The Fountain of Faith
(North American Continent, Planet Earth, 2245 CE)
Following the surging, panicked crowd, Mark rushed to the space docks. The whole situation was almost too frightening to be true, but there he was, dashing along with the best of them, unable to control his heart rate.
Just a few minutes ago, the entire world population had been warned by every and any means available that the world’s top scientists had detected a giant meteorite, due to crash head-long into Earth in a mere 48 hours. The warning was followed by a command to board the emergency space vehicles, which would take off in twelve hours. Not willing to wait even that long, most people had grabbed a few essentials and ran for it, Mark among them. Riots were beginning to break out in the streets, as people tried to take items that didn’t belong to them. The whole scene belonged in a nightmare, but much to everyone’s dismay, the worst had happened. However, there was some hope.
Some fifty years ago, the WSA (World Space Agency) had managed to land men on Mars and begin to build a permanent colony. Scientists on the red planet were swiftly learning how to cope with the hostile environment and even benefit from it. Year after year, the colonies had grown and flourished until more astronauts were sent out to found colonies on other parts of the planet. Scientists on Earth urged the building of extensive housing just in case there was a scenario when mass amounts of Earth’s population would need to leave whether because of impending natural disaster or nuclear war or anything else the scientists deemed emergency enough. Now their plan paid off.
Peering through the massive crowd, Mark could hardly even see where he was or where he was going. He could only hope that the path he was taking to follow the crowd was the one that led to safety. Or he could look for someone who seemed in charge and ask him just where to go. If only the people would calm down! Don’t they know that panic isn’t going to help at all? And why don’t the police come to help things out?
Unanswered questions like these ran through Mark’s head before a sudden thought made him almost stand still if it wasn’t for the crowd that swept him along.
What if all the authorities had already taken shelter themselves? The stuck-up, self-righteous, miserable, cowards! Only thinking of protecting their own skin and not how to help others! He wouldn’t be surprised if the scientists who issued the warning in the first place were one of the first to board the inter-planetary vehicle. It would be just like them, too. It began to disgust Mark that he was going to continue living in the same place as these horrid people. But it was either that or die. And Mark had no intention of dying.
Looking around, Mark noticed that the atmosphere of the flight was changing. Now the noise grew, and the pace increased. Rioters were in the self-same street that Mark was taking, and it was going to be a challenge to reach the ship with all possessions with them in the vicinity. Mark was jerked to a halt as someone grabbed his suitcase. Without hesitating to see who it was, Mark yanked the suitcase up and slammed it into his opponent’s chin. Turning quickly, he joined the crowd again for a few moments before his opponent reached out and grabbed his heel, bringing Mark to the ground. Swiftly jumping up again, Mark turned to face his opponent. He saw a tall man swinging a hammer, then stars, and nothing.
As Mark lay in the streets unconscious, brief memories flitted through his brain. Snapshots of life meandered their way, only giving enough time to be briefly caught before moving on to make way for something else. They seemed to be totally random, but they all had one thing in common: they all had elements of intense pain, terror, or disappointment. The scale of the memories ranged, the earlier ones being primarily about unreasonable fears that all children have, moving on to becoming more and more serious as Mark grew and experienced more. But then one thread of memories came and stayed as Mark relived portions of his childhood…
He was in his grandmother’s house, walking down the hall, exploring the different rooms. The third one he entered was nearly empty of furniture, having but a single table and a very few chairs. But what was lacking in comfort was made up for in solemnity. Mark had never seen such a still place where one felt as though it would be a crime to talk higher than a whisper. A few paintings decorated the walls. Mark walked up to the closest one. It portrayed a room similar to the one he was in now. In the picture, Mark noticed a gruesome addition that made him shudder; a statue of a bloody man hanging on a cross hung above the table. In front of the table knelt another man, only this one was a world away from the sufferer. He was clad in what looked like his mother’s finest sterling silver tea set, with a few alterations. He held what looked like the poker from the fireplace, but this, too, was noticeably different.
Mark thought back to his history class where he had learned of such people. Knights, they were called, the fighting machine of Ancient Times. They were vicious killers, laying low all their enemies, mounted on steel-clad steeds and carrying extremely sharp and well-tempered swords and lances into battle. With this in mind, Mark studied the painting some more. The Knight in question was here offering his sword, handle first, to the sufferer. His head was bowed in humility and servitude. The sufferer’s right arm had come off the cross to touch the head of this prostrate warrior. In the background outside the window stood the Knight’s steed, with the lance leaning against the wall. The painting puzzled Mark; why would this fierce warrior bow down before a dying man who was most likely a criminal? He asked his grandmother about it, and she directed him to a priest, who lived in a magnificent building with more paintings and—more dying men on crosses.
