0195 - 0200: Search for a Prayer
Collecting Ziggurat #104-#108
One of the crew members looked up at the haggard newspaperman with an expression combining concern and amusement. “Where’s the bear?” He asked.
“What’s the Rosemary prayer?” Lamont asked.
“Rosary,” the medic laughed. Her gaze shifted into the distance as she visibly searched her memory. “It’s, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
The shuttle stopped.
Lamont regarded her incredulously. “Wait. This bloody prayer—you just know it?”
Rosemary shrugged. “It’s common knowledge. I don’t think I know the whole thing. Santana might—I think she’s Catholic.”
Lamont looked around in irritation, looking for a place to discard his cigarette. “Where’s a patch of moss when you need one?” he muttered.
“Did I say something wrong?” Rosemary asked.
“No, you said the right thing at the wrong time,” Lamont fumed. “For all I know, I could have been spared a week of bad sleep.”
Rosemary looked surprised. “A week? Is that how long you’ve been having the dream? Not before?”
“Not that I can recall,” Lamont said slowly. “Why do you…”
Suddenly, he snapped his fingers, scattering ashes from the cigarette that drifted toward the wall as if blown by a breeze. “That’s how long we’ve been in this system,” he exclaimed.
Lamont pulled himself away from the wall. Instantaneously, the nearly invisible seam of the lift’s curved portal slid open to reveal the open expanse of the landing bay. Rather than walking through it, Lamont merely paced to the other end of the shuttle and back again. “To foster receptivity,” he muttered.
“Beg your pardon?” Rosemary asked.
“It’s something Clifford said to me after we found him again. He said that the purpose of the garden is to ‘foster receptivity.’ Those are the words he used.”
“Receptivity to what?” The medic’s green eyes followed him as he paced.
“What? Or whom? Who knows? But there’s one thing I do know.” Lamont stopped in front of the medic and pointed a finger upward, nearly dropping the smoldering cigarette. “We’re standing in what might be the biggest radio tower in the galaxy.”
“Am I interrupting something?” Lazarus Long asked hesitantly, his high brow peeking around the edge of the open portal.
“No, we were just piecing something together,” Rosemary said, pulling herself away from the curved wall. “Speaking of which…”
She bent over to pick up her small medical satchel, which she had placed near her feet upon entering the lift. A moment later, she stood again, holding an assortment of pills in her small palm, which she presented to Lamont. “Listen: I want you to take the white one now. It will help relax you so you can rest on the trip back. The two pink pills will help you sleep after you’re done for the day.”
Lamont grimaced. “Thanks. What are the blue ones for?”
“To help keep you going until you can take the pink ones,” Rosemary smiled.
“We’re running behind,” Lazarus remarked as he settled into the pilot’s seat behind the bulbous starboard porthole of the asteroid pod. “The next wave of immigrants will be waiting for us the moment we arrive. Did something go wrong up there?”
“Not exactly,” Lamont grunted, fastening his restraining straps. “I got distracted.”
“Miss Wells has a reputation for being distracting,” Lazarus smiled, flicking a toggle switch.
The newspaperman glowered at him. “Con—that is, one of the colonists wanted to show me something. It’s some kind of a sculpture or monument. It may offer some kind of a clue as to who built this place and why.”
“What’s your running theory?” The black-haired pilot asked.
“I don’t have anything solid, yet. But you can wager that I’ll get to the bottom of it if we’re here long enough.”
There was a moment of silence as Lazarus activated the craft’s gravity repulsors and tapped the thruster controls to ease them in the direction of the tower’s curved outer wall. As before, they held their breath, waiting to see if the side of the tower would open to allow them egress. As before, they exhaled in relief when it did. Moments later, Lamont was looking down along the length of the tower, at the weird foreshortening effect that occurred as his eyes followed it for miles down to the coal-like surface of the moon, where it looked like a gossamer spider’s web. “Get to the bottom of it,” he repeated thoughtfully.
“Looks like you’re making plans,” Lazarus observed.
“The distance between what we do know about this structure and what we don’t know is nearly bottomless,” he mused. “And yet, it’s right in front of us. Or beneath us, depending on your orientation.”
“Honestly, it gives me the creeps,” the pilot admitted. “The sooner we put this place behind us, the happier I’ll be.”
“What if they don’t want to leave?” Lamont asked.
Lazarus looked at him curiously.
“That landing bay is full of vessels,” the newspaperman reminded him. “Vessels that, from the look of it, come from many different places. Vessels that never left. And most of what we’ve seen in there so far is like some kind of paradise. Could you blame the colonists if they decided they liked it here?”
