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EP519: Artemis Rising – In Their Image

by Abra Staffin-Wiebe
narrated by Diane Severson
with guest host Mur Lafferty

Welcome to the 2nd Annual Artemis Rising

a celebration of women and non-binary authors
author Abra Staffin-Wiebe

author Abra Staffin-Wiebe

about the author…

I grew up in Africa, India…and Kansas. Then I married a mad scientist and moved to Minneapolis, where I fold time and space to be a full-time fiction writer, part-time freelance photographer, part-time work-from-home employee, and full-time mother. My next project is learning to fold time and space to make this all physically possible! I blog intermittently at http://cloudscudding.livejournal.com, and I can probably be found on whichever social media platform you prefer:
Facebook | Twitter | G+ | Livejournal | Goodreads.

I’ve had short stories accepted by publications including Jim Baen’s Universe and Tor.com. I specialize in dark science fiction, cheerful horror, and modern fairy tales. See all my available stories.

My latest project is an online post-apocalyptic steampunk serial story about a circus traveling through the collapse of civilization, which can be found at http://www.circusofbrassandbone.com.

I also manage Aswiebe’s Market List, a downloadable, sortable list of paying science fiction, fantasy, and horror markets.

narrator Diane Severson

narrator Diane Severson

about the narrator…

Diane Severson is a lyric soprano specializing in Early Music, especially Baroque and medieval music. She is also a teacher of singing (taking her cues from her mentor the late Cornelius Reid and Carol Baggott-Forte – Functional Voice Training). She is the mother of a young multi-linguist and married to her very own Rocket Scientist.

She has narrated for the StarShipSofa Podcast Magazine (StarShipSofa.com, part of the District of Wonders Network) since Tony C. Smith started running fiction and found out that she reads aloud to her husband. She has one 40 or so narrations of fiction, who knows how much poetry. As a result of her affinity to poetry, and because she does her best work when she has a Cause (a budding superheroine?), she decided to become Science Fiction Poetry’s Spokesperson. She produces the sporadic podcast, which runs as part of StarShipSofa, called Poetry Planet (http://www.starshipsofa.com/blog/category/podcast/fact-articles/poetry-planet/) and is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (sfpoetry.com) and is now their membership chairperson. She is a staff blogger for Amazing Stories Magazine (amazingstoriesmag.com) focusing on Science Fiction Poetry. She continues to narrate stories for StarShipSofa and other podcasts (notably PodCastle and Tales to Terrify) and has begun getting paying jobs as a voice actor.

The best place to find her is on the web because she tends to pick up and move to another country at the drop of a hat. She and her family recently moved back to Hannover, Germany after 3 years in Paris.

 

In Their Image
by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

When I stepped off the shuttle and breathed in the dry grass scent of Trade City, I was still confident I could launch the first human church on Landry’s World. My fellow passengers had been politely non-interested when I explained the mission my church had sent me on. A few had shaken their heads as they glided away. I thought maybe they objected to a female preacher. Or maybe it was because I’m an ex-marine. I’m an “ex-” a lot of things: ex-marine, ex-atheist, ex-drunk, ex-wife, and ex-mother–that last because I was a poor enough mother that when my kids grew up, they washed their hands of me.

The heavier gravity made my normal stride more of a shuffle, but my spirits were high as I walked to meet the young woman waiting for me. After all, I was here at the request of Amber Sands Mining, the major human employer on the planet. The indigenous government had approved; they even volunteered the labor to build my church. My denomination’s elders were delighted to have finally found a mission suitable for an ex-marine with other-world experience.

My guide held a sign saying, “Preacher.” She bestowed a chipper smile on me when I approached. “Welcome to Landry’s World! I’ll take you directly to the church so that you can get started.”

As I fell into step beside her, I said, “It seems odd that a planet with indigenous life is named after the captain who discovered it. Discovered isn’t quite the right term, either, is it?”

“Landry’s purpose in life was to find and name this world, and the Teddies honor that.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Teddies?”

“Oh, dear. I hope you didn’t memorize their long-form name! You don’t need to worry about that. We need to say that in the welcome packet.”

I remembered the images that had come with my briefing. The locals of Landry’s World were seven feet tall, ursine, and covered in bright pink fur. “Wait. You’re telling me that this place is populated by pink teddy bears?” I asked incredulously.

She grinned. “Yup. Here’s the road. Watch your step. I thought we could walk instead of taking the transit tube.”

