The Darkness Deepens

by Sara Davison

Previously titled The Dragon Roars

Their Secrets Protect Them …

But Secrets are Hard to Keep

No one in the army can find out that Captain Jesse Christensen has become a believer. He and bookstore owner Meryn O’Reilly are forced to meet in secret, facing imprisonment or worse if they are found together. Their relationship deepens, but so does Lieutenant Gallagher’s hatred for the Christians in their city. As Gallagher’s power grows, it becomes clear that his connections go much further up the chain of command than anyone realized, putting all believers, especially Jesse, in extreme danger.

Meryn wants to give her heart to Jesse fully, but her past holds her back. Although circumstances conspire to keep her silent, she needs to tell him her secret. When he finds out what she has been keeping from him, nothing will stand between them anymore. Or nothing will ever be the same.

The year is 2054. As the world descends into chaos around them and Christians in Canada and around the world face tighter and tighter restrictions, Jesse and Meryn wage a battle against forces of darkness – both physical and spiritual. They face the threat of being ripped apart forever as Gallagher closes in on his favourite target. Jesse’s life hangs in the balance.

Jesse, Meryn, and all believers must decide if their faith is strong enough to carry them through these dark days, or if the cost of declaring allegiance to Jesus Christ is just too high.

Chapter 1

Captain Jesse Christensen pushed open the back door of the old cabin and stepped onto the rickety porch. Where is she? Clouds drifted across the moon, obscuring the opening to the woods. Did Meryn have a flashlight? He scanned the trees, straining for a glimmer of light.

The sound of an approaching vehicle tightened his stomach muscles. Meryn wouldn’t try to drive here, would she?

Jesse edged to the corner of the building. The ancient wooden boards groaned under his hiking boots as he peered around the corner of the cabin.

A green army jeep whizzed by the end of the driveway.

He ducked back out of sight. She better not come that way. Even the half-mile drive from her farmhouse, the next property over, put her at risk of being caught out after curfew. As a convicted felon, the army would come down hard on her. And this time not even he or Caleb, his best friend and commanding officer at the base, would be able to help her.

A twig snapped.

Instinctively, he reached for the Glock in the back of his jeans. It wasn’t there. He measured the distance from the porch to the jeep he’d parked behind the cabin. Could he get to it in time?

Relax. It has to be her.

He crossed over to the stairs. A spring thunderstorm had passed through the area that afternoon and the mingled scents of crushed wildflowers and damp earth hung in the air. The cracking of branches and rustling of grass grew louder as he approached the trees. A hard thud made him wince. “Meryn?” he whispered her name as loudly as he dared as he made his way down the path.

“Coming.”

The clouds parted. Her long dark hair, pulled back in a ponytail, gleamed in the moonlight as she limped toward him.

Jesse pulled her into his arms. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine. Just didn’t see a branch lying across the path.”

“Don’t you have a flashlight?”

“Yes.” She stepped back and pulled the small silver tube out of the pocket of her windbreaker. “I didn’t want to use it, though, in case someone saw the light.”

“That’s smart, I guess.” He glanced down at the torn knees of her jeans, then reached for her hand. “Come inside. I can assess the damage better there.”

She followed him up the stairs and into the cabin.

Jesse let go of her and swung the door shut.

The room plunged into blackness.

Meryn inhaled sharply. “Jesse?”

“Just a sec. Don’t move, okay?” He felt in the thick dark for the lamp he’d set up in the corner of the room. His fingers brushed against the shade. “Almost have it.” He pushed the button and soft light flooded the cabin.

Meryn clasped her hands in front of her. “We have power? How?”

He waved a hand at the machine humming in the corner. “Solar generator. There’s heat too.” He nudged another small machine with his foot. “So we’re all set.”

Meryn walked across the room toward him. The smile on her face made all the work he’d done to try and make a cozy room out of this old shack worthwhile. “But won’t someone see the light?”

“Nope.” He gestured toward one of the windows. “I covered all the glass and any chinks in the wall I could find with black paper. From outside it still looks like an abandoned wreck of a building.”

Meryn stopped in front of him. “Seems you’ve thought of everything.”

“Everything except how to get you here in one piece.” He looked her up and down. “You’re bleeding and covered with dirt.” He gently traced a line of red slashed across her cheek. “What happened to your face?”

“I took on a branch somewhere in the middle of the woods and lost.” Meryn looked down at the rips in the knees of her jeans. “I’m okay. It was a little tricky coming here, that’s all. I’m going to have to hike through in the daylight sometime and see if I can find a better path.”

