Monthly Online Magazine
By and For those with MS,
June 2008, Issue 105
Tables of Contents
Originally published in the glossy colour magazine Science Fiction Age (regrettably out of print), this is "The Living God Within", * January 1994. a SF novelette about a woman minister who is sent as ambassador to a re-contacted colony world, now a theocracy, where miracles are routine and real. But there is a scientific reason for the miracles and the government is taking advantage of that -- until she becomes the instrument of a real one and blackmails the government into cleaning up its act.
The Living God Within
F. Alexander Brejcha
"Welcome to Neos, Ambassador Holcum. I am your aide, Jhosh Fuderi."
She tried not to stare at the small, middle-aged man who greeted her with a patently false smile. His deep brown face was an intricate web of wrinkles under a cloud of wild and wispy white hair, and his nearly naked and wiry body was loosely draped with exotic swatches of material that were a study in contrasting textures and color: a brilliant orange mesh vest-like blouse with shoulder pads hovered over shiny, electric blue shorts and knee-high scarlet boots, with a yellow cape completing the garish ensemble.
Looking around at the other Neosians at the capital's airport, she realized that he might even have been considered conservatively attired. She felt her face burn as she saw just how minimally some of the Neosians were covered, and she realized that her simple knee-length grey skirt and peach blouse must have been considered hopelessly drab and stifling. And the rest of her packed wardrobe wasn't much different. She also noticed that she was very carefully not looked at. In fact, as soon as she tried to meet anyone's eyes, they pointedly turned away. There was an almost palpable feel of hostility in the air that confused her.
Twisting her mouth with the unfamiliar accent she had spent most of her trip practicing, she sighed and looked down at Fuderi.
"Well, Jhosh, if you're my aide, you might as well call me Christine. Do we have to pick up my luggage, or will it be sent on to the embassy?"
"It was shipped directly over from the shuttle landing site." His forced politeness had an edge as he answered abruptly. "But before we go to the Capitol Complex, I think you should come straight back to the embassy and change into something less distinctive. You are, after all, only the Earth ambassador, not a member of the Clergy."
"But I am," she corrected him. "I am an ordained minister. That's why I was sent out here. Since your world is a theocracy, and four ambassadors in a row resigned because they couldn't adjust, a new approach was deemed necessary." A theocracy? she asked herself, looking around at the overwhelming display of darkly tanned flesh under white bushes of carefully disorganized hair. She wondered what sort of church condoned this form of exhibitionism; although she realized that the surprisingly warm temperatures inside the otherwise high-tech building did add justification for light clothing.
Jhosh had been silent for a long moment, his face a shifting mass of emotions, but finally he bowed his head respectfully and spoke in heavily accented Standard.
"I beg your pardon, Reverend. I did not know." He looked back up. "Will you be wanting to visit one of our churches to pray before we go to the embassy?"
She kept her face carefully neutral as she realized Jhosh was speaking almost dialect-free Earth Standard. To monitor any of her future communications from behind a facade of ignorance? Over nearly two centuries of separation, Neosian Standard had diverged to become almost a different language, and her language coaches had confidently told her the Neosians were too arrogant to learn the current Earth dialect.
To try to curry a little favor, she answered with Neosian dialect: "I don't know enough about your religion--"
"There is but one God who may be followed in any number of ways." Jhosh seemed happy to switch back to Neosian, and his rote interruption held an air of genial conviction that robbed it of any offense. "What matters is what is in the mind and heart. Not the building. It is something we have learned since emigrating from Earth. It took years of isolation, but it was a worthwhile lesson. Would you like me to make a stop?"
Christine sensed a test of sorts as he waited expectantly for an answer. She nodded.
"Yes. In that case, I'd like that."
"Excellent. Follow me." He smiled broadly, and then spun to head for the concourse entrance across the crowded room.
Relieved that at least one of the mystery-areas of Neos' culture was beginning to clear up, she started to follow him, still a little confused by the exhibitionism around her. The best she could come up with in terms of an explanation was that the simplicity and decorum reserved for the clergy had gradually led to increasing secular flamboyance, in order to make the clergy as distinct as possible.
Then she stopped as she saw a large video monitor overhead flash a picture of a teenage boy's face. He looked to be around seventeen or eighteen. Throughout the cavernous concourse, hundreds of heads bowed subtly, eyes closing as mouths moved in silent unison. The room was suddenly quiet, and she had no trouble hearing the announcer repeat himself.
"...again to pray for Robe Zembove's return. As reported earlier, he has been missing since yesterday morning. Peace Officers are waiving the normal waiting period for missing persons due to the boy's extremely young mental age. He responds to the name Obby and..."
The resuming rumble of a myriad of conversations began to drown the words out again, and she realized Jhosh was already almost to the exit. As she hurried to catch up with him, she wondered about his sudden good humor. The previous ambassador had muttered about a planet full of religious fanatics who hated all Earthlings.
"They should have stayed a lost colony," Cryerson had complained when she had interviewed him. "Arrogant holier-than-thou snobs who think they're better than us. Where in Space do they think they came from?"
Hardly the impression Jhosh was giving her. If Cryerson's attitude was typical, no wonder Jhosh had been cool towards her.
Her flamboyant escort had noticed that she had fallen behind, and he stopped to let her catch up.
"Make way, make way," he called, his peremptory tone leaving no room for argument. But the general hostility she had perceived before had evaporated. Instead of tensely turned backs, smiles and subtly bowed heads greeted her as the crowd parted almost magically. It was the same change in attitude as when she had told Jhosh that she was a Minister. Was his changed behavior so obvious that everyone else had picked up on it?
She filed the strange phenomenon for the future, and caught up with him as he stopped at one of the many drinking fountains scattered throughout the terminal to drink deeply.
"Why does everyone hate Earth?" she asked on impulse as he straightened to face her. "It's hardly Christian to--"
"We do not hate," Jhosh interrupted defensively.
She raised an eyebrow, and his eyes dropped uncomfortably.
"I am sorry, Reverend."
"I said, call me Christine." She smiled to soften the words. "And you're sorry about what? Interrupting, or lying?" Gut instinct, but she saw from his reactive tensing that she had been at least partially right about the latter.
He turned away and headed out the automatic doors without a word.
She followed him, and as they reached a large car waiting by the curb, he stopped to open the back door for her.
"For interrupting," he finally answered as she got in and looked up expectantly. "As for lying, I was not, exactly." He closed her door and then climbed in.
While she waited for him to explain, she settled comfortably in the plush and cool interior, grateful that the air-conditioning in the car had been running. The short walk from the terminal doors to the car had taken her breath away. She had forgotten the briefing that had warned her about the short and intense summers that were a result of Neos' axial tilt. Thinking back to the uncomfortable terminal, she thought she understood why it had been so warm. Compared to the blistering heat outside, the terminal was a refreshing haven. It was probably kept warm to minimize the shock of going from one extreme of temperature to the other. Her briefings had explained it all, and the dark skin tone of the Neosians was another obvious clue to the higher radiation levels during summer, but until she had stepped out onto the sidewalk, it had not been 'real' to her.
As for the car: it was probably no cooler than the terminal, but compared to the furnace-like outdoors, it felt deliciously chilly. In fact, overall, it was a delightful anachronism to senses more accustomed to compact and efficient use of space. The vehicle reminded her of one of the late 20th century limousines she had seen in historical files. The simple lines and plain white color were in marked contrast to the elaborate paint schemes and structural intricacies of the other cars she saw parked and passing by, but at least that difference made sense now. And remembering the tail-pipe she had seen, she assumed the car was powered by an internal combustion engine. That fit with another briefing which had explained that after the initial social and technological collapse that had followed their isolation from Earth during the Upheaval, the Neosians had rebuilt technologically to a late-twentieth century level.
