Abyss & Apex : First Quarter 2010

The Torturous Path

by Bud Sparhawk

 

The Alpha service was long and arduous. Alessandro twisted, as did the dozen other young acolytes seated behind the Brothers, while Father Senesino droned a particularly long section of the Epiphedra aloud. Alessandro could feel the steady pulse of the massive engines that drove them toward the omega point as he twisted uncomfortably in his seat. Alessandro twisted and twisted again until finally, mercifully, the service was over and he could rest.

Alessandro’s head felt as if it would burst as he stumbled down the passageway, thinking how nice his bunk would feel. Suddenly, a large black barricade appeared before him. It was his nemesis, Brother Bernacchi – The Vulture.

“The Order,” Bernacchi intoned grimly, “must maintain its dignity.”

“Yes, Brother,” Alessandro said, wondering where this was going.

“If we demand respect, then we must also respect one another.”

“Yes sir.” He tried not to look at The Vulture.

“Did it occur to you that respect means we must never, ever, place sealing gel on the chair of a Brother?”

“No, sir.” He fought to suppress a grin as he recalled the expression on Vesetti’s face when he’d sat down. Vesetti was the weakest of the Brothers and had earned the nickname Butterfly.

In fact, it had been acolyte Moreschi who’d slipped the gooey gel on Brother Vasetti’s chair, but Alessandro was not going to tell that to the Vulture. Besides, it would have done no good; Moreschi was the Vulture’s favorite and, in his eyes, could do no wrong, unlike Alessandro, for whom the Vulture seemed to harbor a particular dislike.

“I think a few contemplative hours spent with the Epiphedra will keep you out of any further mischief, boy. Yes, the Tortuous Path would be a suitable assignment.”

“The Path!” Alessandro was certain that Bernacchi, had he not become a Brother, would have been a professional sadist. Instead, he was just a lay sadist.

The Tortuous Path was the most impenetrable part of the Astrogrammer’s Epiphedra, a compilation of arcane starfaring procedures that he doubted he’d ever need. In fact, he doubted that anyone would ever need those pages.

“Isn’t that too advanced for me, sir?” he suggested humbly, hoping for a lesser sentence.

The Vulture sneered. “Nonsense, I memorized those passages quite easily when I was your age.” He smiled. “I’ll expect you to have it done in a week.”

 

#

Alessandro hastened away from The Vulture’s venomous stare. Mouse Moreschi was going to pay for this, he thought. But for now all he wanted was sleep.

“Ah, Aleassandro, how delightful. I think this is a good time to have a little chat.” It was Brother Caffarelli – another impediment between him and his bunk.

Brother Caffarelli led the way to his compartment. “Come in, come in,” he said as Alessandro paused at the doorway.

Alessandro entered, making a slight nod. He could get away with that with Caffarelli. The Vulture, on the other hand, was a stickler for propriety – nothing less than a full bow would satisfy him.

“Sit down,” Caffarelli waved at a stool.

Alessandro sat and put his hands in his lap, the very picture of a proper acolyte. A “little” chat could mean anything, but most likely it wouldn’t take less than an hour. Caffarelli was not a man of a few words.

“Are you still pure in mind and body?” Caffarelli mumbled the ritual question quickly.

“In my heart and soul,” Alessandro replied quickly, hoping that Caffarelli wasn’t going to bring up the gel.

“And in your dreams as well?” Caffarelli asked.

Alessandro felt moment of disorientation. He detected an underlying note of concern in Caffarelli’s normally high-pitched voice, an unusual note that immediately put him on guard. When a Brother grew serious it usually meant trouble for an acolyte.

“I don’t know what you mean, Brother” Alessandro answered. He injected a slight tremor in his voice to show that he appreciated Caffarelli’s interest and understood the gravity of the question. “Sir,” he added, just to demonstrate his humility.

Caffarelli sighed. It seemed to come from the base of his golden slippers, up through the massive columns of his legs to resonate within the enormity of his belly and finally escape through his thick lips. It was a sigh that Alessandro had heard often, a sigh that signaled exasperation over Alessandro’s inability to grasp his meaning.

“I’m sorry,” Alessandro ventured, still unsure of where this was going, but certain that he must apologize for something.

“Surely you have dreams, young man. I want to know what they are, or whatever parts of them you might recall.”

It was a simple request, but Alessandro knew that he couldn’t be candid. How could he admit to the agonies he dreamed of forcing upon The Vulture, of becoming Father Alessandro and inflicting punishment on all who’d ever teased him? If he admitted that he’d probably have to memorize every last page of the damned Epiphedra!

No, he couldn’t talk about those dreams.

Even more troublesome were the dreams about naked women. Sometimes he thought of his friend Gwen, who sort of looked like the picture of the naked redhead with the big chest.

No, he couldn’t talk about that either.

“I dream of the great work we do, Brother,” he lied. “I dream of girding the universe. I dream of leading my flock safely across the great darkness to find safety on the distant shore.” He put his utmost sincerity into the fabrication.

Caffarelli sighed again. “I see that you’ve managed to pay attention to your classes. A noble dream, but far, far too noble to be the truth.”

Alessandro tried to sound even more sincere. “I dream of someday becoming pure in my being, of becoming so enlightened and enlarged that I can twist an entire ship by myself. Yes, I dream of being the greatest Father ever.”

