Sandwyrm here. I think that we can talk about Church of Terra all day, but you'll never really understand what the Church and the Prophets are like unless someone actually writes a proper story about them. Because it's the details of a story, and not a bunch of high-level descriptions, that will suck you in and make you understand the universe we're creating. So... here's that story. Enjoy!
by Keith Goreham (SandWyrm)
“Lucernas Tantum!” The Prophet Barked.
The massive stone Cathedral went dark as the overhead lighting panels were switched off, signaling the beginning of a sacred ceremony of The Way. With the panels off, the only light left to chase away the shadows from the ceremony’s congregation came from the thousands of candles which lined the outer Aisles. Those, and the glow from the shining brass oil lamps which hung from golden chains over the altar. Where the warm glow of these did not reach, only the meager blue light of the night outside was left to fall across the floor from the windows set high on the walls.
The altar itself, a plain table of polished wood with a simple linen cloth draped over it, stood in the Cathedral’s crossing; where the two huge corridors, or Naves, of the Cathedral crossed to form a giant holy X. From the crossing, one could see down each Nave to the 4 sets of massive doors which permitted entry into the Catherdral from the outer Temple-ring. In that way, access from the outer ring was provided from each point of the ring-orbital’s compass. North, South, Spinward, and Counter-Spinward.
Only one set of those doors was actually open. For the crowd did not even fill one of the Naves. So the others had been roped off and the crowd thereby encouraged to find seating immediately before the Dais. The unused entrances were locked securely.
To one side of the open doors stood a metal clad giant; one of the twelve Knight-Guardians of the Cathedral. Eight feet tall, genetically enhanced, and clad in full power armor of hardened steel and ceramic alloys. Over his armor, he wore a white robe with an X-shaped cross embroidered on the front in gold and black. As weapons, he carried a fully automatic flak rifle in addition to his decidedly non-ceremonial Halberd. A sort of heavy slashing spear with a large vibro-blade affixed to the business end.
His name was Kapriel. His duty, for which he was well-armed and equipped, was to the Cathedral tonight. While 2 more of his brothers patrolled the outer temple ring beyond.
Back at the crossing, upon the dais, and immediately before the Altar stood Leviticus 451, a sacred Prophet of The Way. ‘Levit’ for short. The name was not unique to him, but rather indicated the school of Prophecy to which he adhered. He had chosen the Levites based on what he had learned during his time amongst the great enemy.
His numeric designation indicated his rank amongst all of the Prophets who served The Way upon the Crown of Centaurus; the massive ring-orbital that was the center of governance for over half of the Republic of man and home to some 875 Trillion beings. Most of them human. Some 84 million of those humans were, like him, clones of the first, nameless Prophet who founded the Church of Terra all those millennia ago.
Given that kind of competition, being 451rst of 84 million was quite high in the local hierarchy indeed.
Immediately behind, and to the right of Levit, stood Certus Bruce; the hi-borg Cathedral Servisor. He was the thinking half-human link to all of the many mindless drones and lo-borgs that comprised the Catherdral’s staff. Those nameless, emotionless servants to The Way saw to the day-to-day needs of the congregation. Mind-linked as he was with all of them, Certus not only coordinated their actions, but his mind saw, heard, and recorded everything that they did. The only staff in the Cathedral who weren’t linked to him were the Prophets, those of the Fidelus, and the Knight-Protectors.
Levit looked around at the small crowd, he then turned his gaze further on to look hundreds of meters on at the open Nave doors directly in front of him, with their imposing guardian. He then turned and addressed Certus in a low, but clear tone: “Nominal?”
“Sweep complete. No external threats detected. One interior anomaly within the congregants. Well documented.” Certus paused, as if waiting for an answer, then he spoke again. “Shall I identify it for you?”
“No.” Answered Levit, looking out across the congregation. “I can see it.”
“As you wish.” Answered Certus, clearly agitated. “But what if you’re…”
Levit was more curt this time. “I know of it. That is all.”
Certus paused at that, then he bowed and retreated a few steps behind his master. The Prophet raised his arms and spoke loudly to the congregation. “Are we many?”
“NO!” Came the answer from every throat of the crowd, rising out of their seats. “WE ARE ONE, FOR WE FOLLOW THE WAY!”
Levit continued. “Blessed be the way!”
