For an integrated experience, the author suggests listening to:
‘Worlds In Collision’ by God Is An Astronaut whilst reading (the author claims no ownership, copyright or control of this song)
Prefer audio to text? Listen to this chapter instead!
The Priest winced as he got down on to his knees and began to pray. The years of prostration had taken its toll on his old joints, yet he never complained. He recounted the stories, lit the candles and performed the rituals, as was dictated by his tradition.
Battered and torn robes adorned his shoulders, off white in colour. Around his neck sat a golden cross held in place by a thin leather cord that he kept tucked away under his shirt. Soft blue eyes, gentle wrinkle lines and a prominent nose further gave his aging body away.
The priest moved towards the altar, and whilst staring at the picture of his messiah, a tear began to fall from his eye.
"Lord Jesus Christ son of God have mercy on me, a sinner. Please help us all in this time of need. Guide my fellow Naturals and Integrates alike to your love and ever lasting peace, amen."
The church was a small and rough wooden building, a shack really. Just enough room for the priest and a couple of rows of devotees; few attended these days anyway. It seemed that the more Integrated the society became, the less they connected to religion or even to themselves. The regular raids from the Nations for Lasting Peace didn't help either.
Their newly established subdivision, known as ‘the Bureau of Religious and Ideological Acceptance’ had the stated mandate to ensure toleration and safe practice for every and all Nations for Lasting Peace approved belief systems. But in reality, these raids were a coordinated intimidation racket.
Pay the fine, stay in line and you will stay on the ‘approved list’. The only other way that guaranteed approved status, was to ensure that all members of the congregation were Integrated.
The priest was deeply troubled by the Integration process, he often spoke of it in his sermons, warning any who would listen. Today’s was no different.
"The Integration process seems to take something from people ... Nothing that is easily observable to the general population or even to the Integrates themselves... But something changes deep inside them, it changes their mind, potentially even their soul. Integrates seem to lose the ability to pray or meditate, their connection to God and even to themselves seems all but severed.”
The priest went on, his passion rising with each word.
"The best that they have is those 'Stimul-Doses', really it's the only time that they rest. It's not a relationship with God however, it seems more akin to dissociation and distraction. It numbs them. It's like they can't be alone with themselves, their minds are tortured by constant fear and anxiety. They are little more than addicts, with an unquenchable lust to upgrade, again and again and again.”
The priest slowly climbed down from his alter and began walking amongst his devotees. As he did, his voice lowered to a whisper, forcing the attentive congregation to lean in.
"There are only two emotions that can influence a man's behaviour, hope and fear. Yes we all have fears, but we can't let them overwhelm us. We must never let our reservations and worry destroy our hope. Have faith that the Lord will guide you, hold you in his arms and look out for you."
Following his sermon, the priest approached each of the members in his small flock, all Naturals, asking of them and their families. He would then share what little food and water he had with whoever needed it. Regularly he would go without. The church itself was often used as a hostel, housing those that did not have a place to go.
The priest circled the room, his eyes met with a middle aged man who was in tears. As the man spoke the desperation was clear in his voice.
"My family is suffering, we have no shelter and very little food. My young girl is sick, and we cannot afford the medicine. I can't get a job. Nobody's hiring Naturals anymore. I don't know what to do."
Clutching at the cross beneath his robes, the priest sighed heavily. This situation was fast becoming the norm that Naturals find themselves in.
"Have faith in the Lord and all you need will be provided to you. It may not come in the form that you expect, but God will help you.”
The man was not impressed for he had heard it all before.
"I have had faith, for years I have prayed. I have hoped and wished for a better lot in life, and this is what I am rewarded with. My family cannot eat faith! God has never quenched our thirst! Faith is not healing my little girl. I'm worried we will lose her soon."
He began to cry again. The priest embraced the man and responded with soft compassion.
"I understand your anger, at times it can seem that the stresses of this world can become overwhelming. God works in mysterious ways, but don't lose hope, help will be given to all those who ask for it. Please bring your family and stay here for as long as you need. Share this food and water, and hopefully I can find some donations for you and your family in this desperate time of need."
With that the priest handed him a loaf of bread and told him to return with his family in tow. The priest then got to work, asking the local people for donations and gifts. Anything that could be used to help that poor man and his sick daughter.
The Naturals typically responded with some bitterness and resentment.
