HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance
When my mind cleared, I found myself in the street. The protector god Bishamon spoke to me then: The boulevard to the spaceport runs straight up the mountain. And you must run straight up the boulevard.
The air was full of wily spirits, and moving fast in the Imperial City was a crime. But what is man to disobey the voice of a god? So I ran. The pavement vibrated with the thunder of the great engines of the Caslonian Empire. Behind me the curators of the Imperial Archives must by now have discovered the mare’s nest I had made of their defenses, and perhaps had already realized that something was missing.
Above the plateau the sky was streaked with clouds, through which shot violet gravity beams carrying ships down from and up to planetary orbit. Just outside the gate to the spaceport a family in rags—husband, wife, two children—used a net of knotted cords to catch fish from the sewers. Ignoring them, prosperous citizens in embroidered robes passed among the shops of the port bazaar, purchasing duty-free wares, recharging their concubines, seeking a meal before departure. Slower, now.
I slowed my pace. I became indistinguishable from them, moving smoothly among the travelers.
To the Caslonian eye, I was calm, self-possessed; within me, rage and joy contended. I had in my possession the means to redeem my people. I tried not to think, only to act, but now that my mind was rekindled, it raced. Certainly it would go better for me if I left the planet before anyone understood what I had stolen. Yet I was very hungry, and the aroma of food from the restaurants along the way enticed me. It would be foolishness itself to stop here.
Enter the restaurant, I was told. So I stepped into the most elegant of the establishments.
The maître d’ greeted me. “Would the master like a table, or would he prefer to dine at the bar?”
“The bar,” I said
“Step this way.” There was no hint of the illicit about his manner, though something about it implied indulgence. He was proud to offer me this experience that few could afford.
He seated me at the circular bar of polished rosewood. Before me, and the few others seated there, the chef grilled meats on a heated metal slab. Waving his arms in the air like a dancer, he tossed flanks of meat between two force knives, letting them drop to the griddle, flipping them dexterously upward again in what was as much performance as preparation. The energy blades of the knives sliced through the meat without resistance, the sides of these same blades batting them like paddles. An aroma of burning hydrocarbons wafted on the air.
An attractive young man displayed for me a list of virtualities that represented the “cuts” offered by the establishment, including subliminal tastes. The “cuts” referred to the portions of the animal’s musculature from which the slabs of meat had been sliced. My mouth watered.
He took my order, and I sipped a cocktail of bitters and Belanova.
While I waited, I scanned the restaurant. The fundamental goal of our order is to vindicate divine justice in allowing evil to exist. At a small nearby table, a young woman leaned beside a child, probably her daughter, and encouraged her to eat. The child’s beautiful face was the picture of innocence as she tentatively tasted a scrap of pink flesh. The mother was very beautiful. I wondered if this was her first youth.
The chef finished his performance, to the mild applause of the other patrons. The young man placed my steak before me. The chef turned off the blades and laid them aside, then ducked down a trapdoor to the oubliette where the slaves were kept. As soon as he was out of sight, the god told me, Steal a knife.
While the diners were distracted by their meals, I reached over the counter, took one of the force blades, and slid it into my boot. Then I ate. The taste was extraordinary. Every cell of my body vibrated with excitement and shame. My senses reeling, it took me a long time to finish.
A slender man in a dark robe sat next to me. “That smells good,” he said. “Is that genuine animal flesh?”
“Does it matter to you?”
“Ah, brother, calm yourself. I’m not challenging your taste.”
“I’m pleased to hear it.”
“But I am challenging your identity.” He parted the robe—his tunic bore the sigil of Port Security. “Your passport, please.”
I exposed the inside of my wrist for him. A scanlid slid over his left eye and he examined the marks beneath my skin. “Very good,” he said. He drew a blaster from the folds of his cassock. “We seldom see such excellent forgeries. Stand up, and come with me.”
I stood. He took my elbow in a firm grip, the bell of the blaster against my side. No one in the restaurant noticed. He walked me outside, down the crowded bazaar. “You see, brother, that there is no escape from consciousness. The minute it returns, you are vulnerable. All your prayer is to no avail.”
This is the arrogance of the Caslonian. They treat us as non-sentients, and they believe in nothing. Yet as I prayed, I heard no word.
I turned to him. “You may wish the absence of the gods, but you are mistaken. The gods are everywhere present.” As I spoke the plosive “p” of “present,” I popped the cap from my upper right molar and blew the moondust it contained into his face.
The agent fell writhing to the pavement. I ran off through the people, dodging collisions. My ship was on the private field at the end of the bazaar. Before I had gotten half way there, an alarm began sounding. People looked up in bewilderment, stopping in their tracks. The walls of buildings and stalls blinked into multiple images of me. Voices spoke from the air: “This man is a fugitive from the state. Apprehend him.”
I would not make it to the ship unaided, so I turned on my perceptual overdrive. Instantly, everything slowed. The voices of the people and the sounds of the port dropped an octave. They moved as if in slow motion. I moved, to myself, as if in slow motion as well—my body could in no way keep pace with my racing nervous system—but to the people moving at normal speed, my reflexes were lightning fast. Up to the limit of my physiology—and my joints had been reinforced to take the additional stress, my muscles could handle the additional lactic acid for a time—I could move at twice the speed of a normal human. I could function perhaps for ten minutes in this state before I collapsed.
The first person to accost me—a sturdy middle-aged man—I seized by the arm. I twisted it behind his back and shoved him into the second who took up the command. As I dodged through the crowd up the concourse, it began to drizzle. I felt as if I could slip between the raindrops. I pulled the force blade from my boot and sliced the ear from the next man who tried to stop me. His comic expression of dismay still lingers in my mind. Glancing behind, I saw the agent in black, face swollen with pustules from the moondust, running toward me.
I was near the field. In the boarding shed, attendants were folding the low-status passengers and sliding them into dispatch pouches, to be carried onto a ship and stowed in drawers for their passage. Directly before me, I saw the woman and child I had noticed in the restaurant. The mother had out a parasol and was holding it over the girl to keep the rain off her. Not slowing, I snatched the little girl and carried her off. The child yelped, the mother screamed. I held the blade to the girl’s neck. “Make way!” I shouted to the security men at the field’s entrance. They fell back.
“Halt!” came the call from behind me. The booth beside the gate was seared with a blaster bolt. I swerved, turned, and, my back to the gate, held the girl before me.
The agent in black, followed by two security women, jerked to a stop. “You mustn’t hurt her,” the agent said.
“Oh? And why is that?”
“It’s against everything your order believes.”
Master Darius had steeled me for this dilemma before sending me on my mission. He told me, “You will encounter such situations, Adlan. When they arise, you must resolve the complications.”
“You are right!” I called to my pursuers, and threw the child at them.
The agent caught her, while the other two aimed and fired. One of the beams grazed my shoulder. But by then I was already through the gate and onto the tarmac.
A port security robot hurled a flame grenade. I rolled through the flames. My ship rested in the maintenance pit, cradled in the violet anti-grav beam. I slid down the ramp into the open airlock, hit the emergency close, and climbed to the controls. Klaxons wailed outside. I bypassed all the launch protocols and released the beam. The ship shot upward like an apple seed flicked by a fingernail; as soon as it had hit the stratosphere, I fired the engines and blasted through the scraps of the upper atmosphere into space.
