13350 words, novelette
Said of Angels
To that high Capital, where kingly Death
Keeps his pale court in beauty and decay,
Lost Angel of a ruined Paradise!
News of an illegal civilization in the Barrhimacs system came to the Palace. This volatile intelligence was received by smooth mechanisms and moved in stately progression through the many strata and stations of the enormous edifice; it passed through those apparatus, sentient and otherwise, which determined validity, consequence, urgency; it was absorbed and discharged, re-consumed and again excreted, until all which was knowable and surmisable about the matter was made stark and unambiguous.
It was these final processes which decided that this news need not reach the hearing organs of the Arch Hierophant.
Word of the unauthorized—and until recently, undetected—civilization upon the fifth world circling the star Barrhimacs thereby fell just short of the Spiritual Wellspring Chamber. If the Arch Hierophant were to hear of the matter, it would have to arrive as casual gossip, which was also meticulously controlled by imperturbable, logical Palace procedures.
The Arch Hierophant’s lofty attention would only be required if something of great religious moment came into play. That seemed unlikely in this case.
Besides, other matters were pressing. The Mights were awaiting his decision on one subject in particular: the question of the prophet Valduk Tyn’s divinity.
The matter had been advancing for centuries. Its gravity had surged, then ebbed among the many systems. This world took up the teachings of Valduk Tyn; the ancient words shook the culture; then the fervor might pass, the zeal cool, and the world’s workings would continue as before, without the clamor of fervid religiosity. But another world, another system, even an entire Might, might take a belief in the long-dead prophet to its breast, might persist in zealotry year after year, decade after decade. Valduk Tyn’s name might ever be on the tip of the speaking organs of a whole people, invoked again and again, the dogma of the primeval oracle permeating societies. Laws might be erected around veneration of the prophet. Penalties for disbelief could be enacted. The uninitiated might be labeled infidels.
Wars could come.
Yes, wars could always come.
Yet the droll truth was that Valduk Tyn was not so significant a figure. He’d made little ripple in his own time, though this could be said of many prophets and their ilk, a pattern repeated stubbornly throughout the galactic epochs. Valduk Tyn had walked his dusty world, had spoken his piece, a message championing the way of universal compassion. It was impractical in the context of his native culture, but easy to remember, simple to write down.
It wasn’t unique, this message. Certainly it was not original. More civilizations within the Galactic Cooperation had a figure like this in their histories than did not. This passable prophet might easily have been lost to time. But somehow Valduk Tyn had endured. And he had resurfaced, here, there, until finally catching an updraft which lifted him to a prominence he surely could never have comprehended in his lifetime. His own world had since fallen to ruin. It was barely counted in galactic history. But now fad and fashion had made him a burning issue. The Mights, the five greatest powers within the Cooperation, wanted to know, for time and all, whether or not Valduk Tyn was divine in his nature.
The Mights were capable of war. The Galactic Cooperation did not always live up to its name. The galaxy was thickly populated. It had many spiritual and religious leaders. The Arch Hierophant was not alone in his work. But his prestige, perhaps, was unmatched. And in any case it was to him that the five Mights and many trillions of beings looked now, for his reckoning, for his final, inviolable, solemn word.
Which he was, as it happened, so very reluctant to give.
There. See him. The Arch Hierophant. He is named Brophtoc Mmurn Dol, in the manner of his people. This is the seemingly endless onyx floor of the Spiritual Wellspring Chamber upon which he walks. Many things seem in the immense and sometimes fantastical Palace where the Arch Hierophant and his vast bureaucratic arrays reside. These seemings are useful to the image and atmosphere which must be maintained. None should come to the Palace without being touched by awe, by dread; so goes the thinking of those who control the stagecraft and theatricality which surround the Palace’s most important resident.
The Arch Hierophant, long at his post, scarcely appears to notice the wonders which unfold around him. This too lends itself to his dramatic presentation. How, visitors marvel, can this being inhabit his magnificent dwelling so nonchalantly? Is he indifferent to such technological miracles, such as this onyx-floored chamber which seems to flow toward infinity in every direction?
Yet see the ease of his gait now as he crosses the uncrossable distances. Behold the peaceful warmth on his face as he comes to meet his visitor. The priestess from Nachenka trembles at his approach. She has worn her finest vestments, as most do who arrive for the first time at the Palace. Such a visitation is a once in a lifetime opportunity, often. The priestess in towering headdress and cascading sparkling robes makes formal signs at the Arch Hierophant even before he has properly reached her. She starts the cycle anew, not knowing what else to do, but he gently interrupts, expressing interest in the bag and pipes affair wound about the upper half of her body. He requests a demonstration.
She fumbles a bit at first, but once the mouthpiece is fit and the ceremonial instrument’s bag inflated, as well as her own anatomical air-bearing bladders, she masterfully works the piece she has chosen. The shrills and blats might have been an unpleasant cacophony in another sequence, without the precise manipulations she exerts, but the Arch Hierophant easily absorbs the music’s beauty. He hums along with the catchy dominant phrase as the Nachenka priestess comes to her finale.
Afterward, her bladders hang limply beneath her robes. She begins to explain the song’s significance as a prelude to speaking in-depth of her native faith. But the Arch Hierophant fastens onto a single aspect of her account: how pipe songs on her world are differentiated from region to region, from metropolis to village; so that those who know the music can quickly and scornfully pinpoint a player’s origins. A piper of the Northward Drift country might for instance be told of her nine-count, low-note playing: Sounds like you’re blowing at the bottom of a well.
This appears to delight the Arch Hierophant, and the priestess is delighted to have pleased him. But now the interview has closed, and all that she meant to say—the months of preparation and practice—must be abandoned. Somehow the magical floor of glittery black is moving under her feet, drawing her away at a stately but insistent speed. The Arch Hierophant, shrinking from her view, makes an almost casual gesture of farewell.
It is not his first audience of the day. It has not been his tenth.
Stars, blue-glazed and tepid, poured through his resting room. The room’s appointments were in the oozy style of his home culture’s notions of luxury, though, notably, these were not the most ornate of such notions. He didn’t live as the wealthiest did on his birth world, not in this room at least. But all was soft here, spongy; and the motes and nodes of star stuff which trickled through the circular chamber soothed his visual organs and eased his spirit.
Beverages twirled slowly in the nearby air. These were brews he enjoyed, fermentations he occasionally indulged. All were in reach, and now and again he did stretch out and draw one toward him. He’d had his day’s nourishment. He could have more, if he so wished. But the glamour of food had faded somewhat for him. His life had been long, and that life was yet persisting. Some weakening of the senses was expected, some gentle sappings of vitality. He had experienced mild diminishments. Natural ebbs. Less vigor in the appendages than once had been his to summon at will. So be it. So too came the rare murmur from an organ, the infrequent catch of some valve within his comfortable, lived-in body. So it went. One did not brood on such inevitabilities.
The day had drained him, as most days did. But he didn’t begrudge the burdens of his office. He mattered to the galaxy. The Cooperation, in all its tangled associations, needed him. Or someone like him, at any rate. One who could rule on spiritual matters. One whose decisions would satisfy even the Mights.
But he was still only a single being. Pride could slay as surely as a sword. It was necessary—essential—to maintain some awareness of his own mortality. Those aches he sometimes felt from his body served as reminders and brought him the humility he required.
For instance, the color of his skin had once been the vivid blue-green of youth. Now it was dulled. The green was a mossy gentle shade, the blue a docile teal. They mixed to give his hide the subdued coloring of an elder of his species.
He reached up for one of the spinning beverages. It was warm, made of crushed golden leaves and oily liquid. He sipped it slowly, reclining on his oozy couch. His gaze fell to his hands. They were large and extravagantly knuckled, in the way of his kind. In his younger years these had been fast crafty hands. They had known how to undo the locking mechanisms of his world’s common ground vehicles. Those had been thieving days, the crimes necessary for his survival in the rough urban center where he had found himself as a boy.
They were different hands now, set to different purposes of course. There was also tightness sometimes in the elaborate joints. He didn’t complain.
He was yet alive, he thought with a certain serenity, drinking more of the golden beverage. And he remained functional. This was a useful life. It was astonishing, perhaps, that he held the position he did. Humble origins had somehow led him here.
To the Palace.
To his ordained role as Arch Hierophant.
