Only Darkness

 

207 Hours

“Nothing.”

Most of the faces I saw these days avoided meeting my eyes, but not this one. The young man glared at me openly. “Nothing?” I prompted.

He looked like he was about to choke, but finally managed, “Bishop.”

“Initiate Rashet, isn’t it?” I asked. I was almost certain, but it never hurts to check.

“Yes, Bishop.”

“Ratchet, I am neither the embodiment of all evil nor the drunken frat boy your order seems to assume. I expect the same level of deference and respect that you would show any other priest of our faith, including one of your own order. Am I clear?

“Yes,” he said, then belatedly added, “Bishop.”

I ignored the fumble. “You were saying?”

“There’s nothing on sensors, Bishop. Only darkness.”

“Unfortunate, but we didn’t expect to cross the void in the first three folds,” I said. I paused in thought. “We are still tracking gravity?”

“Yes, Bishop. The gravity compasses are fully functional.”

“One hundred hours until we fold again?”

“Bishop,” he grudgingly acknowledged.

“Before your next shift, meet me in the Nave. I expect your knowledge of the Tenets of Hierarchy to be perfect.”

“Yes, Bishop.”

Rashet looked more likely to spend his off hours screaming than studying. We often don’t recognize when someone is doing us a favor. “Was there anything else, initiate?”

“Initiate Calloway would like to speak with you, Bishop. May I arrange a guide?”

“I believe I can find him without aid. Thank you,” I said as I left Navigation.

A young man was waiting by the door, trying to look busy. Nicholas, if memory serves, I thought. Likely waiting for me to clear out before visiting his husband. I ignored the indiscretion and went searching for Calloway.

I took the long way. Some of it was to sightsee, as I hadn’t had much time with the ship. Most of the reason for my extended stroll, though, was to be seen. Despite its size, the Glorious Redeemer had a small crew—fewer than thirty people in total. All but four of them Anchors. My walk was marked by suspicious gazes, sideways looks and, among the polite, a flat refusal to make eye contact.

“Bishop Hershal?”

Someone actually talking to me was a surprise, but a pleasant one. I turned to regard the speaker and found a lovely young woman. She had creamy skin dusted with freckles, and, though a work cap hid her hair, her eyebrows were the color of shining copper.

Unlike the Anchors I had passed on my walk, she had no trouble making eye contact. And she looked furious.

“Chief Tully,” I said, “to what do I owe this honor?”

“Can we talk?” she asked. To be honest, it was more of an accusation than a question.

“Of course,” I replied jovially, “care to walk with me?”

She fell in step but didn’t say anything. I didn’t rush her. Instead, I took in the ship and nodded to a pair of crew as we walked past. One jerked away from my gaze as if slapped, the other was brave enough to sneak a glance at my shoes.

“Good day, initiates,” I said lightly as we passed. They mumbled polite replies while desperately avoiding eye contact. I moved on with a sigh, Tully at my side.

“I thought they only mumbled around me like that,” she said finally.

“Anchors are an insular bunch. They really don’t know how to talk to anyone who hasn’t been raised in a convent. What was it you wished to discuss?”

“This. Or them. How they act around me. I thought you might have been pushing them to snub me.”

I laughed. “Lord, no. No. Anchors need no help being suspicious of outsiders. Besides, rudeness is a form of stupidity. The church proper has little tolerance for it.” A thought occurred to me. “Please tell me they haven’t been insubordinate.”

“No. They do what I tell them, but it’s like talking to a dog. And a stupid one at that. They do exactly what I say, like they’re afraid to think.” Tully shook her head and a few strands of crimson hair slid out from under her work cap. “The worst part,” she continued, “is that I have no one to talk to. It’s like being surrounded by sho jumpers.”

I barked a laugh. I couldn’t help it. “I thought you brought a pair of assistants with you. Smith and—Placket, wasn’t it?”

“We’ve split up to cover all the watches. I’m not leaving these Anchors alone with my core.”

“Ah. I’m also near starved for good conversation. How about joining me for dinner?”

Tully stopped walking and looked me over. I paused as well, giving her time to make her decision. “That sounds—good,” she said, “Ugh. As long as it’s not veat.”

“I make a mean grilled cheese.”

“How delicious,” she said, deadpan. “Wait. Will this get you in trouble? Dining alone with a woman won’t be considered improper or anything, will it?”

I smiled my best smile. “Chief, do I look like I give a damn about propriety?”

*

I was still smiling when I arrived at the Nave. It was one of the few rooms on the ship considered public. It says something about the Anchors that the primary room for people to congregate can only hold a dozen.

I stepped through the doorway into a seemingly empty room. “Initiate?” I called.

