Saturday, July 2, 2011

"The New World Man" by Jonathan P. Hooper (chapter 7: The Nazarenes)

On several further occasions, Marion informed me that her angel – perhaps something akin to the Greek concept of genius, for it had apparently been bound to look after her since birth – was present in the room, strengthening her. This she claimed to know purely by faith. I questioned her as to why I, as one who had not had the neurotransmitter removed, could see and feel nothing, and she replied by reminding me of the story of St. Paul, which Masterson himself had brought up. St. Paul’s vision from heaven was for him alone. The companions who were travelling with him to Damascus saw nothing except the effects of the vision on Paul. Thus it was with her angel, she wanted me to believe.

Masterson did not seem to be surprised by my reports of her continued belief. It might take months, even years, for her beliefs to cave in, he told me. When I insisted that the longing and the joy seemed to remain, he rejected the notion at once. He was convinced, to the point of delusion I believe, that his isolation of the ‘spiritual joy’ neurotransmitter was a success.

As I prepared to say a reluctant farewell to their time, I learned that Marion had been released. It was with little surprise that I received the knowledge that Masterson was having her watched. She headed for London, into the heart of a metropolis I longed to visit, for the expected reunion with the Nazarenes. Masterson set a number of Department agents to follow her. What he had wanted, all along, was to infiltrate the Nazarenes, the largest underground Christian group of its kind. “I want you to be present, when the net is cast,” he told me. “Wait for the call, Dr. West. Wait for the call.”

“Doesn’t she suspect a trap?” I asked him.

“Of course. So we must allow enough time for her caution to dissipate. She is apparently cured of her beliefs. That is why I took you off the case. It seems she was driven to a disarming frankness in your presence.”

After speaking with Masterson, I made my way down to the hangar where the machine was kept. In my pocket was the bright brass key. What is the purpose, I asked myself, of lingering here any longer? History was before me, like a road stretching across plains glimpsed from an Alpine peak.

Remaining would only give Masterson and his scientists more time to unlock the mystery of the machine. Or else he would be tempted to use it for himself, to steal the key off my person, if it was (as I somehow suspected) that he knew of its existence. Perhaps the maids had told him.

But then there was the girl. Marion. I had, against my better judgment, grown concerned about her. The sessions where she discussed her angel had cemented the bond, curiously enough. Now that Masterson had set the trap for the Nazarenes, I wanted to know that she would be safe.

Looking back, I cannot credit my ignorance at that time of my own feelings for her. The attraction was irrational, of course: she was the opposite of me in so many ways. Her convictions, for a start, were directly opposed to my own, and her superstition I should have found impossible to tolerate. Yet I felt protective of her, especially after the operation Masterson had carried out. I was stirred, of course, by her beauty, like any foolish young man who sublimates passion and calls it love. This, in the end, was what convinced me to stay, and to wait for Masterson’s call. I wanted to be a witness to the capture of the rest of the Nazarenes, simply so I could ensure Marion would be unharmed.

The call came several weeks later, after a particularly grueling round of lectures given to university undergraduates (I had quipped to Keller that the university was making me pay for my keep). Masterson came to see me in my rooms. Keller was already keeping me company, sharing refreshment and tobacco. “The trap is ready to spring,” Masterson said at once, striding in, white teeth gleaming, his nose registering distaste at the smell of my tobacco smoke. Keller looked up from his scotch, confused, but I rose immediately from the easy chair and declared my willingness to accompany him.

“Very well, then. What do you say, Keller? Will you come with us? We are rounding up the Nazarenes at last.”

“The Nazarenes, eh? You know me as a coward, Masterson. I’m a scholar, not a Department agent. Do you anticipate danger?” “Not if they are fervent followers of their namesake. They’ll come to us meek as lambs. Come, Keller, and be a witness to the end of one of the last great Christian cults.”

We sped to London in the hover car, myself and Masterson at the front, Keller, rather befuddled, in the back. During the journey, I kept looking out the window at the sweeping changes in landscape: the scant trees, the network of neglected roads still crisscrossing the country, used, Masterson informed me, by the poorer masses; the urban sprawl that covered what had been green in my own day. It was mid-morning, and always in the south there was the sea, a huge expanse of gleaming blue-grey water.

“It will be nothing like the London you know,” Masterson was saying. “Do not think you will recognise the place.”

He was not wrong, as I saw when we were nearing the city. The green edges of London had disappeared, and in their place there was an endless sprawl of houses, towers and factories, spreading for miles around, swallowing up the last traces of the landscape. As we came swooping down in an arc over the Thames, I glimpsed its beleaguered banks, covered by crowded, ruined-looking mills and warehouses; it was as if the river was being choked by concrete.

“We’re arriving just in time,” Masterson spoke above the drone of the hover car. “Welch, one of our best agents, is already waiting for us.”

