D’naia and Indigo sat pressed together on a wooden bench in a cell with their arms wrapped tightly around one another. The sunlight from the outside was blocked by black paint on the windows. The only light in the cell was provided by two dim oil lamps. Opposite D’naia and Indigo, there sat the old taxidermist woman–the junior warden. Indigo recognized her when she was brought in. She began dutifully reading her Gaians Bible and looking strangely at ease. Perhaps religion does that for people, Indigo thought. He, on the other hand, was terrified but was trying keep up a pretense of strength for D’naia whom he feared was teetering on the brink of an emotional collapse.
Indigo knew that mind-reformatting was the same thing as death, no matter how Mr. Lever framed it. Indigo was not a believer in any spiritual afterlife. Virtual immortality was all that he had hoped for. He was, however, becoming convinced of the existence of a mortal soul— something innate in man that understands right and wrong. Joe Hannan had convinced him of that, at least. He decided that man was more than the sum of his molecules. To erase and reload a consciousness was to murder the soul. Thou shalt not murder.
Indigo had come to grips with his mortality back on the Astarte. The cumulative failures of the Birkelund plasma inducers brought oblivion fully into the consciousness of the crew. They were too far out to have their consciousness retrieved and rebooted so death would be final. When godless mortality and the impossibility of virtual resurrection stared Indigo in the face, he came to fully understand the nature of it. What he remembered understanding was that life is limitless— in any personal sense of experience— because experience and sensation of life itself requires one to be alive. One cannot experience the moment before or the moment after life, so life is without an edge… without beginning and without end. However, he decided, it is best that when the end comes, it comes unexpectedly because the sensation of dread awaiting it would be most unpleasant.
The luxury of unexpected death was not enjoyed by the crew of the Astarte. The tick tock of their oblivion clock drove each of the crew to madness on one level or another. Indigo secretly hoped that, if they were in fact doomed, that the Astarte might be struck by a meteor of sufficient size that the self-sealing hull would be irreparably breached and the space can would instantaneously blow itself apart.
Ensign Friederich, himself no longer able to bear the dread, hoped to hasten the final toll of the iron bell by reprogramming the life support systems to gently expel the oxygen. He was discovered by Gaiastan Mission Control which halted his viral program… but it was too late.
The taxidermist interrupted Indigo’s lucid nightmare with a chuckle.
“What do you find so amusing?” Indigo asked. “Don’t you know what awaits us?”
“Of course I know,” she answered, as she glanced up from her Holy Book. “Don’t you know that we’ve been selected? We are on the eve of our immortal rebirth. They’re taking us to have our souls downloaded into the Heavenly Virtuality. It’s going to be wonderful to finally be liberated from the chains of this broken, physical body. Look at these hands of mine! They barely work, anymore. Do you know how difficult it is to butcher savages with arthritis?”
“Where did you get your ideas?” D’naia asked.
“It’s all in the Good Book, young woman. Don’t you read your Gaians Bible?”
“I don’t waste my time on fairy tales.”
“Bless your heart and may Gaia have mercy on you. But just listen for a second…. Let me read to you from The Book of Ehrlich, Chapter 9…
‘Blessed are the Undermen: for theirs is the Kingdom of man. Blessed are they that mourn for the Earth, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the obedient for they shall be given their rations. Blessed are they who deprive themselves for they shall be held guiltless. Blessed are those who live sustainably for they shall be sustained. Blessed are the true Gaians for they shall receive immortality. Blessed are the Greens for they shall be called the Children of Gaia. Blessed are ye when the polluters defile Her and poison Her and you reap them for Her sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great reward awaits you in Heavenly Virtuality.’”
“You can keep your superstitions,” D’naia snapped.
“I’ve eliminated the polluters… all manner of humate demons,” the old woman continued. “I ended their unrighteousness.”
“By murdering them,” D’naia replied.
“Murder is taking the life of a human. One can’t murder a humate any more than one can murder a dog. The polluters are unrighteous and I killed them. I did god’s work and for that, I’ll get my eternal reward.”
“You’re a fool. You’re only reward will be a rendering plant where they turn you into soap.”
“Silence, you demon! I will pray for the redemption of your wretched soul.”
“And I will pray that all of our ends will be quick and painless,” D’naia replied.
Indigo tightened his grip on D’naia trying to signal her to not antagonize the taxidermist anymore.
“Tell her she’s a fool, Indigo,” D’naia plead. “Tell her there’s no God… that heaven is a lie… that Gaia is a myth. Tell her.”
Indigo held his words.
There was finally a knock at the door. Mr. Lever and a codex enforcer appeared and let themselves in. Lever wore his customary oxblood overcoat and derby with a feathery orange boa wrapped around his neck. He immediately burst into a bout of coughing which carried on for two minutes and nearly doubled him over. “A most rotten climate you have, here,” he remarked. “I do hope I am not so unfortunate as to catch a respiratory ailment from one of these sickly undermen, considering my weakened immunity.”
