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Author: S. Andrew Swann
Publisher: DAW Books, 2009
Series: Apotheosis: Book 1

1. Prophets
2. Heretics
3. Messiah

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Space Opera
Avg Member Rating:
(8 reads / 6 ratings)


It's been nearly 200 years since the collapse of the Confederacy, the last government to claim humanity's colonies. So when signals come in revealing lost human colonies that could shift the power balance, the race is on between the Caliphate ships and a small team of scientists and mercenarys. But what awaits them all is a threat far beyond the scope of any human government.




The no-mind not-thinks no-thoughts about no-things.



The Music of the Spheres

Blaming Fate, God, or Destiny is an admission that you don't have a clue what's going on.

--The Cynic's Book of Wisdom

The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.

--SOCRATES (470-390 Bce)

Date: 2502.12.09 (Standard) 5.48 ly from Xi Virginis

The egg moves at half light speed through the vacuum, its surface a deep blackness absorbing every stray photon, emitting nothing. Particles with small masses--from stray protons up to grains of interstellar dust--slide around it, nanometers from its surface, following the ovoid perimeter until they find their original track on the opposite side, where they resume their motion as if the egg had not crossed their path. The only sign that something exists beneath its event-horizon skin is the resonance in the fabric of space-time as it ripples gravity in its wake.

The egg has traveled for over two centuries, 228.326 years standard to be exact. Viewed from the perspective of those who built it, its journey has barely begun. The Protean outpost on the lawless planet Bakunin, the origin of the egg, had secluded itself from the persecution of the rest of human civilization and looked far beyond the limits of that civilization to propagate itself. The egg's destination is removed from its builders by thousands of light-years in space, and a million years in time. Packed within it is the combined resources and knowledge of the entire Protean civilization.

Within the egg sleep the minds of a quarter million people.

One mind is awake. An artificial mind devoid of boredom or emotion. A mind that can observe the egg's travels over the course of an aeon and not go insane.

A mind that sees with an almost omniscient eye.

The egg itself is a collector of every scrap of radiant energy; it touches every ripple in the fabric of space, hears the twist of momentum of the particles slipping close to its skin, and smells the quantum foam of virtual particles that break across it as it moves through the vacuum. The mind is as aware as any sentient being can possibly be.

For all that, the mind's job is simple. Watch, and ensure that the egg does not move through anything that could damage it or its contents. That is the directive, the mind's sole reason for being.

The mind cannot feel pride, but it knows that it is good at its job. It knows in a concrete fashion that it has saved the egg from danger 1,568 times in the past 200 years standard.

Dust will slide by the dent the egg makes in the universe around it, but a stone any larger would not be so easily dissuaded at these velocities. While the egg could withstand the occasional grain of interstellar matter colliding with its surface, the mind knows the distance they are traveling. Even sand grains could cause an unacceptable wear on the egg's resources over the course of their long journey. And, of course, a rock of any size larger than a pea might prove crippling. Fortunately, the egg is forward-looking enough to maneuver around large obstacles, from dark patches dense with interstellar matter to a variable star whose motion would carry it into the egg's path 2,856 years standard from now.

The mind does not feel curiosity. The mind does not sense that as a weakness, since it has a defined procedure for assigning priority to stimuli. Threats receive its full attention. Non-threats are discarded as irrelevant. Unclassifiable phenomena are stored pending the mind's ability to determine if they are threats or not.

For the past five years, the mind has struggled with its first dilemma. It has observed spectral anomalies around the star Xi Virginis that it cannot classify, and since first detecting it, the mind has returned to consider it every one to five seconds.

Each time, the datum refuses to fit into the mind's model of the universe.

Despite its lack of curiosity, after reviewing the same item for the two hundred millionth time without being able to arrive at any conclusion, the mind decides that it is unable to properly classify the event.

Xi Virginis is now too close in time and space to ignore. Without deceleration, the egg will pass within three light-years of the star. However, decelerating the egg enough to avoid it would radically alter the path of the egg and, therefore, its mission.

The mind of the egg concludes that it requires consultation with its passengers in order to proceed. With its decision, a quarter million minds held in stasis are freed.

