Phoebe Chara arrived at Brandon Wilder's cathedral office several minutes late. She had been delayed from her appointment by a distressed parishioner. Aware of the Bishop's intolerance for tardiness, she worried this meeting would get off to a bad start.
"Deaconess Chara!" Wilder's secretary exclaimed. "You just made it. The Bishop was about to leave. Have a seat, and I'll notify him you're here."
Chara sat down and began fidgeting with her digital notebook. Bishop Wilder had a prominent standing in the Church of State, and was known as a strict but fair administrator. Since the subject matter she came here to discuss would challenge his orthodoxy, Chara was understandably nervous.
"All right, Deaconess, he will see you now. Please follow me."
The secretary led Chara down a long hallway adorned with Renaissance era artwork depicting religious scenes and figures from long before the Theocratic Reformation. The haunting images seemed to judge her with every step, as if she was being scrutinized by the ghosts of history. Chara felt cold and quite alone.
"Here we are," the secretary said as she opened the heavy oak door to the Bishop's chamber.
"Ah Deaconess Chara," greeted Wilder. "Do sit down. I had thought you would have been more respectful and not been late. I don't have much idle time these days."
"I sincerely apologize for the unavoidable delay, Your Eminence, and I'm so thankful for your graciousness."
"Not at all," Wilder replied with a wave of his hand. "Now, how can we serve God this fine day?"
"I wish to appeal Father Trimble's decision on the Sara Diaz case."
"Diaz? Oh yes, I do recall. Sister Diaz applied for enrollment in the Archaeology Studies Program at Saint Percy University, but was turned down. Correct?"
"Yes sir," Chara acknowledged. "Father Trimble did not consider ... "
"I'll read his statement for myself," Wilder interrupted as he searched for the document on his electronic desktop. "Here it is. Hmm ... yes ... that conforms to Church doctrine. Deaconess, I'm sorry, but I must deny your appeal."
"May I ask on what grounds, Your Eminence? Surely, the young lady is qualified. Her college performance far exceeds the minimum requirements."
"Sister Diaz' academic accomplishments are not the issue here. You know, as well as I, the Third Precept of The Holy Writs of Imperator prescribe domestic duties for women. I could have issued an exception, as was done for you, had Sister Diaz fully embraced the teachings of the Church; but alas, she chose to follow this confounded empiricism movement."
Phoebe Chara fought to suppress her ire at the Bishop's painfully parochial rebuttal. She knew the man was no misogynist. In fact, he was known in his diocese for encouraging and helping women expand their role in society. Instead, Brandon Wilder was essentially a conformist who never questioned the moral authority of the system in which he had prospered.
"With reverence," Chara responded, "neither Sara Diaz nor her fellow empiricists are opposed to the Church or to the spiritual belief in God. They simply believe -- in matters of human endeavor -- that objective experimentation and verifiable evidence should govern our reasoning. Theirs is not a radical philosophy. To me, it seems a rather humble and practical approach towards living. Your Eminence, this young lady's obvious talents should not be wasted. I implore you to reconsider."
Wilder hesitated while considering her plea. He rose from his chair and stared out the window. Above the glistening copper-hued city, sky taxis sped about like bees searching for nectar. Off in the distance, a line of thunderstorms rumbled as electrostatic discharges danced on the mountaintops. Perplexed, he returned to his seat.
"I admire your passion Deaconess. This is a most difficult problem. Progress and tradition could be at odds here with the future of a promising young life hanging in the balance. I pray God has endowed me with sufficient wisdom to decide."
"Perhaps Archbishop Stevens could be of assistance," Chara submitted.
"No, my dear, this is my responsibility. I trust you are familiar with The Age of Turmoil by Reverend Johansson?"
"Of course, Your Eminence. The book is required reading for the clergy."
"What message did it impart to you?" inquired Wilder.
"Well sir, the story was an artistic interpretation of the real events leading up to the Theocratic Reformation late in the last century."
"I didn't ask for your opinion of it as a literary work. I want to know what spiritual lesson it taught you."
"Forgive me, Your Eminence. I suppose I learned that individuality leads to cultural division. Cultural division leads to social strife. Social strife leads to the weakening and eventual destruction of communal order."
"Very good, Deaconess, and what is the state of man without communal order?"
"Insular, warlike, and depraved," she replied impassively.