Yet here he lay, a single solitary life, prone on a couch, imbibing a relaxing beverage. The stars flowing through his circular resting room were of course mere projections, the patterns meant to soothe; but the images did have some tangibility. One of the bits of astral matter got underneath the embroidered cover which was spread over him, and he felt its lukewarm presence moving beneath the blanket, sliding past his lower appendages. He pulled up a corner of the cover to let the blue-glowing fragment escape.
He smiled a tired smile, to himself.
And he thought, inevitably, of Valduk Tyn. And he thought also of the illegal civilization in the Barrhimacs system. It was a startling item of news but nothing he need put an Arch Hierophant’s consideration to. It was just part of the rich tapestry of cultures and armies and peoples and happenings which kept the galaxy in its slowly grinding revolution, completing its turning every two hundred fifty million years or so.
In such a span planets could rise; societies might crumble. Legends were birthed, while others faded into final obscurity. War would threaten because war always threatened.
During such a run of centuries a name like Valduk Tyn might sink, then lift again. The prophet might become dangerously important, at a time when the galaxy-binding, peacekeeping confederation of Mights and planets known as the Cooperation was wobbling ever so perceptibly in its major task. The decision on Valduk Tyn was ill-timed. It would be better, the Arch Hierophant believed, if the question of the man’s divinity were left to another less volatile time. When a decision, one way or the other, might not upset the carefully maintained and extraordinarily complex galactic balance.
It was less stressful—and more diverting—to contemplate what was going on in the Barrhimacs system. He was well aware that this was news he wasn’t supposed to know. But he had resided here at the Palace for a long, long time, and he’d had installed private apparatus for the conveyance of information to him. He had put wheels within the wheels, and their secret unobtrusive turnings served him now and then. He didn’t abuse the privilege. He was a restrained being in most things. His tastes, in fact, were shockingly modest considering the dazzling trappings in which he lived.
In which it sometimes seemed to him he was inextricably caught.
There is surely a piece of divinity in us, something that was before the elements, and owes no homage unto the sun.
—Browne: Religio Medici
The delegate from the Gray Might was sufficiently lacking in tact to come out and say it: the Might she represented, a convoluted assembly of worlds and star systems, had an official view on the Valduk Tyn matter.
She was not a religious personage. She was a tall being, with a narrow trunk and a head equipped with the common sensing organs. The Arch Hierophant had in his time met with an astounding array of sentient species. No two were alike; but their similarities were sometimes fantastic. How many had two eyes? How many possessed circulatory systems with a heart, blood vessels, some form of lymph glands? Quite a few, as it happened. The model was practical, especially for those people who, over many millennia usually, had mastered their home worlds and raised technologies capable of lifting their kind to other planets. If one wished for basic evidence of any divine will guiding the universe, one might look to that similitude.
He hadn’t received the delegate in the Spiritual Wellspring Chamber. This was a somewhat sterile room, with walls marbled in a pale blue. The furnishings were coldly elegant but also utilitarian.
He was not meeting the Gray Might delegate by himself. Several of his staff were on hand, decked in their livery, ready to assist the lord of the Palace at a moment’s notice.
“Our view,” the tall delegate said, “is that your excellency should recognize Valduk Tyn as a divinely consecrated being.”
The Arch Hierophant today wore an elaborate but quite comfortable robe. He spent time smoothing its folds as the brusque statement continued to hang in the air. His staff hadn’t gasped at the display of tactlessness, but he sensed their shock nonetheless.
“Are you yourself familiar with Valduk Tyn’s teachings?” The Arch Hierophant’s tone was friendly.
“No. Not . . . personally.”
“It is a simple message.”
“I’m not entirely surprised by that, your excellency.”
“Oh? Why not?”
The delegate hesitated. Tactless, yes, as a successful diplomat must be on some level; but she didn’t wish to indiscriminately offend.
She said, “The popularity of this prophet suggests his—as you called it—message must be one that is easily grasped, easily accepted.”
“Lowest common denominator, then?” His manner remained unruffled.
Hesitation again from the delegate; then, “Widespread appeal, let us say.”
“And that is enough, in the Gray Might’s view, to confer divinity upon this long-dead being?”
“Many in my Might believe so, your excellency. Many.”
“But not you?”
“My personal view is valueless here.”
“Because I am wholly irreligious, your excellency.” The delegate winced in the way of her kind, a fluttering of skin along the upper appendages. The Arch Hierophant’s staff stirred at the display. They were conversant in his conversational habits. They knew he could be disarming, charming—and sly, when need be. He might be toying with this delegate.
He smiled, the broad generally-accepted smile-shape made with the mouth, which most species could duplicate to one degree or other. His was especially skilled. Warm. Paternal. Wise.
“Quite a few who come to the Palace share your belief—or your fondly held lack of belief, I should say. We welcome you with universal compassion, which is, by the way, the thrust of Valduk Tyn’s teaching. Love everyone. Love everything. He was right, of course, so long ago on his little world.”
The liveried staff stirred again, this time unobtrusively forming into a phalanx around the Arch Hierophant. They knew how to interpret his intonations, his gestures, the ones which meant a given audience was drawing to a close. The delegate seemed to abruptly realize this as well. She drew herself to her full impressive height.
But the Arch Hierophant wasn’t quite done. “However, one might wonder,” he said, tone wistful now, “what Valduk Tyn would think of the question of his own divinity. It would be . . . instructive, if one could ask him. Or perhaps it would only be amusing.”
Behold, now, the Palace.
Its magnificence cannot be overstated. Hyperbole has no meaning on its opulent grounds. It is a massive edifice. Gargantuan. It covers the entire surface of the artificial moon upon which it was constructed. It is a world unto itself, a never-ending series of chambers, halls, courtyards, passageways, parapets. Every fine material was used to raise the structure: the best stone, the richest woods, the most cunningly created synthetics. The architectural mastery is staggering. The greatest designers in the galaxy pondered the Palace, brooded on it interminably, before the first foundation stone was set; they conceived it slowly; then, summoning every iota of their outsize talent, put down their plans in written form, the dream envisaged, so that others—the host of builders—could set out to realize these grand conceptions.
It took centuries to erect.
The many peoples on their many worlds wanted a place to enshrine the living saint, the voice of divine fiat, the Arch Hierophant. Such a being must have an appropriate seat of power. The trappings must fit the magnitude of his role. Thousands of gods were worshipped on thousands of worlds, ancient tribal creeds held over into technologically sophisticated eras; yet the stubborn instinct, never quite dying out on many of those worlds, was to believe that a divine hand pushes the universe. We are watched over. There is a cosmic goodness, conscious and active. And someone must speak for it.
Let that being occupy a place of splendor, one which will mimic the wonders of the cosmos, the celestial glories.
Let there be . . .
The Staircase of Floating Mirrors.
A Waterfall of Frothing Quartz.
The Spiritual Wellspring Chamber, with its infinite floor.
Temple of Revelation.
The Parlor of Scintillations.
Fill it up, room after room, miracle upon miracle. Give the moon an atmosphere, rich and heady. Direct the climate; kiss the rooftops with soft pleasing rains; make the clouds dance. There will be a sea of terraces, oceans of balconies. Gardens open to the sumptuous air. Beings will look up into the skies, as life has done throughout its billions of years. Gazes ever upward, seeking, wondering, doubting, believing.
This is the many-mansioned residence, then, the fortress, the citadel. This is a whole worldlet given over to the function of a single being. We call him the Arch Hierophant. And one may find him in this place. One may make a pilgrimage to him. One may come with a thirst for answers.
We call the place the Palace. It is a humble cathedral. It is an august hovel.
Many dwell here—multitudes, swarms; these the keepers and record-makers and advisors and support personnel. But it is home to one being. One being only.
Lonely he is sometimes, in his empty house.
As information flowed to the Palace, advancing sometimes at a sleepy pace, across many years, so too did information need also to flow from the Palace. The edicts went out, some minor, others pivotal. All had previously been deemed worthy of the Arch Hierophant’s attention.
Individual cultures, even ones within, say, a homogenizing Might, had specific and individual religious concerns. Some of these conundrums were like self-inflicted wounds, childish puzzles invented for the sole purpose of perplexity.
Other issues had more substance. Others still—and these were fortunately rare—were on the order of the Valduk Tyn matter. They could not be decided overnight.
