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A Just Farewell



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Brian S. Wheeler


A Just Farewell

Brian S. Wheeler


Published by Brian S. Wheeler at Shakespir


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This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.


Copyright © 2015 by Brian S. Wheeler



A Just Farewell

Brian S. Wheeler


Chapter 1 – Escaping It All

Chapter 2 – Elevating a Holy War

Chapter 3 – The Ultimate Answer

Chapter 4 – Slender Shoulders Holding the Weight of the World

Chapter 5 – Adultery Committed Against the Maker

Chapter 6 – Time to be a Man

Chapter 7 – A Lamb Taken to Slaughter

Chapter 8 – Blessed Hands

Chapter 9 – Scratching at the Sky

Chapter 10 – A Boy Given a Purpose

Chapter 11 – In the Wink of an Eye

Chapter 12 – A Sight to Inspire Prayer

About the Writer


“I built my castles in the sky after I realized that dogma would conquer our world.” – Sebastian Knopfler, architect and engineer of the castle-class space stations.


Chapter 1 – Escaping It All

“Tell me again, sweetie, what you’re going to be doing once we start our new lives on the planet Regis?”


“We’re not going to live on a planet, hun. We’re going to be living on a moon.”


“Can a person live on a moon, Blake?”


“Rachel, you’d be amazed to learn how many places we can live out there in the stars.” Blake squeezed his fiancé’s hand. “They’ll train me to be a welder while we wait in one of the space stations for the moon colony to finish settlement preparations. Once we reach our new home, I’ll be helping to build an entire new city for people just like us.”


Rachel grinned. “I’m so proud of you. It makes me so happy to imagine you building something new. Everything on this old planet Earth is ruined and wasted. But we’re going to escape it all, and you’re going to help build something great again. It thrills my heart, Blake.”


The line of passengers that curved in front of Rachel and Blake slowly trudged another few steps closer to the massive rockets waiting for their occupants on the magnetic rail tracks that would launch the machines into the heavens. Armed sentries patrolled every inch of the launch facility, and they removed passengers from the line for random pat-downs for weaponry and contraband. Rachel gripped Blake’s hand as a pair of the uniformed sentries pulled a young man out of the line only a few meters ahead of their position. One sentry trained his rifle upon the trembling stranger while his companion rummaged through the single, small bag that was the only piece of luggage any of those waiting for a rocket ride would be allowed to take with them as they started a new life amid the stars.


Rachel rested her head on Blake’s shoulder as the sentries moved further along the line. “Do you think the savages will follow us?”


“There’s no way they could follow us,” Blake smiled. “Look at all the security around this launch facility. Look at all the soldiers guarding this place. There’s just no way any of those savages could sneak aboard one of these rockets.”


“But do you think they would try to follow us anyway? Do you think they would want to follow us into the stars?”


Blake laughed very softly. “Why would they want to do that? They’ll have the entire Earth for themselves. They can do whatever they want with it. They can just go on blowing things up until there’s not a living thing left to butcher in name of their god. And how would any of those savages follow us even if they wanted to? They know nothing of building rockets and space stations. They know nothing about travelling the vast distance between the stars. They can hardly count beyond ten. The savages haven’t built anything for generations, and so they get just what they deserve. They’ll get to live in all the ash and rubble their bombs created.”


“So there’s no way they can reach us after we lift away in one of those rockets?”


Blake winked. “They can’t even reach us now.”


Rachel relaxed her grip upon Blake and did her best to be optimistic, though the site of so many armed sentries patrolling the launch facility still made her uneasy. A new life awaited them, one in which they would no longer have to live in fear of a savage infiltrating their city to detonate a maiming and killing bomb in the middle of their loved ones and neighbors. They would start a new world on a welcoming moon, and they would never be intimidated into worshipping any god, nor adhere to any bearded cleric’s faith. Most of all, they would build. Rachel smiled to think of the gardens she could plant, of how fresh tomatoes might taste, of how she might even find the time and the material to learn to paint watercolors or play an old-time piano. The savages may have made such simple pleasures beyond reach on the remains of old and wasted Earth, but the stars would remain far beyond the reach of the dogma that decimated what had once been a beautiful world.


“How many children do you think we’ll have?”


Blake kissed Rachel’s cheek. “We’ll have three girls and two boys. We’ll also have a cat and a dog.”


“I hadn’t thought of a cat and a dog. I’d very much like that.”


“I tell you, Rachel, you’re going to be amazed at the things we can have amid the stars.”


  • * * * *


Chapter 2 – Elevating a Holy War

In one hand, Abraham carefully loaded his brush with orange pigment. In the other hand, he gently held the burrowing cockroach. He was proud of the brush he had crafted with strands of his own hair, just as he was proud of the paints he had mixed from the dyes he had pilfered from his mother’s loom. He feared to think how badly his father would beat him should it be discovered how he idly wasted time painting the shells of the bugs he considered his pets and friends. Yet the sense of pleasure and pride that Abraham felt whenever he looked upon the painted shells of his insect friends seemed worth the danger in the young boy’s estimation.


“Hold still, Oscar. Your shell will look wonderful with some swirls on all that orange.”


The village’s great horn shrilled just as Abraham’s brush neared the bug’s shell, and the cockroach tensed. Abraham knelt to set the bug upon the ground, and his friend scurried for the chamber’s corners as the horn echoed through the tunnels that composed the subterranean home of Abraham’s family.


“Abraham! Hurry to the ladder before father learns you again hesitate to answer the clerics’ summons! He won’t be so merciful with you if you’re once again the last of the village to climb up to the surface and answer that great horn’s call!”


Abraham cringed at the sound of his brother Ishmael’s voice, and he hurriedly hid the paper cups that contained his paints into a box he kept far beneath his cot. Quickly, Abraham sealed the container that held the sugar he saved from his morning tea. Ishmael would be very happy to report to their father how Abraham wasted a resource as valuable as sugar to coerce his cockroaches to come out of the shadows so that he could decorate their shells. His father and brother would tell him that sugar and paint couldn’t be wasted on such filthy bugs, and they would tell him that it would be best to simply squash those cockroaches beneath the heel of his boot. They would tell Abraham that his time would be better served in the study of the Maker’s Holy Book. Thus Abraham knew that he was not the only living creature in jeopardy of hurt should his brush, paints and sugar be discovered, and so he frantically hid all his secret treasures before Ishmael saw he had any of them in his possession. Ishmael had felt the hide of their father’s belt many times, and Ishmael would take great pleasure in witnessing someone other than himself feel that belt’s sting.


“I’ll drag you out of this home if I must, Abraham! I’ll not let you bring our family any shame because you tremble beneath the ground!”


“I’m coming!” Abraham’s voice cracked. “I’m nearly at the ladder now!”


Abraham bolted into the largest chamber of his underground home that served as his family’s great-room. The family’s most precious carpets, heirlooms passed among the generations, spread about the walls and floor to decorate the room in which his family gathered six times a day to answer their clerics’ call to prayer. Though the horn shrilled through the chamber, Abraham’s mother remained seated at her loom just as she was during any day at such a time, weaving a network of patterns and lines upon another cape to relate the another story of another of their tribe’s heroes. Though the clerics taught him that the Maker frowned upon any sentiment a boy might feel towards his mother that would in any way differentiate her from any other woman in the tribe, Abraham remained very proud of his mother. She was among the village’s best weavers and seamstresses, a woman the clerics turned towards whenever a great achievement or observance in the honor of the Maker demanded a very special and complex pattern to be threaded into a hero or cleric’s cape. Abraham knew his mother was very pious, and he knew that her soul would neither dance nor tremble when that horn wailed above the ground, knew she would not allow that horn to distract her while she worked her thread.


Abraham stole a glance at his mother while he paused at the ladder’s bottom rung. He always felt afraid whenever the clerics’ horn called him to the earth’s surface, for he hated to look into the sky and see the blocky, gray castles built by the unbelievers orbiting overhead and casting such enormous shadows upon the ground. He had always paid too much attention to the stories his grandfather had told him concerning the days when the castles still rained fire and death down from their purgatory between the Earth and the Maker’s celestial kingdom. He had ignored the advice of his father, and he had paid too close attention to those ghastly tales his grandfather relished recounting until his youngest grandson trembled and feared the dark. Abraham had discounted the clerics’ warning to never place too much faith into the words expressed by the elderly few who the Maker waited so long to invite into his heaven. Abraham had listened too intently to his grandfather, and though a full season had passed since his grandfather finally died for his Maker, Abraham still hesitated at the bottom rung of that ladder.


Abraham’s mother refused to peer away from her work, even if to only encourage her youngest son, and her final child, to climb that ladder as the clerics’ horn commanded of him. Her face, covered in the dark, tattoo swirls that adorned the features of every woman among the tribes, conveyed no indication of noticing Abraham at all. Dark, thick glasses shrouded his mother’s eyes, so that no one could tell Abraham’s mother apart from any other woman on account of her eye color. Her hair, chemically treated until it was the same silver hue that the Holy Book preached pleased the Maker and was worn by all pious women, didn’t so much as sway as Abraham’s mother kept her focus locked upon her work.


“The Maker reserves the most terrible level of Hell for cowards, brother!” Ishmael’s face appeared a second before his hand stretched into the hole and clutched Abraham’s hair to painfully pull his younger brother onto the ladder’s higher rungs. “I’ll drag you all the way across the dirt if I must.”


“But what if the unbelievers hurl their fire upon us from their castles in the sky?”


Ishmael grinned “Then they will make martyrs of us all, and you will find yourself pleasured by virgins in heaven, brother, though you never passed through the year of your man-making.”


The sun had just dipped below the horizon, but the dusk air remained humid and hot, so that Abraham pined to return to the crisper and cooler confines of his underground home. He resisted that urge and hurried to keep up with his brother as they ran towards the source of that blaring horn, a difficult challenge for a younger brother whose older brother was so quick and athletic. Ishmael’s athleticism always pleased their father, and such strengths had allowed Ishmael to quickly heal from the cleric’s final ritual that marked the final passage of a tribal boy into a tribal man. Thus Abraham’s lungs burned for the effort to stay within Ishmael’s reach as they ran to answer the clerics’ summoning horn.


Abraham wanted to fall to his knees when they reached the metal scaffolding, upon which stood the seven, bearded clerics of their tribe. But Ishmael again clutched Abraham’s hair and forced his younger brother to stand.


“You’re lucky we arrived before the clerics silenced their horn, little brother. You’ll not feel father’s belt tonight, and you’ll be able to feast with the rest of us. But I’ll not let you crumble onto the ground, no matter how your heart thunders, and no matter how your lungs burn. I’ll make sure you stand like a proud warrior.”


Abraham gasped to recover his breath as Ishmael gripped his shoulder. The moon was already full and bright, and night would offer very little cover from the eyes of the unbelievers in the castle that seemed to hover directly over their village of subterranean tunnels and chambers. The castles moved overhead like a clockwork, and it was easy to gauge the time of day by the position of those fortresses in the sky. The clerics taught Abraham that those castles were leagues above the ground, and that the Maker trapped them in a dark, cold and killing void that was set neither in mankind’s Earth nor in the Maker’s heaven. Abraham’s mind trembled to consider the immensity of those castles, for their shadows covered so much ground though they were floated so far away. Pinpoints of blue and pearl lights blinked upon the castle overhead, whose ramparts bristled with gun barrels and antennae, and Abraham shuddered to think that each blinking light was a window through which the unbelievers regarded him.


“Why have we been called out of the ground when a castle is directly overhead?” Abraham whispered to Ishmael.


Ishmael suddenly slapped Abraham across the face, and none of the men assembled in the crowd before the clerics’ scaffold tower appeared to notice the sound of Ishmael’s palm across Abraham’s cheek.


“Shut your mouth and be quiet. The clerics will tell you soon enough all you need to know.”


Abraham didn’t wish to invite a second slap from his brother, and thus he didn’t rub at the stinging side of his face. Instead, he let his eyes drift upon the capes of his neighbors who gathered at the foot of cleric’s tower of scaffolding. Each man wore a cape that was carefully woven in the patterns and markings that told histories and stories to those versed in the tribe’s language of thread and symbols. Abraham’s study of that expression beneath the tutelage of the clerics had only just begun, and so the boy allowed his eyes to consider the design that was unique to each cape. The capes told Abraham which men were fathers, and among those fathers those who were proud to have had sons who sacrificed themselves to the Maker’s will. The capes told Abraham which men possessed multiple wives in their home, and which still looked to marry off daughters before the end of the calendar year. The capes told Abraham which men had waged war against the unbelievers, and they told the boy who he might visit to receive a medicine to heal a sick cow or goat. And Abraham recognized the men who wore capes that marked them as guilty of striking a neighbor, or of taking the Maker’s name in vain. Abraham was proud of his ability to decipher the language expressed on those capes, and he was pleased to think that such information would remain unknown to whatever eyes looked upon them from that castle hovering above their community of holes and homes.


“My sons will not forget this day. Abraham, you please me by not being the last to arrive at the clerics’ summons.”


Abraham’s father, Rahbin, materialized from the crowd of men, and Abraham cringed as Rahbin extended a hand towards his head. But Abraham soon smiled as his father patted his shoulder. Abraham was thankful that his father was in a good mood, for Rahbin rarely smiled anywhere near the presence of the clerics.


“This is going to be a glorious occasion.” Rahbin playfully punched Ishmael’s arm. “Tonight, we will please the Maker by killing thousands of unbelievers. My sons, you should feel blessed and proud, for many of your cousins will soon be delivered to the Maker as martyrs.”


The clerics waited for the last of the village men to arrive at their tower before silencing their blaring horn, an indication that the night was to be one of celebration rather than of condemnation. The Maker’s divine law, as expressed within the Holy Book, allowed only a tribe’s clerics to grow beards, symbols of their spiritual strength. The Maker demanded that no cleric’s beard could grow any longer than that sported by the high cleric, and the high cleric who stepped to the front of the scaffold and stretched a hand towards the gathering possessed a beard that stretched to his chest, a proud and gray beard worn by a high cleric who had served a long tenure overlooking the souls of his flock.


“Praise be to the Maker!”


“Praise be to the Maker!” The men returned the cleric’s mantra in a booming shout.


“There are no stars, no planets and no moons!” The cleric’s voice lifted high into the darkening sky to challenge the castle that hovered above. “There is only the Maker, and all that glimmers in the heavens are but the Maker’s possessions and treasures!”


“Praise be to the Maker!” The crowd shouted in reply.


The high cleric pointed towards the darkening, Eastern sky. “Our tribes have served as the Maker’s tools since his breath imparted life to mankind. The Maker has looked through our ancestors’ eyes and has judged the world. Through our hands, the Maker has punished the great devil and his legion of unbelievers to protect the glory of his creation. Tonight marks a momentous occasion in our service to our Maker, for we will carry the Maker’s retribution into the great devil’s purgatory and punish the unbelievers, who foolishly think they might hide from our Maker. We shall burn the unbelievers from the sky just as we have eradicated them from the Earth, and those who refuse the creator’s will shall learn there is no world the glorious Maker cannot reach.”


A great rumble floated upon the wind, and Abraham turned towards the eastern sky and watched a dozen long, orange plumes of fire rise towards the night’s twinkling stars, blinking in the brilliance of the bright arcs of light and fire that streaked across the sky. Abraham had never seen the rockets rise in such numbers. The unbelievers from the last of the blasphemous cities rode atop those trails of fire in their metallic craft to escape the Maker’s creation and law. They had lost the war, and the clerics preached that their great city was only ruin, and that the population of the unbelievers so dwindled upon the Earth that the tribes, when counted together, possessed far more souls. Abraham never doubted the clerics when they told him the time was coming when the tribes would ultimately eradicate the unbelievers from the Maker’s creation, regardless of the furious weapons the great devil supplied to his arrogant people. Abraham’s heart thrilled to watch the trails of fire rising against the dark sky, for a dozen fingers of fire said that the unbelievers were desperate to escape the Maker’s world, that the unbelievers realized they could never usurp the Maker’s throne.


“They’re running away,” Abraham whispered. “They know they’re weak, and they’re desperate to retreat into their sky castles.”


Ishmael spat upon the ground. “The Maker will butcher them even behind those walls.”


Rahbin smiled at his sons. “The Maker is far from delivering his final stroke.”


A searing light filled the eastern sky and blinded Abraham’s vision as a roar rolled in his ears. The ground trembled as the brilliant light faded and allowed Abraham’s eyes to see five of those rising plumes explode and expand into blossoms of red, orange and yellow just as a warm wind clapped against his face. The men shouted and cheered as secondary explosions continued to erupt as those five trails of fire tumbled back to the Earth.


“Praise be to the Maker!


The high cleric spoke from his tower. “Our holy warriors now fight the unbelievers in the sky. We will soon destroy those foul castles hovering overhead so that our Maker might rebuild according to his vision.”


“Praise be to the Maker!”


Ishmael embraced Abraham. “Our cousins bring us glory by giving themselves to bring those rockets down, brother. Pray that it’s not too late for us to play a part in shaping the Maker’s design.”


Rahbin gripped his sons’ hands. “Don’t fear, Ishmael. Listen closer to what the high cleric says. This is only a new beginning of our war against the unfaithful. It is not an end. We’ve only cleansed the unbelievers from the Earth, and now we must erase them from the purgatory they inhabit between the Maker’s heaven and our ground. My sons will fight in the heavens like winged angels.”


“Praise be to the Maker!”


The men of the village continued to chant as the surviving plumes of fire lifted higher into the heavens on their journey to those castles in the sky. After the last plume faded, the clerics again blared their horn, and the men descended their ladders to return back beneath the Earth. No one locked their home that night to their neighbors, and the men moved freely from one chamber to another to taste the dishes other men’s wives prepared for their tribe’s celebratory feast. Many men sang, and many complimented their peers on the quality of craftsmanship expressed in their women’s looms. The clerics passed silently from one underground home to another throughout the night, where they meekly smiled and expressed their gratitude for the fine tea the man of each household served to them. And those clerics observed, and those clerics noted. Their war against the unbelievers remained young, and those bearded leaders suspected they needed to temper their flock before they might deliver their war to its next theater.


Abraham didn’t follow his brother and father into the chambers of his neighbors, and he instead retreated into his small chamber in his family’s underground home, where he coaxed his burrowing cockroach friend to return with a trail of sugar water.


“It’s a glorious night, Oscar.” The bug didn’t flinch as Abraham held it within his palm. “I’m going to finish painting your shell in swirls, and I’ll pray my that brush pleases the Maker.”


