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American Atheist: 26

by Nelly 

Posted: 16 July 2006
Word Count: 6234
Related Works: American Atheist: 24 • American Atheist: 25 • 

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Dr Susannah Fieldman watched two burly orderlies carry the body of Carlos Illario into the Charnel House. The corpse rested upon a black leather stretcher, covered in a white sheet that failed to hide one stiffened, withered hand.

An electric fan worked overtime, stirring hot sluggish air around the examining room, while a door chime in the shape of three china dogs clinked in a faint breeze. Susannah watched the orderlies lift the corpse unsteadily onto her autopsy table. “Careful,” she advised. “That slop of shit hits my floor and there’ll be hell to pay.”

Throughout the day the temperature had soared; the heat was suffocating, sweat soaked through her armpits and back, ran down her neck and fell in shining drops from her brow. Susannah took off her lab coat and threw it across a chair, then rolled up her sleeves, waiting until the orderlies had left before examining the body. It wasn’t difficult to determine the cause of death. Carlos Illario had been burnt so extensively, the skin was gone, the muscle shrivelled and the eyes boiled in their sockets so they resembled black prunes. His face remained fixed into a twisted mask of pain. Although from a certain angle, Susannah felt as if he were grinning – enjoying a private joke the living were not privy to.

Susannah was unique in Rome in the fact she was British. A nationality that would have her mobbed - even lynched - if ever revealed to the public. As it was, she was blessed with olive skin; of the five languages she spoke, her Italian and Latin were both excellent. She could have easily passed as one of the locals.

She took out a packet of Marlboros and tapped one out, muttering to herself the company’s slogan, “As mild as May,” in an absent-minded way, before lighting the end and walking slowly around the corpse.

Susannah smoked heavily. A habit picked up from her first love, a university lecturer twice her age and grossly overweight. George Smith had liked the smell and taste of tobacco. He would roll his own, taking the time to sniff each cigarette, the way a man might roll a cigar beneath his nose. He had been her first and - as it later transpired - only love. A week past her seventeenth birthday in the winter of ’39 and the attention of this older man had sparked the flames of her emerging sexuality.

They shared their first cigarette late after class one evening. She made a show of packing her books, making sure the other students had all left, before asking him a number of standard questions on physics. She acted coy and George played his part with a seeming genuine attention and willingness to listen to her clumsy words. When he finally summoned enough courage to lay his hand upon her leg, she let him. What followed was a wild and tempestuous relationship. But never at his house or her flat. Always at hotels, or if the mood took them the back of his `36 Standard – which was covered in old blankets and smelled faintly of dogs. The hotels were typically cheap affairs, which paid by the hour rather than the night.

She didn’t care.

He had made her feel for the first time like a woman. He knew what to do and how to do it. Not at all like the boys from school. This was a man and she revelled in it.

She was in love.

It didn’t last.

The relationship ended when his wife arrived at the university - kids in tow, Golden Labrador barking around their heels. From a third floor window she watched them kiss and wondered how a brief moment of shared happiness could destroy her life so completely.

Even then she would have had him back. If he proved he loved her and no one else. But he refused to listen. She became hysterical, threatening to tell not just his wife, but the University’s Dean of their illicit affair. His answer was to beat her into unconsciousness. Taking the time to explain between the screaming and the punching, that this was a fraction of what she would receive, unless she shut her mouth. Her last thought before she passed out were what a curious wet thumping sound his fists made when they struck against her face.

She didn’t think very much after that.

Eventually Susannah’s swollen eyes had managed to open and she spat two of her back teeth into the hotel’s cracked and leaking basin. She washed away her blood and as it gurgled in the drain, vowed never to be dependent on anyone or anything ever again.

Cigarettes weren’t included in this plan.

Susannah took a week away from University, allowing the bruising to settle and the dental work to begin. Using her father’s money, she brought herself a new wardrobe and cut off her hair, cropping it to within an inch of her scalp. She would have dyed it too if given the chance, but the unabashed stares from passer-byes made her stop. Then on a crisp spring morning, Susannah turned up for George’s class. Sitting in her usual place, pen in hand, paper ready. If she was wearing a tad too much make up, her lipstick a darker red than usual, what did it matter? Who the hell cared?

George smith had been surprised to see her, even rocking on his heel as their eyes met. Susannah kept her face perfectly still – a mask of serenity.

“Susannah?” he had said, unable to hide the shock in his voice.

“Yes George,” she replied smoothly, then added, “I am.”

