::SO-COMMAND\TEMPLAR-NAVCOM-INFO: All systems functioning within normal parameters::
Peacekeeping missions were always the most difficult assignment for Lieutenant Macia Branson. Not that she longed for the combat which had been much of her duty in the Service of the Order, but the reality was that it was still war conditions, only with the setting lowered to a slow broil.
The Ouje villagers sat around a fire. Led by one of the church novices, their idols and totems were piled high and lit aflame. Several members pounded out a rhythm that was both mournful and hopeful. The drumming tugged at a part of Macia’s soul, the way an old vidgraph of distant relatives was both familiar and alien. Memories locked in a box, hidden in the back of a closet where all memories were treasured and then forgotten.
The planet’s atmosphere was perfectly hospitable and the Ouje people not that different from humans like her. However, the Service of the Order required all Service of the Order soldiers who provided security for a missionary colony to remain in their biomech suits. The world and its sensations filtered through its mechanical membrane. It provided a barrier between their people and the disciples; her surroundings appeared through digital feeds along her visor. Macia stood on the outside of the sacred circle.
“Look at them,” Prefect Sergeant Rhys Moll stalked the perimeter of the circle. He was a short pug of a man; even the hand unit of his biomech suit looked like five bolts fitted on a stump. When out of his suit, he smelled of onions suffused with garlic, and a hint of something vaguely alcoholic always lilted on his breath. His hair was a nest of greasy curls; his nose looked as if it had been flattened by a plank. “They’d be lost without us. We’ve done some good work here.”
“Daniel told me that this was usually when their Alawe Modu festival would occur,” she said. A twinge of guilt nagged her when she referred to Unoko as Daniel. Daniel, like her parents, was what the church referred to as an “indigenous leader.” These leaders were either locals who quickly took to the Gospel and demonstrated promise as a teacher or someone who held such sway in the community that they became a key target for conversion. Unoka was targeted for acquisition early on. The Order decided his new designation would be Daniel. “The family elders gather the tribe and sacrifice a yamma to their ancestors. The blood soaks into the ground for those who had gone before them to enjoy, the meat cooked and eaten by the family. Any boys and girls coming of age carve masks for themselves for their masquerade dance, to learn the secret language of the tribe.”
“See what I mean? Lost. We saved them.”
“Salvation is the point,” Macia said.
“Not just their souls. We saved them from themselves. They were hacking each other to bits long before we came here.” Rhys was the kind of devout who liked to hear his opinion spouted without contradiction. He was one of the first soldiers Macia met when she was assigned to the Templar Paton. Though she’d received the Purple Cross, he was suspect of her readiness as a soldier. He had no concept of how much blood she’d spilled in Jesus’ name. She’d grown quite adept at ignoring him.
“Not according to Biafra Oshun.” Macia mentally chided herself for taking his bait. She hated to be drawn into these conversations. She had the same lessons in training and didn’t need them regurgitated on duty.
“We bring order and civility,” Rhys continued. “It takes, what, two languages just for one of them to leave one village and get to the next.”
“It’s pretty typical for an Ouje to know six languages. The language of their family, the language of the tribe, the language of commerce . . .”
“Ridiculous,” Rhys cut her off.
The words of a devout had a way of crawling under her skin with the sting of guilt for not believing more. Some nights she wondered if she missed the point of her own faith. Left alone in her quarters, hour after hour waiting for sleep until time lost all meaning, with only her thoughts and the silence of the Lord. Snatching up spiritual crumbs—a verse here, an encouraging word there—to knit the thing she called her faith together. She felt like an incomplete bad poem. She prayed against her heathen thoughts late at night. It was the easiest way to come down from the adrenaline rush of being on constant alert and stims administered by the biomech. When she did close her eyes, she dreamt of blood, but she always awoke covered in a thin sheet of sweat.
