Kumail restarted all of his encryption programs and sent off an email to Brother Ezze. As dire as his child’s fate seemed, as intense as his situation had become he could not allow himself to fuck up and ruin the precarious balance that Brother had been able to establish and maintain and so despite the roar of the blood pumping overtime through his now furious internal organs as Kumail blindly made his way away from his baby mama’s apartment, if the response Brother sent back was one of hold on, Kumail would just have to wait. So he sent off a very basic message:
Brother, I have a very important emergency only you can help me with. Call me from a secure line as soon as you can. yhbK.
His phone rang about a minute later.
“I don’t have long to talk. What’s up?”
“Marie has lost her mind and gave up our kid to the Church. I need to know where he’s been taken so that I can go and get him back.”
There was silence from the other end of the line. And just as it was starting to drag Brother spoke.
“Ok. What is his full name?”
Kumail breathed a small sigh of relief.
“Theodore Alvarez. Is there anything else I can tell you to help you find where they’ve stashed him?”
Another brief silence and then:
“No. I have to go now. I’ll call you back when I have something for you.”
And with that, the call ended.
Brother pocketed his cell phone and did a quick check of his surroundings. The little alcove he had chosen to make his phone call in had proven a good choice. No one had overheard his conversation, and even if someone had, he was quite sure that he had said nothing particularly scandalous.
It was good that Kumail had sent his request for a call when he had, as Brother’s lunch hour was almost up. He had needed a few minutes to orchestrate an escape from his coworkers and the lunchroom and if Kumail’s plea had arrived any later Brother might not have had enough time to make a break for it and get back to work before he was missed. His phone told him that he still might not.
So he hurried. He couldn’t run, looking conspicuous wouldn’t do, but nonetheless he worked quickly. Most of the other staff members would still be eating in the cafeteria or perhaps a nearby restaurant, so all he had to do was find an unattended computer in an office which someone had forgotten to log out of. And if all he could find was an empty office he always had Kumail’s backdoor on his phone, so…
Still, that would take more time and could potentially give him away if someone came back from lunch early, so he would have to see what he could find. And he thought he knew where to start.
He reentered the dimly lit office building and made his way right, passing up several offices full of computers that he could potentially utilize. Going this far was a bit of a gamble he knew, but if he was right it would save him time and leave less of a trail. So he ducked under the doorframe, a little lower in this particular office block then was average, and hurried over to the specific computer he was looking for.
He was alone in the room currently, he could see that, but this was also a disadvantage. This office was for underling day workers. These people didn’t have quarters in the Lord’s White House, as Brother Ezze did, and so, being less trustworthy in the eyes of the Church the office was arranged for maximum ease of survailability. All of the employee’s computers were in two long rows, chunky and outdated monitors arranged back to back across the length of the two tables placed in the middle of the rectangular room. This was done so that the single overseer in the room, whose desk was in the recessed corner, to the right of Brother, would supposedly have a decent view of everyone’s screens from his stationary vantage point. Of course, they could just as easily, and likely were, at least occasionally, monitoring what went on on these networked machines digitally, but the Overseer was a much better way to remind these antlings to fear the eye of the Lord as well as that of the Church.
This all posed a problem for Brother. Not so much because he was worried that his network traffic would be monitored, but simply because since these computers weren’t in cubicles, and the one he was looking for was the last one on the end of the row, if someone DID come back early, or he took too long and he was still here when lunch ended, what he was doing would be very easy to see as this monitor was right in front of the door.
Brother went over to the thing and jiggled the mouse. Nothing. He double tapped the spacebar. And the monitor glowed into life, not to a log in screen, but to a glorious and cluttered desktop. Johnston had forgotten to log off, the idiot. He knew that Johnston was forgetful like this sometimes and since he happened to have unfettered access to the files Brother needed, it was exactly what he had been hoping for.
