Chapter 11 - The Church of Him

At a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour the monorail car moved with a subdued hissing sound. The Saturday crowd of passengers seemed to be enjoying themselves in a quiet way. They did little talking. In one clump near the back a man was sharing a flask around. Even this group wasn't noisy; they only smiled more. A few well-behaved children at window seats craned their necks to see out, pointed, and asked questions in incomprehensible dialect.
Kevin Renner behaved in much the same fashion. He leaned sideways with his head against the clear plastic window, the better to see an alien world. His lean face bore an uncomplicated smile.
Staley was on the aisle, apparently sitting at attention. Potter sat between them.
The three were not on leave; they were off duty and could be recalled via their pocket computers. Artificers at the New Scotland Yards were busy scraping the boats off the walls of MacArthur's hangar deck and making other, more extensive repairs under Sinclair's supervision. Sinclair might need Potter, in particular, at any moment; and Potter was their native guide. Perhaps Staley was remembering this; but his rigid posture was no sign of discomfort. He was enjoying himself. He always sat that way.
Potter was doing most of the talking and all the pointing. "Those twin volcanoes; d'ye see them, Mr. Renner? D'ye see yon boxlike structures near the peak of each one? They're atmosphere control. When yon volcanoes belch gas, the maintenance posts fire jets of tailored algae into the air steam. Without them our atmosphere would soon be foul again."
"Um. You couldn't have kept them going during the Secession Wars. How did you manage?"
The landscape was marked by queer sharp lines. Here there was the green patchwork quilt of cultivated fields, there a lifeless landscape, almost lunar but for the softening of erosion. It was strange to see a broad river meandering unconcerned from cultivation to desert. There were no weeds. Nothing grew wild. The forest grove they were passing now had the same sharp borders and orderly arrangement as the broad strips of flower beds they had passed earlier.
"You've been on New Scotland for three hundred years,"• said Renner. "Why is it still like this? I'd think there'd be topsoil by now, and scattered seeds. Some of the land would have gone wild."
"How often does it happen that cultivated land turns to wild life on a colony world? For aye our history the people hae spread faster than the topsoil." Potter suddenly sat up straight. "Look ahead. We're coming into Quentin's Patch."
The car slowed smoothly. Doors swung up and a handful of passengers filtered out. The Navy men moved away with Potter in the lead. Potter was almost skipping. This was his home town.
Renner stopped suddenly. "Look, you can see Murcheson's Eye in daylight!"
It was true. The star was high in the east, a red spark just visible against blue sky.
"Can't make out the Face of God, though."
Heads turned to look at the Navy men. Potter spoke softly. "Mr. Renner, you must not call it the Face of God on this world."
"Huh? Why not?"
"A Himmist would call it the Face of Him. They do not refer directly to their God, A good Church member does not believe that it is anything but the Coal Sack."
"They call it the Face of God everywhere else. Good Church member or not."
"Elsewhere in the Empire there are no Himmists. If ye walk this way, we should reach the Church of Him before dark."
Quentin's Patch was a small village surrounded by wheat fields. The walkway was a broad stream of basalt with a ripple to its surface, as if it were a convenient lava flow. Renner guessed that a ship's drive had hovered hem long ago, marking out the walkways before any buildings were erected. The surface bore a myriad of spreading cracks. With the two- and three-story houses now lining both sides, the walk could hardly be repaired in the same manner.
Renner asked, "How did the Himmists get started?"
"Legend has it," Potter said, and stopped. "Aye, it may not be all legend. What the Himmists say is that one day the Face of God awoke."
"He opened His single eye."
"That would figure, if the Moties were actually using laser cannon to propel a light sail. Any dates on that?"
"Aye." Potter thought. "It happened during the Secession Wars. The war did us great damage, you know. New Scotland remained loyal to the Empire, but New Ireland did not. We were evenly matched. For fifty years or thereabouts we fought each other, until there were nae interstellar ships left and nae contact with the stars at all. Then, in 2870, a ship fell into the system. 'Twas the Ley Crater, a trading ship converted for war, with a working Langston Field and a hold full of torpedoes. Damaged as she was, she was the most powerful ship in New Caledonia System; we had sunk that low. With her aid we destroyed the New Irish traitors."
