The comet tore through the Earth’s atmosphere early on the morning of December 21, 2012. For months, scientists had been predicting that the comet would hit the Earth, but it didn’t. Some said it was a gravitational miscalculation, but many, especially in isolationist America, said it was an act of God. Millions had converted throughout the U.S. as the dreaded day approached, converted to whatever religion would take them. It was these converts, and the fundamentalists who took them in that brought about the rise of the Grand Patriarchs and the fall of the American democracy.
“God has saved us,” Father Esmond had shouted as he was installed at the head of the Grand Patriarchs. Dressed in flowing red robes, Esmond had looked at the crowd and smiled a beatific smile. The crowd swooned beneath his gaze. Tens of thousands of people united in an effort to make a better nation. “Many believed that Judgment Day was upon us, but our faith brought us through, and God saw that we were worth being saved again. Now we must do away with the sins of the former government, and build a government based on the morals God gave to us all. Only with His guidance can we make a better world. Do I have your support?”
The crowd had shouted and screamed. Many in the front row fainted. At the time, no one knew how drastic the changes would be. No one could have known.
Edward stumbled away from the roaring flames and billowing smoke, coughing as he tried to reach the sidewalk. All around him, voices cried out in ecstasy. Each cry coming every time the conflagration behind him grew in intensity. The power of the people’s emotions was overwhelming. Edward could think of nothing but getting away from the scene. He wanted to flee, but just as he was readying to, Edward felt his arm grabbed. Panic raced through him, fearing a soldier from the Guards of the Holy Order had grabbed him. He looked up and was relieved to see the glare of an angry youth. Edward began coughing and gasping even more, hoping to convince the kid he was trying to escape the smoke, and not just trying to escape.
With a disgusted glare, the kid pushed him from the mob, sending Edward sprawling across the pavement. Pulling himself up, Edward frowned at his skinned palms before he began to search for his glasses, which he thought must have fallen off. After a few seconds, Edward realized the futility of his actions. He stifled his laugh. This isn’t the place to be seen laughing. Besides, forgetting that he’d had implants put in six months earlier wasn’t really that funny. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to not wearing glasses. Twenty years makes for a hard habit to break. He suddenly realized he was going to be forty in a few months. One more thing to worry about…if he made it that long.
From behind him, Edward heard the voices reaching a crescendo. He’d seen enough of these burnings to know that the mob had begun to burn the holy texts of other cultures, all other cultures, except for their own Fundamental Christian Bibles. Edward started to shake his head, but stopped suddenly. The action had attracted the glare of a Guard. The man, wearing a long grey wool coat and a polished gold cross, took a step towards him. Edward coughed again and rubbed at his eyes. He shook his head, acting like he was trying to clear it. The Guard seemed placated, but Edward couldn’t help notice that the man’s eyes didn’t leave him.
He wanted to go home, but that seemed out of the question now. With no choice, Edward turned around and joined the crowd, cheering with as much enthusiasm as he could force into his voice as the fire continued to burn. Edward had never smelled a worse odor than the smell of burning books, and he was sure there couldn’t be a more offensive odor.
“Damn radicals,” he mumbled to himself, quickly glancing around to make sure no one had heard.
With the frenzied crowd frothing around him, Edward continued to take furtive glances at his observer. The Guard didn’t seem to be watching him constantly, but Edward did notice that the Guard seemed to be looking at him more than at the others, but maybe that was just Edward’s imagination, or his paranoia. Slowly, the fire began to die down as the mob ran out of fuel and enthusiasm.
Finally, the crowd began to thin. With nothing better to do, Edward stayed and watched them leave, recognizing many of them. People he’d known to be Jewish, Muslim, and Atheist walked away from the smoldering ashes, seemingly happy with what they’d just done.
Do they really believe, or are they just going along in order to make life easier? Or in order to survive?
He walked up to the smoldering ashes of the bonfire and kicked through the sooty remains. Spines of books broke at the touch of his shoes, and the wind carried away small pieces of black paper that had once meant something, but no longer could.
