“Ben I’m telling you, we have to go to the South Pole!” Meruna stamped her left foot in emphasis of her words. Her hands clasped a crumpled piece of paper, a photo. In her eyes shone a righteous indignation, a fervor that was intoxicating.
Benjamin smiled at her, coyly. “Meruna, Meruna,” he cooed at her, stepping up to her, grabbing her by the shoulders, fingers lightly massaging her, “calm child, be calm.” He smiled down at her, the frown around her mouth was adorable, like the smile of a child who knows it is absolutely right, no matter the consequences or reality. He allowed his hands to drop down to hers, still clutching the photo, “here, now, let’s look at that again.” He pulled her hands open and lift the photo out of them. He stepped back from her and sat lightly down in the small chair at her desk.
The reality was she shouldn’t have been in his room. Not really, as only other men should have come in here alone, a rule established to protect women who were members of her particular sect in the Church. He nearly smiled up at her. He had justified allowing her entry on her own on the first day she arrived on Mars telling her, “I am no man to you Meruna. I am the voice of the holiest spirit, wind hissing from the very mouth of God.” She nearly had fainted at these words. Trust in him had been built from the first time he had captured her all those years ago at the hospital when he had returned from Vesta. He had chosen that medical center because he knew that she was there, he knew Samuel’s daughter, an orphan, had found work at that miner’s hospice. That first time he had seen her enter his room, he on the bed, nearly dead from the wasting sickness of zero gravity work, and she, a nineteen year old at the beginning of the prime of her sexuality. He had been careful to leave at his bedside his old bible, his leather bound daily prayer book, his rosary hanging on the corner of the bed behind his head. He had been careful to ensure that his hospital garments were bleached as white as possible. He had ensured that the lights near his bed table reflected off the sheets around him, because he knew, he knew that this girl who had never had a father, a strong male in her life, would want him. She would want him to be that father figure, that male presence. Oh he had planned it for weeks while still on Vesta.
He knew that it was unusual to work so frequently on mining missions in the asteroid belt, but he had been able to do it. The days after he had been laicized and fired from the Church his rage was great and his thought was to get off world, lick his wounds, and find a way to take revenge on Samuel. Finding work as a miner had been an easy matter, he had made several friends in the capital of Brazil, in Brasília. His work leading up to expulsion from the Church had gained him many admirers, especially because his focus as a military priest had been to support the power and infrastructure of the Church herself. So many men had become wealthy and because they knew that Ben had focused on preservation of the power of the powerful, well they remembered him. His first work as a miner had been on the Moon. A long established mining operation, pilfering the last remnants of Helium-3, used so frequently in the fusion rockets of the inner solar system transportation systems and ships. The consumption of this element meant the ever growing search for it, and the rocky inner solar system seemed to be prime for it. Thus his career as a Helium-3 miner was born. The mining foremen loved Ben; his military background meant he wasn’t afraid to take orders, but nor was he afraid to give them. He always pushed the limits of his gear, breathing apparatus, space suits, fuel limits. He was always on the envelope’s edge, and was always producing the highest results. Thus when he finished a project on the Moon and applied for Vesta, they made an exception to the 1 year on as a miner, two years off. Vesta had been especially a desirable asteroid to mine, so rich in gold and platinum that it was a number one miners request. On his downtime when working at Vesta Ben had been researching everything he could about Samuel. He knew that following the last battles in Paraguay Samuel had met a local woman, that they had fallen in love. That Samuel, even though attempting to cover up this illicit affair was careless. Ben learned that after the woman contracted cancer from the radiation sickness, Samuel had arranged for his daughter to go to one of the many orphanages created by the Church. Ben knew that Samuel fled South America, back to Europe, and eventually to here, Mars.
Ben smiled and looked up at Meruna, drawn back from his thoughts, “So you believe this,” he motioned at the picture, “is real?” His dark eyes flashed and his brows came down upon them.
