Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 41
Stories
The Two Kingdoms Woman
by James Beamon
The Time Mechanic
by Marie Vibbert
The Temptation of Father Francis
by Nick T. Chan and Jennifer Campbell-Hicks
The Fiddle Game
by Alex Shvartsman
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Vintage Fiction
Voice of the Martyrs
by Maurice Broaddus

Voice of the Martyrs
    by Maurice Broaddus

A mist rose from the cool waters stretching out in front of me. For all of my training, open water terrified me. I viewed open water the same way I thought of God: majestic and mysterious from a distance; holy and terrifying when caught up in it. My body trembled, an involuntary shudder. The migraine following me regaining consciousness meant I was at least alive. Then I vomited, confirming it. My biomech suit was a self-contained unit long used to handling my various excretions.

Even in the gloom of the graying twilight, my surroundings danced on the nearly artificial aspect of my holo-training sequences. The large fern leaves, a shade too green, undulated in the wan breeze and water dripped from their undersides to splatter on my visor. My arm clung to a piece of bobbing driftwood, a pillow tucked under it and clutched to in my sleep. Water lapped just under my chin, but my seals were intact. A tired ache sank deep into my bones and I suddenly felt my true age. Remaining the physical age of twenty-seven every time I re-upped for another tour with the Service of the Order factored into my decision for continued duty. Vanity was one of the many sins I worked on.

I tapped at my wrist panel. The action caused me to slip from my precarious perch. I re-adjusted myself, half-straddling the shard of log, and bobbed in place. The seconds retreated, collapsing into a singularity of eternity as I waited for it to lock onto the beacon of my orbiting ship, the Templar Paton. I used its navcom signal to map my position relative to our colony site. The terrain's image splayed across my visor view screen. I paddled toward the shore.

Memories returned in fragments. Thundering booms. Balls of light. Clouds illuminated against shadowy skies. Ground explosions scattering people. Heat. The confusion of artillery bursts. Targets acquired. Chasing someone. Shots fired. A shelling run toward me. Bolting across a field. The sudden pressure in my chest.

Falling.

My biomech suit sealed me off from the world, shielding me from the errant breeze or the rays of the sun on my skin. It filtered sound through its receivers, the noise of which became muted when navcom channels engaged. The world appeared to me on my visor, scanned and digitized. Set apart, I was a foreign intrusion and like any other pathogen, the world organism raised up antibodies to fight off my presence.

I pushed through the thick canopy of leaves whispering in the breeze. A series of sinkholes replaced the metal cabins where our camp had been. Our fields burned to the ground with methodical thoroughness. Animal carcasses torn asunder by blade, the occasional limb scattered here and there left to rot. Insects worked over them in a low-lying cloud. The ways of death and reclamation were a constant throughout the universe.

Even without the proximity detector, I knew I wasn't alone. Despite the isolation of my suit, my psi ops enhancements functioned at high alert. A Revisio. Their eyes, too big for their head, their skulls smooth and higher, they studied us with their critical gazes, a mixture of curiosity and mild disdain. The Revisio sentry skulked about the remains of our camp with a stooped gait as if he carried an invisible burden. Turning over scrap metal, scanning the rubble, it hunted me. It. Once a mission required judgment protocols, thinking of those about to be judged as an "it" made the work easier.

Despite its deceiving bulk, the biomech suit moved with great stealth. Dampeners reduced its external noise to near nothing and its movements were as fluid as my own. It no longer mattered that I had lost my rifle. For up close work, I preferred my combat katas.

Though I came upwind of it, the native turned at my approach. It ducked the wide arc of my kata, the edged baton bashing only air. It tried to bring its spear to bear, a lazy gesture I blocked. I spun into it like an unwanted tango partner, thrusting my biomech-enhanced elbow into its gut. I grasped its wrist, praying the thumb lock I had it in was as painful to its physiognomy as a Terran's. Wrenching its arm up and behind it, I ignored the snap of its bone, and held it long enough to deliver another couple punches. The creature slumped in my grip.

