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All this began some twelve light-years from the Sun, in the year of 2331, on the fourth planet of Tau Ceti, in the third century after the death of Earth.CHAPTER 2
Warm wind threw salt spray into Ondro's face. Dark clouds stabbed the sea with lightning. Rain swept across the reef, raced the breakers and dotted the half-moon beach with a million drops. He held his face up to the wash, inhaling land odors from the shower, imagining the continent where all that would have been his went on without him.
He had taken to going out to the beach just before a storm, to be alone when reproaching Josepha. Are you alone now, my love? Do you suffer for what you did? Had she done anything?
He sat down as thunder rolled over the sea. A bolt burned the sand near him, but he felt only a feeble fear at its illusory show of purpose. Those who had arranged his end would not be so easily cheated. The lightning seemed to know enough to avoid that. It both amused and dismayed him that the other exiles preferred inevitable drowning later to a quick, merciful bolt sooner. Hope breathed beneath their daily resignation. They could not help it. What was reason, after all, but a gray counsel. Tomorrow the ocean might dry up and they could all walk home—and be met halfway by white horses to ride the rest of the way.
He clenched his teeth and shook with the sudden tropical chill as low clouds pulled in over the island. He shivered into sorrow, then lay back and stared up into the hurrying gray masses, seeing Josepha and himself in their first moments together, regarding each other with interest, even wariness, as if each already knew what was to come—she looking tall and slim, long dark hair down her back, he stocky, light-haired, healthy—and felt love for their shy innocence, and despair for the wreck of himself now, for what she was now. Kill me today, he said to the approaching storm. Today.
Her disappearance a week before his arrest, her failure to search him out in prison, had convinced him that she had been a loyal cleric's daughter. Her dark-eyed looks of devotion and tender words had been false from the start, his love for her a leash placed around his neck by the secret police; and instead of the consummation of a marriage night, he had been given only the memories of longing for her pale body.
They had met in their first year at New Vatican University, among the sons and daughters of the professional class—merchants, artisans, engineers, lawyers, and physicians—who had come for their grudging chance at learning, even though their choice of professions was restricted to that of a student's parents.
He had trained in architecture and had planned to return as his father's apprentice. Josepha had studied theology and moral law, hoping to become a lawyer. She had told him that she was being sponsored by a papal official who wished to remain anonymous. Later, she had confided to him that this official was probably her father, but he had been skeptical; the illegitimate children of clerics had been known to make exaggerated claims about their anonymous fathers in the hope of advancement.
In their second year, Josepha had drawn him into a clandestine group that had access to the restricted papal library, where he had learned something of Earth's history, and had come to believe that the papacy had to be abolished, by force if necessary. The very existence of the concealed library, cut out of the rock beneath New Vatican, had convinced him of the urgent need for change. Knowledge that could change the world for the better had been hoarded for three centuries. There was no need for people to work so hard on farms and in the townships. A better and longer life was possible. The endlessly repeated idea of a difficult daily trial as preparation for a life beyond the world began to seem cruel to him, and his faith had been replaced by contempt for the Church. The life it had made for its people was the Way of the Cross, with no reward but death for the common man, while the elite enjoyed temporal power. The fact that the library could be penetrated had convinced him of the regime's fatal weakness.
At the center of the papal library sat a duplicate of the control room from the starship that had brought the original refugees from Earth. The ship itself had been left in high orbit around Ceti IV, but the duplicate control room had been built to transfer from orbit the ship's artificial intelligence and database. Yet millions of books had never been printed out and could be viewed only on aging equipment. The corridors around the central bank were filled with thousands of hastily bound volumes that had been retrieved as they were needed, or as a hedge against failing information storage, or because a cleric had become curious. Pornographic volumes lay tucked away here and there, and sometimes, when Ondro looked for them again, he found they had disappeared. His overwhelming first impression had been that almost no one knew what was in the library anymore and that this amnesia would one day become complete. No one knew if the artificial intelligence still spoke to anyone, but he doubted it; the heavy door to the central control area was locked, and it appeared not to have been opened in many decades.
The official doctrine of the Church was that slow changes were best. The catastrophic example of Earth's brief technological history was to be avoided by educating only a small technical class that would maintain a stable economic government under the Church's moral guidance. In practice, the official doctrine of change meant no change at all.