The orbital security forces were too slow, and I made my escape.
I awoke battered, bruised, and exhausted in the pilot’s chair. The smell of my burned shoulder reminded me of the steak I had eaten in the port bazaar. The stress of accelerating nerve impulses had left every joint in my body aching. My arms were blue with contusions, and I was as enfeebled as an old man.
The screens showed me to be in an untraveled quarter of the system’s cometary cloud; my ship had cloaked itself in ice so that on any detector I would simply be another bit of debris among billions. I dragged myself from the chair and down to the galley, where I warmed some broth and gave myself an injection of cellular repair mites. Then I fell into my bunk and slept.
My second waking was relatively free of pain. I recharged my tooth and ate again. I kneeled before the shrine and bowed my head in prayer, letting peace flow down my spine and relax all the muscles of my back. I listened for the voices of the gods.
I was reared by my mother on Bembo. My mother was an extraordinarily beautiful girl. One day Akvan, looking down on her, was so moved by lust that he took the form of a vagabond and raped her by the side of the road. Nine months later I was born.
The goddess Sedna became so jealous that she laid a curse on my mother, who turned into a lawyer. And so we moved to Helvetica. There, in the shabby city of Urushana, in the waterfront district along the river, she took up her practice, defending criminals and earning a little baksheesh greasing the relations between the Imperial Caslonian government and the corrupt local officials. Mother’s ambition for me was to go to an off-planet university, but for me the work of a student was like pushing a very large rock up a very steep hill. I got into fights; I pursued women of questionable virtue. Having exhausted my prospects in the city, I entered the native constabulary, where I was re-engineered for accelerated combat. But my propensity for violence saw me cashiered out of the service within six months. Hoping to get a grip on my passions, I made the pilgrimage to the monastery of the Pujmanian Order. There I petitioned for admission as a novice, and, to my great surprise, was accepted.
It was no doubt the work of Master Darius, who took an interest in me from my first days on the plateau. Perhaps it was my divine heritage, which had placed those voices in my head. Perhaps it was my checkered career to that date. The Master taught me to distinguish between those impulses that were the work of my savage nature, and those that were the voices of the gods. He taught me to identify the individual gods. It is not an easy path. I fasted, I worked in the gardens, I practiced the martial arts, I cleaned the cesspool, I sewed new clothes and mended old, I tended the orchards. I became an expert tailor, and sewed many of the finest kosodes worn by the masters on feast days. In addition, Master Darius held special sessions with me, putting me into a trance during which, I was later told by my fellow novices, I continued to act normally for days, only to awake with no memories of my actions.
And so I was sent on my mission. Because I had learned how not to think, I could not be detected by the spirits who guarded the Imperial Archives.
Five plays, immensely old, collectively titled The Abandonment, are all that document the rebirth of humanity after its long extinction. The foundational cycle consists of The Archer’s Fall, Stochik’s Revenge, The Burning Tree, Close the Senses, Shut the Doors, and the mystical fifth, The Magic Tortoise. No one knows who wrote them. It is believed they were composed within the first thirty years after the human race was recreated by the gods. Besides being the most revered cultural artifacts of humanity, these plays are also the sacred texts of the universal religion, and claimed as the fundamental political documents by all planetary governments. They are preserved only in a single copy. No recording has ever been made of their performance. The actors chosen to present the plays in the foundational festivals on all the worlds do not study and learn them; through a process similar to the one Master Darius taught me to confuse the spirits, the actors become the characters. Once the performance is done, it passes from their minds.
These foundational plays, of inestimable value, existed now only in my mind. I had destroyed the crystal containing them in the archives. Without these plays, the heart of Caslon had been ripped away. If the populace knew of their loss, there would be despair and riot.
And once Master Darius announced that the Order held the only copy in our possession, it would only be a matter of time before the Empire would be obliged to free our world.
Three days after my escape from Caslon, I set course for Helvetica. Using an evanescent wormhole, I would emerge within the planet’s inner ring. The ship, still encased in ice, would look like one of the fragments that formed the ring. From there I would reconnoiter, find my opportunity to leave orbit, and land. But because the ring stood far down in the gravitation well of the planet, it was a tricky maneuver.
Too tricky. Upon emergence in the Helvetican ring, my ship collided with one of the few nickel-iron meteoroids in the belt, disabling my engines. Within twenty minutes, Caslonian hunter-killers grappled with the hull. My one advantage was that by now they knew that I possessed the plays, and therefore they could not afford to blast me out of the sky. I could kill them, but they could not harm me. But I had no doubt that once they caught me, they would rip my mind to shreds seeking the plays.
I had only minutes—the hull door would not hold long. I abandoned the control room and retreated to the engine compartment. The place was a mess, barely holding pressure after the meteoroid collision, oxygen cylinders scattered about and the air acrid with the scent of burned wiring. I opened the cat’s closet, three meters tall and two wide. From a locker I yanked two piezofiber suits. I turned them on, checked their readouts—they were fully charged—and threw them into the closet. It was cramped in there with tools and boxes of supplies. Sitting on one of the crates, I pulled up my shirt, exposing my bruised ribs. The aluminum light of the closet turned my skin sickly white. Using a microtome, I cut an incision in my belly below my lowest rib. There was little blood. I reached into the cut, found the nine-dimensional pouch, and drew it out between my index and middle fingers. I sprayed false skin over the wound. As I did, the artificial gravity cut off, and the lights went out.
I slipped on my night vision eyelids, read the directions on the pouch, ripped it open, removed the soldier and unfolded it. The body expanded, became fully three dimensional, and, in a minute, was floating naked before me. My first surprise: it was a woman. Dark skinned, slender, her body was very beautiful. I leaned over her, covered her mouth with mine, and blew air into her lungs. She jerked convulsively and drew a shuddering breath, then stopped. Her eyelids fluttered, then opened.
“Wake up!” I said, drawing on my piezosuit. I slipped the force blade into the boot, strapped on the belt with blaster and supplies, shrugged into the backpack. “Put on this suit! No time to waste.”
She took in my face, the surroundings. From beyond the locker door I heard the sounds of the commandos entering the engine room.
“I am Brother Adlan,” I whispered urgently. “You are a soldier of the Republican Guard?” As I spoke I helped her into the skinsuit.
“Lieutenant Nahid Esfandiar. What’s happening?”
“We are in orbit over Helvetica, under attack by Caslonian commandos. We need to break out of here.”
“What weapons have we?”
I handed her a blaster. “They will have accelerated perceptions. Can you speed yours?”
Her glance passed over me, measuring me for a fool. “Done already.” She sealed her suit and flipped down the faceplate on her helmet.
I did not pay attention to her, because as she spoke, all-seeing Liu-Bei spoke to me. Three men beyond this door. In my mind I saw the engine room, and the three soldiers who were preparing to rip open the closet.
