Edward Willett

The first two chapters of Marseguro

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CHAPTER 1 

The main pier of Hansen’s Harbor stank, but that was only one reason Chris Keating hated it.

He stood in the early spring sun, shivering, glaring down the three-hundred-meter-long, fifty-meter-wide stretch of pre-formed bioplast planks. The pier looked secure, but Chris knew better. Some of that stink came from the salt water. Some of it came from the alcohol-fueled engine of the catamaran-sub SeaSkimmer, idling at the end of the pier. Some of it came from rotting seaweed. But some of it, Chris knew, came from the slowly decomposing bioplast itself. To him it always stank of anaerobic decay, the smell of swamps and stagnant ponds. One day–he knew it–one of the pier’s massive posts would give way, and the whole structure would collapse, flipping everything and everyone on it into the deep, cold water of New Botany Bay, where they would drown like his father drowned, lost at sea, when he was four.

One day. Maybe even today, while he was on the pier.

Chris shivered again. He hadn’t expected to come down to the pier today, and his white shirt and pants were made of thin cloth designed for comfort in the warm, humid environs of the genesculpting lab’s algae room, not for keeping out the wind currently whipping up whitecaps on the bay’s blue-green water. But Dr. Stanless had radioed half an hour ago for someone to come help unload the samples he’d collected from the algae fields off Slick Rock, and the only someone who could be spared had been Chris.

He hadn’t dared refuse. No one on Marseguro knew his shameful secret except his mother, and she wasn’t likely to tell.

He clenched his fists when he thought of her. He’d visited her in the hospital on his way to work that morning. She’d looked so frail, lying in that hospital bed hooked up to the machinery that kept her alive–not at all like the strong woman he remembered from childhood, the woman who had single-handedly raised him after his father’s death…and single-handedly made sure he knew the truth that lay behind that “accident.”

She’d been conscious this morning, an unusual occurrence since the last stroke. She could speak, after a fashion. Most of what she said made little sense, and usually she hardly seemed to know he was in the room, but this morning had been different.

She’d squeezed his hand with astonishing strength for someone at death’s door. “Selkies!” she’d hissed, her eyes focused on his face with a feverish intensity he well-remembered but hadn’t seen in six months. “They killed your father. They’re killing me! They’ll kill you, too, if they find out…if they know…”

“Shhh!” Chris had shot a look over his shoulder, though he knew he’d been left alone. Still, you could never be certain the Selkies weren’t listening…

“He hated the sea. They made him go on that boat. The Selkies all came back. The landlings all died.”

Chris almost reached out and put his hand over her mouth. These were things they only talked about in their own home, never in public, never where someone else might hear…

“They knew…they must have found out he Believed…he never wanted to be here at all…never wanted to be on the Rivers of Babylon…Hansen kidnapped him…the Selkies murdered him…and now they’re killing me…” Her wide eyes suddenly filled with tears. “They’ll kill you, too, my little boy…my little…” Her eyes fluttered closed.

Chris had eased his hand away from her and stood up, shaking. He’d had to take half a dozen deep breaths before he felt calm enough to walk out of the hospital, and it took all his strength not to look over his shoulder to see who might be watching him go.

“It’s not just the Selkies,” his mother had told him over and over. “Most of the landlings are on their side. A very few of us know the truth. A very few of us cling to the Body Purified. But we can never let on…or they’ll kill us.

“Like they killed your father.”

Chris looked at the alarmingly narrow ribbon of bioplast stretching from the shore into the bay, and the balefully glittering water all around it. God, I hate this planet. But he couldn’t let on, or the secret Selkie cabal his mother had told him really ruled Marseguro would know he had inherited his family’s dangerous beliefs, and eliminate him as they had eliminated his father.

Maybe they’ve already decided to. Maybe this errand is a set-up, carefully arranged to provide an opportunity for another “accident”…

He shook his head. Don’t be paranoid. If the Selkies wanted to kill him, he’d simply disappear. Hardly anyone would notice. Even fewer would care.

No, the errand was just what it seemed to be. And though he hated his job almost as much as he hated the pier–and the planet–everyone on Marseguro had to work, and if he quit at the genesculpting lab he’d be stuck scaling hulls or filling potholes with a Council make-work crew, doing jobs bots could do better and faster.

Gathering his courage and holding it tight like the teddy bear he’d carried everywhere until his tenth birthday, he set off down the pier.

Halfway to the SeaSkimmer, the Selkies swarmed him.

They soared out of the Bay like dolphins, trailing drops of water that flashed silver in the sun. Their broad, bare webbed feet slapped down on the bioplast with the sound of fish being poured from a net. There were at least a dozen, male and female, all adolescents or young adults, all wearing the water resistance-lessening skinsuits the Selkies favored, vibrant reds and purples and greens and yellows personalized with lightning bolts and starships, Earth dolphins and Marseguroite squigglefish, flames and starscapes and abstract designs that made their owners hard to look at. They surrounded him in a whirlwind of color and he stopped dead. They laughed and chirped in their own language, one landlings could neither understand nor speak, since they lacked the Selkies’ modified vocal apparatus and enhanced hearing.

“What do you want?” Chris could barely squeeze the words out through a throat gone tight with fear. His heart pounded in his chest, a caged animal frantically throwing itself against the bars of its prison. “What do you want?

They ignored him, circling him like Earth sharks were said to circle their prey, chanting–not in Selkie, but in English. He suddenly realized
what they were chanting: just a silly poem, but one that almost loosened his bowels. “Eeny-meeny-miny-mink, tip a landling in the drink, watch him splash and watch him sink, eeny-meeny-miny-mink.” Oversized eyes stared at him, transparent nictitating eyelids sliding sideways across giant green irises.

He knew this “game.” He’d known it since childhood. He’d seen Selkies “play” it to his friends. He’d always managed to avoid it.

Until now.

The Selkies rushed him, laughing. Strong hands seized him. He felt his feet leave the ground, then he was horizontal, held high above short-cropped hair, pink and violet, green and blue, and shaved pates tattooed to match the skinsuits. They were carrying him, running with him. He screamed, then he was flying through the air, the horizon flipping, the pier suddenly above him…

…and then he hit the water. Its cold embrace enveloped him. He sank, kicked desperately, managed to get his head into the air, grabbed a precious breath, sank again, and couldn’t find the surface. His clothes pulled at him, sucking him down. He floundered, striking out blindly. He couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think through the heart-stopping terror. I’m going to die! his mind shrieked, then shrieked again, a mantra he couldn’t stop, running through his head over and over. I’m going to die! I’m going to die! I’m going to die!

Something grabbed him. He struck out at it in panic, his body no longer under his control, but the thing was stronger than he was. Against his will it pulled him deeper and deeper into the…

…then his head broke water and he sucked in a lungful of air, coughing and choking as spray came with it, and he realized he’d been pulled up to the surface, not down into the deeps, and maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t drown this time after all.

Hands reached for him again, but this time they pulled him up, lifted him out of the water, laid him on the pier. Prostrate, eyes closed, cheek pressed against the reeking wet bioplast, he coughed out the last of the water. Selkies chirped and squealed around him, then a shadow fell across his face and he opened his eyes to see one, a girl, crouching down and looking at him. Her zebra-striped yellow skinsuit, practically painted on, left little of her lithe body to the imagination. She had violet hair and the same green eyes as every other Selkie…and she looked familiar. He wasn’t sure why. “Are you all right?” she said. “I’m so sorry. We never thought…”

Chris closed his eyes, shame and anger choking him in equal measure. He couldn’t talk. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of hearing his voice break. He pushed himself up onto all fours, then stood shakily, ignoring the girl’s proffered hand.

