We’d been jogging for a while, over bridges, and down alleys, on our way to the elevator. The entire city was made for easy transport, with compression tunnels and teleporters, but we couldn’t use those. There were several miles between us and our destination, and no shortcut to help us.
I could see the vertical black line in the sky growing closer. We were so many levels down that the sight would come and go behind towering buildings.
The space elevator’s base was its own structure, wide and tall. It was out of commission now but had once been used as the loading and storage for the platforms above. Because of new technology, they no longer used the elevator or platforms for space operations.
I was looking for something else, though. In the same general direction.
“What are we doing?” Ash asked, noticing my distractedness.
“It’s important,” was my reply. “Trust me.”
“Meaning I wouldn’t think it’s important.”
Tucked between two massive slabs of concrete foundation, built out of old wood into what used to be an empty alley, was a hovel marked by a wooden cross.
“Religion,” he said. “Not important.”
“Your mortal enemy?”
“All the cool demons are atheists.”
I stepped up to the cloth door. “Does that mean you can come in?”
“I’d combust, so no. This is a massive waste of time.”
“It’s more helpful than you know.”
“The whole universe is at stake and you-”
“This is a waste of time,” I cut him off. I knew what I was doing.
“Listen, you fucko-“
I stepped inside.
I’m appealing to God’s sensibilities.
It was a single room in the church. No seats, concrete floor, and walls covered in poorly hand-painted art. Depictions of lambs, infants, and the crucifixion. Faceless figures with wings spread out. The back wall was wood, the roof was a tarp strung out between it and the front. On the floor wrapped in blankets was a sleeping bearded man. At the back, sitting surrounded by lit candles was the shepherd. On his lap, he flipped through delicate gold-rimmed pages of the Bible.
I came to kneel before the alter, which was a platform of old carpet.
With the candles, that was a fire hazard, I absently thought.
I again felt disconnected. My vision subtly vibrated, the candles left streaks and spots on my sight. My mind was pulled to the quiet drip of water running off the wood somewhere behind me. My mind wouldn’t sharpen.
The pastor in front of me looked like he was surrounded by fire in my unfocused eyes.
I rubbed at my face, shook my head.
The idea of God right now didn’t help me calm or feel the present. All the religion on the walls, the building itself seemed to demand thought. Commanding self-awareness. Know thy sins, is what they shouted.
The snowy white haired Pastor, his old eyes crinkling, asked me, “Why’re you here?”
Too complicated a question. “Why are you,” I returned the question. “Down on the street, I mean. There’s no excuse for homelessness in this society.”
“There’s no excuse for me, either, then. There’s no such thing as charity anymore. You’ll find no love of God in the churches above, you’ll see,” he told me, flatly.
“That’s a bitter thought,” I responded.
“What devotion.” He closed his bible. “What devotion is there from people who have everything and give nothing? With no consequence for actions, they’ve been rendered amoral.”
“You’re an ascetic.”
He was wearing circular reading glasses before, but took them off, setting them aside on the leather hide bible. It had a place on the shelf behind him. “I won a court case,” he told me. “They ruled that it was within my rights to treat myself this poorly. You know that? But I used to have a wife. She left me when she realized what I knew from the day they first tried to haul me away.”
He pointed over my shoulder. I looked back and saw what he was indicating. The painting of a tiny infant curling up, hiding its face from me.
“They would keep them from me,” he said. “I wouldn’t be allowed.”
“All Utopians are sterile,” I stated. Universal artificial selection, I recalled.
“Yes, but it was more than that. I didn’t have a right to disseminate false information. There’s no example I can set, no message I can preach when kept hidden. Utopians have one point of nondebate, that. The thing that drew us all together. I’m an old man, I’ve seen what it was like before their grip was complete. But now? Their Utilitarianism is absolute.”