"Give? Donate? I don't think you understand Father, we can hardly survive with what we have, and you are asking me to give up something for a complete stranger? Are you kidding me?"
The Integrates where even less sympathetic to the man's plight.
"You mean to say I interrupted a Stimul-Dose for this? For the problems of a Natural? Pft, please. Miserable creatures, the lot of you."
The Priest pleaded and begged, appealing to their humanity, hoping to trigger some sympathy from deep inside them.
"Please help, you have so much. A small donation could ... would change somebody's life. Look deep within, you know it's the right thing to do."
Bang. Door after door was slammed in the priest’s face. It was a lost cause. After hours of trying, the best that the priest was able to produce for his efforts was blistered feet. Despite this he had not lost hope, he returned to the church to seek guidance from his Lord.
Once again the priest knelt in front of the picture of his messiah. He winced in pain from the arthritis developing in his knees and began to pray, asking how he could help the man and his family. As he knelt, his golden cross fell out from under his robes. Dangling from his neck it swung into a ray of moonlight that was shining through an open window, a twinkle of light reflected onto his eye. He now knew what he needed do. God was in his heart, with him always. Not held in his few earthly possessions.
At that instant, a sharp rapping came from the entrance way. The man was standing at the doorstep. Alone and looking more distressed and dishevelled than before, a look of desperation in his eyes.
"Please tell me you have the medicine! She is too ill even to walk here. My wife is with her, but I fear this might be the end. Did you get it? Did you raise enough to help?”
"No, not exactly, but I think I have a soluti ...."
Upon hearing the first words from the priest’s mouth, the man collapsed to the floor. Wailing and crying out loud, both condemning and pleading with his God. Desperate for answers, desperate for a solution. Tears were streaming from his face like an endless torrent.
The priest knelt down to console him, to let him know how he could help. To let him know that all hope was not lost. As he leant closer, the cross swung and dangled in front of the man's eyes. Glimmering and dancing in the moonlight the cross swung. The man’s prayers had been answered.
"You were right Father. God does work in mysterious ways. I am sorry for doubting you"
With that the man reached into his pocket producing a small knife, and forcibly plunged it straight into the priest’s chest. Blood instantly began to flow from the wound, staining the priests off-white robes a dark crimson, covering the cross completely. The man then forcibly pulled at the cross, snapping the leather cord and dragging the priest to the ground in the process. The priest spluttered and coughed, blood already spraying from his mouth.
"With the money from this I can Integrate, I will finally be able to provide for my family. I may even be able to get them Integrated. No longer will we live in fear, no longer will we suffer hunger pangs. Never again will we be on the verge of death. Illness will just be a sad and distant memory."
A smile came to his face, not of joy or happiness for what he had just done, rather it was a smile of relief, his family’s troubles were all but over. That left the moment he looked down at the dying priest. He had never seen a man so frail, nor anybody covered in so much blood.
Clutching at his chest and gasping for breath the priest began to speak.
"Take the cross, take this church, take it all. I give it to you willingly. It's yours."
Breathing quickly and struggling to maintain consciousness he continued.
"I ask but one thing, please don't Integrate, it will take the last of the humanity that you have left in you. Your daughter deserves a chance to find God. A chance to grow up human. A chance to live naturally. Please don't take that from her."
A white fog began to creep up and glaze over the priest’s eyes, and with great difficulty he spoke his last.
"Don't lose hope. I forgive you.”
The man looked down at the blood stained cross in his hands and then at priest’s lifeless body slumped on the ground. Seeing the full extent of his actions, he quickly fled the scene and raced home. Perplexed, he ruminated over the events that had taken place that night.
"I had to do it. I had to. Integration is the only way."
He passed a pawn shop and quickly traded the cross. The teller looked at him suspiciously but did not question his behaviour or the blood on the item. Gold was extremely valuable after all. Besides, all the man had wanted was an outdated ‘preliminarily Integration software and hardware’ model.
The man hastily took his items and left for his family. As he grew nearer he could hear shrieking and wailing. His distraught wife's voice seemed to carry in the night.
"She's dead. Oh God She’s gone!”
The man broke down and collapsed in a heap, dropping his newly purchased goods in the process. He began to cry. First for his daughter, then for the priest, and finally for the part of himself that he could never reclaim.