Returning Home (HVS)
Some things are simply unexpected. Neither good nor ill, they appear suddenly and cause a second glance, a blink, a sudden shift in motion as the non sequitur refuses to find rest in the linear, logical categorizations of a linear mind.
The Church of Saint Pelagius is like that. Surrounded to the left, right, and behind by the sleek Art Deco buildings so common in Scolopendra and especially in the Prime Dome of underground Stonozka, its neoGothic architecture complete with stone facades, stained-glass windows, and flying buttresses simply contrasts. It doesn't conflict; it simply fails to blend in a most eye-turning way. As the first real truly Catholic building constructed in colonial Scolopendra--the first church not a prefabricated structure of composites and plastics--it has become the see for the Scolopendran Catholic Church.
For some reason, once reality broke, the faithful simply couldn't continue to call themselves part of the Holy Roman Catholic Church anymore. It didn't seem right.
In a simple and sedate rectory adjoining the white granite edifice of the church proper, The Most Reverend Estevão Xadreque Castelbranco, Primate of Scolopendra and Archbishop of Stonozka, looks out a simple semicircular window out at the artificial blue sky, craning his aged neck a little to see it past the tall surrounding buildings.
"This is what we've been waiting for, isn't it, Your Grace?" The voice is quiet, so quiet that Primate Castelbranco can't quite tell who of the twenty-strong episcopal council said it. The voice continues, slightly louder now, taking the form of the Secretary, The Most Reverend Salvator Timothée Masdeu-Arus, Archbishop of Say'un. "We have been seperate from the Holy Church for thirty years now; now is the chance for us to escape the wilderness. Isn't that what we've been saying to the faithful all this time--someday, perhaps, we can return?"
Estevão chuckles very softly, turning back to the circle of church leaders in their black robes and white collars, his rosary tinkling softly against itself as he moves. Salvator was young and in seminary during The Break... Not so young now, but the fires of his long-gone youth still show at times. "Yes, it is the miracle we've awaited. Still, we are the products of a rational culture--perhaps too rational--and when a miracle happens, we must of course stand in wonder as we look at it, turn it about in our minds, and finally determine it to be real."
The slightly younger archbishop scoffs, but not in an insulting fashion. "That is hardly a way of faith."
"I never said it was," the Primate replies with a slight smile, moving slowly back to his seat, "it is the product of reason and surprise. We should be thankful, it is true, that after years of wandering we have finally found what may be a true voice."
"Indeed," says The Most Reverend Lukács Benedik Szelepcsényi, Metropolitan of Al Khamasin, "the fact that we may finally see the Holy Vatican See again after years of... those falsehoods," the word comes with perhaps a bit more vehemence than intended... then again, almost no Scolopendran could tolerate the thought of Iesus Christi or the old Roanian theocracies, and being of the faith those corruptors twisted to their own ends only makes the antipathy that much worse. "This one is true. I know it, God willing."
Castelbranco nods and sits down carefully--he had been a spacer priest in the old Scolopendran asteroid mining colonies during The Break, and their spin-gravity had always been about half of Earth standard. After only a few years of it, he had never recovered fully. "God willing, indeed... but it is up to us to make the effort, no? I think we have heard arguments both for and against contacting this new Holy Church."
As expected and probably intended, the word new brings winces to the faces of the assorted archbishops. A reminder of the past, as it were. "And now, it comes to a vote. I don't believe there will be any need to use paper ballots, will there... ?"
* - * - *
The letter comes hand-delivered by a rather curious Scolopendran secular Diplomatic Officer, the standard utilitarian lines of the federal service uniform in the sky blue and black livery of the International Relations Section and done with very small amounts of silver-and-black piping. The government does its best to take care of its people, and as its people are quite spiritual by what objective measurements exist, this includes taking care of religious needs in certain ways. The white folded-paper envelope is sealed only with a red wax seal; the letter itself is on standard-size palomba stationary, white as snow except when held up to the light, when the dove watermark can be seen. The paper itself is certainly very old from its consistency but it has refused to yellow with its age; the typewritten script appears to have been done on a manual typewriter equally well kept but with a slightly loose 't' key.
The Primate's hands never took well to writing missives, and he considered it too important to delegate.
Archbishop Tenda Nataka
Secretary of State
Secretariat of the Holy See
My apologies for the typewritten nature of this missive; unfortunately, I lack the manual dexterity to write this in the appropriately traditional manner of our fathers.
I am Estevão Castelbranco, Primate of Scolopendra, and I have a tale which may startle somewhat with its fantastic nature. Thirty years ago, as our nation launched a colonization effort to the Saturnian moon of Titan, the fluid reality in which we live--hopefully you understand to what I refer--shifted and we colonists found ourselves lost from the world we knew and the faithful were seperated from the Holy Mother the Church. For thirty years we have kept the faith as best we could without the guidance of holy Rome; now we see an opportunity to finally return and reintegrate ourselves back into the body of the Church.
We humbly ask for your counsel of aid in our quest to be part of the true Church again.
Your Eminence's very humble and very obedient servant,
The Most Reverend Estevão Xadreque Castelbranco
Archbishop of Stonozka
Primate of Scolopendra
Holy Vatican See
Holy Vatican See
The Scolopendran courier was received cordially, but without comment—the Apostolic See saw so many visitors, from so many exotic origins, that mere unfamiliarity raised no eyebrows. The letter was accepted with grave courtesy, forwarded through the appropriate security checks, and ended up on the desk of Father Martin Stone, Archbishop Nataka’s new Secretary.
Father Stone (but most people called him Father Martin, or even Father Marty… he was that kind of man…) studied the letter carefully. The slightly archaic style was intriguing. He searched the Vatican’s vast databases for references, and put in a request to the Second Section for additional data on the Triumvirate of Yut. Conscious of the trust reposed in him by his new boss, he assembled a copious dossier to accompany the letter to Nataka’s in-file.
It was of middling urgency—all matters connected with “disconnected” Catholics had a high priority—but it still took a couple of days to make it to the top of the pile, with the various current crises occupying the Sostituto. However, when it did, Nataka reviewed the attached material carefully, with approval. The new secretary was shaping up well. It was an interesting case. He decided to carry it personally to the daily briefing. Scolopendra was the lynchpin of the Triumvirate, and the Triumvirate loomed in the background of many issues and international relationships.
Leo understood immediately. He looked over the letter with interest. “Keep me informed on this one, Tenda. And work Michael into it—the InterFaith aspect is likely to be strong.”
The Archbishop made a note, and nodded.
Later that day, he dropped the file back on Father Stone’s desk. “Copy this to Cardinal Hume; I’ll do a memo to cover it. And go ahead and draft a response.”
Father Stone nodded. Later that day, the draft popped into the Archbishop’s “review” file.
The Most Reverend Estevão Xadreque Castelbranco
Archbishop of Stonozka
Primate of Scolopendra
Your correspondence was received with great interest in the Apostolic See. To hear from our sundered brethren is always an occasion for rejoicing.
We are very pleased to undertake all necessary assistance to re-unite the Scolopendran Church into full Communion with the Holy Mother Church. The usual procedure in such matters involves appointing a Commission to review the matter, with relevant dicasteries supplying members and staff. This includes reviewing practice, doctrine, the discipline of the Sacraments, and so on, to ensure that the doctrinal purity of the Deposit of Faith is preserved.
May I suggest that you send a delegation to Rome to discuss the matter in detail? Matters can be considerably expedited if you can supply basic information on Provincial organization, Church membership, religious education procedures, the dispensation of Holy Orders, and the status of any religious Orders extant in Scolopendra.
You will find that much has changed in Rome, perhaps—but the changes are more in style than in substance. The magisterium, the great Deposit of Faith, the true heart of the Eternal Holy Mother Church, remain here in the cradle of the temporal Church.
With prayers for the well-being of all our Scolopendran brethren, I remain,
+Archbishop Tenda Nataka
Secretariat of State of the Apostolic See
This missive was returned, with minor edits, to Father Stone for dispatch. Also in the file was the memo to Cardinal Hume:
Michael Stephen Cardinal Hume
Pontifical Council for InterReligious Dialogue
The enclosed materials are forwarded with a recommendation from the Holy Father, who feels that your Eminence’s counsel in this matter may be beneficial to the proposed process.
A copy of the Secretariat’s response to Archbishop Castelbranco is also attached. Please feel free to contact me or my staff if you have questions, or would like to discuss the matter in greater detal.
Cardinal Hume studied the materials with considerable interest, and did additional research through his own channels on the Scolopendrans.
Sufi Muslims—and their principal cleric was a female Dervish. Now that would be interesting, indeed.
What was the name of the guy on "Friends" who Rachel had a crush on at work?
In the meanwhile, the Secretariat of the Scolopendran Episcopal Council does its own homework. The doctrines of the See were reminiscent of perhaps a bit more conservative than before The Break, and--with assistance once again from the secular government via the Religious Policy Section--relative timeline analysis showed that this could be very well the case, as arguably the Scolopendran timeline had several hundred years on the Vatican one.
"It was only a matter of time before someone arrived before they left, or so the news commentators like to say," OPO Agent Simmias says with a slight smile. Sticking his hands in the pockets of his charcoal-grey uniform, he looks around. "I guess this classifies. You all are a historic first, Your Exellencies."
"That's well and good, Agent," Primate Castelbranco says with a wry smirk, "but I hope you don't mind if we don't take the greatest pride in that fact."
"It'd be unbecoming, for one," Simmias says breezily. Gaining him no more than a group of pained looks, he sighs slightly. "I'm sorry, Your Excellencies. I work with oddities like this on a daily basis... it's the psion's form of mortuary humor."
After the agent excuses himself and leaves the conference room after a few well-meant blessings, the Episcopal Council once again turns inward. "About the response from the Vatican..." begins Primate Castelbranco, "how has our research been coming along?"
"Well, Your Grace," Salvator replies, "their policies are a bit more liberal than ours, currently, but there are no conflicts when it comes to the fundamental tenets of the faith. It is good that we abstained from formulating our own doctrine concerning nonhuman sentience, as the Vatican is currently investigating it and taking a stance of tacit, quiet acceptance much similar to ours. As you can tell from the missive their standards of correspondence are much less stringent than ours."
"That's good, at least, Your Excellency," quips Metropolitan Szelepcsényi, "for at least we won't be dependent on our single box of thirty year-old palomba."
Archbisiop Masdeu-Arus nods. "Also--our time has been limited, so I do not have the greatest specifics yet--it appears the Vatican is much less stringent on the laity and clergy than we are, and is willing to allow slightly more room for adjustment in the Mass."
Estevão quirks an eyebrow. "Explain."
"Your Grace, it comes down to many 'optional' Vatican II and later reforms that we rescinded just to be safe. A wider range of devotional music is allowed; various portions of the Mass that we retain in Latin may be said in vernacular now; and various auxilliary roles may be held by any confirmed Catholic with little to no theological training. My staff is currently working on working out specifics."
"Good, Your Excellency. Have them ready within the week." The Primate pushes what vague misgivings are forming in his mind to the rear. "We must assemble our delegation... and given the circumstances, I believe we should send our highest." The fact that he is the highest ordained Catholic in Scolopendra is left unsaid.
"That makes sense, Your Grace," Salvator replies, "but we cannot leave the store completely unmanned. There are the faithful with needs to address, after all."
"That is what the Vice-President is for," Castelbranco nods towards Lukács, who looks ready to protest until the Primate continues. "He is best-trained and best-equipped to look after our segment of the Church while I am out. You, Your Excellency," he nods to Salvator, "would work best by my side as an adjutant during these procedings."
"As is appropriate for my station." The Secretary smiles. "Shall I contact our peers of other faiths and see if they are interested in attending, Your Grace? My sources indicate that the Vatican has been reaching out to other faiths far more than we have and it may be a good idea to show that despite our... eccentricities we are more than willing and capable to follow the Vatican's policies concerning openness with all of God's children, no matter how they may pray."
Castelbranco makes a wry face. "Do you think that is absolutely necessary, Your Excellency?"
"I just believe it is best if we keep our options open," replies Salvator, "and perhaps a bit of initiative in that regard would not be frowned upon too much. We can make the offer, and it can be accepted or rejected as the Vatican pleases. If anything, it shows that we are willing to adapt."
Estevão grumbles, albeit just barely on the good-natured side. "Very well. Feel free to contact Mullah Kadira and Hrazka... hrazk..."
"Hrazkagk wtunu zhu Kzuzttukz T'kiznb Sizhfa-Ch'johr, Your Grace," Masdeu-Arus assists with a sly grin, following with a delicate cough. "It is a most difficult language."
"Him. And see if they may be interested in our visit. Even if not, we can at least open the door for future contact."
"Of course, Your Grace."
"I, on the other hand," Castelbranco gruffs as he stands slowly, carefully, "will get to typing a response. Would someone be so kind as to get the box of palomba? We have it, so we may as well..."
"I'll get it for you, Your Grace," says the archbishop closest to the supplies closet.
"Excellent. And when you bring it, Your Excellency, could you fix the 't' key on my typewriter? It's loose again, and you've become so skillful at it."
An almost boyish broad smile. "Of course, Your Grace."
* - * - *
Diplomatic Officer (Chaplain, Catholic) Sören Freudenthal rubs his eyes with thumb and fingers a little, leaning back in the padded acceleration couch of the coleopteran Scarab-class utility shuttle. As one of the few secular agents of the International Relations Section who wore a second hat as a fully ordained Catholic priest, he'd been put on point by Advisor Kommetrez and Senior D.O. Hesche to take care of "the Vatican issue." It was, technically, a foreign country and so it fell into IntRelate's domain; as Father Freudenthal had grown up in the system most interested in relations with the Vatican, he was the natural choice for the secular government to take charge of playing courier and acting as liason via the Religious Policy Section.
Likewise, having access to the federal databases (and data on the Vatican, as it is a foreign nation, IntRelate had the most data on it from the spiritual to the mundane), he was the natural choice of the Scolopendran Catholic leadership to gather and collate information in addition to taking care of the Catholic laity in his portion of IntRelate. As far as the org chart went, he was now part of the Secretary's fact-finding staff until further notice as well as responsible for administering the Sacriments and tending to the spiritual needs of the IntRelate branch office in Stonozka (otherwise known as "The Pool" as D.O.s and civil servants constantly came and went from and to assignments through there).
Needless to say, he hadn't been sleeping so much in the past two weeks. At least I made arrangements with Father M'Hadjou down the street to take care of them while I was out. Thank God for civilian clergy.
The flight-suited pilot, a senior flight officer of the Civilian Defense Corps, looks over his shoulder as the flight sergeant keeps the blocky beetle-like shuttle on course. Freudenthal thought the pilot looked something like a beetle himself, with his broad lowered black visor descending from the rounded bulk of the flight helmet with its integral helmet-mounted displays. If his oxygen match weren't locked and sealed into plance instead of dangling lightly from one strap, the priest thought, he could easily be mistaken for some sort of alien insect with a long ribbed proboscis. "We're coming up on the destination, sir, just going into atmospheric insertion decel now. How you holding up back there?"
Sören chuckles as he loosens his crash harness enough to slip the duty flap of his double-breasted lapel back under his right shoulderboard and clasp it in place with a click. "It is only a minor travail for something as good as the greater glory of God," he says with a smile.
The smile is repeated by the pilot, an almost disembodied gesture with no eyes or brows to smile with the lips. "I swear, Father, I'm gonna see what I can do to get you frequent-flier miles or something."
"Oh, it's not the travel," the diplomat-chaplain replies as he leans back, closing his eyes. "I like to travel."
* - * - *
The same Diplomatic Officer appears, blonde hair maybe just a tiny fraction less orderly, skin under the eyes maybe just a tiny shade darker. He still seems alert, happy, and still very politely and sedately curious about his surroundings, but is perhaps a bit less chipper than he was the first time.
The letter he carries, at least up to the message upon it, is identical to the first. The 't' key now appears to have regained full functionality.
Archbishop Tenda Nataka
Secretariat of State of the Apostolic See
We are gladdened by your response and look forward to working with you so we may once again take part in the greater communion and fellowship of the Holy Mother Church. Our Secretariat has compiled the information you ask, and all that remains now is to deliver it in person as would be most appropriate. It would be easiest for us to explain and you to understand if shared in person.
Concerning a delegation, I have decided that my Secretary, The Most Reverend Salvator Timothée Masdeu-Arus, Archbishop of Say'un, and myself shall accept your most gracious and beneficial offer. That same Secretary has suggested that we at least offer our peers in other faiths the opportunity to attend with us or at least to get acquainted with the See they can expect to work with in the future; I leave that to your most gracious discretion as is of course proper. As Scolopendra is primarily a Muslim plurality with a great many other religions more or less working together, it may be best to give you a better understanding of our conditions.
I visited Rome many, many years ago before I took God's message to those who wished to make a living away from the embrace of the Earth; it will be good to see it once again, God willing.
Your Eminence's very humble and very obedient servant,
The Most Reverend Estevão Xadreque Castelbranco
Archbishop of Stonozka
Primate of Scolopendra
Holy Vatican See
One could always be certain of stellar-quality cuisine when invited to dinner with Cardinal Carlo Giovanni Angelini, Secretary of State to the Apostolic See, Michael Hume reflected appreciatively, tucking into an exquisitely seasoned Melanzane Calabre. Normally he wasn’t much of an eggplant fan, but at Angelini’s table, he’d cheerfully shove an old boot into his mouth, confident that the Cardinal’s cook could turn it into a rare delicacy.
Angelini watched his colleague with enjoyment; too seldom, these days, did he get a legitimate excuse for a proper midday meal in his own dining room. Many years in Rome had taught Hume the proper respect for food; he didn’t rush the meal or attempt to bring up business before the dolce was served.
At last, when they were toying with cantucci di prato and fragrant cappuccino, the bulky Secretary of State leaned back in his chair and brought the conversation around to the purpose of the lunch “meeting.”
“So you see, Michael, the Triumvirate has… ah… ramifications. The Holy Father seems to think you’re just the man to appreciate the delicate nuances of the situation. I’ll be honest, my friend—I leave most of the more complex political maneuverings to Nataka; he’s the man for them. My job is to pour on the oil as needed and look impressive in a red-piped cassock.”
Hume smiled. “You do yourself less than justice, Carlo. The Secretariat transition has been most impressive. But I appreciate the Holy Father’s confidence in me. And yours. It is a somewhat delicate situation. I’ve been doing some research. Scolopendra is majority Muslim—so much so that the presence of Catholics barely registers in the available sources.”
He sat back, also. “A fascinating thing, relativity. The strange nature of space and time. Who would have believed it could be so complex, a few decades ago when humanity began seeking the stars? Only now are we beginning to really see the incredibly vast and shifting nature of the physical universe. These people have been in space long enough to develop a culture of great complexity, with human and non-human influences mixed, and affected by factors an earthbound Church cannot yet begin to comprehend.”
“It opens up a whole new field of endeavor for the Church’s scientific research efforts, not to mention the doctrinal issues that will unfold over the next few centuries. The Commission on Non-human Sentience was but the tip of a monumental iceberg,” he looked beyond the walls of the dining room with a momentary intensity that spoke a profound interest.
“But, one thing at a time, of course. The immediate concern is regularizing their status with the Church. As best I can tell—and there is really very little to go on at this point—they are almost painfully orthodox, and conservative enough to make even the Blue Pope smile.”
Angelini repressed a snort at the mention of Renard, but ventured no comment.
“The mechanics should be minimal—unlike the Teritorans, all of the names we’ve encountered so far appear in our own records, properly ordained by John Paul II. So at least that hurdle is not at issue, the catenas of sacramental authority remains intact. Remains mainly to ensure that they are using the correct catechism, the appropriate curricula and materials for priestly formation and seminarial education, and so on. Bring them up to date on the last ten or twelve Synods, the various Commissions… Supply them with all the relevant documents promulgated in the interim, and assign them a couple of theologians and Canon Law specialists to help them integrate the new material…”
“And then there is the issue of their—and our—relations with the majority Muslim leadership, and any other sects of importance. That offers definite promise, Carlo.”
“How so?” The Secretary of State was intrigued.
“Islam there is seen through a very different lens than many—perhaps most—of the earthbound Muslim communities we are generally dealing with. I would not be so presumptuous as to make invidious comparisons, but suffice to say that the predominant Sufi tone of Scolopendran Islam could be a very refreshing influence, if we can bring them into the larger InterReligious dialogues. The Sufi tradition translates the concept of ‘eternal jihad’ into the obligation of the believer to carry the fight for faith within, to achieve personal spiritual transformation.”
“From what I can tell of their clergy and religious leadership, the teachers of Islam in Scolopendra have focused external religious practice in many of the same directions as our own Church—into the struggle for social justice and self-determination of peoples, promoting the freedom within societies that allows individuals to make the free choices of their conscience, and the obligations of the believers to the active works that witness the Mercy and Love of God among His Creation.”
Angelini’s brows rose. “That will set a cat among the pigeons.”
“Oh, they don’t appear to be at all evangelically oriented. Still, you know how powerful such witness can be, simply as example.”
“Yes. I can see why you find it so intriguing, Michael. The Holy Father was right, you’re the man for the job. Nataka is very willing to provide the formalities, and assign you any help you need, but I think he’d just as soon you were the major liaison for overall coordination. Except, perhaps, where the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is concerned.”
Hume grimaced. “Jean-Paul and I have an… accommodation. But the less we are reminded of it, the more smoothly it functions. Still, I don’t like to throw it all on Nataka-san. He’s no more popular with the Blue Pope than I.”
“He’s evolved his own way of dealing with the Congregation. You can leave it up to him.”
Cardinal Hume stopped by the Secretariat later that afternoon, to have a word with the Sostituto, and review the latest correspondence from Scolopendra.
“Interesting. They’re thinking along the same lines already,” he commented. “How were you planning on responding to the offer of a visit from their other religious leaders?”
The Japanese Archbishop was enigmatic. “I had thought to take your Eminence’s advice on the matter. For myself, I would find such a visit… stimulating.”
Hume smiled. “I agree. I’d be delighted to put the Council’s resources at your service for the accommodation of the other guests, while the Archbishops and their staff are dealing with the reunification process.”
Nataka bowed slightly. Hume was one of the very few colleagues in whose presence he allowed himself to be ‘Japanese,’ as he thought of it. Perhaps it was the man’s knowledge and experience of the various Japanese faith traditions, and his palpable respect, as well as acceptance, of such nuance. Nataka adapted well to the difference in culture, but it was still a relief to ‘relax’ and slide into the matrix of oriental formality, as opposed to the mix of conscious egalitarianism and ancient Western tradition that was the Vatican’s post-Conciliar culture. “That would be of great assistance, your Eminence. I thank you.”
Hume bowed slightly, reflexively, in return, and made his way back to his own office.
Nataka conferred briefly with Father Stone, and a response to the Archbishop of Stonozka was drafted later that day.
The Most Reverend Estevão Xadreque Castelbranco
Archbishop of Stonozka
Primate of Scolopendra
We anticipate your visit with pleasure; and I have taken the liberty of making arrangements for your party to be accommodated in residence at the Pontifical Gregorian University, which offers comfortable and spacious guest facilities. Car and driver will be placed at your disposal for ease of transportation between the University and the Vatican City. Upon receipt of your arrival information, we will arrange for your reception at Rome’s Fiumacino Airport, which has adequate facilities for landing orbital transfer craft and other shuttles.
The suggestion of a visit by Scolopendran representatives of other faiths has been warmly received here, and Cardinal Michael Stephen Hume, President of the Pontifical Council for InterReligious Dialogue, is looking forward to placing the facilities of the Council at the service of our guests.
With profound collegial respect, I remain,
Archbishop Tenda Nataka
Secretariat of State of the Apostolic See
"You're out of uniform, Sören."
The priest in his sky-blue-and-black diplomatic uniform gives Castelbranco a dryly wry pained expression, ruined only by the hints of a smile in the upturnings of the corners of his mouth. "My apologies, Your Grace. I just got off the shuttle and, figuring you wanted to read the reply as quickly as possible, did not take the extra time to change my skin from the state's service to God's service."
"You figured correctly," the Primate replies as he opens the letters, "and I must admit that it has been this chain that has given me new respect for our..."--he keeps himself from saying unfortunately--"...liberal secular government."
Freudenthal did not enjoy this part of wearing two hats; the conflicts they could generate were often difficult to maneuver and very rarely rewarding. At least, God willing, the constant practice makes me a better diplomat. "We do try our best to take care of the needs of our citizens, Your Grace," he replies quietly.
Estevão nods idly, reading over the missive. "Good, good. On your way out, Father, please tell Archbishop Masdeu-Arus that his friends are welcome to join us."
"Of course, Your Grace."
* - * - *
"So you waited, just to be sure?" The gentle, delicate scent of green tea wafts up from the ceramic teacups as hands moving with the measured slowness of constant concentration right the simple glazed-pottery teapot and set it back down on the low table.
"Indeed, Mullah Kadira," Salvator replies, taking up his cup with a thankful nod, "as it would be somewhat impolite to make the offer then have to retract."
"I think I'd be able to understand." The dervish smiles from under her simple hijab of cotton as she takes up her own teacup. "I am very happy that Allah blessed your search with results, and quite honored personally that you would make me part of it, Your Excellency."
"Bah, the honor is all mine," the archbishop says with a chuckle and a sip of his tea. "I had planned it all along as it would be best for the Vatican to have an understanding of our context. I am simply lucky in the regard that the Vatican thinks along similar lines, thus forcing the Primate's hand."
"Nevertheless, it is a rare opportunity for us to see the Vatican and an even rarer opportunity to work with our Scolopendran Catholic cousins in Allah's service." The mullah smiles, lightly teasing. "I do understand that the Primate is a good man, if not slightly misguided in that referring to the One True God in a different language somehow makes service to Him any different, rules of dispensation and afterlife aside."
"Well," Masdeu-Arus replies, "it can be difficult to keep one's sense of universality when one believes one's individuality is threatened. But a better subject--how would the other leaders feel?"
"Hmmm. Mufti Heydar bin Hamed shares just enough in common with the Primate that they would probably react... poorly together. Imam Sharad ibn Rigel would jump at the opportunity you present, but would agree that if we bring him we would have to bring the Mufti as well."
"Hopefully the Mufti is not giving you too much trouble?" Salvator asks with friendly concern.
"No," Kadira leans back on her low cushion, thinking with that serene expression that never seems to leave her face. "He is polite and a very kind man, just perhaps too dogmatic and not cognizant enough of the real purpose of the faith of the Prophet. If I go on this expedition alone, he will simply be put out and slightly sullen, which is standard. If I bring along the Imam and leave the Mufti home, then he will quite rightfully feel marginalized. No, it is best if I come alone." She smiles quietly. "Who else is coming?"
"Well, I offered to the Buddhists but they politely declined and sent their blessings after me. I can only assume that the Orthodox churches--smaller even than us--will make contact if they please, and the only other religion with a defined hierarchy that wields significant enough power to be of interest to the Vatican would be Kzedf'sraz."
"Oh ho ho." The mullah's shoulders shake slightly with quiet, subdued mirth. "Have you warned the Vatican of what they're in for?"
"I like surprises."
* - * - *
God works in mysterious ways. Salvator always found himself thinking that whenever he spoke with the Priest of the Dark Pelt, and to a lesser extent whenever he spoke to any kzin. Right now he looks up at the appropriately massive felinid with an equally appropriate closed-lipped smile.
Sizhfa-Ch'johr--or Prayer-Writer in a tongue easier on the human palate--looks back down at the archbishop, bat-wing ears flapping in an analog of a smile. "To what do I owe the honor, Your Excellency? Please, come in."
The kzintosh's quarters do not seem oversized, at least not to the Scolopendran eye; having had years to adapt to the kzin left them with an appreciation for high ceilings and the appearance of open volume. The decor certainly did not seem indicative of the Western definition of 'civilization,' evoking moreso the simple rituals and rites of tribal cultures with its simple tapestries of rough homespun and the truly impressive collection of fire-cleaned skulls, beasts which must have ended up on the receiving end of the hunt. Masdeu-Arus always felt like a kid in a museum when he visited the kzintosh; fascinated but not wholly understanding. This trip could help that, hopefully. "I was wondering if you were interested in a little voyage, Ch'johr."
"Hrr?" Sizhfa cants his head slightly, stretching his neck and sniffing the air quietly in a sign of curiosity, still beating the breeze with his bat-wing ears. "A voyage? What slyness have you planned?"
"It's not entirely my plan. By the grace of God, we have found the Vatican again; and, God willing, we will rejoin the greater body of the Holy Mother Church."
"Ahrr," the kzinti priest replies with a nod. "Did I not tell you that if one who is wise lays in wait, the desired prey will come along in due time? Now all that is left is to pounce."
"And 'pounce,' we shall," Salvator says with a chuckle, getting the odd mental image of the old Primate coiled up like some tiger in the brush, "but is it not also wise to hunt in packs?"
