Sacred Host

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Terenia
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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Terenia » Fri Apr 22, 2011 6:04 pm

Hey there! I just wanted to say that I followed this on ff.net for basically forever and I loved it. Fantastic writing. Absolutely adore this story. :)

Qoheleth
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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Qoheleth » Wed Jun 01, 2011 7:14 am

Chapter 23 - Substitution

After three days of ostensible research into various alien religions, Toloth Two-Nine-Four announced that he was ready, and the Sub-Visser and several of his fellow guards accompanied him to the infestation pier.

"Good luck, Toloth Two-Nine-Four," said the Sub-Visser.

"Thank you, Sub-Visser," said Toloth. "You will, of course, see that no-one re-infests my host between now and the next feeding cycle?"

"Naturally," said the Sub-Visser, seeming surprised that he had to ask. "The Empire rewards its heroes; it doesn't wait till they're in the pool and then make off with their hosts."

Toloth said nothing, but reflected that Visser Three – or any other full Visser, for that matter – would have hardly let such a scruple keep him from reassigning so fine a Hork-Bajir host as Gef Makkil. He would, he reflected, rather miss Sub-Visser One Hundred and Sixty-Three when their ways eventually parted.

"Well, then," he said, "I will see you all at the end of the next feeding cycle. May the Kandrona shine and strengthen you."

"And you, Toloth Two-Nine-Four," said the Sub-Visser, and a murmured chorus of concurrence went up from the rest of his guard.

Toloth nodded, and knelt slowly and deliberately on the pier. This served a double purpose: besides heightening the drama of the moment, and thereby reinforcing in his comrades' minds their picture of him as a bold hero of the Empire, it gave him time to send one last urgent message to his host. <Now, remember, Gef: not one word about Jesus to the other Yeerks. Not a word about Baibuls, not a word about beginning things, and definitely not a word about Teresa. You understand?>

<Yes,> said his host. <Gef not tell Yeerks about Jesus.>

<Good,> said Toloth, and began to detach himself from Gef's brain.

<Toloth tell Yeerks about Jesus?>

Toloth quickly reattached himself. <No,> he said firmly. <Toloth most certainly does not.>

<Who, then?>

<No-one,> said Toloth. <Now, if you'll just…>

<Then how Yeerks get saved?>

<I…>

"Are you waiting for something, Toloth Two-Nine-Four?" the Sub-Visser inquired acidly.

Toloth looked up at him, and attempted to assume an air of wounded dignity. "I am merely putting my thoughts in order, Sub-Visser," he said. "I wish to be as eloquent as possible when I address my hostless brethren."

The Sub-Visser seemed to accept this, and Toloth returned his attention to Gef. <Perhaps Yeerks aren't supposed to be saved,> he said. <Isn't that possible?>

<No,> said Gef firmly. <"Anyone in the universe can join". Teresa say. Gef believe.>

With great difficulty, Toloth refrained from telling Gef precisely what, at that moment, he thought of what Teresa said and what Gef believed. <Well, then, perhaps Oliss Three-Eight-Three will tell them someday,> he said. <But it is not my job, and it is not yours. Is that clear?>

Gef didn't answer immediately. His synaptic patterns were of a type Toloth had never seen before; as near as he could make out, his host was inquiring of Jesus whether it was lawful to obey one's Controller in such a case as this. Precious seconds ticked by while this curious struggle was deliberated; then, abruptly, Gef said, with decision, <Gef not tell Yeerks.>

<Thank you.>
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Thirty seconds later, Toloth was in the pool, wondering, for perhaps the fiftieth time, why he couldn't be one of those forceful, resolute Yeerks who achieved mastery over their hosts without apparent effort. One couldn't imagine Lissim, or the Sub-Visser, having to cajole their hosts into silence on some important matter; they would have simply said, If you talk about this, you will regret it very soon afterward, and that would have been that.

On the other hand, neither could one imagine Lissim or the Sub-Visser doing what he, Toloth Two-Nine-Four, was about to do. So perhaps he made up in audacity for what he lacked in decisiveness. He could flatter himself, anyway.

With an effort, he put the matter out of his mind and turned his attention to the pool around him. It was much quieter than the reports of three days before had described, which was hardly surprising; everyone currently in the pool had already fed at least once in the past three days (except the very newest Gedd-Controllers), so there were no new Controllers left for the izcots to interrogate. Toloth rather regretted this, since the relative silence of the pool would make his own actions that much more conspicuous, but he consoled himself with the thought that, even if he was overheard, only the maddest visionary would be able to guess what he was about.

He worked his palps for a moment, and then let out a call that echoed through the sulp niar: *Oliss Three-Eight-Three! Report to the northeastern corner of the pool immediately!*

With that, he settled down into his place and waited, noting with bitter satisfaction the consternation that his message had caused among the other residents of the pool. Probably the little troublemaker and its izcot friends were panicking right now, wondering whether they were all about to be Kandrona-starved by order of the Sub-Visser. Well, it served them right.

After about five minutes, a small Yeerk swam up to him, its pheromone signature indicating plainly that it came from a low-ranking spawn. *Oliss Three-Eight-Three reporting as requested, zueee,* (5) it said.

*Very good,* said Toloth. *Tell me, Oliss Three-Eight-Three, are you familiar with a Yeerk of the Malcar spawn, designation Seven-Four-Five?*

Oliss hesitated. *I know of her, yes,* it said cautiously.

*Could you identify her in this pool?*

*No,* said Oliss, *but Arssis Five-Nought-Nine or Illim Eight-Seven-Seven could.*

*Good,* said Toloth. *Now listen carefully…*
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*Malcar Seven-Four-Five to the infestation pier! Repeat, Malcar Seven-Four-Five to the infestation pier!*

Malcar rose from the bottom of the pool and shuddered softly. Time to go see how much damage that host of hers had done to the fabric of the Yeerk Empire in the past hour.

If only she could do something about it – but, for the life of her, she couldn't think what there might be to do. She'd tried undermining Teresa's sense of mission, and had only succeeded in strengthening it; she felt sure that an audience with the Sub-Visser would be pointless, and possibly hazardous to her human-Controller status as well; and as for that other wild notion that had crept into her mind while she was feeding – well, she wasn't sure she was quite that desperate yet.

She attempted to put it out of her mind, and headed for the pier. There would be time enough to brood once she was inside Teresa's head, and she didn't want to keep her fellow Controllers waiting…

Whap!

Malcar reeled backward, disoriented. She wasn't sure what just happened; it was as though another Yeerk had descended upon her with astonishing speed and flung itself with all its strength at her mid-section. The Yeerk capacity for pain is limited, but Malcar was smarting from the impact about as badly as her nervous system would permit, and she imagined that the other Yeerk had a similar feeling.

Clumsy creature, she thought. Probably one of those poor wretches who tried to survive on oatmeal while the Kandrona was being repaired. (This sociological development had not yet been confirmed by the Visserarchy, and therefore had not officially happened, but Malcar was the sort of person who trusted in feeding-area rumors.)

She waited a moment or two for the throbbing in her mid-section to subside, and then resumed her path to the infestation pier.

Whap!

Another direct blow, this time from below. What was more, it seemed, so far as Malcar was able to judge, to have been the same Yeerk as the first time. Something was very wrong here, but Malcar, woozy from the repeated blows, couldn't even begin to guess what it was.

