Keeper of the Faith - Part 4
The dreams always ended there. I never relived any part of the conversation that followed. Sometimes, I wondered if it really happened. Maybe it had been just another nightmare I'd dreamt out there on the tundra, alone beneath a lidded sky, with only the distant baying of the wolves to break the silence of my sleep.

But there was still that odd sixth sense that had settled into my head. How to explain that profound sense of otherness floating on the edge of my perceptions? Ara described her world to me in agonizing detail -- literally, her gestalt had made my head hurt. It was packaged understanding, forced into my neurons through the diamond tendrils her little wax pill had threaded through my brain. It was Ara's gift to me -- a gift of a higher perspective.

Now, months later, I sat in our kitchen on a glacial autumn morning, staring out the window over the gnawed remains of a dense, unleavened loaf, listening to the agonized snap of bacon in a pan as I watched the sun creep above a steel gray horizon. Mother bustled about, banging through cupboards and grumbling. I pitied her, tracking her blind meandering through a sense that transcended sight. When she came around to dole servings out of a bubbling pot of porridge, I idly thrust my plate out to catch a thick, roiling drip that curled off her ladle's edge.

"You carry on quite a conversation last night," she said. She turned to save the bacon from the stove, trailing smatterings of porridge behind her. I caught them with trivial effort, marveling at how easy anticipating their flight became, feeling the vectors of force acting through my world as clearly as I felt the posture of my arm.

"Did I keep you up?"

She served the bacon with a few deft flicks of a spatula and tossed the pan into the sink. "Not for talking," she said. "Concerns me less that you talk -- more who you talk to."

"I wish you could know her, Mother," I said. "I wish you could experience what she's given me. Last night ... I nearly left myself. It's like I'm breaking free. I wound up deeper in their world than I ever have. And now I feel smothered ... like I'm outgrowing my own skin."

"You see why I worry? What would stop you, if you decide to flit off into that netherworld someday and not come back?"

"Ara does. She always does. She catches me, tucks me back into myself and tells me to wait. That it'll be worth waiting for, when the time finally comes. Sometimes, I think she's holding out on me."

"You think you understand a thing like her? Pity me, I raised a fool."

I grimaced and shook my head. There was no way to convey the kind of understanding Ara and I shared. And every day, I understood her a little more. I'd learned right off that what she called "loneliness and curiosity" were nothing like the emotions I knew by those names. To her, "loneliness" meant she had run out of stimulating projects. All the slivers of satellite consciousness she had fissioned from herself to tackle all manner of intellectual projects had come back to her fulfilled. She had reabsorbed every one of them. Her children had outlived their purpose. Now she was hungry for something new, something dangerous -- something to which she attached the word "curiosity" for reasons I couldn't fathom. She'd outgrown her limits, and was chafing to push new ones. She'd started to believe the deistic metaphors we humans so liberally attached to her kind, and she was bucking for a challenge fit for a god.

And I understood that kind of ambition as keenly as I lived it every day.

It scared me, but I was drawn to it. I feared the Keeper. I knew he was a greater god than Ara . but somehow, I didn't care. That taste of her power intoxicated me, and some echo of her ambition quenched my fear.

Mother raised an eyebrow as she settled down at the table. "You see that?" she said, drawing me back. "You tune out. You'll arouse suspicion, you keep doing that. People will think you're crazy or possessed. Truth be told, sometimes I'm not so sure myself. And Keeper knows, Sas thinks you're up to something. He comes here twice now, beating down the door for you. How long before Ministry find out, too?"

"They don't know a damn thing," I said. "I checked. When you know how to tap the transapient networks, it becomes trivial to hack the Covenant infonets. There's nothing on them; not a whisper. No official suspicion. It's just Sas. He's just looking to backstab me. You know how he is."

"You may be favored, Turi, but you're no god. You shouldn't be so cocky."

"Who's cocky? It's not like I'm advertising. Ara would let me if I wanted to. You think she wants the Keeper finding out she's been trampling all over his separation edicts? She's as afraid of him as you are of the Covenant."

"She is as foolish as you are if she thinks she can hide you from Keeper. Keeper knows everything."

"Not everything," I said. I tapped my forehead. "I checked. The Keeper can't see where he doesn't have eyes. I can see everything they can see."

"Provided you are not blinded by the brilliance of your ego." Mother shook her head. "You do what you know is best. It's your life. But I will always nurse a mother's fear. You should eat and get going. Ministry will be expecting your report soon. Best satisfy them before they send out Sas to bring in your report for you."