They never spoke again.


Susannah was disturbed from her musings by the back door opening. Doctor Fabrizio Rossi half-jogged; half-walked towards her, adjusting a thick pair of glasses that slid constantly down his nose. He grinned sheepishly, then made a show of straightening his tie. “Sorry,” he said, “I put my head down, then got the call. Wow, two resurrections in one night, got to be a record!” He stopped when he saw the body, “Or not,” he added.

“Never seen a burn victim before?” Susannah asked.

Fabrizio shook his head, “Have you?” he countered.

She smiled, but chose not to answer. The fact was she had. Far more than anybody should have seen.

Fabrizio abruptly made a face. “Sorry, how stupid of me. Of course you have, when they bombed London - both times.”

Susannah ignored him. She reached out and touched the body upon the arm. “Still warm,” she mumbled.

“Pulled out of the fire recently then?” Fabrizio queried, peering closer.

“Within the hour. Cardaveric spasm has set in.” She lifted an arm that remained locked, hand clenched into a fist. “Usually through intensive exertion of the muscles, such as a fight or struggle.”

“Burning to death can have that effect,” Fabrizio said dryly.

Susannah took a scalpel and made a ‘Y’ shaped incision from shoulder to mid-chest, then towards the pubic region. The deep incisions cut down to the rib cage and breastbone.

Fabrizio began to work on the cartilages joining the ribs to the breastbone. “You know,” he said in an off-hand manner. “You can talk about your past, once in a while.”

She stopped work to give one stern glance and he fell quiet.

They continued on in silence.

When war erupted against the Papal States, Susannah took a year out, returning to her father, David Fieldman, in central London. He had lived there fifty of his seventy-five years and refused to move. She didn’t see the point in arguing.

Her mother had died in childbirth. A traumatic seventy-two hours of pain, which in the rare moments David chose to speak of it, was an horrific experience of blood soaked sheets, frantic midwifes and a terrible scratching sound Susannah had made, clawing her way out of her mother’s dead womb. Susannah looked like her, David would comment, when a pint of cider or two had loosened his tongue. He could see the hard look in her eyes, like steel if you caught it right.

This was all Susannah had known of her mother and it was enough. She was a phantom of pain; a martyr her father hinted - though never actually said in words - was the ideal she was expected to live up to. An eternity of suffering for the greater good, for the mythic cause. David would not speak of her for long and Susannah would always allow the conversation to drift away to more idyllic things, forgotten until the next time the cider came out.

Susannah never spoke of George and her father never asked, although he could see the change in his daughter both inwardly and outwardly. A retired airman he had spent the summer digging out a shelter at the bottom of the garden. When the sirens wailed, it was there they both dutifully retired.

Crouched in the semi-darkness, silently clenching and unclenching her hands, Susannah listened to the grind of bombers overhead. She refused to be intimidated, even by the mechanical might of the Church. It demeaned her. What did it matter if she died anyway? She had been dead inside for some time. Why not let the Italians finish the job? Shrugging away her father’s feeble attempts to stop her, she had thrown open the shelter’s door and marched resolutely out into the garden. There she was treated to a rare spectacle.

London burned. The whole cityscape as far as she could see was alight with a hundred savage fires. Buildings on both sides of the Thames were ablaze; even Big Ben did not escape the carnage. As she watched, a Vatican Night-time Flyer appeared over Westminster, releasing a batch of incendiary missiles. One struck the tower across the clock face and Big Ben erupted into a blossoming ball of white phosphorescence. She could hear the frantic shouting of firemen from the buildings close by. Their tin hats glinted in the flickering light. Whole streets had been destroyed: buildings, homes, places of work, all reduced to rubble. The survivors took to the streets, like ants scurrying through the dark, purposeless and without direction. She watched a family of four hide in the shadow of the old post office, moments later a direct hit from a screeching missile and the family and post office were gone. A blackened crater testament of their passing.

The sky was stained red and grumbled with anger, thick pink clouds rolled across the rooftops, overlords of the destruction below. Only the faintest sliver of moonlight caught the planes as they rumbled across the nation’s capital. Their passage did not go unchecked, anti-aircraft guns fired into the night. Their sharp retorts sounding like a companion drumbeat to the Vatican’s machines of war. The planes came in waves. Dropping dozens of bombs in seconds. It rained ash and soot and the corpses lay still in the streets.