"That was a hundred and fifty years ago. You told it like you lived through it."
Potter smiled. "We take our history verra personally here."
"Of course," said Staley.
"Ye asked for dates," said Potter. "The university records do no say. Some o' the computer records were scrambled by war damage, ye know. Something happened to the Eye, that's sure, but it must have happened late in the war. It would not have made that big an impression, ye ken."
"Why not? The Face of-the eye is the biggest, brightest thing in your sky."
Potter smiled without mirth. "Not during the war. I hae read diaries. People hid under the university Langston Field. When they came out they saw the sky as a battlefield, alive with strange lights and the radiations from exploding ships. It was only after the war ended that people began to look at the sky. Then the astronomers tried to study what had happened to the Eye. And then it was that Howard Grote Littlemead was stricken with divine inspiration."
"He decided that the Face of God was just what it looked like."
"Aye, that he did. And he convinced many people. Here we are, gentlemen."

The Church of Him was both imposing and shabby, It was built of quarried stone to withstand the ages, and it had done so; but the stone was worn, sandblasted by storms; there were cracks in the lintel and cornices and elsewhere; initials and obscenities had been carved into the walls with lasers and other tools.
The priest was a tall, round man with a soft, beaten look to him. But he was unexpectedly firm in his refusal to let them in. It did no good when Potter revealed himself as a fellow townsman. The Church of Him and its priests had suffered much at the hands of townsmen.
"Come, let us reason together," Renner said to him. "You don't really think we mean to profane anything, do you?"
"Ye are nae believers. What business hae ye here?"
"We only want to see the picture of the Co-of the Face of Him in its glory. Having seen this, we depart. If you won't let us in, we may be able to force you by going through channels. This is Navy business."
The priest looked scorn. "This is New Scotland, not one 0' yer primitive colonies wi' nae government but blasphemin' Marines. 'Twould take the Viceroy's orders to force yer way here. And ye're but tourists."
"Have you heard of the alien probe?"
The priest lost some of his assurance. "Aye."
"We believe it was launched by laser cannon. From the Mote."
The priest was nonplussed. Then he laughed long and loud. Still laughing, he ushered them in. He would say no word to them, but he led them over the chipped tiles through an entry hail and into the main sanctuary. Then he stood aside to watch their faces.
The Pace of Him occupied half the wall. It looked like a huge holograph. The stars around the edge were slightly blurred, as would be the case with a very old holograph. And there was the holograph sense of looking into infinity.
The Eye in that Face blazed pure green, with terrifying intensity. Pure green with a red fleck in it.
"My God!" Staley said, and hastily added, "I don't mean it the way it sounds. But-the power! It'd take the industrial might of an advanced world to put out that much light from thirty-five light years away!"
"I thought I had remembered it bigger than it was," Potter whispered.
"Ye see!" the priest crowed. "And ye think that could baa been a natural phenomenon! Well, hae ye seen enough?"
"Yah," said Renner, and they left.
They stopped outside in the failing sunlight. Renner was shaking his head. "I don't blaine Littlemead a damn bit," he said. "The wonder is he didn't convince everyone on the planet."
"We're a stubborn lot," said Potter. "Yon squinting silhouette in the night sky may hae been too obvious, too..."
"Here I am, stupid!" Renner suggested.
"Aye. New Scots dinna like being treated as dullards, not even by Him."
Remembering the decayed building with its shabby interior, Rennet said, "The Church of Him seems to have fallen on evil days since Littlemead saw the light."
"Aye. In 2902 the light went out. One hundred and fifteen years ago. That event was verra well documented. 'Twas the end o' astronomy here until the Empire returned."
"Did the Mote go out suddenly?"
Potter shrugged. "None know. It must hae happened around the other side o' the world, you see. Ye must hae noticed that civilization here is but a spreading patch on a barren world. Mr. Renner. When the Coal Sack rose that night it rose like a blinded man. To the Hinimists it must hac seemed that God had gone to sleep again."
"Rough on them?"
"Howard Grote Littlemead took an overdose of sieeping pills. The Himmists say he hastened to meet his God."
"Possibly to demand an explanation," said Renner. "You're very quiet, Mr. Staley."
Horst looked up grim-faced. "They can build laser cannon that fill the sky. And we're taking a military expedition there."