Site Delta, Mars, largest of the Ark Communes (population 830,000)
Vaster crowds than ever cared to tread the bleak surface grounds had turned out for the reception. Entire communities suited up, thronging at the foot of the great landing pad in the freezing Martian twilight. The vestigial masses of the resurrected. Those ever-faithful believers the Church had bled dry on Earth - but had little further use for in the afterlife. Those thousands reborn not into the paradise that was promised, but a horizonless world of pressurised habs and holographic facsimiles.
But this night was their chance - the first of their second lifetimes - to feel part of something transcendent once again. To escape, just for a few hours more, from the numbing Church regimen of drug-laced nutrifeed and subliminal HHUD messaging. Recapture the fervour of their former selves. To be restored to the fold at last.
'Praise the Progenitors!' every HHUD subtitled, and on command but with true and desperate emotion all the same, the cry went up. Each individual voice trapped beneath a helmet. But every one recorded, and broadcast all as one. A collective outpouring. A prayer. A plea.
"Praise the Progenitors!"
"Praise the Progenitors!"
"Praise the Progenitors!"
Translated simultaneously between a hundred languages.
And at the third recitation, the landing rocket's ramp came down. Answering the call. And out he stepped-
The adored icon of the last generation of Autologists on Earth. The man some hailed as the second coming of Ishimura himself. Autology's public face. Its best foot forward. The man who stood in front of the curtain, while the leadership shrouded themselves in secrecy behind. Many among the crowd wore icons of his likeness round their necks. Had scarified his words into their bodies, and their children's.
"We welcome Oumar Ben Abbes to Site Delta" every HHUD feed announced in joyous unison. "Chairman of the Presidium of the Autologist Association, and salvation of so many of us here today"
The crowd erupted in frenzied cheers. Hysterical sobbing. Adulating screams. Indeed he was. Ben Abbes' livestreams were once millions of believers' introduction to the faith, and of those whose neuroscans had been stored on Callisto after the end, many thousands numbered among them. Every HHUD projected a hallucinatory vista behind the Chairman as he descended from the craft - each tailored by Site Delta's mainframe AI to the memories and yearnings of his congregants. Some saw a starburst of golden, rapturous halo-light, brighter and more beautiful than anything the optics of the human eye could naturally perceive. Others the blue skies of long lost Earth, streaked by clouds or lustred by sunset. Those whose loved ones were never scanned, visions of the lost descending beatifically at his side.
"Greetings, my friends!" Ben Abbes called out. "My brothers and sisters all!" his voice transmission overlaid with euphoria-inducing ultrasound. "No, no - do not cheer! I deserve no praise, my children. It is not I who have saved you. It was you completed the courses, you who earned your places among the stars. Your hope, your determination, your commitment that was judged deserving of eternal life!"
The cheers only grew louder at his denial.
"I showed you there was a way. But the power-" he paused for effect, "-was always within you"
Like clockwork, that line, thought the only onlooker disconnected from his HHUD - and the ultrasound's effects - insulated in the pressurised confines of the Tharsis Control Tower, that overlooked the landing sites. Mïras Szczęsny. Administrator of Site Delta and highest authority of the Church on Mars.
Because it hadn't been enough for Ben Abbes to beat him to his rightful position as Chairman. Had it? It hadn't been enough for him to pull strings to have him resurrected on Mars; three hundred million miles away from the real seat of any power. Now he had come all the way from the Presidium on Callisto - to take away even what little authority he'd been able to carve for himself out of this backwater shithole.
Worst of all, Szczęsny brooded, pouring himself another shot - the only perk of the job - he would have to listen to him preach for another hour. Booming over every speaker in that ridiculous quasi-african accent. Pure showmanship, a focus-tested persona - the man was Tunisian. His first language Arabic. At least so far as he knew. But who could know where the lies ended and the truth began with such a man? He had simply appeared along with Dr Corinealdi's cabal when that sinister, shadowy benefactor had come to power. God alone knew where he had found him. But Ben Abbes had been a fixture ever since, growing, always growing in prominence and position. Mïras had been Vested six years when the young upstart overtook him, becoming Ordained in only half that time. How he had hated Ben Abbes for it. How he hated him still. How Mïras had hated for years and years, hating beyond both their deaths. He downed another shot.
