Failure of Faith

Оповідь українською

Story by Oleksii Dubrov

Illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk

“How long has he been doing this?”

Abraham asked, bending his head from side to side to stretch his long skinny neck. He dropped down to his right knee beside the blonde, blue-eyed boy playing in the corner. Abraham’s knee crackled and popped on the way down, echoing in the half-empty room. The interior of the room was unremarkable, furnished only with a lopsided dresser and a pile of old bedsheets on the floor serving as a bed. It was standard residential space with no signs the principles of fairness and equality were being violated.

“I noticed it last night for the first time,” replied the woman with short-cropped hair, rubbing her shoulders with her arms crossed over her chest. The plus-sized tunic and pants, both made from thick wool, hung on her body like a sack. An occasional draft billowed her clothing which brushed against the woman’s barely conspicuous body.

“Have you noticed any suspicious-looking people around?” Abraham carefully inspected the object the boy had been playing with, cobbled together from scraps of wood. The boy wore a large grey tunic just like his mother’s, and identical to Abraham’s.

“No, he never left my side. That’s why I got scared and came to you as soon as I saw it. Honest!” she said defensively.

“Where’s your husband?” Abraham turned to face the woman while keeping the boy in his sights.

“He lives in Berlin with our older son… last I heard.”

“I’m taking him away.” Abraham stood up and put his arm around the boy, pulling him closer.

“But he’s only five!” the woman cried, taking a step toward her son. Abraham stopped her with an outstretched hand.

“Ten years ago, I uncovered a plot by three-year-olds. So don’t doubt for a second there’s something impure going on here. We’ll ask him a few questions, and then…”

“Will you kill him?” Tears swelled in the woman’s eyes and streamed down her cheeks, despite her best efforts to hold them back.

“You see what he’s constructed.” Abraham pointed to the hand-made toy stool. “No other kids his age know how to make such things. This is a violation. Either someone taught him, or you’ve done a poor job looking after him.”

The mother chewed her dirty fingernails nervously in a bid to keep herself together. Abraham turned his gaze towards the woman’s face, waited for their eyes to meet, and said in an unemotional and monotonous voice:

“If the crime is confirmed, his life will become a necessary sacrifice in the name of a fair and just order. As for you… we shall see…” Abraham said, approaching the exit. “You can go back to work for now,” he threw in, speaking over his shoulder.

The man led the five-year old boy out onto the cold street. It was already dark, even though it was only 3 PM. Avoiding all the potholes formed over the years where cobblestones used to be, Abraham walked with his head down, like the dozen or so other people they passed along the way. Abraham remembered the traffic jams on the streets of the former French capital from his youth. Nowadays, you could walk a couple hundred meters without encountering anyone along the way. He even remembered seeing snow, but that was a long time ago. The four seasons had melted into one long season in the European Territories, and it seemed like it was always late autumn.

The boy walked beside him in silence, trying to sneak an occasional peek at the surroundings. Abraham noticed the boy looking and yanked him by the hand, forcing the boy to keep his head down. After walking a few blocks, they turned down a dark alley overrun with rotten boards and other trash. It reeked of decay, maybe even mixed with dead flesh. The boy winced and rubbed his burning eyes, which were unintentionally tearing up.

Abraham stopped, turned the boy to face him, and took two steps back. Taking out the pistol he always carried in a frayed leather holster under his tunic, he pointed it straight at the blonde boy’s forehead. The boy raised his blue eyes to look at him, and Abraham’s hand began to shake. He lowered the pistol. “Just like your eyes, my dear son,” he thought, swallowing the lump of sadness threatening to burst forth from his throat. The man took the boy by the shoulder to turn him back around, then changed his mind. He exhaled deeply before finally getting a hold of himself. He’s a pro and needs to do the job like always.

“You’ve done this a hundred times! He must be sacrificed as required by the law of fair and just order, like your Isaac had to be,” Abraham convinced himself.

The man raised the gun again, held it to the boy’s forehead, and pulled the trigger. The tiny body fell like a sac at his feet onto a pile of garbage. The sound of the gunshot bounced off the walls and echoed deep down the alley, slowly disappearing into the heaps of unwanted waste. Abraham glanced around. Had anyone seen his hesitation? Thankfully, the street was empty.

