Part I Children of the Church

Chapter 1  Rifang

    Rifang raised his head and breathed the pungent air that blew from the bed of the dried-up sea. The path up the headland was steep and littered with fragments of the yellow rock laid down by that same sea aeons ago. Looking up at the saffron sky he half closed his eyes against the rays of Jol's orange sun. The track breasted a rise and he could see the chapel, tall for its area with a spire as sharp as the wind and high narrow windows that matched the buttresses arching from its walls. It was built of the yellow stone of the headland and looked as though it had been sculpted by the weather rather than the hand of man.
    In that bare landscape the shadows were stark and unmoving except for one small black shape far behind him; the shape that was almost his own shadow; the gangling shape of the idiot boy. At first it had bothered Rifang - the way the newcomer had attached himself to him, had taken to following him, never closely, always at a distance, although sometimes if Rifang stayed still for a long time Barst would creep closer and squat motionless, not watching him, not speaking, still. But he'd grown used to it.
    The other village children jeered at the half-wit, threw stones at him, played sly tricks on him. That made Rifang uncomfortable and he refused to be part of it. Perhaps that was why Barst followed him about, sensing that Rifang wouldn't drive him away or curse him.
    The boy reached the church and went inside, making the sign of the A on his breast. The bare interior was bathed in golden rays filtering through the amber glass of the tall windows. At the far end was an altar on which a shaft of multicoloured light from the great prism above laid a glowing tapestry and drew fire from the silver replica of the sacred ladder. For the rest all was unadorned stone; neither furnishing nor ornament marred the simplicity of this monument to contrition. Nothing but the lectern to which was chained a copy of the Book of Damnation.
    Rifang walked reverently towards the altar until he stood below the chapel's sounding chamber. He raised his head and began to sing. The clear tone of his unbroken voice rose up into the resonator where it was amplified and broadcast to the unheeding world. Rifang knew that no one would hear him today but he did not care. He sang because he wanted to, for the joy of being alive although he knew that he was dead because the priest had told him so. He sang because the world was full of beauty although he knew that it was ugliness because the priest had told him so. He sang because he felt the future was full of promise although he knew there was only endless death and misery because the priest had told him so. Rifang sang the litany of death and if anyone had heard him they might instead have been moved to believe in the possibility of life; for there was rejoicing in the singing of Rifang.
    When the boy had sung to his heart's content he bowed towards the altar and turned to leave the chapel but was startled to see Barst standing at the back. The idiot - the poor unfortunate, Rifang's mother called him, - had never done that before. Rifang tried a friendly grin but Barst closed his eyes and shut his mouth in a grim line then hung his head down so that Rifang could no longer see his face. Rifang shrugged. He knew you couldn't make friends only offer friendship and if it was refused that was that.
    He continued out of the chapel and turned left along its side wall. He walked on past it to the edge of the cliff which bounded the headland and looked out across the dead sea of Ogan, over the fulvous sands where iron ores and sulphur encrustations painted strange pictures in the reddening light of the setting sun. The sky, now bronze, was lined with umber cloud that glowed with sudden bursts of gold where the sun found insubstantial edges. As the flattened globe of Gid sank towards the horizon a chill breeze rose from the hollows of the ancient ocean bed where it had bided its time through the heat of the day.
    Rifang wrapped his red cloak tightly round the thin yellow tunic he wore but he was reluctant to leave this scene of awesome beauty in case some dread fate prevented him returning to see it ever again. For when he was most attuned to the beauty of life, then was he most mindful of the minister's warnings that men were only granted happiness so that it might be snatched from them and that the greater their joy the more keenly would they feel its loss. And because he rejoiced in so many of the things that surrounded him and because his sorrows were few and soon forgotten, the conviction had grown on him that he was being saved for some fate so awful in its dreadfulness that it could hardly be imagined.
    A small black cloud far out across the dead sea grew rapidly larger until it was resolved into countless tiny dots, a huge flock of darkwings.
    "Five thousand three hundred and twenty-seven."
    Rifang looked round in surprise. Barst had followed him out on to the cliff top and was standing some little way off.
