Historian’s note: this story takes place several hundred years prior to the events depicted in Exordium.
“Verification complete. Docking request granted. Welcome to Novus, Apostolus. Enjoy your stay.”
Father Cloren leaned in closer to the speaker on his console. “Thank you,” he said, and ended the transmission.
After switching the ship to slave mode, he spun ‘round in his chair, his back to the main viewport. Behind him, rows of thousands of other civilian craft streamed in and out of the twin orbital docking rings that encircled the pale blue white-speckled planet that the Apostolus was fast approaching.
“We are entering the den of the Destroyer,” he told the three eager young men struggling to see over his shoulders. “Don’t be seduced by its beauty. Don’t be led astray by its tarris-tongued promises.”
“Perhaps we should spend this time in prayer,” offered Avox.
“An excellent idea,” Cloren replied. He turned to Fanum.
“Brother Fanum, would you care to do the honors?”
“Of course, father.” Fanum pulled up the hem of his robe and knelt down on the floor. The others followed suit.
He sighed, closed his eyes and folded his hands. He didn’t want to lead the prayer—he never did—his heart was filled with doubt, and the words felt like lies.
Still, he had little choice in the matter, if any. What reason could he give for his reluctance? A crisis of faith? He was a fourth-level apprentice, for Siafu’s sake! In less than a year, he’d be a full-fledged priest.
Instead of the joy he should’ve received from this achievement, however, he felt only despair.
“Oh, great Creators, we beseech thee to grant us the strength to resist the temptations of this decadent, amoral world upon which we will soon set foot in order to deliver thy word to those who so desperately need it. Fortify us with thy divine armor, and protect us from the slings and arrows of the enemy. In the name of the Fathers, the Sons, the Prophet, and the Holy Spirits, amen.”
“Amen,” said each of the men in unison.
Fanum opened his eyes and gazed out of the viewport at their destination.
All his life, he’d been told stories about Novus, and about the people who lived upon it or visited it recreationally. It was a wicked world, rotten with sin—or so everyone said. Murder, drug addiction, sexual immorality and any other offenses against the Creators that one’s imagination might conjur went not only unpunished, but were celebrated.
“Father,” said Chindorr, the youngest of the group, “I know it’s a sin, but I can’t help it—I’m afraid.”
Cloren stood, brushed off his robe and laid hands on the boy’s shoulders.
“Fear itself is not a sin, my son. It’s a natural reaction to danger. The Creators themselves bestowed upon us the capacity for such feelings by design. A man without fear of Hell, for instance, is a foolish one.”
Chindorr looked away, ashamed. “Of course, Father. But must we go off on our own? Isn’t it unsafe?”
“Listen to me,” said Cloren. “All of you. The entire point of this mission can be summed up in a single ancient Earth expression—sink, or swim. You must face temptation alone, without my guidance. You must learn to approach the lost, in your own way. You must learn to cast aside your fears and trust the Creators to protect you.”
Chindorr nodded. “Yes, Father.
Avox crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, radiating a noxious stench of smug superiority that drifted across the cramped cabin and forced its way into Fanum’s nostrils.
He’d never much liked Avox, and over time had come to accept that, despite his best efforts, this was unlikely to change.
Avox was destined too become one of those cruel, sadistic priests who delighted in making very public examples of wayward Saints, perhaps even ordering them tortured. He saw a lot of Father Bezna in the young man.
He shivered as the slimy black fingers of unpleasant memories oozed out from around the edges of long-locked doors.
He cursed them and beat them back, screaming inwardly until their demonic chatter fell silent.
“Here we go,” called Cloren as the ship eased into an entrance on the upper docking ring. Dozens of tiny robots floated out and swarmed the Apostolus, gently guiding it to its destination.
They were tucked snugly inside a dimly-lit, gray metallic enclosure, one of thousands surrounding them. They heard a loud clunk, and felt the floor shudder beneath their feet.
“We’re being secured to the floor by magnetization,” Cloren explained. “It’s so that we don’t fall and damage our vessel when they close us off from space and activate the AG, pump the room full of oxygen.”
“How utterly and absolutely fascinating,” exclaimed Avox. “Such ingenuity these decadent servants of the flesh possess. I wonder if it was not the Destroyer himself who imbued them with it. Why should the Creators bestow such a gift upon the likes of them?”
Fanum bit down on his tongue and fought the urge to roll his eyes.
“The Destroyer creates nothing,” snapped Cloren. “All gifts come from the Creators. The Destroyer tempts us, tries to convince us to use them not for Their glory, but our own.”
Fanum could see little fires of rage burning in Avox’s eyes. He didn’t like being corrected.
“Incoming communication,” said the computer.
Cloren spun around and tapped the console. “Apostolus here.”
“You are cleared to disembark, Apostolus,” came a chirpy digital voice from the speaker.
“Thank you,” said Cloren. He ended the transmission and rose to his feet. “Well, fellas, looks like we’re good to go. Remember to keep your trackers activated at all times.”
He opened the airlock, and stepped outside of the ship onto the catwalk surrounding it. The others followed as he led them out of the tiny port and into a long, bright corridor bustling with tourists.
As they made their way to one of the lander queues, Fanum stole glances out of every window they passed.
He could see oceans, and large land masses colored with trees of various hues. He could make out the tall, gleaming buildings of its luxury resort cities that stood tall over its infamous, crime-ridden slums.
They boarded the lander, taking their seats together on one of the two long benches lining either side of its cabin.
Sitting across from them, in the midst of newlyweds, families with loud, restless children and large groups of University students, were three of the most repulsive, demonic-looking individuals he’d ever laid eyes upon—and one very attractive woman.
They all wore filthy, tattered clothing made from what appeared to be some sort of animal hide, but the girl wore far less of it.
Fanum had never seen, not in holos, nor in person or anywhere else, so much exposed female flesh. Even a lifetime’s worth of self-discipline couldn’t dam the floodwaters of arousal that coursed through his loins like a roaring jungle river after a torrential rainfall.
He wondered, at first, why no one else on board the lander had seemed to take notice of the unsavory group‘s attire. Didn’t they think it strange?
Then again, he realized, he and his party were wearing long, black robes tied at the waist with thick, dried vines, and no one seemed to notice that, either.
One of the men caught the young apprentice’s gaze lingering on his traveling companion, and his face broke into a monstrous, jagged-toothed grin. A rounded piece of rusted metal bolted to his skull covered one of his eyes, and his hair was a long, tangled mess that very well could’ve housed any number of small wild creatures.
Fanum looked away, but it was too late.
“Hey! Hey Godsboy!” He barked across the cabin, attracting at once the attention of all forty or so people who occupied it.
He leapt to his feet and thrust a finger at Fanum. “Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, fartstain! Get a good look?”
“I’m sorry,” Fanum stammered. “I didn’t… I mean I wasn’t…”
The lander began its descent, and despite a pleasant, robotic voice suggesting everyone remain seated, the man charged down the aisle towards the four missionaries.
Father Cloren rose and stepped in front of him, his palms extended outward. “Please, sir,” he said, “my young friend here meant no harm. He’s never been off world before, you see, and—”
“Yeah, siddown, Crash!” called one of his companions. “You get us kicked off one more gig and we’ll replace you! And don’t think we won’t. We got options.”
Crash scowled and balled his fists for a moment before letting his hands fall limp to his sides. “Alright,” he said. “You’re right. It ain’t worth it.”
He looked over Cloren’s shoulder at Fanum. “Hear that, kid? Today’s your lucky day! You ain’t gonna get your ass kicked!”
He strutted back to his place on the bench, and as soon as Cloren was seated, Chindorr leaned over and whispered in his ear.
“Who was that?”
“Those,” said Cloren aloud, “are Ansharans.”
“They’re hideous!” hissed Avox.
“They were created beautiful, in the image of the Creators,” Cloren told him. “As were we all. Sin. Sin is what makes us ugly.”
The scantily clad woman stole a glance at Fanum at the same time he was attempting to steal another at her, and they locked eyes for a fleeting moment before each turned away.
Fanum felt Claren’s eyes drilling a hole into the side of his head and winced.
“Do you know what else those people are?” the Father asked, addressing all three of the young men.
No one answered.
“They’re musicians,” Claren went on, “though I use the term generously. They’re called Iron Storm. Very popular with teenagers throughout the colonies. They play a form of music called Rust. Must be here for a concert.”