He put the pistol back in the holster and left the alley, holding his arms tight across his chest, as if locking it all in. The walk back to the office finally calmed him down. Crossing the Seine on an old stone bridge, Abraham approached the House of Justice, his place of employment for the last thirty tears. The massive building, once bedecked with sculptures, now stood battered and stripped of any adornments. The high ceilings, bare, cracked walls with remnants of burgundy paint, and two broken pieces of stucco molding on the walls of the expansive hall were all that remotely hinted at the building’s past grandeur in the heart of Paris.

A sudden gust of frigid wind chilled Abraham to his very bones. There had never been any glass panes in the windows of his second-floor office since he had first started working there. At one point he had secured permission from the collective to shutter the frames with old boards, but they did not prevent the cold or constant stench of burning garbage from getting in. There was nobody to complain to. And frankly, he was not allowed to complain anyway, as he and all his unofficially subordinate staff had to work in the same conditions, because technically, nobody was subordinate to anybody.

Abraham got up from his stool and did a couple of squats to try and warm himself a little, followed by a few dozen push-ups. He felt the stiffness leave his body as the movement generated a faint warmth in his muscles. Officially, Abraham had never been the head of the Paris People’s Guard, as any and all hierarchies were banned when the European Territories were created. But the special services could not function without a vertical structure, so The Fair Ones looked the other way. Like they did with sports, although, according to the 2027 Constitution, sports were deemed to be sources of inequality and prejudice, along with knowledge, money, and national distinctiveness.

Suddenly, he heard a quiet, hesitant knock on the door. “Strange,” he thought, then called out loudly:

“Come in!”

But the door stayed closed.

Abraham heard nothing more than silence, occasionally interrupted by loud giggling from the neighboring office. His coworkers never knocked on the door; they always entered without warning. Unless it was somebody new who was not yet aware of the local rules.

Abraham sighed and opened the door, expecting to see someone young and frightened. But nobody was standing there. He took a step forward to look down the hallway when his foot hit something soft. He looked down and saw he had stepped on a black cardboard file folder emblazoned with the official symbol of the European Territories: a fish surrounded by radiating rays.

Abraham felt a knot in his stomach. He quickly scanned the hallway, squinting to help his eyes grow accustomed to the dim light. He saw nothing. The man scooped the file folder off the floor and hurried to close the door behind him. The previous occupant of Abraham’s office had told him about secret missions from The Fair Ones assigned in folders just like this one, but he had never seen one with his own eyes. The opportunity to be assigned such a mission came once in a lifetime, but also meant you’re being assigned a mission from which you might not return. Rumor had it whoever successfully completes a “black folder mission” would be invited to join the sole higher caste – The Fair Ones. And you got to move and live in a place where there was sunshine all day long, the sky was blue, and green grass grew.

Back at his desk, Abraham opened the file folder. It contained a single sheet of paper describing “unusual activity” in the Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyj fortress on the Black Sea. Residents there were complaining about horned monsters. It looked like a routine case; one easily handled by a local operative. But something about the particular case troubled him. He reread the mission over and over.

“Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyj… fortress… horned monsters…” His brain was trying to tell him something. An important insight was fluttering inside his head like an elusive butterfly, but could not break through into Abraham’s conscious mind.

Half an hour later, at exactly 6 PM, sirens began wailing, reverberating through the city’s streets. In the past, these were used as a warning of incoming shelling, but now they went off three times a day. A mournful groan from Abraham’s stomach reminded him of its existence. He quickly closed the folder, placed it into a ragged woolen bag full of holes, and left the office. He could not be late for dinner: there was nowhere else to get food.

The public dining hall was located on an island right in the middle of the Seine, not far from the building where Abraham worked. It stood on the ruins of some sort of large religious structure demolished in the name of combatting religion. Nobody could tell you the name, or what the religious structure looked like, and there was nowhere to look for the information, because books had become a thing of the past long ago.

