"Day of Atonement" appears in Free Space: Tales of the Galactic Federation (Tor/ St. Martins, 1997), edited by Brad Linaweaver and Ed Kramer, and available from Amazon.Com and Barnes and Noble. It is posted for entertainment purposes only and may not be crossposted to any other datafile base, conference, news group, email list, or website without written permission of the author.
Copyright © 1997 by J. Neil Schulman. All rights reserved.

Day of Atonement

by J. Neil Schulman

"I believe in God, but I detest theocracy. For every Government consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a makeshift; if it adds to its commands, 'Thus saith the Lord,' it lies, and lies dangerously."
-- C.S. Lewis, "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State"

"Hateful," muttered David Brandon silently to himself.

He was standing -- strap-hanging -- crushed in with the Sunday morning commuters on the 7:23 scooter from Damascus to Jerusalem, looking at the cover of the latest Time magazine, dated October 6th -- tomorrow. The cover showed a Menorah completely engulfed by flames from its candles. The headline asked, "WAS THE HOLOCAUST GOD'S PUNISHMENT?"

Brandon cleared the screen of his Vistabook and dropped it into a jacket pocket. He didn't have the stomach right now to read another piece of slanted, Israelite propaganda; it was hard enough as it was to concentrate on the difficulties that lay before him that day. Getting past the checkpoint with another faked identity -- this time he was supposed to be a soccer coach at Hebrew University -- was going to be the first order of business.

He was not, by temperament, cut out to be a terrorist. He hadn't until fairly recently even been particularly interested in political matters. As a matter of fact, a virtual lack of politics had almost been enough to convince him to stay with Kallye and their nine-year-old daughter, Janna, in the Jeffersonian space habitat. But even personal freedom and paternal love weren't enough to have to endure daily reminders of his unrequited love for a woman who loved her independence more than anything else.

David's lack of regular employment had been one of the issues that caused the breakup of his marriage to a civil engineer with the unending job of building new habitat rings; and there just wasn't yet much need for sports writers in a new space habitat where the only established market for writing was still for tek dox.

So after two years of accepting that the only personal comments he was ever again going to get from Kallye were bitter sarcasm, two years of discovering that Kallye's and his bickering and their widely divergent approaches to child-rearing were turning Janna into a neurotic brat -- David Brandon had agreed to Kallye's request for divorce and custody, and returned alone to Earth. He'd come to Southern California because he knew some networkers there who promised David assignments to novelize fantasy wrestling. That was now almost three years ago.

Brandon's sojourn into radical politics had begun by accident. A few months after his return he was at a fund-raiser in Baja Westwood, one of those office-lobby buffets where suits with large current accounts and hirsutes with late credit bills mixed freely, lubricated by Zinfandel and rumaki.

Since he had come with another writer for the free lunch, David hadn't even paid attention to what the do was about, and might never have found out if someone hadn't bumped his elbow and David hadn't spilled his Dark Lite down Sharmane Liebowitz's tits.

Sharmane took one look at David's chiseled good looks, and not very discreetly checked out his butt. Within a few minutes he was licking his beer off Sharmane's breasts in her executive washroom on the fifth floor.

On their way back down to the lobby, Sharmane explained to David that it was a Save the Lambs fund-raiser to stop the animal sacrifices in the Kingdom of Israel. Sharmane was one of the organizers.

It wasn't until months later that David learned that Save the Lambs was only a small part of a much larger coalition.

Looking back, it was hard for David to know whether he had been drawn into the Jewish Liberation Organization more by intellectual or pheromonal persuasion.

Sure, it was awful that the Sanhedrin had torn down the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem, destroying irreplaceable documentation of Nazi atrocities; driven the rabbis out of the Kingdom of Israel and demolished the synagogues; and forbidden all but physically perfect and unblemished men to enter the Temple.

And the chutzpah -- the sheer unmitigated chutzpah -- of King Josephus outlawing the use of Yiddish and Ladino in the Israelite kingdom ... the attempts to wipe out two millennia of Diasporic Jewish culture ... the imposition of Old Testament laws and punishments. No wonder the King of Israel got along so well with Islamic fundamentalists!

This was now all unspeakably evil to David; yet he was self- honest enough to realize that none of this would have moved him if the arguments hadn't come from Sharmane's mouth.


In spite of his worries, passing the checkpoints proceeded without incident. The kings of Israel, Jordan, and Syria had become good friends -- Tuesday golfing buddies, in fact -- and there hadn't been a border incident in decades.

The ID he presented was scanned without problem, which was the confirmation he'd been waiting for that it was worth what Sharmane had paid for it. If there had been even the slightest indication of suspicion here, his orders were to turn around immediately. But, instead, he found himself disembarking the scooter, not too long after, in Giv'at Ram.

