Representatives of the Provisional Commonwealth Council were there to greet Amos and his men as they arrived at Cambridge Hall. Unlike Amos and his fellow bounty hunters, they were dressed in expensive suits. The clothes weren’t flamboyant, but the cost of the fabric marked their wealthy status.

The hall was a small, modest structure composed of a brick and mortar exterior that offered no hint of its current use. Yet, the humble edifice stood prominently within the city even though other buildings towered above it. The hall had been built from the remains of an old congregational church that had been abandoned so long ago no one could remember the exact reason for its demise. The bell tower had been destroyed, but several large bounties had paid for its reconstruction. Every day at nine, noon, and ten o’ clock, the bell was rung as though the beating heart of the city, and a nation whose rediscovered faith it represented.

“Greetings,” Amos said as he approached the government representatives. “God be with you.”

One of the men was Frederick Christoph, a well-known and high-ranking member of the Commonwealth Council from Worchester County. There, he served as prime minister of the county’s parliamentary-style government.

“Greetings, Mr. Cavendish,” he said. “We’ve been informed about Mr. Cordell’s capture.”

Amos gestured to his side as his men brought Mr. Cordell toward them, still bound by the hands behind his back. Christoph had the man taken over to a transport vehicle they had sitting alongside the street, placing him inside.

“Another bounty to be paid,” Christoph declared wryly as he handed Amos a check. “Others must pay taxes to support our government. It seems you tax us to support you.”

“These services must be performed by someone,” Amos replied as he welcomed the government men into Cambridge Hall through the heavy wooden doors at the entrance. The inside of the hall was austere and cold. It was equipped with the minimum number of amenities necessary, but was otherwise devoid of any superfluous furnishings and decorations.

“How did you come by this, Mr. Cordell?” Christoph inquired.

Amos offered Jedidiah the chance to respond. The young man eagerly answered is to prove his worth to his superior. “We traced the sale of the sexbot from a black-market dealer to Mr. Cordell. The transaction was made using foreign currency, but we obtained a strong description of Mr. Cordell from the dealer.”

“Is that man in custody as well?” Christoph asked.

“For now, he remains at large.”

Christoph did not challenge Amos’ decision. The respectful nod was noticed by Jedidiah, who smiled proudly.

“You ‘puritans’ have done well,” he declared. “This is the third bounty you’ve collected this week.”

“My men are dedicated,” Amos replied.

“To be sure, but it has not been a bad living for you, has it?”

“Nor has it been a particularly enjoyable one. But things have improved.”

Christoph studied Amos amusedly, then eyed his colleagues. They were more reserved, regarding the scars on Amos’ face as a fresh recruit would war medals on a veteran’s uniform.

“The council has now put a bounty on the sexbot manufacturer,” Christoph said. “The reward is to be paid by anyone who shuts down the operation and brings the men running it into our custody. However, the Council deemed it fitting to inform your people first.”

He then handed Amos a document containing the names of potential suspects and their last known locations. “The Council also voted to mark this as a special bounty. The reward is to be paid if they are brought in dead or alive. However, I am instructed to say, with your strictest confidence that it is not repeated, that they will pay you a higher bounty if they are dead.”

Jedidiah looked at Amos with concern. As a “puritan,” the label everyone gave to Commonwealth bounty hunters, such instructions were unheard of. For all its religious fervor, the Provisional Commonwealth prided itself on the traditional right to a trial by jury. Bounties normally required that the suspect be arrested alive, if possible, and allowed the chance to defend themselves. If the wanted person preferred a more violent trial by combat, then it was done. But the Council normally prohibited the killing of a suspect who had surrendered.

Maintaining a careful, restrained expression, Amos studied the document and then placed it in his pocket. “When does the Council meet next?”

“In two weeks,” Christoph stated. “Just in time for the big vote. And, if I may add, many of them hope that you will have this matter resolved by then.”

“I cannot offer any promises.”

“Yes, we understand. But if it is within your power to make it happen before then, that will please more than a handful of the councilmembers.”

Amos bowed quietly. As a puritan, he had no political authority. Yet Christoph and his colleague couldn’t help but lower their heads in tribute, and once more, their gesture was noted by Jedidiah.

“The council looks forward to your report then, Mr. Cavendish,” Christoph said. He then quipped, “I must say, some of us had hoped that you would represent this county on the Council for the constitutional vote.”

“Perhaps, but I am content with my position.”

Christoph and his companion then departed from the hall. Jedidiah bade them farewell and closed the door before returning to Amos.

“Can this be done by then?” he asked.

Amos surveyed the street around him. The sidewalks were clean, and young families walked in droves toward a nearby park where the grass was freshly cut. The local gardener was trimming the hedgerows bordering the park and street.

“Only God knows,” Amos said.

He then looked at Jedidiah, noting a twitch in his eye. The younger man’s fingers trembled.

Without a word, Amos grabbed him by the arm and brought him into the dining room.

“I’m alright,” Jedidiah insisted.

“No, you’re not.”

***

Jedidiah sat in the great dining room on a chair with his head in his hands. He hardly scarcely sat down before weeping. Amos came over to him with a small, warm herbal drink and a hot towel. Jedidiah took them and sipped on the drink as he applied the towel to his head.