The pier… she had to get to the pier. She roused herself, and moved forward again…

Whap!

And again…

Whap!

And again…

Whap! Whap! Whap!

Had Malcar been less of a child of pride, she might have realized what was going on, and conceivably even managed to fend off her assailant. In her five years as a Controller, however, she had made every effort to forget about the hostless sub-culture she had left behind, and had very largely succeeded. She had completely forgotten, for instance, that there were Yeerks among the Sulp Niar pool's izcot population who still practiced the ancient art of k'kuuut'triih – the unique martial art developed on the Yeerk homeworld in the generations before Jimur, by which the capacities of the Yeerk body were honed to such a pitch that it became something like a living torpedo. And ignorance, however human thinkers may extol it, was neither bliss nor strength for Malcar in this incidence.

At length, after about a minute and a half, the barrage of abuse let up, and Malcar was once more free to proceed to the pier. She was so disoriented from her ordeal, however, that she was no longer entirely sure where the pier was relative to her (or, for that matter, which side of her was up and which was down); while she was trying to work this out, the pool-speech simulator gave voice once more. *Creshkol One-Eight-Three to the infestation pier! Repeat, Creshkol One-Eight-Three to the infestation pier!*

A dim feeling of panic went through Malcar. Wait a minute, she thought. Creshkol… that can't be right. I haven't gotten to the pier yet. They should be waiting for me still, not for this Creshkol of whatever designation.

But there was no question about it. She sent out an echolocation pulse, and perceived a male Taxxon lowering his head into the pool, with a Yeerk – presumably Creshkol – swimming towards it. And after Creshkol had infested his host, Luzik Nine-One-One was summoned, and then Parsem Two-Six-Double-Nought – and so on for nearly an hour, as Malcar waited, in vain, for her name to be called again.

At last, she gave up and sank to the bottom of the pool again, her mind a frothing cauldron of fear, anger, and bewilderment. Who was it who had attacked her? Why had he/she/it done so? And, above all, who was now Controlling Teresa?
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The infestation paralysis subsided, and Teresa felt her body raise itself from the pier. She felt her head nod curtly to the pool guards, and her feet carry her out toward the stairway that led to the pool egress.

She felt all this, but her mind was too clouded by self-pity for her to give it any particular heed. For the first time in over two weeks, Toloth hadn't showed up at her cage while Malcar was feeding – and, although she hadn't realized it, she had come rather to depend on her conversations with Toloth to keep the agony and despair of the Yeerk pool from overwhelming her own soul. The Word of God strengthens those who preach it as well as those who hear it, and the inability to preach can leave a young missionary quite bereft of strength.

Nor did it make matters any better when a mocking voice in her mind said, <Well, Teresa Sickles, have you no word for your old friend?>

<I'd hardly call us friends, Malcar,> Teresa snapped. She knew it wasn't the charitable thing to say, but only a small portion of her cared at that moment.

<What was up with you today, anyway?> she added. <You've never taken that long to reinfest me before.>

An amused chuckle echoed through her consciousness. <No, I certainly haven't,> her Controller said. <However, if it will console you any, I have taken that long to reinfest Gef on a number of occasions.>

Whatever response Teresa had expected, it hadn't been that. <What… what do you mean?> she whispered.

There was no response in words. Instead, Teresa's mind was suddenly flooded with a series of brief mental images: the inside of Sub-Visser One Hundred and Sixty-Three's Bug fighter, a Na scurrying forward with a blood-red Bible in his hands, her own face as seen through the bars of an involuntary host's cage. All of them images that, so far as she knew, only one person of her acquaintance had ever seen.

For some minutes, Teresa was as incapable of mental speech as of physical. Only when her new Controller had left the pool area and was halfway to the Gleet BioFilter did she find the strength to murmur, <You'll be the death of me yet, Toloth Two-Nine-Four.>

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(5) Zueee: The opposite of shapluk – a form of address used by low-ranking Yeerks to their extreme superiors. Because of the disparity of rank it represents, it is rarely used by any other than hostless Yeerks, and consequently is generally unknown in Verbal Yeerkish. The spelling given is therefore a rough attempt to transliterate the high-pitched whistling sound that Oliss Three-Eight-Three used on this occasion, which is the correct form of the word in Pool, or Pure, Yeerkish.

Qoheleth
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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Qoheleth » Sat Sep 10, 2011 9:18 am

Chapter 24 - All the Law and the Prophets

By the time Toloth had mounted Teresa's bicycle and begun heading for the Sickles house, he had begun to wonder whether it mightn't have been wiser to leave Teresa in ignorance of his true identity. He had thought that his dramatic self-revelation would stun her into mental silence, and he would be able to comb her mind in peace for the information that would satisfy Gef and the izcots – but he had failed to reflect that this was Teresa Sickles he was dealing with. As soon as she had processed that her new Controller was the very Yeerk that she had been witnessing to for the past half-month, she had begun eagerly bombarding him with questions about how he had managed it, where Malcar was now, what the Sub-Visser was going to think, et cetera.

At first, Toloth had thought that this was mere, impudent curiosity on her part, and had resented the assumption (accurate though it was) that he was the sort of weak-willed Yeerk who would sooner satisfy a host's curiosity than malthalamize her for daring to address him. But then he noticed an undercurrent of anxiety running through her interrogation, and realized that there was something else going on – something, if possible, even more painful to the shred of Yeerk pride he had left. Somehow, in the course of the past few weeks, Teresa had begun to care intensely about him – had even begun, in some sense, to think of him as a friend.

Only a very limited sense, of course. She still had no interest in discussing her favorite books with him, or inviting him over for a game of Uno, or any of the other things that she remembered doing with her human friends. What she felt about him was subtly different; it seemed to Toloth almost to resemble self-interest, except that it wasn't directed towards the self. Teresa seemed to feel the same passionate concern about his well-being, and seemed ready to take the same unequivocal delight in it, that a sensible being did about its own.

It was a phenomenon that Toloth had never encountered in a host before. Even a Hork-Bajir, though he would willingly sacrifice himself for his tribe, would never have thought to feel concern for some other tribe in which he had no stake. Teresa, on the other hand, seemed to be making an effort to feel this way about every sentient being she knew; one of the dominant distress patterns in her mind was connected to the fact that she couldn't bring herself to feel it for Malcar. It was an enigma, to be sure – but it did explain a number of puzzling things about Teresa Sickles, and Toloth was quite willing to accept one enigma in place of half a dozen.

The difficulty was to know how to respond. Reciprocating the impulse was obviously impossible, since one couldn't simultaneously desire a being's welfare and continue to support a plan of conquest that involved robbing it of all that made life worth living. But if one failed to reciprocate the impulse, that was far worse, since the one quality that Yeerks honored above all (for obvious reasons) was strength of will; to observe a host making such a heroic act of will without apparent effort, and then to acknowledge by one's inaction that one dared not do the same, was tantamount to acknowledging that a host was worthy of greater honor than oneself – which was impermissible. The very existence of the impulse, in fact, presented a loyal Yeerk with an insoluble dilemma – which perhaps explained why Malcar Seven-Four-Five, that paragon of loyalty, seemed bent on eradicating it from Teresa's mind.