Caffarelli smiled. “Ah, a dream of power. Would that such abilities were possible. No, I doubt anyone could ever twist a ship by themselves – which is why we Brothers and you acolytes help Father Senesino in his service.”

Alessandro was warming to this game now. It was so easy. “I sometimes dream of being an explorer. Yes, and going where no one has ever been.” Caffarelli smiled and nodded, encouraging him to continue. “And finding a nice place for people to settle, but with all sorts of wild animals – big animals that I have to fight off with a stick and my fists and I get hurt so Gwen holds me close and . . .”

A strange look came over on Caffarelli’s face. “Gwen?”

Alessandro hadn’t meant to mention her but she snuck into the scenario by accident. He sensed an abyss before him. “I meant Glen,” he stammered, “a crewman.”

“Exploration vessels don’t have crew, Alessandro. Who is this Gwen?”

“I don’t know, Brother,” Alessandro answered miserably. He wished fervently that he could twist himself away from Caffarelli’s inquisitive glare.

“I really did mean Glen,” he pleaded, unwilling to admit defeat. “Glen!” he added adamantly as if force of expression alone could overcome Caffarelli’s suspicions.

Cafferelli sighed and settled back. “That will be all for now, Alessandro. I want you to start keeping a record of your dreams. Bring it to me each week.”

Alessandro worried about that. Writing the record would not be difficult, but keeping what he wrote acceptable would be.

 

#

Alessandro dropped onto his bunk without undressing. Just as he closed his eyes he heard someone moving nearby.

“Shrimp,” someone whispered. “Shrimp, are you awake?” Moreschi always talked down to him when he had something on his mind. He was a year older and never let Alessandro forget it.

“Yes, I’m still awake – no thanks to you,” Alessandro answered, too tired to voice the sarcasm he felt. He tried to sigh like Caffarelli, but it came out more like a wheeze. “What is it this time, Mouse?”

“I have a question about those pictures we saw.” The Mouse was talking about the naked women they’d seen during their latest –and highly improper—expedition to the crew’s quarters.

Mouse’s voice sounded strange. “Those pictures – did they make you feel sort of, sort of, . . . you know.”

Alessandro had certainly liked looking at them –the women were really pretty and they made him feel … well, how would he describe it? “How do they make you feel?” he asked defensively.

From the lengthening silence it was obvious that Mouse didn’t like the question turning on him. He was quiet for so long that Alessandro started to wonder if, after keeping him awake, Mouse had fallen asleep. He was trying to summon the energy to ask when Mouse finally croaked. “Sort of squiggly inside, down here.”

“It’s dark. Where is ‘here’ – in your stupid feet?”

“No, down here, around where you pee.”

“You’re an idiot! Go to sleep!” That was too close to what he’d felt, but he wasn’t going to admit it. Why had Mouse brought it up anyway?

“Shrimp?”

Alessandro didn’t answer.

 

#

The Vulture slipped into the classroom, just as Alessandro and the other acolytes were learning how the ill-fated Second Empire failed to defend the human spirit against mechanization.

“Today, only the Order preserved those ideals, the last bastion against the soulless dark,” the instructor said. “Please, Acolyte Moreschi, what is the purpose of the Order?” the instructor asked again.

Moreschi stood. “The Order has many facets, sir. Twisting ships across the galaxy is merely the most visible aspect of our work.”

“What are our other roles?” the instructor asked

“Preserving continuity of commerce, culture, and discovery,” Moreschi replied. “Without the Order the planets would be isolated, trade would halt, and millions of lives would be restricted to a handful of worlds. It would be a massive step backwards to a time when mankind was concentrated on one tiny, insignificant globe.”

The Vulture nodded. “Acolyte Moreschi,” he said pleasantly. “That was very well done.”

“Thank you, Brother,” Moreschi replied with a smirk. “It is a pleasure to know that we are such a critical part of the great venture.” Alessandro felt like tossing his breakfast.

The Vulture predictably beamed at his little suck-up, then turned to frown at Alessandro. “I trust you are studying the Path, boy.”

“As you instructed, Brother. I found the great work so fascinating that I could hardly close my eyes.” The Vulture frowned, but Alessandro kept a sincere expression on his face.

He had learned to fake sincerity really well.

At that moment they were interrupted. Father Senesino needed to make a minute correction in the ship’s course. The service’s brevity was fortunate, for Alessandro had little energy left after the previous night’s effort.

Classes were canceled, which meant the Vulture couldn’t continue to torment him.

 

#

Two weeks later Alessandro was playing cards with a smiling Gwen. She leaned forward, her clothes starting to open and reveal her all when he felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him vigorously.

Gwen’s face was momentarily transformed into, first, Brother Caffarelli, which then became the visage of Father Senesino, and finally turned into Moreschi’s.

“Wake up, damn it!” came Mouse’s harsh whisper. “Come on, Shrimp. Wake up.”

“Whazzit?” a half-awake Alessandro managed to mumble.

“I’ve got a problem, Shrimp,” Mouse said quickly. “Come on.”

Alessandro followed Mouse to the exercise room.

“I’ve got something to show you,” Moreschi said mysteriously and leaned closer to Alessandro. “Look!”

Alessandro strained to see where Moreschi’s finger was pointing. “I don’t see anything”

“Look closer. Here, run your finger over it.” He pulled Alessandro’s hand to his face and dragged one finger across his upper lip.

