“A Troublesome Priest”
The keening of the flitter as it landed brought Vikram muzzily awake. He blinked against blown grit, rolled away from the draft, and instinctively tried to squirm further beneath the park bench, away from the predawn light. The sleeping sack fluttered beneath him, foul even to his own nose; and slumped as the flitter’s noise faded. He still hadn’t worked out why a visitor would arrive in a vehicle when a hand snatched his ankle, dragging him out into the open and the flitter’s glaring lights.
Vikram twisted, wrapping arms over head, and squinted past their feeble defense -- Touchdown Park had its incidents -- but the gray-gloved hand had already let go, the figure straightening. Gloves meant police. That could be trouble of a different kind, but the Malacca City Constables who rated a flitter could generally find better sport.
“Get up,” said the man who’d grabbed him. “Slowly.”
Vikram sighed, hunched himself to a sitting position, and spread his empty hands: Harmless. You don’t need to hurt me. Surrender had grown easy, and even nonlethal weapons hurt. It also helped him keep his balance as he got one leg under him, then the other, then lurched upright.
The flitter displayed no navigation lights, and the figure standing three meters away wasn’t wearing a police clamshell, ending the theory that Vikram was simply being rousted more vigorously than usual. There was nothing nonlethal about the shoulder weapon the man leveled. Holographic light twinkled above the receiver, and a cold eye stared through it. Vikram could imagine the warmth of an infrared dot settled over his brain or his heart. “Come with us, please.”
The other turned slightly and kicked at a bottle; it clinked into the overlapping leaves of a Centauri-bred scuttlebush, stirring the heavy-scented seed pods.
“Hey, that was mine,” muttered Vikram.
“You won’t need it. Come with us.” The expensive weapon waggled, the first unprofessional act he’d seen from them.
He moved stiffly to the flitter, eased in through the open door. A gun muzzle prodded him further over; the second man got in beside him. They lifted in a scream of dust and twitching foliage, the few pools of light from working lamps turning beneath. He knew each dark gap, each refuge: hulking celltrees that needed irrigation to survive here, neat rows of crumbling planters, dunes of windblown trash. Abandoned relics of a sister world: Alpha Centauri Colony. The Terran section beside it showed more illumination, but only the dead hues of a desert. Other colonies’ sections were a darkened wasteland -- no worse than most of the colonies themselves.
“That was mine,” Vikram repeated softly, forehead pressed against the cool window as the tiny scrap of Centauri fell behind.
They flew only a few minutes, long enough to leave Malacca City and the shantytown surrounding it. Samarkand’s sun stabbed into view, a glaring blue-white pinpoint at the horizon. Native vegetation alternated with eroding soil; then they checked, turned, hovered, and landed beside another waiting flitter.
The guard’s shove might have been intended as encouragement, but Vikram’s stiff leg gave way on contact with the dirt, spilling him onto the ground in a fall more humiliating that painful. He started to get up.
Not encouragement, then. He coughed, spat, and only then turned his head, knowing that making eye contact before spitting might provoke something that could otherwise be avoided. There had been a time when Vikram would have welcomed a fight, no matter the odds; but there was very little left of that time, or left of him.
The two guards backed away, keeping their weapons aimed. He didn’t know whether to feel frightened or flattered. In the three standard years since Vikram had been demobilized and relocated -- exiled -- to Samarkand, he had been treated as an object of pity, or contempt, or as simple human garbage; never as a threat.
Footsteps crunched behind him. Vikram cautiously twisted toward the sound; his long hair-braid, still black at forty-four standard, shifted over his back. A man a good deal taller than Vikram, and far leaner, strode toward him from the other vehicle, a gray robe flaring as he moved. The plain white jumpsuit below the robe could have suited any of a dozen professions or ranks, but the circular pendant belonged to a Unityn priest. The hilt of a small knife nodded at one hip.
If this was an act of charity, it was a damned heavily armed one.
The robed man loomed over Vikram, then crouched easily beside him, eyes level and an arm’s reach away. In the years before Vikram had been demobilized, he could have broken the man’s neck cleanly before his guards’ fingers moved on their triggers; but the Alpha Centauri Armed Forces took care when they turned a senior-grade officer out into the worlds. The adrenaline that stirred sluggishly in his blood was the same as any other human’s now…and besides, he was simply too tired.
Instead, he watched as the priest ran his right hand through the deep-red soil, gathering a palmful. It sifted out through his fingers as he crumbled it. His expression was the thoughtful calm of a classical statue. “Once, on Earth,” he said softly, “a man could do this anywhere in the world, and touch the dust of all his ancestors, somewhere in the soil. We came from that world, and we went rightfully back into it, as we all will go back into the Unity…but here, on this colony, we have no place. The land itself rejects us.”