Jhosh settled behind the wheel and turned to face her to answer her almost-forgotten question.
"As for how we feel about Earth: hate is not the right word." He pursed his lips a moment, thinking. "Maybe fear is closer?"
"Fear?" Christine stared. "Why? Interference is forbidden. All we want to do is open the lines of communication, and hopefully trade. The sculptures your people make with Ashgiani wood are exquisite! And the ceramic work we've seen is remarkable. Your native clays and glazes are different from anything found on Earth. We just want to help and open contact again--"
"That is what we fear," Jhosh stopped her. "We have developed in different directions. To trade information and material goods is one thing, because we need some of what Earth has to offer. A major concern is that there are trace elements missing in the soil that we need to replenish for the sake of our agriculture. We also need some medical assistance since there has been a degree of genetic damage from unanticipated solar radiation. Our sun went through an active phase we never expected. These things we need, and Earth has offered help. But what we do not need are your thoughts and attitudes -- or hordes of atheistic immigrants trying to find 'wide open spaces'. We would prefer it if all trade could be done without any actual contact. We do not see the need for an Earth Ambassador, or for anyone from Earth to come here."
She could tell that he was holding something back because the sweat on his forehead wasn't just from the heat outside. She felt sure that there was more going on than merely a fear of cultural contamination.
She leaned forward and laid a hand on his bare arm. The skin felt strangely rough, and she studied it surreptitiously. It was different than her own skin; denser, with a ridging cross-hatched texture, and dotted by occasional fine short hairs that seemed to flex as her hand covered them.
She forced her attention back to Jhosh. "I know there were some problems with the previous ambassadors, but I ask you to please forget them. I'm not here as Earth's meddling representative, but only as a bridge. My job is just to learn about you and to make sure that we don't do anything to offend."
The hard muscles of his forearm had rippled when she had said 'learn about you', and she wondered what he was hiding. She squeezed briefly.
"Look, it will take time for you to get to know and trust me, so let's not rush things. Why don't we start with that church visit you suggested? After seven months in a cramped star ship on the way to one end of a Worm-Gate and then six more months to get here, it will feel good to see the inside of a real church again. I know the best place of worship is, as you pointed out, in the heart and mind, but sometimes one can't quite focus properly there." She smiled again.
He relaxed and turned to pull away from the curb and out into traffic. The lightly spice-scented breeze wafting out of concealed air-conditioning vents got colder as he turned up the air-conditioning unbidden. Appreciating his courtesy, she leaned back to study the sights.
The ride was passed mostly in silence, punctuated by occasional automatic comments about points of interest. Christine had the impression Jhosh was happy to have his chauffeuring provide an excuse to isolate himself up front and avoid conversation. She remembered a number of New York City cab drivers she wished would have used his example!
From the cool shelter of the car, the stretch of road they were on was an eerie mix of familiar and alien. Focusing on the road, it seemed no different than any similar road on Earth centuries earlier, but as soon as she looked off to either side, she was struck by the wildly improbable architecture of the buildings they passed. Some of the houses stretched up and seemed to be on the verge of falling over, while others seemed to cower and try to dig back into the ground. Towers, turrets, tunnels, and twisted trim: every possible way of over-decorating was used. And over it all hung a sullen sun blasting the landscape -- a sun with a bite missing from it! She stared, until she remembered that Neos had three moons.
As they moved into city traffic a while later, they soon pulled up to a curb and Jhosh turned off the engine. With a proud grin, he turned to her and draped an arm across the back of the seat as he pointed out the right window.
"There it is... Christine." The name sounded awkward coming from Jhosh.
She thanked him and tried not to stare as she noticed that Jhosh's dark skin was suddenly as smooth and unmarked as her own, with the exception of small goose-bumps, and it was covered with a downy coat of fine, white hairs. Not an hour earlier, the skin had been roughly ridged and virtually hairless. Another observation to file in her mental things-to-check-on directory. Convinced that it was going to be pretty full before she understood everything, she turned her attention to the intriguing building outside. She didn't want to alert Jhosh to her interest in him.
But once she got a good look at the building resting in the middle of a block-large expanse of immaculate green, she forgot all about her escort. It was an amazing structure. Equidistant triple spires of gleaming pearl-like white thrust towards the sky, supporting a gleaming golden globe between them. The supporting tips of the spires fused into the globe's equator. She stared up at the huge sphere that hung suspended some thirty meters above the ground and almost forgot the scalding blast of heat as she climbed out of the car to get a closer look. With the globe's approximately fifty meter diameter, she could hardly believe that the building was a product of local technology. She turned to Jhosh to see him standing there with a wide, satisfied smile.
"One of the greatest architectural masterpieces of Neos," he proclaimed proudly. "One research area where we excel is plastics. The Church of the Rising God was just finished two months ago."
"How do we get in?"
"Follow me." He led the way towards the closest spire, and the automatic door opened at his approach.
As she followed Jhosh into the spire, a positive air-flow pushing back the oppressive heat, she leaned forward slightly to study him from behind as he pressed the elevator call button. Seeing that the hairs on his arm were all but gone and that the skin was rough again after the hot walk from the car, she smiled to herself and started rearranging her little mental notes.
Noticing that Jhosh was bent over another water fountain to drink again, Christine looked around the softly lit elevator lobby appreciatively. A delicately veined, white marble-like stone floor, hanging low-light plants that trailed lushly from ceiling to floor, and walls of gleaming Ashgiani wood soothed the eyes and imparted a sense of calm as they waited for the elevator. She reached out to stroke the eye-catching wall appreciatively. Ashgiani wood was a treat to the touch as well as the eyes, because when polished just the right way, the strongly patterned greenish-blue wood felt almost like fine fur as inner grain rose up in delicate waves that were nearly impervious to decay.
With a soft chime, the elevator doors slid aside and they boarded to be whisked up to a breath-taking view as the doors opened again to reveal the inside of the globe. Above, the upper hemisphere was a soft shimmering blue that darkened downwards until it merged with a black-carpeted equatorial walk-way that arced out in both directions as far as the other two leg elevators. Extending down from the walkway, two third's of a circle of descending seat levels faced a golden podium halfway down the far wall. The podium was flanked by railed areas of seats presumably meant for a choir. The use of gold, red fabric, and natural Ashgiani wood provided a pleasingly blended color scheme for the dramatic interior.
As she stood admiring it all, and appreciating the fact that the air-conditioning was turned up higher in the church, the elevator in the right leg chimed and opened to release a short, slightly heavy-set woman in her early forties, and an older, almost bald man. He was slender and quite tall, at least thirty centimeters taller than the woman. They were a contrasting pair, especially with their wildly clashing and minimal clothing, but both wore expressions of deep sorrow and loss that Christine was very familiar with. She felt compelled to approach them as they looked up, surging hope brightening their faces.
Jhosh moved to intercept but was too late.
Both kneeled briefly, the man looking up to greet her respectfully.
"Reverend." He bowed his head again briefly before rising. He reached down to help the woman up and they faced her, but their expressions of hope faded as they looked at her again, obviously confused.
"Mr. Zembove. This is the Reverend Holcum. She is the Earth Ambassador, but a woman of God."
Relief flooded their faces as Christine extended her hand. "Mr. Zembove." She recognized the name from the announcement at the terminal and realized why Jhosh knew the couple. They must have been on the news along with their missing son.
"Are you here to pray for his safe return?" she asked as they shook hands. "May I join you? I have some knowledge of what you must be going through, because one of the couples in my congregation in Anchorage had the identical thing happen. Their daughter wasn't developmentally disabled, but it was still a frightening experience for them. She was only seven years old. How 'old' is Robe?"