Meruna hesitated, “I know I found it in that priest’s room with a letter from Bishop West himself.” She sat down quickly, “Ben tell me, what does this mean? How could something like this be here?” She leaned forward, “I know I am called to be here for these poor lost souls, I mean looking at that priest, what’s his name, Wayne” her frowned deepened, “he looks so ridiculous with all the cosmetic work he’s had done. Is not vanity a great sin?” She shook her head. “this thing,” motioning at the picture, “must be a test for us. I have no doubt that what ever it may be, it is an opportunity for us to share the true power of the church. No longer must we fight, for if those who doubt us, doubt our faith resist, they shall be cast aside, set afire and destroyed in their own ignorance!” She leaned up on her elbows to stare into Ben’s eyes, “Benjamin, there in all these hundreds of years has been no evidence of other life out there except microbes and bacteria. Nothing else has been found because we are it, we are the reason for creation and this place, Mars,” she swept her hand around the room, “is the final testament to our ownership of the universe. It’s endlessness is only the hem of God’s cloak and we are fortunate to be swept into existence upon it.”
Ben sat back in the chair and smiled. Ah this was a familiar story from her. Passion for the universe and it’s expanse. Once space exploration had begun again after the war, many scientists were certain extra terrestrial life would be found. And they had been right, life was found all around the solar system, just none of it complex. At first as they were able to peer further and further into the universe, many believed other intelligent life would surely be found, yet as they searched, as they listened, nothing came up, nothing was found. The Church, because she offered hope after the war spun space as a place not to ignore, but to plunder. Life on Earth was forever changed, nearly extinct were most sea creatures, most large animals and so she taught that God had provided the rich vastness of space as the place to refill what was lost. That everything they ever needed would be replenished. People in their own limited sight and suffering began to see and hear what they wanted; they were able to finally have a place to take from again, to grow rich, have resources, have power. And the solar system began to provide this and more.
Ben stood and walked behind Meruna, gently placing his hands on her shoulders. “Meruna, my dear, you needn’t worry about the find at the South Pole, I agree with you, it’s a test, but it’s not a test for the likes of or I, it is a test for these “priests” on Mars.” The word priests came out sounding like it was poison on his lips. “No doubt our beloved Bishop West is simply putting out there that this world, Mars, our home, is going to under go a trial. The war on Earth may be over, but the war here is not.” He leaned down, his cheek near to hers, “Meruna, I will send someone to the south pole, but you my dear have a mission here.”
She looked up at him over her shoulder, “I do?” Her eyes curious.
“I need you to meet with the Bishop.”
She gasped, “really?” A smile came across her lips, “He never meets with anyone anymore, not after the last attempt on his life!” She stood, pushing through his arms over her shoulders as if they hadn’t even been there. She spun around, “Do you think he’ll remember me?”
Ben nodded, remembering himself. It had been 2366, only a year after he had met Meruna in Brazil. The hospital he had recovered in was still his home, but he had already worked out a plan to leave it, to head to Mars in the next year or so. He had heard that the colonization for permanent habitation had been started in earnest, and he had heard that the priest Samuel, now called, Don had applied to transfer there. Don would have been in the second wave of permanent settlers, giving him the authority of seniority on the planet. A position he had long relished. Benjamin knew that Bishop West had employed Samuel, Don, to him as his first aide and as an emissary to the Mars colony Mercy. At first the only miner going to Mars were hand selected by Bishop West, or his emissaries and so to get an assignment there was near impossible. Generally once a miner went to Mars, he didn’t come back. It was too far, it was too expensive and Mars was becoming a permanent job. The Church knew this and saw it in the rosters of the returning workers. It also knew that these men stayed longer and longer, they wouldn’t do so without some semblance of normalcy, and so they began creating that normalcy in the types of settlers going. Trade not only of the minerals and resources of Mars was being conducted, but trade of the cultures of Earth. The planet couldn’t be treated just as if it were an outpost on the edge of habitable space, it had to be treated like it was the center. So when Bishop West came to Brazil he was there not to recruit for new miners, he was to recruit for women, children, bakers, bankers, doctors and entertainers to go to Mars. The day the Bishop had come to the hospital was the day that Meruna had embraced the life of a holy woman.