Vikram nodded silently. Beyond him, an arc of native vegetation pressed inward upon Malacca in slow strangulation, as the capital city’s farmland shrank. In fifty years, humankind’s abortive invasion of Samarkand would be quenched by the more vigorous life that belonged here, and the colony would die. A parallel sensation ached in Vikram’s own bones, the bones that he would leave here when he died himself -- probably in much less than fifty years, at the present rate. He wondered absently if the priest intended to kill him. If not, it was a long walk back to Touchdown Park, and he should start out fairly soon.
“My name is Brother Anselm,” said the priest, and suddenly the guards’ presence made a great deal more sense.
The inner cabal that controlled the Unityns -- the Stellar Church of the Unity -- disdained formal titles. Surrounded by Bishops who claimed whole cities, and Cardinals who led whole colonies, the members of that cabal were styled as simple Brothers or Sisters, focused on their task of bringing humanity to its final state of reunification. Anselm’s stark clothing fitted that view; but no one could look into his eyes and think this man simple.
“What do you want, Brother Anselm?” asked Vikram. Samarkand had fallen under Unityn control more than fifteen years ago. Pilgrims flowed steadily from the colony back to Sol, to be uploaded into the great Unity itself. There was no work here for a sibling of the Cabal…
“Tell me how you came here,” said the priest without replying, and then Vikram knew.
* * *
“I’m here because I was a symptom,” said Vikram with a sudden sharpness in his voice. “It’s always easier to get rid of a symptom than a cause. I was a third-grade officer in Task Force Amalthea, the one that mutinied in outer Sol system in ’62. Half the units under my command defected to the Unity -- I can’t imagine you think that’s a bad thing -- and someone had to be a scapegoat--”
“No,” interrupted Anselm. His right hand made a gathering motion at his side. “Tell me.”
The veteran was silent a time. As a priest, Anselm knew more about the Unity -- the dyson-fog network of microprocessors that had engulfed Sol, and Earth within, in a final nanotech nirvana for its uploaded souls -- than any ex-peacekeeper. He knew that the colonies were dying; he’d helped to kill Samarkand. But if his interest was now all that kept Vikram alive...
Vikram rubbed his face, then spoke in a much softer, rougher tone than previously.
“We were peacekeepers for more than sixty years, ACAF, all over the colonies -- trying to keep order, to hold back a tidal wave of people flowing back to Sol and the Unity. We tried -- I tried…Now whole units go over to the Outcasts, or sell their ships and gear to ronin squadrons that run wild in the outback. The people cry, Something must be done! And once in a while, something is.
“There was a refugee camp at Amalthea -- prime Saturn real estate, that was; hot and cold running nitrogen. The pilgrims would just be dumped in outer Sol system by the spinships that brought them, sometimes with only a few hours’ life support….we took them there, set up a plant to make air to breathe, and domes to hold it in. It was only meant to be temporary…and my task force wasn’t meant for guard duty, either. We did the job anyway.
“I heard in late ‘61 that there would be trouble. People from ten different colonies thrown together, more coming all the time…and not enough leaving to the Unity, the Paradise, that they’d been promised. Some started banding together, blaming the others for their situation -- any others would do. We were finding weapons on routine sweeps. I warned Command, time and again, but they didn’t listen…or they didn’t want to.”
He dug his own fingers into the soil as Anselm had. “A few months later, they started killing one another in the corridors. Four of the domes blew out. Maybe a thousand dead; nobody ever really counted. Some of my units were mixed up in the fighting -- on different sides.”
“Yes. They were mutineers, I’d heard.”
“They were my units. My responsibility. My court-martial... The new Centauri Council took power about then -- the ones that support the pilgrimage that I’d been trying to contain for four years. The ones that have given up. They weren’t about to throw their influence in my favour, but they didn’t want, ah, trouble either. I took an honorable discharge and gave up myself, went to Sol like the rest…and found that everyone there knew who I was. None of them would upload me into Paradise. There’s just nowhere for me to go any more. So I gave up too. I went here. I suppose...I was looking for Purgatory.”
“And what did you find?” said Anselm with surprising gentleness.
“Touchdown Park. A tiny bit of Centauri, of home. No more decisions, no more rules, a place to wait to die... A shuttle lifts from Malacca every hour, taking pilgrims to the Unity, but they’ll never let me aboard.” He grinned starkly. “I suppose I’ll be the one to turn out the lights after the rest have gone.”
