Chapter 1. The Stone Floor
I lay prone and exhausted on the floor, arms by my sides, the smooth stone against my forehead hard but pleasantly cold. I was midway into the last hour of prayer for the day, the hour of The Prayer of Repose, and I could feel the polished stone chilling my sweat and pulling the excess heat from my body. I remained motionless in my thin white Initiate robe. After the previous grueling hour of The Prayer of Weakness, it would be so easy to drift and relax and dream. But that would be a fatal mistake.
I am Ilias, and tomorrow will be the first day of The Holy’s Year 8235 and the beginning of the 52rd year of the reign of Abdul Quddus, the 83th Great Cunif Califar and First Servant of the Holy. The numbers signify a year of Jubilee. It will also be the year I reach twenty-one years of age, and as such tomorrow I will be at the last of the three great gates of my childhood. In two days I will either be an adult or dead.
The faint sounds of my classmates’ breathings are totally ignored. My senses are tuned to one purpose, to detect the presence of Fateen as he walks among the Initiates in his clothed feet. He is Citizen-Level 13, only three levels below royalty, and it is somewhat unusual for such a high ranking Priest to work as Imul with children. But Fateen loves his work, and he is a master of silent walking.
When I was very young, two years before my eighth year and the first of my childhood gates, a group of my classmates and I had quietly discussed Fateen’s age. Recklessly ignoring the danger of the conversation, we had all concluded he must be at least a hundred years old, and probably much more. It was impossible to tell by outward appearance of course. With the anti-aging drugs, Fateen looked exactly the same as when he completed his own journey from child to adult. But to all of us though, the image of Fateen as child was beyond our comprehensions.
There has been no detectable sound, but I sensed the vibrations of footfalls along the stone, and then, stillness. Fateen was standing a meter in front of me. I did not have to open my eyes to know upon whom his gaze was fixed. For all the hundreds of Initiates in my class, only I had never received demotion in Open Prayer. In all the years, I was the only Initiate Fateen had never managed to trip up, and we both knew tonight was his last chance. I focused myself in a Prayer of Suspension, and kept my heartbeat slow and resting.
There was the slightest sound of a touch as Fateen’s onyx rod came upon the Summoning Apex of the stone before me. My head snapped up in obedience with my eyes wide open, alert and bright. Any sign of drowsiness now would be a sign of drifting and impure thoughts. Such a mark of weakness so close to my control gate could well be a fatal handicap in my imminent competition for survival with my classmates. By holy Law, one tenth of Initiates do not survive each childhood gate. I gazed into Fateen’s eyes and waited for his test.
“Ilias, describe the holiness of the digits.”
I kept all expression of surprise from my face. Fateen had asked me a question proper for a child approaching his first gate, not his third. Any slip now with such a simple question would be a disaster. I quoted verbatim from my earliest Catechisms.
“The digits two, three, five, and eight are holy, ordained by the Holy for His Greatness. The digits four, six, and nine are the digits of the Earth, not directly holy but formed by holy products. The digits zero, one, and seven can not be the product of holiness, and thus must be the digits of Shaitan.”
“Ah, very good young Ilias. But how do we know this is true?”
A dangerous question to ask, especially for someone below royal level. But it was an even more dangerous question for an Initiate not to answer. I worked to keep my voice calm as I spoke the correct affirmation from The Book of Bel’dar. “Because it has been preached, and the Holy is One, and Bel’dar is His one true preacher. Thus he preached, therefore thus he preaches.”
Fateen stared at me, his eyes hard and cold. I returned his stare in obedience, and almost didn’t catch the slight lifting of his rod off my Apex. I immediately snapped my head down and closed my eyes. There was the softest of sounds as the rod gently touched the stone again. Damn him! His summoning call was far softer than appropriate. But it would be hard to debate the issue if I were dead. My eyes snapped up and locked with his. I watched him glare at me.
“And what is the order of the day?”
Another question from my early youth, this one going so far back my response came from my nursery days, when females encapsulated in blue body coverings watched and cared for us as the priests taught their lessons. I replied immediately. “The order of the day is based on the holiness of two, three, and eight. One third of our time is for The Holy, one third for Earth, and one third for Shaitan. The holiness of two divides the Holy time into morning prayers and evening prayers.”
