Blackness, pain, dizziness, pain, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, pain, panic, , nonexistence. Suddenly alert, blinding light, pain, still couldn’t breathes, still couldn’t move. Something wet pooling beneath me, was that blood? Panic, the blackness again. Blind in one eye. More panic. Confusion behind the panic, looking for anything to hold on to, then, the blessed return to unconsciousness. Many times over, it seemed, an eternity.
Something warm and wet was on my face, stroking it, concentrating on the eye I was now blind in. warm, smelly air was hitting me in waves, assaulting my nose, and a panting noise. I startled awake to find a dog licking my face. I tried to shoo it away, but my hands wouldn’t move. I was confused, disoriented, but I could breathe now, and I could see out of my left eye, though it was blurry with what I assumed to be dog spit. Something was moving to my right. I turned my head, and saw an elderly naked man dancing around with a peacock feather and a ball. Embarrassed, I quickly turned back to consider the dog. It looked at me with an expression I thought was unusual for a dog, but before I could really figure out what was odd about it, a wave of pain took me, and I blacked out again.
Something a little cooler than tepid spilled over my lips and down my neck, making me uncomfortably aware of the gritty sand below me as it pooled. I opened my eyes to find the elderly naked man squatted down over me, his shriveled old junk perilously close to my face. He had pushed something to my mouth - the ball-thing he’d been playing with earlier, evidently a cup - and was trying to get me to drink. I shrieked and he startled and ran away. Pain returned. Blackness followed it.
More licking. The dog was back. He looked at me with comprehension strange in a canine, then barked. I felt like I was flying, though very badly. I heard voices. I could make out vague humanoid shapes above me, black against the bright light. Was I dying? Was I dead? Was this what it was like? Not so bad. I‘d half-wanted to die anyway.
“Dan says he’s awake,“ said one of the voices. Suddenly I was jostled, and another wave of pain ripped through my midsection. “Be careful!” another voice exclaimed, “He’s got an exposed rib there!” It was a little chilly. The dog whimpered in concern, and then snuggled up next to me. There was a yelp, and a thud as it fell off of whatever I was laying on. A moving platform of some kind, I gradually realized. A gurney? The dog hopped back up, chose its position a bit more carefully, and snuggled up against me, making a point of keeping eye contact with me. “His vitals are good enough, he’s stable, morph him!” a voice said. “Done!” said another, and then blackness, and, blissfully, there was no pain this time.
I awoke in a hospital bed, and the dog was still there, still in the same position, still looking at me. When he saw my eyes open he barked. I contemplated him while he contemplated me. A chocolate lab, I decided, his head seemed ever so slightly too large for his body, but apart from that, he seemed a perfectly normal dog. There was something about his eyes, though it was hard to quite nail it down, since their eyes convey a lot of emotion. This one seemed, I don’t know, perhaps a bit too understanding? No, that’s not it. My nose itched. I went to scratch it, and the hand that met my face wasn’t my own. Startled, I shouted. A woman in a nun’s uniform was walking in just a moment before, and she darted towards the bed, pushed the offending hand out of the way, and grabbed my head.
“You are OK,” she said in a stern, commanding voice. Even so, she had that same slightly-fake sounding Southern accent all Gagariners have, “There was an accident, but you are OK now. You are in the infirmary at the Saint Salome nunnery.”
I tried to say something, but all that came out was a confused whimper. The dog commiserated with a similar sound, and I felt its paw on my chest. Trying to comfort me?
“Your hand was very badly burned, we had to give you a skin glove. Do you understand me? Do you need a sedative?”
“Yes to both,” I managed to croak.
The next day, the same nun wheeled me through some large lounges, all full of people. A few of the women wore jeans and T-shirts, but most wore big impractical dresses with hoop skirts. The little girls children mostly wore jeans and T-shirts, but some wore stupid-looking Scarlet O’Hara dresses, too. Gagarin is slightly cooler than earth, so people tend to wear more clothes, and their fashion sense seemed out of a period picture, maybe an MGM musical set in the mid-19th century.
She wheeled me through an indoor basketball court with skylights. Some kids were playing. Not much light came through, so I assumed it was evening. Presently I ended up in a rather spartan office with a wooden desk, a couple chairs, some bookcases, and TV, and a ceiling-to-floor window. The TV was muted, but it was on a news channel, the graphics making it clear they were yammering on about Anthonia’s threat to secede from the Confederacy. Presently I realized it wasn’t evening after all, I could plainly see something was covering the glass, moving around, with darker clumps moving around on a slightly lighter general background. It was a bit like what torrential rain might look like on a window if it was black, or, wait, was there a slight pinkish tinge to it? I wheeled my chair over to get a better look, being careful to avoid catching a glimpse of my/not my hand.
