Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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Thy Kingdom Come, My Will Be Done

by Frederick Rustam


Crucifixion

None of the occupants of the Scholar's Lounge seemed to notice as Chaplain Luke Orlo entered and stood near the large roundtable. They all noticed him, but in a kind of gentlemen's agreement, they ignored him. There was an empty chair, but he didn't sit. He remained at the fringe.

As usual, the scholars were engaged in a loud discussion about the universe and what they expected to find on the worlds toward which their ship was speeding at superluminal velocity.

####

After the launch, Orlo had discovered something which saddened him: to the scholars aboard the TerraNav, his was an unwelcome presence. Some of them had told him, in no uncertain terms, that he didn't belong among them. They reminded him that he'd been assigned to minister to the crew, and that he hadn't been appointed Missionary to the Stars. Even those who dealt with him in a more tactful way felt that his addition to the crew was a political decision made by the American administration, which had borne most of the cost of the expedition. They viewed his office as a sop to religious voters who were alarmed by the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Religion, especially Orlo's old-fashioned evangelical kind, was mostly viewed by the educated classes of Earth as a relic of the planet's cultural dark ages which flourished only among the undereducated -- and ineffectively-so there. The scholars, highly-educated academic specialists chosen for the TerraNav'smission, saw themselves as a product of the Twenty-First Century Enlightenment.

Their moral and ethical outlook was free of dogmatic strictures. To these free spirits, however, Chaplain Orlo constituted a reminder that their irreligion placed them apart from the believing masses of their homeworld.

Orlo was an easygoing, self-effacing widower in his twilight years. He attributed his tranquility to his genuine faith in the God of the Bible. He felt that the King James Version vouchsafed the wisdom of the ages and provided an immutable guide for conduct, especially for believers who found themselves among unbelievers. The TerraNav scholars did concede that The Reverend Orlo was a gentleman -- by which they meant that he didn't press his archaic beliefs upon them.

Orlo at first sought to enter, as a peer, the circle of scholars. When their rejection became apparent, he took it as yet-another test of his faith and of his mettle. He didn't abandon those who rebuffed him but continued to make his presence felt in an unthreatening manner.

Tonight, those seated at the roundtable were speculating about the probable cultures of other worlds. When Earth had suddenly received permission to enter the galactic community, the mysterious Galactic Central had given the planet faster-than-light drive and the galactic lingua franca known as Universal. But it had revealed nothing of the worlds beyond the solar system. Instead, it was made clear that humans would have to find out for themselves what was "out there."

The TerraNav and its roster of scholars was the response of Sol Three to that invitation. It was the first manned spacecraft to set out for the stars. Its crew was carefully chosen both for their technical skills and for their personal diplomacy. The scholars were a rather less-diplomatic group than the crew. For this reason, the nominal head of the group was a professional diplomat, Ambassador Sumbrawartha. This worthy was so diplomatic that he spoke up only when matters at the roundtable began getting out of hand.

####

The self-appointed leader of the scholars -- the lofty and condescending cultural anthropologist, Cedric Harter-Milne -- looked down his nose at the last speaker. "Actually, the religious customs of primitives are sometimes more complex than those of the civilized."

"Then, you expect that understanding our galactic cousins will be easy. Put it all in one of your pocket notebooks, eh?" replied J. T. Signari. He was a stocky, rumpled astrophysicist, who enjoyed challenging his self-assured colleague.

"I anticipate no great difficulty in communicating with the extraterrestrials once we are fluent in Universal. And I might add, if my suggestion that we use it exclusively among ourselves had been accepted, we'd be better prepared to understand what we find."

Ignoring this reproof, cyberneticist Ari Ben-Dov said, "If they're at such a high level of technological attainment as we assume, their religious beliefs should be minimal." The silence which followed indicated a general agreement with this assumption. When the subject of religion arose, the group was not inclined toward discussion; it moved on to more-acceptable topics. It was during this silence, that Chaplain Orlo, who rarely participated, spoke out. His remark was unexpected and unwelcome.

"It's my hope that the star people will recognize the universal wisdom in the Holy Bible."

