Saturday, June 3, 2017

Saturday Ramble- Who is Deacon?

 This is a short story, based in the universe of the Matrix, that I wrote back in college and have done some updating on ever since. I stumbled on it again tonight and thought it did a decent job of showcasing an aspect of my faith, specifically, how I move forward with the knowledge that, for much of the Church's history, people have used it as a tool towards decidedly non-faith based ends.

Hope you enjoy it as a change of pace!


The tall halls of the Cathedral captured the voice of the priest, scattering it through the cavernous sanctuary. The morning Mass was read with feeling, and those faithful who had come listened intently. Messages of peace and joy washed over them, and they basked in it, feeling the comfort of the Words of God. The host was shared, and one by one they left, after confessing, some moving back to the altar to complete their penance. Life continued as it always did, day by day, week by week, until the building was nearly empty.
One of the confessionals opened, and a tall man stepped out, his neck circled by the clerical collar that denoted him a priest. His eyes, dark and deep, lifted up to large stained glass windows, holding visions of saints throughout time. At the front was the crucifix, in all of its morbid glory. Flanking it were scenes of Christ's birth and resurrection. Time seemed to slow, as if he, for a moment, was experiencing the timelessness of God. As it passed, he shook his head and looked back to the floor. "It's not right." He whispered to himself. He looked again at the crucifix. "This isn't the world you wanted us to have."
"Talking to yourself again, Father Daniels?"
The priest turned to see a man decked in colorful robes, the attire of the local Archbishop. He shook his head. "Not to myself, your grace, but to God."
The Archbishop nodded. "Prayer is the armor of our kind, Father Daniels. You always seem particularly distressed after your time in the confessionals. It is difficult duty, I know, to bear not only your own sins but the sins of others. Yet others learn to cope with it, in time. You've been wearing the collar for nearly a decade, now. Why are you still so consumed by this duty?"
The priest shrugged. "Perhaps I merely refuse to let myself grow used to anything. Sin is as much sin now as it was when I was first ordained. But it all feels so wrong... it always has. I'd hoped I would be calmed in my vows, comforted by the strength of the church. But now it seems to me that the church has only magnified my awareness of it. Comfort has been lacking."
The Archbishop looked the priest up and down. "Walk with me, Father." The priest nodded, and they began walking out of the sanctuary. "The world is a fallen place, Father Daniels. Many of our order grow so overwhelmed by the sins that they see that they close their eyes to it after a time. They live in it, blinded. They go through the motions, hoping maybe to help others, but they are largely ineffectual because of their refusal to see the truth."
They stopped in the Archbishops office. "You are one of the few who never blind themselves, who refuse to let this darkened world absorb them. This is as much a strength for you as it is a burden. You have borne the burden for nearly ten years. You have not, however, learned to wield the strength. Look at me, Father."
Slowly, the eyes of the priest raised to those of the Archbishop. They were bright eyes, blue as the sky with a sparkle that had not dimmed after decades of ministry. Yet they were housed in a face lined with age, wrinkled and worn with the passage of time. The face was tired, yet held a smile that hinted at the energy still housed in the eyes. "I am old, Father. I suspect my time is passing. The Cardinal has sent word that another is to be chosen, one who may in time rise to the level Archbishop, though that takes time. I have chosen you, and have sent word of my decision to him."
The priest stood still, shocked. "But... I am still full of doubt, your grace. Surely you need someone stronger, whose faith is more refined..."
The Archbishop laughed softly. "We all have our doubts, Father. Those who say they have none are those cloaked in the world, who refuse to admit it for what it is. You will do well. Now I recommend prayer time for you, more than ever. It is vital that you find your strength... for the burden will never stop growing as long as you live."

