The base dome was showing its age. Numerous surface discolorations testified to patched micrometeorite damage. It was well past its designed optimum life span, but The Church would use it until it was totally unlivable. Similar bases on Mars, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Ceres and Titan had been stripped and abandoned. The pilgrims had come to brave the crumbling ruins of Lunar Base before making the final jump to Earth and their destiny.The twenty devout stood awkwardly tilting the bulky headpieces of their suits to catch a glimpse of Earth. Jedediah Miller looked at them and shared their wonder. There was Goodwife Ruth Long, seeking solace after the loss of her family in a terrible accident on Eridani. Obadiah Cartwright held Ruth.
He twisted around until the blue and white globe centered in his vision, then watched in fascination as it progressed slowly along the horizon. He let its soft beauty pervade him. It was brighter there every day now, they said. The particulate matter in the atmosphere had been reduced to the finest dust. Rain no longer left mud on every surface and there were even reports of flora returning to the highlands and mountainsides. Once, he knew, the moon had shown only one face to her. The Fall had changed many things.
In cosmic terms it had been a glancing blow. A cloud of rogue interstellar asteroids had hurtled through Earth's orbit at just the right time. There had been two main impacts, one striking the largest continent on its eastern edge. No one living on Earth before The Fall would recognize the landmasses today, not after the shifting of the poles, plates, and magnetic field had remade the planet's surface. Two of the planetismals had swung into orbit around Earth to become massive, misshapen reminders of The Fall. Luna's orbit was still a bit unstable because of her new neighbors, but Nature had a way of bringing things back into balance.
Jedediah tried to remember the numbers he'd been taught: the size and weights of the impactors, their displacement volume, the number of dead and injured. Looking at that bright globe, though, all he could think of was that he was finally on his way to Earth.
Earth: mother of all humankind.
Before The Fall, she had sent out colonies to Mars, Jupiter's and Saturn's moons, and even to the nearest stars. Mars colony had just rebelled against Earth when The Fall occurred, saving it from God's wrath. The colonies at the outer moons had not turned from Earth's ways and God had purged them. Only Mars colony found grace in His eyes and they flourished under His care. A few people were rumored to have survived on Earth, but how could you believe the word of infidel freighter captains running back and forth from Eridani and the outer systems? The Church maintained that the wicked had been destroyed and everyone knew The Church was infallible.A couple of figures in late model exosuits appeared at the dome airlock. The idle chatter on the intercom stopped as the group of pilgrims recognized the insignia of a chaplain on one of the newcomers. The chaplain and his escort exchanged quiet smiles and murmured greetings with the group. Jedediah lowered his eyes respectfully when the chaplain briefly took his hand.
"Welcome, children," the man said when he had done with his rounds. "I am Father Baliol, Chaplain of Lunar Base, and this is Zachariah, a Soldier of God. I hope you have found your accommodations at least as comfortable as you had on the ship here." He looked toward the Earth. "Beautiful, is it not? Hard to believe it could have held so much evil for so long. Our ancestors were indeed wise to leave it when they did."
"It will be a paradise again, Father," someone said. "We will work hard and trust God for it."
Father Baliol smiled and nodded but a worried look came over his face and he glanced at his companion. "Yes, of course. There is, however, something we think you should know." He licked his lips and shuffled his feet, sending dust boiling lazily up around his knees.
"We have evidence of people living on Earth," the soldier Zachariah said in a voice as sharp as a knife.
They stood quietly confused. When Father Baliol seemed reluctant to continue, Jedediah spoke up.
"We are not the first?" he asked. "But we thought The Church, I mean, we were told---"
"The Church quarantined Earth to prevent contamination," Father Baliol agreed. "No child of The Church has returned to Earth, and no infidel would dare break our embargo."
"But, that would mean people survived The Fall," Goodwife Ruth said slowly.
They all looked at the globe again.
If there had been survivors of The Fall, that meant the evil that had brought the Wrath of God down from Heaven still existed.