The golden sand between the borders of the road appeared identical to the sand that stretched into the distance on either side. “What’s the difference?”

“Everything in its place.”

“And what’s your place? When you’re not shepherding green recruits, I mean?”

“This is my place.”

“Of course, but this can’t take up all your time. I meant, what else do you do? What are your plans for the future?”

“This is what I do,” she answered stiffly.

A few failed attempts at conversation later, I let silence fall between us until she stopped in front of a crystalline three-story castle. Sunlight danced across jutting, sharp-edged planes of glass. A Teddy the color of raspberry sherbet rose from the shadow of the building. I’d been so dazzled that I hadn’t even noticed him.

“Greetings,” he said. “I am Soloulsoquebalso.”

“Hello,” I said.

“I am a Helper,” he said, his fur emanating a neutral lemony scent. “Before taking up our Purpose, the youth of our church go out into the world and help others. I am to help you.”

“But what are you doing– Oh. This is the church your people built for us, isn’t it?”

“It is suiting your purpose?”

“It’s beautiful.” He still waited for my answer. “Yes, it will do very well. Would you like to attend my first service, this Sunday morning?”

He cocked his head. “You preach to us as well as to humans? This is part of your purpose?”

“Well, yes.”

A cotton candy scent rose from his fur. “I will help.”
#

I expected to see him that Sunday, but there was only one Teddy in my congregation, and he was much too large to be Soloulsoquebalso. The Teddy sat in the front pew, beside five humans. They were the only ones in the whole church. I had expected a full house, from curiosity if nothing else. I gave the sermon my best, but as soon as I was done, they left without a word. They did not return the next Sunday. Instead, a different group of five humans–and one Teddy–sat in the front row.

That set the pattern. Humans from other stars occasionally attended my services when they passed through Trade City. Sometimes a drunk would stagger into the church and fall asleep in the pews. But mostly I preached to the front row. I sweated bullets over my sermons, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a world-class orator.

I tried going out and inviting individual Teddies to attend. All I got was polite refusals. I tried asking humans. All they’d say is that they didn’t need my church. When I asked why, they all said that I didn’t need to know, that I was already doing what I was meant to. It sure didn’t feel that way to me.

I was not totally surprised when I got a message saying that the Church Council had sent a delegation to discuss my mission’s future.
#

I met them at Tamir’s Cafe, the most Earthly–and expensive–restaurant on Landry’s World. Instead of the omnipresent glass, Tamir had built the restaurant from blocks of a local rock that resembled the golden sandstone of his native Morocco. He pressed and varnished layers of lichen to achieve a homelike wood grain for his furniture. He filtered the air to remove the prevalent dry grass scent. Even the windows didn’t reveal an alien landscape: synchronized holos showed a bustling Moroccan marketplace.

Under other circumstances, I would have eaten heartily. Today, I only ordered a bowl of harira. A fragrant cloud of ginger, pepper, and cinnamon rose from the soup, but I had to force myself to swallow even a few spoonfuls. The cause of my indigestion was the pair of elders sitting across the lovely false-wood table.

If they thought I had failed here on Landry’s World, where would they send me? The Church was my only home now. My time as a pastor-in-training had already taught me that I didn’t work well with others, no matter how much earnest goodwill existed on both sides. I’d lost the knack somewhere between the end of my stint as a marine and the beginning of my new life as an ex-alcoholic.

We made desultory conversation over dinner. I wasn’t much for small talk, and dancing around the pachyderm in the room exhausted me. Elder Baldini seemed to be of like mind. Elder Velis filled our silences by chirping about the tourist attractions on Landry’s World. When that failed, she told me all about the latest accomplishments of her grandchildren, whom I had never met.

Finally, she pushed back her plate. Her little-old-lady fluffiness vanished as the conversation got to business at last. “The Council sent us in person, in case you need spiritual counsel after hearing their decision.”

Dread tightened my throat. “Yes?”

Elder Baldini hadn’t participated much in the polite over-dinner small talk, but now he spoke. “It’s not as grim as she makes it sound. It’s only a budgetary readjustment. The mining company provided the initial funding for a church here on the recommendation of their human resources and morale department, but it seems that the . . . lack of interest . . . has changed their plans. Since most of the humans prefer the Teddy church services–”

“Excuse me?” I interrupted.

“Oh, didn’t you know? Odd. They weren’t at all reticent in discussing it with us. You could go to a service, see for yourself.”