He snorted and shook his head. “There I go again, calling it music when it’s nothing but atonal, blasphemous noise.”
“If it’s so awful,” ventured Fanum, “why would it be popular? Why would people subject themselves to it?“
Claren chuckled. “The Destroyer is a cunning trickster,” he replied. “He knows what appeals to the demons hosted by the hearts of the wicked.”
Fanum nodded as if he understood, even though he didn’t. Of one thing, however, he was absolutely certain: he had to hear this “Rust” for himself.
The trip to the surface was shorter than Fanum had expected it would be—inside of ten minutes, they were pouring out of the lander and into the crowded spaceport terminal.
The facility, a massive, transparent cube with glowing blue octagonal framework was stunning on its own, but its opulence paled in comparison to what lay beyond it.
Baltu, the only world he’d ever known, was a paradise by anyone’s standards, with its lush, green mountainous jungles and crystalline rivers, but…
Novus Prime was more wondrous than any holo could ever hope to convey. Set against a backdrop of pale blue skies over sparkling seas dotted with tiny recreational watercraft, the skygrazing buildings that loomed over them were downright awe-inspiring.
The crumbling brick spires of the cathedrals of Sanctus that had once seemed so impressive to him were, in his mind, demystified on the spot.
Houses of The Creators, indeed, he thought. What sort of God would choose one of those when such magnificent monolithic megatowers of gleaming glass and steel existed?
Forgive me these blasphemous thoughts, my Creators.
And the vehicles—they were everywhere! Skycars zipped to and fro across the sky like bacteria in a Petri dish, and Fanum marveled at the idea that everyone using them most likely took them for granted.
Please, Lords, forgive me my covetousness.
There were trees, as well—lots of them. Only they weren’t like any trees Fanum had ever seen. Their trunks were tall, white and skinny, and their crowns were enclosed within a sealed, translucent bubble filled with colored fluid—some reddish-tinged, others green, purple, yellow or teal.
This was life, for some people. They woke up in paradise every morning, climbed out of bed, and did whatever they wanted to do. They lived their lives as they saw fit.
On Baltu, one leapt out of bed at the sound of the dawnsbell and carried out mundane tasks assigned by someone else. If they weren’t completed in a timely and satisfactory manner…
He shuddered and banished such thoughts from his mind. It was a skill he’d become rather proficient at, by necessity.
“There’s an eatery close by,” said Cloren, gazing at the screen on his tracker before powering it down and dropping it into his pocket. “Comes highly recommended.”
He looked around and pointed over the heads of the crowd. “Over there. Come on.”
They made their way through the crowd, and after waiting in line outside the eatery for nearly a full hour, were finally admitted.
“The wait was definitely worth it,” said Chindorr, with great enthusiasm, between forkfuls of something called trensilla.
Fanum’s food was quite good, as well, and he ate every bit of it despite the fact that he wasn’t the least bit hungry. He’d ordered the trynod, whatever that was. Some sort of seafood, the dispenser had explained.
Avox pretended to be unimpressed by his own selection, but finished before anyone else and treated everyone to a tirade about Novusian gluttony.
As for Father Cloren, he betrayed no signs indicating whether or not he was enjoying his meal. He ate it with the same enthusiasm he’d have shown for a bowl of lukewarm sap porridge from the monastery.
“You’ll find your trackers preloaded with all the info and scrip you’ll need for the next five days,” he told them. “You must find your own lodgings, and obtain your own food. You will be completely on your own, and are only to contact me in cases of emergency—extreme emergency. And do not exceed your budget. Spend wisely. Is that understood?”
Each of them nodded in turn and Cloren rose from his chair, dabbing at the corners of his mouth with his napkin.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “may the Creators be with you. May your faith not falter.”
“Don’t worry about that, Father,” said Avox. “Not from me, anyway.”
Shut up, you pompous fool, Fanum shouted inside of his head.
Cloren gave the boy a pitying look. “Watch yourself, my son,” he said. “This false bravado you use to mask your fears will not protect you here.”
Avox looked like he was about to cry, and Chindorr snorted through the fingers he’d placed over his mouth to hide his involuntary grin.
Cloren shot him a warning glare. “Something funny?”
Chindorr looked down. “No father, I’m sorry.”
“Okay, first thing I need to do…” muttered Fanum, trailing off as he tapped away at the tracker’s screen.
He sighed and tapped harder, with more urgency. “Come on… come on… ah! Here we go. ‘Procure lodgings.’ Okay, show me my options. Least expensive first.”
The cheapest place was called the Seaspray Inn. It was close, and the name sounded pleasant, so he chose it and started walking.
The crowds, the vehicles, the buildings, the loud music and the wide open spaces were overwhelming to his senses after spending a good chunk of the past several years of his life trapped behind the walls of a dank stone monastery.
No, not trapped. In prayer and supplication. Forgive me, Creators.
There weren’t many signs in Sanctus—one already knew where to go and what to do, and what things were. Here, though, they were everywhere, making an already busy setting even busier.
His tracker led him to a long queue of tourists waiting to board a massive, people-packed platform that began to descend into the ground within moments of his arrival.
Whatever this was, it wasn’t the Seaspray Inn.
He joined the line, and after working up the courage, tapped the shoulder of a man standing in front of him.
His festive, colorful shirt and sun helmet struck Fanum as strange but also mildly amusing.
He turned around, his eyes widening as they took in the sight of Fanum’s ragged apprentice robe. He had a rotund, jovial face that seemed friendly enough.
“Ain’t ya hot in that thing, kid?”
Fanum frowned. “I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you mention it, yes. It’s very uncomfortable.”
The man laughed. “How the Hell can ya walk around baking inside of a getup like that and not think about it?
Fanum winced at the man’s casual use of profanity and reminded himself that he was likely to hear much worse during the course of his stay.
He shrugged with all the feigned nonchalance he could muster. “This is the only clothing I own.”
The man squinted. “Baltu, right? You’re one o’ them… Consilicon people, right?”
“Ah, yeah, right, that’s what it’s called. So you’re on some kinda, what’s it called? Like a mission trip or somethin’?”
“Yes, I’m in training to become a Priest, you see. It’s the final step before I’m ordained.”
The man gave him a pitying look. “You’re in for a real culture shock, kid. I’ll tell ya that much. They uh, they keep ya kinda closed off out there, don’t they?”
“We are shielded from the influence of the worlds, yes,” said Fanum. “And the flesh.”
The man laughed. “No shields here,” he said, leaning in closer and lowering his voice. “And plenty o’ flesh. What’d ya want, anyway?”
Fanum nodded at the chasm where the platform had been. “Where does that go?”
“Underworld,” said the man with a sly smile. “That’s where all the action is.”
Fanum was confused. He’d heard of the Underworld, and what he’d been told about it wasn’t good. Was that where the Seaspray was? He hoped not.
“What do you mean, ‘action?’”
The man threw back his head, laughed, and clapped a hand down on Fanum’s shoulder. “Oh, kid, you just wait. Casinos, Liquor, sex, recreational pharmaceuticals… they got everything ya could want down there.”
He glanced about their pristine, palatial surroundings. “Up here, yeah, it’s real nice an’ all, but that ain’t why people come to Novus, get it?”
“Up here’s where ya sleep,” he went on. “Down there’s where ya play.”
“I guess my hotel is down there,” said Fanum. “So I’ll be sleeping there, as well.”
“Holy shit, kid,” he said with a look of shocked amusement on his puffy face. “Ya can’t stay in one o’ them places. Ya don’t even wanna blink in in o’ them places. You’ll get janked in your sleep. Some carthead’ll kill ya for that tracker. Even if they don’t, somebody else’ll come along and kill ya just t’kill ya. Just ‘cause he likes it. Gets him off. Lotta lurks like that around here, just waitin’ to sink their teeth into your tender young meat.”
“It’s the cheapest place,” said Fanum, pretending not to be utterly terrified. “And I’m on a strict budget.”
The man scratched his pudgy, stubbly chin. “Tell ya what,” he said. “Ya can stay with me. I got a big ol’ suite at the Zenon, incredible view o’ the sea. More room in there than I’ll ever need. That’ll really give ya some more wiggle room on that budget.”
