by Eric Landreneau

Brother Crisanto stared up into Ennim’s sky. Engaging his optical augments, he could make out the form of the Mobile Gateway as it moved into a stable orbit. Soon the starship would begin the slow dance of unpacking its mammoth components and re-configuring itself into a wormhole generator.

An indicator buzzed in the back of his mind; the new arrival had transmitted a communication packet to his ship. For the first time in a decade, his inbox was full. Cycling his eyes back to natural sight, Crisanto blinked and sighed. Time to begin his farewells.

He stood at the top of a bluff, where the forest thinned enough to offer a view of the equatorial sky. Eddard beamed at him from his perch on a mossy boulder, a wriggling bottle of pressurized boyish excitement. “Is it here? Is it here?” To the isolated colony, the promise of instant connection to the Celestial Oecumene – and the protection of its mighty fleet – was a blessing well worth the wait.

The monk nodded. “Yes. It’s–”

“Awesome! I’ll tell everyone!” The youth sprang from his stone and sprinted off through the woods to the colony town. He likely would tell everyone, running in circles until he dropped. The mayor would soon have the techs at the observatory train their SatScopes on the new arrival and patch the feed to the public screens in the Plaza, so all could watch the unfolding of the Gateway.

Tsking, Crisanto walked to his secluded dwelling in a nearby clearing.

He found Roget already busy packing their life away. The harvester and maintenance bots were loading goods into niches on the ship, while the semi-autonomous cyborg was manually cleaning years of accumulated overgrowth off of the defensive bots, who’d long gone dormant at their posts.

Roget registered his master’s arrival, and the voice which came from his throat box hinted as much admonishment as a Sanguine Acolyte could dare. “We at least could have kept their auto-cleaning functions active. I could be doing other important tasks.” He groaned, as if slicing vines with a palm-laser was so arduous.

“Well, you know how I live to make your life difficult.” Crisanto smiled. He could have told the Acolyte that he rather liked the image of the turreted, bristling bots being slowly swallowed by the undergrowth, but Roget would not have understood. Once he might have, before he was captured and “converted” by the Oecumene. Like all Sanguine Acolytes, he was faceless, more DiviTech machine than human. Only his useful knowledge, skills and memories remained of the heathen warrior he once had been. What personality he now had had grown during his long service to Brother Crisanto.

The sudden noisy bustle grated Crisanto’s ears. The busy bots, the szing! of Roget’s palm-laser, the mental spazzing of his inbox, all a raucous chorus heralding the abrupt end of years of contemplation and good work.  “I always hate this part. We’ve been here for ten years… Ennim feels like home to me. It took us nearly a year cramped in that damned ship to get here. Now it’ll take us the split of an instant to return to the Rosaria and Vaticos.” He turned, drinking in the sight of the sunlit woods which surrounded his dwelling and garden plots. “I like it here. Who knows where we’ll be needed next?”

The Acolyte cocked his head. “You will know. Check your inbox. Likely the datapacks contain briefing materials.”

Crisanto huffed and slumped on a stump which had become his favorite seat. “I know, Roget. I was trying to ignore it for a little while longer.” The indicator spazzed in his mind again. Resigned, Crisanto acknowledged the indicator and skimmed his inbox. There were personal messages from old brothers-in-arms and debating colleagues, but he focused on the official data-cluster from NeoTemplar Command. He skimmed the summary; it was as he feared, as the witch had suspected. His time as a missionary was up. The Templars were gathering their fleets. Vaticos was preparing for another Crusade.

~*~

With Roget handling the details of packing, Crisanto had time to prepare himself mentally to leave the calm years of missionary work behind. In times of peace the Templars were free to wander, alone among the wilderness of stars, seeking lonely colonies who were receptive to the Word. Through their missions, Vaticos and the Celestial Oecumene spread light through the darkness.

In times of war, however, when heathen forces gnawed the flanks of the Oecumene, Vaticos called on the Templars to serve as the officers of its armies of bots and cyborganic Acolytes. DiviTech augmentations had kept Crisanto alive long enough to serve in dozens of campaigns across the stars. He was tired of it.

His ship, the Sojourner model flown by Templar missionaries, served as his home here on Ennim. The ship had a central core; fore was his cockpit, followed by computers, fabrication equipment, anti-grav generators, the power plant and, finally, Roget’s post in the aft defensive turret. Around this core were three evenly-spaced engine pods, and three long spars, jutting forward from the core like swordblades. The forward spars held various field projectors, missile bays and the primary weapon systems. The ship landed nose down, its three spars angled outward to form a stable tripod, the cockpit lowered and opened to serve as a bed. Using opaqued force fields in place of solid walls, it made for a comfortable home. The rear turret, at the peak of the resting ship, made it a good defensive post for hostile worlds.

Like all Templar vehicles, the major components of the ship were sculpted in smooth, unbroken swaths of white armor. Each forward spar had the severe red cross of the Templar emblazoned at its base.

He passed through the force-wall. The single room was carpeted in the grass of the clearing. Crossing the springy groundcover, Crisanto sat in the creche in the middle of the room. Responding to a mental command, it closed around him and lifted up into the apex of the ship’s forward spars. Darkness and quiet embraced him. Crisanto stilled his body, relaxing one muscle group after another, until all was calm. Then he turned inward, and allowed for full integration with the information the Mobile Gate had broadcast down to him.

The data unpacked itself, filling him with years of news and events from the core of the Oecumene. New Bavaria had grown bolder in their provocations, as had the Nomads and several of the Linker Hives. Humanity had spread far and wide across the cosmos, allowing all forms of abomination to grow from the seeds of their despondent homeworld. Vaticos sought to bring order and peace where there was such chaos. The scattered pagans had long ago formed a weak collective body – called the League of the Megalith Accord – a toothless entity which did little to tie together the sundry savage new breeds of humanity…until now. It seemed that in the intervening years since the last crusade the Megalith Accord, led by the New Bavarians and the Druidics, had coherently unified the pagans.

United, they could not be ignored.

