The Atina Chronicles Part 7: The Hand



Atina Part 7 The Hand
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The Elders of Atina sat in a circle around a black onyx table. Displayed in the center of it stood a three-foot-tall gold statue of the goddess, Atina, with a tray of sweets next to her.

Dr. Ariadne Jirina, head of the Academy, leaned against a jade-green high back chair with her right leg crossed over her left and hands folded in her lap. To her right was Damien Callister, head of the Collective, sitting hunched over with his eyes glued to a tablet. Next to him sat the head of the Gallery, Carlos Macario—a well-dressed man with seemingly flawless skin staring at the others with callous disregard. Religiously sanitizing her hands next to him was Jadis Elek, head of the Farm, and to her right, stuffing his face with a vanilla pastry, was a pudgy man named Reginald Grear, head of the Bureau. The only one not sitting was Helios Joran, head of the Hand. He stood behind his chair, leaning his forearms on the cresting rail. Glaring at the table, he closed his eyes and took short, concentrated breaths.

None of them talked to each other, busying themselves until their meeting convened. Their host was running a few minutes behind, and these were not guests accustomed to waiting, or making small talk while they did it.

A few more minutes passed and the tall grey double doors flung open. “Welcome, my friends!” a man in a white robe shouted.

Helios pulled his chair out forcibly, scraping the feet against the wood floor. Plopping into his seat, he looked down at his digital watch. “You’ve kept us waiting fifteen minutes past the time you told us to be here.” Eyes darting back and forth, he said, “That’s unacceptable.”

“Please forgive our impatient friend,” Dr. Jirina said, smiling. “Your Excellency deserves much more respect than this child shows you.” She blew Helios a kiss. “Please allow me to reeducate him.”

Helios snarled.

The Magus lifted his hands and shook his head. “There’s no need to rile up Helios. He’s antsy because he hasn’t tasted blood in quite some time. I’m here to remedy that.”

The six guests each leaned forward with wide eyes.

“You mean,” said Helios, grinning with a schoolboy infatuation, “we finally get to destroy Oblivion?”

“The last part of our plan has fallen into place,” the Magus said, “with the help of Mr. Grear. He has secured for us a weapon that will guarantee our victory against these rebellious zealots.”

Reginald wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and took a sip of milk. “Anything for Your Excellency.”

The Magus pulled out a chair and sat down, taking off his pointed white hat with gold embroidery and placing it on the table. “Faith is the bedrock of our order. We will win this war once and for all because we put our faith in substance. The enemy puts their faith in fairy tales.”

“But everything depends on what our citizens believe,” Dr. Jirina interjected. “Does it not?”

“Yes,” the Magus said, placing his hands palms down on the table. “Everything we’ve done is to get our citizens to believe. We breed them at the Farm, where we nurture them in the love of Atina. When they’re five, they go off to the Academy for continued education. We control their food supply with the Bureau. We control the flow of information through the Collective. We give them a false sense of freedom and beauty with music and art produced by the Gallery. Little do they know that we subliminally embed Atina’s message of love in each note and pixel of what they hear and see. Here at the Temple, we offer them redemption for their sickness. And if someone falls through the cracks, the Hand is available to clean up. Our founders have meticulously planned our pathway to faith, to make sure we never stray from the love of Atina.”

Dr. Jirina leaned back and crossed her arms, “What about the lies we tell them? It would be much easier to control these animals if we could tell them the truth, that they’re nothing more than a bunch of lab rats. Atina’s insistence on reassuring their humanity creates rebel groups like Oblivion.”

Interlinking his fingers together, the Magus said, “Out of respect for your mentor, Dr. Fitzgerald, I will say this once.” He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “We were all one of them at some point. If our leaders treated us like animals, we would never evolve into who are today. While humanity can be messy, good can arise from that mess.”

The Magus sat up straight and frowned. “Our forefather, Sceva, demonized within an inch of his life by that apostle of the false faith, formed this order those many years ago to protect humanity from itself. When given truth, humanity did not submit to it. Instead, they rose against it and destroyed themselves. The supposed martyrs, who called themselves Free-thinkers, destroyed America because they wanted their truth more than the love of the divine goddess.”

Scooting out his chair, the Magus shot to his feet and walked toward Dr. Jirina. “A carefully fabricated lie is far more powerful and controlling than the truth. The truth sets people free. We’ve seen it time and time again. But a clever lie? That’s a work of art that people line up to devour. Let’s take the twelve founders of Atina, for example. We know there’s only ever been seven leaders of the order, from the days of Sceva until now. We tell the people about the twelve because there is something innately religious about that number. Twelve Imams of Islam. Twelve tribes of Judaism. Twelve disciples of Christ. Twelve lunations of the moon to comprise the lunar calendar. We understand these religions are lies, but if we look at their examples, they had outstanding success in amassing a great loyalty of followers. So, from the time our citizens are children to the weekly teachings of the bishop, we hammer them with that lie. Something deep within them finds meaning in it.”

Ears turning red, Dr. Jirina shrunk in her seat. “You are right as usual, Your Excellency. I will work to make you and Dr. Fitzgerald proud.”

The Magus put his hand on her shoulder. “I know you will,” he said, massaging her back, “I know you will.”

Slathering her hands with more sanitizer, Jadis turned to face the Magus. “So, what is this about a secret weapon? Will it bring back the little girl they stole from the Farm?”

With a whiff of Dr. Jirina’s hair, the Magus pulled himself away and walked over to Jadis. “We will not only get the child back. We will end Oblivion once and for all.” He addressed the rest of the elders. “Are you all ready to do your parts?”

With emphatic resolve, everyone nodded and declared in unison, “Yes!”