Elder Velis laid her hand on top of his, silencing him. “We aren’t here to assign blame,” she said. “I’m afraid the new budget will also have to cover your stipend, should you choose to remain.” The figure she named erased my half-formed plans for a grand outreach program.

I didn’t seriously consider leaving. From her tone, I guessed that if I left because the budget wasn’t to my liking, the Church would not provide me with another pastoral post. Where else could I go?

“I may be able to assist with budgeting,” Elder Baldini offered. “I was a practicing accountant for many years.”

“Not–right now,” I said. “I need to think.” In truth, there was not much to think about. I knew my church’s expenses as well as I knew my own. There would be enough, barely. If I was not extravagant in my wardrobe or my meals, I might be able to save a little for a maintenance fund. The cleaning service would have to go. It would hardly be the first time I’d scrubbed a floor. Some might say that was a waste of time that I should be spending writing sermons, but washing floors also served God, even if it was a bit more Martha than Mary.

Elder Baldini nodded his understanding. Elder Velis asked our the waiter for the bill and two containers for her leftovers and mine.

Although I rose with the elders and held the restaurant door open for them as we left, my actions were perfunctory. I remained lost in thought until Elder Velis stopped so suddenly that I almost walked into her.

“Here you go.” She handed her leftovers to a beggar leaning against the wall.

I felt a flush of shame. I had grown too accustomed to the Teddies’ habitually callous treatment of those less fortunate. I hadn’t even seen the beggar until Elder Velis stopped. There was a sermon there, I thought, maybe even something good enough to keep people coming back.

Once I returned to my parsonage, I heated up the soup and retreated to my study. I was hyper-aware of the bottom left-hand drawer of my desk, as if it radiated a heat that I could feel. That was where I kept an old bottle of Four Roses bourbon, never opened. The gesture had appealed to me when I saw it in an old 2D detective movie.

I jerked the drawer open, grabbed the bottle by the neck, and strode to the front door. Standing in the threshold, I threw the bottle out into the street. I expected the bottle to break. It bounced. I slammed the door shut on temptation and returned to my study.

As I sipped my cooling soup, I considered how I might write a sermon that would bring in the people who preferred–what?

How had Elder Baldini put it? That I could go and visit a Teddy service for myself? Very well. I might not need his accounting advice, but when it came to my failing church, I resolved that I would take all the help I could get.
#

I went to the Teddy church service the very next day, determined to find out what they offered that I did not. I arrived early and sat in the back, watching as bubblegum-furred Teddies lumbered in. One of them paused by my pew–a shining glass thing that managed to be far more comfortable than it appeared–and stared at me. Its brow wrinkled in the way that is their equivalent of a human grimace, and its scent sharpened. I thought it would speak to me then, but another wave of Teddies poured into the church and swept it along with them. Humans came, too. I felt a pang as I recognized some of the people who had attended one–and only one–of my services.

At the front of the church, facing the congregation, sat three Teddies with the strawberry cheesecake-colored fur of the very old. I decided to think of them as the deacons.

When the church was packed with Teddies and humans, a new mother herded her tumble of pups to the front of the congregation to be welcomed. I smiled involuntarily at the sight of their big excited eyes and puffed-up hot pink fur. I saw the other humans also smiling, and a cotton candy scent of happiness and welcome rose from the congregation. Despite the ruthless savagery they exhibit in battle, Teddy parents are some of the most devoted I’ve seen on any planet. Every child is cherished. They even extend this across species lines. In the dry goods store, I once observed a stray child collect a gaggle of concerned Teddies who guarded her until she toddled back to her father.

After the welcome, the deacons rose to preach. They spoke in turns, seamlessly completing each other’s sentences. It was a good trick, I admitted, but hardly one I could replicate.

Once I adjusted to the deacons’ manner of speaking, I found their message–bland. There were no reminders of what God wanted, no exhortations to strive to become better, no celebrations of challenges met. They mouthed the same pablum I’d heard a million times from commercial mega-churches and feel-good inspirational speakers. Be the best you that you can be! Accept yourself! Be happy in who you are! Don’t change because of what others consider good! Your flaws are who you are, and God needs you to be who you are! They were speaking Teddish, so I shifted dialects on my ear-cuff translator a few times to be sure I wasn’t missing any nuances. I wasn’t.