Toloth himself preferred to ignore it. (For the time being, at least. He knew, instinctively, that he would have to face the dilemma sooner or later, but a host of prudential considerations urged him not to do so now.) He had more practical matters to attend to; if he didn't start answering Teresa's questions soon, she might well work herself into a state of nervous prostration, and then it would be exceedingly difficult to draw the necessary information from her mind in the way he intended.

<I assure you, Teresa Sickles, neither Gef nor I am in any danger,> he said. <I have simply decided that my means of acquiring information from you have hitherto been inefficient and occasionally hazardous. I am therefore borrowing you from Malcar Seven-Four-Five for a single feeding cycle, so that I can absorb the data I need directly from your brain. Once I have finished, I will probably never need to contact you again – which will doubtless gratify you and your Controller as much as it does me.>

Teresa wasn't sure that anything short of Toloth and Gef both dropping dead would truly gratify Malcar, but she didn't suppose it would edify anybody for her to say so. <You're not going to tell me that Malcar agreed to this, though, are you?> she said. <I can't imagine…>

<No,> said Toloth, with a note of amusement tingeing his mental speech. <No, Malcar Seven-Four-Five certainly did not agree to this, nor did I waste my time on such a hopeless cause as persuading her to do so. But there are other ways of preventing someone from arriving at the infestation pier.>

Teresa wondered what that was supposed to mean. It couldn't mean that Malcar was dead, or permanently incapacitated, since Toloth had definitely said that she was going to be gratified when… or had he? Now that Teresa thought about it, all he had actually said was "you and your Controller"; could that mean…?

Toloth's voice interrupted her thoughts. <No, Teresa Sickles,> he said. <Malcar Seven-Four-Five is still your Controller; there is no reason to celebrate just yet.>

Teresa was stung; she had, in fact, been close to celebrating at the thought of Malcar's demise, but she hadn't quite admitted it to herself. Now that Toloth had said the word, though, she felt herself duly chastened, and sent up a quick prayer for forgiveness. This, of course, didn't escape the attention of her current Controller, who demanded to know why she was doing anything so irrational. <What is culpable in desiring Malcar Seven-Four-Five's demise?> he said. <She has, I should think, given you ample reason to believe that the universe would benefit from such an event.>

<Maybe it would,> Teresa acknowledged, <but I'm still not allowed to wish for it. Jesus told us to love our enemies; if I'm not at least trying to do that, I can't really call myself a Christian.>

There it was again, that bizarre imperative to make another's good your own – to love, as Teresa called it. (It was hardly the Yeerk sense of the word, but Toloth could handle that; he remembered the discussion they had had, three days before, about the peculiar senses that Jesus-worshippers gave to common words.) It was, Toloth admitted, a praiseworthy feat – but the question was, why? What did they stand to gain from it? What possible good could it do Teresa to take this Yeerk, who fervently believed that the subjugation of her and her race was a good and proper end wherewith to devote one's life, and act as though the two of them were adjacent spawn-mates?

It might have been supposed that, Toloth being now in direct contact with Teresa's mind, the answers to these questions would have been immediately apparent to him. And, indeed, he could quite plainly perceive what Teresa's answer would have been – but it was an answer that helped him not at all. Indeed, it was an answer he already knew – the answer that his host had heard, to the same question, nearly three weeks before – the answer that had thrown his subsequent life into such turmoil.

Because Jesus would want me to.

That was it. That was where Teresa Sickles began and ended every discussion. What Jesus said overruled all other considerations – not because it made sense to her, or because it would keep her safe, or even because she would be happy after her death if she did (although she did seem to believe this), but simply because Jesus was who – and what – he was. Without him, she could do nothing; if she had not him, she had not life; he had made her for himself, and her heart had no rest until it rested in him – there were a thousand variations on the theme in her mind, but what they all amounted to was that pleasing this minor claimant to the throne of deity was the only reason that Teresa knew for doing anything.

This was more than Toloth had been prepared to handle. He had gathered that Teresa viewed Jesus as the creator of the universe – yes, and also as a personal benefactor who was willing to give her some sort of "new life". So he had expected her to feel some measure of reasonable gratitude, expressed perhaps in some ritual observances of a symbolic nature: fasts, sacrifices, all the usual accoutrements of natural piety. But this total self-surrender was another matter entirely. Toloth had never heard of a god – apart from the truly savage ones, such as the "Thirst-Soul" of the pre-conquest Taxxons – who demanded such fidelity from his worshippers. And that someone like Teresa (whom no sane person could compare with a pre-conquest Taxxon) should gladly and whole-heartedly accept such an obligation… who could have imagined it?

Except, perhaps, Gef. Wasn't that what he had said, back at the beginning of it all? "Teresa have knowledge of beginning things. Things that make life, that know why things live." Toloth had dismissed it at the time, but, really… to know why things live… wasn't that what all sentient beings were looking for? Wouldn't Toloth himself have given everything he had – his host, his position, his very self – to know the purpose of his life? And Teresa, it seemed, thought that she had found it. Which made her attitude perfectly rational.

But this is absurd, Toloth wanted to say. You cannot possibly believe, you pitiful human child, that the ultimate power behind the universe would simply come and tell you what it wants of you. That would be kindly, and the universe is not kindly; it would be rational, and the universe is not rational. The universe is a mindless, soulless, utterly savage wilderness, and you of all beings have no excuse for not knowing it. Look at me: am I the product of a benevolent creator? Would your Jesus make a race of beings whose fulfillment lay in the subjugation of other beings? I think not.

For this he could find no answer in Teresa's mind. Teresa, as has already been noted, had often struggled with the problem of why God had made Yeerks; the few, hesitant solutions she had come up with – that their nature was a result of their Fall, for instance – were unsatisfactory even to her, and Toloth found them utterly laughable.

This gave some ease to his mind. He knew, of course, that there were weaknesses in every system of thought, and that this didn't necessarily make them untrue (Andalite harmonic theory had its vague spots, too, but you could still build Dracon beams with it), but, all the same, he was grateful to have found Christianity's weakness so quickly. If he hadn't, he might have had to start seriously considering it as the key to his own life – and that, of course, would have been completely unacceptable.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
He became aware that Teresa had ceased to inquire about what had happened to Malcar. This was probably just as well; the less she knew, the less Malcar would know when she reinfested her.

He also became aware that he had reached Teresa's house – and that a large, black, furry creature with sharp teeth had leapt off the porch and was heading towards him at a great speed. For a moment, he was alarmed; then he noticed a minor memory of Teresa's that he had hitherto overlooked, and his alarm changed to mild annoyance. So humans kept large, predatory animals around their homes for companionship, did they? Someone might have warned him.

He stopped Teresa's bicycle, clambered awkwardly off the seat (Teresa had never mastered the art of dismounting in a ladylike fashion), and greeted the Sickles family schnauzer with a vigorous nuzzle behind the ears. "Hey there, Chris," he cooed. "Who's a good boy?"

Chris's tail wagged enthusiastically, and his tongue lolled out of his mouth as though it were detached from his jaw. Toloth was repelled, but he kept up the pretense long enough to seem like Teresa to anyone who might be watching; then he took up the bicycle again and wheeled it into the garage, with Chris trotting close at his heels.

As he leaned the bicycle against its usual wall, he became aware of a distinctive aroma wafting through the door to his immediate right. It wasn't as vivid as it would have been through Gef's nose (he had been mildly disappointed to find how weak the human olfactory sense was), but it was unmistakable, even so.

