A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.
Concluding the story that began here.
I spent most of the next day chasing down sand bugs—I and every one of the workers who could be spared from the main job of getting the equipment down from orbit and setting it up where it was needed. You might think that collecting sand bugs would be fun. You would be wrong.
Every so often one of the locals would stop by to watch and give us some helpful hints (“That one’s getting away”). And most of them would ask the question eventually: “Is it true that you’re building a room to keep God out?”
“I can’t tell you that,’’ I always said. But they naturally took my reply as confirmation.
That evening Rahab gave me a tour of the reed marshes. I told her now thrillingly beautiful she was, and she smiled and looked even more beautiful.
The next day we started forming concrete blocks with dead sand bugs in them, and that evening Rahab and I toured the wood shop—after hours, of course, when no one was there. I told her I loved her desperately, and she confessed to me that she sometimes wished she hadn’t taken her vows. I considered that big progress.
The next day we cast the columns, with an appreciative audience of locals who lost no opportunity to ask me, “Is it true…”
“I can neither confirm nor deny the rumors,” I would answer, usually before the question was finished. It was a useless answer, because obviously just about everyone in Bethel had heard about the Godproof room, but it was the answer I had.
That evening Rahab and I saw the canning plant. “Rahab,” I asked her, “do you find me attractive at all?
“Oh, of course I do. I confess it. ‘Confession is the detergent of the spirit’—Wit & Wisdom 14:5. It is the act, not the thought, that makes the sin, and it’s cleansing to have the thought in the open.”
“But you have no desire to act on that attraction?”
She looked down with a shy smile. “What I desire doesn’t have to make me sin against my vows.”
In my mind I was already picturing the victory dance I was going to do in front of Wright.
The next few days went the same way: hard work all day, followed by a delightful hour or two with Rahab in the evening. We toured the upholstery shop, the power-broadcasting station, the central laundry, the junior-high-school biology department, the sign-painting shop, the communications office, and the herb garden. Each time Rahab seemed just a little more susceptible, but she never did quite suscept.
At last—and it was really only a few days, because Wright had spared no expense on the equipment—the new council chamber and treasury was finished and completely Godproofed six different ways. Wright had even supervised the movement of the Bethelites’ treasury himself (they liked to keep their money in the form of good old-fashioned shiny metal, which was more abundant than usual in their otherwise bleak territory). The official opening would be the next day. And that meant that Wright and I would be leaving soon, which meant that I had to complete my conquest now or admit defeat. And I was not going to admit defeat.
I asked Rahab if she would like to take a walk out in the desert and look at—I couldn’t come up with anything else—the rocks. She thought that would be splendid.
The last rays of evening sun were falling sideways across the rocks, and after a bit of a walk we sat together on an invitingly flat rock, still warm from the afternoon sun. And I was about to mount my most vigorous attack when Rahab surprised me by mounting her own.
“John, is it true that… Do you really look on me to lust after me?”
She was looking straight ahead, not at me, and I realized the question had cost her some considerable courage. And courage should be rewarded.
“Of course I do. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known. It wouldn’t be natural for me not to.”
‘’Do you imagine… doing things with me?”
I moved just a little closer, so that our hips were touching. “Wonderful things.”
Her eyes half-closed, she said, “It’s good to confess our sinful thoughts, one to another, before they become deeds.”
“I think those thoughts about you every night.”
“Tell me what you think,” she said breathily. “It’s good to confess your immoral thoughts.”
“I imagine our lips pressed together,” I said, trying to match her breathy tone. “I imagine your arms around me, and mine around you, and your tongue slipping between my lips and meeting mine.”
“Oh, yes!” she puffed. “Go on.”
“I imagine your robe failing away, and my hands slowly passing down the soft skin of your back.”
“I imagine it too!” she half-whispered, with her eyes fully closed now. “I confess it! I confess to wishing I could feel your warm, strong hands on my skin…”
This was not a chance to be missed. I took her hand and murmured (keeping my voice in the low and seductive register), “You could, Rahab. We could find a place right now, and you could feel all the most wonderful things a woman is capable of feeling.”
“But I can’t,” she whispered, gripping my hand, her breathing shallow and fast.
“You can,” I insisted, calmly and forcefully. “You can. Oh, my lovely Rahab, you were created for those pleasures.”
“But I’m a deaconess—”
“No one needs to know. It could be tonight. It could be now. A private spot—”
“It would be known. It would.”
“No one would know, Rahab! What you do is your affair! No one would know!”
“God would know! God would——”
She stopped suddenly. Her eyes shot open.
A moment later, I was seized by the same idea.
“Rahab,” I said carefully, “do you think you’d like to see the inside of the new council chamber? It’s a very interesting construction.”
“Yes,” she said just as carefully, choosing each word as if she were crafting a legal document. “Yes, I would like to see the new council chamber, which after all is where important decisions affecting everyone in Bethel will be made.”
“I think you’ll find it very educational,” I said, pushing my luck a bit.
We stood up together (and I noticed she didn’t relinquish my hand) and started off at a fast walk that became a trot as we came nearer the settlement. We didn’t say another word as we jogged through the dusty streets between the ugly low buildings—by this time I knew them all by name, though I won’t burden you with that information—and around the corner to the new building Wright and I had just supervised——
Where we stopped dead, because there was already a crowd in front of it.
