Keeper of the Faith - Part 6
The days crept by in stubborn silence after that. Zavier never spoke to me again. Ara never came to me in my dreams, in those rare instances that I slept at all. The Survey Ministry took my report without questions, without debriefing, and left me alone. No mobs, no flaming pyres. Just the empty moaning of the cold wind through the cracks around my window at night and Mother's gentle snoring.

It confused me. It enraged me. All that, and now nothing. I felt tossed aside, displaced by greater things.

They let me keep my implant. It didn't take me long to figure out that they kept it wired into their network, primed with drugs to speed me up or slow me down at a whim. I gathered up the threads of their control in the phantom hands of my unbound mind, twirled them about my fingers and tested their strength. With a flick of thought, I could pull them. I was a puppet who held my own strings -- but no need to tip off the puppeteer just yet.

In the trickle of those days, my universe exploded. I lost all fear of venturing beyond myself. There was nothing more terrible out there than what I'd already seen, and I knew those things would be coming for me soon. I decided it was best to meet them on their own turf when they did. I became adept at prying the essence of their power from the fabric of my world. I lay in my bed at night, making the motes of their influence dance across my bedroom floor. Tiny machines, cast like sand across the breadth of the world, linked to the saturating web of the transapients' communal consciousness, lying invisibly in wait for their calling.

I called them. I pulled their strings. I watched them dance in tiny whirlwinds across my floor. I willed them to my service . and I learned. It was difficult to do much more than make them play antics. I didn't have the means to choreograph a trillion microscopic robots into the terrible, intricate dances that Ara and Ezra did. And they didn't have much in the way of intelligence on their own.

Nano, nano, everywhere . and not a drop that thinks.

I wondered what had happened in my absence, that night in the woods. I wondered about Ara -- what had come of her transgression. She'd called it nothing; dismissed my role as trivial; said she'd had bigger problems than me. But it all hung together, a vast abominable patchwork of ambition. I was symptomatic of a disease, and I wondered if it was terminal.

On the fifth day, I got my answer. Rapping on my window, the little boy dressed like a plum brought me word from the Lord Surveyor. He wanted to see me. As I read his note, I could almost hear the thud of the other shoe hitting the floor.

Quickly, I made my peace. I equipped myself as if I were heading into the Wilds again -- thermal overalls, a pack full of rations, a water purifier . a weapon. I grabbed the big, solid revolver I'd up till now used only to hunt, stuffed it in my pack, and figured, if they searched me and confiscated it, I would at least know what their intentions were. They'd never minded guns in the Survey building before.

It was late in the afternoon, and a storm was blustering in its threat from the west. It brought with it a cold, stale wind. It nipped at me as I left the house, rattled the shutters behind me and moaned after me as I started into town. Old man Ettinger watched me from his window above our door, silent and scared. He disappeared into the yellowing folds of his drapes the moment he saw me look back at him. I wondered if he understood. It might have explained his decades-long silence if he did.

Alekseenko waited for me on the landing in front of the Survey Ministry building, staring off into the dim quiet of the waning day, into the wall of angry clouds that blotted out the setting sun. His face and posture seemed as cold as the air around him; as stony as the pillars he stood among. The wail of the transapient's net, ever present in the back of my thoughts, rose in anxious counterpoint to my darkening emotions as I approached him. He looked at me, and once again, that icy smile cracked his ashen face.

"Citizen Zolevski," he greeted me. "You're prompt. I hadn't expected you to come so quickly."

"Is there a problem, Lord Surveyor?"

He averted his eyes to that scarlet wash of sunset, bleeding out from under a dark hood of storm. "We seem to have come to a rather dangerous crossroads, Turanov . and I find myself suddenly in need of your insight. Serendipitous, really . that this should happen now."

He glanced at me one more time -- pointed pupils like drill bits boring into the heart of my being. Never had I found a human face so disturbing.

"Come with me," he said, turning for the door. "I need your advice. There is great opportunity here for you tonight, Turi."

Mechanically, I fell into step behind him. He led me through the lobby, past armed guards and through a heavy security door. A few turns, and he'd led me into a part of the ministry I'd never been in before -- up a flight of stairs, through another set of hermetic doors and into the heart of the building. Into a place where most men would never tread. This was where the Ministry kept its deepest secrets -- even from the Keeper, some said. A glance with Ara's gifted eyes told me how foolish that belief was. The messengers of their senses darted through these walls as easily as vapor through a screen.

