white man steal my gravity
the bust out
the made guys
unity and the tax pirates
santa claus versus the devil
I a partridge in a pear tree
II two turtle doves
III three french hens
white man steal my gravity
It was the third morning of dia 2,148 of the New Calendar when Free Enterprise came to Mount Ararat. The ship, an ugly, functional workhorse of a model whose examples tended to have serial numbers rather than names, touched down with typical Tetsushuri concern for local sensibilities in the South End cemetery, knocking forty gravestones flat with the blast. Had the crew of the good ship PLD38227 thought of anything beyond ticking their way down the list of prescribed actions for landing on a prospect, they might have wondered why such a large graveyard existed on a colony listed in navigational records as only three kilodia old and only one hundred people in size. Indeed, the cemetery filled a sizeable percentage of the southern hemisphere of the planet, if the words ‘hemisphere’ and ‘planet’ could be said to apply. The South End of Mount Ararat was considerably smaller than the North, containing rich veins of radioactives which poisoned the soil for any crop other than corpses and made EVA without protective clothing hazardous. In earlier ages, a crew of prospectors might have been greatly interested in striking such a lode, but the Tetsushuri Microgravity Mining Company did not concern itself with seams of any mineral of any size less than a cubic kilometre. What PLD38227’s crew were searching for was something far more profitable.
Thus it was that, some time after three of her house’s windows had been put in by the vessel’s landing jets, Shun-Company Reborn-in-Jesus saw three heavily pressure-suited figures trudging with difficulty through her vegetable garden up to her front porch, trampling precious sprouts, potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes with their magnetic space boots. The Garden Devils stared sightlessly from the undergrowth as the intruders passed.
The back door knocker was in the shape of a grinning devil. The EVA team leader did not give this a second thought as he took it in a sausage-fingered fist and rapped hard on the metal. All the doors and window frames were metal. This was unsurprising: the one tree he had seen through his thick triple-glazed hermetically-sealed helmet had been a single anaemic cherry blossom growing in imported soil in what passed for a village square.
When Shun-Company opened the door, the spacepersons stood suited on her threshold and said nothing. This was because the Tetsushuri Mining Company procedure for EVA on worldlets less than one hundred kilometres in diameter specified vacuum suits were to be worn at all times, and vacuum suits did not have external speakers. Who, by definition, would hear the sound in a vacuum? Communication, the procedure clearly stated, should be either by radio or, in an emergency, by touching helmets. Removing one’s EVA suit was unthinkable.
Shun-Company, meanwhile, who communicated by yelling at her seven small children at the top of her voice, and whose house contained neither radio nor thinking machine nor electric vacuum cleaner by edict of the blessed First Arkarch, simply stared obediently at the floor, and said nothing, as was only right and proper with strange heathen male visitors
Eventually, after the entire Reborn-in-Jesus family had gathered behind Shun-Company, gazing goggle-eyed at the golden-faced newcomers, the team leader plucked up sufficient courage to remove his helmet, revealing a thoroughly anticlimactic human face beneath it.
“Good day,” he said. “I represent the Tetsushuri Mining Company, without prejudice.” He had no idea what the phrase meant; it was simply in the procedure to say it. He nodded to his team; uncertainly, they removed their own helmets and sniffed the alien air.
Shun-Company curtseyed, an archaism which nonplussed the EVA team, fifty per cent of whom were female and twenty five per cent homosexual, in line with demographics.
“Good day,” she said. “The master of the house is currently absent. We have real tea. Would you care for some?”
Senior Planetometrist Wong sipped his Real Tea thoughtfully. He had now had every single junior member of the Reborn-in-Jesus family squirm all over his meteorite-resistant knees, and was doubtful whether the rickety Genuine Old World Wood armchair he was sitting in would continue to take the weight of himself and his suit combined. His mission on this new world was fact-finding; he had so far learned that Shun-Company had feared that her first child, Unity, would be her first and only due to the high level of ionizing radiation on Mount Ararat, hence the name. Hence, when her second child, Testament, had been born, she had felt the need to commemorate the birth by bestowing a name which referred to a divine entity which came in two parts. The same logic had led, as God had blessed the family with five more children, to the naming of Magus, Apostle, God’s-Wound, Measure-of-Barley, and Day-of-Creation. Planetometrist Wong, who had been brought up to regard families having more than two children as morally perverted, was currently feeling the skin crawl on the back of his neck. How did these people imagine such a rate of population growth was sustainable on a planetoid not twenty kilometres long?
A gigantic fly, its wings whirring like engines, buzzed in through an open window and lowered itself onto the saucer of Wong’s teacup. The fly was shiny and metallic in lustre, green as burning copper. Wong watched it in horror. It was unthinkable for insects to exist in space; he could only speculate as to the insanitary condition of the ship that had brought the settlers here. How many diseases might one fly carry? Did flies sting, or was that bees or locusts? He attempted bravely to ignore it.
The Master of the House, he was informed, was out searching for the family’s only goat, which had last been seen perilously close to the South End Chasm. The EVA party themselves had travelled here in their rover across what Planetometrist Wong learned was called the South End Saddle, the only safe way to cross the chasm and visit the Cemetery. The Chasm surrounded the South End on three sides, was a kilometre deep, and was populated only by rock hyraxes and magpies, two of the only species to have survived First Arkarch Duke’s beneficent release of genera when the colony vessel Utanapishtim had arrived on Mount Ararat three kilodia ago. Planetometrist Wong reflected, as he sipped his tea and watched little God’s-Wound Reborn-in-Jesus crawl inside the EVA suit of Junior Gravitographer Shankar, that this explained the bleached and magpie-picked skeletons of two Himalayan yaks and one honest-to-God elephant that the team had passed on its way here.
Planetometrist Wong expressed great interest in the geology of the Chasm. Was Mrs. Reborn-in-Jesus aware that it represented a tectonic boundary between what had once been two entirely separate planetoids loosely cemented together by their own weak gravity? Now that those worlds had been slammed rudely together by a massive and anomalous increase in planetary mass, the Chasm was the only remaining sign that they had once been distinct worldlets. Shun-Company replied that yes, she had heard that this had once been the case. The Anchorite had told her children so. And was Mrs. Reborn-in-Jesus aware, continued Planetometrist Wong, of the reason for that sudden mass increase? No, she was not aware. There was no cause for her, as a woman, to be learned in astronomical matters. However, she had heard her husband speak of a Mononeutronic Sphere Which Encompassed the Centre of Gravity And Was Probably Surrounded By A Shell of Electron Degeneracy, which lay buried at the bottom of the Chasm. The Anchorite would of course know more about the subject, having once been an educated man. However, the Anchorite would see nobody, preferring to keep to his cave on the upper slopes of the Chasm, and spoke only to those who confined the length of their conversation to ‘Good day, Mr. Anchorite, sir’, or who had genuine reason to speak to him. The Anchorite’s definition of ‘genuine reason’ was, she added, set by the Anchorite himself. He would, however, speak at great length to children.
All this information was delivered by Mrs. Reborn-in-Jesus with her head respectfully lowered, gazing at the unadorned alloy floor plates. The Planetometrist noticed with minor disquiet that the home-made cup he was drinking out of was decorated with a zoetrope of grinning devils, despite the fact that the parlour was also hung with enough crosses to crucify an entire congregation of very small Christians.
