In the 28th century, humans inhabit more than a thousand self-contained orbital colonies in the near reaches of the solar system. Billions of colonists follow the religious teachings of the Aescelan, priests who promote managed evolution and control their followers' reproduction through genetic engineering.
As sequences of DNA link together to form viruses or entire genomes, so beliefs link together to form ideological systems.These contagious cultural scripts invade their human hosts, altering behavior in much the same way the rabies virus puppeteers an infected dog.Those belief clusters most successful at replicating and diffusing themselves become dominant, shaping mass behavior and the movements of history, mutating and adapting all the while.
Dr. Abraham Cohen
Nicholas sat in the front row of his parish temple, facing the rostrum where Sister Devries spoke the funeral liturgy for his wife.A bright, towering double helix rotated very slowly in the air above her head, spiraling up to the soaring rafters of the sanctuary.Behind her, the relief carving displayed the hominid lineage rising from left to right, culminating in the winged potential of humanity's future.A chorus hummed wordless notes to weave a musical backdrop for the priestess.
The sealed casket lay on a lower platform of the multi-tiered altar, flanked by two elaborately costumed figures.These symbolic characters represented the forces of life and death, and Aesceleans commonly referred to them as the Maiden and the Skull.A female acolyte dressed in rich green robes and a crown of bright flowers portrayed the Maiden, while the Skull, a funerary priest, wore hooded black robes and a death mask of obsidian and silver.
The life and death figures stood at every major rite of passage. At the naming ceremony, the Maiden touched a newborn with the sacred waters, while the Skull remained nearly out of sight, in a recessed alcove far from the altar.At weddings, close friends of the bride and groom played the Maiden and the Skull, encircling the principals' clasped hands with braided cord to bind them together in life and death.Now, even the Maiden wore a somber expression under her blossoming crown.
"The value of a life," Sister Devries said, "Is best measured by devotion to the temple and by the contributions we make to the lives of others.Kemala Vermeer set an extraordinary example in both these areas.Her work as a teacher touched the lives of hundreds.We will always remember her patience and compassion, and her deep concern for the well-being of others.We can only hope that other young women of this parish will learn from her example.
"In such difficult times as these, the words of the Great Man can be a comfort and a blessing.I would like to remind you of his teachings following the death of his own wife, Mausumi, only two years before his own passing."
The double-helix hologram melted and flowed into a liquid ball, then formed into to an oversized recording of the Great Man, who looked stricken and quite old.His white beard had grown down to his chest, and looked a bit tangled at the edges.His bright gray eyes looked brighter and more intense than usual.Though he had originally spoken these words more than three centuries earlier, Dr. Cohen seemed present in the temple today.Nicholas gazed up at the prophet, hoping the man's words would comfort him.
"Our universe," the Great Man said, "Is not equal parts life and death.The true miracle is that any of us ever lived at all.We stand forever on the brink of a cold, endless dark, looking inward to the light and warmth of our homes and our families.It is only at times such as this that we turn outward to contemplate the void.Men say that the void is home to wandering ghosts.I say that the void is death itself, a dark eternity waiting indifferently to encompass us all.
"The ancients believed that God watched over them from a hidden throne in the sky.To them, a harsh, though occasionally benevolent, deity ruled from above.They trembled in fear of the treacherous gods dwelling just over the next mountain or hidden among the clouds.But we have journeyed below the mountain, and above the cloud, and found only ourselves waiting to be discovered there.
"And so if you seek the true nature of God, I would say: renounce the void.Do not look to the distant stars to hold the secrets of our existence.Seek God within our small pockets of life, growing in the seed season and nourishing us with the harvests.Seek God in the faces of those you love, and in the faces of those you hate.Death is the counter-pulse; it is death that clears the way for new life.We live forever in death's shadow.Let us embrace while we live, because the void awaits to take us all."
