Miriam stood on a hilltop, the hot red sand staining the hem of her white robes. A heavy cowl covered her head, and the very sand seemed to thrash around her, kicking high in the grip of random gusts of wind, stinging her face and eyes.
Two suns. They both hung in a sky that seemed heated from pale blue to an almost white heat, Centauri A burning like Sol in the desert, Centauri B hanging below that, an angry orange haze of light.
And beneath those suns, the low buzz, a hum that seemed woven into the fabric of the world.
Another cloud of red dust kicked up and she turned away, blinking. Behind her four of her Templars stood, the Holy knights who were assigned to guard her and the church that was an extension of her faith, uncomplaining in their heavy white and red armor.
"Kola." She nodded to her head Templar, who walked over to her. He was a stocky man, also dressed in red and white armor, a flaming sword emblazoned beneath the silver cross on his chest. "How long will it be, now?"
"Seven days," he said. "Then it will be perihelion, when Centauri B is at its closest point to this world."
"So it's going to get hotter?"
He smiled, since the temperature had been rising steadily for several years. "A little. But we've been through this before."
"Something feels different this time." She turned and walked back toward the edge of the high, sandy hill, feeling the heat beating her back.
"The Almighty is testing us, for sure," said Kola. "Little food left, and a thousand more seekers come every day."
"We have our faith," said Miriam, but something shook inside of her. Her faith, the prayer that sustained her every day, seemed distant, like a small animal that had crawled away before the blazing eyes of the two suns.
She reached the edge of the hill. New Jerusalem lay at the foot of the hill below them, a jumble of metal buildings crowding narrow streets, the weak flickering of a stolen tach field surrounding it. In the center rose the church, her pride and joy, and she let her eyes rest on it for a moment. Made of synthmetal and crafted stone, it towered above the base, with clean, sweeping lines. The stained synthglass windows gleamed like jewels, lit from within, and the flying buttresses curved like wings around the high towers.
Then she looked around the periphery of the base, outside the tach field. Hundreds of tents spotted the sand, and thousands more people, many in plain brown robes, sat in the red sand or walked in prayer circles or huddled under tents, sheltering themselves from the burning sky. The sound of hymns drifted up to her even at this height.
"Something's going to break," she said. "It will be in the settlements, or in the world itself." She glanced back at the suns, which burned down onto a body that had become thin and stiff with time. "Let's go back down to the city."
They approached the gate to New Jerusalem. As they came down from the slopes and to the wide valley that held the base, Miriam could see groups of people, ragged and hungry, gathered outside of the tach field. They clustered around stained bubbletents and huddled into simple robes as the desert night began to cool, the day's heat escaping into the sky. As Miriam passed eyes turned to follow her, and voices whispered back and forth in the darkness.
"Is there enough food for these?"
Kola nodded once. "We're holding out. Didn't the Earth Jesus feed the masses with one loaf of bread?" He glanced at her, but she didn't answer.
Several among the huddled groups craned their necks, trying to get a better look at her. She could see fat, fleshy men and women who were clearly Morganites, and even the simple robes they wore for their pilgrimage looked somehow extravagant, as if the tiny tears in the cloth had been placed by a master tailor. She could see tall, brittle-looking University citizens, and legions of drones from who knew which base. Even a few Gaians, their tan bodies shifting beneath their dull brown robes, like butterflies ready to burst forth from their woven shells.
Miriam lifted one thin hand to them, and more of the pilgrims hopped to their feet. Scattered cheers broke out and a few people started in her direction.
"Let's go inside," said Miriam. "Make sure these get fed."
Two Templars came forward from the gate in thick white and red armor, fingering their weapons quietly. One discreetly turned her head and spoke through a tiny voicelink, and then the tachyon field deactivated between two metal posts. Miriam passed through, and the tachyon field flickered back into existence.
The streets of New Jerusalem were paved with stones, the low-slung metal buildings set close. Thin metal lampposts lined the streets, too far apart to give an even wash of light, so that shadows crept into the streets and collected on the sides of buildings. Dark figures sat along the streets, hugging the shadows, and the whispering of the New Lord's Prayer slipped back and forth among the hunched figures.
