ORIGINAL FICTION: "Bob and the Monastery of Blood (Part 2)" by Republibots 2.0 and 3.0 and Paula Tabor

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PLEASE NOTE: This is part 2 of a 4-part story. Part 1 is online here: http://www.republibot.com/content/original-fiction-bob-and-monastery-blo...

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I was flying low in my paraglider, there was wreckage of a paraglider on the ground. A trail of smoke let from my plane to the wreckage. “Know this before you die,” I said…

I startled awake, panicked! Where was I? Oh, yes, in my cell. A beeswax candle providing the only light. I’d already forgotten the dream, and was a bit confused. I heard a noise, and in the dim shadows I saw Dan was there. He had somehow gotten a hold of a child’s alphabet blocks. He was picking them up carefully, one by one, in his mouth, and stacking them one atop another, very carefully, until he had seven or eight of them in a precarious tower. Then he gave a happy growl and knocked them over. He kept doing this - stacking and knocking - for at least a half hour, before he got bored with it, and came over to me for some attention. He maneuvered his head under my new hand in that endearing way dogs have, and waited for me to pet him.

“What are you?” I asked him. He didn’t answer, but I wouldn’t have been too surprised if he had.

Morning prayers came at five AM, local time. I was groggy. Dan kept pace with me as we marched to the chapel, then a sad-looking Jesuit shooed him away. He gave a happy yap, and vanished into the shadows to go catch a jumprat or something for his breakfast. We passed the naked old man with the peacock feather and the gourd, already awake and jumping around like an idiot. He recognized me and waved. I averted my eyes.

After prayers, it was a bland breakfast of hominy grits, which I wolfed down. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. A dark-skinned man wearing a dark orange coat and a lighter orange turban introduced himself as Brother Brijesh, and took me in the kitchen. “In light of your injuries,” he said, “You’re on light duty for the time being. Think you can handle washing dishes?” I allowed as how I could, and for the next hour I scrubbed away, all by myself while the sad Jesuit put them away for me. “You’ll have to learn where to put this stuff when I’m gone,” he said, “Assuming you stay, of course.” He coughed. I asked if he was ok, but he just smiled in a way that was even sadder than he normally looked, and walked off.

After I’d done the dishes, it was more prayers, then a singing service, then Mendayev gave me an hour of personal tutoring in Russian.

“Why do I need to learn that?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “Since you’re probably the only Baptist monk in history, we don’t have any specific worship services or rituals for you. Until we can set some up - assuming we ever can - you’ll be following the Orthodox rites. Russian is the liturgical language, soo….” He let it rail off.

“So why are you teaching me? I thought you were a Shaolin?”

“I am, but I grew up speaking it in Yvgenistan, and I speak it better than anyone here who isn’t otherwise occupied with other duties. As your Jesus said, ‘Freely hast thou received, freely also shalt thou give.’”

After that, a prayer service, then lunch - some kind of vegetarian Buddhist salad thing - then an hour of meditation for everyone else, and an hour of dishes for me. Then an hour of indoctrination from Brother Brijesh, then more prayers, a choir service, several hours of rather dogmatic study, another meal and more dishes, some free time, some more prayers, some quiet contemplation time, and lights out.

That was basically my routine for the next six months, though starting on the second day they woke me up an hour earlier so I could do calisthenics and Tai Chi with the rest of the brothers. And I dreamed, fitfully.

I was flying low, maybe a hundred feet above the ground. I was angry at someone for some reason. A bald man with an eye patch said, “Finish him!”

When I’d first arrived, the monastery had been full of men and boys, all talking with their hokey accents, and wearing their goofy Victorian clothes. After my second day, the Kirby swarm was done, and everyone went home.

