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Ivan Antonov glowered at the recorded image on his screen and tuned out the long, impassioned diatribe. Sooner or later the Theban would run down and get to the heart of his reply. And, unless the Theban race truly was insane, Antonov knew what that reply would be. Of course, he was beginning to wonder if, with the exception of a few individuals like Lantu and Fraymak, there might not be something to the theory of racial insanity.

PDC Saint-Just had cost less than he'd feared, if far more than he would find easy to live with, and if there were any justice in the universe its loss would have finished the Church of Holy Terra. But no. The surviving Synod had gotten together, canonized its dead Prophet, anointed a new Prophet in his stead, and announced its determination to pursue the jihad even unto martyrdom.

Personally, Antonov was about ready to oblige the svolochy.

Vanya, Vanya that's the nasty side of you talking! And so it was, but if he could contrive to hang just the Synod, perhaps the rest of the population might learn from example?

Of course, the best way to encourage fanaticism was to provide it with fresh martyr-fodder, yet he couldn't quite suppress the wistful temptation. It was really too bad he couldn't even voice it aloud, but he shuddered to think how Kthaara would react after all his lectures. And it didn't help his mood to find the Synod reacting to the truth about the First Prophet exactly as Lantu had predicted. The new Prophet stubbornly insisted that if infidels could extract data from Starwalker's computers they could also insert data, and his fire-and-brimstone denunciation of monsters vile enough to defile sacred scripture had brought Antonov to the point of apoplexy. And the worst of it-the absolute worst-was that the old bastard actually believed the polneyshaya he was spouting. They'd gotten rid of a clique of self-serving, lying charlatans only to replace it with a crop of true believers!

Religious fervor! The only thing it's good for is turning brains to oatmeal! And if there's one thing in this galaxy worse than Terran politicians, it's theocratic politicians!

The Prophet's latest fulmination reached its peroration, and Antonov's eyes sharpened as the Theban who had once been Archbishop Ganhad of the Ministry of Production glared at him.

"And so, infidel," the Prophet said bitterly, "we have no choice but to hear your words. Yet be warned! Your accursed master the Satan-Khan will not pervert our Faith as he has your own! The true People of Holy Terra will never abandon their Holy Mother, and the day shall come when you and all of your apostate race will pay the price for your sins against Her! We-"

Antonov grunted and killed the message before the old fart got himself back up to speed. That was all he really needed to know-now he could let Winnie wade through the rest of this drivel and summarize any unlikely tidbits of importance. He felt a tiny qualm of conscience at passing the task to her, but rank, after all, had its privileges.

Thank God.

* * * | Crusade | * * *