Friday, November 30, 2012

Antigone by David W Landrum

A goddess rises against the Terran Alliance, and Captain Lorac is called in to defend the planet of Antigone; by David W Landrum

We heard the commotion - shouting and, I thought, singing. Though it did not sound threatening, we took up positions with weapons at ready. A group of figures emerged from the massive trees on the ridge above us.

We held our blasters at ready but lowered them a little when a figure came into focus. A woman dressed in an ancient tunic, her head encircled with a garland of leaves, came walking - or, more accurately skipping - down the side of the wooded hill. Shora, our commander, rose in astonishment. The woman twirled and danced. After a moment, she collapsed. We broke ranks and rushed over to her. Shora felt for a pulse, put her cheek against the girl's nose, and looked up at me. "Name of the Prophet," she said, "she's stopped breathing."

We tried to resuscitate her, thought for a moment she was gone, but she revived. Wexford, the ranking NCO in our squad, called for medical support. We carried her back toward the vehicles. Casey Evard, one of the medics in our unit, rushed over and checked her pulse.

"Not good," she said. The girl stiffened. Spittle ran from the corner of her mouth.

"Looks like she's inhaled sarin or VX," I commented.

"I thought that too," Casey said. She got out an injector, pulled the girl's tunic down at the shoulder and gave her a shot of atropine.

"She's a Mervogian," Shora said when Casey pulled her tunic down and Shora saw the young woman's breast had an aureole but no nipple. "Talk to her, Lorac. See if you can get her to respond."

I'm Mervogian, though I've served many years in the Terran military. I lay down to be even with her. The atropine seemed to have done her some good. She stopped convulsing and her breathing steadied. Casey did a scan and said her vital signs had stabilized. I put my lips close to her right ear and spoke in the Mervogian tongue: "Young woman, can you can hear my voice?"

Her face went still and then she swallowed and spoke in a whisper.

"I hear you, sir."

"Have you been poisoned? Did you eat something you have should not have eaten?"

"I ate the sacred fruit," she whispered.

"What is the sacred fruit?"

"Of Antigone."

I paused when I heard mention of the religion of Antigone. "I am an outsider to her faith," I said. "What would I call it?" She did not answer. "What is your name?" I asked.

"Kayla."

"Are you well, Kayla?"

"I'm tired. I want to sleep."

"Try to stay awake," I told her. "Don't sleep."

"I will go to meet the goddess. I am a sacrifice to her."

As she said this, eight more troops joined us. We established defensive positions, set up communications, and ran a scan of the area. We had just finished this when our sensors went red.

"Incoming!" Shora screamed.

We dove for cover. I hit the dirt as a projectile tore through the trees to the right and exploded a hundred feet behind us. Another went off in front of us, showering us with rock, wood, and soil. Wexford and some of the other soldiers sprayed the tree line with projectile rounds. I got out my sensor pad and drew a bead on the origin of the projectiles. Shora low-crawled to where I was.

"You got a smart round on you?" she asked. I nodded. "Get it off. If one of those shells hits home, we're all dead."

I punched in the location on my pad, transferred it to a smart round, loaded, and sent it off. Shora sent up a second round.

The rockets rose into the sky and homed in, descending on the coordinates we had programmed. The wood lit up with smoke, fire, and shrapnel. We heard screams.

"Cover. I'll move." She turned. "Leply!" she shouted, "advance on the left." He signaled an okay.

The six of us laid down a base of covering fire. Shora and Lepley ran a zigzag pattern and found their way to cover where the trees began. Just then, projectile fire broke out from the forest.

We used our sensor pads to locate the opposing force and returned fire, silencing several concentrations of hostile action. Shora signaled that she planned to advance. Once more, we brought heavy covering fire for her. She bolted, charged, and tripped and fell, dropping her blaster.

The dirt around her exploded as bullets tore into the ground. She sprang up, sent an energy buffer toward them, ran fifty more feet, and dove into the shelter of the trees. After a moment, she signaled and began to direct fire at the tree line. Lepley opened up from the other side. The rest of us moved out in a staggered rank.

Our enemy engaged us, spraying projectiles. One hit my vest and deflected off. The fire, however, was lighter and more sporadic. By the time we made the tree line, opposition had ceased altogether. Shora led us into the forest, walking point, body taut, weapon at ready, her movements stealthy as a cat's.

We came across enemy dead. They were in civilian dress - all Terrans, mostly Caucasian. We came across the remains of the two soldiers with the LAVR launchers. Enough of them were left to tell that they were practically children - no older than fifteen or sixteen. One was male, one female. All around them lay bodies. The official count was later determined as forty-eight. All dead. No survivors. They were militia, and not well-trained militia. With their level of concealment and with the weapons they had, it should have been a costly fight. We had broken through their force as if it were a cobweb - no casualties on our side.

A moment later, we heard shooting, explosions, and screams.

Our unit took cover. Gramic, our company commander, called in to say they had encountered an enemy force and were pushing it toward our position.

We set up an ambush. Shora had us assemble two rapid-fire modules and set them at the poles of their most likely approach. We got grenades ready and reloaded our ZR-24s. Within two minutes, a force of maybe eighty came at double-step at our position.

When they crossed a certain point, Shora activated the rapid-fire devices. They sprayed out two tornadoes of destructive energy bursts. The attackers froze in terror. I shuddered as the energy blasts cut them down. A few made it out of the hornet-swarm of bolts. We thought they would surrender, but when they caught sight of us, they screamed, and, wild-eyed, charged.

"A-42," Shora shouted, "A-42!"

