A Small and Secret Freedom

By Matt Mikalatos
Terrans

A stillness fell over Chaplain Theodore as they exited the jump gate. He often felt this strange peace at the end of a long journey. He silently thanked the Blessed Revolutionist for this small quiet in his heart. He had not expected a feeling of ease on the way to meet the Vilicus, practically the devils of his religion.

The sensors picked up the Vilicus ship, and an acolyte called it out to Cardinal Ricks instead of the chaplain, which was a minor faux pas. Theodore was not one to stand on ceremony, however, and he made a point of being difficult to offend. He turned toward Cardinal Ricks, who stood in his red uniform on the raised dais in the center of the bridge. Thin, tall, eagle eyed and sharp-featured, Ricks had been born to command. His uniform was as perfectly pressed as an acolyte's at boot camp, a trick the rumpled Theodore had never mastered. He nodded to Theodore, making it clear that he had not forgotten who was in charge.

"It's a small ship," Ricks said quietly. No doubt this was a fact known to anyone other than Theodore, who was more theologian than warrior. This was the very reason that the Pontifex had put the fleet under his command. The cardinal's commentary gave Theodore direction, but also kept him from looking the fool. The chaplain was thankful for that. Ricks said, "We could destroy it with the touch of a button." Theodore knew Ricks had gladly destroyed many ships in his years of service.

"Such were not our orders," Theodore said. "The Pontifex would be displeased." He smoothed his silver hair back, and rested his hands on the arms of the command chair. "It troubles me that they sent such a small craft, Cardinal."

Ricks snorted. "It's the equivalent of our penknife class. No match for my ship." He stomped his foot on the deck. "After all, Faithful Blade is Katana class." The Terran contact fleet had been calculated to impress, with four broadswords, a rapier, two katanas, and five spadroon class ships. Ricks leaned over a crewman's display. "Their ship has the bare minimum of shielding and no weapons."

Chaplain Theodore turned his chair toward him. "They knew we would come armed." He stroked his chin. "A single ship with no weapons. Why?"

"To insult us."

"Possibly," the chaplain said. "Or to show that they don't fear us. They've made us look paranoid, arriving with an armada when they sent a cargo ship."

The Cardinal frowned. "We should destroy them, Chaplain. Surely they have top-ranking leaders on their ship. It would be a decisive blow."

Theodore waved his hands impatiently. "The Pontifex specifically commanded that we try to convert the Vilicus, not destroy them. I understand your difficulty, Ricks, having a chaplain in charge of your fleet. But the Pontifex chose me for this mission, and whether you like it or not -- whether I like it or not -- I am temporarily your commanding officer."

"Yes, Sir," the Cardinal said, tucking his chin to his chest and making a serviceable half bow.

"Yes, Monsignor," the chaplain corrected. It would be good to remind the Cardinal that he was considered a member of the Pontifex's household, and his word was law. At least, on this mission, in this fleet. He wasn't without experience, either. He had single-handedly brought entire planets into the Church by sharing the story of the Blessed Revolutionist, and without a single shot fired. He waited for the cardinal's response.

"Yes, Monsignor," Ricks said, his face red as his tunic.

The chaplain couldn't act the stern monsignor for long. He laughed, and took the Cardinal's hands. "Cardinal," he said. "I will be relying heavily on your advice. As the Revolutionist himself said, when he founded the Church of the Righteous Sword, 'Let us not allow ranks and hierarchy to limit our freedoms, but rather to increase them.'"

Cardinal Ricks inclined his head, acknowledging the Revolutionist's words. Some might frown on quoting the Revolutionist to end an argument, but Chaplain Theodore believed that the Revolutionist was the best one to end an argument. After all, hadn't he freed their entire world from slavery? He had defied the Zyxlar and chased them from the solar system. And, as the church taught, he continued to pursue them now to the far ends of the universe, after which he will return to bless us with many riches.

The comm chirped. The communications apostle called it out "Contact from the Vilicus ship." Theodore asked for the message to be connected.

