Port Of Souls

Every imperative base necessity and every exquisite luxury imaginable passed through the Lines of the Merchant Marine, this was true – but you also have to understand that nothing and no one important came to the Lines. To come to the Lines, as a final destination, was to be relegated and forgotten.

Sometimes men came here specifically to be forgotten – most of those that did were men. Other times they were sent by others… perhaps more appropriately condemned by others into oblivion. That certainly was the case with me – a priest getting on in years, who instead of professing the official doctrines as expected by the hierarchy, had the callous tastelessness to express my grave concerns and deep doubts to the wrong person.

I have lived here ever since, among hard men: the deckhands, skip-grabbers and hull-scrapers that made up the personnel of substation B1-478-E… affectionately but sarcastically dubbed Shangri La by those who called it home.

As far as Priests sent to the Lines went, ironically, I managed to hold on to my calling, flock and position admirably. I only managed to do this because I lost my faith despite wearing my collar – and I understood about these men what the central planners of the Vatican or Salve Regina Station didn’t. The men of Shangri La didn’t take kindly to lectures by stuck-up elitists or the posturing of purity that was the stock in trade of zealots. Unless you worked right alongside them, and drank with them, and gambled with them – you might find yourself with an unofficial death sentence – which, out here – their annoyed disregard most certainly was. Partaking of the whores sent to the station would have been a step too far – but I was sure that whenever I was offered a whore either in jest or sincerely that I didn’t turn down the offer with anything more than mere disinterest. The men of Shangri La worked hard and lived hard – and they instinctively mistrusted those who didn’t.

 It was one thing to work on the Lines within Sol’s System, or the bases of Centauri, or even the orbital structures just then delivering the first goods from the surfaces around Tau Ceti. Even the installations of the Oort Cloud were connected to the patchwork grid of humanity’s civilization as it spread out from the third orbit of our main sequence yellow star.

Shangri La was beyond the zones of light and constant communication, Shangri La was, in fact, so far outside of the various jurisdictions that nobody saw fit to even impose taxation on the wages of its crew – and that was one of the attractions.

It was money that brought men to Shangri La… and desperation that kept them.

No tax. Your oxygen, room and board and Lines of the Merchant Marine operating license was garnished from your wages – but the rest was paid directly into your biometrics. And the wages you did get – in order to compensate for the remoteness of 478-E were higher. Four times as much as someone with similar qualities and qualifications could make within the solar system, twice the wages in the new colonies.

In theory, on paper or on screens – the proposition looked almost worth it, despite the backbreaking nature of the work and the unrelenting schedules. Using reason, you could come to Shangri La for five years and leave a wealthy person – with enough to buy a stake on Colonial Office Land Registries, or even a small house in Kigali or one of the other great cities.

The wages were so high because Shangri La was so remote. And that is why the prices were so high as well. Your liquor, your tobacco, your opioids – they all cost more out here. And when you worked on Shangri La, you needed your distractions, and sooner or later there wasn’t a man who didn’t partake in something to keep the exhaustion, emptiness or fear at bay.

I was working with men half my age, but it did not bother me much. And while I lacked all faith, and understood that my decision to become a priest was a decision to waste my talents and my life, I was loyal to them.

And so, I didn’t share my misgivings with them.

When they attended Morning Mass before their shift, I said the words they needed to hear and performed all duties with the most solemn care. Men prayed in places like Shangri La not because it was a fashion or a statement but because they had to. They knew risk, death was never more than a single mistake or faulty clasp away.

And when they needed to confess, I listened without judgement… to let them lie down whatever troubled them so that it would not weigh upon them and cause accidents.

And when they wrestled with their own questions, I would hear them out and sit with them, never pretending to have all or even any of the answers.

On those rare occasions that one of them would marry on the station, or one of the women would give birth, I was there to celebrate them and despite very little resources I always tried my very best to make it special for them.