The rest of his burrowing cockroach companions soon appeared from his chamber’s shadows, and Abraham was pleased as he set his freshly-painted friend down so that the bug mingled with its insect family, all of them sporting shells painted in fresh decorations that glistened in the lantern’s flame. Abraham traced the shape of an oval with sugar water upon the floor, and he smiled as he watched his painted shells race around the circle.


  • * * * *


Chapter 3 – The Ultimate Answer

Governor Praxis sighed as General Thomas Harrison finished presenting his recommendation.


“Are there truly no better options, General? We’re talking about destruction on an unprecedented level.”


Governor Aldrich nodded. “We’re supposed to be the civilized ones, General. We’re supposed to be the ones evolved beyond this violence. But your proposal makes any atrocity ever committed by the tribes pale in comparison.”


Governor Spencer nervously tapped his finger upon his digital notepad. “Why not put all the castles’ laser batteries back into play and rain fire down on the tribes like we once did? Why not respond with that type of firepower?”


General Harrison refrained from immediately responding and instead poured himself a fresh glass of ice water from the pitcher set upon his desk positioned in front of the assembled governors of all fifty-one space stations. Every governor was in attendance to consider the appropriate response to the tribes’ latest act of terror; none could ignore the gravity of the tribes’ most recent attack. General Harrison anticipated reluctance to accept his proposal, for he had felt that reluctance himself when the engineers and scientists in the defense sector had introduced him to their ultimate answer to finally free themselves of the savage tribes’ menace. His years in his uniform gave him a familiarity with violence none of those governors seated in front of him could appreciate, but General Harrison wouldn’t fault any of those governors for balking in shock at the proposal. Given time, General Harrison felt confident all those governors would accept that proposal just as he had – only General Harrison worried the castles lacked the time needed for each governor to accept the ultimate answer’s wisdom.


General Harrison’s fingers danced atop his digital notepad to rewind the horrific video of those five rockets exploding in the night soon after they lifted towards the sanctuary of the castles. Each rocket had held close to a thousand civilians, and all of them were gone, victims of the tribal suicide bombers who had infiltrated among the passengers. The tribes had struck their worst blow yet, and General Harrison knew that each governor realized how the threat of savage tribes lifted closer and closer to their sanctuary space stations orbiting the ancient planet they all once called home.


“Five-thousand, three-hundred and sixty-two civilians and crewmen perished along with those rockets, gentlemen,” General Harrison calmly spoke. “They accomplished it all with only a handful of warriors. I’m afraid the tribes leave us no room for any kind of mercy.”


“And you think unleashing our castles’ laser cannons on them wouldn’t do any good?” Governor Spencer repeated his question.


“I believe it would be a waste of resources at a time when we need to marshal our energies to support, protect and expand our off-world settlement programs,” the general responded. “The tribes know how to avoid the brunt of our guns. Their tunnels burrow very deep, and they run very far away from the reach of our orbiting space stations. We might burn out a tribe or two, but it would come at a cost to our power reserves that I strongly believe would be better invested into the efforts of the colony worlds. However, no tribe would survive the execution of the ultimate answer.”


The governors mumbled and nodded towards one another. General Harrison watched their pens scribble across their digital notepads. He watched their office assistants hurry across the political aisles to confer with the office assistants of other governors. He was winning them, but was he winning them quickly enough?


The general cleared his throat. “How long have we feared this moment when the tribes would realize their ambition to deliver their bombs and their death beyond the confines of the planet? The tribes have infiltrated our rockets. What might’ve happened if those madmen waited to arrive at our castles before detonating their explosives? I shouldn’t need to remind anyone about how fragile our positions are here in orbit, about what might happen the moment there’s any kind of breach in these stations to expose us to the cold and killing vacuum of space.


“What happens when those tribes infiltrate one of our great starliners and ride it out to the Martian colonies? Or what happens when the tribes stowaway on one of the light-jumping freighters bound for the planet Regis? Then all the ancient fears, hatreds and gods have spilled into the heavens, leaving none of us any better off than we were before we braved our first steps into the stars. We’ve invested far too much to discover and reach peaceful worlds unblemished by superstition and bigotry. I haven’t fought and bled against the tribes for my entire life just so I can watch our dream for the heavens slip away thanks to those zealots.”


Governor Praxis leaned forward so that the microphone better captured his voice. “But, General Harrison, there’s no turning back, whatsoever, should we approve of your proposal. Once we press that button, it’s all gone. All of it, as incredible as that is to imagine. Are you saying that we have no other options?”


General Harrison’s voice didn’t waver. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”


Governor Aldrich’s microphone buzzed. “General, I hope you understand why we feel the enormity of your proposal requires unanimous approval before your ultimate answer can be implemented. Are you willing to accept that?”


“I am, on the condition that the governors take two votes on the matter.”


Another murmur of governors rolled through the chamber, and the general recognized the moment for the first vote was at hand as he watched governors hurry across the aisles to confer directly with their peers. Governance between the space stations was always an ugly mess of anarchy for most of the time, because it in the end best represented the will of the people who had braved a rocket ride to reach the castles’ sanctuary. He loved to watch all the mumbling disarray, and he missed many a night’s sleep for worrying that the system of government possessed by those castles wouldn’t survive the clutches of the savage zealots and their clerics who wasted old Earth. His nightmares screamed to him that the unforgiving laws of the clerics was the natural way of the evolutionary and cruel chain of survival. He loved the confusion that surrounded him as the governors discussed the merits of his ultimate answer, but he feared any kind of debate would not survive the moment the clerics reached up from their underground shelters to sweep the castles and starships out of the stars.


Governor Praxis spoke after all his colleagues returned to their seats. “We’d like to go ahead with the vote now, General, unless you have any objections.”


“I’ve nothing else to offer,” General Harrison nodded.


General Harrison turned his attention to the large monitor that tallied the anonymous votes cast by the governors. He didn’t expect to win all fifty-one votes on that first round, and the general held a strategy on how he would proceed following the initial tally. He hoped, however, that the first round of voting would show him how close he was to receiving approval for the ultimate answer. He was unsure if winning a unanimous vote on such a terrible proposal was even possible. How far would he go to defend those castles orbiting the remains of a dying planet? Would he fight the governors themselves? Would he overthrow the government he loved, to institute his ultimate answer? General Harrison felt his stomach sour as he watched the votes click on the large monitor.


Those votes appeared very slowly at first, but they dotted the screen quickly as other governors followed their braver colleagues who first presented their answer. General Harrison emitted a sigh of relief into the microphone at the results, and he hoped the governors would forgive him for his tell of emotion. Did they expect their general to possess an uncaring machine’s heart? He would be a very poor commander indeed if he was composed of metal rather than bone. There was hope expressed on that monitor of votes. Fifty governors expressed their approval for the ultimate answer. The general only waited to see how the last vote fell.


The final mark flashed upon the monitor, and it was a negative vote against the ultimate answer.


“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” General Harrison spoke. “I trust all of you still agree to grant me that second round of voting.”


Governor Aldrich nodded. “We do, General Harrison. We assume that you’ll want to have that vote sooner rather than later giving the gravity of our situation.”


“I ask for one month.”


“Then you have it,” agreed Governor Praxis. “Barring no further calamity in the meanwhile, we will reconvene one month from now.”


General Harrison gathered his papers as the governors fled from the hall, likely to douse their trepidation in whiskey sours and gin and tonics served in the nearest castle bar. He only needed to secure one vote, and he had the mechanism in place to achieve it. Everything would come down to a single governor, and General Harrison didn’t envy the woman or man who would no doubt now felt the weight of old Earth fall upon his or her shoulders. He wondered who hesitated to approve of the ultimate answer, but he didn’t think he would have to wait for very long before learning the identity of the single governor who denied the plan’s terrible execution.


General Harrison knew the enormity of it all would bring that lone, abstaining governor to him.


  • * * * *


Chapter 4 – Slender Shoulders Holding the Weight of the World

Governor Kelly Chen slumped in her seat as she felt the weight of the world crush upon her slender shoulders. She had reluctantly run for the governor’s office of the Neo Madrid space station, agreeing to pursue the title only after her family and neighbors urged her to bring the pluck and focus she had displayed while maximizing her station’s yields from its hydroponic gardens to the chief executive’s office. Kelly had never craved power, had seldom craved attention or clout. Yet she sat in the front row of Neo Madrid’s great cinema and opera house all the same and considered whether or not she could agree to the destruction of an entire world.


Twenty-four hours ago, she had felt young in her middle age. Now, she felt old, and she feared looking into a mirror lest she discovered that her lustrous, black hair had overnight turned completely gray, or that wrinkles had gripped to the corners of her eyes and mouth until her skin looked like crumpled paper. She feared her body chased to keep pace with how the weight of the world aged her soul.


She had cleared her appointment calendar the moment she returned from the emergency session of governors held on the castle of New Paris and instantly retreated into her space station’s grand opera and cinema house, a majestic work of architecture that attracted guests from all fifty-one of the castles orbiting old Earth. Kelly always loved escaping into the cinema, and she considered the private sessions her title granted her with the cinema’s large screen the only benefit of her office she truly enjoyed. Whenever the stresses of her station taxed her, Kelly found the time to take a private seat in the front row of that cinema and watch a black and white movie of how Earth had been before the rise of the zealot savages, to smile at one of the colorful musicals films that celebrated a lost time. Kelly thought it incredible that such music and dancing, such romance and love, once existed on the planet’s surface. She would never have believed it if the builders responsible for the great castles hadn’t possessed the wisdom to archive the films that documented such a time, and watching those movies filled with children playing in green parks always gave her hope that the influence of the clerics could one day be eradicated so that the old world of laughter and mirth could be resurrected from the ashes that currently covered ancient Earth.


But she knew nothing could ever be recovered should she give her approval for the ultimate answer. She knew that the world that smiled upon her from the flickering, silver screen would never be anything more than a projector’s light the moment the castles instituted that plan that promised the destruction of the zealot savages.


Trespassing light flooded into the cinema as the visitor for whom she waited opened one of the entrances behind her to enter the dark theater.


“I’m down here, General Harrison,” and Kelly raised her hand to help the general as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. “I’ve saved a seat for you down here in the front row.”


Kelly felt her grip tighten on her seat. General Harrison had immediately answered her request for a consultation. He had set off from the military offices housed in the Black Rock space station the moment she asked to speak with him, and while the general traveled to reach Neo Madrid, Kelly had waited in her cherished cinema and done her best to calm her nerves by focusing her attention on what the world had once been.


“I’m grateful for your invitation to your castle, Governor Chen.”


General Harrison smiled very softly in his crisp military uniform, the ribbons from his tours fighting against the savages on Earth gleaming softly as the ghosts on the movie screen flickered. Kelly stood from her seat, and she winced at a dull ache that had settled into her knees, making her wonder if such discomfort was yet another indication of the years the decision facing her had overnight thrown upon her petite figure. The general accepted her hand, and Kelly was surprised by the warmth of the hand the general offered to her. She had expected the general’s fingers to feel like stone.


Kelly smiled. “I feel I should be thanking you, General. You’ve answered my request very quickly.”


“I wish I could’ve arrived sooner,” and the general waited for Kelly to sit first before he followed, “but each castle has a security checkpoint now that forces the space tram to stop at every entrance platform. They put me through a security scan at every stop. Even my uniform couldn’t slip me past the body x-rays.”


“The attack on our rockets have put all us governors on edge.”


General Harrison nodded. “And that’s a good thing. I was thankful for the scrutiny.”


“Do you think they can reach us in our castles?”


The general shrugged. “I don’t know for sure, but our castles are too delicate for any uncertainty. One bomb, detonated at the right location, could bring an entire castle burning into the atmosphere. We didn’t think the savages could harm our rockets, and yet we’ve just lost five transports filled with innocent civilians trying to retreat a world not yet conquered by so much hate.”


“And you think the ultimate answer is the only thing that can protect us?”


“I do.”


Kelly pressed a touchpad hidden on the arm to her theater chair, and the black and white movie on the screen vanished. “Did you suspect I was the one who voted against that proposal?”


“I might’ve guessed your name after a few attempts.”


“You must think I’m weak and naïve to hesitate to give my approval.”


The general shook his head. “I think quite the opposite. I think it showed that you have the conviction to follow your heart. It’s a shame that more governors don’t have your courage to vote according to their true conviction when presented with a proposal of such enormity.”


Kelly’s fingers again tapped at her armrest before the cinema’s projector hummed to introduce new ghosts to the screen.


“I hoped to show you something, General.”


The greatest achievements of humankind’s creation flickered upon the screen – photographs of the magnificent artworks and structures long ago razed upon the planet and stolen from civilization. Beautiful temples, churches, mosques and domes graced the screen. Pyramid peaks stretched high above jungles and deserts and reached towards the sun. Tall spires stood upon giant, granite arches, with windows of stained glass to tell tales of magnificent creatures and gods that once tumbled through man and woman’s imagination. There were photographs of pious monks turning massive prayer wheels while snow-covered mountain ranges in the background silently listened to their prayers. Golden calligraphy shimmered across the screen, holy words carved and scribed by master craftsmen. There were so many photographs brimming with bells and organs, with instruments shaped to sound wonderful music.


Kelly and the general silently watched the images glow upon the movie screen. Great oil canvasses and watercolors reminded them of how a brilliant world’s colors once burned before madness set all the forests on fire. There were such graceful and powerful sculptures that through marble captured the male and female form. Fine jewelry bent and shaped by lithe fingers sparkled like the very stars. There were great chalices shaped from glass. Strange statues of metal and steel stood in the middle of great, green gardens of fishponds and topiary menageries. Kelly and the general exchanged not a word. They hardly breathed. They watched the great creations, and they envied those who lived in the world before the clerics and the savages murdered and destroyed everything they feared was never created by their terrible Maker.


General Harrison was the first to speak after the last image faded from the screen. “Angkor Wat. Teotihuacan. Thebes. The Vatican. Westminster and St. Paul. The Blue Mosque. The Buddhas of Bamiyan. All of them beautiful. All of them incredible.”


“So you know what humanity was once capable of creating.”


General Harrison nodded. “Perhaps once, Governor. But all of those great works are destroyed. All of them lie in ruins. All of them pulled down by the savage tribes. All of them judged by the bearded clerics as blasphemies and affronts to their Maker god.”


“And do you believe such things can never again be realized on Earth?”


General Harrison instantly answered. “I do not. I assure you, Governor Chen, Earth is forever lost. It was lost a long time ago. We can only do our best now to insure that the zealotry responsible for destroying those great works or architecture and art never reaches the stars.”


“And we do that by employing the ultimate answer?”


“We do. One world will be lost, but consider how many other worlds might be saved.”


Kelly’s fingers tapped her seat’s armrest. How did she arrive at this moment? What decision had she ever made that placed such responsibility in her hands? She had aspired to be a great gardener of the castles. She had only hoped to make her family and neighbors proud by doing all she could to insure that their gardens orbiting the remains of the old world thrived so that the population that escaped the savages didn’t starve. She had only wanted to play a part in the research that would discover the means to transplant tomatoes and potatoes into alien soil, how to increase protein yield so that settlers could thrive on moons and planets very different from their native Earth. Yet somewhere along the way, she had become a governor. Something strange, and horrible, happened so that she sat in the front row of her beloved cinema and decided whether or not she would destroy an entire world.


“Is it guaranteed?” Kelly turned to the general. “I have to know that without a doubt that nothing about those savages will survive. Your proposal must be failsafe, because there won’t be anything else left to us if we fail to destroy so much fear and hate.”


General Harrison paused. “I don’t think a perfect guarantee exists anywhere in this cosmos. But I know that, sooner or later, that the tribes, or their zealotry, will reach our castles and pull them down. I believe those savages will burn even our colony worlds if we fail to extinguish them when we can. I believe the ultimate answer gives us the power to do just that.”


“I want you to show me again how it will work.”


“I thought you would,” and General Harrison peeked over his shoulder, as if checking to make sure no savage hid in the heavy shadows. “Remember that what I’m about to show you remains classified. Don’t forget the oath you shared with your fellow governors that no one would mention anything regarding this plan.”


General Harrison removed a small hard drive from an inner pocket of his crisp uniform jacket. Governor Chen quickly opened a panel on her arm rest and inserted the drive. The projector winked once as it accepted the information upon that drive and waited for Kelly to command it to play the general’s proposal upon the screen.


General Harrison nodded. “The objective of the ultimate answer is the complete obliteration of the tribes.”


Kelly sighed. “At the expense of our Earth.”


“I say again, Governor, we lost the Earth a long time ago.”


Kelly tapped her armrest and the projector whirled. A glowing image of Earth floated upon the center of the screen. The Earth diminished as if the camera retreated from the blue planet as icons representing all fifty-one space station castles blinked into the display. The tram lines and conduits that linked those castles together retracted into the space stations as each castle drifted into a precise location to surround Earth like terminals in an otherwise invisible cage. A soothing, feminine voice suddenly arrived to explain how the positioning of those castles represented the final preparation the remnants of a civilized humanity would need to take before the ultimate answer would save them from the scourge of the savage tribes that conquered the old world below. The voice explained how all of the castles’ non-essential systems would momentarily divert power so that beams of light would knit the space stations together and encase Earth within a deadly spider web. The voice didn’t waste the effort to attempt to explain the science behind the process, for the governors didn’t need to know how the ultimate answer really worked; they only needed to understand the scale of the proposal’s destruction.


The spider web of laser light grew brilliant and pulsed before delivering ripples, rings of bent space and time, into the heart of the Earth. The planet shimmered as one ripple after another constricted upon it. The familiar land masses contorted into strange shapes, pulled and stretched by the massive, unseen forces that flowed through the very fabric of existence. Then, in the time it took to wink, the great planet Earth, once home to millenniums of life and civilization, collapsed upon itself into a single mote of light, which pulsed once like a distant, new start before simply vanishing from the heavens as if it had never ben, leaving all fifty-one space station castles alone to encircle empty space.


“There’s not a single chunk of debris. There’s not even an asteroid cloud.” Kelly sighed.


The general nodded. “There will be nothing left that might endanger any of the existing castles.”


“But where does it go? What happens to Earth?”


“I don’t think any of the engineers and scientists responsible for the ultimate answer know,” the general replied. “Perhaps the small, black hole that exists for only a moment delivers the Earth to some parallel universe. Or perhaps, the Earth simply ceases to exist all together. What matters is that the planet will no longer exist as far as we’re concerned. What’s most important for us is that the tribes will no longer threaten our survival, and that the savages will never deliver any of their zealotry and savagery to any of the stars or worlds that wait for us.”


