“High Chancellor, I should welcome you again to Orion.”
Bingham’s mind stalled briefly as he tried to think of a reply. The simplest solution seemed best for this circumstance – he was the High Chancellor, and he would be as demanding as that position warranted. Uncertainty could go to the devil, he had his faith and his prophecy.
“What are you doing in this space, Lord Caine? It is ours by right.”
His statement smacked of all the arrogance Bingham had ever shown his own world, and the still unmoving Hastings almost cringed at its heavy-handed use in this room.
The ArcGeneral didn’t know why, but the presence of the two human-shaped beings was comforting. Even though she knew nothing about them, she felt… a bond. Or almost one, anyway… something that she trusted much more than she’d ever trust a Churcher.
She just wished she understood exactly where the bond came from – it was unsettling to trust like this. It was hard to trust the trust…
And now Bingham was clearly trying to browbeat the Earthers. He wanted their compliance. He wouldn’t get it, of that Hastings was certain. But how far would he go? How far could these kind-seeming animals be pushed?
Just as Bingham hadn’t been surprised by Caine’s kind greeting, the First Lord of the Admiralty was completely prepared for the High Chancellor’s arrogance. Even if it was only a mask Bingham wore to shield his doubt, it was visibly scathing.
Fortunately, Caine wasn’t volatile. Earthers generally weren’t, “Earth isn’t yours, High Chancellor. We have occupied it since your race’s departure.”
Bingham scowled purposefully, “How kind of you. We will have it back, then. The Gods demand it.”
Caine cocked an unimpressed eyebrow and looked to Ursla, who gave an almost invisible shrug. They’d hoped it would have been easier than this… even though they hadn’t really expected it to be.
“The Gods, High Chancellor. We might be able to tell you something about your Gods. And your prophecies and your Quest, for that matter. We’ve had the opportunity to read about them, in both edited and unedited documents.”
The High Chancellor’s scowl deepened, “Ridiculous. Don’t try to play prophet, Lord Caine. You will serve only to incur the wrath of the Gods.”
Caine sighed thinly, “The Unity National, sir? This might be hard to accept, but the Unity was… is, I suppose, nothing more than a historical collection of humans. The proper name is actually United Nations, and it was the leading global government on Earth about seven centuries ago.”
Bingham blinked. What? Did the beast expect such fictions and semantics to change destiny…
“There was a Holy War in those times. A Cold War of terrorism and conflicting faiths… Islam and Christianity. Crusades, High Chancellor, and they were ended once and for all with the release of what we’ve come to call the Omega Virus. The documents we’ve found call it a self-aware, intelligent disease, and it wiped out humanity.”
Caine was trying to speak smoothly, but Bingham was still processing a challenge to his faith in the tidy phrases. It was as though the First Lord had read the scriptures and had somehow bastardized them to use them against the faithful. Pitiful… yes, pitiful.
“The War of the Gods, Lord Caine. It is from our scriptures, and your words do it injustice. Is that all of your fiction, or would you perhaps care to tell us how your beastly race appeared?”
Hastings stiffened and looked to Caine, but the Earther seemed outwardly calm.
Ursla saw the underlying current of increased tension. Setter Caine was a very wise Earther, but he was also one who had been a leader of his people for many years. He was nothing if not proud of their many achievements, and he was deeply offended by the slight.
But his discipline remained, and Caine clung to that as he tried to calm his breathing. His explanation continued unabated, “Well, High Chancellor, this virus wiped out most of your race, except for a colony that was sent into deep space by the United Nations. I suppose you’d call it the Genesis Exodus, because that’s what they named it. They quarantined the colonists carefully, got them aboard the ship, and sent them on a century-long journey to Genesis. I presume that is your home?”
Bingham’s eyes narrowed and he offered a single jerked nod. Caine knew of the Genesis Exodus… that was of the scriptures. The heretic…
“They psychologically conditioned the crew, High Chancellor. They programmed a new religion into the brains of the colonists, and developed an extensive mythos that would unite the colonists in a Quest to return to Earth. And they did it on a schedule, too, based on the projected time it would require for your people to develop the technology to return. They estimated 600 years, wrote it into your scriptures as a prophecy, and… well… here you are.”
It had almost been amusing to listen to the heresy at first, but as the First Lord made his conclusions, Bingham was losing patience.
“Very clever. I’m sure you must enjoy twisting prophecy, yet you still do not explain your own damnable existence.”
