Read Chapter One, The Civic

The Civic

 

The whole public amphitheater was still dark. It wasn’t time yet for the Civic. Two figures stood close to the wall on the lowest circle, where it was darkest. One was a child. They wore loose jackets with hoods pulled low over their faces, like many others. People streamed past them on the broad ascending walkway; not many yet.

The amphitheater was a series of stacked circles, three in all, connected by risers, each bigger than a football field. The structure was supported by three columns rising from the gleaming center of spokes that ran out to the ends of the sphere that was Earth’s first space colony. One spoke was lit, a green glow in the darkness, with a red and white streak—a train—running down it. The other five spokes were dark, because the villages they connected to were still empty. In fact, they were still unbuilt. Much to be done here on Halliburton’s.

Marley held tightly to Laney’s hand. She held her cell phone in her other hand. They kept their heads down, avoiding eye contact with any others. They were waiting for their own people before they went up to the largest circle for the telecast. When Marley raised her head for a moment to scan the faces moving past her, the white light caught her young face, highlighting her prominent cheekbones and straight dark brows. She glanced around quickly and then lowered her face again, but it was too late. One of the freaks had taken interest.

She raised the cell phone to her ear, but he didn’t buy it—or didn’t care. Young and white, he had a dirty neck and shaved head. His eyes shifted evasively, as if he were listening to an invisible wire. He spoke to her, but gazed crazily over her shoulder.

“How you doin’, sister. Are you going up to the Civic? Me, too.” His eyes rolled around to her as he wound up. “In the name of peace, in the name of the living God, I will tell you the truth.” He was trying to sound educated. It wasn’t working. “I didn’t find the truth in no book. I don’t need a book to tell me the truth. The Spirit speaks to us; he is speaking to you and to me.” He thumped his chest dramatically, hard. Marley imagined how hard he could strike her or Laney. It could happen, even out here in the open.

She raised her face and looked him dead in the eye.

“The Spirit is telling you  to leave us alone,” she said quietly but firmly, as she slipped her phone into her pocket and grasped the mace there instead. Then she lowered her gaze, and her face again disappeared into the darkness of her hood.

His eyes blinked rapidly and his jaw clenched, but he did not respond to Marley’s remark. Averting his eyes, he went on with his rant. “Saint Paul is my uncle, and Jesus is my father. My uncle told me, where you and I are, there is our church. You and I! Just the two of us!” He loved those words. “Just the two of us.”

He moved closer, and Marley pushed Laney sideways so she was between them and began to edge backward into the throng, nudging Laney behind her.

As three or four men in mining coveralls swept past them in a group, Marley snatched Laney’s arm and darted around them. She and Laney moved quickly up the walkway to the second level. Again, they waited against the wall, scanning the crowd for either the crazy man or their own people. Slowly, their breathing eased.

It was lighter here, but they still had not turned on the main lights for the civic. Those would illuminate the interior of the sphere for miles.

Marley bent down and peered into Laney’s face. “Are you okay?” She searched his serious little face. “Listen, he couldn’t hurt us. I had my mace in my pocket, all ready to go. He was nothing!” She grinned at him to try to make him smile. “The Spirit doesn’t speak to us personally,” she added. “That’s crazy talk.”

Anyone could see Laney was Marley’s little brother. The same straight dark brows; same thick, wheat-colored hair; same cheekbones that spoke of some ancient people from long ago and far away. Really far away, now—on another planet. But Laney was only five, and whereas his sister’s face was fierce, his was frightened, though he was trying to hide it. His mouth smiled, but his eyes didn’t.

“I know,” Laney said. “I was ready, too.”

He didn’t say for what he was ready, what he was ready to do, Marley noted. She would talk about it with him later, at home. Laney had to know exactly what to do. Anything could happen.

