The man in the jacket disembarked from the boat which he had never, in the traditional manner, boarded. Nobody seemed to actually be aware of this - it was almost depressingly easy to leave every person on the ship with the impression that while they did not know him, someone else certainly did, so his presence there was just fine.
The customs officials shot at him as he was leaving the port city. Rather, they fired their weapons; if a person happened to be guilty of something, the Almighty would certainly see to it that the projectiles struck them. Likewise, of course, the innocent would not be struck. That's a handy argument to have when using something as inaccurate as a musket, especially when it's true.
The man in the jacket, fortunately, did not suffer a massive chest wound resulting in massive internal bleeding and a sudden but painful death. It was a nice jacket.
They shot at him because he was not wearing a proper head covering. Such disrespect could not be tolerated. The man in the jacket seemed on the verge of snide obscenity, then he shrugged and pulled a nondescript cap from his pocket and put it on.
Then he set out, walking, along the Imperial Highway.
"Please don't do that again."
"Tell off the authorities."
"But you seriously intended to. You could get yourself killed."
"Promise you won't piss people off any more than we need to."
"Not piss people...? Jacques, have you read our mission profile?"
"Fine. But you gotta promise not to do risky things with your projectors like that."
"It's my job to get you to that city. Sleep well."
The man in the jacket liked to walk. The Imperial highways were wide and well-kept; both pedestrians and beast-drawn vehicles used it. The beast-wagons were quite advanced, some with metal frames and all with sturdy construction and high-quality wheels and axles. A few even had complex gear devices that harnessed the turning of the wheels to turn fans that cooled the passengers.
All they needed were internal combustion engines, really.
He walked past some tall stone towers, their blocks cunningly cemented. Atop each one was a row of five discs mounted on a rotating platform. Each disc flipped easily around to show a side painted either white or black. Messages zipped along through the air above him.
"This gives me the willies."
"It's like societal caffeine, or, I don't know... what is it, exactly?"
"Come on, Jacques. You read the profile. What do you think it is?"
"What will we do about it?"
"We? Well, machines are safe, and you might be surprised what I believe in."
"I hope you don't intend to do anything drastic. Our orders have rather strict parameters."
The man in the jacket had an unfortunate encounter, several days later, with some lightning. Of course, everybody knows that it's a bad idea to walk alone at a high elevation in a clear space during a thunderstorm. That bit of wisdom really wouldn't have done him any good, as these bolts struck out of a clear green sky, like slivers of the glaring sun, weaving their way through the massive trees surrounding this section of the highway.
The first was several feet ahead, a clear miss. The man paused for a second, cocked his head, then swore and jumped ahead several feet. Then he kept walking.
The second bolt struck right where he had paused.
He kept walking, seeming to be talking to himself without opening his mouth.
The third bolt should have hit him right on the head, but several feet from him it forked away and grounded on a sapling. The man's hair stood straight out for a moment. The sapling smoked and died.
Three more bolts struck in quick succession, every one being deflected at the last moment.
The seventh shot straight down, turned ninety degrees, and shattered the trunk of a tree. The tree toppled toward the man, but seemed almost to turn mid-fall and crashed to the ground just behind him.
The man in the jacket kept walking. Several minutes later, after no further bolts had struck, he let out a breath he hadn't seemed to have been holding.
"Nearly fried my fucking capacitors...."
"Language, Jacques. You know, you didn't have to help. I was perfectly safe."
"Sure, except for the bit with the humongous tree. What was that all about anyway? You haven't even killed anyone yet."
"He fears what he doesn't understand. That doesn't sound familiar at all, does it?"
"His aim is too good."
"Hah. We'll have to do something about that."
The man in the jacket, up until several weeks before, could play the piano. But certain modifications had proven necessary for him to fit in with the people of this world. Each hand now sported six digits, one less than he was used to. With only one thumb, he had to relearn many common tasks, like brushing his teeth, firing a hand weapon, and picking his nose.
Some things he had never learned to begin with. Matches, for instance.
