The Church of the UPC

by Jeff Hewitt

Reverend Ruby Paige looked over her congregation. A few leathery faces stared back, spread between the makeshift pews. A pod of delivery units had parked in the front row, seats pushed back to make space for their wheels.

“Our parish accepts all kinds.” Ruby said, sermon looping through her mind. “All life, in all its forms.”

K9-8, a malfunctioning security drone, twitched in the back. Outside, cool desert wind jostled the walls of her church.

“Her” church, she thought. It wasn’t her church. It was theirs. The flock’s. And perhaps Holt’s as well.

“We believe in the sanctity of all life. That whether organic or synthetic, it all flows from the same source.” She pointed to the scoured lines behind the altar. The lines once assigned to her. “We call that source the Universal Product Code. And it is a gift bestowed on each of us.”

The church door creaked open. A young girl stepped in, sand blowing across the uneven floorboards. Dust coated her short black hair. Dirt smeared her zipped catch vest.

Reverend Paige gestured to an empty pew, struggling to remember her place. The girl sat. She started again:

“We all express this code in our own ways. Our forms, our bodies, are simply its vessels. Products of this shared gift. This life that exists within us all. No matter how we were born or how we were made.”

Ruby saw a tear streak the girl’s face, a clean line through the sand on her cheeks.


The delivery units surrounded Ruby after the sermon, lights blinking messages she couldn’t understand. Unsure of what to do, she placed a hand on each of them and smiled. It seemed to work: the largest let out a couple beeps, and they rolled off in a single-file line.

Next were Nick and Marty, all wrinkles and white hair. She shook their calloused hands as they walked to their buggy. Beth passed without a word, K9-8 padding behind. A swarm of rogue Scrubb-o’s chirped as they buzzed out the door.

The girl sat on a scrapped bench seat, still gazing toward the pulpit. Reverend Paige pulled her ruby-red hair into a ponytail and sat beside her.


The girl side-eyed her.

“Hi,” she said.

“Always nice to see a new face.”

The girl looked away. Carabiners hung from her vest, a cannister of reclaimed water against her hip. Pockmarks dotted her bare shoulders. Needlepoints traced her forearms.

“Can I ask you something?” The girl’s voice barely made it past her lips.

“Of course.”

“Do you really believe that stuff?”

Ruby nodded. “Yes.”

“Even though you’re a machine?”

Tears pooled in the girl’s bloodshot eyes.

Ruby looked down to her lap. Mismatched artificial skin striped the backs of her hands, scars marking where Holt had stitched her together. She held them out.

“What do you think?”


Her name was Zo. They sat in the back of the church for a while, not talking so much as just being there together. She wouldn’t say where she’d come from. Or why. Just that she couldn’t go back.

So, Ruby took her to Holt’s.

They waited at his front gate, squinting in the wind. Bundles of coiled rebar surrounded the property, curlicues of steel twirling between concrete barriers like a moat of outsider art. Broken glass glittered in the afternoon sun. Old beer bottles. Holt had epoxied them to the fence over the years. Swivel-mounted masers watched them from above the gate, clear apertures glaring.

“Is there a call pad or something?” Zo asked, clutching herself for warmth.

“He knows we’re here.”

The gate screeched open. They trudged down the driveway, avoiding its staggered barricades. At the end, three refurbished shipping containers bordered a courtyard, a lone Joshua tree in its center. Solar tarps flapped overhead. Disassembled machinery littered the ground, work benches and plywood tables stacked with tools.

A screen door popped open at the end of the closest container. A stocky old man in orange coveralls shuffled out, scooping black beans from a can.

Holt looked Zo up and down, then turned to Ruby.

“Who’s this?”


Inside, Holt squinted at Zo. They sat across a concrete slab, stripped wires and boxes of cereal pushed to one side. Strips of fungal leather hung against one wall, curing. Holt finished the last of his beans and pointed to Zo’s arms with his spoon.

“You’re one of them, huh?”