The EVA Team made their excuses and rose to leave. They were growing hot inside their suits with the helmets removed: the suits’ environmental controls would not work with the helmet seals unlocked. One of the team, Asahara, had removed her suit entirely. Planetometrist Wong glared at her severely as he gave the order to re-seal helmets and depart.
When the team returned here, he reflected, it would be neighbourly of it to bring back some of PLD38227’s own supplies, not least for his own sanity. The Real Tea had been brutal in its reality. He suspected that the family only took it out whenever visitors from space happened to alight on their worldlet, and that visitors from space had not alit for a very long time.
The rover’s electric motor cut in, and the wheels ground coarse-grained regolith that admitted water like a colander. How these people managed to farm such soil, Planetometrist Wong had no idea. The team set off back to their ship, which was cramped, crowded, reeking of anti-odorants, but nevertheless, after an hour spent in the Reborn-in-Jesus household, home away from home.
Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus was a man whom a lifetime of hard struggle against gravity, radioactivity and a sun that gave off little but heat, had toughened until he resembled an unsmiling, two-metre callus. What passed for fields on Mount Ararat were, as fields always were on red star planets, strung with lines of cheap UV lighting filament, powered by solar arrays at the end of each furrow. The furrows were seeded with genetically-modified crops, usually a variant of the omnicompetent potato, which cost a farmer a good deal of his annual yield every time he purchased a new batch from his local Agribiz ship. The UV filaments were a sop to technological necessity; without them, no crops could grow here. But from the rusted iron implements, pocked by cosmic ray trails, sitting in the fields, it looked as though everything apart from the UV in Mount Ararat’s sere fields was powered by the human hand.
Captain Adeti of the Tetsushuri Mining Fleet, Kranion Sector, had once prided herself on being able to run further, faster, than Phidippides. She had been born in gravity; she had been weakened by kilodia of living in free fall. She had sacrificed fine muscles and an Amazonian physique for her career. Currently, despite the fact that the man facing her had been burned out like a spent venturi by the heat of plough-pushing, seed-planting, stone-clearing, and ditch-digging, Captain Adeti was uncomfortably conscious of the fluid still puddled by overlong exposure to microgravity in her once powerful ankles. Her ankles, despite being supported by elastic stockings, were painful now that an unaccustomed six-newton gravitational field was pulling on them. A promotion from field grade would buy her a posting back in gravity, perhaps even back on New Earth, New New Earth, or Earth; but to earn a promotion, she had to make quota. The centre of mineral exploitation and exploration, now that Earth had been mined out, was now New Earth, and exploration therefore proceeded accordingly to the constellations that could be seen in that planet’s sky. The constellation Kranion had so far proven to be an unmitigated prospecting disaster. The PLD38227 held nothing in her specimen tanks but gold and diamonds, the former of which could be extracted cheaply from seawater on Earth, the latter of which could be made out of coal by the tonne using the Popol Process. Here on Planetoid 23 Kranii 3X, however, she believed she had discovered a thing which would make her quota ten times over and put her behind a desk within constant spying distance of her untrustworthy husband in Kibera on Earth, for life.
“Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus—figuratively, you have a mine of, uh, substances greater in value than weapons grade uranium beneath your feet.”
Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus nodded politely without anything resembling a mad look of greed seizing his features. He tapped a paperweight, horribly radioactive uraninite ore encased in lead glass, that sat on his writing desk beside the table. “We are aware that there are radioactives on our world. We conducted a survey when we first arrived.” He reached behind himself to the lightswitch and dialled the light downwards. The mineral sample in the lead glass fluoresced evilly.
“Uranium oxide,” said Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus. “But we cannot mine it out. There’s only a few cubic kilometres of it, and to remove it would be to unbalance our little world’s centre of gravity. Mr. Battista assured us this would happen.”
“The Anchorite. Lives in the South End Chasm. Keeps himself to himself,” said Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus. The Captain was left wondering whether there was an unspoken implication that the Tetsushuri Mining Company should do likewise.
“It’s, ah, not the radioactives we’re interested in,” said the Captain. She set her devil-handled cup down on an occasional table—the house had furniture for every function—and pulled on her business face. “Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus, have you never wondered how a planetoid only twenty kilometres across can have an atmosphere?”
Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus frowned. “Well,” he said, “old Arkarch Duke always claimed it was down to the Providence of the Lord. But on account of how I have an honours degree in Natural Science, I tend more towards the ‘there is a nugget of degenerate matter two thousand million million tonnes in mass ten kilometres beneath my feet’ explanation. There was once a companion star to 23 Kranii, a stellar-sized object Mr. Battista refers to as Easy Pink, and it was knocked out of orbit by a hypothetical object passing through our system, which Mr. Battista is fond of calling the Q Ball. We can infer this from the specks of hypermassive debris hereabouts which occasionally collide with agribiz ships and cut them in half.”
“The oxygen fires are pretty when the ships get cut,” said little Apostle Reborn-in-Jesus, with an acetylene light in his eyes.
“Who is this Arkarch Duke?” said the Captain, nervous that this unremarkable rock was proving to contain far more people than she had anticipated.
“Our leader,” said Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus. “The man who brought us here to Mount Ararat, Lord rest him.”
“What sort of a name is Arkarch?”
“Not a name,a title. The Arkarch used to claim it was an old Earth title meaning ‘master of the ship’, though I suspect he made it up. He took my family out of a seventy-cubic-metre tenement in the Selvas Favela in Manaus and gave us the stars. Now, alas, he is dead. He died four years after landing.”
“A lot of people,” said Captain Adeti, “seem to have died four years after landing.”
Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus shrugged. “It was hard adjusting ourselves to the ways of this place.”
“Are you not concerned that your crops might fail, that a solar flare might drive background radiation even higher than current levels, that there might be a meteor impact or a flash oxygen imbalance caused by a bacterial mutation? Your family could still all die.”
The dirt monkey shook his head. “We have adjusted.”
To be true, this appeared to be the case. Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus was the same colour as the regolith he farmed, like a clay model of a man baked from Ararat sand in a red solar furnace.
“Mr. uh, Reborn-in-Jesus, we believe that the centre of your world could contain a neutronium mote equal to one half-millionth the planetary mass of Old Earth. It might be as big as a beach ball, the largest commercially exploitable neutronium chunk yet discovered. The value of such a find would be incalculable. Neutronium is induplicable on a financially viable scale, and essential in nanomedicine, femtoelectronics, and weapons manufacture. A share of the profits of mote extraction, if you moved your family offworld, would easily pay for a far larger, more fertile plot of land on a developed colony planet—”
“We do not want a developed colony planet,” said Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus. “God led us here.”
Captain Adeti fidgeted in the unfamiliar wooden chair. “Have you considered another possibility? The collision with, uh, Q Ball might have been enough to compress certain components of Easy Pink below their Schwarzschild radius. The mote inside Mount Ararat might be a collapsar, steadily growing. You and your family might be sitting on a time bomb. Now that we are drilling in the South End Chasm, we will be able to provide an answer to that question.”
