Godblocker

 

"There's a dance in town tonight, Stephen; want to come?"

"I'm not sure."

Amanda shrugged, so he knew something more was expected.

"Barn needs sorting," he said.

"Is that some kind of code for you think I should take a bath before we hit the community hall?"

"No, I mean I really should go sort out the barn. The hay's everywhere and the plough needs oiling."

She widened her eyes. "Your plough needs oiling. Come on: cider, dancing, good-natured fist fights, home by three, up at five if you really must to milk the cows."

"I don't have any dance clothes...what's so funny?"

"Only that those Grassmere ladies will be struck down by fatal swoon fever." She put a hand on her heart, waved the other in front of her face, battered her eyelashes. "He's so tall, Amanda, with eyes like pale sapphires, and hair the colour of an interestingly windswept haystack--all that, and a mysterious touch of dark, too. 

He smiled a little. "Well, okay, then."


Stephen knew she kept the aircar low for his sake. Heights made his nerves scream, reminded him for some reason that for good or bad he was free of what he once had been. Even his real name.

Beneath them, the wheat fields of Amanda's farm rippled in shades of gold from the evening sun. The town lay some thirty-five miles to the west. About twenty minutes' worth of conversation. 

He'd hated to talk for the first few weeks after she'd taken him in; scared that any words he spoke might make his emptiness concrete. 

"Have the authorities found anything on me yet?" he said now.

"And you look really nice by the way, Amanda," she said.

"Didn't I already say that?"

"When I came down the stairs in my party dress you barely moved your eyes off the news screen."

"I was looking for something. I think."

He took in her long black dress, low-cut at the front, black leather boots; her red-gold hair piled around the top of her head, exposing her white, curving neck. 

"You look beautiful, Amanda."

"Well, you said that so sincerely, you've made me blush. And I haven't forgotten your question."

He turned back to watch the darkening fields, knowing she'd answer when ready.

After a few minutes, she said, "I've asked around town about you; checked our data libraries. But the fact is, we don't really have authorities in this part of Grassmere. I mean, we've got people who organize sewage and power and crap like that, and tin pot tyrants who collect the taxes to pay for the crap, but basically, we don't keep records on each other. The history data we brought from the mother planet shows just how bad that habit can turn out. I guess they don't keep them wherever you came from, either, since you had no ID on you when I found you."

"But if we don't have authorities in whatever community I come from either, what made me think that would be the way to find out who I really am?"

"I don't know, Stephen. I'm sorry."

They flew over the outskirts of the town, the multi-coloured solar domes of the houses glinting in the sunset. He admired the crops filling every garden, and the neat parks with their semi-virtual adventure areas for the children, and the lines of small shops which he knew from previous visits were full of interesting, useful and fascinating crap, as Amanda called it.

But as they approached the huge glass spirals of the community centre, he noticed for the first time an absence.

"You don't have any churches," he said.


After the dance, back at the farmhouse, she poured them more wine, still swaying to the music they'd moved to earlier.

"You dance very...thoughtfully," she said, handing him a glass.

"You said that very...carefully."

"Oh, okay, you dance like a man with a fence post stuck down the back of his pants."

"I guess where I come from we don't do much dancing. I did enjoy it though. Really."

She sat next to him on the long sofa, and they watched the night and stars through the big, sloping window that filled the front of the house. 

"Why did your husband only have one wife?" he said.

"Wow, that's a strange question, Stephen; and a little insensitive."

"I'm sorry; I don't know what made me say that. Maybe they--we--practice polygamy in my community."

"I miss him terribly," she said. 

"What do you miss most?"

"Talking. Going to town together. Holding each other in the morning for those last few minutes before it was time to get up and crank the farm back into gear."

The vague shape of a comfort from his old life made him say, "We could have sex, if you like."

He just caught sight of tears forming as she stood. "Good night, Stephen," she said as she climbed the stairs.

"Amanda?"

