Exordium: Sneak Preview

From Effugium book IV:

CHAPTER ONE

“Saints, it is with great pleasure that we gather here today for the perfectly pious purpose of presenting yet another of our precious progeny to the Creators. It shall be a new creature, filled with the spirit of the Fathers, the Sons, the Holy Ghosts and the blessed Prophet Himself.”

Father Xooka heard scattered grumbles and mumbles from the congregation. The Prophet had become a sore subject amongst worshippers in the past several centuries, ever since his demonic digital doppelgänger had seized control of the world formerly known as Bellum. Many had renounced the true Prophet due to the actions of that buffoonish, belligerently blasphemous box of bolts, but Xooka was not one of those many.

“Now see here,” he chided, “that malfunctioning mechanical monstrosity ruling the galaxy from his pernicious pedestal of power on Paxotium is not the True Prophet. The Prophet dwells in the Hall of Gods. We honor the name of Kryuss and when we speak it, we refer to the trueKryuss. Is that clear?”

The congregation acknowledged that it was, but a few affirmations seemed half-hearted.

K’lody watched her youngest continuant squirm naked on the cold steel of the altar, held in place by the same thick, worn leather straps she’d once felt around her own little wrists and ankles, so many years ago. Fear gripped her stomach, pulling and twisting her insides.

All around them, the breath-stealing majesty of Baltu contrasted sharply with the institutionalized paranoia and brutality of its society.

Waterfalls spilled down from cloud-scraping mountain peaks in all directions, converging in a heavy cloud of mist that perpetually permeated dense, tropical forests.

Proud, ancient, trees loomed over them, completely free of digital infestation, as trees were meant by the Creators to be.

K’lody, however, could appreciate none of that at the moment—It was all ugliness to her. 

Would Tanraa be exposed for what she truly was? What would happen to her, if so? The fate of an exposed Exo was entirely subject to the whims of the Bishops, and that either meant quarantine and restoration, or death. K’lody wasn’t sure which was worse, frankly. 

Tanraa had been taught, since birth, to subsist on as little energy as possible, in order to avoid triggering the telltale eye sparkle that made her kind so instantly identifiable. K’lody hoped the lessons had stuck.

“Let us begin!” shouted Xooka.

The minor surgical operation to install the connector port was a quick, relatively painless procedure and Tanraa put up little to no fuss. K’lody was grateful for that, but as they prepared to insert the transfer cable into the back of the skull, she prayed to Siafu that the child possessed enough self-control to resist drawing more energy from Bibliog than was absolutely necessary.

“In darker times,” bellowed Xooka, “Mankind had no means by which to directly commune with the Gods who so bountifully bestowed upon them the beautiful blessing of life. We cried to the skies, we fell down to the ground—we pleaded and pleaded, but heard not a sound…”

He plugged the cable in, and Tanra gasped. K’lody gnawed her tongue.

Xooka turned around and drew their attention to the towering black box set into the wall of rock behind him with a grand, theatrical sweep of his arm.

“Until Bibliog miraculously mediated between man and Maker, and merged them most marvelously!”

K’lody hated Bibliog, and was terrified of it, as were many others. No one dared speak against it, though. No one dared stand up to the priests, bishops and elders of Baltu and say “No more.”

The Church had long ago ruled Exos ineligible for baptism, and had officially declared Pangu, revered amongst his kind as the First, a demon. All subsequent Exos, by extension, were demons as well. Half-breeds like Tanraa, when exposed, were sometimes treated more mercifully, as there was disagreement amongst Church leaders as to what exactly they were. Some believed they were full-fledged demons, and others leaned towards demonic possession. With proper treatments, proponents of the latter theory maintained, many of these individuals could be rehabilitated and baptized.

K’lody wanted neither option for her continuant. For her daughter, damn them. She wanted her to be free to be who and what she was.

Xooka activated the transference generator and everyone around the child drew closer, watching with great interest as its vacant eyes were filled with knowledge and awareness.

It knew now who the Creators were, and that they were as real as the ground beneath its feet and the sky above its head. It believed, and it knew why it believed. Soon, it would embark upon the glorious journey of a life spent in humble servitude to beings of total love, and total light.