And when they died, I was there too. To perform last rites if they were lucky enough to see it coming. Or to send a shooting star prayer on behalf of everyone – and really for the benefit of those left behind – if they didn’t.

Perhaps, in the genteel religiosity of Earth’s cosy suburbs, an academic discussion could be had about the morality or appropriateness of what I was doing. A priest yes, a believer, no.

But it wasn’t planned, and it certainly wasn’t intended with any malice at all.

My road brought me here, banished into this pretend world that was really no more than a floating steel coffin floating in an ocean of nothingness, and kept alive by the greed of commerce and the sweat, tears and vices of desperate men.

So, when the new priest arrived, I was as shocked as the others.

It was the end of a busy sixteen-hour shift. That day, over 1,500 ships used the substation’s lasers to push them along the trade route. Not one of them stopped or disembarked, but there was already a full dock where repairs and adjustments were being made.

He arrived not in one of the passenger transports but in a small, private craft, the likes of which was almost never seen on Shangri La.

He stepped out on to the promenade and I saw him from the open seating of one of the tavern halls.

He seemed completely out of place here. He had the youthful beauty of someone who never had any hardship. His skin showed no evidence of the Pox, there was no damage to his limbs from war, his black robes were magnificently clean and without as much as a spot of dirt.

He held himself upright, almost too upright, and he moved with a strictness and deliberateness that revealed a kind of steely conviction. Or perhaps it was arrogance. Either way, I knew it wouldn’t play here.

This new Pope really must have meant business if he was sending young priests to the Lines. Outcasts and strays and mongrels and old men came here. Not the cream of the youth.

I finished my corn ale – the only drink I could afford to buy myself – and decided to go and meet with the young man before he got himself in trouble by overestimating the reverence of men this far from easy, good lives.

When I was a young priest studying 22nd and 23rd Century Apologetics, I came across a phrase, itself perhaps older than the period. It claimed there were ‘no atheists in foxholes’.

The young emissary was about to discover that out here the faithful was in a minority; and that the faithful didn’t look like he expected them to; and that, in fact, no one left in the trenches too long could possibly believe anything. Not anymore.

I rushed from the Recreation Decks to the Hub of Spokes – the intricate and maze-like network of walkways that converged roughly in the centre of the station.

From there I managed to make it halfway along the promenade before the young Priest looked at me.

He tried to stay expressionless and averted his eyes. But I could tell he had disdain for me.

Was it my appearance? On Shangri La, you seldom washed your person or your clothes – water being far too precious to waste on anything as banal as cleaning.

Or perhaps the princes of the Church told him about who I was, warning him about the failed cleric they banished to the Lines. Or perhaps my drinking and gambling and yearnings and even my innermost and secret sins somehow showed on my face – having been removed from polite society for so very long.

Whatever it was, and without being able to say why exactly he took issue with me, I could feel his disapproval reverberate from the glassteel tunnel of the promenade.

“Greetings, father. I was not told to expect another.”

He answered curtly: “Salutations. Monsignor would surely have said something about sending you help, if he wanted.”

His accent revealed the blend of Nordic and Esperanto that that placed his world of origin as the middling Jovian Moons. He also mentioned a Cardinal, which meant he may have been born on Himalia or Elara – but he was trained either back on Earth or at Salve Regina Station.

Help, he said. At least it was an attempt, albeit unconvincing, at being diplomatic. There was no way the Church sent anyone out here to help. The young man was either out here to inspect and report back, or to replace.

I picked up one of his bags.

“Well,” I said as cordially as I could, “You are welcome to Shangri La. Let me help you, you must be tired.”

He nodded his gratitude and we went directly to the Shrine of Saint Joseph of Cupertino, behind which I slept… and he would too for the duration of his stay. The life of a priest was by no means luxurious, the life of a priest relegated to the Lines even less so. But between the two of us we would have more space and privacy than any of the non-officers.

“I am Richard, by the way…” I told him.

“Erasmus,” he merely said.

“After the Patron saint of sailors,” I smiled.

