Bishop of New Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of the Americas, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the West, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God, Pope Maximilian, was drinking coffee out of a Styrofoam cup.
It wasn’t particularly good coffee. It wasn’t even real coffee, for that matter. It was the cheap brown slurry common in the regions where the beans couldn’t be grown and the genefixed plants were too expensive for shoestring paychecks.
The stump of his left leg was itchy. He hated when that happened. He’d have to go excuse himself and remove his prosthetic, and that was just incredibly awkward. No one thought of the pope as someone who had stump-itches.
He was on edge, and it had not simply been interacting with Transit Authority and watching the headlight hunters run down the backroads the night before. He could feel the world falling apart around him, the glue he had worked so hard to place stretching thin and peeling away, and he didn’t know if he could keep the weight shorn up any longer. The flock was small, scattered, and afraid, and just as he had managed to gather them together and give them someone to follow, he felt the rug torn out from underneath him. What good was it then, when their shepherd was just as guideless and afraid as they were?
It was so unfitting, he thought, to be sitting here, in the office of a school principal, two plainclothes Swiss guardsmen by the door. Yet, to a part of him, there was a great deal of comfort to be found in a simple cup of fake coffee, and in the mundanity of being made to wait. Someone had decided to treat him like a human being.
The office was small, plain, very neatly organized. A budget-grade touch-screen for the desk, bookshelves of well-thumbed paperbacks and yellowed anthologies sorted by author’s last name. A simple little nameplate sat on the desk, next to an empty coffee mug that had “WORLD’S BEST MOM” painted on it in childish handwriting.
The placard read: Dr. Naomi Zairi-Lewitt.
Maximilian knew the name, though he had never met her in person before. The woman was something of a controversy magnet, and very clearly someone who did not much care for what the masses thought of her: The file they kept on her in New Rome was thicker than his thumb was long.
There were footsteps from outside the door, and the woman herself entered the room followed by a grim-looking man with an eyepatch.
“I am so sorry to keep you waiting, your Holiness, but there were some discipline issues that needed sorted out.”
“It’s no trouble,” he said, standing up to shake her hand. His Nigerian accent was, as usual, quite thick. He was quite sure that there would be many men of lower rank who would have been reduced to fuming indignancy by both the wait and her attitude, but he understood. Understanding things was a large part of his job, especially understanding where God vested the actual power. She was a Teacher, and Teachers very often had Matters That Needed Attention.
She was a small, wiry woman, just around fifty or so, wearing a white blouse and a black skirt. Glasses. Dark skin splotched with patches of fiery red. Short, light hair. She didn’t look like someone who would cause a lot of trouble, which was an instant indication that she was both capable of and willing to cause massive amounts of trouble.
Which, for the most part, she had done. Iron-fisted educational programs, open criticism of Foundation settlement policies, specifically that of the Projects at Caketown, heading the profligation of the so-called Universal Texts, teaching six year olds magic. Nothing occult, she had gone on record a dozen times clarifying the point. It was Applied Narrative Field Manipulation, nothing occult about it. There wasn’t even any dabbling involved.
Maximilian had yet to decide his own feelings on that matter. Publicly, he had to condemn the practice. In the privacy of his own mind, he had to admit that having settlements where every citizen knew how to perform an exorcism was not a bad thing.
The woman sat down at her desk, and Maximillian had a brief flashback to a time forty years before, when he had been in the same spot, except with his mother and father sitting on either side of him and a crumpled up parent-teacher summons in his pocket. It faded quickly.
“We’re a bit low on the pomp and circumstance today, I’m afraid,” she said, smiling. “But it’s good to finally meet you, your Holiness.”
“Likewise. I hope that…well, I hope that this can be something of a fitting show of goodwill before, ah…”
“Before the end of the world?”
“Would you mind if we went outside?” she said. “It gets stuffy up here, and the weather’s been good today.”
The lake and the processing plant could be seen from the top of the school’s south wall, past the line of pine trees on the shore. The still, stagnant water was cut up into neat squares and rectangles, choked with green and brown and red around the skeleton in the center of the lake. Sequoia-sized ribs shone bright white under the morning sun.