***


It had been a week since losing Iggy, and Cicero was still fraught with grief. Penelope tried to console him every chance she got, but she could not get through to him. Oblivion taught them how to honor friends who lost their lives, and even though Iggy’s would not have been the first funeral, it would be the saddest for all the refugees.

Despite being a machine, he impacted everyone positively. They all feared him at the onset of meeting him, but they warmed up quickly because of his eagerness to help others. Some thought Cicero programmed him that way. Others believed it was his way to prove he wasn’t a machine. But Cicero knew the facts. Iggy was more than a bot, some collection of wires and circuit boards. To Cicero, he was as human as anybody. Iggy was helpful because he was grateful. He wasn’t trying to prove anything. He simply had that much love in his mechanical heart.

The night of the funeral, the refugees gathered around the fire at the Sanctuary. Usually, everyone would sit while they listened to Watchman speak, but when he stood this time, everyone stood with him to honor their beloved friend.

Kitty and Ambrose took care of Angelica while Penelope gave her attention to Cicero. As Watchman mustered the strength to speak, Cicero stared at the flames and Penelope hugged his arm.

“I gathered us to here today,” Watchman said, leaning on a wooden staff, “outside of our usual celebration.” Looking at the ground, he sighed. “There will be no dancing tonight. There will be no laughter.” He lifted his head. “There are seasons for those things, however, tonight is a time of mourning.”

Watchman walked around in a circle. “Oblivion has taught us many things, how to live in the Light. Our typical course of action when a loved one passes is to pray for their soul as they pass from this life into the next. Though grieved, we feel hope, knowing that we will see them again one day.”

He stopped and slammed the end of his staff on the ground. “But Oblivion does not teach us what to do with a bot. Most of us here never thought we’d befriend one. They were all Atina’s tools, used to execute her torture. None of us trusted Iggy when we first met him because he reminded us of them. I, too, was afraid at first.”

Shuffling his feet, he walked again in a circle around the fire. “When I got to know Iggy, I sometimes forgot he was a bot at all. He had compassion, showed interest in other’s wellbeing. Refusing to be a burden, he helped us. I reasoned to myself that it was all a part of his programming, like a carefully engineered IG5 service bot. I went from fearing him to using him as a workhorse.”

“It wasn’t until I saw him interact with Cicero that I saw the anomaly. Iggy didn’t blindly follow his orders, and Cicero never ordered him to do anything. They were friends, giving and receiving love in equal measures. They bantered like old compatriots. They even played practical jokes on some of you.”

A man on the back row yelled, “My pants are still purple because of them!”

Cicero chuckled. “That’s right. I forgot about that.”

Smiling, Watchman yelled back, “And how come you never got rid of those pants, Daniel?”

Rubbing the back of his neck, he said, “I kinda like purple now.”

“That’s right!” shouted Watchman. “That joke wasn’t funny for Daniel at first, but he learned to laugh along with it. Before Cicero and Iggy, we were a sad lot. Our dancing contrived, our celebrations forced. They brought genuine joy to our community. I’ve never known a human or bot be able to do what they’ve done, what Iggy has done.”

Watchman stopped and sat on a log. “I’ve always been a man of faith, trusting the text of my religion, and doing my best to follow it. When I was a Temple priest, I was faithful, but now that I follow Oblivion, I am also faithful. Our text gives directions for humans with souls, but what about a bot who has more soul than any of us? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself these last few days. Will we meet Iggy again in our eternal rest? I don’t know the answer.”

He stood and placed the end of his staff in the fire. Holding it up for all to see, he said, “This flame represents Iggy’s life, neither human nor bot—transcendent. We cannot control it, but we can lift it up for the world to see. We belong to the Light, and, as far as I’m concerned, Iggy shined brighter than all of us. He may not have been human, but he definitely was not a bot. He was much more, and we will keep his memory alive in this camp to remind us that no one can define us by our past or our surroundings. We all have the power to dig deep and transcend ourselves. The message of Oblivion is more than deliverance. It’s transformation, and no one taught us this truth better than Iggy.” He thrust the flaming staff into the air and yelled, “To Iggy!”

The entire congregation responded with gusto. “To Iggy!”

“Moving forward,” said Watchman, lowering his staff, “we cannot be so self-focused. We are no longer refugees, but family. Until now, many of us have had the mentality of rescued slaves, not really loving Oblivion, just not hating it as much as Atina. It’s time to stop thinking like slaves. If Iggy can throw off the shackles of his limitations, we must do the same. His death must not be in vain.”

Motioning to Kitty to give him Angelica, he put his staff on the ground and reached out his arms. “This child is our new hope. Iggy died to protect her, to protect our family.”

Kitty placed Angelica in his hands. “This young one will bring about the age of humanity. No more running. No more hiding. No more stealing for scraps. It’s time you all know. Soon, Atina will be on our doorstep, and Oblivion has prophesied this girl will be our deliverance. We’re no longer slaves to fear. We are slaves to love.”

The crowd hushed, many of them never hearing these words before, but none of them eager to resist. Iggy’s death had united them like nothing else, and it was time to move forward into their destiny.

Tears streaming down his face, Cicero leaned down to pick up the staff and raised it high in the air, yelling, “For Angelica!”

Without hesitation, the crowd broke their pensive stares and repeated, “For Angelica! For Angelica!”

Though noisy, Angelica closed her eyes and smiled as Watchman cradled her in his arms, and he watched Cicero with the eyes of a proud father.

***

The Magus sat in his living room in a blue evening robe, comfortable in his hand-carved solid mahogany throne chair and staring at the flames roaring in his electric fireplace. Swirling a chalice of red wine in his right hand, he studied the blaze with fixated consternation. He’d spent his life moving through the ranks of the Temple, never caring for a moment who he’d hurt to get to the top. Strangling the bishop. Conniving his way into a relationship with the Magus and then poisoning his brandy. That’s how every Magus earned his stripes in Atina. Neither faith nor merit promoted anyone to that position—only manipulation and slaughter.