“Most of the ranchers around here have marginal existences at best. They need to get back to their places, check out the damage, contact their insurance companies, stuff like that,” Brother Maynard informed me. He was one of the few Catholics here. He coughed a lot, and looked way too thin. The general lack of Papists wasn’t surprising: When I’d helped bring in the initial wave of colonists fifty years ago, they’d been overwhelmingly Southerners, the remainder split between Russians and Chinese. None of those were cultures where Catholicism had made much of an impact, though there were a few members of the Patriotic Chinese Catholic Organization, which was an offshoot that didn’t recognize the authority of the Pope. Mother/Father Guo had been one of those.

More dreams:

There was a man I couldn’t quite remember. What was his name? Van Skaik? Van Shank? Something like that. “It’s better,” he said.

There is a prolonged period of novitiate in Retreationism. There wasn’t a hard-and-fast duration for it, but assuming I was still here three years from now, they’d actually consider making me a member. That‘s three earth years, of course. In local Gagarin time, that comes out to about four years and nine or ten months. Tau Ceti is quite a bit cooler than the earth‘s sun, so the planet has to be quite a bit closer in order to be warm enough to support life. Hence the local year is quite a bit shorter than I was used to. For official purposes, people tended to use standard earth years , and local years for things like farming and birthdays and whatnot.

Anyway: The whole idea for the lengthy indoctrination was to make sure that one really wants this life, and isn’t just running away from pain. Since I actually was just running away from pain, this caused me some consternation, but brother Brijesh told me not to worry about it at this time. Another reason for the long introduction period was that members are celibate and the sexes are segregated. The Monastery and St. Salome’s Nunnery were separate structures with occasional interaction, usually during festivals. This part suited me fine, given my lingering memories of my exes. No more trips down that road, thank you very much.

“But wait,” I asked, “Why is Guo allowed over there, if he’s a guy?”

“He’s gay, obviously,” Brijesh told me, “We don’t house monks or nuns with the gender they’re attracted to. Do you have any idea how many problems that would cause?”

Brijesh was Hindu, by the way. He always went to morning prayers with us Christians, and when I asked him why, he said he was ‘auditing the class.’ “So what‘s your story?” I asked one day during free time.

“Oh, I was born here, but my family emigrated from earth a good twenty years after the first wave.”

So much stuff happens while I’m away! I’d traveled so often that I hadn’t seen this place develop, I’d just gotten little snapshots of the world, a quarter century apart, almost like a strobe light on an…

Strobe?

Flashback:

My para corkscrewed wildly as I fell, and I saw something in strobe-like flashes as they entered and left my field of vision a dozen times a second. Every time I closed and opened my eyes, the clouds and sun were in a different position. I must have been blacking out constantly. “Nah, it’s better this way,” said another voice that I almost recognized.

What the heck had that been about? Evidently I’d staggered or zoned off or something, and Brijesh noticed. “Are you OK?” he asked. I didn’t know, so I changed the subject:

“So what’s up with him?” I said, motioning vaguely in the direction of the naked guy, but not really wanting to look at him to be sure I was really pointing accurately.

“Oh, that’s Rudy,” Brijesh said, “Theoretically he’s a Digambara monk, from the Jain religion. They don’t wear clothes as a symbol of refusing to give in to the body’s needs, and their only possessions are those two things there.”

“Theoretically?”

“Well, between you and me, I think he’s probably just some random crazy guy. He was already here and already naked when we bought this place twenty years ago. Never says a word, just stays to himself, or dances, or giggles. Actually, he didn’t even have the feather or the gourd until Brother Maynard hit the idea of giving them to him. If he carries them, we let him in and feed him. If he doesn’t, we won’t.”

“Why?”

“It lets us preserve the fiction that he’s a monk, and that allows us to give him a degree of protection. If we couldn’t do that, someone would have shot him by now.”

There was a rifle barrel eclipsing something. There was a bald man with an eye patch standing atop a hovertruck in the distance. Somehow I could see him clearly. There was another man with him. Dark hair, handsome, and he smiled at me with perfect teeth. They were standing in the smoke. I recognized him vaguely.