Caine and Ursla ground their jaws simultaneously, the purposefully abrasive High Chancellor angering them both even more thoroughly.
“We were likely developed to replace humanity,” Caine said coolly, and Bingham snorted a laugh. The First Lord ignored him and spoke on, “Omega seems to have exhausted its food supply too quickly. With humanity gone it had nothing to feed on but for the crude primates that share your genetic characteristics. We believe it selected our order, Carnivora, and began manipulating the DNA of a single generation of offspring. It made us more human so we could serve as a food supply.”
Bingham’s deep scowl darkened further, “You call yourselves cattle then. And you defile scripture with heresy. I will not be swayed by stories, Lord Caine.”
Caine’s eyebrow arched slightly, “We grew and learned from the civilization of your ancestors, Chancellor. We discovered your people’s stubborn streak, and your tendency for destruction. We had hoped your new society would have moved beyond that.”
Bingham snorted a laugh, “Yet you meet us with a war fleet.”
Ursla silently flagged Caine and he nodded thinly in reply. Dividing the workload here would help maintain calm… hopefully.
“I believe, High Chancellor, that our fleet was built in response to a potential threat – exactly the kind of threat your fleet has brought, in fact.”
She locked eyes with Hastings as the latter looked up, recognizing the slight shift in tactics. The ArcGeneral wouldn’t have expected to play a role in this theological debate, but now the Earthers were bringing Naval matters to light. Or perhaps Ursla was trying to communicate something to Hastings…
“We’ve been expecting your return for our entire existence. We’ve learned English to that end, and our education always includes the study of human culture. We’re all somewhat humanoid, and so we predicted the… varied forms your return to Earth might take.”
Bingham opened his mouth but Hastings spoke first, feeling as if she owed Ursla a fair answer, “Ours is a fleet built for a different war, Commodore. We have alien allies and enemies near our home – the Kroggs and Larosians. We have built this fleet with Krogg help and we have promised to assist them in return. We brought so many ships because we feared the Larosians–”
“Silence!” Bingham’s fist hammered the table. “I will not have our secrets betrayed!”
Bingham was thrown off by Hastings’ comments – she was not supposed to speak, but it was as though she’d been hypnotized by the big beast. It was her weak faith…
“We have come to take our planet back, Lord Caine. No matter what our situation is at home, we will see our Quest fulfilled,” the tension in the High Chancellor’s voice was more noticeable than before.
It was clear to Caine that Bingham hadn’t expected Hastings to speak. The High Chancellor was trying to hold his cards close, but he wasn’t as secure at home or here as he’d have liked.
“The Earther Navy will defend Earth, High Chancellor,” Caine’s words were simple. “There will be no unilateral occupation or conquest. We will gladly discuss terms for coexistence, but we remain senior here.”
Bingham’s nostrils flared, “You beasts have no right!”
Even as he yelled at the creature – the Earther – his mind was beginning to shudder. There would be a fight… and the contest would be difficult. But for all the dogma Caine had attacked, Bingham could quote thousands of verses of scripture which proved the Quest legitimate.
“Your track record with Earth’s well-being has been abysmal, High Chancellor. We want the planet to remain in good order, and habitable. We will not simply choose to believe that your people have learned the lessons of your ancestors. Indeed, you don’t even know of your ancestors,” Caine’s voice was cold in response to the human’s anger.
“You speak of your fictions as though they exist, Caine. Your Earthers are the lie! Look at your animal beings! You are but scum!”
Caine’s eyes hardened, “We coexist with each other and our home, High Chancellor. We do not exploit and destroy. You hardly seem qualified to judge us.”
“You have no claim,” Bingham was shouting now, his anger building to an inevitable eruption.
Hastings saw Caine’s coat begin to rise, but Caine took two deep breaths to try to steady himself, “Your prophecy is a lie, High Chancellor. I understand your reluctance to accept this, so allow me to provide proof.”
Hastings sat up with more interest. If Caine could really cut the legs out from under the Church, it might mean freedom for the Naval class…
The center of the table darkened and a three dimensional projection glowed into existence. The humans’ eyes widened with surprise, and Bingham jerked back slightly in shock.
Ursla looked to Caine and tried to determine the state of his self control. His demeanor didn’t inspire confidence.
“Here is the first page of your scripture book, if I’m not mistaken,” Caine keyed a page to life, and it doubled and floated to Bingham and Hastings.
