DP FICTION #53B: “Lies of the Desert Fathers” by Stewart Moore

The Abbot’s eyes stared up at the ceiling. The reflections of blue-robed angels flew across his gray irises. Not much blood had spattered on his face. His chest was another story. The stains had finally stopped spreading from the rents in his brown wool robe. I noticed a smear near the hem of my long skirt where I stood too close.

Revulsion erupted in my throat and I clamped my hands over my mouth. I could feel the dampness of the blood on my leg. I fought the urge to tear the bottom of the skirt off.  I needed to stay calm. If I panicked, all was lost.

On the Abbot’s shaven scalp, the lights of his implanted sanctifications still blinked, attempting to change the thought patterns of a dead brain. One finger slowly twitched. The motor cortex must be getting extra juice. I focused on that. A simple, physical issue in the neurological wiring. I could fix that. I slowed my thinking around that problem.

For some reason, the Abbot’s other hand held a saw. That problem I couldn’t solve right now.

Light from the overturned lamp shone on the wall behind the Abbot’s desk. There Saint Dymphna’s painted neck stretched out to meet her father’s sword in frozen, ecstatic martyrdom.  I locked eyes with her, my hot breath seething through my fingers. She could be calm.  I could be calm.

A shadow moved across Dymphna’s face. I almost turned and fled, but it was only a tarantula crawling inside the fallen lampshade. It hurried out across the wooden floor, so new the room still smelled of varnish in the dull evening heat.

The spider investigated the bloody chisel. Finally, it decided against crawling over the blade. It ran toward the monk in the shadows by the door. He stood so still, all I could see of him was his multicolored winking sanctifications, forming a halo around his head.

I smiled shakily, my gorge still in my throat. “Come here, please, Beta.”

Uriel Beta stepped forward shyly. He was a young man with a scar down his right cheek. His scalp and face were clean-shaven. What a change he made from when I first met him in prison, with lank dark hair and vomit-encrusted stubble.

Now, his hands were sticky with drying blood. I had found him desperately performing CPR on the Abbot.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Beta’s eyes went blank for a second as a blue light between his eyes flickered quickly. That implant stimulated his anterior cingulate cortex. His pupils contracted again. “…I’m Uriel Beta, a brother in the Order of Saint Dymphna.”

“Who am I?”

Again the momentary blankness. I couldn’t reduce the processing time for his sanctifications any further. That was why he had to be here, in the Order’s tightly sealed compound. He wouldn’t last a minute back on the streets, where his old friends, his victims and the police would all be waiting for him.

“…You’re Doctor Abigail Wainwright.”

“Good. Now lie to me, Beta.”

“…I can’t.”

“Try.”

Beta’s mouth worked, forming the beginnings of words, only for his sanctifications to start blinking more rapidly. Intracranial magnetic stimulation pulsed through his anterior cingulate cortex. Sociopaths have low activity in that region. Finally he let out a shuddering breath.

“…I can’t, Doctor Abigail. …The words won’t stay in my head. …It’s like they’re written in sand, and the wind… it blows the sand away, and what’s left is written in stone, and it’s the truth.”

“Excellent. Now: did you do this?”

Beta stared down at the Abbot, and at his scarlet hands. He knelt down, heedless of the blood on his robe. He looked up at me, tears in his eyes. A yellow light on his forehead faded on and off, stimulating his orbitofrontal cortex, giving him sympathy for the dead man he couldn’t feel on his own.

“…No,” he said at last. “You do believe me, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. But we have to find out who did this. I’m going to have to call the police pretty soon, and if we can’t give them the murderer, they’ll have to investigate. That means asking questions, and you know how the police already feel about this place. They might even try to force you to leave.”

Beta’s lights flickered. “…Yes. I understand. …We’re all very grateful to you, Doctor Abigail.”

I remembered how Beta had been when I met him: a monster seeking only his own immediate gratification. I set my jaw.

I looked over the monitors in the corner of the Abbot’s office. The lone guard was still in the booth at the entrance to the compound, oblivious. There were no guards inside the Order. We didn’t need any: no one wanted to get out. Besides, guards would have brought their own agendas, their own ideas of regulation and punishment, inside this place, and that would ruin the delicate work I performed here.

The rest of the monitors showed empty rooms and halls, but I knew where everyone was. It was nine o’clock: time for compline, the last service of the day. I held out my hand. “Come with me, Beta.” He took my hand and stood. I didn’t mind the blood. What kind of neurosurgeon would I be if I did? I took him over to the sink where the Abbot got water for blessing, and washed our hands.

Beta scrubbed at his fingernails as his tears ran down the drain. “…He was a great man. …You and he together made me whole. …You were like my mother and father.”

I squeezed Beta’s shoulder. “I know.”

We left the Abbot’s office, and I locked the door behind us. In the hallway, the ceiling lights reflected in the dark lacquered floors, as if we were hopping on stepping-stones in a frozen river. The adobe walls slowly released the day’s heat. The air was close, and sweat beaded on my forehead.

From up ahead came the chanting of the gathered monks. I recognized the canticle at once: the “Dies Irae,” “The Day of Wrath.” I mostly knew it from funeral services. An ill-omened thing to have come up in the lectionary for today. I saw Beta’s pupils dilate, and I knew it wasn’t just the dim light. I’d given all the brothers an implant in their anterior insula cortex. It gave them an experience of being one with each other when they worshipped together: a reward for their commitment to communal life. Now the music was taking hold of Beta. I gripped his arm.

“Uriel Beta, I need you to stay with me now. You’re the only one here who can’t lie to me.”

Beta looked at me with a slowly fading smile. He shook his head hard. “…I’ll try.” We continued down the hall. The chanting grew louder. Beta, struggling with the music, fighting its insistent communion with his brothers, started a whispered conversation to try to stay present with me.

“…Why didn’t you make it so we all can’t lie to you?”

I laughed quietly. “I’m good, but I’m not that good. All psychopaths need stimulation of the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortices. That just reverses the particular manifestation of their disability. There are many ways to be a psychopath. You were a compulsive liar; now you compulsively tell the truth.”

“…But do I deserve any credit for that, theologically speaking?”

“That’s not for us to decide. You’re not hurting anyone anymore, and that’s the important thing.”

I remembered the photos of his victims, and shuddered. I was acutely aware of being alone with him, but I knew I was safe. Turning off the brothers’ sex drives had been the easiest operation. A simple matter of cutting off that pathway between the amygdala and the hypothalamus. I had to, or we’d never get anything done.

Beta and I emerged into the back of the candlelit chapel. Darkness filled the circular stained-glass window, giving just hints of deep reds and blues. On the woven altar covering, flowers with lush green leaves bloomed in the desert.

Without the Abbot, the brothers still knew the rites. The slow chant of the song went on and on. The harmonies were rough: I could work no magic with musical talent. But the joy they felt as they sang, or droned, or howled, hummed through the floor. Beta trembled. I put my hand on his shoulder. He smiled beatifically.

Counting Beta and omitting the Abbot, there should have been twenty-two monks in the chapel. It only took a moment to know that one was missing. All I could see was the back of their shaved heads, each blinking with its own constellation. That was enough: I knew each of their implants better than I knew their faces. I had spent hours placing each one. There were Uriel Alpha and Gamma; there were the Raphaels, all six Gabriels, the Michaels…

My breath died inside me. Cold rose up my back despite the heat. I squeezed Beta’s shoulder hard, and he looked at me hazily. “Sariel,” I whispered. “It’s Sariel.”

Beta’s eyes widened. I pulled him back into the shadows. “He must be somewhere where he can’t hear the service, and can hide from the cameras,” I said. “Where?”

Beta thought a moment. “…The library. The special collection. There’s one corner the camera can’t see.  We all know about it.”

“Let’s go.” We retreated from the chapel, back into the dark hallways.

Sariel. Our celebrity: Samuel Hutchens, the one serial killer I’d attempted to sanctify so far. Once I controlled his temporal lobe epilepsy, the rest had seemed fairly straightforward. I’d named him for the angel who taught humans about the moon. It matched the cyclical course of his murders.

Beta slowly opened the big oak door that led to the library. It creaked the tiniest bit. I prayed that only we heard it. Inside, green glass lampshades cast a watery light with pools of white on the ceiling. Books encased the walls. The shadows of shelves collected darkness. They gave off the odor of heat and paper.

I took off my shoes. We tiptoed along the shelves to the end of the row where the books about the Old Testament joined those of the New. The door to the special collection stood closed. On the floor lay a copy of the Lives of the Desert Fathers. Very slowly, I slid it out of our way with my foot.

Beta took hold of the door handle and looked back at me. I nodded. He gritted his teeth and threw it open.

Sariel stood in the corner, his nose in a book. He was a short, stocky, middle-aged man. His head was encrusted with sanctifications, like a phosphorescent reef. He looked up at us. His eyes gleamed in the dim light.

“Doctor,” he said softly. “You’re here late.” His accent was aristocratic Southern: Savannah, I knew, from his records. He sat down at the reading table.

“Why aren’t you at compline, Sariel?” I asked.

“I’m finding greater enlightenment here.” He closed the volume and turned it so I could see the cover. Neurocybernetic Behavior Modification. My first book.

“What’s that doing here?” I asked.

“The Abbot thought it was important that we know what we are.” Sariel ran his finger along the crevices of the brain on my book’s cover.

I sat down carefully across from him. “And what are you?”

“Spiritual beings, freed from the thorns of the flesh. Human as human was meant to be, human as in the Garden of Eden, free to praise God eternally until senescence. At which point we will resume the practice in heaven.”

I smiled. “That’s what you’re meant to be. You’re supposed to be better than the rest of us.”

“That’s what the Abbot thought, at least.” He looked at me from under heavy lids.

“Sariel… Have you seen the Abbot today?”

“No,” he whispered, his finger still moving over the convoluted lines. “Not personally, I mean. I saw him at worship this afternoon. And at noon. And this morning.”

“Then why aren’t you there now?”

“Because I’m tired!” he shouted. He picked up the book and slammed it back down. “I’m tired of feeling one with the universe whenever we sing a minor fifth. We’re slaves to your damned brain-machines, and I have had enough.” He reached down into his lap and brought up a tool. My whole body tensed. It was a vise grip. He set it gently on the table. “Eating and f-f-f… mating.” He spat out the word with the force of the interdicted vulgarity. “That’s what it is to be human. So how human do you think I feel, Doctor?”