I touched my helmet to hers and whispered to Nahid, “There are three of them outside. The leader is directly across from the door. He has a common blaster, on stun. To the immediate right, a meter away, one of the commandos has a pulse rifle. The third, about to set the charge, has a pneumatic projector, probably with sleep gas. When they blow the door, I’ll go high, you low. Three meters to the cross corridor, down one level and across starboard to the escape pod.”
Just then, the door to the closet was ripped open, and through it came a blast of sleep gas. But we were locked into our suits, helmets sealed. Our blaster beams, pink in the darkness, crossed as they emerged from the gloom of the closet. We dove through the doorway in zero-G, bouncing off the bulkheads, blasters flaring. The commandos were just where the gods had told me they would be. I cut down one before we even cleared the doorway. Though they moved as quickly as we did, they were trying not to kill me, and the fact that there were two of us now took them by surprise.
Nahid fired past my ear, taking out another. We ducked through the hatch and up the companionway. Two more commandos came from the control room at the end of the corridor; I was able to slice one of them before he could fire, but the other’s stunner numbed my thigh. Nahid torched his head and grabbed me by the arm, hurling me around the corner into the cross passageway.
Two more commandos guarded the hatchway to the escape pod. Nahid fired at them, killing one and wounding the other in a single shot. But instead of heading for the pod she jerked me the other way, toward the umbilical to the Caslonian ship.
“What are you doing?” I protested.
“Shut up,” she said. “They can hear us.” Halfway across the umbilical, Nahid stopped, braced herself against one wall, raised her blaster, and, without hesitation, blew a hole in the wall opposite. The air rushed out. A klaxon sounded the pressure breach, another commando appeared at the junction of the umbilical and the Caslonian ship—I burned him down—and we slipped through the gap into the space between the two ships. She grabbed my arm and pulled me around the hull of my own vessel.
I realized what she intended. Grabbing chunks of ice, we pulled ourselves over the horizon of my ship until we reached the outside hatch of the escape pod. I punched in the access code. We entered the pod and while Nahid sealed the hatch, I powered up and blasted us free of the ship before we had even buckled in.
The pod shot toward the upper atmosphere. The commandos guarding the inner hatch were ejected into the vacuum behind us. Retro fire slammed us into our seats. I caught a glimpse of bodies floating in the chaos we’d left behind before proton beams lanced out from the Caslonian raider, clipping the pod and sending us into a spin.
“You couldn’t manage this without me?” Nahid asked.
“No sarcasm, please.” I fought to steady the pod so the heat shields were oriented for atmosphere entry.
We hit the upper atmosphere. For twenty minutes we were buffeted by the jet stream, and it got hot in the tiny capsule. I became very aware of Nahid’s scent, sweat and a trace of rosewater; she must have put on perfume before she was folded into the packet that had been implanted in me. Her eyes moved slowly over the interior of the pod.
“What is the date?” she asked.
“The nineteenth of Cunegonda,” I told her. The pod bounced violently and drops of sweat flew from my forehead. Three red lights flared on the board, but I could do nothing about them.
I saw that it would not be possible to keep many truths from her. “You have been suspended in nine-space for sixty years.”
The pod lurched again, a piece of the ablative shield tearing away. She sat motionless, taking in the loss of her entire life.
A snatch of verse came to my lips, unbidden:
“Our life is but a trifle
A child’s toy abandoned by the road
When we are called home.”
“Very poetic,” she said. “Are we going to ride this pod all the way down? They probably have us on locator from orbit, and will vaporize it the minute it hits. I’d rather not be called home just now.”
“We’ll eject at ten kilometers. Here’s your chute.”
When the heat of the re-entry had abated and we hit the troposphere, we blew the explosive bolts and shot free of the tumbling pod. Despite the thin air of the upper atmosphere, I was buffeted almost insensible, spinning like a prayer wheel. I lost sight of Nahid.
I fell for a long time, but eventually managed to stabilize myself spread-eagled, dizzy, my stomach lurching. Below, the Jacobin Range stretched north to southwest under the rising sun, the snow-covered rock on the upper reaches folded like a discarded robe, and below the thick forest climbing up to the tree line.
Some minutes later, I witnessed the impressive flare of the pod striking just below the summit of one of the peaks, tearing a gash in the ice cover and sending up a plume of black smoke that was torn away by the wind. I tongued the trigger in my helmet, and with a nasty jerk, the airfoil chute deployed from my backpack. I could see Nahid’s red chute some five hundred meters below me; I steered toward her hoping we could land near each other. The forested mountainside came up fast. I spotted a clearing on a ledge two-thirds of the way up the slope and made for it, but my burned shoulder wasn’t working right, and I was coming in too fast. I caught a glimpse of Nahid’s foil in the mountain scar ahead, but I wasn’t going to reach her.
At the last minute, I pulled up and skimmed the treetops, caught a boot against a top limb, flipped head over heels and crashed into the foliage, coming to rest hanging upside down from the tree canopy. The suit’s rigidity kept me from breaking any bones, but it took me ten minutes to release the shrouds. I turned down the suit’s inflex and took off my helmet to better see what I was doing. When I did, the limb supporting me broke, and I fell the last ten meters through the trees, hitting another limb on the way down, knocking me out.
I was woken by Nahid rubbing snow into my face. My piezosuit had been turned off, and the fabric was flexible again. Nahid leaned over me, supporting my head. “Can you move your feet?” she asked.
My thigh was still numb from the stunner. I tried moving my right foot. Though I could not feel any response, I saw the boot twitch. “So it would seem.”
Done with me, she let my head drop. “So, do you have some plan?”
I pulled up my knees and sat up. My head ached. We were surrounded by the boles of the tall firs; above our heads the wind swayed the trees, but down here the air was calm, and sunlight filtered down in patches, moving over the packed fine brown needles of the forest floor. Nahid had pulled down my chute to keep it from advertising our position. She crouched on one knee and examined the charge indicator on her blaster.
I got up and inventoried the few supplies we had—my suit’s water reservoir, holding maybe a liter, three packs of gichy crackers in the belt. Hers would have no more than that. “We should get moving; the Caslonians will send a landing party, or notify the colonial government in Guliston to send a security squad.”
“And why should I care?”
“You fought for the republic against the Caslonians. When the war was lost and the protectorate established, you had yourself folded. Didn’t you expect to take up arms again when called back to life?”
“You tell me that was sixty years ago. What happened to the rest of the Republican Guard?”
“The Guard was wiped out in the final Caslonian assaults.”
“And our folded battalion?”
The blistering roar of a flyer tore through the clear air above the trees. Nahid squinted up, eyes following the glittering ship. “They’re heading for where the pod hit.” She pulled me to my feet, taking us downhill, perhaps in the hope of finding better cover in the denser forest near one of the mountain freshets.
“No,” I said. “Up the slope.”
“That’s where they’ll be.”
“It can’t be helped. We need to get to the monastery. We’re on the wrong side of the mountains.” I turned up the incline. After a moment, she followed.
We stayed beneath the trees for as long as possible. The slope was not too steep at this altitude; the air was chilly, with dying patches of old snow in the shadows. Out in the direct sunlight, it would be hot until evening came. I had climbed these mountains fifteen years before, an adolescent trying to find a way to live away from the world. As we moved, following the path of a small stream, the aches in my joints eased.