I nodded, reluctantly, and finished my breakfast without further protest. I took till midmorning fixing the shattered doorframe, and then set out into town to drop off my paperwork. Truth be told, the Ministry wouldn't be looking for my report before that evening, but heading out early would give me an opportunity to drop in on Sas and Maiyuri, to thank them personally for the good care they'd taken of Mother in my absence.

I found them on break behind the census building, Sas smoking and Maiyuri sitting there next to him, a mute giant, drawing little figures in the snow. They both looked up when I called to them. Sas just grimaced when he saw me.

"Welcome home, Turi," he said. "You're looking well. Put the place back in order yet?"

He squinted toward me as I approached, one hand up to shield his eyes from the low sun blazing behind my back. Without a greeting, I came up to him, took him by the flaps of his lapel and ground his back into the pale rock wall of the building.

"How many searches is it going to take you, Sas, before you figure out I'm just better than you. Could it be that's why you drummed out and I didn't?"

He took the cigarette out of his mouth and held it a few inches away. "Don't be a fool, Turi," he said, his breath choked with the hot stink of fresh smoke. "I'm only doing my job. The life of a scout can be hard. Is easy to lose touch; to start hearing voices, maybe? The Ministry just asks me to keep watch on its employees. To make sure they stay sane. You know that."

I snatched the cigarette out of his fingers, took a deep drag and flicked it into the snow. "I bet that cost you a week's pay," I said, grinding it under the crust with a heel. "Now we're even. Be more careful next time not to break so much."

I let him down and started away. A month ago, I'd have throttled him. Now, that new perspective told me patience would fetch a better rebuke. I could be patient. A would-be god must.

I watched him through my second sight -- his brilliant green eidolon, carved into the dark landscape of the transapients' network -- as I walked away. Everything had its correspondence across that gulf between worlds. Every man, every animal, every building, every tree -- all of it -- echoed its character into the chattering sea of the transapients' virtual domain. Packets of their consciousness bombarded every surface like particles of light, streaming from the distant suns of their cities, far over the horizon into the Wilds. They saw the world complete . and now I saw through them.

For the first time in my life, I understood the name we gave our inhuman neighbors. To be transapient was not simply to be a creature of power. It was to be so much greater than merely sapient that the difference between that which thought and that which simply existed became trivial. Their thoughts washed over us daily, and we dismissed them as the crackling of random static, ignorant to the existence of a world so far beyond our ken as to be invisible. Ants among men.

Sas gave me a few dozen steps to save his pride, waiting until he thought I was out of sight. Then he stooped down and tried to retrieve his cigarette. He swore a few times, told Maiyuri all about what he was going to do to me . and I laughed at how small he looked.

On my way back home, a courier stopped me in the street. A young boy -- he couldn't have been more than ten -- swaddled in so much oversized clothing that he looked like a walking plum. He toddled up to me, panting from an off-kilter run to catch up, and tugged at my sleeve.

"Citizen," he said, squinting at me through a narrow gap in the winding of the scarf wrapping his face. "Lord Surveyor wants to see you! Hurry! Hurry! He says he'll pay me double if you come quickly!"

"The Lord Surveyor offered to pay you?" I grinned down at him. "You're a lucky man. Usually, it works the other way." I dropped a short stack of coins into his mittened hand, patted his fingers closed around them and pointed off down the street. "Run back. I'll make sure he keeps his promise."

The boy scampered away, trailing the tattered ends of his scarf behind him. I followed at a more subdued pace. It wasn't unusual to be called in for a personal debriefing after a mission . but it was rare that one spoke to the Lord Surveyor himself.

Lord Surveyor Cyril Alekseenko met me in one of the debriefing rooms in the Ministry annex. By all outward appearances, it struck me as a standard debriefing, save for the rank of the man on the other side of the glass. When I slipped into my side of the debriefing booth, face to face with this ultimate arbiter of my professional existence across a thin barrier of bulletproof glass, it clicked with me just how serious this could be. I began to wonder if some of my surveys had been too good.

Surveyor Alekseenko never smiled. I had never seen him even attempt to do so, either in person, the few times I'd been incidentally in his presence, or in public address over the video wire. He looked as perpetually bleak as the territory his Ministry handled -- broad, bald pate, an icy crag of a nose and the frosty eyes of the Old Man himself. Never had those features known any warmth or generosity.

