Credence Foundation
Author:Marco Guarda

Chapter Twenty-Three



Benedict and Trumaine stood in the same positions they occupied in the bottom of the chamber, only they now wore golden spacesuits.

A naked, scorching sun bore low on the horizon, sweeping a barren landscape engulfed in red rocks and dust. The oceans and the rivers that had once flowed here had long since evaporated; not even the intricate, immense arabesque of their dried-out beds had remained—it had been wiped away by the thousand craters impacting rocks had chipped into the surface for a billion years.

Nothing lived here. The extreme conditions of the planet were too much for anything to grow except, maybe, for some forgotten bacteria which lay frozen under the shelter and the relative cool that could be found at the poles.

Here and there, only the trained eye would tell the rocks from the rusted-out shells of the machines that mankind had sent from Earth in the one failed attempt at mining the planet, more than fifty years before.

A surface rife with Helium-3 and the huge ores of iron and magnesium that lay underneath it, waiting to be exploited, were prospect of gain big enough for the corporations to finance the whole program: the first who had set foot on the planet would have dictated the market price for the mined gas and metals and the rest of the world would have just paid it. All in all, a very promising investment.

Automatic drills had been designed, built and launched into the poles of the planet in the long night that shrouded it.

The drills were supposed to harvest in the relative cool of the shadow, then send back the processed minerals through space. For a while, all went according to plan, until an electromagnetic storm of epic proportions had cut off all communications, abandoning the drills in the forgotten plains where they had been sent mining. When, a couple of months later, the scorching sun had risen, everything had turned into a crucible—drills included. While the steel the drills were made of was engineered to endure extreme heat, the circuits it contained were not—they had melted and fried in moments. As time went by, the machines had rusted out and thick layers of dust had covered them—now they looked exactly like the rocks that surrounded them.

That was it for the machine, but what about man?

There was no way a man could survive the extreme heat of the day or the freezing cold of the night. Even special thermally-insulated suits would offer very little protection. Being alive after twenty minutes’ exposure to direct sunlight at noon was without a doubt a generous concession.

The sun cast its unbearable beam of heat at the shielded helmet visors that both Benedict and Trumaine wore.

Neither had moved; they were still beside themselves with surprise, too much awed and horrified to react or say anything.

Only after a while, they came to.

“It can’t be ...” said Benedict.

Trumaine heard the voice inside his helmet—he tapped it with the bulky glove that wrapped his hand, realizing that the suits were radio connected.

“What is this?” asked Trumaine.

Benedict didn’t say anything, he just broke into a creepy, sonorous laughter. He went on for a while.

“Stop it!”

Benedict didn’t seem to hear Trumaine, or he wasn’t listening; he just kept laughing his head off.

The minutes crawled by and the heat rose steadily inside their suits. That brought Benedict back to reason—and to the inevitable conclusion that they were going to die very soon.

He turned to Trumaine with a sneer.

“Don’t you recognize it?” asked Benedict, motioning for all that lay around him. “Haven’t they shown you the pictures, back at school? Too bad in all these years nobody has colonized it for us. Welcome to Mercury, Detective! The sun is still low, but it will rise—too soon, I’m afraid. I’m no mercurial expert, but I’d say we have still ten minutes before it kills us ...”

He was overwhelmed by the tragic hilarity of it all; again, the laughter rose from inside him—this time, it turned to a convulsed cough.

“What have you done!?” asked Trumaine.

Benedict made one step, then another, approaching Trumaine. He gave him a consolatory pat on his back.

“I’m afraid I haven’t done anything—your friend has done it all ...”

“My friend? Who are you talking about?”

“Don’t you realize, you idiot?” growled Benedict.

“That little bitch has sent us up here! To die! We’re done for!”

For the third time, laughter flooded in Benedict’s throat; when he spoke again, his voice was a raspy wheeze.

“God only knows I tried to stop her! I tried hard! But she won!”