Jedediah wondered how he could have seen any beauty in the scarred planet. Dark blots formed ominous patterns on its surface. He shuddered at its air of menace. Could he go through with this now?
Soldier Zachariah stepped forward. "It has been over two thousand years since The Fall," he said tersely. "We do not know what kind of monsters have bred down there in that time. We have observed lights on the surface during planetary night large enough to signify a growing population, perhaps even cities."
Stunned by that revelation, the pilgrims looked at each other with mirrored concern.
"Cities?" Jedediah said. "How is that possible?"
"Each of you was chosen by The Church for this mission," Zachariah continued, ignoring him. "I must ask you now to think long and hard. Are you still willing to go to Earth?"
The silence that fell was deafening.
"I will not deceive you. Some of you may be martyred for your beliefs."
"Martyred?" Naomi squeaked. "You mean killed?"
"If Earth is populated, it is filled with the offspring of evil," Zachariah explained. "They are godless, immoral, and decadent like their ancestors, perhaps worse." He paused to let that sink in. "You will be Soldiers of God, bearers of a Light they cannot tolerate."
"How many pilgrims has the Church sent down already?" Obadiah asked.
"I told you, no child of The Church has returned to Earth."
"Then how much have the infidel merchants discovered?" Cartwright pressed.
Even through their faceplates Jedediah could see Zachariah's countenance darken.
"The Church quarantine prevents infidels from approaching the planet," Father Baliol said.
"Why did you bring us out here away from the dome? Is it because the dome's intercom is not connected to these suits?"
"What are you inferring?" Zachariah's voice was low and tight.
"The quarantine has not worked, has it?"
Baliol and Zachariah's silence was answer enough. The pilgrims began muttering amongst themselves.
"How many have escaped Earth?" Cartwright asked.
Baliol lifted a hand. The murmuring ceased. "Very well. You are correct. The quarantine was compromised. Fall survivors have left Earth." He looked at each of them in turn. "And you are all descendants of those people."
Jedediah gasped, trying to understand what Father Baliol meant. He was descended from Fall survivors? How could that be? They were monstrous animals, demons whose only pleasure was in murder and blasphemy. How could he, a true pilgrim, be part of that? It was unthinkable. He joined the chorus of denials and angry shouts that jammed the intercom. Baliol and Zachariah let them go on until the majority had fallen into a sullen silence.
"Each of you had an ancestor whose origin was unclear. We meticulously researched your backgrounds and lineages," Zachariah said firmly. "There is no mistake. However," he held up a hand when some of them looked ready to protest, "The Church is ready to allow you to demonstrate your loyalty." He crossed his arms and looked at them sternly. "Good children of The Church are always willing to defend The Faith against infidels. Are you willing? Will you defend The Church against the unbeliever?"
A chorus of affirmations rang on the intercom, Jedediah's among them.
"Excellent. Then let us prepare for the journey."
Excited and anxious to prove themselves, the pilgrims clambered back toward the dome. Jedediah stopped as he realized Obadiah was not among them. He still stood watching the Earth thoughtfully.
"What is it?" Jedediah asked.
The man started and looked around. "Nothing. I was just wondering."
"I was just wondering how it is possible children of The Church can be descended from Earthlings. I thought all Earthlings had been excommunicated before The Fall, when Mars Colony rebelled after The Church's warning."
Jedediah laughed. "Even if we have an ancestor from Earth, their excommunication would not extend to us, else why would The Church let us be pilgrims?"
"Why, indeed?" Obadiah grunted and started toward the dome. Jedediah followed, shaking his head in bewilderment.
Behind them, Soldier Zachariah thumbed the volume down on his suit intercom and watched them enter the dome.
They set down in a mountainous area about 35 degrees north of the equator. The region was considered remote enough that they would not be observed, but close enough to permit investigating the supposed settlements without too much travel. Jedediah was struck by the richness of the foliage. An endless variety of green hues covered the mountainside below the snowline. Wildflowers splattered color against the long valley grasses and into the rocky foothills. Overhead, in a blue sky he had never seen but often imagined, the air was crisp with the bite of coming winter. He took a deep breath.