We came to a small room at the end of a hallway, adjoining a conference room and a small, Spartan office. The door was closed and locked. Two special forces guardsmen stood on either side of it, weapons drawn and tucked into the folds of their arms. Ready with a twitch. The dark coifs of their uniforms framed faces that looked deathly pale. Their eyes quivered, even as they held them locked on invisible spots somewhere on the facing wall. A charge of worry laced the air, clear as the scent of new snow on the wind.

Lord Surveyor passed a gloved hand over the access reader, and the lock on the door popped open. It creaked; a little ripple of noise in a space so quiet you could hear the heartbeats of its inhabitants. Alekseenko held the door for me, smiled at me, and gestured me inside.

I hesitated. A cold, slick feeling crept up the back of my neck. My netsense chattered in the back of my mind. Something in there stirred that invisible sea of thought into a frenzy. Something massive. The tides of its presence knotted my insides, like a thimbleful of neutron star dropped into my lap. I gathered my courage and took a step.

My breath caught.

At first, I thought I was looking at a dead woman. She lay there on a gurney in the middle of the room, staring through me with dark, clouded eyes. They'd tied her down with thick leather straps and sleek, stainless steel chains, even though the restraints were obviously unnecessary now. The thin silver cord of an IV drip snaked down a chrome pole over her left shoulder, across the rumpled sheet and up to a needle buried beneath a messy square of surgical tape on her neck. A trickle of dried blood trailed out from underneath it.

How can this be?

She'd struggled. Raw, bleeding wounds ringed her wrists and ankles, peeking out from underneath the biting-tight restraints. Hand-shaped bruises blossomed on her arms and shoulders where they'd held her down manually. Her amber hair had knotted in the buckle of the strap that held her head. Even drugged into oblivion, her chest heaved. Her breath came quick and ragged, whistling through flared nostrils like the snarls of a maddened animal.


It had to be a trick. They'd dragged in some poor girl off the street, drugged her, made her up -- faked everything to shock me into a confession . of what? How could they have even known.?

Ara? What have they done to you?

My mind reeled. Every tenuous thread of logic it could grasp fed back on itself. The room spun. When I took a step toward her, I felt as thought I were stepping out of myself. Her skin felt hot when I touched her. Knotted muscles twitched under my fingertips. I leaned into her, pressing down, expecting that creamy, silky flesh to dissolve around my touch. I willed it to melt away, out of the restraints and out of their hands. It couldn't be real; it was just a projection. Trillions of microscopic machines . driven by the force of a transapient's will into the hollow façade of a body. They were there. I felt them.

Suffusing living flesh. Trapped by it. It turned red under the pressure of my fingertips. When I took my hand away, it left behind the rosy precursor of a bruise.


"You know her?" Alekseenko came up beside me, half a step behind. "I suspected you might. The Tribunal hinted that she might have had contact with one of our citizens. Something in passing about interference -- almost an afterthought. Of course, it is of much greater concern to us than it is to them."

"They did this?" My voice shook. My soul shook. "How? Why.?"

"We don't ask questions of transapients, Citizen Zolevski. We adapt to the realities they give us. Do you understand how serious this could have been? The Keeper's noninterference edicts are not to be so casually disregarded. We are very lucky."

He leaned toward me. "The ice grows thin, citizen." His lips curled around the words, baring long, age-yellowed teeth. "The Tribunal has been kind to you. They've neglected to inform their overlord of your existence. They will protect your secret . and to repay them, we will handle their problem for them. It's as straightforward a deal as you will ever get from a transapient. And it's an opportunity we cannot afford to squander."

"How is this possible? She's a god!"

"A fallen god, citizen. And that puts you in a very unique position."

He circled behind me, hard eyes boring into my back.

"The strings have been cut. All these generations, we've lived beneath them. We've suffered their meddling, spent our lives cowering out of their ways like timid mice, our only recompense the ineffectual assurances of their Tribunal that their interference would not go unpunished. Their own body of law sees us as animals. We are nothing to them, Turi. And yet, suddenly, their own hubris brings us an opportunity to become something.

