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But for the Grace of God 1

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  • #16
    O'Reily had led this group of men for years and years. He had encountered an alien artifact, fought alien monsters and travelled through this weird alien jungle. He thought he had seen it all.

    He was wrong.

    Travelling through the fungus, they had little warning. Scanners failed to pick up details through the fungus, so while they could get a rough outline from the landscape, they were otherwise blind to what they were going to discover at the source of the signal. Whatever it was, they expected a lot of cutting and searching through the fungus.

    Instead, the fungus stopped, from so thick you could hardly see two metres far to a green meadow with barely a warning. And in the middle, a monolith. It rose twenty metres in the sky, and was made of red stone covered in runes. At the tip was a yellow circle.

    He could only stare and gape. There were no other buildings. Just one monolith standing in the middle of the fungus.

    The thought remained unspoken. Native building. Would this be the end? Would that yellow circle be a weapon?

    "May God protect us..." He heard Thompson say. Ever since the mindworm attack, he had been skittish. Every other night he would wake up in the middle of the night screaming and crying.

    "May God protect us." Echoed Thompson's voice from the Monolith, then again and again, altering slightly with every repetition. The air resonated with sound.

    "May God protect us." The yellow circle began to shine, and Knight O'Riley noticed he wasn't afraid. The sound washed over him, the resonance not only going through his body, but through his mind and his soul.

    "May God protect us." He felt the sratch he had gotten from a sharp piece of xenofungus close. He felt the rash he had had for the last two months vanish. Even the pain in his shoulder, a memento from Planetfall he barely even remembered... was suddenly gone. He looked to his left and saw Thompson, a light smile on his face as the fear left his eyes.

    "May God protect us." The sound became louder and louder, and mixed with another sound. O'Riley turned around, and wasn't really surprised to see that the fungus was vanishing. In a circle around the building, the tough fungal stalks just... came apart and fell to the ground

    "May God protect us...." The sound echoed for a bit, and then, it was gone. Knight O'Riley looked down at his assault weapon. It looked like it had just been made. By a masterwork craftsman. But it felt like he had carried it for centuries.

    When he spoke, his voice was calm. You expect these things to happen, just not to YOU, but here it was. "Squire Lebeau.."


    "Call New Jeruzalem. Tell them we have encountered a miracle."
    Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


    • #17
      As Father Nielsen walked towards the monolith, he was very aware of the anxiousness of the soldiers around him. They had been here for months, ever since their arrival at this 'miracle', and that was a long time to think. A long time to worry. Father Nielsen knew that as well as they did, a trip of several hunderds kilometres, far away from the worries of research and priesthood, had given him an overabundance of time as well.

      A lot of the worry was about this monolith. The effects described were beneficial, of course, but it was just more unknown quantities. The alien artifact, the telepathic 'mindworms' and now this. How did it all fit together? He had faith of course, but as the saying goes, God helps those who help themselves, and what might be seen as a miracle, might also be some alien technology twisting minds. Well, he'd find out now.

      Of course, there was another worry.Sister Godwinson had stopped dying her hair red, and it was now grey. She was 57 now, not counting forty years of stasis. Not decripit yet but... It was hard to think of the world without her. Many, Father Nielsen included, considered her a gift from God, the one who had saved them when they were trapped in that broken and poison-filled pod. But of course, such is life, the Lord gives and the Lord takes.


      Except theremight be another way, and he didn't know what to do with it. Zhakarov's invention. Had it not too fallen from the sky? So very close to them? Was that not a miracle as well? Or was he being arrogant, and worse, afraid of the possibity he might be called upon to succeed her? Still Sister Miriam said it was unimportant, and he should concentrate on other research. Because it was unlikely Zhakarov had perfected the technique. It would still need some work. Nielsen knew he was a good scientist, he wouldn't have been on the Unity if he hadn't, but was he good enough to finish what was started by Zhakarov, whom he accepted was his superior in these matters? If he tried... and failed...

      He sighed and shook his head. He was allowing himself to be distracted. There was a problem in front of him now that needed being dealt with. The monolith loomed above him. APparently speaking had caused it to react,so he was quiet. He just approached and inspected.The first thing he noticed was the writing on it. He quickly made a photograph to study the inscriptions later. But that would come later.First, something else.

      He took out the cross, one of the first forged on Chiron. He briefly felt self-conscious, and could almost see his old self mocking his actions. He had changed a lot these last years.Then he thought of Miriam, and the doubt fled his mind. He pressed the cross against the stone and spoke out, trusting God'd hear him. "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I demand any evil presence to leave this construct and leave us!"

      The monolith echoed.


      Father Nielsen was on his way back to New Jeruzalem. Back there, the soldiers were eagerly building a small chapel before they'd move on. Nielsen thought that if the construct twisted minds, his mind was twisted now, but, when reason can offewr no help, youmust take a leap of faith. And now, he had faith that somehow, the building was a godsend.

      And that other matter.He had made a decision on that too.
      Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


      • #18
        New Jeruzalem was growing. After twelve years, the provisional huts had all but dissappeared. The landing pod turned Church and headquarters had had expandesions built alongside to provide living quarters, industry and most other buildings for the entire colony. It was pure necesity, as such an arrangement conserved air and energy. It meant that the entire colony looked like a huge church, as some efforts were expended in making the new buildings mesh with the Cathedral. It was mostly decorative though, under the gothic spires lurked pragmatic steel plates.

        Life had settled more and more. The colonists generally considered Planet truly to be a Promised Land. For all its dangers, it was still a better place to live than the Earth they had left behind. There was fear, but there was also hope, which had been in very short supply those last years. The new generation continued to grow in the meantime, the nursery of New Jeruzalem rarely remaining empty. The twelve year old firstborn had generally grown up to be disciplined, faithful youths. In a society of less than a thousand souls (not counting the ones in the north-west settlements) you quickly get attention. And bad behaviour tended to be punished severely.

        Not to mention, even the young were aware of the huge challenge there was before them. All of them were at some stage brought to the factories where the colony pods were being built. There, they were told, the Lord's Believers were working on the future.

        Conversation between two Squires under Knight Landon

        "You heard about the ones under O'Reily?"


        "They've found a new river. Called it the Eve."

        "Great.... just great...O'Reily finds fertile ground, a miracle place, and a second river. We have found.... sand and rocks! Oh, and the corpses of those people near home."

        "At least we don't get our brain eaten."

        "Except you just jinxed it! Really, I'll be glad when we're up north so replacements can be sent and we can see all those things they did with New Jeruzalem. Seems about as far away as Earth right now."

        "I hear ya there... God forgive me, I almost hope we encounter some of those mindworms. These Great Dunes are eating my brain anyway... with boredom."

        "What is it with you and tempting fate?"

        It was a bright Easter when the colony pod left. There was much joy, as well as great sadness. People that had crossed the oceans of space together would now be seperated by several hunderds kilometers of unbreathable air. Transportation was small scale, and mostly used for getting supplies to the scouting troups, so many of these people might never meet again. Friends that had grown up together on this new home world had to say goodbye. There was fear as well among the colonists. Once before they had travelled lightyears to colonize, now they would do the same, but than on a smaller scale. However, the last decade and a half they had grown used to the comforts and familiarity of New Jeruzalem, and working on the Colony Pod. Now, they were set to gothrough the hardships of early colony life again, with better equipment, but older, and with children, (though not the youngest)

        But despite all that, cheer was the dominating feeling. Sister Miriam, greyhaired and slightly bent by the harsh gravity at 61, personall oversaw the blessing of every vehicle and every colonist, assisted by Father Nielsen,keeping her busy the whole day.She spoke highly of the Earthborn, most of whom were middle aged and had been the youngest among the original colonists. The old Polish Sanzky was to lead the colony. Together with them, many of the Firstborn joined the pod. They were the most eager to leave. Unlike their parents that had seen so much commotion on earth, in space and on Planet during the early days, their lives had been dull. For them, this meant adventure.

        But as vibrant and festive as the day of their departure was, so gloomy were the days afterwards. Halls and homes were empty and desolate. The second settlement, just 200 kilimetres southwest of New Jeruzalem had to be abandonned. Instead of working on something as grand as the seeds of a new colony,people now manufactered supplies and weapons for another group of scouts, which felt like a step back.

        It was in these days Miriam sumonned Father Nielsen to her. The Council's meeting room had evolved, with communication channels to the entire colony, a large computer screen against the wall and several depictions of biblical scenes, crafted on computers or by hand, on the walls.

        "Good day, sister Godwinson, I hope you are well today?" Father Nielsen had started to go grey as well, a far cry from the 28 year old talent he had been on Planetfall.

        "As well as one might expect at my age. That long day in the sun took quite a bit of me. But I am glad I could see the task to completion." She smiled.

        Father Nielsen didn't, but nodded.

        "You've been occupying yourself with research quite a lot these last years. I'm starting to worry about your health. You are precious to our community father Nielsen. Perhaps more than you know." She fixed him with a solemn look.

        "Sister?" He asked.

        "I am an old woman, father Nielsen. If the Lord wishes it,I might see the birth of the second city, but I believe my part in this story is almost over." Nielsen opene dhis mouth, but Miriam raised her hand and silenced him. "I fear not. I go to his Judgement with a clear conscience. As Jonah, I have been given a task, and have done so. What I brought you here for is to ask you to follow in my footsteps."

        Nielsen did not look surprised. "I... would never be the leader of the Lord's Believers you are, Sister. I agree that I am the best choice, after you, but you are irreplacable."

        "We all must die some day. And when I go, I wish to be able to do so secure that I have left my flock in capable hands. Father Nielsen, I need you to promise me you will take the burden of leadership should I perish."

        There was a moment of silence. Then the man nodded. "I promise you Sister Miriam. I will do so."

        The Sister smiled, looking relieved. "Thank you. There are many challenges ahead. The new generation has not witnessed the sinfulness of Earth or the miracle of our arrival. We have raised them as well as we could, shown them a virtuous example, but some will stray. Virtue begets virue, sin begets sin. All our efforts will have been for naught if we fall to corruption now. You need to be vigilant, Stefan," Miriam rarely used the man's first name. "Vigilant, and sometimes harsh. I've told you I considered forbidding the jewish and muslims to practice their flawed religion, and that if too many of the children are converted, I would still do so. But those are decisions for you to make. I merely wish you to consider them." SHe fell silent, and it was clear the conversation was over.

        Nielsen nodded and left.

        Miriam looked out the window at the heavens. "Deidre, Pravin, captain Garland... were you scared when your time came? Or are you still alive somewhere else." She smiled sadly. "I guess I won't find out in this world. Hm...I'm about as old as Zhakarov was back then... It shouldn't surpriseme that he'd be nervous about death. Still, I hope he managed to find peace anyway, that insufferable arrogant Russian." The smile turned somewhat more mirtful. "I would hope he found forgiveness, if only that I might see his face when we meet in Thy kingdom."

