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Puzzle Master "Free Taste" Edition

 

Puzzle Master

 

T.J. McKenna

Puzzle Master, “Free Taste” edition

Copyright 2017 T.J. McKenna

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission from the author.

Published by Grace Creek Press at Shakespir

 

***

Thank you for downloading this 10% “Free Taste” Ebook. If you like what you see, the book may be found for FREE in its entirety on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MXW3KLL. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This free taste edition may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes only, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favorite Ebook and print retailer to discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.

Author’s Note for the eBook Edition

I know this is just a 10% “free taste” edition and I’m asking you to now go to Amazon and download it again. Call them the evil empire if you like but everyone knows that they’re the 500 pound gorilla of eBooks. On the bright side, the entirety of Puzzle Master is now PERMANENTLY FREE on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MXW3KLL and you don’t even need a Kindle to read it. It’s not often you get anything for free at Amazon (that sort of charity isn’t their style) so how about we consider this one a win?

I also hope you won’t pre-judge the contents of this or any eBook by the price you pay for it. I’ve been given many books for free (including copies of the Bible) and I’ve found value in their pages regardless of whether money changed hands. I give you this eBook for free with my blessings, here’s why.

Every Easter a house on the road between my house and my kids’ school would do a beautiful but simple statement of their faith. They’d erect a heavy wooden cross and drape it with a purple cloth in the days leading up to Easter. On Easter morning the purple would be gone and the cross would be draped in white. I came to love seeing it there each spring. So much so in fact that over time as I drove by I’d find my eyes drifting to that spot year round hoping to see it. I’d go so far as to say eventually I could see the cross with my heart even when it wasn’t there for my eyes.

Every now and then I’d see the owners of the house in their yard and I’d consider stopping to introduce myself and tell them how moving I found their cross to be. I never stopped. I was always too busy or felt like it just wasn’t “the right time”. Then they suddenly moved away and I’d squandered my chance to meet them. They took the time to touch everyone who drove past and I’d done nothing to touch their lives in return.

At about the time they moved away my wife was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. Thoughts about opportunities to touch each other’s lives again came to the forefront as friends and neighbors sent flowers and food. The road won’t be easy but she’s going to be fine, I’m sure of it. Imagining my neighbor’s Easter cross as I drive by each day helps me to be sure of it.

If giving away this eBook is my best chance to plant a cross for someone to see with their heart as much as their eyes, then I don’t want to squander it. I don’t know that I’ll ever have what it takes to be a “Best-Selling” author. Instead, I hope anyone who reads these words will help me to become a “Best-Giving” author by spreading the word.

You’ll soon see that the main characters are just eighteen years old. I’d particularly like to see free copies of Puzzle Master in the hands of teens and young adults so at the end you’ll find a second “Author’s note” where I request you do something for me to spread the word among our youth and help me give away as many free eBooks as possible.

Finally, I recognize that not everyone is interested in eBooks. I personally still love the feel of a book in my hands and turning a page rather than tapping. Unfortunately I can’t give the paper version away for free but I have made it available via major online print on demand retailers for the lowest price possible. I will make a small profit per print book so if I make enough I can do a traditional print run and offer the book at a better price later.

Dedication

For Kristen on our Silver Anniversary. You once asked the question “What kind of man would you have our daughter marry?” I’d be lying if I said I want her to marry someone just like me but there is one trait of mine I’d like him to have. I’d like her to marry the man who will wake up every morning honestly believing he married the most beautiful woman in the world.

Prologue

 

Sheridan, Illinois 2190 A.D.

 

God loves a good puzzle. He spent six days creating puzzles for mankind to solve and on the seventh day smiled as we set to work on them. His grand design even included keeping some of His puzzles always just beyond our grasp to insure we’d never stop reaching higher. I’ve never thought of His unsolvable puzzles as a means to frustrate humanity. I’d rather believe that as long as we keep searching for the solutions to His puzzles, we’ll also be searching to know Him.

I love puzzles too. My parents say I solved my first puzzle before I could walk and squealed and clapped with delight before smashing it just so I could solve it again. From that day puzzles became my joy and wonder. I don’t even know how I do it, I just see things most people can’t see and know how things will fit together. Just as God planned, He provided me with a supply of increasingly harder puzzles to solve so I’d never stop reaching. He had good reason. He wasn’t training me to solve man’s puzzles. He was training me to solve one of His own creation.

I was just six years old in 2190 A.D. but I remember the day when the first pieces of God’s puzzle were fit together. Mom was in the kitchen humming the same tune she hummed every morning so I hummed it along with her. I’d learned it at school and both Mom and my teacher would smile when I hummed it, even if I couldn’t carry a tune.

Dad came down the stairs with a small bag, indicating he was going to be away overnight. Whenever he was going to be away he took an extra-long time saying goodbye so on that morning he sat and talked to me while I completed a difficult three-dimensional holographic jigsaw puzzle.

“Cephas, why do you like puzzles so much?” dad asked while I manipulated the hovering shapes of light with finger motions.

“Puzzles are like secrets only the puzzle maker knows,” I answered without looking up. “It’s fun to know secrets, especially when people don’t know that you know their secrets.”

It’s good I didn’t look up or I may have picked up on my father’s concern. James Paulson was a man keeping a secret from the world, including me. Born to a powerful Atheist family, he’d somehow fallen in love with both a Christian woman and her savior Jesus Christ. Being just six years old, my parents had decided it was too risky to teach me about Jesus until I learned how to hide my thoughts and opinions from prying eyes.

At six years old all I knew about Christians was what I’d learned in school, they were people who believed in some force they called “God” and their ideas were banned by the government sometime after the Final Holy War in 2036. My teachers also told me there used to be many other religions but they were all gone by about the year 2150.

Of course there was also the playground education on the subject. At recess we’d play “C&C” which was short for “Christians and Cult Hunters”. One lucky kid chosen at random would be the government “cult hunter” and would hunt the rest who were the “Christians”. When the cult hunter caught you he could “re-educate” you and make you a fellow cult hunter or he could just kill you outright and you’d sit out until the next game started. It usually depended on how good you were at begging for his “help”.

To me the game was a puzzle where my classmates represented predictable pieces that I could move around as I pleased, so I was usually the last one to get caught. I once tried to change the rules so the last Christian caught would become the cult hunter in the next game but my teacher overheard my proposal and wouldn’t allow it. As part of her scolding I was assured it was illogical that the Christian who was best at evading the cult hunters should ever be perceived as a “winner”.

“If you know all the puzzle maker’s secrets, maybe you should be a puzzle maker when you grow up,” dad said after a pause.

“But then somebody else would learn my puzzle secrets,” I replied, acting more like a six year old again. “Solving them is more fun anyway.”

“Is the last piece your favorite piece to put in?”