“And what is the direction of the day?”
“The four morning prayers take us from Shaitan to Holy. Then in a state of Holy grace, we work eight hours for our masters the Priesthood and the Guilds. The four evening prayers return us from Holy to Shaitan, leaving us eight hours to dream in his low impurity.”
“And what are the names and directions of the prayers?”
“The morning direction is mind to body to church to Holy. The names of the four hours are The Prayer of Ascension, The Prayer of Purification, The Prayer of Wonder, and the Prayer of Counted Failings. The evening direction is the reverse, from Holy to church to body to mind. The evening prayers are The Prayer of Uncounted Failings, The Prayer of Joy, The Prayer of Weakness, and the Prayer of Repose.”
The rod left the Apex. My head snapped down. There was the faintest whisper of a click. My eyes and head snapped back up, none of my internal fury visible upon my face.
“Tell me Ilias,” Fateen whispered without a sound, moving only his lips. “You are the top student. There’s no doubt you’ll pass tomorrow. We’re all expecting you to book the run. How far will you ride the lion?”
Was he mad?! To begin chatting as an Initiate during Prayer, especially about personal ambition, would mean instant death. And yet, not to respond on point to such a direct question would also disqualify me from adulthood. Did he really hate me that much? If I spoke to such a question, even with my lips alone, my death was assured; and his also, once the security videos of this conversation were reviewed by the local execution council. But if I remained silent, it would be up to Fateen to decide whether to press a charge of disobedient silence against me.
I realized my Imul had entwined us, both of us holding both our lives in our hands. I had first choice, to decide whether we both would die, or if we both had a chance to live. If I voted in silence for life, both our fates were in Fateen’s hands. I stared at him and thought, “Perhaps he missed his last chance for promotion, or perhaps he is so old the anti-aging drugs are about to fail anyway. Does he hate me so much, that he will drag me down with him into oblivion?”
I had no wish to die. My mouth remained closed, my lips unmoving. I waited for Fateen’s decision.
The rod left the stone. My head snapped back down. After a timeless period of utter silence, I heard the whisper of my Imul’s dry voice. “Excellent Ilias. Your discipline serves you well.” I sensed the faint clothed footfalls moving on.
Chapter 2. Day of Judgment
According to the preacher’s texts, The Holy revealed His new calendar when Bandar the Wanderer entered the seaport city of Punta Arenas at the southern end of the ancient and mythical country of Chile. He came less than a month after the War of the Burning Metals and the blazing of Shaitan’s fires across the globe. Eight years later the Holy revealed Bandar as His preacher and anointed him Bel’dar, creating the first of the Cunif Califar.
We are all taught geography as children of course. It is fascinating to think what life must have been like back then, with the survivors of the war forming a global refugee population. The southernmost areas of the globe suffered by far the least of the fallout, and for decades they were the only regions habitable. The place that eventually became Bandar Arenas had one of the lowest radiation levels in the world outside of Antarctica, and it was a magnet for humanity.
It’s difficult to imagine how small the city was at the beginning. The Book of Bel’dar suggests its population was only about 100,000 before the war, 2% of the present size of five million. By current law, both the world capital and the Priesthood contain one fifth of the world’s population.
It took the Earth several hundred years to recover from the war. Two of the most serious isotopes in the fallout were cesium-137 and strontium-90. They both have half-lives of about 28 years. It also took several centuries for the ozone layer to recover from being destroyed by the nitric oxides produced by the bombs. The primary lingering health concern from the war is now carbon-14, with a half life of 5600 years. Fortunately the oceans and biosphere have recycled much of it out of the atmosphere.
Bandar Arenas is the southernmost city on Earth, at 53 o 10′ S and, by definition, 0 o 0′ W. There are also 120 townships scattered in North and South America, with populations averaging 167,000 each. Each township is sponsored by one of the 120 Guilds, and the Priesthood is the sponsor of the capital.
The name of my childhood township is Anqara, and it is the home township of the Guild for specialty metal fabrication. We are located at 48 o 20′ N, 0 o 6′ W, built at the ancient site of Bagotville, Quebec. Anqara has the distinction of being the farthest township from Bandar Arenas, but with our close match in longitude with the capital, we also have the smallest shift in solar time. Our solar noon occurs only 24 seconds later than official solar noon. Official time is the same everywhere of course. There are no time zones. The rhythm of the daily Prayer is not fragmented.
