October 18th, 3127
Outsider Quarters, Citadelle,
Frontier Space, HAB-1
Paul flipped over the next three cards, hoping for something he could use. Instead he got the three of diamonds. That made it clear he wasn’t going to complete the solitaire set, and so he gathered up the rest of the deck on the crude iron desk and started over. It was one of the few diversions available to him as he waited for his new smuggling contacts to meet up with him again.
Ducard had talked, as promised. Details had been ripped out of his head, faces taken from memory, records located and the whole off-world smuggling route compromised. Paul tried not to feel uneasy at what he’d done with the traitor. It would have been patently illegal in the Empire, but Marseilles had not been the Empire. A least he and Brenda had refused Vendrome’s demand that his former chamberlain be mind-wiped and reduced to a drooling retard, as a court jester for the vengeful Exarch. Instead Ducard’s head had graced the Grand Marketplace’s gate. And for what it was worth, the measures had been eminently effective at accomplishing the main purpose of the investigation.
“Paul Bedrun” had emerged from the Marseilles underground, wiping out the local smugglers involved with Ducard and seamlessly taking their place. Their off-world contacts had not been suspicious about the situation, and instead had proposed a new deal to continue bringing their organic technology into the Frontier and the Outer Rim territories of the Empire. Indeed, Paul smiled thinly, Janacek had had no idea of the scale of the effort being involved, and that was something he could conclude from the limited details their mysterious new partners had been willing to discuss. The odd thing, the really odd thing, though, was that their partners wanted examples of Imperial computer technology to pay for their own cheap knock-offs. They were willing to provide the organic perscoms and other units for incredibly cheap prices, while paying extortionately for even last-generation electronics and computers. That too had been revealing; it suggested to Paul that obtaining the Imperial technology was the real point of the exercise, and destabilizing Imperial economic influence in the Frontier was only a side-effect.
Though not an unwelcome side-effect, to judge by how their liaison on Nouvelle Toulon had talked about the Empire.
The door in the front swung open, metal hinges squeaking loudly as they had ever since they’d been set up here. It was a small office, and Paul could peer up at his desk to see who was coming in, without needing to squint or stand up. Brenda was entering, again, with a brown paper bag full of something. Probably groceries.
She approached, pulling an apple out of the bag as she did. “I went by that local market again. Paul, it’s really incredible. From what I can tell they don’t use any technology more advanced than beasts and steel plows, but that place is always overflowing. And look at the size of these fruits!” The apple was the size of a grapefruit, though Paul had long gotten over his initial shock at the fact. She brought out what looked like a grapefruit... and was really an orange.
“Nothing new, Brenda,” he replied, and took her offered apple as she sat down in front of him. Biting into the fruit he found it firm, moist, and as delicious as any variety he’d ever had. “Obviously these guys are really, really good at genetic manipulation,” he said, in between bites. “I’d think Janacek might want samples of this stuff, but you know how hard it’s going to be getting fruit past customs...”
Brenda giggled a bit, and adjusted her hair as she settled down. “The crew’s still intact. We haven’t had any desertions yet, thanks to our hosts.”
The Outsider Quarters, as their contacts had called the small city, were dingy, rundown, industrial-looking squalor. There was a cursory security presence at checkpoints, designed to keep the “outsiders” inside the ring. Their various merchant liaisons left the city by the evening and were impossible to get in touch with before their scheduled hours in the Quarters. Neither of them had any idea what their hosts did for utilities, but busing in technicians as needed seemed likely enough. The masters of the area did allow in rural peasants to come and go as they pleased, which seemed exceptionally odd until Brenda had covertly scanned one and discovered they were mostly illiterate and commonly left to their own devices by the authorities.
“Still haven’t heard anything from Merchant Factor Li,” Paul commented. When they’d shown up in an old civilian freighter, with letters of introduction from the Marseilles based representative of the planetary authorities, they had been put in touch with Factor Li. He had confirmed the details of the new contract and had handled all of their docking and storage arrangements, and had promptly disappeared. Paul had managed to get in touch with him from time to time, only to be told that processing the new contract with his superiors was causing a delay.
Brenda began peeling her gigantic orange with her nails. “We need to find something to do before we lose our minds.” She resisted the temptation to sign Paul, or suggest the bed in their live-in quarters in the back room. Whoever had been involved in the attempted hit on Marseilles had been a very powerful telepath, and it was reasonable to suspect there would be more around. So they weren’t using their powers openly except in the direst circumstances. “Not that there is anything here. I get the impression the Citadelle authorities really don’t like tourists.”
