"You have stirred the hornet's nest, my friend," the Colonel says as Jeeval enters his office. "Mastik Rue wants your head on a stick, to put it mildly."
"Is that the only result?" Jeeval asks, taking the seat across from the Colonel. "Have I only managed to sign my death warrant, along with everyone else's at the same time?"
"That is the surprising thing," the Colonel responds with a sly grin. "There is a grassroots movement cropping up in a few places. Mostly in the settlement, but in some of my areas as well."
"Really?" Jeeval asks excitedly, sitting up straighter. "People listened?"
"Oh, yes, my friend," the Colonel says, shuffling through the papers on his desk until he finds what he is looking for. "The settlement has a group called the Awakened. The suburb of Waygyle has the Third Eye, and the northern region is reporting that the leaders of the Welcomers would like to speak with you."
Jeeval sits amazed. He had hoped that his people in the settlement would listen to him, but to have groups within the Colonel's people as well is nothing short of a miracle. "How many," he asks. "I mean, do you have a number?"
"One hundred in the settlement and another fifty between the other two," the Colonel replies, studying Jeeval closely.
"A hundred and fifty out of how many?" Jeeval says. "Not a lot, all things considered."
"On the contrary," the Colonel counters, "that's a hundred and fifty in, what, sixteen hours. Some were probably already non-believers, but still, that is far more than I would have expected."
Jeeval eyes the Colonel momentarily, watching him for any hint of what he thinks about the small movement. "And?" He asks, finally.
"And?" The Colonel repeats, looking at him through feigned curiosity.
"The price for you letting me try to save you?" He asks. "Are you going to tell me what that will be?"
The Colonel smiles as if caught in a lie. "You know my price, Jeeval."
"There is no," Jeeval begins, but he is interrupted by the Colonel's raised hand.
"Enough," the Colonel says, seemingly tired suddenly. "I will find the machine eventually. What I want in return for letting you get that story off your chest is the truth."
"What truth?" Jeeval replies uncomfortably.
"The truth about you? Who are you, Jeeval?"
"You already know who I am, Colonel."
"No, my friend," the Colonel says with a raised finger. "I know what you did, but I don't know anything about who you are."
"I'm not sure that I know what you mean," Jeeval says. "What do you want to know?"
"I want to know why you?" The Colonel replies, getting up to pour himself a drink.
"Yes," the Colonel says, an edge to his voice. "Why did your visitors choose you?"
"I don't know," Jeeval says. "They didn't say why they chose me. They only told me what I was meant to do."
"Are you special in some way?" The Colonel asks honestly. "Do you think that that is it? That you are special? Like a once in a generation type of thing?"
"I honestly don't know, Colonel."
The Colonel sits back in his chair and stares at Jeeval. "I have to tell you, my friend, that you are a mystery to me. I really do not know what to make of you."
"I'm just a man, Colonel. Nothing more, nothing less."
"Well," the Colonel says, pressing the button on his desk to call in the guard, "we will see, won't we."
The Colonel sits in his office, watching the camera footage of Jeeval's capture. He watches as the patrol that arrested Jeeval moves through the bazaar and past the fountain. Then, the view cuts to another soldier's camera as he turns and scans the football-field-sized area, seeing nothing and no one.
"Where did you come from," the Colonel asks as he scrolls through the footage. "And why did no one see you coming?"
When he gets to the point where the patrol passes over the crumbled wall, the Colonel presses play and watches as, in the distance, there is a bright flash that is believed to be Jeeval's arrival.
"What was that?" the Lieutenant's voice can be heard on the recording.
"No idea, Sir." The Sergeant responds.
"Well, then, let's go have a look," the Lieutenant says as he moves back toward the bazaar. "We don't want to miss anything."
The patrol follows the Lieutenant back along the patrol route and eventually into the smoke from a burning tank. Moments later, they emerge in full sight of the broken wall and catch sight of Jeeval near a crashed helicopter.
"Stop, stay where you are!" The Lieutenant yells to Jeeval.
Jeeval obeys the command, and the patrol advances as he stands center stage in the chaos around him.
"Who are you?" The lead soldier asks.
"He asked you a question," another soldier barks before Jeeval can answer.
"I am Jeeval."
"Why are you here?" The Lieutenant demands, stepping forward to grab Jeeval. "Are you a spy? A soldier?"
"No," Jeeval pulls back but can't break free. "I live here. Or, I used to live here."
"Where did you come from?"
"I walked here. Through the bazaar."
A wicked smile creeps across the Lieutenant's lips. "The bazaar is dead."
"I know," Jeeval says. "I saw the waste this war has brought."
"Waste?" The Lieutenant scoffs. "Your side has been wasting my people for decades," he says, pushing Jeeval to the ground. "Don't talk to us about waste."
"I'm sorry," Jeeval whispers.
"You will be," the Sergeant replies. "On your feet. You're under arrest."
As Jeeval gets up from the ground, the Lieutenant looks past him to the fountain in the distant bazaar. "Sergeant, go see if you can find where he was hiding."
"Yes, Sir," the Sergeant says and moves away toward the fountain. As he gets closer, he starts looking behind him to gauge where the flash may have come from in relation to where they were when they saw it. Then, finally, he rounds the fountain and sees something extraordinary about ten feet farther on the ground.
"What have we here," the Sergeant says, approaching the spot.
The spot turns out to be a six-foot-wide depression in the ground just a few feet from the fountain. The center of the depression looks like a scorch mark, with the disturbed earth radiating outward. And it's not until he stands within the blast radius that the Sergeant feels the weird static climbing up and down his body.