The library group became a revolutionary cadre at the end of the second year, when Ondro's brother Jason had arrived, but its only aim was to continue learning against the day when the papacy could be brought down. The creation of effective cells that would include members in high positions would take many years, perhaps longer than the lifetimes of the original members.
"We're being too cautious," Jason had said one day. "We should strike at the top as soon as possible, take their lives with one blow. They've been secure so long that it will come as a shock, and before they can rally we'll have control."
"But what if public support fails?" Josepha had asked.
"The public will know nothing about it. We'll simply replace the gang at the top, and the others will follow, scarcely realizing there has been a change. Then we'll start replacing from the top down, keeping our group a secret, so that we can continue no matter what happens."
It had all been so halfhearted, Ondro realized with a renewed dismay as he sat in the downpour. Renunciation was the only balm left for his regrets and lingering ambition. Here there was no future to build, no past to tend. The night's starry immensity seduced him into a sublime self-sufficiency, and by day the sunlit intimacy of trees, sand, and water lulled him into forgetfulness.
But a durable peace eluded him. Thoughts of death brought back the icy resolve of his first convictions. He still wished for the end of Bely's theocracy, the death of Bely himself, if necessary, and would gladly plot again if he were ever given a place from which to strike.
But that place was not here. These islands were only sandbars. Sooner or later a hurricane would sweep the entire archipelago clean of life, as it had done in the past. Josephus Bely, His Holiness Peter III, who hid the knowledge that would topple him inside a rock, had chosen these islands as the final place for both criminals and political exiles, where the great sun-engine of weather would do his killing for him.CHAPTER 3
The whispering snake had coiled in Josephus Bely's sleeping brain for nearly twenty years. The end is coming, it hissed. He opened his eyes to darkness and hated his bodily decay, because it strangled his faith in the life to come. The end is coming!
And it would be final. The hope that had made him deathless during his youth of faith was fading, and he feared that this growing faithless emptiness within him was a punishment for the lingering imperfections in the papal succession from Old Earth, and for the changes—the changes, the poison of the changes that seemed to come with a wind from hell!
He struggled up from his bed and crossed the cavernous room to the open windows. Great white clouds sat over the sleeping city of two-and three-story wood and brick buildings that huddled around the open spaces and tall towers of the palace and cathedral.
He stepped out on the terrace and filled his lungs gratefully with the night air. There is a life beyond this one, his tingling body said as it was chilled by the brine-spiked breeze from the western ocean. The changes, the mortal changes, his mind insisted, they have destroyed you! All clerics, including popes, had fathered sons and daughters by selected females at one time, to increase the numbers of the refugees from Earth. According to the Jesuit geneticists, the arriving community had been just large enough to survive; to hold back any reproductive potential would have needlessly limited the gene pool's diversity. The women's faces had been covered at first, so that no cleric would know his offspring.
But in his time he had known his daughter's name, fathering her with a Sister of Martha long after he had become bishop. The anonymous reproductive duty of novices for the priesthood should never have been extended beyond the time of ordination. The personal need had lived beyond the immediate one of community survival because the geneticists had only made temptation easier to accept with their more-the-merrier view of the gene pool. Every breach of celibacy should have been punished after the danger had passed, yet still the Jesuits insisted on adding to the population. Some of them had sought to modify and even abolish celibacy, but they had lost the fight. Corruption, corruption, he cried within himself. Three centuries of papal rule had committed and then practiced error, he told himself, clinging to the fact of his daughter's existence and wondering if God was on the side of the burrowing heretics who sought to overthrow religious rule. The Church was no longer the Church. The City of God had died with Earth, and he was an impostor ...
Suddenly he saw the universe through heretical eyes, as an unbounded, self-sufficient infinity requiring no creator, in which afterlife was the dream of what could be only when natural life learned to preserve itself. Survival into ages of greater knowledge and skill was the real hope of heaven. Religious imagination was nothing more than a denial of the simple fact of decay, and faith a yearning that had mistaken the means of salvation, which would come from within, from the powers of the human mind, alive and teeming with secular sins.