“What a waste,” someone muttered from behind him. Edward turned and saw a man in his late fifties walking away, shoulders hunched. He thought about following the man, but the Guard was staring at him once again. Edward decided to just go home.
The sounds of his worn shoes echoed off the apartment buildings lining the deserted street. There was no traffic. Only the Church and the military drove now. There weren’t even any pedestrians. People tended to stay home unless they absolutely had to go out. The streets also seemed to be getting dirtier, which Edward thought was a good thing. Maybe the first cracks were starting to show in the beatific glow of government that was the Grand Patriarchs.
At least it wasn’t night yet. Edward hated having to see the rats. They’d grown to enormous proportions in the time the Grand Patriarchs had been in power. The obvious symbolism made Edward laugh.
Maybe I should contact the Black Market. I could really use a smoke.
He reached the front door of his apartment complex and stopped. Home wasn’t where he wanted to be. What he really wanted was a cigarette. Even though he’d never been a heavy smoker, it had still been weeks since he’d last had one, but contacting the Black Market wasn’t high on his priorities, especially considering the way that Guard had stared at him. There was no doubt he’d be seeing more Guards in the coming days. Everyone knew who he was, and everyone was waiting for him to screw up, and Edward knew that some day he would.
Edward also knew what was behind the door…a life he’d never expected, but then that was true of what was outside the door as well. Whether he went in, or stayed out, he was still trapped. With a sigh, he opened the front door and climbed the three flights of stairs to his apartment.
He was greeted at the door by his wife, Adriana. He kissed her briefly on the cheek before sitting down at the desk by the window. He stared through the dirty glass at the empty streets below. If he was expecting to see one of the Guards of the Holy Order, or worse, a Charismatic, he wasn’t sure, but he didn’t want to face his wife, or his apartment.
He still had trouble believing he was living in a two-room apartment with paint peeling from the ceiling and walls. There wasn’t even a landlord he could contact, at least not one that would care. Edward, after all, was an intellectual, and thus an enemy of the state in theory, if not in fact.
“Another book burning?” Adriana asked.
Edward pulled his attention away from the window and frowned. He wasn’t sure if he was frowning at her, or frowning because of the day’s events. He continued to stare at her, wondering why he’d married her. She certainly wasn’t attractive, never had been. She had a nose that was too big for her face and a splotchy complexion. He’d once found her green eyes intriguing, but even that had passed. Edward thought he knew why he’d married her. She was one of the smartest people he’d ever met, but that didn’t matter anymore. Free thought had been removed from America by the Grand Patriarchs.
“They were burning just about everything,” he finally answered with a sigh. He knew the real reason why he’d married her. It was what was expected of him, and Edward always did what was expected of him. That was why he thought of himself more as Marionette Silverberg than as Dr. Silverberg.
“Like what?” she asked, trying to smile.
No matter what Edward felt for his wife these days, or didn’t feel, he knew that he still loved that one part of her, the one part he’d convinced himself of loving when he was young. Adriana always knew that Edward loved to talk about whatever was on his mind. These days, it was the crimes of the government; at least he talked about them as much as he could.
“Shakespeare, Camus, Lawrence, Tolkien, Heinlein, you know, all the usuals.”
She nodded. “What about the religious books?”
Edward shook his head. “It was really bad this time. I saw the Quran, a few copies of the Talmud, and even a couple of copies of the I Ching and the Tao Teh Ching.”
“Why are they doing this?” she suddenly cried, rushing over, falling to her knees, and burying her head in his lap. Her actions surprised Edward. He’d hardly ever even seen her show emotion. It also surprised him because she knew he couldn’t answer her. Their conversation was probably being monitored, especially after the events at the book burning, and anything he said against the government would get him arrested and executed, just like many of his friends from what had been the intellectual community.
“They’re doing what they feel is in the best interest of the American people,” he said, patting her head and trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He was sure he failed.
She sniffed and pulled herself away. “Of course,” she said, suddenly regaining her composure. It was a quick transformation, and Edward wondered how much of what he’d just seen was an act. He was finding it more and more difficult to take people at face value anymore. Trust is difficult when everyone’s out to save themselves.
“Dinner’s almost ready,” Adriana said, walking off to the kitchen, seemingly over her bizarre emotional attack.