He didn’t seem to like that.

When we stepped inside the shrine, Erasmus dropped his bag, immediately knelt, and brought his hands together in prayer.

It was such a sudden and unexpected display of piety that I found myself doing the same, mostly out of shock.

When he was done, he didn’t immediately rise to his feet again. My knees were killing me (all the hard work, I told myself, although old age was as likely).

“Your tattoos. The Vatican frowns on those.”

Before I could help myself, I answered: “The Vatican is very far away…”

At least there was no venom in my voice.

“His Holiness is concerned that his predecessors were too lenient, and tolerated too much deviation from official doctrine. I am here to ascertain if such deviation is present here, and if so, to rectify it. I will not leave until we have restored discipline… among clergy and parishioners.”

“Father Erasmus, I hear you, and will not argue with the wishes of His Holiness. And you and I can be very frank, and brutally honest with each other. But I implore you not to strike a tone like that with the men here. They won’t take kindly to it.”

He crossed himself, turning his face up and throwing his head back a little, as if my caution was beneath him.

I knew then he was in for a tough transition here. And that he knew nothing about his mission.

But to be fair, none of us knew anything at the time. Not really.

*

If not making friends and alienating the parishioners was his mission, Father Erasmus was wasting no time. He insisted on taking the first Morning Mass the next day. It was 04:30 when the faithful entered the shrine, half of them smelling of reinforced chicory and the other half of malt liquor.

Erasmus began with the formal liturgy for the day. First the men smiled like naughty schoolboys, bowing their heads and playing along, but when it became clear that Erasmus wasn’t joking, they began to shuffle about nervously.

As Erasmus intoned the sacred and ancient words – he had a beautiful and melodic speaking voice – I could hear Marve, one of the more pious of the lot, ask the others: “Is he taking the piss or what?”

A few more minutes and the Catholic men of Shangri La cut to the chase, as was their custom.

“Fuck off! We want Father Richard.”

Erasmus fell silent at once, and the colour flowed from his face like air from a deflating balloon.

I took over.

“Our father which art in heaven…”

And the men prayed right along, not skipping a beat, as if nothing had happened. But it was clear from all the head shaking that they were actually angry that their routine had been disturbed.

They left angrily afterwards too, striding from the shrine as if some know-nothing troublemaker just insulted them by preaching an unpopular and offensive sermon.

“You coming Padre?” Marve asked me.

“Tomorrow, Marve. I must take care of our guest today.”

“They’ll dock your pay.”

“I know.”

“Fine. But we can’t pray all day. We got work to do. Tell the boy to catch up.”

I said nothing, merely looking kindly at Erasmus, who slouched in one of the pews, scarcely able to believe his eyes.

When we were alone a while, Erasmus said: “You must follow the liturgy.”

“We do an ‘Our Father’. We do a ‘Hail Mary’. Then I give them a one-minute lesson, based on the liturgy. And then we all pray together for our safety, so that no one dies today. I understand where you are coming from, Father Erasmus. But these men live very hard lives.”

“But how can they call themselves Catholic…”

“I don’t think they call themselves that. To be honest with you, I’m not sure all of them are. But they come here because they want, they need, a little bit of God to touch them before they go and risk their lives. If you don’t understand that, immediately, you will not last long here. And if His Holiness doesn’t understand that, you can say goodbye to any mission on the B1 line. Think of this place as a Gas Rig, or a Mining Platform, or a Prison.”

“It is not the Faith…”

“It’s a little bit of faith. A small, minuscule leaf pushing through concrete. Step on it and it’s broken. It will never grow to be a tree. But if you care about these souls, let it live at least. However little.”

“It’s heresy…”

“No, my boy, it’s reality. You have no idea what these people face. How harsh life has been for them. No one ends up here because they are balanced, taken care of, or in-tact.”

“It’s…”

I quoted the words of Jesus to Erasmus… about being called to get sinners to repent. But it was no use. The young man would not bend.