A documentary crew showed up. They were doing a story on New Texan flora and fauna. They had a large motorhome hovercraft that they tooled around in. Their leader was a very pretty girl named “Jerry,” who asked me a bunch of questions when she saw Dan. I honestly didn’t know the answers. She started to film him when another one of the Brothers - Yakov, one of the Essene Revivalist Jews - stepped between her camera and my dog, and asked her to leave.

“What was that about?” I asked. He just coughed and walked away. A lot of the old-timers here coughed a lot.

My chute was still slowing my fall a little bit, but not by much.

More nightmares. More waking with a start. More of my dog calming me down. I didn’t know why they let me keep the dog, but I sensed there was something going on with him that they didn’t want to talk about. He was really smart, spooky smart for a dog. I wasn’t getting much sleep anyways, and to be brutally frank, my routine here was boring as heck. Much as I sought to shut out the outside world and my own past, I needed distraction.

“Let’s figure out what your story is,” I told Dan. He licked my face appreciatively, and we snuck out of the cloister together. We didn’t actually find anything apart from Rudy taking a dump in the bushes, but it was a start.

An advantage to vastly outliving my years via relativistic travel is that no matter where I’m going, medical technology is always way more advanced than the place I left. My ears popped and my ribs ached and my knee went numb when the air tide was high, but that was only an hour or so a day, and it got a bit less intense every time. My wounds healed much quicker than I expected, but a bit slower than they expected, and by the end of the first month, I was taken off dish duty and put to work with the beekeepers. By then I’d almost grown used to my new white hand. I was still fascinated with the line where it met the dark brown skin of my arm. I wondered distantly what Emily would have thought of it. She’d always liked tattoos, and this was far more…no, no, no. No thoughts like that. That way lies a large part of the madness I’d come here to escape.

Every time I closed and opened my eyes, the clouds and sun and moons were in a different position. A bald man with an eye patch stared at me. “You want me?” He asked.

Man, the bad dreams were getting annoying. I couldn’t figure out why the crash was bothering me so badly, despite my having been in far worse scrapes before it. I didn’t dream of those? Why?

The sad lone Jesuit, Brother Theo, was my confessor, mostly because his vocation was psychotherapy. Being a Baptist, I was very uncomfortable with a lot of the stuff that went on here. For example, in keeping with Matthew 29:3, I flatly refused to call anyone here “Father.“ Both the Catholic and Orthodox priests had doubletalky and disingenuous reasons for why they did it, but in the end they allowed me to get by with “Sir” and “Priest’ and “Brother” and “Pastor.“ The notion of confession likewise bothered me, and I likely would have chucked the whole thing, were it not that the guy was an actual shrink. Clearly I needed that.

His reason for my dreams: “The accident happened very quickly, faster than your mind could really record in the normal fashion. Since you’re an engineer, I’ll use a this metaphor: All the information is in your head, but owing to an unexpected computer crash, it got strewn about in a lot of temp files. When you sleep, your mind is basically defraging, putting the file back together.”

That wasn’t exactly how computers worked, but it was close enough.

There was a rifle aimed at my face. It was all I could see, the barrel eclipsing my field of vision.

The routine was basically unchanging: up early work and/or pray all day, go to bed, have nightmares, sneak out and scout around with Dan for a few hours, and then do it over again the next day. Over time I grew to like the predictability. Occasionally I sat in on services from the other religions. I thought the Essene Revivalist Jews were interesting, and I liked their hymns. Sundays were dawn-til-dusk church. Once a month a hovertruck came from Mount Saint Anthony, bringing supplies and taking our beeswax wares. We brought in a lot of ethanol in fifty-gallon drums. For whatever reason, Gagarin had no petrochemicals, so there was nothing else we could use to power the generator. I worked the loading docks, which were kind of interesting and needlessly ultra-modern: The truck backed up and docked flush with a large garage door, forming an airtight seal that served no purpose I could see. The doors opened up and we lugged stuff around for a few hours, then it pulled away, without us ever seeing the people in the cab.