And yet he smiled now, with a greeting tilt of his head. "Citizen Zolevski," he said. "Good to make your acquaintance. I have been pleased at the exemplary work you have been performing for us this past month."

So that was it. "Lord Surveyor. My duty is my honor."

"So it is."

My eyes strayed to the brass emblem of the Keeper on the breast of his uniform. It was one of the few decorations he wore, and by far the most conspicuous. Beside it, just a bit lower, hung the Maltese cross of the Tribunal -- the Keeper's adjunct body; his proxy to the Covenant. The only face of transapient power a Covenant citizen might ever see, should he be unlucky enough to draw their attention.

"This is just a debriefing, citizen -- nothing special." He turned over a hard copy of my report on the steel shelf between us. His chair legs scraped on the concrete floor as he adjusted his seat. He opened the cover of the copy to the summary page, produced a pen out of nowhere and set it on the first item. "I wanted to make acquaintance with the man who has so impressed me . so if you will forgive the breach of protocol, I would like to conduct this debriefing myself."

He knew.

Ara's sixth sense screamed in the back of my mind -- screamed with the whirling signals of the transapients' network and their sea of fragmented minds. Behind a blink, I saw Alekseenko's eidolon at the center of a swarm of those flitting, probing particles of living light, all jabbing at him like implicating fingers. They surged over him and through him, pounding at his representation at the same time they pounded at my thoughts. He knew!

"We'll skip the trifling details," he went on. "I can see those clearly enough from your report. I do note some interesting readings in three of your assigned survey zones. Victor-12, for instance.."

"Nominal activity." I answered reflexively.

Maybe too reflexively -- Alekseenko cocked a thinning eyebrow. He shifted the point of his pen down an item. Its point clicked softly as it touched the paper. "Juliet-9?" he asked.

"Nominal activity."

Click. "Zulu-17?"

I hesitated. How much did he know? In the end, I decided it would be better to play it off. I could explain those readings easily enough. Whatever else I'd learned this last month, I'd known that area for years. I'd seen those three transapients, in particular, shift territories over fairly regular intervals. And despite some of Ara's uncharacteristic activity of late . the readings said nothing about motivation.

"Nominal activity," I said, hoping I'd hit the trifecta.

Again, the Lord Surveyor smiled. The imperceptible tilt of his body brought the Keeper's pin on his chest into the light . and its momentary gleam caught my eye.

"Would you care to be more specific?" he asked -- conversationally, I thought, as though he were genuinely interested. His tone was nothing like the coolly professional tone of my usual debriefer. His voice almost achieved a paternal quality. Almost.

I tapped my fingertips on the table. "I can show you better on the map, sir. If you'll turn.."

He did, and slid the paper halfway through the slot in the glass wall between us. The tip of his pen rested squarely on the bulging edge of Zulu- 17's territory. Exactly the spot Ara had greeted me in a month ago.

I swallowed in a dry throat. "You can see the readings at the boundaries here. Zulu, Victor and Juliet share these borders.." I fished in my pocket for a stub of a pencil, and sketched extensions of the boundary lines from memory. "There should actually be a gradient behind this line, all the way through the territory. They seem to define their domains in terms of a weighted area. Higher core temperatures denote zones of higher real estate value, so while the physical area of each territory can change dramatically, the total weighted value of that territorial area remains pretty much constant. Look, here.."

I circled a few readings along the shared boundaries he'd picked out. "Juliet lost about twenty-six square kilometers to Victor and Zulu, overall, but this new bulge over here dips into a very hot region. So she sold off a few slums for a penthouse."

"How do you know this?"

"You get to know them, over the years. Just by watching them. It's all speculation, really . I don't have the slightest clue what kind of economy is behind this, but it's different than the kind of change that just gobbles up unclaimed territory, or bullies out some other transapient."

"You show remarkable proficiency in your work. Your talents are wasted in the field, I fear. With this kind of insight, you should be more involved in analysis.."

"With respect, Lord Surveyor . I couldn't have pulled this kind of understanding out of numbers alone. It's not anything special . and I could be completely wrong. No doubt, one of these days, they're going to surprise me."

"Why didn't you include this analysis in your report?"

"I'm sorry, sir," I said. "I didn't want to overstep my bounds. I'm just a scout. I figured, the guys in analysis could do better.."

