Prologue: The Holy Spirit
Pope Clement XX, Vicar of Rome, heir to St. Peter, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, watched as the fires leapt higher in the sky, smoke turning day into night. Still, as far as the end of the world went, it wasn’t as bad as Pope Clement’s ancestors had probably imagined it.
It had started with the “less important” faiths first, but to the pope that was just a phrase used by the Christians inside the forces destroying the Vatican to justify what they were doing. The Golden Temple of the Sikhs, Sri Harmandir Sahib, was destroyed and to be melted down. Not even for electronic components that might have served a purpose, but for medals and awards. The ancient Shinto temples in Japan were demolished with bulldozers, the ancient trees turned into kindling with chainsaws. Nepalese Buddhists watched as their monasteries were destroyed by air strike, as Hindu temples were coated in the blood of their sacred animals. Westminster was turned to ash. Not even Native American sacred sites were spared, set alight with napalm and crushed by tanks and mechs. Religious leaders were rounded up by the usurping forces, publicly tortured and executed in such a grim display that even Torquemada would pause at their debauchery.
Pope Clement knew that the three Abrahamic faiths were left to last to be made an example of. Mecca was razed, the few remaining ancient buildings demolished one brick at a time live for all to see. Al-Ḥajaru al-Aswad was ripped from the structure, then slagged by a laser. A Mackie had stormed over the Kaaba itself, and then for good measure was shown stomping on, then rubbing out the Station of Abraham. Pope Clement let himself grin a little despite everything. The Saudi people (Funny how the old map lines refused to die on Earth) had destroyed Medina themselves to deny their enemy the pleasure.
Jerusalem was crushed. The Dome of the Rock was destroyed under treads, as another Mackie practically strolled through the Wailing Wall. The ultra-orthodox Jews fought hard, forming human barriers against the onslaught. They were slaughtered to a man and woman. Piles of bodies in plain black clothes were left to be incinerated, as the broadcasts played a picture of the Haiga Sofia being razed.
The Catholic Church was the last, and Pope Clement knew the most savored target. As the single largest faith it had to be made the most publicized example of them all. Notre Dame was demolished and the rubble pushed into the river. Fatima had been dug up and scorched by airstrike. He had watched from the papal apartments, watched with his camerlengo as the armies marched on Rome itself. The head of the household even tried to fight with these foes, but to no avail. Pope Clement felt the most pain from the fact that he couldn’t give the last rights.
“Look at it burn.” Pope Clement was snapped back to the reality in front of him. “Look at it burn in front of you. Your treasures destroyed.”
Pope Clement steadied himself and thought, “Here we go.” “The treasures of the Church are the poor and suffering,” Pope Clement said calmly, standing tall despite the pain in his heart. “They are the sick and the needy, as Jesus taught us.”
The man laughed aloud. “And I suppose hoarding the finest works of art and billions of dollars for yourself, somehow they’re part of his plan too?”
“Sophomoric”, Pope Clement thought. “The Church is a human institution, therefore the mistakes it made were the mistakes of men. That is why Christ was sent down to guide us from sin.”
The man sneered and stepped into better light. Pope Clement took in the face of Stefan Amaris. Somehow it was remarkably free of ash and grime, though blood wasn’t in short supply. “Your childish answers only show how detached you truly are from the people you claim to lead.”
Pope Clement didn’t reply, but watched as St. Peter’s Basilica started to give way. The Sistine Chapel had already fallen, the ancient fresco inside lost but for a few pictures that failed to truly do justice to the timeless masterpiece. God could give knowledge no more.
“You know what I need however,” Amaris growled. Grabbing the pope, the usurper spun Pope Clement around to show the assembled cardinals. Traitor soldiers stood ready, pilot lights on and masks obscuring their emotions. Did they really believe Amaris, Pope Clement wondered? Or do they only want to follow the orders that won’t get them killed? Some of the cardinals wept at the destruction of the Vatican. Some prayed. A few tried feebly to fight back, and that had impressed Pope Clement a little. At their ages, they were administrators only. To be willing to fight back was something else entirely. “You want their lives don’t you? Tell me where you sent it.”
Pope Clement drew a breath. “They are not mine to give. They belong to the children of God.” “Plus I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to,” Pope Clement thought, hiding his bemusement at even being able to have that run through his mind. “So good luck getting the answer out of me.”
Amaris’ face contorted into a mask of rage, forcing the pope forward towards the cardinals. “You are going to tell me where the Archives and Library are, or you will watch them burn.”
“God, you really think we’re that stupid don’t you.” Pope Clement held firm despite it. He looked over the faces of his cardinals. These men, these shepherds of Christ’s flock. Some had come from families that had been in the service of the Holy See for generations. Some came from inauspicious beginnings to rise through the ranks of the priesthood to arrive at a position second only to his. Some had been sinners who redeemed themselves in His service, and others knew their time had been coming to an end before the coup. But they all had a light, didn’t they? Pope Clement saw it in their eyes. Bearing the traditional vestments of their calling, each man with a cross around their neck, the fires of their holy relics and priceless works of man’s arts seemed to light something inside them as well. To a man, each one suddenly looked at the pope with conviction. As if to say, “Don’t you dare.”