A gaggle of pierced Goths scurried by, walking quickly, almost flying in the reduced gravity and on the moving walkway besides. Their metals clinked enticingly and they wore it thick as armor. Purloined platinum dripped from every orifice a human could pierce. Marley knew from her contacts that their black-market sales were good. Well, she would like to condemn their theft, but their contracts, while paying them well for their processing skills, did not allow them to build up any kind of ownership in the Company. They would never be more than they were now: middle-management, sub-techie slaves with three weeks’ vacation and worthless market-based retirement plans. When it came time to use those retirement accounts—oopsie !—gone, seized to prop up the bank failures or forestall site closures. Then, quiet euthanasia, most likely. Any illness that landed them in the clinic would be their last. And their bodies, down to the Combs.

One of the Goths noticed Marley and Laney, and her face lit up with recognition—although “lit up” amounted to a little half-mouth twitch, the default deadpan among their kind. It was Stephanie, who worked where Marley worked, on the loading dock. This week, Marley knew, she was sleeping with the guy walking beside her on her right. What was his name? Last week, it was the guy now on her left. Stephanie loved them all, at least for a minute, the worse for her. Marley got a full dose of Stephanie’s angst for every new guy.

Stephanie glanced back at Marley again and fluttered her eyelashes in goodbye. Cats did that, Marley thought. Except Stephanie made it look sad. Funny to think of cats. Laney probably would not remember cats at all pretty soon. They had flying pigs in the farm pods, and cows and sheep for wool and milk and meat (so far the vegans hadn’t gotten their way). But the colony had no cats yet—which they could use in the Combs. Who knew what they would catch there? She glanced at Laney. He heard things in the Combs.

“Marley!” a voice called out, a few decibels above a whisper.

Here they were, her people. Deo gracias!

Marley and Laney stepped away from the wall and onto the walkway, melting into the crowd from Honesty Village. With them were her mom and dad, Amy with little Anka by the hand, and Tomás, her fiancé. Wonderful! Marley fell in beside him, with Laney between them, still holding her hand. Tomás took his other hand. Anka leaned forward and peeked at Laney. Where was Ferdi? Marley thought with a spike of anxiety. Oh, there he was, just behind them, tall and broad and comforting. They walked along quietly, their eyes lowered, as close to invisible as they could manage. That was the best policy.

They swept along with the growing crowd, up to the huge top circle of the amphitheater. It seemed to float in the interior sky of the sphere. It hung like the colony’s own private moon far above the misty surface below, where the bay docks and much of the colony’s office spaces were. The top sphere was lit to imitate the phases of the moon––the moon as seen from Earth, of course. The seats on the third level retracted and made the disk flat and white, for dancing or what passed for it.

A giant screen tethered to the amphitheater was running ads until the Civic would begin. The heads alone were five feet tall, at least. The ads didn’t focus on their heads, but on their gyrating, thrusting torsos, and Marley’s family did not glance up at them. They did not have television. They did not like television. They had thought it would be easier to avoid it, here, on Halliburton’s. Not like Earth. And it was still true, to a degree, but only because the screens weren’t installed everywhere, yet, here on the colony. Not like Earth. The screens were everywhere on Earth: You Will Buy. You Will Believe.

Tonight, the Civic was supposed to be a special transmission from the president about Earth. It could not be good. None of the news from Earth ever was. To gather them for a special Civic meant it could be seriously bad. Even this crowd, inclined to be boisterous, some to be just plain dangerous, since so many of them were prisoners released to work on the colony, had family on Earth. Everyone looked pretty thoughtful, for a change.

Marley’s family found their section among the tiers of shining aluminum bleachers arranged around the amphitheater’s outer ring. The colony’s elite were arriving, too, in their noisy private pods, and they hovered around the edges. There were the rest from Honesty village, about five hundred people. Next to them was Harmony village, and the contrast was great, and illegal.

Harmony Village was Muslim; Honesty Village was Catholic; Diversity village was Hindu. The Protestants were no longer numerous enough to have their own village, though. Nor was there a village for people of African heritage. Not enough black people to have one, even if it would have been tolerated. Hadn’t Marley just heard that, back home, there were fewer than a hundred thousand black people left in all the Americas! The several blacks on the colony happened to be Catholic and lived in Honesty.

