Nothing Sacred by Tom Flynn

EXTRACT FOR
Nothing Sacred

(Tom Flynn)


Chapter 1

Prologue

So you want to know how the universe got saved. I mean the Galaxy. Then, who’s quibbling?
People always clamor for my story. Usually they know what they want: a hearty tale peppered with heroes, glorious sacrifices, harrowing risks overcome by bold gambits. If my tale-telling approaches the classical, perhaps there’ll be characters whose tragic flaws exact hideous costs even as they ransom us all.
Since the first hunter danced beneath a savanna moon telling his fellows a whopper about his exploits, humans have anticipated that pattern in their narratives. If a story’s worth telling, most people presume it merits pouring into the distorting mold of classical myth.
That’s not the way I mean to tell this story.
Not this time.
You see, the way things really worked out, there were no heroes. The protagonists were so ordinary that you’d never send them on such critical business if you could avoid it. Sacrifices? They occurred, but never attained to glory. You want harrowing risks? Bold gambits? The risk was real enough; all 42,000 inhabited worlds might be cinders had things broken differently. But neither gambit nor strategy played much role. The players improvised blindly, never imagining where their dangerous choices might lead.
Of the standard mythic elements, only one was in generous supply.
There was no shortage of central characters with tragic flaws.
I was one of them.
If you can characterize what I’ve done since as a career, I spent most of it rehashing my story. Over the standard years, many listeners expressed surprise that I settled down so quietly. Some tell me I should have grabbed for more. Others wish I’d seized less. To all of them I say, forjel off! I was there when the Galaxy got saved; I played a role. That’s enough for one life. And don’t forget about sacrifices. I made one of my own. Two, if you think about it.
Anyway, I tell the tale often. Usually I recite the predictable legend, making each story point peal like a familiar carillon. But that’s warmed-over plorg, and I’m tired of shoveling it along like that.
So today I’ll break with tradition and give you unadorned truth.
When you hear what really happened, you’ll learn how laughably accidental it all was that the Galaxy got saved. You’ll realize how lucky we all are still to exist. Your readers, or your experients, or whatever the sfelb you call your clients, will recognize how it’s only by absurd happenstance that any of us are still here.
Some people say that precisely because of that, everything that happened must reflect God’s plan for us. They think the very unlikeliness of it all, the vacant arbitrary quality that makes the story real, merely underscores what a shrewd creative fellow their deity must be. I’m unconvinced. No god worth worshipping could have planned for things to shake out the way they did. Conversely, any god who did plan things that way merits not our worship but our terror. I’d gladly embrace a purposeless universe rather than declare myself the subject of a god like that. (Come to think of it, I have.)
Enough disclaimers! On with the story. Though I should precede the narrative proper with a little background …

It’s been a century-and-three-quarters since the vast, sophisticated Galactic Confetory stumbled onto Terra—or Earth, as the retros are calling it again. Terra’s so-called “Galactic Encounter” occurred late in its twenty-second century local, 2181 C. E. for you sticklers. Even at that late date, the little blue world was nearly judged too backward to join the Galactic community. But Galactics found Terran religions quaint. Christianity and its variants, rich in tradition, fertile with contradiction, took the Galaxy by storm. Terra got whisked into the Confetory as a full Memberworld, an honor for which the planet was by any standard ill-prepared.
It should tell you how strange things got that Roman Catholicism became Terra’s premier cultural export, the first native institution able to buy a planet of its own. Restyling itself the Universal Catholic Church, it dubbed its new headquarters world the Planet Vatican. But more on that later.
Galactic civilization offered Terrans no end of surprises. They learned that humans inhabited 42,000 worlds among the stars—bona fide human beings, H. sapiens sapiens from Terra. That’s right, earthlings, right down to their mitochondria, all over the forjeling Galaxy. Genetic evidence suggested that hundreds of centuries before, unknown visitors had come to Terra, plucked up proto-humans and some edible plant species, and strewn them among the stars. (For some reason the “Harvesters,” as they’re called, failed to poach any proto-Caucasians. White people, now but a twelfth of Terra’s population, appear nowhere else in space.)
Terrans got another surprise. Who would think that the elegant, powerful Galactics lived in fear? Yet they’d spent millennia dreading the Tuezi (the word rhymes with floozy). The Tuezi: vast robot war platforms scattered through time and space by some other vanished super-race—or maybe by the Harvesters themselves; no one knows. Several times each century, a Tuezi would just appear somewhere. Protected by invulnerable shields, the sinister machine would enter the nearest star system, ravage its planets, then self-destruct. Decades before this story begins, a math prodigy named Fram Galbior figured out how to predict where and when each Tuezi would appear. Guided by Galbior’s “equilibrational calculus,” battle fleets would surround its entry point. They’d destroy the Tuezi just as it materialized, an instant before it could raise its shields. The greatest terror of Galactic life had been – well, not defeated, but neutralized.
For their part, Galactic scientists would be astonished by one thing they’d find on Terra. They’d known for millennia that all humans shared a common origin – DNA and all that – but they’d never known just where all this originating took place. Terra, it turned out, was the elusive Cradleworld. Only there had the lineage to which humans belong arisen from nonliving matter.
Religion and human origins: together, they explain why Terra became a Memberworld. What the Galactics never anticipated was how they'd then combine, generating social institutions of unforeseen corrosive power.
Christianity came at the Galaxy like bacteria colonizing a Petri dish with no antibiotics in sight. Only after the Universal Catholic Church became powerful did Galactics understand what a serpent they’d invited to their hearthsides.
Universal Catholicism’s power lay in its new doctrine of “serial incarnation,” the teaching that God gives His Son flesh repeatedly. On world after world, the Cosmic Christ works out the salvation of each globe’s peoples. In one of those flights of hubris the popes carry off so well, Vatican claimed sole authority to sift through other planets’ religious histories and decide which, if any, native messiahs were true Incarnations of the Cosmic Christ.
Back to Fram Galbior – remember him, the mathematician who solved the mystery of the Tuezi as a youth? Late in life, Galbior took up Catholicism. He found the doctrine of serial incarnation fascinating. To his commanding intellect, the mystery of Christ’s successive Incarnations and that of the Tuezi emergences seemed tractably alike. Obtaining a secret papal audience, Galbior announced that he’d developed another new mathematics that accounted for most of the church-verified Incarnations. More important, Galbior declared, his equations predicted when and where the Cosmic Christ would take flesh next.
What followed was sufficiently byzantine and perverse to justify a book of its own [and it got one, Messiah Games]. Galbior forecast that the next Incarnation would take place on Jaremi Four, a Tuezi-blasted world so primitive it was off limits to everyone but social scientists and undercover documentarians. On that world, a bumpkin religious leader named Arn Parek emerged amid a brutal messianic cult. Parek was an obvious fraud, which never stopped his native followers from launching a feral jihad in his name.
Thanks to the aforesaid undercover documentarians on Jaremi Four—”human cameras” called Spectators, employed by the infotainment conglomerate OmNet—trillions of Galactics followed Parek’s story. Willingly they overlooked his rough edges and pledged their faith. In what seemed an eyeblink, much of Galactic society had convinced itself that vile, fraudulent Arn Parek was the current Incarnation of the Cosmic Christ.
Various Galactic factions established illegal contacts with Parek, his disciples, or his enemies. One such cabal was led by two Universal Catholic cardinals operating under personal command of the pope. Another was controlled by Alrue Latier, a Latter-day Saint trideevangelist who’s quirky “back-to-the-roots” Mormonism drove what was already Terra’s second-biggest export church.
The Parek affair became a slow-motion disaster that befouled all it touched. When it finally ended, Catholicism lay disgraced.
Alrue kept his freedom by adroit media manipulation, but his reputation and his ministry’s finances suffered grievously.
Shamed at the terrible error into which faith had seduced his reason, the mathematician Fram Galbior hanged himself in the pope’s private library.
Arn Parek, the false messiah, died by his own hand as well, mere hours after he learned that Galactic civilization exists.
Well, maybe.
Parek’s “death” occurred amid frenzied upheaval as the native armies his offworld friends and enemies had so illicitly raised lurched into their final combat. Parek’s body was never found. Across the Galaxy, hard-core Parekists refused to accept their messiah’s passing. Splinter sects erupted teaching that Parek had resurrected, that he’d never died, that he’d never existed, that he was a pansexual robot from the future—no theology was too eccentric to command at least a few adherents.
Since Vatican intrigues had triggered the final conflict in which Arn Parek vanished, those who thought Parek the next Christ–by then, a majority of Christians–declared the pope and his minions to be the new Judases. Chastened, the Universal Catholic Church abandoned planet Vatican and limped back to its Terran birthplace.
As for Parekism, a scandalized Galaxy had at last beheld Terran-style religion at its most toxic: a squalling creed in all the intolerance of youth, hurling aside its moorings in historical reality. But by then it was too late for Galactics to force this genie back into its Terran bottle.
Not that they wouldn’t try.

Chapter 2

Terra—Near the Former Independence, Missouri, Usasector

Every chronicle starts somewhere. I begin by introducing the principal buffoons. First, our Terran tourhost—a fine guy, if laughably naïve. For him, destiny held greater things in store. Sure, it did.

