The man in the garish robes and discolored wig was applying he last of his makeup when he heard a knock at his door. He scrambled from his seat and nearly tripped over his oversized red shoes as he scurried to the door, cracking it open to peer at the person outside the room.
“Cherall…I mean, Dr. Adad? Sorry to bother you, but you have a visitor. She’d like to meet you before your show,” said a lady wearing a headset and holding a large datapad. She glanced impatiently from side to side, tapping her foot.
“You know I don’t like visitors, Raha. Especially right before I go live,” he replied with a hint of agitation.
“It’s a sponsor’s kid. One of the holders in the Kor-Azor family. She’ll only be a minute,” Raha whispered. Cherall looked down and saw blond curls peek through the door’s frame a full meter below his producer’s face. He sighed softly before nodding his head and opening the door more fully.
“My apologies. Come on in, child.” Cherall shot a dirty look toward Raha, who offered a short smirk before bustling down the hallway. She spoke over her shoulder as she turned a corner: “Don’t forget, you go live in five minutes.”
The little girl looked up at Cherall with wide, green eyes as she stepped into the room. Cherall closed the door and smiled at her. The wide, red grin painted on his face accentuated his expression, and the nanite-infused compound on his cheeks glowed softly as various shapes illuminated around his cheekbones, spinning and bulging across his face. The little girl giggled at the sight, holding her hands in front of her mouth out of politeness.
“What’s your name, little one?” Cherall inquired, sitting down in his makeup chair gingerly, his knees cracking with the exertion.
“Fimiris,” she whispered through her hands, still staring at Cherall.
“Are you a fan of the show?” Cherall opened a drawer at his desk, rummaging through its contents.
“Yes, I am. I watch it every day.” The girl’s face flushed a dark crimson as she moved her hands behind her back and straightened her posture. “I named my favorite slave after Mr. Wayward.”
Cherall’s smile softened slightly as he continued to search through the desk, opening another drawer and sticking his hand deep into its recesses. “That’s very clever of you. Does your daddy mind that you renamed one of his slaves?”
“No, not at all. He finds it rather amusing, as do I.” The girl waved back and forth lightly on her heels as she talked.
After another moment of intense scrutiny, Cherall found the object he was looking for: a thin holopad with his likeness on it. He grabbed a pen and scribbled on the image before handing it to the girl. “That’s’ very nice dear. But remember, Mr. Wayward is a cartoon character. Your slave is a real person, so be sure to treat him well.”
He handed the holopad to Fimiris, who accepted it with a big grin on her face. She giggled again as the image altered and played a short scene of Cherall juggling bright, red orbs. “Thank you, Dr. Adad! I will certainly make sure to treat Mr. Wayward well.”
“You’re a sweet girl. You remind me of my daughter, you know. You and her would get along very well. Now, off you go. I have to get ready for the show.”
As the little girl left the room, Cherall glanced to a sign posted above the dressing room’s door. It was a simple wooden placard with blocky letters burned into it. The sign contained a short passage from the Book of Reclaiming: “Lead all children to the light of God, for Heaven is theirs to inherit.” Cherall stared at the inscription, deep in thought. After a few moments, his meditation was broken by the buzzing of a datapad on his desk.
“Children of God, do you know what time it is?” The voice echoed throughout the mostly empty soundstage. A chorus of high-pitched voices responded in unison: “It’s time for Dr. Adad’s Wild Time!”
Throughout the room, dozens of lights flashed on and hundreds of children’s faces appeared throughout the empty space, filling the area from ground to ceiling with holographic projections of smiling children clapping their hands to the upbeat music reverberating in the room’s atmosphere. The children’s images flickered as they clapped their hands in time to the music. After a few minutes, the clapping turned into full applause as Cherall entered the room, running onto a lighted stage and performing cartwheels and somersaults across its width.
Camera drones followed his routine from multiple angles as he flitted around the stage and spun wildly into the air. The music throbbed louder and the children’s applause intensified as Cherall completed his gymnastic barrage by launching himself in the air with the help of his gravboots – and floating back down to the stage floor with eight consecutive rolls in the air. He landed softly, raised his arms, and the music stopped. The children burst into applause all around him, their images flickering more intensely.
“Hello, children. I’m Dr. Adad, and welcome to my Wild Time!” Cherall bellowed to his audience, who applauded wildly in response. Cherall hushed them with a wave of his hand. “We have a very special show to you today, as we are filming this live from our studios on Nakregde II.” More applause ensued.
“As always, I’d like to begin this show with a prayer. Let’s bow our heads.”
Cherall’s painted face retained a solemn expression as he bowed his head. Inside the room, hundreds of holographic faces followed suit. Across the cluster, millions more children bowed their head in prayer as they watched this live feed, their parents smiling with bemusement.
“God, you are a gracious God, and a forgiving God. We do not deserve your blessings, and we submit our lives to you. You bring us joy and you bring us sorrow, but we endure everything in your name. Please grant us the wisdom and the courage to follow you to Heaven. Amen.”
Cherall tilted his head up and looked into the nearest camera drone.
