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The light of the two suns beat down on the baking streets of Cartago like a curse. One of them was small, blue, and hot; the other was fat, red, and less hot. They were separated in the sky by about the width of a fist held at arm's length, and Cartago whirled endlessly about a point somewhere between the two blazing orbs. In the streets they cast twin shadows, which angled away from one another slightly, as if reluctant to admit they knew each other.
Gloria VanDeen followed her host and his entourage through the swarming streets, enjoying the color and bustle and the singsong entreaties of the bazaar merchants. Exotic, fantailed phoenixbirds could be hers for only ten crowns, or perhaps even seven. Silken scarves and golden bangles and cotton caftans of the highest quality would only enhance her astonishing beauty, and at a price so low she would feel guilty for taking such advantage of the poor but honest merchants of Cartago; but the honor of being permitted to offer garments and jewelry to grace the famous form of Gloria VanDeen would more than offset the financial loss. The most beautiful woman in all the Empire surely deserved no less than the finest craftsmanship and artistry in the entire Sector–nay, the entire Quadrant!
"I would buy you something as a souvenir," Praetor Ulmani said to her, "but that would surely cause a riot. The merchant whose wares you wore would become insufferable, and his competition, unable to bear their shame, would doubtless kill him."
"Then I suppose it's best that I wear nothing," Gloria said with a smile. "I wouldn't want to be responsible for a tragedy."
"Spirit forbid it!" Ulmani grinned at her. Since nothing–or very nearly nothing–was precisely what Gloria was wearing, the comment seemed apt. Her soft, flowing, nearly transparent garment rested lightly on her shoulders and descended in narrow vees of sheer white fabric, front and rear, shielding her from the suns but not from the hungry eyes that surrounded her.
Honestly, there were times when being Gloria VanDeen was just so damn much fun that it should have been illegal. Gloria smiled and waved happily to the throng in the streets, then let Ulmani take her elbow and usher her along.
The people of Cartago, like their Praetor, had many reasons to be grateful to Gloria VanDeen, and Gloria was aware that her beauty and sexual presence were prominent among them. Without those attributes, it was doubtful that she would have been able to fulfill the mission that had brought her here.
On this, the thirteenth day of January in the year 3218, Standard Calendar–just three days after her twenty-fifth birthday–Gloria VanDeen was the most famous, popular, and (quite possibly) important woman in an empire that spanned a sphere of space two thousand light-years in diameter and was home to some 3 trillion sentient beings. The fact that she was the former wife of the man who was now Emperor Charles V was of some importance, as was her position as head of the Office of Strategic Intervention–the newest action arm of the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs, the sprawling bureaucracy that administered the Terran Empire. Alone, either one of those facts would have made her a woman of some consequence; together, they made her a potent force. But it was her beauty, brilliance, and courage that had won the hearts of the masses and made her, as was often said, the Sweetheart of the Empire.
At moments like this, Gloria was outrageously happy to be exactly who and what she was. She had just brought her mission on Cartago to a triumphant conclusion. And for a change, the intervention had been brief, bloodless, and relatively simple.
Cartago was a thirsty world, where a small population of some 5 million lived on the margins of a globe-girdling desert. Just 194 light-years from Earth, the planet had been settled some eight hundred years earlier in pre-Imperial days. In later years, it probably never would have been colonized at all, but in that first era of interstellar expansion, Earthmen were not very particular in their choice of new worlds. If a planet had oxygen in its atmosphere and a mean surface temperature somewhere between the freezing and boiling points of water, it was a candidate for settlement. Cartago qualified, if only just.
Over the centuries, the slowly growing population had splintered into what amounted to tribal groups, although the ethnic, cultural, and religious orientations of the three main tribes differed little. The only differences of real consequence concerned water and access to it. The Mountain Tribe controlled the flow of the precious liquid that trickled down to the dusty plains and the lands of the Eastern and Western Tribes. Accordingly, the Mountain Tribe had always selected the Praetor who headed the planetary government, such as it was. The coming of the Empire had remarkably little impact on Cartago, and generations of Imperial Governors and Dexta bureaucrats were content to let the natives work things out for themselves.