Of course, the Teddies added their own alien twist. As I listened, I learned that they believed there was no God–yet. We were God’s attempt to create itself. The immanent God could only become real when we all became fully the thing that we were, when we achieved Purpose. God is made of many parts, the Teddies said, and only when all the parts simultaneously achieve Purpose will God arise. Those who turn aside from their Purpose, or who cannot find it, are reincarnated as another part of God, with another chance to achieve Purpose, until all the parts of God are aligned. When the deacons made this point, a low hum of affirmation rose from the audience.

“Remember,” the deacons said, “true fulfillment is in keeping constant to your Purpose until the end. Choose rather to forsake your life than your Purpose.”

As I listened, the Teddies’ sweet scent grew strong and incense-like, an odor of sanctity that soothed me against my will. The deacons’ words rolled through me. A part of me wished that I could relax into them, that I could believe God only wanted me to be a failed preacher to a tiny congregation, that I needn’t struggle to change, that it would do no harm if I found that bottle of bourbon . . .

I pushed myself to my feet and stumbled away from the tranquilized audience. As soon as the doors retracted to allow me into the hallway, my head began to clear. Now I understood the appeal of the Teddies’ preaching, but it was wrong. We could only be purified of our sins if we repented. True repentance is impossible without a change of mind, of heart, and of action. Clinging to “who you are” is clinging to the grave clothes of sin.

I walked down the hall until I came to a darkened, unoccupied room with a holo of a fish tank along one wall and a long couch facing it. A painted wall screen separated the room from another shadowed chamber beyond it. If I saw a similar place in a human church, I would call it a meditation room. Perhaps it served the same function for the Teddies. I stepped inside, sank into the embrace of the couch, and let my eyes follow the flickers of color in the tank as my mind wrestled with what I’d heard. My profession called me to love my enemies instead of shoot at them, so how could I fight the Teddies’ doctrine?

I watched the darting, iridescent fish, at first absently and then with growing wonder. They were not holos after all. I rose, walked over to the tank, and tapped it with my fingernail. A gleaming fish swam over to investigate. An incredulous smile spread across my face. Fish were one of the few Earth species allowed on Landry’s World, since they were small, portable, and easy to prevent from contaminating the ecosystem, but they were terribly expensive. One fish cost as much as a month’s bar tab. People who needed a touch of Earth mostly made do with holos.

I could have stood there for hours, but in the room on the other side of the painted wall screen, someone turned on a light. I crept over to peer around the edge of the screen.

Four Teddies entered the room. I felt an itch of guilt over my spying. Yet I did not look away. I found it difficult to tell Teddies apart, but I recognized the oldest as being one of the deacons. The smallest one I had not seen before, and the other two I was not certain about. They may have come from the church service, but the odor of sanctity had faded from their fur. I caught a whiff of an acrid burnt smell as the smallest one passed me. He lay on a peculiar, downward-tilted glass table with sides that cupped his body. Behind his head, the table formed a funnel that emptied into a large glass bowl, rather like a fishbowl.

What earthly–or un-Earthly–purpose could such a table serve? I was still pondering that when the deacon removed a dagger from one of his belt pouches and stabbed the smallest Teddy in the throat.

It was like seeing your childhood teddy bear sprout claws. As soon as I saw the blood, I snapped back into the heightened, battle-ready state that I thought I’d left behind forever when I went from soldier to minister. My mind raced through my options: escape, evade, report. But report what? To whom? What alien rite was I witnessing?

The small Teddy didn’t try to defend himself. He never even raised a hand. Tremors shook his body for a minute or so. Then he lay still. A thin trickle of blackish-red blood ran down the inside of the glass table and dripped into the fishbowl whose purpose I had been wondering about. The deacon pulled the blade out with a horrible sucking sound, and more blood gurgled down the funnel.

The two remaining Teddies acted as if nothing had happened. One opened a large book whose paragraphs were etched on plates of glass, and the other took out what resembled a pair of pruning shears.

The Teddy holding the glass-plated book began to read. “True fulfillment is in keeping constant to your Purpose to the end. Choose rather to forsake your life than your Purpose. Let returning to your pieces remind you that God, too, is in pieces that only we can bring together. We can only make God in our image when we are aligned correctly. May the wheel of incarnation bring you around to the part of God that you are meant to be. These are the Purposes that we have known and recorded: hunter, warrior, soldier, baker, mother, tactician, fisher, planter of grain, collector of wild nuts, breeder of mukta, herder, diplomat. . . .”

