Sympathy for Monsters: Episode 2
Conrad is captured by the Therapeutics
This is Episode 2 of an ongoing serial told in third person prose and in first person via twitter threads. You can read Episode 1 here.
By the time Conrad realized that the approaching sentries were armed with sharpened broomsticks they already had him. He’d been too distracted. Couldn’t get his mind off that guy at the gas station. Who even had that many bullets to waste? There must have been more ammo somewhere, a lot of it. He couldn’t imagine anybody behaving like that without the comfort of a stockpile.
As the sentries walked him back to the compound, Conrad ran over the incident again and again, trying to remember if there had been some warning or clue as to where the guy had come from. Frank remained unfazed, trotting alongside with periodic breaks to sniff the dirt.
A few of the men got behind the ruins of Conrad’s car and pushed. They were probably going to strip it. The tires were in good shape and the drivetrain was probably fine. Fair to assume they had tools inside. Maybe even more cars.
“You captured me with broomsticks.” Conrad said it more to himself than to them. Not that anybody seemed to mind. “Did your armorer raid a janitor’s closet?”
He supposed he should be happy that he wasn’t getting under their skin. Catching second hand fire twice in one day would be embarrassing, to say the least.
As they walked closer to the encampment, its foreboding palisades revealed themselves to be made from salvaged palette slats. A half inch of sunbleached pine separated inside from outside.
“Amazing, aren’t they?” The pageboy said, beaming. Not a whit of irony.
“Frank, you thinking what I’m thinking?”
The dog gave Conrad worried look in response.
“Can you hear his thoughts?” The pageboy asked.
“Not really, kid.”
He could read Frank’s expressions well enough, though. A prophet with the power to bewitch men into believing that palette slats and broomsticks were protection against the wastes was no slouch.
The thin wooden gates creaked as they entered. Men crowded the pageboy, clapping him on the back. His missing companions went unremarked upon. Conrad had expected to receive a few gawking stares, but the only ones on offer were directed at Frank.
“This means you’re part of the gang now, doesn’t it?” Conrad said to the pageboy, whose smile had grown larger than his face. He didn’t seem to notice the question.
An initiation rite, Conrad assumed. Probably had too many men in the cult. There were no women among the sentries, most likely they were kept somewhere only the prophet could access.
Send the men into the wastes to prove themselves, thin the heard, and the survivors might even return with something useful like a salvageable engine. Even if they came back empty handed, they’d be loyal. Returned of their own volition after witnessing the cruelty of the wastes with nothing but broomsticks for protection.
The crush dissipated, leaving the pageboy standing beside Conrad, swaying in the glow of his own triumph. The sentries stood at the ready but didn’t seem too concerned. Conrad expected that the boy would get a nice party and then go back to shearing sheep or whatever menial job he did to earn his bread around the compound.
With the crowd dissolving, more of the camp came into view. Zero women, as expected. Irregular tents in ragtag rows. A water tower. Along one of the walls was a row of plastic portable toilets that Conrad hoped were used for shitting but could could just as easily been solitary confinement cells. Or breeding chambers. He looked away for something else to focus on.
In the middle of it all was an old church that predated the Weirding by at least a couple hundred years. A memento of the days when there were only a few religions in the world. Whichever religion the church had been built to glorify was unknowable now, the signs long since stripped away. The double doors swung open.
The prophet was a tall man with the bearing of a golden retriever. It was obvious whose haircut the pageboy had been emulating. The prophet’s sandy mane took on a halo in the afternoon sun. As he walked through the crowd the men moved around him like iron filings. Conrad fought the urge to fall to his knees.
No matter how many times he’d been through this it was never easy. Even with the weak ones, and this fella wasn’t weak in the least.
Conrad braced himself, anchoring his mind to an old memory. The night before it all happened. Penny Kally smiling at the end of the bar, hip cocked with a tray in her hand. They got so drunk that night. He’d blacked out. Maybe the blackout was what allowed him to keep his mind when everybody else’s got blasted away . . . the prophet’s eyes were beautiful, brown and liquid. His hair. The halo of the sun. The impregnable steel walls that surrounded them. The phalanx of legionnaires, deadly sharp spears at the ready. Conrad’s vision grew crisp with each of these details so that everything else became a blur.
