Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 02


Tellesberg Palace,

City of Tellesberg,

Kingdom of Old Charis,

Charisian Empire

Merlin Athrawes sat silently in his darkened chamber, eyes closed as he contemplated images only he could see. He really ought to have been “asleep,” taking the nightly downtime Emperor Cayleb had mandated, but he’d been following Wahlys Mahkhom’s group of guerrillas through Owl’s SNARCs for over a five-day, and the distant AI had been instructed to wake him when the moment came.

Now he watched bleakly as the arbalests sent their deadly quarrels hissing into the totally surprised supply convoy.

They should’ve been more cautious

, he thought grimly. It’s not like both sides haven’t had plenty of experience murdering each other by now.

But they hadn’t been, and now the men struggling to deliver the food their families needed to survive screamed as steel-headed shafts ripped into them. Steaming scarlet stained the snow, voices shouted frantic orders and useless warnings, the men trapped on the trail tried to find some shred of shelter, tried to muster some sort of defense, and another volley of bolts ripped into them from the other side of the narrow valley. They tried desperately to turn the sleds, tried to break back the way they’d come, but a trio of quarrels slammed into the rearmost snow lizard. It collapsed, screaming and snarling and snapping at its wounds, and the trail was too narrow. No one could get past the thrashing, wounded creature, and even as they discovered that, the other jaw of the ambush — the men hidden in the evergreens where the valley floor widened, armed with swords and axes and miners’ picks — flung themselves upon the stunned and decimated convoy.

It didn’t last long. That was the sole mercy. No one was taking prisoners any longer — not in Glacierheart, not on its frontier with Hildermoss. Caring properly for one’s own wounded was close enough to impossible under the brutal, broken-backed circumstances; no one had the resources to waste on the enemy’s wounded . . . even if anyone had been willing to spare an enemy’s life. But at least Mahkhom’s band wasn’t as far gone as some of the guerrillas stalking one another through the nightmare which had once been the Republic of Siddarmark. They spared no one, but the death they meted out was clean and quick, without the torture and mutilation which had become the norm for all too many on both sides of the bitter hatred which had ripped the Republic apart.

Only three of the attackers were wounded, just one of them seriously, and they stripped the dead with quick, callous efficiency. The wounded snow lizard was dispatched with a cut throat, and half a dozen raiders harnessed themselves to the heavy sled. Others shouldered packs taken from the dead man whose naked corpses littered the snow, and then they were gone, slogging off down the trail to the point at which they could break away towards their own heavily guarded mountain fastness.

The bodies behind them were already beginning to freeze in the bitter cold.

As he watched the attackers hurrying off, Merlin felt unclean as he realized he didn’t feel the horror those freezing bodies ought to have evoked in him. He felt bitter, helpless regret as he thought about the women and children who would never see fathers or sons or brothers again, and who would succumb, quickly or slowly, to malnutrition and the icy cold of the winter mountains. And he felt a blazing anger at the man who was truly responsible for what had happened not just here in this single mountain valley but throughout the entire Republic in the months since Zhaspahr Clyntahn’s “Sword of Schueler” had been launched at Siddarmark’s throat. Yet as he gazed down through the SNARCs at the corpses stiffening in the snow, he could not forget, try as he might, that they were the corpses of Temple Loyalists. The bodies of men who had reaped the savage harvest of their own sowing.

And buried within the rage he felt at the religious fanatics who’d let themselves be used as Clyntahn’s weapon — who’d torched food supplies, burned villages, massacred families on the mere suspicion they might harbor Reformist sympathies — was his fury at himself. Cayleb and Sharleyan might regret all too many of the things they’d been called upon to do to resist the Group of Four’s tyranny, but they weren’t the ones who’d touched off the cataclysm of religious war on a planetary scale. No, that had been the doing of Merlin Athrawes, who wasn’t even human. Who was the cybernetic avatar of the memories of a young woman almost a thousand years dead. Someone without a single drop of real blood in his veins, immune to the starvation and the cold claiming so many lives in the Siddarmarkian mountains this terrible winter.

And worst of all, it had been the doing of someone who’d known exactly how ugly, how horrible, religious warfare — the most dreadful, all-consuming warfare — could be. As he looked at those bodies, Merlin knew he could never pretend he hadn’t known this was exactly where any religious war must lead. That hating, intolerant men would find in religion and the name of God the excuse to commit the most brutal, barbaric acts they could imagine and congratulate themselves upon their saintliness even as they did. And that when that happened, men like Wahlys Mahkhom, who’d come home from a mountain hunting expedition to find his village burned to the ground by Clyntahn’s followers and his entire family dead, would find the counter-hatred to be just as brutal, just as merciless, and call their vengeance justice. And perhaps the most hellish thing of all was that it was impossible to blame Mahkhom for reacting just that way. What else could any sane person expect from a man who’d found his mother hacked to death? Who’d buried his three children, the eldest of them less than six years old, and held his wife’s raped and mutilated body in his arms while he sobbed out the wreckage of a heart which would never heal? Indeed, it was a miracle he and his followers had given their enemies clean deaths, and all too many other Reformists wouldn’t have. They would have given their foes exactly what their foes had given them, and if along the way they caught some innocent who was simply trying to survive in the chaos and the cruelty and despair, that was just the way it was.

