Echoes of the Free Man
By G.J. Sieck
The cold reality of loss is painfully apparent to me. Working for the past fifty years for the Department of Information’s Dissemination Branch, I am of few in my class to ever have a glimpse at the truth all but gone from this world. I know that once there were cities without walls where the people could move freely from place to place. I know that many generations ago men and women were free to say and do as they pleased. They had many gods that they worshipped in different ways. They were able to write books and create art that challenged the established order.
It was the week of the ascendance of the new Grand Magistrate. Abrax Titanos Von Scaron, the military, judicial and spiritual leader of Trench City. He was about to hand over power to his son, Abrax Titanos Von Scaron II, in only a few short days. Though celebrations were mandatory, the forced festiveness did help to alleviate the usual somberness of the city. I soaked it in. Celebrations were rare in Trench City. I would have been foolish not to find what enjoyment I could. I woke that day as usual; to the sound of the morning bells. My granddaughter, Diana, sat on the balcony of our small apartment watching the rising sun creep over the high iron and stone city walls. She was late in her pregnancy and her husband, Jerrod, had recently died. She was sleeping less and less. I was beginning to worry about her.
“Pop?” She asked, as I put on my dark grey work jacket.
“Diana, I wish you would sleep through the night,” I said as I turned to the door.
“Just be careful out there, okay.”
“I’ll be fine, and you don’t have to worry about me. Please, go back to bed, if for nothing else for the baby.” I left.
Crossing the bridge that connects my building and the walkway to the Tower of Abraxas, I found myself staring out over those high and grey city walls; over into the wasteland stretching out in every direction. The view always stole my attention as well as my imagination. Deep and sprawling trenches snaked outward across the landscape—remnants from wars long past and our city’s namesake. Even I don’t know what armies fought those battles or how many generations ago they occurred. They say the trenches are remnants from a war of the gods, in which our city’s god, Abraxas, had won. I find this questionable, but it is a dangerous thing to ever put voice to that kind of skepticism.
Our city began as a trading outpost and mining company during the dark times. Few even know this much. The city eventually grew into a fortified power that controlled the surrounding region. Nestled safely in the shadow of the great mountain named for Abraxas and behind walls built of its stone and ore, Trench City is an impenetrable fortress. Without the consent of the royal court, none may enter and at once, none may leave. As I passed the long row of black smoke stacks I prepared myself for another day of endless toil. The O.R.C guard looked me over before I entered the tower. After fifty years I still got that accusatory look, but, so did everyone else.
I made no decisions in my job. Information was sent to my office from the office of Bon Helmfrid, aristocrat and head of the Department of Information. I packaged it for disbursement to the proletariat. I also received shipments of relics gathered from the wasteland. The relics either had a green tag, which meant they were to be sent to the office of the Grand Magistrate or they had a red tag, which meant they were to be destroyed. I used to take my time with the relics, learning all I could gather from the old world before either tossing them into the incinerator or off to the Von Scarons, where their secrets were sure to be forever kept or used for the worst.
Every morning the other clerk, Happy, came to my station and begian his duty of cataloguing the relics before they were shipped upstairs or destroyed. He flipped through the pages of his clipboard looking for the right page, as normal his grey work suit fit his thin and aging body loosely. “Good morning, Bram”, he said to me. “Have you been enjoying the celebrations? I hear the ascension will be a spectacle to be remembered.”
“I’m sure it will.” I replied. “I do like the decorations hung from the tower and walls, it feels nice to finally have at least a little color to brighten things up.”
Changing the subject I asked, “How did you get a name like, Happy? Isn’t it ironic?” “Why?” he asked.
“Maybe I’ve been thinking too much lately. I’ll be seventy in a couple of years and I’ve been looking back on my life… wondering what it might have been like.”
“What it might have been like if what?”
“If we didn’t live in this world, if we lived in the world that these relics came from?”
“If you hadn’t lost almost all of your hair by the time you were forty?” he quipped. “I try not to think about it. We have to find our happiness where we can get it. In the small things. Maybe my parents thought by calling me Happy, they were literally brining a little happiness into the world. Or maybe it was ironic.” He laughed.
He picked up a relic from the cart, a statue of a woman in a robe with her hands together in front of her. He holds it up and said, “Think about these things all you want Bram, my only advice is not to get caught doing it. And remember, things didn’t exactly work out for the old world. Look around you. This is what came of it.”
Happy was right. I reflected on what he said through the rest of the day, until I found a relic on the disposal cart that brought a rush of old memories to my already wandering mind. I Picked up the red tagged book and gazed at the tattered cover and hand written title, The Legend of Aric and the History of the Old World. I Held the worn paper in my hand. It felt like holding my own history. A lifetime ago, before ever hearing of Trench City, my grandfather would tell stories about, Aric the Free Man, as we would all sit around the fire in my childhood village. We lived off the land surrounding our village, a rare place with fertile grounds and wild game for hunting. My grandfather would tell us how Aric led his people out from the clutches of evil and found sanctuary in the valley where we founded our village. He would tell the story of Aric and the snake people, when Aric defied the Serpent Lord and refused to pay tithes to their gods. I placed the book back on the cart for inevitable destruction; an action contrary to every part of my being.
Before the end of my shift I found myself wandering across the incinerator room to Happy’s station. He looked at me from his cluttered workbench as I asked, “Have you ever been unsure whether something was right or wrong?”
“All the time.” he answered. “Why, is it something with Diana?”
“No, nothing like that, she’s doing a lot better lately.” A small lie, but one I would tell instinctively. “Like I said, I might be thinking too much in my old age.”
“An old man like you should know this, but I’ll remind you anyway. If they think it’s wrong…” Happy points up, referring to the Grand Magistrate and the aristocracy whose offices and living spaces are on the top levels of the tower. “It’s wrong. Do what they want and you stay out of trouble.”
“You’re right again, Happy.” I said as I began my walk back to my area.
Beneath the loud hum of the incinerator I could hear that ubiquitous salutation behind me, “Truth be the word of Abraxas, brother.” I waved back to him in acknowledgment before passing out of site.
I had already sent the relics designated for the Grand Magistrate off before taking the red tagged relics to the incinerator. As I tossed dozens of pieces of history, bits of lost knowledge, into the flame forever erasing them from this world, I could not bring myself to grab the book. It stared back at me, begging for me to rescue it from its cruel fate. A battle raged in my mind, should I choose safety and burn the book, or choose my heritage and save it. The coward in me lost that argument and for better or worse I hid the book under my jacket and left for home.
I dared not tell Diana what I’d done. It would have killed her with worry. I’d dare not tell anyone what I’d done. It was the biggest secret of my life and likely the most dangerous thing I’d ever attempted. My mind wandered that night. Memories of my grandfather, stories of Aric, fear of the O.R.C; it was too much for an old man. Diana and I sat at our small table as we normally did in the late evening. We talked as we ate the stew she made the day before. Although I tried I could not keep the conversation light, she worried me, and I had the ominous feeling that our conversations in the future might be few. “What do you know about the dark times?” I asked.
“Almost nothing.” She replied, “People do not talk about the time before The Great Restructuring, not even you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have told you all that I know a long time ago. I’m starting to see that we are not meant to live this way and the only way to change that is through understanding.”
“I’m sorry Pop,” she interrupted “but I don’t understand.”
“People do not talk about the dark times or the old world because they do not want people talking about them. Keeping people ignorant of the past, indoctrinating them from birth to follow the word of Abraxas is how the aristocracy thrives. The religion, the ideology they impose on us, is the yoke around our necks!”
She interrupts again, “Stop it! You shouldn’t be saying these things! What is wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry, child, I’ve just been doing a lot of thinking lately.” I gathered my thoughts, “Let me tell you a story. After the destruction of the old world and before the restructuring that brought us cities like this one, there was a dark time. People roamed the wasteland in small groups scrounging for whatever they could only to survive. It was a hard life and more often than not it was cut far too short. Groups of raiders and marauders grew large, as taking food and supplies from others is far easier than producing it yourself. It was not long until roaming gangs ruled the land and all others were but prey.
From this chaos rose a man who would become a beacon of light in a world of darkness. He came from the old world; he witnessed its destruction and the depravity that followed. His name was Aric and he became known as The Free Man. He had the spirit of a warrior and the wisdom of a prophet. Aric travelled the land spreading his teachings of morality, cooperation and passivism. In time he gained a large following and as he promised, brought those large followers to a fertile land where they could live in tranquility.”
“This sounds like a great story, Pop, but what does it have to do with anything? I don’t think anyone is going to show up and lead us to fertile land.”
“No, Diana, I don’t think so either. The point is that stories like these no longer exist. There are no more Arics.”
“Get some sleep, Pop, it’s getting late.”
I stopped. She was not in the state to rethink her entire world right then. Her husband was mistakenly killed only a few months earlier by O.R.C shock troopers. They had mistaken him for a wanted murderer and shot him dead before identifying him correctly. Diana received an official apology from the O.R.C, but, apologies will never replace a murdered husband and soon to be father. I went to my room and pretended to sleep. I held the book all night, losing myself in its pages until drifting away.
I knew something was wrong the next day when Happy never arrived to catalogue the shipment of relics. For the entire twenty two years he worked in the D.I. he never missed a shift. My instincts told me that it was not a coincidence that the day after I took a relic is the first day he does not appear. I panicked and almost left but that would have surely been my end. Unsure what to do I finished the day, praying I would walk out of the tower without being stopped. I hurried home after my shift and without as much as a word to Diana I snuck the book out of my room and left. She stood confused as I never rush out after returning tired from the tower.
I walked, wondering if Bon Helmfrid had me under investigation and if Happy had reported me. He must have told them something. It was the only thing that made sense. How else could they have known? How could he know? With nowhere to go I eventually found myself at the graveyard, standing at Jerrod’s tomb. I sat and read almost the entire book in silence among the dead.
I owed Diana some kind of an explanation for my strange behavior. I just didn’t know what to say. I had only sat down when the knock came at the door. I knew well before she answered what would be waiting on the other side. Two inspectors invited themselves in followed by a squad of shock troopers who started searching through everything in the apartment. I could only say I was sorry before they ushered me out of the house. I was sure Diana would go unharmed as there was nothing elicit in the house. I could only hope that I would be found innocent and sent back to my life and my work at the Dissemination Branch.
The inspectors were relentless in their interrogation. Inspector Mutt was a large man, intimidating in his black O.R.C uniform. His close cut hair and chiseled jaw were emblematic of his rigid demeanor. He would stare menacingly as his partner, Inspector Charis, would barrage me with questions. She was attractive, but I could tell she was also deadly.
Whatever they accused me of, my answer would remain the same. I knew nothing. They threatened that Bon Helmfrid would make it his personal mission to see me punished if I did not confess. I knew better. I knew by then that they did not know what I took, only that I was accused of taking something. To confess would have sealed my fate. No matter what, I had to insist on my innocence. I was sure that Happy reported me. My conversations with him must have alerted some suspicion. I did not think he would betray me. I thought we were friends.
The interrogation continued for hours without me giving in to the inspectors. Finally they told me that they would be charging me with treachery and continuing the investigation. Treachery was a terrible crime to be charged with. The penalty was either death or exile. They sent me to a cell where in terror I would wait.
“Hey, new guy…” A voice said from the cell beside mine. “My name’s Cy, what’s yours?” “Bram.”, I said. I could not see him on the other side of the stone cell wall, but, he seemed like a relatively young man by the tone of his voice. I sat by the bars at the front of my cell so I could hear him more clearly.
“So how did you end up in this nightmare?” he asked.
“Betrayed by a friend, what I thought was a friend.” I replied.
“That will get you every time,” said CY, “especially in this town.”
As we spoke a furious scream stole my attention. A deep, gravelly voice began berating one of the guards followed by the opening of a cell door and sounds of violence. It sounded like a true brawl broke out a few cells down. I didn’t know why.
“That’s Rock.” Cy, explained. “He’s insane and dangerous—one of the few who really belong here. Beware of him.” I took his advice to heart.
I sat in my cell for weeks before having another visit from the inspectors. I spent my time talking for hours with Cy. He became a good friend. I listened from my cage as the ascension occurred. I could hear the celebrations in the city streets. Never in my life had I witnessed such exuberance in Trench City. As much as I hated the aristocracy by that time, I wished I could have participated in the revelry. I wished I could have been in the city square, Diana by my side as we witnessed history unfold before us. It was not to be. I would find out later that my granddaughter had given birth by then. She named my new granddaughter, Rain. Missing that day was the biggest regret of my lifetime.
The next morning, a guard named Ike stood at the front of my cell. He was a good man and would spend a few short minutes every day talking to me. I think he truly felt sorry for me as he knew there was no evidence of my alleged crime. “How are you doing today, Bram?” Ike asked.
“Terrible.” I said.
“I have news, good or bad I don’t know, but it’s something. I got word that you’ll be visited by the inspectors today. I’m sure they’ll have some update on your case.” I thanked him for his consideration and though I tried to keep my thoughts reserved, I could not help but imagine what it would be like to walk out of this hell. I pined for the illusion of freedom I once had, for then, at least I had the illusion.
“Cy,” I began to ask. “Do you believe in the word of Abraxas?”
“Why would you ask me that?” he asked, fear welling up inside of him.
“I’m sorry.” I said. “Those kinds of questions are likely what brought me here in the first place.”
“I know, Bram. Those are dangerous questions. It’s best for everyone if we do not ask them.”
“Well enough.” I said.
At that moment Ike appeared again before my cell. “I overheard your conversation, Bram. Cy has it figured out, why don’t you?”
“Ike, I’m sorry…” I pleaded.
“Don’t.” he said. “I don’t want to see anything more happen to you, but, you have to walk the path they want you to. If another guard would have overheard that the consequences would have been severe.”
“You’re a good man, Ike.” I said.
“Truth be the word of Abraxas.” He said as a reminder as he went on with his duties.
Later that day Inspector Mutt and Inspector Charis came to my cell. They informed me that they found no evidence to prove the indictment of treachery. As the words “no proof” escaped Inspector Charis’ lips I felt a hot rush of joy wash through my body. I stood, and was quickly commanded down by Inspector Mutt. I was to face another inquisitor before finally reclaiming my freedom. I was ready. All I had to do was walk the path they wanted me to.
The inspectors left and after a few short minutes the cell door opened and in came a cleric from The Brotherhood of Abraxas. “Hello, my child, I am Brother Innocent.” He introduced himself. “Child?” I must have been twice this man’s age. So sacrosanct, pompous and young, the cleric looked at me with contempt written on his face.
“Hello.” I said, trying to be as inoffensive as possible.
“You are born into sin as says the word of Abraxas,” He began immediately, “father of all and God before all Gods. It is in His shadow which we walk through this world and in his glory be our deeds. Let the word of the Almighty One guide our path to salvation. Truth be the word of Abraxas.”
I watched him as he lifted his bowed head and gazed into my eyes from behind the hood of his black robe. “You do not say the prayer of Abraxas?” At this moment my palms began to sweat. A feeling of doom arose in my heart and settled in the back of my skull. I did not know what to say.
“I… I’m sorry?” I looked at him screaming for mercy in my thoughts but begging only with my eyes.
“Don’t be sorry child,” he said, as he stood over me. I sat like a child on my cot, “be repentant.”
He started toward the cell door without another word and without thought I hopped up from my cot and cried out, “Are they going to let me free?” He stared at me for a moment and left without a word.
It was the next day that Ike would give me the bad news. I was not to be set free from my torment. I was not to return to my life and see my new granddaughter grow. They had indeed dropped the charge of treachery. They instead charged me with dissent, leveled against me by Brother Innocent, who deemed me unfit for society. I was to be exiled from Trench City. Some would find death a better fate than being sent to walk the wasteland.
I did feel some amount of satisfaction when the following day I watched as they drug my old friend, Happy, kicking and screaming into the cell block. I learned that the O.R.C charged him with deceit after the inspectors found no evidence of my crime. If there was any man I wanted to see in that dungeon it was Happy. But unlike those walls, my heart was not made from stone. I felt sorry for him when I learned he was beaten to death by Rock after only a few days.
My last day in the prison, my last day in Trench City, it would also be the last day I would feel joy. To my surprise I was allowed a visit from Diana and my granddaughter before being sent off to my fate. I had no proof but I thought Ike might have had something to do with it. The guards brought me to a small room where Diana and the baby waited.
“Pop!” She yelled as I entered. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
I hugged her. “I’m sorry,” was all I could say over and over. We sat down at the small table and I told her as much of my story as I could without alerting the eavesdropping guards that I actually did steal the relic. Knowing the horror of my fate, Diana forgave me and promised she would always protect Rain. She promised to make me proud. I told her that she already had. As I hugged her goodbye for the last time I told her to visit Jerrod. I whispered to her where to find the book. I could see in her face the confusion as she was ushered away by the guard. I could only hope that she would find the book and pass on its knowledge to her daughter. Through knowledge she may overcome this world of tyranny.
It was late afternoon when the two O.R.C shock troopers marched me out past the trenches of the Von Scaron territory. They unshackled my hands and feet and without provisions or proper clothing they shoved me forward.
“Get going, trader.” one said.
“Before we shoot.” said the other one.
I walked out into the great open wasteland. Sun baked and barren earth as far as I could see. I remembered the day we were forced to abandon our village as a child. Dozens of us roamed the wasteland for months. It was painful and many died but some of us found our way. Aric the Free Man brought my ancestors to freedom, his words now but echoes, echoes dying softly across the chasm of time.