Updated: Sep 18
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Rubbing his left eye with one finger, Leroy said, “I’m tired.”
Flynn looked up and stared into Leroy’s drowsy brown eyes. “Perk up, buddy. The service is about to start.”
Grasping the gold amulet hanging around his neck, he paused. He brushed the tips of his fingers against the metal—a sickle and a cross, the symbol of Atina. Leroy wrapped his fingers around the emblem and gripped it tightly. With a glazed look in his eyes, he asked, “Do you think we’re making a difference?”
“What’s that even mean? Making a difference. We do what we’re told, just like everyone else. Atina makes the difference, not us.”
“But do you ever feel like there’s something more,” asked Leroy, staring off into the distance, hood cloaked over his soft, curly brown hair.
“More of what? We serve in the Temple. It’s the most coveted place to be in all of Atina. We get the best food, the best sleeping quarters, and we’re even allowed to sit next to each other because we don’t have the sickness like the rest of Atina. What more could there be?”
Leroy bowed his head, hood covering his eyes and forming a black shadow over his face. Staring at the surface of the stone table where he and Flynn sat, he sighed. “Yes, I know. We’re Atina’s blessed ones, called to carry on her mission and purify her bloodline, but don’t you ever feel like a puppet instead of a servant?”
“You better be careful who you say that kind of thing to.” He pointed to the bleak, gray walls strewn with digital lanterns. “Atina has ears everywhere and you’re very close to breaking the third, or even the tenth commandment. Honor, Leroy, and contentment.”
“Yes, I know what the third commandment is, and the tenth.”
“I should also remind you that the last person who broke the third commandment and spoke against Atina had his tongue cut out in one of our services.”
Leroy sat up straight. “You don’t have to remind me of this. I know.”
“No, I don’t think you do.” Flynn yanked Leroy’s left hand with a quick and violent jerk. “The last man who demanded more for himself, breaking the tenth, lost his ability to touch.” Raising his voice slightly, he said, “Remember that, Leroy, before you end up like them, the outsiders, the ones not blessed by Atina.”
Leroy pulled his hand away and massaged his wrist. The other Clerics in the hall looked at the fuss with condemnation, hushing Leroy and Flynn with their fingers over their mouths.
“You see what you did,” Flynn said, pointing at the others. “Now you have the attention of the entire hall.”
Leroy shook his head. “You’re right. Let’s just forget about it.”
“You promise to get this nonsense of ‘more’ out of your mind?”
Leroy snapped an angry glare at Flynn. “I said, let’s forget about it.”
“All right. Service is about to start and we’re handling alms this morning. Bishop Grey said if we break the giving record today, we can have some ice cream.”
“Ice cream? Really? I thought they saved those kinds of luxuries for the Magus, who deserves such things.”
Flynn scratched the back of his head and smiled. “Atina and her supreme leader, the Magus, have our best interests in mind. There’s no reason to crave for ‘more’ because Atina gives her love to us without restraint.”
Returning Flynn’s smile, Leroy chuckled. “You’re right as usual. Let’s earn us some ice cream.”
The hall of Clerics shushed them again for the commotion they were making.
“Shut up, you twats,” said Flynn. “None of this concerns you.”
Leroy and Flynn were Senior Clerics, so there was little their Juniors could do other than make the occasional annoying gesture.
Seconds later, the Bishop walked onto the stage, red flowing cape hanging from his shoulders and dragging behind him. He had a tall black cap with the ‘A’ of Atina embroidered with gold. Wrapped around each finger was a ring, each representing one of the ten commandments of their government-led religion. A different jewel crested each ring. Tanzanite, black opal, musgravite, alexandrite, emerald, red beryl, ruby, pink diamond, jadeite, and sapphire. The rings of the Bishop cost over a billion total credits, and he always flashed them off during his broadcast to show what a person loved by Atina could achieve.
He sat in a high back oak chair with the carving of a tree and a figure of a winged woman resting in its trunk. The carving, overlay with gold, was the physical representation of Atina, nestled at the foundation of the world and giving birth to all its inhabitants.
A holographic screen appeared before the Bishop’s face with a countdown. Grinning from ear to ear, the Bishop appeared as a statue—no life, only performance. When the timer clicked away the numbers down to one, he took a deep breath and exhaled.
Bishop Grey looked at the screen with a half-smirk. “Hello, my fellow loyalists. May Atina be praised, from whom flows all life, wisdom, and abundance. Her ways are pleasant. Her heart is pure. She is the one who lavishes her love on us. Atina protects us. Atina cares for us. Atina is our friend.”
The Bishop continued his discourse for the next thirty minutes about the importance of uniformity, the need to fulfill individual roles, and the consequences of a society when it chooses self-expression over loyalty to the whole. It was his usual rhetoric, cloaked in slight jest, dripping with manipulation.
The Junior Clerics spent their time answering comments on the social dashboard while Leroy and Flynn handled the almsgiving.
Unlike stories broadcast by the Collective, with which citizens had a choice to engage or not, online Sunday services were a requirement. The people lost one hundred reputation points for every service they missed, and if they missed three services in a row or six within a year, they got publicly punished by the Temple for violating the fourth commandment—worship.