“Like you said,” the pilot replied uncomfortably. “There’s a lot we don’t know. They’d be taking a lot on faith.”
“Man, where have you been?” Lamont laughed sarcastically and popped the white pill in his mouth. “That’s all we ever do.”
The interior of Westward had a strange, apocalyptic feel. As Lamont walked through it on his way from the landing bay to the forward section of the ship, he found some areas bustling with focused activity as small groups of crew members worked together to solve some problem, rapidly exchanging technical observations between themselves. Other areas were entirely vacant, eerily silent, with lights dimmed to something close to a single candle power to help preserve every volt of energy. With over a hundred people confined to a relatively small space, it was unusual to pass through one of the long outer corridors without running into somebody, even in the small hours. The surreal quality of the experience was amplified by Lamont’s fatigue. Following Rosemary’s advice, he had popped a blue pill in his mouth as he prepared for each of the two subsequent trips to the tower and back. Whatever they were, they did seem to provide him with a boost of nervous energy as he undertook a task that had become almost routine by the end: Settling the passengers in for the ride to the tower, orienting them in the lift, shuttling them to the garden, briefly assessing the situation there, and returning to the asteroid pod. By the time he slumped back into the control chair beside Lazarus, the energy had dissipated into a vague unease accompanied by a cotton-muffled buzz between his ears. He was still experiencing this sensation as he finished what felt like a very long walk, but in fact could not have taken more than five minutes.
Looking down to the end of the corridor on the starboard side of the ship, he could see that it was flooded with bright light. Four crew members were sharing space in the hall, standing just outside the translucent plastic barrier that had been installed to separate the area of the ship that had been structurally compromised from the rest of it. Two of the crew members wore pressure suits and carried helmets under their arms. Out the window to his left, Lamont saw countless points of light passing across each other as a thick cloud of ice crystals drifted across a scrolling sheet of stars. The pressure of the escaping oxygen had set Westward into a spin, the correction of which was apparently a relatively low priority.
One of the crew members looked up at the haggard newspaperman with an expression combining concern and amusement. “Where’s the bear?” He asked.
Lamont ignored the quip. “I’m looking for Santana. Is she in there?” He nodded toward the plastic barrier.
The crew member shook his head, then tilted it in the direction of the corridor that led toward the center of the ship. “She’s in crisis central, AKA, the O.D.”
Lamont nodded. “Cheers, mate,” he mumbled, shuffling to the right. He was relieved that another pressure suit didn’t seem to be in his near future.
The observation deck was typically the center of social activity on Westward. A relatively large open space at the front of the ship, it featured a galley, food and drink dispensers, collapsable tables and chairs, and big windows looking out into space. Now it bustled with another kind of activity. Lamont estimated that half the remaining crew was probably in that room, clustered around dining tables that had been grouped together and were covered with a collection of papers, diagrams and spare parts. The air here normally smelled like instant coffee and burnt toast; now it stung his nostrils with sweat and ozone. He was breathing easier now that the strain on the ship’s oxygen supply had been reduced, but the atmosphere still felt oppressively thin.
Lamont’s eyes darted around the room. At one table, a group of crew members was pouring over a stack of diagrams, pointing fingers and talking over each other. At another, people were sorting through a pile of wires and electrical components. Further ahead, near the windows, Lamont could see the large, pink cranium of Phobos rising above everybody else’s. Stepping to the side, he found what he was looking for: Chief Santana was conversing with the Martian, her arms folded, her diminutive figure almost precisely half the other’s height. Her black eyes flashed in his direction as he wound his way through the clustered tables toward her.
“Townsend,” she greeted him. “You look terrible. Is anything the matter?”
Lamont rubbed the stubble on his jaw self-consciously. The Chief of Operations had probably been awake at least as long as he had and working the whole time, but aside from dark patches under her eyes, she looked as put-together as ever.
“No, ma’am,” he answered. “It’s done. The final group of colonists and crew have been transported to the tower.”
“Excellent,” Santana nodded, unfolding her arms to smooth down the white skirt of her uniform tunic. “Now that’s done, we’ll be able to employ the asteroid pod for retrieving materials and making repairs. A two thirds of the time, anyhow.”
“And the other third?” Lamont asked, stifling a yawn.
“We plan to make daily runs between here and the tower,” the Chief of Operations explained. “That will facilitate some crew rotation. Not to mention our only means of communication right now, since we haven’t found a way to cut through the radio noise.”
“On that topic, what is your impression of the structure so far, Lamont?” The eyes of Phobos had turned toward the newspaperman from their pools of shadow near the ceiling. “Are our people safe there?”