The colony was not supposed to be segregated like that. It was forbidden, officially. Regardless of the laws and the hype, though, things functioned the same way on the Halliburton as they did on Earth. That meant access to money and com links and language skills could usually result in bending the rules. Such was the case with enforcing “diversity” in housing, rules got bent. Because artificial diversity in housing just didn’t work.

People preferred—to put it mildly—to live and raise their children among their own kind, usually a cultural, not a racial distinction, although they often overlapped. They would be pushed so far in this, but then, no further. They wanted their own, when they came home. In that, they were resolute, and it was an embarrassment to Earth, as they were often lectured. But the government tolerated it because they had to, at least for the time being, and of course there was always the possibility they’d be able to leverage the division later, for their own ends. It had been done in the past.

So, for the present, the colony administration tolerated it, and no one could deny that it made for better organization. Similar values and experiences made for fewer details to explain, and even if it didn’t matter, anymore, if any piece of work took too long or cost too much on Earth (which was the price of “diversity” there), life cut closer to the bone on the colony. There, getting it right the first time mattered. Eating depended on it. Breathing depended on it. And bathing and sleeping.

So things got arranged, by a phone call and a visit, and in the end there was a Muslim village, a Catholic village, a Hindu village, and a Buddhist village. Of course, there were also any number of secular villages whose values were mixed, your basic paganism, and life was much more chaotic there, but, some argued, more “interesting,” more “diverse.” Poor, small-denomination Protestants with their thousand sects usually lived among the seculars, always bitterly complaining about the abandoned deist values of the Founding Fathers and so forth. The colony even had a fair share of tiny cults, like Chinese Wang Gong. It was just like Earth, only smaller—crazy, unsure, unstable, unbearable. Made slightly more bearable by the villages. Just like on Earth. (They had really thought it would be different! Chumps!)

The colony’s aldermen apparently were tolerating the religious villages, for now, at least, as well as the black market and the purloined platinum and all the rest, because the colony was about to come online, fully online. Self-sustaining. It meant a lot to Earth. There would be time later to bring the Halliburton into compliance with the law in the little matter of neighborhoods. Meanwhile, it was like the old Wild West, hey? Rules were bent, and that came with an upside. The walls between the rule-makers and the ruled were more penetrable on Halliburton’s, although Admin had its own village in process, and the rumors flew about the amenities there.

The religious villages would have argued that their way was kinder and more efficient, if anyone would stoop to ask them, if anyone would bother to listen. It wasn’t about kindness and efficiency, though; not for ordinary people. It was about surviving, intact, with the beliefs your parents had handed on to you. That wasn’t possible anymore on Earth, and that’s why so many religious people had applied for colonial assignment. Life on Earth had become quite difficult for those who wished to live as if God existed.

So Marley’s Catholic family had responded to the opportunity to relocate to the space colony. It had seemed to them, at the time, that with the great distance between Earth and Halliburton’s, they could leave behind at least some of the problems of Earth. And that was true. There was less conflict here between the religious villages. But there was perhaps more between the religious villages and the secular villages, whose lifestyles were ugly and expensive and noisy.

Problem-wise, though, the Catholics on the colony had one in particular not shared by the other religions. They had to have a priest, and they didn’t have one. They had to have a validly consecrated, and that meant theologically educated, priest to give them the sacraments and offer mass. So far, no priest (of the precious few remaining on Earth, let alone a traditional priest like Tomás’s brother!) had been granted permission to immigrate to the colony. Marley, among others, was trying to arrange it.

Marley was an expert at getting things arranged, whether it was managing a clandestine shipment of medicinal herbs or arranging a housing swap between her village and another to get a Catholic into Honesty. But so far she had not been able to get them a priest. The matter was particularly urgent to her, because she and Tomás were waiting for a priest to marry them.

“Chumps,” is what her workmates thought of them, for waiting. Because today, who got married? Apparently it was important only to Catholics, and now, since all the changes of the last century, not important even to all Catholics, not even to the Vatican, judging from the absence of pastoral attention they had gotten so far on Halliburton’s. That is, zip. No priest. Apparently, civil marriage was all the Church required now.