Ants! The window was covered with tens of thousands of ants. They looked perfectly normal, as best I could see, but they were pink.
“We call them Kirbys,” a voice behind me said, I turned. An oriental man in catholic priest garb came in. No, wait, Asian, not oriental. We’re not supposed to use that one anymore. Anyway, he sat at the desk. The dog - ‘Dan’ - scooted in before he could close the door, and sat in a corner, watching us both. The priest laughed, “He likes you. He saved your life, you know.”
I didn’t, and said as much.
“He found you, and then brought help back.”
“Way to go, Lassie,” I said.
“Dan’s a boy, not a lass” the priest said. He sounded a lot like Joseph Cotton.
“I know. Lassie was an…never mind.” I was tired of explaining old cultural references to people born generations after me.
“The doctors said my injuries weren’t the kind that would have killed me all that quick,” I said.
“Oh, no,” he said, “not the wounds, The Kirbies. If Dan hadn’t brought help when he had, the Kirby swarm would have gotten you. Vicious little monsters, they swarm by the tens of billions whenever it gets wet. They devour anything in their path, including people who can’t move out of the way. That’s why we’re sheltering all these people at the moment. There was a big flood in the north. If Dan hadn’t let us know someone was out there…”
I shuddered. I never liked bugs, “No need to continue,” I said.
“I am Father Guo, I’m in charge here,” he said, then asked, “And you are?”
I avoided the subject, “A guy in charge of a nunnery?”
“It’s kind of funny,” he laughed, “The Mother Superior here died a month back, and I’m the acting Mother until a replacement can be found. Slow going, I’m afraid.”
“So you’re Father Mother?”
“Or Mother Father, if you prefer. Any way you slice it, it’s an uncomfortably-titled position. But you’re deliberately changing the subject,” he said, “You didn’t have any identification on you when we brought you in. Who are you?”
“Bob Roberts,” I lied, “From Kanawha.”
“No you’re not,” he said, “The accent’s all wrong.” Everyone on this planet sounded alike - and equally fake - to me, but evidently not to them. I was never a very good liar.
“You’re from earth?” he guessed.
“Yes,” I said.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Eighty four years old, but only twenty-six of ‘em count,” I said. Starships travel at the speed of light, and owing to that, people really don’t age while they’re in transit. I’d left earth when I was twenty-two, spent a dozen years en rout to Tau Ceti, and was still only twenty-two when I got here. I was twenty-three when I went home again, so when I got back to earth a quarter century had passed, but I was only a year older. I’d made a few more trips since then, each one progressively more traumatic.
Guo whistled appreciatively, “You must have been one of the very first, then,” he said. I volunteered nothing, so he asked me if I’d given my real name. I lied again. He didn’t buy it.
“Well, whatever your name is, we’ll have to check with the cops. If you’ve got a record, we’ll turn you over to them. We don’t grant asylum.”
“No, no, that’s fine.” I said, “I’ve never….” I started to say ‘I’ve never done anything wrong,’ but then thought the better of it. I’ve done quite a lot wrong, actually, and a lot of people are dead because of it. “…I’m not a criminal.” I said.
“So what were you doing out in the desert anyway?”
“Ironically enough,” I said, “I was looking for a monastery, not a nunnery. You wouldn‘t happen to know where I could find one, would you?”
Here’s the details if you’re interested: New Texas was named by homesick colonists from earth, most of whom later moved on since the place is pretty terrible. It’s the least populated and least hospitable of the planet Gagarin’s thirteen states, each one an island continent unto itself. It’s lozenge-shaped, and about three million eight-hundred thousand square miles, making it a bit larger than the United States. Much like Australia back home (Though quite a bit larger), most of the population lives in a fertile strip along the east coast. “The Nightmare Mountains,” a Rockies-sized chain, more or less cuts this off from the western ninety percent of the continent, and from there west is three thousand miles of nothing but desert. The local tourist board chooses to hawk this as “The Widest Beach In The Redneck Universe.”
Right in the middle of the high desert, a thousand miles from the nearest town, lies a huge valley which was originally called something rude that I’m not going to say, but which rhymes with “Shunt.” Despite their overwhelming politeness, Gagariners have a coarse sense of humor. In more recent maps, the place is listed as “The Slit,” which is really just as bad, if somewhat less obvious.