Something about a Missouri sky stopped Galactic tourists in their tracks, especially the teens. “Stay together!” hectored their guide, Gram Enoda. Medals from wars he’d never fought in clinked on his hammered pewter breastplate. “It’s time to go inside.”
“Oh, plorg,” blustered one Galactic nymphet.
“Remember where we are, Nuli,” commanded Jorl CzyPlen, the group’s middle-aged leader. “And remember who you are.”
“Yes, Hom Jorl,” the girl murmured. Sullenly she joined the others in the entrance line.
CzyPlen nodded toward Enoda. His cape was iridescent; his breath smelled of cloves. He glanced upward. “She is right, guidehom. The sky … it just feels … correct.”
“It has the color and depth that evolution has disposed human brains to presume the sky should have, gentlehom,” Enoda said deferentially. “Seeing it for the first time can be … profound.”
“As it was for me, long ago,” CzyPlen sighed. “Ah, the Visitor’s Center.”
The orientation building was gigantic. In its heyday, the Great Auditorium of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had seated sixteen hundred. Now it was merely an entrance lobby. Glowing lattices yoked it to the main structure, a two-kilometer cube strewn with luminous towers and crystal domes.
CzyPlen smiled distantly as his twenty perfect charges glided inside. He was the teacher; they were, for lack of a better word, his class. One by one they passed into the Visitor’s Center. Their flawless skins gleamed bronze, tawny, umber, ebony. Organdy, lamé, and fabrics still without Terran names cohered to implausibly taut frames. By Galactic standards, this group from Frensa Six was neither exceptionally elegant nor strikingly wealthy. But this was Terra, and they were Galactics.
“Will this be our last stop at Primus?” CzyPlen asked.
“Yes, gentlehom. As you know, the Visitor’s Center documents the first Galactic contact with Terra and offers varied activities.”
“Including ...” CzyPlen made a slithery movement with one hand. “You know.”
Enoda nodded. “One could scarcely leave that out.”
“Especially now.”
Enoda mounted a platform in an empty amphitheater. His lustrous motorcycle boots were incongruously rimmed with snarled rabbit fur. Above the boots, blousy black ninja leggings ascended into a tartan kilt. He tried not to think how he looked. Tourists love this getup—they think it exemplifies Terra’s barbaric past, he thought, scanning the faces of the teens below him. I feel like an asshole. “Primus!” he cried. Cued by his voice, a harsh light transfixed him. “Primus was once Independence, Missouri. That was before the momentous day one hundred seventy-three years ago when Galactic civilization first revealed itself to Terra, just two hundred meters from this spot.” A black patent leather sporran over his groin completed the Scottish portion of his ensemble. From knees to waist, Enoda was solid Highlander kitsch, aside from the self-luminous scimitar he wore on one hip.
Enoda gazed upward; the perfect youths did too. Wan pearl light collapsed into a projected image from one hundred seventy-three years ago. The tridee clip showed the PeaceForce cruiser Admiration descending through puffy clouds, a crenelated tower rotating on kaleidoscopic shafts of light. The effects of this landfall remain a living force on Terra, Enoda thought. But for how much longer? Months?
The image wrinkled; the dome overhead went dark. The display playback had failed. “Sorry,” Enoda muttered, “this happens sometimes.” The teens giggled.
“Allowances must be made,” ventured CzyPlen.
“Yes, they must,” Enoda said quietly, gathering his cape. Because we’re Terrans, you mean. Above his kilt, Enoda wore a khaki safari jacket. Button-flapped pockets festooned it everywhere, even down the sleeves. “I’ll recite the historical narrative myself while we view the displays.” Draping an arm across his World War I reproduction gas mask, Enoda strode forward. The twenty young gods and goddesses followed, their courtly warden bringing up the rear.
The group entered another open chamber. An arched stone wall suggested an ancient aqueduct. Enoda mounted another platform. “B. G. E.—that is, Before the Galactic Encounter—Independence already had a rich history.” The gas mask hose passed over his left shoulder to disappear beneath a flowing foulard-print cape whose exact prototype he’d never determined. “Starting in 1825 local, Independence was the launch point for pioneers moving west on the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails.”
“Did they ride in starcruisers?” brayed one of the teens.
“In wagons, you plorg-warmer,” laughed another. “Contraptions you wouldn’t make a house pet ride in—and they’re barely twelve generations past that.”
“Yeah,” laughed a third. “In another generation, they’re going back to it.”
Enoda gritted his teeth. If I want good tips, I must pretend I didn’t hear that. Adorning his head were a full Navajo headdress and a pair of the brightly mirrored sunglasses Galactics insisted on calling bufordpussers. “Has anyone studied the great westward migration in North America of Terra?”
“Guidehom,” CzyPlen said tiredly, “can we return to the first contact?” He all but leered. “Didn’t this community’s history possess, um, a religious aspect?”
Enoda sighed inwardly and, for what seemed the hundredth time, told the story of just how the Galactic Confetory had revealed itself to Terra. A story every Terran knows, but which one can scarcely expect visiting Galactics to keep straight. “Here is the story of the first contact. Once the contact fleet completed its final assessments from orbit, all that remained was to decide where the first landing would occur. By Galactic tradition that decision belonged to the officer in command of the contact fleet.”
“Who was that?” a youth asked.
“Admiral Carjeel Y’Venna.”
“Y’Venna?” the questioner asked. “She did important things!”
“That came later,” cracked another boy. “This is just how she made first contact with Terra.”
“If I may continue—” Enoda wheedled. “Admiral Y’Venna ordered a scan of thousands of Terran place names, with translations of what each place name meant in the local language or dialect.”
“Are we coming to the religion part?” CzyPlen asked pointedly.
“Absolutely.” The aqueduct split open. Behind it loomed a dark exhibit hall. Its smoky air pulsed with the lights of emergency vehicles and roiling fires. “The group ahead of us has finished in the Old Terra exhibit. I’ll continue to narrate as we pass through.”
Enoda and CzyPlen guided the youthful exemplars among the historical displays. Realized in tridee, backed up with added channels for odor, air temperature, wind, and radiant heat, the elaborate sim dioramas delivered the most complete sensory experience Galactic technology could convey to a group this large. To their left raged a late-21st-century air-land battle. To the right, a somewhat older scene: drug gangs dueled with howitzers and shoulder-launched missiles. Babies tumbled unmourned from blazing tenement windows. “Stay together, everyone, and keep moving,” Enoda called. “We don’t have much time. Bryleen, please don’t taunt the Nazis.”
Galactics liked their Terran history presented in reverse. Enoda led his group through eight centuries of sim so painfully noisy that he couldn’t possibly shout over it: bombs ravaging Guernica, tanks firing across No Man’s Land, mortars, dynamite, carronades, black-powder cannon spewing grapeshot, muskets erupting across a ruler-straight battle line. In all those years, Enoda inwardly grated, you’d think something happened on Terra that didn’t involve explosives!
At last, the party reached tableaux whose subjects predated the Western discovery of gunpowder. They filed across a windblown heath under fat grey skies. Mounted knights slaughtered foot soldiers wholesale. But they did so quietly, and Enoda could resume his lecture. “Admiral Y’Venna decided she liked the American state of Missouri. Terran folklore said Missourians were skeptical. Y’Venna thought a bow toward critical thinking would be appropriate. After all, she would soon be asking eighteen billion Terrans to believe an awful lot. And independence is a concept as esteemed in the Galaxy as it was in the old United States.”
He steered the teens to one side. A phalanx of fifth-century monks bustled past, waving the oyster shells with which they’d just stripped the bones of Hypatia, librarian of Alexandria and last defender of the ancient knowledge. “Independence was a small place, so it didn’t take Y’Venna long to select the most dramatic spot to touch down. Careful, Tarbril! Don’t fall in the ooze.”
Still stepping back along the exhibition’s timeline, the group entered a hushed primordial landscape. Distant volcanoes fouled the sky. At their feet greasy water bubbled. In those fetid puddles, they all knew, human biology had begun. Whatever their planet of origin, they all clung to the same single limb of the tree of life. They were all Terrans in their genes.
“And that,” Enoda resumed, “is how Admiral Y’Venna chose to set down her kilometer-tall cruiser in Independence, Missouri—right between the old Reorganized Church Auditorium, the entryway to this Visitor’s Center, and the white marble-towered temple where members of that church believed Jesus Christ would come again.”
“Reorganized Church of—” one of the teens said uncertainly.
“—Latter-day Saints,” the girl Nuli supplied with assurance. “Now they call themselves the Community of Christ, whoever he is. They trace their roots to the Mormons who stayed loyal to the son of the prophet Joseph Smith, the ones who didn’t follow Brigham Young to Utah after Smith was killed in Carthage, Illinois.”
Galactic children, Enoda grumbled to himself. They don’t remember how their own government made contact with us, but they know minute details of Mormon history.
The entourage entered a sim rain forest. Enoda knew CzyPlen cared nothing for the Hall of Snakes, but for many of the youngsters it was the most eagerly anticipated destination on Terra.
“I have taught you all to recognize the dangerous serpents,” CzyPlen called. “Do not disappoint me.”
The immaculate teens strode into the swamp, heedless of their designer finery. They made too much noise entering the water; they won’t see anything for more than a minute, Enoda realized.
CzyPlen turned to him and ordered, “Continue, guidehom.”
Enoda hoped CzyPlen couldn’t sense his growing annoyance. “The Community of Christ had been about to bury the hatchet and reunite with the Salt Lake City Mormons. It was also poised to merge with several other dissident congregations, including the Church of Christ Temple Lot, the tiny sect that actually owned the empty field where Admiration touched down.”
A boy let out a frightened yelp. A granular-scaled serpent slipped from his grasp. “Please, Tarbril,” called CzyPlen. “It’s only a file snake. It eats fish.”
“When Y’Venna landed, all those negotiations ended,” Enoda continued. “Not only did the Mormon reunification talks collapse, the Community of Christ itself promptly schismed.”
“Schismed,” squealed one of the golden youths. “What a lovely word!”
“So aboriginal!” cried another, plunging a russet arm into the water after a yellow-bellied sea snake.
Enoda shrugged. “One faction maintains to this day that Y’Venna was a true incarnation of the Cosmic Christ.”
“That’s the group that riots every year,” Tarbril shouted.
“Yes,” hooted Cruneil, “on the anniversary of the day Independence was reconstituted as Primus, first Galactic Zone on Terra.”
“When Galactic consumer prices went into effect,” added Nuli, “and Terrans couldn’t afford to live there anymore.”
“They have briefed themselves so thoroughly,” CzyPlen said. His smile was magisterial.
Seething inside, Enoda made himself nod.
Some of the youths had made it to the other side of the swamp. They climbed onto a small muddy island. “Identify the snake before you pick it up,” Enoda called. Crazy Galactics! He thought. For millennia they innately feared long slender objects and didn’t know why. Now that they’ve discovered the source of that instinct, they bring their adolescents to Terra to confront their fears by gamboling with our plorg-warming snakes.
“The other schismatic group, guidehom,” CzyPlen demanded. “Everyone is riveted.”
All they know about Terra is our religious misadventures! “As I said, one group within the Community of Christ thought Y’Venna was Jesus come again. Another, larger group recognized that the Galactics could not be gods in the traditional sense. They interpreted the Galactic Encounter as the coming of Zion, the holy city whose appearance they had long anticipated. They decided the Galactics were humans who had spiritually evolved to become gods in the old Mormon sense.” Enoda noticed CzyPlen raising an eyebrow. “Yes,” he went on, “early Mormons believed Terran humans would be rewarded after death with a literal afterlife in the cosmos, where each who had lived uprightly would become a god over a planet of his own.”
“But Hom Enoda!” called Bryleen, still standing in the swamp, brown water lapping at a gown of indefinable fabric that did far too little to conceal her emerging breasts. “Didn’t the Community of Christ deny that Joseph Smith ever taught humans could become gods?”
“True,” Enoda said. “The Community of Christ denied many things, including the well-known fact that its founder practiced polygamy. Their insistence that Joseph’s first wife Emma was his only spouse caused no end of embarrassment when it came out that Admiral Y’Venna herself had several plural husbands.”
“But then, that is part of the wonder of Terran religions,” CzyPlen lectured. “They redefine their truths so obstinately—defending their doctrines as inviolate even while remaking them.”
Vacuum preserve us, Enoda thought.
He whirled toward the sound of a piercing scream.
“Cruneil!” CzyPlen cried, rushing down the bank.
Cruneil sat on a mucky boulder on the other side, clutching her left ankle; two small punctures oozed blood. Another girl held the offending snake behind its head as she’d been taught. Enoda surged through muddy water. Frowning, he inspected the snake. Grey scales, white mouth lining: water moccasin. He nodded; the other girl released the snake. “Hemotoxin,” he barked into his medimech. He bent over Cruneil to press the healing device against her ankle.
“No!” Cruneil jerked her leg away. “Please, guidehom, do it the Terran way.”
Enoda waved the medimech. “This is clean and painless.”
“Clean and painless are not what we came here for.” Theatrically Cruneil thrust her shoulders back. “Act fast, guidehom! I think I’m dying.”
Oh, for ... Enoda shot a sharp, imploring glance toward CzyPlen.
CzyPlen shrugged. “Do as she wants.”
With a muttered curse, Enoda drew his glowing scimitar. A longitudinal twist of the jeweled handle ejected a smaller blade. Enoda gripped Cruneil’s left leg above the ankle, bracing her foot against his thigh. He motioned for someone to hold her upper leg. “This will hurt,” he warned her.
The small dagger cut into Cruneil’s ankle. She groaned approvingly. Enoda dragged the blade along, making a four-centimeter incision in her chalky black skin. Doe-eyed, the teens gathered in a tight circle, awestruck at the “primitive Terran spectacle.” Oh, plorg, they wanted this, he thought. Enoda cut again, creating an X-shaped incision. Throwing the gas mask over his shoulder, he bent down. They all wanted this.
Enoda pressed his lips to the X and began to suck.
He drained the venom mechanically, focusing his inward attention on the remainder of the group’s itinerary. Before long they’d visit Old Rome, where the discredited Universal Catholic Church was penitently re-establishing its headquarters. Security would be heavy; both Galactic tourism and attempted violence had intensified at Catholic sites since the rumors began that Terra might soon be expelled from Galactic society. Next the group would view the glassy craters of the Negev. Enoda hoped there’d be no mix-up with the radiation-hardened tour shuttles, as he’d experienced leading a previous excursion. Timing would be everything. If the group didn’t surrender the shuttles and arrive in Jerusalem precisely at sunset on Shabbat, they’d miss the Neo-Orthodox cohanim stoning visitors who’d been so insensitive as to appear at the Wailing Wall accompanied by robotic assistants.
Having spat out his last mouthful of blood and venom, Enoda eyed Cruneil harshly. “I must use the medimech now to neutralize residual toxin. The traditional method is imperfect.”
“But so real,” Cruneil breathed, closing her eyes again. “Oh, go ahead.”
Enoda pressed the medimech to the incision. When he pulled it away, Cruneil’s skin was as preternaturally clear as before the water moccasin had struck.
The other teens regarded her with something approaching worship. “Oh, Cruneil,” cooed Arak. “You had the experience we all dreamed of.”
“So primal,” agreed Bryleen.
Nuli shivered with the exquisiteness of it all. “So ... so Terran!”
Not even CzyPlen could maintain a disapproving air. “You had quite an adventure, Cruneil,” he said evenly. “It is fitting that you decide where the group goes next.”
Oh, plorg on a stick, Enoda thought. There goes the itinerary.
Cruneil sat up, drew a muddy hand through her hair and said, “Sweden!”
“Sweden?” Enoda croaked. He and CzyPlen exchanged blank looks.
“Yes, I want us to go to Sweden,” Cruneil gushed.
“Why?” CzyPlen demanded.
“To see Swedes.” From the other teens came scattered laughter mixed with murmurs of approval. If some of the youths did not share Cruneil’s interest in Scandinavia, others clearly did.
“Very well,” Enoda said resignedly. “There’s a tube terminal elsewhere in this building.”
“We came in search of the picturesque,” objected CzyPlen.
“There’s no picturesque way to get from Primus to Sweden that’s at all efficient. The intrageodesic tube is best.”
CzyPlen’s face lit up. “No tube. We shall go by air.”
“To Sweden?” Enoda blurted. “But the suborbital shuttle will take two hours. Only claustrophobes use it for long trips anymore. By tube, it’s fifteen minutes—”
“Not the shuttle either,” CzyPlen said sternly. “When I say, ‘we will go by air’—at least, when I say that on Terra—I can only mean in an airplane.” Enoda stared at him blankly. Reaching into one of those pockets that could never be seen in Galactic clothing, CzyPlen produced a token and pressed it into Enoda’s hand. “I presume this is enough for our passage.”
Enoda gulped. That token would fund two standard years of gracious living in any Terran Zone—even after chartering a reproduction Boeing 1297 at Galactic tariffs for a round trip to, say, Sweden.
“If anything is left over,” CzyPlen said grandly, “consider it yours in appreciation for our most amusing encounter with the snakes.”
Enoda whistled inwardly. Still, he felt compelled to preserve some shred of the schedule he’d spent two weeks constructing. “Speaking of snakes,” he said brightly, “before we cross a third of the planet by air, perhaps we could work in one of the last attractions on this continent that remains on our original itinerary?”
“I would not wish to disappoint Cruneil,” said CzyPlen.
“I think you’ll both like this,” Enoda said, whirling to aim his best salesman-puppy face at Cruneil. “How about a restored church—”
Cruneil began to groan. Architecture was not among her passions.
“Not any church,” Enoda blurted. “A church where they handle snakes!”
Cruneil hooted approval, followed by an eager uproar from the other youths. With an aristocratic nod CzyPlen added his blessing to the plan.
Next stop, the former West Virginia, thought Enoda. Then it’s—oh, sfelb—off to Sweden.

