“I am not interested in watching you argue!” Talie shouted into the abrupt silence. She and a cyborg cameraman stood beside a frightened and recently disarmed guard.
“My time,” Talie said with a hint of irony, “is valuable, and you people are wasting it. Now I want to interview the leaders of your Community starting with Isaac Matheson.”
Most eyes went instinctively to Judith. A few looked to Paul. People murmured to each other, exchanging confused glances. “Isaac who?” they said. Only a small handful, Isaac’s brothers and sisters from his own parish, recognized his name. “She can’t mean that Isaac, can she?” they asked.
* * *
Talie kept the interview brief. She asked about Isaac’s conversion to Christianity, his service in the Imperial Space Force before that, and his experience with both faster-than-light and sub-light engines. His answers seemed to disappoint her. She kept checking her datapad, grimacing at whatever she read there.
“Aboard the E.S.S. Sentinel,” Talie said, “you had a reputation for fixing unfixable problems.”
Isaac wiped perspiration off his lips. More sweat trickled down his back. Not only was the hulking cyborg staring at him, recording the interview with his prosthetic camera eye, but the entire Community was listening in hushed anticipation.
“I… no, not really,” Isaac stuttered. “They… that is, the senior technicians… they sent me to repair minor glitches. Low priority stuff that wouldn’t get fixed otherwise. I was good at fixing minor glitches.”
Talie frowned and ended the interview. Judith went next, followed by Paul, who insisted he represented a significant portion of the group.
Isaac tried to disappear into the crowd, but to his alarm, the congregation stepped back, clearing space for him as though he deserved their reverence and respect. Fellow Christians though they were, all these people seemed like strangers. Isaac soon found himself trapped, penned in on all sides, and when he looked up he saw the prosecutor staring down at him with keen interest.
A gentle hand touched Isaac’s shoulder. It was High Priestess Judith, smiling but wary.
“I don’t know why she called my name,” Isaac said, the words tumbling from his mouth.
“You were in the Space Force?” Paul asked. He stood behind Judith, arms crossed over his broad chest.
“I was just an ensign.”
“Isaac,” Judith said, “that reporter is from the Tomorrow News Network. She would not have singled you out if you did not have some destiny to fulfill.”
“I’m no leader,” Isaac said, “and I don’t want to be one.”
Judith bowed her head. “Sometimes God asks us to do things we do not want to do.”
The Community numbered in the thousands, all pressed together in the cramped cargo bay. The mass of bodies jostled against one another, each trying to catch a glimpse of Isaac, and Isaac realized what they must see in him: a piece of God’s plan, revealed by a heathen time traveler. Near the back, a little girl climbed onto someone’s shoulders and craned her neck. She stared wide-eyed at Isaac, God’s appointed savior.
Later generations might think Isaac was touched by divine inspiration. Maybe they’d say an angel whispered instructions in his ear. The truth was less spectacular. Growing up on a frontier colony with the Orion Nebula prominent in the sky, Isaac had gazed at it in wonder. He’d dreamed of going there, where hydrogen clouds glowed indigo blue and gossamer white, where young stars were igniting for the first time, where new planets were coalescing from dirt and dust. Even though it lay far beyond the Empire’s boarders, even though the fastest starliner would take over fifty years to get there, Isaac had dreamed.
The Community waited for Isaac to speak.
“We could go to the Orion Nebula,” he said, ashamed to have only a childhood fantasy to offer.
“That would take decades,” Paul sneered. “Without faster-than-light engines, it’ll take centuries.”
“And it will be millions—maybe billions of years before any of those new planets can support life,” added the tall woman named Magdalene.
Talie was interviewing the prosecutor, letting him slander Christianity again as he’d done in court. She glanced at Isaac, and if he weren’t mistaken, Isaac thought he saw the reporter blush when she caught him staring back.
“We could time travel,” Isaac mumbled.
Judith frowned. “Explain.”
“Well… umm… not time travel, exactly,” Isaac said, blushing a little himself. “Time dilation. As sub-light engines approach the speed of light, they change the rate time flows. In one day of time dilated flight, a ship could move a year, a decade, even a century forward in time if we push the engines hard enough.
