The thunderstorms that drenched New Babel all afternoon abated briefly just as Marcus led his wife through the parking lot of the King David Hotel, giving way to a cool, damp night. The tiny puddles formed in the asphalt of the parking lot caught glimpses of the rays coming from the hotel’s lights, each mini reflection adding to blended array of lights to create a dreamlike atmosphere. He took in a deep breath, the air refreshing as if the rains had washed away the sins of the world and everything was new.
The evening was as close to perfect as possible - given the circumstances. The storm had brought the temperature down to a comfortable level, and Marcus would get to spend the evening out with the love of his life - something that didn’t happen nearly enough. He felt the sweat between his and Aliyah’s palms despite the cool air, a sign of the joy that had his heart racing in the hours leading up to the show.
That Aliyah skipped and giggled as they made their way through the parking lot confirmed the feeling was mutual. Her radiant smile juxtaposed her pearly-white teeth against the rich caramel of her skin and the deep satin red covering her lips. She’d even worn the modest, yet elegant, black cocktail dress with delicate pleats that accentuated her shape without crossing the line into what the law deemed blasphemous. In moments like these, Marcus completely understood what Nikki saw in her, even if he didn’t see it himself. He could appreciate beauty without attraction.
As Marcus and Aliyah made their way towards the front door of the King David, they passed more and more of the white-clad agents from the Leviticus Commission. They were the Evangelical Republic of America’s primary police force, having taken that role after the ERA’s war with the former USA came to an end. The Leviticals’ presence at events like tonight was expected; you couldn’t cross a single street in the former Las Vegas without spotting one, rifle strapped across their chest.
As Marcus and Aliyah walked through the door, though, it’d become clear that the Leviticals were out in full force tonight. Aliyah squeezed his hand; this time, it wasn’t excitement.
“It’ll be alright,” he whispered to her. “We have our paperwork, everything’s on the up and up as far as they’re concerned.”
As he whispered in her ear, Marcus nearly ran into an older lady with her husband standing in the foyer. Why the hell are you just standing… Marcus’s thoughts were answered when he noticed the line that snaked into the lobby, heading towards the front desk where all checkins would occur. The higher-than-normal number of Leviticals? A line to get in that stretched almost outside the hotel? The hairs on the back of Marcus’s neck were put on notice; he wasn’t worried yet, but something felt slightly… off.
Inching forward, the line crept through the gilded partition separating the foyer from the lobby. As he entered, Marcus’s concerns that weighed on him in the foyer gave way to butterflies in his stomach. It was silly, a feeling mostly reserved for lovesick young teenagers, but the heart wanted what the heart wanted. He tried to wait to look, but the anticipation drove him to speak a peak before looking back to the front of the line – only to do a double take. This time, he stared more intently, not worried about being caught looking because Javier and Nikki weren’t there.
“Where are they? They know the plan.” Aliyah’s words came out through gritted teeth. Marcus experienced the same pit in his stomach, not knowing where Javier and Nikki were. They were never late; the plan always called for them to arrive before Marcus and Aliyah, to sit at the corner table, and to meet up in their suites after the hotel’s manager set them up in their usual rooms. Never before had Javier and Nikki wavered from the plan; that was one of the things Marcus loved most about Javier, his punctuality. Where were they?
Marcus felt an elbow in his side as Aliyah gasped and nodded her head in the direction of the counter. Marcus looked, not seeing anything at first with long line in front of them, but eventually he saw him: Javier leading Nikki away from the front counter. His lean, muscular frame was gift wrapped in a navy-blue, custom-tailored wool serge three-piece, each step he took stretching the fabric of his slacks taut against his toned legs. A cheeky smile spread across Marcus’s face and, for those few moments, no one else existed in the hotel except Javier, and the rest of the background noise faded away. As if on cue, Javier turned his head in Marcus’s direction, their eyes meeting in a moment that seemed to last an eternity. Javier smiled - an abbreviated smile given the circumstances - then gave a quick nod to tell Marcus the
plan, Marcus’s plan, was still good to go.
Marcus was a natural born planner, never undertaking any task without mapping out how he would go through each step along the way. When the ERA emerged victorious and Las Vegas became New Babel, the MGM Grand Hotel became the King David, and his and Javier’s relationship became punishable by death, he put his abilities to use. He’d been an event planner for Jameson Davis, the MGM Grand’s manager, for years and knew he was an ally. So when the ERA took over and confiscated the hotel but kept Jameson on as manager, Marcus was able to work out a deal where he would be able to see Javier. They just needed to find partners who would allow them to blend in with other customers. Given the ERA’s strict family laws, which forbade casual dating, the only way they could make it work was to get legally married to those partners.