<So your mother is making Roman gnocchi, is she, Teresa?> he said.

<Yeah, I guess so.> Teresa sounded surprised. <Funny. She wouldn't usually make something that festive on the 22nd; she'd wait till Christmas itself. Unless we were having company, of course.>

Then she laughed. <But we are having company, aren't we?> she said. <Maybe some angel whispered into her ear this morning, "Word to the wise, Catherine: you're having a Sub-Visserial Guardsman over for dinner tonight. Better make something special.">

Toloth smiled quietly with Teresa's lips. For all her theological sophistication, Teresa Sickles was still very much a child in many ways.

<Well,> he said, <if I am, indeed, your guest of honor tonight, I suppose I ought to go in and pay my respects to my hostess.>

<Oh, sure,> said Teresa. <Don't call her "ma'am", though; she hates that. "Mrs. Sickles" will do fine.>

<I will bear that in mind,> said Toloth dryly.

He turned, and reached for the knob of the house door. Just as he was about to grasp it, though, he hesitated. A strange, almost superstitious thought had entered his mind, inexplicable and irrational, yet one that bore a strange conviction. For some half-dozen heartbeats, he stood motionless before the door, trying to dismiss the thought, yet only succeeding in impressing it more and more deeply upon his mind: Beware, Toloth Two-Nine-Four. If you enter this house, you will not leave it again without being transformed.

Teresa seemed puzzled. <Something wrong, Toloth?> she said.

Toloth roused himself. <No,> he said. <Nothing at all.>

He hummed a few bars of an old Yeerkish war-song to steady himself; then he turned the doorknob (more firmly than was perhaps warranted) and entered the home of Teresa Sickles.

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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Arthur » Sun Sep 11, 2011 11:16 am

Excellent.
Though I had to re-read a few chapter to remember what was going on, I enjoyed this segment of the tale.
Post more soon please!
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Qoheleth
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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Qoheleth » Tue Dec 27, 2011 7:19 am

Chapter 25 - Of a Sweet Savor

Catherine Sickles glanced up from the counter she was wiping at the sound of her daughter's tread on the kitchen linoleum. "Oh, there you are, Teresa," she said, with an arch of her eyebrow. "We were beginning to wonder if we would have to call out the gendarmes."

Toloth didn't answer immediately, though he knew he ought to. The lapse was excusable; he had never been trained for racial infiltration, and consequently had never learned the knack of instantly locating and reproducing the appropriate response-pattern for any situation. And, to do him justice, he was hardly the first being to be unmanned by his first encounter with human cooking.

It was the smell that got him. He knew, of course, what gnocchi Romana smelled like while it was baking: he had at his disposal all of Teresa's quite vivid memories on the subject, which was how he had recognized it through the door. But memory is a poor substitute for direct experience, and smelling something through a closed door is nothing like being in the same room with it. The air around him was filled with an aroma at once rich, sharp, and beguiling, like nothing else he had ever known; he found himself wishing that he still had Gef's nose, so that he could do it justice.

Then he changed his mind. A Hork-Bajir body would have been inadequate to this experience. Hork-Bajir were herbivores, and highly specialized herbivores at that; the smell of warm animal fat would have no magic for them. Until now, Toloth, having never really encountered carnivorous races other than the Taxxons, had thought of the predatory instinct as a crude, coarsening thing; he had never imagined that the meat-eaters of the universe had such sublime pleasures reserved for them.

Mrs. Sickles's laughter broke into his thoughts. "Well, I can see I'll have satisfied one person tonight, anyway," she said. "It's so nice to have a daughter who appreciates your work."

The comment roused Toloth from his reverie, and he realized that he needed to get into character quickly before Mrs. Sickles started wondering what was wrong with her daughter. Hastily, he dipped into Teresa's superego and extracted the first appropriate response he could find. "Well, I'm glad I could brighten your day, Mom. I just wish it didn't show up on me the way it does."

Mrs. Sickles's eyes narrowed. "Now, Teresa," she said sternly, "there are more important things in this world than looking like an underwear model."

"Oh, sure, I know that," said Toloth, striving to put just the right amount of indifference to the fact into Teresa's voice. "But it's still not much fun, being stuck in a body like this." (The irony of the words didn't strike him until much later.) "I mean, what do people see when they look at me? What do they…"

"They see a beautiful, intelligent, and virtuous young woman," said Mrs. Sickles. "Not perfect, maybe, but with a truer heart and a more sincere love of Our Lord than 99% of the other people they're likely to meet. And that's what's important, not your waist measurement."

Her intensity left Toloth momentarily stunned. He recognized that he was seeing another instance of what the Jesus-worshippers called love, but this was quite a different thing from Teresa's gentle solicitude. It was a fiercer, more aggressive form of the impulse; anything that could harm her daughter had to be opposed, even if it was only her daughter's own self-denigration. (Toloth wondered what she would have done to Malcar, had she known of her existence. Probably it was best not to speculate.)

For lack of a better response, he smiled sheepishly and flushed some extra blood into Teresa's cheeks. "Well, thanks, Mom," he murmured. "I love you, too."

Mrs. Sickles's expression relaxed, and she leaned over and planted a kiss on her daughter's forehead. "So what have you been up to today?" she said.

Toloth had to check that; what was Teresa supposed to have been doing all afternoon? Ah, there it was.

"Oh, you know," he said, waving a vague hand. "Setting up the Community Center for the fête tomorrow."

"Oh, yes, your Sharing thing," said Mrs. Sickles. "I wanted to talk to you about that, actually…"

But before she could get any further, a timer on the counter began to beep, and she interrupted herself to turn it off, sweep over to the stove and remove the lid from a pan that Toloth hadn't hitherto noticed.

Instantly, the room began to fill with another scent entirely – a scent that set the seal on Toloth's newfound conviction that carnivores were favored beings. There had been a note of it in the air before, but the strong tang of the gnocchi Romana had overpowered it; now, with the lid no longer in the way, the rich savor of frying meat came into its own. The juices that had once been life to some brute animal now filled the air as steam; as Toloth breathed them in, they sang to his borrowed body of strength and vigor, and invited him to make that strength his own. And in its train came other aromas, of garlic and thyme and salt and fish and (faintly) wine, each with its own wealth of associations to set the human mouth a-water.

He checked Teresa's memories, which supplied the odor with a name – and some other details that seemed to call for some comment, which Toloth accordingly made. "Mom!" he said. "Pan-fried lamb and Roman gnocchi? Today, with Advent still going on? What's gotten into you?"

Mrs. Sickles affected a wounded expression. "Don't you like it?" she said. "I thought you'd be excited."

"Of course I'm excited," said Toloth. "I'm thrilled, but… why? The Pope didn't move Christmas to today when I wasn't looking, did he?"

"Not that I heard," said Mrs. Sickles.

"Well, then, what's the occasion?"

Mrs. Sickles smiled. "Ah, yes, the occasion," she said. "The occasion is waiting for you in the living room. Why don't you go and greet her?"