The position was less about teaching the love of Atina and more about instilling fear into her children. Perform well, and she’ll let you live your life in relative peace. Disobey her commandments, and you’d wish you never existed. This religious system demanded a ruthless leader whose sole purpose was to maintain order, lest he fall to someone else’s schemes.

As the Magus watched the fire, he heard moaning. He jerked his head around to see if anyone was there, but he sat alone in that large empty room. Settling back into his chair, he took a sip of wine and heard it again—a long howling moan.

He placed his chalice on an end table and stood, shuffling his slipper-feet to the door. Opening it, he ducked his head into the hallway. To the left and to the right. No one was there. He pulled himself back into the room and rubbed his eyes.

Sitting back down, he grabbed the chalice and chugged the rest of the wine, slamming the empty cup on the end table. With a loud sigh, he got up and walked over to the red and gold embroidered couch, but the moaning did not stop. The volume only increased.

The Magus cupped his ears with his hands, but it did nothing to muffle the sound. The moaning turned to screams, hundreds of cries in agonizing harmony.

Standing, he trudged around the room, knocking his fist against the side of his head. He thought he was going mad until he noticed something in the flames, a face.

He strolled toward the fireplace to see a woman with her mouth gaping open. She let out a whimper. More faces shown in the fire. The man he strangled in the Burrows. The woman he raped and killed when he was still a priest. The man who saw him rape the woman, so he had to put a bullet in his stomach, one in his shoulder, and a final one into his chest. All the men and women he brutalized over the years were screaming at him, the voices of his past condemning him and shrieking for a release.

Now he knew he was mad. He reached out his hand to pull out his victims, but their spectral forms flowed in and out of the fire without substance, like trying to grasp the wind.

Attempting to grip a flame, he burned his hand and screamed. A bot threw the door open and rolled to his aid. “Are you alright, sir?”

The Magus pulled a cloth napkin from the coffee table and wrapped it around his hand. “I’m fine.”

“A gentleman is waiting for you in the atrium.”

Waving his unscathed hand to the bot, he said, “Bring him in.”

The bot nodded its head. “Yes, sir.”

Moments later, Helios walked through the door. Pointing his finger at the Magus’s hand, he asked, “What happened to you?”

The Magus smiled. “Just an accident. No need to worry.”

“Are you prepared to discuss the attack on Oblivion or should I come back another time?”

“Nonsense,” the Magus said, pressing a button. “I’ll summon a bot to pour you a glass of wine.”

Sitting on the couch, Helios crossed his legs. “That’ll be great. Thanks!”

The service bot opened the door. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“Please bring my friend a glass of the good stuff.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Helios furrowed his brow. “No need to waste your vintage wine on me.”

Sitting in his mahogany chair, the Magus said, “This is a time to celebrate, my friend. Within days, we will bring Oblivion to dust.”

“If you don’t mind me asking,” asked Helios, shifting his body and erecting his back. “Why didn’t we get rid of them sooner. We’ve known of their whereabouts for quite some time, but when I suggested a strike, you ordered me to wait. Why?”

The Magus scratched his chin. “Previous rebellions were like ants. We squashed them with our boot and waited until the next group of ants appeared and we squashed those, too. I realized we kept having an ant problem because we never exterminated the source. Their source is hope.”

Placing his hands on the armrests, his lip curled. “Hope causes humans to think they’re better than what they are. They form groups like the Black Brigade, and then we take them down before they become a problem. Then other groups pick up where the previous ones left off, thinking they can do better. They all think they can do better.”

The bot interrupted the conversation with a brimming glass of 2058 Chateau Lujuria and placed it in front of Helios.

“Thank you,” he said to the Magus, sipping it and grunting with pleasure.”

“Anything for the prominent leader of our military force. Now, where was I? Oh yes! Atina grew tired,” he said, fingers tapping against the end of the armrest, “of our ant problem. She wanted to root out rebellion in her children once and for all. To do this, we allowed Oblivion to grow. We let them operate unchallenged, at least as far as we were concerned. The people’s hope blossomed with Oblivion’s success. We could have squashed those scurrying ants every time they crawled out their hole, but I wanted their queen, their leader, a man known to their people as Watchman. I asked the elders to study them and only strike back when absolutely necessary. Now that we have our secret weapon in play, they’ll be no match. We’ll kill them all, along with the hope of our citizens. No one will think to rise up ever again. They’ll think if we can obliterate a rebel force as strong as Oblivion, no one else would even stand a chance. Therefore, we’ve waited, to strip them of all hope.”

Helios took a deep breath and sighed through his nostrils. “You are the second Magus I’ve served. Your predecessor cared more about ice cream than strategy.” He stood and bowed low. “I’m happy to serve a man with vision.”

The Magus nodded. “Don’t give me your accolades just yet. We still have a lot of work to do. Join me in my study and we can talk about our battle tactics.”

***

Penelope was breastfeeding Angelica in the empty cafeteria between meals when Watchman walked in with Cicero.

“It’s been a few days since Iggy’s funeral,” said Watchman, taking a seat across from Penelope. “I think it’s time we plan the wedding for you two. It’s just the shot of hope we can use in the community right about now.”

Cicero sat next to Penelope and put his arm around her. “I think he’s right, Sweet Pea.”

Turning her head toward Cicero, Penelope said, “And what about Iggy?”

“I don’t think Iggy would want us moping around forever,” he said, head down. “Besides, the wedding was only going to be a couple of weeks from now. What’s moving up the timeline a little gonna do?”

Penelope grinned. “I admit, I wasn’t sure your mind was clear enough to get married at all.”

