The Cleansing Fire of God
By Jay Lake
29 September 2003
Canaveral Reformist Christian Re-Education Camp, May 7th, 1992nd Year of the Lord, early morning
Palm fronds drooped like dead hands from trees along the embankment of the swamp road. Last night's tardy moon hung low in the west, the flaming ring near Tycho visible even in daylight.
Rodgers worked the bottom of the slope, shifting limestone chunks from his pushcart, past the scaly trunks, and down into the sucking mud that lined his side of the causeway. Mosquitoes swarmed the sores on his back and arms as the sun raised scarlet blisters.
At least the guards had riot guns against the 'gators.
"Heretic Rodgers!" screamed the coffle boss, a trusty named Gombosuren. Gombo was a Mongol interned off a tramp freighter so long ago even he couldn't remember why any more.
Rodgers figured he'd grow old in Canaveral just like Gombo had. There were worse fates.
"Here, sir," Rodgers called, scrambling up the bank to stand at attention by his pushcart.
Gombo scowled through missing teeth and a broken nose. "Explain yourself to our holy visitors."
Two Brothers of the Armorican Bureau of Joy stood beside Gombo, the effect of their black half-masks and rippling scarlet robes spoiled by ragged straw hats. Rodgers knelt on the rubbled limestone road, wincing as his knees were stabbed by the white gravel. He spoke in time to the throbbing of his sores, a ritual confession of his official crimes. His true crime was never mentioned.
"God bless Armorica, Joyous Holy Brothers," Rodgers began. "Hear the cardinal self-criticism of Barnabas Rodgers, criminal heretic.
"I violated the trust of the Baltimore Aerospace Collective by reading forbidden research periodicals from heathen lands.
"I violated the trust of the Reformist Christian people of these Armorican States by hiding evidence of my crime.
"I violated the loving teachings of Father Church by agitating for secularist heresies.
"I have failed to do sufficient good works here to be restored to privileged standing as a Scientist-Engineer."
He drew a deep breath -- limestone dust, human sweat, and hot Atlantic air. "Would the Holy Brothers care to hear my venial self-criticism?"
"That is of no matter," said one of the Joy Brothers. "I see re-education has been of some benefit to you, Barney."
It was his cousin Egbert, who had enlisted in Reformist orders right after Rodgers had first gone to Nieu Amsterdam Tech. They had grown up close as brothers but, separated by faith, had not spoken since those student days.
Rodgers stared down at the limestone chips, unwilling to meet any Joy Brother's eye. Especially his cousin's.
"Brother Egbert," Rodgers said, "if I may presume to greet you so."
"You may. I would speak privately."
Gombo gave Rodgers a light flick on the calves from his snakeskin lash. "Go, go, do not shame our coffle!"
Stride shortened by his black iron ankle chain, Rodgers limped after his cousin and the other Joy Brother, down the limestone road toward the towering heretic-built launch complexes of Archbishop Kennedy Base.
Site 304, Upper Amazon Preserve, May 7th, 1992 A.D., mid-morning
"Hot son of a bitch already, ain't it?" Innerarity swigged from her crock of Oulde Python beer. The glowering tropical sun hammered on her head. Triple-canopied jungle towered around the clearing, which was made to look from orbit like a small indigenous village. Even the oxygen bowsers had thatched roofs. She was mightily sick of picking her way along muddied paths through the rotten-fruit reek of the jungle.
By necessity the Brasilian lunar program counted both thrift and stealth among its virtues. Here at the launch site they were just a few dozen engineers and laborers in the deep wilderness, every blessed thing brought in piece by piece on balsa wood rafts. Even the propellants and volatiles came a few hundred liters at a time in hide-wrapped bladders.
"You are most too white to be here." Samaren, the site manager, flashed pale teeth in a dark face straight out of South Armorica's oldest histories.
"Oh yeah? Well, you're mighty tall, for an uppity native."
