On the hard pan of the Atacama Desert, Sol is the only god. The star’s brutality breaks the most stubborn of men and creatures, who have largely left it uninhabited. It’s more likely for a man to run into his own death than water. If the same wanderer happens to be in the desert alone, his fate is near absolute. It was out of reverence to this natural power that Brother Peter had built his compound.
Juan desperately wanted to see the compound’s walls again, to feel that blessed day star bathe him in fire as he toiled for his brothers and sisters. He wanted to soak in all the glowing inferno that the Atacama radiation had to offer, and to show his friends that he was worthy. That he was committed to them all.
Instead, he was down in a hole. Juan felt the scalded and leathery skin of his body changing. The melanomic lumps he’d been so proud to earn slowed down. Surely even his burnished tan was starting to fade in the absolute darkness.
Some salve and a meager serving of dates and other foodstuffs were the only way he could track the timing of his penance. The pale moonlight that drifted in with the bucket made him long for days of hard labor in the sun. He felt the light fading within him. The isolation. The creeping doubt. Only three hours and the others would drag him out of this 10’ x 10’ stone chamber inside the bosom of the desert. Like the many other acolytes before him, Juan dug gouges into the wall with a well-worn steel file. He worked the 40th groove deep and smiled in the dark. He ran his fingers down the notches over and over, making sure it was the right day.
He took a deep drink of the water flask. It tasted off. Like tea if it were tainted with just a hint of garbage juice. Juan nearly spit the drink out but remembered one of the great many vows he’d sworn before entering; he had to take into his body what he was given.
They had spiked his drink. Again.
Closing his eyes, Juan thought of the feel of Sol’s touch on his skin and imagined endless white deserts. Bright colors started to seep into the edges of his meditation. The sand warped and changed under his feet. Each step sent a ripple through the entire desert, like a stone thrown into water. The sand started to rise up and he sank into it. The weight crushed his body and when his head went under Juan jerked out of the meditation.
In the dark room the colors came and went while flashes of light encouraged him with a preview of what was to come. Juan buried his face in his hands and felt his stomach wretch. The chunky vomit sprayed out of him in a technicolor burst that painted the ground. The colors changed into the hyperactive face of his ex-wife, repeatedly saying she never wanted to see him again. He sloshed a hand through the sick to wipe her face away. It then turned to that of his old uncle. There were no words, only the tightening sounds of a belt being wrapped around a fist.
He wiped his hands through this seemingly endless pool of faces, spreading it thin until the visions left him alone.
When the colors died down and the faces of his past ceased, he felt only the cold of his chamber and wept. He missed the faces and it was better to be hated than to feel the indifference of the dark.
“It’s just the drugs man. You’ll be okay,” Juan thought to himself. He repeated the mantra, focusing on the word “okay” until he wasn’t sure it was really a word anymore.
The sound of metal clanking snapped Juan out of his restless sleep. Before he could register what was happening, a beam of light blasted into the center of the room. It was so bright he couldn’t see the ladder in the center. Juan dove into the light, staring at the blazing star and burning deep colors into his retinas. The cold room was beaten down by this glorious sunbeam and Juan stripped himself of his ragged clothes. He basked nearly naked, then charged up the ladder.
When he emerged, eleven men and women with shaved heads knelt on one knee at the perfect positions of a clock. Only the “six” position was empty. Behind them were scores of men and women, some sunburnt, some dark past the possibility of burnt skin. The acolytes stayed kneeling and the nearly naked mob all around bowed from their knees. At the center of the stone clock, the core that the disciples pointed to was Brother Peter.
Juan felt the joy of the sun burning into him, and also hundreds of eyes. He realized that he was wearing little more than a coat of wispy body hair and very old briefs. The flush in his cheeks felt almost as warm as Sol’s touch.
In low reverence they chanted Juan until the man Peter raised an open hand. Immediately the mob went silent. The figure rose from his knee, towering over Juan. The bald-headed Peter stood almost two meters tall and seemed to almost be a meter wide. His powerful bulk was a deep bronze and, other than the occasional freckle, was completely devoid of Sol’s ravages.. Their flakes and scabs were worn with pride, but their leader’s perfect skin was a revered oddity.
