The soft click of the latch awakened me from a dreamless sleep, and announced Raul’s departure for the evening. I sat up in the bed and removed my mask, blinking until my vision unblurred enough to read the clock.
19:00, it read in dull red numbers barely visible in the murky glow of streetlights leaking past the blinds. A full hour earlier than we’d agreed. I was growing weary of Raul’s defiance. However unique his abilities, I was still a priest of the Church, and he merely an acolyte.
I threw back the rough sheets and twisted around to sit on the edge of the lumpy, squeaking tragedy of a bed I’d been sleeping on for close to five months now. I could deal with all of it: the constant work, the isolation, the endless cycle of triumph and setback, if I could just get one decent night’s sleep. My room in the Church of the Mind in Madrid had a beautiful four-post bed with a canopy and the softest mattress I’ve ever seen. On the rare occasions here in Nairobi when I did dream, it was often of that bed.
I crossed the room to the desk and sat in the equally uncomfortable chair. With access to the Church’s expense account, Raul and I could have stayed anywhere in Nairobi. Certainly I would never have suggested we spend credits on extravagance, but the room Raul had chosen was downright spartan.
The portable reliquary I’d brought with us still sat on the desk beside its carrying case. It hummed to life as I placed my palm on the smooth, spherical stone. It looked a little like a fortune-teller’s crystal ball, with pale red marble instead of glass.
My vision went blank as the reliquary connected to the implant in my brain, feeding it the metadata of all the memories Raul had stored inside the stone-enshrouded device. A virtual space faded into being around me, and then an array of floating windows winking into existence one by one, each representing a memory Raul had acquired.
As I navigated the reliquary’s interface, the windows flew past me and I glimpsed the scenes contained within: offices, living rooms, car interiors, the Serengeti, even a rainforest. I didn’t have a specific goal in mind with this excursion, so I stopped at the rainforest. I’d viewed every memory more than once, of course, but this was one of my favorites, and I wanted to escape this wretched place for just a few minutes.
I moved toward the window, and it grew gradually taller until I was able to pass into it. The transition was abrupt and unpleasant, like walking through a paper-thin pane of glass. Once inside the memory, I was completely disconnected from my physical body in Kenya. The reliquary transported me in the span of a heartbeat to a vague, blurry interpretation of what Raul and I had decided was the Amazon.
Being in the reliquary’s memory was like being in an impressionist painting. The background was a rough green and brown haze with suggestions of trees scattered throughout. There was no rain, but a sensation of wetness on my skin and the low sound of rushing water told me it had been raining during this memory. Most things were represented this way, with intangible sensations or impressions.
The people around me were only slightly more well-defined. There was a tall faceless man with a park ranger’s hat that was clearly a guide, a man and woman in brightly colored shirts wearing blocky cameras around their necks, and a blonde woman with icy blue eyes who kept asking questions.
The guide was speaking in what may have been a Portuguese accent, the sounds all mixed up so they didn’t make any sense. Most conversations in the reliquary were like this; only the most significant memories left a strong enough trace in the brain for the actual words to be extracted.
The memory was a short one, and taken several months ago while Raul was still adjusting to his newfound power to extract memories without permission. Perhaps ten minutes into my walk through the fuzzy forest, the scene froze around me.
The memory faded to nothingness, and the empty space with the windows reappeared. I pushed myself out of the interface, and opened my eyes back in the Nairobi hotel room. It was dark outside, but the ever-present glow of the streetlights still filled the room enough to see. I went to the small cupboard to get something to eat and to wait for Raul to return with a new memory to view.
Raul returned like a storm cloud, just before dawn. He tore the kerchief off his head and tossed the blue fabric into the corner. His gorgeous hair spilled down, framing his face with tight black curls. I’d imagined myself running my fingers through those curls more than a few times since the Bishop had sent us here together.
His gaze met mine for just a moment, and he gave me the indifferent shrug that had become his signature communication method of late. He glanced away immediately, but not before I glimpsed the heaviness in his soft brown eyes, the frustration and weariness he tried so hard to conceal.
I stepped over to the desk to “activate” the reliquary for him, beginning the invocation a Keeper spoke every time a memory was stored. “May the Lo--”
Raul thrust his hand out, and I flinched and stepped back from him, but he only took hold of the stone orb. His eyes rolled back in his head for a few seconds as the memory transferred into the reliquary, and I forced myself to relax.
Suddenly his moodiness and the growing distance between us made sense.
Raul had discovered some of the truth about his abilities, and he’d done so outside the guidance of the Church that had been helping acolytes through this transition for nearly a hundred years. When I’d learned about the implants and the true nature of the reliquaries, it had taken me two weeks and more than a few deep conversations with other priests before I’d been able to accept it.