Every meetup at the King David was meticulously planned; the four of them talked through each step of each plan at length in chatrooms the ERA government hadn’t figured out how to monitor yet. Every message sent in their group chats would have been grounds for the Heretic Punishment, every meetup a chance to get caught in the real world. Soon, it expanded – acquaintances of the four asking for help in setting up their meetups as well. Soon, Marcus became an underground event planner, setting up meets at hotel events, such as the religious plays that were the sole allowable entertainment in New Babel. Jameson was the one who incurred the most risk, as he was responsible for ensuring that each pair of couples was set up in adjacent suites. Luckily, the ERA remained ignorant of Jameson’s activities.
Marcus squeezed Aliyah’s hand a couple of times after their partners rounded the corner and out of sight. He looked over at his ‘wife’, who had her lips pulled in between her teeth to try to fight back the massive grin that would have surely been on her face. In a few minutes, Javier and Nikki would be walking into their suite and opening the connecting door to the adjacent room. In… however long it took to get through this damned line, Marcus and Aliyah would open the door to that neighboring room and shed the camouflage of marriage to be with their loved ones.
The line moved gradually, at a pace that Marcus would’ve normally deemed acceptable. Before he saw Javier in that suit of his, in fact, he hadn’t even thought about the pace of the line’s movement. Now, the line seemed to slow to a glacial pace, every couple taking forever at the front of the line. He grew antsy, unable to stay still, playing with the buttons on his suit jacket, looking around at others standing in line. Every 10 seconds or so, Marcus would look back to the front of the line expecting to see movement, the 10 seconds feeling more like 10 minutes to him. He just needed to get to Javier; it was what all the planning was for, all the hurdles they had to leap, all the dangers they put themselves in to get to this point.
“How do you think we’ll find them, though?” Marcus heard the whisper behind him, but didn’t
think much of it as he strained his neck to see the front of the line again.
The response, though, piqued Marcus’s interest. “I don’t know, but the chat this was the night.”
Marcus’s eyebrows shot up, his ears tuned in to the conversation occurring just behind him over the noise of the large lobby. Surely they couldn’t be talking, openly,
about the couples coming tonight to meet up. Surely…
It hit Marcus like a sack of bricks, the reason the Leviticals were out in force. They’d been tipped off. The possibility seemed too far fetched earlier in the evening, but if there were guys openly discussing the topic, word must have gotten out somehow.
“Well, how would we even know who to look for? How
do we get our room?”
Our room? Marcus looked up at the
pair of white-clad agents silently standing near the wall and watching the line
move, who weren’t looking in his direction. He then slowly turned his head just
far enough to get a glimpse of the two guys talking behind him. They were
young, possibly even high schoolers, but more likely recent graduates. Marcus
didn’t see any parents with them, and the amount of bunching of their trouser
legs above their shoes meant that they likely also took their parents’ clothes
to come out tonight. They don’t know what they’ve just walked into, Marcus realized. Someone let out that we’re
meeting here tonight because we can get rooms together; that someone is going
to get these two killed.
The only reason Marcus and Javier, along with Nikki, Aliyah, and everyone else, got to actually meet is that they hid in plain sight under the cover of obeying the ERA’s archaic theocratical laws. These two didn’t even realize that their presence, without the senior male family member in their household, was grounds enough for detention. Detention would lead to interrogation; if these two are here for the same reason as Marcus, that interrogation wouldn’t end well.
Marcus looked back to the pair of Leviticals to check if the coast was clear; he needed to tell the boys to get the hell out of there while they still could. His heart dropped when he noticed that the pair weren’t by the wall anymore; they were a couple steps closer, staring directly at the pair behind him, and talking to each other.
“Maybe there’s a secret code we should know when we get to the fr… shit!”
“In the name of the Lord, we greet you. Please provide your papers for review.” The Levitical, a shorter man with a buzzcut and a nametag that read Luke, spoke in a tone that didn’t indicate a request; his hand on he rifle’s handgrip made it clear that it wasn’t a request.
“Sure, we have them here.” The sound of paper crinkling as the boy unfolded paperwork preceded a silent moment while Luke and his partner, Robert, looked over the papers. “No, this is your ticket. We need your papers.”
