Some minutes prior to New Year’s Eve, Fr Kaleem Hacob found breathing space before his next, most important client. He straightened his tunic and stretched, pacing a circle around his office in the House of John, newly carpeted and, thanks to a generous donor, with all his equipment brand new. He blinked up at the centuries-old dome above him, the imagery lost under its twenty-first century mixture of dust and paint. It had been salvaged from one of the grand Cathedrals of the West, recently demolished to make way for yet another townrise.
The President of the Republic walked in on him then, still musing over the fading traces of eye or ear or mouth, and possibly a vine just below one of the dome’s two huge cupola windows, both of which now rendered a holograph of an almost-midnight sky. The President wiped industriously at a red smudge that ran down his neck from ear to collarbone with an immaculately white lace handkerchief, all the rage now among the rich and famous for its rarity and ancient sentimentality.
Fr Hacob bowed and sat himself back in his console, tapping his fingers lightly against the flatboard keys to log in the President’s arrival and automatically lock the entry. The President sank into an armchair before him, hard put at his labors, until Fr Hacob observed that “Those things, sir, are manufactured to keep their color for a lengthy time.”
“Well then, I give up,” the President said, crumpling his stained handkerchief into a ball and slamming it right before Fr Hacob. “I shall have to own up to Henrietta that I saw Freesia today.”
“And how is the First Lady?” Fr Hacob inquired, pressing a few buttons in preparation for the President’s Absolution.
“Oh, she has not forgiven me for being unable to get her a slot this close to Eve, and I am not sure I have forgiven you for being too fair. Is there no chance—”
A green light flickered at the very center of the console. “I am afraid not, sir. Now, please, you must ready yourself.”
The President removed his shoes and began to undress, just as the Timepiece suspended between the two cupola windows began to chime the Eve Hour. Naked, the President chose a stick of incense and lit it by one of the two oil lamps before the Threshold. He stood calmly and waited for the last chime to fade. The metallic door slid noiselessly open, and holding the stick of incense aloft, the President went in.
Afterwards, as the President exited the Confessional, reduced to weeping like a baby, Fr Hacob averted his eyes and checked the new millenium’s calendar.
He blurted: “I would like to tell you, sir, that the new millennium package allows you, as one of the perpetuals of this service, to reserve yourself and your wife for next year’s Eve, this moment, rather than at the beginning of July.”
The President sniffed, put his clothes back on, and approached, his tears dripping down his two chins and plopping onto the console. Belatedly, he thought of drying his tears on the sleeves of his overdress.
“Your wife will either have to come right before or after you, and as President of the Republic, you always have a slot for the Eve Hour.”
“My good Fr Hacob,” the President exclaimed, “she’d be ecstatic. And you cheer me with the thought of being President yet again.”
Fr Hacob cleared his throat. There had been no such thing as a millennium package, and he silently cursed his impulsiveness. On the other hand, he could double the price of the package.
The President leaned forward. “And what about—?” The President leaned back. It was too soon to mar his purified soul again. “Never mind,” he said, showing himself out of Fr Hacob’s office as Fr Hacob pressed a button to unlock the entry.
The President had of course meant Freesia, most precious among his many mistresses. She had an appointment for the Confessional at eight o’clock that day, three hours after the First Lady. The President himself had arranged for it, as Freesia could not pay the steep prices this close to Eve.
At the sight of the President crying and new-born, his heart had softened, but as soon as the President called him “My good Fr Hacob” instead of the usual “Kaleem,” Fr Hacob had recoiled. After the past fifty odd years the President still did not consider him a friend. And the thought of Freesia not two minutes after Absolution had once again packed a few millipounds upon the President’s soul.
Fr Hacob wavered between generosity and greed, but he already knew which would win out. He would indeed double the President and First Lady’s bill for the millennium package, and he would fetch a good price for the President’s handkerchief, its whiteness ruined by lipstick, its starch softened by tears. He was no priest, after all, no clergyman, no shaman, no monk, no seer, he was just Fr Kaleem Hacob with the title afforded him as Head of the Confessional.