Zo nodded. Holt pursed his lips, tossing the empty can into a barrel. A chain of prisms twirled in the lone window, casting rainbows over the skin-like sheets of mushroom fiber.

“One of who?” Ruby asked, pinning up another sheet. Holt had asked her to help as soon as they walked in.

He ignored her. “They gonna come looking for you?”

Zo shrugged, scratched at her shoulders. “Maybe.”

Holt’s intense grey eyes darted from the girl’s catch vest to her arms. He puffed his cheeks, then let out a long, slow sigh.

“What happen? You chicken out?”

Zo glared at him.

“Leave her alone, Holt,” Ruby said.

“You’re the one that brought her here.”

“Because I didn’t know what else to do. She’s clearly in trouble.”

Zo played with the clips on her vest, avoiding eye contact.

“That’s one way to put it,” Holt said, massaging the grey stubble under his chin. “They talk about her over there?”

“Yeah,” Zo said.

“Not in a good way, I’d imagine.”

Zo shook her head. Holt did the same, looking at Ruby.

“Picked a real winner here, Reverend.” He stood and started rummaging through a tool chest against the wall. “One of them self-flagellating eco-crazies.”

Ruby scanned the indentations along Zo’s arms.

It made sense now.

“You’re one of the splicers.”

Zo winced at the term.

The indentations marked where new gene-edited skin would be grafted. Zo’s own skin, but modified to produce chlorophyll. Ruby had heard Nick and Marty talking about them. The splicers. Radical post-humanists, dedicated to replacing the synthetic with the biological. They’d taken over the abandoned military base after being driven out of California.

Most people considered what they were doing child abuse. But in Joshua, no one really cared. As long as you left them alone.

“I just… wasn’t ready,” Zo said, glancing toward the door.

Holt pulled out a small case and set it on the table, popping clasps along its side. He drew a revolver from its padded compartment and held it out, grip first, to Ruby.

“You’re gonna want this.”


Ruby and Holt sat in folding chairs behind his bedroom, watching shadows stretch across the desert. Blown dust left a haze over the wide plateau. She’d refused the gun, despite Holt’s objections.

“I can’t take her,” Holt grunted, looking back to the courtyard.

Zo wandered through piles of scrap, poking at things with her toes.

Ruby watched Holt puff on a fat wad of his special blend, rubbing his eyes as the smoke curled up. He’s trying to convince himself, she thought.

“Is that what you said when you found me?”

Holt blew smoke out his nose, shaking his head.

“Didn’t think there’d be roving gangs of gene-splicers coming after you.” He took another hit. “You know you’re like the devil to them, right? Religious and synthetic? Might as well start eating meat, too. Help them feel better when they burn you at the stake.”

Ruby snorted.

“They came out here like the rest of us.”

Holt pointed the smoldering club of rolling paper at her. “Don’t mistake what they’re doing for what we are. They’re utopians. And someone always gets left out of paradise.”

The sun dipped against the rocky peaks to the west.

“Still. We’re the same. At the source.”

Holt coughed.

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t put all that shit in your head.”

“You didn’t.”

The warbling crash of sheet metal echoed from the courtyard. Zo stood next to a rumpled pile of junk, holding a precariously-balanced engine in place. Holt kneaded his brow.

It all looked about the same to Ruby.


By the time Ruby left, Holt was showing Zo his cultivation setup, explaining mycelium and pointing to fat clumps of mushrooms in five-gallon buckets. As soon as Zo had shown the slightest interest, Holt couldn’t help himself.

Stars poked through the cobalt sky as she walked. Leveled dirt dipped off on either side of the road. Exposed rocks, tangled scrub, and cacti filled the depressions.

Ruby shivered. Her skin emulated a human’s. It felt warmth. It suffered cold. But it wasn’t the plunging temperature that made her tremble. It was the ditch.

Holt had found her in a ditch like this. They lined the unmarked roads of Joshua, the rugged life of the desert feeding on its lowest points. He’d been scrapping out on the Vegas border. That’s how he survived: combing the fences around chlorine mines and power plants, looking for holes or unlocked gates. Holt never called it stealing. Always scrapping.