The woman answered, speaking softly. "Mentally Obby is about six. He got out of the house when I was cleaning and Carn was at work. I didn't hear the front door because I was suctioning. When I finished and went to check on him, he was gone. Several 'prayers' have already gone out, but nobody has found him."
Confused, Christine reached out to take the woman's hand. She led her down the steps to the bottom level of seats that looked up at the podium. Her husband followed automatically.
"Here," Christine offered as they reached the front row. "Sit next to me." Jhosh settled on a seat off to the side and one level up. As they all sat down, Christine turned to face the couple.
"You'll have to forgive me, but I am new to your world. When you said that several 'prayers' had gone out, I have the impression that you meant something different than what I'm used to. What did you mean?"
Carn answered: "When an important issue comes up, the Clergy calls on us all to pray for its resolution. You might have seen the announcements on the video?"
Christine nodded as she remembered the brief but immediate silence and concentration of the crowds in the terminal after the big-screen newscast.
"Well, that's an example," Carn continued. "Of course, since our son's absence is not an event of national significance -- even if it feels like it to Tana and me -- the broadcast was only seen here in Neosia. But all who saw it focused their prayers on finding our boy. Prayers of this sort are common. But this time nothing happened!"
He looked as confused as she felt. She didn't know what to say and just managed a weak: "Well it's a remarkable display of support for those in need--"
"No," Tana stopped her. "You don't understand. It works. Whenever we all pray, God hears us. Always!"
"Whenever a child is lost, you all pray, and the child is always found? Well, sooner or later--"
"Pardon me, but not just lost children," Carn cut in. "We have frequent prayers of healing."
"And your prayers always work?" Feeling a little dizzy, Christine looked over at Jhosh, who nodded uncomfortably.
She began to understand their distress and prompted: "Except for this time?"
Both of the Zemboves nodded.
Christine didn't know what to say or believe, and to cover her confusion, she reached out to take hold of their hands.
"Let me just add my prayers to yours." She closed her eyes and tried to focus her thoughts, but her mind would not cooperate. All she could think of was the absolute certainty in the Zemboves' statements that God always answered their prayers.
She believed in God, naturally, or she would not have followed the path she had chosen. But one of the hardest tasks she had always faced was trying to explain the apparent inconsistency of His will and why, despite the sincerest of prayers and most faithful of followers, various disasters seemed to conspire to destroy faith when one was most vulnerable.
God operated on a random reinforcement schedule, the ex-psychology student within her always defended. And He used standards she could not understand. There was no such thing as a God who answered every prayer as dependably as the government collected taxes.
At least nowhere on Earth.
She forced herself to stay calm. No wonder Jhosh had been disturbed by her questions. He knew as much about Earth as anyone. After all, his people were descended from settlers who had left Earth almost two centuries ago. And since communications had been re-established five years earlier, full records of Earth history during and after the Upheaval had been transmitted to Neos. What would be the reaction if it came to be known on Earth that on Neos, God was apparently more accessible? Earth was as full of conflicting and over-zealous worshippers as ever.
Her psychology schooling asserted itself again as she tried to find an alternate explanation. She could not accept the fact that the Neosians were somehow more worthy than their progenitors on Earth.
Then she remembered the strange transformation of the crowd around her back at the terminal after she had revealed to Jhosh who she was. Memory-scraps from nearly-forgotten psychology classes teased her. E.S.P. was a documented, if frustratingly inconsistent, phenomenon. Could Neosians somehow be psychic? Since none of the Neosians had known she was a minister, any power they possessed had to be mild, but it was one explanation for the change she had witnessed.
If those closest to them had picked up on his rather dramatic reversal of opinion, it could have had a ripple effect as the feeling spread through the room. It would explain the respectful reactions from people all across the room who only saw Jhosh's peremptory path-clearing.
The logical chain was obvious. Directed, worldwide prayer, electronically elicited to concentrate the attention of a mass of mildly psychic people... thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of mildly psychic minds all focused on the same thing! Her mind spun with the implications and possibilities.
It was an answer that seemed to fit perfectly.
She felt the Zemboves' hands pull away and looked up to see their angry faces as they rose and turned to go back up the steps to the elevator.
"Wait!" she called out. "Please. I'm sorry."
Carn stopped and held Tana back, though his wife refused to turn.
"I'm sorry," Christine repeated. "I have spent much of my ministerial life defending a God who all too often seems to cruelly desert His followers. To suddenly find a place where He answers every prayer is a little frightening." Nothing. No, perhaps a slight relaxation of Tana's tensed shoulders? Christine tried again.
"Please. I was so overwhelmed by what I'm learning here that I wasn't focusing on your son. I am sorry." She held out a hand.
Carn came hesitantly back down towards her. Tana followed slowly to sit down in the seat she had vacated. Her husband remained standing suspiciously, hands on her shoulders.
"Please," Christine implored. "Empty your minds of anger and think of your son, at home again, happy to be with the parents who love him."
Christine bent her head and closed her eyes as Carn sat down next to Tana to take her hand. Robe's absence was the thing that had brought these people here. That was what she had to focus on. Whatever was going on here, all she had to draw on was her own craft, and these people deserved her best efforts. She emptied her mind, searching for that place within her where she retreated to commune with God when troubled. Whether or not she was heard was irrelevant. It was a place where she could focus. She thought about the picture of Robe she had seen and visualized the handsome boy with his unruly brown hair, seemingly irrepressible grin, and bright blue eyes. His innocent smile robbed him of a decade.
Please, Christine prayed, bring him home safe!
A smaller, less worthy part of her mind whispered, please let the Zemboves sense my prayers! She fought it, and gradually her mind cleared and she was back in that dark basement from her childhood where only a single candle burned below a burnished cross. Soft, warm light danced with her every breath to stroke the metal shape with soothing touches she could feel in her mind. Purifying and releasing, the flame freed her prayers. Does He hear? She was sure of it. Will He answer? She didn't know.
That decision was not hers to make.
She opened her eyes to face the surprised expressions of the Zemboves and Jhosh. As she met their eyes, all three bowed their heads briefly. Tana looked up shyly.
"I beg your pardon, Reverend. I did not understand. It must be confusing, coming to a new world. But you have clearly found God here, too. He can't help but hear your prayer. It was as clear as any I have ever felt."
All three rose, nodding respectfully. Carn reached out to take Christine's hand.
Then both the Zemboves climbed up towards the elevators to leave her to sit uncertainly alone. She had been surprised by the startling clarity of her brief meditation, and the reactions of the others.
She closed her eyes again to recapture the image, hearing Jhosh settle patiently in his seat. The scene she normally used to help her pray was one from her youth that had always stayed with her and had led her into the ministry. It had been thirty-five years earlier, a week before her tenth birthday. Since her uncle was sick, her parents had left her with her grandmother while they went on a private vacation. The visit had been boring from the onset and had quickly turned into something resembling a prison sentence...
Her grandmother was a small-town minister and about as exciting as Christie had expected. Her old house was a museum of lace, fragile china, and ancient crystal knick-knacks that Christie was not allowed to touch. Everywhere she turned, critical and acute eyes followed her every move among them. And to make things worse, the house didn't even have a Tri-V stage, just a tiny and old 60 centimeter 2-D television. As for playmates, the nearest neighbor with kids her own age was blocks away, and grandma didn't want Christie wandering the streets. Not that it really mattered. The Carlsson's twelve-year-old daughter was a stuck-up snob Christie didn't really like playing with anyway.
Then she found the basement.