We did not talk. I had not thought about what it would mean to wake this soldier, other than how she would help me in a time of extremity. There are no women in our order, and though we take no vow of celibacy and some commerce takes place between brothers in their cells late at night, there is little opportunity for contact with the opposite sex. Nahid, despite her forbidding nature, was beautiful: dark skin, black eyes, lustrous black hair cut short, the three parallel scars of her rank marking her left cheek. As a boy in Urushana, I had tormented my sleepless nights with visions of women as beautiful as she; in my short career as a constable I had avidly pursued women far less so. One of them had provoked the fight that had gotten me cashiered.
The forest thinned as we climbed higher. Large folds of granite lay exposed to the open air, creased with fractures and holding pockets of earth where trees sprouted in groups. We had to circle around to avoid coming into the open, and even that would be impossible when the forest ended completely. I pointed us south, where Dundrahad Pass, dipping below 3,000 meters, cut through the mountains. We were without snowshoes or trekking gear, but I hoped that, given the summer temperatures, the pass would be clear enough to traverse in the night without getting ourselves killed. The skinsuits we wore would be proof against the nighttime cold.
We saw no signs of the Caslonians, but when we reached the tree line, we stopped to wait for darkness anyway. The air had turned colder, and a sharp wind blew down the pass from the other side of the mountains. We settled in a hollow beneath a patch of twisted scrub trees and waited out the declining sun. At the zenith, the first moon Mahsheed rode, waning gibbous. In the notch of the pass above and ahead of us, the second moon Roshanak rose. Small, glowing green, it moved perceptibly as it raced around the planet. I nibbled at some gichy, sipping water from my suit’s reservoir. Nahid’s eyes were shadowed; she scanned the slope.
“We’ll have to wait until Mahsheed sets before we move,” Nahid said. “I don’t want to be caught in the pass in its light.”
“It will be hard for us to see where we’re going.”
She didn’t reply. The air grew colder. After a while, without looking at me, she spoke. “So what happened to my compatriots?”
I saw no point in keeping anything from her. “As the Caslonians consolidated their conquest, an underground of Republicans pursued a guerilla war. Two years later, they mounted an assault on the provincial capital in Kofarnihon. They unfolded your battalion to aid them, and managed to seize the armory. But the Caslonians sent reinforcements and set up a siege. When the rebels refused to surrender, the Caslonians vaporized the entire city, hostages, citizens, and rebels alike. That was the end of the Republican Guard.” Nahid’s dark eyes watched me as I told her all this. The tightness of her lips held grim skepticism.
“Yet here I am,” she said.
“I don’t know how you came to be the possession of the order. Some refugee, perhaps. The masters, sixty years ago, debated what to do with you. Given the temperament of the typical guardsman, it was assumed that, had you been restored to life, you would immediately get yourself killed in assaulting the Caslonians, putting the order at risk. It was decided to keep you in reserve, in the expectation that, at some future date, your services would be useful.”
“You monks were always fair-weather democrats. Ever your order over the welfare of the people, or even their freedom. So you betrayed the republic.”
“You do us an injustice.”
“It was probably Javeed who brought me—the lying monk attached to our unit.”
I recognized the name. Brother Javeed, a bent, bald man of great age, had run the monastery kitchen. I had never thought twice about him. He had died a year after I joined the order.
“Why do you think I was sent on this mission?” I told her. “We mean to set Helvetica free. And we shall do so, if we reach Sharishabz.”
“How do you propose to accomplish that? Do you want to see your monastery vaporized?”
“They will not dare. I have something of theirs that they will give up the planet for. That’s why they tried to board my ship rather than destroy it; that’s why they didn’t bother to disintegrate the escape pod when they might easily have shot us out of the sky.”
“And this inestimably valuable item that you carry? It must be very small.”
“It’s in my head. I have stolen the only copies of the Foundational Dramas.”
She looked at me. “So?”
Her skepticism was predictable, but it still angered me. “So—they will gladly trade Helvetica’s freedom for the return of the plays.”
She lowered her head, rubbed her brow with her hand. I could not read her. She made a sound, an intake of breath. For a moment, I thought she wept. Then she raised her head and laughed in my face.
I fought an impulse to strike her. “Quiet!”
She laughed louder. Her shoulders shook, and tears came to her eyes. I felt my face turn red. “You should have let me die with the others, in battle. You crazy priest!”
“Why do you laugh?” I asked her. “Do you think they would send ships to embargo Helvetican orbital space, dispatch squads of soldiers and police, if what I carry were not valuable to them?”
“I don’t believe in your fool’s religion.”
“Have you ever seen the plays performed?”
“Once, when I was a girl. I saw The Archer’s Fall during the year-end festival in Tienkash. I fell asleep.”
“They are the axis of human culture. The sacred stories of our race. We are human because of them. Through them the gods speak to us.”
“I thought you monks heard the gods talking to you directly. Didn’t they tell you to run us directly into the face of the guards securing the escape pod? It’s lucky you had me along to cut our way out of that umbilical, or we’d be dead up there now.”
“You might be dead. I would be in a sleep tank having my brain taken apart—to retrieve these dramas.”
“There are no gods! Just voices in your head. They tell you to do what you already want to do.”
“If you think the commands of the gods are easy, then just try to follow them for a single day.”
We settled into an uncomfortable silence. The sun set, and the rings became visible in the sky, turned pink by the sunset in the west, rising silvery toward the zenith, where they were eclipsed by the planet’s shadow. The light of the big moon still illuminated the open rock face before us. We would have a steep 300 meter climb above the tree line to the pass, then another couple of kilometers between the peaks in the darkness.
“It’s cold,” I said after a while.
Without saying anything, she reached out and tugged my arm. It took me a moment to realize that she wanted me to move next to her. I slid over, and we ducked our heads to keep below the wind. I could feel the taut muscles of her body beneath the skinsuit. The paradox of our alienation hit me. We were both the products of the gods. She did not believe this truth, but truth does not need to be believed to prevail.
Still, she was right that we had not escaped the orbiting commandos in the way I had expected.
The great clockwork of the universe turned. Green Roshanak sped past Mahsheed, for a moment in transit looking like the pupil of a god’s observing eye, then set, and an hour later, Mahsheed followed her below the western horizon. The stars shone in all their glory, but it was as dark as it would get before Roshanak rose for the second time that night. It was time for us to take our chance and go.
We came out of our hiding place and moved to the edge of the scrub. The broken granite of the peak rose before us, faint gray in starlight. We set out across the rock, climbing in places, striding across rubble fields, circling areas of ice and melting snow. In a couple of places, we had to boost each other up, scrambling over boulders, finding hand and footholds in the vertical face where we were blocked. It was farther than I had estimated before the ground leveled and we were in the pass.
We were just cresting the last ridge when glaring white light shone down on us, and an amplified voice called from above. “Do not move! Drop your weapons and lie flat on the ground!”
I tongued my body into acceleration. In slow motion, Nahid crouched, raised her blaster, arm extended, sighted on the flyer, and fired. I hurled my body into hers and threw her aside just as the return fire of projectile weapons splattered the rock where she had been into fragments. In my head, kind Eurynome insisted: Back. We will show you the way.