The other two Teddies bent over the corpse of their brother, tools in hand. The crunch of separating cartilage and bone carried clearly to my hiding spot behind the wall screen. My gorge rose, and I turned my head to the side. Witnessing this mutilation hit me as hard as anything I’d seen in the last war.

A patter of tiny paws drew my attention back instantly. A little pink puffball scampered in the door and froze, blinking at the horrific tableau in front of it. “What are you doing?” the pup asked.

“We are holding a funeral,” the deacon told the pup. “This poor soul was unable to find Purpose, and so we are helping him back onto the wheel.”

The pup blinked its big eyes. “Oh. Like Mother’s sister’s husband’s brother.”

“That’s right, child. Now go back to your mother. She must be looking for you.” The deacon stooped and patted the pup’s back, shepherding it out of the room.

As it bounded away, I saw that the contact had left a bloody handprint on the pup’s fur.

I don’t remember deciding that I had to leave. I don’t remember walking out of the Teddies’ church. I think I would have fought if anyone had tried to stop me, but the police never came for me, so I guess nobody did.

I was out of sight of the church when I noticed that I was being followed. When I glanced in a window, I caught a glimpse of a pink-furred Teddy trailing behind me. I turned a corner. He followed. I zigged across the street and took a shortcut through an alley. He followed. I stopped in front of a shop window and studied my pursuer while pretending interest in the array of mining respirators for sale.

Unlike a human stalker would have, the Teddy didn’t stop. He lumbered right up to me. I tensed.

“Reverend,” he rumbled, “mining equipment is not fitting to your Purpose. Why are you not at your church?”

I pretended he hadn’t spoken. I didn’t think I could interact politely with a Teddy just then.

“Why did you go to our service, Reverend?” he persisted. “You should be in your own church.”

“That is no business of yours,” I said sharply, turning and walking away.

“It is,” he insisted, trotting after me. “I am to help you maintain Purpose.”

After seeing what their obsession with Purpose caused, I couldn’t respond to him in a way befitting a woman of God. I kept my back to the Teddy, kept walking, and tried to calm myself.

He followed me all the way across town to my church. He would have followed me into my study if I hadn’t closed the door in his face. I tried working on my sermons, but all I could think of was the alien “funeral” I’d witnessed. Poor child, I thought, and I wasn’t sure who I referred to. A real preacher would have found inspiration in those memories, but all I found was anger and frustration. After several hours, I decided to abandon my study. Perhaps I could think more clearly outside.

When I opened my study door, I almost walked into a wall of pink fur. The Teddy had been sitting against the door, waiting, all this time. I stepped around him. His claws scrabbled against the floor as he pushed himself up to follow me.

I sat on a bench in the area that the landscaper had turned into a meditation garden. He had transformed a bare patch of alien land into something humans could find restful. Spindly shrubs, explosions of toadstools, and ruffled patches of lichen created patterns that pleased the eye. Purple grass grew in hummocks that rustled even when there was no breeze. Curving paths of sand soothed the soul. Since I had canceled the service that handled the church’s cleaning and yard work, I supposed I would be the one who kept the paths swept and the grass trimmed from now on.

The Teddy sat beside me on the bench. His fur emanated a neutral lemony scent.

I could ignore him no longer. “Why are you following me?” I demanded.

“We were concerned when you left your church to attend ours. Then you went to a shop selling mining equipment. Those actions are not in line with your Purpose.”

“You presume to know my purpose?”

“You are a woman of God, a preacher.”

Well, he had me there. I switched tactics. “My actions are no business of yours!”

“I am a Helper,” he said. “I am to help you. Why did you go to our church service?”

“Why do you care?”

“All thinking beings are parts of God, and all must achieve Purpose to create God.”

The thought of humans accepting this idea of purpose made me sick. Would the Teddies kill us if we failed in our purpose? What could I do about it?

“If I answer you, will you leave me alone?” I snapped.

“If you no longer need help.”

“I went to observe the competition.”

“Why did you walk through the town instead of taking a transit tube back to your church? Why were you studying objects belonging to other Purposes?”

“I walked because I needed to clear my head. I witnessed your church forcing one of its own to the slaughter. You call it a funeral, I believe.”

“Force–no! When he realized he had no Purpose, he went to our elders and asked for his funeral. Reincarnation and a new Purpose was his only hope of salvation.”

“You say that like you think it was a good decision.”

“It is the only possible one.”

