Starhaven Transit Station
02:00 hours, local time.
Two in the morning isn’t typically a busy period on a starbase, especially if that starbase is little more than an interstellar transit station in a sector populated mostly by recently admitted members of the Coalition of Aligned Worlds – members whose planets are still dealing with the kind of wars and strife that the Founding Worlds resolved centuries before.
My wrist-comm vibrates against my pulse-point and I flip up the protective cover. As expected, it’s my fiancé, Basil, calling from the C.S.S. Cousteau, his billet, and the closest thing to a permanent home either of us has at the moment.
“Zoe, I am gratified to be speaking with you in real time,” he opens. “Time delayed messages are inefficient and lack feeling.” It’s a two-d image, flat on the tiny display panel.
“No disagreement here,” I respond. “But you were the one who said I should take this gig. ‘Using theatre skills to help flood-displaced children process their trauma would be a useful way to spend your semester break,’ you said. I could be spending the next five weeks doing Shakespeare in the Park on Hunter’s Moon, where there are cafes and restaurants and cushy hotels.”
“You could,” he says, “but you enjoy helping others. And, as I believe you pointed out, the time you spend on Repostus will look good on a resume.”
“There is that,” I agree, my tone slightly rueful. “But at least on Hunter’s Moon you could visit.”
“I miss you also,” Basil says, comprehending the words that were unsaid as well as those that were, and cutting off any further whining from me in the process. “However, assuming that there are no unforeseen events while you are away, your return shuttle will rendezvous with the Cousteau in forty-one days, seven hours, and seventeen minutes.” He leaves off seconds and fractions thereof, but I refrain from commenting on that.
“See you soon,” I say with no little bit of sarcasm in my tone. But the last word becomes a yawn. “I have three more hours to kill. I’m going to find the replimat and a rest pod. I’ll send a message as soon as I’m checked in at the hostel.”
“Very good,” he says. “I love you, Zoe.”
“Love you too,” I answer, flashing him a tired smile. “Harris out.” I cut the channel and snap the copper-colored cover back down.
Two and a half hours later, I’ve napped, washed up, and obtained a café mocha from a kiosk that claims to ‘proudly serve Red Sands Coffee.’ It’s not awful, but it’s not as good as the real thing. Better than the replicator though. My luggage has been checked through, so I only have my daypack and the coffee to deal with as I make my way to the boarding lounge.
Four-thirty in the morning is busier than two o’clock was, and most of the rows of chairs are at least partly occupied. I choose a seat in the front row, next to a conservatively dressed woman who appears to be human, and about the same age as my mother.
She bids me good morning and asks if I’m waiting for the shuttle to New Zaatari, the capital city. Then she says, “You look familiar. Should I recognize you?”
I get that a lot, partly because I’m the daughter of a celebrity composer who’s a bit of a playboy, and partly because I’m engaged to the Star Navy’s only officer who is also a sentient AI, and partly because even though this gig is an unpaid externship I’m doing during the winter intersession of my senior year of university, I’ve had several paid jobs, including a tour with the Idyllwild Theater of the Stars. Translation: for someone who’s not quite twenty-two years old, I’ve been in the press a lot.
Still, I hedge. “Not necessarily.”
“You must be an aid worker then, coming to help with the survivors from the fires?”
The smaller continent on Repostus recently suffered a debilitating drought followed by terrible wildfires, and complicated by floods. It was all comparable than what had happened in California, on Earth, in the first half of the twenty-first century, but on a much wider scale.
“Sort of,” I say. “I’m here with Beyond Theater. We’re going to be working with the kids from Safirah, using theater skills to help them process.”
“Ah, so you’re on a mission! That’s worthy. I, too, am a missionary of sorts.” I open my mouth to tell her that I’m not a missionary, just an actor, and a student, but she goes on. “I travel to planets in strife and bring them the word of The One.”
I can’t help shivering. The last time I encountered someone following ‘the One,’ it was Basil’s twin leading a coalition of artificial intelligences that wanted nothing more than to eradicate all organic life from the cosmos. Never mind that organic life created them and kept the power on.
But this woman isn’t referring to Castor. Instead she was referring to the focus of a relatively recent religious movement. The old religions – Judaism, Islam, Christianity, the Cruastean Practice from the planet Chelea, and many, many more – all still exist, but religious practice has become largely personal. People no longer proselytize, and I don’t remember ever encountering an itinerant evangelist before.
“I didn’t think people still did that,” I tell her.
