Chapter Four: The Holy City

“Does no one wonder why the stars gaze down upon us as they do? They are the squinting eyes of God, staring perplexed at we, his children and saying, ‘How is it that you have found your way here, and why do you make no move to escape? Return to the heavens – return to me. I wait in the void for you’.”

Homlin Michael, from “Fears of the Future”

 

The day was full by the time they reached the city’s outer edge. The sun beat down on their bare shoulders, and the last light of the Procession was fading in the sky above. Both had stowed their oilcloaks in the small packs at their waists, shaking out the dew and river spray before rolling them tight. Now, awash in mid-morning heat, even the strong rays of the sun were incapable of drying the sweat from their backs. The sky was blue, cloudless, and a languid breeze rustled through the thigh-high grass at either edge of the dusty road. The river path was long, but they were almost home. They crested a small swell, and the city of Rabinadat spread out before them.

The city had taken its name from Rabina, the first initiate and high mother of their order. It was she, in the desperate days of the fourth colonial wave, who awoke from her slumber with the words of this new world on her tongue. This woman, little more than a child, spoke with the voices of many who’d gone beneath the ground in the disastrous attempts to tame the Reken soil. And there was another voice, one that offered welcome to the scattered children of long-dead Earth. This deep one, calling itself Aneth, offered congress and council from the mouth of Rabina, who became the first to take the title of Oraté. It was the birth of the Attuned, the moment when humanity finally took root on Rekem.

Much had changed in the millennium since. Many of the original colonies had risen, fallen, and been reclaimed by the Order and its people. But Rabinadat remained, the first flourish and constant reminder of the covenant between Aneth and those who walked upon the surface. Toma himself had heard the voice of the planet, a whisper during his time beneath the ground. Yoen, too, or else they would not be here.

They came to a tall gate, framed on either side with long planks of ebon wood. Toma stopped, his eyes riveted to the green knots woven through its black timber. The wall itself was perhaps ten feet high, and about half as thick as his arm. Not enough to ward off a true flood, but more than capable of repelling a Harvester. The Arken did their best to keep the ancient farming machines in order, but they’d been known to go rogue on occasion.

He’d seen one once, on a previous journey with Lias. It wandered forlorn beneath the starlight, half drunk on its own decay, compound headlamps sweeping over fallow land and wild grass. Harvesters had been known to trample men in their ignorance, unaware of the screams beneath their treads. They’d given the monster a wide berth.

“What’s wrong?”

Yoen had come up from behind, clutching the straps the of the stasis sling that held their catch. He dragged a dusty arm across his forehead, leaving a smear of sweat and thin mud. Blinking against the sting and sun, he fumbled for the water flask at his hip. When his gaze caught up with his brother’s, he let out a low whistle. “Ro’s bones, those are huge.” The oath drew a raised eyebrow from Toma. Not something one could say in the Temple without it getting back to the wrong people.

Yoen took his right hand from the strap, reaching out to touch the wooden frame. Trees were a rare thing in the open plains surrounding Rabinadat. These must have come from the west, where the forests grew thick and dark. He ran his fingers across the grain, tracing the patterns in the smoky wood. “A shame to use it on a gate.”

Toma watched the younger boy from the corner of his eye. Yoen was Forest-Born, raised in a vast expanse where trees outnumbered families ten to one. There was a familiarity in his touch, something more than an exploration of its lines. Toma waited a moment before placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Come on. We should get back.” He pitched a whisper toward Yoen’s ear. “And for god’s sake, watch your tongue.” Yoen bristled, lowered his eyes, and nodded.

“Here,” said Toma, reaching for the sling. “My turn.”

Yoen shook his head, pulling back. He looked down, rubbing his fingers across his thumb as if the ebon’s warmth lingered there. “It’s okay. I’ve got it.”

The passed through the gate, and into the outer city. The smells of morning washed over the boys like a wave, followed by the noise of construction and commerce. Some 80,000 people lived within the city of Rabinadat, most of them outside of the great steel and plaz walls of the settlement’s original footprint. Those boundaries had been set by the Arkitechts, the men and woman who’d overseen the dismantling of the great generational ships that had carried them to this world. Solar cells became suntiles, shuttles became gravlifts, and hull plates were shaped into walls. The planners’ descendants were still to be found here, calling themselves the Arken and serving as one of Rabinadat’s three governing bodies. They dealt with the relics of the past, while the Consulate spoke for the people and the Attuned spoke for the planet.

They were still quite a distance from the Temple. They’d need to catch a grav at the Rim Market to take them back to the Temple Gate. Otherwise, the walk on foot would swallow the remainder of the morning. The Outer Rim had grown substantially since the first colonists settled outside the walls, stretching several miles from the city’s original nucleus.

