Stephen Pierce

Stephen Pierce

Stephen M. Pierce is a student studying professional writing and journalism at Western Carolina University. He is the current head editor of WCU’s literary magazine “The Nomad,” which has featured several of his pieces. He lives in Asheville, N.C.

A Tabernacle Six Cubits Deep


by Stephen Pierce

There were five of us left in Jerusalem. One lay dead on the bunker floor. 

“Okay, everyone calm down,” I said. “Start with the basics. Who found him?” 

“Me,” Gabby stammered from the entrance, a shawl curled around her thin shoulders. “At 2:00. I was bringing his tea, but…he wouldn’t let me in.” 

Yuri crouched near the body, goggles dangling over her lab coat. 

“Dr. Ralph did like his privacy.”  

“I looked in through the window,” Gabby shuffled on her feet, trying to merge into the wall. “But I just saw a dark shape, and…it wasn’t moving.” 

“So then, how did you get in?” I crouched on a rolling chair, tightly gripping my face.  

“Manual override in the control room,” Mike’s strong arms were crossed over his chest. “Had to put in my password and everything. Only way to open an automatic lock. Yuri and Gabby were here keeping watch. And once the door slid open…” 

Mike glanced at the doctor. He was slumped in his stool at the back of the room, dried blood streaking down his shirt. A revolver rested near a splash of blood on the floor. I recognized it; the gun belonged to the doctor. 

“Find anything, Yuri?” Mike said.  

“I can’t do autopsies just cause I got a doctorate,” she sighed, popping a stick of gum in her mouth. “Just our luck we lose our only medic first.” 

“Answer the question,” he hissed. 

“Just look at the corpse, asshole. He died of a gunshot wound. That’s it.” 

I ran my hands through my hair and pulled my eyes wide open. My brain was churning. Ralph was shot to death in his study, locked from the inside. No way in or out without the manual override, which only Mike had access to. But I was with Mike in the cafeteria since breakfast, when Ralph left for his study. And no one else could get in. Perfect alibis, all around. 

So why did it feel like I couldn’t trust anybody? 

Every day, the four of us ate dinner around a steel table, surrounded on all sides by dull concrete. Our bunker was buried hundreds of feet below the remains of Jerusalem and had none of its charm, beauty, or history. Long ago, we’d been driven to the city from our homes across the world and now had been driven deep below. Neither had ever felt like home. 

Mike had been silently chewing a sandwich overflowing with grey meat, but suddenly put it down and wiped his lips with his hand.  

“We all agree, then? It has to be suicide?”  

He dropped the topic like an atomic bomb. We could no longer ignore the gaping seat on Gabby’s right.  

Yuri leaned back in her chair, chewing her gum thoughtfully.  

“Seems like it. Unless you know how to pass through a steel door.” 

“Maybe a secret passage?” Gabby fidgeted with a chain around her neck. “Or someone broke into the bunker from outside and...” 

“No way. I made the blueprints myself,” I pushed around the beans on my plate. “There’s no way into that room besides the door. And it’d be an awful bunker if people could walk in carrying the virus.” 

“So suicide, then. Good, I was afraid someone had killed him…” Gabby sighed with relief.  

“But I can’t buy that.” 

Mike rose and stood at the head of the table. His firm stance perfectly matched the one he took on my TV years ago, back when he was president of our old country—a powerful nation that no longer existed.  

“Ralph was an excellent doctor. A friend and hero,” Mike said. “He was with me from day one, fighting the virus. He’d never stop just like that!” 

“You’d be surprised what being in this shithole for so long does to a person. No Sun, no surprises,” Yuri smiled smugly. “No sex.” 

“But Ralph knew better than all of us how important the survival of our species is.” 

“Yeah…speaking of which,” Yuri scratched under her eyelid. “Why’s Gabby been going to your bedroom so often, huh? You think you can turn this place into a happy home?” 

Mike’s unfazed response was practiced, but Gabby’s face turned red as she drew further into herself. I wasn’t surprised by the accusation. Gabby had started in Mike’s office before we came here anyway. She was our communications specialist, which effectively meant making meals and screaming for help over the radio. I’m not sure if we expected anyone to answer or just wanted to give her something to do.

“I don’t see why that should matter,” Mike said.  