In recent years, however, the elders of the Eastern and Western Tribes had–for Spirit knew what bizarre reasons–taken to sending their brightest sons and daughters back to Earth to be educated in the law. Having nothing better to do when they returned to their homeworld, the young barristers began suing the other tribes over the only thing that mattered on their world–water. Thus, there had been angry protests, boycotts, insults, threats, and finally, the sequestration of water that had once flowed freely from the slopes of the central mountains. The Imperial Governor had been unable to persuade anyone to see the light of reason, and the tiny Dexta establishment on the planet had thrown up its arms in despair.
So Norman Mingus had sent Gloria to Cartago.
A year and a half earlier, before the creation of the OSI, Gloria–then a Level XIII Dexta bureaucrat–had used her wit and wiles to attract a thousand volunteers on the planet Pecos to help her avert a genocide on the backwater world of Mynjhino. Dexta Secretary Norman Mingus, taking note of her success, had recognized the extraordinary power she possessed and sought to employ it on a regular basis by appointing her to lead the new Office of Strategic Intervention. He had planned to use Gloria as his chessboard queen, dispatching her hither and yon throughout the Empire to hot spots where the existing bureaucratic machinery was failing to respond adequately to the challenges of the moment. In the year since the formation of the OSI, Gloria had only burnished her already gleaming reputation as the sexiest and most desirable woman in the Empire–and, in the process, had achieved some remarkable results for the benefit of Dexta and the Empire it served. She was wildly popular in every corner of the Empire–except, perhaps, for the Imperial Household itself, where Charles had yet to reconcile himself to the new role being played by the woman who had walked out on him nearly seven years earlier.
Cartago was the fifth intervention for Gloria and OSI, and by far, the easiest. Gloria hadn't even bothered to take along any staff; Cartago was just two days away from Earth via Flyer, and so help was relatively close at hand should any prove necessary.
None did. In less than two weeks on the planet, she had met with a handful of young lawyers, a clutch of tribal elders, and Praetor Ulmani, adroitly resolving their conflicts through a combination of judicious bribes and personal persuasion. The Dexta Comptroller would probably grumble about the bribes, small though they were, but Gloria had thoroughly enjoyed her sojourn on Cartago.
In fact, resolving the conflicts on Cartago had been so easy that Gloria seriously wondered if the whole mess had been cooked up by the young lawyers simply to lure her to their world. Probably not, she conceded; on a desert world, no one played games with water. Still, her fame and reputation had reached the point that she had to beware the Heisenberg Effect; her mere presence was enough to alter the terms of any equation.
At the moment, her presence in the streets of Cartago was altering the normal routine of the bazaar at searing midday, when energy levels and activity normally reached low ebb. Praetor Ulmani kept his grip on Gloria's elbow while his entourage of aides and security men plowed a path through the increasingly excited crowds. They could have taken an air-conditioned limo skimmer directly to the restaurant, but Ulmani had calculated that it could not hurt his popularity to be seen escorting Gloria through the teeming streets of his city. And Gloria didn't really mind being paraded as if she were one of Ulmani's hunting trophies; she was willing to let him get whatever political mileage he could out of the affair. He was a nice enough man and probably as good a leader as the planet needed. She was content to let him have his moment; all that really mattered to Gloria was that she had solved Cartago's problems and would soon be returning to Earth.
The outdoor restaurant was just ahead. Security men were already clearing a path while the maître d' stood before a large table in eager, fawning anticipation. Gloria impulsively decided to give everyone–not least of all Ulmani–one last reason to cheer. She turned to face Ulmani, pulled him close, and gave him an incendiary kiss. The cheers were deafening. Gloria released her hold on the astonished Praetor and grinned at him. "Your people adore you," she said.
"After this," Ulmani replied, "they may start worshipping me!"
They made their way through the wrought-iron gateway that delineated the restaurant, greeted the proprietor, and moved to the reserved table. One of Ulmani's aides pulled out a chair for her, and Gloria had just bent to be seated when the blue-green bolt of plasma crackled through the air just above her. The characteristic plasma thunderclap followed an instant later, as air rushed in to fill the ionized trail of the discharge. And just after that, Gloria heard the pained, startled moan from the aide standing behind her.
Before she could fully register what had happened, three security men were firing back, their plasma beams converging on a head and shoulders just visible on the rooftop across the street. The head and shoulders vanished in green fire, and the triple thunderclap echoed through the suddenly silent streets. As quickly as that, it was over.
Gloria was suddenly aware of the sharp smell of burned hair.