Kelly stared at black, empty space on the screen where a glowing planet had been. “And now the decision whether or not to go ahead with that proposal falls upon me. One way or another, I must decide.”


“You must. If you refuse vote, you decide to spare the Earth and the savage tribes, a choice I believe only keeps us in danger.”


“I’m as afraid of the tribes as anyone else who’s ascended into the castles, but how can I vote for this? How can my soul live with? Do the tribes not have children who might offer us all hope? Do any people deserve such a punishment?”


“The tribes deserve it,” answered the general. “What if I could prove to you that the tribes are irredeemable? What if I could show you that they’re no longer even human, that they’ve devolved into a kind of virus?”


“How would you do that?”


“You will find another file on my drive currently installed into your system. Run that application, and I can explain.”


Kelly easily located the file, and a quick double-tap with her fingers upon her armrest executed the program. The silver screen winked a moment before revealing a view of a dimly-lit chamber whose earthen walls suggested it to be subterranean. The camera’s angle was very low to the ground, and it moved about the chamber as if mounted to a pair of wheels. General Harrison removed a small remote control device from another of his jacket pockets, and his fingers rotated the small joysticks as the camera focused upon a young boy nestled into the dusty blankets of a cot.


“What am I looking at? Who is that?”


The general twisted the joysticks, and the image settled upon a half-dozen large insects scuttling about the floor, their shells painted in vibrant colors and illustrated in a variety of patterns.


“The men and women in castle intelligence have little difficulty in infiltrating the tribe’s hovels,” the general chuckled. “Our camera is mounted upon one of the large, burrowing cockroaches so common now on old Earth. The tribes will never suspect we watch them through such small eyes.”


“You control the bug?”


The general nodded. “We’ve fused small circuitry directly into the insect’s nervous system. It’s tedious and time-consuming work. But it’s amazing work. You can control the creature’s movement, and you’ll have access to all the little tunnels the creatures burrow to connect all the hovels together. “


“And what if someone squashes my friend beneath a boot?”


“Then you flip a switch on that remote and access the eyes of another bug.” The general cycled through the eyes of the cockroaches that scurried about the floor. “They’re very easy to operate, and they’re smart enough to hurry back into the shadows the moment you set the remote control aside. They’ll make no noise, though their sensitive ears will eavesdrop on the faintest of whispers. The men and women in intelligence burned the midnight oil trying to decide the best place to drop our little spies, and everyone thinks this village is the perfect place, and that that boy provides the perfect subject.


“The boy’s name is Abraham, and he’s not even ten years old. Still, despite his youth, we’re confident that he will soon suffer the torments and pass through the trials that will show you the full measure of the tribes’ depravity. Spend the next month watching that boy through the eyes of our bug friends. See what that boy will become. Then cast your second vote regarding whether or not to execute the ultimate answer.”


“Will you accept whatever vote I cast?”


The general sighed. “I can’t promise that.”


“You believe the threat to be so great that you would consider breaking your vows to the elected governors?”


“I do.”


“And there are no guarantees?”


“I’m afraid not.”


The general handed the remote control to Governor Chen and said nothing more before standing and exiting the cinema to leave Kelly alone in the dark, with the view from a cockroach’s eyes glowing upon the silver screen upon which she preferred to watch colorful musicals and situational comedies from a civilized age lost so long ago. How could the tribes become so depraved, so savage and barbaric, to deserve such annihilation? How could their hate burn so hot that an entire world needed to be sacrificed in order to preserve the potential humanity hoped to discover in the waiting stars? Did the tribes’ children offer no hope? Would General Harrison conduct a military coupe if she refrained from approving the ultimate answer, and would such rebellion be any less dangerous than the threat posed by the tribes?


Kelly Chen closed her eyes and wished it would all vanish. She had never dreamed her skill at growing tomatoes would ever force her to face the responsibility of such a decision.


  • * * * *


Chapter 5 – Adultery Committed Against the Maker

“All of you look wonderful. I pray my painting pleases our Maker.”


Abraham smiled to watch his cockroach companions scurry along the oval racetrack he traced upon his chamber’s floor that morning with sugar water. He had painted all of the bugs’ shells in his patterns of stars, sunbursts and swirls, and those carapaces glimmered in his underground chamber’s dim lighting. With each bug sporting a different color and pattern scheme, Abraham soon chose favorites from his contestants. The cockroach whose shell he had painted blue and dotted with silver moons was the quickest of the bunch, but that bug seemed incapable of following the trail long enough to maintain any lead earned by its speed. A cockroach with a red shell sporting white diamonds followed the trail precisely, but that bug moved at a snail’s pace. The bug with the orange shell that Abraham decorated with black swirls soon became his favorite, for that cockroach moved with both precision and speed, so much so that Abraham wondered if that bug might’ve been especially blessed by the Maker.


Abraham winced when the cleric’s great horn suddenly shrilled through the subterranean tunnels. The note was deep and low, and the longer it groaned, the more Abraham thought the blast of noise rose from the heart of the earth. The racing cockroaches tensed at the horn’s blare and then scattered for the corners of shadow, save for the bug with the orange shell decorated in swirls, who turned to peer towards Abraham.


“Hurry into my palm, friend, before my brother and father burst into my chamber to see how I’ve wasted time painting bugs.”


Abraham deposited the burrowing cockroach into a pocket sewn within his thin jacket and hurried towards his home’s ladder that led onto the surface. The clerics didn’t blare a celebratory horn as they had several nights before when the village men had gathered to witness the rockets exploding in the sky. They instead blew a low and somber note, one that growled that the clerics had pressing business regarding their community’s souls, one that promised the clerics would exercise little patience, or mercy, in waiting for their tribe to assemble at their tower. The terrible castles floated high overhead in their regular orbits, and they remained silent no matter the destruction of their rockets. All the same, Abraham shuddered to see how a shadow of one of the enormous castles swallowed his village before joining his father and brother.


Abraham’s neighbor, Josef, brought his young, twin daughters, Alexis and Cassandra, onto the surface with him to answer the cleric’s summoning horn, and he led each of them by a rope leash he wrapped around each girl’s waist, tugging harshly at the ropes whenever either of the girls fell behind his pace or strayed too far from his heels. The girls had only recently turned seven, and Abraham realized it would not be so long until Josef could offer his daughters in marriage, not long until those girls’ faces would receive the first swirls of tattoos that would eventually expand to cover their faces entirely, not long at all until their hair would be treated until it turned the same silver as all the rest of the village women, or until they donned the dark, black glasses that would conceal the color of their eyes. Girls too young to undergo any of the ceremonies that would deliver them into womanhood were still permitted to climb out from their families’ holes without acquiring special privileges from the clerics.


Abraham couldn’t determine if it was Alexis or Cassandra who waved at him, for the twins appeared identical to his eyes. But he tentatively waved back, and Ishmael immediately slapped him across the face.


“How dare you brother?” Ishmael hissed. “You’re lucky Josef didn’t catch you staring at his daughters. He could petition the clerics to burn out one of your eyes for such a trespass.”


Abraham mumbled as he rubbed his stinging cheek. “Why does he bring those daughters onto the surface if he’s so worried about someone peeking at them?”


Rahbin glared at his youngest son. “Josef’s motivations are none of your concern, boy. Perhaps his wives suffer from a sickness that prevents them from watching after his girls, or perhaps his wives concentrate on working their looms. Or perhaps Josef wishes to show his girls to a family he wishes to offer them to in marriage. Do as the Maker teaches, Abraham, and murder your curiosity before it kills you. Would you wave if Josef pulled goats with his leashes?”


“I would not.”


“Then you will not wave at his daughters,” Rahbin retorted.


As if the Maker sent it to show his pleasure, a breeze whistled across the barren landscape to bring a little relief from the hot sun, and the wind fluttered life into the five capes hung upon tall poles set before the clerics’ tower of scaffolding. The tribesmen who had sacrificed themselves to bring down the blasphemers’ rockets had left their capes behind before departing to achieve their glory and heaven. Abraham knew that the village’s best seamstresses and weavers had slept very little since that most recent victory against the unbelievers so that they completed sewing the symbols into those fluttering capes that told of the great explosions that brought the rockets burning back to the ground. Those capes would be proud heirlooms for the martyrs’ families to carry back with them into their subterranean homes. But the clerics would first let those capes flutter in the wind so that the harsh sun could deepen and bake the color of the stitching and fabric into a hue that pleased their divine creator.


“The Maker is joyous,” Ishmael whispered as he watched those capes wave in the breeze. “It’s a great victory indeed when the clerics summon us twice for celebration.”


Rahbin frowned at Ishmael. “Tell him, Abraham, how we know the clerics haven’t summoned us for rejoicing.”


“Their horn didn’t sound a note for joy. They blew a note warning of transgression.”


“Mind you of that, Ishmael, the next time you think of usurping your father’s duty by striking Abraham,” said Rahbin. “Abraham pays better attention to the horn than you.”


The horn silenced before all of the tribesmen arrived at the tower, and those who were tardy stood apart from the rest to offer themselves to whatever punishment the clerics felt their tardiness deserved.


The head cleric frowned atop the scaffold. “We disrespect our Maker when we hesitate to answer his call. Each of you will spend several hours this afternoon within the sunbox, where you will sweat out your sin and consider your shortcomings within the darkness.”


“Praise be to the Maker!” The guilty men shouted.


The head cleric continued. “I’ve been wondering who among our tribe remains worthy of the Maker’s kingdom and glory. Our best men have sacrificed themselves for the Maker’s glorious creation for so long that I wonder if those of us who are left are deserving of our God’s graces. Perhaps these capes fluttering in the wind were worn by the last of our great warriors. I pray that my doubts are only torments the great devil delivers me, for more than ever, we must be prepared to devote ourselves to the Maker. We will soon lift our battle against the blasphemers into the stars, and we will need all of the creator’s blessing to reach their high castles.”


The gathering lifted their hands. “Praise be to the Maker!”


The head cleric nodded. “Oh, my brothers and sons, the great devil will tempt us like never before. We cannot become soft. We must harden our souls for the battle awaiting us in the stars. The unbelievers will know no planet, no moon and no castle that will hide them from the Maker’s judgment or shield them from the justice we will administer as our Maker’s tools.


“Understand then why we who grow beards must summon the tribe to inform our community that the great devil has infiltrated our homes so shortly after we celebrate a great victory. The great devil has already brought corruption to our tribe. One of us has created without the Maker’s breath.”


Abraham’s heart raced, and the men surrounding him shifted and stared at their boots. The Holy Book taught that creation itself was the most magical of all the Maker’s powers. The Maker held the process of creation closest to his heart, and that the Maker guarded all his breath shaped as sacred. Thus the tribes created nothing casually. A man crafted neither a crib nor a coffin without first receiving a cleric’s blessing, and the most talented of weavers and seamstresses prayed for hours before sitting at her loom. Each bearded cleric fasted before picking up his pen to scribe new prayers, and none in the tribe dared to sing unless he or she was given a sign that the Maker’s breath filled his or her lungs. The Holy Book taught that every act of creation, no matter how large or small, was a divine process the required the Maker’s presence in any soul who strummed an instrument or stroked a brush. The Maker considered any creation undertaken without his blessing and permission as the most terrible of all blasphemies.


Abraham trembled. His cockroach friend wiggled in his jacket pocket, and Abraham feared he might fidget or chuckle just as the clerics glowered from atop their scaffolding. Abraham didn’t dare lift his face, for he felt certain that the clerics were looking directly at him. He hadn’t prayed to the Maker before he had painted the shells of his cockroach friends. He had thought such artistry was below the Maker’s regard. Abraham choked as he felt his friend crawl to the cusp of his inner pocket. He didn’t dare reach into his jacket to remove his friend, lest his guilt of applying color to the creator’s creatures without first praying for the Maker’s permission become apparent.


Several clerics sporting the short beards that marked them as the youngest of the religious leaders pushed a man and woman to the front of the scaffold. The clerics kicked several times at the man’s legs, and their captor fell face-first onto the ground as his bound wrists prevented him from bracing for impact. A woman dressed in the black robes and dark glasses worn by every woman of the tribe sobbed each time the man fell, and the clerics dragged her feet across the dirt each time she reached out to help the fallen man up from the ground. The relief Abraham felt when he saw it was not his crime that attracted the clerics’ attention shamed him, for his heart ached to watch that man stumble and that woman sob.


The man stumbled closer to the clerics’ tower, and Abraham recognized him as Paul, the tribe’s butcher. Abraham had recently accompanied his father on one of Rahbin’s trips to Pauls’ shop to deliver a goat so that it could be butchered and dressed for a family meal in celebration of Ishmael’s passage into manhood. The cool air of Paul’s home, where the carcasses of so many village animals hung from the earthen ceiling, had amazed Abraham, and he had thought that Paul must’ve been especially blessed by the Maker if the divine creator gifted him with such breezes to flow through his underground shop to help preserve the animal meat Paul had not yet salted. Thus Abraham felt puzzled as the clerics shoved Paul and his wife closer to the tower, for he couldn’t understand why the butcher would offend the Maker who so blessed his home and his profession.


The head cleric frowned at the man and woman dragged before him. “Neighbors, it hurts our hearts to have reason to present Paul and Sarah to you as blasphemers. We have discovered that Paul writes poetry intended to make love to Sarah, and thus he commits two terrible affronts to our Maker. Let us remember that Sarah is wed to the Maker, and that Paul is only a vessel our great creator possesses whenever he chooses to plant life within Sarah’s womb. Paul sought none of our clerics’ blessing when he composed his verse, and so his words express his lust for Sarah rather than the Maker’s love. Paul’s creation angers the Maker, and his poems symbolize the adultery Paul and Sarah regularly, and knowingly, committed against our creator. Paul, do you deny writing such words?”


One of the young clerics slapped Paul across the face when the accused didn’t instantly answer. Stunned, the accused butcher shook his head.


The high cleric sighed. “And Sarah, do you deny taking pleasure from Paul’s tainted creation? Do you deny breaking your sacred wedding vow to your Maker and taking pleasure from Paul’s touch?”


The woman sobbed and shook her head.


The high cleric nodded. “Paul and Sarah, your selfishness has invited the great devil into our tribe at a time when we must strengthen ourselves to carry our fight against the unbelievers into the purgatory between our Earth and the Maker’s heaven. You commit such affronts in a time when we cannot afford mercy.”


Abraham gasped when the largest of the clerics surrounding Paul and Sarah withdrew a long, curved knife from his tunic. He knew immediately how the clerics planned to punish Paul, and Abraham attempted to turn away. But his brother Ishmael gripped his shoulders, and his father Rahbin grabbed Abraham’s chin so that his youngest boy could not turn away his gaze.


“You will not close you eyes, boy.” Rahbin whispered. “You will soon turn from a boy into a man, and you can no longer close your eyes to the Maker’s justice.”


Abraham’s knees trembled. He didn’t struggle against his brother and father’s grip, knowing such a fight would be vain, and that such a fight would only guarantee him a beating once he returned to his family’s underground home. Thoughts surged through his mind before the cleric plunged the blade into Paul’s neck. Abraham remembered all the times Paul had waved at him upon the surface, and Abraham recalled the occasions he had watched Paul’s hands skillfully clean the animals the village brought to his shop. Who would take Paul’s place as butcher within the tribe? How long would the village have to forage throughout the ruins of the unbelievers’ city to find the foodstuffs to replace the meat that would be lost without a working butcher shop? What would happen to Paul and Sarah’s children? Hadn’t one of Paul’s cousins been among the martyrs who pulled the rockets out of the sky, and didn’t that association merit that Paul and Sarah receive a little compassion?


Abraham felt sick the moment the knife ripped into Paul’s neck. The blood, the gore and the gurgle shattered some vital piece of Abraham’s soul. He whimpered at the grizzly sight of the cleric cutting through the butcher’s spine and sawing that blade through his victim’s neck. He whimpered, but his brother dug his fingers deeper into Abraham’s shoulder as his younger brother’s body turned soft. Abraham pulled against his father’s grasp, but Rahbin’s hands squeezed his boy’s face like a vice and forced Abraham to stare at the severed, bleeding head the cleric held high for the crowd’s consideration. Abraham’s heart screamed to see how the butcher’s open eyes stared at him.


“Praise be to the Maker!” The high cleric spoke.


“Praise be to the Maker!” The crowd chanted.


The high cleric didn’t need to explain the punishment Sarah would pay for the adultery she had committed against the Maker with Paul. The clerics lifted her from the ground after she knelt, and wailed, at the butcher’s headless corpse, and they struck her with their fists until she shambled towards the edge of the village, her hands lifted to protect her face from the blows dealt by her captors. The first of the stone struck her the moment she stepped beyond the unmarked boundaries of her community. Others immediately followed while the woman’s hands gripped her dark glasses and pressed them to her face so that none of the rocks that cut and bruised at her face could reveal the color of her eyes.


Rahbin lifted a stone from the ground and placed it in Abraham’s hand.


“Do not shame us, Abraham. You must cast your stone before that woman perishes. Do not shame us by being a coward.”


Abraham hardly looked towards the woman, and his stone sailed wide of Sarah’s face. The effort didn’t satisfy Rahbin, who lifted another stone from the ground and forced it into Abraham’s hand.


“That isn’t enough,” Rahbin growled. “You must strike her, and your throw must be judged to deliver hurt. Do not cower, boy. The stones we throw cast the great devil from her, saving her soul and freeing our village from his taint. Do your duty and cast your stone before the clerics judge you to be a coward.”


Abraham wanted all of it to end. He wanted to retreat back beneath the ground, where he could bury his head into the pillow of his cot, away from the gaze of the bearded clerics, far from the still open eyes of the butcher’s severed head. He realized he would be unable to retreat until the men of the tribe threw the last stones and killed the woman who committed adultery against their Maker. Abraham realized the woman would die whether or not he threw a stone, and so he swallowed the sickness he felt rising from his stomach and cast his stone. Abraham’s stone struck Sarah’s bloody forehead, and for a moment, the woman’s hands released their grip upon her dark glasses. Yet Sarah recovered a piece of strength, and her hands returned to her face to prevent those glasses from falling off of her eyes just as she collapsed upon the ground, where stone after stone struck her body to shatter her bones until her breathing ceased and a broken thing lay upon the ground where there had moments earlier been a woman.


“Very good, son,” and Rahbin nodded to his young son. “You will appreciate the Maker’s justice more as you grow into a man, and you will come to feel honored that our creator employs you as a tool in its administration.”