"That is a viable strategy for the Great Hunt," Ch'johr replies, echoing the soft chuckle with the whiffing of his breath through his nostrils. "Am I to take this as an invitation?"
"You are, if you're willing; it is always good to work with those who work to the greater glory of God and, on the Vatican side, there is a Cardinal Hume of the Pontifical Council of InterFaith Relations who seems quite interested in the religious context of Scolopendra. You are the best example of perhaps the most unique element of our context."
The kzin lets out an almost human low whistle, albeit accomplished more with the tongue and palate instead of the lips. "A Cardinal, hrrr? To me, they are more of a mythical class of human, from your stories."
As the kzinti religion is made of stories, the archbishop does not take the comment amiss. "No, just a class that has been lost to us for thirty years. Are you interested?"
Sizhfa-Ch'johr flaps his ears. "I have never seen a Cardinal before."
* - * - *
"Thank you, Father Freudenthal."
"It is my duty, Your Excellency," replies the now-cassocked Sören as he takes the somewhat thicker-than-usual envelope, "and I will return as quickly as possi--"
"No, you won't." The Secretary's voice is gentle, but quite firm. "You are going to find accomodations and sleep. I have worked you very hard for the past few days, so I want you rested and ready to join the Primate and me when we arrive."
Freudenthal smiles. "Thank you, Your Excellency."
* - * - *
"So, shall I hang around and wait for you to come back again?" the bug-headed man asks.
"No, Flight Officer," Father Freudenthal replies as he shifts comfortably in his cassock, strapped carefully into the now very familiar accel couch, "I'm going to be going home with a group of friends. I've actually recommended you to them, seeing as how you're such a good taxi driver."
The pilot laughs. "And I'm sure you're a fine talker, Officer."
"I should be well on my way to getting my messenger-boy badge, at least," the priest says with a real grin.
* - * - *
It's the same Diplomatic Officer, but now he wears the simple black cassock of a priest.
Archbishop Tenda Nataka
Secretariat of State of the Apostolic See
We are once again very grateful for your gracious assistance. My Secretary has collated the information you requested, assembled a party representative of what we believe will give you the best sense of the context in which our church operates in Scolopendra, and has made the arrangements and itinerary for travel.
We thank you for your time and energy in these matters, and may God grant us success.
Your Eminence's very humble and very obedient servant,
The Most Reverend Estevão Xadreque Castelbranco
Archbishop of Stonozka
Primate of Scolopendra
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Archbishop Tenda Nataka
Secretariat of State of the Apostolic See
We should arrive at $TIME on $DATE at Fiumacino Airport as directed via a Scolopendran secular government International Relations Section Shuttle. If all goes as planned, it should be Shuttle IntRelate Three (S-IR 3) and listed as such in the arrival information our government will send forward. Our party consists of eight people (seven arriving), and if there are any difficulties in lodging then we have arranged with the Scolopendran government for the shuttle to be fitted with temporary quarters for the duration--this is an advantage to using the standard multipurpose cargo shuttle, so they say. The roster of our party is as follows:
The Most Reverend Estevão Xadreque Castelbranco, Archbishop of Stonozka, Primate of Scolopendra; President of the Scolopendran Episcopal Council Secretariat
Dervish Mullah Kadira ibnat Neelam Alzeshi Tunisiyyatun, widely regarded as the spiritual leader of most of Scolopendra's Muslim plurality;
Priest of the Dark Pelt Sizhfa-Ch'johr (he also accepts going by the translation of his name "Prayer-Writer"), spiritual/dogmatic leader of Scolopendra's largest nonhuman population.
The Most Reverend Salvator Timothée Masdeu-Arus, Archbishop of Say'un; Secretary of the Scolopendral Episcopal Council Secretariat
My staff of four, including Father Sören Freudenthal, who delivered this message (and the previous communications as well).
Hopefully this will not be imposing on your hospitality too much, Your Excellency, and on behalf of both myself and my peers in the various faiths of God, we thank you for the opportunity. If there are any last-minute adjustments that need to be made, please respond with them; else we shall come as indicated.
With the hope that God will bless us all on this endeavour, I remain,
The Most Reverend Salvator Timothée Masdeu-Arus
Archbishop of Say'un
One might as well adapt with the times, after all.
Holy Vatican See
Cardinal Hume was reading the memo from Archbishop Nataka, which covered copies of the most recent correspondence from Scolopendra. A grin spread slowly across his face, and he set the documents down and turned to his viewer, running search protocols. A fair amount of material was routed to his cache; after scanning the first few items, he picked up the phone. “Stefan, get on to whomever is handling the guest accommodations for the Scolopendrans, at the Gregorian. Tell them that one of the guests will be a non-human, a member of a species that runs…er… rather on the large side. They may wish to borrow some of that oversize furniture from the Ethiopian College. And be sure the party is in the old section, with the high ceilings. You can stat them a copy of the complete roster this afternoon.”
“Certainly, Eminence,” Father Stephen Kadesky made some notes. A non-human? Such visits were not unknown at the Vatican, but they were infrequent, to say the least. Father Kadesky, a man blessed with a boundless curiosity about practically everything, sent a brief, heartfelt thanks to St. Stephen that he worked for Cardinal Hume, and was therefore likely to get a chance to observe the visitor at close range. Not that he’d stare or do anything rude, of course. But such an interesting opportunity!
At the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Nataka was briefing Father Oguku Musinga, one of his corps of assistants whose jobs might best be described as “Diplomatic Concierge.” The son of a Tutsi chieftain of aristocratic lineage, the first thing most people noticed about Father Musinga was his height—208 centimeters. The next thing they usually noticed was the accent and gentle, urbane manner acquired at St. John’s Beaumont School and Oriel College, Oxford.
“Yes, Excellency. I’ve already spoken to Father Garcia about a Doctrinal Review Panel. He’ll submit a roster to his Eminence, Cardinal Renard, immediately. I thought it best to go through channels in the matter, yes?”
“Decidedly,” the Archbishop concurred. “With regards to the other matters, I have already drafted memos to the relevant dicasteries, copies should be in your cache. Just track the responses, and alert me if any difficulties occur. I don’t anticipate any delays, except possibly in Luciani’s office. Things are a bit backed up there, since he has been in Roania. But Bishop Mbopa has been keeping up with the most urgent matters, and if need be, he can give it his personal attention. We still do not know the extent to which any particular religious Orders may be involved, so it may not be a large matter.”
“Be sure the liaison office at Fiumacino is apprised of the arrival information; I’ll have Father Stone accompany you to the airport to look after the minor logistical matters—baggage and so on.”
“Yes, Commissario di Vianelli will also be dispatching security teams both to the airport and to the Gregorian. I do not believe that Scolopendra or the Triumvirate are currently involved in any conflicts which might generate special security issues, but…” Father Musinga shrugged.
“Now, I understand that one of the guests is female? The Muslim religious leader? She will be accommodated separately in the Gregorian’s Gatehouse facility. It is convenient to the regular guest accommodations but will provide her with additional privacy. There is a separate kitchen, as well—and Father Kadesky assures me that the Al-huda mosque will supply kitchen staff and implements.”
“Ahhh… very good.” The Archbishop nodded. “I do not know how strict the Scolopendran observance is, but it is as well to be prepared. As to the…” Nataka glanced at his screen, “..kzinti, ah, priest, our research is not yet complete, but there appear to be no particular dietary concerns there beyond the nutritional requirements of the species—slightly higher protein balance than we are used to, but they appear to generally accommodate themselves to human diet without much distress. But again, the matter is still under research.”
“Father Kadesky is doing some research as well. I’ll see that the results are collated, Excellency.”
“Good. Now the Holy Father will want an audience—two, in fact. One formal audience for the entire party—diplomatic formalities. And then, when the reviews are completed, probably a private audience with the Primate of Stonozka and the Archbishop of Say’un. One matter which must be getting very urgent by this time will be the leadership succession—the entire Provincial organization still rests on the original handful of Bishops. We do not know how many have died in the intervening period, but certainly a few. They will need to advance some candidates for ordination; the Holy Father will doubtless wish to discuss that—as well as other matters. In any case, you can coordinate with the Apartment on scheduling the audiences, as well.”
“If anything else comes up, you can refer to either myself or Cardinal Hume’s office. We’ll meet initially here—if there’s any significant delay have Father Stone page us.”
Later that day, confirmatory notes were sent off to the Archbishops, assuring them that accommodations would be adequate for their party, and wishing them a safe journey.
Arrangements proceeded as planned; a special security sweep was completed at the Gregorian University, and a detail of di Vianello’s finest vigilanzi were unobtrusively installed to brood over the safety of distinguished diplomatic guests. The chef from Al-huda made himself at home in the Gatehouse kitchen. “Sufi…? Ahhh… possibly vegetarian.” He went industriously to work on an array of succulent dishes comprised of various grains, fruits, pulses, and vegetables, but kept some lamb and chicken in reserve, just in case.
As the normal guest rooms in the Gregorian University’s visitor wing were ample for ordinary humans but could hardly be called spacious, one of the small lounges was cleared of its furniture and the outsized bed, tables, and chairs borrowed from the Ethiopian College (relics from the visit of a Royal Personage with a preference for extra-large everything) were installed. Review panels from the various dicasteries (Religious Education, Clergy, Worship/Sacraments, and of course the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,) were nominated and confirmed by their Prefects. Schedules and contingencies were prepared.
And finally, Father Musinga and Father Stone, with two men from the vigilanzi hovering unobtrusively nearby, were standing on the Observation Deck of the IP Shuttle facility at Fiumacino, awaiting scheduled arrival Sc-S-IR-3/a. Through the heavy, di-polarized floor-to-ceiling glass they could see the craft settle into the distant landing berth and the disembarkation tramcar trundling towards the berth entrance. As the craft settled out of view below the safety baffles, they turned and made their way to the tram platform to greet their guests.
A Scarab utility shuttle is by no means a beautiful sight to most observers. Its odd collection of curves and angles forms three sections that make it look vaguely like a metal beetle, and it emits a sort of very low harmonic thrum that becomes bass even to the point of subharmonics as the drives spin down and the two sents of wings fold up for storage. Inside the forward cockpit module, the pilot and copilot actually stand in the crowded space in the front of the cabin and bow shortly, bug-looking flight equipment notwithstanding. It's not every day someone gets blessed gently in three different religions.
The port-side outer airlock door swings inward and its integral ramp folds out, just a simple collection of jointed flat rectangular plates and metal tubes.
First out is the old Primate Castelbranco (http://www.st-lazarus.net/images-m/gonzalez-martin.jpg), moving in a slow shuffle that is not exactly a limp, looking more like the slowness caused by osteoporosis at advanced age. Shielding his eyes from the bright Mediterranean sun, he looks momentarily over his shoulder at those who follow. Close behind is Archbishop Masdeu-Arus (http://www.stjosephshrine.org/images/Archbishop%20Sean.jpg), who looks around the specialized shuttle-landing facility while flanked by three black-cossacked priests. Behind them is the mullah (http://www.mosque.org.sg/alistiqamah/miqnew/images/jpg%20pix/jpg_ADMIN/junaidah_bte_junied.jpg), who converses lightly with the hulking mass of tiger-patterned fur fitting into a loose, coarse red-and-brown tunic covered by a baldric of short, coarse dark-crimson-red fur and topped off with an odd long cape or robe with holes for the arms but no sleeves, also of a rough material similar to the tunic but covered in orange patches of cloth that look like commas and dots. The priests carry attache cases while the kzin shoulders an impressively large duffel bag that one could fit two curled-up adults in.
"The weather in Tunis should be beautiful this time of year," Kadira says a little wistfully. While also taking care of her eyes around the brightness of the Sun, she certainly seems to enjoy it nonetheless in a serene way.
The two-hundred-sixty-seven centimeter tall kzintosh nods, scanning the area with predator's eyes out of custom. "Still a touch warm and low to elicit nostalgia from me... but it is good to see the Sun so close again." Spying a metallic flash, he points. "I believe our transportation has arrived."
The tram arrives and the party of seven boards; if their curious collection (or any particularly curious individual of their collection) attracts any attention from anyone, their reactions vary. Kadira smiles serenely, the Patriarch looks almost boldly proud as if to compensate for his internal dislike for making a scene, Salvator talks with his staff and Ch'johr simply looks back with an unreadable, almost unblinking expression.
At the platform, they disembark expediently and immediately make contact with the two priests, obviously intended to greet them. Salvator takes the lead as the secretary with a broad smile. "Greetings in God, Reverend Sirs; hopefully you haven't been waiting too long. Saturn is a billion-and-a-half kilometers away, after all, and this poor overworked shuttle can only accelerate so quickly. This is The Most Reverend Estevão Xadreque Castelbranco, Primate of Scolopendra--"
The old man closes his eyes and bows his head slightly, nodding slowly with a smile.
"--Dervish Mullah Kadira ibnat Neelam Alzeshi Tunisiyyatun of the Sufi school of Islam, scholar of the Qu'ran--"
The middle-aged woman smiles serenely, bowing her head and bringing one lightly-closed hand first to her brow, then her lips, then her heart, opening it then with a gentle flourish as she looks up.
"--and... pardon me for a moment," Salvator looks up at the kzin, whose leathery pink bat-winged ears fold up almost into the fur of his felinid hair and then spread out in an almost winking fashion.
"Not a problem, Your Excellency."
Salvator takes a breath, coughs politely, then makes noises evocative of roaring into a trashcan while having pepper blown into one's coughing throat. "Hrazkagk wtunu zhu Kzsuzttukz T'kizhb Sizhfa-Ch'johr." To his credit, he somehow fashions his speech so the title and the name remain seperate.
The hulking felinid bows half a meter vertically, which puts him around eye level with the tall Father Musinga, which allows him to use his yellow round-pupiled eyes to great effect. "I will accept being called 'Prayer-Writer.' My title translates to 'Priest of the Dark-Pelt;' anything modeled after that is an acceptable form of address." Standing back up, he looks down at the archbishop. "Thank you, Your Excellency."
Masdeu-Arus coughs lightly with a quiet "don't mention it" then continues on to name the three relatively unimpressive and unexemplary priests. With the Scolopendran side of the introductions complete, Primate Castelbranco steps forward with a smile. "Praise God that we are so lucky to be so close to the seat of the temporal Holy Mother Church. Even now, I thank you for what must seem such simple services to lost lambs like us."
The mullah and the Priest of the Dark Pelt wink to each other jovially behind the Primate's back.
Holy Vatican See
The Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Vatican’s school of diplomacy (one of the oldest and most renowned institutions of its type on Earth,) breeds a highly adaptable and resilient graduate. And both Father Musinga and Father Stone had been briefed on what to expect with regards to the Scolopendran visitors. Even so, they had to work to overcome sheer bemusement at the oddly-assorted party, and give proper attention to the introductions.
Musinga, in particular, had to sharply catch himself on the verge of a wide-mouthed grin at the unusual sensation of being loomed over by the gigantic kzintosh. At the last split second, he remembered to keep his mouth closed, but the twinkle in his eyes was unmistakable.
Both men bowed politely in response to each introduction, and then Father Musinga stepped forward to return the courtesy.
“You are most welcome. We are greatly rejoiced to greet our brethren who have been so long lost to us, your Excellencies, and Reverend Fathers. And we are deeply honored to receive such distinguished visitors and representatives of Scolopendran faith traditions. I am Father Oguku Musinga; and it will be my great honor to assist you with the various logistical aspects of your visit. My colleague, Father Martin Stone, has joined me today to assist with transportation.”
Behind them in the lounge, a man in a suit with a vaguely official-looking jacket spoke quietly into a handset, and another man approached, guiding a pneumatically-suspended luggage pallet that already contained the baggage from the shuttle. Father Stone gestured to Prayer-Writer, indicating the mammoth duffle. “We have a van for the luggage.”
Another man, in the trim uniform of the Italian Immigration Service, approached Father Stone and offered a sheaf of small folders—Italian visa documents already arranged by the Vatican. The priest thanked him, and turned to give the sheaf to Archbishop Masdeu-Arus, while the Italian half-backed away, trying not to be too obvious in staring at the group. The man with the handset nodded to Father Musinga.
“Good. Our cars are ready, also. Please, this way.” Father Musinga led the way, and Father Stone brought up the rear with the pallet. The vigilanzi trailed at a discreet distance. The IP Shuttle facility had its own ground transit embarkation, and, sure enough, as they approached, they could see two limousines and a van pulled up at the curb. All were a dignified black; the cars bore small Vatican flags on the front wings, the van had a small Vatican flag stenciled on the doors.
The first car, a little newer, was slightly smaller—less headroom. Father Musinga surveyed the party momentarily. “Perhaps, Excellencies, you and the Hajah can ride with Father Stone and Father Freudenthal in the first car? And the rest of us will take this one.” He gestured to the slightly higher-roofed, older model limousine.
The journey through the Roman streets was not long, but it was not very fast—traffic in Rome was legendary, and many of the streets they had to traverse were narrow. Still, both priests were experienced in pointing out various interesting landmarks here and there, and telling a few stories about historical events that occurred at famous places, as they passed. At last the motorcade swung past the entrance to the vast oval of St. Peter’s Square, drove around, and turned in at the vehicle gate. The van peeled off to head for the Gregorian University
There was an impressive display of security there. Given the diplomatic nature of the visitors, they were not requested to disembark and pass through the scan tunnel, but the cars were routed through the vehicle scan arcades, which performed much the same function with a bit less precision. It was not obtrusive. The cars slowly wended around the Courtyard of the Noble Guard, went through another checkpoint without stopping, and drew up before the gigantic Bronze Doors, the monumental public entrance to the Apostolic Palace.
On their left, the visitors could see through a graceful arcade to the front of St. Peter’s Square and the façade of the Basilica itself. On their right, the façade of the Palace showed, with the balcony to the Papal Apartments signified by Leo’s banner depending from the rail. Since it was day, the light that burned there whenever the Pontiff was in residence did not show.
Inside the doors, the 4-story foyer echoed around them, and the vast, overscaled stairway of Pius IX gave onto the series of loggias, courtyards, and gateways to other parts of the Palace. The Noble Guard, in their brilliant primary-color traditional uniforms, were on prominent display. Clerics in cassocks and soutanes, a few layfolk, and a group of privileged tourists carefully shepherded by religious Brothers were swallowed up in the immense space. Prayer-Writer received a few glances (especially from the tourists, who buzzed with interest,) but there was nothing out of the way in visiting priests or other human clerics, and the Scolopendran prelates and the Mullah passed virtually unnoticed, except for a few polite nods.
Father Musinga paused, to allow the visitors to survey the historic architecture and artwork as they approached the corridor that led to the Secretariat wing. “I do hope you’ll allow me to play tour guide throughout your visit. There is so much to see. The Basilica, of course, and the Sistine Chapel. But so much more—the Museums, the Archives, the Catacombs, the mosaic studio, the gardens, the other churches—even some of our humbler logistical facilities are not without interest. If you have particular interests, I’ll try to see that you get tours or access to collections during your visit.”
He shepherded them gently through the corridors that, now the “public” space was behind them, were merely large and gracefully proportioned, rather than consciously imposing. The Secretariat had its own wing, and Father Kwan (Cardinal Angelini’s secretary,) was waiting to greet them, and usher them to the larger conference room, where Cardinals Angelini and Hume, and Archbishop Nataka were waiting.
Father Musangi stepped aside, and introduced the Princes of the Church: “His Eminence, Cardinal Carlo Giovanni Angelini, Secretary of State to the Apostolic See; His Eminence, Cardinal Michael Stephen Hume, Dean of the Sacred College and President of the Pontifical InterReligious Council; His Excellency, Archbishop Tenda Nataka, Sostituto to the Secretariat.”
The Scolopendrans were introduced again, and it was Cardinal Angelini, with his naturally hospitable and outgoing manner, who brought the meeting from formal to cordial.
“We are all so delighted that you have returned to us, dear brethren. And so happy to have the honor of becoming acquainted with our distinguished colleagues in spiritual endeavor—” the plump Milanese Cardinal realized he was grinning broadly, and his expression changed to dismay so quickly it was ludicrous. “Dear me! Dear me, excellent Prayer-Writer, my profoundest apologies. And me a diplomat who should know better… dear me… Forgive us in advance, I pray you—we will learn. And, after your long journey, perhaps some refreshment, while we become acquainted and discuss your visit?”
He gestured to a side table, where the inevitable espresso machine hissed gently, but an array of tea, fruit juices, and a couple of chilled bottles of the Vatican’s own peerless Orvieto were arrayed, along with trays of dolci barettini (little finger-sized sweets—cakes, cookies, and baked confections,) small prosciutto rolls, and crostini with marinated antipasti vegetables. “What can we offer you to drink?”
Father Kwan and Father Musangi dealt capably with dispensing beverages, and arranged the trays within easy reach on the table, making sure that each guest had a snowily-white napkin and a porcelain plate at hand, while the others seated themselves.
Cardinal Hume was not generally a talkative man—certainly not in the style of the genial Secretary of State—but he had an extraordinarily gentle and captivating smile, and a way of looking at each visitor with warm interest that made people feel at ease with him. He found himself seated between Archbishop Castelbranco and Mullah Kadira, looking across the table at Father Freudenthal and Prayer-Writer. The kzintosh’s presence had been anticipated with a very large, wide-seated chair. He noted the movement of the priest’s batwing-type ears, upon seeing the chair, and tried to remember from his research whether that meant amusement or pleasure or both.
As the others were seating themselves, he turned to the Mullah, and greeted her in Arabic, adding the words of the second Sura, The Heifer: “The messenger has believed in what was sent down to him from God, with the believers: They believe in God, His angels, His scripture, and His messengers. Let there be no discrimination among any of His messengers.”
Finally, they were all settled, and Archbishop Kwan repeated their welcomes once more. “There is so much for us to learn from all of you while you are here,” the Sostituto said. “I know that Cardinal Hume is hoping to discuss matters of the Church’s inter-religious relations and affairs; and of course we have much to discuss in learning how the Church can serve our Scolopendran brethren in restoring full communication with Rome. There are specific activities to discuss and schedule on both accounts; and tomorrow morning, the Holy Father would like to greet you all in a private audience; but for this afternoon, we had hoped it would please you for us all to simply become better acquainted. Doubtless you have many questions about Rome and the Church in the years since you have been out of contact, and of course we are deeply curious about the Ring and the spacegoing world you have built for yourselves.”
Angelini nodded happily. “I am especially curious, myself, as to how the different types of Scolopendran citizens came together, to share your unique world.”
Ch'johr seems to echo Father Musinga's sentiments on the tram station; mirth is, by nature, often quite contagious; the combination of the Tutsi's obviously-conscious respect to kzinti body language and his bemusement (rather than fear) makes the kzintosh estimate the value of Musinga's bloodlines quite highly. Fear would have been an appropriate response, to be sure--it is a form of respect, is it not?--but it is not an appropriate response for a true Hero, and Heroes are what Kzedf'sraz is all about. An excellent kzin indeed.
Likewise, the abortive stares of the immigration official, or the tourists, or random passers-by, are returned by not-at-all apologetic stares from the kzin. It is a form of measurement by trial--most begin to blush and shy away, respecting through fear but not rating very highly in the kzin's mind, as such is the manner of prey; a very few rise up to the challenge and stare right back, which elicits a pleasant nod and another winking motion of his ears, usually accompanied by slight upturnings at the corner of his thin lips. Smiles in the human sense are naturally difficult to the kzin physiology, but not impossible, and not everyone can read heroic body language, after all.
"You seem to be rather popular," the mullah says softly in Arabic.
"Quite. Like the skies for you, it is this... 'popularity' which brings back memories," he replies in the same.
All the Scolopendrans, especially Prayer-Writer, are fascinated by even the least details of the tour and the life outside the windows, everything from what people wear to their methods of conveyance to the architecture and the city planning involved. How curious it is, everyone being so conservatively clothed (that being, of course, that they are actually wearing clothes and covering much more than anything sensitive or reasonable to protect), and constantly too! Amazing how the streets are not planned as we think, but evolved over time due to need like blood vessels in the brain... the limitations and the adaptations to those limitations involved. Some of the conversation amongst the Scolopendrans is in Arabic, some in English.
The kzintosh slouches a bit to fit inside even the older limousene, but insists that he's comfortable and is seconded by the Scolopendrans. "They curl up into balls to sleep... I think their flexible spines can take a short ride in a car. I only wish I had ever been that limber." This curiosity extends to the Vatican City and the Apostolic Palace--which is a bit too grandiose for the nominally utilitarian Scolopendran mode of architectural thought (Prayer-Writer and Kadira occasionally comment on this, but still appreciate its contextual beauty) while the Scolopendran Catholics are simply in awe.
Dervish Kadira smiles serenely--not that she ever stopped, but now it grew broader--and leans over to Salvator. "You look like one fulfilling the Fifth Pillar of Faith, the hajj."
The archbishop nods quietly. "Yes, I think the Holy Pilgrimage would be an appropriate analog."
Another smile. "Again, I find myself glad that Allah has blessed your hopes so."
Inside, Prayer-Writer makes the off-hand comment that it is rare architecture indeed that makes a kzin feel small. It is a compliment. All show great enthusiasm towards Father Musinga's offer to "play tour guide." The introductions go quite cordially, even as Prayer-Writer slowly tenses from Cardinal Angelini's broad display of teeth. Years of living among humans and an understanding hand from Kadira help him to settle the instinctual scream-and-leap reaction within, causing him to act with even greater thoughtful grace to compensate. It is the sign of a good Hero to keep a steady mind.
Still, the suddenness Cardinal's oh dear! moment and the nature of the quick backpedaling makes Prayer-Writer expel the breath he hadn't realized he was holding in a mirthful soft laugh... or, at least, a laugh-analog that resembles someone coughing repeatedly while making low (but pleasant) noises with the throat. The hiccuping-action of the diaphragm is the same. Bowing low enough to attain eye-level with the Cardinal, the kzin both flits his ears and smiles thinly, predator-eyes bright. "It is but a mild error, Your Eminence. You are more than forgiven."
When it comes to refreshments, the Catholics take coffee--not quite the smoother hazlenut gengineered kawfee of Titan, and much more bitter than they're used to--while Kadira accepts some mild green tea and the kzin requests some water. Standard human methods of beverage conveyance (short of straws and bottles) are incompatible with the structure of the kzinti jaw, and so Ch'johr simply opens a large pouch of oiled cloth hanging by his side and produces a largish steel goblet with curious fluted sides that he carefully pours the water delivered into. The fluted sides match the contour of his jaw and, thus, he sips gently along with everyone else. Noting Cardinal Hume's interest in his ears, Prayer-Writer winks them and points idly with one orange-furred finger. "Once-down once-up is equivalent to a smile and fluttering is analogous to human grinning, Your Eminence," he explains in a helpful tone.
Mullah Alzeshi nods thoughtfully to Hume at his quotation and replies in the language of the Qu'ran. "Indeed, except we now see it more expansively than even that." Soft smile. "See to it only that the messenger wishes to spread the message of Allah's universal love and all else is secondary. Even among the faithful of the Prophet there is disagreement as to the belief of of who exactly are His messengers, His angels, or even His scriptures." She sits down smoothly and easily, but with an almost sannyasin slow concentration. "As it is said in other cultures, 'the Devil is in the details.' It is my experience that this is true." Turning to Sizhfa-Ch'johr: "Is it not nice to have a host who can speak in the language of the Prophet?"
The kzintosh grumbles good naturedly and replies in the same language. "For you, perhaps, but I am used to most humans speaking this language. Now, if His Eminence"--slow, respectful nod to Hume--"could speak the Hero's Tongue..."
Archbishop Masdeu-Arus adds some Arabic of his own with a smile. "Well, it is apparent that His Eminence did his homework concerning you and yours, Sizhfa-Ch'johr... don't you think so, Your Grace?"
Primate Castelbranco mutters a little. Now is not a time to show off and have side conversations in something that isn't the lingua franca of the Vatican. "When in Rome..." he mutters in Arabic, and the conversation returns to English.
"Well," Salvator begins, looking momentarily at Estevão, "I think our particular questions about possible differences in Church doctrine and such can wait so we do not impose upon our friends." He makes a subdued gesture towards the woman and the kzin.
Castelbranco takes the hint--silently grumbling internally at his Secretary's initiative--and continues. "Perhaps, to address His Excellency's"--nod to the Sostituto--"question, Father Freudenthal can act, once again, as an agent of the secular Scolopendran government. He understands those details far better than I."
Sören smiles a little. "It is my job, after all."
"Then," the primate continues, "we can round-robin to help address His Eminence's"--nod to Angelini--"interest in our varied backgrounds, if that is acceptable."
"Err, if I may, Your Grace?" Freudenthal offers, and upon reception of assent, continues. "I know from DiploCorps experience that lectures tend to be... difficult. Perhaps if we start with the 'round-robin,' and make it more conversational, and finally finish up with my little lecture on Saturnspace with questions and answers?"