“Alright,” he said, turning back to the window. What was that about, he wondered.
Two figures in long grey coats walked the streets below. Just a routine patrol, he thought. No reason to get worked up until there was a knock on the door. Then he’d have a problem.
The interrogation room was quiet. The soundproofed stone walls absorbed any sounds from outside. Within, General Dominick Jensen, leader of the Fourth Division of the Charismatics, sat patiently reading his Bible. If his exterior was calm, his interior was anything but. Another prisoner would soon come before him, and it would be up to Dominick to extract the information the Grand Patriarchs needed.
Dominick sat his Bible gently on the steel table. It was almost time. He looked over his shoulder at the crucifix and smiled. He loved doing God’s work. Turning his chair, he lit a candle before placing it on the altar beneath the crucifix, and silently prayed for guidance.
“Amen,” he said quietly before turning his chair back around. He leaned back in his chair, and placed both polished black boots on the table and stared at the door.
A hollow knock sounded. “Enter,” he called.
The prisoner was brought in. He was a man in his late thirties, and it was obvious he’d already gone through a few interrogations. His face was a mass of bruises, hiding any identity Dominick might have been able to ascertain. That was good. He didn’t want to know the man, couldn’t know the man.
The Guards shoved the prisoner into a chair and strapped him down. The man stared, wide-eyed, at Dominick, who knew the effect the uniform had on people. No one but the Grand Patriarchs could look at the jet black uniform with the red collar adorned with a gold cross on each side of the opening at the throat and not feel fear. The prisoner’s fear was only heightened by the four gold stars on the left breast of Dominick’s shirt. He had to know that a general would be the last person who would ever question him, and would probably be the last person he ever saw.
“Are you comfortable?” Dominick asked with a smile.
To his credit, the man glared back at him with more animosity than anyone Dominick had previously questioned.
“I suppose not,” Dominick said. “Now, shall we begin? Why don’t we start by you telling me who some of your associates are?”
“Blow me,” the man said with a laugh.
Dominick stood up. “God frowns upon homosexuals. Are you a deviant, as well as a traitor?”
The man didn’t answer.
“No matter.” Dominick pulled a small steel table in front of the man. He sat on the table, placing a boot on the man’s knee. “Now, as I asked before, who are your associates?”
The man refused to answer.
Dominick moved his boot so that his heel was directly over the man’s groin. “One more chance, who are your associates?”
The only answer was an inhalation and a closing of the man’s eyes.
“Very well,” Dominick said, driving the heel of his jet-black boot into the man’s groin and twisting. There was a grunt, but no other response. “You want to make this difficult for me, don’t you?”
As the man strained against his restraints, trying to curl up into a ball, he actually managed to laugh. “I could make this very easy for you.”
Dominick leaned back and crossed his arms. “Do tell.”
“You could just let me go. You wouldn’t have to worry about that good Christian conscience of yours being bothered.”
With one quick motion, Dominick pulled his nightstick and sent it crashing across the man’s unprepared face. A small piece of tooth flew across the room, clattering into a corner. “My conscience is clear.” He brought the nightstick down on one of the man’s imprisoned hands, feeling the bone give with a satisfying crack. “Who are your associates?”
“Screw you,” the man muttered through the blood flowing freely from his mouth.
Dominick leapt from the table and grabbed the man’s broken hand. He began tearing the fingernails from each finger. He repeated his question five times, each time the prisoner refused to answer and lost a fingernail. “That’s one hand. If you’d like, we can try the other.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the prisoner said between gasps. “I know I’m not leaving this room.”
“You’re probably right,” Dominick said, “but it is your decision how long you stay here, and how much pain you suffer before I kill you.”
“No more pain than what your Grand Patriarchs inflict on us every day.”
Dominick laughed. “Don’t try provoking my anger. It won’t work. Now, tell me who your associates are,” he said, grabbing the man’s other hand.
The prisoner leaned back and smiled. With every lost fingernail, he grimaced, but the smile quickly returned.
Dominick was starting to dislike this man. He knew another tactic was necessary. “Do you believe in God?” he asked the beaten and bloodied man.