"We welcome you," the voice said, "In the name of the Zyxlar, the great and mighty ones who are soon to reappear and will reward every one for their service." The voice spoke in the slave tongue.

Chaplain Theodore could have activated the translator behind his ear, but there was no need. He still spoke the slave tongue, and it would take another generation or two before it died out on his planet.

Nevertheless, Cardinal Ricks appeared to be correct. Choosing to speak in the slave tongue could only be a calculated decision to offend. To respond to them in that tongue would be tantamount to accepting their old relationship: slave to master. Or at least, slave to servant. The Zyxlar had been the masters, the Vilicus the managers.

The chaplain cleared his throat and said, in the language of the free, "Our dear friends on the Vilicus ship, we cannot understand the language you are broadcasting in. We are activating our translation devices. Please re-send your message."

There was a moment of silence. "You do not understand the Zyxlar trade tongue? Surely even the backwater Terrans remember that language."

The chaplain said nothing, and motioned the bridge to silence. A moment later, another voice said, haltingly, in the Terran language, "Translation will be provided on our ship. End transmission."

"It appears the Vilicus have every intention of insulting us," the chaplain said.

The cardinal's lips were pressed tightly together. He crossed his arms. "Monsignor, I cannot agree to having the meeting on their ship. With all due respect, it could be a trap."

"We knew that when we received the invitation. But the Pontifex felt we couldn't pass up an opportunity to try for peace."

Ricks spoke quietly enough that no one but Theodore could hear. "Monsignor, I beg you to reconsider. Something is wrong." He looked behind him to make sure none of the acolytes or apostles stood near, dropped his voice to a whisper and said, "I could vaporize that ship."

Theodore put his hand on the Cardinal's arm. "You and I are both men under authority. The Pontifex has made our purpose clear: convert the Vilicus to the cause of the Revolutionary. So long as I am in command, we follow those orders."

"And should you fail?"

The chaplain smiled. "If we should fail, Cardinal Ricks, this fleet will be under your command and you must do as you think best."

Ricks shook his head. "There would be nothing to do but call a salvage crew."

Theodore put his hand over his heart and faced the mural of the Revolutionist. It was a beautifully painted rendition of the Last Battle. The Revolutionist held his sword, forged of cast-off steel, over his head, laser fire lancing past him, factories exploding in black smoke behind him. He had risen off the ground already, Vilicus ships retreating into the foreground of the painting, and the light of the battle shone off the Revolutionist as he followed them into the sky, without a ship, without anything but the power of God and his righteous sword.

Theodore folded his hands. "Blessed Revolutionist. Through your power you bought our freedom and removed the Vilicus from our planet. Even now you chase the Zyxlar to the far reaches of the universe. Give us the words to show the Vilicus that they, like us, can be free of the chains of slavery. Let them enter into brotherhood with us and all the free races. Amen."

The cardinal also said, "Amen."

He turned to Ricks and said in a loud voice, "Cardinal Ricks, I leave you in command but with this order: no shots are to be fired, unless we are fired upon."

The Cardinal stiffened and shouted, as if he were an acolyte himself, "Yes, monsignor."

They shook hands. "Cardinal," he said. "Have Bishop Edgerton bring two of her security staff and meet me in the hangar."

#

Theodore stood at the front point of their uneven phalanx, with Edgerton to his right, two security staff behind him on his left. He waited for the Vilicus airlock to sigh open. He had met Chitters, Methenes, Silicates and Saurians before, he had even done mission work in several systems, and had singlehandedly converted two planets to the Church, through peaceful means. But he had never seen a Vilicus in person.

Edgerton said, "It's taking too long, monsignor. We should re-enter our own ship." Edgerton was the Bishop of Black Ops, and there was no one better than her. To ignore her advice was to risk your life. She had balked at the idea of bringing only two guards, but Chaplain Theodore was determined not to repeat their mistake in bringing an armada to bargain with a cargo ship.

