Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist (2000)
The alien entered the chapel just as Father Wickham was reciting the Doxology. As the door clanged open, the thirty Catholic parishioners turned their heads to the back of the room. The sound echoed through the chapel, until finally it faded, leaving nothing behind but curious whispers that ran around the chamber like mice looking for a place to hide.
Father Wickham recognized the alien as a member of the Stanquel, the insectoid-looking race that was a minor member of the Alliance of the Free Cultures. Representatives of most member alien races had visited the space station’s chapel when the station had first been completed, but Wickham could not recall any of the aliens actually dropping by during services.
No matter; staring at the alien was unseemly. Wickham pulled his own gaze away and cleared his throat, causing the parishioners to look forward again and quiet down. He continued the Doxology in a louder voice than usual, wanting to bring his flock’s attention back to the Mass. “. . . Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.”
Unfortunately, the presence of the alien still seemed too disruptive for the community. Rather than shouting out the great “Amen” that customarily followed the Doxology, the parishioners mumbled out separate amens in embarrassed tones.
Wickham had to retake control of the service. Looking directly at the alien, he said, “It is time for the Communion rite. Friends, at this time I wish to remind you all about the significance of Communion. It is an outward sign of the unity among Catholics and while anyone is welcome to attend our Mass, it would not be appropriate to take Communion unless you are a baptized, practicing Catholic in union with the Church and free from serious sin.”
For a brief moment, he wondered if he was coming off as a pompous fool, but then he saw the congregation nodding in agreement. One manCommander Bill Hamill, second-in-command of the station and one of the most devout Catholics Wickham knewthen bowed his head, and others followed suit.
Wickham glanced one more time at the alien, who was slowly making its way forward into the chapel. He looked back at his parishioners and spoke in even, measured tones. “Let us pray with confidence to the Father in the words our Savior gave us.”
Then, along with his parishioners, Wickham began reciting the ancient words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread”
Wickham paused. The alien had slid onto one of the benches, next to Laura McKenna, an engineer Wickham knew well. Although everyone on the station was accustomed to the presence of aliens, Laura looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Wickham continued reciting, speeding up a bit to catch up with the congregation. As he spoke, he watched Laura slide away from the alien, who pressed closer. “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
The congregation fell silent, and Wickham continued. “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
At the name of the Son, the alien glanced up briefly and the congregation concluded the prayer: “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.”
The time had come for the Sign of Peace. Despite the awkward presence of the alien, Wickham pressed on.
“Lord Jesus Christ,” Wickham began, and again the alien paused and looked up, “you said to your apostles: I leave you peace, my peace I give you. Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom where you live for ever and ever.”
The congregation responded, “Amen.”
“The Peace of the Lord be with you always.”
“And also with you.”
“Let us offer each other a sign of peace.”
The parishioners turned to each other, shook hands, and softly spoke wishes of peace to each other. The alien sat in its spot, its front appendages crossed together, as the others ignored it. Wickham, being a man of God, caught the alien’s eye and nodded.
The alien returned the nod. It unnerved Wickham; he felt unsure as to whether or not looking at the alien had been a good idea. He tried to catch Commander Hamill’s eye, to get some sort of cue, but Hamill’s face remained impassive.
The time had come for the breaking of the bread. Wickham nodded to John Mulroney, in the front row, and the young doctor stood up from his seat and joined Wickham in the front of the room to assist with the Communion ceremony. Although Wickham liked to spread this honor around, Dr. Mulroney had done this before, and for the moment Wickham preferred familiarity.
As they prepared the wafers and the wine, Wickham led the congregation in speaking aloud:
“Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us.
“Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the galaxy: have mercy on us.
“Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the universe: grant us peace.”
Wickham looked at his congregation and pointedly ignored the alien; this was not for it.
“This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” Wickham said. “Happy are those who are called to his supper.”
“Lord,” replied the parishioners, “I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
Wickham checked the tray with the wafers and the wine, and then spoke the next sentence in as resonant a tone as he could manage. “All who would wish to receive communion, please step forward.”
People started to do so, but suddenly the alien jolted forward to the front of the line, and the parishioners gasped.
Taken aback, Wickham studied the alien more closely. Although the Stanquel did have an insectoid appearance, that was only because of the way they evolved on their planet of lighter gravity and dimmer light. That gave them spindly limbs and large green eyes, which contributed to their praying mantis appearance. They grew far too large to actually be insects; even Wickham knew enough biology to understand that.
