by Charles Cameron Olson
Soli Deo Gloria
Of all the powers so far catalogued, the most fundamentally influential is matter transformation, whether considered from an economic, technological, legal, military, artistic, or societal viewpoint.
Commonly known as 'crafting', this power allows the bearer to alter the form and structure of any non-living material they touch. Those who possess this power account for an estimated 10.3% of powered individuals, putting the number of crafters worldwide at around 1.8 million (Reuters 2008).
To put this into an economic perspective, consider that over 60% of these individuals are capable of transforming carbon scavenged from a nonliving source, such as coal or wood, into diamond. This fact alone has greatly damaged the economies of several small nations around the world that depended on gem mining for a significant portion of their economy, especially considering that many crafters can make gems that are indistinguishable from those formed by geothermal processes.
From a technological perspective, consider that some 23% of crafters are capable of forming common elements into molecularly-complex materials that the best laboratories on the planet cannot reproduce as yet, materials such as interwoven carbon nanotubules, or fullerene, which possess hardness, tensile strength and temperature resistance far in excess of what their low mass would suggest.
From a legal perspective, consider that some 54% of crafters, given a set of schematics and a pair of precision calipers, can fashion a functioning semi-automatic pistol from a block of mild steel. Furthermore, some crafters can do the same task from memory in under two minutes and can also create a handful of ammunition with elements scavenged from their immediate environment.
From a military perspective, take all of the above considerations and add in the fact that only crafters are capable of forming the exotic elements (kartium, ludium, alium, vivium and spectrium) into their most complex and durable forms, such as the nearly indestructible 102070 eternite steel alloy used in the armor of elite military personnel and vehicles around the world.
From an artistic perspective, consider that all crafters are capable of shaping any material they can affect into almost any form they can conceive of. Thus, those who choose to be sculptors are effectively unbound by technical restrictions both when choosing their medium and when shaping it. Consequently, many of these artists have produced works that would be impossible to create with any existing tool.
From a social perspective, consider that each of these individuals possesses an ability with all of the previous implications, an ability which cannot be taught, which effectively makes them uncontainable with conventional restraints, which commands a premium payrate anywhere in the world, which guarantees citizenship in almost any nation and which, conservatively, modern industrialized nations could not function without.
Finally, from a human perspective, consider that each of these individuals, despite possessing an ability that almost every other individual on the planet covets, is almost entirely indistinguishable from any other human, especially in the realm of psychology."
-Excerpt taken from Talents and the Modern World by Lewis Harper, Carla Tanner and Tian Lanpo, Stanford University Press, 2012
"There's one person on the team you never tick off and that's your crafter tech. I don't care if your skin can take an anti-tank round without a scrape. An angry crafter will find a way to make your armor hurt you, guaranteed."
-Honeybadger, interview with Biography Channel, 2017
November 14, 2006
West Coast Pax Tower, Los Angeles, California
"Why, God? Why do you hate me?"
The words, whispered in Italian, faded into the hum of the air conditioners as Cecilia Bianchi stared at the mangled suit of plate mail in front of her. The armor belonged to Kodiak, evidenced by the giant brown bear barely visible on the scuffed and sooty chest plate. He was the seven-foot strongman of the West Coast Pax team, easily able to deadlift a stack of main battle tanks but not able to survive their guns without some additional help.
This armor was his help. Made of 102070 eternite steel by one of the best armor-crafters in the United States it was normally a pale gold in coloration, with a mirrored surface that curved smoothly so it would cover the muscular giant completely without restricting his movement in any way.
102070 stood for the percentages of the alloy: 10% ludium, 20% kartium, and 70% iron, with a pinch of carbon mixed in for good measure. The gold color came from the kartium, which was a rich, translucent gold in its pure, unset form. No one knew what its pure, set form would look like because no crafter was strong enough to set pure kartium. The highest known alloy of kartium was the 204040 used in the Eagle's sword and that had taken the strongest crafter in the world almost a year to set.
102070 eternite steel, though not as strong, was immune to most forces available on Earth. Even diamond wouldn't scratch it. Most anti-tank weaponry just bounced off it. Only the hottest plasma furnaces on the planet could melt it. Considering that last reason NASA had chosen 102070 as the armor for their Near-Solar Science Probe in the hopes that it would let the craft survive a solar flare… and it had, though most of the instruments melted off.