The enormous single-story hangar serving as a dining hall was crudely thrown together from thin metal sheets and filled with elongated wooden tables and wobbly benches to which people rushed to take their seats. The tables and benches groaned from the weight of the emaciated bodies of the diners, who looked more like skeletons covered with skin than people. You couldn’t tell them apart in their plus-size woolen uniforms, all of them identical in color and style. The stench of long-unlaundered clothing and unwashed hair quickly filled the pavilion.

Men, women, and children all ate together. People of all professions sat next to each other: dockworkers, miners, factory workers, law enforcement officers, and other permitted occupations. But only your co-workers knew who was who, since everyone was dressed in standard grey unisex tunics made mandatory on the first anniversary of the establishment of Total Fairness. Back then, Abraham’s mother worked at the dry cleaners, his father had died during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Abraham was already a teenager, so he remembers the events of that time quite well.

In 2027, the Brotherhood of the People came out of the shadows. With one decree, all the governments under its control were dismissed and the European Territories were created, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the unpopulated deserts of the northeast. The first ones to face the firing squads were the anti-populist politicians, businessmen, IT specialists, and those who worked in the creative professions. Then they went after those who earned more than eighty percent of the population. Next, they went after those who earned more than eighty percent of everyone left after the initial culling. People sick of historically unequal earnings massively enlisted in the People’s Guard to deal a single, mighty blow destroying the old order. The best among them were awarded the honor of joining the clandestine caste known as The Fair Ones, who directed the development of the Territories in the people’s best interests.

Abraham dropped the usual fish concentrate into the warm water in his wooden bowl and mixed it with his wooden spoon. The cube did not dissolve all that well, always leaving lumps behind. The taste was nothing special, but at least everyone was eating one and the same thing: fish soup from concentrate and a slice of sweet black bread. Abraham had no idea if the concentrate contained actual fish. And he would never ask about such things. The absence of all superfluous information guaranteed equal opportunities for all and protected people from a variety of harmful secret plots against the fair and just social order. There was something rotten in the way the soup smelled, but it always smelled the same. Nobody had seen fresh fish since they had disappeared from the polluted rivers and upper layers of the oceans.

After finishing his soup and bread, Abraham washed it down with a generous shot of hard liquor resembling unfiltered horilka. Everyone drank one of these, three times a day, unless you were a child younger than twelve. Everybody ate silently lest they break each other’s sense of calm. All you could hear was the dull rattling of wooden cutlery and monotonous chomping. The thought shot through Abraham’s head this may soon change for him – as soon he proves to The Fair Ones he deserves to be a part of their tight inner circle. He smiled at his own musings. After sensing the judgmental eyes of those around him, he was quick to wipe any signs of pleasure from his face, since this was enough to have a complaint lodged against you or even be punished on the spot. One can only laugh when everyone is laughing together. Or when no one else can see you.

After dinner and the mandatory hour of collective dancing in the very same hall, Abraham went home, grabbing along the way the latest issue of World Fairness, the only source of information allowed in the European Territories. After the prohibition of all media, telephones, and Internet, this newspaper was all that remained. One copy per day per resident. The paper provided everyone with the common topics for discussions at work and with family, and nobody was troubled by having too much or too little knowledge about what was going on in the world.

Placing the hard stool against the wall so he could lean back more comfortably, Abraham sat down to read the newspaper. The new society’s official motto was printed in italics beneath the World Fairness title: “Never dismiss as coincidence or stupidity that which can be explained by the evil intentions of others.” He scanned the article headlines. “Massive Plot of Brick Factory Loaders Revealed,” “Secret Society Taught Children Math in Berlin Basement,” “American Illuminati Tortured One Million Bostonians to Death for Failing Annual English Grammar Test,” “Thirty People Dead after Poisoning in Lublin: Crime Syndicate of Three Cooks Receive Express Punishment.” A barely-perceptible smile appeared on his face: “express punishment” could only mean one thing – death. Abraham had long ago lost count of how many of these sentences he had personally carried out, after the number had climbed above two thousand. The man glanced out the window to make sure nobody was watching him and glimpsed a shadow on the the street. “Must be Sara,” he thought. Still, he jumped when someone touched him on the shoulder a moment later.

“So, are you ready for the move?” asked Sara as her startled husband turned to face her.

“My goodness!” Abraham yelled, “Do you always have to come in like a ghost? How do you even open the squeaky door so quietly?”

