Helix: Chapter Three


Great Man, Great Man, listen to my prayer,
Send me a sister with golden hair.
Make her tall and pretty and strong or
Don't even let her ever be born.

New Amsterdam schoolyard verse

            Nicholas spent an hour at Blessed Prophet Hospital, which connected to the bel-Temple by a high pedestrian bridge.  Casualties flooded the building, transforming the usual orderly routine of the hospital into the rapid triage of a medical tent from some ancient battlefield.  Though it was the largest hospital on New Amsterdam colony, it was not prepared for violence on this level.  He floated, detached, among the chaos as medical acolytes rushed by with screaming, bleeding victims splayed on hovering stretchers.
            Aescelan doctors hurried Kemala into emergency treatment, but nothing could be done.  She was beyond even the exquisite medical technology of the priesthood.  Nicholas was only vaguely aware of the moaning and weeping around him, where stretchers bearing victims had been crowded into the waiting rooms.  The families of priests, acolytes and temple functionaries crammed into the hospital to comfort the wounded and cry over the deceased.
            Nicholas gave a listless, mechanical recount of events to his commanding officer, Captain Vandermark,.  Listening to the other officers, he picked up a loose picture of events: a radio-networked chain bomb had demolished much of the Temple.  Casualties might number in the hundreds.  The Archbishop was dead, along with most of the bel-Temple's governing body of elder priests.  Several conjectures floated in the air about the agents of terrorism.  The most popular idea was heretical pure-geners from another colony, or even Earth, who believed the Aescelan's work immoral.  Most of Earth's religious leaders denounced the Aescelan's teachings on a weekly basis.
            In short, nobody knew anything.
            Nicholas descended to the morgue for a last look at Kemala's crumpled, burned form.  He gave her scorched face a final kiss, and something glinted at her throat, catching his eye.  It was her caduceus necklace, one serpent of silver and the other of lapis.  He unclasped the necklace, kissed it, and slid it into his own pocket.
            The funerary priests arrived in the dark, hooded robes that kept their faces concealed.  Nicholas signed over custody of Kemala's body to them, and he tried not to think about how her body would be mined for salvageable materials, blood and organs that would probably go to aid others wounded in the bombing.  His heart felt like a clutch of ice needles.
            He rode the monorail out of downtown, watching the city curve away behind him.  A pall of dark smoke hung above the bel-Temple complex.  Soon it would be out of sight, obscured by the cloudy sky.
            New Amsterdam was, like many colonies, spherical in shape.  External machinery rotated the colony to create centrifugal force against the inner surface of the sphere.  This mock gravity held the trees, rivers, cities and people in place.  Clouds gathered toward the center of the giant sphere, where they grew heavy and fell as rain outward, to the soil coating the inside of the sphere.  Traveling by rapid monorail, a person lost sight of his point of origin as it curved away "behind" the cloudy sky.
            From the monorail, Nicholas could see the foothills of the Apeldoorn mountains, where coolant modules inset below the rock surface helped slow the air.  Clouds gathered around the refrigerated caps to sink and feed the colony's river system.  From here, the rivers flowed out through the green sprawl of the Keukenhof wildlife preserve, controlled by the priesthood, where a limited number of licensed hikers and campers were permitted each week.  Nicholas and Kemala had visited there about three times a year, sleeping among the meadows and forests under the open sky. 
            The wildlife preserve ended at a patchwork of farms where goats, sheep and dairy cows grazed among rolling, grassy hills.  Orchards and flower farms there generated New Amsterdam's trademark produce.  Beyond this was the huge reservoir of the Frisian Sea, with its scattering of islands.  Beyond the sea lay the parklands, where suburban towns and villages were tucked among tall forests; the monorail was carrying him into that region.  Behind him lay the urban center of New Amsterdam, and beyond it the snow-frosted peaks of the Apeldoorn range.