"You are most too uppity, for a tall colonialist."
Innerarity was just glad to be trying to snatch the future from evil hands. The ship towered in the net-topped concrete pit at their feet, venting liquid oxygen through test valves. It somehow managed to seem huge, even deep in the ground.
That ship was a tribute to Fenian stubbornness and native Brasilian engineering in equal mix, together running a dangerous game against Her Socialist Majesty. Innerarity spoke to Elizabeth XIV's government on behalf of Samaren and his fellows, negotiating Brasilian aerospace contracts to supplement British industry ravaged by Imperial Socialism. All the while she made a sideline of stealing British technology and hiding Brasil's true purposes.
The English bitches-in-charge accepted lies from a white face -- and female voice -- a lot easier than from a brown one. One way or the other the lies were almost over. Whatever the hell was on the moon was going to be in someone's hands quite soon.
Innerarity devoutly hoped those hands would be Brasilian.
Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Archbishop Kennedy Base, May 7th, 1992nd Year of the Lord, mid-morning
Rodgers was exhausted past the point of self-preservation. "You could have shot me in the swamp and saved us all the walk."
Brother Egbert stood at the edge of the high concrete platform, facing the scrubby coastal plain that surrounded them. The pale, weathered surface beneath their feet redoubled the heat of the day. The two of them had left Egbert's taciturn fellow Joy Brother down below, on guard.
"We can speak freely here," Egbert said.
Rodgers's laugh folded into a deep retching before he could stop himself. Wiping spittle from his lips, he tried to speak normally. "Freely? Every second Wednesday at vespers they strap me to a post and flog me as an instructive example to others on the dangers of speaking freely."
"Be glad of your beatings," Brother Egbert said, turning back from the edge. "They keep you alive. Even now some would still have you killed out of hand for what happened in Baltimore. Only your penitent suffering gives us leverage to keep those forces in abeyance."
"Us?" Rodgers would much rather be thigh deep in leech-infested mud with a whip at his back than talk to a Reformist Christian Joy Brother about "us's" and "them's."
"Manus Dei." Brother Egbert stared at Rodgers, blue eyes glittering over his mask. "The Hand of God keeps you alive, even in this place. I was sent because you might trust me before a stranger."
Oh, White Christ, thought Rodgers, that was all he needed. The Joy Bureau was bad enough, but Manus Dei was God's secret army, a group only whispered of, said to have agents all across the Reformist Christian Church. Some believed their agenda was liberalization, some claimed the opposite -- orthodox hellfire. There were no safe answers with this man, Rodgers realized, regardless of family ties.
He sat down on the edge of a flame duct scalloped out of the concrete pad, feeling the sun-heated wall against his calves as his legs dangled, the chain scraping between them. Blood spotted the base of the duct a yard below the soles of his feet.
Rodgers spoke quietly into the flittering breeze. "The First Codicil of the Armorican Civil Charter guarantees freedoms of speech and thought. Even of private belief. And I have always been a good citizen. I love Armorica. Yet here I am, spreading gravel in a swamp. The Hand of God has touched my life sufficiently, Egg. I don't think I've got anything more to say to Father Church." Rodgers drummed his bloody, mud-spattered heels on the scorching concrete, causing the chain to clatter more loudly. "You can shoot me now if you want. I won't look."
"Barney." His cousin knelt down next to Rodgers, one hand on his shoulder. "Doctrine states that you are here because you did something wrong, very wrong. To sin is to be in error, to be in error is to sin. God has so arrayed His world that the exterior of a man, his deeds and flaws, reflect the spirit inside."
Rodgers shook his head almost too vigorously in the heat. "I am . . . was . . . an astronomer, Egg. A Scientist-Engineer studying God's world, the world above the sky, with my longwave telescope, working to make a better life for Armorica and her citizens. That's why your people put me here."
"Officially you're here for reading proscribed foreign journals. That and your history of secularism. But we both know you're really here because of the message you got from the moon. More to the point, because of how badly you handled the affair. That's where doctrine meets reality."