Nonetheless, the lesser concerns still had to be addressed, a tireless succession of dilemmas and enigmas and pious confusions, which he was expected to resolve. Luckily his advisory army was ever in place on the Palace’s battlements. They knew, to an extent, his thinking on many matters because he had touched on them before, in slightly altered form. The devout on the myriad worlds throughout the Cooperation often asked the same questions, felt the same dreads, wished succor in their commonplace beliefs.
One decree, scarcely rewritten, could serve two peoples separated by a gulf of star systems. The Arch Hierophant might only need to cast his general approval on the document. He needn’t always study the matters in depth.
Still, the busywork never paused, not even when the day had seemed especially long and he wanted to go to his circular resting room and lay on his oozing couch amid his flowing blue stars.
Currently he was in one of the Palace spaces which served as an office. It wasn’t a private area. The room was configured as an amphitheater. He had a seat at the foot of the rising semicircle of workstations. The tiers were floored in dense glossy wood, the desks of the scribes individually lit. The flutter of noise was constant, as was the stream of documents requiring his approval. They were hand-delivered by a flurry of youthful runners. He took each text with a murmur of thanks.
Every document represented something momentous to some world, to some culture within the Cooperation which hadn’t abandoned religious tenets when it had touched the stars. A number of worlds did just that, of course. Faith was put away as the society grew more refined. Technological wonder replaced holy awe, or else the creeds simply faded, revealed as superstitious claptrap by the newly enlightened generations.
But those planets and those peoples were still touched by the divine, whether they acknowledged it or not. So the Arch Hierophant saw it.
Down from the busy tiers the missives came. He solemnly put his seal to the texts. He did not know all who labored at the Palace. No one could know so many names. But there was an inner circle, a trusted coterie. One of these was beside him on his regal dais.
“Interesting, was it not,” he said softly to this subaltern, “that the Gray Might has made up its collective mind on the matter?”
The advisor was a being named Shnaparil. He dressed in greens and carried himself in a modest manner. But his was a fast mind.
“Interesting,” he said, tone just as placid as his superior’s. “And, perhaps, a signal.”
“That other Mights may be prepared to put forth an official view.”
The Arch Hierophant released a soundless sigh. This same thought had occurred to him as well, of course. It was an unnerving notion. Collectively, the five great Mights accounted for roughly seventy percent of the Cooperation, which also included the semi-unaffiliated planets and systems of the galaxy. If those five vast powers put forth opinions on the divinity of Valduk Tyn, and if those views were in conflict, which they were almost certain to be . . .
The pressure increased. The explosive issue could not be dismissed.
He made to leave the office area slightly before his customary time of withdrawal. Shnaparil, seeing him preparing to depart, fluttered his emerald veils as he gestured a rather personal sign of comfort. The advisor was permitted such occasional intimacies, due to his longtime service and loyalty.
The Arch Hierophant didn’t make straightaway for his resting room. He ascended, rising alone on a soundless platform, up through the many levels. A terrace was cleared and secured ahead of his arrival. The Palace had its guards, as all palaces must. These were not merely decorative. The Arch Hierophant had to be protected at all times. His value to the Cooperation was inestimable, his continuance in his capacity crucial.
The terrace was floored in striated yellow stone. Beyond its immediate edge spread the upper reaches of the manifold joined structures of the Palace. There were cupolas, the tips of pyramids, onion domes, minarets; a boundless array of roofs reaching to the horizon and beyond. Some glowed. Others were dark. Night lay on the scene. The artificial moon upon which the Palace rested was companioned by an equally artificial sun, whose rays were currently warming the skins of the rooftops on the other side of the worldlet.
A mild breeze blew. The air was exhilaratingly fresh.
He stood isolated on the broad flat expanse of stone. Slowly he turned his eyes upward. He had two eyes; again, the common anatomical configuration, uniting him in a small way to so many other of the species teeming in the galaxy.
The Arch Hierophant looked to the stars. Looked past them, to the hand of the divine, benignly and brutally pushing the universe through its sometimes-painful motions.
He drew in the rich air. And breathed out a prayer.
In that prayer he asked for help.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
—Keats: “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Many who came to the Palace were visiting there for the first time. In the cases of minor religious envoys representing single planets or systems, these were audiences which often took decades to secure. Perhaps this would be the only time for generations when a comparatively backwater world would have brief but direct access to the Arch Hierophant himself.
But first contact with a people relatively new to the Cooperation was rarest of all. Such meetings, when they came, usually aroused special interest in the Arch Hierophant.
He glided toward the monochromatic figure who awaited in the Spiritual Wellspring Chamber. As the magics of the onyx floor carried him, he noted that the being was looking all about, making no effort to hide his wonder. He was curious looking, in the manner that all creatures were fundamentally curious and unlikely. He had a doughy hide, with white hair only atop his head. The round face presented an animated mouth and wide searching eyes. His dress did not seem especially extravagant, simple black raiment with a small white cloth held in the right hand. What the cloth’s significance might be, the Arch Hierophant didn’t know. Belief expressed itself in endless rituals, and the paraphernalia of those customs could seem quaint to an outsider.
The being, who was named Roark, seeing the Arch Hierophant approach, smiled broadly. He sketched a sign of greeting, not getting it quite right; but the sincerity of the gesture was plain. The white cloth fluttered busily in his hand.
“Your excellency!” Unabashed enthusiasm in the address. This Roark was representing his kind. The species had been inducted into the Cooperation a mere two hundred years ago. Now it was enjoying its first audience with the Arch Hierophant, in the person of this jovial white-haired individual.
The Arch Hierophant returned him a verbal greeting, so as to call no attention to his inaccurate execution of the salutary gesture. Naturally there had been a briefing on this being’s race. His was a rambunctious young breed. They liked exploration. They relished adventure. They had not, at least, ventured beyond their home system with warlike intentions. The galaxy didn’t need another new strain like that.
Some who came to the Palace for the first time brought gifts. Offerings, really. These usually had some doctrinal significance to them. The Sacred Gem of . . . The Hallowed Circlet of . . . Each a bauble once it was removed from the native environment which gave it such holy consequence. The Arch Hierophant was often leery of these tokens. Once they passed through his hands, he rarely saw them again. There were no doubt storehouses within the boundaries of the Palace stuffed with the items, the words of blessing once said over them long since faded to silence. In the end, they became just . . . objects.
He shook himself imperceptibly. There was no call for these bleak thoughts. He must remain in the moment. This religious supplicant had, effectively, been waiting two hundred years for an audience.
Travel was discussed. Had he been transported here comfortably? Yes. Good. Good. Accommodations at the Palace were satisfactory? Very much so. Far beyond satisfactory . . .
“It’s a marvel!” Roark said, unable to contain himself. Once more the white cloth was flapped about as he added gestures to his effusive praise of the Palace and all things in it.
Yet he didn’t convey the sense that he was intimidated by any of the wonders he had seen; rather, he seemed to take a childlike joy in it all. It was difficult not to get swept up in his zest. Certainly this person wasn’t likely to add to the Arch Hierophant’s burden of gloom-tinged thoughts.
Roark described in avid terms some of the sights he’d seen since his arrival. It never appeared to occur to him that the Arch Hierophant would be familiar with all of these spectacles. He finished by characterizing the Spiritual Wellspring Chamber, the very room they were presently in. “How it flows to the end of time,” he enthused, “in any direction one would care to rest the eye. A sea, a gleaming universe all held unto itself. Pardon, your excellency. I sometimes fancy myself an aspiring poet.” He applied the white cloth to a part of his head not fixed with hair. “Or perhaps perspiring poet would be more accurate. Forgive me, your excellency. I’m afraid I sweat when I am nervous.”
No ecclesiastical relevance to the cloth, then, the Arch Hierophant mused. It was merely a kerchief. This individual was a religious envoy, but one far less formal than most, it seemed.
“Your home world . . . ” the Arch Hierophant began.
“Earth, of course. Are your people of one faith?”
“Oh, heavens no, your excellency. Many—most, in fact—subscribe to no structured belief system. But many of those are open to a generalized spirituality, a . . . hmm . . . an unfocused trust that something underlies the reality in which they find themselves. There is a kind of vestigial desire to believe that a benevolent energy embraces us all.”
“And the people of faith among you? Do they share this belief?”
“To one extent or another, yes. Liturgies vary. Observances differ. Disparate holy books are quoted. But . . . ” Roark laughed. So few people ever laughed in the Arch Hierophant’s presence. “Every worthy creed really comes down to one imperative statement: ‘Oh be nice.’”