The Ouje milled about, dressed in their finest tunics and embroidered karosses. Each family’s clothing was patterned or colored according to an Ouje cultural theme. Many people traveled great distances to celebrate the successful harvest. The village was hundreds of kilometers from the central megalopolis and quite rural. The people roasted wollof, a tuber of some sort, and stewed yamma, a small animal which looked rather like a goat, for Alawe Modu. Herds of yamma grazed in a fenced in berne just outside of the village. The spices from the stew wafted throughout the village, its scent so thick and cloying it set off Macia’s biomech air filtration unit. Bowls of leafy vegetables soaked in a cream produced by the yamma were set on each table. People wandered about and ate as they willed. Most ate to excess.
“I see we haven’t wrung out all of their pagan traditions and superstitious ways of thinking.” Rhys took any prolonged silence as an invitation to speak.
“I never thought we had to. My parents always thought that the best novices took a people’s customs and stories and redeemed them. They viewed all culture as opportunities to connect to worshiping the Lord.”
“How did that work out for them?” Rhys eyes widened as if realizing he had stepped over a line. Rather than apologizing, he quickly moved on. “There is a great danger to the path of syncretism. One day you are ‘communing’ with the spirits and then are told to think of it as prayer to the Holy Spirit, next thing you know, we’ve added all sorts of new rituals to the church and forgotten the name of the God we serve. It only leads to spiritual confusion and dilution of the faith.”
“I think I’ll check the perimeter.”
Macia walked away from him, each step weighted by the obligations of faith. When the church came to her planet, some of the novices doubted that her people even had souls because of the language barrier. Her family’s facility with languages brought them to prominence. The hardest part of her transition to Christianity was how she had to shed her culture to find acceptance. For the church to believe that she believed and repented of her old ways. In all of her travels since, she had never returned to her home village. She would be as much a stranger there as a novice on their first mission.
The children began their ritual. Wearing masks too big for their heads, they danced around the fire. Excited, their joy almost contagious, happy for a moment to hide who they were. To pretend to be something else. To be seen as something almost ready. Tonight they hid behind masks and called down the spirits of their ancestors. On Sunday, as the Service of the Order had implemented a new calendar week for the Ouje, they would serve as altar attendants.
Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief. It was the centurion’s prayer from the New Testament and the only prayer that truly resonated with her.
• • • •
::SO-COMMAND\TEMPLAR-NAVCOM-INFO: Establishing parietal operculum::
Though the planet Nambra was on the outer rim of the Galactic Mission, the Service of the Order quickly took over the spaceports of the Angwen territory, which became the staging area for their missionary work. Only a couple of conflict-free years had passed, but the novices, church planters with mission command, now saw a record number of converts. Angwen was one of the most religious colonies on the planet. Churches dotted the landscape. The Angwen borders secure, the Ouje people’s life was finding a measure of routine again.
Security had been heightened after a bomb threat to the marketplace. The presence of so many Service of the Order soldiers only made the fear more of a reality. Food shortages and power interruptions were one thing, but checkpoints and the constant parade of armed guards wouldn’t allow the Ouje to push their fears to the back of their minds. But there was something more, something on the Ouje peoples’ faces when they saw Macia. People who looked like her, people from a colony much like hers, flinched away from her as she strode by. Their village recalled her ancestral home. So much so, she half-expected her cousins to come tearing out of the dondo doors, having snuck a piece of baked pastry from her grandmother’s counter.
An older gentleman sidled towards her. Out of reflex, she re-gripped her pulse rifle before she recognized him. Daniel wore the robes of a village elder. Close-cropped silver hair topped Daniel’s head and led into a beard which framed his dark-skinned face and came to a point on his chin. His bushy eyebrows made his face seem severe. Tall and thin with a slight stoop, he leaned heavily on his walking staff most of the time, but when he approached young women, he straightened to full attention. A mad twinkle filled his eyes, as if he engaged in a secret courtship ritual with every woman he talked to.
“There are many here who believe as your friend does.” Daniel wore an odd expression, like a man watching a frog work out calculus.
“He’s . . . not my friend.” It took a moment for her translator matrix to recalibrate. The Ouje people’s constant language switching proved challenging for her biomech to keep up with. Macia wished that she could try to learn some of the Ouje’s tongue for herself, working alongside them. That her gift with languages would be put to more use than her skills at killing.