Instantly his mouth filled with fine grit, his nose itched and his eyes watered. He coughed. Zachariah offered him a facemask with a small cylinder attached. After donning it, he felt much better.
"Allergic reaction," Zachariah said. "To be expected when you first encounter the environment. The mask filters out pollen, dust, and other contaminants. You should become acclimated within a few weeks."
They assembled outside the ship and talked quietly for a few moments as Zachariah passed out the facemasks. Finally, he stepped out and held up a hand to get their attention.
"You have all been prepared for this. Each of you has their task. The sooner we settle in to a routine, the easier this will be for all of us." He passed a look over each of them. "We will shortly set out to explore the area. If you encounter any evidence of human habitation, report it to me immediately. Remember you are children of The Church. You must not approach any strangers. They are barbaric infidels capable of all sorts of evil. Merely speaking to one could draw you away from The Faith."
After a brief moment of prayer, they set out on their appointed rounds. They erected temporary shelters under cover of the forest and settled into the routine they had carefully rehearsed for so long. Six set about exploring for fresh comestibles; vegetation, game, and roots. Zachariah formed the rest into seven teams of two each, pairing Jedediah and Obadiah together.
"I am very pleased to be working with you," Jedediah told him as they began their trek. "It is comforting for me to know I am working with a Soldier."
Obadiah did not respond, glancing nervously around as they moved. Jedediah caught the furtive air.
"There is nothing to fear," he told the man. "We are well away from any settlements."
Obadiah gave him an odd look. "This is your first trip off Eridani," he said.
"It is my first trip anywhere," Jedediah smiled. "I wanted it to be dedicated to The Church."
They moved on in silence until, when the pilgrim camp disappeared behind them into the forest, Cartwright walked closer and touched his forearm.
"May I ask you a personal question?" the old man said in a low voice.
"Of course," Jedediah replied, puzzled at Obadiah's attitude.
"Does it not bother you that we have been sent here by The Church because our ancestors were survivors of The Fall?"
The hint of doubt in the old Soldier's voice was clear. Jedediah raised his chin.
"I don't know what you mean by that, Brother Obadiah. If it is true that one of my ancestors was a Fall survivor, I am more than willing to prove my family loyalty to The Church any way they wish. As should you, I might add."
"Yes, well," Obadiah mumbled.
Then he was dead.
Jedediah stumbled to a halt and looked at the blood on his clothes, wondering how it got there. A heavy thud caught his attention. Cartwright's headless body writhed and twitched at his feet. He stared at it dumbly, trying to comprehend what had happened. In quick succession he felt a solid impact on his chest just left of his heart and the ground slammed into his back. Far off, he could hear shouting. There were two loud reports and the sound of running feet. A face appeared against the sky, mouthing silent words of concern and encouragement, then everything went black.
Things were fuzzy around the edges. Nothing had a sharp edge or clearly defined shape. Jedediah turned his head away from the glare of the overhead lamp and tried to focus on his surroundings.
He was back in camp in a makeshift hospital bed attached to a hydrator unit. Goodwife Ruth stood nearby with her back to him, involved in a monitor readout. The rest of the room was stacked high with medical supplies and unidentified equipment. A full body bag lay on another bed a couple of meters away.
His effort to speak produced a croaking noise that brought Ruth instantly to his side.
"Hush," she said, placing a cool hand on his forehead. "You have been seriously injured and need rest."
"Obadiah," he managed. "Where is Obadiah?"
Goodwife Ruth's lips tightened and her eyes went to the body bag. "Brother Cartwright is dead, Brother Miller," she said with a catch in her voice.
He swallowed against the dryness in his mouth. The bit of him that had hoped he'd dreamed Obadiah's death itself died. "What happened?"
"The best we can tell, you were attacked."
Zachariah's voice interrupted Ruth's answer. "We suspect you were seen by infidels."
Jedediah struggled to sit up and found the Soldier standing at the door. He smiled grimly.
"Soldier Zachariah found you before they could finish their evil work," Ruth said. "He saved your life."