In the small clearing in the middle of the woods, he knelt amongst the old leaves carpeting the ground, fumbling with a tin of matches.
He had had to dig through several inches of leaves to find the stones; the one that should have been upright had fallen over. He had righted it, setting the others in the proper pattern. The central stone had been cracked by ice, it seemed, but it was still operational. The herbs piled in the depression in the center of that stone had been easy enough to find.
There had been nothing to suggest to anyone that these stones had been here once, but he had found them as easily as if there had been neon signs to point them out.
He got the match to strike against the underside of the tin, and he delicately touched the flame to the clump of small leaves on the stone.
He didn't believe, of course, but the fire was enough. The air around him stirred, whispering to him. His eyes fell closed, and his mouth seemed to move, whispering syllables it had never known. The air stirred more, suggesting the formation of shapes that were not there -
Then the flame, which had devoured most of the match, touched his fingertip and he opened his eyes, dropped the match with a curse, and stuck his fingers in his mouth.
A bird sitting in a tree above him saw only a foolish human. The man saw - though his attention was fixed on his burned fingertips - a faint, fading haze of gold around his body.
"That wasn't in the planetary profile."
"Well done! No wonder they use the word 'intelligence.' Outstanding reasoning."
"You've read my profile; you know what I can see and do."
"I didn't know you could resurrect the damn things."
"It wasn't a resurrection - what do you think this is, a literature class? Those things never really die. It was a... recharging. It won't last. The poor thing will be barely an echo again this time tomorrow."
"So what was the point?"
"He had that thing destroyed long ago. He's probably forgotten about it. But he'll smell it on me, where he smelled nothing before. And that will confuse him, the residue of a strange one of his kind on me."
"You can see it? Feel it?"
"Yeah. Damn, but I feel like I need a bath. You know what they did for his clown? The one I revived? Sacrificed fuckin' goats! Like, dozens of 'em!"
"And then they bathed in the goat blood."
"You're telling me. You're not the one with several centuries of recently learned worship floating around in your brain."
"Okay, well, that's unpleasant, but aren't we facing something worse?"
"Yeah... people are worse than goats, I guess...."
"So. Anyway. He smells this... one... with the goat fetish on you, and doesn't know what to make of it. No more smiting?"
"I guess we'll find out."
The man in the jacket turn from the road, apparently without reason, and struck out through the light pine forest. After half an hour, he came to a collection of erstwhile stone structures. Smaller than a town, larger than a breadbox.
In the center of the cluster of buildings - most of which, from the fragments of furniture (for it had not been abandoned all that long), were libraries - was an open space. The ground here, as everywhere else, was covered in pine needles.
The man in the jacket undid the cuffs on his jacket and rolled them back. He placed his feet shoulder-width apart and stood, facing the center of the space, his arms bent slightly so that his hands faced the center of the clearing.
After a moment, the pine needles in the center swirled. Then they flew up into the air, revealing a bed of elderly and ruined ashes. Pine needles dispersed all over the square as the ashes floated up into a black, amorphous cloud. Venerable flagstones were cleared and the ash cloud began to drift into numerous groups. The biggest one was in the far corner; the ashes there were smaller, lighter. The other groups were smaller now. One by one, they coalesced into a rectangular prism. The coalescence was accompanied by a flicker of laser light and the indeterminately blue haze of a precision graviton field.
Fifteen minutes later, five old and almost-ruined tomes had thumped softly to the flagstones. The remaining ashes were mounded up and shoved into the corner.
The man in the jacket rebuttoned his cuffs and sat down amongst the books and began to read.
"Okay, full report, let's go."
"Good grief. You saw everything I did."
"Sure, but you know how high my analytical rating is."
"Point. Okay, the first two were science. Physics, chemistry... grief, they got relativity and everything. The third was a collection of writings - plays and suchforth - written by an extremely caustic wit, and heavy with political satire and general social deconstruction. The fourth was a treatise on the ideal economic/political structure, based around a lack of social structure and a primary emphasis on collective good. Heavily underlined and dog-eared, fates know how you reconstructed those details. The fifth was more science. Amazingly advanced - at the rate of publication of those things, I'd give them ten years for a ramjet and another twenty for quantudrives. They have the theoretical foundations of quantuspace manipulation, and they haven't even left their stellar gravity well! How many races have we seen do that, two? Three?
