The ride seemed to take Pratt forever. Jacob’s henchmen had thrown him unceremoniously into the back of the car, while a cultist drove and the elder Seed sat in the passenger seat. The handcuffs were too tight, cutting into the skin of his wrists with every movement, no matter how small. His face was blistered, and the dried blood formed a scab that stretched from his nostrils to his chin and into which the stray strands that fell from his temples stuck. It was certain that his nose was broken considering the cracking that had occurred during the shock and the pain that haunted him now.
Forehead leaned against the glass, he looked at the landscape passing by. The complex of Eden’s Gate, which seemed to have grown in the middle of Hope County, was now far behind them. The surrounding panorama was now mostly made up of tall trees and the vehicle drove into the forest on bumpy dirt roads. When he had enough of examining the surroundings, Pratt glanced as discreetly as possible in the center mirror to observe the men sitting in the front.
The driver, a long, unkempt black haired man with a beard, was focused on the road. When he had pushed him into the pickup, Staci had noticed that he was wearing a shirt on which was printed what appeared to be the symbol of Eden’s Gate : a cross whose four main branches were doubled and to which four others had been incorporated, between the general shape. In the center was a circle that seemed to connect the whole. This logo also decorated most of the vehicles, all white, used by the sect.
His gaze then turned to the passenger. Jacob Seed looked fearful despite his calm and composed appearance. Curiously, his hair and beard were not brown like those of his brothers, but of a flaming red, which contrasted with the metallic blue of his eyes. He must have been close to fifty, but his athletic build and the punch he had suffered led Pratt to imagine that he was still extremely dangerous, even unarmed.
He looked more closely at his face, whose hard, angular features were emphasized by his hair, shaved on the sides and with the longest strands only on the top of her head. Numerous burns and scars dotted his cheeks, throat and forearms. It was impossible to know if these war scars extended to a larger part of his body, since a military shirt pulled up over his elbows covered the rest of his arms and shoulders. Staci knew the origin of this garment. It was the US Army uniforms used during operations in the desert. A strip of fabric displaying his name was sewn above the right pocket of the shirt, with the left pocket marked “U.S. ARMY”. Before Jacob hit him, he had also seen another patch on his left shoulder that read “Airborne 82”. So he had been a member of that special unit regularly deployed in the Middle East conflicts, which matched the style of his fatigues. Two identification medals still hung around his neck, along with a whistle and what Pratt assumed was a lucky rabbit’s foot.
He quickly looked away when he caught Seed’s gaze in the mirror. Seed smiled back at him. The vehicle parked near a huge concrete complex : Jacob’s bunker.
Pratt was dragged carelessly into the courtyard and then thrown into one of the few cages in which many human beings were already rotting. As Jacob approached the bunker, he instinctively crawled backwards to keep as far away from danger as possible, which brought a smile to Jacob’s face. The veteran, arms crossed over his chest, spoke in a calm tone.
— Do you know what conditioning is ?
Staci did not reply, afraid of the consequences of a wrong answer. Jacob continued.
— It is, as its name indicates, a technique to train the brain of a living being, animal or human, so that it learns to perform a given task automatically. This technique is widely used in the army, especially on prisoners of war. It is particularly effective when the subject refuses to do it voluntarily.
He crouched down to get to Pratt’s level and be able to look him in the eye.
— Will you cooperate, big guy ?
The deputy nodded silently in terror.
— Good. Try to get some rest, your training starts tomorrow morning.
Staci spent a horrible night. Not only was September cool in the forests of Montana, but he had not eaten anything since dawn and the emotions had exacerbated the feeling of hunger. He didn’t sleep a wink, fearing at any moment that the soldier would come back to execute or torture him, and not knowing what awaited him the next day.
Jacob was led to the place where he was currently working : Camp Breakthrough. It was an old complex of individual bungalows that had previously been used as a support center for troubled youth. He had immediately liked this place, hidden in the forest and isolated from the rest of the world. Only the language of nature was audible here, no television, no wifi. The only remaining telephone in the administration building was an old one with a horn and mechanical keys. He went to his pavilion and lay down on the metal bed without bothering to undress, his eyelids heavy. The sleep gained him quickly.
* * *
The air is oppressive, the heat infernal. His legs are heavy and he is thirsty, but Jacob continues to push on into the desert, Miller following him. The sand swallows their steps, sometimes almost up to their knees, but the two young men persist in keeping their hopes up and head south, where the nearest U.S. Army base is located. The smell of oil is everywhere. For the last few days, the Iraqis have been setting fire to the Kuwaiti wells before leaving the territory. It has been a week and a half since the unit was ambushed and Miller and Jacob were separated from the rest of the group. They have no radio and no supplies, left in the hastily abandoned cache, which drastically limits their chances of survival. There is only one option left: to quickly reach a base.
As Jacob walks, he realizes that the desert is silent. Too peaceful. He has become accustomed to the echoes of bombing and gunfire that usually occur throughout the day, and even at nightfall in a few exceptional cases. Something clicked in the corner of his mind, his sixth sense warning him of an imminent threat. He stops dead in his tracks and turns around to signal Miller to do the same.