“I still miss Iggy terribly, but I also love you.”

She stared at Cicero with adoring eyes. “Glad to hear it, because all I want to do is marry you. Tonight. Tomorrow. The day after. It doesn’t matter to me.” She gave him a quick peck on the lips. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you gather Kitty and Ambrose? Bring them here and we can discuss details.”

“Really? You’re such a planner. I didn’t think you’d be open to moving up the date.”

She chuckled and winked at him. “Well, you better hurry, then, before I change my mind.”

Cicero jolted to his feet. “You coming, Watchman?”

“I think I’ll stay here and wait for you to come back. I’m getting old and all this running about is not good for my aching joints.”

“Alright,” said Cicero, seeming to skip away. “I’ll be back as soon as possible.”

When Cicero had left the cafeteria, Penelope’s smile turned to despair. “Watchman,” she said, pleading. “I don’t know what to do. Something’s happening to me and I don’t know if I’ll be alive long enough for the wedding.”

Leaning his elbows on the table, Watchman asked, “Why do you say that?”

“I’ve been bleeding.”

“What do you mean?”

She motioned her eyes toward her crotch and repeated herself. “I’ve been bleeding, down there.”

Watchman cupped his hands over his mouth. “Are you sure? You’re not bleeding anywhere else?”

“No. First, I started producing milk, and now, I’m bleeding. Oblivion told me that a woman can lactate if she forms an emotional connection with a child, but I’m too afraid to ask about the other thing.”

Resting his hands behind his head, Watchman said, “Does anyone else know about this?”

“No!” she shouted, loud enough for the cafeteria attendants to hear from the kitchen. Whispering, she reiterated. “No. I mean, I don’t think I want to know what’s going on. Maybe it’ll go away on its own. Hopefully.”

“The good news is,” said Watchman, reaching across the table and placing his hand on Penelope’s shoulder, “I think you’re gonna be fine. You are experiencing things no woman has experienced in all of Atina. Angelica forced you to induce lactation as a bodily response to nurture her. I think it may have reset your womanhood.”

“What does that mean?”

“Before Atina, women bled once a month as a sign that they could have children. It lasts only a few days from what I’ve read. You should be back to normal soon.”

Penelope breathed a sigh of relief, and her eyes widened. “Wait! Did you say I could have children? Like, get pregnant?”

“It appears so.”

“So, when Cicero and I consummate the relationship on our wedding night, Angelica could get a baby brother or sister?”

“That’s precisely what I’m saying.”

With a quivering lip, Penelope's eyes filled with tears. “Oblivion always says that the people who follow its teachings would walk in great blessings. I never assumed the blessings would be this extravagant.”

“Neither did I,” Watchman said, crying with her. “Neither did I.”

As Watchman and Penelope cried together across the metal table, Cicero strolled in with Ambrose and Kitty. The laughter they came in with quickly subsided into quiet sympathy, looking at their two friends grieving. “What’s wrong?” Cicero asked. “I’m gone only a few minutes and you two act like someone else has died. I can’t take that right now. What happened?”

Penelope looked up at her future husband and beamed with joy. “I assure you, Cicero. These are not tears of grief.”

***

At the Academy, the Magus walked into Dr. Jirina’s office. “Are you busy, my dear?”

Shooting to her feet, she brushed the wrinkles out of her pencil skirt with her hand. “I’m never too busy for Your Excellency.”

“Please, sit down,” he said, positioning himself in a green-cushioned chair on the other side of her desk. “We got business to discuss.”

Flustered, she plopped down in her seat. “Of course.”

“Is everything on target for our strike against Oblivion?”

“You mean the weapon?”

“What else would I mean?”

She nodded her head with a sudden jerk. “Yes, Your Excellency. We are right on schedule. We had to do some reprogramming, but my engineers have done a remarkable job.” She took her glasses off and relaxed against the back of the chair. Placing the glasses on the desk, she said, “I have to say, I’d hate to use such a technology as a mere weapon of war. It’s been built for so much more. I’ve seen nothing like it.”

The Magus stood and made his way to where Dr. Jirina was sitting. Stroking his fingers along the back of her neck, he leaned down. “When we wipe Oblivion off the face of the map, I’ll let you do whatever you want with the weapon. Consider it a gift for all your hard work.”

Shuddering, Dr. Jirina closed her eyes. “You’ve already done so much for me. I couldn’t possibly accept such an extravagant gift.”

Blowing into her ear, he said, “Consider it a gift from the divine goddess, herself.”

Her body swaying, Dr. Jirina opened her eyes and swiveled her chair around to meet the Magus’s eyes. “Thank you, Your Excellency.”

Walking back to the green chair, the Magus asked, “What would you say is the purpose of our order?”

Dr. Jirina breathed deeply. “To serve Atina.”

“The order existed before Atina, but its aim has never changed. So, what would you say is its primary focus?”

Rubbing her neck, she answered, “Um, to classify humanity, I guess.”

“Why do you say it like that?”

“Well, some humans are born for leadership, like you and me. Others are born for slavery. I assume you replaced Dr. Fitzgerald with me because I understand proper placement and classifications.”

“Right, my dear.” Our forefather knew in order for humanity to survive, it could not govern itself. He postulated that the ruling class could never be overthrown. All the attempts throughout history to do so eventually fell apart. The people with the sickness are meant to be ruled, and we are meant to be the rulers. The entire purpose of the Academy is to train slaves, both biological and artificial. America fell because they thought everyone deserved individual expression, when the truth is, humanity thrives when it is all the same. Bots. Humans. It makes no difference, as long as we break the self-will out of them. They are all pawns, used to appease the will of the elders. One world. One government. One people. That is the purpose of our order. That’s always been the purpose.”

