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American Atheist: #9

by Nelly 

Posted: 08 June 2005
Word Count: 2638

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Fog gathered at the gates of Rome. It cloaked the city in obscurity, blending the buildings and streets into a grey, indistinct blur.

Unita was disappointed. She wanted to see more of this great city. Anticipation had dogged the long flight across Europe; a squirming of her guts as each mile passed by. Rome represented either the collapse of her own world, or the reinforcement of every ideal she had been taught, and firmly believed in. She just didn’t know which it would be. “Please let Angelo be wrong,” she said, talking aloud in the hope Iron Maiden would respond. Unita had attempted conversation before, but her questions were met always with silence and she had eventually given up.

This time was no different.

Without hesitation, Iron Maiden descended towards the fog. Unita gasped as it surged up towards them and then broke swiftly apart, as if parted by an invisible blade.

“Why is it doing that?” Unita asked, but there was still no reply, she felt a flash of temper and added, “you have to talk to me sometime.”

They flew on in silence. Unita looked instead to the vague outlines of buildings, which swept into sharpened focus as they passed, only to be swallowed by the constant gloom a moment later.

It was strangely surreal. If she could acknowledge, being flown by Iron Maiden, a real super hero, cut fresh from her comics and the war. Then she should have no difficulty flying across Rome, where millions of people lived, any of whom would slit her throat and feed the remains to their dogs, simply for being American, assuming Angelo had been telling the truth.

It would also mean the American Atheist wasn’t real.

But if he was -and Iron maiden seemed proof - then Rome would be no more than a shell, without any life left inside and the war of religion would be won.

She listened intently for any sound that life still stirred here, a single shred of evidence, to prove one way or another, the truth of the matter. But there was nothing, save the cold rush of air. She was resigned to scanning the buildings, taking in each and every detail that presented itself. Amazed at the architecture, each grandiose in design, towers rising like sentries through the murky sea, domed roofs of vast sprawling houses, each one better than the last, a flash of marble, a glimmer of diamond. This she decided, was a city where no expense had been spared, a city of marvels. And in that at least, Angelo had been correct.

A tug of nerves, and Unita rubbed at her arms. An instinct to protect, she was only dimly aware of, but it caught the attention of Iron Maiden, who inclined her thin, delicate mask and decided to speak. “You deserve to know the truth, and from your perspective you have much to fear. But when all is laid bare, you will gain enlightenment at the final accounting, that is all any of us can hope for.”

Iron Maiden’s words cut cruelly into Unita’s heart, “what do you mean,” she demanded, “don’t speak in riddles.” But Iron Maiden had lapsed back into her characteristic silence.

Frustrated, Unita could do nothing, but stare into the white mist, and wish there were some way to crack the other woman’s armour.

The swirling fogs parted to reveal a flat roof of a gothic tower. Composed of black stone with narrow arrow slit windows, it seemed to have jumped from the pages of a history book. A slice of medieval Europe caught in time and preserved for eternity.

Iron maiden touched down on the smooth featureless rock, she let go and Unita stumbled away.

A warm sensation swept over her, a sudden blast of hot air, which made her skin tingle. She must have passed back through the invisible field.

Unita took a deep breath and watched it form into mist. “What now?” She asked.

Iron Maiden had stopped a good hundred yards from Unita, but when she spoke, her voice was as clear as if she stood by her side. “See for yourself,” she said and gestured to the tip of a metal ladder, which clung precariously to the side of a wall.

“You want me to climb that?” Unita said incredulously.

“You need to believe.”

It was a simple statement, and it caught her unawares, she blushed. “You don’t know anything about me.” She shouted hoarsely.

“I know enough, the strip told me what is important, in many ways I know you better than you know yourself. And I do know you’ve already made up your mind. You’re simply going through the motions. Come, the ladder will take you where you need to go.”

Unita’s retort caught in her throat. She was right, and there was no point in denying it further, she had come this far.

“What about you, are you coming as well.”


Her shoulders sagged and Unita walked over to the ladder. “Will you remain here then, wait for me, no matter what the outcome.”

“I will stay with you until the end.” Her voice had become neutral and cold.

Unita wasn’t reassured. She took one last look at Iron maiden, taking in every detail of this mysterious being, despite the danger she must be in; she still felt a thrill of pleasure at being so close.

Iron maiden made a series of faint clicking sounds, “we celebrate our diversity,” she said.

Unita smiled and started the climb down.


Unita was soon lost in the mist. All sense of reality vanished, so only the cold rungs of the ladder existed, it was as if the world had been erased, leaving nothing but a blank canvass from which anything could emerge.