As Miriam and the Templars neared the center of the base, two priests approached. The moment they saw Miriam they fell to their knees, supplicating themselves before her. She gripped their hot fingers and enjoyed the connection for a moment.
Behind them the church rose, its tall spires piercing the sky. Miriam looked up and the sight lifted her, as it always did, and then the great metal doors swung open. The booming sound of the New Lord's Prayer, chanted by a thousand deep voices, struck her like hammer blows from inside, followed by a hymn that lifted her spirit up to Heaven.
On a range of gray stone mountains, on the eastern edges of the core settlements, a cluster of metal towers topped with smooth golden domes dotted the sides of craggy slopes. The domes were not for aesthetics, but for function; in each one resided sensitive monitoring equipment, the eyes of the University, watching sea and sky and stars. This was University Base, the crown jewel of Prokhor Zakharov's University faction, with its observatories and labs, its centers of culture and wide streets bathed in cool mountain air.
And as night fell across the base, Zakharov himself paced the observation deck located outside of the vast Starscope that protruded from the tallest dome. He could hear the servo motors hum as the scope turned this way and that at precise intervals, driven by the astronomers on the observatory floor inside.
There was a tiny flash far in the sky and an orange streak, followed by several more, like falling fireworks in the distance to the east. He stopped and watched them, then took a sip of Planet brandy from the glass in his hand. His fingers were tight on the glass, the only visible sign of his nervousness.
There was a clattering as heavy footsteps came up the metal stairs and onto the mesh surface of the deck. No need to turn around...the heavy breathing gave the man away. "Watching the drop troops, are you?" said a low, gravelly voice, the words coming at a pace that was just slow enough to be soothing.
Zakharov turned around. "Yes, Isaac."
"You've got the base in quite a stir." Isaac walked over to a pair of metal chairs and sank into one. "Would you tell me why?"
Zakharov took another sip of the Planet brandy, waiting for the warm liquid to soothe his jangled nerves. Unfortunately, as his life had extended indefinitely, his reactions to stimuli had slowly died, such that he only felt the most extreme pleasures and pains now. It would take three more of these brandies to stoke even the smallest fire in his belly. "Something's been stolen, and we need to get it back."
"Stolen?" Isaac shifted in his chair, changing the quality of shadow around him. "I thought you were searching for a person." Zakharov looked at him, and Isaac smiled. "I still hear things. You may have demoted me to your library project, but I have ears."
"You weren't demoted."
The Star Scope turned, moonlight glinting off its great metal carapace. Below his feet, in the heart of the base, Zakharov's systems hummed, knowledge building on knowledge, the true mind of Chiron. "You're right," Zakharov continued. "It's a person we seek. He vanished from a secret lab in Academy Park, and we lost him there. I have reason to believe that he may try to go to New Jerusalem."
"Oh? A top scientist, joining the lost and estranged that head for the Holy lands?" Isaac thought for a moment, his breath idling softly. "That's odd. Did he take something important?"
"Then what?" Isaac produced a translucent flask from somewhere and took a sip of the pale glowing drink inside. He closed his eyes and smiled, the smile lingering on puffy lips. "You might as well tell me. It will go into the historical record, you know. Besides, you look wrung out. Unburden yourself, Academician."
Zakharov tipped back his head and let the rest of the brandy sluice into his throat. He blinked as the stars quivered for a moment. "All right, Isaac. Come with me."
Zakharov led Isaac down through a series of security checkpoints, and finally to a lab complex with pale gray walls and a deep blue floor covering. A few strategically placed potted plants and some framed holo-art on the walls gave the area a kind of hushed, homey feel, like a freshly cleaned room.
Isaac had produced a white handkerchief and wiped his heavy brow, which was damp with sweat. Zakharov remembered that he was born during a time when genetic tweaking was still more art than science; his brain was powerful, but his body a faulty hormonal soup.
And the man loved to eat.
"So who is this marvelous person that you're so worried about?" asked Isaac. "It must be someone important, with all the secrecy."