Dan always stood in the window and growled at the drivers.

Though we were supposed to be leading lives of quiet contemplation, devoid of outside distractions, Truck days were always opportunities for us to find out about the outside worlds. The leader of this world was called a “Kaskey,” for reasons I don’t want to get into right now. It was an election year, and the current Kaskey was a lame duck, not expected to win. The frontrunner was a Federalist Party Candidate named “McNevin.” From what I gathered, he’d arrived here about ten years ago, having immigrated from earth. That didn’t make him ineligible, though. He was a hardliner, promising swift and direct action if anyone tried to secede.

Meanwhile, the constitutional crisis lurched forward, with Yvgenistan and Anthonia declaring in no uncertain terms that they’d leave the Confederacy if the government didn’t back down on some boring issues or another. I gathered it had something to do with taxes and states rights, or maybe teaching Russian in schools, but I don’t know. Gagariners are always yammering on about states rights, so it’s hard to tell when it’s significant and when it’s just something to fill dead air. Bottom line: the situation was spiraling out of control, and if McNevin won, there would be war.

I was nearing a canyon on the horizon. “You want I should know this?” two voices said in harmony. Neither of them were mine.

Time passed and the desert came back to life, with patches of furgrass growing, and those pyramidal not-quite-cacti springing up surprisingly quickly. Birdish things occasionally roosted in the steeple. Now and again we’d see elephant-sized harmadillos wander by, generally chased by yipping men on horseback. One day there was a huge plume of dust which heralded the arrival of the camera crew on their hovering mobile home. They’d showed up to interview Brothers Zadok and O’Neil, our resident bee masters and my immediate bosses. They knew more about the local environment than anyone.

Beekeeping was much harder, and much more profitable than you’d expect. This is an alien world, after all. About a third of the native plants and animals would kill you dead in a minute if you ate ‘em, about another third are completely indigestible by humans, and pass right through a body with no effect, good or ill. Some of them are really tasty, though, and popular in the dieting industry. The remaining third is actually suitable as food, and really, when you think about it, the fact that we can digest anything that evolved twelve light years from earth is pretty miraculous.

Miraculous? When did I start thinking like that?

In any event, a lot of the flora and fauna we’d imported from earth over the previous half century simply couldn’t make it here, and died out. Chickens? Dead. Horses? Doing great. Cattle? Kinda’ touch and go. Shrimp? Doing great! Trout? Dead. Bees? Touch-and-go.

Why? Well, as O’Neil patiently explained to me when I first got foisted into his employ, on earth Bees navigate by the position of the sun, and their biological clocks are set to the seasons. Here, the sun is tiny, which throws them off, and the seasons are only fifty-seven days long, which puts more stress on them. We simply couldn’t let them go off on their own to find food like they would have done on earth, because they kept getting lost and dying in the wilderness. Beekeeping, then, consisted of keeping the bees near home, in violation of their natural habits, and making sure they were well fed. Hence honey and beeswax were super-rare on Gagarin, and pricey enough to keep both the Monastery and Saint Salome’s running.

The documentarians left.

“Know this,” the handsome man said, “you could just walk away. You’re dying.”

The dreams were still waking me up, but I’d stopped wondering about them. Theo assured me that particular tooth would pull itself when the time came. Irritating, just the same.

Dan and I slipped into the library, and then he ran off. It was an actual, physical library with books and everything, and reminded me of my childhood. There’s something about that musty book smell, you know? Well, no, I guess you probably wouldn’t, having never been around such things. They had a computer terminal here, which was off-limits, but I’m an engineer, which means no machine is ever really truly off-limits to me.

Man, a lot of files! Who new Monks kept such meticulous records? It would take me days to get through all this. I did find some stuff to whet my appetite, though: Beekeeping wasn’t the original source of income for the monastery, and while I couldn’t figure out what actually had been, I found a locked subdirectory entitled “SD Bioproject Files” that looked promising.

