The seat belt pushed against his extended stomach fat. Alan tried to adjust his seat belt but failed. He sighed. He would need to lay off the synth brownies for the foreseeable future. Too much unfairness in the universe. The human body was still adept at sabotaging itself, even in this age of body augmentation. Maybe in the future, they could tweak the definition of attractiveness into something more attainable
The shuttle continued its journey to the Ramanujan Expanse. He estimated a few more hours until arrival. Few gridspace tesseracts connected to that region of space, and even the bravest of explorers had not been able to penetrate the depths of the Expanse. An odd thing about gridspace, it didn’t correlate that well with realspace. Travel to stars a few light-years apart could take days, while traveling quadruple the same distance could take mere seconds. Even if constant travel stabilized the lanes, the difference would still be there. The tesseract network connecting travel between the stars followed some mad design. One expert likened it to a neural network, a metaphor that stuck due to the time-honored yet erroneous concept of anthropomorphism. Sure, one could try grid-jumping without the use of a tesseract, but the risk of ending up light-centuries from the final destination was too much for most people. It was all academic anyway. Blind-jumping would only be used in extreme circumstances. Alan tapped his finger on a seat handle. The hum of the engines filled the cramped quarters.
Around him sat others who set out to the wastelands of the universe. Two men in green and crimson robes sat at the far end to his right. Trade officials from Huangshen, no doubt. Nearby, a woman with a shock of purple hair picked at her fingernails. A young couple to his left attempted to quiet a restless girl pulling at her seat straps. He wondered why they were out here. Perhaps some looked for fortune, some wanted to start a new life, and others were exiled from their homes. Across from him, a young man in a dress shirt, black pants, and a suit jacket stared off into the bulkheads. On his jacket, someone had imprinted an image of a human figure over the right chest. He called out, getting the man’s attention, “So, what are you doing way out here?”
There was a pause. He wasn’t sure if the man had noticed him and as he was about look for something else to distract him, the man answered. “Well, I’m heading to the Rotok colony. They needed a few missionaries there on account of the old one being run out because she was sleeping with the colonial administrator’s wife.”
Alan nodded. These backwater worlds were much more amenable to preachers than the cosmopolitan, worldly, sophisticated citizens in the Core Worlds. “HU?”
“Close, sir. Christians for the Sanctity of Humanity.”
“Really? I could swear that symbol on your jacket was for the HUs.”
“We used to be the Human Union. We merged with the Evangelicals about ten years back.”
The only things Alan knew about Evangelicals were from old documentaries about pre-grid Earth. Some sort of political party that once had a lot of power. “Evangelicals, don’t they wear something different? Like bowties?”
The man shook his head and chuckled. “I’ve never once heard of us being known for our bowties. You probably hear more of the salon clinic bombings. Don’t worry, I don’t mind talking about our sordid history. People always get confused about our organization.”
Alan thought a bit about the history of the HU. Ever since the advent of voluntary gene transcription, there had been great opposition to alteration of the human body by thousands of religions and ‘pure’ human groups. The Human Union, starting as a group celebrating the wide array of human physical, mental, and emotional characteristics, became a particularly extreme and violent opponent. They argued that changing the essential characteristics of humanity at will would lead to a genetic holocaust. “Well, I heard you guys cleaned up your act after the third government takeover,” Alan finally answered.
The man sighed. “Yes, there might have been more effective ways of convincing people that the human body is sacred. Not killing others, for starters.” A silence followed, both struggling to come up with small talk. “So, what are you here for?” he asked.
Alan waved his hand. “Oh, I’m from around here. Thought I’d return to my roots. See the folks again.”
“Oh yeah? What planet are you from?”
“Danube,” Alan said, preparing himself for the next few rote rituals of small talk. “Got parents there. No other siblings.”
“I know that world. Huge desert planet. Funny name they gave it, don’t you think? Do you visit that often?”
“It’s not totally desert. There’s the polar ice caps. Some steppes.” Alan tried to remember any interesting details about his home. “Well, it’s been awhile. I mean, the gridspace web isn’t strong enough there. It’s expensive and exhausting to make all the transfers and go through all the space ports to get there. We really don’t have many things that people want. No uranium. No gas giants No vast stores of gridspace energy. Quiet, though, no aliens with sharp teeth lurking out in these cosmos.” Damn it, he was getting nervous. He really should have invested in those mind-altering glands that Nalia recommended.