"Anyway... these people could go places, do stuff... if conditions were other than they are, that is."
"As you said, I saw all that. But what does it mean?"
"Well, basically... it means there were some very brilliant people who once lived on this planet - I'm guessing past tense is appropriate, given those other ashes you sorted out - and they did some very important work. Said work, along with its creators, was then burned by either the law enforcement or the clergy. Which is probably redundant."
"So, nothing we didn't already know from the mission profile."
"What, exactly, was the point of that, then? Making sure my graviton nodes were aligned right?"
"Jacques... I needed to see it for myself. I needed to recognize the extent of... of the situation."
"And why is that?"
"What is faith, Jacques?"
"'Firm belief in something for which there is no proof.'"
"Yes. All around us are the effects of acting merely on faith - and, I admit, no small amount of fear, not to mention the confidence that a pointy stick automatically creates."
"I think you're up to something."
"I think you should let me sleep."
The city was an awesome, jet-black, spired thing, reaching desperately for the heavens like a fallen angel. Through its wide, paved heart was driven the most impressive tower, capped by a skeleton of a gem, a cage-like enclosure that looked once to have had large glass windows.
The man in the jacket stumbled out of two hours in a tavern with the interesting but embarrassingly obtained knowledge that women were forbidden to learn to read or write beyond basic arithmetic, salad was eaten with the right-hand fork, and that there were ten days in a week, and found himself in the large square. It had filled up with people, talking and trading.
The loud hum of general conversation was pierced suddenly by the blast of a horn. The blast echoed and was repeated around the city, once from the top of the central tower. The man looked up, shielding his eyes from the midday sun, and saw four priestly-looking fellows on the edges of the open area at the top of the tower. They lowered the horns, and one began to speak in an echoing voice that resounded over the square.
A general call to prayer. Only in the large cities, the man supposed. Around him, people were falling to their knees, all facing the tower. They joined their voices to the priest's. The man tried not to hear what they said.
Something made him turn, and he saw behind him two large men holding large guns and wearing large scowls. Religious police, swore a voice in his head. The gestures the men made with their guns were clear, and the man was forced to fall to his knees like the worshippers.
It was the first step down the slippery shaft of prayer. The man kept his mouth firmly closed, but the voices of those around him and the energies those voice evoked battered him brutally. He clamped his eyes closed and knelt, shuddering.
Worship whipped by him with gale force. It tugged at his soul, begging him to open himself as a conduit, to join the prayer and the worship and to praise the almighty, the great, the beneficient and loving that would surely save us all -
Blood pooled around his fingernails on the palms of his hands. The sun above was so bright it made him want to do violence, and even closing his eyes didn't help.
In one of those odd associations that occur in times of extreme stress, he thought back to his early days of learning to serve in this job. They had taught him to use all sorts of weapons and technologies, countless inventive ways to kill. He had also been trained in fighting without weapons, and he remembered the primary principle of the unarmed technique - not to resist, but to embrace and redirect. Normally that worked just fine, both in combat and in interpersonal relations, but here he knew that dropping his guard for a moment, failing to resist just a hair would be suicide. Master Diath would give him one of those looks if he heard the man in the jacket talk like that, but he was sure there could be no acceptance here.
The prayer itself was subdued, a call-and-response litany that droned on. For the man, it was a fight for his survival. The worship threatened to pick him up and dash him against the tower's solid walls. It wore at him, and his strength began, just barely, to fail.
And then it was over, the priests retreating and the people standing and rubbing joints sore from kneeling on the solid, unyielding flagstones.
The man stood unsteadily. He paused, bent-over, to brush the thick accumulated stone-dust from his knees. Then he stood all the way and scuffed uncomfortably at the ground before setting off for the city's aptly-named River Gate; hopefully no one would mind the two grooves worn into the stone around where his knees had been.