“You’re experiencing a delayed reaction to what you saw,” Amos explained, grabbing a chair to sit beside him. “It will pass. Each time it happens, the effects will be less potent.”

Jedidiah wiped the tears from his eyes, covering them with shame. “I feel humiliated.”

“You shouldn’t. You’re just unaccustomed to such sights. This is your first raid of this sort, yes?”

“Yes. Was it the same for you?”

Amos shook his head. “Nothing was the same for me.”

“Even during the Turbulent Era?”

The older man nodded again.

“Tell me about it.”

“No. You must rest and put these thoughts away.”

“It’s just…it’s so wrong what these cretins do. I don’t understand how people can be so immoral.”

“You will someday, though I hope not in the same manner as I.”

“What happened, sir? The other men have mentioned things, but never in detail. I want to know.”

Amos shook his head. “Such things are better to be kept from your memory.”

Minutes later, the towel and herbal drink had a powerful effect on Jedidiah. His spirits renewed, he rose and inquired when they might begin their investigation into the sexbot manufacturers. “The council clearly trusts you above anyone else to deliver them, sir. Should we not begin immediately?”

Amos smiled in a fatherly manner as he placed a hand on Jedidiah’s shoulder. “I have something more important for us to do.”

“What is that?”

“Walk with me.”

***

They strolled side by side down the sidewalk. Amos took out his small clay pipe and packed it with a pinch of tobacco before lighting it. He took noiseless puffs as he surveyed the park across from their hall, bordered with a tall fence that left it accessible only by a single entrance around the corner.

Jedidiah followed curiously, but said nothing. With no pipe to smoke, he kept his pockets in his hands. His face was no longer flush from fresh tears, his eyes clear as they looked over at his mentor.

A group of children flooded the park through the entrance as soon as they arrived. Amos let them go first, then followed them at a leisurely pace. In the center of a park, there was a wooden gazebo where a group of buskers played a variety of instruments. Their song lacked evenness, but nevertheless seemed to blend well with the surrounding oak trees, whose leaves had just begun to reveal streaks of autumn colors.

Every now and then, Amos spotted another “puritan” unaffiliated with them. Some were less bounty hunter and more beat cop that patrolled the streets not to find specific people, but to ensure civil ordinances were enforced. They were the ones who would fine women for failing to wear their headscarves, or men for public drunkenness. Other puritans operated like constables, inspecting workplaces on the Sabbath to confirm no one outside of essential services were working.

Amos stopped and examined the cobblestone pathway for a moment, then continued. Jedidiah briefly studied it as if to learn what drew his attention before resuming his place by Amos’ side. As they drew close to the gazebo, a small crowd gathered by the steps and listened intently to one of the buskers playing a sweet tune on the violin. Everyone in the crowd was young, the parents seemingly no older than 25.

Sitting on one of the empty benches overlooking the gazebo, Amos took a draw from his pipe and then set it aside, his focus now on the busker and the crowd. Jedidiah sat beside him and listened with his hands on his lap. He noticed the haunted gaze on Amos’ face, which was now ambiguously focused ahead. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead looked away.

Reaching to his side, Amos plucked a small flower from the garden bed behind their bench. He smelled the pedals and held them close to his chest.

With his eyes now closed, Amos exhaled deeply. “Amazing. Simply amazing.”

“What? I see nothing.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“What is beautiful? The flower?”

“Everything.”

‘Oh.”

Amos smiled reservedly as he placed the pedals in his pocket. “When you’ve seen as much ugliness as I, then you will notice how beautiful something truly is. Ugliness doesn’t make something else beautiful, but you realize how beautiful it truly is when you’ve seen first how ugly it can be.”

“Sir, may I ask what made you want to become a puritan?” Jedidiah said.

“What made you want to work for me?”

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I just wanted to help. Then I heard of you and the others fighting to protect our people. When I first heard some call you ‘puritans,’ it was in a disparaging way. But then I saw that none of you care what anybody says. Then I realized it wasn’t that they dislike you. Underneath all the sarcasm, they’re afraid of you. You have something in you that they don’t and never will. Whatever it is, I want it, too.”

Amos was quiet.

“Do you come here often, sir?” Jedidiah asked.

“No. Perhaps I should.”

Amos then nudged Jedidiah. “You should, too. Don’t ever take for granted something like this: a clean, quiet place where all seems right with the world. Today, it is beautiful. That can change. When it does, it’s because people either forget how lovely it is or how ugly it can become if it is not preserved.”

“What did this park look like before, during the Turbulent Era?”

Amos raised an eyebrow. “What park?”

He then looked at the clock above the gazebo and, noticing it was now noon, rose from the bench. Off in the distance, the Cambridge Hall bell tower could be heard.

“We must go,” Amos said. “They will be arriving soon.”

As the two were leaving, Amos took out his pipe and relit it, adding another pinch of tobacco. He remained undisturbed as two small children playfully chasing one another ran between his legs and then took off into the bushes.

“What made you want to become a puritan?” Jedidiah asked.

Amos blew a cloud of smoke that swept across his shoulders as he quietly continued his pace.

***

For all installments from The Pilgrim’s Digress, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Prologue