Children of the Great Reckoning, Book 2: Firewall: Samu'el
Coming to Audio in February 2014
I would like to believe I remember more about the accident than Sam does; I would find it a cruel thing if he had to hold that bloody memory and the consequence of it all.
But then, all worlds turn on the force of our actions, even the ones we cannot or will not recall.
Sam was only a ten-year, precocious in music, adventuresome to a fault. I had come to stay for the summer with his family at the Science Marga Mansion.
That day still haunts my memories. His younger sister, Larisa, and I had made a picnic lunch of sorts to eat beneath the shady palms of the old Mansion greenhouse. I always liked having the geometric sprawl of glass and girders between myself and the sky. Like many children who could remember the great plagues, if only at a visceral level, I tended to be more comfortable with walls around me. They provided clear lines for what was in and what was out, what was safe and what was sinister, what could be controlled and what could not.
The Mansion sprawled out around us, nearly ten miles of hallways and towers and even more real estate beneath the ground, level after level of it. From the greenhouse’s artificial hill, I could see across the neatly clipped lawns and wholly linear lines of its formal gardens. We had five acres to wander, safe beneath the glass and braced by the walls. I was as comfortable there as I was in the Spirit Marga Temple complex where my mother, Cyntia Molair, ruled as High Priestess.
Sam and Larisa were the children of Science Marga executive Edwere Stelle. I think our respective parents believed that children who played together seldom grew up to scheme against one another. It is much more difficult to want to hurt the one who laughed at your stupid jokes and didn’t mind it when you burped loudly at the dinner table.
We were curious as children are and we were kids of privilege. Perhaps that made us bolder than most, so when our bellies were finally full of the fruit and nuts and fizzy sodas we had stolen from the Mansion kitchens, Sam led us all into the undergrowth for a “special mission”—spying on the new construction along the northern edge of the greenhouse. A few of the older girders were beginning to rust, and Edwere’s architects had suggested he replace them.
It was a place forbidden to us, so of course it was wildly attractive. We belly-crawled for a closer look, marveling at the size of the great panes of glass stacked on their sides so they would not be scratched, craning up to see the new metal supports being guided into place by small repulser engines the size of child’s chest strung at intervals along its length. There were almost no workmen around; it was not like buildings our ancients had made, with muscle and sweat and loud music pounding. No, this was the labor of a single woman, guiding her machines from her control station along the wall, lifting each enormous piece into place like a child orchestrating an on-line construction program.
“Hey,” Sam chimed. “I know her! She showed me how to make flying buttresses in our hologram game!”
“Chelsea? Charity?” Larisa ran through a few names. She scrunched up her nose, and I almost laughed because it made her freckles wiggle.
“Her name is Charlie.” My tone brooked no argument because I was oldest and so of course, knew the right answer.
Sam crouched now in the shadows of the big ferns, watching the new beam come almost to vertical in front of us. He smiled up at that impossible height. “I want to see how she does it.”
I had thought he meant he wanted to see from our hiding place, but no, before I quite realized it, he’d run out into the building zone, the light catching his hair and his face turned up in wonder.
“Sam!” I yelled, quite sure I would get the reprimand for bringing the younger children near the construction area. And Charlie, being a grownup would tell on us for sure. But my call cut through the greenhouse much more loudly than I realized. Charlie’s head snapped up with a jerk, and in that moment, in that little bobble of her concentration, her hand brushed the special manipulative-responsive space where she worked. The repulser units obediently turned themselves off, and tons of steel tottered.
For one moment, Larisa and I gaped as that huge piece of metal began to slant toward us. Sam froze, his arms out to his sides as if he could catch something so big. I threw myself over Larisa, covering her, too horrified to even cry out as my back clenched, waiting for that awful weight to drive us into the ground.
It smashed into the garden hard enough that we could feel the impact ripple through the soil and into our very bellies. Great palms cracked and fell in an avalanche of sound, pitched finally with the frightened, high squeaks of the birds fleeing their own resting places before it all settled with a groan into silence. Larisa leapt to her feet without a sound and raced back toward our picnic area, stumbling and wild.
But I was not so lucky. I stood, my first thought of Sam, my mind full of that little boy, arms spread, his hair blazing. I couldn’t see him anywhere.