K’lody felt something approaching relief as the seconds passed and Tanraa’s eyes failed to change. And then…

“It—now nearly she—is responding astoundingly well to the transference,” Xooka informed them. “I shall now intensify the transmission.”

K’lody’s lips formed the word “no,” but no sound passed them.

None but she saw the first flash of pink light, but everyone saw the second.

“Shut it off!” cried Xooka, pounding his fists against the backs of the mob that he’d suddenly found himself in the middle of. “Shut it off!”

Someone close to Bibliog managed to deactivate the transfer, and the child began to cry.

A hush fell over the crowd as the cries pierced their eardrums, but not their hearts.

Kill it!” screamed a voice.

Destroy it now!” shrieked another.

Tanraa’a eyes were blazing now as she struggled to break free of her bonds. The sky darkened as rain clouds moved in overhead, blocking the sun’s rays.

Bishop JuDex waddled forward to examine the child, a tent-sized ceremonial robe draped across his hefty frame. Everyone but Xooka stepped back to give him room.

“What is your verdict, Bishop?” Xooka asked him.

JuDex squinted as he stared into the girl’s glowing, fear-stricken eyes. He turned away from her and shook his head. “GhastlyThis one is too far gone, I’m afraid. I do not believe its demon can be exorcised. It must be terminated.”

No!”

Everyone’s eyes fell upon K’lody, who was now screaming at them.

“You monsters! Do you think this is the will of the Creators? Murdering innocent children? Leave my daughter alone!”

Gasps. Shouts of protest.

“Perhaps those primitive purveyors of pernicious perversion on that planet of our parturition use that word,” roared Xooka, “but here on this blessed blue ball we call Baltu, we say continuant, as instructed by the Prophet!”

“Gods!” screamed K’lody. “Stop speaking like that! I hate it and so does everyone else! I beg of you, cut her free and let us roam beyond the garden and into the wilderness, taking our chances against the beasts that stalk it day and night! You shall never again be burdened by us!”

Xooka turned to JuDex. “Do you sanction her speaking to me in such a slanderous—”

“Silence, Father, please,” said JuDex, patting him on the shoulder. “I am not without mercy. I am not a monster. To prove this, the termination will be carried out, but only for the continuant.”

He looked directly at K’lody. “Not for his mother. She has, however, still committed a grievous sin, and must be punished for it. My judgement is as follows: she must watch.”

“You will burn for all eternity!” spat K’lody. “Burn!”

“I make this decree not out of a sadistic wish to inflict pain and suffering upon you, my child,” the Bishop continued, ignoring her outburst, “but so that you may remember it the rest of your days, and be reminded of it when temptation strikes. I am saving your soul, my dear.”

K’lody screamed a litany of blasphemous curses in response, and JuDex ordered her gagged.

As she struggled in the arms of her lifelong friends and neighbors who had now, quite suddenly, become her enemies, someone pried her eyes wide open while another held her head in place.

JuDex unlocked the straps and stood the child on its feet, holding it at arm’s length. The crowd cheered, imploring him in various ways to get on with it.

He frowned, then, as thunder rumbled above him and the sky grew darker. His hair rose and stood on end, and his confusion was transparent. K’lody wasn’t confused, though. She felt the tingle, too. She knew what was about to happen. She smiled, and made eye contact with Tanraa, who gave her a questioning look.

K’lody nodded, and saw understanding pass over her daughter’s face. She looked up at the angry black clouds in the sky.

A great bolt of lightning shot out of one of them, sizzled across the sky and zigzagged about erratically before coming to rest directly on top of Tanraa’s head. Electricity coursed over her tiny body, and the lightning bolt remained frozen in place as she suckled its energy.

JuDex burst into flames and was knocked to the ground, where he flailed and screamed and burned. In seconds, little was left of him but a charred blob of fat clinging to a skeleton. Tanraa fell but quickly bounced to her feet and raised her hands to the sky, her mouth opened wide in rapture.

From the shadows of the trees surrounding them, K’lody thought she saw dozens of sets of glowing pink eyes watching her, but she blinked and they vanished.

A torrential downpour soon followed, drenching everyone present, but it lasted only seconds. The lightning then stopped, and the clouds parted, admitting the sun’s warmth and light once again.