"I found something, Sir." The Sergeant says into his radio.
"What is it, Sergeant?" The Lieutenant replies.
"I don't know, Sir. It looks like a grenade went off, but the air inside the blast area has been electrified."
"Okay," the Lieutenant says, "mark it with the GPS and get back here. We have to get the prisoner back to HQ."
"Roger that," the Sergeant says as he keys the sight of the blast into his GPS unit before returning to the squad.
"What leaves a blast pattern like that and a static residue at the core of it?" The Colonel asks calmly. "What are you hiding, Jeeval? And who is hiding behind you?"
The Colonel looks up as a knock comes at his door. "Yes? Enter."
The door opens, and the Sergeant from the patrol enters. "Sergeant Madryl, reporting as ordered, Sir," he says, saluting.
The Colonel motions for him to sit. "I have some questions about the day your patrol captured Jeeval Sapra, Sergeant."
The Colonel sits patiently, listening to the Sergeant's account of the patrol that picked up Jeeval. He listens to a rehash of the Lieutenant's written statement of the day, making a quick note here and there. It's not until the Sergeant mentions a strange shadow that the Colonel perks up.
"Wait," the Colonel says, eyeing the Sergeant closely. "Go over that again."
"The shadow. What kind of shadow?"
The Sergeant thinks for a moment and then shrugs. "It was sunny one moment, and then a shadow moved across the area. Like when a storm front moves in and blocks out the sun. The strange thing is that there were no clouds in the sky when I looked up. None at all."
"So, a storm front with no clouds?" The Colonel thinks out loud.
"Yes, Sir. I suppose so," the Sergeant says. "Then the wind picked up; only it felt like it was coming down on us instead of across us. If that makes sense."
"It does, strangely enough," the Colonel says as he makes some more notes. "And how long after the wind began did the flash and crack of lightning come?"
"About a minute or two," the Sergeant replies. "It couldn't have been longer than that."
"And what did you notice after the flash?"
"Well, Sir, everything sort of reversed itself. The wind began to go up as if the air had been sucked away."
"What else, Sergeant?" The Colonel pushes. "Think, I need everything."
The Sergeant sits back, running the whole thing through his mind again. Then, as if finding a lost secret, he sits upright. "The noise," he says. "There was a faint noise that came with the shadow. Like the wiring of a turbine, but as if it were miles away. It didn't seem important at the time, but you said you want everything. And that was as out of place as anything else that happened that day."
"Good," the Colonel says, writing everything down as the Sergeant talks. "Now, what about the impact crater?"
"The crater?" The Sergeant asks.
"The area of ground where you felt static. Was there anything that you saw there that you didn't think was worth reporting at the time?"
"Well, the Lieutenant is sure that the prisoner came from that area, but there was no obvious path of approach. The bazaar was completely destroyed. Some of the larger buildings had also collapsed. There was no easy way into the area from where he would have had to come from to avoid us seeing him. He was not even dirty, Sir. You would think that if he came over all that rubble, he would be, but he wasn't."
Then, a loud knock comes at the Colonel's door. "Not now," the Colonel barks and waves at the Sergeant to continue. The knock comes again, almost frantic this time. "Enter!"
The door is thrown open by the Colonel's Bodyguard. Before he can say anything, the General enters the office, followed by Mastik Rue.
"The General and Mastik Rue are here to see you, Colonel," the Bodyguard says and quickly steps back out of the office.
The General scowls down at the Sergeant, "You are dismissed, Sergeant."
"Yes, Sir," the Sergeant says, jumping up and exiting like a man on fire.
"General," the Colonel says as he stands. "To what do I owe this honour?"
"This isn't a social call, Colonel. I'm here to discuss your prisoner and your ridiculous decision to let him on the radio."
The Colonel looks from the General to the smirking face of Rue. "Really, General?" He asks, inviting the General to sit. "What seems to be the trouble?"
"The trouble is this heresy that you have spawned throughout the colonies." Mastik Rue barks, eyes on fire.
"I'm sorry, Mastik," the Colonel says calmly, "I was addressing the General."
Mastik Rue takes the rebuke as it is meant, and his face flushes with rage. He is about to start in on the Colonel when the General raises his hand dismissively, "Sit down, Rue," he says. Then, turning back to the Colonel, he continues, "Now, Colonel, explain."
The Colonel sits for a moment, gauging the General. "Well, Sir, as you know, based on the Lieutenant's report, we believed that Jeeval Sapra was hiding something. Our interrogations supported this notion, and the more we talked, the more we were convinced that he wasn't giving us the whole story."
"Yes, your teleporter," the General says sarcastically.
"Yes, Sir," the Colonel replies, continuing as if the machine's existence was a logical conclusion. "As you know by my last report, we have concluded that Jeeval, nor his forces, possess such hardware."
"Don't tell me that you believe his silly little story, Colonel?" Mastik Rue interjects.
"About as much as I believe yours, Mastik," the Colonel replies with a dry smile.
"How dare you," Mastik Rue rages, "blasphemer!"
"Enough!" The General barks, slamming his hand on the desk and making Mastic Rue jump in his seat.
"Sorry, Sir," the Colonel says. "But I will not be lectured by this man, in my office, about his ridiculous beliefs."
"I don't care what you're feeling toward the Mastik's culture, Colonel. I care about controlling the people," the General snaps while Rue looks on in a pale shell of his former self. "The Mastik's have control of their people, and I have control over them. Your little stunt threatens both of those realities, and I won't have it."
"With all due respect, General," Rue states, "no one controls the Mastiks. We control; we are hot controlled."