Dan returned with some shrink-wrapped instaburgers as I was scribbling down some off-the-top-of-my-head code for an antiencryption program on the inside cover of a hymnal. He’d generally scuttle off to bring me a snack during our nightly missions. I didn’t know where he was getting it from. I didn’t mind. Monk’s gruel was by definition bland, and the burgers tasted great by comparison.

Brother Theo burst in, surprising us both, and blustering about how we weren’t supposed to be here, kicking us out, and sentencing me to six weeks of penance scrubbing toilets, “Until your new hand matches your old hand,” he said, which I thought was rather uncalled for, and unexpectedly racist.

“Some guard dog you turned out to be,” I said to Dan. He looked chagrinned, as only a freakishly intelligent dog can.

One of the lines holding my parachute/wing in place had torn free, and I was spiraling out of control. As I spun, I could see a trail of smoke.

To the southeast of the beekeeping area was a ruined dome a thousand feet across. All that remained were two arches, with a large house hanging on cables from the point where they intersected. I’d seen a few things like these when I’d initially been flying over the desert. Zadok informed me they were prefab ranches. A dome covered a hundred and sixty-two acres of cropland, keeping it safe from predators and well-hydrated, and the family home hung above, keeping it safe from harmadillo stampedes, as well as Kirbys and Jumprats and other things that might somehow get through the dome.

“We used to keep the bees in there,” he said, “But the domes aren’t very reliable. Ours collapsed during a Kirby Swarm a few years back.”

“Yeah, that one when I got here was pretty intense,” I said.

Zadok snorted, “Pfeh, that was nothing. You ain’t seen a real swarm yet. In the one that collapsed that dome, we lost all but one queen.”

“Two,” O’Neil corrected, “Father Guo survived as well.” They both laughed uproariously at that while I spluttered in surprise.

“Ah, that’ll be five or six Hail Marys,” he said, “But it was worth it.”

“So what was up top?” I asked later, “Beekeeping stuff?” Zadok said nothing, just coughed and walked off.

I was dying because of what I did to him, because of what my kind did to the earth.

I wondered, for the hundredth time, who “Him” was.

Penance meant putting an alarm on my door, and as I had no windows, my nocturnal gadding about was curtailed for a while. One night, Dan was happy as a toddler, sitting in the corner playing with his blocks, and eating something he’d managed to kill and bring back to the room earlier in the day. From the pleasant smell, I was pretty sure it was a landclam, but I didn’t actually go look.

I was thinking about code. Occasionally I’d scribble something down on a pad of paper, but mostly I was just absently bouncing a ball off the wall, and catching it. I was mumbling numbers to myself. Dan grew bored with his blocks and came over to see what I was doing. I happened to say the number ‘two’ and he lept up and caught the ball on its second bounce.

Well, that was coincidental.

It happened again when I happened to say ‘three’ out loud. He caught the ball on its third bounce.

What the…?

“Let’s try that again,” I said, “Three.” I dropped the ball. On the third bounce, he snatched it and brought it over to me.

“Four.” He caught it on the fourth bounce. By trial and error I discovered he could count to five. Beyond that he just gave me confused looks. I was pretty freaked out. I mean, I knew he was a smart dog, but since when can animals count?

I passed a harmadillo. Noise made it jump a few feet into the air, then curl into a ball.

The dreams were less frightening now, more familiar, like a puzzle. It wouldn’t be long until I had the whole thing reassembled, and I knew it. I started sleeping better. So much so that I didn’t bother to sneak out anymore after they removed the alarm from my door.

A bald man jumped. Somehow that knocked the wind out of me.