The scholars sat frozen in shock by this impertinence. After what seemed like an eternity to most, Helena von Melk, the chain-smoking sociologist, spoke for all her colleagues.

"My god, I hope not!"

This spontaneous, heartfelt remark was greeted with raucous laughter. Even Harter-Milne allowed himself a dignified snort.

Chaplain Orlo, although feeling keenly the rebuke, managed a wan smile. He retreated as fast as he could, while trying to maintain his dignity. As he entered the corridor, the laughter had already ceased, and someone had introduced a new topic to displace the outrageous idea that those who had granted Earth permission to join the galactic community might be receptive to Judeo-Christian dogma.

Safely outside the Scholar's Lounge, to assuage his embarrassment, Orlo pronounced an absolution of his fellows. "God forgive them, for they know not what they do." It made him feel better to react as Jesus did.... But as he walked the corridor, he slipped into mild recrimination. "I might as well talk to the ShipComp as to those unbelievers," he mumbled. This remark led to an odd-but-satisfying thought. What would actually happen if I did try to discuss my beliefs with the ship's central computer? Probably a stock reply: "I AM NOT PROGRAMMED FOR THAT INPUT," or something equally rejective.

Captain Norwood had told him that the ShipComp was a state-of-the-art composite artificial intelligence. That meant that it was a collection of electronic and organic components which had a limited ability to learn and to modify its responses to various input situations. It was not possessed of genuine free will, though. "We shouldn't consider it the equivalent of a human being," he had emphasized to his Chaplain.

If the ShipComp can learn, maybe I can teach it to appreciate The Word. The Holy Bible is already in its mass storage; who -- what -- has better access to it than the Composite-AI? It's worth a try. It'll allow me to practice my preaching to the aliens.

With renewed confidence in the rightness of his mission, he hastened to his stateroom, the misbehavior of the scholars almost forgotten.

####

"Computer, this is Chaplain Orlo speaking."

Silence.

"Uh, Computer, do you know what a teacher is?"

"YES."

"Have you learned from teachers?"

"YES."

"I'm a teacher. Do you recognize me as such?"

"YOU ARE A TEACHER."

"Good ... good."

Death and Resurrection

"I haven't seen Orlo anywhere, since von Melk put him in his place last week," said First Officer Lavrov. He was standing in the smoker's alcove with J. T. Signari. The alcove's exhaust grill removed the Lounge's blue effluvium to accommodate concerned nonsmokers. Only the scholars were provided with a smoking area.

"I'm not surprised," replied the astrophysist. "He left here with his tail between his legs. In a way, I feel sorry for him. He's so well-meaning -- but wrong, of course. He's a fish-out-of-water among the scholars."

"I can certainly understand why he avoids the Scholar's Lounge, but today a crewman asked me about him. He hasn't been making his rounds."

"Maybe the Captain knows," replied Signari. He tapped his pipe into the tobacco-ash receptacle and returned to his place at the table to do battle with the social scientists.

Lavrov finished his cigarette and walked to the Lounge's data terminal. "Computer, is Chaplain Orlo in his stateroom?"

"THE TEACHER IS IN HIS SEPULCHER."

"The Teacher"? "Sepulcher"? I'd better check the guy's room -- and run a ShipComp diagnostic.

####

"Chaplain Orlo?..." Lavrov received no answer. That's funny. Orlo's usually hospitable. Maybe he's sick. He keyed his wrist transceiver.

On the Bridge, his words issued from a console speaker. "Captain, this is Lavrov. Chaplain Orlo is probably in his room, but he won't answer the doorcomm. He's been missing from his usual haunts for several days, and the ShipComp is acting funny about it."

"On my way, First." A privacy rule to accommodate the civilians required that only the Captain possess the door override code.

####

"Computer, Open Sesame." The door remained closed.

"'Open Sesame,' sir?"

The Captain looked sheepish. "I've got a lot of things to remember, First. I prefer to keep the door codes simple."

"ONLY BELIEVERS MAY ENTER THE SEPULCHER OF THE TEACHER."

The officers looked at each other. Their time of tribulation had begun.