Fanum was taken aback by the blatant generosity of this offer. All his life, he’d heard that those who lived outside of the Kingdom were wicked, self-serving savages.And yet, the very first lost soul he encountered was kind and helpful. Where was he from? Was he the exception, or the norm?
“Name’s Keyba, by the way,” said the man.
“And I’m Fanum. Might I ask where you come from, and what brings you to Novus?”
Keyba shrugged. “I dunno. Same thing brings everybody else out here, I guess. Well, ‘cept for you, of course. Ya got your own motivations. Me, I just wanna have fun. I live on Dinn. Ain’t much fun out there.”
Fanum’s eyes widened. “The ice planet?”
Keyba laughed. “Yessir. Been there most o’ my life. Got my own shipyard, makin’ too much scrip t’ever leave.”
Fanum’s eyes widened even further. “You build spaceships? You must be very wealthy, indeed.”
“Yeah,” said Keyba. “Ya could say that, I s’pose. ‘Course, there’s a lotta folks makin’ more out there off ferrum an’ tarris, but that’s dangerous business.”
“How’s it dangerous?” asked Fanum, his curiosity piqued.
Keyba scratched his chin again and shook his head. “Man, ya don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin,’ do ya, kid? And they just turnt ya loose out here?”
Fanum felt like an idiot. He pointed to the returning, empty transport platform, grateful for an opportunity to change the subject.
“It’s back,” he informed Keyba, fully aware of how unnecessary it was to do so.
Keyba grinned. “Stick close to me, kid. I’ll show ya the ropes. I’m gonna see to it that ya have some fun if it kills ya.”
They were among the last to board the transport, which was packed to capacity with sweaty, sticky bodies of all shapes and sizes. The platform was grated, but Fanum could see nothing beneath it.
It wasted no time beginning its creaky, rumbling descent, and Fanum felt stirrings of panic as they were lowered into darkness.
“I can’t see anything,” he told his new friend.
“Relax,” said Keyba. “It only lasts a minute or two.”
Fanum waited, his body tense with anxiety. All around him, he could hear breathing, inane chatter and occasional bursts of laughter.
No one else is afraid. This is all perfectly normal to them. Stop cowering like a child.
“Do you believe in the Creators?”
He could almost feel Keyba bristle at the question, and hoped he hadn’t angered the man.
“No,” came the answer. It was firm and without hesitation. “Not at all.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you by asking,” said Fanum.
“Heh. Don’t feel bad, kid. You’re just doing’ your job. You’re kinda like a salesman, in a way, like me tryin’ ta talk bored rich folk into buying new StarYachts. That’s my company. Ya heard of, it, right?”
“Well, that tracks with you not knowin’ ‘bout anything else, I s’pose. Anyhow, you sell folks on the Creators and I sell folks on luxury recreational space travel. Y’tell everybody you meet the good news, how great a product you got, ‘cetra. How much they need it and don’t got much time left to decide. ‘Sall the same game, kid. Never let an opportunity pass you by, rule number one.”
“Seems like sound advice,” sighed Fanum, wondering how he was ever going to gather enough testimonials to meet his quota. He wasn’t going to get one from Keyba, that much was certain.
Thump, thump, thump, thump.
Fanum’s head swiveled to and fro, his eyes scanning the darkness. “What’s that?”
“Music,” said Keyba. “If y’anna call it that, anyways. Gods know I don’t.”
Fanum strained his ears to hear it over the chatter of his fellow passengers.
“Is that… rust?”
“Yep,” said Keyba. “They got that shit playin’ round the clock down there nowadays. How the Hell you know that?”
“Just a hunch.”
“Shit,” said Keyba. “I just remembered there’s a concert goin’ on t’night. Gonna be asses n’ elbows out on the streets tonight. Buncha scrapers. Casinos’ll be empty, though. Good news for us.”
“The concert,” said Fanum. “Iron Storm, right?”
A green glow from below their feet lit up Keyba’s features just in time for Fanum to see one of his eyebrows pop up. Behind his head the rock wall of the hole they were traveling down sped past much faster than it seemed like they were actually moving.
“Ya hearda them?”
Fanum shrugged. “They were on the lander with us. Father Cloren knew who they were.”
“Oh,” said Keyba, nodding that he understood.
The music got louder.
Fanum weighed his options. An empty casino would provide far fewer witnessing opportunities than a performance hall filled with sinners. He had to go that concert.
Not because he was curious about the music. Not because he couldn’t stop thinking about that girl. Not because—
Shut up! Shut up shut up shut up!
He was going solely to win souls for the Promised Land, and that was it. Would he hurt Keyba’s feelings if he didn’t join him at the casino, though? Would he still allow him to stay in his suite scrip-free? He took a deep breath.
“I intend to be at that concert tonight,” he told Keyba, who seemed nonplussed by this declaration.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “It’s your ears.”
The music grew still louder as the platform slowed its descent and came to a gradual halt inside of a vast empty chamber lined with green gellux lighting.
“I mean listen to that shit,” barked Keyba.
Fanum was listening to it. Bursts of jagged electronic squeals zigzagged intricately throughout a dense cloud of heavy rhythmic clanging floating on a deep, reverberating hum. Cutting through all of that was an abrasive, digitally altered voice that effortlessly alternated between angelic singing and atonal, demonic wailing. He couldn’t make out any of the words.
It was recognizable as music, but it wasn’t at all like the droning, lifeless hymns he’d heard every day of his life during temple and mass—it was alive; exciting. It was dangerous.
“You’re not angry with me, are you? I don’t wish to seem rude by declining your offer to show me these ‘ropes’ you spoke of. It’s just that it seems like that’s where all the people are right now, and I’ve got less than a week to gather five souls. ‘Never let an opportunity pass you by,’ a wise man once told me.”
Keyba grinned and slapped the boy on the chest. “I get it,” he said. “Whaddaya mean by that, though? Collectin’ souls?”
Fanum pulled his tracker out of his pocket. “There’s a form on here,” he said, tapping at the screen. “When I lead someone to salvation, they submit to a retinal scan for Consilium records. Then they sign the form by fingerprint.”
Keyba’s face lit up. “Well hot damn, I think I figured all this out. I bet these ‘souls’ start sendin’ scrip to the Consilicon right away, huh?”
“Consilium. And yes, new converts are expected to tithe.”
The walls in front of them parted, revealing what looked like an endless expanse of grimy, gellux-lit buildings standing beneath a dim artificial night sky.
The flickering holographic signs atop nearly every roof promised the crowds flooding the streets sex, fun and adventure.
To Fanum, the scene was simultaneously titillating and terrifying. Before his very eyes, mere footsteps away, was the anti-Sanctus—a city of sinners reveling in their unrepentant sins, and without fear. Without shame.
“Well, just head on back to the surface, whenever you’re ready to turn in for the night,” said Keyba. “Go to the front desk o’ the Zenon and have ‘em call my room.”
He turned to walk away; stopped. “Just outta curiosity, what happens if ya don’t get the souls?”
Fanum looked away. “Nothing good.”
A single ticket cost Fanum nearly half of his scrip, but as he merged with the crowd pouring into Texelkov Ballroom, he knew he’d made the correct decision in purchasing one.
The place was very industrial-looking, like holos he’d seen of old factories on Galenia way back when people had lived there. Everything was rusted or otherwise corroded. Huge pipes ran across its tall ceiling, and rickety, grated catwalks packed full of noisy, boisterous concertgoers lined its walls.
The stage, which stood in the center of everything, high above the crowd, was cluttered with all manner of strange-looking machinery, none of which Fanum recognized.
Behind a bar embedded into one corner, several scantily-clad woman served drinks to a long line of impatient people that nearly encircled the room.
Surely, amidst the sea of people surrounding him, he’d be able to reach at least five. The odds were definitely in his favor.
Or so he assumed, anyway, until the very first individual he approached took a bit of the wind out of his sail.
He looked like most everyone else present—dirty, ragged leather coverings held together by rusted lengths of chain, spiked shoulder pads and a bald head that gleamed beneath the strobing red lights inside the arena.
“Pardon me,” said Fanum, sidling up to the man, who turned and made the sort of face one might make upon sudden detection of a noxious odor. Carved into his forehead, the wound still crusted over with dried blood, was some sort of symbol Fanum didn’t recognize.
“Hell you want?” he growled like one of the cantankerous old laudracs the Holy Guard occasionally had to lance down when they wandered too close to the city gates.