A thump resounded through the chamber, followed instantly by an “Ah!” Calloway crawled out from under a console, one hand pressed to his forehead. “Bishop,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Sorry to have surprised you. If you like, we can have this conversation after we get that looked at.”

“No need, Bishop,” he said. “It’s nothing to waste medical supplies on. Besides, ‘The burned hand teaches best.’”

“I don’t believe that’s a tenet. At least not of our faith. Besides, what would you be learning? Never to work on a ship with silent doors? Always leave large signs for unobservant bishops?” I asked.

“That others have suffered greater than this without complaint?” he offered ruefully. “I’ll tough it out. Besides what I want to show you is too important.”

He slid the access panel closed and moved a cluttered table. I realized the notes were scrawled on physical paper and were not a projection of the table itself. Other than my copy of the Tenets, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen paper. Ten years? Fifteen?

“I just hope the effect isn’t shy,” he said while herding up the loose sheets, lining up their edges and tapping them against the tabletop to form a neat stack. This wasn’t Calloway’s first time using the antique material.

“This may take a few times,” he said. Eyes shining, he produced a set of flat, metal rings. He held them up for inspection. One side was shiny, the other dull. Calloway flipped one into the air. It hit the table, rolled off the side, and landed dull side up. He flipped the next into the air. It managed to land shiny side up, halfway across the room. Calloway flipped a few more rings before gathering them up and starting over. Each time the rings bounced about, he seemed to grow more frustrated. I could practically hear him choking back swear words.

It was on the fourth attempt that things changed. The first ring landed shiny side up on the table. The next landed near the first, shiny side up. Calloway moved through the entire stack of rings, save one. Each lined up next to the last, shiny side gleaming.

“That’s unusual,” I said in a very neutral tone.

“Every so often I’ll get a run like this. Sometimes it’s the bright side, sometimes the dull, but every group lands on the same side. That’s not what’s amazing, though.” He waved his hand over the table and two parallel black lines appeared, outlining the edges of the row of rings. I moved close and inspected the display. It was exact.

“They form orderly shapes.” He took two strides away from the table and flipped the last ring. It bounced off the wall and landed on the table, rolling in a slow arch before settling next to the others.

Shiny side up. Perfectly spaced. Right between the black lines.

I met Calloway’s eyes. “There is no trick to this?”

“No, Bishop. I performed the experiment with a variety of objects in a variety of places. It’s all the same. Different shapes, sure, but exact shapes. Orderly shapes. The implications of this—”

“Are massive,” I finished for him. “I will need to think on this. If it maintains, everyone will notice it soon enough. Until then, I’d like to meditate on what it means and what to tell the crew.” I glanced at Calloway. He reigned in his enthusiasm and nodded. I returned it.

I looked back at the perfect line of rings. “How often?” I asked.

A grin split Calloway’s face. “Just over six percent of the time.”

 

211 Hours

Tully kept me waiting, which is a woman’s prerogative. I used the extra minutes to tidy up my small space. Zacks aren’t known for orderliness, but no one likes a slob. Besides, a clean space is good for the soul.

It was ten past when the door chimed. When I answered it, I found Tully, resplendent. She had transformed herself in the way that only women can. Her overalls had been discarded in favor of a simple black dress and her work boots replaced by stylish slippers. Every hint of grease and grime had been scrubbed away, leaving soft freckles floating on pale skin.

Her hair was the crowning glory. I had seen hints of its rich copper before, but hanging loose I could see the highlights of bright fire and soft sunlight. She looked amazing.

I was at a loss for words. Tully did not seem to notice. “Oh my god, do I smell roast duck?”

“It’s good to see you as well, Chief Tully,” I said with a smile. “Please, come in.”

She brushed past me without a hint of self-consciousness. “Seriously, is that real duck? Not veat?”

“Yes. Your finely honed senses have found my dark secret. I have not, in fact, made grilled cheese.” Tully shot me a look of mock annoyance. “Yes. It is real duck, not veat. Personally, I find synthetic meat disgusting, no matter how many reps claim you can’t taste the difference.”

“Same here,” said Tully. She was idly moving about the cabin, poking through my belongings. “I can’t understand why all the food on the ship is synthetic. It’s not like it keeps better than real stuff.”

I left her to her exploring and returned to tending the meal. Vegetables still needed chopping and the duck sauce wasn’t quite ready. “It’s a proscription of the Anchors,” I said. “There’s a tenet in the faith cautioning against gaining at the expense of others. They take it to a bit of an extreme.”

“Huh. Didn’t stop them from stealing my fucking engine.”