It could not have been better timing to quell any doubts he'd been having: there was a book burning by Hebrew University students in progress in the center of the stadium as he headed toward the workout rooms. He ventured close enough to see a swarthy young woman in a shapeless full-length black dress toss a book by Sholom Aleichem onto the roaring fire then David blended into the roaring crowd, turning toward his assigned pick-up ... an athletic locker in the men's showers.

Though the locker room was deserted -- or perhaps because of its desertion -- this was the beginning of the most dangerous part of his mission. He punched the combination into the locker, opened it, and took out a canvas athletic bag. Because of what was supposed to be hidden in the bag, David was now irrevocably marked as a terrorist if the Shammashim caught him with it. If he had been compromised, then either he would be arrested momentarily, or -- if the Shammashim thought he would lead them to further conspirators -- they would be tailing him from now on.

He was not arrested.

David changed into workout clothes left for him in the bag then locked the bag and his street clothes back into the locker. He started with twenty minutes of aerobic stairclimbing just to warm up then proceeded to the weight room. Since he didn't have a spotter he decided to stick to the machines.

While the workout was necessary for David to blend in to his role, he enjoyed weightlifting as an end in itself, so it didn't take much pretense. Brandon had been training for this assignment for almost a year; and the benefits showed in the cut of his physique. But he had to be extra careful not even to bruise or nick himself during this workout. Even the most minor physical imperfection on him in the next twenty-four hours could take thousands of hours of preparation and bring it to nothing. It was one reason he had grown a thick beard recently. He couldn't even risk shaving.

After twenty minutes of stretching, he returned to the locker, changed into street clothes again without showering, adjusted his turban, then took the all-important gym bag with him out to the street. He found a taxi stand in front of the old Knesset and told the driver to take him to the King Daniel Hotel.

There was no way to know if the Shammashim were now following him, so there was nothing to do except act as if they weren't. Despite a traffic backup caused by a royal motorcade exiting the Palace, Brandon was at the hotel lobby in ten minutes.

His room wasn't yet available, so he had lunch in the King Daniel's rooftop sushi bar. There was fish only; no other seafood was served.

Finally, at two o'clock, the front desk allowed David to check into his room; but it was evident that if his reservation hadn't been solidly locked in for a year, there was no way that he ever would have gotten a room in New Temple Quarter on the eve of the holiest day of both Jewish and Hebrew calendars for the year 5847 -- 10 Tishre 5847, to be exact -- Yom Kippur.

Once checked into his hotel room, David was going exactly nowhere until tomorrow. He finally took out the false bottom of the athletic bag to make sure it contained the items it was supposed to contain, then closed it up and shoved it under the bed.

The next order of business was to cut up, break up, and mash up his ID as the soccer coach and flush it down the toilet.

After a leisurely and overdue shower, David turned the holyvision onto a local news channel with English language audio, plopping on the bed and propping a pillow under his head to watch.

It was nothing he hadn't seen before ... the public beheading of a homosexual ... sheep being sacrificed on the altar of the Third Temple ... a woman convicted of adultery being stoned to death by pharisees amidst the Royal Topiaries.

So much for righteousness in the Holy Land. And his grandfather had told him how the Religious Right in America used to bitch about violence on television.

David was watching a report on the new law King Josephus had just proclaimed granting a woman's right to an abortion -- one abortion; it was only to be performed along with a hysterectomy -- when there was a knock at his door.

David pulled on his clothes quickly, making sure he had his turban on again, and in Hebrew asked through the door who it was. "Your dry cleaning," came back the reply, in English.

David opened the door; a bellman entered with two hangers of clothing wrapped in garment bags from the hotel cleaners. He tipped the bellman a few shekels, closed the door again, and sighed relief after opening one of the garment bags.

It was the ceremonial garb of a simple goatherd which he'd been expecting.

It was a lonely evening and night. He wanted to call Sharmane, but that was, of course, impossible. He ordered up dinner from room service before it shut down for the holiday -- roast lamb, humus, sherbet, and thick sweet black coffee -- then watched the Royal Jerusalem Philharmonic and Chorus in a performance of the Kol Nidre. Some of the Sanhedrin wanted to do away with the Kol Nidre as "modernist" but it was unlikely that they would find the popular support. David could hear it simply by stepping out to his terrace; it was being sung all over the city.

When the sun went down, Brandon did what almost everyone else in the city was doing: he fasted then, eventually, slept.

Terrorism is not particularly good for either the digestion or a good night's sleep; David was up late and then up early. Shortly after sunrise he did some stretching and wished for a breakfast he knew he couldn't buy anywhere in the kingdom except a hospital, nursing home, or childcare facility ... if he'd even been seriously inclined to.