"You'll see." Zakharov checked something on his quicklink and walked down a side hallway, stopping at a metal door. He touched a DNA lock mechanism and the door clicked open.
The room they entered was a small, but clean, cafeteria room. Long metal tables with rubbery padded benches marched in neat rows down one side, and a series of white vending machines covered a section of the far wall. The place was fairly empty, but a scattering of people sat at the tables, one group laughing quietly over some shared joke. One man sat alone at a far table, spooning a dark soup to his lips.
"Look there," said Zakharov. "Closely."
Isaac studied the man eating the soup. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but with a tight, narrow waist. His skin was fair and pale under the cool wash of light in the room, and his hair was a striking silvery blond. He glanced up, and Isaac could see that his eyes were deep brown, like wells. They started walking toward him.
"Is that the head scientist? He seems a bit stiff."
The man lifted another spoonful of soup to his lips. His face seemed frozen in time, held in an expression of utter calm and self-possession.
"That's what I've brought you to see," said Zakharov. "We call him the Ideal. A perfect Perfect, suited in every way to thrive in this world. A genetic masterpiece." He cleared his throat and said, in a whisper no louder than a soft breath, "Please lift your left hand."
The man did, his expression never changing.
"Amazing," said Isaac, transfixed. The man nodded and smiled, blinking once.
His eyes were now a bluish silver.
They left the room after talking to the man, whom Isaac was amused to learn was named Gene. As they walked slowly back toward the lab entrance, Isaac ruminated.
"He seemed a normal enough fellow. A bit distant. And his hand felt cool, like a piece of metal left out in the night air."
"If so, it was his choice. He has conscious control over skin temperature. He can constrict the blood, making his hands cold, or he can heat them to a significant degree."
Zakharov continued with his list of traits. "He has broad range hearing, an order of magnitude beyond a human. Eyes that can see in several spectrums, and can adjust to see in the dark or in extreme sunlight. Great strength in relatively compact limbs, which gives him phenomenal muscle speed. Skin that doesn't sunburn, a digestive system that needs half the food intake of you or I, hypersensitive touch."
"He seems a little dull, though. It's an impression I can't shake." Isaac sipped from his flask.
Zakharov nodded. "The impression is mistaken. His mind is wide open, the folds of cerebellum deeper than any human on Chiron. In fact, some of the Ideals are working in our most secret labs, generating new technologies for us. But you're right, they do have a certain blank aspect. Their minds must be trained to deal with a flood of sensory input greater than you or I could imagine. With their hypersensitive touch, and hearing, and sight, they have to adapt, by putting a kind of wall between themselves and the world. It's the only way they can survive."
"They? There are others?"
Zakharov nodded. "The man you saw is the second Ideal. There are about a hundred more. But it's the first one, the very first one, that has vanished."
Isaac's broad, soft hand touched Zakharov's arm. "Is this the man you're looking for? One of those?"
Zakharov nodded. "As I said, he's flawed. We didn't know how to train him to adjust to the power of his own mind. He was working in Academy Park when he became unstable, killed a security guard, and vanished."
"You can't locate him?"
"He's smart. And we think he's staying in the fringes, which aren't well patrolled. But my greatest fear is that he's gone to the Believers. Before he left he downlinked several of Sister Miriam's writings. All of them, in fact."
They stepped into a cool gray elevator that whisked them back to the upper levels of the tower. Isaac leaned against the wall, deep in thought. Finally he nodded. "Why the drop troops, Zakharov? Why the air search? It's just one man."
Zakharov stared at the elevator indicator panel as the lights winked softly there, measuring distance. "He was privy to a lot of our secrets. But that's not all."
He turned to face Isaac, dark emotions shadowing his ancient face. "Not one part of his genetic code remains untouched."
"The Xynan-Dylan Protocol?"
"Yes. We've compared their genetic profile to the Protocol. The average settlement human has no more than one standard deviation. Some Talents, and children who have been tweaked by their parents in various ways, may have three deviations, which is the limit allowed by the Protocol."
"And what do your Ideals have?"
Zakharov let out a short breath, as if pushing a heavy weight away. "Six deviations. By the Council genetic protocols, they aren't even human."