The door was almost swollen shut with summer humidity and from years of being unopened. Her grandmother hadn't been down in the basement for years because hip surgery had left her unable to climb steps without help, but Christie managed to force the door with the aid of repeated screw-driver levering. When it finally creaked open to reveal a musty darkness, she climbed down the steep flight of stairs to find a wonderland of mysterious sealed boxes and old toys left from her mother's childhood.
Time passed quickly after that -- until the day before her parents were supposed to pick her up.
As usual, after breakfast she fled her grandmother's endless commentaries to take refuge in the basement where she had found something new a few days earlier: a box of ancient and yellowing paper books about a girl detective named Nancy Drew. The inside covers had listed copyrights from several centuries earlier, and even if the books were not original edition copies, the ancient dates and archaic writing style lent them a mystique that captivated her. And she had fun trying to decipher the twentieth century references. Naturally, the books absolutely had to be read down in the basement under the single dim light that still worked.
She was halfway through The Secret Under the Staircase when the door slammed shut and she found herself locked in the basement. She ran up the steps immediately and tried to open the door to the kitchen, but it wouldn't budge. On the other side of the door she heard a growling and heavily accented voice that chilled her.
"Relax and I will not hurt you. Or 'ze leetle girl down in 'ze basement." The voice was suddenly louder.
"If you hear me down there, the door is blocked, but relax and do not worry. Your grand-mère is safe. I just want a few of her things for myself." The voice changed as the speaker moved away from the door.
"Now, grand-mère! Listen to me. You have some pre-Upheaval crystal here that is very valuable, and some other crystal that is merely pretty. If you tell me which is which, I will just take the good ones and be on my way. Lie to me, and I will be back," he warned.
Christie heard her grandmother calmly directing the intruder as they moved away from the door towards the living room. Her heart was pounding like crazy as she wondered what Nancy Drew would do in a similar situation. The door didn't lock, but something was propped against it, and even when she threw herself against the door, it didn't budge.
The basement was windowless; there was no other way out, and there was no phone either. Even Nancy Drew would have been stumped. She went back down to where she had cleared a place to curl up with the books and thought of Grandma upstairs with the thief. Please, she thought. Don't hurt her. As she sat there, she shivered with fear, and tried not to think of the deep shadows around her that suddenly seemed so scary and threatening.
Then her eyes fell on a metal cross that hung on the far wall. It was made of plain chrome metal, about twelve inches tall, and hung alone over small shelf that held a fat, half-burned candle and a worn and dusty leather-bound bible. A single red linen page marker hung out limply from the book's pages.
The Bible lessons!
Christie remembered her mom telling her of how she had sat in the basement with Grandma to study the Bible, away from the distractions of upstairs. Grandma had also wanted Christie's mom to be a minister, but Tisha Holcum had turned to medicine instead. However, Grandma had not been too upset, since her daughter spent a great deal of time helping the Upheaval-ghetto poor. And even though her mom had become a doctor instead of a preacher, some of those Bible lessons had been passed on to Christie. Now, as she sat there, feeling terribly alone and almost sick to her stomach with fear, she found herself drawn to the other end of the basement to pick up the dusty book on the shelf. It brought her mother to mind, which helped a lot.
A lighter lay next to the candle, and since the light bulb was all the way over at the other end of the room, Christie lit the candle and settled down with the bible to read.
As the Syntha-Silk pages spread open at random in front of her, her gaze fell on verse four of Psalm 23, and she gasped.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."
The page marker had been in Proverbs, but the book had opened on the very lines that touched her at the moment. She looked up at the candle and the way the light reflected off of the burnished metal of the cross. It was a soft, warm light that danced with her every breath to soothe her. A faint trail of smoke rose lazily from the flame towards the ceiling, working through invisible cracks to rise and disappear...
Her fear was gone, and she decided that it had not been a coincidence that the very words she needed had found her...
She drew a deep breath and looked up at Jhosh sitting there patiently, a tender smile on his face. She was suddenly reminded of her late father.
"A special moment," he observed.
"Very special. I was remembering the time I made the choice to follow the path that has led me here."
She had settled herself in front of that cross and made a promise to God. Her promise had been that if the thief upstairs would leave her and her grandmother unhurt, she would follow the road her mother had not taken. And the thief had left. He had taken a fortune in rare crystal with him, but he had been very careful not to hurt her grandmother.
That had decided her. Along with getting a degree in psychology, Christine had kept her promise and studied for the ministry. She had never regretted the choice. That day in the basement had been a special one, indeed, and somehow Jhosh had known it. Her earlier suspicions crystallized and she leaned forward.
"Straight talk, Jhosh. You're not just an 'aide' as you called yourself. You're probably pretty high up in the church hierarchy or you wouldn't be baby-sitting me -- not considering the way you perceive Earth as a threat to your society." He nodded warily as she went on. "Well, I've been thinking about what the Zemboves said about miracles always working here..."
She explained her suspicions about there being a psychic component to the "miracles" and his smile faded.
"This is really something you need to speak to Reverend Mikals at the embassy about," he responded mechanically.
Christine nodded. "Oh, I will. Rest assured. I was just curious to see if I was right or not." She thought of the Zembove's reactions. "But most people don't know anything about the psychic component, do they?"
Again, his carefully blank face confirmed her guess.
"Who's above Mikals?" she asked, changing her mind. "At the top. I don't want some canned speech from mid-level management." She reached up and laid a hand on Jhosh's arm.
"Please. I'm not here to make trouble. But if I am to be an effective ambassador, I need to know the truth. The whole truth!"
Jhosh was silent for a moment, studying her face, and then he rose with a sigh.
"You do," he admitted after a moment. "And you deserve more than I can give you. I don't know if it will do any good, but I will call Supreme Reverend Sandiori. He is the one who sent for you anyway."
'The Supreme Reverend'. From what she had been told, the title was similar to World Prime Minister or World President. But whatever one called him, he had more power than any title would suggest because his 'Cabinet' or 'Congress' was composed of his own church leaders representing the various districts across the settled parts of Neos.
She wondered what Sandiori would be like, and what Jhosh had meant about the Supreme Reverend having been the one to send for her.
Jhosh had started to climb up the steps, but stopped and moved around to the pulpit to pull out a heavy book which he brought down to her.
"Some light reading for you," he offered with a respectful smile. He dropped the book beside her and opened it to a carefully selected page. "You might find this interesting." Then he turned and jogged briskly up towards the elevator. "I'll be back."
She watched him disappear, remembering the feel of his arm under her hand a moment earlier. It had been almost furry again. And Tana and Carn had also been virtually covered in a fine white coat of hair -- which had not been there when they had entered the building. And the change had happened after only an hour of so in an air-conditioned building. There was definitely more going on than freak psychic powers.
But one thing at a time.
She looked down at the shimmering Syntha-Silk sheets and the idealized portrait of a middle-aged man which filled most of the left page. "The Revered Hener Anderson", the caption read. "Revered", not Reverend. The next line continued: "The Story of the First Miracle." Twisting to get comfortable, she bent over the old book to read in fascination about the beginning of the Church of Neos.
To the early settlers, the beauty and compatibility of Neos were both fortunate and an affirmation of faith, respectively. The seasonal extremes had caused some problems, but genetically tailored crops had adapted beautifully and agriculture was off to a good start. As for the settlers: they were an uneasy mix of secular and spiritual. On the one hand, there were the scientists who only saw the advancement of humanity and knowledge, and on the other hand, there were thirty thousand HIV-negative settlers, many of whom were strongly religious and who had wanted to start fresh, away from the nightmare that had overtaken Earth as racial tensions and religious warring had combined with environmental, social, and medical disasters to overwhelm it. Earth had already been on the verge of the total collapse that would later be euphemistically called the Upheaval.
