Friday, 28 August 2015

Where it all started... episode 9

Episode 9 from The Eden Paradox. This episode features Gabriel, not seen since chapter one. It has a religious-terrorist cell context, because that's the way things are headed I'm afraid. This is the chapter where we start to wonder whose side Gabriel is really on...

Star Council
Gabriel knelt in the gothic church, hands clasped in prayer he didn’t believe in. He tried again to still his mind – he’d gotten further than any Sentinel before him, close to finding the leader of the Alician Order. A slim chance to overturn their endgame was at hand. But the bitterness of remorse threatened to overwhelm him: he’d just killed his best friend.
            Samuel, like him, had been in deep cover working inside the Alician cell-structure, living, breathing, and sleeping in the enemy’s ranks. His mission had been to uncover the facts about the loss of the Prometheus and the Heracles. In doing so he’d unearthed the ghoster plot on the Ulysses. Samuel had been about to release it on the nets: the Alicians made a pretence of being anti-tech for their Fundie supporters, whereas ghosters were tech-weapons, reviled by every soldier who had survived the War.
An Alician section led by Brother Marcus had surprised Samuel and Gabriel during a meeting. Samuel had immediately acted as if Gabriel had found him first, and had reached for his pistol, knowing Gabriel would have to react. There had been a brief glimmer of forgiveness in Samuel’s eyes just before Gabriel shot him. The worst part was that Gabriel had not been able to close Samuel’s eyes, with Marcus and his men present, and had to leave his corpse in the rotting apartment for the rats to plunder.
For four hours Gabriel had incanted the Tellurathonicat, the long-lost song for the dead. Although he didn’t believe in God, he believed in his best friend. He closed with "Amen".
             The emotional gale that had threatened to undo him from his own mission died down, and a hollow semblance of calm finally arrived. He would need it to honour Samuel’s sacrifice. He scanned the rows of wooden benches around him. Since the War, churches were rarely empty – there were so many lost loved ones that people used the churches to commune with the dead. Cemeteries had become a thing of the past, every last scrap of decent soil used for crops. Funerals culminated in cremation and vitrification of the deceased’s ashes into a dusky glass teardrop that fitted into the palm of a hand. Four people knelt, heads bowed down on the bench’s ledge, arms outstretched, holding the "pearls" as they were called, as if offering them to God, or perhaps, in the silence and impunity of prayer, asking "why?"
In order to concentrate, he parked everything about Samuel. He pressed his left palm to his right, his right palm to his left, with equal force. He was about to penetrate an Alician Inner cell. He needed to get into the role again, immerse himself in the thinking patterns of the enemy: believe like one of them, react like one of them. He recalled the scripture: structure, discipline, equanimity – the three principles of Neo-Fundamentalism. Even the posture for praying was critical. If the base was strong, all else would flow correctly, and all action emanating from such a structure would be right.
He checked his wristcom. Two small green lights on its side, linked to micro-sensors on his jacket collar, told him there was no one behind him. Reaching into his pocket he snapped open a mini-phial with his thumb, bowed as if in prayer, and smeared a trace of clear liquid onto his lips. It evaporated in moments. He rose silently, and trod softly as if still in prayer towards an alcove and a bolted iron door. He didn’t touch the handle. Placing his eye to the peep-hole, he circled his eyeball once to let the ret-scan do its job. The door, bolt and all, heaved upwards like a mute portcullis. It descended behind him as soon as his rear foot had passed the threshold, encasing him in total darkness. He remained perfectly still.
"A boy kills his sister with a gun. Who is guilty?" The tone invited feelings of unworthiness, the voice of a man who commanded people to serve in a Holy war. Gabriel answered immediately – reflex not reflection – as he’d been taught.
"The father, for letting it fall into the hands of the son." He spoke louder than intended; he instructed his body to relax.
"Who else?" The voice was aggressive.
"The mother, for not admonishing the father." Gabriel heard the speaker pace. Still not enough. "The government, for allowing weapons in the population." Continued silence and pacing. Was the speaker carrying something? Gabriel detected unevenness in his step, favouring one side. As an assassin, he’d been trained to hear the nuances in every movement. He would not be allowed too many more attempts. "The manufacturer, for not equipping the gun with a child-sensor-block." As soon as he’d said it he knew it was wrong – too tech. The pacing stopped, a sleeve rustled, something being lifted. He didn’t panic. Then he realised what was expected.