Staring into the night, he sifted his recent memories for significance, joining up the various hesitations and omissions in Amanda's answers to his many questions. He concluded that whatever she said about the people here not keeping records on each other, she had not really made much effort to help him.

Her house brain contained very little information on Grassmere citizens. Plenty on weather and crops and growing seasons, but nothing on any of the hundreds of communities spread around the world. 

She'd found him wandering on her land, she'd said, memory gone and with no sign of how he'd got there. But what if she'd volunteered to look after him? What if her 'authorities' actually knew all about him and had rendered her house brain impotent so it couldn't help him find out who he really was?

He drank more wine, drilled further into his recollections of their brief time together. And then he saw it.

She knew.

He put down the glass and stood. There had to be a record of the day she'd found him. Where would she keep it?

Again he scanned his memory, checking dozens of mental images of her, riding, cooking, talking . . . One day, she'd been sitting at the kitchen table when he'd come into the room. He hadn't been wearing shoes so she hadn't heard him. Her hand had held the edge of the table--had her fingers unconsciously pressed something under it, making sure it was still there?

He went to the kitchen, reached under the table. His fingers brushed a small bump. 

He picked it off the wood: a tiny black data storer. He took it into the study, pressed it into the house brain. 

An image filled the room: hills, scrubby plants, blue sky.

"Coordinates," he said.

A black cross appeared on what looked like a shallow grave--rocks and dead branches barely concealing a mound of earth. Across the image, latitude and longitude figures in white.

"Print; twenty by twenty centimetres."

A sheet of paper dropped into the print box in the wall. He took it and left the house, heading for the aircar.

Trusting the wine would ensure Amanda didn't wake when the engines hummed the car aloft, he programmed in the co-ordinates then sat back, thinking. Or rather, tried not to think about why she would keep secrets from him.

After five minutes of low flying, the car announced its arrival by stopping in the air.

"Touch down ten feet to the south of the co-ordinates," he said.

The car dropped, gently landing on the hill. He took a spade and a solar globe from the survival box behind his seat and stepped into the cool night.

The blue-silver moon above lay enough light for him to see the mound. Walking to it, he set the globe on a nearby branch, aiming its light on to the mound, then set to work removing first the camouflaging debris then the earth itself.

After a few minutes of digging, he heard a metallic ring, harsh in the quiet night.

Digging and scraping more carefully, he uncovered the top of a coffin-shaped pod, the lower part made of some kind of black metal, the upper of dark glass.

He looked for a way to open it, realising that she must have closed it. 

After he came out of it.

Memory guided his fingers and he found a row of pads at the point where the glass and metal joined. Figuring that to open it would require a code, he cleared his mind then put his fingers on the pad. Automatically, they drummed out the right pattern and the glass hood slid down, over the metal section. 

He stood, reached for the solar globe and brought it to the side of the pod.

All he could see was black padding; no tech on display. 

He stood, scanned the wide horizon, wondering for a moment if he shouldn't just go back to the farm and be Stephen. Then he climbed into the pod; lay down in it. As soon as he stopped moving, the padding adjusted itself to his body.
 
"Welcome, Peter. This is your pod brain. How can I assist you?"

"Show me how I got here," he said.


"Brother Peter," said Sister Marian, "it isn't too late to change your mind. No one will blame you."

Her white cotton robe swished gently in the refreshing mountain-like breeze blown through the launch room by the ship's empathic programme. Peter was dressed in what they'd decided would pass for normal on the planet below: black cotton trousers, blue denim shirt, walking boots.

"I feel called to do this," he said. "Not for myself but for the faith."

He felt her gaze scan his eyes digitally, not offended by it; after all, she led this quest and must therefore constantly monitor their purity levels.

"Would you like to have sex before you leave?" she said.

"I'm honoured by the offer, Sister, but I think these last few minutes would be best spent with God."

"Understood. I'll tell the others to pray for you."

He reached for her hand. "I'll find it, Marian. Then our faith shall prevail over the heresy."

She glanced at his forehead. "I know you will. But if something should go wrong; if we don't receive a transmission from your mind cell after you land, well, I'll make sure you aren't forgotten at home."