"Acceptable. May I go first?" There is no disagreement from the Scolopendran party, so Castelbranco continues. "Before the Break, I was assigned by the Church to follow some of the faithful who had begun to make a living mining asteroids in the Belt. It was difficult as missionary work often is, not only by the change in culture but also in the differences inherent in spacer life. One does not gesticulate inside close quarters, as accidentally activating or deactivating some system best left untouched can be lethal inside a small pressurized cabin surrounded by infinite void. The nature of life can also be quite alien and is not for the claustrophobic; still, the restrictions of freedom, the constant presence of walls, the lack of an open sky... it wears on people, people who must be sound of mind and body to live in such a hostile element. My duty on the Belter mining colonies went far beyond dispensing the Sacraments and taking care of the faithful's spiritual needs; I had to act as moral and morale support as well for anyone who wished it even as I had to learn to tolerate the conditions. I know this is standard fare for anyone, but... given the circumstances... it is magnified."
He frowns slightly. "I've found I'm not the best at explaining it to those unfamiliar with the conditions, a lot like soldiers cannot make others understand what life is like while huddling in a ditch under fire. It is always being conscious that just beyond that wall is an element infinitely less caring, more hostile to your continued existence than any ocean. A man can tread water, but he cannot breathe vacuum. That the danger in store out there was faster and yet more painful than any drowning, and being reminded of that every time there is an 'accident.' Part of my slowness," he chuckles with an unusually soft smile, "comes from care. One must always be sure that one's foot goes here and not there, that one's hand does this and not that, as it is the difference of single phonemes that deliniate life and death in the void. Mostly, however, it comes from that the Belters preferred to run their habitat rotations at half-standard gravity to ease their tired bones after working most of the day on full-standard acceleration spacecraft and manual labor. Not having that additional time in gravity, despite my exercise regimen, calcium leeching took its toll." He shrugs gently. "Some people display scars as souvenirs of their lives,"--he nods to Prayer-Writer, whose face has a fair amount of small scars upon greater inspection--"and I consider this as proof of my sacrifice in God's work." He smiles again. "I think it was worth it."
His tone becomes slightly more curious. "Has the Vatican had to deal with spacers in the past? I would not be surprised, but perhaps my tales of trials may not be so strange if so."
Holy Vatican See
Archbishop Nataka had carefully observed Father Musinga’s manner with the guest; he was pleased with his choice of concierge. Although the veneer of English civilization had refined the essential nature of the Tutsi noble, the ancient traditions of that warrior society provided a poise that clearly meshed compatibly with the culture of the visitors. And the engrained, almost inbred, respect for elders of the African’s birth culture gave him a graceful deference with the Scolopendran Archbishops that was wholly sincere. Operating in a community that was dominated and disproportionately peopled by old men, this quality gave Musinga an advantage and marked him for a swift rise through the levels of service.
Father Stone had excused himself, and departed to bang his head against the enormous pile of work on his desk, but the others settled in for the ‘get-acquainted’ meeting with alacrity. Cardinal Hume, who after many years in Rome had finally succumbed to the inevitable Italian coffee addiction, nursed a cappuccino. Cardinal Angelini sipped a glass of his beloved Orvieto, Archbishop Tanaka joined the Mullah in a cup of tea (a luxury he rarely indulged while at work, given the ubiquity of coffee,) and Father Musinga cut some fruit juice with a little water.
With pleased anticipation, they settled in to learn more of their guests. It was amusing to note the differences in mannerism. Cardinal Angelini sat with head slightly cocked and poked forward a bit, his eyes expressive of his interest and varied reactions, nodding a little from time to time. Father Musinga sat very straight in his chair, with his elbows on the arms and hands joined over his lap at the fingertips, brows drawn ever so slightly together in concentration. Archbishop Tanaka sat with his hands on his knees, his upper body erect but relaxed into an almost zen stillness, his eyes intent and considering, observing the speaker’s face and mannerisms as though reading a subtext there as well. Cardinal Hume unconsciously leaned very slightly forward, his left elbow on the chair arm, resting his chin on his hand. He turned his right ear toward the speaker, and his eyes unfocused a bit.
Many years ago as a young man, when in the dreadful “Re-Education” camps of the Vingarist Secret Service during the Vingallen Civil War, a blow from a guard’s rifle butt had shattered part of Hume’s left ear structure, rendering him slightly deaf on that side. The ear itself was a bit twisted (some thought it was a boxing injury,) and only the end of the scar showed below his hairline. Four years in the Camps had been Hume’s reward for running the part of the Underground Railroad that had helped thousands of Muslims fleeing secularist persecution during the War.
And when he had emerged from the Camps, the young man who had never had much time for religion or God had entered a Benedictine monastery in neighboring Tormadrion, sought Holy Orders, and become a priest. Such were the strange vicissitudes of God’s service. He listened with total attention, a level of concentration that went beyond visual contact with the speaker. Ah. Yes, the Primate’s narrative went a long way to explain the intense, almost Cistercian aura of the man—the kind of measured serenity that comes only from a lifetime of intense, pervasive submission of the will to a demanding discipline.
Castelbranco’s question was a pertinent one. Nataka, who had served in the Second Section (Relations With States) of the Secretariat for many years before his appointment as Sostituto, answered.
“Limited contact, Excellency. The Church in Valinon, though sporadic in its ability to maintain regular exchange, has managed to continue ad limina and other necessary contacts. And of course, individual clergy and religious have taken on various assignments that involve ministry within, shall we say—the immediate vicinity of Earth? Mostly chaplaincies on passenger vessels, I believe. Nothing extensive. There have been—discussions—on the subject of spacefaring, and its theological and practical implications, certainly, but those have been, I’m afraid, largely theoretical.”
Angelini nodded. “Of course, it is an enormous issue. Between that, and non-human sentience, we’re furnished with material for another century or so of Councils and controversies, Synods and symposia. Still, it is not an issue that will wait for the Church’s convenience.”
He smiled, again, this time carefully keeping his lips closed. “So you see, dear brethren, part of the hope that your communication has revealed to us. Learning about humanity’s diaspora to the stars will help shape the future of our Church.”
He nodded to the Primate of Stonozka to continue.
Castelbranco smiles with quiet self-assurance. "Perhaps, once we complete our reunification--God willing--into the Holy Mother Church, we can be of some assistance there. Having experience with the specific needs of spacers and technology to assist in communicating over such long distances... even if by epistle..." Sören smiles weakly as the Primate looks to him with a slight upturning of the lips before he continues, "we can hopefully ease the difficulties somewhat."
He returns to a narrative tone. "I was on one of the Belt stations during The Break. I'm afraid very few people in Scolopendra know enough about it to say anything more than reality snapped and the rules subtly rewritten, but suffice to say that it seemed to be limited to the vicinity of Earth. We were left alone with only the Titan colony as the remnants of Scolopendran culture and, as we faithful thought, of the Holy Mother Church. We immediately organized an emergency council on the matter as soon as possible and weighed our options. It seemed too... presumptuous of us to rebuild the entire hierarchy of the Church, so we retained the trappings of a national hierarchy, reassigning extant dicasteries from previous locations to the new ones we inhabited. As senior, I was elected Primate; I have done well enough in that position in the eyes of my peers to have retained it, it seems. We did our best to reorganize without shifting the hierarchy too much, but we simply had an insufficient number of bishops which forced us to ordain several bishops on an emergency basis--emergency, of course, as we did not know how long we would be out of communication. Over the last thirty years, the nation has grown, and so we have been forced to even ordain archbishops on that same emergency basis to maintain efficient distribution of the Sacriments, but our hierarchy is traditionally lean as we are loathe to do so. We have constructed several seminaries to train new priests, of which Father Freudenthal is a product, but we have done our best to not move one iota from the traditional curricula.
"And now," he says with a soft chuckle, "I start digressing from my life into things best left until later. Suffice to say I did my best, with God's help, to keep the Church true over the years. Mullah ibnat Neelam?"
Kadira chuckles gently. "As an outside observer, I believe the Primate did do the best he could... possibly over-reactive at times but nevertheless the best." She smiles serenely at the Primate, who seems to resist a mild shrug. "I was born in Tunis twenty-five years before the Break, very much a Terrestrial that way." She remains nearly as motionless as Castelbranco, but the thoughtfulness in her movements seem to be directed in an entirely different direction. "I was always interested in the Qu'ran and the concept of religion as a whole, and so, with my local Murshid's blessing, went off to a religious academy to study the Qu'ran. You see, in years past, a great deal of our religion realized the errors inherent in fundamentalism... although some say we were guided." She smiles like the Mona Lisa, thinking back to her meeting with Intelligence Advisor Janus Garbo and adding a silent prayer that he may learn the value of faith someday. "Much like the Vatican II readjustment, we had long since adjusted our focus to become more spiritual and less zealous on whether the Prophet--a human man of human history--had meant this or that as he set down the Qu'ran. As I said to His Eminence Cardinal Hume, there is still some disagreement about what in The Book is Gabriel and what is the Prophet.
"Still, now I digress. I studied well, and after my own acceptance into the Chishti Order became a respected Murshida in the Religious Policy section when I graduated. That is what, by the infinite grace of Allah, saved me from whatever fate my beloved Tunis and the world I knew had fallen into. I was assigned to look after inter-religious communications on the colony... and the good Primate has described what happened then. I finished my term of service then did what I thought was best, and that was interpret the Qu'ran, issue fatwahs on its content, and try to help the followers of the Prophet come to terms with what happened. Apparently, my simple opinions on the greater ji'had of overcoming the base self in terms of the new reality were popular, and people listened."
She shrugs gently, and most of all honestly, humbly relating a simple fact that has brought her much power in the eyes of many. "My life has been relatively sedate compared to the Primate's, as our decentralized religion never felt itself threatened... usually. We have our conservative elements as well, especially in the Sunni, but all are generally content to allow the others to glorify Allah in the manner of their choosing. I sometimes like to think I helped with that," she says with a gently demure smile.
"In that time, I have done what I can to help the Primate, although I cannot say that my assistance has always been taken, as is his perogative." Castelbranco again suppresses a shrug at the Mullah's simple, direct words spoken without heat or judgement. "How has the Vatican adapted to Islam? I can only hope that the favorable impression left in my mind by His Eminence Cardinal Hume"--she nods to him with a smile--"is justified by greater policy."
Holy Vatican See
Cardinal Angelini made a slight gesture, just a lift of the hand, but silence fell and he addressed an aside to the Primate of Stonozka.
“Of course the Canons permit such emergency Episcopal ordinations; and given the situation that faced you, I would have done precisely the same. It is a testament to our Church, I think, as well as the character of her Scolopendran leaders, that you have managed so successfully to maintain the continuity of essential doctrine and practice.”
“Certainly, as is required, your ‘emergency’ ordinations must be confirmed by the Holy Father, but I see no likelihood of any problems arising in that department. We can discuss in more detail tomorrow how to provide those who have not had direct contact with Rome, with opportunities to do so—” he smiled slightly, a mere narrowing of the eyes and rounding of his plump cheeks, “—and I am certain that there will be no shortage of ideas and volunteers to assist in the process.”
He took a sip from his glass, and nodded to Hume. “His Eminence can best speak to the issues of our relationships with Muslims and other faiths.”
Hume seemed to pause, momentarily, and a slight tinge of regret colored his expression for a moment, but it passed. He nodded gravely to the Mullah. “There is much good to speak of, and there is that which is not so good. I could wish that we had made greater progress than we have, by this time—but they will tell you that my expectations are perhaps a little high in such things.” He gave the tiniest of shrugs, as though to repudiate such an indictment.
“We Catholics are often assumed to speak with a unity of purpose and unanimity of voice that, in fact, rarely exists. It is true, of course, that the Church is blessed with the capacity to issue authoritative magisterium in doctrinal matters—when the Holy Father believes that God’s will so directs. But that has not happened for a century or so—” his mouth quirked ruefully, “and when that power has been used, it has been only in relation to matters of internal Church dogma.”
“In other matters, we do have a structure that enables us to standardize practices and implement policies that affect the entire Communion of our faith—” the quirk deepened into an ironic, smile (teeth carefully hidden,) “—but when you look at it more closely, you see that there is a constantly, albeit very slowly, shifting interplay of differing interpretations, beliefs, and visions at work.”
“All this is to say by a roundabout course, that while the Church’s firm policy for the last couple of centuries has consistently been to find common ground and forge productive ties with Islam, the ability and the will to implement that policy has varied greatly, depending on many things.”
“One of which is, of course, a similar policy with regards to Judaism. Another is the waxing and waning cycle of fundamentalist extremism both in Islam, and in our own Church. A third is the changing geopolitical realities that affect what must always be our first priority—the protection of the Faithful and their freedom to exercise their Faith. And there are others, naturally.”
He sighed. “I think we have made considerable progress in the past decade or so—the last two or three inter-religious Conferences have attracted greater participation from Islam than any time in the previous forty years. But, prior to that, we lost considerable ground simply because the relations between Islam and Judaism were so very poor that it forced us to adopt a somewhat circumscribed range of options in our attempts to engage both.”
He glanced at Archbishop Tanaka, who showed no overt disapproval. Still, he was naturally a somewhat subtle and reticent man, especially where matters political were concerned. Hume threw him a little apologetic nod. “I feel it is essential that any discussions be undertaken from a stance of candor, as well as respect. There are difficult issues here; it would be foolish to deny them or ignore them, for they will arise to affect ongoing inter-religious efforts.” He returned his gaze to Kadira. “You are gracious, Hajah ibn Neelam, and we hope that what you observe here will confirm that impression. But if so, it will be in large part because of the Muslims who have done us the honor to join in our work for understanding, and have been more than patient and encouraging in our quest.”
“I believe that Leo XIV will be firm in his support for continuing to build inter-religious understanding; but he is being asked to respond to a great many internal and external challenges. His experience as a diplomat has given him, I think, a broad and clear perspective on the importance of this work. But he must balance it among many important priorities.”
As he spoke, a very gentle tap on the door was followed by the entrance of Father Stone. Cardinal Angelini looked up, concerned—such an interruption was most unusual. The priest held a piece of paper, he moved around the table to hand it to the Cardinal, and quickly effaced himself.
The Secretary of State cast an apologetic glance around, and looked at the paper. His brows rose, and a rather bemused, but pleased, expression crossed his face. He looked up. “My dear friends. Sincere apologies for the interruption, but this is a communication directly from the Papal Apartment. You were scheduled for an audience with the Holy Father tomorrow morning; now it appears that he has extended the invitation further to any who would like to attend the Mass he will be saying in the Sistine Chapel tomorrow morning before the hour of the audience.”
Kadira listens to Cardinal Hume with the same gentle yet intense concentration that seems to flavor all of her actions, nodding gently at times. "We understand all too well the difficulties that extremism of any form, especially of fundamentalism, engender in relations. Even before The Break, our open-minded thoughts concerning 'His missionaries,' as you put it earlier, were not necessarily reflected, especially by the independent state of Israel." Another mild shrug. "When Scolopendra came about, they followed history's precedent and internalized to protect their identity; as a result, post-Break, our own population of the original Abrahamic religion is quite small indeed. Also, post-Break, we have seen that the multiverse's Muslim-dominated nations border on the extreme all too often. This is... saddening." She frowns a little. "Still, there is little for us to do but lead by example and pray that Allah will both grant them greater wisdom and keep watch over their ways."
The interruption and subsequent announcement elicits various responses from the spacers. Prayer-Writer first looks at Angelini, neck stretching ever so slightly as his broad flat nose sniffs almost silently, brows lowered slightly in serious concentration before his eyes flash over to Salvator. The archbishop, expecting this, catches the kzin's eyes and nods shortly, to which the kzintosh replies with a shorter nod. The mullah simply smiles broadly and serenely, while the Primate and the Reverend Fathers are suitably awe-struck at the honor. When they regain sufficient composure to speak, Castelbranco replies:
"Your Eminence... we are... most honored by the Holy Father's gracious invitation, and we--at least, I know, amongst our portion of the Holy Mother Church--most gladly accept." His eyes do flicker with perhaps a mild worry to the kzin, probably not intentionally.
"I am also most honored," ibnat Neelam continues, "and also accept our host's invitation, as is fitting."
Sizhfa-Ch'johr looks momentarily to the side, gauging options, brows still heavy with thought until Archbishop Masdeu-Arus says something as quietly as possible in the harsh phonemes of kzints'ung. "Gejw Tuyc-Rrit raoowh zhu hvoowkti wtunu Zhu Kzedf'sraz," he explains although he knows the kzin already has the equivalency in mind, "irgeeth grrring chughla, yahughnost'ss vraanj the zrejoz'unj nubezecj." He coughs lightly, then tries to wet his throat with a sip of coffee, which only makes him cough a little bit more. "My apologies... it is a harsh tongue," he says mildly.
The kzintosh nods. "I too am greatly honored, Your Eminence," he says without humility (as humility is not exactly a virtue) but also without hubris as he fluffs up his fur slightly, "and with the gentle assurance of my friend"--nod to Salvator--"I will attend." The statement of intent is said while looking steadily--not exactly intently, nor is it staring, as those are definite challenges--at the Primate. Estevão frowns a little and tries to match the kzin's gaze in the quiet game of one-upsmanship, but his base simian nature defeats his societarial affectation of having to match (if not beat) quarter-ton felinids at their own game and so breaks contact.
"Perhaps," he says quietly, trying to cover the break by pretending to look at his watch, "you would like to tell your story, Priest?"
Prayer-Writer leans back in his chair; only then is it really noticable how he must have moved his graceful yet hulking mass forward during one of the many tests that make up the Great Hunt. His tone is immediately back to its nominally cordial nature. "I would be honored to, Your Grace. Like the Dervish Kadira, I too had a definite interest and talent in the stories of my religion. I learned as many as I could, and was preparing for the trial by combat--as we did most everything back then--that would make me a Conservator's apprentice when reports from fleeing kzinti on the periphery of our lands in the Tibetan Highlands described the movements of vast armies of men, using weapons less powerful than our ancient caches but in far greater repair, moving southwest to capture us wholesale. A week passed, our people lived as they always had, then there were fires in the sky for a day, a night, and another day, and that night they appeared over my village. Metal men who were the size of middle-kittens yet had the strength of two full-grown Heroes fell from the skies.
"We of the village did not know that the armies of Confederate SouthEast Asia were but a few kilometers away, yet we lacked any of the ancient weapons that the Patriarchy kept to protect us. The men shouted at us in languages we did not understand as metal boats, as in the most ancient myths of old, fell from the sky after them with fire and steam but no smoke, settling on the plains and opening their doors wide. They tried pointing, they tried to herd us by waving their arms, they dodged the pouncing Heroes by jumping high into the air with fire and steam of their own and landing again. A messenger came from the Patriarch and said we must listen, but many of us did not heed him out of reticence to leave our homes.
"The artillery sounded in the distance, with gentle explosions on the far hillsides that dispersed a greenish mist. The metal men yelled a single syllable--but we did not know then what they meant by 'gas'--and one grabbed my arm. I did the only reasonable thing and tried to bite his head." Carefully, he slips one lip under his upper jaw to expose a single canine, broken clean off about halfway down before hiding it once again behind his lips. "It was, in hindsight, rash. The soldier muttered something to himself that I remembered phonetically and laughed when I learned its meaning, but then..."
The kzintosh pauses with a chuckle. "He punched me in the stomach, sprayed something in my face that made me drowsy, then slung me over his shoulders like a bag of grass-meal. It was the only reasonable thing to do, but it took me quite some time to 'live down' my very first defeat in my very first battle. I was seven years old.
"The next five years was acclimation to a new culture and a new set of ideals when our own had been lost in Tibet. I continued to learn what stories I could, but, as I had been accepted into the large and strange House of Sko'lopendrrrah through arguably honorable 'combat,' I served it in the Mobile Infantry. Admittedly, I was young and looking for revenge (or at least vindication in honorable combat) but I never caught up with the trooper that saved me."
His ears wink once. "Nonetheless, I heard the remembered phrase 'I don't have time for this shit' many times in my service and came to understand the sentiment all too well. With that understanding came, in my own mind, the dissolution of my one moment of dishonor in Tibet. My Mobile Infantry service got me onto a colony ship and thus off Earth when The Break happened. It was quite the culling... not only of my people, but of the entire nation. I realized that what remained of our faith was in jeopardy and thus did what I could to retain the old traditions and old culture, learning more from everyone I could meet. I will abstain from describing my religion too much when the topic is my life, but I was instrumental in defining both its survival and its adaptation to a new culture." Again, said with pride but not hubris. "As such, I am now the leader of the meritocratic third of the Patriarchy, that which acts as a half-secular half-religous hierarchy of the kzinti, and as such am responsible for the continuity of our religion.
"The Patriarch himself said that he would have like to come, but," Prayer-Writer's ears flap gently, "Supreme Emperor Speaker-Rrit is somewhat busy at the moment. He sends his regards."
Holy Vatican See
While the matter (and to some extent the manner) of the kzintosh’s narrative had its amusing aspects, none of his Vatican listeners smiled or chuckled, although a few eyes lightened briefly when he got to the part about learning the translation for “I don’t have time for this shit.” Aware as they were from Archbishop Gopangi’s briefings of the overwhelming importance of combat, courage, and honor in the kzinti culture, the relatively dry and detached tone of the narrative did not prevent them from feeling the anger and shame of the very young Sizhfa-Ch’johr. And, perhaps better than many humans, they were well-equipped to understand the kzin’s impulse to seek a kind of redemption in the spiritual traditions of his people.
It was Archbishop Nataka who, when the kzintosh’s narrative was finished, bowed slightly from his seat, and said, “We are greatly honored by the Supreme Emperor’s regard—and by the merit of his representative.”
Father Musinga, who had been watching the other Scolopendrans, turned to catch Cardinal Angelini’s eye. A silent, brief colloquy ensued—Father Musinga glanced at the Primate of Stonozka, then back at the Cardinal, Angelini turned his head slightly to better examine the Scolopendran prelate, and gave the very faintest of nods before saying.
“Very much so. And I hope that over the coming days we will be able to provide you all with similar insight into our own histories and motivations—for thus true communication can occur. However, for now, perhaps rest is more in order, yes? You have had a long journey.”
The Primate nodded, graciously and with the slightest touch of relief, “Rest would be welcome indeed, your Eminence.”
“Father Musinga will accompany you to the Gregorian, and see that you are comfortable. After your audience with the Holy Father tomorrow, we can discuss the respective purposes of your visit in more depth.”
Amiably, the two Cardinals and Archbishop Nataka took leave of the Scolopendrans, while Father Musinga spoke quietly into a handset.
“I’ve asked them to bring your cars around to the gate by the Nicholas Tower; it’s less of a journey, Excellencies. While its historical significance is unquestioned, the Palace is not a terribly convenient structure in many ways.”
Rather than going back through the ‘public’ area of the Palace, he escorted them along a couple of broad corridors, past a landing heavy with security (the path to the Papal Apartment,) and to a pair of commodious elevators. At the ground level they debouched into an entry way that shared a door with an elegantly spiraling tower. The limousines were awaiting them, drawn up in a service area.
The Gregorian was indeed just a brief journey from the Vatican—across the Tiber on the Ponte Vittore Emmanuele, and along that historic thoroughfare to the Street of November 4th, a turn past the Villa Colonna gardens (where the street, no longer a main thoroughfare, shrank to more normal Roman proportions and became the Via Lucchese,) to the Piazza Pilotta—once Rome’s largest pelota court, now the front entrance for the Gregorian University and, alas, mostly a parking lot. They drove past the grand façade of the main building, and took an access drive around to the cluster of buildings behind it, between the main hall and the Piazza de Quirinale. At the largest of these, a modest, 20th-century three-story, linked by a covered walkway to a little Renaissance building that looked like a miniature rendering of some Ducal palazzo (it was in fact the old Gatehouse to the Villa Collona,) the cars pulled up.
Father Meclazál Spencer was awaiting them, and emerged from the Administrative Residence’s main door to greet the distinguished visitors. Prayer-Writer clearly discomposed him, although he greeted the gigantic, formidable-looking felinoid with grave courtesy, and did his best to conceal a not-unnatural nervousness. Father Musinga performed introductions with aplomb, and suggested gently, “Perhaps, Father Spencer, you can show the Mullah to her accommodation in the Gatehouse, while I show the others the facilities here?”
With a relieved but slightly rueful air—he felt as though he should have acquitted himself better, somehow—the Jesuit priest led Kadira through the main-floor entry of the Residence, to a large hall that led to the side door and covered walkway, gesturing as he did so, “The elevator there, and the stairway, lead to the main guest suites on the first floor, where your companions are accommodated. Now this—” through the walkway, to a gracefully-proportioned double door “—is a little facility that houses a few offices and a couple of guest suites for female visiting scholars, or those who require a cloister.”
The main entryway gave onto a cross-shaped hall. The two “side” arms of the cross were closed off by grilles. Father Spencer went to the right-hand one, and pressed a button. A discreet buzz sounded, muffled by intervening walls. A heartbeat later a door beyond the grille opened, and a woman in the black and white habit of a Dominican nun emerged, smiling, and approached the grille. “Mullah, this is Sister Odilia, our Guest-Mistress. Sister, this is the Dervish Mullah Kadira ibnat Neelam Alzeshi Tunisiyyatun, our distinguished visitor from Scolopendra.” As he spoke, the nun was opening a wicket door in the grille, and smiling hospitably.
“Salaam Aleikum, Mullah. We’re greatly honored to have you staying with us.”
With a regal gesture of dismissal to the priest, Sister Odilia ushered the Dervish through the grille. “Thank you very much, Father. This way, please.”
None of the guest accommodations at the Gregorian were luxurious, designed as they were mostly for visiting religious scholars. They were more monastic in character, although the quality of every simple item was outstanding, from the handwoven bed linens to the graceful shape of the clear, blown-glass water carafes. Kadira’s room had two large northeast windows, which gave it an airy lightness, a polished wood floor of oak so old it was black, a single bed furnished with snowy linen, goosedown pillows and a light comforter in a matching duvet, a mahogany nightstand with a single drawer and a shelf below for books, supporting a green-shaded brass lamp and a water carafe and drinking glass, a simple four-drawer bureau, a kneehole writing table with another green-shaded brass lamp and a modest 2-D dataviewer, and a matching chair. A handsome black oak prie-dieu had been folded and placed against one wall like a console, and on its top, in a simple white porcelain vase, a stem of pale-gold freesia gently scented the air. The walls were whitewashed. Kadira’s luggage was next to the bureau.
In deference to the Mullah’s faith, the Sisters of the Gatehouse had thoughtfully brought in a small rug and a large floor cushion, which were placed in the large space between the two windows. On the wall beside the bureau, a molding with half a dozen wrought-iron hooks provided a place to hang clothing, and on the wall opposite the windows, there were two doors. One, Sister Odilia demonstrated, led to a small bathroom with rather antiquated but still highly functional white porcelain fixtures, and tiny white hexagonal tile flooring. A small wooden shelf held a stack of thick towels and a tray of toiletries—soap, tooth powder, etc. The other door led to a refectory/lounge shared with other guest rooms.
“The kitchen has been taken over by a visiting cook from the Al-hudah masjid for the duration of your visit, Mullah—all food preparation is halal, and you can use the dataviewer to request particular menu items. In fact…” –the nun touched the bar by the side of the screen, and it came to life, showing a list of meal options in graceful Arabic font—“yes, I believe Khalim has left some choices for your approval. You can reach me at any time by touching this option on the control bar.”
With a pleasant smile, the nun (who might have been anywhere between thirty and sixty—the old-style habit she wore, with its concealing wimple and veil, made her face seem curiously ageless,) urged the Mullah to request anything needed for her comfort, contact her if she had any questions or needs, and showed herself out to allow the weary traveler her privacy.
In the Residence, Father Musinga had shown the Scolopendran clerics to similar, if slightly more modern, guest rooms. Everything was scrupulously, immaculately clean, simple, and airy—if a trifle austere.
“There is a lounge and refectory at that end of the hall,” Father Musinga gestured, “and if you will come with me, esteemed Prayer-Writer…” he showed the kzintosh to the made-over lounge, furnished as a guest room with the oversized and slightly ornate furnishings (bed—nearly three meters in length and half that wide—side table arranged as nightstand, desk and chair,) borrowed from the Ethiopian College. An ordinary bureau looked comically small next to the grand scale of the rosewood antiques.
He would be staying in quarters on the next floor, Father Musinga explained before he left the Scolopendrans, first checking to see that they had all they needed for comfort. They should contact him (he demonstrated the sequence on their room dataviewers) if they needed anything else, or had questions. Dinner would be served in a couple of hours, giving them time to rest or say the Office, should they wish.
Dinner, when it was served in the smaller lounge, consisted of a large platter of barely-cooked steaks for Prayer-Writer, and a simple Italian meal of antipasti, exquisite pasta with a light olive oil and lemon sauce, tender scallops lightly sautéed with capers and artichoke heart slices, chicken simmered in a wine and raisin sauce and garnished with dollops of unsweetened moscarpone, and little cups of sorbetto for dolce.
As night fell in Rome, the noises of the City seemed very far away, and a peaceful hush pervaded the University precincts.