The Arch Hierophant’s species was capable of laughter. Certainly Brophtoc Mmurn Dol possessed a sense of humor. Roark’s words almost provoked a laugh from him, but he caught himself in time. He was somewhat charmed and made at ease by this curious being from Earth, but it simply wouldn’t do for the Arch Hierophant to be chuckling with a visitor to the Palace. Decorum mattered, even when it was stifling.
The time came for the audience to end. Roark in his black garb was borne away, head turning all the while, still amazed by the wonder of the “gleaming universe all held unto itself” that was the Spiritual Wellspring Chamber.
The Arch Hierophant wondered if he shouldn’t keep the ebullient being around awhile longer.
Hear, now, the whisperings. What information reaches the Arch Hierophant is carefully controlled—or that, at least, is the belief of those who don’t know about the wheels within wheels which the Arch Hierophant has caused to be installed to bring him covert data.
But the throngs of Palace personnel occasionally talk among themselves, even when such chatter is expressly forbidden. Sentient beings, at a certain level of cultural sophistication, seem to have a need for gossip. So they whisper. At the Palace they currently murmur about the Gray Might’s brazen resolution to recognize Valduk Tyn’s divinity. Many see this as an affront. Loyalty to the Arch Hierophant is absolute among his multitudinous staff. They feel protective of the being who they all regard as the highest spiritual voice in the galaxy. For any entity, even a great Might, to put forth a religious view ahead of the Arch Hierophant’s ruling is at best unmannerly. At worst, it is a sharp challenge to his spiritual authority.
It’s politically motivated, of course. So say the whisperers, to a being. They assert that none in the highest reaches of the Gray Might’s government really believes that humble old Valduk Tyn received the direct blessing of the divine when he lived on his little world and spoke his spiritual platitudes. But Valduk Tyn has become important. He has taken on the shape of a tool, and the Gray Might plainly means to wield him.
Some of the whisperers fear that war might come, because war might always come.
There is disquiet in the galaxy. Unease. This is a customary state of being. The galaxy is never quiet, yet the Cooperation has been mostly successful in its stated task of maintaining general peace. The galactic situation is of course intricate, with so many worlds, so many cultures interlacing. It is difficult to take the measure sometimes, to say whether or not these are good and stable years for the galaxy at large.
But the sense of something being wrong has been slowly building. Tensions among the Mights have, it seems, been incrementally mounting. Naturally each Might is equipped with an awesome military. These forces are ever at the ready, despite the Cooperation’s mission of peaceful coexistence. Some who fancy themselves able to read the political tea leaves say that an appetite for war grows among those who are capable of bringing about just such a conflict.
Others say that the Mights would never be so foolish as to begin such a bloodbath, not after ages of relatively secure peace.
Others see deeper still into the overall political and military picture. They gaze to its depths. And there they see the coming of Redmarch.
And if Redmarch, that ancient word, is uttered, then the four cardinal points of Redmarch must be voiced as well. The four conditions are crucial. Without them, so goes the legend, Redmarch can never come.
Those conditions are . . .
A Royal must flee the throne.
A Lawmaker must betray the law.
A High Cleric must renounce the faith.
A Warlord must go mad.
Naturally it is the third tenet which most interests the whisperers at the Palace. Though the fable of Redmarch arises from the deep, dank chasm of galactic history, it has been reinterpreted over the eras. Different personages in different epochs have been thought to fit the cast of legendary characters. The Royal. The Lawmaker. Any number of mortal beings might fill those roles. Warlord? There were warlords aplenty among the star systems.
But . . . High Cleric? In this modern time, could that be anyone but the Arch Hierophant?
And if it were, if Redmarch was more than mere myth, then how, some of the whisperers wondered, could he possibly renounce his dearly held faith?
He drank something fermented. Drank more of it than he normally would. The blue-glazed stars did not flow tonight in his resting room. He’d set the walls and ceiling blank. He lay on his couch, and after a time of pensive imbibing he summoned his books.
These were his own works, most of them written when he had been much younger. They possessed scholarly heft. He had presented his points well in these pages, with the vigor of youthful conviction. They were treatises on faith, of course, a field which had begun to deeply interest him upon his adolescence. He had examined the matter of faith from many angles. Sometimes he contradicted himself from volume to volume. A few fellow spiritual academics at the time had, somewhat gleefully, pointed out these inconsistencies. It was proof of the young upstart’s wavering certitudes. He spoke forthrightly, yes, and with a certain lyrical flair; but where was the orthodoxy? Where was the reverence for the traditions which had preceded him? He should pledge his unshakable loyalty to those conventions—or else step away from matters of spirituality altogether. At the very least he should stop writing his vexing books.
But Brophtoc Mmurn Dol did not stop. He was quite caught up in his personal fervor by then. The subject consumed him. He was no longer a boy, no longer a vehicle thief. He worked honest labor in the city of his birth by day; by night, he researched and put his hot quivering thoughts to paper. They were like living nodes of himself, pulsing with internal life. He needed—desperately needed—to communicate these thoughts and ideas and, dare he say, insights. Young he was, yes. Inexperienced in the formalities of religious study, to be sure. But faith was fantastically alive within him. One need only speak to him for a matter of minutes to realize this fact.
He wrote furiously into the night, often stripped to his vibrantly blue-green skin. He perspired when he exerted himself emotionally, something Roark from Earth had mentioned being susceptible to earlier today. His body would be slick when he at last collapsed, concepts still trying to form in his overtaxed mind. He would go to his job the next morning groggy but exhilarated.
His writings continued to be published; not lavishly, but they circulated nonetheless. He drew ire from entrenched academics, admiration from the ones less fearful of fresh views, and outright awe from those few in the general reading public who had discovered him. Slowly his name grew, took on importance. He spoke with a true voice. His words lit the gray spaces of existential doubt, and people, even disbelieving people, could begin to discern the divine hand at work in the universe if they looked closely enough. They liked the prospect of a compassionate cosmos. And even though these ideas were hardly new, he communicated them with enviable alacrity.
There had been an Arch Hierophant all his life, a revered personage occupying the Palace, issuing decrees, acting in part as the conscience of the galaxy. Brophtoc Mmurn Dol had written passionately about this long-lived being’s proclamations and fiats, never suspecting that a groundswell would rise upon the occasion of the Arch Hierophant’s death, when the faithful and faithless alike mourned the passage of that monumental life. He had never suspected—had never harbored an inkling—that his name would be put forward, that he would swiftly become the popular candidate. Common voices clamored for him. So, to his surprise, did many voices of lofty religious authority. This tide swept star system after star system.
At first he had been baffled. Then he shrank from the attention. Then, perhaps inevitably, he embraced it. If the divine hand were pushing him, it would be arrogant to resist. And surely—surely—this was some kind of intercession.
After a flurry of conclaves and councils and holy assemblages, he found himself called forth to state his own case. He had, until now, been a scribe, a being of fairly modest manner. Faced with the prospect of declaring himself fit to take up the mantle of the Arch Hierophant, he nearly balked. He prepared no arguments, explored no convincing testimony. The final assembly convened in a great hall, with vaulted ceiling and stark decor. He mounted the dais, gazed out on the sea of grave faces, and began to speak. He did nothing to summon the words. They simply flowed. He would not know until later anything that he had said. All the while that he spoke, he was engaged in silent prayer. He didn’t ask for guidance. He didn’t ask for courage. He merely stated, again and again, that he would submit himself utterly to the greater will.
Not long after, he journeyed to the Palace for the first time, there to take up residence.
He was drowsing now. He had consumed the fermented beverage. His works hovered above the couch, near enough for him to brush the spines. His books. Once he would have been content for these to live on after him. There would have been a simple, clean satisfaction in that. Now he had the grievous duty of making certain that his time as Arch Hierophant truly counted for something.
The prophet himself stands under the judgment which he preaches. If he does not know that, he is a false prophet.
—Niebuhr: Beyond Tragedy
The five Mights were these: the Gray Might, the Wandering Might, the Fire Might, the Folded Might, the Might of Staves. Each was inexpressibly vast. Each had abided an eon at least. Yet it could be said that a given Might possessed a specific tenor, a pervasive ambience . . . a personality. This despite the fact that hundreds of systems and billions of beings might be gathered under a single banner.