I worked out an automated bee feeding system that completely floored Zadok and O’Neil. I was feeling needed and loved, and word got around that I was a guy who could make stuff happen. Dan and I figured out a method of corralling Rudy in a way that wouldn’t traumatize him too much when there were ladies or children around. Infrequent, but useful. I worked out a little traction motor for the zipline, which allowed the monastery to send people back up the wire to St. Salome’s thus saving a trip a couple hundred miles around the canyon. I felt as if I actually was growing closer to God, as if my soul were salvageable, as if there was hope. I never stopped obsessing over all the people I’d killed, but I started to feel good about all the people I’d saved, too. Dan had become pretty much my adopted son by that point, of course.

“He ain’t dead” someone said. It was pretty flat desert, with naught but sand and scrub and the pyramidal local equivalent of cactus as far as the eye could see. Someone was holding my eyelids open and shouting in my face.”Finish him!”

One day I saw Dan hopping up and down in the ruined ranch dome, barking for me to come and see something. There was a little glass box on the inward-facing side of one of the arches, which said “Emergency House Access.”

“Hm,” I said, “Feel like taking a little stroll tonight?”

He yipped excitedly.

I was flying low, maybe a hundred feed above the ground.

I smashed the glass with a rock, hit the button, and a little door opened in floor of the house several hundred feet up. A rope ladder unfurled. I couldn’t figure out how to get Dan up the thing with me, so after several frustrating tries, I gave up and told him to just stay put and warn me if someone came by. He licked my hand, and I climbed.

I assume all the prefab ranch homes looked pretty much the same. The entire thing was reinforced aluminum, tricked out on the inside with carpeting and wood paneling over metal walls. This one was full of technical-looking medical equipment that looked futuristic to me, and was therefore five or ten years old at least. One of the rooms was obviously an operating theater, retrofitted into what had originally been a master bedroom. There was a surgical table anchored in the middle, no carpeting. The doorway connecting it to the living room was a glass sliding dealie, hermetically sealable, and the welds insured me that neither it, nor the wall it was attached to, were original equipment. Apart from the door, the wall was ceiling-to-floor glass, looking in on the theater. Incongruously, the outer windows of the room remained, with cheery shutters on either side of them.

It chilled me for some reason. Foreshadowing, perhaps?

There was no power, so I couldn’t access the computers, but there were plenty of hardfiles and scribbled notes around. With my flashlight, I glanced over them, but they were mostly in Russian, and medicalese mumbo-jumbo atop that.

“See? I told you that you needed to learn the language.”

I whipped around in fright. Busted! It was Mendayev.

“What is this place?”

“It is traditional for a monastery to pay its own way with some sort of service: making wine, making cheese, running a school, teaching music, making coffee, et cetera. You must have figured out by now that we weren’t always riding the honeybee gravy train.”

“Genetic engineering?” I ventured.

“Mmm-hmm. And why not?” he said. “It’s a vocation like any other, one that no one else was really doing, and we were good at it. It‘s really no different in concept than cultivating a vineyard, or breeding a better tomato.”

“I’m genuinely surprised,” I said, genuinely surprised. “Isn’t that tampering in God’s domain or something bad like that?”

He rolled his eyes. “Stop thinking like a Baptist, my son. This isn’t Frankenstein, this isn’t Prometheus. If God or The Universe didn’t want us to be able to monkey around a bit with this kind of thing, He wouldn’t have let us figure it out in the first place.”

I nodded, unsure if I agreed. “So what is Dan?”

“He’s illegal, that’s what he is. Also, his name is really ‘Dante.’” It took me a second to understand what he’d said. In the Gagarin accent, it came out as “Dayn-tee.”

“A bit more specifically, please. What is he?”

“He’s a Smart Dog.”

“I know he’s a smart dog,” I said, “But what is…”

“No,” Mendayev interrupted, “’Smart Dog’ is a trademark. He’s a kind of genetically engineered animal.” Then he explained: Smart Dogs were an experiment in genetic engineering that went spectacularly well and horrifically bad at the same time. Everybody had loved the idea of the Disney cartoon animal that can understand everything you say. Dogs are naturally so amazing and so capable that making them smarter could only be a good thing, right? So the monks tinkered with the intelligence of Man’s Best Friend, and found him not quite so friendly.