Only Abraham didn’t feel the least blessed that night as he used his pillow to suffocate his sobs. He couldn’t chase away the image of the cleric’s knife sawing through the butcher’s neck, nor could he seem to wipe clear all the blood from his vision. His hand kept gripping a phantom stone, and the weight of that rock would not fall from his palm no matter how he shook his hand. He couldn’t fall asleep, and so Abraham sat upright upon his cot as something moved from within the jacket tossed across his wooden stool. His favorite burrowing cockroach friend, with its orange shell dotted with decorative swirls, dropped upon the floor, where it scurried to the center of the room and lifted its fine antennae as if waiting for Abraham to give an explanation of the day’s justice.


“You shouldn’t linger in the light, friend.” Abraham whispered. “You were in my jacket, and you heard what the clerics warned, that any creation done without the Maker’s blessing is a cursed thing. I didn’t pray before I painted you, and so I’m afraid I turned you into a wicked thing. So scurry back into the corners and into the shadows before someone finds you in my chamber. I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you, friend, but you must leave this community before someone squashes you beneath a boot.”


Abraham watched the bug scurry away at his command; and though he was certain that any of his cockroaches with the painted shells would be killed the instant anyone but him looked upon them, Abraham couldn’t help but hope that his friend would return. His father and his brother so often reminded him that he was about to become a man, but Abraham still felt like a little boy.


And little boys needed friends.


  • * * * *


Governor Chen rubbed her eyes, but she couldn’t dispel the sight of that suffering and gore from her imagination no matter how dark she turned the cinema’s screen. She might have forgiven the tribes for their archaic laws had it not been for the violence, or for the look of satisfaction that crossed upon the faces that witnessed such a brutal execution. She couldn’t fathom the worship of any god who asked for such terrible justice. She would never understand how the savages could believe that any Maker could bring such pain to his creation. Those of the tribe had taken such joy in the stoning of a woman whose only crime, as far as Kelly saw it, was the loving of her husband. If the tribe delivered such hurts to their own kind, what hurts did the savages long to deliver to those who live beyond their reach in the orbiting castles?


Yet that boy had hesitated to throw his stone. The fine sensors implanted upon that small cockroach had constructed such a clear view of the scene while the bug hid within the boy’s jacket. Perhaps there was hope within the child. The bug had monitored how that child’s heart had raced at the terrible gore, and Kelly didn’t doubt the boy must’ve been terrified. She saw how that boy had hesitated to cast the stone. So long as the clerics’ brimstone interpretation of their faith appalled and frightened the children, wasn’t there then the hope that Earth and its savages might be redeemed, hope that the ultimate answer wouldn’t need to be executed in order to protect the civilization Kelly’s kind had spent centuries to shape?


Kelly tapped the projector’s controls, and one of her favorite musicals of sound and color danced upon the screen. She doubted the songs would thrill her following what she had watched through the eyes of that bug, but Kelly knew the sight of that violence would prevent her from catching a moment of rest. More than ever, she craved to see what the world had long ago been.


  • * * * *


Chapter 6 – Time to be a Man

“Tell me, brother. Did the operation hurt?”


“You worry too much about pain, Abraham. Pain is only another color brushed into the Maker’s glorious creation.”


“But did it hurt?”


Abraham and Ishmael were busy sweeping and cleaning the floors of their subterranean home before the day’s sunrise. The orbiting castles long ago forced the tribes’ families to live beneath the ground, but that didn’t mean they needed to grovel through the dirt like common bugs. The Maker taught his people to make the most of whatever surroundings he gifted them, and so sons of the tribes spent many hours scrubbing the dirt floors and walls before they applied the lacquers and oils that would harden their chambers against mildew and moisture. The Maker also taught that all work, no matter how tedious young boys might think it to be, demanded care and attention, and so Abraham’s constant questions exasperated Ishmael.


“Will you concentrate on your work if I tell you about the procedure?”


Abraham smiled. “I promise to work like never before if you do.”


“Maker forgive us and keep father from catching us prattling when we should be working.” Ishmael set down his brush and took a seat leaning against the wall. “You don’t feel anything when the clerics put the Maker’s weapon inside of your body, brother. You feel only a little more than a prick as the clerics stick a needle attached to a tube into your arm. They ask you to count to ten, and you fall asleep before you can reach five. It feels like you sleep for only a minute, but your awake hours later with the Maker’s weapon placed within your body. Only then can you can wear one of the capes that announces you are a man, and a warrior, of the tribe. Only then are you ready to deliver the Maker’s wrath in his war against the unbelievers.”


“Did it leave a mark?”


Ishmael pulled at his tunic to reveal the long scar that ran across his abdomen. Abraham held his breath as he followed the small dots of pink tissue that marked where the clerics who conducted the operation inserted the needle whose thread had stitched his brother back together. The scar appeared pink and tender, though nearly a season had passed since Ishmael had undergone the surgery. Ishmael approached Abraham and took his brother’s hand, gently setting Abraham’s fingers upon the knot that protruded beneath the skin just above the navel that showed the location of the explosives implanted within his body, ready for a moment when Ishmael might find himself in a position to deliver a blow against the unbelievers.


“Does it hurt?” Abraham repeated his question.


Ishmael chuckled. “There are some mornings when it is sore, but the discomfort is a minor cost to pay for the right to wear a cape.”


“Who controls the weapon within your stomach?”


Ishmael shrugged. “The Maker of course, brother. The Maker moves through the clerics, as he moves through us. Whenever my weapon should detonate, I do not doubt the Maker will be the one who presses the button to deliver me to my martyrdom.”


A mumble of footsteps and hushed voices echoed through the subterranean chamber, chasing Abraham and Ishmael back to scraping their cleaning sponges against the flooring and walls. Father Rahbin appeared suddenly around a corner, followed by none other than the high cleric and a pair of his bearded associates. Ishmael and Abraham furiously moved their sponges, both of them determined to show the bearded men who visited their home that they exercised their due diligence in the completion of the tasks father assigned them. The high cleric never paid any home a casual visit, for the time he was required to spend in contemplating the Holy Book rarely afforded him the occasion to leave his private apartments. Abraham wondered what business brought the high cleric to his home? Was he or his brother in jeopardy of facing a punishment like the one delivered to the butcher and his wife? Did the high cleric come to Abraham’s home to make him pay for painting cockroach shells in a rainbow of colors with the dyes he stole from his mother’s loom?


The high cleric smiled softly at trembling Abraham. “There is no reason to fear me, son. Know that the Maker walks beside me, and that the Maker brings you good news. We come to discuss your future.”


Rahbin nodded towards Ishmael. “Continue your duty. This only concerns Abraham.”


Abraham followed his father and the clerics into the central chamber of their home, where his mother cast her sight upon her floor and quietly walked away from her loom to vacate the room to the business conducted by men. They sat upon their family’s finest carpet, and the capes worn by Abraham’s father and the bearded clerics seemed to melt into the carpet’s pattern. The high cleric placed a wooden box into the center of their circle, opening it to reveal a cleaver and a long, serrated knife. Abraham employed all of his courage not to gasp or cry out at the sight of those blades. He didn’t close his eyes, though the vision of the butcher’s execution flashed in his memory. Was the high cleric aware of his crime of painting bugs without the Maker’s permission, and had he come with those knives to take a finger, or a hand, to punish Abraham for the theft of his mother’s dyes? Would it be better for Abraham to suddenly cry out his admission of guilt? Would the high cleric consider him young enough for mercy, though he entered the year that would shape him into a man?


“Calm your breath son,” spoke the high cleric. “Your apprehension at the sight of these sharp blades speaks well of you, for by recognizing the gravity of these knives, you show yourself to be mature for your age.”


Rahbin grinned at Abraham. “The high cleric and I have discussed a position for you within the tribe, Abraham. The tribe will need a new butcher, and I agree with the high cleric, who thinks you are of the proper age to begin learning the trade.”


The fear rushed away from Abraham, and he couldn’t resist grinning in the company of the high cleric. The high cleric’s smile grew as well, and Abraham felt ashamed for feeling that the clerics came to deliver him doom.


The high cleric nodded. “You needn’t speak, son. It will not be your place to speak while we teach you a butcher’s way of wielding those knives, and your smile tells us that our suggestion makes you very happy and proud.” The high cleric retrieved the wooden box from the center of the carpet and snapped its lid once more shut. “But you must start your transition into manhood before we can teach you, Abraham. Your tenth birthday is still a few months away, but we would like to begin your training as soon as possible. And so I ask you to take your first steps into manhood today. Come with us.”


They climbed the ladder rising onto the surface and were greeted by a young, rising sun that promised a hot day, one sure to chase the tribe into the cooler shelter of their underground chambers. A hundred questions raced through Abraham’s mind as he followed his father and the clerics beyond the edge of the village, but he didn’t voice any of them. He knew it was not his time nor place to speak in the business that brought the clerics to his family. Abraham knew they were not headed towards the city ruins on a hunt for salvage, for they travelled in the direction opposite of the unbelievers’ wastes. Many minutes passed before they came to a flat and featureless landscape devoid of plant or weed, over which rose ripples of heat mirage already burning in the young day. The high cleric pointed ahead of him, and Abraham saw the shovel set upon the ground.


Rahbin proudly squeezed his young boy’s shoulders. “The time has come for you to dig your own hole, Abraham. The time is here for you to announce that you will be a good man for the tribe. And the day greets you with a proper, bold sun, whose heat will show that my son is strong.”


Abraham swallowed. He wished he had eaten a breakfast, and he was already thirsty. But the clerics provided him with a proud opportunity, and Abraham wouldn’t lose his chance by complaining about his discomforts. So he stepped forward and gripped the shovel; and when the high cleric nodded, Abraham started to dig.


  • * * * *


The bug with the orange shell silently watched Abraham finish his work from the edge of the hole as its delicate and sensitive antennae waved in the air. No matter the heat, the boy had dug through the day, so that by the time the sun prepared to fall beyond the western horizon, the boy had to stretch in order to reach his hole’s ledge. The effort with the shovel blistered Abraham’s hands and turned them bloody, and the moisture that emptied from his taxed body drenched his tunic. The bug had watched it all, and it dodged another clump of dirt tossed by Abraham’s shovel before settling still once more and extending its fine antennae into the air.


Abraham panted as he finally leaned his shovel against the wall of his hole. “What do you think, Oscar? Do you think my hole promises that I’ll grow into a strong man?”


Tribal symbolism filled Abrahams’s hole. Customs of the tribe demanded that each boy dig a hole on their tenth birthday. The hole represented the home each boy would soon be expected to establish within the community, a miniature and simplified representation of the chambers the boy might in the future dig beneath the ground to accommodate a wife and children. Boys taxed themselves in the efforts, for the clerics visited at nightfall to judge the merits of each boy’s hole, to gauge whether the boy who all day wielded the shovel showed the strength demanded by the Maker, or whether the boy betrayed weakness the great devil exploited. Though many a boy fainted from the dehydration, a hot day was considered a blessing that showed the Maker took particular interest in a boy wielding a shovel on the birthday marking the year during which he would transform into a man.


Abraham circled about his hole, bending to scoop up extra extra clumps of dirt with his bare hands before tossing the debris out of the hole. “Let’s pray the Maker considers my efforts worthy. I wish you could stay with me when the clerics arrive to judge how well I wielded the shovel, but you must leave, Oscar. Remember, the clerics will think you’re a tainted creation made without blessing, and they would squash you with their boot.”


As if it had the ears and the comprehension to follow a boy’s request, the orange bug retreated away from the hole’s ledge towards the direction of the village. Abraham’s body ached and he felt dizzy for the lack of water in his system. Yet he didn’t slump upon the floor of his hole, nor did he lean against its wall. Instead, he stood in the hole’s center and concentrated on holding his posture straight and rigid, refusing to show the cleric’s any trace of his fatigue when they arrived to consider his constitution.


The clerics decided to let the sky darken before visiting the boy’s work, and another of the unbelievers’ castles, with so many levels of blinking blue and pearl lights, orbited overhead to crowd the stars. Abraham’s eyes felt very heavy when he heard the soft footfalls of the clerics returning to inspect his efforts, and he forced a dry swallow to gather what strength remained to keep his legs straight as the high cleric’s long beard and wrinkled face appeared at the edge of his hole.


“I’m surprised to see you still standing after such a hot day, Abraham,” the high cleric smiled. “Let me see your hands.”


Abraham held his fingers and palm to the high cleric’s inspection, trying his hardest not to wince as the wind drifted across his sores so that pain throbbed about his skin.


The high cleric nodded. “You’ve accomplished much with the shovel. There appears to be room for two more men within your hole.”


A pair of additional beards peeked upon Abraham from the edge of the hole, the faces of the two clerics who had accompanied the high cleric during his visit to Rahbin’s home early that morning. Both of them dropped into the hole and took a position next to Abraham, who felt the warmth of their breath as they shared the space the boy had that morning cleared with a shovel.


“You must be very hungry, and no doubt very thirsty,” observed the high cleric, “but there remains one more test you must endure before you may climb out of your hole and return to our village.”


One of the bearded clerics punched Abraham in the chest, and the boy dropped upon the ground as his breath rushed out of his body. The heel of a boot slammed into Abraham’s head and filled his ears with a ringing that forced him to sob just as a hand clutched his hair and slammed his face into the ground. Abraham tasted blood fill his mouth, and he covered his face with his arms as the pair of clerics kicked at his side and struck at his head. What had he done wrong? Had he worked the shovel so poorly as to deserve such an attack? He had done his best to stand strong, and his effort seemed to have only attracted another beating. He felt betrayed, and thus Abraham released his restraint as the blows struck him, and he sobbed and cried as the clerics continued their onslaught. Finally, after he gasped for breath as pain screamed from his ribs with each inhale, the clerics ceased their beating and climbed out of the hole.


“We leave water with you now, Abraham, and food.” The high cleric’s voice sounded as calm and kind as it had the moment his long beard first peered down upon the boy. “Things as simple as drinking and eating will no doubt pain you now, but all of this is also a measure of your strength. You must know, Abraham, that the Maker desires only strong tools, more so than ever now that we ready to take our battle against the unbelievers into the stars.”


Abraham heard the clerics’ footfalls echo away towards the village while he sobbed, curled in a tight ball, his arms still covering his face to protect himself from the fury he anticipated falling upon him. The Maker seemed merciful, for a cool breeze drifted into the hole and helped Abraham catch his breath and steady his heart, so that the boy soon stretched a shaking arm to the pouch of water, whose contents pained his hurt teeth and stung his cut mouth. Abraham left the food where it remained, too hurt to protect it from whatever rare animal or common bug might attempt to scavenge from it during the night, and the boy’s beaten body soon enough fell into sleep.


And the burrowing cockroach with the orange shell painted in dark swirls returned to the edge of that hole and silently spied upon it all.


  • * * * *


Chapter 7 – A Lamb Taken to Slaughter

The cleric with the short, dark beard and the wide, menacing shoulders chuckled as he looked upon Abraham and the bleating lamb.


“Why haven’t you yet accomplished what we ask of you, boy?”


Abraham gulped, and the lamb made a sound that sounded like a laugh. “I needed to clean the chamber, and I had problems with the knot I used to tie the lamb to the stake over there by the drain. And I needed to sharpen my cleaver and knife. The high cleric teaches me that I must pay attention to the details of all things if I hope to please the Maker.”


The cleric chuckled. “Well, I will be patient then, butcher Abraham, but know that the high cleric will be with me when I next return, and he will expect you to have slaughtered his lamb as he instructed. Abraham, realize that you will have to dig another hole if you should fail in this, and that the price you pay to begin your year into manhood will be twice as steep. Do you understand, Abraham?”


Abraham vigorously nodded, and the cleric nodded back before leaving the boy alone to his knives and the bleating, laughing lamb.


Abraham leaned against the chamber’s cool wall and took a breath. He had been afraid that the cleric, upon seeing that the lamb remained alive in the center of the room, would deliver him a new beating. Purple bruises streaked with yellow blossomed on Abraham’s face to draw attention to the new crook that ran in his broken nose. His right eye was finally starting to open again after being swollen shut for several days, and the pain receded from the chipped teeth that would ever onward mar his smile. Abraham nervously touched the swollen lump on the top of his head, a mark delivered him from a cleric’s boot while he had huddled and cried at the bottom of his hole, and he wasn’t surprised to find his finger splotched with blood. He had felt betrayed by that beating the clerics delivered to him, for he had thought the effort of his hole would have impressed them. He had thought about simply wasting away in that hole until the Maker took his soul through thirst, but his stomach had betrayed him in the morning so that Abraham had limped back home for breakfast, where no one in his family said a thing to suggest they noticed the injuries delivered to their son and brother, where everyone simply expected Abraham to go about his routine duties as if it was all another day.


Abraham peeked towards the shadows that lurked on wall opposite of the chamber’s entrance; and as he suspected, he spotted a pair of fine antennae sniffing the air.


“You’re lucky the cleric didn’t see you, Oscar,” Abraham shook his head. “I wouldn’t have claimed you as a friend if he had, and I wouldn’t have defended you if the cleric claimed your orange shell and lovely swirls were markings painted by the great devil’s hand. You’re very lucky that your guts aren’t still clinging to the bottom of the cleric’s boot. Now hurry back into the shadows, Oscar, because what I have to do is already hard enough without your beady, little eyes watching me.”


Abraham growled at the burrowing cockroach, hoping to chase his friend away from danger. The bug seemed to be the only creature anywhere in the village to have noticed the hurts he suffered in his hole. The cockroach nestled against his feet at night while his busted body tossed and groaned upon his cot, and the bug refused to vacate the blankets no matter how hard Abraham’s legs kicked at it. Abraham felt the bug’s presence throughout the day as he attended to his chores, and he swore the cockroach followed him throughout the village like some sad animal. But Abraham glimpsed the bug only when he was alone, and thus far no one had discovered the creature whose shell had been foolishly painted by the boy to forge a bond that anyone in the tribe would recognize as unnatural.


“I mean it, Oscar. Unless you can do this for me, get the hell out of the butcher shop.”


The bug easily dodged the stone thrown by the boy and scurried back into the darkness. Abraham knew that bug was only hiding in a darker place, that it hadn’t abandoned him, no matter the growl he placed into his voice. The lamb laughed again, and Abraham closed his eyes. It couldn’t be put off any longer. He had wasted all morning tending to whatever chore he thought might distract him from the task given him from the high cleric. He had cleaned all of the butcher shop’s rooms, and he had inspected all of the salted meat hanging in the coolest chamber of the subterranean complex to insure that not so much as a chicken leg had spoiled after the clerics executed Paul and his wife for the adultery they had committed against the Maker. But all the floor scrubbing and all the cutlery sharpening was complete, and Abraham had to stare at that laughing lamb and swallow his fear and his mercy.