            Outside the colony, a black webbing of solar collectors sprawled for kilometers in every direction to harvest raw energy from the sun.  Some of this powered the colony's electrical grid, and some of it was concentrated into a dense, invisible microwave beam that fed the massive crystalline sphere floating in the weightless core of the spherical colony.  From here, artificial sunlight radiated in all directions, illuminating the colony interior.  Each evening, irises gradually closed around the artificial sun until the colony was left in near-darkness.  Early space settlers had learned that a day-night cycle was essential to stabilize many biological activities, including basic human sanity.
            Tonight, though, the irises would probably remain open a few extra hours while investigators sorted through the shattered bel-Temple.  Nightfall would be a long time coming.
            Nicholas reached his stop on the monorail line and exited to find the streetcar that would take him home.  The crowd of passengers around him might have been faceless ghosts as they shuffled out of the train.  The bright, cheery sunlight struck him as a happy illusion. He longed for dark rain, maybe even a storm.
            He and Kemala's apartment building was a tall, thin brick rectangle in a community out in the parklands.  A hundred thousand people lived just around him, among tame wilderness managed by Aescelan researchers dedicated to preserving existing species and to gradually teasing extinct plants and animals back to life from ancient genetic records.  Biodiversity was a core value of the Great Man's teachings.  The residents thought little about the slow biological experiments occurring around them; they simply appreciated the lush view from their windows, as well as the kilometers of hiking and biking trails.
            He rode the elevator up to the thirty-eighth floor.  He entered the apartment, but left the lights off.
            Faint light rippled from the walls, where ornately framed videoloops replayed scenes from their life.  The engagement, walking hand in hand through New Amsterdam parkland; the wedding in their neighborhood temple, Nicholas and Kemala clasping hands with their parish lecturer, Sister Devries; their vacation on the tropical archipelago colony of Abidjan.  He stopped and watched as Kemala caught the dorsal fin of a dolphin and dove with it under the clear, hot sea.  She did it again and again, each time the exuberant smile breaking over his goggled face.  Each time, she became a shadow, indistinct under the flashing waves, out of reach in another world.
            He brushed a touchpad and turned all the pictures off, and their holographic frames vanished with them.  Still, there was no soothing darkness.  Sunlight trickled in through the shades.  Nicholas wished again for night to fall. 
            The only sound was the burbling of the little pond in the corner, set in a raised dais of polished rock.  It was their household vesta, or shrine to life, home to floating blossoms and a community of miniature turtles, each of the animals small enough to fit on Nicholas's thumbnail.  The turtles ambled through the damp moss and tiny trees planted around the pond, moving with the patience of the eternal.  A little bodhi wood figurine of the Great Man, hands in prayer, stood at the pond's edge, contemplating Nicholas's living room.
            He found himself reclined on the living room divan, a bottle of brandy in one hand.  He couldn't remember getting there.  He took a deep pull of the liquor for comfort, felt it burn into his belly and brain.  The apartment unsettled him; too much of it was Kemala.  The sight of her lacy red nightdress flung carelessly over the soft, armless chair beside him made him weep for five minutes, until he pitched it out of sight.
            Kemala had left the nightdress there only the night before, when the hopes and fears about the following day had created a potent tension between them.  They both had their clothes shed before they reached the bedroom.  They had tumbled in bed for nearly two hours.  His wife had indeed been a gymnast.
            Nicholas crawled across the floor, wracked with guilt and pain, and gathered the thrown nightdress from the piled carpet.  He wrapped his arms around it, feeling he'd violated her memory by pitching it away.  The scent of jasmine and feminine sweat curled up from the lace.
            He lay across it and fell asleep on the floor.

            Hours later, Nicholas awoke in solid darkness.  The colony's civil government must have finally allowed the night to come.
            He drifted among the rooms of his apartment, lost.  A residue of dreams and memory coated his mind, helping him to avoid thinking about his terrible loss.  A vital connection had been made in his sleep, something that would have been obvious had he been of a more rational mind today.