A-42 was a battle code: defend yourselves but take as many prisoners as possible.

As always, she led us, taking point again, running straight into a knot of enemy troops firing at her. She dodged their fire and ducked. Rolling on the ground, she sprang up, advanced, and was on them. She slashed with her blade and punched. Her battle skills frightened them. By the time the rest of us closed, the opposing force could only stare, dazed, shell-shocked, and afraid. Most of them did not resist. We subdued the few who leveled blasters. We captured twelve. All of them were all young. Three of the twelve were women.

We disarmed them. Shora sent a squad forward to look for wounded. Gramic's detachment appeared a few minutes later. Bodies, some of them cut to piece by the energy bolts, littered the floor of the wood. I had been in combat many times, and had seen more carnage than any man should ever see, but the sight of these enemy dead repulsed me. They had foolishly gone into battle. Ill-trained and ill-equipped, they had been massacred. I wondered who had sent them out to fight.

Shora went over to see what she could do to for a wounded prisoner. A woman - I should say, a girl - reared up from behind a large boulder and fired a projectile rifle at her pointblank. Shora had on body armor that deflected the round, though it did knock her down. The woman tried to fire another shot but was out of ammunition. Three of our troops subdued and disarmed her. I rushed over to Shora.

She lay in the fallen oak leaves that never seem to break down in forests like the ones we were in. She looked up at me.

"Damnation," she said - her favorite curse.

"Are you hurt?"

"Knocked the breath out of me." She sat up, shaking her head to clear it and struggled to her feet. "Did you capture her?"

"We got her."

"She couldn't have been more than fifteen fucking years old," Shora growled. "What the goddamned hell is she doing in a battle zone?"

I could tell from her language that she had recovered - and got her breath back. She gave orders to Wexford and the others then strode over to the girl.

The girl sat on the ground. She wore a smock, tattered, dirty pants and mud-caked boots. Hollow-eyed and exhausted, she gazed back at with defiant eyes.

Shora took her aside and conferred with her.

"She's Iraqi - from the area of my people back on Earth," she told us after they took the girl away, "and a Chaldean - a Christian - but she has converted to the religion of Antigone." She paused and added, "This is more serious than we realize. Chaldeans do not convert. They've lived thousands of years as a religious minority and are tenacious in their faith. If this girl converted from her religion to become a Theban, we're in for a real fight."

"Theban" was a popular term for the worshippers of Antigone, Thebes being the earthly city where their goddess lived.

By now more of our troops had flown in. Besides regular army units, I saw militia and paramilitary. The council must have called a general muster. Medical teams came to treat the wounded - all on their side - and carry off the dead. Gramic gathered our squad, which was all Special Forces trained, for a briefing. He told us the information we would hear was classified. We sat in a temporary shelter designated the unit Headquarters.

Gramic was a grizzled veteran who had served years in the Omrite armed forces before his people exiled him for a violation of one of their many religious taboos. He accepted a position in the Terran military and rose to the rank of full Colonel. He stood in front of us, his pink weather-beaten face grim, his green hair and grey uniform splattered with blood and dirt.

"We have received intelligence on the situation," he said. "A general revolt has broken out in the province. Rebel forces have seized two cities and are presently attacking Fort Wallace."

We stirred uneasily on hearing this. Fort Wallace was a small base, but it housed two Special Forces units and was a training area for Long Range Reconnaissance troops. I had trained there not long after signing into the Terran military. When Gramic finished and took questions, I held up my hand.

"The force we met today seemed poorly trained and armed. It looks like they handed out weapons to everyone and said, ‘Go get ‘em.' How could an untrained militia threaten a Special Forces base?"

"We have only spotty reports, but a few people have pointed to a charismatic leader. We're monitoring things and will release more information as we receive it." His communications device beeped. He looked at it and told us Fort Wallace had fallen. The forces there had surrendered. The fort and the nearby town were in rebel hands.

We ate. Shora and Casey joined us. Asha called and said she had just heard about Fort Wallace. The mayor of our city had declared a state of emergency. School was cancelled but she had to stay at the hospital. Shalva, Kas, and Kovin, our children, had gone to a friend's house.

"I'm on duty until ten," she said.

"I'm active indefinitely."

"This is bad."

After lunch, we got more information on the leader who had inspired the revolt.

"A woman," Gramic told us. "She seems to have some sort of military training. She's a Terran, a colonist, third generation. She claims Antigone appears to her and speaks to her. We're assembling teams to track her." After he had dismissed the meeting, he called Shora over and conferred with her. She called me over.

"Gramic ordered me to organize a unit to help track this rebel leader down. I want you to be in it, Lorac."

Her eyes sparkled as she spoke. She had gotten a taste of battle this morning and now would see more of it. I nodded. She said we would have an organizational meeting at 1400. She and I had been on four missions inside enemy territory in the Edomma wars. She recruited three other soldiers she knew and presented her roster to Gramic. He told us we would depart for an undisclosed location at 0300 hours. At an organizational meeting, I met the others assigned to our the unit. Two I had met before: Muthoni Atemi and Emily McLeod. The fifth member, Harlan Kurtz, I did not know. After supper, two officers from S2 came and said they wanted me to talk to the Mervogian woman we had taken prison earlier in the day.

She was sitting up. I made small talk with her and then asked what compelled her to leave Mervogian religion behind and become a follower of Antigone.

"Antigone forgave my sin," she said. "I found rest in my faith in her. Her touch and soothing voice purged me of all suffering."

"She touched you?"

"Yes."

"You saw Antigone in the flesh?"

"The image of her took on human form. She inspires our leader. Antigone speaks to her as a woman speaks to her friend."