Nothing Sacred by Tom Flynn

EXTRACT FOR
Nothing Sacred

(Tom Flynn)


Chapter 1

Prologue

So you want to know how the universe got saved. I mean the Galaxy. Then, who’s quibbling?
People always clamor for my story. Usually they know what they want: a hearty tale peppered with heroes, glorious sacrifices, harrowing risks overcome by bold gambits. If my tale-telling approaches the classical, perhaps there’ll be characters whose tragic flaws exact hideous costs even as they ransom us all.
Since the first hunter danced beneath a savanna moon telling his fellows a whopper about his exploits, humans have anticipated that pattern in their narratives. If a story’s worth telling, most people presume it merits pouring into the distorting mold of classical myth.
That’s not the way I mean to tell this story.
Not this time.
You see, the way things really worked out, there were no heroes. The protagonists were so ordinary that you’d never send them on such critical business if you could avoid it. Sacrifices? They occurred, but never attained to glory. You want harrowing risks? Bold gambits? The risk was real enough; all 42,000 inhabited worlds might be cinders had things broken differently. But neither gambit nor strategy played much role. The players improvised blindly, never imagining where their dangerous choices might lead.
Of the standard mythic elements, only one was in generous supply.
There was no shortage of central characters with tragic flaws.
I was one of them.
If you can characterize what I’ve done since as a career, I spent most of it rehashing my story. Over the standard years, many listeners expressed surprise that I settled down so quietly. Some tell me I should have grabbed for more. Others wish I’d seized less. To all of them I say, forjel off! I was there when the Galaxy got saved; I played a role. That’s enough for one life. And don’t forget about sacrifices. I made one of my own. Two, if you think about it.
Anyway, I tell the tale often. Usually I recite the predictable legend, making each story point peal like a familiar carillon. But that’s warmed-over plorg, and I’m tired of shoveling it along like that.
So today I’ll break with tradition and give you unadorned truth.
When you hear what really happened, you’ll learn how laughably accidental it all was that the Galaxy got saved. You’ll realize how lucky we all are still to exist. Your readers, or your experients, or whatever the sfelb you call your clients, will recognize how it’s only by absurd happenstance that any of us are still here.
Some people say that precisely because of that, everything that happened must reflect God’s plan for us. They think the very unlikeliness of it all, the vacant arbitrary quality that makes the story real, merely underscores what a shrewd creative fellow their deity must be. I’m unconvinced. No god worth worshipping could have planned for things to shake out the way they did. Conversely, any god who did plan things that way merits not our worship but our terror. I’d gladly embrace a purposeless universe rather than declare myself the subject of a god like that. (Come to think of it, I have.)
Enough disclaimers! On with the story. Though I should precede the narrative proper with a little background …

