The Chora Gate

by Stephen Case

The ship was beautiful. I forced myself to admit that, at least. It was important to be honest. It was beautiful, and it was being defaced.

Crews were dismantling the mosaic tiles of the outer hull. As I watched, pieces floated away like flecks of diamond drifting off a stone. The hull plates beneath were still sound, of course, and the ship remained unshakable in its station at the Jovian Lagrange, but its jeweled skin was being shed piece by piece, under the direction of our engineers.

The Chora Gate was never intended to be a work of art though, much less a theological statement. A work of engineering and craftsmanship, perhaps. The apex of military technology, a veritable fortress in space. But not art, and certainly not theology. It was a warship. It could serve as defense picket against the Horde just as well and perhaps better without external ornamentation.

The Emperor believed so, anyway.

An aide from the Gate coughed at my shoulder. “It is,” he continued in the wheedling voice I had allowed myself for a few moments to ignore, “of course a minor complication. An embarrassing irregularity. It will be rectified immediately.”

I assumed he was talking about the exterior mosaic. “What?”

“The implementation of the Edict.”

I closed my eyes. It appeared I would be more than simply functioning as the Emperor’s emissary to confirm that his Edict was carried out at the boundaries of the Solar Sphere. I would be more than just a figurehead here at the edge of the system. I had prayed I would just be a figurehead.

“The crew protested?” I asked.

He coughed again. “There were complaints, as one would expect. The mosaic was several centuries old.” Now he was stalling. “There were some families among the crew who protested… Heritage, you understand.”

I did. The Edict had encountered surprising resistance throughout the Sphere. I understood. I was bred and trained to understand, to see both sides, to conciliate.

“It is not the exterior embellishment that poses the, ah, the difficulty,” he continued.

“Please get to the point, Sub-Adjunct.”

“The ship’s primary Ikonavahtar,” he blurted, simultaneously blinking and gulping in a way that made him look even more frog-like. “We have been unable to locate it.”

I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose. This would be delicate. Effacing images, ikons and mosaics, was one thing. At the periphery of the Solar Sphere, these things had collected over the centuries. Enforcing the ikonoclast Edict was a pain. But deleting Ikonavahtars, those ancient AI constructs built to replicate saints and fathers of the faith, was a different matter.

I thought for a moment. The best immediate response was to bring leverage to bear, to make it clear to the commandants of the Gate exactly what was at stake if the Edict was not fully carried out.

“There have been no other ships, correct?” I asked.

The sub-adjunct nodded eagerly.

“We are the first re-supply from Earth for…” I paused. “Five years?”

Again, the nod.

The Ikonavahtars had been deleted throughout the Sphere at the Emperor’s orders, but a coronal mass ejection had bathed this particular patch of Jupiter’s orbit in static at an inopportune moment. There had been a fear, slight but not negligible, that the Chora Gate’s primary Ikonavahtar had survived.

I closed my eyes again. How I had hoped that this would be a purely symbolic mission.

“And how long,” I asked, “has it been since the last of the sanctified elements were consumed?”

He inclined his head miserably. “We used up the last of the holy gifts over a year ago, Conciliator.”

Everyone aboard the Chora Gate knew the bays of the ribbon-ship in which I had arrived from the Inner Sphere were full of wine from the vines of Earth and bread baked on Luna with strands of pure Earth yeast. The elements had been blessed beneath the dome of the Great Church itself, with the holy Earth from whence they came a blue-and-white eye staring down through its immense glass dome.

And there was the water. Out here they used the trawled comet-ice they gathered for drinking, bathing, and living, but I carried the water of Earth—a scarce thousand liters—in my central hold. The water for baptism and the water added to the cup of communion during the Eucharist.

“None of it will be unloaded to the Chora Gate until this matter is cleared up,” I told the sub-adjunct.

He nodded in dismay.

I watched the grey hull of the warship, free now of the last trace of mosaic, shine dully in the light of the distant sun and sighed.

I would need to go aboard.

***

The captain of the Chora Gate was a woman of perhaps my age, with long braids that reached beyond the small of her back. From the primary bridge of the warship, which stretched out before me like the Emperor’s courtyards, I could see perhaps two hundred crewmen in the lanes and trenches below. They were bent over instruments or passing along the daily communications that organized and sustained the immense vessel. Above them all, clearly visible from the catwalk on which we stood, vast windows looked out into darkness.

I had never been this far from Luna. This was the very edge of the Solar Sphere. The captain could read my feelings on my face, as I intended.

“Space out here is dark,” she said. “But the Chora is our home.”

“I have been on warships before,” I said, keeping the wonder slight but apparent in my voice, “but never anything of this size.”