“Still, some believe in the . . . Word, as you put it, so much they are gripped with a fervor. I look around the village I once knew and many have taken to destroying shrines which had stood for generations and oppose any local tradition or culture that they cannot trace back to your Bible. Alawe Modu isn’t what it used to be,” he said. “Attendance is down this season. I worry that when my generation passes away, this celebration of life and rebirth and gratitude will die with them.”
“Some churches have banned all Alawe Modu festivities entirely. We were lucky to have this version of it sanctioned.”
“Thankfully, some churches can find room for both traditions.”
“Maybe this version of the Alawe Modu can unite all of the Ouje villages.”
“Maybe. As our people say, when a group urinates together, it foams.” Daniel smiled widely.
“It may be too much Horta for some.” Macia threw her head back in laughter. Horta was the religion that the Ouje practiced before the Order arrived. The Ouje’s culture and religion was so intertwined, and the Order frowned on any remnants of either.
“Christian or Horta, this isn’t about faith. It is about being Ouje. Anyway, I shouldn’t tarry. I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble for speaking to a ‘dirty’ Horta.”
“I consider this part of the Service of the Order’s evangelism mission. Building bridges between faiths to create a dialogue.”
“You are a wise woman, Macia Branson.”
Macia was never good at accepting compliments, believing each one was actually meant for someone they confused with her. She began to inspect her weapon. “I still suspect such a dialogue would be frowned upon.”
“By many sides. Your suit is little more than a large target.” Daniel bowed, leaving her to her security sweep.
Her patrol took her past a series of dondos. Each structure housed several families. In the shadows of a doorway, a grandmother passed a few slips of paper to her granddaughter. Like so many of the artisan class, her fingers were painstakingly gnarled, having worked intricate detail into wood during her many years, imbuing them with life and spirit. The words on the paper translated to the Republic of Nia’quong. The notes were the protocurrency a few of the Ouje had begun to circulate. The old woman clutched her granddaughter’s hand with the bill inside as if an important part of her Ouje identity was in the tiny grasp. Like a ghost haunting their national identity. Macia pretended to not see it.
The idea of countries, or borders, was a concept the Ouje lacked until the church arrived. It carved up regions for those they had converted and armed borders from those they hadn’t. Nambra had been held up as a model of missionary work until civil war broke out a few months ago. The Ouje who secretly practiced Horta attempted to create a refuge: Nia’quong, a country within the country Angwen, sparking a civil war. After months of brutal fighting and countless dead, and with the peacekeeping militia of the church in place, the surviving Ouje were one country again. It was a chapter of their history they sought to forget.
Except for Biafra Oshun. A pro-Nia’quong independence activist, she led protests across the region. She protested the economic, social, and political marginalization of the Horta Ouje. None of them were a part of the ruling council appointed by the church. Though the Ouje were mixed on separatist cause, her last protest turned violent: The Service of the Order had to open fire on them. Charged with conspiracy, part of an illegal operation due to her work with underground militia, there was an open warrant for her detention.
Watching the grandmother reminded Macia of the first time she met her new family after her parents were killed on the mission field. They welcomed her with all smiles and hugs. They ushered her to her room, her very own room she wouldn’t have to share with anyone. Crisp sheets folded over the bed. The tall window peered over a wide yard. They closed the door behind them to allow her time to acclimate. She dropped to her knees and sobbed. Her aunt slipped back into her room and knelt down beside Macia, even though the little girl was beyond consoling.
“I’m not going to tell you not to cry,” her aunt said. “I’m not going to lie to you and tell you everything is going to be okay. In these short years of yours, you already know that’s not the case. So you cry. Cry for your mother and father who are gone from you now. Cry for the childhood lost to you now. Cry for all the hardness you have yet to face.”
