Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fiction Friday: Messenger

Rubario of Foln was born to the merchantess Joira in the last days of a brutal merchant's war. When he was five, Joira went to the Lensgrinder's Guild and commissioned for him a marvelous telescope to spy out the stars. Young Rubario treated it with a sedate kind of reverence. The telescope lived in Joira's quarters, which smelled of paper-must and woodrot. When his lessons were done and the bilious sun bowed its head to leave and the sky was spread out like a picnic blanket, Rubario perched on a stool beneath the window and stared up and up and up. He kept notes in charcoal on crinkled vellum (another present) of how the stars moved. Joira wondered at his strange obsession. What began as a momentary gift consumed his nightly hours.

From time to time, Joira took her family to the Messian Cathedral in Foln. It was the biggest church in the city, high atop Foln's Hill, which was widely believed to house the tomb of the city's legendary founder buried somewhere under the rubble of centuries. There in the Cathedral, Rubario watched sermons broadcast on a thousand screens. They spoke of the old days, when the ships still came from Sol-that-was once a generation. "They were strung across the galaxy like a necklace of silver, a chain of arks that linked Sol-that-was with all our worlds. We were not alone then, for messages could travel by bottle to arrive after centuries of voidflight. We were one people, one race, all the myriad worlds of the galaxy. But something changed. The ships came less and less. No one knew why, even their passengers. Now, Sol-that-was sends us nothing, and our own shipyards lie fallow. This is the hour of the Messenger. This is the hour of the Church."

It was true. No one had seen a ship from Sol-that-was in six generations. Wars had swept the planet of Thoule, and great religious upheavels. Reformation and counter-reformation. Rubario was taught of each of these by his tutors. "Remember the Purging of Vax," they would say, or "You must never forget what became of Emperor Hortmann, my boy, for his lesson is a lesson to us all." But never did they speak of Sol-that-was or the other planets in the great galactic net. They said only, "This, now, is the Fourth Wave. The Third Wave has ended. No more star arks will come. Perhaps we will build our own some day, eh Rubario?"

This was a dream that intrigued young Rubario. He was slow of foot and thick about the waist, cursed with heavy breathing and hair perpetually limp with sweat. When he was twenty, his hair would thin and begin to fall, leaving him bald and fat by the time he was a grown man. Even anti-geriatric treatments at the church could not cure him of his defects. But the stars...? To travel among the void and see other worlds, other places where mankind had spread... this was a dream.

Joira was worried about Rubario. She needed someone who could take her place as chief merchantess of her line, not a daydreamer. She needed an heir with a keen eye for numbers, with a nose for silver, and with the will to run a commercial empire. The tutors made sure Rubario understood numbers well... but the only silver he ever cared for was the silver of the stars. He did not have the drive to replace his mother.

There was only one thing to do, then, and it was this: Joira sought out a high-status donor and conceived a second child. The Messian priests puttered and mooned over her for months before they finally declared that she was fit for the archaic procedure. She had no joy in letting some withered old crone stick fingers inside her, but Joira knew that Rubario would not be able to bear the burden of the family name. This was why, when Rubario turned twelve, Joira gave him a sister.

Nothing could have been better for Rubario. He was free of expectation and given reign to follow where his heart led. There was only one place: Tolcross University, Foln's oldest and one of the gravest and most respected institutions on Thoule. It was a heady time for Rubario; there was much quaffing of wine, and many a jerkin was spoilt by late night revels. But Joira was pleased that her son finally seemed happy, even if he was running to fat. When he spoke, he smiled easily and often. Several brief and unfruitful affairs between Rubario and his classmates proved to his mother that the boy's libido was in tact and that, all in all, she had not created something wholly displeasing.

As he grew, Rubario learned to hate the church, the state, the noble families of Foln, and the sorcerers. He spoke out against the rulers of Thoule at every turn, first denouncing the powerful of Foln, then castigating the Republic of Miromar for their excesses, then spitting bile against the Kingdom of Arr, and finally cursing the Messian church itself. He was widely lauded for this attitude amongst the more intellectual members of the University, but there existed always the unspoken fear that the Archeobishop would hear of Rubario's speeches.