The first decade of the colony's life went well, though the scientists were a bit alarmed at the mutation rate for some of the imported flora and fauna. The sun had entered an unexpected period of activity during the time between discovery and settlement. And then the Upheaval hit Earth, and all ties to the mother world were cut to leave Neos isolated.
Without technical support and materials from Earth, Neos had its own temporary collapse. But, as the colony had been designed for eventual self-sufficiency, they managed to partially rebuild after three decades of hard work. However, the rebuilding was only a material one. The spirit of the colony had died as the religious felt abandoned by their God and the scientists by fate. Socially and culturally, Neos was a truly depressed world.
Until the Revered Anderson.
Thirty years to the day after the link to Earth had been lost, an widower farmer by the name of Hener Anderson came across a geologist who had been severely mauled by a Traalot, a wild semi-reptilian, cat-like predator similar to an Earth leopard in size and temperament. In front of dozens of people, Anderson prayed to God and the bleeding stopped, the wounds beginning to heal in front of astonished witnesses' eyes. He stayed with the man, constantly praying, for several days and before the week was up, the wounded man was fully healed.
As word had spread of the miracle, life began to return to the colony.
Before his peaceful death years later, the Revered Anderson was instrumental in a seemingly endless list of healings, and the Church of Neos was born from his inspiration, and the guidance of religious leaders organizing and rallying together at this sign of God's favor.
Christine closed the book thoughtfully as she saw Jhosh returning. She cocked her head as he sat down in front of her.
"Let me guess," she began. "The scientists didn't see God at work, and so they looked for another explanation." As he nodded, she followed the logical chain mentally for a moment, and then added: "The mutations noted for flora and fauna extended to human genetic material -- you already admitted that... leading to the development of mild psychic abilities," she finished the logical sequence. She considered what must have happened. "The power was obviously more than mild in the case of Anderson, but his dramatic and miraculous healings must have pulled everyone together with a focus." She cocked her head. "Let me guess: the scientists used Anderson as a tool for healing and miracles, probably letting him continue to believe he was a vessel for God... Which he was!" She glared at Jhosh, who just smiled.
"Of course. Relax, I'm on your side."
Mollified, Christine went on with her speculation, and Jhosh's face confirmed her deductions.
"He was probably a freak in terms of the strength of his abilities, but the scientists figured out what was going on, probably devised a way to test for it and... the church grew out of the scientists' planning," she realized with surprise. "Not the religious leaders!"
An approving nod greeted her last guess, and she leaned back, curious.
"The religious leaders were terribly disorganized by that point, while the scientists had banded together to try to keep the colony running."
That made a certain sad sense, but it made her wonder: "How come you're telling me this much?"
He smiled. "Actually, you're doing most of the telling, but I'm not arguing for two reasons: first, because I knew you were close to figuring everything out anyway. But I also want you to understand how delicate a situation this is, and why we fear too much investigation by Earth." He looked a bit uneasy. "In fact, I would appreciate it if you didn't mention this little conversation to the Supreme Reverend. He might not approve."
She studied him carefully, remembering the softness of his arm. Another question had come to mind, but she didn't want to push him until she had had a chance to think about it a bit more.
So she just nodded and reassured him: "It will stay between the two of us." He relaxed and she thought about what she had just learned.
After a moment's reflection, she whistled softly. "Wait a minute: if your scientists were responsible for the birth of the church and your religion... and the controlled use of your psychic abilities," she realized, "and no one else knows that, your whole society could collapse all over again if it's revealed that there is a more scientific explanation for Neos' miracles."
Jhosh nodded sadly. "Exactly. The 'Church' is firmly in charge again, though some of us believe in a more interdisciplinary approach. But as much as you and I see the hand of God in all of this -- in so many ways -- there is a very real danger that the improper revelation of the truth could seriously threaten our culture. We're too fresh, too new. In time, we should bring everything out in the open." He looked imploringly at her. "But just not right now."
She nodded with a smile as he stood up and held out a hand.
"But come," he invited . "The Supreme Reverend is anxious to meet with you." For a moment, Jhosh looked uneasy again.
Back in the car, Christine's mind was so absorbed by what Jhosh had shared with her that she only half-listened to his continuing travelogue as they entered downtown Neosia. Absentmindedly, she noted that some of the buildings he pointed out were very impressive. The bizarre architecture she had noted with suburban homes took on a whole new level of flamboyance downtown and she craned her neck, staring out in amazement. Jhosh also showed her where the Zemboves lived as they passed a building that reminded her of an over-decorated mosque. But as she continued looking around, she felt an uneasy stirring in the pit of her stomach just like that night in the basement. They were just passing a fenced-in construction site when she yelled out: "Stop!"
Jhosh slammed on the brakes automatically, and almost in a daze, Christine apologized.
"I'm sorry, but that building, there..." She pointed. "What is it?" Opening the window, she leaned out. Welling excitement distracted her from the blast of heat. She had been meant to see this!
Jhosh looked confused. "That?" He had to think a moment. "Oh yes, it was going to be a new concert hall. Construction stopped because the owner ran out of money. Why?"
She opened the car door and climbed out, going over to the high fence. She peered in at the construction site, and then turned towards the car.
"Jhosh. How far back was it that the Zemboves live?"
Jhosh was leaning against the car with a puzzled look, and just shrugged.
"About eight blocks. At 402 Psalms."
She didn't answer, but just murmured: "Interesting." She ran her hands slowly along the fence, pulling and testing the links as she studied the half-finished building. "Doesn't that look neat?" she called over her shoulder. "If you were a little kid, I mean. I imagine he's passed this way a lot of times and looked out a car window at this building. I mean, look at all those fun places to play and explore!" She stopped as resistance disappeared. A section of the fence had swung loose as she tugged on it.
"Look here!" She pulled harder, and a large section came clear to leave an opening big enough to squeeze through.
"Wait a minute!" Jhosh called out anxiously. "Don't go in there! It could be danger..." He froze briefly, confusion flooding his face as he rushed towards her to hold the fence open. "Is he in there?"
"We won't know till we look, will we?" She grinned and squeezed through the opening. But the sleeve of her blouse caught on a jagged piece of the wire from the fence, and she cursed mildly as the material ripped. She worked it loose, feeling her face flush.
Jhosh reached through the fence to grab her arm. "Wait, let me call this in before we go any further."
She waited reluctantly while he ran back to the car, feeling herself drawn towards the building. Robe was in there. She could feel it. No psychic link. Just a gut feeling. To a kid, the lure of the abandoned construction site would have been irresistible.
Jhosh returned, and this time Christine held the fence for him as he squeezed through.
"The police and an ambulance are on the way," he assured her. "Why don't we wait here for them?" He held her back as she started towards the building again. "It won't take them long. I'm not without influence here."
She shook her head. "No. If Robe is here, he's been here a long time! Why hasn't anyone checked this place out?"
"No one knew the fence was loose, and besides, if he's in there, he would have been 'sensed'."
"Maybe your mental bloodhounds aren't as good as you think." She pulled free. "I'm going in there. He may be badly hurt..." She headed for the main entrance.
The front of the building was gaping openly; a skeleton of girders and concrete slabs. At its base, and deeper inside, a warren of half-finished walls and doorways beckoned, leading into shadowed regions under the beginnings of floors for upper levels. As she moved in, she was surrounded by bare concrete with patterned marks from forming boards. She skirted the grid-work meant to eventually support a future entrance stairway to the building, following instead a tempting path deeper into what would have become a floor of offices below the actual concert hall.
Within the bowels of the building, she had to pause to let her eyes adjust to the deepening gloom. She looked around, wondering where Robe might have gone. There were so many inviting openings that cried out to be explored. She closed her eyes for a moment and brought back the feeling of discovery she had felt on spotting the building.