Like many of the Great Man's later lessons, this talk made Nicholas feel sorry for the aging prophet.Dr. Cohen had seen far deeper into the secrets of life than any who lived before him.His understanding of the subtle complexity of the genome had granted him the power to eradicate the scourge of the Child Plague, the tricky multivirus that invaded gametes and had given rise to a generation of horribly deformed babies.His research had led directly to cures for thousands of diseases, and brought in an era of unsurpassed vitality.When he began to speak of philosophical matters, the mass of humanity listened.By the time he died, at age one hundred and twenty, he was the head of a vast religious movement that eventually swept across a thousand colonies.
The Great Man did not offer much comfort, but Nicholas doubted that anyone could.He looked around at grieving family members, friends, officers, teachers, students, and parents that had known Kemala.A warm feeling reached out toward him from the congregation, the flood of commonality experienced wherever Aesceleans gathered together to pray.For the first time in his life, he rejected it, keeping himself separate from the communal spirit.
A front panel of the altar opened, and the Maiden and the Skull escorted the floating casket to the dark cavity within.
"Kemala seemed much too young to leave us," Sister Devries said. "But life knows its own way.The Great Man guides our lives along their proper channels, and into their proper destinations.Each of us is a stream of the great river, bound to rejoin the greater life from which we sprang.Kemala does not leave us today.She remains among us, and within us, always."
The panel, emblazoned with a gold and white caduceus, slid back into place.The chorus intensified its pitch to a level that could have represented grief or joy.
Soft music rose from the orchestra pit where Kemala had often played her cello on these occasions.Nicholas stood with the congregation.He burned to escape; he didn't want to face his own family, or Kemala's weeping, shocked parents, or anyone from the precinct.He didn't want pathetic attempts at comfort from the priestess, either.None of them could understand the scale of the black hole that had opened to swallow up his life.
The congregation filed out along the aisles.Nicholas passed row after row of children, Kemala's pupils, all gazing at him, all reminding him of the son Kemala would never have.He steeled himself for the attempts at sympathy and commiseration that would come.
He spent the following days and nights alone, avoiding all calls and visitors.He stared at the ceiling, not caring if he ate, or bathed, or slept.
He was slowly reaching a decision, though it meant violating his duties, his faith, and the oath he'd sworn to High Lecturer de Klene.
He and Kemala had been robbed of their lives.Nicholas could only see a bleak, empty future without her.He couldn't imagine going back to work, or trying to put his life back together.It was beyond even the Aescelan's power to heal.He would no longer go about his days like a cheerful idiot, wandering through an illusion of happiness.His existence had contracted into a cold necessity.
The face of the heretic Ariel haunted him.Her voice echoed in his mind, tearing at him again and again: Blessings upon you.He could summon every detail of her face, until she seemed to float before him like a mocking ghost.
He had only one purpose left to fill.
Nicholas wore an unseasonably heavy topcoat, but let the rain pound his unprotected head.Five days' growth of scratchy beard gave him the appearance of a derelict, the type of person police routinely captured and exiled from New Amsterdam.He didn't care; at least no one would recognize him.
He walked along the narrow canals and dark alleys of the Walletjes neighborhood, where erotic holograms advertised pleasure houses and exotic psychotropics.As he passed each doorfront, sultry female voices whispered tantalizing suggestions, and the sounds of women in orgasm cried out to him.Ghostly images flirted with him, software images of the girls and boys for sale in each house. Such intrusive advertising was banned by zoning code in most of the city, where only small, hand-painted, tastefully lighted signs were permitted.
Though the Aescelan might have frowned on these activities, the people of New Amsterdam still maintained traditional Dutch libertarian values.The official world still liked to speak as if the colony's healthy tourist trade owed primarily to flower festivals and unique architecture.The fact that the Walletjes neighborhood offered pleasures restricted on many colonies was treated as an unimportant detail, despite the vast revenue generated here.Aesceleans from other colonies could indulge themselves on New Amsterdam without having to travel outside the worlds of the faithful.
Nicholas himself had experienced some of the pleasures for sale here, on two separate occasions: once when he first joined the police force, when some of the older officers brought him here to celebrate; and once just before his wedding, again at the insistence of the others in his precinct.Both times, he had simply been following tradition, though he never pretended not to enjoy himself.