Benedict looked at the scorching sun, as if he was lost in thought, then he turned to Trumaine.

“With your help! Couldn’t you just take your fucking Aquarian citizenship and leave the planet for good? You couldn’t! Couldn’t you just be used and disappear once and for all? You couldn’t! You wanted to carry out a fair investigation!”

Benedict sneered. Then, with a bitter note, “Your ardor has killed us both ...”

Trumaine wondered if Benedict was right. Could it be that poor, innocent Faith, kind and friendly Faith, the same Faith who was so eager to help Jarva in the noble intent of bringing Raili back to life, had planned their premature demise? Had she really been conspiring against them all the time? Did she use the unlimited powers of the unaware believers to send them on a forgotten planet to die, getting rid of two major obstacles in her way?

Trumaine couldn’t believe that. What was going on, then?

“You and your accomplice killed Jarva.” he said. “Jarva had a crawler, but you had your own, it was Gromer. It’s he who interfered with the Main Belief, and it’s he who sent the Hibiscus astray, isn’t it?”

Benedict, still sore about Faith, didn’t say anything.

“But Gromer wasn’t acting of his own mind. He was just obeying ... your ... orders ...”

Trumaine’s last words had come out with a considerable effort. It took just a moment for him to realize that something wasn’t quite right with his breathing.

“I can’t ... breathe ...”

Benedict shook his dizzy head and slumped onto a rock—he too was lacking air.

“I told you ... We’re gonna die ... up here ...”

Trumaine wobbled to another boulder and dropped on it; they stood there for a while, looking at each other, getting their breath back.

“It was Gromer who caused the ripple that sent the Hibiscus off course ... Isn’t that so? You could have killed them all, Benedict—Men ... women ... babies ...”

To Trumaine’s surprise, a tiniest sigh came from Benedict’s suit. Was it regret? Trumaine wasn’t sure, but he pressed on.

“You, the one person responsible for their lives, the man the TSA and the Federal Authority entrusted all those lives with ... The very man who should have watched over their journey, making it as safe as it was possible, you almost killed them ... You failed your purpose, Benedict ...”

To Trumaine’s dismay, the minutes crawled by in absolute silence. After all, Benedict wouldn’t admit a darned thing—that was it. He had shot his last bolt and he had missed—nothing would ever scratch Benedict’s monolithic, impervious personality. He shook his head in defeat and glanced over at the quickly rising sun.

It was a long, maddening wait—a wait for death ...

Then, unexpectedly, a voice broke the silence: it was a voice full of regret, of bitterness and, possibly, of shame—It was Benedict’s voice.

“Gromer wasn’t properly trained for the job. He was clumsy, yes. He caused the ripple. When I first heard that the Hibiscus was lost, I was horrified. I was overwhelmed, I didn’t know what to do. I thought that, maybe, I should tell Federal Authority what had just happened, because it wasn’t really Gromer’s fault—as you said, it was mine. But I did it for a good reason—I did it to save Credence ...”

Trumaine couldn’t believe his ears, Benedict had yielded at last. He turned slowly, knowing he had just found Benedict’s weak spot: it was the same thing that made him so strong—responsibility.

Responsibility would make him stand out proudly, giving him the strength to fight relentlessly for his beliefs—the rule of the Federal Authority. At the same time, the weight of the responsibility for the million souls that Credence flushed everyday all over the universe, had become unbearable.

It was the responsibility for the loss of the Hibiscus which, in those three days, had been gnawing away at Benedict’s cockiness and self-assuredness, so hard and so deep he had snapped at last.

“Why did you kill Jimmy Boyd?” asked Trumaine.

Benedict sighed. “He overheard us ... Gromer and me. Gromer thought it was better if there weren’t any witnesses; he entered Boyd’s mind and forced him to hang himself ...”

“What about the wiring on Gromer’s body? It was a shield. Do you wear one too?”

