2947-12-03 – Tales from the Service: A Pastor and a Prodigal

We have received some interesting audience feedback about this text feed recently which I think it’s time to address. Most of this, I think, is coming from people who otherwise are not Cosmic Background datasphere content consumers, who have begun to subscribe to this feed due to the fact that it is curated by an embed team assigned to the Fifth Fleet for the duration of hostilities. 

The first category of feedback seems to come from non-spacers, and it generally expresses a wish for our Tales from the Service episodes to explain more of the background which our usual audience of interstellar professionals and enthusiasts take for granted. It’s easy for us to forget that since most people do not trust their lives daily to shipboard atmospherics, inertial control, and A-grav, most of the sapients of the Reach know little about these machines. Evidently, some of these new non-spacer readers think that knowing more about these technologies might improve their reading experience. 

The second category of feedback seems to come from our new readers inside the Navy itself. They wish for us to cover more of the war directly, as apparently in some cases the vidcast episodes which do this are of sufficient size that they exceed a crew rating’s daily data-payload limits. A regular textual summary of the war’s progress (as much as can be gleaned from open sources, at any rate) would apparently be welcome to many. 

In both cases, I don’t think the weekly “Tales from the Service” episodes are the right place to do these things – after all, our primary responsibility is to the permanent audience, for whom these requests would be unnecessary and perhaps unwelcome. That being said, these requests have come in with sufficient numbers that Nojus and I are working on ways to satisfy them without compromising the usual episodes. 

“You sure about this, Tommy?” The guard at the brig checkpoint passed his security wand over Thomas Nyilvas's shipboard fatigues and the bundle under his arm several times, though Thomas knew the device only needed one sweep. “The captain was in there for four hours and didn’t get anything out of that witch except epithets and a near-miss from a nano-fabbed dart.” 

Thomas nodded. “This is something I need to do, Sergeant. I’ll be safe.” 

“Your business, padre.” The guard stowed his wand. “Cell ten.” 

Thomas nodded and went through the checkpoint, turning into the higher-security cell block where he knew he would find the ship’s lone prisoner. As soon as he was around the corner, he unfurled the bundle under his arm and shrugged on his white synth-silk cassock. The ship’s imposing chief of marines had failed to make an impression on the prisoner, and the skipper’s very different method of persuasion had similarly elicited only a few arrogant jabs. Thomas prayed he would have better results. 

The cell’s gravitic-shear door barrier hummed invisibly as Thomas approached, and the prisoner lounging inside on the narrow wall-mounted cot barely glanced at him. Physically, Ayaka Rowlins looked like the last thing that might threaten the ship – forty kilos of bony, awkward frame topped by a plain moon-face and a shock of haphazardly-cut black hair should not have been able to harm a Navy patrol cruiser. Still, Thomas knew she was more than she seemed; the crescent of blinking LEDs on her left temple hinted at the massive body-modifications she had undergone in an Incarnation med-lab. 

According to the datasphere bio her genetic print had called up, Rowlins was one of the Reach’s hordes of economically homeless young people, who’d come of age with unmarketable skills, if any at all. Following promises of a better future, most of them struck out for the Frontiers alone, or in groups. The file on this particular case went cold in 2945, shortly after she had become associated with a known Ladeonist radical on Maribel. She had vanished without a trace – until someone had caught her setting demolition charges around vital parts of Xavior Vitali’s phased-matter condenser, flesh and mind corrupted by Incarnation hardware. 

Thomas took a breath. Short of riding Vitali into a full-scale battle it wasn’t designed for, there was little a patrol-cruiser chaplain could do that would be more perilous than what he was about to. “Mind if I come in?” 

The prisoner looked up at him again, then looked away, staring through her puffy, sleep-deprived eyes at a spot on the bulkhead. The nanosuppressor suspended in the cell’s overhead panel blinked its lights cheerily. Thomas squared his shoulders and stepped into the invisible shear-barrier, which opened up only millimeters ahead of his nose and closed again millimeters behind his back, allowing the captive no opportunity to escape. 

“Good morning.” Thomas tapped a control on the wall near the entrance and a pillar-shaped chair rose out of the floor. “I’m Father Nyilvas, the ship’s chaplain. I thought you might appreciate some company that wasn’t trying to interrogate you.” 

Ayaka Rowlins didn’t even look his way. She made a noise which might have been a derisive snort, then fell silent once more. 

Thomas shrugged and unfolded the screen of his wrist unit. “I hope you don’t mind me doing a little bit of work. It’s Saturday by the standard calendar. I have to lead service tomorrow morning, if we haven’t exploded by then.” 

“And if we have?” 

Thomas looked up. She still hadn’t turned to face her visitor. “If we have, then I’ll get to see who was listening last week, and who wasn’t.” 

Rowlins reacted in what might have been a quickly-suppressed smile. “Believing in Chapel voodoo won’t save anyone if the ship goes up.” 

“Depends on what you mean by save. We’ll all be dead, sure, but eventually, that does tend to happen to everyone.” He tried not to focus on the fact that the prisoner was talking to him so easily, hostile or no – Captain Callahan had glared and imprecated Rowlins for the better part of an hour before she’d even acknowledged his presence. 

