End in Fire, Book I Zenith, Chapter 3
By Matthew James Seidel.
BOOK I: Zenith
Previous Section: Chapter 2, Next section: (coming soon), Contents page.
It was known officially as the Mardo Academy Seconder Support Program. Eleven-year-old Doug Doobin called it mandatory volunteer work.
“It’s bad enough making us do stuff on the weekend. But calling it volunteer work is just fucking insulting. I mean, do they think we’re glitches or what?”
School had just ended, and Doug was outside talking to Frank Landi. He could feel other groups of kids watching him enviously. He was just like them until a month ago when Frank introduced himself. Doug did his best to act casual, but he knew an opportunity like this wouldn’t come again. Frank had heard Doug’s father was able to get Doug early access to the latest content package in Coliseum. Since then Frank had allowed Doug to come over almost every day so he could give him the access code. Sometimes Frank even let Doug play but more often Doug had to watch, along with Frank’s longtime friends Austin and Mehsat. In return, Frank allowed Doug to take part in conversations, provided he didn’t overstep himself.
Doug typically only echoed whatever Frank, Austin, or Mehsat said. He had seen how quickly lower-tier friends like him could be replaced for saying the wrong thing. But learning he would lose time to play video games on the weekend annoyed Doug so much that he just found himself talking. Fortunately, everyone seemed to like what he was saying.
“Have you ever been inside one of these elder care and appreciation centers? No? It’s so fucking depressing. I’m honestly impressed the staff can tell who’s still alive. One time my parents dragged me to one I was sitting next to this guy who I think might have been dead already. Slouched down in his chair–I don’t think he’d moved out of it since Zife was around–drooling, his face looked like this.”
When Doug heard Frank laugh at his imitation—a deep, rich belly laugh—Doug kept talking so he wouldn’t get too giddy and lose track of his story.
“The guy turned to me and said, ‘Nuuuuudduuuu.’” I said, ‘What?’ ‘Nuuuuudduuuu.’ I tried a couple more times and, you know, normally when I couldn’t understand what the fuck people were trying to say, I’d just tell ‘em, ‘Yep, you’re absolutely right,’ and hope that’d be the end of it. But I was bored so I figured why not figure out what he was saying, you know, what does ‘‘Nuuuuudduuuu’ mean? Then a nurse came by and apparently she was fluent in death rattles ‘cause when he said it to her she said, ‘It is, isn’t it!’ I asked what he’d said and you know what it was?”
“What?” asked Frank.
“Nice day! Nice day? Seriously? I felt like asking the guy if him staring at a wall, drooling all over himself while all these other possibly dead people shuffled around was really a nice day for him. Fuck, what’s a bad day look like?”
Making Frank, Austin, and Mehsat laugh felt great. He especially loved that he could tell they were really listening to everything he said. He’d heard them make jokes about people before and guessed he had unconsciously become adept in that kind of humor himself. Yet their laughter also made him feel uncomfortable. Doug had completely made up the story about the old man. In reality, the few times he had spoken to people at the elder care and appreciation centers hadn’t been that bad. Most thought he was someone else and the conversations often went in circles. But everyone Doug spoke to was usually happy to have someone to be with and remind them they were still alive. In other cases it was hard to even look at them. Doug gagged when he once saw an old woman hobbling along a wall, meekly begging for help as feces mixed with urine tailed down her scab-coated, skeletal legs. When he asked a nurse why no one was helping her he was told that the woman had spent all the points the center gave her that day and she had no savings. Only at midnight would she, like all the other residents, receive her daily allowance from the center. It would cost more than half the daily allowance to rent someone to bring her to the bathroom or help clean her up. She would have to choose.
Far from being amused or even disgusted, these encounters left Doug miserable yet also made him occasionally, and always briefly, consider visiting again to spend more time talking to center residents still cogent enough to have a conversation. There were never more than a handful of visitors and even fewer volunteers. The staff was small, too, and could only help if the resident paid for the particular service beforehand. Those who offered free aid were fired.
Still, he continued mocking them. Getting so much attention from Frank just felt too good.
Doug kept them laughing for over five minutes, making up darker stories about the center that made them laugh even more. When he felt close to running out of material, he switched to talking about comprehensive care homes. These housed shareholders born with mental or physical disabilities whose families could afford to pay the incredibly high monthly fees. Doug had never been inside one of these homes or met someone who lived there. But when he asked the three boys if any of them had been inside one and they all said no, he lied, said he had been to one twice, and made up even crueler stories.
The boys were howling with laughter as Doug imitated someone with a mental disorder–the kind of person kids mocked as “glitches”–when Frank suddenly pointed at someone behind Doug.
“Over there! Come on!”
Doug instinctively followed Frank, Austin, and Mehsat over towards a girl who was reading on a bench, waiting to be picked up.
The girl pulled her book up closer to her face and turned slightly. She seemed to shrink a little, as if she were desperate to hide but had nowhere to go. Doug was still smiling like the others, but he began to feel uneasy.
