It was Friday evening and Lucas was getting ready to perform his duty. Heâ€™d already tugged off his leather loafers to put on a pair of combat boots. He’d disheveled his black hair in front of the bathroom mirror and traded his pinstripe jacket for an old worn t-shirt and army fatigue vest. After arranging these things, he looked himself over in the full body mirror and decided whether or not he would be afraid of himself.
Lucas ate a bowl of chicken noodle soup and drank some iced tea. He figured he could make use of the empty tea bottle as a Molotov cocktail if need be, and he chuckled at the thought. It was funny to him how he came to think of this as humorous. The rest of the world never seemed to get the joke.
8:00 pm rolled around and he heard the phone ring in the kitchen. He wiped off his mouth after finishing the soup and went to pick up the line. â€œHello, Merryweather residence. Lucas speaking.â€ Lucas listened as the reminder that his Friday night was ruined berated him through the receiver.
â€œLook, I already told you,â€ Lucas continued as he went to tap the opened letter on the counter as if heâ€™d somehow forgotten why he was dressed like this. â€œI have Riot Duty today. I told you this last week. No, we canâ€™t play poker. No, I canâ€™t get out of this. You know how much they fine people for skipping out on Event Assignments.â€
He went on to explain that he barely knew what he would be rioting for. The protest itself didn’t matter: it was the violence at the end.. Lucas was frustrated, but the government was strict when it came to people who didn’t show up for their civic duty. Civilization had to move forward, after all.
â€œYeah, I know it sucks. Hey, listen, I have to get going. Tell the guys Iâ€™m sorry and that Iâ€™ll catch them next week.â€ He held the phone between his ear and shoulder as he loosened his belt to let the fatigued pants slump around his waist into a more comfortable position.
â€œHah, right. Very funny. The police havenâ€™t won in over two years, so this is probably something they secretly want.â€ When Lucas refastened his belt, he glanced at the watch on his wrist. â€œLook, Iâ€™m gonna be late. Later, man.â€ He hung up the phone and grabbed the ice tea bottle from the counter.
Lucas never asked questions when it came to his civic duty. In the past, heâ€™d been called in to riot, and called in to be a witness at assassinations. It was the responsibility of a citizen to do his part for the country. Looking into the bottle, he scrunched his nose as he walked towards the door. He needed to stop and get gas.
The glass beads were black and white: tiny flattened circles that made a loud clattering sound when he emptied the bag onto the glowing white floor. Most of the 1,394 settled within a few feet of his legs, although a few rolled to the outer reaches of the room.
“The problem here is that you don’t understand the potential,” Sudoku told her without lifting his attention from the beads. “You use this thing to play games and watch stimvids. You’ve never even opened the console.”
“And this is the console.”
“This is what the console looks like today.”
From her position on the floor across from him, Ery glanced around the room, then snorted. “Nice. Well, now that that’s over with, I’m going to go finish my coffee.”
“This room isn’t actually empty,” he said when the edges of her body started to shimmer with logout. She recondensed with a sigh that was slightly louder than necessary.
“I know an empty room when I see one.”
“There’s me. And you.”
“And stimvid pickup lines, apparently. But there’s coffee back in your apartment, and it’s winning.”
He wiped the beads into a small pile, then swept them onto his palm before spilling them over the floor again. “What’s a stimvid, Ery?”
“I’m not going to justify that with an answer.”
“It’s a program that shows you exactly what you want to see, right?”
“Because the program is written to pick up on your unique desires. Imagine what kind of engine something like that would have to run on. And don’t even ask about the hardware.”
She sighed. Although he didn’t look up, Sudoku recognized the expression on her face.
“Go touch the wall,” he told her.
Ery stood up and stepped around the pile of beads with uncharacteristic care. Beneath her fingers, the wall was smooth and glossy, reflective. She followed it to the corner as she searched for imperfections. None.
“What does it feel like?” he asked.
“Because that’s what you expect.”
As her fingers dragged along the surface, it became rougher, softer. In a brief flicker, she saw warm patterns of woven fiber, plush reds and yellows swirling together only to disappear into blank whiteness an instant later. Ery stopped. “What was that?”
“It’s a Persian rug. You’ve probably never seen one.”
“I know what they are. But-”
“It’s just a matter of deciding what you want to see, then seeing it. You’re doing it right now, but you don’t realize it.”
Ery pulled her hand away and squinted at the featureless blank. When it yielded nothing to her scrutiny, she returned to her place opposite him. “What am I changing?” she asked.
“Me.” Sudoku emptied the bag again. This time, most of the escaping beads were deflected by Ery’s seated body and settled back in the space between them.
