Helix: Chapter Two

The horizon defined the psychology of our ancestors on Earth.  No matter where one stood, the land or the sea stretched on in every direction, as far as the eye could reach.  Here in the colonies, we know each day that only a fragile shell protects us from the void.  That is the primary difference between us and the peoples of Earth.

Dr. Abraham Cohen
The Book of Life

            The bel-Temple of New Amsterdam dominated the city center; it was the colony's most important religious complex, from which the Archbishop tended the souls of ten million believers.  The ten-meter statue of the Great Man stood in the middle of the open Temple Plaza, where gardens and fountains invited the faithful (or the merely curious) to recline on cedar benches and enjoy the serene environment.  The Great Man held one hand high in benediction over the city; in the other, he held out a pair of serpents intertwined into a double helix.  The caduceus stood for the Great Man's teachings and for the Aescelan priesthood that preserved them.  The statue held this symbol out as a gift, reminding all who passed how the Great Man had healed billions with his holy medicine. 
            As the hovercraft set him down near the statue, Nicholas touched the caduceus at his neck with reverence.  He thanked the officer for the lift, then paused a moment to bow before the statue.  The Great Man watched over the city with kind eyes and an almost wry smile behind his massive beard, beaming like a father enjoying the antics of his spirited children.
            Nicholas hurried toward the bel-Temple.  It was a towering ziggurat, each terrace of the pyramidal structure dense with elephant-eared guanacaste trees and brilliant, multiflowered bushes; each plant bore hibiscus, lotus, and lily blossoms.  Waterfalls fell from terrace to terrace, feeding the lush green growth.  Looking through the forest of plant life, an outsider could only glimpse the building underneath, a maze of polished stone staircases and arched doorways.  It was a holy place, and Nicholas had been inside only a few times, visiting the outer reception offices on police matters.
            Kemala had never entered the bel-Temple before.  Like most people on New Amsterdam, she would only enter once or twice in her life.  Today would be her first. 
            And she would be furious that she had to do it alone.
            Nicholas hurried up the broad stone staircase, each step as wide as his entire apartment.  He moved as fast as he dared without appearing impious.  A grand archway edged with an elaborate double-helix relief awaited him, daring him to penetrate its shadows.
            He looked over the staircase at the moat below, its surface a riot of color where rainbow patches of Aescelan-engineered water orchids drifted in the sunlight.  Golden toads squatted on a clump of lily pads; beside them, an elongated tiger salamander slipped into the water.  The moat, continuously refreshed by the waterfalls above, had been developed into a thriving ecosystem, home to a thousand species of fish, flowers and butterflies.  He and Kemala often stopped like tourists to gaze here when they visited downtown.  The Great Man had encouraged such quiet contemplation, though many people seemed to lack the patience for it.
            Nicholas had no time for that now.  He continued climbing the stairs, passing into the cool green shade of the guanacaste trees.  The higher he ascended, the thicker the overgrowth became, so that he seemed to enter a realm of twilight. 
            Temple Guardians stood in proper sentry formation, two on each side of the grand archway.  They wore ceremonial uniforms, scarlet trimmed with spotless white, their spines perfectly erect.  Nicholas nodded at them.  He knew three of them from his weekend training in the Temple Guard reserve, but could not greet them as his friends just now.  Posted here, they stood for the sanctity of the Temple itself, and were forbidden to make light chatter.
            Because they knew him, though, Nicholas did not have to identify himself.  He hurried past them, beneath the archway and into the cavernous darkness beyond.  Soft, chanting voices echoed around him.  A sense of spiritual awe descended on him, and he trembled, feeling small and alone as he moved toward a sliver of light in the distance.

            The vast darkness ended sooner than he expected.  Nicholas reached a high, narrow corridor designed to resemble a vertical crack in a natural cavern.  From under the archway, the corridor had looked impossibly distant, but that was only because it was a thin, dimly lit opening at the far side of an immensely wide lightless room.  He had walked no more than ten meters.
            He threaded through the irregular bends of the tunnel, letting his fingers trail along the rough-hewn stone walls.  Though it had been constructed from asteroid rock, the cavelike passage seemed to stir primitive memories inside him, a deep sense of comfort reaching all the way back to prehistoric Earth, when his ancestors had dwelled in such places for ten thousand generations.
            The cave opened onto another colossal room, this one filled with light and life.  A deep bas-relief covered the far wall, carved in exquisite detail from the earth-colored asteroid rock.  It featured the ancestry of hominids, from furry australopithecine to sapiens.  The next step beyond modern humans was represented by a winged humanoid figure, outlined by the sun--the unknown potential of the human species.