It’s been a century-and-three-quarters since the vast, sophisticated Galactic Confetory stumbled onto Terra—or Earth, as the retros are calling it again. Terra’s so-called “Galactic Encounter” occurred late in its twenty-second century local, 2181 C. E. for you sticklers. Even at that late date, the little blue world was nearly judged too backward to join the Galactic community. But Galactics found Terran religions quaint. Christianity and its variants, rich in tradition, fertile with contradiction, took the Galaxy by storm. Terra got whisked into the Confetory as a full Memberworld, an honor for which the planet was by any standard ill-prepared.
It should tell you how strange things got that Roman Catholicism became Terra’s premier cultural export, the first native institution able to buy a planet of its own. Restyling itself the Universal Catholic Church, it dubbed its new headquarters world the Planet Vatican. But more on that later.
Galactic civilization offered Terrans no end of surprises. They learned that humans inhabited 42,000 worlds among the stars—bona fide human beings, H. sapiens sapiens from Terra. That’s right, earthlings, right down to their mitochondria, all over the forjeling Galaxy. Genetic evidence suggested that hundreds of centuries before, unknown visitors had come to Terra, plucked up proto-humans and some edible plant species, and strewn them among the stars. (For some reason the “Harvesters,” as they’re called, failed to poach any proto-Caucasians. White people, now but a twelfth of Terra’s population, appear nowhere else in space.)
Terrans got another surprise. Who would think that the elegant, powerful Galactics lived in fear? Yet they’d spent millennia dreading the Tuezi (the word rhymes with floozy). The Tuezi: vast robot war platforms scattered through time and space by some other vanished super-race—or maybe by the Harvesters themselves; no one knows. Several times each century, a Tuezi would just appear somewhere. Protected by invulnerable shields, the sinister machine would enter the nearest star system, ravage its planets, then self-destruct. Decades before this story begins, a math prodigy named Fram Galbior figured out how to predict where and when each Tuezi would appear. Guided by Galbior’s “equilibrational calculus,” battle fleets would surround its entry point. They’d destroy the Tuezi just as it materialized, an instant before it could raise its shields. The greatest terror of Galactic life had been – well, not defeated, but neutralized.
For their part, Galactic scientists would be astonished by one thing they’d find on Terra. They’d known for millennia that all humans shared a common origin – DNA and all that – but they’d never known just where all this originating took place. Terra, it turned out, was the elusive Cradleworld. Only there had the lineage to which humans belong arisen from nonliving matter.
Religion and human origins: together, they explain why Terra became a Memberworld. What the Galactics never anticipated was how they'd then combine, generating social institutions of unforeseen corrosive power.
Christianity came at the Galaxy like bacteria colonizing a Petri dish with no antibiotics in sight. Only after the Universal Catholic Church became powerful did Galactics understand what a serpent they’d invited to their hearthsides.
Universal Catholicism’s power lay in its new doctrine of “serial incarnation,” the teaching that God gives His Son flesh repeatedly. On world after world, the Cosmic Christ works out the salvation of each globe’s peoples. In one of those flights of hubris the popes carry off so well, Vatican claimed sole authority to sift through other planets’ religious histories and decide which, if any, native messiahs were true Incarnations of the Cosmic Christ.
Back to Fram Galbior – remember him, the mathematician who solved the mystery of the Tuezi as a youth? Late in life, Galbior took up Catholicism. He found the doctrine of serial incarnation fascinating. To his commanding intellect, the mystery of Christ’s successive Incarnations and that of the Tuezi emergences seemed tractably alike. Obtaining a secret papal audience, Galbior announced that he’d developed another new mathematics that accounted for most of the church-verified Incarnations. More important, Galbior declared, his equations predicted when and where the Cosmic Christ would take flesh next.
What followed was sufficiently byzantine and perverse to justify a book of its own [and it got one, Messiah Games]. Galbior forecast that the next Incarnation would take place on Jaremi Four, a Tuezi-blasted world so primitive it was off limits to everyone but social scientists and undercover documentarians. On that world, a bumpkin religious leader named Arn Parek emerged amid a brutal messianic cult. Parek was an obvious fraud, which never stopped his native followers from launching a feral jihad in his name.
Thanks to the aforesaid undercover documentarians on Jaremi Four—”human cameras” called Spectators, employed by the infotainment conglomerate OmNet—trillions of Galactics followed Parek’s story. Willingly they overlooked his rough edges and pledged their faith. In what seemed an eyeblink, much of Galactic society had convinced itself that vile, fraudulent Arn Parek was the current Incarnation of the Cosmic Christ.
Various Galactic factions established illegal contacts with Parek, his disciples, or his enemies. One such cabal was led by two Universal Catholic cardinals operating under personal command of the pope. Another was controlled by Alrue Latier, a Latter-day Saint trideevangelist who’s quirky “back-to-the-roots” Mormonism drove what was already Terra’s second-biggest export church.
The Parek affair became a slow-motion disaster that befouled all it touched. When it finally ended, Catholicism lay disgraced.
Alrue kept his freedom by adroit media manipulation, but his reputation and his ministry’s finances suffered grievously.
Shamed at the terrible error into which faith had seduced his reason, the mathematician Fram Galbior hanged himself in the pope’s private library.
Arn Parek, the false messiah, died by his own hand as well, mere hours after he learned that Galactic civilization exists.
Well, maybe.
Parek’s “death” occurred amid frenzied upheaval as the native armies his offworld friends and enemies had so illicitly raised lurched into their final combat. Parek’s body was never found. Across the Galaxy, hard-core Parekists refused to accept their messiah’s passing. Splinter sects erupted teaching that Parek had resurrected, that he’d never died, that he’d never existed, that he was a pansexual robot from the future—no theology was too eccentric to command at least a few adherents.
Since Vatican intrigues had triggered the final conflict in which Arn Parek vanished, those who thought Parek the next Christ–by then, a majority of Christians–declared the pope and his minions to be the new Judases. Chastened, the Universal Catholic Church abandoned planet Vatican and limped back to its Terran birthplace.
As for Parekism, a scandalized Galaxy had at last beheld Terran-style religion at its most toxic: a squalling creed in all the intolerance of youth, hurling aside its moorings in historical reality. But by then it was too late for Galactics to force this genie back into its Terran bottle.
Not that they wouldn’t try.

Chapter 2

Terra—Near the Former Independence, Missouri, Usasector

Every chronicle starts somewhere. I begin by introducing the principal buffoons. First, our Terran tourhost—a fine guy, if laughably naïve. For him, destiny held greater things in store. Sure, it did.