“We didn’t know,” said another Selkie, a boy with a red-and-blue spiral tattooed into his shaved head and wearing a skinsuit covered with iridescent scales. He looked vaguely familiar, too. “We didn’t know you couldn’t–”

“Chris? Is that you?” A burly, bearded and bald-headed nonmod pushed his way through the now sheepish-looking crowd of Selkies. Behind Dr. Stanless, Chris glimpsed the rest of the crew of the SeaSkimmer, nonmods and Selkies alike, gawking like bystanders to an accident. “Are you all right? What happened?”

Selkie kids at the edge of the crowd began melting away. Three slipped into the bay, barely raising a splash. But the tattooed boy and violet-haired girl stood their ground. “It was just a prank,” the boy said. “We were celebrating the end of school. We didn’t mean anything by it…”

“We didn’t know he couldn’t swim,” the girl said.

“We didn’t know anybody couldn’t swim,” the boy said.

Chris felt himself flush. The shame and fury had reached the surface.

Dr. Stanless glared at the Selkies. “It was a stupid prank. It’s one thing to pull it on one of your friends, but grabbing a stranger and throwing him into the bay…”

“He’s not exactly a stranger,” the boy said. “We went to landschool together.” He glanced at Chris. “Don’t you remember? I’m John Duval.”

Chris still hadn’t spoken. The world seemed preternaturally bright and clear around him, as though the air had turned to diamond. At the sound of John Duval’s name, it grew harder and brighter yet.

John Duval. The Selkie boy who had bullied him from the time they were both eight Earth years old until they were thirteen, and Duval had gone off to seaschool. Tripped him in the cafeteria. Pulled down his trunks in the swimming pool, then swam off with them, leaving him naked and shamed in the water, begging someone to bring him a towel while the other kids laughed at him…

He looked at the girl. Emily Wood. He remembered her, too. Remembered her standing with the other girls pointing and laughing.

How could they not know he didn’t know how to swim? The teacher had forced him into the pool that day, told him he had to overcome his fear of what had happened to his father. He’d been too little, too scared, not to give in. His mother had always told him if he didn’t conform, didn’t hide the truth, something bad would happen to him…but he’d never forgotten the shame, never forgotten that early proof that Selkies couldn’t be trusted. “They’re not real humans,” his mother had said. “They’re monsters.” Before that, he’d wondered. After that…

He’d never gone back into the pool. And the teacher, once she’d realized what had happened, had never made him.

They knew, he thought. They knew. It’s a warning. I’m being warned. The Selkies…the secret cabal…they suspect me, suspect I’m like my father…they’re letting me know what will happen to me if I cross them…

He shivered as the sea breeze flowed over his wet body. I’m all alone, he thought. Mom was the only one I could talk to, and now…

Something clicked into place inside him, as though a switch had been thrown, and the heat of his anger vanished. Instead, he felt as if he had been doused in water even colder than that of the bay, water that froze into certainty his determination to do something that, until that moment, he had only toyed with on his blackest days.

He didn’t say a word to John Duval and Emily Wood. To Dr. Stanless he said, “I hate to ask, sir, but may I have a few days off?”

Dr. Stanless blinked, then frowned. “I understand you’re upset, Chris, but it was just a soaking…”

“It’s not that, sir.” Not precisely. “It’s…my mother.” Again, partly true.

“Oh.” Dr. Stanless knew all about Chris’s mother, of course. “Oh, I see. Of course. Take as long as you need.”

“A week or two at most,” Chris said. “Thank you, sir.”

With all the dignity he could muster, letting his gaze slide past the shamefaced Selkies as if they weren’t there, he turned his back on the sea and walked inland.

He didn’t look back.

#

Emily watched Chris Keating walk away, and felt her face burn. The prank that had seemed so harmless just an hour before when her waterdance class had streamed out of the Hansen’s Harbor Seaschool for the last time now seemed incredibly cruel and stupid. They’d recognized Chris as one of their old landschool classmates, thought he’d get the joke, laugh along with them…

She glanced at John. He stood with his head bowed, biting his lower lip.

“I hope you two are ashamed of yourselves,” Dr. Stanless said. “Chris is one of my best lab assistants. A nice quiet kid. He was on his way to help me unload algae samples when you jumped him. Now who’s going to help? You two?”

Put like that, they really didn’t have a choice, and in fact, Emily thought a few minutes later as she helped pull slimy, stinking buckets of multi-colored goo from the hold of the SeaSkimmer, she didn’t really mind. It was the least she could do to make amends…

although Dr. Stanless isn’t really the one you need to make amends to, she told herself. She shook her head. She could barely remember Chris Keating as a kid; they’d never had much to do with each other. In fact, she couldn’t really remember Chris Keating having much to do with anyone. We should have known he’d react badly. It’s our fault, not his. Dr. Stanless is right. It was a stupid thing to do, and it would have been just as stupid even if Chris did know how to swim…

Except how could you live on a planet more than ninety percent water-covered, with fellow citizens genetically modified to breathe both air and water, and not know how to swim? She shook her head again.
Well, it takes all kinds of genes to make a genome, as her mother liked to say.

An hour later they’d loaded the last of the algae tubs onto the rollerbot, and it had trundled off toward the labs. Dr. Stanless, his arms splattered with stinking slime, grinned as he watched the samples roll away. “Some fascinating specimens there,” he said. “I can’t wait to get at them in the lab.” He stretched his arms above his head, yawning hugely, then turned to where Emily and John stood side by side, every bit as splattered and stinking as he was. “A nasty job, but thank you for it.” His eyebrows drew together and he gave them each a hard stare. “And I hope you’ve learned a lesson.”

They both nodded. Dr. Stanless held his severe look for a moment, then broke into a grin. “All right. Get out of here. You’re probably feeling dry.”

“Thank you, Doctor Stanless,” Emily said.

“Yeah, thanks,” John echoed, and they jumped off the pier together.

With a shiver of relief and pleasure, Emily welcomed the embrace of the water. Muscles landlings didn’t even have tightened the passages to her lungs and squeezed her nostrils closed. At the same time, the tight-clamped gill slits on either side of her neck relaxed and opened wide. She wriggled her long, webbed toes and with a flick of her feet dove deeper into the Bay. Like all Selkies, she could function perfectly well on land, certainly better than landlings could function in the water, but only for a few hours. When forced to stay on land for extended periods, the Selkies wore special water-filled landsuits that kept their gills and skin wet. Without moisture, tissues modified for life beneath the waves began to dry out. Discomfort would eventually turn to pain…and then to lingering, agonizing death. Emily shuddered, and swam a quick figure-eight loop-the-loop to shake the horrible image from her mind.

John swam up beside her, the high-pitched chirps of his underwater laugh tickling her ears. “Feeling frisky?” he said, though no landling would have heard more than a few clicks.

“Not the way you mean it,” Emily retorted. A notorious tailchaser, John Duval had worked his way through most of the seaschool’s female population, but hadn’t yet managed to land her (so to speak). A quick fling in the foam wasn’t what she wanted, or she would have had it by now, from John or any one of another dozen boys. That’s one thing Selkies and landlings have in common, she thought, flicking her feet in John’s face as she turned and swam deeper into the waters of the bay, toward the strings of lights that glowed below, marking the “streets” of the underwater portion of Hansen’s Harbor. All the males can think about is sex.

Of course, that was partly due to the work of Victor Hansen, the genius genesculptor who had created the Selkie race and shepherded them safely to Marseguro forty years–almost fifty Earth years–ago. He’d wanted them to “be fruitful and multiply,” so he’d made sure to build in a healthy interest in sex.

Emily had the same basic genome as every other Selkie and a perfectly healthy interest in sex to go with it, thank you very much–but she had a mind as well as a body, and she’d long ago decided not to take that plunge until she felt mentally and emotionally ready for it. And when she did, it would be with someone for whom it was more than just a splashy game with all the depth of the shallows off Whitesea Point.