“Emily!” Frank shouted even louder once he was looming over her.
“What,” the girl muttered.
“Your sister’s a glitch, right?”
Emily sprang to her feet. “Take that back!”
Her saucer-sized blue eyes flashed with pain and hate. Seeing her face this close, Doug recognized her. Her glasses marked her out as someone from one of the poorer families in the Middle–the surgery to correct eyesight issues was relatively cheap. There were even rumors they had nearly had to move out to the Outer more than once. Doug had been in multiple classes with Emily over the past few years and never had any problem with her personally. Once she had even helped explain the theme of a book they had to read for class right before the teacher handed out the test. A few days later, he offered her a bag of chips when she came to school without lunch.
“Does she sound like this?” Frank asked. “Doug, do the voice, do the voice!” he said. “Say, ‘Hey, sis!’”
Doug looked from Frank to Emily. No one said anything. He opened his mouth but all that came out was a croak that trailed off.
Emily’s lip trembled. Frank stopped smiling.
“Do the voice.”
Doug put his right hand in his jacket pocket and clenched it into a fist. Still clenching it tightly, he made a grotesque face and said, “Hey, sis,” in a garbled, cartoonish voice.
He wished he could have mumbled the words or done the imitation less extravagantly. But he
knew that wouldn’t have satisfied Frank and he still would have hurt Emily. And since he told himself he couldn’t tell Frank no, Doug knew he had made the best of a bad situation.
Emily’s eyes filled with tears. Doug expected her to cry and run away. Instead she marched up to Doug and shoved him so hard he fell to the ground.
Doug was too stunned to do anything but gape at her. Austin and Mehsat raised their eyebrows and let out a long, “Ooooooh,” holding up their hands as if intimidated but clearly on the verge of laughter. Frank, who was initially as stunned as Doug, punched Emily in the face as hard as he could. She flew backwards and, after being suspended in the air for a moment, crashed to the ground twice as hard as Doug.
“You fucking bitch!” Frank shouted. “Don’t you ever touch one of my friends again or I’ll beat your fucking head in until you’re just as fucked up as your glitch sister!”
He bent down, spit in her bleeding face, and kicked her so hard Doug heard something crack.
“Come on,” Frank, suddenly bored. “Let’s play some Coliseum at my house.”
Emily, curled up and crying on the ground, braced herself for another assault as Austin and Mehsat walked by. Mehsat bent down and raised his fist, but only pulled back and laughed when she started crying louder.
Doug hurried past Emily’s crumpled body towards the others, who were about to turn a corner. Even now they could hear her whimpering.
Frank scoffed. “Some people are so fucking sensitive.”
Doug felt guilty the entire time he was at Frank’s house. Luckily, he wasn’t asked for any more impressions or stories. He knew he would have done whatever they wanted, but the thought alone exhausted him. And he kept picturing Emily’s bloodied face or, before that, the hurt in her eyes beneath a veneer of rage.
He was momentarily distracted when, just before he left, Frank told Doug he could borrow his Golden Chariot to ride home. It was the newest, most expensive model, though the price and slightly sleeker design were the only real differences between this chariot and past versions. Each was essentially a chair covered in various logos that glided along with the aid of the magnetic layer built just below the colony surface. Its internal CPU connected instantly to Doug’s GoldenPhone. When he said the words “Chariot destination” and his address aloud, the chariot started to move. Doug assumed that the chariots were fully automated with the aid of some unseen technology in the dome above. In reality a camera in front of the chair had been activated and a Seconder far out in Sector C in a claustrophobic place half a mile underground had taken control of the vehicle. The Seconder drove him home beside hundreds of workers driving other chariots as carefully as possible. A single accident was enough to bankrupt a Seconder’s entire family and land the worker in a criminal rehabilitation institute.
While the chariot carried Doug home, he wrestled once more with his guilt. It congealed with resentment into an even more uncomfortable feeling. Doug tried to tell himself he had only been joking and Emily was the one who got violent first. Frank had only defended him. This argument would convince Doug one moment before he’d feel nothing but shame again in a masochistic loop.
Then he remembered there was a new Escape from Earth! movie coming out. He eagerly searched for the trailer on his GoldenPhone. When he found it, he activated his Z-lenses and, using a new app his parents had bought him, transferred the trailer up to the fake sky above. Z-lenses had been making a comeback lately with the help of apps like this, which allowed users to watch private content on the dome while anyone else just looking up would see the typical cycle of commercials.
Doug leaned back and enjoyed the bombastic trailer. The plot seemed to be about rescuing a captured scientist, but the dialogue quickly gave way to explosions and gunfire. Doug watched as soldiers fought religious fanatics, cavemen–what people called the Seconders’ ancestors–and hordes of mutants deformed by radiation. Doug gasped when a character who had been in the Escape from Earth! games for years showed up in the final seconds of the trailer. He was still brimming with excitement when the Seconder in Sector C brought him home. Later, this worker would discover that an error had prevented him from receiving the 0.2 points taking Doug home should have earned him.