            The creature he'd captured this morning was obviously a blasphemy, a beast made out of forbidden genetic manipulation.  It had looked part man, part something else--warthog, maybe.  The second creature, the one that had struck him in the bel-Temple, seemed to be human mixed with panther.  He had never seen a creature like that before, and he knew of nobody who had.  Today, he'd seen two of them. 
            The warthog-beast in police custody would have information.  Why had his wife died?  While the attackers in the temple might have gotten away, the hog-monster must have been a co-conspirator with them. 
            Nicholas tried to make himself relax.  He didn't have to get involved.  He didn't want to get involved.  He wanted to stay home, alone, and maybe never come back out alive.
            The Aescelan, though, would take the creature for themselves, maybe even to Rolamar colony, to the Asklepion, the highest of all temples.  They would want to study the source of the man-beast: who made it, who commanded it, who had launched the unexpected terror strike.  The manufacture of such a creature alone warranted intense ecumenical investigation.  The fact that it had been part of an attack team sent against a temple gave the priests plenty of legal right to claim the prisoner--not that the New Amsterdam civil government would ever think to resist the wishes of the priesthood.
            Once they took the man-beast, Nicholas would never hear any more about it.  He felt certain the priesthood would keep all the information to themselves; they wouldn't want it loose in the public.  No data would cycle back to the New Amsterdam government, which would be extremely happy to leave the entire matter in the hands of Aescelan investigators.
            Nicholas would never understand why Kemala had died today.  Not even his place in the Temple Guard reserve, a ceremonial position that usually involved securing parade routes or guarding visiting dignitaries, granted him that kind of status.  If he wanted to learn anything, he would have to act fast, while the man-beast might still be available to him.
            He dressed himself quickly in civilian clothes, giving no thought to his tousled appearance.  Unarmed, he stepped out of his apartment, not even bothering to lock it behind him.
            He had very little time.

            The detention center stood on the outskirts of the city, not far from New Amsterdam's tiny industrial district.  The high exterior wall resembled any warm brick facade downtown, except for the barbed zapwire strung along the top.  Approaching at this late hour, unkempt and in a shirt he'd discovered was not entirely clean, Nicholas felt more like a criminal than an enforcer of order.
            The outer guards ushered him inside--his police credentials got him that far.  But the officer on the front desk shook his head at Nicholas's request.
            "I don't know what you're talking about," the portly man said. "We haven't got anything like that here."
            "Either that monster got shipped off-colony," Nicholas replied, "Or it's downstairs in the Vault.  If it's already gone, just tell me, and I'll go home.  All right?"
            The duty officer shifted in his chair and turned his attention to the array of video screens projected on the inside of his cubical.  "Sorry, friend."
            Nicholas made a show of casting furtive looks around the room, as if checking to ensure they were alone. Then he leaned in close enough to smell the chocolate-laced coffee on the officer's breath. "Look.  Between you and me.  I know it's still down there." This was a huge bluff; they'd had hours to ship the man-beast out.  But if that had happened, none of this really mattered, anyway. "I'm on a special errand from the Commandant himself.  He wants me to interrogate the monster before the priests take it away."
            "I didn't receive notification." Looking puzzled, the officer tapped at a screen. "There's nothing here."
            "Sometimes people don't like to leave a data trail.  I'm not going to question the Commandant."
            "Let me call the night desk--" The officer reached toward the array of floating screens, but Nicholas blocked his hand.
            "Are you insane?  I just told you the Commandant does not want a trail. This is a confidential assignment.  Strictly face-to-face.  Not even a ripple of data wake."
            "Why didn't someone inform me?"
            "I am informing you."
            The chubby desk officer thought it over.  He looked terribly agitated. Nicholas took no pleasure from this shoddy manipulation, and would find it perfectly justified if the police force took his badge for it.  For now, only his immediate goal mattered.  He needed to know.
            "I could get in a lot of trouble," the officer said. "They said nobody, in or out."
