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Pock's World [MultiFormat]
eBook by Dave Duncan

eBook Category: Fantasy
eBook Description: In this thrilling story of adventure and suspense by master storyteller Dave Duncan, five flawed individuals must decide the fate of an entire world. On the outskirts of the Ayne Sector sits Pock's World. Years ago, humankind settled the planet. Now, it might or might not have been infested by humanoid aliens, hidden amongst the populace, waiting to interbreed and use humans as incubators for their parasitic spawn. Five people are chosen to travel to the quarantined Pock's World to find out whether it should be sterilized of all life--a ruthless priest, a scandal-seeking reporter, an ambitious politician, a bureaucrat, and a questionable billionaire. Each has his or her own agenda as to what they wish to find on that distant planet. Instead, they discover the unexpected--a web of deceit, love, politics, and religion. With very little time left, there don't seem to be any simple answers in the complicated universe of Pock's World. "Entertaining, fast-moving and thoughtful SF, with engaging characters." - S. M. Stirling

eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 2010
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2011


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Chapter 1

Wundy

The heavens thundered and the suborbital from Annatto dropped out of the dawn sky like an angel of fire. Braked by a repeller beam from Shadoof Landing, it slowed almost to a stop and then sank while its heat shield blazed white, then red, and finally orange. Stillness and blessed silence returned. Seemingly reassured, the craft nudged in close to a blockhouse and set down on three delicate legs with the grace of a bird settling on her nest. Umbilicals snaked out from the blockhouse and locked on.

Having no baggage, Brother Andre was the first passenger to emerge on the blockhouse roof. Wrinkles and silver hair proclaimed his age now, but he strode along as determinedly as ever--tall, spare, straight-backed, and barefoot, with the hem of his brown habit swirling around his ankles.

He felt a great sense of escape. All his life he had enjoyed anonymity, but within the last week his jagged features had become famous on all of the seventeen worlds. He had been recognized in the suborbital's cabin, even questioned, and at the end some of his fellow travelers had knelt to ask his blessing. Fame was an unwelcome burden, but what he had so narrowly escaped two days ago would have been much worse. He hoped that whatever new prospect lay ahead of him now would not be too terrible. Non mea voluntas sed tua fiat--not my will but Thine be done.

No one had come to meet him, which was both a relief and a reminder not to let fame go to his head. He inspected the line of air cars with distaste. Capuchin friars were required to travel on foot whenever possible, but that was hardly practical when the first few steps included a thirty-meter drop. Also, the pope had been insistent that he come as fast and unobtrusively as possible. Sighing, Andre went to the far end of the line, where the small cars were, and sat on the wickedly comfortable bench of a two-seater. The canopy closed.

--Destination? The inquiry came via his Broca implant.

The Vatican.

--Confirm identity.

Brother Andre, Order of Friars Minor Capuchin.

--Brother Andre, your credit currently stands at zero.

Priority code Gomorrah.

--Temporary credit valid.

The car rose with a quiet hum and headed north.

Andre had been granted the special credit when he flatly informed the Holy Father that Annatto Mission could not afford to finance jaunts halfway around the world. Thirty thousand years ago, St. Francis had forbidden his followers to use money. Electronic credit would appall him.

Leaving Shadoof, the car climbed over fertile plains where energy fences marked off circular grain fields amid undisturbed woodlands, then leveled and cruised high above Straint Gulf and its innumerable islands--blue-green water, beaches rimmed with white surf, aloof mansions owned by prosperous citizens. Andre did not envy the rich their good fortune, but he did wonder why they could not share the planet's abundance a little more equitably. The mission back in Annatto was swamped by hungry, indigent people. At times he had no food to offer them, nor beds for the sick and unwanted dying. He did not understand, but he was not surprised. Thirty millennia ago, the Lord had given fair warning when he said, The poor are always with you.

As the car crossed the northern shore he saw his destination far ahead, and his mood brightened. St. Peter in the Clouds was unquestionably the most beautiful cathedral on Ayne, probably the most beautiful church on any of the seventeen worlds of the Ayne sector. It might even be the finest place of worship in the entire Galaxy, although no mortal could ever know what God had wrought outside the limits of the sector. Sixteen centuries ago, it had been carved from the living rock of Vatican Mountain, a tough, micaceous schist that shone like silver in the low light. In the early-morning chill, the scummy swamps surrounding the hill were blanketed by roiling white fog from the warm springs that fed them, so the cathedral's name was entirely appropriate, a sculpted rock floating above the clouds.