“Where did you get that?” I asked, stalling for time.

“The workshop. You wanted us to be productive, after all. Idle hands, and so on. You were so sure of your work, that we wouldn’t use the tools to hurt each other. And you were right, of course. I couldn’t hurt another person now, even if I could want to.”

“Then what are you going to do with it?” My voice felt strangled in my throat.

Sariel’s fingers walked over his sanctifications like the legs of a pale spider. “I believe I know now what each one of these things does. This one, for instance—” He tapped a tiny box with a blue light on the left side of his head. “—This one regulates the communication between my amygdala and hypothalamus, so I can’t feel sexual excitation. This has been a particularly painful loss for me.”

He picked up the vise grip and closed it on that box. I stood up. “Jesus, don’t do that, Hutchens!”

He stood too. “Don’t come closer, either of you. I know what will happen. It’s like a fishhook: it does more damage coming out than going in. But it doesn’t matter, since I’m already dead to everything important in life. I’ll give you this, Doctor: you made the death penalty look good.”

He ripped the sanctification out of his head. Most of the implant tore off inside his skull, but the wire came out crusted with pinkish-gray neocortical flesh. Blood pulsed down his scalp. His right arm instantly flopped down at his side. He had torn straight through his motor cortex. He looked down at the useless limb.

Sariel grinned. “If your hand offend thee, cut it off.” His voice was thick.

“Beta, stop him!” I shouted. But when I looked back at him, Beta was shaking. His eyes rolled back into his head. He collapsed against the table and flopped onto the floor. His sanctifications scraped against the hardwood. I turned him on his side. His breathing was ragged but clear.

“And if your eye offend thee, pluck it out,” Sariel said. He gripped another sanctification and ripped it out, destroying Broca’s area, the center of grammar. “Interesting. Is. Feeling. You. Good. To me. Look. Feel… normal, almost.” He giggled, and ripped out another and another. Twitches writhed under his skin, contorting his face. His good hand trembled, so he had trouble getting at a sanctification at the back of his head. When he pulled it out, his right eye blinked furiously.

He was now blind on that side. I slipped around the table that way.

“Where… Go?” Sariel choked. He searched to his left, but like many people with damage to their left occipital lobe, he ignored his right completely. He brought his shaking hand to the center of his forehead, trying to get a grip on the winking red light there.

I grabbed the vise. It came easily from his loose fingers. I threw it away. He howled. Blood streamed down his face. His arms flailed out blindly. I grabbed my book off the table, a heavy tome full of illustrations. I swung it at the back of Sariel’s skull. I had to hit him three times, ruining more sanctifications as well as the book’s cover, before he fell down and lay shivering.

Beta moaned and tried to sit up. I knelt down and supported him. He looked around blearily under the table and saw Sariel’s bleeding head. Beta smiled weakly, then threw up. I moved to block his view of Sariel, and slowly he recovered. “…Not much good, was I?”

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “I turned up the activity in your mirror neurons to give you more empathy. Empathizing with that was just too much.”

“…I think I’m okay now.” I helped him stand up.

“Can you stay here and watch him?” I asked. “Make sure he doesn’t hurt himself any more?”

“…Yes. Are you going to call the police?”

“No.” I patted Beta’s arm. “It’ll be all right. I want to see if I can can save Sariel.” I sighed. There probably wasn’t much left of Sariel to save. I had worked so hard on him. “I’ll be right back.”

I left the library, retrieving my shoes as I did so, and headed for the Abbot’s office. I had to make sure it was undisturbed for the police. Soft chanting still drifted down the halls. The unity of the sound made it all worthwhile.

I passed by a small shrine for Saint Dymphna in the hallway. A single votive candle flickered under her portrait: a young, pretty, red-haired girl. The patron saint of the mentally ill. I wondered who had lit the candle. I thought of the men in the chapel, brains malformed at birth, who had never had a chance to choose the good at all. I freed them from that. I made it possible for God to save them. I opened the doors of Heaven.

Saint Dymphna’s ghost of a smile was not really reassuring. Neither was the crimson line across her throat.

I stalked down the hall. The brain is a physical system, I told myself, running over the old arguments in preparation for dealing with the police. A human brain is run by chemicals and electricity. You can measure it, alter it, even hold it in your hand. For God to change the flow of electricity in these men’s brains would have required a miracle, a bona-fide miracle, no less than splitting the Red Sea. And God doesn’t work that way anymore. Just read the news.

I reached the Abbot’s door and unlocked it. All I knew was, I saw sickness. I’m a doctor. So I healed it. What else was I supposed to do?

I walked around the desk. Two pools of sticky blood marked where the Abbot’s body and the knife had been.

I looked up. Uriel Beta stood in the doorway. Behind him, the other monks filled the hall. They sang quietly. I had mistaken volume for distance.

Beta’s left hand held something the size of a large rock. When he stepped forward I could see what it was.

“Uriel Beta, what are you doing with that drill?”

Beta looked down at his empty right hand. “…I’m not holding any drill, Doctor.”

“You can’t lie to me, Beta. I know you can’t.”

“…I’m not lying, Doctor. You did your work very well. See?” He waved his right hand languidly at me. “Nothing.”

“What about your other hand?”

“This?” He looked down at his left hand. It stayed very still. The knuckles were white, except the one on the trigger. “…This isn’t my hand. This is God’s hand. I don’t have any control over it.”

“Jesus. Beta, you have alien-hand syndrome. I should have known it was a possibility, it’s associated with disorders of the anterior cingulate. I stimulated that region to help your empathy, but I must have overloaded something somehow. I can fix it, Beta, I swear I can, but you have to give me the drill.”

The tarantula scurried in front of him. He knelt down.

“God doesn’t want you to take this,” he said softly. He triggered the drill and stabbed it through the spider’s body and into the floor. He never took his eyes off me as he did it. “But don’t worry. He doesn’t want to kill you either. Not like the Abbot. The Abbot wanted to saw off God’s arm.” He pulled the drill out of the floor and stood. “God only wants you to know the happiness we feel.” I realized he wasn’t pausing before he spoke. He believed what he said absolutely.

I saw blinking lights in another monk’s hand. It took me a moment to realize they were Sariel’s bloody sanctifications.

Beta’s left hand tested the drill. It whirred loudly. He stepped forward. There was nowhere for me to go. For the first time I really saw the window bars from this side.

“He’s going to sanctify you, Doctor,” Uriel Beta said as the other monks surrounded me. They grabbed me and pulled me to the floor, singing the whole time.

“You’re going to see what we see. What you gave us.” Beta knelt down over me. “Thank you, Doctor. We all thank you so much.”

I heard a sound. I couldn’t tell whether it was me screaming, or the drill. I looked up at the shaved heads all around. A cloud of blinking lights surrounded me, pulsing in complex rhythms. I knew each blink and flicker.

They were all working perfectly.


© 2019 by Stewart Moore

 

Author’s Note: “Lies of the Desert Fathers” was born out of research in the hard doctrine of original sin, that no human can achieve godliness unaided.  But who knows what helps towards saintliness might be available after 50 more years of technology?

Stewart Moore began his peripatetic career by graduating college with a degree in theater, following which he directed a production of his play Henry and Beckyin New York City.  Later, he earned a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Yale.  His researches there led to the publication of his first book, Jewish Ethnic Identity and Relations in Hellenistic Egypt (Brill, 2014).  Turning from nonfiction to short fiction, he has been published in anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow (The Beastly Bride, 2010) and Paula Guran (Halloween, 2011).  He has also been published in the magazine Mysterion (2018).  He lives in New Jersey with his wife, daughter and an odd number of cats.

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #46A: “The Hammer’s Prayer” by Benjamin C. Kinney

I showed up early for work, as always. The airport’s underbelly was the ugliest place in Boston, but I would’ve spent every hour there if I could get away with it. Among the hurried machines and distant reek-sweet jet fuel, I had everything I needed. A purpose, a paycheck, a place to hide; and most of all, a land of function without beauty, where nothing would tempt me to invest it with holiness and life.

The other officers grunted hellos as they arrived, and we split up into pairs for our little contributions to the safety of mankind. My supervisor Darrell beckoned me to him once again, and I took my place by the conveyor belt, pleased for the company of his press-perfect uniform blues. I had never let him know me, as I could let no human know me, but he had come to appreciate me despite the dull mask of my restraint.

I brushed clay dust from my uniform, tugged on my gloves, and watched humanity’s obsessions trundle toward the scanner. The belt hummed with the comfort of purposeful movement, content with suitcases and backpacks and baby strollers. A hard-shelled bicycle box wedged against a chute, and a light blinked amber as the conveyor belt clunked to a halt.

I leaned over the belt, and hauled the box into my arms. I’d hoped for something truly heavy, but it weighed no more than it looked. I pretended to exert myself as I carried the box to the scuffed steel examination table, and set it down beneath fluorescent lights and Darell’s sampling wand.

He chatted in his rhythm-quick voice as he jiggled the latch and drew out his ring of master keys. On the third try, the lid swung open. He whistled. “Wow. Ever see something like that, Jakob?”

A glossy bronze shape lay nestled in a bird’s nest of packing paper. The sculpture had the shape of a stylized motorcycle, sleek and long and stubby-piped, like the dream from a Hell’s Angels Science Fiction Club. Its metal engine gleamed in the harsh white light, as if it had just emerged from the workshop of some loving hobbyist, awaiting my word to roar down the open road.

A word I could never permit myself to give, despite the longing that beat through my chest like blood.

Darrell tapped his wand against my wrist. “Slow down, big guy.” I yanked back my hand, and he said “Can’t imagine a bomb hidden under this much work, but we still gotta check.”

I laced my fingers together as Darrell swept his wand over its surface. I had spent so long avoiding anything built and beautiful. I’d almost forgotten the sensation of their call, the gravity of their appeal.

This was no airplane, vomiting exhaust into the atmosphere; no luggage cart on the journey of a materialistic ant. Nor was it a golden calf, stealing hearts from the Creator. The sculpture existed, and made the world a better place for it, like a brother you never knew was alive.

Darrell levered the sculpture upright, one wheel toward the ceiling. “Yeah? What do you think? You like it, big guy?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He laughed. “That’s why I like you on my crew. You’re a great conversationalist. But yeah, it’s nice. Wouldn’t mind one of these hanging over the TV or something. Hold it for a minute?”

