With new alliances forged and old regimes fractured, Merlin — the cybernetic avatar of Earth's last survivor and immortal beacon to humanity — and the colonies of Safehold have many adventures ahead in Through Fiery Trials, the continuation of David Weber's New York Times best-selling military science-fiction series.
Those on the side of progressing humanity through advanced technology have finally triumphed over their oppressors. The unholy war between the small but mighty island realm of Charis and the radical, Luddite Church of God's Awaiting has come to an end. However, even though a provisional veil of peace has fallen over human colonies, the quiet will not last. For Safefold is a broken world, and as international alliances shift and Charis charges on with its precarious mission of global industrialization, the shifting plates of the new world order are bound to clash.
Yet an uncertain future isn't the only danger Safehold faces. Long-thought-buried secrets and prophetic promises come to light, proving time is a merciless warden who never forgets.
Release date: January 8, 2019
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Print pages: 768
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Through Fiery Trials
In 2091, the sublight colony ship Galileo established the first extra-solar colony in the Alpha Centauri System.
In 2123, Doctor Samantha Adenauer and her team developed the first practical hyperdrive.
In 2350, the Malachai System, with a population of 436,000, became the fifteenth voting member system of the Terran Federation.
In 2367, the survey ship Adenauer discovered the first evidence of an advanced nonhuman species. Christened the Alphanes, they had achieved a three-star civilization, their technology had been substantially inferior to humanity’s current level … and they had been exterminated in a massive interstellar war. The scientific community’s majority view was that the Alphanes, who’d clearly been a militant species, had destroyed themselves. A minority, however, led by anthropologist Anton Sugawara, argued that the evidence suggested the Alphane civilization had been destroyed by an external force.
Sugawara was pilloried by the press—which christened his putative interstellar predators the Gbaba—for his paranoia. No one in government took the ridiculous notion seriously … but the Federation began expanding its navy—which had been little more than a police and rescue force—and building genuine warships. Not that anyone really believed in genocidal alien menaces, of course. Everyone in government was very clear about that! Still, one had to take some precautions, even if it was solely to assuage the dread of those who might have been frightened by Sugawara’s absurd theories.
Everyone in government was very clear about that, too.
In 2370 Anton Sugawara was very quietly named the first cabinet-level Navy Minister and naval expansion was even more quietly—but enormously—accelerated.
In 2378, in the Crestwell System, the heavy cruiser TFNS Swiftsure discovered Sugawara had been right.
* * *
Swiftsure was destroyed with all hands. The outpost in Crestwell was destroyed. Within seven months, every single human in three of the Federation’s fourteen major extra-solar star systems was dead.
Sugawara’s navy fought back hard, stopped the incursion, and—over the next couple of years—retook the lost star systems and drove the Gbaba back into their own space. Until, in 2381, in what came to be known as the Starfall System, Admiral Ellen Thomas’ First Fleet, the TFN’s major combat force, discovered that all humanity had seen so far were the Gbaba’s light frontier forces. Now the real Gbaba navy had mobilized, and the result was massacre.
First Fleet’s tattered survivors carried the warning home … and arrived upon the wings of Apocalypse.
The Federation had begun quietly fortifying its star systems at the same time it created its new navy. That process had been driven with frantic speed from the moment of Swiftsure’s destruction, and any star system made an awesome fortress. But no fortification could stand against the forces the Gbaba were willing to commit, the losses they were prepared to accept.
In 2406, the Federation’s last major extra-solar star system was overwhelmed.
In 2411, all human population enclaves outside the Sol System’s asteroid belt were withdrawn to the “Final Redoubt” inside the orbit of Mars.
In 2421, the last surviving Federation fleet launched a desperate effort to break through the Gbaba blockade. It was hunted down. Its units were destroyed to the last ship.
In 2430, the Gbaba cracked the Final Redoubt and all human life in the Sol System ceased to exist.
In 3249, a young woman named Nimue Alban awakened in a cavern on a planet named Safehold … and discovered that she’d been dead for 828 years.