Alessandro felt something silky. “What’s that?”

“It’s hair,” Moreschi replied huskily. “I’m getting it everywhere, even here.” He indicated his privates. “They itch.”

“What’s happening?”

“I think it’s a beard,” Moreschi replied solemnly, “Shrimp, I’m turning into a crewman! I won’t be a Brother after all.” He was obviously trying hard not to cry. Both of them knew that the Brothers didn’t have whiskers.

“Maybe they can fix you,” Alessandro ventured. “Some medicine – a pill or something.” Sure, there had to be something to stop what was happening, didn’t there?

“I can’t tell anybody but you, Shrimp. That’s all the excuse they’d need to throw me out of the Order. God, I knew this was going to happen. If they had let me become a Brother earlier I would have been safe. Now, it’s too late!”

Alessandro wondered about that. Mouse was a year older, but they were both near the time when acolytes usually became Brothers.

The mysterious process of transforming an acolyte into a Brother had been the subject of many of their late night discussions. All they knew was that acolytes abruptly disappeared when they neared the age of the youngest Brothers. Near their own ages.

“I don’t want to be a crewman,” Mouse wailed, snapping Alessandro’s mind back to the subject at hand. “I want to stay in the Order.”

“Me, too,” Alessandro was quick to add.

“Maybe the hairs will go away,” he suggested. “Wait a while. They’re pretty hard to see.”

“I’ve been waiting,” Mouse sobbed. “I kept hoping, but it didn’t help. The hair keeps growing. Look!” He jumped up and pulled his pants to his knees.

Alessandro stared. There was a hint of pale fuzz around Mouse’s privates. “Wow, that’s weird.”

This was the most damning evidence that his friend was turning into a crewman, or maybe a citizen, which was just as bad.

He quickly shoved his hand into his waistband and carefully felt around. A sense of relief flooded through him. He felt nothing but smooth skin.

“What should I do?” Mouse asked.

Alessandro hesitated. “I think you need to see the Vulture. He’s probably the only one who could help you.”

 

#

The next morning Mouse wasn’t at breakfast. Probably worrying in his room, Alessandro thought.

He had no assignments to fill his morning except to read the Vulture’s painful assignment. To his great surprise he actually found this part of the Path interesting, and not nearly as challenging as he’d expected. Still, there was so much data that he couldn’t absorb it all. He shut the thick book with some regret and wondered what else he could do.

It was easy to slip through the kitchen, slide down the airshaft, and squeeze through a vent near the crew’s quarters.

What he was doing was strictly against the rules. Acolytes were not supposed to fraternize with the passengers, officers, or, most especially, crewmen. That’s what made it so exciting to break the rules.

Gwen was his favorite crewman. She told outrageous stories about the places she’d been, whispered rumors of the goings-on among the officers, and, best of all, was teaching him how to play poker.

She was more than willing to teach him the finer points of draw poker, for small price. Several hands later, while she was dealing him two cards to replace his discards, Alessandro recalled his interrupted dream and immediately noticed a certain tension in his groin that wouldn’t stop. When it created a noticeable bulge in his pants he crossed his legs and leaned forward so Gwen wouldn’t notice.

“Call,” Gwen said, bringing his thoughts back to the game.

Alessandro threw down five cards of the same suit, all in order.

Gwen slammed her cards down in disgust. “I don’t know how you can beat the odds so frequently, kid. Say,” she said with mock suspicion, “you aren’t twisting the deck, are you?”

“No, I couldn’t do that if I wanted.” It was a running joke between them.

“Wow, look at the time. I’ve got to go, kid,” she said as she stood and stretched. The fabric of her coverall pulled tight against her body.

That made Alessandro’s problem even worse. He couldn’t stand up. Not like this. “One more hand,” he begged, hoping it would go away.

Gwen pouted. “I’d sure like to win some of my money back, kid, but I really have to go. Come on, out with you.”

Alessandro strained with all his might to make it disappear but the more he tried the stiffer it became. “Can’t I wait for you here?” he begged. “I won’t touch anything.”

“What is wrong with you?” She leaned close. “Is there something going on that I should know about?”

“No, nothing at all. Nope. Everything’s fine. Yes, just fine.” For God’s sake, why wouldn’t it just go away?

“Come on,” Gwen said and yanked him to his feet. She glanced down. “Oh!” she said very quietly. “My.”

Alessandro felt his face burn. What if she told the Vulture, or worse, Father Senesino? Oh God, maybe he could die now and save himself the disgrace.

“What are you are doing?” Caffarelli’s prim voice cut through his thoughts like a hot knife. “I heard you were doing this, but didn’t want to believe it. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Alessandro felt a moment of panic. Moreschi must have told the Brothers everything!

“Let the kid alone, Brother,” Gwen shot back. “We were just playing cards.” She stepped in front of Alessandro. “That’s nothing for him to be ashamed about.”

“I wasn’t addressing the boy, harlot,” Caffarelli responded angrily. “Subversion of an acolyte is a contract violation. You could lose your job.”

Gwen bristled. “I’m certified crew, Brother, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let some hairless gelding in a gown threaten me. You can kick me off this ship, but you can’t take away my job.”

“Fine,” Caffarelli replied, his voice dripping with venom. “Go risk your life on one of those soulless machines, while you’re at it. Come along, Alessandro,” he sniffed. “I think we need to have a discussion.”