    "Five thousand three hundred and twenty-seven."
    "The birds you mean?" asked Rifang. He laughed. "No one can count a darkwing flock; they are too numerous and move too fast."
    "Five thousand three hundred and twenty-seven."
    Rifang was puzzled. He'd never heard Barst speak before. The other boy seemed not to hear even when people deigned to speak to him.
    "Five thousand three hundred and twenty-three."
    Rifang looked at the flock now fleeing towards the south and saw that four birds had detached themselves from the swarm and flown off to the east. There seemed no doubt that Barst meant the birds but there was no possibility he or anyone else could count them.
    Rifang lingered on until dusk began to rise from the great basin and then, knowing that his parents would fret if he were out after dark, he turned and retraced his steps from the headland down the path that led to the village. The night wind tested its power on the dust beneath his feet, lifting it and setting it whirling across the ground. Occasionally he glanced back the way he'd come and saw that his shadow followed, always some way behind. Rifang hurried on until he could see the lights of the first of the hovels of Skagwand. His own home was a little further but he soon reached it.
    "There you are son," said his father as soon as he entered the cottage's single room.
    "Where've you been?" asked his mother. "Up at that chapel I suppose? We told His Eminence you'd be there but it didn't seem to please him."
    Rifang stared at her without comprehension.
    "We've had a visitor," his father explained. "A holy emissary of the Kura."
    "No one so important has ever visited Skagwand before and you weren't here to see him."
    "But why? Why should he come here?"
    "Heard of your singing it seems," answered his father.
    "He wants you to go with him to Gazat, to the great cathedral, to sing." The woman was torn between pride at the honour being done them and grief at the impending loss of their only child. But he had always been a great joy to them so it was right that she should now be made wretched by this day of reckoning.
    "But I don't want to go away from here. I like it. I like you and the chapel and the stars at night and the great orange sun over the desert and my friends. I ..."
    "Hush," admonished his father. "We are not here to do as we like. We are here because we sinned while we were alive. Now we must be chastised. And if there are things here we like it is only so that they can be taken from us for our punishment."
    "I don't remember sinning," answered Rifang. "I don't remember anything except you and the village and the people in it. I know I've been naughty sometimes but not enough to deserve this surely."
    "We none of us remember our lives; it isn't necessary. All that we need to know is that we are evil and must be punished unto death after death, after which we will be born into Purgatory again and again until we have expiated our sins. Do not rebel son. That will only add more lives of torment to your punishment."
    "His Eminence said he would return for you tomorrow," said the woman. "Though perhaps he may change his mind." Again pride and sorrow battled for supremacy in her voice.
    "He did seem irritated that you weren't here," agreed her husband. "I offered to look for you but he said he hadn't time to wait."
    "He came in a machine." Rifang's mother spoke in awed tones. "It rode above the ground, so quick and smooth, like a red cloud but hard and shiny."
    Rifang felt interest and curiosity stir at last.    
    "Will I travel in the machine?" he asked.
    His father smiled sadly.
    "In that machine and in others. To get to Gazat you must cross space."
    Rifang hardly slept at all that night but lay on his palliasse watching the flames flicker round the glowing embers of the fire and wondering about the Great Cathedral of The Ladder, whether it would be like the chapel only much larger or if it would be quite different.
    It was late in the morning when His Eminence returned. He sat in his ground car in the lane while his driver sounded a clarion until Rifang and his parents came scuttling out.
    "Is that the boy?" he asked Rifang's father disdainfully, pointing a be-ringed finger.
    "Yes Your Eminence. This is Rifang."
    "A throwback!". The Kardinal grimaced. "Barbaric names for barbaric people I suppose. Sing boy."
    "It sounds better in the chapel."
    "Sing!" bellowed the churchman.
    Rifang began on a hymn to the blessing of pain and suffering.
    "Enough! He'll probably do."
    "Probably?" Rifang's mother was emboldened by the impending loss of all she loved most. "Does that mean you might send him back?"
    "Send him back? Do you really imagine that the Church would waste resources on a pointless journey? Certainly not. If he is no use to the Church as a chorister he will serve in some other way. Say your farewells boy and be quick. You've wasted a day of my time as it is and I am not pleased."
