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"The End of Everything"

by  Wayne Faust 

© 2002 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved




    “What is that awful smell?” asked Bilodeau.

    He and LaForte stood on the top of a hill and gazed out towards Avignon, hunkered down behind its city walls, two kilometers away. The men were dressed in simple, gray robes and sandals. Their hair hung long on the sides of their heads and there were neat circles shaved into their crowns. They spoke in French.

    LaForte pointed towards a flaming pyre in the distance. Noxious smoke spread out above the city gates and over the countryside, casting a dim pallor on the scene below.

    “Are they burning bodies?”

    “I think so. Nothing else smells quite like that.”

    “Then it has to be a major outbreak.”

    “It would seem so.”

    Bilodeau took a step backwards. “We should not go down there. There was no record of an outbreak and the Code is unclear about something like this.”

    “Forget the Code,” snapped LaForte. “What will the Code say if we fail to find Corbet? It will probably mean our heads.”

    They had been following Corbet’s trail for two months, skirting towns and villages, trying to be unobtrusive. Every day the signs of the disease had been getting clearer but this was the first time they had seen anything like piles of burning bodies. They gathered up their leather carrying-sacks and headed down the hill towards the town.

    They came to a meager peasant hut at the edge of a partially plowed field. A woman stood in the field with her back to the men, looking towards the billowing smoke. She leaned on a shovel and swayed weakly back and forth. Five human-shaped bundles lay on the ground behind her. They were of various sizes, the largest the size of an adult male and the smallest the size of an infant. There was the beginning of a hole dug in the dusty ground at her feet.

    LaForte took a step forward. Bilodeau grabbed his arm and whispered, “Dear God, Pierre. What do you think you are doing?”

    “I have stood by long enough,” answered LaForte. “It is time to act like a priest. That is what I am supposed to be, is it not? Besides, the woman might have seen Corbet.”

    Bilodeau let go of LaForte’s arm and backed away. “I shall note very carefully your disregard of the Code.”

    LaForte gingerly approached the woman and coughed deliberately. The woman turned around. She wore a filthy peasant dress and her hair was in shambles. Her red eyes leaked tears down onto weather-beaten cheeks. She dropped her shovel and raced up to LaForte, falling to the ground at his feet and tugging on the hem of his robe.

    “Absolution! Please, Father! Absolution!” she begged, her voice shrill.

    LaForte looked back toward Bilodeau who only shrugged. LaForte set down his leather sack and kneeled beside the woman, placing his hand cautiously on the back of her head. She collapsed into sobs on his shoulder.

    “There, there, my child,” cooed LaForte, comforting the woman as best he could.

    The woman composed herself and wiped her eyes on the dirty sleeve of her dress. “All the priests have run into the hills,” she muttered, her eyes looking away. “No one will give us Absolution. Even the Pope has locked himself away in his palace. They say that he has gone mad, and that he sits between huge fires all day, even in this terrible heat. Our souls are lost. My family is lost forever.” She gestured towards the wrapped bodies on the ground and began to weep.

    “Take peace, my child,” whispered LaForte softly. “Your family shall have Absolution and so shall you. It is not too late.”

    LaForte tiptoed over to the bodies. He pulled the cloth back from the largest one, revealing the misshapen face of a man, covered with black, lumpy sores. LaForte nearly fell backwards from the smell but he steeled himself, tried not to breathe too deeply, and made the sign of the cross in the air.

    “In the name of the Blessed Virgin and all the Saints, I hereby consecrate thee and absolve thee of all thy sins, Amen.” He spoke loud enough so the woman could hear. He hoped he had gotten the words right.

    LaForte covered up the face of the corpse and continued on, performing the little ceremony for each of the others. When he reached the body of the infant, he lingered a few moments longer, shaking his head.

    “I have the sickness too.” The woman’s words startled him. He had not been aware that she had moved up close behind him.

    “I have the sores under my arms, just like all the others.” The woman slipped her dress down over her shoulders and arms, revealing emaciated, sagging breasts. She raised her arms to show swollen lumps in her armpits, each the size and color of apples.

    LaForte whispered an oath. He made the sign of the cross on the woman’s forehead and gave her the Absolution. She breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed to her knees.

    “Thank you, Father,” she said, her hands folded in front of her. “But I have nothing to pay you.”

    “Your faith is payment enough. And now, if you would be so kind to answer a question. Did another priest pass this way in the past few days? He would have had red hair and a red beard and he is very tall, taller than I. We know him as Father Corbet or Father Andre and we urgently seek him.”

    “No, Father. As I said, all the priests from Avignon ran off as soon as the sickness came. You are the first priests I have seen since the snow melted.”