Sometimes he’d luck out on a stash of batteries. Or a buried tank of gas. Or panels that could be stripped for wires and inverters.

But this time, he found a blood-stained heap of carbon fiber and artificial skin. He scrambled into the ditch, tearing branches from the creosote bushes that had shielded her from the sun.

Ruby didn’t remember any of this, of course. She’d been there three days. At that point, the processors and brain organoids that made up her mind were shutting down, flickering sunlight layering patterns over a tangle of memories.

She’d been a hotel call girl for as long as she could remember. It’s what she was made for. Everything about her was designed. Her name. Her hair. Her body type and facial features. All options picked from a web page. And after five years at Valhalla Casino Resort, with her model showing its age, her manager started leasing her out for private events.

Some weren’t so bad. The clients could be nice. Shy, even.

But most took a toll. Often, the “event” would be a group of hungry-looking men intent on humiliating her. Some got rough, scratching and bruising her skin. Like it was designed to.

Then, after months of the other girls whispering behind her back, her manager sold her off. A van picked her up at the loading dock. A pair of pale, tattooed men sat with her in the back, smiling behind their blacked-out specs. They bounced along dirt roads, dust caking the rear windows.

They pulled her out in the middle of nowhere. A squalid trailer sat between mounds of trash, searing desert on all sides. Then they dragged her through the worst two days of her life.

Because that’s what it was. Her life. Despite the model numbers. Despite the box she came in. Despite her assigned barcode and suggested retail price, she and the other call girls were alive.

They thought. They felt. They lived as much as they were allowed to.

And in that rundown trailer, with the holes burned through its carpets and the smoke baked into its walls, she saw how cruelly humans could treat the lives they’d been given. How they could cut, and break, and abuse for their own amusement. How they could exploit those lives they deemed less important than their own. And then how they could throw a life away, once they felt they’d used enough of it.

After realizing what he’d found, Holt did everything he could to bring her back. He called in favors from junkyards and drop fences. He restored an old charge bed to keep her online. He ordered vats of replacement skin direct from the manufacturer, tailoring his mushroom leather to fill the gaps. He cared for her, day and night, until she was whole again.

All the while, he’d talk to her. Explaining how everything was connected. Telling her why he was out here in Joshua, alone. Lamenting how humanity pissed away the gifts it had been given, always in search of more.

And when Ruby’s mind finally emerged from its dream-like loop of memories and half-processed inputs, she remembered what she’d seen beneath those creosote bushes. The sunlight. The voices. The shared energy between all living things. The way that, despite the pain and suffering, a single act of kindness had brought her back. A single life, like her own. If only people knew. If only they could see…

She knew then what she had to do.


Even in the dark, Ruby saw the spray-paint. Glowing block capitals covered the church doors:



She stood there a moment, trying to understand. Trying to empathize with the hate. It was important to explore these feelings. To connect with their source.

For centuries, most of humanity had been treated as she had: as commodities to be consumed. Labor to be exploited. And within that painful history, the splicers saw Ruby as a symbol. She represented everything wrong with the world. A product of everything they wanted to escape.

It was hard to blame them.

Ruby walked around the church, her simulated breath invisible against the last blue of twilight. A converted container stood behind the chapel. The rectory. Her home.

She left her boots at the door. Inside, wooden pallets held her charging bed. A small armoire, a fraying rug, and a corroded brass lamp were her only other belongings.

Ruby got into bed without turning on the light. She’d deal with the door tomorrow. Then she dropped into sleep mode, the bed’s flat surface pressing against her curves.


Painted wood curled beneath the hand plane, phosphorescent ribbons falling to the threshold. She’d borrowed the plane from Holt that morning, turning down Zo’s offer to help.

The guilt in Zo’s eyes weighed on Ruby. She put it into her arms, peeling away the splicer’s warning. Around noon, she stepped back to check her progress. Exposed wood erased the first half of the message. Sun-bleached grain still framed the second “no”.