"Correct. While each of us wishes to pursue our own personal dreams of fulfillment, those desires must be weighed against the general interests of all people as represented by the Church of State. Therefore, with dutiful consideration, the rejection of Sister Diaz' application to Saint Percy University is hereby confirmed. This ruling marks the end of the appeals process. Deaconess Chara, as Occupational Director under Father Trimble of community parish number U-S-M-O-1-1-5, the redirection of Sister Diaz' career now falls back to your jurisdiction. You will observe forthcoming guidelines on this matter. Do you have any questions?"
"No, Your Eminence, I understand. Thank you for seeing me."
"It was my pleasure," Wilder rejoined. "Be assured we have served God well this day."
Phoebe Chara retraced her steps slowly through the lengthy, dimly lit hall. Her head hung low with her hands cupped into her midsection. This time, the ethereal faces on the walls didn't even seem to notice her.
* * *
One month later, Brandon Wilder was reviewing a disturbing communiqué forwarded to him by Archbishop Stevens. It was from a special investigator of the Church's Foreign Intelligence & Surveillance Unit (FISU) monitoring an illegal archaeological dig in the northern Persian Gulf. The report documented the recovery of a cache of religious texts spanning over four millennia, with some cuneiform tablets dating back 6,000 years. The group undertaking the project called itself the Independent Alliance for Truth and was suspected of having ties to the global empiricism movement.
The call notification indicator on Wilder's electronic desktop illuminated. He activated the video-com link to his secretary.
"Yes, Sister Francis, what is it?"
"Deaconess Chara, Your Eminence. She said it's urgent."
"All right, I'll take the call."
Wilder's video display screen switched over to Phoebe Chara.
"Good morning, Deaconess."
"Good morning, Your Eminence. I'm afraid I have some unfortunate news. Sara Diaz, Richard Gabriella, and Preston Williams are missing. They last signed the parish register on Thursday."
"Thursday!" barked Wilder. "That's five days ago! Why has it taken so long to report this?"
"Your Eminence, we've had some staff problems. The dormitory curate is in the hospital recovering from an illness, and two parish guardians were recently reassigned to the archdiocese. I wasn't made aware until Sara's roommate called me last night and expressed her concern."
"I see. Did you update the C-D-B?"
"Yes sir, the citizen data base has everything we know so far."
"Can you give me any further insight into this incident, Deaconess?"
"I know, Your Eminence, that Sara was having trouble accepting her exclusion from Saint Percy's. She was quite distraught, and considered the rejection an injustice. We tried to help her understand the bigger issues surrounding the Church's decision, and that no malice was intended, but she refused to accept our explanation."
"Is there anything else you can tell me?"
"I'm not sure how relevant this is," Chara added, "but the roommate found an odd handwritten note among Sara's personal effects."
"What did it say?"
"There was the abbreviation 'I.A.T.' which we couldn't interpret, the phrases 'startling revelation' and 'smoking gun,' a sentence that stated 'we must tell the world,' and several unfamiliar alphanumeric codes."
An expression of deep concern came over the Bishop.
"Where is the note right now?" he asked.
"The parish guardians took it. Father Trimble said they will report to your office later today."
"Deaconess, this is a very serious issue. You are not to discuss this with anyone outside the official investigation. You have served God well by informing me. Now, return to your normal duties."
"Yes, Your Eminence."
The next morning, Archbishop Stevens of the Church's American Midwest Diocese issued international arrest warrants for Sara Diaz, Richard Gabriella, and Preston Williams. The extensive list of charges included conspiracy, heresy, and treason.
* * *
The three young fugitives had joined the renegade Independent Alliance for Truth who had smuggled them outside the Church of State's dominion. They soon began assisting the archaeological project in the open province of Sumer, which marked the southern border of an extensive buffer zone of disputed territories between the western Church of State and the eastern Guangdong Dynasty. It was a dangerous and lawless area, but the Alliance was well-organized and had sufficient means to defend itself against local threats. Although each of the world's major powers ran small clandestine espionage operations in the region, large overt actions could not be undertaken there since it would violate international treaties and jeopardize the delicate century-long era of world peace.
So, the dig proceeded with little interruption. Sara Diaz proved to be an invaluable addition. Her skill in recognizing the significance of recovered artifacts, as well as her remarkable ability to translate various ancient writings, had greatly advanced the interpretive analysis of the finds. Over a period of several months, the research study results were drafted into a comprehensive document. It contained a thorough and objective examination of the discoveries with an emphasis on authentication. Everyone associated with the project knew its release would create a furious political firestorm. However, no one could have predicted just how dramatic it turned out to be.