She frowned, and waited.
“This isn’t what I actually look like.”
“I’ve seen you thousands of times.”
“Exactly. You’ve seen me thousands of times.” Neglecting the beads, Sudoku met her eyes. “Right now, I’m the person you picture when you think about Sudoku. I’m not the person I see when I look in the mirror. Likewise, you appear the way I see you.”
“What do I look like?”
Sudoku chuckled. He began gathering the beads again. “I told you. You look exactly like you look on the outside. To me, I mean. You look the way I see you.”
“So if you can change the things in this room just by thinking about them in the right way, why do you do the bead thing? If you created them with your mind, don’t you already know how many there are?”
“It’s not the counting,” Sudoku said as he scattered them for a third time. They lay around his legs, disregarded, waiting to be numbered. He bit his lip and stood up as he searched for phrases. Language had never been one of his strong points. “I don’t even think about the counting. My mind does that on it’s own. It’s more about the pattern when they fall out. I just can’t deal with these rooms. Everything is so…” he took a few steps, facing the wall, “so easily controlled, I guess. But if I create enough beads the mainframe has to take over and control them as they fall. The more I watch it, the more I understand the mainframe.” He turned to face her.
“So what happens then?”
Sudoku smiled for four seconds before closing his eyes to log off. As his image flickered away the uncounted beads dissolved into ether, but Ery hesitated, wondering what would remain after she left.
“There’s an element of theatre to all this, ain’t there?” the sheriff said. Malachai Singh was a gruff man, but a fair sheriff, and Sister Britney took this into account when she spoke to him.
“Jeddeloh is our home. We’re here to assess the damage, get some closure.” She motioned behind her to the hundreds of people bottle-necking through the checkpoint. “For we have sworn we shall return to our homes on this day no matter who or what shall–”
“Save the speeches for the cameras, Sister.” Sheriff Singh pushed the brim of his hat back and squinted in the glare of the twin suns. “I got eyes. More’n two-thirds of these folks have been back here already. This here is grandstanding.”
Sister Britney brought herself up to her full five feet, wimple bristling. “I will not have you belittle our impassioned and brave re-entry into this disaster area that was once our home!”
Sheriff Singh slowly sat down in the dirt, his back toward the two suns and sluggish crowd under them. Directly ahead of him, miles off, lay the massive crater the locals had taken to calling “Judgment.”
“You ever been in dust storm, Sister? Me neither, ’till me and my boys got caught in the one that meteorite kicked up. It’s like a swarm of insects, ‘cept smaller and bigger all at once. And you’re swimming in that, that and ruins from the impact of the blast. Nothing’s solid, you know? Everything falls apart easy in a storm like that.
“I had a boy on my force, shot himself in the head. Right in front of his co-workers, he did. Like the job wasn’t hard enough on them already.
“You left, Sister. You and those who could, you left. I ain’t gonna preach to a woman of the cloth, but you aught to choose your words better next time you open that mouth God gave you. I’ll give you impassioned. But this ain’t bravery. The ground’s too clean.”
Sister Britney placed her hand on Singh’s shoulder. She searched for something to say, half-remembering a sermon she had given for a televised benefit some years back, on the rewards of hardship. But it all vanished from her mind when Sheriff Singh grabbed her hand and held it tight. Sister Britney looked back at what remained of the city she had once called home, and then turned to take in the devastation that small rock from space had caused upon what had once been pristine farmland. The lack of contrast forced her silent.
The suns were still low in the sky, as the two of them stared at the crater, one on the ground and the other seemingly using the first for support. The air had a distinct chill to it, and the shadows ahead of Sister Britney and Sheriff Singh were long and lean.
â€œOops!â€ a golden egg dropped from Yizzies mouth onto the glowing floor. â€œThere goes another baby!â€ she laughed and a skittering spider came with a dustpan to clean the mess. Raich pulled his eyes out and threw them halfheartedly at Yizzie before plugging his sockets into the curling white wall.
â€œYouâ€™re a fashion slut.â€ he said, and dialed up the sexual exploits of AmiAmi, the Lacronic music star. The spiders rushed to service him.
â€œDonâ€™t be so viral Raich, the duckling eggs are the New Thing! The capsule people love to see the gold drop from my mouth.â€ Raich wasnâ€™t paying attention. His body was gyrating under the sensory nodes, his extra parts swelling and expelling orange juice. Yizzie sighed and dialed into her audience, accepting their mechanic adulations.
â€œMmm!â€ she moaned, her green hair flashing with static sparks. â€œThey love me!â€
â€œYouâ€™re a slut.â€ muttered Raich between gasps as the spiders swirled over his pale body.