Jannix, Fr Hacob’s sole acolyte and apprentice, stood squinting at the dome above him. The dome was a recent acquisition, arriving at the heels of the new console and equipment, from another donor who obviously did not want to be outdone. Jannix all but had to check in the console to see that the new computers were from a Mr Mackenzie or Nakagawa and the dome from a Mr Brown or Goldstein. But he was not interested in donors, and after a while, not interested in the dome either. After all, the House of John underwent periodical renovation, and continually received all sorts of donations from the East and the West, from the newest, latest gadgets to the oldest, most ancient artifacts. What set the dome apart was the brouhaha it had generated during its installation, requiring twelve subsonic copters to transport it, and twelve more to generate a temporary plasma shield over the House of John Townrise, forcing it to temporarily shut off its own working force shield. The people had protested, fearing for their safety and the safety of the Republic’s most prized possession, the Confessional itself.
Jannix shrugged, deciding he still preferred his favorite piece of the past, which he could see up close and even touch. It was a strange thin statue of a green-tinged man holding what Fr Hacob called a lotus, eyes shut and smiling upside down, lips smiling content right side up. Jannix fumbled with one of the new vacuumbrushes and applied it gently on the man, always the first thing he cleaned in the room.
He didn’t know why he bothered, not now when, outside, the elaborate volumetric display of fireworks shook loose a load of artificial dust and confetti to mix and mingle and settle upon everyone and everything in the week to come. And certainly not when, after an hour, Fr Hacob would wake from his nap and return. New Year’s Eve was the busiest time each year, much more so now that it heralded not only a brand new century, but, supposedly, the grandest millenary yet. It was so unlike Fr Hacob to want a nap, but recently Jannix had noticed Fr Hacob taking more and more unofficial breaks. Perhaps he was indeed growing old.
During the New Year season, when it was fashionable for all the world’s great politicians and athletes and gaming visionaries to come, Fr Hacob liked to man the Confessional himself, with Jannix required to assist and observe each service as if he did not know as much as Fr Hacob what keys to type and what buttons to press. Even worse, he was occasionally sent out. He resented such secretive behavior. After all, when this year ended, he was expected to take over as Head of Confessional and be Fr Arthur Jannix. He had even been given a name already.
Myrna had liked that, his name. He had hoped that this secret of a given name, shared between the two of them, would be enough to sway her in the general direction of his arms rather than Romon’s. But Myrna had only let him kiss her in the hardly-used back shuttle of the townrise, had only sucked at his tongue once, before pushing him away. Still, he had high hopes, for she had left something in his hand that day, a piece of crumpled paper with a set of codes, possibly bought at a very high price from his rival.
Jannix did not like to dwell on the thought of just how high, so he gritted his teeth, and after one final wave of the vacuumbrush over the green man, settled himself in front of the console. He already could say with some conviction that the stone was jade, and with the last set of codes had already found a few names that could possibly refer to the green man. Pan. Siddhartha. Green Knight. Green Lantern.
He had also already identified two of the symbols carved upon the Threshold. One, called the holy cross, intrigued him, though try as he might, he could not imagine how this cross could be different from any other, and how a man should be killed upon two perpendicular sticks. The other, a circle containing two fish-like creatures, one black, one white, with one eye each, was the yin-yang.
He had shared this information with Myrna, and she had said that perhaps the golden markings upon the Threshold had to do with the old religions, which Jannix knew existed a long time before, and just shortly after, a priest named Fr John Divine discovered that the soul could be measured. Official records of the old religions, their books, their scholarly tracts, their registers and confessions, were long gone. He could of course find something in the Broadweb Sweep, a holographic impression or two of a deity or a simulation of a place of worship, an Elephant, a Mosque, even the Wall, which presently ran down one side of the House of John. But the Internet would contain more information regarding something practically extinct, though hardly anyone accessed it anymore, considering it too much of a bother to punch in clearance codes just to get one measly image or bit of information.
Yet Jannix hungered for the forgotten, for stories he could share with Myrna in the darkness of the old shuttle. He entered the new codes Myrna had given him as the console hummed, then leaned back, attempting to still his breath. It would take some time for the InterSpy to grant him clearance and route him to the old, unreliable Internet.
“In this streamlined age, life is simpler,” Fr Hacob had told him as Jannix sat before the console on his first day of apprenticeship ten years ago. “We do our duty, know only what we have to, grant ourselves some pleasure, and do a little adventuring in the gaming worlds. On top of this, you need only be grateful for your unique position as my next in line. The whole world, on the other hand, needs you.”
What Fr Hacob meant by “the whole world,” however, encompassed only those who could more or less afford the Confessional at one or the other season within the year, sometimes including those who could barely scrape by the minimum of Absolution every five years, and sometimes not. But those who lived outside the townrises, doomed to a short, meaningless, mad and diseased life, Fr Hacob never considered.
