The Golem and the Messiah - 2

Chapter 2: Maria's Return to Brighton Beach

Seated at her dining table that morning, Maria sipped her coffee and reviewed the checklist in her head. Each bullet point, each item on the list in her mind -- each name, each face, each account number, each address -- represented years of thought and meticulous planning, none of it committed anywhere except in her memory. Still, now at the eleventh hour, her neatly arrayed mental catalog of names and faces and account numbers and addresses triggered a storm of second thoughts and doubts. But looking back was simply not an option for Maria. She had charted her course years before when she first decided to choose the girl unequivocally over Jake and the Federation and everything else. Her long and at times unbearable assignment for the outlawed Resistance Network had ended that morning, the moment Jake walked out the door, and now she was free — finally and undeniably. A sudden chill traced her spine. She panicked for a moment and caught her breath in the morning still, just as a tear appeared unannounced in the corner of her eye. It seemed to pause briefly then rolled down her cheek as she exhaled fully for the first time in more than a decade. Early morning sunlight from the penthouse window parted the clouds in her heart and mind and that was that.

She made a few brief calls on an untraceable line, a gift presented to her by Jake some years earlier after hers had been revoked by the Diversity Council at a rare Public Censorship Ceremony, an official overture to several months of intensive re-orientation on Rikers Island as a “special guest” of the CUNY Ministry of Truth and Information.

Privacy for the average Citizen had been deemed “insufficiently practical” and all but eliminated in the early years of the Diversity Council. Only members of the Council and senior security officers of the Hate Crime Authority were granted access to untraceable lines thereafter, at least in theory. In practice, however, every Council member had access to an unlimited supply of additional untraceables. Most were passed along as gratuities or political favors to family and friends, but some were deployed with more calculated intent: to bait suspected Enemies of the Federation under the theory that those unaccustomed to the requisite disciplines of privacy would eventually trip up and implicate themselves when suddenly imbued with the intoxicating power of anonymity. Indeed, self-incrimination turned out to be among the most effective and cost-efficient ways to purge the Federation of Wrong Doers and Wrong Thinkers, much to the collective delight and amusement of the Ones in power.

The more preferred method, however, was the recruitment of personal informants, most of whom were granted limited immunity for their own thought crimes by the Federation -- along with a monthly quota of betrayals to meet or exceed. By the mid-21st century, almost all PIs were former WTs or WDs, and they now numbered in the thousands across the Federation. The treachery of their somber trade became the stuff of legend and had evolved over the previous two decades into a growth industry with online PI exchanges where individual Ones, corporations, government agencies, NGOs and major universities shopped for and purchased personal informant services in confidence.

As arche architect of the Federation, the Diversity Council and the Hate Crime Authority, Maria Perez knew the ins and outs of untraceables and PIs like no one else on the planet. Soon to become a fugitive for the second time in her life, she was not about to make a careless mistake now, not after so many years of planning and so many years of sacrifice. Not with everything on the line.

Unlike Jake, she didn’t have her own vehicle; those were reserved for Council members and other Federation media and security elite, so at 6:00 pm that evening she summoned an untraceable cab from a front company owned by the Network. Then she packed a small bag and retreated into her walk-in closet. There, behind a portable rack of winter coats, she punched in the combination of a small floor safe and opened it to reveal a little shrine: a photo of herself as a young girl with her mother, a lone candle, a crucifix and a Bible -- guarded whispers amidst a pagan cathedral of couture shoes and handbags and dresses. First she removed the photo, kissed it gently and slipped it carefully into her coat pocket. Next she removed and lit the candle, then kneeled before the makeshift shrine in supplication and crossed herself.

At 6:28 she closed the door of her apartment behind her for the last time. She heard her past slam shut, but otherwise the hallway was empty and quiet. She took the elevator downstairs to the lobby, warmly greeted the concierge at the desk and kissed him softly on the cheek. The concierge, a grayed and gentle man with kind eyes, thanked her softly.

“Just a reminder to myself,” she whispered to him, preempting his question, “There are more important things.” She smiled sadly, walked out of the building and got into the vehicle waiting for her at the curb.

She stepped inside the cab and shivered as a sudden terror clawed at her with icy fingers, as if trying in extremis to pull her back out onto the sidewalk. But moments later she was en route to Brighton Beach as her former life receded slowly behind her in the distance.

Gone, she realized at once, was the near-total sense of security she had known with Jake over the previous decades. Gone too was the luxury lifestyle, the unfettered ability to lavish a thousand little gratuities and kindnesses on those who had once helped rebuild her life sotto voce and now kept her secrets safe among the Others, the legions of outer-borough sex and service workers employed to maintain the opulent lifestyles of the Ones, the Manhattan technomedia nonpareil. Gone finally were the purchased silence and complicity that rode shotgun with Jake’s immense wealth and power. She understood that loyalty of the mercenary sort she knew from her days on the Council rarely survived the loss of wealth and power, but the option to buy loyalty had been removed from her by mutual consent more than a decade earlier, replaced by an offer to earn it instead, an offer she was in no position to refuse at the time. Besides, the loyalties of those who made the offer, unlike those of her former colleagues on the Diversity Council, couldn’t be purchased at any price.

Fifteen minutes out, Maria fought to remain calm and, above all else, keep her head clear. One mistake now could pull down the entire Network. Those she trusted and loved would be tracked down and crushed by the Federation: cancelled, re-oriented and reassigned to who knows where as who knows what. Or worse. She worried most of all for the fate of the young faith healer, Isabella; the Diversity Council was full of jealous demigods. Nailing a little girl messiah to the cross wouldn’t cost any of them even a minute of sleep.

Ten minutes out and Maria’s fear suddenly lifted like a fever. It left her strangely calm, almost serene in its absence, convinced that she’d done all she could for the moment to protect herself and those she loved. She longed to see her friend Fay again and yearned to take Isabella’s small hand in hers. The old man Jesus and his great grandson Eddie, Isabella’s friend and confident, would be there too. Weeks had passed since the last time she had seen any of them. And now, on the eve of her new life, finally free to rejoin them for good, she could scarcely contain her excitement. The anticipation rising in her forced a cautious smile and filled her eyes with tears borne not of sadness, but of a love so raw and powerful and unabated that she closed them tight for a moment as if to tuck it safely away deep inside her like a precious jewel entombed in a vault. Her thoughts drifted back to Jake, the man who had trusted and exalted and betrayed and kept her. Her love for him had never waned, not for a moment, but she had spent the past several years planning for a future without him nonetheless; he would decide his own future soon enough, once he knew the truth. Come what may, fate would have to be enough for both of them -- with or without each other.

Five minutes out on the Belt Parkway, bleak and desolate in the dusk, and for some reason the Diversity Council appeared in her thoughts like an unwelcome dinner guest. She tasted a familiar bile and thought back to how they had cancelled and humiliated her, confiscated her life and power, forced her into re-orientation and re-assigned her to a life as a sex worker in the outer boroughs. She despised them, each and every one of them. “Fuck ‘em all,” she said aloud.

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