Jason knew he was grinning like a fool, but he just couldn’t help himself. As grateful as he was for the protective embrace of Haven, it was only so large, and there were only so many people to meet. For anyone who was as fascinated by people as Jason, that was a hard burden to bear. So on those rare occasions on which outsiders arrived, he had a tendency to jump in headfirst.
New souls! New friends! They WILL be my friends, right? I mean, they have to be! I mean, they don’t HAVE TO have to, but…I saved them from the psychovore! I mean, yeah, I lost my temper again, but…I saved them! That’s gotta count for something! And that one was FAST! Wow, was he fast! I wonder who they are? I mean, yeah, probably they’re old people, almost everybody is, at first, but still…wow! I wonder if they’ll be my friends? I wonder what they’re like?
In another world, in another life, Jason had been the sort of person who snuck downstairs on Christmas morning and unwrapped his presents early.
As Ben regarded the two lights in the center of the cave, his mind ground through the possibilities. Two new arrivals, less than a month after the attempt by the hillmen to infiltrate us in exactly this same fashion. They couldn’t possibly be so stupid as to try the same trick twice, could they? Could these actually be Imre and Delia? Unlikely. When those two left us, they were still very much alive. And very much in possession of information about Haven’s layout, and its defenses.
The odds are against this being an infiltration. Still…two of them at once. That doesn’t happen often. And where there is companionship, there is always the possibility of conspiracy. This will have to be handled carefully, lest it become another wedge for John Ammerman to exploit. Still…he has provided me with the exact mechanism I need to control the situation…
In another world, in another life, Ben had been the sort of person who carefully inspected his Christmas presents for improvised explosives.
The older of the two men in front of Will was thickly built, tending a bit towards plumpness, but moved with the easy grace of an athlete. He had strong features and thinning hair. Torchlight from the cave walls reflected off of his pale gray eyes as he regarded Will and Buddy. Of the dozen or so people who’d been in and out of the cave in the last half hour, he was easily the oldest. He wasn’t yet forty.
And, more to the point, he’s a human being with a physical body, Will thought. They all are. And the majority of them speak recognizable American English. How is that possible?
The older man turned to the huge black boy who’d rescued them. “So, Jason…the psychovore chased them down here?”
“Sorta.” The young man could have snapped the older one in two over his knee without a second thought, yet in his presence their rescuer was deferential, perhaps even a little bit intimidated. “Buck was on top of Greta’s Bluff, and he spotted the heartlight over the river not far from Phillip’s farm. He sent word to light the signal fire, and I guess it guided them in.” His eyes lit up. “My God, Ben, you should have seen them fly!”
The older man gave Will and Buddy an appraising look. “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened,” he ruminated. “We’ve had new souls arrive before. We’ve been generous towards them. And on occasion, our hospitality has been taken advantage of. We must remain vigilant. Still…to bait a psychovore? To risk not merely a single bodily incarnation, but one’s very soul? The hillmen may take life more lightly than we do, but not that lightly, I think.”
Will was completely bewildered. Are they still speaking English? I mean, okay…the fish thing that chased me is a “psychovore”, apparently. I get that. But…hillmen? An “incarnation”? If Will had had a head, it would have been spinning.
As Will fumbled with his thoughts, the conversation raced on ahead of him. “Trust me, Ben, I’ve got a good feeling about these two,” Jason exclaimed. He licked his lips, then continued. “Besides…I mean…we can’t just put everybody through the wringer, right? I mean, everybody’s been new in Haven at some point. Everybody needs help at first. Like you and Rosemary helped me. You remember what it was like. They’re probably scared, and confused. We gotta help out. I mean, it’s only fair.”
The black boy was wide-eyed, his expression open and sincere. The older man’s expression was more calculating. “Fairness is an elusive concept in time of war, Jason. Your kindness and your trust do you credit. But is blind trust the right approach under these circumstances? What do you think Mr. Ammerman would say?”
Jason’s lip curled in contempt. “I could care less what that ba-” He caught himself just in time. “…what that man thinks.”
“And yet there are those who do care about his opinion, Jason. Whether we like it or not―whether we like him or not―he was right about Delia and the other spies, and we were wrong. And as a result, the community has chosen to insist upon his protocols for new arrivals.” Once again, Ben turned his full gaze upon Jason. Jason was the taller of the two men by, at a conservative estimate, eight inches; with Ben looking him in the eye, it seemed to Will, he physically shrank in stature. “John Ammerman and I have had our share of fallings-out, to put it mildly. You and I may not care much for the man. But that’s just one more reason to make sure that we’re not made fools of again.” Ben turned again, regarding Buddy and Will with a jaundiced eye. “How confident are you in your impression of these two, Jason? Confident enough to run the risks involved? To do what is necessary, if it comes to it?”