Most Stanquel stood quite a few centimeters taller than the average human, but this one was just about Wickham’s height. Like most of its race, it wore a light-colored tunic and pants, which contrasted with its dark, hairy-looking skin. And its abdomen appeared distended, unusual for its race.
“Friend,” Wickham said as gently as he could, “this ceremony is not for you. Please sit down.”
The alien shook its head, and began speaking with a variety of clicks and whistles, which its translator pendant handled with ease. “I doubt I could even metabolize the wafer,” it said.
“All the more reason,” Wickham noted, “for you to sit down.”
“But, Father Wickham,” the alien said, “I need to speak to you of a matter of utmost importance.”
So the alien knew his name. Still, this was not the time. “It must wait.”
“Would you allow one of us to so casually interrupt one of your religious services?”
“My question for you is of a religious nature.”
Puzzled, Wickham found himself asking, “You have an interest in Catholicism?”
The alien hesitated, then said, “Yes.”
Wickham shook his head and tried to hide his amusement. “Even if this were the time, I cannot convert you to Catholicism. I would be more than happy to discuss religious matters at another time.”
During this conversation, the members of the congregation had remained still. Finally, Commander Hamill moved forward. “Excuse me, Father, but what is this all about?”
“Just a misunderstanding, Bill.”
Hamill turned to the alien. “Is that so?”
“In a way” began the alien.
“Because if there’s a problem, I can get station security down here tout de suite.”
The alien stared at Hamill for a second, then suddenly began shuffling around in a small circle and making clicking noises. Hamill’s comment had obviously agitated it.
“That will not be necessary” it started.
“Then,” Hamill interrupted, “will you please take a seat until the service is finished? Some of us have religious obligations to attend to.” He grabbed the alien by the shoulders and stared directly into its eyes. “You’re a Stanquel, so I know you understand what that means.”
The alien gazed at Hamill for a few seconds more, while Wickham waited. Finally, the alien nodded and began moving towards the seats in the front row, still close by.
Wickham let out a sigh of relief, then turned to face Hamill, who had taken the position at the front of the line. Wickham reached for the first wafer
And once again, the heavy door to the chapel clanged open. Two of the Alliance’s finest, a sergeant and a corporal, with weapons at the ready, ran into the chapel.
Wickham felt a sudden chill. The parishioners looked to him for guidance, their faces registering surprise and agitation. Even Commander Hamill began stepping into the background.
“Bill? What are you doing?”
“I don’t want to let the soldiers know I’m here yet. Let’s see what business they think they have disrupting our service before siccing the second-in-command on them.”
The sergeant approached Wickham, while the corporal began walking towards the now-seated alien. “Father, my name is Sergeant Byers, and I’m here with Corporal Clayburgh. We’re very sorry to disturb your service, but we need to take this alien into custody. Won’t be a minute.”
For a moment, Wickham just stood still, staring at the sergeant in shock. Then he jumped over to the corporal and raised his arms with his hands outstretched. “Not here,” Wickham said. “You have no right.”
The corporal stopped and Byers said, “Father, you’re mistaken. We have every right.”
“Not without due process, Sergeant. You must show your warrant.”
Byers sighed. “We don’t have to show the warrant to you, Father, just to the one we’re arresting. However, if it makes you feel any better” He handed over a small tablet.
Wickham scrolled down the tablet while the soldiers waited. The warrant’s only sentence authorized the arrest of the aliennamed Zwarenfor violations of Stanquel law.
Wickham handed the tablet back. “The warrant does not state the charges.”
“It doesn’t have to. We’re making this arrest on the authority of the alien’s own government, not on the authority of either Earth or the Alliance. Special favor to their ambassador. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to do my job.”
Byers began moving towards the alien, who suddenly pulled back. “Let me speak to the priest!” it shouted.
Byers stopped short, and Wickham slowly moved in front of him. “Sergeant, the alien interrupted our service before in order to speak with me. We didn’t have a chance to finish our conversation. May I talk to it for a moment before you take it away?”
“I’m sorry, Father, but my orders state specifically that the Stanquel do not want the alien speaking with any of our religious leaders. It’s why we barged in when we did.”
“Are you a religious man, Sergeant?” Wickham asked softly. “If you were about to be arrested, wouldn’t you want the comfort of speaking with a member of the clergy beforehand?”
