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Chapter Sixteen

"He's done what?"


"He's placed Brother Jouet under house arrest and returned Marchant to Burdette Cathedral's pulpit, Your Grace," Lord Prestwick repeated.


"House ar—!" Benjamin Mayhew bit off the words before he could echo his Chancellor yet again like some idiot. For just a moment, all he felt was shock at Burdette's sheer insolence, but then his eyes turned to narrowed slits of stone. "I presume he used his own armsmen to do it?"


"Yes, Your Grace." Prestwick kept his reply level, but it was hard. Benjamin's voice matched his eyes, and its icy timbre reminded the Chancellor that the Mayhew dynasty had reigned for almost a thousand T-years. Not all those years had been kind and gentle . . . and neither had the Protectors who'd weathered them.


"I see." Benjamin's voice was hard enough to cut diamonds. "And just how did he justify his actions?"


"As you know," Prestwick said carefully, "he's always maintained that the Sacristy erred in instigating Marchant's removal. Now he's broadened that position by claiming that, quite aside from the rectitude of the Sacristy's decision, you lacked the legal authority to implement it."


"Indeed?" The single word demanded explanation, and Prestwick sighed.


"Essentially, he's called your reassumption of personal rule unconstitutional, Your Grace, and that's scary. I know the High Court disagrees, but though the Keys have never explicitly challenged that opinion, they've never formally accepted it, either. If the reactionaries can use the religious outrage he's generating to push a challenge to it, they can argue that every action you've taken since reassuming power was illegal, as well."


Mayhew's jaw tightened, and the cold fire in his eyes turned hot, but Prestwick clearly disliked reporting Burdette's argument, and there was no point venting his temper on the Chancellor. Besides, the tack Burdette had taken must put Prestwick in an unhappy position.


"Please sit down, Henry," he made himself say more calmly, and produced a wintry smile as Prestwick sank into the comfortable chair in front of his desk. The Chancellor was a good man, he thought, but he was also in a difficult position. He'd inherited the steadholdership of Prestwick from his childless nephew just two years ago, and that totally unexpected event had made him a member of the Conclave as well as Chancellor, with what could all too easily become competing loyalties under the new Grayson political equation. He was often uncomfortable treating with other steadholders as their peer, and there were times he seemed to forget he was a reigning head of state's first minister, whose function was to lay down the law to them rather than accept the Keys' direction. He could also be a bit too fussy about details and protocols, but he was solid, dependable, and—more importantly—a man of principle. Many men would have resigned rather than continue to serve the man who'd displaced them from control of the government in the so-called Mayhew Restoration, particularly when continuing as both Chancellor and Steadholder complicated his life so. Prestwick hadn't, and he'd been utterly invaluable over the last four years.


"Tell me, Henry. What do you think of his argument?" Benjamin asked more naturally, and Prestwick shrugged.


"I think it's based on shaky legal ground, Your Grace."


"How shaky?" Mayhew pressed.


"Very shaky," Prestwick replied with a small, wry grin. "Your Grace, if my predecessors and I intended to establish permanent ministerial control of the government, we made a serious error—as the Court reminded us—in not amending the Constitution." His smile grew a bit wider, and Benjamin returned it tightly, but then Prestwick leaned forward with a more serious air.


"The problem, Your Grace, is that for over a hundred years, precedent said the Protector was the symbolic guarantor of a stable continuity, but that the actual business of running the government was his Council's affair, while the Constitution still said he was the head of government, not just the state." He shrugged. "When you reasserted your authority, you certainly violated that precedent, but the written Constitution—which every Grayson steadholder and military officer is sworn to uphold—gave you every right to do so. We simply never anticipated that you would."


"And do you think it was a good thing?" Benjamin had never asked that question before—not in so many words—and Prestwick paused a moment. Then—


"Yes, Your Grace, I do," he said quietly.


"Why?" Benjamin asked, equally quietly.


"Because you were right: we do need a stronger executive." The Chancellor looked away, gazing out the office windows as he went on. "I supported your position on the treaty with Manticore even before you, ah, reclaimed your authority, because I agreed that we needed the industrial and economic advantages, not to mention the military ones, it would bring. But despite that, I truly hadn't realized—then—how completely the Keys dominated the Council. I should have, since I was part of the system, but I was too busy dealing with day-to-day details to see any larger picture. And because I was, I hadn't realized we were actually in danger of returning to the Five Keys."