        Abruptly she realized what she was doing and sat down. "No, Miriam... you still have work to do. Not a moment to go talking to the dead. There will be time for that later"
        Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


        • #19

          The year the first colonists would come of age. The year that the second colony would be founded..It was a year of contentment, and looking back upon what was accomplished and be thankful.

          Yet as the colony matured, so did it lose its innocence.

          The youths of the Believers had been pretty well-behaved. Theirs was still a harsh world, and their parents were selected for a mission that required discipline and self-control. Their was little alcohol to abuse, no clubs to go out, no anonymity that allowed one to skip school.

          Of course...there were things you didn't need anyone else except a willing partner and a few minutes privacy. A few teenagers, the bride in 'a blessed state' had been hastily married by Father Nielsen under the stern, disapproving looks of parents.

          But mostly taking care of the new generation's discipline was left to the parents, the priests only occasionally having talks with some of the ones 'straying'.

          That ended when Rick Thompson and Cedric Lelande were discovered in the communal shower late at night. The boy who found them swiftly alarmed anyone he could find. By the time one of the priests with some Knights took the youths into custody a few of the more violent Believers, mostly other youths had already tracked the two down and started beating them.

          And now the two stood between two squires in front of Sister Miriam, Father Nielsen and Knight-Commander Martinez. Rick looked desperate and fearful,Cedric looked at the ground in sullen anger.

          .Miriam spoke. “I had not expected sin to have been left behind on Earth. But I had hoped to be spared this duty.” She looked at them. “You knew what you did was wrong in the eyes of God. We have made sure you were taught what is sin and what is virtue. You are no longer children. Is there any excuse you'd like to bring?”

          Cedric looked up, meeting Miriam's eyes. “We were born to love like this. If God made us this way, that's how we'll be.”

          Martinez scowled, but Miriam's wrinkled face didn't flinch. “The Lord chooses to test us all in various ways. Does man not have temptation to steal, do we not all suffer the weaknesses of the flesh? You have been given a different temptation than most. But the presence of such temptation is no justification for indulging it. It is a sin and an abomination.”

          “Temptation? This isn't about getting my rocks off! This is about love, if you can remember it!”

          “Cedric please!” Rick said, fearfully looking at his companion.

          Miriam scowled, slightly. “If you love him so, why then do you perform actions that damn his soul? Not to mention threaten to bring God's judgment upon us.”

          Cedric just stared back, but didn't say anything, cheeks flushing red.

          Miriam's scowl vanished, though her eyes were still hard. “But we shall not wash our hands of you. You sinned, as we all did at some point in our lives. It is good that you have been found, so your souls may yet be saved. Cedric, you will be sent to the second colony, Rick will remain here. Both of your sins will be known, so that your brothers and sisters might help you resist your temptation. However, we will not allow harm being brought upon you. But first... you will repent, and promise that you will fight to avoid falling to temptation again.”

          Rick was quiet, looking desperately at Cedric as he was told they'd be torn apart, but nodded regretfully.

          Cedric bit his lips, opened his mouth two times. Tears were burning in his eyes. “You... I won't.... you... you *****!”

          He stormed forward to the table, surprising the guard that held him.

          Martinez stood, moving to interpose himself.

          Rick yelled “No!”

          The squires that had been holding Rick pulled his shredder.

          Miriam just sat and looked in wide eyed surprise for a moment.

          The shredder was aimed.

          Rick threw himself against the squire.

          The shredder fired.

          The little sharp slivers missed Cedric, flying on and burying themselves in Miriam's chest.

          Miriam moaned slightly and sunk down her chair.

          Panic followed.
          Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


          • #20
            Father Nielsen looked around the room where a young Believer woman was cleaning up the blood. It had been inevitable that the two young men had been killed. It had been all he could do to keep the guard that fired the shot from taking his own life.

            Sister Godwinson had been brought to medical. In the hurry they were, there had been no time to keep secrets, so news had spread across New Jeruzalem. He had told everyone to go to their quarter and pray for Sister Miriam's recovery. He himself had prayed too. And then he had acted.

            He patted the woman on the shoulder when she seemed to stare at the blood spilled where Miriam had sat. Then he quickly walked to medical. Doctor Petersen had been busy for quite some time now. Just don't let her be dead. Lord please, I just need her to stay alive for a bit and I can save her. I think.

            When he arrived at the waiting room in front of the operation theater, Knight-Commander Martinez was holding his head in his chair. Nielsen sat beside him quietly for a fewmoments.

            “It's my fault.” The grey-haired man said.”I should have had their feet bound. I was in charge of her security.”

            “You made a mistake. We all made a mistake We were all attentive on the danger from outside that we stopped considering the danger within. She would not want us to wallow in self-recriminations at a time like this. Until such a time she recovers, we must see that we do not weaken.”

            “But what if she...”

            “Have faith, Knight-commander. Have faith.”

            For a few minutes, the two men just waited in silence. Then the doctor entered, looking exhausted, blood still on his outfit. He gave each of the two men a look. “She lives... for now.”

            The message was clear. The knight-commander shook his head. “But... surely there is something you can do?”

            “Not me...” said Petersen. “It is God's hands now. But I know you need the truth. I'd pray either for a miracle,or for the Lord to welcome her.”

            Nielsen felt a tenseness uncoil within him. “The miracle has arrived. It has been here for many years now.”

            “What?” the two other men said.

            “Take her to my laboratory. I may be able to save her.”


            Nielsen was alone in the room. It had taken him some time to convince the other two to entrust their leader's comatose body to Zhakarov's experimental device. Only calling upon his authority as priest and playing to their hopes had he managed. He looked down at the sarcophagus. Miriam's face was well hidden.

            If he was honest, he had no reason to be sure it'd work. He had secretly studied the device for years now, made some assumptions and worked from them to finish the work. Zhakarov was a genius, and it showed.

            So if certainty was absent, there was nothing to do but a leap of faith. He whispered a soft prayer before walking out of the room, turning the lights off. It'd take many months for Miriam to recover.

            As he walked through the empty corridors, the gloom palpable in the air, one of the younger Earthborn came to him. Her eyes were red-rimmed. “Father Nielsen. I have a message from the second colony. Their main generator and air filters are on line, construction on the church has begun. They have trouble... coming up with a name.” In other circumstances this would have been a cheerful occasion, but as it was, it all sounded so vain.

            “Let it be called. Godwinson's Hope.” He heard himself say.
            Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


            • #21
              Miriam's mind felt sluggish. As if she was just about to fall asleep and wake up, but couldn't. She vaguely remembered a stinging pain in her chest.

              Oh,true.... she had been shot.

              Was she dying?

              Was she dead?

              She briefly thought a prayer. She couldn't feel a mouth to talk.

              Then thoughts scattered again, only to come together on something else.

              She was standing in a river, and a man was pouring water over her. Her baptizing. Where it all had started. She had been so proud that day. Looked forward to it for weeks.

              The image, the feeling blurred out of focus, and then she was sitting at a desk, studying psychology. Ah yes, Yale. There was some noise and in the hallway, the giggling of one of the other girls could be heard, followed by the smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke. Through the open door she saw her, clothes already disheveled and helped to her room by a young man that looked as drunk as she was. She knew this was a regular occurrence. The memory roused her anger, and that emotion enough to send the vision blurry again.

              She was speaking to her congregation, seeing the fear on their faces. The world was becoming a worse place every day. Her voice thundered, decrying the sinfulness and arrogance of man that was bringing the world to an end. She could see her words had impact, but she knew, she knew that despite all the Christian States of America were still filled with sin, up to the highest stations. The further she went, the more sin she seemed to see.

              She was in the ruins of a village, the ground nearby scarred where mass graves had been dug and filled. Around her was her new congregation. Mutilated, emaciated, suffering from radiation poisoning... and without hope. She had brought hope, which had lasted longer than the medical supplies. She had told them of the imminent end of the world. About how all material wealth would soon become irrelevant as only virtue or wickedness would be measured. She saw them kneel and sing praises to God... to God and her.

              Her emotions stirred heavily here, sending the image scattering. It was inappropriate for her to be prayed too. But nobody else seemed to be able and willing take the burden to warn humanity of its doom. Back then she had believed that she could avert it. That these poor, scarred people would be the first step to mankind's redemption.

              She saw herself stepping on a plane, vision blurry and tears streaming down her face. They sent her back. They stopped her. She knew what was to come. Years of doubt, anger, fear and self-recrimination. Had she been overly arrogant to act as a prophet? Or had she bowed to soon to the UN's wishes in spite of God's command? Had her removal been the loss of the last chance of humanity? Did humanity even deserve to be saved? Keeping an eye on the news she just performed her duties and prepared for the inevitable end.

              Unity. The first meeting with the others. Almost she had refused the suggestion that she'd be psych-chaplain. She wanted to be on earth when God would end things. But a flame had flickered to life that had almost been stamped out. Hope. Hope that she could do more than to prepare her own soul for the inevitable end. Hope she could help make sure humanity would be able to meet it Maker without being deeply ashamed. She had accepted, and been introduced to the others.

              Pravin Lal. He had been vocally opposed to her acceptance on the Unity. Even that day he had given her suspicious looks. But as they talked of their respective experiences in helping war torn countries, they had warmed up to each other. She had never managed to convert him though.

              Prokhor Zhakarov: Oddly enough, he hadn't really cared she was on the mission. Apparently, he felt the position of Psych chaplain was foolish to begin with, and it didn't matter who fulfilled it. He and she had despised each other at first sight.

              Deidre Skye. Kind but somewhat too shy. Miriam had been somewhat protective of her. When Zhakarov opposed her appointment, that had only encouraged that feeling.

              Shen-Ji Yang. She didn't know what to think of him. That disturbed her. She had a sharp eye for the slightest shows of fear, joy, anger or doubt. Yang showed none of them. It made her shiver.

              Captain Garland. Even now she couldn't bring herself to use his first name. He had been everything she had expected in a captain.

              She remembered that last look at Earth, from the Unity, remembered Deidre softly crying. She remembered them being called to go into cryogenic sleep.

              The memories started flashing faster and faster. The awakening. The betrayal of Santiago. The discovery of Morgan. Deidre being taken hostage. Yang's callousness. Zhakarov's desperation to finish repairs, her argument with him. Garland's disappearance. The discussion about taking one pod each, Pravin's vehement opposition, and Deidre's unexpected support for the idea. The fighting erupting, Yang using martial law. Her rejection of Zhakarov's pod and arduous travel to the abandoned damaged one. Her arrival at the desperate people in that pod, many injured and radiation poisoned. The terror as the ship tore apart.


              The violence of the crash rattled her mind and caused the visions to fall apart again. Once again there was emptiness. Emptiness? No... there was someone else. Someone was watching her?

              'Lord?' did she think it or say it? She thought she could hear her own voice echo.

              A response came. She wasn't sure if that was what she heard, but she did get an impression.

              A very young child's delighted laughter.

              Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


              • #22
                Miriam felt a tube pressing air in her lungs, and a liquid sloshing around her. For a brief, mad moment she thought all that happened on Planet was a dream, and she was awakening now on the Unity. But then she realized she was horizontal. The liquid was draining away, leaving her body exposed to warm air being pumped in, caressing her bare skin that was connected to what felt like a hundred tubes. It was pitch dark. All her muscles felt stiff.

                Then, with a mechanic sound, the top came off, and bright light assaulted her eyes, making them water, but she was grateful for it. A silhouette appeared in front of the light, but she couldn't make it out yet.

                “Forgive me sister, your eyes should adapt soon. Can you speak?” He reached down and removed the tube from her mouth.

                Miriam recognized the voice. Nielsen. She had been wounded. What had happened? They'd saved her? But how? Where was she? “Father Nielsen.” S he was surprised at the croak in her voice, as if she hadn't talked for many,many months. Her muscles felt stiff as well, though oddly enough, surprisingly powerful. She moved to sit up.

                Her pupils tightened toward off the light and she could see the man's wrinkled face. It was spread in a smile of utter delight. “Yes! It worked! Exactly as it was meant to be! Oh thank you, Lord!” His hands came down to remove the tubes from her body, preventing her from ripping them off and granting her more freedom of movement. Miriam became acutely aware of her disrobed state and covered herself up. Her body felt... odd. There was something strange about her vision as well. And there was a dream, but she discarded that for now.

                “What...happened? How long...was I asleep?”Her voice started to regain power, but still sounded alien to her.

                Father Nielsen wrapped a robe around her. “Almost a year, Sister. But I made sure the Believers kept faith that you'd pull through. They're waiting outside.”

                Miriam looked around the room, noting now that the light was actually quite dim. This didn't look at the medical bay, but a laboratory. She had a sick feeling in her stomach. Carefully, she stepped out of the object that held her and looked down. She recognized it. Anger rose. “Father Nielsen... what have you done?”

                “I saved your life, Sister Godwinson. It was necessary. I saved your life... and I did more.” The man's face became solemn.

                “You... What do you mean.” As she spoke, Miriam started to notice the things that bothered her. She looked at her hand. The wrinkles had all but vanished, the muscles had regrown and the bones were less brittle. She noticed that she saw much clearer in the dim light than she had for the last years. Shocked, her hands went to her face, finding smooth skin covering her round visage. Grabbing her hair, she noticed it had returned to its red colour. She felt anger rising to outrage. “How dare you... Did I not forbid you to do this?”

                “You did. I obeyed a higher command.” Nielsen said calmly.

                Miriam banged a fist on the sarcophagus. “You defiled my body and defied God with this instrument of Zhakarov, and then you dare claim it an act of faith?” She spat.

                Nielsen folded his arms. “Zhakarov merely discovered the possibilities God had given to the world. He claims the full credit for this. I say that is like a human using a branch like a club claiming he created the club.”

                “I was not afraid to die, Nielsen. It was my time!”

                “No it was not.” The man stood defiant. “You made me a priest, Sister Miriam, and you made me look for the will of God in things. When you came to us in space. That was the will of God. When we survived Planetfall. That was the will of God. Then you inspired is and led us to a virtuous existence here, in a way that none of us could hope to mimic. And then God has this device being dropped a scant few hundred miles from where we landed, and gives me the inspiration to finish what a scientist of surpassing skill like Zhakarov started. That, I say, is nothing less than a miracle and the clear will of God made manifest. And that is why I ignored your command, and did so for the last years as I investigated this thing. And I shall submit to any punishment you see fit. But I shall not be ashamed for this.”

                Miriam was quiet,dumbfounded for a moment. Doubt rose in her, a feeling she was unused to. “I am but one woman. A woman of faith and with skill, but not... not some...” Memories came back. She knew this path, and the last time she walked it, it had brought her great pain.

                “You are NOT,sister Miriam. It is plain to see for me and all those outside. You are chosen by God to lead us on this world. You are His blessing, and in His infinite goodness, he has made sure you will be with us for a long time.” His voice broke. “I know this happened before, and I can now honestly say that removing you from that post was the worst mistake the UN ever made. Had you been allowed to meet your purpose there, perhaps Earth would not have fallen.”

                Those words stung, yet rekindled old feelings at the same time. She was silent for a few moments. Then she spoke. “I am not... to be immortal.”

                “No.” Nielsen said. “This device merely extends life, and many of its ingredients cannot be copied here. You would gain time, perhaps a few centuries, but it will not undo God's command that our bodies be mortal. It is more akin to making you like the first humans, a Methuselah.”

                Miriam sighed and nodded. Centuries of life. Centuries of guiding her people to virtue. A great duty, but the man's words sounded true to her. She strengthened her heart and banished doubt. “Very well. However, though I am Chosen, I say that I will not meet these centuries alone.”

                Now Nielsen looked surprised. “Sister Miriam?”

                “You promised you would take over after I die, Father Nielsen. And I shall keep you to that oath even if it means you shall wait centuries.” She smiled now. “Please, tell me all that I missed, for you shall soon sleep a year as well.”

                Nielsen looked stunned but then gratefully bowed his head. “It is an honour to receive this duty,Sister.” He looked at the door. “Now... the people outside are fearful and worried. Will you go to them and put their souls at ease?”

                Miriam nodded and carefully closed the robe, then she went to the door to greet her flock once more.


                Almost twenty years now. Twenty years now Knight Landon had been out here on the surface of Planet. And as he walked over the land, land kinder than the Great Dunes they left behind, a thought struck him. He had started to like it. Not that he didn't feel less of a Believer. He prayed daily and fervently. He had wept when he heard of Sister Miriam's near-death and wept again when he heard of her resurrection. But every time he thought of going back to New Jeruzalem, or even to help out in Godwinson's Hope. His stomach turned.

                Some shared this feeling,some didn't. In the last years, many men had been replaced and allowed to return to the colonies. Their replacements were Planetborn. There had been some tension initially, but all in all, the new soldiers were good kids. They were a reminder what they fought for. But for now, Landon liked it where he was, chasing the horizon and discovering what wonders Planet might hold.


                “.. I saw her... she smiled and thanked us for the trust we had in God. I tell you,I cried, I cried like a baby when I saw her. I don't know what she is. A prophet or an angel. But I tell you, if she says so, I'll take on mindworms with my teeth!”The young man called Bill spoke to the older advance scout.

                The older man smiled. “O'Reily's group's more likely to give you that. In this group, your sacrifices are likely to be blisters on your feet. We encountered some pods but... things are pretty calm here. But it's good to have you with us, son. We were running out of fresh jokes.”

                The young man smiled. “Heh, I'm glad to meet you as well. It's... kind of sad that more and more of you Earthborn are dying.” He looked sad. “It's like we're losing our link know... Earth.” He sighed. “Tell me about Earth again.”

                “Earth? That's not a happy story. I'm from China... part of the Crimson Revolution. Not my best time. In the end, the name was more for the amount of blood spilled than the communism thing. Still, that Golden Emperor had it coming. Still can't believe I ended up serving under his bloodhound, Yang.” The soldier looked lost in thought for a moment.

                The young man was listening, but suddenly stopped. “Did you see something there?”

                The older man, Feng, frowned but stared. “Can't see anything.”

                “I'm positive I saw something moving there, a few . Not sure what it was.” He peered and lowerd himself to a crouch.

                Feng grabbed his radio. “We might have encountered something. Investigating now. Please stand by.”

                “Roger, be careful and God be with you.”

                This are was dominated with high grass that sucked the moistness out of the ground. Ideal for hiding. Without a word the two advanced. He followed Bill. Experienced or not, the boy had been well trained, and, oddly enough, seemed more comfortable with the gravity than Feng. Both of them were tense, ready for anything. Feng held the flamegun. Of course, it'd be dangerous to use that here, but better some burn wounds than getting your brain eaten.

                Suddenly, they stopped. Both of them had heard something moving nearby. It didn't sound like slithering, which was how mindworms had been described to them. But that didn'thave tomean anything. Bill looked back, a knife bared and made a signal he was going to pounce. Feng readied the flamegun and nodded.

                And then something leapt out of the bushes and threw himself on the young man, who screamed and tried to slice at it. Something else rose above the grass and loomed over the two as well. Feng's old muscles reacted and he stood, aiming the flamegun at...

                a grey haired woman.

                For a brief moment everyone froze as they saw what they were attempting to kill. The woman lowered the gun she had aimed at Bill. “Michael. Stand down...” Her voice was hoarse.

                “Bill... calm...down...” The words came slowly as his mind reeled. It didn't matter, the two younger men on the ground had stopped as soon as they realized what they had been stalking.

                Feng just stared in amazement at the woman, as if he had never seen one before. She had an air filter around her mouth, similar to him. Her clothes were green, a red symbol on her chest. He saw a scar just above her eye. He remembered that scar. He had seen a woman in training... sixty years ago, uncountable miles away, with just such a scar. They had been friends. He had written her name on the monument to those died on the Unity. “Isabelle?” He whispered.

                “Feng... you...”

                The two locked arms in an embrace, even as the two young men stood and gave eachother embarrassed apologies.


                Miriam meditated, fighting down the surges of emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. It had been something of a joke that Landon's reports were the boring ones. This report had certainly changed that.

                Other humans had survived!

                It was not widely known yet, but Miriam had no illusion that the news would spread. And why should she keep it a secret?

                She knew almost nothing. A word and a name. And a way to contact them.


                Deidre Skye.

                Again the exhilaration threatened to overwhelm her. She lived! Miriam had dared not even pray on that. She lived and had thrived!

                Martinez had been glad as well, but there had been a worried look in his eyes that had reminded her of a problem.

                They had renounced the unity of the UN mission. They had believed themselves to be the last survivors of humanity. What now?

                He had given her... suggestions. Suggestions she knew were wise but... stung. She wished Father Nielsen was here as well, but he was being rejuvenated now.

                She arrived at a communication room. There was a camera, a microphone and a screen. It had taken some time to get the communication set up. Behind Miriam the symbol of the Believers, a white cross on an orange and black background hung. She sat down. An Earthborn was performing some last checks, then nodded. They were ready. The screen sprung to life.

                Deidre Skye had aged gracefully, but she had aged. Her hair was starting to go grey, and her skin had a more withered look. But those eyes, those kind blue eyes.Miriam recognized them immediately. Even if they looked stunned.

                “Miriam...” Deidre gasped.

                “Deidre...” was all she could bring out. Of course she was surprised. Miriam looked as old as the day of the launch.

                Deidre recovered and nodded. “You... you look... so young... you found... you found one of Zhakarov's things too?”

                Nowit was Miriam's turn to be shocked. “You as well?” Coincidence? Providence? What did this mean? “But you didn't...”

                “We're... unsure if it works.” Deidre said. “And... I would not want anyone to risk...” She gave a questioning look.

