Sunday, June 29, 2008

Science Fiction Experiment: Pilgrimage

Okay, so I was late delivering this story to a contest and still have an issue with my employer not allowing me to do freelance writing for money. So, as a compromise, I continue to write for the public, but for the sheer love of the work (it sure as heck isn't the pay). Also, paying authors are posting stories online, and they insist that it doesn't hurt their sales. Since I don't have any SF sales anyway (yet), a free release of a story couldn't hurt. This also offers the opportunity for me to fix the story before I try to sell it. I could even expand this into something longer. Opinions welcome.



Loretta McNamara assumed that lack of food was reawakening her normally dormant spiritual self, but her first view of Hertzsprung Monastery took her back to her childhood like a whiff of incense. Lighted on all sides by work lights of several colors, the Monastery huddled at the utmost southern edge of a crater on the Far Side of the Moon. The grey-desert landscape was torn by unusual violence, as a flight of asteroids had smashed Hertzsprung’s southern rim, leaving behind a nearly straight line of craters like the strafing of a machine gun. It was not the most promising place to make a land deal, but the Moon’s crust held treasure that more than made up for its magnificent desolation.
In the midst of this punished, ashen land soared a cross glowing with unearthly light. The sight it nearly caused her to fall to her knees. She prodded herself to quick action, lest she have some emotional outburst that she’d regret later.
A chime in her ear bud informed her that she had an incoming call, audio only. “This is Hertzsprung Monastery, Brother Anthony speaking. Pardon my asking, sister, but are you nuts to walk all the way here? You could’ve just called for a repair crew to meet you out of Hegel.”
She realized the strangeness of her quest, the unusual earnestness that had pushed her to make the three-day hike to the monastery after her crawler broke down. Would her partners at McNamara He-3 believe that she’d pushed herself this far just for the chance to take something out of the hide of the Unified Catholic Orthodox Church?
Loretta continued huffing her way toward the monastery. “Just…leave a light on when I get there…okay, brother?
Her sarcasm vibrated unmistakably over the radio. Brother Anthony sounded wounded as he said, “Yes, ma’am,” and clicked off.

She signaled the monastery again, and a set of lights blinked on for her as promised, guiding her to an airlock at the base of a low ridge, directly below the cross. She left the supply sledge outside and entered. She’d dragged it behind her for three days, carrying as it did food, water, and power for her NanoSuit.
Loretta patiently rode out the seven-minute cycling process. She located the appropriate control on her Wiki, and the microfibers in her suit repelled most of the lunar dust, which was sucked away into the lock’s vacuum filters.
A man a few years older than Loretta greeted her in formal white robes emblazoned with a golden cross with a loop at the top. Brother Anthony, she presumed. Aside from her matted hair and slightly thinner frame, she’d come through her ordeal rather well. Anthony’s own hair was cut in the most ridiculous bowl cut Loretta had ever seen, topped as it was by a shaved spot in a—what was the word? Tonsure. “Hi there,” said the man, who had an impressive bulk to him and kindly gray eyes beneath bushy brows. “I’m Brother Anthony.”
Loretta gulped. “Well enough. I need to see the Abbot immediate—” Loretta’s legs caved in and her vision collapse to a fuzzy point, not allowing her to finish her sentence.
When she came to, Anthony was wiping her face down with a cold cloth and holding a bulb of water. “You okay?”
Loretta heard the concern in Brother Anthony’s voice. “Sorry,” she said, gulping the offered bulb. The spotlight of her vision widened again, but she felt curiously detached from her body. Anthony helped her up, which was easy enough in the low gravity. Standing wasn’t quite the chore it might have been otherwise. Still, Loretta felt like she had after a particularly hot day at Kingston Heath. She wondered idly if Alan Shepard had ever played golf there when she heard Anthony speaking at a distance.
“..service begins in about two hours. You’ll have time to eat and clean yourself, if you’ll follow me. We have refresher cubicles right down the hall. Are you Catholic?”