The airlock opened. One of the security guards gasped, and Edgerton stiffened. A Terran stood before them in a long brown robe, a hood pulled over his shaven head. Edgerton stepped past Theodore and removed the Terran's hood. The chaplain narrowed his eyes. The vassal looked familiar. But perhaps it was the familiarity of their shared humanity, emphasized by the shaven head. "You are no slave," Edgerton said. "The Revolutionist offers you freedom."

The Terran stepped back from her, nervous, and replaced his hood, just as Theodore felt the man's name on the tip of his tongue. The captive looked to the floor and said, in the slave tongue, "Forgive me, I cannot understand you, Mistress. Please follow me to my master, where a translator will be provided." He walked away from them, his steps unnervingly quiet on the metal, as if he were a man who would leave no footprint. Where had Theodore seen him before? Could it be that the Vilicus were kidnapping Terrans from one of the colonies? Had Theodore met him on a missionary journey?

"This is more than an insult," Edgerton whispered, her voice quivering with anger.

"Be calm, be at ease," the chaplain said. "To react to their insults makes us their slaves. Focus on our mission."

Edgerton leaned close to him as they walked. "Monsignor, the heart of our religion is freedom. We must release that man."

The chaplain nodded so vigorously his whole body rocked. "I agree, Bishop Edgerton. But if the brief incarceration of a few Terrans leads to freedom for the entire Vilicus race? If a small sacrifice brings hearts aflame with the message of the Church, so be it. Patience."

The slave stood beside a portal and pressed the entry button. The door irised open and he motioned for them to enter. The chaplain stepped forward, boldly, not showing any hesitation. He was here as a messenger of God and the Revolutionist Himself and he would not cower before the Vilicus.

The room was round and pale white, and it would take perhaps twenty paces to cross it. Embedded in the walls were the sleep trays that had been in common use in Vilicus thrall camps, especially in farming communities. In the center of the room was an aquarium filled to bursting with the pinkish-silver, tentacled body of a Kanzai. It was actually chained, a barbarism that had not been seen even on Theodore's homeworld for hundreds of years. Theodore's stomach turned at the sight of a bound sentient. The enslaved Terran entered and crossed the room to stand beside a Vilicus.

The Vilicus was heavily muscled, grey-skinned and beetle browed, sitting on an acceleration chair beside a small, metal table. It wore a light, shimmering robe which did nothing to disguise the muscles rippling beneath. It stood, the small, deep-set black eyes unreadable, the slash of a mouth giving no indication of emotion. If Theodore had to guess an emotion, he would have guessed hatred. The heavy brow and wide mouth seemed destined for fierce frowning. The Vilicus spoke in some tongue unknown to Theodore.

Theodore felt a light touch in his mind. If he had not spent so many years in meditation and self-reflection he might not have noticed it. A tinny voice came from a speaker on the side of the aquarium. "My master bids you sit."

The words were polite, but Theodore felt a slight echo of mocking through the mind link. There was only one chair. "What of my companions?"

The translation came in a moment. "Our lessers need not sit at our table. Now, if you are worthy of conversation rather than orders, sit and speak." He felt the translator purposely choosing commands used with dogs.

Theodore sat. First point to the Vilicus. The alien's slave brought them both drinks. The chaplain started to share his name, but the translator interrupted. "Names are not necessary, Chaplain. Your rank is sufficient. My master asks if you have the authority to offer the complete surrender of the so-called Church of the Rebellious Sword?"

Theodore steepled his fingers and glanced at Edgerton. She was scowling, her fingers twitching near her sidearm. They hadn't even been checked for weapons. Both acolytes were sweating, nervous. "Righteous Sword, sir."

"You need not call me sir, I am only a humble slave like yourself."

Theodore could feel the smirk of the Vilicus through the mind link. He stood and walked to the aquarium. He looked straight at the Kanzai, which was hunched into the narrow space of its glass cage. "In my religion, sir, we do believe all sentient beings should be free. If we can free them with words, we speak. If we must free them by the sword, we wield it."

The speaker crackled to life, translating the Vilicus again. "This is why your Church has invaded six planets in nearby systems."