Jesse sighed and placed his hand on her back. “Come sit down.” He guided her to a wooden table in the middle of the room and pulled out a paint-flecked chair. When she settled on it, he turned another one to face her and sat down. “I’m sorry we have to meet this way, Meryn.”

“It’s not your fault. We both knew it would be like this when we agreed to try and keep seeing each other.”

“I guess, but …”

She touched his arm. “It’s fine. Actually”—her gaze traveled around the room—“it’s a lot better than fine. I can’t believe what you’ve done in here. It’s like our own little world that no one else on the planet even knows exists.”

Not yet, anyway. Jesse pushed back the thought. Their time together would slip through their fingers like water. He didn’t want to waste a second of it worrying about what might happen in the future. “That sounds good to me. I wish we could stay in this world forever, but I promised Caleb I’d be back on the base by ten. Any later than that and someone will start asking questions.”

“It’s okay. I know you have to be careful.”                                                                   

He turned her hand over in his and rubbed his thumbs over her palm, brushing off the dirt. “We both do.” He finished with that hand and reached for the other one.

She searched his face. “What is it?”

“What’s what?”

“What’s bothering you? Has something happened?”

Of course she would see it in his eyes. He’d never been good at hiding what he was feeling, especially from her. And new laws seemed to be passed every week. Almost all were designed to oppress Christians after a radical group, “The Horsemen,” had carried off a deadly terrorist attack on 10/10/53, six months earlier. She probably expected something like what he was about to tell her.

Jesse blew out a breath and reached inside his jacket to pull a slim, white box out of the inside pocket. “I wasn’t going to give you this right away, but since we can’t stay long, maybe it’s best.” He held the box toward her.

Meryn reached for it. “You got me a present?” She started to lift the lid.

He stopped her by covering the box with his fingers. “No.”

Surprise flickered in the ocean-blue eyes that met his.

When he spoke, he couldn’t keep the coldness from his voice. “This is not a gift. And it is definitely not from me.”

Chapter 2

Meryn set the box down on the table.

He gave her a moment, then flicked his fingers against the back of her hand lightly. “It’s not alive,” he teased. “I didn’t put a snake in there or anything.”

The irony of the words struck her, given that the revulsion on his face when he handed it to her had suggested it might be something conceived in the pit of hell.

“Then what is it?”

“Open it and see.”

Meryn studied his face for a moment, then turned back to the box and lifted the lid. She picked up the slim grey bracelet. Turning it over in her hands, she examined both sides, ran a finger over the hard plastic face of it, across the 3 etched into the band. “What is this?”

“It’s an identity bracelet. Your identity bracelet, to be exact.”

“Mine?”

“Yes. The computer chip inside has been programmed with your personal information—physical characteristics, job, contact information … anything the government considers relevant.”

“What about religious affiliation?”

He hesitated. “That’s not programmed in, no.”

“Why not? I thought the government considered that extremely relevant these days.”

“They do, but it’s not necessary to program in the fact that you’re a Christian.”

Icy fingers danced up and down her spine. “You mean they’ll know that because of the bracelet, right? It’s only for the Christians. To keep track of them.”

“To ‘protect them’ is the official party line. Because there have been so many attacks against Christians since 10/10, like the one on your store.”

She winced, the memory of the brick smashing through the window of her beloved secondhand bookstore, the deafening crash and the glass that had showered down on them both, pummelling her like a fist.

“The government claims this is the best way to keep the Christians safe. There is a button to push in an emergency, and if anything extreme happens and someone with a bracelet disappears, the army could use the embedded GPS system to track the missing person down, so in a way I guess it could be used for safety.”

“But it’s not the main purpose, is it?”

“No. I suspect that’s just a smoke screen.”

“So they’ll know where I am at all times. Even here.” Fear crept into her voice.

“The tracking will be done by a handful of soldiers at a few centres scattered across the country. And millions of people will be wearing the bracelets. Unless you do something to draw attention to yourself, it’s unlikely anyone will be tracking your movements. But you will have to be more careful now than ever.”

Meryn pushed back her chair and stood. For a moment she paced at the end of the table. “Will they use this to keep us from buying and selling merchandise?”

“Not yet.”

She wandered over to the worn, tiled kitchen counter in the corner and turned to lean against it. The bracelet shook in her fingers.

Jesse got up and crossed the room to stand in front of her.

Meryn traced the number in the band. “What does this mean?”

“It means, once you put this bracelet on, you’ll be classified as a level-three Christian.”

She looked up. “Level-three?”