Ancient Texts of the Arvand Rūd was published the following year. The Church of State banned its distribution, but was unable to stem the torrential wave of fervor it had generated worldwide. The Theocratic Reformation, which had merged the functions of government with that of the Church, was built solely on the merits of a single historical manuscript -- The Holy Writs of Imperator -- which was now completely discredited by these new discoveries. Most damaging were two separate findings.
The missing portion of Tablet V of the Akkadian cuneiform Enûma Eliš was recovered intact. After translation, it reaffirmed the Babylonian creation story of human beings as servants for the gods, and prescribed the Code of Hammurabi as a means of "benevolent" social control.
A momentous subterranean vault was uncovered containing three unknown documents from different historical and geographical origins. The first was an Aramaic scroll from a prominent figure in ancient Church teachings (Hozai the Martyr) condemning the practice of religion as an instrument of rule. The second was a pre-Renaissance text printed by Saint Josephina of Valencia foretelling the rise of "a great Imperator" who will "purge the land of paganism" and "conform the ways of man through edict." The third was a private letter written to a close ally by none other than Magnificus Messias just before publication of his Holy Writs. In it, he detailed a secret plan to seize political power by utilizing his influential position within the Church to combine its operations with that of government. The Church's monotheistic theology would be used as righteous justification for purging pluralism and secularism out of society. When these mechanisms were in place and his popular ascendancy was established, he would declare himself "Imperator" and implement systematic control over the people through the auspices of the Church.
Messias' plan did succeed. The Imperatorial Church had reigned supreme ever since, save a two century long respite ending the last millennium. That exception, characterized as the Age of Enlightenment, was terminated by the Theocratic Reformation.
Ancient Texts caused a populist backlash that shocked the Church hierarchy. Disbelief grew into anger. Anger led to public demonstrations and strikes. Crackdowns on the protests triggered rioting and open hostility toward authority. Something drastic had to be done to avoid total anarchy. With its global rivals eager to exploit the dire situation, the Magister Sacrorum reluctantly acceded to a sane course of action. He pronounced Anathema against Magnificus Messias (posthumously), and declared Interdict against The Holy Writs. This effectively outlawed the entire legacy of the Imperator and made it a sin to worship him or give faith to his ideals. The longtime head of the Church also took the extraordinary action of separating the Church from governmental processes by delivering his Honorable Decree of State Freedom -- an executive statute that would transition regional sovereignty to democratically-elected administrations over a period of two years.
Dissolution of the Church of State was a messy affair marked by adversarial power-broking and a palpable level of public angst, but it did achieve its primary objectives. Social order was restored, and the religious organization of the Church was preserved. In the Americas and Europe, three large secular nation-states were created based philosophically on empiricism and religious freedom. One theocratic nation formed, in southern North America and Central America, which broke away from the Church after refusing to obey its rulings on the Imperator. Two small military dictatorships arose in South America as refuges for political scoundrels.
* * *
Brandon Wilder had trouble adapting. Financial constraints and consolidation within the Church had stripped him of all official duties and compensation. Although he retained the titular title of Episcopus Subsidiis, the former Bishop in high standing was now a castaway adrift in a stormy sea of change.
The day after he moved into a rundown old bungalow near the center of town, a welcomed visitor arrived at his door.
"Phoebe! Please come in," he said with a genuine smile. "I wasn't expecting you until this afternoon. How've you been?"
"Well enough, Your Eminence. Sorry for coming so early. Father Trimble cancelled our breakfast meeting, and I was in the area."
"Please call me Brandon. There's no more reason to be so formal. Would you like some tea?"
"Yes, with a twist if you have some lemon. It looks like you've got a lot of unpacking to do. Can I help?"
"Oh, no thank you," Wilder answered from the kitchen. "I need something to do with all this free time I have now."
Chara noticed a slight trembling of his voice. She walked into the kitchen and stood before him. Taking the cup of tea from his hands, she gazed caringly into his tired gray eyes.
"I wanted to tell you how I feel about your dismissal. It was wrong for the Church to discard someone of your astute wisdom and experience, and I said so in a letter to the Archbishop last week."
"That was very thoughtful of you, Phoebe," the 62-year-old man softly replied as he stepped back into the living room. "But they really didn't have much of a choice, you know."
Before following him out of the kitchen, Chara saw an empty bottle of cheap whiskey sitting on the counter.