For now, she had other things on her mind. She’d finished seaschool. In a month, she would start specialization training. She knew what she wanted to specialize in…but she hadn’t told her parents yet.

She was pretty sure they wouldn’t like it.

John followed her deeper. “I wasn’t making a pass.”

Emily laughed. “You’re always making a pass.”

“Not this time! I know better. I was just making conversation.”

“Sure you were.” They’d reached the bottom of the Bay. Dome-shaped and cylindrical structures rose from the sandy seafloor on either side, connected by water-filled tubes, heated swimways that freed people from having to wear skinsuits indoors. Emily put a little extra kick into her swimming, but John easily kept up.

“What’s your hurry?” he said. “The rest of the class is probably still over at Freddy Fish’s. And they’ve got an hour’s head start at drinking. We’ll have to hurry to catch up.”

Emily sighed, and stopped swimming, holding her position with gentle kicks and arm waves. John stopped next to her and stared, his eyes, so much larger than a landling’s, glowing green as they reflected the light of the streetlamp behind her. “I can’t come to Freddy’s now,” she said. “We’re late, remember? I have to go have dinner with my parents.”

“They’ll understand…” John began, but Emily shook her head.

“I doubt it. I’m going to tell them my specialization plans.”

John’s mouth opened in a silent “Oh.”

“My mother the eminent practical geneticist and my father the noted underwater construction engineer are unlikely to be thrilled with my decision to pursue a career in the arts,” Emily went on. “You know how much trouble I had just convincing them to let me take the waterdance class.”

“No wonder you were so willing to haul stinking buckets of algae,” John said.

“It was probably more fun than what I’ve got to do next,” Emily admitted. But then she grinned. “However, I do have an ally.”

John shook his head. “No way. I’m not coming with you to help you do
that
.”

“I didn’t mean you,” Emily said, while mentally adding another line to her secret list of Reasons John Duval is Never Getting Any from Me. “Amy has an announcement, too.”

“Let me guess. She’s decided to marry a landling.”

Emily laughed. “Nothing that drastic. But finally, after two years out of seaschool, she’s finally chosen her specialization, too…amphibian opera.”

“Music?” John stared, and then burst out laughing and flipped head over heels in a swirl of bubbles. “Oh, I almost wish I could be there.”

“You can still come if you want to,” Emily said sweetly.

“No, no, no.” John flicked hands and feet, backing away from her. “No way. I’m off to Freddy’s. But I can’t wait to hear how it all turns out.”

He spun and swam off. Emily watched his wriggling legs and butt fade into the green gloom. Might be fun…she thought, and then shook her head. No. There are better Selkie in the sea.

Anyway, there was no hurry for all of that. First things first.

First, she had to face the Selkies whose genomes had blended to make her everything she was today.

That being the case, she thought, you’d think they’d be happier about the outcome.

She jackknifed, kicked, and swam off in a new direction.

CHAPTER 2

Chris Keating strode up through the streets of Hansen’s Harbor to the old concrete building that housed his dingy one-bedroom apartment. The building dated to the first wave of construction at the site of what eventually became known as Hansen’s Harbor. Flat-roofed, utilitarian, it stood three stories high and housed two other tenants besides Chris. He’d never exchanged more than five words with either of them.

Once inside he stripped off his still-wet pants, shirt, and underwear, rolled them into a sodden ball, and dumped them into the clothesbot for washing, drying and folding. Next, he took a long, hot shower, only stepping out when he could no longer even imagine he smelled the stink of the pier, the bay, and the Selkies who had attacked him.

He ran a comb through his collar-length sandy brown hair, checked on the still-disappointing growth of his wispy beard, then padded into the bedroom. He liked hiking and until his mother had gone into the hospital this last time had headed inland whenever he had a couple of days off, camping there out of sight and smell of the sea. The last time had been weeks ago, but his pack stood ready, leaning against the closet wall.

He tugged on underwear, then his favorite worn-but-waterproof hiking pants, shirt and jacket, shoved his feet into his toughest, most comfortable boots, then went into the kitchen and pulled out enough pre-packaged camp rations to last him for a week. They were made mostly of algae and seaweed, and tasted like it, but what wasn’t made of algae and seaweed on this flooded excuse for a planet? From a cupboard by the door where he kept odds and ends, he pulled out a short crowbar. He stuffed it into his pack.

The last thing he picked up before heading out the door was his multiplayer. He left the stack of music and vidchips on his bedside table. Since his mother’s stroke, he’d only been listening to one thing: the ancient, precious chip his grandfather had given his father before shipping him off to the moon in the hope he’d survived the impending destruction of Earth.

Chris had listened to it before, of course, but its contents had become more meaningful as he faced the dreadful truth that his mother would soon be gone, leaving him completely alone among the monsters of Marseguro. The chip was his lifeline to Earth, to a planet free of Selkies or any other genesculpted abominations.

His grandparents’ faith had been weak, he thought, not for the first time. Had it been stronger, his grandfather would have known that the Avatar would successfully Purify the Earth, and that God would repent of Its threatened destruction of the planet. Had his grandfather truly Believed, he would not have secretly paid to have Chris’s father, then just eight years old, smuggled to the moon along with another family and their young daughter…and his father would not have been one of the refugees, forced to live on the dry-docked Rivers of Babylon by the overtaxed Lunar government, who had failed to get off the ship before Victor Hansen and his followers flung it into space ahead of the oncoming Earth fleet.

Very few of the people trapped aboard were Believers. Of those who were, only one man made the mistake of admitting it. Hansen’s followers had thrown the man out of the airlock before the ship crossed the orbit of Mars.

The other Believers had kept quiet, and pretended to be as relieved to be free of the Body Purified as Hansen’s followers were. They’d kept on keeping quiet even after they landed on Marseguro. But in the privacy of their homes they’d clung desperately to their beliefs, and so Chris’s father, and his mother–the small girl whose family Chris’s grandfather had also sent to the moon, and given the care of his son–had grown up immersed in the truth. Even if they hadn’t fallen in love, they would have married, Chris believed. How could either of them have polluted themselves with a moddie-lover?

Chris didn’t even know the names of the other original Believers, didn’t know if they had clung to their Belief, didn’t know if any of the other children of his generation were secretly of the Body. Belief, as his grandfather had demonstrated, could be a fickle thing.

He sometimes hated his grandfather for that reason. If only he had truly Believed, I would have been born on Earth…and everything would have been different.

Chris locked the door of his apartment behind him and looked up and down the street, empty this time of day: the only buildings on it were clones of the one he’d just exited, and the people that lived there (all landlings like him, of course; Selkies lived in underwater habitats) were either at their low-paying Council-prescribed jobs or asleep because they worked nights.

Nobody to see him leave, then. Just the way he wanted it.

He turned left, then left again down the just-wide-enough-to-pass-through space between his building and the next. A paved alley ran behind both buildings: every night, the sanitation workers–some of whom were probably his sleeping neighbors–drove along it, collecting refuse, most of which they delivered to the microfactories ringing the south side of the bay as feedstock for the fabricators.

On the other side of the alley, rock-strewn ground, barren except for the occasional low purplish-red needlebush and patches of scraggly blue-green notgrass, rose steeply to a ridge crowned with the open-umbrella-shaped tree-like plants dubbed bumbershoots. Following a path up the slope he himself had worn, Chris climbed until he stood beneath one of those plants. There, for the first time, he stopped and looked back.

Hansen’s Harbor stretched left and right, curving around the semi-circular shore of New Botany Bay, sheltered and surrounded by the ridge he’d climbed. Many of the buildings, especially those furthest from the water, were gray concrete like his own; others sported the violent colors favored by the Selkies. To his left, the microfactories lay haphazardly scattered across the ridge slope like squat black building blocks dropped by some careless giant. Taller structures of glass and black or dark red stone, the homes and offices of well-to-do landlings, rose at the water’s edge. The very tallest buildings stood in the water itself, with eight or nine stories above water and another four or five below. To Earth eyes, Chris suspected, the city would have looked half-flooded–but no Earth eyes had ever seen it.