Marley had tried every avenue she knew. Only this morning she had tried another possibility, but so far had received no response. Apparently, the Church was satisfied with the current solution: to send consecrated hosts via a monthly “Eucharistic minister” courier and to recommend sincere acts of contrition, in the absence of a priest to hear their confessions. About marriage, nothing at all was said, nor about anointing the dying. Apparently, the Church now thought Catholics could survive without a priest, mass, marriage, or the sacraments.

Marley’s cell phone tingled in her hand. She disappeared into the privacy of her hood for a moment, chatted briefly, and then looked into the eyes of her parents and shook her head: not yet.

Suddenly, the screen abandoned the dancers and began a dazzling display of light that culminated in the opening shot: the President of the World surrounded by . . . who?

“What?” Tomás muttered.

Marley glanced up at the screen. Assembled with the president were religious leaders, it seemed. There was a Sikh guru, you could tell by the turban, and, wow, the Holy Father, and on either side of him were Muslim imams, and beside them several saffron-robed Buddhists. There were also some women in suits and clerical collars: protestants.

The audience in the amphitheater hardly noticed the assemblage of people on the screen, however, nor did they pause to interpret what the presence of religious leaders at the side of the President of Earth might mean. They were all intently watching something else on the screen.

Blue sky.

On Earth, the sky above and behind the platform on which the president and religious leaders stood was azure. The blue sky of home. Marley’s mom had tears in her eyes. Suddenly, Marley was aware of it, their longing: Earth! Home! Home sick! They were well and truly homesick.

Marley glanced around at what they now called home—a place where the dirt was thin beneath you, no, not beneath, on the inside surface of an enormous sphere. A sphere separated from the emptiness of space by nothing more than a membrane. A sphere so big it had its own sky inside, where little engineered white clouds floated. But it was not blue sky, just kind of a silvery mist. It was not Earth sky.

You couldn’t see through Earth sky. You could almost not see through the mist and clouds to glimpse through windows the second sphere that ringed the center sphere where they were gathered. That outer ring held the living sections, with many future villages. There was a big wall of windows in the top of the center sphere, too, above them, like a row of large skylights, and outside those windows was the real sky. It was black. It was huge. Galaxy after galaxy glowed in the immense distance, pulsing like lightning storms on a summer night. Not in Kansas anymore.

Framed outside in the blackness, to one side of the observation windows, hung the biggest mining mobi-pod of the whole fleet. On the side of this formidable pod, in nostalgic green and gold, was the logo: Halliburton. The pod had moved very close to the window, as if the pilot and crew, too, were watching the huge screen inside, like a drive-in movie of old times.

But it fit, didn’t it? To be together in the picture? The President of the World and the biggest machine of the biggest company in the world, the company that owned most of the world and everything off-world, as of now.

Oh yeah. Halliburton. The American success story.

They lived on Halliburton’s Colony. Halliburton—the company that wished to own the universe. The obscene song sung about it floated unwelcome through Marley’s head.

The president began to speak. The Halliburton’s darkened and obediently quieted. All eyes focused on the screen, even if the eyes of many continued to watch the blue sky rather than the arresting face of the President of the World.

It was a big-boned, masculine face, with features thrown together from an assortment of the world’s races, the nose from here, the brow from there, the forehead pure Sudan, the chin jutted like a Swede, and with a bluish five o’clock shadow (really?). Surrounding the face, a woman’s blond hair. It was real—the hair, so they said.

The president was registered as a woman. There had been some question, putting it mildly, about that, but her gender registration documents were circulated widely on the nets for all to see. And it worked for her. Her voice was deep, but then again, not too deep. Everyone admired her oratorical ability.

She began to speak, resolutely, looking off into the middle distance. They dutifully admired the proffered profile. “My fellow citizens of Earth, I bring you greetings, wherever you are. I send special greetings to our brothers and sisters on Halliburton’s Colony. All reports indicate that through your hard work, more and more services and goods are coming online. We hear you’ve got wheat, and as everybody knows, that means pizza.”