The giant man put Juan into a bear hug and whispered. “Good work, Juan. 40 days is a good long time. I trust we didn’t send you too far out last night?” Juan shook his head, feeling how strange the tongue he hadn’t used much felt in his mouth. He hugged back. Something inside of Juan let go in that moment and he wept. He felt the tears streaking down his face and was unashamed. He’d made it through nearly all the trials. He was almost part of the inner circle now. He was nearly important.
The big man addressed the crowd, his deep Texan accent bleeding out. “It’s been a long while since we’ve seen someone climb out of that hole. Been a long time since a new true acolyte was chosen. Sometimes the hole and our trials have a way of breaking the lesser. It’s like this desert. The Atacama chews up and spits out those that aren’t worthy. It’s all merit out here. Merit that you all have. While that merit eventually fades and our skin gives in to the sky, the only thing we can hope for is to toil in that sacred blessing. To atone for our sins and experience the hell of disconnecting from that glorious star above.”
People murmured at this approvingly. Usually Peter kept to himself and only gave his message on the holiest days of the calendar. His disciples did the rest of the preaching.
Peter continued, “There’s only one test left, friends, and it is all about purity. Shine the mirrors. We’re gonna see if Juan is just well done or extra crispy.”
The crowd burst into a small titter of laughter and Juan felt sick. The giant mirrors on the south face of the compound loomed, their lumination soon to be focused like a murderous spotlight on Juan.
He’d seen this ceremony before. Six giant mirrors in a semi circle would force their beams into a concentrated spot on a pure white light on the Seared Stone. Either the being was pure enough to be reborn in the thousand degree heat, or they perished like ants under a magnifying glass. No matter what Sol chose, there was always a pile of ash and bone at the base of the slab.
The crowd carried Juan toward the slab and set him down gently. He stared at the sun, silently praying that he was devoted enough, strong enough to survive. Chains were attached to a bar at the base and head of the stone that stretched just wider and taller than Brother Peter. They strapped him in with well worn chains that bore black char marks. The shackles locked with a click. Behind him, it felt like the stone slab was alive. As though its heart was trying to beat through. He looked to his right and left and noticed very slight lines in the form of a rectangle.
Juan needed to focus on his prayers. He tried to shut out all feeling and thought other than Sol. He imagined falling through deep space and burning up in the great star, becoming part of its multi-billion year life.
The first mirror turned, and the heat was bearable. Even after being in the hole for a while the desert had primed his body.
The second mirror turned and he felt the sweat begin to pour out of him. The edges of the world faded as he was bathed in light. The blue sky was barely visible on the fringes of his vision, which burned with retinal fatigue.
The third mirror turned and he felt the skin scalding and the sweat was instantly gone, boiled off. His skin started to sear and he let out a scream.
Deep in the rock he heard a grinding, followed by a massive clank. He went from absolute light to darkness. Juan breathed the cool air, steam rising from his body. He had failed. He was dead.
Then a powerful Texan voice greeted his ears. “Welcome home, Juan.”
Juan’s eyes adjusted and he saw a room filled with gears and small LED lamps. A few other acolytes greeted him and rubbed aloe on his skin. Behind him incredibly thin bits of line shown through the marble. He could smell burning flesh and hair on the other side of the wall. The marble grew warm against his back as more mirrors were turned.
“Now I know you are wondering,” Peter said, “What in the great blue fuck just happened? I assure you that they all did. It’s an old magician’s trick. The light is too bright to look at directly, so we slap a lever and no one can see the switcheroo between you and some old salty corpse. They find the bones and believe your earthly vessel was destroyed.”
Despite all the times Juan had wretched in the night, he felt like throwing up again. This all reminded him of the moment his sister blurted out that Santa wasn’t real. That his faith was nothing more than wasted dust in the desert. “It’s not real? None of it?”
“Faith is a little trickier than that, son. Demonstrations of power give these people something to hold on to. Something to work for. Like the ancient Aztec who had priests shout the voice of their gods through hidden rooms, we have this. Moreover, our sun god is real. Sol isn’t exactly debatable. It provides life to this little rock. It’s demonstration is absolute, but we need to make the flesh and rebirth part of our narrative confirmed for all the others,” Peter said.