“It’s a motive,” Yuri said. “Only thing stopping us from making babies is the food supply. With Ralph gone, you two can go at it all you want. Mouth for a mouth, right? Like Hammurabi said.” 

“Eye for an eye,” I said.  

“Fuck off.” 

Mike slammed his hands on the table.  

“That’s enough, Yuri. We brought you here to find cures for the virus, not to make baseless accusations. So if you don’t mind, maybe you should get back to your laboratory?” 

“Yeah, maybe,” She wiped her hair out of her eyes and stood up from the table. “Food tastes like dirt today anyway.” 

Gabby clenched her fists as Yuri left the room, then slowly returned to her meal, tearing into it with quiet fury. Mike closed his eyes, deep in thought.  

“He couldn’t do it anyway,” I pushed my finished plate away.  

“What?” Gabby stammered.  

“The murder. I was with Mike the whole time. He couldn’t get to Ralph even if he could open the door.” 

“You’re still on that?” Gabby said.

She looked at me with tired eyes before getting up to leave, her plate unfinished. I was left with Mike, now mumbling to himself in the shadow of the ceiling’s floodlights. 

I started to feel claustrophobic.  


Every day at 5:00, Ralph and I used to sit by the artificial river in the greenhouse, a jungle packed with our last remnants of the old world. I watched him paint scenes from his memory—cities, people, and flowers. He was talented but only brought one canvas, so every time he finished, he’d dunk the painting in the river, soak it thoroughly, and start over.  

One time I asked him why he bothered if it would all get washed away. 

“It’s a shame, right?” He smiled. “But sometimes you have to lose something to make something better. The strongest people give up the most.” 

He was a bit of a nutjob, but he always knew the right thing to say. His last painting still sat by the water, unfinished, a blank space consuming its center.  

I wondered what this one was supposed to tell me. 

The leaves rustled behind me. I almost expected to see the old man round the corner, but it was just Yuri stooping to grab some plants. 

“Don’t mind me. Need ingredients.” 

The tones of pre-recorded birds slipped through the air between us. I sighed, digging my fingers through the grime. 

“You really think Mike and Gabby killed him?” 

Yuri let out an irritated sigh but continued the conversation anyway. 

“No idea,” she mumbled. “But I didn’t do it, so it’s one of them.” 

“And why not me?” I smiled. “I could be lying about the secret passage, after all.” 

“And build in some secret murder method just to off the doctor years into the program?” Yuri asked. “I think you were more concerned with not vomiting yourself to death.” 

“I guess you’ve got a point. But really, I’m not sure why you think Ralph was murdered. You said it yourself. The years of isolation can get to anyone—even him.” 

“Maybe I’ve just played devil’s advocate so long I’ve become the Devil.” 

Yuri tore a plant out of the ground and sat by me. She began tearing leaves off one at a time. 

“But something weird’s going on. I know it. The vials are bad enough, now this?” 

“The vials?” I frowned. 

“I never mentioned it, because…what are you supposed to do?” She pressed her hands to her temples. “But I…misplaced one of the research vials a few days ago. Like, the ones containing the virus I’ve been experimenting on?” 

“What?” I got to my feet. “And you didn’t tell us?” 

“Calm down. Yeah, maybe I should have said something, but I really thought I just left it somewhere in the lab. Obviously, it hadn’t been released, or we’d know by now. And none of y’all go into my lab anyway, so I figured I could take care of it without getting another lecture from Mike. Until today, the idea of someone taking it never even crossed my mind.” 

“You think the killer took it?” 

“I don’t know. Maybe Ralph wanted to do some research of his own,” Yuri lay in the dirt, resting her head on her hands. “But who’s crazy enough to get within an inch of that thing?” 
“Not me. Not after seeing what it can do.” 

They said it came from a melted glacier. Some prehistoric virus that mutated over time. It was overwhelmingly deadly, worse than anything we’d ever seen. Heart-resistant, antiviral-resistant, everything you could possibly fear. The first thing you tend to notice is a metallic taste in your throat as it reaches your lungs. Then once it gets into your bloodstream, you’re vomiting the life out until you’re another contagious corpse.  

When the virus found its way to every country, we realized we couldn’t run anymore. All that was left was to hide.

“So, we’ve got a rogue virus that could kill us within the week…” I mumbled. “A killer passing through walls that might be involved. Anything else I should be panicking about?” 

