The Outlaw God
By Dolores J. Nurss
Volume 2: The Tempest of
Labors on the Sabbath
Sunday, March 19, 2705, continued
"Dance!" hissed the big, bald man with the muscles huge enough to burst his fish-pale skin--the prophet's lieutenant. Don and the others writhed at random before him, naked as himself, in front of a wall where all of the posters fluttered in rags with every move they made--a scarred and tattered wall. To one side cowered the musicians—a fiddler, a harmonica-player, and a man plinking at a child's xylophone—randomly trying to harmonize as they improvised a meandering tune.
"Halt!" the lieutenant shouted; simultaneously Don heard the whirr of a knife. "Dance!" he commanded once more. And the music stumbled to catch up.
If Don's movements favored his torn stitches, if his feet hobbled on bruised soles, no one paid him heed, for none of them swayed with particular grace. "Halt!" This time Don felt the knife stir his hair before the locks had time to fall back upon his neck. With a giddy satisfaction Don knew that the man had wanted him to fail that time, but his reflexes defeated his teacher. "Dance!"
I am an agent, Don told himself, a cultural infiltrator. They cannot take my identity from me. "Halt!" The knife thunked where his foot would've fallen, had he not frozen to a precarious balance. "Dance!" A man tripped and fell; rapidly he scuttled over on hands and knees to the band, to beat time on a hastily dumped-out bin, sending balls of yarn rolling everywhere. The Lieutenant snickered but did not stop the dancer from defecting.
What I've discovered so far: a cult has shanghaied me--well, obviously--that worships a god of this world.” Don barely recovered from tripping on a yarn-ball. Although uncertain as to his rumored longevity, I can at least attest to his existence, for I have touched some things that he has handled, objects sacred to his people. The memory made him shudder but he wove it into his motions. "Halt!" Whirrr! "Dance!" A lock of dark hair looped on the belt of the prophet, brushed while falling prostrate before him; a couple of talismans worn by those about to graduate to the higher levels of outlawry, a wax replica of Til Institute (in shocking detail for a place not meant to be mapped) that they all had to "think bad thoughts" at during certain hours. Every artifact shared the feel of that dreadful satyr-pendant that had done him so much harm.
"Halt!" He heard a woman's cry, quickly stifled. "Dance!" Having seen one or two of his emissaries from the "Divine Entourage", I can establish that he does, indeed, alter the bodies of those closest to him, by surgeries advanced in a direction that we of Til have never developed. "Halt!" No whirr at all. "Dance!" If only you didn't move, not one millimeter, when the teacher called a halt, the knife wouldn't nick you.
Rumors speak of a heaven and a hell upon this planet, named the Island of Blessings and the Island of Curses, where he makes his transformations. He'd seen a bat-girl, the wings obviously one skin with her arms, and a man with four pupils in his two eyes. His outlaws strive to earn an invitation to the former, and dread beyond death condemnation to the latter. These, too, may well have their places in actual geography. Don felt his foot snag on yarn and carefully worked into the dance his movements to kick free.
"Halt!" This time a scream tore out that nothing could stifle; it gurgled at the end and trailed to the floor. "Dance!" Don knew better by now than to look. He tried to lose himself in analysis. Socially, they break down into a variety of structures, which fall into four general categories. Analysis gave him at least a veneer of sanity.
One, the private retinue on the Island of Blessings, sounds like something halfway between myth and administration. I get no straight answers about it. "Halt!"..."Dance!" A loud ping! rang out when the fiddler broke a string, but neither he nor anybody else dared miss a beat.
The second group, those who inhabit the Island of Curses, comprise those whom Alroy has damned. However they might survive, no report of it comes here separable from speculative horrors. At most people refer to it as "The Land Where Nightmares Come True”.
"Halt!" The loudest scream yet raked the air, followed by a stream of curses, cut off abruptly by thudding noises that went on too long, while Don balanced on the ball of one foot, his eyes fixed on a crazy-grinning cartoon on the wall. "Dance!" He tumbled into a burlesque of ballet as the band played on.
I've got a better understanding of the third and fourth categories. "Halt!" Muffled cry. "Dance!" I probably should call the third one the first, the recruitment phase. "Halt!" No screams, just a chuckle from their teacher as another knife just missed Don's outstretched wrist. "Dance!" Yes, I definitely have to organize my thoughts better. I mustn't let little things impair my concentration. Somebody kicked a yarn-ball into his path, but he hopped over it just in time.
"Halt!...Dance! Dance like Alroy watches--for he does, he does." Don strained to improve his form, his teeth gritted against the pain. The third--first!-- practice communality beyond the point where Til draws the line, to the negation of the individual. This group consists almost entirely of converts. They dwell beneath the ground, sometimes beneath legitimate-seeming enterprises in the business of laundering foreign currency into Tilián credit. "Halt!" No scream but a thud, and then once again their teacher chuckled.