The priest explained to Mark how the man on the cross was actually the Son of God, who has come down to Earth to die for us, to break the power Death held over us, to save us all and to live with him forever in a lovely sounding place called Heaven. But the part that most attracted Mark was the undying hope that people who believed in this God had. There were paintings everywhere of people dying in horrible ways: shot by arrows, beheaded, torn apart by ferocious beasts, gassed, firing squad, all kinds of deaths. But every single martyr had one thing in common with all the others: each bore a smile on his face as God welcomed him or her into the Heavenly Kingdom. As a child, Mark loved this hope that if one stood for God through thick and thin, then everything would be all right.
But later, as Mark made friends outside of the Church, he found that his beliefs were ridiculed. He tried to stand up for it at first but got down to thinking in the latter part of his sophomore year of high school. He would pretty soon be an outcast in school if he really clung to these beliefs. And maybe the others were right. Maybe it was silly to seriously believe that all this had happened. After all, thousands of people had seemed to get along just fine without these beliefs. In the end, Mark stopped his pious practices, and instantly he seemed to have new friends everywhere. And yet he always felt as though something was missing…
When Mark finally came to his senses, he found himself alone. So utterly alone that he felt he had surely entered his grave. The streets were empty of everything; a mournful wind whistled down the alleys. Standing up, Mark looked around himself and came face-to-face with a structure unlike the rest. Whereas most of the buildings were practically the equivalent of large boxes with windows and doors, this one looked as though it had jumped out of the pages of his ancient history book. It was small, tucked between two big boxy malls, but the doors were almost conical in shape, and the whole building could be described as a triangle with an elongated pyramid on the front.
It was then that Mark remembered what he was doing here in the first place. He took a hasty glance at his watch and found that it was too late to try and catch the ride off the planet. But the connection he made next nearly knocked him off his feet: it was only a few hours until the asteroid was scheduled to hit. Mark looked up again at the strange, outlandish structure, and memory hit him like a falling boulder; this was the place where he used to find so much hope! This was the place where he had run to for comfort as a child! This was, if he remembered correctly, what was called a church! Mark had pretty much fallen away from his childhood faith, but it occurred to him that maybe it hadn’t been so childish after all. As if in a trance, Mark slowly approached the church.
Bending down, he brushed the dust away from the cornerstone; it read 1924. That meant it was nearly three hundred years old! And it had never been demolished. That fact alone astounded Mark. Why, he had learned in history that one hundred years after that church had been built, there had been a mass persecution of all those who had sincerely believed in this God they came here to visit every weekend, and it had wrecked many of the churches as well. Even colleges devoted to this same God had been attacked, and Mark recalled that something similar had happened right in this city. Perhaps the church had been saved by the city council because it was such a historic artifact, a remnant of what had been before.
Straightening suddenly, Mark dashed over to the doors of the church and pushed on them. They swung inward silently, and Mark entered the holy temple. He ran right up to the altar, and prostrated himself before it. “Please, God,” he began, “I know I’ve been horrid to you recently, but if you can, if you would, forgive me of that. I just want to live, Lord. Let me live, and I will do whatever you require of me.” Mark was surprised at his own words. He hadn’t had such pious outbursts since his childhood. But he felt as though somehow God had heard him. He waited for a response. As he waited, he looked up. On the altar was an open book. Mark walked up the steps and read the book.
And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD. And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? And the LORD said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes. And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.
And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty’s sake. And he said unto him, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty’s sake. And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten’s sake. And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.
Mark realized the meaning of the passage and again fell to his knees, praying fervently. Head bowed, tears flowing, Mark prayed that God would accept his penance. “If there was one righteous man, Lord, just one righteous man!” he sobbed again and again. Hour after hour went by, and still Mark knelt in the church, heedless of the passing time.
Mark’s prayer was interrupted by a slight tremor in the ground. Mark looked around, half-rising. The tremor swiftly grew, and the church became like a ship on rough waters, pitching and rolling. Mark was thrown against one of the pews, and the book tumbled off the altar. Mark, knowing now what the book was, tried to get up and protect it. But the earthquake was too much for him, and he was constantly feeling his feet fly out from under him, and once again he would collapse to the ground. Time and time he fell, but time and time again he struggled up and crawled his way a few inches closer to the Bible. Then, at last, the tremor began to recede. The church slowly began to feel once more like a firm building instead of a galley in a gale. Reaching the Bible, he reverently raised it from the ground, and read one sentence from it:
“Feed my sheep.”