Maybe I can change that. He turned inland. There, ridge after ridge marched toward the horizon, each taller than the next, until the towering, snow-capped mountains no one had ever climbed took over. Massive waves, unimpeded in their sweep around the planet except by this one small continent, crashed against the sheer cliffs on the far side of those peaks, which also broke the backs of the powerful storms that roared across the world ocean. In the relatively calm water and atmosphere in the mountains’ lee, Victor Hansen’s creations and the nonmodded humans who had accompanied them to Marseguro had carved out a place to live.

If you can call it living.

The trail Chris had made plunged down through native forest to join a larger, paved two-lane road running parallel to the ridge. That highway connected Hansen’s Harbor to Marseguro’s other eight settlements: tiny Parawing and Roger’s Harbor and slightly larger Beachcliff and Outtamyway to the north, and Rock Bottom, Good Beaching and Firstdip, Marseguro’s second-largest town, to the south. Only landlings ever used the road; the Selkies preferred traveling by sub or “sputa” (an acronym for Self-Propelled Underwater Towing Apparatus), an unlovely word for a form of travel that it terrified Chris just to think about. Some goods rolled along the road in giant transbots, but boats could make the trip just as effectively and carry greater quantities of cargo. On those rare occasions when a medical or other emergency necessitated speedy travel, one of the colony’s half-dozen aircraft could be called into service.

Chris wished he could call one into service right then, because stuck on his own two feet his destination lay two days away; but since what he had in mind would undoubtedly have gotten him thrown into Hansen’s Harbor’s tiny Criminal Detention Center, he could hardly file an application for the use of community transportation. Instead, he picked his way down the ridge through the bumbershoots and stickypines and turned left, walking south toward the town of Firstdip, a journey which would take him the rest of the day, if that were where he was going…which it wasn’t. His real goal was a fork in the road just shy of the Firstdip turnoff, a fork that would take him further inland.

As he walked, he fished out his multiplayer, unclipped and unfolded the earset, and thumbed the play button.

The male reader’s accent sounded strange to Marseguroite ears, like that of all Earth people in the old vid- and audchips Hansen’s Hijackers (Chris’s private term for the original colonists) had brought with them. But a mere half-century wasn’t enough time for English–Hansen’s language, and thus the language of Marseguro–to drift to the point where it couldn’t be understood.

“The Wisdom of The Avatar of God,” the voice intoned, “presented for the edification and enlightenment of the Body Purified, that all who are within the Body might know the Truth, and be well-armed against the lies of those who are without. Prologue: The Miracle. Hear the words of The Avatar.” The reader paused. “In 2178, through the might of God Itself, the Earth experienced a miracle…a miracle I foresaw.”

Chris had heard those words more times than he could count, but they never failed to give him goose bumps. Even now he felt his arms and the back of his neck tingling, though he’d begun to sweat in the jacket that had seemed just right when he first stepped outside. He pulled off the jacket and tied it around his waist, rubbed his arms vigorously–but kept listening to the resonant voice.

“The asteroid on a collision course with the planet should have destroyed most of the biosphere. There was no hope of a reprieve. None…”

#

“…no hope of reprieve. None.”

You can say that again, Richard Hansen thought, shifting his weight from one sore hipbone to one slightly less sore on the unforgiving polished oak of the pew. Salvation Day services had just begun, and although bets had been laid, down in the Body Security office, over just how long the reading from The Wisdom of The Avatar of God would go on this year, even the most optimistic–who had not been Richard–had predicted the entire first chapter at a minimum. And today Richard had particular reason to want the service to be short.

Of course, he had no say in the matter.

“Those who could–the rich, the politicians, the religious leaders–had already fled the Earth for the Moon, for Mars, for the Belt, for the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, for New Mars and Bon Mot and the other handful of young colonies among the stars. Those who could not–the poor, the working people, the deluded but faithful flocks of the blind and useless pastors and popes, imams and ayatollahs, sages and seers and ministers and monks–waited to die…”

The Messenger, a sallow-faced Lesser Deacon with pale blonde hair and the most pitiful excuse for a goatee Richard had ever seen, spoke in a singsong, slightly nasal voice, a close approximation of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. Richard had heard of people who claimed to get goose bumps when they heard The Wisdom of The Avatar of God read, but he doubted this was quite what they meant.

He tried, as he always did, to imagine what it must have been like, after the scientists proclaimed the planet’s death sentence. The World Government, formed at the end of the 21st century as the Terror Wars finally stumbled to their bloody conclusion in an orgy of ethnic cleansing, bombings, and poison attacks, had tried to keep the news secret–but no secrets could be kept in those days of instantaneous data transfer and brainwebs.

“Cities burned. Countries crumbled. Hundreds of thousands died,” the Messenger said. Stained glass windows behind the pulpit purported to show those events, although the hundreds of thousands were represented by half a dozen figures in a variety of extremely unnatural poses. Well, you probably can’t do much better with stained glass, Richard thought. It might have been the height of medieval special effects, but it was hardly full-sensory vurt. Not for the first time, he wondered what had been in Avatar Harold the First’s background that had made him model the House of the Body–and all the lesser Meeting Halls–after Gothic cathedrals, especially considering he had claimed to hate all established religions equally. Couldn’t he have gone in for padded seats and a concession stand? Richard thought. Maybe a vidscreen? If you wanted to distance yourself from religion and were reaching into the past for inspiration anyway, an early 21st-century movie house would have been just the ticket, by all historical accounts…

“But one group of people remained steadfast in the face of terror and catastrophe,” the Messenger went on. Passion–or something–seemed to have gripped him as he read the words of The Avatar. Unfortunately, it squeezed his voice even higher. “They moved through the chaos, calm and unafraid, giving aid and succor, promising that all was not lost, that the oncoming asteroid need not destroy the Earth.” The reader paused. What The Wisdom of the Avatar of God did not spell out, but Richard knew because of his somewhat privileged position within Body Security, was that those early followers of The Avatar had also moved through the corridors of power of the World Government, bribing, assassinating, coercing, convincing, paving the way for The Avatar’s rise to power. You had to admire their faith, Richard thought. Everyone else thought the end was near, but they believed in a future–a future they intended to control.

“Thus spake The Avatar,” the Messenger intoned, the ritual insertion Messengers used when reading from the Great Work whenever they came to a first-person passage, to ensure that listeners understood that what followed were The Avatar’s words, not their own. “They were my followers, the Body Purified, the faithful whom I had prepared for the Edge Times for twenty years, for I knew…I knew, with the certainty that only one who has heard the Whisper of God can know…that the asteroid was coming, long before the so-called men of science detected its approach.”

As a child, Richard had felt a thrill every time he heard

that passage read. The truth of it could not be denied. The Avatar
had
had advance knowledge of the approach of the Fist of God. Where else could that knowledge have come from but God Itself?

“Those ‘scientists’ fled, too, those who could. Nothing could stop the asteroid, they said. It was too big, too fast. No power within humanity’s grasp could deflect it, or alter Earth’s doom.” Richard’s eyes moved to the next stained glass window, where the asteroid loomed, although the artist, either through scientific ignorance or simply for effect, had surrounded it with blood-red flames that it most certainly had not displayed.

“And they were right. No power within humanity’s grasp could have stopped it. But what is impossible for humanity is as nothing for God. ‘We must show God we repent,’ I told my followers, as God had instructed me to tell them. ‘We must show God that we will cleanse the planet of the evil that has fouled it, that we will purify humanity, the Body of God. If we do this, God will repent of Its decision to destroy us all. If we do this, humanity will regain its future.’