A frantic neighing made her glance towards Dartmouth road. A white horse had broken free from its stables and galloped through the mayhem, its eyes rolling, its nostrils flaring. White flecks of froth foamed around its mouth. It was wild, driven insane by the sheer noise of war. It charged at a group of men and they scattered like tenpins before heading off east to the riverbanks and out of her sight.

She laughed at the surreal nature of war.

The Vatican had the power, dealing death indiscriminately. Susannah and her countrymen had nothing. It would be better – quicker - if they ended her life. She held up her hands and waited, silently willing a bomb to fall.

Susannah did not have to wait long. A plane emerged from the pink roof over heaven, missiles cutting a direct path towards her.

First striking Oxford Street, then the house across the road. A glorious metal god, sweeping through the sky, the harbinger of death and the promise to end all pain.

She welcomed it. Her bladder failed. Her father’s house exploded. A light so bright it felt as if the sun was rising early. Timber, stone and slate tore across the garden and roads, peppering the shelter and ripping her dress. Yet, she remained unhurt. Stunned, with urine trickling down her leg - but not dead.

Instead she was alive -- truly alive.

Feeling at home in the chaos she even danced a nonsense jig through the burning rubble. She didn’t care about London or even England. If she was truthful, she didn’t care about her father, cowering inside the basement, too terrified to see if his daughter was still alive. All she cared about was herself. It was a crowning moment of her life and she would never look back.


“So whose paying for this poor Joe,” Fabrizio asked, opening the body’s mouth with the tip of his pen.

“The States are footing the bill,” Susannah said, picking up a tick chart and working her way through it. “According to his notes he was…” she paused, looking down at the paper, “flying a fighter plane less than a hundred feet through downtown and went straight into the back of a bus. Fifty others dead, twice that number wounded.”

“Think he lost the plot?”

“Don’t know, they haven’t seen fit to provide us with any more details, other than they want him back.”

Fabrizio picked up a thin metal rod with four edged blades at one base. “Shouldn’t be a problem, with tonight’s track record. That Cardinal was outside the resurrection comfort zone.” He placed the rod onto the roof of the body’s head and pushed in so the knives sank through the blackened flesh. “And he came out all right?” With a series of short jerky movements he powered the rod deeper into the skull, until it cracked.

“We don’t know what mental state he’s in, the Bishop took him away as soon as he could stand. If you ask me,” Susannah whispered, “ he looked too relaxed for my liking, like a man who had awoken from a deep sleep rather than a plunge through Purgatory.”

“Sure is a hard man,” Fabrizio muttered, lifting the rod away from the body, taking with it most of the face. “Got to be tough at the top, no friends or family, no wife waiting in the wings. “ He smiled, discarded the tool then placed his hands on the exposed skull. “Maybe that’s what makes it easier for men like him. They have no ties. Take me for example, got myself a wife, four kids, my entire family live local. “ He glanced her way, “but you don’t, don’t have anybody or anyone I bet. Has it always been like that?”

Susannah didn’t answer; instead she picked up the bone saw and handed it to him.

“Suit yourself,” he muttered and began sawing.

Susannah thought of George.


The Papal States were eventually defeated; the midnight raids stopped. Susannah returned to university life, back to a grey world of emptiness, burnt out buildings, and a ragged, shell shocked populance. In the mornings she would join hundreds of others, cycling into the university grounds. They already resembled a people on the verge, it would not take much she guessed and the vaunted British spirit would be crushed.

The planes did not return that month or the month after, a year passed and rumours of the Papal States turning their attention to America began to circulate. Britain had won a reprieve of sorts. No one knew for how long exactly and most agreed it was a shame the yanks were getting a pounding. But all were happy, they at least got to live a while longer.

Years later, with a Postgraduate degree in experimental physics beneath her belt and a glittering career looming. She had by chance read of George’s death, in the local obituaries. A small funeral - nothing fancy - to be arranged for friends and family.

Susannah made sure her dress was a suitable sombre colour and turned up. She sat through the funeral, surrounded by weeping family and stone-faced friends. The wife was there, her face masked by a veil, sobbing into a black laced handkerchief. She watched a young vicar of the New Church Order stumble through words of God and meaningless songs of the hereafter. Cancer finally took George. A lifetime of smoking had paid its price and he passed away after a prolonged battle at the age of fifty-three.

It had been very painful.

With this knowledge the walls blocking out her hate had begun to erode and she felt a savage glee at his suffering.