The president paused for the requisite laugh. Media reports of severe dietary restrictions on Halliburton’s mentioned nothing about the vigorous black-market food trade. The government was making aggressive propaganda use of the colony as a measure of the success of its partnership with Halliburton for the “economic good” of Earth, a policy that had cost Earth’s taxpayers dearly. The best propaganda was pity. And, of course, there were real shortages. Just not like what was portrayed.

“I will arrange to visit as soon as you get a rose garden,” the president added, milking the moment.

The laughter rippled upward again.

“Because I cannot be bought for pizza.”

Now, the laughter had a hysterical edge. What could she be bought for, then? Ha ha ha! Hilarious.

“But I’m not here to talk about cuisine.” The president, who delivered all her speeches in a quasi-Southern accent, drew out the word cuisine. The crazy guy Marley had encountered earlier had used the same drawl. It was the enunciation of a con man.

“I’m here to talk about faith,” the leader of Earth proclaimed.

Marley’s people exchanged surprised glances.

“I’m here to talk about faith because we know two things about faith. We know it has a bright side, and we know it has a dark side.” The president smoothly changed cameras, and her eyes sought the prompters. She smiled for the lens. It was her specialty. She used it whatever the content of her remarks, and it made her seem, well, a little off, among other things.

“It is very easy to talk about the dark side, because you all know, and I know, and we will never forget, all that we have suffered because of religion.” She paused again, casting her eyes down with an expression of mournful sadness, to allow everyone to remember the fiery explosions, the rains of slashing metal bits, and body parts, and blood, all done in the name of religion. A false one, of course. But—although the “experts” would have vigorously protested the use of the wrong programming language or even an inauthentic salsa on the tacos—they conveniently refused, Marley thought, to acknowledge differences among religions. Because the law said they were all equal.

“The people of every land have suffered, and we do not want their dead to be forgotten.” Again, the president paused so her audience could remember the horrors, the rapes, the mutilations.

How bitterly Marley and her family had heard their kind referred to in that way. None of that had anything to do with Christ or their faith; it lay with the madness of the sects. Catholics had always believed in respect for life. Their followers were always the ones left cleaning up the mess, healing the wounds, burying the dead. And suffering the blame. They could feel the eyes of the others upon them, even now as the President of the World spoke of it, eyes filled with hatred.

The president’s voice raised a notch in intensity. “Innocent people have died because of religion. Racial divisions have deepened because of religion. Women, especially, have suffered because of the cruel teachings present in the cultures of many of the world’s religions. It is painful to mention the way rape is used as a tool of war.”

She paused and struck a tragic pose, allowing everyone to appreciate with what authority she spoke for the women of the world, particularly, of course, black women. Marley remembered an African woman telling her mother, long ago on Earth as they waited in an eye clinic, how the US government-aid program had once, in her homeland, offered her sterilization in trade for food for her kids. How it hurt. But the president was all for those programs. That was health care.

“And religion is used the same, as a tool of war,” the president added solemnly.

“But let us not forget the bright side of faith,” she said with a lighter tone, a half-smile, letting a little sunshine in. “Let us not forget the many good things that religion brings to our planet. The many things that respect for a god gives to humankind. How it can also bring us together, forgiving hurts and insults, letting go of the past.”

Her voice deepened, serious again. “Yes, religion can be used to hurt people, but it can also, in the hands of wise government, be used to help people.”

The president took a deep breath. “One situation in particular needs the help of religion. As you know, the very prudent policy of population control pursued by our Founding World Fathers suffered a setback. We sought a balance, in which the population would remain steady and neither grow nor decline. That has not come to pass.”

Indeed, it had not. The president’s audience reflected on what, instead, had come to pass, in country after country. Both men and women, having been taught from childhood to avoid unwanted conception, had gone to great lengths to prevent it altogether and en masse. Parenthood was difficult. Houses had gotten so small. Raising a kid had gotten so expensive. Marriage was so stressful. Who needed it? Even sex itself, real sex, was difficult—at least more difficult than a video and a hand-job, to put it bluntly. Not worth the effort. So, before long, the world population had fallen to the 2.2 children per family that the UN called “balanced.” Then it had fallen again, and again, and again, and the population of Earth had finally, after the older generations died off, halved and now was halving again. In forty years, the experts predicted, there would not be enough people of working age to keep the infrastructure running—the electricity, sewage plants, water purification plants. Governments had already given up the demolition of abandoned buildings and homes. Whole cities were wastelands roamed by packs of starving dogs.