“THE WAY IS FORWARD! TO OUR BACKS LIE DEATH!”
“Do they watch us?”
“THEY WATCH US ALWAYS!”
“Do they know us?”
“THEY DO NOT KNOW THE WAY!”
The light panels were switched back on again at a thought from Certus. As they cycled to full intensity, Levit lowered his arms. “You may be seated.”
The noise of just over 6500 people, a tiny fraction of the huge cathedral’s total capacity, whispered across the space as butts met pews. All of the congregants were seated near the crossing, filling about a third of their Nave.
This annoyed Levit somewhat. But the Prophet knew that most of his flock didn’t care about minor ceremonies like this one. Attendance wasn’t mandatory for the mid-week membership services, but he hoped to at least double the average turnout after today’s drama. “Well...” he thought to himself. “I guess we’ll see, won’t we? Blood waters our garden.” Bringing his arms together in front of him, so that the bilious sleeves of his robes hid his clasped hands, Levit struck a more conversational tone for his audience. Calm and inviting.
“We welcome two new members to our flock today. Work-migrants both. One of them a third-degree Fidelis of The Way from the 4th quarter of the Crown.”
Somewhere out in the crowd, upon mention of ‘Crown’, the nickname of their orbital, two or three feet stamped the floor thrice; in accordance with one of the more vulgar local customs. Levit would ask Certus later who it was and bring them in for sanctioning. Pampous Joi, the local governor of the quarter, encouraged the custom just to irk him, he was sure. The ugly breach of decorum had killed the applause just as it started. Snickers could even be heard. This was no way to begin things.
“Let’s meet them now.” The Prophet continued, quite irked but not allowing it to show.
Two people, a well-dressed man and a more plainly adorned woman, got up from the front-most pew and approached the dais. As they approached, they crossed their arms in front of their chests in the symbol of The Way. A lo-borg usher in flowing green robes bade them to kneel upon a well-worn set of cushions that had been neatly pre-positioned on the lowest step of the dais.
“There now. Comfortable?” asked Levit pleasantly. He was answered with smiles. The man’s was warm and full of confidence. The woman’s was shy and nervous.
Levit smiled to each in turn and reached behind himself, where Certus handed him a ceremonial clipboard that, from the back, looked like an open scroll. To it’s functional side had been clipped a sheet of paper with some information about the new members. That... and something else. Another note. Looking it over quickly, the Prophet scowled back at Certus and mouthed a silent “I know!” before turning and addressing the congregation once again with a smile.
“Alyia Muwlier, welcome to you.” he said as she smiled up at him shyly. “You come to us from our own 3rd orbital quarter...” he said, avoiding any mention of the word ‘Crown’ at all costs. “System-Governance District 11. Well, welcome to District 9. You must be moving up in the ring! And you’re here to become a full member of the Way! Excellent!”
She smiled again, but only held his gaze for a second. Levit counted out a proper pause and then moved on to address the man. “Janus Praetum” he spoke, after checking his clipboard again. “You come to us from the 4th quarter, where according to this you have achieved the third degree of Fidelus in The Way. That is most impressive Janus.”
The man was not shy in responding. “It is an honor to serve.” he said as he looked up into Levit’s eyes. “Ambitious, this one.” Levit thought to himself.
The Prophet met his gaze squarely. “You’re quite welcome Janus. It’s always an honor to meet one of the Fidelus. The Way could not be followed without their tireless work.” He made a point of looking the man up and down. “You have all the proper scars too, I see.” At that, Janus’s confident manner slipped a bit. “Interesting...” thought Levit.
The Prophet smiled warmly. “Tell me Janus, are you really a human being?”
“I...” Janus’s voice trailed off as the import of the Prophet’s last words suddenly reached his brain and halted his response. The man’s eyes went wide as he tried to think of what to utter next. He only managed a sort of terrified sputter. “No, I’m... I mean... Yes! I am human, Prophet! I am!” Calming, he took a deep breath. “Yes, of course I am.”
Levit scowled all the same. After counting out a severe pause for effect, Levit raised his voice, letting the Cathedral’s sound system amplify his words even more. “EXEMPLIS!”
Reaction to the word was swift. The doors at the end of the Nave swung shut in seconds, their closing triggered by a thought from Certus. This sent a deep boom rolling down the Nave. Then came the confused cries of the crowd as they came to their own understanding of what was happening. Slowly, their cries merged as one into hisses and moans of anger, mixed with a certain degree of exitement. “Good.” thought Levit.