The high cleric ordered him to slaughter that lamb by dragging a knife across its throat. If he failed, Abraham would face digging another hole and suffer a beating more severe than the first. He feared that would mean his end, and he had little doubt that the clerics would slaughter that lamb all the same regardless of his cowardice.


But that didn’t make it any easier for his hands to accept the action they would have to commit. That knowledge didn’t help steady him as he trembled while gripping the knife’s handle.


“I’m so sorry, little lamb.”


The lamb didn’t shirk as Abraham grabbed for its neck, and it instead pushed its nose into the boy’s arms, oblivious to the purpose of the knife clutched in its keeper’s hand. Abraham’s heart raced. His hands trembled, and the blade’s handle felt slick in his grip no matter how hard he squeezed. The lamb bleated as the boy scratched the animal’s ear. Abraham sighed. Comforting the lamb would do him no good. There was nothing he could do to save that lamb from slaughter, and he would pay a terrible price if he failed to complete the high priest’s task. Abraham convinced himself that he would show the lamb more mercy if his hands delivered death to the animal. He fooled himself into believing that the Maker intended to give a little kindness in the end to the lamb by sending a boy to tend to its slaughter.


Abraham pressed the knife to the lamb’s throat and swallowed. When the animal shirked from the blade’s touch, Abraham pulled the knife across its throat. But Abraham did so without conviction, and his trembling blade failed to severe the arteries that would release spurting, throbbing blood and grant the lamb a quick death. The animal spat and cried, and it broke away from Abraham’s grasp when the boy’s shaking hands released the animal. Blood stained the lamb’s fur from the ineffectual cut the boy administered, and the lamb darted about the chamber, bleating and crying as it wrapped the rope fastened at its neck repeatedly around the stake positioned near the drain located in the center of the chamber. Abraham’s eyes cried as he watched the scared lamb wrap itself against the stake. He tried gripping the creature’s neck, but the blood gathered on his hands, so that his grip slipped upon the knife’s blade when he made a second attempt to slash the lamb’s throat. Abraham hissed in pained as his fingers slid across the cold blade, and his blood mingled with that of the lamb’s.


Its neck tightened against the stake, the lamb kicked and cried. Abraham had hoped to deliver a merciful and quick death to the animal. He instead gave the creature torment. He shamed his father, who had been so proud to think that his young boy could learn the skills of the village’s butcher. His incompetence would surely anger the clerics, so that they would banish him from the village if Abraham was lucky, or stone him to death if they decided he deserved to be treated as a man. Worst of all, he shamed the Maker by filling a creature of the divine’s creation with so much fear and pain. Desperate, Abraham stabbed again and again at the lamb, until the red blood spread across the creature’s wool and covered his tunic.


The lamb twitched a final time upon the chamber floor as its blood ran into the room’s drain. Abraham crawled away from the lamb through the blood to lean again against the chamber’s cool wall, where he pressed his forehead to his knees and waited for the fear charging his system to empty.


“I’m happy to see that the blood now marks you, child.”


The high cleric came alone to the butcher’s chamber, and his voice startled Abraham.


“I’m sorry I gave it an ugly death.”


The high cleric stepped into the chamber and gathered the knife still laying at the dead lamb’s side. “You’ve done what I have asked. I will take the lamb now and dress it myself. Did you think you could give that lamb any death other than the one you delivered it? Abraham, you are still only a boy who is still learning what it takes to kill. I assure you that the Maker will provide you with ample opportunity to improve your harvesting of blood. No, Abraham, it is not the killing of the lamb that displeases me.”


“Where else then have I failed?”


The high cleric placed the bloody blade before Abraham’s face. “The other clerics told me that you learned well how to clean and sharpen your knives, and yet I find this one abandoned in the blood. You know better, Abraham.”


Abraham nodded. “I do.”


“Remember that the Maker values all his tools of creation. You have killed my lamb as I asked, and as reward I’ll not mention your oversight with your blade. I don’t yet see cause to send you outside the village to dig yourself another hole. But Abraham, you will scrub this floor of the blood the best you can, and you will tend to each of your blades. And tomorrow, I will send you another lamb to butcher, and you’ll find it a little easier to drag that blade across its throat.”


Abraham hurriedly gathered his bucket and his sponge and set to the task of cleaning the lamb’s blood from the chamber’s floor. He wasn’t surprised when he heard something scurry out from the shadows, and he nodded at the orange cockroach who lifted its antennae as it watched the boy work. Abraham was thankful for that silent bug’s company.


  • * * * *


Governor Chen didn’t leave the cinema after Abraham finished his duty cleaning the butcher shop and returned to his family home, and to the warm cot that waited for his rest. She guided her eavesdropping cockroach back into the safe shadows before replaying the footage gathered that day. Watching the frightened boy clumsily slaughter that bleating lamb wasn’t easy viewing, but Kelly didn’t anticipate taking any pleasure from the sights and sounds gathered from a savage world. The choice she faced was too terrible for any kind of enjoyment.


Why did the slaughter of that lamb, after everything she had already witnessed concerning that boy, so trouble her? The butchering of livestock was no reason to sentence the tribes, and an entire planet, to oblivion. But the sight of that butchered lamb made her shudder, and she feared the sight of that blood would not permit her night’s dreams to be peaceful.


The boy was too young to be a butcher. Kelly recognized that the clerics harbored ulterior motives for so soon training Abraham in the ways of the knives, and she was afraid of how that killing reshaped that boy.


For when she was next called to submit her vote concerning the ultimate answer, Kelly’s decision would depend upon how much hope and innocence she felt survived within a child.


  • * * * *


Chapter 8 – Blessed Hands

“There’s a monster in our home! Hurry, Rahbin! There’s a monster in Abraham’s room!”


Abraham bolted out of his bed at his mother’s scream, instantly lifting his fists to attack whatever boogieman or demon leapt from the shadows to threaten his mother. Yet nothing growled from the darkness. No teeth glimmered in the dim light, nor did any claws scratch along the walls. Rahbin and Ishmael soon barged into his room, each brandishing kitchen knives for defense. Abraham’s mother trembled in the center of the room, pointing towards the corner where she spied her monster while Rahbin kicked at the hard floor.


Rahbin turned and squeezed his wife’s shoulders. “What did you see, Rebecca?”


Rebecca covered her dark glasses with her hands. “It was a terrible cockroach.”


“You’re acting like a foolish girl,” Rahbin snarled. “The cockroaches visit us everyday. Such a bug is no monster.”


Rebecca shook her head. “It was an unnatural bug. It was orange, and black swirls decorated its shell, surely the runes painted by the great devil to employ that cockroach as his tool.”


“You’re talking nonsense,” snapped Rahbin.


Ishmael continued to pace about the chamber’s walls. “Maybe not, father. Others in the village have whispered of seeing bugs of unnatural color. I heard our neighbor John describing a blue cockroach he saw scurrying across the floor one night when I went to the market for onions.”


“Do you know what John did about it?” Rahbin asked.


Ishmael shrugged.


“I’ll inform the clerics,” nodded Rahbin. “We must be on guard against the great devil, and we shouldn’t be surprised if he sends a spy into Abraham’s chamber. Abraham has dug his own hole and started his year into manhood, and the clerics are already teaching him a butcher’s trade. You must be careful, Abraham. This year will tax you, and the great devil will try to exploit your exhaustion.”


Abraham swallowed. He considered telling the truth concerning those bugs for a second, that his hands were responsible for the colorful cockroaches scurrying about the community. Perhaps the great devil was truly testing him. Perhaps the great devil had inspired Abraham to decorate those bugs when the boy thought that the Maker was guiding his brush. Perhaps Abraham needed to explain to his father and the clerics that the great devil had employed him as a tool, so that his elders could protect the village. But Abraham could not. He was afraid of losing what he recently gained – a foothold on the threshold of manhood and a butcher’s training. He was afraid of being cast out of the village, or of being cauterized like an infected wound so that the great devil’s touch didn’t infect the remaining village. So he said nothing while he watched his mother tremble in fear.


Rahbin smiled and kissed his wife’s tattooed forehead. “Take a breath and calm now, Rebecca. We must keep the faith that the Maker protects us. We cannot let any bug, as unnatural as it may be, prevent us from appreciating the blessings our divine creator bestows upon us. Show Abraham what you’ve made for him.”


Rebecca smiled as she held out her arms to offer her son a new tunic. Abraham grinned as he accepted the clean, unsoiled clothing. The fabric felt softer than anything he had previously worn, and he recognized the care his mother must have invested in its creation. Abraham looked into his mother’s face, where he admired the tattoos inked below her skin. For not the first time, he wished the Maker permitted his wives to remove their dark glasses in the privacy of their homes so they might show their children the color of their eyes.


“I don’t understand,” spoke Abraham.


Rahbin winked at his youngest boy. “The Maker already favors you with another special day, Abraham. Our neighbor Josef offers his twin daughters to your charge, and expects you to visit him today to mark your ward upon them. You have butchered animals the last three mornings, Abraham. You’ll not offend Josef by wearing a blood-stained tunic into his home.”


“What about my duties in the butcher’s shop?”


Rahbin chuckled. “The high cleric gives you permission to take a morning off from such chores. In fact, he requests that you honor Josef’s offer. You can catch up on your butcher training this afternoon, and Ishmael will pick up your household chores for today.”


Abraham donned his new tunic before Rahbin and Ishmael hurried him to the ladder exiting their underground home in another rush of village opportunity. Abraham paused when he gripped the ladder’ bottom rung to peer back at his mother, and he saw how tears streamed out from her dark glasses to trickle down the swirls of black, ink tattoos that covered her face, a strange language his father had scribed upon that skin to tell of the blessings the Maker delivered their family unit. The realization suddenly washed over Abraham that he would soon scribe the opening passages of his story upon the faces of Josef’s daughters. He had never imagined what he might write upon the skin of a wife, had never thought he would need to think of what shapes to scribe upon the faces of two women. But events unreeled so quickly after he had dug his hole to announce the start of his year of man-making. Everything left him breathless and a little afraid. What if the great devil truly moved his hands while he had painted the shells of his cockroach friends? Would he taint Josef’s daughters by marking their flesh? Suddenly, all things of the Maker’s creation seemed so complicated and dangerous. Suddenly, every decision seemed crowded with repercussions that remained invisible to his judgment.


Abraham shuddered as he climbed from his subterranean home to enter the shadow thrown upon the Earth from one of the unbelievers’ castles floating overhead. That bastion of blinking lights and dormant guns seemed closer than every before, and Abraham felt he could nearly reach up to touch its rocky underbelly. The clerics preached that a great victory would arrive on the day the tribes reached those orbiting citadels, but Abraham felt crowded by castle’s shadow as darkness slowly flowed across the ground. Suddenly, he felt that the shadow possessed a weight he had failed to before notice, and suddenly he felt his breath quicken beneath such an unnatural creation. Was such doubt another sign that the great devil touched him? Why else would his faith in the clerics, his faith in the Maker, waver?


“Your visit honors my home, Abraham.”


Josef raised a hand to attract his arriving visitors’ attention to where he stood in the shadow. Rahbin hurried ahead to embrace Josef, the men laughing as they joyfully slapped one another’s back. Josef’s grin stretched even wider when he released Rahbin to take Abraham’s hand in a crushing, welcoming grip.


“You’re dressed well,” Josef nodded at Abraham.


“I’m afraid my other tunic was stained with too much blood,” Abraham responded.


Josef squeezed Abraham’s upper arm. “And that is nothing to feel ashamed of, son. A butcher’s trade is a fine place within a tribe, and it is one that will make you a fine husband for my girls in their marriage to the Maker. Alexis and Cassandra are prepared for you, Abraham, and we’ll be ready to proceed once the high cleric arrives.”


Abraham peeked at his father. “The high cleric is coming here?”


Rahbin winked. “He seems to take a particular interest in you, son, and many would consider that a blessing from the Maker.”


Josef welcomed Abraham and Rahbin into his home, where his guests found the host’s central living chamber decorated in his family’s finest carpets. Josef’s wife hurried into the room, balancing a fine tray of tea china. Abraham peeked into her face as she poured him tea, an offering he had never before experienced in anyone’s home but his own, one that made him feel many years beyond his actual age. He hoped that a glance into the face of Josef’s wife might give him some idea of the marking he was expected to soon leave upon the skin of his host’s daughters. But the woman’s tattoos of swirls, runes and flourishes only further confused Abraham by covering so much of her skin. He could guess at no history expressed by those tattoos, and he thought that perhaps whatever meaning was to be read by the marks a ward husband placed upon his wife was to be shared only between them and the Maker.


Yet that thought didn’t at all help Abraham imagine what he would tattoo upon Alexis and Cassandra’s face when Josef placed the inking needle into his hand.


Echoes from the ladder announced the high cleric’s arrival, and the community’s spiritual shepherd smiled as Josef’s wife offered a cup of tea before retreating out of the central chamber. No one said a word for many minutes as the assembly enjoyed Josef’s tea service, which tasted strong, and a little bitter, upon Abraham’s young tongue. The silence magnified Abraham’s anxiety, and he was pleased when the high cleric spoke as he poured everyone a second helping.


“Your wife brews excellent tea, Josef. I must remember to ask her for advice before returning to my quiet study. Forgive my tardiness in accepting your invitation. I stopped by a home to hear another family describe the strange, colorful cockroaches lately seen scurrying about our community.”


Abraham gulped, and his eyes locked on the contents of his cup.


Rahbin’s eyebrow arched. “My wife claimed to have seen such a thing this morning. Do you think the great devil might have sent spies into our flock?”


The high cleric sipped at his tea before answering. “It is too early to tell, nor have I seen such a bug for myself yet. Perhaps the Maker sends color into those bugs to remind us that even cockroaches count among his blessed creation. Or perhaps such bright shells are merely the handiwork of a foolish child.”


Abraham shivered at scurrying sound that echoed from opposite wall’s shadows. It was so faint that he doubted he would have been aware of the noise had it not been for his recent familiarity with the creature responsible for the noise. The bug hid well in the shadow, but Abraham spotted its orange carapace a second before it retreated from his vision, perhaps nesting deeper within some crack in the wall, or perhaps exiting Josef’s home altogether through some concealed and tiny tunnel it had already burrowed through the ground. Abraham’s instinct led him to suspect, however, that the bug remained close, its fine antennae no doubt wavering in the air, its eyes likely finding a nook from which it could spy on the gathering. What if the great devil watched them through that bug? What if the Maker looked through the cockroach’s sight? The uncertainty pained Abraham, but perhaps that too was another challenge of his year of man-making.


The high cleric softly cleared his throat, and Abraham thought the cleric’s eyes stared in the direction of the bug’s shadow before the old man’s dark eyes squared upon his own.


“I realize I haven’t asked you yet, Abraham, but do you agree to serve as the Maker’s husband to Josef’s daughters, Alexis and Cassandra?”


Rahbin quickly answered. “The Maker will bless Abraham with twins. He is honored to accept.”


The high cleric shrugged. “Tell me, Rahbin, has your son dug his own hole?”


“He has.”


“And did you not notice the injuries your son carried home after that digging?”


“I did, and they made me proud.”


The high cleric frowned. “And yet you ignore them?”


“I do not,” and Rahbin’s eyes cast upon the floor.


Abraham took a breath when he saw a fire catch in the cleric’s eyes. “Then you will show your son the dignity he has thus far deserved and close your mouth before I cut out your tongue.” In a breath, the high cleric with the long beard was once more the instrument of the Maker’s law and wrath, and Abraham dared not deny anything that high cleric demanded. “So tell me now, boy, will you be the vessel for the Maker? Will you open your body to the Maker when he chooses to plant his creation within their wombs?”


The moment felt as confusing to Abraham as it felt momentous. Strangely, he recalled how one of those twins had waved at him on the day the clerics’ great horn had summoned the tribes’ men to witness the butcher’s execution. He didn’t intend to hesitate before answering the cleric, but he felt so foolish, and so young. He felt lost, and he prayed that the Maker, and not the great devil, moved within him when he answered.


“I will open to the Maker, and I will accept the girls.”


The high cleric smiled. “Then you must mark them both as yours.”


Josef clapped his hands. “This way, Abraham. Alexis and Cassandra wait for you in another room.”


The high cleric and Rahbin followed Abraham as Josef guided the boy through the dim hall that lead to his daughters’ chamber. Inside, Alexis and Cassandra lay on a pair of cots spread upon the floor. Abraham hesitated in the threshold to that chamber, for the sight of those girls surprised him. He had expected the girls to welcome him, to smile at the boy the Maker sent to be their husband. He thought they might have a moment to laugh and to play together, to perhaps even sing a song. Yet he found the girls’ arms and legs bound together so that they could not move, and he saw that gags covered their mouths. He thought they would be pleased to accept his mark upon their face and so start the story of a family. Yet those girls called no image of celebration into Abraham’s mind. Instead, the way those girls were bound, and the way their eyes widened at the sight of him standing in the door, recalled the image of that lamb tied next to the butcher shop’s drain. He remembered the panic and the cry of that creature after he failed to deliver it a merciful death, and he worried that his hands lacked the skill, strength and resolve that would be needed when Josef put the ink needle in his hand and asked him to mark his daughters.


Rahbin, likely mistaking Abraham’s hesitance for shyness, gently pushed his son into the room. “Do you know what shape you’re going to mark on each girl’s cheek?”


“The harder I think about it, the less I know what to mark. I’ve never learned anything of the language husbands employ to record their family’s history upon the faces of the Maker’s wives.”


“There’s no language to teach,” commented the high cleric. “The Maker guides the marking of those tattoos. That’s all that matters.”


Abraham winced as his father punched his shoulder. “Enjoy this moment, son, because you can never travel backwards through the years. I still cherish the memory of the first mark I sketched onto your mother’s face.”


Josef withdrew a long, hallow needle and a vile of black ink from a mahogany box set between his daughters’ cots. “Here you are, Abraham. Forgive Alexis and Cassandra for their fear. They’re still young.”


“That fear will pass soon enough after you finish,” commented the high cleric.