While this Seconder went in search of more work, another Seconder carrying three large bags was standing outside Doug’s front door. He knew she was from Sector C from her exposed arms and legs–there were no Black children in the Green Hills Community or any other nearby gated community. She swayed slightly, like she might tip over, before abruptly shaking all over and standing erect. Doug had seen Seconders do this whenever they started to get sleepy on the job. It didn’t help this Seconder for long, though. She turned, yawned loudly, and began gently swaying again until the door opened
Doug’s mother, Liza, stepped outside.
He had no idea how old she was. He didn’t know how old his father, Sam, was, either, thanks to surgeries designed to make themselves look young. This wasn’t unusual–most of the adults Doug knew had de-aged at least once. But the effects weren’t permanent, and every subsequent surgery cost more. So it was common for someone to look thirty one day and, once the cost of a surgery became impractical, turn sixty over the course of a week. Liza and Sam had spent considerable points on multiple surgeries and had a savings account set aside for more in the future. To Doug, then, they had always looked to be in their mid-twenties.
He complimented them, telling lies like that his friends kept thinking they were his siblings. But the truth was he envied kids with parents who looked at least closer to their actual age. He found de-aging creepy and was determined not to have any surgeries when he got older, though he knew this meant eventually he would look older than his parents.
Liza took the bags from the Seconder and, after struggling with the weight of them, managed to set them onto the floor. “You’re ten minutes early!”
“Is that okay, ma’am?” the Seconder asked.
“Okay? It’s brilliant! My husband and I are starving!”
Doug heard the Seconder let out a deep sigh of relief.
“94.6 points, dear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the Seconder replied.
She raised her wrist-link so Liza could tap it with her GoldenPhone.
“There you go! And,” she added in a conspiratorial tone, “I added a little something for being so early.”
“Thank you…there’s also um this a survey you can fill out if you…my name’s Deidre and good rating really have a big impact on…it’s really easy, here, it’s all on this card.”
Liza put it in her pocket without glancing at it. “Thank you, dear, I’ll be sure to do that. Oh! Dougie! Looks like you brought my son home, too! Guess I should have given you an even bigger tip!”
Deidre did her best to laugh and. When she turned around and faced Doug, her face radiated energy and warmth. She smiled as she passed him on the way to her bike, which was no different than bike designs from the early twenty-first century. It had a wagon attached to the back. Doug looked at his mother, who had already gone into the dining room, then back at Deidre. Thinking she was unseen, all the energy had left her body, leaving her with the same listless affect he’d seen at the elder care and appreciation center. Still, through sheer force of will, she pressed on, riding her bike down the block, dragging the wagon filled with more meals to deliver behind..
When Doug entered the dining room his parents were talking about the Seconder.
“—couldn’t believe it.”
“Really is obnoxious,” Sam agreed unenthusiastically while reading something on his GoldenPhone.
“What’s obnoxious?” Doug asked.
“That card she gave me,” Liza replied. She held it like a piece of incriminating evidence before tossing it in the trash.
“For the survey?”
“Ugh, the survey. Here I gave her a whole extra point when I didn’t need to and she wants me to then take hours out of my day filling in some survey just so she can look good to her boss.”
“Does she get the extra point?”
“Does she get the extra point or does it just go to the branch of GoldenCorp she works for.”
“I’m sure they do…they must. You know, I’ve met Seconders who would be thrilled to have an extra point given to them on top of what I’m sure is an extremely generous salary. But no, young Seconders these days are never happy. Help me set out dinner, Dougie. You, too, Sam.”
“Stop scrolling through comments and help.”
He rubbed his eyes. “We have to go through all the comments. Remember when we missed one negative review and didn’t scrub it? Remember what happened?”
“You’ve been reminding me for two years so, yes, I remember. Just take a break while we eat.”
Sam read a few more comments before groaning and getting up. But as soon as they started opening the bags and the aroma of freshly fried food filled the room, Sam looked as happy as the rest of them.
Doug had ordered his usual meal from Big Eats—chicken fingers, fries, soda, and a cup of clam chowder. The chicken fingers were suntanned brown and there was a perfect balance between the resistance of the skin as he bit into them and the buttery chalk white meat within. The fries were just the right amount of crispy, and he loved how they were a bit thicker than the ones you could get from Big Eats competitors. More salted, too. Every sip of the sugary soda was exactly the right level of cold, and the clam chowder was, as usual, not too chewy and not too creamy. Doug laid out the food in his ritualistic way, setting the chicken fingers on the right side of the plate, fries on the other, and the soda close to his left hand before pouring a little ketchup to begin with but keeping the bottle within reach. He finished off by tossing a few crackers into the chowder, mixing them until they were fully immersed in the off-white chunky deliciousness.