Where are you? she wondered. Then she opened her eyes and saw a line of fresh footprints cross a small path of sand where some carried bag had leaked. She had missed them before and she smiled. He had come this way! She moved to follow, hearing a sudden sound from further inside as she climbed over blocking boards and bricks to enter a cross-corridor on the right. Only a little light remained, filtering through cracks in partly finished ceilings and walls.
"Hello?" she called. "Obby? Are you in here?"
She leaned forward to listen carefully, but heard only the rhythmic sound of dripping water, and then a soft squealing sound accompanied by the clicking of clawed feet.
"Please, Reverend! Wait," Jhosh's pleading voice called out from behind. She heard him muttering as he climbed after her, almost tripped by a board that slipped aside as he stepped on it.
Christine ignored him. If Robe didn't answer, he had to be hurt. He was here. Those footprints had to be his.
"OBBY," she called again, louder. "Can you hear me? You've got to help me, honey. Where are you?"
A louder squeak was the only answer. As a flashlight beam speared past her, brilliant twin gleams of yellow glared back from thirty or so centimeters off the ground. Jhosh had brought a light, and she fought a rush of fear as the owner of the baleful eyes moved closer and into the light with a grating screech. A nasty double row of bared fangs glittered malignantly.
She heard a nervous laugh beside her.
"It's just a Kaalot," Jhosh explained. "A semi-domesticated mini-Traalot. I think we disturbed his hunting. Must be a lot of good pests running around in here."
Having expressed its annoyance, the Kaalot slunk away from the revealing light of the flashlight. Christine was glad Jhosh had been there. The animal might only have been the size of an average dog, but the resemblance ended there. It had virtually no fur, just a short, shiny coat of stiff, blue, spine-like hairs and an almost reptilian head that seemed to be all teeth.
"He's just angry," Jhosh chuckled. "They spike their fur that way as a warning. Nothing to worry about, though. Tame Kaalots are very affectionate. And a lot softer than they look. Kids love them."
That reminded her. Was there a particular child in there? She moved into the room, waving Jhosh to follow.
Reluctantly he did, and swept the light around -- to stop.
In the far corner of the room lay Robe. He was unconscious, and dried blood crusted his face as he lay under a pile of bricks and boards that had been stacked on a rolling cart of some sort. One leg of the cart had collapsed, and the edge of the flat top trapped the boy's legs. In his one hand, he held a shimmering crystal cross on a chain, and a dead flashlight lay on the floor next to him.
"Oh God be merciful," Jhosh exclaimed automatically as the light revealed the battered body. "No wonder the prayers didn't work, and the Searchers couldn't find him. He's dead."
Christine was already across the room at Robe's side and she glared back at the Neosian.
"Don't be so quick to write him off! Give me the light and go back to the car to tell that ambulance to hurry! And if you have a first aid kit, get it! And bring water... lots of it!"
As she felt for Robe's pulse and found it, a little uneven, but strong, as her hands probed desiccated and deeply ridged skin even rougher than Jhosh's. She turned back to Jhosh.
"Move it! He's alive!"
Jhosh stared at her in disbelief and moved closer automatically.
"But he can't be, he sputtered. "The prayers, the... he would have been found--"
"Well, he wasn't," she cut him off. "Now give me the light and go!"
He obeyed, and as he disappeared, Christine opened Robe's eyes to check his pupils -- thrilled to hear a weak moan of protest as Robe roused. Some of her mother's craft had naturally been absorbed, and she was grateful that medicine had been the chosen field of study. She breathed a sigh of relief as she saw that Robe's pupils were equally reactive to the light. And since none of the lacerations to his face and scalp were serious -- better not to disturb the clotting and start more bleeding -- she turned her attention to his legs.
Propping the light between two bricks, she moved carefully to clear away as many of the trapping debris as possible, trying to get a good look. She reached down and felt around, relieved as she realized that apparently some of the boards from the cart had actually shielded Robe's legs a bit. She palpated carefully, watching his face, but he didn't react beyond complaining that she was tickling him. She moved her inspection up, and as she reached his upper body, he cringed and she heard a sharp hiss of in-drawn breath.
"That hurts, Reverend," he managed to get out past cracked lips. "Please make it stop."
"I'm sorry. I know, sweetheart, but I had to see how badly you're hurt. And it's not bad at all." She smiled reassuringly. "Just breathe carefully and don't move too much." She took his leathery hand and squeezed it gently, picking up the cross and wrapping his fingers around it. "There's an ambulance on the way, and your parents will be with you soon." She finished her inspection with a softly whispered prayer to God that calmed Robe; and her.
Then she heard the murmur of voices from the hall and saw spiraling beams of brilliant light spearing the darkness, moving closer and closer.
"They were already here," Jhosh's voice called out to her. "How is he?"
"Severely dehydrated, but otherwise okay!" she yelled back. "Probably a cracked rib or two, but no concussion, and I don't think there are any broken bones, just some cuts and abrasions. He'll be just fine. He's a real trooper!" She smiled down at him. "He just needs fluids, some good food, a little cleaning up, and some loving care."
Robe looked suddenly embarrassed and he grabbed her hand urgently.
"I messed my pants like a baby... please don't tell my parents!"
She bent down to kiss him lightly. "It's our secret. Don't you worry. You'll be just fine, honey."
His face lit up happily and they turned to see a pair of white-clad medics and a police officer enter the room behind Jhosh.
She moved back to give them room and closed her eyes to give a prayer of thanks for being led here. And not just for being led to this building, but for being drafted as ambassador to Neos, and for having met the Zemboves. For all the prayers and hopes, Robe had been given up for dead because he had not been sensed. That had been obvious with Jhosh, whose shocked reaction to discovering that the boy was alive had further confirmed her suspicions. Though the masses of Neos believed, the members of the church apparently knew better -- and were not willing to consider more than the explainable. Even Jhosh. It made her sad. The miracles of Neos might not be the work of an over-gracious God, directly, but why couldn't they look beyond the obvious?
She felt a surge of pity for their blindness.
She opened her eyes, wiping them as tears blurred her vision. Robe was looking up at her and when she met his gaze, his face lit up in a beaming smile that warmed her as she moved aside.
The medics moved in and eased the cart off Robe with Jhosh's help, and after lifting the boy onto the stretcher, they started an I.V. to re-hydrate him while checking him out. Then one medic held a bottle for Robe to drink from while the others sponged him down with sterile water. As they worked, awed glances brushed her regularly and softly whispered comments were exchanged that she just knew were about her. They, at least, believed, though it made her uncomfortable to be the focus of their attention.
Robe held out his hand anxiously as the medics carried him towards the doorway, and she moved up next to him to take it.
"Don't leave, Reverend," Robe begged.
She squeezed his hand. "Okay, I'll stay with you."
He relaxed, and the medics shifted the stretcher so she could stay next to them as they headed for the street.
# # #
At the hospital a little while later, Robe was finally distracted by the ecstatically beaming Carn and Tana who fell over each other trying to hug him and thank Christine all at the same time. She urged them to concentrate on their son, amazed at how he was suddenly the picture of health; all signs of the earlier dehydration gone even though only an hour had passed. Blowing him a kiss, she backed out of his room, only to run into Jhosh.
"He is here, Reverend!" Jhosh had a funny smile on his face for a moment, but then bowed respectfully to her.
"Who?" she asked.
"The Supreme Reverend Sandiori," Jhosh explained. "He heard about your Miracle and he is waiting for you in the Hospital administrator's office."
"Where do I go?"
"Follow me." He led the way down the hall while she tried to keep a straight face.
