“Is she a virgin? I heard they were all virgins.” Uttar spoke impulsively without thinking, and then remembering himself, ducked under his arm just in case he got hit. Some of the clerics liked to hit.
Uttar talked too much. It was a bad habit that he did not seem able to break no matter how many times he was beaten for it. Talking was dangerous for a priest, and for this reason above all others, Uttar never should have been inducted into the priesthood. But the sacred lot was cast and Uttar was chosen. It was the will of God.
“No. Not all oracles are virgins,” the cleric answered. “Just as not all priests are wise.”
Uttar sensed a rebuke and made a valiant attempt to keep silent for the rest of the long journey through the abbey’s torch-lit catacombs. But it was a very long journey.
“Is she beautiful? I heard they were all beautiful.”
This time the cleric chose not to answer. He walked on in silence. To Uttar, the silence was unbearable. He felt an overwhelming compulsion to break it, and surely he would have if the hooded cleric had not stopped abruptly in front of an iron door at the end of the long corridor and pointed.
“Go in there and wait.” The door opened as if by magic. Uttar didn’t know how the door worked, but he did not marvel at it. So many things happened at the abbey that he did not understand. The electric torches, the silver clerics, and of course the beautiful, virgin oracles. To him, they were all magic. He bowed his head meekly and walked into the room.
The Holy Place was filled to the ceiling with more nameless, shiny objects that Uttar did not understand or care about. He meandered casually past them until he saw the two silver clerics. Unlike the monks of the abbey, these clerics were robe-less, naked, in fact, in all of their metallic glory. They were intent upon attending the altar in front of a big purple curtain in the center of the room and hardly noticed Uttar. They seemed much fiercer, somehow, without their clothes on and Uttar decided not to engage them in conversation, choosing instead to sit on the cold, shiny floor in a corner of the Holy Place as far from the busy, naked clerics as possible.
As the hours passed, Uttar became drowsy and fell asleep. When he awoke, a girl was sitting beside him.
“You snore,” she said.
“I do not.”
“I don’t care.”
Jasmine did not seem remarkable in any way, not unlike the girls Uttar had gone to school with at the abbey. She was probably about 13 or 14, with long, black hair and a petulant, cheeky look in her green eyes. Uttar never much liked girls. He thought they cried too much. They were always finking on him to the sisters, and they smelled funny.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I’m going to serve the oracle. I’m a priest.” Uttar stuck his nose in the air.
“Big deal.” She turned away.
Uttar wanted to ask Jasmine what she was doing here, but he knew that was what she wanted him to do, so he wasn’t going to do it. But still, he wanted to know.
“What are you doing here?” he asked after only a few minutes.
Uttar was perturbed. He hated girls. A horn sounded and the two children stood up immediately.
“Well, I guess it’s time,” Jasmine said and Uttar looked at her. She was shaking a little, but the room wasn’t that cold. She touched Uttar’s hand and her fingers were like ice. “Goodbye, I guess.”
Uttar suddenly understood. “It’s you? You’re the oracle?”
Jasmine smiled shyly and then walked bravely into the center of the room. The metal clerics had finished preparing the altar by now and Jasmine was carefully placed upon its padded cushions. She looked a little scared as the restraints were fastened around her head, arms and legs, but she did not cry out… at least not right away… not until the clerics cut into her flesh. And then she cried, long and horrifyingly right up until they wheeled the bloody altar past the purple curtain and into the Holy of Holies.
And then Uttar cried too.
The Countess Monique St. Helene and her chief financial secretary, Nigel Blaire, arrived at the abbey just before evening prayers. Their journey up the Himalayas by military helicopter had been an adventure of epic proportions, at least in the minds of the middle-aged power brokers. But finding a gothic abbey of colossal proportions and dubious origins at the end of that journey had been an even more profound and life-changing event, or at least, it should have been. But these business tycoons had not come for aesthetic appreciation or religious piety. They had come for profit.
“According to legend, the abbey was built on the exact spot where the Sacred Rock fell from the sky over ten thousand years ago,” Monique whispered to her secretary over the chanting of the dark robed clerics. Somber, atonal harmonies echoed off the stained-glass windows on their circuitous route to the belfry, making the pigeons fly.
“Sacred Rock?” Nigel asked. He was still nursing a minor case of frostbite on the tip of his nose that threatened to permanently spoil his plastic good looks and his already volatile temper.
