The first leg of Galactic's journey from Gauda Prime to extra-Solar orbit took four weeks of Relative Time. Pilot ships met them at Xena and brought them safely through the debris field. The last leg of the journey, though, took seven times as long and that was Real Time. Now that the ship was finally making stationfall all but one of Galactic's passengers were dutifully gathered in the departure lounges, impatient to disembark.
The cabin steward, making a final sweep, accidentally discovered the missing man on the observation desk. He might never have noticed the man was there, except that the viewing ocular was open and Galactic was adjusting course, turning on its axis. Tombaugh's central shaft and Alpha Wheel were sliding off the screen. Through the spokes of the wheel the bones of Earth glittered against the infine powdered with starlight.
The wheel vanished from the screen and the steward might have left, except that the ship made another adjustment and before the optics could kick in, the screen was filled with an image of the Moon, the single, whole glowing remnant of vanished Earth. The ship seemed to be plunging toward the Sea of Tranquility -- moments from crashing! Then the optics cut in and in the screen's new perspective the ship was only dropping slowly toward Beta Wheel. The docking bays were yawing closer. As the ship slid across the spoke, it was possible to see squatters' hives, those strings of habitat cubes cobbled out of scavenged transalplex and nusteel, scattering into space like a cheap bead fringe coming unraveled. Out at the ends of the strings, the faces of the cubes picked up the sun, reflecting a pattern of gold rain on the station's silver skin.
The word slipped out of the steward's mouth and he instantly regretted it. He hadn't seen the other man, who said, with an amused inflection, "You should have seen the planet."
The steward assumed a curt formality. "Passenger Hayward Floyt?"
The man turned. He was dressed as an Earth pilgrim. That wasn't unusual; several hundred of Galatic's passengers were on pilgrimage. The fact was that it wouldn't have been unusual anywhere in the galaxy right now. The sumptuary laws which for centuries had mandated that a person display rank and status in their clothing were ancient history, gone with the Federation. Perversely, now that anyone could wear they liked at any time, many, particularly the young, found the role of Earth Pilgrim romantic and ostentatiously mourned a Federation they had never had to endure. The passenger was unusual in only one way – he was old – old enough to have actually seen the vanished planet with his own eyes. His voice and straight knife-slim body belied it, but features that had once been hawk-like and proud were sunken and pale and the hooded eyes drooped.
"Excuse me, sir," the steward said. "Did you mean that you actually…before?"
"Yes," Floyt said. "I was born there."
"I'm sorry, sir, but you must report to one of the departure lounges."
"Of course," Floyt said.
The steward didn't see him debark. Station Security cameras did observe that passenger Hayward Floyt cleared customs without hindrance. Once free to move about the station, he declined the help of the accommodation shills waiting to lighten a pilgrim's burden by helping him to an overpriced hotel. It was recorded that he stopped at a credit-slot kiosk and purchased a station map before making his way into the transportation tubes that led to the central shaft. From there he seemed to vanish by the simple expediency of getting off on a utility level and walking. The light was dim on such levels. The pilgrim cloak was dark woolene and blended with the shadows.
If it had happened that Floyt had accepted the help so freely offered, the way to his accommodation would have taken him past shops selling luxury goods, cafes and brothels, all the sort of businesses that cluster inevitably around a port. But at Tombaugh he would not have wanted to miss the expensive entertainments, the rare souvenir emporiums and antiquarian displays all devoted to the cult of Vanished Earth. Because, as important as Earth Nexus - Tombaugh Station still was for its wormholes, that was the reason the pilgrims came and spent. If Floyt had glanced into the circular plas safe-windows of any of those expensive shops, he might have seen a pebble or perhaps a fragment of gray granite or even a scrap of black obsidian embedded in a block of transalplex – fragments of true Earth to take home and prove that he had made the pilgrimage.
But if he had gone into another sort shop, say the one called 'The Matter of Earth,' and if the proprietor thought he had the money to afford it, he might have been shown a fragment of paper with a blackened edge. A tiny fragment with writing on it! Surely a fragment of Guttenberg's Bible! And, here! Look at this! A pin! A real pin made on Earth. And a scrap of melted glass! Real glass! Maybe it was a marble. Do you know what a marble is?