There is chaos as the population of the egg wakes. A quarter million thinking individuals suddenly occupy the single body of the egg, each one seizing its share of its processing and sensory abilities. All have a last common memory of donating the contents of their mind to the egg. All have the common shock that they are the result of that copy, and the person they remember is centuries and light-years removed from them now. All suffer disappointment in not finding themselves at their destination. All look out in wonder with the sense array of the egg, once the sole province of the mind.

All hear the mind's message.

"There is something requiring your attention."

The mind is surrounded by a sphere of attention as the population focuses on it. Emotionless, the mind does not flinch from stating that it is unable to decide how to respond to the anomaly. It offers the choice of proceeding as planned, or decelerating and radically altering either their ultimate destination, or near doubling their travel time. To the mind, velocity is too precious a commodity to dispense with without a communal decision.

Almost at once, the populace wonders, "Why?"

The mind shows them the anomaly around Xi Virginis.

Light speed thoughts ripple across the mental sphere inside the egg. Individuals cluster and debate the meaning of the mind's observations. Most of the population study the phenomenon with the egg's own eyes. Camps develop in the debate, first thousands, then hundreds, then a few dozen as points of view converge and communal differences are ironed out.

In the end, there are three camps of belief.

The first, smallest group maintains that the anomaly is non-threatening and should be ignored. The mind should not adjust the course of the egg.

The second group, almost five times the size of the first, preaches caution. Their mission to seed another world should not be endangered by a cavalier attitude. The mind should start maneuvering; decelerating the egg to ensure that the egg comes no closer than ten light-years of the phenomenon, whatever it is.

The last group, and a majority, urges a course of action that the mind hadn't even considered. They should maneuver slightly to take the egg even closer, within a light-year of Xi Virginis. Their mission should not just be a journey of space and time, but one of knowledge. They should, in fact, be studying this anomaly, not running away or ignoring it.

Consensus is long in coming, but the egg eventually maneuvers to come as close as possible to Xi Virginis.

The decision is a mistake, and when the egg is within two light-years of Xi Virginis, it is too late for the mind to correct it.



Everyone is vulnerable to their past.

--The Cynic's Book of Wisdom

I would far rather be ignorant, than wise in the foreboding of evil.

--Aeschylus (525-456 Bce)

Date: 2525.09.14 (Standard) Occisis-Alpha Centauri

Father Mallory was two weeks into his xenoarchaeology class before one of his students finally asked him "the question." The questioner was a kid, barely eighteen standard, with a complexion and height that tagged him as having come from off-planet. Most of Mallory's class were squat fair-skinned Occisian stock who had already done their tour in the Marines. Judging by age, many had put in more rotations than Mallory had.

"Master Gideon," Mallory read the student's name off of the holo display and used his most scholarly voice, "That question is always asked when I give this class." Mallory smiled and faced the ranks of almost-solid holos showing students scattered all over Occisis. Even the classroom was a projection, as Father Mallory actually stood in a small room in the administrative offices of St. Marbury University.

"Can anyone identify the flaw in Master Gideon's question?"

The question was in large part rhetorical. Rarely did anyone ever answer; rarer still did they answer correctly. Mallory paced the two square meters that represented actual floor. Behind him, a display that was virtual to a second level of abstraction showed digital models of artifacts on the Martian surface overlaid by wireframe models of what the original structures might have looked like.

"He is asking if we know why the race we have named the Dolbrians died out a hundred million years ago. As I said, it's a question I am always asked in this class in one form or another. Every person who has ever studied them asks why. A race that left artifacts on planets across of all of explored space, who terraformed planets in dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of systems, a race that spread so widely and evidenced technology and engineering skill barely on the cusp of our comprehension. Why would they die out so completely?"

He had their attention.

"Anyone see a flaw in my premise?"

One of the student holos raised his hand. A Master Bartholomew whose image showed digital pixilation and a slight jerkiness that indicated his signal was bouncing off a commsat or three.

"Master Bartholomew?"

There was a full second delay before Master Bartholomew answered. His skin was weathered, and he still wore his hair cut in military style. He had unit tattoos on his neck that left Mallory subliminally aware of his own, under his collar. Someday I should have the tats removed, he thought. The implants, too.