Byers glared at the priest, but Wickham could see in his eyes that the argument had gotten through. “Fine,” Byers said, “but I’m sticking close. You have one minute.”
Wickham approached the alien, and Byers stayed three paces behind, keeping his right hand near his holster. When he got to the front row, Wickham took a seat next to the alien. He put a hand on its shoulder, which felt chitinous to the touch, hard and smooth.
“Now, what’s this all about?” Wickham asked.
The alien did not answer, but turned its gaze forward, where Byers and Clayburgh stood, watching.
Wickham suppressed a sigh. “Gentlemen,” he said, addressing the soldiers, “would you please back off the tiniest bit? I assure you that the alien isn’t going anywhere.”
The soldiers took two steps back. Wickham leaned towards the alien and whispered, “I think that’s as far away as I can get them to move. Now tell me, what’s going on?”
“Father Wickham, what do you know of my race?”
“Not as much as I’d like,” Wickham admitted.
“That is a shame,” the alien said.
Wickham shrugged. “Perhaps. But that’s not the issue. Why did you interrupt my service? Why are the soldiers after you?”
“Because I’m pregnant,” the alien blurted out.
Well, at least Wickham now knew the alien’s sex. “Really? As my friend Rabbi Binyamin would say, Mazel tov.”
The alien cocked its head. “Pardon? The translator did not parse that.”
He smiled. “I said congratulations.”
“I think I see. I would say thank you, Father, but it is the pregnancy that necessitates I seek your aid. My father desires to force an abortion upon me.”
Wickham felt suddenly queasy. “Force an abortion?”
“All of my people are born as identical twins, and by our religious laws, only one of each pair of twins is allowed to mate and bear offspring. My sister has already done so. But I rejected my race’s laws and became pregnant, and now my people want me to terminate my pregnancy.”
“I see,” Wickham said slowly. “But why have you come to see me?”
The alien cocked her head. “You are a Catholic priest, are you not?”
“And therefore you are opposed to the killing of an unborn child. Or unborn children, such as my twins.”
Wickham cleared his throat. “Well, yes. But that’s assuming the baby has a soul.”
“I do not understand.”
“Shortly after human beings encountered the first aliens, the Pope called a special conference, Vatican 5, to discuss how to deal with the issue. The Church decided that it would be inappropriate to proselytize among our alien brethren. Do you understand the implications?”
Wickham sighed. He knew his words might offend the alien, but he had no choice. “According to Vatican 5, only human babies are considered to have souls before birth. We don’t make pronouncements regarding aliens. As the Church has always taught, we have the competence to discuss the behavior and conditions of human beings, but we can make no definitive statements about non-humans.”
“I see,” the alien said, clasping her hands together. “May I assure you that my babies have souls?”
Before Wickham had a chance to reply, Byers stepped forward. “Okay, Father, have you heard enough? I know I have.”
“II am not sure.”
“Well, I am. Now that you know what this is all about, let me do my job.” He reached out to grab the alien’s right arm, but the alien pulled away.
“Father, you can’t let them take me,” she said. “I know your religion believes in the sanctity of life before birth. I have studied your kind.”
Wickham pulled the alien aside. “Zwaren, what you say is true, but I can’t take your side.”
“I’ve already explained. The Vatican has made strict rulings on our interactions with alien races.”
“Is not your Pope an alien?”
“He was born on Mars,” he said with a smile. “It isn’t the same thing.”
“Is there nothing you will do for me?”
“Of course there is, Zwaren. Look. Go with the soldiers. When I finish ministering to my congregation, I will come find you and try to help you out. See what I can do later. But for the moment, all I can do is pray for your unborn children. I can’t do much else.”
“Yes, you can.” The alien looked at the soldiers for a moment, then lowered her eyes. “I am formally requesting sanctuary.”
Wickham felt a cold chill in his chest. “What?”
“I am formally requesting sanctuary,” the alien repeated. “It is my right.”
“Um” Wickham began, but was cut off by Byers.
“Enough already,” Byers said. “Let’s go.”
He reached out and grabbed Zwaren’s arm with his hand. But as he did so, Wickham grabbed Byers by the shoulder.
“Just a moment,” Wickham heard himself saying.
Byers glared at him, but did not loosen his grip. “What is it now, Father?”
“The alien has requested sanctuary. I cannot refuse.”
“What are you talking about?”