Just ask him. He’s scary, but nowhere near as scary as getting supercharged.
He’d never been supercharged, but he’d seen it happen on multiple occasions, each more unpleasant than the last.
They hooked you up to Bibliog and re-baptized you, essentially, frying the sin from your brain. Those who underwent the procedure were rarely ever the same again. They turned into people like Avox.
“I’d like to share with you, if you have a moment, the Good News of our Creators.”
The man’s long, beefy arm lashed out, and his thick, hairy digits closed around Fanum’s neck.
“Go die,” he snarled, and shoved the young apprentice to the sticky, litter-strewn ground.
Fanum watched, gasping for air as the heavy, spiked boots of his attacker stomped away, just before another, similar pair stepped on the side of his head and kept walking.
“Ow,” he cried out, and a hand seized him by the arm, hauling him to his feet.
“Thanks,” he said to the stranger before him. This man was nearly indistinguishable from the one who’d choked him, but his eyes were kinder. He had one of those armports Father Cloren had warned them about.
Vibers. You’ll know them by the ports installed in their forearms. That’s where the cartridge is inserted. They’re very dangerous and will do anything for their next fix, even if the cost is your life. Approach them with extreme caution.
Was Father wrong?
The stranger held out his tracker. “Twenty sssstonesss in my account, right now. Come on.”
Fanum, still dazed from the attack, squinted and rubbed his head. “What?”
“I helped you, now you help me,” he said. “I know your church has bigtime ssscrip. Make the transssfer.”
He removed a small knife from one of the pouches on his… whatever it was he and so many others were wearing.
“Now pleassssse,” he hissed, and Fanum saw for the first time that his tongue had been surgically forked.
Okay, so maybe he’s not as kind as I thought. Or at all.
Twenty stones wouldn’t put much of a dent in his budget, he determined after making few quick mental calculations. Besides, what choice did he have? He didn’t know how to fight. This guy looked like he did, and was much bigger than him, to boot.
“Alright, friend,” he said, tapping away at his tracker screen. “accept link request 43777.”
The scary man looked down at his screen momentarily before jerking his head up and brandishing the knife. “Don’t try anything!”
Fanum raised his hands. “No worries, brother. Tell me, did you know that the Creators have a special plan, just for you? Bible Two tells us—”
“Shut up!” He was looking down at the screen again, knife still raised, and panting.
His tracker chimed, signaling that the transfer was complete.
“Thanksss, cog,” he said with a smirk and vanished into the crowd.
The house lights went down, and a deafening cacophony of shouting, screaming and howling erupted from everyone around him. An orange spotlight shone on the stage, cutting through the thick clouds of smoke now rising from its deck.
Within moments, nothing was visible but the light and the smoke, from which emerged four silhouetted figures. One of them was a sight curvier than the rest.
The lights dimmed, and each of the figures, the people he’d seen on the lander, took their places behind what Fanum could only assume were their instruments.
“Novus! Bellowed one of them, his amplified voice echoing off the sides of the interior of Fanum’s cranium. “How the Hell are y’all doin’ out there?”
The crowd roared in response.
Enough of the smoke had cleared now that Fanum could see that they were all wearing masks designed to look like detached human faces. The one speaking was stationed behind a large, waist-high metallic dome, gripping the handle of a rather sizable hammer with both hands. Standing to his left, behind two rusty metal pillars standing a few inches taller than her head, was the girl. Even though her face was obscured by ugliness, he recognized her by the the curves of her voluptuous body. In each hand she held a wand of some sort.
To their left, another member of the group was tapping his fingers on a computer console attached to a cylindrical, translucent tank full of luminous blue bubbling liquid. Out of the top of the tank rose a cluster of pipes of varying lengths.
To their right, the fourth member was equipped with a long, silvery cylindrical object hanging by a strap over his shoulder. On one of his hands was a heavy-looking mechanical glove.
“You ready for something old?” growled the speaker to more uproarious applause.
“This is the first piece we ever wrote,” he went on. “It’s about what happens to your body when you get stuck outside during an iron storm. This one’s called… SKELETONIZED!”
This announcement was followed by an aural assault the likes of which Fanum would never have been able to conceive of had he not heard it with his own ears.
The girl, waving her wands between the poles and tracing shapes in the air, generated a deafening but intricate series of high-pitched electronic squeals.
The speaker was pounding his hammer against his dome, the sound waves from each impact striking Fanum in the chest like a fist.
The fellow with the blue tank, which Fanum now realized was something akin to a pipe organ, was flailing and convulsing as he played, his lips stretched wide in an ugly, jagged-toothed grin.
To their right, the man with the metal tube was twiddling his gloved fingers up and down the entire length of the thing, though what sound it produced, Fanum was unable to determine. It blended in with everything us.
The girl began to sing, and the howling, operatic vocal that burst forth from her blood red lips was jarring, given the abrasive nature of the music supporting it.
Soon the man beating the dome joined in, harmonizing with her in a deep, heavy baritone punctuated by the occasional growl. Fanum couldn’t understand anything they were saying, but it was all very impressive, the way they continued to play their instruments while belting out the indecipherable lyrics.
Somehow, though it defied all logic, these combined elements meshed extremely well with one another, creating a powerful and cohesive sound that Fanum couldn’t help but enjoy.
Forgive me, Fathers.
With rapt attention, he stood and observed all two hours of the show, periodically dodging flailing arms and random pieces of debris ripped, presumably, from the venue’s fixtures. Towards the end, he’d even joined the crowd in cheering the group on, howling and pumping his fist in the air to the beat.
At one point, the girl spotted him from the stage and smiled when they locked eyes. The dome beater seemed to notice, and fixed Fanum with an icy glare.
After the final song ended and the house lights came up, Fanum made a break for the exit. He’d failed to win any new converts, but he was tired, and not a soul at the concert was likely to be receptive to his message, anyway.
Perhaps, he pondered, he’d have better luck on the surface.
His conscience wasn’t about to let him off the hook that easily, however.
Did you even try? No, you just stood there clapping and dancing along.
He’d enjoyed the concert, immensely, though he’d tried his best not to.
You enjoyed the fruit of their sin. No, you were a part of the sin! You are unclean in the sight of the Creators! And you have lusted after that girl! Even now you imagine the two of you defiling one another with—
He’d just stepped outside when he was quite unexpectedly seized by the arm, jerked to the side and dragged into a nearby alley.
He’d barely begun to process what was happening to him when a voice boomed out from the shadows.
“Gimme your tracker, dagface, or get splattered, ya heard?”
Fanum looked around. There were three of them, all wearing nanomasks. He could tell by the way the skin on their faces undulated and flickered.
The masks were banned on most worlds, including Baltu, but Father Claren had warned them that Novus was one of the few on which they were legal.
They use them to prevent identification during commission of crimes. The nanocytes also devour any shed DNA. If someone wearing one approaches you, run, my children.”
He couldn’t run, though. They wanted his tracker, and they were going to get it because he had no alternative but to hand it over.
He’d have no way to contact the Father, and no means by which to pay for any of his expenses for the week. His heart sank, but then he had an idea.
“I heard,”said Fanum, “and I’ll do as you say. But fellas, there’s a better way. This is not the plan the Creators have for your lives. You were fearfully and wonderfully made in—”
The man gripping his arm punched Fanum hard in the gut, knocking the wind out of him.
His vision blurred and gasping for air, he made a pitiful attempt to crawl away before the toe of a heavy boot connected with his head.
He screamed as blood tricked down his face and into his eyes. Over the muffled ringing in his ears, he could hear them laughing.
One of the men rushed forward, knelt down and fished his tracker out of his pocket.
“Got it!” he chirped at the others before stuffing into his own pocket.
They ran off into the night, leaving him dazed and moaning.
With great effort, he rose trembling to his feet and hobbled out of the alleyway, his face buried in his hands.
He lurched though the streets of the Undergeound, periodically bumping into people and muttering apologies. No one seemed to mind much.
They think I’m vibed out, he realized. Just like them.
What a dismal failure he was. What a coward. What a weakling. He’d never felt so helpless in all his life, and the pain was much worse than even the most intense of penance rites.
Eventually he found his way back to the transport platform, waited in line, then boarded it.
He asked around until he found someone willing to tell him where the Zenon was, and after making his way there he went to the front desk and told the clerk he was lodging with a man named Keyba.