    Rifang put his arms round his mother and reached up to whisper in her ear.
    "I don't want to go. I don't like him."
    "Hush child. You must go; you know you must. This is a hard penance but the more we suffer in this death, the fewer there will be remaining to us before we gain eternal life. We must be grateful to be allowed suffering." Rifang felt suddenly angry at his mother for thus thrusting him from her, from his home, from his very world.
    "Goodbye mother," he said stiffly and turned to his father.
    "Goodbye dad."
    "Goodbye son. We will think of you often and will pray for you every day of our deaths." He grasped Rifang's hand as though the latter were now a man.
    "Come on boy," snapped the waiting cleric testily. "Get in the car - in the back."
    As soon as Rifang was in, the car rose slightly and accelerated along the lane. Rifang turned to wave to his parents, tears welling in his eyes. At the end of the village the driver swung the ground car in a circle and then hurtled back the way they had come, the clarion blaring to warn anyone that if they were knocked down it would be their own fault. Rifang caught one final glimpse of the distressed faces of his mother and father before they were gone from his life forever.
    The boy wiped away his tears with his sleeve. He looked out through the car's large windows. The village seen from the interior of the vehicle seemed unreal, as though it were already no longer part of his world, a world which now consisted only of the car, the driver, and His Enemy - Rifang started to correct the thought to 'His Eminence' but then defiantly refused. He would never think of the man who had snatched him from his home as anything but His Enemy.
    As the car left the village behind Rifang saw a dark shadow between two rocks - it was Barst watching the car with a piercing gaze, a blaze of apparent intelligence such as Rifang had never before seen in the idiot boy's eyes.
    Rifang continued to stare out at the landscape flashing by; yellow rocks and gravel screes, stunted trees, scrub and an occasional lurid flower. The driver was repeatedly forced to slow their progress to negotiate bends and sharply angled gradients. Soon they were into an area Rifang had never roamed but it looked little different to his home territory until they reached the highway.
    The boy had never seen anything like the yellow ribbon that stretched across the landscape, where rock had been powdered to make a smooth way and then fused like glass to prevent the dust being swept into the air by moving vehicles. To Barst, when he reached it several days later, it seemed no stranger than anything else in a world for which he was unmade.
    The ground car rode up onto the road and accelerated. Rifang now understood that what he had imagined was fast, was very slow by comparison with the vehicle's capabilities. They rocketed along the highway at an enormous velocity. A car approaching from the other direction terrified him with the fear of inevitable collision but it hurtled past them with no more than a slight shudder caused by its slip-stream. All through the morning they sped along the highway through an ever-changing but basically similar landscape. Pillars of orange rock reared up against the cadmium sky, fingers of stone pointing accusingly heavenward. Around them and all across the plains and plateaus they traversed, were chunks of splintered rock, the sharp fragments of frost-shattered boulders, the rounded pebbles polished by the wind. So fast did they travel that when Barst followed it took him many weeks to cover the distance.
    Towards noon the black and spiky outlines of a city appeared on the horizon but when the highway divided in two, the driver steered left onto a route taking them away from the distant metropolis. Rifang strained his eyes to make out details of the far away city, something which had been only a word to him, but he could see very little. Soon the car began to slow and Rifang looked ahead once more and his eyes widened in wonder. On an area of the plain that had been flattened and smoothed like the highway on which they travelled, a vast tower loomed. Supported at its base by three huge buttresses it rose like a steeple to a sharp point etched black against the yellow sky.
    As they drew closer Rifang could see that the tall ebony spire was the centre of much activity, men and machines scurrying about its base and cranes raising and lowering containers of all shapes and sizes. A barrier across the roadway brought them to a halt but their driver showed an emblem to the guard and they were waved through. They drove almost to the foot of the spire. An man came to meet them.
    "This is the boy," said His Eminence. "Get him aboard and make sure he doesn't leave. I have further business in Grasting but the ship mustn't leave without me."
    "Of course Your Eminence. Come with me lad; I'll find you a cubby hole to hide in."