The General turns to Rue, malice and amusement mixing in his eyes. "You are what I say you are, Rue. Without my tolerance of you and the need you fill to control those who still believe in you, you would not exist." Then, turning back to the Colonel, he continues, "Do you see what you have done, Colonel? Now even these hypothetical mice think that they can stand up to me."
"Sorry, Sir," the Colonel says while revelling in the Mastik's rage and fear. "This was not the intention of my investigation."
"Yes, well, it's time to end it," the General says. "Gather Jeeval's supporters, take them, and him to the settlement and eliminate the threat in full view of all. And do it now."
The Colonel sighs, knowing that he is out of time. "I will need a few days to get everything together, Sir."
"You have until the end of the week."
Jeeval comes awake with a start, his nightmare fading quickly. "What the hell was that?" He says as he swings his feet over the edge of his bed and feels the calming chill of the stone floor. "Something's wrong," he says into the shadows. "I can feel it."
Then, the door to the cell block grinds open and clangs shut, and Jeeval listens to the footsteps as the guard approaches. "He's moving a little too quickly for a bed check," Jeeval says, getting to his feet, shielding his eyes from the stark bare bulb as it comes to life when his cell door opens.
"I've been sent to bring you to the Colonel," the guard says. "Grab your jacket, Jeeval; there's no time for you to change."
Jeeval looks at the young man and reaches for his jacket. The look in the guard's eyes is not quite compassionate, but Jeeval thinks he sees understanding there. "What's going on?" He asks, but the guard only shakes his head and beckons him to follow.
"I'm only meant to bring you to the Colonel," the guard says quickly.
Jeeval rushes out of his cell, pulling on his jacket. "Can't you tell me anything?" He asks the guard, trying to keep up with the younger man. "What time is it?"
"It's three in the morning," the guard says over his shoulder. "The reason for the meeting is something that I do not know. All I know is the Colonel ordered me to get you and bring you to his office. Now."
The two men walk silently the rest of the way to the Colonel's office. When they arrive, the guard orders Jeeval to sit, knocks on the door and enters. After a long moment, the guard exits the office and looks down at Jeeval. "You can go in now," the guard says, nodding toward the office. "Don't keep him waiting."
Jeeval stands and moves to the door as his guard returns to the cell block. "I guess I'm going to be here for a while," he says to himself and knocks on the door. "Come," the Colonel calls back, and Jeeval enters the office.
The Colonel sits behind his desk with paper and files spread out in front of him. When he looks up, Jeeval wonders when was the last time the Colonel slept. "You wanted to see me, Colonel?"
"Yes, my friend," the Colonel says, "it seems we have run out of time."
"Run out of time?" Jeeval asks, confused. "What do you mean, we've run out of time?"
"It means," the Colonel says flatly, "that we, you, are out of time. The General has ordered me to put an end to you and the movement started by your radio show."
"The General cares about what our religious leaders think?" Jeeval asks, confused.
"They are a means to an end," the Colonel replies, waving the thought of the Mastik away.
"So what happens next?"
The Colonel leans forward, clasping his hands together on the desk. "I have been tasked with the elimination of the threat to the status quo, Jeeval."
"What threat?" Jeeval asks, anger building. "How are those few people posing a threat to the status quo? How can they pose any kind of challenge to the General's power?"
"That's not the point," the Colonel says calmly. "It's the perception we're talking about, and as you know, perception is reality."
The Colonel gets up, moves to the sideboard, pours a drink for himself, and, after a moment, pours a second drink for Jeeval. "That little group of yours is growing daily," the Colonel says, handing Jeeval his glass. "And the bigger it gets, the worse it looks."
"For whom?" Jeeval counters.
"For the only one who matters," the Colonel says.
"Yes," the Colonel sighs, sitting at his desk. "The General."
"So this is a dictatorship then?" Jeeval asks, almost spitting the words.
The Colonel lets out a bark of laughter. "One man's dictatorship is another man's democracy, my friend. Politics is a never-changing blight upon us all. Who cares what the head of the snake looks like when its venom is pumping through your veins?"
Jeeval sits back and rests his head in his hands. "So what happens now?" He asks, voice muffled.
"That is the million-dollar question," the Colonel replies, finishing his drink. "I'm not done with you, my friend. This is all very inconvenient."
Jeeval looks up, anger ebbing away. "There has to be a way to save the others," he says, pleading. "I started this," he continues, "so I should bear the brunt of the punishment."
"And you will," the Colonel replies, eyes growing cold. "And I believe that neither of us will have very much to say about it."
Jeeval reads the summons for the third time. The document's arrival didn't surprise him, and the contents were what he expected. He will be tried at a Mastik's Tribunal, and he sees no way to avoid it. He knows that the Mastiks could not, and would not, attempt such a thing without the General's blessing, so that leaves the Colonel out of any plans to escape the upcoming farce. The General abolished and dissolved the government so he would find no allies there.
He knows that this is the only logical step in the progression of proving him to be a liar and convincing those who follow his path to turn back to the proper way of thinking. He'd always known that this day would come, but he never imagined how ill-prepared he would be for its arrival.
"Crimes against the state?" Jeeval hisses through his teeth. "How do they justify that charge? The General is the state, and I've said nothing against him."
"You have spoken against his minions," the Commander says, emerging from the shadows. "And that is far worse than speaking against him directly."
"How so?" Jeeval asks, not looking up from the summons.
"Well," the Commander says, sitting on Jeeval's bed, "if you spoke against him directly, he could just have you executed and be done with it. But you spoke against the Mastiks and the belief system they represent and rely on to control the masses. The same Mastiks and beliefs the General uses for the same purpose. That is why there has to be a trial. A tearing down. A dismembering of everything you brought to those who believe you. It is a calculated move by the General and an act of desperation for the Mastiks. Because they know if they lose control, they are expendable."