The datapacks sought to weave themselves permanently into his experience/self. It was a level of knowing that was deeper than any other, and helped to keep the Templar forces unified in mind and spirit.

Crisanto had hacked his DiviTech implants long ago and bypassed the automatic re-writing of his personality matrix. He coded and filed the new information, but defrayed any attempts to alter his self. This required a bit of mental partitioning, and the aid of a few barrier and decoy programs he had written and installed during his long, quiet journeys.  It was an ability which could earn him a violent, prolonged execution.

He closed the connection to the ship’s computer and descended from internal to normal consciousness. He let out a long, slow breath as the download concluded. Information integration, which amounted to acquiring months’ or years’ worth of experiences in the space of a few minutes, could leave novices nearly catatonic from mental strain. Even after decades of practice, Crisanto felt the threat of a migraine. He continued breathing, slowly in and even slower out, letting the strain work its way through and fade away, gently asserting control over his mind. He blinked in the dark chamber and tapped fingertips against the tips of his thumbs in a well-practiced pattern which helped him reconnect to his physical body.

“Catriona, you were right,” he whispered into the darkness. He knew how much military might Vaticos was preparing to throw at the League. He knew the propaganda Vaticos was crafting to galvanize the Oecumene against the heathens. He knew first-hand how much the datapack integration should have hardened him in preparation for the coming onslaught. Thousands of his fellow NeoTemplars were even now readying for war. This would be a crusade like no other, and the others had been glorious…or terrible, depending on one’s point of view.

“All are right to fear what is coming.”

Almost subconsciously, his fingers strayed along a seam in one of the creche’s cushions. A subsonic pulse would part the nanomachine adhesive and open the secret compartment he had dug into the cushioning. No one, especially not Roget, knew of the compartment. Inside was an archaic hard-copy of the Old  and Messaianic Testaments, and a sampling of books from other faiths which traced back to Old Earth. Even more dangerous was his posession of a copy of the Lost Gospels; just knowing of their existence was dangerous for a Templar, or any citizen of the Oecumene. Crisanto had filled the long months of the voyage out here studying the ancient texts, carefully checking references in the ship’s archives, burning with a drive to piece together an understanding of the roots of his faith.

It was difficult, with so many gaps and such a long history of repression by the various iterations of the Church. But his drive to balance his own faith with a troubled conscience and doubt over the sanctity of the actions of Vaticos had spurred him on. He had found harmony between his heart and the banned Gospel of Thomas…which resulted in a dischord with the Word and order he had learned and preached for so long. He had continued his study, out of sight of Roget or any monitoring, for ten years on Ennim, and still smoldered with questions. And now he had to carry that doubt into war.

Crisanto’s message center chimed. He found an invitation Mayor McChord of Ennim Town posted through the local social network; they knew he had to leave when the Gateway opened and wished to throw him a farewell party that night. They knew nothing of the crusade, only that a dear friend of the colony deserved a proper farewell. Crisanto accepted, glad for an opportunity to see everyone one last time.

He lowered his creche and stood, gazing at the clearing which had been his home for so long. He hated to leave this world, and the peace of study and good works he had enjoyed. But he knew what he had to do. He set his ship to prepare his battle gear and run diagnostics on its own long-dormant weapons, then set off for Ennim Town, monastic robes swishing over his bare feet. He would enjoy one last gathering with good folks before marching off to darker places.

~*~

Local bards filled Ennim Town’s plaza with jouncing music, blending electric oudh, synth-pop and pocketpipes in an invigorating sampling of the small colony’s hybrid heritage. All the hard-working colonists turned out to see the much-loved missionary off, and they brought their gusto and their gourmet finest with them.

Like most fringe worlds, the people of Ennim had claimed their planet by making the decades-long trek in a one-way converted freighter. It was a risky existence. Common law among the stars recognized them as an independent sovereign world, claimed by the age-old law of “I got there first.” But another word for independent was alone. They’d suffered from natural and sentient troubles during the formative years of the colony, and had come close to blasting Crisanto out of the sky when he arrived, taking him for yet another raider.

Once they knew he was no threat, however, the people of Ennim had welcomed him. True, he came from the far-off and much-maligned Celestial Oecumene, but he was an interesting new face on a wide, lonely world, and he was willing to work alongside the colonists in all their endeavors. When all he asked was the chance to speak of his God, how could the colonists have turned him and the resources of his fantastic Sojourner ship away?

He had taught them what he could, thrown his tools and his sweat into their endeavors, and taught the Word to those who would listen. In the space of nine years he had swayed the flock, helped them build a chapel and school, and laid the groundwork for a solid faith in the community. The colonists had chosen on their own to ask for inclusion into the Oecumene. It had taken five months for the message drone to cross the void, and another five for the Mobile Gateway to make its way to Ennim.

Sitting next to him at a raised table, the florid Mayor raised his cup to gesture to the nearest public screen. “My old friend, this celebration is for you…a meager thanks for the gift you have brought us. Your teachings have brought safety and prosperity to our hearts. And now, Vaticos will bring prosperity and safety to our world. HERE’S TO BROTHER CRISANTO!”

The partiers thronging the plaza raised their drinks and cheered for the beloved missionary. On the screen the mobile gateway showed remarkable progress in its reconfiguration. The long fuselage had split down its length, the components drifting from one-another. Arching booms pivoted out from the body, their loose ends seeking their mates in the void. The gateway now looked less like a starship and more like a funnel of giant rings, gleaming white in the starlight. This was the strength of the Celestial Oecumene; even at the speed of light, the ships of scattered humanity could take months or years to cross the void, while the worlds of the Oecumene enjoyed instantaneous travel through the network of wormhole generators. Ennim was now forever linked to the Rosaria hub and the hundreds of worlds of the Oecumene.

Crisanto downed his cup, savoring the burn of the local meade. Smiling, he smacked his lips and sighed. “You’re a fine man, McChord…but I think I’ll miss the meade more than anyone.” Seeing a blaze of red hair across the plaza, Crisanto rose. “Pardon me…”

Dodging through milling and dancing partygoers, Crisanto crossed the plaza. He found Catriona entertaining Eddard’s fumbling attempts at conversation.

