Brother Esteban looks up from the book in front of him and lets his eyes wander over the scenery. Forested mountains run roughly east to west here, and Esteban is looking at the ridge-line from the south. Rivers descend from the snow-covered peaks into the forests and run mile after mile, winding this way and that, and disappear from view in the bosoms of the mountains.
Brother Esteban's book lies in front of him, on the table, and it is surrounded by the books of the other Brothers. They sit at a long table on the roof of the monastery and read. It's a cloud-free day, so Brother Esteban's hood is up over his clean-shaven head, the brown material is very warm from the sitting out in the sun.
Esteban takes out a small mirror, holds it in front of himself and plays with it. His fingers toss the mirror around, flip it across knuckles, spin it. Esteban faces his book, but his eyes follow the mirror. After a few seconds, his hand pauses its fidgeting and Esteban holds it still for a breath, a second, a third.
The mirror is trained on a non-assuming spot in the sky, and Esteban squints, wills his eyes to see and his brain to understand.
A handful of blink-and-you-miss-it flashes come from the non-assuming spot in the sky.
Brother Esteban counts the flashes and eyes Brother Darius, then starts again to fidget with the mirror, turns a page in his book. The book is a treatise on river frogs, and seems (to Brother Esteban) to have been scrapped together by frauds who had little understanding of frogs, had likely only seen one from a distance. But the book came in on the weekly supply run, and of course he needed to read it. Through inference and the obviously fake species names, Esteban has been able to conclude that this tome was written by a duo of siblings who-
A raspy voice comes from the funnel at the head of the table. At the funnel's small end is Brother Polo in his capacity as organizer. "Brother Darius, please repeat the last two sections."
Brother Darius flips back pages, then carefully smooths out the book and begins reading once again. His posture is upright, his hands lie on either side of the book, the thumbs alone touching the volume, and that only to keep the current pages flat.
The rest of the brothers go back to their own reading, but there is a noticeable shift as spines straighten and heads rise up. Brother Esteban puts the mirror away and concentrates on frog eating habits.
About a quarter of an hour later, the Brother Polo rasps out another command: "Brother Esteban, please answer the following questions," and slides across a chalkboard with a piece of chalk. The brothers closest to the end of the table pass the chalkboard from one to the other, until it's in front of Brother Esteban.
The board has two questions on it:
- "How many species have teeth?"
- "What is the name of the younger author?"
Brother Esteban picks up the chalk and quickly writes the name "Beatrix" next to the second question. He then starts flipping through the tome, stopping at pages seemingly at random, and after a few minutes writes the number "4" next to the first question. He then passes the chalkboard back up to Brother Polo.
Brother Esteban stands up and walks over toward the side of the roof where Brother Polo sits with the Contraption. Brother Esteban takes out a pipe, carefully and slowly fills it, and lights up, all the while watching Brother Polo out of the corner of his eye. To all outward appearances, though, Brother Esteban has been staring off into the distance while trying to light his pipe in the wind.
The Contraption sits atop a burning candle, and this sits on a table in the corner of the roof. Every few minutes, Brother Polo moves the Contraption along one axis or another, according to a pre-written schedule. The warmth of the candle on the bottom and water within the bowels work together and somehow power the Contraption, Brother Esteban assumes. It seems to be made from thin metal, and in some instances the metal is wound multiple times around another piece. Some piece spins inside the Contraption. It isn't visible, but is audible. Aside from these observations, Brother Esteban hasn't had time to analyze the Contraption to figure out what it does and how it does this.
(Brother Esteban has stopped by numerous shops, on many trips, and has never seen such an apparatus. He has to assume that this is one of Brotherhood's secrets.)
The Contraption has a bulb at the top and a lever at the bottom. The bulb can be in two states: clear, or red. The lever also has two states: up, or down. At times the bulb changes states, and at times Brother Polo touches the lever, but both do not happen at the same time. There is an order to the operation of the Contraption, Brother Esteban concludes.
Brother Polo looks over the chalk marks on the board and plays with the lever. Brother Esteban closes his eyes, smokes his pipe, and listens to the clatter of the lever. After Brother Polo is done playing with the Contraption, Brother Esteban dumps out his pipe and goes back to his reading.