Was it so? Or had his loss of faith thrown him into a pit of fear and delusion? Was it so? He might imagine anything at night and think it true. Night was the devil's cloak, covering the light of his waking mind, letting out the demons from below.
Struggling with his doubts, he turned away from the darkened city, found his cold sheets, and fell dead into his dreams, where he lay buried in the ground, falling apart while overhead the stars burned. He became dust, but was still conscious, enduring as the stars finally aged and new ones were born, and he became part of the unfeeling everblack, then nothing. Without flesh, there was nothing, nothing at all, his flesh whispered. You must have it to live, to become yourself, and you must raise it up renewed to be saved. Even the old doctrines couldn't make up their mind about what would be saved, spirit or flesh.
They didn't know. They had never known ... oh, dear God, my lost strength, they had never known ...CHAPTER 4
As she waited in the wood-paneled audience chamber, Josepha looked around anxiously at the walls. The carvings of angels and devils battling each other with the weapons of history were cut deeply into the brown-stained wood and accented with black and white. Nowhere in the room, she realized, did the vast, convoluted depiction show a victor. It was a common feature of Jacob Kahl's prolific works.
She began to struggle with a sudden fear. If her cleric father knew of her involvement with the cadre, he might try to use her to track down the other members of the cell, if they had not all been arrested. To have ignored his summons would have placed her under suspicion.
She took a deep breath and sat still. Maybe this was about something else entirely. After all, she had never been commanded to appear before any authority or to come to this audience chamber for the kin of clerics.
"Welcome, daughter," a male voice said from behind the screen.
"It was by your order, wasn't it?" she asked, unable to control her trembling as she gripped the arms of the chair.
"But why?" she added.
She heard him sigh. "I know you wanted him, daughter, but he betrayed us all. And he would have blocked your way—"
"What has he done?" she demanded in a breaking voice.
"Don't you know? He sought the overthrow of the state."
"Ondro? Impossible. I know his family."
"He was not alone, daughter."
"Where is he?" she asked, afraid that she would hear that he was dead.
"He has been judged. I don't know the details. You're well rid of him."
"Where is he?" she shouted, realizing that Ondro's life was over, that all his hopes for his profession would never be realized. No one in the cell had expected sudden arrest by the state, at least not before they were all established in their chosen paths. It had been a kind of game, meeting once a month to discuss the latest revision of the revolutionary council's program for the future. No one knew who was on the council, or when it would call the cells to action. We were all fools, she thought, talking of revolution but also dreaming of personal power. How many other conspiracies waited in Bely's vast, decaying bureaucracy? Who was the council, anyway? It might be a cardinal or two, perhaps even a single individual telling the cells what they wished to hear. Maybe there was only one cell. Bely himself might have started the whole thing to trap dissenters as they appeared.
She had come to the cell meeting and found an empty room. The chairs and table were in disarray, and the lock on the door was broken.
She had fled in panic, wary of contact with any of her friends from the group, afraid to find out who had been caught, fearful that some of those who had been arrested might be released to lure others into giving themselves away.
There were rumors of a cardinal being assassinated right here in the papal palace.
Later, she found the summons under her door in the college dormitory. It was the first message she had ever had from the man who claimed to be her father.
Quietly, she got up and came around to his side of the screen. "Tell me!"
The old man sitting there looked tired. "You must not ..." he began, swallowing as he looked up at her. His obvious distress gave her confidence.
But as she looked at the pitiable old man who shrank from her gaze, she saw something familiar in the gaunt face, and her pity turned to surprise as she recognized the pontiff himself, by whose order she had escaped arrest—and who by being here now confessed himself as her father.
She stood in silence, unable to speak.
"What will happen to Ondro?" she asked at last, struggling with the pontiff's revelation, wondering if it might be a lie. "If you are my father, then you must tell me!"
"You cannot understand ..."
"Then explain it to me."
He shook his head and sank deeper into the heavy cushions of his chair. "Go back to your studies. Forget ... or risk joining him in punishment. Do you want your life to end here and now? I have other hopes for you."
"What are you saying?"
"Forget these associations. Remake your life, and we will talk again."
Excerpted from Cave Of Stars by George Zebrowski. Copyright © 1999 George Zebrowski. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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