Jason stood, twisting his hands, eyes downcast. At length he spoke, albeit in a small, tremulous voice. “I…I guess so, Ben. I’ll…I’ll sponsor them. If that’s what it takes. I’m just saying…” Jason swallowed, then seemed to grow in stature, to gain six or seven years of age in the space of a sentence. “…everyone deserves a chance, you know? A chance to be loyal.”
Ben stood silent for several seconds, looking up at the boy. Then he nodded slowly. “I agree.” He clapped the boy on the back. “Go tell Mr. Ammerman. He will be skeptical, I am sure. When is he not? But the system is of his design, and I am sure he will abide by its terms. The risk is yours. Be sure that you do not take it lightly.”
Jason’s smile burst out again, irrepressible. As he turned to go, however, Ben raised a finger. “Jason…we’ve been ignoring something rather obvious. These two didn’t arrive on Elysium of their own volition, but were chased here. There is every reason to think that they were seeking The Light and found themselves diverted. They may be here against their will.”
Jason’s expression crashed momentarily, but then went strangely solemn. “You’re right. Hadn’t thoughta that.” He stared at the two heartlights; Ben turned in their direction as well, addressing them directly.
“I hope you will forgive my cohort and me for our insufficient hospitality. These are somewhat trying times in Haven.” He cleared his throat. “There is much to explain. I fear that the conversation must by necessity be rather one-sided, and I recognize that you may well have grander priorities at present than listening to a foolish old man. Still, let us start by attempting to establish a common tongue. Do you speak English? Please bear in mind that Jason and I, in our current form, can see nothing of you but your heartlights. Please bob up and down once for yes; I will take the absence of motion as a no.”
Will lifted himself off of the cave floor, then settled back. Off to his right, Buddy did the same.
“Excellent. That will simplify things considerably. There are speakers of many languages here in our community, but we find that the preponderance of those who discover Haven are for some reason native English speakers. It has become our lingua franca―which is, I suppose, a paradox,” he said, flashing a sideways grin.
“In any case, I must congratulate you on your escape. The predator pursuing you was, as you may have gathered, a psychovore. Though itself a tangible being and,”―here he gestured to the cave mouth―”fortunately, a mortal one,”―Jason smiled at the comment―”it feeds off of soul energy, which is to say, the energy of the will. It is one of the few things we know of which can actually kill a soul―which is to say, extinguish the otherwise immortal aspect of a human being.”
“You will have discovered, shortly following your earthly demises, the Axis of Eternity, the direction between worlds, at one end of which lies The Light. Having seen The Light, you know its appeal. Its inexorable pull.” Ben hesitated. “We of Haven…and more broadly, all of us, all over this world of Elysium…we are souls, like yourselves. We lived mortal lives, as you did, and died.” Another pause. “But we are exceptional in one respect. Almost all souls choose to enter The Light immediately after they die. Jason and I, and all of those who have chosen to inhabit this world, are different. There is something in us that resists unity with The Light. Not eternally, but temporarily. We feel…unready.”
Ben’s lips shut in a tight grimace. “Why? Who can say? Some think it may be a moral failing in us, that our souls are somehow damaged or broken. I have heard it said that Elysium is Purgatory, though I myself do not believe our afterlife here is so harsh as to merit that description. Others think that we are simply made differently. In any case, when a soul such as mine or Jason’s resists The Light’s unifying call, it wanders in the four dimensions of space―the three normal dimensions, and the Axis of Eternity as well. Over time, many such souls find Elysium. We sojourn here. And then, when we feel ready, we move on, to become one with The Light, as is our destiny.”
“Jason and I, obviously, are no longer disembodied spirits. We have chosen to undergo the difficult process called Incarnation. We live again as mortal men, and as such, we are blind to The Light and to the axis which contains it. You might say that our community, Haven, is a community of ‘lost souls.’ Not evil, mind you, but lost. Or, to use my beloved Rosemary’s phrase, ‘rogue souls.’” Jason gave a nod of affirmation. “The two of you, however, may not be like us. You did not seek Elysium, but escaped to it. Such an event is rare. Few who attract a psychovore’s attention possess the means to evade it. In fact, I cannot say that I know of any present member of our community who arrived in this manner.”