            Dropping his voice to an even lower whisper, Nicholas said, "Listen, Officer--" He checked the man's badge. "Mincer?  Mincer.  There are plenty of ways to get ahead in the world.  Official channels, and unofficial channels.  Which path do you think really gets you there?  How many idiots slog in here each morning, slide their card, go about their little jobs, and slide out without ever getting noticed?  Do you want to be one of those losers?  Or do you want to be somebody the Commandant owes a small favor to?  This is what government careers are made of, Mincer." Mincer opened his mouth to speak, but Nicholas steamrolled over him. "Think about your future.  Do you really want to sit behind this desk for the next fifteen years?  I can put in a word either way."
            Mincer gnawed at his lower lip and stared into space.  Clearly, he was not a man accustomed to making choices for himself.
            "You don't want to make enemies here, Mincer." Nicholas let a hint of threat creep into his voice. "This is a delicate moment for you.  Do you want to be one of the boys or not?"
            Mincer chewed away at his lip.  Nicholas kept a hard stare on him, but didn't say another word.
            "Just a few minutes," Mincer said. "Five, ten at the most.  Then you're back on the rail out of here."
            "I thought you looked like a rational man."
            "I'll get my relief officer to take the desk."  Mincer appeared even more harried now that he'd made the choice. He now chewed both his lips, rapidly alternating between them. "Don't tell anybody I let you in--except the Commandant, I mean."

            Underneath the New Amsterdam detention center, the civil engineers had installed a miniature fortress of steel bar and rock.  Here, a dozen cells lay ready to accept the most violently insane offenders.  The Vault had rarely been used, but the prison kept it up for unforeseen emergencies.  Like today.
            Mincer led Nicholas along the solid rock corridor.  Greasy yellow lights flickered along the ceiling, doing little to relieve the gloom.  It must have been intentionally designed that way for psychological effect--the original architect could just have easily called for a bright, sterile environment.  The doors to individual cells yawned open.  No one deserved to be trapped down here with the unholy monster; the Aescelan did not breed any man so violent or depraved.
            They arrived at the last cell on the left, which was fronted with armorglass ribbed with steel crossbars.  The interior was more of the solid rock; the entire Vault had probably been a single slab of asteroid, its chambers drilled and scooped out of the solid mass.  It would be nearly impossible to escape.
            Mincer drew back. "There it is," he whispered, touching the caduceus at his neck for protection from the unholy creature.  Sweat wreathed his pudgy face. "Ten minutes, maximum."  He stumbled his way back up the corridor, clearly in a hurry to put distance between himself and the unclean thing in the cage.
            The hog-beast crouched on the floor, glaring through the clear wall at Nicholas.  It lifted its broad, hairy snout and snuffed the air, then gave a series of grunts, working its massive tusks up and down.  Chains shackled both its arms--two ends of a single chain, Nicholas realized.  The long chain snaked back from one arm, through a series of steel ringlets along the perimeter of the rock ceiling, and back down to his other.  Good work.  The beast's strength had been set against itself.
            The room was mostly bare. He saw a padded sleeping shelf just above the floor, a toilet in the corner, a dangling hose that would dispense water on demand.  All of it looked ridiculously small compared to the hulking beast, as if the monster had been caged in a dollhouse.  Nicholas felt reassured by the fact that the creature would never escape through the narrow vent slots in the ceiling.
            Nicholas activated the communicator panel on the clear wall.
            "Hi there," he said. "Do you recognize me?"
            The creature stared back at him with small black eyes and said nothing.
            "I caught you today.  Remember that?"
            The creature belched a grunt.  Or perhaps it was really a belch.
            "Do you have a name?"
            The beast shook its head.
            "Who was the girl?  The one with the cat-man?  Is that the right term?  Cat-man?  Enlighten me."  No response.  The creature remained in its crouch, knuckles on the floor to either side of him--the chains wouldn't permit his arms to reach one another.  "Sardis?  Is he a friend of yours?"
            The hog-beast raised its head a little, as if it intended to answer, then caught itself.