Down below on the school grounds, classes were changing. Students wandered in packs across the quad, dragging out their little moment of freedom as long as they could before heading back into the fortress-like, bomb-shelter buildings. Some of the older students who had free periods were lounging by the lake or orchard. Mr. Tickman’s biology class was tending the west gardens. Rifle cracks could be heard from the firing range on the north side, paired with the bounce of rubber balls on asphalt from the courts just under the south wall. Seen about the quad were several of the school’s golems: massive Tzor lumbering across the field with a shipping crate on one shoulder; short, round Even waddling along beside Dr. Tau; blocky, graffiti-covered Selah keeping watch from the center of the green; gentle Gir drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalk outside the math building with some of the littlest students.
“You have a remarkable school here, Doctor,” Maximilian said. “Despite our disagreements, I really do appreciate what you’ve done here. I know there are plenty of others in the Church who agree, even if they don’t like admitting it.”
“Thank you, your Holiness.” A pause. “My biggest regret is that we can’t go much farther than our own borders. Everything the Initiative has is focused in so few areas.”
“You do what you can.”
“Never feels like enough.”
“I know. It never does.”
“Headmistress!” A voice that sounded like a woman trapped in a large marble cube called out from the orchard. Maximilian looked down to see that the woman emerging from the trees with a basket of fruit was actually made of marble, quite stout around the everything, and studded with smoothed chunks of amethyst.
“We’ve got vampires in the watermelons.” She reached into her basket and pulled out a small, blood-stained melon with a wide, snaggle-toothed mouth. It snarled and snapped at her, but did not bite, being smart enough to not bite the hand of someone who was made out of marble.
“Tickman’s got a class in the west garden, they can help you root them out, but put up a sign just in case.”
“Thank you very much, Ahlama.” Naomi shook her head and smiled as the golem walked off. “Just got her last semester. Wonderful woman, but a little self-conscious about her weight.”
They continued walking down the wall, enjoying the sun and the breeze and the laughter of children playing and the stench of algae pools.
“Do you know what will happen?” he said, after a while. It was the question that had been gnawing at his mind since long before he arrived.
“Only as much as anyone else does. The nistarim will re-unite at the Pit and then…God only knows after that. Everything will be made right, or so it’s claimed, but it’s vague on the how and – Lin! LIN! Put the dodgeball down, please. If you and your sister send anyone else to the nurse’s office you’re going to be cleaning algae filters for detention!” She sighed. “It’s vague on the how. Whether or not there’s going to be a fight.”
“Evil doesn’t die without a fight.”
“And that’s what I’m worried about. I hope and pray that these kids aren’t going to have to go through that.
“For their sake.” She nodded towards a train of small children holding hands crossed the campus, led by a group of teachers. Each of the little figures had the bulging eyes and flabby lips and misshapen heads signature of fetal telekill poisoning. “They’ll wake up tomorrow morning, and maybe they’ll be cured. Maybe they’ll wake up and be able to speak and understand, and dress themselves, and not be trapped in their own minds. Maybe we’ll wake up tomorrow and there are no more tooth fairies in the river slums.”
“And maybe the mothers of New Rome will have enough food for their children.”
“And at the same time, part of me, the little teacher part that likes to look at all the angles, says that there’s no way it’ll just all be given to us like that. You can’t just be given the prize without the work. Or maybe we’ve done the work already.” She motioned to the man with the eyepatch, who was standing a distance away with the Swiss Guardsmen. “Elihayo, my bodyguard, he was there at the Fall of Jerusalem. In the Pit for fifty-one hours. Lost an eye, his voice, and half of his mind. He’d be first in line, and it’d be a crime if he wasn’t. Him and all the rest who’ve given that much.”
“Maybe it would be better if I didn’t know that it was going to happen, just to get rid of the anticipation.” Naomi exhaled deeply. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t even know if the Texts will be worth anything tomorrow morning. I know the Vatican hasn’t been in favor of that, but it’s a bit shaking seeing your whole life’s work get tossed like that, even if the replacement is better than what it ever could have been. You get attached.” She shook her head. “Look at me. You come here to make peace and I just unload all of this.”
“It’s no trouble.”
“You would have liked it. The Texts, I mean.”
“Probably, if the times were different.”
“Probably. I’m just going to trust that by the time we all wake up tomorrow, things will be okay.”
“And if they aren’t, you will have my support.”
Naomi looked over, nodded, and they shook on it.
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