Thus the present condition of Kodiak's armor, covered in char, dented in places, torn in one and scuffed all over, raised immediate questions about what had been going on all day while Cecilia had been at her secluded work bench crafting a load of nanocarbon platemail destined for the US Army Border Patrol at Fort Tecate. All she knew about the day's events was that her supervisor Emile, the head crafter technician, had dropped the armor on her workstation at five minutes to five, told her it had to be ready for Kodiak to wear to a press conference the next morning, then left while mumbling something about a dinner date with his wife and another couple.
She hadn't argued. It was hard to argue with a mouthful of Italian accent and a shaky grasp on spoken English. Six years in the United States and the words still deserted her whenever she really needed them.
She ran her hand over the plates, feeling the cracking and warping in the metal, all of which had to be fixed. She was already tired. Restoring Kodiak's armor would drain her to the core.
It would also take most of the night.
Cecilia stared at herself in the one unblemished portion of the chest plate. Sharp face with high cheekbones, smooth olive skin, wavy black hair pulled back in a bun, dark brown eyes accented with mascara.
Self-analysis began immediately.
Her face was too thin and her cheekbones stood out because she hadn't been eating enough.
Her skin was pale under its Mediterranean tone because she hadn't spent any time outside in months.
Her hair was dull and frizzy because she hadn't remembered to buy more conditioner the last four times she had been to the grocery store.
Her eyes were bloodshot because she hadn't been sleeping well.
They also had squint lines around them.
She was only twenty-four. Too young to have wrinkles.
She started crying.
The mascara ran down her cheeks.
Cecilia made it to the parking garage shortly after midnight. She was weaving on her feet and couldn't remember where she had parked her red Porsche. She found it in the second to last row, squeezed between two SUVs, after twenty minutes of searching.
She unlocked the door with the remote, slid in to open it, and dropped her keys.
The cars were too close for her to bend down. She had to get into the driver's seat first, then turn around in the seat and hang upside down to get the keys from where they had bounced under the car.
Her necklace fell off while she was groping blindly for the keys. She didn't notice until she was backing out of the parking space and missed the weight of the heavy gold coin around her neck.
She stopped the car, jumped out and ran to the parking space.
The coin was lying there, glinting dully under the layer of soot she had left on it. It had been her father's, a solid gold Papal States doppia from 1820, passed down from a great-great-granduncle who had held an important position in the Vatican. Cecilia had no brothers and so the executor had made the decision to give the coin to her.
He had handed it to her in a small box when she arrived in Italy for the funeral. She had gotten the call informing her of the fire four days before that. Every hour after the call she had been submerged in a surreal fog, unable to accept the truth.
It had finally become real when she opened the box, saw the soot dulling the gold coin, and smelled the scent of smoke rising from it.
Her parents were gone.
After the funeral she had visited the burned out ruin of the farmhouse in person. Seeing that everything was gone she had sold the land, put the coin on a new chain around her neck, and headed back to Los Angeles.
That had been six months ago. It all came rushing back as she bent to retrieve the coin. Several hot tears took its place on the pavement as she picked it up. She wavered as she stood, cheeks cold with wet, and for a moment she wasn't sure she would make it back to the car. It waited for her, thrumming, as she tried to remember why she was supposed to go on.
She closed her eyes, missing her parents with a fierce anguish and feeling out of place in a deserted Los Angeles parking garage. She had been raised among chickens and fields and vineyards. The concrete wilderness she was in had none of those.
Had it really been that important to ride her gift to the states?
All her teachers had said it was a wonderful opportunity. MIT had one of the best crafter-training programs in the world. Once she had a degree from them she could go anywhere, work for anyone.
Not for the first time she wished she had stayed in Italy, gone to the University of Florence just long enough to learn how to keep everything on the farm running, then found a good Italian working man to marry so he could take over the farm from Papa.
She had thought she left all those simple dreams behind. Until they weren't there to go back to anymore. Until all that was left of home was a sooty coin heavy in her hand.
Somehow, being the only Italian student in the crafter program at MIT hadn't mattered as long as she knew that back in Camaiore, Mama was covering the long oak farm table with bread, wine, affetati, and big plates of pici for Papa and any of the workers who didn't have families to get home to.
Somehow, struggling to make impatient professors and supervisors understand her broken English through the thick accent she couldn't seem to get rid of hadn't mattered as long as she knew that Papa would understand it all with a look as soon as she walked through the door.
Somehow, failing her fine arts major and abandoning art altogether hadn't mattered as long as she knew that her parents still had on their shelves every twisting green-glass tree and galloping granite horse she had made after discovering her gift. Those had all been crushed when the roof caved in from the fire, along with all the other secret dreams she hadn't known she had.