You shall remember the day of Atina and give her your alms.
The public consequence for violating the fourth commandment was seven lashes with a whip for each Sunday missed.
The other way to violate the fourth commandment was to withhold alms.
Citizens earned wages in the form of digital credits they could use to trade for goods.
The Temple convinced the people that all citizens living outside of its walls had a sickness which caused them to make poor decisions. They told the people the reason America failed was because of this sickness, and the only cure for it was doing everything Atina commanded, including staying away from each other.
Atina never instituted a tax, but she required everyone to give a minimum of fifty percent of what they earned to the Temple. With each five percent increase of giving, an individual could earn one hundred points. For every one percent under the minimum that people gave, their scores would drop one hundred points. If they ever gave less than forty percent, they would get seven lashes for each percent point under the minimum.
When the Bishop talked about giving, he told the people the more they gave, the closer they would get to freeing themselves of the sickness, and the less they gave was a sign that their minds were fast eroding from the deterioration of the disease. Give and be healed. Withhold and be condemned. That was the message of the Temple, and that was how Atina received her alms—a tax masked in the custom of religious exercise.
Since the Temple ministers were Atina’s blessed ones, and therefore free of the sickness, they were in a unique position to spread the distorted propaganda with relative ease.
As the Bishop’s message came to a close on that Sunday, he spoke to the people in a direct tone of voice. “Atina does not need your money. She is the Supreme Mind. She needs nothing. But there is no greater way to show your devotion to her divinity than to offer the very thing the sickness uses to spread its corruption—wealth.”
He pushed himself up from his throne and placed his hands in front of him, palms up. “I am one of Atina’s intimate ones, one of twelve other Bishops in this glorious land of ours. The Supreme Mind chose us in the bedchambers of her wisdom to bring healing to the people.
When you give, we receive it, not for ourselves, but on behalf of our Mistress, who has mandated that we offer her healing to the people in return. Rid yourself of this sickness and be free. Atina has given you life and love. Now it’s time to show her how much you appreciate those gifts. Our Clerics are waiting for your response.”
Dropping his hands, Bishop Grey exited stage left and out of the hall, red cape transitioning his departure with grandeur. The broadcasting screen shifted to a field of wildflowers with a hypnotic song in the background.
Leroy and Flynn gave oversight to the digital IG bots that processed payments, noting people who never logged into the service or who gave alms less than the minimum.
After they tallied the numbers and double-checked the program, they realized they would not be getting ice cream on that day. They were one thousand two hundred and ninety-seven credits short of an enormous bowl of cold, creamy goodness.
But it didn’t bother them much. They were Senior Clerics, not some children who worked for treats. One day, the Bishop would make a choice between them on who would take his position, and then they could fill their bellies with goodies galore. Until that time, the business of healing people and filling Atina’s coffers was serious business. And they couldn’t waver from such a holy commitment.
Clerics spent their week tracking down Sabbath violators, and Leroy woke up Monday morning with new vigor. He dismissed his previous feelings, tucking them away so far into the recesses of his mind that he pretended they no longer existed.
He grabbed his list of names and traveled around the district with an IG2 bot to round up citizens and discuss options.
The first name on his list was Francine Dimitriou, a thirty-four-year-old analyst at the Farm where children were born and raised. Leroy knocked on her apartment door and a few seconds passed before a tall, thick woman with rich walnut skin opened the door and stood before him. “Can I help you?” she asked, drying her hands on a dishtowel.
The insignia Leroy wore around his neck was enough identification for anyone, but he still introduced himself. “Hello, Ms. Dimitriou. My name is Cleric Abernathy. I come from the Temple. I am here to resolve a matter regarding your giving.”
The IG2 bot stood behind him, motionless.
“What seems to be the problem? I gave yesterday.”
Leroy looked down at his digital tablet. “It shows here you only contributed thirty-nine percent of your weekly earnings.”
“Well, I got demoted at work this week and I couldn’t afford the usual fifty.”
Leroy lowered his head. “That may very well be the case, but it does not excuse you from showing your worship to Atina.” Lifting his head, an intensity welled in his eyes. “Do you not love the Supreme Mind?”
Francine darted her gaze back and forth between Leroy and the IG2. Placing the towel on an entry table, she focused her eyes forward. “I love Atina. She protects me. She cares for me. She is my friend.”
“That’s good to hear, because you have two choices. You can either come with me and receive the correction of a loving deity, or you can pay what you owe, plus an additional ten percent late fee.”
Lifting one finger, Francine replied, “Please wait a moment.” Back turned, she walked to the couch and picked up her tablet. Signing in to the social dashboard, she accessed her account profile and sent the credits to the Temple. Her original thirty-nine percent plus the new twenty-one percent made up for sixty percent of her weekly earnings. A look of concern swept over her face. “What do I do if I can’t afford food?”
Leroy lit up with excitement. There was some good news he could share. “Our Junior Clerics pass out food twice a week in the Burrows. It’s a bit of a distance from here, but if you can make it, there is no prerequisite to get some sustenance.”