“You’re not gonna leave us too?” Eddard asked, obviously smitten.

The fair-skinned woman shook her head, her chunky earrings jangling. “No, Eddard. I could never afford another trip on a fast trader, and I’ve no desire to spend decades on a slow ship like your elders did.”

Eddard pointed at the screen. “But with the gateway here, you can go to hundreds of worlds in a shuttle.”

Eyes sparkling, Catriona met Crisanto’s gaze over the boy’s head, and favored him with a private smile. “Anywhere in the Oecumene, but not to the home of my family or my clan. Why would I do that, when I’ve such a fine home here. No, lad, Ennim’s my home now. I’ve set my roots deep.”

Crisanto clapped the skinny boy heartily on the shoulder, startling him. Over-playing the alcohol buzz he blurted, “See there son! You’ve got plenty of time to woo the poor witch!”

Eddard paled, gaping like a fish. “No but I wasn’t I but-” His voice cracked, and he went from pale to crimson and sweaty in an instant. He surprised them both by collecting himself enough to snap, “Is it time for you to take off yet?” before storming away.

Crisanto chuckled softly. “What a wit is growing in that one!” He sipped his meade.

Catriona hissed, eyes crackling. “You shouldn’t torment him like that!”

“What? I’ll never get the chance again!”

“And don’t call me ‘witch.’ It still makes some of them nervous!”

“It’s what you call yourself.” He paused, took on a more sober tone. “Forgive me for running him off. I’d only hoped to have a moment of you to myself.”

Sneering at him, Catriona nodded in the direction Eddard had gone. “Perhaps I was enjoying his flirtations. I might let him reap some profit for his effort in a year or two. He’s awkward, but I could relish some youthful exuberance.

“Oh, you are a witch.”

“God heard the word you meant to say.”

“So we’re both due for a confession.”

Catriona had come to Ennim shortly before Crisanto aboard a fast trader. She’d left her arid homeworld of Reformed Wiccans, seeking greener, wilder places. She’d been easily accepted by the colonists, who were too diverse and infused with colonial pragmatism to shun anyone willing to pull her own weight. She had never sought to convert anyone, keeping her rituals private and sharing her beliefs only when asked. She had enriched the colony with her knowledge of medicine and biochemistry, helping them decode and harness the medicinal properties of the local flora, and filling the role of general practicioner.

Many colonists had expected a fight to grow between the two of them, but the two had worked together surprisingly well. Crisanto had approached the matter of her faith with as much tact and gentility as he had used with everyone. Their discussions had been long, numerous and often public, and she had been flabbergasted by his gentle, respectful manner, so at odds with the aggressive and unbending attitude the Celestial Oecumene usually took to religion. She had held her witchcraft as a practical thing, a tool equally suited for understanding tactile and internal realities. In her heart, Wicca could always live with other faiths; it was the Celestial Christianism of Vaticos which would not accept her naturopathic beliefs. The missionary had shocked her by accepting her views, and finding no conflict between the two faiths; her conversion had been the catalyst which swayed much of the population to accept the Word of Celestial Christianism…as the Templar told it, at least.

Crisanto rested his rump on the edge of a tabletop.

Leaning next to him, Catriona arched an eyebrow. “So then?”

The Templar lifted his cup his mouth, but did not drink. He murmured, “Like you feared, we gather.” He fingered the cuff of his coarse brown robe. Such an ancient, comfortable vestement. “I will leave this behind.”

He set his hand on the table edge next to hers. Shielded by their bodies, Catriona lifted her pinky to stroke his wrist.

Crisanto stared at the ground. “I will leave much behind.”

The bards began a lively song, and the cheering dancers picked up their pace. The witch tsked and stood. “Down the meade, Monk. This is your party, and I want to see you dance in those foolish robes!”

~*~

Roget had been busy. The clearing didn’t feel like home when Crisanto returned. A decade of homey touches had been wiped away leaving only his gleaming white ship standing tall above the clearing. A slave to regulations, Roget had left the sentinel drones standing at the perimeter, now fully alert. They would be the last components aboard.

The Acolyte may have been fond of parties when he was a free man, before he had been fed through the Acolyte Processing Center. Now he had neither the will nor the capacity to enjoy such things.The College of Cardinals declared the Acolyte Conversion practice a mercy, an acceptable alternative to voluntary conversion. It was one more source of doubt for Crisanto.

Roget regarded him as he walked under the shelter of the towering ship. Knowing what the Acolyte was watching for, Crisanto put a little stagger into his step.

“Regulations require that I record your improper behavior, Templar.”

“There’s no law against alcohol, against a little joyful celebration.”

“There are regulations against displays of inebriation.”

Crisanto scratched at his pale, bald head. “Hmm…sounds like a law against joy to me…”

Roget stepped close, taking Crisanto’s arm and leading him to his creche. “It is unfortunate that I will have to deliver several such reports from the past decade, as soon as I have access to the Oecumenical Network.”

Crisanto lurched free of the Acolyte’s grasp. “Shove off with your damn reporting! We’re off on a Crusade tomorrow! You remember that, don’t you? Endless years of warfare and bloodshed, all in absolute sobriety. I don’t care how thoroughly they scrubbed your mind; if any shred of the man you once were remains, then you will remember the horror…the terrible waste of it all!”

He stared into that seamless faceplate, with the merest hints of the contours of nose and brow. How many more Acolytes will this Crusade breed? Voluntarily or not, every captured soldier was processed and put to work in the Oecumene.

Crisanto could not stand the thought of it any longer. During the long flight, as a distraction from his studies, he’d surreptitiously probed Roget’s mind, trying to unravel the inner mysteries of the Acolytes. So few knew how they really worked, what the Center did to them. He’d been horrified to find Roget…all of him, his memories and personality, intact. Not wiped away. Imprisoned and, somehow, aware.

The Acolytes were worse than zombies. They were prisons. Private Hells. He’d immedately begun seeking a way to crack the Acolyte, to let the true man break past the DiviTech programming. He’d egged Roget on, trying to find a chink.