God had taken her peace.
She opened her eyes, stumbled back to the Porsche and slumped into the seat. Her grandmother's rosary beads swayed in front of her eyes, hanging from the rear view mirror. She reached up and fingered the smooth rosewood beads, remembering all the prayers she had prayed with that patient woman as a child. Prayers for mercy and blessing and aid. Prayers for her parents, prayers for their neighbors, prayers for missionaries and priests her Grandmother knew. Prayers even for her.
Cecilia remembered one prayer of her own, that Jesus would be her mercy and blessing and aid just like He was for her Grandmother and the missionaries. That He would be her God and be with her wherever she went.
She remembered knowing He would be.
"Padre nostro, che sei nei cieli…" she prayed.
She trailed off. The words of the Our Father felt dead in her mouth. She had prayed them on so many lonely nights over the years that she didn't know how she could still believe that He heard her.
Cecilia put her hand on the wheel and pulled out of the parking garage.
On the way to her West Hollywood apartment she was so tired she missed her turn onto Santa Monica Boulevard and ended up on Serrano Avenue instead.
She also missed seeing the scrap metal lying in the street.
The sound of her right front tire blowing was drowned out by the sound of steel shrieking against steel as something metal caught in the wheel well.
She was going 50 and almost lost control. The beeping of the traction control computer was a counterpoint to wheel rims grinding on pavement.
She wrestled the Porsche to the curb and brought it to a stop.
Her body shook from the pounding of her heart. For a long minute she clutched the wheel, knuckles white and eyes wide.
She was alive. Wide awake and alive.
Cecilia got out and walked around the car to see the damage. Both right tires were down. They were supposed to be run-flats, but that didn't cover having the tire sliced off the wheel.
She knew she could fix it but her brain wouldn't engage. The adrenaline was draining out and she felt even worse than before.
What did she need?
A jack. She had to make a jack because her Porsche didn't have one.
Then she had to raise the car, smooth the rims, and replace some of the metal.
After that, make a whole new tire.
Fix the rubber on the other.
Inflate both. She had no air pump. She could make one if she had to…
She reached for her cell phone to call a tow service.
No cell phone.
She searched the Porsche.
No cell phone. It had to be back on the work bench in the Tower.
Cecilia screamed and beat the roof of her car with her fists, leaving dents in the metal.
She cursed in Italian. A stream of blasphemies that would have made the field workers in Camaiore blanch.
She finished with a kick that left a deep dent in the passenger door of her Porsche and sat down on the curb.
She would have cried again but she felt dead inside.
"What on earth is going on out here?" demanded a female voice with the pronounced drawl of the American south.
Cecilia looked over her shoulder and saw a tall, middle-aged brunette with a long face and a stern expression standing in an open door. The woman's expression softened when she spotted Cecilia seated on the curb. She shut the door, came over and studied the Porsche.
"Well, that's not going anywhere." The woman looked at Cecilia again and held out her hand. "Sandra Hartwell."
Cecilia took her hand. It was bigger than her own and strong.
"Welcome to one of the worst parts of Los Angeles, Cecilia. Why don't you come inside where it's safe and I'll make you some coffee?"
Cecilia nodded and Sandra pulled her to her feet. The door was bounded on either side by empty window frames filled with plywood. 'Shepherd of Lost Angels Women's Shelter' was painted above it in six-inch red letters. Sandra closed the door behind her and shot home a galvanized security bolt that looked like it had come off a gate somewhere. Below it was a built-in deadbolt surrounded by splintered wood.
Cecilia stared at the obvious sign of a break-in.
"We had a man come in a month ago to get his girlfriend back," Sandra said. "He wouldn't leave her alone so I called the cops and hit him in the head with a chair. He came back with some friends a week later and messed the place up in the morning while no one was here. Broke some pipes and caused some water damage. Had to put this latch in until we can get the door fixed."
Cecilia nodded. Sandra took her down a hall and pulled her into a cafe kitchen with speckled linoleum flooring and countertops. None of the equipment matched, apparently salvaged wherever possible.
Sandra pulled out a coffee maker, loaded it with some decaffeinated Maxwell house and started it percolating. She disappeared for a moment and came back with two folding chairs that she set up next to the counter with the coffee machine.
"Sit down," she told Cecilia.
Cecilia sat in the chair and stared at the coffee machine.
Sandra sat facing her.
"So, what's wrong? I've seen some bad days and you're having more than just one."