Alessandro was bent over, trying to hide his affliction as he walked away. Caffarelli was half a step behind and, if he noticed Alessandro’s odd posture, said nothing.

“Goodbye, Alessandro,” Gwen called sadly. “Hey, this is for you, baldy.” Alessandro glanced back as Gwen dropped her pants and presented her rear to the departing Brother.

“Disgusting,” Caffarelli spit.

Alessandro said nothing. Gwen had a very nice rear, which didn’t help his proximate problem in the least.

Caffarelli’s grilling was long and intense. “This woman,” he asked for the umpteenth time, “Did she ever act untoward with you?”

“No, Brother. We just played cards and talked.” Alessandro repeated. He wondered when the Brother would tire of hearing the same answer over and over.

“Did she ever touch you?” Caffarelli’s eyes narrowed.

“Well, maybe sometimes,” Alessandro finally admitted.

“I knew it!” Caffarelli pounced on the answer. He leaned forward. “Where did she touch you? Come on, boy, tell me the truth. Where?” He licked his lips in anticipation of the revelation to come.

“Well, once in the hallway and another time in her room,” Alessandro answered earnestly.

Caffarelli frowned. “I meant which part of your body did she touch, not where it took place.”

“Here,” Alessandro said as he touched his shoulder. “And here,” he said, touching his elbow.

“Nowhere else?” The tone was sharp, unbelieving.

“No, Brother, but she did pat me on the head, once.”

“Did she ever discuss the Order or its practices?” Caffarelli asked, revisiting an earlier question.

“I already told you that she didn’t. She talked about where she’d been and all. There wasn’t anything else.”

Caffarelli seemed disappointed. “Have you told me everything, boy? Have you been completely honest?” It was clear that he believed otherwise.

Alessandro nodded. “Completely honest, Brother Caffarelli. Completely,” he added with all the sincerity he could fake. He didn’t think his dreams about Gwen had any relevance to this specific discussion.

“Fine. You may go.” Caffarelli sighed. “We’ll speak more of this later.”

That was Caffarelli, never a Brother to let things be.

 

#

During the next week Father Senesino required them to attend two more services; the gamma was only a minor twisting but the alpha was so wracking that it put half the Brothers in the medical ward. Alessandro had twisted so hard that his brain felt as if it had been fried and scrambled.

Mouse wasn’t at either service, which meant he’d either been kicked down to crew quarters or . . . what did the Vulture do to him?

The next day the officers reported that Crossroads Port had been successfully contacted. Alessandro breathed a sigh of relief. The sighting meant that there would be no more twisting this voyage.

Crossroads was a large and interesting port with lots of diversions so Caffarelli assigned Alessandro to take a dozen young acolytes on an outing.

Monitoring the boys was difficult. The youngest ones were easily distracted, but could be intimidated. Those closer to Alessandro’s age kept trying to dart off on their own. Most were unrepentant when Alessandro forced them back into the group, unsuccessfully arguing that they were old enough not to need a mentor.

Alessandro wished that he were allowed to strike them with his staff, but that would mean a lecture from Caffarelli and he had no desire to waste another hour or two listening. Still, there were a few times when . . .

“Shameful!” a woman exclaimed. “You perverts should be ashamed for what you are doing to these poor little boys.” Her words seemed to be directed at Alessandro, but he didn’t understand her meaning. All he was doing was gently prodding them with his staff to keep them together. Well, maybe a bit more than prodding in some cases.

“Boys should be given freedom of choice,” the woman went on. She was clearly quite upset. “You Brothers are all alike, wanting to turn them into freaks like yourselves when there’s no need, none whatsoever!”

She had obviously mistaken him for a Brother, probably because of his mentor’s cowl and the staff. But what did she mean by freaks? As far as he knew the Brothers looked ordinary – no extra arms or legs, no horns or tails.

“Keep moving,” Alessandro urged. The woman was clearly out of her mind.

“There will be a reckoning,” the woman screamed. “It’s time you all paid for your hideous crimes!”

Alessandro couldn’t understand her hostility. At other ports he’d seen polite smiles, heard praise for the great service the Order was performing, and noted the adulation of the Brothers.

So what made this woman so angry and upset?

Quite a crowd had gathered around a strange ship docked not far from their own. Two members of the Order, dressed in Conservatoire Rose stood nearby. They were the recipients of many a hostile stare, as was Alessandro as he drove his flock forward.

“Disgraceful,” he overheard one of the conservatoires saying as they approached. “These people have no respect for tradition.”

The older one nodded agreement. “Yes, I still cannot believe people would trust themselves to those cold, unfeeling machines.”

As if timed to disprove his words, people emerged from the ship.

“Brother,” Alessandro asked the conservatoires. “What is this ship?”

The younger conservatoire frowned. “Acolyte, he is Father Porporino, head of the Crossroads Conservatoire.”

Alessandro shrank back. How could he not have noticed the large golden medallion on the Father’s breast? “My apologies, Father,” he murmured.

“No harm, my son. To answer your question though: That blasphemous arrangement of silicon and metal just arrived after brutally twisting itself through space. Those unfortunate souls are risking their lives by putting their faith in a machine instead of using the human services of the Order.”

“I simply cannot believe some foolishly wish these things to replace us,” the other conservatoire said. “It is an affront to all that is human, a denial of our Order’s primacy.”