Brother worked as quickly as he could, moving the mouse to the icon of the Church filing system and clicking it open, as he stood over the table unwilling to take the time to sit down. He configured the program to search the information reported by all of the Chredu Camps and entered in the name Theodore Alvarez. Zero results.
Brother stared blankly at the screen. What did this mean? Had Kumail somehow given him the wrong info? It couldn’t be. He would surely know his own child’s name. Brother checked the computer's clock. He only had two minutes to finish up here, so that he would still have the five necessary to get back to where he was supposed to be without anyone noticing that he had been loitering in the complete opposite side of the office building from where he had said he would, and was supposed to, be. Fuck. What to do?
Then it came to him. Teddy. Kumail’s kid was named Theodore, but they almost always called him Teddy. Whoever had taken in his child was supposed to have made sure that the paperwork matched the child’s info on their birth records… so he should come up as Theodore. But it was worth a try.
He typed Teddy Alvarez into the box and hit enter.
And there he was! In a camp a few hours upstate of Kumail. He attached his phone to the machine with a USB wire that was sticking out of it, another unwitting gift from Johnston, and downloaded all the files he could. He got all the information about Theodore, the camp’s floor plan, as well as the staff instructions; shift changes every twelve hours, and password changes with each shift change. And then Brother was out of time. He disconnected his phone, exited all of the programs, and turned off the monitor, fleeing from the room through the door behind him, heading out via the hallway that ran parallel to the one he had entered from.
Brother moved deeper into the bowels of the office building, pulling away from the exposed hallways that looked out onto the courtyards with his first right turn, methodically suppressing his urge to run. The best he could manage was to roll things back to a brisk walk.
The area of the building he was heading towards was the employee services center, the portion of the place that separated the full-timers from the part-timers, those in the Light from those on the Path. There were various internal storefronts lining these halls, and while he wouldn’t have time to actually do it, he was heading in this direction so that if anyone happened to ask he could tell them that he had been heading to pick up his Daughters daily medicine ration. Brother had a little girl, and she was a type one diabetic. His usual routine consisted of him picking up his daughter's insulin on the way back to his office after eating lunch and that was where he had told his coworkers that he was heading. If he could just make it down this last corridor his alibi would be secure.
Brother knew there wasn’t much hallway left before he could breathe easy and resume his normal routine without worry, but his phone laid heavy in his pocket. With the pilfered files on it, if he was somehow caught…. even with his extremely privileged position as Business Liason to the Right Hand of the Holy Leader if things somehow lined up just so and what little circumstantial evidence his crimes had left behind led to him being seriously questioned…. Well, the evidence was right there in his pocket. And then what would become of his little Mkula?
Despite the almost eerie stillness of the half-lit corridors beads of nervous sweat cropped up on his forehead as he worked his way towards his destination, mentally counting down the number of turns remaining between him and his goal. And then there was only one turn remaining and he took it. He turned left and several hundred feet in front of him he could see his supposed destination and the hallway was just as empty as the rest of them had been. He was almost clear! Brother’s pace finally began to normalize as he inched towards his goal. He was 300 feet away, and then 200..
Brother had finally reached the pharmacy window when a voice called out from behind him.
“Brother Ezze! What a wonderful working of fate that we meet in a moment of rare downtime for the both of us! How are you doing on this most glorious of afternoons?”
It was his boss. Of all of the people to catch him not where he was supposed to be why did it have to be Lady Illia, the Right Hand of their Holiest Leader?
He stopped walking and took a moment to compose himself, to raise his defenses and gird himself for all the possibilities that were to come, and he turned to face her. She had emerged from the hallway he had just walked past, the last potential spot from which someone could appear to break apart his alibi. And it was his direct overseer, the second most powerful and dangerous person in the entire LDC. He could not let any of that bother him though. He had to be his normal, rational, put-together self, despite the thing burning a hole in his pocket. He went to the switch that controlled that part of his mind, all the burgeoning fear and worry and knowledge of how precarious his situation was and he grabbed ahold the giant thing and clicked it off.