The words were direct and left Cecilia no room for hiding. It was how her grandmother would have asked. She looked at the woman asking, long in the face where her grandmother's had been round, pale where her grandmother had been tan, smooth skinned where her grandmother had been wrinkled.
The eyes were the same, watching, not moving.
Sandra wanted to know.
Cecilia stumbled through her story, too tired to care about her accent. Sometimes she slipped into Italian. Sandra brought her back to English and kept her going.
Cecilia told Sandra everything that had weighed on her; how she had come from Camaiore on a scholarship and had never fit in with anyone at MIT; how her art advisor had told her that everything she made was a lifeless copy and that she should drop out of the program; how she had gone full engineer because that was her only option for staying in America and how she now spent her days finishing and repairing other people's creations; how her parents had died in a fire leaving her alone with no home to go back to and with no dreams left in her soul.
"I cannot even pray anymore. I have nothing," Cecilia finished.
"That's terrible!" Sandra said. She squeezed Cecilia's shoulder and then poured her a cup of coffee. Cecilia took it and started drinking. Sandra poured a cup for herself and drank with her.
They sat together for a time, drinking coffee. Cecilia finished first and Sandra filled her cup again.
"I'm going to pray for you," Sandra said. She put her hand on Cecilia's shoulder again and bowed her head.
"Jesus," Sandra said, "I know you don't hate this young woman. I want you to show her tonight just how much you love her. Open her eyes so she knows she's not alone."
The prayer was over before Cecilia had finished bowing her head. Surprised, she looked at Sandra and saw the look of a woman who expected to get what she had asked for.
"You should spend the night here," Sandra said. "There's a bed free in the bunk room and you can drive home in the morning when you aren't about to fall over."
Cecilia nodded, too tired to argue about anything anymore. Sandra put an arm around her shoulder and led her out into the hall and over to a large, dark room filled with steel-frame bunk-beds that looked like army surplus. There were four rows of seven bunks each. Sandra led her down to an empty one on the far side of the room.
"There's a pillow and a blanket already on the bed. I cleaned everything myself yesterday. The bathroom is back up the hall, second door on the right." Sandra pointed back up the hall and Cecilia nodded. "If you need anything, just come up to my room. It's the first as you came in. Don't worry about anything. You'll be safe for the night."
Cecilia nodded and sat down on the bed.
Cecilia sat there in the dark, sipping her second cup of coffee, exhausted but somehow too tired to sleep. When her eyes had adjusted to the gloom she looked around and saw that the dim light came from nightlights arranged around the room. The bunks held women of all shapes, sizes, and colors curled up under gray, green, and brown blankets that also looked army surplus.
Some of the women had bruises on their faces. Others had sunken cheeks and looked hungry even in their sleep. Some tossed and turned as if no position was comfortable. None of them had a smile.
There were also children, smaller shapes curled up next to their mothers or big sisters for comfort. She heard faint whimpering coming from at least one of those little faces.
The walls of the room were pale, some tint of white. The floors were more speckled linoleum.
On the back wall she spotted the damage Sandra had talked about. Someone had taken something heavy and beaten holes in the wall with it. It was too dark to see into the holes, but she judged from the bubbled and sagging look of the drywall that it was where the pipes had been broken. The water damage spread to either side of the holes for most of the width of the wall.
She spotted the item the vandals had used to break the wall on a folding table near the hole. A wooden cross, probably two and a half feet high before it had been broken in half.
Cecilia dropped her eyes and saw that her coffee cup was empty. She got up and went to the bathroom to wash it out.
The lights in the bathroom came on along with the whirr of a large fan. The bathroom was larger than she had expected, with two showers next to a row of toilet stalls. Everything was white except the floors and counters, which used the same speckled linoleum as the kitchen and the bunk room.
She went to the sinks, steel covered in chipped white enamel, and turned on the hot water.
She nodded to herself. The broken water line had to have been the hot water for the bathroom.
She used the cold water instead and set the cup beside the mirror. Taped in the corner of the mirror she spotted an index card with a bible verse written on it in blue pen.
"The Lord is near to the brokenhearted. –Psalm 34:18"
She stared at the card and thought of the room full of sleeping women, sorrow, hunger and bruises on their faces. The whimpering children clutched in their arms.
Was God really with these women, here in this decaying shelter with its broken pipes and ugly linoleum, forgotten by the city and abandoned by the world?
Cecilia remembered the priest in Camaiore, preaching on the humility of Jesus, how He had spent his time ministering to beggars, thieves, prostitutes, and lepers.