Father Porporino frowned at the outburst. “It is yet another foolish attempt to reduce our Order’s sublime human abilities to the mere mechanical.”

Alessandro looked at the ship, but this time with wonder. A machine that could twist space meant that there would be no need for him to memorize vast tracts of the Epiphedra, no need to endure the raging headaches that came with twisting, and especially not have that damned Vulture dogging his every move or Caffarelli questioning his every thought.

All of which meant that a ship that could twist space was a marvelous idea.

“Now, best you get your charges away,” Father Porporino hissed. “There are many here who do not feel kindly toward our blessed Order. I fear the appearance of this abomination might incite them to act against us.”

A crowd blocked the shortest route back to their ship. Rather than retrace his steps, Alessandro drove ahead, making a path through the crowd so that his boys could follow.

At first the people moved to either side to allow forward progress but, as he drew closer to the center, the press of bodies made it exceedingly difficult. He occasionally glanced back to make sure his charges were following.

Then they were gone. How it had happened was uncertain, but between glances the boys had disappeared into the crowd.

Alessandro tried to push his way back to where he had last seen them. Instead of giving way, though, the crowd pushed him back until he stood apart.

“Go back to your ship, gelding,” someone yelled from within the crowd. Someone threw a piece of packing material at him, which missed, and then there was a shower of debris that forced him to cover his head and leave. He almost cried at his inability to do anything. He had lost the boys. He had failed his duty.

Brother Caffarelli was going to be very upset with him.

 

#

“Father Senesino wishes everyone to remain aboard until the police have matters in hand,” Caffarelli announced. “Besides the kidnapping of our acolytes there have been several other incidents, including an assault on one of the conservatoires. Best not to provoke things any further.”

What was not being said was any reason for the unrest. Alessandro couldn’t see why the arrival of the new ship would spark the kidnapping of his charges nor what the citizens hoped to accomplish – the acolytes were unable to do much without the Brothers’ help. They certainly couldn’t be used to twist a ship – not even a little.

Caffarelli was upset, but his anger appeared not to be directed at Alessandro. There had been no suggestion of punishment, and neither did Caffarelli castigate him. Even the Vulture acted kindly, going so far as to pat his shoulder in passing and clucking, which was, for him, an emotional outburst.

On the third night after the kidnapping, the Crossroads’ police escorted a large number of Brothers, acolytes, and rose-gowned conservatoires into the ship. Many were in bedclothes. Most wore expressions of confusion and some, fear. Several sported bruises and torn robes. All looked the worse for wear.

“Riot,” one of the policemen shouted. “Damn fools overran the hospital and dormitories. We couldn’t get everyone in hospital, but managed to get these from the Conservatoire.”

As best Alessandro could puzzle from the shouted conversations taking place among the newcomers, the citizens of Crossroads had decided to “rescue” the acolytes. Why they should do this was beyond his understanding.

“Alessandro!” It was Mouse, dressed in a nightgown.

“What’s going on?” Alessandro asked after they finished slapping and wrestling with each other. “Where have you been?”

“Later,” Moreschi whispered. “I’ll tell you about it later. Meet me in the exercise room after everybody’s asleep.” Before he could say any more he was pulled away by a conservatoire.

Alessandro and the other acolytes were instructed to return to their quarters and remain there until the station police could restore order.

Alessandro waited until everyone was asleep before he crept to the exercise room. Shortly after, Moreschi showed up.

“So what’s the big secret?” Alessandro asked before Mouse could seat himself.

“I’m going to be a Brother,” Moreschi said breathlessly. “I won’t turn into a crewman after all.”

His words confused Alessandro; he’d seen the signs of Mouse’s impending, inevitable change. “What are you talking about? What’s happening, Mouse?”

Mouse didn’t answer immediately. His face was all screwed up with that familiar “I know more than you do,” look. More than once he’d wanted to poke Mouse for doing that, but each time the desire to know whatever secret he had overcame his rancor. “Come on. Tell me!”

“While I was in the Conservatoire I learned how they make Brothers,” Mouse answered. “Uh, I think that has something to do with the riot, too.” He said nothing further, probably waiting for Alessandro to beg for more information.

Alessandro felt himself growing angry. He didn’t know which of Mouse’s answers to pursue first. “All right, what happened?”

“I was in the dormitories, taking a crap, when all hell broke loose. People were running down the halls and shouting, I heard something breaking, and then one of the conservatoires came in and told us all to go down to the storeroom.” He paused. “The storeroom has a private exit. That’s where the police were waiting to bring us here.”

The explanation didn’t tell Alessandro anything of importance. “Why?” he asked. “Why would the citizens riot?”

“Dunno,” was Moreschi’s answer. Pause. “Don’t you want to know how they make Brothers,” he asked slyly.

“They use a Brother-making machine, idiot. Of course I want to know!” Alessandro fired back at Mouse’s infuriating coyness.

“No,’ Moreschi said in a tone of infinite superiority. “It’s not a machine. It’s something they do in the hospital. It’s just a simple operation, they told me. I’m getting it done next week. Brother Moreschi. Doesn’t that sound great?” His face split into a wide grin.

“What kind of operation, Brother Moreschi?” Alessandro asked. He hated having to drag every little bit of information out.

“They just cut off your things,” Mouse said softly, and gabbed Alessandro’s privates so hard that he winced. “The Brothers I talked to said it doesn’t hurt, at least not much. They do give you anesthetics, I think.”