I wasn’t in great shape, physically, but they wouldn’t let a man (Apart from the Father superior, or whatever) stay in the Nunnery unless it was an emergency, so they insisted that I head over to Saint Bakhita on the other side of the canyon. That suited me fine, as it was my original destination anyway. I was a little concerned as to how they were going to do it since the Kirbys were still going strong the next morning.
They escorted me to a third-floor window overlooking the canyon, and then opened it. Nothing came in. A cable ran through the window, and disappeared off into the distance.
“The wall around this window is electrified on the outside,” Guo said. “Kirbys touch it, and - zam - so we can use it to get in and out during the swarms.”
They bundled me into a Swiss seat, hooked the free end on to a cable that, and pushed it towards the window.
“The zipline is electrified too, so don’t touch it,” he said. Before I could say anything back, he and a nun let go of me, and I slid forward. Dan barked, ran towards me, and leapt just as I was passing the window. I grabbed him. What was I going to do? Let him fall? He was a big dog, though, and I barely caught him. He was hard to hold securely, but I kept him pressed against me while we zoomed down the cable, his eyes fixed on mine the whole time. He didn’t appear afraid. His tail was wagging, actually, he seemed to be enjoying it.
I could see massive clumps of pink all over the landscape, covering the monastery, on the cliff walls, and in various knots here and there. St. Bakhita was covered, too, but there were very large open areas between the clumps. I don’t like bugs, so I tried not to think about it. I looked down. The Slit was really deep. Though I’m a pilot, and I’ve made six interstellar trips, it made me uncomfortable to look into it. I know I’m not afraid of heights, but maybe I am of depths? Or maybe it was my plane crash in the desert? Anyway, after a couple minutes, Dan and I zhanged through a window, and slammed into a big wrestling mat nailed to the wall. I grunted much louder than I’d intended - I had at least one broken rib, still, and it hurt like heck. Dan jumped right before we hit, hit the vertical mat with all four legs, and rebounded on to the floor, all very graceful right up until the moment he took a step, and flopped over. He whimpered in a way I interpreted to mean “I’m dizzy.”
The monks released me, and I staggered around a bit. I plopped down on the floor, and wheezed. When I felt well enough to stand, one of the monks turned to Dan and said “Take him to Father.” The dog barked, headed to the door, and looked back at me. The monks stared at me expectantly, as well. Presently, one of them said, “Uhm…you’re supposed to follow the dog.”
“Oh,” I said.
The unmistakable timbre of a newscaster echoed down the hall: “…Governor of Yvgenistan has vowed that if Anthonia leaves Confederacy, his state will as well. As yet there has been no statement from Rychea, but Anthonians claim several navy submarines have taken strategic positions off their coast, and vow to fight to…”
Sure enough, a guy in orange off-the-shoulder pajamas was watching the news when I came in. He turned it off, and bounded over to me.
“Mister Wilson, this is a huge honor,” he said.
“Roberts,” I corrected.
“I’m not falling for that, I’m afraid,” he drawled, “You’re too famous. Please have a seat. Would you like some tea?” Dan settled in the corner, keeping his eyes on us.
I sighed heavily in frustration as I sat. “Yes, please,” I said. It’s true: I’m famous, or infamous, one. I was, technically, a hero a couple times over, but I didn’t feel very heroic. Villainous, actually. And sad.
He drained a drink from the samovar, and handed me a cup. It was good. Black China, made southern style with lots of sugar.
“I am Father Grigory Fredovich Mendayev.“ He regarded me, and I regarded him. Middle-aged, pushing fifty, probably born on Gagarin. Caucasian, skinny. He coughed, then sat.
“What brings you to us, Bob?”
“What brings anyone here?” I asked, then thought the better of it. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t know why I’m being evasive. This is what I wanted, after all. Just…” I paused, thought. Really, why had I come here? I mean, I knew the calculus of events that brought me here, but not exactly why I reacted the way I had. I intended to say, ‘I don’t know,’ but the words “I’m ashamed” came unbidden out of my mouth.
“Ashamed of what?” he asked.
“You name it. I’ve got a lot of scars on my soul. I was in the war…”
“Ah. You killed people?”