This branch exists to indoctrinate, to commit the convert to crime as a religious duty. "Halt!" A prophet leads each cell; leadership by anyone save him or his deputies affronts their god, who teaches them to despise all other authority. "Dance!" Deputies like this monster before me. But because they eschew the traditional limits of the outside community, they account themselves the freest of the free. "Halt!" He heard the yelp of one lightly nicked. "Dance!" The musicians didn't even try to harmonize anymore.
The floor grew slippery beneath Don's sore feet, but he didn't dare look down. The prophet meticulously structures all time between "Missions" (their term for criminal activities, in mockery of us) by use of communal chores, mealtimes, lessons, supervised group rituals and a propaganda-laden "free time" dominated by carefully choreographed recreations.
"Halt!"..."Dance!" Don heard fewer steps around him now, shuffling on the wetness and the unswept grit. They consider this life freer because it removes the restraints of their former lives. Their prophet defines good and evil for them, at random, to liberate them from choice and doubt. Don caught from the corner of his eye some other trying to join the musicians, only to get a boot in the face. The very unpredictability, the injustice, reassures them that they cannot second-guess it and so they have no duty to think. "Halt--I said halt!" Loud sobs. "Dance!"
Don's flesh burned with an acid fatigue; the fire in his wounds, overlaid with the ache of his bruises, tried to engulf his mind. He beat it back with pedantry. They indulge in no privacy, but lead lives numbed to the scrutiny of others, assuming (as their training reinforces) that only bad opinions of them exist, which leaves them nothing to lose. Such beliefs can bring them to the peace of the dead. "Halt!"..."Dance!" By now the musicians had hit upon repeating the same notes within a certain chord, with hypnotic monotony.
Don tripped over someone, recovered, stumbled on, repeating the same movements over and over because the task had bludgeoned the imagination out of him. I've seen few second-generation outlaws remaining in the communal-phase--all of those children. From what I can gather, after five to ten years one either takes up the leadership of a commune--as a prophet--or joins the nomadic life. I have a lot yet to learn about the nomads, but everything I hear indicates that they're as different as moths from caterpillars.
"Halt!" Don had the presence of mind by now to have kept his feet in one place, more swaying than stepping, so he didn't wind up off-balance this time. The moment dragged on with no sound of the knife till the hair stirred on his neck as if the follicles could listen, the skin could listen. Did his teacher take especial aim? He panted in his sweat and found that his legs trembled and his head swam. Without music the place seemed deathly silent; he heard nothing save for himself, and wondered if the others held their breath.
Abruptly a pommel knocked his chin upward. "Look at me, slime of Til." Don stared into the blue, blue eyes of his tormentor. "You're the last one left." The slightest scratch of the knife meant that you had to drop out of the dance, but the only blood that trickled down Don's skin came from old wounds. "Whaddya say to that?"
He answered as they'd taught him. "Alroy gave me skill."
The pale man grinned. "Alroy give you pride!" He punched Don in the stomach. Don careened into someone else sprawled on the floor and just lay on him, dazed. "Glare at me, damn you--you won! Obey me, but spit in my eye when you feel like it! Do you hear? I'm made of no better slime than you. Do you hear?"
"I hear you," Don said quietly, but with more menace than he thought he could muster, and more anger than any cultural observer should feel. As fast as he could think he composed a complex and scalding chain of obscenities, then spat them out in a deliberate manner.
The man only grinned more broadly. "You're quick as a roach. I like you."
* * *
Randy rubbed his back, twisted this way and that to straighten at least a few of the vertebrae, then with a groan resumed the burden of the chest-high stack of paper. And here he'd signed up for what had sounded like the least strenuous category of emergency service.
"Office work!" he grumbled. "With my luck, I might have known." Naturally they sent him to the most short-handed branch with the greatest back-up of work. Naturally they had a good reason for the work to back up and for the previous volunteers to burn out: their power-lines had failed to weather the storm.
This of course meant that reams and reams of paper needed hauled out of storage, which required a human body to trudge up and down the stairs to where the driest supply resided in a nearby art studio. "Driest" being a relative term, in this case it meant that one could pry most of the pages from the stack. The damp blocks of paper, loosely glued like warping filo, gave off a stink of mildew that enhanced his annoyance about the fact that the water made it all weigh much more than it ought to.
The edge of the pile irritated the bandage on his throat. Despite the cold, the sweat dripped down from his hairline into his eyes and he couldn't wipe it away. So he squinted his way down till he reached a landing and felt his pile slide into sudden, strong arms.
"Took me long enough to find you," said a voice as deep and soft as the forest's earth.
"Jake! Where have you...uh, thanks." His arms twinged with relief to let the paper go.
"Take a break. I'll get the rest of this down."