"I am grateful," Jedediah said. "But who attacked us?"
"We were hoping you might tell us," Zachariah answered. "I fired at what I thought might be your attackers, but we found no trace of them."
"You fired? You have a weapon?" Jedediah trembled. All weapons had been confiscated centuries ago. Just the sight of one sent a good child of The Church to report it.
"I have a hunting weapon, brother," Zachariah said. "An ancient ball and powder device, not very accurate except at extremely short range and non-lethal beyond a few hundred meters."
The explanation did little to allay Jedediah's unease. Zachariah pushed the subject aside.
"Did you see anything unusual when Brother Obadiah was killed?"
Listening to Soldier Zachariah say Obadiah was dead was different than when Ruth had said it. Zachariah's words held a demanding edge. They commanded him to respond without giving him a chance to think about what the words really meant. In a way, though they were more direct, their impact was less hurtful. He tried to remember those last few moments. "We were talking and suddenly---" He shuddered at the memory. "It happened so fast."
"But you saw no one?"
Jedediah shook his head.
Suddenly, he dreaded Soldier Zachariah might ask what they had been talking about. Brother Obadiah's words rang in his mind, manifestations of doubt that had brought immediate retribution. If Zachariah knew of Obadiah's doubt, would he desecrate the man's memory with the stigma of Heretic? Jedediah felt a chill at that prospect. He had respected Obadiah's judgment and ability. He had known the man for many years, considered him almost a father. He could not stand the thought of that memory being stained for a moment's weakness.
The Soldier watched him for another second, then crossed his arms and looked at Goodwife Ruth. "Let me know when he can return to his duties."
"Rest, Brother Jedediah," the Soldier said. "We have a long task ahead. You need your strength."
"Thank you again," Jedediah said in relief as Zachariah turned to leave.
There was no response.
His wound was serious but not lethal and he made excellent progress under Ruth's care. By the fourth day he was up and around, able to do light work. Naomi Silversmith came every so often to check on him, ostensibly to learn nursing from Goodwife Ruth, but Jedediah thought he saw more in her attentions. He found her beside him more and more often, hand on his elbow to steady him or just hovering with a slight smile on her lips. Their small talk eventually wound down to meaningful silences.
If it wasn't for the nightmares, Jedediah would have been a very happy man. The pilgrims' settlement was now well established. No other recon teams had been attacked and no one had seen any evidence of habitation within at least fifty kilometers. Jedediah tried to put Obadiah's death behind him, but he would awaken in a cold sweat, the image of Obadiah's body still twitching in his memory. Always, the old Soldier's last question rose unbidden to haunt him.
He found himself watching Zachariah closely, analyzing his words and actions. At first it bothered him that he would feel a sudden distrust of this Soldier of God. Then the image of Obadiah's decapitated corpse would flash before him and the unease would pass.
After lengthy observation, Jedediah could see no other reason Soldier Zachariah had fallen into the role of leader than by virtue of his title. The man was no more competent than anyone else at any camp duty. Even his hunting skills were inferior to those of several others. Nevertheless, he retained unquestioned authority over their little group.
Days passed into weeks and their settlement became more permanent. Flat areas were furrowed and planted with grain, more hilly areas with vegetables. Solar and wind powered generators came on line the second week. Earth was becoming like home.
On the eighteenth day they spotted the flying machine. Zachariah immediately began preparing for defense.
"The Earthlings know we are here now," he told them at a meeting to discuss the coming conflict. "We must be prepared for anything. We can expect no mercy or quarter. We must stand together now more than ever." He gave them all a hard look. "Remember, anyone who does not give their all is not a true child of The Church."
They shared prayers and anxious looks overhead, then went about their duties.
A week went by without further indication they had been discovered. Staying on constant alert began to wear on them. Tempers flared and nerves grew raw as they waited for the evil hordes to burst from the forests. Zachariah kept them at a fever pitch. He exhorted, cajoled, and browbeat them into a constant state of readiness.