    Rifang was overwhelmed by new sensations and above all by the sheer size of everything.
    "Is it far to Gazat?" he asked his new mentor.
    "I don't know; I'm just a shuttle hand."
    "What's that?"
    "This is the shuttle." He gestured at the ship towering above them. "It'll take us up to rendezvous with the interstellar ship that's already in orbit. You'll transfer to that but I'll just come back here."
    Rifang saw little of His Enemy on the voyage but he wasn't sorry. Nothing had happened to lessen the instinctive and fierce dislike he'd taken to him and he was glad to be left alone. Catching a glimpse of the star ship as they approached it in the shuttle he'd been amazed yet again by a further jump in scale. The vessel that would take him to Gazat was an ungainly machine quite unlike the graceful and chapel-like shape of the shuttle. It was covered in all sorts of protuberances and platforms. He saw His Eminence briefly when the latter assigned another man to keep an eye on him but in fact he was allowed considerable freedom to roam about once the shuttle had departed.
    When the ship left Jol it was like nothing he had ever known. There was no acceleration as there had been in the ground-car, no celestial landscape flashing by, no stars appearing and disappearing. Instead everything went black, the planet and the stars all vanishing in an instant. He was still gaping at a monitor, wondering if there was something wrong with it, when just as abruptly it filled with stars once more but of Gid there was no sign. Nothing more happened for a long time and then there was another short period of blankness. This pattern continued throughout the voyage. He didn't know how long it took although he'd slept many times before they reached their destination.
    He spent his waking periods exploring the ship, going everywhere he was allowed to and a few places he wasn't. He asked questions of anyone who would answer them and made some sort of sense of what was happening. It was an engineer called Gleed whom he met in a mess room who told him most.
    "We get through space in a succession of moves," Gleed explained. "Space is more than just back and forth, up and down and side to side. There are other dimensions, ones we don't notice because they are curled up very tightly, furled into strange multi-dimensional shapes called Ceewye spaces. Because they are wrapped up, points in the three dimensional extended space are much closer in furled space. By sending every point in the ship on parallel paths through a Ceewye space they re-emerge into the familiar extended space in the same three-dimensional relationship to each other that they started with but somewhere very different. There are very many of these Ceewye spaces and where the ship ends up depends on which one is traversed. So we cross space in a series of furlings. It's as though there are unseen connections between various places in space and other locations. The pilot has to find the right connections and then instead of covering the perceived distance - which would take us so long we'd all be dead and the ship crumbled to nothing before it arrived - we can take a short cut. The trouble is these connections change with time and to use them the pilot has to know exactly where they now are."
    "How does he know that?"
    "The Arithmeticians calculate it for him."
    "Are they machines?"
    The engineer regarded him with some respect.
    "That's a pretty intelligent question - from someone off a planet as backward as Jol. If you were from a civilised place though, you'd know they weren't. It's said that there used to be machines - computers they are called in legends - which would calculate all sorts of things for you in the time it takes a star to twinkle. But if there ever were there aren't now - although plenty of scientists, and engineers too, have tried to build such machines. So men do the calculations. They are specially trained from birth to do mental arithmetic and they can do it incredibly fast - they don't have to think about it, you see, they just know the answer as soon as you ask the question. Even then there are so many calculations to be done that every ship needs three or four of them working together and it takes them a while to do it - not as long as it would take you or I though; it'd take us hundreds of standard years to work out a course and by the time we'd done it everything would have changed so much we'd have to start again."
    Rifang didn't understand all the words Gleed used but he was left with a picture in his mind of the ship being screwed up very small and then poked through a tiny hole in the wall separating one room from another so that it didn't have to go round by the door. He described this to Gleed who frowned.
    "No it isn't really like that at all. I've explained it badly but perhaps it isn't possible to grasp it unless you have a lot of scientific background knowledge already. Best just to accept it."
    It sounded to the boy more like magic than what he thought science was but it couldn't be because His Enemy was using it and the priest back home said magic was sinful. Perhaps it was a miracle. They were all right, although Rifang couldn't see exactly what was the difference between magic and miracles. He'd asked the priest to explain to him but the man had got angry and told him to stop trying to be clever. Rifang didn't want to upset his new friend so he just said:
    "I would like to understand but perhaps I'll be able to when I am older."