To Wickham’s relief, Commander Hamill suddenly stepped forward. Clayburgh stood at attention, as did Byers, while keeping his grip on the alien’s arm.
Hamill addressed Byers. “Sergeant. Let the alien go while Father Wickham explains.”
“Yes, sir,” Byers replied. “But if it makes a move . . .”
Hamill nodded and turned to Wickham. “Explain.”
Wickham swallowed; the welcome interruption had given him the time to gather his thoughts. “Sanctuary is an old conceptsomewhat outdated, but still valid. It’s a special right that a person can request of the Church, to be kept safe from harm, often used by people fleeing religious or other forms of persecution.”
Byers’s eyes lit up with understanding. “Oh, I see. Kind of like using a church as an embassy.”
“Well, not quite. But you sort of have the idea.”
“Still doesn’t make complete sense, though,” Byers said. “I mean, this whole station is like an embassy. She has no reason to come here.”
Commander Hamill cleared his throat. “With all due respect, Sergeant, the station is not an embassy. After all, each race maintains its own embassy on the station. The station merely serves as neutral territory.”
“And if the station were an embassy,” Wickham gently pointed out, “you wouldn’t have the authority to arrest her, would you?”
Byers narrowed his eyes. “As you point out, Father, I do have the authority to arrest her. So I’d appreciate it if you’d understand that your religious beliefs don’t apply in this situation.”
“On the contrary, we’re in my Church.”
Byers glanced around, the disbelief evident on his face. “This isn’t your Church, Father.”
Wickham smiled. “Really? Well, I see my congregation here waiting patiently. I still have wafers and wine to distribute for Communion. This is my Church.”
Byers rubbed his eyes. “Oh, hell,” he said quietly.
Wickham stiffened, and pointed firmly at the holo-crucifix projected above the stage. “I will thank you not to use profane language in a house of the Lord.”
“A house of theFather, please be reasonable. I have my job to do.”
“And I,” Wickham said, staring directly into the soldier’s eyes, “have mine.”
Clayburgh shifted his weight from one foot to the other and suddenly spoke up in a gravelly voice. “Sergeant, what do we do?”
Byers glared at Clayburgh and turned to Hamill. “Commander?”
Hamill looked around. “Yes, Sergeant?”
“Father Wickham is preventing me from making an arrest. Shall I take him into custody along with the alien?”
“Absolutely not. In fact, I order you to leave the alien alone.”
Byers shook his head. “With all due respect, sir, our orders come directly from Captain Pamona. Chain of command.”
Hamill nodded. “Chain of command, yeah.” He frowned. “Still, as long as the alien is kept within the chapel . . .”
Hamill turned to the other soldier. “Corporal Clayburgh?”
“Stand guard outside the door.”
“Sir, I’m supposed to assist Byers.”
“You will be. You’re keeping the alien inside while I go talk to the captain.” He raised his voice so as to address the congregation. “Friends, there’s a small security matter that needs attending. Please leave the chapel at once. We’ll let you know when we’ll have Communion.”
A few of them began murmuring, but Wickham raised his hands.
“Friends, it is as Commander Hamill says. May peace travel with you, but please do go.”
With a susurration, the people filed out of the chapel, until the only ones remaining were Wickham, the two soldiers, Hamill, and the alien.
“Well, Sergeant,” Hamill said, “let’s go talk to the captain.”
As Clayburgh and Byers moved outside, Hamill held back. He beckoned Wickham over to him, and Wickham followed him to the door.
Hamill shook his head and smiled. “Sanctuary? I hope you know what you’re doing.”
As the door clanged shut, Wickham softly replied, “So do I.”
* * *
With the soldiers gone, Wickham felt an urge to call back his flock. The last time a service of his had been disrupted was back on Pardo’s Planet, during a hostage situation in which he later admitted that he should have gone with his instincts. Wickham tried not to dwell on the past; in the days afterwards, the Church had quickly found a replacement for him on Pardo’s Planet and assigned him to Grand Central Station. At the time, he had felt that perhaps the Church had sent him to the one parish in the universe with the fewest Catholics, because there he could do no harm. After all, what impact could a priest have on a station composed mostly of non-Catholic aliens?
Wickham was afraid that he and the Church were about to find out.
Wickham came out of his reverie, to see the alien still sitting in the front row. Wickham loosened his collar and attempted a small smile. “Well,” he said. “I need to put away the wafers and the wine. Why don’t we talk?”