"Where?" I asked. This Revisio had no understanding of my language at all. That was why psi ops lieutenants were attached to mission units. Besides security, we provided translation. The metal cap, a socket on the back of my skull, pressed into its place within the suit. Repeating my question, I projected my intent. Spatial concepts were the most difficult to process between cultures. Few saw life the same way. The universe, our place in it, was a matter of perception and perspective. Where did he come from? Where were my compatriots? Were there any survivors? The questions were meaningless, but my intent clear. In the end it was about brain chemistry and interpreting signals. A complex swirl of thoughts bubbled beneath a barrier stifling my efforts. Had it been trained, it would have shut me out entirely. Along with its derisive sneer, I managed to perceive the direction from where it traveled.

The issue at hand became what to do with the native. We entered hostile relations. Once those conditions were met, military protocols were in effect. Casualties were expected.

I would pray for his soul.

My fears for this mission were being realized.

This wasn't how this was meant to be, but this was the only way it could end.

They dubbed the encampment Melancholia as the cyan sphere of the gas giant they orbited filled the sky. The name had more of a ring to it than its designation CFBDSIR2149. The crew cleared a space for this camp along a crest overlooking a lake. Hastily constructed sheds broken down from the self-contained modular sections of the supply shuttles surrounded a central fire. Test batches of Terran agriculture grew outside our camp, green sprouts rising from dark earth. A thick grove of trees, lush with leaves the span of an arm's breadth, encircled our site. A mist swept across the ground. I longed to take off my helmet and smell the foliage for myself, but that would've broken mission protocol. Once deployed to the field, infantry had to maintain preparedness at all times. I patrolled in my suit. I slept in my suit. I wept in my suit.

"Magnificent isn't it," Novice Wesley Vadair pulled his blond hair back into a ponytail. Three days of beard growth stubbled his long angular face. His eyes squinted in an involuntary muscle spasm, but no one ever commented on his facial tick.

"What is, sir?" Novices were little more than glorified civilians, but he had mission command.

"The view. The potential. You can practically feel it or your skin. Well, I suppose you can't." He slapped my back in an all too familiar way, not that I felt it within the suit. He meant to convey a camaraderie we didn't share. "Professional hazard, I suppose."

He was already tap-dancing on my last nerve. "Is this your first colony plant?"

"That obvious?"

"If I could detect excitement levels, your readings would redline."

"Good. Excitement is contagious." Novice Vidair began walking, waving an invitation to join him.

"Then it's a blessing I'm in this suit, sir."

"I welcome your cynicism. I'll win you over, you'll see. I'm going to do things differently than other colonies. My dad was a planter, I grew up in a colony like this, so it's in my blood."

"Familial hazard, I suppose."

"See? We're going to get along great, you'll see. This colony won't be burdened with dogma. It will be more about community . . ."

The novice went on to describe his vision, sprinkling it with all of the popular jargon and buzzwords of the day. Community. Conversations. Authenticity. But I knew this story would end the way it always did.

My parents were the vanguard of "indigenous leaders" novices aimed to raise up. They were killed in their colony. I forgave their murderers. At their funeral, I mouthed my prayer over and over. "They know not what they did."

Other indigenous leaders took me in and raised me. Then I witnessed how such colonies worked from the other side. Coming into our neighborhood, planters demanded that we act like them, speak like us, until there was little left of us, in order to receive their gospel. Eventually their colony plants dotted the land like grave markers.

I joined the Service of the Order on my sixteenth birthday.

"What do you think?" the novice drew me back to full attention.

"Permission to speak freely?"?

"Always."

"I've heard it before. If you didn't believe that, you wouldn't be a planter. But planting is what it always is."

"What is that?" the novice asked.

"A wealthy culture sending out well-intentioned missionaries using the gospel to impose themselves on indigenous cultures to create satellites of themselves."

"You make us sound like . . . cultural bullies."

"It's a push or be pushed universe, sir."

"And what's your role in this process?"

"I'm your pusher."

I followed Novice Vidair from the settlement into the valley. He spouted the right words, but I had the evidence of history. My own history. Once in the Service, the Order selected me for Jesuit Training School, officer candidacy. I faced grueling studies in advanced mathematics, Latin (because all alien cultures need to be fluent in languages long dead on Terra), stellar cartography, astrobiology, logistics, strategy, game theory, and tactics. Part of me suspected the reason they took such a special interest in me was because I was reclaimed, a story of redemption they could point to. I was that rescued urchin from the streets with a tragic story. They could pat themselves on their backs for having saved me from the fate of my people. My parents.