Randy scrambled to follow, since Jake took three steps at a time, his sore knee notwithstanding. "Where'd you go, anyway? Haring after some vision?"
"I've had it up to the eyeballs with visions. I..." He turned so abruptly that the stack caught Randy in the stomach just as he caught up; Randy huffed and wound up seated on the step behind him, eye-level with Jake. The oracle's eyes tightened on a view of ghosts. The jaws clenched down on words that he couldn't speak.
Randy paused before he said, "You don't want any more visions, do you. You're afraid."
Jake stared at him a moment more, then hurried down the steps again as Randy scrambled after. "If we can get this load down early, nobody'll mind if we leave at a decent hour."
"You know how disasters go, Jake--no matter how much you do, it's not enough."
Jake said, "Tell them it's an emergency." His hollow look showed that he meant no lie.
Randy sighed. "Just load that one onto the GEM, then. I'll sign out." They said no more on the way down. Randy hoped that he had enough love in him to fend off a whole crisis-full of psychic disturbance, to anchor Jake's psyche back into the distractions of the flesh, when his own flesh felt about as heavy as the waterlogged stacks. Nothing ever came easy, did it?
* * *
Father Hilary, on his way to his evening rosary, took a shortcut through the refectory kitchen, a place of massive stonework and a great hearth that looked to him, at that moment,. like the frowning maw of a giant stone monster, fanged with flames. Glints of light off of hanging pots and pans looked, in the mood that seized him, like the menacing twinkles of hostile eyes, seeing their way to some ungodly victory. The cooking instruments seemed to have secret, sinister uses, and the knife-knicked tables, though he knew, he knew, he knew got their texture from the chopping of vegetables, appeared in flashes of imagination to run with human blood. “What's come over me?” he muttered under his breath. “What in hell's name has come over me?” Then he crossed himself and asked forgiveness for the whisper.
He stopped before the sink a moment, then bent to wash his face. He washed a second and then a third time, till finally he stuck his whole head beneath the faucet.
Brother Cook came up behind him. "If cleanliness is next to godliness," he drawled, "how come so many hermits never bathed?"
Hilary jerked up from the water, racked with shudders like sobs. Water dripped through his hair into the neck of his habit. "You're right," he said in a faint voice. "Nothing compares with the cleanliness of the soul."
"Does Father Hilary desire the service of a confessor?"
The priest gave him a scathing look. "Can't a soul suffer stain without sinning?"
"If so, I've never heard of it," the monk said mildly. "Talk to me. What are you going through?"
"Strange thoughts. Stranger urges. Like, like right now," he said in a shaky voice, "I want to go over to that loaf of bread you just baked, and..."
"It's a good loaf," the cook said. "I'd be pleased if the aroma drew you in here."
"I want to consecrate it. That, and the cooking-wine."
"What's so odd about that? You're a priest, now, not just a brother anymore. Your passions can't always fit the structure of the Mass. That doesn't mean you can't control the impulse."
"I want to mingle them together..." He stared at the loaf as if it scared him,; he stood there and wrung his hands.
"Yes? Nothing wrong with that."
The priest's face worked before he blurted, "I want to feed it to the dog!"
The cook burst out laughing. "You are so pathetically normal, Father Hilary! Everyone wants to bring their pets to heaven with them."
The priest paled, then suddenly went kind of slack, like a drowning man who has given up. "I feel as though this would entitle me to crucify the dog."
The smile dropped from the cook's face like it broke. "Too much stress," he judged. "You've got to be exhausted. Here," he said as he lead the unresisting priest to a chair. "Let me fix you an early dinner; then you can go to bed."
"Don't listen to him, Hilary!" a second monk cried from the doorway. A tousled little friar hustled in and shoved a bible under the cook's nose. "See? You can't understand till you meditate on this picture." He flipped open the pages to an illumination of the Holy Family.
"It's lovely, Brother Teresa, but..."
"I found it this way. Note the loose flecks of gold leaf. I found it just this way."
"I don't...ugh. What a miserable coincidence!" He glared at the monk. "I don't see anything amusing about this, Brother Teresa." The flakes lay like fangs on the mouths of Mary and Joseph.
"I already licked them from the lips of the Holy Child," Brother Teresa said proudly. "But you can still have some."
"I don't want..."
Teresa smacked him in the face with the picture. "Kiss the Virgin Mother," he said. "On the lips."
The cook recoiled and ran from the room, leaving the bible to rattle to the ground. Brother Teresa watched him go, and then turned to Hilary. "You should only talk to Brothers who can understand," he admonished primly, though his eyes looked insane. "But he'll be all right soon." He walked over to the stove, while Father Hilary sat there rigid, like any move would endanger him. "In the meantime," Teresa continued, "I'll stand in as cook." From a pocket he drew out a pinch of gold-dust which he sprinkled into the stew.