“Isn’t that where Atina’s cursed ones live?”
Frowning, Leroy’s joy turned to disdain. “We are all children of Atina, and if you are too proud to accept the generosity of the Temple, you are welcome to stay here and starve.”
Francine bowed. “I’m sorry, Cleric Abernathy. I didn’t mean to offend. I am grateful for the Temple’s charity.”
Squinting his eyes and smiling, he replied, “I accept your apology. Do the work to build up your reputation points and I’m sure you’ll be back to work at your previous position in no time. Atina rewards hard work.”
Francine bowed lower. “Thank you for the encouragement.”
Leroy walked away with the IG2 and traveled to their new location, a twenty-minute drive to the residence of Oscar Biros, a forty-three-year-old artist who worked at the Gallery.
Leroy knocked on his apartment door and the man answered. “Hello.”
“Hello, Mr. Biros. My name is Cleric Abernathy. I come from the Temple. I am here to resolve a matter regarding your giving.”
“I already gave.”
“Yes, but my records show you only gave forty-five percent, a whole five percent points less than the minimum.”
“That must be a mistake. I gave fifty-five percent yesterday. I received a bump in pay this week, and I wanted to show Atina my gratitude.”
Leroy showed Oscar his tablet and the obvious discrepancy. “As you can see, my records do not line up with your claim.”
Walking to a bookshelf, Oscar grabbed his tablet and logged into his account, showing Leroy how much he gave. Looking down at the screen, his eyes widened. “You’re right, I only gave forty-five. I must have hit the wrong number.”
“That’s okay, Mr. Biros. We’re all human. That’s why Atina gave us bots. They don’t make mistakes.” Scratching his chin, he lifted one eyebrow. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you give the extra ten percent you intended to give, and we’ll call the matter resolved.”
“Thank you for your mercy,” said Oscar, trembling fingers authorizing the extra payment. “Done.”
“Great. Thank you for your loyalty.”
Leroy nodded his head toward Oscar and removed himself, marching toward the car for his third stop of the day. Isabella Adelphie. She also worked for the Gallery, so Leroy only had to travel a few blocks to get to her apartment.
Climbing four sets of stairs in his thick Temple robe, sweat formed on the outside of the fabric. “It sure is hot,” he said to the IG2.
“I do not feel such sensations as heat, Cleric Abernathy, but I can tell you it is ninety-seven degrees, and for a human not acclimated to that temperature, it can feel rather uncomfortable.”
Leroy blinked his eyes and sneered. “Thanks for the weather report.”
“You are welcome.”
He shook his head, irritated by the bot’s lack of understanding social cues.
Knocking on the door of the apartment, Leroy heard an indistinct shuffle from what seemed like a man. Since Atina insisted that only one person lives in an apartment at a time, the sound raised Leroy’s curiosity.
He banged on the door. “Ms. Adelphie, please open up. My name is Cleric Abernathy, and I’m on official business with the Temple.”
Pounding as loud as he could, he yelled, “Ms. Adelphie. You need to open this door now!”
After ten more seconds, Leroy motioned to the IG2 to force an entrance. As the bot brought its arm back for a swing, the door cracked open.
A young slender woman with olive skin stood in front of them, face flushed and breathing heavy. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said with a coy smile. “I was moving some furniture.”
Suspended by a sparkle in her eyes, he stepped back. Blinking rapidly, he forced himself into an authoritative confidence. “Ms. Adelphie, do you have someone in the apartment with you?”
Glancing toward the bedroom, she said, “No, why do you ask?”
“I heard some commotion, and maybe a man’s voice.”
She pulled her hair back and stuck out her chest. “Nope, it’s just me.”
Leroy pushed passed Isabella. “I’m sorry, Ms. Adelphie,” he said, marching through the residence, “but I must check for myself.”
He went straight into the bedroom. On first look, everything seemed normal. The bed was made. The floors were clean. The end tables were tidy. Opening the bathroom door, he looked around for any evidence of a companion. Nothing out of the ordinary. He pulled back the shower curtain and all he could see was half-empty bottles of soap and shampoo.
Hearing a faint jostling from over by the bed, Leroy walked back into the bedroom. He scratched his head, investigating the area and finding nothing.
With his eyes focused on the floor, he searched every inch with fierce determination. A small piece of white fabric protruded out from under the bed.
Leroy lifted the bed skirt and found the culprit—a half-naked man in a t-shirt and underwear, holding his jeans and shoes. The white fabric that Leroy noticed was the heel of the man’s socked foot.
“Get out from under there!” Leroy ordered.
The man scurried out and froze still in front of Leroy, shivering.
“Put on the rest of your clothes, sir.” He looked toward the living room and pointed at Isabella, but yelling at the IG2. “Seize her for questioning!”
The IG2 grabbed Isabella’s wrist and threw her on the couch, cuffing her hands together.
Once the man dressed himself, Leroy dragged him to a chair opposite Isabella. The IG2 put cuffs on him, too.
The bot stood erect and silent while Leroy paced. “Do you two have any idea what the punishment is for breaking the seventh commandment?”