She believed it. She believed that Sandra, that woman who was so much like her grandmother, was with these women because God wanted her to be.
Because He was near to them.
She looked down and saw her long, delicate hands, covered in intricate silver rings and bracelets, products of her days in the art program at MIT. She looked in the mirror and saw her silk Armani shirt, her gold necklace, her fancy silver earrings.
She felt alone, mocked by her West Hollywood apartment and brand new Porsche, her gold and silver jewelry and her four-hundred dollar shirt.
She was not one of the people that God was…
She saw her own face. The thin cheeks. The bloodshot eyes. The dull hair. The mascara-stained cheeks.
Something connected inside her and her world stopped.
The Lord is near to the broken hearted.
She was not alone.
Cecilia trembled as emotion uncoiled within her, a soft explosion of whirling confusion as every painful memory surfaced again and dropped her to her knees. She cried again, big wracking sobs like she hadn't felt since she was a child.
Her parents' deaths, her broken dreams, every moment spent in a country where people secretly laughed at every word she said.
Not for one moment.
She wailed into her hands, pouring out tears until there was nothing left, until the sobs settled and left her in utter stillness.
For the first time in six years, she knew peace.
"Grazie," she whispered.
Over and over again. Thank You.
Eventually Cecilia stopped. The bathroom was quiet, filled with the hum of a fan. She still felt tired, but no longer empty.
She stood up…
And almost fell down again as pins and needles filled her legs below the knees. She didn't know how long she waited before she was confident she could move again.
Finally she was able to limp back into the bunk room.
It was the same, but somehow brighter. She noticed that the nightlights were cheery, with prancing horses on them. One of the children nearest to her had a faint smile on his face.
She went to her assigned bunk and knelt beside it.
"Padre nostro, che sei nei cieli,"
The words were alive this time. She had a great Father in heaven. She had His shepherding Son.
"Sia santificato il tuo nome."
Yes. Holy be His name.
"Venga il tuo regno, sia fatta la tua volontà…"
"Father… what is your will?"
Feed my sheep.
She looked up and looked around the room filled with sleeping women.
Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.
What could she do for these women? Money. She had money.
Was there more?
Slowly, she turned and saw the holes in the wall.
Dark. Ragged. Mocking.
Cecilia stood with renewed strength and walked to the wall. She reached inside the hole and searched until she found the broken pipe. It was standard white PVC, shattered in the middle and not at a joint. The halves were close to each other so she pushed them together and found they fit without any missing pieces.
What she did next was something that only a crafter could really understand. To a non-crafter the pipe was a solid piece of plastic. To Cecilia, it was a vibrating structure of trillions and trillions of atoms gathered together in almost as absurd a number of molecules linked together into a regular pattern, all of which she sensed on an instinctive level.
The atoms in this case were hydrogen and carbon with a smaller portion of chlorine. Each element had a distinct flavor she recognized, though flavor wasn't really the word for it.
The molecule was polyvinyl chloride, an ubiquitous petroleum product she had worked with so many times she no longer had to think about how it behaved.
The pattern was amorphous, almost liquid, with all the molecules jumbled together in a mess. Add a little heat and it would become a liquid again without any significant change in the overall pattern.
All of that Cecilia sensed just by touching the pipe and concentrating a little.
With a little effort she could alter what she sensed, changing the overall form of the material, moving molecules into different patterns, linking atoms into different molecules or pulling out particular elements to get a different composition.
Taking out the chlorine she could turn polyvinyl chloride into polyethylene.
Taking some of the carbon from that polyethylene would let her make polypropylene.
Taking all the hydrogen and chlorine would leave her with pure carbon.
Pure carbon could be any number of things, from graphite to diamond to carbon nanotubes.
Of course, taking out the hydrogen and chlorine would leave her with a very inconvenient handful of hydrogen chloride gas which she would have to store somewhere before she let go of her concentration. She usually made a small tank out of carbon fullerene for that purpose as there was very little that could corrode it.
In this case all she needed to do was convince the molecules at the broken edges of the pipe to flow back together. It took one second and about as much energy as it had taken her to push the pipe ends together in the first place.
That done, Cecilia stepped back from the holes and considered the wall itself.
The missing material in the holes was a problem, but she could probably open up the wall itself and retrieve most of the broken plaster from where it had fallen inside the wall. Gypsum plaster itself was soft and easy to work with, though getting what she made to look exactly like normal plaster would be difficult. Also unnecessary.