The Archeobishop of Foln was an old man who long since should have died. He was kept alive by Messian sorcery and church science. Tolcross taught at the sufferance of the church, and each member of its faculty was given the bishop's imprimatur—or not. The fear of church censure ran deep in the bones of each academic. So, Rubario was cautioned and watched with a wary eye. Though many thought him brave or clever (or both), they knew all too well that he might draw the ire of the Messian faith. To Rubario, this was slavery, madness, and complete capture of the philosophically inclined Academy to the idiotic and gibbering Church.

For Rubario, there was only one path to take. He studied with the Master of Astrologics and, after many years of dedicated service, became a Reader, and was appointed Rector of Astrologics himself. He was forty-one when he took the golden pendant and the honors associated with it. By then fully rotund, Rubario informed his sister Myra by letter.

My dearest Sister and heritor of all that is Good in Foln, he wrote, I am unaccountably pleased, pleased beyond all reason, to tell you that I have been appointed Chair of Astrologics at Tolcross. My suggestions for additions to be made to the Telescope Tower have been well considered, and even the Sorcery department must admit that I am close to a breakthrough on how we view the skies. It would be magnificent if the Church permitted us access to their satellites, but for now we must make use of humble lenses. I am thrilled, as well, to hear of the coup you secured over Arr's chief negotiator! May the family silver grow! This was a not-so-subtle plea for money, for he went on, My hosen have grown faded and torn and my jerkin and tunics are all in tatters. I wonder if they will provide me with something to wear during the ceremony...

This was how Rubario became one of the most celebrated names in Astrologics across most of Thoule. Of course, he had detractors. At Hartmass University he was accused of criminal idiocy by the Provost of Astrological Studies in a series of blistering letters directed to the entire faculty. When he wrote The Nature of the Celestial Bodies and their Travel, the Provost retorted with his volume On Rubario of Foln's Mistakes. Thus there was born between them an enmity which would last until the day they died.

Thus, upon discovering the dilation, it was Rubario's first thought that he would silence forever the caustic rantings of his archrival the Provost. He had been watching the skies, as was his wont, and making use of the improvements he himself had installed at the Telescope Tower. He had a goblet of wine at his elbow and an autopen mushed between his fat fingertips. He was studying a constellation he knew well and making notes on it with his face glued to the eyepiece when it happened.

This was Orgas, the constellation of the Wizard, initially named not by Astrologists but by those accursed sorcerers. His eye was fixated upon Orgus' hood when the stars moved. No, it is not right to say that they moved, for they did not crawl across the sky. From one moment to the next, they were simply in one place, and then in another. This was the dilation. Rubario yelped and began to scribble. He would need calculation after calculation to prove what he had just seen. The distance from Orgus' navel, yes, triangulated from his position in northern Thoule. The distance from the hood, now, had grown, even accounting for the viewing position of Foln. Yes, yes, yes. He yelped again and drank down all his wine.

Huge braziers of tar and coal were set out for the meeting. Letters were carried by footmen and valets across half a dozen cities and through the halls of Thoule's most prestigious universities. Even Messian ambassadors from the Melodic Palace came to witness Rubario's thunderous and stunning announcement. Tolcross chose a huge amphitheater outside of Foln and spent tons of silver repairing it. Lime lamps were built, and silvered mirrors made to reflect the light of the braziers. Three hundred servants were recruited to hold smoky torches aloft to light the aisles. Even the Provost was invited, for Rubario wanted to humiliate the man once and for all.

"The stars have moved," he announced before the crowded auditorium. Fires smoked gloomily against the brickwork. The night sky overhead was wrong, but only Rubario knew it. "I can prove to you that the stars have moved. They look... very different today, than they did just a month prior." Rubario twiddled the golden chain around his neck. "If you look up the sky with the instruments... with the precision! that I have... you will discover that things are different. I do not yet know why... but I will."

"Madness!" screeched the Provost. "Heresy! The stars do not move! They are fixed in the sky. Else how could we send ark ships from Sol-that-was?"

But Rubario held up a hand for silence, and his rival fell quiet beneath the combined weight of the eyes surrounding him. "Orgas has changed. I have had a pamphlet printed by the presses of Foln for all of you. It waits only—" and here he choked on his own hatred of the church, but managed somehow to press on, "Only for the Archeobishop to authorize its release."

The old man brooded. He had overseen Rubario's thesis defense when Rubario was a boy and, regardless of the rumors that swirled about him, thought of the portly astrologist as generally a good fellow. "Very well," he said. "Pass them about. It is only theory, after all."