She squeezed his hand then left the room.

He climbed into a pod, closed his eyes and the ship's brain dimmed the lighting. He reached for God and as always felt the surge in mind-space that accompanied the arrival of love absolute. It had always been with him, since his first conscious thoughts as a child, through his three marriages, all wives now estranged but their bonds spiritually intact; through his steady church banking career; through his swift rise up the preaching ranks. This certainty could never be stripped, especially by an invention of the godless.

In the last few minutes before launch, the pod screens reminded him of the need for spiritual advocacy; that for centuries, the galaxy had been locked in a war between the true faith and the heretics. Then, the unbelievable discovery that the source of true religion existed on Grassmere, as the locals called it. Quickly followed by learning the impossibility of reaching it, however, because of the godblocker its people had erected around their planet. 

It was not unusual for settlers to elect to minimise their use of technology, favouring a fairly hands-on approach to organic or biodynamic agriculture. But in Grassmere's case, they'd spent their first eleven years and a lot of techno labour developing a psycho-plasmagenic field that every probe confirmed would likely fry the mind of anyone of faith trying to pass through it.

The source itself had appeared in the digi-prayer extrapolator scans of the true faith's spiritual leaders, based at the four corners of the Godverse. Apparently, it turned up as a kind of embryonic possibility of new and unimagined religious understanding. It therefore represented the ultimate argument--weapon, some might say--in their holy war.

Peter's mission was to land around fifty miles from the source, close enough to learn about it before approaching, not so close as to unwittingly disrupt it. When he got there, his faith would activate it.

As for the people of Grassmere--all he knew for sure was they did not believe in God. Perhaps living so close to the place where humans first felt the presence of God had overpowered and burnt out their spirits. 

He suppressed a flare of vanity at the thought he would surely convert them once he linked to the source. 

His eyes opened and he nodded to give the ship's brain the go-ahead. A clear hood clicked into place, sealing him in. Formation padding pressed close around his body. The pod slid forward and the launch room wall melted to let it through; reformed again before it reached the ship's outer wall.

A sudden thrust forward, then the pure black, star-spattered enormity of space loomed around him. God's infinite cathedral, built to house the faithful, blighted by the false occupation of the heretics. Oh, they said they believed in God, too. But what god could possibly frown on polygamy, or the gift of sex between trusted colleagues?

At sight of the green and white sphere approaching, he forced himself to stop thinking of the heretics, wanting to buttress his mind with nothing but faith. They'd talked about trying to protect him by wiping his mind temporarily of belief. But he'd argued that greater faith was the better test, and he would accept death if he failed.

The drive system of the pod was silent. Tilted towards Grassmere, he saw his greatest ever challenge quietly but massively expand. The ship's brain estimated the godblocker to circle the planet somewhere between five and ten miles from its surface. Oddly, with the pod's sophisticated stabilisation system, he'd feel little physical effects as it burned through Grassmere's upper atmosphere. By contrast, the godblocker might destroy his every reason to exist.

And then thought stopped. His entire field of vision screamed white, swirling clouds and between them green and brown patches of land; blue ocean spaces--all so normal and life-supporting.

He glanced at the info patch to his right, seeking the altitude reading.

Nine hundred miles.

One hundred.

Twenty...

The pod obscured itself in electromagnetic mist, as they'd programmed it to do when it passed through the godblocker. Nearing the surface of the planet, it slowed down rapidly, and he passed out.


He took the car to a hundred feet then gave its brain the co-ordinates for the source. But a warning panel showed insufficient fuel for the journey. He'd have to recharge at the farm.

He drummed his fingers on the arm rests of his seat, the alien planet's empty lands slipping beneath him like discarded memories.

At the farm, he ripped the fuel cell from the car and ran to the main barn. Just before opening the door, he saw light under it.

Well, she couldn't stop him now.