“There are only a few. One at each of the Jovian Lagrange points.”

I nodded. I had never paid much attention to the configuration of the Sphere’s outer defenses until I had been given orders regarding this mission. I always imagined the Emperor’s outer warships as constantly patrolling the perimeter of the Sphere, though such a vast frontier would have been impossible to actually maintain. The truth was more complicated.

“The Lagrange points,” I said, working to establish some common points of reference, to show her I had at least an inkling of what was entailed, “are like passes in the mountains. Gravitational choke-points.”

She nodded absently. “The Horde could try to drift some slow-ships down from Saturn’s orbit. Or push through a comet or hollowed asteroid. But we hear those coming. They’re slow, and we can intercept and destroy. But any blink-ship, anything trying to skip past at FTL, has to push through a Lagrange point. And we’re here to intercept those.”

The Chora Gate was not just a ship. It was a guard tower. It was a literal gate at one of the passages to the inner solar system. Behind us was the sun. Beyond those black windows waited darkness and the Horde.

“How long?” I asked her. “How long have you been holding this guard?”

She snorted softly. “You’ve read the history books. The Chora has been stationed here for seven hundred years. But if you meant me in particular.” She smiled and folded her arms. “I inherited the captaincy from my mother fifteen years ago.”

I sighed. She knew the ship. She knew the crew. There was nothing I would be here but an outsider, an envoy from an Emperor who was distant and possibly even despised.

“I know why you’re here,” she said. “But you will find none among us but loyal subjects of the Emperor. And you will find finer soldiers nowhere.”

I nodded. Then I sighed again. It was important for her to see that this was painful to me.

I waited for her to speak.

“I’ve been on lots of missions out beyond the Sphere,” she said finally. “Whenever we came home, it was good to see His face, there, on the hull of the Gate. To see His eyes.”

She was talking about the mosaic. About what it cost them to remove it.

I kept waiting.

“It is good,” she finally said, “for us to have our God with us in the darkness.”

I had not brought my priest with me. He was still aboard the ribbon-ship. If he were here, secure as he was in the Emperor’s Orthodoxy, he would have had a few things to say to that comment. In the Inner System it had become heresy to reverence any images. Reverence belonged to God and the Emperor alone.

It was not yet time for theology.

I sincerely hoped it would not come to that.

***

“You do not realize who their primary Ikonavahtar was, do you?”

I was back in my quarters on the ribbon-ship. I had toured the major centers of the Gate, with the polite understanding that all involved (myself included) would pretend the tour was not equal parts search and performance.

I turned toward Father Guralnick, realizing as I did that I would not get my wish to avoid theology. He was tall and pale, as most Martian highlanders were. We had served together in the past, and I had both a respect for and wariness of him.

“The information was available,” I explained softly. “But at times it is better to be able to manifest genuine surprise and confusion. I know the Ikonavahtar is missing and that I must negotiate its surrender and deletion. Keeping myself ignorant of certain non-essential facts helps establish credibility with those with whom I am negotiating.”

“I know how you conciliators work.” He shook his head. “But I would not consider this information non-essential.”

I was mildly frustrated, but not with him. The Gate was huge, and so far all our searches (which had in truth been largely conducted using the scanning array on the ribbon-ship while I wandered through my tour of the warship) had come up empty. There were thousands of places it could have been hidden on the city-sized ship. We would need the cooperation of the crew, or at least portions of the crew, to find it.

“You never had Ikonavahtars on Mars, did you?” I asked the priest.

He shook his head. “Theologically, the creation of faith-based AI was always dangerous. They were never permitted in the Red Sketes.”

“I was taught by a simulacrum of Abelard. A minor saint, I know, and never fully recognized by the Eastern Patriarchs. But it was a rewarding experience.” Father Guralnick waited. This was my turn to speak, to offer information until I elicited a response or brought up useful reciprocating information. I was trained in this. I knew exactly how it worked. “But of course I saw the danger, even before the attempt on the Emperor’s life. It was not martyrdom, deleting them.” Guralnick was not rising to the bait of theological argument, which meant that perhaps he was correct and the identity of the missing Ikonavahtar was something I should know. I closed the pad of scan data I had been surveying and gave him my full attention. “Who is it? Saint Peter? Paul? I certainly hope it’s not one of the former sainted Emperors.”

The priest cursed under his breath. “It’s Him. The Ikonavahtar only soldiers on the very border of the Sphere would be bold enough to create.” I held his eye, my blank expression calculated to keep him upset and offering up as much information as possible. “They had a Christ-Ikonavahtar. I cannot believe you didn’t get this from the briefing.”