Trumaine scowled at Benedict’s nod. More questions whirled in the detective’s head, waiting for an answer but, this time, he didn’t need to ask them—Benedict was like a broken dam.

“He deliberately showed her to me. He invited me to his bunker and showed Raili to me. He had succeeded in his plan—she was alive. We both knew that in the time it took me to report him, he would have hidden her again. He was defying the law of the Federal Authority—he was defying ... me.”

“You knew he must have used a telepath, so you got your own: Gromer. It wasn’t too complicated, Jarva had shared with you his finds when he was allowed in Credence. You had to punish him, you needed to make an example of him, but you needed to do it in such a way that Jarva’s telepath took all the blame. You always knew about Faith, Gromer told you. You had Gromer duplicate Faith’s toy doll so all clues led to her. And it was also Gromer, according to your orders, who tried to kill me and Faith on the freeway.”

Benedict nodded in agreement at all of Trumaine’s statements, then looked into the distance, at the blazing disc of the sun.

Inside it, towering flames a hundred thousand miles high danced savagely, throbbing and flaring, lunging at each other like immense battling dragons; they burned down and then again were reborn, flaming eternally—like phoenixes. It was both overwhelming and exhilarating, a prelude and warning to what the long mercurial morning would have been.

“You’ve done a good job, Detective,” said Benedict. “You deserve that citizenship. Pity you won’t live long enough to enjoy it.”

Sucking on the last pockets of air trapped in their suits, the two studied each other in absolute silence—they would be dead in a couple of minutes now and they both knew it—

“You’re wrong ...”

The words had come from Trumaine’s mouth, sounding as casual and negligible as a remark about the weather, but they were as solid and inescapable as the steel rods of a cage that’s being slammed shut on a cunning prey.

Benedict was stunned—as the seconds crawled by, his brain whirred like mad, trying to call Trumaine’s bluff—but he couldn’t.

Aware of the trap he had fallen into, Benedict leaped to his feet and, using his last strength, he ran.

Trumaine lost no time and chased after him with a tired groan—it was the surreal, awkward race of two octogenarians lost in a boundless, alien land.

Benedict bolted toward a previously unseen crest that ended abruptly in a vertiginous drop off: the rock face fell for more than a mile, before it met a massive basalt plate buried in dust. Benedict stood on the edge of the cliff for a moment, considering what was best for him. He peeked over his shoulder at Trumaine, who was approaching fast and ... stepped over.

“NOOO!” cried Trumaine, as Benedict plummeted.

With a running jump, Trumaine vaulted over after him, catching him in mid-air. Clinging to each other, they fell in the almost endless drop.

As they went, the sun finally rose, chasing away the shadows where falling Trumaine and Benedict hid, burning everything behind them. The higher the sun got in the sky, the quicker the shadows receded, slipping away from around them—soon, even the last finger of darkness shielding them from the scorching sun vanished, leaving them exposed to the daylight.

With a glare full of dread, Trumaine and Benedict realized that their suits were overheating—they saw them smoke—soon, they would burn inside them.

Benedict looked through the visor of his helmet at Trumaine. “You have been a decent adversary,” he conceded.

“Fuck you, old bastard! I’m not going to die with you!” shouted Trumaine, angrily. Then he looked up at the mercurial sky and cried out loud:

“MATTHEWS!? CAN YOU HEAR ME? YOU BETTER BRING US BACK NOW! THERE’S NO WAKING FROM THIS ONE!”

Benedict grinned at seeing the bottom of the pit approach at mind-boggling speed. It was a little consolation but, at least, his worthy adversary was going to be destroyed with him.

“MATTHEWS! WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU? M-A-A-A-T-T-H-E-E-E-W-S-S-S!”

Trumaine’s eyes opened wide at seeing that his sizzling suit had started to crumple and crack—even his helmet was fissuring now—he could hear the last air hiss through it ...