Her aunt patted Macia on the back with her left hand and fished in her pockets with the other. She remembered what her aunt wore: a simple blue frock, hand-sewn and ill-fitting. Over it was an apron. The entire front of it was a series of pockets. It seemed like her aunt had all the secrets of the universe carried in those pockets. She removed a small wooden bird carrying an egg on its back. The bird’s head was craned backwards as if attempting to peck the egg away. Macia’s tears ebbed, now curious, as her aunt placed it before them.
“There was a custom our people had, before the coming of The Order. We believe it is not wrong to go back for that which once was or is lost to us now. The best way to hold onto who we are has always been through the stories we pass onto our children.”
And every night, Macia’s aunt told her stories right up until Macia joined the Service of the Order. That was the way she chose to remember it now. Back then, the stories got on her nerves and she quickly tired of hearing the same old tales over and over again.
• • • •
::SO-COMMAND\TEMPLAR-NAVCOM-INFO: Navcom interface offline::
The digital telemetry of her helmet subsystem went blank. Macia’s military experience reduced her first response to equipment failure to tapping it, and she tapped her wrist panel as her displays failed. Next she attempted a partial re-boot of her navcom system. The link was an information tether to her orbiting ship, the Templar Paton. The roar of the approaching airship alerted her just as quickly as her malfunctioning proximity detector.
The ship hovered above the village, its thrusters scattering the yamma as it prepared to land in the berne.
“Rhys, you copy?” Macia yelled.
“Barely. Lots of interference.”
“You have a skimmer due to land?”
“None on the schedule. I already have a squad moving to intercept.”
“Good. I’ll meet you there.”
Macia broke into a half jog, the motors in her leg units speeding her along. She arrived in time to see the ship pivot, lock onto the arriving troops, and open fire. The inhuman whine of missiles screamed across the berne. Macia dropped to her knees. Three soldiers opened fire over her head. The ground shook with the impact of two more missiles. The ship lurched. Its cargo hold opened like a yawning mouth and deposited a contingent of enemy combatants.
“What do we have?” Macia ran across the berne to provide cover for Rhys and the rest of her men to reach an outcrop.
“A mass of hostiles. Fifteen meters from our position. We lost navcom just before the ambush.”
“I don’t believe in coincidence. This sounds coordinated. Wounded?”
“It’s bad. They lured us in, took a lot of us out. What’s the plan?” Rhys peeked around the corner to survey the scene.
“Same as it ever was. Catch them between us and other units. I’ll take point. You and you,” she pointed out two men, “on my six. Rhys, bring up the rear.”
Small weapon fire erupted from all sides. The ship crashed into the side of the building next to her. Without telemetry readings, she lost her bearings. Another blast of heat, and the air grew thick with hot gases. Something exploded, sending her biomech suit hurtling through the air. Her flight was stopped short by a metal wall, and though her biomech suit absorbed much of the blast, the force and the impact made her head swim.
• • • •
::USER-COMMAND\TEMPLAR-NAVCOM-INFO: Catastrophic systems failure. Initiate shutdown and self-repair protocols::
Macia hated unconsciousness. Drifting off to sleep often proved difficult enough, but the slow murky confusion of regaining consciousness left her nauseous. Like swimming to the surface of black waters. Pressure bubbled about her head, making her feel vague and uncertain.
Her eyes open, she craned her head about as best she could within the biomech suit. Without power to the servos in her arms that aided her movements, her arms slumped like leaden weights at her side. She was trapped inside her biomech suit, which was little more than a form-fitting coffin in this state. She sat against a wall, her legs akimbo, and her weapon useless at her side. Her head rang. Another wave of nausea swept over her. Unable to move, she was little more than a monument to a fallen soldier. A few meters away, Rhys struggled to his feet, the left arm of his biomech suit shorn off. It took a few moments for her to process that it meant his arm was also missing. He limped about, lost and uncertain.
A contingent of enemy troops rounded up the remaining soldiers of The Order. They dragged the novices out to the center of the clearing in full view of the soldiers. Macia struggled to move, but she feared something was broken because every movement sent a fresh spike of pain to her skull. The troops parted as their leader approached.