            "We have him, you know.  He's under sedation right now.  The girl, too.  She's ours." Remembering the panther-beast's fierce loyalty to her, Nicholas added, "She didn't want to play nice.  Some of the boys got a little rough with her.  You know how boys are."
            At last, a response. The beast's lips peeled back and unleashed a throaty snarl.  It rushed forward, but the chains held it fast.  Its gray, bloated face leaned close enough to the clear wall that Nicholas could see the black hairs spiking out from its snout and chin.
            When the beast spoke, its voice sounded like rocks grinding together, but its words came across surprisingly clear:
            "Stop attempting to be clever, human."
            "Human.  Let's start with that, then. I'm human.  And you are...what?"
            "Right.  Good.  Progress."  Nicholas leaned his face in, very close to the monster's.  The hog-beast's breath formed a mist that spread and dissipated across the clear pane.  "Look, I don't even care what you are or where you come from or who committing the sacrilege of bringing your face into the universe.  My wife died.  Ten hours ago, she died.  And you and your people killed her.  And you're going to tell me why."
            The beast regarded him carefully--far too much intelligence shone in its slick black eyes.  Nicholas began to feel uncomfortable, as though the beast could see right through his flesh.  Remember your training.  He commanded his thundering, frightened heart to calm itself.  He imagined his nerves turning to cold steel underneath his skin. He would not be intimidated by the unholy creature.        
            After a long minute of silence, the monster opened its jaws and answered. If not for the wall between them, it could have bitten Nicholas's skull in half.
            Nicholas locked the monster in a long stare.  If it was a battle of wills, Nicholas would win.  When he spoke again, his voice had a flat, alien quality, something not himself from deep within.
            "Tell me," he said.
            "We did not kill her."
            "You set the bombs."
            "No.  We did not."
            "The girl?  Did she set them?  Is she your leader?"
            Another hard, calculating stare from the beast. Then, slowly, a belching, snorting laughter erupted from its belly. Its thin lips stretched into a ferocious smile around its tusks.  "Your ignorance would fill the great void itself."
            Hard boots shuffled at the edge of the corridor.  Nicholas didn't allow himself to look away from the beast.
            "Why are you here?  For what purpose were you created?"
            "For what purpose were you?" the beast replied.
            "I'm not here for mind games."
            The beast shuffled closer to the wall, as far as its bonds permitted. Now it spoke in a low voice, as though sharing a dark secret. "Are you sure of that?"  It turned to look up the corridor.
            Mincer, the front desk guard, marched toward Nicholas, his skin the color of bleached paper, his belly jiggling over his belt.  More men followed the guard. Nicholas's time had run out. 
            "Just tell me," Nicholas said to the beast. "Who killed her?"
            The beast eyed his badge. "Are you good at your work, policeman?"
            "I was before tonight."
            "Look around. Dig for the hidden things." The beast imitated shoveling dirt with its snout, as some of its ancestors probably had. "Don't allow sentiment to blind you.  Use your brain, human."
            Nicholas turned to look at the approaching men.  Mincer led them, looking as if he might collapse of shock.  The others following him wore police uniforms with gold armbands--members of the police force's elite Tactical Squad, who served as direct lieutenants of the colony governor.  Until very recently, Nicholas's object in life had been to prove his way into their ranks, and move from there into public office.  That would never happen now.
            The police officers formed into a wall, then stopped.  A show of force to let Nicholas know he had no hope of escape.  Mincer stood several paces ahead of them, quivering.  Nicholas might have destroyed the poor man's career.  He felt distantly sorry for the desk officer, but he was all out of emotions just now.
            The wall of officers parted at the middle and the Commandant himself stepped through, glimmering epaulets slightly askew, as if he'd dressed in a hurry and stayed busy since.  The stern man's blue eyes bored into him.
            Nicholas snapped to attention.  The Commandant, chief executive of the entire colony police force, stepped up to him.  His mouth was a thin, severe line.
            "You are relieved of duty, son."