For the last two small-months, the eyes of the faithful all over the sector had been fixed on the Vatican--first for the death watch on old Pope Margaret III, then for her grandiose funeral, and finally for the conclave of cardinals assembled from all over the sector to elect her successor. Even non-Catholics had enjoyed watching that spectacle, and not a few of the faithful had joined them in laying bets on the clerical horse race. Away in Annatto, Brother Andre had been far too busy with the work of his mission to pay any heed. Their Eminences had no need of his advice or approval. Whomever God had chosen would be fine by him. So he had assumed.

He had discovered his error right after the first ballot, when Brother Matthew had burst in shouting that more votes had been cast for Brother Andre, OFM Capuchin, than for anyone else. Not in twelve hundred years had a conclave elected anyone other than a cardinal to the throne of St. Peter on Ayne, but there was nothing in the rules to forbid it. Brother Andre had turned on his implant and started paying attention.

With exactly ninety cardinals in attendance, sixty-one votes were needed for election. To his horror, by the third ballot his tally had crept up to fifty-five, and an obscure friar, scarcely known outside the Church hierarchy, was suddenly an interstellar celebrity. His face was everywhere, as was the late pope's quip that it resembled a mountain peak with frostbite. Whatever were the reverend ladies and gentlemen thinking? To Andre's intense relief, his support dropped to fifty-two on the next ballot, showing that he could not reach the necessary two-thirds plus one. The pre-conclave favorite, Cardinal Paul Favela, had slowly emerged from the pack, and on the thirteenth ballot had been elected 503rd pontiff of the Ayne Sector Catholic Church. He had taken the name Cyril-Pius XXII.

Brother Andre had given thanks to God that the papal cup had been taken from him, and he rejoiced that his sudden fame would make fund-raising for the mission easier--donors were already calling from all over the sector. Although he could barely admit it, even to himself, he was uneasy about the eminent cardinals' choice. He and Favela had first met as adolescents in St. Jude's seminary more than sixty years ago and had never agreed on anything, then or since. Like brooms, new popes swept clean, and doubtless this one would make changes that Brother Andre would dislike.

Andre was prepared for that. He had not expected that virtually the first act of the new pontiff would be to summon his old opponent from the far side of the globe, for reasons unstated. The pope must have called him in the middle of the night, Vatican time. Well, Andre would soon learn why. Already the air car was close enough for him to make out the houses of Vatican City on the slopes, and other cars like flitting insects, coming and going from the landing ground in front of the cathedral's great west door.

Car, priority Gomorrah. Take me to the east landing.

--Privilege acknowledged, Brother Andre.

The car banked. Andre sat back again to watch the great pillared dome turn before him. In the half century since he had first set eyes on it, it had never ceased to impress him. As the car settled to the courtyard, he was relieved to see how empty it was. Neither honor guard nor gawking cognition witnesses stood shivering in the nippy dawn. Even the pope had trouble keeping secrets, but apparently he had succeeded this time.

There were always guards there, of course. They wore bright motley and were armed with swords or pikes, but those weapons were much more than the tourist fodder they seemed, and numerous specialized brain implants must lurk under the archaic metal helmets. The pope himself might be watching his visitor's arrival through those youthful eyes.

A black-robed priest met Andre at the door. He had the face of a teenager framed between an old man's ears. He was likely into his seventies, not far short of medical interdict. "You are expected, Brother."

"I am pleased to hear it, Father. Lead on."

Whatever the problem, it was urgent. There was no delay, no cooling of heels in antechambers. He went past a few curious, resentful glances, but no one else spoke to him. In a minor reception room he had not seen in years, Andre knelt to kiss the Fisherman's ring. The soundproof door closed quietly on the private audience.

Favela had always been small, scrawny, and restless, and the papal robes hung on him as if he had already shrunk under the weight of his office. He was past interdict now, and the years were catching up with him, just as they were with Andre--wrinkles, silvered hair, a loss of youthful tone. Sadly, Andre felt again that sensation of dealing with a man who always had too many agendas, who never doubted that ends justified means. Nevertheless, whatever Cyril-Pius's faults, and they were few, gloating was not one of them. Although he could have left his visitor on his knees, he bade Andre be seated as if nothing had changed between them. His own chair was a throne, but the one offered was comfortable enough.

Favela's eyes always reminded Andre of a bird's, and now perhaps a worried bird's. His smile was bloodless. "Your congratulations were welcome. No hard feelings, I hope?"

"None at all, Holy Father. I assure you that all my prayers now include thanks that I was not chosen."