“Some laughed. Some mocked. Some turned their backs on me and rejected my message. But some remained faithful. And it was they who took the actions that convinced God humanity deserved another chance.”

And now they neared the part that Richard had particularly loved as a child, imagining himself as one of the selfless heroes of the Purification…and a part he had grown to dread as an adult, since the day he discovered his family’s not-so-secret shame. He shifted again on the unforgiving pew.

“It was they who burned the unnatural crops and the evildoers who had defiled Earth’s God-given soil with them, they who bombed the genesculpting laboratories, they who slew the genesculptors, and they who hunted down and eradicated the genesculptors’ abominable creations, the foul results of their blasphemous defacement of God’s Holy Human Genome. Many of those first Holy Warriors of the Body died in battles with inhuman monsters created by scientists blinded by greed and hubris. But the battles were won. Earth was Purified.”

Scientists blinded by greed and hubris, Richard thought. Like Grandfather Victor. He kept his gaze resolutely ahead, looking at the next stained glass window in the row, showing the burning labs and the battles with genemodded humans who looked remarkably like the demons of–again–medieval religious iconography. He always felt like everyone in the House was sneaking glances at him when that passage was read. It was no secret–hadn’t been since his father’s death–that he was the grandson of Victor Hansen, the man who had successfully fled in a starship full of genemodded humans just before the Moon fell to The Avatar’s forces.

Richard had never known his mother; his father had told him she had died in childbirth. He did his duty, raising Richard in a stern and rather distant fashion, as though obeying orders rather than because he felt any strong familial connection to the boy.

And then, one day in Richard’s thirteenth year, two decades ago now, his father had gone to the roof of a very tall building, taken off all his clothes, and thrown himself naked onto the very hard pavement directly in front of the groundcar carrying the man the Council of the Faithful had just elected and proclaimed the new Avatar, Andrew the First.

He’d left no explanation for his actions: no suicide note, no political rant, no video.

Richard had his own theory: that his father, a minor functionary in the Deaconate of Food Allotment, had been driven into suicidal depression by the way he had been consistently shunted into the nether realms of the Body Purified hierarchy, where his career and his life had stagnated.

It couldn’t have been easy on him, losing his wife so soon after their marriage. Richard had never even seen a picture of her, and his father would answer no questions about her, beyond the bare-bones facts of her death; the topic seemed to pain him deeply. In-laws? Cousins? Uncles? Aunts? None that Richard had ever learned about. Just his father and him…and now, just him.

On his darkest nights, Richard suspected the Body Purified had eliminated all other relatives of Victor Hansen. Though if so, he had no idea why they would have let his father and him live.

He kept his gaze forward. Maybe people were looking at him, maybe they weren’t. He wasn’t sure which would be worse.

The Messenger somehow managed to raise his voice even higher, to the point where he sounded like a five-year-old sawing the E string of a toy violin. “The Holy Warriors killed or drove all the moddies from the planet and with them as many of the lesser abominations as they could identify–drunks and drug-users, homosexuals and adulterers, pedophiles, and the priests and imams and shamans and sages of all the false religions that have too long held sway over the minds of the ignorant.”

At last, the Messenger paused, but only to interject another, “Thus spake The Avatar.” Alas, when he continued, his voice remained at the same painful pitch.

“Then one night, just days prior to what the scientists and politicians and religious leaders had told us would be the end of the world, God spoke to me a second time, in a dream. ‘You have done well, my servant,’ It said. ‘I have repented of my decision to destroy your world. But I will still deliver a powerful rebuke. Warn your followers to take shelter. Then when the rain of fire has passed, emerge and lead the world into a new age.’

“I gave the orders. The Body Purified descended into the shelters I had ordered built beneath our places of worship and training. From deep beneath the surface, we watched the miracle occur on the vidscreens providing our only link to the surface.

“Within the orbit of the moon, another asteroid, miraculously unseen until that moment, slammed into the oncoming killer, slapping it out of the way like an annoying fly.”

The stained-glass artist had certainly outdone himself depicting
that
amazing occurrence, Richard had to admit. That window rose directly above him to the right, though, and if he did more than glance at it he’d get a crick in his neck. Instead, he dared to look around the House again. Two thousand people, all looking in his direction–but up, at the window. Not looking at him at all.

Not any more, he thought, fully aware he was being paranoid. But then, he knew that “they” really were out to get him, if you defined “them” as the Body Purified hierarchy. He could never be trusted until he had proved his loyalty.

Soon, he thought. Soon.

He’d worried the problem so long it had even begun to seep into his dreams. Recently he’d been waking from nightmares in which he was Victor Hansen, desperately loading followers and monstrous creations alike into ship’s fleeing Earth’s imminent destruction. Odd he’d never dreamed of the final flight from the moon, though…perhaps his imagination couldn’t extend that far.

Well, if what he’d just discovered panned out, he might be able to put paid to those nightmares forever. Although…

He shook his head and tried to refocus his attention on the Lesser Deacon instead of worrying about his own state of mind.

“The asteroid missed the Earth,” that worthy continued. “But though God spared us from total destruction, It delivered a stern rebuke, just as It had promised.

“Small pieces of both asteroids streaked into Earth’s atmosphere. Some burned up. Some blasted through the ionosphere, and kept going. Some fell into harmless orbits. One, as I fully expected, destroyed Orbital Orleans, the space station infamous for its licentiousness and debauchery even among the most godless people of Earth–and crawling with moddies who ‘entertained’ the patrons of that devil’s palace in unspeakable ways.

“That alone was a powerful sign that I and the Body Purified had done the will of God. But the most powerful sign of all was that, though the rocks that made it through the atmosphere destroyed a dozen cities, raised tsunamis that scoured whole islands and coastlands clean of life, and killed tens of millions,” (Richard didn’t even attempt to crane his neck to see that window), “not one–not one–of the members of the Body Purified who heeded my call to the shelters died.

“And thus when we emerged we had the supplies, the knowledge, the training and the inclination” (and the bribed and cowed government leaders, Richard thought) “to impose order on chaos, law on lawlessness, and most importantly, godliness on godlessness.

“Thus did the whole world, for the first time in its long, sordid history, fall at last under the sway of God.

“The Day of Destruction proclaimed by the scientists had become The Day of Salvation, a new beginning for all of humankind.

“Praise God, for It is good, and Its mercy endures for as long as humanity does Its will!”

And then, to Richard’s pleased astonishment, the Messenger stopped speaking. He gestured at the girlchoir seated below his elevated pulpit, and a hundred pre-adolescent children rose and launched into “The Path to God Leads through Destruction,” the closing hymn. Richard rose, shaking his head. Phil wins the pool again, he thought. He must be blackmailing the Messenger.

Not that the service was over yet. The Order of Worship ended with what the Body called the Penitents’ Parade and ordinary people called the Parade of Fools.

They came in now, a larger contingent than usual, maybe two hundred in all, escorted by Holy Warriors wearing snow-white dress uniforms highlighted by black piping and looped silver chains. The prisoners wore dark-brown Penitents’ Robes, marked with the symbols of their guilt: crosses for the Christians, crescents for the Muslims, Stars of David for the Jews, lotus leaves for the Buddhists, pink ribbons for the homosexuals, old dollar signs for the thieves and interest-chargers, and–

Richard blinked. He’d never actually seen anyone wearing the double helix that marked a moddie before. From the reaction of those sitting near him, he guessed they hadn’t, either. People craned their necks, trying to get a better look. The robe hid any obvious modification. Of course, it might be something relatively minor and invisible, like enhanced hearing, or extra-sensitive taste buds, something that had shown up in one of the random genome scans Body Security regularly–

Fast as a striking snake, the moddie moved. It ducked behind a Holy Warrior, vaulted the rail separating the stage from the audience, and landed beside the Messenger, still standing at the pulpit. It grabbed his arms and twisted one behind his back until shrieked like a rabbit in the jaws of a fox. The moddie’s hood fell back, revealing a young girl, hair and skin white as the Warriors’ uniforms, lips red as blood. Her eyes had the slitted pupils of a cat. She looked wrong, evil, horrible…

…and yet somehow, to Richard, familiar.