            Nicholas sat in a hard leather chair in the Commandant's office, facing the thin, stiff man across the reflective black desk.  The walls flickered with news reports and video loops of the Commandant shaking hands with such notables as the colony governor, who wore his trademark frock coat, and the now-deceased Archbishop, her gray hair tumbling in the wind at the dedication of a new arboretum in the parklands.  An old-fashioned wall clock tapped out the seconds.  Commandant Visser puffed on a sickly sweet dried-root cigar, watching him.
            The Commandant had said little to him; he'd directed the police officers to escort Nicholas to his office, but not revealed any sign of his intentions.  Nicholas knew better than to ask questions.
            "I called your captain," the Commandant said. "Turned him out of bed, wife howling, dog complaining the whole time.  He had some positive things to say about you."
            "Is he coming here?"
            "No need for that.  We've got problems bigger than his responsibilities."  The door slid open.  The Commandant rose and replaced his hat on his head.
            Nicholas turned, thinking it might be the governor, but instead a young female Aescelan acolyte entered the room, looking at no one.
            "His Reverence the High Lecturer Narha de Klene," she announced. 
            Nicholas barely had time to drop to his knees before de Klene entered in gleaming gold and white robes emblazoned with the caduceus.  Jeweled rings glittered on his fingers.  Nicholas had rarely seen de Klene outside of a few public appearances, where he'd spoken and smiled about as well as any priest, but the look on the man's fleshy face at this moment made Nicholas think of a rabbit thrust into a ring of foxes.
            Nicholas knew the Archbishop had died, which meant de Klene was now the highest-ranking priest on New Amsterdam--their local head of faith, at least temporarily.  His formal bow acknowledged this, but the middle-aged priest just looked embarrassed.
            "Up, up, by the Great Man."  Nicholas didn't know if this was a sacred command or just an exasperated swear. He obeyed regardless.
            The priest sank into the nearest chair, shaking his head. "Days like these."  The man slumped as though carrying a whole planet on his back.  He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead.  He looked nearly as pale as the prison guard Mincer had.
            "Would you care for some water, Your Reverence?" the Commandant asked. "Or is it Your Eminence now?"
            "No, no." He looked up at his acolyte, perched by the door like a rigid sentinel. "Catarine, go have yourself a coffee. Thank you."  The girl left, and the door slid into place behind her.  Nicholas heard the brief hum of a magnetic lock. "I am just the acting bishop until the High Council selects a permanent replacement.  For now, I'm instructed to look into this ugly episode on their behalf."
            The priest fidgeted in his chair as Nicholas and the Commandant returned to their seats.  He gave Nicholas a quick look-over.
            "So you're the one," de Klene said. "Aren't you?"
            "Your Reverence, I apologize.  I wasn't just seeking out a curiosity.  I wanted to see the beast that murdered my wife."
            "We are very sorry for your loss," de Klene said.  He sounded tired, but genuinely concerned. "I'm sure it was not intentional.  Such a horrible day for us all.  I'm certain nobody's upset about your going to the prison."
            Nicholas glanced at the Commandant's glowering face and found himself doubting the priest's words.
            "We understand you encountered the attackers yourself," de Klene said. "What can you tell us about them?"
            Nicholas looked between the High Lecturer and the Commandant.  So he was here for debriefing, not reprimands.  Not yet, anyway.  He let himself relax a little. 
            "I saw two," he said. "Another blasphemous creature like the one in the vault.  It is a blasphemy, isn't it, Your Reverence?" De Klene nodded and brushed at the air, dismissing the point. "This had black fur and looked part cat, I would guess something like a panther.  The other one called it Sardis.  The other one, the girl, she didn't look strange at all, except that she was so small next to the beast.  Fifteen, sixteen.  Brown hair, gray eyes--I couldn't see well at the time.  But definitely small, even for a teenager.  No more than one point five meters tall.  Forty, forty-five kilograms." 
            De Klene nodded, motioned for him to continue.
            "The girl held command over the beast, that was the really strange part.  When it attacked me, she called it off.  It would have killed me."
