Sunday, July 3, 2011

"Unwarranted Assumption" by Malcolm Cowen

The wig-wearing officials and the grey-haired, servile clerks had all been shooed out. The Provincial Governor leaned back in his ornate chair and smiled encouragingly at Cadron. “So tell me about your book, and how you came to write it,” he said, “not the official version for the lower orders, but the real one, as it really happened.”

So that was the reason for the private audience, thought Cadron. Well, there was no reason not to tell him. An ally is always useful.

“I was ten years old the first time I went to see the Metal Temple.” Cadron’s eyes glanced involuntarily out the window to where the Temple stood, a shining polished cylindrical pinnacle just outside the city. “My Aunt Belind took me. She was of noble blood, so we had the best seats and I got an excellent view of the Great Sacrifice.”

“And your thoughts then?” The Governor raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“Well, I was only ten, but even then I didn’t approve of it. I decided it was excessively wasteful to sacrifice perfectly useful peasants, when they could be used as servants.”

The Governor smiled politely. “Not bad for a ten-year old. And the next time was as a new student at the university, I understand.”

“Yes, I was twenty years old. My father had just assigned me several minor baronies to fund me through university as a lay student and, of course, I’d been taking full advantage of my new rights as a baron. I couldn’t help thinking that such a waste of young virgins was frankly stupid.”

The Governor chuckled. “Not quite the official version, but a little more believable I think. And that was your only consideration?”

“Well, after a little thought I did realise there was more at stake. Unnecessary cruelty like that is wrong. It tends to diminish the effect of the necessary cruelty we so often need to use to keep the lower classes in their place.”

This time they both laughed before Cadron continued. “I spoke it in the next tutorial on moral philosophy and that’s what provoked the scandal. I said the Great Sacrifice was a useless waste of time, because all the gods and demons were really nothing more than anthropomorphised products of our own superstitions. In other words, they weren’t real.

“There was uproar. Only a few people supported me. Most of them were young rebels-on-principle – you know the type – and one elderly, long-haired professor, probably for sheer cussedness because he was only months from retirement and had nothing to lose. Everyone else was shocked at the impiety. Even my father said publicly that he regretted he could not take back the baronies he had settled on me, though he did also say in private that it was time someone did something to put the priests in their place.”

“That’s a sentiment most of the noble families would agree with.”

Cadron smiled. “Of course, and since the proper function of our class is to put right the things that are wrong in society, I decided my duty was to do exactly that and I chose the study of religion and belief for my final dissertation.

“It took me four years of research. I travelled further than any member of my family, or any other member of the nobility, had since the Great Collapse, diving into official records dating back centuries, records from distant lands, scraps of documents surviving from the Time Before. By the time I’d finished, I’d correlated all the religious stories and legends I could find, all the superstitions and folk tales of the present day, and all those surviving from the past.”

“And you achieved your purpose.” The Governor nodded encouragingly. “I remember the first time I read your book.” He reached over to his desk and opened his copy at the flyleaf. “Your publisher certainly liked flowery language. ‘Four hundred terse pages listing clearly and irrefutably the common themes tying together all the different beliefs of the various kingdoms, all the variations of the principle of sacrifice, all the proclamations of the miscellaneous prophets, from their deepest thoughts to their wildest rantings, and in amongst all the others he shows the Metal Palace with its Demon and the Great Sacrifice as no more than an another twist on an old folk story; the need of primitive man to personalise the blind forces of nature as gods and demons and then to invent, in a thousand variations on the same theme, rituals to placate the gods they had invented for themselves.’ Did you realise it was a guaranteed sensation.”

“Well, yes, I was aware of that,” Cadron admitted. “It was against the rules, but I submitted it simultaneously to the University Court and to a publisher. The day after the Court rejected it for impiety, the book was published with the official condemnation printed in bold red on the cover. It sold like hot-cakes to the upper hundred thousand.

“Then it was just a matter of waiting. Initially, I was a social pariah, but over the next twenty years, the hostility faded as younger, more iconoclastic minds read my book, listened to the arguments, and were persuaded, whilst my older, more traditional opponents slowly grew old and died.

“So now we have it.” The Governor laid the book down and picked up the ornate scroll with the Chancellor’s seal on it. “The Witan has finally passed the law ending the sacrifice as an acknowledged foolish and superstitious hangover from a primitive past. And your request to me...?” He left the question dangling.