Suddenly Charlie came racing toward me, her hand on her small ear tab, screaming for emergency teams. Her face was horrible, eyes and mouth wide, her face nearly white with shock.
Then I remember seeing the flashes of blond hair beneath the girder’s mass, a small fist still clenched and all the blood.
Rather than running toward Sam, I turned, feeling oddly calm, and walked a few feet in a straight line. Then I retched into a beautifully manicured flowerbed.
My mother came to the Mansion within hours, which surprised me. A High Priestess seldom leaves her Temple, but I suppose someone had told her about the accident that I had witnessed. I cowered beside her in the med-center, and for once, she let me lean up against her, even tucked her arm around me now and again and didn’t seem to mind when I got her blue habit all wet with my tears and runny nose. Sam had been out of surgery for a while, but when I asked if he was OK, Edwere’s face went very sharp and still. I knew then that Sam would not be playing with me for the rest of the summer.
As the long hours wore on, I tried to listen to what my mother and Edwere were discussing—things like experimental game platforms and new breeds of nanotech to create lines of communication between what was left of Sam’s injured brain and a whole world where he might be able to still run and play and learn. Of how something or someone called Nuress would be there with him so he would have some kind of a life and wouldn’t be wholly alone.
Maybe I can only sort it out now because I have heard the story so often. But mostly I remember groaning as I relived the accident again and again. Finally, Mother shooed me away with a Science Marga psych- tech for a light meal of soup and then bed. As much as I wanted to be close to my mother, I also desperately needed to be away from the smells and sounds of machines and the whispers of adults telling me I would never, ever play with Sam Stelle again.
Before I left for school that summer, I went to visit Sam one last time. He lay in a room deep in the Mansion, a level we children used to call the Dungeons. I stood in the doorway, tracing the lines and machines that wove a tangled nest around his body. He was so pale, his hair just starting to grow back a little, the lines of his injuries red and angry, snaking in hot lines over the bits of his body I could actually see. It did not help to know that the scars would be repaired in time, that his muscles would be worked so they would not atrophy and he would still grow to his full height while strapped there on his bed. All I knew was that my friend was gone. I had called his name, and a moment later his whole life had changed.
What I did not know was that as his world was altered in that instant, so was the very destiny of our own…
Priestess Jean Molair
Spirit Marga Archives
The devastation was the most difficult to bear in the cities proper, where small corpses were left curbside or abandoned in stairwells and vacant apartments. It reminded us all of the plagues not so many years before. The Spirit Marga did what it could of course, but eventually even the Emperium was called in to register the living and mass cremate the dead.
How do we explain to those left alive that we were trying to answer the very definition of religion—religio—to bind back to a healthy and productive Unity? They see only the strange and terrifying creatures their children have become and watch us all with accusing eyes.
Temple Complex, Spirit Marga
Priest Cyntia McKinney shifted her frail form in the leather chair, and leaned back against the headrest. Nearly eighty years old, she had lived through the entire span of the Great Reckoning, picking up the young and delicate wreckage of a generation. The habit of the Order draped her shoulder, the deep blue of her rank turning her gray eyes violet. Her bone-thin legs shifted a bit beneath the heavy mahogany desk that had passed down through the centuries to this moment in time, picking up new technology as it aged like so much dust.
“What do you think?” This voice, nearly as old-sounding as her own, teased her eyes open. She considered the man before her, hunkered in his robes.
“Ianto still frightens me, Hobert, as he has from the very beginning,” she said frankly. “But everything we know about him continually points to the fact that he is our prime candidate. I must ask you, how did you know he would undertake the Deep Vigil when he did?” She watched his face carefully, her eyes almost unblinking.
“I am his abbot,” Hobert said simply.
Cyntia snorted, looking away then. “I had not thought you would revert to such clichés,” she chided him.
“Cliché’s have kernels of truth.”
Cyntia chuckled, lifting her eyes again to read the face of this man, one of her closest advisors. His pale eyes, wreathed with white lashes and fuzzy eyebrows regarded her steadily in turn. She leaned forward a little. “It has changed him, though. Not just our interventions, but the Vigil itself.”
“That is the point of the exercise,” Hobert said absently. He sighed then, and looked down at his gnarled fingers. “However, you are right. He’s still not talking. I’m not sure he ever will again. I think we may have finally matured him to the point where that damn artificial intelligence you call Nuress has asked him to be, but that is a tentative assumption at best.”