This coy response baffled Toloth, who had little feel as yet for the whimsicality of human converse. <"Her"?> he repeated, annoyed. <What does she mean, "her"? An occasion has no sex; it is an event, not a life-form.>

Teresa made a mental shrug. <That's my mom for you,> she said. <She loves to keep people guessing.>

<Ah,> said Toloth. <Well, that was to be expected. Such an incorrigibly enigmatic creature as you had to learn it from somewhere.>

Teresa laughed. <Coming from you, Toloth, I'll take that as a compliment,> she said.

She tried to be glib about it, but the silent thoughts that accompanied the remark told a different story. It was painfully clear to Toloth that she was in a state of relief bordering on elation, simply because she had been infested for nearly an hour and had yet to hear her Controller belittle either her person or her faith. For the host of Malcar Seven-Four-Five, such an experience was all but unprecedented.

It surprised Toloth how deeply this affected him. He had always, of course, detested Yeerks who tormented their hosts unnecessarily, believing (though he had never succeeded in putting it into practice) that hosts should be taught their place by firm and quiet mastery rather than petty maliciousness. It would, therefore, have been quite natural for him to feel outraged at Malcar's abuse of Teresa, just as a human horseman might be outraged at the mistreatment of a fine mare. What he actually felt, however, was something quite different. He found it distasteful that Teresa's feelings should be lightly hurt, not because she would thereby become less valuable (though that was likely true) or because it showed her Controller to be a person of vulgar feeling (though that was certainly true); rather, it seemed to him that his own dignity was thereby impugned.

As he then was, he could make no sense of this feeling. He still considered himself to be a believer in the policies of the Yeerk Empire, and of the philosophy of Yeerk superiority that underlay them. It was true that he had been somewhat shaken during his first encounter with Teresa, and that he had briefly doubted that the Yeerk mind was more subtle than the human, but he told himself that he had overcome that moment of weakness. He failed to recognize that he had, in fact, merely chosen to disregard it, and that this had caused the doubt to become all the greater, to the point where it was now dictating nearly all his actions. When one's basic assumptions are questioned, one must either defend them or abandon them; any other course ends in complete unreason.

Had Toloth admitted to himself that he was far from sure of human inferiority to Yeerks, he would have understood his emotions perfectly. For nearly a month, he had been coming to Teresa to acquire knowledge, and it is a universal law that the person who possesses knowledge is worthy of greater honor than the person who seeks it. It was therefore quite reasonable for Toloth (regarding Teresa as, in fact, a person, rather than as the mere tool he wished to think her) to feel that anyone who showed contempt for Teresa implicitly showed even greater contempt for him.

But he would see none of this, and dismissed the feeling as mere irrationality. It was vital that he keep his head; if he let the strangeness of his surroundings overwhelm his reason, he was done for. He remembered that strange, premonitory feeling he had had at the door; he had no intention of being transformed, in mind or in body, and he would see to it that he wasn't.

Remember why you have come, Toloth Two-Nine-Four, he told himself. You are here to determine the essence of Jesus's allure to host life-forms and izcots, not to be beguiled into going human yourself. Study them if you will, but never forget the difference between them and you. They are ruled; you are ruler. They are low; you are high. They are…

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden squeal of glee from Teresa. All this while, without really reflecting on it, he had been heading towards the living room, in obedience to Mrs. Sickles's suggestion. Now, turning a corner, he found that he had arrived there – and a small, elderly woman was rising from the sofa, her wrinkled face split with a wide smile. "Well, now," she said, "how's my favorite granddaughter doing?"

Toloth had no need to search for the appropriate, Teresa-like response; it was written in every line of his host's cerebellum. "Nana!" he exclaimed, and rushed headlong into the living room to embrace the old lady.

"Now, now, duckling, easy does it," said Agnes Chiodini, working an arm free so she could tousle her granddaughter's hair. "Remember, I'm held together with wires these days. The joys of old age…"

"Sorry," said Toloth. "It's just… well, you know, I haven't seen you in ages, and now you're here all of a sudden, and… well, it's just nice to see you." For full effect, he sent an impulse to Teresa's lachrymal glands, causing her eyes to sparkle with a hint of unshed tears.

It seemed to do the trick. Mrs. Chiodini made that little popping noise with her tongue that Teresa was so familiar with, the import of which was I'm terribly pleased by your affection, but I'll be drummed out of the Crusty Old Ladies' Society if I say so directly.

"Well, it's nice to see you, too, Teresa Catherine," she said. "Still living up to that name, I trust?"

This time Toloth did have to search for the proper response. The reference was a complicated one; it involved the coincidence of Teresa's two given names with the names of the only two female humans (until about three months previous) to be officially honored as great explicators of Jesus's teachings. Apparently, this fact had not been in her parents' minds when they had given her these names, but it had gained a particular appositeness when, in the course of preparing for a certain initiation ceremony, she had developed such an intense interest in the why and how of her religion. Ever since, her family members had alternately teased and commended her for thus following in her namesakes' footsteps.

Knowing this, Toloth had no hesitation – indeed, he took a certain ironic satisfaction – in nodding Teresa's head and saying, "Oh, definitely."

"Good," said Mrs. Chiodini. "You keep it up. That's what the Church needs more of: smart, pious young women who don't spend all their time fussing because they can't be priests. Do you know what I heard Sister Anastasia say the other day? She said that even if the Pope did say ex cathedra that priests have to be men, she wouldn't listen, because God gave her the right to think for herself." She snorted. "I'd just like to know what she plans to think about, if she doesn't believe that anyone can tell her any facts."

Toloth ignored this. "What are you doing here, anyway?" he said. "Isn't Uncle John still taking good care of you, out in Sioux Falls?"

"Certainly he is," said Mrs. Chiodini. "Your Uncle John is a gift from Heaven. I've always said so, and I always will. But the other day I woke up and said to myself, 'You know, Agnes, you have five other children scattered all across the country, and one of them has that charming daughter who's going to redeem her generation someday. Why don't you get on a plane and give her a nice little Christmas surprise?' So I wheedled some funds out of your Aunt Lucy, telephoned your mother to make sure she didn't have any conflicts, and… well, here I am."

"So you'll be spending Christmas with us?" said Toloth. He tried to sound as eager and excited as Teresa would have been (and, in fact, was), but the truth was that all he felt was annoyance. The next three days were all the opportunity he had for getting at the hidden power of Christianity, and he was beginning to wonder whether even an hour of them would turn out as he had expected. Bad enough that he had apparently chosen to infest Teresa just before a major religious festival (though that might, perhaps, turn out to have its advantages); worse that she seemed committed to participating in a Sharing program the next day; and who could say what further complications this adored and clearly strong-minded kinswoman might introduce? Was all of nature conspiring to derail his plans?

"That's right," said Mrs. Chiodini. "I finally get to see one of these 70-degree California winters of yours. Ought to make a refreshing change from having an ice rink on the sidewalk from Thanksgiving to Lent."

"And that was what I wanted to ask you about, Teresa," said Mrs. Sickles, appearing suddenly in the living-room doorway. "This fête of yours, or whatever you call it: you say anyone can just walk in, can't they? No cover charge?"

"That's right," said Toloth. "There's a suggested donation of $5 towards the Sharing's overseas projects, though."

"Well, I've been to enough church potlucks to know what that means," Mrs. Chiodini muttered. "I'll just have to call their bluff, I suppose. If anyone squawks about it, I'll tell them that my life savings is in a coffee can half a continent away, and after what happened five years ago, I'm not about to bring it anywhere near Los Angeles."