The pope took a long breath and stood tall despite the laser pistol pointed at his head. “I said that I do not know. If you wish for a lie, you must look elsewhere.”
Amaris didn’t say anything for a second. Then he barked, “Burn them!”
Pope Clement forced himself to face forward as the cardinals were set alight in front of his eyes. The old men in front of him turned into small infernos in red, their screams practically cut off in their throats by the fire burning the air out of their lungs. The troops surrounding them were impassionate figures in the fire, but the pope could tell that there were a few who hated themselves, considered what they were doing a grave sin, a mortal offense. Some tried to take their hands off the trigger, but even a glance from Amaris forced them to keep firing.
The pope felt his mind drift back to when he first realized he wanted to be a part of the Church, the quiet dignity of his local parish as a boy, the words of the priest giving him the first homily he could remember. That quiet speech, that small, Sunday talk about the Good Samaritan, guided the pope from childhood to becoming the bishop of Rome. And now his cardinals were burning to death because of one mad man who wanted to be king.
Looking up into the darkening skies, Pope Clement felt his eyes begin to water. The rational part of his brain knew it was the smoke, the ash getting into his eyes. But the part that knew the spiritual, the side that couldn’t afford to think rationally, the one that operated on belief, it felt deeply the pain the world, that mankind, was going through right now. Feelings the tears streaming down his cheeks, he looked down to the burning bodies of his cardinals and reminded himself that they were martyrs, the fertile soil of the future Church. The Holy Spirit was with them now, taking them under escort to God’s care. He started to laugh, it was the truth now. As St. Peter’s Basilica collapsed behind him, as the Sistine Chapel still burned, Pope Clement XX looked to the sky with a thankful face and smile. “Deus vult.”
Amaris shot the pope, the wound cauterizing instantly. The body of the pope fell back, dying in the care of St. Joseph; a smile on his face in his last seconds on Earth. “Tear it apart!” Amaris stormed to the commander of the infantry battalion. “Tear it apart, every stone and piece of marble, find the archives!”
The commander jumped to and started barking orders to his men. It didn’t matter that the Vatican was still burning around them, the important thing was that First Lord Stefan Amaris had given an order. If his men couldn’t find the archives, he wouldn’t be alive to see tomorrow. But they didn’t. And he wasn’t.
In his final fit of pique, the eternal city was wiped from history. The mushroom cloud was one of the tallest ever recorded for a nuclear weapon.
The room was massive, as befitted the Commonwealth, but the duo inside made it seem cavernous in how much empty space there was. The empty sound practically echoed through the chamber, the two having set white noise machines in the perfect places to cancel out any listening devices.
An enlisted man ran through the gargantuan doors, shutting them quickly.“The transmission from Oberstleutnant Kosovskaia arrived,” he said solemnly. “Rome has fallen.”
Oberstleutnant Nikolaus buried his face in his hands, as Oberstleutnant Brunegg stared out the windows of the planet’s ducal palace. Alarion was willing to grant them refuge, the kindess of the planetary nobility built on the fact that the Vatican was willing to facilitate a negotiation with one of the planet’s leading families to marry into the nobility. Everything old is new again.
The two were the only leadership of the Swiss Guard left. The rest had left elected to remain behind, sending the rest of the Swiss Guard, their families, and any other religious they could fit onto the jumpships for the journey.
Brunegg spoke first. “We can’t stay in the Inner Sphere.”
“And where do you propose we go?” Nikolaus jumped up and motioned to the windows. “You think the periphery states would be somehow more willing to accept us than the successor states?”
“We have the latest reports on possible colonies,” Brunegg argued. “We were given these to escape, we need to hide these priceless treasures or die trying.”
“And what about our people!” Slamming his fist on the table, Nikolaus went to the window. “We have thousands of people out there that are relying on us to find them a new home, not just hide books and treasures that mean nothing if we leave them to die!”
“Then we will find a new home!” Brunegg slammed his fists on the table. “The war between the successor states and Amaris will drag on, far longer than any of our own will be safe in. Either we flee or we die. God’s will shall guide the rest of the Inner Sphere.”
Nikolaus nodded. “Deus Vult.”
Standing, Brunegg sighed and looked to the junior soldier. “We need to keep the children calm. Tell them a simple story, something they can understand. Something that if broadcast will make the entire Inner Sphere think we were a group of mad, lost souls that should be ignored in exchange of more vital threats.”
“You think they will believe it?” Nikolaus asked.
“What matters is that the war against Amaris will focus them all in on Terra rather than trying to extort our charges.” Striding forward, Brunegg heard his fellow Swiss Guard fall in behind him. “Send a message to the surviving cardinals and Swiss Guard on New Avalon. Let us ready the flock my friends. Now is the time.”