In the pack society of Timberwolves, the primary canine ancestor of the dog, there is one leader and the rest submit to him. This is one of the reasons that dogs live well with people: they recognize humans as Alpha to their Beta. In dog packs, the Alpha male and female of the pack are usually the smartest. Sometimes they are also the most aggressive.

The monk scientists needed dogs with large craniums to accommodate the enhanced brains, so experimental SD’s (Smart Dogs) were usually large breeds: Rottweilers, Akitas, Mastiffs, Bulldogs, Chows, Boxers, Huskies, and the like. Unfortunately, most of these breeds were originally intended for guarding and fighting.

So the engineering had gone spectacularly well, the dogs were very smart, but eventually not as submissive. They were intelligent enough to wonder why they should roll over for those tender skinned bipeds with their dull, useless teeth. After several human deaths, the practice was outlawed and the dogs were destroyed.

“Actually, it is a little bit Frankenstein, now that I think about it,” Mendayev said.

“So how did Dan survive?”

“Oh, we left a door open, threw a few harmadillo steaks outside, then closed the door behind them. We reported they’d escaped.”

“Very legalistic of you,” I said.

He shrugged. “So I’m a Pharisee. If it was the wrong thing to do, I’ll pay for it with my next incarnation. The Governor sent in the New Texas Rangers, who hunted a lot of them down before they got bored and went back to Ardan. We’re away off in the desert. What harm could they do? Over the years, the number that escaped the hunts has been whittled down by the usual causes. Dante was just a puppy at the time. We don’t know how he survived, he just showed up here again a couple years ago. We assume he’s the last one.”

I said nothing for a long time, while I digested that. Maybe a full minute.

“The Confederate Government insisted we come up with some kind of retrovirus they could spray from cropdusters to sterilize any gene-altered dogs so they wouldn’t breed. That project was abandoned following an accident in this very lab. Several of the brothers and I were exposed to recombinant viroids. That’s why so many of us are dying, but I’m sure you’d already figured that out. Actually, now that I think on it, there really is more than a bit of Prometheus in all this as well. Funny the things you don‘t notice until they‘re pointed out to you.”

“You’re….a lot of you…dying?” I said, a bit confused.

“Heavens, yes. You must have noticed all the older monks coughing constantly.”

There was an awkward silence.

“You’re not very observant, are you my son?” He asked.

“I’d just assumed you guys were allergic to landclam pollen or something,” I said.

He waved his hands, “Landclams are so foreign to human biology that it’s impossible to be allergic to them. Anyway, an interesting quirk of the program,” he abruptly said, “is that SDs were almost always given the names of great historical thinkers, writers, scientists, and philosophers. Plato, Galileo, Franklin, Hawking, Sapho, or, in your case, Dante. Unrelated to that, my son, will you stay?”

I said nothing. I didn’t know. I went back to my cell, prayed, and went to sleep.

I was in my paraglider. I was flying low, maybe a hundred feet above the ground. It was pretty flat desert, with nothing but sand and scrub and the pyramidal local equivalent of cactus as far as the eye could see. Every now and then I passed a harmadillo or two. The noise of my engine made them jump a few feet into the air, then curl into a ball. I was nearing a canyon on the horizon. Suddenly there was a flash and a bang, and I was falling, falling, falling, it was only a hundred feet, but I was falling forever. One of the lines holding my parachute/wing in place had torn free, and I was spiraling out of control. As I spun, I could see a trail of smoke. My eyes followed the trail back to a grenade rifle being held by a bald man with an eye patch, standing atop a hovertruck in the distance. Somehow, despite the distance, I could see him clearly. There was another man with him. My para corkscrewed wildly as I fell, and I saw them in strobe-like flashes as they entered and left my field of vision a dozen times a second. My chute was still slowing my fall, a little bit, but not by much. There was a wave of pain and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground staring at the Cetian sky, pinned beneath my smoldering aircraft. Every time I closed and opened my eyes, the clouds and sun were in a different position. I must have been blacking out constantly. Once I opened my eyes, and the bald man was staring down at me.