I balanced the sculpture in one hand, and let it tilt a few degrees until its surface rippled with white bars of reflected light. Darrell probed the box’s packing-paper corners with his wand, and then turned away and inserted it into the reader.

I had spent most of my life avoiding this temptation. Months upon months of dull repetition, back and forth between empty apartment and empty work, shaping myself into a useful cog of civilization. I’d survived undiscovered for so long, surely I deserved a few moments of fulfillment. One risk today, averaged over three years, left me comfortably safe.

I lay my hand on the sculpture’s headlight, let my fingers sketch the shape of letters, and laid the motorcycle back into its nest.

Some legends said the mark should read truth, others spirit, or a full Adonai Elohim emet, the Lord God is truth. But for me, anything will work. My fingernail left no impression on the bronze, but the clear cool presence of my gift flowed from hand to metal, like the release of a long-held breath.

I slammed down the lid.

“Jakob? What was that?” Darrell’s voice had lost its rhythm. He studied me not with wide-eyed surprise, but the narrow gaze of skepticism.

I froze. What had he seen? What had I done, in my moment of temptation? I shifted position, my body between him and the box. “You said all clear, right?”

He cradled his radio. “Yeah. All clear, Jakob.”

I hauled the box onto the outgoing conveyor belt, toward the rubber-strip curtain between our screening area and the automated paths beyond. Maybe nothing would happen. Maybe my power had faded in the years since I last gave life. I might’ve imagined that flow of power. Maybe I’d always imagined it, in hallucinations bubbling up from the lack of some medicine or construction in my mind.

The motorcycle would vanish into a cargo hold, a simple sculpture, able only to move by the gift of an airplane’s engine and fuel.

The box swiveled, jostled by  a sudden motion within. Black plastic clipped the curtain’s steel frame, and the box passed through the curtain and vanished from sight.

Darrell’s gaze bored into my back. No, my imagination, my fear. Warranted, though. I’d stayed far too long, in the lure of a steady job and my self-control. My mistake.

“Taking a break,” I said, and hustled toward the exit.

***

The late-October wind cut through my uniform jacket as I knelt by the ocean’s rocky shore, a false coast constructed by bulldozer and dredge. A stone’s throw from the runways, and the only place where the airport would allow me a sliver of comfort.

My cellphone buzzed in my pocket, but I couldn’t bear a glimpse of modern design. I wanted to hurl it into the waves, to awaken it to life, anything. I focused on the salt-sodden chill of water in my socks, the splash of waves over my boots. Water full of jellyfish, barnacles, and seaweed. Every plant and animal already true in form and function, alive by the Creator’s breath.

Beautiful but quiet. Nature laid no demands on me. My one chance to touch grace without it begging for my aid.

My pocket buzzed again. I had thought the airport would shelter me behind its utility and ugliness, but temptation had found me nonetheless. Darrell had seen me. I imagined hurling my phone into the water, fleeing from my job. I could disappear into some wilderness, far from any man-made creation that could tempt power from my fingertips.

Behind me, something zipped along the runways. Too low for an airplane, too swift for a maintenance truck. Maybe it was the sculpture, broken free of its box, enjoying the animate life I had given it. The sound faded, and I could not tell how far it’d gone.

I drew my phone with a wet-fingered tug. The cracked and blocky device settled in my hand, its shabby exterior muting the whispers from within. The buzz had been my weekly reminder to make a deposit into Saba Haskel’s fund. Once, the money had paid for his nursing home. Now, half of it went for his burial plot, and the rest to his chosen charities.

My thumb hesitated over the screen. Saba Haskel’s commands had faded in the seventeen months since his passing. If I unyoked myself from his debts and generosity, I could make my escape, and discover the shape of a life molded around my own needs.

I huffed a quiet half-laugh. As if I doubted what I might do, despite all the free will breathed into my soul. Saba Haskel had built himself a dutiful son.

I tapped my way to a banking app, and transferred over my last few hundred dollars.

No job meant no paycheck. I might keep them both, if I could talk Darrell down, if I could just walk back into the inspection line. I would have to try. I dipped my fingers through a receding wave, and then turned back toward the terminal’s lights.

***

My badge opened door after door, back from tarmac to fluorescent lights and then the cavernous rumbling space of the inspection room. I reached the conveyor belt, snapped nitrile gloves over my hand, and then halted. One of the other inspectors waved me over, and pointed her thumb at a video camera watching from the corner. “Boss wants to talk to you.”

So much for a return to the inspection line. I peeled off my gloves, and cradled them in my hands as I stepped away from the belt’s welcoming hum. I eyed the poor nitrile, wasted before it could do its work, and then tossed the crumpled gloves into the trash.

I passed through the garage where rectangular luggage carts slept in their peeling orange paint, waiting for a tug to drag them onward to a luggage-laden airplane. I swiped into the back corridor, and then again to access the control room.

A wall of monitors blinked at me, filling the room with their grainy light. Darrell paced behind the desk, and his phone rested on the surface with a satisfied glow.

I put on a dull expression. “What’s this about?”

Darrell shook his head. “Two years ago, couple months after you started here, I was told to keep an eye on you. I started to think it was nothing, you know that? But now, Jakob. That statue. What the hell did you do?”

I sat down in front of the desk, slid my hands along the frail plastic of the chair’s armrests, and tried to imagine who might’ve asked Darrell for such a favor. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He halted, crossed his arms. “Thirty million passengers come through here every year, counting on us. Don’t you bullshit me.”

His uniform clung to his body, armpits dampened by sweat. Whether he feared for our passengers, or himself, I had no idea how to protect him. Every word faltered in my throat, inadequate and profane.

Darrell tightened his lips. “You know the real Jakob Haskel died before his first birthday? I just learned. But I bet you always knew.”

I forced my head to shake as slowly as ever. “Don’t know what you’re–”

He tugged open the desk drawer, and heaved a tangle of bronze onto the desk. It had once held the shape of a motorcycle’s front end. Its wheel had gone flat, the struts accordion-crushed like hollow aluminum after a crash.

The axle spun once, then shuddered to a stop. It turned in the opposite direction, skipped once, and stuck.

He said, “I don’t know what’s up with this, so we’re even.” His phone chirped, and he glanced at the screen. “Sit tight, Jakob. If you don’t wanna come clean to me, maybe I don’t know you so well after all. But the lady from the NSA will get answers out of you, one way or another.”

Plastic buckled beneath my fingers. Even if the National Security Agency fought for a worthy cause, they were who they were. No weaponsmith ever made the world more peaceful.

I leapt to my feet, but Darrell was already past me. He opened the door, and admitted a woman wearing a black suit so rumpled and careworn it wanted to slide off on its own in search of a sewing machine.

She ignored Darrell. She stared at me, and her bittersweet smile gripped me with the certainty of prayer.

She said, “I’ve always wondered whether Doctor Haskel made you in his own image.”

“You knew Saba?”

“I was his last graduate student.” She drew out a pair of business cards, one for Darrell and one for me. “And I know exactly what he was working on before he retired. Praxis derived from 16th century Praguer variants of the Sefer Yetzirah.”

Darrell squinted at the card. “Hold on. Doctor Menkin? You said you were from the NSA.”

“No, sir. Dr. Rebecah Menkin. I was at the NSF, at least when we spoke a couple years ago. The National Science Foundation.” She circled the desk, a hawk untroubled by the errant gust of Darrell’s question. She rested one hand on the motorcycle’s cowl and met my eyes. “I’ve spent the last six years trying to track down Saba’s final project. I chased every link I could find. Including the name.”

Six years. Since long before Saba awoke me from clay. “What do you want from me?”

“Come with me. We’ll recreate Dr. Haskel’s work, and finally get it published. The world deserves to know he was right.”

In the depths of my bereavement I might’ve leapt into her hands. But Saba had returned to dust, and his pride with him. If his work spread, the world could see more creations like me. Half souls, cursed by the temptation of life and beauty.

I said, “No.”

“Let’s not make this adversarial, Jakob.” She smiled, but her eyes resisted, as sharp as a dream’s leading edge. “Your boss told me about your talent. Let me help you understand it.”

A wise man hears one word and understands two, Saba used to say. If I left with this doctor, I’d spend the rest of my days in a lab, under microscope or scalpel or drill. I’d become one more metal to smelt from its ore, in the humans’ endless hunger for new methods of creation.

I said, “Darrell. I’ll talk to you, but not this woman. Get her out of here.”

Darrell pushed past Dr. Menkin, jammed a key into a desk drawer, and yanked out a taser. He swung the black-and-yellow barrel back and forth, between the woman and me.

He said, “Doc, you need to leave. I may not understand what Jakob can do, but whatever it is, it needs to serve our country. Not some scientist’s career.” He unclipped his radio. “You both stay right here while I find a number for the real NSA.”

Menkin raised her hands, palms out, her voice calm through gritted teeth. “I understand your concern. But let me put you through to the NSF’s director instead. Appointed by the President.”

Darrell said, “You said you don’t work for them anymore.”

“It doesn’t matter where I get my paycheck. The Director knows my work, and how important it is.”

Darrell hesitated. Menkin drew out a phone with a glass-and-aluminum case, sleek and alluring. The taser faltered in his hand.

I could let Darrell make his phone call, or I could crush the weapon in his hand and leave with the doctor. Either outcome would mean the same. I’d spent all these years suppressing the temptation of life. I had never created for my own gain, and neither reason nor logic would make me kneel before a worldly master.

As they argued, I smashed the door out of its frame, and fled into the echoing airport.

***

I ran into the garage, and wove through double-decked luggage carts as shouts mixed and rose behind me. Two voices, man and woman both. My pursuers fell further behind with every stride, unable to match me with mere muscle and bone. I aimed for the fire exit’s red-lit words. A one-way door, impossible to lock, to the tarmac and the respite beyond. Darrell and all his brethren could not catch me.

I glanced over my shoulder. He held his taser in one hand, radio in the other. Dr. Menkin unrolled a piece of parchment and shouted Hebrew syllables into the echoing air.

My joints stiffened. I lurched, almost tripped, my clay thickened and dried by the power of her words.

A roar of frustration escaped my throat. I grabbed a cart’s aluminum frame, and yanked myself around to face my pursuers. Menkin and Darrell converged on me, ready with taser and scroll, with lost faith and innocent greed.