“I don’t know why everyone thinks that. The first piece is just as important to the solution as the last one. What difference does the order make?”

I stopped working and considered the last piece, which was hovering in front of me.

“Dad? Have you ever thought that maybe we’re all pieces in somebody else’s puzzle?”

The question had set him back onto his heels though I didn’t know why. Was this a dangerous theological thought I’d somehow picked up on from my parents? Or was it just another passing notion of a six year old, soon to be forgotten?

“I don’t know Cephas. Why do you ask?”

I flicked my finger to slide the last piece into place.

“Because if we are, that’s a puzzle I want to solve.”

 

***

 

In the hills above Gore, Virginia

 

As dad and I were having our conversation about puzzles, underneath a dilapidated old house over a thousand kilometers away identical twin old men worked alongside much younger backs, burrowing out working and living spaces where the faithful could hide from prying government eyes. With the average lifespan nearing one-hundred years the twins refused to consider themselves old but they both knew they’d be sore the next morning. Such was the life of a Christian, hiding in the shadows and being called “cultists” or “fish heads”. To them this labor was considered worth the pain.

Any other excavation project in the world, big or small, would simply use digging robots. You’d program them to clear a certain space and they’d excavate it to the millimeter. The problem is the drones would uplink to a global positioning system and the government would know instantly and update its maps accordingly. For secrecy, manual labor was the only option available.

Three escape tunnels had been completed but when the fourth was started it’d run into a preexisting chamber which had been built by coal miners more than a century earlier. The coal itself had been much deeper but the area was riddled with old air shafts that would mean death to anyone who fell into one. When the discovery was made they’d explored just the first twenty or thirty meters then erected a makeshift door and set up monitors for natural gas. Once the monitors confirmed the air was safe, the old twins took it upon themselves to keep everyone else out of harm’s way while they checked the area for danger.

“We good to go baby brother?” Austin asked his brother Brill, who was about twenty minutes younger than himself.

“Sure thing old man,” came Brill’s customary response.

Austin shined his light back and forth, paying special attention to the floor as he searched for danger. As his beam hit the far corner of the space it swept across something shiny.

“Where’d that come from?”

“Looks like an old canary cage or something,” Brill replied. “I guess the old timers were worried about gas too.”

“I can see what it looks like. I’m saying it wasn’t there when we first broke though.”

“You’re eyes are getting weak old man. Look at the floor. Everywhere we’ve been you can see our footprints in the dust. There isn’t a footprint anywhere near it.”

Austin carefully crossed the floor for a closer look.

“It’s not much of a canary cage, it has no bottom.”

He frowned as his light revealed a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string sitting under the cage. There was writing on it which he could easily read because it wasn’t covered with the same layer of dust as everything else in the area.

“What is it?” Brill asked.

“Is the new guy James still planning on spending the night and helping with the power connection? The one with the government job and the little boy named Cephas?”

“James Paulson? Yeah, he got here an hour ago. I watched him sign the guest book and everything. Why?”

“I don’t know what it’s all about, but whoever snuck in here left a package with his name on it.”

Chapter One

 

Colorado Springs, Colorado 2202 A.D.

 

Avoid eye contact. You know what’ll happen if you look directly into those eyes.

It’s an odd thing to think to yourself while looking into a mirror.

Each day it’s my job to teach classes in Religious History and convince young minds that any form of spiritualism is a delusional road to ruin compared to the truth offered by science. So every day before teaching class I take the advice of my old friend and mentor whose seat I now occupy at the University. He told me to look over the parts of my body and acknowledge I’m nothing more than a complex collection of biochemical reactions. He told me embracing my nature as an evolved being would keep me grounded in reality and free of destructive spiritualism.

He didn’t mention that you’d develop an aversion to mirrors.

I watch my hands as they twist the silk of my tie into a knot.

“Hands are a useful adaptation our early ancestors acquired eons ago to give them a competitive advantage so they could pass on their genes. They’re no different than a plant’s leaves or a fish’s fins,” I say aloud.

It makes perfect scientific sense. Of course hands evolved. Where else could they come from?

I open my mouth and look at my lips and tongue.

“Evolved to give my ancestors the advantage of communication.”

I look over my ears, nose and hair in turn and assign them each a rational place in evolution, followed by a deep sigh when I give up pretending. I could work my way down to my toes but my eyes will still be there in the mirror, waiting for their turn. Waiting to deny every scientific argument with a simple twinkle.

My life makes no sense. It never has. It’s like the twinkle is the only thing that’s a true reflection of me and everything else in the mirror is a distortion.

Like every morning, the need to look into my eyes and ponder their secrets will soon overcome me so I sigh then close my eyes and lean in closer to the mirror. I tell myself again that eyes are just another set of complex cells that evolved to allow me to interact with my environment. I tell myself that the twinkle, the spark of life I’ll see in there is just light reflecting off the edge of the iris. I stand for a while with my eyes closed, hoping to believe it this time.

Opening my eyes is the same each morning. Try as I might, I can’t see a mass of cells that collect light and transmit biochemical information to another blob of cells called the brain. I see beyond the cells staring back at me. I see a…

I stop short before allowing myself to even think the word “Soul”.

Don’t go there, Cephas. Your job is to deny the existence of such nonsense, not explore it.

I break off the staring contest with the mirror.

There’s no place for this sort of thinking in your life. Even if you’re retired you’re still a cult hunter. You’re not just any cult hunter, you’re THE Cult Hunter, so control your thoughts.

I drive the conflict from my mind and take another look at myself in the mirror while avoiding my eyes. At eighteen years old I’m younger than the students I teach, though it can be hard to tell anyone’s age due to “enhancements”. The human race long ago tired of seeing any sort of “imperfections” when they looked in the mirror. Virtually all children have enhancement surgeries of one sort or another, many while they’re still babies and some before they’re even born. The awkwardness of puberty typically brings more surgeries followed by many more in later years in an attempt to deny the inevitable signs of aging.

Most people think of their enhancements as a step towards perfection but I’ve never been able to view it that way. To me enhancements make people look like a set of molded plastic dolls that all say the same words and think the same thoughts. It’s always been a point of pride that I don’t have any visible enhancements.

The only thing you like about looking in mirrors is the reminder that you’re not perfect.

I look at the table that sits under the mirror and sigh again as I see the final step in my morning routine, my communications device or “com”. When I place the tiny device into my ear it’ll automatically activate and the daily assault on the senses will begin. Coms don’t understand the pleasure I take in being alone with my thoughts so it’ll batter me with personal messages, news, advertisements, music and countless other types of noise. Once it’s in my ear the simple act of thinking will become like trying to sleep as a faucet drips nearby.

Maybe that’s why people love their coms so much, so they can avoid thinking.