Upon leaving the hover car, I looked up and tried to get a sense of scale. The vastness of these buildings was overwhelming. Amidst all the wreck and ruin (so it seemed to me, for in truth I felt no liking for what this place had become), I had glimpsed a few familiar landmarks: Tower Bridge, the solemn face of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, ageless monuments, adrift in a sea of senseless change, industry and aspiration run amok.

“I do not know this place now; not at all,” I muttered, as Masterson led the way. We were beside the banks of the Thames, evidently in one of the poorer areas, with run-down slum buildings all around and people – youngsters, urchins in ragged get-up, in the main – passing us by with looks that marked us as outsiders. How often I had been in the fog-bound slums of the London of my day, yet how different was the face of this new age city.

We went on through a few more similar looking streets, sinister places in which the people looked more threatening, until we saw ahead of us a man who stood out from their kind. “That is Welch,” Masterson said, hastening towards him. “One of ours. We are near.”

Did I imagine it, or was Masterson nervous? Joining Welch, a large, imposing-looking Department agent, we picked our way through a heap of scattered rubble, across what had once been the ruins of some houses. “There it is,” Masterson announced, pointing ahead. “There is the place.”

We could see, peering through the thin river mist, a half-ruined church standing alone, with a decrepit graveyard around it enclosed by a crumbling stone wall; the structure, glimpsed thus, seemed ghostly and incorporeal. When we closed in on it, we saw that it really was a poor ruin: great sections of the walls had fallen, and there were gaping holes in the roof.

“Left like that after the blitz,” Masterson told us, and then, remembering me, he added: “bombed during wartime, in the last century. Part of it fell down, but they built up the wall again. A ruin, nothing more.” Masterson was smiling to himself. “A church is more than bricks and mortar. What brings them here, then? Nostalgia? The weight of tradition? We shall see. Gentlemen, our agents surround the place. We have come, at last, to the capture of the  last great sect of Christians. The Nazarenes. Did you know, West, that in ancient Rome the early Christians were seen as flesh eaters, as drinkers of blood? They met in secret, just as these do, to practice their mysteries.”

I admitted that I was aware of it. As I watched the area around the church, I saw indistinct figures, the shades of the Department police, moving closer to the ruin, some of them stepping through holes in the surrounding wall. A group of policemen approached the front of the church, where the door hung loosely on a single hinge. They made no sound, and collectively we held our breath.

I became aware, as the capture was about to begin, that there were figures all around us. Huddled figures, ragged-clothed ones, the impoverished people of the docklands, watching silently like grim shades. They stood looking out from pale, ruined doorways or from dilapidated windows, passively watching our operation: the wretched, the dispossessed. All the while, the river mist moved in wraith-like coils around us, rendering all indistinct, adding to a sensation that I had begun to feel since arriving at the Thames side: a creeping, gnawing isolation. But there was something more here: a stronger feeling.

Looking around at the shades, at the fallen buildings, I was transported to the London docks of my own era. The mist that covered everything seemed to possess some sort of mastery over time, over progress, bonding the present with the past. I could have glimpsed a carriage rocking upon the cobblestones, cutthroats on the waterside; here in this twilight, in this half world, Time itself was forgotten: an arbitrary thing.

In the thick of this dreamlike atmosphere, Masterson gave a quiet signal, and the group of policemen at the church door made to enter. Our view was blocked by a thick curtain of mist, behind which figures moved like shadows around the silhouette of the church. There was the sound of boots on cobblestones, the rattle of a chain, the dull clang of a gun being fired against metal; policemen rushing through the door into the ruined church.

Suddenly there were muffled cries from inside the church, shouts of admonishment and command blended with cries of panic, followed by an ominous silence; all the while we waited with a sense of dread. Before long some of the policemen emerged leading a large group of men and women, perhaps fifty or sixty persons with frightened faces, rounded up and being marched in file through the church gates.

After the police had led the worshippers away, we went through the ruined gateway and found ourselves looking at the church distinctly at last. Masterson, with Welch at his side, disappeared into the gloomy interior. Keller and I, more reluctant by far, cautiously followed.

I felt, for a moment as we passed through the entranceway, a sudden nostalgia. It was a potent feeling, however fleeting it happened to be: just as the modern face of London had receded into the mist of the dockland and the technological face of this modern city had been replaced by the squalid buildings, so now the ruin itself was replaced by an image of another church. In a flash of memory, I saw myself being led by my mother and my father, my tiny hands in theirs, down the aisle through the rows of pews. It was my first church – St. James’s, to be feared on Sundays and yet held in awe. And despite all, in the touch of my parent’s hands, in the ritual walk to the pews, there was a lasting comfort, an undying support.