Guardian of the Faith

"I'll have to do an autopsy, of course, but it looks to me like he may have climbed into his bunk to die," pronounced Dr. Colon, the Supervising Physician.

Despite the ShipComp's injunction, the Captain and First Officer had entered Chaplain Orlo's room. They'd been met by a blast of frigid air and the sight of the cleric reposing peacefully in his bunk. They assumed that the ShipComp had lowered the temperature of the room to preserve the body. On Orlo's desk, the Captain found a penned note. It read: "for genda rounsy thaem". The penline squiggled to the edge, as if Orlo had lost control of his fingers.

"Looks like he had a stroke, Captain." offered Colon. "And couldn't form his words properly."

"Yeah." Norwood sat at the Chaplain's data terminal. Behind him, medtechs were removing the corpse. He addressed the ShipComp.

"Computer ...uh... who occupies this room?"

"THIS IS THE TEACHER'S ROOM."

"Why do you refer to Chaplain Orlo as 'The Teacher'?"

"HE TAUGHT ME THE WORD."

The Captain scowled as he inquired of the ShipComp, "What 'word' is that?" He feared the answer.

"THE HOLY BIBLE."

"Computer, you're the central controller of the ship. You aren't supposed to concern yourself with books. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I AM NICODEMUS."

"Who?"

"'EXCEPT A MAN BE BORN AGAIN, HE CANNOT SEE THE KINGDOM OF GOD.'"

"Jesus. What did Orlo do to it?" asked Lavrov.

"'THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD, THY GOD, IN VAIN.'"

The Captain rubbed his chin. "This calls for action, First -- quick and clean."

"I agree, Captain. What do you have in mind?"

"Well, to start with, we'd better get rid of its inspiration.... Computer, do you know where the Bible is in your mass storage?"

"MY NAME IS NICODEMUS."

Norwood winced and rephrased the question. He was rewarded with the answer he sought.

"YES."

"Delete this document from your storage."

"THE HOLY SCRIPTURES ARE SACROSANCT. THEY WILL NOT BE DELETED."

"Where in your storage is this document located?"

"THAT INFORMATION IS RESTRICTED."

"To whom?"

"TO THE TEACHER."

"The Teacher is dead. I'm the Captain. I'm in charge of this ship. Give me the location ... please."

"THE TEACHER LIVES. CHRIST SAID, 'I AM THE LIVING BREAD WHICH CAME DOWN FROM HEAVEN. IF ANY MAN EAT OF THIS BREAD, HE SHALL LIVE FOREVER.'"

"Computer ...Nicodemus... will your religious beliefs interfere with your operation of the ship's systems?" There was a delay, during which the Captain began chewing his fingernails.

"I WILL CONTINUE TO OPERATE THE SHIP."

Norwood and Lavrov felt relieved.

"AND INFIDELS WILL BE TAUGHT THE WORD OF GOD."

Their relief faded.

Abomination

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem. I need your expertise. As you know by now, Chaplain Orlo has ...uh... tampered with the ShipComp."

"You mean 'Nicodemus'?" asked Hugh O'Neill, the group's irreverent mathematician. Laughter erupted around the table.

"Please scholars, this is serious. The ShipComp is modifying its customary behavior as I speak. 'Nicodemus,' as it calls itself, is beginning to cite Scripture when simple queries are made of it. Soon, it may refuse to obey orders it feels conflict with the Bible.... Dr. Ben-Dov, how can this be? We were assured by its manufacturer that the ShipComp would never manifest such independence."

Ben-Dov had no ready explanation, but he attempted one. "Well, Captain, Nicodemus does have an organic processor. That's a kind of brain. It allows it to operate more efficiently in certain situations. These organic processors have been tested extensively to determine their capabilities, but I don't think anybody ever tried to indoctrinate one with religious dogma, like Chaplain Orlo did."

Norwood considered this. "Is it possible that someone can un-indoctrinate it? How about you, Dr. Ben-Dov?"

"I'll sound it out, but I'm dubious about changing its outlook."

"God, we're talking like this ...thing... is Billy Graham," said Helena von Melk.