Jedediah watched this with a growing confusion. Why was Zachariah convinced the camp would be attacked? The flying machine had never made any indication it had noticed them and no follow-up investigation had materialized. Surely they could reasonably assume they had not been seen, or that the Earthling pilots had simply mistaken their settlement for one of their own?
The answer came on the twenty-ninth day. Zachariah came to their regular morning meeting before prayer carrying his hunting weapon. The site of the rifle caused a general rustle in the crowd. Slowly the hubbub subsided and Zachariah stood.
"We can no longer remain idle," he told them. "They have not yet attacked. This can only mean they are massing for a major assault. They intend to completely wipe us out in a single blow." He stopped to take a breath, his eyes glittering with a heated excitement. "We must take the battle to them."
The pilgrims looked at each other in puzzlement. Finally, someone spoke.
"What do you mean? Leave the settlement?"
"Correct. Using the element of surprise, we will attack their forward position and crush their forces before they can respond."
There was a cold, unbelieving silence.
"We are not Soldiers," Goodwife Ruth broke in. "We are pilgrims."
Zachariah turned those bright eyes on her and leveled them like weapons. "I told you while we were still on Lunar Base, you are Soldiers of God. I warned you about the danger."
"You told us we might be killed for our beliefs," Ruth shot back. "We understand and accept that. But this," she shook her head. "You are asking us to kill."
"I am saying you must defend yourselves."
Ruth set her chin. "I will not kill. It is against Church Law."
"People die in war, Goodwife. It is inevitable."
"Like Brother Obadiah?" Jedediah interjected.
Ruth's resolve flickered. Her chin dropped a little and her face softened. Jedediah saw the hurt in her eyes and for a moment resented speaking up. Then he remembered why he had done it.
Zachariah was right. They had to defend themselves. But the Soldier's idea of what constituted their enemies and Jedediah's growing convictions about what Zachariah's motives might be complicated that defense. He knew the camp needed to be prepared for an attack. He was not so sure Zachariah's identification of the enemy was entirely honest.
As he hoped, Zachariah grabbed the opening. "Exactly, Brother Jedediah. Brother Obadiah was the first casualty of this war. I understand your reluctance to take another's life, Goodwife Ruth, but you must remember these are godless, heathen monsters. They killed Brother Obadiah for no reason." He leaned forward and urgency rang in his voice. "If we wait, they will kill us all. We must strike first!" The Soldier tucked the butt of the rifle under his arm. "I will go ahead to scout the immediate area. Do not follow me. Stay inside the settlement until I return, but prepare yourselves for the attack."
Jedediah looked around. Their faces said they believed his words but were hesitant. He stepped up and forced the words out. "I am willing to defend The Faith, Soldier Zachariah. Give me a weapon and I will go with you."
He ignored the shocked expressions on Ruth and Naomi's faces. He was watching the Soldier's reaction.
"A weapon?" the man said, as if he had not heard correctly.
"Yes. If we are to be Soldiers of God," Jedediah went on, "we will need weapons. How else can we bring God's justice to Earth?"
Zachariah stared at him as if he had suddenly crawled from under a rock. "What would you do with a weapon if I gave it to you?" he shot back with some venom.
"Do with it?" Jedediah said, feigning confusion. "Why, kill the enemy."
The Soldier's eyes narrowed as Jedediah forged ahead.
"Brother Obadiah told me he was concerned that we should be sent here because we were descendants of Fall survivors. I told him I am a true Child of The Church. I am willing to prove my loyalty any way The Church requires. If I must kill to show I am a righteous Child of God, if I must have blood on my hands, I can accept that better knowing my victims will be godless, immoral monsters who kill without reason."
They all looked at Zachariah. The Soldier was uncharacteristically unsettled. Jedediah watched the man shuffle his feet as he glanced around. It was the first real indication he had ever given in public that he was uncertain about anything. Was he stalling?
"I am ready," Jedediah said, putting out a hand. "Give me a weapon."
Zachariah looked at the extended hand. He frowned, straightened, and glared at Jedediah. "We will discuss this further tomorrow," he said, and spun on his heel to walk rapidly away and disappear into his dwelling.