"Who is your leader?"

"Evangeline Müller is her name."

By now she had begun to drift off. Heavily medicated, she needed rest to heal. I went back to the S2 personnel and told them what she had said.

"She might have an image of this person," I said. "It's very common for Mervogians to carry images of people they venerate." I carried an image of Asha, my wife, and one of Aradama, the warrior queen who united the planet Shull a thousand years ago. "Did you find a communications pad on her?"

She had carried a pouch containing a devotional book, tampons, and a communications module. Knowing her language and the commands required to open the module, I was able to get into it. The S2 men projected its display on a larger screen. We went to pictures.

We saw Kayla's sister, mother, father, and brothers; a shot of her as a schoolgirl and, surprising us, as a bride and later a mother with a child in her arms. After a time, we came to a password-protected site. The S2 people decrypted it. A quadrangle of photographs came to the screen. We enlarged them, amazed at what we saw.

We ourselves saw Antigone in the flesh - or a simulation of her. The woman in the two photos - one of her alone, one of her beside her Kayla - looked exactly like the image of Antigone in the First Temple. Below it were two photographs we assumed represented the leader of the revolt.

The leader was female, Caucasian. She had a round head, grey eyes, blonde hair streaked with red, and looked trim and strong. The expression on her face communicated duty and sobriety. She wore camouflage fatigues and carried a ZR41 multiple-systems rifle. In another shot, the girl knelt and the figure of Antigone stood beside her, her hand in benediction upon the girl's head.

The S2 men took the images to show them to Gramic. I went to my quarters - a tent I shared with Wexford. When I saw Wexford's face, I knew something was wrong.

"Gramic wants to see you," he said.

I hurried over to Command. Gramic took me into his office and told me to sit.

"They took your wife hostage," he said. "The insurgents flew into Domma. They had commandeered a fleet of hovercraft from Fort Wallace. Usually, the crews destroy them, but somehow they fell into the insurgents' hands. The craft had stealth capabilities. They swooped into town, hit the hospital, and took thirty-four medical personnel, your wife included - mostly doctors. They stole several tons of medical supplies. They sent out a broadcast stating that everyone they abducted was safe and well. They needed them, we assume, to treat their wounded. I'm sorry, Lorac."

After he dismissed me, I went out under the sky, under the double moon and the glow of the Besrid nebula. The forest sang with the symphony of crickets, tree frogs, and innumerable other night creatures. Large bioluminescent insects lit up a ghostly blue. An owl swished through the air with a bandicoot in its claws. A breeze rustled the oaks and ashes of the forest.

I stood and watched the sentries make their rounds. After a while, Shora came up to me. A cigarette dangled from her lips.

"I'm sorry about Asha, Lorac," she said. "Is there anything I can do?"

I shook my head.

"Gramic brought in some brass from S2. They're conducting a briefing for the commanders of the infiltration squads. I guess the insurgency is spreading."

"How can it spread? There aren't enough of them. And what do they want, anyway?"

"They don't want anyone developing Lefka Forest."

"Holy Light, that doesn't call for an insurgency."

"You're dealing with religious fanatics. Logic means nothing to them."

"The Thebans have always been peaceful."

"If you read the history of Earth, you'll get an idea of how twisted religion can get. Even people who believe in the same religion will kill each other over some little detail of the religion on which they disagree."

Shora's family came from the region of Earth called Persia and followed the religion of Islam. She said her inherited faith and all other religions made her nauseous.

"Somehow they're gaining converts, crazy as it sounds. The insurgency is breaking out all over the planet." She paused and then said, "I'm so sorry for what happened, Lorac. Asha will be okay. Do you still feel up to the mission? If not, I can request compassionate leave for you so you can go back and be with your children."

I pondered. We had no relatives on the planet. The kids were safe. The family that had taken them in was among our closest friends.

"I want to help bring this mess to an end. I'll go."

She nodded, puffing her cigarette.

"You should try to sleep. We leave at 0300."

She walked off. I lingered in the cool air near the tall trees and watched the insects shed their light and the twin moons of Planet Antigone make their path across the sky. I finally went back to my tent.



I did manage to sleep. If you are a soldier, you learn to put fear aside and sleep because it is vital to your survival. Asha was a hostage. They had kidnapped her because they needed doctors to care for their wounded. Still, hostages are bargaining chips, whatever the motivation for capturing them, and that put her in danger. I slept and woke just before 0300.

Stealth shuttles (like the insurgents had used to capture my wife) had landed. We climbed in and departed. Gramic briefed us on screen as we made our way to our penetration site. We were targeting an area where our spy satellites had detected substantial activity and energy output. Two other infiltration squads would be probing the locale. Our mission was to gather information on the size, armaments, and configuration of the rebel force. If we could, we were to capture or kill their leader.

We flew for half an hour and dismounted on a wide savannah. We put on night vision goggles and moved through the grass toward where their camp was located. We could not use sensors for fear of them detecting us.

The moons were low by now. We spotted their guards and sneaked close to them. They had configured their sentries four deep. Periodically, they would report to each other and back to the central guard post - a technique the Golorians had developed and which had been widely adopted by the armed forces in this area of space.

The best way to circumvent a strategy like this is to eliminate the control point. We slipped past them. Like the other insurgents we had encountered, they were untrained. We went unnoticed past all four ranks and found the central post. Shora gestured for us to surround them - there were two radio operators and a sentry - and brandished her blade. We moved closer, rushed them, and killed them with our knives.

Unlike the others we had encountered so far, these were adult men. We went through their pockets and rifled the documents on their communications console. The things we found gave an idea of the layout of their base camp.

