Grape Flavored Cigars and Funeral Pyres

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The familiar chord progression of Epitaph played on a large pair of speakers. No one particularly minded the choice, at least not enough to take the aux chord, but it was hardly doing the job of drawing more guests. Reverend Archon Celebration "Big Cheese" Horace rested in meditation, pondering unknowable secrets. Balancing on the back legs of a folding chair, a woman of his flock in a star-spangled beret that only appeared a year or two his junior watched that familiar look behind those crimson glasses, where he drew on all the wisdom of those indeterminate years, to find where he had gone wrong.

She was one of only a few who had seen behind his spectacles, yet she knew none would discuss it. Laying your whole true self before someone isn't a level of intimacy many are okay with outside of the secret consuming confessionals. At that moment however, she watched him intently but his gaze did not so much as trace her outline. He leaned against the wall of the mostly empty drug rehab center. A younger member of the flock who went by Di moved subtly in step with the slightly distracting melody while pulling baked beans, mash potatoes, and fried chicken onto her plate since she had already served her fellow brothers and sisters. They had an unfortunate amount of extras, to the point they usually gave out food to anyone who stopped by once everyone else had been fed. Di paused for a moment before making Horace a plate too.

Here under the now tired, fraying skies of Three Portlands, you could tell there was not much time left, yet the Portland that he passed through to get here was in an even worse state. So few came to rehab for an escape from addiction anymore. Not to say there were not numerous kinds of both mundane and anomalous addicts alike wandering the streets, but only the regulars and long time attendees showed up anymore. Maybe a new stranger would rarely stop by for some food, but they never did follow up visits even if they were an addict of some kind. Most of the people here were not active Fifthists though they at least understood the church as much as it could be, but of the staff members the vast majority were guests from his home state.

This place was never run by his Southern Fifth Church of Georgia, but instead by a sister congregation with differently shaped souls. However, now even their symbols fell from the windows. The woman in the beret had sat up from her chair, and returned to her task of creating agonizingly intricate geometric designs in paper, clay, wax, and glue. The new iconography drew too much discomfort to pass for the pieces of the other congregation. The decline after the failure of their grand evangelist efforts was disappointing even if Horace did not have any direct involvement other than funding, but this too he regretted. He should have done more.

A member of the sister congregation with green hair sat playing a close game of chess with a grand master, who was here visiting his brother, a heroin addict. They sat across from each other at one of the many fold-able tables next to empty plates and half full cups of soda that tasted like McDonald's Sprite. Today was the last day that the Portland rehab center would be run by Fifthists, as the outsiders called them, and it would now be handed over to some Shepherds from the Horizon Initiative; the same folks that gave him his pack of gum that he saved for guests. He knew these boringly old-school Trinitarian people had an… on going relationship with the sister congregation. Horace stood to sign the paperwork in place of a fellow Reverend, to close up her shop when she wasn't available to lock the door and say good night. It was also the day of her execution at the hands of GOC Inquisitors. Apparently they had not yet decided if they should cut off her head or wipe it clean instead. He hoped for the previous, so what was left of her soul could enter the Fifth World.

The Archon quietly took a drag from his grape flavored gas station cigar, with the same hand that was decorated with uncomfortably large solid gold rings, all paid for with donation money from long stagnant collection boxes. Despite the melancholy Math Rock that filled the room, Horace heard none of it. He prayed for the continued salvation of his fellow Reverend, while he sat nurturing the chaos of his soul and listened to the static silence of the Noosphere. Once, the vast collection of all human thought had been a lively, dynamic, hostile, and chaotic place. Every human notion and theory had been housed there. But an invasive species had now moved into their waters, an ideational shark that ate vast tons of information even to its own detriment. Horace had the eyes and ears of the Congregation, so he could still see all the information that had been functionally sucked out of human thought straight into the outer Infosphere, but to the rest of humanity, it was an ever melting glacier that they could not perceive to be shrinking. The good old Foundation and their wordsmiths had been pumping the noosphere full of conjectured fragments and terms, fighting tooth and nail to slow the decline down. It was only 2030, yet the world was on the brink of slipping into Silence.

Horace was never much of a student of anything but the cruel truths of the stars, but even he noticed as the decline started. A small child with a star on his shirt did home school history work, looking at a picture of the face of some ancient pharaoh, if they were still called that anymore. Horace had always wanted to visit Egypt since he was a kid, he was named after one of their Gods after all, so it's understandable that he would be deeply distressed after one morning it was completely erased from existence over night. Then hamburgers stopped showing up at BBQs, and no one but Horace and his buddies could remember President Abraham Lincoln or Jimi Hendrix. All dimension or movement left the noosphere shortly after that, not that they had technically ever conventionally applied to the gossamer vistas and sibylline sweeps of that conceptual sphere.