Benjamin sighed in relief, and the Chancellor gave him another faint smile. The truth, as the Protector now knew both of them realized, was that Grayson's steadholders had slipped steadily back into a dangerous, autocratic autonomy over the last century and a half. It hadn't been anything clear-cut and overt—the process had been too gradual for that—but the great feudal lords had slowly yet inevitably reasserted their independence of central authority.


It was understandable, if one was a student of Grayson history, for the struggle between the Sword and the Keys had been a long, often bitter one, and the Keys held several advantages. From the colony's earliest days, it had been the steadholders who'd led their people's grim fight for survival. Someone had had to make the hard decisions, to determine who died so that others might live, and that someone had been the steadholder. Even today, a steadholder's decree had the force of law within his steading, so long as it did not conflict with the Constitution, and there'd been a period, known by Grayson historians as the Time of the Five Keys, when there was no Constitution. When the great steadholders, dominated by the lords of the five original steadings—Mayhew, Burdette, Mackenzie, Yanakov, and Bancroft—had ruled as independent kings in all but name. When their power had been checked only by the Church, and the Protector had been simply first among equals, without even an army he could call his own. If he happened to be Steadholder Mayhew, as well as Protector (a state of affairs the other Keys saw to it seldom applied), he could utilize the Mayhew Guard, but that was all the military muscle the most powerful Protector could command, and it was scarcely enough to challenge the Keys as a group.


Custom had decreed that the Protector be a Mayhew, for it had been Oliver Mayhew who'd almost single-handedly preserved the original colony from destruction. But for four centuries, the Protector had been elected from all the adult males of the line by the Conclave of Steadholders, and the Keys had chosen weakness, not strength. They'd wanted a Protector unable to challenge their own power, and if they accidentally got one who was too strong for them, there'd been ways to correct the situation. Benjamin II, Oliver IV, and Bernard III had all died by assassination, and Cyrus the Weak had actually been imprisoned by an alliance of steadholders. Every Protector had known he would reign only so long as the Keys permitted it, and it had taken four hundred T-years—and the ghastly carnage of Grayson's Civil War—to change that state of affairs.


The Keys had been virtually annihilated in the first hour of the Civil War. Fifty-three of Grayson's then fifty-six steadholders, all with their heirs in attendance, had assembled for the special Conclave summoned by Protector John II on the petition of Jeremiah Bancroft. There'd been some surprise when Steadholder Bancroft sent word he and two of his fellows had been delayed, yet no one had guessed the true reason for their tardiness. All had known Bancroft for a zealot, but none had known he was also a traitor . . . and because they hadn't known, all of them had died when the Faithful's armsmen stormed the Chamber. Of all Grayson's steadholders, only Bancroft, Oswald, and Simonds, the leaders of the Faithful, had survived, and there'd been no one left to rally their murdered peers' steaders—or armsmen—against them.


No one, that was, except the Protector's son Benjamin.


The Mayhew armsmen had been as surprised as any, but somehow—to this day, no one knew how—a handful of them had cut a way out of the trap for John's son. The opening was brief, however it was created, but John's armsmen had died to a man, with their Protector fighting at their head, to cover Benjamin IV's escape from the murderers of the Fifty-Three and their heirs.


But he was the only escapee, and Mayhew Steading was the very first one the Faithful occupied. He'd been only seventeen, a mere boy who no longer had a single armsman to call his own, and the Faithful had dismissed him as a threat . . . but that seventeen-year-old boy was to go down in Grayson history as Benjamin the Great. He fled to Mackenzie Steading, and, somehow, he rallied the shattered remnants of the other steadholders' Guards to him. The Faithful controlled two-thirds of the planet before he could do it, but he built an army of those leaderless men. It was his army, one which would have followed him into the jaws of Hell itself, and in fourteen savage years of war, he and that army retook their planet one bloody meter at a time, until they drove the Faithful into total rout and exile to Masada.


It was an incredible achievement, and the written Constitution which emerged from the horrors of the war had recognized Grayson's debt to the man who accomplished it. It had merged the confiscated steadings of Bancroft, Oswald, and Simonds into a single demesne held by the Protector (not Steadholder Mayhew), made his title hereditary, restricted the size of the Keys' personal guards, and created a standing planetary army under his command.


Benjamin IV had sworn upon his father's grave to defer his official investment as Protector until the Faithful were defeated, and, like every other promise he ever made, he kept that oath. But when at last he was proclaimed Protector, it was not "by acclamation of the Conclave" but "by God's grace," and at his investiture he also passed the Mayhew Key to his eldest son and chose a new symbol for himself. The key had always symbolized a steadholder's authority, and the fact that the Protector carried it had only emphasized his coequal status with his peers. But the Protector no longer had a legal peer, and no one had misunderstood Benjamin IV's meaning when he exchanged his key for a bared sword.