She opened her mouth, revealing sharply pointed canines, and screamed, “Free–”

But who or what she wanted freed, no one ever heard. A puff of black, greasy smoke burst from her chest and back. Her voice choked off and she collapsed, the smoke swirling as she fell.

Her body continued to smoke as two Holy Warriors leaped over the railing and dragged her away. The Messenger, now almost as white as the moddie, clutched the pulpit and said, “Behold the…” His voice faltered and he had to swallow before beginning again. “Behold those who have been God’s Enemies, those whose very existence threatens us all, for God’s forbearance on the Day of Salvation was not unconditional, and was not for all time. We must continue in the ways of God, as set forth by Its chosen vessel, The Avatar, or God will unleash Its wrath on us again, and next time there will be no salvation.

“Those such as these–” he pointed to the Penitents standing before the pulpit, and his voice rose to a shriek as fury found its way through the terror that had gripped him a moment before, “–and that!” –he pointed after the Holy Warriors departing with the smoking corpse of the moddie– “deserve death! But The Avatar is merciful and has interceded with God on their behalf. Today these Penitents–those that sill live–” he smiled at his own joke “–begin five years of service to the Body. If they truly repent of their foolishness and embrace The Avatar’s Wisdom, they may yet find forgiveness and enjoy the mercy of God. Praise The Avatar!”

“Praise The Avatar,” the audience intoned. Not one of the thousands jammed into the House of the Body had made a sound during the drama with the moddie–Richard especially. Most of them had probably seen sudden death before–the Holy Warriors were big believers in summary punishment–and drawing attention to yourself at such a moment could end with you being in a Penitent’s Robe at the next service.

And Richard, burdened with his family history and also trying to understand how a creature he’d never seen before–had never even imagined–could have seemed so familiar, like an old friend, when he saw it for the first time, had more reason than most to avoid drawing attention to himself.

A dream, he thought. I must have seen it in a dream…

But if he’d never seen one in real life, how could that be possible?

“Praise God!” the Messenger said.

“Praise God!” the congregation repeated.

“The service is ended,” the Messenger said. “Go in Purity and serve the Body.”

“We will serve the Body,” the audience replied. They watched in silence as the remaining Penitents were led out of the building to the transports waiting to take them to the Body’s Penitent-manned mines and farms and factories and lumber camps, then made their own hushed way to the exits.

With everyone else, Richard filed out of the House of the Body (every teenager independently dubbed it “the bawdy house”). He looked up at the single spire that towered above the entrance, pointing the way to God Itself. High above, six Holy Warrior airfighters roared across the city, white contrails slashing the sky like the claws of God Itself. Richard watched them until they were out of sight. As a kid, he’d wanted to be a Holy Warrior, but his father wouldn’t let him enter the Junior Jihad program at school…and then, by so effectively and publicly removing himself from Richard’s life, had ensured Richard could never be accepted.

Or so he had thought. But…

Shamed and furious after his father’s suicide, Richard had promised even then, barely into his teens, that he would clear the family’s name within the Body, though of course he had no realistic way of doing so. In fact, as he served out his final few years as an adolescent within the strict confines of Home and School for Orphaned Boys No. 381, he had fully expected to be barred from any service within the Body. It had therefore shocked him deeply to be summoned, the day before his graduation, by the Deacon in charge of the school, and informed that he had been selected for service within Body Security. After four years of training in data analysis and electronic communications, he had entered Body Security at the lowest possible point, as a data-mining drudge in the Sub-Deaconate of Planetary Communication Oversight.

To his own surprise, he had discovered he both enjoyed and excelled at the work. He had a knack for netting and landing important information swimming in the flood of data that passed through the Planetary Communication Oversight office every day. He’d quickly risen to the rank of junior analyst, then analyst, and within five years had become a second-level assistant to Archdeacon Samuel Cheveldeoff himself…

…and then he rose no further, and for three years watched as others with neither his talent nor his dedication leapfrogged over him into positions of greater and greater authority.

And then, late on Richard’s thirtieth birthday (which he celebrated by working late, as he celebrated most birthdays), Cheveldeoff summoned him to his office.

A summons from Cheveldeoff seldom meant good news, and something just a bit more solid than rumor strongly suggested that occasionally those whom Cheveldeoff summoned were never seen again. Heart in his mouth, Richard took the elevator down to Cheveldeoff’s deeply buried office. No one staffed the receptionist’s desk in the dark-red waiting area, and the double oak doors stood open, revealing Cheveldeoff at his desk.

Not for the first time, Richard thought Cheveldeoff looked like an artillery shell. He was bald, broad-shouldered, thick-necked, and surprisingly short when he stood up–which he didn’t, for Richard. Eyes like polished mahogany glinted beneath bushy eyebrows the color and texture of steel wool. “Come in,” Cheveldeoff said. “Sit down.”

Obscurely relieved he hadn’t been told to close the door, despite the emptiness of the antechamber outside, Richard followed Cheveldeoff’s orders, as did everyone with any sense. “I’m going to explain your predicament to you,” Cheveldeoff said, and did, directly, frankly, brutally: Richard, being “the grandson of a traitor and the son of embarrassment,” had advanced as far within the hierarchy as he ever would.

Unless…

“You have two options, as I see it,” Cheveldeoff said. “You can quit the Service of the Body and find an ordinary civilian job. As you are certainly aware, however, we will watch you closely for the rest of your life.

“Or, you can prove that you are to be trusted…that you are not tainted by the evil of your grandfather or the weakness of father. I’ll even tell you how you can do it.” He leaned forward, hard brown eyes locked on Richard’s. “Find the planet to which your grandfather dragged his misbegotten brood of malformed monstrosities. If they’re out there, we want them. And if we find them, and you helped us, well…then Bob’s your uncle, the sky’s the limit, you’re sitting in the catbird seat, you’re God’s favorite mortal.” He leaned back and smiled, or at least showed his teeth. “Hell, you might even get my job…after I retire, of course.”

And so Richard Hansen had been handed the quest–the completely hopeless quest, he suspected, but he knew well enough that Cheveldeoff’s “two options” had been nothing of the kind–that, should he fulfill it, would redeem him and his family in the eyes of the Body Purified, and by extension, all of unmodified humanity.

He glanced at his watch. And if he didn’t hurry, he’d be late delivering his latest report on that quest.

He increased his pace down the broad boulevard leading from the House of the Body to the headquarters of Body Security, at the heart of the City of God (once known as Kansas City, though no one who had lived there before the Day of Salvation would have recognized any part of it; the original had been largely pulverized, then burned, by the nearby impact of one of the larger chunks of the asteroid, and the remaining ruins had been scraped away and used as feedstock for microfactories).

For two years, Richard had been reporting to Cheveldeoff at monthly meetings. At the very first one, Cheveldeoff had surprised him by bringing out a chessboard. “You play, of course,” Cheveldeoff said. It hadn’t been a question, and Richard could hardly be surprised that the Archdeacon of Body Security knew of his predilection for the game. He hadn’t really been surprised to discover that Cheveldeoff excelled at it, either. Richard, no slouch himself, always put up a good fight, but hadn’t won once.

He sometimes wondered what would happen if he did.

Two years. Hard to believe. When he’d taken on the challenge of finding his grandfather’s pet moddies, he hadn’t realized just how thoroughly Victor Hansen had disappeared. He’d assumed the moddies would have maintained some kind of contact with other colonies settled from Earth, so he had begun his search on New Scotland, recently Purified and brought under the oversight of The Avatar. But though he had scanned and searched and combed through current and archived intercepted communications using every tool at the disposal of the Ministry, he had found nothing to point him to Grandpa’s secret hideout…

…until yesterday.