“This way!” I dragged Nahid over the edge of the rock face we had just climbed. It was a three-meter drop to the granite below; I landed hard, and she fell on my chest, knocking the wind from me. Around us burst a hail of sleep gas pellets. In trying to catch my breath I caught a whiff of the gas, and my head whirled. Nahid slid her helmet down over her face, and did the same for me.
From above us came the sound of the flyer touching down. Nahid started for the tree line, limping. She must have been hit or injured in our fall. I pulled her to our left, along the face of the rock. “Where—” she began.
“Shut up!” I grunted.
The commandos hit the ledge behind us, but the flyer had its searchlight aimed at the trees, and the soldiers followed the light. The fog of sleep gas gave us some cover.
We scuttled along the granite shelf until we were beyond the entrance to the pass. By this time, I had used whatever reserves of energy my body could muster, and passed into normal speed. I was exhausted.
“Over the mountain?” Nahid asked. “We can’t.”
“Under it,” I said. I forced my body into motion, searching in the darkness for the cleft in the rock which, in the moment of the flyer attack, the gods had shown me. And there it was, two dark pits above a vertical fissure in the granite, like an impassive face. We climbed up the few meters to the brink of the cleft. Nahid followed, slower now, dragging her right leg. “Are you badly hurt?” I asked her.
I levered my shoulder under her arm, and helped her along the ledge. Down in the forest, the lights of the commandos flickered, while a flyer hovered above, beaming bright white radiance down between the trees.
Once inside the cleft, I let her lean against the wall. Beyond the narrow entrance the way widened. I used my suit flash, and, moving forward, found an oval chamber of three meters with a sandy floor. Some small bones give proof that a predator had once used this cave for a lair. But at the back, a small passage gaped. I crouched and followed it deeper.
“Where are you going?” Nahid asked.
“Come with me.”
The passage descended for a space, then rose. I emerged into a larger space. My flash showed not a natural cave, but a chamber of dressed rock, and opposite us, a metal door. It was just as my vision had said.
“What is this?” Nahid asked in wonder.
“A tunnel under the mountain.” I took off my helmet and spoke the words that would open the door. The ancient mechanism began to hum. With a fall of dust, a gap appeared at the side of the door, and it slid open.
The door closed behind us with a disturbing finality, wrapping us in the silence of a tomb. We found ourselves in a corridor at least twice our height and three times that in width. Our lights showed walls smooth as plaster, but when I laid my hand on one, it proved to be cut from the living rock. Our boots echoed on the polished but dusty floor. The air was stale, unbreathed by human beings for unnumbered years.
I made Nahid sit. “Rest,” I said. “Let me look at that leg.”
Though she complied, she kept her blaster out, and her eyes scanned our surroundings warily. “Did you know of this?”
“No. The gods told me, just as we were caught in the pass.”
“Praise be to the Pujmanian Order.” I could not tell if there was any sarcasm in her voice.
A trickle of blood ran down her boot from the wound of a projectile gun. I opened the seam of her suit, cleaned the wound with antiseptic from my suit’s first aid kit, and bandaged her leg. “Can you walk?” I asked.
She gave me a tight smile. “Lead on, Brother Adlan.”
We moved along the hall. Several smaller corridors branched off, but we kept to the main way. Periodically, we came across doors, most of them closed. One gaped open upon a room where my light fell on a garage of wheeled vehicles, sitting patiently in long rows, their windows thick with dust. In the corner of the room, a fracture in the ceiling had let in a steady drip of water that had corroded the vehicle beneath it into a mass of rust.
Along the main corridor our lights revealed hieroglyphics carved above doorways, dead oval spaces on the wall that might once have been screens or windows. We must have gone a kilometer or more when the corridor ended suddenly in a vast cavernous opening.
Our lights were lost in the gloom above. A ramp led down to an underground city. Buildings of gracious curves, apartments like heaps of grapes stacked upon a table, halls whose walls were so configured that they resembled a huge garment discarded in a bedroom. We descended into the streets.
The walls of the buildings were figured in abstract designs of immense intricacy, fractal patterns from immense to microscopic, picked out by the beams of our flashlights. Colored tiles, bits of glass and mica. Many of the buildings were no more than sets of walls demarcating space, with horizontal trellises that must once have held plants above them rather than roofs. Here and there, outside what might have been cafes, tables and benches rose out of the polished floor. We arrived in a broad square with low buildings around it, centered on a dry fountain. The immense figures of a man, a woman, and a child dominated the center of the dusty reservoir. Their eyes were made of crystal, and stared blindly across their abandoned city.
Weary beyond words, hungry, bruised, we settled against the rim of the fountain and made to sleep. The drawn skin about her eyes told me of Nahid’s pain. I tried to comfort her, made her rest her legs, elevated, on my own. We slept.
When I woke, Nahid was already up, changing the dressing on her bloody leg. The ceiling of the cave had lit, and a pale light shone down, making an early arctic dawn over the dead city.
“How is your leg?” I asked.
“Better. Do you have any more anodynes?”
I gave her what I had. She took them, and sighed. After a while, she asked, “Where did the people go?”
“They left the universe. They grew beyond the need of matter, and space. They became gods. You know the story.”
“The ones who made this place were people like you and me.”
“You and I are the descendants of the re-creation of a second human race three million years after the first ended in apotheosis. Or of the ones left behind, or banished back into the material world by the gods for some great crime.”
Nahid rubbed her boot above the bandaged leg. “Which is it? Which child’s tale do you expect me to believe?”
“How do you think I found the place? The gods told me, and here it is. Our mission is important to them, and they are seeing that we succeed. Justice is to be done.”
“Justice? Tell the starving child about justice. The misborn and the dying. I would rather be the random creation of colliding atoms than subject to the whim of some transhumans no more godlike than I am.”
“You speak out of bitterness.”
“If they are gods, they are responsible for the horror that occurs in the world. So they are evil. Why otherwise would they allow things to be as they are?”
“To say that is to speak out of the limitations of our vision. We can’t see the outcome of events. We’re too close. But the gods see how all things will eventuate. Time is a landscape to them. All at once they see the acorn, the seedling, the ancient oak, the woodsman who cuts it, the fire that burns the wood, and the smoke that rises from the fire. And so they led us to this place.”
“Did they lead the bullet to find my leg? Did they lead your order to place me on a shelf for a lifetime, separate me from every person I loved?” Nahid’s voice rose. “Please save me your theodical prattle!”
“‘Theodical.’ Impressive vocabulary for a soldier. But you—”
A scraping noise came from behind us. I turned to find that the giant male figure in the center of the fountain had moved. As I watched, its hand jerked another few centimeters. Its foot pulled free of its setting, and it stepped down from the pedestal into the empty basin.
We fell back from the fountain. The statue’s eyes glowed a dull orange. Its lips moved, and it spoke in a voice like the scraping together of two files: “Do not flee, little ones.”
Nahid let fly a shot from her blaster, which ricocheted off the shoulder of the metal man and scarred the ceiling of the cave. I pulled her away and we crouched behind a table before an open-sided building at the edge of the square.