"Okay, and we're taking a riverboat why?"
"Because it's the shortest route between two points, Jacques. Shaves a couple dozen miles of our trip."
"It was my understanding that the route planned for you from the drop point to the capital was to be followed as closely as possible."
"Yes. So that I could 'more precisely evaluate the local situation before taking any irreversible action.' But I'm done evaluating."
"I think maybe you're overwrought after the incident in that last city. Perhaps you should - "
"No! I'm... fine. Did you... did you see that historical marker sign we passed on our way to the docks?"
"The city was, centuries ago, capital of a great and terrible empire of degenerates and sinners that stretched along this river. You can tell they were evil because they painted all their buildings black, you see. Anyway, they threatened to invade the Holy Realm and pursue their perverse interests there. So the Almighty made the river swell up and drown the infidels, delivering the land unto the Chosen People. The capital city they left intact, including the color scheme, as a reminder that nothing can stand up to the Almighty."
"Oh, that sign."
"So says that sign, and so says scripture. Jacques, the Miisi Culture-Watchers started orbiting this planet over a millenium ago. They recorded all of this. The people in the nation along the river were scientists and artists. They were bleeding pacifists! They had the most advanced technological level on the planet. That central tower? Mission control for a space program. They were launching rockets! And our pious friends here funded terrorist groups to blow up the dams upriver, then conquered the whole country. They killed everyone. Grief, not even a god-or-the-sword choice. And they painted the buildings black, because god forbid - literally - any building but one of worship should be aesthetically pleasing."
"The victors, et cetera."
"That doesn't make it right. Any of it."
"Eyes on the ball. We can't change this ourselves, we can only steer it on the right path."
"This river should run red with all the blood that was poured into it. And this is just... just an example! It's been happening all over the planet in all scales!"
"We knew that. It's why we're here."
"I think we're here mostly because of the planet's rich mineral deposits that certain people who helped certain other people obtain their positions in the Primary Senate can't get to because of the restrictions on trading with planets not out of their gravity wells."
"That too. Anyway, our only responsibility is the given mission. Why don't you get some sleep now."
Again, there was no warning as the man strode down the Highway. He had undone his jacket and rolled up the sleeves due to the warmth. Between one step and the next, everything erupted in flame.
There were no trees; it was empty grasslands that the Highway scythed through now. But fire was all around the man, a circle of infernal combustion ten paces across, centered on him. It started out a menacing orange, but quickly scaled the spectrum to a blinding white, hissing and writhing, scorching the earth and flash-cooking several unfortunate bits of wildlife. It moved along with the man as he, apparently, kept walking.
After several minutes, the great fire disappeared. The man in the jacket was still walking. It would be nice to be able to say that all his clothes had burned away, leaving his flesh unharmed, or that he had lost his eyebrows, or something equally humorous and generally reassuring. However, he appeared no worse for the wear; the fire, it seemed, had not reached closer to him than half an inch. His only concern had been breathing.
He rubbed a hand over his face, glared at the sky, and kept walking.
"What was that?"
"Got me, Jacques. He should know he can't touch me."
"I should hope he can't. Sorry I couldn't do anything to protect you...."
"No, it's fine. I told you last time, I'm perfectly safe from him. He knows it, too."
"Was it a joke?"
"If that's some divinity's idea of comedy, I quit. No, it was more likely a threat. He doesn't know what I'm up to, and it's getting to him."
"I'm working on a really good pun, give me a moment."
"Er, right. While you're doing that... the Imperial Capital is a day away. The Colonnus still out there?"
"Holding position. The night-shift AI sends her best."
"Great. And the orbital pod?"
"Okay, you know the drill when we get to the city? We need to get an audience with the Pontarch after the lesser nobility is taken care of."
"I don't see why we can't do this by the book."
"Because the book doesn't apply, Jacques. That's the problem with books... people try to apply them where they aren't wanted."
"Are you trying to be metaphorical?"
"I am shocked that you would think such a thing, Jacques. Just cooperate with me and it will all work."