He looked up at the cloudless sky and grinned. Today, he had a surprise for his chess partner.

#

Samuel Cheveldeoff finished setting up the ancient hand-carved ebony-and-ivory chess set, and glanced at the loudly ticking image of a clock on one of the vidwalls, currently displaying his favorite wallpaper: the interior of a 19th century Italian villa. The images of rich furnishings and Old Master paintings gave his Spartan office warmth it generally lacked. Richard Hansen should arrive within minutes.

Cheveldeoff sat back in his chair and glanced at another vidwall, temporarily switched from displaying the villa to showing the rapidly emptying interior of the House of the Body. The automated defense systems in the House had made short work of the moddie who had attacked the Messenger, but Cheveldeoff still felt unhappy about the incident. If the moddie had gone the other way, into the crowd, there would have been casualties, and it looked bad for the Body to lose worshippers on the holiest day of the year. The Avatar…he grimaced; no, not the Avatar, but the Avatar’s Right Hand…would not be pleased.

“Message from The Holy Office,” the computer suddenly said, as if on cue. “Your presence is required in The Holy Office at 1900. No rescheduling permitted.”

Cheveldeoff clenched his jaw for a moment; then forced himself to relax it. Much as he would have liked to tell the Right Hand what he could do with his meeting, the stakes were too high. The Avatar, felled by a mysterious stroke…and though Cheveldeoff suspected the Right Hand suspected him, he had had nothing to do with it…lay alive but vegetative in his private hospital. The prize Cheveldeoff had been working for all his life was in play–but the Avatar had been struck down too soon. He could not be certain he had enough votes on the Council of the Faithful. His main rival, Ashok Shridhar, Archdeacon of Finance, controlled the purse strings of the Body–and purse strings could easily become puppet strings.

If the Avatar’s illness had been brought on by something other than his own penchant for debauchery, it could mean Shridhar was confident he had enough votes among the Council members.

Well, Cheveldeoff could not out-bribe the Archdeacon of Finance, but he suspected he could out-blackmail him.

In the meantime, though the Right Hand officially remained above all such maneuverings for succession, and would serve whomever God in Its wisdom appointed through the deliberations of the Council, in this situation the Right Hand essentially was the Avatar, and until the real Avatar died or recovered, Cheveldeoff dared not cross him. The Right Hand could bring his own weight to bear on certain Council members, for he knew everything that had happened in The Avatar’s Dwelling, behind the screen of discrete silence even Cheveldeoff had never been able to pierce. Cheveldeoff had heard rumors of some of the activities certain Councilors had enjoyed in the company of The Avatar, but he had no proof. He suspected the Right Hand had pictures, video, and gene samples.

Enough waffling. “Computer, accept meeting request from the Holy Office.”

“Meeting accepted,” said the computer.

My turn, Cheveldeoff thought. “Computer, request meeting with Grand Deacon Ellers. Topic: the poor performance of the Holy Warriors at today’s Salvation Day service in the Central Meeting Hall. Time: tomorrow, 7 a.m.” He grinned savagely. “No rescheduling permitted.”

“Meeting request sent,” the computer said. A pause. “Meeting accepted.”

Cheveldeoff nodded to himself. An early morning meeting that forced Ellers to clear his schedule for Cheveldeoff’s convenience should powerfully remind the new commander of the Holy Warriors that, since the primary function of the Holy Warriors was to keep the Body secure from enemies both internal and external, the Holy Warriors served Body Security.

Or, to put it another way, they served him. Ellers, whom Cheveldeoff knew from his agents on the Grand Deacon’s staff would prefer that Shridhar be the next Avatar, needed to be very clear on that point, because Cheveldeoff intended to ensure, by any and all means, that the Holy Warriors continued to serve him, in case the coming succession battle moved from the Council chamber into the streets.

The sound of a far-away doorbell rang through the room, and the computer said, “Archdeacon, Richard Hansen to see you. Identity confirmed.”

“Computer, all walls to Villa Two,” Cheveldeoff said, and the image of the interior of the House of the Body disappeared, replaced by ceiling-high windows framing a sun-drenched view of vineyards and olive trees. “Computer, open door.”

A door in the villa apparently opened, and Richard Hansen came in. The ultra-modern blood-red vestibule behind him clashed visually with the wood and marble of the wallpaper for a moment, then the door closed.

“Come in, Richard, come in,” Cheveldeoff said. “I believe it’s your turn to play white.”

“Good afternoon, Archdeacon,” Richard Hansen said. He crossed the matte-finish black floor and sat down across from Cheveldeoff. Without another word, he moved, Pawn to King Four, and the game began.

Cheveldeoff played with half his brain. Though a decent enough player, Hansen couldn’t really challenge Cheveldeoff, who could have been a Grand Master if he had cared to pursue it. Cheveldeoff enjoyed their games, but not because of the chess. The real reason he brought Hansen in week after week was that the man fascinated him.

As well he should. Richard Hansen had been Samuel Cheveldeoff’s pet project for a quarter of a century, ever since Cheveldeoff had taken command of Body Security (at the remarkably young age of thirty) and had first been briefed on the long-term experiments already underway with Victor Hansen’s “son” and “grandson.”

I wonder if he knows just how much he looks like a young Victor Hansen? Cheveldeoff wondered, studying Richard as Richard studied the board.
Probably not.
The Body strictly controlled all information about Victor Hansen, including images. And Peter Hansen, Richard’s “father,” had certainly not been provided with a stock of images of Victor Hansen to keep around the home.

Even if Richard Hansen were to see a photograph of Victor Hansen at the same age, Cheveldeoff doubted he would put two and two together. After all, many grandsons looked like their grandfathers. Cheveldeoff’s own grandfather had been not that dissimilar from himself.

But Richard Hansen, though he would never know it, was an exact duplicate of Victor Hansen at his age–because Richard Hansen, as only about ten people on the planet knew, was not Victor Hansen’s grandson at all.

He was Victor Hansen’s clone.

Cheveldeoff moved. “Bishop to Knight Five. Check.” Hansen bent to the board, giving Cheveldeoff a few more minutes for reflection.

When that old sinner Victor Hansen had stolen the Rivers of Babylon and fled the solar system, he had left behind undercover operatives to cover his tracks. In the chaos and confusion that had followed the Day of Salvation and the ensuing meteor storms, they had had no difficulty clearing the Stellar Survey databases of any trace of any research Hansen might have conducted into possible destinations–and Cheveldeoff, like every head of Body Security before him, had no doubt Hansen had had a specific destination in mind before he fled.

Hansen’s followers didn’t remain undercover for long. Betrayed for money by someone they had trusted a little too much, interrogated by the Body, they had provided a great deal of information about Hansen and his plans–though not, unfortunately, his ultimate destination.

And one thing they had revealed was that Hansen hadn’t been content to leave behind a few loyal followers. He had also left himself behind, in the form of five frozen cloned embryos, only awaiting implantation.

Victor Hansen had been long-divorced by the time he fled for Luna. Officially, the split had been vicious, and his wife had become a loyal member of the Body…but that, the Hansen loyalists revealed, had all been a ruse. In fact, Hansen’s ex-wife had remained fiercely loyal to him, and he had left the clones in her care.

Physically, the clones were all identical to Victor Hansen. But in their brains…

According to Hansen’s agents, each of the clones carried within them modified genes that somehow (Cheveldeoff didn’t pretend to understand how) would at some unknown point in their lives provide them with unlearned knowledge about Hansen’s plans. Hansen’s followers said Hansen did not believe the Body’s reign would last more than a few years, and he hoped his clones would be able to reconnect his hidden moddie “children” with humanity at some point.