The rest of the afternoon goes by without any more corrections or tests. Brother Esteban does not have to smoke again. Brother Polo clangs a bell to signal the end of the study period and the brothers slowly begin to leave the sun-baked roof. Brother Darius lingers, is the last to start packing up his things, and Brother Esteban hangs back as well. He is moving slowly out of shame, Brother Esteban thinks.
"Brother Darius, what are you reading these days?" Brother Esteban is quiet and blends in with the environment, so Darius did not notice his form and is surprised, but pleasantly so.
"Observations on Jupiter, Volume Two. It is... fascinating, but challenging." Darius hangs his head in shame, for a moment. "Yourself, Esteban?"
"The march of the frogs continues, unabated." Brother Esteban holds up the volume he is reading. "Do you have supper plans? I would love to hear about Jupiter. Is it up now?" Brother Esteban looks up into the dimming sky, swings his head from side to side.
"It's going down now, should be close to the horizon, but maybe we can still catch it," Darius walks over to Esteban and extends a finger toward a mountain peak. A faint light is visible just a few degrees up from the mountain. Darius moves his hand and points higher up in the sky: "And there's Saturn, and you can even see Venus."
They walk downstairs through the winding stairwell to the library and turn in their books, then head over to the main hall and join a small line at the kitchen window. Brother Darius is describing some of the mythological history behind Jupiter, his prominence in the Roman state. Brother Esteban is enthralled. The two take their food out on the veranda and talk late into the night.
"The clouds will be heavy tomorrow," Brother Esteban observes eventually. "No reading. We could go on an overnight trip?"
"Oh. I was..." Darius' voice drops down an octave into a sort of excited whisper, "I was going to read ahead. It's against the rules, I know, but the mathematical side of things is so difficult for me."
"Sweet silly Darius. When you've been here for as long as I have, you figure out when it's good to follow the rules, and when it's good to ignore them." Brother Esteban moves his hand to Darius' thigh. Darius looks down and his eyes lit up.
"Umm, a trip, that would be... great!" Darius squeaks out.
They set out early the following day, under the correctly-predicted clouds, and through the winding passes they travel to the small Spider Lake up in the mountains. All through the trip, Darius continues to recount details about Jupiter, and Esteban eats it up.
They set up camp between the lake and a forest. It's late afternoon and they watch the sunset side by side, their shoulders touching, Darius leaning slightly on Esteban. Darius points out Jupiter, just over the horizon and going down, lower in the sky. Esteban makes the first move and kisses Darius.
During the night, as they spooning in the small tent, Darius asks: "How long have you been in the order?"
Brother Esteban answers: "Since my age of reason. As as I child, I saw the Star of Bethlehem. I tried telling the adults at the orphanage, but they ignored me. They thought I was hallucinating, and eventually even I wondered about that. They didn't believe what I saw, and I couldn't explain it well enough. But I saw the Star of Bethlehem, and I followed it, and it lead me to the monastery. And here I have found my purpose."
Darius is quiet for a moment. "Purpose? To sit there and read books about frogs?" He is incredulous, bordering on offended.
"Through us, God is reading these books. We get to glimpse the mind of God. How can you not be happy with that?"
"What, do you suppose, God is thinking about right now?" Darius is skeptical.
"God is curious about us, people. God wants to understand us better. So God is, with us, reading books about topics God is an expert on, but humans are not. These books say more about us than you think. Consider your Jupiter reading. God surely knows that planet inside and out, God birthed it, after all. But through reading our observations and theories, God can understand us better. Same with my book on frogs: tis a trifle, a silly book written by a pair of royal jokers who wished to have a laugh, and thus they put out a fake atlas of frogs. To God, that atlas tells much about the writers and the intended audience. That book," Esteban waved in the direction of the monastery, "was written by two royal siblings by the names of Beatrix and Leopold. That is a fact that God knew way before the book came to us. But now, God also knows that I know, and thanks to my understanding, God understands the sort of breadcrumbs that the siblings left as clues to their identities."
The next day they get up early, have another go, then are back to the monastery by lunch time. Later in the evening is the first feast of the Celebration. The Celebration is the yearly gathering of the Brotherhood. Brothers come together and reflect on the work all have done this year, as well as on the Brotherhood itself.