Jannix had never seen a non-entity up close, though he had heard of Townrise Gatekeepers who would snare one, and, for a fee, grant curious, foolhardy people a viewing, before letting it go back into the wild again. Once, from the shuttle that was rarely used but for secret trysts among the young, he had looked out to the dust-fogged wilderness below, and glimpsed something moving. That was all, though he had imagined a lot more: that the blot marring the paleness stumbled in no clear direction, hungry and alone. And then Myrna had boarded, the swish of sliding doors only momentarily disturbing the murmurs of two other couples on opposite corners of the shuttle, and she had shown him a new gaming world they could both play together.
There used to be such things as “films,” Romon had told Myrna, and Myrna had told Jannix. She had tried to describe the experience of one that Romon had been able to salvage from the Internet, where one merely watched gaming actors enact one story with only one outcome. It was like spying, she said, then in a spurt of inspiration, had added, “like maybe being in the Confessional with someone else. Have you tried it, Jannix? Have you tried being inside the Confessional during someone else’s service?”
“It is not possible,” he had replied. “One would go quite mad.”
Fr Hacob lay in the dark, not even attempting sleep. In the last decade, at random intervals, he had taken to pretending he was fully booked and sending Jannix off on generous breaks. He could not wait for the end of his term, when he would flit from one gaming world to another and explore at leisure what he had helped develop. Let Jannix take care of the clients, the boy was eager enough to prove himself ready. Let Jannix, in fact, take care of the President and his wife and the millennium package. By July, anyway, he should be ready to hand over the reins to Jannix, and let him deal with all the bookings, the wrangling for a better spot, the bribes, threats, and demands. Oh, he would hand them over with a full heart, not to mention a full pocket, ready for a gaming spree.
Fr Hacob reached for the white lace handkerchief clipped to his headboard. It was valuable indeed, a pivotal item for the start of another endless, action-packed, pleasure-filled game brimming with intrigue and all manner of vice set against virtue. He needed to get to his console right away.
He found his acolyte upon it, Jannix’s nose almost touching the surface as he viewed something. The sudden move of a hand to press particular keys, which even from a distance Fr Hacob knew to be the commands for cancel and exit caught his attention. “What are you doing?”
“Just cleaning, sir,” the boy said, reaching quickly for the vacuumbrush two feet away.
Fr Hacob nodded, letting Jannix think he had once again gotten away with his secret. They each had their own guilty pleasures, after all, though the boy thought nobody knew about his frequent dips into the unstable and forbidden recesses of the Internet, its morass of information now collapsing in on itself. Though he had long wanted to scold Jannix for his trespass, he had no time for it now. Anyway, both he and his acolyte were due for their own services in the Confessional on the sixth night after Eve, when most of the leaders of East and West, as well as of their very own Republic, had come and gone. He could very well postpone his reprimand to that day.
“Put the vacuumbrush away,” Fr Hacob said briskly, shooing the boy from what they both liked to call the throne. He brought the day’s schedule onscreen for Jannix to view. “We’ve got Sir Victoriana coming in from the West, with his two daughters and second consort, then Mr and Dr Firenze and their six-year old, who no doubt will take almost no time at all—”
“Dr Firenze, last year’s top gaming guru?”
“Yes,” Fr Hacob said. “I can handle that meeting myself as I have an errand for you. While you are away, there is the First Lady, and then—”
“Sir,” Jannix interrupted again. “There are three empty spaces here between the First Lady and Mrs Freesia. I thought the slots full.”
Fr Hacob smiled. “They are. You are not to know who will come, though, I’m sorry. As I have told you, the arrival of some guests are of a delicate nature. I need not remind you that last July, as we logged reservations, both of us had to make doubly sure some of our clients never met. It is well Fr Divine’s successor Fr Hans took into consideration the possibility of lingering wars between East and West, and thought of situating the Confessional in the neutral zone of our Republic. Did I already tell you it was also he who arranged for clients to come in from their own Nox Meridian? That way we accommodate a few of them who will technically get Absolution at the stroke of their Eve. You will come to appreciate the finer points of this when you step up as Head. By July this year, I will reveal all names to you.”
Jannix nodded his obedience. He had heard this lecture before, perhaps all too often, Fr Hacob thought dryly. It comforted him to think he would not have to continue this charade much longer.