"So," Jeeval says, tiredness filling his voice, "it's them or me?"
"No. It's one or both."
"I guess there's no way around it then."
The Commander watches Jeeval for a long moment, waiting for something neither knows is coming. Then, Jeeval stands, walks to his cell door, and looks out into the hallway. "What can I do?" He asks. "How can I make this right?"
"You can take the Mastiks with you," the Commander says. "You can use your trial to show the General they are unnecessary. If you can end the Mastik's control, you may be able to save your followers and free the General to make concessions."
"So you can wipe them out with your seeder?" Jeeval asks contemptuously.
"I agreed to the conditions of a significant change," the Commander says, standing. "And I will keep that agreement. But I must also prepare for your failure."
"And what would you consider to be a significant step forward?"
"Loosening, or even breaking the hold that the Mastiks have on the people. Break a chain, and the rest may follow. That would be significant. Show the people what they are meant to be. What they're meant to have. What they could be if they'd stop giving over their lives to a myth that does not return their passion."
Jeeval lets out a tired laugh and slumps to the floor with his back against the wall. "Do you have any suggestions on how to do that?"
"Truthfully," the Commander begins, "the religions of this world make little to no sense to me. The hypocrisy and contradictions glare from the teachings, yet the faithful see none of them. They watch as their spiritual leaders make one set of rules for the followers and then create a different set for themselves. Even when they are guilty of breaking those rules, their peers gather to shield the Mastik and religion.
"My advice to you," the Commander continues, "is to take them to task on these discrepancies and bring them to light. Show the faithful proof of the Mastiks and their condemnable behaviour. Ignore everyone but the General. He is the only one that you have to convince. No-one else. He is not a believer, so he will be more willing to listen."
Then, moving to the corner wrapped in shadow, the Commander turns. "Make no mistake, Jeeval, you are at war. You are outnumbered and in enemy territory. I see no way for you to come through the other side unscathed, but you can change everything with your sacrifice. There are allies out there. Some will listen to those you have already convinced. So, use your voice to make their path easier than yours. Take Mastiks out of their way, and give them a chance to change."
"As easy as that, eh?" Jeeval says, watching the Commander fade into the corner. When he's gone, Jeeval knocks on the cell door. "Guard," he calls, wondering at his chances to save the people who have put their faith in him.
Jeeval sits quietly, watching the world go by as the Colonel's helicopter carries him into the enemy's jaws. The route takes him near enough to the settlement to see the skyline just above the horizon.
"Have you prepared yourself, my friend?" The Colonel asks, genuinely interested.
"Hmm," Jeeval responds. "Oh, as much as possible, I guess."
"I hope so," the Colonel says, looking past Jeeval to the scene outside. "Mastik Rue will be trying to tear you apart in there."
"That's what I'm hoping for, Colonel," Jeeval sighs, looking at the General.
"Be careful what you wish for," the General says. "But if you can deliver what you promised, I may be persuaded to hear you out on the rest."
Then, as the helicopter banks hard and begins to descend, the Colonel smiles, "Be ready. We're about to land."
---- ---- ---- ----
Jeeval takes in the Tribunal Hall's majesty as he enters a step behind the Colonel. He sees benches polished to the sheen of glass to his left and right, with seat cushions wrapped in glowing red silk. Then, the Colonel stops at the aisle's head and waves Jeeval to the right, where a guard stands waiting to lead him to the accused's box. Even with the impending doom this chamber holds, Jeeval is still entranced by the artistry used to build it.
"You'll stand until the tribunal allows you to sit," the guard says, closing the door to the small glass booth.
"All these riches and so many starving."
"When did you start caring about your fellow man?" The guard says, taking his place outside the box. "You spent your career killing those weaker than you. What right do you have to judge others for the same crimes? "
"That's enough," the Colonel says as he approaches the booth. "Your job is to stand watch, not berate the prisoner."
"Yes, Sir," the guard says, his face red with embarrassment.
"The Mastik council will be entering in a few minutes, Jeeval," the Colonel says, checking his watch. "When they do, you will bow and then sit."
"The General will come in after that, followed by Mastik Rue. Stand and bow to the General, but do me a favour and ignore Rue. It'll throw him off his game and make him think about and react to the slight. It may give you a chance."
"Very well," Jeeval says. "Anything to gain an advantage, no matter how slight."
The Colonel nods, eyes the soldier standing guard, and returns to where he will sit with the General. Moments later, the giant double oak doors opposite Jeeval open to the sound of medieval fanfare. The music follows the five men as they mount the stage and take their seats, the Venerable Mastik in the center.
The General follows, taking his place beside the Colonel, who stands, and the two men trade greetings. Then Mastik Rue enters, and the fanfare comes to an end. Jeeval looks down and pretends to make some notes too important to be interrupted when Mastik Rue glances at him, causing Rue's face to glow with rage. Rue then leans over the persecution table, says something to a young Mastik novice, and motions to Jeeval. The Novice turns red with embarrassment. Jeeval is sure the young man is trying to explain how his disrespectful action is not his fault. Having heard enough, Rue slams his hand on the table, and the Novice goes silent and bows his head.
"Prick," Jeeval says, seeing a smile cross his guard's face as he does.
"The chamber will come to order," barks a tall, imposing man standing to the right of the Tribunal. "The examination of Jeeval Sapra begins."