“Nah, think you covered everything,” Yuri said. “Now if you don’t mind, I didn’t exactly come to the only part of this bunker with flowers so I could think about corpses.” 

She took her shoes off and lay on her back, letting her toes rest in the cold water. I stared blankly at the rippling current. Yuri had the right idea, but I was already too far gone—my head spilling through memories of my time at the Eden Project. Back when we thought there was still hope.  

I was never on the front lines, but I had to walk past the ward every day. They tried to prepare us. They would show us pictures of the corpses, of the dry dehydrated skin streaked in vomit and blood and something inbetween. They made sure we were trained to kill anyone who caught the virus too far from the treatment clinic, so we wouldn’t have to burn their corpse. But they never told us about the screams—the horrible, guttural sobbing I’d hear from the hallway as the victims desperately fought for life against all odds, knowing their death would further doom our species. 

I glanced at Yuri, lying peacefully with her arms crossed over her eyes. I guess I felt like a sociopath, talking about my friend’s death like this, but being trapped like this made you lose track of your humanity. If you weren’t able to keep pace, you might as well stop marching to keep the survivors from looking back.  

Dr. Ralph understood that. I think he painted because he knew he’d never see the world again. If it came down to it, I think he’d be willing to die where he stood. 

I stopped for a second. My brow furrowed. Then I jumped to my feet in a flurry of sand. 

“Whoa! Dude, the hell?” Yuri shouted. 

“I understand now,” I said. “Your vial, the impossible murder—there’s a point where they overlap. And that’s where our killer’s hiding.” 

“So you know who did it?” Yuri sat up again. “Well, hurry up! Who?” 

I paused as a dull tone rang over the intercom, signaling one of our last remaining traditions.  
“It’s time for dinner,” I said.  

“You think I care about that?” Yuri crossed her arms. “I’d rather starve than be stuck in a room with those two again...” 

“You’ll want to show up,” I made for the door. “This will be a feast to remember.” 

“Eat up.” 

Gabby sighed as she set plates of meatloaf at our places on the table. Mike glowered at the meal while Yuri pulled out her chewing gum and pressed it to the side of the table. 

“Before we eat,” I pushed my plate away. “We should say grace.” 

Gabby raised her eyebrows as she found her seat. 

“What? You think someone’s listening?” 

“I’m not here to speak to God. I’m here to thank Yuri—for revealing to me how Ralph was killed.” 

“I did what?” 

Mike folded his hands and leaned forward. 

“Go on…” 

“Uhh…can’t this wait until after dinner?” Gabby’s fork trembled in her hand. 

“It can’t. Because I think we’re better off not touching our dinner. Right, Gabby?” I turned to her, a storm building in my eyes. 

“What? But I worked hard on it!” 

“Yes, I know. You put your blood, sweat, and tears in that meatloaf—and a special ingredient.” 
I pounded my fist on the table. 

“A dash of a deadly virus!” 

Mike glanced at the meal incredulously. Yuri stood and backed away from the plate, dropping her chair to the floor. 

“The hell? It was you?” she said.  

“I don’t understand where this is coming from,” Gabby chuckled awkwardly. “Maybe you’ve been down here a little too long. Right, Mike?” 

Gabby’s bid for support was met with silent suspicion. Mike narrowed his eyes at me. 

“Explain yourself.” 

“We’ll start at the beginning, with Ralph’s murder.” 

“Murder?” Gabby stammered. “But the room was locked tight! I couldn’t even override the door. How are you suggesting I got in?” 

“Well, you didn’t.” 

“Huh?” Mike scratched his head. 

“None of us could have killed Ralph while he was in the study,” I stood and began to pace around the room. “And by the time we opened the door, he was already dead. That leaves one option: he was killed before entering the room, with a method that would take some time.” 

“You mean there was a hand grenade in there or some shit?” Yuri said.  

“Obviously, he means some kind of poison,” Mike muttered. “Or...perhaps a disease?” 

“And who fixed Ralph’s breakfast this morning?” I asked. 

We all turned to face Gabby, who was rapidly shrinking into the corner of the room. 

“Now—hold on.” She stamped her feet. “That doesn’t make sense! He didn’t have the virus! Yuri put her hands all over the corpse, and she’s fine!” 