In Bel’dar’s calendar, each year has 2x2x3=12 months, and the months have kept their ancient names. Each month has 2x3x5=30 days. In addition to the twelve months, there is a five-day festival to celebrate the Holy’s Judgment. The festival is at the beginning of year, shortly after the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere. When the calendar year is divisible by twelve, the festival is lengthened to eight days in order to keep the calendar in synch with Earth’s solar orbit.
The festival of The Judgment is the appropriate time for the childhood gates, and also for the gates that control adult advancement from one citizen level to the next. The childhood gates are used to test and cull all male children as they enter their 8th, 13th, and 21’st year of life. Each of the three gates culls 10%. There is also continuous culling due to medical, behavioral, or heretical problems, for both children and adults. The end result is 65% of the 120,000 male children born each year survive the challenge of entering adulthood.
The First Day of Judgment of 8235 began as usual for me with 6 AM prayers. I and the 577 other members of the Initiate class of Anqara found ourselves in the presence of the Bandar Arenas test monitor. Some seemed to find it difficult not to be intimidated by his purple insignia of royalty.
The class moved through the familiar cycle of the morning prayers. The Prayer of Purification hour was filled with tests of power and form in the martial arts. The exhaustion tests of endurance would come later in the evening Prayer of Weakness.
At 10 AM I began eight hours of qualifying tests with the Guild that had been sponsoring me since my thirteenth year. I have spent the last eight years of my life as an acolyte member of the Security Guild.
Security is a coveted Guild for membership. It is a small Guild, only three thousand adults, but it is very well represented in the royal levels. All rulers and royalty are part of the Priesthood of course, but 25 of the 4,092 current royals (citizen levels 16 through 23) entered royalty through the Security Guild. The previous Cunif Califar, Abdul Matin, Servant of the Firm, entered royalty through Security.
The ancient counterpart of the Security Guild would be a combination of domestic and international spy agencies. The Guild does not do installation and maintenance of the worldwide monitoring systems, but it does have ownership of their operation and technical evolution, and Security works closely with the Priesthood, in particular their embedded military and police units.
The Security Guild’s township is called Jizari. It is located 360 km northeast of the capital, across the Straits of Magellan at the ancient site of Rio Gallegos, Argentina, 51 o 37′ S, 1 o 37′ E. Not surprisingly, Security’s home is the closest township to Bandar Arenas.
There is a saying all males learn in nursery school, that the boy chooses the girls, but it is the Guild that chooses the boy. As a young child though, I discovered I have a unique talent, a secret gift that is the fuel for my hidden ambition. My gift let me choose my Guild. I have a perfect memory.
Am I a mutation? Probably. So many of our religious practices evolved from the mutations problems of the war, and how urgent it was to adapt society to the new reality. The culling was necessary to stop the degradation slide of the human genome, and it made the Genetics Guild one of the most powerful organizations under the Priesthood.
Major genetic changes were engineered in the first few thousand years after the war, as the Genetics Guild mastered the science of writing DNA at the level of complexity of the human genome. Evolution jumped from geological to generational timescales, and the Ruling Priesthood became the supreme legislature for determining the definition of human.
The ability of the species to repopulate was a critical concern, and one of the first successful genetic modifications was to change the male/female probability birth ratio from roughly 1:1 to 1:3. There are currently 120,000 male births a year and 360,000 female births. Daily sleep requirements are also half of what they used to be before the war.
Another genetic modification made the human genome compatible with anti-aging drugs. No one has lived to be 400 yet, but with continual use of the drugs 300 to 350 years of life can be expected, with all but the last few months in fully functional health.
My memory mutation is a powerful gift. It goes far beyond the ability of perfect recall of experiences. I have perfect recall over everything I sense. I can stare at my monastery study monitor flashing several pages a second and then read what I’ve observed at my leisure when I have time to close my eyes. I was six years old when I learned the trick of stealing Imul passwords by glancing from the corner of my eye, watching them type long and rapid password strings. I would later replay their finger movements in my mind.
