I awoke to pulsating waves of pain emanating from my right eye. It took a while, but I was eventually able to open it. Once both eyes were opened, I took a look around. I was no longer in the interrogation room; I was locked in a cell. It was about what I expected: three cinderblock walls; a wall of bars with a cage-like door; a very basic sink and toilet; and a set of metal-framed, single-person bunks. In the lower bunk was Jace Davis—the coward who told the Armageddonists what they wanted to hear: that I killed Mary Flatell.
Jace lackadaisically waved hello, but still seething, I didn’t even nod my head. I watched as a guard made his way down the hall, and as soon as he was out of sight, I made my attack. Before Jace could register his next thought, I had grabbed fistfuls of his shirt, pulled him from the bed, and shoved him against the wall.
“What the hell were you thinking? I didn’t kill that girl, and you know it!”
Jace winced in pain. “What are you talking about? They told me that you said I killed her.”
“What?” Slowly, I released my grip.
“Don’t you get it?” Jace asked as he peeled himself from the wall and tugged his shirt back into place. “They are trying to get a confession out of us. I know how this stuff works; my dad was an attorney before he was a senator. It’s an old, old trick.”
“How was I supposed to know that?” I turned the other way, shaken and embarrassed. I had never attacked anyone before.
The next couple of moments were deathly quiet. In the silence, I took a seat on the bottom bunk. Then I paused to inspect my injuries. I gently probed the area around my right eye with my fingers. It was badly bruised, swollen, throbbing, and hurt to touch. I looked down at my wrists and rubbed the marks left by the handcuffs, as if I could somehow magically make the bruises disappear.
“So what did you tell them?” I asked finally.
“I didn’t tell them anything. I just sat there. That way nothing could be taken out of context. And let me tell you: it fucking hurt.”
“Yeah, they gave me this,” I said, pointing to the puffy area around my eye.
Jace pulled up his shirt. His midsection was a tapestry of red and purple scrapes and bruises.
I looked away. Guilt washed over me as I remembered the pain in his face when I slammed him against the wall.
He pulled his shirt back into place, leaned back, and slumped down onto the floor with his back against the cinderblock wall.
“Look,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
For the next several minutes, neither of us said a word, and despite the large number of people incarcerated with us, it was eerily quiet.
“So, you’re Senator Davis’s son?” I asked at last.
“Yep, that’s me. I used to have a name. Now I just have a reputation.”
He stared blankly for a while, and neither of us spoke. Then he said, “Man, as soon as I heard that gunshot, I knew I was in trouble. I just knew it.” He paused and then looked at me. “I wonder why they pulled you in?”
“Apparently, my hair gave them probable cause.”
He half-smiled and shook his head.
“Just wait until they find out I have a tattoo.”
“It’s on my back.” I stretched my neck and bent my head forward to show him the fragment of it that was visible at the base of my neck.
“What is it?”
“I’d rather not say,” I answered, covering it back up. “I got it long before all this Armageddon stuff.
“I’m Seth by the way,” I said as I reclined on the bunk. “I’m a journalism major. Well, I was anyway.”
“So—I” he stopped suddenly, and looked at me intently. “Wait. Seth White? The guy who writes all the stuff about the Armageddonists?”
I smiled awkwardly. “Yeah.”
“Well that explains why they arrested you. I used to read your editorials on the school newsite. Good stuff. But I was wondering how you got away with saying all that about the Armageddonists. Didn’t some of your articles get picked up by national sites?”
“Yeah, I had a couple of them go viral early on, but more recently it’s been much harder getting good information out there.”
“You know,” Jace began, changing the subject, “I really shouldn’t have gone to that protest. I nearly didn’t. The Armageddonists have been watching me ever since my dad was arrested two years ago. Usually I’m more careful. I don’t know what I was thinking.” He was quiet again and resumed his blank stare. Several moments went by before he continued. “Anyway, I was really happy to see so many people there. I was starting to think no one cared. It actually gave me hope that we might be able to change things.” He sighed deeply. “Do you think they got everyone?”
“Yeah,” I answered softly.
“The last university. It makes me sick.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s why there were so many people there to protest. I’m sure you heard about all the Ivy League schools being shut down last week.”
“How could I miss it? The Armageddonists were celebrating for days; it was all over the news.”
“Who would have thought some little-known school in Ohio would be the last to go? And right down the road from Reverend Oregano’s home church.”
“When they closed Harvard, they did the same thing, you know. The army came in and arrested all the protestors. The only difference was no one was killed.”
“So who do you think did it?” I asked.
“What? Killed Mary Flatell? It could have been anyone. After the Ivy Leagues shut down and the riots broke out, I figured it was only a matter of time before someone went after the big names in the Armageddonist party.”
“Yeah, but why her?”