“He ain’t dead,” he said, “You want I should finish him?” He pointed a rifle at my face. It was all I could see, the barrel eclipsing my field of vision. “Nah, it’s better this way,” said another voice that I almost recognized, “If anyone finds the body, it’ll look like an accident.” The rifle barrel moved away. Another man was there, dark hair, handsome, and he smiled at me with perfect teeth. I recognized him vaguely as a passenger on the Bahman on my last cruise. Van Skaik? Van Shank? Something like that. I must have blacked out again, because the next thing I knew he was holding my eyelids open and shouting in my face. I

“Know this before you die,” he said, “It was Les Wynans who sent us to kill you! Did you think you could ruin his plans, and then just walk away? You’re dying because of what you did to him, and what your kind did to the earth.” The bald one jumped on the wreckage of my paraglider, knocking the wind out of me. I blacked out.

Blackness, pain, dizzyness, pain, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, pain, panic , nonexistence. Suddenly alert, blinding light, pain, still couldn’t breathes, still couldn’t move. Something wet pooling beneath me, was that blood? Panic, the blackness again. Blind in one eye. More panic. Confusion behind the panic, looking for anything to hold on to, then, the blessed return to unconsiousness. Many times over, it seemed, an eternity.

Well, there it was. I knew. I was just a somewhat Aspergery engineer from Florida, with no particular dreams whatsoever. How had I ended up with an arch nemesis? How had my ex-best friend come to hate me so much that he’d go to the trouble of an interstellar journey to kill me? How many agents did he have on Gagarin, anyway? How much trouble was I in, here?

Dan and I went to the ruined ranch dome. I slapped together a pet elevator with a basket, a pulley, and some rope, and hauled him up. He enjoyed the trip. There was a porch or balcony that wrapped around most of the house on the outside. I found some lawn chairs, and sat in one, with my feet up on the guardrail. Dan hopped into my lap, contentedly munching and slurping on the egg of a birdish thing he’d found in a nest up there, and getting me all sticky. I ignored it. The view was breathtaking.

In the east, Selene was up already, a full moon, grey and white in bands, looking for all the world like a Stalinist interpretation of an Easter egg. It was bright, much brighter than the earth’s moon. Then, while I watched, Ares, the much larger second moon, climbed over the horizon. It was all blue oceans and green land and white clouds. My lost love Asia had visited there five years/five decades ago, another time, another life. I realized suddenly that I’d been avoiding looking at it the whole time I’d been here, whenever it rose in the sky. I’d been doing it the time I’d gotten eaten by the sea monster, too, I guessed. And now I could look right at it. Ain’t that a thing?

A calm came over me. I decided I probably wasn’t in any real danger from Les’s goons. They thought I was dead, and so long as I stayed here, there was no way they’d learn the truth. So did that mean I was going to stay? Yes, I guess. The prospect didn’t seem bad at all. I realized, I’d have stayed even if someone wasn’t trying to kill me.

I stared at the moons for a long while, long enough to sort of zone out into something like a hypnotic state, where I was aware of everything and nothing at the same time. An uncharacteristically warm breeze flowing over me. In the gunmetal-colored light of the moons, the desert was beautiful. The pyramid things were in bloom, the crickets - or whatever the local equivalent was - were chirping, the land clams were spurting up pollen, which smelled great. It was beautiful. It was all so beautiful, and I was all so conscious of it.

I’m staying, I thought. How could I leave? I was genuinely happy. Genuinely happy for the first time in my life.

But of course you knew that couldn’t last, right?

TO BE CONTINUED...

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Copyright 2011, Paula Tabor, Republibot 2.0 and Republibot 3.0

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