A long, pregnant pause. “If you were en route to The Light at the time you were attacked, you need not await my permission to resume your journey. Jason will agree, I am sure, that you owe him no debt.” The boy’s face was sad, but he nodded agreement. “By all means, go forth, with our blessing. Perhaps you will find God behind The Light; who can say? No one who has gone into The Light has ever returned.” Another pause. “Or, if you choose…you may remain here, on this world. You may seek any of the other communities of Elysium, travelling in spirit form. Or, if you choose to respect the rules and practices of Haven, to contribute to the common good, to share with us what scraps of the mortal world you remember, you may stay here. We will assist you in the incarnation process. You will be a full member of our community.”
“And as a full member of our community, you will be under Jason’s sponsorship. By which I mean this: if you harm our community, both you and he will be accountable.” A longer pause. “And if you betray our community to its enemies, Jason will bear the responsibility of killing you, as often as necessary.”
As often as necessary? Will looked Jason over. Had he thought Jason had the eyes of a killer? Certainly, Jason had murdered the psychovore willingly enough. Yet, as formidable as he was, there was a gentleness there as well. Perhaps even a touch of naiveté. He could kill a man easily enough. But WOULD he?
“The choice is yours,” Ben concluded. “Again, please recall that we cannot see anything of you except your heartlights. If you wish to leave, then we wish you a safe journey. If, however, you wish to stay, please signal that desire by bobbing once.”
Will hovered in place, reflecting. I’ve been cast adrift in an uncaring universe, without even memories to guide me. I know thousands of words and facts, but I have no idea how I know them. About myself as a person, I know virtually nothing…except that I’m the sort of person who can’t stop asking questions. But without a body, I have no way of asking them aloud. Without a body, I have no real shot at answers. And whoever these people are, whatever they’re after, it’s clear that they’ve got a better sense of the state of affairs in the afterlife than I do.
Besides which, what’s the alternative? The Light may mean something to everyone else, but it still means nothing to me. Maybe there’s something wrong with me―maybe I’m what Ben would call “broken”. If so, this whole community is broken. Maybe, together, we can figure out why…
Ben had barely finished speaking when Will bobbed up and down. At that, Will, Jason, and Ben turned their attention to Buddy. Buddy hovered motionless for some time. Finally, slowly, he bobbed up and down as well.
Jason’s face exploded again into an exuberant smile; clearly, he wasn’t very good at hiding his feelings. Ben turned to him and nodded. “Very well. Jason, go inform Mr. Ammerman of their decision, and of your commitment to sponsoring them. Bring Buck back with you as well, if you would; it is time that we showed these two their new home. Oh, by the way…the other three members of your hunting party are unanimous; they recognize your primary claim on the psychovore’s hide.”
Jason shouted “YES!”―whether at their decision to stay or at his new trophy, Will had no idea. As Jason pumped his fist, he exposed a right bicep the size of a cantaloupe. Will made a mental note: It would be best not to give this guy a reason to kill you. But Jason was already on his way out of the cave. “You won’t regret this!” he shouted, departing. “You’ll love it here! You’ll see!”
That left the two spirits alone with Ben. The older man chuckled, and turned to them again, smiling. “A very fine young man, that one. You’ll never meet a more loyal fellow, and his streak of honor runs right to his core.”
Slowly, Ben’s smile faded. “I say that of his honor. I make no such claim about my own. I know myself too well to make such assertions.”
Ben strode over close to Buddy and Will. He stood perhaps three feet away. Will could not help but notice that the man was staring, for the first time, not at the glow in his chest, but higher―at the level where, Will realized, Ben knew his eyes must be. And Will felt, for the first time, exactly why a man of Jason’s stature might shrink in Ben’s presence.
“I hope that Jason is right. That you will love it here, and that you will make our home your own. But understand this. That boy has honored me with his trust. He has chosen to honor the two of you in the same way. I am not yet ready to see him lose faith in his fellow man. And I will not countenance the betrayal of this community.”
Ben’s eyes were the gray of thin ice on a newly-frozen pond, and his voice was the cracking of that ice beneath Will’s feet. “I meant what I said about him killing you. It would break his heart, but he would do it.” He paused. “But you know now, don’t you, that death is not the last, or the worst, of consequences?”
“I promise you this. If you betray Haven, that boy―for all his skill at arms―will be the very least of your problems.”
New arrivals, thought Buddy. A dozen of them in the last hour. Parading through this cave, beating their chests and acting important. And with the sole exception of that one woman in that first hunting party, every one of them a man. And weren’t all those men so very, very impressed with themselves?
In another world, in another life, Buddy had been the sort of person whose Christmas presents consisted largely of pink stuff.