“What happened?” Fai Tang asked. The stranger who knelt over him was olive skinned, but not Chinese. The smell of burning jet fuel hung heavy in the air. A column of black angry smoke rose into the already hazy sky. The woman that was leaning down spoke with a musical voice.
“You’re plane crashed. Was there anyone else aboard?” She said with a note of urgency. Fai studied her face. Although there was a gap in his memory, he was certain that he didn’t recognize this woman. A few paces away, stood another stranger; a man of the same completion.
“No, I was alone.”
“That was a big jet to be piloting alone,” The man said. Who were these people? Where was he? He applied pressure to his brain, trying to remember. He had taken off from the private airstrip outside of Bejing. He had flown north, or was it west? He was not licensed to fly such a large jet. In fact he wasn’t licensed to fly a jet at all. Why had he been flying?
The scene slammed into his mind like a wrecking ball. The one called Zao had acquired, no stolen, IMAGE from him. Fai gritted his teeth, thinking about his companion who Zao had executed in the process. He sat up. Apain shot down his right leg. It was nothing serious he hoped. He examined himself as the woman spoke.
“What is your name?” She said.
There was something strange about the way she spoke. It was clear that she nor the man were Asian. Yet, her Chinese was flawless. Even her accent was perfect.
“I am Fai Tang. Who are you?”
“I am Sarah, and this is Benjamin.” She spoke slow as if he were hard of hearing. “We are from Tel Aviv. That is a city located in—”
“Yes, I know where Tel Aviv is. Is that where we are now?”
Fai investigated the scenery. They sat in the middle of a large stretch of farmland. About a hundred paces away he recognized a makeshift camp. A tent, some camping gear, and a small fire marked the location. The small campfire couldn’t account for the dark smoke that Fai saw rising into the air a moment earlier.
He turned around from where he sat. A crumpled heap of metal was all that remained of his companies G5 jet. It emitted a tower of smoke that rose and disappeared into the grimy sky.
“It seems that I am lucky to be alive,” Fai said as he turned back to the two strangers. Benjamin stepped in close to help Fai to his feet.
“There is no luck. Melech protected you,” Sarah said. Fai was not a religious man, but he understood well enough. These people worshiped a god Fai had never heard of. That was not surprising considering that he had paid no attention to any god. He had been void of religion since he was a boy. He had been more interested in science, and technology. The chuckled at the irony. It was now technology that had turned against him and the world. There was no god that cared enough to do anything about it.
“Where are we?” Fai asked a second time. His eyes scanned the perimeter of the field where they stood. It wasn’t rice that grew, in fact there was nothing but brown weeds. He could see the scattered remains of farming equipment near the edge of the clearing. The nuclear blanket in the atmosphere had ensured that little would grow for some time.
“We are a few kilometers outside of Cesis, Latvia. Much further and you would have landed in the Baltic Sea,” Sarah said. She smiled as if it were some kind of sign that things had turned out well. The flaming pile of twisted metal behind him disagreed.
“Latvia?” Fai asked. Rather than answer, Benjamin requested more information.
“And where did you come from, Fai?”
They both looked at each other as if the news was exciting. These two strangers were impossibly positive. Almost singing now, Sarah spoke.
“And are you the one who knows about the picture of darkness?”
“What does this mean, the picture of the dark?” Fai asked. Their strange question confused him. He observed both of their faces for a few seconds. What he found there was a growing excitement. They were eager, but he wasn’t sure why.
“We don’t know. Melech told us that we should wait here, for the one who will teach us to evade the picture of darkness.”
Sudden understanding leaped into Fai’s mind. These two people strangers were out of their minds. Eastern Europe was drenched in nuclear radiation. It had warped their brain cells. He ran his fingers through his hair. He was uncomfortable with their eyes on him.
“It looks like night is coming, I should find my way into this town. Cesis, did you say? Which way is it?”
They both glanced at each other with a nervous expression. Fai wondered if they intended to have him for dinner. Maybe they were nomadic cannibals. He stood, dusted himself off, and began to step away from the two. Their eyes grew wide as he moved backward.
“Please. We have been here for a long time waiting for someone. Our apologies. We are too eager to see it fulfilled. At least do my wife and I the honor of joining us for supper.”
Fai glanced toward their camp. He was hungry, and didn’t know where his next meal would come from. It was a tempting offer, but he had to decline. They might be dangerous. He would take his chances with the countryside.
“If you don’t have an alliance tag, you won’t find shelter or food in the town. This area is under alliance jurasdiction.”
Benjamin held up his hand and smiled. It meant something to him, but Fai didn’t understand the gesture. Confusion crossed Fai’s face. Benjamin asked, “Do you have a tag?” Fai shook his head. “Have you heard of tagging?”
“No.” Fai said.
“Wow,” Sarah said, as if it were a surprise. Benjamin explained.
“You have to have a medical exam, pledge your allegiance to the alliance, and get a tracer bead injected. It’s to prove you are human. If you don’t, you can’t buy anything, and it’s illegal for anyone to help you. We are not tagged either.” He pointed to his wrist. Fai understood well enough but it was new to him. The offer of a meal was sounding better by the second. A moment’s contemplation lead him to agree.
“I will accept your offer of a meal then.”