I wouldn’t wear one at all but as a professor I’m contractually obligated to wear my com for four hours per day so I put it in solely to get the clock started. Anyone in the world who cares to look can now see my electronic footprint so my ear hasn’t even warmed it before the first call comes.

“Incoming call Cephas,” the pleasant voice that’s not quite male and not quite female says in my ear. At least it pronounces my name correctly, “See-fuss”. The old voice never got it quite right.

“Really? Who’s looking for me?”

“Riemann Jones from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Cult Hunter Corps.”

Not the corps. Not again.

I rip it out of my ear and watch it deactivate. A call from my old friend Riemann can only mean one thing, the corps has some sort of puzzle they can’t solve on their own. With the corps the puzzle is always how to crack Christian communication codes that nobody else can crack and find Christian hiding places that nobody else can find.

And every time I solve a puzzle for the corps, people end up dead.

 

***

 

As I step onto the front porch a hover bus glides up the street towards my house. The hover line looks like a large metal plate embedded in the old pavement but when a vehicle is detected the plates will hum to life to provide both lift and propulsion. The contrast between a floating bus and my house is comical because my house has been preserved to look just like it did when it was built in 1967. That’s why I chose to live here, I find a strange comfort in the old-fashioned.

I let the bus pass. As the public face of the cult hunter corps I avoid the bus system because many people on it will recognize me. A few will treat me with the adoration of a celebrity but most will shrink from me in fear as I force myself to make eye contact with each of them. Although I’m fascinated by looking into my own eyes each morning, I find looking directly into someone else’s eyes disquieting. Unfortunately for me, being The Cult Hunter requires projecting dominance so avoiding eye contact is not allowed. Luckily, walking for enjoyment is a lost art so I can walk to the university and encounter many fewer people. Hopefully the solitude will put me in a better frame of mind to speak with Riemann after I’m done teaching.

A half a block from my house I wonder if the world is conspiring to remind me that my old-fashioned world ends at my front door. A young couple is having sex against a tree just a meter from the sidewalk. Public sex is a protected form of expression under the First Amendment and since it’s contrary to what we know about Christian doctrines, as The Cult Hunter I’m expected to encourage it.

The young woman is facing me and our eyes meet. Thankfully she can only meet my gaze for a moment but it’s long enough for me to see what I was expecting. She has what I call “doll eyes”. There’s light shining off the edge of her iris just like everyone else but even if I could stare into them all day I know I’d never see a twinkle. Like a doll, there just isn’t a spark of life to be found. As I pass them the closest I can manage to being encouraging is to nod approvingly at the young man. His doll eyes just stare vacantly at me.

At the next intersection I approach some kids as they take advantage of the hover system with bikes and boards that hover. By themselves the system will only let them hover a few centimeters off the ground to ensure their safety. Despite the safeguards, kids have figured out that when they enter the wake of a passing hover bus the extra lift will take them well off the ground where they can perform tricks. Some kids even carry a magnetic leash which they stick to the back or side of the hover bus and then “hover ski” along behind for kicks. Trust kids to always find a way to have fun in a system designed to prevent it.

The kids collect where multiple lines meet because there are more wakes to ride. As I reach a favorite spot a “kid” who’s older than I am recognizes me and yells “The Cult Hunter!” while doing a hover board trick two meters off the ground. I don’t turn my head to acknowledge him.

“How many fish heads you take down today Cult Hunter?” a boys who looks to be about twelve asks as he waits his turn to enter the next wake.

Damn it kid, why’d you ask a question? Now I have to respond.

“It’s been a slow day so far,” I say in the usual monotone I reserve for the public, then stop and rotate my head like it’s on a swivel. I enter cult hunter mode where even the smallest nuance of my appearance will be calculated and controlled.

“Christians often use such questions as a cover.”

Start off cold. Lower right eye brow by two millimeters and tilt head down and to the right by one centimeter.

“Maybe you’re the first fish head of the day?”

Narrow eyes by one centimeter and stiffen lips. He already believes you know his every thought so let him terrorize himself.

He goes motionless, like a scared rabbit. Some of the younger boys back away but the older boy who first recognized me comes back and stands behind his terrified friend.

“Are you silently praying?”

Raise eyebrows and increase head tilt with slight rotation.

“What? No! I never.”

Slowly reverse head tilt.

“What are those words on the bottom of your board? Christian codes? Don’t deny it. You know I can crack any code.”

He finally lifts his head to meet my gaze.

Barely a decade old and already doll eyed.

“I saw him cult hunter,” the older boy says. “He was praying and making Christian signs with his hands before his last run.”

Freeze all facial movement. Remove all voice inflection. Stop all blinking.

“Good work junior cult hunter. What should we do with this little fish?”

“I’ve seen this type before,” the older boys says. “He’s too far gone for reeducation. There’s no hope really.”

“There’s hope,” the young boy squeaks.

“Are you saying you’ll take The Cult Hunter test to prove you’re clean of vile cultic thoughts?”

“Yes, sir. Anything!”

“Your test is to do a back flip off the next wake.”

He stares for a long time before I watch his face melt with relief as he realizes I’ve been putting him on the entire time.

“And do it without praying first.”

Curl up left side of lip to display cruel sense of humor.

As I resume my walk I hear the older boy laughing about the look on his friend’s face. He should know the look, I did the same thing to his doll eyes two years ago.

The further I’ve gotten from that world the harder it’s been to maintain the persona. I wanted to smile. I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and laugh with him and look again for a spark of life in his eyes. I should get a private hover car instead of walking just to avoid interacting with people.

 

***

 

I arrive at the University studio with plenty of time to spare and see there’s already a dozen or so students in the lecture hall. Most lectures are done to an empty hall because so few professors keep a regular class schedule. There’s no point. Most students would rather watch the replay of lectures at their convenience or can’t attend a live lecture simply because they live halfway around the world. My classes are unconventional in that I encourage a live audience to ask questions and therefore turn the teaching into a discussion instead of a lecture.

As always, I bound onto the stage rather than using the stairs and feel my face morph from that of The Cult Hunter to being just Cephas Paulson. I wish I could teach all day. When I’m on this stage I feel like a human being again. I expect the lights and cameras to activate automatically when my presence is detected. When nothing happens I realize I forgot to stick my com in my ear again. The instant it enters my ear it registers an incoming call.

“Switch to teaching mode,” I command the device.

Teaching mode is a privilege I’ve always enjoyed. As long as I’m standing on the stage it blocks all incoming communication.

“Teaching mode has been temporarily disabled by order of the cult hunter corps. The incoming call has been given top priority.”

I close my eyes.

Even on my stage, I’m never outside their reach.

Riemann’s image comes up on the screen that’s embedded into the teaching podium.

“Hello Riemann, what can I do for you?”

“Leaving your com in your ear would be a good start.”