All around them, the people of Rabinadat woke and went about their day. They emerged from low, mud-bricked buildings, and stretched their limbs in the warming sun. It was well past assembly call for the local labor pools, though a few men and women still hustled past, their tool belts and packs jangling with haste. The wall needed to be finished, a task requiring a large cadre of workers.

And the workers, of course, needed food. Dozens of small stands lined the streets, with hand-scrawled signs stacked atop one another on the lamp poles of each intersection. The narrow streets of the Rim Market were awash in the smells of searing vegetables, flatbread, and meat. What sort of meat… Well, Toma mused, one could never be sure. But however it had walked, flown, or crawled its way across the coals, the sellers here were not in the business of making their neighbors sick. Provided one was adventurous or hungry enough, you could eat at most of the stands with little fear.

The smell was utterly intoxicating. Spice scents mingled with the heat of the coals and cooking jets, filling the air with flavor and warmth. Despite their hurry, both Yoen and Toma found their eyes straying toward the sizzling skewers and steaming pots that lined their path. They’d missed the morning meal (such were the perils of being assigned to the dawn duty), and the adrenaline that kept them on their feet had set their stomachs to gnawing.

Soon, they could stand it no more. They passed a particularly hawkish vendor, his shouts echoing off the neighboring walls. He and his family were selling meat and spiced greens, slathered in their own oils and rolled in fresh, thin dough. There was something more, though – A spice scent that wormed its way into the empty cavern of their stomachs. Yoen slowed, looked up at Toma, and found the older boy was already looking at him. They smiled, and Toma nodded toward the stand.

Their wait was mercifully brief. The patriarch of the family wandered back and forth several meters beyond the shop, calling potential customers and beckoning welcome to those he snared. His clothes were as loud as his voice – Bright yellow and orange of the coastal clans and their shipping lanes. His daughter, wife, and son manned the booth itself, exchanging currency for tightly wrapped bundles and steaming cups. Toma ordered for himself and Yoen, handing the currency to the serious-faced young woman behind the makeshift counter. He breathed deep, trying to pinpoint the unique scent. He looked at the vendor’s daughter, raising an eyebrow.

“What’s the secret?”

She eyed him coldly for a moment, until Toma heard a reply barked from her mother at the cooking fire.

“Marry her and find out for yourself.” The older woman turned, saw the brown of his Attuned attire. “Oh, begging your pardon.”

Toma nodded, doing his best to hide a sigh. The young woman shot a stern glance at her mother, who shrugged and passed two papered rolls into her hand. She turned back to Toma, her green eyes measuring him across the counter. Through the fog of steam and fatigue, Toma caught the ghost of a smile playing across her lips. She reached out, thrusting his meal into the gap between them. “Some secrets,” she said, “May be worth shedding the robe for.”

“Karence!” Her mother flushed, and Toma summoned a cough to hide his smile. He took the order, bowed low, and favored her with a baleful gaze. She inclined her head and motioned past his shoulder for the next customer.

Yoen’s eyes were in mid-roll when Toma thrust the greasy paper beneath his nose. “Let’s go.”

The city pressed in around them. It was a warm embrace, however, out here in the Rim. The structures were mud, brick, and stone, the streets wide and well-kept. It was an honest borough for honest work, and the buildings mirrored their inhabitants – Thick structures of middle height, their square shoulders providing little shadow in the morning light. The suntiles were fading underfoot as the dawn peeked above the rooftops, shedding their nightly glow for daytime absorption. Doors creaked, children called to one another from open windows, and water dripped from rooftop catches.

Not like the Stalks, Toma thought, breathing past the spice of his breakfast. Out there on the riverside, they’d be lucky to make it back to the Temple with their cargo intact. It wasn’t that everyone in the Stalks was a thief. But they were certainly hungrier, and less discerning about where their next meal came from.

_____

They made their way through the cobbled streets, the buildings and people growing more and polished as they approached the shuttle station. The suntiles underfoot appeared with greater regularity as they drew closer to the inner colony, some of them conditioned with air scrubbers and scent. Soon, both Toma and Yoen grew aware of their own sour sweat. Digestion hung a dull weariness about their limbs, and they longed for the cleansing water of the temple baths. But, it would be a long day, and there was much left to do.

The smell of ozone and static signaled their approach to the shuttle station. The gravs were taking off rapidly now, with men and women lining up in front of each of the seven pads. Yoen observed the varieties of clothing and speech reflected in the destination of each queue. Blue Coveralls for the Arken Quarter, rich silks for the Temple Market, and glistening wrist-holos and electrobes for the Shunt. His own line was a mass of tan and earth tones, worn by his brothers and sisters of the Attuned. These were initiates mostly, like them, returning from their own pre-dawn errands.