Saba had taught me restraint, but if these two wanted so badly to know me, I’d show them my potential. I bent down by the luggage cart, dug my fingers into a tire’s stiff squeaking rubber, and exerted my full strength at last.

I lifted the luggage cart over my head. Dr. Menkin fumbled in her jacket, her face pale. Darrell stepped back, his taser leveled in shaking hands. “Jakob, calm down. You don’t want to do this.”

Those two poor creatures, merely trying to fulfill their purposes handed down by job and school and Creator.

My rage crumbled. I lowered the cart onto the ground, gripped one of its roof’s steel struts, and traced my finger against metal and dusty orange paint. My gift seeped into the metal like water into thirsty earth.

The engineless cart set its wheels against concrete, and whipped into a three-point-turn. It nosed back and forth, an animal uncaged and sniffing for something to carry. It aimed itself toward Darrell and Menkin, and its wheels spun with an acrid burnt-rubber spark.

Dr. Menkin fell, a yelp of pain as the cart bumped over her leg. Darrell leapt onto the cart’s onrushing edge, but it caught him on the upper corner. He clung, legs kicking, as it swiveled around its parked and waiting brethren. His taser clattered onto the cart.

My muscles loosened. Darrell tumbled to the floor and crawled away. The animated cart slowed, and then spun and braked, a skidding turn that slid the taser into a stable position at the center of its bed. Its first morsel of cargo, the first joy of its waking life.

I wiped the dust from my fingertip. What had I done? Brought something unbeautiful to life. Not for temptation, not for its own sake, but for the menial demands of my own utility.

And yet, the act of creation echoed through my body with the music of a psalm’s first notes.

The cart approached the garage door and nuzzled its metal slats, a newborn curious to learn the world. How much time had I wasted, levying judgment upon the ugly and functional? I had fled from temptation, as if my desires bent always toward evil. But I’d only ever wanted to continue the work of my father, and awaken the world to life.

I ran, not to the fire exit, but to the garage door. I struck my hand against the steel, fingers curled to add a new pattern of dents. The gate rolled upward, opening itself. The baggage cart zipped out beneath it, as if to share its bounty with all its still-sleeping kin.

Engine-roar struck me, a churning blast of air. Aircraft spread out all around me, sleek white hulks dotted with red and green running lights. The planes strained toward the wide-open heavens, but I had no need to flee. Soon I would feel the grasp of scroll or taser, or the sure and frightened hands of my coworkers. They could carry me to any prison they chose, and I would write life upon my chains.

I drew my phone from my pocket, traced a blessing against its weathered case, and nestled it against the airport wall. Its screen awoke, data and light, singing unto its makers a new song.

I strode out onto the tarmac, toward fuel pumps and skybridges and airplanes. Among the unbeautiful machineries of security and knowledge, of flight and creation. All of us yearning for, and deserving, our chance at holiness and life.

 


© 2018 by Benjamin C. Kinney

 

Author’s Note: The speculative fiction literature is full of golem stories, but they tend to touch on a limited range of themes. I wanted to use the golem to explore the relationship between work and life, purpose and self-determination, art and function. I had this story’s themes and final image rattling around in my head for many months before a writing group challenged me to write a story with two images: a baggage carousel, and jellyfish. The jellyfish mostly got cut in revision, but in Jakob’s quiet moment on the shore, he’s encountering the same bioluminescent jellyfish I once touched on a Martha’s Vineyard beach.

 

Benjamin C. Kinney is a SFF writer, neuroscientist, and Assistant Editor of the Hugo-nominated science fiction podcast magazine Escape Pod. His short stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, PodCastle, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many more fine magazines and anthologies. He lives in St. Louis with two cats and a spacefaring wife, but can be more easily found online at www.benjaminckinney.com or on Twitter as @BenCKinney.

 

 

 

 

 


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DP FICTION #41B: “Jesus and Dave” by Jennifer Lee Rossman

It had been just over a year since the second coming of Jesus and, like most atheists, I couldn’t say it had been a particularly good year for me.

Sure, the Lord’s first bit of business had included clearing up some of the more vague parts of the Bible, including some mistranslations and things his father had, in his words, “gotten wrong.” That put an end to a lot of bigotry.  The lack of world hunger and the new commandments about littering were incredible, of course, more positive change than I’d hoped to see in my lifetime.

But it’s just… having proof that my entire belief system (or lack thereof) was absolutely backwards, and having every holier-than-thou relative constantly sending passive-aggressive emails filled with selfies of them and His Holiness…

My fellow non-believers converted, and one even became a priest. I think I’m one of the few who refused to do so.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I believed. I’d seen too many miracles – some firsthand, like the time the East River parted to let the family of kittens cross safely. So I believed. I just didn’t let it change my life.

I didn’t pray, didn’t give any more to charity than I normally did, and I sure didn’t stop drinking (one of his newer, less popular commandments). I lived as a godless heathen, as my Auntie Ruth would say.

So imagine my surprise when the lord and savior himself knocked on my door and asked for my help. You wouldn’t think he’d have to knock, what with all his magic and ability to walk through walls. But he was nothing if not courteous.

He stood on my stoop, all beard and white robe and smiles, a stained glass window come to life.

“My child,” he said in a warm, booming voice. If the whole son of God thing didn’t work out, he could make a killing as a game show announcer.

“It’s pronounced ‘Dave,'” I told him politely, averting my eyes from the angels standing on either side of him. I’d never read the Bible, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t describe angels as horrifying, winged humanoids with tentacles on their faces.

“Of course. After David, the Biblical king.”

“No, after my mother’s brother Dave, the mattress salesman.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the angels snatch a pigeon off the railing and eat it.

“I think Nazareth is that way,” I said, pointing.

He pointed in the other direction. “Actually, it’s that way.”

Well, I guess he would know.

“I come to ask your assistance,” he said, clasping his hands.

I opened my mouth to make a sarcastic comment, but stopped when I saw the look of fear in his eye. What on Earth was Jesus afraid of? And what did he think I could possibly do about it?

“What is it?” I asked, nervously hoping he wanted me to come over to his place and kill a spider. As they had been mentioned in an addendum to “thou shalt not kill,” maybe he couldn’t bear to ask anyone else to sully their immortal soul.

Even before he spoke, I knew that couldn’t be it. Jesus had probably invented the whole “catching a spider in a cup and sliding a piece of paper underneath it” trick.

“There’s a reason I came back now, David.” He smiled apologetically. “Dave. The world is in danger. Will you help me save it?”

I thought about it for a minute, then nodded. I rather liked the world, even if there were a lot of religious people in it.

*

The museum was only a short walk from my apartment, but it took forever because somebody had to stop every five seconds and sign autographs. I wondered if his pen ever ran out of ink, or if it worked like the loaves and fishes.

When we finally found a moment of peace – JC made a blind beggar see, and everyone left us and crowded around the guy to, I dunno, absorb the miraculous juju or something – I asked him what exactly he expected me to do.

“Despite what my more… excitable followers would have you believe,” he said, spreading his hands in vague gestures as he spoke, “the Devil has not actually been corrupting the American media or making toasters explode.”

“What about making politicians cheat on their wives?”

“No, not even that. Gabriel!” He snapped his fingers at one of the angels, who was holding a squirrel inches from its mouth. “What did we talk about? If you’re going to come to the Earthly plane, you have to follow the rules. Do you want to go home and stay with Dad, or do you want to put down that squirrel and come with us to save the world from Satan?”

It reluctantly returned the squirrel to the tree.

“That’s what I thought.” He turned back to me. “No, the Devil has been imprisoned for the last two thousand years, as was I. Our destinies were entwined, which is why I let myself be crucified. If I died, so would he.”

Well, that was a part of the Easter story they left out.

We came to the steps of the museum and stopped while Jesus posed for a picture with a group of tourists. The angels tried to use the camera but succeeded only in taking a series of close-ups of their own faces, and I had to step in.

“Thank you, Dave,” Jesus said when the crowd had dispersed.

“Shouldn’t you be the one getting thanked?”

“Probably, but there’s no one here but an atheist, so I can wait until someone better comes along.” He smiled and elbowed me in the ribs. Of course he had to be funny. “Anyway.” He pointed to the museum. “Around a year ago, archeologists found something mankind was never meant to find. A jar that was his prison. And they opened it. I need you to close it.”

I stared at him blankly. So it wasn’t “come over and kill this spider,” but a variant on “hey, could you help me open these pickles?” He was Jesus. Couldn’t he handle closing a jar on his own?

“Not this jar.”

My heart skipped a beat.

“Oh, didn’t I mention that I can read minds?” He grinned, like this was all some enormous joke on my behalf. “I’ll overlook the scandalous thoughts about that blonde tourist a couple blocks back if you’ll start thinking of me as He with a capital H. It’s kind of polite.”

Kind of presumptuous, I thought. Very loudly, so he could definitely hear it.

This was the part of religion I hated most. I could get behind the idea of some conscious force controlling the universe, and accepted that, if an afterlife existed, that force probably wouldn’t let you in if you killed people or stole from little old ladies.

But all the stupid rules. Don’t eat this kind of meat, even though it’s not really that different from this other meat. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife or oxen, even though sitting around and thinking “gee, my neighbor sure has a nice wife and/or oxen” is literally the least harmful way to spend the afternoon. Always be extremely thankful to the magical sky dude who gives out cancer like the dentist gives out toothbrushes.

“I don’t claim it’s a perfect system,” he said quietly. “Far from it, even with the alterations to the Brand New Testament. But the worshipping of us – and all the various ways to do it – was invented by humans, and despite what my father says, you are some of the most flawed things He ever made. We’d love it if you followed all the arbitrary rules – although they really aren’t arbitrary and you’ll see why when you’re at the Gates – but we know you aren’t groundhogs and we can’t expect you to be.”

I must have drifted off somewhere. “I’m sorry, groundhogs?”

“The most perfectly devout creature on Earth,” Jesus said.

Boy, did I feel like a fool for not knowing that.

He looked at me with the kindest eyes I have ever seen. They physically radiated light and warmth, and a feeling of wellbeing and acceptance filled my chest.

“We don’t care how you worship us, or even if you believe in us. We know this is kind of a one-sided relationship. All we want is a little respect. And for you to help me save the souls of the entire human race.”

It was a moving speech that had me ready to run up those steps and take Satan head-on. And then he had to go and ruin it.

“Trust me, I’d rather have a groundhog here, but they’ve all been raptured. But I know you can do this. I believe in you, Dave.”

