'Why are they doing this? We didn't do anything wrong!'
You agree, but you wish the woman would shut up. Also, her breath reeks of stale cigarettes, which you should be used to, but it sickens you more than the fetid air wafting in through the tiny holes dotting the darkness.
All you know is that you're in a forest somewhere, lying facedown in a box. There are no animal noises, only the occasional chanting from the unseen masses outside, and the frequent yammering of the stranger beside you, whose name you asked a little while ago, and whose response was: 'What does a name matter at a time like this?'
How you got here is a mystery. You can't remember what you were doing at the time of your kidnapping, but you can remember everything else: you were born in Melbourne, Australia; you have a wife and two kids; and you work at a computer software company — although you now feel as though you haven't really lived your life, merely viewed it like a movie on fast-forward.
With a jolt, the box starts to move; a gradual ascent, like a roller coaster beginning its climb to the top of the rise.
The woman screams once, loud and piercing. 'OhmyGodwhat'shappening?'
You hear her trying to break free, but you know that's not possible. The box doesn't allow for much movement.
The woman soon gives up trying. She goes back to sobbing and uttering familiar phrases such as: 'Why are they doing this?' and, 'I haven't done anything wrong.' But this time she adds, '...have I?'
Is this punishment? you wonder.
But you haven't done anything wrong, either.
Nothing you can remember, anyway.
And then a strange voice says:
You won't do anything wrong. Not now.
You look out the nearest hole; see the forest moving by slowly and then you glimpse dark figures below.
There's about fifty, all wearing dark clothing, and chanting. You can't see their faces and although their voices are many and echo through the dense forest, you can't understand what they're saying.
The woman sobs: 'I have a husband. I'm only thirty-eight. I haven't even lived. Christ I need a smoke.'
She's the same age as you, and this fact scares you, though you're not sure why, and like her, you too ache for a cigarette.
The compartment becomes hotter and as the trunks of the pine trees become the tops, you lose sight of the figures below, though not before one of them looks up and you glimpse a white skeletal face, grinning.
The image stays with you, even when you close your eyes; you can't rid your mind of the face — it's eerily familiar — and when light pushes through your world, you open your eyes to a luminous orange pulsating through the holes, and the woman turns and looks at you, tears glinting off her milky-white cheeks. 'There's a fire,' she says flatly. She doesn't blink. 'A huge furnace. We're heading straight towards it.'
'What did we do?' you cry. 'Why are they doing this to us? We've done nothing wrong!'
But you would have, the voice intones. That's why we're stopping you before you could do the damage.
There's a jolt. You feel the box turning.
You dare to look outside.
What shocks you the most is the sheer number of boxes following yours up the conveyor belt; a seemingly endless sea of smooth brown crates, all punched with tiny holes, so they resemble chocolate Swiss cheese, all, presumably, containing bodies within.
As the flames get nearer and the heat more intense, you notice, stamped in bold red on the side of the box closest to yours — 24, fire, accidental, number of deaths: 5. On the box behind — 17, fire, deliberate, number of deaths: 16.
And underneath, the one common bit of writing, printed in smaller letters — 'by order of the Death Prevention Agency, sanctioned by the World Peace Organisation'.
What in Christ's name is the World Peace Organisation? you wonder.
And whose deaths are they preventing?
Certainly not yours.
Your vision expands to see other conveyor belts — hundreds of them all over the land, crisscrossing each other over and between the statuesque pine trees. There are thousands of boxes rolling through the forest and these are the signs you can make out: Serial Killers; Motor Vehicle 'Accidents'; Gang-related Shootings. You watch with a sickening punch to the stomach as the boxes in their respective groups are: sliced with over-sized swords; rammed into each other with powerful hydraulic arms; and shot at with all types of guns.
You turn away from the ghoulish sight. Catch a glimpse of a large sign over your section just before your vision fills with orange. It reads — Fire-related Deaths: Accidental & Deliberate.
The woman lets out a soul-shattering scream. You've never smelt human flesh cooking before (you never got the chance), and it's worse than anything you've ever (would have) smelt.
You close your eyes, hoping to shut your mind off from the horror, but you see the spectre of the grinning skeleton, only now it's surrounded by a red glow which infuses its eyes with demonic glee and the only sound coming from the woman now is her sizzling flesh.
The skeleton smiles, says without moving its rotted mouth:
Two by two, just like on the Ark.
The punishment fits the crime.
What crime? you scream in your head.
The crime you would have committed. Had you been born.
But I remember my life — my wife, my job!
Future events that were projected into your mind. We wanted to show you what would have been, the life you would have lived. You deserve at least that much.
When you feel the sting of fire, you hazard a guess as to what your box reads: '38, fire, accidental (surely not deliberate), number of deaths: 4'.
You think you'll miss your wife and kids.
But you'll never get the chance to find out.
Brett McBean is a Melbourne author. His published work includes the poignant Hume Highway thriller The Mother, religious horror novella The Familiar Stranger, and the forthcoming short story collection Tales of Sin and Madness. His website is here.
Flickr image by dogfrog