Liza and Sam were well into their meals by the time Doug started. He knew they thought he was weird for being so meticulous in how he prepared his food. He also knew they hated how slowly he ate. But he couldn’t imagine rushing through Big Eats. Food from Maggie’s or Lightspeed or Buddy’s, maybe. But not Big Eats.
Sam preferred Maggie’s. Liza inexplicably thought Captain Jay’s was the best when Doug didn’t even think it was in the same league as the Big Four. Considering how forcefully all the different fast-food chains competed in the media for attention, it was easy to forget they were all owned by a subsidiary of GoldenCorp.
When Liza and Sam had both stopped eating, Liza looked at their plates and chuckled. “Looks like we got too much again.”
They had each only eaten half the food they ordered. “It’s funny,” she said as she carried the plates into the kitchen, “but when we order I always think we’re going to eat it all.”
She dumped all the food into the trash. “Remind me to order less than I think I want next time, Sam.”
“Are you looking at those comments again?”
“It’s important,” he said, exasperated.
Liza closed her eyes for a couple seconds before turning to Doug. “How was your day, honey?”
“Fine,” Doug said, searching for more information on the new Escape from Earth! movie.
“Did you get in a fight?”
He looked up. “What?”
“Your elbows are all scratched.”
Doug looked down at them. He suddenly recalled how he’d landed on his elbows when Emily pushed him. The pain had been so fleeting, he had forgotten about it by the time he reached Frank’s house.
“Oh. No, I…I just fell.”
Liza raised an eyebrow. “Are you lying to me?”
“No, I mean, you know, it was nothing.”
“What was nothing?”
“It was…just a girl at my school.”
“You were fighting a girl?”
“No, she just…me and some friends were joking around and…and she heard one of them and got upset and hit me.”
“She hit you?” Liza exclaimed. Sam put down his phone. He looked appalled.
“Yeah,” Doug replied. Technically, he insisted to himself, it wasn’t a lie. Emily had heard them joking. She did get upset. And she had hit him. He could have said pushed but, he wondered, was hit really that different? And maybe he was remembering it wrong and she had hit him.
“She hit you because of a joke?”
The indignation in her voice made Doug more confident. “Yeah. And she yelled at us, too.”
Sam shook his head. “This fucking generation.”
“Who is this girl?” she asked.
Doug felt uncomfortable. “Why do you want to know?”
“Because I want your school to know they have a bully who is harassing my son.”
“No, I mean, it’s not…you don’t have to do that.”
Liza put her hand to her heart. “It’s sweet of you to want to protect her, but for all we know she’s been bullying other kids. Standing up to bullies is about protecting more than just yourself.”
“Okay, but…they’re not going to do anything to her, right?”
Liza tilted her head back so that their eyes were no longer level. And just like every time before, as small as the gesture was, something about having her chin raised and her eyes looking down at a slight angle made her appear cold and imperious.
She waited until Doug finally muttered, “Emily.”
“Do you know her family?” Liza asked Sam.
Sam thought for a moment before nodding. “We both know them. We met at that teacher rating thing last year and sold them a Tier 4 prayer package later on. And,” he added with smirk, “thanks to my supposedly freakish memory, I happen to know they left us a bad review about six months ago.”
Liza mouth contracted tightly, something else Doug had seen her do whenever she got angry.
“Wonderful. A bully with ungrateful customers for parents. You know, I think I remember them now. They seemed a bit dark, didn’t they?”
Sam nodded. “That’s what I said. You disagreed.”
“I think it was the other way around. I bet Robinson isn’t even their real name. Probably Seconders. Well, now we definitely need to call the school. Let them know they’ve got a bully going around hurting kids with a Seconder family.” After a pause, she added, “Potentially,” but it sounded more like a formality than something she actually believed.
“Wait, you’re calling now?” Doug asked.
Liza didn’t respond. When she was out of the room, Sam cleared his throat. “Now that that’s settled, let’s talk strategy for when we work the graveyard this weekend.”
“You’ve never heard anyone call those elder and appreciation centers graveyards? Funny. That’s what everyone called them when I was a kid.”
“How did you know where I got assigned?”
“‘Cause I talked to someone to make sure you did.”
“Why, he asks,” Sam said to himself with a wry look. “Doug, you’ve been to these kinds of places. I bet we’ll be able to get every single one of these people to buy Church products. Best part is they each get a daily allowance so we can get them to sign over a percentage. Nothing obvious, just a little bit that adds up to a lot over time, especially if we can sign up a ton of ‘em.”
The cataclysm that would engulf Zenith cannot be said to have been caused by any one person. Yet if forced to choose the most influential out of all those who laid its foundations and determined its ultimate outcome, the answer is Doug Doobin.
The reason why cannot be understood without understanding the origins of The Church of You. Its story begins on Earth.