"Scientists, for making the weapon possible." Gabriel relaxed. He knew it was right. He felt balanced again. A whisper somewhere in the chamber; something metallic put down, a drawer closed. He heard another speaker, female.
"Welcome, Brother Matthias," she said, an accent he couldn’t place, her voice guttural yet fluid. "Change and join us in the Inner Chamber." She left, followed by the other man, the coldness from her voice lingering in her wake.
Bright light deluged the room, stinging his eyes. He found a simple grey robe neatly folded on a stool. He didn’t look for the weapon the first man must have been carrying: he knew he was being watched, one always was. He undressed, removing the wristcom that otherwise never left him, and put on the robe, naked underneath, as the Structure required.
In the nearby mirror he performed the mental self-examination ritual. Regard truthfully that which the Creator has fashioned. A gaunt face, fringed with black hair, jet-black eyes. Know thyself, the Structure taught. Killer’s eyes, he said to himself, the last things my victims see, eyes of a Cleanser, one who releases souls to God. The ritual satisfied, he opened the door, and walked through the ultraviolet-tinged archway that scanned for any hidden devices or bio-implants. Anti-tech when it suits them. He flushed away the thought – he had to play the role, be the zealous assassin they believed him to be.
The inner chamber was cave-like; myriad candles scattered shadows onto whitewashed brick walls. Five figures awaited him, draped in white robes, hoods covering all but their chins and mouths, hands concealed inside billowing sleeves. Each stood on the point of the blue chalk pentagram drawn on the smooth granite floor. The points were connected with gold lines, creating a star inside the pentagram. Gabriel stood in the star’s centre, hands open by his side where the others could see them. He bowed deeply.
"Welcome, Brother Matthias. You may report." It was the voice of the man who had questioned him in the Outer Chamber; the leader of this Alician Star Council, the Cultivator. He stood at the pentagram’s vertex, facing Gabriel.
Gabriel was concise, in accordance with what he knew about Star Council etiquette. "From the Devil’s craft, all contact has been lost. An analyst in the Project suspected something, told the Project Manager. Both have been cleansed."
There was no reaction from any of the five until the Cultivator spoke.
"All is not as you say."
Gabriel’s breath closed in, his sinewy muscles tensing. To lie in the Star Council meant death. He waited. In theory he could kill all of them in less than two seconds, but he’d heard that lasers targeted the centre of the star, primed to activate in case of sudden moves – he was fast, but not that fast.
"The Eden Manager is indeed cleansed. The analyst, Micah Sanderson, lives on."
Gabriel didn’t see how that was possible, he had made the hit himself, as ordered – but the Cultivator would not lie.
"In addition," the female voice cut in, "a woman is missing –"
Gabriel preferred the man’s voice: his was like bracing seawater; hers was like a wave of rotting seaweed, concealing broken glass.
"– we do not know where. The Project Manager’s assistant, Sandy Mindel."
Gabriel had seen her file.
The Cultivator cut in. "She must be brought to God, Brother Matthias, as quickly as possible, by whatever means."
Gabriel knew the "by whatever means" included doing it in public, in which case he would be discovered. Before he could voice his question, the woman spoke again.
"You must find her, Brother Matthias, and eliminate her. She may have seen our brother in the Eden Mission. He cannot be unmasked; his work is not yet done."
He raised his left hand in front of his shoulder, palm facing the leader.
"You may speak, Brother Matthias," the Cultivator said.
"I will do this. But if I am caught?"
The woman lashed out, "Then you will kill yourself as you have been trained, and go to meet your maker!"
Gabriel’s tongue involuntarily flicked back to his false left molar. Painless, so they said, but he didn’t believe it – he’d seen a comrade’s contorted face after one had been accidentally broken during a training bout. Besides, he’d seen too much death to believe it was ever painless. He bowed his head in silence. Inside the Star, respect for the Council was paramount, even if the interviewee had been misunderstood. The Cultivator rescued him.
"I believe, Sister Esma that Brother Matthias is referring to the ramifications after his body is found."