“Uh, papers? Which, um, which papers are you talking about?”
A bit of static and a beep. “Uh, this is L413, main lobby. Potential issue here. Over.” Then, to the boy, Luke asked, “Where are your parents? Why aren’t you with your father?”
“My, um… my father? He’s at home, he got us these tickets so we could enjoy and learn from the story of Lot and his wife.”
Damnit, they have no clue. Marcus’s breaths started
coming in short bursts as he became nervous for the boys in the same way one
would get nervous when seeing a stranger about to get jumped by a group of men.
You knew what was coming, you couldn’t stop it, and trying to stop it would
just make things much worse for you – and possibly them too.
That’s why Jameson and Marcus came up with the explicit rule that no one who was there for a meetup could help another if they got caught. It would be painful, like seeing a friend drowning in a lake when you couldn’t swim, but by letting that friend go it saved more lives in the long run. If someone were to help another who got caught, it would clue the authorities in that not only was there a larger group of “blasphemous” couples meeting up at the King David, but they were aware of each other. There was a larger network, not just random one-off individuals and couples. It was too dangerous to help. Better to cut off the finger to save the hand, as the saying went.
Still, he could hear the hope, the joy in their voices when they talked about being able to be with each other. He recognized it, he remembered it – the feeling that he would finally get to be himself. It was one of the biggest crimes of the ERA – forcing people to be someone other than themselves. And not just the gay and lesbian communities, but even people that valued things other than having and being beholden to a family. The ERA was restructuring society to be family home-centric, using M-4s as their primary sculpting tool – anyone who didn’t naturally fit into the nuclear home prototype was forced into a new role. These two just wanted to break out of the confines of a life that wasn’t their own – and for their efforts, they would be executed for Blasphemy.
The joy he’d felt just moments before when he saw Javier made the pain he felt from the kids all the more intense; knowing what was possible if they could just get past this moment, if they could just talk to him before trying to meet up… he wanted them to experience it. He wouldn’t risk everyone else to help them, but if he could just come up with something to allow them to run...
“We’re going to need you two to step out of line.”
“Wait, why? We haven’t done anything…”
“Gentlemen, out of line. Now.” Out of the corner of his eye, Marcus could see Luke’s finger flip off the safety on his rifle.
A moment of silence was filled with palpable tension. Then, the squeak of rubber on marble floor was followed by the thuds of running footsteps that grew quieter with each step. Luke raised his rifle, pointed away from the direction Marcus was facing, and started walking towards the fleeing teen – though he didn’t fire. After hearing the footsteps start, Marcus turned to look – and noticed the teen running towards the exit just in time to see another Levitical step out in front of him, swinging his baton. He connected with the kid’s temple with a sickening thud, all conscious thought and control leaving the thin body immediately. He collapsed the marble floor, the gasps from the crowd echoing off the walls.
Marcus seized the moment. He couldn’t save both of them any longer, but he could
save one. “Listen, when you have
the opportunity, run. Come find Marcus Sampson afterwards, you’re going to owe
me for this.”
“Wh- what? When will I have…?”
“You’ll know. Trust me.”
Marcus looked over at Aliyah, who was wide eyed and confused. He mouthed I’m sorry before reaching out and grabbing the leather purse being clutched by
the older lady in front of them.
“You’re not gonna take me in too, pigs!” Marcus took off, sprinting towards the hotel’s elevators – and more importantly, away from the exit. He could hear heavy footsteps behind him, with shouts to stop bouncing off the ornate walls and floors. Marcus made sure to cut down each corridor he came too, preventing the Leviticals from having a clean shot at him. He knew there was no exit where he was heading. He never planned on escaping.
As he sprinted back into the lobby, having pulled a number of Leviticals into the hallways behind me, Marcus felt a weight hit in in his right side, knocking out the little bit of wind he had left in his lungs. Luke, despite his small stature, was a brick house of muscle and put all 160 pounds behind his shoulder as he tackled Marcus to the ground.
As he laid on his stomach, hands being zip tied behind his back, he looked up to check if the kid made it. The glass hotel front allowed him to look outside, but the bright lights inside the hotel prevented his eyes from making sense of anything he might see outside. A flash of lightning revealed a pair of running legs, the baggy slacks billowing in the wind as the kid sprinted into the treeline outside. Marcus hoped that the lady didn’t have too much of value in her bag; the law of the Bible required a sevenfold repayment on any items stolen.
Still, no matter the amount, the kid’s life was worth it.