"We need you, citizen. We need your skill. Your insight. We've been skirting their edges for far too long, blind to their motivations and their intents. And now, here you are with this unique gift. You have a window into their world. You can tell us what they're thinking; why they do what they do. And now that you are free--"

"This is impossible!"

"Citizen! This is an opportunity! For your city! For your family!"

I felt the flash of a signal across the network then, as if his words had triggered it. Sas' voice, packeted down into Alekseenko's ear with a simple acknowledgment: "In position."

I froze. For a moment, I stared at Ara, watching the tick of the pulse in her neck. I imagined myself shearing the roof off the room with a whirlwind of nanomachines, gathering her out of her restraints and restoring her to the freedom she'd lost because of me. But then I saw Sas' feral grin, the gleam of bloodlust in his eye as he put the muzzle of a gun to Mother's temple....

Oh, God! Mother!

I wheeled on Alekseenko. Through the red haze that had settled over the world, I stared him down, channeling the blazing fire of my anger into his ice.

"You can go to hell," I said.

I shoved him out of my way. It surprised me that I did so without even moving my hands. The air moved under my will, driven by the force of my emotions. My talents had come alive. I stepped toward the door, a ripple of living dust roiling through the air at my feet.

"Citizen!" Alekseenko shouted after me, hauling himself off the floor in an undignified scramble. "Citizen! Don't throw this away!"

I brushed past the guards. They only twitched. Despite the Lord Surveyor's shouts, neither of them made any effort to stop me. They knew as well as I did how pointless it would be. Ironclad software ciphers crumbled at a thought, and the security doors that had looked so imposing on my way in gaped meek and wide to let me out. Walking in a whirling cyclone of my own rage, I left the survey building. I ran, struck thoughtless by stark terror.

The house lay quiet as I approached. A thin column of smoke curled out of the chimney. Mother's lamp burned soft orange in the kitchen window. The door hung off its hinges, and steam swirled where the warm inside air bled out. A signal flitted across my perceptions, routed from Alekseenko at the survey building to a hand radio somewhere in the house. I picked at its encryption, and it fell open in my mind. He's coming. Hold him there. Take the house, then wait for my arrival. Don't kill the woman unless you have to -- remember, she may be our only means of controlling him now.

I looked down the signal's blazing virtual arrow toward Sas' eidolon, darting through the shadows of the house. There were others, skulking around the skirts of other buildings. I recognized Maiyuri's net image ... and some thug the Ministry had sent out with them.

I stopped. Something in the back of my brain itched like a memorable joke -- something that brought an involuntary smile to my face, even though I'd never known anything like it before. Something like . irony? It was the closest thing I could relate to it. It was something new; something vast. Something from outside..

I turned, sniffing the air. "Sas! I warned you!"

I dug into my pack and pulled out my gun. I took my time, loading each chamber with meticulous care. No one else was out, this close to sundown. But for the four of us, the world might have been empty. It only heightened the weird humor of the moment. Here, at the peak of my ascension, things had suddenly collapsed into these simplest-of-terms. Everything around me proceeded like clockwork toward its one inevitable end..

"Leave her alone, you son of a bitch!"

He stumbled out through the doorway, dragging Mother with his arm around her neck and his pistol to her head. "Stand down, Turi," he called. "Don't do anything foolish."

I raised my gun.

"Put that thing away. What are you going to do? Shoot your mother?"

I closed my eyes; felt the cold breath of the wind on my face; the tug of the world at my feet. In my mind's eye, I saw the graceful arc of the bullet's trajectory trailing from the muzzle of my gun. It had never before felt so easy. The universe smeared itself into a collage of probabilities. Every gust of the wind sent shimmering ripples through its patchwork reality, redefining that brilliant thread of destiny. Every motion of my hand tied that destiny to a new point. All I had to do was put it where I wanted it and squeeze.

It felt too easy. I'd promised him so much. A few grams of hot spinning lead in answer to those years of harassment . and now this shameless exploitation of the bond between a mother and her son..


The gun's report echoed off the stone faces of the building. Sas reeled, staggered and hit the ice -- dead as winter before his corpse had even come to rest. I spun on my heel, dragging my sighting line around with me, anchoring its far point on the perplexed furrow that had formed on Maiyuri's brow..


I aimed again -- one last time, feeling a buzz of triumph thrumming in my veins.


Sas's peon slumped over the half-erected tripod of his rifle.