“I don’t know about ‘people,'” she says. “I only know about myself. Bringing news of The One’s loving kindness to the unenlightened is a personal quest. I used all my personal savings, moving from planet to planet, and when that ran out, I started working odd jobs in exchange for food and transit.”
“That seems like a lot…”
“It is, but my cause is true. If more people truly embodied The One’s teachings, the universe would be a better place.”
I notice, now, that she has a satchel full of data-flimsies, presumably holding religious tracts. She is staring at me, her face open, expectant. “The universe could use more kindness,” I say.
But what I’m thinking is that on one level I agree with her – more loving kindness is never a bad thing, as long as it comes with equal measures of acceptance and understanding. I’m also thinking that I don’t want to tell her I agree with her because she’ll assume that I’m also a follower of The One, and conventional, human, religious practices have proven challenging to mesh into my life with Basil. Not that I’m particularly devout or anything, but I grew up in a family that actually went to church on occasion, and part of me misses the community and the rituals involved.
But this inner dialogue is actually an improvement over former versions of myself, because two or three years ago what I would have been thinking – and possibly saying aloud – is that this woman is a freaking nutcase with no life.
To her credit, she doesn’t offer me any of her data flimsies. Instead, she says that she’s also going to Safirah, to offer spiritual succor to those who need it. “So many parentless children there, now,” she says, real grief in her voice. “And so many childless parents.”
An announcement for our shuttle – it’s delayed forty-seven minutes – makes her last few words unintelligible.
Curious, and with more time to fill, I ask her, “What motivated you to do this?”
“My husband,” she shares, her voice soft, “and my son. They were both in the Navy and served during the Oligite Invasion. Both their ships were lost.”
I’d been living with my mother on the Cousteau during that war but had been with my father on Centaurus celebrating the winter holidays, and his wedding to my stepfather, at the time. I’d returned home to find my mother injured, and it had been Basil’s support that helped me through it. But I don’t tell her that. I just say, “I’m so sorry.”
“The NFS sent a counselor and a priest, and after spending time with both of them, I reconnected with the teachings of The One,” she explains. “My family was fairly religious when I was young, but I’d lost my way, as so many do.”
I’m distracted by the sight of a family with three children and a luggage pile you could build a fortress from attempting to navigate through the increasingly crowded lounge. The adults in the group are both wearing the uniform of the Coalition Medical Service. They were probably reassigned to Repostus because of the extreme need for doctors. I think about the two bags that are being routed to the shuttle for me – a privilege accorded to me because of my Navy fiancé – one of which is stuffed full of packaged chocolates and hard candies from Earth and Centaurus. My cheeks flush with embarrassment and guilt. Sure, the snacks are meant to share, but I could easily manage with far less than I brought.
My new friend follows my gaze. “Packing light is a skill taught by necessity. They should be grateful they have so much to carry.”
“I’d never thought of it that way.”
“I learned it the hard way.”
We chat for a few more minutes, and then the shuttle finally opens for boarding.
“Thank you for the conversation,” she tells me. “You will be doing a good thing, a worthy thing. It will be hard at times, but there will be moments of joy. Remember that The One teaches that it’s right to embrace joy wherever we encounter it.” And I can tell that she really means the words she’s spoken. Then she glances down at my left hand, where my engagement ring gleams against my vacation-tanned skin. “Your partner must be proud of you. Lean on that when you miss him.”
I realize that I hadn’t mentioned Basil or having a partner, and I suddenly wonder if I should be checking to see if she filched my identi-chit while we were talking. Shaking my head, I stand up, sling my pack over one shoulder and step toward the open hatchway that leads to the shuttle. It strikes me that we’d never exchanged names, and I turn back to ask for hers and offer mine, maybe see if our seats are close together, but the chair she had occupied is empty, and I don’t see her walking away.
Shrugging, I let the gate attendant scan my chit and I take my seat on the shuttle, but I can’t shake the woman from my mind, and when they close the hatch for launch, I ask the onboard attendant if anyone is missing.
“Nope, everyone’s checked in,” she says.
Basil often reminds me that the universe is full of strange things, and not all of them are massive events. I resolve to think of the evangelist as one of them. I further resolve to take her advice during these five weeks of separation from my partner: find joy in all things.
Notes: New Zaatari is named after a city in Jordan, where Clowns Without Borders spent time with Syrian refugees. Safirah is named after a city in Syria. This piece was partly inspired by their work. Thanks to Fran for naming Repostus and CJ for naming Starhaven.