The statue raised its arms in appeal. “Your shoes are untied,” it said in its ghostly rasp. “We know why you are here. It seems to you that your lives hang in the balance, and of course you value your lives. As you should, dear ones. But I, who have no soul and therefore no ability to care, can tell you that the appetites that move you are entirely transitory. The world you live in is a game. You do not have a ticket.”
“Quite mad,” Nahid said. “Our shoes have no laces.”
“But it’s also true—they are therefore untied,” I said. “And we have no tickets.” I called out to the metal man, “Are you a god?”
“I am no god,” the metal man said. “The gods left behind the better part of themselves when they abandoned matter. The flyer lies on its side in the woods. Press the silver pentagon. You must eat, but you must not eat too much. Here is food.”
The shop behind us lit up, and in a moment the smell of food wafted from within.
I slid over to the entrance. On a table inside, under warm light, were two plates of rice and vegetables.
“He’s right,” I told Nahid.
“I’m not going to eat that food. Where did it come from? It’s been thousands of years without a human being here.”
“Come,” I said. I drew her inside and made her join me at the table. I tasted. The food was good. Nahid sat warily, facing out to the square, blaster a centimeter from her plate. The metal man sat on the plaza stones, cross-legged, ducking its massive head in order to watch us. After a few moments, it began to croon.
Its voice was a completely mechanical sound, but the tune it sang was sweet, like a peasant song. I cannot convey to you the strangeness of sitting in that ancient restaurant, eating food conjured fresh out of nothing by ancient machines, listening to the music of creatures who might have been a different species from us.
When its song was ended, the metal man spoke: “If you wish to know someone, you need only observe that on which he bestows his care, and what sides of his own nature he cultivates.” It lifted its arm and pointed at Nahid. Its finger stretched almost to the door. I could see the patina of corrosion on that metal digit. “If left to the gods, you will soon die.”
The arm moved, and it pointed at me. “You must live, but you must not live too much. Take this.”
The metal man opened the curled fingers of its hand, and in its huge palm was a small, round metallic device the size of an apple. I took it. Black and dense, it filled my hand completely. “Thank you,” I said.
The man stood and returned to the empty fountain, climbed onto the central pedestal, and resumed its position. There it froze. Had we not been witness to it, I could never have believed it had moved.
Nahid came out of her musing over the man’s sentence of her death. She lifted her head. “What is that thing?”
I examined the sphere, surface covered in pentagonal facets of dull metal. “I don’t know.”
In one of the buildings, we found some old furniture, cushions of metallic fabric that we piled together as bedding. We huddled together and slept.
Hear that vessel that docks above?
It marks the end of our lives
And the beginning of our torment.
And then it’s gone. Who knows
What lies beyond that event horizon?
Our life is but a trifle,
A child’s toy abandoned by the road
When we are called home.
Home? You might well hope it so,
[Alarums off stage. Enter a god]
The hull is breached!
You must fly.
In the night I woke, chasing away the wisps of a dream. The building we were in had no ceiling, and faint light from the cavern roof filtered down upon us. In our sleep, we had moved closer together, and Nahid’s arm lay over my chest, her head next to mine, her breath brushing my cheek. I turned my face to her, centimeters away. Her face was placid, her eyelashes dark and long.
As I watched her, her eyelids fluttered and she awoke. She did not flinch at my closeness, but simply, soberly looked into my own eyes for what seemed like a very long time. I leaned forward and kissed her.
She did not pull away, but kissed me back strongly. She made a little moan in her throat, and I pulled her tightly to me.
We made love in the empty, ancient city. Her fingers entwined with mine, arms taut. Shadow of my torso across her breast. Hard, shuddering breath. Her lips on my chest. Smell of her sweat and mine. My palm brushing her abdomen. The feeling of her dark skin against mine. Her quiet laugh.
“Your leg,” I said, as we lay in the darkness, spent.
“What about it?”
“Did I hurt you?”
She laughed again, lightly. “Now you ask. You are indeed all man.”
In the morning, we took another meal from the ancient restaurant, food that had been manufactured from raw molecules while we waited, or perhaps stored somewhere for millennia.
We left by the corridor opposite the one by which we had entered, heading for the other side of the mountain range. Nahid limped but made no complaint. The passage ended in another door, beyond which a cave twisted upward. In one place, the ceiling of the cave had collapsed, and we had to crawl on our bellies over rubble through the narrow gap it had left. The exit was onto a horizontal shelf overgrown with trees, well below the pass. It was mid-morning. A misting rain fell across the Sharishabz Valley. In the distance, hazed by clouds of mist, I caught a small gleam of the white buildings of the monastery on the Penitent’s Ridge. I pointed it out to Nahid. We scanned the mountainside below us, searching for the forest road.
Nahid found the thread of the road before I. “No sign of the Caslonians,” she said.
“They’re guarding the pass on the other side of the mountain, searching the woods there for us.”
We descended the slope, picking our way through the trees toward the road. The mist left drops of water on our skinsuits, but did not in any way slow us. My spirits rose. I could see the end of this adventure in sight, and wondered what would happen to Nahid then.
“What will you do when we get to the monastery?” I asked her.
“I think I’ll leave as soon as I can. I don’t want to be there when the Caslonians find out you’ve reached your order with the plays.”
“They won’t do anything. The gods hold the monastery in their hands.”
“Let us hope they don’t drop it.”
She would die soon, the statue had said—if left to the gods. But what person was not at the mercy of the gods? Still, she would be much more at risk alone, away from the order. “What about your leg?” I asked.
“Do you have a clinic there?”
“I’ll take an exoskeleton and some painkillers and be on my way.”
“Where will you go?”
“Wherever I can.”
“But you don’t even know what’s happened in the last sixty years. What can you do?”
“Maybe my people are still alive. That’s where I’ll go—the town where I grew up. Perhaps I’ll find someone who remembers me. Maybe I’ll find my own grave.”
She strode along more aggressively. I could see her wince with each step. “Look, I don’t care about your monastery. I don’t care about these plays. Mostly, I don’t care about you. Give me some painkillers and an exo, and I’ll be gone.”
That ended our conversation. We walked on in silence through the woods, me brooding, she limping along, grimacing.
We found the forest road. Here the land fell away sharply, and the road, hardly more than a gravel track, switchbacked severely as we made our way down the mountainside. We met no signs of pursuit. Though the rain continued, the air warmed as we moved lower, and beads of sweat trickled down my back under the skinsuit. The boots I wore were not meant for hiking, and by now my feet were sore, my back hurt. I could only imagine how bad it was for Nahid.
I had worked for years to manage my appetites, and yet I could not escape images of our night together. With a combination of shame and desire, I wanted her still. I did not think I could go back to being just another monk. The order had existed long before the Caslonian conquest, and would long outlast it. I was merely a cell passing through the body of this immortal creation. What did the gods want from me? What was to come of all this?