His eyes are slightly dilated and there’s a slight shine from sweat on his upper lip. He’s nervous to speak with me. Why?

“It’s feeling kind of loose, I think it might fall out—”

“Don’t you dare Cephas.”

“Two minutes, my class begins soon.”

“I need your help chasing down some local fish heads. Can you come to D.C. tomorrow?”

He spontaneously picks a hair off his shirt.

Self grooming? He lying about something.

“I’m retired.”

I await the customary response.

“There’s no such thing as a retired cult hunter. You should know, you coined the phrase.”

His heart rate is increasing. I swear I can see the pressure increasing in the capillaries of his eyes.

“I’ve been out for three years. I’ll stick to teaching my classes.”

“I’ve been authorized to offer you four times your usual consulting fee and for the record, you’re still on the active reserve list.”

And the only way off the list is to die.

“You do know I don’t need the money, right?”

We both know the real purpose of the offer is to inflate my curiosity, rather than my bank account.

In truth money stopped meaning anything to most people two generations ago because the government provides all necessities for free. Food, medical care, transportation, public housing and mindless video entertainment are all free. Throw in free non-addictive government drugs to keep you stoned and there’s no reason why anyone needs to leave their house. Money only means something if you want more out of your life than the basics. Money buys privilege.

“Six times your usual fee.”

His entire forehead is shining now. He doesn’t want to say whatever is coming next but if I refuse one more time he’ll have no choice.

“Still retired.”

“The boss says you’re not.”

“The Boss” is Henry Portman, the director of the F.B.I. and therefore king of the cult hunter corps. A century ago the President of the United States was the most powerful man on earth, but in a world without armies, war or poverty, information is now the true currency of power and Henry holds more of it than anyone. He’s the sort of man that has his fingers in everything, yet never leaves a fingerprint unless it’s from his hands closing around your throat. Invoking “The Boss” is as good as skipping to an outright death threat.

“What’s really going on?” I ask.

“I wish I knew, I haven’t been briefed.”

No involuntary eye movements or facial changes. He’s telling the truth.

“Then it’s big enough to make it eight times the usual fee. I’ll catch the first tube in the morning.”

As if I have a choice.

“Thanks Cephas, that makes my day easier. If you didn’t agree when I reached ten I was instructed to send a kill team to bring you in.”

Chapter Two

When Riemann releases control my com switches to teaching mode and the stage lights and cameras activate while a congenial computer voice announces “World Religion, lecture number twelve starring Dr. Cephas Paulson will begin in one minute.” My podium screen switches to display relevant information for today’s class. There are hundreds watching worldwide of which twenty-six are sitting before me in the studio audience. There are dozens of offers from both men and women to have sex with me, five of which come from women here in the studio.

I could cancel class and take all five home with me.

Instead I hit the delete button on the sex offers and the message is automatically transmitted to all of the eight-hundred or so students who are registered for the class. Tonight I’ll likely dwell on those offers. Maybe tomorrow will finally be the day when I don’t hit the delete button.

The computer tells me that all twenty-six students seated in front of me are wearing coms to listen to me speak. All they need to do is look up and they can see and hear the real live me but they still prefer to use their devices. I don’t blame them for having and using coms. Your com is your electronic link to the rest of the world. With simple voice commands you can interface with virtually any computer, speak with anyone, display requested information on any nearby screen or even do mundane tasks like turning off a light that’s within your reach when you’re too lazy to do it yourself.

I wish they’d unplug once and a while and see me.

I look up to the live audience and find my silent wish has somehow come true. Seated front row and center is a young blonde woman I’ve never seen before. She’s wearing a com but she’s also staring at me intently so I nod to acknowledge her. She doesn’t respond in kind so I look away then use the computer to find out who she is. Her name is Martha McLeod and she’s new to the class as of today. It’s a little unusual to gain new students after the term begins but she and several others joined recently. In each case the new students showed mastery of the material covered in earlier lectures so the system let them join.

I pull up her records and see she has no high school transcript. Since high school isn’t mandatory the lack of a transcript isn’t unusual but it would be nice if she had one because it would help me guess at her age. With everyone trying to deny their age by getting enhancements, birthdays are strictly protected under privacy laws. Next I look at her admission test scores and find she’s remarkably knowledgeable for someone with no formal education.

I look up again and find she’s still staring. I’d have to guess that she’s no older than me. Given the bright stage lighting it’s hard to be sure but I feel like she’s trying to bore a hole through me with her eyes.

I refocus my attention on the class. The truth is the vast majority of students have no thirst for knowledge, they just enroll because they’re bored and are seeking some form of entertainment in addition to sex and drugs. I chance another glance and see that although Martha has a com in one ear I’m clearly her sole focus.

I begin my lecture.

“Today we begin the section I like to call ‘the beginning of the end of religion’. Who knows what event I’m talking about?”

My podium computer lights up to indicate there are people here in the studio and watching remotely who’d like to answer.

“Okay, Ms. Nikki in Toronto.”

A live picture of Ms. Nikki comes up on screens that flank the stage. She’s a slender Asian woman viewing the lecture from her bedroom and barely wearing any clothes. There’s a half-naked man visible in the bed behind her.

“The Final Holy War.”

“Correct. For those of you who haven’t read the text, the short story is that in the year 2036 a coalition of Middle Eastern nations dropped nuclear weapons on the major cities of Israel. Five years earlier a single missile had been launched and was intercepted before it could do any damage. Somehow, just five years later the attackers had acquired launch detection evasion technologies that should have been well beyond their technical capabilities and the Israeli defense forces were taken completely by surprise. There were about fifteen million people living in Israel the day the bombs started falling. Just two weeks later less than one million remained.”

I pause to let the class mull the information.

“Can anyone tell me what was unique about Jerusalem in the attack?”

I get no volunteers.

“Jerusalem was the only city that wasn’t targeted. It was considered a Muslim holy site so they chose not to bomb it.”

I survey the live audience and am happy to see that a few heads are now raised to look at me. They’ve heard the generalities of the Final Holy War countless times since they were children, but they’re here because they know I’ll give them more than the usual government lecture on the evils of religion.

Deep down, maybe they want me to make them think.

“When it was clear their homes and loved ones were gone, the Israeli commanders launched a counter-strike against the entire Islamic world. First they hit targets in Asia as far away as Indonesia and The Philippines with nuclear strikes. Then they hit Islamic population centers in both northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Lastly they attacked the cities of the Middle East, but not with nuclear missiles. In the last attack, nearly two-hundred cities including the capitals of eighteen Islamic nations were targeted by the Israeli submarine fleet but instead of nuclear horror those bombs released little more than gigantic puffs of smoke and dust that seemed to do no damage at all.”

They know what happened next, but they want to hear it from me.

