Twenty-two weeks out of Earth orbit, The Prophet was haunted by a ghost.
Nicholas knew it was no figment of his imagination. Someone onboard was fooling with the corridor cams. He heard the first whispers in the dim light of his quarters as the humidifier stopped, leaving a disquieting silence in its wake. A giggle, unmistakably feminine, arose just outside his quarters. Without drawing his eyes away from the article he’d loaded from the network, he instinctively palmed the switch by his monitor and his door opened.
The ship's corridor glowed with only the deck lights a dull blue along the floor. But they were not necessary; he saw the child standing four meters away, shimmering in a light of her own. Her hair was black with a silver circlet over her brow. Her violet eyes never met his—just missed, as though there was something over his shoulder that was far more interesting to look at than his face.
The apparition turned and flitted along the corridor, rising out of sight where the bulkhead obscured his view. Nicholas grabbed some slippers and hurried after her. Five minutes later he returned to his cabin door, having completed the circumference of the deck with no further sign of her.
Nicholas descended to the fourth level, where she hovered outside the electro-optics lab, raising a small hand to beckon. She put two fingers to her lips, crossed herself in Eastern fashion and disappeared again.
He entered the lab, and saw one of the ship's engineers sitting on a high stool, a richly embroidered cushion under his rear end. He was tinkering with a long-barreled laser. The engineer smiled at his arrival, as if he expected Nicholas, a smile - such a smile - that revealed white teeth unpleasantly contrasted with dark hair and bloodshot eyes. He did not bother to look up from his work.
After a brief silence, Nicholas cleared his throat. “That cushion. Persian, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” the engineer said slowly. “The captain allows Persian cushions, provided we sit on them. Anything Persian must…be sat on.”
Nicholas let out an obligatory chuckle. “I understand.”
The engineer looked up. “You followed my princess. That’s good.”
Nicholas nodded and looked at the laser in his hands. “Is that her?”
"No. I mean, if I wanted to project her manually, I could use this. But who wants to see the puppeteer? Mostly you want to see the puppet alone, correct? The princess came to you tonight via the corridor cams.”
“Am I the only one who’s seen her?”
The engineer nodded. “My name is Omar. Your name is Kandinsky." He turned to the little girl as she re-appeared at the side of his stool. “You…are a spy, are you not?”
Nicholas laughed nervously, not really sure to whom the question was addressed.
“It’s all right with me, if you are,” Omar went on, turning a thick thumb over the dial of his portable, making the princess pirouette. “I was not asked to come on this mission either. I was ordered. Like you.” He sighed. “It makes little difference to me—or the captain, you may be surprised to learn—whether this fool’s errand succeeds. I have my doubts. But while it lasts, we make use of the machines of our…allies…to carry out His will. Allah is not without a sense of irony, don’t you think?”
Nicholas nodded slowly, a small smile the only reaction he allowed on his face. As friendly as he seemed, this engineer was probably testing him. Nicholas stared at the little princess. His eyes watered whenever he was surprised, giving his face a flat and dull look. He started to open his mouth, but paused, wondering just then what she would look like with a mantle of blue draped over her shoulders.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" said Omar. "Only you and I can have the pleasure of her acquaintance."
Omar had a face puffy from a lifetime in artificial gravity. Although probably twice his own age, Omar didn't look ten years older than he, and Nicholas envied anyone who didn't suffer any side effects from space travel; his own sinuses ached from the slightest inconsistency in the ship's centrifugal constant.
Omar watched the young man with interest, searching his face closely. "Only you and I," he said again.
"Why is that?"
Omar turned his attention to the controls on the underside of the laser's handle. "You looked a little lonely last night, standing by yourself in the lounge. Your comrades, they don't respect you as much as they should, a man of God, a chaplain." Omar looked at him slyly. "Perhaps I should report such a thing."
Nicholas drew himself up. "I wish you wouldn't."
Omar smiled. "What do you take me for? I'm not a cleric. I noticed the icons in the chapel when you came aboard. I love your Byzantine art, and I thought: here is a man who would appreciate my little princess." He sighed. "Think of it as my confession."
"What is your sin?"
"Pride." Omar looked away. “Idolatry, even.”