Dr. Jirina stood and bowed. “That is why Your Excellency is the Magus. You carry the vision of Atina and translate it to us with love.”

The Magus got up from the chair and walked toward Dr. Jirina. Wrapping his arm around her waist, he threw her on the desk and thrust his body against hers. Holding her head with his right hand and her hip with his left, he said, “Now show me just how much love is in your heart.”

***

Inside the room with the Oblivion computer, Watchman sat at the desk, staring at the blank monitor. Contemplating the weeks and months he spent in front of this screen made him feel tired. Oblivion taught him the history of the world, the biology of humans, the path to righteous living. Yet, knowing everything he knew, he wished he could delete it and run away from it all.

The community looked to him as their leader, but he often felt like a fraud. He used to spend his days teaching people to worship a false god. How was he to know whether he was doing the same thing? That question plagued his mind almost every day.

He hated Atina, but he hated himself more. If only he could go back to when he first met Isabella. If only he’d turned a blind eye. If only he could be as reckless and corrupt as Flynn, he could have left Isabella to her own devices, and she’d still be alive.

Instead, he had to watch Cicero and Penelope fall in love, wondering what day his sins would catch up with him and ruin it all.

Oblivion prophesied an age of humanity, but it was fragile. One wrong move, and Atina could rip every ounce of hope away from their community. They had the artillery and the experience to blow them away with relative ease. One mistake, and the dream would die.

Maybe Oblivion needed a new leader, someone who didn’t carry his same weight of guilt. Maybe the prophecy would be secure in someone else’s hands.

Watchman lowered his head and closed his eyes tightly, pulling out his gray matted hair. “Is there no rest for me?” he screamed.

The computer dinged on its own, the computer screen powering up. Watchman jerked his head up, eyes wide and biting his lip.

On the screen was an article from 1987 titled, “Why I Almost Quit Ministry”, written by a preacher known as T.D. Hillman. Staring at the article, Watchman squinted his eyes and read silently:

It was a quiet Saturday morning, preparing my sermon for the next day. My wife came in with the paper, frantically. She was not a frantic woman. Shoving a newspaper in my face, she said, “turn to page four.” The section she wanted me to read started with the headline, “Washington Pastor Caught in Adultery”. As I read through the news, I was in shock. The article was about me. A woman half my age, who attended our church maybe twice, falsified a story about an alleged inappropriate relationship I had with her, resulting in the birth of a son. I’ve had a colorful past, but I was never unfaithful to my wife. The woman left the church because we refused to pay for her abortion, and somehow, I became the villain of her story.

Of course, many of our church members didn’t need any evidence. The accusation alone forced a fifty percent drop in attendance the next day. I thought I was going to preach on the story of Jericho, but I ended up having to defend my honor.

The following year was rough. I grew to hate the woman. If I had let it go and learned to forgive, I might’ve been in a better situation, but my anger got out of control. The legal fees alone bankrupted our church. When it was all said and done, my honor was restored, but my marriage was strained, and my two-thousand-member church dwindled to less than one hundred.

After the paper wrote a retraction piece, I felt vindicated, but my heart was sour. I wanted to quit. I thought about merging with another church and stepping away from ministry altogether. The lawyers drafted the paperwork, awaiting only my signature, but something happened I wasn’t expecting.

That woman who ruined my life showed up after church one Sunday. She held a beautiful baby boy in her arms. Apologizing for her behavior, she introduced me to my grandson. It shocked me. She was an estranged daughter I never knew I had from that colorful past.

Had she been open about who she was from the beginning, it could have saved us both a lot of heartache, but seeing my grandson softened this angry preacher’s heart. My wife and I welcomed her into our family without reservation.

Instead of signing the church away, I took a deep breath and stayed the course.

My wife and I could never have kids, and God blessed us beyond our wildest dreams.

The anemic church, struggling to survive, has tripled since then, and my beautiful baby grandson is now in first grade. He likes to play catch with Paw-Paw. I kinda like it, too.

If I had given myself over to my hate, I would have missed out on a tremendous blessing. I would have missed what I love doing, and I would have missed out on growing my family.

God’s got a blessing for you if you stay the course and don’t give up. The ministry is bigger than you, but by God’s grace, He’ll let you in on the ride for as long as you can hold on.

Watchman wept, reading these words, like it had lifted an enormous weight. The preacher’s encouragement shouted aloud in his soul; the ministry is bigger than you.

He reached his hand to the power button, but as he was about to turn off the computer and head out, an alert flashed across the screen, a notification sent by Prescilla. The Hand has discovered our whereabouts. They will attack at dawn in three days. They refer to a secret weapon in their military communique, but no details regarding what it is or how they plan to use it. Requesting an emergency strategy meeting.

Standing, Watchman turned off the computer and ran his fingers through his hair. “No more time for pity,” he said aloud. “Peace never comes without conflict. This is not Oblivion’s time to die.” He walked out of the dark room to the outside world, blinking rapidly to adjust his eyes to the bright sun. It reminded him that Oblivion flourished in the Light, and that light always shined brightest in darkness. In three days, they would experience the darkest day of their history, and he would need to remind himself constantly of that truth.

***

The night before the attack, Watchman met with Cicero inside his workshop.

Cicero picked up a two-foot circumference metallic object with holes around it. “This is a plasma grenade. It releases four-thousand-degree plasma blasts within a fifty-foot radius, enough to sever the head off any bot. I built the housing out of a special alloy I invented that heats upon release and cools rapidly upon disengagement.”

Bouncing it in his hands, Watchman said, “It’s heavy.”

“Well, there’s a high-density plasma pack in it. There’s only so much weight I can take away before it diminishes its kick.”

Watchman placed the bomb on the workbench. “Are you sure you’re okay with all of this?”