I steepled my fingers and let him fume for a moment before responding. “I told you, voluntary ignorance. And how does this information alter our course of action?”

“By…” He stuttered, trying to regain his composure. “This is why they should have put a priest in command of this mission, not a…”

I arched an eyebrow.

“Diplomat,” he finished weakly. “Because, if the AI for their Ikonavahtar was robust, we should be asking ourselves what He would do in this situation.”

“What he would do?”

“The Ikonavahtar has been modeled on the persona of our Lord and Savior.” The distaste was written on his features. “The people believe it is a genuine reflection of Jesus Christ, if not Christ Himself. Thus the deep danger of the entire Ikonavahtar movement.”

I nodded.

“But the thought processes, the personality, would be those that the best theoretical theologians had created as an emulation of Christ. So we could, perhaps, anticipate.”

I leaned back in my chair. “The Garden? Gethsemane?”

“The persona would be programmed to act in absolute love for its people, and to sacrifice itself for them. But that’s the point.” He gritted his teeth. “It is programming.”

A chime sounded, and the voice of a bridge officer filled my chamber.

“Conciliator, it’s the Chora Gate, sir.” There was a pause. “She’s launched a nuke.”

***

By the time I reached the bridge of the ribbon-ship, smaller by far than the yawning expanse of the Gate’s bridge, the glow of the explosion had already faded from the flexing deckplates.

“We detonated it several thousand meters from the hull, sir,” the officer, a young woman with black hair cropped short, explained when I arrived. “It poses no threat to the shielding.”

“Very good.” I nodded and squinted toward where the Gate sat fat and distant against the blackness. “Any other warheads approaching?”

“No, sir.” A web of equations and projected data floated around her and the three other officers on duty. Numbers and algebraic symbols passed obliquely through my wrist as I stood beside them. “This one came from a tube on the far side of the ship. It had to trace a path around the bulk of the Gate, sir, which is one of the reasons we were able to stop it so early.”

“Which means someone took control of a single torpedo tube and wanted to send a message.”

“Yes, sir. If the Chora Gate had opened up with all her arsenal, begging your pardon sir, but we’d be halfway back to Luna. We don’t have the screens to shield even a fraction of what she can put out.”

The young officer had risen from her command seat when I entered the deck. It remained empty now, but I was not going to take it. Guralnick was correct; I was a diplomat, not a theologian. And neither was I a soldier.

But it would embarrass the officer to sit while an envoy of the Emperor stood, so we both flanked the chair awkwardly.

“Has the Gate sent a message?”

She nodded. “The captain has apologized profusely. They’re looking into what happened.”

I needed to speak to the captain, to see her face, if I wanted to understand what was actually happening.

“I need to speak to her privately.”

The officer nodded again. “My quarters are just outside the bridge, sir. You passed them on your way here. I’ll transmit a secure channel to the screen there.”

The quarters were as neat as her uniform. I sat down at a small, square desk and sent a message to the Gate. The captain’s face appeared almost instantly. There was genuine concern in her eyes, but something else as well. She was hiding something, likely the true extent of whatever had caused the attack.

“Captain,” I said. I took on an apologetic tone. “I assume something has happened aboard the Chora Gate. Is everything all right?”

“A group of radicals managed to secure temporary control of one of our secondary torpedo arrays. They launched the warhead before we were able to push them out.”

“Radicals?” I spoke the word as though it were completely unfamiliar to me.

She grimaced. “You can imagine that some inhabitants, some crewmembers even, are less than happy about the Emperor’s Edict.”

“Why?”

Her frustration swelled at my apparent incomprehension. I could see it on her face. “Because they are being asked to … to give up their God. It may be different in the Inner Sphere, but out here He walks among them, and now He’s being hunted, they feel, like a criminal.”

It was time to show a bit of flint. “And this is why they fire on the Emperor’s envoy?”

“I’ll find those responsible, Conciliator.”

“Please make it clear,” I said, leaning over the desk toward the screen, “that they are putting the waters of Earth at risk. Another attack on this ship, or continued delay in delivering the Ikonavahtar, and I will be forced to vent that sacred water into space.”

Her jaw was set as she nodded, but something was wrong. The magnitude of the threat was not evident in her eyes.

“I understand,” she said.

I clicked off the message and looked around the officer’s spotless room. I was missing something. The sacraments were the only significant bargaining chip I had. They should have been life and death to the Gate.

I sighed and called Father Guralnick.

***

The reservoir of the Chora Gate was far larger than the command deck, a dark sea stretching along the bottom hull of the ship with a long silver shoreline. Maintenance lights glowed along its perimeter at regular intervals.