Every Might owed its character to cultural roots and governing traditions. Therefore it made complete sense to the Arch Hierophant that the Gray Might had sent a tall, tactless, irreligious delegate to convey the official view on the Valduk Tyn matter; whereas the Wandering Might, cleaving to its own characteristics, sent a patient, soft-spoken, watchful dignitary, one who waited for an audience without fuss or complaint, who, once before the Arch Hierophant, offered copious signs of respect and praise.
The Wandering Might delegate did not want to come directly to the point. He seemed to luxuriate in the protocols, speaking of ancillary matters in the slow circling manner of such formalities. The Arch Hierophant had received him in a chamber of reddish lacquered furnishings and great ocher cushions. Shnaparil was silently at his elbow.
Finally it was necessary to prod the soft-spoken being who had such cunning watching eyes. The conversational feint made the Arch Hierophant feel like the tactless one, but this representative of the Wandering Might could only be here at this time for one reason.
“Yes, your most blessed excellency, well . . . ” Still vacillating; but Shnaparil, dressed all in green, stepped in to press him harder, strongly intimating that the Arch Hierophant had other duties awaiting his attention.
The Arch Hierophant had been braced since the delegate’s arrival at the Palace. He expected to learn how the Wandering Might viewed the issue of Valduk Tyn. He further expected, knowing the Might’s general inclination toward skepticism, that this view would contradict the already stated opinion of the Gray Might. And that disagreement boded ill. It could, in the worst case, be the first true rumbling toward war.
“Please understand, your high righteous excellency, that we of the Wandering Might do not intend to make any public declaration on the matter. Not as the Grays have done, for example . . . ” He offered an unctuous smile, but evidently saw that the Arch Hierophant wouldn’t encourage him in this digression. Gathering himself, the Wandering delegate said in clear tones, “We support the belief that Valduk Tyn was a divine being.”
The Arch Hierophant felt a jolt go through him. He hadn’t anticipated this.
But with the news delivered there was no need to prolong the interview. With reflexive aplomb the Arch Hierophant made a gesture of farewell, and the delegate was seen on his way. Shnaparil remained in the chamber, visibly pensive.
Two Mights, then, thought the Arch Hierophant. Two Mights backing the notion that doleful Valduk Tyn had been directly touched by the hand of the divine, that he’d been imbued with a special blessing which made him something more than mortal, more than mere flesh.
Pressure. Influence. Persuasion. The Arch Hierophant was aware of these. Yet . . . there was something even deeper, something beyond even what his wheels within wheels could perceive for him. He had inhabited the Palace a long time, had borne the mantle of his great office all that while. He had observed. He had noted. He had occasionally paused and squinted to see deeper, sensing a clandestine presence, a sly movement. Something at work in the galaxy, beneath the Cooperation’s perception.
Some . . . agency. Or perhaps it was Agency. A shadow organization lacing the stars and systems, applying subtle pressure here, making ghostly influences there; perhaps now and then quietly eliminating some structure or living thing. A benign yet ruthless league, doing its good works to ensure the galaxy’s survival.
Making certain that Redmarch never comes to pass.
The Arch Hierophant had no proof. The thing radiated no life force. It was without shape or silhouette. Less than a whisper, only slightly more tangible than a thought. Yet sometimes he believed his subliminal impressions. Believed that the Agency meant to sway him. For it would do anything to prevent the conditions of Redmarch from being met.
A High Cleric must renounce the faith . . .
Was that what he would do, should he decide against Valduk Tyn’s divinity? More to the point: would his decision be perceived as a renunciation?
There were those in this teeming and varied galaxy who would see profit or other worth in the commencement of galactic war—call it Redmarch or by some other name. War would satisfy a savage urge for some. Others would gain power and wealth from it, or would believe that they might. Still others might act from a nihilistic, apocalyptic impulse. If my death should come, let the whole of the galaxy be dragged down into the black with me.
The menagerie was the right place for this. The Arch Hierophant had considered showing his guest the Staircase of Floating Mirrors or the Vanishing Gardens, but Roark would have become hopelessly caught up in those spectacles, gawking shamelessly. There was no need to overwhelm the being from Earth.
So, it had been arranged that when they met for a second time, it would be in the menagerie, with its many habitats and its winding layout. As well stocked as it was, it was also unpretentious. Here were many lower-order creatures, living out their straightforward unassuming lives. The place often had a calming effect on the Arch Hierophant. He looked at the animals; they looked back at him. There was an uncomplicated acknowledgment, perhaps even a rudimentary understanding between them.
He walked with the Earth cleric by his side. Roark still wore black, but the kerchief was now stuffed into a high front pocket. He did not appear to be perspiring so fervently now.
The creatures visibly fascinated him as they strolled past the paddocks; but the wonder on his face was less volatile than when they’d stood together on the infinite floor of the Spiritual Wellspring Chamber.
A beast stirred among its native grasses, lifting a long-tapered snout and flicking the lobes of its hearing organs—or were those its scent receptors? It had a blue-gray pebbly hide, with a bright dorsal crest which could be retracted into its body. It seemed aware of the two presences on the nearby pathway.
“It can’t attack us,” the Arch Hierophant reassured.
The creature let out a cry, something high and plaintive. Roark nearly stumbled, but it didn’t appear to be from fear.
“Is something wrong?” the Arch Hierophant asked.
“No, no . . . ” Roark made the common gesture of negation, performing it fairly well. “I was struck by a memory. When I was a boy, my family kept a cat. A small creature, domesticated. She was quite elderly, and she would wake sometimes crying out repeatedly and forlornly, like she didn’t know where she was. My father would go to her and stroke her fur, and tell her reassuringly, ‘You’re right where you’re supposed to be.’ And she would quiet.” Roark smiled, but it seemed a smile full of bittersweet sentiment.
It touched the Arch Hierophant. He congratulated himself once again for deciding to keep this individual on at the Palace past the length of a normal stay. Roark had agreed to it, of course. No visitor would pass up the chance to linger here. The Palace was one of the great marvels of the galaxy. For someone like Roark it was also the opportunity to enhance his young world’s status. Perhaps Earth would one day be of true importance to the Cooperation. Owing to the planet’s isolated position—down one of the galactic spiral arms, no less—it didn’t fall under the aegis of any of the Mights. It could shape its own destiny, in a sense.
The two of them walked on. After a time Roark broke the companionable silence to ask, “Did you have pets growing up, your excellency? Sorry, I’m afraid I don’t even know if your race traditionally keeps pets. I . . . ” He started to fumble.
The Arch Hierophant made a soothing gesture. “My people have the custom.”
Roark reached for the kerchief. The part of his face above his eyes and below the white hair suddenly shone with damp. “I’m always afraid of giving offense. So many cultures. So much to learn.”
“That is why the Cooperation exists. One of the reasons, at least. To aid in assimilation.”
“Yes, your excellency.” The being from Earth mopped away the sheen of perspiration.
“To answer your question, no, I didn’t have a pet in my youth. There were untamed stray animals living on the streets of the city where I came of age. They were scavengers, of course. Dangerous only if you competed for their food.”
Roark stuffed his kerchief back into his pocket. The white against the black looked decorative. “Those must have been hard times for you.”
“Certainly. But living that way taught me something. Do not be cruel. Even when I was forced for survival’s sake into certain . . . actions, I learned that cruelty was never necessary.” He smiled quietly. It was unusual for him to talk about this period of his life. “What was it you said the other day? At the root of every creed is a simple directive. ‘Oh be nice.’”
Roark ducked his head. It seemed to convey chagrin. “I apologize if I was glib, your excellency . . . ”
They meandered past a habitat where two long-necked creatures grazed. Their fur was a patchwork of russet, maroon, silver, cream, and each bore a single huge jewel of an eye. They were chewing meditatively on the purple leaves of the high branches of a cluster of trees.
“What do you make of this business in the Barrhimacs system?” the Arch Hierophant asked.
Again Roark’s steps hitched. This time it was the Arch Hierophant who had flustered him. Ah, well. But shouldn’t he be permitted a little amusement with his new companion?
“Uh . . . ”
“I take it you were expressly forbidden from broaching this topic with me?” The Arch Hierophant’s tone remained affable.
“Well . . . yes.”
“But you haven’t brought it up. I have. Do you have an opinion about the illegal civilization found on the fifth world?”