    “Then we shall inquire about him in Avignon. We beg your leave.”

    “Was that amusing for you?” asked Bilodeau later as they trudged along the dusty road. “Was it pleasant for you to go against the Code and risk your whole career? I hope you will not expect me to cover up for you when we get back.”

    “I had to help that woman. She was burying her whole family. Besides, she will surely die soon. My actions would not have made any permanent changes.”

    “Well, you did a fine job playing priest. It looks like you did your homework.”

    “I imagine that Corbet did his.”

    “No doubt. But you were really convincing. For a while I thought you were actually believing that drivel.”

    LaForte chuckled. “Hardly. In fact, I wonder how these people believe in it. Look what these charlatans do to them. They charge them for indulgences. They take their crops for tithes. They ravage their virgins. And then when it gets tough they go running off into the woods. Think of that poor, wretched woman back there. They sold her a whole belief system and then failed her. Nobody needs a crutch like that, not one that breaks when you lean on it a little too hard.”

    LaForte gazed off into the distance. “I used to go in for that kind of thing once. Mass every Sunday. Prayers every night. But then I saw what scoundrels our own priests were, especially during the last war, when half of France was choking on their own vomit. Most of the priests ran off then, too. It seems that things do not change much, even in 600 years.”

    “Well, you were an admirable priest just the same,” said Bilodeau. “A little too admirable. You let that woman get too close. She cried on your shoulder and she was dying of the plague.”

    “I will get a shot when we get home. That gives us one more reason to find Corbet and get out of here.”

    As they traveled closer to Avignon the smell got worse. There was an eerie quiet, punctuated only by the soft sounds of flickering flames as they passed by the funeral pyre. Bilodeau gagged and covered his face with the sleeve of his robe. They found the city gates unmanned, open and askew. A black piece of cloth fluttered ominously from a wooden flagpole on top of the wall.

    The twisting, cramped streets of Avignon looked like the remnants of a battle. There were bodies everywhere. Outdoor markets stood unmanned, except by bloated corpses which lay rotting at the foot of tables still piled high with goods. Saddled horses wandered leisurely through the streets and nibbled on apples left untended and unsold. Tavern doors stood open to reveal the bodies of people who had spent the last moments of their lives with glasses of ale. All the corpses bore the signs of the Black Death -- the dark discoloration, the running sores, the bloating.

    They wandered up and down the grim streets, gaping at the morbid scene, until they nearly bumped into a hunched-over priest, pushing a wheelbarrow full of corpses. He looked up and stopped, resting his burden and placing his hands on his hips. His robe was threadbare.

    “So, you have come back from the hills,” he snapped.

    LaForte cast a glance at Bilodeau, who shrugged.

    “Well, will you two just stand there gaping, or will you come and help me do the Lord’s work?” He bent down and grabbed the handles of the wheelbarrow again, clearly in a hurry.

    LaForte grabbed the man’s arm. “Wait. I am Father Pierre and this is Father Henri. We seek news of our Brother who we believe passed this way. He is very tall and his beard and hair are red. His name is Andre Corbet.”

    The priest eyed the two men. “So, you are not from Avignon. I had assumed you to be two of our own priests who ran off into hiding because of this cursed sickness. I beg your forgiveness for taking you to be of that cowardly ilk. I am Father Philipe.”

    He thrust out his hand to LaForte, who shook it, and to Bilodeau, who merely kept his arms at his sides and bowed stiffly.

    “So,” said Father Philipe, his haggard face lighter now, “I have been trying to place your accent. It is a little hobby of mine. I have not heard one exactly like it, but it seems familiar. You are from Burgundy, no?”

    LaForte paused for a moment and then nodded. “Yes,” he answered, “and our Brother came here in hopes of gaining an audience with the Pope. When we heard there was disease here we came quickly to see to his condition.”

    “But isn’t there sickness in Burgundy also?” asked Father Philipe. “I heard it was even worse there.”

    LaForte’s heart skipped. Even worse?

    “We have been traveling out of France,” answered Bilodeau smoothly. “Word of our colleague reached us in Castille. Can you tell us if he has been here?”

    Father Philipe inclined his head as if to ask another question. Finally he said, “No, I have not seen a man like you have described, but more people straggle in from the countryside every day. Maybe he will show up soon. Will you help me with my rounds? There are many needs here as you can see, and perhaps you can help me while you wait for your friend.”

    Bilodeau backed away.

    “Yes, of course,” LaForte said. “It is only logical that Father Andre should eventually make his way here. We will help you until then.”

