“Honey, I’m going for a walk. Do you need anything from the store?”

“No, we’re fine,” replied Simon’s wife, in the middle of changing the diaper of their newborn son.

Simon got into his electric truck and drove two miles down the country road to a small river park that gets crowded on the weekends. He turned off the engine and stared at the wide dirt trail for a long minute before getting out. On this weekday afternoon, he would be the only person there.

What a time to have a child, he thought. All manner of pure evil was being normalized. Just the other day, he was told of the newest scientific trend, the “flay dinner party,” where friends would slice tiny pieces of skin from each other using a medical tool offering painless excision, mix it with a spicy tomato relish, and eat it to candlelight for a range of purported nutritional and mental health benefits. Simon’s priest told him that society was beyond the wickedness of the Bible, and didn’t understand why Jesus had not yet returned.

The doctors wouldn’t let Simon be with his wife in the delivery room. It took a whole day for them to even let him hold the baby. Who knows what they injected him with. The latest problem on Simon’s mind was the box of feed the government drone dropped off every Monday. The vegetables seemed way larger than the days when he could pick out produce at the store, and most items contained a faint odor of bleach that couldn’t be washed out. At least the proprietary seasoning on the laboratory meat made it taste real enough.

After walking through the park for a while, Simon made it to the narrow river. He sat on a rock beside the water and focused his eyes on a fallen log that many used as a bridge to cross the river, before a sign was put up forbidding it. He took out his black prayer rope, the one he kept in his truck’s glove compartment, and held it in his right hand. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. His eyes felt heavy, and he wanted to close them, but he resisted the urge so that images of his wretched past wouldn’t appear. He made it a third way through the rope while staring at the fallen log when behind him he heard the sound of someone clearing their throat.

Simon turned his head and saw a frail old man glaring at him through round glasses. The thick bags underneath the old man’s eyes were stacked on top of each other like that of a lizard. His exaggerated nose dominated his face, all but hiding two gray lips. He had to be at least ninety years old, but to Simon’s eyes he possessed a brightly contrasted sheen as if he were being displayed on a quantum television set.

“Can I help you?” Simon asked, wondering where the man came from.

The old man shook his head and squeezed his lips white. “How many violations can I count? You don’t have on your face lock. You left your domestic passport at home. And is that Christian contraband I see?”

Simon loosened his grip on the prayer rope, almost dropping it from his hand.

“But you died last year. It was in the news. President Shaniqua spoke at your funeral.”

“And now I am back, and I am here talking to you and I own this park and…”

“No, leave me alone. You’re just a hologram.”

Simon turned his head back to the river and continued to pray, this time aloud. It wasn’t long until he heard a muffling sound in the distance that soon became the distinct trampling of boots on dirt.

“I may be just a hologram, but my friends are not.”

Simon turned back around. Ten or twelve soldiers lined up behind the old man, decked out in all black, faces covered in tinted masks. Simon had thought that “hologram enforcement” was just a conspiracy theory. He was told that when a powerful man died, his bodily image and a likeness of his consciousness were uploaded onto a computer system that could then be recreated nearly anywhere in the country through the use of mobile network towers. Simon was conversing with the avatar of Nathan Wolfe, a tech billionaire who died the previous year after his sixth or so heart attack as recreated by expert computer programmers hired by those of the regime who were still living. They believed that using familiar faces would invoke terror, as if seeing a ghost, and breed compliance in a way that their measures of control leading up to the Global Rebellion of 2026 had not.