"You know, you seem to have a pretty negative impression of the situation here. At least the deity's manifesting himself, right? I mean, it guarantees a certain amount of institutional morality. How many clergyfolk are in it for the money? Practically none. The Almighty sees to that."
"And does he see to the pedophiles and the spouse abusers? It's hardly a perfect system. Oh, I agree, what we've seen on planets without manifestation has been worse in its own way, but this is pretty bad. This deity gives his people insane amounts of power. The church is the government. How is that at all right? They used to have elections in some countries. It used to be okay to love someone no matter what their gender, to read and write what you want, to worship what you want. And then they got religion, and it's a flaming dictatorship."
"Technically, the Pontarch is the supreme ruler."
"The supreme mortal ruler. Oh, yeah, he takes care of most of the policy, because he does exactly what our friend with the hot sense of humor wants. Nevertheless...."
"I just think you're being too harsh. I think the given mission is sufficient."
"Grief, Jacques, I'm still going to kill the damn Pontarch, okay? Don't worry about it."
It was the home stretch now. The capitoline metropolis loomed on the horizon, the causeway stretching away toward it, straight and true. The paving on the Imperial Highway was best here, with solid paving stones fitted securely into place.
A fine road indeed, and the quality of the paving and the man's growing resolve hastened his travel. He walked on toward the city. Under his feet, the miles fell away like good intentions.
"'When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it.'"
"Quoting scriptures, Jacques. It feels like a situation that demands quotations. 'The only easy thing about attacking a large city with a small force is failing.'"
"'If your first attempt to take the city succeeds not, God tests thee. If your second attempt fails, She tests thee still. If your third attempt fails in kind, thou shouldst get the message and try something else.'"
"I don't recognize those."
"You don't read enough, Jacques. Look them up when we get back to the Colonnus."
"Sure. Okay, the dilator is on your belt buckle and the knifepad is in our right pocket; the latter is set to 'coma' for the time being."
"In case those guards on the gate give you any trouble."
"They don't appear to be."
"Nevertheless... as you would say."
"'And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you.'"
"Just watch, Jacques."
The man in the jacket was on a roll. He strode through the streets as if on winged feet, gliding mercurially through the crowds. The Imperial Cathedral was at one end of the central forum. He ducked into an alley across the way from the hulking structure. He turned up his collar and buttoned his sleeves. It was a really nice jacket.
He slipped across the forum unseen, walking unchallenged and unnoticed into the Cathedral. The royal quarters were located easily enough, and it took him twenty-six minutes to administer the proper doses of the proper substances to the proper people. Five more minutes and some mucking about with a few nervous systems got him entered into the audience ledger. Then he was out, pausing in the same alley to become visible again before wandering into a forumside tavern for a midday meal.
"Shall I contact the orbiter now?"
"No, Jacques, that's fine. I'm not sure how much longer we'll be."
"Your appointment is in three hours. Surely it will all be over at that point."
"You never know."
"I do hope you're not worried about killing the Pontarch. You have been going on about the scientific potential being repressed here. The current Pontarch has been the worst enforcer of that since... well, since that flood incident."
"I know, and his youngest brother has been identified as most likely to lift said restrictions and encourage scientific progress. And I say that's a misdiagnosis."
"Jacques, we can kill as many members of the royal families as we like, and it's not going to change anything."
"Well, certainly not right away...."
"Not right away! Not ever! I don't like this. I cannot stand to see a people and a future so thoughtlessly crushed by a power-mad supernatural being and his enforced social structure. I care about these kinds of people; you know that, it's a result of my talents for dealing with theoplasm and it's why I'm in this line of work. This situation is one of the worst I've seen for a totally new reason, and I can't let it stand."
"Don't yell, you're attracting attention. It looks like you're very very angry at your sandwich. What are you going to do, set yourself up as Pontarch and create a democracy? Sheesh."
"Yeah, right, and have our sadistic friend incinerate me? Because the minute I buy into their infrastructure, I've started believing, and then not even you can save me. No, I'm going to take a much more direct route."