Exhaustion kept her from lying: “Lapsed.”
“Pity. Still, that means you’ll know all the Catholic aerobics, yes?” She grudgingly allowed Anthony to reach under her arm and lead her to the ‘fresher. She did not like the idea of being indebted to one of the Brothers so soon in her negotiations.
“When you’re ready, I’ll be out here. Don’t worry, I won’t peek.” Loretta was too tired to notice the flirty banter. “There are energy bars and water inside, too. Best get yourself in order so you don’t pass out in front of the Abbot.”
Loretta nodded. “Thanks.” Then she retreated to the refresher cubicle to collapse.
The Unified Christian service shifted between Latin, Greek, and English. Loretta hadn’t heard it since she was 13—the last time she’d been to mass. Father-Abbot Agyeman (“AJ-uh-man,” she reminded herself) gave a homily emphasizing thankfulness as the brothers and sisters greeted the return of the Sun to their skies. It was afternoon by Universal Time, but Hertzsprung Monastery apparently held “morning services” when it was literally morning on the Moon.
Loretta followed along with the “aerobics” (sit, stand, kneel), and her mouth, hands, and arms remembered the proper movements as Father-Abbot Agyeman spoke the old words of the liturgy. Feeling like a spy, she glanced furtively around her, using the transceiver in her skull to store notes about the room, people, and service into her phone. She looked up, when she heard Agyeman suggest that man’s sojourn in space might be a means to his salvation on Earth. That was something new. Perhaps she was wrong to be so brusque with Anthony.
The chapel was a typical barrel vault structure, whitewashed and very smooth. The presence of women surprised her at first, before she recalled that the monastery included both Ecumenical Brothers of the Order of St. Francis and lay brothers and sisters, who were mechanics, house staff, scientists, and engineers assigned to operate and repair the telescopes and solar power plants ringing the equator further south. All Christian, of course. The chapel was full, and aside from one yawner, the group seemed attentive to what Agyeman had to say.
The closing of the service shook Loretta. The hymns were in English or Greek, except for the last, which was a recording of a Gregorian chant that had been old a thousand years ago. As the recorded all-male voices sang, the walls slowly transformed from cave-like smoothness to become a star-filled sky. The wall behind the altar, like the chapel walls and ceiling, was a vid screen, creating the illusion of a crashing sea with its sky just transforming from night to dawn. As the voices rose to their crescendo, the cross behind the altar blazed with light, becoming both rising sun and source of inspiration. For a moment, she thought she even heard waves and gulls above the sonorous voices. Her breath caught, and only a supreme act of will kept her from crossing herself. No, they’ll not win me over that easily.
A thrill of anger flushed Loretta’s cheeks before she shook her head clear of the sensation, disturbed by how easily she had fallen into old religious behaviors she had thought safely buried and forgotten. The Business Analyst in her took over: Of course they would need something like this—spectacle or no, FX or no, the sight of the sea would remind them all where they came from.
After the service, the parishioners exited in silence, doing little to conceal their curious glances toward her. Loretta waited for everyone to leave before exiting. She gazed back once more at the cross behind the altar and the Romanesque walls, reassuring herself that it was only a room.
She found Anthony waiting for her. “What’d you think?”
“Impressive,” she admitted.
“Okay, if you must know, it seemed a bit showy. Like something they’d do at Disney Moon.”
“At least you remembered all the words.” Loretta blushed, curiously ashamed of being found out. “You ready for your meeting?”
“Sure. Where is the Father-Abbot?”
“Back in his office, girding his loins for battle, no doubt.”
Loretta gave Anthony a curious glance as they moved briskly through the corridors. She tried to copy Anthony’s distance-devouring lope-hop, but her exhaustion was catching up with her. She remembered her grandfather’s lessons on that score: if you fall, let it happen with some dignity. You’ve got time to recover. She concentrated on slowing her strides well before turning in the lower gravity. “I beg your pardon?”