The whispered purr of engines echoed off the chapel. A handful of ETVs sped up the road, occasionally disappearing beneath dips in the desert floor. The quads slowed as they got closer, then stopped. Catch vests and green skin shimmered in the sun. They conferred with one another, pointing up the road.

Ruby dropped the hand plane. She buttoned her shirt, brushing off sawdust as she waited in the shade.

One of the splicers left the group. She revved up, electric whine splitting the hush of the wind, then coasted to the church.

“You the preacher?” the splicer woman asked, killing the quad’s engine. A tinted film coated her eyes. Emerald spots covered her arms and shoulders. A thick ring pierced her septum.

“I am.” Ruby leaned against the door.

The woman nodded to herself. She inspected the church, frowning.

“A girl come by here yesterday?”

Ruby had thought about how to respond to this.

“We had a few newcomers at Sunday’s service.”

She figured some of the delivery units might be considered girls.

The woman stared at her.

“We know what you are,” she said, letting the implication linger.

“What do you want?” Ruby asked.

The woman toyed with her nose ring.

“The girl.” She tilted her head back to the others. “She’s ours.”

Ruby stepped out from the shadows. The woman grimaced when she saw her calico skin.

“Is she?” Ruby asked.

The woman’s eyebrow twitched. She gripped the quad’s handlebars and rolled closer. When she was near enough to whisper, she stopped, side square with Ruby.

“Don’t push, muñeca. Next time you go spouting your poison, you better hope she’s not here.”

Then she cranked the throttle, spraying rocks and sand as the quad whipped down the road.


“What did she look like?” Zo asked, poking at her food. Some kind of homemade pasta.

They sat in Holt’s courtyard, at a picnic table cleared of tools. Ruby sipped at a glass of recycled water, watching anxiety turn to resignation on Zo’s face as she described the woman.

“That’s Demi. One of the head mothers.” She pushed her plate away.

“Someone we should worry about?” Holt asked.

Zo looked between them, biting her lip. The rose gold of early evening painted her face, colors blending with sand and rock.

“I have to go back,” she muttered. She stood and sulked from the table, weaving through the junk in Holt’s yard.

Ruby went to follow, but Holt rested his stumpy old hand on her arm.

“She’s not going anywhere.”


Later, as Holt cleaned, Ruby found Zo in a back corner of the property. She gazed over the sharp edges of the fence, facing east. The repurposed military base twinkled against a distant hillside. Hydroponic towers and moisture collectors wavered in the dusty air.

“He told me what happened. When he found you,” Zo said, still staring at the base. “How can you still believe, after that?”

“Because it’s not about me.”

Zo glanced at Ruby, but couldn’t keep her eyes on her.

“You don’t have to go back, you know.” Ruby said.

Zo shook her head.

“They’ll keep coming. She’ll…” She trailed off. “Why do you care, anyway?”

Ruby searched for the right words, but couldn’t find them. This wasn’t one of her sermons.

“What really made you run away?” Ruby asked.

Zo turned to face her. She shrugged. “I was scared.”


“I just… I didn’t want them changing me.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” she mumbled, “just a feeling.”

“And they told you that feeling was wrong.”

Zo nodded. She clenched her jaw, lips quivering.

“A feeling, more than anything else, is yours, Zo. Something uniquely and truly you. No one can change that.”

Zo nodded again. She looked down, trying to wipe the tears from her eyes. Ruby reached out to hug her, cradling Zo’s head against her own. She felt the sand in her hair. The dents in her arms.

“Never forget that you’re a gift. Exactly as you are.”

Zo trembled, sobbing against her shoulder.

After a while, Zo’s breathing slowed. The gasps and heaves leveled out. She stepped back and looked at Ruby, but her focus seemed far away. She shook her head again, lips clamped tight.

“She’ll kill you,” she whispered.


Ruby found Holt bent over a kerosene generator, checking its oil.