Too late: a burning breath engulfs him then spits him out violently, preventing him from warning his comrade. He no longer knows where he is, who he is or how he got there. Darkness and silence surround him, his inner ears buzz intensely and he can no longer feel his body. The heat that invades him is familiar.
Now he can remember. He is in the farm of the couple who adopted him and his brothers after their custody was taken from their biological parents. He is standing in the middle of the high flames that he contemplates as they lick uncontrollably at the walls and ceiling of the barn.
The woman’s screams contrast with the silence of the man lying on the ground, his face bloody, stunned. The handle of the axe that was used to strike him multiple times lies next to his body. Jacob’s eyes go to his adoptive mother and he gives her a big, sincere smile. The intense heat of the fire and the thick smoke gradually fill the room and the fiery air no longer enters his lungs. He begins to suffocate, desperately trying to suck in a few puffs of oxygen, in vain.
The howl, audible from a distance, awakened the sleeping wolves in the pens of the Breakthrough yard. The present recruits were used to this kind of event. Jacob had been screaming regularly in his sleep, just about every night for the past few weeks. No one dared to ask him about it, but the rumors were flying. Everyone knew that Jacob was a war veteran and that he had seen many horrors during his many deployments. Some said he was the executioner of prisoners of war, others insinuated that he had piloted the plane that dropped a bomb, killing hundreds of people, most of them innocent. In reality, no one knew Jacob’s story and no one appreciated how haunted and persecuted he was by his various past lives.
* * *
As always, Jacob rose early in the morning, before the sun’s rays appeared and warmed the woods of the Whitetail Mountains. He knew that he had had another nightmare, but the content of the dream was not clear to him. He had had a period of respite after Joseph and John had found him and given him psychological support, but the night terrors had returned when they had moved to Hope County. Jacob was by no means superstitious or even religious; he had followed his brother and invested in his purpose out of gratitude and to keep them together. He had noticed, however, that the return of those dreams that haunted him coincided with the return of the visions that Joseph said he was experiencing and that guided him in the management of the Eden’s Gate Project.
Still overcome by the burning heat he had felt earlier, Jacob left his bungalow to enjoy the silence and went to the small cove nearby. He took off his rangers and clothes and sank into the cold, black water for a few swims. The temptation to let the water flood his lungs and draw him into the depths had been strong on many occasions, but not today. Everything had changed.
Last night, these strangers had arrived in the chapel and Joseph recognized them as the messengers of the prophecy he had been speaking of for many months. The role of each had been defined and it was now up to him to protect the members of Eden’s Gate by preventing these sinners from disrupting Joseph’s plan. And then there was that female deputy, the one who had disappeared. Something in her disturbed him.
He had watched her as he had watched the other deputies, but her apparent ordinariness contrasted with the fact that she had been charged with arresting Joseph, which she had done without batting an eyelid despite the threat of the armed cultists surrounding her. During the police raid, Jacob had glanced at the different members of the family to make sure he wasn’t the only one with questions. If Faith was studying the scene with a blank and vaguely smiling look, he had been surprised by what he had read in John’s pupils. It was difficult for him to analyze the emotion materialized in his eyes, but he was sure that he had never seen such a fascination from his brother for another human being. She had definitely made an impression on the siblings, even if the feelings inspired by her presence were not expressed with the same intensity by everyone.
* * *
Back at Breakthrough, Jacob ordered one of his men to take him to his bunker. There, Pratt lay curled up in his cage, freezing to death. He was also starving and dehydrated, which provided the perfect conditions for his mind to be receptive to the stimuli induced by the conversion program.
Seed then went to the site where the rest of the program would take place, the Grandview Hotel, to verify that the installation was perfectly mastered. The induction room was carefully designed: a few messages judiciously painted on the walls ensured that candidates would not lose sight of the purpose of their presence if their eyes were to stray from the giant screen on which images, some more subliminal than others, were projected.
Jacob went around the room and carefully inspected all the sound equipment, which was equally important. Everything was ready. All he had to do was welcome the new recruits and give them his well-practiced speech.
He went down the stairs to the open room on the first floor. There was some commotion as the recruits exchanged roles. Some were going to the physical training area outside, while others were preparing the carefully measured mixture that would be administered to the newcomers. There was no room for error, so everyone was quiet and focused on their respective tasks. Jacob admired the little workers who were busy in his hive, driven by the fear of disappointing him.
He approached the large blackboard in the center of the room and looked at the inscriptions. The board was divided into two columns: one with a name and the other with a rank, one recruit per line. Of the seven names lined up, two were drawn, W. Tiller and A. O’Grady. He hissed in displeasure. He contemplated Pratt’s line, whose note slot was still blank, and imagined writing the ultimate note, which restored his optimism. His reading was interrupted by a young woman who came to inform him that everything was ready and that the new students were waiting in the room.