In honor of Nano, an excerpt

Here is an excerpt from my last year's Nano Novel, just for fun.

(I am feeling compelled to add all sorts of disclaimers at this point, but I'm going to resist. It is what it is.)

Here we go:


Chapter 1 excerpt

The cavernous underground room was deathly silent. Over three hundred people stood in rows, uniform in dress and in emotion. Each was clad in a white, gauzelike tunic and loose-fitting white pants, each person barefoot, each without any distinguishing adornment in their hair or on their bodies. Each woman had their hair fashioned into a single braid, and each man had been shaved bald. Each member stood facing the front of the room, solemnly and with a mixture of monastic calm and stoic determination. No one moved; no one dared breathe. A woman near the back of the room began to cry softly and was quickly ushered out. No one among the rows acknowledged the incident. Their training had been thorough, and only the weak dared show emotion or stand out during a meeting. There were no individuals here, only a collective Body.

At the edges of the rows, men and women in black tunics moved silently, carrying trays with paper cups. The women in black carried trays with cups containing water, pausing at each row and handing out cups to be passed down to each member of the row. The men in black passed out smaller cups, each containing one white capsule. The congregants in white also passed these down the rows, faithfully, bravely. Each person had prepared for this moment, this communion, whether consciously or unconsciously, for many months or years.

When the elements were distributed to every member of the Body, the people in black formed single file lines along the side walls of the room and slowly made their way to the front. They then turned and filed across the front, facing the crowd. The tall man in the center of the black-clad ushers spoke:

"Brothers and sisters, we have waited for this beautiful Day since we embarked on our journey together many years ago. As our numbers have increased, our energies and our psyches have been knit together as one. Now is the time of fulfillment and ultimate enlightenment. We have attained greatness on earth; now we will attain the ultimate achievement, the prize. It is time to journey to the next level. Our travel will be swift. In the shedding of our earthly shell, we will achieve a new freedom and a new level of enlightenment. We will truly become melded into one Great Body, and our collective energy will empower our great leader and strengthen him in his continued work here on earth. Let us therefore cast off the bonds of this plane, and partake together in the final Communion of transcendence."

The tall man lifted up his small paper cup containing the capsule. The crowd in white followed suit. As one, they lowered the cup to their lips and partook, following with the cup of water to wash it down. The tall man knelt down on the floor, and the throng followed, each with eyes closed, heads dipped in silence, and there they waited.

In the middle of the sea of white tunics, a young woman also knelt, eyes closed, heart pounding. She did not know why, but she felt that this was not right. She trusted her leaders -- her Leader -- implicitly; still, this seemed too...something. Her gut screamed, "NO!" She had made a split second decision in raising the cup to her lips: she did not allowed the capsule to enter her mouth, but instead, tipped her head back with her lips closed. When the group knelt, she had quietly spilled the capsule out onto the floor, flicking it away as far as she dared without drawing attention.

"What am I doing?" Her breath caught as she realized the gravity of her rebellion. Independent thought was considered the worst of all sins. She had been taught that it caused a rift in the collective energy. She was probably going to be the sole cause of the failure of this journey to the next plane; she knew she was hindering the process for the group.

She didn't dare move, but listened carefully to the breathing of those around her. She wasn't sure what her next steps would be; at the very least, she was buying time. She had discovered early in her tenure here that she did not have the option of leaving. One of her roommates had tried and was "taken care of." A revelation flashed through her like lightning, providing a brief glimpse at a new idea: she was miserable at the Institute, always had been, and she may actually get to leave now. This revelation was quickly replaced with another: where would she go? Surely they would find her as soon as she reached her home.

Towards the front of the room, she began to hear retching. Behind her, someone gasped. She held her breath. Suddenly, the room was filled with a cacophony of death: sounds of labored breathing, and many beginning to convulse and cry out as their hearts began to freeze within them. The white-clad congregants began to drop like common street rats, foaming at the mouth, seizing, bleeding from their nostrils. She could hear it. She was terrified. She dared not open her eyes.

She forced her breathing to become audible now, mimicking that of the people around her. She rocked back and forth and tried her best to blend in with the movement of the room -- she had to pretend she was dying. Her heart was pounding; it was not hard to feign the fear and adrenaline rush. The man on her right side fell into her violently, knocking her sideways to the floor, and she used him to hide as much of her as she could as she deftly maneuvered her way to a prone position on the floor. A long lost memory flashed into her head - she remembered playing "Charlie's Angels" as a kid, and having to pretend that she had been chloroformed, and she wondered why this random memory would surface now. Her past had been erased from her mind in her training here. She wondered if the others were experiencing their former lives flashing before them. She focused on the childhood memory as she lay pinned under the man. She had to think. "Natalie." That was her name. It had been months since she had used it, heard it, needed it.