“I’m not entirely clear on what an illegal civilization is.”
The Arch Hierophant explained it. There was no native sentient life in the Barrhimacs system. The planet in question had been colonized by an outcast caste exiled from a different star system. Those people had been thought long since lost to the hazardous vagaries of deep space travel. Instead, they had entrenched themselves on this new world.
“So, they’ve no authority to be there?” Roark asked as darkly lustrous humps darted beneath blue oily water in the next area along the winding path.
“Essentially. An unspoiled planet has an intrinsic worth. It must be respected.”
“And the Cooperation ensures that such respect will be paid?”
“It does its best,” the Arch Hierophant sighed.
Roark chuckled his understanding. A jolly person this was, yes; but he had a clever mind. If he were truly representative of his people, this breed from Earth might indeed do well as a member of the Cooperation.
Water hissed as one of the swimming creatures cut the surface with a triangular fin.
“May I ask something, excellency?”
“Is it something you were expressly forbidden to bring up?”
“No. In fact, I can find only the blandest information about this subject in the galactic databases. And no one seems to wish to speak of it out loud with any frankness or clarity.”
The Arch Hierophant was intrigued. “Ask your question.”
Roark’s manner had become earnest and rather solemn. “What is Redmarch, and why does it seem to hang over the future like a pall?”
It was the Arch Hierophant’s turn to lose a half step. Roark’s question didn’t alarm him, but it was odd to hear someone—anyone—ask such a thing so directly. Redmarch was spoken of in murmurs. It was mentioned implicitly, not explicitly. In short, it was possessed of an unearned veneration, draped in historical significance which it did not, in the Arch Hierophant’s opinion, deserve.
In a sense it was rather like Valduk Tyn himself, something out of the past which had hopelessly and vexingly captured the galactic imagination.
He said to Roark, “Tell me what you know of it first, so that I do not waste your time with repetitions.”
“Yes, of course. As I understand it, Redmarch is a conflict, widespread, immense, perhaps engulfing the entire galaxy . . . and it is . . . imminent? But only if certain conditions are met. Four rather express conditions at that. But—” He was shaking his head from side to side, probably a mannerism of his species, briefly forgetting the vocabulary of universal gestures. “But,” he went on with bafflement in his voice, “Redmarch is also something which occurred in the deepest wells of the past, roughly at the start of galactic history. How does one reconcile these two definitions, your excellency?”
The Arch Hierophant came to a halt. Roark stopped beside him. Their stationary presence appeared to excite the nearby swimmers. Another fin broke the surface.
“Redmarch,” the Arch Hierophant said after a silence, “is believed to be cyclical. It is also believed not to be so. It is believed”—he made a curt dismissive gesture—“to be all sorts of things. It is a magnet for many unhinged beliefs. But the most sensible of these convictions, that which most resembles historic theory, is that Redmarch did occur once before, in the distant past. Indeed, at the dawn of history, as you say.”
Roark looked troubled. “But—how could history begin with war?”
“The sensible view is that the ancient Redmarch was an epidemic conflict across the galaxy, effectively wiping out all history previous to it.”
“That is . . . appalling.”
“And some believe that a new Redmarch is coming?”
“They do. They have believed it for centuries. The express conditions you have mentioned? Frantic people have watched for those, decade after decade. As if eager to fit vague circumstances to those tiresome criteria.” The Arch Hierophant nearly chuckled again but restrained himself once more. Nevertheless, he added in a confiding tone, “I cannot tell you how often I have heard the laments. The High Cleric is renouncing the faith. Alack! Alas!”
Beneath the oily blue water the lustrous humps appeared to be circling each other in some choreographed manner. The water splashed in an eye-pleasing pattern.
Roark said, softly, “You carry quite a burden, excellency.”
“As does everyone. Come along. You must see the beast with the great orange tusks and bullwhip tail. Perhaps today it will sing its high sweet song for us.”
They were going to look at war, the red animal—war, the blood-swollen god.
—Crane: The Red Badge of Courage
Books were well and good, but at the moment the Arch Hierophant desired something more kinetic.
The render had been prepared in advance as he entered the vault. The colorless walls were nearly invisible. At his signal the presentation commenced.
The landscape was rocky, yellow, crumbly. This was one of those leached worlds, bled nearly dry at its birth. A sapless planet which, nonetheless, had put forth sentient life. Some worlds in the galaxy were luxuriantly fertile, and yet produced nothing but vegetation and common animal forms. Others, such as this appeared to be, seemed antagonistic to the very idea of life; and yet intelligent, toolmaking, reasoning beings had evolved here. It was one of the many arresting, engrossing paradoxes put into the universe by the divine hand.
The scene wasn’t static, but a torpor hung over it. Wind blew dust into wavelike displays. Two birds spun through the anemic sky, one violently pursuing the other.
But, here. A more purposeful movement. A lone figure. Walking staff in hand. He wore a thobe, the common—almost universal—desert costume. The winds molded the weathered fabric to his scrawny limbs.
He approached, his gait steady but weary. By now in his timeline, according to the render, this being had been at his life’s central work for several years.
The Arch Hierophant gazed upon him. Historical renders seemed always to possess a hint of blasphemy, even if the subject were in no sense religious. In cases like this one, where accurate data were unavailable, the representations became outright fictions to an extent. They drew on less than reliable sources, often the very legends generated by the subject itself.
So here was Valduk Tyn as he was popularly believed to appear. Robe, staff, unruly hair. Even the details added by the program—the sweat stains on the garment, the hands cracked and raw from exposure—only amplified the image of a hardscrabble wandering prophet.
Valduk Tyn saw the Arch Hierophant and came toward him, hallooing in a parched voice. The Arch Hierophant returned him the Cooperation’s general signal of friendly hello, a gesture which wouldn’t exist until millennia after this man’s death.
Up close it was apparent that the render had had some fun with its creation. Valduk Tyn had a very rough face. The underlying bone structure was uneven. The mouth was dotted with yellowish sores. No doubt the general state of health and genetics on this primitive world had been taken into account. The program would have impartially awarded these imperfections. He was more likely to have had them than not, analysis of the data must have concluded.
They stood face-to-face now. The clever machineries of the vault and the depth of the render allowed the Arch Hierophant to get the dust-blown scent of this being. Valduk Tyn’s visual organs were laced with fine blue lines. Two eyes, the Arch Hierophant noted. The galactic standard issue.
“Hail, traveler,” he said to the robed figure. “To where do you journey?” A meaningless question, merely something to push the scenario into motion.
In a croaking voice Valduk Tyn said, “I am without destination. I bear only words. I should like you to hear them, friend.”
The Arch Hierophant paused a moment, still taking in the apparition. Finally he said, “Very well.” And listened, inattentively, to the prophet’s message. Much of it was quoted from the texts which had survived both this being’s death and the death of this very world.
Looking about the landscape again, the Arch Hierophant thought of how this too was fiction. The planet had come to ruin, victim of a cosmic mishap. A comet had slammed into its southern pole many centuries ago. By then the native people had developed interstellar travel. But Valduk Tyn’s footprints on this world had been erased.
Yet he lived. Yet he persisted.
His simple words of universal compassion. Expressed without much lilt, the Arch Hierophant thought, not for the first time. It still puzzled him as to why these rudimentary teachings should have seized the present-day imaginations of so many.
“I have heard your message,” he said, gesturing for silence. The robed figure was leaning tiredly on his staff, which was a nice touch. Some depictions of him were of a mighty being, indefatigable, forever borne up by the strength of his faith.
The Arch Hierophant took a step closer. He reached up to gently touch the rugged face, feeling the irregular bones beneath the skin.
In a soft voice, as though someone might have reason to eavesdrop, the Arch Hierophant asked, “Do you believe yourself to be of divine origin?”
The mouth opened, revealing rows of jagged discolored teeth. But he did not speak. He couldn’t answer this question. Of course not. There was nothing in the render’s source materials to address it.
But something seemed to come briefly into the prophet’s eyes. It was a brimming grief, perhaps; or some deeper, more intricate thing. Possibly the eyes knew the burden of one who has been charged with that great sorrowful task: to tell everyone everywhere that love is the only question, the only answer, the only state of being. All else is self-defeating noise.
The Arch Hierophant patted the man’s cheek. Then he turned and exited the vault.