“Hmm,” said the clerk, a tall, lanky older gentleman with a thin mustache, “it would appear he’s not yet returned for the evening.”
He looked Fanum up and down, wrinkling his nose as he did so.
“Perhaps,” he said with an icy tone, “sir would care to wait for him… outside.”
Fanum caught a glimpse of himself in the mirrored wall behind the desk. He was a bloody, disheveled mess, and probably not good for business.
He nodded at the man. “I understand. Thank you for your assistance.”
He turned and went back through the front doors, to the sidewalk, where he sat down on a clean, fancy bench and began to sense people’s eyes on him. He heard voices, too. He couldn’t hear what they were whispering, but he knew it was about him.
After two hours spent alternating between sitting and frantic pacing, Keyba finally showed up.
“Hey, man!” He exclaimed, his breath reeking of alcohol. “Hell happened to ya?”
Fanum sighed. He was so very tired.
“Got janked, just like you said I would. You still going to let me stay in your suite? They took my tracker. I lost all my scrip on my first night here.”
Keyba shook his head. “Let’s getcha inside. Ya look like ya could use a shower and a hot meal.”
Fanum nodded and rose to his feet. “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll be forever grateful for the kindness you’ve shown me.”
For the briefest of moments, Keyba’s eyes flicked downward.
“Don’t mention it, kid.”
Fanum had never used a nanoshower—he’d never even seen one in the flesh, as nanocytes had long been forbidden on Baltu. It was said they were demons. Few still believed that, though, least of all Fanum.
After all, they’d healed his wounds. They’d eaten dirt, dead skin, oils and fungi, scrubbing every nook and cranny of his body cleaner than it’d ever been.
Unclean spirits, indeed, he thought.
Fanum threw on his freshly washed robe and made his way to the suite’s dining area, where Keyba was seated and already eating at the table.
“Again, thank you so much,” said Fanum. “For everything you’ve done for me.”
“Like I said,” growled Keyba, wincing and rubbing his head, “think nothin’ of it.”
There was something odd about the way he’d said that, but the feast laid out before him was speaking, and his stomach was listening.
He didn’t know what he was eating, but each mysterious item he stuffed into his mouth tasted better than the one preceding it. There were sweet flavors, spicy flavors, salty flavors… there were textures ranging from dry and crispy to wet and slimy.
Keyba had slowed down, and was directing towards him a concerned, pitying look.
“What’s wrong?” asked Fanum, his own voice sounding as if it had come from somewhere else.
“I’m sorry, kid,” said Keyba, whose voice also sounded distant and muffled. “They was gonna kill me if I didn’t help ‘em. I ain’t some bigshot like I said, just an ol’ broke gambler. I got debts, an’ this was an opportunity to clear ‘em. Ya know what I say about opportunities.”
His vision became blurred and unfocused, and he was overwhelmed by a sudden urge to go to sleep.
The last thing he saw before his face hit the table was someone entering the room…
“Wake up, you little shit. It’s showtime.”
Fanum’s eyes fluttered open. He was lying on the floor in a cramped, dark and grimy room that smelled strange. The man who’d spoken was standing over him, gripping his shoulders and shaking him.
“I said wake up, cog!”
The man’s face was one of the ugliest Fanum had ever seen—thick black stubble poking though flabby, drooping jowls, a rather large, flat nose, one erratically darting eye that seemed to have a mind of its own, and dark, oily, shoulder-length hair.
He grinned, revealing a set of jagged, rotting teeth. “There he is. There’s our pretty lad. We’re about to call your priest, godsboy, and make a little trade.”
Fanum started to move with the intent of scrambling to safety, but found that his legs were bound together, along with his wrists.
The ugly man placed a tracker on the floor several feet away and a holographic image of Father Cloren materialized above it.
“Fanum? What’s going on? Where are you?”
“I… I don’t know,” he slurred, struggling to form the words. “Got… drugged, or…”
The toe of the ugly man’s boot made contact with the side of his head, and everything flashed white for a fraction of a second. The pain nearly caused him to lose consciousness again.
The man kicked him in the ribs next, and two other sets of boots came into view and joined the first, kicking and stomping him all over his body. He could taste blood running from his nose down his throat, and the room was spinning.
“That,” said the ugly man, “is but a small taste of what’s in store for this cog unless you fork over ten thousand stone. I know you’re good for it so don’t you dare insult my intelligence by insisting otherwise. Is that understood?”
Cloren’s face was grim. “Perfectly. The Consilium’s position on such attempts at extortion are clear, however. We do not fund wickedness. Period. Fanum, you will be welcomed into the Hall of the Creators with open arms, for you will have perished in their service, and been persecuted in their names. Your name may even be written in the Book of Martyrs. I bid you a most fond farewell, until next we meet. May the light of the Prophet guide your path.”
Cloren vanished, and the ugly man and his friends began to shout, grunt and smash things.
Fanum was too dazed to be certain he’d heard the Father correctly, but it soundedlike they were abandoning him.
The physical agony he felt was inconsequential compared to the newfound feelings of hopelessness and despair that permeated his spirit.
He was alone. Completely alone. No one in the universe cared about him.
A man just as unpleasant-looking as ugly man seized him by the arm, hauled him to his feet and screamed at him. Fanum winced as droplets of rancid spit splattered his face.
“We tried, cog! We tried! Now we’re gonna have to sell you to the hunters for half the price! Damn it!”
Fanum was then dropped back down to the dirty, smelly floor.
Part of him didn’t like the sound of that at all, but another part didn’t care and just wanted to die.
He also desperately wanted a drink of water, as every time he breathed, the intake of air whooshing past his dry, cracked throat triggered a painful cough.
He asked for one, and no one heard him, so he asked louder—as loud as he could, anyway. One of the pairs of boots stopped pacing, spun and marched towards him, delivering another kick to the side of his head.
He awoke some time later to the sensation of being dragged across rough, litter-strewn pavement. His head was throbbing, and, quite unexpectedly, he vomited.
The man dragging him dropped him to the ground.
“Aw, dungs!” roared the man. “Little cog bellyblasted me! There’s blood in it! Gads!”
“Well stop hitting him,” barked another voice. “You’re gonna kill him, then he won’t be worth anything!”
Fanum was thankful for this intervention on his behalf, even though he was less than enamored of the reason for it.
Hunters, they’d said. What’d that mean?
He was in a darkened alley, and there were lots of people around; lots of soft-glowing signs, nasty smells, loud rust music and a big, bustling crowd of people.
He considered crying out for help, but didn’t think he was capable, or that anyone would even care.
They were loading him into the cargo compartment of a revocar when a shrill, powerful voice cut through the din and turned all of his abductors’ heads… as well as his own.
It was her… the girl from Iron Storm! Two very tall, burly men who might’ve been twins, each equipped with some sort of gleaming black visor across his eyes came towards Fanum and the ugly men at the girl’s behest.
“Back off man,” said one of his captors. “This is our score.”
Even over all the noise, Fanum thought he heard the speaker’s bones crunch when one of the bigger men grabbed him by the wrist and twisted.
He fell to the ground again as they all let go of him, and he stared into the darkness of the street as a struggle ensued above him.
He passed out again.
“Are you alright?”
Fanum’s blurred, foggy vision came into partial focus, and he found himself face-to-face with the girl, who was leaning over him.
It seemed like a dream… after all of the horrors he’d endured, all the pain, all the heartache… how could something so lovely as her face coexist within the same reality as such things?
Maybe he was dead, and she was one of the angels guarding the gates to the Hall…
No—it was real, and he was in a fancy hotel room. It looked a lot like…
“Where are we?” he croaked.
“The Zenon,” she said. “It’s where we always stay when we come through. Try to stay still. Doc should be here any second.”
“Yeah,” she said. “We keep a doctor on staff. Comes in handy. He keeps us inoculated against all the viruses our bodies aren’t used to, and treats us when we get injured onstage.”
“Ah. Makes… sense.” He winced and grunted through his teeth.
“I’m serious, quit moving around. Pretty sure you’ve got a couple broken ribs and a concussion.”
“Kept saying they wanted me alive… sell me to… hunters.”
“That’s what they do,” she said. “Lot of that going on here. It’s a whole cottage industry. They abduct tourists and try to extort money from their families. If that fails, they sell them to hunters.”