More: just about the last thing Hansen’s loyalists had revealed, before they succumbed to the side-effects of their questioning, was that Hansen’s implanted gene-bombs were expected to do more than just they rewrite the clones’ memories: they would at least partially rewrite the clones’ personalities as well, making them mental as well as physical copies of Victor Hansen.

The man must have thought he was God Itself, Cheveldeoff thought.

Shortly after the interrogations ended, the Body-controlled media reported that Victor Hansen’s ex-wife had taken her own life, leaving behind a suicide note that explained she could no longer live with the shame of her former relationship with the evil genesculptor
extraordinaire
.

With her disposed of, the Body had turned its attention to Hansen’s clones. Two had been implanted almost at once in surrogate mothers. One had developed abnormalities in the womb and been aborted. The other, however, throve. Given the name Peter Hansen, raised in a Body orphanage and told his mother had died when he was an infant, he had been guided by Cheveldeoff’s predecessor into a non-critical job in a minor bureaucracy while the Body waited for the Hansen gene-bomb to explode, at which point he would be interrogated to learn the coordinates of the planet Victor Hansen had fled to. A simple plan, but one that had gone badly awry shortly after Cheveldeoff took over Body Security, when Peter Hansen had decided the best way to celebrate the ascension of a new Avatar was by naked base-jumping without a parachute.

Victor Hansen’s gene-bomb, it appeared, could have unanticipated side effects.

Cheveldeoff had therefore decided to take a different approach with the third clone, already a teenager, which had been implanted in Peter Hansen’s (carefully selected) wife, who had then tragically “died” in childbirth. (In fact, she had died shortly after childbirth, in a sealed room not far from where Peter Hansen already grieved for her–Cheveldeoff’s predecessor had not liked loose ends any more than he did.) He directed the clone into Body Security itself.

The geneticists (such as they were; in a society that outlawed genetic modification except within strict guidelines closely supervised by the Body Purified, the best and brightest did not choose genetics as a career) had persuaded him they had a gene therapy that would blunt most of the gene-bomb’s personality rewrite. They were almost it wouldn’t intefere with the transfer of “memories” about the destination of the
Rivers of Babylon
.

Cheveldeoff had agreed to the experiment. During an otherwise routine vaccination, Richard Hansen received protection against more than he knew. And then, as Richard approached the age when the gene-bomb should detonate, Cheveldeoff had posed him the very question they hoped the gene-bomb would provide the answer to: “Where did Victor Hansen take his moddies?” And ever since he had kept Richard close at hand and closely watched, waiting to see what would happen.

“So,” said Cheveldeoff, several moves into the game he already knew he would win, “how goes the great moddie hunt?”

#

Richard frowned at the board. How does he do that? he wondered.
I’m already struggling. No matter what I do, he’s a move–or three!–ahead.

But Cheveldeoff’s question made him smile. “It’s going well,” he said, looking up from the game, which patently wasn’t.

Cheveldeoff’s bushy iron-colored eyebrows lifted like caterpillars trying to crawl up onto his shaved skull. “You have news?”

“I do.” Richard’s smile widened to a grin. “I have a vector.”

The Archdeacon sat up straight in his chair, more reaction than Richard had ever seen from him. “Tell me!”

First, Richard moved, advancing a pawn to protect an exposed knight. Cheveldeoff countered without even looking at the board, and Richard suddenly found himself forced to choose between sacrificing a bishop and a rook. Richard studied the board. He didn’t like what he saw. “I’ve concentrated for years on a handful of possible routes the Rivers of Babylon might have taken,” he said, his hand hesitating over first the bishop, then the rook. “All very logical, all based on the fragmentary records we have of the ship’s flight out of the solar system. But last week I decided to take a different tack. I had…a hunch. I took a look at some data I’d never bothered with before, because they’d been recorded a quarter of a way around the orbit of Uranus from the last known position of the Rivers of Babylon.”

Yeah, call it a hunch, Richard thought. Whatever you do, don’t call it what it was–a sudden flood of complete certainty that if he looked at those long-ignored records, he would find something. Because if you call it that, you’ll have to admit you don’t what the hell is going on inside your own head these days.

He moved the rook. Cheveldeoff took his bishop. Richard studied the board again. The situation had not improved. “The records are stored on the far side of the Moon, but they’re raw data files downloaded from an old automated deep-space station, ironically one of the ones that first saw the Fist of God approaching. They hadn’t been completely ignored–some analyst studied them immediately after Hansen escaped. But the micro-nuke that destroyed Sterling Heights at the moment of departure fried electronics all over the far side, and for several months after a lot of data that came in from deep space was or scrambled as equipment was repaired or replaced. I doubt the analysts of fifty years ago could retrieve anything.” He needed the rook more than the bishop, he decided, and pulled it back a rank to safety. “But technology has advanced. My algorithms identified a great deal more data from that deep-space station tucked away in odd corners of the database than those old analysts knew existed.” He attempted to threaten Cheveldeoff’s King with the rook he’d saved on his last move.

Cheveldeoff blocked the rook with a pawn-protected knight and with the same move opened up a new line of attack from his bishop on Richard’s remaining rook. “Go on.”

“That space station had picked up something, I could tell that right but the signal was almost non-existent. It took several days of tweaking to filter out the noise burying it, but by yesterday, the computer and I agreed: the space station had recorded–and located in space–the electromagnetic footprint of a Cornwall branespace engine spinning up. The
Rivers of Babylon must have changed course just before it left the system. Combining the data from the deep-space station with the final observation of the Rivers of Babylon‘s position within the system gave me…” He slid his queen forward, on the theory that a best defense was a strong offense. “Check.”

Cheveldeoff blocked with his bishop, without a second’s pause. “A vector!”

“A vector.” Richard shook his head. The queen move had been an act of desperation. He couldn’t sustain the attack. He had to move her back and concentrate on defense again…or resign, and he wasn’t quite ready to do that. He pulled the piece back toward his side of the board. “It’s not enough to tell us where the moddie planet is…if it exists…but at least it narrows the field of search. All we need now is one unexplained burst of electromagnetic energy, one anomaly reported by some fortune-seeking scout ship…”

“And we’ll finally be able to Purify the worst abominations the genesculptors ever created,” Cheveldeoff said. “And just maybe save the human race from the wrath of God. Excellent news, Richard!” His own queen slashed across the board. “Check. Mate in three.”

What? Richard stared at the board. How did I miss that? Well, he could see it now readily enough. He reached out and tipped over his king. “Good game, sir.”

“I eagerly await the next,” Cheveldeoff said, getting to his feet and thus signaling the end of the audience. But he held out his hand, and he’d never done that before. “Good work, Richard,” he said as Richard took it. He held it a moment longer than necessary for a handshake, and looked Richard in the eyes. It wasn’t a comfortable look; Cheveldeoff’s eyes had a way of boring into his head and leaving him with a vague sense of dread, even when he was being congratulated. “If this pans out, the sky’s the limit for you.” He released Richard’s hand. “Now get out of here. Go home. Relax. It’s Salvation Day!”

“Yes, sir.” With relief (not an unusual emotion when leaving Cheveldeoff’s office) and a certain euphoria (which certainly was), Richard made his way up from the bowels of Body Security HQ. He emerged onto the front steps and paused to look back along the boulevard, paved with blue tile, lined with white stone sidewalks and white stone buildings, to the needle-sharp spire of the House of the Body pointing the way to the heavens. It pointed the way to God Itself, but now, Richard thought, maybe it also pointed the way to his future…a future where the Hansen name was no longer anathema, a future where he could finally get everything he deserved.

He shook his head. Well, that was pretentious, he told himself, and headed down the steps toward the undertube station that would take him home. He couldn’t help grinning. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.


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