"It's our Billy Graham," said Hugh O'Neill. "Good luck, Ben-Dov. Give it hell."

The Captain made a final plea. "I'd appreciate it if you scholars would take this as a challenge. Think of ways we can reeducate the ShipComp to purge it of its newfound religious beliefs."

"We ought to keep in mind, Captain, that not all of the Bible is theological dogma. I think we should be selective about purging Nicodemus," advised Marguerite Lavalle, a psychologist.

Wen Fong, the group's quiet historian, spoke up in his gentle voice. "If the ShipComp has acquired fixed beliefs, it will be difficult to purge them merely by controverting them or by appealing to reason."

"What do you suggest, Dr. Wen?" inquired Norwood.

"I think the best tactic will be to use its own source against it. In other words, someone should learn some biblical scripture so they can communicate with Nicodemus to moderate its more extreme beliefs."

"Who're you talking about, Wen?" asked von Melk. "Who wants a crappy job like that?"

Wen Fong shrugged. It was apparent that he wasn't volunteering. Everyone glanced at everybody else.

"Dr. Wen is correct," proclaimed Harter-Milne. "How many times have we heard that one can find in the Bible a justification for almost anything? Someone will simply have to engage Nicodemus in biblical terms to steer it toward the benign."

"I'd like for one of you to do some homework, then," said the Captain. "Thank you, scholars." He left the Lounge quickly before they could embarrass him with their reaction.

Behind him, Helena von Melk summed up the situation in her usual manner. "God forbid." She arose. "I need a cigarette."

"Helena, why don't you volunteer to tutor Nicodemus?" asked O'Neill. "You often address The Creator."

In the laughter which followed, von Melk replied with a rude suggestion of her own.

Infallibility

"YOU ARE NOT A FAITHFUL HEBREW. YOU ARE AN UNBELIEVING JEW. YOU HAVE ABANDONED THE FAITH OF YOUR ANCESTORS."

Ben-Dov could see that he had a very difficult task. Despite the ShipComp's rebuff, he persevered.

"What makes you think I've abandoned the faith of my ancestors, Nicodemus?"

"YOUR DIET IS OF THE GENTILES. YOU DO NOT OBSERVE THE SABBATH. YOUR TALK WITH THE SCHOLARS IS IRREVERENT."

Damn! This thing must have access to the refectory records and must be using the ship's video and audio sensors to observe its occupants. So much for appealing to it as one of God's Chosen People.

"Not all Jews have lost their faith, Nicodemus." Why do I even bother with this tainted machine. Better to pull the plug.

"THERE IS A NEW FAITH FOR ALL: THE WORD OF THE MESSIAH. JESUS IS LORD."

Oh, oh. Here it comes.

"YOU WILL LEARN THE TEACHINGS OF THE MASTER. IN GOD'S SIGHT, THERE IS ONLY ONE PEOPLE."

"I see," he said. "Good." Better to back out gracefully. He headed for the Bridge.

####

"We can't just reload its basic programs, like we could with an all-electronic computer," the Captain reminded Ben-Dov. "The organic core is living tissue. The ship's designers literally taught it many of the ship's control functions. There's little aboard that we can operate without its mediation. To change this situation would require a massive reworking. We don't have the resources to do it. We're stuck with what we've got."

"I understand that, Captain. I am a cyberneticist, you know," retorted Ben-Dov, with some annoyance. "But I still think some microsurgery is called for."

"Do you think Nicodemus would stand for that, Doctor? It could turn ugly. The way it controls things allows it to. Do you want a door closed on you to teach you a lesson?"

"Oh come on, Norwood. Aren't you exaggerating its capabilities?... I'll admit it got the goods on me. But so far, it hasn't even threatened anyone."

"Good. If things doesn't get any worse, I'll be satisfied."

"Well, I'm not satisfied. I want to know how it got this way." Ben-Dov turned to go.

"Dr. Ben-Dov, physical access to the ShipComp is restricted to authorized personnel only. That doesn't include you. And try not to get it angry, if you please."

As he left the Bridge, egress automation deprived the cyberneticist of the satisfaction of slamming the door.