Mastik Rue turns, faces the five men on the stage, bows, and approaches the Venerable Mastik. He kneels, takes the other man's hand, and kisses the large ring of his station. Then, he stands and moves to the altar at the center of the hall, looks out over those gathered for the show, and takes the first few steps on the road to oblivion.
He looks out over his audience, knowing that convincing these people will be difficult and wishes for more of his faith to listen. Rue smiles, knowing that the General is the only one who needs to be convinced and begins. "Venerable Mastik, Elder Mastiks, General, and citizens of the True nation, we have been brought together on this day to examine the blasphemous teachings of Jeeval Sapra. He is a man who has spent his life protecting the faith, but now that the tides have turned, he claims that religion is the villain. He claims he is trying to help, all the while infecting not only the more easily swayed of our citizens but those of yours as well. Poisoning them with this nonsense of alien beings and how our two faiths will lead to our destruction."
The room erupts in angry voices as Mastik Rue leads them down the path he wishes them to go. He lets the onlookers reach the point just before outright hostility and continues. "It is interesting how he has become enlightened now that Minister Sapra is no longer on the side of power. He has become essential to our survival. And to be our saviour, Jeeval Sapra has convinced our sons and daughters that God does not exist. His final insult and his last attempt to take revenge on those who have taken his power and those of us who he no longer controls. The only truth is that he is trying to turn as many of us from the hand of God as he can. Turn us from God and into the hands of the darkness before his evil is brought to an end."
At this, the room erupts again. Angry shouts and insults are thrown at Jeeval from all sides as Mastik Rue stands there surveying his sheep. Then he turns and smiles wickedly at Jeeval.
"Jeeval Sapra," he barks with authority, "I accuse you of the attempted corruption of the souls of our brethren and heresy against the God of all men."
Jeeval sits dispassionately. He knows where this show is going and how easily Rue is guiding the Tribunal to its final verdict. He knows because he has used the same tactics to secure the public's support for his cleansings. He smiles and shakes his head, movements so slight that only Mastik Rue and the Colonel catch them.
"Will you answer, Jeeval?" Mastik Rue calls out once the crowd has quieted. "Will you defend yourself, or will you confess and pray for mercy?"
Jeeval stands and looks out across the gallery of people. He sees people so different and yet so similar. People whose lives are bound together by the belief that they are not alone and that something has a plan for their existence. But moreover, he sees those of his world and the Colonel's sitting together, where only months ago they would have been at each other's throats. "I guess I should not be surprised," he thinks as Mastik Rue waits for an answer. "We share a god, even if our representations have always been worlds apart. But how did Mastik Rue come out on top? Why is he acting for the new order?"
Then Jeeval looks at the General and decides he already knows who's behind it. "I guess controlling our people with their leaders was too much trouble," Jeeval continues his conversation with himself. "I guess installing Rue made for a better solution. A traitor for power."
"Will you answer?" Mastik Rue barks, snapping Jeeval back from his thoughts.
"I will be happy to answer," Jeeval says. "Ask your questions if you dare to have the answers. But am I to answer for crimes against your god, or there's?"
Rue's face goes dark and foreboding, but he does not answer. He takes a few steps toward Jeeval and looks back out over the crowd; then, turning, he asks, "What are your thoughts on God?"
Jeeval considers his question before answering, "I was once a believer. But now I know that there is no mysterious entity controlling our destiny. I know that we are all responsible and bear the blame for what we do to ourselves and others. I know that there is no evil spirit to blame for the things we do to our neighbours. And I know that no God is guiding us to glory, no matter how much credit you give it for your successes."
"And so, where do we come from?" Mastik Rue asks. "If not lovingly created by our Father, how did we come about? Tell us, Jeeval," Rue continues, his arrogance mocking his position, "where did we come from?"
"I've often wondered why God is always portrayed as a father figure," Jeeval says, watching as the realization of his point slaps Rue across his face. "I mean, it's women who create life within themselves. Men are a minor inconvenience in the whole process. Why the women of our society put up with being the bearers of life, but the servants of men, I will never understand. If God did exist, it would be as the mother, not the Father."
The rage in Mastik Rue's eyes is unmistakable. Jeeval counts the hit as a palpable one and does not relent in trying to take the Mastik's world away.
"But, I digress," Jeeval continues to the sounds of bitter whispers. "We, the human race, are nothing more than an accidental side effect brought on by the terraforming process that was meant to create a planet of resources."
"An accident?" Rue asks, venom in his voice. "That is your better way? That we are an accident?"
"Yes," Jeeval says, looking at the people crowding the audience chamber. "Every one of you is the result of a freak accident that kicked off the development of our species."
"Blasphemy!" A man screams from the front of the public area.
Mastik Rue smiles at the man, "Do you say so, brother?" He puts his hand on the man's shoulder and nods. Then, turning back to Jeeval, Rue continues, "Tell us then, Jeeval. Tell us your truth so that we may be enlightened."
Jeeval sighs, looking into the other man's eyes. "Very well," he begins. "This planet was initially intended to be a resource due to its fertility. The seeder ship was sent, and they laid the groundwork for the resources they needed."
"Seeder ship?" Mastik Rue interrupts. "What is a seeder ship?"
"It's a ship that transforms a planet to the specifications desired by launching one of many types of seeding pods into the atmosphere. Once there, the seeds spread over the planet until it settles and begins the process of terraforming."
"So," Rue says, smiling once again. "Your story is not so different than ours, is it?"
"It is merely a creation story," Jeeval says, "one is as good as another."
Rue lets out a laugh, "Yes, yes, continue."
"Once the planet was ready, the Harvester arrived to begin filling transport vessels that would deliver the resources to the worlds that needed them. That is when our creators," Jeeval says with a smile, "discovered that our planet was home to an unintended life form."