It’s feeding on itself,

he thought, shutting away the image of those naked bodies at last. Atrocity leads to counter-atrocity, and men who can’t avenge themselves on the ones who murdered their loves avenge themselves on anyone they can catch. And that creates still more hatred, still more thirst for vengeance, and the cycle goes right on building.

Merlin Athrawes was a PICA, a creature of alloys and mollycircs, of fiber optics and electrons, not flesh and blood. He was no longer subject to the biochemistry of humanity, no longer captive to adrenaline and the other physiological manifestations of anger and fight-or-flight evolutionary programming. And none of that mattered one whit as he confronted the hatred burning inside him and his inability to penetrate the far-off Temple in the city of Zion.

If I could only see what’s happening there,

he thought with an edge of despair. If I could only know what they’re doing, what they’re thinking . . . planning. None of us saw this coming in time to warn Stohnar — not about anything he hadn’t already picked up on his own, at any rate. But we should’ve seen it coming. We ought to’ve known what someone like Clyntahn would be thinking, and God knows we’ve had proof enough of the lengths to which he’s willing to go!

In many ways, his ability — his and his allies’ — to see so much only intensified and honed his frustration at being denied access to Zion. They had more information than they could possibly use, especially when they couldn’t let anyone else suspect how that information had come into their possession, yet they couldn’t peer into the one spot on the entire planet where they most urgently needed to see.

But it wasn’t visions of Zion Merlin Athrawes truly wanted, and he knew it. What he wanted was to bring Zhaspahr Clyntahn and his fellows into his own reach for one, fleeting moment, and he wanted it with an intensity he knew had come to border all too nearly upon madness. He’d found himself thinking about Commodore Pei more and more frequently as the brutal winter of western Siddarmark grew steadily more and more savage. The Commodore had walked into Eric Langhorne’s headquarters with a vest-pocket nuke; Merlin Athrawes could easily have carried a multi-megaton city-burner into Zion and destroyed not simply the Group of Four but the entire Temple in a single cataclysmic blast. The death toll would have been hideous, but could it possibly be worse than what he was watching happen inch by agonizing inch in Siddarmark? Than the deaths this war had already cost Charis and its allies? Than the deaths it would cost in the months and years ahead?

And would it not be worth it to cleanse himself of the blood guilt for starting it by ending his life — if life it truly was — like the biblical Samson, bringing down his enemies in his own destruction?

Oh, stop it!

he told himself harshly. You know it was only a matter of time before that lunatic Clyntahn would’ve unleashed the Inquisition on Charis even without your intervention. And do you really think for a moment he would ever have stopped again, once he’d tasted that much blood? Of course he wouldn’t have! You may be partly — even largely — to blame for where and when the bloodletting started, but you aren’t responsible for what was already driving it. And without your interference, Clyntahn would already’ve won.

It was true, and in his saner moments — the moments when he didn’t sit in a darkened room watching the carnage, tasting the hate behind it — he knew it was true. Just as he knew the Church had to be destroyed if humanity was going to survive its inevitable second meeting with the genocidal Gbaba. But truth . . . truth was cold and bitter bread, laced with arsenic and poisoned with guilt, at times like this.

That’s enough,

a voice which sounded remarkably like Sharleyan Ahrmahk’s said in the back of his electronic brain. That’s enough. You’ve seen what you told Owl to show you. Don’t sit here and beat yourself to death over things you can’t change, anyway. Besides, Cayleb’s just likely to check with Owl and find out you stayed up late . . . again.

Despite himself, his lips twitched and a spurt of gentle amusement flowed through his rage, blunting the sharp edges of his self-hatred, as he pictured Cayleb Ahrmahk’s reaction if he did discover Merlin’s infraction. It wasn’t as if Cayleb or Sharleyan thought for a moment that even an emperor’s wrath could make any impression on Merlin Athrawes if he chose to ignore it, but that wasn’t the reason Cayleb had issued his edict, nor was it the reason he would have pitched a truly imperial tantrum over its violation. No, he would have berated Merlin with every . . . colorful phrase he could come up with because he knew how much Merlin needed that. How much the PICA “seijin warrior” of myth and legend needed to be treated as if he truly were still a human being.

And perhaps — who knew? — Merlin truly was still human on some elemental level that went beyond fleshly envelopes and heartbeats and blood. Perhaps he wasn’t, too. Perhaps in the end it didn’t matter how much blood guilt he took upon his soul because perhaps Maikel Staynair was wrong. Perhaps Nimue Alban truly was as dead as the Terran Federation — perhaps Merlin Athrawes truly was no more than an electronic echo with no soul to lose.

There were times he hoped that wasn’t so, and other times — when he thought of blood and pain, of thin-faced, starving children shivering in mountain snow — when he prayed it was.

My, you

are feeling morbid tonight, aren’t you? he asked himself tartly. Maybe Cayleb’s even righter than you thought to insist you get that downtime of his. And maybe you need to get up in the morning and drop by the imperial nursery to hug that goddaughter of yours and remember what this is all really about.

He smiled more naturally, dreams of guilt and bloodshed softened by the memory of that laughing, wiggling small body in his arms like God’s own promise the future would, indeed, somehow be worth its cost in the fullness of time.

And it will

, he thought softly, prepping the commands which would switch him to standby mode. When you look down at that little girl and realize why you’re doing all this — realize how much you love her — you know it will.