Something about a Missouri sky stopped Galactic tourists in their tracks, especially the teens. “Stay together!” hectored their guide, Gram Enoda. Medals from wars he’d never fought in clinked on his hammered pewter breastplate. “It’s time to go inside.”
“Oh, plorg,” blustered one Galactic nymphet.
“Remember where we are, Nuli,” commanded Jorl CzyPlen, the group’s middle-aged leader. “And remember who you are.”
“Yes, Hom Jorl,” the girl murmured. Sullenly she joined the others in the entrance line.
CzyPlen nodded toward Enoda. His cape was iridescent; his breath smelled of cloves. He glanced upward. “She is right, guidehom. The sky … it just feels … correct.”
“It has the color and depth that evolution has disposed human brains to presume the sky should have, gentlehom,” Enoda said deferentially. “Seeing it for the first time can be … profound.”
“As it was for me, long ago,” CzyPlen sighed. “Ah, the Visitor’s Center.”
The orientation building was gigantic. In its heyday, the Great Auditorium of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had seated sixteen hundred. Now it was merely an entrance lobby. Glowing lattices yoked it to the main structure, a two-kilometer cube strewn with luminous towers and crystal domes.
CzyPlen smiled distantly as his twenty perfect charges glided inside. He was the teacher; they were, for lack of a better word, his class. One by one they passed into the Visitor’s Center. Their flawless skins gleamed bronze, tawny, umber, ebony. Organdy, lamé, and fabrics still without Terran names cohered to implausibly taut frames. By Galactic standards, this group from Frensa Six was neither exceptionally elegant nor strikingly wealthy. But this was Terra, and they were Galactics.
“Will this be our last stop at Primus?” CzyPlen asked.
“Yes, gentlehom. As you know, the Visitor’s Center documents the first Galactic contact with Terra and offers varied activities.”
“Including ...” CzyPlen made a slithery movement with one hand. “You know.”
Enoda nodded. “One could scarcely leave that out.”
“Especially now.”
Enoda mounted a platform in an empty amphitheater. His lustrous motorcycle boots were incongruously rimmed with snarled rabbit fur. Above the boots, blousy black ninja leggings ascended into a tartan kilt. He tried not to think how he looked. Tourists love this getup—they think it exemplifies Terra’s barbaric past, he thought, scanning the faces of the teens below him. I feel like an asshole. “Primus!” he cried. Cued by his voice, a harsh light transfixed him. “Primus was once Independence, Missouri. That was before the momentous day one hundred seventy-three years ago when Galactic civilization first revealed itself to Terra, just two hundred meters from this spot.” A black patent leather sporran over his groin completed the Scottish portion of his ensemble. From knees to waist, Enoda was solid Highlander kitsch, aside from the self-luminous scimitar he wore on one hip.
Enoda gazed upward; the perfect youths did too. Wan pearl light collapsed into a projected image from one hundred seventy-three years ago. The tridee clip showed the PeaceForce cruiser Admiration descending through puffy clouds, a crenelated tower rotating on kaleidoscopic shafts of light. The effects of this landfall remain a living force on Terra, Enoda thought. But for how much longer? Months?
The image wrinkled; the dome overhead went dark. The display playback had failed. “Sorry,” Enoda muttered, “this happens sometimes.” The teens giggled.
“Allowances must be made,” ventured CzyPlen.
“Yes, they must,” Enoda said quietly, gathering his cape. Because we’re Terrans, you mean. Above his kilt, Enoda wore a khaki safari jacket. Button-flapped pockets festooned it everywhere, even down the sleeves. “I’ll recite the historical narrative myself while we view the displays.” Draping an arm across his World War I reproduction gas mask, Enoda strode forward. The twenty young gods and goddesses followed, their courtly warden bringing up the rear.
The group entered another open chamber. An arched stone wall suggested an ancient aqueduct. Enoda mounted another platform. “B. G. E.—that is, Before the Galactic Encounter—Independence already had a rich history.” The gas mask hose passed over his left shoulder to disappear beneath a flowing foulard-print cape whose exact prototype he’d never determined. “Starting in 1825 local, Independence was the launch point for pioneers moving west on the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails.”
“Did they ride in starcruisers?” brayed one of the teens.
“In wagons, you plorg-warmer,” laughed another. “Contraptions you wouldn’t make a house pet ride in—and they’re barely twelve generations past that.”
“Yeah,” laughed a third. “In another generation, they’re going back to it.”
Enoda gritted his teeth. If I want good tips, I must pretend I didn’t hear that. Adorning his head were a full Navajo headdress and a pair of the brightly mirrored sunglasses Galactics insisted on calling bufordpussers. “Has anyone studied the great westward migration in North America of Terra?”
“Guidehom,” CzyPlen said tiredly, “can we return to the first contact?” He all but leered. “Didn’t this community’s history possess, um, a religious aspect?”
Enoda sighed inwardly and, for what seemed the hundredth time, told the story of just how the Galactic Confetory had revealed itself to Terra. A story every Terran knows, but which one can scarcely expect visiting Galactics to keep straight. “Here is the story of the first contact. Once the contact fleet completed its final assessments from orbit, all that remained was to decide where the first landing would occur. By Galactic tradition that decision belonged to the officer in command of the contact fleet.”
“Who was that?” a youth asked.
“Admiral Carjeel Y’Venna.”
“Y’Venna?” the questioner asked. “She did important things!”
“That came later,” cracked another boy. “This is just how she made first contact with Terra.”
“If I may continue—” Enoda wheedled. “Admiral Y’Venna ordered a scan of thousands of Terran place names, with translations of what each place name meant in the local language or dialect.”
“Are we coming to the religion part?” CzyPlen asked pointedly.
“Absolutely.” The aqueduct split open. Behind it loomed a dark exhibit hall. Its smoky air pulsed with the lights of emergency vehicles and roiling fires. “The group ahead of us has finished in the Old Terra exhibit. I’ll continue to narrate as we pass through.”
Enoda and CzyPlen guided the youthful exemplars among the historical displays. Realized in tridee, backed up with added channels for odor, air temperature, wind, and radiant heat, the elaborate sim dioramas delivered the most complete sensory experience Galactic technology could convey to a group this large. To their left raged a late-21st-century air-land battle. To the right, a somewhat older scene: drug gangs dueled with howitzers and shoulder-launched missiles. Babies tumbled unmourned from blazing tenement windows. “Stay together, everyone, and keep moving,” Enoda called. “We don’t have much time. Bryleen, please don’t taunt the Nazis.”
Galactics liked their Terran history presented in reverse. Enoda led his group through eight centuries of sim so painfully noisy that he couldn’t possibly shout over it: bombs ravaging Guernica, tanks firing across No Man’s Land, mortars, dynamite, carronades, black-powder cannon spewing grapeshot, muskets erupting across a ruler-straight battle line. In all those years, Enoda inwardly grated, you’d think something happened on Terra that didn’t involve explosives!
At last, the party reached tableaux whose subjects predated the Western discovery of gunpowder. They filed across a windblown heath under fat grey skies. Mounted knights slaughtered foot soldiers wholesale. But they did so quietly, and Enoda could resume his lecture. “Admiral Y’Venna decided she liked the American state of Missouri. Terran folklore said Missourians were skeptical. Y’Venna thought a bow toward critical thinking would be appropriate. After all, she would soon be asking eighteen billion Terrans to believe an awful lot. And independence is a concept as esteemed in the Galaxy as it was in the old United States.”
He steered the teens to one side. A phalanx of fifth-century monks bustled past, waving the oyster shells with which they’d just stripped the bones of Hypatia, librarian of Alexandria and last defender of the ancient knowledge. “Independence was a small place, so it didn’t take Y’Venna long to select the most dramatic spot to touch down. Careful, Tarbril! Don’t fall in the ooze.”
Still stepping back along the exhibition’s timeline, the group entered a hushed primordial landscape. Distant volcanoes fouled the sky. At their feet greasy water bubbled. In those fetid puddles, they all knew, human biology had begun. Whatever their planet of origin, they all clung to the same single limb of the tree of life. They were all Terrans in their genes.
“And that,” Enoda resumed, “is how Admiral Y’Venna chose to set down her kilometer-tall cruiser in Independence, Missouri—right between the old Reorganized Church Auditorium, the entryway to this Visitor’s Center, and the white marble-towered temple where members of that church believed Jesus Christ would come again.”
“Reorganized Church of—” one of the teens said uncertainly.
“—Latter-day Saints,” the girl Nuli supplied with assurance. “Now they call themselves the Community of Christ, whoever he is. They trace their roots to the Mormons who stayed loyal to the son of the prophet Joseph Smith, the ones who didn’t follow Brigham Young to Utah after Smith was killed in Carthage, Illinois.”
Galactic children, Enoda grumbled to himself. They don’t remember how their own government made contact with us, but they know minute details of Mormon history.
The entourage entered a sim rain forest. Enoda knew CzyPlen cared nothing for the Hall of Snakes, but for many of the youngsters it was the most eagerly anticipated destination on Terra.
“I have taught you all to recognize the dangerous serpents,” CzyPlen called. “Do not disappoint me.”
The immaculate teens strode into the swamp, heedless of their designer finery. They made too much noise entering the water; they won’t see anything for more than a minute, Enoda realized.
CzyPlen turned to him and ordered, “Continue, guidehom.”
Enoda hoped CzyPlen couldn’t sense his growing annoyance. “The Community of Christ had been about to bury the hatchet and reunite with the Salt Lake City Mormons. It was also poised to merge with several other dissident congregations, including the Church of Christ Temple Lot, the tiny sect that actually owned the empty field where Admiration touched down.”
A boy let out a frightened yelp. A granular-scaled serpent slipped from his grasp. “Please, Tarbril,” called CzyPlen. “It’s only a file snake. It eats fish.”
“When Y’Venna landed, all those negotiations ended,” Enoda continued. “Not only did the Mormon reunification talks collapse, the Community of Christ itself promptly schismed.”
“Schismed,” squealed one of the golden youths. “What a lovely word!”
“So aboriginal!” cried another, plunging a russet arm into the water after a yellow-bellied sea snake.
Enoda shrugged. “One faction maintains to this day that Y’Venna was a true incarnation of the Cosmic Christ.”
“That’s the group that riots every year,” Tarbril shouted.
“Yes,” hooted Cruneil, “on the anniversary of the day Independence was reconstituted as Primus, first Galactic Zone on Terra.”
“When Galactic consumer prices went into effect,” added Nuli, “and Terrans couldn’t afford to live there anymore.”
“They have briefed themselves so thoroughly,” CzyPlen said. His smile was magisterial.
Seething inside, Enoda made himself nod.
Some of the youths had made it to the other side of the swamp. They climbed onto a small muddy island. “Identify the snake before you pick it up,” Enoda called. Crazy Galactics! He thought. For millennia they innately feared long slender objects and didn’t know why. Now that they’ve discovered the source of that instinct, they bring their adolescents to Terra to confront their fears by gamboling with our plorg-warming snakes.
“The other schismatic group, guidehom,” CzyPlen demanded. “Everyone is riveted.”
All they know about Terra is our religious misadventures! “As I said, one group within the Community of Christ thought Y’Venna was Jesus come again. Another, larger group recognized that the Galactics could not be gods in the traditional sense. They interpreted the Galactic Encounter as the coming of Zion, the holy city whose appearance they had long anticipated. They decided the Galactics were humans who had spiritually evolved to become gods in the old Mormon sense.” Enoda noticed CzyPlen raising an eyebrow. “Yes,” he went on, “early Mormons believed Terran humans would be rewarded after death with a literal afterlife in the cosmos, where each who had lived uprightly would become a god over a planet of his own.”
“But Hom Enoda!” called Bryleen, still standing in the swamp, brown water lapping at a gown of indefinable fabric that did far too little to conceal her emerging breasts. “Didn’t the Community of Christ deny that Joseph Smith ever taught humans could become gods?”
“True,” Enoda said. “The Community of Christ denied many things, including the well-known fact that its founder practiced polygamy. Their insistence that Joseph’s first wife Emma was his only spouse caused no end of embarrassment when it came out that Admiral Y’Venna herself had several plural husbands.”
“But then, that is part of the wonder of Terran religions,” CzyPlen lectured. “They redefine their truths so obstinately—defending their doctrines as inviolate even while remaking them.”
Vacuum preserve us, Enoda thought.
He whirled toward the sound of a piercing scream.
“Cruneil!” CzyPlen cried, rushing down the bank.
Cruneil sat on a mucky boulder on the other side, clutching her left ankle; two small punctures oozed blood. Another girl held the offending snake behind its head as she’d been taught. Enoda surged through muddy water. Frowning, he inspected the snake. Grey scales, white mouth lining: water moccasin. He nodded; the other girl released the snake. “Hemotoxin,” he barked into his medimech. He bent over Cruneil to press the healing device against her ankle.
“No!” Cruneil jerked her leg away. “Please, guidehom, do it the Terran way.”
Enoda waved the medimech. “This is clean and painless.”
“Clean and painless are not what we came here for.” Theatrically Cruneil thrust her shoulders back. “Act fast, guidehom! I think I’m dying.”
Oh, for ... Enoda shot a sharp, imploring glance toward CzyPlen.
CzyPlen shrugged. “Do as she wants.”
With a muttered curse, Enoda drew his glowing scimitar. A longitudinal twist of the jeweled handle ejected a smaller blade. Enoda gripped Cruneil’s left leg above the ankle, bracing her foot against his thigh. He motioned for someone to hold her upper leg. “This will hurt,” he warned her.
The small dagger cut into Cruneil’s ankle. She groaned approvingly. Enoda dragged the blade along, making a four-centimeter incision in her chalky black skin. Doe-eyed, the teens gathered in a tight circle, awestruck at the “primitive Terran spectacle.” Oh, plorg, they wanted this, he thought. Enoda cut again, creating an X-shaped incision. Throwing the gas mask over his shoulder, he bent down. They all wanted this.
Enoda pressed his lips to the X and began to suck.
He drained the venom mechanically, focusing his inward attention on the remainder of the group’s itinerary. Before long they’d visit Old Rome, where the discredited Universal Catholic Church was penitently re-establishing its headquarters. Security would be heavy; both Galactic tourism and attempted violence had intensified at Catholic sites since the rumors began that Terra might soon be expelled from Galactic society. Next the group would view the glassy craters of the Negev. Enoda hoped there’d be no mix-up with the radiation-hardened tour shuttles, as he’d experienced leading a previous excursion. Timing would be everything. If the group didn’t surrender the shuttles and arrive in Jerusalem precisely at sunset on Shabbat, they’d miss the Neo-Orthodox cohanim stoning visitors who’d been so insensitive as to appear at the Wailing Wall accompanied by robotic assistants.
Having spat out his last mouthful of blood and venom, Enoda eyed Cruneil harshly. “I must use the medimech now to neutralize residual toxin. The traditional method is imperfect.”
“But so real,” Cruneil breathed, closing her eyes again. “Oh, go ahead.”
Enoda pressed the medimech to the incision. When he pulled it away, Cruneil’s skin was as preternaturally clear as before the water moccasin had struck.
The other teens regarded her with something approaching worship. “Oh, Cruneil,” cooed Arak. “You had the experience we all dreamed of.”
“So primal,” agreed Bryleen.
Nuli shivered with the exquisiteness of it all. “So ... so Terran!”
Not even CzyPlen could maintain a disapproving air. “You had quite an adventure, Cruneil,” he said evenly. “It is fitting that you decide where the group goes next.”
Oh, plorg on a stick, Enoda thought. There goes the itinerary.
Cruneil sat up, drew a muddy hand through her hair and said, “Sweden!”
“Sweden?” Enoda croaked. He and CzyPlen exchanged blank looks.
“Yes, I want us to go to Sweden,” Cruneil gushed.
“Why?” CzyPlen demanded.
“To see Swedes.” From the other teens came scattered laughter mixed with murmurs of approval. If some of the youths did not share Cruneil’s interest in Scandinavia, others clearly did.
“Very well,” Enoda said resignedly. “There’s a tube terminal elsewhere in this building.”
“We came in search of the picturesque,” objected CzyPlen.
“There’s no picturesque way to get from Primus to Sweden that’s at all efficient. The intrageodesic tube is best.”
CzyPlen’s face lit up. “No tube. We shall go by air.”
“To Sweden?” Enoda blurted. “But the suborbital shuttle will take two hours. Only claustrophobes use it for long trips anymore. By tube, it’s fifteen minutes—”
“Not the shuttle either,” CzyPlen said sternly. “When I say, ‘we will go by air’—at least, when I say that on Terra—I can only mean in an airplane.” Enoda stared at him blankly. Reaching into one of those pockets that could never be seen in Galactic clothing, CzyPlen produced a token and pressed it into Enoda’s hand. “I presume this is enough for our passage.”
Enoda gulped. That token would fund two standard years of gracious living in any Terran Zone—even after chartering a reproduction Boeing 1297 at Galactic tariffs for a round trip to, say, Sweden.
“If anything is left over,” CzyPlen said grandly, “consider it yours in appreciation for our most amusing encounter with the snakes.”
Enoda whistled inwardly. Still, he felt compelled to preserve some shred of the schedule he’d spent two weeks constructing. “Speaking of snakes,” he said brightly, “before we cross a third of the planet by air, perhaps we could work in one of the last attractions on this continent that remains on our original itinerary?”
“I would not wish to disappoint Cruneil,” said CzyPlen.
“I think you’ll both like this,” Enoda said, whirling to aim his best salesman-puppy face at Cruneil. “How about a restored church—”
Cruneil began to groan. Architecture was not among her passions.
“Not any church,” Enoda blurted. “A church where they handle snakes!”
Cruneil hooted approval, followed by an eager uproar from the other youths. With an aristocratic nod CzyPlen added his blessing to the plan.
Next stop, the former West Virginia, thought Enoda. Then it’s—oh, sfelb—off to Sweden.