Brother’s smile was both neutral and passive but still pleased, the rictus of slight approval drawing tight the lines of his dark face as he approached her.
“I am well, Lady Illia. It is indeed a rare but pleasant surprise for us to meet outside of the office. So, I must, therefore, return your question. How are you today?”
She smiled, clearly delighting in the conversation.
“Always the polite gentleman Brother. Would you care to walk with me?”
She extended her arm slightly to him, indicating that she would like him to take the lead and he obliged, wrapping his own arm through hers, gently but firmly.
“I would love to My Lady, so long as you are aware that this will likely cause me to be late in returning to my post.”
Illia laughed and smirked as they began to move down the hallway past the pharmacy and in the general direction of his actual destination.
“What a stickler for rules you are Brother!” she teased.
Brother took a moment to formulate his next sentence, picking his words very carefully.
“You know…. I used to believe that most large systems founded upon rules were exquisitely designed and while many were less than perfect, most that had been able to maintain their form could be built upon or at the very least salvaged from within.”
Lady Illia tugged on his arm gently then, indicating that they would need to turn, reminding him who was really leading them. Brother obeyed, turning them into the hallway they had just reached.
She considered his words.
“And?” she said, encouraging him to complete his thought.
“Now I know that, despite appearances, many rule sets, while built with good intentions, are unsalvageable after they have reached a point where those original intentions are no longer recognizable in the current implementation of said rules. And that the only rule set created that is impervious to this is that of The Church, as it was created by our infallible Lord in heaven who then delivered his vision unto us in the form of our enlightened leader, High Lord-President Pai. And that we are lucky to have him.”
She laughed. This would have worried Brother; he had flown quite close to the truth with that diatribe, but it was clear that this was an amused sound, not one of malice or contempt. Still, Brother took special care in observing her response.
She tugged him to the left and he began to move them in that direction.
“That is why I love you Ezze. You are such an interesting conversationalist. Everyone is always terrified of me and what I could do to them if they displeased me, so it is always a wonderful breath of fresh air to speak with someone as candid as yourself. You are honest with me, aren’t you Ezze?”
She held his gaze, then, inquiring, searching for any sign of deception. Brother remained outwardly stoic as always. He held his non-expression for a moment and then let a plain, gently warm smile open up his features.
“Of course I am Mistress. But you must be aware, that even if I wasn’t, I would most certainly choose NOT to tell you, as doing so would be admitting to a most grievous sin and extremely punishable offense.”
This caught the Lady off guard. Her face blanched and she seemed distressed. Had he taken it too far? But then the confusion faded into a chuckle and a smile, and Lady Illia was laughing so openly that she dropped her arm from his grasp and clutched her middle in mirth. Brother smiled as well. Her reaction was quite right. It was terrible to have to keep your shields up at all times. It was great to be open, if just for a second, even if it was with your direct oppressor. And so they both laughed then, together.
After a moment Lady Illia regained herself. She brushed aside a strand of her long pale hair which had loosed itself during her laughing, and she gently placed her hand against Brothers lower back and began to guide him forwards.
“You are a true delight, in every sense of the word, Brother Ezze. But we have reached our intended destination. Follow me up to the glass will you?” she said, letting her hand drop back to her side.
He did as he was bidden and he found himself looking down through a long panel of two-way glass into a chamber he had never seen before. Brother rarely came into this part of the building, so he was not entirely sure what he was looking at, but he was sure that it wasn’t good; they had entered the section of the building devoted to Discipline.
The glass they were looking through was all along the wall in this section of the hallway for about 30 feet in each direction. The room it looked down into was equal parts decadent and sterile. There was a large machine in the center of the chamber, something akin to an iron lung that would fully enclose anyone who entered it. The device resembled a large mechanical sarcophagus with gigantic canisters feeding into it from behind and a bevy of pipes like metal veins forcing their way deep into the grey matte tiles of the floor beneath.