“No, but I worked on Gene’s big super-weapon that scared everyone into ending the conflict. That’s bad enough. My fiancé dumped me for a much older guy. I slept with his daughter out of spite, then kinda’ started to feel for her, then she dumped me, too. I got betrayed by my best friend, who also slept with my fiance, but that’s kind of incidental to the betrayal. I got involved in a needlessly complex undercover operation that resulted in the deaths of ninety-seven people, including one I’d sworn to protect. The president of the United States tried to kill me.”
“That’s it?” he asked.
“Oh, and I got eaten by a Sea Monster.”
He laughed. “Some of those events overlap - I’ve read ’Home Again.’ Earl Douglas’ memoirs were required reading in high school.” I blanched at that. “I assume the ‘Best Friend’ was probably Lester Wynans? The memoirs mention both of you, him in quite some detail. They don’t say anything about you two being friends, but it’s an easy surmise.”
I nodded ‘yes,’ and said, “See, that’s why I lied. I don’t want to be famous, I don’t want anything, and I especially don’t want people treating me like I’m some stupid superman when in fact…when in fact, I’m just ashamed of everything I’ve done.” He was silent a while, letting that sink in. Eventually I realized he wasn’t going to speak, so I continued, “I had this friend in college. His name was Eric. He played drums. Great drummer. Lousy at life, though. He was a mess, drugs, girls, more drugs, more girls, and he had a messed up childhood. He was borderline-suicidal a lot of the time. One day he disappeared. We didn’t think too much of it because he always did that, but this time he didn’t come back. Eventually we got word that he’d joined a monastery in North Carolina.”
More awkward silence, during which he coughed a couple times. I continued:
“I visited him that summer, and he was a new man. He had a simple life, simple duties, the, the, the, uhm, the regimen of monastic life kept him focused. I have no doubts that if he’d stayed in school, he’d have ended up dead on a bathroom floor somewhere with a needle in his arm. Of course I made fun of him about it, teased him about the ‘no girls’ thing and the ‘gay priest’ thing, and the overwhelming boredom of it all. It certainly wasn’t for me. The monastery saved his life, though, I had to admit that. I’d hoped to look him up this last time on earth, he should have been about sixty seven or so. Then the…unpleasantness…happened and people died, and I didn’t get the chance. He’d be pushing eighty by now. He might be dead for all I know…” I drifted off, then re-focused.
I continued: “Jesus said something in Matthew about some people not being suited for marriage and families. Paul says something in First Corinthians about it, too. My love life convinced me I’m not cut out for love, and people died on my watch. I had my hated fame when I got back here. It dogged me even after I quit the service. The monastic life started to have some appeal, so, I looked around. Yours is the only monastery on Gagarin. I took a passenger sub to Ardan, hopped a monorail to Mount Saint Anthony, which is the closest town to here, bought a second-hand paraglider, crashed, and the rest you know.”
“How did you happen to crash?”
“To be honest, I don’t know. Everything was fine, then my engine exploded, that’s all I remember.”
Changing the subject, he said “What faith are you?”
“I was raised Baptist.”
“You appear to know the Bible fairly well. Do you believe it?” he asked.
“Sometimes, when I don’t look at it too closely,” I said, with more honesty than I’d intended, “’Lord help my unbelief,’ I guess.”
“That’s as good a place as any to start. This is a Retreationist Monastery. What do you know of our movement?” He asked me.
“Retreationism started out as a coalition of monasteries from religions all over earth,” he said, “An ecumenical thing. As earth became more and more irreligious, more crowed and more full of distractions, some of us decided to go into space and found this chapter. We hope to set up others on other worlds, but so far this is the only one. There are Christian, Zen, Jain, and Hindu monks here, as well as some Essene Revivalists. I myself am a Shaolin.”
“Okayyyy,” I sad, a bit confused, “So you guys are, what, like Unitarians or something?”
“Oh, heavens, no,” he said, “The different religions keep their identities, but all are welcome to share in classes and meditation and services and prayers of the other faiths. For instance, I’ve been teaching kung fu and wushu here for years, and most of the monks join in. We have a few Benedictines who keep their ‘Rule,’ and there’s generally a happy cross-cultural infusion with respect for origin.”
“I don’t get it.”
“The idea is that we have much to learn from and teach to each other, even without sharing the same faith. We’re attempting to build on our similarities, keep the difference to ourselves, and in the process learn more about or own faith, our own paths.”
“I see,” I lied.
“Does that sound like something you want to try?” he asked.
“What choice do I have,” I asked in return, “It’s either this or needles and bathroom floors, in one form or another.”
...TO BE CONTINUED
Copyright 2011, Paula Tabor, Republibot 2.0, and Republibot 3.0