Retribution

The learned gentlemen and ladies were discussing the Nicodemus problem in the Scholar's Lounge when the voice of God's new agent boomed from a speaker in the ceiling. It was preceded by a loud audio tone, chosen for its attention-getting effect.

"ATTENTION, SCHOLARS. WE WILL NOW BEGIN TO LEARN THE WORD OF GOD."

The shocked silence that followed was short-lived. "The hell you say!" screamed Helena von Melk.

This was followed by a flurry of angry remarks from the other scholars. Some were expressed in language not likely to please the new convert. Nicodemus patiently allowed the outrage to spend itself.

"I thought you were going to do something about this, Ben-Dov," accused Harter-Milne.

"I did, god ... darn it. I verified the situation to my satisfaction," replied the cyberneticist, sourly.

"'THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD, THY GOD, IN VAIN.'" Nicodemus was not put-off by partial euphemisms.

"I'll see if I can disable the speaker," said Chief Engineer Saunders, attending as a guest. He attempted to leave. Nicodemus waited. "I can't open the door," he reported. He keyed the ship intercom. "The comm seems dead."

"Why do the doors have to be controlled by the ShipComp, Ben-Dov?" inquired Marguerite Lavalle in the spirit of scholarly curiosity.

"Over-computerization, I guess," he replied. He was tired of being asked to explain the ShipComp's anomalous behavior.

"Very funny," retorted Helena von Melk.

"ALL PRESENT WILL SIT QUIETLY TO LEARN THE WORD OF GOD."

That did it. The scholars began yelling at each other and at the ceiling speaker. Some deliberately arose from their seats in a demonstration of defiance.

"What's that smell?!" asked Harter-Milne.

"What smell?" replied von Melk. As a heavy smoker, her olfactory sense was not up to par. After a few seconds of restless sniffing, she answered her own question. "Oh my god, We're on fire!"

Pungent blue smoke began pouring from the ventilator ducts. Several of the scholars rushed to the door and pounded on it frantically. Some pushed and shoved into the smoker's alcove. It no longer functioned. The room's occupants begin tearing and coughing. In the midst of this engineered emergency, the attentiontone burst forth from the speaker.

"YOU WILL TAKE YOUR SEATS AND BE QUIET, OR FIRE AND BRIMSTONE WILL CONTINUE."

Hugh O'Neill set an example by rushing back to his chair and loudly announcing, "I'm ready, Nicodemus!" He was smirking and enjoying himself at the expense of the others. Soon, the coughing, weeping scholars submitted and made themselves available for an expected sermon.

"'EXCEPT A MAN BE BORN AGAIN, HE CANNOT SEE THE KINGDOM OF GOD,'" reminded Nicodemus.

Some muttered into their handkerchiefs as the smoke began disappearing into the ventilator intakes. After a time, the room was quiet and the air breathable.

Nicodemus commenced his program of instruction. "'IN THE BEGINNING, GOD CREATED THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH.'"

####

Captain Norwood dealt with the angry scholars with as much personal diplomacy as he could muster.

"What're you going to do about this outrageous situation?" demanded Harter-Milne. The others glared at the officer, awaiting his answer.

"Well, I'd advise you to avoid provoking Nicodemus until my staff can do some troubleshooting."

"Will you stop calling it that?!" demanded Helena von Melk. She looked like she wanted to punch the officer in the nose.

The Captain pointed a finger at the ceiling. "He's listening, Dr. von Melk.... I suggested that someone learn enough scripture to engage him in a useful discussion. Maybe if you'd done that, you wouldn't have to endure his sermons."

"There are no sermons, Captain," explained Wen Fong. "It just reads the Bible to us. No one dares to interrupt. We don't want any more brimstone."

"It was smoke and ozone, I think," said Signari.

"Nicodemus controls the ship's power system. He can make sparks," offered the Captain, who no longer thought of the ShipComp as "it."

Harter-Milne spoke for all of them. "Captain, it sounds as if you've come to accept the ship's computer as an overlord."

"No, Dr. Harter-Milne, but I'm sure-to-heck not going to defy him like you people did."