                “I was the test subject myself.” Miriam answered. “God... assisted me. As well as Father Nielsen. I'll... have his results sent to you.” Was it wise? If God meant her to use it, then did one landing near Deidre not mean the same?

                Deidre nodded. “Thank... you...” she said. “I... I might... use it. I want to...learn more of Planet.” A few moments of silence. “So... how've you been doing the last decades?” Deidre stiffled a giggle, and even Miriam felt her lips twitch. It all sounded so... surreal.

                Miriam just smiled. “We've been... doing well.” Then her face turned grim. Best to get these hard parts over with. “Deidre I... I don't know how you.... see it. But... we've been going our own way. Not... the way the U.N. intended. The U.N. ... the U.N. is dead, the mission ended the moment the Unity fell apart. I... follow my conscience now How do you see it?”

                There was... relief in Deidre's eyes. “Oh, I.... I feel the same. I don't... I don't think the U.N. is a bad idea but... there are... mistakes... we should not make again We called ourselves Gaia's Stephdaughters. We're going to make sure we live in harmony with Planet. We won't make the same old mistakes again... you see that too, don't you?”

                Miriam was relieved, yet the knot in her stomach remained. “In a way. But I think that...pollution was but a symptom. Sinfulness was what caused Earth to die. We call ourselves The Lord's Believers now. We're living as God intended.”

                “Oh...” Miriam saw her own doubts and worries mirrored. “I... respect your faith Miriam but... you know that I'm... not religious.”

                Miriam sighed. Part of her had hoped Deidre had seen the light in the miracles. “I regret that, and I'll pray that you see the light. But...regarding Harmony. There are creatures here that... threaten us. We have even found proof of alien intelligent life here.”

                “We're the aliens here, Miriam. If there's something here, they've got all rights to want us gone.” Deidre said sadly.

                “This is our Promised Land. Not an Eden, but a Promised Land.” Miriam said. “Whatever it is that is here. If they try to stop us...” Her lips tightened. “We will be victorious.” She was vehement. Deidre didn't answer and looked away. The silence became uncomfortable.

                “So... what now?” Deidre asked finally. “I don't think any of us has any reason to tell the other what to do. I mean... as long as you don't destroy Planet... your people live as they want.”

                Miriam sighed. A choice again. She liked Deidre but she did not have the resolve or faith to stand against sin... the existence of her group meant that people would live in sin. Was her desire for peace merely the selfishness of someone not willing to sacrifice a friendship in the name of God? She thought of the men far in the north, that were even now exchanging stories. Would she tell them to shed the blood of their fellow men, so sin could be exterminated before it could take root?

                “Let there be friendship, Deidre.” Miriam said. “I shall pray that your people see the light of the Lord. But there might be many enemies, and it would be foolish to quarrel over superiority now. I swear that the Believers shall respect the Gaian's territory.”

                Deidre smiled. “And I swear likewise.” Her smile was sincere. Miriam felt joy, and then guilt at feeling joy? Had she been wise, or had she been weak? “Our territory is somewhere in the north east. Let's say that 1400 kilometres from our bases is our territory?.”

                Miriam nodded. “That sounds okay. Your men are just north of our land then. Maybe... you should keep them away a bit. I mean... people can visit but... they're soldiers and all. And... even if we're at peace.” Her voice sounded a bit hollow

                Deidre agreed, her voice sounding hollow as well. “That's good... maybe we'll be able to trade things.”

                “By the way.” She asked. “We've been harvesting crops but we do not have the best biologists here. You for example. Could you assist us?”

                Deidre opened her mouth, then she closed it again. She looked at someone through the side. Miriam felt oddly guilty when he saw the torn grief in her face. “I'm...I'm sorry, Miriam. It's... nothing personal but... I remember the Christian States of America. It didn't matter when we were on the same team so to speak”

                “The Lord's Believers are not the CSA, and we are on the same team. Humanity!” Miriam said.

                Deidre bit her lips. “I'm sorry Miriam. But... it's been so long and... I have to think of my people... if I'm wrong...”

                She was not budging, Miriam sighed and nodded. “I understand Deidre. Don't worry. We're both... politicians now. Our personal feelings... must come second to our duty.” The words didn't comfort her or Deidre. “Perhaps in time... we will have trust enough to... share more.”

                Deidre nodded. “I hope so, Mirriam. I really hope so. I... I should probably make sure that everyone knows what we agreed on.” She was silent, as if thinking how to end. Then she suddenly blurted out. “I'm glad you survived Miriam. Whatever happens, I'm glad we could have talked again.” Her eyes were moist, and Miriam felt hers moisten as well. She almost cursed, it wouldn't do for humanity's two last leaders to start bawling!

                “Me too, too...”

                “If you don't want to send me the data on Zhakarov's machine, I understand.”

                “I will send that data Deidre. You might not realize it, but nothing happens without godly purpose. You shall endure, and I shall endure. And one day we shall be in worship together, and there shall be no more distrust.”

                Deidre smiled again. “Perhaps Miriam. But thank you... Deidre out...”

                The screen went blank.

                Miriam left the room. Martinez waited outside. His face was tense.

                “Knight Commander. Please...arrange for all data of the sarcophagus to be transmitted, and announce that there is to be peace. However.... use some of our energy reserves so more manpower can be given to the construction of colony pods. We must see to it that we acquire the necessary theory... just in case.”

                Martinez nodded. “Will you not announce the peace?”

                Miriam shook her head. “No... I must think on things.”

                The Knight-Commander saluted and walked away. Miriam quickly made her way to her private quarters.

                The Lord demanded sacrifices. She had always known that, and she accepted it. For years she had taken the burden of leadership, with none beside her,except perhaps Father Nielsen.

                And now that she had met one of the few people she might call friend. Now... she felt more lonely she had ever felt since Planetfall.

                And away from the eyes of followers, Miriam buried her face in her pillow and wept.

                Man, not to toot my own horn, but I'm pretty damn happy with that last scene. And with happy I meant I started getting teary eyed myself.
                Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


                • #23
                  There were four of them in the small room as they listened to the end of O'Reily's unit.

                  “They're everywhere! We can't hold them!” The sound of a flamegun flaring, and the sound of slithering and popping everywhere. And screams. Lots of screams.

                  “Pull out of there, squire! Retreat!” Martinez commanded. The group had come across another Unity pod, in the middle of the xenofungus. It had cracked and the insides had been overgrown with the red stuff. The mindworms had erupted from all around them.

                  “I can't... can't see the exit! Everywhere! Help me! PLEASE HELP ME! PLEASE!”The voice became hysterical.

                  Martinez held the microphone, shaking his head. Miriam quickly took it from his hands. “Squire Lebeau, this is Sister Miriam. Listen to me, and repeat after me.”

                  A few sobs. “I'm hiding. I'm scared. They'll find me. Oh god please,pleassepleaseplease.” The sound of screams and flameguns started to die down. The slithering didn't.

                  “I am with you brother,” Miriam said, her voice soothing. “Now... Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy will be done on Planet as it is in heaven...”

                  The terrified man repeated the words, clutching them as a buoy in the ocean he was drowning in. “Give us... this day our.... our d...daily bread. And forgive us... our trespasses as we... no... NOOOO!” The slithering came closer.

                  “as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation...”

                  “Get away! Get off of me! NO,I DON”T WANT TO, I DON'T WA...AAAAAAAGH!”

                  “But deliver us from evil, for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glroy, for ever and ever.” The screaming stopped. There was only the slithering sound of mindworms. Miriam shut off the radio.


                  “Amen.” came the breathless reply from the radio operator,Martinez and Nielsen.

                  Miriam stood, her eyes were like dry ice. “Prepare a memorial service... this will be remembered. This will never be forgotten.


                  “... and so, as O'Reily's unit has joined Cassini in His kingdom, we place their names and faces with him,so that future generations may remember them for their courage, piety and selflessness.” The expression on the people's faces was one of fright.

                  “Faced with such an abomination, one cannot help but wonder... what can we do? The Lord is with us,of course, but how do we fight, when the strongest of us have fallen?” She balled her fist. “I shall tell you how. These mindworms are like the beasts that lurked in the woods of yesteryear earth! We shall do the same here as we did on Earth with them! We shall spread, and claim this land for ourselves, kilometre by kilometre! And each colony we build shall reduce the hiding place for these BEASTS! And finally, when this Planet shall be brought to heel, when this land shall know humanity to be its master and keeper, we shall wipe this scourge out, as a farmer plucks out the weeds amongst his crops!”

                  She pointed at the people. “So tomorrow, when you return to work on the materials to build new colonies, I want you to consider each and every act you do, each blow of a hammer, each twist of a screw, each tap on a keyboard, a strike against these creatures that stand against us! We are humanity, created in the likeness of God and given this land by His decree! We shall not be denied!”


                  “This is not about giving us a leg-up, Deidre! This is about our survival! If you know anything about these accursed monsters, my people NEED to know!” Miriam said sharply.

                  Deidre had returned to her fair, black-haired self. “I wish I could help you, Miriam, I truly do, but we know very little as well. We're investigating it of course, I mean... they're fascinating creatures.”

                  “They're monsters, Deidre. A dangerous plague that needs to be wiped out!” Miriam snapped.

                  Deidre looked sad. “I know you're distraught over the loss of your men,Miriam, but it is just the way of these creatures to defend themselves. Likely they considered the pod a nest and felt threatened. Please, we must be careful. We know next to nothing of the ecosystem, the consequences of such actions...”

                  “...are more acceptable than having my people be food for worms!” Miriam snapped, she felt her face flushing in anger.

                  “Miriam, if they threaten people, of course we must kill them, but unless we wish to repeat what happened on Earth, we must learn to live in harmony with Planet.”

                  “I've spoken to a man that died in stark terror today, Deidre. I do not care one fig about 'harmony with Planet'. Unless it is to make sure Planet changes its tune! Miriam out!”

                  Miriam stormed out of the room. She didn't believe Deidre held information back, but her liking to protect nature was completely out of place here! Humanity was the endangered species!
                  Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


                  • #24
                    The next years in the Believer faction were grim. While originally,many had been elated at finding other survivors, the loss of O'Reily's group,combined with the Gaian's idea of living in harmony with planet,led to a growing sense of distrust. It wasn't helped that Deidre established a colony on the far reach of the Great Dunes, meaning that the two factions now actually shared a border. The work on the Colony Pods was now not only aimed against mindworms, but also against the Gaians.

                    Not all news was bad. Two new scout units, both of them consisting entirely of Planetborn, and one of them led by Adam, first of the Planetborn himself had found new territory. Knight Franz Werner had discovered the southern coast along the Great Dunes to be relatively fertile.

                    Adam had gone in the other direction, due west, and had discovered a unity pod. Except locating nutrient resources, it also contained an old unity foil, well preserved in the pod. Someminor reparations and some dragging later, it was manned with some skilled people, and christened the Pinta, after one of Columbus' ships. It was then sent due west.