Now the seductive images held no allure for him.He was here on business.
Nicholas turned down a tight side street and climbed a brick stairway tucked behind a garbage compactor.Animated stickers coated the dark stairwells and offeredpeeling videoloops of every kind of sex act imaginable, some possible only in zero gravity.Nicholas ignored them.He reached the barricaded door at the top of the steeps and pressed the unmarked button set into the brick frame.
He heard a small electronic pop, then nothing.Somebody was listening.
"Open up, Ludovic," he said. "It's Vermeer."
"Do you have a magistrate warrant?"
"It's not a seizure.This is personal business." "I doubt it."
"Things will work out best if you speak to me alone.There's no need to bring my friends into this."
There was a long pause, then a tinny sigh echoed from the concealed speaker. "Watch your step in the hallway.I've only got a few minutes."
The exterior cage barricade creaked open.Nicholas heard five mechanical locks unfasten themselves, then the thick imitation-oak door groaned inward a few centimeters.He swung the cage door open and pushed his way inside.
Cables and heaps of outdated computer machinery cluttered the dim front hall, piled treacherously high.Nicholas maneuvered around them and into a filthy room hung with more of the same equipment, where smartwires and data cartridges were strewn among desiccated take-out boxes and dirty clothes.The room stank of sweat and decay.
Ludovic crouched on a low stool with input cables clamped to his stubby fingers and sweating forehead.His oily, matted hair had formed into ratty clumps.His eyes bulged, bloodshot, as they darted among six screens projected in the air before him.Onscreen, two very tanned women massaged each other with almost comical eroticism on a beach at sunset.Each screen showed them from a different angle.
"What do you think?" Ludovic asked.Nicholas didn't give an answer, and the stout man didn't wait for one. "Candy stuff.People lack imagination.Client thinks his fantasies are all edge, his wife would kill him, but look at this.It's like a twelve-year-old's first wet dream."
"I need an intercolony passport," Nicholas said.
"You're a funny guy."
Nicholas stared at him.The greasy man stared back, then shook his head.A smile tucked up one corner of his mouth.
"I don't do data ripping anymore," Ludovic said. "You helped me out of that business, remember?I'm reduced to this garbage.Custom porn.All the fashion these days."
"Looks glamorous.How much?"
"I can't help you, officer."
Nicholas reached inside his coat.Ludovic tensed, and his fingers edged toward one of the consoles.Concealed weapon there, no doubt, but Ludovic wouldn't have the courage to actually brandish it at an officer of the law.
Earlier, Nicholas had stopped by the precinct under the pretense of informing the captain he'd be traveling off-colony for a couple of days.He claimed he was visiting family.While he was there, he'd dropped by the cold storage vault where old evidence was packed away after trial, and there he'd shopped among items scheduled for destruction.
He drew out a clear cylinder not much larger than his fist, crammed full with a glittering pink and gold powder.Two kilograms of it.
Ludovic's eyes swelled and he drew a sharp breath.He gaped at Nicholas like a hopeful child. "Is it?"
"Uncut, premium grade faerie dust." Nicholas positioned the cylinder on the sticky top of the console directly in front of Ludovic. "Your favorite."
"I haven't seen that much in years." Ludovic spoke with a nearly religious awe.
"We do our job well."
"What do you want?" The data ripper licked his lips. "Name it."
"One primary identity and two back-ups.Citizens of three different colonies.Not New Amsterdam.I need passports, bank accounts, birth record, Aescelan genetic history.It needs to hold up under a deep scan."
"Not a problem.Give me three days." Ludovic reached for the cylinder, but Nicholas drew it out of his grasp.
"Tonight." "One night?That's impossible.I need to find an obscure dead man, tailor his records--"
"Good.Let's get going on it."
"I'd be up all night.And I'd have to work three times as fast as usual." Ludovic had not taken his eyes from the massive supply of faerie dust.
Nicholas waved the cylinder under his nose. "You know I'm overpaying for this.You'll be well compensated for the rush job."