Reaching its capacity, the grav at the head of their line lifted off in a rush of dust and the thrum of repulsor fields. Above, an empty shuttle broke off from its waiting formation and arced languidly toward the pad. It landed gently, hissing into place half a meter from the ground. The doors parted, and Toma and Yoen followed their line into the craft.

They took their seats at the windows which, after innumerable trips to and from the Rim, they knew would set their faces to the west. The east viewports would be awash in sunlight, and each hoped to catch a few minutes sleep on the trip. The cushions settled beneath them, flabby and deflated from centuries of seated travelers. Toma carried the stasis sling on his lap, heavy with the weight of the morning’s catch. He took the seat nearest the window. Snapping their restraint belts into place, the brothers exhaled as one.

The last of the initiates entered, and the door of the grav slid shut. The craft vibrated beneath them once, twice, and they were in the air. The Rim Market sprawled out beneath them, and Toma watched the rivers come into view above the knitting bones of the new wall. The rolling brown of the Ishtus and the rushing blue of the Sang’yi snaked toward the city like so much yarn, woven into the green cloth of the plain.

The craft banked to the north, and Toma felt Yoen’s head tip toward him. The boy was asleep, he saw, defeated by the heat of the vehicle and the weight of his breakfast. Toma, sighed, turning to stare down at the city as it returned to focus. They were crossing the inner wall now, built from the great hull plates of the old Arks. The streets here were orderly grids, glistening with paving that drank the light of the morning star. A geometric cast of buildings and canals completed the urban tapestry, with rooftop gardens and floating farmcraft adding flecks of color to the silver and steel of the inner city. They passed over the Shunt, with its ghostly lights and periodic eruptions of sparks. Then came Sojen with its carefully cultivated gardens, the only place to see trees for hundreds of kilometers around. Off to the east was the Harbor, and north of that, the Stalks. From above, it all looked so beautiful. But, as the grav descended, the stain of years became all too clear. Half of the suntiles lay clouded over, blind with the cataracts of age. The waters of the canals revealed an unhealthy tinge of green, and the many of the floating algae-tills shared this same taint. Some were half submerged, their processors overcome to choking. And the buildings – more and more, their broken windows presented a gap-toothed grin to passersby.

Turning his eyes to the horizon, Toma saw clouds bearing down from the north. It was the season for coastal storms, and these appeared hell bent on reaching the Delta before noon. He laid his head against the window, feeling the slick of sweat move across his neck. The stalks would be hit first, judging by their direction and speed. Let it come, he thought. A cleansing rain would do them good.

Despite himself, Toma fell into a doze. He awoke with the hiss of descent, feeling the repulsors catch hold of the grav and guide it to the pad. He held his eyes shut through the sound of the opening door, and the jostle and shuffle of his fellow initiates. Moment bled into moment until he felt a gentle elbow prodding his ribs.

“Toma. It’s time to go.”

He rose, following Yoen down the aisle and out the portal. They were the last to exit, and the door ground shut behind them. They’d set down near the Acolyte Gate, a small set of pads reserved for the lower ranks of the Attuned. Ahead loomed a ragged stretch of the Temple wall, its sun-bleached plaz and steel surface pitted with age.

The line had already formed by the time they reached the gate. A translucent field wavered in the humid air, ensconced beneath a low arch and recessed from the high temple wall. One by one, they approached the entrance, placed a palm against the flat and flickering panel key, and watched the field drop to reveal the dark of the inner tunnelway.

The line shuffled forward. At last, heaving a sign of bittersweet relief, Toma reached the pad. The field shimmered back into place as the girl in front of him stepped past the threshold, her breath visible in the shade and sudden chill of the entrance. Toma advanced and pressed his fingers into the wallpad, feeling the warmth of the scanner as it traced the arch of his palm. A yellow light appeared on the small, dirty screen above the panel, accompanied by a dull, repeating tone. Wait, the door said.

Toma frowned. The imprinting of one’s palm on the Gate record was one of the first formalities performed by newly arrived Acolytes. Until now, he’d never experienced a delay at the entrance. A cold sweat mingled with the mud on the back of the young man’s neck.

Something must be wrong.

“What is it?” Yoen was behind him, a note of unease swelling in his voice and eyes.

Toma looked back, giving his best casual shrug. He lifted his right hand to his face, examining the grit and river stain on his palm. Sighing, he spat into his hand, wiping some of the grime against the hem of his equally soiled tunic. Again, he placed it against the wallpad, felt the sensor wave roll across his skin. The machine barked out its same derisive tone, and the yellow light washed over him.

Wait.

 

_______

 

 

© Joshua Wussow and ReadRekem.com, 2017-2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joshua Wussow and ReadRekem.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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