“Said like a true sailor. I admit, I was a touch surprised that you signed on to the voyage after the theft was made public.” I sank a pinky into the sauce and tasted it. Needs to be slightly more tangy.

“You don’t know what it’s like to be a grad student trying to revolutionize space travel on a shoestring budget.”

I added a bit of vinegar and retested. Perfect. “I doubt many people do. While many college students want to change the world, not many—” She plucked my battered copy of Founding Tenets off the shelf and flipped open the cover. “Manage it,” I continued. She didn’t seem to notice the stumble.

“‘The center of our faith,’” she read from the dusty relic, “‘is to bring harmony to science and spirituality. Science must be guided by empathy. Religion must be tempered by reality.’ This is the famous first tenet?”

“That’s the less famous preamble,” I said without looking up. “The first tenet guards against fanaticism. It’s the only one that has no exceptions.”

“That’s what I don’t get. You beakers are all supposed to be scientist-monks, but you believe nutball theories.”

I knew what was coming. “Like?” I asked anyway.

“The fifth fundamental force of physics.”

“The effects of focused thought are well documented, tested, and measured.” It was a traditional reply. Of course, I couldn’t do much more than stick to the official script.

“Yeah, yeah. Everybody is three percent psychic. But a psycho-engineered freak with a life of training can only pull, what? Four percent?”

“I’ve seen it shift as high as five,” I said. There is a smoldering debate in my order over half-truths.

“Exactly, you can’t win the lottery or blow up people’s heads with your mind or anything. And it has nothing to do with rewriting physics texts.”

“True. We could argue about it, but, for now, the church treats the fifth fundamental theory as a working theory. Many of us are fond of it. It solves a lot of problems. Yet, it is, for the time being, unproven.

“Which begs the question, why would a lovely young engineering student with a bright future sign on to a perilous voyage of exploration with only nutty religious folk to keep her company? Especially after they stole her engine.”

“I know, right? The funny thing is that they could have had me out of the gate. Just up and hired me and my entire team and gotten their crazy little mitts on the Origami Core for a fraction of what I got to charge them when they got caught stealing. It wasn’t just illegal, it was flat-ass stupid.” Tully flipped the Tenets closed and joined me at my cook station.

“And yet you’re here. Why?”

“Well,” Tully said as she reached into the salad bowl. I slapped her hand away and gave her a half-serious glare.

“Well,” Tully said again, this time sliding the ancient book across the counter. I had to abandon the remaining tomatoes to catch it. Tully, quick as a striking serpent, snatched a hunk of avocado from the salad, popped it in her mouth, and danced away from the counter with childish triumph shining in her eyes.

“Mmm. For starters,” she said, “no one knows the core like I do. The last thing I need is for some jumped up religious nut—no offense—”

“None taken,” I assured her.

“To mash up the energy output or knock the fields out of tolerance and kill the whole project.”

“And everyone on the ship,” I added.

“And everyone on the ship. Then I’d be the person that everyone blamed and all my work would be dismissed. Fold theory could be set back decades. Maybe longer.”

A chime sounded. “That’s very sensible,” I said. The duck was ready. I set my hands on the oven handle, letting the therm-gel cover them, before pulling it open and lifting the roasting pan out.

“That smells incredible.” I had to agree with her. There’s nothing like real food.

“So it was professional pride that got you aboard?”

“Mostly,” Tully said. She stared at the duck with an intensity usually reserved for teenaged lovers. I briefly wondered if it was intense enough to spike onboard probabilities. A shake of her head seemed to clear her mind, “I have to admit that I want to see it. Whatever’s causing the dark flow. Maybe find out what happened to Marco’s Pride.”

“Maybe die in a vacuum so distant that the light from the Big Bang has yet to reach it?”

Tully smiled. “There’s a pleasant thought.”

I smiled back. “Let’s eat.”

 

914 Hours

“‘Lie not. Not to others, yourself, to strangers, or those close. Lie not to the past, present, or future. Heed; deception must only be employed when deemed necessary by an Elder’s permission, and to the purpose of protecting life, and when your heart agrees. Only when all three conditions are met may you break truth. Even then, be hesitant.’ But that’s not right,” Rashet said. He seemed exasperated.

“What does your copy of Tenets say?” I asked while sliding my battered book back across the table.

Rashet’s eyes glazed as he read from a screen invisible to others. “It stops after ‘deemed necessary by an Elder’s permission.’ That’s all there is. All there ever was. Your copy has added text.”

I smiled. “My copy is a tattered leather book over a hundred years old. I’ll admit, they can probably be faked, but I vouch for this one. Let’s set the usual argument aside. The differences in our texts have a running theme. I ask that you meditate on it.”

“Bishop, with all—” A knock interrupted him.