Yet that had been six hundred T-years ago, and the steadholders had only been humbled, not broken. Nor had all Protectors been Benjamin the Great's equal, and by Benjamin IX's birth, the Keys, through the Council, had once more asserted de facto control of Grayson.


Benjamin had read, during his years at Harvard University's Bogota campus, of the parliament of the ancient Kingdom of Poland in which every baron had a seat and unanimous consent was required for any decision, with the predictable result that nothing ever was decided. Grayson's situation hadn't been quite that bad, but it had been bad enough, for the members of the Protector's Council had to be approved by the Conclave of Steadholders. That ancient right was still reserved to it under the Constitution, and over time, a succession of weak protectors had permitted the Keys to assume outright control of the Council's membership. The great steadholders of their day—men like Burdette, Mueller, Mackenzie, and Garth—had divided the Council among themselves and doled out the ministries like conquered fiefs. Each of them, with a small group of lesser allies, had controlled the appointment of the Councilman who headed "his" ministry, and those ministers, each responsible to his own patron steadholders, had controlled the appointment of the men who staffed their ministries. It had been a simple progression, a matter of who actually commanded the loyalties of each shell of the government and its bureaucracies, which had extended itself insidiously until the Protector had controlled only his own household. As in the Time of the Five Keys, it had been the steadholders who formulated domestic policy, and that policy had been directed towards insuring their own autonomy. As for foreign policy, there simply hadn't been one—aside from the traditional hostility to Masada—for no one had been interested in making one until the confrontation between Manticore and Haven had suddenly given their star system crucial strategic importance.


But, the Keys had failed to amend the Constitution . . . or to recognize the prestige the Mayhew name still commanded among their steaders. When the Council found itself paralyzed by Haven's attempt to seize Yeltsin's Star through its Masadan proxies, it had been a Mayhew who broke the paralysis. And, once again, that act had made a man named Benjamin Protector of Grayson in fact, as well as name.


The Sword had regained its keenness, and there was nothing—legally—the Keys could do about it. At one time, Grayson's Church and civil law had been identical, with the Sacristy as the planetary High Court. But the same carnage which had produced the Constitution had taught the Church a painful lesson in the consequences of religious interference in secular matters. Grayson law still enshrined the theocratic tenets which had always infused it, but for six centuries, sitting judges had been legally barred from Church office. A distinctly secular element had crept into the law as a result, but the Church still trained the planet's jurists. And it also retained the right to approve appointments to the High Court, which, among other things, exercised judicial review of constitutional matters.


That right of approval had been critical to the events of four years past, for Julius Hanks had been the Sacristy's guiding force—first as Second Elder, and then as Reverend and First Elder—for over three decades, and the Keys' increasing arrogance had worried him. His options had been limited, but he'd exercised the ones he had, and the High Court judges approved under his leadership had been strict constructionalists. The Keys hadn't worried about it overmuch. Perhaps they hadn't even considered the implications . . . until the Mayhew Restoration, when the Court ruled that the written Constitution, not the precedent which had violated it for a hundred years, was the law of Grayson.


That had stymied legal steadholder opposition to direct rule, and even if they'd wanted to, no Key had dared resort to extralegal means. The Protector enjoyed the full support of the Grayson Navy and Army, and those organizations were more powerful than they'd ever before been, even in Benjamin the Great's day. He enjoyed the support of the common steaders of Grayson, and the Conclave of Steaders—after a century in which its power had waned in lock step with the Sword's—had rediscovered its legal equality with the Keys. And he also enjoyed the support of Reverend Hanks and the Church of Humanity Unchained, which gave him God's own imprimatur. Powerful as any Steadholder might be within his own steading, the central authority on Grayson lay firmly in Benjamin Mayhew's grip, and he had no intention of surrendering it until he'd dragged his planet out of the past and into the present.


Which, unfortunately, Lord Burdette seemed to have recognized. And if this was the opening shot in a formal attempt to derail the Mayhew Restoration, it might be far more dangerous than first impressions suggested. The High Court, after all, had been approved by the Sacristy, not the General Convocation of the Church, and it was the Sacristy with whom Burdette had picked his quarrel. If he could convince enough people the Sacristy had erred in Marchant's case, the Court decision in Benjamin's favor might also become suspect by association. And if that happened . . .