“It’s just false. You lied to me,” Juan said.
An acolyte said through gritted teeth, “Apostate,” and reached for the lever to turn him back to the mirrors. Brother Peter slapped his hand away and placed his own giant mitt on the lever. “Nobody lied, Juan. We let you build the story yourselves. We gave you a home when the world rejected you. Now you are here with us, with your family. You are reborn. I need assurances though. Do you accept our dogma and creed? Will you keep all secrets of the faith hidden from the faithful? I need your solemn vow, or…” Peter trailed off, and pushed the lever enough to jostle Juan.
The warmth of the stone pressed deeper into his back.“I promise. I PROMISE. Please get me down. I swear I’ll keep this secret.”
The shaved headed acolytes unshackled Juan and he fell to the floor. Peter knelt down and ran a hand through his unkempt and oily hair. “It’s okay son. I know how you feel. I’ve been there. We all have. We’re here for a purpose. We serve Sol, and we serve ourselves. Come with me.”
Brother peter grabbed Juan by the elbow and helped him up. They walked together down a spiral staircase hidden inside the stone block. Dug deep into the limestone was a giant open room filled with bookcases, bar games like darts and pool, and even a small bank of laptops charging in front of a wall of DVDs. On the couch, one of the acolytes inhaled deep from a bong and blew the smoke upward.
“Membership has its perks, Juan. We don’t have internet or anything crazy like that, but our work entitles us to more luxuries than the common rabble. We also need you to start clearing up that skin. The others give themselves to the sun through pain. We do it through our lives. You are holy now. We have to look like it. Sunscreen and all. And be careful of the power usage. We don’t want to drain enough that the lights go out upstairs. The panels can only do so much with the old batteries.”
Juan didn’t say a word, he just wandered over to a couch and collapsed. He felt the darkness of the other hole creeping into his gut. The lonliness. The isolation. He knew these men, but they had lied to him. His lot in life had improved greatly as he was no longer just a farmer of hard earth and hot orchards. The problem was that he had seen the man behind the curtain, and was made bitter for it. He hoped the pain would pass.
On the third day after his searing judgement in front of Sol, Juan was allowed to emerge. He walked into the open courtyard during dinner. Scalded masses of the faithful followed him with their eyes and whispered to each other. Their bodies were naked except for the smallest garb to protect their delicate bits, and yet Juan felt more exposed than they were. In their mind, he was returned from the dead, a full-on Disciple of Sol. In his mind, he was just Juan.
They ate in the sun, never letting their skin rest from its rays. Juan’s skin had begun to heal, though much of it would never quite return to normal. He rubbed his shaved head. The only thing he had on these people was better hygiene and access to a makeshift shower under the Searing Stone.
This was all that Juan had wanted for years, but the cost was greater than he could bear. He ate lightly, looking at the faces that he used to share the faith with. The machinery in the back of his mind started to pull at the flaws in their doctrine. He only saw suffering and a sort of voluntary slavery here. Desperate men and women, as he had been, flocked here based on spiritual pamphlets and recruiters looking for the weak. And he had been so weak before. So pathetic.
Juan thought that his hands were hard and his body was lean because of these people. It gave him solace that not all they had given him was a lie. The doughy store clerk he had been died when he started his walk across the desert. Now that life was ash like the body they had used during his ascension. He felt the bitterness rising. He looked down the line at the fellow apostles and Brother Peter. They ate and spoke together with casual ease, paying him little mind. His little fit when initiated hadn’t endeared Juan to his new peers. He looked and made eye contact with some of his friends from before the ascension, and they only looked down. He’d been elevated over them. A boss, a teacher, not a friend.
Other than his prestige and title, Juan was alone.
Colorful piles of stone painted with intricate patterns lined the long walk from the compound to the searing stone. They were painted in symbols from their holy documents, and in perfect color arrangements for the chakras. Each pile was seven stones tall, one for each chakra.
Juan’s time in the library below the searing stone had taught him much about symbology and all the things that Brother Peter had blatantly ripped off. His entire movement was a mess of crossed religious wires and symbols, It had no depth to it, and Juan despised the man for it.