"Do we know they died out?"

"Exactly." Mallory pointed at the display behind them. "This is a ruin, Mars is a ruin. For all we know this entire part of the galaxy is a ruin. But the presence of a ruin no more proves the extinction of the Dolbrians than the ruins of Athens prove the extinction of the Greeks. Just because I cannot point to some being somewhere and say, 'This, I know, is a Dolbrian,' does not mean they ceased to exist. Over a time-scale of millions of years we have very little certainty. It is quite possible that the race of Dolbrians evolved into something else, the Paralians, the Volerans, maybe even us..."

Bartholomew frowned. "Father, that seems an odd assertion from a priest."

"How so?"

"Doesn't evolution contradict--"

Mallory held up his hand, "Stop right there." Inside, he sighed. This was an undergraduate elective course and generally had an even split between humanities and science majors. Sometimes the students in the humanities had strange ideas about evolution. "So we don't get sidetracked here. Evolution is a scientific description of how species change over time, neither it, nor any other scientific theory, make assertions about faith, Church doctrine, or the nature of God."


"If you wish, after class I can direct you to Papal rulings on the matter, some of which are over five hundred years old."

Bartholomew looked crestfallen, and Mallory opened his mouth to add something about how Church doctrine upheld the sacred nature of all intelligent life when his holographic classroom abruptly vanished.

He stared a moment at the blank white walls, frowning. After a moment, when his class didn't reappear, he picked up the small comm unit mounted next to the holo controls set in the wall.

"Maintenance," Mallory told the interface as he looked at the small readout showing the status of his classroom.

Mallory didn't know why he looked at the display; he had no idea what the columns of numbers meant. Maintenance probably wouldn't even ask him about the display, assuming--in his case, correctly--the technical ineptitude of the faculty.

"University maintenance, O'Brien here."

"Hello, I have a problem with my classroom."

"Room number, please."


"Father Mallory?"

"Yes, my classroom disappeared in the middle of a lecture."

"I'm calling you up on my screen right now--hmm."


"This isn't a technical issue."

"Mr. O'Brien, I have thirty-five students that just vanished--"

"I can see that. Your class was subjected to an administrative reschedule."

"What? I'm in the middle of a lecture. It's two weeks into the term. This has to be some sort of mistake."

"I can't help you there. You'll have to talk to the administration about it."

"Who authorized it?" Mallory felt a hot spark of anger.

"Only the university president has that authority."

"Thank you."

Father Mallory slowly placed the comm unit back in its cradle.

Why would the administration, the president, cancel his class assignment? Anger was giving way to serious apprehension. This kind of thing was almost always followed by leave or dismissal. In his own university days, he remembered having a mathematics instructor, Father Reynolds, disappear in the middle of the semester. The day after a new instructor appeared to teach the class, Father Reynolds' name was dropped from the faculty directory. He never knew for certain what the gnomelike calculus professor had done, but he had read rumors of some financial indiscretions involving university funds and a gambling addiction.

But for the life of him, Father Mallory couldn't think of anything done on his part that merited that kind of sanction.

"Father Mallory?"

Mallory turned to face a dark-haired woman standing in the doorway of his classroom. She was Vice-Chancellor Marie Murphy, the highest-ranking member of the laity in the university administration.

"Dr. Murphy?"

"Forgive me for interrupting your class, there is a meeting you must attend."

"This couldn't have waited?"

"No, I am afraid not."

Dr. Murphy didn't lead him up to the administrative offices as he had expected. Mallory followed her into, of all things, a freight elevator.

"What's going on?" he asked, as he followed her into the brushed-metal cube of the elevator.

"It will be explained at the meeting."

Mallory shook his head, more confused than anything else now. All the meeting rooms were in the upper floors of the building, above the classroom areas. However, Dr. Murphy keyed for the third sublevel. The only thing down there would be environmental controls for the building, maybe some storage. Mallory was surprised that the keypad accepted Dr. Murphy's input. The biometric systems in the elevator shouldn't allow either of them access to the systems areas; they weren't maintenance or security personnel.