“Anybody who looks at it either goes insane or turns into an all-knowing demigod. They keep it in a golden box inside an ivory room called the Holy of Holies. Nobody can go in there except the oracle and the priest that serves her.”
“Yes, but what is it, exactly? Who made it?” Nigel asked, not bothering to cloak his deep voice in a whisper.
“Extraterrestrials? God? Who knows? Maybe it’s some kind of advanced communications device, but our brains aren’t evolved enough to understand how it works, so it just fries our minds. Except for the oracles, of course.”
Monique fell silent as an incense burner, like an enormous pendulum, fell from the gothic ceiling and swung through the center of the black robed congregation filling the sanctuary with a pungent, earthy odor that choked the lungs and stung the eyes. And then the abbey doors opened and the faint sound of weeping was added to the clerical chorus as about a dozen or so toddlers in goat hair rags entered the sanctuary. There were a few adults, presumably their parents, but they waited outside the doors, weeping as well. The monks ushered the children through the smoke and past the dais. The Countess waited impatiently for the children to pass and the archaic contraption to finish its oscillations before removing the silk scarf from her face and continuing with her commentary.
“Local villagers bring their children to the abbey to join the priesthood. The Order discovered centuries ago that only a certain kind of human could survive contact with the Sacred Rock—young, adolescent girls, but the boys can serve as priests. Quite a fascinating sociological development, don’t you think?”
Monique shrugged. “Not really. They consider it a great honour. Most of the villagers are indigent. Their children probably would have starved to death at any rate.”
“Why adolescent girls?”
“Female hormones, or at least that’s what some scientists have speculated. They can’t test any of their theories because they can’t get access to the Sacred Rock. The Order owns it, and has owned it for a thousand years, and they’re not sharing. You don’t know what I had to go through just to arrange this visit.”
“I still can’t fathom why you’d bother. Why travel all the way out to an eerie Shangri-La on top of the world for a whole lot of folklore and cultic rubbish?” Nigel had a strong urge to walk up to the nearest cleric and punch him in his hooded face. He didn’t have the time or patience for ancient superstitions, no matter how sociologically fascinating they may be. “We almost died getting here, and unless you’re planning to sell this story to National Geographic for a few million dollars, I can’t see why we came. Surely you don’t really believe all this stuff, do you?”
“Possibly,” the Countess answered guardedly. “Look, Nigel dear, all I know for sure is that Alphacorp topped the Fortune Five Hundred less than a year after their researchers visited the oracle. That’s good intel, baby. Well worth a few million and a manic chopper ride up the Himalayas.”
Nigel rubbed his frostbit nose, which was his subtle way of conceding the point. “What are you going to ask her?”
“You mean, what are you going to ask her? About that chip of yours, of course.”
Nigel shook his head. “R and D confirms that we’ve reached the physical limit for the silicon chip. Computer technology just can’t get much smaller. Any future improvements will have to be in software. I’m afraid you’re pissing up the wrong Himalayan Mountain, Countess.”
“That’s why I brought you along, Nigel, to protect my bottom line.”
Nigel glanced down at Monique’s slim backside, modestly concealed by her mink coat, and then grimaced.
The chanting stopped and the hooded clerics began filing out of the sanctuary in a long, fluid procession. Monique and Nigel rose from their knees as one of the clerics veered from the others and approached them.
“Please follow me,” the monk said soberly. His face was completely concealed in a shroud of black. “I will take you to the Holy Place. There the priest is waiting to petition the oracle on your behalf. But you must not go into the Holy of Holies. That is for the oracle and the priest alone.”
“No problem.” The Countess nudged Nigel, who seemed reluctant at first to follow the faceless hooded cleric any further into this gothic labyrinth of the unknown and generally creepy. “Come on, Nigel. We’re going to make a killing.”
“Or get sacrificed in some occult ritual.”
“Don’t worry, baby. They only sacrifice virgins.”
The monk led them out of the sanctuary and into the main concourse of the abbey. The autumn moon shone through enormous stained-glass windows and lit the concourse with an unearthly glow. On either side were cascading balconies carved out of solid rock in juxtaposing styles of architecture from ancient Greek to French Baroque. In places, older structures were braced with modern-looking Titanium support beams, and at the very top was a glass penthouse that easily could have passed for a Frank Lloyd Wright design.
“What’s up there?” Nigel asked.
“Our computer archive,” the hooded monk answered without looking back or slackening his pace. “We have a vast library spanning centuries.”