The walls were only slightly less dark in color than the floor and it was clear that the room was originally designed after those used in the medical field with hospital architecture specifically in mind, only the whole design was even less enticing, somehow more angular and brutal than purely sterile. The floors looked as though they were designed to facilitate easy clean ups after the room had fulfilled its intended purpose. And yet, besides the machine which was clearly positioned as the centerpiece of the room, much else therein drew the eye.
There was clean padding placed on the floor in the five feet in front of the sarcophagus, and religious iconography plastered the walls and tables. Specifically, there were four large stained glass windows taking up a decent amount of the wall space on either side of the doors leading into the room. They appeared to depict a version of the Resurrection tale.
In what was presumably intended as the first image, the one on the left closest to their stretch of glass wall, there was a picture of Jesus Christ, the Lord and about to be Saviour rendered through stained glass mosaic in all of his humble magnificence, down on both knees, his hands braced in all mighty devotion atop a small prayer bench, with a glorious beam of light shining down on him from Heaven above. The next one showed Jesus upon the cross, spear puncturing his side and all, with light now shining down on him from directly above. The third image was harder to interpret, but in the context of the Resurrection tale, it was obviously intended to be a gigantic boulder having been rolled to the side of Christ’s now empty cave tomb. The last image was, of course, the Lord Arisen, Jesus Christ, now with a halo over his head in addition to the light from Heaven, walking through a crowd of outstretched hands.
As they reached the glass and began to peer in Lady Illia began to speak to Brother.
“Do you know what truly separates those touched by the Light of the Lord from those merely on the Path, Ezze?”
She was phishing for a specific answer. Brother considered potentials as they both gazed idly into the room below.
“Faith.” he chose.
“Hah. A good guess, but no, not quite. Many of those within the rank and file of the Church are the most ardent believers in our Leader and our Cause. No, the real thing that separates those outside the body of the organization and those within it is Devotion.”
“As we spoke of moments ago, Ezze, when you get to be in a position like mine it can be quite difficult to tell who is being truthful with you and when you are in a position like mine, you sometimes think about who will replace you when you have finished your work here in this mortal realm and you have been allowed to join the Lord, God, in the eternal bliss of Heaven above.”
Lady Illia, now in the full grips of her impassioned speech turned to Brother, and gently grasped his hands in her own, locking eyes with him, as she reached the peak of her fervor.
“Sometimes I think that that person could be you, Brother Ezze. But then I wonder….”
As though to punctuate the sincerity of her doubt, she looked down momentarily dropping her gaze to their enfolded hands.
“For as wonderful as you have been to me as an assistant, and as amusing as I find you as a person, I cannot seem to get a grasp on your Devotion. I trust you, of course, or you would certainly not have the position that you now hold, but for you to truly become my worthy successor and the Right Hand of our High Lord and Commander in Chief; and you do want to become my successor one day, don’t you Ezze?”
“For that to happen, Ezze, you must prove yourself. And the only way that one can truly prove the mettle of their faith is through a powerful act of Devotion. Do you understand me, Ezze?”
And at these words, she looked down, briefly, at the sarcophagus at the center of the other room.
“I… I do.” He didn’t. But an affirmative was clearly expected from him.
Her smile was a saccharin fever, one which gave her eyes a glossy look not entirely sane. Brother looked into her eyes, and then, moving back slightly, he took in the entirety of her…. Impassioned expression. And then, thankfully, the work bell rang signaling the end of lunch and this surreal confrontation.
“Good. I’ll be leaving you here Ezze. I trust you can find your way back to your office easy enough. Think on this. Take your time, and truly think upon it.”
She dropped her hands from his, turned, and walked back the way they had come.
Brother stood, unmoving, processing everything that had just been said, combing through the webs of subtext and hidden meaning. And then he moved back to the window, placing his left hand on the glass as he focused on the machine within. He did not know what it did. And he was not entirely sure what she had meant. But all of it left him feeling heavy, a man alone and apart inside a cloud of darkness and foreboding.