The next morning, breakfast was available for those who did not plan to take Communion—big chunks of country-cured, uncooked ham for Prayer-Writer, and prosciutto rolls and fruit for humans. The limousines arrived to collect them a little before seven.
They disembarked by the Sistine Hall, and went through the Courtyard of the Sentry, the Borgia Courtyard, and the Courtyard of the Parrots, to get to the Sale Regia, where they were met by Monsignor Rinaldi, the Master of Ceremonies for the Vatican, who was seating the guests that day. All of the guests, including Vatican staff, were requested, with deferential politeness, to go through a scan tunnel, as there would be no physical security barrier between the chancel and the nave. Such security measures as would be applied within the Chapel were unobtrusive and designed not to interfere with the worshippers’ experience of the Mass—but the added risk had to be compensated for by enhanced security elsewhere.
In addition to the Scolopendrans, there was a group of a dozen or so Sisters of Charity, a group of school children, and a small group of men with two women, their flat-cheekboned, Slavic faces composed to solemnity, all wearing deep black. The women wore elaborate black lace veils. The Chapel—built on the monumental scale of much Vatican architecture—swallowed all of the parties into its vast space.
The Scolopendrans were ushered through the grille to a grouping of chairs with kneelers that had been set up on the right side of the Chapel, just a few yards from the chancel. The other groups of guests were accommodated in similar arrangements behind them. Along the left side of the Chapel, the stands had been set up to accommodate the Sistine Choir, whose privilege it is to provide choral services for the Pontiff. As this was a simple daily Mass, it was a small single choir of twelve men.
Leo, in keeping with his expressed wish to encourage the usage of both the Ordo Novum and the Tridentine Mass, generally alternated between them in his own daily Mass celebration—but he was especially fond of the beauty of the traditional Tridentine service, which the guests had been informed would be celebrated today. It was a weekday Mass in Ordinary time, and there would be no homily. Only the Kyriale and sequence would be sung by the choir.
Organ music was never used in the Sistine Chapel, but when the Pontiff celebrated Mass the choir usually performed an ante evangelium antiphon as a prelude to the Mass and an accompaniment to the entrance of the Pope and the servers.
There are few more accomplished artists of the ancient Gregorian Chant than the Sistine Choir, and when the first clear, almost unearthly notes floated into the Chapel’s vast spaces the effect was almost spellbinding. The exquisite clarity of tone and seemingly effortless flexibility of the voices combined with the phonemes of the Latin antiphon to create a sound of almost inhuman purity. As the antiphon rose, Leo XIV, in the green vestments of the season, entered from the right-hand door in the Chancel, preceded by Monsignor Claver, who would be serving the Mass.
As he took his place in the Chancel and bowed to the Presence, the antiphon’s final notes ended, leaving a profound silence.
Leo was not gifted with the greatest voice, but his passion for the beauty of the Mass gave his rather gravelly baritone a certain power and appeal as he began the ritual:
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti…
The Scolopendran clerics joined in the traditional responses. Even those guests unacquainted with the Latin ritual could appreciate the measured, sonorous beauty of the words, the reverent deliberation of the gestures, and the soaring splendor of the Chant, especially in those surroundings.
The Mass of the Catechumens—the ancient ritual based on the Jewish tradition of prayers, readings, psalms and hymns—ended with the Creed, and Monsignor Claver went to the table at the side of the Chancel to bring the Offerings for the Mass of the Faithful—the celebration of the Eucharist, the great and central mystery of the Catholic Faith. The incense signified the holiness of the ritual; the prayers pleaded for God’s blessing of the offerings and the Church—her canon of Saints and martyrs, of clergy and faithful, and all who participated that day.
Then the Pontiff, supreme Priest of Christ’s Church, consecrated the offerings and exposed the Real Presence of Christ, in the form of the bread and wine, the Body and Blood He had sacrificed to redeem His people, in the most sacred and solemn ritual of the faith, while Monsignor Claver rang the bell to signify that Christ was physically manifest among them. For the believers, this was a moment of unspeakable, awesome solemnity.
The Communion was prepared, the Pontiff’s rumbling baritone intoning the prayers, enjoining the Peace of God, the choir lifting the chant again to implore the Mercy of Christ. Reverently, Leo took Communion, then gave the consecrated hosts to Monsignor Claver to dispense to the guests who were taking Communion.
With reverent joy the implements were cleaned while the choir sang another antiphon, and then Leo delivered the final Blessing, standing at the rail and looking out over all of the guests, as though trying to see each one and bless each one personally. Finally, he returned to the Altar for his final prayer, and left the Chancel.
The daily Mass in Ordinary time, even with a choir, consumes perhaps forty minutes. Yet for the faithful, that time encompasses the greatest expression of their union with God, submission to His will, and gratitude for His redemptive sacrifice. For the non-Christian guests, of course, there was no such significance. But the solemnity of the ancient ritual could hardly fail to impress, especially in such surroundings and circumstances.
The guests were ushered from the Chapel—the school children to the Basilica, to resume a tour, the Sisters off to the Pio-Christian Museum, the mourners to the Gate of St. Anne to a taxi. And Father Musinga led his party to the antechamber of the private Audience Hall.
There was a scan tunnel in the room, but as they had already undergone scanning at the Chapel, it was not necessary to repeat it. A light collation was arrayed, for the benefit of those who had foregone breakfast in order receive Communion. Father Javier Compostela Nao, Secretary to the Papal Major Domo, greeted the Scolopendrans cordially.
“Welcome, friends. Please, refresh yourselves. The Holy Father will be with you shortly.”
Father Musinga assisted with distributing beverages. As he finished, he found himself next to the Priest of the Dark Pelt, and he smiled (politely—no show of teeth) at the kzintosh. “I hope you did not find our ritual too, ah, incomprehensible, Prayer-Writer.”
At the University, Prayer-Writer sniffs almost imperceptibly at the air without the stretching of the neck that indicates puzzlement and returns Father Spencer's greeting with winking ears and a smile on his lips... followed by a wink and a respectful nod. This one triumphs over his own instinctual fear. A good Hero. Later, the Scolopendrans thank their hosts for their hospitality and settle in for the night. Kadira, still slightly bemused at the existence of the grating, smiles to herself at the kind gesture of the prayer rug, and dutifully begins reciting four rakats for 'Isha... followed by eleven more rakats to make up for Dhuhr, Asr, and Maghrib. While unnecessary according to the Hadith due to her special status as a traveller, she unsurprisingly holds herself to a higher standard when it comes to this pillar of faith. Following this, she accepts one of the vegetarian dishes with lots of almonds and legumes--one must still have protein--and then mediates quietly. Meanwhile, Archbishop Masdeu-Arus boggles at the size of the furniture provided for Prayer-Writer.
"You could actually stretch out on that thing," he notes intelligently. Prayer-Writer, after a few short kata movements common to his class of Conservator, responds by doing so and listening closely to Salvator's review of the format of Mass and proper forms of respect.
Dinner brings with it yet more thanks and signs of appreciation, although Prayer-Writer does request small samples from Salvator--sharing is common in the Segments--and does not gorge himself on meat as may be imagined. Too much tends to make a kzin over-reactive and less inhibited due to various protein-based neurotransmitter imbalances, and it is unseemly for a Hero to allow himself to lose control in pleasure or pain. The same thing happens at breakfast the next day, which leads to a short explanation by Salvator while the kzin is indisposed.
"He does appreciate the hospitality shown, and is appreciative. Still, the kzinti diet has never been so meat-centered... higher protein balance, yes, but not protein-dominated. Carbohydrates--especially fructose and starches--will be appreciated."
Later, the only thing that scan tunnels would indicate is a sort of knife Prayer-Writer carries prominently in the belt of his tunic. It is knife-like in that it is flat and shaped something like a dagger, but it has very dull sides like the blunt side of a butter knife and a tip ground down to a rounded point similar to the point of a child's crayon rounded off by moderate use. As a weapon, it seems to be less than worthless to something that's already a quarter ton of predatory fangs and claws.
"It is a wtsai," he explains, "the standard of a House-Leader. It serves a ceremonial purpose which is symbolic and a useful purpose which is... hrr... more symbolic." He is reticent to explain further, and even more unwilling to give it up... although he is willing to conceal or otherwise limit access to it as long as it stays on his person.
The mullah and the writer-of-prayers sit together during the Mass, properly appreciative of the honor and seemingly uncognizant of the odd pair an average-sized woman and a tall kzin make. They of course sit when everyone else does and stand when everyone else does. Kadira simply sits during the requests to kneel; Prayer-Writer voluntarily tries to kneel as low as possible in order to reduce his silhouette further and not impose upon others. To the kzinti, kneeling and bowing the head do not share exactly the same amount of submission that it tends to in human cultures as it protects the throat from attack. The lack of a First Commandment in the Cult of the Fanged God also helps; it logically stands that all obeisances honorably made to any godhead would naturally eventually make it to the Creator-God and so following any given ritual in an honorable attempt to respect the hospitality of the host is acceptable. They are both struck with the quiet majesty of the ritual, using the traditionally Scolopendran tendency towards empathy to try and understand it from the viewpoints of their Christian compatriots using a mixture of metaphor and analogy. To ibnat Neelam, the equivalent is the rememberance of that Murshid so long ago who, by his simple words and soft prayers, seemed to make everything make sense; to Sizhfa-Ch'johr, the analog are the rolling, thunderous stories of Heroes keeping their hunting poise and honor through adversity to win their reward in the Hereafter.
Still, the story of that ultimate sacrifice that was to bring peace and life through the grace of God alone highlighted what, in Prayer-Writer's mind, was the major difference between the kzinti religion and Christianity as highlighted in many fervent (yet friendly and cordial) debates with Salvator. To the Hero, one cannot simply expect to be served by the whims of grace alone; one must struggle to earn one's reward, for that is the way of a hunter. Even prey seeks out the food that is best for them; only the dishonorable carrion-eaters lay upon what spoils they find that they did not hunt themselves. The concept of everlasting life through grace alone is alien to the kzin world-view, just as the concept of earning Paradise through earthly deeds and temporal attitudes is alien to those taught that no such finite cost can buy such infinite reward. The mullah, on the other hand, listens to the story of the pre-Mohammed prophet and agrees that this most holy man did a very brave thing, sacrificing himself to his beliefs and the greater glory of Allah, but that makes him no less a simple--albeit holy--man and no more a deity. Even the Prophet, to whom Gabriel granted both the Holy Book and the Holy Writing, was all too human... as could be seen by the more temporal passages in the Qu'ran (How painful it had been to admit that human fallacy had wounded the living history of the Scriptures!)... still, all that was merely detail, for Allah exists in part in all things and all things exist in Allah; if calling this tree or that rock or that good man God helps one to glorify Allah with good works, then certainly Allah will have mercy for them in the Hour of Doom.
After the service, the Catholics still in quiet awe, Prayer-Writer bats his ears as he looks down at the Tutsi. "I have lived with humans for thirty-five years, Father Musinga," he says with the slightest sound of a chuckle, "if I did not have a passing understanding of their faiths, I would be a very obtuse Hero. Although I did not understand the language, I have been led through the basic concept of the ritual before and understand." Another wink of his pink bat-wing ears, followed by an upturning of the corners of his lips before he takes a sip from his steel chalice. "So, no, I did not find it too incomprehensible."
Terra Anglia Gratia
Holy Vatican See
Musinga nodded. “I hope that I have the opportunity to learn more of the traditions of your people. We are really unconscionably ignorant about any species but our own, here. Although I do not think that is willful—merely, we have had few occasions to gain knowledge in a systematic way. Sharing a Universe with other sentients is still a relatively new concept to us, and the Church is not always a very, ah, nimble institution when it comes to new concepts.” The corner of his wide, well-shaped mouth twitched a bit.
A couple of oriental-looking Bishops came in, with some business-suited companions; apparently they, too, were on the Holy Father’s audience schedule this morning. They were warmly greeted by Father Nao, and went through the scan tunnel without demur. They noticed the kzintosh and the Mullah, and exchanged some comments in their own language. Although they bowed politely in the direction of the entire Scolopendran party, it was noticeable that they chose to sit themselves as far from the oddly-assorted visitors as possible.
However, at that point, the Papal Major-Domo, Cardinal Peter Shan Tsao-Li, entered from the Papal Audience Chamber, and beckoned to the Archbishop of Stonozka. “Your Excellency? The Holy Father is ready…” He stood aside from the door, to allow the Scolopendrans to pass.
There are several Vatican locations where the Pope can receive visitors; they vary in accordance with the occasion, the nature of the visitors themselves, and the purpose of the visit. Best-known, of course, is the massive public Audience Hall, seating literally thousands, where the Pontiff holds regularly-scheduled public audiences. Tickets to these are not difficult to obtain—one merely requests them, with suitable endorsements from a parish priest, perhaps, well in advance of one’s visit to Rome. The Holy Father greets the assembled guests, says a few words appropriate to the occasion, perhaps taking special note of the presence of particular visitors, and gives the Apostolic Benediction to all. Visitors may (depending on how they obtained their tickets or the purpose of their visit) also receive a suitable memento of the occasion—an inscribed card noting the date of the audience and the receipt of the Papal blessing.
There is also the State Reception Salon, a very formal drawing-room type accommodation, used for the formal reception of heads of state or illustrious visitors in the presence of the media. As it has been photographed on many occasions (although not as often as the architecturally-notable Audience Hall,) there is no need to describe it.
However, for the purpose of audiences wherein the Pontiff personally receives individuals or parties, without benefit of media attention, the “Private” Audience chamber is most often used. Adjacent to the Papal Apartment but still within the “public” part of the Apostolic Palace, this room (actually a suite, with antechamber and a small adjacent office for the Major-Domo and secretaries) allows the Holy Father to personally receive his guests. While such audiences are still fairly formal in nature (and usually quite brief, as the Pontiff has a multitude of calls on every moment of his time,) the audience room itself is relatively intimate, accommodating a maximum of a few dozen guests. In form it is versatile. It is divided roughly in half (the front end leads onto the antechamber, the rear onto the office and the Pontiff’s entrance,) by a low railing; when the group being received is large or there are security concerns, they may be seated in rows in the front half, and approach the Holy Father individually or a few at a time. The railing is more than it seems—part of the subtle, pervasive, and very effective security that surrounds the Pope whenever he meets the public.
However, when the group being received is relatively small (as in the case of the Scolopendran party,) they are ushered through the gate in the railing, and accommodated in relatively casual style in the rear half of the room. Although extremely fond of tradition, Leo XIV is a man of essentially simple tastes, and the precedents of several 20th-century Popes enable him to receive guests from a modest armchair. Near him are the Major-Domo, his personal Secretary, the Major-Domo’s secretary, any Vatican personnel he might have invited to join him, and a Jesuit priest whose official function is as an adjunct secretary, and whose unofficial function involves security. A pair of Noble Guardsmen flank each door. By Vatican standards, this rates as a “private” audience.
When the Scolopendrans, and Father Musinga, were ushered in, Leo was already seated, in snowy cassock and zucchetto, with a very plain gold pectoral cross on a heavy chain. Blessed with an efficient metabolism and good health, he would probably look much younger than his nearly seven decades, were it not for the lines carved into his face by much care and responsibility, and the pouches under his eyes.
He smiled warmly (with lips closed) at his visitors, and accepted the reverent greetings of the archbishops and priests with paternal care. When the official introductions were completed, and they were all seated, he leaned back a bit in his chair, and canted his head slightly. The first words out of his mouth were a bit surprising, delivered as they were with a keen, almost wistful interest in his dark eyes.
“Dear friends, I am so delighted to receive the Church’s brethren from Scolopendra, and your distinguished colleagues. Please—tell me about space, and how humanity fares among the stars, and among the newly-encountered races of God’s Creation?” Although it was delivered with Pontifical dignity, of course, there was a certain edge of almost boyish eagerness to the question.
*Bump For Great Holiness!*
The question is unexpected, yet not unwelcome. Such curiosity is both refreshing and challenging, in a way, to comfortable colonial spacers. It reminds them that yes, they are on what some people would consider an edge, just how people in large cities would wonder how people in truly rustic backwaters manage and vice versa; it is also a challenge to describe their taken-for-granted surroundings to those who still see it with some measure of awe and mystery... which is again why it's refreshing. The Scolopendrans remain silent for a moment, mostly for the same primary reason brought about by different secondary reasons--the official leader of the subgroup affiliated most closely with their hosts should speak. As such, Castelbranco replies after a moment.
"Your Holiness, it is at the same time greater and lesser than one imagines. In scope, it will never cease to astound, and in mystery it will never cease to surprise with new discoveries wherever one looks. Yet the human capacity for adaptation is astounding; what one sees every day in God's sky becomes jaded in the mind whether it be Luna or Saturn shining down on them. It is also not as romantic as some have imagined in the past... people work and live just as they have since time began. The mode of work and the pace of life are just slightly different... and I suppose that leads to the next.
"Humanity thrives, with God's grace, blessed with its ability to adapt and the fruits of its hands. There are always new challenges and new questions, and yet we meet them all. We fare quite well... certainly no New Jerusalem but also certainly no Dis either. Still--I can only speak of my own lands here--we are blessed but perhaps not as thankful as we ought to be." Mullah Kadira allows herself to frown slightly at that, and Prayer-Writer looks seems to internally stifle a sudden yawn.
Archbishop Masdeu-Arus, thinking that now is not a good time to exemplify the conservative nature of the Scolopendran Catholic Church, discretely takes advantage of the Primate's pause. The Primate, while nonplussed, decides that now is not the time to look fractious and thus covers quite well with a simple smile as Salvator begins with a quietly fervent tone. "Your Holiness, our state is very secular, as Reverand Father Freudenthal can attest, and its values of service and liberality of consideration are generally what keeps our extremely diverse and spiritual nation whole." He lightly emphasizes the word. "As you can probably see from our current nonhuman delegate"--Prayer-Writer bows very shortly with a slight upturning of the ends of his thin black lips and a slow winking of his leathery pink ears at this--"we have had quite a few interesting things to adapt to... and to allow to adapt to us in turn. Among them... we live among them, and they us. They are us just as much as the mullah is part of us, simply with a different form of removal. In everyday life, when one sees kzinti like the honorable Priest of the Dark Pelt making up one out of every hundred people one sees in a day, at all times, they simply become less different. We have reptilians, mechanoids, and the ever-present Noldor for allies, as well as an inexplicably large variety of humans and post-humans; and we are blessed with the opportunity to work with, live with, and learn from them all. It is possibly the most rewarding part of seeing God's creation and work on a larger scale."
Holy Vatican See
Leo watched both Castelbranco and Masdeu-Arus keenly as they answered, absorbed both in the substance and how it was delivered. When Masdeu-Arus paused, he nodded, thoughtfully. “Yes. You bring a great deal for the Church to consider—promises as well as challenges.” His head canted a little, and one corner of his mouth dented a little, almost a smile.
“Back in the early twentieth century, when the Church was struggling to come to terms with science, a great effort was made to encourage scientific study. You probably already are aware of this, but one of the seminal scientific theories about the origins of our Universe was in fact propounded by a Belgian priest, who was also a physicist and astronomer, Georges-Henri Lemaitre. He articulated the theory that would later be called the ‘big bang.’” Interestingly, my predecessor, Pope Pius XII, was also an amateur astronomer.”
“It was a time of great upheaval in the Church, which had rejected modernism as a philosophical development but was being forced to come to terms with the realities of new human knowledge and experience. Pius was faced with the challenge of reconciling these two strong forces within the Church, and at one point he consulted with Abbé Lemaitre, proposing to him that the Church should, perhaps, attempt to incorporate the new scientific knowledge into its doctrines regarding God the Creator.”
“Lemaitre, however, discouraged him. He observed that a religion that tied itself to twentieth-century science, would inevitably look foolish in the twenty-second century.”
Leo’s expression became a very definite smile. “We still encourage the expansion of human knowledge, even while we recognize and attempt to meet the challenges that some knowledge poses for people of faith. But our fundamental challenge remains to illuminate the truths that are beyond human knowledge.”
“I regard your coming, dear friends, as a sign that we must prepare ourselves for a very long period of intense engagement in this work, as we struggle to reconcile knowledge and belief. It will be an immense test for our Church. Yet it appears to me by the very fact that you are here, and that you have successfully preserved the Deposit of Faith under such difficult circumstances, that it is a test we can meet.”
He nodded gravely to the Primate of Stonozka. “Tradition is a powerful tool. In times of chaos and rapid change, it can help us maintain a lifeline to the Truth. The traditions of our Church are most potent in helping us discern what is important and useful to the faithful in times of change. This is an example that I hope to set for the Church, as the pace of change continues to accelerate.”
“Yet at some point, if one clings only to that lifeline, one’s necessary forward progress toward the ultimate goal comes to a halt. Then it is that we must twist a strong rope and tie it to the old line, to enable us to continue onward—always proceeding from the solid guideline of tradition, but always continuing the journey enjoined upon us to a Salvation we have only the weakest and most inadequate tools to understand.”
He then turned to the Mullah, leaning forward slightly as he searched her face, and the smile lines at the corners of his eyes deepened. “Hajira, our Church is honored to have been able to share the rituals of our faith with you, and honor you for your commitment to the Light of God that illuminates all faith, and brings you here in friendship and openness. I will pray to the God we share that your time here is fruitful. I ask your prayer, also, that the adventure our Church stands upon the threshold of, will increase the understanding between our peoples.”
His head very definitely canted as he took in the massive kzintosh. “W vuusko irgeeth, rarehr kzin Sizhfa Ch’johr,” he essayed. It had taken some considerable practice with a recording, but he managed a sore-throat clarity of diction. “I am most profoundly honored to be the first Pontiff afforded the opportunity to greet a meritorious Hero of your people. The knowledge you bring us of your people and your traditions is a bright gift, and I hope that your visit among us affords you a worthy adventure and knowledge of value for your people, as well.”
Leo had the trick, long-fabled from his days as Secretary of State, of intense concentration upon those he conversed with, almost a heightened awareness level. One never had the feeling, in conversing with him, that he was preparing a response to your remarks in his head while listening, or thinking about what he would say next. Rather, his conversations were interspersed with small pauses, as though he shifted gear from listening with his entire attention, and then considered and analyzed separately as he formulated his replies. It had made him a formidable diplomat, in the days when his objective had been to hear what remained unspoken, for greater advantage in advancing the Vatican’s diplomatic agenda.
Now, as Pontiff, his goals were different. He was trying to come to terms with his new pastoral role, and at the same time realizing a visceral awareness that every contact, every person, conversation, word, was yet another opportunity for him to hear and learn the things he must learn, if he was to overcome his frail human limitations to do Christ’s work. Every single soul was of unique importance to God—and therefore must be of unique importance to him.
On the one hand, the Primate listens to the Pontiff's eloquent speech with a nod, understanding all that is said, confirming his own thoughts on the matter. On the other hand, he rests assured that his stringent adherence to tradition was what was needed; the Pope's caution is a statement of warning for the future, not for the here and now. There is no guilt in the blameless.
On the gripping hand, the pope's statement to the mullah makes Castelbranco realize--almost with a start--that he didn't understand half well enough. Masdeu-Arus simply smiles serenely, not letting his content feeling of I told you so waft up to the surface... besides, such pride is inappropriate. The mullah bows and smiles. "I offer my prayer and my experiences on your behalf, Your Holiness. The difficulties of faith that our present and your future hold are universal no matter how one chooses to glorify The Most Merciful. Hopefully we will be of service." She smiles with the serenity to which she is accustomed, the result of years of thoughtful meditation that continue into this moment, putting all things into perspective, both categorizing scientifically and simply experiencing, as one experiences art. She would probably describe it to others as 'the art of life.'
Prayer-Writer bows low, batwing ears almost flapping lightly. "Sraap' kshcitsjughkz irgeeth yeebugh zhlaaan hwergsihetuln, nubezecj Kzoowwee Ch'such' Leeo T'Keet Yahughnost'ss Prlok'thewt." He straightens back up after returning the respectful greeting, quite impressed with the show of effort even if it may lack understanding. "I will do my best to represent my people and our faith well, and I am honored to see so much and meet with so many I have only heard of in tales. Success in your Hunt." He has, unlike the other Scolopendrans, an unshakable air of pride about him that stands out even more when surrounded by those whose culture dictates that humility is a virtue. Prideful, yes, but not overbearing egotism--it is the hero who underestimates 'the other one,' be it friend or foe, who finds himself on the losing side.
Holy Vatican See
Leo thanked the Mullah and Prayer-Writer for their good wishes, and smiled a trifle sympathetically at the Primate. Essentially conservative himself, his own struggle to adapt to the disturbing requirements of temporal change was ongoing, and not easy.
“It is comforting to reflect, perhaps, that even since the days of the earliest Church Fathers and the first Nicene Council, the Magisterium has been a product, not of any one human Apostle, theologian, or prophet, but always a summary of the combined wisdom of many great minds and souls, illuminated by the Holy Spirit through our Lord Jesus. Thus through the process of continual testing and discernment, God protects His Church.”
“We cannot be open to the true leadings of the Holy Spirit without also being open to error. Yet for millennia we have managed, through the process bequeathed to us by our Apostolic predecessors, to create the conditions necessary for the ultimate triumph of truth. The Church of Scolopendra need no longer stand alone—the strength of the Mother Church, and the good will and support of all of your brethren, are ready at your call.”
He glanced at the secretary standing next to him, who gave the smallest of nods, and brought the audience to a close, giving the Apostolic Benediction to the Scolopendran clergy with affectionate deliberation.
The Major Domo, Cardinal Tsao-Li, helped to usher the visitors back to the antechamber. In their absence, several additional parties had arrived for Papal audiences, and there was a quite audible murmur as the massive kzin passed among them. Awaiting them was Father Martin Stone.
“If your Excellencies are ready, Archbishop Nataka has time this morning to discuss matters pertaining to communication between Scolopendra’s Church, and Rome,” he offered. “And I believe Cardinal Hume is most interested in discussing the work of the Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue with Prayer Writer and Mullah ibnat Neelam ,” put in Father Musinga. “Perhaps, if all are agreeable, we can pursue these separate tasks for the rest of the morning, and reunite for a daymeal this afternoon, at the Gregorian? Then, if you would like to sightsee a bit, we can arrange accommodations so that each can visit what is of greatest interest.”
The Scolopendran Catholics seem mildly yet visibly relieved at the Pontiff's benediction, only revealing a fraction of what they truly feel. All accept gracefully and leave as directed, according proper honors where they are due. Even though Prayer-Writer is once again becoming acclimated to causing a stir wherever he goes, the murmurs do seem to either bolster his pride slightly or remind him to strike the appropriate image; perhaps both.
Speaking with Father Stone, Primate Castelbranco nods. "That would be most excellent indeed. We are all here, after all, for our own reasons... so it only fits that we attend to them."
"Certainly," continues the dervish Mullah, "I'm sure the Cardinal is most curious about Sizhfa Ch’johr and his faith."
The kzintosh chuckles lightly, soft whiffs of breath passing through his nostrils, ears twitching a little. "You are invited as well, Mullah."
"Yes," she says with a serene smile, "but you must admit that he has at least a passing understanding of my faith--it isn't as if it's anything new to him. You on the other hand, are probably quite novel."
"We shall see, Mullah," he replies, "we shall see." Turning to Father Stone, he nods. "That is acceptable."
Holy Vatican See
Father Martin Stone led the Scolopendran prelates back through the maze of the Apostolic Palace, to the Secretariat offices. They went directly to Cardinal Angelini’s office, and found the Cardinal, with his secretary, Father Kwan, surrounded by piles of familiar material—hardcopies of materials sent by the Scolopendrans, mostly. He rose to greet them as they entered.
“Welcome, Your Excellencies, Fathers… Please, make yourselves comfortable. Martin, see if anyone would like coffee, or tea perhaps.” He smiled. “I hope your audience with the Holy Father went well?”
With a wave at the stacks of material, Angelini continued. “As you can see, my office is preparing the materials you’ve provided for review among the various Dicasteries. We’ll move things along as quickly as possible. Perhaps I should start with an overall rundown on the process, and then we can discuss any particular questions or concerns you might have?”
Their nods reassured him, and he leaned back in his chair, causing it to creak slightly.
“Now, all of the doctrinal materials are already being reviewed by a commission appointed by Cardinal Renard. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is not normally a swift mover, so that represents considerable progress,” his eyes twinkled. “Cardinal Renard will meet with you as soon as their preliminary report is in. I don’t anticipate any difficulties there—in fact, from what I know of the Blue Pope, he’ll be quite appreciative of how you’ve managed.”
“Catechetical materials will go for an additional review to the Congregation for Catholic Education—Cardinal Martin. My best guess is that he will wish you to appoint a commission to work jointly with representatives of his office to integrate the most recent revisions into your materials in a manner appropriate for the local context. To be honest, I’ve had time to do no more than skim things lightly, so I can’t really say if there are any potentially tricky issues there.”