I feared for him then. Genuinely, in my heart, I knew that if he did not let go of his rigid hold, if he refused to bend – he would break.

Of course, what none of us knew then, was that very soon – all of us would break.

*

To his credit, Erasmus changed tactics – observing and staying very quiet. He also joined the work details. That was good – if he had any chance of being accepted – that was it.

He was given easy tasks at first – on my insistence to the foreman – and still came back to the oxygen of the substation’s interior quivering in fear and exhaustion.

It was on the day he first went out on to the hull with us that everything – not just on Shangri La but everything as we knew it – would finally and utterly and totally begin to change.

I took Erasmus aside, separate from the men, and took him to the tavern with me. I neither drank liquor myself nor insisted that he did. Instead, we drank a stale and bitter jasmine tea – the only non-alcoholic drink on Shangri La.

That was when the newswire came alive and images of ‘the event’ was broadcast to everyone on the station.

The various experts spoke too rapidly to make any sense, reaching for theories that were too complex for anyone out here to understand. But the pretty newscaster stated it just about perfectly:

“A ball of fire with a strong gravitational field – what appears to be some sort of artificial sun – formed just outside of the Oort Cloud, and it is spinning there erratically.”

The experts tried to explain it, or mitigate it, or describe it, or understand it – but none of them could offer any more substance than what the newscaster stated in plain language.

Then she said the one thing that made all the taverns, and eating halls, and workspaces, and decks, and walkways, and the promenade fall silent.

“It appears to be growing.”

Growing?

We knew, even then, that this was no natural phenomenon.

We’d seen a lot, many confounding and mind-blowing and miraculous things. We came a long way from simple hops to rocks in our own solar system. We tamed the solar winds and sent craft and supplies back and forth along the Lines – from Mercury, past Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in two days. Six months to Centauri. Nine to Tau Ceti. We had permanent colonies, not just on rocks but floating in gas giants, or even orbiting nothing.

We’d learned more about the universe and the phenomenon within it than even the most ambitious of our early dreamers thought possible.

And this – this was not like anything we’d ever seen, anywhere, or at any time. The further you looked into the universe, the further back in time you looked – because the light took time to reach our instruments and our eyes. And we never saw anything remotely like the fiery cancerous ball that appeared, grew and spun just outside our home solar system.

And growing? How much could something grow? Big enough to affect the Lines? Big enough to throw Eris or Makemake or Haumea or Pluto or one of the other dwarves from their orbits? What would happen then?

Or why stop there? How big could it get? How about swallowing the solar system?

It turns out we couldn’t grasp it then.

Because as the first refugees arrived on Shangri La, it had been given a name: Apocalypse.

And by then, it already melted the Oort Cloud.

*

On the day I died, I knew that the Magnetar we now knew as Apocalypse – after finishing the total and utter destruction of our own solar system, and moving on to Centauri and destroying everything there, was on its way to Tau Ceti.

By then the world already changed. Shangri La’s population swelled from 7,500 to nearly 60,000. Giant ships that used to whizz past us now stopped.

Also, the Station Commander, B1-478-E highest authority, was a manager called Hubide Mohlen, was busy taking the sails from every additional ship and using it to make the station itself a ship.

Erasmus seldom spoke now. He was trapped where he did not want to be. The existence of things like Apocalypse also challenged him in ways he wasn’t used to.

Our numbers swelled. Not only did the shrine fill up and then flow over with new arrivals, but men who’d worked on Shangri La for years and never professed any faith at all suddenly joined for the Morning Masses.

Erasmus took over some of these – and while he still stuck to things a bit more formally – he got to the punch faster.

The Magnetar’s destruction was awesome to behold – and the men looked at the carnage on the newswires in the tavern, until Manager Mohlen banned the display of the destruction because it caused panic.

The fire of the ball was only the last thing. Long before the artificial sun would show up to burn up planets, gas balls, or other stars, it’s gravity would tear space and shred matter.