And nothing seemed to have worked to get people interested in love and procreation again. Most countries were still glue-stuck in the old, sterile, low-fertility model. Take, for example, the mining asteroid adjacent to the colony, where it was forbidden to have children. It had something to do with the big Asian population; they had clung to China’s old one-child concept, and it had mutated, metastasizing into a repulsion for children, for the very idea of children. On the mining asteroid, that was official policy: children were not only unwanted, they were illegal. The colony had the same policy—though it was unofficial. There, the threat of worse work schedules and diminished career advancement was quite enough to dissuade most couples from having even one child.

The president resumed her speech, and for a second, the sadness in her eyes seemed genuine. “But there is one place where the people were able to increase their population, over time. You may already have heard this on the media: the government of the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus, where the Orthodox version of Christianity is widely practiced, was able to motivate their citizens to take up the burden of procreation once again. Georgia is the only nation on Earth that has been able to accomplish that for a sustained period.”

Everyone knew the extreme efforts and enormous expenditures other nations had thrown at the problem, only to have their birth rates bump up a smidgen for a year or two, but never longer. Then the birth rates fell even below previous levels—after all that mommy money they could so ill afford!

“Demographers have determined the country’s success is due to their religion. Apparently, it works to encourage fertility where money does not. That is why I have gathered us here today—to forge something entirely new on Earth, but long overdue.”

The president slowly and deliberately looked around the platform, and the camera followed her gaze, as if all those representatives from Earth’s religions were speaking with the president. The camera lingered on the Holy Father as the president continued.

“We have learned from little Georgia. The world’s religious leaders have joined me today to announce the beginning of a new world faith, a faith that will unify us in love and respect. And boost our birth rate. No longer will religion be used to divide us,” she said, her tone warming noticeably with that last statement, the repetition of her favorite words. “That is because we will be joined in one faith, an evolved religion stemming from the best of the beliefs of the world’s faiths.”

Again, the president glanced expectantly at her companions on the platform. Some of them took her cue and turned to those around them with smiles, but others looked confused and uncomfortable. Still, they responded politely, especially the Holy Father. He seemed eager to stand with his companions on the platform; it was said he had already forged his epitaph: Lived for Brotherhood.

“We are not speaking empty words, here, my dear friends,” the president went on. “Henceforth, ministers of One World One Faith will host public, transmitted services for all. There will be no need for private services around the world to divide us. There will be no rogue ministers to confuse us, to lead us to violence, to destroy our civilization.” She appeared triumphant now. “This is the new Freedom of Worship Act, the crown jewel of my presidency and the highest achievement of mankind’s great history of achievement. I know I can count on you to support our efforts to achieve, once and for all, lasting world peace and security for everyone in everything.”

There was a second of silence. Then, the unseen listeners at the location on Earth where the president spoke erupted into wild applause. Halliburton’s Colony followed, somewhat delayed, with some applauders more delayed than others. Marley’s people were too stunned even to pretend to applaud. Their eyes were glued to the screen, on which they could see the face of the Holy Father. He appeared to be serene. Could he be drugged?

When the applause faded, the president continued. “There must be a period of transition, we realize that. Our new ministers will have to be thoroughly trained in the official liturgy.” The president’s voice suddenly hardened. “Of course, from this time forward, all private, selfish pursuit of religion is forbidden. There will be a time of patience and forgiveness, after which there will be penalties. Security measures have been put in place, and they will be utilized. Make no mistake: this is change, this is the future. The power of religion to divide and hurt us is gone forever. Its power to unite and motivate us will remain, at the service of democracy and freedom. For nothing is as important as freedom.”