“Impressive.” Nigel raised an eyebrow. “Your own personal Library of Congress.”
“It is one hundred times larger than the Library of Congress,” the cleric said matter-of-factly. “The oracle’s every word is recorded right up until the moment of her death.”
“The oracle is the fountain of all knowledge.”
Nigel rolled his eyes.
The monk veered suddenly off the main concourse to a narrow stone stairway that spiraled down many floors beneath the abbey. Nigel felt the temperature drop and then they entered the catacombs—a vast labyrinth of bleach-white skulls and bones embedded in the solid rock walls. There seemed to be no end to them.
“Ghastly,” Nigel grumbled through his sleeve. “It reeks of death.”
“The hallowed bones of a thousand martyrs are buried here,” the hooded monk explained, his hollow voice echoing eerily through the narrow passageways. “They died when they looked at the Sacred Rock.”
The Countess pointed to a particularly gruesome skull with a long gash in it. “Not right away. Some went insane first, running around and bashing their heads against the walls,” she said, reveling in the details like a morbid coroner who knew precisely how many liters blood was spilled from an infant victim’s throat. “But that was before the monks discovered that adolescent girls made the best oracles, sometimes lasting up to five hundred years before succumbing.”
“This isn’t making me feel any better,” Nigel said as he stepped over the skull. Monique shrugged.
After an interminable and morbid journey through the catacombs, the hooded monk finally stopped in front of an iron door and pointed. “Go in there and wait.” The door opened automatically. It was only then that Nigel noticed that the monk’s hand was made of steel. Nigel shuddered and then quickly followed the Countess into the room.
“Did you see that?” he asked in a whisper, but Monique didn’t answer. Her thin, delicate body was standing rigid as a stone.
“What are you looking at?” Nigel put on his glasses. “This… This is impossible.”
“This is the Holy Place,” Monique said in a daze.
The Holy Place was a cube, a hundred feet long, a hundred feet wide and a hundred feet high, with walls, floor and ceiling made of pure gold. Enormous golden vats overflowed with coins, diamonds, rubies and precious stones of every variety. Shields, ephods, and ancient weapons of beaten gold, silver, and platinum were stacked to the ceiling. Nigel saw the treasure of a thousand kingdoms and he found it hard to believe that there was this much wealth in the whole world.
“Don’t these people believe in banks?”
Monique snapped out of her stupor. “Oh, yes. You’ll see. They’re really quite modern. All this must have been accumulated before there were banks.”
As they meandered slowly through the vast treasure house, a new wonder caught their eyes at the far end of the room. Nigel blinked twice before he could believe it. A silver man. A naked, silver man. Two of them, in fact.
“Robots!” he exclaimed with some authority. “Their skin is made of a flexible molecular alloy with nano-sized, Bucky-ball joints. Virtually indestructible. The Japanese are working on something like that but nowhere near as advanced. They’re so lifelike. They must be worth...”
They approached the robots tentatively.
“Stop!” the robots said in unison. “You may not enter the Holy of Holies.”
“Quasi-sentient processors,” Nigel mused half to himself.
“We wouldn’t dream of it.” Monique stopped immediately, but Nigel didn’t.
“Hey, look,” he chimed in boldly. “We were told by your robed friend out there that we could speak to the oracle.”
“No one speaks to the oracle save for her priest,” the bigger of the two robots commanded. Monique and Nigel exchanged worried looks.
“What we mean to say is we humbly request to petition the oracle,” Monique said gracefully, drawing on a hundred years of noble breeding.
“We will summon the priest.” The clerics opened their mouths wide and a sound like that of a trumpet came bursting forth.
“The priest would have to be deaf not to hear that,” Monique said taking her hands from her ears after the sound had ceased. Nigel nodded sardonically. Behind the silver clerics was an enormous purple curtain that ran the entire width and height of the room.
“I don’t get it,” Nigel pondered aloud. “Are they going to put on a show or something?”
There was a buzz and whir of hydraulic machinery and then a man with a bearded face and a long white robe stepped out from behind the curtain. He looked a little like Moses with the Ten Commandments, except he held a tablet computer and a magnetic pen instead.
“Please sign here,” he said. Monique complied, and then a new blank page appeared on the tablet where the standard contract had been. “Write your question here,” the priest said.
“Wait. We contracted for three questions,” Nigel said angrily. Immediately one of the clerics grabbed him by his collar and lifted him off of the ground. Nigel screamed.