"We'll risk a probe," Shora said. Atemi plugged a locater module into their radio equipment. It homed in on the coordinates of every place to which the radio had broadcast. We got the data, destroyed the broadcast array, killed the other guards, and fled to a site that provided good cover.

As we took cover, we heard explosions and gunfire, though not aimed at us. Soon, however, we saw dozens of ragtag soldiers, many of them young teenagers, running the direction of the fight, armed and determined. I was amazed at the numbers. They kept coming in waves. I noticed something and move close to Shora

"I saw a Housali," I whispered.

"I saw him too," she replied.

The Housali, a race of humanoids, are light blue in color. They are aggressive, militant, and possess sophisticated technology. Rapacious and materialistic, their empire is small but powerful. They are sworn enemies of the Terrans and of my people.

"I knew it had to be them or the greenies," Wexford whispered.

"Sit tight. They must have engaged one of the other units. Kurtz, can you triangulate our sensors so they can't detect them?"

"If it's Housali, they can detect even triangulated signals."

"We have to risk it."

He activated sensors. We waited. I drank water and ate a protein stick. The firing continued for twenty minutes and then silence came. Slowly, by moonlight, the combatants we had seen fell back. A lot of them carried or assisted wounded comrades. It looked like they had taken a bad drubbing. Teams with stretchers appeared. We saw the Housali who had gone by carried in on a litter. A minute after the bearers took him past us, Kurtz's sensor array flashed.

"Massive energy output," Wexford said, reading it. He gave the coordinates. We all knew what it was. The Housali had starships with cloaking capabilities. We had a fix on one. Wexford shut off the scan.

I looked out at the stream of wounded insurgents and those helping them along. In the midst of them, I saw Asha. I froze in fear. She had on the purple scrubs she had worn yesterday morning. Four armed guards escorted her. She was blindfolded, her hands tied behind her back.

One of the guards shoved her. She stumbled and fell. He kicked her and then pulled her roughly to her feet. Shora put her fingers on my shoulder.

"Easy, Lorac," she said quietly, "easy. We'll get her free. They're probably taking her to the ship to work on that wounded Housali. We know where the ship is. We'll get her free."

I fought the urge to jump up, kill the guards, and rescue Asha. I nodded, my mouth full of bile, as I struggled to gain control, and summoned all my discipline, telling myself it would be suicide to go after the men abusing her. Still, containing the urge was difficult.

After a while, things became quiet again. I wondered how much damage they had done to the other squads, though I had seen how much damage our troops had done to them. After a while, we heard singing. A hymn tune rose through the air, though I could not make out the words. It sounded as if a huge group was singing in unison. The paean rose and swelled with power and depth. Shora signaled for us to come into a circle.

"This will be a good time to move. Lorac and I will try to get to their ship. Atemi, Kurtz, McLeod, scout out whatever it is that's going on with that singing. We'll rendezvous back here at 0450. We need to finish. It's going to be light soon."

Atemi, Kurtz, and McLeod moved out. Shora and I headed for the coordinates we had on the Housali ship.

Housali have cloaking technology. It photographs and duplicates the terrain around it and dissipates any energy signatures that would give its location away. If this was a ship, it probably had to decloak for a moment to let the Housali in. Otherwise we would never have detected it. We came up on a stand of trees. Something about them was not right, though I could not say exactly what. Shora did a sensor probe. The ship had moored right in front of us. We got out entrenching tools and began to dig.

We dug quickly, afraid someone might spot us. Off in the distance, the hymn singing continued. The Housali rig their cloaking devices so that any contact with the force fields they generate kill you and alert them to your presence. We dug deeply enough to wriggle underneath the field. Shora went first. I followed, hugging the soil like a mole, knowing that only inches away was an energy field that meant instant death if I touched it. Covered with dirt, I came through safe on the other side.

When the two of us emerged, we saw it: a Housali Class 3 Cruiser. It took a small crew but had considerable firepower. Knowing the ship's structure from our Special Forces training, we worked our way around to the boarding ramp, which was in front on this particular model. We had only about two feet to move around in - the force field could not contact the ship so they set up a buffer zone around it. It was just big enough to walk through if you stood sideways. The front hatch was open. We positioned ourselves, Shora nodded, and we rushed in.

Inside the small cabin we saw five people: the wounded Housali, Asha, two guards, and another figure laid out on a table with an IV in her arm. The guards did not even get a chance to raise their weapons. We were on them with blades in a moment. Shora checked the other two rooms on the ship and nodded to me. I ran over and put my arms around Asha.

She wept, holding me. Though she is small, Asha is strong; in her embrace I felt that strength but a kind of desperation too. I held her close, thinking of the terror she must have felt being a hostage. I saw bruises on her arm and one on her left cheek. "We'll get out of here soon," I said. I bent to kiss her but she avoided me, moving her head to one side.

Shora came over. "We need to get moving," she said. She nodded to the Housali. "What's wrong with him?"

"Shot with a projectile," Asha said, almost stuttering. "They just brought him in." She looked down at him. "I have to try to save his life. It's my duty as a physician." She looked at him with a mixture of aversion and compassion.

"Are there other Housali?" Shora asked.

"Three crew. They're at the worship service. Let me tend to his wound."

We stepped back. She probed the wound in his chest. Her lip trembled as she did. I had seen Asha work before. Once when we were driving to a concert we came across an automobile accident and I marveled at the detached, objective way she treated a badly injured husband and child while I tended to the hysterical wife and held a crying baby. Like a good doctor, she did not let emotion distract her from the vital task of saving a person and identifying what needed done to recover their vital functions. As she worked on the Housali, she looked almost distracted. She probed the wound, sopping up the oozing blood (Housali blood is orange), reached in with forceps and extracted the bullet. She sutured the wound and put in a drain.

