Around him, the Eve’s festivities went on, people crowding around the glassed-in balconies of the townrise to view the endless volumetric displays hovering in the synthetic heavens above the yearly re-imagined wilderness, but a dark blot spread in his mind and blinded him to all.
He shut himself in the old shuttle, locking it from inside with his own official password, and punching the button for the lowest street level. There was a muffled whisper as the shuttle began to move, but Jannix paid the foursome in the corner no heed. After a moment, they continued their tryst, broken one last time by Jannix announcing he was on official business and they should get themselves another shuttle to higher levels.
Indeed, it was not safe to remain on ground for long, where people from all walks of life in the townrise rubbed and grated against each other, half of them dealing directly with the underground. Those belonging to the underground owned homes in the townrises too, but they preferred to do things in their own fashion as the Guardians of the Republic either looked the other way or joined in.
As Jannix searched for the booth selling the spicy mixture Fr Hacob wanted, he found one that sold all sorts of fake uniforms, and chose one with the brown color nearest his own. At this point he preferred it to the dirtied one he wore. While he was changing in one of the trial stalls, he heard the unearthly shriek and the hush that ensued in that otherwise busy place. They were immediately replaced with more shrieks followed by a highly concentrated burst of yelling and jeering.
Curious, he made his way through a growing circle of onlookers. Within it he found two Guardians chasing after what seemed to be a ball of grime and matted hair. The first thing that came to mind was a dog, one of those mangy things that were caught on occasion in the wild and sold as a delicacy in the black market. But this one seemed larger, and after further inspection, Jannix spotted bony arms and legs jutting out in awkward angles. It was a non-entity.
“What are you doing?” Jannix asked politely, though making sure his overdress and tunic hung open to reveal the badge protruding in the middle of his chest.
One of the Guardians glanced at it and motioned the other to stop. “Just a little fun, sir,” he said. The crowd thinned visibly. The non-entity broke through them and scrambled towards the gates of ground level, where no doubt it had escaped an enterprising Gatekeeper.
“I want it.” Jannix said impulsively, then thought better and added, “The Head sent me for it.” A few people came back to listen.
“We were just conducting a little harmless experiment, sir,” the second Guardian explained, while the first one went to fetch back the non-entity, which struggled, growled, and tried to bite him. “We’ll need some rope,” the second Guardian called over his shoulder. He turned back to Jannix, eyeing him up and down and spotting the fake pair of trousers he wore. He leaned over and in an undertone, said, “It’s a trial tablet of the newest game, Kerchief Caper, sir. We wanted to see what it would do, but it was difficult to make it wear the head sequencer. Would you like to try?” He proffered a gaming tablet wrapped in unmarked black foil.
“Try it on myself, or on it?” Jannix tried to joke, and he thought of offering the game to Myrna before he remembered the dirtied uniform rolled up in his other arm.
The first Guardian came back leading the non-entity by a makeshift leash, as it choked on a rag in its mouth. He handed the other end to Jannix. “Sir, do send our regards to the Head.” The bystanders likewise murmured their greetings before walking away.
“Have a good Eve,” Jannix replied.
He hurried to the shuttle and entered his codes to release the lock while the non-entity strained and pulled against him, making muffled sounds. On the panel’s screen, he saw that eighteen people from different levels had tried to summon the shuttle, but none of them had outranked him. Underworlders, Jannix scoffed to himself, all wanting escape to a gaming world or sneak a lay. He tried not to think that he himself had wanted one or the other. With Myrna.
But there was no Myrna. All he had were a dirty pair of trousers and a dirtier non-entity. Suddenly, he noticed that the non-entity had stopped struggling. It stood quietly by, at rope’s length, waiting. Waiting for what? Jannix cringed from the darkness that nearly exploded in his head, but there it was. Had he really intended for this to replace Myrna? He had not even checked its gender yet. He turned his back upon it, just as he had earlier with Myrna. And Romon. He gritted his teeth and tried not to think of their bodies, cupping his traitorous and all too-eager crotch in an effort to still it.