"I don't understand," said Nicholas. He looked at her again. Something about her provoked his imagination. At first he dismissed it, but as the silence wore on, an idea came back to his mind and it stayed. "Is this all she can wear?"
"The princess wears whatever she wants," said Omar, and chuckled. “Well, whatever I want. And I can change that simply enough."
Nicholas crouched in front of her, nodding.
"As for her majesty, I downloaded her from a children's program."
Nicholas frowned. "You mean from the foreign market, from the West."
Omar shrugged. “And other sources. That’s why we’re having this conversation while the rest of the ship sleeps. I use this material because it suits my fancy, nothing more."
Nicholas nodded. "I meant no offense."
Omar relaxed and grinned. "Blasphemous, of course."
"Not to me."
"I know. That's why I showed you."
"And no one else?" said Nicholas.
"I value my skin, good Father Kandinsky, as long as I'm of service to the Caliphate. I even had reservations about telling you, but you're a priest." Nicholas winced at the word, but looked at the floor to hide his discomfort. Omar didn't seem to notice. "I think I can trust you with my secret."
"What do you call her?" said Nicholas.
Omar hesitated only a moment, but Nicholas felt his smile fade. “Her name was Fadela.”
"Forgive me. You…had a daughter?"
The engineer nodded and sucked his teeth. "I did once. She died when she was three. This was her favorite toy. Her secret toy."
Nicholas opened his mouth to apologize, but shut it with embarrassment. He looked into the strained eyes of the engineer and blurted, "It must have been an accident, I’m sure."
Omar sighed. "I wasn't on Earth when it happened. And that’s disgrace enough for a father."
Nicholas nodded, frowned and looked back at the door. "Well, I’ll say good-night then. Thank you for showing this to me.” He paused before he turned. “Perhaps tomorrow night you will do this again?"
Omar stirred from his memories with a smile. "We will," he said. As Nicholas turned to go he added, "And only we will, you understand?"
Nicholas said, "I will share this with no one," but in his mind he was thinking of something else now, something huge and Byzantine. "I do promise. Good night."
Nicholas returned to his cabin, threw himself on the bunk and said, "Please remind me." After a moment the ceiling turned gray and lit with the starboard view of The Prophet's destination: Venus in 45 days, and bright with the planet's crescent toward the sun.
After a few minutes, the view dimmed and he stared at the blank ceiling, ruminating on her face while he waited for sleep.
But on the verge of sliding into a dream, he started up suddenly. Nicholas palmed the light and sat in front of his monitor. “Kandinsky,” he said, touching the links on his screen until he found the entry he was seeking. “Primarily worked for the Church of the New Russia…and created some of its greatest new icons,” he read, and scrolled further through the links until one icon caught his attention.
He enlarged it. And there she was. Her exact face. Blonde hair now, not dark. Blue eyes, to be sure, but the same complexion, the same cheekbones, the same curve of her chin. It was unmistakable.
Nicholas sat dumbfounded, his hand trembling as he ran his fingers over the screen.
“Dedushka…” he whispered. “What have they done to your work?”
The next day Nicholas spent in the lounge, barely listening to some of his comrades over lunch as he scrolled through his art encyclopedia.
"Sorry, I didn't come to the chapel, Kandinsky. The Sunnis wouldn't notice anyway. We had more drills. What …what is it you're looking at anyway?"
Nicholas stirred. "Renaissance originals."
"Do you think Grigory is drawing attention to himself?"
Nicholas shrugged, not taking his eyes off the screen. "How?"
"By being so disrespectful."
Grigory spoke with his mouth full. "I'm just tired. I'm sick of going to chapel, all I do is daydream. No disrespect intended."
Nicholas stared at Michelangelo's Day of Judgment. “My grandfather’s influences were as varied as they were many…”
Grigory laughed. "You see, Ianko. He's a Russian, doesn't even listen."
The others exchanged glances and nodded at Grigory as they rose to leave. He pushed his plate away, lit a cigarette and gave Nicholas an unpleasant nudge in the ribs.
"Don't you think you're overdoing it?"
Grigory slapped a flabby hand over the monitor and closed it. "This religious artwork. Your grandfather’s portfolio. Don't overdo it. We're supposed to be Christians, not aesthetes. Come with me."