“Enter,” I called. A young lady leaned through the doorway. “Mother Innocent feels well enough to receive you, Bishop.”

“About damn time.” Rashet’s eyes grew so wide I half expected them to tumble out. The other initiate studiously examined her toes. I caught myself before sighing out loud. “Time aboard ship has frayed my demeanor,” I said. “Please, forgive my transgression. Both of you.”

If anything, my apology made them even more uncomfortable. Anchors had a rigid hierarchy and I doubt either had ever seen a bishop admit fault to a lowly initiate, let alone ask for forgiveness.

Silence drew out between us until they realized what I was actually waiting for. “Forgiven,” Rashet said. The other initiate echoed him, with the barest of whispers.

“You are most gracious,” I replied. “Now, I suppose I should see Mother Teltch before her health deteriorates once more. Rashet, we can continue our discussion tomorrow. Perhaps you can pry your husband away from his meditations.”

I waited for Rashet’s nod and his quietly spoken, “Bishop” before rising to follow his colleague.

We passed no one in the hallways. The first folds had been met with hope and excitement but now were seen as little more than drudgery. The compasses could prognosticate enough for us to know that the next fold wouldn’t be the last. Likely not the one after that either.

A melancholy had settled on the Redeemer. Many Anchors no longer bothered to leave their meditations except for shift work. It was as if they could feel the cold emptiness outside and were huddling in their rooms for warmth.

“Bishop?”

I glanced at my young guide. I realized that we had come to a halt; had, in fact, reached our destination. “Thank you, Miriam.”

She flinched, so shocked to hear her own name that she forgot all the deferential training and met my eyes. I smiled encouragingly, which caused her to blush like a sunset, mumble a farewell, and scurry off.

Glad to know I haven’t lost my touch with the ladies. With that wry thought echoing between my ears, I stepped into a dim room, barely the size of a closet. A small bench was provided so visitors would be seated facing the chamber’s only decoration: a hole in the wall. It was just big enough to pass a plate of food through.

“Hello, Esper. I’m glad you’re feeling well.”

A hiss, an actual hiss, came from the hole. “My name and title is Mother Inn—”

“I don’t give a damn about your adopted name, Esper Teltch,” I cut in, “and I outrank your title. You’ve managed to delay this audience with claims of health reasons. If that happens again, I will have you dragged to the med bay.”

Silence filled the room. “My initiates claim you are soft and weak,” the raspy voice said at last. “They have misinformed me.”

“Initiates are young and impressionable enough to be treated delicately. A full priest should have no need for coddling. Besides wasting my valuable time, what did you hope to achieve with delay?”

“Perhaps my malaise was as spiritual as physical. Perhaps I needed time to contemplate the coincidences my initiates have reported.”

Our initiates,” I said.

She ignored the correction. “Have you considered what it means?” Her voice took on a fevered edge. “We search for something with enough mass to warp the fabric of our galaxy and when we get close, chaos recedes in the face of order. It has to be—”

“It has to be something we study with open minds. Jumping to conclusions before verification leads to ignorance far more often than enlightenment.” I paused but started again before she could interrupt. “I did not seek you out because of the anomalies, interesting as they are.”

“Then why are you here?” Her voice was awful. It was like listening to dry leather being drawn across a file.

“We’ve been out too long. Either all of our calculations are off—”

“It is more likely that we have been sabotaged,” Esper spat. “It is far more likely.”

“Agreed,” I said. “I have set someone to investigating such a possibility.”

“One of the outsiders?”

Oh, for God’s sake. “Initiate Calloway,” I replied calmly. “He has the expertise to perform proper diagnostics on the navigation system and has struck me as an honest soul.”

“Calloway,” she said, thoughtfully. “Calloway is suitable. I approve.”

“I also don’t give a damn about your approval. Calloway has orders to investigate the suspected sabotage. There are no limits of rank to this inquiry. If there’s a saboteur, that person must be found.”

“Is that a threat?” Esper’s voice slipped a bit. For a second she almost sounded healthy.

“That was an update.”

A moment of quiet drifted through our conversation. “Is that all, Bishop?”

“There is one more item. I have made an open invitation for the crew to study the tenets with me, yet only Initiate Rashet has attended. I hope they have not been discouraged by a superior or their order.”

“Our order prefers to meditate in solitude,” rasped Esper. Pure theatrics, of course. There was nothing wrong with Esper Teltch. Nothing physical.

“Humor me and announce encouragement to join these meetings.”

“Are they ordered to attend?”

Oh, how I wished to say yes. “No. No, they are to be encouraged, not ordered. That is all. I suggest that you come out of your box long enough to get a scan of your throat. It sounds terrible.”