Theodore turned back to his opponent. "Yes. And to answer your earlier question, I do have authority. Only one person can overrule me."

"The Blessed Revolutionist?"

Theodore paused, surprised. "Well. Yes, of course. But I was referring to the Pontifex."

"This Blessed Revolutionist outranks your Pontifex?"

"Yes. But he has not been seen in hundreds of years, since he defeated your kind in the Freedom Uprising."

Again, the mocking over the telepathy link, and the translator said, "We call it the Battle of the Abandonment." The Vilicus took a sip of its drink, its enormous grey hand dwarfing the cup. "We demand the unconditional surrender of your people. Everyone above the rank of Bishop will be executed. All productive citizens will be re-educated and put to work."

"This was meant to be a good faith exchange of ideas. You offer us executions and brainwashing?"

"Re-education, not brainwashing."

"We've heard rumors of what your people have done on Planet Error, the one you call Erratum. You destroy the freedom our races have painstakingly built over the last several centuries."

The Vilicus leaned forward. "Our cousins on planet Erratum are weak. We will not coddle our master's chattle as they have. One day the Zyxlar will return, and only the faithful will survive. We enslave you for your own good. The free will be devoured by fire."

Theodore smiled, and he could feel his confidence leak back through the psychic link. "Are you of similar rank as I, sir?"

The Vilicus did not move. "Higher. I am the equivalent of your Pontifex. I have done you a great honor by coming here myself. You may call me Augustus. I am the Procurator of the Vilicus and Proconsul of the Blue Nebula Sectors until such time as the Zyxlar return."

"Aren't you afraid that we will murder you?"

"I have certain insurances against this."

Theodore closed his eyes. He could dimly feel Edgerton thinking about murdering the alien. The acolytes were terrified, thinking of chains, thinking of being enslaved. The Terran captive was not on the link. He opened his eyes. "Do you see that Kanzai? You are like it. Your philosophy has enslaved you. You believe the Zyxlar will return, and will reward you for living as slaves even during their absence. You are not chained, but you walk the same weary circles, as if bound to a post. I tell you, Procurator, we have thrown off our chains. We have clawed our way back to the stars, we have broken the aquarium and we are spreading our message to the universe. Under your rule, we were little more than brute animals. You worked us in the hydroponic domes, in the factories, in the mines. People died often enough to make undertaker a job that required a guild. When we drove you off we had almost no technology. But we overcame those things because we were free. And our freedom is not for us alone. The Pontifex has sent me to tell you this: we will kill all who enslave others. But those who embrace freedom, we will embrace."

Augustus actually laughed out loud. "You are deceived. You think this Revolutionist has brought you freedom."

"I know he has. At the Last Battle, as our forefathers surged against your ancestors --"

"Not our ancestors. I was there myself."

Theodore frowned. "Very well. Our forefathers raised their homemade swords and charged against your armies, your tanks and ion cannons. And as we leapt across the barricades, all your ships retreated. And then, in the Great Miracle, the Revolutionist flew into the sky after you, and that was the precise day we learned the Zyxlar had withdrawn. The Revolutionist pursues them to the far corners of the universe, and one day he will return to reward us for seeking the freedom of others." Theodore felt a small tug of interest from the translator. Not from the Vilicus, but from the translator itself.

The Vilicus stood. To have it towering over him brought to mind childhood tales of terror about the grey aliens. "If your Revolutionist appears, he will lead your armies against us?"

"You have understood it, sir. Will you and your people stand with us?"

The Procurator smashed its fist into the thick metal table and it crumpled like paper. Edgerton and the acolytes drew their sidearms. Theodore jumped between them. "I have another narrative for you to consider," the tinny voice of the translator said, crackling. "What if, on the day of the Battle of the Abandonment, our forces stood ready to incinerate your ridiculous rebellion? We had lasers, as you say, and the rebels had jagged shards of metal. But at that precise moment, we became aware of the absence of our masters, and, confused and uncertain, withdrew from the conflict so as not to displease them."