EXTRACT FOR
Nothing Sacred

(Tom Flynn)


Chapter 1

Prologue

So you want to know how the universe got saved. I mean the Galaxy. Then, who’s quibbling?
People always clamor for my story. Usually they know what they want: a hearty tale peppered with heroes, glorious sacrifices, harrowing risks overcome by bold gambits. If my tale-telling approaches the classical, perhaps there’ll be characters whose tragic flaws exact hideous costs even as they ransom us all.
Since the first hunter danced beneath a savanna moon telling his fellows a whopper about his exploits, humans have anticipated that pattern in their narratives. If a story’s worth telling, most people presume it merits pouring into the distorting mold of classical myth.
That’s not the way I mean to tell this story.
Not this time.
You see, the way things really worked out, there were no heroes. The protagonists were so ordinary that you’d never send them on such critical business if you could avoid it. Sacrifices? They occurred, but never attained to glory. You want harrowing risks? Bold gambits? The risk was real enough; all 42,000 inhabited worlds might be cinders had things broken differently. But neither gambit nor strategy played much role. The players improvised blindly, never imagining where their dangerous choices might lead.
Of the standard mythic elements, only one was in generous supply.
There was no shortage of central characters with tragic flaws.
I was one of them.
If you can characterize what I’ve done since as a career, I spent most of it rehashing my story. Over the standard years, many listeners expressed surprise that I settled down so quietly. Some tell me I should have grabbed for more. Others wish I’d seized less. To all of them I say, forjel off! I was there when the Galaxy got saved; I played a role. That’s enough for one life. And don’t forget about sacrifices. I made one of my own. Two, if you think about it.
Anyway, I tell the tale often. Usually I recite the predictable legend, making each story point peal like a familiar carillon. But that’s warmed-over plorg, and I’m tired of shoveling it along like that.
So today I’ll break with tradition and give you unadorned truth.
When you hear what really happened, you’ll learn how laughably accidental it all was that the Galaxy got saved. You’ll realize how lucky we all are still to exist. Your readers, or your experients, or whatever the sfelb you call your clients, will recognize how it’s only by absurd happenstance that any of us are still here.
Some people say that precisely because of that, everything that happened must reflect God’s plan for us. They think the very unlikeliness of it all, the vacant arbitrary quality that makes the story real, merely underscores what a shrewd creative fellow their deity must be. I’m unconvinced. No god worth worshipping could have planned for things to shake out the way they did. Conversely, any god who did plan things that way merits not our worship but our terror. I’d gladly embrace a purposeless universe rather than declare myself the subject of a god like that. (Come to think of it, I have.)
Enough disclaimers! On with the story. Though I should precede the narrative proper with a little background …

It’s been a century-and-three-quarters since the vast, sophisticated Galactic Confetory stumbled onto Terra—or Earth, as the retros are calling it again. Terra’s so-called “Galactic Encounter” occurred late in its twenty-second century local, 2181 C. E. for you sticklers. Even at that late date, the little blue world was nearly judged too backward to join the Galactic community. But Galactics found Terran religions quaint. Christianity and its variants, rich in tradition, fertile with contradiction, took the Galaxy by storm. Terra got whisked into the Confetory as a full Memberworld, an honor for which the planet was by any standard ill-prepared.
It should tell you how strange things got that Roman Catholicism became Terra’s premier cultural export, the first native institution able to buy a planet of its own. Restyling itself the Universal Catholic Church, it dubbed its new headquarters world the Planet Vatican. But more on that later.
Galactic civilization offered Terrans no end of surprises. They learned that humans inhabited 42,000 worlds among the stars—bona fide human beings, H. sapiens sapiens from Terra. That’s right, earthlings, right down to their mitochondria, all over the forjeling Galaxy. Genetic evidence suggested that hundreds of centuries before, unknown visitors had come to Terra, plucked up proto-humans and some edible plant species, and strewn them among the stars. (For some reason the “Harvesters,” as they’re called, failed to poach any proto-Caucasians. White people, now but a twelfth of Terra’s population, appear nowhere else in space.)
Terrans got another surprise. Who would think that the elegant, powerful Galactics lived in fear? Yet they’d spent millennia dreading the Tuezi (the word rhymes with floozy). The Tuezi: vast robot war platforms scattered through time and space by some other vanished super-race—or maybe by the Harvesters themselves; no one knows. Several times each century, a Tuezi would just appear somewhere. Protected by invulnerable shields, the sinister machine would enter the nearest star system, ravage its planets, then self-destruct. Decades before this story begins, a math prodigy named Fram Galbior figured out how to predict where and when each Tuezi would appear. Guided by Galbior’s “equilibrational calculus,” battle fleets would surround its entry point. They’d destroy the Tuezi just as it materialized, an instant before it could raise its shields. The greatest terror of Galactic life had been – well, not defeated, but neutralized.
For their part, Galactic scientists would be astonished by one thing they’d find on Terra. They’d known for millennia that all humans shared a common origin – DNA and all that – but they’d never known just where all this originating took place. Terra, it turned out, was the elusive Cradleworld. Only there had the lineage to which humans belong arisen from nonliving matter.
Religion and human origins: together, they explain why Terra became a Memberworld. What the Galactics never anticipated was how they'd then combine, generating social institutions of unforeseen corrosive power.
Christianity came at the Galaxy like bacteria colonizing a Petri dish with no antibiotics in sight. Only after the Universal Catholic Church became powerful did Galactics understand what a serpent they’d invited to their hearthsides.
Universal Catholicism’s power lay in its new doctrine of “serial incarnation,” the teaching that God gives His Son flesh repeatedly. On world after world, the Cosmic Christ works out the salvation of each globe’s peoples. In one of those flights of hubris the popes carry off so well, Vatican claimed sole authority to sift through other planets’ religious histories and decide which, if any, native messiahs were true Incarnations of the Cosmic Christ.
Back to Fram Galbior – remember him, the mathematician who solved the mystery of the Tuezi as a youth? Late in life, Galbior took up Catholicism. He found the doctrine of serial incarnation fascinating. To his commanding intellect, the mystery of Christ’s successive Incarnations and that of the Tuezi emergences seemed tractably alike. Obtaining a secret papal audience, Galbior announced that he’d developed another new mathematics that accounted for most of the church-verified Incarnations. More important, Galbior declared, his equations predicted when and where the Cosmic Christ would take flesh next.
What followed was sufficiently byzantine and perverse to justify a book of its own [and it got one, Messiah Games]. Galbior forecast that the next Incarnation would take place on Jaremi Four, a Tuezi-blasted world so primitive it was off limits to everyone but social scientists and undercover documentarians. On that world, a bumpkin religious leader named Arn Parek emerged amid a brutal messianic cult. Parek was an obvious fraud, which never stopped his native followers from launching a feral jihad in his name.
Thanks to the aforesaid undercover documentarians on Jaremi Four—”human cameras” called Spectators, employed by the infotainment conglomerate OmNet—trillions of Galactics followed Parek’s story. Willingly they overlooked his rough edges and pledged their faith. In what seemed an eyeblink, much of Galactic society had convinced itself that vile, fraudulent Arn Parek was the current Incarnation of the Cosmic Christ.
Various Galactic factions established illegal contacts with Parek, his disciples, or his enemies. One such cabal was led by two Universal Catholic cardinals operating under personal command of the pope. Another was controlled by Alrue Latier, a Latter-day Saint trideevangelist who’s quirky “back-to-the-roots” Mormonism drove what was already Terra’s second-biggest export church.
The Parek affair became a slow-motion disaster that befouled all it touched. When it finally ended, Catholicism lay disgraced.
Alrue kept his freedom by adroit media manipulation, but his reputation and his ministry’s finances suffered grievously.
Shamed at the terrible error into which faith had seduced his reason, the mathematician Fram Galbior hanged himself in the pope’s private library.
Arn Parek, the false messiah, died by his own hand as well, mere hours after he learned that Galactic civilization exists.
Well, maybe.
Parek’s “death” occurred amid frenzied upheaval as the native armies his offworld friends and enemies had so illicitly raised lurched into their final combat. Parek’s body was never found. Across the Galaxy, hard-core Parekists refused to accept their messiah’s passing. Splinter sects erupted teaching that Parek had resurrected, that he’d never died, that he’d never existed, that he was a pansexual robot from the future—no theology was too eccentric to command at least a few adherents.
Since Vatican intrigues had triggered the final conflict in which Arn Parek vanished, those who thought Parek the next Christ–by then, a majority of Christians–declared the pope and his minions to be the new Judases. Chastened, the Universal Catholic Church abandoned planet Vatican and limped back to its Terran birthplace.
As for Parekism, a scandalized Galaxy had at last beheld Terran-style religion at its most toxic: a squalling creed in all the intolerance of youth, hurling aside its moorings in historical reality. But by then it was too late for Galactics to force this genie back into its Terran bottle.
Not that they wouldn’t try.