“Have I frightened the Chief of all of Paris?” Sara kissed her husband on the forehead. “You haven’t forgotten we’re moving this weekend, have you? We’re switching apartments with the Renoirs for the next three months.”

“How many times have I told you not to call me that,” said Abraham as he continued flipping through the newspaper. “It’s not allowed and they might be listening to us,” he said, pointing his finger to the ceiling.

“It certainly does not prevent others from obeying you,” noted Sara. “We’ll get up a little earlier in the morning and pack our bags for the move,” she continued, “to the old student residences on the edge of town.”

“I can’t,” Abraham said, as a smile momentarily swam across his face. He quickly checked his reaction and returned to a neutral expression. “I have a mission outside Paris.”

“Tomorrow? Is it fair I have to move all on my own?” Sara gesticulated in anger.

“I got a black folder,” whispered Abraham, afraid somebody might actually be listening to them.

Sara sat down on the stool across from her husband and regarded him closely.

“In other words, I’m going to lose you either way,” she coldly pronounced.

“But this is my chance!” Abraham shrieked. “Few are fortunate enough to become one of The Fair Ones.” Slightly sweetening his tone, he continued, “Maybe I’ll be able to take you with me…”

“That’s not going to happen,” Sara shook her head in sadness. “Can you at least tell me where you’re going?”

“The Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyj Fortress.”

Sara covered her eyes with her hands. Abraham got up and went to her, finally realizing what had been bothering him at the office, the elusive thought he hadn’t been able to grasp.

“That’s where Isaac disappeared, isn’t it?” she asked, then tears began rolling down her cheeks.

“Yes,” he said, hugging the woman’s shoulders. “If our son is still there, then I’ll find him,” he promised. Sara wiped the tears from her face and sighed deeply.

“You know, Abraham, after two years, I have almost made peace with the fact I’ll never see him again,” she said, looking her husband in the eyes. “You simply have to stop thinking about him,” she recited the mantra she repeated to herself every time she thought about Isaac. “Which I suggest you do too… Have you even heard what happened to us today?”

“Nope, they only bring me the reports in the morning.”

“So, I got a message one of our workers got the bright idea of counting the number of benches we produce, and determined we make enough to replace all the benches in all of the Paris dining halls every month. And then he had the gall to ask why we’re always sitting on wobbly ones.”

“Did you report it to my guys?”

“Didn’t have to. It took me all of ten minutes to beat a confession out of him as a plotter conspiring with the American Illuminati,” she said, glowing with pride. “The people took care of the rest, meting out express punishment.”

“Sure, you always have to give them a chance to blow off a little steam,” Abraham nodded in approval. Picking up the newspaper, he continued reading. Sara followed his example.

The following day, at 8 AM, after a breakfast of fish soup, sweet bread, and horilka, Abraham found himself sitting on a wooden bench in an old, dilapidated train car. Transport infrastructure in the European Territories had been cut up for scrap metal long ago, leaving only ten trains to serve the needs of the special services. During his four-day train ride, he encountered only one other traveler.

The landscape beyond the window was the same for most of the trip: impenetrable trees whose branches were constantly being snagged by the train car. When the train was close to the final destination, it emerged out of the woods onto the wide steppe covered in tall, thick grasses. Long-abandoned buildings and railway poles poked through the vegetation here and there. There were rumors of terrifying beasts living in nature as wild as this, feeding on the corpses of the workers whose job had been to disassemble the excess railway tracks on orders from The Fair Ones. Those workers willingly sacrificed themselves. “Maybe Isaac worked here and is buried somewhere out there?” thought Abraham. “But the beasts would have eaten him a long time ago.”

An hour prior to the train’s arrival at Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyj, Abraham finished eating his evening serving of soup and bread, shook the dust off his clothes, and looked at the mission folder again. Local residents had seen humanoid creatures with horns in the fortress. Several officers of the special services, who had gone to investigate, had not returned. “Easy-peasy,” thought Abraham. He had solved hundreds of similar cases in his career. They typically ended up being the result of a plot, either by the Pious Brotherhood from the Asian Territories, or by the remnants of one of the ancient religious cults.