The door squeaked open, again. Paul and Brenda turned to face the new arrival. A tall, cadaverously thin man in what looked like homespun brown robes emerged, and stepped inside gingerly. He seemed to be afraid of approaching the vicinity of the two outsiders, and it didn’t take any special use of their talent to realize he was distinctly uncomfortable.
“You are Paul Bedrun and his...” The monk seemed to halt for a moment, as though considering the right word to use. “Woman?”
“That’d be me,” Paul replied, and pointed to Brenda. “And she’s my woman. One of ‘em, anyway.” He ignored her pouty lips and the oh we’re going to get even look on her face, preferring to remain in character. “Now, who’s asking?”
The monk nodded, which turned into a polite if insincere miniature bow.”I am Parfait Bénézent, the spiritual advisor and overseer of the village of Carcassone, outside of the environs of this... place.” He seemed to hesitate for a bit, before continuing on. “My brothers are aware that many ignorant seamen congregate in this area, without the slightest influence for enlightenment. I have been inviting such souls to attend our service tonight, so that you might have a chance of rejecting the trappings of your sin and loathsome materialism. “
“So, you want me to sit in Church while you preach about how damned I am, is that it?” His eyes narrowed a bit. And then he smiled. “Done enough of that to keep my old man happy, when he was around. Sure, nothing else going on around here. But your brothers with the guns might have other ideas, Parfait?”
Brenda pretended to be disappointed, rolling her eyes openly at the monk. Good going, Paul. At least we can get out and see the surroundings. She kept the thought to herself, though, rather than risk the sending. Paul would be smart enough to handle matters without the encouragement.
The monk nodded slowly.” Parfait is my title, not my name. The warrior brothers will be notified of your intentions. Some of them will accompany you to... avoid outrages with the peasantry. We will be meeting at the marketplace at the 16th hour, if you wish to attend. Please dress... and behave... respectfully.”
“You saying I’m not respectable?” Paul suddenly demanded, and the monk seemed to fold in on himself. “Only kidding. Alright, we’ll be there.”
The monk muttered something pretending at a polite exit, and backed out of the office. The door squealed close with what Paul thought was a decidedly relieved not. “They really don’t like us much at all, do they?”
Brenda shook her head. “I didn’t get the impression that Parfait Bénézent dealt with anyone but his peasants. I think I scared him as much as you did.”
Paul chuckled, and looked over Brenda’s outfit. It was a modified jumpsuit, same as his, but it hugged her figure rather tightly. “Probably afraid you’ll tempt him away from his celibacy or something. Evil foreign woman out to steal his essence.”
“If this keeps up,” Brenda warned mockingly, “you’ll be keeping all your own essence. Now let’s go find what ‘respectable’ clothes we can and get ready to see what this Parfait preaches.”
Several hours later, both of them had changed into something that wouldn’t have automatically marked them as dubious figures on a normal Imperial world. Paul was wearing a subdued business suit, and Brenda had switched out into a Sunday Dress of the sort suitable for attending Mass. They’d met with a very small group of seamen, most of them still in their jumpsuits, and often grumbling about the complete lack of anything else to do in the Quarters. True to his word the Parfait had shown back up, still in his brown robes, and accompanied with a squad of black uniformed guardsmen.
It was the first time Paul had seen any of the soldiers up-close, and they looked... very, very fit and tall. Probably not a one was under six and half feet tall, and their black uniforms failed to conceal ripples of bulging muscle. On the other hand they had only odd looking black field hats on, and their weapons looked like primitive slug throwers rather than the mag-rifles of Imperial soldiers. They looked on impassively as Paul looked them over, seemingly oblivious to the curiosity of the outsiders.
The Parfait led them on foot to a checkpoint at the outskirts of the city. Wagons pulled by a massive and unfamiliar looking beast of burden waited. The outsiders were gathered aboard, comfortably fitting on two of the large hay-transports tugged at by the... oxen? They moved at a slow pace down a dusty road, followed on foot by the guardsmen with Bénézent ahead. Along the way they passed fields planted with rows of wheat, left unattended by peasants who lined up along the side of the road or fell into line with the convoy. Their destination loomed before them after about twenty minutes of slow progress down the road, as the fields gave way to a medieval looking village, and a tall wooden lodge at the very end of the road.
