Naked God: Faith

Chapter 01

It was a foul job, but better than scouting round the starscrapers. Tolton and Dariat were driving a truck slowly over Valisk’s grass plains in search of servitor bodies. Food was becoming a critical commodity within the enfeebled habitat. During Kiera’s reign the possessed had simply helped themselves to existing supplies with little thought devoted to replenishing them. Then after plunging into the dark continuum, the survivors had turned to butchering the wild terrestrial animals that had fallen into unconsciousness. Large cooking pits had been dug outside the northern endcap caverns, where the Starbridge tribes took charge of trussing the beasts on long poles to be roasted over the flames as if for a medieval banquet. It was a predictably monotonous diet of goat, sheep, and rabbits; but nourishing enough. None of the other lethargic survivors complained.

Now that operation was being accelerated. The animals were gradually slipping from their strange comas into death. Their carcasses had to be recovered and cooked before they started to decay. If it was hung in the coolest caverns, properly cured meat could be stored for several weeks and still remain edible. Building up a stockpile of food was also a logical precaution to be undertaken in times of war. Rubra’s regiment of descendants all knew about the visitor, and had been surreptitiously supplementing their armaments ever since. The remaining survivors hadn’t been told.

Tolton wondered if that was why he and Dariat had been given this particular task, so he wouldn’t have much contact with the refugees occupying the caverns.

“Why should the personality distrust you?” Dariat asked as the street poet drove them along the side of a stream in one of the shallow valleys meandering through the southern grasslands. “You’re one of the real survivors of the possessed occupation. You’ve proved yourself as an asset as far as it’s concerned.”

“Because of what I am; you know I’m on the side of the underclass, that’s my nature. I might warn them.”

“Do you think warning them is helping them? They’re in no fit state to put up any resistance if that thing comes back. You know damn well my illustrious relatives are the only ones who stand a chance of stopping it. Go ahead and tell the sick there’s some kind of homicidal ice dragon stalking us, see how much you improve their morale. I don’t want to preach homilies, but class distinction has been suspended for the duration. We’re divided into effectives and dependants, now. That’s all.”

“All right, damn it. But you can’t keep them in ignorance forever.”

“They won’t be. If that thing ever gets inside, everyone’s going to know about it.”

Tolton gripped the top of the steering wheel with both hands, and slowed so he could watch Dariat’s answer. “You think it will come back?”

“The opinion is a resounding yes. It wanted something the first time, and all we did was make it mad at us. Even assuming it has the wackiest psychology possible, it’ll come back. The only questions are: when? And: will it be alone?”

“Bloody hell.” Tolton twisted the throttle again, and sent the truck splashing through a shallow section of the stream. “What about the signalling project? Can we call the Confederation yet?”

“No. There’s still a team working on it, but most of my relatives are doing what they can to beef up the habitat defences.”

“We still have some?”

“Not many,” Dariat admitted.

Tolton saw a suspicious avocado-green lump amid the wispy tips of pink xenoc grass, and slowed the truck to a halt. The body of a large servitor lizard was lying curled up on the ground. A tegu, geneered for agronomy maintenance, it measured one and a half metres from nose to tail, with long rake-like fingers on its hands. There were hundreds of them in Valisk, patrolling the streams where they were employed to clear jams of dead grass and twigs that built up along rocky snags.

Dariat stood and watched as his friend bent over and gingerly touched the creature’s flanks.

“I can’t make out if it’s alive or not,” Tolton complained.

“It’s dead,” Dariat told him. “There is no life energy left in the body.”

“You can tell that?”

“Yeah. It’s like a little internal glow; all living things have it.”

“Hell. You can see that?”

“It’s similar to seeing, yes. I guess my brain just interprets it as light.”

“You haven’t got a brain. You’re just a ghost. A whole bunch of thoughts strung together.”

“There’s more to me than that, if you don’t mind. I’m a naked soul.”

“Okay. There’s no need to get touchy about it.” Tolton grinned. “Touchy. Get it? A ghost, touchy.”

“I hope your poetry is better than your humour. After all, you’re the one that’s got to pick it up.” His translucent foot nudged the dead lizard.

Tolton’s grin crumpled. “Bugger.” He went round to the back of the truck, and lowered the tailgate. There were already three dead servitor chimps lying on the metal floor. “I didn’t mind the goats so much, but this is like cannibalism,” he grumbled.

“Monkeys were a delicacy in several pre-industrial societies back on Earth.”

“No wonder they all died out, then; their kids ran off to the city and lived happily ever after on Chinese takeaway.” He put his hands under the lizard’s body, disgruntled by the dry-slippery feel of the scales and the way they shifted so easily over protuberant bones. Muttering about the truck’s lack of a winch, he started to drag the body over to the tailgate. The lizard was quite a weight, needing several stages to haul it up the steep ramp. Tolton was flushed by the time he finally skewed it over the chimps. He jumped down and shoved the tailgate back up, shoving the latches home.

“Good job,” Dariat said.

“Just as long as I don’t have to butcher them, I don’t care.”

“We should get back. That’s a big load already.”

Tolton grunted in agreement. The trucks had been stripped down to the minimum number of systems; there were no governing processors, no power steering, no collision alert radar, nor impact-triggered seat webs. A power cell was wired directly to the wheel hub motors, with the throttle as the only control. Such an arrangement gave the vehicles a modicum of reliability, though even that was far from a hundred per cent. Switching them on was always a lottery. And if they had too much weight in the back they wouldn’t work at all.

Dariat,the personality called. The visitor is back, and it’s not alone.

Oh Thoale. How many?

A couple of dozen, I think. Maybe more.

Once again, Dariat knew how much mental effort it took for the personality to focus on the approaching specks. Even then, he wasn’t sure it was observing all of them. As before, pale streaks of turquoise and burgundy were fluxing within the strands of the dusky nebula outside. A scattering of wan grey dots swished between the ragged strands, curving sharply at each turn, but always coming closer. Their movements were confusing, but even so the personality should have been able to track them.

Dariat looked through the truck’s grimed windscreen. The Northern endcap was thirty kilometres away, suddenly a huge distance across the rolling grasslands and scrub desert. It would take them at least forty minutes to get there, assuming the cloying blades of pink grass didn’t get any thicker before they reached one of the rough

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