"They know not what they did."

The valley was a potential utopia, but I knew that our leaders back home saw only desirable natural resources and a strategically positioned planet. The gas giant CFBDSIR2149 absorbed most of the radiation emitted by the solar system's star, lowering the amount of UV radiation, so fewer mutations followed. It slowed evolution, leaving fixed gene patterns. Life took the hand it was dealt and would be required to play for a long time. Whatever life forms that dominated here were frozen mid-step on the evolutionary ladder, but the transplanted flora and fauna displaced native species with ease.

"We're almost there," Novice Vidair said. "You can see me in action."

"Sir?"

"What do you know of this planet?"

"It's the moon of CFBDSIR2149 of the AB Doradus Moving Group. The planet itself is a gas giant," I said.

"Yes, yes, a rogue planet ejected from its system, cradled by its neighbor. But what understanding do you have of life on Melancholia."

"I . . ."

"Look over there. We call them Species A."

A group of natives milled about a cave entrance. Long simian arms rippled with burly musculature. Thick brows ridged deep, inset eyes. A hulking brute stopped and sniffed about, his protruding jaw set and resolute as if he'd had a bad day out hunting. Picking up a stone, he hurled it in our direction. We didn't budge. Satisfied, he joined the group of other males guarding the entrance.

"Aren't they magnificent?" He spoke of them the way I spoke of my cat back home.

Despite their primitive appearance, they were more human than I felt. Stripped of my culture and my people, not much of me remained. I wore the emptiness that came with a life of obligation and duty without passion and meaning. My neural pathways had been re-routed to accommodate the cap. I could sync up with a computer in order to download information, language matrixes, and action protocols in an instant. My physiognomy recalibrated with each tour of duty, slowing my aging process and knitting tired muscles back together. I hated and resented the Order as much as I loved and needed it. The Order gave me life and purpose. The Service left me without scars, physical ones, that is.

"Do they . . . speak?" I asked. "It doesn't appear that they have reached the level of development necessary to grasp the intricacies of the gospel."

"Now who sounds elitist? I'm sure they have some sort of proto-language. If we can teach the gospel to children, we can reach these noble savages. We have an opportunity here, a people in the early stages of their development. With our help, their culture, yes, their entire civilization can be made in God's image. We will avoid the mistakes of the past."

The colony buzzed with excitement at the caravan's approach. Taking point, I escorted Novice Vidair. Fraught with possible misunderstandings, first contact protocols were the most dangerous part of the mission. Novices were trained to be opening and welcoming, but service members were trained to watch for and deal with threats. My parents had paid the ultimate price for the short-sightedness and arrogance of novices.

A delegation of four rode beasts similar to hairless horses. Three of them were armed with spears and daggers tucked into the sashes girding them. The last of them wore a tunic of animal skin. This aliens' musculature was smoother, closer to resembling ours. In my experience, the more a life form mirrored ours, the more nervous I became. Violence was our way, no matter where we found ourselves in the universe. My rifle, displayed but trained at the ground, showed that we had teeth. It helped establish trust as they knew what they were dealing with. Novice Vidair all but applauded with joy at their approach. With every step forward, the novice nipped at my heels. I placed my open hand in the center of his chest to scoot him behind me.

"Greetings," the head of the processional said. "I am Majorae Ha'Asoon."

As he dismounted, I processed the sounds through my linguistics database. My cap thrummed while reading and deciphering the intent of his words. I relayed the message's content.

"I gathered as much. 'Hello' is 'hello' on any world." The novice smirked at me with dismissive disdain.

"'Hello' is only 'hello' if not followed by weapon fire." My cap continued to process their language. Given enough of a sample with my psi impressions monitoring the emotional intent of their words, the cap sped up, relaying translation in near-real time. I conveyed the greeting on behalf of the novice.

Majorae Ha'Asoon turned his back to me to address Novice Vidair directly. "On behalf of the Revisio, we welcome you. You are not of . . . here."