Gabriel knew now why this man was the leader of this Council. Sister Esma was the most righteous, but sending people on suicide missions was not just about orders from God, it required careful handling. However, the fact that the Cultivator had used her name was not good news for Gabriel.
"If you die while executing your mission, the Chorazin will realise they had an Alician within their midst. Even though you left them ten years ago, this will be damaging to them. A Chorazin agent becoming an Alician Cleanser is unheard of. If you are caught performing this act, it will focus attention on you, drawing it away from another Alician agent."
So, another Alician was still in the Chorazin.
The Cultivator continued, "Such a finding will cause fear and increased self-monitoring in the Chorazin; it will slow them down at a time when we are moving forward at a greater pace."
Gabriel knew they were telling him far more than they should. They firmly believed – presumed – he would be dead in the next twenty-four hours.
"Then my sacrifice will be all the more beneficial," he replied, and bowed deeply. Although the disciplined group remained motionless, he nonetheless heard their collective breathing ease, reflecting their satisfaction with his answer, with the exception of Sister Esma, whose outbreath was a derisive snort. He also perceived that the session was over, that he was about to be dismissed. He pressed his luck, raising his left hand again. Sister Esma inhaled sharply, but the Cultivator got there first.
"Brother Matthias, you have a further question?" His tone was a potent cocktail of surprise and menace.
"I have a question, but am not sure I am permitted to ask it."
This time Sister Esma did not wait. It had been what he had hoped for. He knew the leader would be annoyed by the question, but would be even more vexed by Sister Esma’s abrogation of his authority.
"You know very well the Dictates of Structure, Matthias!" she shouted.
He noted she had dropped his earned title of "Brother".
The Cultivator broke in. "To ask any question is your right, Brother Matthias, but you must take responsibility for what the answer brings."
He foresaw a power struggle between these two – it would be ended by the assassination of one or the other, as was the usual course of Alician internal politics.
"Brother Matthias, what is your question?"
He thought of Samuel: this is for you. "I understand, Your Eminence, that a ghoster may have been installed on the Devil’s craft." There, he had said it. He heard the two behind him gasp. Sister Esma said nothing, but her hooded head moved momentarily towards the direction of the leader, before she checked herself. She hadn’t known. The Cultivator drew himself up to his full height. Clearly, he had.
"Where did you hear this?" His voice was a drawn blade, seeking blood.
Gabriel knew he had to answer this question, or forfeit his own life here and now.
"In the Fourth Chapel."
Gabriel bowed his head lower. "Brother Marcus," he said quietly. He saw the Cultivator make a quick hand movement, and the one behind Gabriel’s left side immediately left the Chamber.
The leader’s voice softened. "You have done well to bring this to our attention, Brother Matthias."
In Gabriel’s mind he closed Samuel’s eyes.
"And why does this concern you, Brother Matthias?" Sister Esma was no doubt enraged that she had not known, another reminder that she was not the leader; not yet, at least. Gabriel did not hesitate this time, but answered directly.
"Ghosters are an abomination. They are derived from science, and…" he paused, "even though they start as humans, they have no souls."
He waited for the answer. This time the Cultivator placed his hand on Sister Esma’s robed arm, and spoke as if delivering a sermon.
"Brother Matthias, ghosters are a tool. In this war – and we are in a war – we must use whatever weapons we have to secure victory. If we must use the devil’s own tricks against him, then that is what we will do. The ghosters these days, few as they are, volunteer for the procedure."
Gabriel found the idea of anyone volunteering to be changed into a ghoster an unlikely prospect. Alicians outwardly eschewed technology, to lure a blind following from gullible and angry masses, but he knew they were more advanced in some ways than most military governments.
"Go now," the Cultivator said, "release this woman Sandy’s soul. Do not fail."
            Gabriel dropped to one knee, lowering his head. The Cultivator proffered his hand so that Gabriel could kiss it. With head still bowed, Gabriel stood and backed away to the entrance. It was done. As soon as he was back in the chamber he picked up his wristcom and wiped his lips on it, downloading the Cultivator’s pheromone signature.