At the base of the trail, the road straightened, following the course of the River Sharishabz up the valley. Ahead rose the plateau, the gleaming white buildings of the monastery clearly visible now. The ornamental gardens, the terraced fields tended by the order for millennia. I could almost taste the sweet oranges and pomegranates. It would be good to be back home, a place where I could hide away from the world and figure out exactly what was in store for me. I wouldn’t mind being hailed as a hero, the liberator of our people, like Stochik himself, who took the plays from the hands of the gods.
The valley sycamores and aspens rustled with the breeze. The afternoon passed. We stopped by the stream and drank. Rested, then continued.
We came to a rise in the road, where it twisted to climb the plateau. Signs here of travel, ruts of iron wheels where people from the villages drove supplies to the monastery. Pilgrims passed this way—though there was no sign of anyone today.
We made a turn in the road, and I heard a yelp behind me. I turned to find Nahid struggling in the middle of the road. At first, I thought she was suffering a seizure. Her body writhed and jerked. Then I realized, from the slick of rain deflected from his form, that she was being assaulted by a person in an invisibility cloak.
This understanding had only flashed through my mind when I was thrown to the ground by an unseen hand. I kicked out wildly, and my boot made contact. Gravel sprayed beside me where my attacker fell. I slipped into accelerated mode, kicked him again, rolled away, and dashed into the woods. Above me I heard the whine of an approaching flyer. Run! It was the voice of Horus, god of sun and moon.
I ran. The commandos did not know these woods the way I did. I had spent ten years exploring them, playing games of hide and hunt in the night with my fellow novices: I knew I could find my way to the monastery without them capturing me.
And Nahid? Clearly this was her spoken-of death. No doubt it had already taken place. Or perhaps they wouldn’t kill her immediately, but would torture her, assuming she knew something, or even if they knew she didn’t, taking some measure of revenge on her body. It was the lot of a Republican Guard to receive such treatment. She would even expect it. The order comes first.
Every second took me farther from the road, away from the Caslonians. But after a minute of hurrying silently through the trees, I felt something heavy in my hand. I stopped. Without realizing it, I had taken the object the metal man had given me out of my belt pouch. She would not want you to return. The freedom of her people comes before her personal safety.
I circled back, and found them in the road.
The flyer had come down athwart the road. The soldiers had turned off their cloaks, three men garbed head to toe in the matte gray of light deflection suits. Two soldiers had Nahid on her knees in the drizzle, her hands tied behind her back. One jerked her head back by her hair, holding a knife to her throat while an officer asked her questions. The officer slapped her, whipping the back of his gloved hand across her face.
I moved past them through the woods, sound of rain on the foliage, still holding the metal sphere in my hand. The flyer sat only a few meters into the road. I crouched there, staring at the uncouth object. I rotated it in my palm until I found the surface pentagon that was silvered. I depressed this pentagon until it clicked.
Then I flipped it out into the road, under the landing pads of the flyer, and fell back.
It was not so much an explosion as a vortex, warping the flyer into an impossible shape, throwing it off they road. As it spun the pilot was tossed from the cockpit, his uniform flaring in electric blue flame. The three men with Nahid were sucked off their feet by the dimensional warp. They jerked their heads toward the screaming pilot. The officer staggered to his feet, took two steps toward him, and one of the men followed. By that time, I had launched myself into the road, and slammed my bad shoulder into the small of the back of the man holding Nahid. I seized his rifle and fired, killing the officer and the other soldier, then the one I had just laid flat. The pilot was rolling in the gravel to extinguish the flames. I stepped forward calmly and shot him in the head.
Acrid black smoke rose from the crushed flyer, which lay on its side in the woods.
Nahid was bleeding from a cut on her neck. She held her palm against the wound, but the blood seeped steadily from between her fingers. I gathered her up and dragged her into the woods before reinforcements could arrive.
“Thank you,” Nahid gasped, her eyes large, and fixed on me. We limped off into the trees.
Nahid was badly hurt, but I knew where we were, and I managed, through that difficult night, to get us up the pilgrim’s trail to the monastery. By the time we reached the iron door we called the Mud Gate she had lost consciousness and I was carrying her. Her blood was all over us, and I could not tell if she yet breathed.
We novices had used this gate many times to sneak out of the monastery to play martial games in the darkness, explore the woods, and pretend we were ordinary men. Men who, when they desired something, had only to take it. Men who were under no vow of non-violence. Here I had earned a week’s fast by bloodying the nose, in a fit of temper, of Brother Taher. Now I returned, unrepentant over the number of men I had killed in the last days, a man who had disobeyed the voice of a god, hoping to save Nahid before she bled out.
Brother Pramha was the first to greet me. He looked at me with shock. “Who is this?’ he asked.
“This is a friend, a soldier, Nahid. Quickly. She needs care.”
Together we took her to the clinic. Pramha ran off to inform the master. Our physician Brother Nastricht sealed her throat wound, and gave her new blood. I held her hand. She did not regain consciousness.
Soon, one of the novices arrived to summon me to Master Darius’ chambers. Although I was exhausted, I hurried after him through the warren of corridors, up the tower steps. I unbelted my blaster and handed it to the novice—he seemed distressed to hold the destructive device—and entered the room.
Beyond the broad window that formed the far wall of the chamber, dawn stained the sky pink. Master Darius held out his arms. I approached him, humbly bowed my head, and he embraced me. The warmth of his large body enfolding me was an inexpressible comfort. He smelled of cinnamon. He let me go, held me at arm’s length, and smiled. The kosode he wore I recognized as one I had sewn myself. “I cannot tell you how good it is to see you, Adlan.”
“I have the plays,” I announced.
“The behavior of our Caslonian masters has been proof enough of that,” he replied. His broad, plain face was somber as he told me of the massacre in Radnapuja, where the colonial government had held six thousand citizens hostage, demanding the bodily presentation, alive, of the foul villain, the man without honor or soul, the sacrilegious terrorist who had stolen the Foundational Plays.
“Six thousand dead?”
“They won’t be the last,” the master said. “The plays have been used as a weapon, as a means of controlling us. The beliefs which they embody work within the minds and souls of every person on this planet. They work even on those who are unbelievers.”
“Nahid is an unbeliever.”
“Nahid? She is this soldier whom you brought here?”
“The Republican Guard you sent with me. She doesn’t believe, but she has played her role in bringing me here.”
Master Darius poured me a glass of fortifying spirits, and handed it to me as if he were a novice and I the master. He sat in his great chair, had me sit in the chair opposite, and bade me recount every detail of the mission. I did so.
“It is indeed miraculous that you have come back alive,” Master Darius mused. “Had you died, the plays would have been lost forever.”
“The gods would not allow such a sacrilege.”
“Perhaps. You carry the only copies in your mind?”
“Indeed. I have even quoted them to Nahid.”
“Not at any length, I hope.”
I laughed at his jest. “But now we can free Helvetica,” I said. “Before any further innocents are killed, you must contact the Caslonian colonial government and tell them we have the plays. Tell them they must stop or we will destroy them.”
Master Darius held up his hand and looked at me piercingly—I had seen this gesture many times in his tutoring of me. “First, let me ask you some questions about your tale. You tell me that, when you first came to consciousness after stealing the plays in the Imperial City, a god told you to run. Yet to run in the Caslonian capital is only to attract unwelcome attention.”