Zenith scholars divided the hundred or so years before the last ships departed for Mars into three periods. The first was The Crisis, which encapsulated the hundreds of interconnected tragedies that engulfed the planet as a result of a climate caught in catastrophic feedback loops. It was impossible to reconstruct a clear timeline of events. However, two facts were indisputable. One was that all the great nations that dominated the Earth rotted from within as order quickly broke down on the local level. The ostensible leaders tried to seize back control, but typically became just another faction fighting for power in the end. It was also clear that nuclear war eventually broke out. There were debates about who launched the first bombs, but scholars generally agreed that the dwindling amount of habitable territory, which in turn limited resources necessary for survival, was the driving factor toward what was less of a purposeful world war than a global panic attack.
The second period was The Inflection. This referred to the five- to ten-year period when the chaos of The Crisis settled into the comparatively stable third paradigm that followed, The Decay. These periods also resisted decades of effort to create a clear or comprehensive timeline. The best scholars had been able to do was determine that, while most of the remaining population lived brutal, nomadic lives, suffering from the effects of radiation, a minority survived in cities that functioned as comparatively small, isolated nations, akin to ancient city-states. They had originally been places of refuge. As resources grew scarcer, people living in smaller communities flocked to the closest metropolitan areas. These were the most well-supplied and supported in the early days of The Crisis. These cities only became independent entities once the national governments that once united them collapsed. And since these cities had, almost without exception, been put under the command of the military, they naturally devolved into military dictatorships.
The city-states remained under the control of generals for decades. Civilians had no way to resist at first, as their elected leaders had voluntarily abdicated their power back when they still believed their national governments would endure. But the more the military solidified its control, the more its leaders, especially the more ruthless second and third generation leaders, tightened their grip over their depressed and frustrated subjects. This, in turn, pushed the masses toward revolt.
According to the official history taught to children as young as five in Zenith, a handful of these revolts managed to restore the democratic social order that existed before The Crisis. These were beacons of hope to tens of thousands of refugees who made dangerous journeys there in search of a better life. One of these cities was in fact named Beacon and was the birthplace of Victor Zife.
But as was typical when it came to how history was taught in Zenith, patriotism took priority over the truth when it came to the these alleged beacons of hope. The reality about the cities that did restore a semblance of the kind of order typical prior to The Crisis can be set aside for now. More relevant to The Church of You is the fact that most revolts, when they did not lead to utter chaos, resulted in neo-feudal states, most of which took on a theocratic character.
The specific religions varied depending on the region, but only the most extreme and violent sects succeeded in taking power, absorbing or exterminating other versions. Their rule was even more absolute than the military’s had been. However, people in these cities tolerated it either because they had been indoctrinated to believe their way of life was the only truth in a fallen world or because they simply preferred life in a prison to life in the wasteland full of bloodthirsty mutants beyond. Stories about mutants lying in wait to kill anyone who left the city, while obviously serving the cities’ interests, were not without merit. Those condemned to life in the blighted wilderness were driven solely by the instinct to survive. Sometimes large bands of these outsiders would attack the theocratic cities, although to call them attacks is misleading since they never posed a serious threat. These people were half-dead from starvation, armed with primitive weapons if they were armed at all. Yet religious leaders invariably played up these “invasions” or “battles” as part of a never-ending war between the holy and the damned.
In the final years before Zife’s first journey to Mars, the most powerful of these theocratic neo-feudal states formed an alliance against the more advanced but fewer cities. These cities were united as well, but not for religious or even ideological reasons. They were each under the control of GoldenCorp, which long before Zenith had determined the best way to organize and run a corporate-controlled city. There is some truth, then, in the official account that the theocratic cities tried to prevent Zife’s mission and nearly succeeded. The widely accepted narrative that it was a clash between superstitious zealots yearning for a new dark age and enlightened freethinkers boldly forging a wondrous future, however, is as misleading and self-serving as the stories religious leaders spread about mutants outside the city walls.
Nevertheless, the first leaders of Zenith, including the Founder, were undeniably shaken by their war with the theocratic states. To ensure that no similar religious movement could arise in the colony, every religion that had existed on Earth was outlawed. Practicing any associated rituals or merely possessing one of their sacred texts, generally called “godbooks”, could lead to decades in prison.
This prohibition on any form of religion worked for a time. But many Seconders had smuggled godbooks, other religious tokens, or simply memories of traditions on board the ships that took them to Mars. They continued to practice despite the risks. Soon, executives in the Main Office were alarmed to find that some shareholders in The Middle had taken to at least believing aspects of these religions and living according to their precepts. There were even rumors that powerful officials in the Center had become converts. Regardless of how many followers there actually were in Zenith, after ten years it became clear to everyone that the religions were getting closer to reaching a critical mass, at which point they could pose an existential threat.
The director of the Zenith Colony called a meeting of all the department managers to decide what should be done. Severe prison sentences had proven ineffective–if anything, they had only produced inspirational martyrs, who in turn inspired so-called “people’s preachers” who practically defied peace officers to arrest them. The Zenith Commission on Spirituality and Religious Practices was formed to find a new solution.