“Well, pardon my saying so, Ms…”
“Loretta will be fine.”
“Okay. Pardon my saying so, Ms. Loretta-Will-Be-Fine, but we don’t get a lot of corporate types here. If we do, it’s probably bad news. You know that your company’s competitors have been calling us for the last year.”
“Ever since the Kokradi Survey of the equatorial belt, of course. If the Survey is correct, Korolev Crater has the largest Helium 3 deposit on the Moon—nearly 30 parts per billion—enough to provide Earth fusion power for…well, decades.”
“Do you really need to use that site? The Moon still isn’t fully explored yet.”
Loretta shrugged, feigning innocence. “It’s not my fault that it’s on Church property. I’m just trying to negotiate a fair price for it.”
“I wonder,” said Anthony.
Best to deflect him for now, Loretta decided. “Mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“Yes, I’m seriously pledged to celibacy.”
Loretta blushed. “No, I wasn’t going to ask that, though now that you mention it, you don’t seem very, uh, monkish. Uh, no offense.”
“None taken. Spent a couple years as a bouncer while at Michigan. You learn how to talk to people.”
They reached the end of one corridor, entering a three-level atrium that gave Loretta the feeling of being in a mall. The walk from the chapel had been like exploring well-kept Spanish catacombs. Anthony tapped her on the elbow, gesturing toward the elevator bank to her right.
Loretta asked, “Actually, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you were trying to pick me up.”
“If you knew any better, you wouldn’t have had to ask. My libido is completely under control, Loretta-Will-Be-Fine.” The elevator opened onto a much smaller chamber, presumably the outer waiting room of the Father-Abbot’s office. “And here we are. As you can see, we’ve both arrived with our virtue intact.”
“Why are you acting this way, Anthony?”
“Because I like you, Loretta-Will-Be-Fine. And I figure maybe if you like me and like this place well enough, you might think twice before doing something you’ll regret.” Turning his attention away from her, Brother Anthony addressed the frowning, grey-tonsured man at the desk beside a crimson-painted door. The Father-Abbot’s secretary, she presumed. This was the priest—Father MacCallum, she recalled—who had prevented her from talking to the Abbot by vid and had refused multiple electronic meetings until she had forced the issue by arriving on the monastery’s doorstep.
“Father MacCallum? Loretta McNamara.”
“Yes, Ms. McNamara. Please be seated. Brother Anthony, thank you for bringing her here. You may return to your labors.”
“And a good thing, too,” said Anthony, patting his paunch. “This baby could download at any minute.” Loretta stifled another laugh, but not before remembering Friar Tuck from an old 2-D Robin Hood movie Grandpa made her watch once. Anthony wasn’t making her task easier. She hadn’t expected to like any of these people.
Father MacCallum did not smile. Anthony saluted. “See you later, Loretta-Will-Be-Fine. I’ll be on Sublevel 2 if you get into trouble.”
“Thanks, Anthony.” MacCallum’s frown deepened at her familiarity, but he said nothing. Loretta assumed a seat on a couch that looked at least 400 years old, but up close proved to be newly made.
When the elevator doors closed, MacCallum shook his head. “I sincerely apologize for Brother Anthony’s behavior. He’s a brilliant engineer, but his manners are deplorable.”
“He’s new here, then?”
“Alas, no. Brother Anthony has been with us for ten years. I’ve regretted nine of them. You may go in now. The Father-Abbot is expecting you.”
Loretta rolled her eyes and stood. The old games never change. Keep the girl waiting, let her know who’s in charge. Pretending that this was not, in fact, what was happening, she stood, forced a smile, and said, “Thank you.” It was easy to hate Father MacCallum, anyway.
Father MacCallum, who had done much to convey his mutual disapproval of her, likewise smiled and pretended that she was being sincere. The forms must be obeyed, Loretta thought as she strode toward the red doors of her enemy’s abode.