“Which I never asked,” said Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus. “How long have you been drilling in the South End Chasm?”
The Captain had no need to consult a watch; the time came up on her retinal HUD on command. “Around five hours now. Did you get your goat?”
“No. I suspect the Devil has taken her. It will be expensive. I’d only recently had her impregnated.”
“Soon, if you take our offer, you’ll have goats from your front door to the horizon. The world will be paved in goats.” The Captain looked up around the room at the cavorting devils carved into the coving. “So, as well as God, your sect’s teaching encompasses a belief in the Devil.”
Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus stared back with a dull sullen eye. “No, it does not. But the Devil exists regardless.”
“STOP! WHAT THE DEVIL ARE YOU DOING!?”
The man had appeared from the rocks above as if they’d given birth to him, his head a mass of hair like a bull baboon’s, waving stick-thin arms that looked to consist solely of bone and nerve fibre, wearing only a light-reflective kaftan. He had nothing on his feet at all—the soles of his feet, Planetometrist Wong imagined, were probably tough as goats’ hooves by now.
“This must be the Anchorite,” whispered Social Correctness Officer Asahara. “Evidently he is no Buddhist.”
“Perhaps those of his religion believe cutting a man’s hair takes away his strength,” giggled Junior Gravitographer Shankar from her position at the telemetry station. One kilometre below them, on the end of thirteen linked windings of superfine line, the sampler drone had located itself on a flat plane of rock visible on the station monitors. It was now on its second section of drilling down towards the C of G, which the Forward detectors clearly identified as a concentrated mass well above the density limit of electron-degenerate matter.
The Anchorite tumbled down the rocks like a corpse down a waterfall, pausing only to yell, scream and wave. Finally, he dropped to the ledge where the Sample Team had set up shop with the rover’s prospecting module, winched down from a hundred metres above on the vehicle’s emergency towing cable. He fell onto all fours, more like an animal than a man.
“Stop,” he said. “You have no idea of the danger of what you’re doing. Please desist.”
“You would be Mr. Giovanni Battista, I take it?” said Planetometrist Wong. “Might we exchange public access data?”
The Anchorite shrank back into a wary crouch. “I have no census data,” he said.
“But everyone,” said Planetometrist Wong, “has census data. The chip is implanted in the corpus callosum at birth.”
“Unless,” smirked Correctness Officer Asahara, “the birth is unregistered.” This carried with it an implication of deviant non-compliance with central census legislation or, even worse, of birth beyond the Accepted Frontier, where only fanatics and enemies of right and good authority originated. Perhaps unsurprisingly if he was indeed an illegal, the Anchorite did not rise to the accusation.
“We are engaged in an operation the Tetsushuri Company has great experience of,” assured Planetometrist Wong. “For a man with a pick and shovel, it would indeed be dangerous. But we have tried and tested procedures.”
“Gravitational attraction is increasing steadily,” said Junior Gravitographer Shankar. “As expected. Don’t believe what’s down there to have a super-C EV.” The gravitographer spoke in code to keep vital information from the mudballer; frustratingly, he seemed to understand more than a mudballer should.
“I’m well aware of that,” snapped the Anchorite. “It’s a ball of neutronium no larger than a space hopper. Do you think I don’t know what neutronium is?”
From the telemetry station, Gravitographer Shankar’s tone too grew sharp. “I’m getting some very odd readings here. Density is much lower than expected. Neutron-degenerate towards the core, of course, and electron-degenerate in a shell around that, but between the two—”
Gravitographer Shankar tapped SCO Asahara on the shoulder and directed attention from the figures at the base of the screen to the TV picture at the top of it. The picture glared white.
Wong shook his head. “Impossible on a world this small.”
“Could such a large nugget cause vulcanism in the rocks around it?”
Wong considered the idea for a microsecond. “We have documentary evidence of over a thousand instances of neutronium-cored planetesimals. It’s never been observed. What’s the recorded temperature?”
Asahara glanced at the screen. “Uh...you could walk around in it. Weird coincidence...gravity’s Earth normal at that depth too.”
“Turn down the gain on the photosensors,” said Wong.
The brightness adjusted downwards.
Wong stared into the screen.
“What the hell is THAT—?”
The picture went out; and no attempts at diagnostics and random juggling of settings by Shankar and Asahara could convince it to come back.
“Ma’am, the planetoid is hollow below a depth of three kilometres.”
The surface of Mount Ararat hardly rotated. The ring surface of the unnamed planet above, on which Earth or New Earth might be peeled and hung out to dry numerous times like pattern wallpaper, swept towards Captain Adeti so thick and golden out of so close a horizon that it seemed impossible she could not step up and walk on it.
“You realize, Zhong Zhi, that if this planetoid were any larger, this view would be quite unfeasible.”
Wong nodded. “Tidal forces would drag it apart. Only something this small, with this powerful and localized a gravitational field, can orbit within the rings intact.”
Adeti bent down to the child at her right. The child had walked the thirty kilometres from Third Landing to the prospecting ship out of sheer curiosity. The crew had been feeding it Low Fat Ice Cream Simulant.
“What do you call that planet hereabouts?” she said, pointing up at a third of the visible sky.
“Naphil,” said the child. “You’re sitting on my uncle Forswear-Dalliance’s gravestone,” it added.
“Oh,” said the Captain. “Sorry.”
All around her, headstones lay smacked flat like dominoes. So many, in so short a time...
Wong broke in impatiently. “Ma’am, there is also breathable air down there. Shortly before the drone lost contact, it broadcast successful tests for oxygen, CO2 and nitrogen. The readings for all three gases were even higher than the ones up here on the surface. Uh, ma’am? You’re not wearing your EVA suit, ma’am.”
High above, a set of stars skated overhead in a perfect V-constellation—the components of the prospecting vessel that weren’t required on a planetary surface, the FTL drive, interstellar fuel stages, and deep space navigation fit, temporarily discarded as extra payload.
The Captain looked down from the constellation she commanded and languidly traced a hand across the lettering on the marble, which proclaimed Uncle Forswear-Dalliance to be DEARLY BELOVED. “The locals don’t wear them...so there’s air down there. Stands to reason it would be in greater concentration. The gravity’s higher.”
“Also, ma’am, just before the drone broke off, it drilled through a particularly difficult hundred metre section of vitrified rock. Fused glass, ma’am. And you know as well as I do there’s no vulcanism down there.”
Adeti raised an eyebrow. “You think it’s artificial?”
“Ma’am, there is light down there. Visible spectrum. And water. Fresh water. We clearly saw the drone’s tunnel spoil fall into a liquid surface having that refractive index.”
“You think someone’s living down there?”
Wong paused. Peddling outlandish theories to one’s commanding officer could shorten career growth. “I think this entire world, ma’am, is artificial.”
This got the bemused psychoanalytical look he’d dreaded. “Pardon?”
“Ma’am, we have here a twenty-kilometre world hit by a neutronium fragment at just enough velocity for it to lodge in the C of G and provide surface gravity of one half Earth normal, a breathable atmosphere, and liquid water—”
The Captain looked around her at the black dust stretching out like a starless night to an uneven horizon. The dust, she knew, actually proved to be green when taken inside under white light. It was that full of venomous compounds of copper. “You’re suggesting someone would deliberately make a world like this? To live on?”