“Yeah, but what… who are these hunters?”
“You don’t know? Man, you really are a cog. Okay, so they ship you off to some uninhabited moon, on a cargo ship with a bunch of other prey. They let you go, and you run. You hide. Then these rich guys drop a ton of scrip to come and track you down and shoot you for sport. I’ve heard some of ‘em even eat people, but that’s just a rumor. My name’s Dea Ferrugo, by the way, but you probably already knew that.”
“I didn’t,” he admitted. “My name’s Fanum. I’m from Baltu. I gather you’re very famous, and so is your musical group, but I’d never even heard of Rust before I…”
His voice trailed off as his thoughts came into focus.
She laid a hand on his arm and leaned in closer. Her breath was warm and sweet on his bruised, tender skin.
“Before you what?”
“Man who gave me to the ugly men. Staying here, at the Zenon.”
He was gasping and panting now, and the pain was almost overwhelming.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Hurts to speak.”
“I would imagine so,” she replied. “That’s why I told you to lie still.”
The door to the room hissed open, and in walked a middle-aged man clad in a white jumpsuit and toting a black satchel that hung from his shoulder by a strap.
“I came as soon as I could,” he said. “I’ve spent the last half hour extracting bits of broken glass from Spino’s face. This the patient?”
“Yeah. His name’s Fanum. He’s hurt bad.”
The doctor went to Fanum’s side, pulled a palm-sized device from the satchel and ran it over his body.
“Hmm. No significant internal injuries. Another victim of the fray, I presume?”
“No,” said Dea Ferrugo. “Snatchers.”
The doctor deactivated the scanner and stuffed it back into his satchel. “Another stray, then. Well, your new boy toy will be just fine, I’m pleased to report.”
He fished a small white capsule out of the satchel and handed it to Fanum. “Swallow this. It’s full of nanocytes. They’ll replicate in your bloodstream and travel throughout your body, healing all injury. The process usually takes a day or two.”
“On my world,” said Fanum, staring down at the capsule in his palm, “nanocytes are considered demons.”
“That, my friend,” said the doctor as he turned to leave, “is because your world is run by primitive, superstitious savages. Heed my advice, young man: never go back.”
He exited the room, and Fanum swallowed the pill.
Over the next two days, Fanum and Dea got to know each other quite well.
He told her all about his life on Baltu, and much of it seemed to shock or horrify her. The more she reacted like that, the more cracks began to form in the walls of faith that had been erected around him to obscure his view of the outside world.
And what a world it was—Dea’s tales of her adventures throughout the free colonies were riveting, to say the least. There was so, so much more to life than being penned up in dank, tomblike monasteries and memorizing passages from stuffy, ancient books that he was seriously beginning to suspect weren’t even true.
During breakfast the day before Iron Storm was scheduled to depart for the next stop on their tour, Dea asked him to join them.
“I don’t know…” he told her, looking down at his plate and stirring the remnants of his seahog omelette with his fork.
“Look, you said it yourself,” Dea pleaded, leaning forward across the table and taking his hands in hers. “If you go back, you get super zapped or whatever you called it, and you’re terrified of that. They don’t have food like this on Baltu, either. There are so many reasons you should just forget all that and come on tour with us.”
“Supercharged,” he said. “And I know, but it… it’s just hard, you know? I don’t know any other kind of life.”
“And you never will,” she countered, pulling away from him. “Not if you refuse to take chances. You’ll be trapped there forever in your little cult, the butt of everyone else’s jokes, all over the worlds.”
“I never knew the choice was mine to make,” he whispered wondering if this was how Creator Jesus Christ felt when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness.
This was no wilderness, though, and Dea was no devil—she was far too beautiful… far too kind.
She smiled wistfully at him, her pink hair glistening in the rays of the morning sun coming through the window that overlooked the sea.
He smiled back, and it was at that moment that He was abruptly reacquainted with Crash, the member of Iron Storm who’d nearly attacked him back on the lander.
He burst into the room and froze when he saw Dea and Fanum sitting together.
“Oh, so this is where you’ve been, eh? Where’d you find this one, out by a dumpster or something? Scrounging for crumbs, eh?”
He doesn’t remember me, thought Fanum, and thanked gods he wasn’t sure existed for the favor.
“Shut up, Crash,” said Dea. “It’s been over between us for almost two months, now. I have a right to move on.”
“The public thinks we’re together,” said Crash, his bald head shimmering with a thin sheen of sweat. That’s a big part of our image!”
“Image,” snorted Dea. “Do you hear yourself? You sound like a poser. Now get out of my room. Now.”
Crash threw up has hands and backed towards the door.
“Fine. If that’s the way you want it, I’ll leave you to enjoy your breakfast.”
He flashed Fanum a contemptuous smirk. “She’s not what she seems, kid,” he sneered. “She has a short attention span. You’ll get ditched at the next port, mark my words.”
On his way out, he backhanded a lamp off a table, and it shattered on the floor just as the door slid shut behind him.
“What did he mean by all that?”
“Nothing,” she said. “He’s jealous, that’s all. I’ve dated a few men since we broke up, and they didn’t work out.”
“Are we… dating?”
Dea smiled. “I like you a lot. That’s why I asked you to come with me.”
I have a choice.
He thought of Father Cloren, who’d been all too ready to abandon him without a fight. Dea, a woman he’d just met, cared more for him than the man who’d essentially raised him.
The choice is obvious.
“Yes,” said Fanum. “The answer is yes. I’ll go with you.”
Dea stood up, walked around to his side of the table and sat on his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck.
Every part of his body burned with lust, and he felt guilty about that for about three seconds. When she kissed him, anything resembling a moral quandary vanished into the ether.
“You should be fully healed by now,” she whispered into his ear, making the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
“I feel… really good,” he said with a nervous chuckle.
She stood up, took him by the hand and pulled. He rose to his feet and followed her over to the bed, where she sat down and patted the mattress.
“What’s the matter,” she asked, noticing his hesitation. “Don’t you think I’m pretty?”
The question was so absurd he couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen,” he said, and she smiled.
“I’m your first, aren’t I?”
Fanum looked away and nodded. He’d long ago resigned himself to the idea that he would never know a woman carnally.
It wasn’t forbidden for a Priest of the Consilium to wed, but they often chose to remain celibate as it was generally frowned upon for them to do otherwise. Cardinals wed occasionally, but only one Sallirium had ever taken a wife.
In any case, it wasn’t marriage that was being proposed by Dea—it was fornication!
Such an act among the Saints was most often punished by a mere public flogging. For a Priest, though, the penalty was, by law, execution.
“It’s just that…” he began, forming his next words in his mind and imagining how ridiculous they would sound to her when he spoke them.
“On Baltu, I could be put to death for this.”
“That is…” she began, trailing off as she twirled a lock of her hair around her finger. “That is so hot.”
She kissed him, and as their clothes came off, he experienced a moment of panic during which he feared he wouldn’t know what to do.
He did, though, as it turned out, and so did she.
When it was over, after a very short time, he felt changed, as if he’d undergone a kind of baptism. The flesh had slain the spirit, and he didn’t care.
Not one bit.
Fanum was unprepared for the onslaught of fans and reporters waiting for Iron Storm in the lobby the next morning.
“You could’ve warned me,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth as he walked hand-in-hand with Dea through the bodyguard-parted sea of onlookers vying for her attention. He felt strange wearing new clothes instead of his usual robe, but he didn’t dislike the feeling—not at all. It was just different.
She shrugged. “Price of fame. I’m so used to it that it didn’t even occur to me.”
Out of the throngs of people, one in particular caught Fanum’s attention. There he was, over by the front desk, speaking with the concierge—Keyba!
“Hey, it’s okay,” said Dea, taking notice of her new companion’s subtly tightening grip around her fingers. “It’s just part of my job. They’re harmless.”
“Not all of them.”
Her eyes widened. “The guy who drugged you? He’s here?”
Fanum nodded and tilted his head back towards the desk. “The one in the stupid shirt.”
Many of the tourists present matched that description, but Dea knew immediately who he was talking about, for one was by far stupider than the rest.
She stopped walking and so did everyone else in their entourage.
“Attention everyone,” she shouted, and the room fell dead silent.
“You don’t have to do this,” muttered Fanum.