Now, even the name of his Church itself had been swept behind the iron curtain. Worst of all, Horace was supposed to be happy. Whatever "Shark" this was, supposedly it was on their side, some kind of plan that had been hatched by Brothers and Sisters he did not know the names of. Horace watched as more and more of humanity fell into what his brothers claimed was the Fifth World, while meaningless nonsense took its place. But silent doubt held him back, one that he could not properly define. The flavor of acrid blossoming in its spread was off, certainly the right kind of alien but too much aroma of old paper, not enough creole and star dust. Worst of all, the gaze of a foreign cosmos that he had always felt in the blackest vaults of his soul, sifting through his every particle, he felt no longer. Regardless, It was inevitable. No one could stop them, and the Foundation could only slow it down. They had won.

Maybe it was just the radio silence that now filled the void, the one that made the choirs of the Congregation all the harder to ring, but the Archon would not be satisfied. His growing displeasure at the current situation did not show externally, not any more than a slightly lower grin on his face. A young volunteer named Ciel who came along with his group for the ride laid with her legs curled up, a book of Fifthist gospels open on the floor in front of her. She had been smoking from a vaporizer, a potentially anomalous substance which Horace definitely should have asked about, but as it wasn't the kind of drug people visited for, he turned a blind eye. The war on drugs had ended years ago, but its not like anomalous individuals did not always have "bigger concerns" than drug offenses.

She made little attempt to continue reading the text on the floor in front of her once her hair began to frizz up. Like Horace, she was heavily psionically receptive. As long as she was not practicing her skills or meditating, she could keep each individual hair on her head straight or wavy with almost no thought, whatever way she liked it. If the world still had its youth, she might have eventually become the next great host for the Congregation, but they both knew the basal pilings of civilization wouldn't last that long. A passive glance had the reverend notice the void that had over taken her eyes. She was using an 'itation' practice borrowed from Rastafarian mysticism, used for obtaining their state of supreme coexistence I-and-I, but the dead air of the noosphere in combination with her smoking on this slow day had functionally removed any metaphysical presence she had, replacing it with the nigh omnipresent static. More butchers than surgeons, this was nothing but another idea haphazardly sliced apart and sown back together at the hands of Fifthists.

Horace heard a ring at the front door, as a crowd of mostly familiar faces shambled in. He pushed himself from the wall and motioned to his staff in general to meet the guests, while pulling a pack of gum from his pocket. The grand master only half glanced up from the game, while the green haired girl slurped on her mostly empty cup. Horace extended each of the guests a piece straight from the pack, as he widened his oh so inhuman smile, he took quiet stock of all their names as he glanced around. The repeated attendees took a piece with nothing more than a polite smile of their own, with the new comers following suit, but one regular named Atticus had a grin that did not match the others.

He hesitated, if only for a moment, before reaching down to take the piece he was offered. Thaumic sparks arched up the gentleman's arm, his body convulsed in response, launching him back. The wave had gone out faster than any of them but Horace could perceive, although he knew what was coming anyway. The rest of the group turned around as they noticed the smell of burnt flesh, which Horace was uncomfortably used to. The reverend gave a pointed glance towards the tables and food, so Di and the others beckoned the guests to enjoy a plate. Horace turned and leaned down to reach the same level as the half conscious man that lay on the floor. He tucked the pack of gum back in his coat, while he pulled off his opaque red glasses.

"You know son, I knew the Foundation was going to send someone eventually. I, however, did not expect it to be our old buddy Atticus," he said with a smile. "We haven't gotten any fresh souls for morphing since the higher ups decided to cut the marketing campaign."

The sleeper agent opened his eyelids slightly, glancing into the lights behind the reverend's eyes. "This pack's ability to infinitely produce gum is only one advantage. The other, more important one, is the ability to detect malice. Its come in handy ever since the only groups that are able to remember my Church was its own members and affiliates, and of course, the foremost users of both amnestics and mnestics on the Planet. But not even your tools can save you from this."

The agent knew to immediately shut his eyes as he glanced into that impossibly bright abyss, but it was still too late. They both felt the poisonous light seep into the man's soul. He thought of ideas that burned away at his most fundamental aspects. As the agent stared into the regress of ideas, it also stared into him, and the Congregation sat in judgement of his whole self. But still, Fivefold tendrils on an imperceptible plane held the man in one piece, not taking him to rend whole, for Horace had questions to ask.

Horace pulled the man up by his collar, holding him real close so the young Agent could smell the smoke on his breath. "What's going on Johnny? Which MTF is it this time? Give into the taste of freedom and loosen those lips. Is it the Killjoys? Hostile Takeover? Oh! maybe you're from the O5's second favorite sons, Search and Destroy?"