Ruth stared at him. "Are you mad? How can you want to kill others? I thought I knew you, Brother Jedediah."
"As did I," Naomi chimed in hurt and confusion.
Jedediah tried not to let their words distract him. He took Naomi by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. If he was destined never to see them again, he wanted to carry their memory into the next world.
He set off after Zachariah.
Jedediah stepped into the Soldier's dwelling and looked around. The man's quarters were spartan; no wall ornaments, simple furniture, and a small cooking area. Zachariah sat on a stool near a bench covered with papers and a variety of oddly shaped metal items.
"I told you we would discuss the weapons tomorrow," he said when he recognized Jedediah.
"I think it is time you told us the truth," Jedediah said.
The Soldier stood slowly and walked to stand nearly toe to toe with his visitor, his stony gaze leveled at the younger man. "Just what do you mean by that, brother?"
He had rehearsed this moment a thousand times in his head, but actually standing up to Zachariah's imposing presence was very different. He set his jaw and pushed ahead, determined not to allow the man to intimidate him.
"We are not in danger of attack, are we?" he asked, surprised at the strength in his own voice. "It has been almost two weeks since we saw the flying machine. Had we been seen, they would have attacked."
"They are massing for attack now."
"I do not think they are, because I do not believe they are the monsters we have been told," Jedediah went on.
Zachariah's face flushed angrily. "How dare you? How dare you blaspheme The Church with such heresy?"
"The only person who has spoken of killing is you, Soldier Zachariah. We have lived here peacefully nearly a month. Now you want to shatter that peace because you feel there might be a threat?"
"You will be silent!" Zachariah shouted, grabbing Jedediah's shoulders.
"Are you going to silence me as you did Obadiah?"
His words struck the Soldier like cold water. Zachariah's mouth popped open and shut, the rage in his face giving way to pain. He dropped his grip and returned to his seat, sinking into it as if he weighed a ton. Jedediah suddenly wanted his suspicions to be unfounded, his accusation empty. If what he feared was true, he wouldn't know how to react.
"I was acting on my orders," Zachariah said, without looking up.
Jedediah's heart sank, but he pressed on. He had to be sure. "Orders? From The Church?"
Zachariah nodded. "Believe me, it gave me no pleasure to do so. Obadiah had been a good Soldier of God. Did you know I served under him once?" He looked around, his eyes full of fierce defiance. "But a Soldier of God must always put The Faith above personal feelings."
The Soldier's words chilled Jedediah deeply. "Personal feelings make us what we are, Brother Zachariah. Without them we are automatons, acting only out of necessity or compulsion, not conscience."
"The Church is the only true and infallible conscience for humanity. Have you learned nothing from our history? The Fall proved that only The Church can guarantee salvation," Zachariah shot back.
"But there were survivors of The Fall." Again, the wind went out of Zachariah's sails. Jedediah knew he should not let the man recover. "I do not know what your orders are concerning the rest of us," he said. "Rather, I am afraid I might know and the prospect horrifies me."
When Zachariah would not meet his gaze, he knew he had struck close to the truth. Perhaps Zachariah was torn by the discovery of Fall survivors and the atrocious orders given him. It was one thing to fight for an infallible Church, and quite another to kill one of your own at the order of a Church whose veracity was suddenly in question. Jedediah could see Zachariah was a good man under the Soldier, a true Child of the The Church, committed to the high principles of Truth and Justice. Could it have been the struggle between his personal ethics and The Church's demands that had caused his erratic behavior? When they had spotted the flying machine maybe Zachariah had hoped for an attack. It would have proven The Church right. But the attack had never come and he had had to fall back on his own invention.
"You had to prove the Earthlings are the monsters The Church says they are," Jedediah said, putting the puzzle together out loud. "So, if they would not come to us, we must go to them."
The Soldier shook his head slowly and looked at Jedediah, his face softer than the young man could ever remember seeing it. There was immense fatigue in that face, a sense of inevitability. Zachariah had apparently reached a decision. He rose and began a slow pacing back and forth, as if trying to escape what he now admitted.