So he prayed. He prayed so hard and long that when he finally returned to his small apartment, the only light came from the dim street lamps that lined the road, or, upon entering, the screen of his computer. He sighed, tossed his jacket onto his bed, sat at his computer, and began searching.
Once, a priest in search of knowledge would have been forced to travel to a monastery, or perhaps even Rome to peruse the wisdom of the ages, written down by generations of saints, scholars, and scribes throughout the millennia of the church. Now, it was all there at his fingertips, thousands upon thousands of records and observations, a behemoth of tradition available with the click of a mouse.
He had spent ages here, reading the works of Origen, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Aquinas, Augustine, looking for answers, not even certain of his questions. When he tired of his reading he would enter chatrooms, discussing what he read with anyone who happened to be around. His alias, Deacon, was well known in these rooms as a nearly bottomless source of knowledge, and yet as a seeker, striving to discover something. No one was sure of what he was looking for, though... him least of all.
Dawn was drawing close when he found himself alone in a chatroom with only one other occupant, by alias of Carpenter. They had been exploring the mysteries of the Church for hours, and Deacon felt that it had all been worthwhile, despite the fact that he would face yet another day without sleep,  hardly a rare occurrence.

It was drawing near time to log off, and the priest smiled as he typed.

Deacon: Well, I'm going to have to be going soon, it's been good to talk with you.

Carpenter: And you as well. Can you answer a question for me?

Deacon: I can try.

Carpenter:  What is it that bothers you, on the nights when you come here?

Deacon leaned back and pondered his answer for a moment. It was a question rather more direct than the kind he usually fielded, but after such a long conversation he felt he owed it to Carpenter to answer.

Deacon: Sometimes the world just doesn't feel right. The people I meet there seem fake, and so I come here. People like you feel more real somehow.

There was a long pause, and Deacon began signing off, when Carpenter responded.

Carpenter: You're right, you know, about the world. Few your age recognize it.

Deacon: What, too young?

Carpenter: No, too old. Meet here again tonight?

Deacon leaned forward, intrigued. No one had ever asked him to meet again, they usually asked their questions and left, like those who came to confess. He was a moment answering.

Deacon: Sure. I'll see you then.

Carpenter: I look forward to it. Be careful... do not let it sneak up on you.

Deacon: What?

Carpenter: The world. It has you. I'll talk to you tonight. (CARPENTER has signed off.)

Their discussions did not end after the following night, or the one after. For weeks he met with Carpenter online nearly every night, discussing not only the inner workings of the Bible or theology, but the world itself, the huge trap that it could seem at times. Though he still hardly slept, when he did sleep it was as if the hour or so he’d had was enough to last him weeks. Energy unlike any he had known since taking orders began to fill him, and he channeled almost all of it into his work. His homilies became clearer, more driven and focused. Soon, people were waiting in line for hours to enter his confessional, and on the days he gave mass they would fill up the pews like never before.

Old Archbishop Carter only smiled the more brightly, and would occasionally drop comments that his marshaling of strength seemed to be going well. Father Daniels could only bow, say the archbishop was far too gracious, and head back to his apartment, eagerly awaiting his next talk with Carpenter. Then, one day as he entered his apartment, he realized that he wasn’t alone.

“Hello, Mr. Daniels.” The invader was a nondescript man in a black suit with a black tie and sunglasses, slightly balding. Sunglasses, in the dark of night with no lights in the apartment.

“Excuse me?” The suit said, appearing somewhat taken aback. Apparently, he wasn’t used to being interrupted.

“Father Daniels, not ‘mister’. I’m a priest, you see.” he pulled back his coat to show his clerical collar. The suit smiled.

“Ahh, yes, of course. A man of the cloth. My apologies. Father Daniels, then. Hello.”

“Hello,” Daniels replied. “And what is your name?”

“Gray. Agent Gray. I assume that this is a normal hour for you to get home?”

“Typically, yes. Why, is something wrong?”

“All in good time. Please, sit down. This might take a while.” He gestured to the chair by the computer, and Daniels moved to it, but didn’t sit. “You see, we are aware that every night for almost a month now, you have met online with a certain person who goes by the on-line handle of Carpenter. True?”

“Yes... and?” Daniels frowned. There was something very wrong going on here, but he couldn’t figure out what, exactly.

“This... individual... is dangerous. Extremely so. He is a stalker of sorts, an on-line predator. And I’m afraid this he has picked you as his next target.”

“Me... why?”