The next morning, Miriam Godwinson awakened in a room with cool slate walls. The room was spacious but sparsely decorated; the wooden crosses carved into the top of her four bedposts the only decorations. On the other side of the room was a stone basin filled with water to wash her face and hands, and a hard wooden bench if she chose not to perform her morning prayers in the small chapel located nearby.
She blinked at the featureless ceiling. Her body was thin, her hair snowy white and her skin nearly translucent. Such were the effects of the genetic treatments on the seven Council leaders, who had now been alive for almost three hundred years. Like the other leaders she felt very little in the way of pain or pleasure anymore. But unlike the others she had her faith to sustain her, and it showed in radiant green eyes that captivated her followers.
She swung her thin legs out of bed, then wrapped herself in a gray blanket and crossed to the stone basin. Already she was rehearsing her morning prayers, seeking strength in that ritual. Hot dreams from the night before left traces in her consciousness, dreams of dark forces stirring in the world.
And she felt it...the sliver of doubt that had lodged in her, like an infection. As more and more lost citizens swarmed her bases, the doubt grew, slipping into the soft places of her body.
She lifted a double handful of cool water from the basin and splashed her face. The cold shock of it cleared her head a little.
The world is out of control.
She imagined the forces ranged against her, in the glittering settlement lands to her west. Spartan warriors with muscles packed thick on their torso, looking more like dolls than people. Director Morgan's lost population of fad freaks, Datajacks and Datajills, SexClones, people with abnormal physical traits, manipulated by their parents into living fads, for a price.
And what she sensed from them, from the crowded lands to the west, was a deep fatigue, and a growing hunger.
She shook her head. There was no mirror in the room, but she could use the calm surface of the water to stare at her reflection. God had crafted this face, and these hands, and this will, as she had done for the rest of the settlement leaders. Why had they turned on the Almighty?
She lifted another handful of water from the basin. The water was Holy, pure and blessed. And every time the chill water hit her face, it pushed the dark visions that much farther from her consciousness.
A soft tapping at the door, and then a small-boned woman wearing a gray habit entered. The habit swept up and covered the woman's head, so that Miriam's overall impression was of a short pillar of cloth from which a pale, earnest face stared.
"How are you, Sister Miriam?" the woman asked. She carried Miriam's elaborate white and gold robes over her arms as if they were gossamer.
"Good, Leta." Miriam let her blanket fall to the floor and waited as Leta helped her into the robes. As Leta bustled around her, adjusting buckles and sashes, Miriam considered the agenda of the day.
As Kola had said, the refugees were flowing into her settlements at the rate of a thousand per day. Although most were drones and Ordinaries, the flotsam and jetsam of the settlements, at that pace it was bound to be a thorn in the settlement leaders' sides. She anticipated repercussions.
Still, it was their own policies that caused it. She accepted anyone, from anywhere on Chiron, with one condition...no genetic tweaking. And for that, the drones and Ordinaries considered her a hero, because she didn't play God.
When Leta was finished they left the room, passing through a tall arched door and into the cool hallways beyond. She would pray for two hours, ignoring the ache in her back and knees, and in her prayers she would ask the Almighty to guide her through the day.
After her prayer, Miriam walked the streets of New Jerusalem. Everywhere she looked she saw devotion, and that made her own doubt tremble
inside her. She finally found herself by a Church-controlled building near the front edge of the base. On a whim she went inside, finding herself in a training and barracks room, basically a series of stalls around a center area. Each stall contained minimal furnishings and a silver cross above the bed. In the center area a group of men and women trained, swinging abnormally heavy cudgels in time to a sung rhythm.
Miriam watched for a moment, pleased that none of the warriors had broken their rhythm when she entered. After a moment she crossed to a wooden staircase in one corner of the room, and climbed up to a balcony level, where she could look down on the training hall from above.
The warriors began sparring. They were mostly tall and rangy, and all of them were lean, many to the point where she could see their ribs and the hollows where their bellies should be. Their hair was almost uniformly long and matted, and they wore simple brown pants or even loincloths, dirty with sweat and dust.