Abraham didn’t need the high cleric to elaborate. His experience the last several mornings killing the livestock the old man with the long beard brought to the butcher shop educated him in the kindness of swift and confident hands. His father helped him fill the hallow needle with ink, and Josef mimicked moving the needle in the air to show Abraham the proper way to manipulate the tool. Alexis and Cassandra squirmed against their bonds and moaned against their gags as Abraham gripped the needle and turned towards them. Abraham looked at the girls and tried to decide which girl to first mark. They looked identical to him. Green eyes sparkled in both of their faces. Autumn hair tinged with a sheen of red fell to the shoulders of both. Abraham took a moment to consider the shapes of their lips, the contours of their chins, the arch of their noses as his imagination stretched for something to etch upon their faces. Alexis and Cassandra appeared the same, and Abraham knew it would not be long before dark glasses covered their green eyes, before their hair was stained that color of silver known by each woman among the Maker’s faithful tribes.


Abraham gripped the ready needle and approached the girl to his right. Josef pinned his daughter’s shoulders against her cot, and Rahbin squeezed her legs, the men using their strength to keep the child from squirming. Abraham resisted his urge to flinch as the girl struggled against her bonds and captors. He set his knee upon the girl’s chest, and with his free hand pressed a side of her face into the cot so that the opposite cheek provided an unmoving canvas. Reminding himself to work with a steady and strong hand to show that girl kindness, Abraham poked the needle in and out of his subject’s cheek, his fingers suddenly confident of the design needed to be etched below the skin’s surface. His needle worked efficiently, as if the Maker himself entered Abraham to guide the boy’s effort. Abraham left a red, bleeding mark upon the girl’s face and then applied his efforts to the other sister. The high cleric smiled to watch the boy work. As he hoped, the task of killing those creatures he had delivered to that child had well prepared that boy for the needle. The high cleric never doubted the ability of Abraham’s artistic craft.


Josef clapped his hands as he looked upon the blossom of swirls Abraham left on each of his daughter’s faces. “What a glorious beginning. I don’t doubt that with time you will see those swirls expand and grow to write such a wonderful history upon Alexis and Cassandra.”


“The Maker moved within you, Abraham.” The high cleric nodded.


Abraham breathed a long sigh of relief. He felt proud of the marks he placed beneath the skin. His hands had not shaken and trembled so badly to force a poor effort with the tattoo needle. And most importantly of all, the high cleric said that the Maker moved within him. The designs etched upon the faces of those twins, those swirls that were very similar to those Abraham had painted upon an orange shell of a cockroach, were not tainted inspirations delivered by the great devil. They were glorious decorations whispered from the divine Maker’s grace. He no longer needed to fear that the great devil possessed him. A future and a place within his community and tribes unfolded before him.


Rahbin gave his son a short embrace. “You transform into a man before my very eyes.”


“He’s not a man just yet,” spoke the high cleric. “Abraham must undergo another passage before he acquires his tribal cape.”


Josef rubbed his hand through Abraham’s hair. “Oh, but I’m sure we won’t have to wait long.”


“We shall see,” the high cleric nodded.


A rare, salvo of joy rushed Abraham out of that room. Rahbin invited Josef and the high cleric back to his home, where his wife greeted them with a celebratory feast. Neighbors and other clerics visited briefly throughout the afternoon to congratulate Abraham on his engagement to Josef’s daughters, and the high cleric even excused Abraham from any afternoon duties within the butcher shop. Abraham no longer felt like such a frightened child. He felt like a man, whose faith in the Maker was rewarded with a long and grand future.


No one invited the twins Alexis and Cassandra to share in that feast thrown in Abraham’s home to celebrate their coming marriage to a boy who promised to be the vessel of the Maker’s love. They were left alone in their dim chamber, left in their bonds until they calmed. They were left tied to their cots so that their hands did not scratch at the marks that burned upon their cheeks. Though their father had tied them very tightly, their gags couldn’t choke their sobs.


Thus, they were helpless when a strange, ugly cockroach with an unnaturally orange shell decorated with swirls scurried out from the shadows. Their eyes widened with fear to watch the bug scamper onto the ground between them as its fine antennae smelled at the air. They feared the great devil visited them, and they feared no one, not even their father, cared to chase away that bug.


  • * * * *


Chapter 9 – Scratching at the Sky

“I’m sorry, Ishmael, but I’m afraid I can’t go with you into the metal garden. I must tend to the butcher shop and my training all day.”


Ishmael grinned. “It’s fine. I petitioned the clerics for you company, Abraham. They’ve agreed to give you a break so that you can spend the day with me.”


The good fortune he had experienced since climbing, battered and bruised, out from his hole continued to amaze Abraham. “Why would they agree to that?”


“It’s a special occasion,” winked Ishmael.


“What would that be?”


Ishmael rolled his eyes. “I will tell you in the middle of the metal garden, brother. Would I dare involve the clerics in any of my lies?”


Abraham didn’t doubt Ishmael’s word, for he knew his brother cherished every opportunity to please the clerics, and he knew Ishmael took pride in policing the clerics’ law. His brother would do nothing that was contrary to those bearded men’s desire, and so Abraham was glad to follow Ishmael out of their home and across the hard, cracked surface, both of them pleased that the massive citadels of the unbelievers remained far from passing over their path, a sign both took to be another of the Maker’s blessings. The journey to the metal garden took the morning, and the brothers where happy to reach the first of the broken and bent columns of steel, which rose like fractured teeth from the ground’s shattered jaw, before the sun reached its pinnacle to heat the day. Once within the metal garden, Abraham and Ishmael could find shelter from the sun within so many piles of ruin strewn about the landscape.


“There’s no more powerful proof of the Maker’s power than the metal garden,” Ishmael smiled as he surveyed the fields of scattered debris.


The Holy Book taught that a great, glimmering city once stood on the grounds of the metal garden, a city of high, crystal towers that shimmered in the sun. The clerics claimed that the city’s population on any given day far surpassed the numbers the tribes could gather if even the Maker gave their clerics the power to resurrect the ghosts of their great, lost warriors. Life was easy and comfortable. Children didn’t thirst in the hottest, summer droughts, nor did the old hunger when a year’s harvest proved lean. Within the city, humankind lived apart from the elements, sheltered behind steel and glass.


The people of such an age possessed everything, and still their craving magnified. The Holy Book taught that such cities rose from greed, that all of their reflection and polish idolized mankind instead of showing the Maker the reverence he deserved. Mankind chose to forget his creator god and arrogantly cast aside the Maker’s divine law to live according to his individual pleasure and whim. Man no longer feared the great devil; man no longer believed the great devil existed at all. Thus, the Maker’s terrible enemy reigned free, his image cast in a billion motes of mesmerizing light, his voice echoing through such cities that worshipped any kind of song but the one composed to pay glory to the Maker. Mankind rebelled against his Maker, and all of his creations, tainted by the great devil, rose as blasphemies to the creator’s original masterpiece.


Though angered by mankind’s mockery, the Maker’s wisdom recognized how he could save his lost flock of mankind in the destruction of those cities of shimmering glass. The Maker spoke to men, and his spirit returned to remind them that they were all still magical creations of a powerful god, no matter how much science claimed the contrary. The Maker possessed mankind’s hands, and the Maker employed them as his tools that pulled those blasphemous towers of steel to the ground. The word of the Maker spread like fire across the land, for mankind’s heart and soul pined to be reunited with the divine, and through the faithful, the Maker waged a new war against the great devil. The Maker reminded the Earth of his will and of his way, and the tribes emerged across the landscape, the Maker’s great warriors who waged relentless battle against those who refused to believe.


Abraham and Ishmael lived in a wonderful age. They lived to witness the Maker’s tribes spread across the land, and they lived to watch the last of the unbelievers flee in their metal rockets. They would live to watch the Maker’s battle against the great devil extend into the very stars, and Abraham and Ishmael would see the blasphemer’s castles swept out of the sky so that the Maker’s great heaven reunited with his Earth.


Ishmael gripped his brother’s shoulder. “Looking at all the twisted rebar and steel reminds me that we have much for which to feel thankful, brother.”


“The Maker is powerful,” Abraham agreed.


Ishmael winked. “And he is glorious.”


A reflection sparkled amid the ruin at Abraham’s feet, and he bent to recover a glass shard that twinkled in the sunlight. When the air was not too hot, and when the castles orbiting overhead vacated the sky above the metal garden, Abraham enjoyed scurrying about the piles of ruin to scavenge small, shining baubles and sharp pieces of glass. He would offer the most colorful pieces of glass to the clerics, who would often allow Abraham to watch as they pieced one bit of blue glass with a fragment of yellow or orange to compose their stained windows that helped them teach to their village the stories contained within their Holy Book. The process with which those clerics assembled something beautiful from something that was ruined never failed to amaze. It was as if the clerics found magic in the waste of a ruined world, and it reminded Abraham of how the Maker employed man to return his original beauty to a fallen world.


Abraham held the glass shard up to the sun, and he grinned as the light filled the bauble with a blue glow.


Ishmael smiled. “You always had such a fine eye. I could never spot the treasures as could you.”


“You never scurried out to the metal garden as much as I did,” Abraham returned. “You will learn to spot the treasures if you remain patient.”


Ishmael shook his head. “I will not have the time to learn your skill. The clerics tell me the Maker summons me into battle. I will be a hero in the Maker’s great story.”


Abraham thought his heart stopped beating. Each man of the Maker’s tribes possessed the power to be wielded by their god as a terrible weapon. The cape granted to each boy who survived the final ceremony of his year of man-making attested to that divine power. Though Ishmael proudly wore his cape wherever he went, Abraham never paused very long to consider how his life would change when the Maker summoned his brother to serve as a warrior. He supposed he had always considered Ishmael as a boy rather than a man. Abraham sighed, for his childhood, and that of his brother’s, seemed to have slipped away a very long time ago. He didn’t doubt that was according to the Maker’s will, but Abraham all the same felt there was something melancholy about the vanishing of such an era.


Abraham’s eyes again followed those crooked and chard beams of steel that rose so high into the sky. How many ages might have passed beneath the great Maker’s eyes? How many cities might have risen and fallen since the Maker breathed first life into man? How had that metal garden appeared before the Maker’s tribes and warriors destroyed such mockery? Why did the Maker grant mankind the power to create in ways contrary to that divine creator’s pleasure? Did the Maker enjoy the destruction as much as he enjoyed the invention? Why could a god who enjoyed building not permit anything to last?


“When will you answer that call?”


Ishmael’s eyes sparkled. “I battle tonight, brother. Tomorrow, I will sit next to the Maker.”


“Where will you battle?”


Ishmael chuckled. “It would only be the clerics’ place to share such information with you even if I knew. I was told only that I go to the east.”


“In the direction where the rockets rise.”


Ishmael nodded. “Perhaps I will be among the first to fight in the stars. Don’t look sad, Abraham. The Maker blesses me, for the stars themselves will sparkle as memorials to my sacrifice.”


Abraham wiped his eyes to prevent a tear from streaking his cheek. “I suppose that’s better than even a cape fluttering in the wind.”


“It is indeed.”


The brothers spent the last morning remaining to them strolling through the metal garden in search of bright pieces of glass for the clerics and their holy stories. They often stopped to huddle beneath some pile of ruin, to sit in the shadow and laugh while they replenished their energy for another foray into the sun. Abraham did his best to hide his tears whenever he thought of his brother forever leaving him, and Ishmael showed Abraham compassion by not faulting his younger sibling for his emotion. Abraham felt thankful to the clerics for providing him the time to spend with Ishmael on their last day, just as he was thankful to clerics for providing Ishmael with such a grand backdrop of stars for his battle against the unbelievers, just as he was thankful to the clerics for providing him a butcher’s place within their community, and for providing him with two young girls to soon love as the Maker flowed through him. And most of all, Abraham felt thankful that the Maker built such a lovely world on top of the ruins of an ugly and old one.


  • * * * *


Later that night, Abraham sat with his father and mother in the central chamber of their subterranean home. Ishmael’s cape hung proudly on the wall, and Abraham wondered what instruction the clerics would deliver come the morning regarding the pattern his mother would weave onto his lost brother’s cape. How would she stitch one star after another onto the fabric so that the material crowded with sparkle? Would the clerics advise her to weave great sunbursts of explosions to convey the Maker’s fury Ishmael’s body delivered to the unbelievers? How long might Ishmael’s cape flutter in front of the cleric’s scaffold tower before the clerics allowed Rahbin to carry that remembrance of his son home? Would they recognize the moment when the Maker made Abraham a martyr, and how would they know if his attack brought victory?


Abraham peered down the dim hallway that connected the central chamber with the home’s sleeping rooms, and within the shadow he perceived that orange shell of his loyal, cockroach friend. That bug continued to possess an uncanny curiosity. Yet Abraham no longer feared the bug’s presence as a sign that the great devil lurked nearby, for the cockroach’s shell was painted in the same, dark swirls that adorned the faces of Josef’s daughters, and the high cleric had judged those markings to be blessed by the Maker. He would allow that cockroach to eavesdrop however it might desire. For all that Abraham knew, that bug may have possessed nothing less than the great Maker’s spirit.


The cleric’s great horn suddenly shrilled to fill the underground room with noise. Rahbin raced to his home’s ascending ladder at the sound, but Abraham hesitated a moment to peek into his mother’s tattooed face, wondering what emotion he might have there read had those dark glasses not covered her eyes.


The men of the village hurried towards the clerics’ tower as the horn’s long note continued to wail. The night was cool, and the sky was dark, teeming with a field of stars that led Abraham to suspect that the Maker had crafted new jewels to set into his sky. One of the unbelievers’ massive castles floated directly overhead, and its shadow didn’t seem to move over the dark world, as if those blasphemers hiding behind its walls intentionally stopped their monstrosity over Abraham’s village. The clerics’ horn sounded the same note of celebration as it had the night not so long ago when Abraham had watched the unbelievers’ rockets explode in the heavens, and Abraham wondered if the clerics had called him onto the surface to look towards the east and witness the fire that would announce his brother arrived in the Maker’s arms.


The high cleric didn’t make any kind of announcement after the great horn silenced. He merely looked to the east to direct his community to turn its attention to the constellations hanging in that direction. A low rumble whispered through the ground, and a single rocket, rising on a plume of blue and white fire, rose from the ground, lifting towards the massive castle that hovered above their village. Abraham held his breath, waiting for the flash that would claim his brother and give his family a hero. Everything went quiet as the village waited, watching that rocket climb closer and closer to the castle overhead.


That rocket nearly reached the castle before it erupted in brilliant light. The men of the village cheered as streamers of fire and debris fell from the sky before lifting their hands in unison to chant.


“Praise be to the Maker!”


But the high cleric didn’t return that chant, instead gazing silently at the stars. A chill ran up Abraham’s spine and pulled his sight onto the great castle overhead, whose blinking lights shifted and moved a breath before the floating bulwark turned.


“Everyone return to their homes!” The great cleric held up his hands while another bearded leader blared the great horn’s emergency wail.


A searing beam of brilliant, golden light burned out of the floating castle, searing across the sky and striking the ground to the east of the village from which that single rocket had risen. A crack echoed through the air, and Abraham held a breath as a giant mushroom explosion rose from that beam’s impact. A wall of hot wind punched Abraham in the gut, motivating him, along with the remainder of the village’s men, to run towards the holes of their homes. Abraham turned before he reached his family shelter and darted towards Josef’s ladder, where he called for Alexis and Cassandra.


Josef’s head appeared in the hole. “Where will you take them, Abraham?”


Abraham shouted above the wailing horn. “The butcher shop’s chambers are dug deeper than those of any home. Let me take them there for shelter.”


Josef nodded, and a second later that father pushed his daughters up the ladder to the young boy, turned only ten, who had marked his girls’ faces with tattoo swirls in a promise to be their ward. Abraham pulled and pushed, pleaded and shouted, at the girls as they ran over the short distance separating Josef’s home from the butcher shop. The ground shook as they raced to the bottom of that shop’s ladder as great, booming concussions struck the earth above their heads. The girls cried as Abraham led them into the shop’s drainage chamber, where the stain of blood from so many animals could never be completely cleansed from the floor. The room was the deepest of any carved within the village, and there Abraham, Alexis and Cassandra huddled together as bits of ceiling fell onto their heads, all of them praying to their Maker that the ground didn’t collapse to bury them alive.


Abraham did his best to comfort Josef’s daughters, holding their hands and hugging them as he thought the Maker might expect a good husband to do. He comforted himself by thinking of the great victory his brother must have brought to their village. He dreamed of the hurt Ishmael must have given to those unbelievers who attempted to hide from the Maker’s justice in the stars. Ishmael’s martyrdom must have been a glorious one deserving of a magnificent story sewn upon his cape, for after decades of silence, the castles again levelled their guns upon the villages of the tribes.


  • * * * *


“General Harrison, is there anyway we can push the timetable forward? Is there anyway to more quickly execute the ultimate answer?”


General Harrison shook his head at Governor Praxis’ face glowing within his communications monitor. “I’m afraid it wouldn’t do us any good pushing ahead with the proposal after Governor Spencer exercised his executive initiative and unleashed that salvo from his castle cannons. Had Governor Spencer asked for my advice, I may have warned him that such an attack would diminish the collective energy reserve of our castles and delay the implementation of our ultimate answer, even if Governor Chen had already affirmed our plan with her final vote. Seeing as we’re not going to have the capacity to move forward for some time now, Governor, I see no reason to hurry Governor Chen’s decision.”


Governor Praxis sighed. General Harrison wondered if his face had aged as much as the governor’s apparently had. The governors were feeling the danger. The general had warned them not to underestimate the tribes’ cunning resolve. Time and again, he had told those governors that, no matter how much faith those living within the stars placed within their space stations, the tribes, savages they might be, would sooner or later strike the orbiting castles. Despite all their precautions, the tribes managed to infiltrate another human bomb onto a rocket bound for Governor Spencer’s castle. The tribes planted their explosive within a boy who, from what accounts the general’s team gathered from the ground, appeared to have been no older than twelve. General Harrison’s heart saddened, for he so easily imagined how compassion motivated some sentry at the rocket facility to let down his guard so that a dirty, dusty child might ascend from a barbaric world and discover a civilized life within the stars. They were fortunate that the rocket’s captain conducted the precautionary scans following his launch as the general had suggested so that the explosives surgically implanted within that child were discovered. The rocket crew sacrificed their lives and detonated their rocket so that the child couldn’t reach Governor Spencer’s delicate space station, and measurements recorded from that explosion clearly showed that the child had packed enough firepower to fracture the space station and expose it to the vacuum. General Harrison shuddered to think of the lives that may have been lost and of the series of failures that might have followed that may have doomed the castle to a fiery end as it fell back into Earth’s atmosphere.”


“Perhaps Governor Spencer was wise when he destroyed the rocket facility.”