Chapter 2

Terra—Near the Former Independence, Missouri, Usasector

Every chronicle starts somewhere. I begin by introducing the principal buffoons. First, our Terran tourhost—a fine guy, if laughably naïve. For him, destiny held greater things in store. Sure, it did.

Something about a Missouri sky stopped Galactic tourists in their tracks, especially the teens. “Stay together!” hectored their guide, Gram Enoda. Medals from wars he’d never fought in clinked on his hammered pewter breastplate. “It’s time to go inside.”
“Oh, plorg,” blustered one Galactic nymphet.
“Remember where we are, Nuli,” commanded Jorl CzyPlen, the group’s middle-aged leader. “And remember who you are.”
“Yes, Hom Jorl,” the girl murmured. Sullenly she joined the others in the entrance line.
CzyPlen nodded toward Enoda. His cape was iridescent; his breath smelled of cloves. He glanced upward. “She is right, guidehom. The sky … it just feels … correct.”
“It has the color and depth that evolution has disposed human brains to presume the sky should have, gentlehom,” Enoda said deferentially. “Seeing it for the first time can be … profound.”
“As it was for me, long ago,” CzyPlen sighed. “Ah, the Visitor’s Center.”
The orientation building was gigantic. In its heyday, the Great Auditorium of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had seated sixteen hundred. Now it was merely an entrance lobby. Glowing lattices yoked it to the main structure, a two-kilometer cube strewn with luminous towers and crystal domes.
CzyPlen smiled distantly as his twenty perfect charges glided inside. He was the teacher; they were, for lack of a better word, his class. One by one they passed into the Visitor’s Center. Their flawless skins gleamed bronze, tawny, umber, ebony. Organdy, lamé, and fabrics still without Terran names cohered to implausibly taut frames. By Galactic standards, this group from Frensa Six was neither exceptionally elegant nor strikingly wealthy. But this was Terra, and they were Galactics.
“Will this be our last stop at Primus?” CzyPlen asked.
“Yes, gentlehom. As you know, the Visitor’s Center documents the first Galactic contact with Terra and offers varied activities.”
“Including ...” CzyPlen made a slithery movement with one hand. “You know.”
Enoda nodded. “One could scarcely leave that out.”
“Especially now.”
Enoda mounted a platform in an empty amphitheater. His lustrous motorcycle boots were incongruously rimmed with snarled rabbit fur. Above the boots, blousy black ninja leggings ascended into a tartan kilt. He tried not to think how he looked. Tourists love this getup—they think it exemplifies Terra’s barbaric past, he thought, scanning the faces of the teens below him. I feel like an asshole. “Primus!” he cried. Cued by his voice, a harsh light transfixed him. “Primus was once Independence, Missouri. That was before the momentous day one hundred seventy-three years ago when Galactic civilization first revealed itself to Terra, just two hundred meters from this spot.” A black patent leather sporran over his groin completed the Scottish portion of his ensemble. From knees to waist, Enoda was solid Highlander kitsch, aside from the self-luminous scimitar he wore on one hip.
Enoda gazed upward; the perfect youths did too. Wan pearl light collapsed into a projected image from one hundred seventy-three years ago. The tridee clip showed the PeaceForce cruiser Admiration descending through puffy clouds, a crenelated tower rotating on kaleidoscopic shafts of light. The effects of this landfall remain a living force on Terra, Enoda thought. But for how much longer? Months?
The image wrinkled; the dome overhead went dark. The display playback had failed. “Sorry,” Enoda muttered, “this happens sometimes.” The teens giggled.
“Allowances must be made,” ventured CzyPlen.
“Yes, they must,” Enoda said quietly, gathering his cape. Because we’re Terrans, you mean. Above his kilt, Enoda wore a khaki safari jacket. Button-flapped pockets festooned it everywhere, even down the sleeves. “I’ll recite the historical narrative myself while we view the displays.” Draping an arm across his World War I reproduction gas mask, Enoda strode forward. The twenty young gods and goddesses followed, their courtly warden bringing up the rear.
The group entered another open chamber. An arched stone wall suggested an ancient aqueduct. Enoda mounted another platform. “B. G. E.—that is, Before the Galactic Encounter—Independence already had a rich history.” The gas mask hose passed over his left shoulder to disappear beneath a flowing foulard-print cape whose exact prototype he’d never determined. “Starting in 1825 local, Independence was the launch point for pioneers moving west on the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails.”
“Did they ride in starcruisers?” brayed one of the teens.
“In wagons, you plorg-warmer,” laughed another. “Contraptions you wouldn’t make a house pet ride in—and they’re barely twelve generations past that.”
“Yeah,” laughed a third. “In another generation, they’re going back to it.”
Enoda gritted his teeth. If I want good tips, I must pretend I didn’t hear that. Adorning his head were a full Navajo headdress and a pair of the brightly mirrored sunglasses Galactics insisted on calling bufordpussers. “Has anyone studied the great westward migration in North America of Terra?”
“Guidehom,” CzyPlen said tiredly, “can we return to the first contact?” He all but leered. “Didn’t this community’s history possess, um, a religious aspect?”
Enoda sighed inwardly and, for what seemed the hundredth time, told the story of just how the Galactic Confetory had revealed itself to Terra. A story every Terran knows, but which one can scarcely expect visiting Galactics to keep straight. “Here is the story of the first contact. Once the contact fleet completed its final assessments from orbit, all that remained was to decide where the first landing would occur. By Galactic tradition that decision belonged to the officer in command of the contact fleet.”
“Who was that?” a youth asked.
“Admiral Carjeel Y’Venna.”
“Y’Venna?” the questioner asked. “She did important things!”
“That came later,” cracked another boy. “This is just how she made first contact with Terra.”
“If I may continue—” Enoda wheedled. “Admiral Y’Venna ordered a scan of thousands of Terran place names, with translations of what each place name meant in the local language or dialect.”
“Are we coming to the religion part?” CzyPlen asked pointedly.
“Absolutely.” The aqueduct split open. Behind it loomed a dark exhibit hall. Its smoky air pulsed with the lights of emergency vehicles and roiling fires. “The group ahead of us has finished in the Old Terra exhibit. I’ll continue to narrate as we pass through.”
Enoda and CzyPlen guided the youthful exemplars among the historical displays. Realized in tridee, backed up with added channels for odor, air temperature, wind, and radiant heat, the elaborate sim dioramas delivered the most complete sensory experience Galactic technology could convey to a group this large. To their left raged a late-21st-century air-land battle. To the right, a somewhat older scene: drug gangs dueled with howitzers and shoulder-launched missiles. Babies tumbled unmourned from blazing tenement windows. “Stay together, everyone, and keep moving,” Enoda called. “We don’t have much time. Bryleen, please don’t taunt the Nazis.”
Galactics liked their Terran history presented in reverse. Enoda led his group through eight centuries of sim so painfully noisy that he couldn’t possibly shout over it: bombs ravaging Guernica, tanks firing across No Man’s Land, mortars, dynamite, carronades, black-powder cannon spewing grapeshot, muskets erupting across a ruler-straight battle line. In all those years, Enoda inwardly grated, you’d think something happened on Terra that didn’t involve explosives!
At last, the party reached tableaux whose subjects predated the Western discovery of gunpowder. They filed across a windblown heath under fat grey skies. Mounted knights slaughtered foot soldiers wholesale. But they did so quietly, and Enoda could resume his lecture. “Admiral Y’Venna decided she liked the American state of Missouri. Terran folklore said Missourians were skeptical. Y’Venna thought a bow toward critical thinking would be appropriate. After all, she would soon be asking eighteen billion Terrans to believe an awful lot. And independence is a concept as esteemed in the Galaxy as it was in the old United States.”
He steered the teens to one side. A phalanx of fifth-century monks bustled past, waving the oyster shells with which they’d just stripped the bones of Hypatia, librarian of Alexandria and last defender of the ancient knowledge. “Independence was a small place, so it didn’t take Y’Venna long to select the most dramatic spot to touch down. Careful, Tarbril! Don’t fall in the ooze.”
Still stepping back along the exhibition’s timeline, the group entered a hushed primordial landscape. Distant volcanoes fouled the sky. At their feet greasy water bubbled. In those fetid puddles, they all knew, human biology had begun. Whatever their planet of origin, they all clung to the same single limb of the tree of life. They were all Terrans in their genes.
“And that,” Enoda resumed, “is how Admiral Y’Venna chose to set down her kilometer-tall cruiser in Independence, Missouri—right between the old Reorganized Church Auditorium, the entryway to this Visitor’s Center, and the white marble-towered temple where members of that church believed Jesus Christ would come again.”
“Reorganized Church of—” one of the teens said uncertainly.
“—Latter-day Saints,” the girl Nuli supplied with assurance. “Now they call themselves the Community of Christ, whoever he is. They trace their roots to the Mormons who stayed loyal to the son of the prophet Joseph Smith, the ones who didn’t follow Brigham Young to Utah after Smith was killed in Carthage, Illinois.”
