God’s Plan for the Lunar Colony
by N.M. Whitley
Before he even put on the jetsuit, Deacon Ridenhour had had a strange presentiment about his first Inquisition. Not a prophetic moment, Heaven forbid, but something like it nevertheless. The transit from the Space Station Travail to Lunar Colony A had gone smoothly though, despite his misgivings. It was just like in training--until the final approach.
He had already transitioned to the last phase of aero-braking, and was swooping in on the coordinates of the southern access hatch, marveling at the quiet, unblemished majesty of the colony’s grey dome when he heard a loud, powerful zap. Something--his primary forcefield probably--shorting out all at once, he thought. Then he fell, straight down. Hard.
Now a helmeted figure was peering down at him, surrounded in his clouded eyesight by a blurry aura. He felt hands moving from the back of his neck, where the crystal of the helmet met the outer layers of the jetsuit, down to the panel mounted roughly between the shoulder blades. Red lines of code scrolled up the interior of the helmet-screen and the oxygen cycle system kicked back into action. He was alive. “McIlvain,” he said, groaning, nearly incoherent. “I must see Monsignor McIlvain.”
Some time later, he wasn't sure how much, he was sitting in one of two bamboo chairs that flanked the interface in the Monsignor’s bunker under of the Church, his body aching as he drank from a warm bowl of spirulina and tried to clear his head enough to explain the circumstances of his arrival. Texts and images from the Preliminary Report on Technopathic Witchery looked down on them from the enormous wallscreens in McIlvain’s study: a woman with a burnt, lacerated stump for a hand, grimacing; the black, unrecognizable mess of a charred animal corpse; two waifs in the throes of possession, limbs contorted, their tongues drawn violently out of twisted mouths.
“Well,” said Monsignor McIlvain, resting a wrinkled jowl in his hand and regarding Ridenhour with a barely-disguised disdain, “it sounds as if it’s a miracle you survived at all.”
“Fortunately,” said Ridenhour, toying nervously with the tiny wings on his clerical headband, “the back-up forcefield was at full capacity; otherwise, I’d have been flattened. And that boy out there, he saved my life.”
“Who, Josiah?” McIlvain smiled, his mouth creased with lines. “Well, if you like, I can have one of the parsons look at it, see if we can’t identify the problem.”
Ridenhour’s grip tightened slightly on the jetsuit folded neatly in his lap. Something in the monsignor’s eyes unnerved him. “No, Monsignor, that won’t be necessary.”
“As you wish, Deacon.”
The rest of the meeting went as Ridenhour had imagined. McIlvain was already aware of the facts in the case. The outbursts, the young ones thrown into fits. Mortifications. Animal sacrifice.
“You know the story,” said McIlvain with a dismissive wave of the hand. “One day there’s a dispute over terrains, or one field-hand’s son makes an unwanted advance on another one’s daughter, and next thing you know everyone’s accusing everyone else of witchcraft. Happens quite frequently.”
Ridenhour shifted in his chair and touched another icon at the interface. “What about this?”
Two hydrogen generators, both transformed into piles of fiery wreckage, appeared onscreen. “We have testimony from two factory workers accusing one of their workmates’ sons of doing some type of witchery on these two P43 class-2 hydrogen generators.”
McIlvain’s wizened face became serious, and he stood up with a jolt. “I choose to believe that this is not the work of demons.”
“Is that so? Some of our researchers have theorized that the reports of technopathic witchery could be rooted in some genetic mutation manifesting itself in the colony’s population.”
“Let me repeat,” said the monsignor, leaning into Ridenhour’s face, until his breath was on the deacon’s skin. “I choose to believe that this is not the work of demons. That is my choice, and my belief.”
Ridenhour adjusted the wings on his headband again. It was true what they’d said on the Space Station Travail: Monsignor McIlvain was a strange old man. “I understand that these matters complicate your work,” he said. “I too am sceptical about the existence of technopathy.”
McIlvain sat back down slowly. “We’re agreed, then,” he said with a note of satisfaction in his voice.
“But, my duty is to preserve orthodoxy in the colony. Left to its own devices, doctrine tends to be self-corrupting. I cannot let that happen. Chapter Nine of the Fourth Book: ‘None shall alter the timeline.’ That is my duty. That is God’s plan.”