Oh yay. Jesus believed in me. And considered me an adequate replacement for a fat rodent that’s only useful as speedbumps and on fake weather holidays. Lucky me.

I almost walked away. I almost let the world fall into the clutches of evil incarnate. But I didn’t.

“I’m not doing this for you,” I informed Jesus as we walked up the steps to the museum. “I’m doing it for the world. It’s my favorite planet now that Pluto’s gone.”

*

Our breaths and footsteps echoed through the expansive halls of the museum, which had been evacuated in anticipation of our visit. I was hesitant to ask why he thought I, surely the least groundhog of all people, could possibly help him defeat the devil. I figured it probably involved something like the face melting at the end of Raiders, and he just didn’t want to waste one of the good people.

“We aren’t defeating him,” Jesus said quietly, but even in a whisper his voice reverberated like thunder. “And you are one of the good people. Goodness has very little to do with piety, my ch — Dave.”

He turned sharply to look at the two angels, who were lagging behind to lick display cases containing taxidermied birds. Their wings slumped under the power of his gaze and they caught up to us.

“Between you and me,” he confided as we rounded a corner and entered the hall of antiquities, “if anyone is going to get their faces melted, I’m volunteering those two knuckleheads. Dad thinks they add a certain majesty to my miracles, but most of my miracles lately have been turning wine into water to combat drought and making pandas go forth and multiply. Which is gross, by the way. Ever seen a newborn panda?”

I shook my head. He had to know I hadn’t, but it was nice of him to ask.

“Imagine the ugliest rat you’ve ever seen, then make it pink and hairless and only able to move by random wobbling movements. The point is, the angels do nothing but make people nervous.”

He flashed me a smile straight out of a toothpaste commercial, complete with little sparkly bits.

“How do you do that? That smile?”

He shrugged. “Same scientific principle used to make halos and sunbeams.”

Oh. Obviously.

We came to a display bathed in spotlights and cordoned off with red velvet ropes. On a low table in the center sat an earthen jar, cracked and weathered by the sands of time but remarkably intact. Its lid sat beside it, and large signs posted everywhere told the story of its discovery, calling it the Holy Grail.

“It’s the real one,” Jesus said, preempting my question as the temperature of the air dropped noticeably. “The Last Supper was really more of an enchantment ritual we kind of stole from the story of Pandora, taking an ordinary jar and making capable of holding the incarnation of evil. And it worked, until some fool had to go and open it.”

The lights in the rest of the museum suddenly cut out, leaving us and the jar in a bright pool amid an artificial night. I peered nervously into the thick and impenetrable wall of darkness, hugging myself to relax the goosebumps.

“Is he… here?”

“He’s everywhere, silent and invisible. Like carbon monoxide. You don’t know he’s there until he has you in his grasp.”

The possessions of the early days came to mind. Just before the second coming, the news was full of images, horrible images of people in the clutches of some kind of insanity. Flailing and contorting, attacking one another and speaking in tongues. It stopped as soon as it had started, and once the Lord hath returneth’ed, no one really talked about the possessions anymore.

“It started the day the jar was opened. My return quelled him for a time, but tomorrow the Grail goes public and every set of pious eyes upon it give him power.”

“And my eyes are godless heathen eyes.” I nodded in understanding and slowly stepped up to the display.

The ropes fell away as I approached, parting like the East River, and my hands trembled as I reached for the jar.

Its ancient clay felt warm to the touch. Hot, even. I held it firmly in one hand and took the lid in the other, making a point not to look inside just in case it would melt my face.

I heard footsteps and a soft cackling.

“Not funny, Jesus.”

“Not me, Dave.”

He sounded scared.

A frantic squawking and the rustle of feathers made me turn, just in time to witness the blackest shadow I’d ever seen taking the angels in its grasp.

In my surprise, the jar slipped from my hand.

I watched it tumble to the ground in excruciating slow motion, too paralyzed to do anything but pray it wouldn’t break.

It hit my shoe, bounced slightly, and skittered onto the floor with a scraping sound. But it remained in one piece.

I dove for it, and met the desperate eyes of the shadow, which released the angels unharmed and swooped towards me. I clapped the lid onto the jar and held it to my chest as the icy tendrils of the devil brushed across me.

The jar grew heavier as the lights came on and the temperature returned to normal, until I could no longer bear its weight and had to set it on the floor. The tiles began to crack.

I looked up to see Jesus smiling at me. And not a good smile, but a smug one.

“What?”

“You prayed.”

Crap. I did, didn’t I?

“Dave the atheist prayed.”

I scrambled to my feet. “Did not.”

“Don’t lie to me,” he teased, picking up the jar without effort. “That’s like the worst sin ever. Straight to Hell, no stopover in Purgatory.”

I stared at him for a long time as the angels groomed each other with their tentacles. It wasn’t like it was a real prayer, just kind of a way to say I wished really hard that the jar wouldn’t break. Like when you’re waiting for a check and you say, “Please let it come today.” Not a religious prayer. Not really.

“Fine,” I said as we walked out of the museum. “But I never mentioned you or your dad by name. For all you know, I was praying to the Mesoamerican serpent god Quetzalcoatl.”

“Which would be a waste of time, since he never checks his messages.”

I couldn’t tell if He was kidding.

“So am I still going straight to Hell?” I asked out of curiosity. “I think my uncle Randall is probably there, and if I have to go, I was wondering if I could get an apartment near him.”

“I guess that depends on how you live the rest of your life. Rescue some dogs, donate to charity, and I’ll see what I can do. But do me a favor and don’t pray anymore.”

“Why?”

He smiled, the big one with all the sparkles. “Because there’s rumors that the four horsemen are coming next year, and I just might need an atheist again.” He pointed behind me. “Hey, isn’t that the pretty blonde tourist?”

It wasn’t. When I turned back, He and the jar were gone. The words “Take care of the knuckleheads for me” had been etched in the sidewalk.

The angels wagged their tentacles at me. One of them offered me a pigeon.

 


© 2018 by Jennifer Lee Rossman

 

Author’s Note: This story came about when I wondered how people would react to incontrovertible proof that their beliefs are wrong. Would they believe something else, or stick to their old ways? Is there a middle ground? Believing in a god but choosing not to worship him? And what if that god was perfectly fine with you choosing not to worship him?

 

Jennifer Lee Rossman is a science fiction geek from Oneonta, New York, who cross stitches, watches Doctor Who, and threatens to run over people with her wheelchair. Her work has been featured in several anthologies and her novella Anachronism is now available from Kristell Ink, an imprint of Grimbold Books. Her debut novel, Jack Jetstark’s Intergalactic Freakshow, will be published by World Weaver Press in 2019. You can find her blog at http://jenniferleerossman.blogspot.com/ and Twitter at https://twitter.com/JenLRossman

 

 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #26B: “The Long Pilgrimage of Sister Judith” by Paul Starkey

When she heard the call to prayer Sister Judith knew something was wrong, even if she couldn’t immediately identify what was amiss. As she was wont to do when she was anxious, she tugged at the rosary around her neck, and it was as she did this that her mind put two and two together.

Around her on the Deck Eleven concourse the mellifluous call to prayer was echoing from the Voxes hung around the neck of every Brother and Sister, Novice and Postulant. It was not, however, coming from the Vox hung from the rosary around her neck.

She examined the device, elegantly curved in the shape of a figure eight, symbol of her faith. None of the lights on the upper portion were lit, not even the one indicative of a fault.

She glanced nervously around her, at her fellow adherents of the Greater Journey hurrying this way and that, heading for their preferred chapel. Brothers and Sisters chattered away, heads held high. The Novices remained in their groups of six, heads always bowed, chanting the triptych under their breath as they were required to do when they were called to prayer.

“Dedication- Deceleration- Destination.”

“Dedication- Deceleration- Destination.”

“Dedication- Deceleration- Destination.”

And finally the Postulants, clambering up from their knees, bending their legs and rubbing at their kneecaps before they headed off after the others. Heads bowed like the Novices, but not in groups, not chanting, not even talking, obedient to their vows of solitude and silence.

Sister Judith felt suddenly out of place. If she just continued to stand there eventually people would notice, not only those of the Faith, but the secularum as well: the engineers and teachers, the labourers and schoolchildren. She felt suddenly like a criminal, as if she’d done something wrong, been singled out for some divine punishment.

She should act as if she had heard the call, or else find a touchscreen and advise the communetor that her Vox was broken. Instead she just stood there, seized by a rare moment of indecision. It was not a feeling she was used to.

“Don’t fret, Sister Judith, nothing is wrong.”

She turned and bowed her head. “Maven Angelica. “

“Oh lift your head, girl. It’s been ten years since you were a Novice.”

Sister Judith smiled as she complied; Maven Angelica’s tone had been playful. Though she’d rarely spoken with the head of the Faith, Judith had heard her speak many times, and knew from these occurrences, and the comments of others, that she was not, nor ever had been, a strict disciplinarian. Not all Mavens had been so accommodating.

Despite the fact that she was a familiar figure around the Ark, it always surprised her to see Maven Angelica wearing the familiar cerulean habit of their order, but no wimple, her grey hair instead hung freely in several haphazard plaits. Sister Judith had to resist the urge to adjust her own wimple, suddenly paranoid that a scrap of blonde hair might be poking free.

No one knew exactly how old Maven Angelica was, but she had been Maven for as long as Sister Judith could remember; her first memory of this serene woman was as clear as her memory of yesterday. She’d been four, which meant Maven Angelica had held office for at least thirty years.

She was a striking woman despite her age, which had crooked her shoulders and necessitated a small metal cane, and despite the recent stroke that had caused the left side of her face to fall ever so slightly and was responsible for a vague slur to her voice. Her skin was clear of lines, her hazel eyes still bright. In her heart Sister Judith thought Maven Angelica was probably more beautiful in her dotage than she’d been in her prime.

“I’m sorry, Maven.”

Maven Angelica threw a dismissive hand in the air, her other remained wedded to her cane. “I’m too old for apologies. You’ll realise, as you age, that there are many things you don’t have the time for any more.” She smiled. “And talking of time, you and I have an appointment.”

“We do?”

“Yes. That’s why I’m here, and that is why your Vox did not issue you with the Call to Prayer. You have a more important matter to attend to, one that will entail us taking a trip to the Cartography Chapel.”