That really was it—

One second before they hit the basalt floor of the canyon and were reduced to a pulp ... they vanished.

Trumaine’s and Benedict’s tangled bodies flickered and materialized in a mysterious whiteness; the spacesuits that had been shiny and golden no more than fifteen minutes before, were now dull and blackened, billowing from the many holes and rips in them, through which the still smoldering layers of reflective metal and combusted insulating fabric could be glimpsed.

Trumaine and Benedict didn’t dare to move; they just stood there, enjoying the comfort of the new environment, because it was cool and it contained air.

As Trumaine’s eyes grew accustomed to the brightness, he realized they were back at Credence. In fact, this must be the huge test room where he had seen the fresh believers summon the large barbed palm along with its ill-fated scaled salamander.

A movement from beneath him reminded Trumaine he was still slumped across Benedict—he was squirming under the detective’s body, trying to extricate himself.

Trumaine rolled aside and they both lay on their backs; they drew long, replenishing gulps of air for a while then, when they had enough, they made an attempt at sitting up—

And found themselves looking into the aimed muzzles of five high-powered tasers held by the same number of heavily armed guards. Four more grabbed them unceremoniously underarm and jerked them up from the floor.

The guards worked quickly around the self-sealing seams of their cracked helmets, taking them off.

Trumaine, flushed and covered in sweat, blinked his eyes and grinned, happy to be still alive. He shot a glance at Benedict, whose head was just then being freed—he too was dripping sweat, but he didn’t look as happy.

In moments, what remained of their spacesuits was removed; the guards took out a sweaty and exhausted Benedict, and marched him away without a word.

Trumaine too was helped out of his spacesuit trousers and boots.

When he looked up, he was met by Firrell’s welcoming smile. Matthews stood beside him, her hands clutching her inseparable pad.

“You got his confession?” Trumaine asked her.

Matthews rewarded him with a vague nod of assent.

“We got it all!” said Firrell cheerfully, slapping his large hand on Trumaine’s back.

“I hope this thing is really over now, Tru. I don’t think my nerves can take any more of it.”

He let out an apologizing grunt.

“I’m sorry we made it so late, but the Feds took years to authorize Mercury.”

Trumaine didn’t complain or anything—his face had frozen to a smug grimace.

As usual, the canteen was filled with diners eating and chattering blissfully.

Trumaine sat at a table across from Firrell, sipping from a glass of water, hydrating himself. He had just repeated for the hundredth time what had happened from the moment he and Benedict had left the bottom of the chamber, to the moment they had found themselves back in the test room. Unfortunately for Benedict, he had understood too late it wasn’t Faith that had sent them to Mercury, but a special feed issued by the TSA, in agreement with the Federal Authority, based on Trumaine’s personal request through his disbelieving captain.

“Jesus. This is the craziest story I’ve ever heard,” said Firrell.

“Yes, it truly is,” admitted Trumaine.

It all looked simple now that everything was solved.

Gromer had convinced the believers in the feed to flush Benedict in Jarva’s bunker, where he had killed both Aarmo and Raili, then Benedict had been flushed back to Credence. When Trumaine had first come to Credence, it was Benedict who had suggested the crawler to him; even if he had said he considered it a remote possibility, it was all part of Benedict’s plan to frame Faith.

Because, at that point, he already knew about her; he just needed Trumaine to arrest her for a crime she didn’t commit—unless bringing Raili Jarva back to life was a crime.

Thank God all was finished now.

Trumaine sipped some more water. He rolled it over his tongue as if it were an expensive wine—it tasted sweet and fresh and he felt like he could have drank a barrel.

Trumaine looked over Firrell’s shoulder and glimpsed Faith in the distance, sitting at her usual table in the corner—she was lost among the dining believers, talking with an unseen someone.

“What are we going to do with Faith?”

“She will be released, of course,” said Firrell. “But she’s a telepath, I’m afraid she can’t work in Credence anymore. If you ask me, she’d better keep her mouth shut about her skills if she wants to find another job.”