“Because you crossed his path. He hunts people.  Befriends them, gains their trust, and then acts. He’s killed at least five so far that we know of, and possibly many more. You must have been a prime target for him, however. We understand he has a certain something for men of the cloth. We think he might have been... affected... by all that unpleasantness in the mid-90's.”

The priest gave that the frown it deserved. The “unpleasantness” deserved far worse a name, and he did not appreciate the flippant attitude towards it. Besides... Carpenter was a friend. Or was he?

Agent Gray’s smile didn’t even flicker. “Anything you may think you know about this entire situation is utterly irrelevant, Father. Now, please sit down.”

Again, that sense of wrongness pervaded Daniels’ senses. It was as if the man before him lacked... something. The emptiness that came from him made him seem as cold as the computer on his desk. Daniels sat.

“Thank you. Now, it was only through lucky chance that we managed to locate you before he struck, Father. We have been utterly unable to trace him, however, if he follows his normal pattern, he may soon ask you to meet him. Agree, then call this number immediately.” Gray handed him a folded piece of paper. “Tell us when you are meeting him and when. Then, we will give you further instructions.”

“We? Who is we?”

“The people who are trying to protect you, Father Daniels.”

“What if you’re wrong about Carpenter?”

“We’re not. Good day, Father.”

After Gray left, Daniels spent a long time staring at his computer. All I have to do is not log on for a while, and maybe he’ll give up interest. That way he stays safe, and I can’t be accused of aiding or abetting. But he had promised to meet... and Carpenter had never even mentioned a Real World meeting. If he suddenly did... then what?

Ultimately, it was the promise that made him log on. Even if Carpenter was a criminal, Daniels had not broken a promise to anyone in two decades, and did not intend to start now. That night he moved much as normal through the various chat rooms and theology sites. But Carpenter was not in any of them. For the first time since that night long ago, Carpenter broke his promise to meet. He would be nowhere to be found on-line for the next three days.

Daniels sighed to himself. He had been in the confessional for going on five hours, but the last of those who needed to confess was now entering the darkened booth. Mentally giving a quick prayer for patience, the priest turned his attention to the task, and waited for the confessor to speak.

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been... a very long time... since my last confession.”

Daniels nodded, though he knew the confessor couldn’t see it. “What is it that brings you back to the confessional after so long an absence?”

There was a pause, then; “I broke a promise, Father. A promise to a good friend. And now I am here to confess and make reparations, if I may.”

Another sigh. “The promises we make to men and to God are very important, but to truly make amends, you should go to see your friend.”

“I have, Deacon.”

The priest’s eyes snapped open wide. “Carpenter?”

“Please just listen for now. I know that you have been visited by them, and though I don’t know what they told you about me, I can guess that it was scary, and perhaps nasty as well. Believe me when I tell you that whatever they led you to believe about me, the truth about them is far worse. They are...”

“...soulless.” The realization filled his mind even as the word passed his lips. That emptiness, that lack of human warmth, was what he had felt that night in his apartment.

Silence. “Yes,” Carpenter said softly. “How did y... never mind. There is no time. I am about to ask you the most important question that you have ever been asked, and you will have to decide your answer quickly.”

“Okay,”   Daniels said tentatively.

“For months now, you and I have discussed the nature of the world. The world is broken, wrong, fallen as you have said. You have felt it, felt the despair of those within it, seen the soullessness of those who uphold it. But you do not understand what it is, and without that knowledge, you cannot begin to address the heart of the problem.”

A deep breath. “I came here today to offer you the opportunity to learn about it, and then to do something about it. But it is a one way street, and once you set foot upon it there is no turning back. If you refuse, we will never meet again, to protect both of us. You will go on to great things in this church, if it is permitted. If you join me, all I can offer is the truth, and the opportunity to do something about it.”

The silence was deafening. In the distance, thunder penetrated the thick cathedral walls. Carpenter spoke. “Tonight, when you leave this building, you may chose the life you know. In that case, go home, and go to sleep, and believe whatever you wish. I will fondly remember our conversations. However, should you choose to look even deeper, go the old Marington bridge, and be there by 2 am. I will meet you.”

