Mina did her best to ignore the braying laughter of the Freetown Habitation overseer, which was drifting over from nearly the other side of the dome, and smiled politely at the administrator in front of her.
‘Earth.’ The awed tone in his voice was sweet, like that of a child. ‘How was it?’
‘Simply marvellous,’ she said, hand unconsciously moving to the seal at her throat – the unforgeable proof of her pilgrimage. ‘I spent a year near the eastern coast of the Eurasian continent. A long time ago, there was a country there that dug hundreds of miles of tunnels. To honour the Patrons, we were excavating these tunnels by hand. We worked hard, or in silence.’
The administrator made an appreciative sound; his husband chose this moment to pipe in:
‘Did you see… you know…’
‘Once. One of the Patrons came and inspected our work.’
Mina smiled, and chose her words with care.
‘The stories are all true. He was beautiful, magnificent – he emanated power, I could feel it as he passed me. I cried at that feeling – I was at complete peace, in my proper place, on my knees in the mud – until long after my throat was sore. He was divine. I have no doubt of that.’
The husband offered Mina a tissue, and it was only then that she realised a tear had trickled down onto her cheek.
‘You’ve changed on your pilgrimage,’ came a familiar voice. The administrator and his husband bowed their heads; Mina turned to face the speaker, then did the same.
‘I believe I have learned much, mother.’
‘I see,’ said the planetary governor. ‘And do you believe that your lessons on Earth can be fruitfully applied on Paradise?’
‘I would never have returned otherwise: serving the Patrons on Earth was a far greater honour that I could ever deserve. But I will be of more use to them here, I think.’
Mina raised her head and looked her mother in the eye. The planetary governor seemed to have aged much more than three years during Mina’s pilgrimage: her hair was grey and her face was lined.
‘We have grown soft. Decadent. The workers treat the Patrons as a joke – their children scrawl obscenities on our walls. On Earth we worked until our fingers bled and our clothes were worn to rags. On Paradise the workers sing as they go about their chores, and take breaks as they will. It’s wasteful. Criminal.’
‘You think we should be more harsh towards the workers? That this would produce superior outcomes?’
‘It’s not just the workers, mother. We citizens of Paradise have duties to attend to, and what are we doing? We have the gift of life from the Patrons, and how do we spend it? We shirk and we drink and we party. It’s disgusting.’
The planetary governor didn’t say anything, and Mina became aware that the whole dome had gone silent. She felt a hot blush creep up her cheeks, but she held her mother’s gaze. Mina knew she was right – work was the sacrament, and only through unceasing labour could they show the Patrons proper devotion – and anyone who stood in the way of that, who stood between the people of Paradise and salvation, no matter who they were…
Someone gasped, from behind Mina. ‘Look at that,’ came a voice – the overseer of the Milan Habitation. Quickly, a murmur filled the dome. Mina’s mother’s gaze shifted, and her jaw dropped.
It had to be something big to warrant that sort of response, Mina knew. So she turned around and saw a miracle: amongst the black and grey of the surface of Paradise, where nothing had grown for two hundred years, there was an arc of green stretching from the Mountain to one of the civilian habitations.
‘But, Captain – just to the inner perimeter, just to see if we can make contact—’
‘I said no, Corporal.’
‘But, sir, Sergeant Booker—’
‘I know how close you and the sergeant were, but don’t think I won’t write you up for insubordination. I said no – there’ll be no rescue, no investigation – I’ll not lose any more lives to that death-trap. Understood?’
Corporal Ong’s hands were bunched into fists, his knuckles turning white. But, still, he nodded.
‘Good,’ said the Captain. She sighed, and her expression softened. ‘I know he meant a lot to you. If you need a few days to get his affairs in order—’
‘We don’t know that he’s dead, sir.’
She needed to move, she needed to move, but Alice could barely breathe. The air was like syrup – she checked the filter indicator, and it was all black. Alice sobbed. It wasn’t fair – to die here alone, where her body would stay, even after other scavengers had stripped away her survival suit for parts.
There was a crunch from in front of her, then another, and another – footsteps, getting closer. Slowly, slowly, the top of her vision turning red, Alice looked up and saw a woman.
She had dark brown hair cascading down past her shoulders, and was wearing a white dress that billowed as she walked – and that was all. No survival suit,, not even a breather mask. Alice looked down (slowly) at the woman’s feet, and saw that they were bare – and that they stood not on ash and rubble, but rather fresh, green grass.
‘Do not be afraid,’ said the woman, and she reached down and removed Alice’s helmet, and cool air flowed past Alice’s lips.
‘I’m dead,’ said Alice. ‘I’m dead, and you’re—’ Alice gasped and fell onto her hands, pressing her head against the ground in front of the woman. ‘Oh – oh, please, forgive my crimes – I know, I’m nothing, I’m shit next to you, I’m nothing—’
‘Get up,’ said the woman. Trembling, not daring to breathe this new air, Alice got to her knees. ‘Stand up,’ said the woman; slowly, Alice did as she was told.
‘I have saved your life,’ said the woman, ‘so I believe that you should listen to me: do not bow. ~Do not kneel. Not to me, not to anyone – not ever. There are not gods other than those which we make ourselves. You are a thinking, feeling human being, and that makes you the equal of anything in the universe. Now, please, tell me your name.’
‘Ah… Alice. But. If you’re not one of the Patrons, then…’
The woman smiled.
‘My name is Amelie du Pont-Chen,’ she said. ‘I fight for the liberation of humanity. Would you care to join me?’
Alice checked the filter indicator on her wrist, and shivered. There were one or two flecks of green, and a yellow stripe down one edge, but it was nearly all ash-black. She had maybe an hour before her suit failed, and not nearly enough high-quality salvage to afford a replacement filter.