I stood near her. While I was doing this, Shora contacted the others and told them to report back.

I glanced over at the other woman lying on the table. I stared. The woman had to be the simulacra Antigone.

Asha finished. "I've got to tend to her too," she said. She started toward the figure but stumbled. Thinking she might fall, I took hold of her. She put her face on my chest and began to sob.

"Asha," I whispered, "what's wrong?"

She clung to me with all her strength. Her sobbing turned to wailing. She trembled violently. I held her tight. I knew now what was wrong.

Shora came over and helped Asha to a chair.

"We'll get you home, child," Shora said, touching her face. "I know how to fly a ship like this. As soon as the others get in, we'll head back." A woman's voice and touch seemed to sooth her. She nodded and I came over and took Asha's hand. She leaned her head on my shoulder.

Shora walked to the table where the woman lay.

"This is the woman they style as the goddess."

"They've done plastic surgery on her," Asha said. "The bones in her face don't fit the configuration of features she has. They have surgically altered her appearance."

"Why does she have an IV?" Shora asked.

"They treat her with a drug that boosts the energy of her nervous system. She touches people and heals them - or fills them with such soothing, benign energy so that they feel transformed. But it takes a heavy toll on her. When they first brought me here, I treated her right after one of her appearances to her worshippers. She was almost dead. They'll care for her so she recovers, pump her full of drugs again, and send her back out."

"Is that how they've swayed the crowds?"

"Yes. I think the energy waves she produces stimulates the amygdale and hippocampus - the places in the humanoid brain from where we get mystical impulses and God thoughts. Somehow they boosted the kinetic energy in her body to such a high level that she can transfer it just through touch. This is why people are so eager to follow her. If I don't see to her now, she might go into a seizure."

"Do you feel like you can?" I asked, looking directly at her.

She met my eyes a long moment.

"It would be best if I did, Lorac - better for me.

I nodded and walked over with her. The Housali had done a remarkable job of making the woman look like the statue of Antigone on display in their main temple - the one that had disappeared during a recent three-day rainstorm and, as the wild rumor energizing the rebels insisted, had come to life. It was a good ruse. Giving her apparent magical/divine power had duped hundreds into following the religion and the rebellion it engendered.

"You need to keep her alive," Shora told Asha. "It will be much more effective if we can capture her. If we kill her they'll say she ascended to the heavens. Religions are good at pulling that one off. If we take her prisoner we can prove the whole thing is a hoax. Tend to her, Asha." She glanced at the wounded Housali. "I wonder how Wexford and the others are doing."

Asha carefully treated the girl. While waiting for Wexford and the others, Shora and I copied the computer files of the Housali vessel. We planned to escape in it but wanted the records in case we didn't make it out of here.

Make it out of here, I thought as we copied files. Asha would die with us if the Thebans discovered and attacked us. I had not brought her here but somehow I felt as if her being here was my fault (the mind is never logical). I wanted to get her out safely.

I glanced at her, absorbed in treating the fragile young woman lying on a flat surface in the ship. Asha's captors had raped her. My stomach turned over at the thought of it. I fought off my anger and revulsion and blocked my imagination. We would get out of here. I would find out who had done this and have my revenge. I stilled myself with the thought that Asha was a tough, resilient woman. That she had been violated, that her abductors had torn open the most sacred intimacy she and I shared enraged me. I had to fight constantly to keep control.

Shora's radio went off. It was Wexford.

"They detected our group," she said. "Atani has been hit. We joined up with the two other units we sent here and managed to fight our way back to our own lines. Wexford said Gramic is massing a force. They've surrounded the area and have got Regular Army units, the National Guard, some paramilitary. The others are safe. We need to get out of here before they find out we've commandeered the ship."

Asha had stabilized the Antigone girl. She sat up and drank some water. Shora walked over to her.

"What's your name, girl?" she demanded. "Your real name?"

She started, frightened by the directness of Shora's question, but also, I think, not certain she should tell her real name. Shora got out her combat knife and laid the flat of the blade against her cheek. A look of terror covered her distorted her face.

"Tell me your name or I'll cut your eyeballs out."

"My name is Angela," she whimpered. "Please, lady, have mercy on me!"

"Are you a Terran?"

"I'm Barzallian. My father sold me as a slave to a Housali man when I was thirteen. When he got tired of me, he sold me to a brothel. I worked a lot of years as a whore. The government came for me. They made me look like the goddess. They threatened to torture me if I didn't do what they said. Please don't hurt me."

"I won't if you cooperate. How many Housali are there?"

"Four of them - the crew of the ship. His name is Nevin. He's the commander."

Shora glanced over at the prostrate Housali and then back at the girl.

"You'd better not be lying to me." Horror and fear radiated from the girl's eyes. Shora relented a bit on her sternness. "We want to get you out of here, Angela. No harm will come to you if you show us no treachery."

The communications array on the ship lit up. We heard a female voice come over the monitor.

"Command, this is Evangeline. Code 84/Green."

Shora and I went toward the communication panel. A pause, then the voice continued.

"Command, we are under heavy attack on all sides. It is imperative the Holy One be taken to safety while she is in her dormant mode. The Gentiles are pushing us back with small arms and artillery fire. The enemy has also deployed drones and armored vehicles against us. We are falling back. I am implementing A-6-Gold-Echo. I'll contact you at the rendezvous point."