“The Islamic world danced and cheered and praised God for saving them but just a few hours later the enormity of what had been done set in. The dust was a genetic toxin targeted specifically at people with certain genetic markers common to those of Middle Eastern descent. Within days those who had been vaporized by a nuclear bomb were considered the lucky ones. The toxin wasn’t designed to kill you quickly, it was designed to make you suffer. The Israelis had named the project “Moses Staff” because it was like a plague of boils, skin lesions, unbearable pain and finally death.”

The screens show the image of a toxin victim who I hope for his sake was nearing death when the picture was taken. Half of the live audience is now looking up but there’s little expression of empathy. Instead their faces express a vague sense of superiority as if to say nothing like that could ever happen to them in our modern world.

“Once all the bombs had fallen a more powerful and destructive force that the Israelis hadn’t anticipated took over. Who knows what force I’m talking about? Put your answers up onto the screen.”

The large screens behind me light up with their guesses which range from hydrogen bombs to flying monkeys. My computer indicates that Martha McLeod hasn’t attempted an answer so I look at her and see she’s staring at me again.

She knows the answer but she’s refusing to participate.

“The massive force I’m talking about was nothing more than a gentle breeze. The wind blows wherever it pleases and soon an invisible cloud of toxin was circling the globe. It even turned out the genetic differences between the peoples of the region were very subtle, about sixty percent of Jews worldwide were killed by the very toxins designed to kill their enemies. The toxin didn’t care about a person’s beliefs. No religion, no race, no country was spared.”

I look at the students in the studio.

They still don’t get it.

A few students show the signs that they’ve come to class stoned but even those who are sober know nothing about pain. Once free universal healthcare was declared a basic human right it wasn’t long before freedom from all pain was also considered a right. In our world pain is no longer something to be endured, it’s treated immediately, often to the point of feeling nothing at all.

“With few left in Israel to bomb, the remaining Muslim forces turned their anger to the only remaining Jewish population in the region, Jerusalem. Sick and dying from the genetic attack, they were still able to overrun Jerusalem’s defenses. It’s hard to imagine why, but they chose to use their final days to torture and butcher every Jewish man, woman and child they could find. They even made a gruesome six pointed star pyramid out of thousands of severed Jewish heads.”

A picture of the pyramid appears on the screens on cue.

Do you get it now?

“Once their black flag flew over the Temple Mount an Israeli submarine commander made the decision to use his last nuclear missiles to bomb Jerusalem. The guidance system of the first missile failed and it hit several kilometers outside of the city. His second missile stayed on target and turned what used to be the Temple Mount into what we now call the Temple Crater. At his war crimes trial he made a single statement: “If our temple is not to be ours, then no one shall have it.”

I pause again.

“Before the Final Holy War the earth had a population of eight point seven billion people. Once it was over there were less than six billion people standing on planet earth.”

I watch their faces. They barely stir. I know it was over one-hundred and fifty years ago but you’d think discussing the death of nearly three billion people would at least cause them to bat an eyelash.

“I see we have some questions,” I say as I scan through them on my monitor.

“Mr. Schmidt in Buenos Aires, your question is just one word. All you asked is ‘why?’”

His face comes up on the screens.

“What I mean is; why’d they do it? I mean, nukes were really bad things right? They destroyed entire cities and back then they didn’t have ways to clean up the radiation. If you nuked someone you couldn’t even go and take their stuff, there was nothing left to take, so why do it?”

“I’ll get back to your question in just a minute Mr. Schmidt, please excuse me for a moment.”

I step off the stage. I’ve set the lights and cameras to follow me.

If death doesn’t get their attention, I’ll hit closer to home.

“Mr. Taylor I can’t take any more. You have a com in each ear and I can hear your horrible music from the podium. Please come here”.

The bewildered student comes to the front. He’s very tall and lanky with a long mop of dirty blonde hair on the top of his head and a scraggly beard on his face to match. I judge he’s in his late twenties despite some low grade facial enhancements designed to make him look younger. To me his expressionless eyes make him look much older.

“Remove your com and turn off the racket.”

He takes the com out of his right ear and turns off the music but the left com remains in his ear. His ear is pierced in three spots with screws that lock the com into his ear so it won’t fall out and deactivate when he’s asleep.

He could be sucked into a tornado and the com would stay in his ear.

“And the left one.”

Looks of horror and then defiance come over his face.

“No way man, it’s locked.”

“I have respect for your time by switching my com to teaching mode and giving this class my full attention and I expect the same from my students.”

He crosses his arms and stares at me.

He looks tough on the outside but his eyes are darting and his feet are positioned to run rather than strike.

“Are you going to remove it or not?”

“No.”

“Get out.”

I point to the door.

“Make me. This is how I learn man.”

I see some heads nod in agreement.

“My patience is ended, Mr. Taylor.”

I look away but when I face him again I’ve transformed my face into something my old colleagues in the corps said would scare off a trained kill team. I feel like I’ve even willed the sparkle in my eye to go dark. I wonder how many times I can do this face before my eyes go dark for real.

I hear people in the audience inhale and hold their breath. Someone to my right whispers “it’s The Death Mask” and another responds “I thought it was a myth.”

Poor Mr. Taylor is visibly rattled and his eyes move to checking his possible escape routes. I move a half step to the left. It doesn’t physically block him but I’m still trapping him in cage of his own fears.

“I… um…” He reaches up and starts to unscrew the locks from his ear with shaking hands.

As I turn to the audience I return my face to normal and the sudden switch sends a second shock wave through the class

“This studio is now a com-free zone. I want the coms out of everyone’s ears right now. Anyone who can’t live with the new rule can make their way to the door.”

Mr. Taylor is still fumbling with his ear and looks as if he’s about to cry. About half of the students in the live audience remove their coms but many are wearing com locks like Mr. Taylor. Some begin to gather their things to leave. Out of the corner of my eye I notice Martha McLeod smirk and nod, though she doesn’t remove her com.

She’s the only one who saw through me.

I start to laugh and the class looks at me like I’m insane then start to smile when they realize they were taken in. Providing this sort of surprise and entertainment is the reason so many sign up for my classes.

Unlike the rest of the class, Martha is neither smiling nor laughing. With a little training I bet she could do a hell of a death mask.

“Have I answered your question Mr. Schmidt?” I ask the screen.

“Put your lock back on and sit down Mr. Taylor,” I add over my shoulder as I return to the stage.

“It would seem we can classify roughly half of the studio class as ‘com worshipers’ and the other half as not. I challenged Mr. Taylor with a belief system different from his own and when I pushed him hard enough I thought for a moment he might make the fatal mistake of attacking me. Now does everyone see how a difference in belief systems can lead to conflict?”

Heads nod but Martha’s hand shoots up and I stare at it for a moment. I’ve never had a student raise their hand to ask a question before, they always use the electronics built into their desks.