Late in the evening and after a few mugs of ale or wine, Darius corners Esteban, literally and figuratively, at the edge of the garden wall. "What are we? Where is this going?" Darius waves a hand between the two, but cautiously enough that no other Brothers notice.
Esteban smiles. "We're going to figure that out together. Soon."
"Let's go after the toasts? They won't miss us." Brother Darius makes use of the privacy of the garden wall to reach under Brother Esteban's robe and emphasize the obvious: an overnight trip, this early in the Celebration, would not be noticed, and can be just a barrel of fun. Darius practically jumps Esteban right there and then.
"I can't leave early," Brother Esteban replies, "I have to attend a talk tomorrow morning." Darius looks crestfallen, so Esteban kisses him, quickly and surreptitiously. "Aww, don't look so sad, sweet sweet Darius. I know a wonderful camping spot. It will be beautiful. The sunsets are angelic."
They agree on the new destination and return to the first night festivities.
In the morning Esteban is waylaid by an impromptu conversation with some senior brothers, so Darius sets out on his own for the camping spot. Esteban will follow when he is able.
Darius travels north toward the new destination that Brother Esteban mentioned. The way forward is up through the mountains. Darius sighs at the arduous walk but pushes on. He thinks of Brother Esteban, remembers waking up yesterday morning and the mind-blowing orgasms, and his stomach pulls a strange number on him. If I was a woman, I'd wonder longingly if I was already pregnant, Darius muses jokingly.
Darius travels through the mountains, over two close peaks, and finally arrives at the edge of a small lake. There is a half-buried or half-completed structure by the lake. Darius moves into the strange lodging and sets up camp within the ruins. Then he makes a fire and prays for a while. Every hour or so Darius gets up and walks a short circle around the lake, which doesn't take too long. The lake is in a strange shape, one that reminds Darius of something, but he can't quite put his finger on what.
A tall pillar of smoke announces Brother Esteban. The dark clouds seem to be centered around the monastery. Brother Esteban comes out of the horizon soon after the column of smoke stands up. Darius watches with curiosity, elation, and sexual desire.
Brother Esteban makes it to the camp much faster than Darius imagined. Brother Esteban rides a horse, one the handful the monastery keeps. Brother Darius is surprised. Why did I think Esteban does not know how to ride? Darius ponders. Then Brother Esteban is in the camp and the two embrace.
"That looks like a bad fire," Darius nods in the direction of the monastery. "What happened?"
"Some of the arriving Brothers seem to have an aversion to water, or behave as they do, so Brother Polo has started a bonfire of unhygienic robes. That's going along as well as you can imagine," Brother Esteban smiles in a way that Darius has come to associate with naughtiness of one kind or another. They kiss.
Afterwards, Darius lies naked on the grass, a thick wool blanket covering up his lower half, and watches the sunset. Brother Esteban sits opposite, on the other side of the fire, and makes chalk marks on a large board that he'd brought from the monastery. Darius doesn't ask what Brother Esteban is writing, he is just content to listen to the pleasantly relaxing sound of chalk being dragged across rock. Or perhaps Darius is happy to pretend that Brother Esteban is drawing him, but Brother Esteban has never shown himself to be artistic. Still, Brother Darius holds out a bit of hope.
"You know that two royals wrote the frog book?" Brother Darius asks, breaking up a long companionable silence.
"Right," Brother Esteban nods, "And their names."
"How?" Darius holds up a hand to block out the sun and squints at Brother Esteban. It's a question that has plagued him for a little while now.
"That... is a very good question," Esteban replies. He adds a few more chalk marks to the tablet, then finally looks up at Brother Darius. "The patterns of speech, the level of education, the not-too-well-hidden inside jokes, all of these I was able to pick up from the writing. But it was slow going, all of those details are buried under mounds of bullshit about frogs. I knew there were two authors because their writing style was slightly different, but I only figured out their names a few days ago. It came to me after a dream." Esteban looks around - his movements exaggerated in a very theatrical way, as after all they are alone in a wilderness - and whispers: "I also read the books in my spare time." Esteban smiles, and Darius beams back.