            "Can you know this for sure?" De Klene asked.
            "Its intentions were pretty clear."
            "Did they speak to you?"
            "The girl gave me a benediction. 'Blessings upon you.'  Like a priest.  That's all."
            De Klene's jaw muscles clenched.  "Did she?  That heretical little...And you say you encountered them after the bombs detonated?"
            "Did she say anything else?"
            "No, Your Reverence."
            "What about the other one, in the Vault?  Did he speak to you?"
            "I was just getting him to talk when the Commandant arrived.  He tried to claim they were innocent."
            "Ridiculous," de Klene said. "Anything else?"
            "No, Your Reverence."
            "Hm." De Klene leaned back in thought.
            "Your Reverence, may I ask a question?" Nicholas said. The Commandant glared at him.
            "Of course.  And no need for this formality, please.  For the moment, just think of me as your parish lecturer.  I miss that sort of work; it's much simpler than ecumenical politics."
            "I am a reserve officer in the Aescelan Temple Guard.  With the Commandant's permission, I would like to offer my services for this investigation.  I want these creatures stopped."
            "Forget it," the Commandant said. "You lied your way into a restricted area.  You used my name."
            "Please, Commandant, the man is obviously traumatized," de Klene said. "Officer Vermeer, I can assure you that we have a team of our very best investigators already on the trail of these blasphemous monsters.  I cannot recommend that you be brought into the case, considering your personal ties to the matter."
            Nicholas stopped himself from protesting--one did not argue with a priest.
            De Klene gave him another careful look, then leaned forward. "However, we believe that you deserve to know the facts of the situation, in order to assure you the Aescelan has the matter in hand."
            The priest slid a jeweled ring from his finger.  He pressed the square, fire-colored gem into the access port on the Commandant's desk; it was the same size and shape as the tip of a data cartridge.
            Concealed miniprojectors in the desk sprang to life.  A transparent hologram of a girl appeared on top of the desk.
            "That's her," Nicholas said. He restrained an urge to slash his fist through the floating image.
            "All of this is strictly confidential, you understand," de Klene said. "We permit you to see only because of your lifelong devotion to the faith, your service in the Guard, and your terrible loss this morning.  The High Council agrees that you have a right to understand your wife's death, and that you can be trusted with matters vital to the Aescelan.  Do you wish to learn the truth?"
            "Yes, Your Reverence."
            "And do you vow to leave this matter in the hands of the proper ecclesiastical authorities, and to request no further information until such time as the High Council deems the matter concluded?"
            Nicholas hesitated.  He hadn't expected this.  Somewhere on his person, the priest would be wearing a holorecorder, and later would upload the full record to the High Council's archives.  Breaking a vow to a priest could be grounds for excommunication.  He wasn't sure he could promise not to investigate further, especially if the Guard investigators took too long to find the attackers.
            On the other hand, the cube of information was right there, offered up by the High Council itself.  Nicholas might never have another opportunity to learn even this much on his own.
            "I vow it," he said.
            The priest gave a solemn nod. "And we accept your promise.  The girl calls herself Ariel."
            Nicholas glanced over at the Commandant.  Either he'd already been sworn to secrecy, or the High Lecturer, in his frazzled state, had neglected to do it. 
            "Several years ago," de Klene said, "A small order of priests split off from the main body of the Aescelan priesthood.  They disagreed with the Great Man's teachings, and they claimed that Dr. Cohen only wanted to limit humanity's power over its own evolution because he was timid and afraid of unforeseen consequences."
            "Blasphemy," Nicholas whispered.
            "We assume they have supporters, possibly commercial backers, because they struck out into forbidden areas of research," de Klene continued.  "They remixed animal and human DNA to create horrible chimeras like those you've seen."  De Klene waved his fingers at the hologram, and Nicholas watched new images fade in and out: a boy with a protruded nose and mouth, and the thin, membranous ears of a bat; a girl with two sharp fangs, scaly skin and yellow, reptilian eyes; the hog-beast locked in the vault.
