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Aishvarrya had never field serviced a nun before. Mother Ximena Macrina Massa Tigre was one of the last of the New Desert Mothers, perched high in her mountain niche on the face of Mount Roots, two thousand kilometers east of Cape Horn. The subglove that kept the Mother alive had issued a service alert, but the nun would not respond to queries from Legion Secure Subsystems’ help desk.
The nun’s subglove was rated for fifteen years, twenty max. The Ordo Fastigiorum had paid for an all-inclusive hundred-year warranty. When the techs realized it had been thirty years since the full-body subdermal implant was last upgraded, panic swept through their shop. Everyone expected the worst. Legion’s coiffed crisis management team came storming down, interrogating the techs as they drafted a pre-emptive statement, just in case the story got out and climbed to the top of the newsfeed.
As Aishvarrya’s blimp made the final approach, she watched the passing valley below, glaciated and profoundly still, painted coral and stardust by dawn’s retreating touch. For long moments she forgot the pandemonium at Legion, the many voices instructing her, admonishing her that the company’s reputation was at stake, insinuating that if things went wrong, she would take the fall. She had not wanted to come, but now she was glad to glide above the valley. She finally understood the lure of this wilderness. Where else on this teeming ball of narcissism and squalid self-interest could one hope to find the holy?
The hermitage was little more than an alcove. A cave three meters deep, laser-sculpted into a sheer cliff. There was no landing and there was no door. Aishvarrya tied her line to the blimp’s flimsy grill with little faith it could hold her weight. She stepped into the frigid cave.
At the end of the ice-swathed corridor the New Desert Mother sat cross-legged. Snow drifted across the nun’s lap and folded hands. Her faded habit rippled in the wind. A layer of frost fuzzed her flesh like fruiting mould.
Aishvarrya pinged the subglove. The report: power failure, ten months earlier. The nun’s core registered at -52 degrees centigrade. She was frozen solid.
In another climate, the flesh would have rotted away by now, leaving just the subdermal glove that enveloped the Mother from head to toe as a body-shaped sack of soup and bone. Protocol dictated that Aishvarrya leave her. Client services would liaise with the Mother’s Order, then media relations would take over. A few techs would lose their jobs, no doubt. Maybe even her.
A sexless voice registered in her telefeed. A visitor.
“Mother, I . . .” Aishvarrya checked her sensor again. The nun showed no vitals. The cave’s majordomo system must have initiated its automatic interlocutor function. “We will inform the Ordo Fastigiorum. Did the Mother leave any instructions for Antarctic Defense to assist in an emergency?”
You have trespassed my meditation, Child.
“We received a service call from the subdermal sleeve. I’m with Legion. The glove . . .” Aishvarrya looked at the Mother’s dark eyes. Frozen, no doubt, and hidden by crystal haze. Why was she talking to a corpse?
No, Child. All is in order.
“Have a good day,” Aishvarrya turned to go.
Or have you come to seek my blessing?
Blessing? “No. The subglove has malfunctioned.” She awaited a response, but the interlocutor remained silent. “The logs are degraded. When did the Mother last go outside? The D-Charge is depleted.”
I cannot recall, Child.
Aishvarrya waited for the interlocutor to elaborate, all the while her eyes locked on the nun’s. She was dead. She had to be. Unless the glove was so busted it had reported an inaccurate core temp. In that case, this might be a rescue mission after all. She bit her lip as doubt began to gnaw. It might be best, she decided, to take a physical reading.
She retrieved her wand and took a tentative step deeper into the cave. The nun did not raise her face to her. The woman seemed more stone than flesh. Aishvarrya knelt before the nun and cleared a circle of frost from the statue’s neck. The flesh was as cold as the mountain. She wound the drilling mechanism to penetrate the thin layer of frozen skin down to the implant.
Have you come to tempt me? Are you my Samael?
Aishvarrya scampered back from the nun, uncertain if the words had been imagined. What was wrong with the majordomo? Why did it speak in the nun’s voice?
“As I explained, Ma’am, I am a tech from–”
Long have I awaited your visitation. Long have I pondered what you might offer me to relinquish the mercy of the Son. So what will you promise? Will you crown me at Carmel? At Moriah? Will you sweep your taloned hand and melt the fields below and make for me a verdant land?
Trembling now, Aishvarrya checked her wand. The implant reported no faults. The nun inside was dead.
I will not be roused from my contemplation. In this darkness I have seen a glimpse, a dim outline of His exalted face. Would you pry open my eyes and take from me my vision? Make your offer of sun and moon. You cannot bend me. The sun is but a flaming ball, the moon its pale reflection.
Aishvarrya crawled backwards from the impassive, blind stare.
Or is your seduction simpler yet? Will you promise a second touch? A silken bed? Will you breathe warmth into every cell of this petrified flesh?
This was impossible. Aishvarrya wanted to get the hell out of here, not become a character in some palliative psychodrama, but she could not just leave. She shook her wand like the veterans did when they got a reading they did not like. It made no difference. The nun should still be dead.
And now you arrest your honey tongue. Is it your speech you would deny me? You dare fill my ear with whispers only to withdraw, knowing I will turn from Him in the dark, to you whose form will never be resolved, to you with many faces. With how many voices do you speak?
You are too cruel, Demon! My heart cannot bear it. So I say to you, be gone! I cast you out, unclean spirit!
“Ma’am, your subdermal implant has malfunctioned. I am placing a call to Antarctic Defence.”
The Mother sat in rigid silence. Aishvarrya rose to her feet. She felt a powerful urge to return to the blimp’s cockpit. She backed away, unwilling to break eye contact.
Who are you?
“I told you, Ma’am. I’m with Legion.”
Her flesh prickled. A crackle sputtered in her ears. She paused. Now she heard a low whine, a static charge building. The cave was armed! She called up her own scatterfield just in time.
The ultrasonic pulse was strong enough to cause internal bleeding. Her invisible armour dispersed the attack–mostly. Enough penetrated her defences that she rocked back from the fleeting explosion of pins within her sinuses. She felt the tingle of her own subglove release a billion reconstructors into her blood stream, seeking out unknown damage.
“Stand down!” Aishvarrya cried.
Be gone and stay far from me! Oh Lord, heed my prayer!
Another pulse pounded her. It was too strong for her scatterfield. Her vision blacked momentarily before the subglove released stimulants to bring the cave back into sharp relief. A new, terrible sound demanded her attention. The blimp’s alarms squealing.
How many screws had the last attack loosened? She turned to the blimp. Her heart plummeted when she saw it had begun to drift away.
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT . . .
Aishvarrya stumbled toward open sky, pummelled forward by a third attack, so savage she was sure the bones of her skull became unknit. She swayed on the cave’s threshold, the blimp now floating out of reach.
I CAST YOU–.
Aishvarrya broke contact with the interlocutor when she leapt.
The virgin snowfields spread below her, vast and golden. A sacred place. Its peace broken only by the roar of wind rushing past her ear.
Main Image: Pablo Bugani