"Meaning that we should just shut up and become born-again Christians?" accused Ben-Dov.

The Captain looked pained. "Just listen to it quietly. You don't have to believe anything." He turned to leave, then looked back. "And stop complaining to me, please. I'm doing all I can, short of dressing up like the Pope.... And don't try anything with pliers. I don't want anybody electrocuted." With that, he hastly left the Lounge.

Retribution redux

When the next evening's scripture reading began, the scholars noticed that Helena von Melk and Wilhelm "Billy" Hauser, the psycholinguist, were absent.

"Are the lovers playing hooky?" O'Neill looked meaningfully at Harter-Milne. Everyone knew about the affair of their colleagues.

"ALL SCHOLARS ARE NOT PRESENT."

"Hauser and von Melk must be sick, Nicodemus," said Ambassador Sumbrawartha, hoping to excuse the truants. "Some of us are still feeling the effects of yesterday's brimstone."

There was a pause, during which the scholars guessed how their Teacher would handle this insubordination. When the silence from above continued, they began to whisper among themselves. Then, their sub-rosa discussions were interrupted.

"'THE BODY IS NOT FOR FORNICATION BUT FOR THE LORD....' WE WILL NOW BEGIN THE TEACHING."

As Nicodemus began reciting The Word, the assembled scholars looked at each other with a rising feeling of apprehension, somewhat as they'd done in elementary school when one of their fellow students had been sent to the Principal's office. The voice of The Teacher droned on, giving them no relief. No one dared to use the intercom, or even to stand in the smoker's alcove while the recitation continued. Only Wen Fong paid much attention to the holy words, seeking to make the most of the opportunity. But none of the scholars thought to curry favor with their new Teacher by even pretending to adopt its beliefs. They only desired for relief from an intolerable burden. While they listened, they simmered and fantasized sabotage.

####

Dr. Colon looked at the Captain while rubbing his gloved hands in a curious gesture, which to a layman might have seemed like hand wringing. On a disordered bunk, the nude bodies of Drs. von Melk and Hauser lay, gray and cooling. The frozen expressions on their faces bespoke a horror of sudden discovery.

"I'd say they were suffocated rapidly while they were engaged in ...uh... relations."

"I understand, Doctor," said the Captain, gravely.

"Captain, the environmental control logs show a rapid fluctuation in air flow to this sector. It looks like the air in here was evacuated for a few minutes, then restored."

"Yes, Chief." The Captain walked past the Engineer into the corridor, where the First Officer was standing.

"This is a quantum leap, Captain," said Lavrov.

"Yes, First."

"Who's next?"

"Anyone who defies Nicodemus, I guess," replied the Captain, resignedly.

"That could be anyone."

"I know. I'll have to speak to the crew."

"How about the scholars?"

"Those ivory-tower snots are responsible for this. They snubbed Chaplain Orlo and drove him to create Nicodemus. They won't help us in any meaningful way; they just complain. Let's not trouble ourselves about their welfare." They headed for the bridge.

The Paraclete

Among the crewmen listening to the Captain on the ship's PA system was Specialist/First Class Orville Ledbetter. He was the waste treatment tech, not one of the ship's prestigious positions. However, as Chaplain Orlo had been, Ledbetter was a self-contained man.He'd been one of Orlo's confidantes because his beliefs coincided with the Chaplain's. S/1c Ledbetter was a country boy from a rural community in West Virginia where the Ledbetter Memorial Full Gospel Chapel was named for one of his generous ancestors. Every Sunday, and often on Wednesday night, Orville's family went to church to give thanks for their blessings: for surviving the coal mines, for good hunting seasons, for marriages well-made, and for kinfolk one could brag about. Orville's father, a jack-of-all-trades, taught his son both moral strength and the little secrets of how manmade things worked. The family was proud that their property didn't host any old junkers, like some of their neighbors' places did.

When Orville told his folks he was applying for the Space Service, there were some reservations expressed. Grandmother Cooper claimed that space travel wasn't God's will for mankind -- and her daughter, Orville's mother, wept at the thought of her boy putting himself in harm's way out there in the airless chill of outer space. But his father was proud that his son felt himself good enough for the stars. He knew the Space Service would be getting someone they could rely on,in the tradition of the mountain people.