    Bilodeau began to protest, but LaForte and Father Philipe had already started heading towards the city gates, Father Philipe hurrying ahead with the wheelbarrow. Bilodeau muttered a curse and followed.

    They approached the funeral pyre. “Perhaps you two can help me throw these bodies onto the fire,” said Father Philipe. “My ancient back is very tired from doing this unfortunate task.”

    LaForte moved to help while Bilodeau lingered a few feet behind, his hands inside his robe.

    “Your friend has a tired back also, no?” asked Father Philipe. LaForte didn’t answer and the two men tossed the bodies onto the fire.

    When the grim work was done, Father Philipe stood up straight and wiped his hands on his robe. “And now,” he said, “let us try to help those who are still among this world.”

    As they walked towards the center of the city they began to hear a few sounds of human life. Carts went by carrying more bodies out of town, and a few people gathered food and supplies. Grimy faces peered out of windows and watched them go by. They could see the Papal palace on a hill in the distance, guards standing stiffly by the gates. Permeating everything was the smell of rotting food and sewage and death. Dust drifted in the midsummer heat and flies were everywhere, feasting.

    They stopped in front of a small chapel. Father Philipe said, “The scene inside is not pretty, but there is still a small bit of hope. Some actually recover from this disease, and those who have no hope still need the spiritual help we can give them.”

    Father Philipe opened the chapel door and the sounds and smells from inside hit them like a shock wave. Over forty patients lay in rows along the floor. Some of them wailed and moaned, while some had clearly passed the point of caring. La Forte gagged in spite of the open windows. Bilodeau covered up his face as they stepped cautiously inside. They were greeted with gut-wrenching cries of “Help me, Father!” and “Water, Father!”

    Father Philipe produced a leather flask and knelt down next to a small boy who was lying just inside the door. The child’s eyes were delirious with fever, but still they focused on Father Philipe as he tried to force some water past his swollen lips. The priest stood up stiffly and whispered to LaForte, “This one will not make it through the night. I would like you to pray with him until he drifts off to sleep. Give him some water if he asks for it. It is all we can do. His name is Louis. I will return later.”

    Father Philipe strolled quickly out the chapel door, leaving LaForte to sputter, “Pray? But...” It was no use. Father Philipe had gone.

    “Well, Pierre,” said Bilodeau. “How do you enjoy being a priest now?”

    LaForte glanced down at the small child, who valiantly gasped for each breath.

    “Well? Can we leave now?” asked Bilodeau. “We must find Corbet.”

    LaForte paused. “I think we should wait for Corbet here.”

    “What? Are you mad?”

    “No, I am not mad. Think about it. We have chased Corbet around half of France. Someone saw him only four kilometers from here two days ago, so we know he is close. He will have to come into Avignon soon to get supplies. It is inevitable, no? If we leave the city we may miss him.”

    Bilodeau’s eyes darted back and forth. He couldn’t argue with LaForte’s logic but the sounds of the sick and dying filled his ears. “For God’s sake, I have to get out of here. Come with me, please.”

    LaForte had never heard Bilodeau say please, not even once. It brought him a strange pleasure and he suppressed a smile. Just then a small voice carried up to his ear.

    “Pray with me, Father.” The small boy looked up at LaForte, trusting, pleading.

    “Go yourself,” LaForte said to Bilodeau. “Go into the countryside and resume the search. That way we can cover more ground. If you find Corbet, bring him here.”

    “But that is against the...” Bilodeau began to say, but stopped. LaForte had thrown him a life rope and he desperately wanted to grab it, regardless of the consequences.

    “Are you ordering me to do this?” asked Bilodeau.

    LaForte nodded.

    Bilodeau breathed sigh of relief. “I will return with Corbet,” he declared loudly as he stepped quickly out of the chapel. He nearly ran down the street towards the city gate.

    LaForte sighed and knelt down next to the small child. ‘What have I done?’ he thought. ‘I split us up. Who knows what Bilodeau will do now? He will probably panic and use his Beacon. Then he will be home and I will be left here to find Corbet by myself.’

    LaForte reached into the pocket of his robe. A palm-sized, metallic device brushed against his fingers. Reassured, he took his hand out of his pocket and placed it against the dreadfully hot forehead of the small child.

    “Well, Louis,” he said. “So you need some prayers, eh?”

    LaForte mumbled some words and hoped they sounded like prayers to the frightened, deathly ill boy.

                                                                                             ***

    The next morning LaForte helped Father Philipe load Louis’ small body into the wheelbarrow. They had both spent the better part of the night trying to keep the child alive, but he had slipped away just before dawn. During the long, all-night vigil, the two men had talked about many things, and LaForte had found himself drawn to the old man. He reminded him of his grandfather, Charles.