    Gleed smiled.
    "You are right of course. We should all seek to understand why things work but you can't just explain things in isolation, you can't take something immensely complicated and say 'It works like this ...'. You have to start with simple things, understand the principles behind them and then move on to more complicated matters and so on. If you seriously want to understand I'll start you on the road during the voyage."
    "Perhaps I'll be able to learn more at the school."
    When Rifang told his new friend where he was going and why the engineer sighed.
    "I guessed as much, poor kid. I don't think you'll learn anything interesting there. Don't let them - but what am I saying? I've no right to say anything that might delay salvation for anyone - if you believe that stuff."
    Rifang was startled.
    "How can you not believe what is true?"
    The engineer chuckled.
    "How do you know what is true and what isn't?"
    "But everybody knows what's true and what isn't. The priests tell us that. Everyone, that is, except ..."
    "Except me? Mind I didn't say I don't believe it. Let's just say sometimes I have doubts. But I'm not the only one, only most who doubt would never admit it. They're scared of the Quisitor."
    Rifang gave an involuntary shudder and found no difficulty in believing that a doubter would keep his misgivings to himself.
    "I won't tell anyone," he promised earnestly.
    "I'm sure you won't," answered the engineer gravely.
    "Gleed, when the Kardinal first saw me, he said 'A throwback!'. What did he mean do you think?"
    "Don't you know?" Gleed sighed. "Look at your hands. Don't you see? Your skin - it's white; like your face and I'd guess you're the same colour all over?"
    Rifang nodded.
    "And your hair is jet black and curly and even your eyes are more green than grey. Well now look at me; I'm grey and my hair is a straight dull brown like just about everyone else on the ship. Aren't most people on Jol grey too?"
    "Yes, most. My parents are, but there are some other white people in the village."
    "The legend says that once long ago, when all humans lived on just one planet, there we're four aboriginal races - white, black, brown and yellow. But they interbred and the final result was dun - grey-brown. Every now and again there's a reversion - maybe the doctors understand it and maybe they don't - but somebody of one of the original colours is born like you. Superstition says the soul of such a person was originally so evil that although their first rebirth was in prehistoric times, they still haven't worked out their punishment yet but I think that's nonsense, and I advise you to think so too. I'm only telling you because if I don't someone else will."
    The vessel was so vast that Rifang had no chance to explore all of it despite the length of the voyage and so there was no danger of boredom but he did miss the open air and thought longingly of the winds of Jol, thought more often of the winds indeed than he did of his parents. He looked forward to reaching Gazat as much for the opportunity to breathe fresh air again as for the adventure of his new life there. In fact he was more than a little apprehensive about that for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the silence of his friend the engineer on what he might expect there.
    When at last the ship reached Gazat and His Eminence summoned Rifang to accompany him in the shuttle planetward, the boy was full of conflicting emotions.
    Gazat was beautiful seen from space, a huge slightly flattened globe wreathed in clouds of orange and peach. He imagined the air scented with such fruits. But when he stepped out of the landing elevator and took a deep breath of his new world he choked, his eyes watered and he thought he would asphyxiate.
    "Mask," commanded His Eminence and one of the entourage who had come to meet them produced a pad which covered Rifang's mouth and nose and was held in place by a strap fastened at the back of his head.
    "You'll get used to the air," His Eminence told him but Rifang noticed that the cleric had also donned a mask and that all the better dressed people around them wore them. Poorer folk he realised did not, but not it seemed to him because they were less susceptible for many of them were coughing or bent double as though trying to pinch out the air.
    Seen from below the clouds hanging over the city of Hunder were not at all beautiful, a mixture of greys and browns which excluded the light of the sun and made Rifang feel cold and depressed. His Eminence got into a ground-car but as Rifang made to follow him his arm was seized by a guard.
    "Cars are not for the likes of you nor me," remarked his captor grimly. "We walk."


(Page amended 7 April 2009)

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