Biafra Oshun appeared a lot younger than Macia had imagined. She moved to a beat that was soft at first but seemed to gain force with each step. She had a power, an intensity about her that buffeted the novices like they were caught in a windstorm. Her face remained unadorned, striking in its cold beauty. She wore her head shaved clean. Her skin was as dark as unearthed pottery, the darkest shade of brown Macia had ever seen. Biafra’s eyes, both haunted and weary, scanned the crowd.
“Who is in charge here?” Biafra demanded, refusing to speak any of the commerce tongues, instead using one of the old languages.
“I am.” A novice struggled to his feet. One of Biafra’s men shoved him forward.
Biafra drew a weapon with such speed, Macia didn’t register it until the woman had already fired. The novice’s body stood erect for a heartbeat or two until it realized it was dead and dropped. “I’ll ask again. Who is in charge here?”
• • • •
::SO-COMMAND\TEMPLAR-NAVCOM-INFO: Partial power established. Back-up systems nominal. Non-essential systems offline while charging::
“You are in charge,” Macia said. Her biomech suit needed time to regain power. All eyes turned toward her. “But I am responsible for these people’s lives.”
“You?” Biafra spat. She turned to face the crowd of Ouje that had gathered around the spectacle. “These people prey on the vulnerable and desperate. These people come armed with a Bible and guns, and I don’t know which of the two is more destructive. These people come to tell us to reject our customs and history and teach us to self-hate. These people have taken away our spirituality and left us with religion.”
“If I have a credit, it can be used for good or evil,” Macia managed. “Whose hands it is in, what lies in their heart, determines how it’s used.”
“Funny how you gravitate straight to currency to plead your case. Your mission trips provide an excuse for you to mine our resources and ‘trade’ with us. You prop up a few leaders, make them wealthy, so they are more amenable to spread your ‘Word.’ I feel sorry for you. The things you must do to yourself and your thinking to remain so . . . conditioned. You are thrice damned: a tool of the oppressor, a traitor to your people, and a betrayer to yourself.”
“Don’t pretend to know me.”
“Abducted as a child, indoctrinated, and forced to commit acts of violence against your people. I don’t need to know you—the story of the ‘church’ is the same all over. If I had my way, I’d put you on trial and indict you for the same crimes that were initially perpetrated against you. There is a kind of poetic beauty to that.”
“I know who I am. I found my faith.” I know who I am, Macia thought. Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief. She rubbed her hand against the inside of her biomech suit, feeling the hum as her suit recharged. Her fingertips had developed callouses from years of holding weapon grips and she still felt the occasional ghostly itch of them against her skin. Soon her suit would be fully powered up. She only needed to stall a little longer. “Who are you?”
“I have seen how the church treats dissenters. They have made me what I am today. They hobble us with religion while stripping away our spirituality. They came here with their Bibles and guns, put the guns to our heads and told us to worship. Herded to their churches like prisoners of war. They murdered our . . . ancestors.” Biafra drew her weapon again. “You are responsible for their lives? Then you are responsible for this.”
Biafra motioned for one of her men to bring Rhys over. She pressed her weapon to the side of his head, then leveled her eyes at Macia with a cool detachment. Rhys’ mouth moved wordlessly, rhythmically. Was it a prayer? Was it a plea for Macia to do something, anything to save his life? Without her internal filters, she smelled only her own fear sweat, which made bile rise in her throat. She screamed, feeling every bit the helpless prisoner in her biomech suit. As if enticed by Macia’s screams, Biafra squeezed the trigger and Rhys’ brains splattered against the nearby wall. His blood ran down the wall in an imperfect smear. It looked no different from the blood of any of the Ouje dead.
Macia counted her opponents. By the way she moved, sure-footed and fluid, Biafra was the most dangerous. Despite the swelling chaos, the jeers of Horta supporters among the crowd, and the waving of weapons, only a half dozen people remained of Biafra’s ambush party. Even without a pulse rifle, with her biomech suit pumping stims into her system, she would soon satisfy the cry of innocent blood.