The last was a bit petty of me, but I couldn’t drum up any sympathy for a spiritual leader who embraces theatrics over honesty.

 

1520 Hours  

“Do it again!” Tully called.

I gathered the chopped onions from the counter, shook them vigorously between my cupped hands, and threw them like I was shooting dice. The little purple chunks landed in a cone shape. It wasn’t solid. Instead, the onions were spaced out in waves, all equidistant.

Tully jumped up and down, clapping and giggling like a child. Her delight was infectious. I smiled, feeling the stress of the last few days melt away.

“My turn,” she declared.

“After you wash your hands, you filthy engineer,” I chided. I’m good at chiding. Apparently Tully disagreed, as she smacked my rump on the way to the sanitizer. “How is everyone in the engine room coping with the oddities?”

“We’re too overrun with work to really notice. I spent all watch replacing a rusted coupling. It was a complete mess.” Tully swooped onto the unsuspecting onions and began to shake them.

“Rusted? I thought the entire ship was new. Completely custom built.”

“That’s what I thought at first.” Instead of tossing the onions back onto the counter, Tully threw them high into the air, barely missing the ceiling. They landed in a spiral. “God, that’s cool,” Tully said.

I scooped up the abused onions and slid them into the salad. I did not look to see what shape they formed with the lettuce and carrots. “You think your rusted coupling and our geometric onions have the same cause?” I asked.

“Nope,” said Tully. “After the coupling, I started looking around. All the normal engine room stuff—sanitation filters, water purifiers, oxygen mixers—that’s all new. The core is new. I mean, hell, my team just finished it six months ago. But the peripheral engine around the core? Old as hell.”

“I thought your Origami Core—lovely name by the way—I thought it was a complete engine by itself.”

Tully was shaking her head long before I finished the sentence. “No. A fold requires a specific kind of energy. No one’s cracked it since the team that built Marco’s Pride. My core generates that. You still need a system that utilizes it. It’s like my core is the sail and the peripheral engine is all the rigging, distributing the energy where it needs to go.”

“So, you think the Anchors stole the, ah, peripheral engine as well?”

An impish grin split Tully’s face. “No. I think they salvaged it.”

I frowned at the thought. Could she be right? If so, where had the salvage come from? I eased my troubled thoughts with busy hands, gathering the last of the meal.

 Tully looked it over a little bemused. “Beef stew, green salad, and pesto bread? That’s an odd combination.”

“Couldn’t be helped,” I replied. “This is the last of the fresh food. Tomorrow we go on rations.”

 

2227 Hours

“Anything?” I asked, ignoring my growling stomach.

“Only darkness, Bishop,” Calloway replied. “Bishop, may I confess something?”

“No. Confession implies the search for absolution, and that is not something I am in the business of handing out. You may, however, confide in a friend and perhaps find understanding.” I smiled at him to dull the edge of my words.

Calloway didn’t smile back. He hadn’t smiled in some time. “The last layer of G-she died off yesterday. Or two watches ago. Or whatever. There wasn’t any radiation to feed on, and even engineered for durability, they starved to death.”

Calloway looked unwell. Weeks of rationed food had left everyone too thin, but there was more to it. Calloway looked starved of hope. My own hope—that his could be rekindled—was growing dim. I waited.

“I’m weary, Bishop. I’m tired of seeing this same damned empty nothing every time we fold. I’m tired of hoping it’ll be different this time and it being the exact same. I’m angry at whatever bastard sabotaged the navigation and cursed us to starve to death out here. I—I’m done.”

His words hung in the air, foreboding, portentous, and ugly. “Open the view shields,” I finally said. Calloway looked at me as if mad, then reluctantly gave the command. The gray alloy plates parted silently, revealing a curtain of pure black that was, for all intents and purposes, an endless nothing. Vast and terrible. Uncaring.

I took a deep breath, tried to find the right words, didn’t, and pressed on anyway. “When we look out upon our own universe, it seems like darkness speckled with the light of stars, an empty void with scattered candles. This is an illusion. Our eyes can only see a fraction of reality. If we looked upon our universe with eyes that saw it as it truly was, we would see a never-ending ballet of light and energy. X-rays dancing with ultraviolet. Infrared swirling with gamma rays.

“Now, imagine looking out onto this void with those eyes. Imagine being able to see the flow of gravity. The rivers and eddies. The tethers and bindings. All of it designed to pull things together.

“We aren’t alone in a vast emptiness. We are travelers along a well-lit highway. Even if we don’t make it to the other side, even if we perish before finding out what immense thing is tugging so incessantly at our universe, its gentle pull will bring us to it in time.