"The Church has known about Fall survivors almost from the beginning. They could not be allowed to live among the True Children, that much was obvious, but even heretics carry the Gift of Life, a gift only God may take away, therefore they could not be executed. As Goodwife Ruth pointed out, it is against Church Law.
"The Soldiers of God were formed expressly to deal with Fall survivors. I know you were taught the Soldiers are defenders of The Truth against heretics and infidels, but that is only part of our duty.
"Every few years, a group of Fall survivor descendants are chosen for pilgrimage to Earth. A Soldier is always assigned to them."
Zachariah paused to gather his thoughts and Jedediah tried to assimilate what he'd been told. So much of his life was falling apart, everything that had been based on the infallibility and omnipotence of The Church.
"How many times have you been to Earth?" he asked the Soldier.
"This is my fourth trip. I have escorted eighty pilgrims, including your group."
Jedediah swallowed nervously, almost too afraid of the answer to ask the question. "Where are they?"
Zachariah shook his head and smiled. "Alive. I told you, execution is against Church Law."
"But what about Brother Obadiah?"
The Soldier crossed his arms and sighed, his forehead creased in a heavy scowl. "Brother Obadiah was a Soldier. He had taken an oath of silence and loyalty. But his questions on Lunar Base were overheard."
The memory slammed home. "The suit intercoms! They were interconnected."
"Yes. I might have been able to turn a blind eye to his doubts. What Soldier has not asked hard questions in hard times? But Father Baliol only understood the heresy in his remarks." Zachariah's face took on a haunted look as he continued. "I stood by and watched while Father Baliol reported Obadiah. I said nothing as they weighed his past service against the harm he might do unfettered. God help me, I raised no protest when I was ordered to eliminate him after they pronounced excommunication."
Jedediah gasped. "They excommunicated him?"
The Soldier snapped back into focus. "Have you not reasoned where Soldiers come from? How they can bypass Church Law? Until I have sufficiently demonstrated my loyalty to The Church through my service as her Soldier, I myself stand excommunicate. Brother Obadiah had received redemption but squandered it in just a few words." The pacing picked up speed as Zachariah became more distraught. "My orders are to establish your camp here, then return for another set of pilgrims, my last before redemption. I reasoned that if I disappeared while scouting for Earthling forces you would have assumed I was killed. The settlement would live in fear for a while, but that would pass when no attacks came." He stopped and grimaced. "I never expected someone to volunteer to go with me."
"There are no attacks coming, then?"
"No," the Soldier admitted. "The flying machine was sent to pick me up. It will return in two days and every two weeks thereafter until I show, or until they confirm my death."
Jedediah heaved a sigh of relief. "No attacks. Thank God! The settlement is safe."
The Soldier was facing him with the hard, inscrutable face he'd come to dread. A chill ran down Jedediah's spine.
"This and the other pilgrim villages were to be stocked with pacifist Children," Zachariah went on. "The Church does not wish to precipitate a new Fall by tempting God's grace in allowing us to repopulate Earth."
"After the Fall the survivors evacuated to Lunar Base, Io, Europa, and Ganymede, Earth was uninhabited for many centuries while The Fall completed its purging work. Thousands of survivors converted to The Church because of The Fall. Those who did not were cleansed in the fires of the Sun. It is the converts' descendants we are returning, bringing them back to claim their heritage.
"However, if any of the pilgrims shows distrust, is heretic or violent, The Church has empowered the Soldiers to deal with them appropriately."
Jedediah stepped back toward the door, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he listened. Zachariah stopped by the bench and picked up one of the oddly shaped items. It fit neatly on his hand and glistened wickedly when the Soldier pointed it at him.
"I spared you once, Brother Jedediah. I hoped you would be part of the settlement, but your heretical attitude, your questioning and lack of faith tells me there remains one more danger to the safety of this settlement." The Soldier twisted a knob on the weapon to its stop. "Never mind, Brother. Think of this as doing your part for The Church."