Despite his confident words to Lady Harrington, Benjamin Mayhew had always recognized the gamble he'd chosen to run. Most Graysons were prepared to follow where he led, but if he stumbled—if the destination to which he led them exploded in their faces, or if a solid block of those who feared the changes it entailed coalesced in opposition—that could change. In the ultimate sense, his authority derived from the fact that those he governed chose that he should do so, and even if he'd believed the attempt could have succeeded, he had no ambition to use the military power he commanded to change that.


And that, for all his fanaticism, made Burdette a threat. The Steadholder spoke for the large minority who feared change, and by couching his opposition in religious terms, he'd appealed to a mighty force. The Grayson belief that each man must face his own Test, holding to his own view of God's will for him, whatever the cost, lent him a dangerous legitimacy, and if he was reaching for yet another weapon, his argument shed a suddenly much more ominous light on the public positions men like Lord Mueller had taken of late. Whether they acted from religious conviction or in a cynical bid to regain the power they'd lost, an organized opposition within the steadholders—especially one with any claim to legitimacy—would be a perilous adversary.


Yet Benjamin held potent cards of his own. The Masadan threat had been ended at last, after half a dozen wars (which had been "minor" only by major star nations' standards) over more than two centuries. Despite the social strains of his reforms and the war against the Peeps, Grayson's economy was stronger than it had ever been and growing stronger by the week. More than that, modern medicine—less outwardly spectacular, perhaps, than the glittering machinery of "hard" technology—had come to Grayson, and people now living, like his own brother Michael and his daughters, would live for two or even three centuries. Benjamin IX was less than forty, yet that was still too old for prolong to be effective, and despite a certain bittersweet regret, he accepted that he would not live to see the end result of his reforms. But his brother and his children would, and the implications were staggering.


All of those things had resulted directly from Benjamin's policies, and the people of Grayson knew it. More, they knew they'd been born into a time of tumult and change, of danger and uncertainty, and, as Graysons always had, they looked to their Church and the Mayhew dynasty for safety. If Lord Burdette allowed himself to forget that, Benjamin thought grimly, the consequences for his own position would be profound.


But for now . . .


"All right, Henry. I take it Burdette's claiming that my 'usurpation' of power justifies him in acting in his own stead against the Sacristy?"


"Yes, Your Grace."


"And on that basis, he's used his own armsmen to 'arrest' Brother Jouet?" Prestwick nodded, and Benjamin snorted. "I don't suppose he mentioned that, usurper or no, I issued the writ to remove Marchant only after the Sacristy had properly petitioned me to do so?"


"As a matter of fact, Your Grace, he did." Mayhew quirked an eyebrow, and Prestwick raised one hand, palm uppermost. "As I say, he's repeated his claim that the Sacristy acted in error. In fact, he's gone further than his earlier statements. He claims 'the present Sacristy's support of the heretical changes poisoning our Faith and society' deprive it of any right to pass judgment 'on a true man of God for denouncing a foreign-born adulteress' perversion of the God-given dignity of the Steadholder's Key.' " The Chancellor grimaced. "I'm sorry, Your Grace, but those are direct quotes."


"I see." Benjamin stared into the distance for several seconds, and his mind raced. Burdette's new, stronger rhetoric tied in ominously well with Benjamin's suspicions of where he was headed, but the very speed with which the Steadholder was moving posed its own danger for his strategy.


"I suppose," the Protector said after a moment, "that he figured since Reverend Hanks supports me anyway, he might as well take us both on at once. But even steadholders who might like to see me taken down are going to back away from declaring war on the Sacristy, as well, which means he's divided the potential opposition for us."


"Well, yes, Your Grace, but he may also have divided those who might support you. As you yourself demonstrated four years ago, loyalty to the Mayhew name has always been strongest among the most traditional—and conservative—of our people. That means many who might otherwise come out in your support may hesitate to support the reforms you've initiated."


"Um." Benjamin tipped his chair back. For someone who'd once been "too busy with details" to see the bigger picture, Prestwick had developed an impressive ability to see it now. "I still think it'll hurt him more than us," he said after a moment. "In order to play the religion card in his favor, he has to convince people the Sacristy's 'betrayed' the Faith. He's not going to generate any sort of united opposition to Reverend Hanks overnight, and until they can do that, he and his cronies have to be careful about presenting too united a front. If they come out into the open too soon and give me a target I can attack as a group, with a united Church behind me, I'll cut their legs off before they realize what's happening."