"We are of a far off planet called Earth," Novice Vidair said with the tone of a parent telling their child a fairy tale.

"You, too, can travel the stars?"

"Too? We detected no signs that you had such technology." The novice glanced towards me to confirm. I nodded.

"We don't require vessels to travel. We are star stuff. Flotsom carried in the void," Majorae Ha'Asoon said.

"I don't understand," I said.

Majorae Ha'Asoon kept his back to me. "Yet you recognize us?"

"You look like the natives, the ones we have called Species A. Except . . ." Novice vidair said.

"Different. We, like you, are from another world. We, unlike you, have a natural claim to the Derthalen, as we have called them."

"What claim?" I asked. The steel of my tone caused Majorae Ha'Asoon to shift to his side, keeping me within his peripheral gaze and making a smaller target of himself. His guards moved in predatory lurches. I swung my rifle to my side.

"The right of first. We are children of the blue planet."

"We detected no life on CFBDSIR2149," Novice Vidair said.

"Perhaps not life as you measure it. We are . . . what would you call us? A virus?"

"You look pretty big for a virus," I said. My cap continued to whir, locked in a processing loop, as if under a cyber attack of some sort.

"Floating unicellular things. I suspect as you would measure it, each strain you would consider an individual."

"Some sort of communal intelligence," Novice Wesley Vidair said.

"This virus business, I still don't understand," I said.

Majorae Ha'Asoon sighed. "It's simple. We were carried here on the backs of asteroids. The Derthalen made for natural hosts. Understandable since we are from the same star stuff. Once we take over, we mutate and spread. Each generation of the virus is a mutant strain of the last. The course of the infection has physical side effects, too."

"I noticed. You appear smaller," I said.

"No, you don't understand. They . . . we have evolved." Majorae Ha'Asoon gestured to his men. "Look around you. We're not running around naked as beasts. Our form allows us a certain resonance with the minds of others."

My cap tingled again. The Revisio's "resonance" functioned as a low level kind of telepathy. Each of them had the equivalent of my cap, though theirs operated naturally. Communicating with each other, gleaning information from us, interfering with my cap, it explained why they were so familiar with our ways. It also made them more of a threat.

"This is utterly fascinating. We've suspected and explored that potential in our own kind. There is so much we could learn from one another," Novice Vidair said.

"We had hoped you were a peaceful party," Majorae Ha'Asoon said.

"We are, I assure you."

"You are well armed for peace." Majorae Ha'Asoon cast a sideways glance at me.

"Experience has taught us to be cautious when exploring new worlds and contacting new peoples. Not all missions end . . . diplomatically."

I thought of my parents.

It was an Easter Sunday service. A group of "seekers" entered to learn more about the Scriptures. Seekers were my parents' favorite kind of people to talk to as they were open, questioning, and thinkers. But the seekers were actually members of the tarik, a group of faithful believers from a competing sect, armed with an array of weapons: guns, break knives, ropes, and towels. Towels. Because they planned for a lot of blood. No one told me what happened, only that my parents were killed in the line of duty. But the full truth resided in the reports which I had access to once I joined the Service of the Order. The tarik read from the Scriptures before the assault began. They tied my parents' hands and feet to the chairs.

"When you oppress the weak and poor of your own world, trampling their freedoms, there are consequences. For the oppressed and the oppressor," the tarik leader said.

They video recorded their handiwork, which I have never watched despite it still available in the archives. The power of the stark words in the reports, combined with my imagination, was enough: ritual slicing of orifices, disembowelment, emasculation, decapitation. One hundred thirty two stab wounds total. You never know what you really believe until those beliefs are tested, in that moment when you put your life on the line for them. My parents believed in a loving and just God. And I forgave the killers. I forgave them.

"If you got business with them," I leaned forward, letting him see the full bulk of my armament, "you handle it through me."

"Stand down, lieutenant," Novice Vidair said. "We're all about meeting new friends."

"Yes, heel," Majorae Ha'Asoon said.

I re-gripped my rifle, doing my level best to resist the urge to cram the butt of it into his . . . its . . . inviting jaw.