Rodgers could never keep his thoughts far from 1987. Something had come in fast from the outer solar system, maneuvering wildly rather than on a ballistic orbit, before slamming into the moon to leave a ring of fire. There had been an unexpected squeal on his longwave telescope that fateful day. While running analyses on the intrusive signal, Rodgers had checked with his colleagues, carefully at first, then more boldly. No one else had received a message -- or at least would admit to it. The consternation over the impact of what had to be an alien starship had overwhelmed the world's scientific community.
Further analysis of the signal indicated that the sender must have targeted his longwave dish. When he decompressed the message, Rodgers was quite surprised to find it was plaintext English. He was even more surprised to discover it was addressed to him personally.
"BRODGERS -- IMPACT SITE LUNAR AUTOMATED SECURE FATAL AGAINST FIRSTCOMERS -- NO OVERRIDE POSSIBLE -- YOU MUST SECONDCOME FOR EFFECTING CONTROL ASSUMPTION," the text had read.
The words still echoed in his mind; their implications still staggered his soul. Why was the message directed to him? Was "YOU" Rodgers himself? The Armorican Father Church?
He'd never worked that out, or even worked out what control of an alien starship would really mean. If someone in authority had listened to him then, Armorica could have reached the moon and the power that wreck represented, and had her destiny confirmed for all time.
"Doctrine, my ass," Rodgers finally said from the angry depths of his reverie. "I tried to get the word out to the proper authorities. It was important. To all of us."
He shuddered at memories of being chained to the blackened stake in Camden Yards waiting for sunrise, petroleum sticky on his skin, the reek irritating his nostrils. "Oh Lord, I tried to find someone who would listen to me. But the word was out from Father Church -- the eruption on the moon was a Divine Manifestation, the Wheel of God, bringing His fire to cleanse the Earth. Everyone cut me off as soon as I got near the point. 'God doesn't send messages by longwave.' Two days later the Archbishop of Baltimore sentenced me ex cathedra to immediate burning for fomenting heresy regarding the Wheel of God. He didn't even bother to rig a trial."
Brother Egbert responded in the calm, patient tone of someone addressing a hysteric. "That was then, in an unfortunately conservative archdiocese. The Hand of God is nothing if not pragmatic, which is why we had you rescued from that stake and secured here. Which was especially fortunate, because the Archbishop's people destroyed your files before we could get to them. Now we need to know, Barn."
Thank God Egbert didn't know the truth. Once he'd realized how much danger he was in from the Archbishop of Baltimore, Rodgers himself had wiped the computer tapes and burned his lab notes. The only record of the message was in his head -- with one small exception.
If his desperate message had been received and understood by the one person he knew who might be able to do something with it. A small treason, that pained his heart, but insurance in the event of his untimely death.
And that untimely death had almost happened. The Joy Bureau Compliance Enforcers had stormed into Camden Yards, their officer threatening the local Episcopal troops. There had been a physical struggle at gunpoint for the burning Torch of Truth as the first rays of the rising sun struck his face.
Rodgers had come within moments of the screaming, terminal terror of an auto-da-fé.
Brother Egbert continued, "We know from longwave mapping, from every analysis we can steal from the heathens, that there is an alien starship dying on the moon. No angels, despite what Father Church says, no Musselman devils, no secularist tricks of the mind. Day and night, every child can still see the Wheel of God burning five years after the crash. Whatever is at hand -- angels, devils, or final judgment -- we will have to fetch it home ourselves."
He rested a gloved hand on Rodgers's arm. "But we don't know what we will find. Our Father Church is in a race to get there first, ahead of the English, of the Brasilians, of the heathen powers in the East. Only you know what the cost of victory might be."
