“The Last Sacrifice”
Tess R. Arnold Jr.
“Why are we working on our day off again?”
“Because we need him.”
“Fuck you, wee need him.”
“You’re not my type, and we do need him. So, keep digging.”
“You mean they need him.”
“Yes, they need him.”
“The Holy See doesn’t explain itself to me. It orders. I obey, and you should keep your voice down.”
“Because we’re being watched.”
And they were, but not by the Vatican.
High above the archeological dig site, beyond the clouds, where they would only be seen as a few more anonymous stars, twinkling in our night sky, the glittering eyes of the Elohim watched humanity on glittering screens in their glittering ships. They watched and they waited to see what humanity would do.
Joseph Temple watched too, from his bench, waiting for the bus. The Lincoln had rolled by twice now, slowly, its dark tinted windows soaking up the gray light like a collection plate for morning services in the Abyss. When he was younger, Joseph would have said to Hell with the bus. Better to be late to work than hit by a stray bullet. But he wasn’t young, and the chill of the Detroit morning had sunk into his aged bones. One more day of useless work seemed too long; like eternity. Maybe a bullet wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it would be an end to the weariness of an unimportant life. So, Joseph just watched as the black-eyed beast swam languidly down the block and turned the corner. He knew it would come again, trolling the neighborhood until it had spotted its prey. He hoped it would happen before the bus creaked to a stop in front of him.
The call came to every nation that had a government to listen. It came in a hundred languages. Mystics and lunatics alike heard it as a lullaby in sleep. The Elohim had come.
Imaging satellites turned from their earthly observances to confirm. Heads of state watched from secure locations as the enormous ships, diffuse and blurry at the edges, began to appear on high definition screens. Their message was simple:
“Prove your worth.” The message said, “Or be planet-locked for the next galactic cycle.”
For decades our radio signals had beamed into space. For decades our scientists trained radio telescopes into the outer dark, searching for signs of intelligence. Not all of the messages were sent by scientists. The Nuremberg rallies. War propaganda. Coded messages. Calls for violence and genocide, all radiating heedlessly into the unknown reaches of the stellar deep. When the first of our primitive probes breached the furthest boundaries of our solar system, the Elohim took notice.
They came in their glittering ships, twinkling like stars in the night, in open defiance of Einstein’s laws. They came and demanded evidence that we were not as unthinking and barbaric as our errant signals suggested.
In our arrogance some doubted their power. When the first foolish missiles flew, the Elohim removed all doubts.
Quietly, without fearful words or threats, a shaft of light, like the sun streaming through a cloud, descended on the capitol of the aggressor nation. In the space of a whisper, without fire or smoke, buildings and people simply vanished. There was no radioactive waste land, no thunder or mushroom cloud, just a shifting of the wind that left behind bare, unmarked earth where the seat of a nation’s government had once stood.
The remaining world leaders asked, humbly, how humanity could prove its worth? The reply from the Elohim was as pregnant as it was simple:
“Show us you know the meaning of sacrifice.”
Religious leaders were consulted. Faiths were restored, albeit with modifications. Tired examinations of ancient holy texts were revivified. Answers needed to be found. Immediately, vast amounts of funding poured into archeological expeditions that had been toiling in relative obscurity. The Vatican made it priority number one to find the remains of Saint Peter. The day of judgment was upon them, and they would not be found wanting.
“Why. The. Fuck. Now?”
“What do you mean?”
“How many popes have known about this location? How many grants have we written and had refused? How much laughter and derision have we endured trying to dig up this Old Rock?”
“So why now?”
“I don’t know, but I’m not willing to ask either. Just keep digging.”
And so, the two archeologists – whose names remain locked in a secret file in Vatican city – continued to dig, in the heat and the dirt, and continued to wonder at their sudden good fortune.
The decision was made not to tell the people, but secrets have a way of getting out. Children and scientists with telescopes told their families and colleagues. Privileged clergy told a few supplicants to bolster flagging faiths. Those others with the knowledge told the people closest to them and made preparations. But time enough had not passed for leaks around the edges of this most momentous of secrets to spread to the populace at large. Fears of mass panic kept it off the news and out of the papers, at least temporarily.
So, Joseph Temple sat on his bench and watched the grim reaper on twenty inch rims slide by, hoping for a quick end. All the while the Elohim glittered silently in the space above and waited for an answer.