“Ma’am, the family Reborn-in-Jesus say that when they first arrived, there was already breathable air.”
He had Adeti’s attention now. “No cyanobacteria? No need for terraforming? Didn’t they think that was odd?”
“No, ma’am. Their leader, a man calling himself Duke Allion who registered the mission with the Outworlds Colonization Bureau, New Earth Branch, in Kilodia Zero, took it to be evidence of Intelligent Design. That this world had been made for them.”
Adeti snapped her fingers. “The Anchorite!” She jabbed a finger at the spare, bearded face on the screen. “What does the Anchorite say on the matter?”
“According to Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus, he was already here when they arrived. He also,” said Wong meaningfully, “attempted to stop us drilling in the South End Chasm. And he’s either an Uncensored Individual or someone who doesn’t want us to view his personal data.”
“Of course, Mr. Wong,” nodded Adeti sarcastically. “The Recovery Bureau might take away his vast wealth in back taxes. He lives in a cave, I hear.”
“A cave he appears to have chiselled from the rock itself,” said Planetometrist Wong. “Manually. I have been taken there by the children and agree that he has little to fear fiscally.”
A fly green as verdigris was droning irritably around Adeti’s head. Somehow an insect, one of particularly loathsome dimensions, had got on board her vessel. The ship would need decontaminating throughout as soon as they returned to depot. Adeti flicked a lucky penny up in the air, caught it on the back of her hand, and worked it across her fingers. The penny, worth a hundredth of a credit, was no more legal tender than a bushel of wheat or a wife would have been; nowadays, coinage was produced solely for numismatists. Modern state centicredits bore the ring of linked hands on one side, Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man on the other. This was an older coin, however. It had a face.
She held the coin between two knuckles. The face was aquiline, crowned with laurels, looking left towards distant vistas.
Senior Planetometrist Wong crooked an eyebrow.
“Something up, skip?”
“Nah,” grumbled Adeti, and palmed the coin again.
“Have we found the sampling rig yet?”
“Yes ma’am. An aerial survey drone was sent down to investigate. The rig is still down there at the chasm bottom, half submerged in a soil emulsion. It’s simply that the telemetry cable has been cut, and the planet—” he waved his hand at the vast bulk of what Adeti now knew was called Naphil, not deigning to call what they were currently standing on a planet—“puts out enough radio in all bands to prevent the drone’s backup systems from communicating.”
“Did the cable snap? I thought they were supposed to be strong!”
“They are, ma’am. It was a clean cut. No falling rock or micrometeoroid did it.” Wong paused for thought. “But the Anchorite was up top with us the whole time.”
“And that’s the only time we’ve ever seen him,” said Adeti. “At the very moment he needs to get himself an alibi. In any case, I believe the readings up to the point of failure have confirmed our claim. We have beneath our feet a lode of neutronium big enough to be hammered into a crown for God Himself. I have drawn up a Compulsory Field Purchase Request, which we are empowered to serve on planetoids of less than two thousand kilometres in diameter and less than ten thousand population. The family will be more than adequately rewarded.” She patted the head of the child beside her.
Wong fidgeted with his suit jet controls. “Ma’am, the two thousand kilometre rule was created on the assumption that no worlds below two thousand kilometres in diameter have atmospheres.”
“Your point being, Mr. Wong?”
“Ma’am, if we call up a mining ship and cut the neutronium core out of this place, we will destroy that atmosphere. We will destroy everything living here. There are islands in the oceans on Old Earth, ma’am, where unique species had evolved over millions of kilodia and were destroyed in one when sailors arrived in need of eggs, meat, firewood, and places to test their Nuclear Weapons.”
“The Devil won’t let you do it,” said the child.
Adeti and Wong looked down. The child was using a surveyor’s french chalk to fill in the DEARLY BELOVED on the toppled headstone. Adeti reflected idly that the same precise cut seemed to have been used to carve the same precise font in all the epitaphs on all the graves. What she had seen of the colony so far had convinced her that the settlers were essentially city people, muddled masses yearning to breathe less oxygen. Their craftsmanship had grown better over time, but was still basic to the point of crudity—poorly dressed stone walls, botched repairs. These gravestones, however, looked so precise as to be almost—
“Who carved these stones?” said Captain Adeti. The child looked up, all innocence.
“The Devil, of course,” she said, and set to drawing a fluorescent orange fiend beneath the DEARLY BELOVED. The fiend was cramming a protesting person into its mouth,a person clearly wearing Tetsushuri Company EVA gear. Adeti suddenly realized that every single epitaph on every grave also said DEARLY BELOVED.
“God’s-Wound,” said the Captain gently, “where does the Devil live?”
“At the centre of the world, of course,” said the child. “Do you have a red? I have to do all the blood the spaceman will be bleeding.”
“Call up saved link 21317.”
The entire wall lit up with densely-written text. Officer Asahara used her personal laser wand to underline several passages in scarlet.
“This is a Post-Modern English translation,” she explained. “The relevant passage is tu passasti ’l punto al qual si traggon d’ogne parte i pesi. The world—well before Columbus, by the way—is clearly indicated by Dante, in his Inferno, to be round, and the would-be usurper Satan is at the centre of that world, paradoxically in a region of extreme cold rather than heat, blocking the passage of Dante out of Hell and into Purgatory and thereby Heaven. It’s an apt cautionary tale for us, perhaps. It’s not five kilodia since the Satanic forces of the Dictator, many of whom genuinely believed their leader was a god, were defeated by the Army of the People.” She glanced sternly round the Bridge, making sure everyone present touched their hands to their hearts and mouthed the Oath of Allegiance. Only Adeti did not.
“I’m the Captain,” explained Adeti gleefully. “I have no heart.”
The crew collapsed in titters. Asahara reddened and marked down Adeti as an a enemy of the State.
“So you’re saying that those people’s Christian belief has caused them to place a devil at the centre of their world? That this is all dirt digger superstition?”
“Bring in the prisoner,” said Adeti. There was very little room on board a prospecting vessel, and the prisoner had had to wait outside, loosely accompanied by the forty-two-kilo Gravitographer Shankar to remind him that he was a prisoner.
Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus had so far been cooperative to the point of meekness. It had not been necessary to restrain him.
“Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus,” said the Captain, “my SCO here has a theory that your local devil, as you call it, is actually,” she searched for a kind word, “a religious necessity, credence in which is forced upon you by your belief system.”
“If a religious necessity can kill forty people,” grumbled Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus, “then so be it.”
Adeti sat back in her seat.
“You didn’t tell us that.”
“You didn’t ask me.”