Added to this was another sound. The steady THUMP THUMP THUMP of felt-padded steel-reinforced ceramic boots hitting the marble floor as Kapriel the Knight-Guardian left his post and walked none-too-silently towards the Crossing where they stood. Levit knew that Certus had, by design, no control over the warrior, but he also knew that the hi-borg would be able to communicate with Kapriel silently over the Cathedral’s comm-link if needed.
The target of this building rage of noise, one Janus Praetum was dumbstruck by it all. He didn’t struggle as four lo-borg ushers silently siezed him, one to each limb, and held him above the floor, prone and helpless. His splayed limbs formed an X as they carried him to the plain varnished table and held him there securely.
Levit cast a glance back at Certus. “Anything to worry about?” he asked. The hi-borg closed his metallic eyes for a second, then opened them again. “I have eyes on everything, inside and out. There’s nothing you don’t already know about.” he said, looking over towards the crowd of loborgs around Janus.
Levit was calculatingly curt as he handed Certus the clipboard. “Good enough. Don’t get in the way. I need to make a proper example of it, and you’re too impatient. Keep Kapriel on a leash as well.”
“You know all, master.” answered the hiborg, reluctantly.
Turning to Janus, Levit looked him over properly. Nice uni-suit, nice shoes. Too nice maybe. He glanced around and noticed that the woman, Alyia, had retreated back to her seat. Rather than stand, angry with the others, she was sitting, looking as shocked as Janus. Tears were streaming down her face.
Levit raised his arms and the room slowly fell silent. Janus was crying out. “Prophet, Lord, I AM human. I AM! I...” At a gesture from the Prophet, and a thought from Certus, a lo-borg usher muffled the man's cries by stuffing a wadded-up tail of the robe it was wearing into Janus’s mouth. With his voice held friendly, Levit now gestured to the woman. “Alyia, you must witness this. Please come up here my child.”
She was really crying now as she stood, but she did not come any closer. “I... I’ve never seen one of them. I mean... we traveled together on the tube here. He was so nice to me... If he’s really a... I can’t watch that. I can’t!”
Levit added a little more authority to his voice as he spoke. “That is why you must witness this Alyia. You are new to The Way. Have you ever seen the enemy in the flesh before?” She shook her head.
Levit continued. “You must be hardened to their temptations with truth. You must see their decadence with your own eyes. It is absolutely essential that you bear witness!”
Slowly, reluctantly, she came forward and took up a position, as directed, to the left side of Janus, near his right hand. Alyia kept her hands at her side, clenched into fists. Levit also noticed her biting her lip. “Steady now...” he thought.
Smiling to reassure her, and placing a supporting hand on her shoulder, Levit then selected two more witnesses from the congregation. They also took up positions near Janus. One behind him, near his head. The other to the right, near his left hand. Levit then took the final position between Janus’s outstretched legs. The holy position of the interrogator. Video pickups installed in the bottoms of the brass lamps above their heads provided the rest of the congregation with an unobstructed view of the proceedings. Which they could watch on screens suspended above the Dais.
The Knight-Guardian took up a ritual position 12 paces behind Levit. His weapons un-drawn. Levit half turned to the Knight and asked him “Kapriel, are you ready?”
“I am properly positioned.” came the reply. The Knight’s voice amplified by the speakers on the front of his powered armor. “You may begin.”
“Exemplis Incip!” spoke the Prophet to the congregation. The murmur level rose.
“Nos Testis” spoke the lo-borgs, though it was really Certus thinking the words to them. “WE WITNESS!” came the reply from the congregation. Alyia was the only one who did not speak. The Prophet chastised her softly. “You must speak the words my child.”
Her eyes were red and swollen. Tears ran down her beautiful cheeks. “I witness.” she sniffed. Levit was kindly. “Very good Alyia. The first time is always difficult. But you will harden as you learn The Way!” Raising his voice, he spoke to the others. “Let’s begin!”
The gag was removed from Janus’s mouth. He immediately began pleading once more. “Please, dear Prophet, I AM human!”
“You say you are.” replied Levit in a clinical tone. “But let’s find the truth of your flesh.”