“Anyway, Jannix, after Mrs Freesia, we’ll have the unfortunate Prince of Jubei and his eighteen sons, who, you remember, almost forgot to book his family due to the untimely death of his fifth wife. They are much too late for their own Eve, but as I told you, getting Absolution nearest Eve is really more about status than about the efficacy of the Confessional. Getting it now or in March makes no real difference so long as one goes through it yearly.”
At that point, Sir Victoriana and his household arrived, and Jannix took his place near the Threshold, offering to help with coats and overdresses, and modestly turning away to hang or fold them on a chair. After one or the other had entered the Confessional, Fr Hacob nodded at the boy to pick up the rest of the discarded clothing on the floor. He did so quickly enough, but sometimes Fr Hacob resented the boy’s presence, for it afforded him less chances of rubbing elbows with the world’s top gaming gurus and gamers as well as of exchanging confidences with the powers that be from the seven nations of the world.
The moment Sir Victoriana, his consort, and his children left, Fr Hacob turned to Jannix. “I can hold the fort now until Mrs Freesia arrives at eight. The First Lady values her privacy, and we should respect that. So do as you wish until eight; I just need you to fetch more of that spicy refreshment the Prince’s sons enjoyed last year. You can serve it to them when they arrive.”
Jannix wondered at the unexpected five hours he had been given, and just after Eve when Fr Hacob usually had him running here and there on several errands one after the other. Now he only had one. He briefly considered lingering long enough to congratulate Dr Firenze on her newest gaming world, which Myrna enjoyed more than he did, but Fr Hacob had waved a filthy handkerchief at him, as if wiping him away like a speck of dust, obviously wanting him gone.
At least he would be back in time to see Mrs Freesia, someone whom he had never met before. He wondered if she had anything at all to do with Dr Firenze’s Secret Freesia, which consisted of secreting a spy named Freesia all over the cities of East and West and taking pleasure from her after every level. Myrna thrilled to this each time, but it left him disappointed as the game stole more and more of her attention, and bodily contact between them was reduced to Myrna tugging at his arm impatient for her turn.
He sealed up the overdress he wore over badge and uniform, for it got cold at the top of the townrise especially during the New Year season, and walked past the copter pads to the nearest shuttle, to take him down to the tenth street level where Myrna lived. She almost never saw him during this season, so he hoped she would be excited by his visit, and do more than touch his arm.
Besides, Jannix had dredged up something new in his latest dip into the Internet, about the man who had died upon the holy cross. He had been a king, the passage read, yet surrendered his life to save people from sin. This would impress Myrna, he knew, for it linked the Confessional further to the man. And it also linked the man to one likely green man candidate, for Siddhartha had also given up a princely life. Maybe Siddharta and this man on the cross were the same.
Jannix always found satisfaction in these ponderings, which made him feel superior to Romon, who was only an Internet dipper, after all, like his father before him, with connections to an underground that was in just as deep a mess as the Internet. Jannix, on the other hand, had known he was special since the day the President publicly announced his apprenticeship to Fr Hacob and his surrogate mother began to treat him with the utmost love and respect. For years of raising him, she would have a lifetime discount at the Confessional.
“Life is much simpler above ground, my boy,” Fr Hacob had said, “where we know both our position and purpose.”
He slipped inside Myrna’s domicile, hoping her parents asleep or still out celebrating the Eve, and hoping Myrna herself was not. She was indeed home, and awake, for he almost immediately heard a thump above him, coming from her room. He clutched at his own arms to keep himself from yelling her name, and tiptoed in the darkness until he stood outside her door. There, he walked upon something he saw by the Threshold day in and day out, which was a pile of clothing. With heart beating fast, he placed his palm upon the cool metal of her door and slid it open.
He immediately saw her though she did not see him, and the full view of her slender brown body bathed in artificial moonlight coming from the window struck him as both painful and beautiful. Beside her lay Romon, as naked as she was, and, admittedly, just as magnificent, with the most well-developed muscles Jannix had ever seen, and a sturdy penis rising triumphantly upwards. With two fingers, Romon was pleasuring her in the most secret place between her legs, and Jannix paused for a moment to watch, a sensation of longing growing unbearably large in him. At their feet he could see two discarded wrappers of Secret Freesia, and upon their brows their head sequencers flashed. She had not told him they could play the game together. But for that he would have torn off his own clothes and joined them at the sound of her moans as she climaxed.
Instead, Jannix turned his back, and distress immediately replaced desire. There was a big mess in his trousers he could not stop to fix, and tears sprang to his eyes as he thought of how sorry he must look at the height of the Eve celebration.
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.