The confessional door opened quickly. The priest leaped from his own booth, but only saw a dark silhouette passing through the doors. He chose not to follow... and then set to a far more difficult choice.

It would be raining... Father Daniels thought through shivers as he huddled back against one of the rails, his soaked coat pulled up above his collar to hold in what warmth was left. Despite the ongoing downpour, he couldn’t blame all of the shivers on the wet. He was more scared than he had ever been before in his life. For the fiftieth time he considered just walking into the night, disappearing and throwing the Agents a bone, far too late for them to capture Carpenter.

Yet... he couldn’t deny what he had felt from them. Gray had called them his protectors, but the cold void inside of the men in dark suits had been undeniable. He had known depravity before, had stared into the eyes of some truly evil people while administering Last Rites, but each of them had possessed something, some dredge of humanity. But these... Agents... nothing. He remained on the bridge.

The fear wouldn’t go away, though, and desperately he reached out to the old ways to fight it. He began reciting the Our Father, over and over again, like he hadn’t done since he’d been a small child afraid of the dark. To his great amazement, it worked.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil.

Calmness, and a strange warmth, flowed into him like he’d been drinking rich hot chocolate. Surprised, he opened his eyes to see a beat up old car pull to a stop in front of him. A door opened and a voice he recognized as Carpenter’s came out. “I apologize for being late... we must hurry.” With a last twinge of caution urging him to flee, Daniels nodded and stepped into the car...

And found himself facing the barrel of a shotgun, held by a tall black man sitting in the front passenger seat. The driver was intent on driving in the wet conditions, and it took Daniels a moment to look away from the large weapon before him.

“C-carpenter, w-what is this?”

“I apologize, Deacon, but it is necessary for the moment. You are more dangerous to us right now than you can imagine. The Agents work quickly sometimes. We don’t think that you’re bugged, but we can’t afford to take the risks.”

Suddenly the driver spoke. “Scan complete... he’s clean. Maybe they’re getting sloppy.”

The tall black man shook his head. “They don’t get sloppy. They were expecting us to make another on-line contact first... didn’t want to spook us off. They might be watching us right now.”

“Then nothing has changed,” Carpenter said gruffly. His bright red hair came as a bit of a shock over the dark sunglasses and black longcoat. “Your, ah, guardian there is Cephas, and you have to forgive his tension. You will understand it soon. Ah, we’re here. Quickly, now.”

Daniels found himself getting ushered out of the car and pushed into an incredibly decrepit looking warehouse. Carpenter navigated his way through the stacked boxes, speaking almost absentmindedly. “This is one of our safe-houses... we’ve managed to keep it quiet for some time, so we’re as safe as we can be right now. We stay constantly on the move, however, so I fear I have no time to give you a tour. Now.”

Suddenly he spun on heel and was facing the poor priest, holding two cups that he had taken from on top of one of the boxes. They were not particularly ornate, but Daniels gasped as he recognized them... simple as they were, they were undoubtedly eucharist cups, and the smell of wine could be detected even through the heavy must of the room.

“Last chance, Deacon. I told you a long time ago that you were right about the world, that it was wrong in a way that you have always sensed, but could never define. The truth is far more horrific than anything you could imagine, anything that I could simply tell you. This is your chance to learn it, and join us in fighting it. You have sensed the emptiness of the Agents... it is them and their kind that we stand against, that we fight.”

A pregnant pause. The priest looked around as if expecting one of them to step out from behind the boxes. He was also uncomfortably aware of Cephas behind him, still holding that shotgun... a silent executioner? He couldn’t tell.

“Once you make the choice to walk with us, however, your old path will end. You will no longer be welcome in the Cathedral, you will never become a bishop or arch-bishop. You will never again be the quiet priest in the parish. You will still serve your parishioners, but in a very different way than you have ever imagined. It is time for the choice.”

Carpenter lofted the cup on the left. “This is the cup of forgetfulness. If you drink from it you will fall asleep, wake up tomorrow in your bed, and never hear from us again. The Agents will visit you again, but you will never need to fear for your life... they will know upon visiting you that you can no longer lead them to us.”