As he spoke, Levit produced a cruel-looking ceremonial knife, six inches long and vibro-bladed. Janus began to struggle as soon as he saw it.
“Shhh...” calmed the Prophet, not yet. “Or shall I slice you up by accident?” More from stark terror than calmness, Janus stiffened into stillness. Levit used his blade to carefully cut away the top half of the man’s uni-suit until his flesh was bared to the waist.
“Well now. You are a liar, Mr. Praetum.” Spoke the Prophet, almost clinically. “Your flesh has given away your sins.”
Janus stammered. “I… I…”
“Be silent.” said the Prophet, in the same calm, clinical tone. Janus closed his mouth.
Tracing his fingers across Janus’s chest, Levit continued. “You bear ritual scars in the pattern of the third level of The Way, as you professed to us when you sought membership here. But they do not fool my knowing eyes. The cuts were all made together and are of the same age. About two years ago I should think. If you had actually gotten them in the ritual order, each series of cuts would have been at least 2 years apart and thus layered the scar tissue up properly.”
Janus sobbed “Y-yes... I... I had them faked. At P... Pecat City in the fo…”
“Furthermore… “ Continued the Prophet, cutting him off. “The pattern is not truly random. I could tell just by the scar lines on your face that it fits one of the 241 patterns known to be documented in the Great Encyclopedia of the Crown.” Levit paused for a moment after that last word, to listen for the half-expected foot-stomps. None came.
“No.” he thought, “they wouldn’t dare do it now, would they?”
He continued his oratory. “Scars gained in the rituals would be unique to the individual. The cutter you used wasn’t very creative, was he?”
Janus looked away and sobbed again. “He said nobody would no…”
“And speaking of your face, I noticed that none of the 5 zones of vanity are crossed by the scars you bear there. That is particularly impious and speaks to your lack of control over your weakness. After all, the proper rituals would have left scars that cross at least one of those zones approximately 83% of the time, even for just one degree. Your combined chances of still having such a pretty face after the third degree? Well, they’re less than one half of one percent.”
“Please don’t crucify me Prophet!” Janus pleaded, shaking. “I’ll become a lo-borg, anything. Please let me live!”
“Whether you live or die is of no importance to the way...” Levit paused a beat for effect. “…Human.”
Janus exhaled heavily and sagged in the grip of the lo-borgs. Alyia sighed in relief as well. In the congregation, murmurs began - before dying at a snap of the Levit’s fingers. He addressed the congregation again.
“As I said, you are of no importance unless you serve The Way. You are human, yes. For the great enemy’s deceptions would be far less obvious than yours. But you are still a man of vain purpose Janus, which is a prime sin of division. The Way must not be divided.” Levit leaned forward and looked down into Janus’s eyes, but still focused his words on the congregation. “You have admitted your sins to me here Janus, but you have not atoned for them... yet.”
The Prophet then straightened and put a little friendliness in his voice. “Normally that would require scourging with fire or acid to wash the counterfeit marks from your flesh. But today is different. I see a unique opportunity here to both rescue your soul and bring you fully into The Way as the truest of believers. That opportunity must not be wasted Janus. But it will first require a demonstration of pure intent on your part.”
“A.. anything!” Janus croaked. Levit smiled at that. “Release him.”
But Janus was not released. The ushers still maintained their grip on him. Irritated, the Prophet turned and looked Certus in the eyes. “I said release him!” loud enough for everyone in the crossing, and perhaps even a few in the congregation to hear.
Certus said nothing, but the loborgs released their holds and retreated a pace from the altar table. Sitting up, Janus rubbed at the redness of his skin where the ushers had held onto him. He looked up at Levit and said “Just tell me what to do.”
“Oh no Janus, I cannot.” spoke the Prophet. “Only you can choose the proper demonstration, or else it has no internal worth. Your prime sin is vanity Janus. Release yourself from it’s hold or submit to the rituals of scourging. That is all the direction I can offer.”
Janus looked down at his feet as they dangled off the end of the table. The man then stared at his reflection in the marble floor beneath them for agonizing moments before speaking. “I need a knife.” he said simply.
“Then you shall have mine.” spoke Levit. Ignoring the none-too-subtle cough from Certus, the Prophet handed Janus his own blade. To deliberately annoy the worrisome hi-borg, he switched on the vibro-blade as he handed it over to the shirtless Janus. “Make me proud.” he said.
To be continued...