“Penny,” he muttered.
“For your thoughts,” the prophet whispered from too far away to hear.
Conrad’s eyes were dry. It stung to close them. He saw Penny again, from the time before the Weirding. There had been a Weirding. The world hadn’t always been this way. He might not remember the name of his hometown but he remembered more than most.
“You’re strong,” Conrad said. He’d heard of prophets with this much power but he’d never been this close to one. The men who needed his help weren’t often at the top of their game. Fear prickled at the back of his neck. “Banyon, is it?”
“Rink,” the prophet said, addressing the pageboy. “You’ve lost your companions, I’m sorry.”
The pageboy, Rink, shuffled forward. He looked like a poorly made knock off of Banyon. The haircut, the sweater in the heat.
“Timo couldn’t keep his anger in check,” Rink said.
The prophet nodded gravely. Rink began to vomit out the story of how the mongo got his head blown off but the prophet silenced him with a raised hand.
“Come.” He motioned for Conrad to follow.
Conrad nodded, pretending that his heart hadn’t just fluttered at the man’s attention. He took a few breaths. The walls had turned back into palette wood, the spears into broomsticks. Conrad’s jaw ached like he’d been on a speed bender. Electric shocks tickled his nerves. He was very, very thirsty.
The chapel was spartan. Wooden pews and a small raised altar. They went through a door at the back into a plain but tasteful office. Banyon indicated a couch across from an old recliner. Both were spotless but worn threadbare. The click of a lock sounded behind Conrad. He sat, politely ignoring what they both had heard.
“Why do I want to tell you everything?” Conrad did manage to keep his voice from wavering.
“Because that’s what the Church of the Therapeutics is for.”
Banyon folded his hands, filling the room with silence. Conrad’s heartbeat ticked down the seconds in his ears until he couldn’t stand it and blurted a clumsy introduction. His own name, lonely in the emptiness around it.
“Conrad, I know. We believe that honesty is healthy. Feel free to unburden yourself.”
“You’re stronger than I thought you’d be.” Flattery would have to do.
There was no doubt that Banyon’s men were behind the door, ready for the sounds of a scuffle. Conrad wouldn’t survive, but he’d have a good chance of taking Banyon out on the way. Ballsy move for the prophet to be in there alone with him.
“Were you frightened when Timo lost himself?”
“Timo? Yea high? Recently on fire?” Something flickered across Banyon’s face, it could have been pique but it was gone too quick to tell.
“I understand that you’re a fixer. You’ve done work for the Christmasons, the Soccer Matrons, and that bordello over the ridge in Peoplesbad?”
“Guess I’m famous.”
The glamor and the soft pitch for the Church of the Therapeutics had been reflexive. Conrad could tell Banyon wasn’t putting his heart into it. Now this business of reciting Conrad’s client list? Banyon wanted something from him.
Conrad stifled his relief. He was still in the woods. Just because Banyon wanted something from him didn’t mean the man was aware of it yet himself.
“Now tell me what happened to Timo and Lon.” He fixed Conrad with a blankly threatening look. “Lest you be tempted to lie, I will warn you that what my followers see, I see.”
“Then you know about how a guy opened up Lon’s skull with more fast moving lead than I’ve ever seen come out the barrel of a single gun.” Conrad watched Banyon’s face for movement, but he was unreadable. “I’d put hacksilver to tin pots that he wasn’t alone. At some point his buddies will roll through this little toothpick farm and leave nothing behind but ashes and wind.”
Clouds drifted across the prophet’s brow. Doubt. Not quite as all powerful as he appeared. The gas station could have been too far for him to see through his followers’ eyes, or his claim to know everything they knew was more ambitious than the reality.
“Sorry Mr. Banyon,” Conrad began. He didn’t do solicitous very well but he put on the closest thing he had in his vocal repertoire. He was pitching. “I am down one very expensive car, one very rare gun, and I’ve lost my commission. If you do know your followers’ minds then you know I offered to help before things went sideways. That offer is still on the table.”
The man had to need something, Conrad was sure of it. Otherwise, he’d be dead, cast out, or sex tortured by now. Probably. You never knew what you were sticking your dick into in this biz.