Suppressing a shudder, she carried on, softly counting the number of rungs, by the time she made one hundred, her arms ached and her legs started to tremble, but she still could not decipher if she were any closer to the ground. She paused for breath and wiped from her face, strands of hair, dripping with moisture. She listened intently for any sound, but aside from her laboured breathing, all was still.

Unita began the count again, but had only reached three when she ran out of ladder, she kicked out in surprise and held tightly on, her knuckles white with the strain. Desperately she searched through the fog, looking for the ground, but nothing was visible, Unita could barely see her own hand.

This was absurd; she contemplated going back to the top, telling Iron Maiden she’d had enough and wanted to go home, but she stayed her hand. What would Iron Maiden do, if she returned without knowing the truth?

She waited for a resolution to present itself, but none came. It was ridiculous to build a ladder that didn’t go anywhere, it had to lead somewhere, the ground would be a few feet below, obscured by the thick mist, all she had to do was let go…

She needed faith.

To the impartial wall of hazy cloud passing by her feet, Unita said, “I want there to be ground beneath me, I will it to be so.”

Closing her eyes, Unita visualised a firm surface. She took in one breath, letting go of the ladder and fell…

…Into four steel bins filled with refuse, that toppled over with a hard crash, spilling their rotten contents out into the street. Her left foot sunk into something soft and she flailed wildly before landing face first on the stone floor, dark liquid splashed across her back and trickled down her neck. The stench was unforgiving and she gagged, before putting a hand to her face and pushing herself back up.

Welcome to Rome. A city of many faces, Angelo hadn’t told her about this particular one.

She had landed into a narrow alley. A dumping ground for trash, mainly vegetables, all putrid and spoiled.

Any thought of creeping unheard into the city were now gone, and Unita waited to see if her unexpected arrival would bring anybody running. But no one came. She had fallen into a ghost town.

As calmly as she could manage, keeping the wall to her right, her hand travelling across the cold stone, she inched her way down the road, pausing half way to kick off a stubborn cabbage that had entwined itself around her boot.

Emerging from the mist was a road. Several cars, of a make she didn’t recognise, were parked along its side; she stopped on the sidewalk and looked both ways. Nothing stirred.

If the American Atheist had detonated the bomb then where were the bodies, the silence could be explained, but not the lack of cadavers?

With no particular direction in mind, she headed right, peering into the cars as she went.

All were empty.

Unita passed road after road, building after building and saw nothing to hint that anyone lived here or had lived here in any recent time. It had a feeling of abandonment, as if the populace had moved elsewhere.

She shook her head; it had to be the Neutron Bomb.

The road she followed led into a vast square ringed by a tall metal fence. In the centre of the square a statue rose, depicting a beautiful woman with two vast swan like wings. Unita approached, fascinated by its lifelike detail, the accentuated curve of the woman’s figure and the all-knowing eyes watching her every move. Written beneath, upon a plaque of white marble, was an inscription, Unita bent down and read,

‘Audiens sapiens sapientior erit et intellegens gubernacula possidebit’

She had read that before, back in America, on the strange black book in Angelo’s encampment, but what did it mean?

Unita looked around the square; the mist was clearing, the sun’s rays finally dissolving it away.

She looked back the way she had come. How many turnings was that again, seven, six, she had forgot to count. A shiver tickled her back. It didn’t matter, whichever one had the trash all over the floor.

As the mist crept back, Unita could make out a domed building at the far side of the square, she took a few tentative steps forward, straining to catch any sound, but hearing only her footfalls.

This was ridiculous, against her better judgement she shouted, “hello.”

Her voice carried, even echoed from the walls of the square, disjointed and grotesquely loud. She regretted it, cringing at the sound. But Rome remained quiet. Unita relaxed. “See,” she said out loud, “nothing to be scared about.”

The sharp sound of breaking glass caused her to jump and she went to bolt back down the road, even taking a couple of steps before forcing herself to stop.

Run back, stay and investigate, what was it going to be, fight or flight. Her legs were already carrying her forward as her mind still struggled with the outcome.

A low groan of metal hinges, like an old rusty door creaking open sounded somewhere ahead.

The domed outline of the building sharpened into clarity, it was the centrepiece of what could have been a Nonchurch, with two towers guarding its flanks. A small path snaked its way up to the main double doors. The grounds were littered with headstones, each a foot or so high, some cracked and old. A couple had flowers or ribbons placed around them. She had only ever read about the churches of Christ in school, never having seen one.