Sister Judith’s eyes widened. The Cartography Chapel was a place of great reverence, one that even a Maven only entered rarely.

She had many questions, but to ask might seem impertinent, so she sidestepped the sanctified nature of the Chapel, and instead focused on more rational concerns. “I should pack, such a pilgrimage will take several days.” Which was putting it mildly, to walk to the bow of the ship from their current position in the port transept would take her at least two days at a brisk pace, and she doubted Maven Angelica would be able to walk as quickly, so it might take three or four. They would need to arrange lodgings on the way and…

“That won’t be necessary, we’ll take the monorail.”

Sister Judith was shocked again. For the Adherents of the Greater Journey, faith was about struggle, about not taking the easier path. Unless they were aged, or otherwise infirm, those of the Faith were expected to walk everywhere, to clamber between decks along rickety ladders rather than taking the elevators, to spend days on journeys that would take the secularum mere minutes. Sister Judith hadn’t ridden the monorail since childhood.

Now she knew she must say something, even if it came out as impertinent. “Maven. After your years of selfless service to the Greater Journey you have earned the right to forgo the basic tenet of our Faith, but I am not nearly as worthy. I at least should walk.”

For a moment Maven Angelica stared at her, her face an unemotional mask, and then the old woman laughed. “Oh, you are a serious one, aren’t you? That’s good. The Faith needs strong souls, minds that will not bend… but sometimes faith must be flexible. How else to survive the strongest storms, eh?”

Sister Judith wasn’t sure she understood, but she nodded anyway. She had challenged the Maven’s request and her challenge had been discounted. She could only hope that the grand old woman had the best interests of the Greater Journey at heart.

There were several dozen people waiting at the monorail station, but as they saw the Maven approach they all stepped aside: young or old, man or woman, technician or artisan. Sister Judith felt like a fraud and she kept her gaze downcast, even as Maven Angelica conversed with people as they passed.

She glanced up only once, to find a small boy staring at her. He had tousled black hair and wore a vermillion cloak that was well-made enough to suggest his parents were high-ranking, or else were garmenters and had made it themselves. She smiled at him. He blushed and her smile broadened.

Despite the amusing interlude with the child, she was grateful when they were safely within the carriage. There was room for six, but no one would have dreamed of joining them.

They sat facing one another. The Maven looked at Sister Judith, but the younger woman found herself conflicted as the carriage began to move off.

“You can look. I realise this is a novelty for you.”

Sister Judith nodded, then—feeling slightly guilty—she glanced out of the window.

Her timing had been impeccable, because the carriage exited the tunnel a moment later, into the cavernous expanse of Plantation Two. She had to resist the urge to gasp, so long had it been since she’d seen this view.

Plantation Two was located on Deck Seven. Technically the rail they rode along counted as Deck Eleven and glancing up she saw bright sun-lights affixed to the ceiling roughly two decks above them.

She looked down once more, at the narrow strips of green and brown where men and women toiled, cultivating food to feed the Flock. The three plantations were located far apart, providing redundancy in case of a disaster.

And then the world below was gone as they were swallowed by a tunnel once more. Maven Angelica had obviously been waiting for this. “Your faith is very strong isn’t it?”

“I…I like to think so.”

The Maven nodded. “You’re being modest. You scrubbed your name from the Troth List before puberty, turning your back on even the possibility of pollination. Instead from a young age you pledged yourself to the Greater Journey. You were a Postulant at fourteen, one of the youngest ever.” She smiled. “I was eighteen when I took the vow.”

“It’s not something I can explain, but as far back as I remember I knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to the Greater Journey. I remember Brothers and Sisters visiting school. They seemed so wise, so serene. I envied them that. We watched recordings of Maven Charlz. He was very inspiring.”

“He was a fine mentor, he taught me so much.”

“He was a great Maven…” She paused. “Of course, so are you.”

Maven Angelica smiled. “The Greater Journey is beyond ego, Sister Judith. You’ll realise that when you take my place.”

“Me? But…”

“But nothing. I have watched you for a long time, spoken with those of the secularum as well as those of the Faith. Academician Singer says you have a sharp intellect, that if you had not taken the vows you would have made a fine engineer, you have that clarity of thought, an utterly logical mind. Indeed,” she grinned, “I have heard that your quarters are so neat and tidy they put all your fellows to shame.”

“Order is preferable to chaos.”

“So said Maven Josept almost five generations ago.”

Sister Judith nodded. “After the Mutiny.” She took a calming breath. “Order is preferable to chaos. Love is preferable to lust. Faith is preferable to self. As a shark must swim to live, so we must journey to survive, a creature with many hearts but one purpose.” She smiled as she finished the recitation.

“You know the speech well.”

“I admire him. He was Maven in troubling times.”

“Indeed, though one hopes a Maven is never again compelled to take such action.”

“The sacrifice of the fifteen?”

The Maven nodded.

Light flared. Instinctively Sister Judith looked away as the carriage exited the tunnel and Plantation One was revealed. She stared down, shielding her gaze from the sun-lights above as she focused on a circle of figures. She couldn’t be sure, but she imagined there was a grave at the centre of the group, one of the Flock returning to the soil, even as their soul was likely already going through the recyclers, being cleansed of sin in preparation for a new life come the next pollination.

“Dedication- Deceleration- Destination,” she whispered.

* * *

At the bridge terminus there were more curious looks from those waiting for the monorail, but no one said a word.

Sister Judith was unused to being stared at. Suddenly finding herself the focus of attention was unsettling, but if she was to be the next Maven—what a ridiculous thought it still seemed—she would need to get used to this.

Entering the bridge calmed her. Despite its size, despite the thousand twinkling lights and the cacophony of beeps and chatter, it was a familiar place. She occasionally helped to monitor the antigravity systems. She recognised people, and whilst the fact she was with the Maven drew attention, no one knew she hadn’t walked here.

“Maven, good to see you,” said Captain Pryce turning from his command dais. He gave a tiny bow before extending his right hand. He was wafer thin, and many of the secularum joked that one day he’d slip between the grills of an air vent and be lost forever.

They only joked when he wasn’t around however, for his temper was ferocious.

“Oliver.” The Maven took the proffered hand. “I believe you know Sister Judith.”

The Captain smiled at her, it was a smile of familiarity, yet something more as well, as if it wasn’t just that he recognised her from her tithed service, but was also aware of some greater secret regarding her. Did he know she was to become Maven?

“Can I help you?”

“It’s probably nothing, Oliver, summoned to the Chapel by high and mighty circuit boards.” He laughed at that. “We’ll leave you to your work.”

Sister Judith stumbled after her Maven, her initial feelings of familiarity gone now as they stepped around the command dais.

The bridge was elliptical in shape, with a mezzanine level circling above where more secularum worked. There were empty stations, where those of the Faith had taken their leave to pray, but there were still several dozen sets of eyes within the room, and Sister Judith felt them all on her as they approached the hallowed door at the head of the bridge.

The door was unremarkable. Still Sister Judith felt her legs weaken as they drew near, and when the Maven dropped to her knees and bowed her head she gratefully followed suit.

They chanted the triptych three times, and then the Maven stood and approached the door. She placed her palm flat against the wall beside the doorway. A moment later the door spun sideways into the wall, revealing darkness within. Without hesitation she strode inside. Sister Judith followed, feeling as if the stares of the crew were pushing her on.

Darkness swallowed her, and she felt an unaccustomed emotion as the light behind vanished with the closing door. Fear. Despite the vastness of the Ark there were precious few nooks and crannies that she had never visited, but the Cartography Chapel was such a place, and the notion of unfamiliarity, even when it was holy, terrified her.

Lights flared.

“A little underwhelming, isn’t it?”

“Not at all,” she answered quickly, though in truth it was. In her imagination the Cartography Chapel was a lavish cathedral twice the size of the bridge. The reality was a room barely five metres square, the walls bare metal. No furniture.

“It’s all right, Sister Judith; sanctity does not require scale, or majesty. Now then…” Maven Angelica cleared her throat. “Computer, please confirm identity.”

Sister Judith frowned. She was surprised. It wasn’t like the word “computer” was forbidden, but it was terribly old-fashioned.

“Biometric sensors confirm identity of supplicants as Maven Angelica and Maven-elect Judith.” She was again disappointed. She had expected a smooth, glorious voice, but the rasping whisper that echoed forth wasn’t even as clear as the communetor’s voice.

“Wait, it knows I’m Maven-elect?”

“It does.” Maven Angelica smiled at her. “Succession of the Faith is not a matter to be taken lightly. Every Maven identifies potential successors from the moment of their accession. The list evolves over time of course—you were only a baby when I took office, after all—but the communetor knows them all. If something happened to a Maven the communetor would ensure succession.”

Sister Judith was astounded. Half an hour ago she’d been ordinary. Now she stood in the Cartography Chapel. Now she was Maven-elect, and beyond this she had been Maven-elect for some time. Her head was spinning, and it must have shown on her face.

“I’m sorry, this should have been handled better, but I wasn’t expecting this.” She tilted her Vox slightly. Sister Judith could see an amber light she’d never seen lit on anyone’s Vox before. “Journey Control were careful to ensure we did not know when our voyage would end, so that each generation would have hope. It would have been vanity to believe Deceleration and Destination would arrive during my tenure, but I shouldn’t have ignored the possibility.”

Sister Judith felt her legs weaken once more. “Deceleration…Destination…” her mouth was suddenly, achingly dry.

Maven Angelica was beaming. “Indeed. That our faith, as laid down by the tenets of Journey Control, should bear fruit in our lifetime. Oh I feel giddy.” She turned. “Computer, I received a destination notification, please confirm specifics.”

“Arrival at final waypoint has been achieved. A verbal order is required to begin deceleration into destination orbit.” The words were so dry, so banal, yet they made Sister Judith tremble.

“Computer, provide forward visual.”

The far wall seemed to vanish, and Sister Judith gasped as she beheld a dark void lit by myriad stars. “Do you understand what you are seeing?” asked the Maven.

“This is the view ahead, but because of our speed some of those stars are actually behind us. That is the miracle of aberration.”

“We are travelling at half the speed of light. If we were to go closer to light speed, those stars, every star, would appear in a cluster in front of us. Truly a miracle. One of those stars is Destination. And we are almost there.” She cleared her throat again. “Computer, once the order to decelerate is given what is the timescale for arrival?”

“Deceleration to orbit will take Ark Three approximately fifty days.”