For years I did nothing with my illegal access to knowledge. But when I was nine and had passed my first gate, my class went through a basic course on network security, and I realized Anqara has a weakness in its local security design. There is a six-second window every night at 11:30 PM when the township’s network establishes new security handshaking protocols with the worldwide web. During this period, worldwide Security can’t monitor local data access directly, and relies on the local logs to bridge the six-second gap once handshaking is reestablished.
But there is a flaw in the local monitoring software. It polls central video memory every 400 milliseconds for the image being transmitted to my room’s monitor. With access to the monastery computers through an unrelated course on graphical displays, I used my stolen passwords and left behind a small and I hope untraceable daemon.
The end result is I have fifteen 400-millisecond windows every night to access adult data. I start my process just after the end of the security polling cycle; loading the data into my video buffer, flashing it to my screen for 350-ms, and then shutting down and terminating the data request before the security poll asks my video buffer again what it is doing. End result? I get fifteen views a night with as much data as I can fit onto my screen, and there is absolutely no record of my activity.
In the last decade, I have had access to vast stores of information, far beyond what an Initiate is ever allowed to see. It is an extremely dangerous game. Sidestepping the local audit logs is not easy, but my greatest fear is someday showing that I know not too little but too much.
When I was eleven years old, I decided that the only truly safe way of protecting the use of my gift would be to have access to the Priesthood’s master security logs, and the only way to do that would be from inside the Security Guild. I modified my performance on my aptitude tests to appear especially attractive to them, and at my thirteenth year, when the Guilds pick their acolytes from the survivors of the second gate, I succeeded in my quest to have the boy choose the Guild.
And the years passed. I reached my third gate. My final day of childhood continued. After four hours of Guild testing, I was pleasantly surprised to be served a lunch at 2 PM. Except for Guild training materials and courses, all children are completely under the control of the Priesthood, and the acolytes for adult Priesthood would be finding this a fasting day. But the other acolytes are owned by both the Priesthood and their Guild on Judgment Day, and it is permissible after morning prayers for the sponsoring Guilds to feed their acolytes.
I was touched by my Guild’s generosity. They had sent me a magnificent lunch, one worthy of a royal. There was a fine selection of delicate fishes and meats wrapped in small pastries, plus an assortment of fresh fruit slices and greens from the southern hemisphere. It wasn’t a large amount of food, but with the Prayer of Weakness testing in six hours, stuffing myself now would be foolhardy. The lunch was perfect. I thought about the message my Guild was sending me with their extravagant feast as I savored each bite.
I had to keep my wits about me during the last hours of testing. I was being asked to make intelligent guesses about matters that I had factual knowledge of only through my nocturnal data access. I intentionally made numerous guesses reasonable but wrong, especially those concerning the political alliances within the ruling Priesthood (the 87 Priests of Citizen Level 24 though 31).
One of the last tests from my Guild measured my memory and manual dexterity. I was shown long strings of random characters on a monitor for a brief period of time, and then required to rapidly type them. All adults have a minimum requirement of entering twenty-character complex passwords in ten seconds, but Security’s requirement is a minimum of twenty-four characters in eight. I passed the test easily, overshooting my Guild’s requirements by a considerable margin, but then holding back so as not to reveal my hidden talent.
The hours of Prayers passed quickly. I had no trouble with the theology. It did surprise me that the Hour of Weakness was used for unrelenting full-contact sparring. I am not the most aggressive fighter, but my form is excellent, and I received only three minor demerits, two for taking too long to defeat my friend Afeef, a clearly weaker opponent, and a third demerit for being too merciful with the selection of the combination kick that ended my final contest. The judge ruled I had a perfect opportunity for a back-knuckle strike to my opponent’s nose.
My class spent the Hour of Repose in perfect silence. It didn’t feel like a test until near the end, when I realized other acolytes bruised from the sparring or worried about passing might be finding it difficult to maintain the required perfect stillness. When the closing bell sounded, there were numerous sighs of exhaustion. We all rose and quickly walked to our small bedrooms. I glanced around at some of my classmates, trying to make eye contact and offer encouragement. The testing was over. Talking was not strictly prohibited, but it certainly wasn’t encouraged either, and we all make our way back to our rooms in silence.