                    More good news came when in 2026, Nielsen and his team had finally managed to gain an understanding in the strange biology, proposing plans for relatively alterations to the surface of Planet such as mines, large farms and solar collectors. Considering the hostile conditions outside the colony and the large amount of work and specified equipment needed, it was suggested that these works should be done by teams that acted independently. A few suggested a large project to gain a deeper understanding in the workings of Planet, and to work with it instead of against it, but they did not find a sympathetic ear to it.

                    Adam's unit encountered mindworms in the fungus in the west. But as they had detected them before the mindworms had attacked, they had taken the initiative and charged the mindworms. Though they lost quite a few men, in the end, they eradicated the local infestation. What was more, they found small pearl like objects. Father Nielsen was amazed, and after investigation, concluded that they contained an amazing amount of energy. He proposed it was some kind of food mindworms made, and could be harvested if they were surprised. This news led to great celebrations among the Believers, and the counter-theory the planetpearls were a reward from God for eradicating the pests. The few contacts that existed between the factions. (Very few people could transmit all the way to Flower's Preach) had the Gaians react scandalized.

                    Franz didn't let himself be outdone though. In 2131, they spotted a boil of mindworms in a patch of fungus one of the two new colony pods was about to cross. The battle was gruesome, and Franz Werner himself lost his life in the battle, as did most of the men, but the boil was eradicated, bloodstained pearls delivered to New Jeruzalem.

                    A year later, the third colony was inaugurated. Miriam and Nielsen themselves joined in. The tragic occurrences around the time of Godwinson's hope founding had prevented them from attending that one. It was established just south of the strange monolithic structure O'Reily and his men had discovered so many years ago. The small chapel there was turned into a church, with statues of some of the men in that unit, and all their names engraved. The monolith seemed to radiate energy, as well as going deep into the bedrock and spreading far. Many of the metals would be useful, though the Governor, a Planetborn called Michael Vermeers, preferred to cultivate the rich and fertile ground in the south.

                    After the sermon at the church's inauguration, and the naming of the city (called The Rapture) Father Nielsen and Sister Miriam were sitting at a table in the back, having retreated for contemplation.

                    Father Nielsen spoke. “There are almost no Earthborn here.”

                    Miriam nodded. “Most are too old to leave everything behind a second or third time. And the first Planetborn are old enough to get by without them.”

                    They had grown, the Planetborn. Many of them had had several children already. Miriam had not stopped preaching the need and divine mandate to spread and claim land, and for that, they needed people. It was generally accepted that women didn't fulfil any important tasks, at least until their menopause. Not because they were considered incapable, but because each month that was not conceived was considered a waste by all parties, and pregnancy was incompatible with many other duties. By the same logic, after much debate, Miriam had consented that the age where people could be married was lowered to 16.

                    They were a grim lot, the Planetborn, and they raised their own children as such.

                    “Yes, I'm surprised about them. I had expected them to be less disciplined than the original crew. But they're even more dedicated than them.”

                    “Earth and its sins are a distant memory for them. Many of the Earthborn converted later in life, and their souls were somewhat tainted.” Miriam said.

                    “Don't you mean 'your souls'?” Nielsen said with a smirk.

                    “You and I are exceptional cases, Father Nielsen. We shall remain to keep the children, and the children of the children on the righteous course. Such is our fate.” She said.

                    There was a long time of silence. In the end Father Nielsen spoke. “I received a message earlier today, but I did not want to ruin the celebration. Knight Commander Martinez has suffered a fatal heart attack.”

                    Miriam was silent for a while. “Oh...” There was no need for comforting or talking about a better place. Both of them were aware of that. “I... had hoped to grant him a calm retirement.”

                    “I think he'd have preferred it this way. He always suggested Knight Jackson to take over after his death.” Another moment of quiet. “I think I understand better now why you had me rejuvenate as well. Maybe even why the Lord saw fit to give them to Deidre.” He sighed. “The years will become lonely, won't they?”

                    Miriam nodded. “So they will... so they will.”
                    Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


                    • #25

                      It was a word that had almost be forgotten, but one of the old Earthborn scientist-priests had offered the suggestion. The year 2138 had been a year that caused great change among the Believers. The establishment of Time of Salvation was the least of it. But Edwards scouting team had discovered a pod that held tools and directions that were vital to starting up a decent industry. In all the colonies now, industries were being reformed. First signs of currency started to show themselves. The 'Cred' as it was called mostly gave the bearer allowance to some of the scant available luxuries. If a worker couldn't make it out of bed, he could give up his claims to hot water for the next two weeks and let someone else work his free day.

                      That would bear keeping an eye on, Miriam knew, but the old priest's suggestions had caused more of an immediate turmoil. With immediate survival less of a worry,with no further signs of alien life, and all mindworm attacks defeated, there had been a wave of ethical tracts and debate. What of old Earth was sinful, and what had been good? The priest had suggested that, while Miriam's position as prophet, head of the Believer church and guide for the people was inviolate, people had to be allowed to make certain choices themselves, for enforced virtue is no true virtue. He proposed a democratic state, 'wisely limited' by a constitution to avoid sinfulness. Elections would be held to choose base governors and many important functions,all of them advised by the priesthood of course.

                      In all five bases, the merits were hotly debated. The oldest generation,many of whom had lived in more or less democratic countries was most in favour, though they always made clear they'd defer to Miriam. The youngest generation, the grandchildren of the Earthborn were open for it as well, if only because, while they were disciplined, the rule of their fathers sometimes stung.

                      It were the second generation that was most fiercely opposed. They had never known anything but the harsh,simple political system, and it had worked for them. Many of them were well in their thirties, and called it sinful.

                      In the end, Miriam made an edict. An attempt would be made, as soon as resources could be found. But, she made it clear, democracy and freedom were to be seen as the means towards virtue, not an end in itself. If it became sinful, it would be stopped.

                      Later in the same year, a message was sent by Deirdre Skye, while Miriam was overseeing the construction of yet another colony pod in the Rapture. She asked whether Miriam would meet her... in person... in the Flower's Preach. Miriam consented.

                      Knight-Commander Jackson was livid,as livid as he dared to be towards his Porphet at least. Distrust towards Gaians had only grown over the years. They were a strange people on the other side of the desert that preached living in harmony and friendship with a planet so obviously hostile Their full name only helped the distrust, and rumours about witchcraft among them were widespread. Miriam did not budge though, and so, later in the year,together with an escort of priests and several Knights in full uniform with ceremonial swords, Miriam left The Rapture, passed Miracle Church at the Monolith and went due east, across the unforgiving Great Dunes, to The Flower's Preach.

                      When they approached the city, quickly greeted by a Gaian Miriam briefly crossed herself and feared that the rumours of witchcraft were true. What she saw resembled nothing more than a giant sprawling tree with terraces on.

                      One of the Gaians saw her worry and reassured her. “It's mostly covering. It's hollow and mostly made of normal material. But we believe that, even if it's just a layer,it helps us remember we are to become part of this world, and not isolate us behind metal and plastic.”

                      Miriam nodded. In a way, it was not too different from the cathedrals she built, its Gothic towers a thin veneer over pragmatic durasteel, yet inspiring awe and worship for God nonetheless. Not too different and yet somehow alien. She looked at her guards and priests that gave suspicious looks at a way of life they had only heard rumours of.

                      When they entered, they noticed that, just like home, the veneer extended inside. The ground of the general hallways was covered in dirt. Dirt meticulously cleaned of possible dangerous organisms but dirt nonetheless. The doors and walls had a circular feel to them and were painted in brown and green colours, making one feel in a tunnel, and round windows looked outside. Elevators were available, but their guide led them on a long winding hallway that brought them higher on the spire, until they opened an airlock that brought them to one of the terraces. Each was given an air-filter. Jackson tried to convince Miriam to use one of their own but she refused. The airlock opened again, and nitrogen choked air wafted in.

                      Deirdre was sitting in the middle of the terrace on a chair, looking at two children looking at the world around them under the auspices of an other man. When Miriam stepped forward, she tried to go alone, but this time, Jackson defied her will and went with her, saying he would do penance later.

                      As they came closer, Deirdre called the children, and they eagerly stormed towards the newcomers, until the man called them to order. Miriam saw their filters had been rigorously affixed to their faces. They gave Miriam a quick look, but their attention went straight to the tall black man. Jackson looked distinctively uncomfortable. He had children of course, but Believer children tended to be calmer.

                      “He is big!” Said the smallest child, a girl.

                      “And carrying a sword too! See,I told you the Believers had knights!” The older boy smugly said.

                      “He can't be a knight! He doesn't have any armour!” The daughter retorted.

                      “He probably left that at home! He's not here for battle. When he fights he puts on an armour and wears a shield and rides a horse into battle!”

                      “I... ah...” Jackson said, fighting to ignore the children and keep an eye open for threats to Miriam.

                      penance comes quickly these days Miriam had to hide a chuckle. She concentrated on Deirdre, who didn't seem to bother hiding her amusement. “Hello Deirdre, it's been... quite a while.”

                      “Thirty-eight years since we got separated on the Unity, and too long since we met on the screen. Please, sit down.” She pointed at another chair.

                      Miriam sat. “We both are busy women. You in more ways than one it seems.” It stung slightly. She would never have this. But other paths had been chosen.

                      Deirdre smiled. “They're quite a handful. Grandchildren actually. Ethan here is my third son.”

                      The man smiled and made a small bow. “A pleasure to meet you sister Miriam.”

                      Miriam nodded. “And you Mr. Ethan. This is Knight-Commander Jackson.”

                      “See, I TOLD you he was a knight! Hey, where is your horse? I've got pictures of horses!” The boy's sharp voice followed the introduction.

                      Deirdre looked at the man. “Ethan,could you take the children inside. Miriam and I need to talk, and I would not want to have her return with a migraine.”

                      Ethan nodded, and Miriam looked back. “As for your penance, Sir Jackson, assist Mr. Ethan if you would. And no, you are not allowed to discipline his children.” The man gave Miriam a desperate look before he was taken along with the children and Ethan, leaving the two women alone.

                      “They have your eyes,” Miriam said “though I remember you being easier on the ears.”

                      “They have that from their grandfather.” Deirdre said. “I missed... speaking to you Miriam. With all that went on, I was afraid you despised me.”

                      “I think you're making some mistakes, Deirdre, and your course will bring you harm. And it is never easy to see those you care about walk a dangerous path. And there is my duty to keep.” She said. “But I remain convinced we need to wipe out those mindworms.”

                      Deirdre didn't react. “Miriam... have you used the sarcophagus on anyone else? Someone you cared for?”

                      Miriam nodded. “Yes, Father Nielsen. He developed it. He is an advisor to me. I trust him deeply.”

                      Deirdre nodded. “I... I offered it to Jack as well, but he said, he said that he loved me but... he wanted to die when his time came.” Tears welled up, and all of a sudden, Miriam was the Psych Chaplain of the Unity again.

                      “Jack was.... the father of your children?”