"And thus our world was born, and its status was changed from a resource planet to a living world. But, humans being humans, our ancestors have continuously found themselves on the brink of extinction only to be reset and brought back from the edge."
"Reset?" The Venerable Mastik asks. "What does that mean?"
"Well," Jeeval says, considering the question carefully, "to be reset means that the population is culled. Technology is removed, and the human race is brought back to an earlier state of existence to try again."
"And this is happening now?"
"No," Jeeval says flatly. "We will not be reset again. There will be a seeder in orbit very soon to bring about our extinction. We were given a final chance to change, and we failed."
"Then why do they not simply leave us to our own devices?" The Venerable Mastik asks, apparently interested in the story. "Why waste time and resources cleansing us from the planet?"
"Because we can leave the planet. Admittedly, our ability to travel in space is limited, but for how long? And it is believed that our need for conquest and oppression will cause us to take our weapons into their realms and destroy everything we come in contact with."
"But science says that intelligent alien life is impossible," the Second Elder says. "How do you respond to that?"
Jeeval sighs as if talking to a stubborn child. "Arrogance. Simple human arrogance."
"And how are we to believe that your story is anything more than fiction?" Mastik Rue breaks in, not liking the direction the conversation is going. "How are we to trust you?"
"By answering this one question," Jeeval says. "Where is your God?"
"Everywhere," Mastik Rue answers without hesitation.
"So you've met her? In the flesh, I mean?"
"No," Rue says coldly, refusing to acknowledge the slight. "We are touched by faith. We do not need the physical when we have the spiritual."
"So, my aliens are impossible, but your invisible sky spirit is to be believed regardless of a distinct lack of proof?" Jeeval says, pushing his agenda farther. "There are sites all over this planet that show proof of alien intervention and population. There are ancient societies that have passed down depictions of the very beings I am talking about. Where is the evidence for your god? All you have are the artist's renderings, with each creating a record in the image of the people that worship it. God itself is in none of them. There are no depictions of the top guy anywhere: sons, daughters, followers, and anyone else associated with it, yes. But no God."
Jeeval stops for a moment, watching Rue's face go red. "How long do you think you can keep control of your sheep when the end starts, and there is no salvation for the faithful? Or, will you just tell everyone that God didn't hear their prayers because they don't pray hard enough? Or they don't give enough? More importantly, how will you explain it to yourself?"
"Enough!" Mastik Rue barks, seeing a change coming over some of those who have come to witness the trial. "It is evident to this Tribunal that you have no intention of seeking forgiveness, and I see no reason to prolong this farce. So, I now declare my prosecution ended. I urge my Venerable Mastik to pass a ruling of guilt and punishment of death."
Jeeval looks on as the five other Mastiks rise and exit to deliberate. As they leave the chamber, Jeeval catches a fascinating exchange of looks between Mastik Rue and the General.
"You lose," Jeeval says of Rue. "At least I have succeeded in that."
The path of the condemned had taken what was left of Jeeval's time to complete. He had been taken from the Tribunal chamber after being turned over to the Colonel. He was then packed into an open-bedded transport vehicle modified to hold an animal cage to be paraded through the villages as a cautionary tail.
"I am sorry for this insult," the Colonel had offered. "The General has ordered this ancient spectacle to be observed, so you will be taken through the six major populated areas and then to the gallows being built in the settlement."
Jeeval remembers feeling dread. Wondering if the people of the settlement had been told of the purpose of the gallows. Or if they were left to imagine the need for them. How many were wondering if they were to fill the noose? And how many felt shame at their relief when they found out it was for him?
The condemned path was slow and arduous; most of it was spent exposed to highways and the elements. But some of it was spent in the village squares. And as Jeeval listened to the Mastik's puppets' speeches, he also heard rumours of an incredible thing.
On the second day, he first heard the expressions of disbelief. The city was Hailtiple, which houses the University of the Mastai. The students who had witnessed the spectacle of Jeeval's downfall discussed the advancement of the polar ice sheets while they waited. The evidence they discussed came from the military recon planes sent to both poles to investigate a bright flash of blue light thought to have been caused by explosions. The flash had been seen thousands of miles from the poles, and most thought a nuclear strike had been launched.
However, when the aircraft arrived at the poles, they found no indication of an explosion the size needed to create a flash of that intensity. They found four perfectly round shafts arranged in a diamond shape and descending into the ice sheets. Since the discovery, scientists have been watching as the ice sheets grow at several centimetres per hour.
Jeeval knew what those bright flashes had been, even without seeing them. He knew where they came from. They came from the cannons on the Commander's ship. But Jeeval thought those cannons were meant to destroy, not create. By the time Jeeval reaches the settlement, there are reports that the wall of ice moving both north and south has progressed three to four hundred miles. The planet, it seems, is becoming a ball of ice.
"Jeeval?" The Colonel says, breaking Jeeval out of his thoughts.
"We have arrived at the settlement, my friend. Is there anything you need to prepare for tomorrow?"
"No," Jeeval says. "But thank you. Thank you for everything, Colonel."
The Colonel briefly regards Jeeval, smiles, and gives the other man a crisp salute. "It's been an honour to know you, Jeeval, even if you are the enemy."
As the Colonel jumps from the truck, Jeeval surveys the settlement. The gallows stand new and menacing under the stark white of the overhead lighting.
"Are you well, Jeeval?" Says Rehto, approaching from behind him.
Jeeval turns and smiles, "Rehto, my friend. How are you?"