Before the church, one of the roads led into a large carpark, filled with vehicles, and it was from here the creaking sound of the door came again.

Her pace had slowed to a crawl. She came round the cars, her breathing slowing, and she laid eyes upon a man.

The tallest man she had ever seen. He was half in and half out of an old car, his hands laden with cartons of drink. A mane of unkempt dark hair fell about his shoulders and he had the look of a wild man, a savage, fresh from the Amazon, save that he was wearing a dark suit, that if frayed and worn had a look of expense about it. On the floor, an iron crowbar lay surrounded by glass, the side window of the vehicle had been smashed and tiny fragments glittered like jewels in the morning sun.

Unita wasn’t sure what to do. If he was a survivor of the Neutron Bomb, then all he had known or loved had been swept away, he might be driven over the edge with madness. She should approach him, but say what.

Nothing, she sharply reminded herself, one word would sign her death warrant. The last thing this lone man needed to hear now, was the voice of an American.

This clinched it, there may have been a lack of bodies here, something she was relieved at, but this strange figure of a man, was proof enough Angelo had been lying. She made to leave, her foot scraping across gravel as she turned.

The man’s head snapped up, hitting the top of the car and he let out a long howl of pain before slithering back out like a thin dark worm, dropping cartons in his haste. He took one look at Unita and his eyes widened, his mouth dropping into a silent ‘o’ of terror. He looked like a frightened animal, cornered and unable to escape. Unita took an involuntary step back, holding out her arms to indicate she meant no harm and he fled, his long gangly legs propelling him in giant strides around a corner, and out of sight. In other conditions he might have been a comical sight.

She bent down to pick up the carton; it had a picture of two tomatoes and was filled with liquid. It had split and now a thick red liquid rolled slowly down its side. Unita took one look and decided it was soup.

If he had been a survivor, to see someone else –anyone- would have been what he desperately wanted. Unless he wasn’t a survivor at all, but instead a thief.

She looked back to the broken window. But where were all the people.

As if in answer, a thunderous gong, the sounding of an immense bell rang out from the tower. Shocked, she looked up and another answered in the opposing tower, a heavy tolling that rang out across the city.

Her sense of dread returned, and on instinct she began to back away from the church.

The bells stopped. The doors for the main building flew open and a stream of people emerged, dressed in smart suits and dresses, talking excitedly amongst themselves. Children weaved in and out of the crowd, and went running haphazardly across the grounds, their shrill laughter carrying over the rumblings of the adults. From the corner of her eye, she caught movement and saw the doors of the other buildings beginning to open, or the shutters of windows being drawn back. Everywhere she looked; people were emerging, talking, laughing, and relaxing as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Until one screamed.

An older woman, wearing a satin blue dress and expensive rings stood no less than ten feet from her and screamed again. The sound cut through all else, and those nearby stopped to see what the commotion was about. The woman pointed one immaculate, manicured hand at Unita, one finger pointing accusingly, “Is has pallium ius, pro fete, is est a raptor, aliquid subsisto suus,” she said.

The crowds turned to Unita, their expressions turning grim. Unita looked at the carton of soup and her close proximity to the broken car. It didn’t look good.

She dropped the soup and ran.


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Comments by other Members

Patsy at 17:49 on 09 June 2005  Report this post
I must admit, I’m fascinated by this story. I think I kind started in the middle, as this is only the second installment I’ve read. The rest can be found under your name? I don’t know where you are going with this, but I can safely say it is like nothing I’ve ever read. :) You have me hooked.

Nelly at 22:43 on 09 June 2005  Report this post
Cheers Patsy for the positive encouragement. The rest is still floating under my writeword uploads.


paul53 [for I am he] at 09:32 on 18 June 2005  Report this post
Hi Neil,
Overlooked this - what with the persistence of no notification and DB talking me into hosting a second group [I must be mad]. Did you know that because the host's upload is always at the top and in a different colour background, some readers don't notice it? I had a group member from poetry asking where my upload was.

Anyway, AA chugging along nicely. Glad to see more people and new locations entering into it as the close dialogue and few characters needed the breadth to fill out the surrounding world.

A few repeated errors in the punctuation:
Iron maiden made a series of faint clicking sounds, “we celebrate our diversity,” she said.
should be sounds: "We
or sounds. "We
Also, She took in one breath, letting go of the ladder and fell…
Either let go
or one breath, letting go of the ladder. And fell...


Nelly at 22:36 on 18 June 2005  Report this post

Cheers for reading through, I'll edit in the grammar at a later stage. I'll post something up about announcing uploads in the general section, see if that helps.


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