                      Deirdre nodded. “He helped me in the beginning, yelling at people when I should have done it. When you... you made that gift, I was so happy. I'm still grateful. I want to know more of this world. I want to become part of it, I want to show you to be part of it, but I needed more time. The people like me, I've become... something of a mythical figure to them. The Lady Skye” She almost looked apologizing but Miriam didn't react. “But Jack... he accepted it, but he didn't want to. He said he didn't want to see his children and grandchildren die.” She held a hand in front of his mouth. “He died a few weeks ago. I didn't... I didn't have anyone I could talk to. My children had problems of their own and I... I remembered you on the Unity...”

                      “And you did the right thing.” Miriam said. “I know what you feel. In some ways. You feel alone, and you start to realize everyone you'll get to know will die, and you will live on, unless you choose to die yourself. But to accept death when there is work to be done feels like cowardice. And you are not a coward. I have taken Father Nielsen with me, to be there with me through the years. There have been says I was immensely grateful for his presence, to know there is someone who will endure with you, remember Planetfall with you, know the price of a long life with you. But at other times, there's guilt. Every time I see Father Nielsen present at a funeral of one of the people he boarded the Unity with, apart from all the other living ones who are grey and old even as he remains youthful. Each time I wonder if my decision to extend his life was nothing but the whim of a selfish woman. And now that he knows that I need him, nothing but me barring him from the sarcophagus will release him.”

                      Deirdre nodded. “Thanks... it sounds cruel but knowing that... it wouldn't always be better if I convinced him makes me feel better.” She sighed. “May I ask you something?”

                      “Of course.”

                      “Jack...well... he was catholic, and we've had... quite a few arguments in our days. We have a priest but, he always did say he admired you. Would you... would you speak at his funeral?”

                      “I'd be honoured Deirdre.” She simply replied.

                      Deirdre smiled and stood. “Thank you, Miriam.I think... I think I should trust you more. I'll give you the maps of what we have discovered, and we've made a design for decent rovers with local materials as well. I'll have them sent to you.”

                      Miriam nodded. “That sounds delightful. Our priests have written some works as well,some of them might interest you...”


                      By the time Miriam returned, maps and technologies had been exchanged. Twopriests and a knight had been left behind to found a church according to their precepts, while they had taken some Gaians with them, so the Believers would actually know them outside of a few rumours. For now, the ties wouldn't officially be tightened, there was still too much mistrust. But someday... perhaps.
                      Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


                      • #26
                        The sound of bells roused Ralph Trenton from his slumber. He was used to it by now, and got out of the small bed. The room he was in was a bit smaller than what he had been used to at Gaia's Landing, but comfortable enough. A radio was standing next to his bed, continuing to transmit the bell's call to wakefulness as he slid out of the bed.

                        The room he had was relatively large for a single person's room. He was after all an emissary from Gaia's Stephdaughters,and even had a private shower. Still, relatively large meant a bedroom, a bathroom and a small kitchen/dining room. That wasn't too different from Gaia's Landing though. The look of the room was different.

                        There were more corners for one. Of course, there were angular parts at Landing as well, but those were either objects that had relatively little contact with people, or were made shortly after Planetfall, when any aesthetic worries were a luxury nobody could afford. New houses and tools avoided corners like the plague, giving it a nice organic look he hadn't even noticed until he had taken up residence in New Jeruzalem.

                        Not that the room was stark. Instead of the organic feel, it seemed they had gone for 'cosiness' It reminded him of pictures he had seen of houses on Earth somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century. Metal furniture had been painted to make it resemble wood, the light had an actual lamp-head. And of course, the ever-present crucifix hung on the wall. Considering the lack of industry they had here, he had been impressed by the detail of the figure.

                        What did bother him was the lack of windows. In fact, there were few places in New Jeruzalem where there were windows. All the residential areas clustered around the church/headquarters in the centre. In a way, that told him a thing about the Believers and their relation with Planet.

                        He showered, dressed in his green uniform and had breakfast. It wasn't quite as good as what he had in Landing, but then, the Believers hadn't actually started any large-scale farming yet. With the first team of formers recently inaugurated, it'd only be a matter of time. Of course, such projects risked some damage to Planet's ecosystem, but considering the Gaians had started the farming years before, he wasn't going to say anything about that.

                        Half an hour later, he thought it was about time to head to church. He was not a Christian. That had been a conscious choice. Mostly to AVOID problems. After all, if he had been a Christian, he might have taken more offence to the prophet-like awe the Believers had for Miriam. As it was, he attended all the services, refrained from any behaviour considered sinful and was polite when conversion attempts were aimed at him. He got a few nasty looks, and some parents forbid their children to talk to him, but nothing worse.

                        The hallways was yet another way of noting differences between Gaians and Believers. The most public hallways in Landing were round, with the light as diffuse as possible, and the walls looking earthen. Here the walls were in an angle, and the light shone down from above, illuminating the middle of the path but leaving some shadows in the corner. Both methods were not the most efficient, but both were done to inspire a feeling. To make one feel part of something bigger, or to make one feel watched by something bigger.

                        He started seeing more and more Believers in the hallway as he neared the church. There were many of the older population here. Ralph knew that of those, a good part had once been part of new colonies, mostly Godwinson's Hope and The Rapture, but had been allowed to return to New Jeruzalem, where Sister Miriam herself was most of the time.

                        He knew why. Something similar happened in Gaia's Landing. (though less clearly, as they only had one other base) Nobody spoke of it, but those who had eyes for it saw it.

                        Miriam and Deirdre were saying goodbye to the crew they had sailed with. It made Ralph a little sad thinking about it. He had never been on Earth, but at least he could talk to people who had been there. As they died, he felt he was losing something of himself. As long as they lived, he was part of Gaia's exiled children. But when they were all dead, what was he different than an alien plague upon this world? And who would tell him of their homeworld. If they returned, how would they even recognize Gaea?

                        He dropped the melancholic train of thought as he entered the church. As he made his way towards the rear seats, he noted the looks of the people. He didn't like what he saw. The looks were more numerous and harsher than normal. The younger generation eyed his people with suspicion, and he knew the feeling was mutual. Another thing that the death of the first generation would lead to. The vanishing of the reminder that they had all been together once. He had seen the Believers up close. True, they were staunch in their beliefs, and dismissive of his own, and their dour solemness and disciplined reverence was occasionally stifling to one who had grown up at Gaea's Landing, but all in all, they were humans like the Gaians, with the same fears and hopes.

                        He sat down. Not long after someone stood next to him. “Mind if I sit next to you?” asked Father Nielsen, as he asked each time he chose to come to him.

                        “Please do.” He answered as ever. Initially he had been intimidated by the man. Miriam's confidante, with whom she even shared her longevity. The man had been remarkably normal and soft-spoken, compared to the Believers' expressive leader, and they now had a cordial relation. Something which caused many a Believer to look with wonder and even some envy.

                        The man sat down next to him and smiled. “So, how are you today?” He spoke in a hushed tone. The moments before the service began always were good moments for a quick talk.

                        “Quite well, thank you. Though I hope I have not caused offence recently? I seemed to attract quite some attention.” He asked. He had carefully avoided to scandalize the Believers, but he had slipped up before, and Father Nielsen had quickly alerted him.

                        “Not you but... news came in tonight. Knight Ilira's unit was ambushed by mind-worms in the night. They barely had time to send out a distress signal.” His expression was neutral. “They were ambushed near the Gaian border.”

                        Ralph felt his stomach turn to ice. “I'm sorry to hear that.”

                        He looked at the altar. “They seem to be hunting for us. Remember the group of worms near Divinity Base I spoke you about? Those are the kind of things that show it's more than just wild beasts looking for prey.”

                        He said. “We have lost people to the mindworms too. We are constantly researching and studying them for ways to end the attacks. We're probably provoking them in some way. If we find what it is...”his voice trailed off. The people on the bench in front of him were glaring at him.

                        Father Nielsen smiled sadly and looked at the people with a frown. “Good people, this may not be a confession, but it is a private conversation.” The mild rebuke resulted in hastily apologies and the bench being emptied quickly.

                        Father Nielsen turned to Ralph. “Those words are exactly what makes us suspicious, good mister Trenton. There is evidence of intelligent life here, and the local creatures seem to make concerted attacks upon us. Yet you still speak of harmony.”

                        “We did not send those mindworms to you. If we could have stopped them, we would have.” He whispered.

                        Father Nielsen nodded. “I believe you, and so does sister Miriam, but the years here have taught me that 'impossible' is a word that one should be wary off. Deirdre and you may feel differently, but battle lines are being drawn. By all means, take care of the environment but remember where you stand in the end.” The murmuring was quieting down as the novices finished the last preparations for the mass.

                        The conversation was over, and Ralph looked at the front. Miriam stepped to the altar and started preaching. She too talked of the men that had died, the love for her people obvious in her voice. But she spoke of the creatures that had done it, and their sacred task of taming the land and eradicating the mindworm scourge. Ralph shivered. Deirdre's words was gentle and soft, like thw wind and water. But the fiery haired leader of the Believers, her words, her faith her love... they were hot like fire and unyielding like stone.

                        And Ralph feared the day that the Believers would find out that the Gaians had managed to bring mindworms under their control in the north.


                        Excerpts from the Believer Constitution

                        1,1 All the Believers are beloved in the eyes of God, and to have the respect and rights that this entails.

                        4.5: Each colony shall hold elections every seven years, electing a governor and a council of seven to watch over him. The laws of each Colony are left up to each colony, though they must be in accordance with the most righteous constitution.

                        4,6: Each Colony shall send a representative to the Central council, where they shall provide a voice for the people and look after the running of the faction as a whole, though the Conclave, led by Sister Godwinson shall provide guidance.

                        6: Regarding crimes we shall separate crimes against man and crimes against God. The former shall be infringements on laws elected democratically, and those accused shall be judged by a civil court. crimes against God shall be defined by the Conclave, and judged by them.

                        The document was printed out and signed by the governors of all the colonies, as well as several key activists for democratic reforms. Sister Miriam and Father Nielsen were present at the signing and showed approval, but did not sign the document.
                        Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


                        • #27
                          The year 2144 had been going well all in all. The first length of road east of New Jeruzalem, the discovery of diagrams to build proper networks in a rusted pod from the Unity, and the establishment of yet another base.

                          And then Deirdre has transmitted a message. Miriam had gladly accepted and greeted her. Initially the news had been the greatest news of the last years. More humans had survived and Deirdre had found contact.

                          Miriam had missed the wary look in Deirdre's eyes, so the name had hit her out of the blue.

                          Prokhor Zhakarov.

                          The Science Officer.

                          Her smile had died on her lips. He lives yet? The surprise had not been as complete as it could have been. Sure, normally he should have been dead, but then, so should she. And he had been the one who had designed the sarcophagusses after all.