“Your emergency Episcopal appointments can be reviewed under the ordinary process through the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Sales will probably also wish to appoint a staff member to go over provincial organization with you, your Excellency,” he nodded to the Primate. “You may wish, now that you have the greater resources of the Mother Church available, to have some additional diocese established and staffed, to spread the load a little, although it’s remarkable how well you’ve done under your current limitations.”
“Cardinal Pironio has already sent me a request to relay to you from the Congregation for the Clergy…” he scrabbled among the things on his desk futilely for a moment, before Father Kwan discreetly selected a sheet of paper and moved it within range of Angelini’s searching fingers. “Ah. Yes, there we are. Thank you, Francis. Here we go…” He handed the paper to Archbishop Masdeu-Arus. “As you can see, he’d like you to appoint a temporary representative to the Congregation, to assist his staff in setting up the appropriate resources for review and support of the diocesan priesthood in Scolopendra. It’s a lot to absorb, all at once, and the cultural issues fall in an interesting gray area, as it were. Scolopendra isn’t a Mission Church, precisely, but there are certainly aspects of the transition that might require extra considerations. A Scolopendran representative could materially assist in the understanding of particular issues that might arise.”
“Now, you’ve indicated that there are no active religious Orders among your people, so the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life won’t be requiring any particular meetings or reviews. However, Bishop Mbopa did want me to relay to you that he’d be most happy to assist you in sorting out an orderly process for enabling specific Orders to seek out vocations in Scolopendra.”
The Secretary of State shrugged very slightly. “Probably a good idea to take him up on that, at some point. Once contact is thoroughly re-established, you’ll have some of the Orders wanting to establish a foothold, and it’s probably just as well to think ahead.”
He looked up as Archbishop Nataka appeared at the door. “Ah! Welcome, Tenda. We’ve just gotten started.”
The Sostituto bowed politely to the Scolopendrans, and to the Cardinal. “Please, excuse my tardiness. I needed to resolve a few matters before joining you, to ensure that my time would be uninterrupted.”
“Well, for the most part I’d just gone over some of the preliminary steps involving the Dicasteries. If your Excellencies have any particular questions?” Angelini looked enquiringly at the Archbishops.
Father Musinga led Prayer-Writer and Mullah Kadira by a different route to the offices of the Pontifical Council for InterReligious Dialogue. This involved a walk through some of the Vatican gardens and pathways, to a newer building huddling rather deprecatingly amid the churches, monuments, and museums. Several groups of offices shared the facility, but InterReligious Dialogue had ground floor prominence, although Cardinal Hume’s office and study was up a flight of stairs.
The newer buildings were well-built, blending harmoniously with the magnificent historic architecture around them, but making their peace with the ages by a studied simplicity in design and construction. The internal austerity of the facilities was relieved by the occasional placement of artwork, but otherwise only the well-lit airiness of the spaces provided aesthetic refreshment. Cardinal Hume’s small suite of offices was no exception, but it was welcoming and comfortable.
A glass door enabled the secretary, Father Kadesky, to see Musinga and the Scolopendrans approaching from many meters down the hall, and he was able to alert the Cardinal even as he allowed his jaw to drop at the sheer size of the figure looming behind the Tutsi priest. Hume came to his office door, and they exchanged a glance.
“So large….!” Kadesky murmured. “The briefing materials really do not adequately prepare one…”
“No indeed. But fortunately, he’s quite experienced in dealing with humans, and most polite about allowing for our, ah… inadvertent responses. Courtesy helps considerably.”
The secretary nodded, as Father Musinga opened the door and stood aside for the visitors.
Hume smiled and greeting the visitors. “Salaam aleikum, Hajira… Prayer-Writer, welcome. This is my secretary, Father Stephen Kadesky.” the young priest had stood, and now bowed politely, murmuring how honored he was.
“Please, come in. Stephen, tea and water, thank you.” Hume gestured for the Scolopendrans to join him in his office.
It was fairly spacious, and in addition to the normal guest chair, there was a large, wide-seated chair borrowed from one of the older offices. Two big, uncurtained windows with north and east exposure enabled the golden light of late morning to suffuse the room, and in addition to the beautifully carved soapstone crucifix behind the desk, the walls bore a large, framed Chagall lithograph, a Japanese silk weaving incorporating a koan attributed to the Master Joshu, and a hand-calligraphed scroll by the artist Hassan Massoudy, kufic script rendering the fourteenth verse of the 43rd sura, ‘Ornaments of Gold’: [I]“And surely to our Lord we must return.”
For the rest, the room was monastically neat, the desk bare except for its viewer, phone, and a small stack of files, the low rank of file cabinets behind holding a small carved bas-relief of St. Benedict in tigerwood, a couple of vertical organizers holding papers and folders, and a carved Tibetan pen-case. The floor was uncarpeted but covered by close-woven tatami matting.
As the guests seated themselves, Father Kadesky brought in a tray with a pot of tea and cups, and a large pottery jug of water. Cardinal Hume poured tea for himself, Father Musinga, Father Kadesky, and the Mullah, and gestured for Prayer-Writer to help himself to water. He sat back, and sipped his tea.
After acknowledging the Cardinal's query into the Papal audience in the affirmative, the Scolopendrans listen intently to Angelini's explanation of the situation. They again seem visibly relieved as Angelini relates Cardinal Renard's probable acceptance of their views.
"Concerning the catechism, Your Eminence," Masdeu-Arus offers, opening up his own neat binder of notes, "it has remained practically untouched. We weren't about to assume to amend the prayers, decalogue, sacraments, and creeds in text; in analysis, I think we stepped back a bit towards a conservative reading. This has made dealings with even the Protestants, much less Muslims or Buddhists... interesting when some of our more vocally reactionary priests would say something to that effect." The archbishop looks mildly abashed. "It may take some work to get the 'we are us and they are them' mindset we've ingrained into the teaching philosophies out, but at least we're not as severe as some ultraconservative splinters we've heard about."
At the suggestion of working together to add diocese, Primate Castelbranco nods. "We have been operating quite leanly in that regard, Your Eminence, basically day by day. That is probably a very good idea."
Salvator looks over the paper transferred to his hands and nods. "I think Father Freudenthal would be a good choice for this, if we can get approval from the secular government. His diplomatic training requires him to innately understand the Scolopendran cultural salad bowl." He chuckles softly. "I do fear, however, that if the secular governent agrees he will also be tasked with the secular duty as a sort of liason to the Vatican. I'm almost sorry for Sören that way. Still, he's one of the clergy whose ordination would have to be confirmed and I think he'd represent us well."
"We used to have some orders, didn't we... Jesuits, I think?" Castelbranco asks with a raised eyebrow.
Masdeu-Arus nods. "Yes, we had a total of five of the Society of Jesus immediately after The Break; they immediately banded together and... ah..." He flips through a few pages. "They were going from Nuha to Port Arthur to a Titan-wide religious conference and their personal shuttle crashed from poor maintenance. That was about two, three years post-Break."
The Primate nods. "Ah, I remember now. Good idea to think ahead; simple diffusion demands it." He smiles a little, listening quietly up to the confirmation on whether or not there were any questions. "Mostly just a technicality on the establishment of diocese in the Segments. Again, we are not exactly a Mission Church--having never quite fallen to heresy--but our current diocese were created on the basis of need and demand without the See or the Congregation of Propaganda. As such, they aren't exactly legitimate, per se... but, arguably, neither are many of their bishops so I suppose the methodology of our Apistolic divisioning will be examined concurrently with the suitability of our emergency appointments...?"
* - * - *
While the Vatican gardens are well-appreciated due to the Scolopendran bent towards naturalism--the terraformers of the Triumvirate have to be, in order to do what they do--the utilitarian design and interior of the modern office building are a taste of home for Kadira and Prayer-Writer. Spacer life, even colonial life, does not agree well with frivolous design; resources are always scarce and measured by the gram with care. Certainly popular art has turned towards a more baroque style, but architecture should be clean and efficient over all else while avoiding the needlessly sharp and self-defeating blocky shapes of brutalism... which explains why one can't throw a shoe without hitting an Art Deco something in a Scolopendran city.
Prayer-Writer simply chuckles to himself as he gauges Kadesky's reaction through the door. "It has been a while since I have seen that," he mutters softly to himself, standing aside while letting the dervish enter first.
"Aleikum salaam," she replies with a smile and a short bow, with Prayer-Writer repeating the gesture with a similar greeting. Entering the office as directed, Prayer-Writer immediately moves for the larger chair obviously set out for him while everyone gets settled. How the Scolopendrans find the obvious multiculturality of the office could be considered surprising, as it is far more comfortably like home than someone who is trying to provide at least some object of familiarity to almost anyone can reasonably expect. Cultural salad is a delicacy in the Segments, after all.
While refreshments are brought out, Prayer-Writer again unwraps the burnished steel fluted goblet from his tunic belt before pouring water from the pottery jug into it and sipping with surprisingly polite gentleness. Certainly lapping was more traditional, but this is simply one of those small adjustments his people made to the culture that adopted them.
Silence can be awkward, or it can be a pleasant change. The mullah, quietly enjoying her tea with her characteristically level concentration, seems as if she could go aeons of the world without speaking. Some of the Buddhists back home who accepted the more esoteric 'scriptures' tended to joke mildly (with not just a little bit of good-natured envy) that the dervish simply had to be on the later stages of the path of the bodhisattva. Prayer-Writer, on the other hand, is a 'tosh of action; still, there are times to lay in wait, letting the other make his move first and react to it. Of course, it is quite possible that is exactly what the Cardinal is doing, waiting for someone to make their move.
The kzintosh's segmented ratlike tail flicks just a little bit at that thought as his eyes flash with calculation. An ethnocentric thought, certainly, he thinks, but a good sign if true. Perhaps he simply wants silence; perhaps he is looking for an opening. If I speak, then either I impinge the first, which can be smoothed with future diplomacy, or I assist the second, where there can be no complaint. Still, an observance of the culture--all meetings have drinks in common, moving sedately. Things are done with much deliberation, in terms of both thought and time. Failing to adapt to their ruleset will make me appear more alien than already, perhaps less skillful than they are used to... for now, I will wait. A lifetime of experience and a supportive culture results in this new breed of kzinti--the kind that thinks before it acts.
Holy Vatican See
Angelini’s brows drew together slightly. “Cardinal Martin can assist you with regards to the catechetical issues—he and Cardinal Renard work together very well, so that will facilitate matters overall, as well. Cardinal Renard is himself very, ah… traditional. One could even say, ‘doctrinaire.’” His lips twitched briefly at his own pun. “But of course the interpretations of that have, ah, developed… in the last couple of decades. Sixtus did a good deal to reconcile the hardline Conciliarists with the hardline Traditionalists, God bless him.”
“Perhaps the best way to describe the synthesis might be to say that while the Church has revived and re-incorporated many liturgical traditions that were, ah, ‘shelved’—in the immediate post-Council era, it has also clarified and strengthened its commitment to the fundamental messages of the Council, particularly with regards to the elements of human rights, social justice, the relationship between spiritual and secular authority, and ecumenism.”
“In essence, we have perhaps returned the Church’s ‘spiritual identity’ to a more traditional cast, at the same time we have carried that identity into a context that recognizes the needs and resources of our contemporary world. You might say that the intent has been to strengthen and affirm the core, while making the interface more flexible.” He smiled. “It will be interesting, when you’ve had a chance to re-familiarize yourself with the larger Church as it is today, to hear your perspective on how well we’ve succeeded.”
Archbishop Nataka liked the suggestion about Father Freudenthal. “An efficient plan. It’s very helpful to have clear channels of communication with secular governments, as well—we encourage active maintenance of such relationships. There should be no aspects of working with the Congregation for the Clergy that would interfere with Father Freudenthal’s ability to represent your government effectively.”
Both the Cardinal and the Archbishop looked sad when the fate of the Jesuits was discussed. “A sad loss…” Angelini murmured. “It must have been a struggle to maintain the pastoral work of the Church without the assistance of religious Orders in teaching and other institutional work. Such challenges!”
“Well, as to provincial organization, Rufino has maintained the approach of making local pastoral needs the most important criterion, with the, ah… political and social influences receiving appropriate consideration. If those are largely accommodated, then from the standpoint of Rome, any additional efficiencies that can be gained through particular organizational considerations are important, but secondary. In the long run, that tends to greater efficiency in any case, although it sometimes requires a greater investment in education and communication.”
“Now, the main thing that my office will be concerned with would be the appointment of an appropriate Apostolic Delegate to Scolopendra—both from the standpoint of the Church, and with regards to a relationship with your government. Any insights you can give us into the selection of a representative and the constitution of a delegation overall, would be most appreciated.”
Coming from the contemplative tradition of the Benedictines, Hume is accustomed to silence as a medium of communication as well as meditation. Silence shared among those who appreciate it can be a rich exchange. And in his years of service in the Vatican, he’s absorbed the Italian approach to action—which includes a healthy appreciation for the virtues of deliberation.
Having had a chance to assess his guests’ comfort and their response to the company and surroundings, and given them an opportunity to initiate the direction of conversation, should they wish to do so, he took another leisurely and appreciative sip of tea, a twinkle creeping into his gaze, and gave the very faintest of nods to Father Musinga.
“I found the Holy Father’s Mass most moving this morning, Eminence, and I believe our guests appreciated the experience. His Holiness seemed most interested in establishing a fruitful connection with Scolopendra that transcends sectarian communication, if I am correctly interpreting what he said during the Audience,” the priest’s gentle Oxbridge diction dropped into the silence without shattering it.
Hume nodded. “I have known Leo for a good many years, and he can still surprise me—frequently, in fact, since his election. But this, at least, does not surprise me. His devotion to the Church and its traditions has never precluded his appreciation for the varieties of experience and tradition elsewhere. His eye for value, certainly, sees well beyond the material.”
"Someone who can keep a relatively open mind is a near-necessity, Your Eminence," Masdeu-Arus reports. "Given the... extremely liberal cultural norms comparative to even what it seems the Mother Church has tried to adapt to here on Earth, it wouldn't do to have the Apostolic Delegate be offended the moment he steps off the shuttle and sees... oh, the nudity, for one."
"Spacer cultures have a tendency to do without due to mass limitations," Primate Castelbranco explains with a very mild smirk, "and in climate-controlled cabins clothing can be extraneous except in their bare utility in having 'cargo space.' A jumpsuit isn't going to protect one from hard vacuum any more than one's bare skin, so unless one needs the pockets for some reason..." He frowns. "I'm afraid the culture has gone a bit far, seeing how life on Titan isn't so restricted..."
"Although, to the culture's credit," Salvator points out, "it's hardly licentious. A good analog would be sub-Saharan Africa and the lack of an upper-body nudity taboo, just extended. We've been vocally against it for years, but have been quietly ignored... that's just the most obvious example. There are going to be other disagreements and discontinuties, I'm sure. This will just be the most obvious one."
* - * - *
Prayer-Writer nods slowly. "Any human who takes the time to say anything properly in the Hero's Tongue deserves respect. I am constantly made to understand it is a harsh language on the palate. It is indicative of an honest attempt to do more than just 'communicate,' as you say."
The dervish nods with her serene Buddha's smile. "I look forward to working more closely with our Christian cousins to glorify Allah together. While I can understand why, the Primate has been so very distant. It's mildly disheartening to think that what is essentially a minor disagreement over prophets and messiahs can keep people who openly admit they worship the same name of Allah from working together for higher purposes." A most eloquent shrug. "It is good to see that at least the Vatican which they have pined for so long seems to be somewhat more open to such things."
Holy Vatican See
The Vatican prelates exchanged glances; Angelini’s brows twitched upwards a moment. Nataka shrugged. “The Church operates quite contentedly in many places on Earth where there are less restrictive nudity taboos. Of course, here on Earth we do not have the luxury of the kinds of disease control options available in an artificial environment; for us, a minimum of clothing is also a hygienic consideration. Too many diseases, particularly in these days of mutating gene-plagues, are transmitted via bodily secretions. From that standpoint, the Church encourages the adoption of some minimal clothing norms even in areas where high levels of nudity are culturally normative.”
“Still,” Angelini said judiciously, “the attitudinal considerations are important. It would not do to post a representative burdened with highly restrictive cultural contexts to overcome.” They were silent a moment, as though each consulted a mental datafile, then Angelini smiled. “Well, it is a valuable insight; we will most certainly consider it.” He sat back in his chair, and his brows drew slightly together as he pondered his next remark.
“In some respects, my friends, we are at what might be regarded as the calm before the tempest. The Church is already dealing with many and complex challenges, both internal and external. To rediscover—as it were—a foothold in space, one we were not really aware that we had,” his eyes crinkled at the corners in the hint of a smile, “is most certainly a joy, but it will also open a veritable Pandora’s box of doctrinal and logistical issues for us.”
He canted his head briefly in a very Italian gesture—not quite a shrug, but a rueful acknowledgement and deferral. “So. The doctrinal issues have the largest implications, and the furthest-reaching effects in both time and space. Me, I am not a theologian, and truthfully, such matters tend to get beyond me quickly. Doubtless Renard will be on top of them; then, too, there are others…” He frowned, momentarily.
“Of course the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the authority in this matter. But as you know, the Church has never relied solely on that source in shaping the magisterium. I will say this for Jean-Paul, he has done his best, in spite of his own—ah, rather strong—prejudices, to encourage a vigorous and wide-ranging schola of theological speculation, both internally and to some extent extra-institutionally. We’ve not really resolved the issues raised by the Commission on Non-Human Sentience, as it is, and that was merely when we thought we had only indigenous non-humans to consider.”
“From that standpoint, the Scolopendran Church will doubtless be called upon to make contributions to the overall process of examination and discernment, in the light of all the new teleological and xenological issues.” He glanced at the Scolopendrans searchingly for a moment, then continued. “But in some respects it is the shorter-term logistical issues that loom most immediate. Where humanity goes, the Church must go, to offer the Way of salvation and Divine Mercy. We have sat back and allowed polities and nations to lead the way into space. A temporal role, for which they are uniquely suited. But space lies open before us, now. Humanity is spreading through the stars.”
“The Church must accompany it! And we are woefully ill-equipped, both conceptually and technically, to do so. I blush to confess it. But once again, we have been caught navel-gazing, my friends. No matter how many times Divine Providence provides us with the opportunity to learn…. ah, well. Perhaps it is necessary for each generation to learn anew. Still, here we are. We cannot overcome these limitations in a day or a year. And to do so, we need strong alliances with people those who do have the knowledge and the technology we need.”
“And it cannot be just anyone,” Nataka said, as Angelini paused, and looked in his direction. “We have learned too bitterly from history that even the Divine Mission can be thwarted by our faulty human judgment of whom to trust, as allies. God save us, we have learned the hard way… the Crusades, the Conquistadors… It must be the discipline of the Church, not the ambition—however nobly intended—of a Christian secular leader, that guides us. From that standpoint, the Triumvirate, and Scolopendra in particular, affords us particular interest.”
“The secular nature of your polity, combined with the religious tolerance that has enabled you to maintain our Church, provides a unique prospect. The Mother Church must come to terms with space—here, then, is a place to do so. Although secular in nature, the Triumvirate, and again, Scolopendra in particular—have demonstrated their commitment to ideals that are fundamental to our Church. I think there are many opportunities here. We will be looking to you for help and guidance to make them work.”
“We will wish to send scientists to study. The religious Orders will want to establish seminaries where our sisters and brothers can learn the ways of spacefaring. The Missionary Orders will want to study the cultures and needs of humanity in space, to serve them with the Word. You see the magnitude of the ventures here?”
Hume looked rueful. “‘The Vatican’ is too large a statement to make, Mullah. Say, rather, that ‘the Church’ has made a commitment—and a tentative one, at that—to work together with other faiths for the things common to all. I do not say this to discourage. Indeed, we have made much progress. But the Primate’s stance is still shared by many within the Church—and particularly within the Vatican—who feel that the Church loses more than it gains by such efforts.”
“Fortunately, they are a minority. And, equally fortunately, that commitment comes from the highest levels within the Church, and has some institutional standing. Many years of slow, dedicated, incremental steps have begun to make a small difference, too, in some attitudes. We progress, if more slowly than I and others would wish..
“In truth, one of our chief barriers has been not within our own Church, but within the Muslim world, where the conservative rejection of ijtihad has kept so many communities shackled to a sharia that reflects concepts of justice and cultural values that are alien to progressive sensibilities.” He shrugged. “Speaking as a representative of a religious institution that is frequently accused of many of the same frailties, I am well aware that these issues are complex, and do not lend themselves to, er… outside interference. But it has been at least as much of a drag on our progress as the prejudices within our own Church.”
Father Musinga regarded Prayer Writer curiously. “I would like to learn the Hero’s Tongue, some day, if it is a thing that may be taught to outsiders. My own people have many tongues, for different purposes—what I have heard of the Hero’s tongue shares some phonetic characteristics, for example, with the hunting languages of our northernmost clans. Is it permitted?”
The Primate and the Secretary look at each other with mild looks as they let the realization of the situation sink in. "Well," begins the Primate, Your Eminence, we will do what we can. Certainly our knowledge and experience are open to you."
Masdeu-Arus nods. "Father Freudenthal, as recommended, should make a good liason to our secular government, which should be more or less open to your ideas for the reasons you described. We're a spiritual people by nature, really, so I think they'll understand even if they do not necessarily agree."
* - * - *
Kadira nods slowly. "Ah, yes, my apologies." She looks sincere without frowning, something in the eyes registering error to be accepted and adapted to. "We all act out of our own centrist preconceived notions, and to one whose religion is not so organized, it is sometimes easy to forget that having a defined structure does not change the fact that there will be differences of opinion within it. Still, the tendancies are there and even knowing that there are more conservative elements does not dampen my enthusiasm or my optimism."
She smiles serenely, then actually frowns slightly. Perhaps it is simply the lack of a smile, but its effect seems strengthened by that fact alone. "Yes, we have had... problems with reactionary Terrestrial nations. In their so-called submission to God, they somehow find the time to submit more to their own personal wills and vendettas." Her voice takes on a minimally harder edge. "Certainly there is value in more conservative estimates of the Hadith and more severe versions of the sharia; some find those more personally fulfilling and use them as tools to keep themselves on the right path. It is those who use them to only further their own ends and control others... I do not hold high hopes for them. I know my estimation is based only on my own reference and is thus somewhat selfish, but they are more hinderance than good. We have worked for years to counteract the damage they have caused, and sometimes it seems we are alone in doing so. Still, it must be done lest others truly believe that the hissing of demagogues is true faith."
Prayer-Writer arches a furred eyebrow but refrains from commenting. The Cardinal had touched a nerve there, and the kzintosh had never seen the mullah react so--This is practically ranting, for her. Fortunately, Father Musinga's question provides sufficient reason to politely ignore that situation. "We are always willing to share our culture, for that is how it is best kept alive," he replies. "You and anyone else are welcome to learn kzints'ung if you are willing to put forth the effort required... the difficulty is not so much in syntax as simple pronunciation." He chuckles softly. "Besides, that which makes a thing special, just like excellence, is not to be hidden."
Holy Vatican See
“Yes. You begin to see? I think that all of the implications of this will not unfold quickly, but even what is already apparent is…” Nataka sought for the word— “…exhilarating. And a bit daunting, yes.” He glanced at Angelini.
The Cardinal nodded solemnly. “It is of primary importance, certainly, that the Scolopendran Church have the resources needed, not only to readjust to the changes that have been wrought while you were out of touch, but also to the inevitable demands that will be made by the Mother Church as the, ah… ripples spread out. I am being very frank here, my friends, because I know that your first concern must be with the Faithful of Scolopendra. I suppose that what I am suggesting is that on some level, you must be firm in ensuring that we in Rome provide you with sufficient assistance to enable this. It is, alas, all too easy for a bureaucracy like the Vatican to lose sight of the nuances of human need.” He shrugged, a massive motion.
“Father Freudenthal’s diplomatic training will come in very useful. Just within the bureaucracy, there is a whole web of channels and relationships and passages to be mastered, in order to conduct business effectively. He will have to make up his own mind about where—and who—to work with. We will endeavor to be helpful, as will Archbishop Gopangi’s office. My secretary, Father Kwan, would be a good resource to begin with, but he’ll soon learn his way around.”
“The information you have already provided has been most helpful,” Nataka said. “We will prepare dossiers on potential Apostolic delegates, and perhaps you would be kind enough to review and comment upon them?”
Hume sighed. “The presence of bigotry is inevitable when the inherent flaws of fallible humanity come into contact with the awesome power of religious faith. This too has its purpose, if only to provide us with lessons that might otherwise not be learned.”
“Yet the Providence of the Almighty remains beneficent and merciful—we make progress, little by little. Measured in God’s time, who can say how great or small any one step may be?”
“Now, it may be that you are unfamiliar with the particulars of this Council’s work, and the Church’s specific commitment to fostering InterReligious Dialogue. In the beginning, we were more of an internal body, attempting to open a channel within the Church for knowledge to flow through, to learn and accustom ourselves to communicating with those of other religions effectively. Slowly, during the Papacy of John Paul II, we initiated some more formal attempts at dialogue, some projects to promote connections, make ourselves useful.”
“During Sixtus’ Papacy, we began the Triennial Conferences—a regular opportunity for leaders of various faiths to come together and discuss issues of common concern or current priority. For the most part, we try to keep it uncontroversial. The intent was mainly to get people comfortable with such discussions, to some extent to institutionalize them in our own Church, and to enable a few friendly leaders to do the same for their own people. We’ve managed five Conferences, and we’re in the process of planning a sixth. Each Conference has associated with it what we call the Ecumenical Study Institute, which is an opportunity for scholars and theologians to spend three months together in focused study and exchange. The Conference itself is five days, and will be held in about twenty months.”
He canted his head. “To some extent, the planning stage is already under way, but only in the early stages. We are taking something of a risk with the topics for this Conference. We would like to include a discussion of the effects of space travel on faith.” He canted his head, and smiled at the Mullah.
Father Musinga nodded, meditatively. “Yes, I see. Interesting. Among my people, that viewpoint also applies in many areas. But we also have things that are reserved for those among us who make a particular commitment to preserve and pass them on unchanged. I will hope that I am permitted the opportunity to learn. I have requested a posting to the Apostolic Delegation, but of course that will rest with the Secretariat, and with my Superior.”
“Have you had much chance to observe terrestrial-bound human cultures, Prayer-Writer?”
"We will be glad to, Your Eminence," Primate Castelbranco replies with with a quiet smile. "Actually, I find myself once gain in awe of Divine Providence... we each have our own advantages that complement the others' dilemmas well, and this is so timed as to make that truth obvious... it is hard to believe that such things could occur merely by circumstance. We will do our best to assist wherever we can with our knowledge, and I am sure Archbishop Masdeu-Arus can appropriately firm in asserting the future needs of the Scolopendran Church."
* - * - *
"That is an interesting topic," the dervish replies, once again returning to her accustomed quiet smile, "and I do think we may have something to add to that discussion. As for the Council... it is a noble aim, and possibly a necessary one. We lack that sort of ability--to have a mandated council and make it so--and so our better understanding of other cultures has to be formed at the local levels, often at the behest of mullahs or imams such as myself. I know from observing Terrestrial Islam's backslide how... uncertain such things can be, and I understand your difficulties there. Perhaps we can assist with such things, beginning with the next Conference?"
The kzintosh replies to Father Musinga's comparison with a slight nod. "Yes... but it becomes not so much limitation of knowledge as limitation of command. That is what these are for." The kzintosh indicates a long string of flat triangles carved from pink soapstone that hangs from his belt, each one carved and detailed in a different fashion. "Each one of these tried to assert authority which they lacked knowledge or ability to maintain. They may have known the stories--everyone does, as we do not necessarily have a priest class--but they had failings of effort, knowledge, or skill. Secrets are limited to what has not been asked yet, but authority is highly guarded by the Conservators. Luck on your Hunt for being accepted to your Delegation.
"For the five years between the extraction and The Break I lived in a Terrestrial-bound human culture, more or less. It is not what you refer to, admittedly, but it is experience. Since then I have not had as much opportunity to, although I have tried to maintain an understanding through the reports of lower Conservators."
Holy Vatican See
Both of the Vatican prelates nodded. It did indeed seem the working of Divine Providence, the movement of the Holy Spirit, the way events unfolded. “We will begin the process of assembling our Delegation, then, and provide you with the appropriate dossiers once they are available. Your scrutiny and comment will be most valuable,” Nataka subsided, and looked at Angelini, giving a small nod.
The massive Cardinal smiled. “Excellent! Well, we have some time to bat it around a bit, before midday meal, gentlemen. As it’s been—thirty, is it?—subjective years for you, you might reasonably have some questions about how things have gone in Rome over the same time—although, apparently, it has been a somewhat longer subjective time, for us…” he shook his head, a little quizzically, at the peculiarities of the multiversal continuum that was disclosing itself.