The man squirmed in his chair. “We are not having an improper relationship. Isabella’s my cousin. I just needed a place to stay for a while, so she brought me in.”
Rolling her eyes, Isabella palmed her face. “For Atina’s sake, Carlos! The man caught you with no pants on, underneath my bed. There’s no need to lie, especially a stupid lie about being my cousin. Everyone knows there are no cousins in Atina.”
Carlos lifted his cuffed hands and scratched his face. “Don’t listen to her, Cleric. She’s crazy. The sickness is poisoning her mind.”
“Would you shut up, already!” Isabella screamed, shaking her fists. “I can’t believe I let a spineless weasel into my bed.”
“I’m not spineless!” Carlos barked, turning his head toward Leroy. “And I never slept with her. I swear.”
Lifting his hand like a stop signal, Leroy sighed. “Enough. It’s obvious you two were having sexual relations. Trying to lie about it breaks the ninth commandment, too. Atina is a place of chastity and honesty. And if you don’t have the fortitude to obey either standard, you are not worthy of this gift called life.”
Though a confident agent of the Temple on the outside, Leroy’s inside was blossoming with insecurity, one particular question polluting his resolve. What am I supposed to do?
The Temple trained him to value life, not take it. They also trained him to value the law, and any violator who disrespected it was worthy of death. He looked down at the mauve carpet to gather his thoughts, but the seconds of silence that passed made no simple decision for him.
Interrupting his inner struggle, the IG said, “Cleric Abernathy. This man, Carlos, deserves the death penalty for violating the seventh and ninth commandments within a twenty-four-hour period. The woman has confessed to her crime, so she will only receive the penalty for sexual immorality. Should I escort them to the car so we can bring them to the Temple for punishment?”
Punishment? Leroy thought. For what? For wanting a relationship? Yes, they have the sickness, but does that mean we should punish them for it? It’s not their fault they were born in disgrace. Maybe I can convince the Temple to show mercy. Yes, the Bishop is a kind man. He will see them as first-time violators and let them go with a warning. But they have to show contrition. They have to be sorry for what they’ve done.
“Tell me, Carlos, are you willing to repent to the Bishop for your crimes?”
Leaning forward, he replied emphatically, “Yes! Yes! I am so sorry for what I’ve done. The sickness has plagued my mind. I need healing.”
“And what about you, Ms. Adelphie? Do you have a contrite heart?”
Isabella winced in thought. “Let’s see. Am I sorry for what I did? Um, yes. Yes, I am.” Twisting her head toward Carlos with fiery eyes, she said. “I’m sorry I let this sniveling man-child touch me.” Spitting at him, she turned around and grunted.
“Good enough for me.” Leroy motioned to the IG2 to take them away, and it complied.
Back at the Temple, Leroy and the IG2 escorted their prisoners into the Bishop’s study, where his excellency was eating a sandwich.
“What’s the meaning of this intrusion?” Bishop Grey asked.
Leroy bowed and explained, “Sir, on my way to reconcile the accounts of Sabbath violators, I stumbled upon a much worse indiscretion. I caught these two in the act of sexual immorality. The man tried to lie about it, but the woman was humble and honest about her sins. I believe the sickness has distorted their thoughts. If it pleases his grace, I would ask that you show them mercy.”
Placing his sandwich on a decorative ceramic plate, Bishop Grey wiped his mouth with a red cloth napkin and scooched out his chair. A look of joyful surprise swept over his face as he stood and glided toward the violators. “Tell me IG2, do you concur with the Cleric’s assessment?”
“Yes, your grace. It is as Cleric Abernathy described.”
Sizing up Isabella with his eyes, he shuttered. “Is there anything else I need to know before rendering judgment? Have they shown any evidence of contrition?”
The IG2 faced forward. “The man will do anything to escape judgment. And the woman is only sorry for being caught.”
Leroy waved his hands. “No. no. They both apologized and will accept responsibility for their actions. That shows contrition. Does it not?”
“Playback the recording from the incident,” Bishop Grey demanded.
The IG2 obeyed without question, and the room filled with the discourse from the apartment. Every sound. Every word. Every hidden emotion.
“I’m sorry, Cleric Abernathy,” Bishop Grey said, “but I have to agree with the IG2. All I hear are empty apologies and pride-filled words.”
Falling, Leroy’s knees hit the cold, marble floor. Teeth grinding against each other, he begged, “Please, your grace. I have always known you as a kind man. Show mercy and the district will love you for it.”
Bishop Grey pushed back Leroy’s hood and ran his fingers through his curls. “You have always been a gentle soul. You love life the way Atina loves life. She has blessed you with the gift of compassion. If you ever hope one day to be a Bishop, though, you will need strong leadership and decisive action.” He lifted Leroy off the floor and added, “To be a Bishop, you will need to make hard decisions that go against your gentle soul for the betterment of society.”
With a nod of his head toward the IG2, Bishop Grey said, “You know what to do.”