“Too bad, right? We might have found someone willing to listen to us crazy religious folk.” The man looked almost wistful. He leaned back in his seat. “I hope you don’t mind me asking a silly question.” He waited until Alan assented. “Do you think we’re alone in the universe? I mean, sure we’ve found a few non-sentients and a boatload of plant life. But nothing really special out there.”
Alan closed his eyes and thought a bit. “To be honest, I don’t really know. There could be. There could not be. I mean, do we really want to know? What if they want to blow us up? We have enough trouble with ourselves.”
The man looked down. Alan hoped he hadn’t offended him. Then he laughed. “You’re right, but I think in a different way. No alien would want to meet us because we’re too much trouble.” The young preacher rubbed the lining of his jacket. “Absurd, isn’t it. We find a whole mass of habitable planets, an amazing ability to go vast distances, all these miracles in the universe, and still we spend most of our time throwing bombs at each other, claiming we owned this rock and that rock. All while people’s homes and livelihoods are destroyed…” He shook his head.
Alan tread with care. “Were you part of the war?”
“Not particularly,” the man sighed. “We were on an agri-world near the front, so Pa and Ma decided upfront that Minnie and I needed to live somewhere safer near the core. They sent us to live with an aunt and uncle in Sarah’s Grove, some tree preservation on the other side of the universe. We never saw them again. A Kenzenken warlord had decided to glass our home so that the Republic couldn’t use our famous synth-beans.” He laughed with a hollow echo.
There was a long silence. The Republic did lose quite a few worlds to such brazen brutality. Alan knew that particular warlord still lived, somewhere in who knows what dark corner of Kenzenken space. He laid his hands on his thighs. “I’m sorry for your loss. I didn’t know.”
The man waved it off. “Don’t be, man. It’s all in the past. You can’t change what’s happened. My sister’s still alive. I’m still alive. At least one good thing came out of it.” His voice took on a deeper tone as he prepared a well-rehearsed speech. “It’s given me a huge revelation. I know what I have to do now, and that’s to bring the message of peace into people’s hearts. It’s an ongoing process. We’ll always be making mistakes. But if we just commit to it and let God help us, if we just work on it day after day, moment by moment, then we can truly find happiness. And despite all the bloodshed, the answer is within our grasp.”
“I don’t know,” Alan replied. The man’s words sounded hollow in his ears. He gazed at a nonexistent window, imagining the stars passing by. He spoke, almost in a whisper. “You know, I’m not sure we really deserve all this. Humanity, I mean. We turned Earth into a hellhole. We lost Alpha Centauri. We left a large chunk of the galaxy in ruins. Maybe we need some smarter aliens to slap some sense into us.”
“You think so? Maybe they’ll be exactly like us. Shooting at each other to gain some obscure minerals. Maybe they won’t care. They’re aliens after all. Maybe they’ll just stomp on us, like we do to ants.”
“I just think there has to be a better way to live than this. What have we really accomplished in the past 50 years? Stabbing each other in the back. Running away when our loved ones need us the most. Pulling our hearts out and stomping at it. Abandoning us in a trash heap. Destroying everything in one moment of doubt.” Alan surprised himself with the amount of anger in his voice.
He looked up and saw the man staring at him, as if deep in thought. A wave of anxiety swept over him. Perhaps he had shared too much. He didn’t know what came over him. He was certainly never this open with strangers.
The Christian man rubbed his nose. “Friend, your view of the world is pretty common. I know it’s easy to be cynical in these times. And it’s easy to see why. Do you know why we kill each other, even with the entirety of the galaxy at our disposal? Do you know why we treat our bodies like commodities, like objects to be traded? And do you know why you pulled that trigger, Mr. Vuong?”
“You know who I am.” Alan’s eyes narrowed. “I’m warning you. Watch it,” he said.