“There is a great deal to be said for forming one’s understanding at the most fundamental local levels. An overview must inevitably sacrifice some nuance and depth, even while it conveys its own advantages. The best configuration is, of course, to join the two and use the strengths of each toward a common end,” Hume said. “Your assistance with the Conference would be most welcome. Details must sort themselves out through the planning process, naturally, but I would hope that you might feel comfortable addressing at least one plenary session on the topic, among other things.”
“As to common ends… If I may look into a hypothetical future, here, and give you some perspectives that might help in understanding these things within our Church…?” He took her nod for agreement, and continued.
“It is a multi-faceted view. There is the official Church policy. There are agendas, interest groups you might call them, within the Church whose views on the official policy vary in some respect. There is the semi-official policy of this Council, which has the mission to be, as it were, the advance guard in policy-making on this subject, but is ultimately subsumed by larger Church policy, which—hopefully—we have helped to shape. And then there is my own personal view. All of these are considerations in understanding the ends desired by the Catholic Church, from inter-religious dialogue and the actions of this Council.”
“The official Church policy can be summarized by saying that the Church recognizes that certain social, political, and cultural factors contribute to the flourishing of religious intent and practice among human beings. Insofar as that religious intent, and the practices it generates, are consistent with the Church’s broadest understanding of God’s Will for humanity, it is to our advantage to promote those social, cultural, and political factors—and to work cooperatively with other faiths who hold a similar view in order to achieve this. At the highest level, this includes the promotion of freedom of religious practice in the political and social matrix, and the encouragement of religious tolerance in the cultural matrix. Further than that, the Church does not go, officially.”
“Now, within the Church, you must understand, there are two major agendas—not to mention a host of minor ones—that seek to influence this official policy. On the one hand, you have the spectrum of conservatives, ranging from outright medievalist heresy to a benign and necessary “go-slow” movement. They seek, in essence, to narrow that policy or even abolish it. Their ends generally devolve, at the most benign interpretation, to establishing social, political, and cultural conditions they believe will be favorable to the propagation of the True Faith and the gradual replacement of other faiths with Catholicism.” He shrugged. “Many would not wish to be pinned down to the point of admitting that, of course, but that is the logical endpoint of their agendas.”
On the other hand, you have a liberal spectrum that ranges from what I might call “impatient progressives,” (his eyes twinkled in the hint of a smile,) “to out-and-out syncretistic heresy. They seek to broaden the policy, in varying degrees. Their ends tend to vary a bit more than the conservatives—‘liberal unity’ remaining a perennial oxymoron—but at the extreme end they place the Church at risk of a syncretism that would unquestionably undermine the integrity of what we call the Deposit of Faith.”
“Now, the official mission that this Council is charged with is twofold: both to implement the official policy, and to act as the Church’s, ah… ‘research and development’ division in this area of endeavor. In our first function, we speak, insofar as it is possible within our somewhat Byzantine system of authority, with the Church’s official voice. This must be distinguished from our work in the second area, which might be regarded as ‘experimental.’ In that function, we are always subject to the supervision, and even the veto, of the official Church.”
“My own views are liberal, but orthodox. I understand the risks our work poses doctrinally. My own theological interpretations are certainly on the progressive end of the spectrum—there are those who believe that I, er… ‘push the envelope’ a bit too vigorously, perhaps—but I do so within the context of incontrovertible parameters. It is not only possible, but desirable, for my work to wholeheartedly advance the missionary obligation of the Church.”
“Incontrovertible is the Catholic doctrine that true conversion occurs only through the agency of the Divine Will—the Holy Spirit acting within the heart of human beings. Missionary work cannot “convert” men—only the Holy Spirit can do that. The purpose of missionary work, therefore, is to bear witness to the Gospel as we know it—to expose the Word of God as we understand it—and thereby to open the path for men who are so moved by the Holy Spirit to embrace salvation through that Gospel.”
“I regard the work of this Council as missionary work, yes. Not in the sense of active preaching, but in the sense of creating conditions in the world where humans can most easily follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit within their hearts. A world where religions struggle for social and cultural, and even political, control of men’s minds, hearts, and actions, is inimical to this goal.”
“Now, I do not deny that struggle, nor its necessity. The Church Militant is the temporal manifestation of the great Church Eternal and Triumphant that spans past space and time, past all human understanding. We will wage that struggle—it is our duty and obligation. But it must be a spiritual struggle. For only on the spiritual level can true conversion occur. Thus, it is to the Church’s advantage to make common cause with Islam and other faiths, to end the social and cultural and political struggles between us. Because in doing so—I must be honest, here—” he smiled deprecatingly “I believe we will create the conditions where our Church can achieve the greatest victories in that spiritual struggle.”
He chuckled. “I take the gamble, therefore, that the leaders of other faiths have precisely the same belief—that on a level playing field, as it were, the power and truth of their faith must bring about the fruition of the Divine Plan for their religion.”
“From that standpoint, my personal agenda for this Council is to make it as effective as possible in bringing peace to those social and cultural and political battlegrounds, without compromising the essential doctrines of the Church.”
“You see, I want you to understand as fully as possible the many aspects of the Council and its work before making a commitment to assist us.” He spread his hands, in a gesture that encompassed both his request and his unconditional acceptance of the Mullah’s response, then let them lie lightly clasped in his lap.
Father Musinga regarded the triangular artifacts curiously, trying to parse what the kzintosh was explaining. “Do you mean, then, that by proving yourself a more worthy holder of these symbols than their prior guardians, you acquired custody of them?” he asked slowly, choosing his words with care.
Father Kadesky, who had been listening with some fascination, said quietly, “You’d be a good choice for the Delegation, Oguku. They’ll need a linguist, certainly.” He chuckled. “I just wish they needed an archivist!” Father Stephen Kadesky, when he was not doing clerical work for the Council on InterReligious Dialogue, assisted in the curatorship and preservation of some of the Vatican’s more recherché collections of incunabula.
Musinga nodded to Prayer Writer. “Should you ever wish to hunt, here on earth, my clan would be honored to host you.”
"Hm. Thirty in some ways, three hundred in others..." Patriarch Castelbranco muses.
"I wouldn't think all too hard on it, Your Eminence," Salvator advises with a small, wry smile. "From personal reckoning, it has been thirty years, yes, and things have changed dramatically in that time."
"I suppose I have many questions," Castelbranco begins to posit, staring down at his fingers in his lap as he taps them together, "but the ones that deserve asking is what, exactly, has changed since we were gone? Most of our research was doctrinal and organizational to ensure that we could ease the business of our transition, but of course that is mostly academic." A slightly wry smirk. "There are other considerations, far more basic on a human level than the appropriate dispensation of the Sacraments. I see that we have made... advances in outreach to other modes of thought, though experience would indicate that is not necessarily universal. What are the major concerns of the day, other than the obvious--certainly nonhumans and space colonies are massive changes, but we've already glossed over that with sufficient detail for now--and what is being done... or not being done... about them, Your Eminence?"
* - * - *
Kadira nods. "That makes a certain amount of sense... much more than you may think." Her smile turns just a bit slyer. "As you well know, the later Abrahamic religions have always been... perhaps a smidgen more zealous than the global average when it comes to matters of conversion. Too much of our history is tainted by it, even up to this day. In a cultural salad-bowl like Scolopendra, it is anathema to continued operation of the society. Thus, you probably do not find us as very evangelical in the sense that it is commonly known... which is true. Instead of demanding that our way is right to all others, we simply live as we do and lead by example." She smiles a bit broader. "I believe we think as you do, Cardinal Hume. By supporting a peaceful atmosphere of tolerance and understanding wherever we go, we create a forum where people can choose for themselves... at which point we try to convince them with our own lives as an example, remaining open yet not insistent. It is, after all, how one continues the True Faith."
She winks, smile benignly mischievous. "And there's nothing wrong with thinking that, or even openly admitting it. Certainly you prefer your way to mine and I prefer mine to yours, or else we would be inhabiting opposite chairs right now. It is just a simple fact of human self-categorization that must be accounted for and adapted to. I wish the Church Militant luck in its proselytization; I've always found fair, sportsmanlike competition quite enjoyable."
Prayer-Writer nods to Musinga, sifting through his string of pink triangles with care. While generally equilateral triangle slates, each one had two straight sides and one slightly concave side, forming a sort of arrowhead shape. "Our culture has been forced to become somewhat more lenient over time, as we resist 'civilization' in our own affairs." His pink batwing ears flicker slightly. "Historically, Conservators decided practically everything through trial by combat, and the only way that one could have evidence of victory is by taking an appropriate trophy." He points to his winking ears with one finger. "Needless to say, our culture was rather violent that way. Mortality across all age ranges from ritualistic fighting was quite high. When we were adopted by the Segments, that was no longer an option, and yet we did not wish to give up what was a defining part of our culture... and so we turned to symbology.
"We also refined the scope of our ritualistic trials; combat is not the greatest virtue, though it is important. Trials now better reflect the skillset required in a position of authority in addition to a wrestling match. Previously, one could lose their ears in a badly-chosen challenge, so to prevent such, all kzin beginning at puberty make a set of tzuzsts'pazwttokchti, these symbol-ears. They individualize them and improve them over time, always a work in process." He fingers through the string of triangles again. "They are a very personal matter, and very dear to their makers as a symbol for their very life. It is... humbling to admit that the only reason one did not kill you is because they chose not to, and that is how this symbology maintains the purpose of the old tradition while not being quite as lethal."
The 'tosh looks over to Kadesky. "You may be surprised. We are still trying to collate and archive all that we collected and reformed during the Revival. The new Conservators are young and, while all are motivated and enthusiastic, most are not the best at their art."
Then back to Musinga with a low nod, standing in for a bow. "Thank you--I am most honored. My House would be willing to host you on Titan or the Ring if you should ever have the opportunity."
Holy Vatican See
Angelini grimaced a little, and paused, organizing his response. There was so much! Best, perhaps, to start out with the things that would be familiar to the Scolopendrans—matters that had been working their way through the lengthy processes of the Church for decades, and would probably be doing so for decades more.
“Major concerns… A great many, as always. Doctrinally, the large questions raised in the twentieth century continue to sift through the mill. The role of women in the Church remains—problematic. Perhaps the best way to describe the current dominant view would be to say that it has boiled down, in effect, to a challenge to the Church to find ways in which women can fully share in shaping the policies and decisions and future of the Church, within the structure of roles constrained by sacramental validity.”
“If priestly ordination is to remain closed to women—and I think the weight of theological and doctrinal consensus has continued to accumulate in that respect—then we are challenged to find ways to adjust, and even remake, the leadership and institutional structures of the Church to integrate women more fully in those structures.” He snorted a little cynically. “You can imagine how quickly that is proceeding, of course… makes the average glacier look like a supralight transport. Still, it is gathering momentum. Sixtus did a good deal to move things along by affirming women’s access to the deaconate, and to seminarial education, even without the promise of ordination.”
“We have more women teaching in distinguished positions in Catholic Universities and seminaries than at any time since the 13th century, some of our most prominent theologians and canon law exponents are women. Leo has already taken an astonishing step—appointing the first woman to Curial office: Sister Consuela Alwi, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.” He chuckled, rather slyly. “I think things are on track, actually, judging by the number of complaints from liberals about the lack of progress, and from conservatives about the dizzying speed of change.”
“The issue of married clergy, with all its implications, continues to provoke lively discussion and debate. It is especially relevant in light of the African renaissance, which has posed a number of other opportunities and challenges for the Church. Culturally, there is almost as long a tradition of married clergy in some of the African churches as in the Orthodox churches. Although with the tremendous surge in growth of the Church in Africa we’ve seen a vast bounty of resources flowing into the church, the issue of priestly vocations still presents difficulties.”
“Still, the African renaissance has, on balance, been very positive for the Church. Cardinal di Corneliano has for the last twenty years or so been finding ways to open new Universities and seminaries at a rate of about two or three a year in the sub-Saharan axis. And the West African Union is supplying nearly four percent of our diocesan clergy worldwide. Questions continue to arise, of course, about variant liturgies, and syncretism, and all is not necessarily serene among the various Episcopal Conferences. Some Churches had—adjustment difficulties—when they were released from mission oversight, and there have been one or two rather stormy Synods in the last fifteen or twenty years.”
“Internally—the Vatican bureaucracy remains essentially the same bloated and intractable beast it has been for centuries, but Sixtus made some attempts to modernize. He pulled all the various financial concerns, apart from the Governatorato, under one umbrella—the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See. Wasn’t there some heart-burning over that! But it proved to be one of his shrewdest moves. After the near collapse at the turn of the century, and the second awful Vatican Bank scandal,” he shuddered, and crossed himself, “Sixtus turned it over, more or less, to Gambini, as he was then, and there’s nothing like a Sicilian with his back up, to shake something into shape. By the time he got through with it, and put Colasuonno and Arrivabene in charge, we were not only solvent again, but, well…” Angelini shrugged, with a half-grin on his face, a reference to the Vatican’s current (enormous) footprint in the world of finance.”
“The other ‘disruptions,’ as they were called at the time (and you’ll probably still hear that term if you start conversations in the right quarters,) were the amalgamation of all of the media and public relations offices—less the academic and liturgical publishing functions—into one Office of Apostolic Communications. That raised a few eyebrows, but it’s really gone remarkably well. And the Office of Information Management—Innovation! Heresy!—” he rolled his eyes expressively “has taken longer to find its feet, and it still ruffles feathers, but it’s reached the indispensable stage, too.”
“Externally—” he frowned. “Several things have emerged externally. The anti-democratic devolution has been of great concern, with the loss of governments committed to political and social self-determination for their citizens, and their replacement by autocracies, dictatorships, monarchies, and so on. Invitations to tyranny, if not tyranny outright. The rising trend of ignoring human rights for political convenience has been a major issue at the last couple of Synods. As has been the worsening of the complementary trend at the other end of the spectrum—polities so laissez-faire and anarchic that they amount to a tyranny of secularism, self-interest, and consumer self-indulgence.”
“The big question resolves itself to the Church’s role in the face of these external challenges. How do we promote and uphold our doctrines of social justice, equity, political self-determination, and religious freedom in the face of these trends? Over the last couple of decades—especially as Sixtus’ health declined—the Church has,” he paused, and chose his words delicately, with a little twist to his mouth, “declined engagement in international affairs, to a considerable extent. There is a clear consensus that we must re-engage, but the how of doing so is not nearly so unanimous.”
Hume nodded acknowledgement of the Mullah’s point about conversion, and smiled appreciatively at the phrase “sportsmanlike competition.” He was a man who appreciated such concepts—an avid handball player and keen bicyclist. And although he was running out of opponents in the Vatican City for cribbage—having decisively beaten even the wiliest players a few too many times—he had a regular circle of chess opponents who encouraged a salutory humility.
“Excellent. It will be extremely valuable to have your participation in the planning process. And I think you’ll find it enjoyable—the range of minds and spirits involved in the Conferences has grown over the years. It sometimes takes my breath away, truly. I hope we can entice Djarrall Japaljami to join us again, he is a visionary of astonishing insight, and his perspectives on the interaction of spiritual and cultural evolution are unique. But he does not like to leave his home territory in Australia.
Father Musinga nodded, slowly, as Prayer-Writer explained the significance of the tzuzsts'pazwttokchti The spirit-objects of his ancestral religions included somewhat analogous symbols, that were collected by a warrior during his lifetime, and guarded in the secret shrine-house of his warrior society. The possession of such trophies made all the difference to where a man stood within his warrior society, his family, clan, and tribe. Although no longer religious in character, such artifacts were still collected and highly valued by the Tutsi who had chosen to return to traditional lifestyles during the renaissance.
“I am in the presence of a spirit-warrior of great merit,” he said, bowing his own head in acknowledgment of the kzintosh’s prowess. “I hope that it is the Will of God that we may share hospitality and hunt one day.”
Kadesky had brightened at the mention of the kzin records, and he exchanged a glance with Musinga. They both eyed Cardinal Hume, in earnest conversation with the Mullah, momentarily. “If there is any way that we can assist your Conservators, it would be an honor to help,” Stefan said. He was good at what he did, but relatively young and junior in the hierarchy. Still, it couldn’t hurt that he’d had the chance to meet and talk with Prayer Writer.
Masdeu-Arus ponders aloud, thumbs quietly tapping on the soft plastic-sheathed cardboard cover of his binder. "The greater role of women is perhaps a good thing, considering the context of Scolopendra. For the longest time we've been considered as rather chauvenist, at best--any movement away from that can only ease our transition to a somewhat more open stance than we have held previously."
The Primate turns his head to give the Archbishop a wry, quizzical look, and Salvator quickly qualifies his statement: "Any moderate, reasonable movement away from our current stance."
Castelbranco nods slowly. "Yes... we have been rather conservative in that regard, and it is one of our more trenchant points of contention with both the secular culture and other religions. It can be difficult to work with a female mullah when she thinks her gender is being repressed in our system. Times change, and with God's help, we can weather those changes."
The topic of married clergy elicits almost a shudder from Castelbranco. "Let's just take the extra step and call ourselves Anglicans," he muses very softly to himself. The secretary remains quiet, but his thumbs continue to tap lightly in thought, which continues throughout the next few points. The African renaissance is of only a mild concern, given that around a fifth of Scolopendra is African by descent; to them, it has already been adapted to, although it is good to know that the Terrestrial Church is still in the process of adjusting to it. The internal readjustments actually seem to ease the Scolopendrans' minds somewhat; the indication that the Holy Mother Church is willing to adjust itself is a good indicator of the probable success of the reabsorption of the Scolopendran Church.
The topic of rising authoritarianism brings deep frowns, both men being democrats to the core... such being the Scolopendran way. "Yes, that is troublesome indeed, Your Eminence," Castelbranco replies, "both to ourselves and the greater secular culture as a whole. While the core of the Triumvirate is democratic in nature, most of the member nations are probably better classified as enlightened despotisms." He frowns wryly. "Some more enlightened than others, with the Empire of Treznor certainly being the worst... and yet there are even worse autocracies out there. We are certainly shades of gray on that issue, merely a lighter gray than others. Still, we're doing what we can to promote fair and moderate self-determination... probably via example. Father Freudenthal would be a better source for that."
* - * - *
The dervish nods with a smile. "I look forward to it, certainly. I can speak with my colleagues back home and see if I can't stir up some additional interest."
"Perhaps," Prayer-Writer replies to Father Musinga, "and I look forward to any opportunity which may arise. Assertiveness is a key to the Hunt, after all." Looking to Kadesky, the kzintosh winks his ears again. "I would not have mentioned it if you were not welcome. I understand what you archive and coordinate is thousands of years old; certainly experience in doctrine comes from such things. Such assistance could help us to learn more about each other... curiosity is a mutual trait, or so I'm lead to believe." He chuckles softly, breath whiffing softly from his flat nose.
Holy Vatican See
A sizable group stood waiting in the embarkation lounge at the IP Shuttle facility of Rome’s Fiumacino transport hub. Several largish pneumatic pallets of luggage had already been collected and floated away for processing and loading.
Most of the Terrestrials had already said good-byes to family, colleagues, friends. Father Martin Stone, of the Secretariat, and Father Manuel Garcia, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, were both on hand to see their visitors and colleagues off, but otherwise it was travelers only.
It had been a fruitful eight days. One of the luckiest breaks, Father Marty reflected humorously, was the liking that Cardinal Renard had taken to the Primate of Stonozka. That had oiled the machinery considerably. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith didn’t take likings to many, but he’d apparently sensed a kindred spirit with the Scolopendran prelate.
According to Father Garcia, they’d spent considerable time with their heads together, more or less deploring the existence of modernity at all, and discreetly congratulating one another on their dedicated attempts to contain its contaminating influence in their respective spheres of authority. Well, Manual hadn’t actually said that, but knowing Renard, that’s what it worked out to.
In any case, it had resulted in an efficient and well-disposed Commission being empowered in record time, to work over the various technical issues posed by bringing Scolopendra’s Church back into full and regular communion with Rome. Ultimately, there weren’t that many. The emergency consecration of additional bishops to share the load of ministering to Scolependra’s Catholics had been undertaken under canonically valid authority, and thus required only a minimum of review. In his final audience with the Primate and the Archbishop of Say’un, Leo had promised his prompt attention to the matter and assured the Scolopendrans of his personal care for the process. He’d embraced the Scolopendrans warmly and told them that he looked forward to seeing them again at their next visit, and meeting their colleagues for ad limina chats.
There had been a little backing-and-forthing with the Scolopendran government, ably facilitated by Father Freudenthal, and a formal diplomatic exchange had been authorized. The group waiting in the embarkation lounge reflected this dual function—both diplomats and Church specialists to help the Scolopendrans with the various projects they would be undertaking now that they were back in touch with Rome.
Two of the projects loomed large—the establishment of a Pontifical University, and the establishment of facilities for religious Orders wishing to send representatives to Scolopendra for a myriad of purposes. The University had a twofold purpose—to provide the most current higher education in theology and canon law for Scolopendran scholars, and to provide a place for Terrestrial Church scientists and scholars to study the scientific and technical disciplines of space travel and life among the stars.
It would not be inexpensive—but Leo had made the commitment without hesitation, in spite of a painful wince at the initial estimates. But it was an essential capital investment for the Church.
Once the University was established, it would create a special Seminarial Institute to train chaplains and missionary priests for space travel. Although in typical Vatican fashion, the news was reported dryly and factually, without analysis or comment, it was clear within the Church that no little stir was resulting, already.
Cardinal Hume had asked Mullah Kadira to exchange special representatives with his Council, both to facilitate the planning for the next Inter-Religious Conference, and to continue the fruitful exchange of theological and sociological information that had begun during their discussions. An interesting and pleasant correspondence was anticipated.
And finally, based on a chance remark of Prayer-Writer’s, a request had been made to the Benedictine Congregation, and Father Stefan Kadesky had been assigned as a technical consultant to work with the community of kzin Conservators on developing optimal archival and curatorial techniques for the records they were collecting.
Of the Scolopendrans, Father Freudenthal remained behind, in a dual role empowered for official communications between the Apostolic See and the Scolopendran government, and on behalf of the Primate, to assist the Commission’s review process.
There had been considerable discussion expended over the selection of an appropriate Nuncio to Scolopendra. In the end, it had been decided to despatch the Maurennian Bishop and theologian, Emile de Chevigny. A copy of the summary sheet from his Secretariat dossier had been provided to the Scolopendran Archbishops:
Bishop Emile de Chevigny, 47 (From the African state of Mauriennu)
Bishop de Chevigny comes from a very old Catholic tradition in North Africa. He was educated at the University of Cartagio and attended seminary in Rome at St. Anthony M. Zaccaria, being ordained in Italy before returning to Mauriennu for additional advanced study at the University of Cartagio, receiving a doctorate of theology, and fulfilling parish duties in the capital.
He received a teaching appointment to the Archbishop’s Seminary in Malta, and a concurrent appointment to the University there. He has published two theology texts that are widely used in Catholic Universities, a text on homiletics, and one popular book on the Real Presence that has been printed in seven languages and sold extremely well. He was ordained as an auxiliary to the See of Cartagio at the age of 42, and accepted for advanced study in Rome the same year. He was a distinguished Interlocutor at the most recent Conference on InterReligious dialogue, and recordings of his series of televised theological discussions with Masuri al-Asir, the Grand Mullah of Mauriennu, are widely available.
Bishop de Chavigny has done considerable work on Christian-Muslim relations and is widely regarded at one of the Church’s most promising theologians and writers. He is also an excellent and eloquent speaker with a vivid and charismatic personality and a keenly penetrating scholarly intelligence.
Bishop de Chavigny takes a moderate view of most theological and practical issues currently facing the Church, although he is known to strongly favor the recent Papal Encyclical “Magna Opus Dei,” especially in regards to the return of Latin scholarship to the Church’s educational concerns.
His chief of staff would be Father—now Monsignor—(the elevation had just been confirmed) Oguku Musinga, who would also serve as cultural liaison and chief linguist. Three Mercedarian Sisters, two youngish priests and a Franciscan Chaplain would make up the balance of the Nunciature’s staff. All had been selected, not just for the adaptability and diplomatic skill required of all Vatican diplomats, but on the basis of their physical ability to adapt to life in the Segments.
Each traveled with a bare minimum of personal belongings—the bulk of the luggage was chapel furnishings, records and archives, publications, library materials, and other items for the Nunciature.
As they watched the distant glow of the shuttle landing through the heavy, di-polarized glass of the embarkation lounge, there wasn’t one of them who wasn’t feeling a veritable tsunami of emotion—trepidation, excitement, hope, pleased anticipation, and worry all mingled together. But they maintained calm demeanor, and when the light around the tram door winked green, they moved sedately to board it.
The consensus among the Scolopendrans was that it had indeed been a productive eight days. The philosophical and doctrinal similarities between the Primate and the Cardinal had truly smoothed things beyond all expectation, and this was taken among the slightly more--and apologetically--superstitious as a good omen, or at least "a good sign of Divine Providence at work." They all agreed to the basic concept behind the statement as they too awaited the shuttle back home, although Prayer-Writer found himself thinking that either by Providence, faeries, or Benificient Coincidence, luck and omens all work the same way.
He was, of course, polite enough not to say this aloud. He simply let his ears flicker just a little bit, for that and for other things. His own quiet machinations had worked out quite well, he mused before looking momentarily at Father Stefan, for now he had an influence that could train his own fledgling Conservators in the art of archival. If the Holy Roman Catholic Church could maintain fragile documents of everyday import for millenia, then their knowledge could do nothing but help the Cult of Kzedf'sraz maintain the purity of its minimal doctrine and extensive stories. In addition, he would actually have the opportunity to fulfill his promises of hospitality to now-Monsignor Musinga--always a benefit for a true Hero. He resolved to find an appropriate human-culture analogy to explain why if it were ever asked of him.
Father Freudenthal found himself once again in the dilemma of conflicting uniforms, something he's gotten used to over the past few weeks. For now, waiting with his countrymen to see them off, he wore his DiploCorps black-and-blue Class A's, ostensibly because once he returned to his new post in the Vatican he would immediately begin zoning negotiations on behalf of the secular government--there are many choices, after all, and it is all densely packed on Topside Titan and the Caves of Steel, at least.
Kadira promised Hume she would do what she could after speaking with her peers on the matter. She warned he could probably expect at least one deligate each from the Sufi, Shi'a, and Sunni, as the differences between them were still sufficient to merit such a thing. The dervish would do her best to ensure moderate, congenial candidates were sent forward; nevertheless, she further cautioned that the Sunni delegate could be expected to be more... "Castelbranco-ish" in his given leanings, and the Shi'a are always an unknown moderate factor but generally easy to work with.
The Scarab shuttle descending with blinking landing lights, described earlier, has about the capability of a C-130 Hercules turboprop transport and, being made of denser stuff, is a bit smaller, about twenty meters long. Given that and a twenty-ton cargo capacity, it is the preferred vessel for relatively light insystem cargo or passenger hauls where a larger insystem DropShip would be too much. The flight crew--the same petty officers as previous--greet their new passengers, still forgetful to take off their standard-issue military flight helmets, although the Flight Sergeant's lifted visor reveals he has brown eyes and bushy eyebrows to go with his broad close-lipped grin. The loadmaster, wearing the standard pixellated smoke-cloud camouflage-patterened fatigues of the Scolopendran military (although with white-on-blue nametapes to indicate Civilian Defense Corps service) assists in loading and stowing the parties' luggage in the aft cargo compartment, as the central cargo compartment and the forward part of the 'abdomen' have been fitted with Spartan temporary quarters for the expected three-day flight.
The spacecraft notably lacks any windows other than the forward ones, which seem to have slide-down shutters in case of an emergency, but in respect to those neophytes to space travel who may have an interest in seeing the flight flatscreen monitors are installed in every bunkroom and wired to feed from the shuttle's external cameras and an audio feed from the cockpit; either one may be turned down or off. Once boarding and loading is complete, the flight crew make sure the ship is airtight and properly secure before returning to their flight positions. The gravitic drives spin up to the explanation from the flight deck, a sort of bare thrumming even less noticable than that of a turbofan that rises into a quiet subsonic hum more very gently felt than heard, quickly fading away as the mind adapts to its presence, and the shuttle lifts off vertically. On the monitors, currently linked to ventral cameras, the pad slowly drifts away, then further, at greater and greater speed as time passes and the vessel falls upwards. The image pulls away further and further--the airport complexes become visible, then the greater city of Rome, complete with Vatican, constantly pulling away before the ship breaks into the cloud cover and the image goes a soft blue-grey.
-This is flight deck. We're currently passing through cloud cover; switching camera feeds to cloud-piercing radar. Sorry for the loss of color information, folks.-
The blue-grey is replaced by phosphor white-green over black, the blocky relative order of Rome fading away into the hills of the countryside, roads appearing as bright lines from their superior radar return. The image keeps pulling back further and further to reveal the leg of Italy, a little counter in the lower left-hand corner indicating an altitude of 320,000 meters. The image shifts back to real-color visual over a portside camera pointing west relative to the ground, showing the graceful curve of the Earth, blue water and greenish land obscured by splotches of white cloud.