“And now it’s time for the fun to begin! Unfortunately, Professor Playmate is no longer going to be joining us in the festivities: He’s back at school teaching the Theology of Fun! But not to worry, because his brother will be joining us, and I’m sure you’ll love Emperor Excitement.”
The audience was silent in response to this news. Cherall panicked briefly, beads of sweat brimming on his brow and laughed nervously. “But while we wait, why don’t we see what’s going on with Mr. Wayward?”
The audience burst into applause and many children whooped and hollered in delight.
A smile slowly crept upon his face. On the vidscreens across the Empire, children laughed aloud as his cheeks flared with glowing numbers, letters, and symbols, the glyphs morphing and moving along to a bossa nova rhythm that had emerged in the background. Cherall’s eyes followed the glowing symbols as best they could, crossing and uncrossing, twirling and darting inside his sockets.
The clown’s smile intensified as the camera drone focused deeper onto his face. The glowing symbols changed colors and swirled together, forming more complex images and figures. As the theme song continued its rampant rhythm, a person emerged among the glowing shapes: a tall Minmatar man, dressed in plain clothes and covered in tattoos. Two more figures emerged shortly afterward. One figure was that of a shorter Amarr man in elegant robes and pale skin. The other was a large, anthropomorphic furrier standing on its hind legs and wearing a dress. A title in big, animated letters zoomed over the heads of these characters: “The Adventures of Mr. Wayward and Friends,” followed by the subtitle, “Today’s Adventure: The Thief among Us.” Off camera, the children exploded into applause.
“Cherall, it’s Tadama. They took our daughter.”
Cherall stared in disbelief at the woman projected onto the vidscreen. Tears were streaming down her face and her auburn hair was hanging in front of her face in tangles. Cherall cleared his throat.
“Who took her? When did this happen? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” sobbed Tadama. Her bloodshot eyes pleaded with Cherall. “They just sent me an image of her. She’s still alive, but they told me they’d kill her if I told anybody that she was missing. Except you. I think they want to reach you.”
Cherall stood up slowly, his knees creaking. He stood on wobbly legs as he moved to the nearest data console in his vast living quarters. “How am I supposed to contact them? And who exactly is ‘them’ anyway?”
Tadama entered some information on her vidscreen. She sniffed loudly and wiped her eyes with her hands before turning back to face Cherall. “I just sent you a contact number. They want you to reach them through there.”
Tadama glanced around her, panic in her eyes. Tears rolled down her cheeks and blotted her collar. “Cherall, you have to do whatever it takes to get her back. She’s our baby girl. And ever since you moved out…. Well, she’s all that I have left. I can’t lose her like I lost you.”
Cherall winced and looked down at his data console. His eyes were bleary and he grasped the console until his knuckles went white. “I’ll do what I can, Ta. Meanwhile, I want you to go to the police and…”
“No, I can’t do that. They’ll kill her if I do that. Please do what they want before–“
He raised his hands and closed his eyes, a single tear streaming down his face. “Ok, ok. Don’t go to the police. I’ll talk to them first and see what they want. Anything to get our little girl back.”
Tadama’s face softened, and she brushed her mottled hair out of her face, revealing her unblemished, pale skin – “God’s imbued essence,” as Cherall used to call it – beneath her wild, curly locks. Again she wiped her eyes, now raw from this repeated action, and smiled half-heartedly at Cherall. “Thank you, honey. I love you.”
Her ex-husband nodded his head and waved goodbye as he severed the call.
The nanites shifted into place, forming the words “The End.” The camera drone zoomed out to show Cherall’s eyes rolling around and around inside his eye sockets, feigning dizziness. The children again clapped and cheered as the camera continued to zoom out. When Cherall saw his full image again showing on the vidscreen monitors around the stage, he lunged backward into a complete triple back flip, and landed on one hand. Spinning in place, he twirled once more into the air before landing on his feet and smiling to the camera.
“So today we learned about stealing, and how wrong it is to steal from God’s Chosen.” He folded his arms in an exaggerated manner and leaned back on his back leg. “As God’s people, we Amarr are entitled to the bounty of God’s creation. The Minmatar, being wayward children, have not earned their right to God’s kingdom. Thus, they must live with the lot given to them by us, God’s chosen people.” Cherall raised his arms again. “That’s why Mr. Wayward was punished for taking Flonta Furrier from his holder. By stealing from his holder, he was also stealing from God.”
Cherall twirled in place, his body twisting violently as it gained momentum. He pirouetted in a constant motion and propelled his body across the stage, continuously spinning as he progressed in a figure eight. As he performed his signature “Spindlemas” dance to the children’s delight, a woman appeared at the other end of the stage. She was dressed in a long, white, flowing dress with a white parasol in her hand. Bright red flowers adorned her hair, and brilliant colors flashed across her dress as she tiptoed around the spinning clown.