"We would welcome a conversation of equals." Majorae Ha'Asoon made a point of once again turning his back to me.

"Indeed. I look forward to it."

Majorae Ha'Asoon bowed slightly then hopped on his beast. With a swirl of his hand, he led his men away.

"That went rather well," Novice Vidair said.

"We need to prepare for an attack," I said.

"I appreciate your hypervigilance, but that's not the way to follow up a first contact."

"Did we not hear the same thing? They are a colony, too. An entrenched one from what I gathered. And we are a threat to them."

"Lieutenant, nothing of the sort was said. Perhaps we can establish a trade of some sort with them. Crops, maybe. We have much to offer them. And them us."

"I know a scouting party when I see it. They were taking our measure." I stared at him full on. "And make no mistake, I have killed enough people in the service of the Order to know how this story ends."

"Then perhaps all of the blood on your hands has made you paranoid. We serve God's will."

That was the problem with many novices. They existed in a bubble of privilege. They were used to people deferring to them simply because of their special calling. People were done no favors by being raised up coddled. It made them soft. People needed to fight off things: germs, people, life. It builds you up. If you didn't . . . I thought of Species A, the Derthalen as the Reviso called them. Not even allowed to name themselves.

"God's will or not, this expedition will face troubles. My job's to handle them."

"You don't understand, this could be the miracle from God that we were looking for."

"Excuse me, sir?" I said because "what the hell nonsense did you just spout" would have gotten me court-martialed on the spot.

"You feared that Species A might not be cognizant enough to receive the gospel."

"A notion you dismissed."

"Yes, before we learned of Species B. Perhaps we were meant to evangelize Species B in order to bring the message to both them and Species A."

"But the Revisio are a virus."

"Exactly. Imagine the gospel spread by viral transmission. It would make our task so much easier and our stay shorter. The Lord's ways are not our ways. Just like our ways have you obeying the orders given you. My orders."

The Lord sure could bring out the stupid in some folks.

It all came down to the story we lived by. If the metaphor of that story could be changed, the individual could be changed. An ungodly people deemed less than human. Our people, holders of secret knowledge and power, could trade the Scriptures for land and resources. Evangelism encouraged by way of blaster rifles. My blaster rifle. The people traded one sin-soaked culture for another; forced to change their language, their names, their gods, their cultures. Suffer a slow death by assimilation. The story always ended the same way.

"Your . . . orders." My set jaw began a slow grind, like I chewed on something distasteful. I peered down my nose at him. "Allow me to correct any misconceptions you may be laboring under: I'm not here to wipe your nose. I'm not here to diaper your behind. I don't cook, clean, or sew. You think I sings and dances real good, too? You need to get out my face and let me do my job."

Novice Vidair squinted at me. His facial tick intensified when he was angry. "Lieutenant, you are confined to your quarters for a day."

"I thought I 'always' had permission to speak freely."

"Until you cross the line. I give some people enough rope for them to hang themselves."

His order probably saved my life.

This wasn't how this was meant to be, but this was the only way it could end.

I tracked the trail of the attack party back to a series of looming structures, ominous shapes of deeper shadow in the night. I wasn't even sure what my mission was anymore. I had ignored my action protocols. I hadn't signaled the Templar Paton, not with a status update or report. I moved on instinct. I couldn't call myself investigating the native culture, though the biomech sensors recorded and logged everything. Without knowing if my party was even alive, I couldn't claim to be on a rescue mission. And if they were dead, the Order wasn't about vengeance.

The Service, however, was all about God's judgment.

Flexing my arm and wiggling my toes, I tested each extremity to make sure everything still worked. I craned my neck to each side, popping out the kinks, certain that I should just name the knots in my shoulders since they accompanied me for so long. The pain focused me on the task at hand: I had bastards to kill. In Jesus' name.

Having lost nearly an hour finding a suitable blaster rifle, I crouched behind a fallen tree. No breeze moved the leaves. I detected no sounds of birds or any other night life I had gotten used to; as if the structure's very presence stilled all life to a respectful silence. The main building seemed carved from the very mountain itself. With its massive foundation and heavy fortifications it could have been a temple or a citadel, the high arch of its entrance and formidable walls meant to convey a mixture of awe and intimidation.