Repairing the paper layer of the drywall panel would be more difficult as that was made out of wood fibers. That meant each tiny fiber had been made by a living creature and was far more complex at the molecular level than it looked at first glance. She could do it, but getting it to look like the intact paper on either side would be tedious.
The paint solved that problem, however. It was natural latex paint with a little titanium dioxide to make it bright white. The structure of the molecule was more complex than polyvinyl chloride but it was just as easy to move around. No one would be able to see her strange looking paper under a coat of white paint.
The real problem would be the water damage. From where she was standing she could already smell the distinct mustiness of mildew and mold forming in the walls. Mold was a living thing, however small, which meant she wouldn't be able to work with any material it was infecting. The easiest way to deal with it would be to change the structure of the wall material, possibly by turning the gypsum plaster to gypsum crystal. That would allow her to push out any infected material while also smoothing out the rough spots left by the loss.
It would also make the wall distinctly harder to cut through if anyone ever needed to work on the pipes again. Of course, if she made the panels removable by turning the fastening nails to screws and making perfect seams in the paint and paper covering each panel then getting at the pipes and wires in the wall would be even easier than it normally was.
The cross was the last item. She picked up the two halves and fitted them together.
There were only a few splinters missing. The wood was an even grained oak and had broken rather than shattering. Just like the paper it would be difficult to fix and make the seam look just right, but in this case she figured it was worth the effort.
She estimated that doing all of that would take her an hour. Maybe two. When she was done the wall would be better than new and the cross would be back up on it looking like it had never been broken.
She stared at the symbol in her hands.
Was that all?
The pipe was important. The wall had to be fixed. Putting the cross back on the wall would remind the women that someone was looking out for them.
Was that all?
"Jesus, how may I honor you more?"
Cecilia waited in the stillness, staring at the pieces of the cross.
This is my body, broken for you.
The words sprang up in her heart and shimmered inside her, slowly filling her with a subtle fire. All at once she was pierced with joy, dazzled with wonder and suffused with purpose. The cross in her hands seemed to glow as something beautiful bloomed within her.
Tears ran down her face again, this time for an entirely different reason. She wanted to sing, but the song was in her hands.
A vision. Inspiration.
Something to create.
She left the cross on the table and headed up the hall to the door out onto the street. She would need carbon, iron, aluminum, silicon, chromium, magnesium, and vanadium. There were other trace elements that would help if she could find them.
The security bolt on the door caught as she tried to slide it. Without stopping to think she remade it into a better mechanism and went out onto the street where her Porsche was still stranded.
She wiped the chrome off the bumpers and fittings with one hand, turning it into a small shiny ball the size of a marble and dropping it into her shirt pocket.
With some quick work she extracted the windows without breaking them and turned them into thick open-topped buckets with heavy handles. Into these went the iron from one of the bumpers, carbon ripped from the leather seats and the wood interior, and the magnesium from the shell of her laptop. She left the guts of the laptop intact but melted some other small electronics for the copper and trace elements they contained.
She hunted through the trunk for her electronics toolset and found several sets of clamps and pliers that contained vanadium. She also found cadmium in the red paint and took a helping of that to go with the vanadium and the chrome.
The only aluminum was one soda can but that gave her an idea for where to find more. She added the can to the buckets, took a handle in each hand and headed back inside. She set the glass buckets by the broken wall and went to the kitchen.
There she found the mandatory recycling bins: one full of plastic, one of glass, and one of crushed aluminum cans. They were almost full.
She melted their contents right there into carbon, aluminum, glass, and some trace elements. The chlorine gas from processing the plastic went inside a small carbon ball for later disposal elsewhere. She put handles on her materials and quietly put them with the others next to the wall.
Then she began her work.
The wall transformed to gypsum crystal shot through with small imperfections to make it translucent rather than transparent. The paper became a thin coating of diamond that would keep the gypsum from scratching if anyone touched it. The paint became titanium and carbon in her store of materials.
She was left with a blank canvas of pale, glistening crystal.
Cecilia stared at the blank wall with growing terror.
What was she going to put on that?
Had she really had some vision of an artwork from God?
The failed art student?
The defunct Catholic?
The broken orphan?
The spoiled rich girl?
The terror grew until she trembled. The room felt dark again. She was alone.
"Aiutami! Gesù, aiutami!" she whispered.
The silence shattered. Her trembling stopped.
Cecilia reached down and picked up the broken cross.
She would begin with this.
What was it? What did it mean?