Loretta put travel exhaustion and Brother Anthony’s gruff flirtations behind her. She put on her Business Face, strode forward to shake the hand of Father-Abbot James Michael Agyeman. She presented her card, ignoring his thirty-centimeter height advantage, and met his gaze as an equal. Indeed, from a corporate chain-of-command point of view, they very nearly were. And they were here to talk business.
“Executive Vice President of Business Development. Very impressive, I’m sure. I am afraid I do not follow Earth titles well. May I call you Ms. McNamara?” The timbre of Agyeman’s voice was deep, and oriental-seeming features made him difficult to read. Loretta could not decide whether or not to take offense.
She nodded. “Certainly.”
“Please sit down, Ms. McNamara. May I offer you some refreshment?”
The question won over her stomach, which jumped and growled for food. “Water, please. And something with fruit in it, if you can spare it.”
Agyeman gestured to Father MacCallum, who bowed and retreated. Loretta engaged Agyeman in small talk, guessing rightly that no business would be conducted until MacCallum closed the doors.
She noted the Abbot’s office furnishings: a curious mix of Italian Renaissance and African Revival. The carpet was a deep, rich red, edged with green, black, and gold embroidery, and the room was quite a bit warmer than anywhere else in the monastery. A shield door on the far wall concealed a window. If Loretta had her bearings right, that window faced south, toward the chapel, the glittering cross, and Hertzsprung’s outer rim wall.
A wall cabinet displayed long spears with tips and shafts broken—gestures of peace?—arrayed on either side of a gold cross aglitter with diamonds. The Abbot smiled and gestured for her to examine them.
Agyeman himself bypassed the need for a tonsure by shaving his head bald. His form was lean, and despite his towering presence looked shorter than he had on the pulpit. He might be a mature 30 or a fit 60. He was by no means the first black priest she had seen—there were old jokes about African missionaries coming over to convert the West—but the first one she’d met. His neatly pressed black clerical robes, like others’ in the monastery, had been cut to business jacket length to fit under a spacesuit.
“That cabinet is my one affectation. The assegais were a gift to the Church from the government of Zimbabwe after the overthrow of Mugabe.”
“And the cross?”
“The gold was from South Africa. The diamonds were found by the second Altair Expedition in 2021, near the Taurus-Littrow Valley.”
“It’s beautiful.”
“And priceless. But then many businesses believe that everything has a price, do they not?” Loretta frowned and said nothing. The comment had been made without malice, even a smile, but Agyeman’s tone betrayed a firmness that confirmed her suspicions: the tough part of this trip is just beginning.
The uncomfortable silence was interrupted by Father MacCallum arriving with a tumbler of water, two glasses, and two small bowls of raspberry sherbet. The priest shrugged. “Fresh raspberries are not in season yet.”
Loretta smiled. “Thank you,” she said, again forcing the sincerity into her voice. She had not yet made up her mind about Agyeman, but her arm hairs bristled whenever MacCallum was in the room. Covering the flash of emotion, she sat across from Agyeman at his side table. She downed the first glassful of water. Agyeman poured her a second glass, a sign to MacCallum that he was dismissed from further service. He bowed again, marched to the old-style hinge doors, and closed them behind him. She saw the airtight dogging wheel spin to seal the room. Now it was just the two of them.
“Shall we discuss your business, then?” Agyeman asked.
“Certainly. I won’t waste your time, Father. I am here about the Kokradi Survey. No doubt you’ve heard from the Bishop at Malapert. Dr. Kokradi has found a deposit of helium-3 in the basin of Korolev crater. Quite a lot of it, actually. Something like 20 thousand metric tons. My company would like to establish a mining base there.”
“You realize that SpaceX and Nova Luna have already contacted us, I presume?”
“Yes, sir. I also understand that the negotiations broke down on both occasions. I’m here to make a better offer.”
The Abbot’s eyebrow rose a fraction, perhaps the greatest show of genuine emotion Loretta had seen on his face. “You’re obviously assuming that money was the issue.”
