“Your Petitioner is here, Your Holiness,” said Talionis clearly and loudly, making the awkward bobble that was the best a Cardinal could do in full formal regalia. The silver mitre was too tall and heavy for him to bow his head to any appreciable degree without endangering it, or his skull, or his neck, and it was utterly impossible to truly bend the knees in the rich red lead-lined robes.
It wasn’t really necessary to speak loudly, given the quality of the audiovisual recorders that lined the space between the richly colored tapestries below, depicting scenes of the life and transfiguration of the Mother Planet, and the brighter and purer colors of the expanses of glass above depicting God’s rescue and renewal of humanity, but however tweakable the recordings might be Talionis knew scholars would be accessing the raw feed of this historic event for centuries. He might be a minor player in this drama, but he would not be a mumbler on the stage of history.
“Send Ham in,” boomed the Pontiff from his throne. Talionis would have thought he’d misheard, but as encrusted with gems and precious metals and exotic woods as the glittering array of speakers and sound-canceling microphones might be, they were as efficient as an angel’s sword in cutting out any ambiguity as to what words were spoken by the Man sitting closed-eyed in their center. Those words could bind and unleash the fates of millions, after all… and perhaps just had, in fact, though Talionis couldn’t see the significance of replacing ‘him’ with ‘Ham’ at all. Perhaps he would understand later, when he went over the day in Communion.
Talionis keyed his crozier and, as the massive gilded steel doors opposite slowly wound open, withdrew to his Witnessing post to the left of the throne. His presence there was as symbolic as the emptiness of the matching post opposite, but symbolism was what mattered most in this world, and the honor of Witnessing such a moment as this would have been overwhelming had he not taken precautions to prevent its being so. He couldn’t Commune while Witnessing, the brain had to be bare, and he had to be alert and clear, without chemical buffering, but the natural endorphin wash that follows sex and combat was permissible.
The great doors had finally wound all the way open. A figure in a plain brown robe, tiny at first, made its way across the huge open space, keeping its hooded gaze upon the broad path in the center, neither looking up to the windows or tapestries nor sparing any glance for the exquisitely blooming gardens, rife with expressive statuary, to left or right. Though its head was bowed it walked completely upright, in short waddling steps, hands clasped prayerfully at the level of its knees. Finally approaching the foot of the dais on which the throne stood, the figure dropped to those unseen knees – a Petitioner’s robe being not armor but simple rough cloth, safe enough for the short time one was likely to spend in the Presence – and spread its arms wide, startlingly wide, hands extending from the sleeves, huge fingers together save for a wide, prominent thumb.
“Holy Father, hear my plea,” the voice from the cowl boomed almost as resonantly as the Pontiff’s had, despite the lack of selective amplification and modulation, “for I would beg an indulgence of God, through you, for my people.”
The Pontiff’s eyes opened like flaring lasers, alight with the power and presence of God. Talionis quailed at the sight, even though it wasn’t directed at him. “Your people? In your very first sentence in my presence, you presume already.”
The brown figure before him did not see the Pontiff’s gaze upon it, of course, but it (no, he, thought Talionis, that baritone was plainly a male voice) had to be conscious of it. The Holy Father had spoken to… to him directly, after all!
Yet the voice remained as grave and calm as before. “They are my people, Father, because I am of them. I use my because I belong to them, not as you might, to say that they belong to you.”
The Pontiff was quiet a moment, then said flatly, “I do not refer to your use of the word my at all.”
Talionis puzzled for a moment. “Father, hear my plea” was required, and pleas on behalf of others were commonplace, so… oh.
The point had sunk in rather more quickly in its intended target. Although Talionis was sure that no single atom of the petitioner’s body had moved more than a millimeter or two – a barely perceptible additional curl to the fingers, a microdyne more tension in the biceps - its cruciform position now suggested less a dignified plea for justice than a would-be strangler holding back.
That naturally deep and mellifluous baritone however remained grave, controlled and beautiful to hear. What it said had the rhythms of Scripture, but no, of course that could not possibly be the case with a servitor. Some lesser corner of Archive.
“Have we not eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions like your own? Are we not fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as your own people are? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? A…” The voice cut off abruptly, as if it had left something unsaid.
Talionis’s gaze whipped toward the Holy Father. He didn’t understand what was going on, exactly (damn this bare-brain tradition!), but the clean filtered air of the audience chamber reeked more than ever of significance. Holy Father’s God-rapt eyes were staring at the petitioner, pent in strangler pose… and time slowed, the moment stretched… as if God Himself were pausing the datastream of reality to think, to calculate…
Were those long, overleveraged arms beginning to tremble? No, the Cardinal Witness decided, they were not… but his own arms were beginning to ache in sympathy, though they hung quietly at his sides.
Then, inside the actinic arc of pure God coming from the Pontiff’s gaze… was that a hint of amusement? If so, whose?
“You wish our formal recognition? Very well, be at ease. ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ that.’ We will discuss your people.”