The commission began by researching every confiscated godbook and interviewing everyone sentenced for practicing the proscribed religions with questionnaires with questions like, “What impact does your faith have on your daily life?” and “What would change if you were to abandon your religion?” After a year of deliberation, the group presented two key findings to the Zenith director and department managers.
The first finding was that destroying every godbook would be pointless because religious beliefs were easily self-generated. Children they interviewed, when asked to speculate on how the universe was made or what happened after people died, tended to give answers that involved gods and heavens and hells. It was even easily self-generated in adults had never previously considered following a religion in the face of some personal crisis. Faith provided comfort in the most varied of circumstances and simple narratives that most preferred to either complex truths or uncertainty. This was not true of everyone, but for those born into communities where faith already played a potent part in daily life or who felt they had exhausted other options in search of meaning or aid, it was difficult to resist. And once someone embraced faith, it could graft itself onto every aspect of their life to the point where to give up one’s faith became the equivalent of obliterating one’s very identity. Old faiths did have the advantage of the aura of respect that comes with age, but new faiths could be quickly formed and prove just as dangerous.
The second finding was that no material institution, including GoldenCorp, could ever render faith obsolete. If every single person in Zenith suddenly had all their material needs met, faith would still appeal to a love of mystery, of looking beyond appearances and finding some transcendent truth. If anything, total satisfaction appeared to lead to boredom, which was a major impetus toward religious radicalism. And as they had seen with rising number of prisoners, punishing people for their beliefs only made them more attractive. When comfort was so widespread, hardship and suffering became surprisingly attractive.
Fortunately, the commission had an answer—establish an official religion called The Church of You. Its doctrines were a mixture of the vaguest and most harmless ideas from every godbook. This, the commission argued, would lend credibility to the faith and entice less devout believers in the old religions. They also constructed a catalogue of products, such as guides that taught shareholders how to better meditate, packages that included totems and specialized prayers to improve the chances of a prayer being answered, and testimonials by spirits who had been contacted through a medium to discuss what heaven was like and what products were most likely to help someone get there. The commission speculated that the ZVerse might even be used to make some of these dreams come true, for a price. Customers could even order lectures that criticized the materiality of GoldenCorp and, for a price, promised to show how to live a more meaningful life. The Church of You was one of the first enterprises in Zenith to recognize the advantages of allowing a degree of dissent.
The most important product by far was a course that could certify anyone as a “guide to tranquility,” who could earn points by selling products from the catalogue or getting people to attend their virtual congregations in the ZVerse. The Church of You would appear to function independently of GoldenCorp, but it would serve corporate interests while discouraging the spread and intensity of old religious movements. The commission reasoned that, after all, only the most committed would risk imprisonment for an old faith when they could enjoy all the same day-to-day benefits—a sense of superiority, a self-validating community, and a connection to something beyond the material world—from the Church of You.
The Church of You was an immediate success in Sectors A and B. The director was particularly pleased that, by becoming guides to tranquility, shareholders in the Middle were made to feel more personally invested in GoldenCorp’s success, even if they saw little personal benefit. The old faiths did continue to exert a strong influence in Sector C, but the director and department managers were not concerned provided no especially large groups were allowed to form, especially around charismatic leaders. In any case, Zenith depended on forced prison labor, so laws against practicing old faiths did have some value, even if they still produced the occasional martyr.
The first certified guides to tranquility focused on marketing to shareholders in Sectors A and B. They had the most points to spend and it was far less risky than dealing with the unpredictable and brutal Sector C. But one man saw the potential in marketing Church products to Seconders—Harold Doobin, Doug’s grandfather. Every other guide fought over the dwindling market in the Middle until the market became totally saturated. By the time they turned their attention to the Outer, Harold had already amassed a fortune.
Doug’s father, Sam, became a guide at sixteen and made even more points than Harold by convincing new customers of the Church to connect their points accounts directly to his personal account. He took points from every customer every single day, keeping enough for himself to steadily increase his wealth while also offering a high enough percentage to the Church to make them look the other way. This eventually became common practice. However, Sam, like Harold, benefitted from being first.
Sam typically took only a small number of points a day, sometimes only a fraction of one point, to avoid detection. But in the case of older Seconders or those suffering from cognitive decline, he might bankrupt them within a month. As for already desperate Seconders living in the tunnels, unable to afford even the cheapest dwellings, he would take what little they had as fast as possible.
Sam revolutionized the business again when he became one of the first guides to offer a loan payment program to his customers. In essence, after pushing them into poverty, he would offer them a way out of their debt by paying him back often for the rest of their lives. The debt never went away, so he never stopped collecting, but for the customers the only alternative was to be imprisoned for falling into debt.
Liza’s family had amassed its wealth primarily through a series of beautification projects in the Outer and owning dozens of Opportunity Schools. Both families were thrilled when Liza and Sam married, since it offered both the chance to enhance their businesses—Sam started advertising Opportunity Schools to his customers and, less conspicuously, finding ways of shifting loan payments to the schools, while Liza required teachers to lead their students in Church of You prayers.