"I had a feeling you'd gone to the pod," she said, sitting in her dressing gown, hair wild. The charger sat on a steel work bench between them; she didn't look as if she'd try to stop him reaching it.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he said, plugging the cell into the charger. Five minutes to fill it.

He sat on a bench, holding her gaze; her godless gaze.

"Do you know what the godblocker really does, Stephen?"

"My name is Peter. Brother Peter. I'm a priest of the Godverse Church. Yes, the godblocker prevents God reaching his children on this planet."

"Do you honestly think we could build something to keep God out? Isn't he or she or it too powerful for that?"

"God does not prevent humans choosing to exclude him. If they do, it simply means they'll not be taken into the Glory after they die."

"The godblocker doesn't keep God out; it removes inherited belief systems from anyone who crosses it. We spent most of our resources building the transmitters, which should tell you something."

"It didn't do that with me. It removed my memory."

"Your memories are inseparable from your beliefs. Tell me what you feel; right now. Can you connect, for instance?"

"I have to get to the source. Then I'll send an emergency signal to my church and they'll come. With the source, we can finally denounce the heresy and the galaxy will be at peace."

"I've never heard of any 'source'. And you don't sound very convincing, Ste--Peter. You didn't answer me: can you connect?"

"Of course not. Your blocker is in the way."

"Try."

Her gaze remained frank, open, kind even. 

What was the point of trying to connect to God? But he'd try, just to prove her wrong.

In his heart, mind and soul he reached for the purity, love and passion that had been the justification for his entire life.

"Oh."

The connection made, his nerves surged with reassurance and confidence. He didn't have to say it, her smile showed she recognised his moment.

"The godblocker is still there, Peter," she said. 

Tears spilled from his eyes. "It can't be. How could I feel this love if it was?"

"Belief is powerful. Your church has practised it for thousands of years; blended it with science. It knows how to turn it into nerve surges, mind reaches, soul bliss, all totally real. To the believer. The godblocker removed your neural programming; it didn't remove its residue in you. But it will fade in time, then you'll have to find a more natural connection. Like we've had to."

The cell showed full charge. He stood and disconnected it.

"I don't believe you," he said. "But it doesn't matter. The source will prove we're right. Only those with true religion can withstand it."

She stood, too. "Let me come with you."

"No, it wouldn't be right."

"If it kills me, that's my choice. And if it doesn't, I'll be converted."

"I--"

"You owe me, Peter. I took you in; gave you a home and nursed you back to health."

"Get changed quickly, then. I don't want to waste any more time."

"Okay, but you were a lot more fun when you didn't know you were a believer."

He didn't laugh.


"I don't understand," she said, as they flew towards the dawn-smeared horizon. "If the source of all religion is on Grassmere, how come we've never known about it."

"Because your godblocker prevents faith activating it."

"If it's not active, what use is it to you?"

"Our researches show that any true believer will activate it automatically."

"But why would God allow a godless society to form up on the very planet that houses the source of religion?"

"What better way to protect it? Your rampant secularity led to you blocking even God from the source."

"And only a true believer can repair the connection? But what if I'm right; that it's only belief itself that's blocked from coming here?"

"And what if I'm right, Amanda; what will happen to you all then?"

As they entered the last five miles, he grew worried that the landscape had not changed: still the silver valleys, rocky plains and stone-covered hills glowing peach in the rising sun.

"Look!" he said, relieved, as a circle of dark green appeared on the horizon.

"Probably just a marsh grove," she said. "We get them here and there in the dry areas. That particular one I've never been to and don't think anyone else has."

"But it's exactly where we calculated the source to be."

He slowed the car, brought it down about a hundred metres from the trees. 

"Coming?" he said, when they stood on the stony ground.

"It looks weird."

"Don't worry; once you're close to it, you'll feel the faith too. Together, we'll break the godblocker and God will come. Trust me."

He walked confidently to the trees, Amanda following half a step behind. Huge brown nuts clustered in the dark green leaves above them; the grass under their feet sprang aside, lush with dew and busy insects.

"I estimate the centre of these trees to be three hundred and fifty metres away," he said.