"Brandon, we still have much to do at the parish. Perhaps, you could volunteer to help us with our community outreach program that connects unemployed workers with local employers. Or, you could assist in trying to procure funding for our medical clinic. And, we always need people to gather and distribute food donations."
"Yes, yes, that sounds good," he answered halfheartedly. "Phoebe, has your faith in God wavered at all since the crisis?"
"No, why do you ask?"
"Well, I've committed my entire life in the service of God. To do so, I placed my trust in the hands of the Church. It gave me direction. It provided me structure. I believed what I was taught. Now, I don't know what to believe."
"God gave man free choice, Brandon. You cannot judge Him by our mistakes."
"Phoebe, those mistakes were made centuries ago. All this time we have been living a lie. We were told the Church is the earthly expression of God's will. Going forward, how can we not doubt this?"
Chara took his hand. "God is within you. He will show you the way."
Wilder looked egregiously uncomfortable. He got up and pointed out the window.
"See those young people moving about? They do not share our faith. Their world is empirical. What matters to them is only that which can be observed, proven, and factual. The times have changed, and those who stubbornly resist will be left behind."
"Surely, there is room for the spiritual," Chara suggested.
"In the heart of the individual, I suppose," countered Wilder. "But, I fear the grand tradition of institutional religion will soon become passé."
"Please tell me what you're feeling, Brandon."
"Betrayed," he replied. "I feel betrayed."
Chara kneeled down in prayer, and silently begged for his salvation.
* * *
Over the next few months, Brandon Wilder became increasingly detached from society. He had tried his hand at fundraising for Father Trimble's medical clinic, but the art of subtle persuasion obviously wasn't his forte. He had tried working as an employment liaison, but showed little ability to effectively evaluate workers' skills. He did participate in the parish's food bank program, but the mundane routine appeared to erode his sense of pride. It wasn't long before he quit his volunteer activities altogether. Retreating into a solitary existence, he found comfort only in one place -- the dark and deep recesses of a bottle.
* * *
Phoebe Chara was cleaning up after a Sunday sermon when Father Trimble hurriedly returned to the church.
"Deaconess!" he shouted from across the room. "Brandon Wilder is gravely ill. I'm going over there now. I think you should come along."
"Certainly, I'll get my shawl."
Twenty minutes later they arrived at Wilder's bungalow. Paramedics were on the scene, and the ex-Bishop was being treated on his bed. The window blinds were all closed. The only illumination in the house came from a portable spotlight brought in by the first-responders.
"What happened?" Trimble asked.
"He's suffered a massive cardiac arrest," replied the supervisor.
"Why haven't you taken him to the hospital?"
"There's no need, Father. I'm afraid it's too late."
The paramedics began disconnecting the defibrillator, resuscitator, and IV's from the body. Wilder's left arm was hanging over the edge of the bed. Below it, a puddle of liquor had spread out on the floor. The container from which it spilled had rolled over against the wall.
"It looks like alcohol poisoning, although the autopsy results will have to confirm that."
"There will be no autopsy, young man," Trimble stated firmly.
The supervisor was incredulous. "I'm sorry Father, but I have my orders."
Trimble gently ushered him out of the bedroom. The remaining paramedics continued packing up their equipment and logging entries into a digital recorder. Chara stared at Wilder's face. It was discolored and contorted, but also quite serene.
The supervisor walked back in with unusual purpose. "Okay, let's wrap this up people. Our job is done here. The Church will handle disposition of the body."
The paramedic team departed moments later. Chara knelt at the foot of the bed in prayer. Trimble stood by solemnly with hands clasped.
"It's time to go now, Deaconess. The archdiocese will make the arrangements."
"I'd like to stay here until they arrive."
"Phoebe, I know how you feel, but ... "
"Please Father, permit me."
Trimble gave a disconcerting look, but acquiesced. "Very well, check in with me when you return."
An eerie silence descended upon the bungalow after Trimble exited. A waning quarter moon cast diffuse blue streams through the still shut window blinds. It was like the spirits of the past were turning away from the man who once reveled in their stature.
Phoebe Chara opened the windows, and the crisp evening air bristled against her delicate features. Over the rooftops, red and green beaconed sky taxis darted to and fro. Higher still, the bright white strobes of air transports streaked across the stars.
She opened her arms wide and appealed to the vastness of the universe, "Are there no tears to be shed for yesterday's child?"