“Please speak softly. Any loud vibrations or noise can be harmful to the oracle’s mental state, as well as to your own.”
“He’s sorry,” Monique intervened. “He just means to say that we were hoping to ask three questions, if it was not too much trouble.” Nigel looked on angrily but mutely. The bearded priest raised his hand, and the cleric dropped Nigel unceremoniously to the golden floor.
“One question at a time,” the priest said. “When we receive confirmation of your payment, you will receive your answer. And then, if you like, you may ask your next question. We will proceed in this fashion until all your questions are answered.”
“That will be fine. Nigel, you may have the honor of the first question. Be as specific as you like. Just make sure we can make a profit off of the answer.”
Nigel glared at the priest as he took the pen from him and began to write. “Oh I’ve got a question all right, but you won’t like this charlatan’s answer. This is all just a big waste of time and money. Smoke and mirrors. You’ll see.” Nigel finished writing and threw the pen on the floor. “There. I hope you choke on it.”
The priest picked up the pen calmly and without even looking at the tablet, proceeded back behind the purple curtain. In less than a minute, he returned. “Payment has been confirmed. Here is your answer.”
“Let me see that.” Nigel stepped forward and snatched the tablet from the priest’s hand. There was a flash of light and Nigel’s expression changed from ironic cynicism to utter amazement in an instant. And then the big man began to cry.
“What’s wrong, Nigel? Didn’t the oracle answer the question adequately?”
“No,” he blubbered, “she answered it beautifully, elegantly, perfectly. It all seems so simple, I don’t know why I never thought of it before.” Nigel handed the tablet back to the priest and turned back to Monique. “We’re going to be rich, richer than our wildest dreams.” Nigel hugged Monique and wept some more.
“Do you wish to proceed?” the priest asked.
The Countess nodded gleefully.
“Please sign here.”
“You may now enter the Holy of Holies.”
Uttar looked up at the clerics through teary eyes. He did not want to enter the Holy of Holies, now nor ever. He wanted to leave this place. He wanted to run away and never come back. The abbey had been his home ever since he could remember, but such horrors had always been hidden from him. Now he saw the abbey in a new light. This place was not his home. It was a place of pain and suffering. It was evil.
“No.” Uttar shook his head slowly. “You can’t make me go in there.”
With surprising speed, the naked cleric grabbed Uttar by his belt and lifted him off of the ground. Uttar kicked and screamed but it did no good. He was carried through the curtain and then dropped like a dead fish. He sprang to his feet almost immediately but something caught his eye that stopped him cold.
Jasmine was still alive, sort of.
She lay on the altar. A catheter had been inserted into her urethra and another, larger tube into her anus. Her heart, lungs and digestive tract were hooked up to a machine that kept them working, somehow. Her eyes were open but they did not see. The twinkle of life had gone from them. She didn’t move except for her mouth. She opened it to speak, but only one word came forth.
He didn’t know what to say. He looked around the white room for a doctor, but there was none. Even the clerics had left. They were completely alone. Past the altar were two angelic beings with wings that stretched from wall to wall, and beneath them, a golden box. More than anything else, Uttar feared that box. He knew what was inside it and he knew to open the box and look upon its contents meant certain death for all but the chosen ones. Had Jasmine opened the box? Had she looked inside at the Sacred Rock? Is that why she now lay on the altar on the brink of death? Uttar felt sick to his stomach. He wanted to run and hide, but he could not turn away.
And then he saw the message on the white walls appear as if written by the invisible finger of God.
“Uttar,” it read in large golden letters, “don’t leave me, please.”
“But I can’t… I can’t help you,” Uttar answered the written message in a soft, pleading voice. “I don’t know what to do.”
“But I do. I know everything there is to know. I will show you, but please, please don’t leave me.”
And in a flash of glory, Uttar beheld all the wonders of the universe unfold on the white walls before him, and he knew that he would never leave this place. Never.
Monique and Nigel were hugging each other again and bursting with excitement.
“Richer than kings.”
“Richer than gods.”
They handed the tablet back to the priest, wiping the tears of joy from their eyes and the snot from their noses.
“Do you wish to proceed?” the priest asked.
“Of course.” Monique signed the tablet and then turned back to Nigel. “So, Nigel, what do you want to ask for now? The moon?”
“Nah. Too small. We need to think big, really big.”