"Oh, don't worry, Mama," said Mrs. Sickles. "We'll cover for you."

"You most certainly won't," said Mrs. Chiodini. "If they call it a suggestion, that's what it is. I'm not going to have my daughter and her husband $5 poorer on my account, not unless they actually come out and say that it's a fee."

<She's coming to the fête?> said Teresa, delighted. <Oh, Nana, I wish I had control of my body so I could kiss you.>

This seemed odd to Toloth. <If you care about her so deeply, why should you want her to attend a Sharing event?> he said. <Aren't you worried that we will lure her in?>

<Nana?> Teresa laughed. <Hardly. She's never joined anything smaller than the Church in her life; she won't even vote in primaries. If you capture her, it'll be because Visser Three's launched an open attack on South Dakota, not through the Sharing. See, that's why it's so special: she can't stand groups and activities like this, but she'll come to this one anyway, because it's important to me.>

<I see,> said Toloth. <And if she were willing to join the Sharing because that was important to you? Would that also be "special"?>

He saw sudden fear blaze up in Teresa's mind. <You don't mean you'd…>

<Just answer the question,> said Toloth coldly. He wasn't sure, himself, why he was asking; certainly it wasn't because he intended to make himself conspicuous by recruiting Agnes Chiodini for infestation. Perhaps he merely wished to convict Teresa of wishful thinking.

Teresa thought intensely for a moment or two. <Well,> she said slowly, <I'd be worried about her, of course, and I'd have to pray for her – actually, I should probably do that anyway – but I don't suppose that would change what it meant for her to do it. So yeah, I guess it would be special.>

It was as measured and realistic a response as any sentient being could have given. Toloth was vaguely annoyed.

There is nothing to be annoyed about, he reminded himself. Her capacity for judiciousness is not a threat to you. She is lesser; you are greater. She is subject; you are master.

And it was consoling, in its way. He had a feeling, though, that it would come to sound somewhat monotonous during the days ahead.
Last edited by Qoheleth on Mon May 07, 2012 4:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Tim Bruening » Sat Feb 11, 2012 1:52 am

Good story! Someone should write one about a devout Muslim preaching to Yeerks!

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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Tim Bruening » Mon Feb 13, 2012 3:03 pm

When is the next Sacred Host installment?

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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Tim Bruening » Sat Apr 07, 2012 12:32 pm

Happy Easter! This would be a good time to add to the Sacred Host story, as Theresa explains Easter to her temporary Yeerk guest! I expect that Theresa's proper Yeerk will soon get a Yeerk who is about to reenter his/her host to relay a message about his/her plight. Then the Yeerk police will track down Theresa and her temporary Yeerk to ask for an accounting.

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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Qoheleth » Mon May 07, 2012 4:39 pm

Chapter 26 - Speech Finely Framed

In the midst of all this, he heard the door swing open, and Teresa's father's voice rang out in the kitchen. "Well, well, this looks scrumptious," he said. "Trina, dear, you mind if I…"

"Don't you touch a thing, Clarence," Mrs. Sickles called, and turned to Toloth. "Teresa, honey, could you go and set the table? I think your father would have less temptation if someone were in there with him, even if it was just to fetch silverware."

"Sure," said Toloth. "Nana, where do you want to sit?"

"Oh, it doesn't matter," said Mrs. Chiodini. "Just find me a place, and I'll squeeze into it. Not at the head, though; I'm not out to usurp your parents."

"Mama, the dining table's round," said Mrs. Sickles.

"Well, all the more reason not to fuss about places, then," said Mrs. Chiodini.

<I'd put her across from Dad,> Teresa said as Toloth left the living room. <Mom and I would both want to sit next to her.>

<I am well aware what you would do, Teresa,> said Toloth sharply.

There was a momentary silence inside Teresa's brain; then its owner said, sullenly but nonetheless sincerely, <Sorry.>

Toloth didn't respond. He had actually wanted to say a good deal more – all about how Teresa's favored courses of action were not currently the issue, and how presumptuous it was of her to assume that someone who could read all her thoughts with perfect ease still needed her to tell him anything. But it had seemed to him that there was no way to say this without sounding, in his own ears, like Malcar Seven-Four-Five. So he had contented himself with the one sentence, which seemed to suffice to put Teresa in her place.

He did use her proposed seating arrangement, though. After all, it was what she would have done.
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"Bless us, O Lord," Mr. Sickles declaimed, "in these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord."

Toloth duly added Teresa's voice to the chorus of Amens that followed, though he wasn't at all clear on what the word meant. Indeed, he was rather mystified by the whole notion of begging favors from one's God every time one sat down to table; did humans consider eating such a momentous event as to invariably attract the attention of the Almighty?

Perhaps. Considering what they seemed able to make of it, Toloth was almost inclined to grant them the point. In all his lifetime of Kandrona, pond-weed, and unseasoned tree bark, he had never dreamed of anything like Catherine Sickles's cooking; here was food that appealed not only to the brute needs of the body, but also to the longing for order, for the harmonizing of diverse parts into a triumphant whole, that was the hallmark of the sentient mind. It was like the Andalite mating dance, or the breaching ritual of the Kaza'haa: the humans had taken one of the great intractable appetites of the animal nature, and made something out of it that could almost be called an art form.

Or, as Teresa put it, <More calories than you can shake a stick at, but it's worth every one of them.>

Nor, it seemed, was a human feeding period devoted solely to mere feeding. Perhaps they wanted to linger over their triumph (in contrast to host-bearing Yeerks, who equated feeding with vulnerability), or perhaps it was simply the principle that all the arts are of a spawn; in any event, Toloth had barely tasted the lamb before the table turned into a conversational forum.

It was Teresa's grandmother who set the thing in motion – unsurprisingly to Toloth, who had already gathered, from her previous conversation and from Teresa's memories, that Agnes Chiodini rarely lacked for things to say. After tasting the gravy-slathered gnocchi and pronouncing it superior to anything that John Chiodini's poor wife knew how to make ("not that Amy isn't a fine person in other ways"), she addressed herself to her son-in-law across the table. "Now, I want you to tell me something honestly, Clarence," she said, pointing her fork at him with a no-nonsense air. "In your opinion, do I look Jewish?"

Mr. Sickles seemed momentarily stunned. It didn't take much digging into Teresa's memories for Toloth to discover why; discussing the various sub-groupings of the human race was, it seemed, the greatest taboo of the current Earthly culture, and the people known as the "Jews" had a particularly sacrosanct status in this respect. There had apparently been some lurid assault upon them in recent history by another people, and, ever since, the peculiar sympathy that humans felt for the weak had rendered anything resembling irreverence or lightness, with respect to them, more or less unthinkable.

Such, at any rate, was what Teresa seemed to believe was the cause of her father's perplexity. The matter, however, was complicated, for the mention of "Jews" called up many other thoughts in Teresa's mind besides that of social convention. It seemed that the Jews were intimately connected with the cult of Jesus – that Jesus had, in fact, been a Jew himself, and that his worshippers viewed their religion as the culmination of this people's beliefs and practices. It also seemed, however, that the Jews constituted a rival religion to that of Jesus. How both things could be true at once, he wasn't clear – nor did he see how Malcar Eight-Four-Five could believe in the supernatural strength of the Christian religion if its parent people was so weak as to need a social taboo to preserve its dignity. He yearned to penetrate deeper into Teresa's mind and solve the riddle, but he knew that he couldn't afford the distraction; he dared not seem less attentive to the others at the table than Teresa would have been.