Turning around, Mark saw that he was not alone in the church. A dozen haggard faces turned to him for hope and strength. A dozen haggard hearts unanimously made him leader. Mark stared in amazement at the crucifix above the altar.
“Lord,” he breathed, “You can’t be serious…”
(Relocated WSA HQ, Mars, ninety years later…)
Captain Gilbilly took a deep breath and then addressed the ten experienced astronauts before him.
“Gentlemen, you have been chosen for a most important mission. Ninety years ago, a cataclysmic event struck our home plant, Earth, and destroyed nearly all traces of civilization that could be found there. Thankfully, everyone was able to evacuate Earth in time, so none remained to be killed by the asteroid. For a long time, we could not return there because of hostile conditions. But now we deem that the time has come for us to return home. Here are your orders,” he handed the astronaut commander a small computer chip. “I wish you a successful voyage. Bring news back quickly.”
Captain Gilbilly was not one for long speeches.
(North American Continent, Planet Earth, a few months later…)
Mark leaned on his staff for support. His long white beard, nearly as long as his white robe, was blown around in the wind. He watched the fiery speck descend and gradually grow until it became most apparent that it was a space capsule, a pilgrim from Mars. Mark held his ground, despite the strong blasts of exhaust coming from the capsule. Squinting through the swirling dust, Mark keenly and intently watched the capsule land and shut down. The whirlwind subsided, giving way to the warm, playful spring breeze that Mark had been recently enjoying.
The Capsule door opened, and a human face peered out.
“Welcome to Earth, kin from Mars.” Mark bowed low.
“You still survive? How is it possible?”demanded the commander.
“I missed the train, you might say,” Mark answered, smiling. “But come with me, and you’ll see how I managed to live.”
Mark led the puzzled astronauts down a busy street. Every once in a while, they had to pause as people young and old came to Mark for help or comfort. Mark would give them some small advice, and they would walk away, contented. But at last they came to a more desolate part of town, and ruins still showed through where new buildings had not yet been built. Mark led the newcomers to a very old and very odd building. The commander had never seen anything like it before. The doors stood wide open, inviting anyone who wished to enter. Pausing, Mark faced the astronauts.
“There are clearly some questions that need answering,” he began. “Even when I show you the inside of that building, you will not quite understand everything immediately. So I will tell you my story here, now.
“Ninety years ago when the asteroid was detected heading for Earth at lethal speeds, the leading scientists at once decided that mankind should evacuate to Mars. What they did not take into consideration is the horrible rioting that would take place as those with not so many scruples sought to take advantage of the situation and gain much for themselves. I fell victim to these rioters, and when I came to, the spaceships had all already left for Mars. It was too late. Then I remembered that as a child, I had had great hope in a certain belief. So having lost everything, I once again turned to that belief, and, unlikely as it may seem, I and others like me, were protected. The asteroid collided with the opposite side of the earth, the Asian side. I doubt even now how much thrives there.
“We here on this continent, we managed to survive through the fortitude and prudence of one of our company (God give him peace) who was one of the very scientists who first sighted the asteroid. He told us to gather as much food as still remained and bring it back to this building you see before you, where we had taken shelter. He also told us to gather plenty of air filters and look for what gas masks we could. When we returned, he directed us to fit the air filters over all the apertures in the building as he knew that a vast cloud of dust would come, and cover the sky for months. The food was stored safely as well.
“Now that our material needs were taken care of, we realized that we needed someone to take precedence above everyone else as a leader, a judge. The scientist only knew what was in his line of business, and was only able to help protect them from the hostile elements. He did not trust himself with guiding the whole life of these people and declined. The people next turned to me, because they believed me to be a man of integrity, and came to trust my abilities in the aftermath of the great earthquake. I also did not want the post, but there was one there who knew that I had been in training as a lawyer and believed I would be fit to judge any disputes that might have arisen. I could not deny this and at last reluctantly agreed to take the position. I became not only their social leader but also their religious leader. For us, the two became entwined so closely as to be nearly the same.
“There you have it, gentlemen. But now come with me.”
Mark walked right through the doors and up the center aisle, right to the crucifix that still hung there. Smiling serenely, he turned again to the astronauts.
“Here is my hope,” he said, and spread out his arms, imitating the sufferer before him. The commander approached, becoming more and more amazed every second. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it reverently when he saw Mark’s face.
The old man had died standing, having drunk for his whole life from the Fountain of Faith.