The disapproval in his voice was keen, but he did not elaborate further. Loretta pressed on. “I have to tell you, Father, that this trip was strictly my own idea. My partners think I’m off my thruster. In fact, if I’m unsuccessful, I’m likely to be unemployed soon after this meeting.”
“Do you expect this to move my decision?”
“No, sir. I just want you to understand that I’m serious. If this was a normal business venture, my company would’ve spent months infiltrating your organization, gathering intel, and learning how the game is played. We don’t have the time or resources for that. And, quite frankly, we couldn’t find anyone willing to go undercover to infiltrate the Hagia Sofia.”
Agyeman’s sharp laugh barked again, this time reverberating into actual laughter. “Very well, Ms. McNamara. You have convinced me of your seriousness. No one else would have gone to so much trouble to reach this monastery. Or to look this foolish.” Loretta blushed. All in or all out, Grandfather might have said.
“Would you be willing to educate me—educate us—on how to work with the Church? If money isn’t the issue, what is? We have techniques that minimize damage or interference with your telescopes on the equator. Any work we do would comply with the Lunar Landscape Treaty…”
Agyeman held up his hand for silence. “Ms. McNamara, Before I answer you, may I take the liberty of asking a personal question?”
Loretta felt her throat tighten and swallow, dry despite the water. “I suppose.”
“You seem more than a little eager to get this piece of territory from the Church.”
“I believe I explained my reasons…”
“Yes, but I find them insufficient. There are other craters on other parts of God’s Moon, many on the Near Side. Yet you take it upon yourself to come here in person, to negotiate a deal to get this particular crater from the Church, at the risk of your own career and your own well-being, from what Brother Anthony tells me. I am forced to wonder why.”
The words hung like a magic spell in the air. Loretta said nothing. She was not prepared for anyone to question her motives for the deal.
Agyeman continued, “Would it surprise you to learn that you are the first person from one of the lunar development companies to visit this office?”
“A-a little.”
“That was why Father MacCallum and I were surprised at insistence for this meeting. We had already had sufficient communications with people via television or any other technology. We thought our ‘no’ was quite clear. And yet here you are.” The silence lengthened, and Agyeman briefly retreated, as if he had all day to gore this particular bull. “May I show you something?”
They rose and walked to the window shield. Agyeman touched a control to reveal the ridge line with its glittering cross, the line of crater hits running northwest to southeast, the flame-shaped outcropping to the south, and the rim wall far beyond.
“This is the Church’s domain. We came and built here because no one else wanted it or thought it worth ‘investing in.’ We built the monastery and the Lunar Telescope Array through the offerings of three billion parishioners when the International Space Authority wouldn’t. A hundred brothers and sisters built bricks out of lunar regolith and precious imported water, under the worst possible conditions, before your people discovered ice under Malapert Mountain. We provided something your people wanted—the telescope array—and in turn we asked for one place in God’s creation where the world of men would not infringe on the work of the Church. Now you discover that we have something you want, and you want the Church to move. Your Australian Aborigines faced a similar dilemma two hundred years ago.”
Loretta felt heat color her cheeks, but again held her tongue. She had unconsciously put her legs into a fighting stance, as if prepared for an attack. Her hand tightened, cracking her plastic phone.
“I am forced to conclude that this mission is a personal one for you. Brother Anthony informed me that you are what Americans call a ‘lapsed’ Catholic. You know our rites. You were once one of us. And yet now you come here as a stranger, demanding something of the Church as if you scarcely knew her, or knew her as an enemy. If you refuse to deal straightly with me, I will be forced to ask you to leave. Now, would you care to explain yourself?”
“We are not threatening you, Father.”
“Aren’t you? If the third time’s a charm, as the Americans say, what will you and your competitors do if the Church refuses your offer?”