That could be overridden by the administration, too.

Mallory became very aware of the fight-or-flight response happening in his own body. Stress and uncertainty were elevating his adrenaline levels and his old Marine implants were responding. He felt his reflexes quickening, and felt events around him slowing down.

He wiped his palms on the legs of his pants very deliberately. Habit and training, not implants, made him contemplate escape scenarios.

He closed his eyes and started running through the rosary in his mind to rein in the biological and technological panic impulses. He couldn't help but remember recent history, before the overthrow of the junta. Back when the Revolutionary Council was burning monasteries and assassinating priests and nuns in the basements of churches.

When the doors chimed and slid aside, Mallory chided himself for being surprised not to see a death squad.

She led him down a concrete corridor. The hall was unadorned, lit by a diffuse white light that seemed to erase any character from the cold gray walls. Something made him ask, "Where were you during the revolution?"


"Do you remember the purges?"

"My father told me stories, but I was only three when the junta fell..."

"Oh." Mallory felt too old.

Their footsteps echoed as they passed ranks of large metal doors. Utilitarian plaques identified doors in some machine-readable code that looked more cryptic than any of the alien languages Mallory had studied.

Dr. Murphy stopped in front of one door that, to Mallory, didn't look any different than any of the others. She stood in front of the door, and it slid aside with a pneumatic hiss. She stepped aside and looked at Mallory.

"He's waiting for you."


Dr. Murphy shook her head and started back toward the elevator, leaving Mallory standing in front of the open door. He called after her, "Who?"

She didn't respond.

Mallory turned back to the open door. It was a storeroom lined with ranks of free-standing shelves. He couldn't see too deeply into the room through the shelving, but he sensed the presence of people back there somewhere.


"Father Mallory," came an unfamiliar voice, "please come in."

Mallory squinted as he walked into the dark storeroom. He tensed when the door hissed shut behind him. It brought an ugly memory; the smell of burned flesh.

Mallory walked slowly down the aisle between the shelves, toward an open space at one end of the storeroom. He reached the end of the aisle and turned to face the pair of men waiting for him. He said, "So what is this... ?"

His voice trailed off as he realized whom he was addressing. Each of the two men wore the black-and-red cassock of a cardinal. The cardinal to the right was very familiar to Mallory; Cardinal Harris, who was normally the highest ranking member of the Catholic Church on Occisis.

At the moment, though, he wasn't.

To his right was Cardinal Jacob Anderson, Bishop of Ostia, Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals, Secretary of State of His Holiness the Pope, arguably the highest ranking and most powerful member of the Roman Catholic Church outside of His Holiness Pope Stephen XII himself.

Father Mallory crossed himself and genuflected. "Forgive my outburst, Your Eminence."

Cardinal Anderson shook his head and gestured for Father Mallory to stand.

"You want to know why you are here. And why I am here."

Mallory nodded. "I didn't know you were on this planet."

"My son, that is because I am not officially here. His Holiness has a favor to ask of you, Father Mallory."

Cardinal Jacob Anderson explained their purpose here, all the time watching Father Mallory's reactions.

From the man's file, he was a perfect recruit for clandestine activity. Despite his age, he had the most sophisticated military training of all the recruits he had seen lately. And, as someone who fought against the Occisian Junta at a time when most of the Occisis Marines had backed the secularist revolutionary movement, Mallory was someone whose loyalty to Mother Church was unquestionable.

That would be important, because what the Church would ask of him would place him on his own, out of contact, for an extended period. There were also indications that what he would face would be spiritually threatening. Cardinal Anderson hoped that the man's grounding as a Jesuit academic, as well at the practical training of an Occisis Marine, would help him face what might be happening by Xi Virginis, seventy-five light-years past the edge of human space.

He looked at Mallory, who patiently waited for him to continue. He could tell the import of a direct papal request was sinking in. Physics rendered simultaneity meaningless for reference frames separated by light-years, making it impossible to interact with people across such distances. A personal envoy was required for any sort of dialogue, but that envoy didn't have to be Cardinal Anderson.