* * *
Lieutenant Commander Alban had no memory of how she’d come to that cavern, but Commodore Pei Kau-yung, her mentor and commanding officer, had left a recording to explain. The fleet which had died in 2421 had actually succeeded in its true mission, which had been to cover Operation Ark, the Federation’s last-ditch effort to establish a hidden colony among the distant stars where humanity might survive. Commodore Pei had commanded the colony ships’ close escort when the rest of the Navy deliberately drew the Gbaba pursuit in upon itself and fought to the last man and woman to conceal the colony fleet’s existence.
Nimue Alban had volunteered to serve on that sacrificial fleet’s flagship, giving up her opportunity to accompany her commodore and his beloved wife, Pei Shan-wei, the scientist assigned to lead Operation Ark’s terraforming fleet, to the colony which had become Safehold. And she’d done so because they and a core of their colleagues in Operation Ark’s command crew had come to believe that Eric Langhorne, Operation Ark’s senior administrator, intended to violate Operation Ark’s mission plan.
That mission plan had called for the colony to abandon advanced technology for three hundred years, long enough—according to all of the Federation’s projections, based on forty years of combat and analysis of Gbaba operational patterns—for the Gbaba to complete any scouting sweeps of the region in which the colony might lie. The command crew was to preserve humanity’s knowledge and technology in small, carefully concealed enclaves. They and their immediate children were to be the custodians of that knowledge until the threat of discovery had passed, and then they were to restore that technology—and, above all, the warning of the Gbaba’s existence—to the colonists’ descendants.
But, as Kau-yung and Shan-wei had feared, Langhorne—traumatized by the brutal destruction of his entire species, obsessed by the knowledge that the eight million colonists in cryo-suspension aboard his forty mammoth transports represented every surviving human being—rejected that plan. He concluded that only the permanent renunciation of advanced technology could prevent humankind from someday venturing once again into space and, inevitably, encountering the Gbaba once more. And so, while Pei Shan-wei terraformed Safehold into humanity’s new home, and while Pei Kau-yung and his handful of warships guarded the terraforming fleet, Eric Langhorne and Adorée Bédard, his chief psychologist—in hiding with the main fleet, ten light-years from Safehold—reprogrammed those colonists’ memories. They erased all knowledge of any previous life. They programmed the colonists to believe that the moment in which they first opened their eyes on Safehold was the very first day of creation … and that the command crew were archangels, sent by God to educate them into the lives He had designed them to live.
The Peis were horrified but not taken unaware. Shan-wei and her fellows in the Alexandria Enclave, on Safehold’s southernmost continent, fought Langhorne openly, arguing against his policy, vowing to follow the original mission plan. Aware that the Alexandrians were heavily outnumbered in the command crew staff Langhorne had stacked with people as traumatized—and determined to kill technology—as himself, she and her husband separated after a violent public disagreement in which he ostensibly accepted Langhorne’s new plan. They became estranged, embittered opponents for the next fifty-seven years, with Shan-wei retreating to Alexandria and Kau-yung remaining Langhorne’s chief military advisor.
In order to kill technology once and for all, Langhorne, Bédard, and Maruyama Chihiro, Langhorne’s Assistant Administrator, created the Holy Writ, the seminal scripture of the Church of God Awaiting. The Writ consisted of books by the various “Archangels” which provided religious explanations specifically designed to prevent the reemergence of the scientific method. In addition, it contained the Proscriptions—the list of specifically proscribed knowledge and a religious limitation only to technologies powered by wind, water, or muscle.
Shan-wei and her supporters believed it would be impossible to prevent technology from someday reemerging, whatever constraints Langhorne and Bédard might have created. Although they’d retreated to Alexandria and outwardly accepted Langhorne’s legal authority, they continued to work quietly towards the original mission plan and its goals. However, they also feared they would ultimately be forcibly constrained to accept Langhorne’s anti-technology policies. What they did not expect was for them and everyone in the Alexandria Enclave to be murdered in a kinetic strike which obliterated the enclave and transformed the small continent on which it had been located into Armageddon Reef, the most desolate and accursed location on all of Safehold. Heartbroken and furious—and determined, above all, that Langhorne must not succeed in erasing all memory of the Gbaba—Pei Kau-yung carried a miniaturized nuclear device to his next meeting with Langhorne and his council … and detonated it.