For now he was expected to shake hands and pray with this man. And the bastard knew. Of course he did. Ben Abbes would savour every moment of his final and ultimate humiliation.
The cheers died down.
"Administrator" the Mainframe announced, in the suddenly grating customised female voice he'd configured. "The Chairman has finished his address. He's coming up the elevator now, sir"
"Send him in" Szczęsny exhaled, after a pained and pregnant pause.
"That won't be necessary. He's granted himself access, sir"
The Administrator snarled. Adjusted his collar. Stowed away the drink lest the cameras forced him to share any of his prize reserve. You could hear the Chairman coming even through sound-proofed doors. His practiced, avuncular laughter echoing down the hall. Szczęsny would have preferred to listen to nails scraping on a chalkboard.
"...yes, yes, a nine month round trip. Lambda, Tau and now Delta. Omicron another year, at a better transfer window-"
The doors opened.
"As-salāmu alaykum" Szczęsny greeted him.
"Alaykumu s-salām" Ben Abbes returned in flawlessly standard Arabic, betraying not a hint of dialect. Unfailingly artificial.
"How's the luxury cruise?"
A cheap shot. After all these years he could have done better than that.
"All is very well, my friend-"
Szczęsny should have known better. Goading him was pointless. The Chairman never acknowledged an insult - they rolled off him harmlessly as water on wax.
"-now let me embrace you!"
Ben Abbes wouldn't even allow him the dignified reserve of a handshake. The huge man pulled Mïras - a slightly built, elderly Indo-Asian - into a crushing embrace. Behind them the hovering camera-drones still rolled. The Administrator resigned himself to a humiliation more total than he could have expected even from his oldest enemy, and mentally laid out on his desk the stiff drink he would be having the moment the man left. It was only when the cameras stopped - the hover-drones folding up and the office lights dimming - that his despair was usurped by a tinge of fear. For a moment he would not have been surprised if Ben Abbes’ embrace turned into a throttling death-grip - but mercifully the pressure subsided. Patting him on the back as he hacked up his lungs, Ben Abbes sat himself down in the Administrator's chair.
"Good as it is to see you, my oldest friend, there is no time for formalities. I come to you on serious business. A most extraordinary matter, in which your expertise has been specifically requested"
"Oh?" the Administrator asked. He doubted it. But then it was hard to take anything the man said sincerely when it came out in that faux-eurafrican imitation. "Why couldn't a communication be sent, instead of the Chairman himself?"
Ben Abbes smiled broadly, "You flatter me, brother, but I am only a humble servant of the Church. I go where I am needed"
"Then why are you needed here?" Szczęsny challenged. Anger barely kept from his voice.
"The people need their ministry" the Chairman gestured to the surveillance feeds, panning over the crowds now thronging outside the tower. "And this matter -" he paused dramatically, "- is a most sensitive matter. What I am about to tell you does not in any way diminish the fact that your administration of the largest commune - this jewel in humanity's crown - does you much credit-"
The son of a bitch. The bastard knew Mars was worthless.
"-but the Presidium has very great need of you elsewhere, my friend. Your abilities are to be put to more momentous use. A new posting. Maximum priority. Maximum secrecy. A diplomatic mission to the first alien visitors to our solar system since the arrival of the Owners themselves. I must say how it pleasures me to be the bearer of such good news, my child. I know you have waited many years now..."
No. The sick bastard - he couldn't reassign him now. Ten years ago maybe but not now. He couldn't take away everything he had struggled so hard to build up from nothing. Ben Abbes prated on but in his mind the Administrator was far from them, dwelling, appreciating, perhaps for one of the first times the significance of his accomplishments here on Mars. The high-g maternity orbitals, that had more than halved the birth defect rate. The subterranean expansions, the polar ice convoys. None of it could measure up to the grand engineering projects of the Jovian moons, of course, but this was his domain, however humble it was. To see his work passed on into the hands of lesser men...