“My humble request,” Cadron smiled ingratiatingly. “As a mark of acknowledgement of my part in tomorrow’s historic events, I’m asking you to permit me to oversee the ceremonial desecration of the Metal Temple. If it pleases your Excellency.”
 He bowed his head with every appearance of utter humility, which he had practiced so well, and the Governor nodded in approval.

The next day, he stood before the great gate in the towering cylindrical metal wall of the Temple. The priests had all come out, as expected, blocking his way in one last gesture of defiance.

He smiled gently and asked them, in a voice loud enough to be heard publicly, to move aside. Naturally, they refused.

“You’ve heard my request.” His voice was even louder now so that the waiting public would clearly hear his forbearance. “There is no wish to hurt you, reverend gentlemen, only to free you from a burden you need not carry any more.”

The senior priest shook his head.

“Be it as you wish.” He stepped back, and the soldiers behind him moved forwards in a line, guns loaded and flashpans charged. The priests stood motionless for a moment, then at his word the soldiers opened fire. He’d ensured they were all brothers or fathers of recent sacrifices, and they were as pitiless as he had hoped.

He stepped past the bodies, lifted the great key from the senior priest’s belt, and fitted it into the lock.

A gesture was needed here, he thought, so he turned to the crowd.

“Behold!” he cried. “An end to cruelty and the dawn of a new and rational tomorrow.”

They cheered. He’d paid enough people in the crowd to guarantee that.

Then he pushed open the door and entered the Temple.

There was another door just inside, standing ajar, and he pushed it aside to enter the chamber beyond.

This was as far as his information had gone, but what he saw matched the reports. The chamber was cylindrical, with strangely shaped pieces of furniture against the walls. In the centre was the altar, a huge flat plate of metal where the body of the victim would be laid.

As he stepped forward there was a click behind him and he turned to see the door closed and the hand sliding the handle into the locked position. Then, unable to stop himself, he turned further to see the owner of the hand.

It was himself, but transparent, and the edges of the clothes seemed to melt into the skin.

He heard himself let out a strangled cry, and stumbled backwards, until his shoulders hit the hard metal wall.

“So sorry.” It was his own voice that mocked him. “Does this form bother you? Perhaps you would prefer this.”

It shifted, growing horns and a tail, a stereotype of a folklore demon. “It’s taken from the excellent woodcut on page 212 of your admirable book. I did find your book most interesting by the way, and a very convincing proof of the non-existence of gods and demons, I might add.”

“What are you?” He was trying to recover his poise and desperately trying to think of some way this could be a trick.

“The Great Demon of the Metal Temple, of course.” The being smiled mirthlessly. “And you thought you’d disproved me?”

The being suddenly shifted again to something shorter, with scales and a long snout. “I’m so sorry, I really shouldn’t tease, but I’ve been following your career with such interest and I’ve so looked forward to this moment.

“I’m afraid you made one small logical error. You assumed that because you’d proved all tales of demons relate to a basic primitive racial archetype, there would never be a case with a real demon behind it.”

“You are a demon?” The primitive fears of his childhood suddenly rose up from some forgotten depths of his mind.

“Well, actually no, more an intruder, but you must admit I fit the archetype rather well.”

Cadron laughed shakily, “Then my thesis wasn’t really wrong after all. It is all superstition, even if you are real.” He stepped forward, hand outstretched in the formal greeting to a stranger.

“My name is Cadron, at your service. But I guess you know that already.”

“Well, actually, that is another error on your part,” the being smiled toothily. “My name is Rezul, but I’m afraid your name is Dinner.”

The screams had really been quite pleasingly loud, Rezul reflected afterwards. Together with the entertaining collection of bones, they should make an excellent and convincing impression on the native culture. This meal should last his frugal metabolism several months, and, with the new rationalism convincingly discredited, the future supply of food should be quite secure again now.

There was one minor worrying thought, though. Cadron had proved, quite convincingly, that most stories of gods and demons were merely anthropomorphic manifestations of primitive archetypes. But supposing, just as Rezul himself had been the reality behind the demon, suppose there was something behind the god-myths. Then Rezul, too, might have to answer for his actions.

Rezul shook his head. It was nonsense. It couldn’t possibly be true.

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