Bewildering Stories

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part 1

by Gareth D. Jones

Darrien rose from his knees, along with his two fellow devotees, at the conclusion of the words of inauguration spoken in Holy Latin by the Prophet himself. Harsh white light flooded the dark chamber as they did so, dazzling them as they tried to look at the Prophet in his crystal white robes and the two attendant apostles who wore saffron. The huge medallion of the silver crescent moon eclipsing a golden sun that hung from his neck glittered brilliantly, causing the three men to blink incessantly.

The Prophet gestured for Darrien to step forward, and he did so ceremoniously, bending his head to receive the silver crescent sash that completed his jet-black uniform and identified him as a crusader. The sash in place, he stepped back in line and the other two stepped forward in turn, their clean-shaven heads beading with sweat that was not entirely due to the blazing lights. Rivulets ran down their faces to collect in the men’s short, pointed beards.

The two apostles bowed once to the three men in recognition of their new status, long dreadlocks swinging wildly with the movement. One also bore a crusaders tattoo on his head, identifying him as a bodyguard as well as an apostle. On cue the large double doors at the rear of the room swung open, revealing a double line of clean-shaven monks in white loin-cloths who led them down candle-lit passages to the subterranean quarters where they would have a day to meditate before being sent to join their fellow crusaders on the Crusade of the Light. The cell door swished closed, concluding with the quiet ping that indicated it was sealed from without. The silence that ensued was absolute.

A monk’s cell was not equipped with anything that might remotely be considered a luxury. The wooden pallet offered no comfort, the faucet produced only cold water that fell into a small basin. The toilet facility was separated by a manual sliding door. There was not even a mirror, so Darrien was not able to see the golden sun that had been tattooed onto his head. He sat down wearily, aching head in hands. He only hoped that the removal process did not hurt any more than the application had. It was not something that he wanted to be stuck with for the rest of his life.

Now he was bound for an unknown planet, to fight for a cause that he did not support, ordained by a man he knew was not inspired. The situation could present an opportunity to escape with his information without risking the Inquisitors, but he had not been at the Temple long enough to gather all the data he needed. On the contrary, the amount of information necessary had proven far larger than anticipated, behooving him to stay longer and dig deeper. Somehow though, he had outsmarted himself. He had proven too zealous in an attempt to get closer to the Prophet, and now found himself commissioned as a Crusader. He had one day to meditate on the situation.

* * *

The hours ticked by quickly as Darrien put his considerable intellect to work on the problem of bringing an end to the violent and corrupt Stellar Brethren before he found himself fighting on their side in a crusade against uncooperative heathens. He did not want to leave the Temple yet, not with so much more information to gather. It had taken him months to get to his current position, and it would take months more for a replacement agent to infiltrate. He had to find a way to stay.

After a few hours’ fortifying rest he awoke to find the air chilly, his breath rising as steam; no deprivation was spared those in meditation. The cold air sharpened his thinking, as did his stomach crying out for food. A mouthful of water was all he had to satisfy that temporarily.

He had three opportunities to stay. Firstly, he could declare himself a coward, unable to face bloodshed in the cause of the faith, but that would mean him loosing all privileges and returning to the compound to join the other common disciples. There, he would have no opportunity to gather privileged information. His second opportunity was to have an inspired vision or other miraculous happening that would elevate him to the position of Apostle with a place at the Prophet’s side. That would certainly be advantageous, but he did not have high hopes of carrying it off successfully.

By the time a stern-looking monk unlocked the cell door a few hours later he had mentally prepared the steps necessary to carry out the third option. He followed humbly behind his guide, who led him to join the other two new crusaders. All six now strode silently through dim passages that led to the courtyard of the temple.

Outside a crowd of disciples and teachers had gathered, along with a small knot of adepts and a group of monks that kept distinctly separate. They were waiting for the public blessing to be pronounced on the crusaders by the Prophet.

The three monks stopped at the foot of a short flight of stairs that led to a platform whereon stood the Prophet. He was flanked by two genuine apostles, while the bodyguard stood behind. Darrien stepped up before them in between the other two new recruits. They stood at the front of the platform, on a level lower than that graced by the Prophet, and turned to face the crowd.

“These men,” The Prophet pronounced to an awestruck audience, “go forth today in holy crusade to fight for the light against the heathen masses.”