A faint smile moved over the priest’s face. “Perhaps.”
“We really were the best,” said Vikram wistfully. “Enhanced six ways from sunlight, military-grade immune systems. The best ships, the best gear…But they couldn’t engineer us for loyalty. It doesn’t come out of a tube.”
Anselm gestured. “The Tauri hair-braid -- I know that it was meant to be grown during a term of service. Why do you still keep it?”
“It was an honorable discharge,” growled Vikram. “I have the right.”
“But that is not why.” Anselm leaned forward slightly. “You keep it because it makes you still a part of them, and so whatever hurts you, hurts them. That is the only way you have to hurt them.”
Vikram nearly died at that moment; he barely controlled the urge to hurl himself at the priest while the guns tore him apart. Anselm’s eyes saw, and noted, and seemed to approve. “I offer you more than that, now. Ships we can buy, or weapons, but not men or women to direct them. We have been opposed too long, and with Centauri crumbling, we mean to build a force that will end all opposition.”
The veteran’s face clenched. “You’re offering me…another way to hurt them?”
“More than that,” repeated the priest. “You failed to stop the forces that will reshape humanity. Now…you can succeed in helping them. You can serve again, and well.”
The tears that cut down Vikram’s face were a shock to him. He tried to steady his breathing; after a few moments, he succeeded. “And after -- after I serve?”
“No one in Sol system may refuse you what the Stellar Church will grant. You will be uploaded, and live in paradise until Sol himself goes dark.”
He would not faint. “Then I accept.”
Anselm drew his knife in an easy motion, and held it half-extended with the blade parallel to the ground.
“There is a task I require. If you truly wish to serve the Unity, you will carry it out. And we will mark your new life, your new loyalty, by severing the past one.”
Vikram flinched as the priest rotated the knife in his fingers, its blade pointing upward -- not at the thought of blood, for he knew that what Anselm spoke of would not shed it; but for the stubborn years of loyalty and beliefs, ground down by betrayal, dulled by defeat, that would finally die instead.
“If you refuse, then your exile will end here and now.” The blade turned downward.
“Very well,” said Vikram. “What is your task?”
Anselm bowed his head very slightly, in what could have been benediction or acknowledgment. “In years past, the Stellar Church was content to accept the willing, rather than to go forth and make humanity our own. That time will soon be over. Five whole colonies now follow our guidance, but they only serve to give us the strength to grow.
“Some do not accept this -- they oppose from within. One such was sent here to Malacca City, a Bishop Malthus Langtree, in the hope that he would tend to the folk of Samarkand and trouble the Cabal no more. The military force that we wish to create, the Cordeban navy that will serve to sweep all humanity into our grasp, is the one thing that Bishop Langtree cannot accept: forcible conversion. He has set himself against it; and so, it has set itself against him.”
The knife’s edges caught the dawn sunlight in a twin flash of steel.
“ ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’ ” said Vikram.
“Two Cordeban officers have traveled here to see that Bishop Langtree dies tomorrow morning. They are young, and impulsive -- it makes them suitable tools, but I would have an elder, wiser man accompany them. They will provide you with a weapon -- we have little to spare for sidearms when we must build ships, and it may seem quaint, but it will serve. It will serve…
“I ask now, will you?”
Vikram’s eyes were locked on the priest’s, but in his peripheral vision he saw the two armed figures tense. Anselm’s eyes were gray and clear and terribly calm.
In the end, he was about to die here, as ACAF had sent him to Samarkand to do. But there were many ways to die. This man gave Vikram a choice; and for that, he could love him.
He bent his head forward, instead of lifting his throat to the blade.
Below was dirt, and the hungry tendrils of life that would inexorably push the invaders from this world. He felt the priest grip the thick braid of hair that held so many years of service; valour and trust and laughter, horror and hate and abandonment. Anselm sheared cleanly through the braid.
Vikram shuddered and wept as a newborn. The Cabal priest sheathed his unblooded knife, then drew Vikram to his feet with one hand.
The other hand strewed strands of hair to the winds of Samarkand.
* * *
Dirt roiled into the drain under the hiss of the shower. Vikram leaned into the flow, idly surprised that the sixteenth floor of the Malacca Hotel even had water pressure. Langtree’s followers, probably, trying to keep an illusion alive by running an empty building. They were fools, but the stinging hot water still felt exhilarating, even if bits of his skin were coming off with it --
The light changed subtlely. Vikram shut off the water and stuck his head outside the niche. Two uniformed men stood in the open doorway, one prodding at his discarded clothing with the toe of his boot. Both glanced up, pale-haired, pale-eyed.
