“We are the Disciples of Eden,” Mia said as she handed him a box lunch. “We are here to help.”
Perhaps Erik could be forgiven for letting his defenses down. They were nice. So very nice and friendly. And he had suffered for so long. Perhaps that was part of the plan. Eventually, he agreed to go with them. He looked back at the ruin that had been his home… their home. There was nothing for him left now. He climbed into the vehicle and watched out the window as the remains of the house passed from view, looking like a blackened skeleton protruding from a snowy grave.
Mia seemed to be the leader of the six disciples on board the vehicle. Each of them had a different set of specialties, but all of them seemed to belong to the same religion.
“Would it be all right if we say a prayer for you?” Mia asked. The six disciples had gathered around Erik.
“I am not a religious person,” Erik said, “but I guess it would be alright.”
Mia knelt in front of where he was seated, folded her hands, bowed her head, and began to pray. “Eve, bless this man who has come into our care by your guidance. Provide for us and protect us from harm so that we may provide for and protect others. Share the bounty of your garden so that we may share it with all those in need. Teach us patience and wisdom in all things. Goddess bless.”
The others echoed “Goddess bless.” They left Erik to finish his meal and ponder the meaning of the prayer. The names Eve and Eden triggered a memory. It was so long ago it seemed a lifetime. Evelyn Eden. The documents he had gotten from Daniel’s house had been taken from him while he had been held captive by one of the paramilitary groups known as the Well Regulated Militias or WRMs.
The DOE took Erik to the center of town where they were joined by several other similar vehicles. He decided to call the vehicles crawlers because they reminded him of enormous caterpillars crawling across the landscape. Six of the crawlers joined together forming a large six-sided structure. Panels unfolded until the center was filled in, forming a large hexagonal shelter. Mia took him to a room where he was able to shower and clean himself with real shampoo and soap. They provided him with clean clothes, and he let them discard his old clothes after he had taken his possessions from them.
“You knife,” Mia said when she saw the knife. “We need to secure it. We can return it to you later, but we require all weapons to be secured to prevent the possibility of attack.”
“I guess it makes sense,” Erik said as he reluctantly handed over his pocketknife. The knife Laura had given him. The knife he had taken from his car. The knife he had liberated from the WRMs after his captivity. The knife that he had used to survive. He was confident it would come back to him again. “Have it.”
Mia took him to Julian who seemed to have medical training. He looked Erik over and took a blood sample with an instrument. He gave him some vitamins to swallow and an injection.
“The tablet is a nutritional supplement,” Julian said. “You are dangerously low on vitamin C and most other vitamins. The shot is a vaccination cocktail. For both your safety and ours. You may experience a sore arm and some body aches. As for your jaw, it will require surgery.” Erik’s jaw had never healed properly after his encounter with the WRMs.
The surgery was done in the field. They had to rebreak his jaw and set it correctly. Fortunately, Erik was put under for the procedure. At the same time, he received an injection that activated stem cells in his gums to regrow his missing teeth. It would take a few months and he would experience the pain of teething again, this time as an adult, but his teeth would be whole and his own. Dental technology had advanced over the past five years.
After a few days, the crawlers split up and went in separate directions. Erik remained with the DOE since he had nowhere else to go and he wasn’t quite sure if they would allow him to leave. The only thing close to a personal space was his small alcove where he slept. He had very little time for his own thoughts as the DOE talked about their religion and gave him plenty of chores to do. He was happy enough to do the simple chores they gave him since he felt he owed them a great deal for rescuing him but it left little time for sleep. By the end of the week, he began to feel more comfortable with the DOE and their frequent prayers. He discovered that the disciples had come from the west and were spreading across the country acting as missionaries for their religion. They had only recently reached this far east. They claimed not to know anything about the big shutdown, or BSD, other than they were tasked by their Goddess to help those who suffered as a result. At the end of the week, they linked with a second crawler.
“I have a surprise for you,” Mia said as she led someone to Erik’s alcove and then left them alone.
Erik looked up and saw a familiar face. “George, I thought I would never see you again,” He had known George from when he ran an electronics shop and more recently from his work with Ham radio.
“It’s great to see you, Erik,” George said. “In fact, I may be the reason they found you. I suggested that you might still be holed up at your place.”
“So, they recruited you too?” Erik laughed.
“I guess so. It’s not like I had much choice. I had left Pine Falls to live with my son. They found us there.”
“Have you found anything out about them? Do you think they can be trusted?” Erik asked in a low confidential voice.
“I was a little skeptical at first, but I have been with them for several months now, and they seem to be honest, good-hearted people. They are very devout in their beliefs, but I have looked at their doctrines, and I can’t find any fault with them. They seem to have reinterpreted the bible a bit, deifying Eve instead of casting her as a villain. They are trying to bring the Garden of Eden to the rest of the world. I was doubtful until I witnessed some of their advanced technology for myself.”
“I got to experience some of it too,” Erik said as he showed George the new teeth which were already starting to grow into place. “The crawlers are amazing machines too.”