The communication terminated.

"We'll scan the files and see what A-6-Gold-Echo is," Shora said. She punched the display on her hand-held reader. After a moment, the device signaled. "Right here." She pointed at a map of the area. "This is her escape route." She looked over at me. "Lorac, you need to go after her. She's the one we have to kill. I'll fly to the coordinates and drop you. We'll decloak and let you out then get the hell away from here."

I nodded and went over to Asha. I took her hands. She saw in my eyes that I understood what had happened to her. I kissed her lips and the delicate, beautiful pink flesh of her forehead.

"We'll see each other soon. You can go back to the children. They'll be worried."

She said, I love you. Exhaustion and trauma made her speak her own language rather than English without realizing it, though I knew that particular phrase in the Omrite tongue. We shared a long embrace as Shora piloted the ship into the air. A little bigger than a shuttle, it handled easily and could land in close spaces. We pulled up over the camp. We were invisible with the Housali cloaking device.

I could see out through the front viewing ports. Flashing from rifle muzzles, energy beams, smoke and explosions lit the ground below. Our forces were laying down a heavy barrage. The enemy, I could tell, had responded but were massively outgunned.

Shora took the cruiser down. We came to a grove of tulip trees and landed. She turned off the force field. I broke away from Asha and tumbled out the door. I rolled on to the ground and found cover as the Housali vessel disappeared from my sight, cloaked and safe. Shora would fly Asha to a secure location.

I waited. I had concealed myself forty meters from the path of Evangeline Müller's escape route. Moments later, I heard footsteps.

I lay still, hardly breathing. The noise came nearer. I realized she was not alone. I risked looking (I was concealed well enough to do this in relative safety). In the second I looked, I saw her - tall, strong, a Terran woman with light brown hair. Three Housali flanked her.

The crew, I thought. These were probably the men who assaulted my wife. They had to be pilots. If they had been infantry, they would have known they were walking too close together and could be wiped out with one shot - the very shot I intended to give them.

I had Shora's multi-purpose weapon. I switched to chain-shot - two projectiles attached by a stream of energy. It would drain a lot of power but was exactly what I needed. And I would not require a lot of power after the first volley.

I calmed myself, sprang up as they passed by, and fired.

The girl saw me. In a flash, she recognized my ZR41 and realized what kind of ordinance I had programmed. She fell flat on the ground as I sent the chain-shot at them. It cut the three Housali in half. When the volley had passed, she pointed her weapon and fired a spray of projectiles at me.

By the time she got a shot at me, I had done a log roll and placed myself behind an old-growth oak two meters to the right. Thinking she had made me hit the dirt and could safely flee, she low-crawled to the shelter of a tree and loaded a clip of phosphorus rounds in her weapon, thinking to set the woods afire. I took aim and, when she stood up to fire, nailed her with a projectile, getting her in the shoulder. The impact knocked her flat, hitting her so hard her rifle flew out of her hands. I sprang and landed near her as she rolled over and came up with a combat knife.

I pointed my blaster at her.

Just for a second we faced off. I could see her grey eyes and her face, drawn with exhaustion and pain. The wound had hurt her so much as to immobilize her. She trembled.

"Drop the knife," I said. "You don't have a chance."

She did not respond. I gave her a sharp, sudden kick on the left side of her body, where she was wounded. A jolt of agony shot through her body. I pinned her arm to the ground with my foot and kicked the knife out of her hand.

I had thought to kill her. The source of the rebels' military success, she was partially responsible for what happened to Asha. But I hesitated. Her eyes opened. I saw fear and weariness. The dead Housali, a few feet away, were truly to blame, I reflected, and I had killed them. The girl gasped in agony. I saw a pool of blood forming under her. I decided to let her live.

"I need to look at that wound," I said. Evangeline was in too much pain to answer. When I rolled her over I saw why. I had aimed at her arm joint but hit further down, pulling a bullet through her shoulder blade. The wound bled copiously.

I could do little, but I did take out a dressing, covered the wound, and pushed the clean cloth down against the protruding bone spurs. Evangeline Müller screamed and fainted.

Once she fell unconscious, I thought about leaving her there to die but decided no. She needed to be accounted for - the same thing Shora had said about the Antigone girl was true for this woman. Better to capture her so they could see the body and rumors of some apotheosis would not begin.

I heard a noise, some kind of growl, and looked around, weapon at ready. I saw a Stripe-hide. Stripe-hides are a species of sloth native to Planet Antigone. They are black with white stripes, the size of a small bear. Quick, vicious, carnivorous, they are one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet. They hunt in packs and I saw two more of them in the trees above me. If I attacked one, the other two (and there were more, no doubt, I did not see) would be on me in a minute. I knew enough about them to realize they smelled blood and wanted to eat the corpses of Housali I had killed. If I left quietly, they would not attack.

I glanced at the girl. I thought of leaving her to the Stripe-hides but decided, again, no. I picked her up and hurried away. The sloths did not come after me. I carried her half a mile and set her down amid the ferns.

The sound of gunfire came. It was not far off. I got out my communications pad, called, and got Gramic.

"I have the leader," I said.

"Report location."

"I gave him coordinates. He said a unit would come for me in ten minutes. Only a few seconds after he signed off, it buzzed again. A militia unit, he told me, had broken through and was coming to my coordinates for support. They arrived two minutes later.

They gathered around Evangeline Müller. One of them spat on her. The others laughed.

"I knew it had to be a whitey," a soldier remark. He looked over at me. "No offense intended," he grinned.

"We ought to cut her throat," another said.

"No. It will be more fun to see her swing."