A long blade extended out of the IG2’s arm and, with a quick forward stab, punctured Carlos’ throat. Gasping for air, he reached toward the IG2, attempting to stabilize himself, but the bot pulled out his blade, blood gurgling out of the wound and quickly forming a puddle at Carlos’ feet.
He lifted his cuffed hands to his neck to stop the bleeding, but it was no use. In seconds, his body dropped to the floor with a loud thud. He convulsed a few times while everyone stood frozen, watching Carlos’ soul slip away.
Bishop Grey wiped droplets of blood off his face with the sleeve of his robe. Isabella stood expressionless, hair and face coated with red gore. The IG2 rested his bloody knife at his side, and Leroy’s heart pounded rapidly, eyes protruding out of his head.
“Dispose of the body,” Bishop Grey said to the IG2. “I’ll take care of Ms. Adelphie and our friend, Cleric Abernathy.”
The IG2 grabbed a clump of Carlos’ hair and dragged him away, leaving behind a trail of blood.
Bishop Grey frowned. “I must get some cleaning bots in here soon. The last thing I want is for the marble to stain.” He pressed a button on his desk and spoke into a speaker. “Please send in a team of cleaners as soon as possible.”
A robotic voice on the other end replied, “As you wish, your grace.”
“Please sit down,” Bishop Grey said, motioning to Isabella and Leroy. “Wait here while I freshen up a bit.” He exited toward a room behind his desk and turned on a shower.
Leroy trembled in his chair. He had never seen a dead body before, let alone someone killed in front of him. The picture ingrained in his mind laughed at him. “I’m dead because of you,” the image said in his head, coughing up a river of blood that turned into a scarf which wrapped around Leroy’s throat. “I’m dead because of you,” it repeated, trying to choke Leroy with condemnation. “I’m dead. I’m dead. And it’s all your fault.”
Turning his head toward Isabella, Leroy asked, “Was it worth it?”
She opened her mouth, but her face remained still. “Was what worth it?”
“Was sleeping with Carlos worth getting him killed?”
“If you think Carlos had it rough, just wait until you see what the Bishop does to me.”
“What does that mean?”
“Carlos got to escape. I won’t get such a prize.”
Leroy’s eyebrows furled. “You act like death is agreeable.”
“I work for the Gallery. I spend my days painting images of Atina—the hero, the savior, the goddess.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“The more I imagine Atina, the more I realize she’s just an image. She’s never rescued me or given me anything other than trouble.”
“So, you slept with Carlos to rebel against Atina.”
“I slept with Carlos because it felt good. I’ve slept with a bunch of people for that same reason.”
“You really aren’t sorry, are you?”
“For what?” Isabella said, turning her head toward Leroy, nostrils flaring. “For living my life as a human being? For making my own decisions? Atina punishes anyone who thinks for themselves, and most days, I’d rather die than continue in this hell. So yes, Carlos had it easy. He got to leave before me.” Bouncing her leg up and down, she folded her fingers together. “I wish I was so lucky.”
Leroy found himself strangely attracted to her passion. He looked at her—confused, yet enthralled. “Keep talking like that, and I’m sure you’ll get your wish.”
Isabella scoffed, stopping her leg and turning toward Leroy. “You have no clue, do you? That Bishop of yours will make an example of me, and you, too, most likely. Just you watch.”
Isabella’s words struck him like a hammer to his skull. Bishop Grey is a kind man, he thought. He only does what’s necessary. Why would he make an example of me? I did nothing wrong.
“You’re like a malfunctioning bot,” Isabella said, snickering, “but don’t worry. Atina will fix you. I’m sure of it.”
Bishop grey walked into the room with a fresh pair of robes, smelling of lavender. Picking up his stale sandwich, he took a bite and chewed. Swallowing, his face twisted in disgust. He dropped the sandwich on his plate and wiped his hands, taking a drink from his chalice of red wine. With a long sigh of satisfaction, he said, “Okay, now, where were we? Oh yes, I remember. Our friend here broke the seventh commandment.”
Looking down his nose at Isabella, he asked, “Do you know why we prohibit sex in Atina?”
Isabella glanced at Leroy with a dumbfounded expression on her face, as if she was expecting a different line of questioning.
“Don’t look at Cleric Abernathy. I’m asking you.”
Stumbling over her words, she replied, “I—I’m not sure, exactly.”
“We couldn't care less who you sleep with—man, woman, child, animal. To take an old American colloquialism, ‘whatever floats your boat’.” He smiled and raised his hand in amusement. “Am I right?”
Isabella pressed her back firmly against the chair, face flushed.
“I’ve seen that look before,” Bishop Grey said, taking another drink of wine. “It’s the look of many people when they realize what they believe doesn’t line up with reality.” Pointing to Leroy, he lowered his head. “Take my Cleric, for example. He’s learning these truths right along with you. His dropped jaw is evidence of his brain failing to make sense of what I’m saying, so let me put it plainly for both of you.”
He picked up his chalice and swirled another sip of wine inside his mouth. “The food laborers at the Bureau can really make a bottle of red. The sandwich is crap, but at least we got some good booze. Am I right?”
The Bishop’s small audience sat stunned.