“I need you to listen carefully,” Nathan said, enunciating every word. The soldier to the right of Nathan raised his rifle and pointed it at Simon. “You’re playing a very dangerous game by breaking the law to come here, but I will give you a final chance. The punishment for what you have done is re-education by nano-vaccination, an outcome that involves… side effects, as you already know, but this is done for the harmony of the world, so that the three billion people living on this overcrowded planet can co-exist in peace without conflict. The vaccination will not kill you, but the things you believe now, you will not believe later, and the things you disbelieve now, you will come to miraculously believe. Your wife will still look at you as you, as the man she chose to marry–for some foolish reason I may add as your dangerous behavior now indicates–and you will not be inhibited to raise your child in a way that is more or less fitting for what it means to be a human parent. The promise I offer you is that if you receive the nano-vaccination, which my agent can administer today, right now, you won’t be bothered again, and you will be able to enjoy the best entertainments we can produce, beamed directly to your quantum television set, which is about to get an exciting upgrade. You will eat the most advanced foods that our scientists can create. You will even be allowed to experience a bond for your wife and child, which you may perceive as love, but without all that hateful and extreme baggage you have corrupted yourself with by consuming forbidden materials and practicing archaic rituals that will only cause those whom you care about great harm.” Nathan flashed his bright eyes at the prayer rope.

“Okay I’ll put on the face lock and carry my passport at all times,” Simon said. “I just needed a break from it all. I won’t disobey again.”

“Oh I’m afraid we’re too far past that. The problem is that your psychology is damaged, disordered. Our scientists have discovered a mutated gene that makes you believe in myths, fairytales, and scientific impossibilities. These beliefs are causing friction in our world. You are–by a small but measurable degree–corrupting this planet and spreading that corruption to others, to your wife, to your child, to those in your secret church, which is no secret at all, for we know everything, and we have allowed things to get as far as they have, and maybe it’s time for us to close that church, because it’s up for us to decide, and…” Nathan stopped and blinked in a repeating cycle of five blinks, three blinks, and eight blinks before his left shoulder twitched and he began speaking again. “Your family does not deserve the pain and suffering that your disobedience is bringing to them. Halt this theatrical worship in God! Stop this egotistical, self-centered sham! Think of your life and your family. Think of your neighbor, those in your church, who you are supposed to love as yourself, if I’m not mistaken.”

Simon did not respond. He stared at Nathan, curious about the specific workings of the hologram, wondering if he could explain it to others, if anyone would believe him, if the nano-vaccination would leave his brain intact to even be able to recollect Nathan for what he really was. A minute passed in silence; the only noise was a soldier who cleared his throat and the warbling song of a male American robin looking for a mate. Then Nathan perceived movement. Simon’s thumb and forefinger were advancing through the prayer rope, one knot at a time. Simon was asking Jesus Christ to have mercy on his wife and son.

“You’re praying! I must say, Simon, computer-generated or not, I am continually amazed that people are willing to throw away their lives for a lie.”

All the remaining soldiers pointed their weapons at Simon. He looked at each one in a vain attempt to identify with their humanity, but he could not see their eyes, their faces, their hair, or even any visible skin. He wondered if they were holograms too.

Simon inhaled and extended his right arm in front of his body, opening his hand to the sky, his prayer rope dangling from his fingers. The breath of the robin’s song could have blown it onto the ground. Nathan widened his eyes and gave a crooked grin at what was appearing to be an act of submission to the regime. Another success for those chosen by blood to rule the Earth! Another sealed soul! Only the programmers could know if Nathan perceived a feeling of happiness and power like he would had he been alive, but any possibility of his digital pleasure was eliminated when Simon clasped the first three fingers of his hand and rested the remaining two against his palm and then pulled back his arm and touched his forehead and said, “Glory to the Father.”

The force of the twelve bullets that entered Simon’s body pushed him backwards. He felt an intense heat throughout his torso but perceived no pain and was still able to stand. He managed to touch his right hand to what was left of his stomach and said, “And to the Son…”

At least sixty more shots were fired, nearly all hitting their target. Nathan snarled and clenched his fists as the transgressor fell onto the rocks by the river’s edge. The sound of the water grew faint in Simon’s ear as the very center of his vision became bright like the sun. He had no ability to hold air in his lungs but was able to mouth “And to the Holy Spirit” before his soul departed.

As if a switch had been flicked, the hologram vanished. The troops began to exit the park. The address of their next assignment, Simon’s house, was spoken into their headsets. Nathan Wolfe would meet them there.

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