With an effort, he returned his attention to Mr. Sickles, and caught the tail end of his reply: "…say so, no. Why?"

"Well," said Mrs. Chiodini, "the other day, I was walking down Minnesota Avenue, and there was a young man handing out brochures for… something or other, I didn't notice what. Anyway, he kept wishing everyone who passed by, 'Merry Christmas!… Merry Christmas!' – and then, as I walked past, he gave me a knowing leer and said, 'Happy holidays.'"

Mrs. Sickles burst out laughing – a laugh that ended in a choked gasp, as she had happened to take a drink of water just at that moment. Mr. Sickles chuckled, too, and Toloth, though he only vaguely saw the point of the story, felt it wise to let out a stifled giggle himself.

"Now, Heaven knows I don't mind giving off the air of an Old-Testament matriarch," Mrs. Chiodini continued, "but I looked pretty carefully in the mirror when I got home that day, and for the life of me I couldn't see anything particularly Semitic about myself. So it seems to me there's a mystery here worth solving."

"I don't know about that," said Mr. Sickles thoughtfully. "I'd say it's pretty simple, actually. The surprising thing is that it's never happened to you before."

"Oh?"

"Well, living in Sioux Falls, I mean," said Mr. Sickles. "Pretty much everyone else up there is a German or a Swede, and here you come along with the Mediterranean written all over you. The poor fellow handing out brochures doesn't know one end of the Mediterranean from the other; he has to make a quick guess, and he knows that there's a synagogue somewhere in the city, so…" He shrugged. "Hard to blame him, really."

This seemed to strike Mrs. Chiodini as plausible. She took another forkful of gnocchi and nodded thoughtfully. "It could be, yes," she said. "Of course, I shouldn't really trust your explanations, Clarence, since finding clever excuses for people is how you earn your living, but in this case it really could be."

Mr. Sickles rolled his eyes. "You know, everyone says that about defense attorneys," he said, "but when they actually need one…"

"You know what I always thought was odd?" Mrs. Sickles, who had gotten her breath back, interjected. "The Jews celebrate Hanukkah, but they don't use the books of Maccabees in their Bible. We use the books of Maccabees in our Bible, but we don't celebrate Hanukkah. Now why is that?"

Mr. Sickles blinked. "Do you know, I never thought about that before," he said. "And I don't think I'm going to lose any sleep wondering about it, even now – but you're right, it does show what a funny thing life is."

"What do you mean, the Jews don't use 1 and 2 Maccabees?" said Mrs. Chiodini. "They're Old Testament, aren't they?"

"Deutero-canonical," said Mrs. Sickles. "They're part of that chunk that the Jerusalem rabbis took out because it sounded too Christian, and then Luther took out again because it sounded too Catholic."

"Ah." Mrs. Chiodini rolled her eyes. "Say no more. I'd forgotten that the Jews did that, too."

"So did Shakespeare, apparently," said Mrs. Sickles. "That's what got me thinking about it. I was watching EWTN this morning, while I was ironing; they had this historian on who thought that Shakespeare was actually one of those closet Catholics they had back then, and he mentioned how, in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock says something about one of the other characters being 'a Daniel come to judgment'. His point was that that had to refer to the story of Susanna, because that's the only place in Scripture where Daniel appears as a judge. And the host – I can't remember whether it was Fr. Pacwa or someone else; I'm pretty sure it was a Franciscan, anyway – he mentioned how incongruous it was for Shylock, of all characters, to make that reference."

Mr. Sickles shrugged. "Probably he was thinking the same way Mom was," he said, nodding to Mrs. Chiodini. "If it's in the Old Testament, a Jew ought to know about it. After all, it's not as though he could check with the rabbi down the street – and neither could his audience, for that matter."

Mrs. Sickles nodded gravely, and then turned and glanced quizzically at her daughter. "You're very quiet tonight, Teresa," she commented.

"Am I?" said Toloth faintly, glancing up from his plate with what he hoped looked like innocent surprise. The truth was that the conversation was simply moving too fast for his limited memory-referencing skills; in the span of perhaps three minutes, he had been presumed knowledgeable about Earth's ethnography, law, religion, history, literature, popular culture, and history again. Even a trained human-Controller, being thrust into such a milieu with only an hour's preparation, would have found the density a trifle overwhelming; for Toloth, it was a tsunami.

"Yes, you are," said Mrs. Sickles. "Usually, you'd have chimed in long before now – if only to remind me that I don't have to say deutero-canonical if St. Jerome didn't mind saying apocryphal."

Toloth tried not to wince at that newest faggot on the fire, but it took some doing. "Sorry," he murmured. "Just not in the mood, I guess."

Mrs. Sickles frowned. "Do you feel sick?" she said.

Toloth considered. There would be some advantages to feigning an illness – he would be left alone to do his research in peace, for one thing – but, on the other hand, Teresa being ill meant Teresa not showing up at the Sharing fête the next day, and questions might then be asked about her in the wrong circles. He wanted as few Yeerks as possible to even think about Teresa Sickles for the next three days; ergo, changing her schedule for his own convenience's sake was out of the question.

He shook her head. "No, not really," he said. "Just tired."

"Mm." Mrs. Sickles pursed her lips. "Well, maybe you need to excuse yourself and go lie down for a while. I'm sure there are at least three people at this table who'd be glad to finish your meal for you."

"Oh, no, I'm fine," said Toloth hastily. The lamb and gnocchi lay only half-finished on the plate in front of him, and it would have taken more than mere bewilderment to dampen his appreciation of them.

Mrs. Sickles laughed. "I thought you might be able to find the strength for that," she said. "Well, after dinner, then. We'll give you an hour or so to rest before we barge in and start setting up your room for Nana to sleep in, all right?"

Toloth nodded vaguely. "So I'm sleeping in the den while she's here?" he said.

"I was assuming so," said Mrs. Sickles. "Unless you're going to insist on keeping your room to yourself, which you've never done before when she's visited."

Toloth would have liked to so insist, but it was plain that refusing to make this small self-sacrifice would be utterly uncharacteristic of Teresa, so he merely acquiesced quietly and speared another piece of lamb. <Your family is very gifted at making things difficult, do you know that, Teresa?> he said.

Teresa laughed. <Well, you know what they say about tangled webs.>

This time, Toloth did catch the reference. He was not amused.
Last edited by Qoheleth on Sat Oct 12, 2013 9:45 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Sacred Host

Post by Qoheleth » Sat Jul 21, 2012 3:50 pm

Chapter 27 - Pious Reading

Mrs. Sickles's suspension of her household's Advent abstinence hadn't extended to preparing a dessert, so Toloth was able to slip away to Teresa's bedroom as soon as he had finished her gnocchi. Once there, he sat down on her bed and gave her bookshelf a critical once-over, correlating each volume, as he passed her eyes over it, with what she remembered about its contents.

Beginnings were important, he knew. Start off on the wrong foot when studying an alien culture, and you could find yourself a thousand light-years from what you really wanted to know. He couldn't afford to let that happen in this case.