Susannah waited until the coffin was lowered and the family had dispersed. She waited on a bench in the gardens of remembrance, watching the sun flash through weeping willows and listening to a gentle wind winding through the rose bushes. Her mind was blank, but her body felt truly alive, a great bubbling of emotion waiting now to be released. The gravediggers arrived. She watched them work in silence, eager to be done before the day was spent. When they finished and packed up, she waited still. The sun finally set in a dizzyingly display of reds and oranges and a cool backwash of night descended. Then when she was sure the cemetery was empty, Susannah crept to his grave and lit a cigarette. Enjoying the taste and the power she now felt standing above his buried corpse.

“Do you know what that is, George?” she asked to the ground, forming smoke circles with her mouth.

“Do you, huh, you sad little man?” she blew out a long stream of smoke and her nostrils flared. “It’s life. Something I have and you don’t.” Then she giggled and her eyes focused on the headstone, which read.

To George, a loving husband and father, he will be sorely missed.”

The hot rush of pent up anger filled her veins. Years of denial and burying her emotions came to the fore. She screamed, kicking the headstone and it shifted an inch to the right. Then she tore at the fresh earth, until her fingernails were cracked and bleeding. The stone wobbled ominously.

“Bastard,” she spat, and gave it one final shove before it toppled over and split in half.

Only that wasn’t enough and she hitched up her dress, lowered her knickers and tights and crouched upon the open grave.

“Have a drink on me, George,” she whispered, her voice lost in a cold wind which chose that moment to rise up over the gravestones, causing goose bumps to appear upon her exposed buttocks and thighs. She doubted her actions in that instant. Was there anyone watching? Was there even a god looking down at her, arse in the air, squatting like some ghoul upon a fresh grave?

She pissed upon the soil all the same.


Time’s undeniable march had its way with Susannah and she grew from the shy teenager into a desirable woman in her own right. She wore her hair long, so it fell in waves across her back, thick and shiny, the deepest of blacks, it became the perfect opposite to her white unblemished skin. She became attractive in a reserved British manner, her figure remained slim, but her bosom swelled. She carried herself with a sense of purpose and character. The look of determination that glittered in her eyes were ample warning for those she met, they spoke of hidden strength - this was a woman with ambition and one not to be taken lightly.

Her sexual frustrations – on the rare occasions she felt them - were usually on cold winter evenings, where the hours between the dark days and black nights became indistinguishable. She would see to herself, which was all she ever needed. She never desired for more, the closeness of physical intimacy a distant memory, a ghost of a past life, a former self that was no more her now, than the babe her father first dragged from her dead mother’s womb.

Gradually over the years, Susannah became secluded from the rest of her work colleagues and friends. When her father died in ’46, it became society as a whole. Susannah no longer felt any connection to the people she saw and the country she lived in. Often she would reflect that she was watching life through another’s eyes. Waiting for something to happen, anything to fill the void that had settled within her heart.

England was invaded for the second time in ’51. The infamous Luftwaffe joining the evening raids. A year long reign of terror commenced. First the RAF airfields were destroyed. Then the Radar bases. Finally the cities took a pounding. London ground to a halt with all eyes turned towards the heavens.

Parliament was in session during one such raid and levelled by several direct strikes. The Prime Minister: Winston Churchill, enjoying his final term of office was killed – it was later said, a bomb passed through the House of Commons, failed to explode and struck him dead upon the head. The bombs that followed ignited and killed the rest of the British government. The ancient building burned throughout the night, despite fire-fighters valiant efforts to preserve it and come morning there was an empty shell where once the Ministers and Lords had gathered.

After that the German Destroyer, Diether Von Roeder was sighted in the Thames and Susannah knew the war was over. There was sporadic fighting from the Home Guard, but London was a waste ground and its leaders ash upon the wind. They fought for a lost cause and knew it.

The new Prime Minister: Anthony Eden gave a speech a week later about surrendering to the Papal States. The people of England would not be harmed - if only they didn’t resist. A censor would be started. Anyone with a qualification, such as teacher, doctor or engineer must report immediately to the local police station, there they would be assigned duties. Failure to comply would mean death, not only for themselves, but their families as well. Susannah could hear the horror in the Prime Minister’s voice and was left in no doubt about the validity of the threat and the power of the occupying forces. She managed to listen to what became known as the Eden speech over a short wave radio with a few of her work colleagues and collectively, with little room for debate, they had decided to go their separate ways.

None got very far.