            "Atrocities," Nicholas said.  "They look like demons from the void."
            "These demons are man-made.  We cannot say for certain their purpose, but the heretics are mad with power.  They may have created these beasts simply as an experiment.  Whatever their motivation, they have trained the creatures into obedience, and now use them to launch attacks against us."
            "I've heard nothing about this," the Commandant said.
            "We have intentionally kept it quiet, as we see no need to throw ten billion Aesceleans into a panic over something likely to affect very few of them.  We trust you will assist us with this, and speak to no one of what you've seen."
            "Everybody saw the monster yesterday," Nicholas said. "It was charging through the streets."
            "It murdered three Temple Guardians who attempted to stop it," De Klene said. "That must have been the cause of its panic.  It's a savage, irrational killing machine.  You must have seen this yourself."
            Nicholas nodded his agreement.  "And the girl?  She's their leader?"
            "She has been observed controlling the monsters before.  She is not as young or innocent as she appears.  In truth, we believe she may have used plastic surgery to disguise her identity, but she must have been one of our priestesses at some point.  Or she might have been trained by the heretics themselves.  We just don't know yet."
            Nicholas studied the image floating over the desk; the long, brown hair and piercing gray eyes.  She had seemed so small and harmless in person.  He believed the priest, though; she did not have the eyes of a teenager.
            The image faded and the priest withdrew his ring.
            "You can imagine the difficulties this brings the Aescelan.  The High Council is placing a great deal of trust in you by sharing even this much information.  However, you are a faithful believer, and the priesthood's foremost duty is to heal.  We sincerely hope this knowledge will help you come to terms with your loss."
            "Thank you, Your Reverence." Nicholas didn't feel healed at all.  Kemala's death seemed even more meaningless, somehow, now that he understood the context.  Murdered by heretics.  Of course he hadn't really imagined the Temple bombing had anything personally to do with himself or Kemala, but the scale of their insignificance had never occurred to him before.  He was a tiny cog in a vastly complex machine, composed of forty billion strangers spread across the Earth and its two thousand orbiting colonies.  Kemala had seen him as more than that, but Kemala was gone. 
            "Are you certain, sir, that I cannot help in your work against this group?"
            "You've helped us a great deal just today, Nicholas.  And that's where we need you, on the streets, protecting the citizens." De Klene's eyes drifted over to examine the great city seal of New Amsterdam on the wall. "Our society is more fragile than it appears, Nicholas.  It takes billions of people working to create order each day, in the home, the marketplace, the city forums, the temples, the sacred greenspaces.  This is all that protects us from the void."
            Nicholas nodded agreement with priest, but he recognized the polite brush-off for what it was.  Why shouldn't they turn him down?  Only today, he'd demonstrated insubordination and dishonesty.  A black mark would appear by his name in the holy archives of the Great Memory, for eternity.  Priests a hundred generations hence could read about his transgression.  He wondered if he'd forfeited his reproduction privileges, too, and would now be denied offspring due to "birthrate management" for the rest of his life.  Then it hit him again that Kemala was gone forever.  He struggled not to show his distress.
            "We thank you again for your service this morning," de Klene said. "You showed unusual courage and faith in capturing that beast.  Should you need anything, the Aescelan is here to help.  Be sure to visit your parish lecturer...Sister Devries, correct? She expressed deep concern over your loss."
            The High Lecturer stood, and the two policemen rose with him.  "Thank you for your time, Commandant." The door unlocked and whisked open, and De Klene rejoined his acolyte, who waited just outside.
            The Commandant gave Nicholas a stern look. "Nobody hears about this.  Not even the governor, if he asks.  Definitely not the U.N. magistrate.  The Aescelan has full authority here."
            "Yes, sir."
            "You're on bereavement leave.  One week.  Let us know if you need more."
            "Yes, sir."
            Nicholas stepped out of the Commandant's office.  A cold night awaited him outside.

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