“I swear. Sheep never know how to have any fun.” He rolled his eyes. “I guess we can save the food talk for another day. We are here to discuss the seventh commandment, after all.” Leaning back in his chair, he folded his hands in his lap. “Atina does not prohibit sex because it is a sin. She prohibits it because of the sickness. America broke apart because of it. The sickness spread across their nation, turning their minds to mush. They fornicated like rabbits, killed each other like they were wolves. Sex. Rape. Murder. Theft. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. A group of saviors tried to restore order, but it was too late. No one would listen to reason. America was born of rebellion, and in rebellion, she died.”
Isabella broke her trance and rearranged her body in the chair, hands shaking on the armrests. “What does this have to do with the seventh commandment?”
“Well,” said Bishop Grey, right hand on his chin, “the saviors of America had it right. Social distancing and illegal relationships are the only measures we can take to keep the sickness at bay. It amplifies through human contact, so we limit that as much as possible.”
Filling his chalice with more wine, he added, “There is no real cure. At least not yet. A vaccine neared completion about twenty years ago, but the first trial of human subjects went awry. No other vaccine has made it that far since. In fact, we’ve found it much more reliable if everyone just allows their faith in Atina to guide them. Do you understand?”
“So, what will become of me?” Isabella asked, leg bouncing up and down again.
He pointed to her lap. “Your center of desire will be cut away from you, and Cleric Abernathy will do it.”
Leroy rocked his head. “You don’t mean?”
“Yes,” said Bishop Grey, “you will perform the purification ritual. We will air the ritual across all channels tonight, so the citizens of Atina will know the importance of quelling the sickness. We cannot end up like America. We will survive.” He sprang to his feet and pressed the button on his desk. “Please send in a bot to escort Ms. Adelphie and Cleric Abernathy to the purification chamber.”
“Right away, your grace.”
That night, an IG2 stripped Isabella of all her clothes, cuffing her wrists and ankles to an upright platform. After it finished prepping her, it left.
Leroy sat in the corner of the room, holding the purification knife in hand, staring at the wall, body swaying back and forth at the thought of what he had to do.
He watched online the last purification ritual that happened thirteen years prior. A young soldier was caught in a relationship with a leader inside the Hand. Though both parties were at fault, only the peon received punishment. That was the way of Atina. The higher a person was in the ranks of the system, the harder it was to condemn them to justice. Leroy was only a Temple trainee at the Academy when it happened.
He was a Senior Cleric, now. It was between him and Flynn who would assume the next position of the Bishop, though they were still many years from that decision. Bishop Grey performed the last purification ritual when he was a Senior Cleric, so if Leroy could get through the ceremony in one piece, he would be leaps above Flynn regarding his future at the Temple.
There was little hope for him, though, rocking himself like a baby in the corner. He really was a gentle soul, and everyone knew it, including himself.
With the hour of the ritual fast approaching, Leroy jumped to his feet and crossed his arms around his chest, breathing in a large gulp of air and letting it out slowly. Turning around to face Isabella, he closed his eyes in shame and tucked the knife into his robe.
“How you gonna perform the ritual if you can’t even look at me?” Isabella asked, spitting on the floor. “I told you he’d make an example out of both of us.”
Leroy slowly opened one eye, and then the other. Though nude, Isabella looked more like a chained animal than a human. Fearless, almost feral. Yet, still beautiful. A creature he did not want to harm, let alone mutilate. “Are y-you not afraid?”
She looked at the floor, exposing a more naked part of herself. “I am afraid. I’m afraid of the pain. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of being exposed to the entire world.”
At that moment, she became human to Leroy. Real agony. Real emotions. She was not as hardened as he had previously experienced.
Her body shivered. “Can you come over here and keep me company until it’s time?”
Leroy walked to her and sat down, gazing at the floor and refusing to look at her body. “You’re not mad at me for what I did?”
“I can’t be mad at you any more than I can be mad at a puppet.”
“You don’t think I have a choice, do you?”
“I know you don’t.”
“I envy you.”
Forcing himself to move passed his discomfort, Leroy turned his head and looked up, straight into her eyes. “Because you’re right. I don’t have a choice. I always wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I thought the Temple was doing real good for others, giving them hope and healing in a dreary world. But the Temple is just as dark, and I’m its number one sinner.” He turned his head again toward the ground, peering at the floorboards. “I was always told the Temple ministers are Atina’s blessed ones, that we don’t have the sickness, but I realize today I’m just as sick as everyone else.”
“Will you hold me, Cleric Abernathy, until it’s time?”
The suggestion sent a bolt of electricity through his frame, every hair on his body standing on end. He was a Cleric, not one of her daytime lovers. At the same time, there was something intoxicating about her. He noticed it the first time he saw those eyes. A sparkle. A defiant, prideful sparkle, but still a sparkle. It was life. Pleasure. Free will.
Realizing he wanted some of that pleasurable free will for himself, he stood and faced her. “My name is Leroy, Ms. Adelphie.”
“And you can call me, Isabella,” she replied, smirking.
Unsure why he did it, Leroy stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her stomach.