"They've been careful about that so far, Your Grace," Prestwick pointed out, "and the way they're using Burdette as their point worries me. The man's too much like one of the old-line Faithful for my taste, but he does have an impressive reputation for personal piety. Touch him, and you may polarize the religious issues, and Tester only knows where that might end!"


"True." Benjamin drummed on the desk, then looked up sharply. "Has he done anything except replace Brother Jouet with Marchant?"


"Not yet. He clearly stepped over the line in confining a clergyman, but he only ordered Brother Jouet's 'arrest' when he refused to leave the cathedral, and all of my sources say the Burdette armsmen treated him with great respect. So far, Lord Burdette is making this a confrontation purely on the basis of his own personal faith, and despite his charge that you seized power illegally, he's been very careful not to touch a single secular arm of the Sword within Burdette."


"Damn," Benjamin said mildly. That was better tactics than he'd expected. In fact, it was clever enough to make him wonder if someone else might be calling the plays. But whoever had thought it up, Burdette's actions left the next move squarely up to him. He could—and no doubt should—assert the Sword's religious authority as the Church's guardian to reverse Burdette's actions. But if he did, he risked escalating the entire affair, especially if Burdette was prepared to go so far as forcible resistance. The image of a man meeting the hour of his Test by opposing the suppression of his personal faith was a powerful one on Grayson. If Benjamin brought the Sword's full weight to bear on a single steadholder, the sheer imbalance of strength might make Burdette a hero of sorts . . . and if some of the other steadholders had gathered quietly in the wings to oppose him, they'd be primed to spring to Burdette's defense by defending a steadholder's traditional authority within his own steading. But if he didn't act, then Burdette and his cronies had won the first round, which could only increase their prestige for the next one.


"All right, Henry. I agree we have to move carefully. If he's restricting himself to a purely religious confrontation for the moment, perhaps we should do the same, and if we do that, then Reverend Hanks and the Sacristy become our strongest weapon."


"Agreed, Your Grace."


"All right," Benjamin repeated. "In that case, please ask the Reverend to come to Protector's Palace at his earliest convenience. Then put together a statement deploring Lord Burdette's actions in assailing Father Church. I want something that condemns him without attacking too openly. Something that stresses our own moderation and regrets his wrongheadedness and hastiness without throwing down any gauntlets where he can pick them up. Our position will be that what he's done is wrong, but that the Faith is too important to become a pretext for secular confrontations. If Reverend Hanks agrees, we may want to call a general convocation of the Church to condemn his actions—make it a matter of Burdette against the entire body of the Church, not just the Sacristy."


"That's a bit risky, Your Grace." Prestwick looked worried. "The Sacristy Elders are closely united; I'm not sure a general convocation would be, and if anything like a sizable minority were to back Marchant, it would only strengthen Burdette's hand."


"Reverend Hanks will be the best judge of that," Benjamin replied, "but for the moment, I think the general outrage at the way Marchant—and, for that matter, Burdette himself, now—have attacked Lady Harrington will work in our favor. Burdette's made her the focal point for his opposition to all the other changes, but she remains immensely popular. Under the circumstances, what we may need to do is use some of that popularity."


"Use it, Your Grace?"


"Of course. She's a military hero, and the way her steading's come along—especially the way Sky Domes is impacting the entire planet—is the best testimonial we have for the positive consequences of the Alliance and the reforms. Besides, Marchant and Burdette made a serious mistake by attacking her personally. Not only have they publicly assailed a steadholder—and we'll play up that point for Burdette's allies, if any, as well as everyone else—but they've insulted a woman. That'll put the traditionalists most concerned over social changes in a serious quandary, however much they hate those changes." The Protector smiled coldly. "If Burdette wants to attack Lady Harrington to rally support, then let's stick his own tactic right up his ass."


* * *


Samuel M. Harding was new at his job, but he was hardly alone in that. In the last three months, as the orders poured in from other steadings, Grayson Sky Domes, Ltd., had quadrupled its workforce. The corporation had been forced to hire at an incredible rate and then to train all of its personnel to operate their off-world equipment, and that left very little time for getting to know its new employees.


Fortunately, Harding's job wasn't all that complicated, for his Manticoran-built power bore was designed to be user-friendly. Its software was carefully crafted to provide quick, positive control, with hardwired safety features to make its operation nearly foolproof, and Harding was a fast learner. He'd needed less than three weeks to master his new duties, and he'd passed the final safety check that cleared him to operate without close supervision just in time for assignment to the lead team for Sky Domes' latest project.