He pushed again now, hard. He stood, panting with anger, waiting for some sort of reaction. “If you could at all remember the campaign when you were captured…when you were a free man… If you could remember that war, you would find a way to pump a little meade down your own gullet! ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.’

The reflective faceplate remained as blank as ever, but after a long moment the Acolyte let out a strangled reply. “I re…I…I remember…” Roget shuddered, head twitching to one side, then stood tall. “You spoke in the cadence of intonation. That was not a known scripture.”

Crisanto’s pulse raced. How could he be so foolish? “Forget it.”

“What did you quote?”

“Nothing…just something from a folk song.”

“You should not dilute yourself, Master. Only the word of-”

“Enough!” the Templar snapped, modulating his voice to the cadence of command. “We lift off at dawn. Go to sleep.”

There was the briefest, defiant pause. “Yes, Templar.” Calling on the ship’s force fields, the Acolyte levitated up to the turret at the pinnacle of the ship.

Crisanto slumped onto his stump and let the rush of fear ebb away. He hadn’t meant to quote Thomas to the Acolyte. It’d just…slipped out. Quoting, even knowing of, the false gospels was an easy way to die in the Oecumene.

But he could not shake the memory, the moment of frailty in Roget’s voice. For just an instant, he had broken through.

~*~

Crisanto did not enclose and retract his creche to sleep, tucked tight in a high-tech womb. Instead, he instructed the ship to spread the creche out into a simple cushioned platform. Reclining, he stared at the wedge of sky between the spars. His optical implants highlighted the orbital paths of various satellites, offering tactical options for capture, electronic infiltration, or destruction. They also indicated which glimmering speck was the Mobile Gateway, and offered to download a progress report. He shut the augmentations off.

His duties done, Roget was quiet in his turret atop the ship, getting whatever sort of rest Acolytes needed. He’d wondered why they needed sleep at all. After what he’d seen this evening, Crisanto wondered if the Acolyte programming used rest periods to cement control over the entrapped mind. He’d seen other strange slips of personality before, ususally when Roget was overworked. The programming would need some method of keeping an edge over the imprisoned personality.

The familiar cry of a nighttime bird caught his attention. It repeated after a count of seven. Smiling, Crisanto selected a standby code and sent it up to the acolyte. It was a failsafe program given to Templars to maintain final control over their Acolytes; there had been defective converts before. Roget would stay in total hibernation until Crisanto released him.

He’d resisted using the control codes since he discovered the true nature of the Acolyte’s imprisonment, but he had no choice this time; the Acolyte could not know what happened tonight.

Crisanto shut down the sentinels. Standing near the barrier, he spoke into the night. “It’s fine.”

Catriona melted out of the forest shadows and crossed the clearing, silvered by the moonlight. Seeing the light shining off the curls of her hair, her cheek, and sharpening the shadows of her body caused him a moment of panic, a tearing war between desire and duty. He could send an endcode to Roget, demolish his ship and hide forever in the trackless woods of this lush world…but that was no longer an option. This was an Oecumenical world now. He’d brought the end of that dream here himself.

Pulling himself back from the brink, the Templar beckoned the Witch inside.

The sadness he expected to feel was there, but buried deep under the joy and thrill of having her so near. He shut down the last of his augmentations, the heightened senses and metadata overlays which packed his world with information, and drank in her presence with only the senses God had intended.

Catriona arched an eyebrow. “You want to waste the night just looking?”

“Just seeing you in this light is a blessing…but no, looking is not enough.” She came into his arms, sliding her hands up his back and fitting her body to his, filling his nose with the soft scents of forest and candlewax which always followed her. Breathing deeply, he opaqued the fields of his home and forgot all about fear and sadness.

~*~

Some Templars elected to maintain their vows of chastity through castration. Crisanto was not among them, believing that it was no sacrifice for a deaf man to give up music. He had never been happier with his choice than when he met Catriona.

They lay in a tangle, staring up into the deep shadows in the apex of his ship. He set the fields to one-way so Catriona could watch the stars. He let his attention linger over the luminous contours of her pale body, watching the flush slowly fade from her skin. As fair as her ancestry had made her, Cartiona was almost olive next to him; among other effects, DiviTech augmentation and life-extension stripped melanin from the skin, making the Templars an army of fearsome, towering albinos. Ghosts and Vampires, as the heathen warriors of the Megalith Accord called them.

He ran his hand along her smooth skin. Rather than responding to the offer of his touch, Catriona stretched and rolled on her side to face him. Smiling, eyes no longer half-lidded in afterglow, she said, “Your ship always seemed strange to me. Kind of a silly design.”

Taken off-guard, Crisanto scoffed. “The Sojourner model is incredible! Small, yet capable of achieving trans-L independently. It can gather its own fuel from gas giants and nebulae, and its bots and fabrication systems can create anything the Templar needs to live in any environment.”

“Spare me the sales pitch.”

“The colony appreciated the services of my ship well enough…as have you.”

Catriona leaned forward, running a hand over his chest. “Don’t get so prickly. The design just reminds me… Long ago, on Earth, the Pre-Celestial Church proselytized to heathen plainsmen who lived in similar houses, trying as always to impose conformity…and here you are now using their same design!”

“Hmph. Doubt they could break the sound barrier, much less the speed of light.”

Catriona shook her head. “Ancient history, dummy! They were poles and hide, dragged by work beasts when the owners felt the need to move.”

Crisanto’s eyes blanked as he accessed the archives. Then he blinked and met her gaze. “The teepee?” he asked, affronted. Then he paused, looked around, and smiled. “You’re right.” He chuckled. “We mighty Templars, we live and fight and die in…”

Catriona pounced for the punchline. “Flying teepees!”

Crisanto cherished the moment of mirth, feeling decades younger, lighter than he had since he was a simple child like any other, before he had felt the call to service. She laid her head on his chest, her hair cascading like flames across his skin.

“Still,” he said, his voice taking on a wistful trace, “they are beautiful machines.”