He then raised the cup on the right. “This is the cup of truth. If you drink from it you will remain awake, indeed, you will become more awake than you have ever been in your life. You will see the world for what it is, and then we will see how you handle it. You will never again have a home in this world, you will be hounded, chased, and maybe killed. Everyday we face death... but we will face it together. It is not the easier option. It is time to choose... time is pressing.”

Seconds ticked by. The priest took a deep breath, and then took the cup on the right. It wouldn’t be until long after that he knew why... desperately afraid as he had been... the sense of warmth gained from reciting the Our Father had never left him the whole time with Carpenter.

Dreams followed, visions, flashes, nightmares. Nightmares too real to be true. Too real to be of the world. For days, Deacon (Father Daniels no longer) was lost in a nightmare of truth. He awoke with a horrible choking sensation, a breathing tube protruding deep into his lungs. His skin was surrounded with a disgusting goo, and he pushed out, his strangely weak arms pushing through an odd rubbery substance to win free, violently pulling the tube out. He dreamt (real or otherwise, he didn’t know) of falling and sliding, of struggling with strange machines that prodded and poked him, nightmares of horrible darkness and even more horrible light.

Dreams, nightmares... the truth.

The tall halls of the Cathedral captured the voice of the priest, scattering it through the cavernous sanctuary. He knelt before the altar and the sepluchure, his prayer as heartfelt as it was simple. He closed as he always did with the Our Father, basking once again in the quiet warmth as he crossed himself and stood, sunglasses clasped in hand. He had never felt comfortable wearing them here.

“Enjoying your favorite program again?”

Deacon turned slowly to face his mentor. Carpenter appeared much as he had the first time Deacon had ever seen him, bright red hair blazing in contrast to pale skin and dark clothes. Deacon knew his own appearance had also changed little- the attire a bit more loose, ready for action, but otherwise unchanged, dark clothes offset by a white collar at the neck.

“It is... peaceful... to come here. A nice break from the bustle of the ship. We have arrived?”

“We will be docking soon. The elders have already radioed ahead, asking that you be ready. They are quite eager to meet you, after all the talk about your abilities has spread.”

Deacon frowned at that. His abilities were greater than average, though Carpenter still managed to win four out of seven sparring matches. His true skill seemed to lie in fighting the rogue programs that rose up... the vampires and werewolves occasionally used by the underworld to keep both the humans and the overlords off balance. Against them, Deacon fought with a fury and skill that surprised his companions. Not a few times had his ‘abilities’ thwarted the underworld’s attacks, the reason they had been summoned home. Home, though Deacon had never seen it before. The Last City.   

“I’ll be honored to meet them, I’m sure. I just think I could be doing more out there.”

Carpenter nodded. “You will learn to cherish these visits, in time. They are certainly rare enough, and so worth treasuring.” His eyes again scanned the room around them. “I’ve always meant to ask you, my friend, and the elders surely will. Why do you return to this place? Why do you still wear the collar, after all you have learned about the world since you took your vows?”

There was another long pause. “When I took those vows, I often wondered about my faith. Did you know that?” There was an empty pause, Deacon took it as a negative before continuing. “I always wondered whether I was serving the right cause. It all could have been fake. Jesus. The cross. It could have all been lies, controls. A scheme to harness the energy of countless people.” he looked around. “But there was always a strength here... a place where people found themselves, and so became more. I knew before that men had used the gospels to aim people. Then I learned that machines had done so, as well.”

Deacon smiled. “There have always been those who would use the church to achieve their ends. There were even some who succeeded. But they all passed away, and the church remains. Now, it rests in the hand of the machines, but one day, when the war ends, the machines will pass away. And if I am spared... the church will continue as well. God lives... the more I see, the more I learn, the more sure of it I am. I took my oaths unaware of the true nature of the world, but I took them for life. Believe it or not, old friend, I am more sure of them now than anything else.” And with that, the cathedral melted away into the waiting white of the construct.

“We are docking,” Cephas’ voice echoed through the sterile emptiness.

“Understood,” Carpenter replied, and without another word, the two of them awoke from the empty dream. Yet it seemed, to Deacon, that a quiet Amen seemed to fill the void as they left it.

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