"Only theory!" the Provost screamed. "It is rank heresy!"

Rubario loomed up at the edge of the stage. "It is truth!" he thundered.

In the three years that followed, Rubario became something of a local celebrity. Of course, long-distance communication on Thoule had long ago been shackled to the control of the Church of the Messenger, so it was only by gothic-lettered pamphlet, printed in batches at various offices throughout Foln, that Rubario's name spread. But spread it did, and eventually even the Provost had to admit that Rubario of Foln was the first to spot the dilation.

Theology became involved. Anything this strange was bound to tangle up in theology on Thoule. Rubario was summoned to the Holy See. Flagellants beat themselves in the streets with electric coils as he rode by in his sedan chair. Strange lights twinkled in the tower garrets as noblemen and women directed their pet sorcerers to spy on his approach. The doors to the Melodic Palace were opened for him by hulking and sinister guardsmen, each armed with a long rail-rifle and a vibroblade. He was brought before the Messian himself in the utmost pomp.

But the Messian wanted to speak with him in private. The hundreds of priests were excused from the rose-colored hall. The Messian urged his underlings to sweep the chamber for listening spies. In his groggy voice, he told Rubario, "One can never be too certain."

"No," Rubario agreed. "I suppose not."

From there the interview proceeded along predictable lines. The Messian asked if the shift in the stars heralded some great cosmic event. Rubario told him that it might be a joke, perpetrated by an errant God. The Messian did not like this taste of humor, and so the little old man sank very deeply into his purple and white robes and glared at Rubario from behind his bony cheeks.

"What does this mean for the Church?"

Rubario shrugged. He was not one to be impressed by power. "The same thing everything else does, I guess," he told the Messian. "That you'll find a way to make people more afraid, to put them further in your power." He gave a nonchalant shrug. His belly wobbled.

With those words, Rubario sealed his fate. Celebrated he might have been, but within a fortnight he had completed his fall from grace. His Rectorship was revoked by Tolcross. He was permitted to keep the title of Reader, but not to read any longer. He was ejected from the University and sent out into a cold world. He had no skills to keep him fed. He was not one of the toiling masses of farmers. He could not sell or buy product if his life depended on it, so he was not fit to be a merchant. He did not have noble birth. He despised the church. What was left for a man of his station?

Exile. He took, from Tolcross University, a single telescope and a vibroknife, before he was thrown from its august and esteemed halls by the Archeobishop's guard.

The kings, queens, and emperors of Thoule were instructed by the Messian not to give him shelter or relief. Even the little plucky Miromarin Republic dispatched a strongly-worded letter urging him not to come, or they would be forced to "turn you over to the Messian's machinery, to grant you a permanent home in the engines of the faith." This was a not-so-subtle code which warned Rubario that he may be bound up and executed for his crime, or worse, kept alive—barely—by Church sorcery to be paraded around as a heretic.

This was how Rubario entered the forty-eighth year of his life without a groat to his name. All he possessed, he carried with him in a sack. His golden pendant was long since sold. His tunic was tattered and stained, and his fine hosen had been ripped in half a dozen places, and this time for true. He looked like a highwayman, and in truth he may well have been one. He carried a vibroknife in his waistband and from time to time he waylaid those who he considered wealthy enough to bear the sacrifice.

After all, was he not in need? And when they came traipsing down the lonesome roads in his corner of the world, were they not flaunting their wealth in his face? Once, he was attempting to rob the train of a pompous Archduke when he made the miscalculation of leaving the duke's slave-sorcerer unchained. The woman nearly fried his brain in his skull before he got away. That night he cursed himself, all sorcerers, all dukes, and all the world of Thoule where he lived.

"In the old days," he railed at a distant windmill, "gods came down from the sky in chariots! Now, we live in the mud like dogs. Look at us, grubbing! Pfah!" But of course, he dreamed not of the gods coming down from the heavens, but of the cushy days of his faculty appointment when he could lounge in the musty reading rooms or scriptoria of the University and not be disturbed. He knew he never should have published, but his pride drove him on.

