Curious if y’all like this variant of the opener better than the previous one…
Red sunlight shone through the stained-glass windows of Saint Robert’s cathedral when Kyle Rivera came to meet the old priest. Approaching the altar, the middle-aged captain made the sign of the cross before the church’s famous relic, an ancient letter that predated the Second Exodus.
“Fascinating, isn’t it?” The priest said. “They say it came all the way from the Origin world. The letters are Greek, of course, but a dialect much older than the pidgin Greek of the Confed border.”
Kyle nodded and stood. “Is it authentic? Truly?” There were, it was said, enough relics of the Second Exodus to fill a thousand fleets.
“It was tested many times and confirmed,” the priest answered. “It’s a letter from an ancient Christian Emperor to Pope Eugene III, so long ago nobody can really say when it happened, what with the old time-dilation effects of the early exodus. It was written on the world Christ died upon. Priceless beyond measure.”
The grizzled captain nodded, gesturing to the empty pews around them. “And yet there are few pilgrims to see it.” It’s a wonder nobody has stolen it. A relic predating the Second Exodus out here in the boonies?
“True enough. Few come out to the Kileen sector anymore, even for pilgrimages. These are old worlds, as you know. Abandoned, save for the mining corporations and the forensic data archaeologists, looking for old relics. Which is part of the reason I asked you to come, Kyle.”
The priest motioned to the empty pews, worn in many places by generations of worshipers long dead. Kyle felt the age of the place around him, in the musty scent, the etched stone, and the architectural details long out of fashion in the core worlds.
“I know World Corp has you running another gate job out here.”
“How would you know that?”
“For one, why else would you come back here? But we are always monitoring new gate jobs.” The priest sat down in one of the pews, his robes billowing about him momentarily. “In this case, we want you to decline the job.”
Kyle laughed boisterously. “Yeah, sure. Turn down two million credits. Janus, for a priest you’ve got a lousy sense of humor.”
“It’s no laughing matter. Look, you know as well as I do that this sector is old. Older, perhaps, than New Landing itself. The Church’s records are quite clear that a colonization fleet reached Kileen in the early days. Perhaps direct from Old Landing itself. Perhaps even earlier. Only our records reach that far back, even in corrupted form.” Janus explained. “You should listen to us, Kyle. World Corp has been around for what, half a century? How old is the Church?”
Kyle shook his head. “You don’t get it, Janus. It cost me a quarter million just to get the equipment and the fuel to reach this sector. If I don’t get paid, I go under. That’s the nature of my business.”
“But you live here…” Janus pointed out. “Or you did. Your christening was on…”
Kyle interrupted the priest, unwilling to take a trip down memory lane. “Not for a long time. Look, I get lots of business out this way because people know me. But that doesn’t mean it’s free to travel. It costs 25 large just to get into orbit on a dustball like this these days. But forget all that. I’m a businessman.”
It was the priest’s turn to laugh. “You’re a mole man, Kyle.”
“Yeah, so?” Kyle challenged him, his voice hard. “It’s honest work, after a fashion.”
“Look,” Janus said, reaching into a small bag. “We will pay you not to go.”
Silence stretched out a moment as Janus produced the Estate Certificate, as good as gold – better even – anywhere the Church still had influence. Five-hundred thousand credits backed by the Vatican, and Janus just casually dropped it in Kyle’s lap. Cryptographic codes clicked at the top of the certificate’s display, confirming the denomination. Something is going on, something bigger than World Corp’s mining contracts. But what? What could motivate the Church to throw money around like this?
“Don’t go, Kyle. Not just for us, or the money. There are warnings. Warnings as old as the Vatican itself, that tell us not to go where they’re sending you. The Church has always been cautious in this sector, even after the Great Migrations. Ask yourself why this church remains in such good repair, despite the waning pilgrimages, the minimal and transient population. This watch has stood here for two thousand years, and never faltered.”
Kyle shook his head. “Legends to frighten children, Janus. Nothing of importance happens here. This is the backwater of the universe, always has been, even since I was a kid. Without World Corp’s mining operations, these worlds would be dead. Neither of us would be here.”
“Maybe,” Janus said. “Maybe. But the warnings are legitimate, they come from our oldest records, and speak of the nameless force that chased all of our ancestors out here. You remember your schooling?”
“Yeah. But look, let’s not get dramatic, Janus. People have been poking around the Kileen sector since the early days – by your own admission – and nothing interesting has ever happened here. The whole area is so boring, most of the early settlers left for New Landing. These worlds are cold and infertile, the terraforming job was shit and most of the habitable rocks out here are reverting. If it weren’t for the relics and rocks people dig out of the ground, nobody would even bother. There is no boogeyman out here. There isn’t anything out here.” But he wondered at that. Was he trying to convince the priest, or himself?