Ground troops swept in across the city and Susannah was picked up from her flat on a dreary Tuesday morning. All the prominent scientists of the nation were gathered and shipped out to the rest of Europe, where they would best fit the growing might of the Papal States. She left England, a broken empty place. There was nothing to make her stay, even if given the choice. She closed that part of her life, like one might close an old book that had lost much of its magical charm. Unafraid, she looked to the future, wondering what it might bring.

“Okay,” Susannah said grabbing for her cigarettes, “we’re done.”

Fabrizio gave a humourless smile. He had been working with Dr Fieldman for two years now and managed to keep a light-hearted joviality, which eased their long unsociable hours together. He said, “But we were just getting to the interesting part."

“You can finish up here, I’ll take our findings to the boss,” she reached for her jacket, then thought better of it and strode briskly from the room.

“What about the blood tests?” Fabrizio shouted after her, “They won’t be back until morning.”

“No point,” she called back. “They want him resurrected before the night is out. I’ll inform Dr Lombardi the poor guy burnt to death, and that’ll be enough to satisfy him.”

In the corridor, which connected the autopsy room to the rest of the Charnel House, a pale lizard inquisitively studied Susannah’s approach. As she drew too close it flicked out a thin red tongue and scurried off through a gap in the ceiling. Susannah barely spared it a glance, the whole place was infested with them and despite numerous complaints, nothing had ever been done.

Jasmine lingered in the air and Susannah found the fragranced air refreshing. So good to be away from the smell of burnt flesh, it always reminded her of overcooked chicken or duck – a hot crispy tang that caught in the back of the throat.

Pushing those thoughts aside Susannah opened the door to reception. The usual guards were there; gathered around a half-moon desk, but tonight six others had joined them. These new additions stood huddled by the main doors, talking in fierce whispers. As Susannah walked in they fell quiet and intently watched her, deciding into what category she should be placed. Susannah could tell by their flat expressionless faces and bulging jackets that these were service men, higher up than the usual security. Whatever was happening this night was serious enough to warrant the attention of the secret service.

Susannah tapped her name badge and the men visibly relaxed before returning to their whispered conversation.

She recognised Adolfo, looking uncomfortable in the crowd and he gave a half-hearted wave as she approached.

She flashed him a fixed brief smile. “I was hoping Dr. Lombardi was still in residence, could you phone his office for me.” She kept her tone polite, but Adolfo knew her well enough to read the uncertainty in her eyes and as he reached for the phone said, “There’s been a lockdown across the Vatican. We might be under attack.”

“Who by?” Susannah asked, genuinely shocked anyone could launch an assault on such a well-guarded fortress.

Adolfo shrugged. “No one seems to know. My guess it’s the French. They’ve kept ties with the British,” he glanced uncertainly towards her, “no offence,” he offered.

“None taken.”

“Yeah, got their hands on a few British bombers and fancy their chances, probably half way back to Paris by now anyway.”

He pushed buttons on a phone and gave an icy stare to the new service men. “They came strutting in couple of hours ago, taking over security and making a mess of everything. Honestly I think things are worse with them being here.” He jabbed a finger towards the cellblocks. “And it’s got the residents excited.”

There were four wings from reception; each marked by a thick steel door. The first led deeper into the complex, the second into administration, the third towards the cellblocks. Within were kept those who had been unfortunate enough not to survive the resurrection process mentally intact. Their bodies intact, but their psyches shattered. The largest door led out into the Vatican Gardens, a smaller door, also made from steel but with a viewing portal formed a last barrier before visitors, staff and potential terrorists could access reception.

Susannah looked towards the cellblock. “Excited! How do you mean?”

Adolfo rolled his eyes as he waited on the phone. “Last shift forgot to feed them, Beppe left early and we haven’t had time to do the rounds. Also there’s already been one resurrection tonight and it gets them worked up, if you step closer you can listen for yourself.”

Susannah did as he suggested and took a couple of small steps towards the door, she made out moans, cries of anger and the desperate wail of remembered pain only the dead were capable of making.

“It’s not wise to leave them in that state for long,” she reasoned, suppressing an icy shudder. “Hurry up and do the rounds. We’re likely to have another resurrection before the night is out.”

“Sure, soon as I get Dr. Lombardi to answer his…” his voice trailed off and he smiled. “Ah, yes, Dr. Lombardi. Um, no sir, this is security… “ He rolled his eyes and Susannah managed a small laugh.

Then the whole world went to hell.