Macia had been taught that she fought for the church and the safety of its people. Throughout her training she was told that she was a “holy soldier” under divine provision. Many a senior novice absolved their soldiers of any crimes committed if they had obeyed their orders, orders passed down directly from the Holy Spirit. So in the eyes of God, the soldiers were blameless, they were simply carrying out God’s will. God judged soldiers differently from civilians. Once the “hostile relations” conditions were met, judgment protocols were in effect. This could only end with the death of either Macia or Biafra.
There would be blood.
“Kill us together or leave them alone.” Daniel pushed through the gathered crowd. He stared down Biafra’s men, taking the steel from the spines of many who had been jeering only moments ago. Some of Daniel’s followers slipped past him and stood in front of Macia and the novices.
“This doesn’t concern you, Unoka,” Biafra said.
“You do this in our name.”
“What I do, I do for all Ouje.”
“We aren’t threatened by stories, we learn from them. We don’t believe one story should destroy another.”
• • • •
::SO-COMMAND\TEMPLAR-NAVCOM-INFO: Systems restored. All systems functioning within nominal parameters::
Macia’s hand crept toward her weapon. Her biomech suit was as close to optimal as she needed. She locked eyes with Biafra.
• • • •
::SO-COMMAND\TEMPLAR-NAVCOM-INFO: All systems functioning within normal parameters::
“You let her go.” Daniel’s gaze was shrewd.
Macia had been young once. Lost and angry, searching for any life preserver to cling to. To provide her direction. In the church, in the Service of the Order, her anger found purpose. She wondered if her eyes mirrored Biafra’s. Macia wondered what her superiors suspected. The official story was that the rebels, having made their point, left before the Service of the Order reinforcements arrived from the Templar Paton.
“Consider it a judgment call,” Macia said. “We were outnumbered. Too many civilians around. Casualties would’ve been high on all sides and I didn’t want to risk innocent lives. We can send in a fully armed squad into the mountains after her if need be.”
“Assuming she hasn’t gone completely underground.”
Daniel convinced the village to continue with the Alawe Modu. The rains had stopped and it was neither too hot nor too cold nor too dry. The first kits returned with the season and songs welcomed them. This season of the year was worth celebrating, he cajoled. Old men sat on logs and warmed their bodies, waiting for the masquerade dance to begin.
“I watched you throughout the festival. You’re curious,” he said.
“Faith is a curious thing for me. So fleeting and uncertain.”
“What she said about your story, the kidnapping and indoctrination, how close was she?”
“It is a chapter of my life I consider closed and don’t choose to remember.”
“What a people choose to remember about their past, the stories they pass down, informs who they are. Sets the boundaries of their identity. We remember the pain of our past to mourn, to heal, and to learn. Only in that way can we ensure the same mistakes are not repeated.”
“What I lost is my faith in humanity.”
“Do you recall what your Jesus said about the faith the size of the mustard seed? It’s not about the amount of the faith so much as the object of it. Doubts are what makes it real. What makes it yours.” He took her hand, gently steadying her, helping her forward. She withdrew her hand.
“I got it. I can find my own way.” Her tone was almost accusatory.
“I had no doubt.” Daniel held his hands up. “I simply tend to leap at any excuse to invite a young woman to dance.”
She looked at him for a moment and then to the masquerade dancers. Her body ached, though not from the usual bruises that followed a skirmish. Hers was a soul-weary fatigue. Each exhalation burned her chest. Her breath hitched. Her ribs would be sore in the morning. Her legs wobbled under her full weight, but the suit did most of the work.
• • • •
::USER-COMMAND\TEMPLAR-NAVCOM-INFO: Initiate exit protocols::
Her biomech suit released a slow hiss as it unsealed. The black stocking of her exosoma served as an interface between her and her biomech suit. Without the suit, she feared her legs might betray her.
The frantic rhythm of the drums rode the same current as her own heartbeat. Her eyes locked onto the dancers. Waiting. Emptying herself of the contradictions and shedding all that was unnecessary. Letting the rhythm of the drumbeat enter her. Find a true place in her. Not worrying about her steps, only being caught up in the music. Returning to a simple truth. To be free.
And Macia danced.
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