"...reassigned to Site Alpha. An orbital facility, of course, not the surface..."
Wait. It clicked. Triton? That's too far-
"...regrettably I must make the long journey in corporeal form. To conclude the solar tour. But you, my brother, will be granted the privilege of a second resurrection. Like our missionary heroes beyond the sun's light. They are few - and esteemed above all others - who have made the great journey twice. Who have undertaken again, in conscious commitment, the great leap of faith that defines our Church, our mission and our creed..."
No No No No No No No No
"No!" Mïras blustered out.
"No, brother?" Ben Abbes reclined in faux astonishment, hands plaintively clasped. "You do not wish to accept the invitation of the Presidium? Of the Director himself? The doctor will be most disappointed. Why do you decline?"
"N-No of course I am honoured to be offered a position. But Mars is my home now, its congregants are my people and I feel a duty to them-"
"Come now, my friend. Do not resist" Ben Abbes smiled like a sated predator, able to flaunt unconcealed before its prey. The sight pushed Mïras over the edge. Hot nausea gripped his throat, his chest.
"Listen, upstart" he spat the word with venom, emboldened by sheer terror at last, "There are men here still loyal to me. If you don't want to enjoy the honour of a second resurrection yourself, I suggest you get back in your rocket now and turn back to Site Epsilon. And never dare set foot on my planet again".
Composed to a fault, Ben Abbes continued as if nothing had been said. "I assure you brother, there are excellent candidates to follow in your stead. You are not abandoning Mars. Your legacy here will be upheld by the Church's finest. And I am sure you will see Site Delta again - you have my word I will see to it personally-"
"-security" Mïras tapped the comms panel on his desk, "please escort the Chairman to the flight lounge"
Ben Abbes paused. For a moment the Administrator allowed himself to believe he had caught him off guard. But then he laughed, and Mïras realised how much more terrifying it was when the man showed any sign of recognising his threats.
"Oh, my child. You think we did not come to an understanding with your officers, many months before my arrival? They will not comply with your illegal order - not against the direct authority of the Presidium itself"
"Mainframe, activate security protocols-"
"My access codes override yours, Administrator, please-"
"Nürasyl-" Szczęsny quavered, voice cracking in desperation
"Your cousin is a very capable man" Ben Abbes mused unconcernedly. "It was considered whether something should be done about him before my arrival. When we appointed him Chief Mainframe Technician for Site Delta, it was only as a concession to you - none of us foresaw how he would excel in the role. It is entirely possible, my friend, that he could turn the firewalls against me. But no matter. He will not have enough time"
"W-What do you mean" Mïras croaked, nausea overwhelming now. He slumped against the wall in horror.
"The sickness you feel. That is not only anxiety, my friend". Ben Abbes flicked a finger to share his HHUD display, and a hallucinatory medical readout bloomed across his field of vision. "You appear to have been poisoned" the Chairman told him with cold disingenuity.
"N-No" Mïras clutched at his throat. One of Ben Abbes' security detail entered the room, carrying a neuroscan helmet. "No I - I - I can't. It's just-"
"Just what?" Oumar challenged him.
But his old enemy had him trapped. For the Church had it doctrines - or rather its 'sciences' - that could not be contradicted. Quantum entanglement. Waveform collapse. Names they invoked like sacred mantras to prove they did not die. But the Administrator was high enough in Autology's tiered hierarchy to know that the technology of the resurrection was built by inscrutable AI designed in turn by more inscrutable AI - and the promise of continuity were to be taken on faith alone.
Which he did not have.
"-I'll die" Mïras choked.
"Administrator" Ben Abbes shook his head, "you disappoint me. In our profession there is only one rule"
They clamped on the helmet as his lips turned purple and frothed with blood
"Never break character"
-and his lungs fill with amniotic saline as he screams. He is drowning. Yet still alive. He thrashes against steel restraints that bind his wrists and ankles. A light blooms in the swimming darkness. A chime echoes. And the resurrection tank vomits him shivering and spasming out into the capsule. He floats weightless in a foetal curl.