A door clicked open on the balcony level and someone approached her. It was Sister Kathryn in her clean white and green robes, one of her top advisors and a former Gaian Empath. She always looked chaste, very well put together, and insisted that her robes be laundered daily. But an exaggerated hip sway beneath those crisp white robes served to test many of the younger faithful in her charge. Miriam remembered a former Morganite seeker who had been found with a holo of Sister Kathryn in a revealing robe, the words Lead Me Not Into Temptation splashed above her.
Miriam had actually found the holo amusing, though the man still required some time in the Penitence Square.
Kathryn walked up next to her, smiling. "Light, Miriam."
"Light, Kathryn." The two lapsed into a silence, watching the training progress to a series of strength drills, until Kathryn made a clucking sound with her tongue. "Such a waste."
"That they're hungry, or that they spend time fighting rather than praying?"
"That they waste away before us. So strong..." She considered a tall rangy blonde with hair tied back behind his head, swinging an ancient penetrator rifle at a sand dummy. A silver cross on a chain swung around the man's neck, thumping on his chest.
"You could do without the temptation, Sister."
She smiled. "Temptation is just a test of faith, Sister Miriam. And fighting is a form of prayer, I suppose."
Miriam considered that and nodded. "Good thoughts, Kathryn." She paused. "I know these men and women are ready...they're steeped from birth in our way. But what of the newcomers?"
"Ah. You can see some from the roof of this building. Would you like to take a look?"
"Please show me."
Kathryn led her through a thin metal door and up a series of steep steps, until finally they exited through another door and onto the hot, square roof of the building. The two suns hung in the sky, baking the rooftop in oppressive heat. Miriam already felt a thin film of sweat on her body, and she blinked against the reflection of sun from the pale stone roof.
"This way." They walked to one edge of the roof, where the wall extended an extra meter or so, topped with a pitted metal railing. "There are the new faithful," Kathryn said, motioning toward the tach field surrounding the city, where another line of people gathered at the gates, their clothes and boots scuffed with fine red dust.
"And don't you think they would fight for our cause?"
"They'll fight for it. But will they die for it?" She shrugged. "They certainly haven't been steeped in the Way from birth. Besides, these aren't the most genetically fit in the settlements."
Miriam's brow wrinkled. "Let the settlements keep their canisters."
"Empty, brittle containers. Shiny on the outside, processed junk on the inside."
"Full of beans?"
Miriam smiled. "That's right. They live privileged lives, but when they're tested, when they're forced to reach deep, there will be nothing there. Mark my words." Still, looking at Kathryn's smooth skin and bright smile, Miriam sometimes wondered if she had somehow cheated the genetic tests the Templars administered.
"And what if there are spies there, or saboteurs?"
"Do you remember when you came to the Holy Lands?"
Kathryn remained still for a moment, recalling the scenes in her Empath way, including the emotional resonances. She nodded. "I do."
"The refugees can't bring any weapons in, since they're searched. They can't steal any secrets, since our faith can't be taken. And if they lack true belief, they won't survive the first difficult encounter."
"Ah." Kathryn let one slender hand rest on the hot railing. "And has your faith been tested lately, Sister?"
Miriam stared at her, a shock rolling through her body and settling around her heart. Has she seen my doubt? Has it taken root in my face?
Kathryn smiled at her. "I mean that it's been twenty years since our last raids on the settlements. And our food supplies are low. The faithful go hungry for you."
"The Council frowns on such raids, Sister," Miriam whispered.
Kathryn started to speak again when the door behind them banged open. Leta stood there, clutching her gray habit about her throat. "Sister, something has come to Kola's attention. He says that one of the refugees has news you might want to hear for yourself."
"Thank you, Leta." Miriam nodded to Kathryn. "We'll continue this talk later, Sister."
Miriam walked with Leta back to the church and from there down a series of winding stone staircases, passing down through the hot upper floors and into the cooler levels beneath the ground. Leta pointed the way to a peaked wooden door off a stone hallway, and Miriam entered.
She found herself in a plain room with a wooden table and three chairs in the center. On one wall hung a large silver cross, and the light from a single glowlamp mounted on the ceiling caused shadows to pool under the table.