Just as it drove him to write while he was in exile. Sheafs and reams of parchments, papers, and vellums were filled with his rambling thoughts on the dilation. He found a cave with good light where he could write for several hours each day. He lived on the edge of a swamp and ate the many fungi that grew on its verge. Sometimes he invited travelers in to share a meal with him. Other times, he drove them off and hoped to grab their silver or their gold.

Then Rum attacked.

Time flows differently out between the stars, cramped and backwards-like, so that no two worlds can ever be in congress. This is why they remain lonely eyots in the great cosmic stream. There can be no bridges nor long-lasting byways, only the briefest of rafts cast adrift in the river of time. Because, you see, in the years between Rubario of Foln's discovery of the first dilation and his current and most lamentable exile, eons had passed in parts of the galaxy. In those dark and dismal eons, men learned to slip the bonds of space as one might shrug off a cloak. The translation of matter from star to star was no longer a fevered nightmare, but a bubbling reality.

It began in the orbit around Sorghun, where the technocrat-barons discovered dilation. They twisted the populous of an entire world to find the solution to travel through the stars. They hoped to effectuate an empire of the sort dreamt of in the nascent days of Old Earth; one that could span lightyears and stride through the nothingness of the galaxy. What they got was something different. The first ship that left Sorghun on a mission of exploration returned three centuries later, though no time at all had passed onboard.

That glimmer of light in the sky, that strange shift of the stars, was what Rubario of Foln had seen before his exile. To Rubario, the ship's centuries-or-minutes-long journey took one month, by which time the strange blemish in the sky over Thoule had vanished. In the years of Rubario's exile, great changes were wrought near Sorghun. The techno-barons slaughtered one another in despair and greed, and a new threat was unleashed upon the scattered colonies of man: the Corsairs of Sorghun, those winsome murderous warriors born of the conflict.

Chief amongst the Corsiars was the pirate Rum. He was born on a latifundus, a farm-holding that covered half a continent. His father was an engineer who serviced the machinery of Baron Grot. His mother was a sacred prostitute of the Sorghic Rite, a priestess of fertility and plenty. He was raised in the ways of the Sorghun Temple, but soon grew to understand the true rule of the universe—that strength does not justify, strength itself is justice. This he learned from the cruel teachings of Baron Grot, who worked Rum's father nearly to death out in the wheat fields. The Baron Grot's punishment? Nothing. No feeble finger of "justice" could stop him.

Until the great riots after Grot was, one summer, too harsh on his labor-tax and too stingy with the technological gifts he was meant to bestow. Rum saw true strength that day, for the Baron Grot was dragged outside by his own security and lashed to a harvesting unit, to ride his vast domain until he died of thirst. This was, by Sorghic time, some five hundred years after the return of the first dilation-driven ship.

Rum, like Rubario, became a highwayman, but of a different kind. He was followed by hundreds of the baron's old serfs. They stole not coin or grain, but machinery. And, when he had assembled weapons enough to claim a fiefdom of his own, Rum carved a piece out of the Baron Grot's old lands and declared himself a landholder. The next step, he knew, was to leave the clinging embrace of Sorghun and venture out into the galaxy. So he would need a ship.

Many of his followers did not wish to leave Sorghun. They were content, having won land of their own. To these, Rum promised them all that he had accumulated when he left. For those who were willing to fly with him, Rum christened one of the very first Corsair crews. All over Sorghun, similar things were happening. Pirates were being born from the forge of that dying world. The glittering ship Silence was finally ready; Rum trained his crew in orbit for two years. They left.

Before coming to Thoule, Rum looted the treasuries of a thousand worlds. He called himself the Ravager. From time to time, Rum met with other Corsairs. Time flowed differently on each ship, for each had gone to different parts of the galaxy and spent more or less time in the strange no-space between dilations. So while some of those who had set off at the same time were old men, or the sons and daughters of the first Corsairs, others had aged barely a day. They would trade news high above the worlds of prey, play dice to see who would get the bigger share of the loot, and then move on: that, or else they would engage their nuclear lances and rail guns, spray the void with electronic countermeasures, and blast each other out of the sky.

By the time Rum reached Thoule, he was a years-seasoned Corsair. He carried a shock-saber at his hip and wore a suit of shimmering mercury, to deflect slugs. He smiled the smile of a cunning and cruel killer. From time to time he played the electric lute, much to the amusement of his crew. They knew they had done well to follow Rum, the best and most powerful of the Corsairs. They would be remembered on a dozen worlds, and wasn't that a kind of immortality?