"Nonsense," Theodore said. "What of the Revolutionist chasing the ships beyond the clouds? Thousands of people witnessed it."

The Procurator smiled, a brutal glint of true hatred in its eyes. "I was furious at your Revolutionist for upsetting the status quo on your planet. So I used the tractor beam on my ship as we withdrew, and targeted the leader of the rebellion. It was a momentary whim. I wasn't certain the beam could be used in such a way, but it appears that it could. The Revolutionist was not chasing us. He was being drawn to us."

Theodore's stomach fell. "No."

The Vilicus shoved the captive between them and yanked off his hood. "On your knees," it said, and the slave dropped. The man looked up at the chaplain, his eyes flickering around the room, as if anticipating a blow. His scalp was sweaty and unevenly shorn. The hint of an old bruise traveled along the side of his head, and scars shone like blades, criss-crossing his skull. Augustus said, in the slave language, "Behold your god." Theodore saw a thousand paintings of that face. . . younger, full of savage joy. This husk of a man looked very much like the Revolutionist, only dead.

"It can't be." Theodore lapsed into the slave language despite himself.

"It is. We captured and re-educated him. Since jump gates had not yet come into being, he has been traveling at sub-light speeds with my fleet. He has aged little since we left your planet." He pushed the Revolutionist toward the chaplain. "Now. Surrender and I will allow you to keep your religion. I will keep this slave a secret. We will gently reacquaint your people with the old ways over a few generations. Or, I will bring him to your planet and humiliate your Pontifex. I will use your Revolutionist to re-educate your people. They will be slaves without hope, without a conquering hero to look forward to. I will crush their spirits."

The chaplain looked into the eyes of the Blessed. He saw only fear. Brokenness. Not the barest glimmer of outrage or rebellion or life. One of the acolytes was on his knees, weeping. Through the link he could feel Edgerton. She understood what needed to happen. There was a reason she had become Bishop of Black-Ops, she knew how to sow terror among the enemies, she understood the power the Procurator had over them now. She met his eyes, waiting for a command, her hand on the gun.

But no. The Pontifex had chosen him because he was a man of words. He reached out to the translator through the link and begged it not to reveal the plan forming in his mind. Freedom, he promised. I can give you freedom from that cage. He took the Revolutionist's hand. The slave looked at him, fear in his eyes. The chaplain said, "Bless me, sir, for I have sinned."

A flicker of recognition in the slave's eyes. "Go with God," he said. Then his eyes clouded over, and he was gone again.

Go with God. Those words would have to be sign enough. The chaplain bowed his head to the Procurator, and in the slave tongue he said, "Master, I will send word to the Pontifex to accept your terms. I will stay here freely, as an example to my people, as your spokesperson."

Through the link, skepticism warred with the feeling that this is precisely what should happen. "Good," Augustus said.

The chaplain faced Bishop Edgerton. He removed his sash, the symbol of his office as chaplain. He placed it in the Bishop's arms. "You must go back to the fleet." He looked at the acolytes. One stood by in stony silence, the other a sobbing heap. He glanced at the crying one. "Leave one acolyte with me." The bishop nodded. She understood.

"Tell Cardinal Ricks that I relinquish control of the fleet to him. Tell him to do what he thinks best." The chaplain did everything he could to mask his feelings and thoughts as he said it. The bishop's eyes widened. She was about to object, but he shook his head slightly, giving her a warning look.

"Tell the Pontifex that I renounce my offices and duties. Remind him that a slave cannot be a minister of the Church. Tell him that I was too weak to fight as I should have." With that he stripped his official robes and stood before them, wearing only his undergarments. He folded his robes and put them in the bishop's arms, on top of his canonical sash.

Theodore felt the deep stillness that came upon him near the end of a long journey. The Bishop leaned close and kissed him on each cheek before saying the traditional words spoken to the heretic: "You came freely, now go freely. May your choices serve you and your loved ones well."

Tears streaked down his face. "Amen."

For more stories, see Dark Expanse: Surviving the Collapse and As Good as Bad Can Get: A Dark Expanse Novel