Kola paced the room in his thick armor. In a chair sat a young man, dressed in a simple brown robe, his fingers rubbing the cloth of the sleeves, which were a little too long for him. He sat stiffly, and a slight widening of his eyes betrayed his nervousness. One eye was covered with a bruise, like the shadowy side of a mountain.
"This young man comes to us from the University," said Kola. "He has some interesting news."
Miriam nodded to him and pulled out a chair to sit opposite him. She fixed him with her green eyes, and he flushed slightly. "Are you comfortable?"
"Please tell me what you know."
The young man swallowed, then spoke. "I work in gamma lab at the Academy Park."
"I thought all University labs were identified by number," said Kola from behind Miriam.
The young man shook his head. "Not these labs. I had to pass several security clearances to even start working there. First I was just a gopher, running simple experiments, getting the lay of things. It didn't take me long to see what the experiments were...they all dealt with genetics."
Miriam settled back a little in her chair, and the mood in the room shifted imperceptibly.
"Over time I proved my discretion, and was hired on as a full time junior sci-tech. They told me it was a top secret position, and it would remain my workplace for life. The whole operation was run by a Talent named Jason Strang, who worked at both University Base and Academy Park. Apparently he himself was tweaked, the folds of his cerebellum three times deeper than the average human."
Miriam smiled. "And yet, not three times smarter, or more worthy."
The young man shrugged. "He was a strange guy. I think being tweaked made his ego big enough to guarantee his success. Not that he wasn't smart, because he was, as far as I could tell."
"Completion?" Kola again. Miriam continued to hold the young man's gaze.
"Actually, the experiment is ongoing, but the first success happened twenty-three years ago at University Base. I was just a cog in the wheel, so I didn't know. I ate next to him almost every day."
"Him?" Miriam felt an electricity gather at the back of her spine. "What do you mean, him?"
The young man touched the bruise on his face and started talking faster. "This was a radical experiment. The idea was to stop just tweaking the genes of ordinary people, and instead to start from scratch, with no preconceptions. To make the most perfect human, capable of thriving in the environment of Chiron. This thing..." He swallowed again. "It looks human, but every gene is tweaked. Every single one."
"Almighty." Kola had frozen against the back wall, a part of the stone. "And you saw him?"
"He ate in the food banks. He never stood out much...it was only later I realized that things changed about him. His eyes, his voice. And it was about that time I found out I had been genejacked for loyalty. My parents let the prenatal docs do something called Flattening, adjusting the biochemical makeup of my mind so that the concept of betrayal wouldn't enter my consciousness. It's ninety-six percent effective." He shrugged. "I'm the other four percent. When I found out I flew into a rage. Attacked my father with a concussion hammer."
From his position by the wall, Kola rustled, and without looking Miriam could tell that he smiled.
The young man dropped his hands to the table again and stared at them. "They went looking for me. Academy Park is self-aware, and even the streets know where you are by code chips in your boots. I had to take them off, run barefoot into the drone quarters. From there they took me in."
"Who?" asked Miriam.
"You. The J-freaks and J-drones. The ones who understand. They hid me, and smuggled me out of the city, and from there I came to you. But before I left I heard rumors from the lab."
"What sort of rumors?"
"That he's coming. The first Ideal. He's vanished from the University, and they say he's coming this way."
Miriam stepped out into the quiet hallway, Kola right behind. They stood near the wall, waiting for a pair of worshippers to whisper past in their brown robes and bare feet. Miriam smiled at them as they passed, then turned to Kola.
"If what he says is true, Zakharov is in violation of the Xynan-Dylan Protocol limiting human genetic experimentation."
"If that thing the kid described can even be called a human," said Kola.
Miriam nodded, her hands loose at her sides. "When word of this spreads, our people will be restless. This contradicts every tenet we believe in."
"There have already been riots, demonstrations in other bases. But the people are ready."
She stared at him. A kind of unshakable fury blazed from his eyes, the kind of blind faith she had possessed many years before.
"I'll put the word out to the faithful in all settlement bases," she said. "We must find this creature."
Copyright © 2001 by Electronic Arts