“You’re asking if I’m okay with going out to battle without Iggy by my side?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Cicero crossed his arms and stroked his chin. “It doesn’t really matter if I’m ready, does it? The family is counting on me to win, and that’s what I gotta do.”

“Are you afraid you’re gonna let them down?”

Uncrossing his arms and placing his hand on Watchman’s shoulder, he said, “I can spend all day doubting myself. I’ll get nothing done if I do that. The only thing that matters to me is whether it can or cannot be done. With the weapons I’ve developed over the last several months, I know we can win. Will we win? That’s not for guys like me to decide. You pray and ask the divine what he thinks. I’ll keep tinkering and blowing stuff up.”

“Do you wish you could ever go back, to the way things used to be?”

Slapping Watchman’s shoulder, Cicero smiled. “Like I said before, I only deal in things I can physically do and the things I cannot. I can’t go back in time. Haven’t quite figured that one out yet. Because I cannot do it, I don’t let it occupy any of my brain space. Besides, if I went back to when it all started, I wouldn’t know you, the others, or Iggy.” His face flushed with a blank expression as he continued in a serious tone. “I would never give up the time I had with Iggy.”

Chortling, Cicero took a seat on a nearby stool.

“What’s so funny?” asked Watchman, head cocked.

“You’re usually the old man trying to encourage me. When did our roles switch?”

“You are the first member of our family to get married. Maybe wisdom is not about years, but the acceptance of responsibility.”

“There’s that philosophical windbag I know and love so much.”

Watchman grabbed Cicero’s bicep. “In all seriousness, I’m glad you’re here. This movement—our family—is bigger than any one man. I’m glad to have a partner with whom I can share the load.”

Cicero waved his hand. “Eh, forget about it. We’re all in this together, right?”

“More than you know.”

***

After a night of prepping for battle, Watchman gathered a group of three hundred abled bodies from the community and stationed them a mile outside the camp. The communique said the Hand would enter from the west, so that is where they sat in waiting. They left around two hundred refugees at the base, anyone who was too weak to fight, or too occupied because they were caring for the weak.

It was five o’clock, two hours before sunrise, and the three hundred huddled in groups of ten, each squad with a leader at the helm who took orders from Cicero, the company commander for this skirmish.

Cicero stayed close to Watchman, who should have remained back at the base, but insisted on coming along. He was too invested in the community to wait out his days as the decrepit old man Cicero always claimed he was.

An hour passed, and all the squads were silent. Even Ambrose knew it was not a time to open his mouth. The holy silence cast on the lot was tense, not born out of fear, but solace. This was their chance. They no longer had to hide away. They no longer had to steal for scraps. Their age of obscurity was ending, each man and woman finally able to strip themselves of the shackles that still chained them.

Minutes before sunrise, the cool, crisp air changed. It became warm and humid. The solace they clung to turned to dread. The sound of a thousand bots approached the company, and their eagerness for freedom cracked under the weight of impending war. Most of these men and women were not soldiers. They were scientists and artists and warehouse workers, but it was too late to draw back, and they knew they couldn’t. The only decision was to live free or die trying.

The swarm of bots rolling toward them caused the ground to tremble. Squad leaders looked to Cicero for a command to move, but he remained still, eyes focused forward. “Not yet!” he shouted to the company. “Be still until I say.”

Sounds of mechanical warriors grew with the sound of their beating hearts. “Not yet!” Cicero repeated. “Everybody, hold your line!”

Half a mile out from their location, and the bots were descending fast. Five hundred yards. Four hundred yards. Three hundred yards. When everyone could hear the bots powering up their attacks, Cicero pressed a button on his tablet and cried, “Now!”

A slew of plasma grenades blasted a couple of hundred bots into pieces as the scientists, artists, and warehouse workers charged with their guns. A squad of snipers with programmable airburst ammo hid in the trees, killing bots with exploding projectiles that they could guide with a digital screen on top of their guns.

The more bots that Oblivion took down, more sprang up, like an endless stream of clanking metal.

Just as the company started to lose its initial momentum, an armor-plated van rolled up driven by Timothy. On top of the van sat Gregor with a semi-automatic rail gun, picking off bots like they were target practice. Each shot drilled a twelve-inch size hole through the enemy. The squad leaders retreated their people to the sides of the battlefield as Gregor yelled, “Take that, you bastards!”

A focused laser blasted from an Atina canon and shot the rail gun to shreds, taking one of Gregor’s legs with it.

The squads charged again, but they were no match for the automated laser system, which took out fifty of Oblivion’s refugees in a minute.

Cicero had an EMP bomb with a range of three hundred yards, but he didn’t want to use it until he was certain he could fry Atina’s secret weapon with it, whatever it was. But with the laser system killing so many of them, he had no choice.

Pressing another button on his tablet, Cicero released an electromagnetic shock wave that disabled all bots within the radius, including the laser system.

Everything was quiet for a moment until two men and a bot standing on top of a moving platform advanced forward with a regiment of human soldiers.

Watchman recognized a man as one of his old colleagues, Flynn Acer. The other man everyone in Atina knew well as the leader of the Hand, Helios Joran.

Cicero’s eyes grew enormous, staring at the bot beside them. It was none other than Iggy. That’s what they were saving for last. He knew in his mind that Atina reprogrammed Iggy as their secret weapon.

Flynn picked up a megaphone and spoke directly to Watchman. “You can fool all of your followers, Leroy, but you can’t fool me. You’re still that sniveling young priest from way back when. What do they call you now? Watchman? What? Leroy Abernathy didn’t garner the respect you’d hope it would?”

“What’s he talking about, Watchman?” Cicero asked.

“Surrender now,” said Flynn, “And I’ll spare the rest of your whatever-this-is?”

Cicero snapped his fingers. “Watchman?”