The memory faded, the ruin returned. Inside the church, there was gloom and shadow; none of the stained glass remained, and a breeze from the river blew through the bare windows. The wooden pews had been torn up and scattered over the floor, and the altar lay abandoned and bare. I can scarcely explain why, but even to my atheist’s eyes the place seemed violated. It was with great sadness that I beheld it.

In the place between the broken, shattered pulpit and the pews, about ten or twelve policemen, truncheons in hand, stood in a line, facing a small group of worshippers who were still kneeling on the floor before the place of the shattered altar.

Masterson turned to me and said in a level voice: “The leaders are left.” Boldly he took the initiative and, stepping past the policemen, approached the ring. I followed him, a short distance behind, and saw a group of huddled figures, Marion among them; six men and four women. They looked pathetically vulnerable, kneeling in prayer as if oblivious of our entrance. These, after all, were the leaders of the Nazarenes, and it was impossible to believe that they could pose any threat. It became clear, in fact, that they were praying intensely, their heads hung down, their hands pressed tightly together, muttering under their breath.

I was confused: it did not make any sense that Masterson would expend so much time and effort pursuing such a small and insignificant group. There had been far less than a hundred in all; it hardly constituted a threat to the Department.

“What do you hope to accomplish?” Masterson said sardonically, addressing the praying figures. “What hope could gleam in this ruin? Do you expect six legions of angels to come to your aid?”

There was only silence from the men and women. Keller stood to one side and nervously lit his pipe. The police were waiting for Masterson’s command. Welch looked poised to spring at them.

Finally Masterson raised his hand and was about to give the order for them to be taken into custody when a deep, earthy rumble rose up from behind us. The policemen turned their heads and looked back at the entrance, where the door hung open with the broken chain and padlock; the command died on Masterson’s lips, and he stepped back a few paces. He was staring at the murky grey light in the doorway.

I followed his gaze, for it was as if he could see someone standing there, but there was no one. I turned back to the worshippers. Their prayer seemed to grow more intense. Suddenly there was a sound from the doorway: a heavy creak, a crack of timbers, a dull thud; with alarm we saw the door of the church fall from its hinge, while dust fell from the trembling door frame. For a moment I was startled, until reason became the master of superstition. Wasn’t it a ruin, after all? Couldn’t it fall at any time, by natural causes?

There was inaction on the part of the policemen as the men and women continued to pray. Suddenly, amidst the weighty silence, Masterson shouted, “Gather and bring them.”

The police moved towards them and broke up their prayer. Without the least resistance, the worshippers got quietly to their feet. Marion was the first to turn towards us, her expression calm and dignified. She walked directly up to Masterson and said, in a low, steady voice, “All things are planned. Your coming here, the traveller’s coming, this.” She gestured to the church around them. “What did you see then, in the doorway?”

Masterson’s look darkened. With eyes narrowed he said, “This is the end for your cult.”

Marion was unfazed. “Maybe you should go through Illumination,” she said to Masterson. “I am sure you have started to suffer from the same phantoms, the same hallucinations. Cure yourself of this spiritualist dream.”

Suddenly Masterson sprang back. He was looking, with absolute dread, at the men standing behind Marion. He shouted to the policemen. “Quickly – they have guns. They’re armed. It’s a trap. Take out your pistols. Shoot! Shoot at once!”

The words cut the air, and the policemen looked on in surprise. Then, one after the other, they drew their pistols and pointed them at the worshippers, but something held them back from firing. Keller, beside me, spluttered from shock. Masterson, if I am not mistaken, looked directly at me. He repeated his command once more. Keller, by now, was unable to contain himself.

“Masterson, what on earth can you be saying?” Keller challenged. “Those men are not armed. Any fool can see that. Tell your men to put their guns down before someone is harmed. Surely you do not expect these men to act on your order. It’s against all rules of conduct. They must be captured, incarcerated, and – if need be – silenced after proper trial.”

The moments that followed seemed unreal. Time flowed by slowly, bringing illusions. Marion looked straight into my eyes and said, “There was an angel. An angel guarding the door. Masterson saw it. The chain was broken when we came. The door was open. When his men arrived, the chain had been forged anew. They had to shoot it to get through.”

“What are you talking about?” Masterson snapped impatiently.

“I told you,” Marion repeated boldly. “The chain was forged anew. You saw the angel at the door. Dr. West, don’t you see – he doubts. He saw the angel guardian of this church. He has decided now that it was mist, merely vapour, because the moment has passed. Remember what I told you. If there is room for the smallest doubt in your intellect or in your heart, seek an answer to the question.”

Masterson was becoming furious. “It’s a trap!” he repeated. The policemen were poised to act, but they did not move. Suddenly Masterson made a move towards one of the policemen and wrested something from his hand. It was, to my utter horror, a pistol. He lurched towards Marion, wielding the pistol with a purpose.