I spat resignation, stuffed the gun under my belt and scrambled to help Mother out of the snow. She stuttered as I took her arm, shaking her head wildly, straining to see. "Oh, gods, Turi! Oh, gods!"

"Mother," I said, fighting to keep my voice level. "Mother . listen. Shut up and listen. Mother!"

I shook her by the shoulders, and she froze, staring blindly into my face, puckered mouth agape, lips trembling. "Turi?"

"You have to leave, Mother. More are coming."

"Why me, Turi? What use is an old woman--"

"They want to control me, Mother, and they know you're the only tool they've got." I hauled her toward my snow crawler, parked under an aluminum awning along the west side of the building. "I'll set up the crawler to follow an automatic course. As long as you don't deviate from it, everything will be fine. It will take you someplace safe."

"Oh, gods, Turi! You know I can't leave here! You know I can't--"

"Mother! You trust me, don't you? You know I love you. You have to go. Just let the crawler drive. It'll take you someplace safe. I promise."

"Keeper be merciful," she whispered.

I packed her into the crawler's cockpit and shut the door. I felt my way across the net into its remote interface, fired its engine and set it on its way. Inside it, I could hear mother babbling a prayer. I tucked a part of my thoughts away in the crawler's eidolon -- that part of the transapients' net that would follow it wherever it went -- and put concern for it out of my mind. Despite the assurances I'd given her, I had no real idea where Mother would end up. Very soon, though, anywhere would be preferable to here.

I paced in circles, waiting for my next move to resolve out of an opaque sea of possibilities. They would go after her the moment they realized she was gone. I could lock them out of her crawler's control systems, but I could never prevent them from physically hunting her down. Even if I could provoke a confrontation here, divert their attention long enough to get her safely through the Wilds . what then? Would she be safe there? How far would they go to reign in a budding transapient?

And what about Ara? What about all this mess I'd fallen into.?

For a while, I thought the dim sound of an engine in the distance was simply an echo of Mother's crawler, whispering away into the twilight. After a while, though, I realized there was something else to the sound. Another engine from a smaller vehicle, approaching, rather than moving away.

I looked up, scanning the horizon. It came from the direction of the city. Something lighter than a crawler, like a snowmobile. The Covenant nets said it didn't exist. The transapients' net didn't say much more -- just buzzed that shrill, immersive anxiety as it drew near, warning me of something.

It came toward me on a beeline. I pulled the binoculars out of my pack and tried to get a glimpse of the driver. Through the glare of the headlights and against the misty tatters of late twilight, I couldn't be sure of much detail. But I recognized that stiff stance, that craggy nose . the cold pits of those eyes. Even in washed-out silhouette, Alekseenko's mannerism screamed his identity.

Don't you know I've killed your thugs? Why would you dare come here yourself? Do you think your rank gives me pause anymore? You're no different from the rest of them.

He pulled up and skidded to a halt a few meters away. I started toward him as he dismounted his vehicle. He stepped out, hands open to his sides. "Citizen Zolevski!" he called. Then his tone softened, and he said with that chilling smile, "Turi--"

I put a bullet between his eyes.

The expression on his face never changed. He toppled backwards, bounced off the seat of his snowmobile and landed face-down on the ground. I stood there for a moment, studying him. Stone dead, and the ether still screamed like a banshee every time I came near him. I walked up, looked down at him, trying to pry some hint of meaning out of the cold grin frozen on his face.

My heart skipped. That fearless, reckless arrogance.. I knelt down, gripped the barrel of my gun and brought the butt of it down on his head. Over and over -- I pounded at the crown of his skull until it sagged. Then I put my thumb through the bullet hole in his forehead and pried it back, horrified realization driving me into a frenzy.

I sunk my fingers to the knuckles in steaming brains, combing for answers. Dreading the inevitable. Something in that bleeding oatmeal mess crumbled under by fingertips, like hoarfrost coating the insides of his braincase. Then, wrist deep, I brushed what I'd been looking for, nestled in the heart of the delicate crystal lattice it had extruded through his brain. Small, waxy, lozenge-shaped . I carved it out, held it in the headlights and brushed it clean with shaking hands.

Ara's little pill -- or one just like it. I hadn't been the only puppet here.

I looked up at the darkening sky and screamed.

Chapter Five - Table of Contents - Chapter Seven