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Keeper of the Faith

by Audie A. Murphy

John knelt on the polished wooden floor trying to ignore the dull ache from his arthritic knees.

Birds twittered outside his third-floor office, but in mid-March winter lingered in Atlanta, now the capital of the Consecrated States of America. To the north and west was the Forbidden Zone; to the south of the Homeland sprawled the Gulf of Mexico.

John was widely traveled, having journeyed to Florida and Louisiana during his long career in the federal Homeland Religion Directorate. Most other Americans, he knew, were not so fortunate. The Supreme Council severely restricted travel, and most people lived their lives within a few miles of where they were born.

Just as well, John reflected, there was less chance that way of falling into temptation.

A cold wind mocked the cheerful morning sunlight, and the old man shivered inside his dark linen robe. From suffering comes virtue, he recalled. So say the Sacred Transcripts.

As always, the mere thought of the Holy Word brightened his soul.

The Transcripts were the foundation of his faith, just as the Homeland Religion Directorate was the mighty rock upon which the nation itself was founded.

The church-state had been founded six centuries ago, after the Great War. Little was known about life before that horrific event, but legends told of machines that flew through the air and metal boxes that produced magical visions at which all could marvel.

And just when the world was its darkest, John recalled fondly, God had sent an Emissary to earth to offer salvation to humankind. A few specially chosen disciples had spread the gospel, and from their testimony the church-state was born.

One very special metal box, which was believed to be the sacred instrument of the Emissary himself, was kept in a stone sepulcher in Atlanta. The device no longer produced visions, but the Sacred Transcripts of the remarkable story survived. Tattered and fragmented, those transcripts now formed the basis of the law that united church and state.

Every child knew the story and the key players: the family in California who encountered the marvelous being from above bringing a promise of everlasting love and eternal life. And then there was the most whimsical part of the story: The bicycle that miraculously flew through the sky under a bright harvest moon.

The Emissary had come to Earth, provided the keys to human salvation, then risen again to heaven in a colorful chariot of fire.

It was no coincidence that in carrying out his mission the Emissary had thwarted Satan in the form of a cynical scientist. Thus, John mused, had God warned about the danger of trusting in reason and placing human needs above faith.

The old man was proud to have carried on the work of the church-state for the past six decades. Soon, he knew, his journey would be over and he would receive his heavenly reward. But not yet. Challenges lay ahead, because Satan’s disciples never rested in their efforts to ensnare the unwary.

As the church-state’s guardian of homeland security, John again today would battle those forces of apostasy, blasphemy and subversion. He would fight joyously and enthusiastically, for he knew God was on his side.

Wincing from the pain, the robed figure slowly stood and walked to his office window. The scene below was both disturbing and inspirational. At his orders, a sturdy wooden platform had been erected over the public square where hundreds of citizens had gathered in nervous anticipation. A hangman’s rope swayed gently in the cool morning air.

On the platform two dozen men and women condemned for heresy waited, their hands bound in front of them, their heads hooded. The hangman and many in the crowd stared at John’s window.

Praying, John lifted his hand and signaled the hangman.

The first prisoner was hoisted onto a bicycle — a fine bicycle with a large basket in front — and the noose was draped around his neck. Then the hangman shoved the bicycle off the platform, the rope drew taut, and the bicycle fell to earth while the heretic’s neck snapped. The crowd cheered wildly.

John shook his head sadly. The bicycle had not been borne aloft by the magic of the Emissary, so the condemned man had surely been guilty. Thus had God’s justice been imposed.

So far, in all the years he had been administering this punishment, not one person had been lifted by the bicycle, and John accepted that as eloquent testimony to the care with which he and other church officials identified the spiritually tainted.

On this bright morning the dramatic test was repeated until all the men and women had been hanged and their bodies lined up in a neat row on the ground alongside the platform. The crowd, now sated, began to drift away.

John looked on from his window and smiled.

Doing God’s work was good for the soul.

Copyright © 2006 by Audie A. Murphy

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