Jannix considered. He could go back and let the Guardians keep the non-entity. He could pretend it did not please the Head. Or he could drag it back to his own quarters at the House of John. The non-entity moaned as if mourning its treatment at the hands of the Guardians. Jannix pressed the final button and settled into a seat for the ascent to the topmost level. Surprisingly, the non-entity took its place beside him. It reached out a hand to touch his face.
Jannix jerked his head back and found himself staring at two crust-rimmed eyes, watchful, fearful, curious. It emitted sounds, the rag hampering its teeth. Jannix took it off. When it began gnawing at the rope that bound its hands, Jannix took that off too. He lifted its long, frightfully thick head of hair to look into its eyes once more. He saw that it was naked underneath, wearing only its own filth, and a recent coating of the dust it had stirred up in the course of the Eve. He saw the tiny penis jutting out from between its legs, pointy, uncut, studded with sores. He could not tear his eyes from it. He had never seen such a thing before in its natural state, unhygienic, illegal.
The non-entity looked down upon itself, and sniffed. Jannix laughed. He suddenly knew what to do. “Oh you are in for a treat, I promise,” he said.
“I promise,” Henrietta blubbered. “I can forgive much this Eve.”
The Confessional often affected the First Lady this way, as if the weight on her soul were another’s faults inflicted upon her.
Fr Hacob found that he would have to escort her himself, out of the House of John, or he would never have his own private time to communicate with Dr Firenze. This very moment, as he walked the tiled floor with the First Lady in tow, he knew that up and down the townrise, and in other townrises, the first trial tablets of his new gaming world were being distributed, pirated, spread out as fast as rumor. In five day’s time, perhaps, none would know the difference between the President’s life in the Republic and his fictional one in the gaming world. Fr Hacob thrilled to the possibility that this might even cost him the next elections.
But why even speculate? By next Eve it would be that infernal boy Jannix manning the console and escorting either an old or new President. What did it matter? All he cared now was that his Final Absolution and subsequent retirement promise him bliss.
Meanwhile, during Fr Hacob’s absence, Jannix dragged the non-entity into the Head’s office. The non-entity, hardly any cleaner for the wipedown Jannix had given it using its own gag, stopped short at the sight of the Threshold, whimpering and unsure. It did not understand Jannix’s instructions or hand gestures, so Jannix had to push it inside. The metal plate did not slide shut. Jannix punched feverishly at a number of keys as the non-entity watched him from the dark mouth of the Threshold.
“Take this,” Jannix handed it a stick of lit incense, then ran swiftly back to the console.
“I don’t understand,” Jannix murmured, peering at the glass surface that showed lines and lines of zeroes. “Either there is nothing in the Confessional at the moment, which really makes you a non-entity…or,” Jannix said slowly, his voice hushed in awe, “your soul has no weight.”
The non-entity, assured by Jannix’s tone of voice, grunted and scratched at an armpit. Jannix laughed helplessly.
“And here I was thinking how clean and happy you’d feel after Absolution.”
It turned and went deeper in, bringing the stick of incense with it.
“Wait,” Jannix called, “come back. We have to get out of here before Fr Hacob finds us.” He also remembered he had not yet bought the spices that Fr Hacob wanted.
As Jannix crossed the Threshold, the metal door automatically slid shut.
Fr Hacob’s heart hammered as he gazed at the screen before him and pointed at the globules he wanted gathered into a file. Dr Firenze had notified him of the interest particular people in the East and West declared in the game she had decided to call the Kerchief Caper. All that he need do now was pick a little more from the leavings sloughed-off from the President and First Lady’s souls, and Dr Firenze would be able to create the whole game tablet already. Perhaps a bonus round or two could be milked from Mrs Freesia’s own record later.
As his fingers hovered over the screen, he spotted something that had not been there earlier. He frowned and rubbed at the blot, cursing Jannix’s carelessness, imagining himself telling the boy once again to please cleanse his hands before manning the console. But the blot did not come off. Fr Hacob paused. Beside the blot, he had seen something flicker momentarily like a conscious thought that faded before full realization. He rose from his seat, deciding to investigate the phenomenon first hand.