The fact that he had come here to personally talk to Father Mallory had made as much of an impression as if the pope himself had come here. Which was the point, as Cardinal Anderson believed that the Church sat at the cusp of a historical change that could shift the balance of power in the human universe over the course of centuries.

"The Church has received disturbing transmissions," he told Mallory, "originating from the vicinity of Xi Virginis."

Cardinal Anderson saw puzzlement cross Mallory's face. "But, there's nothing out toward Virgo," he said. "There hasn't been any human expansion past Helminth. Has there?"

"None that has made the official histories." Cardinal Anderson took a small handheld holo unit out of his robes. He aimed the device at Mallory and a star map about two meters in diameter unfolded between them. Centered in the display, a large and lumpy dumbbell-shaped cluster of stars was outlined in bright yellow, marking the confines of human space.

Yellow marked the systems that humanity colonized, while red marked the systems that were home to alien species. The greatest concentration of those were clustered on the other side of human space from Beta Pictoris and the tiny airless rock named Kathiwar that orbited it.

Kathiwar had been founded at a time when power between the political arms of the Confederacy was measured, at its base, in the number of planets controlled, giving a strong political impetus to colonize new worlds, even when the economics didn't make sense. One of the arms of the Confederacy, the People's Protectorate of Epsilon Indi, had been the most aggressive in spreading outward, placing colonies on planets solely as launchpads to reach farther out. Kathiwar was built to serve as one of those way stations, scanning the stars around and sending probes, and eventually, colony ships.

Shortly after Kathiwar was established, its observation platforms found a planet orbiting Tau Puppis. The discovery, Tau Puppis IV, seemed an obvious Dolbrian remnant, as no reasonably habitable planet should have evolved around that star. Its history might have ended there, as it was close to five times the maximum distance the Indi ships could reasonably supply a new colony, over 120 light-years away.

But when someone discovered that Tau Puppis was emitting faint EM radiation of demonstrably intelligent origin, the planet was moved to the front of Indi's priority list. First contact with an alien race was important in and of itself, but also in the front of the mind of every Indi decision maker was the fact that the accidental contact between the Centauri arm and the delphinine natives of Paralia had resulted in the development of the first tach drives and Centauri dominance in the new Confederacy. So Indi routed money, people, and Paralian-designed tach-ships down a corridor from Beta Pictoris toward Tau Puppis.

The aliens from Tau Puppis met them more than halfway.

There was a lot of diplomatic dancing, as it became very clear that the birdlike aliens were the rulers of an interstellar empire as large or larger than man's, an empire that claimed much of the 120 light-years of space between Beta Pictoris and Tau Puppis, a volume as great as the whole of the Confederacy at the time.

The end result was to deform the yellow dumbbell of human colonization, pushing it away from the galactic center and away from the red-outlined systems of the Voleran Empire.

None of the other red-outlined systems represented such an interstellar empire. Procyon, within the core of human space, was highlighted red. Familiar to any Occisian as the home system of the Race, the losers of mankind's first, and so far only, interstellar war with another species.

Two remaining systems were outlined red. One embedded in the other lobe of the dumbbell on the opposite side of Sol from the Volerans. That was Paralia, home of the aquatic creatures that designed humanity's first tach-drives.

The last red outline other marked Helminth, home to an enigmatic wormlike race that had cities, and a civilization, but with whom human scientists were barely able to communicate.

Like the Volerans, Helminth marked the edge of the human expansion toward the galactic center. But for a different reason.

The Voleran side of human space had been expanding for two centuries, and the presence of Voleran colonies simply forced the drift of mankind off in a different direction.

Helminth marked the edge of human space by coincidence. That end of human space stopped expanding for political and economic reasons. A hundred and seventy-five years ago, when the Confederacy fell, the planets of the old Sirius-Eridani Economic Community had fared the worst. Where the other arms of the old Confederacy managed to hold on to some sort of political identity, the SEEC began a decades-long inward collapse along ancient fault lines. The dual capitals of Cynos and Khamsin were untenable without the Confederacy to support it, and what was left after the breakup didn't have the resources to move outward.

However, on Cardinal Anderson's map, there were blue-outlined stars flung out beyond Helminth in a pattern that had never appeared in any publicly available chart or catalog; a pattern of half a dozen stars over a hundred light-years from Sol and over seventy light-years beyond the edge of human space.