This kind of banter continued. I sensed they were getting nastier and more violent (militia units are not known for their discipline). To my relief, I saw Gramic with medical crew and a whole platoon of regular army troops, coming toward us.

"Lorac," he said, "I wanted to tell you your wife is okay. She's at a hospital being treated and undergoing tests."

I flinched inwardly, thinking she might have contracted a sexually transmitted virus. Weariness came over me. I had pushed the anguish I felt for Asha to the back of my mind. Now that hostilities seemed to have ceased, the pain engulfed me. I almost collapsed.

As we walked to the command post, I got more information. Our troops had secured the area. The insurgents had all been killed or captured - mostly killed. The army and paramilitary had put down attacks by insurgents in other parts of the planet. The Theban rebellion was contained. It had only lasted two days. I saw hundreds of dead - piles and heaps of corpses. Later investigations uncovered evidence of massacres, summary executions, no quarter given. This was mostly the work of the militia and paramilitary, though some regular army units also joined in the atrocities. I filed my report, cleaned up, and took a shuttle to a hospital in a nearby town to see Asha.

She lay in a hospital bed, her long green hair spilling over the pillow. They had dressed her in a white gown that had pink polka dots - their color matched her skin. I sat by her bed and took her hands.

"I'm okay," she said. "I don't have AIDS. And" - her eyes got teary but then she spoke - "I'm pregnant - by you, Lorac, my beloved husband. Lenna confirmed it with a DNA test." She smiled through her tears. "I thought you put an awful lot of seed in me those two times before the storm set in and the rebellion began."

"I'm happy."

She looked at me, reached out, clasped my arm, and put her cheek against it. "I thought you wouldn't love me anymore because of what happened."

I sat with her until her friend and personal physician, Lenna, came to give her a release physical. Nothing was wrong with her physically. The real scars were in her soul and would be difficult to heal.



The political fallout from the revolt got nasty. We knew from interrogating the Housali captain we took prisoner that they were behind the revolt. They had altered the girl to look like Antigone and fomented the revolt in the hope that it would misalign Planet Antigone's social system so much that the Terran Alliance would abandon the planet. Their plan almost succeeded. Revolts broke out on every continent. Around two hundred thousand people died.

Government response was harsh. The legislature renamed our planet Planet Gargi Vachaknu. Gargi was a Vedic prophetess, a composer of hymns and a philosopher/priestess. The Thebans had directed many of their attacks at the Hindu majority on the planet. The rebels destroyed and desecrated Temples, raped and murdered Hindu men and women, slaughtered Hindu families, burned schools and homes with images of the Vedic deities. They had also burned churches and destroyed houses with or icons of Mary in front of them. They demolished some mosques as well (the Muslim population on our world is small). Some officials wanted to ban the religion of Antigone, but Terran law guaranteed religious freedom. The shrines stayed open, though the government said it would monitor the religion closely. Monitor, of course, meant harass and interfere. The followers of Antigone who survived the war lived in fear of their lives. Many converted to Christianity or Islam.

Angela, the Antigone girl, was arrested, tried, and acquitted. Since she had been forced into the role of the goddess and endured painful, life-threatening drugs injections to give her the power to heal and inspire, and since was a former slave who did what she did under duress, people were sympathetic to her. She wrote a book about her ordeal that became a best-seller. She frequently appeared on talk shows and gave interviews. She married and lived quite well afterwards. Perhaps she deserved as much for all she had suffered in her unhappy life.

Things did not go so well for Evangeline Müller. Someone had to be the scapegoat and absorb the anger of the people of Gargi Vachaknu. The government charged her with capital treason. She pleaded her innocence and styled herself as a victim caught up in religious fervor and deceived by the touch of the girl masquerading as a goddess. The Prosecutors pointed out how she had planned and led a systematic, coordinated attack on military and civilian sites on the planet, commanded an army, and made rational, calculated decisions. Not the work of a madwoman, they argued. The jury concurred and sentenced her to death. The day before her execution, I went to see her.

I came at her request. Guards escorted me to her cell. She sat on her bunk. Wearing red prison fatigues (red indicated a prisoner was condemned to death), she looked pale and thin.

She looked up at me as the guards opened the door. I sat down in a chair across from her.

"I'm glad you came, Captain Lorac."

"You don't have to address me as Captain. Just ‘Lorac' is fine. In Mervogia we go by one name."

"I've been trying to contact some of the people I know suffered because of me and ask their forgiveness, a thing my religious beliefs demand. I'm asking that you'll forgive me for the wrongs that came upon you because of what I did."

I had done some reading on Miss Müller. She followed the Mennonite sect - a group that preached, oddly, pacifism and simplicity in life and in worship. She converted to the Religion of Antigone when she was sixteen. She was twenty-six now. She had returned to her old faith.

"I forgive you, young lady. I bear you no ill will."

She looked up and met my eyes.

"Thank you. That is a comfort. That is why I asked you come here. But I have something else to ask."

"Please ask."

"I know" - her voice quavered; she licked her lips. "I know what they plan to do to me - how they plan to make me suffer, tie my knot so it won't break my neck but so I slowly strangle to death. They torment me by telling me about it. I also found out you know Visaji Sharma. You saved his life in battle. What I beg of you, Lorac, is that you'll talk to him and ask him to show me mercy."

Visaji, who worked at the prison and was the main executioner, told me, after the fight where I saved his life, that he was obligated to me. "The custom of my people specifies that I give you whatever you ask for. If you wish anything of me, simply tell me and I will grant what you desire."