The bus was late. Its driver having been informed of the impending judgment during morning confession, he stayed at home preparing his soul, while the dispatcher scrambled – without success – to find a replacement. Joseph, arthritis throbbing in his knees and hands, was used to waiting. He had waited all his life, to grow up, to find a job, for things to get better, for employers and educators and the police not to notice the color of his skin above and beyond all else, and for the spirituals his grandmother used to sing to him when he was a boy to come to pass. The whisper of ,’we shall overcome’, echoed in his head. He had long since given up waiting for those things. As he tried to massage some of the ache out of his cracked and swollen hands, Joseph knew that all he waited for now was an end. The big rimmed Lincoln slow rolled the block for a third time. Joseph stared into its black windows like the darkness on the other side of death, and waited. His only thought, please, please before the bus comes.
Half a world away, in the blistering heat of the afternoon sun, the bones had been found. Experts examined high resolution scans and determined the bones of the wrists and ankles to be just so; showing the signs of crucifixion. Found in a tomb, in the correct location, these could not have been the bones of any mere Roman criminal. Convinced they had found their prize, that humanity’s worth had been secured, the images were transmitted to governments who quickly beamed the data into the heavens. The Elohim, high above in their glittering ships, responded just as quickly; with silence.
Without warning atomic clocks, measuring the ticking of time all over the world, reset themselves and began counting down.
Children had gathered at the school bus stop near Joseph’s bench. Classes were still in session, and outside from some kind of hiccup in the clocks, school would start as normal. The morning, being cold for late Spring, had them huddled together in their coats, brightly colored backpacks jostling for a spot near the warm center of the cluster. Joseph watched them, and remembered waiting for a long ago bus, standing in the chill, cradling his books, too poor to afford either backpack or coat. He shivered now, as he did then. The books were gone, and with them, those childhood dreams of something better. He had a proper coat now, not that it mattered to his arthritis. As Joseph watched the children and waited for what he hoped would be a quick end, another, different hope sparked in his mind; a hope like the dying embers of a fading fire. Joseph hoped that those children would have something, something better than his succession of dead end jobs and hard scrabble existence, something better than a weary body, aching joints and nothing to show for it but a cold wait for a late bus. Joseph watched the children, playing childhood games on that gray Detroit morning and hoped, never knowing that he was being watched himself, by the glittering eyes of the Elohim.
The changing of the clocks spooked the various leaders of the world. Transmissions were hastily beamed toward the Elohim’s glittering ships, pleading for information. The message was sent in a hundred different languages, all asking the same question:
“How do we prove?”
The last of a long line of Samurai trudged, stolidly up stone steps to a mountaintop temple. There, with great ritual and ceremony, he composed his death haiku, unsheathed his wakizashi and committed seppuku.
On the top step of a pyramid, hidden deep in the Yucatan, a shaman, descended from the Mayans of old, raised an obsidian dagger – handed down from his ancestors – enunciated the old prayers, and slit his own throat.
On a hill, in the Philippines, several of the pious had themselves nailed to wooden crosses and hoisted, painfully, into position before the setting of the sun.
In a small, shack church, secluded in the hills of Tennessee, a poor preacher held up a rattlesnake to his congregation. After his sermon, he drank, full, from a mason jar containing the snake’s collected venom. The congregation knelt and prayed in a circle around him as he convulsed and died. The rattlesnake slithered away.
News agencies, having gotten wind of the leaking information, looked at their own clocks, ticking down to zero, and began preparing reports. The breaking news would make it to air, before the countdown ceased.
Governments, all over the world, waited for a response from the Elohim.
“I don’t think the bus is coming,” one of the waiting children said.
“You always say that,” said another, “It’s just late.”
“Yeah,” said the first child, “But today it’s really late.”
Joseph thought so too. He knew public transportation couldn’t be relied on, but school busses you could usually set your watch by, give or take ten minutes. He wondered what was keeping the yellow beast. Maybe it was the same thing that made his own bus late.
Unfortunately for the human race, what kept the busses from arriving on time had nothing to do with traffic.
Watching the children wait, Joseph drifted along the current of more bittersweet thoughts, mostly about his own childhood. And then he saw a local thug take his regular position, for the day’s dealing, on the corner just beyond the children. He remembered the Lincoln, cruising the street, its windows black eyes of death.
Joseph’s feet began moving before he was aware of it. The arthritis screamed in his joints, from too long sitting in the cold, but he forced his legs to move, to carry him past the children and on to the young gangster on the corner.
“You got to get out of here son,” Joseph said.
“Fuck you old man,” the thug replied.
“They looking for you,” Joseph said, “They been down this block three time already.”