The priest chuckled. “About sanctuary, for one thing. I seem to have put my reputation on the line for you, not to mention my job and perhaps my career. You owe me the courtesy of telling me what for, especially since granting sanctuary is no longer the custom of the Church.”
“Yes,” Zwaren replied. “Since the end of the eighteenth century, counting by the years of your Lord. Approximately five hundred of your Earth-years ago.”
Wickham paused in his task of gently packing away the Communion wafers. “So you knew. And yet you still asked for it?”
“I took the gamble that no one else would know, and that the one who did know would still feel honor-bound to grant my request.”
Wickham laughed and scratched his head. “Gambling is a sin, you know.”
“Only for money. I was gambling for the right to live by my beliefs.”
“I was afraid of that. From what Sergeant Byers said, it sounded as if you’re running from your own people.”
“In a manner of speaking. I am running from some of them.”
Wickham nodded as he finished putting away the wine. He grabbed a folding chair from the stage and sat across from the alien.
“So if you’re running from other Stanquel, why come to me? Why didn’t you go to the Earth embassy? They’d have better resources to protect you, you know.”
“They would not wish to violate the Treaty of the Free Cultures.”
Zwaren did not elaborate, and it took Wickham a moment to get it. “Oh. You’re a criminal?”
“According to one definition, yes. Some might say that protecting unborn life is never a criminal act, even if one must resort to murder.”
A cold chill went through Wickham. “Um, have you?” he asked.
“Resorted to murder?” The alien chittered in an unnerving way. “No, of course not. You must realize that. If murder had been my crime, the soldiers would not have accepted your authority to keep me safe here in your church.”
“Technically, it’s not a church, it’s a chapel.”
“By whatever word you use, this is a place of worship. And I do know that murderers would find no sanctuary here.”
Wickham thought back to his college history classes. “I’m not sure that’s entirely correct.”
“So if the soldiers had told you I was wanted for murder, would you still have interceded as you did?”
Wickham stared into the alien’s eyes. “You have a point. I probably would not have. Of course, there is a difference between sanctuary and the confessional. If you had confessed to your crime, rather than asking for sanctuary, I could have absolved you of it.”
“I sincerely doubt that. I am not Catholic.”
Wickham considered that for a moment. “Occasionally, non-Catholics come to the confessional to unload their sins. It can have a calming effect.”
“But would your God accept my confession?”
Wickham hesitated, then shook his head. “Only if you accepted His grace.”
“Which, as you pointed out, your own Church will not allow me to do.”
Wickham cleared his throat. “The Church doesn’t deny you the right to accept God’s grace, friend Zwaren. The Church simply cannot accept aliens as Catholics.”
“So if I did accept your God as my own, I would be entitled to all of the responsibilities, but none of the privileges?”
Wickham rubbed his eyes; he could feel the beginnings of a headache. “I don’t understand. Are you saying you want to convert to Catholicism?”
The alien chittered. “Not necessarily. But anything that would put one more obstacle between my people and the murder of my unborn children I would gladly do.”
“And you see conversion as a means to that end?”
“Because of the full faith and credence clause, yes.”
Wickham shook his head. “But it’s not that easy. Even if you were a human who wanted to become Catholic, you’d have to undergo a rigorous program of study and training. You couldn’t just come to the Church and have us admit you as a member. We’d have to be convinced that you understood and accepted all the precepts, not just the ones convenient to your situation.”
“I can recite the Catechism, if you like.”
Wickham smiled. “No, no, that won’t be necessary.”
“So what do we do now?”
“We wait,” Wickham replied. “Perhaps I can find someone to bring some stuff from my quarters.”
Zwaren looked around the chapel and then back at Wickham. “You do not live here?” she asked.
“No, I don’t.” He rubbed his eyes again and stifled a yawn. The slight headache had become sudden exhaustion. “Like I said, this isn’t a church. It’s a multi-denominational chapel. If it were my church, I’d probably live in the rectory. But here on Grand Central Station, I have quarters, just like everybody else.”
“Because of me, you cannot go home.” She paused. “II am sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Wickham chuckled. “You’re more than paying me back by relieving the tedium. There’s not really much for a priest to do here on the station. Not many life cycle events get celebrated here. I run the Masses, but that’s about it.”
“Life cycle events?”
“Marriages. Deaths. Births.”
“These things don’t happen on the station?”