"Better than you, it seems," Rehto says with a smile. "They did not believe you then?"
"No," Jeeval says, looking down at the other man. "But I never really thought that they would."
Rehto nods and sighs, "We could release you. Kill the soldiers and take you into hiding."
"No," Jeeval says, "that would only get more people killed. This is not an unjust end, my friend. I have done more than enough in my life to deserve the forfeiture of it."
"But, to let the Mastik's win."
Jeeval smiles widely, the memory of Mastik Rue's exchange with the General after the trial. "I don't think they fared as well as they make out. I think their end is coming as well."
"Well," Rehto replies, looking into the shadows, "I hope you are correct."
"We'll just have to wait and see," Jeeval says distantly.
"The guard is coming, my friend," Rehto says, stepping back into the night, "I have to go."
Jeeval nods and watches as Rehto slips into the darkness. Turning to the sound of the Guard, Jeeval is surprised to see the young soldier from the prison. "You're far from home," Jeeval says.
"The Colonel has ordered that you be given private accommodations to prepare yourself for tomorrow," the guard says, mounting the truck and unlocking the cage door. "We have a tent for you behind the gallows."
"You'll have to thank him for me," Jeeval says, jumping from the truck bed. "His consideration is appreciated."
"I will," the young man says. Then, pointing, he continues, "This way."
Jeeval follows the guard to the gallows, trying not to look up at the noose swinging gently in the breeze. As they round the structure, he sees his accommodations for the night. A large tent, much like those of the dessert kings of old. "This is quite a change from my usual quarters," he says.
"Yes, I suppose it is," the guard says. Then he pulls back the flap and says, "Inside, please." After Jeeval enters, he continues, "I'll be back in the morning to collect you for your meal."
"Thank you," Jeeval says and asks, "What time are we scheduled tomorrow?"
"Noon," the guard says. "I'll be taking up to the gallows shortly before that."
Jeeval nods, and the guard closes the tent flap, closing off the grim scene outside. As he stands in the center of his final home, the weight of the past weeks finally lays its hands on him, and he falls to his knees, exhausted.
---- ---- ---- ----
Jeeval sits, staring at the tent opening. The night had passed him unnoticed, and his last meal was served and ignored. He has spent the final hours of his life wondering if he will be able to make his final steps with dignity.
"Jeeval?" The guard asks, opening the tent flap. "It's time."
Jeeval looks at the guard for a long moment before standing and exiting the tent. "Lead the way," he says with a smile, fighting to hide the fear he feels building within himself.
The guard frowns and leads Jeeval back around the gallows to the stairs. As they approach the front of the structure, Jeeval sees just how many people have gathered to witness his death. The whole square is filled with the people of the settlement and those of other cities.
The two men climb the stairs and, at the top, go their separate ways. The guard moves to stand next to the seats where the General and Colonel will be while the Hangman takes Jeeval and guides him to stand under the noose, still swaying in the breeze.
Suddenly, the crowd goes silent, and when he looks down, Jeeval sees Mastik Rue climbing the stairs, followed by the General. The two men top the stairs without glancing in Jeeval's direction and take their places on opposite sides of the platform. After a long moment, the Colonel appears and climbs the stairs to take his position with the General, nodding to Jeeval as he passes.
"People of the old ways," Mastik Rue says, raising his voice to reach as far into the crowd as possible. "The unfortunate event that has brought us here today is the fault of only one man. Jeeval Sapra. He has forced our hand. He has brought this upon himself, and in turn, he has made us all a part of his demise. His selfishness and arrogance have killed him and soiled the rest."
Rue pauses as a murmur runs through the crowd. Then he continues, "Fear not, all those he served in his former life, I do not hold ill will toward you because you are not responsible for this man's actions. You are victims. You have been betrayed. And today, I will give you the justice that you deserve."
This time, a cheer rises from the crowd, and Mastik Rue beams at their praise. "I will return everything that he has defiled to its grace and balance. Will you join me?" He calls out over the crowd. "Will you take back from him your life and prove your worth to God?"
"Yes," comes the cry from the ground. "We will join you!"
Rue turns to Jeeval and smiles wickedly. "You lose, Jeeval," he says, his voice thick with venom. "You forfeit your life, and they all still belong to me."
Jeeval just smiles back until Rue turns to the Hangman. "Get on with it," he snaps.
The Hangman moves behind Jeeval and takes him by the wrists, tying them together with the ceremonial cord. Then he pulls a black hood from his coat and advances to face Jeeval again.
"Will you take the hood?" The Hangman asks.
"I will," Jeeval answers, not wanting to give his enemies the satisfaction of watching him suffer.
The Hangman nods and raises the hood. But before he can pull it down over Jeeval's head, Mastik Rue puts a hand on his shoulder.
"I think he will go without it," Rue says.
The Hangman is about to protest when the Colonel's voice barks, "The prisoner has chosen the hood, Mastik. It is his right. You cannot deny him."
Mastik Rue snaps a look back at the Colonel but says nothing. He nods to the Hangman and removes his hand. The Hangman turns from Rue and raises the hood over Jeeval's head, sliding it down to close off his world.
"I will fit the rope now," he says, and Jeeval nods inside the hood, the Hangman the only one who sees it. He reaches up, pulls the noose down over Jeeval's head, and fits it to his neck. Then he adjusts the slack, assuring an execution with no suffering.
"Take your place," Rue says to the Hangman, who moves to the drop lever.
"Father of man, and all that is great," Rue says, "please accept this heretic to your will and punishment."
