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I was running through the infinite dark, alone and afraid. I was afraid because I was alone and alone because I was afraid, and I hurt somewhere, not knowing where, unable to find out because I was running, unable to stop because I was afraid.
Behind me came the patter of feet, chasing me down an unseen corridor, and the feet were light and almost noiseless because they were disembodied, and the corridor was black and unknowable because it was lost in time and space, as I was, without a home.
Worst of all was the silence, the complete silence that enveloped me like the darkness and was worse than the darkness because my need to speak and hear was greater than my need to see, and if I could break the silence, the darkness would shatter and I would no longer have to run. And the feet came closer in spite of my speed and the panic that urged me on ever faster through the darkness and the silence, because the feet had no leaden body to hold them back.
Slowly consciousness of where I hurt came to me. It was my hand, my hand hurt because of the glowing coal I carried there. Fresh fear surged through me, and the fear was mixed with shame, and I let my hand open; I let the coal fall away. And the patter of feet behind faded and my fear left me, but in its place came an aching loneliness because even the corridor was gone now and I was truly alone, floating in blackness without an anchor to anything, and truly without a home.
My mind spiraled through the emptiness and the silence and the dark, searching for something else alive in the infinite, but there was nothing. Nowhere was there anything to speak to, and if there had been something,there was no way to speak.
And I woke up, my hand fumbling automatically at my waist pouch for reassurance, but the pebble was gone, and I knew why it was gone, and I remembered. I remembered how fear first entered my world...
The liturgy was echoing through my mind when I saw the girl step through the flickering golden translucence of the Barrier. She was terrified.
...your God is here...
Terror! I recognized it, and I did not know how I knew.
All my life had been spent within the monastery. The monastery walls are wide, and within them is the world's peace. The monastery walls are high, and the world's torment can never climb them. Behind them I was contented and at peace, and it was quiet joy that the clear pattern of my life would never lead me outside.
I did not remember ever being outside. I did not remember my father or mother or their names or how they had died, if they were dead, but it did not matter, because the Church was father and mother to me, and I needed nothing else.
The emotions I knew were few and simple: the Abbot's powerful piety; Brother John's intense, sometimes feverish, search for scientific truth; Father Konek's absorbed contemplation; Father Michaelis's occasional mystic rapture. But terror was an alien. Like the other soul-disturbing passions, it could not pass the Barrier, just as physical objects could not pass.
...behind the veils of ignorance and doubt you must seek Me, for I am there, as here, if you will see...
Here in the Cathedral it was a little different, but I had only been on duty here twice before. The people entered the place that had been set aside for them, their place of contact with the life of the Church, seeking what we had so much of -- peace. They came through the Barrier troubled, and they left in peace, reconciled with the Universe. I had felt their troubles distantly, and I had pitied them, and I had been glad when their troubles were taken from them.
But now I knew that the passions I had received in the control room were poor second-hand things. The girl's terror was an aura that surrounded her. It touched me with cold fingers, springing to my eyes from the screen, to my fingers from the gauntlets--
My eyes flicked to the clock. Already the timing was seconds off. I pulled my right hand free, tripped a switch, adjusted a knob. The Dissipation would have to be abrupt. If the Abbot should learn...
Below, the mists began to fade, to drift away in wisps, and a nebulous face looked down out of the black depths of space. Nebulous, and yet the worshippers fleshed it out with details from their own need. I knew. I had been below during our own services, and I had seen what they saw, felt what they felt, heard in my mind what they heard.
...for I am peace, where I am there is peace, where peace is, there you will find Me, peace everlasting...
My eyes returned to the screen, to the girl. She was still there, just inside the Barrier, and as surely as I had known that she was terrified I knew that she was beautiful. I wondered briefly if this was temptation. The thought was fleeting, and I did not pursue it. It was enough that I was twenty, and she was beautiful and afraid.
She was out of place among the people below. Freedmen and slave came here and occasionally a serf when necessity brought him to the Imperial City. They called this the Slaves' Cathedral. I saw many below, dressed poorly or richly according to their master's wealth but all with their imitation metal collars: gold, silver, iron...
The girl was obviously patrician. Her bones were fine; her features were delicate. She stood straight and slim and proud. Her skin had never been blighted with the long days under burning skies or the slow destruction of the death-dust rooms; her back had never bent to stir the stubborn soil. Her clothes were rich. Her cloak was a silky, woven plastic glistening with metallic threads; her skirt molded itself to long, slender legs.
...nothing enters that place set apart for your enlightenment except that which can receive Me and My gift to mankind...
She was breathing hard. One hand was clenched into a white-knuckled fist at her side; the other was a palm pressed against her breasts, as if to calm their trembling. She looked over her shoulder, back through the Barrier. She stiffened, her chest swelling with a great, half-strangled breath. Then, slowly, she let it out.
...for here is sanctuary where none but the peace-loving can enter, where strife is forever barred...