"A decade ago, a Jesuit observatory discovered those colonies you see there in blue." He adjusted the display and the view zoomed in on the blue systems so names on the stars were visible.

89 Leonis, HD 98354, HD 101534, Xi Virginis...

Mallory stared at the cluster of blue-outlined systems.

It was bizarre. Lost colonies were the stuff of tabloid holocasts. Too much time, resources, and people went into establishing a colony--especially one so distant--for the history of it to be lost in the short time that man had been traveling among the stars.

Father Mallory looked up at Cardinal Anderson. "These are alien outposts, some new species?"

"No," Cardinal Anderson said quietly. "These are human colonies, at least six of them, founded as the Confederacy was collapsing. A hundred and seventy-five years ago."

"Six? Why hasn't this been made public? Six established colonies..."

"Possibly more," the cardinal said. "These colonies were founded in secret. We believe by people escaping the rise of the Eridani Caliphate. Can you see why we would keep this secret?"

Father Mallory nodded. The Eridani Caliphate, successor to something more than half of the old SEEC, had never had good relations with the Vatican. Often open warfare was only avoided by the fact that the Roman Catholic Church wasn't a nation, as such. However, the pope had many allies in the secular world as the only part of the body of Christ with an interstellar reach. There had been dozens of proxy battles over the past century, fighting the reach of the Caliphate into the remains of the SEEC.

However, the Caliphate currently controlled the area between the rest of human space and these newly discovered colonies. The Caliphate's official position on the ascension of the Islamic government was that it was the rise of an oppressed people into power. The revelation of secular--or worse, Christian or Jewish--refugees from that ascension forming breakaway colonies would be a diplomatic embarrassment to the Caliphate.

Both the location of these colonies, and their possible historical ties to the planets of the Caliphate, made it almost inevitable that the Eridani Caliphate would claim them as part of their sphere of influence, growing by 50 percent almost instantly; expanding into a space that would, given the limits of current tach-drives, have very limited access to the rest of human space. From the point of view of Mother Church, that would be unacceptable.

Father Mallory shook his head. "Forgive me, Your Eminence. I understand the Church's interest in these worlds. What is the interest in me?"

"These worlds were discovered by accident," said the cardinal. "A chance interception of a tach-comm transmission. We've been secretly monitoring ever since. Unfortunately, these are low power signals. Over such distances they degrade. We can only obtain a few hours' worth of comprehensible intelligence over the course of a year. And, of course, a listening post by Helminth, or anywhere near there, risks alerting the Caliphate. We've been using Vatican property on Cynos."

"You said 'disturbing' transmissions, Your Eminence."

Cardinal Anderson thumbed a control on his holoprojector, and the air was filled with an awful static whine.

The holo's picture became fluid and refused to stabilize. It seemed to be the view out of a tach-ship. Stars spun and blurred, and a blue orb filled the display.

"...with Xi Virginis... bzzt... have lost visual contact..."

Something blurred the view. The planet pixilated and reformed, and something clouded the space between the camera and the planet. At first the black specks seemed to be some digital artifact.

Suddenly, a very different voice was speaking. "...bzzt... coming toward... bzzt... behold a great... bzzt..."

It wasn't an artifact. The cloud was real, the specks moving purposefully toward the planet.

" heads... bzzt... crowns upon... bzzt... the third part of the stars... cast... bzzt..."

The transmission died.

"The last part?" Father Mallory asked.

"Behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth," quoted Cardinal Anderson, "Revelation, Chapter Twelve." He switched off the holo projection. "We need someone to investigate."

"What does it mean?"

"We do not know," Cardinal Anderson said. "Analysis of the star field places that planet close to, if not in orbit around, Xi Virginis, on the far side of these colonies."

"Why me?"

"The Church cannot move without attracting attention," he said. "But one man can."

Father Mallory nodded. "How am I to travel there without attracting the Caliphate's attention?"

"Are you familiar with the planet Bakunin?" Cardinal Anderson asked.

Copyright © 2009 by S. Andrew Swann


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