“How long have you known?” I asked when the transfer was complete and Raul’s dark eyes rolled back down toward me. He couldn’t respond verbally, of course. The acolyte implant hijacks the speech production center of the brain to do the complex processing required to pull a memory out of another person’s brain. Making it work without interfering with the acolyte’s ability to speak was a problem I was very much looking forward to solving, once I advanced sufficiently as a Priest of the Keeper order.
“I'm sorry you have to go through this right now,” I said, meeting his gaze, and I truly was. The heaviness was still written in the faint lines on his face and the drooping frown at his mouth, but there was something else, too. I couldn’t quite see what it was. “Do you want me to explain it all to you? Learning all the details helped me through it when I was raised.”
He hesitated, then shook his head and broke away from me, shuffling over to his side of the bed. He laid on his side, facing away from me, not even bothering to undress. He looked decidedly childlike at that moment, and the five years between us suddenly seemed more like fifteen.
Anger flared to life within me. “Don’t shut me out,” I said, feeling the heat in my face as I walked around the bed and planted myself firmly in his sight line. “We’re in this together, like it or not, and we have a mission.”
He sat up at that, and turned his head toward me, eyes shining in the dim light. He made one of the rudimentary signs we’d worked out for him to use: Why?
My anger vanished as quickly as it had come on. This was not a child sitting before me, running away from a problem he didn’t like. Here was a man who felt betrayed by the Church, and maybe a god, that he’d dedicated his life to. His question was not snide or resentful; he was asking for help.
I sat down next to Raul and stared at the floor between my feet. “Every Priest goes through this trial,” I said at length. “When an acolyte is raised to the priesthood, she is taken into seclusion with one or two other priests and told the truth about their powers and the reliquaries. It was two weeks before I was able to accept it.”
He nodded, chewing his lip, and waited for me to continue.
“For me,” I said, “it was the complexity of the technology. The implants are based on neuroscience centuries more advanced than anything outside the Church. If you trace the research back, and I did, the trail vanishes. One woman a century ago invented the core of this technology out of thin air, seemingly with no prior training and no assistance. If that’s not divine inspiration, I don’t know what is.”
His brow furrowed as he weighed my words. I found it easier to talk about this than I thought I would. It helped that I did truly believe what I was saying.
“All the fully raised priests you’ve ever met have found ways to hold onto their faith after learning these things. Does it really matter whether the Lord of All Thoughts acts through spiritual power alone, or through technology he’s given us?”
Raul turned to stare at the floor for several minutes, deep in thought. The only sound in the room was of our breathing.
He stood, and held out his hand. Some of the gravity had lifted from his features, replaced by the hawkish intensity of the man I’d left Madrid with so many weeks ago. He wasn’t done working through this, not by a long shot, but I felt as though I’d given him a place to start. I took his hand and he pulled me to my feet, then made another of the gestures, one which he’d rarely used.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
He smiled for the first time since we'd left Iberia, and then gestured toward the reliquary. We had work to do.
I dove into the reliquary with an excitement and anticipation I hadn’t felt in weeks. To my surprise, the window representing the new memory showed a rainforest, just like the one I’d visited earlier that evening. I stepped inside with butterflies in my stomach.
The familiar pastel rendition of the Amazon blossomed around me, the same scene I’d visited many times before. Only this time, I was watching it unfold from the perspective of the blonde woman with the cold blue eyes.
Every part of the memory was sharper, more vivid than in my previous visits to this place. Hints of green and brown had become individual trees, vague birdlike sounds were now harmonious songs high up in the canopy, and I could hear clear speech where before I had heard only discordant babbling. The woman had an exceptional sensory memory.
The man and woman with cameras were pointing them almost straight up, snapping photographs in rapid succession. The sound of the shutters and the bulky lenses suggested they might actually be real film.
“We are very lucky to see these magnificent animals,” the guide said in the deep, Portuguese-accented voice I recognized from before, “They do not usually show themselves to our tour groups.”
I couldn’t raise my head to look up at whatever animals the guide was talking about, only watch as through a video screen as the woman swept her gaze up and down the tan skin and muscular physique barely concealed by the guide’s thin shirt. I felt a cold sensation on my mouth like the woman was wetting her lips with her tongue.
“How much does it cost to buy one?” she asked in a throaty voice more suited to a nightclub than a rainforest.
“I am sorry, Ms. Tavier,” the guide replied, “Every part of this forest is protected. Especially the monkeys.”
Tavier...that was the name of our target.
Suddenly uninterested in watching the remainder of the memory, I flung myself out of the reliquary and gasped my way back to the real world. “Raul,” I said, standing up from the horrid chair, “The woman you took this memory from, she was blonde with blue eyes?”
He hadn’t moved away from the desk, and he stared down at me with wide, soft eyes. He nodded once.
“It’s her,” I said, nearly laughing as months of tension drained out of me. “That woman is Linda Tavier.”