* * *
Alexandria’s destruction had occurred 750 standard years (824 Safeholdian years) before Nimue awoke in that cavern and discovered the reason she had volunteered to die. Lieutenant Commander Alban had been the only member of Commodore Pei’s staff who possessed a PICA: a Personality Integrated Cybernetic Avatar. In essence, a PICA was a robotic/android body, many times as strong as any human, virtually indestructible without the use of heavy crew-served weapons, and effectively immortal. A PICA’s user could upload his or her personality into it for dangerous extreme sports, for example, then download the PICA’s experiences into his or her own memory afterward.
Full-capability PICAs such as Nimue’s were rare and extremely expensive; hers had been a gift from her billionaire father, bestowed upon a daughter he’d known would die before she was forty. By leaving her PICA aboard Commodore Pei’s flagship while she transferred to the sacrificial covering force she had removed it from any equipment inventory Langhorne might have accessed, and Shan-wei’s terraforming crew had excavated the cavern complex in which that PICA had been hidden beneath the roots of Mount Olympus, Safehold’s tallest mountain. From the beginning, that PICA had been intended as the Peis’ hidden weapon. Nimue’s mission was to ensure that the Gbaba were not, in fact, forgotten, despite anything Langhorne’s anti-technology plan might accomplish.
Nimue herself had no memory of having volunteered. There’d been no time to record an updated personality which would have remembered, and so in a very real sense, the Nimue Alban who awakened had not volunteered. It never occurred to her to reject her mission, however … even though the challenges she faced were more daunting than anything the original Nimue could possibly have imagined.
The Church of God Awaiting had survived. Pei Kau-yung’s final attack had, indeed, killed Langhorne and the majority of his administrative council’s “Archangels.” Unfortunately, it had not killed them all. Maruyama Chihiro and Androcles Schueler had survived, and the bitter fighting against the “lesser angels” who had supported Shan-wei, even after her death, had produced a Holy Writ even more repressive than Langhorne’s original. Safehold’s population had increased enormously, to well over a billion, but Mother Church controlled all those millions upon millions, and her authority was unquestioned.
Unlike murdered Terra, Safehold had no atheists, not even agnostics, in large part because the eight million “Adams” and “Eves” who had awakened on the Day of Creation were all literate. Hundreds of thousands of them left personal accounts, journals, diaries, and every single word of The Testimonies supported the Holy Writ in its totality. There were no disputed texts, no breaks in a written historical record which covered everything since—literally—the beginning of time. And every word of The Testimonies was a completely honest—and accurate—account of what had happened, left by eyewitnesses to the events they described.
Not only did the secular historical record support the Writ, but Mother Church controlled all education on the planet, and the Inquisition decided what was taught. And if education proved insufficient, there was always coercion. The Book of Schueler specifically required the Inquisition to mercilessly hunt down and punish heresy or apostasy in any form. The gruesome tortures it prescribed as a portion of that Punishment were hideous beyond belief.
And, to make Nimue’s challenge complete, the kinetic bombardment system which had turned the Alexandria Enclave into Armageddon Reef remained active in orbit and apparently—or at least possibly—in communication with a high-tech presence buried under the Temple, the Church of God Awaiting’s equivalent of the Vatican or Mecca, located in the heart of Safehold’s largest city.
Nimue possessed some advantages, in addition to the capabilities of her PICA. Shan-wei had administratively “lost” or “expended” enough hardware to provide a limited manufacturing base, a supply of advanced weapons and other tools, the memory core of a major Federation library, and the services of a tactical (if none too bright) AI named Owl, in the caverns she christened “Nimue’s Cave.”
It wasn’t much, set against the scope of her mission.
