“Lightning bolt?” I yelped. “Old Jovian invocation for an old custom,” the Primate shrugged. “I would advise you not to embrace the old ways, if only because you aren’t Ancient Greek by heritage. Plus the current hierarchies favor a ‘central deity plus saints/court approach’. It standardizes things to a remarkable extent.”
“What is this Atlantean Station?” I asked.
“Nothing you need to worry about right now,” he replied. “And I am not going to tell you. And if you try to make me, I will knock you out and revert you to childhood. Control your outrage and drama. You’ve been released. You’ve released him. You are both free agents; do not disgrace such a nice ending.”
“I released him?”
“Your keepsake,” he replied. “You fully acknowledged that he was not going to come back.”
The anger and hurt that smeared my reactions started to recede. Gotta look forward, cry later. “Okay, so what’s happening now. Where am I going?”
“First you are going to be tested to see where your aptitudes lie,” he replied. “You will be channeled into training for something appropriate.”
“I want to be a Ranger,” I replied.
He did not comment.
“I am a Ranger,” I stressed. “Inducted and everything. There were witnesses, other Rangers.”
“The Rangers are a lay-order,” he said finally. “You have a divine purpose and that is what you must be sorted for and trained in.”
“Like Paulos is a Ranger and also a Legionnaire?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he replied.
We stopped in a public lavatory, but by the time we arrived the blood had disappeared from my face. “You are still filthy with dirt.”
During the walk, my headache returned. I crunched on a handful of pebbles while using a damp cloth to wipe away my crust of road filth.
“What is that you’re eating?” the Primate asked. “It’s impolite not to share.”
I floated the pouch over to him. “They are bits of rock that have been washed with plain water. Dirt spoils the flavor of the stone.”
Dion pulled out a pebble, bared down on it with his teeth and then put it in a pocket of his robe. “I was hoping for waybread.” The pouch floated back over to me. “You should not eat stone or other normally inedible things while in the city. The Inquisition may take notice.”
“Ancient independent intelligence group, like the Rangers but far, far, far more respectable. ‘Inquisition’ is their current name. I guess they got tired of ‘those goddamned bastards.’ They are spies, assassins, merchants, nobles, and soldiers, chosen from the population over the centuries, and dedicated to making sure the Elect stay pure,” he replied.
“’Pure’ how?” I asked.
“It varies,” Dion replied. “Depends on what the latest scare or actual threat is. Some things are constant, though. They cast a bleak eye on mutations for a variety of reasons, so eat real food. There is general suspicion on the places outside of the Principalities. The only Rangers permitted up here are those who also have Divine callings and have records. The others could be demons in disguise trying to cause mischief. So let’s get you tested so you have a divine calling, eh?”
For a second, running back downstairs seemed horribly appropriate. That would be cutting of my nose to spite my face. “Okay Primate Dion.” He had brought new clothes for me, linen tunic, loose pants, soft shoes and a hooded robe all in white.
Once I finished dressing we hurried to catch a series of high-speed trams. Each one circled one of the nested wheels, connecting to stations that inexorably led us inward.
Paulos had brought us very close to the hub, which was fortunate because Dion informed me that it could take hours to reach the outer edges. Passengers looked surprisingly… normal. A diverse press of people in a culture-clash of fashion and accessories boarded and disembarked with precision.
They all gave the black clad Primate, and me in turn, space. I kept the hood of my traveling cloak pulled up to obscure my face. The hub was a city in itself: wide streets, soaring towers, lush parks, all underneath a secondary dome. The air smelled green and fresh. It hadn’t occurred to me that the air in the tubes, while clean, was just a bit sterile.
“This place is… rather mechanized,” I mused.
“Influx of mechanically minded souls over the last century and a half, or so. Prior to that, since the Atlantean disaster really, most of the mathematically capable have migrated to be together on the Principality of Pacifica,” he replied, as he hailed a four-wheeled ground car. “They blended our prana-based power capacities with what you would consider modern engineering, and the cities have not been the same since. The Central North American Principality is one of the newest sky cities.”