Then Darius' expression goes sour and he stares into the fire between them. "I've been thinking about this... for a while. Why does God need us to read books? God is everywhere. God was there when these books were written." Darius looks up, tears welling up in his eyes, lips on the verge of tears, at Brother Esteban and says without speaking "Why?" over and over again.
Brother Esteban looks around, as if he is about to tell a risque joke, but then remembers something and relaxes. "Your main assumption is wrong. God wasn't there when the books were written." Esteban spreads his hands to encompass the camp and the overall mountain around them. "God isn't even here now. He can't see us, can't hear us."
Darius sits up on the blanket. "What are you talking about? God is everywhere!"
"Sure, sure, the one known as Yahweh, that one is everywhere. But Yahweh doesn't give a shit about these books. No, I'm talking about the God who organized this Brotherhood, the God that two days ago told you to re-read a page, the same God who asked me for answers I didn't realize I had. That God isn't here right now. God stepped out. Will be back tomorrow."
Darius sits on the blanket and stares blankly at Brother Esteban. Darius can't understand this sudden flip, this incongruent - to him, at this moment in their relationship - behavior from Esteban, this heresy and worse.
After a moment Darius regains his composure enough to be curious. "Who do you read for? Who do you serve?"
"I've been reading for Jupiter. But I no longer serve it, not anymore." Esteban stands up and walks toward the lake. He needs to pass through a half-built wall to get there. "This," he says as he steps through the buried wall, "used to be the monastery's old sacrificing grounds, but that tradition has been dispensed with, so we've stopped coming back here. You probably didn't know that."
Darius shakes his head.
"The things this world will lose once we move on. They say that a man suffers two deaths. The first, when our body is in the ground. And the second, the last time our name is spoken aloud. We will soon be gone, and with us all of this," Esteban spreads his hands around the campsite, "all of this history will be gone."
"Are you talking about something happening soon?"
"Soon enough. We have about ten hours to go, before Jupiter comes back."
Esteban walks over to the blanket that Darius is sitting on. "Lie down, relax..." Esteban speaks in soft tones and moves the blanket off Darius' lap.
Darius contemplates refusing, is thinking about saying "no" and getting some more information... but Esteban is very persuasive.
"You don't speak German, right?" Esteban asks Darius after dinner. They eat cheese and meats from the monastery and are drinking the locally-made wine and beer.
"No, not at all." Darius' eyes fall on the chalkboard that Esteban has been writing on. He has been sneaking glances at it for the past few hours, but so far hasn't had long enough with it to decipher what it says.
Esteban pulls it closer and moves it so that Darius can clearly see it. German-looking font fills the board. It's just a handful of lines of text.
"What does it say?"
"I am offering Jupiter a deal. He will give me immortality. And I will let him out of his prison."
"Do you know how to get him out this prison?"
"No, I don't have a clue."
"So why do you think he'll take the deal?"
"Because I've destroyed the Brotherhood, so if he wants humans to help him out, and in secret, he has to start his search over. So he either starts over with me, or with the Brotherhood once again. He either kills you, or he kills me. That's the deal."
Darius wants to ask how Esteban knows this, but he then remembers the book about the frogs. While Jupiter was reading the books with us, Esteban was reading Jupiter, figuring out who was giving orders and why. Darius considers Esteban with a renewed distaste.
Darius beds down inside the tent, and draws tight the strings that hold the front flap closed. Esteban, thankfully, does not press the issue and sleeps outside, under the stars. Darius wonders for a bit whether to let Esteban in, for a midnight romp. Some parts of his soul want this, some parts are still suspicious and alarmed at Esteban's actions. But Darius falls asleep before he can arrive at a decision.
Around sunrise Esteban clears off some soil off a patch of camp and reveals a circular opening some six feet across. He kicks some rocks out of the circle, pulls a pile of leaves out of one edge, and quickly gets about a foot of space inside the circle. Esteban then goes and finds a second such spot. He removes a layer of dirt and leaves, but doesn't bother going too deep.
He then takes his horse a quarter mile down the road, ties it up to a tree that's visible from the campsite.
Esteban comes back and waves Darius into the circle closest to him. Darius moves, then quickly regrets his decision as Esteban ties up Darius' hands and legs. Esteban then goes and sits in the other circle.