-All right, we are now in low Earth stationkeeping "orbit" three-twenty kilometers up. From here we're setting up navigation for high-distort towards Saturn... and here's a TYCS DropShip off the starboard.-
A different voice over the feed, lacking the standard buzz associated with flight-helmet microphone gear. -/Shuttle Sierra Charlie Delta Charlie Oh Three Seven, this is Major Nienty of Loki Moscova-Four of the TYCS. Landing vector data are inbound. Immediate comply./-
-Um, yes, sir. Flight Sergeant al Daneri speaking. We're transporting dignitaries on a direct route to Scolopendra--
-/Acknowledged from your flight plan, Flight. Thing is, bits in Iraqstan are getting rather toasty and we don't particularly want to take chances. They do have a space force, after all. If nothing else, your passengers are now free to stretch their legs a bit more than they would on your shuttle./- The major chuckles a little.
-Acknowledged, Moscova-Four. Diverting to landing vector as directed. Well, folks, looks like we have a little detour. On the plus side, we'll certainly get there faster.-
Holy Vatican See
Bishop Chevigny, who was now privy to the Vatican’s standard “situation” briefings for diplomatic corps, wondered curiously what was going on in Iraqstan. The Vatican had no formal relations with the state, nor (so far as he was aware) informal communications channels. The consensus in the Church was that Quil’raya was one of Satan’s Own, anyway. Last Chevigny had heard, the Crosiers were agitating for some kind of humanitarian mission to what remained of the Um Lizaani, but he didn’t know the details. Perhaps there was something about it in the much more extensively-detailed data sticks reposing in his carry-on bag—the core of the Nunciature’s Information System.
He looked around at his colleagues. They’d been thoughtfully assisted by the Scolopendrans to secure themselves for the liftoff, and most were staring in fascination at the flatscreen monitor. Father Dendrik was looking a bit pale, and had firmly looked away from the monitor. Sister Lopinga, the senior of the three Mercedarian nuns and his Administrative Director, had the set look of someone repressing some kind of discomfort, but she was watching their ascent with determination.
The pilot’s announcement of a “little detour” was accepted with a combination of philosophical resignation and mild curiousity. They had all accepted the fact that in this new environment, no expectations or assumptions would be relevant. They would have to learn and re-learn even the simplest adaptations to achieve life’s basic purposes.
Fortunately, human nature was a constant almost as eternal as Divine Mercy.
The blue-and-white liveried shuttle sidles into a largish bay slightly aft of amidships of the Loki dropship, essentially a giant armored airlock designed for craft about its size--two walls dominated by thick doors; two walls simply heavily armored. An airlock for giants, recorded and transmitted for the shuttle's passengers by the automated feed to the external sensor system. The flight sergeant apologizes quietly; while normally guests would be allowed to look around the nonsecure portions of the vessel, the current alert level of Alert Condition One essentially means that general quarters are to be kept.
Actually, the trip is a microcosm for most modern space travel and therefore a rather good taste to the uninitiated. It is, essentially, spending a cruise inside the cruise ship, except instead of being almost like a hotel in space allocations volume is kept to a premium. It is not quite as close as aboard, say, a submarine, but there is certainly a feeling of X cubic meters per individual no matter how many happen to be aboard. For the crew, boredom is averted with duty. For the idle, there are always computerized records and media of various forms. While the two-day trip should not be enough to induce cabin fever, it may be noticeable how it could be possible.
In that way, while the shuttle is a good example of space travel in general, it is not a good example of humanity's adaptation to what can only be described as the mind-numbing boredom of travelling through a vacuum. The shuttle, being a short-duration craft, lacks any of the thousands of non-regulation but wholly tolerated ways to break monotony found on any sort of long-duration craft like a dropship or a capital ship. Strange little oddities like murals painted over sections of wall or ceiling, incorporating bare conduits and access boxes while leaving vital information untouched; little hallway gardens; walls of group poetry or collective stories that ramble on, more common on rarely-visited bulk cargo decks and added to a single word at a time.
The trip passes without incident, and the approach to Saturnspace is once again transmitted to the flatscreen monitors, but this time using Moscova-Four's telescopes rather than the shuttle's. Saturn is, of course, the dominant feature, with major moons as visible discs much like planets seen from Earth. One extremely notable feature, coming in at about a ten degree inclination to the Saturnian equatorial plane (and thus the ecliptic of the Saturnian system) is a sort of semicircular arch about thirty or so Saturnian diameters out that resembles for all the world a dotted line of two thousand cycles of light and dark out in the middle of space. A little counter ticks off distance from the planet, at about four million kilometers the flight sergeant announces that now that they are well within system defenses they have clearance to fly the rest of the way to Scolopendra on their own.
Another sense of not-quite acceleration, and the camera view changes to leaving the moderately cavernous hangar/airlock of the Loki before zooming out and panning to catch the dotted line, tracing along it to show that it indeed forms a thin ring around Saturn. The camera zooms in onto one patch of light, looking like a walled in strip of land as would not seem out of place on a Terrestrial planet. -That would be the Ring habitat, folks... uhm... sector 161, I think. That's the one assigned to the SLAGLands. A thousand kilometers wide and a bit more than three thousand kilometers long, all four million kilometers out from Saturn.-
The camera again zooms out, zooming back in on a dark circle of nothing, only visible by the lack of background stars and a tiny lit crescent a sort of blue-white in color. -That's Rhea. Doesn't look like much on visual... let me switch camera frequencies to infrared and microwave.- The moon suddenly lights up in a dense network of nodes and lines covering the entire surface of one hemisphere, areas of dense brightness interspersed with mathematically-precise canali glowing and pulsating with motion like highways of fireflies. -That'd be the Queendom of Zero-One. Mechanoid culture there.-
The camera continues on to indicate more locations of interest as the Flight Sergeant narrates; hyperadvanced Cetaganda on the Ring, multiple sections of night and day; bucolic Freod (also on the Ring), mostly lacking the lights of advanced civilization and verdant; and finally the miniature Earth of Titan, white clouds over blue seas and green-brown land. -And that's the destination. The Segments mostly covers the northeastern part of Xanadu--that's the big continent--and the largish islands to the east of it. We'll be landing at Al Mahdi airbase just a few minutes outside of Stonozka, the capital. And that right there is the back end of one of the Phantom III aerospace fighters escorting us in.-
For a high-tech piece of equipment, the Phantom III looks very much like something flying about in the middle of the Cold War. This is probably where the "three" comes into play.
Holy Vatican See
The Vatican contingent was not much troubled by boredom in a mere 48 hours. Those from a monastic tradition are accustomed to saying the Divine Office in any case, the enforced leisure shipboard simply provides the opportunity to say the fullest versions, with attention to detail. While the traditions of the Mercedarians differ slightly from those of the Benedictines and both are a little different than the Norbertine, the Office is basically similar enough so that all can participate, regardless of who acts as Cantor/Cantress or Hebdomadarian.
Bishop Chevigny is a man of formidable concentration, and the rather limited pre-departure preparation time meant that he had sticks and sticks worth of data to absorb in order to fully prepare for his assignment in Stonozka. In between, spaceflight itself, while old-hat for the Scolopendrans, was sufficiently a new experience that they amused themselves examining the various technological and sociological shifts adapted within the culture that permitted such a dense population to function in harmony.
All had been carefully screened for both claustrophobia and agoraphobia, the latter a necessity that had surprised the Secretariat staff until the necessity was explained (and illustrated, with the use of visuals,) by Father Freudenthal. “While the Segments’ living spaces are, indeed, minimalist and carefully designed for economy, there are any number of public spaces and other experiences that will expose your personnel to the reality of the sheer volume of space involved in the Ring and the Titan bases. And it can be—disorienting,” he’d hinted mildly.
As they watched the unimaginable vastness of the Ring in the monitors while they made their final approach, the reality of this briefing hit home like a hammer blow. The sheer size and volume of this new reality were stunning. They listened with an attentiveness that bordered on obsessive to the casual descriptions the flight sergeant provided of the various denizens of the Ring and Saturnian space. No conversation among themselves—each was absorbed in their own thoughts.
Chevigny was staggered by the scope of it—not so much the space (although that in itself was mind-boggling,) but the undeniable realities of how sentience was manifested here, and the theological and teleological implications that the Church would need to grapple with. He understood now, the rather puzzling words that the Holy Father had spoken to him in their brief audience: “I am relying on you, Emile, to act with extraordinary prudence and discretion in facilitating not only the exposure of Scolopendran Catholics to the Mother Church, but of the Church to the vastness of space.”
Oh yes. This would require great prudence and discretion. Especially with the various religious Orders already champing at the bit for a foothold in the Segments. It was of paramount importance, given the Church’s insulation from the march of modernity represented here, to ensure that she had time to deal methodically with the challenges presented.
The look at their new home from the “outside” was impressive—they’d been led to understand that the living spaces allotted to them (for the moment, part of the Scolopendran Church’s seminarial facilities,) would be sparsely utilitarian, even by monastic standards. Once they’d had a chance to settle in and present their diplomatic credentials to the Scolopendran government, they’d arrange for space suitable to the Legation’s diplomatic functions as well as its religious mission. Banking arrangements had already been made. The Vatican Bank had been in desultory contact with various Triumvirate financial institutions for some years, mostly at second- or third-hand, but sufficient that they were able to set up a working account for the Legation and secure the services of a financial advisor from one of the larger Scolopendran banking houses.
Father Kadesky, of course, would be detached immediately to begin his duties among the Kzin, and he was looking forward to it eagerly. He’d spent every spare moment hypno-learning the Hero’s Tongue, startling his cabin-mates from time to time as explosive strings of consonants got out of control when he was trying out pronunciations under his breath. He wasn’t as gifted a linguist as Musinga, but he was persistent, determined, and young enough to retain a considerable level of natural linguistic adaptability.
Musinga would be absorbed in the intricate business of getting the Legation running smoothly and assisting Chevigny, but it was understood that once things were up and running he would pay a visit to Prayer-Writer.
Sister Lopinga, whose duties included facilitating much of the liaison between the Scolopendran Episcopal Council and the Legation, was rather ruefully contemplating the various strategic shifts that would be required there. All priests. No religious. That meant no female presence in the leadership hierarchy at all! A daunting prospect. On the other hand, it was possible that without the presence of strong female Religious Orders and the feminist factions that were so prevalent in the earthly Church, the Scolopendran Clerics hadn’t had a chance to build up the kind of defensive attitudes that were so often a problem in working with certain Terrestrial prelates. It would be interesting to see how it played out.
Were there women, she wondered, in the Scolopendran Church, who looked beyond the Altar-and-Rosary Society role? She tried to remember their briefing. Surely there had been something about Catechetical teachers?
Once the initial rush of work was past, she had permission from her Superior General to look into the possibility of establishing an Oblate presence among Scolopendran Catholic women. While the celibate nature of the major and secondary Orders might be an adjustment challenge, the growing movement of Tertiaries in temporary vows requiring celibacy only during defined periods of communal life had provided templates for many successful lay communities. That might be a fruitful strategy here, too.
Their arrival at Al Mahdi cut short these streams of speculation, and all of the Terrestrials gathered themselves for their initial steps on this new world.
To some, landing at a fully equipped military base may be overdoing it a bit. So would the standard two-fighter escort. After all, they took off from a relatively insecure civilian airport, no? Still, it is all easily explained by the Boy Scout paranoia of the Scolopendran government--always be prepared. Any extranational officials, especially officials from what, externally, represents an international coalition, are well taken care of.
"Well taken care of" of course means well-defended. Just in case--their protection is the Segments' responsibility, after all. Especially now in times of heightened tension and uncertain situations... Even if there is probably no threat from Iraqstan, The Threat Of The Week, here around what is arguably the best-protected fortress world in the Solar System, one can never be too careful.
The shuttle settles easily on the circular concrete pad intended for it, vertical landings hardly an issue when thrust-to-available energy comes as inexpensively as it does now. The drives spin down, the constant subsonic thrum settling and dying off like the subdued last throes of a jet engine, the constant angstrom-width vibrations dissipating. Technically, all of this is theoretically below the reception capability of any individual sensitive nerve cluster yet it still leaves the occupants used to the little signs of life on the ship with the sensation that something is missing.
As the delegation is escorted off the shuttle, a squadron of battlesuited infantry assists the cargomaster in unpacking the bay and loading up a largish truck, more a matter of it being expedient to use the suits than anything else. The flight-line is essentially flat, gently-sloped ramps leading down to subterranean hangars. The airbase is almost equally flat, made up mostly of hardened bunkers that make up the tips of the icebergs--the control tower sticks up, looking a bit out of place in the middle of the field, surrounded as it is by widely spaced buildings. Beside the cargo truck are several more electric-powered ground cars, enough for the delegates to go their separate ways--certainly they've seen enough of each other as of late.
The trip to Stonozka over the highway is short and surprisngly lonely, no doubt heightened by the flat steppes of Xanadu. Given the mass of personnel and cargo trains, however, this is probably not so surprising. The driver of each ground car explains, each in his or her particular way, that for logistic reasons short-range ground traffic is essentially limited to civil and emergency vehicles. The mass-rail systems were expensive, certainly, but less expensive than having the usual futuristic flying cars crashing into buildings and such.
Topside Stonozka looks like the utopian city imagined by German Futurists and their later Art Deco variants, large parks of green interspersed with canyon-like cities of solid-looking concrete and glass skyscrapers, all very much oriented on the vertical with the molding and design associated with their school of architecture. A quick transition to the bulk lifts...
Underside Stonozka--part of Scolopendra's massive Caves of Steel network--is a massive hollowed out dome (http://forums2.jolt.co.uk/showpost.php?p=6615087&postcount=41) that makes a livable, comfortable, yet obviously artificial habitat. Quite simply, a city underground.
Chevigny and Musinga finds that the Scolopendran government is quite helpful in getting everything situated, going through the paperwork, authorizing pretty much whatever is requested within reason. The Scolopendran Church, on the other hand, is a little more reticent but it is more a matter of sheer inertia rather than real disagreement. Sister Lopinga is probably quite disappointed; female involvement in the church is about on par with that of the turn of the century... the nineteenth century. Mullah Kadira, though, is quite helpful, as are most of the other Muslims and Buddhists around.
Father Kadesky is immediately whisked away to the pecular squat building which acts as the Conservatory of the Kzinti Patriarchy (Hierarchy, technically, but the current 'arch is a 'tosh, so... edit the name to fit. Simple.). Prayer-Writer, as First Conservator, acts more as a director of the Conservators and reports directly to Patriarch Speaker-Rrit; Stephan finds himslf dealing more directly with the First Administrator-Librarian (Adeezr-Aatsesroz's'demati) Hgraz-Aatsesroz's', a genial yet rather perfectionist kzinret with a definite tendency towards the anal retentive. As such, upon discovering that Kadesky can indeed speek kzintsu'ng, she politely demands that he use that language's version of her name instead of "Hgraz-Administrator."
He probably soon figures out that using the granted honorific of her name (Hgraz) is not only a sign of respect, it is also a lot simpler. Still, she is a decent tutor and the dots-and-comma scripts of the new kzinti written heritage provide good practice...
Holy Vatican See
Bishop Chevigny sat next to Monsignor Musinga on the journey from the airbase. Although both had rotated through various Secretariat assignments for awhile, their paths had never crossed in person until this project came up. Traditionally, there was some cultural baggage between the North African states like Mauriennu and the coalition of sub-Saharan nations that had led the African Renaissance—indeed, some minor diplomatic squabbles (and a small undeclared brush war or two,) were currently on the table between their respective governments. But in the Church, such distinctions give way to professional neutrality.
Their relationship was cordial and professional. They were getting to know one another—they would have to work together closely—and thus far each man approved of what he had learned of the other.
Musinga was watching the passing landscape of Xanadu with some surprise. “Interesting… there is a resemblence to the Serengeti. I wonder if that is intentional, or only a stage in terraforming?”
Chevigny shook his head. His own country was sharply divided into the Mediterranean coastal regions and the interior region that encompassed the northern edge of the vast Sahara desert. “I haven’t gotten to that data stick yet,” he said seriously, “but I would guess that it is a little of each. Terraforming on this scale would demand a very gradual approach to allow natural balances to establish themselves and stabilize thoroughly. But the veldt/steppe/grassland ecosystem offers many advantages in supporting and developing life in closed, finite-resource environments.”
Musinga restrained a smile. A bit of the pedant, his new boss. But without condescension, and a sincere interest in each new question that kept it from being irritating.
The clerics all approve of the mass-transportation orientation of their new home, especially those who have spent any amount of time in Rome. Other urban Terrestrial environments too, of course, but Rome definitely stands head and shoulders above most in the realm of vehicular chaos.
Stonozka, both topside and underside, provide their share of surprises for the Terrestrials. With one or two minor exceptions, the lack of nudity taboo causes little concern—they were briefed on the local customs most anomalous to what they were used to, and most had worked in tropical climates where clothing was minimal at best. A couple of the nuns have a tendency to look a bit mistrustfully at chair seats in public places—minor squeamishness about hygiene, not offended prudery—but for the most part it’s accepted as part of the local scenery. Scolopendra’s Catholics tend to dress more conservatively in general, although the standard incidence of individuating adolescents, narcissists of both genders, and adults experiencing adolescent renaissance ensure that there will always be some skin visible in congregational gatherings.
The first few days are spent formally presenting their diplomatic credentials, and negotiating the acquisition of an appropriate accommodation for the Legation. Discussions of whether a Topside location, or something in the Caves, would be a better option, are less contentious than expected, once they experience both environments. The main requirements are convenience of access to government facilities and the Cathedral, and a substantial garden. Their Stonozkan business agent/banker is helpful, the Scolopendran government liaison assigned to them is more than helpful, and within a time that astonished the Secretariat veterans Sister Joan Marciniak is able to establish a comfortable living environment.
Wanting to be certain that the staff are all settling in well, Bishop Chevigny calls a short meeting after Mass on the second Sunday after their arrival. It is the first opportunity they have all had to sit down together—minus Kadesky.
“Thank you, my friends. I know that we are all too short of recreation time, and I appreciate your attendance,” the Bishop opens the meeting. “If you don’t mind, I’d like a brief recap from everyone about what’s been accomplished to date, and a summary of the status quo—just the highlights, please. Any pressing unresolved issues should be mentioned, but we’re not focusing on to-do lists today.”
He nods to Musinga, sitting next to him. “If you will start us off, please, Monsignor?”
“Thank you, Excellency,” the Tutsi Chief of Staff doesn’t stand—there is no need, even seated he is well over a head taller than anyone else—but his voice projects clearly. “We have established the most pressing commercial and governmental relationships necessary, as you know. The state of Scolopendran automation has reduced our need for local staff considerably, but we have hired a regular and a relief receptionist, a catering coordinator, and a maintenance technician.
“All of the appropriate documents for each member of the Legation are now on file with the Scolopendran authorities, and they have provided us with all the appropriate authorizations and permits. Everyone has been issued their ID/credit pipe…” he held up his own little tubular gadget in illustration, “and try not to forget them when you go out.”
A chuckle rattled around the table. Everyone was familiar with the anecdote about how Sister Joan had gone shopping, piled up a gigantic load of goods, and then reached the checkout and tried to pay with a standard Terrestrial credit chip. The nun blushed good-naturedly, and shrugged. “I’m thinking of clipping mine to my rosary from now on…” she murmured.
“I’ve been lining up the appropriate round of pro-forma and ceremonial visits for Bishop Chevigny, including the special Mass at the Cathedral next week. Visits from other religious leaders, as well as political and a few social notables, will be keeping him busy for some time. And although the Scolopendrans consider their native Catholic population “small” in comparison with the whole, that’s still a good many million Catholics—and a good many movers and shakers among them who are eager to get a glimpse of Rome and a feel for how our presence here might change things.”
He seemed about to continue, then changed his mind and simply nodded, decisively, looking at Sister Lopinga.
The small, dark-skinned nun returned the nod, and stood. Again, it didn’t make much difference, although in this case it was because she was so tiny—140 cm. with thick-soled shoes. “I’ve met with the staff of the Episcopal Council, and gotten a summary of their schedule and agenda. My impression is that while the provincial organization is fairly efficient, the Council itself regards its function, basically, as to keep anything from happening.” There were a few sympathetic half-smiles—this was not an uncommon character for Church policy bodies.
“Between that, the lack of religious Orders, and the presence of a superior secular network of basic social services, the actual pastoral functions of the Scolopendran Church are—well… quite limited. Mass, the Sacraments, and catechetical education about sums it up, as far as I can tell. A few individual parishes make some limited efforts at providing a social matrix for young people, or the elderly, but they seem to be independent initiatives on the part of the local pastors.”
She shook her head. “It’s too early to say conclusively, but I think our main challenge here is going to be stagnation. They are producing enough candidates for the Seminary to keep their parishes staffed at a basic level, but the deaconate is almost non-existent, and there is little lay involvement in parochial organization and administration. I don’t have a real sense of the particular currents and factions within the Church yet, but I do get the definite sense that they exist.”
She sat down, and looked to her left, where Father Ewen Gilchrest was sitting. The red-haired priest smiled. “I’d have to say that what I’ve seen of the Seminary—there is only the one—would bear out Sister Lopinga’s impression. Priestly formation is conscientious, and the process of examining and accepting candidates is meticulous, but I think we may be missing a good many vocations, due to the lack of… well… active spiritual structure is the only way I can phrase it. It’s a very rigid and authoritarian approach that is more like pre-Vatican II norms than contemporary practice.”
“Mind, I’m not saying that there’s anything inadequate about the process—and the lads I met on my visit to the Seminary were fine specimens, very fine indeed. But…” his brow wrinkled a bit, as he sought a way to express himself clearly. “Well, you know that wonderful painting by Pelleas Androniki? ‘The Laughing Christ?’” Heads nodded around the table. “Well, I kept wanting to give out prints of it, hang them on the walls, have it printed up as a holy card, for heaven’s sake. There’s a lack of… the kind of general spiritual joy that you should be able to sense among a community of young men preparing for priestly service. As individuals, many of them are very fun-loving and joyful, but there is an institutional solemnity about the whole thing that struck me as… well, a bit stifling” he finished up apologetically.
He shrugged with a mild frustration, and looked to his left-hand neighbor, Sister Maeda Yenpo.
“Well, I’ve gotten most of the…” she began, in her soft voice, which barely carried across the table. “Speak up a trifle, please, Sister,” the Bishop said gently. Blinking, she cleared her throat and tried again. “Sorry, Excellency. I have most of the network up, and have met with the gentlemen in the Scolopendran government who facilitate the interstellar communications links. We will have our direct link to the Vatican by the end of the week, I think. We will have to upgrade some of our equipment, unfortunately—Scolopendran technology is well in advance of our carrier-encodement-encryption protocols, and our pulse-diffusion is too attenuated to be robust in their transmission environment.”
She blinked, looking at the glazed eyes around the table and realizing that she’d lapsed into geekspeek again. She smiled a trifle impishly. “Sorry. Suffice to say that direct communications will be online in about five days, all library services will be fully accessible the day after tomorrow—I hope—and with the exception of a few interfaces with the environmental systems, the network is fully functional. We’ll bring the environmental systems online over the next couple of weeks as I get the operational updates from the Scolopendran engineering suppliers. Until then we’ll be using the manual hardwired systems—a little inconvenient, but perfectly reliable.”
They nodded, and Sister Joan Marciniak went next. “Most of you have already commented favorably on the catering, so you know that’s what we’re doing best, at the moment. I’m negotiating with a couple of local suppliers for laundry services—our needs are a bit non-standard in a society where people recycle and transform their clothes altogether as often as they clean and re-use them. And, as you know, we’ve finally got that temperature-adjustment glitch in the HVAC system licked. Please remember the zone controls are subordinate to the central controls! Temporary changes can be made from the zone panels, but if you want a permanent cycle change it has to be keyed in from central.”
“Local communications are fully on line, and the receptionists are coping well. We now have most of our ‘public’ rooms fully operational, and have already received a few dignitaries in the main parlour. I’ve had a request that we form a committee to deal with the garden area. I’m sorry, but I have to advise against it. We don’t really know quite enough yet about the local environmental considerations to be able to manage it on our own. We’ll continue with the contractor for the present, but anyone who wants to get their hands dirty is welcome to meet with Ivan and schedule a time to work as a volunteer under his supervision.”
She gave a little conclusive nod and turned it over to Father Rentosh Harakaniam, the Franciscan chaplain. He was a bit disjointed verbally, but enthusiastic. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of magnificent gifts from our Scolopendran faithful, helping to furnish the Chapel. I admit I had doubts about setting aside such a large space for a Legation with such a small staff, but I am glad we took their advice. The public Mass we have already held was virtually standing-room-only. And while some of that may diminish, as people satisfy their curiosity, I think we’ll have quite an active schedule of Masses and activities. I’ve talked with the pastor of the local parish—a most interesting and accommodating fellow—and we will coordinate some of our activities with them as well. Do you know, they still regularly do Forty Hours, here? And draw good attendance for it? I’ve already been approached about doing a regular Rosary on Friday nights.”
“In fact, Fridays are actually almost as active for Churches here in Scolopendra as Sundays. I suppose partly because so much of the Muslim population does Friday devotions. Anyway, Rosaries, Stations, evening Masses, Vespers—all very popular on Fridays. I’m putting together a regular schedule. There’s also been some interest expressed in starting a study group to learn the Little Office—they’ve had no Divine Office here, without the religious Orders, but they’re aware of it and want to explore. At least this group is, anyway.”
When he subsided, Father Johukarta Irinaiis glanced enquiringly at him for a moment, to be sure he was finished, and then made his report. “Catechetical education here is one of those “Friday activities.” As far as I can tell, this evolved in tandem with the prevailing Muslim practice as well. It’s pretty effective, really. The public education is free and very high-quality here, so there is little private education at all in the lower school levels. However, the public school schedule is a mixture of full days and half days, with Friday being one of the regular half-days. Traditionally, students attend public school activities in the mornings, and then the religious ones go to their madrassas, catechism, whatever, in the afternoons.”
“There is nearly one hundred percent compliance among practicing Scolopendran Catholics in enrolling and ensuring attendance for Catechetical education. That’s the good news.” He paused, looked around the table, and gave a rueful shrug. “The bad news is that the pedagogy is worse than out-of-date—it’s practically medieval. Mostly lay teachers in the lowest grades, with a few priests in the upper grades. Training for the teachers is rigorous—and rigid. Which they pass on to the children.”
He sighed. “The up side is that there is an awfully high level of factual, catechetical knowledge among Scolopendran Catholics. But…” he glanced at Father Gilchrest. “I know exactly what you mean about your Seminarians, Father, because it’s clear that the tradition starts from the earliest level of catechism classes. Our Scolopendran Catholics ‘know’ all the answers in their catechism. As to whether they ‘feel’ those answers…” Again, he shrugged ruefully. “There’s a small but significant rate of lapse—and fear that the ones we lose are the ones that we need the most.”
Chevigny listened to his staff with interest. Clearly, they were coming together well as a team. And, just as clearly, they were already identifying themselves with their new community. But equally clear was the nature of the challenge they faced—how to re-infuse the living spiritual flame into a Church that had grown into its own narrow and self-protective fortress. The next weeks would show what they had in the way of resources to build on. Archbishop Masdeu-Arus had implied that there was a current of life running deep within the still waters of the Scolopendran Church—if it could be found and nurtured, with the slow and methodical delicacy that characterized the Vatican approach to challenges.
Father Kadesky’s youth and resilience stood him in good stead as he adjusted to life among the kzin. He also found that he had another unexpected asset.
All his life, Stefan had been accustomed to regard his physical appearance as a challenge to be overcome. Although his sturdy, rather athletic build served him well, his face had let him down severely. Round and absurdly boyish, with wide blue eyes and enormous ears that protruded like jug handles, he’d waited hopefully at the onset of puberty for a change that would give him some visible maturity, evoke some gravitas and the sense that he was to be taken seriously. It never came. Oh, his cheeks fuzzed with a mild beard, eventually, and his eyebrows thickened slightly—but that was about it. Nearing thirty, he could easily be mistaken for twenty. At fifty, he’d anticipated gloomily, he might look as old as thirty.
When you’re (essentially) a funny-looking kid, becoming something of a class clown is a useful survival mechanism. Kadesky, while intelligent and appreciative of a joke, was not quick-witted when it came to verbal comedy, so he had to learn other techniques. His round face was surprisingly rubbery and malleable of expression, and his exaggerated expressions and facial imitations kept his classmates amused by the hour.
And, he could wiggle his ears.
Oh, people talk about ear-wiggling, and mostly what they mean is a tightening of facial muscles that produces a mild oscillation of the ear (and usually a distortion of the eyebrows, however slight.) Amusing, perhaps a trifle anomalous when unexpected—but relatively insignificant. Stefan, on the other hand, could really wiggle his ears. Up and down, forward and back, he could make them stand out even more perpendicularly than their already acute angle, he could wiggle them so quickly as to almost vibrate, or as slowly as a meditative elephant. All without producing the slightest apparent distortion of other facial features.