“Yes, it smells bad,” Vikram said in Spanglish. “Corpses smell worse. I’m Vikram.”
“Lieutenant Abeli,” said the taller man. He gestured. “This is Lieutenant Minwe. We will speak when you are dressed.” They withdrew.
Spanglish was the language that high Cordeban families used to control the subjects of the colony world they’d seized a generation ago. It put Vikram at a disadvantage, but he knew almost nothing of their High Tongue, and trying to speak it would only irritate them. He dried at the wall nozzle, slicking back his newly short hair, and dressed in the stiff, starched ensign’s uniform that they’d left him: the blue-over-black colours that almost every colony had chosen, for sky and space. It draped oddly on his frame; he’d lost a lot of weight. It smelled of starch and storage -- foreign, alien.
The rags on the floor were garbage now, a shed and stinking skin. One one sleeve, a scuttlebush seed pod had snagged itself. Impulsively, Vikram stooped and pinched it free, tucked it into his uniform’s right breast pocket, inhaled the sharp scent of Centauri. Despite the warmth, he sealed the high collar seam to the base of his jaw, and went to meet his comrades.
The suite’s main room opened onto a westward view. Both Cordebans sprawled in chairs. Abeli’s tunic flopped undone; Minwe’s was as tightly closed as Vikram’s.
Abeli studied him a moment. “Your genotype is Northern Indian -- Pathan, perhaps. There is some good blood there. I think you will do well.”
This passed for friendliness, Vikram assumed. He settled stiffly into the room’s third chair. “Thanks, but I was born in Nolan’s Crossing, on Centauri Prime. I speak a little Hindi, just what my mother taught me. I don’t like curry, and I never mutinied over ammunition.”
“And you were enhanced,” said Minwe.
“For the job. It’s gone now.”
To his right, Abeli shrugged.“No matter. This is not a dangerous mission.”
“Yes, I gathered that on the flitter trip here. One old man, one secretary, no guards, no automatic defenses in the office.”
Abeli shifted. “I did not say it was not a worthy mission. This old man blocks our path. Our officers’ brotherhood has agreed to serve the Cabal by destroying this obstacle, so that everyone may know we cannot be opposed.”
“That explains the low profile,” said Vikram, fingering his uniform collar. “Well, it is said that the clothes make the man.”
“Of course it must be known that true officers will act to protect our destiny. Are you afraid of being arrested?”
Vikram shrugged in answer.
“We will be gone before these people react; there is a shuttle waiting. They cannot touch us. The only law between planets now is that of the strong and the weak. The sooner the weak are sent back to Sol and uploaded, the better.”
“Langtree will die the true death,” put in Minwe. “It’s a judgement upon him. I believe that he only wishes to keep Samarkand viable so that he is assured of transport back to Sol when he finally embraces the Unity. He jeers at the Cabal in the name of others for his own sake! And I think that he sleeps with his secretary. Men of his type are often sexually promiscuous.”
“Outrageous,” said Vikram. “Brother Anselm mentioned a sidearm?” His uniform belt bore a holster as the others’ did, but empty.
Abeli rose without looking at Minwe, who stared out the window as he cracked open a transparent carton and took a swig from it. Two duffle bags rested by the bed; Abeli dug into one, produced a corrugated shipping case. “Here.” He offered it to Vikram.
The veteran got to his feet. He swayed slightly -- the reaction from earlier events was setting in -- and took the case, setting it down on the desk that faced out to the view. The desk surface turned opaque pearl when he keyed it. He ripped open the case and laid out an old-fashioned Taiko ten-millimeter pistol, a box of nonexplosive ammunition, and an incomplete cleaning kit. The warranty instructions he set aside. It had been a long time since basic, but his hands remembered the points and pressures to strip the component groups apart, slippery in the maker’s packing lubricant. Vikram smiled down, recognizing another newborn.
He turned in his seat. “What’s that you’re drinking?” he said to Minwe.
The Cordeban hooked the carton and tossed it underhand; Vikram caught it. Their uniforms incorporated a quaint handkerchief in the left breast pocket, which he tugged out and sloshed with raki. The acrid scent made him swallow in a suddenly dry throat; he fought it, refused to surrender to it, and began to wipe the pieces clean.