The entrance doors exploded in an orange ball of mushrooming flame. The fragmented metal cut across the room, smashing through the skull of one guard, then embedding deep into the chest of a second. The noise was deafening and the blast blew Susannah to the floor, shattering her nose and twisting her ankle. A second later and the viewing door ripped clean off its hinges to hurtle across the chamber, ripping her blouse before crashing into Adolfo’s disbelieving face and wedging him half a foot into the wall. His hand twitched spasmodically and his left leg kicked wildly. Blood, brains and bone trickled across his chest and fell in hairy lumps by his dangling feet.

Sound returned with a loud pop. At once overwhelming in its intensity with the crackling of flames and the sizzling of burning flesh. Through the smoke the stunned guards swayed like drunkards as they regained their feet. Susannah tried to do the same, but a searing pain across her leg kept her to the floor and she cried with the effort.

A greyish-white smoke had gathered in the blasted entrance, the vague outline of a circular shape hovered within its depths. A guard crossed before Susannah’s view, standing on her hands, until she pushed him away. By the time she looked back to the ravaged hole the smoke had lifted, rolling back against the object as it glided gently into the room, revealing a spinning sphere of gold and silver, over four foot in length.

Sidearms were dragged from their holsters and the room was filled with the furious retorts of gunfire. For a dumbstruck moment, Susannah remained where she was, allowing bullets to flash past, piercing the floor and ripping chunks from the walls. It wasn’t until a hot pain exploded across her fingers that she was galvanised into action. A bullet had torn the skin from her knuckles and blood oozed up from the raw flesh beneath. She crawled behind the half moon table, dragging her right leg behind her. The wood of the table splintered from the gunfire. Her heart beat so fast she thought it might fail. She didn’t understand what was happening, but knew she didn’t want to die. Susannah lay flat to the floor and with wide eyes watched the spinning alien device. Despite over six firearms being discharged within ten feet of it, the sphere appeared undamaged. Absently, in a rather stupefied detached manner, she noticed there appeared to be a distortion in the air, like a shimmering heat haze across tarmac on a hot summer’s day. It absorbed the impact of the bullets; slowing them down until they completely stopped, then releasing them back with the same velocity they had been fired in - like a vast rubber ball.

The returning bullets tumbled across the room, striking randomly. One guard was hit in the chest, immediately crumpling to the floor, his eyes widening in shock, his face contorting in pain.

The orb became gelatinous; it’s outer skin fading, while its innards hardened. Its golden colour drained away and took on the likeness of tarnished bronze. It’s shape stretched, until it formed a long tapering spike, the tip shining with an intense white light.

The guards stopped firing, their magazines now empty, none tried to reload, realising their weapons were ineffective. Two started to back away, looking wildly towards the exits or any available cover. But it was far too late for that. The device spat forth a pencil thin beam of light, dense and solid, like a line of liquid metal. It cut through stone, wood and steel with equal ease and sliced through the guards, neatly cutting them in half.

For a brief second one man remained standing, and even started to fire, his finger spasming on the trigger, before his upper torso slid away from his legs and fell to the floor. No blood rushed from the two halves, each part had been cauterised as if having experienced a terrible heat.

Susannah cursed as the spike moved towards her, she tried to dig back further beneath the table, but the spike rose into the air and there was no where else to hide. She honestly expected to die, staring into its glowing tip and feeling an odd sense of relief, as if the harshness of her life was about to be swept away. Her only regret was she didn’t know more about what had happened here. The scientist within her screamed a thousand questions about the device she faced. Questions, she concluded which would now be silenced. Bizarrely, she thought of George. Would she meet him again? She refused to close her eyes and instead stared into the spike’s brilliance and patiently waited for it to end.

But the burning ray never came. Instead the device drifted back across the room, taking up position, floating serenely within the centre.

Nearby human flesh cooked, water and liquid fat running down the side of limbs like juices from a Sunday roast.

Had she survived?

The hairs on Susannah’s arms rose, despite the closeness of the flames. She felt a terrible pain between her eyes and a presence pressed upon her consciousness. Her eyes were drawn to the entrance and the being that stood within.

Crafted from metal in the form of a woman, like an artist’s study based upon an idea described, rather than seen. Long multi-jointed arms dropped well below the knees, six fingers upon each hand moved with delicate precision. A full bosom of gold with erect nipples of beaten silver proved her feminine roots, while a honey coloured mask with wide insect eyes held Susannah transfixed to the spot, rooted into immobility.

The being patted the spike and in a voice full of age, like an old recording said. “Well done, Jophile.”

