The Voice in the Desert
Inquistan Peacekeeper Camp Three, ?St Martin's Fort?
Near the City of Laayoune
Western Sahara, Marrakechia
Under the burning midday sun of Sahara, even the scorpions and desert lizards sought cover. Despite the loudly whirring fans, the tent continued to resemble a sauna more by the minute. At least there was some amount of shadow. Not much was happening outside the tent, either. During the hottest hours of the day, Camp Three of the Inquistan Peacekeeper Troops stationed in the Western Saharan city of Laayoune was practically a necropolis, with soldiers heeding to the wisdom of the desert animals and finding a place in the shade to pass time, take a nap, and wait.
How thankful we should be that it's been quiet like in a necropolis, too, the Shepherd thought with dry humour. He took a sip from his glass. Water, nothing stronger. He never drank alcohol. It dulled the senses, and he wanted nothing if not the contrary. Swatting away intrusive flies, he turned to face his aide-de-camp who had just entered the command tent.
?So you're back already?, he stated the obvious. ?I trust your trip was an uneventful one??
?Yes, sir. Everything is in good order. The brothers send you their regards?, Lucien said.
The Shepherd liked to handpick his closest people. In the case of Lucien, that had been done for him, by Brother Craticus himself, to whom he owed his current post. With a colonel's rank in the Inquistan Army, the Shepherd had found him in an unexpected position filled with possibilities. The Inquistan peacekeepers had served as a perfect cover for him: a hiding place in plain sight.
And with the Archbishop of St Dominico as his personal guardian angel, things could have been a whole lot worse than this.
Lucien had been the Archbishop's liaison to him: someone to serve as their trusted middleman. And someone to keep an eye on me. He had accepted that as a fact and bore no ill feelings for it; in Craticus's position, he would have done the same. It was only reasonable caution. But Lucien was sharp, and he was loyal, and most of all, fully devoted to the Holy Cause. He was young, yet capable. Over the past five months, the Shepherd had learned to listen to his advice, and he confessed to himself he had grown rather fond of the dark-haired Inquistan youth.
?Is everyone still ready to depart when the order is issued?? he asked, offering his sweating right-hand man another glass to drink. Lucien accepted it with a grateful nod and drank deep before answering.
?Yes, sir. They are ready to leave in a few hours' notice.?
?Good. There may be need for haste.? Or perhaps they had all the time in the world. In the end, it was all in God's hand.
He sensed the unspoken questions lingering in the dry, hot air of the command tent. ?Yes, Lucien? Speak your mind.?
?Sir, if I may...? His advisor took a step closer, lowering his voice even though they were alone. ?The cell we've set up among the employees of Domus Dulcissimae Corporation...?
?What it is for, you want to know?? the Shepherd finished quietly, arching an eyebrow. Lucien cleared his throat, then nodded. ?Yes, sir. If you deem it proper for me to know, sir.?
?I do deem. For months, you've carried out your duties and done what I've asked without questions. I give you credit for that, Brother Lucien. Rest assured that I shall mention your name when I next have the honour of meeting the one above us both.?
Lucien was visibly pleased with the surprise praise. ?Thank you, sir. You're too kind.?
?There are quite a few who wouldn't use the word kind when describing me?, the terrorist chief remarked. ?Nevertheless, you deserve to have your answer. Domus, then. Another brilliant example of the double-faced true nature of my homeland.? He poured them another round of water. ?The Saharan and Marrakechian heathens kill each others by the thousands, and when the war's over, the Aureans arrive like locusts to grab the best pieces of the developing markets, and shamelessly veil it in a garb of humanitarian effort. Quite humane, indeed. The board members of Domus just decided to give themselves another bonus this year, if I recall??
?They did, sir.?
?Hmph.? The Shepherd raised his glass in a mock salute. ?Cheers, then. I hope you enjoy those Aurean Marks. Little good they shall do to you when the Lord's reckoning reaches you.?
Sipping his drink, he moved to the map table, where a large military chart of the Laayoune Province lay stretched, marked with the locations of the Inquistan peacekeeper forces. ?But my countrymen are good in making friends where they operate, that we must give them. Domus, for instance, has amiable relations with the local authorities, the Sahawri and the Marrakechians both ? and with us dutiful keepers of peace, of course. They've done their societal duty by employing local people to work at their construction projects. And what's more, those Domus employees have little trouble in getting travel visas to Pax Aurea.?
Lucien waited patiently. He, of course, already knew all this. That was precisely the reason they had started recruiting new Crusaders among the native Sahawri.
?The Masquerade is working as intended, I hope??
?Flawlessly, sir. A nosy henchman of the pro-royal faction came by a day before yesterday. An obvious snoop. I think he wanted to find out if our little circle housed revolutionaries. He went away rather satisfied with what he saw.?