"I can do it...but I'll need my happy thoughts."
Nicholas unscrewed the lid of the clear cylinder.Ludovic rose several centimeters in his chair, leaning forward.
"Just a sample," Nicholas said. "Where do you want it?"
Ludovic scrambled to his knees and rummaged through a heap of equipment and console shells. He came up with a round mirror and a glass straw etched with an elongated golden griffin.He extended the mirror to Nicholas, looking like a beggar asking for credits.
Nicholas spilled a very small pinch of the glittering dust onto the scratched mirror.He caught a glimpse of his haggard face, and felt very distant from himself; he never thought he'd be supplying illegal drugs in a business transaction.
"That won't keep me going all night," Ludovic said.
"It'll get you started.I'll give you a little more each hour."
"I like to work alone."
"I can keep quiet.Just think of me as the dust fairy."
Ludovic grinned.He produced a wafer-thin processor panel encrusted with smashed pink powder, and he used it to divide the faerie dust into four lines.He offered the straw to Nicholas, but the police officer shook his head.
Ludovic sucked the powder up into his nose, swiping back and forth, switching nostrils between each line, moving like an efficient machine.When he looked up at Nicholas again, his eyes danced and glittered.
"You know, you're not a bad one, for a badge.You should have a bit," Ludovic said. "I know a great club.Lovelies everywhere.This stuff, we could find a couple of friends, easy.Be a great night for us all."
"My wife just died, Ludovic."
"All the more reason for a little slap and tumble." Ludovic grinned like a skull, eyes gleaming. "You think?No?How about a touch more?"He nodded at the cylinder.
"My travel documents.Get to work if you want more."
Ludovic scowled at him, but swiveled his chair back to face the bank of screens. "Sad when a man doesn't know enough to appreciate a good time."
Early the next morning, Nicholas stood at a sink in the spaceport bathroom, shaving and making himself look presentable.He didn't want to attract attention from security or other passengers.
His travel pack was slung over one shoulder, containing several days' worth of clothing and a grooming kit.He carried a shockgun and a chemical gun, both broken down into components and stashed among shielded magnet-woven pockets to avoid detection.The pack itself was unblemished under its layer of dust, almost identical to the condition in which he'd bought it for he and Kemala's trip to Abidjan.
He'd considered asking Ludovic to search for data on Ariel, but had immediately decided against it.The man could already identify the names he'd be traveling under.No reason for him to know Nicholas's purpose as well.Information was best kept compartmentalized.
Nicholas rinsed his face and hair, then shuffled out towards the boarding terminals, already regretting his decision to leave home.He avoided the gypsy merchants offering anonymous passage and continued on to the main boarding area, where he booked passage on a big Triod freighter under his own name.He wanted to leave a record that he had left the colony through traditional channels, in case anyone in the police force checked up on him.Nicholas Vermeer, officer of the law, would never travel by questionable gypsy means.Already, he thought of himself as a character he portrayed.He had no true identity now, only an aching need for revenge.
Nicholas passed through security, using his real identity card throughout.He entered the connector corridor to the mass-transit level, passing cheerful holograms of attendants directing him toward the seating area.
He took a worn seat in a huge passenger bay occupied by a thousand people.Robots stamped with the pyramid-shaped Triod logo trolled up and down the aisles, hawking drinks, snacks and instant meals.Through a tall window, Nicholas looked out at the sea of stars.He couldn't see Earth from here, but he could make out scores of rock-shelled colonies visible against the backdrop of the moon.Each one contained an independent ecosystem, complete with an ocean and weather cycle, with farms and parklands arranged around a central city housing millions of people.With the moon illuminating the colonies from behind, Nicholas could see the broad black web of solar collectors around each of them, providing the raw necessities of light and energy to the colonists.
One of these habitats was his first destination.
A spherical colony, Mourin held dozens of monasteries and meditation centers tucked among its mountains and waterfalls.Many of the Great Man's original writings were there, including private journal pages etched with his looping scrawl.It was a quiet retreat used mainly for religious reflection, advanced study, or the occasional corporate team-building exercises.Anyone tracking him would conclude that he'd gone to Mourin to help recover from his loss, and found lodging among one of the many monasteries, where strict digital records were not always kept.