After evaluating her resources and familiarizing herself with Safehold, she concluded that she must somehow attack and destroy Safehold’s faith in the Archangels and the Holy Writ. She had no way of knowing what was buried beneath the Temple, but if it was any sort of monitoring system, it could easily use the kinetic bombardment platforms to destroy any threat to the Writ’s anti-technology prohibitions, which meant she could not openly use advanced technology.
Safehold’s technological capabilities were a strange mix of the 15th century and techniques from much later periods of history, courtesy of instructions the “Archangels” had recorded in the Holy Writ. Those techniques were applied by guilds of skilled artisans in small shops, not in vast factories, and they had been shorn of all scientific explanation when they were recorded. Like the surprisingly capable Safeholdian practice of medicine, they had become religious instructions delivered directly from God through the Archangels, and eight centuries of experience had validated them because they always worked exactly as the Writ said they would. That meant they provided building blocks, starting points, from which she might begin. But it also meant she must operate only within those allowable parameters and slowly, gradually push their boundaries until their expansion eroded the Holy Writ’s foundations to the point of collapse.
And that must, inevitably, provoke a religious war against the Church’s authority. As a historian, she knew what that might entail, and her heart quailed at the thought. As the only individual who remembered the Gbaba, she knew she had no choice.
Her study of Safehold had focused in on the island kingdom of Charis. Charis was the smallest of Safehold’s major kingdoms, but it was extremely wealthy, a nation of mariners and merchants, of entrepreneurs and skilled artisans. Despite the Proscriptions’ limitations, Charis stood on the very brink of an industrial revolution—powered, like Terra’s own, by waterwheels—albeit without the critical ability to question received authority or look for scientific explanations for processes. In addition, Charis, ruled by the Ahrmahk Dynasty, supported a tradition in which individual rights and freedoms—within the limitations of the Writ, of course—were strongly protected.
And it was a kingdom in which, if Nimue was not mistaken, some of those forbidden questions were on the brink of being asked.
* * *
After identifying Charis, Nimue reconfigured her PICA to become Seijin Merlin Athrawes. The seijins were legendary figures, the “warrior saints” of the War Against the Fallen. They were warriors, teachers, mentors, and tradition—and The Testimonies—ascribed superhuman abilities to them, which would provide cover for “Merlin’s” use of his PICA’s capabilities.
Merlin introduced himself to the Ahrmahks by saving nineteen-year-old Crown Prince Cayleb from assassination and then offering his services to Cayleb’s father, King Haarahld.
The king was a man beset. Charis’ wealth and enormous merchant fleet had evoked growing resentment and envy among many of the other realms of Safehold for years. Now it seemed clear those other realms were marching towards open war against Charis … with the support of Mother Church, and—especially—of Grand Inquisitor Zhaspahr Clyntahn, who clearly distrusted Charisian orthodoxy. King Haarahld saw Merlin’s arrival as a heaven-sent advantage in that looming conflict. Among other things, Seijin Merlin “saw visions,” courtesy of the highly stealthy reconnaissance remotes he could deploy from orbit. And he had a vast store of knowledge he could impart—none of which quite violated the Proscriptions—from the reintroduction of arabic numerals and algebra to the invention of the cotton gin, spinning jenny, and a new design for cannon-armed sailing warships to replace the oared galleys of Safehold. Before Merlin’s arrival, Haarahld had seen only death, ruin, and the brutal subjugation of his people. Now he saw at least a chance of survival, despite the enormous odds against Charis.
Merlin warned Haarahld that he had his own mission. “I respect you, and in many ways, I admire you,” he told the king. “But my true loyalty? That belongs not to you, or to Cayleb, but to the future. I will use you, if I can, Your Majesty. Use you to create the day in which no man owns another, no man thinks men born less nobly than he are cattle or sheep.”
Haarahld Ahrmahk accepted that warning … and Merlin Athrawes’ service.