“A couple hours work,” he decided for himself and looked through the dust-covered window: a grey-colored Sun, which he last saw as a teenager in Paris, popped out here and there from behind the dense clouds.

The cities and villages in the European Territories lived under a perpetual dome of smoke and smog from the garbage fires. Nobody came to collect the trash anymore, since The Fair Ones determined waste disposal was too complex of a system. The decision was made to burn everything on site. Once again, he thought about Isaac who had gone to Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyj for seasonal employment two years ago, but had never returned. “Are this mission and my son’s disappearance somehow connected?” thought Abraham, then shook his head in a bid to purge such thoughts. His mind had started building constructions that were a little too complex, he thought to himself.

There wasn’t a single living soul on the platform. With a terrible screech, the train doors closed behind him. The old, single-story station building had long stood neglected: all of its windows and doors were shuttered with boards and the “Railway Station” sign, spelled out in unfamiliar Cyrillic letters, lay on the ground. The sign was made of plastic, so will likely still be here in another four hundred years. Circling around to the front of the building, he saw someone running towards him across the empty square. A young woman with a distinct scar on her left cheek was coming straight for him.

“Welcome, Abraham,” the newcomer said in broken universal language, holding her hand out to welcome him. “My name is Rebecca. I am one of the few law enforcement officers left in the city. Likely the only one, but I don’t know for sure.”

“Why the only one?”

“Some disappeared in the fortress. Others simply stopped showing up to work… I’ve implicated them in belonging to an organization planning to undermine city security. When I find them, they will not avoid punishment.”

“Nice work,” he praised her in a formal tone. “I’d like to speak to the witness I read about in the dossier.”

“Her name is Ketura. She is currently residing….” Rebecca pulled out her notebook, “a few blocks from here. I’ll escort you there now.”

Following some dog-trodden trails through the grass as a shortcut, it only took a few minutes to get to their destination. Old, single-story buildings were barely visible through the tall shrubs. Rebecca went towards one of them and knocked. A moment later, the door opened a crack.

“Ketura, this is my colleague, Abraham. He’s going to help with the investigation,” Rebecca said through the tiny gap. The door opened a bit more, revealing a red-haired, middle-aged woman holding a copy of World Fairness. “Can you let us in? We need to talk.”

Ketura cautiously opened the door wide, glanced confusedly at Abraham, and let them into her home.

“Ketura, tell my colleague what you saw inside the castle,” Rebecca prompted, after all three had sat down on a bench.

“I first noticed something strange in the fortress about half a year ago,” Ketura began her story, her voice trembling. “I had just moved into an apartment near the fortress. One night, when I couldn’t sleep, I looked out the window facing the fortress walls. It was dark, when suddenly I saw a fire in one of the arrow slits on the wall’s lowest level. It looked like somebody walked by, and the light suddenly vanished. I saw the same thing a few nights in a row. So, I went with a neighbor to have a closer look. We saw a few silhouettes passing near us, only a few hundred meters away, with horns like this,” she gestured with her hands, showing thick, twisted horns growing out of her head. “We nearly fainted and got out of there in a hurry. The following morning,” Ketura swallowed a sob, “my neighbor was found hung in his room…”

“We began the investigation as soon as she reported the incident to us,” interrupted Rebecca. “But none of the law enforcement officers sent there have ever returned from the castle. I was ready to file a report about a conspiracy by cultists and forget about the case, but then I was told they’re sending you here from the capital for a follow up. I mean from the city, not the capital…,” she bit her tongue, having uttered a forbidden word.

“This only happens at night?” Abraham asked Ketura.

“I work at the dining hall during the day, so I can’t see what…” Ketura started to explain.

“Why did the neighbor hang himself?” Abraham broke in, directing his question to Rebecca.

“The horned monsters did it, simple as that.”

Abraham knew he could extract any confession he wanted from Ketura right then and there. But he didn’t feel like starting an interrogation after such a long journey. And perhaps prolonging the investigation will give him time to shed some light on Isaac’s disappearance. Ordering Rebecca to finish the witness interview, he got up, bid Ketura farewell, and went outside.

“So? Shall we go tonight to have a look?” asked Rebecca, after Ketura had shut the door behind her, and she and Abraham had started heading away from her building.