“I don’t—”
“If you don’t know, your partners do, I assure you. They will lobby your International Space Agency or your local national governments and get them to force the Church to accept your mining franchise on land that is legally ours. I can tell you right now, that if you attempt such an act, you will fail. When the Church lost its tax-exempt status, we gained the rights of a private property holder. And private property is the one tradition your Western governments still treat as sacred. You will find that there are some very eminent lawyers who will be willing to plead our case in the World Court. And some powerful media figures will cover every moment of it.”
Loretta bit her lip, seeing her leverage evaporate before his anger. “The Church is thinking about the next step after this one, aren’t they?”
Agyeman nodded. “The Curia and the Patriarchy have both suffered their share of scoundrels over the centuries. But we haven’t lasted nearly 2,100 years by being complete fools. Earth can send their best and brightest. They can send an attractive young woman full of anger but no sense of guile to negotiate with us, but it will not matter. As hungry as your world is for more power, we will not back down on this. Do you understand? We—will—not—accept! ‘For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.’
There was something primal, commanding, and yes, God-like about the threat in his voice. Loretta backed away from Agyeman’s anger, even as a voice in her head noted, he’s quoting Philippians. She sensed the negotiations were failing and she had to make a move fast. “I’m—I’m sorry, Father.”
“No, you are not. It was written upon your face from the moment you collapsed in our airlock. You might feel yourself an irresistible force, but the Church is an immovable object, and we will not budge. I believe you hoped these negotiations fail. I believe you wanted the Church humbled and its possession taken from it.” Loretta lapsed back to her blank, professional expression. It didn’t help. Agyeman raised his arm and pointed his finger at the door. “Get out of here. I will not treat with a liar.”
Loretta spun the dogging wheel, tugged the door open, and marched into the foyer, not bothering to look in Father MacCallum’s direction.
Agyeman strode in his proud way toward MacCallum, his features controlled, but jaw working to restrain a mighty anger. From the elevators, she saw MacCallum’s small, tight mouth stretch victoriously into a smile as he said, “Her mission has failed, then.”
The Abbot nodded, his dark eyes seeking depths unseen by his subordinate. “The mission she came for is not her true mission. But you are right: she has failed.”
“The mission she came for is not her true mission.” What did that mean? What the hell was he talking about? Disoriented and fearful, Loretta entered the elevator and paused for a long beat before deciding where to go next. She settled on the one person who had given her a word of encouragement.
Sublevel 2, below the mall, housed a secured area for authorized personnel. The Hagia Sofia Security seal outside the elevators stated as such. Loretta stomped to the airtight glass door, pressed the call button, heard muffled chimes ring in the hallway beyond.
Brother Anthony’s head peeked out of a doorway, then he loped toward the door, spun the hatch wheel like a lunatic helmsman, and opened it cautiously.
“Ooo, there’s a happy face.”
“Don’t be cute, Anthony. I really screwed up with Father Agyeman.”
“Obviously. Father MacCallum just messaged me. Come on in. We’re wrapping up our CDR.”
Anthony bowed low as he gestured her through the door. He was trying his best to make her laugh. He succeeded partially: she unclenched her balled fists.
Inside the conference room were three bedraggled and happy-looking engineers sitting around the table, gazing at the image on the room’s HyperBoard with satisfied grins. The room showed signs of other occupants, cluttered as it was with coffee cups and pens. “Lady and gentlemen, I would like you to meet Loretta McNamara from McNamara Hee-3. Ms. McNamara, Dr. Bakayoko from M.I.T., Dr. Lo from the University of Beijing, and Dr. Chavali from the University of Bangalore.” They all looked too exhausted to do more than rise from their seats and bow.
“You want us to explain what we’ve been up to?” Asked Dr. Bakayoko.
“No, not yet,” interrupted Brother Anthony. “You’re the smart lady, Loretta. You figure it out.”
Loretta ignored the “smart lady” crack and walked around the table to the schematic on the HyperBoard. Her first impression of the image was a metallic squid or a magnified virus, with several tentacle-like legs at one end and a pod of some sort at the other. “It’s a spacecraft, right?”