            Off to his left, a waterfall splashed along a rock face into a deep pool, which formed into a gentle river that occupied most of the room, disappearing at the opposite end.  A stand of mossy cypress trees grew in the center of the river; tropical birds whispered and twittered among the gnarled arms.
            A freckled, dusky-skinned young woman approached him, smiling.  She wore the sandals and plain white tunic of an acolyte in training.  Her burgundy hair swept back into a network of braids at the back of her head.
            "Welcome. You are expected here."
            She led him to the riverbank, where she cupped her hands and dipped them into the flowing water.  She scooped out a double handful and extended the water towards him.
            "The river of life flows through each of us," she said. "Greater than us all.  We inhabit the river for a moment; it inhabits us for eternity.  You may drink from the water that birthed you, and will one day claim you."
            Nicholas bowed to her hands.  A tiny blue fish had spurted between her fingers as she gathered the water, and now nibbled at the crinkles of her palm.  A good omen.  He kissed his lips to the water, then closed his eyes and raised his head.
            When he opened his eyes again, he saw the young acolyte pour the gathered water back into the river.
            "Your wife has been waiting for you," she said.
            "We had a police emergency." Nicholas lowered his voice. "I should probably discuss it with the priests. Maybe even the Archbishop."
            "We are informed of the situation."
            "It was a blasphemy."
            "There are few with the skill to make the language of life speak in blasphemies."
            "Someone did."
            "The priesthood will request your opinion if they find it necessary." She took his arm and guided him along a crushed-pebble walkway parallel to the river, in the direction of the tumbling water.  A honeycomb of archways beside the waterfall led out of the room. "For now, perhaps we should concern ourselves with the matter at hand."
            "Is she angry?"
            They moved toward the archways.  The basic elements of the room were familiar to Nicholas from weekly attendance at his parish temple.  In most temples, the river would have been a small fountain, teeming with flowers and water creatures.  The relief carving would have been much smaller, too, located behind the podium of the parish lecturer.  Here, everything was on a colossal scale. 
He wondered if the bel-Temple of every colony radiated such grandeur; if so, there must be a thousand such structures in orbit around the Earth.  Half the colonies followed the teachings of the Great Man; the remainder lived like the people of Earth, in apostasy.  Nicholas could not imagine such a life.
The acolyte guided him down a softly lit corridor, where music that might have been flutes radiated from hidden speakers.  In time, they arrived in a circular waiting room, where Kemala sat on a piled sofa watching an octopus in a wall-sized saltwater tank.  She saw him and smiled before remembering to make herself glare.
"I'm sorry," he said. "We had an emergency--"
"I've heard. The whole city is talking about it.  Are you all right?"
"I'm perfect." He embraced her.  She stiffened at first, resisting him, but eventually she melted. 
"Do they want us to make another appointment, or...?"
"I stood before the Council alone."
"Kemala!" He imagined her standing on the interrogation floor alone, as a group of the Aescelan's elder patriarchs and matriarchs probed her with questions.  They should have waited, he thought, but he would never criticize the priesthood aloud. It was a grueling process; he thought her eyes looked a little puffy, as if she'd been crying.
He kissed her.  She only held back for a moment before returning the kiss, hard, her arms clutching him around the neck, drawing him close.  He smelled jasmine in her hair.  She had dressed in her finest clothes, a cashmere dress she reserved for temple service during the holy season.  She'd gone to her favorite grooming salon that morning, and her dark ginger skin was oiled soft and smooth.
"Are you all right?" he whispered.
"I am."  She gave him another smile, this one bright and impish. He knew what it meant, and felt his heart skip. "They approved us.  We're going to have a baby, Nicholas!"
He clutched her tight, feeling her blood race under her warm skin.  They had expected the priesthood's approval, of course; both of them had been blessed by the Aescelan's genetic arts as embryos, and both were devoted to the Great Man's teachings.  And both had impeccable backgrounds: Nicholas worked for the police and held reserve status in the Temple Guard, while Kemala taught orchestra classes at the primary school.  Still, you could never predict when the priests might determine a mismatch, or forbid reproduction for reasons of their own.
Nicholas felt another hand touch him, lightly. The acolyte.
"We must continue to the design chambers immediately," she said. "Mother Cybill wishes to discuss your child's future."

            The design chamber reminded Nicholas of an artist's studio more than a laboratory; soft amber walls where projected digital screens glowed, and movable easel screens scattered around the room.   A glowing, circular disk occupied the center of the chamber, encircled by deeply cushioned benches.