“Was there an older one here?” I asked.
“Yes. It crashed. The souls that survived went to other Principalities, and those that didn’t have been recycled and continue their journey through eternity,” he replied. “We are here!”
We stopped in front of a cathedral. He hustled me inside and took my things from me. “These will be cleaned and given back to you. Give me the pouch of rocks.”
I was a little defensive, “Why?”
“You are a nervous eater,” he replied. “I just watched you repeatedly lift your hand to grab a stone and set it down when you realized you were in public. The moment you think you are somewhere private you will start munching and cause yourself problems.”
He was right. I gave it to him.
We stepped into an ornate wood-paneled elevator and began going down for maybe five minutes. The door opened onto a crowded hall. Soft choral music suffused the air and I could have sworn I heard muffled crying and murmured prayers.
“Come along.” The Primate strode out front, my old things in a rude bundle under an arm.
We stepped out into a tall, narrow hallway containing a line of people in snow white robes, heads bowed, murmuring prayers or simply being quiet. I glanced back towards the elevator. It wasn’t there, just plain stone wall.
Dion marched me to the front and bluntly bullied me into first in line. I stopped at a nondescript wooden door guarded by two figures in burnished gold curiasses, full Roman style helms, and flaming swords. The integrated harness was more stylized; actually, I would have just thought it was some sort of ornamentation if I could not sense the pranic flow moving through the garments.
“Do your best,” Dion coached. “I will meet you on the other side.” He shoved me through.
I arrived in a white featureless room. The prana resonating through it was palpable, even a little painful. Outside of its ephemeral quality, the only feature was a small turret at the top of a dais where a lone, thin man in a white robe and a harness made of fine braided gold stood, eyes moving rapidly back and forth, as if reading something.
“Welcome, Petitioner.” His voice was a was a resonant tenor, his hair drawn back from his face in a slick blond helmet, held in place by more gold braid. “These tests will show where you belong in the Kingdoms of Heaven. Prepare yourself. They will be arduous, but the rewards will be great.”
I nodded and we began. The tests took place in the room. There were cognitive tests, physical tests, tests of the ability to apply prana/faith, tests of what we remembered of our lives when alive and tests to craft essays on the meaning of faith.
The essay tests were hardest, because the room could access my memories and project holograms of them. I focused on the physical and spiritual disconnection from the community and family where I grew up in the Deep South that lead me to a solitary pursuit of faith and eventual obsession with not having to give up myself when I die.
“I want to be vagabond spirit,” the images and words the room pulled from me were broadcast in my voice. “If I were bad, I’d even say I want to be an incubus. But If I practice hard enough, I won’t need that.”
And later, the room projected the event with the still small voice that spoke to me when I was torn between continuing and stopping all contact with spirituality, “This you can pursue as long as you do not teach.”
“You truly believe this,” the proctor observed.
“It was one of the clearest moments I’ve ever had,” I replied.
“It flies in the face of conventional teaching,” he replied.
“Which teaching?” I asked. “Because that is what it comes down to. I did not want to come to ‘heaven’ because it would be populated by people I hated and who hated me. I wanted to wander and explore, and I tried to train via pranic breathing and energy shaping exercises from books on High Magick, self improvement, and witchcraft, to do so.”
“So you do not believe in sin?” he asked.
I redirected, “Maybe you should ask ‘What do I consider a sin?’ Technically, by Christian dogma, I’ve kept to strictures: I have no other gods and I do not call upon familiar spirits. I make my own elementals.”
“And your homosexuality?” he bored in.
I raised an eyebrow and snarked, “If that’s a problem, I expect you to be snappy with anyone who wore mixed-weave fabrics, and ate pork or shellfish.” That was far more punchy than I’d intended.
A door to somewhere noisy and boisterous opened briefly, letting Prelate Sivar into the chamber. “Here you are. Legionnaire-Ranger Paulos had been suspiciously unaware of your whereabouts.”
“He put me into the hands of Primate Dion and left,” I replied.