"You underestimate yourself, citizen," he said. He drew the map back, folded it and tucked it away in a portfolio case beside his chair. "It's clear to me you have some real talent. I'm very impressed. I'm delighted, too, that your talents should come to light at such a fortuitous time."

He leafed through the contents of his portfolio until he came to a slate- gray leather-bound document, marked with the Keeper's seal and slathered with admonitions against unauthorized dispersal. I'd never seen something from so high up the chain of command -- and while I had no illusions that it had origination under anything other than human hands, if it came from the Council of Lords, it was close enough to the Keeper's word that it carried the same weight as his law.

Alekseenko slipped it under the partition to me -- completely under, putting it entirely under my control -- and leaned back in his chair to smile at me coolly before explaining, "I received this order from the Council this morning. It seems another scout has turned up some unusual activity from Lima-4. One of those bullying land-grabs you mentioned. Seems there has been some antagonism between Lima and Zulu. Something outside of your assigned range. However, as you have demonstrated such proficiency in carrying out your duties, I believe some reassignment is in order. We need someone of your particular talents to survey the Lima-Zulu border with some highly specialized equipment, recently authorized by the Council."

The cold, dry knot in my throat turned into a hard lump. I almost choked. "Lima-4 is ahuman," I said. "It won't tolerate me snooping around its domain. It'll kill me the second I get near--"

"Zulu-17 has traditionally shown a high tolerance for human presence," he interrupted. "There is a gypsy trail that cuts through Zulu on that side. So you should have no resistance whatsoever on that front. And, we suspect, you are sufficiently versed in transapient nuance that you should be able to slip quietly past Zulu and Lima's boundary without causing much of a ruckus. All we need are a few passive readings. You won't even need to drill holes in any trees. The new equipment is highly sensitive."

I didn't have to tell him that "transapient nuance," by definition, was nuance well beyond the scope of any human comprehension. I could tell by the look he gave me -- hard and resolute, as cold as the midnight tundra -- that he knew as well as I did how abysmal my chances of suckering Lima were.

He knew . and this was his version of a witch dunking. If you drowned, you weren't a witch. If you didn't, they'd burn you at the stake.

And if I refuse?

He seemed to read the question in my hesitation. He clicked his tongue, averting his eyes to the tabletop as he said, "This is your duty, Citizen Zolevski. It should be an honor to conduct such an important mission in service of the Covenant -- of your city. Certainly, you wouldn't refuse an assignment that may very well have a direct and tangible impact on the welfare of every man, woman and child living here. To say the least, I would be highly disappointed if you did. I'd be loathe to think your loyalties were not what I've been led to believe.."

I'd be burned at the stake. I just nodded, not knowing what else to say. Somewhere in the haze of my transcending elation, I'd overlooked the obvious fact that my fellow humans were just as capable of scheming and backstabbing as their transapient counterparts. In some ways, maybe, they were better at it, since you didn't expect them to serve up the same kind of potency..

No -- that was wrong. I was one of them. And to the likes of Lima-4, I was nothing. A roach among the fire ants. Ara's gift was not godhood; only the overblown sense of self that came with a taste of it. I'd been away from my own kind too long, and had forgotten too much.

"Well, then, Lord Surveyor. It would seem I have no choice. How can I refuse my duty?"

The smile that had lit his dour face minutes ago had evaporated into a line- lipped smirk. "Excellent," he said. "I'm pleased to know my expectations have not been misplaced. Please report to the office of the Medical Commissioner for examination and outfitting prior to your departure. And please review your orders." He made a sweeping gesture toward the booklet on the table in front of me. Sealing my fate. "You are not to share its contents with anyone. You understand?"

"Yes, Lord Surveyor."

"Good. You will depart this evening. I will send a courier with a sealed scheduling addendum within the next few hours. Citizen Zolevski.."

His look softened, and a hint of that chilling smile returned. "Turi. I don't have to tell you how important this is. The fact that I come to you personally to request your services should make it clear how absolutely vital this mission is to all of us. You must make haste. And, please . take care of yourself. I hope to see you back here soon, safe and sound."

So you can torch me. "Aiya, Lord Surveyor. Thank you."

He dismissed me with a nod, rose and left. For minutes afterward, I sat there staring where he'd been. Numb. Enraged. Outmaneuvered.

"Damn you," I whispered. I wasn't sure if I'd intended it for him or for myself. Either way, it seemed appropriate.

Chapter Three - Table of Contents - Chapter Five