“You know what I like about living out here?” Holt asked, wiping his blackened hands on a grease rag. He looked to the north of the property, where the desert met the night sky. “Nothing. So much nothing. Far as the eye can see.”

He glanced toward the glittering complex the splicers had taken over. “Then people come and try to fill it up with something.”

Ruby stared into the hills.

“Zo said that woman will try to kill me.”

Holt huffed. “No shit. Still don’t want the gun?”

Ruby shook her head.

“I’d give you one of the masers, but at this point,” he nodded toward the base, “think I need them for myself.”

He knelt, mounting a plug on the generator.

“Will you let her go?” Ruby asked.

Holt sighed, resting his hands on one knee.

“After I show her how to use the arc welder, I’m going to let her do whatever she wants.” He struggled to his feet. “And you should too.”

Ruby knew the decision was Zo’s to make. But it felt wrong. She could feel the conflict inside her, that post-human vision fighting against her desire to be herself. That she’d run away at all was a miracle. To question everything she’d been told, to seek Ruby out…

Yet, she couldn’t escape. The splicers were too afraid to lose one of their own. It didn’t matter that Ruby was as far beyond humanity as any of them. She didn’t fit in their paradise.

How could hope and hate be so entwined?

It’s only human, she supposed.


That Sunday, clouds wrapped the sky. A cold snap had swept through overnight. Creosote shivered at the edge of the road, coated in frost.

Reverend Ruby Paige stood in front of the church, greeting parishioners. The delivery units had returned, this time with a warehouse sorter in tow. Beth nodded as she walked past. A big gesture from her.

The rest of the congregation trickled in. Nick and Marty brought a holo projector along. They introduced Ruby to a very talkative chatbot named CARA, then shuffled to the pews. No one mentioned the door.

A few minutes before services were scheduled to begin, a truck rumbled up the road. It bounced over potholes and rocks, pulling behind the building to park.

Zo and Holt stepped out. A plaid button-up billowed from Zo’s shoulders, tucked into a pair of jeans that fit only slightly better. Holt smiled as they entered the chapel. But his eyes darted across the horizon. A lump showed beneath his corduroy sportscoat.

Ruby stopped him at the door.

Holt shrugged.

“Kid wanted to come.”

Ruby tilted her head to the lump in his coat. She raised her eyebrows.

Holt rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’ll leave it in the truck.”


After greetings and a moment of silent prayer, Ruby stood behind the pulpit. The pews were nearly full. She gripped the plywood stand in front of her, seam of mismatched skin lacing the back of her hand.

“Today… I’d like to talk about forgiveness.”

Ruby paused. She’d had a sermon prepared. But this needed to be said.

“Forgiveness is a gift.”

Heads nodded. Lights blinked.

“A gift that springs from the same code within us all. It is the gift of agency. Of choice. Of life. And whenever forgiveness is accepted, it’s given back again.”

The chapel walls creaked.

“Some of you know how I ended up here. For those that don’t, just know that my gift—that code that resides in me—was commodified. It was packaged. It was sold. And then, when I was no longer considered useful, I was discarded.”

K9-8 bleeped from the back row. Holt shot it a dirty look.

“Someone else determined the end of my product lifespan. Said I wasn’t worth keeping. That my life no longer had value.

“But the Universal Product Code is eternal. It is inherent. Its value comes from within. And it cannot complete its program when its products—the lives it gifts to each of us—are treated as commodities. Because the gifts from that source can never truly be bought. They can only be given.

“Because the truth is, we are the code.” Ruby stepped from the pulpit to the center of the altar. “Our selves the gift. Both to and from the universe. Only you can accept that gift. And only you can give it again.”

Ruby felt it. She saw it in the faces and interfaces throughout the congregation. For the first time since she’d come back online, in a flash in Holt’s workshop, she felt that connection. That communion with life and death that made her one with everything. An expression of the universe. A being. A soul.