Sivar was not actually perturbed, more amused. She waved a hand and my responses to the questions played back, “I take it you did not enjoy your time with Legionnaire Paulos. There are no memories of that recorded there.”
Focus…stay on target. “The questions were about my spiritual and other experiences when I was alive on Earth. Not about my training as a Ranger. But since you brought it up: it was extraordinary. I would have stayed as long as I would have been welcome.” I paused. “Then I again, I guess I did stay as long as I was welcome.”
The holographic image floating in the center of the room above us flickered and became an opalescent sphere. I could feel the chamber drawing at me wanting to see the cause of such a strange feeling.
Sivar watched me carefully. She was in a different gown than the one I last saw her in, this one plain, brushed silk, well-made and unadorned save for the silver harness about her shoulders, open at the front and crossed in the back. Her dark hair was drawn back, her dark eyes penetrating. “What are you hiding?”
“Nothing,” I replied. “If you have questions about my time below, you should ask.” The realization that indeed they were waiting for me to spill my feelings into the grip of the room redoubled my resolve, and I steeled myself. The tugging continued but the opalescent sphere disappeared.
Sivar looked at me and then at the test proctor. “Continue please.”
“This is the last test,” the Proctor said, stoic despite the interruption. “Based on his previous answers I was going to ask another question.”
Sivar smiled. “I will observe.”
“In light of your previous answers,” the proctor continued, “what purpose do you think that the joining together of us in covenants of faith represents?”
I rolled my eyes, “Look, just because I’m not a joiner doesn’t mean that I am blind to what can happen when a group of people put their minds and faith to work. There have been wonderful moments for me in churches that were rapidly spoiled afterward. This is not an insurgency of faith. This is something that I was torn about, and I was given the chance keep my faith.”
“Your faith,” he added, an odd emphasis on ‘your.’
“Yes,” I said stridency building. “My Faith. I am the sole owner of myself. I can rent out, contribute, and join in gestalt with others. I can temporarily subsume myself into the thrum and flow of the whole. Hell, you have to, depending on how much power you need to pull for magic but in the end it is my Faith and Will, and no one elses! If I have to eat the consequences of my choices, then I will enjoy the joys, no matter how brief or small, they reap.”
“Are you prepared to sacrifice a piece of yourself to be put into this city?” he asked.
I held up my right hand “I already have.”
The image of Primate Dion cutting off the finger and presenting it to Prelate Sivar bloomed in the room.
“So you have,” the proctor continued. He looked to Sivar. ”I have many questions, but they all revolve around dogma. I do not believe that he will answer them to my satisfaction. Rather than end the period on an ugly note, with your permission, I would like to end it now.”
“Do you have enough information for you and your fellows to make a decision?” She asked.
“Yes,” the proctor replied. “I believe so.”
“Excellent,” Sivar smiled. “Yrek, come with me please.”
The proctor watched us leave without comment. An opening in the wall slid open and we stepped into an elevator. Sivar spoke, “I see that the time with the Athenian did nothing for your sense of self-reliance.”
“I can be a team player,” I replied. “When the job or circumstances require it.”
“But you still see yourself as an individual and not part of something greater,” she replied.
“There is no need to sacrifice my individuality even if I give myself completely over to a group identity,” I replied.
“You do not see that as contradictory?” She asked.
“Maybe if you approaching the argument from a metallurgist’s standpoint,” I replied. “But these are people. Unless you go in and edit their consciousness to get rid of the ornery bits, they will still be people and will have to be managed.”
“Is it up to you to manage them then?” She asked.
“Did I say that I wanted to manage them?” I asked
“In my experience, such sentiment usually ends with ‘and I will manage them,’” She replied.
I laughed, “No, I have enough problems managing myself.”
“On which test did you think you excelled?” She asked, suddenly changing the subject.
“Pranic manipulation, sensing, and psychokinetic applications,” I replied. “After that, exploring information systems, and pranic combat.”