Fr Hacob blinked as the metal panel of the Threshold slid open, preparing to let his eyes adjust to the darkness within. But he had forgotten to switch off the President and First Lady’s Records, so he saw the globules in their physical state, magnetically suspended in all their ghastly hues, ranging from the sickliest white to the slimiest green to the murkiest gray. These dotted and filled the cavern-like space of the Confessional, each one containing a thought or action that had added weight upon their souls, fattening them up each passing day, causing discomfort, disability, ageing, even illness and looming death. And then he saw, pressed against the curve of the farthest wall, a figure he recognized at once.
“Jannix,” he hissed.
But the boy, fearful and angry too, sprang forward and cried, “You! How could you? You told me that viewing the Records was a violation of the most sacred trust, that I would know all only at the Final Absolution. Why did you not wait for yours?”
Fr Hacob found his own righteous anger dissipating. After the past decade of training, the boy was yet overly naïve. “I’m afraid I kept the last part of your education in the dark, my son. I thought I had time enough to tell you this year before you took my place.”
“Tell me what?” Jannix demanded.
“Of the Ultimate Sacrifice that only those in our office have to undergo at the end of each century. Have I not told you of our unique position in the world, and how we filled a need that would otherwise be the ruin of all? Well, my boy, at the end of all this privilege, this living free off others’ labors, we go into the Confessional for Final Absolution.”
“I know that,” Jannix said.
“Yes, but what you did not know was that we don’t come out again. You type my final ritual codes, and the Confessional goes into reverse, bombarding me with all the Sins of the Century, until I am pulverized by the weight, leaving the Confessional empty and free to work all over again in the new century. After which, my boy, it will be your turn.”
Jannix took a step back, attempting to understand it all at one go.
Fr Hacob felt a momentary sympathy for him. “I did not intend for you to find out like this,” he began, but the boy was back on high moral ground.
“Still,” he said, “you broke the rules of our office.”
“So did you.” Fr Hacob merely indicated the clothes none were allowed to wear inside the Confessional, but the boy’s illegal dips into the Internet also came to mind.
Jannix did not relent. “Why?”
Fr Hacob eagerly took a step forward. “You’ll be happy to know I found a way to circumscribe the Ultimate Sacrifice. These past few years, I’ve been taking some souls’ leavings here and there off the Records, and I am quite sure that by my Final Absolution, I can come out of this alive and ready to live a normal life in the world, with money to spare. Oh I have saved myself a whole new life, my boy, and you…you are lucky to have a full century ahead in which to ensure a second life lived like a king. Don’t you see, Jannix?” he beamed, and took another step forward, “I’ve found a way for us to live!”
As Fr Hacob advanced to hug Jannix he perceived a presence that was neither him nor the boy. Fr Hacob stiffened in shock, and then heard Jannix cry out as something struck him down.
Jannix watched as the scene unfolded slowly like a play-by-play review in a gaming world. The non-entity inserted itself between Fr Hacob and Jannix and launched itself at the Head. It rose from its crouch to reveal that Fr Hacob had hit his head upon the low narrow slab where one lay during service. It approached Jannix, fussed protectively over his badge and face, then nuzzled its head at the crook of his neck. Jannix took some time to realize that the constant buzzing in his head were his own murmurs. “What do we do? What do we do? What do we do?”
He took a deep breath and stilled himself.
The ten years of training kicked in. First, always keep tidy. He walked out of the Confessional and over to the console, switching off the First Couple’s Records. As the globules winked out and disappeared from the screen, an ugly blot in the center sharpened in contrast and was identified as Fr Hacob. Something momentarily flickered and disappeared beside it. Jannix grunted. Not even its attack on Fr Hacob had put a millipound upon its soul.
Does it even have a soul? Jannix wondered, then scoffed at his own musings. He had to hurry before Mrs Freesia arrived, three hours after the First Lady.
