The Collector checked the station clock, then leaned forward, glancing down the track. He knew that the hypertrain would arrive before he heard it, but humans had been waiting for trains for almost nine hundred years, so looking impatiently was practically engraved in his DNA.
So too was the word he uttered upon seeing that the train was late.
A nearby Citizen heard him. “Can’t believe they go that quick and still can’t show up on time.”
The Collector said nothing in response, simply sneering at the other man until he relented, raising his hands apologetically. The Collector considered a Citation, but decided against it when the train whipped into the station. Lines of bored travellers began to filter out of the compartments, their steps buoying as they readjusted to gravity outside of the train’s insulated compartments. Ignoring them all, the Collector stepped aboard, finding his seat. Even with the extra Gs, sitting wasn’t necessary, but it gave him the chance to review his route for the day. He adjusted his mask, then turned to the papers.
He already knew the end of the route, of course. He knew all of it, inside and out. This was more ritual than necessity. Looking up, he snapped a quick salutation to the two Clerks strolling past. They nodded his way, and he forced a smile in return. He never had understood how pencil-pushers had fallen above him in the Hierarchy. He turned back to his papers.
“Hey. Taxboy. Got a minute? I’m trying to settle a bet.” The Collector looked up. One of the Clerks, a freckled and boy-faced man, was looking right at him. Talking, too. He knew perfectly well that the Collectors didn’t have a minute, but he didn’t seem to care, either.
“Sure,” said the Collector, doing his best to sound compliant. “What’s the bet?”
“Just a question me and my boy here are trying to answer about you guys.”
“Go for it.”
Hesitation. Quick enough to satisfy, too short to notice. “Sorry, sir.”
“That’s better. I just need to know – it’s about your mask.”
“What about it?” The Collector’s fingers found his beak, which stretched away from his face. The Confederacy had mandated it, and the reasons were twofold: the first was that forcing tax collectors to wear old plague-doctor masks seemed to symbolize a kind of aw-shucks-sorry-I-have-to-do-this ethos; the second was that they protected Collectors from retaliation in their personal lives.
“Do you guys have anything under there?” His grin widened. The next words came out in a rush; hasty and over-practiced. “Or is it just a giant pussy on your face?” Next to him, the other Clerk snorted.
“I–we–are just human beings. Just like you. The mask serves a few purposes, the first of wh–”
“–I don’t care about any of that.” The Clerk took a step forward. “I just want to see that pussy. Are you gonna show me that pussy, bitchboy?”
“Take. Off. The. Mask.”
The Collector looked around him. Everyone else was looking at their datapads, pretending as if they couldn’t hear. Not likely. Half the people in this car probably had aural mods implanted. He looked back to the Clerk. Thought about asking if it was necessary, then decided against it. The only thing that wasn’t necessary was collecting a Citation over disobeying some power-tripping asshole in the Echelon above him. He gripped the bottom of the mask with his hands and pulled it over his head, revealing blond hair and a ragged goatee. His eyes looked out dully at the Clerks.
“See,” said the loud one, calling to his friend. “Just like I said – they hide their pussies under those masks.” His friend laughed dutifully. “Alright, thanks for the anatomy lesson, taxboy, but we gotta get to the next car.” He clapped The Collector on the shoulder. “Have fun ruining a few Citizens’ days.”
Then he was gone, along with his friend. The Collector held his breath for five seconds to be sure of it, then turned his head. A few people swiftly looked away. Had they seen his face? Recorded it on their datapads? No way to know.
The Collector checked the clock again. They were now almost eight minutes behind, and he had work to do.
The priest watched the ships pass over the city through the stained glass on the west side of his church and wondered if any of them had prayed that morning.
It was a snide thought, one he hated himself for, but he felt it all the same. For him prayer was a ritual as effortless as breathing. He had never understood how the old scholars spoke of prayer as if it was an ordeal. How could it be painful to open yourself up to a source of peerless love? Intimidating, maybe, but painful? He could never imagine that.
But there, perhaps, was the problem. The sound of his footsteps redounded across the church as he strode to the dais. The pews on either side were snowy with dust. In the racks on their backs, thin tablets pre-loaded with different editions of the Bible waited cold and black.
Saturdays were the hardest. There was enough to do earlier in the week that he could keep himself busy. He might have allowed dust to gather, but there were other functions and other traditions that he made sure to follow, even if only for himself. In his old age, he had grown accustomed to going to bed late and rising early, knees shouting and aching; this schedule had been motivated in part by the installation of the adboard in the building opposite disrupting his sleep with its incessant flashing. Now, it had become habit, and the days grew shorter and passed more quickly.
Until Saturday. Saturdays were when he was left alone with his thoughts. He should have been fine-tuning his sermon for the Sunday parishioners, but there was no need for that anymore. Memories of old attendees flickered through his mind, barely more than ideas. Names and faces floated about, but he didn’t know if they matched. Once, he had logged on to the ancient computer in the rectory. He had found photos of people whom he had totally forgotten, provoking a kind of twisting anguish inside his belly. How could he justify forgetting an entire person? He recognized the faces, but no names floated to his mind. They were simply gone.