Galactic children, Enoda grumbled to himself. They don’t remember how their own government made contact with us, but they know minute details of Mormon history.
The entourage entered a sim rain forest. Enoda knew CzyPlen cared nothing for the Hall of Snakes, but for many of the youngsters it was the most eagerly anticipated destination on Terra.
“I have taught you all to recognize the dangerous serpents,” CzyPlen called. “Do not disappoint me.”
The immaculate teens strode into the swamp, heedless of their designer finery. They made too much noise entering the water; they won’t see anything for more than a minute, Enoda realized.
CzyPlen turned to him and ordered, “Continue, guidehom.”
Enoda hoped CzyPlen couldn’t sense his growing annoyance. “The Community of Christ had been about to bury the hatchet and reunite with the Salt Lake City Mormons. It was also poised to merge with several other dissident congregations, including the Church of Christ Temple Lot, the tiny sect that actually owned the empty field where Admiration touched down.”
A boy let out a frightened yelp. A granular-scaled serpent slipped from his grasp. “Please, Tarbril,” called CzyPlen. “It’s only a file snake. It eats fish.”
“When Y’Venna landed, all those negotiations ended,” Enoda continued. “Not only did the Mormon reunification talks collapse, the Community of Christ itself promptly schismed.”
“Schismed,” squealed one of the golden youths. “What a lovely word!”
“So aboriginal!” cried another, plunging a russet arm into the water after a yellow-bellied sea snake.
Enoda shrugged. “One faction maintains to this day that Y’Venna was a true incarnation of the Cosmic Christ.”
“That’s the group that riots every year,” Tarbril shouted.
“Yes,” hooted Cruneil, “on the anniversary of the day Independence was reconstituted as Primus, first Galactic Zone on Terra.”
“When Galactic consumer prices went into effect,” added Nuli, “and Terrans couldn’t afford to live there anymore.”
“They have briefed themselves so thoroughly,” CzyPlen said. His smile was magisterial.
Seething inside, Enoda made himself nod.
Some of the youths had made it to the other side of the swamp. They climbed onto a small muddy island. “Identify the snake before you pick it up,” Enoda called. Crazy Galactics! He thought. For millennia they innately feared long slender objects and didn’t know why. Now that they’ve discovered the source of that instinct, they bring their adolescents to Terra to confront their fears by gamboling with our plorg-warming snakes.
“The other schismatic group, guidehom,” CzyPlen demanded. “Everyone is riveted.”
All they know about Terra is our religious misadventures! “As I said, one group within the Community of Christ thought Y’Venna was Jesus come again. Another, larger group recognized that the Galactics could not be gods in the traditional sense. They interpreted the Galactic Encounter as the coming of Zion, the holy city whose appearance they had long anticipated. They decided the Galactics were humans who had spiritually evolved to become gods in the old Mormon sense.” Enoda noticed CzyPlen raising an eyebrow. “Yes,” he went on, “early Mormons believed Terran humans would be rewarded after death with a literal afterlife in the cosmos, where each who had lived uprightly would become a god over a planet of his own.”
“But Hom Enoda!” called Bryleen, still standing in the swamp, brown water lapping at a gown of indefinable fabric that did far too little to conceal her emerging breasts. “Didn’t the Community of Christ deny that Joseph Smith ever taught humans could become gods?”
“True,” Enoda said. “The Community of Christ denied many things, including the well-known fact that its founder practiced polygamy. Their insistence that Joseph’s first wife Emma was his only spouse caused no end of embarrassment when it came out that Admiral Y’Venna herself had several plural husbands.”
“But then, that is part of the wonder of Terran religions,” CzyPlen lectured. “They redefine their truths so obstinately—defending their doctrines as inviolate even while remaking them.”
Vacuum preserve us, Enoda thought.
He whirled toward the sound of a piercing scream.
“Cruneil!” CzyPlen cried, rushing down the bank.
Cruneil sat on a mucky boulder on the other side, clutching her left ankle; two small punctures oozed blood. Another girl held the offending snake behind its head as she’d been taught. Enoda surged through muddy water. Frowning, he inspected the snake. Grey scales, white mouth lining: water moccasin. He nodded; the other girl released the snake. “Hemotoxin,” he barked into his medimech. He bent over Cruneil to press the healing device against her ankle.
“No!” Cruneil jerked her leg away. “Please, guidehom, do it the Terran way.”
Enoda waved the medimech. “This is clean and painless.”
“Clean and painless are not what we came here for.” Theatrically Cruneil thrust her shoulders back. “Act fast, guidehom! I think I’m dying.”
Oh, for ... Enoda shot a sharp, imploring glance toward CzyPlen.
CzyPlen shrugged. “Do as she wants.”
With a muttered curse, Enoda drew his glowing scimitar. A longitudinal twist of the jeweled handle ejected a smaller blade. Enoda gripped Cruneil’s left leg above the ankle, bracing her foot against his thigh. He motioned for someone to hold her upper leg. “This will hurt,” he warned her.
The small dagger cut into Cruneil’s ankle. She groaned approvingly. Enoda dragged the blade along, making a four-centimeter incision in her chalky black skin. Doe-eyed, the teens gathered in a tight circle, awestruck at the “primitive Terran spectacle.” Oh, plorg, they wanted this, he thought. Enoda cut again, creating an X-shaped incision. Throwing the gas mask over his shoulder, he bent down. They all wanted this.
Enoda pressed his lips to the X and began to suck.
He drained the venom mechanically, focusing his inward attention on the remainder of the group’s itinerary. Before long they’d visit Old Rome, where the discredited Universal Catholic Church was penitently re-establishing its headquarters. Security would be heavy; both Galactic tourism and attempted violence had intensified at Catholic sites since the rumors began that Terra might soon be expelled from Galactic society. Next the group would view the glassy craters of the Negev. Enoda hoped there’d be no mix-up with the radiation-hardened tour shuttles, as he’d experienced leading a previous excursion. Timing would be everything. If the group didn’t surrender the shuttles and arrive in Jerusalem precisely at sunset on Shabbat, they’d miss the Neo-Orthodox cohanim stoning visitors who’d been so insensitive as to appear at the Wailing Wall accompanied by robotic assistants.
Having spat out his last mouthful of blood and venom, Enoda eyed Cruneil harshly. “I must use the medimech now to neutralize residual toxin. The traditional method is imperfect.”
“But so real,” Cruneil breathed, closing her eyes again. “Oh, go ahead.”
Enoda pressed the medimech to the incision. When he pulled it away, Cruneil’s skin was as preternaturally clear as before the water moccasin had struck.
The other teens regarded her with something approaching worship. “Oh, Cruneil,” cooed Arak. “You had the experience we all dreamed of.”
“So primal,” agreed Bryleen.
Nuli shivered with the exquisiteness of it all. “So ... so Terran!”
Not even CzyPlen could maintain a disapproving air. “You had quite an adventure, Cruneil,” he said evenly. “It is fitting that you decide where the group goes next.”
Oh, plorg on a stick, Enoda thought. There goes the itinerary.
Cruneil sat up, drew a muddy hand through her hair and said, “Sweden!”
“Sweden?” Enoda croaked. He and CzyPlen exchanged blank looks.
“Yes, I want us to go to Sweden,” Cruneil gushed.
“Why?” CzyPlen demanded.
“To see Swedes.” From the other teens came scattered laughter mixed with murmurs of approval. If some of the youths did not share Cruneil’s interest in Scandinavia, others clearly did.
“Very well,” Enoda said resignedly. “There’s a tube terminal elsewhere in this building.”
“We came in search of the picturesque,” objected CzyPlen.
“There’s no picturesque way to get from Primus to Sweden that’s at all efficient. The intrageodesic tube is best.”
CzyPlen’s face lit up. “No tube. We shall go by air.”
“To Sweden?” Enoda blurted. “But the suborbital shuttle will take two hours. Only claustrophobes use it for long trips anymore. By tube, it’s fifteen minutes—”
“Not the shuttle either,” CzyPlen said sternly. “When I say, ‘we will go by air’—at least, when I say that on Terra—I can only mean in an airplane.” Enoda stared at him blankly. Reaching into one of those pockets that could never be seen in Galactic clothing, CzyPlen produced a token and pressed it into Enoda’s hand. “I presume this is enough for our passage.”
Enoda gulped. That token would fund two standard years of gracious living in any Terran Zone—even after chartering a reproduction Boeing 1297 at Galactic tariffs for a round trip to, say, Sweden.
“If anything is left over,” CzyPlen said grandly, “consider it yours in appreciation for our most amusing encounter with the snakes.”
Enoda whistled inwardly. Still, he felt compelled to preserve some shred of the schedule he’d spent two weeks constructing. “Speaking of snakes,” he said brightly, “before we cross a third of the planet by air, perhaps we could work in one of the last attractions on this continent that remains on our original itinerary?”
“I would not wish to disappoint Cruneil,” said CzyPlen.
“I think you’ll both like this,” Enoda said, whirling to aim his best salesman-puppy face at Cruneil. “How about a restored church—”
Cruneil began to groan. Architecture was not among her passions.
“Not any church,” Enoda blurted. “A church where they handle snakes!”
Cruneil hooted approval, followed by an eager uproar from the other youths. With an aristocratic nod CzyPlen added his blessing to the plan.
Next stop, the former West Virginia, thought Enoda. Then it’s—oh, sfelb—off to Sweden.