"You can't stop me, Jacques."
"I don't think I'll need to. You can't do it."
"Indeed. It would require too much belief."
"I can't do it myself. But I can get... assistance."
"Excuse me while I try to figure out whether you have the authority to change the mission to this degree."
"To hell with that. Let's go."
The man in the jacket ran a hand through his hair, straightened his jacket - looking nicer than ever - and formally entered the Imperial Cathedral. He was checked against the ledger by a bemused clerk, then resignedly shown in to the audience chamber.
This was how a cathedral was supposed to look. The high, vaulted ceiling flew up to the sky, decorated with stained glass and paintings and tapestries. Icons and quotations ringed the lower bits of the ceiling. The floor was wide, empty, and patterned with symbolically arranged tiles. The room demanded awe.
The Pontarch sat upon his throne at the room's center; the floor sloped up enough to put him clearly above any supplicant. He was resplendent in his vestments, simply but richly decorated. The man in the jacket had never wanted to punch anyone in the face nearly so much.
The elder of Pontarch's two younger brothers stood at the throne's side. He held the official position of Adviser. Other courtpeople and priests were arrayed on either side of the throne.
The clerk announced the man in the jacket, stating his business as "theological matters." The Pontarch raised an eyebrow and beckoned for the man to step forward.
The man in the jacket knelt on one knee several paces from the throne. He could not come any closer without having a swift encounter with several rifle shots fired from various points in the room, he was sure.
"Well, young man," said the Pontarch, "what are these matters that bring you here? As the Almighty's principal representative among the living, I am most curious to discuss matters of His being."
The man in the jacket had several snappy replies prepared, something heroic or threatening or melodramatic. He discarded all of them, looked up at the Pontarch, dropped one hand to his belt and the other to his pocket, and smiled.
The other people in the court blinked. The kneeling supplicant was gone from the floor, he was - and a general gasp arose - standing at the Pontarch's side, right hand pressed firmly against the leader's chest, knifepad glowing between his fingers. Electricity flared off the Pontarch's ear and vanished, the last of the lethal charge administered by the knifepad. A lingering afterimage of the man in the jacket in blurred motion hung between his present position and his former position. With his left hand, he turned off the dilator and time, for him, sped back to normal.
Bullets cracked uselessly against where he had stood, the guards unable to fire at him for fear of hitting the Pontarch. Nothing to worry about, of course; the leader was dead. Other guards rushed up and grabbed the man in the jacket, who smiled at them and didn't resist. The knifepad disappeared.
The Pontarch's adviser took the crown from his brother's head and placed it on his own, grimacing in fury. "Lock him up, " he snarled. "Execution by holy wrath at sun-up tomorrow."
"Four weeks of work and you get yourself arrested. Grief."
"Jacques, it's all going to plan. Trust me?"
"I don't like it. I'm signaling the orbiter."
"Fine. In ten hours, it'll be over."
"Isn't it over now? The Pontarch's dead, the new Pontarch various of his relatives will be dead soon, and then the proper leader will have been installed and we can get off this miserable planet."
"Jacques, I'm not done. You know there's something else I have to do. Or rather, I have to get them to do for me."
"...yes. I don't like that."
"Oh, give it up about the mission profile."
"It's not that. Listen... who are you to do this? To make this decision for them? You're always going on about the damage gods can do - don't grimace, it doesn't matter if I say it - you're always railing against gods, but here you come down to this planet, saunter in from the wilderness and play god with them! What gives you that right?"
"I.... Well, look, I mean, I'm not doing it myself, you know. I'm merely showing them something... an objective demonstration of the situation. It's their responsibility what they do with the information."
"I don't think that makes any difference. Anyway, I'd like to see how you pull it off."
"Good, because at the end, you probably won't be able to help me. So just sit and watch."
"You'll be all right?"
"I should hope so. Goodnight, Jacques. Thanks for everything, but tomorrow is my day. I'll fix this, you'll see."
They came for the man in the jacket just before sunrise, dragging him up and out to the forum. The Altar of Wrath was prepared on the steps of the Cathedral, a massive stone with four shackles set into it.