“Ms. McLeod is it? Did you have a question?”

“I don’t think you’ve explained anything at all.”

Unlike Mr. Taylor’s challenge, this is precisely the sort of challenge I’ve been seeking from my students.

I find I can’t help myself, I smile at her.

“Is that so? Go on.”

“Choosing to wear a com isn’t a belief system. It’s a useful thing, a tool, something we can prove exists. Cultists have nothing but their faith.”

“Believer’s had nothing? Are you sure?”

Martha goes stoned face when I emphasize “had”, like I’ve caught her in a lie. Ironically, cult hunters are trained to refer to religion in the past tense so I imagine she’s worried she just blew her chance of joining the corps.

“The tablets that contained the Ten Commandments were physical objects,” I continue. “The eyewitness reports of Christ’s miracles and his resurrection were something.”

“A tablet just proves someone chiseled words into stone, not that it was done by some supernatural being and eyewitness accounts of miracles are just unverifiable stories. They’re both far from scientific proof for the existence of God.”

She’s very difficult to read with these lights in my face. I’m getting no eye or facial movement.

“Let me ask you a question,” I say. “If I told you a comet the size of Australia was on course to hit the earth in a year would you be worried?”

“Of course not. We’ve changed the course of space objects in the past, a year would give us time to reach it and deal with it despite that kind of size.”

“So even though it’s much larger in size than anything man has done in the past, you believe mankind would use its technology to save itself. Even if it meant creating new technologies? Technologies you can’t see or touch today?”

“Yes, of course.”

“So isn’t it fair to say you believe in something you don’t know for certain exists or will exist a year from now? Wasn’t that the essence of faith in gods?”

Martha takes a moment to think.

“It’s not the same thing. A belief man will come up with tangible solutions to a tangible problem can’t be compared to believing that some all-powerful force is watching over us.”

I reflect on her argument for a moment then continue.

“Okay. For the sake of argument let’s say the solution to the comet problem is reached only because two scientists happen to run into each other on vacation and start talking. Let’s even say one of them was supposed to go on vacation a week earlier but his plans were changed at the last minute because he got sick. If he hadn’t been sick the meeting would never have happened, the solution would never have been found and bam the earth is a pile of space rubble.”

I smack my fist into my palm.

“Was the fate of mankind just saved by a coincidence? Was it just a random occurrence like the random mutations that allowed mankind to evolve in the first place? Or should we make just a tiny bit of room in our thoughts to consider that an external force could have been at work to make the meeting happen?”

The question is, can YOU Cephas make a tiny bit of room in YOUR thoughts?

Martha opens her mouth to speak but I cut her off by raising my hand and earn a sour look.

“There’s no need to answer the question because this is a history class and not a philosophy class. The fact is that in 2036 Jews and Muslims did believe in God and both did believe their belief system was the true belief and therefore they did drop bombs on each other and wipe out three billion people. So to get back to the question Mr. Schmidt asked of ‘why did they do it’, the answer may very well be they believed God had directed them to do it. Hence we call it the Final Holy War”.

I pause for a moment as I consider ways to challenge them further.

“However, for those who are interested in ancient philosophy, perhaps the more interesting question to ask is whether mankind has really grown beyond faith or if we’ve simply replaced those worship systems with a different kind of worship system. Could the argument be made that instead of worshiping one or more Gods, mankind now worships himself and his technology? Are Ms. McLeod’s faith in man’s ingenuity and Mr. Taylor’s desire to wear a com at all times just forms of self-worship of mankind? Anyone who cares to turn in an essay on that question will receive extra credit.”

It’s an empty offer. Nobody’s ever done an extra credit assignment for me before. Nobody’s even cared about their grade before.

Chapter Three

I go to my office and try to read the news but with a summons from the corps hanging over my head I can’t focus so I give up and start walking home. The com is out of my ear again. Contractual obligations to wear it be damned, I’d rather think.

Ahead of me I see some female students walking to their classes, one of them drops a banana peel on the ground and a flying litter drone swoops in from nowhere to pick it up and carry it to a trash can. It’s a warm day so they all take off their shirts and continue walking topless. Public nudity is also a protected form of self-expression. My thoughts drift to their half-naked bodies and what everyone on the planet would do with them. Everyone not saddled with maintaining the persona of The Cult Hunter that is.

I look away.

Some male students approach the topless girls which causes me to pay attention again. I’ve seen it so many times, it’s obvious what’ll happen next. The boys will invite the girls for sex and will most likely be successful, though hopefully not here on the sidewalk. Having sex with a stranger is supposed to be the simplest thing in the world. Legal adulthood is tied to reaching reproductive maturity so most people have had multiple partners by their early teens and dozens if not hundreds by the time they reach my age. But not me.

For many years I explained it away by concluding that entering college at ten years old caused me to miss the usual preteen education on the subject of girls. Later I convinced myself that being the Cult Hunter included seclusion but I’ve come to realize there’s more to it than that. I can’t explain why but every time I’ve been pursued by an attractive woman for sex I’ve found myself backing away. No matter how much the world assures me random sex with strangers is “right”, something inside me assures me it isn’t.

I observe every subtle facial motion, every voice inflection, and every bit of body language the boys use and commit it to memory.

I can duplicate virtually any facial or body movement. Why does this stuff elude me?

I’m watching and listening so intently to the guys’ pickup methods that as I pass the group I don’t look away when one of the girls smiles at me.

“You’re Cephas Paulson, The Cult Hunter.”

Focus. Use the moves you just learned from these guys. Maybe it’s possible.

I turn to face her and try to find a balance between what I’ve just observed and what’s expected of me when I interact with the public. She’s topless but when any other man would complement her by “enjoying the view”, I instinctively look over her shoulder.

You’re blowing it. The boys didn’t look over her shoulder.

I can’t overcome instinct and continue to look at a tree behind her.

“That’s right.”

Inflection was all wrong to express interest in her.

“We’re just going to my place. Would you like to join us?”

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation. As a local celebrity it happens quite often. The boys don’t look happy with the plan change.

Avoid eye contact. Maybe you can do this if you don’t look at her eyes.

I can’t help myself, I look her in the eyes. Part of me instantly wishes I hadn’t while another part flushes with relief that I did. I tell myself that I can see a tiny sparkle in her eyes but I don’t really believe it. I imagine myself accepting her invitation and watching the final bit of light leaving her eyes in my bedroom, making her into another doll. I guess a look of sadness or maybe revulsion crosses my face at the thought of it because she takes a half step backwards.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I guess that was presumptuous. I’m mean, you’re The Cult Hunter and all.”

Give up Cephas. It’s easier to just be alone.

I switch back to my usual public persona but chance a look at her body and secretly wonder what might have been possible if circumstances were different.

“Not at all. You’re quite lovely, really. It’s just that I have some urgent business that can’t wait.”