                          Old memories came bubbling back as Deirdre told about their meeting. Zhakarov had never liked Deirdre, had been opposed to her presence on the Unity, claiming she was irrational and overly mystical inclined. With a sad smile, Deirdre had said his attitude hadn't changed, and any hopes the old Russian had seen the light as he fell from the heavens were dashed.

                          She really should not be so dissappointed that he and his men had lived. With a hostile Planet, every human was a boon.

                          She remembered how the man had explained her exactly how he could ruin her faith, with scientific reliability, she remembered how she had recoiled in horror from a lifetime of being among him and his creatures.

                          She should not hate him.

                          "He's a genius, Miriam. He's arrogant, unkind and I would never want to live in his University, but he's a genius. If there is anyone who can help us find out more quickly about Mindworms and Planet it's him."

                          "At what price." Miriam asked, surprised at how harsh her words were. "But I should speak to him. Might I have his frequency?"

                          "Of course. And Miriam. he doesn't know you're here. I thought I'd leave you the choice in that matter."

                          "Thanks Deirdre. We'll speak later. Miriam out."

                          And a few minutes later she had an aid talk to some communications officer of the University of Planet. Miriam would have done it himself, but she didn't want to give Zhakarov the satisfaction of having her wait for his presence. And indeed, it seemed to take half an hour for the 'Academician' as he called himself, to make himself available.

                          He looked as he had done when they last met, his hair was as grey, his skin as wrinkled, but there was a healthy energy that hadn't been there before. On the Unity, the energy had been desperate.

                          When he appeared in front of her he raised one eyebrow. "Miriam Godwinson, there's a face I hadn't expected to see. Considering you call so shortly after I met Deirdre I shouldn't wonder how you got this frequency."

                          "She and I have met yes. I see you have done well on this world. And that you no longer wear your old uniform."

                          "Just like you." He said with a faint mocking grin. "Yes, I decided I had quite enough of wasting my talent for this ideology or that nation. It was science and technology that saved humanity, so we'll finally let those guide us, instead of whatever idea is in fashion now. I suppose I shouldn't ask what you've been trying to accomplish?"

                          "A godly society, free from the monstrosities your kind has created you mean?" she said vehemently. Already the man was getting under her skin.

                          "Yes, I could have expected as much. And here I thought we'd have managed to leave that behind." He sighed. "Still, I see you found one of my prototypes as well. You're welcome." He said. "I'm surprised you even found people willing to finish the work. I expect Deirdre did the work for you"

                          "It was God's will he landed near where we did, Zhakarov. And it was Father Niesen that..."

                          "Doctor Nielsen?" the man interrupted her. "He survived? What have you done to him?"

                          Miriam felt a smile come to her lips, despite her best efforts. "FATHER Nielsen has embraced the Truth of the good Lord's scripture, academician. He is my personal advisor, the first priest, and the second in command of The Lord's Believers, and a true testament that even the most wayward of God's children can return to his grace."

                          Zhakarov's lips twisted in distaste. "Such a waste." he finally said. "to see such fine minds shackeled. I warned Lal against taking you." he sighed and made a dismisive gesture. "Still, we're here together on this world. I suggest you stay on your part of Planet and do what you do and leave us alone, and we won't bother your little world as well. I've made an agreement with Deirdre as well..."

                          "No." Miriam said.

                          Zhakarov stopped, his look icy. "And what do you mean with that?"

                          "I mean that I won't be bound by any oaths or agreements yet. I do not trust you, Zhakarov. We can of clourse ill afford any war, but if your soociety becomes a blight in God's eyes, we'll keep the option open to set things to right."

                          Zhakarov's eyes glared back at her. "And so you show your true colours. Very well, we'll keep that in mind, Miriam. But I warn you. We haven't been sitting and praying these last years. And we've develloped some exceptional weapon systems. If you attack us, you'll get to 'field test them', have fun in Jesusland Miriam, Zhakarov out."

                          The screen went black.

                          "That old, hellbound sacriligeous wretch!" Miriam punched the seat of her chair. The people looked at her tensely. Some of them looked eager.

                          "Knight-Commander Jackson. Please make sure that all our troops know to be on their guard against any unknown humans they encounter. All new troops are to be given additional training in combat among humans."
                          Last edited by Rand Al'Tor; December 29, 2006, 10:57.
                          Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


                          • #28
                            Miriam had thought the years after the discovery of the Gaians were grim, but they were nothing compared to the resolve shown when the third faction was revealed. The Planetborn had been raised on stories of Earth, and those that had ruined it. Godless scientists filled with hubris had been prominent in those stories. And now, it appeared, they were here with them. And unlike the Gaians, this time the Believers were less divided.

                            Even Miriam felt it. The University of Planet were the worst mistakes of Earth that had followed them. And sooner or later, they would have to face it. Over the last years, Knights had been trained to use the new synthmetal armour, as well as the use of new laser weapons for which plans had been found by their small ship. None of these helped against mindworms. The decision had already been taken, now it was merely a matter of executing it.

                            The first step had been finding Zhakarov. That had been easier than expected. The scouts that had been sent west had discovered a fertile and rainy jungle. Taveling through it, they had found that one of their cities was on the northern end. Troops there had been atacked by mindworms though, and the University was subject to the same suspicions as the Gaians. It did sound like something Zhakarov would do.

                            When a colony Pod bound east from Divinity Base encountered mindworms and had to rush back to its protection, and only a desperate stand from a surprised garrison could save the colony. Still, the mindworms, so close had caused panic in the city as civilians, men, women and chidlren were exposed to the terrifying effects. The garrison suffered worse, and was decimated. The news spread, and more and more people started to believe that someone was steering the mindworms.

                            However, with methods of communication becoming easier, especially between the Gaians and Believers, the distrust towards Deirdre and her followers had abbated somewhat. And so, the two leaders had met in New Jeruzalem and signed a pact of sisterhood between their factions. Stories were exchanged, products were showcased and Lady Deirdre even attended the morning mass. There were reports that the Gaians seemed to be avoiding the subject of mindworms as much as possible, but that wasn't thought strange. And swiftly forgotten as Deirdre brought with her the know-how, data and material to expand the networks, and causing a rebirth of the internet, or, as the Gaians called it 'Datalinks'.

                            The technique caused serious waves in the Beliver society. Each colony had more or less operated on its own, drifting towards a more egalitarian or meritocratic economic model, but with most cities barely two thousand people in size, and each city hardly able to communicate with others, there had been little need for too much economic development. As the new technology spread, some governors proposed that all colonies would plan their economy's together, and a central organ would coordinate the allocation of raw materials and food. Detractors pointed out the inefficiency, both sides claimed the moral high ground and defended their principles in fiery debate. Some Belivers, mostly those freindly with Gaians, suggested that perhaps more care should be taken with their Promised land, and suggested a more 'green' approach.

                            In the end, with the rudimentary economy in place, and Planet still an unknown quantity, those that proposed a central organ to steer the economy won out, winning the elections. Miriam, in her sermons, had given her tacit approval of the move. For the coming battles, they would need all production and all the people they could get.

                            But as they geared themselves up for war, Miriam still kept scouting more. The scouts up north had discovered that the body of water to the west of New jeruzalem was not a small sea, seperating the two continents as they had initially assumed, but rather a bay, with New Jeruzalem at the mouth. The scouts had reached the far end, and now approached the University from the east. In the south, some scouts had found a second alien artifact. With the Monolith north of the Rapture a place many Believers tried to approach at least once in their lives, their reaction was less panicked than the discovery so many years ago. Mindworms and the University were on people's minds. The possibility of a hostile advanced native population was no longer considered after so many years. Most of the men believed the artifact to be another gift from the angels, and Miriam didn't discount the possibility. And so, she didn't keep the discovery a secret, and arranged for the other ancient artifact to be 'discovered' as well.

                            One more thing.

                            Paulina Romero was of Brazilian origin. She was one of the younger crew on the Unity, picked for her excellent physical condition as well as her talent for electronics.

                            Miriam didn't remember meeting her before launch. It had been a franctic period.

                            She had been in the damaged pod, and had been one of the survivors of Planetfall.

                            Miriam remembered her there, she thought. In a dark corner, shaking quietly, but there had not been a tear in her eyes until Miriam had spoken to her.

                            In the early years, she had busily helped scavenging their materials for electronics to keep New Jeruzalem operational. She had met Shawn Heatherdy, a programmer from Birmingham, and had married him 15 months after Planetfall.

                            They'd been one of the three couples to be married that day. It was raining, and there was no material for a dress, but she had looked radiant.

                            Paulina had six children, one of whom died at age three. She continued to fix broken electronics as best as she was able to, as well as develop some of her own, togerher with her husband, in her spare time. She lost her husband to disease at age fifty.

                            Births and funerals. After a while, they all started to blur. Especially after her own close shave with death. But she remembered the funeral of that woman's husband. She mostly remembered being surprised at how old she looked. She still remembered her as a young woman.

                            And now, she was dead, aged 86, and Miriam spoke at her funeral.

                            It was not a funeral she would forget.

                            Not counting Father Nielsen and herself, Paulina had been the last Earthborn.
                            Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


                            • #29
                              (Note, because I don't feel like keeping notes, or give year by year descriptions, I'm now working with a 'play until an important moment, then describe the last years, describing things in the order that suits the story. So, you might notice that Miriam instals a fundamentalist society before secrets of the Human Brain are discovered.)


                              Some 20 years after Miriam had buried the penukimate passenger on the doomed colony pod. By now, she was burying the first generation already. She had allowed herself to stop keeping track of it. That way led to despair.

                              The war against Zhakarov was over. They had taken his cities with almost no losses in two one sided battles.

                              And yet the last 20 years had been sad ones.

                              Mindworms, always those mindworms. The hatred for the creatures pervaded the entire Believer Faction now.

                              A massive wave of the creatures had assaulted Throne of God, overwhelming the garrison inthere, as well as a team of formers that had been constructing a road to aid the march of the armies. An group of hundred Knighs turned away from Zhakarov's cities to help, but even they fell. Then the rest of the mindworms fell upon the population. Hunderds upon hunderds of people were killed. Many of the survivors were insane, and even those that remained with their sanity intact mostly requested to move towards another colony. Already stories rose about ghosts, or ghastly crimes that had called for such wrath.

                              And then there was Hallowed Ground. Miriam tightened her fists until the knuckles went white. More than a thousand men women and children, including a garrison, that had just been placed. Gone. Miriam had been in her tank when it happened, and visiting the place had been first on the agenda.

                              Even with the corpses cleaned up, and the salvageable equipment taken back, the empty buildings still stood as giant gravestones. Miriam had wept there.

                              She had been somewhat relieved at that. She had buried too many people that she had baptized and wed, and was starting to become inured to it.

                              Then there had been the riots. Miriam scowled. That had been worse in a way. There were various reasons. Some of the citizens simply could not accept the new economic model, and that worsened when the Central Laymen Command started developping more economic theories, and the requirements for a society run on free market rose. And as factories rose, and population sprawled, some people started to protest damage caused to the environment.