“Yes I do,” she said. “I was raised, if you want to call it that, by men who thought they owned me. They raped me, they beat me, they starved me, they forced me to work… and it was men like him who made that possible.”
She walked over to a table in the center of the room and leapt on top of it, pointing directly at Keyba.
“That man over there, you see him? The one in the stupid shirt!”
Everyone turned and looked at Keyba, who suddenly resembled a frightened animal.
“That man,” she continued, “is a trapper! He sells people to hunters so he can stuff his fat belly in luxury with his blood scrip!”
Rumbles of excited chatter rippled through the crowd, and several people seized and restrained Keyba before he could flee.
“We have a song called Limb From Limb—you guys know that one, right?”
The crowd cheered, again falling silent when she raised her finger.
“That’s a song all about what to do to pieces of volcrat dung like him! Now, I would neveradvocate violence against anyone, not in real life. Those are just lyrics. However, I know some of you take those words seriously, at face value, and should you decide to act them out, well, I can’t be held responsible for that, can I?”
The crowd roared again.
Hotel security was moving in now, but they couldn’t get close enough to rescue Keyba, whose innefectual struggling in the arms of his assailants bordered on comical.
Fanum was horrified. He was angry with Keyba, but he didn’t want to be responsible for someone’s grisly death, even someone who deserved it.
“No!” he barked, locking eyes with Keyba, who seemed positively shocked—not only to see Fanum again, but that he was coming to his defense.
“I came to Novus with a head full of preconceived ideas about life,” said Fanum, addressing the crowd, “but in the few days I’ve been here, I’ve learned to see things with… with new eyes. I’m not even sure who I am or what I believe in anymore, but there is one thing I am sure of.”
The crowd was listening to him with rapt attention. He was keenly aware that they were only doing so because he was with Iron Storm. They didn’t know who he was or for what reasons he’d come to Novus. Still, they were the first people who’d ever truly listened to him, and he knew the opportunity to be heard might never come again.
“And that is,” he continued, “being consumed by vengeance hurts no one but me. Forgiveness is as much for you as the one who wronged you, if not more.”
He pointed at Keyba. “This man is a trapper. He did drug me and sell me, but I want him to know that I forgive him.”
“Hey, like I said, kid, wasn’t nothin’ personal, ya know?” he said. “I’ll never do this again, I swear.”
“Shut up,” said Fanum. “I forgive you, but I don’t like you. Don’t speak to me.”
He turned and exited the hotel along with the band and the rest of their entourage.
Dea spent the nearly the entirety of the brief revozine ride to the spaceport fawning over Fanum.
“That was so chief,” she said, running her fingers up and down his chest. “You were so in control. Such a blazer.”
He didn’t know what that meant, but assumed it was complimentary based upon the context.
“Thank you,” he replied.
“I knew when I first saw you that the real you was hiding behind a mask. You looked so out of place with the others you came with. I could sense that you were different.”
“You’re just another feral kroon she felt sorry for,” said Crash without turning back to look at them. “You’re nothing. You’re nobody. You’re just her latest pet, and when she tires of you she’ll—”
“Give it a rest,” said Spino. “You sound like a mewling c’kai.”
“Yes,” said Gørdän, the one member of Iron Storm besides Dea that he actually liked. “We’re all tired of hearing it, so close your mouth or I’ll close it for you.”
“You’re right,” he said with faux-nonchalance, sliding down in his seat and making a hammock for his head out of his fingers. “No sense in getting worked up over what happens to some babydink godsboy cog. I don’t care.”
“You don’t care about anybody but yourself,” said Dea. “You don’t even care about your performance anymore. I didn’t want to say anything, because of how you get, but what was that last night? Man, you were vibed out.”
Crash turned around, grimacing at them, his one visible eye darting to and fro between them all.
Gørdän and Spino each looked down, avoiding his gaze.
“Ah! So you agree with her? You’re all conspiring to get rid of me, aren’t you? Tell me, who do you intend as my replacement? Who out there can hammer a tenth as good as me?”
“Brogus from Natstript, for one,” said Dea, as the revozine passed through the spaceport gates.
No one spoke as they made their way to the tourship, but their silence was soon broken by a new voice—one coming from a very large, gruff and grimy man lounging on a couch in the cabin of their ship like he owned it. Standing beside him as he lay there scraping the undersides of his fingernails with a large knife were two other thugs of similar appearance and stature.
One of the bodyguards leapt into action but was struck in the chest by a dazerblast from one of the thugs.
“Learn from his mistake,” said the man on the couch. He will survive, but with possible nerve damage lasting the remainder of his natural life. You don’t want that, do you? I think it’s safe to assume you don’t.”
“What do you want?” demanded Dea, projecting fearlessness and impatience with her hands on her hips.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the man. “I am Skarzako of Dahari, and I’ve come to retrieve something you’ve stolen from us.”
“Dahari!” exclaimed Spino. “We’ve stolen nothing from the Dahari syndicate. Why would we? We have all the scrip in the worlds! Do you know who we are?”
“I don’t care who you are,” said Skarzako. “All I’m concerned with is retrieving our property.”
“What property?” demanded Gørdän.
“He’s talking about me,” said Fanum, pointing at one of Skarzako’s henchmen. “That’s one of the men who assaulted me.”
“Very good,” said Skarzako. “You’re smart. Our clients like smart.”
“Your hunters, you mean,” said Dea. “Look, we’ll pay you whatever you want for him. We can resolve this to our mutual satisfaction.”
“I’m afraid not, child,” said Skarzako. “It’s the principle, you see. Word spreads fast in our line of work. If we tolerate this interference in our business affairs, our reputation for reliability is tarnished. We’ll be perceived as vulnerable. Ineffectual.”
“Who gave you the access code to our ship?” asked Gørdän, addressing Skarzako but looking at Crash.
Dea spun ‘round and grabbed Crash by the shoulders, digging her nails into his flesh.
“You slithering sandbastard! Not only are you fired—you’re dead!”
He shoved her away and smirked. “It’ll be worth it, just to see the look on your face when you don’t get your way for the first time in your life.”
Crash didn’t see Spino’s gloved, spiked boulder of a fist coming towards him—his first awareness of its invasion of his personal space came with its impact upon the side of his head. The force behind the blow was so great that it knocked his his eyeplate off just before robbing him of consciousness and toppling him to the floor.
“Nice!” Skarzako. “Want a job?”
Spino balled his fists. “Get off our ship or you’re next,” he growled.
“You’re in no position to make demands. Consider yourselves fortunate that I don’t kill you all. I could use a ship like this. What I couldn’t use is all the heat that would bring my way. I like to play it cool. Now hand over the young man here and I’ll be on my way.”
“He’s right,” said Gørdän. He turned to Fanum. “Sorry, kid, but we don’t wanna tangle with these guys. It’s nothing personal.”
“Yeah,” said Fanum. “I’m familiar with those words. Seems I can’t trust anyone.”
“You can trust me.”
They all turned and saw—standing in the corridor, the hood of his robe draped over his head—Father Cloren. Behind him stood Avox and Chindorr.
The Priest walked past Fanum, stopping briefly to look him in the eye give his shoulder a squeeze. He went into the ship, where he sat down on a chair opposite the couch and removed his hood.
Skarzako seemed positively delighted by the newcomer’s audacity.
“Well, well, what have we here? Come to negotiate the boy’s release, have you? You’re too late. Orders have been placed. Contracts have been signed.”
Father Cloren smiled. “What if I offered myself in his place? I’d make much better game.”
“You’re old,” said Skarzako. “He’s younger. That costs you a lot of points right off the bat.
“I was a Crusader,” said Cloren, “A knight in the Galenic Order.”
Fanum’s jaw dropped. He’d never known that about the Father. Was he lying?
No. Priests don’t lie.
“Many years ago,” he continued, “when I held the rank of Slayer, my Crossbearer was killed in combat with the Ghazi. Head lopped clean off, right in front of me, as we ate breakfast. An assassin had leapt out of the trees behind him, you see. I took charge without a moment’s hesitation and led our forces into the city.
“We fought like savage animals that day. Lanced women, children, livestock… anything with a pulse. Our armor was drenched in Muslim blood, and we were intoxicated on adrenaline.”
He paused, sighed and hung his head. “After it was all said and done, the reality of what we’d done started to gnaw at my conscience. I couldn’t live with myself, and I certainly could never bring myself to kill again. I decided to become a Priest.”