General Harrison shook his head. “He acted rashly and foolishly. There are other rocket facilities on the planet, surrounded by other tribes. His actions only wasted resources and stranded more civilized refugees on the world.”


“You’re telling me that all we can do is wait?”


General Harrison nodded. “All we can do now, Governor Praxis, is try to conserve as much power as possible to recharge our energy reserves. I recommend that we power down all non-essential systems. That will make life uncomfortable for our castle populations. People will have to cope with chilly living quarters. Everyone will need to consume less and sleep more. But any cutback we can make in our energy usage will bring us that much closer to executing our ultimate answer.”


“I’ll bring your suggestion before the governors immediately.”


General Harrison leaned forward. “Governor, I suggest you take the same executive initiative that Governor Spencer took when he unleashed those cannons and immediately limit the consumption of power within your station. I wouldn’t wait to summon all the governors for another round of debate and voting. I’m afraid the situation forces you to take individual action.”


“I understand,” Governor Praxis nodded.


Yet General Harrison noticed the panic that flashed in Governor Praxis’ eyes in the second before his face vanished and the communications monitor went dark. Like most all of his peers, Governor Praxis feared making any choice on his own, feared any decision whose repercussions couldn’t be carefully charted, whose impact on the registered, voting public’s regard couldn’t be squeezed into an objective and clear pie chart. He doubted Governor Praxis’ castle would make the simplest of sacrifices in power consumption before the governor had the chance to debate the energy cutting measures with the other governors. He doubted Governor Praxis would ask his constituents to sacrifice a single comfort before the governor knew that the populace of all the other castles were required to do the same. The barbarians and their bombs ascended to their foothold in the stars, and still General Harrison feared that hesitation and fear would stiffen those governors like stone until it was too late to prevent those tribes from pulling that last of civilization into the grave.


General Harrison wondered if he would act any differently if he occupied a governor’s executive desk. He used to take comfort by thinking that the ribbons pinned to the chest of his uniform promised that he would. Only, a doubt recently entered his estimation of himself. Governor Kelly Chen had followed her heart. She had displayed that rare integrity so often lacking in the other governors when she had voted according to her conviction and stood alone in her dissent against the ultimate answer’s implementation. And as reward for her courage, the weight of the world settled upon her shoulders. General Harrison wasn’t sure if he could withstand the pressures that woman was no doubt currently feeling as she wrestled with the question if what remained of Earth deserved to be preserved, of if it was best to entirely obliterate the ruin so that the planet’s infection never touched the stars.


General Harrison tapped the mahogany surface of his desk to open a communications channel.


“This is Engineer Dixon in the power plant. What can we do for you General?”


“Place our castle on the strictest energy restrictions. I want to divert all the juice we can into our energy reserves.”


“Yes sir, general.”


The lights in General Harrison’s office instantly dimmed. It wouldn’t take much time before his office turned cold enough to turn his breath to vapor. But a thick coat would make him warm again, and his eyes would well enough adjust to his dark surroundings. All of those things were very minor discomforts, and General Harrison was thankful he didn’t have to struggle with the dilemma set upon Governor Chen’s desk. He doubted anyone deserved the light and the warmth more than her.


  • * * * *


Chapter 10 – A Boy Given a Purpose

Abraham woke as something scratched the back of his hand. Dirt stung in his face as he opened his eyes to see his loyal and orange cockroach friend climbing up his arm to reach his shoulder, where the bug took a perch as its fine antennae sniffed at Abraham’s scratched face, as if checking for hurts the boy may have suffered during the onslaught of the orbiting castle’s guns. A pain in his neck caused Abraham to wince as he turned his face back and forth to scan the chamber in search of Alexis and Cassandra. The twins huddled together and sobbed against the chamber’s opposite wall, on the other side of the pile of earth that had fallen from a segment of collapsed ceiling. Abraham gently set his bug friend upon the ground and coughed as he crawled through the dust to reach the girls. Blood clotted from a cut Cassandra suffered on her forehead, likely from where a falling chunk of ceiling had struck her. But Alexis was worse for ware, for her face had turned pale from the pain she suffered when the ceiling fell upon her leg to pin her uncomfortably against the wall.


Cassandra’s lips trembled. “Alexis tried to run home. The ceiling collapsed on her.”


“Can you dig?” Abraham asked. “Can you help me clear away the rubble from her leg?”


Cassandra gathered enough composure to help Abraham clear the debris, and together they soon revealed enough of Alexis to recognize her broken leg. Cassandra wailed to see her sister’s injury, and she returned to Alexis’ side to grip her sister’s hand. Alexis softly moaned before she closed her eyes to pain, falling into a stupor from which she didn’t return no matter how Abraham massaged her face or shook her shoulders.


“I have to get help, Cassandra. I have to find a way back to the surface.”


Rubble slowed Abraham’s progress through the halls and chambers of the butcher shop. But the destruction never stopped his progress, for Abraham managed to clear away enough rubble at every blockage to squeeze into the adjoining chamber. He hated to think of how much time and work would have to be invested to rebuild the shop, and that concern led him to worry about the destruction he would discover once he climbed back onto the surface of his village. He prayed to the Maker that he could still find help for Alexis. He knew nothing about setting broken bones, or how to insure that the fever didn’t settle into wounds. He was hardly ten, and Cassandra was just seven. The two of them would not have the strength to carry Alexis out of the ruin.


Abraham shook his head. Ishmael would be ashamed if fear paralyzed his young brother in the time of calamity. Abraham focused on clearing whatever debris blocked his progress, and he kept his concentration on the task immediately at hand, that of finding his way out from the earth. His effort rubbed his fingers raw, so that his hands throbbed and bled by the time he reached the hole that opened into the sky. The Maker had not abandoned him, for the fallen ladder had not broken, and it easily supported Abraham’s weight as the child climbed hurriedly onto the surface.


The giant castle still floated directly overhead to cast Abraham’s village into thick shadow. The fortress of the unbelievers had never felt so close, and the sky itself seemed on the verge of collapse, as if it too felt the menace of those hovering castles that blocked so much sun and wind. The ground felt warm beneath Abraham’s boots, and the smoke rose out of many of the holes that marked the entrances to the village’s homes. Abraham hurried to Josef’s ladder, where he was appalled to find a great crater blasted deep into the ground, obliterating any trace of the home or family that had honored Abraham with twin wives. He darted to the location of his family’s ladder, and he screamed at the dirt that suffocated the entrance and warned that the ground had collapsed completely upon his father and mother. Other men climbed out of surviving holes to shake fists and scream curses at the castle floating over their heads before they searched for tools to employ to clear away rubble and earth, many using their hands to dig at the collapsed shelters of their neighbors and loved ones.


“Over here, Abraham!” One of the young, bearded clerics, the man with the wide shoulders who had executed the butcher Paul, waved to catch Abraham’s attention. “The high cleric was just asking about you. I think he has something to say to you, but you must hurry.”


Abraham caught his breath. “Joseph’s daughters are trapped in the butcher shop. Alexis has a broken leg.”


The cleric nodded. “I promise we will get to them as quickly as possible. It will be good to find survivors. But hurry to the high cleric’s apartments, Abraham. The high cleric is badly hurt, and he might not have much time.”


An invitation to the high cleric’s quarters was rarely afforded to anyone within the village, and any visit to the spiritual leader’s home was customarily an occasion marked with great solemnity. Yet Abraham felt none of that formality as he ran towards the high cleric’s home. Bearded clerics, armed with the most formidable rifles ever salvaged from the ruin of the old world, surrounded the ladder that led downward into the high cleric’s quarters, but all of them nodded at Abraham when the boy arrived, all apparently pleased to discover that the guns of the blasphemers had failed to bury Abraham. The subterranean halls of the high cleric appeared in good order, for the tribe spared no expense in fortifying their leader’s underground abode, and no home was dug as deeply into the earth as the one occupied by the high cleric. Abraham looked upon the mosaics of broken glass that told the story of the Maker’s creation, and of the Maker’s heroes who swept away the old and decadent world’s perversion so that one day the Maker might return beauty to an empty canvas. Abraham wondered if any of the small, colorful stones he had returned from the metal garden occupied a small, glimmering place in any of those mosaics. The possibility made him proud. He had so often admired the way his mother worked her loom, and he had so often stared, amazed, at the intricate patterns woven in the capes of the tribe’s heroes to tell of the fallen warriors’ exploits. Had the Maker not blessed him with a butcher’s training, Abraham would have hoped that the Maker might have shown his hands the secrets of creating such masterpieces out of nothing more than colorful bits of broken glass.


“Hurry here, child,” a raspy whisper attracted Abraham’s attention just as he allowed his thoughts to drift too deeply into a mosaic. “Oh, how I regret not inviting you earlier into my home, Abraham, so that you might’ve had a better opportunity to admire those glass pictures. But I suspected this day was coming, and you had such limited time to prepare for the purpose the Maker has gifted to you.”


The high cleric lay upon the largest bed Abraham had ever seen, surrounded by luxurious pillows and covered in thick blankets. Though the bedding looked comfortable and warm, Abraham noticed how sweat beaded upon the cleric’s forehead. The cleric’s hands looked thin as they waved Abraham to come closer.


“Does my visit pain you?”


The high cleric attempted to laugh at the boy’s concern, but the effort turned into a cough that contorted his face.


“I feel very little, Abraham,” returned the high cleric. “The Maker gifted you with a great heart. Never let anyone tell you that a warrior’s heart cannot hold such compassion, Abraham. It takes a great heart to understand what we fight for, a great heart to understand what makes the unbelievers so vile.”


“Are you badly hurt?”


The high cleric nodded. “The Maker begins to summon me to his side, son. I was too slow in finding my shelter when the castle fired upon our village, and a blast from their guns broke my back. No, don’t look like that, Abraham. I feel nothing below my waist, so my suffering is very minor. Your brother’s attack got their attention. Your brother’s bravery forced the heathens in the sky to roar their guns, something they haven’t done for decades. That means they’re frightened. It means they realize that we’re about to cleanse them from the Maker’s heavens. I needed to see you before I leave for the Maker, Abraham, so that I can ask you if you’re ready to undergo the final ritual of your man-making. I needed to ask if you’re ready to receive your cape and take battle to the unbelievers as did your good brother Ishmael.”


“I’m ready.” Abraham felt surprised by his own certainty.


“Forgive me for ever doubting you,” the cleric smiled, “but you are so young, Abraham. Your youth makes you such a formidable weapon. It’s your youth that will gain you access to those unbelievers’ castles. They won’t be able to resist you when you plead with them for a seat on one of those rockets lifting into their fortresses. Their arrogance will trick them into believing that they are saving you from a wasted world. Their naivety will fail to suspect the power held within your body. You will release that power in the heart of one of those towers, Abraham, and you will bring a castle crashing back to earth the very moment the Maker receives you in his heaven. Are you ready for such a thing?”


“I’m ready.” Abraham didn’t feel the slightest hesitation or doubt.


“The castle must’ve shattered our village for you to be so certain. Did you lose much in the attack, Abraham?”


Abraham nodded, feeling more anger than sorrow. “I fear my father and mother are crushed beneath the earth. I’m afraid nothing remains of Josef and his wife.”


“And what of your young twins?”


“They’re alive, but Alexis’ leg is terribly broken.”


The high cleric sighed. “Know that those girls will be stronger for it. I regret you’ll not have more time with them, that you will not have the opportunity to feel the Maker love those girls through your body. I tried to give you what I could of manhood, Abraham. That’s why I encouraged you to begin your year of man-making so early. Why I pushed you so quickly into the butcher’s trade. Why I wanted you to mark those faces of those girls though your hands were so young. I wanted to give you every chance I could to understand what the Maker calls you to kill for. You make me very happy, Abraham.”


Abraham grinned. “And I hope I please the Maker.”


The high cleric again coughed, and Abraham noticed the blood that gathered in the corners of the old man’s mouth. “You do. Now go and tell the clerics above that you are ready, and they will prepare you for your next trial. Abraham, I promise to do my best to be here when you recover from that procedure, but if I’m not, know that you make me proud, and that I will greet you with the Maker the next time we meet.”


Abraham gently squeezed the high cleric’s hand before departing. He owed much to that long-bearded cleric, for the high cleric’s direction had transformed Abraham from a boy into a man. As a child, he had been so afraid of that elderly man, who now appeared so frail, so weak, surrounded by so much bedding, his back broken and his breaths numbering among his last. Thanks to the customs the high cleric oversaw, and protected, Abraham had matured by bounds in the short weeks following the digging of his hole. The high cleric had recognized Abraham’s potential from the start; he had foreseen how Abraham would, with a little encouragement, grow to wear his own warrior’s cape. As a child, Abraham believed the high cleric delivered only the Maker’s punishment; but on the cusp of manhood, Abraham learned how the high cleric in truth administered the Maker’s blessings.


Another of the bearded clerics offered Abraham a hand to help him mount the last rungs of the ladder that deposited him back upon the surface. “The high cleric told us that you were ready for your final ritual. We’re prepared to administer the procedure whenever you want, Abraham.”


“Should we wait until we finish searching through all the rubble?”


The cleric shrugged. “The men of the village all know how to dig without the supervision of their clerics. Besides, the best way to answer the guns of that castle floating overhead is to prepare all the warriors we might. Do you want to keep the Maker waiting when he summons you to battle within the stars?”


Abraham held his chin high and didn’t flinch to return that cleric’s stare. “I do not. I’m ready to become a man and to wear my cape.”


The bearded cleric tussled Abraham’s hair. “Then follow us. The unbelievers’ guns have collapsed the chambers we typically employ for this final rite, but the butcher shop’s rooms should well suffice.”


  • * * * *


Abraham sensed none of the irony as the clerics escorted him into the butcher shop’s slaughter chamber, where the blood of so many creatures had stained the floor on its journey down the central drain. There, the clerics hoisted Abraham upon a cot carried into the room before binding his ankles and wrists, a precaution the cleric’s told Abraham would protect him from unnecessary hurt should he prematurely return from the numbing dreams the ritual would gift to him. Abraham in no way felt like any of the animals that had been taken to slaughter in that chamber. He knew he was about to become a warrior, infused with the Maker’s divine fury and wrath. As the clerics prepared the potion that would grant him sleep, Abraham wondered what visions had come to his brother Ishmael, and to his father, when they too had lain upon a cot while the clerics implanted the Maker’s weapon within their bodies before granting them their own capes to proudly display upon their backs. Abraham again marveled at how strong he had become since he had dug that hole to mark the beginning of his man-making, for he felt no child’s fear as he watched the cleric’s sharpen the glistening knives and prepare the needle and thread that would be employed during the procedure.


“This will taste very bitter,” a cleric presented a clay mug filled with a chalky, gray concoction, and Abraham’s face contorted as he smelled the pungent odor carried by its steam, “and it will hard to swallow at first. There is no shame in drinking it in small sips. We would prefer to administer this through a needle in your arm, but the attack forces us to make do as best we might.”


Abraham swallowed greedily at the foul drink. He was about to become warrior, and he wouldn’t be intimidated by medicine. But his stomach and throat revolted at his courage, and Abraham vomited and coughed no small measure of the potion back. The clerics in the room laughed.


“He might be young,” chuckled a cleric who gripped a thin, glistening knife, “but he certainly has the will for it.”


Another cleric who gingerly handled a strange package nodded. “He’s not the first to soil his tunic with regurgitation. I’m sure he kept plenty in his stomach all the same.”


The cleric who administered the drink looked into Abraham’s eyes as he drifted a finger back and forth. “I need you to count to fifty for me, Abraham. Then, the Maker will grant you wonderful dreams, and you will feel no pain as we implant the Maker’s fury beneath your skin. You will be a warrior when you wake, with a cape of your own.”


Abraham’s proud voice reached the number of six before sleep closed his eyes.


  • * * * *


The bearded clerics worked silently upon the boy. They wielded their blades with uncustomary care, for they couldn’t afford to knick an artery with a slip of a hand, nor to give infection a firm foothold upon their patient by clumsily working any of the instruments that imparted the Maker’s power to the body tied upon the cot. When the boy stirred, they ceased their labor to pour more potion down the sleeping child’s throat, careful that they didn’t send their patient into a deathly slumber by administering too much of the medicine that saved the child from feeling the procedure’s pain.


With their concentration so focused upon their surgery, none of those clerics noticed the orange, burrowing cockroach that watched from the shadows that leaned against the chamber’s walls. That bug leaned back upon its haunches, and it waved its fine, sniffing antennae in the air to monitor the status of the clerics’ operation.


None of those bearded clerics would’ve likely given the bug much consideration had they paused in their delicate work to notice its presence within the chamber. They might’ve shrugged upon noticing the orange color of its shell. Though the swirls that decorated its carapace might’ve peaked their curiosity, the working of the needle and the stitching wouldn’t have afforded those clerics the time to debate if such a strange bug might have been one of the great devil’s minions. Likely, those bearded clerics would’ve merely allowed that orange bug to watch until it scampered away, for implanting the bomb within that boy was too important a task to allow themselves the simple, distracting pleasure of crushing a cockroach beneath their boot.


Certainly, the bearded clerics would have had no way of realizing how intently that cockroach with the orange shell and the painted swirls regarded them, nor any way whatsoever of recognizing the danger surrounding such a little bug.


  • * * * *


“Abraham, come back to us.”


A pain throbbed within Abraham’s skull as he became aware of a warm sensation of light swaying back and forth upon the back of his closed eyelids. His fingers tingled, and a pain tugged upon his abdomen when he wiggled his toes. Wincing, Abraham slowly opened his eyes as a rumble of murmurs rushed into his ears.


A bearded face smiled at him. “We have a glorious cape waiting for you, Abraham.”


Abraham’s eyes winked as the cleric extinguished the match he waved before his eyes, and Abraham’s eyes focused upon his surroundings as a fog lifted from his perception. For a moment, he believed his mother stood beside his cot, that she had survived the guns the unbelievers unleashed upon their village, and that she had come to him holding a new cape of golden filigree and symbols to announce his graduation into a man and a warrior. The woman’s hair was the same color silver as had been his mother’s, and her eyes might just have been the same color as those hidden behind his mother’s dark glasses. But Abraham recognized that the woman stood too tall, that her form was too slim, to have belonged to his mother.


“The wife of your neighbor Harold wove that cape for you, Abraham,” spoke the bearded cleric leaning over Abraham’s cot. “I’m sorry, son, but your mother didn’t survive the attack on our village. She remains buried in her home along with your father, a proud resting place the Maker provided them in thanks for her family. But Harold’s wife is also good with the needle, and she did you great honor in crafting your cape.”


