Today’s excerpt is from my short story “The Chaplain’s Assistant.” This story first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Analog magazine, and is currently available in my collection of award-nominated and award-winning science fiction: Lights in the Deep. “The Chaplain’s Assistant” also forms the backbone (in concert with its sequel, the Hugo award nominated novella “The Chaplain’s Legacy”) for my forthcoming novel, The Chaplain’s War, from Baen Books.
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Every human head in the building turned towards the visitor, each set of human eyes smoldering with a familiar, tired hate.
“I would speak to the Holy Man,” said the mantis through the speaker box on its disc. Its fearsome, segmented beak had not moved. The disc and all the machines within it were controlled directly by the alien’s brain.
When nobody got up to leave, the mantis began floating up my chapel’s central aisle, the mantis’s disc making a gentle humming sound. “Alone,” said the visitor, his vocoded voice approximating a commanding human tone.
Heads and eyes turned to me. I looked at the mantis, considered my options, then bowed to my flock, who reluctantly began to leave—each worshipper collecting handfuls of beads, crosses, stars, serviceman’s bibles, and various other religious items. They exited without saying a word. What else could they do? The mantes ruled Purgatory as surely as Lucifer ruled Hell.
I waited at the altar.
“You are the religious officer?” said the mantis.
“The Chaplain is dead. I am—was—his assistant.”
“We must speak, you and I.”
Again, I noted the mantis’s lack of armament.
“What can I do for you?” I said.
“I wish to understand this entity you call God.”
I stared at the alien, not quite sure if I should take him seriously.
“To understand God,” I said slowly, “is a skill that requires ongoing mastery.”
“Which is why the other humans come here, to this structure. To learn from you.”
I blushed slightly. In the year since I’d built the chapel—some two years after our failed invasion and subsequent capture—I’d not given so much as a single sermon. Preaching wasn’t my thing. I built the chapel because the Chaplain told me to before he died, and because it seemed obvious that many humans on Purgatory—men and women who had landed here, fought, been stranded and eventually imprisoned—needed it. With the fleets from Sol departed, and our homes many thousands of light-years away, there wasn’t much left for some of us to turn to—except Him.
“I don’t teach,” I said, measuring my words against the quiet fear in my heart, “but I do provide a space for those who come to listen.”
“You are being deliberately cryptic,” the mantis accused.
“I mean no offense,” I continued, hating the servile tinge in my own voice as I spoke to the beast, “it’s just that I was never trained as an instructor of worship. Like I said when you asked, I am only the assistant.”
“Then what do the humans here listen to, precisely?”
“The spirit,” I said.
The mantis’s beak yawned wide, its serrated tractor teeth vibrating with visible annoyance. I stared into that mouth of death—remembering how many troops had been slaughtered in jaws like those—and felt myself go cold. The Chaplain had often called the mantes soulless. At the time—before the landing—I’d thought he was speaking metaphorically. But looking at the monster in front of me I remembered the Chaplain’s declaration, and found it apt.
“Spirit,” said the mantis. “Twice before has my kind encountered this perplexing concept.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Two other sapients, one of them avian and the other amphibian.”
Other aliens . . . besides the mantes? “And what could they tell you about God?”
“Gods,” my visitor corrected me. “We destroyed both species before we could collect much data on their beliefs.”
“Destroyed,” I said, hoping the alien’s ears couldn’t detect the shaking dread in my voice.
“Yes. Hundreds of your years ago, during the Great Nest’s Third Expansion into the galaxy. We thought ourselves alone, then. We had no experience with alternative intelligence. The homeworld of the avians and the homeworld of the amphibians were pleasing to the Patriarchal Quorum, so those worlds were annexed, cleansed of competitive life forms, and have since become major population centers for my people.”
I took in this information as best as I could, unsure if any human ears had ever heard anything like it. I thought of the Military Intelligence guys—all dead—who would have given their years’ pay to gain the kind of information I had just gained, standing here in the drafty, ramshackle confines of my makeshift church.
I experienced a sudden leap of intuition.
“You’re not a soldier,” I said.
The mantis’s beak snapped shut.
“What are you then, a scientist?”
The mantis seemed to contemplate this word—however it had translated for the alien’s mind—and he waved a spiked forelimb in my direction.
“The best human term is professor. I research and I teach.”
“I see,” I said, suddenly fascinated to be meeting the first mantis I’d ever seen who was not, explicitly, trained to kill. “So you’re here to research human religion.”
“Not just human religion,” said the mantis, hovering closer. “I want to know about this . . . this spirit that you speak of. Is it God?”
“I guess so, but also kind of not. The spirit is . . . what you feel inside you when you know God is paying attention.”
It was a clumsy explanation, one the Chaplain would have—no doubt—chastised me for. I’d never been much good at putting these kinds of concepts into words that helped me understand, much less helped other people understand too. And trying to explain God and the spirit to this insect felt a lot like explaining the beauty of orchestral music to a lawnmower.
The professor’s two serrated forelimbs stroked the front of his disc thoughtfully.
“What do the mantes believe?” I asked.
The professor’s forelimbs froze. “Nothing,” he said.
“We detect neither a spirit nor a God,” said the professor, who made a second jaw-gaped show of annoyance. “The avians and the amphibians, they each built palaces to their Gods. Whole continents and oceans mobilized in warfare, to determine which God was superior. Before we came and wiped them all out, down to the last chick and tadpole. Now, their flying Gods and their swimming Gods are recorded in the Quorum Archive, and I am left to wander here—to this desert of a planet—to quiz you, who are not even trained to give me the answers I seek.”
The professor’s body language showed that his annoyance verged on anger, and I felt myself pressing my calves and the backs of my thighs into the altar, ready for the lightning blow that would sever a carotid or split my stomach open. I’d seen so many die that way, their attackers reveling in the carnage. However technologically advanced the mantes were, they still retained a degree of predatory-hindbrain joy while engaged in combat.
Noticing my alarm, the professor floated backwards half a meter.
“Forgive me,” said the alien. “I came here today seeking answers from what I had hoped would be a somewhat reliable source. It is not your fault that the eldest of the Quorum destroy things before they can learn from them. My time with you is finite, and I am impatient to learn as much as possible before the end.”
“You have to leave . . . ?” I said, half-questioning.
The professor didn’t say anything for several seconds, letting the silence speak for him. My shoulders and back caved, if only a little.
“How many of the rest of us will die?” I asked, swallowing hard.
“All,” said the professor.
“All?” I said, at once sure of the answer, but still needing to ask again anyway.
“Yes, all,” said the professor. “When I got word that the Quorum had ordered this colony cleansed of competitive life forms—prior to the dispatching of the Fourth Expansion towards your other worlds—I knew that I had a very narrow window. I must study this faith that inhabits you humans. Before it is too late.”
“We’re no threat to you now,” I heard myself say with hollow shock, “all of us on Purgatory, we’ve all been disarmed and you’ve made it plain that we can’t hurt you. The Wall sees to that.”
“I will return tomorrow, to study your other visitors in their worship,” said the alien as his disc spun on its vertical axis, and he began to hover towards the exit.
“We’re not a threat—!”
But my shouting was for naught. The professor was gone.
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