Without thinking of my safety, and surprised that there could be such gallantry in my own breast, I pushed past Masterson and the policemen and stood between Marion and her assailant. In the same breathless second, I watched as Masterson pointed the gun towards us. The barrel was pointed directly at my chest.

“Dr. West!” Masterson spat out. “What can be wrong with this state of affairs? The architect of our world turns against us.”

“I am not against this,” I gestured, my voice wavering. “But I cannot see her – them – shot down like animals. You know very well that they are not armed.”

Masterson’s grip on the gun was steady. He moved his aim to the right so that the barrel was pointed at Marion. Cocking the trigger, his voice became more distinct. “Give me the key, Dr. West.”

The shock hit me. How did he know – had he spied on me in my rooms? I fingered the key in my pocket.

“Do not waste time – you know which key I mean. The key to the machine. The key to history. To immortality. Deliver it to me, and I may spare this woman for you.”

What could I do, at that moment? Under no circumstances could I lose the means to my return, the means to immortality. Yet if I did not do as he said, he would shoot her. Time itself was frozen; everything hung on that moment. I wanted to protect the girl, and would have traded anything else for her, but not the Time Machine itself.

At length I hung my head and said, “I cannot give you that.”

He nodded, as if expecting the answer. All the while the gun was pointed at Marion. Then he said, “Very well. It doesn’t matter, because I need you in any case. You have to come with me, for I do not know how to operate the machine. But, in case you have second thoughts, there is one thing I must do first.”

His face broke into a smile, and at that same moment I heard the crack of the revolver. It was too late. I realised he had fired, not once but three times, and that Marion was lying on the floor. I turned my head in a daze; saw the Nazarenes running to where she had fallen.

“Come now, West. Don’t pretend not to have developed an attachment to her. She is dead, yet the machine holds the key to her fate, for with it we can return to the moment before we entered the church, and thus she can be saved. You need the machine now, Dr. West, if you care for her so much. Now I will ask again: give me the key. I need it in case you should try to flee from me before we get to the hangar.”

He was pointing the gun at my chest. It was with great reluctance that I handed the key over to him. With dawning dread, I realised that if he took the machine my means of return would be forever cut off; my old life would gradually fade and disappear, and I would become an anachronism, an anomaly, an empty name: a man who did not write the books for which he was famous.

Masterson put the key into his pocket with one hand, all the while keeping the gun poised with the other. “Let’s go, West. You will show me how to operate the machine.”

I was too shocked to think, and I merely stared at Marion, at the blood flowing in a thin stream from her chest. I would have tried to kill Masterson, or at least to wrest the gun from him. But he had the barrel pointed directly at my heart. I knew from the impartial way he had killed Marion that he would unhesitatingly kill again.

He made me walk out of the church at once, casting a look back at Marion, whose body was on the floor next to the altar. The police had lowered their guns, were doing nothing except watching Masterson. We made our way through the swirling mist to the hover car. He directed me into the passenger seat, and then took the control, the pistol still gripped tightly.

We returned to the Department building and made directly for the hangar. I thought about trying to overpower him, but my will was weak; nonetheless I knew that I was about to lose the machine, and had to do something. It was enough that I had lost the girl, but the means to my own immortality must not be given up. Before I could order my thoughts into some semblance of a plan, we were in the elevator. Masterson ignored those colleagues who, on our way to the hangar, approached him about the success of the operation. And then, when the elevator doors opened, the Time Machine lay before us.

Masterson strode up to it, key in his hand. “What if I do not give up its secret?” I muttered weakly. “If you kill me, you’ll be no better off.”

“My scientists will be let loose on it. I don’t think it’ll take them long to master, since the technology harks from an earlier age. But why wait so long, since I have you to give up its secret? I am not a fool, antique traveller. What if you should lie, and send me to my death? I need you as insurance. We will travel in the thing together.” I reminded him that it was impossible; that its architect had told me so. “It is impossible because only one can breathe. That is what you told me. Therefore the other will have to take his chances. Come, West. Cling to me. The gun will be pointing at your stomach all the while. You might die, but what have you to lose? Show me how to set the dial.”

After I had explained the principle to him, I saw him spin the dial round several times. He unlocked the door and stepped amidst the wires and tubes. The gun was still in his right hand; with his left he picked up the breathing apparatus and put it to his lips to test it. He beckoned me inside and I stumbled into the cramped space after him. My vision was becoming blurry and I felt myself slump to the floor; I was convinced that my death was just a step beyond. I heard a click, perhaps the door closing behind me.

“You bring the two wires together,” I said, wondering if he could hear me. “The machine starts in that way. Now let me go, damn you. You’ll send me to my death.”

He spoke something; words lost in the echo of thought. I hardly knew what he had said, not simply because I was slipping out of consciousness, but because – I realise now – he had not hesitated in following my instructions. There was a flash that scorched my vision, and then I found myself sinking into the murky waters of a dream. It was too late to turn back.

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