I switched to the outside screen. Four men stood outside the Barrier, looking up the long easy steps toward the Cathedral entrance, toward the golden web. They were dressed alike, but I didn't recognize the uniform. In a world of color, they wore black. They weren't members of the Spaceman's Guild because the black of that uniform is relieved with silver. Neither were they nobles or Peddlers or mercenaries.
I shivered. They were like black shadows on a cloudy day, shadows of evil, shadows where there should be no shadows.
I remembered what they were. Once a visiting priest had mentioned them. Father Konek had shuddered, but I had listened eagerly.
They were mercenaries who did not wear the uniforms of their masters. They were the clever ones who worked with their minds as well as their guns, who slipped soundlessly through the cities of this and other worlds on missions that were secret and sinister. They were deadly, like snakes, and like snakes they were privileged. No man touched them for fear of their fangs.
I saw other things: the inconspicuous bulge of guns under their arms, their casual, almost languid expressions of indifference. Were they as indifferent to life as the priest had said? Did they kill so easily, and did the killing mean nothing?
I looked at one face longer than the others. It was dark and bold and amused; cold black eyes were separated by a huge, jutting nose that was grotesque but not funny. It was not funny at all; it was frightening.
I shivered again and switched back to the view inside... life is chaos, life is hunger, pain, unending struggle, life is death -- but death is life...
The girl paid no attention to the service. She ignored the spectacle revealing itself before her, the words that must be imprinting themselves on her mind as they were on mine. Perhaps she was a skeptic as so many of the patricians were, accepting the fruits of the Church while they scoffed at its tenets, tolerating its existence for the service it rendered in pacifying the people--
Tolerating? I had come close to heresy. My thoughts had approached a dangerous edge. At the bottom of the precipice beyond were piled the bleached bones of countless unwary thinkers. No one tolerated the Church; it was, it existed by its own spiritual power, it lived by the strength of its faith and the forces that were the physical extensions of that faith.
Why had the word sprung into my mind?
...your life that is death render unto those who have been given power over it, for it is nothing. Your death that is life belongs to you and to Me, and you shall live it insofar as it is of Me...
Perhaps the girl's terror blinded her eyes and mind to the Message. A complete skeptic could not have passed the Barrier, except seeking sanctuary. Sanctuary was here if she wished to claim it. Beyond the walls protected by the peace of the Church she would never need to move, if she wished to dedicate herself to those things which were the domain of the Church or if she wished merely for peace, peace and forgetfulness, now and hereafter. She had only to pass through the Portal, which was similar to the Barrier except that it was light blue and opaque. It was directly under the Revelation.
Choose the Portal! I wished. The terror will disappear; you will never tremble again.
The wish went as quickly as it came. A knowledge that I did not recognize whispered that the girl's life force leaped too high; her death wish was almost non-existent. She could never pass the Portal, even if she wanted to.
And yet her glance leaped desperately around the Cathedral, searching the smooth walls and floors as if for a place to hide. She stepped nervously toward the front of the Cathedral, toward the hard kneeling-benches dotted with silent worshippers. She stopped, indecisively, and looked back again through the golden veil of the Barrier toward the carelessly watchful men outside in the drab street.
They could not enter, but she could not leave without facing them and their purpose. Both hands were clenched at her sides now, one slightly larger than the other, her shoulders slumping. Her hands would be cold, I knew suddenly. Mine were cold too, inside the gauntlets.
...into the hands of My ministers I have given the power of working miracles in My name...
Guiltily I awoke to my duties. I had allowed myself to be distracted again. Responsibility for an occasional Cathedral service was a special honor for an acolyte, but if these slips were noticed, my taking of orders might be delayed another year. Already I was a year beyond the usual age. I adjusted the cap and slipped my hands back into the gauntlets.
Out upon the darkened platform below I stepped in the full, coarse, gray robes of the monastery, my head cowled, my face shadowed into anonymity. And if the image was an illusion, the effect was solid and three-dimensional. Softly, slowly, the Miracle Theme began, swelling throughout the rest of the service until it reached a thundering, triumphant note of challenge and plunged into a gently muted blessing.
At first the miracles were ritualistic and uninspired. My image cupped its hands. Out of them grew a brilliant red flower. My hands drew away; it hung suspended in the air. It was only a bud, but it blossomed and grew, its colors brightening, glowing, until the petal lines were lost in the brightness. And it was a sun, yellowish instead of the familiar white, flaming gently on a family of planets. They circled it, spinning in the darkness; as the third world swam into view, the sun began to fade. And the third world swelled up blue-green and lovely until its spherical outlines melted into a flat, pastoral land, a green land of peace and plenty.
...to tend My creatures...
Fleecy, four-footed animals grazed peacefully on the cropped green turf, but their guardian was not the usual cowled monk. Sudden inspiration made it a girl in flowing white robes, the girl whose terror had led her to seek sanctuary in the Cathedral. Here she was not tormented by fear; here she was at peace with herself and her world, her clear eyes gazing out untroubled upon an untroubled land. Here she was beauty, even more beautiful than reality.