They were standing around awkwardly, and it was very quickly obvious that they were standing around in pairs. I saw a number of young women in blue-trimmed white robes.
Rahab withdrew her hand.
“What’s going on here?” I asked the nearest young couple.
“You’re number thirty-eight,” the female half of the couple answered.
“We’ve been taking numbers,” her companion explained. “Each couple gets a quarter-hour in the council chamber, except for couples fifteen and sixteen, who wanted to go in together for some reason, so they get half an hour. So you should be going in at about half past two, because we’re already up to number seven.”
Rahab was shrinking away from me.
I was about to pursue her without being too obvious about it when suddenly a voice of obvious authority boomed out with the same question I had asked:
“What’s going on here?”
• • •
Well, that was the end of the party. It broke up immediately. I didn’t stay around to see whose booming voice it was, and neither did Rahab. In fact, I couldn’t find her anywhere. She had slipped away silently and successfully. I hate to think what happened to couple seven, who were in the Godproof room at the time, but that’s not my concern.
I stomped back to the guest house, where I didn’t speak to Wright all night. And he didn’t say anything to me either, which suggested to me that he knew. I don’t know how he knew, but I’m positive he knew. He always knows.
The next morning there was a gala dedication ceremony, and by “gala” the Bethelites apparently meant “with potato salad.” Rahab was there, and she spoke to me with scrupulously distant politeness. I had lost. Wright had won.
There were speeches for hours, and somehow they all avoided saying anything about the real purpose of the new council chamber and treasury. What God didn’t know wouldn’t hurt the Bethelites, apparently. And then the boring speeches were finished and the boring prayer service took over. And then at last the new council chamber was declared open, and the Council of Elders moved in for its first official meeting.
Wright had had enough of it all. Normally we might have stayed around for a while to see whether the Bethelites planned to give us a testimonial dinner or something, but Wright was exceptionally eager to get away. He had even, without telling me, chartered some crate to take us back, which I thought the Bethelites were supposed to take care of. It was waiting for us, he said. So we hurriedly packed, and I loaded our luggage on the shuttle. Just to make my state of annoyance absolutely perfect, Wright’s luggage seemed to be about three times as heavy as I remembered it being.
It was while I was loading my own luggage that we learned that we weren’t going to be paid.
“What?” I bellowed at the poor sap who brought us the news.
“Um,” he said, apparently gauging my ability to break his neck, “it was the council’s decision. They have a lot of spending to do, and, uh, it was decided that your fee didn’t fit in the budget.”
“Well, they can just go back and shove it in there,” I said. Actually, I think I was shouting. “They can kick something else out. They can starve the widows and orphans for all I care. So this is what comes of not being accountable to God, is it? Well, you may not be accountable to God, but let me tell you you’re still accountable to me. I’m going to take this to—”
“Let it go,” Wright said.
“ ‘Win some, lose some.’ Aphorisms 12:6. We’ll just be on our way.”
My jaw was hanging down to about waist level. Of all the times for Wright to get philosophical! I was so shocked that I mutely followed Wright into the shuttle, without even thinking of saying goodbye to the love of my life.
We were almost in orbit by the time I found my voice.
“Well, this trip was a disaster. I mean, you’ve done up some pretty good disasters before, but this one just about takes the prize. I lost the love of my life, and as if that weren’t bad enough, we spent two and a half weeks down there in that dump and didn’t get a penny out of it.”
“But we solved a couple of interesting problems.”
“Maybe all you care about is the problem, but I had plans for my third of that fee.” I sagged in my seat. “I was going to buy a nice little cottage somewhere for Rahab and me. But now we come away with nothing, and all you got out of it was the joy of building a council chamber where these Bethelites can meet and think of new ways to stiff us.”
“And a treasury. Don’t forget I supervised the new Godproof treasury, too.”
“Oh, yes, so they can——”
Here I stopped, because I had just glanced out the window and seen the ship Wright had chartered. It was not an old crate at all. It was a shiny new luxury cruiser with all the trimmings.
I looked up at the half-deaf pilot and judged that he couldn’t hear us from up there. “Your luggage was awfully heavy,” I said to Wright in a much lower voice.
“I anticipated some trouble with the fee,” Wright explained. “Considering the difficulty of collecting it, I increased the fee somewhat and added a substantial collection charge. I also took into account the fact that Bethel has no extradition treaties with anywhere else.”
From little incidents like this I have learned never to underestimate Wright.
I heard recently that our trip to Bethel made the career of that down-on-her-luck architect we hired. She stayed on to design the vast prison complex there (that, apparently, was where our fee was budgeted to go instead of to us), which has given Bethel the highest incarceration rate in the civilized galaxy, along with (I just looked it up) a reputation for rather old-fashioned corporal punishments; and from that experience she built up a flourishing practice designing prisons and torture camps for other oppressive authoritarian regimes.
So we solved the Bethelites’ discipline problem, gave a decent architect a prosperous new career, and made dictators and tyrants across the galaxy happy.
I suppose you could call it a job well done. I’m still not sure how God feels about it, but I’ve decided to take Wright’s advice and not worry about that.