She felt just as she had when she had been called to the principal's office when she was fifteen. Together with two of her girlfriends, they had planted a tape-recorder in the boys' locker room and then wired it in to play the recorded locker-room talk back over the school's public address system -- carefully selected segments of it, and with readily identifiable speakers. It had been a little revenge for an earlier invasion of the girls' showers during a false fire alarm.
Her summons to meet Sandiori made her feel just like she had that morning. Everyone she passed in the hallways was giving her carefully hidden, wide-eyed looks of awe that were making her a nervous wreck. She couldn't believe how fast the news was spreading. On the way to the hospital, she had heard a local news broadcast announcing Robe's rescue in reverent tones, and later, as the doctors had been examining him while she waited in a lounge, she had seen the story picked up by global networks!
Jhosh stayed in the background as Christine was ushered in to find Sandiori sitting at a desk, reading some papers. The administrator's secretary nervously led Christine towards a chair in front of Sandiori and then bowed to both of them as she backed out.
The Supreme Reverend was a distinguished looking, if somber, man in his sixties. He was clean-shaven, with a polished bald pate that reflected the sun from the window. He wore simple grey shorts, sandals, a white short-sleeved shirt, and a loose maroon string tie. She envied him as she squirmed uncomfortably. This room was not as comfortable as the church.
"Sit down please." Hard, grey eyes looked up briefly, and then avoided her. "I'll be right with you."
She looked around the office and liked what she saw. Plain and simple, the office was tastefully decorated with polished Ashgiani wood that was varnished to keep the grain down. Two of the walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, filled with an impressive array of books that were disorganized just enough to show that they were not there just for decoration. The other two walls held picture windows looking out over an immaculately kept garden, and under the windows was a continuous low shelf displaying a long row of beautiful Neosian ceramics.
It was a very comfortable office, and one that was probably bordering on sacrilegious from what she had learned. But with a bold stroke, Sandiori finally finished his work and signed one of the papers he had been hunched over, and then looked up as he showed the papers into a briefcase.
"My apologies, Reverend, but an administrator's job is never done. I'm sure even the normal occupant of this office would agree." He stood up and moved towards Christine to shake hands briefly, ignoring Jhosh.
"You certainly know how to make an entrance, Reverend." Reluctant respect battled annoyance on his face. "When I asked for a country preacher as the next ambassador, I certainly did not expect such a dramatic presence."
Or such competition, Christine wondered suddenly, bothered by something in his attitude. She had the impression he was someone who thoroughly enjoyed being the center of attention. ‘Kind of forgot that vanity is a sin’, did we?
He was oblivious to her reaction as he went on.
"Jhosh mentioned that you had some questions to ask me. Go ahead."
Chastising herself for being petty, she asked: "Well, to begin with, why did you ask for a 'country preacher'?"
Sandiori returned behind the desk to sit rigidly erect in the plush chair. "From what I've read of Earth, faith often seems strongest in rural communities. I wanted someone out here who truly believed in God. There are a number of forces at work here," his eyes flashed briefly towards Jhosh, "and my hopes were that by bringing in someone like yourself, I could strengthen the church's position by showing everyone the power and value of faith in a culture where miracles are not a staple of life."
Christine looked back at where Jhosh had settled on a straight-backed chair in the corner. He didn't look at all cowed by Sandiori's evident hostility. Considering his worried attitude earlier, she filed the striking change of attitude mentally and turned back to Sandiori.
Ever since she had first been recruited as ambassador, the various briefings she had received had painted an incomplete picture of Neos, full of contradictions. The book Jhosh had showed her had resolved some of those and, bit by bit, she was starting to understand more, but some of it was still blurry.
"Okay," she went on bluntly. "Next question: what percentage of the population is psychic, and to what degree?"
Sandiori immediately glared at Jhosh. "What did you say to her?"
"I didn't 'say' anything to her," Jhosh answered truthfully with a satisfied smile. "She figured it all out herself."
"I did read about Hener Anderson back in the Church of the Rising God," Christine admitted. "While I was waiting for Jhosh to call you." She wasn't lying, and neither was Jhosh, so why get him in trouble? "Putting that together with the mutation problem I was told about, and everything else I have seen and heard here, a lot of things are becoming clear, but I need to know the truth about your society." Straightening and speaking firmly, she added: "I am the ambassador, and to get any help from Earth you will need to go through me."
Sandiori's face was turning some interesting shades of red as he struggled to maintain control, but finally he answered.
"The mutation responsible for many Neosians' mild psychic ability is a genetically dominant one and has spread to over eighty percent of our population. But less benign, though recessive, mutations are on the rise, including an alarming rise in certain cancers, which are resistant to elicited healing."
Christine leaned forward. "Interesting choice of words: 'elicited healing'. Do you believe in God?" She was afraid she knew the answer from what Jhosh had admitted, but she wanted to be sure.
Sandiori just looked indignant. "I am the Supreme Reverend. What kind of question is that?"
"One you didn't answer." She pretended not to notice Jhosh's stifled grin.
"The Church is the life-blood of our world," Sandiori tried again. "Our faith sustains our lives--"
"And power," Christine noted, prompting Sandiori to flinch. "But you still didn't answer," she pressed. "I think I'm starting to suspect that while the church is firmly in charge, believers aren't." She felt ill. "A church-run world, without faith among the leadership?" Her eyes started to burn and she couldn't stop the first of the tears that betrayed her.
Jhosh had moved up behind her, and he laid a warm hand on her shoulder.
"Some of us are believers," he reassured her. "We don't see a contradiction between faith and science."
His words filled in the missing pieces, and she wiped her eyes surreptitiously as she walked over to the window to think for a moment. The heat of the angry-looking sun that was assaulting the hardy blue-green grass outside was kept at bay by the triple-paned windows, but outside, even the flowers had curled up tightly, waiting for the cooler afternoon. She could almost feel the force of the sun's rays, and she wondered idly what they were doing to her.
Well, there was nothing she could do about it. But at least she could get herself properly oriented.
Ignoring Sandiori, she looked at Jhosh.
"So, aside from the general populace who are all basically believers, we have one group in the church leadership that is comfortably positioned in its cynical leadership, happy to take advantage of a dangerous secret in order to keep power. And you're part of another group in the church who are believers, and who are aware of the truth, but you have been afraid to reveal what you know. Any other players I should know about?"
Jhosh looked a little sad as he answered. "A small group of hard-core scientists who dismiss any thought of God, and who just want to treat the Esper mutation like any other scientific discovery and do a completely rational analysis and exploitation of it. They also want to see what else can be done with mass focus like we achieve with prayers--"
"To be fair: both would be logical," Christine cut in, "and should be done... eventually." She saw Jhosh nod. "But if you do it now and admit prematurely where the regular 'miracles' come from, it would mean the downfall of the entire church!"
"Just as I said before." He nodded, apparently no longer worried about Sandiori's reaction. "It would destroy the faith of many, and the very foundation of our society. The so-called Progressives insist that it would only mean a brief trauma, and then everyone would adjust, but I disagree. And so do most in the church, believers or not. Our whole system of values and morals is so inextricably linked with our faith that we are special in the eyes of God. Take that away, and I'm afraid of another social collapse."
Sandiori looked smugly satisfied.
"But you don't like the status quo, either?" Christine asked.
Jhosh frowned. "No. We're living and perpetuating a massive lie. It goes against all that I believe."
Christine's head was swimming with the implications of what Jhosh was telling her. Now it made more sense.
She turned to Sandiori. "The way I see it, you sent for someone like me so that you could have an ambassador who would be a little more pliable and who wouldn't look beyond spiritual forces, and one who would be receptive to the dangers of letting word get back to Earth about your 'miracles'. Is that about it?"