Now he sat in his comfortable control chair, overseeing the operation of his quarter-million-austin machine, and watched the remote view as Power Bore Number Four's refractory alloy cutting heads sliced through bedrock like so much crumbly cheese. The racket was appalling—he knew, for part of his training program had included direct, on-site observation, though his actual operating station was three kilometers from the bore's present activity—and he watched the visual display beside him with something very like awe. The bore was sinking its meter-wide shaft at almost ten centimeters per minute, and, at that, it had slowed by over sixty percent when it got through the last clay and hit solid rock.


It truly was a magnificent tool, he thought, eyes on the cloud of dust and debris fountaining from the discharge hopper as the screaming, bellowing bore chewed rock. Lumps of stone spat from the hopper like bullets; long, agile "fingers" of battle steel moved with darting speed and micrometric precision, picking the spinning cutting heads' teeth on the fly lest their own voracious appetite jam them with pulverized rock; and high-pressure coolant circulated through channels in the heads lest even their alloy overheat and shatter. The cutting teeth whirled faster than the turbine of Harding's new, Manticoran-built air car, and he turned his head slightly to check the bore's actual performance against the profile in his computer.


There was something oddly unreal about his task. He only had to look at the visual display to see the high-speed, shrieking intensity of the bore and recognize the incredible power he controlled. Yet the air-conditioned comfort of the control room about him was almost hushed, isolated from the howling monster he commanded, and he and he alone actually knew—or worried about—what it was doing at any given moment.


Half a dozen other workers sat at matching panels in the same room, but none had any attention to spare for Harding. Each was equally intent on the machine he controlled, for the people about him were men with a mission. They were bringing their world yet another new wonder from Manticore's high-tech cornucopia, and in the process, earning the income Harrington Steading needed so badly. It was an exhilarating opportunity, and Sky Domes' workers were vociferously loyal to their Steadholder for making it possible and allowing them to be a part of it.


Samuel Harding understood that, and he, too, was grateful for the chance to be here, for he, too, had a mission—if not the same one as Sky Domes' other workers. He typed a brief correction into his terminal, resetting the bore's parameters. It wasn't a large change, but it was enough. The shaft Harding was sinking would soon provide the footing for one of the new dome's primary load-bearing supports . . . but that shaft would be ever so slightly off profile. Not by much. In fact, it would take careful measurement by someone who expected to find a problem to detect one.


In itself, the discrepancy would hardly matter, but Samuel Harding would be drilling two more shafts this afternoon and five more every day after that, until the project was completed. Each of them would be the least bit off profile, as well, and Harding knew he wasn't the only man who knew they would be. When the crew responsible for setting the supports in place moved on-site, certain of its members would have a detailed list of the holes Harding had drilled and precisely how each of them differed from the original specifications. Those supports were fabricated from yet another of Manticore's marvelous alloys, and each was a precision part of the intricately interlocking structure Adam Gerrick and his team had designed. Once in place, buttressed by minutely calculated stress and counter-stress, they would provide the dome with walls stronger than steel. And because those walls were elastic, with many separate supports woven into a single whole, they would have the flexible redundancy to survive anything short of an earthquake without so much as cracking a single crystoplast pane.


Except for the supports in the holes Harding had drilled, where the ceramacrete footings would be fused almost correctly in shafts which were almost perfectly aligned. The ones whose load-bearing ability had been just as precisely calculated as their fellows, but toward a very different outcome.


Samuel Harding didn't know whether the collapse would come while the dome was still going up or only after it had been in place for a period, but he knew what would happen in God's good time. A part of him hoped that not too many would be killed or maimed when the moment came, but sacrifices sometimes had to be made to do God's will. His deepest regret, and the one for which he beseeched God's understanding each night, was that so many of those who died would die outside a state of grace, seduced into sin by the out-world harlot to whom they'd given their loyalty. The thought of what their error might cost their souls was a heavy weight for him to bear, yet he consoled himself with the thought that God knew how those men had been deceived and lured astray, and God was as merciful as He was terrible in His wrath. Perhaps He would take into consideration how they'd been betrayed by the false shepherds who'd led them away from His law.


But whatever might become of others, Samuel Harding had a responsibility to meet his own Test, and he knew God's hand was about him, protecting him as he bent to the task God had sent him, for no one had the least suspicion of what he was actually doing. His fellow employees accepted him as one of their own, unaware he recognized the true nature of the false mistress they served and the menace she and her Star Kingdom represented for all of God's people. Why, they hadn't even realized the name he'd given them was false, and as a result, none of them even guessed that his mother's maiden name had been "Marchant."


 



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