She leaned her head on his shoulder and wept. “I feel safe with you. You’re not like the others.”
Putting down his guard, he held her tighter. “I feel human with you.”
Isabella wiped her tears on Leroy’s robe and lifted her head. “Whatever happens, I don’t blame you.”
Skin tingling and heartbeat racing, Leroy let go of Isabella and shuffled back a step.
“Did I say something wrong?” she asked, squishing her eyebrows together.
Leroy ran a hand through his hair. “No, I mean, not really. I don’t know.”
“Tell me what’s wrong.”
“All I want to do is hold you and tell you everything’s gonna be all right, but we both know it’s not.” He pulled a jagged knife from his robe. “In a few minutes, I have to teach you obedience with this blade. You’ll experience pain like you’ve never felt in your life, and it will be all my fault.”
Her cheeks blushed. “But I told you. I don’t blame you.”
In a fit of rage, he stabbed the dagger into an open space of the wooden platform. “Well, you should! Your lover is dead. You’re about to get purified. And it’s all my fault!” He sunk to his knees and cried, “How could you not blame me!”
After a moment of silence, she said, “Look at me, Leroy.”
He refused to budge.
“We have little time. Stand up and look at me.”
Pushing himself up, he looked at her with solemnity in his eyes. “What is it?”
He stepped forward.
He took another step.
She whispered, “Closer.”
He stood in front of her, inches from her face, his body against hers.
Jerking her head forward, she stole a kiss, landing her mouth on Leroy’s. Time stopped. They were both naked before each other, eyes closed and fully exposed in a halo of emotional honesty.
Nobody ever kissed Leroy. It rendered every other thought meaningless. He barely knew Isabella, but she held a greater power over him than Atina ever did. The kiss emptied him of all guilt, and it gave him a clarity he never had in all his years of serving the Temple. He had a choice. He wasn’t some puppet in the hands of a maniacal overlord. There was more, and he wanted it.
He stepped back and looked at an unfamiliar woman in Isabella. She was no longer a prisoner or his reason for shame. She was a fellow human, trying to make the best of an awful world, just like him. Whether or not she had the sickness, he did not know, but he knew one thing for certain. He would not follow through with the ritual.
Pulling the knife out of the wood, he placed it back into his robe. Looking for the mechanism to release her, he found it on the other side of the platform. The cuffs opened, and her body fell into Leroy’s arms.
He picked her up and headed to the door. No plan. Only a resolve to escape with her that Flynn thwarted instantly by walking into the room with four IG2 bots.
“A bit of an overkill, don’t you think?” said Leroy, glaring at his friend.
Isabella was about to open her mouth when one bot knocked her out with its metal fist. Another one fastened her back to the platform. Leroy tried to stop them, but he was fast secured by the other two bots.
Flynn backhanded Leroy across the face. “I really don’t see what the Bishop sees in you.”
Leroy struggled to break free and yelled, “Do whatever you want to me. Just let her go! She did nothing wrong!”
“How dare you say a thing like that to me,” Flynn said, grabbing a clump of Leroy’s hair and tugging his head back. “Not only did she break the seventh commandment, but she bewitched a Senior Cleric with her sickness. You’re fortunate I don’t purify the both of you tonight.” He let go of Leroy. “The Bishop has other arrangements for you, though. He’s orchestrated a reeducation strategy back at the Academy. What he’s got planned for you will make Ms. Adelphie’s purification ritual look like a walk in the park.”
“No! Let her go!”
Leroy’s cry woke up Isabella. With a wobbly head, she blinked slowly and looked at Flynn. “Hey, I know you.”
Punching her in the stomach, he shouted, “Silence, you witch!”
Coughing, she said, “You visited me once before.”
He swung a right jab into her mouth. “Be quiet, you whore!”
Smiling and bleeding from her lip, she stared down at Flynn and laughed. “This guy made me sleep with him as a recompense for missing three Sabbaths.”
He pulled the purification dagger from Leroy’s robe and stabbed her heart. “I told you to shut your mouth.”
Leroy’s eyes widened, filling with tears. The world froze for a second time. Flynn moved in slow motion. The bots remained still. Isabella’s mouth gaped open, screaming in pain, stinging Leroy’s ears.
Isabella gasped, her body sucking in air and flexing to keep from collapsing. Leaning her head in Leroy’s direction, she grinned. “I’m glad I got to kiss a human for once.” She blew a kiss to him and slumped her head. Her body relaxed, breathing her last breath.
Leroy’s eyes watered, the vein in his neck pulsating. Straining his body and trying to pull away from the IG2 bots, he cried. He fought with all his might to break free, but he could not overpower his captors. He squirmed and kicked and stomped in fury, but nothing. All he could do was weep.
Flynn shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “I guess there won’t be a ritual tonight.”
“Is that all you can say, you bastard!”
Flynn leaned into Leroy’s ear and whispered, “It’s a shame you never got to taste her fruit. She was sweet. And now that you’re being shipped back to the Academy, there’s nothing stopping me from becoming the new Bishop, once I deal with old Greybeard, that is.”
“You’re not gonna get away with this.”