“I’m touched, pops,” said Skarzako in a way that seemed to Fanum as if he actually was not. “I really am. Like I said, though… contracts have been signed. These are real high rollers we’re talking about here. They pay good money to get exactly what they ask for. However…”
Father Claren was getting impatient. “Yes?”
“Under certain circumstances, they willaccept substitutions. I’d have to knock a few thousand stone off my price, which I’m not going to do, so that leaves us with one other option, as I see it.”
He pointed at Chindorr and Avox. “You plus one of them. Your call on which one.”
“No,” said Cloren. He turned back to his two frightened pupils. “Don’t worry, my sons. We’ll find another way.”
“There is no other way,” said Skarzako, rising to his feet and revealing his formidable height. He stepped forward and stared down at Father Cloren, who stared right back without blinking.
“You and one of these two in exchange for that one,” he said, pointing at Fanum. “Make your choice.”
“I’ll go,” said Chindorr, stepping forward.
“Chin, no!” exclaimed Fanum, but father Cloren just turned and smiled at him with pride.
“Bless you, my son. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
He went to Avox, who was looking down at his feet, ashamed.
“Avox,” said Father, “take the ship and return to Baltu alone, if Fanum refuses to accompany you.”
He turned to Fanum. “But I hope, for the sake of his eternal soul, that he will not.”
Fanum looked away. He wouldn’t be on that ship. He’d already made up his mind, and not even Father Cloren’s sacrifice could change it.
“Pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen,” said Skarzako. “Time is scrip, though, and I’m afraid we’ve wasted enough of it as is. You will accompany me to my ship without delay. Try anything, and—”
“I am a mouthpiece of the Creators,” said Cloren. “My lips speak only the truth. Deception is the tool of the wicked.”
Skarzako chuckled. “You know what? I think I believe you.”
“Did he take it well?”
Fanum plopped down next to Dea in the big, plushy chair she was curled up in.
Iron Star’s tourship boasted accommodations even more extravagant than the most expensive suites at the Zenon, and Fanum could scarcely believe that it was to be his new home for the foreseeable future.
He also couldn’t believe, as he gazed into Dea’s eyes, that such a breathtakingly lovely specimen of womanhood had deemed him a worthy mate.
Mere days earlier, his outlook on his life, his purpose, his very existence, even—all of it had been very different. His convictions, already resting on a crumbling foundation, had toppled like the walls of Jericho from Bible One.
“He wasn’t pleased. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s right for me. And us.”
Dea smiled and took his hand. “I’m so glad I found you and saved you from that life.”
Fanum nodded. “I couldn’t see how repressive it was, because it was all I knew. It all seems so silly now that I’ve seen what it’s like… out here. I mean, it’s scary, but it’s exciting, too. I feel like I can do anything I want. Be anything I want to be.”
“That’s freedom,” said Dea. “That’s your right as a human being. They took it away from you. Mine was taken, too, but I found it. Just like you did.”
“I just wish Chindorr didn’t have to give up his. He doesn’t deserve this. Neither does Father Cloren. I thought he’d abandoned me, but… he came back for me.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Dea.
“Their names will be written into the Book of Martyrs, if Avox tells them what really happened. He’ll lie, though, because he won’t be able to stand it that they achieved something he lacked the courage to do.”
They pressed their lips together after less than ten seconds of deep, passionate kissing, the door hissed open and Crash tumbled into their quarters.
“Get up to the bridge! Now!”
“Damn it, Crash,” said Dea. “You’re really starting to piss me off. You aren’t even in the band anymore. Why don’t you go sit in a closet and tape your mouth shut until we can dump you off at station 42?”
“This isn’t about you,” he said, and thrust a finger at Fanum. “I was talking to him. Pilots told me his little friend is tailing us.”
Dea shrugged. “So what? What’s he gonna do? That ship doesn’t have any weapons, does it?”
Fanum’s face went pale, and his eyes grew distant. “It has one.”
“What is it?” asked Dea.
“Same one every other ship has.”
Dea froze. “You don’t mean…”
“He does mean,” said Crash. “Son of a bitch is going to ram us.”
“Surely not,” said Dea. “He’d die too.”
“He doesn’t care,” said Crash. “He’s a fanatic.”
“Is the Apostolus sending any transmissions?” asked Fanum.
Crash looked at him as one might look at a child making a profoundly naive inquiry.
“Transmissions? Who cares?”
Fanum threw on an outfit, one of the many Dea had tasked her people with buying for him on Novus.
He rushed past Crash and dashed down the hall to the lift. Once inside, he ordered it to take him to the bridge.
Neither the pilot nor his two-person co-pilot team heard him enter, fixated as they were on the Apostolus barreling after them on the viewing screens of their consoles. All three flinched when he spoke.
“Is the ship sending out any transmissions?”
One of the co-pilots, a man with no hair and a disfigured face that looked as if it’d been pressed into an exhaust port during an engine test spun ‘round in his chair.
“Who the Hell are you? Get off the bridge! We have a situation here!”
“Yes,” said Fanum, “I know. Please, just do as I ask, or we may all be dead soon.”
All three were glaring at him now. The other co-pilot, a heavily-tattooed woman with long, green hair and a forked tongue shrugged and tapped her console a few times. She appeared to read something, and looked up.
“He’sss got hisss beacon on, sssending out a short encrypted messsage on repeat.”
“What does it say?” asked the pilot, a short, gruff man with an unkempt beard and fat wrinkles on the back of his neck.
“It sssaysss… Okay, I’ve got it. It sssaysss ‘Thisss isss Avox of Apostolusss. I am under attack for preaching the Word of the Creatorsss. I will not sssurvive. I have been abandoned by Father Cloren and the ressst of my team. They were ssseduced by the sssin of Novusss and chossse to remain. End report.”
Fanum’s eyes burned hot with rage. “That treacherous little shelldigger,” he hissed. “I knew he’d do that. He’s going to crash into us and die so that he can be immortalized in the Book of Martyrs without earning it. Do you have any weapons?”
The green haired woman shook her head. “Weaponsss?” thisss is not a military vesssel. No, we don’t have any kurkin’ weaponsss.”
“Maybe we do,” said the pilot, rubbing his chin.”
“I think I know what you’ve got in mind,” said the burned man. “Illegal as Hell, heavy fines and all, but it might work. Only get one shot, though.”
“What isss your plan?”
“Dump on him,” said the burned man.
The woman’s face perked up as understanding dawned.
“Yesss. That’sss right! We’re ssstill carrying a full load of wassste! Novusss doesn’t have a disssposssal moon!”
“Precisely,” said the pilot. “We’d have one shot, as you said, but if we let him get close enough, he won’t be able to outmaneuver it in time.”
“I’m on it,” said the burned man, tapping busily away at his console. Moments later, he looked up. “She’s ready to dump, sir,” he said.
“I’m slowing us down,” said the pilot. “Soon as I give the signal…”
He crossed his arms and looked down at the image of the little ship charging after them and grinned smugly.
“Make ‘em eat shit.”
Burned man was overjoyed. “Yes sir.”
“Okay, okay, here he comes,” said the pilot. “Wait… wait… now!”
Fanum watched on one of the consoles as a massive chunk brownish, glistening ice cut through the vacuum of space and hit the Apostolus head on.
Avox was gone, burnt to dust by the fiery explosion that ensued.
A rapidly multiplying chorus of pings and clunks soon followed as bits of wreckage and frozen human waste hailed down on the ship’s hull.
“Ha ha!” the burned man exclaimed as he stood up and patted the headrest of his chair. “Tough shit, huh?”
Fanum couldn’t share in their exuberance at having taken a life… could he? He had to admit, buried somewhere deep down inside of him was a flickering sense of satisfaction.
He turned around and saw Dea, Crash, Gørdän and Spino standing in the entrance to the bridge. He had no idea how long they’d been there.
Dea came forward and wrapped her arms around his waist. “You called it,” she said.
“I know him,” said Fanum. “Knew him, anyway. He’s always been a glory seeker. Made sense that he would destroy himself for the accolades. And lie about what happened to the others.”
“Father Cloren,” said Dea, “he really cared about you. I don’t have anyone in my life who would take my place if I’d been in your position.”
Fanum smiled weakly and pulled her close. “You do now,” he whispered into her ear.
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