“Amen.” Intoned the crowd. The three crusaders now turned their backs on the crowd to receive their final blessing. Now was the critical time for Darrien’s plan. The timing had to be to the split-second. He shifted into fight-ready position, a subtle adjusting of attitude and tensing of muscles that went unnoticed by the Prophet — who stood now directly in front of him — or by the two apostles. His fellow crusaders were concentrating their attention on the Prophet and did not see, either. As he had hoped though, the highly trained, deadly-skilled bodyguard picked up the minute movement.

Darrien took a deep breath, preparatory to a direct attack. It was now a matter of who would move first, a game of brinkmanship akin to an ancient wild west duel. The bodyguard’s face was still registering surprise, but instinct took over and he began a step forward, reaching for a concealed weapon. Darrien relaxed into the pose of an innocent devotee. He had bluffed the bodyguard into moving first. The two new crusaders had registered the bodyguard’s movement and interpreted it as only one thing: an unprovoked attack on the Prophet. Darrien began to move forward with them, and the two apostles whirled in surprise even as the bodyguard’s hand reached his gun.

The crowd were only just beginning to register the commotion that had developed within a second. The bodyguard drew to aim over the Prophet’s shoulder at Darrien. The apostles saw the weapon and dropped to the ground. The Prophet had still not moved when Darrien’s dive brought about a heavy collision. The bodyguard, confused, shot one of the crusaders, who was propelled back off the platform into the crowd. The monks were mounting the steps. Darrien and the Prophet hit the ground. Before he could re-aim, the bodyguard was tackled by the second crusader; they both went down.

The monks came to the aid of the Prophet, assisting him to his feet. The apostles had to rise unaided. Darrien stayed on his knees. The third crusader was carried back out of the crowd, dead. He had been avenged already by the other crusader; the bodyguard was dead too.

It seemed a long time that Darrien waited on the floor for the words of the Prophet. When they came the relief nearly caused him to stumble. “It seems you have saved my life.”

The truth would not be known. As long as it stayed that way, Darrien would be safe. The life of one crusader and one bodyguard, bluffed into drawing first, was a small price to pay for the ultimate demise of the Stellar Brethren. At a signal from the Prophet, an apostle raised Darrien to his feet. No more was said in front of the crowd. They were herded away by the adepts. The remaining crusader was given his blessing to depart for the crusade; a man who killed in the Prophet’s presence was not safe to keep on hand.

* * *

Darrien was led back to a holding cell and told to await the Prophet’s pleasure. By late evening he gave up waiting and went to sleep. It seemed certain that he would not be joining the crusade quite so soon.

He awoke to a fuzzy ache in his temples and to the curious fact that he was now wearing saffron robes. His head cleared after a cold wash. A skinny monk opened his cell door a few moments after he had risen and gestured for him to follow. He did not wait to see whether Darrien would obey but strode off up the corridor. Darrien followed along to the Prophet’s chamber and stood stiffly to attention before the Holy Seat.

“You are no longer to go forth as a crusader.” The Prophet said. Darrien kept his face impassive. He was relieved, but a genuine disciple would be disappointed. “You will serve as my new bodyguard.”

That was just the position Darrien had hoped for, close enough to the Prophet to glean valuable information without needing to maintain a pretence of being something more. The Prophet handed over a small black case and nodded for Darrien to open it.

“You will find pockets for these within your robes.” He said. The case contained two small blasters and various other concealable weapons. Darrien looked at them in surprise. “No-one is allowed to carry weapons in my presence, except my bodyguard. Do you know why I can trust him, usually?”

Darrien shook his head.

“Because our lives are linked. A small neural disruptor has been implanted in your skull, tuned to a complimentary device carried by me. If I die, you die.” That was a large flaw in Darrien's plan. He had not known that fact. “I do not know why Kavell would try to kill me, and himself.”

“A fanatic?” Darrien suggested.

“Perhaps.” The Prophet dismissed the matter with a wave of his hand. “It is now your job to protect me. Your life depends on it.”

* * *

A vast throng filled the temple courtyard, a mass of disciples and members of the public who had come to hear one of the Prophet’s speeches. They were packed in tightly, hardly any room to move. At the front they were held back from the stage by railings and a row of monks. Temple guards were holding back many more hopefuls outside the gates.

The Prophet was in the middle of an inspiring peroration. One minute he kept the crowds hushed, eagerly hanging on his every word, the next they were cheering ecstatically. He was a gifted speaker, Darrien had to admit that much. Along with a genuine apostle he stood to the side of the Prophet and a step back, scanning the crowd, the whole courtyard, for any security risks. It was his third such convention in his month as the Prophet’s bodyguard. Up to now nothing untoward had happened.