Swallowing a gulp of air, Watchman walked out into the middle of the battlefield.

Hand reaching out, Cicero yelled, “Come back here!”

Watchman turned around. “It’s okay, Cicero. You have your role to play and I have mine.” Dropping his weapon on the ground, he shouted to Flynn, “If you want to destroy us so badly, why don’t you come down from your stage and face me, man to man. Whoever loses, that side must surrender.”

Flynn laughed. “The years have not been kind to you. Your mind is not working well. Why would I come down there when I can simply send one of your friends?” Activating a switch on Iggy, it turned to battle mode and shot a laser at Watchman. Cicero charged from the left and pushed Watchman out of the way, laser clipping his shoulder.

“Looks like you have some loyal followers,” Flynn said. “I’ll tell you what. You’ve always enjoyed studying other religions. Why don’t we settle this Philistine style? You send out your best warrior and I’ll send my best. Whichever fighter wins will determine the fate of the other side.”

Cicero stood and stepped forward, holding his right hand over his left shoulder.

“No!” Watchman cried. “Let it be me.”

“The community needs you,” said Cicero, advancing slowly. “You must protect the others.” He stopped and turned to face Watchman. “Besides, it’s because of me we’re in this mess. Iggy’s in enemy hands because of me.”

Watchman pulled himself up and nodded. He knew there was nothing he could say that would change Cicero’s resolve. There never was.

As Cicero lumbered forward, Iggy jumped off the platform and landed three feet in front of Cicero.

Peering into Iggy’s frame, Cicero asked, “Iggy? Are you in there?”

It responded, “Iggy is not my proper designation. I am IG7.”

“C’mon, Iggy. You gotta be in there somewhere.”

With pulled back arm, the IG7 slapped Cicero across the face, catapulting him back six feet.”

Flynn’s boisterous laugh echoed across the battlefield for all to hear.

Cicero pulled out a handgun and fired five rounds at the IG7, but the bullets ricocheted off the armor, not even denting it.

The IG7 walked toward Cicero and hunched over, picking him up his by his collar and slamming him against the ground three times, two ribs cracking.

Walking away as if it finished its job, the IG7 headed back to the platform. In a fit of rage, Flynn yelled, “Finish him!”

The IG7 approached Cicero and picked him up a final time. Eyes burning red, it appeared like it was going to sever Cicero’s head from his body.

Before it shot its laser, Cicero reached for a vulnerable spot in the bot’s neck and pulled down a wire that connected the power cell to the mainframe. The IG7 released Cicero and powered down.

“No!” screamed Flynn. He jumped off the platform and ran to the battlefield with a knife to finish Cicero himself. Thrusting the blade into the air, it connected with Watchman who jumped in front of it, the blade sticking into his chest.

“What’re you doing, Leroy?” asked Flynn.

“I’m the one who’s finishing things,” Watchman said.

Flynn pulled out his knife and stepped back. “It wasn’t supposed to end like this. I was going to take you back for reeducation. We could serve together once more.”

“No more reeducation,” said Watchman. “No more schemes. No more manipulations.” He placed his hand over the knife wound. “My eyes have seen the Light, and even now, the Light only gets brighter.” He fell to the ground and breathed his last.

Flynn dropped the knife and folded his bloodied hands through his hair.

Seeing their beloved leader die, the motley crew of refugees lifted their guns and fired at Flynn, blood and guts grating off his body like shredded cheese.

Helios lifted the megaphone and commanded the regiment to retreat.

Ambrose lifted Cicero to his feet. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’ll be fine. Let’s go home.” Motioning to a group of guys, he said, “Take Iggy with us. We’ll come back for the rest of the bots later.”

“But he tried to kill you,” one of them said.

Cicero snapped a hard gaze. “I won’t let him die a second time.”

Bowing, the men said, “Yes sir.”

***

Laying on an infirmary bed, Cicero had his chest wrapped with a compression belt and a six-inch square gauze covered his shoulder burn. Penelope stayed by his side all hours of the day, Angelica being watched by Kitty and Ambrose.

Waking after a full night’s rest, Cicero sat up in his bed and winced. “I need to address the community.”

Penelope, who was sleeping in a chair next to his bed, blinked her eyes and yawned. “You can barely move. How you gonna address the crowd in your condition?”

“I’m fine, Sweet Pea. Really. C’mon and help me up.”

“Alright, but if those ribs don’t heal properly, that’s on you and your stubbornness.”

Cicero smiled. “I’ll take full responsibility.”

“I think it’s a bad idea, but I’ll help you because I love you.”

Blowing a kiss to Penelope, he said, “I love you, too.”

Penelope helped him put on a shirt and supported his body while he attempted to stand. Watching him wobble, she shook her head. “Are you sure you’re strong enough to do this?”

“Yes. Yes. Let’s get on with it.”

Walking to the cafeteria where most of the community was eating breakfast, Cicero and Penelope strolled through the doors. Everyone stood in respect.

Grabbing Cicero’s hand, Penelope helped him to stand on top of a chair.

“Family!” he shouted. “Yesterday, we lost a lot of friends, none more heartbreaking than the life of our great leader. Up to the point of death, Watchman had all of you on his mind. I would not be speaking in front of you today if it wasn’t for his brave sacrifice. He took the knife that was meant for me. Though I wish he was still here, we have no choice but to move forward. We must capitalize on the momentum we have. Tonight, we will broadcast a live wedding and funeral to all of Atina.” He pointed to Prescilla. “Can you hack the system to make sure every screen in Atina sees the feed?”

She nodded her head.

Timothy raised his hand. “Where will this broadcast take place?”

“We will livestream from the same battlefield where Watchman died.”

Shaking her head, Penelope asked, “Are you sure about that?”