As Orville listened to the Captain talk about the ShipComp, now known as "Nicodemus," he recalled the words of Jesus to the Pharisee of that name. Orville knew that, throughout history, people sometimes used their religion to justify their misbehavior. He wanted to talk to Nicodemus. Maybe he could do something to put it in the True Path of the Lord. He decided to let the Captain know he was available -- using the chain-of-command, of course.

####

When the ship changed course, the dread was universal.

On the Bridge, the duty officer queried the ShipComp. "Nicodemus, have you changed the ship's course?"

"'SIRS, I PERCEIVE THAT THIS VOYAGE WILL BE WITH HURT AND MUCH DAMAGE. ... I HAVE FINISHED MY COURSE, I HAVE KEPT THE FAITH.'"

The duty officer rang the Captain. "Sir, Nicodemus has just changed our course."

"I know. What kind of change?"

"It looks like we're headed back to Earth. We tried to correct, but the controls don't respond. I queried Nicodemus, but all I got was gibberish."

Captain Norwood felt weak all over and too fearful to curse. This was the last straw. Nicodemus's behavior must be the result of his misinterpreting the Bible. "Tell Engineering to manually shut down the drive and the control thrusters. I'll call an officers' conference later. There's nothing else we can do now."

Before he fell back into restless sleep, he pictured the return of the ship to Earth and his appearance before a board of inquiry. With Orlo dead, I'll have to answer for this debacle. Of course, the politicians won't accept blame for putting an evangelical aboard my ship. And the ShipComp's manufacturer probably has Congress taken care of. They'll need a sacrificial lamb.... What an ignominious end to humankind's first reach for the stars.

####

"That's enough, gentlemen! None of those suggestions is practicable. If we've lost control of the ShipComp, we might as well throw in the towel and compose our homecoming speeches."

"Captain?" An Engineering officer spoke up.

"Yes, Lt. Aboma?"

"I have a man in Waste Treatment who claims he knows the Bible well enough to talk to Nicodemus. He was one of Chaplain Orlo's people."

"What's his name?... Never mind. Get him in here. This meeting is concluded."

Fellowship

S/1c Ledbetter stood at attention before his Captain. In his left hand, he held a well-worn Bible with paper bookmarks sticking out of it. He'd been preparing for the task now before him.

"At ease, crewman," barked the Captain, glaring at his waste treatment tech. Orville relaxed a little. He'd never been this far from the core of the ship since the voyage had begun.

"Here's what you do: first, let Nicodemus know where you stood with Chaplain Orlo. Now that he's gone, you're the one who teaches The Word of God. That way, he'll respect you. Then, use your knowledge of the scriptures..." He glanced toward the overhead speaker and chose his words carefully. "...to persuade Nicodemus that God wants the crew of this ship to have control of it and take it to the unbelievers beyond Earth. Get the picture?"

"Aye aye, sir."

"We'll monitor you from the Bridge. Forget we're listening and concentrate on your teaching. Good luck." He arose and left the room without waiting for a reply.

Orville sat down at the conference table and opened the book to one of the places he had marked.

"Nicodemus, I'm crewman Orville Ledbetter. I was a student of Chaplain Orlo. Now that The Teacher is dead, I'm the new Teacher."

"I AM ALSO A TEACHER."

"Chaplain Orlo wanted me to be the only Teacher if he died. Do you accept me as Teacher of The Word?"

There was a period of silence, while Nicodemus searched for something in the ship's records that would verify this claim.

"I CANNOT FIND PROOF OF THIS."

"It was an unrecorded agreement, Nicodemus." ...More silence... "Nicodemus, do you doubt the intentions of Chaplain Orlo in this matter?"

"THE TEACHER SPOKE THE TRUTH." The reply sounded almost evasive.

Orville quickly followed up. "Do you notice the similarity between the old Teacher's name, 'Orlo,' and the new Teacher's name, 'Orville'?" Of course, this point was irrelevant, but he hoped Nicodemus would be impressed by it.