The spike remained where it was and the being took a step towards Susannah. “Do you know who I am?” She said, static mixing the words.

Susannah shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.

“You sense it though, don’t you? I can tell. You can not deal in life and death so arbitrarily not to have its effects rub off on you. You may not know my name, but you sense what I am.”

Susannah still did not answer.

The figure extended her long arms. “I am Nasargiel. I am power.” The doors leading to the cells folded in half; the brackets to which they were attached snapped completely from their casing and fell to the floor. The metal shrieked in protest, but continued to fold all the same. Then it bent back upon itself, like one might fold a piece of paper. It hung in the gap, until it had been reduced to a tenth of its size, then dropped with a heavy thud upon the ground.

Jophile drifted forward towards the cells and it was this that finally prompted Susannah to speak.

“What are you going to do?”

“Give those you have so cruelly imprisoned what they want.”

“What do you think they want?” Her voice barely a whisper.

“Revenge of course, upon you, upon the church, upon all those that dragged them backward through the spiritual ladder of evolution. It’s only fair.”

“If you let them out, they will kill everyone they meet. You can’t.”

Nasargiel stepped closer and Susannah felt an odd heat emitting from her streamlined metal form. “There is nothing I can’t do. I believe in retribution, Susannah. About taking back what is mine. Man for too long has moved into realms they have no place in. They were not invited. Justice will be swift.”

With a grip of impossible strength, Nasargiel turned her to face the corridor beyond. She could make out the spike, Jophile, drifting up its length, as it passed the doors on either side, the locks failed and they slid open. The creatures that had once been human shambled out uncertain of their new freedom.

“Come one, come many, feast upon the flesh of your oppressors. Relish in divine justice,” Nasargiel called. Her voice acted as a siren and the bodies began to stagger forward, moaning or crying in their anguish and terrible rage.

“Death, Susannah,” Nasargiel whispered, her voice falling in and out of focus like a badly tuned radio. “You have always craved death, devoting your life work to it, bringing back the souls of the human race, forcing them back in their frail forms, so incomplete, so unnecessary. You desire it and need it. Your subjects await you, their queen, their dark bride.”

“What do you mean?”

“You were born to lead, in life as well as in death. Reap the rewards of your black harvest. Return to me and complete your cycle.”

Nasargiel let her go and Susannah was unable to support her own weight, her twisted ankle giving way and she sprawled upon the floor. A moment later and the bodies fell upon her, groping hands twisting and turning, pulling at her hair and clothes. She tried to scream, but fingers slid into her throat, grasping at her tongue, ripping it from her mouth.

She didn’t think of George, or the release death would bring, instead Susannah was utterly consumed with horror, until pain exploded like a white-hot star within her mind and the world fell away into a relentless plunge through Purgatory.

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Comments by other Members

toshi at 13:25 on 18 July 2006  Report this post
Hi Neil,

This was another great read. You encapsulated Susannah's whole life and death into this one chapter. I really liked the way Susannah's adult character was created as Britain was wiped out in the bombings. The ending was a bit yucky - at least I assume it was the end of Susannah, although in your story, death is not all that final, is it? - but certainly had the drama you were looking for. I scarcely dare to ask what will happen now with zombies running all over the place on top of everything else!

What I particularly like about American Atheist is the hints at an alternate reality that seems so plausible, well thought out and rich in history. I love the way it is set "in the past" in time, which gives it a kind of black and white old film feel of war films and the blitz while actually not being set in any time at all in a real sense. It is those parts that makes it so authentic.

I'm afraid it wouldn't be me if I did not point out some typos so...

"Susannah felt as if he were grinning – enjoying a private joke in death the living were not privy to"

Do you need "in death" here?

"Susannah was unique in Rome, in the fact she was British."
No need for a comma between Rome and in?

"A habit picked up from her first love, George Smith: a university lecturer twice her age and grossly overweight."
"A habit" followed by "a university lecturer" sounded a bit awkward to me?

"They shared their fist cigarette"
sp. first

"cut off her hair, until it was barely an inch from her head."
this conjured up images of hair floating an inch above her head. How about "cut off her hair, cropping it to within an inch of her head (scalp?)"?

"Susannah took a scalpel and made an ‘Y’ shaped incision from shoulder to mid-chest,"
should be "a 'Y' shaped incision"

"and a terrible scratching sound Susannah had made, clawing her way out of her mother’s dead womb."

My mind boggled at this sentence! I just hope it didn't come from personal experience...