“Oh that’s wonderful. Company would be delightful!” Sarah said with a ridiculous smile. Reminding him that they were bonkers. As Benjamin and Fai walked toward the camp, Sarah jogged ahead to make preparations. Benjamin’s friendly tone set Fai at ease.
“How is it that you speak Chinese?” Fai asked. Something in Benjamin’s face let Fai know that this information came as a surprise.
“I thought we were speaking Russian,” Benjamin said. Fai stopped their forward motion and looked at the man. Had he misspoken? How was it possible to not know what language he was speaking?
“Have you experienced radiation poisoning?” Fai asked.
“I see it,” Benjamin said, excited. “You are speaking Chinese. I am hearing Russian. I didn’t notice before that your lips don’t match the words that reach my ears.”
“Wait a minute. Are you saying that you actually think we are speaking Russian right now. I don’t know Russian. I don’t even know what it sounds like,” Fai said. His words were as emphatic as Benjamin’s.
“It’s a miracle of Melech to be sure,” Benjamin said. Once they caught up to Sarah at the camp, Benjamin relayed the news to his wife. “Our friend is speaking in Chinese, Honey.”
They both celebrated, although Fai couldn’t understand what it was that had excited them. The verdict was in. They were crazy. He was becoming concerned that the radiation would melt his brain as well. He would eat, and then be on his way.
“So Fai, what do you do? Or I mean, what did you do before the world fell apart?” Sarah asked as she stirred a pot of stew. To their credit, it did smell delicious. Although, it crossed him mind that it might it could be made out of human leg meat. He sat down on a camp chair as he gave his abbreviated biography.
“I am a super-computer architect. Until three days ago, I ran the worlds fastest computer.”
“Wow. Did it get destroyed in the war?” Benjamin asked.
“No, Beijing was spared from the attack.” He left out the detail that it was IMAGE that had saved the city from the five enemy cruise missiles. He wasn’t sure how much he should share. Considering how insane these two gypsy wanderers were, it didn’t mattered much.
“IMAGE, was an incredible machine but, it got acquired by the Alliance. It’s now—”
Sarah dropped her spoon in the stew, and turned to look at him. Benjamin stopped what he was doing as well and stared. Fai felt like he had just said something offensive.
“IMAGE?” Benjamin asked with a mysterious look of dumb enthrallment painted across his face.
“Yes, that is the name of the super-computer I built.” Fai said, not seeing the reason for their sudden interest. Their eyes burned with a wild urgency now.
“And it is in the hands of the darkened one?” Sarah asked.
“The darkened one?” Fai wasn’t sure what that meant.
“Zao: The darkened one,” Benjamin explained.
“Oh, I haven’t heard that title. Yes, Zao arrived a few days ago and performed a hostile take over. He had some kind of neurological interface. I’ve never seen anything like it. He hacked the software and is now using IMAGE as some kind of enforcement tool for a digital form of marshall law.” Fai said.
Sarah and Benjamin looked at each other, the crazy stares were back. They were seeing serendipity in something Fai had said. He was almost interested now. Crazy or not, these two were entertaining.
“Did Melech say something about that as well?” Fai asked. They didn’t see the sarcasm, only impossible providence.
“Melech told us to wait here until the one arrives who would teach us to evade the picture of darkness.” Benjamin said. “We didn’t know what that meant at the time. We’ve been here for over a week. Your jet drops like a rock a hundred meters from our camp. You then tell us that you designed a super-computer called IMAGE. That is another word for picture.” Benjamin paused and Sarah took the baton.
“And the Darkened one made a copy of himself inside IMAGE. That is what Melech must have meant by, The picture of darkness. Praise Melech ha-M’lachim, you’ve finally come! How shameful of us that we doubted.”
They were brimming with a weird kind of excitement. Something in Fai wanted to join in, but he couldn’t see it. They were grasping at straws. The radiation had had turned their mind to soup. A remorseful pity replaced his fear. He wanted to help them. They were reaching for some kind of hope in a destoryed world.
“So where is this Melech?” Fai asked, thinking he would unravel their insane religion with logic. He would try to show them that their god was nothing more than the mad ravings of radiation baked travelers.
Without a word Benjamin pointed upward. He looked at the hazy sky above and then corrected his direction. He pointed a few degrees off of upward. Fai looked to the grimy debris filled atmosphere. He didn’t understand.
“What exactly are you pointing at?”
“The star of Melech,” Sarah said.
“Wait, wait, wait. You worship the rogue star?” Fai asked.
“No not the star. That would be like worshiping the horse of Melech. We worship Melech ha-M’lachim himself. The one who has come to save us.” Benjamin said as he tossed another stick into the fire.
“Do you mean the Mad King? The one that has come to dominate the earth; the one who abducted a billion innocent victims? Is that your Melech ha-M’lachim?” Fai was beginning to see the depth of their insanity. They had built a religion out of the appearance of this rogue star.
“Yes, but we say Melech for short.” Sarah said. He couldn’t fault them for choosing what would be the winning team. Yet, to worship him as a god seemed like a wild brand of craziness.
As they talked deep into the night Fai answered all their questions about IMAGE and what had happened. They shared stories of their own. There were times in the conversation that Fai wondered if his pity was misplaced. In spite of the tremendous tribulation throughout the world, these two were optimistic. Fai envied them in some way, although he kept on his guard.