The pope nodded. "I will admit to you, old friend--because we know each other so well--that I did harbor hopes of being elevated. I thought I was prepared, and yet, when the result was announced and old Marius came to kneel before me and ask if I would serve, I was appalled." He sighed under the weight of the sins of seventeen worlds. "I thought I would recover soon enough, but suddenly the prospect grows even grimmer." The perfunctory small talk ended abruptly. "Andre, you are familiar with Pock's World."

"I served about five hundred days there, yes--fifty years ago."

"Tell me about it."

Why? Andre had been very young, very eager, and in the end very indiscreet. He had been recalled and reprimanded, but those sins were long since confessed, repented, and forgiven. Surely a newly elected pope could not be so spiteful as to rummage through the Vatican Brain hunting for a scandal to pin on the man who had nearly preempted him? If Paul Favela were as petty as that, he wouldn't be so dangerous.

"A peculiar world, Holiness, only marginally habitable. Thinly settled. The first settlers called it Cain's World. Not a true planet..." If the pope needed mere facts, he could access the Brain, which knew everything. He wanted a personal opinion. "It's classed as low-tech, but that's a matter of choice. They keep the scenery rural and use high tech where it matters, in hospitals and so on.

"The Church is poorly represented on Pock's. A very heretical world. Pagan, really. It has some Buddhists, Moslems, and Calvinists, but most people follow the local mother-goddess cult. They seemed happy enough when I was there. The state of their souls is more worrisome, of course."

If Cyril-Pius was planning some grandiose mission to convert Pock's World, then he must be tactfully advised to consult the Brain's history files. A dozen such attempts had been made over the millennia, and none had made any impression on the Mother cult.

"The state of their souls just became extremely urgent," the pope said harshly. "Yesterday STARS Inc. quarantined Pock's World."

Ah! Suddenly everything made sense. If a pandemic was raging on Pock's and the Holy Father wished to organize a relief fund or a medical mission, then the newly famous Brother Andre would be the logical person to put in charge. It would be both a staggering responsibility and a noble cause.

"I suppose that should not surprise us, Holy Father. The environment there is loaded with free radicals and other carcinogens that act as mutagens on unicellular life. Or is it a virus? What sort of mortality rate?"

Cyril-Pius raised a thin-veined hand. "I am not talking of a disease. I am talking about a Diallelon abomination."

"Sweet Jesus!" Andre fell back in his chair. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee... strength to bear this burden... mercy on millions of innocents. Pock's was the least populous world of the sector, but even so... He opened his eyes and stared bleakly at his old rival. No wonder Favela looked haggard--after fewer than three days on the throne he faced a disaster worse than any the sector had known in five centuries, a planetary death sentence.

"Cuckoos? How sure are they?"

The pope shrugged. "When has STARS ever admitted to doubts?"

"They don't just mean parthenogenesis, do they? I mean, the priestesses of the Mother have always--"

"No, Andre. I do know enough to ask that. They say it's undoubtedly Diallelon chimerazation-cuckoos, synthetic hominins, Frankensteins, androids, devil spawn, GM supermen, call them what you will. Satanic creations that look like men and think they are better than men."

The very idea of supermen, genetically modified or otherwise, was an insult to God. He made man in his own image; man made by man in an "improved" image was the work of the devil. In a hundred thousand years, mankind had faced no real rivals except those it had made itself. So far it seemed that no world, and perhaps no galaxy, was big enough for two sentient species.

"Quarantine I can understand," said Andre. "There is no rush to resort to more drastic measures, surely?"

The pope sighed. "I pray not. Night and day, I pray not. But I fear what STARS may be planni ng. It has agreed to admit a fact-finding mission."

"Then there must be some room for discussion."

The Church drew a strict line between permissible and forbidden genetic tampering. Eve's children had been designed by evolution for one specific planet. They needed the right gravity, the right partial pressure of oxygen, trace elements like copper. They sickened unless even trivia like the length of day suited their metabolism. Some common elements like arsenic or beryllium destroyed them. They could develop fatal allergies to almost anything. The list was endless.

To terraform a world would take centuries and unimaginable amounts of money; it would inevitably throw the existing ecosystem into chaos or destroy it. Far easier to modify DNA in test tubes, when less than one cc of fertilized ova would suffice to populate a planet. Every colonized world, therefore, received a new variety of colonist. The Church had long ago bowed to the inevitable and recognized the resulting hominins as human. Ayne boasted that it was a dead ringer for original Earth, but its inhabitants had been modified back from whatever their ancestors had become on a journey through a dozen stepping-stone worlds.

But Diallelon chimerazation went beyond modifications to the creation of new species. Such invention was anathema, the threat to replace Homo sapiens with something different. Pock's was an extreme world, and it required extreme people. Had STARS genuinely discovered something new and forbidden on Pock's, or had it merely decided to reclassify the Pocosins as non-human? If the latter, there ought to be room for argument somewhere, or at least delay, and Andre clutched at that straw of hope.