Then came Doug.
Liza was confident Doug would become just as successful in business as everyone else in her family. Sam wasn’t. He was desperate for his son to show some spark of ambition. But Doug was content to play games all day, which would have been fine in his eyes if he was good enough to make points at it. Worse, Doug was shy, awkward, and a terrible salesman. Sam was glad his own father had died when Doug was still a baby.
As lazy, mediocre, and unambitious as his son clearly was, Sam remained obsessed with molding him into the next great Church of You guide. To that end, he started taking him anytime he visited a potential customer. When he learned about the volunteer work Doug’s school compelled students to complete, he saw another opportunity.
And so a few days after Doug’s mother called his school and eventually succeeded in getting Emily expelled, Doug was standing in an elder care and appreciation center as his father preached to a room full of residents. They were all wearing VR headsets and had entered Sam’s personal Church of You enlightenment space.
Creating a gorgeous enlightenment space was as vital to a church guide to enlightenment’s success as their persuasiveness and speaking ability. Once a person joined the Church of You, they gained access to a hub space where they could browse through the profiles of other guides. Reviews and specific catalogue offerings tempted church members from one guide’s flock to another every day, but none of them would bother reading through these details unless they were enticed by the image they saw first of the space itself. Years of analytics had borne this out, so guides never stopped trying to improve their spaces. There were some guides who had made a second career out of advising others on how to make their spaces more appealing.
What guides thought was appealing enough to attract more to their flock varied drastically from guide to guide. Some created forbidding structures meant to imitate structures from the Middle Ages on Earth. Others held their gatherings in buildings as sleek and minimalist as the Main Office. There were even guides who preached to their flocks on a field around a majestic baobab tree. Sam modeled his own enlightenment space off a typical house in the Sector B. He knew that such spaces put his Sector B customers at ease—it gave the illusion that Sam was a guest in their home that could be kicked out any time. He did everything he could to encourage this illusion by making sure he appeared dressed in humbler clothes and gave the impression of an eager servant. As for the Seconders who made up the bulk of his flock, Sam knew that the typical Sector B home was about as heavenly a place as Seconders crammed in tiny apartments in dark tunnels could imagine.
The effort had paid off—of all the guides to tranquility in Zenith who lured away members of one flock to theirs daily, Sam was in the top 10%.
Before he started preaching, Sam went to every one of the thirty-eight residents seated in what appeared to be a large living room with a wall-length window overlooking a twilit backyard. He wore an unassuming wool sweater with a white pattern and jeans. After introducing himself and asking the names of the thirty-eight people assembled, he asked a few questions about them personally and finally if they were happy with their appearance. None of them were, so one-by-one each of the elderly men and women transformed before Doug’s eyes. By the time Sam was through, all their drab, fraying, thin pale blue gowns they were forced to wear by the center in reality disappeared, replaced by suits and dresses and anything else they wanted. They also all looked decades younger. The person nearest Doug went from being a hunchbacked, bald woman with loose skin hanging off her pitifully thin shaking arms to a gorgeous thirty-year old with fiery red hair and a straightened back. The bumpy blue web of veins visible on her arms moments before were gone. All he could see now was taut snow-white skin.
Doug thought she was one of the most beautiful people he had ever seen. She caught him staring and he immediately looked away. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that a coy, delighted smile was spreading across her face as she caressed her arms, face, and back with audible relief. Everyone else was admiring their transformed bodies and Sam gave them a few minutes to enjoy themselves before sitting down in front of a crackling fire.
“Hello, everyone. Thank you for letting me join you all today. I know your time is valuable so I’m going to get straight to it…but first I do have to admit that looking at all of you I suddenly feel a little underdressed.”
Some light chuckling rippled throughout the room.
“My name is Carlos Cardeno, and over there is my son, Hector. Say hello to everyone, Hector!”
All eyes turned to Doug. He had been thinking about Coliseum so it took a few seconds for him to realize he’d missed his cue. When he did stand up, he only managed to stutter out an awkward hello before immediately sitting back down.
Sam smiled indulgently. “He’s a little shy. Truth is that he gets it from me. I’m telling you, it’s not easy getting up in front of such a big, beautiful audience. I hope you’ll forgive me if I say or do anything awkward. Deal?”
The nearest people, whom Sam looked at directly, nodded sympathetically.
“That’s a relief. You might be wondering if I’m so shy why I’m up here at all. The reason is because not long ago I was given an opportunity. It came during the worst time in my life. The love of my life, Elena, Hector’s mother…well, there was an accident while she was working at a dig site for a new tunnel and…sorry.” Sam coughed. “After she passed it was hard to make ends meet. I worked even more hours than I was already but I don’t need to tell you that no amount of points can buy you more time. Hector dropped out of his Opportunity School, which was a real blow because they really are the best school system out there. He started working, too, but there are tons of jobs he’s not old enough to qualify for yet so…yeah, things were rough. One night, after we hadn’t eaten for three days, I robbed a place. Held a guy at gunpoint.”