“Yes. There is a lot of beauty within your Oecumene. Pity it does not allow for other forms of beauty.”

Once he would have retaliated against such a statement. Now he just nodded, still finding it difficult to speak his agreement aloud, and stroked her hair. He had first felt doubt long ago, after his first Crusade. In the decades since, that doubt had grown into a new belief, which he’d finally accepted after the hours of study he’d had on his journey out to Ennim.

Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven.”

“Thomas?”

Crisanto nodded. “Saying six.”

“It can’t be plainer said than that.”

“I know. Conscience over obedience. And for that, the Gospel of Thomas was buried, along with Mary, Judas…so many others.” He’d tried for so long to find some bridge between his conscience and the teachings of Celestial Christianism…and had failed. He stared into the sky, fearing the moment that had been so long in coming, the instant of decision.

Catriona broke the long silence. “So what is Vaticos planning?”

Crisanto looked down at his pale hand, resting on her crimson hair. It made him think of a negative of the NeoTemplar sigil, the red cross on white field they had adopted from their forebears. “I don’t have all the details, but it looks like they are gunning for New Bavaria this time, for starters, and they don’t intend to stop until the Oaken Throne belongs to the Oecumene. They’ll jump to the nearest gateway, then plunge across the void into the heart of Bavarian space. They’ll capture everything in between, and establish new gateways at every step…”

She clenched her hand, dragging her nails across his flesh. “They’ll pay dearly for every step.”

“I’m sure we will, but our expeditionary fleet is vastly more powerful, incredibly faster than it was the last time the galaxy faced a crusade. It will be terrible…but we will prevail.”

Her next words sucked the warmth out of the air. “You will?”

The Templar raised her chin to look in her eyes. He saw anger, disappointment, fear of his betrayal and just the meanest shred of hope. “We Templars will never be stopped, if the Crusade is allowed to begin. The galaxy will know terror like it never has, until the Oecumene has its way… if we launch.”

She pulled from his touch, sat up, returned his gaze with a level stare. “Speak plainly, Celestine.”

He too sat up and summoned an integration protocol into the air between them, a shimmering sigil waiting to link their two minds. “Open yourself to me. Let’s do this. I, for one, do not choose to believe in a God who wants his children to shower hatred on each other.”

She reached for the sigil, her hand trembling, then hesitated. She searched his eyes, wary at this final test, the point they’d known was coming for years. “Are you sure of this?”

He nodded. “I am.”

“Your mind will be open to me. I could do anything to you.”

“As could I.”

“How did you chose to trust me?”

“The same way humans always have.”

“And if I betray you?”

“And if I betray you? We’re both talented programmers. I’m sure neither of us would ever know.”

“True…” She stared at the sigil. “I’m afraid.”

Crisanto smiled. “I don’t believe you’d ever admit that to anyone you did not trust.” He touched the sigil, opening his mind to the thoughtspace constructed within the ship’s computer. “Tragedy is looming. I would like to try to stop it. Will you help me?”

The witch sighed, releasing her doubt, and touched the sigil.

~*~

Taking over the processing power of the ship, they met in neutral virtual void. Without words, they celebrated each-other’s beauty, the splendor of their uncensored, unguarded minds. All of their thoughts were shared and understood without judgment, without time. Their hearts sang with relief that there was no betrayal, that they had both found honesty in each other. There could be trust, and so, there could be hope.

As their minds tangled together, the void filled with an environment born of their commingled subconsciousnesses. From Crisanto came the austere majesty of a mountaintop, the world below filled with peaks marching to the horizon. The valleys filled with Catriona’s sylvian green, and a grove grew on the mountaintop to shelter them from the wind. Appealing to both their souls, the sky turned to night and filled with a spangle of stars, and the entire pinwheel of humanity’s infant galaxy.

She knew Crisanto’s youth as surely as her own, learning the beliefs he was taught as a citizen of the Oecumene. Following the fervor and strength of his soul, he’d followed his heart into deeper study and devotion. It had been natural for him to find his way into the Order of the Templar Knights. The vows, the alterations to his body and mind, the distancing from his family and friends, all had been worthy sacrifices for the calling of his heart. That sense of duty and pride had carried him into his first Crusade. Then the hairline crack of doubt formed, and spread further with each added stress on his soul. That doubt had led him to search himself, to probe the depths of things Vaticos sought to cover or erase; forgotten histories, lost gospels, testaments of inclusion and love rather than order and obedience.

Crisanto also knew the witch’s own life. She had always sought reconciliation between love, soul and reason; each force brought infinite strength to the others, but only when in balance. She left her arid homeworld in search of the forests and seas of the old songs. Her wanderings had brought her close to the last Crusade, and she had screamed for God’s love to correct his people. She had served as a healer, a warrior and, for a harrowing time, as a prisoner, a rare escapee from the grasp of the Oecumene.

Their memories of the Crusades melded, and each knew war from both sides of the battlefield. None of the varied forms of humanity had escaped the ancient burden of warfare. Ranks of networked Gestalts fell before their hive-asteroids. Vacuum-adapted Ringfish withered under the lash of high-energy volleys as Crusading ships scoured their gas-giant rings. Mutants, Pagans, Cyborgs, Interlinks, Nomads, Seculars, Quantificates… any who would not submit to Oecumenical order were lashed until they knelt. But the heathens were not passive. Equal millions of Oecumenical citizens – industrials, agrarians, simple folk, kindly priests, brothers and sisters, comet-herders and nebula-grazers – millions of Celestines perished in the reprisals of the various segments of fragmented humanity.

Crisanto and Catriona instantly knew the truth; united, the League of the Megalith Accord was nearly equal to the Templars of the Celestial Oecumene. This crusade would be long, and infinitely more horrible than any before. Expanding their gestalt consciousness to access the entire ship’s processing capabilities, they set to work.

Catriona had necessarily kept all details from him until now. Hope thrilled through him; Vaticos could never predict what they and the Accord were planning!