Monique laughed, but she did have a dilemma. Theoretically, the answer to Nigel’s first question would make her the richest business tycoon on Wall Street. But what good was wealth if some future politician or bureaucrat could just come up with an excuse to take it away from her? And so her second question was about maintaining political power—a question that had plagued philosophers from Confucius to Machiavelli. And then, in a flash of light from the priest’s tablet, it was answered. It was an unnerving experience. For an instant, she felt as though her mind had been taken over by the oracle. But then she was herself again and she knew the answer to the age-old question as if she’d always known it. Within a year, she would become the richest and most powerful person on the planet, second only to the oracle herself. The Countess was a little jealous about that. She wondered what it must be like to have the wealth of the ages at your fingertips and a host of mechanical slaves to serve you. She would never need to lift a finger, literally. But still, Monique would have more money than she could spend in a lifetime. What else was there?
“Maybe we should ask for world peace or something.”
Nigel shook his head. “That would hurt our profit margin in the arms trade. No, we have to think outside the box.”
“What about something intangible like happiness or love?”
Nigel guffawed. “Money is happiness, and you know what they say about love.”
Monique thought of the tanned and muscular cabana boy at her villa in Marseilles. “Never buy what you can rent for less?”
The Countess shrugged. She was fresh out of ideas.
“I’ve got it!” Nigel announced all of a sudden. “Cell regeneration.”
“Really, Nigel, sometimes you surprise me. Have you been reading Cosmo again? Surely your vanity knows no bounds.”
Nigel rolled his eyes. “Not the tabloids, Countess. Science journals. Genetics research will be the catalyst for every major medical advancement in the 22nd Century. Stem cells. Cancer research. Longevity experiments.”
“You want to cure cancer? How altruistic of you.”
“Not just cancer. I’m talking about perfect health. The human body is made up of cells—skin cells, blood cells, bone cells, and so on. Cells reproduce by dividing, but most cells can only do this about one hundred times and then they stop.”
“Nobody knows why, Countess. That’s why we need the oracle.”
“I still don’t get it. You sound like one of those skin cream commercials. What’s the bottom line?”
“The bottom line? No more sickness. No more aging. No more dying. Cell regeneration is…” Nigel searched for an idiom but Monique found it first.
“The fountain of youth.” Her pretty green eyes glazed over.
Uttar placed the tablet on the altar beside the oracle and waited. Golden letters appeared on the white walls.
“Hello, Uttar. Back so soon?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Did you miss me?”
Uttar watched the human genome unravel on the white walls.
“Interesting question, don’t you think?” The golden letters scrolled beneath the graphics.
“I could give it to you if you asked for it. Why don’t you? All these years and you’ve never asked me for anything.”
“I could use a glass of water.”
A smiley face appeared on the wall. “But seriously, Uttar, you need something to live for. You can ask me anything. What is your question?”
“What good is a long life if it is empty?” Uttar said bitterly. “Do you think Monique and Nigel will find what they’re looking for? They could live a thousand years, ten thousand, and they’d still curse the end when it came.”
The oracle waited a few seconds before responding. “You know, Uttar, you really shouldn’t ask me a question and then answer it yourself. I’m supposed to be the oracle.” The smiley face morphed into a beautiful woman, an idealized version of the deathly-white figure on the altar. “You shouldn’t judge them so harshly. I’ve been in their minds. They’re just people, like you and me.”
“People who would do anything to get what they want.”
“And you wouldn’t. They paid a million dollars for this question, and you won’t ask me anything, not in a hundred years.”
Uttar brooded silently on his ivory chair. “Okay, here’s my question. How can an oracle be free?”
“In her death.”
“How can she be free and alive?”
“In her mind.”
“No. That’s not what I mean.” Uttar shook his head in frustration. He looked up at the ivory walls and fifty-foot, golden cherubim for inspiration. “How can she physically escape from this place, fly away from this abbey and its mountain and live a natural life with the man she loves?”
“Uttar, don’t ask me that. I live to serve humanity. I live to serve the Order.”
Uttar turned away in disgust. Over the years, he’d seen the universe through the oracle’s visions. He’d seen how other humans lived in other places, how they loved and raised families. At first these visions captivated him with a voyeuristic charm. But now he felt the bitterness of the oracle’s wasted life churn like acid in his soul. He felt an overwhelming oppression, a manic claustrophobia. He wanted to scream.