Twin sentries patrolled the main archway. The entranceway lit by a series of torches, illuminating an area leading up to it that provided no cover. Even at full sprint I couldn't cover that distance and subdue the guards without raising an alarm. I skulked through the dense forest, circling the castle. At its side, a rivulet emptied into the lake below. Perhaps it was simply an underground stream, or a natural sewage line, either way my heart stuttered at the prospect of wading through it to make my entrance.

The force of the water's current slowed my progress, each lugubrious step an act of determined will. Steadying myself against each tunnel wall, the water rose past my thighs. My visor digitized my surroundings as much as it could through murky dimness. The lights on my biomech suit didn't penetrate the pitch. The cramped space pressed in on all sides, with no way to measure when my journey would end or if my progress would be halted by watery death. But I kept walking. Faith buoyed my steps. I had to believe in something, have a hope to grasp onto. No amount of faith could still the apprehension that gripped me as the water lapped my helmet. I only had a few more steps before the water overtook me. I couldn't help but re-think my plan. It made sense why this passage wasn't well guarded. Only a fool would chance this.

Water filled the entire passageway. The biomech suit continued to circulate air as the emergency supply automatically kicked in. A timer on my visual display counted down how many minutes of air I had left.

I continued to march deep within the compound. Scant seconds of air remained. Shafts of light stabbed the darkness ahead. I gulped one last breath of air. The passageway opened into a bay of sorts with a grate above me. I punched handholds into the wall to scale my way to the top. I bashed though the metal mesh and pulled myself up. The biomech suit was designed to augment its occupant's efforts, but the work began with my own exertions. I collapsed, sprawled out along the floor while my re-breather unit replenished itself.

The room was a mechanical closet of sorts. Heat baked the room, a cauldron of molten metal rotated. Levers and switches cranked away. The way the cauldron revolved, its contents' heat could be used to warm the complex or be hurled as a distance weapon. I left it for the structural engineers aboard the Templar Paton to puzzle out. The floor was connected to the walls, rigged to fall into the antechamber below in case of emergency. Advanced thinking. It began to make sense, even to my simple infantry mind. The Revisio, no matter how advanced, how evolved, couldn't just drop tech into this world. Life on their own planet precluded them from building anything. To build they had to have, well, thumbs. They were essentially advanced minds. They may have evolved the Derthalen, but it would take a while to get their technology to the point where they'd have the tools necessary to advance their world. But it wouldn't take long. Within a generation or two, they'd rival us. I could only imagine what they'd do on our world with our tools and technology.

Scrounging a loose bolt, I tossed it against the door. I listened for a few moments before I retrieved it and threw it again. A guard opened the door. I expected as much. It stood watch against anyone going into the room, not coming out. I yanked him inside. Another soul I would have to pray for. Later.

Flickering pools of amber from torches created puddles of shadow throughout the long hallway. The biomech wasn't designed with indoor stealth in mind; however, it was built to carry armaments. I crept along the shadows as best I could, setting a charge as I went, praying none of the natives decided to turn down this way. I followed the sounds of garrulous chatter and laid two more charges. I may have lacked Samson's strength, but blowing a support wall would collapse a room or two if it came to that. I hoped my escape wouldn't come to another trek through the crawlspace. I took a measured breath then plunged into the room.

The room ran the length of a banquet hall, ringed by long tables. Behind them, male and female Revisio wore simple tunics of animal skins. In the center of the room, game roasted on spits. Musicians played in the corner while two women danced. Guards stood at attention by each table. My entrance halted the revelry. I fired once above Majorae Ha'Asoon's head. My blaster scorched the wall before I trained my weapon on the leader. "Where are my people?"

"Is this more of your diplomacy?" Majorae Ha'Asoon sipped from a tall cup, unflustered.

"You have our diplomat. I, on the other hand, am not . . ."

". . . very diplomatic. Do they not have manners on your home planet? You barge into our great hall uninvited and accuse us in our home."

"Our rules of etiquette don't extend to those who lay siege to a peaceful camp, destroy our property, and make off with our people."