McIlvain eyed the screens and coughed. “The parsons and I aren’t equipped to judge such facts. We have a colony to run. We’re too concerned with crop yields and livestock fertility and equipment maintenance to bother with old wives’ tales. I sometimes wonder what we could accomplish if we did have one of these technopaths around...”
Ridenhour sat up. “I beg your pardon, sir?”
McIlvain gave him a senile, whimsical smile. “It’s hard work keeping the mines and factories working at optimum levels. But then when the rocket scientists over at Colony B fall a century behind on their launch schedule, somehow it’s our fault.” He chuckled to himself. “We’re technicians, not theologians. That’s your business, deacon.”
Josiah was just a boy with flat locks of blond hair and dark eyebrows that furrowed like those of a grown man, drawing shapes in the soft white moondirt with the toe of his shoe. When the deacon and the monsignor appeared in the doorway, he dragged his foot across the drawings, erasing them.
The monsignor gave the boy a stern look. “I’ll talk to you another time.”
It was night, according to the 24 hour cycle programmed by the Founders, and images of clouds moved across the dome’s inky black artificial sky as they walked along.
“Look,” said the boy, pointing at the blue orb, round and smeared with souls, hanging in the dark lunar firmament. ”Purgatory is full. That means good luck.”
Ridenhour smiled. Superstition on the boy’s part, of course, but innocent enough to be overlooked. No need to include it in his report. “Good luck indeed,” he said, patting the boy on the back.
The sound of water surrounded them, rushing through transparent tubes which criss-crossed the dirt walkways and snaked from garden to garden. Fans in the dome walls pushed a light breeze.
“So what’s it like on the space station, deacon?”
Ridenhour shrugged, adjusting the weight of the jetsuit draped over his shoulders. He had been an excellent student, first in his class. How to describe those long hours poring over the blocky, onscreen text of the scriptures, correlating Old and Middle Testament prophecy with the events described in the Newest Testament, researching exotheology, meta-ethics, applied eschatology, etc., eating protein pills and staring through windows of infinite space?
“Oh,” he said after some thought, “it’s...quite nice.”
“I’ve always wanted to go,” said the boy. “To Seminary, maybe.”
“I bet you’d be a fine candidate. Are you doing well in school?”
The boy shook his head. “Monsignor says I need to study harder. But I do all right.”
“I see,” said Ridenhour. “Perhaps I could help you while I’m here, give you a hand with your homework. Would you like that?”
“So, what have you been studying recently?”
“The heresy of Exeter,” said Josiah. “And the flood.”
“Oh my,” said Ridenhour. “The flood.” The heresiarch Exeter, who had dared to preach the doctrine of Earthly Heaven--that Purgatory was not in the sky but right here on Luna. A heresy so unconscionable that the Tribunal had no choice but to burn him and all his followers at the stake. Heady stuff for a boy his age, he thought.
“What I don’t understand,” continued the boy, “is why God had to send the flood at all. I mean, weren’t Exeter and his followers all punished? Didn’t they execute all of them?”
Ridenhour laughed despite himself. He hadn’t expected to have this sort of discussion in his visit to the colony. Especially not with a child. But the boy’s eagerness was commendable. Perhaps he really was Seminary material. “Simple,” he said. “A sign of God’s anger at the heresy of Exeter and his anger at the community at large for not punishing it diligently enough.”
“Diligently?” said the boy, wrinkling his forehead. “So, how diligently is diligently enough?”
Ridenhour stopped short and gave the boy a serious look. “Look here, the doctrine of Earthly Heaven is an abomination. Exeter preached that Purgatory was a Promised Land, and that the colony, our Promised Land, was Purgatory--that Heaven was Hell, and Hell Heaven. To suggest, as Exeter did, that the colony is a construct of Purgatory, and that our kingdom is up on Planet Earth undermines everything laid out in the Newest Testament, which clearly states in Chapter Five of the Third Book, ‘Our kingdom lies in the stars, beyond.’ Such an execrable lie cannot go unpunished.”
“Burning someone at the stake is all well and good after the fact, but in the eyes of God it was too little, too late. Hence, the flood.”
The boy dragged his feet silently through the moondirt until they reached a low building of grey brick with a long row of identical doors. He stopped somewhere in the middle. “Here,” said the boy, sliding one of the doors open.
