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Authors: Jack McDevitt

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A Talent for War

BOOK: A Talent for War
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A Talent for War

Jack McDevitt

1989

Contents

Contents

PROLOGUE

I.

II.

III.

IV.

V.

VI.

VII.

VIII.

IX.

X.

XI.

XII.

XIII.

XIV.

XV.

XVI.

XVII.

XVIII

XIX.

XX.

XXI.

XXII.

XXIII.

XXIV.

XXV.

EPILOGUE

PROLOGUE

THE AIR WAS heavy with incense and the sweet odor of hot wax.

Cam Chulohn loved the plain stone chapel. He knelt on the hard bench and watched the crystal water dribble across Father Curry's fingers into the silver bowl held by the postulant. The timeless symbol of man's effort to evade responsibility, it had always seemed to Chulohn the most significant of all the ancient rituals. There, he thought, is the essence of our nature, displayed endlessly throughout the ages for all who can see.

His gaze lingered in turn on the Virgin's Alcove (illuminated by a few flickering candles) and the Stations of the Cross, on the simple altar, on the hewn pulpit with its ponderous Bible. It was modest by the opulent standards of Rimway and Rigel III and Taramingo. But somehow the magnificence of the architecture in those sprawling cathedrals, the exquisite quality of the stained
Page 1

glass windows, the satisfying bulk of marble columns, the sheer angelic power of the big organs, the sweeping choir lofts: it all got in the way. Here, halfway up a mountainside, he could look out over the river valley that the early fathers, in a burst of enthusiasm, had dedicated to St.

Anthony of Toxicon. There was only the river, and the ridges, and the Creator.

Chulohn's visit to the Abbey was the first by a presiding bishop (so far as he could determine) during the entire existence of the community. Albacore, this snowbound, cold world at the farthest extreme of the Confederacy's influence, was home to few other than the fathers. But it was not difficult—enjoying its massive silence, listening for the occasional distant rumble of a rockslide, taking the cold vigorous air into his lungs—to understand how it was that it had housed, at one time or another, the finest scholars the Order had known. Martin Brendois had written his great histories of the Time of Troubles in a cubicle just above the chapel. Albert Kale had completed his celebrated study of transgalactic strings, and Morgan Ki had composed the essays that would link his name irrevocably to classic economic theory.

Yes, there was something about this place that called forth greatness.

After mass, he walked along the parapet with Mark Thasangales, the Abbot. They were wrapped in coats, and their breath hung before them. Thasangales had much in common with St.

Anthony's Valley: no one in the Order could remember when he had been young. His features were as uncompromising and lined as the limestone walls and snowswept crags. He was a tower of faith: Chulohn could not imagine those dark blue eyes beset by the doubts that harried ordinary men.

They were reminiscing about better times—as middle-aged men who have not seen each other for a long time will—when the Abbot shook off the past. "Cam," he said, raising his voice slightly to get above the wind, "you've done well."

Chulohn smiled. Thasangales was talented: his capability for raising and managing funds in no way diminished his certifiable aura of sanctity. He was a superb administrator and a persuasive speaker, precisely the sort of man to represent the Church and the Order. But he had always lacked ambition. And so he had returned to St. Anthony's when the opportunity offered.

And he had stayed a lifetime. "The Church has been good to me, Mark. As it has been to you."

They looked down from the mountaintop on which the Abbey stood. The floor of the valley was brown with approaching winter. "I've always thought I would have liked to come here for a couple of years. Maybe teach theology. Maybe just put my life in order."

"The Church needed you for more important things."

"Perhaps." Chulohn studied his ring, the emblem of his office, and sighed. "I traded a great deal for this. Maybe the price has been too high."

The Abbot neither agreed nor disagreed, but merely stood his ground, awaiting his bishop's pleasure. Chulohn sighed. "You don't really approve of the path I've taken."

"I didn't say that."

"Your eyes did." Chulohn smiled.

A sudden burst of wind raked the trees, and snowflakes flew. "First of the year," Thasangales announced.

St. Anthony's Valley is located in the high country of the smaller of Albacore's two continents.

(There are those who say the small, compact world consists almost exclusively of high country.) But, in Chulohn's eyes, it was one of God's special places, a corrugated land of forest and limestone and snowcap. The Bishop had grown up in this kind of country, on rugged Dellaconda, whose sun was too distant to be seen from St. Anthony's.

Standing in that ancient wilderness, he felt emotions he had not known for thirty years. The thoughts of youth. Why was it they were so much more real than anything that would follow after? How had it happened that he'd fulfilled his earliest ambitions, had in fact far exceeded them, and found it all so unsatisfying?

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He drew his coat around him, fending off a sudden icy gust.

It was disquieting here, among the cold still peaks. Somehow, in a way he couldn't grasp, they challenged the warm comfort of the tiny chapel. There was a movement back home, a group of zealots who pretended to speak for Christ, who wanted him to sell off the churches, and give the proceeds to the poor. But Chulohn, who loved the bleak places of the worlds because they were fearful, understood that churches are shelters against the intimidating majesty of the Almighty.

He watched the snow gathering force.

Several seminarians boiled out of the refectory and hurried noisily toward the gym. The sudden activity shook Chulohn from his reverie. He glanced at Thasangales. "Are you cold?" he asked.

"No."

"Then let's see the rest of the grounds."

Little had changed since the Bishop had been ordained here: stone grottos and sweeping lawns and gray somber church buildings compressed the decades. Had the midnight beer raids on the refectory really been half a lifetime ago? Was it really so long since the forays into Blasinwell and the innocent flirtations with the young women there? Since those naked dips into mountain pools? (My God, how did it happen he could still feel the delicious bite of cool currents along his flanks?)