It was the morning of the “church’s” 20th anniversary and spirits were high. Normally reserved rations were doled out in the form of processed and wrapped cakes, as well as small gifts for each of the few dozen dedicated congregants.
Some celebrated through acts of devotion, usually being tied to black stones for several days while the sun baked them. Handlers brought water pumped from the aquifer below and covered the worst burns with mud. Many had perished on these rocks as their brain stroked out. The biggest reward for an act of devotion was a hallucination provided by Sol itself. Omens and premonitions, visions and beautiful dreams. Juan wondered if anyone spiked their water when the men and women passed a certain point on the stone slabs.
Brother Peter walked the path in front of Juan, wearing a ceremonial black robe that he would discard. It was his day on the Searing Stone, and in his humble way he wanted to reaffirm his commitment to the church and its followers. He would be sacrificed again and risen, a bald and tan knock off of Texas Christ.
Peter raised his arms and began to speak, filling his flock with the same lies and deceit that Juan had heard for ages. The giant man fell upon the altar, confessing sins and his imperfections, begging the god above to cleanse him of the evils of his own flesh.
Juan walked away with several other acolytes, disappearing into an outbuilding that went to the cave system below. On the ladder to get under the Searing Stone, Juan heard whimpering cries. When he got up the ladder, he saw a long and tall man was strapped to the inside of the table, waiting to be flipped outwards.
“He’s a deserter,” the disciple said as if it were the most common thing in the world.
Juan felt his stomach lurch as the person tried to shout through the rag covering their mouth. “Peter said we could leave at any time. Why can’t he?”
“Oh they all leave, just not in the way they expect to. You think this would be convincing without a little screaming and flailing? Corpses just burn and getting them down here is a mess.”
Another disciple started singing the tune to Hotel California and went about checking the gears and other machinery involved in the flip.
The hanging man kicked and stomped, screaming through the gag and begging with his eyes. Juan felt his own heart breaking. Outside of them, the marble slowly illuminated. The first light was on Peter. The second light struck and the acolyte gripped the lever ready to swing at the third reflector. Juan grabbed a hammer from a toolbox on the rack behind him. When the Disciple started to pull the lever, Juan swung the hammer and crushed the disciple’s wrist.
Juan charged forward and shoved the disciple head first into the stone wall. He then stepped back, putting himself between the lever and the other Disciple. A fourth light hit the marble and Peter started to screech. The big man’s body thumped against the Searing Stone.
The Disciple tackled Juan and dove for the lever and started to pull. Juan kicked it from the side, jamming the teeth and bending the old metal bar over the latching gears.
When the fifth reflector hit, the acolyte knew his master was dead. The already faint thrashings gave way to thick glowing stone that was no doubt as hot as Sol’s own fury. The disciple grabbed the hammer off the floor and charged at Juan who sprinted around the room. Huge sobs wrenched from the attacking man as he tried to bash Juan’s skull in.
Juan tackled the man and tore the hammer from his grip. Each time he brought the hammer down, the soupier the sound was. He felt a jolt of muscular movement from the body under him with each strike, and he only stopped when that twitch died out.
Covered in blood, Juan walked to the shackled man whose back was seared from the heat transfer through the stone. The dark silhouette that had been there was nearly gone, as only a few chunks of Peter’s flesh still clung to the stone. The meaty remains would need scraping, and the bubbling fat would need several other cleaners. He unlocked the man and watched him drop. Without a word, they both bolted toward the nearest exit.
In the fading evening light the heat began to ease on Juan and his new friend. Juan knew the others would be coming, knew that you don’t often get away with killing a god or his prophet. If humans didn’t end him it would probably be the Atacama. Despite all of this Juan felt at ease. It wasn’t a familiar feeling. He chose the truth, as well as his own path, a far cry from any decision he had made in almost a decade.
Juan watched as the sun dropped below the western horizon. Sol’s fury might burn for ages, but even its most minor planets constantly turned their back to it. Behind him he knew the sun, and likely Sol’s followers, would rise to meet him again. It mattered little, as tonight he had chosen to bask in the light of millions of stars on the high plateau. In the absence of Sol, Juan stared at these stars, not feeling their warmth but admiring their intent to beat back the darkness.
Tony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.