Isaac knelt before the guards and began to pray, not because of his strong faith nor because he sought the Almighty’s forgiveness nor even to beg for divine intervention. He certainly didn’t offer a prayer of thanksgiving. In fact, Isaac had never felt more aware of God’s absence in the universe; yet he knelt in prayer, and he did so for one and only one reason: to piss off the imperial troops.
The soldiers started grumbling and cursing before the words “Our Father” passed Isaac’s lips. Their body armor rattled as they moved away from Isaac’s cell. “Prisoner 1134 is doing it again,” the guard corporal said into his voicelink.
“Filthy Christian,” muttered one of the enlisted men.
But they couldn’t do anything about it. They couldn’t arrest Isaac again, nor could they use this as evidence in court when the court had already convicted him. They couldn’t even increase his penalty; he’d received the harshest sentence the Earth Empire allowed. So Isaac prayed, and the guards outside his cell fumed impotently.
A security door clanged open and shut. “My poor friend,” a slippery voice said. “You still choose superstition over wisdom. Or are you calling an army of angels to your rescue? How many are coming? How long should we wait for them?”
Isaac continued to pray, rocking back and forth, chanting the words he and every member of the Community of Christ had memorized. The imperial prosecutor stood on the other side of the force field, hands in his pockets, listening with a bemused grin. But Isaac understood the imperial way of thinking, more so than most members of the Community. He knew how to irritate a loyalist like this prosecutor. All across the Empire, superstitious humans were kneeling before altars or crumbling statues and speaking to a being greater than the entire Imperial Government put together. This vast, secret Community believed in things beyond science’s grasp and beyond the military’s ability to conquer. Nothing frightened Imperialists more than the unknown. Of God, of heaven, of Christ, the Empire knew nothing.
The prosecutor and guards would never admit it, but Isaac’s prayer disturbed them. They might even suffer nightmares. After all, Isaac had once been a card-carrying Imperialist himself, loyal and subservient to the chain of command, yet that had not prevented Isaac’s conversion.
“… and deliver us from evil,” Isaac said, spitting the last word as though evil were something he could taste and smell at that moment.
The prosecutor chuckled. “How can you believe this nonsense? Our investigation took two weeks and exposed all nineteen of your parishes in the Betelgeuse Sector. Your whole Community was arrested, interrogated, and convicted. You are all going into exile. If some omnipotent being watches over you and loves you, why did your Community fall so easily?”
Isaac suddenly realized he’d stopped praying. He started again, faster this time, and the prosecutor laughed.
“See?” the prosecutor said to the guards. “These believers talk about their holy secrets, but deep down they know this God stuff is a joke. They’re full of doubts.”
“Yes, sir,” the guards answered. The nearest sneered at Isaac through the force field.
The prosecutor patted the guard corporal’s shoulder and spoke in softer tones. “A reporter from the Tomorrow News Network just came aboard. I examined her credentials myself and granted her full access to the prisoners. Remember to keep your men on their best behavior while she’s here.”
“Yes, sir,” the guard corporal answered.
The Earth Empire dominated every aspect of human life, all in the name of security. The Imperial Government enacted laws regulating everything from interstellar trade to personal correspondence, with special rules concerning such mundane things as diet and hygiene. Yet somehow the media, especially the Tomorrow News Network, had eluded their control. T.N.N. journalists came and went as they pleased, often criticizing the Empire and exposing all its faults while imperial bureaucrats stood helpless nearby. For some reason, journalists frightened the leaders of the Empire, particularly journalists who could travel through time.
Isaac took no comfort from this. The Tomorrow News Network made spectacles of death and destruction. Their reporters appeared before a catastrophe occurred, interviewed victims before doom fell upon them, and never raised a finger to help. The Tomorrow News Network was as bad as the Empire. Maybe worse.
* * *
Before sending the Community into exile, the Imperialists permitted its members to gather in the prison ship’s cargo hold one final time. Surrounded by armed guards, three thousand convicted Christians joined hands and asked God to protect them on the coming journey. The prosecutor and several Space Force admirals watched from the upper deck as High Priestess Judith led the prayer, concluding with a defiant “Amen.”