So: from which of the various Christian authors on the shelves could the essential secret of Christianity's appeal be most easily extracted? He dismissed the various Bibles; unlocking their mysteries, as he knew from experience, required more expertise than he possessed. (Of course, he could have used Teresa's expertise, but that would have involved letting Teresa's mind influence his own, and that he was determined not to do. He would not be transformed.) The Catechism was likewise out; it was too encyclopedic, too factual. Toloth was looking, not for a series of ideas, but for the key to those ideas' collective appeal; in the back of his mind, he had a vague image of a secret handbook laying out the Church's strategy for world domination. (Had The Way been on Teresa's shelf, he likely would have selected it just because of Opus Dei's reputation.)

He eventually settled on The Imitation of Christ. It wasn't one of the books Teresa knew very well – she had attempted to read it at the age of eight, been overwhelmed, and had never returned to it before being infested – but she knew it was considered one of the world's great spiritual manuals, and that phrase seemed hopeful enough. He rose and took the small paperback from where it sat next to Misty of Chincoteague, then returned to the bed and settled down to seek his gnosis.
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At first, it seemed plain sailing. The book opened splendidly – just the way such a book as Toloth was seeking ought to open: "He that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness," saith the Lord. These are the words of Christ; and they teach us how far we must imitate His life and character, if we seek true illumination, and deliverance from all blindness of heart. And the second paragraph was even better: His teaching surpasseth all teaching of holy men, and such as have His Spirit find therein the hidden manna… He, therefore, that will fully and with true wisdom understand the words of Christ, let him strive to conform his whole life to that mind of Christ. The most esoteric mystery cult could hardly have put it better. All that remained was for Toloth to find out what sort of arcane knowledge the "Mind of Christ" consisted in, and then recast it so as to make it suitable for the likes of Gef and Oliss. What could be simpler?

But then the third paragraph came, and it all fell apart. Without a single word of warning, as though it flowed perfectly naturally from his previous statements, the human author began deriding the very notion that the way to please Jesus had anything to do with knowledge: What doth it profit thee to enter into deep discussion concerning the Holy Trinity, if thou lack humility, and thus be displeasing to the Trinity? For verily it is not deep words that make a man holy and upright; it is a good life that maketh a man dear to God… If thou knewest the whole Bible, and the sayings of all the philosophers, what should all this profit thee without the love and grace of God? "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," save to love God, and Him only to serve.

After a moment's discomposure, Toloth rallied, and rebuked himself for being so surprised. Teresa herself, after all, had emphasized to him that all the elaborate philosophy on which her religion seemed to be built was really secondary: What we're really about is making sure that people go to Heaven. The question was, could one persuade a poolful of izcots – and an unruly Hork-Bajir host – that the path to Heaven lay through quiet obedience to the Empire and its aims?

He read on. For a while, his quest seemed hopeful, as the author spent the remainder of the short chapter, and the whole of the next, rebuking ambition in its various forms and emphasizing the feebleness and insignificance of the mortal nature. That is the highest and most profitable lesson, when a man truly knoweth and judgeth lowly of himself – surely, that was a suitable thing to teach the lesser spawns? Any attempt they might make to get above themselves could then be rebuked by reminding them of their lowliness.

But then he got another check. He was in chapter 3 now, and the author was continuing his attack on intellectual pretensions, reminding his readers that acquaintance with the Eternal Word (that was Jesus, Toloth gathered) was the true source of knowledge. Which sounded very well, until, coiled up in the second paragraph like a gilhizee in a subfet bush, came the sentence: No man without Him understandeth or rightly judgeth.

At first, Toloth didn't see any special significance in this; it was simply one more expression of the basic sentiment that animated the whole passage. Then, when he was halfway through the next sentence, a sudden alarm bell went off in his mind, and his gaze darted back up the page. Yes, it said no man – and it said judgeth.

Toloth felt a chill go down his borrowed spine. For a moment, he had missed the implications of that – but he was quite sure that no izcot would. If no-one could rightly judge without knowing Jesus, it followed logically that all those in positions of authority ought, ideally, to be worshippers of Jesus – and, in any case, could be held to the same standards that worshippers of Jesus held themselves to. Which meant that there would be no use in attempting to keep the rabble submissive by exhorting them to humility, since they could legitimately ask whether the Council and the Visserarchy were likewise abasing themselves in their own thoughts.

Decidedly, that aspect of the thing would have to be suppressed – but, then, that meant suppressing the whole line of thought that had seemed so promising. To remove the idea that all sellithik were poor, frail, and utterly dependent on Jesus was to remove the only reason Jesus's worshippers had to be humble. (Toloth did momentarily wonder whether one might not tell the izcots that the Emperor was himself a manifestation of Jesus, but then he discarded the notion. In other circumstances, it might conceivably have worked, but Oliss knew perfectly well that Teresa both hated the Empire and loved Jesus. So that was no good.)

He soldiered on, hoping that the author would supply some solution to this problem. But it seemed that he was doomed to disappointment; if anything, the text got more alarming as he went on. [L]et all creation keep silence before Thee; speak Thou alone to me: that was hardly the sort of thing one wanted an Imperial subject saying to a human deity, or to anyone who wasn't an official mouthpiece of the Empire. The spirit that is pure, sincere, and steadfast… doth all things to the honour of God: how likely was it that Imperial edicts would always be concerned to honor the human God? He is truly great who deemeth himself small, and counteth all height of honour as nothing: by the fires of Kandrona, that condemned the Empire's entire policy at one stroke!

By the end of the third chapter, Toloth was ready to scream with frustration. What was the matter with this religion? In every respect, it was gentler, milder, and more self-sacrificing than even the most humane of non-Earthly cults, and yet its very gentleness seemed to carry the power to destroy and remake whole worlds. How could you govern people who were more concerned to serve Jesus than to satisfy any desires of their own? If you threatened to torture them unless they obeyed you, they would simply accept the torture, believing that – how had the Kempis human put it – It is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh and be led by them, for this shall bring misery at the last. Even if you killed them, they would prefer that to submission: It is vanity to desire a long life, and to have little care for a good life.

Of course, not all Jesus-worshippers would necessarily show that level of conviction (though Toloth suspected that all the ones he had met that day would). But that wasn't the issue. Merely believing that he ought to have that sort of conviction made a person a risk – and how could you persuade someone who cared about Jesus not to believe it? (Particularly someone who had actually been inside Teresa Sickles's mind; one could scarcely hope to persuade Oliss that Jesus didn't demand courageous self-sacrifice.)

And, as Toloth arrived at this dismal conclusion, he heard a knock on the bedroom door, and Teresa's father poked his head in. "How are you doing, chickadee?" he said. "Feeling a little fresher now?"

Toloth forced Teresa's face into a contented smile. "Yeah, I guess so," he said.

Mr. Sickles glanced at the book in his daughter's hands, and chuckled. "Trying the Imitation again, are you?" he said.

Toloth nodded. "I figured it was about time," he said.

"Well, good for you," said Mr. Sickles. "Anyway, it's time to set up the den, so grab what you'll need and come on. And bring your rosary; your mother has a special intention tonight."
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Author's note: All quotations from the Imitation are taken from the Christian Library translation.
Last edited by Qoheleth on Sat Sep 07, 2013 6:59 am, edited 1 time in total.