            Mother Cybill was an elderly priest, but her movements spoke of tremendous vitality.  She swept into the room, dismissed the acolyte with a nod, and drew up to greet Nicholas and Kemala with a beaming smile. She obviously enjoyed her work.
            "The new parents!" She took one hand from each of them and squeezed them in her own. "Your first. How exciting!  May the blessings of the Great Man flow through you."
            "And through you," Kemala replied.  She nudged Nicholas with an elbow, and he repeated the formal reply.
            "We understand you performed a great service for the colony today," she said to Nicholas. "We all appreciate it, of course. Well.  Shall we begin?  We have completed a careful assay of your genomes, and I'm delighted to say that we have a variety of pathways from which to choose.  The big question first, of course: boy or girl?"
            Nicholas and Kemala smiled at each other as if sharing an inside joke.  They still hadn't decided, even after weeks of conversation.
            "Why don't you choose?" Nicholas said. "I'll be happy no matter what."
            "A son," Kemala said, with a certainty he didn't expect. She must have had plenty of time to think while waiting for him. 
            "Are you sure?" he asked.
            "Definitely.  I want a little boy with your eyes." She touched his face. "And your mouth...your smile...and my brains."
            Nicholas gave her a mocking scowl.
            "I see someone, at least, took the time to think the decision through," Mother Cybill said, her eyes twinkling. She gave Kemala a sly look. "They can never decide.  They all want boys, of course, but they won't admit it."
            Mother Cybill eased herself down on one of the curved, padded benches arrayed around the glowing disk.  She waved a hand and a transparent keypad appeared in the air before her, with a hundred buttons marked by esoteric symbols, the secret language of the Aescelan priesthood.
            "Make yourselves comfortable." She gestured for them to sit across from her. "Coffee?  Tea?  Vitamin water?" 
            "No, thanks," Kemala said.
            "So, let's begin." Mother Cybill tapped a sequence on the holographic keypad.  A ten-year-old boy appeared on the glowing disk.  He smiled, slowly rotating.  His hair was the same glossy black as Kemala's, and Nicholas thought he saw his own green eyes looking back at him.  He looked the boy over, seeing features that reminded him of both himself and his wife, all of them blended seamlessly to form a healthy, handsome child.
            "Just a draft, of course," the elder priestess said. "We've already performed the necessary filters to eliminate disease, criminal tendencies and mental aberration.  We begin with a healthy mind in a healthy body.  What do you think?"
            Kemala smiled, and her eyes looked moist.  Nicholas felt the same way.  He took her hand.
            "He's beautiful," Kemala said. "Let's take him home."
            Mother Cybill chuckled. "I studied your charts this morning. Kemala, as you probably know, we've been drawing out certain mathematical tendencies in your family for three generations, which always result in an affinity for numbers or for music.  I understand you once had an offer to join an orchestra on Orpheum colony?"
            "Yes, right after university," she said. She gave Nicholas a dazzling smile--even after four years of marriage, her beauty still surprised him.  Good Aescelean breeding. "But I had other priorities here at home."
            "If you have no objection, we'd like to continue this development in your son.  It will give him an excellent ground for a career in music or the sciences, and serve as a boost to his learning capability.  It will dovetail nicely with providing a high overall academic potential."
            "Great, another musician in the family," Nicholas said. "I'll never sleep."
            "Let's do it," Kemala said.
            "We can predict an eighty-one percent chance that the particular alleles involved will manifest as high musical talent.  Otherwise, you may have a math prodigy on your hands."
            "What about social difficulties?" Kemala asked. "My uncle is like that.  A number-thinker. He's an astronomy professor on Malior colony."
            "Yes, and rather accomplished," Mother Cybill said. "I saw that.  I can balance it out with certain athletic traits drawn from your husband.  His germline is oriented in that direction, in any case. This should give him a strong extroversive grounding we can integrate with the numerical facility to avoid social deficiencies."
            "Great. So I�m the stupid athlete of the family," Nicholas said.
            "I used to do gymnastics," Kemala protested.
            "I know." Nicholas nudged her, and Kemala blushed. She hurried to put her attention back on Mother Cybill.
            "This will form an excellent core for your son's genotype matrix.  Let's hear some more of what you want."
            "Outgoing, charismatic," Kemala said. "I want him to get along with people well.  Lots of friends."
            "And tough," Nicholas said. Kemala frowned. "We don't want him too easily swayed; he should be able to make his own decisions and stick with them.  He needs to be strong enough to stand up for himself."