Thomas keyed in a link to the Chapel software which monitored the ship’s datasphere and chose the most fitting passage to teach for the week, and almost laughed out loud. “Psalm thirty-nine?” He didn’t always take recommendations from the software, though it was the end product of nearly three centuries of Chapel clergy refinement. This time, however, it had struck a winner. “Perfect.” 

Rawlins looked up, sneering. “Does it talk about being weak and soft, and being defeated by the chosen agents of human survival?” 

Thomas met her gaze. “Your faith in the Incarnation is understandable, Miss Rawlins, but quite misplaced.” 

“Faith?” She sat up, leaning toward him, dark eyes burning. “My cause is fact. Yours is stone-age mysticism with a chrome finish.” 

“Being restricted to material concerns does not make something factual. Some day when that chip in your head isn’t telling you what to do, you’ll think that’s obvious.” Thomas returned to his outline. Ayaka Rowlins was a true believer, but he could tell her belief had little depth or substance. Most likely, the Incarnation’s brand of apocalyptic transhumanism had been the first thing she’d really been offered in her short life with which to believe, and she’d grabbed onto it just for the novelty of having something to call her own. He’d seen it before with other young people – their comfortable Core Worlds and Inner Reach upbringings had left them comfortable but unmoored, uncertain, and without ideas. They drifted toward the Frontiers in listless droves, searching for something without any idea of what it might be. A few found their way into the community of spacers and the Navy – those were the lucky ones. 

“You think I’m controlled by these?” She tapped her head implant. “They make me smarter and freer than you will ever be, even when I’m locked up in this cell.” 

“Being always connected to the flow of data makes you feel important, and the chips let you consume it efficiently. That doesn’t make you smarter. That idea all but wrecked humanity in the Second Dark Age.” 

“That’s big talk for someone selling ideas the species hasn’t taken seriously since the first one.” 

Before speaking again, Thomas made a note to emphasize his chosen psalm’s repeated observations about human mortality, and the mortality of the species as a whole. Four thousand years old though it was, he knew the text would strike a chord with people who were expecting their ship to explode as a result of Rawlins’s undiscovered sabotage at any moment. He’d long since ceased to be amazed that scripture was like that – even caught up in a war so far away from Sol that light emitted by that star during Christ’s life hadn’t yet reached the front lines, the ancient book still had something to say.  

The delay seemed to infuriate Rawlins, who stood up to loom over Thomas. “You think this is funny, padre?” Intellectually, he knew her machine-enhanced musculature could tear him limb from limb with ease, and even with the auto-stun and nanosuppressor systems built into the cell, she could probably put him in a geltank for weeks before she went down herself – but her small stature made the threat hard to take seriously. 

“No.” He finished the bullet-point with a flourish and looked up. “I’ll be honest, you’re making a mistake that’s so basic I have no way of answering it politely. Are you really the best the Incarnation has?” 

Rawlins was silent, but her balled fists and gritted teeth made it clear she was calculating how much she could pulp him before the cell’s systems knocked her out. Thomas knew the best thing to do was to stay silent and let her decide it wasn’t worth it, that beating the ship’s chaplain to a pulp was a good way of getting the crew to vent her out an airlock and take their chances with any additional demolition charges, but he knew he wasn’t going to do that. 

Standing to his full height – nearly a foot taller than the prisoner even though he was hardly a tall man – Thomas clasped his hands behind his back. “You should know this, child, you grew up in the Confederacy. Even if all I offer is an ancient idea, an idea is a tool. If you find an old implement still in use, then you can conclude it must still do something useful.” 

“It lets the masses pretend that they are content with their gradual extinction.” The woman replied through gritted teeth. “An opiate for the dying.” 

“We are all dying someday. Why so concerned about extinction? The ship’s going to go nova before I lead service tomorrow anyway. If I were you, I’d be more concerned about that.” 

“Go to hell, Padre.” Rawlins looked away, and Thomas could tell in that brief look all he needed to do about the engineering staff’s round-the-clock search for more explosives.

“I'd really rather not.” Sitting back down, he tapped words into his outline for a few seconds until she turned to return to the bunk, then quickly flashed a message to Captain Callahan to share what he’d learned: there were no other bombs, because Rawlins had been caught too early to complete any part of her mission. She had been given one charge by the cause on whose altar she had sacrificed her heart, mind, and very humanity, and she had failed to complete it.

As he continued to work on his sermon in silence, Thomas prayed silently for the soul of the prodigal daughter sulking across the cell, wondering if there would ever be any way to bridge the span between them. It seemed impossible that her soul and humanity could be salvaged - fortunately, he was a firm believer in miracles.

Some day, this war will come to an end, and we will have to learn to live as neighbors with whatever remains of the Incarnation. When that happens - and I hope it is soon - the work of the men with guns will be over, and the work of men like Chaplain Thomas Nyilvas of Xavior Vitali can truly begin. I fear, however, that like the Rattanai imperialists and the Ladeonists which survive from the last great interstellar war, it will take many generations to overcome the hostility of our modern foes.