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Chapter Twenty-Three

Sean tried not to hover as Harriet walked unaided to the astrogators 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? Brashans 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 Seans heart.

Im really glad to see you up again, Harry, and Im sorry you cant remember what happened. The rest of usll put together a combined implant download later, but for now lets 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, Im delighted youre back. Tams been doing his best, but hell 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 mans.

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 isor wasan engineer named Kahtar. Much of his journals unrecoverable, and he didnt mention the planets name in the portions weve been able to read, so we still dont know what it was called originally. But Ive 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 theyd 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 werent too bad at the start. There was some panic, and a few disturbances from people afraid they hadnt gotten quarantined soon enough, but nothing they couldnt handle at first. She paused, and her eyes darkened.

They might have made it, if theyd 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 hadnt 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 werent, and, one by one, the plague killed them all. It took yearsyears 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 leftno one at allthe horror was too much. The whole planet went mad.

Mad? Brashans voice was soft, and she nodded.

They knew what had happened, you see. They knew theyd done it to themselves. That it had all been a mistakea 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 didnt care, Sandy said sadly. The psychic wounds were too deep. Thats 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 leftlike Kahtarbut not enough. They fought a war here like you wouldnt 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 didnt quite get all of it. The Valley of the Damned was a sort of high-tech redoubt. Thered been others, but the mobs rolled over themsometimes they used human wave attacks and literally ran the defenses out of ammunition with their own bodies. Only the valley held. Their energy guns didnt 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 structureeverything. 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. Its nowhere near as powerful as the space defenses, but its 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 theres 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 dont think Im going to like this, Tamman muttered.

Youre 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 Noahs 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 thats true, Brashan said, why didnt they destroy the valley? If they had the capability to set up ground defenses, surely they had the capability to strike Kahtars 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 themone so important it didnt 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 thats 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 muchwalked 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 didsomething 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. Thats why he wired his journal into the main computers. He left it there for us, or someone like us, so wed know what had happened. And thats why he included something very important for us to know.

What? Sean asked.

The last of the original HQ crew didnt 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 theyd 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 cant get to them, either.

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