“Okay, fine. What else?”
“Well, the legs look awfully spindly for landing on Earth—or even the Moon, for that matter.” A smile returned to her voice as she found that her brain still worked. “Wait a minute. This is an asteroid miner, right? That’s what that spike at the mouth is—some sort of drill.”
“You said she wouldn’t guess it,” Dr. Lo said to Anthony, throwing a wadded piece of paper at him. “You owe me five sols.”
Loretta ignored him, turning to Anthony. “Why are you showing me this?”
Anthony said, “To take your mind off things. Feeling better?”
“A little,” she said aloud. Whispering, she said, “Anthony, I really need some advice here.” Her ear bud chirped. A new message was transmitted from Cousin Mike—Grandpa’s namesake and CEO of McNamara He-3—directly to her implant: We can’t have you alienating the Church this way, Loretta. The rest of the cousins want your resignation on my desk. Today.
Anthony led Loretta back up to the mall. She had remained stubbornly silent since the message from Mike.
“Now what, sister?”
“If I go home now, I’m voided. No deal, no job, no prospects. This isn’t exactly the best day of my life.” Swallowing, Loretta said, “I need to talk to Father Agyeman again. Explain.”
“I don’t think you’ll be able to, not directly. Father MacCallum isn’t likely to open the doors for you.”
“I’m afraid you’re right. So what do I do? Trip wires in the hallway? Ambush Agyeman on the way to the ‘fresher?”
Anthony rolled his eyes at her obvious impatience. “There is only one path to salvation, but never just one path to forgiveness. The Lord writes straight with crooked lines.”
“Careful, Anthony. You’re starting to sound like a monk there.”
Anthony shrugged. “Hey, I’m not just another pretty face. But you have to make the call. There’s always one place you can find Father Agyeman, if you really want to settle this.” And with that, Anthony pressed a rosary into her hand and left Loretta to her thoughts.
Loretta wandered the clean, arched corridors for several hours, opening and closing her fists to give her hands something to do. “I can’t cave, damn it,” she muttered to no one in particular, “I can’t.” A couple of passers-by raised their eyebrows at her outburst, but said nothing and went about their business. Monasteries, like spacecraft and submarines, had few secrets.
Loretta reached a hallway that dead-ended onto a window with a bench. She flopped down upon the thin cushions and stared at the twisted cliffs beyond the window and the starless black sky above them. She remembered her first tourist excursion with Grandpa to Tranquility Park: airy bouncing in the luxury of her own, child-size spacesuit. Grandpa Mike moved more cautiously, pointing to the nearby splash craters. “It’s not like Earthly beauty, Loretta. Even Aldrin and Armstrong recognized that. The Moon has to be taken on her own terms or not at all.”
The Church had denied Grandpa his eternal rest, but now his own words offered her a chance to reconcile with it. She knew now what she had to do.
Loretta found the confessional near the chapel. The booth had its own door seal and hatch. She entered the dimly lit booth, dogged the seal, and assumed an air of penitence she didn’t quite feel. She dropped onto the kneeler near the speaking grille, which apparently cued the priest to open the speaking door on his side. “B-bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been twenty years since my last confession.”
Father Agyeman’s surprised, deep voice wafted through the grille. “Speak of your sin, daughter.”
“I have been angry at the Church for a long time.”
“That much is obvious. What caused this anger?”
“The Church refused to bury my grandfather, Michael, on consecrated ground. Did you know him, Father?”
“No, though his story and company are known well enough. He funded the first spaceline, the station at L4, many things. On what basis did the Church refuse your grandfather burial?”
“Father McCormick said he was an atheist. He never went to mass, but Mum and I did, for him. He was—busy—making possible what the Church has today. The governments were going to shut down the Moonbase, just like they did the old space station, because they thought spending money on space wasn’t worth it. Grandpa Mike even offered to pay for building the church beneath Malapert Mountain. Father McCormick said he was trying to buy his way into Heaven.”