At first the authorities on Tombaugh had tried to control the traffic in cultural relics, but there had simply not been enough resources. Who could deal with a few scavengers and souvenir hunters when the resources of the station were strained with trying to cope with the millions of homeless and dispossessed of the planet? People had been sleeping in shifts. Food and water had been severely rationed. But the demand had begun almost immediately after the destruction and wouldn't you have sold your great-grandmother's locket for a ticket out of there?
So the Sweepers had arrived and The squatter's hive had sprung up. It was a black market beyond the control of the station, but tolerated at first because it had brought an influx of desperately needed credit. But, now, twenty-five years after the crisis, when the need was less desperate, the oldest settled planets had negotiated a treaty that declared Earth Orbit and the debris field a Galactic Protectorate. Earth Authority had been established with a mission to protect, to study and to manage humankind's Sacred Heritage.
Protect? The oldest Sweepers, the ones had established sweeping patterns and jealously guarded them, had been quick to point out how humankind's heritage had become so much more sacred as the market had grown.
Study? They were as quick to point out that the authority had hired so few academics or historians with expertise in Earth History or Federation politics and so many technicians and business men.
Manage? The Authority had immediately published a list of specific items to be reported within twenty-four hours of finding and then declared that all material must be turned over for analysis. They did promise to return a percentage of everything not declared Sacred Earth Heritage to the finder.
"And how often does it happen that any item of interest is not declared to be Sacred Earth Heritage?" The Sweepers asked because this 'sacred heritage' was what their ships went out into the debris field and spread their gold nets to collect.
A conflict was shaping. Inevitably the Authority would acquire or contract an enforcement arm. But until that happened – bits of metal, all colors, distorted out of recognition by great pressure, rocks and spoons and marble chunks, some of them polished, basalt, granite, maybe even a bit of a Corinthian capital, books and bones and scraps of cloth – it was all sorted and traded in the storage rooms and corridors of the hive.
As Floyt made his way out to the end of the longest string on the hive, he passed storyteller sitting on a bench with a group of small children gathered around him. The man winding up his yarn, "…that's how it was in the last days of Earth. When you tell your grandchild this story, you will tell them about the fall of the Federation and Blake, Breaker of Worlds." The man had two boxes on the bench beside him. One was obviously for credit tips. The other one contained real plastic infacards, a few of them melted but all of them quite possibly readable – exactly the sort of 'matter' that the Authority demanded be turned over to them.
And at the end of the string, the last cell was often a church. This one had a placard posted next to the entrance that read "Liberation Tabernacle – all are not welcome." Floyt raised an eyebrow and walked in.
It was rather bare inside. There were no pews or chairs. The walls had been decorated with the Stations of The Destruction, though. Floyt stopped before the one called 'The Epiphany of Avon." It was a crude sketch, hard to make out because the space was lit only by moonlight flooding in from an ocular in the center directly above the altar. There were candles on the altar, real candles, flanking the Object of Veneration. The Object itself was draped with an embroidered cloth that shielded it from profane eyes. The only other item of interest in the place was the confessional at the back and that was just two stalls made of woven plas with curtains over the front. As Floyt approached, one of the curtains was pushed aside and a woman stepped out. Whatever her penance, she was giggling as she ran out.
Floyt took her place, without saying a word. After a few minutes, the Confessor sighed, "Get on with it my son, I haven't got all day."
"Forgive me, father," Floyt said, "for I have sinned."
"How have you sinned?"
"I have blasphemed -- I took my own name in vain," Floyt said. There was silence, then the sound of a chair falling over. The chair must have hit the screen because the entire confessional wobbled sideways and then fell forward. Floyt was left sitting calmly amid the ruins. The confessor stood over him pointing a gun. "But then, I'm a cynic. Hello, Vila," Floyt said.
"'Saint' Avon. Although, I didn't realize I had been canonized until recently. I would have liked to attend my apotheosis."
"Don't even think about moving," the confessor said. He ran to the door of the cell and after looking outside, slapped the lock-plate. As the panel slid home, he fell against it. After a moment's recovery, he stood away from the panel and said, in no friendly tone, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Is that any way to greet an old friend?" Avon, extracted himself from the confessional. He walked over to the altar and pulled off the cover that hid the Object of Veneration. It was just an empty box made of transalplex. Somebody was keeping empty beer pouches in it. He dropped the cloth on the floor, turned to Vila and said, "It was worth a try."
"Believe me, 'old friend,'" Vila said "it is not too late to be shot on sight."
"Oh, Vila, isn't that a bit much? Even for you. Offer me a drink, I expect you have some communion wine around here somewhere."
