The Heretic – Snippet 22

And for a long moment, his body jerked and shuddered.  Then it relaxed.

“Yes,” he said in a low voice.  “Yes.”  Zilkovsky opened his eyes.  “Alaha Zentrum.”

“Alaha Zentrum,” Abel and Joab murmured in the automatic response inculcated by years of Thursday school lessons.

“Scan completed,” Zilkovsky continued.  The priest finally turned his head and looked at Abel.  It wasn’t merely a look, but a stare, as if Zilkovsky was peering deep within, seeing things Abel would prefer hidden.  Could he detect the presence of Raj and Center?

No, Center replied.  No known methods of quantum broadcast discovery are in use.  Zentrum is unaware of our presence on Duisberg. We, however, are faced with another issue.  The encryption mechanism within the implant Zilkovsky is employing to communicate with Zentrum in Lindron is secure.  Breaking the code will take some effort on my part but should be possible in time.

“It seems that your dual actions cancel one another out.  So you are not to be punished for the breach in edict, but you are likewise not to receive a commendation for your admittedly brave behavior in helping to torch the wagons.  What do you have to say to that, young man?”

“Alaha Zentrum,” Abel said, “I accept this judgment.”

Zilkovsky nodded.  “Good, good.” He motioned for Abel to take a seat next to his father.  Abel gratefully sank into the chair and, when the prelate offered beer, took a half cup — even though this action caused his father to raise an eyebrow.  When he took a sip, he found he had not been mistaken — it was great.  He could almost chew on the sweet barley that had gone into the brew.

Zilkovsky turned back to Joab.  “So we have a problem, my friend.  These wagons with the gunpowder, there was no semaphore traffic concerning a raid up north?”

“None whatsoever,” replied Joab.

“I, too, have received no message flitters.”

Interesting.  He speaks of message carrying animals.  His implant must not allow him to communicate with his fellow prelates, but only with the central computer.  No doubt he really does believe he is hearing the voice of God.  An interesting choice on Zentrum’s part.

Do I have one of these. . .implants, then?  Is that how you do it?

No, Abel. I am an advanced model. I am able to narrowcast to you using quantum uncertainties within the small bits called molecules that make up your brain. Zentrum will not have the means to detect this.

Good.  You two get me in enough trouble already.

“Based on their direction of movement,” said Joab, “the Redlanders were coming from the northern borders of Treville.  But, as we both know –”

“– Treville manufactures no gunpowder,” put in Zilkovsky.

“Exactly.  So the point of origin must have been Cascade.  That is also the Captain of Scout’s evaluation.”

“Sharplett,” said Zilkovsky.  “Good man.  Pity he’s of Delta stock.”

Joab nodded.  Abel knew there was no use arguing against class distinctions in the Land.  They were, if anything, more deeply carved in stone than the Stasis itself.

“The problem then becomes to figure out if this is a regular flow.  Are the Redlanders planning something,” Joab said.  “My Scouts report that the Blaskoye have been on a tear of consolidation in the past couple of years.  They’ve incorporated at least five neighboring tribes by conquest or negotiation.”

“What are they up to, do you think?”

“I’m not sure, Mr. Prelate,” Joab answered, “but it can’t be good.  I was hoping you might tell me.”

Zilkovsky sighed, sat back in his chair, took another swig of beer.  “Unfortunately this is a matter on which I’ve received no guidance from Zentrum.  I do, however, have a few watchers in Cascade who send me the occasional report.”

Joab smiled a toothy smile. “I’d hoped you did, Mr. Prelate.”

“Cascade has problems.  Rot at the top, I’m sorry to say.  As you and I have long discussed, it’s a happy district when District Military Commander and District Prelate get along and truly share power with one another.  You and I are blessed by Zentrum to be in such a relationship.”

“I agree,” Joab said.

“Many times in. . .more unhappy places. . it is the military commander who takes control, since he possesses the force.”

“Or believes he does,” said Joab.  “More than one DMC has found out the hard way that what he believes he has is a relative matter in actuality.  Zentrum often finds a way to swat such a man down.”

“Yes,” said Zilkovsky, “quite.  But the problem in Cascade is worse.  Both the priesthood and the military have allowed themselves to become pawns of the gentry.”

“Surely this can be remedied,” replied Joab.  “I’d think a lesson or two would go a long way to doing just that.  Burn a farmhouse, save the Land.”

“It might,” Zilkovsky said.  “But the monopoly on gunpowder production at the Bruneberg plant would continue, for that is the Edict of Zentrum. So the enormous inflow of wealth would likely tempt another group to misbehave.  This is how it has been in. . .well, forever. . .in Cascade.  It is a corrupt place.”

Joab looked perplexed.  “So what’s the solution, Hiram?”  Abel had never heard his father use the prelate’s first name in another’s presence.  He didn’t even know Zilkovsky had a first name.

Zilkovsky now turned to Abel and pointed to his father. “Behold the military mind,” the he said mildly.  “Your father wishes to order things that are fundamentally chaotic.”

“The Blaskoye are building up to something,” Joab replied.  “We can’t resign ourselves to being unprepared for attack just because Cascade’s a dirty mess.”

“No, we cannot,” replied the priest.  “I also do not believe Zentrum will allow it.”

That’s where he’s wrong, said Raj.  This is exactly the sort of thing Zentrum will allow so long as it ultimately keeps the Stasis in place. Zilkovsky has come to enjoy his job so much, he’s forgotten Zentrum’s ultimate purpose.

Zentrum takes the long view, Center put in, in what, for Abel, had become a mantra akin to a Thursday school lesson. But it was a lesson he knew he ought to heed.

“At the moment, however, I am open to suggestions, Commander,” the prelate concluded.

Joab nodded grimly.  “I’ll garrison the Escarpment strongholds with Regulars.  Set the Scouts free to roam.  We’ll need more supplies and I have to secure a Valley water source.  That means somebody’s water rights on the second plateau will have to be requisitioned.  And we may as well requisition their fields as a way station, because it’ll be no good for grain.”

“I believe I can find funds in the temple coffers to cover such a requisition.”

“It’s still going to scare the hell out of the landowners.”

“As well it should.”

“I’m also going to need more Scouts.  That means recruiting Delta elements.  Unsavory sorts.  I’ll keep them out of Hestinga proper as much as possible.”

“Yes, do.”  Zilkovsky had a definite opinion about the social worth of Scouts, it seemed, no matter how much he might value their abilities. He nodded toward Abel.  “And I would think twice about letting this young man associate with them overmuch.”

“Pardon me, Mr. Prelate, but I know my place,” Abel said.  “And so do they when they’re around me.  We are not of the same blood, but I can handle it.”

Zilkovsky smiled thinly.  “That may well be. But remember: all Scouts are borderline heretics.  Heretics are hated of Zentrum, the same as infidel Redlanders.  They’re outside the Law.  And when you’re outside the Law, you’re outside the Stasis.  And when you’re outside the Stasis. . .well, you are outside the Land itself.”

Abel started to reply, but thought better of it.  He met the priest’s steady gaze as best he could.  “Here’s the real lesson I want you to learn from your recent adventures, Abel Dashian, son of Joab.  You come from a fine line of soldiers on your father’s side.  I don’t have to tell you the high standing of your departed mother’s family in Lindron.  There is a clear path ahead of you to high command.  Maybe even a place among the Temple Guardians one day.”

Zilkovsky leaned closer to Abel.  A stray breeze from the fan caught the thin strings of hair on his scalp and lifted them up for a moment like a riding dont’s feathery crest. “So, my young friend, don’t fuck it up with heresy.”