“We may live to see our destination, Calloway. We may not. Either way, we will arrive. And, perhaps in billions or trillions of years, our universe will be pulled here as well. This voyage may end as we hope, but if it doesn’t, we’ll still find home again. Even if it takes to the end of time.”

Silence settled in the room once more. I did not turn to look at Calloway, did not dare break his concentration. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing.

“Thank you, Bishop.” It was a hoarse whisper that escaped his lips. I wanted to ask about the investigation. I wanted to see him smile again. But I had done all I could, and did not wish to risk undoing it.

I left Calloway staring at darkness, but could only guess at what he really saw.

 

2328 Hours

“Are you awake?” Tully asked.

There was just enough light in the cabin to make out her form. Her pale, nearly luminescent skin against my chocolate pigmentation. It was a sharp contrast, one I liked.

“I often stay up, just to enjoy the sight of you.” It was true. She was lovely, even more so now that I had come to know her. I gently stroked the back of her neck, toyed with her soft hair.

“Placket was found dead last watch,” she said.

It took me a moment to place the name. “One of your assistants?”

“They say he fell from the upper catwalk, but I don’t know. He might have jumped. Or...” Tully left it hanging in the air.

“Or” indeed. “How is your other assistant coping with it? Smith?”

“He’s been spending a lot of time with that angry guy, Nicholas.”

“Rashet’s husband?” I asked.

“I think they might be having an affair. Has anyone else showed up to your study group?”

“No.” Announcement or no, none of the others had come. Tully was the only person I trusted and I couldn’t speak to her about it. Instead, I pulled her close. I could feel her heart drumming.

“How long until the Anchors mutiny?” she asked.

“Not long.”

 

2530 Hours

“They’re coming. Sabrina, I need you to trust me. Completely.”

Tully stared at me a moment before nodding. A breath later, someone started beating on the door. “Hershal, you and your whore are under arrest,” came a muffled shout. “Don’t make us override your lock.”

“Initiate Nicholas, lovely of you to stop by. As you know, my title is Bishop Hershal of the Order of Zachary. My associate is Chief Engineer Tully. If you have the wherewithal to make formal our arrest, including title and assurance that no harm will be done to us, we will surrender peacefully.”

“I will no—”

“Bishop Hershal of the Order of Zachary,” cut in a calm voice, “Chief Engineer Tully of the Glorious Redeemer, you are hereby placed under arrest by the authority of Mother Innocent of the Order of Anchors. Come with us peacefully and no harm will come unto you.”

“Thank you, Initiate Rashet,” I said. The door slid open in silence, revealing Rashet, Nicholas, and two burly initiates. All four of them had makeshift weapons. Two electrified torches with safeties disabled, one shiv, and what looked to be a hunk of grav-plating, jury-rigged for lethality. If modified properly, it would rip a person’s throat out at fifteen meters.

“Shall we?” I asked, unfazed.

“This way, Bishop.” Rashet turned and set the pace. We fell in to follow him when one of the brutes (Timmons, I think) grabbed Tully’s arm. She lightly backhanded his torso. The blow, soft as it seemed, drove the thug into a bulkhead with enough force to daze him. Everyone stopped.

“Gentleman, we agreed to come along peacefully. There is no need for manhandling.” Timmons’ fevered eyes focused on Tully. I tried again, “Do you really want to keep Mother Innocent waiting?”

That did the trick. We turned in silence and walked down the empty corridors. It didn’t take a great deal of time to deduce our destination. The cargo hold—one of the few chambers on the claustrophobic ship that could house all twenty-eight crew members at the same time.

Twenty-seven, I reminded myself.

The door slid open, revealing a crowd. It was every last person on the ship. After so many months segregated by rooms or watch shifts, it was strange to see so many people.

Our guides herded the two of us over to the airlock. They didn’t place us inside but instead positioned us by the heavy door. I scanned the crowd and waited.

Two dozen faces stared at us. In many ways, it was a diverse mix. Different heights, genders, and colorations. But they all had the same thinness and most had the same eyes. Fanatic eyes.

Slowly the crowd parted and a figure made her way to the front. She was short, attractive, and had walnut-colored skin. She reminded me of a Samoan princess, a decade or two past her prime.

“Hershal,” she said. Her voice was stern but lacked the forced roughness she used before. I suppose the rasp isn’t as effective when your followers can see you are an attractive forty-something instead of a withered crone hiding in the dark.

“Esper,” I said, “I’m glad your voice has recovered.”

Her mouth tightened at the jab. “Witness,” she called.

Calloway stepped into the split of the crowd and joined Mother “Innocent.” He wore his emotions openly, but not simply. There was a deep pain there, also resignation, guilt, and shame. He had shaved and bathed but did not look the better for it.