Jannix stopped. Secret Freesia. In one level of the game, he had had to figure out a way to camouflage her presence from a woman Myrna had joked looked like the First Lady. His mind began to whir and hum like the console before him. The First Lady. The three hours Fr Hacob had during the busiest season of the year where no one came and he had had the privacy to view private records. Then Mrs Freesia. Secret Freesia. A game he himself had played. Jannix shivered. Did other people’s sins now mingle with and add to his own soul’s leavings? And what about poor Myrna, in all truth a gaming addict? How many sins—not to mention whose—weighed upon her soul?
Jannix’s fingers moved over the console and the entry to Fr Hacob’s office locked securely. He would not know how to explain a dead body in the morning, but a Final Absolution carried out just some months ahead of schedule he probably could.
He leaned back in his seat. To activate the final service now would not do, what with all the gaps Fr Hacob had taken from the Sins of the Century. Fr Hacob would live then. Perhaps not even all the weight on Jannix’s soul at present would do to stop up the gaps, even now that he contemplated murdering one he had considered his own father. What else could darken his soul further? He gazed at the screen. The non-entity certainly had nothing to add.
Something lit up like hellfire in Jannix’s head. Suddenly he knew what he had to do. Assuming, of course, that the non-entity had a soul. Jannix’s hands grasped at the cool reassurance of green stone, and carried it into the Confessional. The non-entity left its investigation of Fr Hacob and looked at Jannix expectantly. With a sob, Jannix raised the jade man and crushed the non-entity’s head.
He stood over the tiny, crumpled body, weeping uncontrollably as he watched blood darken the marble floor and spread towards the prone Fr Hacob. Then Jannix slipped off his pants and overdress, readying himself for Absolution.
The Guardians stationed at the House of John had some trouble with the door to Fr Hacob’s office. Mrs Freesia had arrived promptly amidst a deafening flurry of second- or third-wind celebration and reported that the office was locked from inside. It took the President’s own codes to force the door open wide, and then they glimpsed the end of their world.
The centuries-old dome was gone, completely obliterated. From above real unprocessed, unfiltered sunlight poured into the office. The Threshold teetered in space, ready to crash into the wilderness at any moment. Beyond it, where the Confessional had been, nothing but wind and dust and air remained.
Something stirred in the rubble under what was left of the console. It rose, naked, powdery white from head to foot, and held out its arms, red palms facing outwards, in either a gesture of peace or surrender.
“Fr Hacob?” one of the Guardians ventured.
“It looks more like young Jannix,” another observed.
“Someone look to the lady,” yet another murmured, for just then Mrs Freesia began to wail about all the heaviness in her soul.
The dust-covered creature addressed them. “You have to live with it,” it said. “No one, nothing, will bear the weight for you now.”
At this point the President of the Republic entered the office, demanding to know why his personal codes had been needed.
“Edra,” Mrs Freesia threw herself in his arms.
He held her until he felt the undiluted sunlight burning his skin. He shuddered and flung her away, then clutched at his own shoulders to contain the shaking of his voluminous self. “How?” he cried, looking wild-eyed around him.
The boy began to laugh and cry at the same time. “It was too much, too much, too much…”
“The non-entity,” the boy said, an irreparable, inexpressible ache in his chest, “so much more innocent than any of the world’s children, so clean, so untainted. To kill it was too much for the Confessional. It had no blight upon its soul.”
“Kill?” the President said.
“What? Who killed?” they asked one another.
There was a brief silence as the maddened boy considered all of them and then looked at the Threshold in the midst of collapse.
“Behold our new century,” he shrieked, and the badge of office in the likeness of the Threshold flashed from his chest as he laughed and gestured. “Behold the door opened upon a new heaven and a new earth!” And he flung himself between the pillars, into the pure light that had not shone upon them for millennia.
Cyan Abad-Jugo has three published books: Father and Daughter (with father Gémino H Abad; Anvil 1996), Sweet Summer and Other Stories (UP Press 2004), and Leaf and Shadow: Stories About Some Friendly Creatures (Anvil 2008). Her stories have appeared in Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume I, Tales of Enchantment and Fantasy, and A Time For Dragons: An Anthology of Philippine Draconic Fiction.
Image is from freeimages.co.uk, following their terms and conditions.