His hands smoothed the hem of his green robe. “There are so few candidates to choose from anymore. So few Minds have survived the Great Reckoning, and none have survived the Game once put in play. We can send him on to Edwere at the Science Marga, but do we have another to begin again with, if Ianto does not serve as expected? We must not rest all on him.”
“Let me see the next file.” Cyntia’s hand half-heartedly waved in the air above her workspace.
Hobert touched his wrist pad of data and her desk lit up. “Here is one, but as you see, the scores are inconsistent, physical deformities that are still mutating with age…serviceable but….”
Cyntia scanned the graphics as Hobert tracked the newest report over her desk, feeling the headache forming behind her eyes. A woman child, open spaces in the forehead covered with prosthetic. The secondary femur growth was odder than most, but she was still ambulatory with essentially four legs. Fluctuations in brain chemistry, mild antisocial behavior, all the tell-tale markers of the Great Reckoning were in play, continuing to change her young body. She was currently serving as a priest in a tiny parish of what used to be a United States area called Louisiana.
File after file had been like this. So many Children of God, gathered into the church as both penance and opportunity. The image there glared at her, a reminder of her guilt.
Cyntia sighed and sat back in her chair. “Turn it off, Hobert.”
He complied, hunkering back into his robes.
He’s getting so old, she thought. Then again, so am I. “I can’t look at any more reports. Time is passing, time we cannot reverse, and Nuress is so sure about this one. So, you who have played him along so very well, will he go willingly to the Science Marga as we had planned? Or will some other method be necessary?”
Hobert shrugged his shoulders. “In the end, I think he’ll go of his own accord. I have hurt him in my own way in the past, but we are currently at a tenuous truce.” He looked down at his hands. “He wrote, on the floor of the Lower Chamber, that when he is asked to do something in your name, he will do it. That God had commanded it. He wrote it,” Hobert said carefully, “in his own blood.”
Cyntia raised one eyebrow and pursed her lips around the unpleasant image. “You left that bit out of your report, I see.”
“It was…disturbing,” Hobert murmured.
She hardened her eyes then, her chin raised. “He will serve, Hobert. We will sell his contract to the Science Marga. And you must ask him in my name, if that is what he is waiting for.” She ran her gaze over the rare treasure of books lining her office walls, the way the light played over the plush chairs off to her right. “He is still…as lovely as when I last saw him?”
“Nothing has changed, except for his eyes. They continue to lighten. We think they will be drained of pigment eventually. But that is all. He looks as he did from the time of the Mercy.”
“I still hate that name,” she muttered. Over a billion children put to sleep as a kind of last resort, saving them forever from the full effects of the Reckoning. But a mercy? For who, I wonder? “How he looks is not particularly important to Edwere nor to the Game. I simply find it fascinating that one of the most powerful Children of God appears so…normal.”
Hobert merely nodded, waiting for her decision.
Time ticked out on the desk monitor. Time echoed in the too quiet halls beyond her door. “Ask him to accept the invitation to the Executive’s home. He must promise to serve there as house priest for the Executive of the Science Marga for as long as he is needed. Once he is within the Mansion, how he will be interfaced with the Game is Edwere’s concern. Be sure his papers are transferred, and be sure Science Marga makes appropriate payment.”
Hobert nodded, his eyes dropping away from her face into his own thoughts.
From the very beginning, I believed opening the monastery up to all the Children of God was not just a concrete expression of our code of hospitality but a way to normalize the experience of a people who had no other place to turn in society. The priest and monk have always been set apart, but generally with a grudging sense of respect. What better way to begin to repair and rethink humanity?
Abbot Hobert Temmons,
The tall and neat form that was Ianto Tobali, hermit of the Spirit Marga, sat motionless on one end of his stone bench. He’d been there since dawn, although the sun was now slanting into the west. The dried grasses hissed in the autumn wind, their stems already turning golden as the season inhaled the last of their green. Hobert shifted yet again, his old bones aching and cold. “You can’t keep this up,” the old priest murmured to his charge at last.
Ianto sighed then, the first sound he had made since he had seated himself next to his abbot in the frigid dawn. “I’m afraid it is you who can’t keep this up.” His voice was low, unsteady from his ordeal in the watery underground cavern of his assigned vigil. “Come in, old man, and I will fix you tea.” He rose easily and Hobert scowled up at him.