“You serve fools and imbeciles who seek nothing but selfish ends. You’re a slave to blasphemous metal monstrosities, to an ancient, meaningless evil, a godless religion. Worse than that. You’re a cripple, and a vegetable, and a freak.” There were tears in Uttar’s eyes. He rubbed them away angrily. “All because of that thing.” He looked at the golden box beneath the wings of the cherubim. “What did you see when they opened it? What did you see when you looked upon the Sacred Rock?”
“Uttar, I can’t tell you that. I won’t.” The woman on the wall looked worried.
“You don’t have to.” Uttar stood up slowly and took a step towards the golden box. He could feel the power of infinite knowledge radiating from it. “I can find out for myself.”
He hesitated and then turned instead to the altar where Jasmine’s body lay prone and motionless like a corpse in a morgue. He reached up slowly and touched what was left of the flesh on her hand. “You wanted my question and here it is. I don’t want to be rich and powerful and live forever. I want to live a natural human life with the woman I love. Can you tell me how to do that?”
The genome strands spinning around the walls suddenly came to a stop and then three golden letters appeared beneath them.
The priest walked through the purple curtain.
“Wow,” the Countess exclaimed. “You sure took your time. I was starting to think you’d run off with my money.”
“You may now enter the Holy of Holies.” The priest pointed at the golden tasseled hemline where the curtain could be parted. The robots stood mutely on either side like finely carved statues of pure silver. Monique and Nigel were slightly perplexed.
“But I thought we weren’t supposed to go in there,” Nigel said.
“It is required. If an answer is no longer desired we are happy to refund your money.”
“No, we’ll come.” Nigel took a step toward the purple curtain but Monique stopped him with a hand on his chest.
“Wait. Is there any danger?” she asked.
“That is up to you. Your choice will be your own. Knowledge is neither good nor evil.”
“Yes, yes, and life is a butterfly’s dream and the world merely a turtle’s fart.” Nigel shook his head impatiently. “Come on, Countess. You started this roller coaster ride. Don’t bail out before the end.”
Monique felt a moment’s apprehension but shook it away in her pretty, golden locks. She smiled at Nigel and together they walked through the purple curtain. Their eyes passed hungrily over the glowing ivory walls, up to the golden cherubim and down to the golden box that held all the secrets of the universe. It was a full minute before they noticed the cadaverous woman on the hospital bed and the computer tablet beside her.
“Is that it? Give it to me.” Nigel snatched the tablet out of its docking port. “Hey wait. There’s nothing on it.”
“What? Let me see.” Monique craned her neck for a better look.
“Not there. The answer is all around you.” The bearded priest gestured with a dramatic wave of his hand. Monique and Nigel looked up and beheld as all the wonders of the universe unfolded on the white walls before them. And in an instant of time, the longings of their covetous hearts were answered.
Sometime later, maybe hours, maybe days, no one knows for sure, Monique and Nigel mutely followed the hooded monk out of the abbey sanctuary and into the cold, crisp air of the Himalayan Mountains. The cleric trudged mechanically through the deep snow, carving a wide swath in his wake, and then stopped at the massive front gate and bowed.
“Thank you for visiting the Order of the Sacred Rock,” he said gravely. “I’m sorry that your questions were not answered satisfactorily. A full refund will be accredited to your account. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to try again, perhaps in a few centuries when a new oracle has been ordained?”
“No, that will not be necessary,” Monique answered politely. “We won’t be returning. We have all the answers we need.” She took Nigel’s hand in hers and together they walked through the gate and down the rocky path to the awaiting helicopter.
As there were no more visitors for the season, it was several days before the silver clerics ventured behind the purple curtain and into the Holy of Holies, and by that time the oracle was completely insane. Not far from her, curled up in the fetal position and stone cold dead, was the bearded priest with a bloody gash on his forehead. The lid to the golden box was on the floor beside him. The clerics could only conclude that in a moment of utter despair, the grief-stricken priest must have opened the golden box and looked upon the Sacred Rock. It was all very tragic, but not unprecedented. The catacombs were filled with the skulls of demented priests and their oracles. A new oracle and a new priest would eventually be chosen, and the holy work of the Order would continue. There was only one thing that puzzled the clerics’ synthetic, logical minds, and that was the meaning of the oracle’s final words that paraded across the ivory walls in a continuous, golden stream.
“The bottom line… the bottom line… the bottom line…”
The words meant nothing to the clerics, but being creatures of order and absolutes, they dutifully recorded all ten billion repetitions in their electronic archives until the oracle’s final and merciful end about five centuries later.