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed before continuing. “I’m ashamed of what I did. I was ashamed of it while I was doing it. But I didn’t think I had a choice and I was willing to risk sent down to Claude because by then I just had lost all faith in the future. I’d lost faith in myself, too. It…sorry, again, I’m…you’d think it’d be easy by now to talk about this but…okay…well, the next day I came across an ad for a meeting, something about the Church of You. I’d heard of it before but the way the higher-ups keep us working I never had much time to give it much thought. But the ad promised me the opportunity to find community, hope, and strength. I certainly needed all those. Plus physical ads like this one are pretty rare and any time I’ve gone to a meeting run by a group that didn’t rely completely on ads in the ZVerse I’ve always met the most authentic people.
“So I went and I had…an epiphany. There’s really no other way to describe it. I realized that all this time I thought Hector and I were suffering alone when suffering is one of the things that connects every single one of us. The world we live in is far from perfect. Very far. And this might be controversial to say, but I’m going to say it—GoldenCorp might be able to sell junk that keeps us happy for a while, but they’re never going to be able to offer meaning or fulfillment or peace. They’ll never be able to sell community, love, hope. The only place you can find all those things is at the Church of You.
“I’ve never been all that spiritual. My grandparents were, but by the time they died they’d fallen into one of those extremist cults. It started out all nice, the group claimed to be one of the old religions, had an ancient godbook, but trust me, those religions can be risky. The Church of You has no risks. You can’t become intolerant or violent about teachings that are all centered on becoming a better person for yourself, your family, and your community.
“What really convinced me to give the Church a shot, though, was seeing all the people there who looked so…content. I knew they were just like me, they struggled every day and would never have as much as all those ungrateful people in the Middle who look down on us every day like we’re nothing, the kind who’ll call the peace officers on us just for looking at them the wrong way or making them feel nervous for existing or…you know, this is a good illustration of how the Church helped me. I used to get so angry about the injustices we face every day. It’d all just boil inside me until I’d let it out usually by yelling at Hector or getting drunk or taking some R. The Church helped me let go of all the anger that was controlling me. They helped me get control before the drinking or the R got too bad for me. And by the way, I know they’ve helped people who were a lot worse off. They have programs that help with ZVerse addiction, too. I certainly needed that.
“I found the Church just when I needed them most, and that was no coincidence. The Church make me realize that we’re all part of the Order, something that connects all of us and links every cause and effect in our lives. Through meditation we can find our place in the Order and by embracing it we can live more fully than you can imagine.”
Sam stood up and one-by-one made eye contact with all thirty-eight faces.
“The Church gave me an opportunity to change my life for the better. I took it and now, two years later, you’re looking at one of the newest guides in the Church of You. I never knew you could love someone so much that all you want to do is share it with others. But here I am. If you stay, I can walk you through some of our free starter programs so you can have the same opportunity as me. And I hope you all do because if there’s one of thing I’ve learned on this wonderful journey towards a tranquility I never thought I could experience living in the Outer, it’s that the greatest opportunities only come when we’re ready to take them, but they only come once. Thank you.”
After the applause died down most people hurried up to talk to Sam about the free starter programs. Doug found it strange to see how slowly everyone moved despite looking so young and fit in the ZVerse. Some in the room stayed back but Doug knew they would linger and talk to his father if only because leaving the meeting meant reentering the elder care and rehabilitation center. Their youthful bodies and elegant clothes would vanish. Once more they would be old, dressed in their fraying matching gowns with matching pale blue socks with holes in them. Even the most boring events held in the ZVerse were well-attended. It was the closest any resident would ever get to feeling free.
When they were done, Sam and Doug left first—Sam had arranged it so staff members who give me a few minutes to leave the building before anyone else logged out of the ZVerse. Sam had explained the first time they went recruiting at an elder care and appreciation center that he wanted their only impression of him and Doug to be the humbly dressed people they appeared as in the ZVerse.
As soon as they were out the door, Sam took a deep breath.
“Man, I love selling at graveyards. You know what I just did?”
“What,” Doug said dully.
“I just got ten of those ghouls to sign over 5% of their daily allowance right then and there. We won’t even need to wait for the three day free trial to expire before we start making some money off ‘em!”
“Aren’t the free trials five days?”
“Not really. Most customers don’t deactivate their accounts for at least a month if they ever do, but letting them think they’ve got two extra days to decide helps us protect ourselves from losing potential revenue.”
“Won’t they get upset when they find out?”
“If that happens I just explain that I told them three days and not five and they must have just misunderstood. I’ve never had a problem with it.”
Sam took another deep breath and snapped his fingers.
“A few more trips and we’ll be on our way to guide of the year!”
Doug forgot to congratulate him or smile, but Sam didn’t notice.