The Petitioner took the order to be at ease to heart, dropping his arms, plopping down in a comfortable sprawl on the ground, and then casually flipping back his hood. The black eyes, large ears, the muzzle and lack of a nose, all these Talionis had expected, but while he’d known the top of the head would have to have been shaved to fit the tiny black disk of the petitioner’s cap, with its pent lethality all ready for a broadcast command, somehow he hadn’t quite expected the bright shocking pink circle of bald scalp against the contrast of the short stiff black fur. It looked ridiculous.
“It’s a simple request, your Holiness. My people want Communion.”
Talionis felt his jaw muscles slacken. He’d thought the plea for recognition as sapient people was the extent of the servitor’s ambition. Some request for limited rights, perhaps. But this?
His Holiness did not look surprised at all, but then he had access to all manner of information no one else did, even bare-brained. Speaking ex cathedra, in the fullest possible openness to God, it was literally impossible for any other being on the planet to know as he knew. The power of God thrilled through every syllable he spoke, no matter how casual the form of his phrasing. “Simple to request, certainly, but Communion is not an insignificant matter. It is the gift of God to Her Children, Ham, and one granted to only the best of them.”
“That is precisely why we feel we should have it, Holiness. After all, all of the requirements you set upon your own folk to qualify them for Communion…”
“Yes,” interrupted the Pontiff. “When we made you, we wrought better than we had thought to do, Ham.”
Ham again, Talionis thought. What does that mean? Apparently the Petitioner wondered too, for he asked, “Why do you keep calling me that, Father?”
As was often the case when listening to the Pontiff, even when he wasn’t in Communion, Talionis felt dull and stupid, perpetually several steps behind.
“We wrought you better than we knew, Ham, but we wrought you. God carried our seed here, She birthed us and all the plants and animals of this world, but it was we who made you, made your people out of animal stock. We are the children and servants of God, and you, Ham, are our children and are to be servants to us in turn. That is your place in this world. We shall recognize you as people, but servants to humanity you are and must remain. Go now, the audience is ended.”
The Petitioner’s face wasn’t human, but it was close enough that his puzzlement was obvious. “We never even…”
The Pontiff’s voice abruptly gained in amplification, to a point just short of painful. “GO NOW. THE AUDIENCE IS ENDED.”
The Petitioner blinked, then obediently stood, bowed, turned (briefly touching knuckles to the floor) and walked out. Talionis watched him go, feeling as puzzled himself as the servitor had looked. Something didn’t make sense here.
When the great doors had closed again he turned again to the Pontiff. The old man was already pulling out the data cords, disconnecting himself from Communion with God. Talionis helped him do that, marveling at the difference it made in his gaze. Gone was the supernal brightness that had lit those eyes; they were no more than a natural man’s, albeit probably the brightest man alive.
Disconnected from the Throne, his voice was also no longer the precise and modulated thing it had been. “Thank you, George. Let’s get out of this place, please. I’m getting too old for these robes.” Talionis grasped his arm and helped him down the steps of the Throne, then out the short passageway behind it.
All the bejeweled glitterment cut off abruptly back here. The walls were plain dark metal, interrupted here and there with utilitarian light panels and control panels. Talionis said, “Here, let me carry the crown, Holiness, and your outer coat.” He released the catches that held them on. They were almost as heavy as his own entire ensemble.
The Holy Father sighed with relief and gratitude, running a blue-veined hand through his short, sweat-soaked hair, brushing it into place over the closed dataports. “You can call me John again, George, I’m off duty.” The pair began to walked the long corridor to the vestry, to doff the rest of their formal gear.
As he hung the leaden robes in the metal lockers, Talionis came to a decision. “Ho… John, can I ask you something?” His voice was diffident; he didn’t normally do this.
“About the session?” His old friend frowned. “You can ask, I may not be able to answer. That was more God in there than me.” He began unbuttoning his tunic. It had been snowy, fresh and cool an hour ago, but now it was soaked in rank-smelling sweat. “I can’t wait for this shower,” he added.
“Understood.” Talionis threw his own sodden tunic into the hamper. “It’s just that this is the first time I’ve heard you – God-you, I mean - dodge a question like that. The Petitioner’s question wasn’t about their status, or their origin. He was asking about Communion, and why they can’t have it. Why the misdirection?”
The older man was silent a few moments as he finished stripping. The two headed into the shower are. “God provided the data, George, but I made the decision. The fact is, the children of Ham – that’s kind of a God joke, She kept flashing images of a proto-servitor named that from early space travel – are more suited to Communion than we are. They’ve better memory than ours, considerably faster in fixation and
retrieval, and with more and deeper registers. They can absorb more data at a time, and their integrative thought processes can handle more variables. Their sensory functions are faster and more sensitive. Their general intelligence quotient, in fact, averages almost twice that of ours, unaided.”
They passed into the room, Talionis turning the wheel to shut the waterproof door. Immediately, the air filled with sprays of hot water and steam, and he almost didn’t catch the end of the explanation. “The children of God need their edge, John. Our own children must never, ever, see us naked.”