                              And of course, some people just started to fall from faith. Many fathers were away from home to advance on Zhakarov, and the new democratic rule and larger population caused children in the larger cities to grow up without proper guidance.

                              There had been riots. In the Rapture and Godwinson's Hope, two of the oldest colonies, several groups had begun rioting. Free Market proponents had picketed stores, Eco-activists had blocked factories, factory workers, many of them having a 'free day' used this time to cause all sort of trouble, taking advantadge of the police force and garrison's trouble in keeping the order. Even some of the churches had been defiled.

                              Miriam and the conclave had acted. The CLC was relieved of its duties as the Conclave took full control of the economy. Rights in the constitution were 'indefinately suspended'. There was a thorough restyling of the education system, with all teaching now to be done only by priests, or lay teachers approved by the Conclave.

                              There was some grumbling, but many had welcomed the change. Miriam still held the hearts of many. And the clergy of The Lord's Believers was well developped by now, filled wtih the brightest and most charismatic of their faction.

                              And also, on occasion, cunning. They had introduced her to 'the inquisitors'. While their role migth have some comparitions with the inquisitors of old, their tools didn't. The team of six men contained experts in electronic warfare, espionage, burglary and persuasion. Each of the men were chosen for talents and the depth of their faith. Father Nielsen had personally overseen their training, and was busy training a second team. In private he confided her that the men had ended up even more dedicated than he had hoped, or feared.

                              It were to be those men that would cause the war to erupt. Travelling through the jungle, they had made their way to Akova Discovery. At night they slipped through the perimeter the army had made. Their leader had reported that the mission had been laughably easy. The University Datalinks seemed to think Security was a dirty word, and the inquisitors had trained on the fiercest firewalls that kept the flock of the Believers from seeing things that might harm their soul. And so, they came back with detailed information about brain functions.

                              Among others it described the effects of Lithium on the human brain. Miriam had been ready to wipe it all before Father Nielsen checked her.

                              They had also left a little gift. As the Probe team left, several of the monitors in the city had suddenly a message displayed.

                              Judgement has come.

                              Thirty minutes later the Two divisions of Knights and the Twenty Rovers had stormed the city. The battle was short and one sided, and after fifty minutes of dying, retreating and barricading, the University Troops surrendered. Some parts of the population had tried to repel them as well, and certain vital parts of infrastructure were damaged, leading to many casualties.

                              And of course, the fighting men had been preparing for years for this battle. Knight-Captain Hikori, who was in charge of the attack, had several of the more blasphemous citizens executed on the spot. Miriam regretted it, but these people had been led astray for decades, subject to arrogant scientists mocking all faith, without anyone to lead them back. It would take more than friendly words from priests to convert them.

                              Miriam sighed. She had managed a long time without this, but one did what was necessary.

                              But then, there had been a worse shock.


                              Knight-Sergeant Philips was leading his men to scout the northern edge of Akova Discovery for fleeing troops. The men had been flush with victory and sang several songs describing how Zhakarov would have to explain how he was beaten so badly to the devil, when a frightening noise was heard.


                              The man had not hesitated, and perhaps somewhat too eager had attacked, hoping to cathch it 'sleeping' and returning with a bounty of Planetpearls.

                              The first surprise was when the mindworm retreated. That had never been seen before. Of course it only caused the men to pick up the pace of their pursuit. Flame guns belching flame in anticipation.

                              A pursuit which stopped dead when, out of the teeming mass emerged a human figure, as if the boil had just given birth to a human female. A human which promptly raised her hands and called for them not to shoot.

                              It took the sergeant all his authority to prevent the soldiers from killing her on the spot. Here, finally, was the proof that it was the University that was responsible for the thousands upon thousands of dead.

                              And then came the third shock.

                              The woman was a Gaian.


                              "Give me one reason why I shouldn't torch your bases to the ground Deirdre!" Miriam had been furious. The men had brought the Gaian back in bounds, and the mindworm was tolerated only because it was carying several incidentary grenades on it. There was no way this news could be kept silent.

                              "We were waiting to discover more, Miriam. But I swear to you, it were not our mindworms that attacked our cities. They were scouting there. We've found the University's Headquarters." Deirdre looked pale.

                              "How would you know? Do you create these things?"

                              "No!" Deirdre said. "Look... we've lost people to mindworms too, but sometimes, when we find them sleeping, mindworms have... communicated with us. Like a voice in people's minds instead of the horrid images. And after a while, they decided to follow us." As she spoke, a soft smile came to her lips. "I heard they can hear our thoughts from far away, and while often they attack, in some cases, they're just curious."

                              Miriam balled her fists. "Curious? Or gaining intelligence for some alien masters or worse! Deirdre, have you taken complete leave of your senses? These creatures are a plague upon this world!"

                              Deirdre's smile turned sad. "We are the aliens here, Miriam. And if Planet is a body, we are the plague. But it doesn't always have to be like this. If we can befriend them, so can you. We think it has a lot to do with our relation with Planet that the mindworms are friendlier to us."

                              "Don't, Deirdre. Don't tell me to 'live in harmony' again." She breathed and held her forehead. "You keep those... creatures out of our territory. That woman of yours got lucky, the next one might burn with the worms. For now, I'll leave things as they are, but if I find out you're playing me for a fool Deirdre, you'll suffer worse than Zhakarov. You might also want te retrieve your ambassador. I cannot guarantee his safety from the fall-out from this. Miriam out."

                              That had been some years ago. Since then, they had talked again. Technologies were exchanged, and Miriam even gave Deidre a loan, as her own energy reserves were high. Still, the backlash was hard, and decades of goodwill were lost in a matter of weeks.

                              And now, University Base had fallen as well. And yet, final victory had been robbed from them. The Provost had managed to construct an escape capsule, including his sarcophagus and a sizable portion of his populace.

                              He left a message.

                              "You all but destroyed the greatest thing I have ever made for your delusions, Miriam, and proven that intelligence cannot stand if enough fools are put against it. If I ever believed in a god, I'd pray now that you and your mindless drones become food for the mindworms, you and your little green lap dog. Know that if we ever meet again, I'll make sure I'll have weapons you won't even have seen in your fevered dreams."

                              And so, Miriam now walked through University Base, looking at the disgruntled faces of its citizens, partiularly the old intellectual elite and upper middle class were hostile.

                              It seemed that conquering the bases was going to be the easy part of this war.
                              Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.


                              • #30
                                Kauffman had been someone once. He had been a young, talented researcher. He had several plans for desgins that would have helped the University stand up to the Believers. Not too long before the fall he had even gotten married. The man laid in his couch as he nursed the old memories. Late nights in the labs, frustration one day, elation the next. He had barely given the war his attention. He had been so sure that they would defeat Miriam's hounds, even with one of their two cities fallen. That had been a sneak attack. Zhakarov would show her how much prayers helped against technological superiority.

                                Except their soldiers didn't have much in the way of technological superiority. He remembered litte of that last night, but he had talked to some of the soldiers. The 'Knights' of the Believers came with Laser 'bows' and sinthmetal 'plate'. They came in the hundreds (historically he was aware that was a very small army for human standards, but he was used to a couple of thousands being his entire Faction) and they were good. The attack came just before dawn. They knew the layout of the streets. Any attempt to ambush them was pointless. And their soldiers seemed to know no fear of death. The soldiers he had talked to had almost wept in frustration and shame. They had felt like a bunch of children compared to the crack Believer Troops.

                                When the escape pod had launched, the defenders, military and civilians alike, had surrendered. Kauffman still had mixed feelings. Part of him felt betrayed. Zhakarov had abandonned them, taking a couple of hundreds with him and leaving the rest of them at the mercy of Miriam. But the other part hoped that the Provost would return one day and get his revenge.

                                The battle itself hadn't lasted long. By the time the first sun had been good and well over the horizon, one of their knights had called for a gathering. It hadn't been the Knight that had done the talking but a priest. He had 'welcomed' them all among the Believers. Kaufman had barely listened. He had been plotting a way to overthrow, or at least sabotage them then.

                                Things hadn't gone as he expected. He had expected a police state, knights watchmen and priest taskmasters enslaving the people.

                                No, in fact, very little had changed. The existing economic infrastructure was adapted slightly, but food, medical treatment and all necessities of life were still provided for. Some new laws came in effect, and a few protests came in reaction, but, Kauffman had realized in the coming years, for the people that worked the farms and the factories, little had changed. The University had played with the idea of democracy, but the infrastructure just hadn't been there. So after some years, many of the populace just continued with their lives, as if nothing had happened. They went to church on sundays and parroted 'amen' when the priests said so. Likely some of them had even taken to the worship.

                                But Kaufman saw the things that were happening. The first, most radical change was the data links. They had been there for the University citizens almost since Planetfall. Almost al lthe knowledge of the University was available to any of its citizens. The Believers had changed THAT quick. Before he had the time to make back-ups or backdoors, the changes started. pages were replaced by error messages, and the links later removed. Programmer friends told him that backdoors and dumped information was searched out and destroyed. By the time the University datalinks were allowed within the harsh firewalls of the Believer network, they was a shadow of their former selves. Research came to a standstill at University Base, or 'Hour of Forgiveness' as they called it now.

                                The second change was perhaps the most painful. Once the schools had been glorious places, where children were encouraged to excell and compete, knowing that a man was judged by the knowledge he had, and the new knowledge he could create. Now, they just were an extension of the churches, quite literarely, as it were the same priests who preached that taught.

                                The priests, he hated them, more than he hated the knights who had conquered and killed. The knights looked grim, with flames of anger behind stoic expressions, some still believing ridiculous stories that Zhakarov had commanded mindworms. But the priests, with their damn friendly smiles... They had come to him as well, talking about their religion. He had kept quiet, though the way he had acted they obviously knew what he thought of their 'faith'. But they had just given their smug, condescending PITYING smiles and said they'd pray for his soul.

                                It was a public secret that most of University Base was still atheist. But it was not one that was talked about. Some people had talked in public about it, and found themselves arrested. Some had tried to pass it to their children, but the priest-teachers friendly voices and warm smiles got children to talk of doubts, and a handful of parents had been given to 'godparents' in New Jeruzalem. So the University People just sneered at the cross in private and nursed their lack of faith in their hearts. One day... one day Zhakarov would return.

                                Kauffman's wife had been pregnant the day University Base fell. Their daughter was a bright girl. She had learned to talk months before expected.

                                While going to the bathroom, he had heard muttering for her chamber, peeking through, he saw his little girl kneeling at her bedside, and could make out her words. "...and I pray that mommy and daddy see Your light so they'll go to Your kingdom, amen."

                                he hadn't talked about it with his wife, he just sat in his couch. Miriam had won. By the time Zhakarov made it back, University Base would be gone. It would be Hour of Forgiveness, and his children, or his children's children would be fighting against him.

                                He wept bitter tears.
                                Fire and ice and death awaiting. But he was steel, he was steel.