“Maybe they wanted to kill her father but couldn’t. Did you see his entourage?”
“Yeah, he must have had thirty body guards. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Makes sense though. If you were the only person in the world with seemingly supernatural powers, people would be flocking to you all the time. You’d have to have tons of security everywhere you go—otherwise you’d be mobbed constantly.”
“So what made you decide to go?” I asked.
“I had to do something. It was my school. The last school.” He shook his head. “What about you? Why’d you go? You must have known the risks.”
“Yeah, well, let’s just say I had nothing left to lose.”
“What do you mean?”
I sighed. “It has to do with my parents.” I paused to prepare myself for his reaction. “They’re Armageddonists.”
His face wore the shocked expression I expected. “Wow.”
“Yeah. Tell me about it. They have been ever since the earthquake. Anyway, after the last of my professors was arrested last week, I went home to see them. For reasons I can’t explain, I told them that when the government came in to shut down the school, I was going to go protest.
“At first, I told them it was for financial reasons—stuff like ‘I didn’t want all that money going to waste.’ I was trying to avoid the religious stuff as much as I could, but it didn’t last. They tried to convince me the Armageddonists were doing the right thing—that education was a distraction, an unnecessary self-indulgence. Since the world is going to end soon, there was no reason for it, they said.
“I made the mistake of telling them that there is no way anyone could ever predict the end of the world. My dad tore into me, saying that my education had poisoned me—that they had brainwashed me into thinking that I was somehow superior to them and to the Armageddonists.
“When I told them that nothing they said could convince me not to go, my dad went off again. That’s when I found out that a friend of theirs had told them about my articles. I had tried so hard to keep them hidden from my parents, but I knew it was only a matter of time before they found out what I had written. Suffice to say, they hated it.
“Anyway, my dad’s face burned bright red; then he grabbed his phone and called the sentries. He was going to have me arrested as a traitor. He kept telling me it was for my own good. So I got up to leave. But he stopped me at the door and threw his arms around me in an attempt to keep me there until the sentries arrived.
“I wasn’t going to let them turn me in, so there was nothing else I could do: I jabbed an elbow in his ribs and used the back of my head to knock him in the nose.
“It worked. Stunned him long enough for me to get out of there.”
I sighed, the memory weighing on me. “I never hit my father before, and never imagined I would—especially not like that, with so much contempt, so much rage. The back of my head is still sore.” I shook it in a vain attempt to shake away the memory.
“Anyway, as I ran for my car, I could hear my mom yelling that I had been disowned. As I drove away, I looked back, but they were nowhere in sight. They didn’t even bother to come after me.” I sighed again. “On the upside, I got out of there before the sentries arrived. I’ve been living in a hotel ever since. I didn’t want to go back to my apartment—just in case the sentries were looking for me.”
I paused to rub my wrists again. “So what do you think happens now? I honestly have no idea what to expect since the Constitution was rewritten to negate the rights of nonbelievers.”
“It’s hard to say, but I know a few things about these camps. I know the triangular building layout with the courtyard in the middle is designed with the intention of dividing up the different types of prisoners—I mean campers.” His voice seethed with sarcasm. “One building is for ‘real’ criminals—like us—who they try to convert. Another building is for non-believers and backsliders, and the third is for those who have converted but aren’t yet ready to be re-integrated into society. And of course, the deacon is the person in charge of all three buildings.” He shook his head. “It’s so lame—just as bad as renaming police officers sentries.”
“Yeah, it’s some backward attempt to connect what they’re doing to the church—something about a Roman road, I think. The Armageddonists love that kind of thing.”
“Anyway, from what I understand, next we’ll be processed and assessed.”
“What’s that mean?”
“They’ll try figure out how likely it is that we’ll convert before the end of the world.”
“Well, that’s annoying, but it’s not so bad I guess.”
“It gets worse. Each day we’ll have to meet with a counselor, do whatever chores they tell us to, and meet with a group for re-education sessions.”
“It still sounds better than execution. We sing their stupid songs, tell ‘em what they want to hear, and live to see another day.”
“It’s not that simple. If they feel you’re overly cooperative, you’re tested.”
“How do you know all this?”
“About a month after they hauled my dad off to a Conversion Camp, I was allowed one visit. I think they hoped it would convince me to convert. He told me as much as he could. He told me about the tests, but he didn’t tell me what they entailed. He went quiet every time I asked him. Whatever they are, they genuinely scared him.” Jace stopped, and it appeared as though he were about to cry.
“So is your dad here?”
Jace rose and turned away. I couldn’t see his face, but he was clearly upset. “He’s dead. They told me while I was being interrogated. They said he was killed trying to escape the Conversion Camp they sent him to.”
“They could be lying.”
“How could you be sure?”
“They showed me a picture of his body.”