Nicholas glanced around the lounge in irritation. "You could come to confession when I'm actually in the chapel."
The Estonian extinguished his cigarette carefully and stuffed the butt in his sleeve. "Be happy you're on this voyage and we deign to tell you half of what's going on. Otherwise, keep your Russian mouth shut and come with me."
Grigory lit a candle, careful not to glance at the cams in the corners, observing all of their actions. He turned to kneel before the Icon of the Selected Saints, painted in St. Petersburg, sometime in the late 19th century.
"Ianko's been working on a contingency plan if there is any chance the Captain will send a shuttle to the planet surface. Listen carefully.”
Nicholas, standing behind him, assumed a posture of concentration.
“We’ve decided that you must approach the Captain with our proposal,” said Grigory.
“That we be allowed to land in the shuttle before the remains of the satellite are destroyed. We can access the lander’s databases quickly.”
“They’ll never agree to that. Their mission is to destroy any trace of contamination on the planet. Not collect it.”
“So? Why must this destruction preclude our investigating first?”
“This whole mission is considered one of reparation. Cleansing.”
“They will consider our request if you do your job and approach them in your official capacity as a priest, with the appropriate groveling.”
“And what is my reason?”
“We too, have something to atone for, after all. For being foolish enough to trust in the technology and hubris of the States. This mission will be to show the world the sad remains of our folly. An act of self-abasement, a further gesture of goodwill to the New Caliphate. It won’t take long.”
“The Captain won’t be taken in.”
Grigory's smile revealed dark teeth. “Personally, I hate this whole charade. But that lander down there on the surface may be our last hope to salvage some of the European space agency’s data before these fanatics retard science for the next five centuries. If the bloody Japanese could have made up their minds, we'd have gone with them, and to hell with all these play-acting icons. But we have no choice, Kandinsky. Keep up the performance." He gave the Russian another rough pat, crossed himself hastily and departed.
Nicholas stared at the door after Grigory had gone.
He returned to the lounge, plunked himself down in a chair and did nothing for over an hour, just hating his "comrades," although he knew there was little he could do to change the situation. After all, he told himself, any Russian was lucky to join an historic voyage to Venus.
He stirred when the Captain entered. He was tall, with a brilliant black beard, shot through with one, singular streak of silver.
"Good afternoon," he intoned and sat beside Nicholas, leaning forward, shuffling through the litter of magazines on the coffee table. He gave up after a desultory look. "Nothing new, I see."
Nicholas looked around. "I believe that Riyadh will be sending on the Tuesday of every week now."
The Captain shrugged. "Communications does such a botch job organizing them, what does it matter? The news from home is always the same. Who is starving in America, what is burning in Africa, and what is sinking in Europe." He turned to Nicholas directly. "You are a real priest according to our records. I mean, you're not one of those government installations so typical of Russians. You received your designation from a Patriarch?"
Nicholas hesitated just an instant. "Yes. Though technically we're all government installations. But yes, the Patriarch of Moscow laid his hands on me. How can I be of service to you?"
“To me? You can’t. But you might be of great service to your shipmates, these Estonians. Please impress upon them the importance of following the protocol that was established by the UN before we launched.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They must think we are stupid. Indeed, they must think you are stupid to be so sloppy.” The Captain leaned over. “There will be no landings once we achieve orbit over the second planet. Any overtures to request permission to land a shuttle will be considered a grave breach of the protocol, and I need hardly add, a personal insult to myself and the Caliph. Do I make myself clear?”
Nicholas felt strangely relieved. “You do indeed, sir, and if we have in any way offended you or—“
The Captain made a dismissive gesture. “You have not offended anyone, Father. Be assured. We know you are only doing your duty. We see how you are treated by the other members of your team. When we reach orbit, we will contact Riyadh. Once the formal date is agreed upon, we will launch our missile and eradicate from the second planet, all traces of its defacement by the technology of the old States.”
He rose. “I would wish you, alone of your comrades, to accompany me on the bridge when that moment arrives, Father.”
Nicholas stood immediately, but was speechless. He could only nod.