Site 304, Upper Amazon Preserve, May 7th, 1992 A.D., late morning
Samaren interrupted Innerarity, still with a beer crock in her hand, kneeling at the edge of the ship's pit watching vapor discharges. "The intelligence lads say the Armoricans are launching tonight," he told her. "They are ahead of schedule. Control tells us we must advance our own launch."
Innerarity smacked her lips. "Now we jump because the Reformies are launching? Hell, we've been holding a forty-eight hour count for, oh, three months? The maintenance effort is killing us -- I haven't finished retesting all the pressure lines since the last volatiles purge."
"And so? If Control says we must launch, we must launch. There is a window near dawn tomorrow, if we accelerate the count."
"It ain't Control sitting on top of two thousand tons of bang-bang juice," Innerarity observed.
Samaren almost whispered. "Who do you want to get there? Do you want a Musselman starship enforcing Shariat law? The Khanates finishing their long-neglected conquest of the world? Or perhaps Armorican Reformists peddling the Word of God? If any of the Great Powers were to take control, they would have a weapons platform aimed at the rest of the world. We may not be first against the wall when that happens, but our turn will come too soon."
Innerarity wore her best dreamy smile. "What if it ain't a weapon at all?"
"Any fool could make a weapon out of so much energy," Samaren muttered.
"Hell, Sam, any fool can see it's just a ring of fire on the moon." Innerarity handed her empty to Samaren. "I'm heading over to the umbilical management station. If it's lifting soon, best we get everything besides me topped off."
Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Archbishop Kennedy Base, May 7th, 1992nd Year of the Lord, noon
Rodgers lay on his back, the hot concrete searing his sores but easing his muscles. Memories of fire were still sharp in his mind.
Had he ever really wanted to give the message to Armorica?
Had he ever wanted to do anything else?
"Father Church nearly burned me for even suggesting there might be a truth to tell. Now you want me to tell it anyway."
"Father Church also saved you from burning," said Brother Egbert. "Help us now, and you could be out of this place forever. I can arrange just about anything, for this. The Sandwich Islands. Dutch Afrika. Sion-in-Baganda. You'll be free, in another country."
A gull wheeled in the aching blue sky. Rodgers tracked its flight for a while, considering Brother Egbert's almost-offer. He'd never wanted to be anywhere but Armorica -- a better Armorica than the one he lived in, perhaps, but still his Armorica.
"What are you afraid of? You hold the power of life and death over me. Why bother with a bribe?"
"We cannot compel you to confess what we do not already know. Within the vise, under the flame, beneath the weights, how truthful would you be? You were always stubborn beyond belief when we were children. I know you have enough strength of character to lie even in extremis. Drugs and electro-stim would be little better for the same reason -- we have no external basis for evaluating your testimony."
Rodgers snorted. "Thank you for the honesty, if nothing else. You must be very close to going, and you've found something that gives you pause."
Egbert shifted, his robes rustling. "The Mongols blew the Anglo-Swedish engine fabrication plant this morning. We doubt Karl-Gustav has any further resources, but Elizabeth XIV has deep pockets and good planners. She may yet surprise us.
"Meanwhile, Samarkand is almost ready, if the Khan's Western Assembly at Sarai can keep the military out of the process. You know Mongol generals. The Mohammedans, it's hard to say, but there's been no pre-launch activity visible from orbit at either Alexandria or Timbouctou."
"And us?" Rodgers asked. "How close are we?"
"There is a launch readying even now in the Western Dry Lakes."
Rodgers snorted, thinking of all the work the re-education coffles had been doing at Kennedy. "And everyone believed it would be here."
"As intended. There's another dummy launch site at one of our first-strike missile farms in Lakota Territory, for the benefit of our friends with orbiting eyes. But no, the real launch is out west."
Rodgers propped himself up on his elbows. "You wouldn't tell me any of this if you planned for me to live."
Brother Egbert stared at Rodgers for a while, then reached under his robes for an automatic pistol. "I don't expect it to matter. We've moved the launch up to late tonight. Armorica will be first to the moon. And Manus Dei has effective control of the crew. One or two strategic life support accidents, and we will have total control."