“The crawlers? Oh, you mean the SHATAVs, Self-Healing All Terrain Autonomous Vehicles. I think I like crawlers better. Yes, these are amazing. I haven’t figured out how they are powered yet, but I have an idea.”
“Do you think they are solar powered? It must be extremely efficient.”
“No, they have some type of advanced battery technology, but they use too much power to rely on solar alone. I think they must have a small nuclear source in each crawler. Did you see how ours linked with yours to form a double-wide?”
“Yes, I also saw six join together to form a type of shelter.”
“I’ve seen them do that too. Smaller units can also separate from the main crawler to go out and scavenge materials from the environment. These materials can then be used to build onto them. Some of them have specialized fabrication capabilities like a mobilized manufacturing platform. If they link enough of them together, they can even manufacture completely new crawlers.”
Erik felt a little better after he had talked with George but eventually, George returned to the other crawler, and they went their separate ways. The DOE traveled from west to east like high-tech pioneers in their wagons following a manifest destiny in reverse. Occasionally they would encounter another survivor and take them on board to care for them. Usually, they were transferred to other crawlers.
A few weeks after their meeting with George, Erik’s group encountered a band of Reapers. The crawler stopped and flattened itself in a gully changing into a short squat structure. This was the first time Erik realized the panels of the crawlers were full-color displays. They did a good job of camouflaging the vehicle. The Reapers halted directly in front of the crawler. To Erik’s amazement, Mia exited the vehicle while one of the Reapers came forward to speak to her. After a short conversation, a teenage boy came forward from the Reapers and returned to the crawler with Mia. Jamal looked to be about fourteen years old and was very thin.
Erik waited until he could speak to Mia privately and then asked, “Why did you bring him on board?”
“He needs surgery. We are going to connect with some others in a few days so we can do the surgery.”
“He’s a Reaper!” Erik exclaimed.
“I know but he needs our help. We helped you too, remember?”
After a couple of days, Erik decided to go over and talk to Jamal. Jamal was sitting with his knees pulled into his chest, his arms wrapped around his shins, and his face pressed against his knees. The ring finger on his left hand was missing and the scent of his body was strong in the enclosed space.
“Hi,” Erik said, “my name is Erik.”
Jamal looked up at Erik with heavy-lidded bloodshot eyes. “Fuck you, you old fuckin’ worm!” he shouted.
Erik felt his blood starting to burn, but he just said, “Okay,” and backed away from him.
Erik had trouble sleeping that night as he wondered what had happened to Jamal to make him like this. Jamal would have been less than ten years old at the time of the BSD.
The next day Erik approached Jamal again. “Good morning,” he said.
Jamal just glared at him.
“What happened to your finger?” Erik asked.
Jamal held up his hand and looked at the stub where his finger had been. “My finger,” Jamal said quietly, then he glared at Erik. “You want to know what happened to my finger, you fuckin’ worm! This finger, this means I’m a goddam Reaper!”
Erik left him alone and wondered about what Jamal had told him. That night Erik was awakened by loud shouting. He was the first to reach Jamal.
“Jaden! Shit, Jaden! It’s just a fuckin’ finger, Jaden. Why didn’t you do it?”
“Are you okay?” Erik asked.
Jamal didn’t answer. He seemed to be very upset.
“Who is Jaden?” Erik asked after a while.
Jamal didn’t answer but Erik sat down next to him anyway.
After a while, Jamal finally began to speak very softly. “Jaden was my big brother. They took us. They said we had to prove ourselves. Prove we was tough enough. Prove we was brave enough. Prove we was mean enough. They gave Jaden a knife but he couldn’t do it. I told him, ‘Please Jaden, it’s just a finger!’ He couldn’t do it. So they cut him. They cut him so bad. Then they come to me. They give me the knife and says I got to do it. I didn’t want to do it, but I seen what they done to Jaden. So I done it. I cut it off. It’s just a fuckin’ finger, Jaden. Why didn’t you do it.”
“I’m sorry,” Erik said. He didn’t know what else to do or say. He put an arm around Jamal’s shoulder and felt him stiffen, but Jamal let him leave it there. Jamal started sobbing and didn’t stop for a long time. The next day when Erik woke up, they had linked with another crawler. Jamal was gone.
A few weeks later there was a strange occurrence. They encountered a group of WRMs. One of them came forward and Mia went out to meet with him. After a short time, she returned to the crawler. There was something strange going on. Why were they helping both the Reapers and the WRMs? The two groups hated each other. It took a while before Erik was able to figure it out. The Disciples of Eden were helping both sides. They seemed to be pitting each side against the other. Would they go so far as to provide information they could use to attack each other? Were the DOE blind to the subtle manipulations of their Goddess? Erik began to wonder. How could they not see it?
One day Mia and the other disciples came in to see Erik. They seemed very excited. “Erik, I have joyous news for you,” Mia said.
“What is it, Mia?” Erik asked.
“Eve would like to see you, in person.”
The other disciples all murmured, “Goddess bless.”
“Who?” Erik asked.
“Goddess Eve would like to speak to you in person,” Mia said.