Josiah’s father and mother were young, looking more like older siblings than parents, and their reception of the deacon was cold at best. Ridenhour chose to interpret this not as a distrust of the clergy so much as a distrust of outsiders in general: something his colleagues with lunar experience had warned him about. The boy’s mother wordlessly prepared him a room in their humble quarters. Ridenhour knew they had no choice, but he thanked them anyway.
He entered and tossed the limp jetsuit over the bamboo cot. He inspected the collar, where the helmet connected--there was a tear in the coating, which had been fused together. The panel was scuffed all over, with the read-out lights smashed, and tubes bent out of place. He opened the vacuum-storage compartment of the suit. It contained a change of robes, a combination mini-camera/communicator no bigger than a finger, a tiny blaster pistol and a hard copy of The Preliminary Report. He left the camera and the papers on the nightstand, stored the pistol safely under the cot, and collapsed, exhausted. His first Inquisition was certainly getting off to an interesting start. In his prayers he gave thanks for the angel sent to save his life.
The boy’s words came back to him as he drifted to sleep. Purgatory’s full. That means good luck.
The next morning Ridenhour dressed in the rags of a farmhand and set out to circulate around the colony, observing, capturing images with the mini-camera, taking notes. When the blue of the dome-screen began to fade to a hazy pink, he changed back into his priestly robes. His colleagues on the Travail had spoken of the Reservoir, of the inner peace one felt there looking down at the colony from on high. Few on the space station had seen the splendor of the colony from this vantage point, and he wanted to be one of them.
He followed one of the water tubes out of the residential area, past the cultivation zone and into a forest of enormous bamboo that swayed in the manufactured breeze. The tube led up a long, gently-sloping hill that ended at the reservoir: the nexus of all the tubes that connected all the housing units and all the gardens and grazing areas to each other, hidden under the flat steel contention wall of the dam. Built into the slope that girded the dome’s north side, it contained, retained, filtered and released all the water that passed through the colony and back.
An enormous, zig-zagging stairway led to the top of the contention wall. At the top a young parson stood watch over the control panel, dressed in white robes, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of binoculars around his neck. The parson greeted him with a peremptory bow, and Ridenhour leaned against the safety rail of the platform, looking out beyond the wall of bamboo, the maze of tubes and walkways, over the modular mosaic of fields and gardens and barracks, at the modest steeple of the church and the chimneys breathing out water vapour. He felt something of the inner peace his colleagues spoke of when they spoke of the Reservoir. Here, before the floodgates that long ago loosed a mighty tide and cleansed the colony of the sin of Exeter.
He crossed himself and took out a small black notebook to look at his notes: 1025, Circle of workers meditating in grazing area E2, 1205, girl screaming and blaspheming in square, 1250 unidentified animal corpse found burning in walkway between grazing areas in block H of cultivation sector, 1400 unorthodox ecstatic dance in helium refinery, and so on. All he’d seen were various sorts of petty heresy. Not a trace of the supposed witchery he’d been sent to find and prosecute.
Down below, he saw the tiny shapes of children playing in the square. The children, he thought. Of course. He had been wasting his time out amongst the fieldhands and refinery workers. Why, he could have just asked the boy.
Ridenhour pounded his fist hard against the rail once, then again more lightly. The boy. From the control panel, the parson gave him a cross look.
The parson turned from the control panel and gave him a cross look. “Is there a problem, deacon?” he asked.
Ridenhour said nothing, stomping across the platform and down the stairwell. As he walked through the bamboo the fans behind him blew a strong wind, agitating the thick green stalks wildly all around him, and he pulled out his communicator to request an audience first thing in the morning with Monsignor McIlvain. And the boy.
The monsignor sat at the interface in his bamboo chair, legs crossed, watching as Ridenhour paced in a short arc back and forth across the cold silence of the study. An eternity seemed to pass there under the pale glow of the mutilated heretics on the wallscreens.
“You’re entirely sure the tribunal authorized this meeting, are you,” said the old man. “I would have been notified, surely. Besides, we’ve work to do and--”
Ridenhour squinted at the deacon, biting his lip, his thoughts a blur. “Just let the boy come,” he said.