The thought of losing a part of himself terrified Alessandro, but he didn’t want Mouse to see that. “I hope so. What else? There has to be more to it.”

“What? I mean; that’s it.” Mouse sounded offended by the question. “That’s all they do.”

“All of it?” It seemed too simple. Mouse had obviously missed something. That is, if he wasn’t lying entirely.

“Well, I guess there’s some kind of Brothering ceremony – nobody told me about that part of it. But you get to wear the gowns after that. Otherwise it’s just more lessons until you get assigned to a ship. As a Brother.”

“I don’t believe you,” Alessandro said after considering everything he’d been told. “If you didn’t want to tell me the truth then why did you bother with all this sneaking around.” He got up to leave.

Mouse pulled him down. “Listen, Shrimp. I am telling you the truth. They cut them off to prevent you from catching pubbery and growing into a crewman!”

Alessandro tried hard not to believe him, but this revelation was so stupid that it had to be the truth. He reached out and twisted his friend’s ear hard. “Truth?”

“Let go, Shrimp. Ouch. Yes, truth, damn it!” Alessandro let go. “You didn’t have to do that. I only wanted to warn you just in case you caught the pubbery from me. They told me I’m supposed to keep it a secret, but I though you might like to know ahead of time because well, you’re my best friend.”

“Thanks,” Alessandro answered softly. “You, too, Mouse.”

 

#

Caffarelli called Alessandro from class just as lessons were beginning. “I think it time we had a little talk,” he said once they had settled in his quarters with sweet cups of tea before them.

“About losing the boys?” There was little doubt in his mind that this was finally the scolding he deserved. He tried to gauge the nature of his punishment from the expression on Caffarelli’s face.

“No, not about the boys. I’m afraid whoever has them remains intransigent over returning them. I want to talk to you about another matter entirely. Tell me, do you still want to be a Brother?”

“You’re not going to cut them off, are you?” Alessandro said with alarm, looking around for any sharp instruments that might lie close at hand. He wasn’t as sure as Mouse that he wanted that to happen to him. “I’m sure I didn’t catch Moreschi’s pubbery.” He’d been careful to wash his hands after touching Mouse’s ear, just to be careful.

There was a strange expression on Caffarelli’s face, as if he were about to explode. “I can guess where you heard that particular piece of news.” He gave one of his signature sighs. “It was your friend, Moreschi, wasn’t it? I guess it was inevitable, given the circumstances. We usually don’t allow the candidates contact with the acolytes once they’ve entered the Conservatoire.”

“He didn’t tell me anything about the operation,” Alessandro said defensively, and then realized that his denial had as much as confirmed it.

“The operation is what binds us, unites us, as Brothers of the Order, Alessandro,” Caffarelli said softly. “It is the operation that allows you to twist for the rest of your life.”

“What if I don’t let you?” Alessandro protested. The thought of the operation sent a shiver of terror through him. It seemed horrible.

Puberty happens to all boys and it comes with a price,” Caffarelli replied. “As a result of the flood of testosterone there is a regression of the villous papillomas –the brain growths that give us our ability to twist. If the flood continues the papillomas disappear entirely, and your ability as well. Tell me, have you noticed any recent problems with your twisting?”

Alessandro nodded, he had noticed that it was a little more difficult lately and the headaches were worse than ever.

Caffarelli sighed. “And so young, too. Well, that problem will continue unless you have the operation immediately.”

“But I don’t have hairs, like Moreschi. I’m sure I don’t have puberty.”

“You’d get your body hair and whiskers in time as part of the natural changes; changes that could prevent you from becoming a Brother.”

That tied with what Mouse had told him, although he hadn’t used any of those strange medical terms. “Can’t I wait?”

“You cannot wait, Alessandro. Why should you? You did say you wanted to be a Brother, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” He wondered why Caffarelli bothered to ask. Of course he wanted to be a Brother. There was no other answer.

But he sure wished there was another way.

“Excellent. This is a good time for you – when you’re at the prime age.” Caffarelli beamed. “We can catch you at your peak, so to speak.”

“You’re sending me to the Conservatoire.” It was only logical – he could not be left to tell the other acolytes.

“Gather your things. You’ll go with the others when they return.”

Alessandro didn’t bother to bow on the way out. “Don’t tell anyone,” Caffarelli said.

Alessandro began gathering his things. It took only a few moments to put everything he owned into a bag. The books, the equipment and the rest of the things in his locker were of no more use to him. He was going to the Conservatoire! He was going to become a Brother.

But he couldn’t just leave, not without saying good-bye to Gwen.

He found her in her quarters. She was throwing things in her kit and cursing roundly. As Alessandro cleared his throat to let her know he was there she spun around. Her clothes were partially open.

Alessandro couldn’t take his eyes off the thin golden circlet around her neck and her smooth brown skin. Unbidden, he found he was growing firm once again.

“I notice that you’re glad to see me,” Gwen said with a smile as she fastened her clothes. “It’s all right,” she said when he blushed. “That’s what happens to boys your age. Don’t worry about it. Doesn’t bother me.”

Miraculously, he felt himself relaxing, but the gnawing urgency it had generated didn’t abate. “I came to say goodbye, Gwen. They’re sending me to the Conservatoire.”