A band of clerics was scheduled to arrive at the Palace. But they did not come. The Arch Hierophant was uncharacteristically annoyed. He had been looking forward to a reacquaintance with them. They were all highly placed in their respective religious hierarchies, the closest thing the Arch Hierophant had to a peer group.
Denied that comradely good cheer, he demanded an explanation.
An advisor with crystalline skin enacted gestures of abject apology. The genderless being raised a porcelain face. A mouth of liquid stone said, “The vessel encountered . . . difficulties.”
As most species could smile, most could also frown. The Arch Hierophant now frowned. “Is anyone hurt?”
“No, your excellency.”
“They are delayed, then.”
The barest hesitation, as when a loyal servant must contradict a master. “The vessel has turned back.”
“I see.” The Arch Hierophant curbed any further display of displeasure. He released the quavering advisor from his presence. Plainly he was not being given the full story, but he didn’t wish to put any of his immediate staff through the discomfort of an interrogation.
He was well aware of the machinations which kept certain information from reaching him. This was a time to call upon his wheels within wheels.
His schedule had of course been smoothly reconfigured to pave over the absence of the band of clerics. But the disruption still rankled him, and he did damage to his own agenda and timetables, walking out early on a sealing session in the tiered office place, canceling back-to-back audiences without explanation. His staff scrambled to rearrange things on the fly. Around him all remained placid, untroubled. But he was causing chaos, and knew it, and felt a pang of contrition for it. Still, he was the Arch Hierophant, and there was no being in the Cooperation, in the galaxy, who was encumbered with his same responsibilities.
The secret wheels turned only reluctantly this time. It was as if even his trusted personal tools didn’t want to abet him in this knowledge-gathering venture.
But after applying as much direct pressure as he dared to, the turnings occurred.
There was unrest. There had been hazardous military incidents, if not outright engagements. The great cultural chafings which had ever-been a part of galactic history were, of late, becoming rumblings of vast potential violence. Muscles were flexed, sabers rattled. It was not the usual pantomime, apparently. No one was speaking of war. No one was clamoring for it. But war, as everyone knew, might come. That was the constant threat, despite the Cooperation’s best and most noble efforts.
The Arch Hierophant brooded on this news. Space lanes too dangerous to travel. The mechanisms of war being oiled up, perhaps for imminent use. Troubling. Troubling.
With an effort he returned to his schedule and caused no further disruptions.
As the whispers grow.
So, now, not just the High Cleric and the foretold renunciation of faith. No, not merely that. Added to the murmuring chorus are those other cardinal points, the very infrastructure of Redmarch itself. Some of the whisperings give shape to the Royal and the fleeing of a throne; others to the betraying Lawmaker; yet others, subdued voices quaking ever so slightly with fear, make whispers about a Warlord . . . a Warlord of one of the Mights, who may, just may, be unraveling mentally. Going mad. While still in command of a sizable military division.
The possibility of Redmarch awakens a primal dread, a trepidation perhaps encoded into the very genes of all species which have survived and thrived since the beginning of galactic history. Perhaps there really was a Redmarch once before already. Let’s consider that outrageous speculation. We know civilizations existed before recorded history. We know some were technologically sophisticated. The faintest traces of their ruins fascinate a certain obsessive strain of archeologist. And—breathless conjecture—perhaps there was even a Redmarch before that one. Echoing back until the dawn of time. A local cycle as implacable as the turn of the galactic year. The galaxy rises, grows profuse as civilization flourishes everywhere . . . then ancient, hardwired instincts kick in, and the need for self-destruction becomes urgent, imperative.
See the conditions which signal a new Redmarch. Seek them. If the facts do not smoothly fit the legend, force them. It is time soon to put on one’s warrior apparel, to lift the weapon off the shelf, to find a banner under which to stand, with an enemy or enemies standing opposite, similarly prepared. That time is coming.
Perhaps it is only an infectious hysteria. It may yet die away, as trends do, as fads always will. There is no need for drastic action, for now. This is still a time of calm, an age of order and reason. And it will remain so, for the time being.
As the whispers in the Palace grow.
He was woken. The intrusion into his resting room wasn’t without precedence, but it had happened so rarely during his tenure that he knew with his first glimmer of consciousness that something dire must have only just occurred, else his staff would not shake him from his slumber.
Shnaparil’s green-gloved hand was the first thing the Arch Hierophant saw. The advisor stepped back. The couch oozed beneath as the Arch Hierophant sat up.
“Tell me,” he said groggily, nonetheless indicating that he was ready to absorb the news.
Shnaparil didn’t waste time. “The Fire Might has formalized its veneration of Valduk Tyn. The prophet now officially represents the state religion. Belief will be mandatory.”
The air went out of the Arch Hierophant. He hung his head, maintaining the uncomfortable pose for several minutes.
Finally, in something of a wry tone, he said, “Mandatory belief, huh?”
Shnaparil deftly picked up the cue. “Lip service at least.” He was one of the few advisors who could speak in so familiar a manner with the Arch Hierophant.
“They’re an excitable lot, the Fire Might.”
“Indeed, your excellency.”
“Still . . . official veneration? That seems extreme. Even for them.” Throat hoarse, the Arch Hierophant reached for the lone beverage still spinning above the couch. The cool tasteless liquid soothed him.
“It leaves only the Folded Might and the Might of Staves uncommitted on the Valduk Tyn matter,” Shnaparil said.
“I’m aware of that.”
“Yes, your excellency.” The advisor retreated another step.
The Arch Hierophant was silent a further moment; then, a sigh, “Thank you, Shnaparil.”
The green-garbed figure disappeared. The Arch Hierophant lay back and called for the blue-glazed stars. But when they began to pour through his resting room, they were distracting, not comforting. With a wave he dismissed them.
It was some long while before sleep returned. And when it did, it arrived tenanted with sinister dreams.
Truth . . . never comes into the world but like a bastard, to the ignominy of him that brought her forth.
—Milton: The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, introduction
His audiences were different than before. A shift in tenor. Now, rather than awe and dread directed at him, these supplicants arrived in his presence already touched by unease. As usual, some bore gifts, and he accepted them with practiced thankfulness.
But it was a Juvellian shaman who demonstrated how drastic was that shift. He was in florid feathered dress, and his large bony hands shook so badly that he dropped a clay pot decorated with a profusion of painted symbols as he held it out to the Arch Hierophant. It shattered on the onyx floor of the Spiritual Wellspring Chamber, the sound sad, hollow, and final.
For a moment the two beings looked down on the innumerable fragments. The shaman had only just begun to illuminate the pot’s great history and significance. The Arch Hierophant tensed for a dramatic reaction from the Juvellian religious personage.
When none was forthcoming, he said with soft sympathy, “That is . . . unfortunate.”
The shaman lifted large red penetrating eyes. His hands, now cupping empty air, continued to shake. “I think it hardly matters, your excellency.”
He was swiftly removed before he could say more. The Palace existed to protect the Arch Hierophant, to insulate him from the galaxy’s secular troubles so that he could concentrate on matters of spirituality and divinity. So that he could make the momentous ecclesiastical decisions. Or, as it seemed lately, make the one decision.
Each day the pressure had mounted, despite the sequestering nature of the Palace. Three of the five Mights now favored recognizing Valduk Tyn as a divine prophet. The stoic harsh Folded Might had issued no proclamations, nor had it let its mind be known by indirect methods, such as the Wandering Might had so obsequiously done. The Folded were as likely to remain silent on the issue for a century as they were to abruptly make one of their steely, bleak declarations, statements inevitably inflected with a tone of challenge or threat.
And the Might of Staves? What of them? Truly, there was no saying what that enigmatic furtive fifth Might would do.
Between the stilted audiences of the day, the Arch Hierophant considered the situation. He thought again of the postulated Agency, the ghost organization which might only exist in his imagination. But if there were such an Agency tasked with averting Redmarch at any cost, then it stood that he would be a target of influence. Further, it betokened the existence of an Agent, sent to sway his thinking.
But who might that hypothetical Agent be?
Not all the machineries of the Palace were policies or the carefully coordinated actions of the staff. The Palace was an artificial worldlet. It required tremendous reserves of power in order to function. Thereby, it had engines; it had bowels.