“Well, they do,” Wickham admitted. “At least, there are deaths. But most people getting married prefer to do it on a planet, among friends. And most women having children also prefer to be on a planet, rather than on a space station.”
He shrugged. “Sentimental reasons, I suppose. No one wants his or her birth certificate to refer to an artificial place that may one day cease to exist.”
“But even planets must cease to exist, eventually.”
“Like I said, sentimental reasons.” He stood up and stretched his muscles. “I don’t know about you, Zwaren, but I think I’m going to spend this time reading the Psalms.” He looked at her. “You’re welcome to join me if you wish.”
“II have my own holy writings, which I would like to read.”
The two of them sat in chairs on opposite sides of the stage, and they read.
Like most people living on Grand Central Station, Wickham knew of Captain Rachel Pamona, who ran the place for the AFC. Pamona tended to stay in the background, making sure that things ran smoothly enough so no one would notice that there was actually a major job involved. Wickham had been to a few station events where Pamona was present and had even spoken to her a few times; being on close terms with Bill Hamill had gotten him that much. But none of that prepared him for her arrival at the front door of the chapel.
The door intercom buzzed. Wickham carefully placed the Bible’s red ribbon between the pages he had been reading, closed the book, and walked over to the door. He pushed a button. “Yes?”
“Father Wickham? This is Captain Pamona. I’d like to come in and talk.”
Zwaren put down her book and ran to Wickham’s side. “Father, is this it? Is she planning to take me away?”
Wickham released the button. “I don’t know. She simply said she wanted to talk.”
“I don’t trust her.”
“Go hide behind the curtain, if it will make you feel more comfortable.”
Zwaren trotted back to the stage, climbed upon it, and pulled the tan curtain closed. Wickham waited until the curtain stopped rustling, then pushed the button again.
Suddenly the door clanged open and Pamona stood there, a soldier crouched by her side.
“How in the world” Wickham began.
“Override code,” Pamona said.
“Oh,” he said.
“Well? Aren’t you going to invite us in?”
“I would have thought you would have barged in by now.”
Pamona smiled; the soldier’s face remained impassive. “Diplomatic protocol,” she replied. “You have an alien with you who requested sanctuary. It wouldn’t look good for me to just barge in with a soldier, without first getting your permission.” She paused. “But I wanted you to know that I could have.”
Wickham nodded. “I appreciate the respect you’re giving me.”
She laughed. “I’m not giving it to you, Father. I’m giving it to the rules of diplomacy, and to the treaty that formed the AFC. And, frankly, I’m also giving it to my second-in-command.”
“Bill’s a good man.”
“Yes, he is. And he’s a good advocate, for which you’d better be very grateful the next time you see him. He was very clear on what I should and shouldn’t do when I told him I was coming down here.”
“So you haven’t come here to arrest Zwaren?”
“Not yet, anyway. I give you my word on that.”
Wickham gestured with his arm. “Then you may come in.”
Pamona and the soldier crossed the threshold into the chapel. The soldier pulled a small clear pistol out of a holster, and Wickham tensed up.
“Captain,” he said.
Pamona looked at the soldier. “Private Sperry, at ease.”
“Yes, I know. It’s for my protection. Still, I doubt that the alien is going to swoop down upon me. More likely she’s frightened and hiding somewhere, perhaps behind those curtains.”
Pamona’s more perceptive than I realized, Wickham thought.
Sperry returned the pistol to its holster, and nodded at Pamona. “Well?” Pamona asked Wickham.
Wickham nodded and called out, “Zwaren, it’s okay. Captain Pamona just wants to talk.”
Slowly, the curtain spread apart, and Zwaren descended the stage.
“I have already met with Captain Pamona.”
“You have?” Wickham asked, surprised.
“Yes. We have nothing else to discuss.”
Wickham looked at Pamona. “Forgive me for saying this, Captain, but I thought you’d be too busy to meet with every alien that comes through Grand Central.”
In response, she laughed again. “Normally, yes. But some aliens are more equal than others.” She paused. “Has Zwaren given you the sob story about her children yet?”
Wickham furrowed his brow, upset at the cavalier way Pamona seemed to dismiss Zwaren’s problem. “Yes, she has. It seems like a legitimate grievance to me.”
“Father,” Pamona said, “I don’t know if you realize what’s going on. It’s not just Zwaren. And do you even know who Zwaren is?”
“Her father is the Stanquel Ambassador to Grand Central, the one who ordered her arrest.”