A look of alarm crossed Gwen’s face. “Already? Well, I’m going to miss our card games, Alessandro. If you decide not to take up the Brotherhood you might have a great future as a card shark.”

“Why would I decide not to be a Brother?” Alessandro asked innocently. “That’s probably the most wonderful thing in the world.”

Except for the operation.

Gwen grinned. “Well, some people think that there are a few other things. For instance, the Brothers can’t father babies, can’t marry, and probably don’t understand what sex really means.”

“Sex is the way the race propagates itself,” Alessandro recited from his lessons.

“Think that’s all?” Gwen had a mischievous look on her face. She took a step toward Alessandro, placed her lips on his and pressed hard.

Alessandro felt a rush of panic, which immediately gave way to other emotions. It was so pleasant that he wanted it to continue. He felt himself stiffening once again, this time so intensely that it hurt. There was a warm, fuzzy feeling that started in his groin and ran up his spine. He tingled all over.

Then she pulled away. “That’s just an hint of the world of sex. That’s one of the things you’ll not experience again if you stay with the Brotherhood.”

Alessandro didn’t know what to think. His mind was a confusion of conflicting thoughts.

Gwen looked about and then leaned close to him. “Listen, you don’t have to stay with the Brotherhood, not any more. It’s a new day – there are options. The new ships mean we won’t need the Brotherhood. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself for commerce.”

“I don’t understand. What are you saying?”

Gwen put her finger to his lips. “I can’t say much more, Alessandro. Going against the rules would cost me my license. Just remember that you have choices and don’t make any rash decisions, all right? Hey, maybe you could even be a star pilot with all you know about twisting!”

Alessandro nodded to show he had heard, even if he didn’t understand, and Gwen took her finger away. “Now, get out of here. I’ve only got an hour to get to the guild hall to make a posting for a slot on my next ship.”

Alessandro threw his arms around her. “Goodbye, Gwen. I’ll never forget you.”

She held him tight for a moment more and then pushed him away. “Get!”

 

#

Alessandro waved at Mouse when he took his small bag of possessions to the assembly. He watched his friend silently mouth the words “Brother Moreschi” as he approached.

“What are you doing here, Shrimp?” he asked. Then he noticed the bag. “Hey, are you coming with us?”

“Yeah. Guess you need somebody to keep your head from exploding.”

The barb passed right by Moreschi, as usual. “Great, maybe we’ll be operated on at the same time and maybe they’ll put us on the same ship and we can make life miserable for all the boys, just like Bernacchi.”

Alessandro doubted that would come to pass easily. There had to be years of classes, of practice and development ahead before he would reach the rank of the Vulture.

Brother Vasetti, the Butterfly, appeared with a staff in his hands. “Come along,” he said. “Stay close to me, boys.” There was something ridiculous about his petulant, whining falsetto, so unsuited that he couldn’t be taken seriously. “Now, come along, I said.” All of the boys from the Conservatoire followed.

The dock area outside of the ship was littered with trash, as if a mighty battle had taken place. A few people stood about, watching, but no one approached the departing group. Placards were lying about. One read “Down with the freaks.” Another read “Cut them free, not off.”

Mouse chattered continually. According to him, he was going to be the greatest Brother in history, a Father before he was thirty, for certain. He was going to have thousands of admirers and all the Brothers and acolytes would fear his wrath. On and on he went, overcome with dreams of power and influence.

After a while Alessandro tuned him out. Instead, he tried to figure out what Gwen had meant about having a choice. She had said something about the ship, but what did that have to do with choices – did it mean that the Order could assign him to one of those so he wouldn’t have to twist? No, that made little sense; what need for his ability if the machine could do the twisting?

This sudden flash of insight was so shocking that he stopped in his tracks. That’s what Gwen meant! The appearance of the new ships meant that there would be no more need for the Order, no need for the Fathers and Brothers, no need for anything he had spent his life learning.

And that meant that he didn’t have to have the operation.

“Come on, stay together,” the Butterfly chirped as Alessandro stopped where he was.

“Yeah, come on, Shrimp,” Mouse yelled.

“It is not safe unless we all stay together,” the Butterfly fretted. “You are being very naughty.”

Alessandro suddenly saw the Butterfly in a new light. What if, after the operation, he turned out to be a pathetic, weak incompetent like Vasetti? What if his powers diminished instead of increasing? Mouse might have all the confidence in the world about his future, but then, he had far more ability than anyone else. Even if his ability lessened he’d still be powerful.

The Butterfly rapped Alessandro on the shoulder. “I told you to stay with the rest. Don’t be difficult, boy. It’s essential that we get you to the Conservatoire.”

Alessandro shook his hand off. “What if I don’t want to go? What if I don’t want to have any operation for my puberty?”

“Don’t be foolish. The Order is the best thing that can happen. They will take care of you for the rest of your life – it is a good life, boy. Don’t deny your heritage.” That was the longest speech that he’d ever heard the Butterfly make, but not one that convinced him in the slightest.

Suddenly, as two conservatories took his arms, the operation seemed the most horrible, useless thing he could possibly face. The two kept hold as he fought to get free.

Mouse ran back and grabbed one of the conservatories. “Let him go,” he yelled.

Their struggles attracted attention. A small crowd started to gather. “No,” Alessandro yelled and kicked at the conservatoire on his right. “Let me go!”

CRACK! Vasetti’s staff smashed against Alessandro’s leg. “Stop being difficult. I’ll see you get punished for this, mark my words.”