The Parfait disappeared around a side entrance, and the foreigners and peasants alike were crowded inside through spacious doors in the front. The interior was just as sparsely done as the outside, with rows of wooden pews facing a central dais at the very back, presumably where the Parfait would speak. The building did boast real windows, unlike the rest of the village as far as Paul had seen, but the thatch roof was clear proof that it was a product of very low technology. The general impression of being thrust back into the Middle Ages was only upset by the complete lack of an altar or any icons and ostentation among the monkish Parfait. Of course, that was only to be expected, as Paul realized exactly what they were dealing with.
“Bogumils,” Brenda whispered into his ear. The heretical anti-materialist, Gnostic and Buddhist influenced sect that had been driven off Earth after the AI Wars, and had invaded from unknown space centuries later to collapse the first Empire. The chaotic fighting that had followed had drawn in the Ssi Rissan and dozens of other alien marauders and rent humanity into dozens of pieces, before a resurgent dynasty had emerged off Earth. The Bogumil fleets had settled down in the Outer Core and were smashed, their settler populations forcibly assimilated, and their homeworlds sought out and conquered. But isolated settlements and remnant cells still turned up from time to time, and no one was certain their organized government had been destroyed. It seemed not.
The Parfait emerged from the shed constructed on the side of the lodge, still in his plain brown robes and holding the black leather Tome of Knowledge that represented the public Gnostic teachings. His sermon, though, was more of a lecture to the peasantry.
“You know that this flesh is sinful and yet you continue to breed, continue to strengthen the demiurge!” He was thundering now, no longer the timorous corpse that he had been back in the Outsider Quarters. “You fail to support those sons and daughters among you who may find enlightenment, out of petty jealousy. You may be damned to rut in the fields like animals, living your lives without comprehending the truth behind this veil of reality, but our Searchers can find those who have the talent to see beyond. You must not hide your children or deny the results of the Tests. If you cooperate, even though you are unable to restrain yourself to seek enlightenment, your soul may yet reincarnate in a more benevolent form. You may eventually be able to renounce this world and the many temptations of the devilish architect who created it, to embrace the spiritual reality of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
He went on in the vein, calling out members of the congregation by name and chastising them for their sinful addictions. But then he turned to testimonial, his own. “Remember, I was once like you. Deceived by the demiurge, and tainted by the disgusting flesh and its appetites. Hunger, luxury, pain, comfort, avarice, lust all are simply means by which the world keeps you chained in the darkness of ignorance. Your true soul-self is denied the inner contemplation necessary to reach the real truths of creation. I was enlightened by the death of my lover Marcuse, and sought out the consolation of true knowledge. That was my first step to the purification of soul and mind that the secret teachings of our true God provide. And only one who has put aside this world could hope to understand such utterly terrible truths!”
After another twenty minutes of ranting by the a religious fanatic, Parfait Bénézent called forth the sick. They emerged, and he demonstrated his powers, providing “vials of healing” to dull pain, sooth fevers, calm coughs, and in general deal with just about every ailment the peasantry boasted of. After the “benediction” was over, the Parfait had two of the peasants bring out the only representative image allowed in the lodge, an ancient holographic picture of what looked like one of the Shanghai AI Core’s killbots.
“This is the devil!” The Bogumil clergyman was now frothing in rage. It took Paul a few minutes to realize that he was talking about the holographic display, and not the reminder of mankind’s most desperate hour. “This filthy, wicked technology brings the demiurge’s false order into this universe! It delays the soul-releasing entropy of the cosmos decreed by the true God! See it, be tempted by it, resist it! Resist all those who would use the lies of material advantage to resurrect the technology! The heretics and unbelievers who hold our homeworld consort with the demon, allow the agents of the demiurge to be released, persecute us for speaking the truth, and uphold order over entropy! Hate them! They lie to you, deceive you into being locked into an everlasting cycle of slavery to flesh!”
The whole “service,” if it could be called that, lasted for an hour. Most of the peasantry seemed little affected, but the “benediction” explained why they showed up. Afterward, as the mass of people milled out, the Parfait approached them, politely asking as to how they found his teachings. Paul brushed him off, and was quite glad his persona as a hedonistic, atheist smuggler let him. The guy was nuts and his theology insanely dangerous stuff, as long experience had shown. But instead of being luddites, they were trying to destabilize Imperial expansion and get new samples of the “demon technology.” Whatever was going on was clearly a much bigger threat to the Empire than Janacek could have hoped for. He hoped the director didn’t regret it.