Sean tried not to hover as Harriet walked unaided to the astrogator’s couch. She was still shaky, and her missing memories refused to return, yet she had to smile at his expression. Tamman sat beside her and slipped an arm about her, and she leaned against him, wishing she knew how to thank them for her life.
But, of course, there was no need.
“Well!” Sean flopped into his couch with customary inelegance. “Looks like your body-and-fender shop does good work, Brashan.”
“True,” the Narhani replied with one of his clogged-drain chuckles. “And while I regret my inability to repair your implant, Harry, I must say your patch gives you a certain—” He paused, seeking the proper word.
“Raffishness?” Sean suggested, his smile almost back to normal.
“Thank you, kind sir.” Harriet stroked the black patch and grinned. “I glanced in the mirror and thought I was looking at Anne Bonny!”
“Who?” Brashan’s crest perked, but she only shook her head.
“Look her up in the computer, Twinkle Hooves.”
“I shall. You humans have such interesting historical figures,” he said, and her laughter lifted the last shadow from Sean’s heart.
“I’m really glad to see you up again, Harry, and I’m sorry you can’t remember what happened. The rest of us’ll put together a combined implant download later, but for now let’s turn our attention to what we got out of it. Aside, of course, from the reincarnation of Captain Bonny.”
His wave gave Sandy the floor, and she stood.
“Speaking for myself, Harry, I’m delighted you’re back. Tam’s been doing his best, but he’ll never make an analyst.” Tamman made a pained sound, and Harriet poked him in the ribs.
“However,” Sandy went on with a grin, “our ham-handed Marine and I have recovered a fair amount from our purloined computer, and our original hypothesis was correct. It was a journal. This man’s.”
Sean gazed at the image in the command deck display, mentally turning the hair white and the skin to parchment, and recognized the lonely, mummified body from the tower bedroom.
“This is—or was—an engineer named Kahtar. Much of his journal’s unrecoverable, and he didn’t mention the planet’s name in the portions we’ve been able to read, so we still don’t know what it was called originally. But I’ve been able to piece together what happened.”
She looked around, satisfied by the hush about her. Even Tamman knew only fragments of what she was about to say, and she wondered if the others would react as she had … and if they’d have the same nightmares.
“Apparently,” she began, “the planetary governor closed down the mat-trans at the first hypercom warning, then began immediate construction of a quarantine system under the direction of his chief engineer. Who,” she added wryly, “was obviously a real whiz.
“Things weren’t too bad at the start. There was some panic, and a few disturbances from people afraid they hadn’t gotten quarantined soon enough, but nothing they couldn’t handle … at first.” She paused, and her eyes darkened.
“They might have made it, if they’d just shut down their hypercom. Their defenses destroyed over a dozen incoming refugee ships, but I think they could have lived even with that … if the hypercom hadn’t still been up.
“It was like a com link to Hell.” Her voice was quiet. “It was such a slow, agonizing process. Other worlds thought they were safe, too, but they weren’t, and, one by one, the plague killed them all. It took years—years of desperate, dwindling messages from infected planets while their entire universe died.”
Icy silence hovered on the command deck, and she blinked misty eyes.
“It … got to them. Not at once. But when the last hypercom went silent, when there was no one else left—no one at all—the horror was too much. The whole planet went mad.”
“Mad?” Brashan’s voice was soft, and she nodded.
“They knew what had happened, you see. They knew they’d done it to themselves. That it had all been a mistake—a technological accident on a cosmic scale. So they decided to insure there would never be another one. Technology had killed the Empire … so they killed technology.”
“They what?” Sean jerked up, and she nodded. “But … but they had a high-tech population. How did they expect to feed it without technology?”
“They didn’t care,” Sandy said sadly. “The psychic wounds were too deep. That’s what happened to their tech base: they smashed it themselves.”
“Surely not all of them agreed,” Harriet half-whispered.
“No.” Sandy was grim. “There were some sane ones left—like Kahtar—but not enough. They fought a war here like you wouldn’t believe. A high-tech war intended to destroy its own culture … and anyone who tried to stop them. Harry, they threw people into bonfires for trying to hide books.”
Harriet covered her mouth, trembling with a personal terror they all understood too well, and Tamman hugged her.