The new Pontarch and his younger brother adviser stood around it, with several priests in harsh black tunics. Astonishingly for this early, the forum was packed with the city's inhabitants. Men and women were no doubt writing down everything that happened, sending it around the world via semaphore.
The guards took the man in the jacket to the Altar, where, at a priest's gesture, they stripped him down to his underclothes. His jacket they tore from his back, casting it down with everything else. The man scratched the base of his neck and his gaze lingered on it for a moment, then he turned toward the Altar.
The Pontarch read the crime and sentence. The crowd roared. It didn't matter. The Priests chained him on his back to the altar, his stomach facing the sky and the crowd.
Deprived of his most useful bit of equipment, a 3q6-AI TH-series Special Forces field jacket, banned in two dozen star-states and not available for civilian purchase, the man was truly helpless. He smiled.
He heard nothing as the priests began their incantations and invocations. The man gazed at the lightening sky and focused his inner energies. The murmuring of the priests rose in intensity, and suddenly the sky split open.
Light flared forth from the heavens. The man knew it; he'd been fighting it for the past month. He'd been fighting its type all his life.
This was the harshest punishment of them all, and only applied to terrible crimes. The Almighty could hardly be bothered to smite every scofflaw and footpad, but in this case, the victim had killed the Pontarch and tried to undermine the Almighty's authority. The Almighty was all too happy to oblige.
A stir ran through the assembled priests. The Pontarch had collapsed. His younger brother felt his neck, then looked up and shook his head. The priests cried forth with redoubled strength; clearly this was some further deviltry of the infidel.
Then the smiting began. Holy wrath beat down on the man chained to the Altar. It was the power of a thousand suns, a million novae. It was the power of hate and envy and lust and greed and domination. It hammered into the man, and his face didn't even change. A tear leaked out one eye, but his smile was set.
The crowd roared. The new Pontarch had just crowned himself, and he stared, expressionless, at the Altar. The priests were pleading with the Almighty to destroy the infidel.
The fury was redoubled. The power to kill an entire race, to destroy a civilization, was distilled and hurled at the man. The holy presence approached nearer, hanging over the forum in an awesome display of light. Pure destruction rained on the Altar. Around the man's ankles and wrists, he felt metal disintegrating. Beneath him, the stone was turning to dust. His flesh was unmarked.
A third time, the deity thrust forth his power, coming within paces of the altar. Wrath pummeled the man. The world shrieked.
A face grew out of the holy cloud, lacking any distinguishing features but nevertheless a face. It gazed at the man with hatred and fury, and the man, unblinking, gazed back. The holy eyes tightened.
The Altar shattered and was pulverized.
The man collapsed to the ground.
He still stared back at the god, the awesome power, and winked at it.
With a roar of rage, the heavenly power flared bright and vanished into the sky. The priests collapsed simultaneously. The crowed stared in awed and considering silence. The Pontarch had not moved or changed his expression.
The nearly naked man stood up and brushed the stone dust from his unmarked flesh. He strode to his clothes and only picked up one article, a worn but respectable jacket. As soon as his hand touched it, he murmured something without opening his mouth.
The Pontarch looked as if he wanted to ask a question. How? Who? But he said nothing.
The man holding the jacket thought the people who had given him the mission were right. This one had potential. But there were certain obstacles that had had to be dealt with first.
Impulsively, the man with the jacket clasped the Pontarch's hand, then let it go. A whine from above made them all look up. The man with the jacket smiled tightly; the orbiter was landing on the steps, using the showiest maneuvering techniques possible. The Pontarch goggled at the sight.
The man shrugged into his jacket. Pants appeared. He looked from the Pontarch to the crowd and back. He wanted to explain, to tell them that all he had done was not believe, but really, there was nothing to say. He had shown them what was possible. They would have to figure the rest out on their own.
The pod hatch rolled open. He slipped in, nodded to the Pontarch, and closed the hatch. Through the window, he saw the people watching in amazement as he began his ascent.
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