Ignoring the less than subtle hostility, the preacher continued on. “Hear me out. I’m not here to judge you. That’s not my job.” He smiled and pointed up towards the ceiling. “Look, the answer to all these questions is that we’ve stopped listening to God. Now we are lost, wandering the universe trying to define ourselves on our own. We haven’t exactly done a great job of it, as you can see. We need someone out there to define us, some external observer, to set the foundations of our inner beings, to tell us the righteous way to act. That’s God. He can heal everything that’s broken in your heart. Only then will we be free. You just have to stop fighting Him.”
Alan’s eyes met the man’s. He wanted to believe it. He needed to believe it. The past few months he was adrift, just existing. No goal to strive towards. No friends to share triumphs and losses. Just pure, blank space. The same one he had experienced before he met Mihaela. He wanted to let it all go. Let someone else have it. No more guilt, no more shame. No more of the screams he heard every night in his dreams.
But then he grew angry. This arrogant priest dared to lecture him on how to be happy. He knew nothing about his life. Those who bothered to listen to the guy probably laughed in his face. God didn’t exist. There was no room in this universe for such silly fantasies. Just less than a year ago, the war still raged. Pilots lost air from breaches in their space suits, soldiers prayed even after impact bolts tore their bodies in half, and parents with dead stares cradled the radiation-bleached bones of their children. No loving entity could have created such horrors. This ignoramus fooled himself with talk of a caring universe.
He glowered. “If your God is so great, then why are you Christians almost extinct? Why did you have to join a terrorist group?”
The preacher still kept his smile. “You’re hurting. I can see that. I won’t push you. Just know that God forgives all.” He rubbed the side of his head with pale fingers. “But your questions are legitimate. I will answer them. For your first question, it’s not so simple. You see, we have free will. We can’t have God do everything for us. He can’t force us to worship him. When everyone became rich and didn’t have to worry about food and shelter anymore, they forgot that He was the one that provided for us. They started believing in anything that struck our fancy.” The man’s smile dropped. “We Christians also dropped the ball. When our influence waned, when people challenged us, we shied away. We mouthed some platitudes about how everyone’s beliefs were right. We were not steadfast in the faith. So people sensed that and mocked us for our passivity. We began fading.”
“And the Human Union?”
Clasping his hands in his lap, the preacher answered. “We’re human, too. And we do what humans need to do to survive the changing environment. We adapt. You know they were in much legal trouble. They made less than wise decisions. But they had the numbers and their hearts were in the right place. We had the resources. In time, we reached out to them. Told them we should work together. They agreed.”
“But you’re not remotely similar. It seems like you’ve turned into something else. Are you even Christians anymore?”
“Our beliefs aren’t so different. When you lose reverence for the sacred, you start losing reverence for the physical. They knew intuitively that this body augmentation future we’re going towards is ruinous.”
Alan thought about his pilot’s gland. “I don’t know. I don’t think we’re really different. Our bodies may change, but we’re still the same people.”
The man shook his head. “Are you sure about that? When you start adding body parts or change out your organs, you start thinking differently. You can get increased strength and faster reaction times, for example. You start thinking that you’re superior to those who have not augmented themselves. You start thinking of yourselves as a different type of human. And the result of all that will be inequality and more conflict. That’s the problem when you don’t have God. You don’t have someone telling you what’s right. You start testing the boundaries of what defines you. But it won’t satisfy you, so you push further and further until you’re not even human anymore. Take those sex-changers. They make a mockery of our fundamental biology—”
Alan gritted his teeth. “Enough. This conversation is over.”
“Enough,” he growled.
“Oh, of course, I’m sorry if I offended you.” The man started to say something else, but stopped. He crossed his legs and turned his head to the side.
Alan wanted to reach out to him, to apologize, to say it wasn’t his fault, that he didn’t know. But he couldn’t. The moment had passed. However, the man was wrong. Mihaela was just as human as the rest of them. Perhaps even more so. He reflected over the conversation. If there was a God, he didn’t care. The image of the bleeding refugee woman appeared in his head. Certainly not about the pilot that killed a thousand men, women, and children.
A slight wave of pressure hit him as the shuttle accelerated towards the system’s gridspace tesseract. He noticed the stillness in the air. He wondered at how bright the twin stars would be. Whatever it looked like, it represented a welcome reprieve from the previous conversation. The jump would take them to the edge of Republic space, away from the troubles of the galaxy. Soon, this journey would end, and he would be home.