?Good.? What the Marrakechian snoop had seen was far from the truth, obviously. A great majority of the Sahawri people were Muslims, so it wasn't too uncommon to find private prayer and Qu'ran study groups in cities like Laayoune. The thing was, even though the men arrived caryring Qu'rans, they were secretly devout Catholics, burning for the message the Shepherd was preaching them.
?It wouldn't be overly difficult to get them all to Pax Aurea, with what we've accomplished here?, he continued to Lucien. ?So you are wondering why we haven't acted yet, but held our hand, yes??
?The thought has occurred to me, sir.?
?And I admire your enthusiasm. But the Aureans have become rather paranoid after the Day of Wrath that struck them last Christmas.? The recollection still brought a chilling, lupine smile on his lips. ?Their harlot president was killed and their places of sacrilege demolished, and like any wounded beast, they became berserk, lashing left and right. I worry not of their presidents that've come after the Harlot ? that Fulvius was incompetent, and Proctus is all talk and no guts.? Which suits us all the better. ?Their Minister of Homeland Security, Junia Falco... Now, my brother, that bitch was a worthy adversary. Remorseless and merciless and full of zeal. A pity she, a Catholic, was among the damned and lost.?
?But Falco has been disgraced, her career is over?, Lucien pointed out. ?Now that the Aureans uncovered that tapping program of hers, there's no chance she'll ever make it back to the echelons of power.?
?Which is exactly why I orchestrated her fall?, the Shepherd said calmly.
Lucien stared at him, suddenly uncertain if the man was playing tricks on him, or lost his mind.
The Crusader commander merely smiled again. ?It was not as hard as your asinine expression makes it seem, my dear brother. Once I learned of their secret operation against the Catholics of Pax Aurea, I realized it was conducted without real authorization ? authorization by anyone but Falco, at least. They were talented, I have to admit, keeping it hidden for so long. You understand why I have some admiration for Falco, Lucien? It is mostly because of this one woman that we've lost most of our independent cells in Pax Aurea... and I've yet to confirm if the last ones still exists. A handful of rogue sleeper agents is all we have left.?
He frowned, glancing at his aide-de-camp. ?Lucien... you remember Markouz Farukh, don't you? The man who drove the cargo trucks here last winter??
?Of course, sir, though I didn't know him very well. I do know that he's a brother in Christ, but little more.?
?With his connections to this peacekeeping operation, it was simple to get him to Inquista, and from there, to Pax Aurea. He's not only devoted, he's one of the craftiest men I've had the chance to meet. And to Pax Aurea he went, for I sent him. He was on a special mission, and he succeeded perfectly.?
?What did he do? I thought it was that Secret Service hacker chief who leaked intel on the operation??
?Oh, yes, eventually, but that probably wouldn't have happened without the snowball effect we started. You see, Brother Markouz was the famous bomber without a bomb. The one arrested for threatening the Muslim conference in Port Africa.?
?He was one of us?? Lucien blurted out, stunned by the revelation.
?Indeed. And he played his part as a disturbed soul superbly. After we had discovered which confessionals were bugged by Falco, Markouz was sent to make his false confession there. He confessed his intentions to bomb the conference ? a crime he never intended to commit. Homeland Security found out, of course, and as we know, arrested him. They got little out of him, as planned, and couldn't find anything related to terrorism because there was nothing to begin with. From there, the tapestry Falco had knit started to come apart. We got an unexpected ally in Guillaumus. If the poor bastard knew... We could have finished unwrapping Falco's schemes without his help, but he did quicken things. Once it became obvious that Homeland had screwed things up big time, it was only a matter of time before some populist in the Senate started demanding further investigations... and then, there was nothing left but the truth revealed and the downfall of Junia Falco, the last one standing in our way.?
The Shepherd crossed himself. ?And now there remains no soul between us and our triumph. Our Catholic brethren and sisters are crying in outrage all around Pax Aurea. They are slowly starting to realize that the claims of corruption we have made are not without basis. Soon, there will be... incidents. Clashes on the streets. Catholic churches burning, Catholic businesses being looted, homes invaded. People mugged, killed. The righteous will be illuminated, the false ones exposed. And the Day of the Lord draws ever closer.?
?When?? Lucien asked, his voice thick with fervour.
?Soon, if God is good. Now, I need you to make a trip to St Dominico. Go to His Holiness and tell him everything I have told you. Let him know that the voice has cried out of the desert, and the way has been paved for the Lord to walk. Tell him...?
He paused, suddenly feeling the now-familiar holy dread of the Presence.
?Tell him that we are awaiting for a sign.?
?Yes, sir. I shall tell His Holiness everything.? Then, suddenly, the young man dropped to one knee, bowing his head. He was shaking. ?Bless me, my Commander. Pray that I might have the Lord's mercy.?
The Shepherd smiled, his eyes the blue of the glaciers. ?Raise, my brother?, he whispered, touching Lucien's forehead. ?I promise you that before all this is done, you shall have the martyr's glory.?