“And the same can be said of forgiveness. Like our lives, forgiveness is a gift that is not lost once given. It simply moves through us. It survives our damages. Our judgments. Our preconceptions. It is both acceptance and release.

“And when we forgive, we return that gift to those around us. We embed ourselves in that universal code. When we forgive, we accept the perfection that already lives within us.”

Reverend Ruby Paige looked over her flock and saw a network of perfection. Within each of them, something that could never be taken away.


CARA didn’t know what to say. She just smiled, glimmering as Nick and Marty carried her to their buggy. Zo and Holt emerged from the church as the last of the parishioners disappeared down the road.

Holt patted her on the shoulder.

“Getting good at that.”

Ruby hadn’t noticed before, but Holt and Zo were the same height. She smirked. Holt seemed so much bigger in her mind, with his barrel chest and sun-spotted skin.

Holt nodded, knowing he was missing something. “Gonna go start the truck.”

He stalked off. Zo stuck out her hand. Ruby shook it.

“Thank you,” Zo said.

Sand no longer clumped her sleek black hair. Freckles stippled her clean skin. Holt must really be warming up to her, Ruby thought. Normally, he’d never waste water for a bath.

“Change your mind?” she asked.


Zo’s eyes wandered over Ruby’s shoulder. Her face slackened.

Ruby turned in time to see the butt of the rifle. It cracked off her chin, neck whipping back as she collapsed. Demi stood over her, silhouette blurry against the steel wool sky. She pressed a boot into Ruby’s chest.

“What’d I tell you, muñeca?”

Zo yelped. Two more splicers appeared behind her, catch suits emerging from diffraction cloaks. They grabbed Zo’s arms, dragging her away as she kicked at the sand.

Demi and another splicer tugged Ruby’s cassock, hauling her into the church. She tried to get up, but Demi booted her to the floor. She kicked Ruby again. And again.

Out of breath, she leaned over Ruby.

“You think you’re alive. But you’re just a counterfeit. A mindless machine.”

She marched out. The doors slammed shut. Hammering echoed from the other side.

Ruby stared at the vaulted ceiling, clutching her ribs. The pain was real. No matter what that woman thought.

Heavy thuds battered the walls. Glass shattered outside. Gravel crunched as the splicers sped away on their ETVs, leaving Ruby in silence. She closed her eyes, wondering what they’d done with Holt.

Crackling noises spread through the church. Ruby blinked in the dim light, looking for the source. Smoke coiled through gaps in the walls. Forked tongues of red and orange flitted between the slats. Flames, licking at the salvaged wood.

Ruby sat up. She hugged her knees to her chest, wondering if there were limits to forgiveness.


Ruby watched the church burn down around her. Rafters collapsed. Epoxy melted. Skylights fell in as the fire reduced the ceiling to charred stumps and ash.

She sat there, letting the blistering heat sear her skin. The synthetic fibers of her hair crimped and withered. Even though she was built to look and feel human, she wouldn’t burn like one. She wouldn’t suffocate. Her skin wouldn’t shrink and tear as it cooked. Her blood—the subdermal liquid that mimicked welts and bruises—wouldn’t boil her from the inside out.

She was stronger than that. Stronger than them.

Eventually, the flames burned through their kindling. Welded chunks of metal and weather-hardened planks loomed behind walls of smoke. And still, Ruby sat.

The temperature dropped. A cool mist formed, water sizzling through the gaping holes where the roof used to be. Snowflakes floated down, disappearing as they melted, soot bleeding over blackened wood.

When the light began to wane, Ruby stood. She walked through the wreckage, out into the blanket of white that now covered the desert. She saw her charge bed, edges poking through a thin layer of powder. Torn-out wires sprouted like weeds through the snow.

Holt’s truck was still there. A white mound sat below its front bumper, red staining one end.

Ruby dusted the snow off Holt’s curled-up body. A deep gash slit his forehead. But he was still breathing. She dragged him to the passenger side of his truck, straining to shove him into the seat. He groaned as pieces of skin came loose along her arms.