After many long minutes or hours -- she lost track of all sense of time -- the chaos subsided and a sickening, almost deafening, silence settled over the room. It was a tomb. She was still face down; her head twisted uncomfortably sideways, her cheek pressed against the cold cement floor. The man who had fallen on her was still on top of her, obstructing most of her head and upper body from view. She dared not move a muscle; any twitch, any breath, any indication of life at all would stand out like a sore thumb to anyone who may be watching. She didn't know who was left alive; she wondered about the one they referred to as the Great Leader. Charles Lazalle. In her tenure here at the Institute, she had come to speak his name with love and adoration. They all had. Though the students had never seen him, save for a few telecasts of his shadow that would deliver messages to them from time to time. The body of believers here would watch each telecast with rapt attention, drinking in every word he uttered like sweet honey, so great was the wisdom he proffered to them. As the students grew in their love for him, so grew their desire to please him. Obedience grew out of this love – though sometimes their devotion was enforced by various methods of “correction.” She was sure Lazalle was still alive somewhere, and that he would be watching to make sure that each of the Faithful had followed through with their part of the ritual. To Natalie, as with the others, Lazalle was her father, her friend, her god. She would do anything for him...although at this moment she was struck with the realization that she would not die for him.

Lazalle was a charismatic leader. He had come from California and was a man to whom people were instantly drawn; a visionary who made students and outsiders alike want to passionately participate in his vision. She had always trusted him, cared for him, looked at him with utmost admiration.

Natalie was jolted out of her memory as she heard a door suddenly scrape open in the back of the room. The door was the only entrance into the underground room from the outside. It was also her only possible exit. She froze, breathing ever so slightly, hoping that her fear would not cause her to gasp for air or tremble uncontrollably. She heard footsteps behind her, walking slowly, methodically, throughout the rows and rows of bodies on the floor. She heard a rustling, then a gasp, and a weak voice cried out, "No, please..." Then a gunshot boomed like a cannon. Her ears were instantly filled with a high-pitched whine. She began to panic. Lazalle -- or one of his helpers -- was making sure that there were no survivors.

As her hearing returned, she could hear the footsteps continuing as the unseen assassin slowly worked his way through the room. He was turning over random bodies, weaving in and out of the now haphazard rows. The footsteps approached her, and she held her breath, her lungs exploding with the rush of adrenaline and the need for extra oxygen. She began to pray, desperately, feverishly in her head to anyone who might happen to be listening. The footsteps stopped a few feet where she lay. After a brief but horrific silence, the assassin stepped over her and moved on, patiently working his way back to the door. Satisfied that there were no survivors left, he left, scraping the door closed behind him. She heard a bolt turn.

She waited several more minutes, listening with batlike senses. She could hear nothing but the ringing in her ears and the pounding of her heart, which, at the moment, sounded like a drum corp.

"What am I doing?"
The invasive question came to her once again. She shook it off. She had more immediate concerns.

She lay there a few more minutes and relaxed ever so slightly. Whoever had come through the back door was apparently not coming back… at least, not for the moment. She had to get the man off of her. She slid herself out from under his one hundred eighty-plus pounds worth of dead weight, struggling to free her arm, which felt heavy and numb, from under his torso. Finally, she managed to pull free, and stiffly sat up, turning her head from side to side to work out the shooting pain caused by hours of being pinned to the floor. She shook her arm in an attempt to gain feeling in it again, and soon, pins and pricks in her nerve endings told her that it was coming back to life.

She looked around at the scene, taking in for the first time the carnage and the horror that she had heard. The room was a sea of bodies, stark and surreal in their uniformity. She could not see her roommates, but saw many faces of the people she had grown to like and even care about, despite the fact that emotional bonding was discouraged here at the Institute. She didn't know their names or how they came to the Institute, or even what they did in their former lives. They were all nameless souls who had sacrificed themselves to be added to the collective goal. Who were they? "Who am I?" She was not sure anymore.

She was numb to the notion that each of these familiar faces was now lifeless. She could not get her mind around the enormity of the situation. She began to tremble uncontrollably. She was cold. Her mouth was so dry she could hardly swallow. She knew she was close to shock. She had to get up. She had to do something.

She stood shakily, feeling as wobbly as a newborn lamb. Carefully, slowly, she stepped over body after body, almost losing her balance as she tried not to step on one of the lifeless forms at her feet.

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