“Exploring information systems,” she asked. “You did well with the new search engines?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Who knew that I’d be tested on my ability to trawl a network in Heaven.”
“How well did you do?” She asked.
“I found everything they asked me to,” I replied. “Although I had to go a bit gonzo towards the end of the test to assemble a proper search structure.”
“How did you do on pattern recognition?” She asked.
“I did okay,” I replied. “I did my best, but I never did very well at those and logic problems when I was alive.”
“I do not have your Book in front of me at the moment,” Sivar replied. “Please tell me.”
“There was a job I wanted very badly,” I began. “To be admitted for training I had to pass a test. It required no experience, just pattern recognition and word problems. I took it twice and scored a ‘C’ twice. Since I needed an ‘A’ to pass, I effectively failed.
“All of my friends who took it said it was so easy. I should make an A so easily. It was going to be my way out of administrative stuff. I thought I was so smart and then I saw the score and I lost something, I lost a whole block of information, of language I used to define myself. I turned from worrying about moving up at work….”
“To Magick,” Sivar finished.
“Yes,” I replied. “Death was the only thing I looked forward to. Suicide was out of the question. I needed as much time as I could to train.”
“Why did you think you needed to be ‘ready,’ when you died?” She continued.
“One night, some friends and I were driving on a side street near an overpass. At first I thought it was a piece of furniture, but it was a man, a person who fell from the overpass because he was drunk. He was also alive. We called the authorities and waited but he died before they came. I saw…well it wasn’t sight, kind of like a feeling, but I could feel shapes and structures. There were dog-like things in the spirit world around him, ravening at his spirit.”
“You didn’t intervene?” she asked.
“This was years before I went hardcore,” I said. “But after I’d been given permission. I was so afraid and I questioned myself. Was I really seeing this? I couldn’t ask my friends, they didn’t believe, plus they were snared in their own sadness at witnessing another man dying. I did not help. I couldn’t have. I wouldn’t have known where to begin. I had a better idea when I died.”
“How did you die?” she asked.
“I died in a hospital, on an operating table,” I said.
“Why were you there?” She asked.
Memory: pain, crushing my chest, running down my left arm. Fingers, numb on the phone, calling 911 for help as I half-crawled, half-rolled down the stairs to unlock the front door before passing out. I’m not ready, I thought then. I’m not ready!
Before I passed out, I achieved resolution. I will have to be ready. Jesus help me be ready. I breathed and then darkness and I woke up.
I came back to myself, back to the present. I had sagged against the wall, “A heart attack.” I said. “A bloody heart attack.”
“You did not think to pray for your life?” she asked.
“Another ‘gotcha’ question?” I replied. “But the answer is no, I didn’t. It didn’t seem as important as dying well.”
“Still, at this moment, do you wish you were back there, alive, knowing what you know now?” She asked.
I thought about it. I thought really hard about it. Cutting through the haze from the surprises of the day came stark moment of clarity, “Belief is not the same as knowing,” I said, almost a whisper. ” If I knew now what I knew then, it would not have been belief that germinated me from my newly dead course. It would be ‘knowing’ and it would be ‘wanting’ that would push me through instead of belief which kind of had a much greater impetus. And given how I feel right now, I think I would rather stay here. I don’t want to do that again, even knowing what came next.”
“So you did not pray to live because….” she left it hanging.
I flexed my fingers fixated on my right hand and I showed her the still maimed digit. “This was the bigger leap,” I replied, “the greatest demonstration of my faith.”
Silence for several minutes. “What’s wrong?” I asked “Is my body still alive?”
“Was it?” she asked.
“Not when I was last there, but who knows what resuscitation crap my mother ordered,” I replied. “She would keep me alive if I was nothing but a brain in a jar.”
I had given her an opening, “If your body was alive, would you go back?”
“Do you force everyone who is being kept alive artificially to go back?” I countered. “I died! Body lost grip on soul, I decided to not squat in the soon to be embalmed husk. That…is…not…suicide, which is what you seem to be trying to infer!” (by Hank T Cannon)