“Sorry,” Sandy said gently, and Harriet nodded jerkily. “Anyway, they didn’t quite get all of it. The Valley of the Damned was a sort of high-tech redoubt. There’d been others, but the mobs rolled over them—sometimes they used human wave attacks and literally ran the defenses out of ammunition with their own bodies. Only the valley held. Their energy guns didn’t need ammo, and they threw back over thirty attacks in barely ten years. The last one was made by a mob on foot, in the middle of a mountain winter, armed with spears and a handful of surviving Imperial weapons.”
She fell silent once more, and they waited, sharing her horror, until she inhaled and went on in a flat voice.
“The attacks on the valley finally ended because the others had managed to destroy their technology, and, with it, their agriculture, their transport system, their medical structure—everything. Starvation, disease, exposure, even cannibalism … within a generation, they were down to a population they could support with an almost neolithic culture. Kahtar estimated that over a billion people died in less than ten years.
“But—” her voice sharpened and she leaned forward “—there was, obviously, one other high-tech center left: the quarantine HQ. Even the most frenzied mob knew that was all that stood between them and any possible refugee ship, however slight the chance one might arrive, and the HQ staff rigged up a ground defense element in the quarantine system itself. It’s nowhere near as powerful as the space defenses, but it’s designed to smash anyone or anything using Imperial weapons within a hundred klicks of the HQ.”
“Oh, crap,” Sean breathed, and she smiled tightly.
“You got it. And there’s worse. You see, the command staff may have set things up to keep the mobs from smashing the HQ, but they agreed with the need to destroy all other technology.”
“I don’t think I’m going to like this,” Tamman muttered.
“You’re not. They moved out of those ruins near the Temple, put the HQ computer on voice access, set the shipyard up to handle all maintenance on an automated basis, and manufactured a religion.”
“Oh, Jesus!” Sean moaned.
“According to Kahtar, who was pretty much running the valley by then, the port admiral had some sort of vision that turned the bio-weapon into the Flood and Pardal into Noah’s Ark. But this Flood was a punishment for the sin of technological pride into which the ‘Great Demons’ had seduced mankind, and the ‘Ark’ was a refuge to which God had guided the handful of faithful who had resisted the demons’ temptation. The survivors were the seed corn of the New Zion, selected by God to create a society without the ‘evils’ of technology.”
“But if that’s true,” Brashan said, “why didn’t they destroy the valley? If they had the capability to set up ground defenses, surely they had the capability to strike Kahtar’s people.”
“There was no need. There were never more than a hundred people in the valley, and it was a vacation resort before they forted up, without any real industrial base. They were trapped inside it, with too little genetic material to sustain a viable population, and the new religion had a use for them—one so important it didn’t even pull the plug on their power supply.”
“Demons,” Harriet murmured.
“Or, more precisely, a nest of ‘lesser demons’ and their worshipers. The valley gave their religion a ‘threat’ that might last for centuries to help it get its feet under it. What we walked into was Hell itself as far as the Church is concerned, and that’s why anyone who has anything to do with it must be exterminated.”
“Merciful God.” Sean looked as sick as he felt. The warped logic and cold-blooded calculation that left those poor, damned souls penned up in their valley as the very embodiment of evil twisted his guts. He tried to imagine how it must have felt to know every other human on the planet was waiting, literally praying for the chance to murder you, and wanted to vomit.
“I think Kahtar went mad himself, at the end. Some of the others walked out of the valley when the despair finally got to be too much—walked out knowing what would happen. Others suicided. None of them were interested in having children. What future would children have had on a planet of homemade barbarians itching to torture them to death?
“But Kahtar had to find something to believe in, and he did—something that kept him alive to the very end, after all the others were gone. He decided, against all evidence and sanity, that at least one other world had to have survived. That’s why he wired his journal into the main computers. He left it there for us, or someone like us, so we’d know what had happened. And that’s why he included something very important for us to know.”
“What?” Sean asked.
“The last of the original HQ crew didn’t just put the computer on voice access, Sean. They knew there were still at least some enhanced people in the valley. People who could have ordered the Voice to denounce their precious religion if they’d been able to get close enough to access the computer, because they could have overridden voice commands through their implants once the last of the original ‘priests’ were gone. So they disengaged the neural feeds. The only way in is by voice, and they had an entire damned army sitting on top of it to keep everyone but the priesthood out of voice access range. With the quarantine system set up to wax anybody who tried to use Imperial weapons to shoot their way in, there was no way a handful of old, tired Imperials could get to them.”
She paused and met their horrified gazes.
“Which means, of course, that we can’t get to them, either.”