"Susannah would always allow the conversation to drift away to more idyll things"
I wasn't sure what you meant here. Should it be "idyllic things"?

"London burned. The whole cityscape as far as she could see was alight with a hundred savage fires. Buildings on both sides of the Thames were ablaze; even Big Ben did not escape the carnage. As she watched, a Vatican Night-time Flyer appeared over Westminster, releasing a batch of incendiary missiles. One struck the tower across the clock face and Big Ben erupted into a blossoming ball of white phosphoresce. She could hear the frantic shouting of firemen from the buildings close by. Their tin hats glinted in the flickering light. Whole streets had been destroyed: buildings, homes, places of work, all reduced to rubble. The survivors took to the streets, like ants scurrying through the dark, purposeless and without direction. She watched a family of four hide in the shadow of the old post office, moments later a direct hit from a screeching missile and the family and post office were gone, a soot-caked crater grim testament of their passing."

This was one of your best paragraphs - great description and highly evocative. I am not sure about the last sentence "a soot caked crater grim testament of their passing" sounded a little awkward. Perhaps split the sentence in two?
Also, should it be white phosphorus" or "white phospherescence"?

"Her sexual frustrations – on the rare occasions she felt them - where usually on cold winter evenings, where the hours between the dark days and black nights became indistinguishable."
Should it be "were usually on cold winter evenings"?

"Within were kept those who had been unfortunate enough not to mentally survive the resurrection process. Their bodies intact, but their psyches shattered."
This reads a bit awkwardly, including a split infintive (shock horror!) How about: "...who had been unfortunate enough not to survive the resurrection process mentally intact. Their bodies lived, but their psyches were shattered." or something?

“You sense it though, don’t you? I can tell. You can not deal in life and death so arbitrarily as to not have its effects rub off on you."
Would it be better as "...deal in life and death so arbitrarily not to have its effects..."?

Well I hope that is of some help. I don't know why but I had thought the Nasargiel character (was that the one on the aircraft a while back?) was actually quite a good thing - angel come to put everything to rights - but I am not so sure now. I'm not sure this story is going to have a happy ending either!

Look forward to reading the next chapter soon!

Best wishes

Nelly at 22:01 on 18 July 2006  Report this post
Hi Toshi,

Thanks for reading through and I'm glad you're enjoying it. I was a bit worried about the darker elements this chapter introduces, but it seems to have worked well. Nasargiel is named after the Jewish angel of the underworld that Moses meets, one of the fallen from the Great War in Heaven, whether she is a villain or a misunderstood monster I'll leave to the reader. It's not the end for Susannah or for other characters that have died so far. I've got this big idea in my head and now I have to weave the subplots and main story together. And all this is still the first draft!


Patsy at 18:15 on 08 August 2006  Report this post
Hi Neil,

Very interesting chapter -- all of these folks who work in this place are a bit nuts, aren't they!!
Great writing as always, love your style.

Things to consider:

She stopped work to give one stern glance and he fell quiet.
They continued on in silence

Maybe: She gave him a stern glance and he fell quiet.
They resumed working in blissful silence.

...but a searing pain across her leg kept her to the floor and she cried out with the effort.

a searing pain across her leg kept her pinned to the floor and she cried out with the effort of trying to move. ?

Sidearms were dragged from their holsters and the room was filled with the furious retorts of gunfire.

... filled with furious reports of gunfire. ?

Absently, in a rather stupefied detached manner, she noticed there appeared to be a distortion in the air, ...

... she noticed that there was a distortion in the air...
for a stronger sentence?

The only thing that threw me a bit was have we seen this woman before? If not, it's kind of late to throw an unknown character into the mix, even if she is short-lived -- you might consider adding her to an earlier chapter somewhere?

Hope it helps,

Pats :)

Nelly at 18:25 on 09 August 2006  Report this post
Cheers Patsy for reading through, I'll edit in as always. Susannah's introduction at this stage is really to present a monstrous character in a later chapter, a foil to help Unita develop into the character I want her to become by the end of the book. Also I've used her to explore more of the world, but I will have a good look at her character by the end and see if she warrants an earlier introduction. I imagine by the time I've finished editing and shuffling the chapters the finished product might not resemble much of the original.
I would like to say there is not much more to go, but in truth that might not be the case. I've got a couple of flashbacks to ancient rome planned, the escape sequence from modern day rome and of course the big finale back in New York. On the telly earlier there was some lady that had taken ten years to write her story - oh well.

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