Rue raises his arms to the sky and pauses as the air around him hums and tingles. There is an audible crackling, much like a cut wire's sound when it still has power. Rue looks around wildly, searching for the cause, and sees a thin ribbon of sparkling white heat form in mid-air between the Hangman and the General.
"No!" Mastik Rue screams and lunges for the lever, pushing the Hangman aside. "Jeeval Sapra," he shouts as the sound drowns out his voice. "I consign you to hell!"
Mastik Rue pulls the lever just as the Commander steps through the opening formed on the gallows. Jeeval falls for a split second; the rope eats up its slack, and his body snaps back. There is an audible cracking, and Jeeval goes still and silent.
Mastik Rue turns to face the Commander, demented rage turning his face to a maddened mask. "No!" He bellows, backing toward the guard that brought Jeeval to his death. "Begone, demon! I have banished your master; now, I banish you!"
Rue turns and grabs the sidearm from the guard's hip, but the Commander is the master of his realm. In a motion so quick that no one can be sure it's happening until it is over, he raises his weapon and fires. Rue is hit before he can bring his gun to bear, his chest being pushed back in a concave mass by an unseen force and exploding through his back. The Mastik stands there for a long moment, confusion replacing rage, until he falls dead at the feet of the young man whose weapon he had stolen.
The Commander looks back at the General, and the man shrinks away, sliding behind the Colonel, who looks on in amazement. Then, the Commander turns and pulls Jeeval's body up, snaps the rope and lays him on the Gallows floor. He looks out over the crowd and sees everyone has fallen to his or her knees, and anger grows as he watches their lips move in unison, reciting some shared pair. The Commander shakes his head and walks past Jeeval's body to the platform's edge.
"Stand," the Commander booms, looking out with the authority of one who judges many. "Stand!" He barks again, his voice echoing through the square.
"We cannot," a woman screams from the crowd. "It is blasphemy to look upon the face of God."
"We.Are.Not.GODS!" The words come out of the Commander with a force that threatens to tear them apart. "STAND!" This time, the Commander's voice almost picks the crowd up on its own, and he watches as the people below him scramble to their feet.
"Your world is at an end," The Commander says matter-of-factly. "You have squandered every opportunity to correct your path. To move from arrogance and violence to that of a people who can co-exist with their neighbours. I have come to tell you that you are not alone in the universe. I have given you this knowledge so your society can die knowing the truth."
"Your planet is freezing," the Commander continues. "It will take a matter of weeks to finish this process. You have until then to come to terms with your decision to live for the one and not the many. To exist in the now instead of the future. To abandon the next step for nothing more than an ancient lie created by man for his fellows' oppression. Your weakness has been a thorn in the universe's bed of silk, and we are cutting you out and leaving you to fade into nothingness."
The Commander pauses momentarily, taking in his words' effect on the crowd. Then he turns, picks up Jeeval's body and steps back through the portal, closing it behind him.
The battle starts a short time after the Commander pronounces judgment. The first shot of the final war the world will know is a sniper's bullet that ends the General's career.
Jeeval's former soldiers and his new believers join together to end the reign of the Mastiks, taking back what they believe to be theirs. Then they turn their guns on the Colonel's forces, meeting them in battles both horrific and cleansing, both sides leaving little in their wake. Each group moves through the streets of their past, taking and losing, block after block, never considering a truce. So, the war rages on, and both sides determine that genocide is the only way to guarantee peace.
But the Colonel still remembers Jeeval and the creature that took him away. He wonders how things might have gone if he had believed the other man. He knows that he could have eventually convinced the General of the existence of the others. But could he have convinced him to follow their teachings? Probably not.
"Sir," the Major says, breaking into the Colonel's thoughts. "We have pushed the enemy out of Hailtiple, and we are taking back our territories at a better than anticipated rate."
"Very good," the Colonel says, standing and following the Major outside. "Get my vehicle; it's time to force them to the bargaining table."
The Major nods and goes off at a run. As the Colonel rounds the building, a klaxon erupts, driving a spike of shrill sound into the Colonel's head.
The Colonel looks on in horror as a smoke trail appears over the horizon. He watches its progression as it climbs and then descends on a trajectory that will bring it directly over his head. He knows what it is. He's seen and launched too many to forget. It's a missile — a big one.
"Oh God," he says as the missile dives toward him. "They've killed us all."
---- ---- ---- ----
The Being and the Commander watch as the missile erupts in its human-made violence. Then, after several minutes, it's followed by a second and then a third.
"It appears that they have done your work for you, Brother," the Being says.
"It seems that their humanity could not resist a final cleansing of its own," the Commander agrees.
"Do you think the rest will follow suit?" The Being asks, switching the view to a different area.
"They have no choice," the Commander says. "Humanity will allow nothing less."
As the Commander speaks, new, glowing circles appear on the screen. They push up from the surface like rabid flowers, hungry to destroy.
"They knew their world was freezing, and rather than work together to survive, they destroy what is left," the Being says, disbelief and anger in his tone.
"You should have expected no less from them, Brother," the Commander states. "We knew this would be the outcome because it has always been the outcome. Their path would have continued in the same direction, regardless of the number of attempts to guide them away from it."
"Well said," Rehto says, entering the room with a sniper rifle slung over his shoulder.
"Welcome back, Brother," the Commander says, "you have done your tasks well."
"Thank you," Rehto says, bowing.
"And the specimen?" The Being asks.
"In the enclosure," Rehto replies. "What of Jeeval?"
"He will be ready to join her in a day or two," the Being says, checking his notes.
Rehto looks at the destruction taking place below them and sighs. "Is it a good idea to keep them, Brother?"
"That was one of the conditions of the purge," the Commander says. "One breeding pair must survive."