A yell and a brief struggle interrupted one of the crowds’ silences. Three guards at the rear joined forces to grab an undistinguished figure and marched him towards an inner door. The crowd stirred, shifting positions slightly within the confines of their neighbours. Aware that the commotion at the back could be just a diversion, Darrien scanned the crowd more intensely.

The Prophet continued his sermon as the dissident was taken inside the building. The crowd settled down, except for one figure who seemed to have been moving a lot further during the brief shuffle than anyone else. A man in anonymous grey overalls was picking his way carefully to the front, making good use of the cheering sessions to duck under waving arms and taking advantage of the crowd’s rapt attention to slip through unnoticed during periods of quiet.

A subvocal warning into Darrien’s concealed mike brought the front row monk, guards and plain clothes security agents alert to the potential troublemaker. The security men in the crowd began converging on him under Darrien’s direction. The Prophet’s speech continued.

The assassin — for that was surely his purpose — ceased his forward motion during one of the lulls, then began cheering and waving his arms along with the devotees. Temple security was still too distant to take any restraining action, but now the time seemed imminent for the infiltrator’s act. The cheering died down, the listeners’ arms fell back to their sides as the Prophet’s voice once more entranced them. The man in grey did not drop his hands. His left arm was pointing towards the Prophet, seemingly empty-handed, but a threat nonetheless.

While the assassin was still aiming, Darrien drew a stun pistol from the folds of his robes and fired. The would-be assassin crumpled to the floor quietly. Four security guards pushed their way through the crowd to retrieve him for questioning, but they were not as quick as the crowd. Enraged by the heretic’s murderous intent they turned on his inert form. The guards had great difficulty retreiving the body from the mob.

It took a long time for the crowd to be brought back under control and the courtyard emptied. Darrien followed the Prophet back to the security cells on the fourth sub-level of the temple. The two bodies did not reveal much. The distracter had activated his own neural disruptor after capture, obviously preferring death to the attentions of the inquisitors. The assassin’s radius bone had been replaced by a ceramic replica, hollowed out to act as an undetectable firearm that, although not very accurate, would be quite powerful. All that could be determined about the men was that they were probably natives of the Prophet’s home planet, possibly members of a local religious opposition group.

The two dead men had Darrien’s sympathy, but he could not let the Prophet die yet.

* * *

Over the following weeks Darrien heard much that would be of value to the agency. He saw secret caches of arms, including illegal weapons of enormous destructive energy. Drugs of all kinds were smuggled by well-travelled missionaries and sold to support the opulent life style of the high-ranking clergy; even the senior monks lived luxuriously when not on public show. Links with powerful politicians on many planets became evident. All that was needed now was a way of getting the information out.

When he had arrived at the temple and been inaugurated into the brethren, Darrien had not been able to bring any equipment or communications devices that might give him away. Even an implant could be detected during the screening process. He either had to escape, which would be very difficult considering his current assignment, or give the signal for the agency to invade the compound.

The Prophet held a weekly audience for those who did not live within the compound to come and seek his blessing. Most of those who came were devotees from off planet, who sometimes spent fortunes to make the journey. All supplicants were thoroughly vetted and had to endure extensive security checks to gain admittance. Each was accompanied through the courtyard by a guard who stayed with them throughout the audience. No chances were being taken with the Prophet’s security.

All of the visitors that came were studied with great interest by Darrien. He tried to determine the kind of person that would join the Stellar Brethren, but those who came were from all walks of life. The Prophet’s appeal was universal.

A tall aristocratic woman entered the audience chamber one day, stalking along haughtily, ignoring completely the guard at her side. She curtsied courteously enough before the Prophet’s seat, but her whole manner indicated that she had been extremely insulted by the guard’s presence. The Prophet greeted her and they began a conversation about the irreligious peasants of her home planet, and what the Brethren could do to help them.

The conversation went on far longer than a standard interview, the Prophet obviously charmed by the lady’s manner, but Darrien was not fooled. She was not a noble lady at all, but a skilled and deadly spy. It seemed that his chance had come. As the audience came to an end, Darrien blinked the ‘Invade’ code to his fellow agent. It was his only option. The woman gave no acknowledgement, but he knew she had received the message.

Proceed to the conclusion...

Copyright © 2005 by Gareth D. Jones

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