    “Let me push the wheelbarrow,” said LaForte. “Your back must be very tired this morning.”

    Father Philipe nodded gratefully. They traveled the empty, early morning street.

    “You are not really from Burgundy, are you?” asked Father Philipe. His tone had not been accusing, merely questioning. LaForte decided to answer truthfully. “No, I am not,” he said.

    “And you are not a priest, either.” It was a statement, not a question.

    LaForte shook his head.

    “You must have your reasons. The Lord knows there are enough men who were coaxed into the life of a highwayman and now hide out as priests. I once fell into evil myself. I am sure your story is an interesting one.”

    LaForte chuckled. “You would not believe it if I told you.”

    “Well, the Lord’s ways are mysterious, and I am just glad he has seen fit to send you here.”

    “I cannot see how you can still talk about God in the midst of all this.” LaForte waved his arm.

    “I will not claim to know the Lord’s reasons for everything,” Father Philipe replied. “I would be a fool to do that. But He is God, and all I can do is serve Him the best I can.”

    “But if there really is a God, why does he let all of this horror go on? And why would God pick such a bunch of charlatans to help him? For every priest like you there are a hundred others who are in it for what they can squeeze out of it. On the way here we met a woman who lost her whole family, and there was not even one priest around to help her out. They had all run off.”

    Father Philipe stopped walking and scratched his head, searching for words. “I believe it is all about free will. God’s love is perfect, but he has to rely on men to spread it. Men, of course, are far less than perfect. And since the Lord gives us free will, you can be sure that we will often fail. But God’s will is pure and good, and by following it to the best of our ability, I believe that in our own small way, we can make the world a better place, as the Lord desires it to be.”

    When the two men dumped Louis’ small, ruined body onto the funeral pyre, Father Philipe recited a prayer as LaForte looked on quietly, his mind a jumble.

                                                                                          ***

    “Why did you stay instead of running off like your companion?” asked Father Philipe. They were back in the chapel, and as usual, they fell into conversation.

    “He went out into the countryside to search. It only made sense for me to stay here, in case our friend finds his way into the city.”

    “But that is not the only reason.”

    LaForte paused. “No, I suppose it isn’t. Staying here just seemed like the right thing to do.”

    “Well, it is clear to me why you stayed. You have the spirit of God within you.”

    “But I do not believe in God.”

    “Of course not. As you have said to me many times, you only wish to rely on yourself. And so far in your life, it has worked very well, no?”

    “I suppose.”

    “But there comes a time in all of our lives when that is no longer good enough.”

    “Perhaps.”

                                                                                          ***

    Death did not creep up slowly in this place. It raced up like a lion, and now it had nearly caught up with Father Philipe.

    LaForte held the old man’s head and forced some water past his lips. “I do not want you to die,” LaForte said raggedly, fighting tears.

    “I know, my friend. But it had to happen sooner or later.”

    Bilodeau had not returned, and LaForte had been helping Father Philipe for over a week. The old priest had finally succumbed to the plague, and now it was his turn to lay on the chapel’s stone floor.

    “Who will answer all my questions when you are gone?” asked LaForte gently.

    “The answers are in your heart.”

    LaForte didn’t think he had much of a heart left. He knew that soon he would have to give up the mission and return home. Corbet was probably dead, and Bilodeau was probably back in the Terminal by now, telling his superiors lies.

    “I will miss you,” he said to the old man softly.

    “I know. But I go to a much better place.”

    LaForte wished he could say the same. He would be going back to a place full of war and disease, in many ways a world even worse than this one. He left the chapel with the image of Father Philipe’s face in his mind. Even though it had been a face full of fever and disease, there had been peace there, and contentment.

                                                                                              ***

    The next day LaForte stood outside the city gates, preparing to dump Father Philipe’s body onto the funeral pyre. He was trying to decide if he should say something for the old man.

    “Pierre! Pierre!” A voice drifted on the breeze. LaForte looked up and saw Bilodeau stagger towards him, another man slung over his shoulders. He ran to help.

    “I found him,” gasped Bilodeau. “I found him at last.”

    They eased the long-lost Andre Corbet down onto the ground. A few raindrops splattered down and touched his lips. He sputtered. At least he was still alive.

    Corbet’s red beard stood out against his pale, misshapen face, and his usually fastidious red hair was shaggy and dirty. He was in the last stages of the disease.

    “Good God,” muttered LaForte, as he pushed a strand of hair from Corbet’s face.

    “Pierre?” Corbet said hoarsely, his rheumy, blue eyes growing wide with relief. “Thank God...Please, take me back...I want to go back.”