Yizzie giggled and removed her top, the first request of the morning. Her breasts greeted a thousand screens. She licked her finger. â€œSomeone has to pay the tax.â€ Yizzie said, shaking her chest. â€œWhat you do doesnâ€™t make us anything but juice.â€
â€œAt least I donâ€™t whore myself.â€ He grunted and orange juice plopped on the floor, followed by a scrubbing spider. Raich fell backward to the sound of Lacronic melodies, landing on a cushion held by a hundred robotic limbs. â€œI only plug in for the music.”
â€œThis planet needs a Messiah so you and I have to fuck.â€ Sydec said. He didn’t mean for it to come out that way but the tests were absolutely fail-proof, and he needed to express the urgency of the matter to Vsha. Thatâ€™s aside from the fact that he wasnâ€™t always too keen on delivering. When science finally broke the genetic code, religion took a look at it and had an idea. Sydec had an idea earlier that week, and so he went to the clinic to see if the stars and the scientists agreed.
â€œWell thatâ€™s a bit crude, isnâ€™t it!?â€ Vsha snapped. She stormed from the room and grabbed her atmospheric suit to go out for a walk on the soil. Vsha had talked about this with him thousands and thousands of times. No sex before marriage, period. No post-script, no addendum, just no sex.
Sydec was already leaping after her in a bout of apologies for the words that dared cross his lips. â€œVsha, please! I had the tests run and you know how solid they are. Look, all Iâ€™m saying is that this is one in every million successful pregnancies. You canâ€™t give up a chance at destiny, can you?â€
The reluctant girlfriend stopped at the airlock, her suit half zipped up and her shoulders slumped in a defeated motion. â€œCanâ€™t it be someone else? I mean, heâ€™s going to get martyred or get captured or just disappear. You know how these things happen, Sydec.â€ Her voice was distraught.
â€œSweetie, darlingâ€¦ â€œ the man began as he placed his hands over her shoulders. Rubbing his palms against her muscles gently he resumed, â€œThis is not about sex, itâ€™s about the future of the planet. Of existence! The genes are right, everything is right. The clinic says that if we conceive in the next month or so thereâ€™s an 85% chance that it will be a true Messiah.â€
She turned slowly. Her smile was weak and so was her conviction. Her gorgeous green eyes stared up at him, looking for a hint of compassion. Vsha saw something to hope for on the surface of her boyfriendâ€™s face. She needed him to agree. It was the only way he could feel comfortable. When the heavens put pressure on you, it was far worse than a bad boyfriend. â€œSoâ€¦ itâ€™s really not about the sex?â€ she asked.
It was. â€œNo, of course not!â€ he exclaimed as he shook his head in a desperate attempt to persuade her that he meant it. She leaned into his arms and Sydec knew that heâ€™d made the right move. â€œLetâ€™s just sit down and think about this, honey.â€
They both turned towards the kitchen and he graciously pulled the chair out for her. â€œIâ€™ll get the wine.â€
The cloister, in the grand tradition of all ancient edifices like it, is cold. It is by necessity metallic, unlike its predecessors, but as if to make up for this failing, its cold is that of the utter desolation of space. To walk inside, I must wear a full survival suit, though gravity is maintained for the sake of the visitors. It does not impact the nuns in the least.
The cloister is composed of only three rooms. The foyer contains the airlocks, used by visitors and maintenance workers alike, as well as official dignitaries from the church. It is also the house of the cloisterâ€™s huge crucifix, depicting Our Savior in his moment of sacrifice. To the left is the control room, accessible only to those who come to maintain the stationâ€™s mechanical systems. Directly below the crucifix is the door that leads to the chamber of the nuns.
They hang on the walls suspended, preserved, each encapsulated in the soft blue glow of her life support pod. They are frozen in time, heartbeats only once a year, in perfect homage to He who drew them here. There are no novices in the cloister. The cold, silent hall is the pinnacle of a nunâ€™s creed: from the moment she arrives with her vocation, she is inducted into perpetual solitude, perpetual suffering. Only His true brides, those who intend to spend eternity as His handmaids by eschewing all worldly ties, wish to enter here.
I stare at the faces of the nuns, high above, each illuminated by the humble glow of their chambers. Their faces are similar but unique, each contorted in a different stage of silent ecstasy. Some are worn and caved in. The tissue-rotting microbes have done their slow work over decades or in some cases centuries, blessing the nuns with the sweet scourge of His sacrifice, extended over millennia. These are the faces, drooping and unrecognizable as they might be, that hold the most joy.
They are strong. They are meek. They are beautiful. They are modest. They are filled with conviction. They are eternal.
They are Woman. I am mere flesh.