavy fell against me, knocking me to the floor. I lay there, hugging myself in terror. From outside the tomb, the sound of raised voices, frightened and querulous. Another shout from the Negro.
   Slow, listless footsteps shuffled past my head towards the entrance. The chill and the smell receded. Somebody outside screamed in fright, and I heard the sound of running feet vanishing into the distance.
   A few seconds later, my implant came back online…
And so, thirty years on, here I am. Comfortable, I grant you, my every desire attended to, bar one. Freedom. But I understand. Church cannot take a chance upon my silence. If the full truth of this matter were ever revealed -
   As I say, I am well looked-after, although I feel sure the subject matter of the reading material I request – which is always unquestioningly delivered – must raise eyebrows; Haitian history and culture, with particular focus upon the practice of so-called ‘zombification’. I don’t know quite what I am looking for; perhaps an indication that this practice can in some way be reconciled with God’s great design. But the information in these documents is of little assistance, invariably describing a process by which the living attain the appearance of the dead, held in thrall to evil masters via administration of noxious compounds.
   But He was dead.
   And being dead … cannot die?
   When I watch omnet, images beamed in from across the globe, I find myself examining the faces. A cast of millions. And always I concentrate, searching desperately for a single visage that I hope, paradoxically, I shall never see…
   I will die here, quite soon I think. And surely then I will find peace. If there is a God – and surely, if such supernatural evil can exist, then so, I feel, must the Almighty – surely He, in his infinite mercy, will allow me to forget -
   - the expression on Fulci’s dead face, lying beside me as my implant came back online. The marks around his neck.
   The mark of His hands.


(Artwork copyright Daryl Lindquist)

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