Flashbacks 2

Neenan was on the nameless planet, posing as a visiting aristocrat in order to gain the sympathy and hospitality of mad old Duchess Charhelm. Really she was hiding from the Elite, lying low and allowing her ship’s trail to fade for a while before she jumped again. She sat on a cushioned, ornately carved bench, in their great temple. No, not temple, a “cathedral”, they called it. A vast, massively over-decorated building that was somehow simultaneously gaudy and gloomy, imposing and ridiculous. All around her were elaborately-dressed lords and ladies. These people believed that members of the aristocracy were fundamentally different from the majority of humans on their planet. Their science was advanced enough to tell them that there was no genetic distinction between them, but nevertheless there was a difference. The aristocracy were marked by God, elevated as a sign that He intended higher things for them than for the sinful masses. Neenan sat stiffly upright, acutely aware that, for as long as she sheltered on this planet, her survival depended on convincing her hosts that, in her own world, she was even more rich and noble than they were. She would have preferred at gun battle.

On the stage in front of her priestesses processed back and forth, lit from above by beams of garish electric light – or by God’s love, who could tell? The priestesses brought the new season, and the renewal of their deity’s love and forgiveness. They were eerily similar to one-another: tall, very pale, and underfed, their eyes made huge by the dark make-up that had been applied to their pale faces. All had the same high, jagged cheekbones and hollowed-out cheeks. They walked with a jerky, unnatural gait, swinging their thin hips to the side with each step, balancing on the stilt-like structures that women wore instead of shoes here. All wore the same glazed, intense expression, gazing into the audience as if they were trying to convey some deeply important message by thought alone. Perhaps they really did look across the veil that they believed separated their world from the next.

Suddenly the cathedral, the priestesses, Lady Charhelm and all the rest of them disappeared. Instead of a cushioned pew, Neenan sat on a hard metal chair. The room was small and harshly lit by a single diode lamp. She sat at a small table across from an old woman in combat fatigues.

“Everyone gets the sickness,” Sarenna said, in a voice like the machine that turns rock into gravel.

“Not me,” Neenan wanted to say, but instead she plunged, screaming, into the vacuum of space.