“Speak,” commanded Esper.

 “Bishop,” Calloway began, “you ordered me to find the saboteur, the person responsible for manipulating the gravitational compasses to cast us adrift in the void. You charged me to ignore station and pursue the evidence with all of my skill. I have done as you asked.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “You are the saboteur.”

Silence followed his accusation. I smiled encouragingly, “Well done, Initiate Calloway.” He blinked at my fond praise.

“You—you’re not angry?” he asked.

“You’re not denying it?” demanded Esper.

“Why would I be angry?” I asked. “Calloway, you performed the task I assigned you to the letter. As for denying it? Deception no longer has any point, Esper.”

“Stop calling me that!” she screamed. “You heretic. You will to fix the compasses and get us home!”

“No.”

“You’ll fix my ship or I’ll kill your woman.”

Tully took a step forward and screamed, “It isn’t your ship, you thieving little jackass!” Esper jerked her hateful gaze to Tully, but Tully wasn't intimidated in the least. “You stole the core from my lab and the engine from Marco’s Pride. Go ahead, lie to your people. Deny being a dirty little thief.”

I smiled at Tully. There she stood, her back against a wall, surrounded by hostile, desperate people, and still filled with snark. Lord, what a time to find love.

Esper’s tan face shifted to a darker shade of hate. She unlocked her jaw, surely to spew out one vile insult or another, but Calloway was faster.

“Why?” the initiate asked. “You sabotaged the navigation. You brought us out into the middle of nothing to starve to death. Why?”

“To keep us from finding God!” Esper screamed. “That’s what’s past the void! That’s what’s causing the dark flow and the anomalies, and you were sent to stop us. You were sent because your elders are jealous!”

I raised my voice and spoke calmly and clearly. It was my preacher voice, my lecture voice, my eulogy voice. I spoke to be heard by all, but I looked squarely at Esper.

“You are a corruption, Esper Teltch. You and the elders of your order have twisted the teachings of our faith. You have maligned texts to teach mindless obedience where they were meant to encourage thoughtful, inquisitive minds. You have stripped your followers of the tools meant to nurture spirituality and empathy, replacing them with chains of fanaticism. You have become everything our faith was designed to prevent. What is beyond the void is not for you. You have discarded the pursuit of truth for control. Your flaw, your need for power, would wreak immeasurable harm. That is why I have done as I have.”

Esper refused to hear me. “You will repair the compasses or I wi—”

“They cannot be repaired,” I interrupted, “I made sure of it.”

“Then you will die,” growled Esper.

“Oh, Esper,” I said, sadly, “we’re all going to die.” I raised my voice, a preacher once more. “You have all felt it. Something rotting. Something dragging at your soul. Something that is very, very wrong with what you have been taught.

“It has come to a simple choice. Clear, yet brutal. Whether you will die with the shame, the wrongness, churning in your gut or find peace. The only decision left is who to stand with now that the end has come.”

I offered my hand to Tully. “I am so sorry,” I whispered. She looked at me, tears hanging in her eyes. She was confused and hurt and trying desperately to make sense of what was happening.

Esper’s manic laughter broke our shared moment. “Are you seriously trying to recruit people to die with you?”

She continued to laugh, but there was motion in the crowd. Rashet turned and gave Nicholas a sorrowful kiss, then eased his way through the cluster of startled initiates. He stopped before me, waiting.

“Initiate Rashet,” I spoke neither quietly nor loudly, “can you forgive me for all I have wrought?”

“I can.” He moved quietly beside me and stared at the gathered crew.

A slender, hunched form drew forward next. She was crying quietly and refused to look me in the eye, but I knew her. “Initiate Miriam, can you forgive me for all I have wrought?” She nodded and stepped beside Rashet.

I felt Tully’s hand close upon mine. “I forgive you,” she whispered in my ear. A sad, little smile tried to curl my lips.

“Calloway?” I asked. My eyes were watery, but I could see him clearly enough.

“You brought us out here to kill us and you think you’re doing the right thing?”

“The right thing? No, this is only the least evil thing I could manage.” I shook my head, “There’s no time to explain everything. We all look at the universe through flawed eyes. Even when the answers surround us, we can see only darkness. This is not a decision that can be made with logic. It’s time to decide who you trust.”

He stepped forward. Then slapped me full across the face. I barely had time to register the sting when his fist slammed into my gut, driving me onto my knees. I held tight to Tully, so she would not intercede. I held tight and spoke quickly. “Initiate Calloway,” I gasped, “can you forgive me for all I have wrought?”