Ben had been watching the Bishop’s entry to the hospital from an upper window down on the plaza leading into the main entrance. He didn’t think the Bishop would know him, and even if he did, he doubted he would recognize him. Space changes a man, ages him, hardens him, freezes him, boils his blood. But Ben wasn’t sure that the attendants with the Bishop would be so blind. Instead, he watched. Telescopic binoculars give him the closeness of view he needed and the audio device planted in his ear, feeding off of Meruna’s own bible transmitter gave him the sound. With Ben’s coaching and influence, Meruna had been selected as one of the young woman to present a gift to the Bishop, the rare manakin feathers laced into the chain of a rosary whose beads had been made of polished ivory. Ben remembered the exchange of the two Meruna first to the bishop. “Your excellency, I present to you this simple gift of prayer, the words of your lips to recite and echo the trials and tribulations of the Blessed Virgin.” She passed the rosary into his hands. The Bishop, a fat man, grotesque and know by most priests to be obsessed with young girls leaned in close to her, drawn by her innocence, her beauty, “Daughter, such a gift.” his fat fingers caressing her cheek, “Tell me child, is it of your construction?” Meruna, always looking for a father figure practically purred, “yes my lord, I found the feathers in the jungle, and the ivory rescued from an abandoned home.” The Bishop grabbed her shoulders, “The jungle! Such bravery!” he leaned to kiss her forehead, “My child, you must pray with me tonight, on this very rosary.” The bishop looked over at his aide with him, “Make arrangements, tonight, at the hotel.” Meruna stood in shock, in awe at his power, his authority. And thus it had begun, Meruna became a favorite of the Bishop then and Ben knew from that moment he could call her back to him, wherever he may go, and always have an in, a way, to be near the bishop.
Ben pulled out of his musings and looked at Meruna, standing before him, nearly floating in the gravity of Mars, “He’ll remember you, in fact I believe he knows you arrived here.” Ben sat back down. “Meruna,” he said softly, “sit down.”
She looked puzzled, “What is it Benjamin?” She sat down.
“I’ve not been entirely honest with you about this priest, Father Don.” He narrowed his eyes carefully but lowered his head so she couldn’t see them.
“What do you mean? Father Don? isn’t he the head priest here?” Her voice’s timbre climbed.
“Yes, yes he is, this is true.” Ben played off as if what he was saying was painful, and perhaps some part of it was. “Meruna, this is the priest who falsely accused me all those years ago, back in Paraguay.” He heard her gasp but did not look up. Silence. Finally he looked up and saw she was crying. “Child, why do you weep?”
Meruna was looking over Ben’s head, perhaps at a light above him, “I so wanted to like this priest Benjamin. There’s something about him, something familiar.”
Ah of course, that was it. “Hmm, perhaps there is Meruna. Did you meet him with the Bishop?” Ben knew she hadn’t, by the time Bishop West was in Paraguay, Samuel, Don, had already been prepping for the trip to Mars.
She shook her head, “No, I don’t think so.” She wiped her eyes, clearing the tears. “I just know your faith Ben, and cannot imagine that any other person would not see it.” She looked at the crumpled picture now laying on the table in front of her. “I mean your faith sees through the deception of these things,” motioning at the picture. “I saw it and immediately thought it was true, you see it and immediately take it as an opportunity to be more faithful. This priest, Father Don, he must have been blind like I am, all those years ago in South America, to not know the truth about you, just like I don’t know the truth about this thing at the south pole.”
Benjamin, for a moment was taken back by her earnestness, her fervor in believing in him. He felt his teeth grind in his mouth. Swallowing he leaned closer to her. “My child, daughter.” Words chosen because of their power, “your wisdom is like the brightness of the sun. Father Don indeed is mislead, but we shall guide him to the truth, but first Meruna, we have to guide the Bishop.”
She looked startled, “The Bishop? But he’s so wise, so holy.”
Ben repressed his chuckle, and instead cleared his throat before continuing, “Indeed, he is child, but even he needs guidance. For I believe he does not see this object found at the south pole as a test but rather as the truth. We must guide him, show him that the find on the south pole is no more an object of alien design than the very stones and sand of Mars herself.” He leaned back, “Meruna, do you remember the rosary you gave him, back in Brazil?”
Meruna paused, “The Ivory one?” Ben nodded, “Yes, I suppose so.”
Benjamin, reached into his front shirt pocket, pulling the rosary out, the feathers nearly bald, but the ivory shining brightly in the LED lights of the room. He slid it on the table towards her, over the photo of the object at the south pole. “you must return it to him.”
Her eyes widened, “But how?” She stopped speaking for a moment, lifting the rosary, “Will he even remember this?”