"These two were sacrifice sites, and so depending on which one was 'taken', the farmers-"
"I don't really want to know how I'm going to die!" Darius interrupts Esteban. "But can you please explain... why me?"
"Jupiter is a fan of yours, Darius. Not quite sure what it sees in you, but you know the old saying. Anyway, Jupiter was planning on kicking you up through the ranks, before I burned down all the ranks. You are also easily controllable. One raised eyebrow and you'd follow me off a cliff." Esteban chuckles to himself.
They sit in a chilly silence.
The sun is up, and with it is the Morning Star, Venus. Darius waits and watches as Jupiter ascends through the mountain peaks. The first time in his life that Darius finds it vitally important to watch Jupiter ascend.
The chalkboard with the German message is within Esteban's circle, but currently it is obscured by his robe. Esteban is wearing a simple trader's outfit, a brown leather number, something he brought in last night. Possibly taken from the returning brothers, Darius thinks sourly.
Esteban whips the robe off chalkboards, then lights a timing candle and puts the pin at the hour and a half mark, then sets the whole thing down inside the circle, where it is shielded from the wind.
"What now?" Darius asks.
"Now, we wait. It takes three quarters of an hour for Jupiter to see us. Time to think, to judge us, to confirm that the monastery is a smoking crater. Then, three quarters again for his response to get here. An hour and a half later, total, we may have our answer."
"What form will this answer take?" Darius asks.
"Now you care?" Esteban gives a smoldering Look.
"Go right ahead, asshole."
"Well. Jupiter doesn't have too many options here. It can shine a really bright light, which comes in handy when it's talking with the senior brothers, or when it's annihilating one of the offered sacrifices."
Darius looks around the circle he's in, then looks at Esteban's.
"Right, there you go. If he takes my offer, he has to kill you. If he rejects my offer and goes with the Brotherhood then he kills me and tells you to start rebuilding."
"My God. You've thought this one through and through."
"I had a lot of time to think about this. Jupiter seems to communicate using very red light. My eyes are different than yours. You cannot see very red light, but I can. Am I a mutant? So, thanks to my 'gift', I saw this Star of Bethlehem whenever Jupiter spoke to the Brotherhood. None of the adults could see it, of course. Nobody listened to me. So I sought Them out. I traveled twice around this planet, looking for the Brotherhood. Searching for a weakness. Waiting, for my chance."
"Want me to give you a standing ovation or something? Great job, you psycho. And what about us? You and me. We had something!"
"Not really. I was mainly in it to manipulate you. You were a pretty lousy lay, if I'm being honest."
Darius shifts so he is looking at Jupiter and away from Esteban. Esteban is looking in the same direction.
They have long since dropped the "Brother" from their speech.
Darius has many questions, but he is determined to not give Esteban the satisfaction. He is also hoping that this whole Jupiter thing is just a delusion, but then he has to accept that he had amazing sex with a deranged maniac who just yesterday killed a hundred people and burned down a monastery. Either that, or accept that he was being manipulated by a damn planet!
The candle melts faster and the the pin clangs down into a metal dish.
The air is hot as embers, and full of smoke. Everything is either smoldering or already on fire. It's also incredibly bright, so bright that even with his eyes shut, Esteban is blinded by the light.
This is it, Esteban thinks, Jupiter rejects my offer. He is going to kill me and spare Darius. And, honestly, I'm more than fine with this-
It is pitch dark again. Esteban fears opening his eyes, but does so.
The camp site is smoldering around him. Jupiter's blast annihilated everything for a hundred feet. Except for Esteban and his circular pit.
He looks over to the other sacrifice spot. A twisted dark form lies there. Esteban moves to cover it with his robe, but the dark shape disintegrates into ash upon contact.
Esteban finally really takes a look around. The chalk tablet has row after row of various shapes burned into it. That'll take a bit to decipher, Esteban considers, then puts the tablet aside for a moment.
Esteban looks over toward the monastery and notices a new column of smoke that begins to rise over the mountain peaks. He takes out a hand-drawn map of the region and reminds himself of the course down to civilization.
Esteban looks in the direction of Jupiter and smiles.