Soon after Josiah arrived, alone, a small helpless figure in the doorway of the darkened room. “Sir,” he said.
“Come in, boy,” said McIlvain, uncrossing his legs and leaning forward. “It’s all right.”
“Yes, come in,” said Ridenhour. “We need to talk.”
The boy’s eyes moved timidly back and forth from the monsignor to Ridenhour and back again. “Talk?”
“Yes,” said Ridenhour. “Josiah, do you remember our talk the other day? About the heresy of Exeter?”
Josiah’s eyes fixed on his. “Yes, sir.”
“You do? Good.” Ridenhour took two careful paces toward the interface. “Who was your teacher? The one who told you about Exeter.”
“Brother Barton, sir.”
McIlvain cleared his throat with a loud, wet cough. “Deacon,” he said.
“One moment, please,” said Ridenhour. “And what exactly did Brother Barton tell you?”
Josiah brought his feet together and looked down, his dark brow tense. “Well, sir, he said--”
“Now, Josiah--” said McIlvain.
“Let the boy finish,” said Ridenhour.
“Brother Barton said that the time would soon be upon us. That the time is not this one, here and now.”
“‘None shall alter the timeline,’” said McIlvain.
“Let him finish, Monsignor.”
“Time to put death to the flesh, sir, that it be restored when we return to our Lord in Earthly Heaven.”
“And did he teach you Exeter’s prayer, Josiah?”
“Yes, sir,” said the boy. “‘Send me not into the unknown blackness of hell, oh Lord, but let me tarry by your side in the garden once more, Amen.’”
A smile crept over Ridenhour’s face and he nodded slowly in the boy’s direction. “I might have known. They’re teaching the most wretched sort of blasphemy right under our noses, Monsignor. The heresy of Earthly Heaven all over again. We cannot allow it.”
“It’s okay,” said McIlvain to the boy. “Now just what do you intend to do about it, deacon?”
“Wait,” said Ridenhour firmly, striding towards the interface. “There’s another question yet to be dealt with.” His hand reached to touch the icon, and all at once, images of the burning hydrogen generators filled the wallscreens, casting a sudden orange glow over the room. He glanced at the monsignor, who sat staring at the boy with a solemn expression. “The question of witchery, Monsignor.”
Josiah looked up at the screen with a gasp. “Sir, what’s happening?” he said. “Monsignor, you told
“Silence,” said Ridenhour. “Now, Josiah, when my jetsuit crashed outside the gate, how did you repair the oxygen system?”
The boy looked at the monsignor and said nothing. There were tears in his eyes.
“Were you carrying a tool-belt or something like that on your moonsuit? Did your father teach you to fix oxygen cycles?”
The boy was crying now, his bleary eyes locked on the image of the burning generators on the screen. Ridenhour felt a deep pang of regret run through him. “The reports of witchery were true all along,” he said softly. “It was you, wasn’t it, Josiah?”
“But I was only trying to fix the generators, I swear it. It was an accident.”
“The boy did nothing wrong,” said McIlvain.
Ridenhour shut his eyes tight, and standing in Josiah’s place before him he saw the haloed moonsuit of the boy that had looked down at him outside the southern hatch. His mind reeled backwards in time to his classes in the seminary. Suppose it is true, he thought, eyes closed, suppose the boy is a witch. Suppose a witch saved my life by witchcraft. Is witchcraft then a sin? Is not the sinfulness of an action solely a function of one’s knowledge of the evil inherent in the action? And if it is, how could this boy, in his innocence, know of the evil inherent in that action? Was there an inherent evil? As he stood in the dark with his eyes closed, he felt the weight of the tiny blaster pistol hanging inside his robe. The Seminar on Meta-Ethics and all his other training on the Travail had ill prepared him for this. When, he asked himself, is a sin not a sin?
“Indeed,” he said, opening his eyes finally. “The boy did nothing wrong.”
Monsignor McIlvain got to his feet and reached a thin bony hand towards the interface. The feed from the cameras in the square outside the monsignor’s bunker appeared on the screen. A crowd had formed, dozens of colonists, men and women, shirtless, whipping themselves and each other with lashes fashioned from strips of cloth and leather. Others carried sheep, bleating and squirming in their arms. “Don’t you see, deacon?” he said.