“How did they die?” said SCO Asahara. “Sometimes an illness, a plague, can be characterized as a devil—”
“Plagues,” said Reborn-in-Jesus, “do not remove people’s heads. I am no epidemiologist, but I am almost certain of this fact.” He looked up wearily at the circle of faces. “My father always planned for me to be in advertising, Captain. He advertised products he didn’t understand, understood but didn’t believe in, believed in but knew he would fail, his whole life. He was in advertising because his family were in advertising, as everyone was in Manaus. One day, when I was still quite small, I discovered my distant ancestors had once burned the great forest that had stood on the site of our favela and farmed the land, proud to herd great beef cattle for multinational fast food conglomerates. From that day onward, all I wanted to do was to farm, to till the land. I was lucky enough to enter into the society of Adolfo Hitler Talvares Concieção Bisneto, who later came to call himself Duke Allion. At first, when we came here, things were not so bad. We had only to believe in God, to believe we were His Chosen People, to regard all His other people as tainted, to conduct sexual activity only in order to create more souls for the Lord. But then our Arkarch decreed that all our wives were also his wife, as he was in fact the Son of God, and announced that all children deemed to be bad in an annual audit by Saint Nicholas would not be educated, but would instead be sent to a workhouse at the edge of our settlement, and so forth. He appointed himself Saint Nicholas, of course. And as he was in possession of this world’s only working handgun, we had little choice but to obey.
“Then, one morning, we woke up to find the Arkarch and his handgun missing. We searched the settlement, but could find him nowhere. We were arranging a team to drag the basin, when one of the ladies whose child had died in the first month after landing, who was out at the South End paying respects at her little girl’s grave, discovered a newer, more professional-looking tombstone standing next to the child’s. Feeling rather sheepish, we dug under it, and discovered our Arkarch’s head and body, neatly disunited.
“You might imagine this would have led to rejoicing, but human beings are queer creatures. First of all the settlement was up in arms against the Arkarch’s murderer, but after we finally worked out everyone had an alibi for the killing, it was realized there was a malevolent force here in this place besides ourselves. That other force was unanimously agreed to be a devil that had killed our good and holy leader. The Anchorite was our first prime suspect; he fled into the rocks of the South End Chasm, and would not come out. Our leader at that difficult time was a woman named Ogundere, who had taken the name of Cast-Out-The-Devil. Unable to catch the Anchorite, she identified three of our number as complicit in the Arkarch’s murder, and had sufficient flammable material collected together to burn them alive. The next morning, a fresh grave was discovered in the South End, containing Ogundere and Ogundere’s head. Those who had been accused of witchcraft, cut down from their stakes, immediately made Ogundere a martyr and swore to avenge her. From snippets of evidence laced with supposition, they came to the conclusion that the devil that had caused the deaths lived at the bottom of the South End Chasm, possibly at the very core of our world itself. They resolved to make war on it, without really knowing what weapons they might use, or whether their enemy even existed. Holy water, garlic, home-made explosives, electric fencing, laser tripwires, silver bullets, and even aconite were all used. And every time a party went out into the South Chasm, at least one of them would fail to return.”
“So they were correct,” said Adeti, “about the enemy’s location.”
“But the Anchorite also lives in the South Chasm,” said Planetometrist Wong. “And he has not been harmed.”
“Nor has any child,” said Reborn-in-Jesus. “I am convinced the tragic sickness of little Rejoice-in-the-Name-of-the-Lord Stevens was simply that. Since then no child has died on Mount Ararat. On the final day when Behold-the-Hinder-Parts-of-God Raffaele attempted to plant charges in the chasm and was later found interred in the South End Yard, I decided I had had enough, and decided to Adapt. I painted a sign of the Devil on my front door, and carved devils for my doorknockers. I made devil gargoyles leer from every roof truss in my house. I laid out offerings for this place’s demonic inhabitant on the edges of town, as do we all nowadays. And, Lord be praised, from that day forward no man or woman has died on Mount Ararat either, and I and my wife—though admittedly no-one else above the age of thirteen—live to till the land and tell the tale.”
“Can you prove to us,” said Asahara, “that you did not murder these people?”
“Explain to me how I could have constructed, with the few poor steel tools at my disposal, forty exquisitely-chiselled gravestones, and overcome forty other armed and homicidally paranoid settlers, and I will concede your point.”
“This devil of yours. Has it ever been seen?”
“Some of the children have seen it. It will not attack them, you see. If any adult catches sight of it, he or she dies.”
“Which means,” said Wong, eyes focussed on an invisible logic, “that it cannot afford to be seen by anyone who knows what he or she is looking at.”
Adeti nodded curtly in agreement. “Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus, you will please arrange for all your children who have caught sight of this creature to report here for questioning. It is my belief that we have here a life form which is intelligent, dangerous, and possibly technologically competent.”
“And which draws the line at killing children,” said Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus.
“Colleagues, I believe,” said Adeti, “that we may have encountered an abandoned Made war machine.”
Despite the cramped quarters, the temperature in the room appeared to drop. Adeti was aware that this was only blood draining from extremities to hearts to prepare for either fighting or flying, but the illusion was there.
“We should run,” said Planetometrist Wong. “We are not a military ship.”
“We should not jump to conclusions,” said Gravitographer Shankar. “This might be humanity’s first contact with an intelligent species we did not make ourselves.”
“Or an abandoned Made war machine,” repeated Asahara.
“And it’s already indicated it’s prepared to kill,” reminded Wong.
“Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus—will you ask your children to report here?” said Adeti.
Reborn-in-Jesus shrugged. “They will report here for questioning,” he said. “I urge you not to attempt to harm them. I don’t think the Devil would permit it.”
“Mr. Wong, you will arrange for transportation. And while you’re about it, get that fly shooed outside the lock. I’m not running a dirty ship.”
Wong nodded and remained seated, but at a further glare from Adeti, rose and began to chase the fly round the compartment, clapping his hands together to confuse it.
“I have decided,” said Adeti, “to contact our neutronium harvester Sisyphus, which will be in comms range in twelve hours’ time, to facilitate the compulsory purchase and exploitation of Planetesimal 23 Kranii 3X. This will of course involve core extraction and subsequent loss of gravity and atmosphere. However, there are usually berths available on board harvester vessels with a minimum of sharing, and jobs can be found for yourselves and your family until the ship next docks at a habitable planet—”
“You will all be dead inside eleven hours,” said Reborn-in-Jesus. “This is not a threat, merely a confident prediction. But I will send the children. They will tell you all they know, and who knows? Their presence may protect you.”
He nodded curtly, and walked out of the ship.
Apostle Reborn-in-Jesus was a pale, thin boy who Doctor Ambrose had diagnosed as suffering from a variety of immune deficiency disorders. He looked round the Bridge’s interior nervously. He had evidently never seen the inside of a starship, and had refused to enter unless the wall screen was turned on to show his brothers, sister, and cousins playing a complicated game, which Adeti believed was called ‘Devil Take the Spaceman’, in the cemetery outside.
“Apostle, do you know what the Made are?” Asahara had been given the task of questioning the children by Adeti. Adeti had implied that this was due to the fact that the children would be more likely to trust a friendly mother figure. Asahara suspected that Adeti actually hoped the Social Correctness Officer’s title would terrify the infants.
Apostle nodded. “Abominations against God. Intelligent creatures made by man, not God.”
Thank heaven for organized religion. Adeti smiled at Asahara, who said:
“What form do you think the Made take?”
The child thought a moment. “Machines,” he said. “Many forms of machines. And people.”
Asahara nodded. “People who were not made by Mommies and Daddies.”
The boy nodded back. “Artificially gestated, genetically-modified clones, yes.”
“Is that what the Devil looks like?”
The boy’s eyes dropped to the floor, and his voice grew small. “I only ever saw the Devil once.”