“Amen,” Isaac mumbled in response. For a moment, he saw this gathering as the Imperialists must see it: archaic and superstitious, little better than pagan revelers dancing around a bonfire invoking the name of some silly deity. Isaac closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, overcome by the stink of so many unwashed bodies pressed together. Not for the first time, he yearned for those days before his conversion, those days when he had nothing to believe in except his orders and his paycheck.
The high priestess climbed atop a cargo container so that everyone could see her, and her voice rang throughout the room.
“When we joined the Community, we all chose new names for ourselves, names the Empire wouldn’t recognize, names from the Bible. Now they know our names, but even with the secret exposed I am proud to call myself Judith. The woman who was Delta Hydronica Tex is gone, if she ever existed in the first place.”
Isaac glanced up. Dressed in a prison tunic, her hair hanging in greasy coils, High Priestess Judith still bore enough dignity and confidence to inspire hope among the congregation and to leave the imperial authorities ill at ease.
Someone tapped Isaac’s shoulder. “Excuse me,” a woman whispered. “I’m Talie Tappler from the Tomorrow News Network. Could I ask you a few questions?”
“I’d rather listen to the sermon,” Isaac said.
Isaac had seen Talie before. She’d covered the bombing of Trilox, when the Empire massacred an independent colony of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Isaac still remembered the smile on Talie’s face as she interviewed the victorious “peacekeepers.” Now here she was, blonde-haired, violet-eyed, dressed in her signature skirt-jacket combo and smiling just as she always did on the viewlink.
Meanwhile, the high priestess continued: “I did not pick my name because of the courage or bravery of the biblical Judith but because of her wisdom. She once told the elders of her country, ‘You who cannot analyze the depths of the human heart or interpret the workings of the human mind, how can you understand God, discern His mind or comprehend His plan?’
“I know things seem bleak. We are going into exile, and the ships the Empire gives us are decrepit, antiquated things. Yet I, Judith, member of the Community of Christ, still believe God has a plan for us.”
“What plan?” a voice called from the crowd. “Whether we call you Judith or Delta or Empress Zoe the Great, your name won’t save us.”
Tap, tap. Isaac turned, glaring over his shoulder. “Excuse me…” Talie began.
“I don’t want to be interviewed,” Isaac snapped.
Talie stepped back. She looked hurt, almost distressed. Isaac quickly turned away and moved deeper into the crowd.
“I saw those ships too,” a second voice was saying. “Three bulk freighters at least a century old. I doubt they even have faster-than-light engines.”
Tap, tap. “I just have a few questions,” Talie begged. “I promise it won’t take long!”
“Leave me alone,” Isaac said, pushing through the crowd to get away. Talie let him go, a perplexed expression on her face.
A burly, bearded man stepped forward to confront the high priestess. “This is no time for mysticism!” he shouted over all the other voices. “We have to think about survival!”
“Where’s your faith, Paul?” said a tall woman trembling with anger. “You always spoke such beautiful words about faith, but now that it’s tested…”
“My faith doesn’t make me blind!” Paul roared. “I saw those bulk freighters. The Empire may as well sentence us to death, forcing us to travel in those things. But maybe we can negotiate a better deal with the prosecutor…”
“By selling out our beliefs?” the tall woman asked.
Paul laughed. “Says Magdalene, a woman who named herself after a whore.”
Magdalene bristled. She screamed at Paul while Paul continued mocking her. Judith squeezed between the two, but she couldn’t stop the fight that had already begun. Others took sides. Fueled by old grudges and fresh apprehensions, the Community that had once pledged itself to peace now inched toward violence.
The guards were enjoying the show. They laughed as man turned against man, woman against woman, child against child, while on the upper level the imperial officers smirked and nodded to one another. The clamor in the cargo hold grew louder and louder until someone fired two shots into the air.