Rodgers thought of the message, its warning about firstcomers and automated defenses. "So you're going to be first to launch. You still haven't told me what you're afraid of."
"Mount Whitney Observatory reports a measurable falloff in visible light and longwave radiation from the lunar fire over the past weeks. As if it might be guttering out. At the least things are changing. And this just before we finally come to investigate it firsthand. Do they know we are coming? Has it been a false beacon?"
Brother Egbert laid the pistol on the concrete between them. "By my good faith, by the holy bullets in my gun, what did they say to you when they first came? I must know."
Wondering about the falloff in the lunar fire, Rodgers picked up the gun, turned it over in his hand. Would the automated defenses still be effective?
He recognized the pistol as a Colt-Sten automatic, used for precision shooting at close to medium ranges. It felt lighter than he expected. Did Brother Egbert know Rodgers had been on the shooting team at Nieu Amsterdam Tech? Exercising his Second Codicil rights, learning something for the future.
Rodgers popped the minuscule latch and pulled the magazine from the handle. "Look, Egg," he whispered. "No holy bullets to swear by in your gun."
Stumbling against his chain, Rodgers stood and hurled the pistol's magazine off the concrete platform. "Empty as a monk's promise," he screamed to the scrublands.
The Joy Brother on guard below did not even stir.
"I could hardly hand you a loaded gun," said Brother Egbert calmly.
Stalking the platform, Rodgers spat his thoughts like bloody teeth from his mouth. "It's all theater to you people, isn't it? The great epic of Christian life? Burn a few here, whip a few there, throw the recidivists and incorrigibles into re-education camps to keep the rest in line. Have you ever actually read your God-damned Bible? Armorica is better than this! Armorica deserves better than the poison of Father Church!"
Words that would earn sudden death in most places, but Brother Egbert remained calm. "The United States of Armorica is a Reformist Christian nation under the protection of St. Martin Luther. We fought and died against Papist oppression for the right to read our own Bibles."
"So? We haven't learned much, then." Rodgers folded his arms across his chest, as if to hug himself, his words turning from anger to an almost-sobbing sorrow. "I've been lashed to the stake, waiting for the morning sun to cross the horizon. I've been beaten so much my scars have scars. By the White Christ, why should I tell you anything, Egg? Anything at all?"
"Because you're honest." Brother Egbert stared up at Rodgers, blue eyes standing out from the scarlet hood and the black mask like sapphires in velvet. "Because you love this country, and believe in our future. I remember when we were kids -- you got thrown out of Church Youth for arguing with the troop leader about secular rights. You've always been a true believer in your own way, much loss to Father Church. I know you, Barney -- you were like a brother to me. You won't die with what you think unsaid, so say it now. Cut to the end game, tell me what our country needs to know, and life will go on. For both of us."
"Well, you're right about that." Rodgers had kept silent in fear for his life, but he'd always wanted to make the words from space count for something, to better his country and his people. Now, after five years in the re-education camp, Rodgers found his conviction eroded, an osteoporosis of the soul. But he still knew his duty.
"I have a price," Rodgers finally said.
Brother Egbert made no reply.
Rodgers let his breathing settle down. "I have a price," he repeated. "I don't care if you're a lying son of a bitch who would shoot me as soon as look at me. I don't care if Father Church and I have fatal differences. I'm still an Armorican. And I'm going on the launch.
"To make sure it all works out, I won't tell you what they said to me until we're on our way to the moon. You're Hand of God, get one of those life support accidents waiting to happen off the mission, put me on. And no 'accidents' for me, either. Straight shit, so help me."
"Or?" asked Brother Egbert quietly.
"There is no 'or,'" said Rodgers. "I've got one bullet in my gun. 'Ors' are for people with more ammunition, Egg."