Benjamin nodded, “yes, according to my sources, he had lost it some years ago, it had been his favorite thing from Brazil.” He didn’t tell her that she had been his favorite thing. “There’s more.” Benjamin stood and went to a drawer in the wall, opening it he pulled a long bag out. He carefully laid it on the table. “In this are the feathers needed to recreate the rosary.”
Meruna’s eyes widened even further, “but, but, how?” she sputtered.
Ben smiled as he sat back down. “Museum find.” he shrugged. “It is not important, what is important is that you must give this to the Bishop tomorrow, after the mass, before dinner.” He reached over the table and took her hand, pulling it away from the rosary beads. “Meruna, we have the chance to restore the Bishop’s faith. We have the chance to light a fire in all the faithful here on Mars, and from Mars, we have a chance to renew the faith of the galaxy.”
She stared at him, her eyes bright. “And what of that priest Don?”
Ben smiled a crooked smile, “Oh his faith shall be tested. He will either survive the test.” Ben stood up to go behind her again, pressing his hands on her shoulders, “or he’ll die.”
She froze beneath him, becoming nearly solid for a moment. “Die?”
Ben pulled her out of the chair, gathering the feather bag and picture, pressing them into her arms. “If he has no faith, then he is already dead.” He kissed her forehead and guided her to the door. “Go Meruna, rest, pray. Create that rosary. Tomorrow shall be your day.” She nodded, stumped as to what else to say. She started out the door, then spun around to him.
“Benjamin?” she asked.
“Will you pray for me?” she shook her head, “no not for me.” She stepped close to him, “will you pray for Father Don tonight?”
His eyes flashed and he fought to control himself. “I’ll pray tonight, don’t you worry.” He kissed her forehead again, “Go child.” He pushed her out the door. “Computer, seal the door.” the lights flashed and the doors sucked itself closed.
He looked around the now empty room, her scent still filling it. He shook his head, “damn that girl,” he thought. He sat down at the desk and opened his computer monitor. He pressed the screen. “Computer,” he said, “call Father Wayne.”
After a few moments Wayne appeared on the screen. “Are you insane, this can be traced!”
Ben didn’t smile or respond back. “What does Samuel know?”
Ben glared, “Don.”
Wayne looked as relieved as he could, “Oh him. I don’t know, he seems to know a lot about the South Pole. He knows a lot about you…..”
Ben snarled, “knew!”
Wayne was taken back, “what?”
“He knew a lot about me, past tense. he knows nothing about me for twenty years!”
Wayne nodded, “yes, I suppose so. Anyway, he seems to think you’re someone’s puppet he called you a hydria.”
Ben smiled, “Mythical creature, hard to kill. Appropriate.” He leaned close to the screen, “What else?”
“He knows something is up with Bishop West.”
Ben’s eyes widened, “Like what?”
Wayne leaned away from the screen, as if trying to get away, “He didn’t say, just that this was all related to the find at the south pole. I told him I didn’t know anything.”
Ben nodded, “You don’t know anything fool.”
Wayne tried to look annoyed, “Look, I’m trying to play this cool, Don may not be the brightest bulb but he’s no dummy.”
Ben glared, “Don’t underestimate him, he’s smarter than he pretends to be.”
Wayne looked over his shoulder, as if someone were coming in his room, “Look we shouldn’t talk on these things, you don’t know if they’re being monitored.”
Ben didn’t react, “Look Father Wayne,” he hissed the word father, “You have to get Meruna in to see the Bishop tomorrow, make sure he’s ready.”
“What do you mean?” Wayne looked puzzled.
“Just make sure he’s ready for a beautiful girl, that he has time alone tomorrow night.”
Wayne nodded, “I’ll make sure.” Wayne looked again over his shoulder then leaned in close to the monitor, “Is what they found at the south pole real?”
Ben glared and without answering disconnected the communication. “Idiot” he said out loud. He noticed a piece of paper on the floor, the picture, it must have dropped when Meruna left. he swooped down and picked it up. He looked at it again, frowning. He brought it beneath a light, and then noticed something he had missed before. In the lower left hand corner he noticed an image, carved into the stone, the face of chimpanzee or some other similar ape. He gasped, “What the hell?”