The taxidermist set down her Gaians Bible and fell onto her knees before Master Lever.
“Sir,” she sobbed as she pressed her face onto Lever’s black boots, polishing them with her tears and drool. “I must take this moment to thank you for all you’ve done for us. Thank you so much for choosing us for redemption. Thank you. I do hope I perform the tribulation with grace. Thank you. Oh pray that I may have the strength of Gaia. Thank you oh great master.”
“You see this woman?” Lever asked Indigo and D’naia. “Now this is a woman who knows how to properly humble herself.” He reached down to her and pulled her back onto her feet by her gray, wiry hair. She was sobbing uncontrollably with snot running down to her chin. “Your homage has been noted, Madam. For your act, I can assure you that the release of your soul will be painless.” He helped her back to her bench, picked up her Gaians Bible, smirked faintly as he scanned the embossed cover of it, then politely handed it to her. “And now, my friends, it’s time. It is time to begin your tribulation. You must now pass through the Gauntlet of Repentance where you will be scourged of your iniquity by your peers. Please disrobe. You may keep your lockets.”
As Lever said that, the codex enforcer zapped an arc of electricity from his chattel prod.
The old woman had only one garment left to remove. She yanked her sweat-stained slip up over her girth and off her head and let it fall to the floor. “Sir, may I bring this?” She asked of Lever, referring to her Holy Book.
“Of course,” Lever answered, kindly.
Clinging to her book, the bluish-skinned taxidermist, all hairy knock-knees and spider veins, gleefully scurried past Mr. Lever and the codex enforcer, through the door behind them and into the mob-flanked causeway. The gauntlet roared in abhorrence.
Indigo held D’naia close, covering her nakedness with his own body. She was showing her pregnancy, being four months along, but the hard living and lean diet of their homestead life preserved her slender figure. Indigo sheathed the mother of his child the best he could. Mr. Lever didn’t so much as dilate a pupil at D’naia’s naked body. The desires of high degree Overman were much more esoteric than a mere naked female form could induce.
“I’ll spare you the religious talk,” Lever continued. “We both know that this has everything to do with feeding the serfs their dose of public spectacle… ‘bread and circuses’ as they used to say. The undermen out there would smash the skulls of infants if we told them they were traitors to the republic. They just love whipping themselves up into a furor over traitors. Ha! I’ll even let you in on a little secret. You can take undermen out of their tribe but you can’t take the tribalism out of the undermen. That’s the secret to manipulating them. It’s a beautiful system, I must admit. They’re like little flesh puppets. All we need to do is pull their strings. Nothing to it. Now, if you don’t mind, your cattle car awaits.”
“This will blow back on you. They’ll remember that I’m the spaceman. I’m a hero to them.”
“I’ve already cured them of that, Indigo. Just be sure to move quickly to the train and keep your head down lest someone knock you unconscious.”
Mr. Lever and the codex enforcer stepped aside and directed them through the door.
“Usurper! Liar! Terrorist!” Shouted the throng as D’naia and Indigo passed into Gauntlet of Repentance. The taxidermist marched proudly ahead of them, Gaians Bible clutched to her breast, spider veins stretching and contracting as she strutted through the tribulation of hate and up a staircase and into a cattle car where she was handed a pair of green overalls. Indigo clutched D’naia even tighter, shielding her naked, pregnant body from the frozen air and the mob of psychopaths the best he could. They clumsily made their way through the jeers and spit and stones.
“What did you do to Staley?” One savage screamed from the fray. “The demon drugged him! Indigo poisoned our hero!” shouted another. “Indigo the murderer!” “Look at her, look at the whore!” one shrieked at D’naia. “How does it feel to fellate Satan, himself?” called another.
A stone glanced off Indigo’s shoulder.
“I hope you die a painful death you traitor!” Shouted another who leaned his face into the gauntlet to scream it directly into Indigo’s ear. “Behold the humate maggots!” “You thought you could get away with it!” “They’ll boil you alive!” “Kill them now!” “Let us at them! We’ll kill them ourselves!”
Someone hurled another stone that hit D’naia in the neck. Indigo covered her head with both arms and pushed her faster towards the boxcar.
“Humate scum!” “Animal!” “Capitalist pig!”
Up the scaffolding and into the cattle car they stumbled, receiving their green overalls. They hid in the sanctuary of a corner. D’naia kept her head buried in her hands and nestled her freezing body into Indigo’s. The codex enforcer, egged on by the rioting serfs, started jabbing his chattel prod into the car, shocking the prisoners indiscriminately. Indigo positioned himself over D’naia to protect her from the volts and the cold the best he could. The car door slammed shut to darkness.
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