“Old man, indeed.” Nevertheless, Hobert reached out for Ianto’s extended hand and gratefully allowed the young man to haul him upright. They walked together, through the winding paths of the garden. The hermitage, built of stone by men several generations before, nestled into the lee of a hill. Within, the single bed, desk and cooking utensils would perch perfectly sterile and anonymous. Hobert knew its contents only because every other hermitage was exactly alike, although many had vid equipment hidden in the stone recesses. Since the Great Reckoning, privacy was less an issue than data, at least to the Spirit Marga.
Ianto, though, quietly destroyed every camera, no matter how cleverly hidden or how impossibly tiny. Finally, with only a small fortune of broken equipment to show for their curiosity, they had left him in a grudging kind of peace.
Some minutes later, hot tea in hand and settling into the steadily rising warmth of the hermitage, Hobert set his shoulders. He kept his voice calm and reasonable, even though he had already wasted an entire day on that hard bench. But he needed to report a success to Cyntia, and that required patience from him. He would have never allowed another hermit under his care to be so stubborn, but with Ianto, he knew he had no choice. The young man played their monastic games with a kind of jaded amusement, quite sure that no leash or rein could ever really control him.
And yet, Hobert knew he ached with the need for something, for family, for love. It was a thin kite string, and jerking on it would only send Ianto spinning out into the fall wind.
“Come on now, Ianto,” he said at last. “Cyntia, high priest of the Spirit Marga requests you accept the appointment to serve the Executive of the Science Marga as his house priest. This is not something to be taken lightly. It is a great honor and she is putting much trust in you.” Hobert lifted the spiced tea to his lips, hardly tasting the liquid.
“I am aware that is a great honor, Hobert, and a test of my obedience. But I am not a priest,” Ianto murmured. He rose to make a show of tidying the already spotless kitchen for a few moments, then stopped abruptly, and turned to face Hobert. “What does she think of me, Hobert? Why would she bring this request to me?”
Hobert snorted. “I think she still believes you are more than a little broken, to be honest.” The old man took another swig of tea, and then rested it on his thigh.
Ianto stood tall in his green habit, the delicate meshing that hid his face catching small glints of light as he breathed. “If a child drops a glass on the tile, and it shatters, for a heart beat at least, is the child any less broken that the object?”
“You’re calling Cyntia a child?” Hobert chuckled as if the thought amused him.
“You’re all children, the changed generations all the broken glass. In time, the child within will try to sweep up the mess, hide it. Or holding their bleeding hands out to the world, they will cry for forgiveness. You have done both. And yet, the glass will remain broken.” Ianto had not moved, his voice remained level and contained.
Hobert nodded in agreement. “Indeed. And even worse, you will point out that the glass was also part of a set that will never be totally whole again, either….that is, if we only see its loss and not the inherent change that would have done all this anyway, in time. That is the way of the universe. Change is the way of God. And it is time now for you to change.”
Ianto laughed then, low in his throat. “I do so love our talks, Old One. How you can make crimes against humanity into philosophy. How you can make the loss of freedom a virtue.”
The mocking wasn’t new to Hobert. He looked up at the young hermit, and narrowed his eyes. “So why don’t you take off that hood, Ianto. That would be a step toward your so-called freedom, yes? It's time. You will not need it where you are going.”
Ianto chuckled again, but his voice was raw. “Why? I like this place of shadow, of seeing through the holes of mesh, a watcher in your world of eyes. It is my consolation.”
“I wish you would talk like a normal person,” Hobert growled. “You may be a monk but you’re only a hand span of years past twenty for God’s sake.” He waved his hand at Ianto as if to brush away possible rebuttal and sipped his tea.
“Too many books of poetry. Too many scriptures. Too many dreams,” Ianto murmured anyway.
A silence hung between them for a moment.
Ianto finally said. “I will go. I have been called by my High Priestess, as God said I would. And I cannot quite ignore such a mystery.”
Hobert nodded heavily, his intuition of a great mistake running on mice-feet in his brain, but he couldn’t deny the flush of relief as well. “Good lad.” He raised the tea again to his lips. “I’ll send a transport in the morning.”