~*~

Standing on the wooded mountaintop, the two looked lovingly on the skeleton key, which represented the program they had created together. Knowing what must be without speaking, Crisanto touched the key, taking it into his mind. It would be for him to turn the key, open the door so that it could be shut forever.

There was little need for speech within the shared thoughspace; all thought was instantly known, shared, and brought to consensus. They shared their pride for their creation, and the assurance that it would work.

Crisanto consulted the clock. They had accomplished so much, but at the blazing speeds of hypercomputation. Should we stay? We could build such an environment! We could have a year or more of subjective time together before the sun rose!

Catriona smiled and shook her head. He watched the gesture – brilliant starlight flashing off her avatar’s flaming curls and lighting a crescent of her cheek as she smiled – and felt her actions and intentions from within, as his own.

No. It would be joyful, but it would only sharpen the pain, and push off the greater, deeper joy to come for all. Let our farewell be brief, but purely human. Brevity and loss are the chisels which sculpt human joy. Besides, I would rather my flesh carry its own memories of our parting.

Such wisdom for a young witch!

He started to back away, but she held out her hand.

Wait.

An acorn glowed in her palm.

Crisanto slid his hand under hers, peering close, trying to decipher the coding of the program.

What is this?

A gift…a dream. Access it later, when you have time, if… if you…

An emotional backlash caused a dischord within the programming. For a moment the stars darkened, and the trees fell silent in the wind. Shaking his head, Crisanto picked up the acorn and stored the program.

Come. There are some things which no machine can handle properly. Farewells are for humans only.

~*~

Catriona left before dawn. He let her keep his roughspun brown robe; it had been made for him by the people of Ennim, and belonged to the colony world. It would have no place where he was bound. He allowed himself a moment to feel the last of her warmth on the creche, to take in the last of her scent before the sanitation nanites scrubbed it all away.

He sent out the program to release Roget.

“All is ready, master. Our Sojourner will join the others in Crusade, as it is meant to. We have only to lift off.” The blind-loop had worked perfectly. The Acolyte had no knowledge of the time he had lost.

The Templar stood. His muscular, ghost-white body shone in the golden dawn. Skin crept back from hardpoints and DiviTech nodes along his limbs and spine. Black lenses grew across his eyes, and his flesh hardened. “I am donning my armor, Roget. We will depart shortly.”

“Aye, master.”

His armor drifted in pieces from its storage compartment, maneuvered by the ship’s force fields, and fit itself to him. In moments he vanished within the impenetrable suit, ready for war. The armor was smooth and white, chased with silver at the clawtips, the edges, and along the seams of a concealed arsenal. The tall, hard red cross of his order blazed on his chest.

All of his augmented senses, even those which had been long dormant, came awake. Layer on layer of awareness filled him, aided by the processing power of the suit’s and ship’s minds. He stood in the clearing, ready and able to demolish the world from under his feet.

Such was the power of the Templar Knights of the Celestial Oecumene.

His creche enfolded him and lifted up into the core of the ship. Piloting controls appeared under his fingers.

“Let us go. To our duty…”

The ship generated an anti-gravity bubble. Weightless, a soft puff from the engines kicked it up high over the forest. He saw Eddard step into the clearing, the lad shading his eyes to watch the ship depart. Catriona appeared behind him, then the Mayor, then many others from Ennim Town. They cheered and waved.

Through the loudspeakers Crisanto said, “Farewell, my friends. I will forever remember Ennim as my home, a place of peace in a dangerous galaxy.” His voice boomed out, rumbling and loud; when prepared for battle every aspect of the Templar Knight, even his voice, was altered to intimidate and control. “May God bless you, and all your days.”

There was no sense in drawing things out. He had said all the goodbyes he could, and now had his duty to face. He closed the weapon spars, the struts  of the “teepee,” until they were parallel. The ship took on the appearance of its true nature: the elegance and savagery of an archangel. He rolled the ship so the brightening dawn sky filled his view, then lifted away from Ennim. In minutes he reached the gaping maw of the mobile gateway, already crackling with the terrible energies of the tamed wormhole.

~*~

Once a wormhole was established, there was little to traversing it. One moment you were on one side, the next you were on the other,  nevermind the physical distances in-between. Quick as a thought he jumped from the newest member of the Celestial Oecumene to the heart of the Vaticos system.

A gaudily-ringed gas giant orbited the same binary as Vaticos. It was in – and of – these rings that DiviTech engineers built their greatest achievement, the Rosaria Hub. Massive, funnel-like dedicated wormhole generators, built side-by-side in a vast chain, supplanting the ring of gleaming rubble around the gas giant. It was the grand dream of the Oecumene to complete the chain, to completely gird the world in gateways, each connected to a different system; to bind all humanity together through the Rosaria.

Crisanto came through the newest gateway at the end of the chain; construction had begun when the mobile gateway had left for Ennim, and components for a matching permanent gateway waited to be passed through and assembled in Ennim’s sky.

For a moment Crisanto’s heart stopped. He’d forgotten how staggering the might of the Oecumene, plainly represented in the sweep of the Rosaria, could be. They reached on and on, finding no dream too large or audacious. Surely that is the finest hallmark of humanity! The components of the crusade were gathered around the Rosaria: the new gleaming white trans-L expeditionary ships, merciless and graceful in design; his gathered Templar brothers, who would lead the expeditionary thrust across the void; the trans-L Mobile Gateways which would follow, stitching the growing Oecumene together; the millions of robotic craft and sub-L shuttles which would come, finally, through the new gateways to civilize and unify the myriad worlds this Crusade would embrace. All were perfectly arrayed, all dedicated to the mission of spreading the Light and the Word. Now all that grandeur reached out to him. His ship nearly sang as it re-integrated into the Oecumenical Network, and protocols reached into his own mind to invite him into the datastream. It was all so welcoming.

But he could let none of that shake him. He had seen the sharp end of the Crusade through his own eyes, and now through Catriona’s. There was no arguing it; that was not The Way.

“Master?” Roget sounded shaken and unsure. “Guardsmen are approaching. Why would they do that?”