Wickham slowly turned his head to stare at Zwaren, who stood motionless. “Zwaren? Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“Would it have mattered?” she asked.
Wickham felt an urge to shout, “Hell, yes!” but he refrained.
“I’m not sure,” he said, “but I would have liked to have known.”
Pamona cleared her throat. “As I was saying, it’s not just Zwaren you’re dealing with here.”
“Yes. I’m apparently also dealing with her father.”
“No,” Pamona said. “You’re not just dealing with her father either.” She paused. “Zwaren is a heretic, one of a movement led by some charismatic member of her race. She’s not here on her own initiative; she volunteered to be used as a test case. And now she’s using you.”
Wickham turned to Zwaren again. “Is this true?”
“I love my unborn children,” she replied. “It would be murder to abort them.”
“That was not my question.”
The alien clicked her mandibles. “It is partly true,” she said.
“Which part? The part where you’re a member of a heretical movement, or the part where you’re using me?”
Zwaren clicked her mandibles again, apparently weighing her response to his question. Finally, she said, “Abapater is no heretic. He speaks the truth.”
Wickham noticed that she had not answered the second part of his question, but ignored that. “Please don’t tell me that your followers are all hovering outside the chapel door, waiting to barge in at your signal.”
She chortled. “No, Father, you are safe. I am the only one of Abapater’s followers on the station. The rest used to live on our home planet, although a great numberin fact, most of us nowhave migrated to our colony worlds.”
“Who is this Abapater? What does he say?”
“Abapater is a high leading priest.”
“A priest? Such as myself?”
“He would be more akin to your Pope. He leads our movement.”
“The Catholic Church is not a movement,” Wickham pointed out.
“Once it was, is that not right?”
Wickham hesitated, then nodded in agreement. “But I don’t think I would equate the Pope with your Abapater.”
“True. Abapater is more like the one who created your religion, not the one who leads it now.”
Pamona interrupted. “Enough of this. Father Wickham, here’s the deal. Zwaren is a criminal by the laws of her people. Furthermore, she’s the daughter of the Stanquel ambassador, who insists along with the rest of his government that we turn her over to their custody.” She sighed. “So, tell me, will you accept my authority over the station, including this chapel? After all, this isn’t really a church.” She paused. “Or do I have to fight you on this?”
“Captain, in any other situation I would accept your authority without question. But in this particular case, I can’t. Your authority is secular, not religious. And Zwaren appealed to me on religious grounds. I cannot refuse her.”
“That’s what I was afraid you’d say.” She sighed. “You know, I could order the soldiers to arrest both you and the alien.”
“That would violate our charter rights to freedom of religion.”
“I could argue that point, but Bill would probably lead a mutiny.” She smiled wryly. “You’re putting me and the AFC into a rather precarious position here.”
“I’m sorry for that.”
“I’m sure you are,” she said without irony. “So, Father Wickham, if you won’t accept the authority of the captain of Grand Central Station, who would you listen to?”
Wickham had been thinking about this very question, and he was ready with his answer. “The AFC Commander of Chaplains.”
Pamona frowned. “You’d need me to go that high? Isn’t there a bishop in charge of this sector of space?”
“Archbishop Peter Grace of Pardo’s Planet is in charge of this sector of space, at least as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. But I don’t think he would have the experience to understand the situation I’ve been thrust into.” Wickham felt uncomfortable disclosing the real reason he didn’t want Pamona consulting Grace.
“Still, shouldn’t we go to him first?”
Wickham smiled. “Suppose he rules in either my favor or yours? Do you think that the other one would just accept his decision? Or wouldn’t we just request an appeal? We might as well go straight to the top.”
Pamona chuckled and shook her head. “Point taken, Father. Very well. But you do know that it’s going to take a while to tightbeam a message to the Commander of Chaplains, and then we’ll have to wait for his response.”
“Her,” Wickham said automatically. “Jacqueline Axelrod.”
“Her, then,” Pamona said. She sighed. “Well, I guess we’ve done all we can here for the moment. Come, Private.”
Pamona turned around and headed towards the door, with Sperry close behind. Just as she reached the door, Wickham cleared his throat. “Captain?”
Pamona stopped and turned to look at him. “Yes?”
He smiled. “Be thankful that I didn’t ask you to go to the Pope.”
“It won’t come to that,” she said. “Or at least, it had better not.”…