Ridenhour moved towards the boy, his hand outstretched, taking the boy’s hand in his. “No, monsignor,” he said. “What is it you want me to see?”
“The hope,” he said. “The hope that Earthly Heaven gives them. It’s there, outside the dome, close enough to see, to feel. And do you know why? Because deep down they know that the Kingdom beyond the stars is an impossible dream.”
Ridenhour’s jaw dropped and his stomach turned. “That is blasphemy, sir,” he said.
“The fact we’re even here scratching out our miserable existence on this rock is a miracle and they know it. Why, it’s a miracle that you’re even having this conversation with me, isn’t it, Deacon? And this boy? Now here is a miracle. His very existence, his strange power and everything it represents gives them hope. Don’t you see that?”
Ridenhour narrowed his eyes at the images on the wallscreens. Outside, streams of smoke rose from burning sacrifices, writhing in the air like snakes. “All I see are the heathen celebrations of a multitude of sinners, led astray by the very men charged with their salvation.”
Ridenhour let go of the boy’s hand and reached for the blaster pistol beneath his robes.
“Deacon,” said the boy, sniffling. “What are you doing?”
Ridenhour trained the pistol on the old man. McIlvain’s wizened face stared back at him, impassive. It was all clear to him now, much simpler than anything had ever seemed in his seminar on Beliefs Systems Science. No formula, no derivation of confidence limits was needed. Given half a chance, the boy could be a star pupil in the seminary, better even than Ridenhour himself had been, a true credit to the diaconate, perhaps even an Inquisitor. Much better than the petty old parson standing before him. “Don’t worry, Josiah. Together you and I shall cleanse this colony of sin. Starting here with this old heretic. The Newest Testament states that a thousand years will pass before the final judgment. Then eternity, in a new heaven and a new earth beyond the stars. That is the timeline, it cannot be altered, not even by the Deceiver himself. Chapter Nine of the Fourth Book. The time is now.”
“No!” At that the boy lunged, wrestling Ridenhour’s arm downward, and Ridenhour stumbled, knocking the boy to the floor. Then he brought the pistol back up, his arm steady and sure. In his innocence, Ridenhour told himself, the boy knew not what he was doing.
“Be still, boy,” he said, slowly wrapping his finger around the trigger and aiming once more at the old man standing motionless at the interface. But again, Josiah dove at him, grasping his forearm, and the shot zipped harmlessly into the ceiling.
“You!” screamed Ridenhour, thrashing an arm backwards and knocking the boy back down. Wrath flared up and died away in his heart as he pointed the pistol between Josiah’s clear, open eyes.
Behind him, the old man laughed as Ridenhour readied the pistol for a final shot. “You fool,” he said.
Ridenhour shook his head. “Mercy on your souls,” he said between his teeth. “You could have been different. You could have risen far above the rest of these heathens. I believed in you. In what I thought was your good nature. I see now I was mistaken. Do you know that I could have had you burned at the stake as soon as I arrived, boy? If I’d wanted?”
“I doubt that,” said McIlvain, slumping into his bamboo chair with a sigh. “But Josiah certainly could have left you to die by the access hatch. If he had wanted.”
Ridenhour’s grip on the pistol faltered. “What do you mean?” he asked, his eyes still on the boy.
Josiah caught his breath and stood, holding up a hand, with thin, outstretched fingers. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said.
“The monsignor,” said Josiah weakly, holding his hand before the muzzle of the blaster. “He sent me to the access hatch. To short-circuit the aero-brakes on your jetsuit from a distance.”
“To stop your little Inquisition before it even began,” said McIlvain with a mirthless chuckle. “Spared you at the last minute.”
“Impossible.” Ridenhour gritted his teeth and pulled the trigger once, twice, three times. Nothing happened. The boy wrapped his hand slowly over the muzzle, and Ridenhour gazed at the boy in horror as he released his grip.
“It’s hard sometimes,” said McIlvain, “trusting in God’s plan, isn’t it, Josiah? You lacked nerve out there by the access hatch, I know. But don’t worry. If you do your duty, all will come to completion. One day soon, you’ll receive your reward.”
Tears streamed down the boy’s face as he pointed the gun at the deacon, and Ridenhour crossed himself, closed his eyes and prayed, asking what God’s plan had in store for him next.