Conrad tapped his thumb against his leg, counting his heartbeats, waiting for Banyon to speak. At the count of seventy-five, Banyon leaned forward.
“The boy wasn’t sent out as an initiation rite,” he said. The room developed a hyperreal sharpness as he spoke. “Rink, Lon, and Timo were sent to find a sacrament. A chemical vital to the function of our church.”
Bingo. He needed drugs. This “sacrament” must’ve got his followers into a state where he could really suck ‘em dry.
“They weren’t doing a great job. When I found your crew, they were digging in tire piles outside a wrecked gas station six klicks from Whore’s Tooth Hill.”
“Horse Tooth Hill. Beyond the range of the church, people can get a little lost.” Banyon rubbed his eyes. The spell was broken, the sharp edges of the room relaxed into soft focus. Exhaustion settled on him as he leaned back in his chair. “What we do here, Mr. Gordon, is learn to control our impulses. Folks come because they would be freed from their own worst instincts. I take that burden. With the connection broken I could not relieve them of their emotions. Lon and Rink were both in danger of burning up like Timo. Without the sacrament, it will be as if everyone here is outside the church. In time, they’ll all burn.”
“All of them?”
It was a stark thought, even for Conrad. Banyon was drawing more than the power of belief off his followers. Their subdued affect was because every excess bit of emotional energy went directly to Banyon. With nowhere to go, it burned them up—literally—and his sacred chemical was necessary to maintain that safety valve, and to maintain his power.
“I’ve sent several men out in search of the sacrament. Beyond my protection, all save for Rink have succumbed.” For the first time, Banyon seemed genuinely worried about his people. He couldn’t have enjoyed airing his dirty laundry to an outsider, but it was clear he’d been backed into a corner. “There is an old chemical plant, rubbled out. It’s in the South Canyon ruins.”
Kilometers of desert suburbs and office parks. Winding streets among collapsed houses. The word ‘subdivision’ tugged at Conrad’s memories. Stuff he couldn’t let himself think about right then. He was missing something.
Banyon knew where the chemicals were.
He sent three of his people to that gas station, in the opposite direction of South Canyon. Because they weren’t looking for chemicals, they were looking for Conrad. He didn’t have time to be angry yet. That could wait until he was far outside those palette slat walls. He willed himself to forget and before he could curl his lip, the anger was gone. Erased.
“I know the area. Tell me what I’m looking for and I’ll figure out how to get it to you.” Time to talk turkey. “I’m going to need my knife back, and another car. Whatever meat you have in the camp for Frank and me. A shower would be nice. I’d also like a gun if you have one. I used to, but thanks to a surprise flamethrower named Tim I find myself unarmed. As for monetary payment, the rate for a job like this usually comes in at one kilo of hacksilver.”
Powerful people hate being out leveraged in a negotiation. Conrad knew he needed to pump the brakes.
“Listen, you have a good thing here,” Conrad said. “If you haven’t noticed, the world outside is fucked. Maybe you keep your women in a tiger pit somewhere. Maybe the men are enslaved. I don’t give a shit. The only thing I want in this world is for the human race to survive long enough to get its shit together. So as far as I’m concerned, whatever you’re doing here is better than the alternative. For all intents and purposes, I’m on your team. Now get me a car and a gun and I’ll find your holy drugs.”
Conrad began to think that it wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped. Maybe he’d come on too strong. Finally, Banyon replied.
“Your car is mostly salvageable except for the cab.” Banyon’s eyes flickered while he spoke, giving the impression that he was pulling this information directly out of some poor mechanic’s head. “I have people who can get it running again but it will take time. The chemical plant is three days away on foot. You’ll have to find the sacrament without it, unfortunately.”
“We can’t spare any.”
They didn’t have any. Conrad didn’t like the guy one bit. Didn’t like cults at all, but you live in the world as it exists. To himself he hoped that after a several generations of these cults sanding each other down, after the prophets were long gone, humanity could begin to flourish again. If the only way this idiot race could survive times like this was by finding prophets to take shelter behind, then so be it.
What’s a few wasted generations in the sprawling lineage of history? Couldn’t be any worse than living through an ice age or getting your village sacked by a horde of horse barbarians.