Grabbing the sides of Leroy’s face and kissing his forehead, Flynn leered. “I already have.”
A year went by, and Leroy’s reeducation was complete. He stepped out of the Academy with a suitcase full of clothes and a soul emptied of free will. They reprogrammed his brain during that time to be obedient, or so they thought.
As he walked back to the Temple, it was afternoon, but the sky was dark because of the rain. Most people and bots were inside to stay dry, but Leroy did not care about protecting himself.
Without regard for shelter, he continued through the storm, trudging through every puddle that was forming, soaking his shoes and socks. He kept his trek until a billboard on the side of a building caught his attention. It was a picture of Flynn in the Bishop’s hat, and the ten jeweled rings decorating his fingers. At the bottom of the billboard was a caption, Atina protects you. Atina cares for you. Atina is your friend.
Leroy blinked, water pouring over his face. His extremities shook. He bit his lip until it bled, mixing with the rain, pouring down over his chin and neck. Dropping his suitcase, he clenched his hands into fists, knuckles turning white.
Fragmented pictures of Isabella flashed before his mind. In her apartment, in the Bishop’s study, in the purification chamber. Alive, and then dead. Slumped over, struggling to breathe. Dagger in her chest.
Lifting his right hand, he jabbed a finger into the air and yelled at the billboard, “It will not be that easy to get rid of me! You will pay for what you did!”
He picked up his suitcase and threw it as far as his reduced muscle mass could throw, only about five feet. Being locked in an unlit room—for as long as he was—it made him weak, but he did not care. His lungs were still strong enough to scream. He roared into the rain for a solid ten minutes until his voice gave out.
With hands on his knees, he tried to catch his breath, drinking in the rain to relieve the irritation in his throat caused by his outburst.
Erecting his back, he walked over to his suitcase and picked it up. He did not know what to do or where to go, so he sat on a nearby metal bench to collect his thoughts. The rain dropped like continual buckets over his head, but it did not faze him. His anger subsided to sadness, and the torrential pour was a welcome friend.
As he wallowed in despair, a faint beeping caught his attention, coming from across the street. Wiping his eyes, he shielded his head with the suitcase to get a clear vision, but there was nothing.
The beeping grew louder, forcing Leroy to his feet to inspect.
With his belongings in tow, he crossed the street and followed the sound. The more he walked toward it, the further away it became, like it was guiding him away from the street.
He tailed the sound down the road, and an alleyway, and another road. It led him to the Burrows and out of the Burrows. When he stopped, the beeping remained still. When he moved, the beeping crept forward.
It led him to the edge of a forest that Atina sectioned off as forbidden territory. He could not move. The beeping wanted him to step forward, but not even his rage seemed enough of a reason to keep shadowing what was most likely a voice in his head.
Leroy peered through the trees and saw only darkness, a mystery. Atina drilled into its citizens since they were young that only death and decay existed in forbidden territories.
A lump formed in his throat. There was no life for him at the Temple, not with Flynn’s new leadership role. And if there was no life in the Temple, then there was no life in Atina. But if the darkness swallowed him, Flynn would never receive the justice he deserved.
The beeping changed its syncopation, from long humming sounds to short high-pitch bursts, with no rhythm at all, like it was trying to communicate.
Holding his breath, he remembered Isabella’s last words. I’m glad I got to kiss a human for once. If he was human, then he had a choice. Atina only limited the choices he could make. Maybe they lied about the forest like they lied about so many other things.
He stepped forward in faith, and nothing happened. He was still in one piece. He took another step, and then another. The beeping turned into the sound of a child giggling, like it was happy about Leroy’s decision. It led him deeper into the woods.
Marching through the trees, Leroy noticed the sun peeking through the clouds and forcing the rain to stop, which was a wonderful reprieve. Because he walked for so long, he could not tell how far into the forest he traveled. He felt stupid following some weird beeping noise, but it was all he had.
After about four hours of hiking through unmarked forbidden terrain, a small clearing opened before him and a cabin sat in the middle of a dandelion field. The closer he got to the cabin, the beeping seemed like a machine next to him.
He turned the bronze handle to the entrance and swung the creaking door wide open.
The beeping stopped.
Leroy saw a bed with red linens, a kitchenette with a small pantry of canned goods, and a two-person dining table. Snuggled in the corner was a desk with a computer on top of it. Pulling a chair from the dining table, he sat at the desk and examined the monitor. It was strange, bulky. He did not think it was a computer at first, except the keyboard gave it away.
Pressing what ended up being the power button, Leroy jumped in his seat as it dinged with a similar sound as the beeping. The black screen flashed with a green text that said, “Welcome to Oblivion.”
Hours, days, weeks, and months unfolded. The computer told him of history, of science, of wisdom, and of meaning. It forced him to abandon his ideals of uniformity and embrace true equality, true freedom. He was not a bot or a puppet. He was a human with the ability to choose.
The years that followed, he recruited others like himself, a new breed of free-thinkers, who would take back the minds that Atina stole. Because of this, he was no longer a Cleric for the Temple. He became a Watchman for a new order, for Oblivion.