"You talk to us of peace? You come to this world armed with no regard for our plants and animals. You comport yourselves in the way of your world, imposing them on ours."

"As you have with the Derthalen?"

"This is our moon. Our dominion."

"I'll ask one last time, where are my people?"

"We have . . . exchanged ideas. They have been welcomed into our tribe. There have been some . . . complications."

"They better be unharmed."

Majorae Ha'Asoon nodded and a member of his guard departed. The others shifted positions, not grouping to surround me, but taking up more defensive postures. I eyed on the nearest exit. Majorae Ha'Asoon's attention focused on my weapon, studying my suit with the glint of greed in his eyes.

The guard led Novice Vidair to the area just before Majorae Ha'Asoon. The novice averted from my gaze, studying the ground. It had been not even half a day since the attack, but the novice's belly distended. His face gaunt, flushed with a grayish pallor, his eyelids had swollen shut. Wizened fingers dug into emaciated arms, scratching at the red splotches that ran along them.

"Are you okay, Novice Vidair?" I asked.

"They infected us." He upturned his hands. Maroon pustules blossomed on his palms like tumescent stigmata. When his eye spasmed, the muscle contraction tightened his entire face.

"We didn't know what effect our introduction would have on your kind," Majorae Ha'Asoon said.

"You mean as you force yourself on us," I said.

"Your kind no longer embraces change."

The full implications of what he intimated settled in. Perhaps we had evolved as far as we were able. I swept the room with my rifle, stilling the slow encroachment of the guards. Their movements were subtle, professional. "We resist you."

"We're the future. We build. We create. We define. We have no need of your God. Or your Order. We have studied your Scriptures and one 'truth' intrigues us." Majorae Ha'Asoon returned to his meal. He waved his knife about, light glimmering from its edge. "Your chosen people were called to wipe out nations and peoples before them. That is where we find ourselves, one story destroying the one that came before it. That is the 'gospel' message you have brought us."

I watched the glint from the knife. And thought of my parents.

The first shot of my blaster burned a fist-sized hole in the center of Majorae Ha'Asoon's chest. My next shot took off a quarter of the nearest guard's head. I fired and fired, backing toward Novice Vidair. Before I could turn to shove him toward an exit, he leapt on my back.

"Too late for us." His fists slammed into my neck attempting to divorce my head from my body. My biomech suit shuddered with the impact of his unanticipated strength. "We are joined. Not one of them. No longer us. We order you to join us."

I reached around and flung him from me as if tearing off a shirt I no longer wanted. Veins thickened and bulged along his neck. Peering with overly vesseled eyes, blood trailed from their corners like thick tears. He raked fingers across my suit, desperate to open a gash.

I raced down the corridor, pursued by a mad clamor of hoots and cries as the guards were let loose from their leashes. Back-tracking to the room I entered from, I barred the door and disabled the room dropping mechanism. My people had been biologically compromised by a hostile contagion. The Revisio had genocidal intent toward the Derthalen. Nothing remained of this mission except judgment protocols.

"They know not what they did."

I placed my remaining charges around the massive cauldron.

Synchronizing the timers, I gave myself a thirty second window. I no longer cared if that allowed me enough time. God would see me through if I was meant to labor on. I dove for the grated opening into the waiting water. The torrent whooshed me along, flushing me from the compound like so much unwanted waste. The vibrations of the explosion rattled the passageway. I prayed the rough tunnel's integrity would hold, as the only death I imagined worse than drowning was being buried alive while I drowned.

The hillside shook, its contraction excreting me toward the lake. I dug my biomech enhanced hands into the earth until I came to a halt. The remains of the building collapsed on itself. I doubted there would be any survivors, but I would wait. Each step became more difficult as the extensive damage to my biomech suit caused power loss. Eventually, it would be inoperable. I would salvage what I could, but I needed to send one final report. With my suit compromised and the vector of the Revisio's transmission unclear, I submitted myself and this world as under bioquarantine.

From the cover of forest undergrowth I could study Species A, the Derthalen. A pod of them groomed one another, the adults sheltering the young. No one escaped agents of change. If God was already at work in their culture, as we purport to believe, then these people have earned the right to find their own way.

As have I.


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