Vila scowled but, finally, he holstered his gun and said, "Bastard. You're worse than a cat. Come on."
The confessional had been hiding another door panel – a very private egress from the tabernacle – that led to a narrow corridor that ran behind a string of cells and brought them to what had to be Vila's office.
It was as simply furnished as the tabernacle – a communications console, two chairs and a beverage dispenser. But the walls were lined with shelves and the shelves were stacked with a fortune in infacards and other data storage media. There were even a few books – real old-fashioned paper codices. Along with few odd Earth objects, all of them bearing the proscribed symbol of the Federation.
Avon appropriated the chair closest to the shelving. He removed his cloak and looked around, possibly for a place to hang it but Vila ignored him, punching buttons on the beverage dispenser until the machine hissed and popped and discharged a black stream into a carafe and a fragrant perfume into the air.
"Coffee! Villa, I'm flattered."
"Don't be. I need to keep a clear head."
"I can remember when that wouldn't have stopped you."
"Fuck you." Vila poured two cups of coffee and handed one to Avon. He carried his to the com-con and sat down. The screen in the desk lit up as soon as he tapped it. Then he took his cup and sat holding it in his hands as though to warm them. "I should have known reports of your death were too good to be true. So, now, Avon, I'm guessing this isn't some sort of sentimental journey. What do you want?" It had been twenty-five years since Avon had seen him and the man looked every bit of it. His face was lined and the blond hair had been replaced by a white tonsorial fringe. And yet, in a peculiar way, it suited him. The lines seemed to belong to stronger and wiser man than Avon remembered.
"I should have though that would be obvious."
"No, it's not."
"I've come for Orac."
"It must be shock," Villa laughed. "But I could have sworn you said you've come for Orac."
"And here I'd always thought you were a genius. Is there a sentient being anywhere in the universe who doesn't know Orac was destroyed along with Blake and Earth?"
"Do you take me for an idiot?"
"Not until today."
"Vila, when Blake left me on Gauda Prime, he said that he finally knew how to bring down the Federation. If I'd known what he meant to do…" Avon paused.
"You would have stopped him," Vila said.
"Of course, he was mad."
"Yes, he was mad. He destroyed a planet and ended three thousand years of tyranny." Vila frowned at Avon. "Are you saying you would you have stopped him?"
"I don't know," Avon admitted. "But, I believe I would have tried." He met Villa's eyes. "Does that shock you?"
"No. That's why he left you there."
The two old men fell silent, drinking their coffee in silent communion with their memories.
Finally, Avon said, "Dayna?"
"Married; three children; living on Seti-Sigma."
"How long have you been here?" Avon's eyes swept the room, letting the room stand for the entire Hive.
"Since the beginning of the end. I was with Dayna. We stood off in Avenger and took part in the evacuation when it became clear that Blake was going to succeed. After that…" he shrugged."
"After that, the Holy Church of Blake Triumphant."
"I call it spontaneous human reaction to a psychologically overwhelming and transcendent event. And, after all, a girl's gotta eat." Villa opened a drawer and took out a gold dish. "Shortbread?'
"They're blue," Avon said.
"Earth blue. For communion. They're good; it's just food coloring."
"You're avoiding the inevitable, Vila. Orac is your church's Object of Veneration."
"I take back every thing I've ever said about you being a genius – you are a fucking moron." As Villa spoke, the com-con began to shrill but went silent when he touched the screen and read what was streaming across it. He touched the screen again, looked up at Avon and shook his head. "I should have killed you, Avon."
"There's been an active warrant out on you for the last twenty-five years. A known associate of the planet killer Rog Blake walking into Tombaugh Station's hive would give the Earth Heritage Authority all the excuse it would need to stage a major raid on the hive."
"My cover's perfect. I got through security with no problems."
"That's because we're not morons." Vila's fingers were working over the console screen. "Put on your cloak."
"Where are you doing?"
"You can't stay here. I'm turning you over to an associate of mine.
"You're going to turn me in!"
"Rog no!" Vila looked shocked. "Avon, you may be a saint but certain parties would be very upset if you actually achieved that halo."
"My associate is going to take you to a safe-cell until you can be smuggled off station."
"You trust his man?"
"Yes, Avon." Vila began to laugh. "Oh, yes, I do. In fact, you can discuss your problem with him. After all, he is strongly identified with rebels…and very popular with rabbles."