"There is a lot more to it, Reverend," Sandiori defended. "There is--"
"Yes or no?" she cut him off, getting mad as she thought about the way he was deceiving a whole world for his own gain.
Sandiori glared briefly at Jhosh, but under Christine's scrutiny nodded reluctantly. "Yes."
"Thank you. And Jhosh," she turned. "You're sick of the deception, but you are also afraid of what might happen if the truth gets out that there aren't any 'real' miracles--"
"Ah... but you're wrong," Jhosh interrupted with a grin. "That was true until today. When you found Robe, you were the vessel for a true miracle. The whole world is already talking about it. Robe can not be sensed by even the strongest Esper among us -- there has been a steady stream of them through the hospital since he was admitted -- yet you found him. It has all the qualities of divine inspiration--"
"And deductive reasoning," she pointed out, feeling uncomfortable about being so practical since part of her agreed with him.
"True, but this is for public consumption. And consider your very presence, and all the little factors that led you to find him. And then, add to that the fact that the Zemboves have already spoken to the press about the strength of your prayers at the church: it all adds up to enough drama to sway anyone."
Christine felt almost giddy as she realized what he meant. "I get the impression that you feel this would be the perfect time to finally be honest and gradually reveal the truth about how Neos' prayers and 'miracles' work."
Jhosh nodded happily. "Precisely. Now that our people are talking about a true miracle, we won't have to worry about them losing faith. We can simply accept, as I do, that the Esper mutation was merely a gift from God to help ease our way to building a new life."
He moved close and took her arm to lead her back to her chair.
She smiled up at him gratefully. Her knees had gone weak as it dawned on her how her simple discovery was going to turn this world upside down. She fought a queasy moment as she wondered how the United Earth Council was going to react to the coming changes, and her role in them.
Sandiori had risen as she finished and his face was flushed and angry as he started to sputter indignantly. "I will not sanction this... this scheme!"
"I'm afraid you're not going to have any choice," Jhosh pointed out as he moved closer to Sandiori. "Reverend Holcum has just become a star of screen and pulpit. Any attempt to shut her up would bring on a world-wide protest."
Christine reached up a steadying hand as Jhosh and Sandiori started to square off like a pair of old-fashioned boxers.
"The only sensible thing to do is to work together." She tried to calm them down, suddenly remembering coming between Billy Peterman and Kenny Daws on the playground when she was eleven. The expressions and postures of the two men were identical to those of the boys. "The present leadership must be a leading force in revealing the truth. It has to be seen as a voluntary admission, now that there is no reason to keep the truth from anyone."
Jhosh backed off immediately and bowed momentarily to her before turning back to Sandiori.
"You're right. My apologies, Supreme Reverend."
Sandiori was not mollified and remained standing stiffly.
"You can't seriously believe that you're going to be able to force your ideas on the church administration just like that?"
Jhosh stood behind Christine and put a hand on the back of her chair. "Reverend Holcum is right about the proper way to handle this. What do you think happen if some of us went behind your back and started releasing scientific data? With the reality of her miracle as a buffer, the truth will come out, but instead of being part of the revelation and respected for your concern and integrity, you will be perceived as a power-hungry dictator. Think about it! How do you want to be remembered?" He leaned forward. "At least this way, you'll probably get to keep your job. The administrative tasks of running the world remain, and you're very good at that sort of thing." He shrugged. "I'll admit it. And I sure don't want the job!"
Christine coughed delicately. "I hate to be heavy-handed, but let me add a little pressure." She felt like cringing. If the Council ever found out that she was interfering like this, she would be lucky to get away with a termination. But she couldn't help herself; she felt compelled to follow the path she was on.
Sandiori just eyed her suspiciously. "Now what?"
"The adaptive mutation, climate adaptive, that is. How prevalent is that?" She had just realized the significance of it, and swallowed as she realized how she was blackmailing Sandiori.
The Supreme Reverend's face could have been carved out of granite as he stood there, and looking over her shoulder, she saw that even Jhosh looked shocked.
"What are you talking about?" Sandiori asked stiffly after a moment.
"Oh come on. I would have found out in a few months anyway. Why the big secret? Or were you perhaps hoping that by then, I might have been more easily persuaded to keep silent?"
Sandiori's face was unreadable, but the brief smile that touched Jhosh's still surprised face confirmed her guess. She was really starting to appreciate him as she looked up at Sandiori.
"How do you think Earth would react to learning about it? The public, and the scientists?"
She let him mull over that and turned back to Jhosh, wondering about what she had seen. "How far does it go in winter?"
"We get pretty furry," he admitted with a smile, ignoring Sandiori's look of outrage. "How did you guess?"
She explained the changes she had noticed as he went from the outdoors to an air-conditioned environment. "That's another reason for the skimpy clothing!" she realized. "And why you drink so much water: cooling by evaporation."
Jhosh was chuckling as he turned to Sandiori. "Apparently science and theology aren't quite as mutually exclusive on Earth as you had hoped."
"Was the adaptation planned?" Christine wondered, suspecting natural evolution alone probably couldn't account for such a rapid physiological change.
Sandiori had been standing motionless, a range of expressions flashing across his face, but at her last question he seemed to crumple and he dropped back into his seat heavily.
"How much of this do you intend to tell your superiors?"
Christine thought about it, looking back and forth from Sandiori's bleak face to the suddenly uneasy Jhosh. After a moment she answered slowly: "Perhaps it might be best not to make any mention of this just yet. You're going to have enough problems trying to educate your people. No need to make Earth nervous."
Sandiori let loose an explosive sigh of relief. "Thank you, Reverend!" He leaned forward. "The truth," he offered, "is that the climate adaptation began as an accidental combination of evolution and subconscious use of mass psychic pressure. When the scientists began noticing that consistent and benign mutations were occurring, all leading to greater tolerance of environmental extremes, it was decided to try to accelerate the process. Subliminal guidance was inserted into all media..." He held up a hand. "Don't ask for specifics. I am not a scientist. But it worked. Thanks to these changes, we are now able to be comfortable the entire year. In winter, our skin toughens, fat deposits increase, and hair follicles extrude to trap more body heat. And in summer, the skin relaxes and roughens to expose more skin area for evaporation, and we have to drink large amounts of fluid to keep cool. There are other changes, too, in terms of circulation and such, but I'm not a doctor."
"No need for that. I get the picture. Thank you for being honest about it."
Sandiori reached across the desk to lay a hand on hers. "I want you to understand why we have to keep this from Earth. Between the way 'miracles' work here and the fact that our concentrated psychic focus can have such a profound effect, we can't trust Earth not to come in and try to take advantage of us. Or not to be frightened and hostile."
For the first time since she had met him, she felt his honest and sincere concern, and she patted his hand. "I agree. The decision about how much you want me to tell my superiors, and when, will be yours. I am only here to facilitate communications between our worlds, and I have already interfered too much." Was that ever an understatement! she thought to herself. She couldn't believe what she had been doing.
Sandiori freed his hand, looking a little embarrassed as he straightened formally. "Well, Reverend. It seems as if we have our work cut out for us, thanks to you. Would you please accompany us to the Capitol Complex? Perhaps you will be able to help us in working out the details of how to enlighten our people? Your participation will be crucial."
Jhosh grinned. "Look on it as job security." He held out a hand as she rose. "Allow me to escort you."
Christine laughed, feeling suddenly released. "Thank you gentlemen. It would be an honor."
As she headed for the door, a little part of her mused that 'feeling released' was an interesting way of looking at things -- as if she had not entirely been the moving force behind what she had been doing...
Reach Alex by email to comment: email@example.com