Resisting an urge to sarcastically quote Clifford Ashton, Lamont merely gave a tired shrug. “The part of the tower we’re occupying seems perfectly suited for us. If not for this…” Here, the newspaperman waved a hand to indicate the repair effort. “I would be warning you that it’s got to be a trap.”
Santana winced, rubbing the bridge of her imperial nose. “Yes, and if that’s the case, we have no choice but to take the bait. I wish I’d had the foresight to recommend a second shuttle of some kind for Westward.”
The slender hand of the Martian dropped to rest gently on her shoulder. “One cannot anticipate everything, Amila.”
The diminutive woman smiled weakly and patted his hand, which was easily twice the size of her own. “Nevertheless,” she said.
“Not for nothing,” Lamont offered, “but the landing bay of the tower is holding a proper museum of smallish boats. At least, that’s what I assume they are. And nobody appears to be using them.”
Taking his hand from Santana’s shoulder, Phobos turned to look at him again. “Are you suggesting that we requisition them for our own use?”
“I don’t know what the rules are out here, mate,” Lamont admitted, this time failing entirely to repress a yawn. “But after what that tower’s done to us, I’d say fair’s fair.”
The Chief of Operations rubbed her square jaw thoughtfully. “Interesting,” she said. “But I think we’ve kept Mr. Townsend long enough. Thank you for your help today, Lamont. You’ve earned some sleep.”
“And I hope to get some,” the newspaperman agreed, rubbing his eyes. “But first…” His expression took on a furtive aspect as he glanced about the room, taking a step closer to Amila.
“Yes?” She asked, visibly perplexed.
“I have it on good authority,” Lamont said, lowering his voice to just above a whisper, “That you may be familiar with something called ‘The Rosary.’”
Santana’s dark eyes flashed around the bustling observation deck as if she was afraid that she was the only one missing a joke. But everyone continued their tasks normally, except for Phobos, who was looking down at her and Lamont with an inscrutable expression. “The Rosary?” She repeated, uncertainly.
“Yeah, the prayer,” Lamont prodded her. “I must’ve heard it somewhere, because it’s been nagging at me all week when I try to sleep. For some reason I’m trying to remember it.”
The demeanor of the Chief of Operations shifted palpably as she tried to orient herself for the unexpected line of questioning. She touched Lamont’s arm and turned with him toward the large observation window, so that their entire field of view was occupied by their own reflections against the slowly rotating field of stars. “I’d be glad to help with that, Lamont, but I don’t think we have time right now.” Her voice was lowered to a self-conscious whisper.
“How long does it take?” Lamont asked, surprised.
“Well, there’s a process,” Amila began slowly, looking at his reflection. “You start with the sign of the cross…” Here, her hand traced a subtle but precise gesture across her torso. “And you say, ‘In the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, amen.’”
Lamont’s eyes flashed with recognition. The Holy Ghost is on the move tonight! Abner Wade had said to him a few days earlier. He nodded. “Right, brilliant. Is the Rosary after that?”
“I’m trying to explain it,” Amila replied quickly. “After the Sign of the Cross is the Apostle’s Creed. Then you say the Lord’s Prayer. Then three Hail Marys…”
“Hail Mary!” Lamont exclaimed, loudly enough that he saw several pairs of eyes glance up at him in the reflection of the busy room behind them. He leaned down closer to the petite Santana and whispered, “That’s the bit I’m trying to remember!”
The flash of brilliant white faded as quickly as it had come, followed by a sullen red glow that settled like a shroud over the jagged edges of the horizon. Moments later, a sudden wind carried an oven-like heat over his face. Incongruously, soft-edged white particles began to drift downward, sparsely at first, and then thickly enough that it began to obscure the glowering vista.
“It is snowing!” A voice said behind him.
“That ain’t snow, mate,” Lamont muttered darkly. He felt his fist clench and looked down at it. It was speckled with crimson, the knuckles cracked. He turned to find the source of the other voice, but it felt as if the particles were carrying him away, swirling so close about him now that he felt he might choke.
“Ashes! Ashes!” He began to laugh. “We all…fall…”
Then, through the dust, he saw her face. It drew him out of his panic, her dark eyes fixed on him with sorrow and hope. He was standing in the rubble of the old cathedral again, looking up at the window, and the visage of haunting beauty. One eye was chipped, the colored glass absent so that the ruddy light outside shown through unveiled, like the point of a star. Do you remember? It seemed to ask.
Lamont stepped closer. “Hail Mary,” he said, hesitantly at first. He coughed, cleared his throat. “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
The face looked down, unchanged and yet expectant.
Lamont raised his voice. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”