“You would do the same if you had no Purpose?”

“Of course.”

“So what is your Purpose, then?” I demanded.

He took some time to answer me, and I decided that the bitter-orange scent suddenly in the air must indicate embarrassment. “I have not found it yet. Many youth have not.”

“Many?” I asked.

He curved his body away from me. “A few.”

I took his response as a victory and settled back to enjoy the peace. Eventually, I sighed. “You’re not leaving, are you?”

“No.”

“Did you meet me at my church when I first arrived? Was that you?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t remember your name. Sol-something? If you’re going to stick around, tell me what it is, so I know who to curse at,” I said wryly.

A faint smell of burnt toast floated into the air. “Cursing is not fitting to your–”

I hurried to interrupt him. “I was joking! A sense of humor is a necessary thing for a preacher to have, I assure you.”

The burnt smell faded. “I am Soloulsoquebalso.”

“Right, then. I’ll call you Saul.”

Saul became my constant companion. If I shut him out of a room, he knocked politely on the door until I opened it. If I tried to slip away, he found me and asked urgently why I was leaving the church and abandoning my Purpose. Eventually, I gave up trying to escape. I grew accustomed to him, much as a soldier might grow accustomed to a large, furry, bright pink armchair if it were standard issue on base.

A few days after our first conversation, I returned to the meditation garden to make notes for my sermon. I was trying to figure out a way to say, “Stay away from the Teddies’ church because they’re murderous monsters,” while still following the Bible’s orders. It was uphill work. I’d signed up to love my enemies, to be kind and compassionate, and to minister to all races and peoples. Sure, nobody mentioned aliens, but I wasn’t going to act like a barracks lawyer when it came to God’s word.

I sighed as I set my notes on the bench beside me. I leaned back and closed my eyes. A soft swishing noise made me open them again. A strange Teddy was in my garden–sweeping. I watched, my mouth hanging open, as she carefully swept the path free of the small debris that I had been ignoring. She circled through the meditation garden. Behind her, the sand was swept clean, leaving the illusion of a perfect, changeless path.

“Do you like the new cleaner?” Saul asked. “Does she fulfill her Purpose?”

I jumped. I’d learned to ignore him too well.

“I didn’t hire a new cleaner! We can’t afford her.” Reluctantly, I admitted, “She’s doing a great job, though.”

A happy cotton candy scent drifted to my nose. “We saw that the loss of the cleaning service might force you to act outside your Purpose. I am happy that she will prevent this. Our church elders will pay for her labor. ”

“Wait–she was sent by the Teddy church?”

“Yes.”

“Why would you . . . ? What do you see as my purpose?”

“Being a minister,” Saul answered. His ear tufts swiveled forward. “Preaching.”

Something clicked into place. “Are you the reason that five humans and one Teddy always attend my sermons? But never the same individuals twice?”

“Yes.”

“Hmph.” I stared at that perfect, unmarred path in front of me. “I swore I’d serve God, and there’s a lot more to that than preaching or going to church, though many humans forget it.”

Saul’s ear tufts flicked back and forth. “Your Purpose is to be a preacher. One who preaches.”

Preaching to a church that might as well be as empty and perfect as the sand in front of me, I thought.

“There are a few other things I should tend to.” I rose and stalked across the path, kicking up sand with every step. I left my scribbled, incomplete sermon notes behind. Saul followed in my footsteps, trailed by a distressed odor of burnt toast.

When I walked through the door of Tamir’s Cafe, I noticed the dread that had burdened me on my last visit was gone. The smells of ginger and garlic seemed more intense, the golden stone walls more solid, and the view of a bustling Moroccan marketplace more vivid.

There were other outlooks that the windows didn’t show, things that I thought the prosperous people dining at Tamir’s should be made aware of.

When the maître d’ asked if I had a reservation, I told him that I was here to pick up a delivery for the Lowertown district. He didn’t even bother to check his book. Nobody from Lowertown would ever be able to afford a meal at Tamir’s, he informed me.

“We’ll see about that.” I strode into the dining room, sat beside a particularly well-dressed couple, and began to tell them some of the things that I’d seen in the poorest section of town.

A few anecdotes offered tableside, a solemn and sorrowful stare, and suddenly diners were volunteering their leftovers–or even their whole dinner, in a couple of cases. I think they must have had guilty consciences. Tamir himself quickly overruled his maître d’ and magically came up with a “delivery” of not-quite-perfect food for Lowertown. I smiled, accepted it graciously, and left, trailed by my furry pink shadow.