His kzintsu’ng vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds, but his verbal communications were always inflected by his native Slavic intonations. Sometimes he had to repeat himself three, even four times to get a simple concept across. His kzinti hosts and colleagues were almost endlessly patient with him, but it was frustrating.
Then, one day, he was trying to get a particular concept across—the redundant translation of documents. “From by one translator, then back by a completely different translator.”
“But why, when we have so few who can do the work? Is it not more efficient to simply do it once, and have someone check it?” Hgraz-Aatsesroz's' enquired reasonably, again, not sure that she’d really grasped what he was talking about.
“Not sufficient. By translating it from the archaic dialect, then having another translate back to the dialect, then checking the re-translated version against the original version, you ensure that no essential concepts have been lost or mistranslated,” he explained patiently, again, hoping he hadn’t mangled “dialect” and “original” too unrecognizably. “From, and then back,” he said again, unconsciously emphasizing the words with a little up-and-back lilt of his ears that he’d seen so many times from Hgraz-Aatsesroz's' when she was trying to enhance the importance of what she was saying. It was entirely unconscious, and his first realization he’d done something anomalous was when he looked back up at Hgraz-Aatsesroz's' to see if she’d understood, and saw the slight tilt to her head and the odd cock to her left ear that he’d come to read as “surprise.”
“Eh?” He blinked. And, unconsciously, canted his own left ear.
Indeed, while 'floor space' is at a premium in the Caves, area for gardening is downright encouraged as it adds to the enclosed biome of each dome--which, much like the monolithic megabuildings associated with space programs long past, do develop their own weather patterns. The riddle of why people occasionally carry umbrellas about when they are over half a kilometer underground is quickly solved the first time that real clouds form to suppliment the artificially projected ones and it begins to rain. Underground. Sometimes a gentle drizzle, sometimes much more than that, but given the lack of airborne pollutants from a hydrogen/electric energy economy, it's always clean.
Hygiene isn't too much of an issue as anyone who chooses to take advantage of rather lax public decency laws are expected to take responsibility for it, so quick once-overs with hygenic wipes are rather common; people who lack the time even for that rely on loincloths and more substantial forms of clothing. Still, nothing is perfect, and this is generally seen as a good thing, as completey hygenic societies are extremely unstable when it comes to microbiology, a la Wellsian Martians. A little bit of nondehabilitating disease (even if extremely uncomfortable) is preferable to everyone dropping dead from the common cold.
From the general to the specific, attributes of the new people that the delegation was sent to watch over become apparent. Generally conservative, specifically ranging on a continuum that--while not as broad as Terrestrial Catholicism--which ranges from inoffensive conservatism extremely reticent to change to a sort of quiet open-mindedness and willingness to change, albeit a lack of knowledge of where to go from here. The former is lead by most of the Episcopal Council, especially the older members; the latter is lead primarily by Archbishop Masdeu-Aras, a bit younger than the rest of the Council. The arguments between the two groups are usually quiet and often extremely subtle, more an exchange of glances after the announcement of differing statements of intent than true antagonism. Subtle, yes, but the difference is there.
The overall attitude is extremely solemn; the old adage of Catholicism being its own greatest penance, or at least trial, seems to play itself out in the Segments as well. Unlike the pluralistic Scolopendran Islam, now an personal religion centered around individual enlightenment as per its primarily Sufi influence, or unlike the always extremely individualistic Buddhism, the primary theme of Scolopendran Catholicism is not so much personal happiness and enlightenment through attaining a closer relationship to God as the sustenance of the only method known that prevents eternal damnation. This basic precept of Christianity, common to most religions of personality--only through me can you be saved--is rigidly held by the Scolopendran Catholics, and for good reason when observed objectively--if it isn't true, then what's the point of working so hard to maintain dogmatic purity? It does not come out in their relations with other religions simply because that would be extremely rude. Even Islam, technically--depending on which imam or mullah one listened to, of course--damned nonbelievers to Hell, although the general concept of a bad-end afterlife with rigid rules of entry has been generally discarded by the great majority of Scolopendran religious thought.
If God is going to judge people, it would be extremely pretentious of any fallible human to assume exactly what God's rules of arbitration might be. Suffice to be good in all relations to others and self and hope that is sufficient, as Pascal's Wager suddenly doesn't work so well when multiple 'our-way-or-the-highway' religions come into play.
Still, even in the superconservative sections of the Scolopendran Catholic continuum, there is a sort of hope associated with the arrival of the envoys from the Vatican. One of the strongest foundations of the sense of duty to Church was that it would be temporary; the restrictions and steps back were simply protections that could possibly be reversed if contact were ever reestablished. Given the uncommon rank-consciousness of the dutiful Scolopendran Catholics, it looks as if change may be feasible... even if they have to be ordered to change.
* - * - *
The 'ret sniffs softly in a bit of curiosity, the cant becoming a bit more pronounced, speaking somewhat slowly. "Hrrr... I understand fully now. It is a way to check work with more accuracy than we are used to."
This is followed by a chuckle, more a soft huffing of breath through the flat nose, ears winking. "It becomes apparent to me that you are spending a great deal of time with us. You are beginning to speak with your ears." She indicates her ears with one finger as they fold closed and open again in a winking motion.
Holy Vatican See
Bishop Chevigny gave Sister Dorothy Lopinga a weary smile. “I think it is an excellent idea, Sister, but I am also concerned that my official involvement might be a little more than Scolopendran Catholics can assimilate yet. Please convey the message to Dame Elizaveta that she has my personal good wishes for a valuable and edifying result in her project, but that it must remain strictly an unofficial initiative. You might add, also, that I am quite delighted to visit the Catechetical Academy as suggested, to greet the graduating teachers.”
Sister Dorothy was a little disappointed, but not surprised. Her grin was rueful. “I was afraid of that, Excellency. Still, I think the broadcast will be well received. It is a popular topic at the moment, and the show’s producers have a good reputation. And Dame Elizaveta herself is well-known earthside as an orthodox, if progressive, theologian.”
“Earthside orthodoxy and Scolopendran orthodoxy are not the same, Sister. We have been making wonderful strides here, but we must remember that our role is to provide the catalyst, but to work through Scolopendran leaders. Patience is always hard, but we have some very promising young Scolopendrans both in the Saint Domitia novitiate and in the Stonozka Seminary.”
“Of course, Excellency. It’s just that the enthusiasm of the women is so great…”
“And therein lies the peril, as you well know.”
A sigh, and a nod. “Yes, Excellency.” No matter how progressive the Bishop might be, he was still part of the orthodox Church leadership, and the orthodox Church doctrine seemed to get only so far on the subject of women, and then stuck persistently. There had been no prying it loose under Pope Sixtus, and in spite of Pope Leo XIV’s gesture of appointing a woman to the Curia, and encouraging women in academia and theological endeavors, it did not look as though there would be any greater success in the near future. The role of women would remain (as many thought it) hopelessly circumscribed.
Sister Dorothy understood, and to some extend agreed with, the orthodox position. But she was deeply frustrated, as were many women among the clergy, by the Church’s seeming unwillingness to explore options that might maintain the dogmatic fidelity to the sacraments and still permit greater participation in leadership by her gender. However, the Lord knew there was plenty of other work at hand—work that was her immediate responsibility, too. She smiled. “I will let Sister Arrela know when the graduation is scheduled.”
“Thank you, Sister,” the Bishop returned her smile as he nodded dismissal, and turned to his dataviewer, tapping the key to bring up whatever correspondence his secretary, Sister Arrela, had routed to him. Today… his brows rose in surprise. Today, there was eyes-only correspondence for him, directly from Rome via the Legation’s own secure (and costly) FTL comlink. Routine business, even from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, was usually forwarded by a special channel routed through ordinary Scolopendran links.
The flashing icon next to the message indicator marked it as high (though not the highest) priority security. The Bishop took certain security measures that temporarily disconnected his dataviewer from the network, and deactivated its wireless and sub-ether communications capabilities. Then, and only then, did he enter the decryption key that would open the message and provide him with a first-level decryption.
The message cascaded onto his screen, and he blinked. Well, well! He was requested, at his earliest convenience, to obtain the proper clearances and notifications for a high-security courier who would be immediately dispatched from Fiumacino upon receipt of confirmation, via the Bellarian shuttle “Morlaine,” for transfer at the nearest Scolopendran transfer point, and immediate dispatch by fasted available means for continued travel to the Segments. Sergeant Hubertus Jacoby, of the Noble Guard, would be conveying from the hands of Leo XIV, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Successor of Peter, Prince of the Apostles, etcetera, etcetera, the scarlet zucchetta of a Cardinal of the Church, for bestowal upon one, Estevão Xadreque Castelbranco, Archbishop of Stonozka and Primate of the Scolopendran Catholic Church.
At the bottom of the message, a symbol indicated an attachment, bearing the sigil of the Sostituto, Tenda Nataka, from the Secretariat. He entered the decrypt code, and Nataka’s personal note appeared on the screen:
Sergeant Jacoby will also be carrying a diplomatic pouch containing the biretta, which you should deliver personally, before the Sergeant attends his Eminence; at which time it will be appropriate for you to give his Eminence official notice of the Sergeant’s impending arrival. Unofficially, the Secretary will leave the matter of notification in your hands, pursuant to the last discussion we had on the RTE.
Although, technically, his Eminence need only come to Rome “within the year,” (and we have still not managed a standardized correction calendar that will permit us reliable translations from various space-based time systems!) his presence is in fact requested at his earliest convenience. A personal letter from his Eminence, Cardinal Renard, will be delivered by Sergeant Jacoby to this effect, explaining the matter to Cardinal Castelbranco.
You are free to make what inferences you like regarding the nature of the summons, of course. It is not inconceivable that at some time within the next two Earth-years your own presence (temporary) will be required in Rome on similar business, so you might consider any appropriate steps for organizing your Legation to function smoothly in such event.
Thoughtfully, Chevigny cleared the screen, dumped his temporary data cache, and re-coded it to eliminate any usable residue of the deleted data. Then he signaled Sister Arrela. “Sister, get me a direct line with our liaison with Scolopendran IntRelate, please.”
The Swiss Guard classifies as a military, and so IntRelate is required to call in a small amount of support from the Foot-to-Ass Section to make sure no toes are stepped on. Surprisingly, these two Sections tend to get along quite well, listening to each others' estimations. To IntRelate, the Vatican is a friendly state more-or-less aligned with the interests of the Segments, so they should not be given much trouble. To the Foot-to-Ass, the Swiss Guard is not considered much of a threat and thus isn't worth going to much trouble over.
This is how Sergeant Jacoby of the Swiss Guard, "highly proficient" in the use of a halberd, sword, the SIG P-220 nine-millimeter pistol, various Heckler und Koch submachine guns, and his fists and feet meets up with an unarmored Mobile Infantry private the moment he steps out of the shuttle. The Scolopendran in his pixellated grey smokecloud battle fatigues looks over the sergeant, pulls out a pen from one pocket, and begins writing information down on the sheet of paper clipped to the top of the databoard. "Sergeant Hubertus Jacoby, from the Vatican?" His English is perfect, if colloquial, although inflected with a slight Egyptian accent.
"Yes..." Jacoby replies in his Swiss accent, repressing a mild frown.
"Private al-Hassawi, Mobile Infantry. Where ya off to, Sarge, an' how long?"
The sergeant blinks slightly. "Church of Saint Pelagius. Long enough to deliver this package."
"'Kay, that checks out." The private writes down another note. "You packin'?"
Jacoby smirks. "A halberd? Hardly..."
The private shakes his head. "You know what I'm talkin' about. Let's see it."
The sergeant nods and offers his SIG P-220 to the private, grip out. "Peace-sealed."
The Mobile Infantryman takes the pistol with the ease of someone trained inside and out with such weapons, immediately checking the breech and noting how it is locked in place by the aforementioned safety device. He ejects the magazine, checks to see how full it is, then slides the magazine back home until it locks in place. He returns the pistol to its owner with a nod. "Right then." He looks down and writes a few more notes while Jacoby returns the pistol to its holster.
Private al-Hassawi dates the two lines on the bottom, then offers the topmost for Jacoby to sign. The private then countersigns the bottom and hands the sheet of paper to the sergeant, revealing that the screen underneath has been serving the role as a carbon copy, to be sent to the Federal Police. "Stay outta trouble 'n have a good 'un."
Sergeant Jacoby is momentarily distracted by the sight of a naked female passerby of considerable attractions, something so rare as to be nonexistent in his usual duty stations. "Err.... of course... er, thank you..."
"Yer welcome. An' do stay out of trouble." That short interlude complete, the private returns to helping patrol the customs stations, leaving Jacoby to his mission.
Holy Vatican See
Sergeant Jacoby’s promotion was of relatively recent date, and the rush of additional zeal for his service that accompanied that accolade was helpful in reminding him that while there was nothing intrinsically evil about the naked female form, nor its display (if not motivated by the desire to provoke sin,) inordinate carnal appreciation thereof definitely ranked as Sinning With Intent, and was unbecoming to an officer in the Pope’s own personal guard.
Moderate or inadvertent carnal appreciation was also a Sin, of course, but without Intent, it could be relatively easily cleansed by Confession without long-term ill effects on the health of his soul. The Church, in her infinite charity, took into account the natural human weaknesses of the flesh, and was compassionate with sinners who were truly trying to fulfill the requirements of the Christian Life.
Therefore, making a studious effort neither to ogle nor to avoid the displays of naked flesh all around him as he emerged from the shuttle docking bay to the main station, Sergeant Jacoby, in the light blue uniform fatigues and black beret of his Service, looked around for a comunit. The station being as functionally-designed as most public facilities in the Segments, it wasn’t a long search.
In the outer pocket of the small carry-bag that held his precious package, a toothbrush, change of shirt & underwear, prayer book, and rosary, a small sheaf of printout held his mission briefing. He studied the user instructions on the comunit, and used the information in his briefing to place the call.
“Vatican Chancellery in Scolopendra, may I help you?” The voice was brisk and assured, and, like the MI who had questioned him at the gate, had a slight, liquid accent. “Sergeant Hubertus Jacoby, calling for Bishop Chevigny, please.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. One moment, please.” The Scolopendran receptionist (the Vatican was old-fashioned about having human staffers on public communications duty,) checked with Sister Arrela, the Apostolic Delegate’s secretary. “Sister? Sergeant Hubertus Jacoby for His Excellency.”
“You may put him through directly, Ansir,” the Sister said, as she touched her own console.
“This is Emile de Chevigny,” the Bishop answered, when the call went through.
“Excellency, this is Sergeant Hubertus Jacoby of the Noble Guard. My instructions are to report to you immediately upon arrival.”
“You are at the Stonozka shuttle facility, Sergeant?”
“Yes, your Excellency.”
“Very good, Sergeant. Thank you for your prompt report. You may proceed immediately to the Chancellery, and I will accompany you to Saint Pelagius. It’s quite easy to get here from the shuttle facility.”
“Yes, your Excellency, I have directions. My travel time is estimated at about an hour.”
Chevigny looked at the clock. At this time of day, a good number of shift workers would be using the public transportation facilities. “Perhaps a bit more than that, Sergeant, but not much more. We’ll have a meal ready for you, and a chance to freshen up.”
“Thank you, your Excellency.”
When he broke the connection, Chevigny smiled. ‘Fast work, Nataka,’ he thought. Doubtless the Sostituto was acting on personal instructions from the Blue Pope, but even so, it was prompt action indeed for the Secretariat.
“Sister, please get me Archbishop Castelbranco,” he requested.
While waiting for the connection, he pondered the precise wording he’d used. He’d never been asked to make such a communication before. Nataka had not given him specifics, which meant the Sostituto assumed he’d be able to deal with it appropriately.
The Archbishop’s comunit was oldfashioned, producing a flat-pic video rather than a tank image in Chevigny’s viewer. He smiled and nodded respectfully to the Primate of the Scolopendran Church. “Excellency, I hope this call is convenient for you? It is a matter of considerable importance, as I am calling at the behest of the Holy Father.”
The Archbishop’s brows rose, but he nodded. “Of course, Excellency.”
“Your Excellency, a messenger from the Holy Father will be arriving at our Chancellery shortly. His mission includes bringing a personal communication of the highest priority from the Holy Father to you. May we attend you in about three hours’ time?”
Castelbranco’s brows couldn’t rise any higher, but there was perceptible hesitation in his nod, and Chevigny thought he saw a speculative realization dawning in the old man’s eyes. He smiled again, reassuringly, as the Archbishop nodded, rather abruptly. “I will be happy to receive you and the Holy Father’s messenger, Excellency. In about three hours’ time will be convenient.”
Castelbranco closes the connection after a polite but generally empty closing line--except for the mutual blessings; those are by nature necessarily sincere--then leans back in his chair, pursing his lips slightly in thought. "A messenger from the Vatican?" he says aloud to the empty office, tapping his folded fingers slightly against his lips.
He then unknowingly borrows a page from Prayer-Writer and consciously forces down his expectations, meditating in such a way that all he looks forward to is a visitor from the Vatican carrying a message, no more and no less. It would be unHeroic, as well as less-than-humble, to begin assuming and building castles in the air, expecting reward when truly such things were out of his hands. He performs his service to God and His Holy Church, and that brings with it its own spiritual award that should be self-sufficient. Desire for power, fame, the meaningless accoutrements of "success..." those are unfortunately all-too-human weaknesses jarring what is otherwise a project of the spirit, a hope of bringing others to salvation for their own sake, not as a means to some sort of career goal.
Still, the old Primate is human and thus almost cannot help feeling a little excited at the news, going through his tasks for the next three hours with a quiet sort of expectancy hovering about him. Being human, if it doesn't turn out to be what he perhaps pondered for an instant over the phone but now leaves unthought in word or even mere concept, he may be disappointed and will be appropriately disappointed in himself for it.
If it is... well, then, that's of no concern at the moment. There's work to be done.
Holy Vatican See
Sergeant Jacoby appreciated the meal served him on his arrival at the Chancellery, though he passed on the deep-fried ‘pede with spicy dipping sauce, a dish which had become a favorite with many at the Chancellery. They hadn’t had such things at home, and the Sergeant was, at heart, a rather conservative young man. He also took the opportunity to tidy his uniform fatigues (though they had hardly been creased at all on the journey,) and freshen his shave. He was, after all, representing the honor of the Noble Guard here. Though small, it was a proud force with a long and proud tradition.
The Bishop received him cordially, and asked after his journey. He handed over a small packet of documents and datachips that had been entrusted to him for personal conveyance to the Apostolic Delegate, as well as the packet containing the new Cardinal's biretta, and got the Bishop to validate the receipts.
“And now, Sergeant, shall we head over to the Cathedral? Archbishop Castelbranco is expecting us.”
“Of course, Excellency.” The Sergeant moved politely as the Bishop rose from behind his desk, then fell in beside and half a pace behind him, with the silk-wrapped package under his arm. Chevigny paused, and gestured the young man forward. “Please, Sergeant, we are not terribly formal here.” With a rather shy, but very engaging, smile, Hubertus moved up beside him.
As they emerged into the broad walkways of the Chancellery neighborhood, Jacoby noticed that his own attire of military fatigues stood out far less obviously than the Bishop’s dark trousers, shirt, jacket, and clerical collar. Since the neighborhood was home to a number of government and official facilities, there were plenty of MI and other security forces in view here and there, but for the most part, the ordinary Scolopendrans seemed to favor either very little (or no) clothing at all, or clothing that either appeared to have a purely decorative function or, more often, a purely utilitarian one--skin tends to lack pockets, after all.
The Bishop glanced sideways and caught a glimpse of Jacoby’s face reddening as he glanced quickly away from a couple of naked young women. He chuckled, and the young man looked at him, then down. “It is difficult to get used to. I don’t notice it as much as when we first arrived, but…” de Chevigny shook his head ruefully, “let’s just say that it has a certain value in building character and self-discipline.
However, as they passed into a largely residential zone, more and more of the passersby wore what Jacoby thought of as “real” clothes. This area, adjacent to the Cathedral and Chancellery, was inhabited by a good many Catholics, who tended to be (by Scolopendran standards) conservative dressers.
A grave-faced priest admitted them to the Chancellery. “His Excellency is expecting you,” he murmured. “Please, this way.”
The Archbishop of Stonozka, Primate of the Church in Scolopendra, awaited them serenely. As they entered the office, both men bowed, and, straightening, the Bishop said, “By appointment under the Papal Seal of His Holiness, Leo XIV, Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Church, I am appointed as ablegate to announce the appointment of Estevão Xadreque Castelbranco, Archbishop of Stonozka and Primate of the Scolopendran Catholic Church, as Cardinal Deacon of the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, which appointment was duly announced in Rome at the Secret Consistory of the College of Cardinals upon (date), by the Holy Father.”
Sergeant Jacoby stepped forward, and, with another bow, offered the silk-wrapped package to the Archbishop, who reached out, rather hesitantly, to take it, and then looked at de Chvigny. “I am at a loss, your Excellency… This is a great honor. What is required of me?”
De Chevigny smiled, and unwrapped the parcel he had been carrying, a scarlet biretta. The four-cornered hat, with its central pompon, had been folded inside the silk, and he carefully unfolded it, holding it reverently in his two hands. “If your Eminence pleases,” he stepped forward.
Castelbranco bowed his head, and the Apostolic Delegate placed the biretta upon it. “Do you, Estevão Xadreque Cardinal Castelbranco, give your solemn oath, upon pain of the nullity of your office, to attend the Holy Father in Rome within one year from this day, to receive formal investiture under the norms of the Church governing the College of Cardinals?”
The new Cardinal of the Church lifted his head. “I, Estevão Xadreque Cardinal Castelbranco, do so swear, in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
“Amen,” returned Jacoby and de Chevigny. The Bishop gestured to the parcel that the Sergeant had delivered. “Your zucchetto, Eminence, and the formal document from the Vatican appointing you to your diaconate.”
Castelbranco unwrapped the silk, and set the folded zucchetto aside, revealing the heavy, multi-sealed document. He blinked, still just a bit stunned, then smiled wryly. “I believe this will be more comfortable, for most purposes.” He unfolded the zucchetto, and replaced the biretta upon his head with the less ornate skullcap. “If you do not mind, Excellency.”
De Chevigny chuckled. “Not at all, your Eminence. Sergeant?” he looked toward Jacoby as the Guardsman cleared his throat.
The Sergeant bowed again. “Your Eminence, I am also charged to deliver this correspondence to you.” From his fatigue pocket he abstracted a slim packet of folded sheets and datachips, extending them to the Cardinal, who accepted them with a smile. “Thank you, Sergeant…?”
Jacoby swallowed. “Jacoby, Eminence. Sergeant Hubertus Jacoby. If your Eminence would be so kind as to extend his blessing?”
Castelbranco nodded. “Thank you, Sergeant Jacoby.” He raised his hand in the gesture of blessing. “Benedicat in vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus.”
“Amen,” the Guardsman murmured, and retreated from the room.
De Chevigny smiled. “A much-merited honor, your Eminence, but doubtless with a considerable addition to your already-overfull workload. Please do not hesitate to call upon us at the Chancellery if we can be of any assistance to you. May God hold you in his keeping, and strengthen you for His tasks.”
Castelbranco shook his head a little, still rather bemused, then looked up at the Apostolic Delegate. “Thank you, your Excellency. I am very grateful. This honor is an accolade not to me, but to the Church of Scolopendra, an affirmation of our long years of labor to keep the Word of God alive in the Segments. I will accept in the name of all my colleagues and the Faithful of Scolopendra.” He looked a little rueful. “But I would appreciate your prayers, my friend. I will need all the help God can provide to be worthy of the task before me.”
When de Chevigny had gone, Castelbranco turned to the little packet of correspondence that Sergeant Jacoby had delivered. The paper was a folded letter, sealed with a Cardinal’s personal seal. Castelbranco was not yet conversant with all the heraldry of the Church, but upon opening the sheets, the superscription made him smile. He had enjoyed his discussions with Renard during their visit to Rome.
+ Jean-Paul Cardinal Renard, from Rome this (day) of (month, year),
His Eminence, Estevão Xadreque Cardinal Castelbranco
Cardinal Deacon of S. Maria della Vittoria
Archbishop of Stonozka and Primate of the Church of Scolopendra
Dear Brother in Christ,
First, my congratulations and good wishes upon the occasion of your elevation to the College. I look forward to welcoming you among us in person on the occasion of your appearance in Rome.
And as you may have heard, there is much excitement in Rome these days, in regard to the upcoming Conference on Non-human Sentience. I do not know how much news coverage the matter may have received in Scolopendra, so I have enclosed a datachip with the information published by the Office of Apostolic Communications, to date.
As you may imagine, the usual array of opinions will be abundantly present upon this occasion. It is the most momentous project the Church has undertaken since the first Council, which was not (to put it temperately) a success. We are beset on all sides with fanatics, from those who would repeal In Apostolatum Eldari altogether and declare a Crusade of Extermination against all non-humans, to those who would undiscriminatingly embrace any and all life-forms into full Communication without a second (or even a first) thought.
I admit, I am in some perturbation for the ability of the Church to apply reasoned and mature consideration to a question so complex, so fraught with controversy and emotional provocation, under the glare of system-wide publicity. The Second Vatican Council was difficult enough, and its deliberations affected far fewer Faithful in a far smaller and more unified Church. While I do not doubt the power of Divine Providence to manifest His Will, there is much to be said for providing a wide array of resources and tools for the Divine Purpose.
Thus my appeal to you is twofold: As a man whose experience with the Magisterium in a context insulated from the controversies that have agitated the Church in the past decades, and one whose understanding and maturity reflect a lifetime’s study and insight, your participation in the Conference cannot but be of great value. Additionally, as a representative of a Church that has managed to co-exist peacefully and productively in a society where humans and non-humans mix freely, your experience will provide a unique and important perspective in the discussions. Our very enjoyable discussions during your visit to Rome support me in this belief.
Can I prevail upon you to submit yourself for consideration as a Delegate to the Conference, to coincide with your required attendance in Rome? Admittedly, the Conference is scheduled to cover three years, and that is a long time for a pastor to be away from his flock, but the schedule is being arranged so that distant attendees (such as, I hope, yourself,) will be provided with ample time to return periodically to their diocese and maintain their obligations.
Do please, dear Brother, take the time to review the information about the Conference, and give consideration to this idea. I would count it a very great favor, as well as an undeniable pleasure, to have you in Rome for the occasion.
With fraternal regard in Christ,
+Jean Paul Renard
Cardinal Archbishop of Calcedonia
Estevão reads the letter a second time to help it sink in. All things happen for a purpose, he muses softly to himself, without cynicism nor irony. The Holy Father had made him a cardinal, and the Blue Pope--a fellow conservative like-minded in many things--had asked him a favor. The two were so probably related that it would almost be an act of faith to discount it as mere coincidence...
...and this does not bother me in the slightest, he finds with a soft smile as he slowly moves back with an irregularity in his pace that is not quite a limp to his desk, indicative of osteoporotic fragility. Perhaps there was influence, yes; perhaps this indeed serves a short-term end. However, such an honor, such a responsibility is never offered so lightly. He had served as dutifully as he could, and that service has been recognized by the assignment of greater rights and responsibilities. This offers him the opportunity to rise to new challenges and serve even better in the future.
This thought warms him as he quietly meditates at his desk. He is, after all, a Scolopendran at heart. He dwells on it until he decides thinking any more of it is counterproductive, then quietly turns the attention of his mind to Cardinal Renard's request. The question of the relation between nonhumans and the Catholic Church was still without an answer in the Segments; it was left open upon the discovery of the Kzinti and all possible debate closed after The Break out of Primate Castelbranco's fears that progress would lead to unintentional heresy and apostasy. Before The Break, it was not much of a concern--Kzinti psychology utterly rejected the concept of saving through divine grace and the insufficiency of temporal acts, which directly contradicted their own cultural faith and philosophy of Heroism. Afterwards, the Primate could get away with a very honest "I do not know" and quietly pray it would not become a major issue before the return to Rome and the Mother Church.
Now it was a major issue, and it was a major issue with the Mother Church. They want my help because I've experience, he thinks silently to himself, and for my own part I haven't taken the time to construct an opinion yet. If I refuse, they lack the experience of living among nonhumans... Leaning over slightly, he extends one hand with habitual care to depress an intercom button, summoning the Secretary and the vice of his council. Bishop De Chevigny has taken a shine to Masdeu-Arus, Castelbranco thinks with a soft chuckle; it was subtle, of course, but there was positioning going on. I think he is a bit too reform-minded, but perhaps--and he savors the irony as he thinks this--I could just be dragging my heels.
The comforting thought that the Vatican still exists to maintain the doctrine is what allows him to finally think that after all these years. Hopefully he won't sell the homeworld while I'm gone... Receiving acknowledgement from his two subordinates, Castelbranco turns in his chair to the manual typewriter on the cart next to his desk and begins to compose a reply.
(more to be added if needed)