“What did it look like?”
“Like a man, but moving so quick it blurred.”
“And where did you see it?”
“It come in from the south during an Naphillian Eclipse while I was in the Six O’Clock Field.” He squirmed uncomfortably in a chair much larger than he was. “More felt it pass than saw it, point of fact.”
“And did it leave a trail?”
“Hellgosh yes. More like a plough furrow. At the town end of that trail, they found a big splash of O Positive where See-The-Hinder-Parts-Of-God Raffaele had bin, and that same day a new headstone with his name come up in the South End Yard—”
“And at the Chasm end?”
The boy looked up at Asahara suspiciously. “Trail didn’t end at the Chasm,” he said. “Ended at Dispater Crater, one kilometre outside City limits.”
It was nerve-racking to have to operate the PanScanner. It left her only one hand to operate the carbine, in the use of which she’d only ever had one mandatory lesson. Still, the carbine fired rounds that were guaranteed to stop a charging New Earth mantagator dead in its complete lack of tracks. This was admittedly due to the fact that the only prospector deaths attributable to animal attack had happened in the unfortunate Mantagator Swamp Incident of Year 2230 Old Calendar, but the weapon was comforting nonetheless. Adeti wondered if it would penetrate human flesh.
Some of the team, mostly the men, had stopped wearing EVA suits, wanting to be able to move and react quickly when whatever might charge over the ten-metre horizon at them. Some, mostly the women, had kept their suits on, on the grounds that they might give them some limited protection against whatever.
“The crater was probably produced by a stray ring particle,” commented Wong, who still had his suit on. “Probably no more than a speck of ice travelling fast. There’s not much atmosphere here, must have blasted clean through and impacted.”
“Must have blasted clean through and tunnelled,” corrected Adeti. “Ultrasound shows a hollow chamber right under the surface.” She kicked gently at the sand underfoot. It shifted to reveal a dull alloy hatch cover, with the legend PEARLYGATE VACUUM DOOR CO, PORT YUM CAX, CERES.
Adeti relaxed with a long outbreath. She had not dared admit even to herself, until this moment, that she had feared she might be facing a genuine devil.
“So we’re looking for a human being,” said Wong.
“Or a non-human that used what it could get its hands on,” said Adeti. “From off the last ship that landed.” She moved the ultrasound closer to the hatch. “This is just a fire door, a precautionary measure. The air on the other side’s the same pressure as this.”
“So are we going through it?” said Shankar nervously, eyeing the hatch.
“No fear! No, we’re going to rig a charge to blow if anyone opens the hatch. That’s what prospectors are good at, laying charges. Not being tunnel rats.”
“We could drop charges down the hole.”
“But it—uh, the alleged Devil—might not be in the tunnel when we blow it. And then we’ll have let it know what we know, without gaining anything.” She nodded to Wong. “Rig the hatch to blow.”
“How much? A hundred grammes will take out anything human inside a hundred metres. I have a kilo.”
“A kilo sounds good.”
Wong looked down from the edge of the crater, rubbing his feet in the dirt. “There are shoe imprints here, chief. Looks like the children come down here to play Devil Take The Spaceman.”
Adeti scowled and ground her teeth together. “Rig the hatch to blow.”
“My Dad says the Devil’s going to take all of you.” The boy’s eyes were not aggressive, only unsettlingly certain. My Dad says it, so it must be true.
“How do you feel about that, Magus?”
“Sad. There’ll be no-one to play ball with any more.”
The wall was full of trees, a beech forest, big-boughed, the sky above it speckled with leaves. Some of the children would not enter the Prospecting ship without a projection of their own world on the wall screen. Magus was fascinated by forests, by worlds that could hold whole square kilometres of trees.
“Does water come from the air where you come from?” said Magus.
Asahara nodded. “A great deal of water. Sometimes too much. Sometimes we call it smog, sometimes fug, sometimes acid rain. You saw the Devil, Magus, didn’t you, when it came into the church and took Elder Inherit-The-Wind.”
The boy nodded. “I drawed it for you.” He pushed a chalk tablet across the table.
“Wow,” said Asahara. There were horns. There were wings. There was a tail.
“You missed out the pitchfork,” she said.
“Didn’t have it,” said the boy. “Must have left it at home.”
“What was its skin like?” said Asahara. “Did it look like hair, or chitin, or metal?”
“It was blurry most of the time,” said the boy. “But it had to slow down to turn corners, like a dog on a wet floor. It had great big feet. It digged its claws in when it turned, and dropped down low to the deck.”
“Yes,” said Asahara. “It would have to.” She looked at the chalk picture again. “These wings are very small.”
“They were glowing,” said the boy. “It stopped and flapped them after every time it moved fast.”
“Well I’ll be,” said Asahara. “Heat sinks.”
“Elder Raffaele said we might be able to track it on something called infrared,” said the boy, pronouncing the word ‘infraired’. “He said that was the same as heat.” He licked his lips, staring at the spigot on the wall. “It’s hot in here. Can I have a glass of lemonade? The others say your lemonade in here is cold.”
I knew there had to be a reason why they all turned up straight away. Asahara reached for the spigot and poured a clear plastic glass of what the children had been told was lemonade, a carbonated Tetsushuri company vitamin and amino acid delivery system. Then she sat stock still, staring into the liquid.
“There’s a rainbow in my drink,” said the boy. “If I drink the rainbow, will I have God’s promise to never again destroy the Earth inside of me?”
The rainbow fanned out from a narrow point. Trying to correct for refraction, she traced the line of rainbows mentally out of the glass, across the Bridge, and—
—out through the Bridge landing window.
“It’ll be a hollow promise if you do, Magus.” Frantically, she fished at her belt for the communicator.
“It’s been listening in on our conversations. That must mean it understands English. The laser beam aimed in through the landing window bounces off the glass, the glass vibrates when people talk, the micro-vibrations in the glass echo back and tell you what they’re saying—”
Adeti waited patiently for the talking to stop. “Where did this laser come from?”
“Outside the ship. I’m shining one of our own measuring lasers out at the same angle till I hit rock and following it with image intensifiers. There’s not much of a horizon here, I reckon it would have to be within fifty metres and at least two metres tall—”
Adeti shouted into the communicator. “Calm down! Calm down, mister! How long ago did this happen?”
“Just now. Not two minutes. I think it’s gone now. I can’t see it. I think it scooted off over the rocks, there’s some big ones about thirty metres out, I could go out and take a look—”
Wong and Shankar shook their heads very definitely at Adeti, who confirmed: “Negative. Stay right where you are. There’s two ways it could have hidden. It could have scooted off over the rocks, or it could have dropped down low and scooted in closer to the ship.”
“Oh god. Did I lock the door? Magus, did I lock the door? No, hang on, hang on, hang on...I’m switching the intensifiers into the infrared band...YES!” The Correctness Officer’s breathing grew slower in the communicator. “It went away over the rocks! Captain, the Devil leaves a hot trail in air! It has to dump waste heat! It’s not a metaphysical Judaeo-Christian entity, it’s a made thing! And if it’s a made thing, it can be unmade—”
Adeti clicked the communicator off, and frowned.