“No. They might have noticed the train,” objected Abraham. “Let’s wait for two nights. Go about your regular affairs for now. If there really is someone in there, then we have to sneak in undetected, without any ruckus.”

Abraham settled into a law enforcement apartment near the fortress. It was no different than a regular apartment with the same broken furniture and bed sheets on the floor. He thought about what Ketura had said. People were constantly seeing horned or reptilian creatures. Some of these apparitions have even resulted in the burning down of entire villages The cases were typically solved by finding a few hooligans and extracting their confessions about belonging to a criminal conspiracy against the fair and just order. After a public trial was held (to generate an article for the newspaper), or without a trial (which was more often the case), the convicts were given over to mob justice, which provided closure to the situation. Abraham looked out the window opening, where there was no glass pane. Nighttime had descended on the city. Fires from burning piles of trash could be seen here and there. Moonlight managed to sneak through the smoke for a moment before disappearing.

He was settling down to sleep around 10 PM when the sounds of dozens of voices drifted up from the street. He looked through the window opening and saw a mob of people carrying torches, chanting slogans, and moving towards the fortress. They were definitely yelling something in the universal language, because all other languages were banned, but their chanting was so unsynchronized he was unable to understand a single word. Abraham quickly put on his holster, donned his tunic, and ran out to the street. Without warning, someone grabbed him by the shoulder. He actually jumped. Whipping himself around, he pushed the attacker back and drew his pistol in a single, smooth motion.

“Hey! It’s me, Rebecca!” she said, raising the unlit torch she was holding in self-defense. “I came running as soon as I heard the noise. Somebody saw the fires and sounded the alarm. After all the rumors about law enforcers running away, the people have decided they’ll smoke the monsters out themselves. They plan to burn down the fortress. I think you can go back to Paris, this will all sort itself out on its own.”

Abraham looked at the enraged mob moving slowly, but surely, straight for the fortress walls.

“Burn down a stone fortress?” he asked, not without irony in his voice. “Let’s go! We need to get there first and find out what’s happening in there. We’ll hand the criminals over to the mob, so the people don’t lose faith in The Fair Ones’ ability to keep order.”

Abraham’s thoughts returned to his son. “He disappeared right here in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyj. This can’t be a mere coincidence. Maybe the horned cultists are holding him hostage? The mob will burn all of them without asking questions.”

Abraham and Rebecca set out for the fortress, avoiding the locals along the way. In nearly total darkness, the local law enforcement officer led her Parisian colleague through the winding streets of the unfamiliar city. He only saw her shadow and heard her soft steps leading him to the fortress. Keeping to hidden passages and the darkest corners, they were able to remain undetected, approach the central gate, and dash inside ahead of the crowd.

“I think I just saw a fire,” whispered the woman after something flashed ahead of them. She pointed to a staircase leading under the main gate. “I think they’re trying to escape. We have to hurry.”

Rebecca lit her torch, and she and Abraham raced underground. The narrow, winding staircase descended deeper and deeper beneath the fortress walls. Seeing a flash of light ahead of them, they ran faster until coming upon a locked door. With little time to think, the man took a running start and slammed into the door with his shoulder. The old wood splintered with a loud crack, producing a gaping hole in the middle of the door.

Struggling to free his shoulder which had gotten stuck in the broken door, all of a sudden Abraham became aware of heavy breathing close by. Raising his gaze, he saw the blur of a figure armed with a stick poised to strike sprint towards him. Just as the blow seemed imminent, a shot rang out. Rebecca had fired from behind him, a tiny wisp of smoke rising from the barrel of her pistol. The attacker, wearing a grey tunic and a mask made from the same cloth as the tunic, dropped to the floor, dead.

As soon as the two entered through the broken door into a small chamber with a low arched ceiling illuminated by a pair of torches, another stick-wielding grey masked shadow accosted them. Abraham was able to dodge the first blow, but lost his balance in the process of avoiding the attack. The second blow landing across his back knocked him off his feet.

Rebecca had already aimed her pistol to take a second shot when the attacker knocked the pistol out of her hands with an unerring swing of his stick, then proceeded to hit her over the head. The woman lost consciousness and fell to the floor, dropping the torch she had been carrying all this time.

