Date: 1,989,107 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 1909 (Shango), N.A. 192 (Qareen)
Location: Darkworld Jeremiah, Dei system
He woke up and looked at the grey stone ceiling. This morning, like any other, he blindly slapped an arm down onto the bedside table, and then remember that the UID would be no help here; it was just a ceiling. The peeling and faded metal door in his peripheral vision was just a door, and the desk to the right was just a desk. The only thing that wasn’t what it claimed to be was an apparent alcove in the wall above the desk, which was a universal assembler. That said, it was the size and approximately shape – albeit more rigidly angular and cuboid – of what a citizen of Earth’s Western society would recognise as an ATM, so Goiqa Federoi would have needed to think creatively in order to conjure up something resembling the screen that the ceiling and walls, in almost any other part of the Federation, would convert to.
This did not happen on Darkworld Jeremiah, and he was starting to regret it. He got up – he didn’t need to for another 11/100, but as he washed, got dressed and ate, he felt good about having the extra 7/100 – and decided to make his way out of his room and away from the complex.
It had been three months since he had decided to join the priesthood, and having decided that he was going to do so at the very top, in the most important place of all, it had been two months since he had arrived at Darkworld Jeremiah. His family had hardly objected strongly, but they had advised against it. It was perhaps no wonder; piety had especially not been considered a virtue in the Federation in the previous years, with numerous incidences of religiously-inspired violence hinting at a troubling tendency within it.
Goiqa would have been the first to admit that his conversion three years ago had initially prompted an arrogance, a superiority, perhaps even something with the potential of hubris. The revelation had been an overwhelming one, one that seemingly had to be spread, but in three years he had travelled a long way, and those initial binary thoughts about errant Shango and godless heathen Qareen and the Need to Spread the Word had blurred significantly. Initially he had wondered if such blurring was a more sophisticated outlook, but the longer he stayed here, the more he suspected a crisis of faith, a stretch of doubt or even just a feeling that he was in too deep.
Darkworld Jeremiah was a strangely homogenised place for a Darkworld. Residential Darkworlds usually broke up their vast smears of cityscapes with jungles, forests, woods, mountain ranges, plains, prairies, steppes and rivers, and sometimes the distinction between artificial and natural was blurred, in urban jungles that befitted the name, cities that bore the tabular, blunt beauty of icebergs as they floated across undersurface seas, and mountain ranges that rose up in surreal, ordered columns like cities built by ghostly alien predecessors. Military Darkworlds had their masses of barracks, for sure, but also their mock-up cities and their range of environments, and whilst they rarely employed the same kind of artistic intent as their civilian counterparts, they made up for it in diversity; deserts, cities, jungles and even tundra were present time and time again in finely graded varieties, the Darkworlds as a whole acting like the geological equivalents of paint colour charts.
He had come from Darkworld Gauss, a place that could implant all manner of inspiration in the mind of someone sufficiently alive and world-embracing. Darkworld Jeremiah, however, had the austerity of a church. Which was fair enough, because it was, but even as he left the village complex, he could not see anything much beyond the same regular paved surface, needless columns that reached down to the Vexers below, and the odd, heavily sculpted garden. It all bothered him, he thought; it did not glory the gods, and passing away the 7/100 walking around the village did not change his thoughts.
Goiqa found himself where he was meant to be, at the Academy Section Point nearest the village. Its appearance, a mass of nonlinear form combined with more traditional (to Earth eyes) features comparable, broadly, to flying butresses and gothic arches, was a familiar one on Jeremiah. Inside, through a labyrinth of corridors and chambers, he found Space D-101, where the Holiness of the Lower Third (or H.L.T.) Abrax Pretere waited for his students to arrive. Despite everything, he was the first.
“Goiqa. Always eager, it seems.”
“Indeed, sir. Although I also happen to rise early.”
The H.L.T. nodded from across the table. “Although we don’t exactly punish opulence among our students. We know what lives they’ve come from, and I’ve have thought that 42/85 would be a perfectly reasonable-”
He stopped as three other students came through the door, making his class just two short. Another followed shortly afterwards, muttering a hasty, half-sincere apology as he did so.
“One late,” Pretere persisted.
“Krastep, sir, he says he’s ill.”
“I will grant him the benefit of the doubt, as I suspect I have too many times before. Then again, what is faith, beyond granting the benefit of the doubt to the feelings we have, those feelings that we cannot brush aside? But I imagine this is another debate. What we ask today is not the definition of our faith, but the epistemology of it. What can we know about that which is beyond mere science? Where is the line between knowledge and faith? And what about that which lies in between?”
Goiqa wondered if it was things like that which caused him to doubt. There was too much of an attempt to reason that which he had assumed was beyond reason; how could religion wind up in hard calculus? It unsettled him. He assumed that this, the priesthood on Darkworld Jeremiah, would be primarily about guiding those on pilgrimage, given that the place was, so transgalactic sources alleged, the largest holy site for a hundred million light years in all directions.