Many of the monasteries remained off the communications grid in order to attend to their biological studies.Some were not even connected to Mourin's road system.An investigator would be forced to waste days hiking among the mountains, asking questions face-to-face instead of remotely searching databases.Nicholas did not want to be found, either by the Aescelan or the civil authorities.
It was only an hour hop to Mourin.Nicholas watched as the freighter detached from New Amsterdam and his home colony dwindled in the distance.Nicholas had rarely gone off-colony before, and even those occasions had been carefully prepackaged for him: a vacation arranged by travel agent, TempleGuard training on ReTokyo.
He had never left the worlds where the Aescelan faith predominated.Ever since he was a child, he'd imagined the apostate worlds as frightening hells of disease and deformity, practicing every perverse sin imaginable.Now he would have to find his way in that wilderness like an animal escaping a lifetime of captivity.He could not rely on his status as a policeman or a devoted Aescelean.Everything about his Nicholas Vermeer identity would only work against him, leaving a data wake for police or Aescelan investigators to follow.
His old life was over.He had to become something new.
When the signal popped up on his office viewscreen, High Lecturer de Klene immediately contacted Rolamar colony on the Pontifex's private wavelength.
An acolyte appeared on the screen first to transfer the call, but this was just protocol.Pontifex Felagro took the acolyte's place almost immediately, before the boy could even pretend to touch the controls.De Klene felt giddy at the thought that the Supreme Archbishop of the Aescelan, successor of the Great Man himself, would be eager to speak to him.
Felagro appeared freshly groomed, his beard curled and adorned with jewels, his layers of gold and scarlet robes shimmering.In his limited personal contact with the Pontifex, de Klene had observed that Felagro always had the air of a man who'd just stepped freshly made from the mint--or perhaps a steam sauna with his favorite acolytes.
"Narha de Klene," Felagro said. His tone implied that he indulged the High Lecturer by using his first name. "We've been awaiting your call."
"Your Holiness, the wild card is away.He was seen departing Heerlijkedeur spaceport only moments ago."
"Good.And you impressed upon him that any such action would be strictly forbidden by the Aescelan?"
"He swore an oath.I've uploaded Your Holiness a record of it.He'll be forced to travel anonymously, through unofficial channels."
"Fine work, de Klene.Though I must admit some concern that our faithful are so easily encouraged to disobey us."
"Prediction is control, Your Holiness.We ran a genomic-psychographic model on him, and the model reacted in this manner eighty-four out of one hundred times.He is breed for athleticism and optimum health, one of our latent soldier strains.Such genotypes can act out of instinct and passion.Your Holiness must remember the extremity of his circumstances.
"Additionally, he can rationalize to himself that he is doing the work of the Aescelan, even if in a renegade manner, by hunting the target.We gave him that idea.A heretic, you see.The exact response we intended.Given the man's emotional condition, the loss of his mate--"
"Yes, yes, de Klene."
"Your Holiness, there is the additional matter of my position.Each day of uncertainty grows more awkward.The people must know who guides them in their spiritual lives."
"A true leader does not need titles or position to lead."
"I do not pretend to be a true leader, Your Holiness. I am a humble servant of the High Council."
"You have great wisdom for a man of your station."
"Thank you, Your Holiness."
"You must understand, however, that New Amsterdam is an archbishopric.Even I cannot simply wave you into office.We must have discussions and meetings among the High Council, so that each Archbishop has a chance to recommend his favorites."
"But this is empty ritual!Your Holiness promised--"
"Ritual, de Klene, is the fabric that binds civilization together.I still hold the reins of influence, and you have proven yourself a useful ally in this holy war.Your assistance is well noted here.You will continue to serve in your current post until formal arrangements can be made."
"Thank you, Your Holiness."
"You must continue your efforts on our behalf, de Klene.I swear by the Book of Life, these heretics will be ground into dust."