"Welcome to Triton Station" Ben Abbes' voice startles him from his inward horror. "It has been two hundred and seventy days since our meeting"
"N-No" Mïras whimpers, clutching at his body. "I-I'm-"
"-dead. You were. So were we all after Earthloss, my brother. Compose yourself. Your cousin is Administrator at Delta now if it is any consolation. Performing well by all accounts. Meeting his quarterly quotas"
"What do you want from me?" he asks, unsure why he even bothers. He feels like a talking corpse. He might as well be - for everything he had is gone.
"There are clothes in your quarters, friend. Get dressed. I am inbound on a trans-neptunian transfer. ETA is seven days. But Dr Corinealdi is already aboard - resurrected directly from Callisto. You would not want to displease the Director, would you?"
With trembling arms Mïras reaches out for a handhold, and orients himself.
"More spartan than you are used to, but such is the cost of your resistance". The Chairman understates as ever. His quarters are a bare and empty cell, save for a pouch of toiletries tethered to the wall and a package of folded fatigues.
"I-I will ready myself"
"Good". Mïras could almost hear the Chairman grinning. "And some of your old fiery disposition, my friend. We do not need an emotionally ruined man for this task. If you cannot perform it will become necessary to start erasing memories"
"Wait. I want to ask-"
A moment of radio silence. Then a terse "what?"
"Why me?" he asks piteously.
"You think there is some personal reason, brother?"
"Yes I do you faithless son of a bitch! You've always had it out for me - you've been a plague on my family since Corinealdi dragged you from the gutter!"
A longer pause.
"I don't know what you believe about my role in your past misfortunes, but I have not so much as thought about you in almost ten years. Mars is supremely irrelevant to the interests of the Presidium. You have been a caretaker of invalids. Nothing more"
A HHUD interact blooms in Mïras's field of vision
[open attached document? y/n]
With a tentative mental impulse he accepts-
"You simply happen to be the most qualified candidate for the task ahead. I suggest you reacquaint yourself with your work"
Orbit of Site Alpha, Triton, redacted from all records (population: 0?)
Could Ben Abbes simply have his way - it is the first time in years he cannot - they would have built a rotating habitat, caution be damned and no matter the cost. But for reasons not even his empire of informants and spies can piece together, Site Alpha is a redacted commune - and anything sent out here has to be disguised as an unmanned research launch. His coterie of doctors have re-engineered his body from the proteins and the prions up for Callisto's microgravity; but true weightlessness still discomforts his sensitive disposition. He finds unpleasant the puffiness of his face. The upset it causes his stomach. How is it that they can bring the dead back to life but the best they can give him for that is still a shot of analgesics?
Fumbling for the handgrips in zero g he ungracefully orients himself to face his host upright. It is an unwelcome departure from his practiced poise.
Dr Guillem Corinealdi is hovering in a meditative pose, serene in the centre of the chamber. He turns slowly. Behind him a ressurection chamber churns silently behind glass, racks of nano-styli whirring. It isn't building anyone. Just an anencephalic husk. But the doctor likes to watch it weave its work, he knows. It will never live.
"Chairman" his thin voice strikes a chill into Ben Abbes, in a way that nothing else can - not all the threats made by his political rivals down the years, nor even the inscrutable words of alien observers from beyond the Nexus gate. In ways, Corinealdi is more alien than them. Incurious eyes stare languidly from a pallid, sunless face as motionless as a mannequin. Ben Abbes is a consummate master of personas, the Church's snake-oil salesman in chief, and proud of it, but somehow all that crumbles beneath a lifeless gaze all the more withering for the total lack of scrutiny in it, as if the Director knows more than he could possibly need to garner from someone such as him. Some among the leadership have fallen to the man's delusions, and think him changed, altered somehow by what must be something beneath the ice. Before the Nexus Ben Abbes would have privately mocked any true believers. He considered himself merely in the presence of the one man he had ever met more the master of his craft than him. But since the revelation that aliens are entirely real - he isn't so sure. There is something decidedly beyond an act about Corinealdi - he has never broken character, not once, not ever, not in all the private audiences he has had before him over many, many years.