“Yes. Number five means you have never been in trouble with the law. Four means you have been suspected of a crime but there hasn’t been enough evidence to arrest you, or you’ve been arrested but not convicted. Three is for those who have been arrested and convicted of a hate crime other than terrorism. Level two is reserved for suspected terrorists, and number one is for terrorists who have been arrested and convicted. That number will go into their official records, but they’ll never have it etched on their bracelets.”

“Because …?”

“They’ll be dead.”

Meryn drew in a long, slow breath. “So everyone will have a bracelet already pre-programmed with their information in it?”

“Everyone suspected of being a Christian, yes. Basically, if you have ever been affiliated with a church or if we’ve found a Bible in your possession or you have acted in a way that suggests you are either a believer or in sympathy with believers, you’re on a list, and there is a bracelet with your name on it. I grabbed yours from the pile so no one would show up at your door with it, but soldiers will start delivering them tomorrow. Once the bracelets are secured, they cannot be removed. They are waterproof and virtually indestructible. Tampering with the lock or attempting to cut through the plastic will set off an alarm at Headquarters. Then they will use the GPS that will go live at the end of the day tomorrow—when all the bracelets are activated at the same time—to track you down in minutes and arrest you.”

She bit her lip, absorbing that information. “Wow. It’s moving fast, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“What about you?”

“I’m not on the list, so they don’t suspect anything. Not yet, anyway.”

“That’s good.”

“Is it?”

“Of course it is. As long as they don’t suspect anything, you’re safe.”

“That’s just it, Meryn. Why should I be safe?” His voice was harsh and she blinked. Jesse ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry. It’s just that it’s getting harder and harder to stay hidden away in my quarters, avoiding the treatment all the other Christians are getting. Even having to order some of it or carry it out myself. It just doesn’t feel right.”

Meryn set the bracelet on the counter beside her. “You aren’t hiding. And I was wrong to use the word safe. But as long as you’re there and no one suspects you of being a believer, you can help us. Especially now that these bracelets are going to make it a lot easier to restrict our movements and our access to goods or services.”

“I guess.”

“Should I warn Kate and Ethan about this?”

Jesse shook his head. “No, don’t. If your message gets intercepted, there’ll be trouble, since no one is supposed to know about this ahead of time. I brought their bracelets with me, and I’ll take a chance and stop by there tonight.”

“Is this happening all across the country?”

“Yes. Your brothers will have to get theirs out west, before they move back here.”

Meryn tilted her head and looked up at him, a small smile on her face.

“What?”

“I’m not sure I like that you always know what I’m thinking.”

He shrugged. “You’re the one who wanted to be more transparent, lady. It’s not my fault that I can read you like a book now.”

“A good one, I hope.”

“Definitely one of my favourites. Dickens, at least.”

“I’m sorry, one of your favourites?”

Jesse laughed. “Slip of the tongue. I meant my absolute, better-than-Shakespeare favourite of all time, not even a close second.”

She grinned. “Better than Shakespeare. I can live with that.” She moved closer and laid her head on his chest. When Jesse wrapped his arms around her, she inhaled deeply, breathing in the faint scent of citrusy musk and feeling a peace she hadn’t felt in days at least, maybe months. She looked up.

He lifted his hands to her face and pressed his lips to hers.

The feel of his mouth, of his strong fingers against her skin, filled her senses and the rest of the world faded away. Everything that was happening outside of these walls, outside of their perfect, secret place, felt imaginary, dream-like, as though the two of them were the only things that were real. It was an illusion but she slid her hand to the back of his neck to pull him closer, deepening their kiss to keep everything else at bay a little longer. After a moment, she stepped back with a sigh.

They couldn’t keep everything else at bay. Couldn’t even keep the evil out of this place, apparently.

She reached for the band and held it up between them. “Do I have a choice? About putting it on, I mean?”

“Oh yes.” Bitterness tinged his words. “That’s the great thing about living in a free and democratic nation. You always have a choice.” Jesse reached into his back pocket and withdrew his i-com. “You can put on the bracelet or you can sign this.” He turned the screen, the now-familiar gold-and-red government logo swirling across the top, toward her. “It’s a sworn statement saying that you renounce Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Christian Bible.” He slid the stylus from the side of the device and held it up in his other hand. “Simply sign this, and as soon as I submit it tomorrow, you’ll be free to go, no questions asked.”

Meryn scanned the words. When her gaze met his, the fear was gone. Without a word, she offered him the bracelet and held out her other arm.

Jesse replaced the stylus and dropped the i-com back into his pocket before taking the bracelet. He snapped it around her wrist, then wrapped his fingers around both. “Congratulations, Meryn O’Reilly. As of April 8, 2054, you are officially a Christian in the eyes of the government of Canada.”

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