She backs further away from me. The boys are pleased and promise to make it up to her. One of them even says he knows a cult hunter “game” they can play.

I’m left on the sidewalk wondering why this happens every time. Everyone assumes I have countless conquests and more partners waiting in line. It’s easier to just maintain the illusion than risk releasing the secret that The Cult Hunter is actually a virgin. That headline would hit millions of coms in just seconds. The corps might or might not deny it, might or might not block further transmission of the information and might or might not make people disappear over it.

I turn to resume my walk and find myself face to face with Martha McLeod.

“You enjoy that, don’t you?” she asks.

Before I can think what to say or what persona I should project I flash her a smile but quickly recover and feign indifference with my tone and body language.

“Enjoy what?”

“Having half-naked women throw themselves at you. I bet it’s a real ego trip.”

She’s searching for ways to throw me off balance. I don’t know if I’d call her demeanor towards me hostile, but she’s definitely bent on challenging me at every turn.

Instead of responding right away I allow my training to kick in and take my time looking over her features. I know most of my students faces only from a screen or in the studio with the lights in my face so it’s rare for me to meet one close up. Her face is quite striking with delicate features, a light complexion and long blonde hair pulled back into a bouncy ponytail. At first I’m not sure why I find her so striking until I realize, like me, she’s not enhanced.

Here it comes, time to look at her eyes.

Years of cult hunter training keep me from betraying the surprise I feel when our eyes meet. Martha’s blue eyes sparkle like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I just keep staring into them because… well, because I can.

“Well?” she asks without breaking the stare.

A slight dilation of her pupils. She’s sincerely interested in my answer.

“Well what?”

“I asked you a question. Does the mighty Cult Hunter enjoy women throwing themselves at him like that?”

I regain my focus on the conversation without breaking eye contact.

“No. I don’t.”

One millimeter upward eyebrow twitch. She’s surprised by the answer but tried not to show it.

“What would be the challenge in that?” I ask. “And speaking of challenges, thank you for challenging me in class today, it makes the class so much more interesting.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing compared to the challenges you faced when you were an active cult hunter,” Martha replies. “That’s really what I want to hear more about, but the university wouldn’t let me into your advanced classes until I took this one.”

What is it about those eyes?

“I take it you’ve read my books?”

“I’ve read a lot more than just your books. I’ve read everything ever written about you.”

Yet there you stand with crossed arms. You clearly don’t like me.

“Books are often embellished for the audience Ms. McLeod. The greatest contributions I made to the corps were little more than using a combination of specialized knowledge and good powers of observation.”

“Modesty from the Cult Hunter? Now that is a surprise. You cracked a code that everyone said was impossible to crack. You personally captured more Christians than all other cult hunters combined.”

Maintaining eye contact has been easy and natural, but my eyes involuntarily flicker to the ground from a moment when she mentions what everyone considers to be the greatest achievement of my life. She cocks her head slightly.

She noticed that?

“Forget what you’ve read about me. I just solve puzzles Ms. McLeod.”

Martha opens her mouth to reply but thinks better of saying whatever was on her mind. I take the opportunity to change the subject.

“Was this a chance meeting Ms. McLeod? Or was there something I can do for you?”

Her head moves back a centimeter, like I’ve caught her in some sort of act.

“I was just walking home, but when I saw you I wanted to ask a question. In the comet problem you asked if we should make just a tiny bit of room in our thoughts to consider that an external force could have been at work in saving the earth. I’m just wondering how you would answer the question. What sort of external force were you trying to suggest? It sounded like you were leaving the door open to the possibility God exists.”

That’s the boldest statement ever made to me by a student. And on a public street no less. Who is this woman?

“This is why I teach History instead of Philosophy Ms. McLeod. The danger of Philosophy is that it often asks seemingly unanswerable questions. Unsolved puzzles if you will. Mankind hates unsolved puzzles and too often creates illogical explanations for things current science can’t explain, but will explain in the future. That could be the origin of man believing in gods.”

A twitch of the corner of her mouth. My response made her happy, like I fulfilled a preconceived notion she was holding about me.

“I understand,” she replies. “You weren’t leaving the door open to God’s existence, you just didn’t complete your thoughts about scientific explanations.”

“Solving puzzles requires asking the right questions at the right time, Ms. McLeod. You just didn’t ask the right question.”

“Really? So what’s the right question?”

“The question you should ask me is what we would say if we could exhaust all reasonable scientific explanation and the puzzle remains unsolved.”

“You’re cracking open the door again?” she asks.

She narrowed her eyes. My answer conflicted with her preconceived notions.

“I’m an unsolved puzzle too Ms. McLeod.”

 

***

 

As I continue walking home I think about unsolved puzzles. From an early age no puzzle has ever held me for long. By the time I was six years old I had moved to “real life” puzzles like mysteries and crime scene investigation. I even helped the local police solve a crime when I was seven. By the time I was eight…well, I guess my interests changed in a hurry when I was eight. That’s the year my parents were killed and my Aunt Jennifer moved into my life. That’s when my talent for solving puzzles put me on the path to being The Cult Hunter.

I look at the sidewalk in front of me and think about paths in life. Do I keep walking straight and take the shorter path home or do I turn to the right and take the longer but sunnier path?

My father’s side of my family tree has long been known in Atheist circles and once she became my guardian, my nasty old aunt wasted no time in making me part of the family legacy. She saw the potential to develop my puzzle solving skills into a weapon in the war to eradicate religion. She made me spend countless hours studying the works of prominent Atheists until I knew their doctrines cold.

I smile inwardly at the thought of knowing the doctrines “cold”. There is no more apt word than that. I found no “life” in their message.

Next I studied the history of each of the “Abrahamic” religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Of course, since I had no access to the ancient holy books it wasn’t quite a true history, it was the history of religion as written by modern Atheists. She even had me learn the ancient languages of Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Aramaic. That seemed particularly pointless considering the computer could translate those languages, but she was insistent. I was happy to do the work just to have an excuse to spend less time with her.

Jennifer even saw to it that I ended up in the cult hunter corps. I was barely thirteen at the time and fresh out of college. I proposed taking some time to travel the world but she made a few calls to the right people and within days the corps made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Literally, a notice of mandatory public service showed up at my door in the hands of a large agent who told me to pack a bag.

The first day on the job I took a lot of teasing from the older guys for being the “boy genius”, but I must admit, I was in my element. The corps had fascinating puzzles for me to solve and they were getting nowhere with them. Within a week of my arrival the teasing stopped as I started putting together the pieces in front of me.

