Bishop Sonje held the flimsy computer in a trembling hand. He had at first attempted to quell the shakes, straining his muscles futilely, but had given up in the last few minutes. Had his alter-selves tried to delude their minds with the fiction that this was merely hibernation tremors? Was he such a fool in every dimension of the multi-verse?
This puerile idea had been short-lived in the current time steam. After viewing only four recorded deaths, each more grotesque, more inhumane than the next, Sonje had abandoned himself to the horror of what he had done, and never done. Three more deaths had sent his soul into a morasses of guilt and sick fascination as he watched the gentle High Sage of Shar-Un die again and again.
And here was an eighth death, streaming across the flimsy’s face. The Sage had been freed from his restraints, but only after one of the ubiquitous guards cut his furry throat. After a long series of throes and gurgling pleas for mercy, or relief, or both, the Sage now lay still, curled in upon himself like a babe. Blood, the only indication that something might be amiss with the small figure, pooling like a thick claret before his quiescent head.
The screen went black at the end of the recording and Sonje lifted his eyes to meet the Sage’s own.
“Where would they banish me?” asked the Sage, before Sonje could pose his own question.
Was the rabbit-faced creature becoming more composed after each death? Was that possible? He carried within him the memories of his every execution. How could he seem more relaxed now than he had in the recordings?
Sonje was so surprised by the Sage’s cogent question that he found himself answering it before he thought to stop his tongue.
“An unpopulated planet,” he said. “Someplace safe for you; hospitable, but untamed.”
“Why not kill me in truth? Just leave me dead if you want me gone?”
Sonje shook his head.
“We do no kill sentient beings, High Sage.”
The little rabbit man laughed, making a high, nasally sound that grated on the bishop’s nerves.
No, be honest, he told himself. It isn’t his laugh that grates you nerves. It’s your twisted view of reality — the one given you by mother Church.
Sonje frowned as he mentally stomped that line of thinking to death.
By the Point, even in my thoughts I am a murderer.
“We shouldn’t do this,” whispered Tock.
Sonje turned to him.
“It’s wrong what we do here, Bishop. How can we do these things in the name of the All-Point? How can we call ourselves priests when we –“
“You need to stop,” said Sonje. “You need to stop right now.”
“Sir, I am only saying –“
Sonje stood abruptly. “Come with me, Surrogate.”
He strode from the room, his face a mask of barely controlled rage. Tock followed.
They emerged into bright daylight the near-purple sky harboring just a smattering of clouds far in the west like chips of white cotton down. Sonje stared at them for a moment, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides, shaking all the while.
Why was he so angry with his Surrogate? Was it because Tock spoke so openly before the Sage? Was it because he sensed some deep allegiance in the young Shar-un towards his native people and their ways? Or was it, as Sonje was loathe to admit, because the Surrogate only voiced his own feelings on the matter of Severe Unction?
Sonje turned to gaze into Tock’s earnest eyes. Some of the venom in his bowels evaporated, and he forced his hands to hang limp.
“You don’t believe he will confess, do you?”
“I don’t, Bishop.”
“My people –“
“With respect, Bishop, yes, my people. I cannot expect you to understand. You were never a Surrogate. You grew up in the Convenient after humanity had long since accepted the All-Point. I grew up here. My parents taught me the Truth, of course, but everything I know — everyone I know — is Shar-Un.”
Sonje stared at Tock who met the bishop’s eyes without wavering.
“Do you confess the All-Point, Tock?”
“Yes, Bishop. I do confess,” said the rabbit-faced Surrogate.
“And you are committed to the work? You pledge your every atom to the Plan of Reunification?”
“I do. Please, do not think me a heretic, Bishop. Four generations of my family have lived and died in secret service to this cause.”
“I don’t mean to offend you, Tock. But I can’t do this alone. I need to know my Surrogates are behind me.”
“We are, Bishop. I meant only to say I believe the High Sage’s faith in the Way is equal to our own in the All-Point. As spiritual leader for the entire planet, he views confession as a betrayal on a global scale.”
A faith equal to our own?
“And you believe this faith will see him through nine deaths?”
“I do, sir. He has the memories of eight already. One more, I fear, will only strengthen him.”
“Then he will be banished and his true death shall go unremarked and unknown by any soul on this planet. And in the end, he will be as much a part of the All-Point as you or I.”
“As you say, Bishop.”