“It was Cultural Supremacists, that’s what the opposition called Utopians. A long time back, now. That’s a word my father taught me. They started out making women barren, poisoning the water, using drones. A tiny sect of terrorists with just a handful of brilliant men in their ranks. They played a long game. And in one generation… they had won. My grandfather saw it.”
“Culture? Yet religion survived?”
“It wasn’t about beliefs or science. It was about the future. And after that world war three, it seemed like there might not be one. They played on people’s fears.”
With how quickly he talked, more emotion on his face, I could see why he was here.
The old man, sterile and alone, had been put where he couldn’t be heard.
He continued. “-Everyone was so shocked when they heard it. Something they’d been hearing their entire life. Whether Christian or Muslim, they’d heard it. Heard it prophesied and preached. It lingered with them until finally… finally, someone outside the pew fed it to them. The idea religion had from the start. They heard it.”
He leaned in close, conspiratorially. “One people.”
That’s it. “…I see.” I checked my watch. 10:55.
“So… so here we are,” he trailed off. “No them, just us. All the them are dead.” He smiled for a moment at his wittiness, then grimaced.
I wasn’t sure if I’d been hoping for advice. But somehow, I was let down.
There was nothing this man could teach me. I don’t know what I had expected.
He was just an old man with a belief. This was just a hovel beneath a vain city.
10:56, I compulsively checked.
“I’m… I’m going to take a moment,” I told him.
“Of course,” he made a serious face, nodding, then reached back for his book and glasses.
I looked up to the angel drawn over him and the candles. Protection.
God was a complicated notion. But here, now, he was watching. He was writing my story. With the end fast approaching, begging wasn’t out of the question.
No. Fuck me.
I was the Pilgrim, the Stranger. I wouldn’t kneel to a false God, even if they were mine. I didn’t belong here, playing to a sick joke. I would stop this nightmare.
I’d been so conflicted, confused, that I’d come here. I’d begged, in the beginning, not to be faced with this challenge. I wanted to be someone else. I’d lied to myself.
I was done. I knew, now. I knew who I was. I’d had a million faces, countless lives and deaths. I’d dreamed that I was happy, brilliant. But I was incomplete.
I’m here, in this low place. Created imperfect.
I stood slowly. A little dizzy. I rubbed at my eyes. They were sore, damp.
Finally, I had hope and a resolve. That’s what I’d found.
You’ll be complete, I heard the promise. Complete your work.
Exiting the church, Ash was outside leaning against the wall on the other side of the alley.
I had needed a moment. A moment I didn’t have. But I had needed it all the same. “Wasn’t a waste of time,” I chastised him. 11:04.
“Woop de dooooooooooooo.” He pushed off to start walking.
I caught up with him and patted him on the back.
Ash was the only one who’d stayed by me. I smiled.
“Thanks,” I said. He knew what I was thanking him for.
“Just once, Doran. I’ll let you think I’m your friend.” He half-grinned back at me.
Suddenly, I looked back over my arm, dropping it from his shoulder and turning around. Ash stopped to see what had made me stop.
With a blanket wrapped around him, black hair fallen over his long dark face, the man stared back at us down the alley. A perplexed look marked his face.
I narrowed my eyes. They quickly widened with recognition.
“Oh, hey. Shit.” Ash saw it too.
Ali. Master Ali.
He took the blanket off his shoulders and held it in his hands. His gaze locked on the gun in Ash’s. A voice I recognized better carried to us. “Two demons to church?”
To speak to God on his own terms, we must know him.
Ali had said that once. Now the memory returned with perfect clarity.
Purpose overwhelmed. Nothing could stop me. And I could see by the look hardening in his eyes that Ali was about to try. A few seconds passed as he waited on us to say something, do anything. Ash was ready to shoot. One second away.
Shadows leapt from the alley’s corners, nothing drawing together in my hand to form the rusted blade. Its weight in my hand was a declaration. It’s abstract force causing the buildings around us to groan and resettle, a wind ripping towards me into the steel’s vacuum.
It solidified in my grip. A sword unsheathed.
A declaration of war.