I remember how hard I laughed when I first saw how the Christians were running circles around the corps’ best agents. The old men were dependent on computer code breaking algorithms and had no understanding that puzzles are a human art. As they watched their computers chugging through data the nation’s best investigators couldn’t even see the symbols <>< in a communication looked like a fish and signaled the beginning of an embedded message. That observation alone got me assigned to “Special Projects” and tasked with uncovering Christian communications. In two months the old guys who teased me were all working under me.

I wish I could accuse the corps of forcing me to work as a child laborer, but I can’t. I loved code breaking and would willingly spend countless hours poring over transcripts sent to or from suspected Christians until I rooted out the puzzle pieces and fit them together. One of the old guys even scratched a tally marks in the paint above my office door to represent the number of times they found me in the morning asleep at my desk.

As each new code was broken the government set up computer systems that could monitor virtually all electronic communications worldwide and search them for the written or spoken word patterns that I uncovered. The kill teams took it from there.

After I found the modern code words and symbols Christians were using in their earlier communications, they switched to using ancient languages to communicate. I don’t know if my education by Aunt Jennifer was all part of her careful calculations or if it was just a lucky guess but she’d made me the only person in the world who reads and speaks ancient Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Aramaic.

As I broke the codes based on ancient languages I went from being the kid genius to corps legend. When I’d walk the halls people would stop to let me pass, some would even bow their heads. For some people becoming a legend provides them with everything they want, fame, money, sex. Maybe those people even find happiness. For me it seemed like becoming a legend slowly transformed the joy of solving puzzles into isolation, loneliness and pressure. Nobody else knew it but I could see that each time I would crack a code the Christians would develop a new system that was more intricate than the last. We were in a game of cat and mouse where I was slowly creating a better mouse.

I look at the sidewalk again and snort a laugh when I notice that it’s full of cracks. No matter which path you choose there’s no avoiding cracks in life.

Then they finally did it, the Christians stumped me with what would later be known as “The Final Code”. I could see that they were still communicating, but I couldn’t decipher any of it. Never in my life had a puzzle held me for so long and as the weeks turned to months I became more distant and moody. By the time a year had passed my days were spent sitting in my office staring at the data, refusing to speak with anyone.

Maybe it was desperation, maybe sitting alone in the dark had driven me insane but that’s when I crossed a line that even a cult hunter isn’t allowed to cross. Luckily, the gamble worked and soon the Christian codes began to unravel. The funny thing is, nobody even asked me to explain how I’d cracked the final code. Maybe it never occurred to them that I could have crossed some lines, maybe they never cared where the lines were drawn in the first place. Either way, the secret of how the code was broken stayed with me.

I took my findings straight to the Director and even he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Christian communications were everywhere, once you knew how to look. That’s when the saying “There’s no such thing as a retired Cult Hunter” was born. The Director reactivated everyone who’d ever served on a kill team and unleashed them all at once. And to say “unleashed” isn’t an understatement, they were like packs of wild dogs. People were dragged from their homes in the middle of the night and shot in the street. That’s what the classified reports said anyway, the news was never allowed to report any of it and the general public went back to their favorite shows and drugs.

The Christian code master, Zach, who’d stumped me for a year was caught, I made sure of that. He was so sure his system couldn’t be broken that he’d embedded his name and location into several communications. He’d even included a personal taunt he thought I’d never see, it said “Zach 1, Cephas 0”.

The one thing the corps didn’t let me do was speak with anyone they arrested. I argued that just few hours of simple conversation would help me to understand the Christian mind and lead to new breakthroughs. I practically begged the Director to let me meet Zach, but he wouldn’t budge. He said I’d won the war and he was right. With their codes broken and Zach in custody it wasn’t long before all Christian communications disappeared worldwide. Unable to communicate on a large scale, the corps assumed Christianity would soon fall apart from disorganization.

I order my com to open the front door and enter my house. Sitting on a small table inside the door is a favorite three dimensional puzzle from when I was kid, which I pick up and roll around on my fingers. Most people never solve it but I first did it when I was four. It was my most prized possession and I carried it around like other kids might carry a teddy bear.

After the dust settled from me breaking the final code the corps held a ceremony in my honor. My Aunt Jennifer dug the puzzle which I now hold in my hand out of my old room and presented it to me as a gift. “You are the Puzzle Master. This puzzle represents your triumph,” she said and the entire corps clapped.

“No Aunt Jennifer, this puzzle represents joy,” I say to my empty house and hold the puzzle up in the sunlight. “Or at least it used to.”

I set the puzzle back on the table and wonder where those childhood emotions went. How did the sense of joy and wonder that puzzles used to bring me disappear from my heart? How is it that in breaking the Christians I somehow broke myself?

At just fifteen years old I announced my retirement. Or so I thought. From the corps’ perspective I’d saved the world from another holy war and they wanted credit. More than that, they wanted a war hero and I was it so together we created “The Cult Hunter”. A picture of me sitting in a dark room breaking codes wasn’t the image they wanted as their new face for the cult hunter corps. According to the official press releases I was the prototype for the new cult hunter corps. They told the world I’d kicked in doors, jumped out of planes without a parachute and engaged in hand to hand combat with crazed Christians bent on destroying the world. They even released a couple of movies.

My role in breaking codes was almost an afterthought in the propaganda, which suited me.

You loved the deal they offered. You loved the idea of living behind a mask where you could hide your true role in all that death.

Once the initial public relations campaign was over the corps allowed me to finish a Ph.D. in History and announced my “retirement” to teaching where I would create future cult hunters for them.

 

 

So that’s the 10% that the 500 pound gorilla will allow. There are 30 more chapters, the Prologue, the Epilogue and a sneak peek at the second book in the series waiting for you at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MXW3KLL.


Puzzle Master "Free Taste" Edition

Cephas Paulson was born to solve puzzles that nobody else can solve, a talent the U.S. government has exploited with deadly results. Living in 2202 A.D., his is a world dominated by apathy and hedonism where religion is banned and the few remaining Christians hide in the shadows. Known worldwide as “The Cult Hunter”, Cephas is largely responsible for putting them there. Now living a quiet life as a Religious History professor, Cephas is reluctantly called out of retirement when the government sends him on a high stakes mission designed to crush Christianity once and for all. As the puzzles begin to unravel, Cephas struggles to find the one answer that has always eluded him, the solution to his own desire to explore faith rather than destroy it. To do so, he finds himself walking a dangerous line between two worlds and two beautiful women. One represents the temptations of the outwardly utopian world of man while the other the Godly world that he’s secretly trying to understand. Unfortunately, neither these worlds nor these women are truly what they appear to be, leaving Cephas to wonder if “The Cult Hunter” has become the hunted. Luckily, like the Apostle Paul, Cephas’ learns that God often chooses His champions from the least likely among us and even “The Cult Hunter” has a place in His plan.

  • Author: T.J. McKenna
  • Published: 2017-02-14 00:05:11
  • Words: 12041
Puzzle Master Puzzle Master