His ship coasted through space over the Rosaria. On his display he saw Coraxiel Knights – massive spaceborn cyborg warriors which housed the minds of venerable Templars who had out-lasted their human bodies – closing on his vessel.

Crisanto tried to suppress the upwelling of panic. “I don’t know, Roget. There’s no reaso-”

A simulated voice crackled over the network. “Welcome back, Brother Crisanto. You’ve been away a long time. Please follow us for debreifing.” The Coraxiel Knights swooped into an escort formation around his ship.

Doing his duty, Roget immediately opened channels to synch their ship’s path with the escort. They were led deep into the heart of the fleet. Crisanto fought to breathe evenly. There was no debriefing, not ever! Such things were handled instantly through the net. Why… how could they possib-

Ice ran down his spine as he realized. Of course! He thought he was so cunning and mighty, but again he saw he was just a fumbling fool.

The mobile gateway had opened its wormhole last night. The moment that had happened the ship had gained access to the net. The crew aboard the Gateway must have watched him from orbit, seen Catriona come and, hours later, go, slipping through nighttime shadows like a succubus. NeoTemplar Command would have been informed immediately.

He checked behind, saw the small task force jump through the new gate, back to Ennim, to clean up his mess. His heart sputtered at the thought of what they would do to her. His fingers twitched at the controls, frenzied to tear into the task force, to protect the witch who had stolen his heart.

He let out a breath and forced order into his body, and into his heart. There were greater things at stake here. They suspected something from him, yes…but they did not know what. He had wasted enough precious seconds, and could spare no more. Catriona’s life was at stake, and his…but so was that of everyone on Ennim; once the Oecumene discovered the heretical version of the Word he had taught them, their lives would be forfeit. He could die rushing back to Ennim, and the Crusade would launch as planned…or he could take the fool’s chance of stopping the greater slaughter.

He accepted the network invitation, and let the datastream flood in. He uploaded the Skeleton Key…and turned it.

The program unpacked itself, instantly propogating through all systems, passing security protocols with the passcodes he had provided, ravenously seeking. Crisanto left the virus to its own destiny, leaned back into the enfolding creche, and closed his eyes. The virus could not be stopped, but it could be tracked. He only had seconds before the watchdogs would trace it back to him, and then the Coraxiel Knights would be given new orders. There would be no debriefing…but it would be brief.

Below him the glaring gateways winked out, all at once.

Well, that was faster than I’d expected…

The Knights around him swerved into a defensive ring, weapons deploying, alarmed by the unheard-of event. Ships which had been about to traverse the gates slewed wildly to avoid careening into the empty gateway superstructures. A few, caught in the collapsing fields, drifted in pieces, trailing sparks and debris, torn in half across the vastness of the galaxy. Though he feared for Catriona, trapped on Ennim with the strike force, he could only focus on here and now, on seeing if he could survive the next few seconds.

Not that I ever expected to live. Success was all that mattered, and that’s assured now.

One of the Coraxiel Knights turned about, locking a cold eye on him. It raised its lance, projecting a blade of crackling plasma capable of slicing his ship clean in half at this range.

“Master, why is he threaten-”

The Knight, its voice modulated to a baritone rumble, said, “This is your doing, traitor. You have suffered a heathen, a witch, to live, but we shall not suffer you!”

The skeleton key virus ran its course, and the gates of the Rosaria crackled back to life as one. They immediately gave birth to a swarm of gnats.

Each speck, Crisanto knew, was a ship-to-ship kamikaze drone. The flight of self-directed missiles sprang forward, picking targets at random. Dazzling firestorms of conventional, thermonuclear, singularity and disintegration charges tore into the immobile ships of the gathering Crusade. Death fell upon the heart of the Celestial Oecumene.

He steeled his heart. Every murder today would be on his head…but he could bear the burden of these sins, if it would spare humanity from he sins of another crusade.

Fate or God or random chance sent a missile into the back of the threatening Coraxiel before he could strike; the spherical fireball and shockwave of burning flesh and debris sizzled over Crisanto’s defensive shields, blinding him briefly. He did not wait for his vision to clear before he severed the formation synchronization with the remaning knights and throttled forward, straight into the heart of the fire.

“Sir. No! It is too dangerous!” Roget’s voice was high and crackled with more fear than his programming should allow.

“Trust me!”

“Abort this action, sir! You are under orders from Templar Command! Why were you called a traitor?”

Weaving through striking missiles, dying ships, and a star’s worth of howling energy, Crisanto growled, “Not now Roget!”

He arrowed for the Rosaria, which continued to spew death into the unprepared Crusaders. A cyborg knight swooped in on an attack vector, beam rifle blazing, plasma lance charging for a killing blow.

“Forgive me, Brother. Forgive me, Father.” Crisanto targeted the Knight and unleashed a full volley from his ship’s primary cannons. He shot past the fireball and plunged his ship into the storm.

“Master, you are now guilty of murder. Stand do-” The Acolyte’s voice cracked, and he whispered, “Please…what is happening? I am frightened…”

“You should be.”

A second volley of drones popped through the turncoat gateways and sprang forward. These, he knew, were more directed. Taking advantage of the chaos, they locked onto the unique energy signatures of the Mobile Gateways gathered at the heart of the fleet. The Templar ships rallied, bringing their defensive measures online. Thousands of the drones burst impotently in space…but hundreds pushed through. Mobile Gateways, the core of the Crusading fleet, ruptured by the dozen.

Roget’s voice had returned to normal when he spoke again. “Knights are pursuing us, sir. You must stand down and face your punishment.”

More of the cyborgs, and a pair of Templars in Sojourner ships like his own, came after him, a flock of angels on the tail of a lonely crow. Caught between their barrages and the swarms of hurtling debris coming from all angles, his defensive screens were rapidly failing. “There’s no standing down! They’re going to kill us!”

“Then your sins must be truly terrible. What have you done?” Another barrage clawed at their screens. “What have you hidden from me?”