After I set up a free food stand, it took a while for the poor folk to believe I was genuine, and they still tried to find the catch.

“Why are you doing this?” asked one man, a sand miner who’d lost his legs and his livelihood in the same sinkhole collapse. Either he was one of the unfortunates whose immune systems rejected factory-flesh, or miners didn’t have the same deluxe healthcare package that us military grunts did.

I set a bowl of lamb tagine in front of him. “God ordered those who believe in Him to feed the hungry.”

“I don’t see any other preachers out here.”

“I’m not preaching, am I? You asked why I’m doing this. I’m here not as a preacher, but as a woman who takes her marching orders from God.”

The unhappy burnt toast smell strengthened. Saul didn’t like me doing things he didn’t consider preacher-work. The sand miner didn’t seem convinced either, but he took the food and rolled away in his primitive wheelchair. I watched him until his wheelchair slinky-stepped down the stairs to the transit tube and out of sight.

I felt more relaxed than I had in weeks. I didn’t have to worry about whether I was succeeding or failing as a preacher, or about whether the Teddies were boxing me into a corner of my own making. All I had to do was feed the hungry.

A roiling stench of burnt rubber wiped the smile right off my face. I turned, intending to tell Saul that if me feeding the hungry bothered him that much, he should stick to following members of his own church.

Saul wasn’t even looking at me. Another Teddy stood in the shadows, watching us. Unlike healthy, plump Teddies, this one’s limbs were stick-thin and insectile. His skin hung in loose folds. His fur was thin and patchy.

“Come on,” I called, gesturing encouragingly. He edged nearer.

“He should not be this close to us,” Saul said.

“What’s wrong with him? Is he sick?”

“He is starving.” Saul turned away.

My mind raced. “If he’s starving, we’d better start with something plain. Bread, maybe.”

“You do not understand,” Saul snapped. “His Purpose is to starve.”

Anger rose in me so strong and so fast that I had to freeze to keep from striking out. As if he sensed it, the starving Teddy stopped approaching. I bowed my head and fought to master myself.

Once I trusted myself to speak, I said, “Right now my purpose is to feed the hungry. Your job is to help me. He’s hungry.” My voice was flat and hard. I did not sound like myself. I handed Saul a piece of flatbread and a cup of mint tea. “Give him the food.”

I gagged as Saul’s burnt rubber stench intensified. The humans scattered, leaving just me and the two Teddies. The starving Teddy edged closer. Saul stared at me.

“Go on.” I confess I felt a certain harsh satisfaction at putting him into an uncomfortable position for a change.

“I can’t! It is not right! It is against his Purpose.”

“Choose.”

“There should not be choice! There is only one way! Every creature has only one Purpose! Without that–without that, there can be no God!”

My satisfaction leaked away. He was struggling, as I had struggled once. I placed my hand on his shoulder. “We have free will so that we can choose. Every action that we make, we choose. Making a choice once doesn’t end that. Every day, you wake up and have to decide whether to continue abiding by that choice. And every day, each decision you make leads to another choice. Without choice–without the difficulty of choice–our actions would be valueless.”

The starving Teddy stopped a foot away from our food stand. He waited passively, as if it had taken all his energy even to come this close to the forbidden food.

Saul trembled under my touch.

“You don’t have to hand it to him,” I said. “All you have to do is put it on the counter in front of him. Then you will have helped me.”

Saul shook like a dying man, but he set the food on the counter and even nudged it closer to the starving Teddy. The Teddy seized the food and fled. I don’t know if he ate it. I don’t know where he went. My attention was all on Saul.

After a few minutes, Saul stopped shaking. The stench of burned rubber dissipated, banished by a clean, green smell, like grass after the rain.

He didn’t say another word until we were back at my church, sitting in the meditation garden.

“I have found my Purpose,” he announced.

“What’s that?”

“My Purpose is to study the philosophy of this ‘free will’ you believe in, this idea that we are always making choices and that this is good.”

I let myself smile a little bit. “Well, you can change your mind at any time.”

His response was deadly serious. “Not anymore.”

My smile slipped and then came back stronger. “Not yet,” I corrected.

I still struggle with writing sermons, and I still preach to a mostly empty church. Only a few new parishioners have returned. Saul gives my sermons only polite attention, but he follows in my footsteps everywhere I go, and I go everywhere.

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