After that, he hadn’t visited the computer any more. It was a decision he never regretted. There was no space for technology in this place. The mere existence of the church was thanks to old laws which, even now, the Confederate Council on Religion was seeking to nullify. New religions had cropped up as humanity had spread to distant worlds. Others had simply faded away, adherents too uncertain of God’s place in the wider cosmos.
The priest’s fingers tented in the dust, feeling the cool stone beneath their tips. Sometimes he did this to remind him of this place, of its solidity. There was a permanence to something built of rock instead of steel. A slow vibration began to roll through it, shaking the dust slightly, breathing small clouds into the air. He looked through the windows and to the sky, where a rocket’s plume faded into the distance, generating a strange nausea within him. There seemed to be something spiteful about the spaceport’s placement next door, its existence somehow a symbol of defiance against the heavens. He watched until the billowing clouds dissipated, then his eyes fell again to the floor.
“Why,” he whispered. “Why did you isolate me, even as you selected me for this mission?” He closed his eyes. He didn’t expect an answer.
Two booming knocks on the door rolled across the room.
The Collector pulled his hand back from the bronze knocker. He wiped it against his shirt, unsure of whether it might be a vector for some kind of virus. He made a mental note to run through a scanner later.
He took a step back and looked at the building. It rose above him, a massive edifice of brick and stone topped with a pointed spire. An ancient cross symbol could barely be perceived atop it. He checked his logs, wondering if this was the right place or if some Accountant had thought it might be funny to send him to a derelict building slated for demolition. He began to review his datapad, searching frantically for proof, lest someone realize he’d taken the bait.
The name St. Simon’s floated before his eyes just as the door opened. A wizened man in a habit peered out at him. Threads of hair clung like feathers to the sides of his head, lending him the appearance of somebody lost. He squinted in the sun. Fright leaped across his face once his eyes had adjusted.
“Who are you? Why are you wearing that? What do you want?” he asked. His voice conjured an image of reeds fighting against the wind.
“Depends,” replied the Collector, surprised he didn’t recognize the uniform. “Are you the man in charge here?”
The priest hesitated. “In a sense, I suppose.”
“Is it alright if I come in?”
“Anyone is welcome here,” replied the old man. He pushed the door back, groaning along with it. It was dark beyond the threshold, the kind of dark that seemed to suggest intent. The Collector stepped inside, and the old man closed the door behind him, sealing off the sounds of the world beyond.
“Now, my son. What can I do for you?”
“I’m not your son, old man. I’m a Collector for the Confederacy. You’re behind on your debts to your government.”
This statement was met with silence. Lights flickered above them in alcoves against the walls, simulations of candlelight. The priest looked at the Collector for a long moment, then gestured to a dust-covered pew. “Please, take a seat, my son.”
A frown grew on the Collector’s face, covered by the mask. “I don’t need to sit. I just need you to swipe the church’s chip against my datapad. Or your own, I don’t really care. There’s a fair balance owing. I don’t want to have to come back.”
This last part was true. The Collector hated coming back. The Confederacy always made sure they got their due, but they were patient. Steady acceleration was the best way to instill fear but prevent resistance. It made sense in practice, but in the short term it made for a series of annoying trips.
“You won’t need to come back,” replied the priest. “I don’t have the money, and I don’t have the means to get it.”
“If I had the money, I would certainly pay it. But I don’t, so I can’t.”
“Find it. Get some of your congregation to tithe a little extra.”
At this, the old man’s face changed, but only for a moment. He regained his composure, then met the eyes of the mask. The Collector was impressed. People rarely looked directly at the mask. Something about it discomfited them. He supposed that was another benefit the Confederacy appreciated. “I’m sorry,” said the priest. “I don’t have any parishioners. I don’t expect I will again.”
“And why not?” asked the Collector, not really sure why he even was asking.
“I’ll tell you,” answered the priest, “but only if you sit down.” He gestured to the pew beside him.
Silence fell between them. The Collector felt a low vibration in the floor and idly wondered what it was. The midday sun had crested over the church and the light through the stained glass was now faint, indirect. Shadows had grown long, clutching the pews from either end. The priest sat in one of the remaining zones of light. The Collector sat next to him, right where the dark started.
“Thank you,” said the priest. Now, let me ask you a question: “Do you believe in God?”
“What?” It was not a question the Collector had ever considered.
“Do you believe in God?” repeated the priest. “It’s a fairly simple question, at least in terms of the direct answer. Obviously the reasons for one’s conclusion might vary, of course.”
The Collector’s mask stared back at the priest with dull, black eyes. What expression might he be making behind them? The priest tried to picture what the Collector’s face might look like. The voice sounded young enough, but not too young. There was a weariness that only came with age. He wondered about the face. The face always told the truth. He opened his mouth to ask what the purpose of the mask was, but the Collector interrupted, clearing his throat: “I don’t see what this has to do with anything. I’m here for your taxes, not a sermon.”