At 76/100 the interior lightband on Space 33 began its fadeout, slowly sapping the area of its grey and beige duochrome and bathing it instead in a weak orange-and-shadow two-tone. Goiqa found himself some two Earth miles away, across the surface of the sphere at any rate; in truth, he also found himself some ten miles high, too, close to the summit of one of the highest towers in the Space. Isiah Tower was an unusual indulgence for Darkworld Jeremiah, although this simply meant there were hundreds instead of thousands of such projects. From the balcony railing, though, he could see all manner of things; the lights flickering on above and below; the small clouds that occasionally drifted past; the columns that connected Cavers and Vexers in the most superficial way, and – he could just about see this in the dimming light – the way they flexed, bulged and thinned in the middle, ripples of stone mass acting like water and shifted in fickle rotating alleigance to the various, weak and tangential Grab forces on either surface in the absence of any truly effective gravity, adding a touch of surrealism to the solemnity of Jeremiah’s architecture.
He watched for some time, idly wondering how he was going to get back on foot in the darkness, but couldn’t bring himself to feel urgency amidst the stillness. Eventually he had this and many other issues answered.
“Goiqa. Goiqa Federoi.”
He turned around and spotted Ipnar Sewt, a man who he had only met on a few occasions. He, during those times, had only had to remember one name; how Ipnar had managed to recall his among hundreds, he could not work out.
“You should probably be leaving. Don’t worry. We’ve all been in these situations. We find ourselves in an equilibrium with our surroundings, and we just can’t break free, however temporary we know it to be. It becomes the softest obsession.”
Goiqa nodded and tried to lean slightly more softly on the railing, if only in a bid to make the most symbolic move of getting away.
“Like I said, don’t worry. I could beam you back in an instant.”
“There are teleports in this tower?”
“Thousands. You didn’t know?”
In retrospect, it should have been obvious.
“You seem bothered, Goiqa. I would say troubled, but that might be
overreaching. It doesn’t elude my essential point, though – something is wrong, isn’t it?”
Goiqa thought it through. His problem, really, wasn’t one of a straightforward, mundane issue.
“Ipnar, is it just me, or is there something off-key about the Church today?”
“I suppose, Goiqa, that depends on what you want from it.”
“I’ve tried as an apprentice. Tried my hardest. The problem I have, though, is all this endless philosophy, methodology, all this rigid study. Shouldn’t faith transcend reason? Shouldn’t it be… well, maybe this is simplistic, but shouldn’t it be the primacy of feeling over thought, or feeling beyond thought?”
Ipnar gave the smile of a man who knew the exact answer.
“I guess you’ve forgotten the history of the Church. It seems incredible, when you look around you at all of this, an entire artificial planet designated to our cause, but it’s true nonetheless, that for a long time, our Church has been in decline. A long, slow decline too. Millions, possibly billions intone their last prayer every year. In a galaxy of trillions this is not an immense problem, but if ignored, this place becomes not a church, but a museum.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I’m not suggesting anything.”
Goiqa realised that it was getting dark, now; a breeze picked up, and the last of the sunset could barely show the horizon.
“But I am stating,” Ipnar continued, “that the establishment here want to, I paraphrase, modernise. Demonstrate their relevance. Move with the times. The unchanging faith is not always all that unchanging. When public opinion, on hundreds of tiny issues, starts to shift, the effects are seismic. And so the Church shifts to justify its presence.”
Goiqa frowned. “So what you’re saying is, it’s all a lie.”
“Well, that’s highly reductive.”
He supposed so.
“What I’m saying is, you don’t have to turn your back on it. There’s always an alternative. Reconsider, not the destination, but the path to it.”
It was now completely dark on the balcony, barring a small spotlight whose edge of influence just touched the railings.
“You see, the Church doesn’t approve, for example, of us in the Plasma Community. We’re not heretics to them, but… something about us doesn’t sit right with them. But aren’t we disrespecting the gods if we blithely – indeed, blindly – accept assumptions about their nature, about their whims and requirements, from a group of demonstrably flawed mortal beings?
“I won’t pressure you, Goiqa. It is always your choice, but the important thing is that you have a choice. You can leave, become a lay follower. You can push yourself to the fringes, become a missionary. You can weave in and out of official doctrine and dogma, become part of the Plasma Community. It’s all there for you.”
Ipnar began to back away, off the balcony and into the room inside.
“The only thing you must do,” he called from the shadows, “is beam yourself back.” He flicked a light on. “Over here.”
With that, Goiqa did so, and having stepped into the unit, he found with a brief flash of light that he was back in his sparse room, ten miles down and two miles away.
“Ipnar. I imagine you would have nothing to do with Federoi’s disappearance?”
“Yes. He has not been seen by anyone at the complex for the last five days.”
“Well, that is somewhat odd. I would have hoped that he would have informed his superiors and gone through the proper procedure before vanishing. Do you suspect a more tragic occurrence?”
“On Jeremiah? People come here to be buried, Ipnar, but they don’t die here.”
“He was a gifted student, the likes of whom we can’t afford to lose.”
“Correction – you can’t afford to lose. The likes of me will survive just fine.”