“And yet you don’t believe in the Grand Patriarchs?”
The man laughed again. Dominick was becoming more than irritated with the man. That had never happened before. “No, I don’t believe in them,” the prisoner said. “I wasn’t a Fundamentalist before the Ascension, and I’m certainly not one now.”
Dominick smiled a smug little smile. “That used to be your right. Tell me, do you know the Ten Commandments?” he asked, pulling a knife from his belt.
“Why don’t you tell me what they are,” Dominick said, leaning over the man’s arm. As the prisoner began to recite each of the Commandments, Dominick carved them into his arm. The prisoner screamed repeatedly, but he made it through all ten. No one had ever done that before. “Would you care to tell me who your associates are?”
“Not a chance,” the man said between gasps. Blood ran profusely from his arms, his swollen fingers, and his mouth.
Dominick couldn’t believe what he was seeing. No one had ever been able to resist him before. “Fine,” he said, pulling his gun, firing into each of the prisoner’s shoulders and thighs. “Would you like to tell me now?” he asked, reaching for a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
The man didn’t answer. Dominick poured the hydrogen peroxide onto the man’s wounds. Flesh sizzled as the prisoner struggled to free himself, but he couldn’t. The popping and cracking almost brought a smile to Dominick’s lips, but that would have been inappropriate. The prisoner screamed and called out for God to save him, but there would be no salvation without confession, and it was quickly becoming clear that there would be no confession.
He stood outside the front door of his home in the wealthy section of town; a part of town where the rats hadn’t tried to take over yet, a part of town most citizens avoided. He took several deep breaths, trying to calm his nerves, which had never been frazzled like they now were after any other interrogation. The prisoner hadn’t given up a single piece of information before Dominick had been forced to put a bullet through the smug man’s brain. Now he had to face his family.
He opened the door and immediately smelled the burning tallow wax of prayer candles. A quick glance at his watch told him the kids would already be in bed. He walked into the living room and found his wife kneeling before the altar that took up one wall of the room, the wall where a TV might have gone in the past. Their TV was kept in the corner of the kitchen, and was rarely even turned on. He waited until his wife finished her prayers. As she began to smooth her dress, he cleared his throat.
She quickly turned and rose, smiling. “You’re home late,” she whispered, obviously not wanting to wake the kids.
She’s a beautiful woman, Dominick thought to himself, just as he did every time he saw her. She was tall and thin with shoulder length brunette hair. Her eyes were a hazel like none he’d ever seen before, and the light freckling of her skin seemed to come alive every time she smiled. “It was a long day,” he finally said.
She walked over to him and kissed him lightly on the cheek. She’d learned over the years to give him his space when he first came home, especially when he came home late…at least most of the time she did. “Is it anything you want to talk about?”
He shook his head.
“Will the rebels ever give up? Will they ever learn?”
He tried to smile, but he was sure he failed. “There will always be people that oppose the government. There always have been. Sooner or later, most people will see the wisdom of the Grand Patriarchs and let God into their hearts.”
She looked towards the altar before turning to face him again. Her bottom lip quivered slightly, and Dominick knew this was going to be a night when she didn’t give him his space, even though he needed that space more than ever. There would be no way of explaining what had happened, at least not a way that could spare her innocence, and that mattered to him more than almost everything else in the world, everything except his service to God and the Grand Patriarchs.
“What did you have to do today?”
He shook his head as he unbuttoned the tight black jacket of his uniform. “Please don’t ask,” he said, carefully placing his crosses on the altar. “I only do what God requires of me.”
He turned around and saw her nodding her understanding, although she was still frowning. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes,” he answered, even though he really didn’t feel like eating.
“I’ll go reheat dinner,” she said, leaving the room. Dominick listened to her bare feet on the hardwood floors. The pattering of her feet had the innocence of a child’s walk. He wished he could tell her about his job, but that wasn’t possible. Instead, he kneeled before the altar and prayed. A tear came to his eye, but he held it back. The time for tears was long gone. He could never cry for his victims, for they made the choices they made. They chose damnation. He merely sent them on their way.
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