Omar spoke in hushed tones as they entered the lab that evening. "What shall we see tonight?" he said. "More dancing by the princess? Or shall we listen to her sing?"
"How large can you make her?"
"Large?" Omar laughed. "She's too young for children."
"No, no, I mean, how much can you magnify the image?"
"With this lens very little. It’s already at maximum scale."
Nicholas fell silent and Omar stopped his work to regard him. "Why?" he said. "The smaller she is, truly the more engaging."
Nicholas approached the only window in the cabin, portside. It didn't look immediately out, but down a long shaft before reaching any view of the spiraling stars; Nicholas saw his own reflection in the glass.
"I imagine her less restricted," he said softly. "Certainly beyond the confines of the ship's corridors."
"What do you mean?"
"Starboard. When the time comes to broadcast the missile launch, imagine her dancing above the pole of the planet, many times the size of The Prophet herself, greeting the Caliph, greeting everyone who can see her on earth."
Omar put down the laser. “You’re joking.”
“I’m not. Think about it. It could be a display of art more spectacular than any the world has seen…in centuries.”
"Have you lost your senses?" Omar said finally.
“Look, you just load her image file into the cannon’s database, project it same as all the other flags and heralds you’ve been projecting on cue throughout the voyage.”
"I’m supposed to project the Flag of the Caliphate during the launch—not the playthings of children, however personally precious they are. Would you betray me now? After what I've shown you?"
“Shown me?” Nicholas turned to Omar’s monitor. “Let me show you exactly what you’ve shown me.” Omar moved aside as Nicholas drew the keypad into his lap. Omar drew in a deep silent breath, patiently, until the small icon appeared on the screen and Nicholas enlarged it.
Nicholas stood aside for him to get closer. “It’s my princess. My family’s. My grandfather’s.”
Omar leaned in to stare at the icon. The same eyes, the same nose, the mouth.
“How…how did you find this?” he asked.
“I recognized her. Took me a while because of the way she was modeled into three dimensions for your daughter’s toy, and of course the different attire you gave her. But there’s no doubt she was scanned from my grandfather’s last, greatest work for the Russian patriarch.”
Omar stared at the azure eyes. “Ironic, is it not?”
“Ironic?” said Nicholas. “Tell me that God—that Allah—did not intend this. That you and I should meet because of her, here onboard this ship, at such a momentous time, where we can show her to the whole world.”
Omar barked a laugh and backed away to the port window. “Absolutely out of the question, my friend. I would be executed for such a blasphemy—because that is what it would be.”
“But look at the icon. Look at her. You venerate her as much as we.”
“Not so,” Omar said. “We honor her. We do not venerate her. There is a difference. Now, I beg you let us cease this conversation, my friend, or we will both come to regret it.” He returned to his stool. “It will only lead to unpleasantness.” He shrugged and put his hands in his pockets.
Nicholas watched him for a few moments in silence “Do it for Fadela, then,” he said at last. “For your daughter’s memory, if nothing else.”
Omar turned around. “How dare you? My daughter’s memory is where it belongs—in my heart and the broken heart of her mother. I’m warning you, Father. Cease this talk now, or I’ll tell the Captain.”
Nicholas watched him, deflated as the blood left his cheeks and his heart slowed. After a few minutes of watching the engineer tinker in silence, he turned to the door.
Omar held out a small key drive. “Take this. I know now I should never have shown you, and I ask you to forgive me for that.”
Nicholas took the key drive.
“It’s her,” said Omar. “The entire program and library of images to go with it. You can load this into your workstation in your quarters. And keep it there for your own. Please understand. What you ask is impossible. I’m sorry it was stolen from your grandfather’s archive, from your very family.” He turned back to his work and did not watch Nicholas leave.
At 0700 on the two hundredth day of The Prophet's voyage, Nicholas reported to the Captain's cabin with Grigory all but breaking his arm in his grip. On the Captain’s screen could be seen the planet in full view now. Nicholas could still not get used to it.
The Captain smiled at Nicholas without even acknowledging Grigory with so much as a glance.
“We have come to beg your forgiveness,” said Grigory.
“And?” The captain did not take his eyes off Nicholas.