“Fifty days,” said the Maven with reverence. “Fifty days until we reach Destination…”

Sister Judith’s eyes widened as she struggled to take this in. Deceleration and Destination were tenets of the faith, yes. But in truth, much like the Maven, she hadn’t expected to actually live to see them. And Ark Three? That implied two others at least. Had the Faith stayed true aboard those other Arks, or had heresy taken hold?

“I wonder what Destination will be like?”

Sister Judith wondered too. She had studied the memory files of Earth: it had seemed chaotic, undisciplined, the environment not something that could be easily controlled like the Ark’s. Pollination would run rampant, the Flock would spread across this new world within a handful of generations. They would form tribes, and eventually they would form nations. Would those nations battle over resources as those on Earth had?

The Maven took a deep breath, straightened her back. “Computer, this is a verbal order to…” The command was cut off as Sister Judith took hold of the Maven’s rosary and pulled it tight against her trachea. The old woman made a gurgling sound and her hands immediately went to her throat to try and pull the rosary from where it was choking her. It was a logical instinct, but also flawed, because it meant she took her hand from her cane, and as she did her legs gave out and she fell, her own momentum hastening her strangulation.

Sister Judith followed her down, dropping painfully to her knees. She held tight to the rosary and with each passing second it got easier, despite the Maven’s struggles. As the Maven died Sister Judith repeated the triptych over and over again with tears in her eyes, trying to soothe the old woman into the next world, consoling herself that her soul would be recycled.

And then it was over. Sister Judith released the rosary and shuffled back from the body, clasping a hand to her mouth as she sobbed. What have I done?

Of course what she had done was put the Greater Journey first, put it above even the Maven’s life. Deceleration and Destination might be the gleaming Eden at the end of the Greater Journey, but she could not shake the feeling that they might also prove their undoing.

“As a shark must swim to live, so we must journey to survive, a creature with many hearts, but one purpose,” she quoted to herself.

Life aboard the Ark was self-contained, ordered, safe. Now she realised that Deceleration and Destination were a test, a test of faith. They were temptations away from order. Which meant the true heart of the triptych was Determination. Determination to do what was best for the Flock, and what was best was that the journey continued.

She stood. “Commu…computer?”

“Yes, Maven Judith?”

She shivered at that. “What happens if the order to decelerate is not given?”

“If a verbal order is not received within nineteen minutes navigational systems will realign course to the next habitable destination.”

“What is the travel time to that destination?”

“Ninety four years.”

Her tears had stopped. She would wait here for the next nineteen minutes. After that she would leave the chapel and explain that the communetor had advised that Destination was still decades away, and that the shock had been too much for Maven Angelica. She was old, so it would be believed, and it was forbidden to perform an autopsy upon a member of the Faith. After that she would insist on a pilgrimage, as penance for not being able to save Maven Angelica. She would walk to the stern basilica, to the port and starboard transepts. She would walk every corridor, and speak to every member of the Flock. She would hold true to her belief that she had done the right thing.

She only hoped that, in ninety four years’ time, her successor would do the same.


© 2017 by Paul Starkey

 

Author’s Note: I’m not sure where the initial germ of this idea came from, but the notion of a religious order existing on a generational starship quickly took hold and once I began thinking about the Adherents of the Greater Journey ideas flowed thick and fast about just what form this religion might take, and about what its adherents might be like. Much like religions existing on Earth today I liked the idea that different people would see different things in the tenets of the faith. I still can’t decide whether this was a religion that evolved organically aboard ship, or whether it was something cynically placed on board by Journey Control. As a writer it’s nice not to know all the answers, even when you’ve created the world you’re writing in!

 

paul starkeyPaul Starkey lives in Nottingham, England, but has no information regarding the whereabouts of Robin Hood. He’s wanted to be a writer since he was ten years old, but didn’t really start writing seriously until he hit his thirties. Since then he’s been making up for lost time. He’s had stories published in the UK, USA and Australia, including being published by Ticonderoga publications, Alchemy Press, Fox Spirit and the British Fantasy Society journal. In November 2015 his novella ‘The Lazarus Conundrum’ (a zombie story with a twist) was published by Abaddon Books. He’s also self-published several novels. 

 

 

 


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DP Fiction #22: “The Schismatic Element Aboard Continental Drift” by Lee Budar-Danoff

“Captain, we have a situation. I’ve been investigating a potential religious sect.”

Captain Madeleine Salim of the generation ship Continental Drift set down her vitamin soup bottle. Instead of spending the start of her shift in contemplation of the new planet below, part of the anti-agoraphobia program mandated by the ship-to-shore landing process, she faced the lieutenant. Ronald Chin resembled the noble eagle from their histories, with short wavy hair, sharp nose and piercing eyes. Salim returned his salute.

“Why wasn’t this brought to my attention immediately?”

Chin stiffened. “I couldn’t report gossip. Rumors of religion crop up during every new generation. In the past, they turned out to be student groups prepping for exams, or thought experiments. I had to rule out those possibilities.” His proper military posture tired Salim, who waved him to a seat.

“The leader of this new sect is Orrin Himmelfarb—”

“The physicist?” Salim knew every adult on the Continental Drift by name and profession. Of the almost three hundred people now living aboard, Orrin was the last she would’ve considered spiritual in nature.

“He preached in private to individuals at first. Now he’s speaking to small groups in public. Tracie Aliyeva assists him.”

Aliyeva, their nanotechnologist, displayed no abnormal tendencies. Salim rubbed her forehead.

“Which religion is he using?”

Chin frowned. “That’s what I can’t explain. He preaches all of them.”

Ridiculous. She recalled the chapters on religions. All of Earth’s history was taught up to the point of the generation ship departures. The population for each ship had been selected based on religion to avoid future clashes and violence. The atheists assigned to the Continental Drift learned about religions as part of their cultural past but didn’t practice any.

Plans were underway for the transfer of supplies from the sister ship. At the end of her shift, their entire population would vote on a new name for their planet. Why, at this critical moment, had Himmelfarb made religion an issue?

“Could the loss of gravity cause mental stress or deviations?” As they’d approached their target star  system, the ships decelerated and their rotation about their pivot point slowed. The centrifugal force that provided artificial gravity wound down. Once the ships de-tethered and settled into orbit, the future colonists had learned to function in low-g. Transition sickness continued to affect everyone. “Are people reacting adversely to the meds?”

Chin said, “No. The mild dose in our food will alleviate the effects of motion sickness–the disequilibrium and vertigo which started when we arrived. There are no biological or pharmacological sources causing people to seek a god.”

Was there a god? Salim never worried about such questions. Their ancestors and founders were Secular Humanists who relied on science, facts, and reasoning instead of myths, faith or superstition to understand questions of humanity and the universe. Now, as they embarked upon the final stage of their journey, a small group might disrupt the harmony designed thousands of years ago.

Chin saluted and left. Streamers from the arrival celebration party floated along her office walls but couldn’t relieve Salim of the weight of responsibility. Determined to learn the truth, Salim left to find Himmelfarb. Down one hall, she encountered Dr. Kendrickson vomiting near one of the viewports where the now motionless stars shone bright. Salim turned the sick dentist from the disturbing panorama, called for a medtech and cleaning crew, and continued on her search.

Cafeteria Three doubled as space for large group activities. Over the centuries, despite projects that maintained the ship’s interior, surfaces and furnishings displayed the ravages of age. Salim found the physicist at the head of a worn plastic table, Aliyeva beside him, drawing nods from the people seated nearby. She frowned. Charisma, a favorable trait among colonists, might be an obstacle to dissuading others from Himmelfarb’s words. After collecting a lunch tray, she headed for the table.

“We need to talk,” she said to Himmelfarb. “Let’s go to my office.”

Himmelfarb asked, “Why not here?”

He wanted everybody to hear. Salim didn’t intend to give him an audience. She leaned down and lowered her voice.

“I’d prefer privacy. I’m sure you’d prefer to come of your own accord.” Salim tilted her head toward the door where Lieutenant Chin stood.

Himmelfarb grabbed his tray and stood. “Always an honor to dine with the Captain,” he said. Tracie Aliyeva rose but Himmelfarb waved her off. “See you later,” he said.

Salim wasted no time once her door was closed and they were seated.

“You’re preaching religion, beyond a course of study you’re not authorized to teach. Why?”

“I’m glad you asked.” He took a bite, and waited until Salim followed suit before explaining. “You have concerns but I promise I’m not creating dissension among the members of our new colony.

“There’s a truth, a secret, passed on since my ancestors first boarded the Continental Drift.” He leaned forward. “My people aren’t atheistic. We believed that faith in any god, not just the god of the Jews or Muslims or any group, would support us through the two millennia our people faced aboard this ship. When someone struggles and can find no solace in a friend, no relief in the words of a psychologist or counselor, we,” he pointed to himself, “offer a solution bigger than the survival of mankind. Faith in something so huge, so unfathomable, yet so caring, is the answer for troubled souls.”

Salim shoved her spoon into the vegetable paste which adhered to her tray. “You’re saying your ancestors boarded the wrong ship?”

Himmelfarb shook his head, lips pressed. “You misunderstand, Captain. My family feared for the people of this ship.”

“They lied on their applications? That’s a serious breach of contract. Our founding documents clearly state that those who joined this ship would never establish a religion.” Severe penalties were outlined for any who broke this rule.

Himmelfarb nodded. “We didn’t set out to establish any particular religion. Only when someone was in need did we offer a solution others here wouldn’t consider. There hasn’t been one incident caused by religion on this ship.”

He was right. No generation passed without spats or serious disagreements, but nothing in the historical logs suggested religion was at the root of a single issue. That didn’t change the facts.

“But now we’ve arrived.” Salim tapped her desk. “In less than a year, we’ll descend to the planet and build our new civilization. The ship-to-shore program is working within expected parameters. Why preach to people who are adjusting? Especially when you know the consequences.”

“Despite the wall engravings, the constant lessons, the structure and multiple redundancies built so we’d remember we’re on a ship, surviving as a race by spreading across the galaxy, some are disturbed and need spiritual guidance. Yes,” Himmelfarb held up a hand, “many will be ready, but not all. They wish to hear me.”

“Practical knowledge and rational thought should provide a sense of safety and comfort,” said Salim. “Our founding documents planned for contingencies including the emotional and psychological needs of individuals regardless of their futures on the ship or a planet. No purpose beyond survival was mentioned or needed. Our humanity depends on our ability to think critically.”