“Leave the boy alone, you ball-less freak,” someone yelled. “You heard him – he doesn’t want to go.”

“This is none of your business,” the Butterfly called back, his voice in such high register that he sounded like a bat. “You cannot interfere with members of the Order. Oh, give that back!” One of the men had snatched the staff from Vasetti’s hands and was drawing it back, as if to strike.

“If you don’t let the boy go right now I’ll open your skull like a melon,” the man warned.

The Butterfly shrank back when it appeared all too possible that the man would make good his threat. The two conservatories stepped away from Alessandro and Moreschi.

In the near distance police were running toward them. The Butterfly smiled. “Now we’ll see.”

As soon as the police reached them a dozen voices began shouting all at once, confusing matters even more and making the police threaten everyone, including Vasetti and the conservatories.

Then things became really confusing. Alessandro didn’t know how, but the man who’d held the staff was suddenly on the ground holding his knee and screaming. Near him the Butterfly had locked arms with a woman who was trying to head toward the other boys. The crowd swarmed around the conservatories, the boys, citizens, and the police. He pulled Mouse away from a conservatories’ grip.

“Come with me,” a young woman said quietly and led them away from the melee. Alessandro limped after her. He hoped that the blow from Vasetti’s staff hadn’t broken his leg.

“Where are we going?” Mouse asked.

“Hurry,” the girl said quickly. “They haven’t noticed that you’re missing yet.” She opened an emergency hatch and motioned for them to enter.

The hatch slammed shut, cutting Alessandro off from the shouting, cutting him off from the tortuous path he had followed since his birth.

 

#

Over the next several days Alessandro and Moreschi were passed from one home to the next until they finally reached a place they were safe from the conservatoires.

“There is no longer any need for the Brotherhood’s barbaric practices,” one woman confided. “These new ships will finally end three centuries of brutality, thirty decades of sacrificing young boys just to fatten the Brotherhood’s obscene pockets.”

Alessandro was shocked. He’d never given much thought to money. It was something you spent to buy treats and treasures. He’d never questioned who paid for the clothes he wore, the food he ate, or his quarters, nor even thought to ask who owned the ships or collected the passenger fees.

Still, he’d hardly call his treatment “brutality.” On reflection, he had been treated very well and said so.

“You poor boy. You really don’t understand how they’ve indoctrinated you,” she replied. “By allowing you to see only their point of view, they molded you so that, when the time came, you’d be willing to remain their slave.”

Mouse bristled. “Without our help neither Father Senesino nor the Brothers would be able to twist a ship a single light year. We all did our share. We’re not slaves!”

“Nonsense! You’re just children, playing at their evil games,” she answered with absolute certainty.

Mouse whispered in the dark. “These people are crazy, Shrimp. We’ve got to get away from them.”

“It might not be safe out there. I think we ought to stay.”

“No, that’s what they want. Besides, I might need your help. Come on, we’re friends, aren’t we?”

The door wasn’t even locked, which made it easy. Alessandro and Moreschi wandered around until they reached the park in the center of the station. The green space was crisscrossed with paths leading to the five main corridors. Mouse stepped onto the one leading to the Conservatoire.

“I’m not going, Mouse”

Moreschi stared. “That’s crazy! You can’t stay here, not when you’re going to be a Brother! Come on, Shrimp, come with me.”

Alessandro shook his head. “The new ships are taking over, Mouse. They won’t need us. Besides, I want to see if there’s more to life.” He smiled as he remembered Gwen’s farewell kiss.

Mouse shook his head. “Father Porporino said I could be the best Brother ever. He said I’ve more talent than anyone he’s seen. He said I’ll become a Father faster than anyone ever has.”

Porporino was probably right, Mouse’s abilities had always been superior to the rest of the boys. “But what use are your powers going be? You heard the woman. The Order is finished. It can’t last much longer.”

“There’s nothing that can compare to Fathering a huge interstellar ship millions of light years. Come on Shrimp, how can pushing a few buttons compare to being able to twist space like a god? Why should I want to be a crewman or a citizen, or even an officer, when I can have privilege and power? I don’t see how you could believe I’d be anything else.”

“So you won’t even think about it?” Alessandro already knew the answer: Brother Moreschi, and eventually Father Moreschi, who would never consider doing anything else.

Alessandro stuck out his hand. He knew that after this there would be no more meetings, no more late night discussions or practical jokes. Those were the things of a childhood to which he could never return. “Goodbye, Mouse.” He felt a tear on his cheek.

“Yeah, luck to you too, Shrimp.” Moreschi grabbed his hand and held tight for long moment as he sniffed. Then he quickly marched down the path, head held high, certain of the bright future that awaited his powerful ability.

Alessandro turned and took a different path.

__________

Bud Sparhawk is a part-time short story writer who has sold about seventy science fiction stories to Analog, Asimov’s, several “Best of” anthologies, and other print, audio, and on-line media both in the United States and Overseas. He has also written articles appearing in various books and magazines.

He has two short story collections and one novel (Vixen: released in December 2008.) He has been a three-time Nebula finalist.

Bud is currently the Eastern Regional Director of SFWA, a member of SIGMA, and Senior Vice President of Macfadden. A complete biography, lists of stories, copies of articles, and other amusing material can be found at his web site: sff.net/people/bud_sparhawk. 





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