She turned and skirted the foot of a low green hill. A large white building rose behind, a building with a beautiful hemispherical dome. She passed through a wide archway that had no doors, into a room almost filled with tall racks, each rack with its row of plastic-enclosed memory tapes or even older, tattered books.
...to preserve knowledge...
The vision was detailed because I knew it so well. It was the historical Archives. Monks worked and listened and studied in small, bare cubicles along the wall. The girl drifted through the room and into another beyond, where large transparent cases exposed their mysteries for an endless distance.
...the history of mankind -- for all men are one...
It was the museum of ancient artifacts, with its displays of strange tools, machines, and weapons, restored and reconstructed, gathered from a hundred worlds. But that huge room, too, was left behind, and the girl entered a third.
Beauty -- the room blazed with it: statues, paintings, patterns of light for the eye; delicate carvings, fabrics, and artificial stimuli for the finger tips; bottled and generated odors of rare sweetness and strange pungency for the nostrils; uncounted sources of music for the ear.... And even among these resurrected masterpieces of a thousand forgotten geniuses, she was more beautiful.... When she came out at last into the open again, it was night. A large, luminous satellite let down a pale silver light upon the face she lifted to the jeweled sky.
Her arms spread wide, she embraced the heavens in a gesture that claimed kinship with the universe. Her body was love, her face was hope, her gesture was unity -- mystic unity, the infinite circle that encompasses all existence but does not restrict. Up the path of the girl's arms, the view fled, out into the denser blackness of space until the worshippers were once more face to face with their God.
...custody of these things I have given to My ministers to hold in trust for humanity because they contain man's search for eternal truth....
My participation was over, but I realized what I had done. Innovation was close to rebellion, and I didn't want to rebel. I was happy. I was secure. I was dedicated to a life that was eminently worthwhile, with which my life was intertwined, in which it could find its greatest fulfillment. Rebellion? At what did I have to rebel? And then I saw the girl on the screen, and I knew.
Not life but Life -- not the specific but the general. Life that brought here to the Cathedral almost mindless men, that left them here briefly for a moment of almost mindless peace, Life that had scourged a girl with terror into momentary sanctuary. And at that moment I realized that there is a greater duty, a greater fulfillment, than unthinking obedience.
Would I ever be the same?
I had given the girl something -- I could not say exactly what it was -- a wordless message of beauty and hope and faith and -- and love. She was kneeling at a bench in the back, her face upturned to the Revelation, smiling a little, her eyes glistening with unspilled tears. And I was glad. Whatever price I was called upon to pay, I knew that regret would never erase the memory of her face or the warm, sweet feeling of love bestowed without desire for return.
...only those who seek can find, only those who give can receive...
Slowly the girl got up. Free from terror, she walked toward the front of the Cathedral, straight toward the Revelation. Over the offering plate she held her hand as if engrossed in a last minute debate, but her decision was already made. The fist, no longer clenched, opened. Her offering fell toward the plate -- to disappear, flickeringly, the instant before it touched.
She turned and walked back the way she had come. But the burden she had carried was gone. Her step was carefree; her shoulders were straight and buoyant. She might have been going to some gay, impromptu party called forth by youth and the season, where laughter would rise like silver birds into the warm, scented air... Outside the men waited, like evil black shadows. She didn't hesitate.
In the control room I struggled with an impulse. There were only two exits from the Cathedral -- the Barrier and the Portal. But maybe there was a third if I dared to try it, if I dared to interfere once more. The Abbot would never approve. And what could I do with her? How could I help her?
The impulse might have won, but she turned at the Barrier and looked up. For a fleeting moment her blue eyes seemed to be staring directly into mine, as if she saw my ugly face and yet liked what she saw. Her lips worked for a moment in a wordless appeal. I strained forward, as if that would help me to hear, and in that moment, before I could act, she turned and stepped beyond the Barrier and beyond my power to interfere.
The watchers lounged forward carelessly in the dusty street, but their carelessness concealed an artful boxing that removed every possibility of escape. The scene was imprinted indelibly upon my memory, framed against a background of the slums surrounding the Cathedral: a tottering rabbit-warren of a tenement, an abandoned, decaying warehouse, a bookshop with an almost new front...
She waited for them, smiling. A fat-barreled gun appeared in the hand of the dark one. She said something to him, and he answered, smiling. But the passing freedmen and slaves averted their eyes and scurried away, as if they could deny evil by ignoring it. I sat fixed to my chair in an anguish of expectation.
And there in the street the dark one cut off her feet at the ankle. With a thin jet of flame from his gun, he sliced them off, casually, smiling gently, as he might have gestured to an acquaintance. A brief spurt of blood, and before the girl could topple, two of the others had caught her from each side. The girl smiled up at the dark one, mockingly and clear, before she fainted.
I was sick. The last thing I saw were the slender white feet left standing upon the pavement in front of the Cathedral. The last thing I heard was the muted sadness of the benediction and the soundless whisper...
...there is one word for mankind, one word alone, and the word is -- choose...
Copyright © 1955 by James E. Gunn