The agent tried to respond, but just ended up choking on the smoke of burning souls that flooded from the reverend's maw. Horace just laughed from his chest in response, "I know your boys over in Thought Patrol have been trying to watch me. I feel their eyes on the corners of my dreams. When I get the chance I'll…"

Horace's eyes drifted to the inside of the man's pockets. The smile left his face, as he pulled a silver pen from the sputtering man's pocket. In doing so, he shook the man's jacket, causing an injector for a Informational Destruction Agent to fall. Most would simply have mistaken it for a high tech pistol, but Horace recognized the undiluted potency in the cartridge before the device hit the tiles. With his left hand, he flipped a switch on the pen, and let the light of memetic chemotherapy shine out of the tip at nobody in particular. He then tossed it to the static filled member of his flock, to let her get a feel for. The light in Horace's eyes now shone with red light on top of the unknowable yellow hues, and a pipe extended from his mouth. He continued to scowl, as he now spoke with the voice of the full Congregation, a cacophonic harmony.

"You dare bring the tools for defiling all that I, no WE, find sacred under any of our holy roofs? On the day of my Sister's execution, you dare to try and strike me down with the same Murder weapon?"

The Big Cheese himself let go of his collar, but the Congregation did not release him. The agent floated in the air as his neck strained to turn towards his enemy. The Abyss shone with the red and gold lights of dying stars, and he felt himself fall into it. The bittersweet smell of burning souls, with the faint hint of grape, now turned nothing but sour, as instead of simply wafting into his lounges, every particle swarmed his senses. The silently echoed hymns of the Congregation resonated with his soul, while the static in his dazed follower's meditative mental state matched the tone.

His voice, however, still sounded Somber. "You got a square soul too, as you Foundation folks always seem to. I told you fuckers a long time ago that only round souls could fit in this hole, but that was a bit of a white lie. You shouldn't lie to someone's face, so I hope you'll forgive me for that."

The man could only sputter on the ashes of his own soul in what might have been a reply. His eyes had long failed to see anything but that unfathomable light, yet he was able to perceive the jagged edge of a ceremonial blade stretch out from the abyss without a finger being lifted.

"Technically I can make any kind of soul fit, but I'm a kinder man then you people give me credit for. Today, however? I'll make an exception."

Agent Reddmond had lost the ability to think of anything that didn't taste like cheese cake and pie, but he still somehow caught a change in the light. From the yellow and red spawned amethyst purple, then emerald green, then sapphire blue. The abyss refracted into all the colors, in and out of the visual spectrum, while paradoxically not including black or white. The agent could do nothing but convulse as every level of his being but physical was fed through a blender. Blood and wax dripped from his melting eyes and nose. In the same instant, seeds in his soul sprouted, grew into plants while absorbing the core of his being, harvested, cut up, rolled up, and ignited. His thoughts and brain matter were dissolved in the caustic technicolor sea. His beliefs and languages were defragmented and picked apart for all they were worth, then consumed, digested, and pissed out. His Name and whole identity were crushed up, cut with laundry detergent, and snorted.

When the lone fragments were finally gathered with a dust pan, and forced through the "hole" of the Congregation, the agent's body no longer lied within the bounds of human perception. Horace's eyes rested for a no more than a moment on his shades, before pushing the spectacles back into place with a pointed middle finger, shuttering the carnivorous lights. A memory from the summer of 96 fluttered from the depths of his mind on a breeze of nostalgia, bringing a wish for the time when all he needed to hide the glare was some contacts dyed in a liar's intent. Horace stood and left the remnants of the man to burn on the existential funeral pyre while he helped the other guests. The Archon wiped the minds of the volunteers and rehabilitators with a thought, letting it melt into wax before falling into the Fifth World with the rest of him. Only Ciel's mind was too blank to bleach clean or block out, so she simply sat herself up uninterrupted to watch the fading motley embers be snuffed out by the informational tides. All that remained was his clothing and personal items, which none could see but Horace.

Shortly after the guests had been fed, and the regulars had gone to their activities, the day began to wind down. The light hanging in the skybox kissed the border where the upper and lower folds met to encase the city-state. Either the artificial sun had begun to succumb to decay or time itself was contorting, as dusk had rode in too early for this summer night. None of the news outlets dare say it, but there were rumors The Mayor was finally going senile. As the skyline half consumed the false celestial body, the two shepherds arrived at the concrete of the front steps.