The naked child stood before them, her hands on her hips, glaring at them with a look of confident defiance in her blazing magenta eyes.

They looked back and forth between her and the smoking, oozing pile of Bishop that lay at her feet.

The first stone missed Tanraa, sailing past her head.

“Run!” her mother called to her, but by the time the word had made its way past her parched lips, the second stone had already struck her daughter on the arm. The third one hit her on the head. Many, many more landed all over her body until she collapsed to the ground beside JuDex, her blood splattering onto him and sizzling upon contact.

Tears streamed from k’lody’s eyes as the crowd dragged her over to where her daughter’s body lay motionless and bleeding.

Xooka was storming towards her with a huge stone in his hand. “Begone, thou bellicose birther of blasphemous bastards!”

K’lody didn’t feel the rest of the stones, just that one. As her vision faded to black and her mind slipped into a state of eternal slumber, she smiled. Tanraa was in the arms of the Creators, waiting for her.

“I’m coming,” she whispered, and died.

CHAPTER 2

“Blast the Gods,” gasped Nightshade as he and the others in his pod stopped to breathe after running through the jungle at full speed for ten minutes. “We didn’t draw down hard enough.”

“We did the best we could,” said Oleander. His words were meant to reassure, but they did nothing of the sort.

“Our best wasn’t good enough,” snapped Nightshade, sweat glistening on his bare, heaving chest. His eyes glowed like hot coals. “The child is dead. The mother, too. We could’ve stopped it. We should’ve fried them all, the whole lot of them.”

Snakeroot shook his head. “Nobody’s that powerful. Nobody can draw down that hard.”

“Pangu could,” countered Nightshade, “and we come from his seed. We all have the ability, within us.”

“Pangu’s been dead nearly five centuries,” said Oleander. “He’s a legend. And legends tend to get embellished over time.”

Nightshade sighed. “I suppose you’re right. I just can’t help but feel to blame for this.”

“Hey,” said Oleander, extending his fist outward, “we can’t win ‘em all.”

Nightshade half-heartedly bumped the other man’s knuckles with his own.

“Staunch?” prompted Oleander.

Nightshade relaxed a bit and his lips formed a joyless smile.

“Staunch,” he said.

“Now let’s get home,” Oleander urged him. “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get much juice.”

“Yeah, said Nightshade as they walked. “The girl sucked most of it up herself. A pity—she would’ve made a powerful ally.”

“Just like so many others before her,” noted Snakeroot. “Maybe someday they’ll stop fearing us, and we can all live in harmony.”

“I don’t want prims as friends,” seethed Nightshade. “I want to see every last one of them singed like that Bishop.” He laughed. “Did you see that? Did you smell it? Gods, I love that smell.”

Oleander shook his head. “You hate the prims, and yet you think like them. You give hate a home in your heart, like them.”

“Because they hated us first!” barked Nightshade. “I’m sorry I can’t bring myself to become as enlightened as you, but I can’tforgive them. I used stop hating them. Not while they still persecute us. When that has ceased, and the smoke has cleared, then… perhaps. But not today. Not after I’ve just watched those savages stone one of us to death just for the sin of being born.”

“They’re afraid of us,” said Oleander. “That’s why they do as they do. You know that.”

“Your damned right they are,” said Nightshade. “And they should be.”

“The cycle continues,” muttered Oleander, who picked up his pace and disappeared into the misty, dew-drenched limbs and vines.

Nightshade cursed under his breath. He loved Oleander. They’d been linkmates for many years and as such knew each other’s ins and outs intimately, but the one facet of Oleander’s personality Nightshade had never understood was his undying compassion for prims.

He believed prim barbarism was unique to inhabitants of Baltu. They’d been brainwashed by dogma and couldn’t help themselves, according to his naive old friend.

Nightshade knew better, though. Prims were rotten to the core, and they were all the same no matter where one travelled.

Not that he’d travelled anywhere—Baltu was a world shrouded in secrecy. No one was permitted to leave, nor were visitors welcome. Ever. Communication with other colony worlds was forbidden, as was reception of alien literature, music and holoplays, though Nightshade and the others had accessed many of those things illegally during supply raids, viewing them on stolen holospheres.