            "Much of that will result from parenting, of course," Mother Cybill said. "I can lay the groundwork. It's not likely he'll have the extreme charisma we've instilled in political families, though, unless you want to import an entire schedule of genes.  These would tend to push out your own traits."
            They declined that, though Nicholas had seriously considered it.  Police work on New Amsterdam could ramp into a career in law or public administration, putting him in a position to make many important social connections on behalf of his son.  He and Kemala had talked it over, though, and they decided they wanted a child composed as much as possible from themselves.
            They discussed physical features; the child would be tall, like his father, and possess much of his mother's facial structure.  As they talked, Mother Cybill made selections on the keypad, and the rotating image adapted accordingly.
            When they were finished, Nicholas and Kemala looked at an exact picture of how their son would appear at the age of ten.
            "Do we name him now?" Kemala asked.
            "You'll have nine months to think that over," Mother Cybill told her. "Which brings us to the next question.  Would you like the child to gestate here, in our incubators, or would you prefer a traditional biological development?"
            "I want to carry my baby," Kemala said.
            "Excellent choice," Mother Cybill said, clearly approving. "I always wonder about women who don't wish to carry their own children.  Unless their work involves physical danger.  Otherwise, it seems to indicate a lack of commitment on the mother's part." She looked at them carefully. "That's my personal opinion, of course, not official Aescelan doctrine."
            "We won't mention it to anyone," Nicholas promised.
            "Good.  We're going to need the both of you for just a few more hours.  I'll have an acolyte escort you to the conception wing.  We'll need fresh gametes from both of you, of course. Kemala, we're going to begin a hormonal program to prepare your body.  And we'll determine an optimal diet and exercise routine for you.  We'll schedule an appointment to remove your contraceptive implant." Mother Cybill stood. "Congratulations to both of you!  Your child is going to be a very talented little boy."
            They rose with her, and Mother Cybill embraced Kemala. "Thank you so much," Kemala said.
            "I always enjoy working with young couples," Mother Cybill said. "I see a wonderful future for both of you. All three of you."
            An acolyte appeared at the arched doorway, this one a slender young man with almond eyes.  He bowed to Mother Cybill, then gestured for Nicholas and Kemala to follow.
            He led them up a long staircase into a gallery corridor that featured pond-size aquarium tanks staggered along the left wall; along the right, tall rectangular windows looked onto the gardens outside.  Giant saltwater fish grazed inside the aquariums.
            "I'm so excited, Nicholas," Kemala said.  She clasped his hand so tight that he could feel her nails dig into his palm. "What do we do?  We have to celebrate.  I need to call my mother right now."
            "We'll have plenty of time to pass out the news," Nicholas said.
            "I'm going to say a special prayer to the Great Man every night until he's born."
            A deep rumbling sounded from somewhere behind the aquariums, agitating the marlins inside.  The floor shuddered below Nicholas's feet.
            "What was that?" Kemala asked.  Ahead of them, the acolyte stopped and turned toward the thundering noise.
            Nicholas's hand drifted toward his belt. Though he still wore his police uniform, he'd left his weapons with the first acolyte, who'd given him the water sacrament.
            "I've never--" the acolyte began, and then chaos swept into the room.
            Three of the large aquariums exploded outward, spraying shattered glass from one side of the hall to the other.  A wave of saltwater crashed out to fill the corridor, hammering the windows on the far side.  Chunks of masonry and ceiling broke loose and rained down on them.
            The water flipped Nicholas upside down and swept him hard against the wall.  Then the wave receded, dropping him to the marble floor.
            The impact of salty water had scalded his eyes.  Around him, he could only see blurry shapes.  Shouting, panicked voices rose from every direction.  A chain of explosions shook the bel-Temple from one direction after another, disorienting him further.
            "Kemala!" Nicholas called out. "Kemala, where are you?"  He staggered to his feet in the pooled water, trying to use the slick wall for leverage.  He rubbed at his eyes, feeling useless.  He blinked several times, and the clouds over his vision receded a little.
            The acolyte lay facedown in the water near his feet, unconscious.  Nicholas turned the young man over and propped him against the wall so he wouldn't drown.  The kid looked about nineteen, a future Aescelan priest whose life might be cut short.  His face, tunic and arms showed a webwork of slashes where glass shrapnel had sliced him.  The protective microweave in Nicholas's police uniform had shielded him from most of that.
            "Kemala!"  Nicholas sloshed through the water, which was nearly up to his knees.  He looked up and down the corridor, desperate to see her.