"I've been informed of your arrival. There is no need for formalities"
"I wanted to greet you personally, Director, out of respect. Forgive me that a direct resurrection was not tenable - the ceremony of our new pilgrimage program demands one continuous journey-"
"Don't make excuses Chairman. You don't need them. I know your faithlessness. It is immaterial - you remain in this position because you are useful to me. A good servant, however much you fail yourself"
Ben Abbes never panics, never loses composure. He is too practiced a politician for that. But when Corinealdi always manages to pull some new rug out from under him, he can only remain silent. He towers compared to the Director, a tall, imposing man broad-shouldered as broad-bellied, but he is reduced to avoiding his master's gaze like a chided schoolboy in some period entertainment.
"It sleeps beneath the ice, drinking the fire of the core" the Doctor whispers, voice trembling with emotion and globules of spit escaping from his lips. "Can you feel it? The power of a god!"
Ben Abbes feels nothing save for extreme discomfort in the presence of the madman. And longing, for the familiar, mundane world of his gilded quarters on Callisto, where wait his houris and fresh food and drink, his pressure baths and rejuvenation treatments. Where he can forget that any of this alien nonsense even exists and focus on enjoying his long afterlife, and on checking the ambition of the enemies that would stop him enjoying it as accustomed forever.
Only Corinealdi and his alien zeal threatens that. The Churchmen of Callisto are venal, predictable, rational. But when the call comes from the shadowy head of the Church's innermost circle - all reason and calculation falls away. It has no place in this forsaken outer world, beyond the light of the furthest commune.
"Of course, Director"
"One more thing, Chairman-"
Ben Abbes stops, and pivots, cursing inwardly.
"-should discussions go well with our guests, we will be inviting them to join a surface party"
His brow furrows. What little his spies can tell him is that not one has ever been attempted since the facility was somehow lost.
"What better way to impress upon our new converts the inescapable truth of Ishimura's discovery - than to witness it themselves?"
A thousand times further out than any human has ever gone intact, the Autologist Nexus Gate drifts. Running silent and dark across the unfathomable reaches of the Oort. It is no hub of commerce, no centre of civilisation, like the gates of so many clients. The Black Gate - the faithless call it. For it was placed not to let Autologists reach the wider worlds, but to keep them locked in theirs. Built far beyond the reach of any civilian craft, or any vessel save the immense interstellar constructions of the Church's missionary wing. No fleeing dissident or defeated rebel will find asylum in the Nexus - not when they would run out of heat and fuel a thousand AU from their only escape.
But for only the second time in its decades of service, it sees life. A ship emerges. One like none humanity ever built. It is far from its destination, but the gate's very distance from Triton will now doubly serve as a test of its supposed speed. The capabilities promised by the Owner's survey data are nothing short of wondrous.
Every instrument studding the automated gate-ring is directed towards it. A broadcast from the Gate's main antennae array has been looped in preparation for the arrival. It transmits the orbital structure of the solar system, and the present and extrapolated location of Triton Station. And a message, delivered by none other than Ben Abbes himself.
"Welcome, celestial visitors, to the home of humanity, and the cradle of the revelation that will one day join all mindkind in eternal unity and joy!" The recording opened with typical aplomb, Ben Abbes' emphatic delivery employed to fullest effect. "The third planet from our sun was our species' birthplace, but a cometary impact extincted us when our civilisation was yet young. Yet by the gifts of the divine Progenitors, our kind was resurrected to enjoy a second life among the planets and the stars. We seek to bring the joys of unending life - and the Progenitors' promise of a paradise eternity - to every corner of the Nexus. The Church acknowledges that our beliefs and doctrines may differ in many details, but we have reached out to the Qorsikan people and to Her, because we believe the source of our faiths lies in the same ancient alien power. We believe that just as it called to the Qorsikans through Her - and may Autology praise Her name - it called also to humanity through the divine artefacts discovered on Triton and Callisto. We have invited you here not to promulgate dogma or demand concession, but to inquire and debate in the spirit of truth the evidence behind our two faiths. To find agreement and unity in our shared heritage, our shared desires and our shared destiny. Praise Her"