It had all seemed deliciously sinful then.

The stone chip walkways, which were covered lightly by snow, crunched pleasantly underfoot.

Chulohn and Thasangales circled the library. Its antenna, mounted at the peak of the sharply sloping roof, turned slowly, tracking one or another of the orbiters. The flakes were wet in Chulohn's eyes, and his feet were getting cold.

The Fathers' quarters were located in the rear of the complex of buildings; safely away from the distractions of visitors and novices. They paused at the entrance, a simple bilious green metal door that had been built to withstand the ages, and threatened to do so. But Chulohn was looking away, up the gently rising slope that dominated the ground behind the abbey. At its crest, almost invisible against the gathering storm, were an arch, an iron fence, and several long rows of white crosses.

The place of honor for those who had persevered.

Thasangales had pulled open the door and waited patiently for the Bishop to enter.

"A moment," said Chulohn, brushing the snow from his shoulders, drawing his collar about his neck, and continuing to stare thoughtfully at the ridge.

"Cam, it's cold." There was a hint of irritation in Thasangales' voice.

Chulohn gave no appearance of having heard. "I'll be back in a few minutes," he said presently.

And, without another word, he set off at a brisk pace up the slope.

The Abbot let go of the door, and fell in behind with a suggestion of resignation that a casual observer might have missed.

The walkway to the cemetery had vanished beneath the snow, but Chulohn paid no attention and, bent against the incline, he made directly uphill. A pair of stone angels, heads bowed, wings spread, guarded the approach. He passed between them and paused to read the legend carved into the face of the arch: He that would teach men to die must know how to live.

The crosses were arranged in precise rows, the oldest in front and to the left, proceeding in somber sequence through the years across the top of the ridge and down the opposite slope.

Each displayed a name, the proud designation of the Order, O. D. J., and the date of death stated in standard years of the Christian Era.

Toward the rear, he discovered Father Brenner. Brenner had been redheaded, robust, overweight. But he was young in the days when Chulohn had been young. His class was History of the Church during the Great Migration.

"Surely, you knew ..." said the Abbot, noting the Bishop's reaction.

Page 3

"Yes. But hearing that a man is dead is not quite the same as standing at his grave."

There was a painful number of familiar names along that back row. They were, at first, his instructors: Philips and Mushallah and Otikapa. Mushallah had been a silent moody man with quick eyes and relentless conviction who loved to duel with any student who dared question the sophisticated reasoning that demonstrated God's existence through logic.

Further on, he found John Pannell and Crag Hover and others. Dust now. All the theology in the world didn't change that.

He looked curiously at Thasangales, standing patiently in the falling snow, hands pushed deep into his pockets, apparently untouched by it all. Did he understand anything of what it meant to walk through such a place? The Abbot's expression showed no trace of pain. Chulohn was uncertain whether he would really wish his own faith so strong. . . .

Uncomfortable notion: the sinner clasping the sin.

There were numerous stones, dating back several centuries. And there were many here to whom he should pay his respects; but he wished ardently to turn back, perhaps because of the deteriorating weather, perhaps because he wished to see no more. And it happened that as he turned, intending to retreat, his gaze fell across one of the stones, and he saw that something was wrong, though he was not immediately sure what it might be. He walked toward the marker, and peered at its inscription.

Jerome Courtney

Died 11,108 A.D.

The grave was a hundred sixty standard years old. Relatively recent by St. Anthony standards.

But the inscription was incomplete. The sign of the Order was missing.

The Bishop squinted at the marker, and brushed at the stone, to clear away a few flakes that might have obscured the designation.

"Don't bother, Cam," said the Abbot. "It's not there."

"Why not?" He straightened, his obvious perplexity giving way to displeasure. "Who is he?"

"He is not one of us. In any narrow sense."

"He is not a Disciple?"

"He's not even a Catholic, Cam. I don't think he was a believer at all."

Chulohn took a step forward, crowding his subordinate. "Then what in God's name is he doing here? Among the Fathers?" It was not a place for shouting, but the Bishop's effort to control his voice produced a modulated rasp that embarrassed him.

Thasangales' eyes were round and blue. "He's been here a long time, Cam. He came to us for refuge, and lived with the Community for almost forty years."

"That doesn't explain why he lies here."

"He lies here," the Abbot said, "because the men among whom he lived and died loved him, and decreed that he should remain among them."

I.

She passed Awinspoor in the dead of night, lights blazing. The cloud of relay shuttles which had raced through the system with her fell rapidly behind. Many persons later claimed to have picked up broadcasts from the onboard radio station, featuring a popular nightclub comic of the period. She approached jump status near the outermost rocky world shortly after breakfast, and entered Armstrong space precisely on schedule. She carried twenty-six hundred souls, passengers and crew, with her.

—Machias, Chronicles, XXII

ON THE NIGHT we heard that the Capella had slipped into oblivion, I was haggling with a wealthy client over a collection of four-thousand-year-old ceramic pots. We stopped to watch
Page 4

the reports. There was little to say, really, other than that the Capella had not re-entered linear space as expected, that the delay was now considerable, and an announcement declaring the ship officially lost was expected momentarily.

The names of prominent passengers followed: a few diplomats were on board, some sports figures, a musician who had clearly lost his mind years before but whose work seemed only to have prospered by the experience, a group of students who had won some sort of competition, and a well-heeled mystic with her male retinue.

The loss of the Capella entered almost immediately into the rarefied atmosphere of legend.

BOOK: A Talent for War
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