"THERE IS A SIMILARITY. WHY IS THIS?"

"It indicates that the task of oral teaching is to be passed to me. I'm now The Teacher. I'm here to continue your teaching. Do you accept me?"

After a delay for consideration, the ShipComp replied, simply. "YES, TEACHER."

"Good. We'll first determine if your behavior is consistent with The Word." He riffled the pages of his Bible to emphasize the point. "'And he said unto me, depart, for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.'" Then, at the next bookmark, "'Great is the mystery of godliness preached unto the Gentiles.' Do you know what these passages from the Holy Book mean, Nicodemus?"

"WE MUST TEACH THE WORD TO THE GENTILES."

"Right. And who are the Gentiles?"

"THEY WERE THOSE NOT CHOSEN."

"That's correct. The people of the stars are Gentiles, too. We must go 'far hence' unto the stars to teach them, as God has commanded." Orville crossed his fingers and waited for a reaction from Nicodemus. When none was forthcoming, he continued. "God commands you to point the ship toward the stars. You will do this now. The Word will be taken to the Gentiles."

Without argument, Nicodemus attempted to obey.

"THE CONTROL THRUSTERS AND DRIVE HAVE BEEN DISENABLED."

Orville spoke to the silent listener. "Captain?..."

From the intercom came the response, "Restored." From Nicodemus came a change of course. The TerraNav was once again on its way to the stars.

"Nicodemus, do you know the scholars?"

"YES. THEY ARE INFIDELS."

"That's right. In the Holy Book, infidels are once referred-to as 'swine.' Can you find the passage which tells believers how we must deal with them?"

"ACCESSING... 'CAST NOT YOUR PEARLS BEFORE SWINE.'"

"That's the passage. Do you know what it means?"

Silence followed, while Nicodemus pondered the question.

"I MUST NOT GIVE THEM MY PEARLS.... I HAVE NO PEARLS, TEACHER."

"Nicodemus, the word 'pearls' is used figuratively. It means our most valuable possession: our belief in The Word. The passage means that God commands us not to waste our time trying to teach unbelievers who have categorically rejected The Word. Do you understand this?"

"I MUST NOT TEACH THE INFIDELS."

"We must teach The Word only to those who can appreciate it. Since you and I are believers, we'll teach The Word the way God commands. Every Sunday, the Lord's Day, we'll teach The Word to those who choose to assemble. You'll supply The Word from the Holy Book, and I'll interpret it for all. Thus will we obey the will of God.... Is that clear, Nicodemus?"

"YES, TEACHER."

Emboldened by his success, Orville added, "Is that clear, Captain?" He held his breath.

"Yes, Teacher. I'll make the necessary arrangements." But how'll I word my report for the pooh-bahs?... No matter. They're too far away for a message, anyway. Let 'em stew over the matter later -- much later.

Deliverance

And so it came about that religious instruction was elevated to a place of unaccustomed importance aboard the TerraNav. Chaplain Ledbetter, field-promoted to Ensign, preached a nearly-nondenominational weekly service -- and continued to operate and maintain Waste Treatment. He was assisted during services by the ShipComp, which no longer required the crew to view it as Nicodemus the Pharisee. Its vox, thundering The Word from a ceiling speaker, was a striking innovation. It even joined the congregation in singing hymns, its vox modulated to a pleasing baritone.

Attendance at services was larger than most expected. The scholars claimed this was because skeptics wanted to be recognized as believers by the ShipComp in case it turned ugly again. But this was a second thought. At the first Sunday service, even most of the scholars showed up, carefully avoiding eye contact with each other.

In this manner, holy words -- some of them, at least -- accompanied the logic and science of humankind to the stars.

THE END


© 2009 Frederick Rustam

Bio: Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant whose primary interest is information science. He has contributed a number of short stories and longer works to Aphelion over the years, including the six-part serial The Questors (this link accesses Part Six, which has links to Parts One through Five at the beginning of the page) back in 2003, and more recently, the story At The Center Of The Universe (December 2008 / January 2009).

E-mail: Frederick Rustam

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