“Yes. Bishamon must have wanted to hurry my escape.”
“But when you reached the port bazaar, the god told you to stop and enter the restaurant. You run to attract attention, and dawdle long enough to allow time for you to be caught. Does this make sense?”
My fatigue made it difficult for me to think. What point was the master trying to make? “Perhaps I was not supposed to stop,” I replied. “It was my own weakness. I was hungry.”
“Then, later, you tell me that when the commandos boarded your ship, you escaped by following Nahid’s lead, not the word of the gods.”
“Liu-Bei led us out of the engine room. I think this is a matter of my misinterpreting—”
“And this metal man you encountered in the ancient city. Did he in fact say that the gods would have seen Nahid dead?”
“The statue said many mad things.”
“Yet the device he gave you was the agent of her salvation?”
“I used it for that.” Out of shame, I had not told Master Darius that I had disobeyed the command of the god who told me to flee.
“Many paradoxes.” The master took a sip from his own glass. “So, if we give the plays back, what will happen then?”
“Then Helvetica will be free.”
“And after that?”
“After that, we can do as we wish. The Caslonians would not dare to violate a holy vow. The gods would punish them. They know that. They are believers, as are we.”
“Yes, they are believers. They would obey any compact they made, for fear of the wrath of the gods. They believe what you hold contained in your mind, Adlan, is true. So, as you say, you must give them to me now, and I will see to their disposition.”
“Their disposition? How will you see to their disposition?”
“That is not something for you to worry about, my son. You have done well, and you deserve all our thanks. Brother Ishmael will see to unburdening you of the great weight you carry.”
A silence ensued. I knew it was a sign of my dismissal. I must go to Brother Ishmael. But I did not rise. “What will you do with them?”
Master Darius’ brown eyes lay steady on me, and quiet. “You have always been my favorite. I think perhaps, you know what I intend.”
I pondered our conversation. “You—you’re going to destroy them.”
“Perhaps I was wrong not to have you destroy them the minute you gained access to the archives. But at that time I had not come to these conclusions.”
“But the wrath of the Caslonians will know no limit! We will be exterminated!”
“We may be exterminated, and Helvetica remain in chains, but once these plays are destroyed, never to be recovered, then humanity will begin to be truly free. This metal man, you say, told you the gods left the better part of themselves behind. That is profoundly true. Yet there is no moment when they cease to gaze over our shoulders. Indeed, if we are ever to be free human beings, and not puppets jerked about by unseen forces—which may, or may not, exist—the gods must go. And the beginning of that process is the destruction of the foundational plays.”
I did not know how to react. In my naiveté I said, “This does not seem right.”
“I assure you, my son, that it is.”
“If we destroy the plays, it will be the last thing we ever do.”
“Of course not. Time will not stop.”
“Time may not stop,” I said, “but it might as well. Any things that happen after the loss of the gods will have no meaning.”
Master Darius rose from his chair and moved toward his desk. “You are tired, and very young,” he said, his back to me. “I have lived in the shadow of the gods far longer than you have.” He reached over his desk, opened a drawer, took something out, and straightened.
He is lying. It seemed to me to be the voice of Inti himself. I stood. I felt surpassing weariness, but I moved silently. In my boot I still carried the force knife I had stolen from the restaurant on Caslon. I drew out the hilt, switched on the blade, and approached the master just as he began to turn.
When he faced me, he had a blaster in his hands. He was surprised to find me so close to him. His eyes went wide as I slipped the blade into his belly below his lowest rib.
Here ends our story.
Let no more be said of our fall.
Mark the planting of this seed.
The tree that grows in this place
Will bear witness to our deeds;
No other witness shall we have.
I would not depart with any other
My love. Keep alive whatever word
May permit us to move forward.
Leaving all else behind we must
Allow the world to come to us.
The Caslonian government capitulated within a week after we contacted them. Once they began to withdraw their forces from the planet and a provisional government for the Helvetican Republic was re-established in Astara, I underwent the delicate process of downloading the foundational dramas from my mind. The Abandonment was once again embodied in a crystal, which was presented to the Caslonian legate in a formal ceremony on the anniversary of the rebirth of man.
The ceremony took place on a bright day in midsummer in that city of a thousand spires. Sunlight flooded the streets, where citizens in vibrant colored robes danced and sang to the music of bagpipes. Pennants in purple and green flew from those spires; children hung out of second-story school windows, shaking snowstorms of confetti on the parades. The smell of incense wafted down from the great temple, and across the sky flyers drew intricate patterns with lines of colored smoke.
Nahid and I were there on that day, though I did not take a leading role in the ceremony, preferring to withdraw to my proper station. In truth, I am not a significant individual. I have only served the gods.
I left the order as soon as the negotiations were completed. At first the brothers were appalled by my murder of Master Darius. I explained to them that he had gone mad and intended to kill me in order to destroy the plays. There was considerable doubt. But when I insisted that we follow through with the plan as the Master had presented it to the brothers before sending me on my mission, they seemed to take my word about his actions. The success of our thieving enterprise overshadowed the loss of the great leader, and indeed has contributed to his legend, making of him a tragic figure. A drama has been written of his life and death, and the liberation of Helvetica.
Last night, Nahid and I, with our children and grandchildren, watched it performed in the square of the town where we set up the tailor’s shop that has been the center of our lives for the last forty years. Seeing the events of my youth played out on the platform, in their comedy and tragedy, hazard and fortune, calls again to my mind the question of whether I have deserved the blessings that have fallen to me ever since that day. I have not heard the voices of the gods since I slipped the knife into the belly of the man who taught me all that I knew of grace.
The rapid decline of the Caslonian Empire, and the Helvetican renaissance that has led to our current prosperity, all date from that moment in his chambers when I ended his plan to free men from belief and duty. The people, joyous on their knees in the temples of twelve planets, give praise to the gods for their deliverance, listen, hear, and obey.
Soon I will rest beneath the earth, like the metal man who traduced the gods, though less likely than he ever to walk again. If I have done wrong, it is not for me to judge. I rest, my lover’s hand in mine, in the expectation of no final word.
Originally published in The New Space Opera 2, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Kessel is the author of the forthcoming novel The Moon and the Other. His other novels are Good News from Outer Space and Corrupting Dr. Nice and in collaboration with James Patrick Kelly, Freedom Beach. His short story collections are Meeting in Infinity, The Pure Product, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories and The Collected Kessel. His fiction has twice received the Nebula Award, in addition to the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. His play "Faustfeathers" won the Paul Green Playwright's Prize, and his story "A Clean Escape" was adapted as an episode of the 2006 ABC TV series Masters of Science Fiction. In 2009 his story "Pride and Prometheus" received both the Nebula and the Shirley Jackson Awards.
With Kelly, he has edited six anthologies of stories re-visioning contemporary short speculative fiction, most recently Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology (2012) and Kafkaesque (2011).
Kessel has taught American literature and fiction writing at North Carolina State University since 1982, helped found the NCSU MFA program in creative writing, and served twice as its director. He lives with his wife, the novelist Therese Anne Fowler, in Raleigh.
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