Agyeman’s voice was almost a whisper now. “And then what happened?”
“After the funeral, Mum tried again to get Father to change his mind. I went with her. She was angry, like I was. F-Father M-M—he said that Mum needed to reread Ecclesiastes. That space travel was nothing but vanity. Mum said he was working to save us, that if life expanded beyond the Earth, we wouldn’t get wiped out like the dinosaurs. Father McCormick said that Grandpa Mike was a heretic, that he was building in space for his own glory, not for God’s. He said that only Jesus could save, and that whatever Grandpa did was futile in comparison! He told us that Grandpa’s work—that his life—meant nothing!”
Agyeman allowed Loretta to compose herself and wipe away the tears that had flowed unhindered down her face. She almost rose from the kneeler.
“Would you please stay, Ms. McNamara? I would like to talk about your grandfather.” Loretta remained in place, uncomfortable. “I want you to understand the Church’s position on this. I cannot speak to Father McCormick’s state of mind or his methods when he spoke to you and your mother. I am sorry you were hurt so, and that you were estranged from the Church. But I must be clear: if your grandfather actually stated that his mission was to save humanity, then such monstrous conceit could not go unrebuked. You must see that, yes?” When Loretta did not reply, Agyeman sighed. “Alas, you seem to have inherited his heresy. Your willingness to steal from the Church, even if it is under the guise of providing energy to the whole world, is further proof that you are continuing his sin of vanity. You must have known what you were doing.”
Loretta nodded. “Yes.”
“Your sins are great…” Loretta felt the blood-rush of anger return. It was only the truth of Agyeman’s words that kept her from punching the grille. “…but penance can be found if you truly have a contrite heart. What do you believe would be a suitable act of contrition for sins such as yours?”
Loretta cast about for ideas, anything. She shoved her hand into her jacket pocket, unconsciously curling her agitated fingers around the rosary Anthony had given her, a habit that always helped her collect her thoughts when she was in school. She was thinking as both a Christian and a businesswoman now, and the integrated whole was looking for a solution that was both satisfactory and right. The combination had not occurred to her in a long time. Then: inspiration. “I—”
“I would be willing to renounce my company’s claim to the helium-3 at Korolev.”
“I would help the Church fend off further intrusions on its property.”
“I would give 49 percent of the proceeds from my new venture to the Church for whatever purpose it sees fit.”
“What new venture is that, daughter?”
“I would start my own company, to become a partner with the Church on the new asteroid miner you are building. I know mining. Your people know spacecraft, but their mining hardware design needs work. I know how to accomplish work in low and zero gravity.”
“And how would you locate these asteroids?”
“Using the infrared telescopes you’ve been building here to watch for world-killers. The Church cares about life. So do I. I will use what gifts I have to protect life. And the Church.”
“God’s Church is not without compassion,” Agyeman said. “Would you accept this penance you have proposed, and return to the bosom of the Church?”
She felt the fist unclench from her heart as she said, “Yes, Father.”
“While the secrecy of the confessional is sacred, you will understand if the Hagia Sophia expects to see your proposal in writing, in the form of a legal contract.”
“Yes, Father.”
Loretta heard Agyeman pause and sigh. Then he caught himself, and must have leaned closer, for his voice seemed louder from his side of the screen. "And do you expect the Church to allow your grandfather to be buried on holy ground in exchange for this penance?"
Surprised, Loretta said, "Oh, no, Father! That was not my intention." She paused, then put a smile into her voice and said, "Of course if you or the Church felt so moved, Mum and I wouldn't object..."
"We shall see, daughter. We shall see.
There will be other things you must do, for the good of your soul. Prayers must be said, offerings made.”
“I have twenty years of Hail Mary’s to catch up on.”
“Just so. You may begin at once. Go in peace, your sins are forgiven. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

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