Brother Egbert's eyes crinkled in a grin, his mask flexing with his cheeks. He picked up the empty gun. "Unlike me, Barn?"
Site 304, Upper Amazon Preserve, May 7th, 1992 A.D., sunset
They'd been rushing through final pre-launch checks all afternoon. "Walk with me to my office, please," Samaren said to Innerarity in a quiet moment as technicians clambered around in the ship's pit below them. "I have something to show you."
Inside the little hut, Samaren pulled a faded postcard from the corkboard over his desk and slipped it into the pocket of his flight suit. Innerarity saw that it was an image of the Statue of Virtue towering over Nieu Amsterdam harbor.
"Space program on a budget, that's our ticket," she said, nodding at the primitive office.
"No one has noticed us out here, have they?"
"You've the right of that," she said, feeling maudlin now that the waiting was almost over. "Once we launch from here, nothing can touch us except a prepped Mongol scramjet."
Samaren slipped past Innerarity, into the fading light outside, drawing the tall Irishwoman with him. Macaques screamed in the jungle gloaming as the day's last flights of birds whirred overhead. "What are the odds of that? They could not keep those things in the air even if a shooting war was on."
Changing the subject, Innerarity nodded at Samaren's hand, still in his pocket. "Souvenir, that? Your exhibit for me?"
"You might say that. Were you aware I spent a year at Nieu Amsterdam Tech on an exchange? When I was a doctoral candidate."
Innerarity smiled in the dusk. "You're the man with the personnel files, not me."
"I shot on the pistol team. I did paired shooting with an Armorican Scientist-Engineer. A most peculiar fellow, a secularist and a patriot. I had never realized you could be both, in Armorica."
They walked back toward the ship pit as the jungle night crept into the clearing. Samaren seemed caught between explanation and concealment.
"Friend of yours, this shooter?" Innerarity finally asked.
"No, no, not particularly. We were on good terms, but you know Armoricans. He did send me several notes over the years, about monographs I'd published and so forth. The last time I heard from him was when he sent me that postcard."
"And . . . ?"
"I received it a week or so after the lunar event. Via international mail. In fact, it has our mission plan scribbled on it."
Innerarity couldn't decide whether to laugh or walk away. She settled for satisfying her curiosity. "On a postcard from Armorica? Written in 1987? Really? Why would you even believe such a thing?"
Samaren hooked his arm through Innerarity's, as if escorting her into a ballroom. "He knew I was working on mission strategies. We had discussed such ideas back in Nieu Amsterdam, when a moon mission was still a theoretical exercise for engineering students.
"Imagine the risk he took to tell me, sending that card. We turned it over a thousand times back in Brasilia before authorizing this effort -- it simply does not make sense as a lie. That is why we have waited for the Armoricans to launch. We are betting on Rodgers.
"At his advice, we shall follow them in." Samaren tugged the postcard from his pocket, though Innerarity was certain he could not read it in the failing light. "I quote, 'Whatever you do, don't get there first.'"
Mid-air over Atchafalayah State, May 7th, 1992nd Year of the Lord, nighttime
At least Egg had taken the chain off his ankles. Reclining in leather-wrapped luxury, Rodgers stared out the oval window of the Manus Dei jet at the silvered cloudscape and the rising moon with its flickering red-orange boil.
"Launch is in five hours," said Brother Egbert beside him. "We're going to get there first. And thanks to you, we're going to do it right."
"I know." Rodgers smiled into the night.
After all the terror, the torture, the lost years of his life, it was the empty gun that had made up his mind. He had to trust in Samaren. "We'll be there first, all right. God bless Armorica."
He closed his eyes and dreamt of the cleansing fire of God.
Copyright © 2003 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon with his family and their books, within sight of a 12,000-foot volcano. He will have over thirty stories appear in 2003 in diverse markets, and is a first-prize winner in Writers of the Future. Jay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on his work, see his website. His previous contributions to Strange Horizons are available in our archive.