Periodically the Arch Hierophant liked to wander in these mechanized precincts, among the unglamorous equipment. These were not public spaces. They were areas for maintenance workers, for engineers. There was no decor. The surfaces were rough, the edges sometimes jagged. Decay was evident among these laboring parts as nowhere else in the Palace. The Staircase of Floating Mirrors appeared as gleaming and flawless as the day of its installation. But here, behind the scenes, were found signs of corrosion, of the natural brute disintegration of materials.
His handlers didn’t like him strolling about in these regions. They hadn’t known how to respond today when he had insisted he was taking a guest along on his ramble.
They stepped together along a riveted floor. The air was oily and more than a little warm.
“Does this vicinity count as one of the Palace’s wonders?” asked Roark wryly as they made their way.
At the moment they walked in a ravine, between raw sloping walls, single file. The Arch Hierophant turned his head to speak behind him. “A subtle wonder perhaps. It reminds me that one day all this will be ruin. That day may be unspeakably distant, but it will come.”
Roark didn’t laugh or make comment. When they came out of the narrow place, they walked again side by side. The Arch Hierophant saw a thoughtful expression on the being’s round face.
“That is a humbling notion, your excellency. All that I’ve seen here, such beauty, such glory—gone. But you are of course correct. In some unimaginable future the Palace must be no more.”
Their footfalls echoed off the unaesthetic surroundings.
After a time the Arch Hierophant said, “I read some of your poetry last evening.”
Roark lost his stride and had to reach out for a metal outcropping to steady himself. He whipped out the white kerchief and hastily mopped his face.
“I . . . ” he began, then sighed. “There is no useful response I can make, excellency. Other than to say that, to me, your reading my pale published work is more humbling than picturing the Palace in ruins.”
The Arch Hierophant made a placating gesture. “An artist’s squeamishness with regard to his own work is, I think, a universal constant. Let me say quickly that your poems pleased me. I found them forthright and a touch melancholic. They were meant to be that, yes?”
“I . . . I simply observe and chronicle, your excellency.” Roark made what seemed a self-deprecating sound, likely something from his native culture. “My but that sounds pretentious when I say it aloud.”
The being from Earth was charming, though not in an obvious way. His arrival at the Palace had come at an opportune time, when the Arch Hierophant had truly been starting to feel the pressure on him to render a verdict on the Valduk Tyn matter. A moment of vulnerability perhaps, when he might be susceptible to a disarming friendly influence, subtly delivered by a cunning pretender who would know the workings of his own mind. Who perhaps had made a painstaking study of him, through records and observations, and knew how to delicately and slyly move his thinking.
They came to an open tract, no walls near, no tools left at hand by the maintenance crews. Uncertain light shivered the air. Beneath, a dynamo churned, the rhythm never varying.
The Arch Hierophant halted. So did Roark. They faced each other.
His much-knuckled hands hanging at his sides, the Arch Hierophant thought . . . no, it was Brophtoc Mmurn Dol who entertained these thoughts of the city streets of his youth, of the dangers there he’d had to face. In those urban environs he had learned how not to be cruel. But the streets had also taught him survival.
If Redmarch were to be prevented at any price, the life of a single Arch Hierophant might be a reasonable expenditure.
“What,” he said in a quiet rumble, “do you make of this Valduk Tyn business?”
Roark stuffed away his kerchief. “Ah. Ah.” His facial expressions shifted rapidly. “I have heard of this. I even had time to examine some of this Valduk Tyn’s teachings on the voyage here.”
“And your thoughts?” The Arch Hierophant’s hands tensed. He ignored the tightness in his joints. Was this person from Earth an Agent . . . or an assassin? He could, of course, be both.
Roark touched a digit to his lips and appeared pensive. His eyes shifted away, as if guiltily. “Ah. I . . . as I mentioned some time back, my people have so much to learn. I have much to learn. I do not wish to give offense, your excellency.”
“You may proceed with absolution from me.”
Three Mights were for Valduk Tyn’s divinity, already a clear majority. If the highest religious voice in the galaxy opposed that view, it could be interpreted as a triggering of one of the cardinal conditions of Redmarch.
Roark drew a long breath into his doughy body. Finally he looked squarely at the Arch Hierophant and said, “I find Valduk Tyn’s teachings to be pedestrian. His directive of universal love is, of course, admirable. But it has no depth, no shading. He shies from moral quandaries. Is it ever permissible to resort to violence, even in the face of genocide? Apparently the question was put to him in his lifetime, long ago. His answer is, at best, equivocating.”
He started to shake his head in his peculiar manner, realized what he was doing, and changed to the common gesture of negation.
“I’m very sorry, excellency,” he said, “but I don’t understand the fuss over Valduk Tyn. Perhaps there is something about this personage that I don’t yet grasp.”
The Arch Hierophant let himself chuckle. Yes, laughter, here in plain view of this visitor, against all protocol. As he laughed, his hands slackened at his sides and old memories of street fights returned to their quiet mental caches.
“Yes,” he said, “he is something of a theological mediocrity.” And he did not add: there was no sign, overt or subtle, that the hand of the divine had ever pushed that lonely, wandering being into express motion, to go about his rudimentary preachings.
With that the Arch Hierophant turned; he walked on; and Roark followed.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” the Arch Hierophant said conversationally, “how did you come to your faith?” There was a buoyancy in him now. He felt relieved. He would not issue a lie. The truth, however painful for some, had to stand.
“Oh,” Roark said, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel the divine presence around me. A great benevolence, a watchful eye. The universe itself, cradled in a master’s hand.” The being from Earth smiled contentedly.
The Arch Hierophant understood these simple declarations. The galaxy swarmed with sentient species. And so many of them—almost all, in fact—at some time in their histories felt the call of the cosmos, and heard the whisper of a deeper truth, and deduced that somewhere, beyond their normal ken, a divine love guided them all. As, perhaps, the Arch Hierophant himself had been explicitly guided today.
He too smiled.
Roark was no Agent, if indeed an Agency even existed.
Who, then, might be seeking to sway him, if anyone . . . ?
Shnaparil. It flashed into his mind with the suddenness of revelation. His trusted advisor, long in his service. Perhaps sent here long ago as part of a far-ranging plan. The Agency would ever-fear Redmarch, because Redmarch might always come. So someone influential must be near the Arch Hierophant.
He tucked the thought away, along with the image of the green-appareled being. Shnaparil would stay in his position; but the casual intimacies they shared would taper off. The Arch Hierophant would not turn cold to his advisor. He would certainly level no accusations. But neither would Shnaparil ever be an influence again.
They walked along through the industrial surroundings. Probably it was time to let this representative of Earth return to whatever duties pressed him. The Arch Hierophant had indulged himself long enough at this being’s expense.
“It has been a wondrous two hundred years for my people, since our entry into the Cooperation,” Roark said. “Our galaxy is remarkable, brimming with marvels our most fantastical conceptualists only scratched. But every technological sensation I have witnessed is counterbalanced by faith, by trust in the spiritual structure beneath all this . . . this spectacle.”
The Arch Hierophant agreed. But there was no need to say so.
Roark added, “Only faith allows us—allows me, anyway—to feel gratitude. Gratitude for all this cosmic splendor.”
“Perhaps you’ll write a poem about it,” the Arch Hierophant mused. There was an exit up ahead. He would guide this being back to the public portions of the Palace. They would close their friendship, for now.
“Perhaps . . . ” Roark started to reach for his kerchief again. It seemed that mention of his art really did make him nervous. “I have been composing a new piece. Starting to. Attempting to. I have never found the creative process easy. The work is tentatively entitled ‘Said of Angels.’ It’s . . . I . . . actually, your excellency, there is nothing more horrid upon the ear than an unfinished poem. Could we possibly forget about the whole thing?”
The Arch Hierophant, ease in his mind, granted the request. The two were nearly to the exit now. In a few days’ time the Palace would issue the long-awaited decree, in his name. He would settle the Valduk Tyn matter.
The truth would stand. Truth would stand.
It is said of angels
That they have no souls
Because they never truly lived
It is said of angels
They cannot undo death
And that seems just
But it is said too of angels
That they do not prevent havoc
Because they do not wish to;
For they are made of havoc’s stuff
And they will not undo themselves
—Roark: “At the Palace, On Redmarch’s Eve”
Eric Del Carlo's short fiction has appeared in Analog, Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Unfit Magazine, and other venues. His story collection Time, Like Blood, on My Hands and Other Stories is available on Amazon. He lives in his native California and plans to revisit the "Redmarch" universe depicted in this story.