“We realize, simply by making the request that we have put you in a very uncomfortable position with your superiors. For that we must beg forgiveness.”
“Sit.” There was only one chair, and Grigory inclined his head subserviently to Nicholas to indicate he should take the seat.
“You have indeed put me in an awkward position, and only a public apology will help us both avoid a diplomatic embarrassment.”
“Of course,” said Grigory, head still bowed, both hands clasped in front of his belly.
The captain pushed a piece of paper toward Grigory. “Please read and sign.” Nicholas started to rise from his chair, but the captain held up a hand. “Not you, Father. You are to be held blameless in the situation. Your comrade’s signature will be sufficient to satisfy my superiors and those of your respective countries.”
Grigory once again bowed, glanced over the document, and signed it.
The captain smiled at Nicholas. "That’s that, then, thanks be to Allah. Our missile will launch in precisely 23 hours. The U.N. Secretary despises ceremony. He's barely tolerant of the show that's going on tomorrow-but the international community must be served, the old States embarrassed, all that nonsense. The world will be watching."
The world will be watching, Nicholas thought. What he said to the captain was, "Thank you, sir. I'm glad of the little chat."
"Good day to you, Father Kandinsky," said the captain with sudden dignity. He rose and shook the young man's hand. When Grigory offered his own, the captain glanced at it, without meeting his eyes, and turned his back.
“Perfect, Kandinsky,” he said when the doors closed behind them in the chapel. “You should receive an award for your performance.”
“What are you talking about? You just agreed to a humiliating public apology.”
Grigory made a great show of lighting a row of candles. “Of course I did. All we needed was the excuse to enter his cabin.” Grigory lifted his palm drive. “We just needed to be in the proximity of his workstation to access all the data we needed.”
“We assumed our Captain would not be stupid enough to obliterate the lander without first downloading whatever was worth keeping. He may be devout, but he’s not a fool. No doubt you weren’t even aware of the rover they sent down yesterday to gather the content? In any case, all we needed was to get near enough to his own work station and my wireless toys would be able to copy his files.”
He put the palm drive in his pocket. “As you see. Mission Accomplished.”
Nicholas stopped. “You never needed to land on the surface.”
“Wake up, Kandinsky. You need to understand what opportunity means on this voyage. We didn’t build this ship. Neither did our Saudi overlords. We are both occupiers—but we know the ship better than they do. That’s why we’re here. Of course we didn’t need to land. We just needed to get into his cabin.”
“You never needed me to make the request.”
“We needed you to make some request. We also needed you to alert our Captain to our…subterfuge—enough so that an approach—appropriately servile—to his quarters would make sense and not be considered a threat.”
“You have taken advantage of me.”
“Some time ago, have you only just noticed? Why do you think we deigned to bring you on this voyage? Why do you think a second-rate Russian stooge was chosen?”
Nicholas turned his eyes to the floor.
“Just stay out of our way for the rest of the voyage home, and your masters in Moscow will receive the favorable report they desire. And we all go home happy.”
Nicholas sat at his workstation, staring at the princess on his screen, before he began to alter her attire, to return her to the original form in which his grandfather had designed her for his patriarch.
In the evening, Nicholas visited the lounge, where Grigory was already drunk. He lowered himself slowly into the cushioned seat beside the Estonian, who patted his hand.
“No hard feelings, Kandinsky.”
“Of course not.” Nicholas smiled as his eyes dropped to the man’s lap. He shifted a little closer to him. “Don’t mind saying, I’d like a little of that vodka myself.”
“Ah—we’ve won him. Even Kandinsky will risk the wrath and respect of our overlord Captain!”
“Hush, Ianko. Getting drunk doesn’t mean getting stupid.”
Nicholas returned to his quarters after midnight. He touched his monitor and her visage greeted him. He sat down, inserted Grigory’s palm drive into his own system. When he saw it recognized, he erased it.
He sat back, gazing off into the shadows of his room for a moment, before leaning forward, logging out, and then logging in with Omar’s name. When the system prompted him for the password, he closed his eyes, whispering, ‘please, God,’ and typed: fadela.
He opened his eyes and smiled.
In the early hours of the morning, he left his cabin, realizing his comrades might be waiting for him if he emerged at his usual hour.