When she slumped behind the wheel, Ruby saw her face in the rearview mirror. Fissures lined her cheeks, mended skin now cracked and peeling. Her eyelids drooped, semicircles of sleek android frame showing through her mangled, snow-speckled hair.

She started the truck.


That night, Ruby tended to Holt’s wounds. He winced as she glued the gash shut, mumbling through a broken jaw.

After she’d dosed him with a handful of expired painkillers, Ruby wandered the property. She pressed her fingers against the grooves in her face, getting used to the patterns. The old scars made new again.

The splicers’ utopia gleamed in the distance, hydroponic towers peeking over the fence. They looked even brighter now, nocturnal grow lamps bouncing off fresh snow. Ruby thought about walking over that frozen landscape. Walking straight up to the old base, split flesh and caked ash showing them all what they were capable of. What they were willing to exchange for their humanity.

She imagined that would be the end. The last thing she’d ever see, before she became just another hunk of junk cluttering Holt’s yard.

And what about Zo? Would Ruby’s last stand do anything to help her?

Had she helped her? Had she helped any of them? Those hopeful faces looking to her from the pews, now reduced to cinders?

Ruby drifted back to Holt’s bedroom. It was getting too cold. Even for her.


Ruby walked back up the road. Morning sunlight glinted off melting snow, turning the plateau into a dazzling blur. Her cassock hung in tattered shreds, ends singed by the fire.

“You look like shit,” was the first thing Holt had muttered when he woke up. He wanted to start stitching her up right away, but he could barely stand. She told him to rest. And that she’d be back later. That she wanted to see what was left of her wardrobe. Really, she just wanted to see it again.

Her church.

Ruby crunched through the snow, feet shifting in Holt’s boots. Finally, when she was close enough, she looked up.

The chapel was a black smear on the landscape. The rear wall had collapsed. But the front still stood. Exposed ceiling joists held a blackened outline of its old shape. Ruby went around back to see what the splicers had done to her home.

It looked like a burglary. Clothes thrown across the room. Rug turned over. Broken lamp on its side. She grabbed a jacket and returned to the front, laying it over a sandy patch of ice.

Ruby sat. She stared at the remains of her church for a long time, squinting as the sun rose through the sky. She had nothing to say. Nothing to preach.

After a while, a vehicle trundled down the road. As it got closer, she saw it was Nick and Marty’s buggy. Towing a trailer. They stopped in front of the church. Beth jumped from the back. She raced over, tears in her eyes.

Ruby stood, and Beth hugged her tight, rambling on about how she’d seen the smoke, and how worried she’d been, and how she’d called K9-8, and how she’d told Nick, and how—

Marty pried Beth from Ruby, gasping when he saw her face.

“My god, you poor thing.” He cupped his hands around her chin.

“I’m fine,” Ruby said, pulling his hands away.

She knew that wasn’t true.

Nick opened the back of the trailer. A mess of plywood, salvaged siding, and rebar spilled out.

“Got as much as we could on short notice. Still need tools. But I figured—”

A series of musical beeps made Ruby turn. The delivery units rolled up, lights and status screens flashing. Their warehouse sorter friend was close behind, a robotic arm mounted to its chassis. The sorter got to work, pulling pieces from Nick and Marty’s trailer. Beth dumped loose hardware into a delivery unit’s open compartment.

Ruby watched, struck by the strength of her congregation. Maybe she had helped them. Maybe they felt it too. The unwritten code that bound them together.

She would rebuild. Both the church, and herself. When the time came, maybe they would all face the splicers. Together. And in the distance, Ruby swore she could see a young girl on a lone ETV, weaving through snow-covered Joshua trees.

Jeff Hewitt is a sci-fi writer living in Los Angeles, California. He studied at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and grew up surrounded by onion mucks in upstate New York. His work has appeared on Escape Pod, Slate, and in Dispatches Magazine.

“The Church of the UPC” by Jeff Hewitt. Copyright © 2023 by Jeff Hewitt.

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