Even the interplanetary mission trips of old had been discontinued following the ill-fated Apostolus mission of HC3743, from which the crew never returned. It was later discovered that they’d embraced the heretical hedonism of Novus and renounced all belief in the Creators and the True Prophet. Such risks, it was decided by the Consilium, could no longer be taken.

Nightshade found it highly unlikely that the defectors had kept to themselves the persecution of Exos on Baltu. By now, some three hundred years after it had begun, it would have to have become common knowledge. Despite this, no one had come to their aid. No one cared. Not even the other Exos out there, it seemed. That’s what hurt the most.

Well consign them all anyway, the lot of them.

They reached the village and retired to their respective underground huts, where they each hooked up to the power cells they’d recently looted from an HG station.

Nightshade frowned as he found himself grateful for the weak trickle of electricity coursing through his flesh.

This is our world. We are the future. I should be free to stand in wide open spaces with my arms outstretched to the sky, my linkmates at my side. Instead, I am forced to share a dark, damp cave cave with shelldiggers, who wait until I’ve fallen asleep to nibble on my toenails.

They were Gods who lived like savages, and the prims were savages who lived like Gods. Nightshade was barreling headlong towards his breaking point, picking up speed with every passing second. He could no longer tolerate living as he did.

The Exos weren’t even granted the dignity of second-class citizenship. They were viewed as an infestation, as pests to be exterminated—as if they were a swarm of v’sheev devouring a farmer’s bakka crop.

The boiling of the green blood that ran through his veins as he impotently pondered the unfairness of his station in life rendered sleep nigh impossible.

It was just as well, though, for had his mind succumbed to his body’s slumberous impulses, he might never have been alerted to the whisperings of the jungle.

He slid the entry hatch to the side and climbed out of the hole he called home, peering out into the darkness. He knew full well that the eyes of a thousand predators peered back at him with much sharper vision, as well as a ravenous appetite for his flesh. 

The leaves of the trees rustled, yet there was no wind. The rustling intensified. With great caution, he ventured forward and laid his hands upon the trunk of one them. Wispy, rootlike projections sprouted forth from his palms and fingertips as he took hold of the bark, penetrating deep into the wood. He closed his eyes.

His mind’s eye saw a vision of a girl—the child from earlier, he realized. She was lying where she’d fallen. No one had even bothered to toss her into a nanodisposer—just left there like carrion, where her bones would be picked clean by scavworms in short order.

Savages.

But wait…

It was difficult to know for certain, given the blurred, fragmented nature of the vision, but he thought he saw movement. Yes, the fingers, wiggling, grasping. Now the arm rising slightly out of the mud…

She lives!

His first instinct was to disengage and wake the others, but reason held him at bay. Wake them for what? To mount a rescue? Their previous attempt hadn’t gone so well.

No, he would return by himself, unencumbered by Oleander’s aversion to bloodshed. When he arrived back in the village, the living, breathing child in his arms, perhaps they’d finally listen to his implorations for all-out war on the Prims.

Intoxicated by ambition and wild fantasies, he tore off into the black, steamy night.

CHAPTER 3

“You had absolutely no cause to stone that poor, wretched creature to death and you know it.”

Xooka leaned over Cardinal Yusk’s desk until he was nearly nose-to-nose with the old man.

“At our bulky, beloved and now barbecued Bishop’s behest. Besides, thou shalt not suffer a sorcerer to live. This command can be found in Bible One. Do you dare question it?”

Yusk rose from his chair, his jewelry clinking and tingling as he moved.

“How dare you lecture me about Bible One? I taught you everything you know about it! But this is a mere child.”

Xooka snorted. “A demon sent to us in the form of a child, in order to seduce susceptible stooges through their sanctimonious senses of soft-hearted sympathy.”

“The woman was right about one thing,” said Yusk.

“What’s that?”

“The way you speak—it’s quite grating.”

Xooka frowned. “Others of her kind will not have to suffer it for much longer.”

Yusk sank back into his chair with a heavy sigh. “The virus.”

“They’ve tested it on heretics now. Human heretics, the dastardly dregs of the death dungeons.”