He climbed up the tube to the lounge, which was empty. He went back to the couch where he’d found the others the night before, and slid Grigory’s empty palm drive between the cushions.
He headed next to the observation deck where, in one of the more solitary cubicles, exhausted by his midnight efforts, he fell asleep looking at the planet whirling below.
Several hours later he awoke, cradling his left arm which felt numb. He looked around blankly for the empty lounge and its silence brought on a momentary panic.
He climbed down to the lower level, making his way to the main corridor. As soon as he moved, a klaxon rang in the distance, as if from many levels removed. The corridor cams boomed with the captain's voice.
"Who's out of their quarters! Get under restraint!"
The Prophet was preparing to accelerate into a new orbit and he was loose in a ship about to feel many times the force of normal gravity.
He ran to the nearest tube, but stopped in frustration, realizing if he was stuck in a tube when the ship changed vectors, he'd probably break his neck.
The ship's center of gravity shifted, and the priest screamed as he slid toward the starboard wall, clawing at anything to keep himself from rising more than a few feet. The floor rose up beneath him.
Nicholas felt a snap in his neck as he struck the floor. His lips cut under his teeth, and as the ship accelerated, he spun away, trailing a viscous line of blood. He glided towards the other side of the corridor, recovered his senses and reached for a door latch when the ship reached constant velocity.
The captain's voice didn't allow him much rest. "We've got a fix on you. Stay right where you are. We haven't achieved orbit yet." Nicholas heard him swear before going offline. He climbed nervously to his feet and started heading for a tube to the third level. He clambered up the ladder toward the first level and through a small breezeway where he paused as a swift and painful headache accompanied his escape from the familiar gravity. He grit his teeth, grabbed the strap just above his right shoulder, and let it pull his weightless body fifty yards to the portal of engineering.
He reached the door and spied Omar through the window below him. The engineer had just risen from his chair where he’d patiently been enduring the ship's orbital adjustment. He pushed himself toward the shoulder of the cannon, moving it into one of the outer turrets and rode with it, maneuvering the cable as the weapon’s turret turned to its target. To Nicholas, it seemed to be pointing at nothing but the starry void of space. He couldn't see the planet surface through the turret window.
He screamed Omar's name as the man pushed off the shoulder and drifted to the control panel. But Omar couldn’t see or hear him.
An alarm sounded and Nicholas gasped when the cannon lens lit like the sun, and a cry came from command center.
"Look at that..."
The captain's voice spluttered. "That...that's not the flag. What…What?!"
But for Nicholas there was nothing to see; he turned to the intercom whose monitor showed the same dumb view of the ship’s shuttle bay. Anything, he thought. Just anything, let me see. Let me see my handiwork.
A voice on the bridge said it was beautiful, and that sound stabbed his heart, and Nicholas roared as he turned to hurl himself once more against the engineering doors, his knuckles cracking the glass over the door panel. Still, they did not open.
Omar had been watching the little princess from a viewer on the console, his mouth hanging open, his expression almost comical, the sweat beading on his forehead.
"Blasphemy!" the captain's voice bellowed now, with all the hollow formality of a commander who knows he is being watched by his subordinates. He ordered a security detail to engineering while there was still time, and threatened death to his communications officer if he failed to stop transmitting the signal to Earth. "Or we'll all be executed!" he cried.
Inside their quarters, Grigory and the others watched, transfixed in spite of their hangovers, their eyes still harboring the merest shadow of what had briefly turned above the planet surface and melted now into the background of stars forever. “What is she doing here,” Grigory merely whispered, "The God bearer…?"
When the apprehensive guards finally reached the zero-g breezeway, all they found was Nicholas drifting back towards them, his shoulders wracking in sobs and his tears stretching after him in a translucent arc of discrete mist.
© 2008 by John Farrell
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
John Farrell is the author of The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology (Thunder’s Mouth Press). His short stories have appeared in AFF DoubleThink as well as the old Aboriginal SF. John has also written science articles for Cosmos Magazine, Salon, Skeptic and National Review.
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(Image 1 Source: APOD.NASA.GOV)
(Image 2 Source: Georges Jansoone)