Gabriel stood on the barely-lit street outside the Church, dressed in his original clothes. A light drizzle fell undisturbed by any breeze except the steam rising from hot-ground level. He walked over to the sleeping tramp on the otherwise deserted sidewalk – the rad-level was high even up here – and bent over to pick up what looked like a discarded plastic food carton. He snatched it up and glided over to a nearby disposal chute, retrieving something before discarding the box, and placed both his hands in his pockets. It was an antique silver locket, a four leaf clover carved on its front, his only connection with the past. He was relieved it was still there, where he had left it five hours ago. Luckily nobody picked up rubbish anymore, least of all that which lay next to a stinking, radioactive tramp. Gabriel had drugged the man just in case – Cleansers who left things to chance did not survive long.
            He stared up into the rain, not bothering to shade his eyes from its acidic sting. Somewhere up there the dart-drone waited, primed with the Cultivator’s pheromone signature. As soon as the man left the building, the drone’s sensor would pick up the scent. Then it was just a matter of time. Samuel’s sacrifice had not been in vain, though he wished he could have taken out Sister Esma as well.
He took an elevator to the mid-levels and walked towards his squalid apartment in the ruins above the orange level rad-zone, passing the Virtual Sex boutiques. He lingered outside one. A flabby sleazeball with waxed moustache called out to him, vaunting lurid promises Gabriel did not even hear, but he approached the man. Gabriel knew he was being captured on some vid system. They’ll think I know I am about to die, and wish one last carnal act before the end. He held his wristcom to the man’s reader, confirmed the credit transaction, and stepped inside.
No real women there, of course; that made the charade easier. He found an empty booth smelling of cheap deodorant, entered, and sealed the door. Inside were the usual plastic-sheeted padded table, an immerser headpiece, and a data crystal port.   
            He ignored the table and sat cross-legged on the floor. Pulling out the locket, he flicked it open and gazed at the holopic of the young girl inside, noting the family resemblance. He touched the picture, pulled out a sliver of quartz the width and depth of a fingernail, then snapped the locket shut with a click.
            He got up, removed the sex menu crystal and jacked his own data shard into the port, donned the headpiece, and lay back on the table. It took only a few seconds to adjust. He was in a white room, so uniformly bright it was hard to see where walls, floor and ceilings began and ended. He heard stiletto heels, and turned around.
            "Good evening, nice to see you are still alive," she said, a stunning redhead with green, feral eyes. She wore a vermillion tycra mini-dress. Gabriel and his Master always played along like this, just in case anyone hacked in. Of course in reality she could be fat and forty, or, in this case, a seventy year old pony-tailed male. What you see is all you get, he remembered, echoing the ambivalent ad of the Virtual Sex industry. But he wasn’t here for games. He switched to an undocumented Tibetan dialect, just in case any porn-hackers bypassed the audio jamming code built into his crystal.
            "The Cultivator is taken care of. Samuel is gone, as I’m sure you know, but he is avenged: Brother Marcus tonight. Sandy Mindel, Kane’s assistant tomorrow."
            "We’ve paid a high price for this. Nonetheless, Samuel would be proud of you," she replied, her dialect more polished than Gabriel’s. "There is a slim chance this Miss Mindel may know the password – if not, it died with Kane. We’ve already searched the city for her, but there is no trace. Not an easy trick with all the micro-surveillance these days." She smiled coyly, all part of the show.
Gabriel knew her words were a challenge to him to find Sandy, but he said nothing. She seemed about to turn, and then cocked her head at him. "You know where she is, don’t you?"
            Gabriel nodded.
Her smile vanished. "The battle we have anticipated for a millennium is almost upon us."
"How close?"
"Maybe a week. We must find the password to open the ships. Then we can destroy them." Her face was grave, the charade suspended. She nodded once and turned, just as another woman entered. For the sake of the show, the two women embraced, languorously. Gabriel, embarrassed, wanted to look away, but that wasn’t possible inside a V-Sex scene. A low shanga beat started up as the platinum blonde let the redhead depart, and slinked over to Gabriel, stripping before him. His crystal had tactile sensory effects disabled – just as well, as she promptly sat on his lap and began to grind to the music, breasts brushing his chest, lascivious lips pouting centimeters from his own. He mentally disconnected from the scene, though it had been a very long time. He voided the thought and decided to end this – it was an illusion after all, like life. Letting his breathing rate increase, he began to moan, and within a minute faked an orgasm. It wasn’t so hard to counterfeit a climax – virtual sex booths enabled mental orgasm without its usual physical messiness – allowing the sex industry to escape certain laws, and sidestep health regulations. The too-perfect blonde stood up and sauntered off into the background. The entire scene faded to black static.  
Gabriel slipped off the headpiece, removed the crystal, and put the locket back in his pocket. A week till they arrived; till the end of the world. So his own days, maybe his hours, were numbered. But he would play it out. Hundreds before him had died in the silent war that had endured nine centuries. In the fifteenth century Sentinels had gained the upper hand, but not for long. And now, trained Sentinels were few and far between, living on the run.
            He smoked a cheroot he bought from a street trader in a darkened alleyway, watching the few people who dared the mildly acid shower scurry past. He leaned over a railing, his eyes following the cascade of rain plunging to ground level two hundred meters below. He remembered his real, non-Alician Master teaching him that life was like a drop of water in a waterfall. Each drop felt alone, confused, tumbling in chaos. But when it hit the water below, it rejoined the river and was at peace again. Gabriel let go of the cheroot, and watched its red ember blaze as it fell amongst the drops of rain.

Back in his apartment, he waited until midnight, then opened a psy-locked suitcase – letting the locking mechanism scan his EID signature. He thought of his dead sister, his emotional password. The carbo-titanium composite lock buzzed, then cracked open. He fished out his favoured S&W plasma-bullet pistol, night lenses, navcon, and a pulse grenade. He fixed the locket around his neck, tucking it under a tight-fitting Chorazin vest.

Descending from his apartment, he took a service elevator down to ground level, entered a disused building, and forced open the rusted door. Broken glass crunched under his boots, sending several dinner-sized rodents scampering away.  He continued down a metal spiral staircase until he reached a lead-lined storm door in the basement. Prying it open, he entered the stinking sewer that ran between the still-radioactive ruins of old Los Angeles, and the rad-free cave cities deeper below ground. He headed for the Eden Mission complex in New LA, five kilometers away. He knew why they couldn’t find Sandy anywhere in the city – she’d never left the Eden Mission building.

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