“I mean, I did, but,” Yuri tapped her chin with her finger, “Who knows if the disease had entered his bloodstream? If he died before his airways got it there, we’d be safe.” 

“Died how?” Gabby said. “He was shot, remember?” 

“She’s right,” Mike turned to me. “Even if Ralph was poisoned, there’s no ‘delaying’ the bullet that went into his chest. Someone still shot him.” 

“There’s a hole in your reasoning. One you’ve neglected to paint over,” I waved a hand toward Mike. “Think of it like this. We know the gun went off after Ralph entered the study, and someone in the room had to fire it. So, who shot the gun?” 

“Ralph, I guess?” Yuri said.  

“Then what else could it be but suicide?” Mike grasped his forehead tightly.  

“Wait, shit!” Yuri slammed a hand on the table. “Now I get it! Ralph knew all the symptoms of the virus! I bet he noticed the metallic taste in his mouth and caught wind of what had happened.” 

“And for Ralph,” I said. “The highest priority was protecting us.” 

“He had to keep the virus from reaching his bloodstream, so he made sure the door was locked, grabbed the gun from his desk…” 

“And shot himself.” Mike’s head was on the table, in his hands. 

“The killer counted on Ralph’s self-sacrificial nature. So that’s why you force-fed him the virus…right Gabby?” I aimed a finger straight at her. Her eyes flitted between our faces as if staring down demons.  

Mike pushed himself off the table and rose to his feet.  

“I don’t understand. Explain yourself, Gabby.” 

“He knew the disease,” Gabby whispered. “I was scared that if I left him alive, he could save us all.” 

“But—why kill us?” 

Gabby slowly reached into a pocket of her shawl and pulled out a vial. Its red liquid trembled in her hand.  

“Hey, that’s my vial!” Yuri pointed at Gabby. “I told you not to touch my stuff!” 

“That’s your issue?” Mike roared. “That thing could kill us! Put it down!” 

“I heard a transmission,” Gabby said. 

We fell silent as if the breath were sucked from the room.  


“On the radio. There were voices. So many voices. Voices of our enemies.” She breathed raggedly as her fingers tightened on the vial. “They were looking for survivors to do awful things with. I’ve read history books. I imagine you two would be killed, but Yuri and I? I don’t want to think about it…” 

“But…other people?” Mike said. “That’s why we’ve had you manning that radio since the start! You were supposed to tell us if you heard from other survivors!” 

“Not them. There are no good people left in this world. It would be better just to leave.” 

Gabby raised the vial and stared at the floor. The others began to move, but I knew it would be far more effective to stand still.  

“That was very foolish of you, Gabby,” I finally said, “thinking such ridiculous things.” 

She froze in mid-air, rattling eyes staring at me.  

“That world is unlivable. All the voices you could have heard were silenced long ago. You were just hearing things.” 

“No! I’ve been hearing them for days! The same voices. They barely speak English—it’s guttural and wild and desperate. But I know they’re real, and they’re coming for us!” 

“There’s no point in arguing this,” Mike said. “I’ll have a listen to the radio tomorrow. We’ll see how real these survivors are.” 

“It doesn’t matter,” I shook my head. “Even if there were survivors, they never would have found us. You think I was stupid enough to give this facility a door?” 

They shifted their eyes toward me. I could feel the room getting smaller and smaller.  

“You—You mean—” 

“This was never an ark that we were meant to weather the storm in,” I explained. “This is a new Eden. A new home for humanity beneath the Earth, separate from the flames overhead.” 

Yuri dug her fingernails across her arm and snarled at me.  

“Jehovah, you—” 

“I never agreed to this,” Mike clenched his fists.  

“That’s fine. I never agreed to be born myself. I know the Earth was a nice canvas, but it was long overdue for a washing.” 

I reached into my pocket and touched something cold.  

“But this isn’t a painting for everyone. And it looks like some colors don’t mix.”  

Gabby collapsed to her knees, holding her hands above her face.  

“J-Jehovah! Don’t! I swear I won’t be so blind again!” 

“Because only the strongest colors will survive the flood.” 

There were four of us left in Jerusalem. I pulled a gun out of my pocket and fired, and then there were three. There one lay dead from across the dinner table. 


Editorial team