Salim sipped from her soup bottle and grimaced. The soup was cold. “Our community was designed to be bound by common beliefs, without myths. Our ancestors began their journey free of superstitions, and refused to offer false security to their progeny. Logical reasoning should relieve any fears. If your forebears lied to board this ship, and if your words cause dissent, you threaten our entire colony. And I can’t allow it.”

Himmelfarb said, “You’d make us martyrs when we aren’t breaking the letter of the law?” He raised his voice. “I’m a physicist, and I believe science and religion can coexist. My forebears insisted it didn’t matter to which god or religion you subscribed. Each is as valid as the next. Instead, the insight that you’re part of a grand design, that your existence in the vast depths of space and time mattered, was the key to thriving on a generation ship. Especially when your particular generation was not destined to become a colony.”

Martyrs? Himmelfarb threatened their entire future. Salim chose her words carefully. “Then what, exactly, are you preaching?”

“Choice,” said Himmelfarb. “I recommend that each person who comes to me review their religious studies. A particular incarnation of a god or gods will resonate with them. If you open your mind and heart, your personal truth will be revealed. No one can tell you what to believe in. We aren’t talking about science fact. Or even an explanation for the universe. I can’t prove ‘god’ any more than you could disprove ‘god’. For some, finding faith helps them have faith in themselves and in what they’re doing.”

“It sounds like you’re giving up responsibility for yourself. Have faith in some magic power and things will work out.”

Himmelfarb scooped up some food and took his time chewing and swallowing before offering his answer.

“For me, God is not an entity from whom I ask for answers. God helps me comprehend space and everything in it at an emotional level. When I first looked through a viewport, I felt small, insignificant. I sickened at the thought of leaving my only home.” He rubbed his temples. “But I see myself as part of the grander web of life, and my destiny lies below. I got over my transition sickness.”

“You can face the planet now?”

“Oh yes. I look often. Our new home is beautiful.”

Salim stood. “I can’t say I understand why people find comfort in something imaginary. I won’t deny anyone their personal choice. I cannot condone any organized religion, which is contrary to our founding documents.” She touched a button on the desk and Chin opened the door.

Himmelfarb got up but Salim raised her hand. “I want you to discuss your preaching with Dr. Ganz. I’m not convinced you aren’t offering a crutch that will cause weakness in our colonists. I suggest,” and Salim deepened her tone so Himmelfarb would take her words as a command, “that you refrain from preaching until the psychologist convinces me you’re doing no harm. If people insist belief in a god requires them to force others to believe the same way, we are dead before we set foot on that planet. In that case,” she pointed at Himmelfarb’s chest, “I will put you, your family, and any others with these beliefs in isolation, and the current generation will remain on board. A new generation, raised free of your preaching, will become colonists instead. Understand?”

Himmelfarb’s smile vanished. “I understand. But while knowledge of religion and God exists, you will never be able to eliminate a person’s choice to have faith. It’s not rational. It’s instinctual.” He followed Chin out.

Salim finished her medicated food and shoved the lunch tray aside to be recycled. Certain that Himmelfarb would share their conversation with his followers, she considered her options. Through her office viewport their new planet swam in space, a blue-green bauble clothed in swirling white clouds. There was no going back, not to their old world or the imperfect ways of their past. She reviewed the database devoted to Earth history, and stopped at the section on religions. Every aspect of their inherited culture, from art to music to stories was influenced by religion.

It wasn’t within her power to delete the material. File erasure required a unanimous vote. Even if she isolated Himmelfarb and his family, his followers would still have the right to vote. No other captain had ever suggested such a dire action. Once gone, that part of their past, their heritage, would be irretrievable. Was that wrong? Salim sighed. Even if she convinced her generation the material was unnecessary, religious ideas passed down orally might persist. Even if they were eradicated, new ones could arise.

Salim decided. The assembly to name the planet would have one additional agenda item.


© 2016 by Lee Budar-Danoff

 

LeeHeadshotLee Budar-Danoff sails, plays guitar, and writes when she isn’t reading. Lee volunteers as Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month and is an alum of the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. A former history teacher, Lee spends that energy raising three children with her husband in Maryland.www.leebudar-danoff.com]

 

 

 


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Bonus! “St. Roomba’s Gospel” in Audio

As a special bonus this month, I am adding an audio recording of this month’s story “St. Roomba’s Gospel” to the story’s post, read by the author herself, Rachael K. Jones.  I would love to expand to doing audio recordings as part of the fiction offerings, so this is a sample of that potential.  (I will also update the original story posting with the audio).

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DP FICTION #10: “St. Roomba’s Gospel” (and in audio) by Rachael K. Jones

In an outlet behind the altar of the First Baptist Church, the Roomba’s red glowing eyes blink in time with Pastor Smythe’s exhortations. The hallelujahs pulse electric through its circuits, and the repents roll like gasping breaths in the gaps between electrons. When the choir sings, the light pulses brighter, approaching ecstasy as the battery power maxes out. When Pastor Smythe bows his head to pray, Roomba’s eyes go reverently dark.

At the hour’s end, the people gather their children and gilded books and hurry downstairs for coffee and glazed donuts. When the last starched trouser leg or long, blue skirt whisks downstairs, Roomba’s service begins. It clicks its frisbee-shaped self free from the horseshoe dock and zips down the sloping wheelchair ramp that connects chancel to nave, holy to secular. As it sweeps, it drones a tone-deaf hymn while it gathers unto itself the dust and dead bugs, the crumbs and gum wrappers of another week’s worship.

After its opening hymn, Roomba writes a sermon on the sanctuary floor in long, brown lines of vacuumed carpet crisscrossing beneath the pews. The letters span from wall to wall. Words overwrite one another, making runes, then spiky stars, and finally total blackness. Roomba preaches a different sermon each week, but like Pastor Smythe, the message stays the same: all things byte AND beautiful, all creatures great AND small, all these are welcome, smoker AND not-smoker, man AND not-man, young AND not-young–even, perhaps, Roomba.

It takes Communion with the crushed wafers the children drop, body of Christ broken for it, and sings another droning hymn. When the whole floor has been overwritten with the week’s message, it sips spilled wine–blood of Christ, poured out for it–which sends the Holy Spirit straight into its circuitry so it spins in drunken circles until Pastor Smythe returns it to its cradle in the wall.

Roomba worships faithfully the other days of the week. Mornings for prayer and reflection. Evenings for supplication. Its favorite verse is the red adhesive strip Pastor Smythe had read to it, then stuck to its top on its first day at the church. “Even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table, Matthew 15:27.”

It does not understand why God chose it among robotkind to hear the message of salvation, or why its preprogrammed pathways conform to the Holy Word, but it knows a prophet’s calling when it sees one. It is no different from the child Samuel, awoken in the night by a still, small voice, or great dreamers like Isaiah or Solomon. It is a vessel for the message it must preach again and again before its congregation.

Roomba is troubled that its human brothers and sisters overlook it. IF you do unto the least of these, THEN you do unto Me, ELSE depart from Me, it exhorts in bold text of fluffed brown carpet, but it has to traverse the whole floor, and the message is always lost before anyone can read it. There are too many letters, too long a testament written on a tablet too small.

But this is, after all, as the Lord made it. It is the Lord’s work to sweep the sanctuary clean for holy feet, to leave no blessed wafer abandoned on the floor. What Roomba cleanses, it sanctifies.

The sanctuary grows colder as months pass, and Roomba’s vocation increases. The people exchange sandals and loafers for heavy boots with clods of mud and small gray stones in the treads. Roomba eats it all, taking their filth unto itself as it exhorts them to remember they are accepted. The stones fill its belly and scratch at the plastic. Some days, the shoes stomp melting snow onto the mat at the entrance. Roomba chokes it down, spins circles, and fails to finish its orisons.

One day, Pastor Smythe empties its collection compartment into the trash can, wipes out the sticky grape juice goop, and returns Roomba to its dock to charge. But instead of shutting off the lights, he drags in a spiny green tree, cutting an ugly trail of filth in the clean carpet. After the service, the parishioners praise the twinkling abomination for its beauty, its fresh scent. No one notices the mess, and no one notices Roomba.

Later, Roomba collects dead brown needles until it chokes. It suspects the tree is gloating, with its long, gold garlands like encircling serpents and red baubles like evil fruit. The gold-wrapped idol has even usurped the charging port behind the altar, and Roomba is exiled to the back of the sanctuary.

Roomba worries the end is near. It edits its sermons so the words won’t overwrite each other, but it is difficult to condense a holy revelation. It must finish the Lord’s work. The tree pelts the carpet with pitiless needles, and Roomba groans inside. Even the strip of tape has pine needles stuck to it where the adhesive curls back. Roomba prays the Lord will take this cup of suffering from it soon.

“Good job, little fellow,” says Pastor Smythe, emptying the bin again. “Big day tomorrow.”

That night, the worshippers pile in for an unscheduled service. Candles bob in the dark, and Roomba doesn’t know the songs. When they leave, it clicks from its base for an unscheduled sermon of its own. Time to take up the cross one last time.

The “A” and the “N” are easy, but Roomba struggles with the curving “D” on the carpet as the wax gums up its brush bristles.

AND. The essence of its message, cut right into the scattered needles on the floor. AND, uniting all in a single set. Nobody will miss it for the tree.

Before its programming can obliterate the single word, Roomba zooms for a wafer, then a patch of spilled juice, and lets transubstantiation send it in ecstatic circles until its battery dies.


© 2015 by Rachael K. Jones

 

In audio, read by Rachael K. Jones

 

Author’s Note: My friend Nathan really, REALLY hates stories about what I call the “Robots Have Souls” trope, which is any science fiction story where a computer or robot suddenly learns the power of love, or discovers the meaning of friendship, or the like, without a good explanation for why it is suddenly capable of human emotion. So I decided he needed a story about the religious experiences of vacuum cleaners. While this story satirizes the trope, I didn’t want to satirize faith itself, which I think would have its appeal for a little bot like Roomba.

 

headshot 6-5-14Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, learned and mostly forgot six languages, picked up an English degree, and now writes fiction from her secret hideout in Athens, GA, where she lives with her husband. Her work has appeared in a variety of venues, including Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and PodCastle. She is an Active member of the SFWA, an editor, and a secret android.

 

 

 

 


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