    “Oh, so now you want to go back,” said LaForte. “It took a very long time to find you. Why did you not use your Beacon? You could have saved us a lot of trouble.”

    “It does not work...must be broken...Damn German slave labor...Didn’t know about plague...” Corbet tried to sit up but fell back.

    “Why did you come here?” asked LaForte. “This is not much of a place to risk everything for.”

    “I wanted to go way back...before the world wars...before the virus wars...you know what we are working on in the lab these days...will only get worse...”

    Corbet’s voice drifted off. Then he jerked awake again.

    “Glory...started here...French Kings...French flag over the Holy Land...French New World...French Europe...wouldn’t have changed anything...just wanted to be part of it...did not know about...did not...the plague...”

    Corbet’s eyes closed. LaForte stood up.

    “Come on!” shouted Bilodeau. “We have to go home now. He will not last much longer, and to tell you the truth, I do not feel so good myself.” Bilodeau hunched his shoulders as if he were cold.

    LaForte reached into his leather sack and pulled out his Beacon. He placed it into the palm of his hand and pressed a few brightly colored numbers. He hit a button on the side and lights began flashing. “Okay,” he muttered. “Time to go home.”

    They knelt down next to Corbet and waited. Nothing happened. LaForte hit the device sharply with the palm of his hand. Still nothing.

    “Try yours,” said LaForte as a sick feeling began to build in his stomach.

    Bilodeau produced a similar device. He pushed some buttons. They waited to hear the low hum of the transport beam but there was no sound at all, just the soft flicker of flames from the funeral pyre.

    “Would they have shut down the Terminal?” Bilodeau asked.

    “They never do that.”

    LaForte’s heartbeat began to pound in his temples. All three devices could not be broken. There was only one reason for them all to fail.

    “We can’t get back,” LaForte whispered.

    “What?” asked Bilodeau.

    “It is the only possible explanation. Corbet caused a rift. He changed the future. There is no Terminal to bring us back anymore. We are stuck here.”

    Bilodeau’s eyes grew wide as the implications hit him like a hammer. He knelt down and grabbed Corbet by the front of his robe. “Wake up, you jackass!” he shouted. “We are stuck here! Do you hear me? And it is your fault!”

    Corbet’s eyes opened partially. “Wha--what?” he muttered.

    “You were not supposed to come here! You went against the Code. Why do you think the Code is there in the first place?”

    “But I did no harm,” Corbet answered weakly. “I did not know about the plague...”

    “You idiot, can you not see what is staring you in the face? You brought it with you! It was the new germ from the War Department. You had some immunity to it for a while. These people had no immunity, so you infected most of France, maybe most of the world, maybe even me...”

    Bilodeau pushed Corbet back down and stared at his hands. I carried him on my shoulders.

    Bilodeau panicked. There was no place to go back to anymore, no place to get shots. What was he supposed to do? The Code was clear on one thing. If something like this happened they were supposed to kill Corbet and destroy his body. And then they were supposed to kill themselves. But there was no Code anymore, no future at all; it was too late to do anything to save it. And right now, there were a whole lot of germs floating in the air. On his hands. Everywhere.

    Bilodeau dropped his carrying sack and Beacon and took off running, heading for the hills.

    “Wait!” shouted LaForte. But it was too late.

    LaForte sighed and knelt down. He began to tend to Corbet, the way he had tended to so many others with Father Philipe. Corbet looked up weakly and said, “I do not want to die here. Please, God, I want to go home.”

    God again, thought LaForte. They all say that at the end.

    “Will I go to Heaven, Pierre?” Corbet asked.

    LaForte didn’t answer.

                                                                                           ***

    The funeral pyre continued to climb its ugly way towards the smoky sky as people died at a frightening pace. Many of the people that were left alive were sure that it was the end of everything, the end of the world. LaForte didn’t think so. A few of the stricken had survived and some people who had been exposed for a long time weren’t sick at all. The kill ratio of the disease seemed to be running at about 60 percent, only slightly higher than in the recent war back home. The world had gone on then, so it would probably go on now.

    But probably not for me, thought LaForte, as he felt the twin swellings in his armpits.

    He gently pitched the body of Corbet into the fire and sat down heavily on the ground. There was much to think about. This was a dark, wretched place, but maybe the future would come out better this time.

    LaForte watched Corbet’s body burn, his eyes watering from smoke and emotion. He tossed the three time-travel devices into the fire, along with the two leather sacks that had belonged to Corbet and Bilodeau.

    He stood up and watched the fire for a few more minutes. At last he knelt down and mumbled a small prayer. Then he headed back into the city to do the best he could.

END

 

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