Conrad remembered the guy from the gas station.
“You guys should be better armed. I wasn’t bullshitting about the man with the gun.” Frank leaned his head against Conrad’s knee. “Rink and them were outside your zone of control. You’re strong. That zone is bigger than any I’ve ever seen, at least judging from how wide you run your sentry ring. Still, you don’t have anything but that empty headed boy’s memory to go on. You didn’t see that gun. Something bad is coming and it’s going to march through here whether you have your sacrament or not.”
“I can handle whatever comes my way, Mr. Gordon.” He waved his hand.
Conrad’s vision blurred. His throat closed. The room filled with a sick fog. It crawled on his skin and invaded his body. He covered his mouth and nose but could still feel the vapor crawling, burrowing toward his brain. He made an attempt to stand but his feet sank into the floor, the breath he’d been holding escaped in a gasp and his lungs filled with the rotting fog.
Then it was gone. Conrad sucked in the clean air of the room. Banyon leaned back in his chair resting one ankle on the other knee. Frank snuffled at the carpet, which had become new and crisp and colorful.
“That’s one hell of a glamor you got on you, fella.”
“Bring the sacrament and you’ll get your car. Let me worry about the scary men with guns.”
Frank snuffled Conrad’s leg again, distracting him from his anger long enough to save him from himself. He leaned down slowly and gave the dog a scratch behind its ears, releasing the urge to wrap Banyon’s jaw around the edge of his coffee table.
“Here.” Banyon folded a slip of paper and passed it to Conrad. “This will help you identify the sacrament.” Conrad went to take the note but Banyon held onto it for a moment, meeting his eyes. “If you ever want to be free of that anger, I can help.”
Conrad tucked the note into his pocket. All he had to do was make it out of that office without fucking things up.
“Tell the lads outside to give me my fucking knife and put that meat on the fire. I’m hungry.” He paused at the door without looking back. “You’ll have your sacrament.”
He tried to slam the door on his way out but it was on a piston and whispered shut behind him.
The food wasn’t bad. If Conrad had his wits about him he’d have asked Banyon to glam it up a bit. The others acted like they were at a royal feast, the way they were carrying on. He almost envied them. Still no women around. Didn’t want to spend too much time thinking on that.
Conrad passed every third bit of mutton to Frank, who wolfed the pieces down without hesitation.
The next morning, they loaded Conrad up with water and pointed him toward South Canyon. Rink offered his broomstick, presenting it like an heirloom. It was touching.
“Thanks anyway, bud. You keep that.”
A day and a half of rolling scrub and hardpan later, Conrad and Frank caught sight of the walls of Cape Fontaine. It had once been a gated community. After the Weirding they were one of the first cults to spring up in the new world. General Hobb claimed he wasn’t a prophet. He’d have anybody who called him one hung on the wall. For blasphemy, of course. He also claimed that he could see the future.
Couldn’t blame people for falling in behind a guy like that. It was a scary time. The residents were armed to the teeth anyway, and going martial seemed like the natural move.
They were sacked inside of two weeks. Nobody could fight, even with all those guns. The residents of Cape Fontaine might as well have been fighting with sharpened broomsticks for as long as they lasted. The General himself was, of course, not a general. He was a guy who had worked in a machine shop and read action thrillers during his lunch breaks. Raiders looted that subdivision all the way down to the ground. Nothing left but row on row of scorched foundations and blast marked cinderblock, cut through with wide winding lanes. Cape Fontaine was the most picked over spot in the wastes. By now there would be people inside. Making pilgrimages, or waiting to rob the hapless pilgrims.
Conrad realized he had never been inside.
“Frank?” The dog looked at Conrad like he’d lost his fucking mind. “Come on, let’s see what’s left of Cape Fontaine.”
Sometimes, when you’re a dog, you just go with it. Even when it seems really, really stupid. Frank went with it, no hesitation. What was the point otherwise, to be a dog and not to be loyal.
Conrad appreciated Frank’s closeness. The critter would walk into an acid pit with him without question.
They picked up their pace. If they could get past that section of wall fast enough, he figured they could get the jump on the guy who had been following them for the last few klicks.