The ArcGeneral studied the page carefully, and Bingham scowled, “How did you get this? Did you steal it from our ships’ archives?”
“This is a scan of the original,” Ursla submitted in low tones, and Bingham glared up at her… briefly. Ursla’s unimpressed expression forced his attention back to the screen.
“At the bottom is the signature of Secretary General Amy Valens. I believe she’s known as the Holy Scribe in the texts,” Caine’s words were short now, and laced with his frustration.
“Yes yes – this changes nothing! Scripture is scripture, and no matter who has it, the meaning remains.”
Caine’s head tilted slightly, “Does it?”
A second page appeared next to the first, with the same signature at the bottom.
“This is the first draft of the page, High Chancellor. With commentary from government officials and Amy Valens herself in the margins.”
Bingham froze. His eyes shifted between the two documents, first to the signatures on the bottoms and then to the text.
“This, the Holy Book of Genesis, known as the Scriptures, shall guide the human Quest to Earth,” Bingham read the original words almost inaudibly.
“The first draft wasn’t so catchy,” Ursla turned to the original. “The following is the timetable for Earth recolonization under the Genesis Quest project.”
The High Chancellor’s head whipped up, then he glared at the opening sentence of the Earther page. The Commodore had read it directly.
And then in the margin to the side it said ‘Not religious enough, Amy’.
The rest of the page was like that. The defining verses of Genesis scripture were being edited – they were different than they should have been. One spoke of ‘psychological conditioning’ instead of ‘faith’. Reality seemed to fall away beneath the High Chancellor’s feet.
They were telling the truth…? The page was by itself no evidence, but almost immediately upon his completion of its text, another pair appeared.
“We have the entire volume on file, High Chancellor. I recommend you read it.”
At some point the thought struck him: his Quest, and by extension his life, was fiction.
He was reading bureaucratic evidence of its falsehood… evidence left by his ancestors through the Earthers…
No, this was compelling, but it could still be false. Counterfeit. It had to be.
And then Hastings spoke and forced Bingham’s mind back to reality, as she again acted out of place, “These seem legitimate, Lord Caine. Perhaps, though, you could release the originals for examination.”
Caine let out a long-held breath, glad that the human Naval officer was level-headed. The Earthers had always been prepared to offer evidence in support of their claims, “We’d expected your interest, so we have them aboard. I’ll have them sent to your–”
“No!” Bingham exploded to his feet, smashing his palm against the nearest keypad until the images went away.
“This is heresy!” he whirled on his ArcGeneral. “And you, attempting to spread it! I should have your head for your insolence, you contemptuous harlot!”
Caine’s tension exploded through him, and Ursla bristled instantly.
Hastings shrunk down into her seat and bowed her head. She’d be dead very quickly if Bingham demanded it…
“And you heathen Earther beasts, trying to keep us from Earth. We will see it, and we shall have–”
Caine was on his feet in the sort of blinding motion that marked his skill on the sparring mat, “You will have to come through us to have your way, High Chancellor. And you will not win.”
The First Lord seethed, and his eyes bored into Bingham. The High Chancellor felt a flicker of fear, backed suddenly by doubt, but forced it down.
“I will not be dictated to–”
Ursla needed to stop this short of war, and she knew it. Coming to her feet, she cleared her throat, “I think we should separate ourselves, perhaps consider our respective positions.”
Caine blinked against his anger; Bingham’s head whirled to glare at Ursla. The Commodore’s eyes broke his stare, and he began to breath again.
His angry eyes turned back to Caine’s, and the First Lord’s muscles unconsciously tensed. He was ready to cross the table and–
“High Chancellor, we would like to offer your people an opportunity to visit Earth. Perhaps travelling to the planet will help clarify our position…”
Oh no. Ursla hadn’t thought before she’d said it, but she couldn’t go back on the offer. And now she had to make it work…
“Perhaps I could coordinate with the ArcGeneral to make arrangements, while you return to your ship.”
Caine began to blink his brain out of the haze that was clouding it, “Yes. That’s… quite right.”
Bingham’s breathing came in short bursts. He saw it now, the weakness in Hastings’ faith had been detected, and she was being targeted by heathen. She was beyond saving.
“Have it your way. We are not finished with this, Caine. Gods help us, Earth is ours.”
He stormed out, and the room was left with the darkest of atmospheres.