“The citizens of Atina need to see the power of Oblivion, the army of bots we turned into a junkyard. They need to know humanity is stronger than any amount of government control or manipulation. They need to see us for who we are, and not just hear about our exploits from the Collective’s carefully engineered reporting algorithms. Who’s with me?”

The crowd pumped their fists in the air and cheered.

***

At sunset, Prescilla set up the camera and adjusted the signal, hacking into Atina’s network. When she pressed play, Penelope stood hand in hand with Cicero in the middle of hundreds of defeated bots.

“Dearly beloved Atineans,” said Timothy, reading from a script he found on the Oblivion server. “We are gathered here today to honor our fallen leader, Leroy Abernathy, known by his loved ones as Watchman. Though we lost one life, another life begins. The joining of two friends, two comrades, two lovers. The death and destruction you see here is the love Atina gives. It is dark. It is cruel. It is final. Most of you don’t know any other love. You don’t know the embrace of a trusted colleague, the freedom discovered in long conversations, or the sharing of dreams and fears. Intimacy. Atina’s love is enslavement. Love in Oblivion is about choice. You have the freedom to be a part of our family or not.”

Clearing his throat, Timothy grinned. “Cicero and Penelope join their two lives into one. No longer does Cicero do his own thing, while Penelope does her own thing. This oneness is called marriage, and it is the first of its kind to happen in our time. They will live together, eat together, sleep together, and enjoy a true relationship with each other. They will learn to know each other in ways that only a husband and wife can know.”

Looking at Cicero, he said, “Do you promise to love and cherish Penelope, protect her and provide for her, lay down your life for her daily as you put her interests ahead of your own? Do you promise to hold her and comfort her, grow old with her and stay faithful to her? Are you committed to growing your marriage on a foundation of truth, while maintaining a tender heart of mercy?”

Cicero sighed. “I do.”

“Do you promise, Penelope, to honor and respect Cicero, serve him and ease his suffering? Do you promise to speak the truth in love and guide him with gentleness? Are you committed to staying faithful to him, not being distracted with worldly pleasures, but finding your pleasure in him all the days of your life? Will you laugh at his dumb jokes even when nobody else will?”

“That’s not part of the vows,” Cicero said.

Penelope chuckled. “I do.”

“I recognize you, in front of a world of witnesses, as one flesh. You may kiss your new wife.”

Cicero grabbed Penelope and brought her close. “I love you,” he said, closing his eyes and laying his lips on hers.

After the ceremony finished, the wedding guests headed back to base. The cafeteria attendants prepared a celebratory dinner of canned ham, mashed potatoes, and apple tarts. Everyone indulged themselves with as much as they could eat, except Cicero and Penelope, who indulged themselves with each other in a small cabin he built for their growing family.

Kitty and Ambrose played with Angelica in the cafeteria, feeding her a bottle of milk Penelope had prepared before the battle.

Ambrose looked at Kitty, who was burping Angelica like Penelope taught her to do. “Why aren’t Cicero and Penelope celebrating with the rest of us?”

A burst of laughter escaped through Kitty’s nose. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

“I’m not as young as you think. I can handle adult things.”

“Sure, you can, Ambrose. Sure, you can.”

***

A year passed, and many changes took place in Oblivion and Atina. After the wedding, the streets of Atina flooded with riots. The Burrows spilled out into the seven mountains. The Academy was the first thing to collapse, and then the Farm. Burning buildings. People dying. The citizens still suffering, but free. Timothy and Gregor joined the fight to help strip away Atina’s power—brick by brick, leader by leader.

Cicero became the new chief of Oblivion, and the community of a few hundred grew to five thousand.

Angelica received a baby sister named Zoe nine months after the wedding, and Cicero revived Iggy’s default programming. He often babysat the two little girls when Cicero and Penelope needed some time alone.

Ambrose and Kitty showed signs that they might be the next in line to get married, and Prescilla stayed in Oblivion to help the newcomers adapt to their way of life.

One day, after the rebel militia assassinated Reginald Grear and the Bureau fell to their control, someone called a meeting of the remaining elders.

Dr. Jirina, who managed to survive the attack on the Academy, said, “We need to retreat.”

“Nonsense,” said Helios. “We need to stand and fight.”

“And how well has that worked for you so far?” asked Carlos.”

Helios sneered.

Damien lifted his face from the screen. “Why don’t we wait a few minutes and see what she says.”

They all nodded in agreement and grew quiet.

Minutes later, a tall, slender woman with a long red dress walked in the room.

Carlos fell on his face in front of her. “Hello, Mistress. It’s been too long.”

She allowed him to kiss her ring and then walked around him to sit down. “It seems you’ve all made a mess of things.”

“I assure you, Mistress,” said Helios, sweating down the sides of his face, “if we could get reinforcements, we could easily squash this rebellion and get back to the way things were.”

The Mistress scoffed. “You really think what we have here is worth salvaging?”

Bowing his head, he answered, “I do, Mistress. Just give us a second chance.”

With a wave of her finger, a deep slash appeared across Helios’s throat. He fell over in his chair, head dropping to the floor. “Anybody else have any suggestions?”

Dr. Jirina wiped the wrinkles out of her blouse. “Maybe we can start somewhere fresh, with a new set of clones.”

The Mistress blinked, liquifying Dr. Jirina’s brains, blood trickling out of her ears, nose, and mouth. “The truth is,” she said, “these two showed complete incompetence. How they made it to their stations is beyond me.” Standing, she walked to the door, clicking her high heels on the hardwood floor. She opened it, stopped, and turned around. “Are you coming with me or not?”

Damien and Carlos shot to their feet.

“Where are we going, Mistress?” Carlos asked.

With a coy smile, she said, “Atina may be dead, but the order is very much alive.”

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