Crisanto jerked their ship along the skin of a gargantuan carrier, finding some cover by weaving through the jutting superstructures. “Not now, Acolyte. Your duty is the defense of this ship. Now-”

“I can not take action against our own. I- I- crggh I can not.”

Crisanto couldn’t spare a moment’s thought, but he summoned up the lock-loop. If Roget wouldn’t defend him– He hesitated. The Acolyte could end him, assert control over the ship if he was left alone, but Crisanto could not give up on him. He had to hope that the human soul could break the imprisonment of DiviTech proramming. “Roget, I know you’re in there. Help me, old friend. I know you can crack through. Help me.”

He broke free from the carrier. The angels were still hot on his tail. The sojourners unleashed a flight of missiles. There was no way his screens could block them all.

Bring forth what is within you…” The Templar sent out a prayer. “Roget, I need you.”

Death screamed down on them…and fell silent.

Distantly, Crisanto heard the whines of Roget’s swiveling turret echoing through the ship. Coherent spears lanced out, swatting the incoming missiles. A dozen small explosions snapped out behind them in an umbrella of crackling energy and burning metal. Using the wash of fire as a cover, Crisanto slammed the ship into full reverse, gasping at gee forces which would have crushed an unaugmented body. Strong as he was, a flurry of indicators and a storm of pain told him just how much internal damage he suffered from the maneuver. It would take torturous weeks to repair the damage…a fair trade, if this worked, if he lived.

Scattering the incandescent wreckage, he shot tail-first through the formation of pursuing Templars. Behind them now, he let loose, pouring all the available energy into his cannons, firing all his warheads. He had no reason to hold anything back now. Blazing white beams of coherent sunstuff lashed out from each of the forward spars of his ship, clawing at the defensive screens of his pursuers. Two of the Coraxiel Knights exploded as his shots punched clean through their torsos. His volley of missiles piled in next, careening into the snarl of swerving spacecraft. A blinding bubble of immolation enveloped his foes.

He’d been lucky, catching two of his bretheren in the instant before their battle screens adjusted to his sudden maneuver. Though disoriented, wounded and blind, he had no doubt the others still lived within the fireball. Not wasting a moment, Crisanto darted around a cargo freighter and continued his mad dash for the Rosaria.

Catriona, please be alive. If I actually live through this, then you must too! He plunged on, down and down into the swirling gullet of the virus-controlled gateways. There was no turning back. He was abandoning everything he knew, all he had ever believed in, throwing himself into chaos for what could honestly be a completely wrong belief. It was a moment heavy with eaqual measures of terror and liberation.

But he couldn’t be wrong…could he? He could no longer believe in a God who would have His word spread by the violence of the Crusades, who would accept the mental slavery of the Acolytes as belief. His heart told him he had to be right, and what other measure could man ever trust?

He tapped into the net one last time before traversing the gateway. Despite all the sudden carnage, less than ten percent of the Expeditionary Fleet had been destroyed or crippled… but ninety-seven percent of the Mobile Gateways were gone. It would be years before the Oecumene could rebuild so many. So far, so good…

He howled with terror and triumph, while his enemies burned through his defensive screens and Roget frantically blasted the missiles away

“Master!” Roget cried in terror. Their rear screens had finally collapsed, and the pursuers loosed another volley.

God help me. Maintaining their forward momentum, Crisanto spun their ship sideways, taking the brunt of the barrage on the spluttering flank screens. The fields collapsed, and the blasts sheared off one of the long spars. Spinning wildly and trailing embers, they traversed…

…and came through still tumbling. Crisanto’s first thought was that he had passed on to some wild heaven. Everything was glowing delicate pinkness, tinged with orange and blinding white. Then he saw the ships, hundreds of thousands of them in the countless designs of the Megalith Accord, missile-ships and drone-tenders forward, readying another salvo. Unwashed riffraff and rabble, as the Oecumene would dub them. Crisanto guzzled the beauty of their variety.

Show me the stone that the builders rejected: that is the keystone. – Thomas, 66.

It was hard to make out details in the incomprehensible brightness of the place. Where was he? Catriona had told him nothing of what to expect. The Templar gasped when realization struck. It was a pocket of void inside a nebula! The currents of space had sculpted this place, a vast bubble surrounded and shielded by the light and noise of the slow birth of stars!

His ship continued its tumble, and he saw what, according to the Oecumene, could not be. Crisanto did not know how long ago the League had mastered wormhole gateways, but there they were, a vast array interlinked like the cells of a honeycomb. And his virus had linked them to the Rosaria.

Roget’s voice came through crackling, straining at his internal struggle. “Master, where are we?”

“We’re free, old friend.”

“I-I-m not… Must… sh-sh-down no…”

I pray I can find help for you here.

Coraxiel and Sojourner Knights poured through the gateway after him, screaming for blood.

Crisanto broadcast the identification code Catriona had given him, and the Megalith interceptors which had launched on an attack vector veered and caught him in their tractor webs. His pursuers were not treated so kindly.

He sat back in his creche, let the heathens drag him along and watched as the third and final massive volley of drones poured through the gateways. These would turn about as soon as they traversed, and blow the Rosaria apart. In a stroke the Celestial Oecumene would be taken apart, its servile worlds cut off from one another.

Agony replaced adrenaline. Groaning, Crisanto accessed Catriona’s acorn program. Virtual experiences flooded his consciousness.

A home in a clearing outside of Ennim Town, log-cabin additions built around his dormant Sojourner. A garden. A sunlit study. A lab. Catriona completing a botanical encyclopedia of Ennim. Crisanto writing on Inclusion and Insight. Both teaching, and always learning, growing.

The Templar rose out of the program. It was a perfectly sculpted gift, a window on the life which could have been…if only. He could make out every detail, understand every nuance of the dream. He could load it into the shipmind and live in it, if he wanted…but he never would. The program was a dream. Catriona may already have been asassinated…

Or maybe not. She was a powerful witch, resourceful, and the strike force was irrevocably cut off. The acorn simulation was a dream, an ancient, insane, and all-too-human dream.

A dream worth fighting for.

© 2011 Eric Landreneau
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.