She looked around and saw Ulmani's aide slumping backwards against the white stucco wall of the building. Flames flickered along the torn sleeve of his garment and he stared in openmouthed wonder at the inch-in-diameter trench of blackened meat that now grooved his upper arm. Behind him, there was a smoldering hole in the wall.
Comprehension dawned, and Gloria slowly reached upward and ran her fingers through the singed tunnel that had scorched through her thick blond mane, just above her scalp.
I've been shot in the hair, she thought. How very odd.
Gloria stood naked on the altar before fifty thousand entranced onlookers and an Empire-wide vid audience that would eventually number a trillion or more. As it was a Visitation Day, everyone else in the cavernous Church of the Divine Spirit was naked, too, including Archbishop Nesselrode, who stood next to her as he droned on and on and on. What was there about religion, she wondered, that turned so many people into compulsive blabbermouths? Instead of standing in silent awe before their conception of the infinite, why did people like the Archbishop feel the need to heap platitude upon platitude until the stack reached all the way to the heavens above?
The Spirit Herself, at least, had been relatively concise. Exactly eleven hundred and one years ago, to the very hour–at this very spot–she had made her first Visitation, in the middle of what was then a soccer stadium. She had spoken for just ten minutes, and, in her six subsequent Visitations, never more than fifteen. It made for a rather short gospel. In fact, the Book of the Spirit was a remarkably slim volume for a document that had transformed human history.
After centuries of bloody conflicts, many of them inspired by religion, the Spirit had launched a new religion in the year 2117 that was now embraced by fully 70 percent of the Empire's population. It had been eleven centuries since the last religious war among humans, and no Spiritist had ever sponsored a pogrom, crusade, inquisition, jihad, or witch-hunt. The Spirit had made no miraculous claims nor offered magical spells and incantations; she demanded no extraordinary sacrifices and condemned only intolerance, greed, and stupidity. She threatened no hell and promised no heaven but the ones humans could make for themselves. Her gospel was gentle, worldly, even sensuous.
The Universal Church of the Spirit had grown in the wake of her Visitations and was now centered here, at the Mother Church in Rio de Janeiro. The church itself was one of the largest buildings on Earth, its main spire soaring nearly a kilometer above the rotating, circular altar where Gloria now stood, surrounded by legions of the faithful. She had come here today, in spite of many misgivings, to be honored for her life and her work–for her personification of the ideals and values espoused by the Spirit Herself.
It was ridiculous, of course. However, it also seemed unavoidable.
She had been putting off invitations from the UCS ever since her return from her mission to Sylvania, nearly six months ago. Events on that far-off world had been seized upon by devout Spiritists as living proof of the reality of the Spirit, and Gloria's role in those events had inspired their admiration. Gloria was all too aware of the underlying reality of those events but was hardly in a position to reveal the truth to the rest of the Empire. So here she was at last, very much against her will, being honored by people who would probably lynch her if only they knew the truth.
Some people even thought that Gloria resembled the Spirit. There was, perhaps, some truth in that assessment, if one ignored the fact that the Spirit's hair was raven while Gloria's was golden, and that Gloria was five-and-a-half feet tall to the Spirit's forty. But the Spirit's face, like Gloria's, was vaguely panracial in appearance, and her immense, nude body was every bit as attractive as Gloria's, although the Spirit's breasts were proportionately somewhat larger and her hips a bit broader.
But Gloria was real. The Spirit, according to the Cynics, was nothing more substantial than a clever holographic projection arranged by a band of maverick scientists, and her gospel nothing but a collection of slick catchphrases composed by advertising copywriters.
Gloria had always wanted to believe in the Spirit. Sometimes, she almost did. But after Sylvania, she now doubted that she ever really could. Sylvania had taught her how easy it was to create a fake deity and how eager people were to believe in one. Given the role that she had played in the fraud that was the Voice, Gloria could only assume that the Spirit had been a similar fraud.
Ironically, however, the Spiritists' enthusiastic acceptance of the Voice had probably forestalled an investigation that would undoubtedly have concluded with Gloria's spending the rest of her life on a prison world for high treason. It was therefore expedient for Gloria, finally, to accept the honors the Church wanted to bestow upon her. And in the long run, given her ambitions for her future at Dexta, it couldn't hurt to have close ties with the Spiritists. But still, it bothered her to be implicated so deeply in promoting the fraud of the Voice–and, presumably, the fraud of the Spirit.