‘Hell,’ she grunted, as the front door of the building refused to budge. She flung herself against it, and again, and it gave way. She touched the side of her helmet to activate her torch, and began exploring the house.
At first it had amazed her – how much space there had been before the war. That didn’t matter now, of course: Alice had a time limit, and she sat to work straight away.
There was nothing but junk downstairs – pots and pans, dead electronics, a couple of long-mummified corpses – nothing that would be of interest to the military.
In what must have been a child’s room, Alice found a few picture books, full of animals. The covers were faded, but Alice knew of collectors of such things in the civilian habitations, so she slid them into her backpack.
In the largest bedroom, which had a double bed, Alice found a little box full of jewellery – but the box was not airtight, and the gems were tarnished.
He suit beeped; Alice looked down at the filter indicator on her wrist, and swore. All traces of green had turned yellow – and a dark yellow, too. She grabbed a handful of gold chains – even air-eaten, surely someone could find a use for gold – and moved. If she ran all the way, maybe she could get to Leicester Patrol Base – and then, maybe, if she begged, if she cried hard enough—
Lieutenant Chun shook his head, looked at the graffiti, then at the kid. The boy’s jaw was set, like he was biting down hard, and his eyes were wide. He flinched, just a little, as the Lieutenant crossed his arms.
‘How old are you, son?’
‘F— nearly fifteen, sir.’
Hell, thought the Lieutenant.
‘Do you realise that you’ve committed a very serious offence here? Stealing paint is bad enough, and so is vandalism, but this sort of filth could get you banished to the surface – and I don’t know what you’ve been told about life as a scavenger, but take it from me that it’s harsh. Pretty short, too, mostly.’
The kid’s jaw was trembling. He let out a whine. Lieutenant Chun slapped the top of his head, hard.
‘You bloody idiot! What would your mother say? Are you so desperate to leave a bloody great hole in the lives of your family? Well?’
‘No – I just… I’m… I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t think – I’m sorry!’
The boy was crying, now – great big ugly sobs. The Lieutenant grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled the kid’s head up, so their gazes met.
‘“The Patrons are no gods”,’ he quoted. ‘Who told you to write this?’
‘It was on Pacem that humanity made our final stand,’ said the Preacher. ‘After Earth and Ariel and a thousand worlds had fallen to the Great Beast and its alien servants, who would have reduced us to something even lower than themselves, to be raped and butchered for sport – after women and men had died in their millions, heroically falling in battle or starving to nothing – after all that, only Pacem stood.’
The Preacher looked down at the children in the front rows, wide-eyed in terror at the story; and at the teenagers sat behind them, wearing practised masks of boredom. The adults were at work, of course, maintaining the habitation.
‘They fought well, the people of Pacem, in the skies and on the ground. They fought with warpods, they burned the alien vermin with civilian transports, they fought with guns and rocks and their fingers and teeth. They fought for a year and a day, and all their cities were burned to ash and nothing.’
The Preacher caught sight of the confusion on the faces of some of the younger ones at that word. He softened his expression.
‘A city is like a habitation, but on the surface of the world rather than below it. There were cities on Paradise, before the Great Treason, but that was a long time after the events I’m describing. Our ancestors, I’m proud to say, were amongst the survivors of Pacem. They were amongst those who bore witness to the emergence of the Patrons, who are as far above us as we are above the inhuman filth that they burned away.’
The Preacher smiled widely, then, and breathed in through his nose.
‘We are nothing before the Patrons,’ whispered the Preacher. ‘We are little more than excrement on the sole of their shoes. And yet, children, they spared us – they saved us – out of their unending patience and generosity. Our manifold crimes – ungratefulness, laziness, greed, unrighteous anger, and more – would be enough to justify any punishment that they saw fit to inflict upon us. And yet they saved us. We, who are little more than beasts ourselves – they spared us. For this, we give praise.’
The cargo hold of the Craft was really far too big – with a diameter of nine kilometres, it didn’t truly register with Rashid as an enclosed space. In many parts of the galaxy people lived their entire lives in smaller places.
‘You’re impressed by this,’ said Sam; she seemed amused at the thought. Rashid bowed his head, eyes downcast, aware of the need to maintain decorum in front of the Craft’s captain.
‘To one such as you, O Patron, I am sure the sight is less than nothing at all. However—’
‘Quite,’ said Sam, and went to the railing. From here, halfway up the spherical chamber, one could see warehouses full of munitions set amongst parkland, artillery pieces settled besides copses of intricately gene-engineered trees producing rations, and the regiment of Holy Warriors occupying several of the normally-empty residential blocks.
Sam nodded, then glanced at the captain of the Craft, whose forehead was planted firmly on the cold metal of the walkway. It was an unsettling sight to Rashid, whose childhood had involved many parables about the respect due to members of the military – and to officers especially – to see a man who ranked higher than most planetary governors bow lower than himself.
‘When will we be ready to leave?’
‘All supplies are loaded, Endless One. If it is your wish, we can leave in one hour and nine minutes.’
‘Make it so, then.’
‘I am impressed by it, Sam,’ said Rashid, when they were alone. ‘It’s so… much. I almost feel sorry for the fools who oppose you – with all this, there’s no way you can lose.’
She turned to him, leaning against the railing, and smiled sadly. When he came close enough, she put a hand on his cheek.
‘That’s sweet of you to say, pretty one. But the truth is that all of this…’
The Patron, who had guided the fate of humanity for close to a thousand years, sighed. Rashid took hold of her hand and, gently, kissed her fingers, one by one.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘We’ll find out soon enough.’