We saw Earth die – it took only a few seconds. The shape of our home elongated as it was twisted, as if a careless baby was twisting a lump of wet clay. Then the clay shred so finely that it looked more like splinters, and just as soon as that illusion revealed itself, and the fire was upon it. And it was all gone, suddenly and in an instant: no more St. Peter’s. No Mecca either. No Jerusalem. It was all gone. All of it, completely.

It was then that the swelling of our ranks began to reverse.

Mankind’s biggest frontline foxhole ever was forming in front of us, carving a path of destruction, eating up not only all the worlds we built so carefully and very expensively, but the lines that connected them. All the A-Lines, A-1 through A-74.

A handful of the faithful remained.

Or perhaps, a handful remained among the faithful.

Who knew what secret thoughts men had, at that stage? I didn’t, and I know Erasmus didn’t either.

At Centauri, Salve Regina Station was consumed along with everything else.

If there was a Pope, or a Cardinal, or even a Bishop left… they were no longer talking.

At the height of our Shrine’s popularity, we had 15,000 show up. They spread around the Shrine in all directions, filling every passageway and doorway and open door.  

By the time it was clear Apocalypse was heading for our last established colonies at Tau Ceti, there was about 150 left.

We said our Mass together every morning.

On Sundays, Erasmus took the lead, and by sticking to the letter of every formality, made the church services bearable. It would have been so easy for it all to descend into uncontrollable anguish, or rage, or paralyzing fear.

I was beginning to think that perhaps Erasmus was exactly the Priest the men needed.

On my last day, he convinced me.

My last day? My last thought, really.

We were all suited up – all 150 of us working as if we were a unit. There were some other groups as well, all kind of sticking to themselves. The Mormons, the Muslims, Nieu-Buddhists, some Gaians.

My faith gave out long ago, but my body was to let me down, right there on one of the solar sails.

I say solar sails, but they were really laser sails. First sails just like it used light from the sun to move ships. But we built the network of stations and substations when we set up the lines, and instead of sunlight pushing the ships along, we had fusion reactors powering lasers to push the ships along the little pathways.

Once they connected our worlds like constellations.

Now they would move the station itself out of the way, should the Apocalypse continue past Tau Ceti and throw itself to the B-Line.

Could we make it? Would Manager Mohlen’s last minute, Hail Mary plan work? Could all these deckhands and freight handlers get the makeshift engineering adjustments accurately?

We were about to find out as we were soldering sail panels from the last arrived cargo ships to the already gigantic plume of laser sails behind the station. From afar, it must have looked like little Shangri La was turning itself into a steel peacock.

And then, as I was moving to and fro, my leg snapped.

I felt it.

It had been giving me trouble ever since our rations were cut, again.

But I knew at once this was worse than merely the stinging pain. I could feel the bone stick through my suit.

I looked up at Erasmus, and he looked back at me.

I knew I was as good as dead. He knew it too. And as it dawned on him that I knew that he knew, he closed his eyes in a gentle gesture of comfort. And he smiled at me.

I smiled back.

I rested against one of the golden panels.

It was then that the rest of the men realised what had happened to me.

They stopped work – and started to move towards me.

They should not do that. The station needed the sails up. Seventy thousand human refugees now crowded into the interior of the Station.

Would they make it? Would there be any salvation? Again – I didn’t know, and knew that I would never find out. There was no sight of any promised land yet, and I would not be allowed any entry if indeed it was to be found. That much was certain.

But if the men tried to save me, instead of complete the work, seventy thousand would die out here in cold, dead space.

I nodded at Erasmus, loosened my support line, and let go of the panel.

I heard the men screaming and cursing as they watched me float into the void.

And then Erasmus spoke the last words I ever heard.

And I suppose they were not the best of all possible final words I could have heard, but still they seemed perfect, at least to me.

I heard him. Believe me, you really hear last words when you know that is what they are.

“C’mon, you motherfuckers! There are seventy thousand souls down there, and we can’t afford to let God down today!”