"I know what happened to your wife," Evangeline said, tears flowing from her eyes. "I'm so sorry. It was not my doing. If I had been present, I would not have allowed such a thing. Please, sir, you must believe me. Please talk to your friend and tell him to show me mercy tomorrow."

She looked so wretched and afraid I wanted to touch her, but that was against prison rules and would immediately terminate my visit if I did. She wept in her misery.

"I'll talk to him," I said. "I'll speak up for you. I can't guarantee that he will do what I ask, but I will try to get him to agree."

Of course, I knew that he would agree.

"Is your wife recovering?"

"She is. Asha is remarkable woman. Strong. A lot like you."

"She isn't like me at all," Evangeline Müller said, a considerable tone of bitterness in her voice. "Your wife is a wise woman. I am a fool. I threw my life away. I'm twenty-six years old. I would have lived another eighty years if I had not been deceived and followed a false religion. I know I can't live. I know I deserve to die for what I did. I try not to think of it so I don't go mad."

"I'm sorry for you. It's a tragedy. My wife feels the same way."

"If I know I won't suffer like the men here say I will, it will be easier to walk out there."

"I'll see what I can do. Is there anything else I might do for you?"

"Tell your wife I am so sorry for what befell her. And that I would have done something to prevent it if I'd known about it."

My fifteen minutes were up. I left her. She did not say good-bye but looked at the floor.

I met with Visaji for lunch. I let him know what she had asked and that I thought he might show her mercy.

"To tell you the truth, friend, I have thought the same. She made a mistake - granted, a huge one - and now her life will be cut short. She has never married, never had a child, never known a man. I feel for her. I'll do what you ask. And I'll let her know that I plan to spare her the suffering. I am under obligation."

I went back to the hotel. I thought of Evangeline sitting in her cell waiting for the last hours to pass until the guards came to take her away and kill her. I was glad when Asha and my daughter, Shulva, came back from shopping.



The morning of her execution was sunny and clear. Asha and I were in the front row, maybe twenty feet from the scaffold. At eleven the door opened that led out onto the gallows. She appeared in her red fatigues, barefoot (as was the custom for prisoners executed), surrounded by armed guards. The warden of the prison (a woman) read the sentence of death and asked her if she had anything to say. She stepped forward, apologized for her behavior, and sought the forgiveness of the people of the planet. She thanked those who had shown her compassion and love. Last of all, she trusted her soul to the mercy of Jesus Christ, the Savior.

The warden told her to step onto the black circle that marked where the trap door lay. Once she was in position, Visaji came up, fastened her hands, and put the rope around her neck. He walked back, got the hood, and placed it over her head. He made her wait ten seconds and pushed the button releasing the trap door.

She fell straight, hit hard, bounced, and came down again, wrenching her neck a second time. Her feet flailed and her body twisted and writhed for perhaps thirty seconds. A minute after Evangeline did the drop, two guards came up and whispered to Asha that one of the doctors had become ill at seeing the execution and could not participate in the post mortem. As she was an alternate, would she stand in, since the law required four physicians present? She left to scrub and ready herself. I waited outside.

Once the sensor they put on Evangeline's chest registered that her heart had stopped, Vasaji came down, unfastened her hands, pulled the hood from her face, and attached the order of execution to her body. As custom dictated, the prison officials allowed the crowd to file by her body. I walked by and for a moment saw her, the girl who had been alive and talking to me yesterday. She hung there, eyes open, face pale and blank, a trickle of blood running down her lip (those executed by hanging often bite their lip or tongue), her head twisted to one side, the life gone from her. I went on by. The guards standing around recognized me and smiled.



Life returned to normal on the newly named Planet Gargi Vachaknu. We rebuilt. The Housali had been caught in the act of fomenting an insurgency. To avoid a reprisal attack, they agreed to withdraw completely from our sector of space and ceded settlement rights to four disputed planets in systems bordering the empty space between Alliance territories and their empire. In a major diplomatic victory for the Alliance, we entered into a joint development plan with my own people and the Anva, another nearby race of beings with status as a Protectorate for the Alliance. This would considerably diminish Housali expansion in our direction.

Our child was born - healthy and pink (literally) - and a girl. She thrived and was a comfort to her mother.

On the first anniversary of Evangeline's death, Asha asked me to come outside. The children were playing board games, the baby asleep. We stepped into the back yard. The sky, a deep-blue green, blazed with stars. Two moons, crescents of golden light, graced the night. Our planet abounds in bioluminescent creatures that make gold, blue, and white light. Thousands of them winked on and off in the trees around our house. She stopped by a spring of water that flowed out of a rocky hill on the edge of the wood that bounded our property. From a pouch on her dress she took out a small vial.

I recognized it as sand. The sight of it startled me. It was pink sand from Omb, her home planet, from where her people exiled her years ago. She looked up at me.

"I kept some of it. I kept this more to remind me of what my old world looked like than as a religious object. Omb is a desert planet. The sand is pink - I suppose the chemicals in it give us our coloration. But when a saintly person dies, we pour a small portion of sand into water. Water is precious there, and normally you do not risk polluting a spring or an oasis with anything. But when sand is poured in water in remembrance of someone who has lived an exemplary life, the water is not polluted. This is how we honor the venerated dead." She gave me the vial. "Pour it in," she said. "You knew her better than I. You will be the giver of honor."

I opened the glass vial and poured the small plug of fine, pink sand into the spring. The bioluminescent creatures all around us seemed to cease their light pulses for just a second. The breeze stilled. Then things began again in the natural cycle that envelops our world and, in different forms, every world. I spoke Evangeline's name. Asha and I lingered a while and then turned and went back into our house.

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