“And?”

“Unaffected. No illness reported. Now, the Exos they tested it on…”

“All perished,” Yusk finished for him. “Yes, I know. I keep my ear to the floor as well, you know. I am aware of all that you tell me.”

“Then where is your enthusiasm? We are on the very cusp of wiping out these wild, wayfaring witches once and for all. Doesn’t that bring you joy?”

“No,” growled Yusk. “I know it must be done, but it brings me great sadness. Is that a violation of the laws?”

“No,” said Xooka, “Of course it isn’t. As long as you make no moves to mobilize these moronic musings into action. Pray that they abscond with alacrity from your addlebrained attentions.”

“Watch your tongue or I shall cut it off and make you watch it twitch about on the filthy ground as you choke on your own blood,” Yusk warned him.

“You’re all talk,” said Xooka, calling his bluff. “You don’t have it in you.”

“You’re right,” Yusk agreed. “Not yet. But I warn you, stop pushing, or—”

“Yes, yes,” said Xooka. “Understood. I spoke out of turn and I beg forgiveness. But believe you me, we’ll be far better off when we’ve purged our pulchritudinous paradise of this pestilence that perpetually plagues our people.”

“Oh, shut up!” snapped Yusk. “I’ve had all I can stand of your ridiculous wordplay, and it’s quite late. Kindly remove yourself from my office at once before I order it done by force.”

“Very well,” said Xooka stiffly. “But I—”

“Out!”

Xooka left without uttering another word.

When the door slid shut behind him, Yusk breathed a sigh of relief.

Xooka’s zealotry had long been a source of annoyance to Yusk and many other members of the Consilium, but now it was beginning to alarm him. Men of his ilk needed scapegoats, and his was about to become extinct.

Xooka was a popular priest with a strong following, and the people listened to him. Who would replace Exos as a source of blame for all of Baltu’s woes? Who would next be framed as the villain of his story?

Deep down, Yusk already knew the answer to that question, and it terrified him.

After Xooka had ascended the ladder to the upper echelons of the Consilium, perhaps even to the level of Sallirium. he would eliminate all who had stood in his way, and Yusk was undoubtedly at the top of that list. He had to do something, and he had to do it soon, before it was too late.

He sighed and tapped and tapped the comm panel on his desk. Moments later, the face of Supreme Cardinal Turon appeared on his monitor.

Yusk,” said Turon, “I wish I could tell you that it’s always a pleasure to hear from you, but lying, as you know, is a sin. What do you want?”

“I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye,” said Yusk, “but we’re going to have to put aside our differences or face dire mutual consequences.”

Turon folded his hands. “Go on.”

“Ive just been paid a visit by a particularly pompous pretender to the Priesthood.”

Turon’s face darkened. “And what transpired during this visit that prompted you to contact me at this late hour?”

“He’s getting bolder,” said Yusk. “You should hear the way he speaks to me. The way he speaks of… well, you.”

Turon’s eyes widened. “Of me? What does he say?”

“He says…” Yusk hesitated and shook his head. “It’s disgraceful. I can scarcely bring myself to repeat it.”

“Tell me what he said. At once.”

Yusk sighed and looked down. “He said you’re a senile old fool who can no longer control his bowels.”

Did he? Or did you say that, Yusk?”

“That’s not all,” continued Yusk. “He plans to unseat you and take your position. He offered to make it… shall we say, worth my while, in exchange for my cooperation. Naturally, I notified you immediately, as soon as he left my office.”

The old man on the screen scratched his chin. “This is certainly consistent with his record of devious underhandedness. Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention, Bishop. We will more closely monitor his activities.”

The screen went blank. 

Yusk’s ears rang as adrenaline coursed through his body. He’d just fabricated a fictional story and related it to the Supreme Cardinal as truth.

Turon wouldn’t have paid him any heed if he’d simply voiced suspicion, and by the time he shared those suspicions, it would’ve been too late to act upon them.

That’s what he told himself, anyway—that’s how he tried to convince himself that Xooka’s sins of pride, deception and greed outweighed the sin of his well-intentioned untruth. He wasn’t very persuasive.

“Fathers, forgive me.”

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