I traveled through the ship now with a team of eunuchs. They were a bodyguard, I supposed, soldiers trained in the Emperor’s palace. It was not ideal, as the presence of troops immediately placed a barrier between me and those with whom I was working to negotiate. Yet they were also a reminder of the force that the Emperor could bring to bear against the Gate if necessary.

The access corridor along the rim of the reservoir should have been empty apart from an occasional crewmember testing or inspecting the water system. Now it was crowded with people, mainly from the merchant or maintenance castes, though I saw a few wearing crew uniforms among them as well. They were pushing against the thin railing, and even as I watched a few pulled themselves over it to plunge into the dark pool.

It had been here.

This same scene, I knew, was playing out wherever there was an access corridor along the reservoir. The captain had placed the entire deck under lockdown, but people were still slipping in to immerse themselves in the water. I suspected the crew was turning a blind eye to most of it.

I gestured to a pair of eunuchs, and they pushed through the crowd and pulled a man from the water. He emerged weeping, wiping water from his eyes and face. When he saw who had drawn him out he quieted and stared at us, silent but not sullen.

“The captain has put the reservoir under interdiction,” I said. “You could contaminate the entire water supply.”

The man was perhaps in his early twenties and a merchant by the cut of his robes, which were still streaming water onto the deck plates.

“This is cometary water,” I said, pointing at the black expanse. “It is dead. It has never mingled with the waters of Earth.”

“It is holy,” the man said softly. He glanced at the eunuchs to either side of him. “He passed through the waters, and He made them holy.”

“The Ikonavahtar?”

The man nodded, and the people around us stirred.

I knew what they believed. It was why they were all here. As best as we could reconstruct, based on Guralnick’s suspicions, the radicals who were sheltering the Ikonavahtar had smuggled him into the maintenance shafts by passing across the reservoir. There were theological parallels, Father Guralnick explained. And now the people of the Gate thought their water had been sanctified.

“Don’t you see?” I asked. It was no use arguing against their belief. That was the quickest way to make them my enemies. I could see that clearly here, in the fervor of their eyes. They believed the incarnation of Christ was among them, and had been for centuries. “If your Ikonavahtar truly bears the Spirit, in a way unique to it, in a manner unlike the other Messiah-class Ikonavahtars that have been terminated across the Sphere, then it must come to Earth. It must stand before the Emperor.”

“To stand trial?” the man said. His voice was soft. “To be mocked and killed? We know how this story ends.”

“To speak to him,” I said, dropping my voice to match his in tone and intensity. “To teach us. Why should you hide this light in the darkness, here at the edge of the Sphere?”

“And why would you take it from us?” a voice from the crowd asked. “Where else is light most needed?”

A few other voices were raised as well. The eunuchs shifted, ready to form a perimeter if need be.

I spread my arms. “Take me to it,” I said. “Let me speak to it.”

“He is leaving,” the man said again, his voice so soft now I could barely hear it over the murmuring of the crowd. “He walked among us, but now He is leaving.”

“Where?”

The man pointed upward silently.

***

The outer deck of the ship felt like the silver hillocks of Luna. The ancient stitch-seam rivets disappeared in long parallel rows toward the horizon as though I stood in the midst of a winter-swept field of mowed corn. We came out an airlock not far from where the spotty external sensors indicated the rebels were gathered. I could see them in the distance, a group of perhaps a dozen, all more or less indistinguishable in bulky, patched thinsuits.

There was nowhere else for them to go. By moving to the ship’s exterior they had abandoned their hiding places. They clearly wished to be found.

The Ikonavahtar did not need a thinsuit, though it had obviously donned one. Its synthetic skin would not balloon or distend in the vacuum. Its simulated breathing did not depend on having actual oxygen. But if it were talking to its followers it would want to use the short-range inter-suit communications.

Or perhaps it simply did not want to be a target.

My orders as Conciliator were strict. There were to be no martyrs created today.

Chora Gate soldiers and citizens,” I broadcast on a sweeping beam with an authorization code that would override any other inter-suit communication, “please surrender the Ikonavahtar simulation.”

The group of anonymous suits turned. None appeared armed, though it was impossible to tell whether rail-pistols were stashed in their side pouches.

I had only four soldiers with me, but all were cloned, trained, and imprinted in the Palace itself, eunuchs of complete loyalty and unshakable combat training. I would have felt at ease facing a force four times as large with this number of eunuchs. But the Ikonavahtar complicated things.

The long arrowhead of the Gate was oriented with its axis along the plane of the Solar Sphere. We were approaching them from the aft of the ship. My slender shadow cast by the distant sun stretched out toward them along the deck.

“Surrender the program, and there will be no punishment.”