“Either that,” she said, “or it’s very hot in Hell.”
The rover was travelling at the head of a smoking arrow of its own dust, on autopilot, bound for town. Driving on Mount Ararat felt uncomfortably like perpetually motoring over the edge of a cliff. The autopilot was on due to the pressing need for every crewman’s hand to be near their carbine. Adeti hoped fervently that the safety catches were on everyone’s weapons.
“What are we coming here to do?” said Wong.
Adeti took back control of the rover and brought it to a halt in a ragged plume of dust. “We know what makes it kill,” she said.
“We do. And if we know that, we have bait to set a trap.”
The church had been intended to be far larger. It stood in the centre of a cyclopaean set of highly ambitious foundations, whose precise dimensions, Adeti had learned, had been explicitly communicated by God Himself to His Arkarch, combining the shapes of Heaven as outlined in Revelation, the Tabernacle of the Covenant as described in Exodus, the Temple of Solomon as described in Kings and Chronicles, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, and Stonehenge. Work on the church had been projected to take up half the settlement’s waking time for the next five kilodia, when Messiah Himself would be reborn in the waiting sarcophagus at the temple’s centre. However, the colony’s stonemason units had malfunctioned inexplicably soon after planetfall, and all that had been built was an antechapel the size of a small terrestrial cathedral. It had also been intended that the land of Ararat put forth forests which would be harvested for wood, which would be carved lovingly into pews to the Arkarch’s divinely-inspired design, but the planetoid’s single tree looked unlikely to last out the kilodia, let alone to provide wood for furniture. There were no pews in the church.
There was, however, an altar, machine-carved out of local stone, which would suffice amply. Little Pitch-Not-Thy-Tent-Towards-Sodom Ogundere was playing ball with a ball, also carved out of local stone, on the grand pavement outside when Adeti and her spacemen alighted from their buggy.
“Take him in; he’ll do.” Shankar gripped the child tightly; having no concept of abduction by malevolent strangers, the boy blinked in bemusement rather than wailing. The church was, of course, unlocked. Saints and angels stared down disapprovingly from the windows, as did a few obscure Old Bad Era media personalities—the late Arkarch had been a fan of all singing, all dancing low gravity spectaculars, it seemed. The windows, designed to admit 23 Kranii-light, were a muddy collage of reds and oranges. Solar collectors on the church’s roof powered a dim tracery of golden fibre optics in the eyes and tongues of angels, the fretwork on the columns, the lettering on the altar.
“Put the child on the altar.” Shankar nodded and began spreading out the boy’s arms and legs.
Wong had still not worked out the Plan. “Why? What are we going to do with him?”
“If you haven’t figured that out yet, you don’t deserve to be in your job.” Adeti fiddled with the safety on her carbine, trying to remember how to put it in the OFF position. “We know that this Devil has killed in the past when wives were taken as chattels and bad children as slaves. We also know it has killed when people were on the verge of being burned alive for witchcraft. And we know it takes special care to avoid killing children. It evidently considers itself just and good, some kind of beneficent protector.”
“So?” said Wong, though his face showed that he understood perfectly.
“So all I need to do to call myself up a devil is to kill myself a child, right here, right now.”
The boy’s eyes widened, and he began to struggle in Shankar’s grip with gravity-toned muscles surprisingly strong for his size.
Wong licked his lips. “Uh, this is a bluff, right, Captain?”
Sweat was draining into Adeti’s eyes. It was surprising how much it stung. “If it’s a bluff, it has to be believable,” she said, “right up to the point where I pull the trigger. For that reason,” she continued logically, “I have to believe I am going to pull the trigger, to the extent there is a real danger I might do so.” She yelled at the church’s empty interior. “DO YOU HEAR THAT?”
Wong frantically raised his weapon, but could see no living thing but a large and ponderous fly buzzing lazily in circles, black in the beams of coloured starlight, a sudden vivid emerald in the golden light from the fibre optics.
“Beëlzebub,” said Adeti. “Lord of the Flies. You thought that was a great joke, I’ve no doubt. Thought we’d never get it. But for there to be flies here, they’d have had to be introduced deliberately by the settlers, along with the earthworms and the dead elephants and magpies. And who’d deliberately introduce a disease-carrying organism?” Her hands fond the cocking lever.
“Don’t,” said the boy on the altar, staring upward at the gun.
The windows blazed suddenly with light—white light, reddened through the saints’ faces. Then the shockwave followed, shaking God’s faithful in their frames. A few glass eyes, hands and faces punched out of their putty and tinkled down on the floor of God’s house. The doors, the very heavy alloy doors, rumbled on their hinges.
Then the air was quiet, with a distant clap of thunder as the shrinking blast wave met itself on the other side of the planet.
“Well I’ll be damned for a bastard,” aid Adeti, staring out in the direction of Dispater Crater. “We got it coming out its hole.”
“We got something,” cautioned Shankar, crouched down with her back to the wall.
Wong stared in consternation at a gigantic greenbottle fly, legs wriggling impotently in the air, trying frantically to buzz itself off the ground with wings that were either damaged or impotent now the fly was flipped on its back. Wong increased the magnification on his EVA suit goggles. The insect’s back was covered in a regular grid of tiny emerald cells.
“Black in red light,” said Wong. “In 23 Kranii-light, a perfect solar collector. 23 has virtually no green in its spectrum.”
“First solar-powered insect I ever did see,” said Adeti. “Whoever the Devil is, he doesn’t need to peek in windows to listen to conversations. Unless I order all my locks shut and keep the flies out of my ship, that is, which I believe I did yesterday. We’ve been bugged, ha, ha, ha. Reborn-in-Jesus’ Devil has been listening to us ever since we landed, one way or another.”
“I could have told you that.”
The voice came from halfway up the aisle. Reborn-in-Jesus had entered via some unseen door, and walked ten metres across the church toward the altar before Adeti had even noticed him. Adeti attempted to keep a grip on her anger.
“You could have told us the flies were the Devil’s?”
“That boy’s father has already been killed by the Devil,” said Reborn-in-Jesus. To add insult to injury, he appeared to be accompanied by his entire extended family, other members of which were appearing from the dark behind him. His wife came up to stand by his side. “He’s suffered enough. Let him go.”
“I,” said Adeti, “have a quota to fill. Your Devil has, oh, let’s say thirty seconds to prevent me from shooting this boy, point blank range, through the head.”
“But what if we already killed it, chief?” said Shankar. “What if it can’t come, because it’s dead?”
“Then we’ll just have to expand our killing portfolio to include the whole settlement,” said Adeti, “and no-one will be any the wiser. You people could have been a sight more cooperative. To my mind that makes you all murderers worthy of my justice.” She looked up in confusion as a bright red object arced across the tracery of broken glass in the wall like a star shell. Prophets’ faces crawled across her like holy amoebae.
“Uh, Chief,” said Wong, shifting his own weapon into a low port position, “you’re bluffing very well.”
“Maybe a little too well,” said Shankar. Again the red beam scanned across the sky like a coal-fired lighthouse. When saintly silhouettes had stopped sweeping across the floor, Adeti’s weapon was up and levelled at Shankar’s chest, and Shankar’s was up and levelled at Adeti’s.