It was the cross of Christ. It meant…
Judgment. The curse of sin. The wrath of God.
She shifted the atoms of the wood, stripping sugars and sweetness, leaving only the hard black of carbon.
Why the Cross?
She stared at the black judgment in her hand.
Justice. The law of God.
She made the carbon harder, turning it into black diamond. She sharpened the shape of the cross until it was a black sword.
This she held against the wall.
She stretched it, made it larger, thinner.
When it was right she melted it into the center of her crystal canvas.
She stared at the black cross until she realized she was stuck.
"What do I need?" she whispered.
A bible. She needed a bible.
Cecilia looked around the room. This was a place where there had to be bibles.
She found some on a small bookshelf in one corner. She picked one at random and looked for the place in the Gospel of John where it said, "He bowed His head and gave up His spirit."
She read that chapter and the one before. Then she went to the same scene in Peter, Matthew, and Luke.
She returned to the wall, the book clutched in her hands, and stared at the cross again. Once more the flame was rising inside her.
Two more. She would need two more crosses.
That meant more diamond. She set the bible down and picked up a chunk of carbon.
Within minutes two smaller crosses joined the larger, one on either side. Cecilia considered again. Read some of the words again. Created again.
Hours went by unmarked. Minute after minute Cecilia took more of her materials and populated the canvas with life.
Finally she was left with a sea of dark faces staring at the empty central cross.
What went there?
Both. She gathered more carbon and shaped it into the song burning in her heart and hands.
In a moment a man of white diamond hung on the cross, faceless because she did not yet know the face, head bowed and body limp because His work was done. Iron nails pinned His arms wide, His feet together below. A crown of black thorns hung on His brow. An open wound glared in His side. Jagged marks scored His body all over.
She added red ruby for the blood, dark and vivid, flowing from the head, the hands, the feet, the side.
The man was the Light of the World, the Word of God, but the blood and the death were real.
Only, there was no light.
She stared at the piece. A relief of Calvary in glimmering gemstone.
Lifeless. Empty. Just like everything else she had ever made.
Again she trembled.
What was missing? Was there any way to put it there?
"What do I need?" she whispered.
She stared at the piece, waiting for an answer from the One it spoke of.
Was He there? Was He really there? Had He really been with her all along?
Shimmering glass beads. Cecilia remembered them from her youth. Her mother had told her they came from Mirano. The shimmer came from the foil within the glass.
She stared at the empty diamond figure on the cross. She knew what it needed. Only one color would do.
Gold. She needed gold.
She had a tiny bit from the electronics she had melted. Maybe a little more if she melted her computer…
She stared at the empty piece.
Her hand went to the gold coin around her neck.
Cecilia looked down at it and the Papal crest of Pope Leo XII looked back up at her, dull under the coating of soot. She turned the coin over.
Saint Peter stared at her instead.
"No." She closed her hand around her father's coin.
She looked back up at the piece.
At the Cross.
She looked back down at the coin and Saint Peter.
A tear fell on the coin, marring the soot.
Not alone. Not for one moment.
She melted the coin, watching as all the marks faded away and the dark impurities floated to the surface. She wiped them off with a finger and flicked them away.
Words rang in her head like a bell, ages forgotten, something her grandmother had read to her several times as a child:
In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials,so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
The words of Saint Peter. The fire in her heart rose to a blaze and the tears flowed from her eyes in a river.
She looked back up at the piece and plunged the shimmering metal into it. All through her work it went, joined by every scrap of silver jewelry she had on and every bit of copper she could find.
When it was done she stared at the piece again.
For the first time in her life Cecilia knew she had been made to be an artist.
"Is there anything left?" she whispered and waited in the silence.
One thing remains.
Sandra Hartwell woke at 5:30 am without an alarm. She gave thanks for the day, then for several minutes prayed for the strength to get up to face it.
At 5:39 she sat up and slowly crawled out from under the covers.
She ached. Even at 40 she would have jumped up, but after 50 her body had lost that energy.
This day was especially bad, though. She looked forward to a cup of coffee as soon as possible.
Not before the Word and her prayers.
Until 7:00 she read in the bible and prayed for the women in the shelter.
Antonia. Teresa. Martha and her daughter Tara. Loesha and her sons Jamal and Tony.
Forty more souls after them, not all of them present at the shelter every night.
And Cecilia, the poor girl who had been stranded outside the night before.