"I cannot see a need for sterilization," he said. "When I was there, Pock's had nothing approaching independent space capability..."

That had been a lifetime ago. Values were eternal, but technology changed.

Why me, Lord? Like Job, a believer must never ask that question. "Holy Father, I will do whatever I can."

"I do not doubt this. We have not always agreed, Andre, but I have never doubted your honesty and intelligence. It will be matter of only a few days. You and a few others will be shown the evidence, then you will return to submit your report. Reports, plural, if you do not all reach the same conclusion."

"A few days to decide the fate of a world?"

"Better than nothing. I'm appointing you my legate." His Holiness did not ask whether Andre accepted the appointment. Three knots tied a Franciscan's girdle as reminders of the three oaths: poverty, celibacy, and obedience.

"To do what, exactly? To confirm that there these abominations exist? To discover what means are available to control them? Surely the local authorities can be trusted to uncover and destroy the means of production and transmission? Surely the rest of the sector will rush in to help? We all know how STARS will react to a Diallelon."

STARS never admitted a mistake in a matter of this magnitude. If it decided that Pock's World should be sterilized, then it would go ahead no matter what anyone said.

The Holy Father leaned back in his throne and sighed. "This is a weighty burden I have been given, Andre, and I feel a sense of relief because I know I can lay it on your shoulders for a brief time. I need two things of you."

"I am at your command."

Favela studied him thoughtfully. "First, a promise. I am insulting you by asking, but I want your word that you will not let our old friendship sway your decision. If you conclude that sterilization is required, you will tell me so without consideration for my feelings. The Lord has called me to the papacy, and I will perform my duties as He would want."

Andre was aghast. "You will not oppose geocide?" World murder.

The avian eyes glittered. "Not if it is required. That will depend on your report, of course, but many good Catholics work for STARS and would need our reassurance in performing a distasteful task. If a new chimerazation abomination has arisen, then we shall have no option but to declare a Crusade." We meant I, Andre realized. The old zeal was showing. Popes who proclaimed crusades were remembered--but would Favela let hundreds of millions die just to carve himself a place in history? Would he want to be reviled like Benedict LII?

"Your Holiness can count on me to serve according to my oath."

Cyril-Pius smiled. "I knew it. And my other request is your forgiveness, old friend. The Lord works in mysterious ways. You would always have been my first choice for this terrible task, but I could never have appointed you if you had remained the obscure friar you were a small-month ago. If a crusade becomes necessary--if Pock's World must burn--then the Church must show that the decision is justified. The people will take your word. They will weep with the Saint of Annatto."

Had anyone else called him by that name, Andre would have barked. The Saint of Annatto had been the vulgar cog-doc broadcast that had launched him into fame. "Of course you have it, Holy Father, and my prayers as well. Who else goes on this mission? When does it leave?"

"I do not know who else. I was informed by a certain Sulcus Immit, Director of Security in STARS. He wanted to lift you directly to orbit and only reluctantly agreed to wait until I could instruct you in person. He said the rest of the team would be ready by the time you arrived. A public announcement will be made after your liftoff. Kneel and receive our blessing on your mission."

A dozen pairs of eyes scrutinized the old friar emerging from the reception room. A curia already in turmoil as it sought to adjust to a new pope must wonder what to make of a long-term associate so soon summoned to the steps of the throne. Was the now-celebrated Brother Andre to be promoted to the summit of the curia, ordered to accept the red hat he had so often begged Pope Margaret not to bestow on him? Brother Andre did not even notice their appraisal. He crossed the antechamber, and, as he emerged into the corridor, he sensed cognition.

--Priority call from Sulcus Immit.

Andre thoroughly disapproved of implants, believing that God's was the only voice he should hear inside his head, but the Church insisted that every priest have one so that he or she could be summoned in an emergency. He had accepted only the bare minimum implant, voice contact. Before leaving Annatto, he had diverted all incoming calls to Brother Matthew, but he was not surprised that STARS had ways of bypassing his ban.

Accept.

--We have a shuttle standing by, Brother. A car will pick you up at the main door in ten minutes.

Make it thirty, Friend Sulcis.

--Time is running out.

Thirty.

--You are inconveniencing a lot of people.

Thirty.

As you wish. Cognition ended.

Evidently that was one STARS employee who was not a good Catholic. Andre rode the gravity shaft up to the cathedral. The terrible news had left him numb. He needed time to pray: Heavenly Father, do not forsake Thy children on Pock's World, even those who have forsaken Thee.


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