She remained silent as they walked through the dappled shadows.

"Are you all right, Amanda?" he said at one point, not taking his eyes off the centre.

"It feels as if all life is drawing away," she said.

He nodded, sure this was a sign of her atheism cracking under the intensely growing presence all around them. For he had no doubt that the trace of God was here: the ridges on the tree bark appeared sharper, the birds' songs crisper, the air cleaner.

The trees thinned at two hundred metres, and through the brighter openings between them, they saw a clearing ahead.

This close to the source, he had to struggle hard against pride. So nearly at the means of ending the holy war, and his name on the victory. But more important still, that God's spiritual well be opened once again. Who did that was not important; just the fact of it.

The clearing measured about a hundred metres in diameter, its floor a green carpet of even grass. He opened his hands to her as if to say, See? no animals to graze it and no human hand: look how the source keeps itself clean.

And in the very centre of the clearing, a small grey stone, about a metre high, flat on top, as if waiting to be sat on.

"You go," she said, sitting on a fallen trunk. "It's your show."

He nodded, turned towards his destiny then made his way across the grass.

Overhead, the sky seemed to ring with portent. Even the trees appeared hunched and expectant, watching his progress. 

He focused on the stone, the special light of this place giving diamond brightness to the flecks of quartz in its surface. A cool breeze brushed his face, and the odd silence of the clearing seemed ready to burst into new life.

And yet.

Twenty yards from the stone and despite his will almost forcing it to produce a sign, it remained only a stone. The grass stayed fresh and wet, yet did not whisper any secret meanings that only his soul could hear.

Instinctively, he held out his arms from his sides, palms turned towards the source. He closed his eyes for a moment, straining, forcing his skin to tingle with power.

He reached the stone, stood and waited; and waited. Peace settled around his mind, yet it might have been just the simple calming effect of undisturbed grass, dew, air and stone.

"Peter." Amanda's voice travelled easily across the clearing. "Can't you feel it?"

He turned, devastated to see her child-like smile. He sat on the stone, determined to force its secrets into his body. But only cold flintiness seeped through the cotton of his trousers.

She stood, walked to him, still smiling.

"It isn't here," she said.

"That much is obvious."

She looked up. "It's out there."

"What do you mean?"

"God--or whatever you want to call the beginning of everything--exploded out, filled the universe, left an empty space behind. When it reached the limits of itself, it started coming back."

"How can you possibly know that?"

"Because it's the same for the people who live here. We don't believe in anything fixed in time--because God has already moved through that point. We believe in keeping a space at one's centre, so that what we learn in life can fill it eventually. I understand that now; the emptiness of this place matches my space. Your machines detected a space within a space and concluded it was God. But it isn't: it's the absence of God, which is the greatest gift of all.

"You have no space in you, Peter; it was filled a long time ago by God's discarded skins and fading trails across the sand."

He stood, angry at her calm eloquence about what must be a lie.

He took a small disk from his pocket. "I removed this from the pod," he said. "It's an emergency beacon. When I press it, a signal will reach my people. They'll come here, through the blocker, and your kind will be judged for your crime."

"What crime would that be exactly, Peter?"

"You've destroyed the source. As you say, there's nothing here."

"Yes, but not your nothing; my nothing."

He held up the disk, wanting to see fear on her face. They both knew that Grassmere's technology was inferior to the Church's. If found guilty, they'd be destroyed.

"But I can't feel anything, Amanda."

"You have to empty your heart. Of everything. Try to remember what it was like to be a baby, with no belief, just new experience pouring in non-stop."

He closed his eyes, and in his inner soul Sister Marian smiled at him, forgiving. Her enhanced vision checked the depths of his being, reassuring him with a wise nod that he could still recover his purity. And yet her gaze lacked just that tiny touch of wonder. Pure, yes; definite; healing, even. But also full, complete, finished, dead.

He dropped the disk. Looked at the sky, the grass, the stone, and at Amanda's patient gaze.

"Help me," he said.