“I haven’t seen the bulk freighters, though. I guess their engines can’t handle the stress.”
“The engines?” Paul said. “That would be the least of our worries. What if the inertia compensators don’t work? Or the protective magnetic fields?”
“I know, I know,” Isaac said, looking at his feet. “It’s too risky.”
“Isaac,” Judith said, laying a hand on his shoulder, “we will try.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Paul objected.
“Then what’s your plan?” Judith asked, impatience seeping into her voice. “Every habitable world in this quadrant is already claimed. Should we ask the Vorpons for a place to live? Or the Hykonians?”
Paul glared at Judith. His jaw twitched, some fresh argument on the tip of his tongue, but he said nothing more.
In the blink of an eye, an entire day passed for the rest of the universe. When Isaac blinked again, it was over a week later. Time dilation approached 40 years per hour. Through the viewport, Isaac watched the aging galaxy blur by.
The deck shuddered under Isaac’s feet. All three bulk freighters tended to creak and shudder in time dilated flight. Most of the Community had grown accustomed to it, and the technicians dismissed it with quips and laughter. Judith remained confident in God’s plan, and even Paul had stopped complaining. Sometimes Isaac thought he was the only one who still worried.
Isaac tried to explain that he was no prophet. The Promised Land was as much a mystery to him as anyone else. In his heart, he didn’t believe they’d reach it anyway, and when he was alone attempting to pray to a God who never seemed to listen, Isaac felt the overwhelming burden of the myth built upon him. They’d made him the foundation of a new Community, larger and grander than the one before, one that was hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds toward a cloud of hydrogen gas with radiation a hundred thousand times above safe levels.
High Priestess Judith had renamed the three bulk freighters Faith, Hope, and Charity. She’d chosen captains for each and appointed Isaac commodore of the fleet. He’d become a leader, just as Talie had predicted.
The children respected Isaac the most. They always saluted and addressed him as “Commodore, sir!” A few timidly asked him for blessings.
The adults were less formal; they only called Isaac a miracle worker. He and a team of inexperienced volunteers had rebuilt the bulk freighters with an assemblage of mismatched parts, a lot of prayers, and a few guttural curses.
The report on the Tomorrow News Network did some good. Christians hidden throughout the Empire saw it, and many chose to follow “Isaac’s Fleet.” Standing on the Faith’s observation deck, Isaac could see four ships besides the Hope and Charity, including a stripped-down war frigate rechristened the St. Augustine and a pair of yachts named after the Sons of Zebedee. Shuttles ferried people to and fro, allowing the newcomers to intermingle with the original exiles. There were weddings and babies, public celebrations of Christmas and Easter, and a true sense of community among the Community that had never existed before.
Yet Isaac worried. Talie Tappler didn’t cover happy stories.
“I knew I’d find you here,” Judith said, humor in her voice.
Isaac didn’t respond. The Orion Nebula filled the sky ahead. Traveling at such high velocity, Isaac only saw Doppler shifted light, not the glorious, pearly clouds from his youth.
“I thought you’d want to know,” Judith said, “we’ve detected five more ships approaching the fleet. That will make twelve!”
“A holy number,” Isaac commented, remembering the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Jesus.
“Won’t you join us on the bridge?” Judith asked, taking Isaac’s hand. “Won’t you help us welcome them?”
“It will take several hours for them to enter communications range,” Isaac said, disentangling his fingers from hers. “I’ll come then.”
Judith nodded, oblivious to Isaac’s apprehensions. She lingered on the observation deck, sharing the view but perhaps seeing something different in the hazy glow ahead. Something good. Something hopeful.
* * *
The leaders of the Community gathered on the Faith’s bridge. Isaac sat in the captain’s chair, a place of honor. He’d never sat in a chair less comfortable, with mismatched arms and chafed upholstery, but Isaac’s high status forced him to sit there. Judith, wearing a brown dress reminiscent of her prison tunic, sat by his side. Her acolyte, Magdalene, stood behind them. As for Paul, he knelt in prayer, ten rosaries around his neck, a perfect model of religious devotion. Since their exile began, Paul had set an example for all repentant sinners. He’d redeemed himself, or so they said, and Judith even made him a deacon.