He did not shower, wash, or even brush his teeth. For one thing, the water in the hotel was shut off until sundown. For another, someone might smell the scent of soap or mint on him and look at him disapprovingly at the wrong moment.

It was time to go. David dressed in a conservative black suit from one of the garment bags, donned his turban, retrieved the items he needed from the athletic bag and concealed them on his person, and draped the other garment bag -- the one with the goatherd's costume -- over his shoulder. Barefooted, as was ritually necessary, he then trotted down the stairs out to the boulevard and started walking briskly to the Temple. Luckily the pavement was neither particularly hot or cool.

The Third Temple of Solomon was, like the first Temple, directly adjacent to the Israelite king's living quarters.

It was a much more imposing structure than the Second Temple, on the other side of town, was supposed to have been. Moreover, while perhaps no more lovingly and expensively built than the original Temple at Mount Moriah, it was still enormously larger.

Both the first and second Temples would have easily fit inside any decent-sized city's synagogue -- a three-storey structure a hundred twenty feet by forty -- but the Third Temple was as large and ornate as any other religion's primary place of worship, from Saint Peter's in Rome to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.

It performed essentially the same functions as scripture recorded for the first Temple -- but was scaled up and out.

At the outer perimeter of the Temple were pens for housing the animals to be sacrificed and areas for meat-cutting and hide- stripping; a bakery; a bath for ritual purification of the priests.

Inside, there was a vestibule with offices for administrative functions and storage of religious artifacts, an outer open-air sanctuary where sacrifices were performed and worshipers could congregate, and the inner sanctuary -- the Holy of Holies.

Only the High Priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies, and only on one day every year: Yom Kippur -- the Day of Atonement, when God forgave sins. Anyone else entering the Holy of Holies did so under penalty of death.

The Holy of Holies in the Third Temple of Solomon had one additional thing in common with the first Temple ... an Object that even the Second Temple could not make claim to.

An Ark of the Covenant.

It was not the Ark of the Covenant. No one had yet been able to deliver that vessel to the King of Israel, though the rewards he offered were ... well, a king's ransom. But herein was the centerpiece, the key, to the refounding of the pre- rabbinical faith of the Israelite nation.

By prophetic authority -- and much blood and gold had been spent in defending the authenticity of that prophecy -- the Eternal was said to have ordered a Phoenix-born Jewish college student named Daniel Gottlieb, the only son of the Southwest's largest Chrysler dealer -- to mount an archaeological dig in Ethiopia.

There, so the tale went -- wrapped in rough wool within a tightly-sealed wooden chest both of which scientifically dated to the Tenth Century B.C.E. -- he was said to have found broken stone tablets. Scholars, who were allowed access only to rubbings and digital photographs, agreed that when the jigsaw puzzle was put back together, the tablets contained the Decalogue in the written language and style appropriate for the Mosaic epoch, the Fourteenth Century B.C.E..

Daniel Gottlieb had not been at all religious before his expedition to Ethiopia. It wouldn't be accurate to say that he now found religion; it would be more proper to say that religion found him ... and faith-starved believers anointed him to such immense power that was perhaps more recently enjoyed only by the man who was proclaimed by billions to wear the shoes of the fisherman.

It wasn't very long before instructions found in the Book of Exodus were fed into a computer program which designed, as closely as possible to the original, an Ark to house the tablets.

The tank which rolled into the Knesset and deposited Daniel Gottlieb onto a hastily-erected throne therein was claimed to have had the Ark within it. Only the man making that claim could say from personal knowledge. In his first proclamation, the new King had declared that now that he had placed the tablets into the Ark, anyone other than himself who looked upon the Ark of the Covenant would be struck dead by the Angel Samael. Not many had been prepared to contest that claim with empirical vigor; and no one who had tried was known to have survived the attempt.

The Arizona-born king was more comfortable wielding political power than religious authority. Daniel Gottlieb accepted the Staff of David when it was offered to him and declined to share secular power with a parliament; but religious authority he vested in the men who put him in power, a priesthood who styled themselves the Sanhedrin.

Their power had been consolidated by shrewd treaties with Muslims who found the idea of having Hebrews as neighbors much more palatable than living next door to Jews.

It was Daniel's eldest son who now reigned as King of the Israelites and -- on one day of the year, this day, to be precise -- fulfilled the office of High Priest.

It was ironic, David considered as he walked barefoot to the Temple, that it was the Sanhedrin's stubborn objections to almost all that had happened in the last twenty-one centuries that made possible what he was about to do.

In almost any other major house of worship on this planet -- even the Vatican -- modern security techniques would have made certain to one error in twenty million that anyone who entered private areas was who his proffered ID said he was ... and belonged there ... and wasn't carrying forbidden things that personal searches couldn't discover.