Abraham moved to sit up upon his cot so that the cleric might drape the cape across his shoulders, but pain flared from his abdomen, and Abraham couldn’t choke a cry. He noticed that blood stained his tunic, and his fingers gingerly reached for his stomach, where he felt the raised, thick threading of his stitches. Moving his shirt, Abraham gasped at the red, jagged wound that crisscrossed across his abdomen.


The cleric gently pushed Abraham back upon the cot. “Take a breath and slow your heart, Abraham. The Maker especially favors you. He granted us a very large bomb to implant beneath your skin. We planted this one next your stomach, where it will wait for the opportunity to strike the unbelievers and deliver you into the Maker’s kingdom. Your appetite might be diminished, and we must be careful to avoid infection. But with a little luck, you will have your opportunity to carry the Maker’s battle into the stars before either danger might hurt you.”


Another cleric chuckled at the foot of Abraham’s cot. “We didn’t just slice open your guts. We also gave you a wonderful earring, and it looks magnificent upon you.”


Abraham gingerly touched his right ear and felt the earring’s smooth surface, cringing slightly to discover that the lobe of the ear was also tender. He wondered about the purpose of such an ornament. Ishmael had sported no earring after earning his cape of manhood.


A third cleric, with a beard peppered with a bit more gray, leaned into Abraham’s face. “Did the Maker grant you visions while you slept?”


Abraham nodded. “He gave me wonderful sights.”


The clerics gathered in the chamber smiled and nodded towards one another.


“Can you describe them to us?” Another cleric asked.


Abraham closed his eyes to calm some of the hurt that emanated from the ragged incision of his surgery and summoned what filaments of dream he could back to his inner sight.


“I saw such wonderful skies,” Abraham started. “I saw skies teeming with lavender clouds, with fragmented, silver moons. There were skies filled with two, dim suns, and when night rolled across those landscapes, strange and unfamiliar groups of stars sparkled in the Maker’s heaven. I dreamed of one world after another, and the castles of the unbelievers floated above none of them to taint the ground with their shadow. There were forests brimming with such strange trees, filled with the song of shrilling creatures. Calm seas of turquoise lapped against crystalline cliffs. Snow and ice filled the air of some of the worlds of which I dreamed, while waves of heat lifted above hot sands of other desert worlds. None of those worlds held any of the ruin of the blasphemer’s tainted creation. Everything was newly painted by the Maker’s brush. The Maker unveiled the complexity of his creation while I slept, and I understood why mankind so greatly offends the divine creator with each vain project of his making.


“My dreams never felt so real, for a warm breeze tickled across my face while I stared at each world the Maker revealed to me. Capes of our fallen warriors fluttered everywhere in such wind, and I could easily and instantly read the histories of their battles in the designs and symbols sewn so beautifully into the fabric, telling me that the Maker himself guided each stitch that glimmered beneath so many strange stars and moons. My sleep was so short, and yet the Maker showed me his designs in a span of eternity. I watched our peoples arrive on each of those worlds, carried in great, metallic arks beyond anything the unbelievers ever lifted into the heavens. Through our hands, the Maker erected new cities, composed of spires of glass and crystal whose inner glow pulsed to a great heartbeat. None of our future people lived beneath the ground. None of our coming kind needed to seek shelter from the blasphemers’ guns. Our victory against the unbelievers was complete, and the Maker gave us worlds far more lovely than anything we could dream after we cleansed this home world and provided him a great, clean canvas for his touch.”


“Praise be to the Maker.” Tears streamed from the eyes of every bearded cleric gathered at Abraham’s bedside as they whispered their beloved chant.


No matter his pain, Abraham also smiled. “Praise be to the Maker.”


The cleric with the beard peppered in gray leaned again into Abraham’s face. “Such dreams tell us how the Maker truly blesses you, son. Soon, you will heal well enough from your surgery, and we will cheer you and pray for you as we watch you leave our village to walk to where the unbelievers’ great rockets rise. You will beg for the opportunity to live among their people. You will tell them that you turn your back on the Maker’s compassion. Tell them that you are without father or mother, that you don’t have so much as a brother or sister to count as family. It will not be easy for a man as devoted to the Maker as you, Abraham, but you will beg for a seat on another of their rising rockets. Call us whatever names you must. Cast even the name of our Maker in derision if it’s necessary. The Maker will understand, and he will know your true heart.


“The unbelievers will no doubt pity you and open their world to you. Foolishly, they will see you as only a child. They will arrogantly believe that they save you by taking you from this earth. You will wait as that rocket takes you into their castle. Thank the Maker, Abraham, the moment you enter those walls. All you must do is pinch the lobe of your right ear, and that will tell us that you have arrived in the home of our enemy. We will cheer for you, and we will detonate that power implanted within you, and the explosion will be so great as to pull that castle down from the sky. You will feel nothing before feeling the pleasure of the Maker’s kingdom. In a wink, you will earn the Maker’s eternal love and take revenge for everything and everyone the unbelievers have stolen from us.”


“Praise be to the Maker.” Abraham smiled.


The cleric nodded and tenderly squeezed Abraham’s hand. “Now rest, our warrior. Heal so you may walk across the ruin to reach the unbelievers in their purgatory. You make all of us very proud, and you please the Maker.”


Abraham did his best to settle into his cot’s comfortable cushions as the clerics left that chamber deep within the butcher shop so that the child they molded into a martyr could have his needed slumber. Abraham found it much more difficult to fall into his dreams. None of the clerics’ medicine coursed through his blood to force his eyes to close, and pain burned along his abdomen’s incision at the slightest movement of his fingers or toes. But Abraham patiently bore the discomfort, and he closed his eyes to recall the wonderful sights the Maker gifted to his previous round of dreaming. He had nearly fallen back into those dreams when he felt something scurrying atop his legs. Opening his eyes, Abraham was not startled to watch that burrowing cockroach with the orange shell painted in strange swirls crawl upon him before reaching his abdomen, where it paused to seemingly consider the red stitches that ran along the skin.


The bug repulsed Abraham. The bug reminded him how all that a man’s hand might craft without the Maker’s presence was doomed to be ugly abomination. Abraham saw such incredible worlds crafted by the Maker within his dreams, and all of them taught him how his practice of painting bugs with the colors stolen from his mother’s loom was a vain and empty pursuit of a child, a wasteful practice of a boy whose ignorance failed to recognize how the Maker had crafted even the lowly cockroach according to his intended design. Abraham’s work with the orange paint and the brush had perverted that creature and had turned it into a broken vessel that provided a space for the great devil’s essence. He had behaved like an unbeliever.


Abraham batted the orange bug onto the ground, and he winced as he stood from his cot, his mind still dizzy from the medicine the clerics had administered to numb his body during his surgery. The orange bug didn’t retreat as Abraham gingerly stepped towards it. The bug failed to scurry for any concealing shadows. Rather, the bug merely waved its pair of fine antennae as Abraham lifted his bare foot before bringing it down to squish the creature’s innards into the floor.


  • * * * *


Chapter 11 – In the Wink of an Eye

Governor Kelly Chen didn’t bother accessing the miniscule cameras of another one of her bug spies’ eyes after the boy crushed the orange bug she employed in considering the type of humankind that remained upon Earth. The choice no longer felt a very complicated one to her. It felt tragic and terrible. It was indeed sad and irreversible. But the weight of that vote pressed in front of her lifted from her shoulders. As General Harrison had told her, the world had been lost a long time ago. Those who called the orbiting castles home had just done their best to deny it.


Kelly tapped at the armrest of her theater seat to open a straight channel to General Harrison’s home castle. “This is Governor Chen. Is the general in his office?”


“It doesn’t matter, Governor,” answered a calm and kind voice. “The general’s instructed us to reach him immediately, no matter his location, in the event that you should call. One moment please.”


Kelly listened to a few beeps before the general’s voice answered. “Have you reached a decision, Governor Chen? Or, is there anything else I can do to help you in your deliberations?”


“I need nothing else,” Kelly replied. “They made the boy into a bomb. Were you aware that they were going to do such a thing?”


“We had our suspicions,” the general answered. “He’s not the first boy to be crafted into such a weapon.”


“Then we’re certainly not going to let him get anywhere near a rocket launch facility, are we General Harrison?”


“All sentries currently posted on Earth have strict instructions not to allow anyone walking out of the waste to near any of the rockets.”


“And in the future?”


The general sighed. “The tribes have their reasons for turning children into bombs. Maybe not tomorrow, and maybe not next year, but sooner or later, the chances are good that someone will again let their guard down and pity some girl or boy who comes crawling out of the old world’s waste begging for a chance for a better life with the remnants of civilization up here in our castles.”


“I’m ready to vote. The choice doesn’t seem very hard after watching it all.”


“I’ll notify the other governors,” spoke the general. “I’m sure you could use a little rest from it all.”


“Thank you. I could.”


Kelly dreaded the thought of counting all the hours she had spent the last few weeks sitting before the silver screen of her castle’s cinema, alone in the surrounding darkness while spying on a fallen world’s barbarity. That silver screen was meant to be a backdrop for laughing, young romantics falling in love, or for sweeping, historical epics of Earth before humankind spiraled into so much superstition and dogma. Watching the bearded clerics pummel and shape children into weapons felt to her like a perverted use of projector light. She was tired, and her eyes itched for all the hours staring at the screen. Yet Kelly once more tapped her fingers upon her seat’s armrest and summoned one of her favorite classics from the castle’s vast film archives. Soon, music and dancing once more filled the cinema’s air.


Governor Kelly Chen was surprised that she didn’t feel the smallest urge to cry.


  • * * * *


“May I offer you something to drink, Governor?”


Governor Chen shook her head. “I’m afraid I’m not very thirsty.”


The server nodded and turned to silently continue through the maze of governors crowding the viewing deck aboard the space station castle of New Paris. Kelly wondered how any of her peers could eat cheeses and caviar and drink bubbling Champaign and red wines moments before they would witness the utter annihilation of humankind’s homeworld. She harbored no doubt that she made the proper decision, that she had voted in the only way that secured human civilization and gave it a chance to flourish on distant, new worlds more incredible than even the one about to be lost. But as clear a choice that vote proved to be to Governor Chen, she couldn’t imagine how anyone kept a thirst or appetite when they thought about all the history and promise that was about to vanish. Perhaps, those governors, like General Harrison, had long before recognized that Earth was lost, so that they had more time than did she to come to terms with the consequence. She had only wanted to help her castle learn to grow tomatoes as efficiently as possible. She had so reluctantly chosen to pursue her term as a space station governor. Certainly, she had never dreamed that she would ever gather upon a viewing deck to view Earth during its moment of destruction, a moment she believed couldn’t be avoided.


Kelly felt General Harrison arrive beside her as she stared at the orb whose waters, despite all of the land’s ruin, maintained such a blue glow.


“I still think it’s a shame,” Kelly sighed.


“Because it is,” agreed the general.


“And yet we do it.”


“We must,” the general waved a server away before she could present him with a polished tray of cheesecake slices. “I’ve come to live with what we’re about to do by convincing myself that the destruction of our homeworld is only one more step in the natural chain of humankind’s ascendency. I tell myself we’ve always been destined to step into the stars and leave that world behind us. Consider all the great minds who have come before us. Our forefathers and foremothers, Governor Chen, strove to preserve that planet as long as possible. The ancestors of those savage tribes did the very opposite. Our great-grandparents tried to warn the world of the looming ecological disasters, did all they could to convince the others to make simple sacrifices to stave off the drought and the heat before it exploded into so much famine, war, pestilence and death. Our ancestors argued as rationally as they could. They collected all the objective data that they might. And still, the ancestors of those savages chose to deny it all, on account that any sacrifice was too much of an inconvenience, or that any scientific paper was a threat to every single value they claimed to have followed during their lifetimes.


“So our ancestors quietly resigned themselves to the folly of their fellow woman and man. They researched and built, while their neighbors and peers descended deeper and deeper into ignorance. The dimwitted mocked the efforts to build the great castles. The dull bemoaned about the cost to raise those space stations just below the stars. And those who chose to ignore all the signs of how the world unraveled despised our ancestors when they started to lift into the heavens and leave the foolish behind. Those who hated what our ancestors built conducted so many wars and instituted so much slaughter until all the old gods and bigotry melded together into a single deity of cruelty irony named the ‘Maker.’ And then, those fools, who time turned into savages, turned their killing upon us. Only by then, it was too late, so that while their bombs, swords and guns claimed a few of us still left upon the old ground, they failed to touch those of us whose efforts built a place on the threshold of the universe.


“I believe, Governor Chen, that we deserve this place in the heavens, and that the tribes do not. Toil, sacrifice and work have provided us with an opportunity to lift humankind above a lost world’s rubble. I believe we’ll come to call so many new planets home. I will not mourn for the old world, for I know it’s simply time for us to rise.”


Governor Chen lifted a finger and caught the eye of handsome server bearing a tray of mimosas. “I think I might have a drink after all.”


The lights of the viewing deck dimmed just as Governor Chen felt the drink’s warmth soothe her nerves. The power reserves had reached their maximum, and the darkness signaled that the time arrived for the castles to drift into their proper positions for the ultimate answer’s execution. The blue world beyond the wide window turned and shifted, and everyone held their breath as a low hum vibrated through the walls and tickled through the crowd of dress shoes. All the governors gasped as great beams of golden light flashed from each space station to bind them together into a cage that contained the planet below. A wave of vertigo pulsed through Governor Chen’s mind, and pressure forced her ears to pop. And then, the great, old and blue Earth simply vanished in less time than was required to wink. No fiery explosion blinded those observing in the viewing deck. No concussion caused the space station’s walls to creak. No pinhole of a black hole swirled at the center where the Earth had been. The homeworld was simply gone, and the stars betrayed no melancholy as they continued to twinkle.


“And so the savages are all dead?” Governor Chen asked with a whisper.


General Harrison shrugged. “I suppose so. But the engineers and scientists all agree that there just might a chance we only delivered them and that ancient planet to another parallel place. What matters most is that we’re finally safe. The savages will never reach us in these stars.”


  • * * * *


Chapter 12 – A Sight to Inspire Prayer

“You’re sure it’s not too small?” Blake smiled as his wife Rachel planted a kiss on his cheek. “I know this settlement cottage was a little smaller for the money than some of the other catalog models, but I really thought this cottage was much more solid.”


Rachel laughed and leaned back against the tiles of her new settlement home’s roof. “Too small? How can anything be too small when all the heavens expand over our heads?”


Blake’s eyes beamed in delight. “This moon named Regis sure provides one hell of a night sky.”


The purple and pink gas giant named Abingdon loomed throughout much of the Regis moon’s eastern, night sky. Its wispy clouds swirled and spun as Blake and Rachel watched that planet’s furious storms rage against one another from the safety of their settlement home’s rooftop. When they succeeded in calming their racing hearts long enough to listen to the wind, they could her the friction of that planet’s storms murmuring through their sky, like some low chant that might’ve been hummed by strange and hooded monks.


“It’s such a miracle,” Rachel grinned.


Blake chuckled. “Oh, I’m sure all the mathematics and physics they made us study on the castles would well enough explain it all if you took the time to work it out.”


Rachel shook her head. “Oh, no they wouldn’t. I just know all those scribbled numbers and equations wouldn’t come close to accounting for any of it. The air’s too pure in the lungs, and it tastes too sweet. It’s never too cold, and it’s never too hot. Don’t you dare start preaching about mathematical odds and possibilities, Blake. Don’t you dare break the mood with that kind of talk. That sky is an absolute miracle, and there has to be some kind of divine hand responsible for it all.”


Blake playfully embraced Rachel and pulled her body onto the blankets they unfurled across the rooftop. “You’re sounding a little like some tribal savage.”


Rachel kissed Blake hard and long. “And don’t you try to next tell me that you don’t like it when my blood turns a little savage. I think I’m going to build a little shrine.”


“A what?”


“A shrine,” Rachel extracted herself from Blake’s roaming hands just long enough to take another long stare at Abingdon’s whirling typhoons. “I thought I might collect a few of those incredible flowers with the beads of gold that pulse throughout their petals. They seem to grow so thick along that gravel path to our front door. I thought I might tie some of those flowers together and make a kind of wreath that I might place in a kind of wooden shrine. Promise me you’ll make one for me, Blake.”


Blake held up his hand. “But I don’t know the first thing about building a shrine, or even what one might look like.”


“Oh, but you did so well putting the pieces of this settlement cottage’s kit together,” Rachel pressed herself harder into Blake’s chest. “Just a little roof for the flowers. Something to protect the wreath from the wind. Don’t you feel the slightest urge to give thanks to whatever magic is responsible for creating such a view as the one we’ve discovered on this moon? Don’t you think we should at least give a little prayer to whatever god made such a heaven? There can’t be anything wrong with that.”


Blake nodded and let his hand drift a bit higher up Rachel’s leg. “No, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with building a shrine at all.”


  • * * * *


About the Writer

Brian S. Wheeler calls Hillsboro, Illinois home, a town of roughly 6,000 in the middle of the flatland. He grew up in Carlyle, Illinois, a community less than an hour away from Hillsboro, where he spent a good amount of his childhood playing wiffle ball and tinkering on his computer. The rural Midwest inspires much of Brian’s work, and he hopes any connections readers might make between his fiction and the places and people he has had the pleasure to know are positive.


Brian earned a degree in English from Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He has taught high school English and courses in composition and creative writing. Imagination has been one of Brian’s steadfast companions since childhood, and he dreams of creating worlds filled with inspiration and characters touched by magic.


When not writing, Brian does his best to keep organized, to get a little exercise, or to try to train good German Shepherd dogs. He remains an avid reader. More information regarding Brian S. Wheeler, his novels, and his short stories can be found by visiting his website at www.flatlandfiction.com.



A Just Farewell

Even for a boy on the cusp of turning ten, living in the subterranean homes of his tribe affords little opportunities for friends. Thus Abraham makes what friends he can with the burrowing cockroaches so common in his world, stealing his mother's dyes to paint their carapaces in bright colors before decorating their shells with the designs of sunbursts and swirls. But the threatening castles of the unbelievers that loom above his village force children to quickly grow into men. On the cusp of his tenth birthday, the high cleric commands Abraham to begin his trials of his man-making, for the clerics and the tribe need warriors far more than they need boys. Unknown to any within the boy's village, unseen eyes watch Abraham's progress, and the opinion those eyes form of Abraham's man-making will decide the future of an entire world.

  • ISBN: 9781310657320
  • Author: Brian S. Wheeler
  • Published: 2015-12-30 20:05:09
  • Words: 31897
A Just Farewell A Just Farewell