            "Nicholas." Kemala's voice sounded very week.  He saw her far down the corridor, in the direction of the conception center.  The wave had carried her away.  She sat with her head just above the surface.  Alarming red clouds filled the water around her.  Nicholas couldn't remember if any sharks had inhabited the aquariums.
            "Kemala!  Are you all right?" He rushed towards her, his footsteps slowed by the flood.  It was like a thousand bad dreams he'd had, the desperate need to run, his feet too heavy to budge.  "Wait right there!  I'm coming to you."
            "I feel a little--" she began, and then another massive blast ripped forward from behind her.  A wall of fire swept through the room, engulfing her.
            Nicholas froze for a second, then his training seized the controls.  He sucked a deep breath as he dove under the water.  A surge of heat roared over him, boiling away the top centimeter of water; the heat seemed to have a weight of its own, pushing him down.
            Nicholas counted to three, unable to resist the power of his training, before his body allowed him to push himself up and back to his feet.  Smoke and a haze of pulverized plaster filled the air in the corridor, and now the only illumination came from sunlight filtered through the dense trees outside.  He felt lost and confused, overwhelmed by the destruction in this sacred place.
            "Kemala!" he shouted, splashing towards the place he'd last seen her.  The water level sank rapidly as the hallway drained, and each successive step became easier.
            Dozens of boots tromped and sloshed through the water, approaching Nicholas from behind.  He couldn't see them very well, but Nicholas knew this would be a contingent of Temple Guardians, weapons drawn, attempting to restore order.  He recognized all of this automatically, as unimportant details somewhere in the back of his mind; all he could think about was getting to Kemala.
            He heard a light splash somewhere beside him.  A thin female figure dropped from one of the shattered tanks, her moccasined feet making no ripples in the puddled water.
            "Kemala?" He moved toward her. She turned to see him, a beam of artificial sunlight falling across her face.  It wasn't Kemala.  The girl looked no older than sixteen, though something about her gray eyes looked ancient and haunted.  She wore odd clothing, loose trousers and a strange beaded shirt that must have been manufactured on a distant colony.
            "The woman is over there," she said.  Her voice possessed an eerie calm, under the circumstances.
            "I can't see her." Nicholas peered into a fog of swirling dust.
            "I can.  She's just there." The girl pointed. "I'm afraid she isn't doing well."
            "Stop her!" a man's voice shouted from the crowd of approaching Guardians.
            "Don't let her get away!"
            "Stop the heretic!"
            "Blessings upon you," the girl whispered.  She darted across the hall toward the peaked windows, moving impossibly fast.  One moment she stood right in front of him; the next, she kicked at the window latches.
            "Wait!" Nicholas moved after her, reaching for her arm.  He doubted this child was the Guardians' real target, but he had to stop them from opening fire by mistake.
            Something hulking and black smashed into Nicholas, hurling him away from the girl.  Nicholas sprawled on the floor, but most of the water had drained off and his head cracked straight into the marble.  Brilliant white flares danced in front of his eyes.
            Before he could move, the monstrous thing was upon him.  It had glowering yellow eyes set into a deep pile of black fur.  Its lips were drawn back to show a mouth of thick fangs.  It growled from deep in its chest, blasting hot, meaty air into Nicholas's face.
            "Let him go, Sardis." The girl's voice was gentle. "He can't harm us."
            Still growling, the massive creature drew back from him. Nicholas caught only a quick look at the beast before it slipped away into the clouds of smoke and destruction. He saw something his mind couldn't quite recognize, the head of some great cat, maybe a panther, mounted on a massive, muscular body that made him think of the intruder they'd caught this morning.  Only this one was shaggy with fur and, while the other monster had lumbered and smashed its way down the street, this one moved with a fierce grace. Nicholas thought he saw sharp claws at its fingertips.
            Glass shattered somewhere over his head, and the girl and her man-beast were gone.
            The guards arrived seconds later, and Nicholas indicated the broken window above him.  Some of the Guardians pursued out the window.
            Though sworn to duty as a Guardian reservist, Nicholas wasn't interested in the pursuit.  He crawled on his hands and knees to where Kemala lay motionless on the slick floor.  Burns covered half her face, and she bled from dozens of wounds.
            "Kemala?" he whispered.  His fingers probed her neck and wrist.  Her pulse was too weak to detect.  If she had one.  He touched her unburned cheek. "Kemala, please wake up.  Look at me."
            She didn't move.  He lifted one of her lids, looked into a sightless brown eye.  He heard a terrible wail in his ears.  It must have been his own voice.

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