Abraham threw himself at their assailant from behind and wrapped his arm around the attacker’s throat, using his right elbow to lock him in a chokehold. The men started struggling and both of them fell to the ground. In the end, Abraham’s vast experience in these kinds of situations as a member of the special services won out: focusing his strength on pressing down on his adversary’s carotid artery, a few seconds later, the assailant’s body went numb and collapsed on top of Abraham.

Pushing off the unconscious body, Abraham tried to catch his breath while taking in the scene from his vantage point on the floor. Looking around, he saw there was nobody else in the room. Head in hands, Rebecca carefully rose to her feet.

“Is he dead?” she asked.

“No. I just knocked him out. Let the mob have some fun with him,” replied Abraham, still gasping to catch his breath.

“At least we can have a look at him,” Rebecca said, walking over to the unconscious figure. She tore off the mask, revealing the face of a young boy with blonde hair and blue eyes hiding underneath.

“Isaac?” burst out Abraham, still drained from the altercation.

“You know him?” Rebecca was surprised by the admission.

Abraham crawled towards the unconscious boy and placed the blonde head on his lap. He examined the facial features carefully, looking for recognizable features. Without any doubt, this was his son! Something on the floor attracted Rebecca’s attention. She studied it intently, while Abraham’s gaze was bound to Isaac. The boy’s eyelashes fluttered and slowly his eyes opened wide.

“Dad?” Isaac spoke up in a weak voice.

“I thought you were long gone,” Abraham tightly hugged him. “They kept you here? Tortured you? Tell me everything!” He cut off his questioning for a second. “Why did you attack us?” the man added after the short pause.

“I wasn’t being held prisoner, Dad,” Isaac replied.

“Look here,” Rebecca said, handing over a few pages of paper and an old, battered book.

“What is this?” asked Abraham glancing at the papers out of the corner of his eyes. Some nonsensical numbers and letters were written on them in curvy scribbles.

“That’s mine. Numbers, equations,” Isaac responded, dropping his head to look down. “Nobody was keeping me here. We were just studying mathematics.”

“We?” inquired Abraham, getting up off the floor.

“My girlfriend and I,” Isaac nodded towards the dead body by the doorway lying in a pool of blood.

“Where are your horns?” demanded Rebecca.

“What horns?” the boy was confused.

“The ones everybody’s talking about!” Rebecca shot back.

“People like to talk about a lot of things,” Isaac retorted, shrugging his shoulders.

Abraham recoiled as he took a few steps back. His son, his only child, had violated one of the strictest prohibitions of The Fair Ones: to study anything beyond Basic Reading, History of Global Conspiracies, and Rules of the People’s Morality. Nobody had the right to rise above others through their intellect.

“You’re a criminal!” Abraham summed up. “What you have done is a plot against the fair and just order.”

“He is subject to arrest,” intervened Rebecca, raising her pistol and pointing it at the boy.

“No, Dad,” Isaac said, looking straight into his father’s eyes. “If they have sent you, they mean for you to kill me.”

“The Fair Ones would never demand a father kill his son after finally letting me see him,” Abraham countered. “I am only doing my job. The people will decide everything. Let’s go!”

Pressing his pistol into Isaac’s back, Abraham ordered him to walk up the stairs.

“Abraham,” Rebecca cautioned as she followed behind, “there’s no talking to the criminal. Don’t let him cloud your mind!

“How’s Mom?” asked Isaac, completely ignoring the woman.

“Trying not to think about you,” muttered Abraham behind him.

“That’s exactly what they want,” the boy said, shaking his head.

“What do you mean?” Abraham’s interest was piqued.

“Keeping everything simple. Simple solutions, simple closing of the eyes to complex matters, simple and meaningless existence.”

“Abraham, don’t listen to him,” Rebecca threw in angrily.

“Because it’s the only and right way, son,” Abraham explained. “Money, ambition, wealth, have all poisoned society for thousands of years. They are what complicated things. The Fair Ones simply acted and put an end to all that.”

“Mathematics teaches you to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. It should be the same in life. Then everything makes sense,” Isaac defended his position.