* * *
Over the next nine Safeholdian years, Merlin and King Haarahld—and after Haarahld’s death in battle, King Cayleb—fought shoulder to shoulder. Haarahld died protecting his people before Merlin ever discovered that he and the Bishop of Tellesberg, Maikel Staynair, had known the truth about the “Archangels” from the very beginning, thanks to the Monastery of Saint Zherneau, where a man named Jeremiah Knowles, one of the original “Adams” whose loyalty had been to Pei Shan-wei, had left a journal … and copies of books which predated the Creation. Merlin learned that only after Haarahld’s death, only after Cayleb had assumed the crown. And only after Maikel Staynair—with Cayleb’s unwavering support—had proclaimed the Church of Charis, based upon the defiant proposition that every human being had the right—indeed, the responsibility—to decide for himself or herself what he or she believed.
Even then, Staynair dared not share the truth of the monumental lie behind the Holy Writ. Safehold might be prepared to entertain a schism within the Church, so long as that schism was aimed at reforming the obvious corruption of the Temple and, especially, the Group of Four, the quartet of Vicars who controlled it. The planet wasn’t prepared—couldn’t be prepared—to accept open, incontrovertible heresy against the ironclad authority of the Writ and The Testimonies. Charis must fight an incremental campaign to reach that point … and first and foremost, it must survive.
It did. Over the course of nine brutal, savage years of war—a war which saw armies millions of men strong, fleets counting hundreds of artillery-armed galleons, and unspeakable atrocities and extermination camps in the name of Zhaspahr Clyntahn’s twisted vision of God—it did. It grew from a single small island nation to the most powerful single realm in Safeholdian history. It grew from a kingdom ruled by a young, untested king to a vast empire, governed jointly by Emperor Cayleb Ahrmahk and his beloved wife, Empress Sharleyan, the Queen of Chisholm, who voluntarily embraced Cayleb’s cause and made it her own before they had even met. It grew through sacrifice, grew because it was protected by men and women willing to die where they stood in its defense. And it grew because the Church of Charis offered the freedom of conscience that demanded human beings decide what they truly believed, what they were prepared to die to defend.
But it did not destroy the Church of God Awaiting or discredit the Holy Writ.
Perhaps it might have done those things if not for Rhobair Duchairn, one of the Group of Four. For all its lies, all the brutality of the Book of Schueler, there was an enormous amount of good in the Writ, and it taught that the Church was the servant of God, the shepherd and protector of godly men and women, charged to love and nourish them, not abuse them in the name of personal power. And brought face-to-face with the carnage, the devastation, the proof of Zhaspahr Clyntahn’s cruelty and quest for absolute power, Rhobair Duchairn remembered that. He remembered he was a priest and a servant of God, and in the end—in the full knowledge of the hideous way he would die if Clyntahn decided to remove him—Duchairn and a few allies organized and then led an uprising which overthrew Clyntahn and drove the Grand Inquisitor from Zion … and directly into the hands of Merlin Athrawes.
Clyntahn was tried and executed for the millions of murders he had ordered, but Rhobair Duchairn—destined to be known to Safeholdian history as “Saint Rhobair” and “the Good Shepherd”—accepted the Church of Charis’ demands. He promised to truly reform the Church of God Awaiting, and in the face of that promise, Charis and its allies could not justify continuing the war. The inner circle of Cayleb and Sharleyan’s allies might know the truth about Langhorne and the “Archangels,” but they still dared not proclaim it, and Duchairn had promised all of the reforms they’d sought.
And so the war ended with just a few … unresolved issues. Like what to do about the bombardment platform still in orbit. What to do about whatever the high-tech presence under the Temple might be. How to reconstitute peaceful international relations on a planet which had torn itself apart in bitter religious strife. How to continue the industrialization process which had given Charis the war-fighting advantage it had needed to prevail without violating the Proscriptions’ limitations.
And, of course, what to do about the Archangels’ promise to “return in glory” a thousand years after the Day of Creation.
* * *
Merlin Athrawes and his allies and friends had won their war against the Group of Four, but not their struggle against the Church of God Awaiting’s fundamental doctrine.
That promised to be just a bit more difficult.…
—from The Life of Merlin Athrawes, Zhakleen Wylsynn, Tellesberg, Royal University Press, 4217.
Copyright © 2018 by David Weber
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