The utility entrance to the Temple didn't even have an oldstyle magnetometer and X-ray unit, much less DNA scanners and molecular sensors. David presented personal ID and Temple authorization documents which declared him a participant in today's proceedings, then undressed and underwent the customary inspection.

The Shammashim who guarded the entrance were more concerned with David's physical perfection -- and his circumcision -- than anything else. It was now obvious that they had no security concerns about him. He passed their scrutiny then was allowed into the dressing area.

There David changed into the goatherd's robe, drew a minor staff, and proceeded to the animal pen where today's scapegoat was waiting for him. He presented his identification, once again, to the Shammash guarding the pen, and was allowed to take the goat out.

He proceeded toward the outer sanctuary with the goat, but at a point where he felt there were few eyes on him, he paused, petting the goat. His spread his robes, strategically, to conceal what he was doing.

What David Brandon was doing was, after applying a powerful anesthetic, injecting a biochip into the larynx of the scapegoat.

It was a simple plan: as King Josephus prepared to raise his knife to slaughter the scapegoat, David would transmit a signal to the biochip, and the scapegoat was going to speak.

It was undoubtedly cheap theatrics, David considered. It was definitely a form of terrorism, he knew.

But it beat the hell out of blowing up the Ark of the Covenant, which had come in second in the vote of the J.L.O. leadership, for an act to bring attention to Hebrew cruelty to animals, as well as oppression of the Jews on their commonly shared most sacred day.

The Shammash signaled David to bring the scapegoat forward, where he was joined by a second goat-herder leading a second goat. This second goat would not be slaughtered but sprinkled with blood from the scapegoat by the High Priest, King Josephus, and at sunset that day, thrown off a high cliff. For the moment, it was to be held back by its goatherd while the scapegoat was led to the altar for slaughter.

As David led the scapegoat up the steps onto the altar he got his first good look at the assembled mass of Hebrew men, intoning their confessions. David could see the Sanhedrin off to one side in a balcony; below them selected pharisees.

At the top of the altar, a priest took the goat from David and led it to the King.

It was time for the sacrifice. The scapegoat was lifted onto the stone table, and its feet were tied. Then the High Priest raised his knife and prepared to speak--

When David pressed a button under his robe, and the scapegoat spoke instead.

"Was it not written," said the scapegoat in Hebrew, loud enough for all present to hear "that I desire mercy and not sacrifices?"

It was a quotation from the Book of Hosea.

The crowd was startled, and so was the King, who dropped his hand.

And what followed was either high comedy or an unparalleled religious desecration, depending on your point of view.

As the King lowered the knife, he accidentally nicked the behind of the scapegoat. It was enough to cause the scapegoat to roll itself off the stone table onto the altar floor, and in its agitation, the scapegoat managed to break free of its bonds.

The scapegoat then ran right into the Holy of Holies.

"Get it!" King Josephus stage-whispered to the nearest several Shammashim.

The temple servants hesitated.

"Yes, in there!" The King pointed to the Holy of Holies.

The men obeyed their King and High Priest and followed the goat into the Holy of Holies.

An unseen struggle between men and goat followed behind the golden curtain ... and then, just like in The Wizard of Oz, the curtain was pulled open ... and the assembled worshipers got their first look inside the Holy of Holies at the Ark of the Covenant.

A palpable roar arose from the congregation. Many worshippers shielded their eyes ... but some looked.

What those who looked saw was that, as the Shammashim chased the goat, the goat ran through the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies was a hologram.

And as the scapegoat ran for its life, the image of the Ark appeared, disappeared, and reappeared, as the beast ran across the laser projector's path.

David Brandon could see the impact this was having on the assembled ... the Sanhedrin and pharisees in particular.

Some men dropped their heads in their hands.

Some of the men were ripping their clothes.

David Brandon did not, at that moment, know what the lasting impact of this day would be. To be honest, he was more concerned with getting out of the Temple -- and getting both Sharmane and himself back to the safety of the Jeffersonian space habitat -- before the Shammashim managed to connect them with the day's events.

He had not done this largely for political reasons, but for personal reasons. He had done it because Sharmane had asked him to, and because -- for religious reasons -- no other member of the Jewish Liberation Organization could do such a thing on Yom Kippur.

But, for the first time in his life, David was convinced that, very likely, God really did exist and -- every once in a while -- did reach His hand down into human affairs.

It was enough, David considered, as he boarded the scooter back to the Damascus spaceport, to grant Sharmane's request that he convert to Judaism before they got married.

"Day of Atonement" appears in Free Space: Tales of the Galactic Federation (Tor/St. Martins, 1997), edited by Brad Linaweaver and Ed Kramer, and available from Amazon.Com and Barnes and Noble.
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