“Did your girlfriend tell you that? The only thing with any sense is equality. Thanks to equality, we have no wars, jealousy, or hatred. You were being controlled by criminals.”

“I was in control of myself, Dad.”

Abraham did not respond to the last quip. Throughout his career, he knew people must recognize their enemy and should the opportunity arise, deal with the enemy as they see fit. This was revenge for thousands of years of slavery. It was all so simple. Until his own son became the enemy.

Seemingly, they were about halfway up the stairs. They could already hear the distant voices of the people who had gathered at the walls, but were hesitant to enter the fortress.

“Dad, are you happy?” Isaac broke the silence one again.

“One more word and I’ll shoot him on the spot,” Rebecca warned, denying Abraham the opportunity to respond.

“For the last year, I have not eaten any of the fish soup or any of that disgusting sweet black bread, not even once,” said the boy with a smile, ignoring the threats.

Rebecca paused, thinking about what Isaac had said.

Abraham also smiled inadvertently. In his youth, he sometimes dreamt about running away from this world, joining with others to live differently. But that meant going against the people, to become a hermit. He had heard the legends, but never saw any real confirmation those hermits existed. The Fair Ones became the only legitimate model for him a long time ago.

“This is all pointless. I will soon be accepted into the higher caste,” Abraham thought, calming himself. There were about two dozen stairs left to reach the exit. The sound of people stomping about, exploring the fortress walls, was already audible.

“If The Fair Ones actually exist, then I doubt they actually run anything. It’s simply not required anymore,” said Isaac as he stopped and turned to look at his father. “I know how to escape. If we climb a little higher and run across a few dozen meters on the old walls, we can jump into the sea. Come with me!”

“The Fair Ones do exist,” Abraham protested, raising the pistol, aiming directly at his son’s face.

“This isn’t your first time,” sighed Isaac. “Come on! Do it!”

A tear rolled down Abraham’s cheek. He knew what the mob would do to his son. It would be more merciful to close the case himself. It would be the right thing to do. He cocked the hammer. Isaac looked his father straight in the eyes. Abraham’s arm started quivering. He lowered the pistol and hugged his son.

“Go,” he said.

“What about you?” Isaac asked, looking first at his father, then at Rebecca, and finally to the stairs leading up to his salvation.

“Our path has already been chosen,” Rebecca said, while Abraham was still searching for the right words to say.

Isaac hesitated momentarily, but they could already hear the angry mob screaming practically over their heads. Any moment now they would find the underground entrance and capture him. The boy threw a farewell glance at his father and ran, disappearing into the dark.

Abraham sighed with relief. But if there was anything life had taught him, it was never to leave any witnesses. Especially if you had shown weakness. Still holding his weapon, he made a move to spin to the right in an attempt to turn around in the narrow passage. But cold metal pressed to his temple stopped him before he could turn.

“You failed the mission the moment you chose not to immediately shoot your son,” Rebecca’s indifferent voice said behind him. “They warned me about you. Now hand over your pistol and go outside.”

Abraham silently complied. A few steps later he was standing directly across from the torch-carrying mob.

“People!” Rebecca appealed to them. “This is the person who has been disturbing your peace for the last six months! He has killed several law enforcement officers and dumped their bodies into the sea. He conspired against you with a few other violators whom I have already dealt with through express punishment. I hand this sacrifice over for a people’s trial. For a fair and just order!”

The throng cried out in victory. With a heavy blow to his back, Rebecca pushed Abraham forward, and the people attacked him. They were screaming something in a language he did not understand while kicking him, beating him with clubs, and burning him with fire.

In those few moments, Abraham wasn’t thinking about The Fair Ones.

He was thinking about Sara and Isaac. He felt no pain, cold, or anger. For some reason, Abraham felt completely calm. Happy, even. Until the very last moment, when he remembered the little boy who had fashioned a toy stool, and whose body he had left to rot on a heap of trash in a dark Parisian alley. His chest tightened in immense pain, and then the light in Abraham’s eyes went out forever.

Other stories written by Oleksii Dubrov

Other stories illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk

Subscribe to The Arc!

Subscribe to The Arc today and you will have access to three extraordinary stories every month.

MORE FROM №4: