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                                                                                   Ignition

                                                                                       by

                                                                               Jack McDevitt

 

     I saw no sign of a devil.

     We'd been working on an extension of the Holy Journey subway when we ran into large blocks of concrete, stacked one atop the other, buried in the earth. The blocks weren't supposed to be there, but they were. The extension, when finished, would cross the river south into St. Andrew's Parish, taking substantial pressure off the bridges. The concrete blocks lay directly in our way. So I kept the crew drilling, and eventually we broke through. Into a large space.

     I pointed my light up. The ceiling must have been more than a hundred feet.    

     Now the truth is I hadn't given any thought to devils and demons until I flashed my light into the darkness and saw, first, broken columns scattered around the place, as if it had once been a temple. And then the statue.

     The statue was big, several times as high as I was. Or it would have been had the base not been buried in earth, broken stone, and assorted debris.

     "What happened here?" demanded a voice behind me. Cort Benson, my number one guy. He pushed in and immediately locked on the giant figure rising out of the earth floor. "My Lord," he said, his voice suddenly very low. "What is that?"

     It was a man. I moved a few steps closer and held up my lamp. He was dressed oddly, loose-fitting clothes from another age. Odd-looking coat or vest. Hard to tell which. The statue was sunk into the ground to a point midway between knees and hips. There was something clasped in his left hand. A rolled sheet of paper, looked like.

     My crew stayed near the door. One of them called for a blessing. Another said it was devil's work.

     Some columns were still standing. They connected to a curved wall, forming a boundary around the statue. Beyond the wall and the columns were more concrete blocks.

     The air was thick, and somehow smelled of other days. I played the light against the wall. Several rows of arcane symbols were engraved in it. They were filled with dirt and clay, so it was hard to make them out. I picked at them with a crowbar, pulled some earth loose, and saw what they were: ancient English. The language still showed up occasionally around the parish, and over in Seven Crosses, and even as far north as St. Thomas. The characters were usually engraved on chunks of rock that must once have been cornerstones and arches and front entrances and even occasionally, as here, on walls. The world was filled with rubble from the civilization that God in His wrath had taken down.

     I thought about that for a minute. Wages of sin. Then I pointed the lamp up and saw a second group of characters on a narrow strip circling the ceiling.

     Cort grumbled something I couldn't make out and walked past me toward the statue.

     Three or four lamps were now playing across its face, from the guys who stood back at the entrance. They showed no inclination though to come any closer.

     The lights gave life to the features. His eyes tracked me, the lips curved into a smile. It gave me chills, I'll admit that.

     His features radiated power. And superiority. Though any guy twenty feet tall is going to look superior. The sculptor had given him an aura of the supernatural.

                                                                                      #

     I checked in with the office, let them know what I'd found, and, at their instruction, told my crew they could take the rest of the morning off. Until a decision was made what to do about the discovery.

     Cort waited until I got off the circuit. Then he said, "Eddie would be interested in this."

     "Who's Eddie?" I wished Cort would follow the others outside. Get some fresh air. Do something constructive. Just please don't hang around and make suggestions.

     "Come on, Blinky," said Cort. "Eddie Trexler. My cousin. You know him." Since he'd come back from prison, Cort seemed to have trouble breathing. You could always hear it, always knew when he was nearby. He probably shouldn't have been working down in the subways, but he was on the bishop's list and we couldn't get permission to transfer him.

     I vaguely remembered once getting introduced to Trexler. A long time ago. But I couldn't recall anything about him. Or why he would possibly be interested in the chamber.

     "I'll be back in a little while," said Cort. He was always ready to skate at the edges of the law. It was what had gotten him in trouble in the first place.

     "Wait a minute," I said. "You know the rules."

     "All they say is we have to report something like this. You've done that. Did they tell you to keep everybody out?"

     "No."

     "There you are, then."

     "That's what they want, though."

     "Hellfire, Andy, if that's what they want they ought to say it." He fished a phone out of his pocket. "I'm going to give him a yell."

     Then he was gone. It wasn't worth a confrontation. Cort thought I got in line too easily, so sometimes I had to rein him in. But this didn't seem like one of those times. If he got himself and his cousin into trouble, so be it.

     The giant gazed down at me. I went over and touched him, touched his thigh, brushed away some of the accumulated dust. He was bronze.

     The lights were gone now, save the one I was carrying. I felt alone.

                                                                                # 

     You'd never have known Eddie Trexler was a relative of Cort's. Where Cort was heavy and unkempt and probably indestructible, the cousin was tall and reedy and pressed. He owned a high-pitched voice and wore thick glasses, and he walked like a duck.

      But there was no doubting his enthusiasm when he shook my hand and, without waiting for permission, climbed past me into the space. Trexler was a clerk at the Department of Theological Studies, but his hobby was ancient history. He'd brought one of those large lanterns that will light up a city block. He was two steps inside when he switched it on and put the beam on the statue. "Magnificent," he said. His voice had gone a notch higher.

     Cort chuckled. "He asked me to say thanks for asking him over."

     "Sure," I said. "My pleasure." We followed him in.

     He stood gawking at the figure, at the wall, at the columns. Even at the concrete blocks. "I never thought I'd live to see anything like this--. You know what this is, Cort?" And, "Lovely."   

     "It's a statue," I said. I could have added that it desperately needed to be washed, that it was chipped in more than a few places, that it was half-buried. That it was blasphemous.

     Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image.

     But I let it go.

     "Do you know what it is?" Cort asked him.

     "I have an idea." He plunged into the space, climbed over the debris, studied the statue, touched one of the standing columns, and closed in on the wall. On the inscription. Then he went behind the wall and looked at the blocks. "Nicely fitted," he said. "Seamless."

     "Yes," we both replied, though I doubt either of us had noticed.

     "This is big news," he said. "If it's what I think it is."

     "Why, Ed?" I asked. "What do you think it is?"

     "Look at the writing on the walls. This place is prediluvian. Before the flood."

     "Okay. And your point--?"

     "Look at the blocks."

     "What about them?"

     "Think why they're there."

     "Why are they there?"

     "They tried to save it," he said, as much to himself as us. "God help them, they tried to save it."

     "Yes," I said, not sure what I was agreeing to.

     "It must have sunk during the flooding. Too heavy. It was more than thirty thousand tons. Add all that concrete--." He shook his head. "And here it is."

     "I guess so," I said.

     "That means--." His eyes gleamed with a light of their own. "They knew the flood was coming."

     "The Great Flood?"

     "Yes. Official doctrine is--."

     "That it happened without warning," said Cort.

     "Correct." He pressed his palms against the stone, as if to read a message hidden within the cold gray surface. "That's going to stir the pot a bit." He pulled a camera from a sweater pocket and began taking pictures.

     Cort stayed at his side, fascinated. "Can you read any of it, Ed?"

     "Not really. If we can get it clean, we should be able to figure it out." He turned back to me. "Cort tells me you've alerted the authorities."

     "Of course," I said. "It's a requirement."

     "Yeah," he said. "I know. Pity."

     I couldn't miss the implied accusation. "Hey," I said. "I didn't have a choice."

     He told me it wasn't my fault. "How long will it take them to get here?"

     "No way to know," Cort rumbled, raising an eyebrow in my direction.

     Trexler began trying to clear the symbols. Cort and I joined in. But it was hard going and we didn't make much progress. He stepped back and took more pictures. And frowned. "Publish," he said, finally.

     "What? Publish what?"

     "This word means publish." It was about nine lines down. And, four lines below that: "Reliance."

     He shook his head and glanced at me again. "I don't suppose there's any chance you could go out and head them off when they get here."

     "You mean the police?"

     "Yes."

     "What would I tell them?"

     "Anything you can think of."

     "No," I said. "I don't think I could get away with that."

     He rolled his eyes. And in that moment noticed the overhead inscription. "What's that?"

     "More letters," said Cort. "I'll try to slow down the police."

     "Thank you." He threw a withering glance in my direction. Then he returned his attention to the roof. "That's in better condition up there," he said.

     "Yes," I said. I was trying to decide what to do. I kept seeing the police hauling off all three of us.

     "...Have sworn..."

     "What?"

     He was still looking up. "It says have sworn, and there's alert off to the right."

     "Okay."

     "No. Wait. It's altar."

     I watched him change his angle and stand on his toes as if getting an inch closer would help.

     "Mind of man at the end."

     I heard the sound of arriving vehicles.

     He jerked his head around. Stared toward the hole we'd cut through the blocks. "So soon?" He looked dismayed.

     "I guess."

     He went back to the inscription. "The last three words are mind of man. No question about it."

     Doors slammed. From the main tunnel came the rumble of a passing train. Dust drifted down on us.

     "...Have sworn...altar...mind of man."

     "Makes no sense," I said.

     "I can't make out the rest of it." He changed his angle again. "I need to get closer to it. You have a ladder handy?"

     "Not high enough to reach that," I said.

     "Damn. We need a little time."

     "Maybe it's something this guy said," I suggested, indicating the statue.

     He sighed. "Of course it is. Said or wrote. What else would it be?"

     I didn't much like the attitude he was taking. "The statue's  blasphemous," I reminded him. There was a line from the Divine Handbook: You don't make statues of people because that

implies they are godlike.

     "Don't be stupid," he said. Then he went back to the inscription: "The first word is only a single letter. Probably a pronoun. Has to be I."

     There were voices outside now.

     "He's saying something about hostility. Some kind of hostility."

     The voices became loud.

     "I think it's hostility against. Has to be. And tyrant. Yes. ...Hostility against something something tyrant."

     There was a scuffle outside. Mercifully short.

     "No. It's not tyrant. It's, I think it's tyranny. Yes. That's it. Tyranny."

     People were crowding into the chamber. Five men, four in police uniforms. "I'm Inspector Valensky," said the one in plain clothes. He flashed an ID toward Trexler, as if I weren't there. He was middle-aged, bearded, very official. Cort trailed in behind them, hands apparently secured behind his back.

     "Good afternoon, Inspector," said Trexler, at which point Valensky saw the statue.

     "The Lord is my keeper, sir," he said. "We do have devil's spawn here, don't we?"

     Trexler's light fell on the police officers and I saw they were carrying bags of explosives. "Don't come in here with that," he warned. "What are you doing? Get that out of here."

     The inspector drew himself up straight, and tugged at his beard. "Sir," he said, "gentlemen, I think who comes and who goes is our decision. And the fact is, I must ask you to leave."

     Trexler didn't budge.

     "This thing is blasphemous," said Valensky, sounding as if he were struggling to keep his voice level. "We'll have to get rid of it."

     "What do you mean, 'get rid of it'?"

     "I meant exactly what I said, sir. We're going to send it back where it belongs. Meantime, you'd be prudent to mind your manners." He turned to me. "I take it you're Blinkman Baylor."

     I winced. I never understood what my folks were thinking when they gave me that name. "That's correct."

     "Good. You did the right thing, Mr. Baylor, although it might have been a good idea to keep these two out of here." He raised his voice so we could all hear. "I hope none of you touched this abomination."

     "No," I said, trying to sound reassuring. "Of course not."

     He looked dead at me. "You do know not to touch any of these relics, don't you?"

     "Oh, yes," I said. "We keep our hands off."

     "Good, Mr. Baylor. Very prudent."

     "I touched it," said Trexler. 

     "It renders you unclean, sir. You'll want to come with us when we're finished here."

     "What for?"

     "We'll have to take you to All-Sorrows for a ceremonial cleansing."

     Trexler glared back with contempt. They'd have to carry him.

     Valensky managed to look both annoyed and disappointed. "I do wish you'd cooperate, sir." He turned to Cort. "What about you?"

     "Me?" Cort shook his head. "I haven't been anywhere near it."

     "Good." Two of the officers put on white gloves. They carried the charges across the chamber, picking their way through the debris, and laid them against the statue.

     When Trexler tried to intervene, a third officer, a woman, headed him off. "Just stay calm, sir," she said, "if you will."

     We watched while they made adjustments and connections.

     Trexler glared at Valensky. "You blockhead," he said. "Do you have any idea what this place is worth? What it is?"

     Valensky looked unmoved. "I know exactly what it is. Thank God one of us does." He turned to me. "I suggest you get him out of here."

     The two who were setting the explosives stood up and brushed off their knees. "All set," one of them said.

     The other knelt back down and tugged at something. "Ready to go," he added.

     Valensky took a remote from his pocket. "Everybody out, please," he said. He moved toward the exit, walking slowly while he waited for the rest of us to leave. Trexler stayed where he was.

     "Come on, Eddie," said Cort.

     Trexler shook his head. "I'm not going anywhere."

     A signal passed between the inspector and the officers. They filed past Trexler. The woman touched her cap and said goodbye.

     "I do wish you'd be reasonable," said Valensky.

     Trexler moved closer to the statue. "Go ahead," he said. "Do what you have to."

     "You leave me no choice, sir."

     "Idiot."

     The officers left, taking a struggling Cort with them. All except Valensky. "I'll set off the charge in one minute," he said. "That gives you time to change your mind and get out."

     Trexler did not move. "Blow it up and be damned."  

     "Eddie." I felt helpless. "Getting yourself killed won't help anything."

     "Listen to him," said Valensky. Then he looked my way. Time to go.

     I waited a few seconds, watched Valensky disappear. "Ed," I said, "for God's sake--."

     "He won't do it," said Trexler. "Too much paperwork if he kills somebody."

                                                                                  #

     When the rebellion started, two months later, with the coordinated robberies of two banks and the looting of a parish arms warehouse, the authorities were slow to recognize it for what it was. And that cost them everything.

     The two historians of the revolution, the two I know of, both believe Edward Trexler's death was the spark that started it all. There's some truth to that. But of course a lot of other people had died before he did, charged with heresy, or blasphemy, or various other attitudinal felonies.

     God knows, though, Trexler's death motivated me. Who would ever have believed that conservative old Blinky Baylor would pick up a gun and go to war? But there was something else that stuck in my mind. That, for a lot of us, eventually became the engine that drove the revolution. 

     "(I?)...Have sworn...altar....hostility (against?)... tyranny...mind of man."

     It wasn't hard to fill in the blanks. And sometimes, during the dark times, it kept me going. I think it kept a lot of us going. You want to make a revolution work, you need more than a taste for vengeance.

-------------

Originally published in Future Washington, edited by Ernest Lilley, copyright WSFA Press, 2005