“No,” he said, “no, I can’t. But perhaps I can understand.”

I raised my head as he moved next to Tully. I looked across the crowd of familiar faces. Nicholas stared at Rashet with pure rage, while Smith, Tully’s feral assistant, clutched him like a trophy. Timmons glowered. Esper snarled. Every face was gaunt and lit with hate.

There were so many. So many I couldn’t reach. So many I failed.

Esper smiled. “Kill them.”

The words were barely out of her mouth when blood gushed from her nose and she collapsed. Timmons raised his modified grav-plate but dropped to the ground before firing. Smith fell next, followed by Nicholas.

One by one, the Anchors hit the floor. Some bloody. Some wracked by spasms. Some appeared to be napping. All were dead.

Shock and silence filled the chamber.

“Um, what just happened?” Miriam asked. It was the first time I ever heard her speak.

“I killed them,” I said. I tried to stand, but Calloway’s gut punch was too much to shake off quickly. “Miriam, would you kindly go to my quarters. Under my bed is a black, metal sphere the size of an orange. Please meet us in Navigation.”

“What is it,” she asked.

I looked at Calloway and smiled. “A gravitational compass.”

 

2340 Hours

“Dear God,” Calloway gasped.

We had gathered in Navigation and made the last fold with the view shields wide open. It was amazing. A massive, violet web work. An entire universe, sister to our own.

“Maybe,” I said. “God or not, it emanates order like a sentient being.”

“What?” That was Miriam.

“Sentient,” I replied. “As far as we can determine this entire universe acts as one giant mind.”

“How is that possible?” Calloway asked.

“I have no idea. There were some theories floating around Marco’s Pride when I left.” Tully’s head jerked up at the mention of the ghost ship. “Yes, Tully you were right. The engine originally came from Marco’s Pride.”

The view shields began to close. Miriam objected, but Calloway silenced her with a wave of his hand. “Tell us. All of it. We deserve that.”

It was amazing how much he had changed from the energetic youth at the beginning of the voyage. What had he said to me? “The burned hand teaches best.”

“You do,” I said. I sat and produced a set of flat, metal rings from a pocket. The very same ones Calloway had used to demonstrate the first anomalies. “You certainly do.

“There are a series of facts you are likely not privy to. First, Marco’s Pride was entirely a Zack project. Built, captained, and crewed by my order. Second, it wasn’t just an exploration vessel, it was a science vessel. We didn’t know how long it would take to cross the dark flow, so the ship was made to be self-sufficient. The crew could operate in cold space for years.”

I tossed the rings in the air. They bounced and rolled and settled into a square on the floor. “Focused intelligence creates order from chaos. It’s scientific fact. We’ve known it for centuries. Here, you don’t need to measure it to see the effects. It’s everywhere. And this?” I indicated the rings. “This is nothing.

“Once inside the universe, things change entirely. Serendipity cannot begin to explain the level of luck we had. One priest dropped her cereal and it landed in the shape of an amino acid chain she needed to complete her research.”

I ran my hand over my head. “Our intentions were to study the universe, but we grew easily sidetracked. There were so many breakthroughs. Medicine, technology, physics, psycho-engineering,” I said tapping my skull.

“One initiate was sure he had worked out a way to force every particle in a star to quantum-tunnel. To snuff out an entire solar system in a moment. That was our wake up call.

“We pulled the auxiliary fold drive from the Marco and installed it on a shuttle. A small crew was tasked with traveling home to inform the order of what we found. Everyone else stayed behind to continue their work.

“As soon as we were back in our own universe, our shuttle was hit by a storm of tiny asteroids. We were so used to everything working out for us that we’d forgotten what trouble was like. We had to jettison the fold core and jump into evac pods.” I looked at Tully. “I thought that shuttle lost until you identified parts of her engine here.”

“The elders of the order hoped to control the situation by burying it. They should have known it could not last. The Anchors declaring they had a fold drive shook everyone into action. Luckily, a major component of it was stolen, giving the rest of the church, including us Zacks, reason to intervene. We couldn’t manage to scrap the project, so we did the next best thing.”

“You sabotaged it,” Calloway said.

I nodded. “I was sent to kill the entire crew.”

“Why didn’t you?” Rashet asked. “Why not just kill us all at the start and take the ship?”

“Because I could save some of you.”

“But not all,” Rashet said, voice rich with anger.

“No. Not all. Rashet, I murdered two dozen people with less effort than I put into a bowel movement. An initiate of moderate intelligence discovered a way to snuff out a star. That kind of power cannot be allowed into the hands of fanatics. Even the fanatics we love.”

“What do we do now?” Tully asked.

Now there’s a question. “Everything we can.”