Katharine Drexel was a scholar who had traveled from the shores of the Island of Portland in the United Kingdom. Her main job was to oversee various charity works for the Initiative, but her specialty was the study of anomalous religions, to find means of crafting new converts. She was here fulfilling both her charity and academic roles. Horace had foreseen in the patchwork tides of unmanifested futures that she very well may become canonized after her death. Unfortunately, she had a fascination for the Fifthists, one that he suspected she would one day use to soar too close to the sun, rendering her nothing more than another unnamed cadaver dissolving in the brine of the Fifth World. Her colleague was Beckett Rigobert, a local community leader who ran an old Library on the other side of Three Portlands, with a towering build and a massive cross on his chest. He had an imposing presence which dissolved the moment his chocolate covered voice reached the reverend's ears. He was a powerful lynchpin in the Initiative's political influence in this central point of power behind the veil of secrecy. If things went really poorly, then Drexel's fall might pull her closest friends and allies into the depths with her.

Horace greeted the shepherds with his own voice, and genuinely thanked them for taking over the center, although it was with a somber tone. They set the paperwork out on one of the many tables, while the host served them dinner. Despite it being late, they accepted the offer of sweet tea from the refrigerator. Katharine tried not to let the glint in her eye show despite her desire to collect the remaining Fifthist pieces that decorated the room, as there were several she did not recognize. Horace knew she had been studying his Southern Fifthists, but that was mostly an open secret at this point. The woman in the beret had been certain to make it look like all the new pieces had no surmisable age, despite their obvious distinctness from the local pieces. After two spots had been set with napkins and plastic forks, The reverend went through and signed the proper documents while the shepherds enjoyed their meal.

Once they had both finished their tasks, the staff had mostly finished cleaning up. As thanks for the food, Drexel and Rigobert took over early to finish closing up for the night. The archon thanked them genuinely as he slipped on his coat. Horace was going to miss those two after he ascends to the Fifth World. Unfortunately, they were more valuable as a ticking time bomb in the Initiative's power structure than they would be as another couple Congregation members. The wax and wire structures had been formed to influence what color and shape explosion her soul would make, while fueling her obsession. This was the other reason the Fifthists were moving out, the loss of a central community pillar would be the last nail in the coffin for this once blossoming state.

He stood in the cool air outside the locked doors of the Fifth Point Three Portlands Rehab facility, letting the rain drench his checkered overcoat while his cigar somehow remained lit, as he looked down at the items of the dead agent. The staff members he had brought with him had all dispersed for the night but one. Ciel continued to zone out, but she was otherwise unaffected by her close observation of the memetic patterns from the pen. Despite not being forced it into its usual shape, her hair had straightened again from the rain. He hummed himself a hymn, not as the Congregation, but as himself. Most Fifthist hymns were incomprehensible to outsiders, but Horace's mind had been changed to much to care. He sang it without really thinking of the words, but he subconsciously meditated on them. The words of the song spoke of a promise to make a better world, a promise to not take okay when you could shine brighter than the sun. Above all else, it was a promise to not let hopeless causes die, to unearth the past, and force it into your own image. He sang the last verse about continuing the legacy of the fallen until it was his time to join them. Ciel walked with him, but she simply continued to mirror the dead air of the ideational terrain.

As his voice was drowned out again by the pouring rain, he glanced at his watches. The apple watch at the base of his wrist was dead, but the $19000 gold wristwatch and the arcade Spiderman one both said it was 9:34 PM. The noosphere had long been too quiet and empty to get a proper read on his brothers and sisters outside of the congregation, but somehow he felt a light die. He felt the death of his fellow reverend even from across the country. The girl finally stirred. Her eyes focused. She felt it too.

He steeled what was left of his Soul, and decided then and there, that he would not accept this outcome. Most of what he found from the would be assassin's effects he already knew or found unremarkable, but one thing was certain. The Foundation believed that he might be able to stop The Bottom Feeder, destroy the memetic chemotherapy industry that he believed had all but wiped out Fifthist movements, and to maim all who were responsible. He chuckled as he grinned just a little too sharp and wide. If those fellows at the Foundation had this much faith in him, then how could he not have it in himself.

He passed Ciel a grape cigar for herself, then ducked into an electronics store that was about to close, and placed a wad of bills on the counter. He waited as a tired employee brought him a burner phone. He scribbled a design with various stars and eyes onto a posted note. As they walked away from the store and towards the motel, he posted the sigil on the back of it, keeping out any unwanted ears as he made his phone call.

"Heyyy, Dr. Gupta. That's right, I know you wouldn't hang up on your old Pal. Listen buddy, I need you to do me a solid. You know, I helped you out after last time, so I just need you to pass me your answer key…"

Reverend Archon Celebration "Big Cheese" Horace and Fellow Associates coming to a distant century near you!!

Hope you're ready, slick. Remember, Stars may die in threes, but worlds die in fives. Like insects injected with maggots. Those boys over at the Foundation are gonna have a fun time coming up with how to contain what I got in mind. Better brush up on my Cuneiform…

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