“This is an old assassin’s tool, you know. Chemical propellant driving a metal slug. You’ll have to look him in the eye when you kill him.” He stared down the barrel, then set it on the desk. “It would be easier to drop a K-strike on his office building, or plant a bomb. But I don’t think that’s what Brother Anselm wants, is it? Terror should be personal.”
“This is not terrorism,” said Abeli.
“Of course it is. Kill Langtree, frighten the others, achieve the objective. Do you think I care?”
“It is not!” cried Abeli.
Vikram glanced up to the officer’s faint reflection in the windowpane, blinked, then nodded. “Very well. It’s your operation.”
“Terror and banditry are the acts of the weak. We are the strong. They are cowards who hide among other weaklings; we wear uniforms. It is different! Everyone will know this.”
“You’ll need a witness, then. Don’t get excited and shoot his secretary as well.”
“We will do our duty,” grumbled Minwe. He took another swig.
Vikram finished assembling the weapon, worked the action several times, and loaded it. It felt good in his hand. He’d been accustomed to far more sophisticated weapons in ACAF, but the simplicity of this one had a sort of resonance. It had no smarts; you pointed it at a target, and pulled the trigger. It didn’t have to think.
“Can we get some food in here? It’ll be a while yet.” Vikram holstered the pistol, resettled in his chair, and watched the lights and colours shift across a triumphant alien landscape; he didn’t have to think either. After a time, the others ceased to speak to him.
* * *
Bishop Langtree kept long hours.
Twilight was enough to walk by in the open, empty streets of Malacca, although most of the luminescent panels painted on the sides of buildings had faded to uselessness. The two lieutenants flanking Vikram were dim silhouettes that moved jerkily towards the circular, illuminated windows of the diocesan office. Vikram kept pace with the pair easily, but allowed them to pull ahead as they clattered through the unarmored, unlocked doors of the main entrance.
Inside, light from new-fitted sconces washed the worn hallway and the bishop’s own office door. The young officers hesitated, as though the light would press them back outside by sheer force; then they slid open the door and stormed in.
“Can I help you gentle--” began the Malaccan woman who rose behind a narrow desk to the right. The officers ignored her and moved to the partly-open door leading to Langtree’s chambers. One drew his pistol as he shouldered open the panel.
“Just a minute!” cried the woman. Her expression shifted as she absorbed their actions. “You can’t--”
Vikram drew his own weapon, leaned forward, and touched its muzzle to the secretary’s ear. She froze, then began to shiver. “We’re not here for you,” he said quietly. He peeled the simple phone left-handed from her jawline, folded his fingers over it, and crushed it. There was no need to do anything more…
Voices wavered from the chamber, young and old, then a single, deafening gunshot. The secretary jerked where she stood. A moment later both officers spilled through the doorway, white-faced. Without a glance or word to Vikram, they fled.
Other sounds came from the bishop’s chamber. Vikram was very still for a moment; then he skirted the desk and pushed past the swinging panel, pointing his weapon in a two-handed grip.
Malthus Langtree lay across his desk. Blood pooled around his head, welling from where the bullet had struck it in a glancing wound that his assassins had taken for mortal. His eyes drifted toward Vikram, but they did not track; whatever they saw was a long way away, and farther every moment.
“Call...Call those young men back,” he said thickly. “I would like to speak with them.”
A Taiko’s trigger pull was one-point-two kilograms. Vikram’s finger couldn’t squeeze hard enough to shoot; all he could see over the sights was an old man’s life draining away as though he’d been dumped into vacuum, tumbling like garbage into emptiness. So many of the refugees at Amalthea had been old. Their families had paid their passage there, sacrificing anything they’d had to, in a last race against the true death...
Langtree’s nostrils flared. “Scuttlebush blossoms,” he murmured. “Oh. How I loved my, my garden. I wish...that I might walk in it again.”
Vikram shot the Bishop above the left ear.
As he had expected, the gunshot was even louder when heard in the same room; but the effect was much the same as a modern weapon. He turned away from the shattered remains of Langtree’s skull, as bloodied and empty as his own soul; feeling no more pity now, or triumph, than Samarkand would as it erased a wrongful organism from its completeness.
Something moved in the edge of his vision; he swept the pistol around and aimed for the center of mass --
The secretary cried out as she flinched. The palms of her hands were very pale.
We’re not here for you. Vikram let out a breath and lowered the weapon, and as though linked to it, the woman slid downward in the doorway, keening. Harmless. I don’t need to hurt you.
Vikram stepped over her, striding through the bright, empty outer office and outward into the street. The days of defeat, of surrender, were over. The darknesses between the lights were his to move within now; there would be more work to do.
He would never enter a garden again.