A few of those before me shifted feet slowly on the metal deck. I was close enough to feel the vibrations as their magnetic boots lifted away and then reconnected.

My own weight at this elevation—the very top of the Chora Gate, relative to the immense geodesic distorters that created the ship’s artificial gravity—was noticeably reduced. Only warships, ships as ancient and as long stationary as the Gate, had geodesic generators. Habitations were spun to generate their own gravity, but warships needed to be mobile in case of Horde incursion, and geodesic distorters were the only thing that made gravity pliable enough for humans to withstand the accelerations if the Gate marched to war.

“You do not believe me,” I said. The subvocalizing routines I had been trained on were kicking in, but I was not sure how effective they would be over radio. “There is the airlock by which you left the ship.” I pointed. It was back toward the fore of the ship, near the apex of the maintenance towers. “None of my officers or your own are there. I do not know who you are. Your suits offer anonymity. Leave now. Abandon this false image, this programmed god.”

Still, no one moved.

The eunuchs shifted beside me. There was one more angle, one more appeal.

I counted slowly to five. The forms may have been frozen, so silently did they wait on the rigid, silver surface of the ship.

“This is not about theology,” I said, dropping my voice into a tone that suggested I was abandoning my position of authority. “Look out there.” I pointed again, though only a few of the suited individuals turned to look along the spear of the Gate into the emptiness stretching outward from System. “The Horde waits. They have not attacked since your grandfathers’ days, but they are there. Multiplying. We see their stoneships drifting on the edge of our vision. Still jealous of the heat and warmth of the inner worlds. Men without compassion. Without compunction. Perhaps no longer even men.”

Drawing a line. Indicating the Other. Making sure we were all together on the same side, the inside. The Circle against the Darkness.

“If we fragment, if we start chasing dreams and delusions and false prophets of rogue AI, the edges of the Empire begin to unravel. Imagine what would happen if the other Gates each took their own Christ. Unity must radiate from the center, from the Emperor.”

I paused.

“Give me the Christ-Ikonavahtar,” I said, “and I will take him to the Emperor.”

The sun set behind me. Slowly, the Chora Gate was changing its orientation in space. New stars rose up over the forward horizon of the ship. The eunuchs held their weapons steady, trained on the group before us. Before I could contact the crew below and demand to know who was altering the immense ship’s pitch, one of the figures in front of us raised hands to neck and began to unfasten the thinsuit helmet.

“Go back below,” a voice said over the suit radios.

Later Father Guralnick demanded—begged—to know what it had sounded like. I told him it sounded like a man.

“Tell the others what you saw, what I told you. Go to all the worlds in the Sphere. I will be with you.”

The final word was lost in a hiss of air as the figure removed its helmet.

The Ikonavahtar.

I had seen his face a hundred times before, when it still adorned the Sacristies and Basilicas of the Inner Sphere, before the Edict. For centuries the surface on which we stood had born it as an immense mosaic. Its lips were moving, but none could hear what was said.

“Conciliator!” The captain’s voice from the ship below cut in harsh and urgent over my suit speakers. “We’re getting a massive power spike in the geodesic distorters. Gravitational anomalies—”

But I already felt it. We all did. My boots kept their grip on the metal of the hull, but the Ikonavahtar’s helmet drifted away. Two of the eunuchs put their hands on my arms, and I stepped backward.

Gravity was failing.

The figures beside the Ikonavahtar had fallen to the deck in a panic, activating auxiliary magnetics on their knees and hands, clinging to the surface.

It was a miracle, part of my mind screamed. The energy needed to alter the geodesic generators, to bend them into a new configuration, was beyond the reach of anything but the immense fusion core buried far below us.

I shook my head as though to clear it.

The Ikonavahtar kicked off.

It rose, slowly at first and then gaining velocity as whatever was being done to the geodesic distorters to reshape the gravity field grasped it and propelled it upward, away from the Inner Sphere. It was ascending out toward the darkness beyond, toward where the Horde's billions of souls waited in the night.

Before it was lost to sight it raised a hand in a perfectly articulated benediction.



Stephen Case is a historian of science who teaches at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. He's published over thirty short stories in magazines including Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. His book reviews have appeared at Black Gate and Strange Horizons. Case's first novel, First Fleet, was recently reviewed in Mysterion and is available on Amazon. This year his first non-fiction book, Making Stars Physical: The Astronomy of Sir John Herschel, was published by University of Pittsburgh Press. You can learn more about his fiction and his research at www.stephenrcase.com or by following him on Twitter @StephenRCase.

Copyright © 2018 by Stephen Case.


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Comments

  1. It walks among them yet it is programming … interesting.

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