“There’s really no need for either of you to do this,” said Mrs. Reborn-in-Jesus reasonably. “The Devil will do it all for you.”
“Maybe I ought to start shooting now,” said Adeti, “just to prove how good my hand is.”
The light swept across the sky again; once more, wheeling shadows.
Adeti looked outward at the stars.
“What is that thing—?”
The ceiling shattered. Splinters of eye-stinging red-hot tile showered in all directions leaving burning tracks on the retina. A spinning cannonball of light smashed through the stone vault of the roof, crunched into the flagstones of the transept, uncoiled into a figure roughly the size and shape of a human being, braking itself in the air with wings no human being had. Its head was featureless; presumably it saw in areas of the spectrum human eyes were blind to. Its feet were spade-broad claws. Its hands extruded and retracted talons reflexively. The horns appeared to be radio aerials. What was the tail? A refuelling probe?
The skin was glowing. Parts of it were ticking erratically as it cooled.
“Oh my god,” said Wong. “We blew it into low orbit.”
“And it ended up exactly back here?” said Adeti. “Please.”
She acquired the Devil with the carbine, squeezed the trigger, and sent flashes of brilliance round the chamber. However, when the after-images cleared from her eyes, she could see that she had done little but move the dust around in the church. The creature bore lettering where its face should have been: THE CLEVER DEVIL, CONCEPT MODEL, INSTAR HOMINIS CORPORATION. Some of the writing was illegible where tungsten-cored shells had splattered like shied egg.
“A Made,” said Adeti.
“A low self-reliance Made,” said Shankar. “Not one of your interstellar Von Neumann jobs who made war on people-kind. Designed to be close to human beings, to look like them. That means it has a master nearby. At the end of the War Against The Made, all such units were destroyed, but some of the despicable rich who couldn’t stand a life without smart home help hid them.”
The handles on the main church doors rotated slowly in the metal.
The machine was moving up the aisle with the grace and speed of a bride.
“It used its wings to brake itself out of orbit,” said Wong. “And to steer itself. We can’t kill that. There’s no way we can kill that.”
The church doors slowly swung open. An EVA-suited figure stood in the entrance, holding a bulky device with a single ruby-red eye burning in the front of it.
The Devil turned. The air down the aisle crackled like bacon frying, sparks twinkled, and the Devil’s wings glowed orange, then yellow, then white, as if an invisible torch beam were playing on them. It backed away like a fiend from the sign of the cross, and the figure in the aisle walked closer. Again the crackle and twinkle, and this time the demon fled through the walls, leaving a devil-sized hole in Saint Michael.
The ruby eye winked out, and blowers began scrubbing the air of hydrofluoric acid exhaust, which were already beginning to etch the saints’ faces in the transept. The EVA suit helmet popped open.
“Heat sinks,” said Asahara. “You can’t use your heat sinks for orbital braking without overheating. I just overheated it a little more with a sampling laser. It’ll cool down and come back. We should leave.”
“What was it?”
“Instar Hominis personal servant. They were quite popular among general staff officers in the last days of the Dictatorship. The Dictator himself was reputed to have several. Programmed to fetch and carry, lay out a chap’s uniform, and protect him from assassination. You’re right. We probably can’t kill it.”
“But we can leave and come back with a mining cruiser,” said Adeti, clicking her weapon back to standby.
“No we can’t ma’am,” said Shankar.
Adeti rounded on Shankar. “I beg your pardon, Gravitographer?”
“Ma’am, you were about to kill a child.”
“I was bluffing, mister.”
“No you weren’t, m’am. Ma’am, I’m arresting you for conduct unbecoming a Citizen.”
“We,” said Wong in a high and reedy voice, “are arresting you.”
Adeti’s weapon dropped from her hands in shock. She turned to Asahara.
“I am afraid, Captain,” said Asahara, “that I must concur.”
“I’m your offering,” said Adeti. “Your sacrifice for getting off this planet.”
“If that’s what you want to believe,” said Asahara.
Adeti nodded, raised the weapon onto her shoulder, turned, trudged out of the church. Slowly, the others followed her, less like a team following a leader than dogs holding a larger, heavier, animal at bay.
Her knees crunched down into the cupric dust. The weapon in her hands turned round, the muzzle under her chin.
There was a bright, brief fountain of red, white and grey.
Asahara spoke hopefully to the cold air.
“It should be safe to leave now,” she said. “As long as we never come back.”
PLD38227 climbed steadily, though far too quickly for Brevet Captain Asahara’s liking in the heavy gravity gradient. Landing on neutronium-cored worlds had been part of flight training, but had been covered in only one single simulation, and that simulation had had no atmosphere. Still, the good thing about this particular atmosphere was that it would be over inside a minute.
She had, she reflected, calculated well. It did not look good, even for a Correctness Officer, to be the sole survivor of a mission, but to return having exposed an enemy of civic morality with the assent of all other team members—that was different. Adeti had been foolish; she had been blinded by the planet-sized prize at the heart of Ararat into jeopardizing her vessel and her crew, valuable state assets all.
Seconds away, the FTL drive unit telemetry was responding to remote guidance. Soon the ship would be locked together fit to go interstellar again. Wong and Shankar sat to either side of her, already asleep in their seats. Adeti’s suicide had neatly prevented any unpleasantness with inquests, investigations or moral guidance committees. The mining cruiser was within six hours of hailing now, over ten kilometres long, equipped with all the gear for core extraction and light armoured combat alike. The bluff had been effective.
The atmosphere had thinned sufficiently. She reached forward to the console to fire the ship’s single antimatter catalyzer.
A bright, brief new star blazed in the heavens. The Anchorite seriously doubted that it heralded the birth of a new Messiah.
The bluff had been effective. Letting them get free of the atmosphere had made them drop their guard, as well as being necessary for an explosion large enough to vapourize the ship without damaging the fragile local ecosystem.
He looked down at the family Reborn-in-Jesus.
“Best not visit the South End for a year or so. I’ll inform you when levels have returned to normal.”
Shun-Company glanced at Captain Adeti’s body, and the Devil walked solemnly over to pick it up, its claws retracted. Children were playing on its back, pulling at its wings.
Mr. Reborn-in-Jesus looked at the Anchorite. “Who are you?”
The Anchorite stared up at the distant stars. “I was a very, very bad man, which is all you need to know. Nowadays I’m trying to forget it, but it will keep following.” He watched as streaks of metal vapour fingerpainted the atmosphere. “A Type 39 prospector doesn’t have a comms suite fit to talk to anything it isn’t docked with. They sent no messages. Your farm is safe.”
Shun-Company nodded. “Thank you.”
“Hey, I live here too.”
One of the children ran in from the direction of the house. “Papai! A private agro ship saw the bad men’s vessel explode! They’re asking if we need assistance, they say they have goats and trees and radiation shielding and all sorts of stuff!”
“It’s an ill wind,” admitted Reborn-in-Jesus. “We could do with a new goat. One of those fancy new ones that gives carcinophagous milk. That’ll clean up Day-of-Creation’s lymphoma.”
The family nodded respectfully to the Anchorite, and the two groups parted, one walking back towards the house and the world’s one functioning radio, the other toward the ten-metre horizon.