The children laughed and clapped as she followed Cherall’s gyrating form, attempting to catch up with him. Finally, Cherall spun in place for several seconds, allowing the woman to sidle up to him. She stood on her tiptoes and extended her arm out, putting on finger at the crown of Cherall’s multicolored head. Instantly, he stopped spinning and beamed at the audience in shock. He turned to the woman and gasped. “Miss Melody, I can’t believe it’s you!” he exclaimed.
The woman curtsied. “Here I am, at your service, Dr. Adad.”
“Welcome, welcome. What do you have in store for us today?”
Miss Melody turned to the camera drone and ran to the front of the stage, dropping her parasol and holding her hands together. “Why, I’m going to sing you a song!”
Cherall ran up to stand next to her. “Do you mean it’s time for….” All the children in the audience screamed with Cherall in unison. “Miss Melody’s melodies?”
The audience applauded as Miss Melody curtsied again.
“That’s wonderful,” Cherall exclaimed. “What are you going to sing for us today?”
Miss Melody cleared her throat dramatically, pausing for a beat before answering. “Today I will be singing the classic hymn, ‘The Children of Heaven Will Gather Together.’”
“We can’t wait. Without further ado, take it away, Miss Melody.” Cherall bowed to her, then ran backstage as the first notes reverberated throughout the hall and Miss Melody’s pristine soprano lilted through the air.
When he reached backstage, Cherall found the nearest available chair and sank into it. He closed his eyes and took deep breath. He became lost in the song’s beautiful melody. As he sat there, listening to the music, he cried softly to himself.
Tadama looked at Cherall imploringly on the vidscreen. “Did you find out what they wanted?”
“Yes, I did,” Cherall replied.
“Well?” Tadama had bags around her eyes from lack of sleep. Her pupils were dilated and she had trouble focusing on the image in front of her. She drummed her fingers on the data console in ragged strokes.
“They want me to renounce my faith on my program and to cancel the show.”
Tadama stopped drumming her fingers. “That’s it? No ISK, no power deals, no nothing?”
“So when are you going to cancel it?”
“I don’t know.”
Tadama glared at his image on the vidscreen. She grabbed the nearest object to her – an urn – and threw it against the wall. “What do you mean you don’t know?” she screamed.
Cherall stood up from his chair, his knees creaking as he did. His legs were wobbly and he could hardly stand. “I just don’t know. That’s not my duty.”
“Your duty is to your family. Have you talked to Samne about this? The two of you have worked together for nearly 30 years now.”
Tadama gasped. She looked around the room in bewilderment. “What? When? How?” she stammered.
“They killed him two days ago. The same guys, these ‘Bleeding Hearts of Matar’ terrorists. They’re a splinter cell of the Bloody Hand. They gave me this same threat last week.”
“Why haven’t I heard anything about this yet?” Tadama asked, her voice quivering.
“We’ve kept it quiet. We didn’t know what to do. The Theology Council has officially endorsed our show for the edification of the faith. We couldn’t cancel the show without explaining it to the Council.” Cherall sat down again with a heavy sigh. Across the vidscreen, Tadama followed suit.
After a few moments of silence, she started to sob quietly. Between convulsing breaths, she muttered: “What…about…our…daughter?”
Cherall sat in silence as he listened to his ex-wife’s whimpering. Finally, he said, “I have an obligation to my faith to–“
Tadama shot up from her seat and yelled at the top of her lungs. “Fuck your righteousness for once, Cher. They’re going to kill Prandi!”
Cherall remained silent, his head bowed in prayer.
“You’ll never see her face again because you don’t have the balls to upset the Theology Council. What God would allow this to happen?”
Cherall raised his head and looked Tadama in the eye. “’The road to Heaven is paved with tribulation. Those who remain with my flock shall never be vanquished. Their family shall be reunited in Heaven so long as they remain faithful to me.’”
“You’re a coward and a fool, Cherall. I’m going to the police.”
At the end of the program, Cherall stood in the center of the stage, a single spotlight shining down upon him. He smiled to the camera drones.
“Now we must end our show for today. Please bow your head in prayer, children.”
In turn, the children bowed their heads. In the air surrounding his body were the images of hundreds of devout faces peering at the ground or with eyes squeezed shut, their hands folded in front of their faces, and their lips moving softly and silently. Cherall followed suit.
“Dear God, you have taught us so much today. You have taught us about the sin of stealing; about your love for your children; about the sanctity of the body; and about the importance of faith. We pray for your forgiveness as we strive to understand your Word, and as we attempt to lead the life you have shown us. Please forgive us, for we are sinners. On our path to Heaven, we stumble; in our journey of faith, we get lost. But so long as we are found again, we are grateful for your blessing. Amen.”
The children raised their heads and stared at Cherall. Cherall, in turn, raised his head as well.
“And now children, I must leave you for today. Go forth with God. We shall be reunited soon with God. Remember that God loves us all. Good night, and we’ll see you tomorrow.”
As the children applauded for the final time that evening, Cherall looked around at all the faces surrounding him, the hundreds of visages floating in the air inside the room, staring down at him and smiling. A single tear rolled down his cheek as he continued to look at them, searching hopelessly for something familiar among all the innocent faces.