“I will tell her.”

They stood.

“You’ve done a good job,” said Firrell. “Don’t forget to bring my well wishes to Starsha ...”

“I won’t.”

“Maybe, one day, we shall work together again.”

“Maybe.”

Trumaine reached out and they shook hands.

With one last nod, Firrell left. He trudged around the crowded tables with some difficulty, until he got out of the canteen.

He was a good captain, thought Trumaine.

“What did he tell you?” a voice asked suddenly.

It was Faith’s, of course.

He turned to see her—now that most of her worries were gone, she looked as cheerful and easygoing as on the day he first met her.

“So?” she asked.

“Don’t you know already?”

“Why don’t you tell me in your own words?”

Trumaine took a deep breath.

“Now that everybody knows that you’re a telepath, you won’t be allowed in the chamber anymore; you’re too dangerous.”

“Well, that’s fine with me,” said Faith with a shrug.

“Really? What are you going to do now?”

“I’ll find another job.”

The two glanced into each other’s eyes. Trumaine didn’t fear her anymore; he was aware she could look into him and know everything there was to be known about him. In the beginning, it felt odd and uncomfortable, but now that he had gotten used to it, he could accept it.

“You took the punch card from Jimmy Boyd’s apartment, didn’t you?”

“It was the only safe way for us to talk to Jarva without Benedict knowing,” explained Faith.

“And it was you again, in the Meteor ’55.”

Faith pouted and nodded her head, like a little girl, regretting what she had done.

“I’m sorry. Back then, I didn’t know whom I should trust.”

“Christ, I almost broke my neck against that pillar.”

Trumaine didn’t realize, but his hand had climbed to his forehead, stroking the point where he had hit it.

Faith smiled sadly.

“I better be on my way now,” said Trumaine.

She got close to him, stepped on her toes and pecked him on the cheek.

“Thank you,” she said.

Trumaine didn’t need to be a telepath to know the many untold things that lay behind that little token of fondness. Maybe, he thought, if he and Starshanna hadn’t—But he couldn’t finish the sentence; that would never happen and they both knew it.

With one last nod, Trumaine turned away.

Faith bit her lip and sighed at seeing him go.

Three fresh believers sat at the table in the corner, intent on eating their lunch, wearing the characteristic yellow suits that stood for their skills.

Benedict’s nose had been right about them. In fact, they were the same three applicants he had singled out four days before, when he had first met Trumaine—they were the farmyard, muscled young man with the blond hair, the young woman with the small nose and the pointy chin and the beautiful athletic woman with black opals for eyes.

Since they had achieved unprecedented marks in the belief test, they had been promoted to apprentice believers that same day; two more days was all it had taken them to achieve outstanding results in the selections for becoming fresh believers.

They had gone through the final test that same morning, so they could now wear the yellow suit of the fresh believers. Should they continue performing this well, in another month or two they were going to don the spotless white suit of the full believers and they would finally be admitted in the chamber.

Faith looked at them from Trumaine’s empty table: all three were focused on the tray of food that lay in front of them.

But when Faith’s black and long lashes fluttered once, they jerked their heads in unison and looked straight at her ...

Because they were all telepaths.

They had just answered Faith’s mental call—their all-piercing eyes scrutinized her, suddenly alert, wondering why she had called. Faith flickered her eyelids a second time and the three telepaths relaxed immediately.

Faith strode across the canteen, arriving at their table, where she sat, quietly joining and mingling among them as if they were special friends.

The athletic woman and the red-haired girl shot a knowing glance at her, then looked at each other and giggled—being privy to Faith’s feelings about Trumaine made them foolish.

The blond, muscled young man glanced up at Faith from behind his blue eyes and smiled soothingly.

“We’ve got news for you from professor Jarva,” he said.

He didn’t move his lips to say it.

The words had come from his mind.