She prayed for their healing, for their protection, for their blessing, for their souls. That the children would grow up strong and healthy and that God would provide men to be loving fathers for them. That some of the women would find good men to provide for them and that others among the women would stop running after a man. Especially that each of the women and each of the children would know the love of Jesus and trust Him as their God.
That morning in particular, more than anything else, she prayed that all of them would still have a place to stay in a few days.
The water damage and the mold had been the final straw. Added to the other problems in the building, the city health commission had finally decided to shut the shelter down.
One of their supporters knew a contractor. He had looked at the damage and given Sandra an estimate for free, but the bill just to replace the drywall was more than any of her remaining supporters had.
And the city wanted more than just the drywall repaired before they would reissue approval.
Two weeks. That was how long the shelter had left.
Sandra prayed like the old woman before the judge, like a beggar knocking at the door.
She was soon distracted by a room full of women all talking and shouting at once.
She couldn't pray like this. Whatever it was, it was probably important.
She checked the front door as she left her room to make sure it was still closed.
Sandra paused as she saw what didn't at all look like the gate latch she had screwed on three weeks before. She was sure it hadn't been a flat bar with a drop-latch when she put it on.
She turned and looked down the hall toward the commotion.
Antonia ran up to her babbling in Spanish. Sandra could usually understand her but this time all she could make out was "Miracle, miracle!"
Antonia grabbed her hand and led her down the hall, almost pulling her over in her hurry.
As Sandra entered the room she saw all the women gathered on the far side staring at something where the broken wall was. She couldn't see it herself because of the women and the bunks. She did notice three track lights on the ceiling where there hadn't been track lights before. They looked like the ones that had been in the kitchen.
Antonia pulled her through the bunks and pushed past women and children so Sandra could see. Sandra's heart stopped.
The white painted wall was gone.
In its place was a murky landscape in deep blacks and silver grays, a dark Jerusalem crawling among the mountains on the right and an empty and lifeless desert to the left, both locked under a pitch black sky.
That wasn't what the women were babbling about, though. Between the desert and Jerusalem was…
A man. A man of brilliant light with a burning heart of crimson blood and a body broken by nails and thorns.
He hung on a cross, a great black cross like an obsidian sword with a heart of smoldering fire, plunged into the mountainside.
He was bound onto the cross by…
Sandra stepped in for a closer look.
By a rose vine. An emerald rose vine, covered in blooming red roses as red as the blood flowing from the wounds.
That blood flowed down onto the dark ground, ran red beneath the feet of a crowd of shadowy people. Many of them were nothing but shadow…
But others had faces that shone in the light blazing from the man on the cross. At their feet fresh roses grew, covered in tiny red blooms, and deep in their chests glowed hearts of fire like that of the man on the cross.
Sandra felt dizzy and almost fell over. Women on either side caught her and held her up.
"Look at the words!" Teresa said, pointing above and then below the central cross.
Sandra looked up and saw written in words of burning gold,
"It is finished."
She looked down and saw that the base of the mountain, and the floor as well, were covered with more words that blazed with light. She couldn't take them all in, but one inscription, just below the great cross, stood out:
"He was forsaken by His Father, that all those who trust in Him might NEVER be forsaken by His Father."
Tears filled Sandra's eyes.
For several minutes she simply stared at the view on the wall. At one point it occurred to her that it was a relief done in various kinds of transparent and translucent crystal. She had heard that such a thing was possible, that there were people who could make things like that.
But who had done it?
Cecilia. The Italian girl.
Sandra looked around and spotted Cecilia coming down the hallway from the bathroom, her black hair still wet from a shower. Sandra almost didn't recognize her.
Where was the broken woman she had seen the night before? That girl had slouched. That girl had looked thin and sickly.
This one stood tall and almost glowed with life.
Sandra walked over to her, leaving the rest of the women staring at the wall.
"Did you do that?" Sandra asked.
Cecilia blushed and lowered her eyes, mumbling something affirmative in Italian. Then she shook her head and looked Sandra in the eyes. "Not me. Christ."
Cecilia fished in a pocket and held out a business card.
Sandra took it and saw the Federal Special Tasks Agency logo printed on it next to "Cecilia I. Bianchi, Crafter Technician, West Coast Pax Tower". She looked back at Cecilia.
"I will come back until everything is fixed," Cecilia said.
Sandra tried to say something, but couldn't find any words.
"Thank you. For praying," Cecilia said.
For a moment she held Sandra's gaze, her eyes sparkling with emotion. Then she turned, walked up the hall to the exit, and was gone.
Rose Crucifix 28