Janus shook his head. “It’s not like that. Look, I don’t have time to get into it. Point is, we take the warnings serious, and so should you. But even if you don’t care, we’re offering to pay you to do nothing, and it’s a good offer, Kyle.”
“They’ll just send another gate building crew, you know. Even if I take your money.”
“No. They won’t. You’re the last.”
“You bought them all?” Kyle tried not to think of the enormous expense that represented. WorldCorp must really want the mining rights to that system, because surely the Church would have tried to bribe them directly before going to every gate building crew in the Churchlands. Sure, it’s specialty work, but there are least a dozen other crews and… Well never mind that. Do I want five-hundred thousand credits for free, without months of my life getting flushed down the shitter? We can take another job, maybe that gig in Ravenna, and pocket the money as a bonus. Of course, if the Church is this desperate…
“One million.” Kyle demanded, trying not to betray his own anxiety.
“If you call World Corp right now, and cancel the contract with me as a witness, the Church will agree to one million.” Janus reached into his bag and produced a second Estate Certificate.
“Jesus… you’re serious. Okay, you win…”
Mercifully, the priest declined to call him out on his casual blasphemy. Janus walked him over to the cathedral’s wallcom, pinging the local World Corp headquarters. It was exceedingly late on board the orbital habitat, but if he knew his man…
Sure enough, Paul’s groggy, stubble-covered face filled the screen. The mining executive’s eyes were slanted in a fashion common in the Eastlands. “Captain Rivera. This is unexpected. And… fuck. Not again.” He caught sight of Janus. “Whatever this man is telling you is bullshit.”
Kyle nodded his firm agreement. “Yes sir, it’s probably horseshit and then some. But his money is good. And I can exercise my opt-out clause.”
“You don’t want to do that. You do that, and you’ll never get a job from us again.” Paul frowned.
“Now who is full of shit? If every other gate building crew in the Churchlands is out, then that means we were last on your list anyway. Which, I suppose I should have figured out on my own.” He chuckled. After that job on Cordova III, the whole crew had been on the World Corp shit list. Come to think of it, Kyle wondered, it was really suspicious that they’d even bother with us after all that. Maybe there’s something to Janus’s claims.
“What’s he offering you?” Paul sidestepped the question entirely.
“One million. And that’s for doing nothing at all. And me? I like doing nothing. Been wanting to do nothing for years, in fact. I got a whole lot of plans for doing nothing.”
“We’ll do four.” Paul said simply.
Well, he doesn’t waste time. Kyle smiled. This was going very well for him indeed. With that kind of money, he could pay off his loan on the ship. But there was almost certainly more room on the negotiating table.
“Five million or I walk.”
“Don’t do this.” Janus’s strained voice came from behind him.
“Unless you can lay out more cash, I’m definitely doing this. I am a businessman after all.” Acid dripped from Kyle’s voice. The priest’s silence confirmed that he either could not or would not.
On the viewer, Paul stroked his chin nervously. There was a dangerous look in his eyes. “Fine. Five million. I’ll have the papers drawn up in the morning. Don’t be late, this does not alter our timetable, understand?”
Kyle nodded, and Paul cut the transmission. He turned to the priest, wondering what he could even say.
“I’m sorry, but… look, the money is good. Still, I wouldn’t have been able to do that without your assistance. So, you want a cut, maybe? Maybe I could donate a quarter mil to the Church or something. Call it a tithe.”
“This is a mistake, Kyle. I’ve taken your confessions before… and yet I think this is the worst mistake you’ve ever made.” Janus stood up and stared at the tarnished, ancient reliquary for several moments. “But if you must go, at least take one of us with you.”
“We’re not going on a pleasure cruise.”
“No, you aren’t. But you may just need the Church’s help.”
Kyle rubbed the stubble on his chin for several moments. “Fine… but the Church pays the orbital fees. You want to tag along, okay. But it’s on your dime. I’m not paying the upfront costs.”
Janus nodded. Kyle looked up at the stained-glass window, the local sun setting beyond the horizon, darkening it. Great cylindrical generation ships lay below the figure of Christ, enthroned as the Lord of the Universe. There was a sadness in the messiah’s eyes, three crosses behind him burning as old Earth fell to the legions of Hell. But his arms encircled the ships of the Second Exodus, protecting them from harm as they traveled the deep.
I hope Janus is wrong. I always thought that was all bullshit to frighten children, but sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a grain of truth buried in it after all…
He shook his head slightly to clear his thoughts, walking out of the old cathedral. The rest of his crew would probably be in the village’s local dive bar. He felt more than saw Janus’s eyes burning into his back as he left, and he found he could not turn to say goodbye.