The priest only smiled. “For believers, it has everything to do with everything. Yet for the irreligious, nothing is more ludicrous than what I do. I take it that is your answer?”
“No?” repeated the priest, raising an eyebrow. “So do you feel differently about matters?”
A snort burst from behind the mask, the sound of a man who had regained his composure. “Stop with your games, old man. You can’t twist me into believing in your God.”
“I’m not asking you to believe,” said the priest. “I understand that those kind of decisions don’t just come to a single person telling you what to do. I was asking if you believed, which is a different thing entirely. Your answers have left the matter somewhat confused, I’ll admit, but I accept that this may not have been the kind of thing you’ve thought much about.”
“You don’t know me–”
“I don’t need to,” said the priest, shrugging away the comment. “People aren’t as different from one another as you think. Especially in this Confederacy, with its constant talk of progress and of escaping our tradit–”
“Careful, old man. I’ve been patient with you, but there’s no need to speak ill of the Confederacy. I can tell the next Echelon that you didn’t have the money for the taxes, and they will work on a new strategy, but I cannot tell them that I failed to issue a Citation for poisoned words.”
“Do it, then. One Citation makes no difference. If you give me more, then I will remember that my body is but a vessel, nothing more.” A faint turning of his lips, not quite a smile. “Water flows free when the jar breaks, after all.”
Here fell a silence so quiet that it could be heard. The bird-mask tilted to the side for a moment, then back, eerily similar to the pantomimed self. The sun had begun to crest to the west, scattering light further across the pews. Motes of dust, disturbed by long-awaited visitors, floated in the kaleidoscopic light. No signs of falling. The distant sound of another rocket launch could be heard. It was just past one, which meant it was likely headed for Opportunity. With two extra hours in the day, the Martian commuters liked to start late.
The man in the mask finally spoke. “You are a strange old man.”
This actually generated a laugh from the priest. “Strange! Strange only means different, so I suppose that is true – but at least I am honest. You are the one in the costume. How can we reach a concordance if I don’t even know who I am speaking with?”
“Forget the costume. There’s no bargain to be struck here. Tell me the reason why you cannot pay, and I will do what I can to lessen the punishment.”
“I’ve already told you,” replied the old man.
“You haven’t told me shit.”
“Please,” said the priest, raising his hand. “I understand you have a duty, and that you are frustrated, but there is no need for foul language. Please respect that, in a sense, this is my home.”
“You don’t get to call the shots here.”
“Who does? You? Surely you didn’t come here of your own volition? Is this what you saw yourself doing as a boy?” The priest’s arm flew up, pointing at the window. The pillar of smoke stretched across the sky, though the ship had already disappeared into the blue. “Was there nothing you wanted more?”
“You don’t get to tell me what I wanted, old man.”
“You’re right, I don’t. You tell me.”
Here the Collector’s patience ended. The mask snapped to the priest. “Don’t point at the sky and pretend you know me, old man. Don’t hide in your stone house and act as if the world hasn’t passed you and your God by. Don’t act as if adhering to old traditions and fables enlightens you. It doesn’t. You know what I think? I think you don’t have the money because you can’t find any fools stupid enough to pay your fucking tithes. You are the last in a long line of men who held that post, and you are facing something worse than death – irrelevancy.” The mask’s eyes began to fog up, growing cloudy from the inside with the exertion of anger. One gloved hand came up, ripping the mask off, revealing blond hair stringy with sweat and wild sunken eyes peering from beneath.
The priest’s eyes met those of the Collector, if only for a moment. Then they fell. His hand traced a line in the dust, a series of whorls of no determinate pattern. “You have the lay of it. People don’t attend anymore.” Red light from the stained glass was beginning to creep across his face, across his bald pate. He turned back to the Collector. “Why would they? What purpose does this place have in a world where you can prolong life? Where one can easily go to other worlds? How far can God truly see?”
“Why are you telling me this, old man?”
“You asked why I could not pay. This is why.”
The Collector watched the priest, looking for something he could not see. Then he picked up the mask, rising to his feet. “You accuse me of not having purpose. If what you’ve told me is true, how can you still have purpose?”
“It’s not the task, but the choice. The choice is what drives us.”
“That doesn’t make any sense! Your purpose, your life – it’s just as much a joke as mine.”
“Yes, but who made that choice? You, or somebody else?”
“Forget this.” The Collector stuffed the mask on to his face, twisting it back into place. “I’ll be back in a week. Make sure you have my money.”
The priest said nothing in response. The Collector waited a little longer, then dragged open the church door and rushed out into the sunlight.
Outside, the day had warmed significantly. The Collector began to sweat beneath his mask. Something about it taking it off highlighted how hot it had been. He began to walk back to the train station. Along the way, he passed by the spaceport. He stopped at the fence and watched as they pulled back the glossy red-and-silver boarding ramp. The nose of the rocket was pointed straight upwards. Faces of all different colours could be seen through the portholes. A countdown began. A light beneath the rocket ignited.
As he watched the rocket launch, the Collector’s thoughts turned back to the priest and his church. He realized he was excited to return.