“So,” the thug said, raising his shirt to display the handle of the Glock jammed into his waistband.
“They’s kid here,” Joseph pleaded.
“Whatever, old man,” the thug said, “Fuck off. I got business.”
Anger surged in Joseph’s tired muscles. If he’d been younger, he’d have beat the punk to a pulp and dragged his ass off the street. But he wasn’t younger. He was old, and tired, and the thug was spoiling for a fight. And fight was something Joseph had lost long ago.
Joseph limped toward the children, hoping to get them out of the line of fire.
“Hey,” he said, “Guess you didn’t hear. School called off today.”
His attempts were met with some laughter, and some suspicious stares.
“Go on home,” he said, “It’s all over the news. Nobody gonna’ get in trouble.”
Joseph had lived in the neighborhood most of his life. A lot of the children recognized him. Those who did, looked for a moment to see if he was serious, then ran off, hooting and cheering as children do when school is unexpectantly canceled. But some didn’t recognize him, and they stayed, not ready to risk an ass whippin’ on the word of a shabby old man waiting for the bus.
Joseph was trying to convince them, when he saw the Lincoln turn the corner and come creeping up the block. Fear turned his insides to cold, slithering things. He started yelling and waving his arms, hoping to frighten the remaining children off. Most ran, but one froze. A little boy, no more than ten, stood before Joseph, shaking with fright and could not move. The Lincoln glided closer, a dark eyed shark in bloody waters. The windows inched down. Barrels of automatics peeked though the narrow openings. From far away, someone shouted.
Joseph grabbed the boy and spun, making himself into a shield, and hoping it would matter. It was thunder and smoke and hard punches to the back. Joseph tumbled to the ground, the boy wrapped inside his old frame.
There was pain, and burning, and the squealing of tires, and more shots before silence came again to Joseph’s ears. Neck too stiff, muscles, too weak, he craned to look. The death car was gone, but he could still hear it as it rumbled down the next block. The thug on the corner was down, and did not seem to be moving.
Slowly, with great effort, Joseph levered himself off the boy and slumped on the sidewalk. The boy was crying; screaming. Joseph took a hold of him and checked for wounds. He found none.
“Hey. Boy. Listen,” Joseph croaked, caressing the boy’s head, “You okay son. You okay.”
The boy didn’t seem to hear his words. Joseph raised his hands and took hold of the boy’s face.
“Look at me son,” he ordered, ” Breathe. Good. Now, you get home, fast as you can. You hear me?”
The boy sniffled and snorted, but nodded his head. Joseph brushed the tears from the boy’s cheeks.
“Go on son,” he said.
When Joseph let go, the boy scrambled to his feet and took off. It was more tripping than running, but he still made good time. Joseph let the rest of his weight drop to the sidewalk, which was, curiously, not as cold as he expected. Black bars bordered his vision. He forced his eyes to stay open until the little boy was safely out of sight. He was tired, more tired than he had ever been in his life. Too damned tired. Maybe he would just rest here, on the ground, until the bus came. Just a little rest for his weary body.
“I’ll jus’ close my eyes for a minute.”
And he did.
From their glittering ships, the Elohim watched with their glittering eyes transfixed on glittering screens as the life flowed out of Joseph Temple. In the last flickers of his fading consciousness, they projected a single thought into his mind:
“Jus’ a baby.”
Contained in that single, dying thought were all of Joseph’s hopes for the future, all his hopes that the world would be better for the boy, for all children, better than it was for him. Contained within that thought was the conviction that they deserved a chance, any chance, to hope, to dream, to live.
The Elohim recorded all of Joseph Temple’s final thoughts and emotions. His last thoughts were of his grandmother, singing spirituals to him when he was a small boy. His last thoughts were of joy and possibility.
From their glittering ships, high above the heavens, the Elohim sent a single message, to all the governments of all the world.
“You have been deemed worthy, for now,” it said in a hundred different voices, “Explore your system as you will, but no further. We will be watching.”
And, with that, the glittering ships of the Elohim vanished from the sky. A few less twinkling stars in our night.
Press reports were prepared and news conferences were given. The airwaves flooded with conjecture, and speculation, and conspiracy theories. Governments made statements, denials, and non-denial denials. Every person who could was glued to televisions and radios, marveling in awe and a little terror, the fact that we were no longer alone in the universe. School was, in fact, cancelled for the day.
And, on a local newscast, on a small television, in a cramped tenement in Detroit, one small boy, no more than ten, pointed to the screen and told his mother, in gasps and tears, about the shabby old man who had saved his life.