Rubario was watching the skies on the night Rum appeared. He would often climb to a hill just outside Foln, unfold his stolen telescope, and examine the heavens. It reminded him of his days in the University—but more, it reminded him of his childhood in the house of his mother, a powerful merchantess of Foln. He remembered the musty smell of her bower. Many a night he spent before the telescope that peered from her window. The merchantess, his mother, Joira, had the thing made especially for him, by contract with the Lensgrinder's Guild. The resin smell of pines and mushrooms filled his nose upon that hilltop, but his eyes and limbs felt that same old room.

Rum appeared with a great blink of light, a shattering of space like a thousand gleaming shards. A stone smashed a mirror of liquid mercury. Rubario watched as the sky vomited up Rum's ship, a glittering monstrosity that shone like a star.

On that night, Rum broadcast his demand to Thoule. His ship jacked into the old satellite system that was maintained, failingly, by Church authorities. Rubario was already half drunk at the roadside tavern by Foln's west gate. They knew he was an exile, but they served him all the same. "Silver's silver," they murmured to each other as they watched the flabby bandit picking at greasy chicken with his fingers.

He drank himself far drunker than he intended, so that by the time midnight rolled around and the great clocks began to toll, Rubario could barely rise. But he didn't need to rise on his own; two Messianic knights gripped him by the shoulders and hauled him upright. "You're the astrologer called Rubario," one growled.

"What of it?" Rubario asked. "I may very well be the second messiah myself!" But they ignored his blasphemy and hauled him bodily behind them.

Slung cross-wise over a saddle, Rubario was made subject to much hard travel. Before the night had come and gone, he found himself once more in the Cathedral of Foln, seated before the greatest screen at the high altar. The Messian's face gazed down impassively at his humble form, and the old man peered at him from within his deep white velvet hood. "You discovered the messenger first, Astrologist," the Messian proclaimed. His voice was the crack of thunder and the whisper of mice, reflected and refracted through all the speakers within the ancient stonework. "You will understand what it wants."

Rubario glowered. "After all this time, your sacred Messenger is finally here, and you're asking me what it all means? I'm not a sorcerer or a theologian. Go find someone from Tolcross to stroke your ego."

This time, the Messian didn't allow Rubario's vulgarity to get the better of him. Instead he smiled faintly upon that tattered man and switched the channel over to display the frowning lips of the pirate Rum.

"Who is this?" Rum asked. His voice was a hiss and a prayer. The smell of old stone crawled into Rubario's nostrils as he stared at the first face from another world.

He drew himself up. "I am Rubario of Foln," he said, "Astrologist of Tolcross and a student of the stars. Who are you?"

"I am the Corsair Rum!" said Rum with pride. "I want the gold, the platinum, the oil, the spices, the luxuries of all your cities. I have come across the void for these things, and my sorcerers are ready now to unleash sidereal chaos upon your pitiful planet."

"I know nothing of sorcery. I know nothing of platinum, gold, or oil. But I know of the stars, and the void." Rubario frowned at him. And I know that you cannot have come from some distant world. It takes too long. The ships have stopped. Sol-that-was is forgotten."

"Curse Sol-that-was!" Rum shouted. "I am Rum-that-is! I command a dilation engine, and I cross space and time as I will!" The knights behind Rubario murmured "the Messenger!" frantically to themselves. "They are abstractions to me, do you understand? I can go where  I wish, and my crew takes what we can."

"Then you're no different from the priests," Rubario said.

Rum scowled. "The difference is, I will annihilate you if you refuse."

Rubario thought about that. Yes, that was a difference. Then, he said slowly, "For the past years I have lived as a highwayman, a bandit, and an exile."

The Corsair Rum began to laugh. "You too, you mean, are a pirate." And it was true. Rubario had been those things. Rum was those things. "I can give you something, then, friend Rubario of Foln. Will you join us? Will you travel the void, searching out the wreckage of the old worlds, with me? I need only know where to strike."

Now the knights drew their swords and advanced on Rubario. But Rubario had his vibro-blade ready. With a snicker-snack, he undid them. They never had a chance to use their coil-sabers. Rum began to laugh. Rubario did not look at the screen. Instead, he peered out of the Cathedral window. He looked up, and up, and up.

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