She wound up for the big finish: “One World, One Faith! Let’s make that happen, for the good of all mankind! God is with us now! Freedom now! Freedom now! Freedom now!”

The cameras cut to celebrations around the world, one after another. People cheering in Paris. (Paris! How sweet the one glimpse!) In Malta, a group of young people weeping, for joy of course. An incredibly diverse group of people applauding under Big Ben. Some Australians standing by a beach in what looked like, yes, it was, Melbourne. Tiananmen Square filled with cheering Chinese. Sober men in Mongolia cracking a smile. It must have taken some arranging and producing, that lightning-fast set of images from around the world.

The crowd from Honesty Village was suddenly acutely aware that they were the only ones not cheering in their section, but their confusion was so great that they ignored this breach in security. What they had heard was unthinkable! Couldn’t everyone see? It was like saying, from now on, they were all married to each other! It was like saying that all gods were the same. How could anyone not realize that meant there was no God at all?

It didn’t seem like freedom, it seemed like prison! Peace? It seemed like death! And yet, everyone was cheering.

No, not quite all. Besides the Catholics from Honesty Village, the Muslims also looked worried and serious. So did the Hindus. There were others, as well, in small groups. The longer the cheering went on, the more exposed they all were. Some managed a little smile or a small wave with the others. It was pathetic.

Marley was trying to process the implications. Whatever could it mean? For one, surely no priest was ever coming now! Maybe they’d have some kind of transmission, at best. How could they ever celebrate mass? How could they ever receive communion again, via transmission?  It wasn’t possible! If there was anything Catholicism wasn’t, it was virtual. How would they be Catholic, then? What was the Holy Father meaning, being there, seeming to agree to all that? Maybe there would be no mass, no communion, no confession, no holy matrimony ever again!

The screen faded to black. People rose to leave.

Her parents looked stunned. Her dad seemed mad, too. Tomás caught her eye, and they exchanged a worried look. He leaned close to her; she could smell the good scent of him, and it both thrilled and saddened her. How would she be married now?

Tomás knew her concern, and whispered, “Don’t worry, Marl. Patience. Let’s give God a chance to help us work it out.” He smiled, his blue eyes twinkling, and it reached into her heart.

Energy filled her again, and hope. In spite of all that it happened and how crazy it had been for Marley’s family to immigrate to the colony, she had met Tomás there, and that made it all worthwhile. She smiled back at him.

Then they concentrated on getting their little flock through the crowd and getting home, where they could manage to talk about things and pray. Marley and the others proceeded as usual, with Anka and Laney in the middle, where no one could bother them.

Out of the corner of her eye, as they turned, Marley saw a private pod begin to descend and caught a glimpse of Graham Fletcher’s cold face at the back of the amphitheater. Fletcher was the superintendent of Halliburton’s. He seemed to notice her. Bad luck! Quickly, she dropped her head but not before catching sight of the expression on Fletcher’s face. It chilled her to the bone. He liked her.

Marley’s group fell in beside some Muslims from Harmony Village. Adn was among them; she and Marley worked together on the dock. Everyone on the job steered clear of Adn because she was Muslim and wore hijab, but Marley liked her, anyway; she couldn’t help liking her. Adn was so cheerful, a good worker, and kind to everybody. Besides, the others gave Marley a hard time, too—for her clothes, her rejecting the colony fashion of skintight jumpsuits for women, and for a million other little things, like sex jokes not laughed at and crude invitations not accepted. Marley and Adn gave each other a little wave. It was so discrete only their mothers saw them. Adn’s mother frowned.

The second circle had been transformed into a dance floor for the after-Civic celebration. It was packed. You could see the crowd from the moving walkways. Many of the partiers wore masks or animal headgear. Most of the girls weren’t wearing much of anything. The music was turned up loud, and the dancers wore or held laser lights, which flashed all around the interior of the Halliburton’s, some striking the dark skeletons of empty habitats stretching into the horizon, some striking the inhabited villages.

Marley’s group was almost through the moving walkway on the second level when a young man wearing the horns of a bull, a shirt with red syringes printed all over it, and a belt that flashed with many colors stumbled onto the walkway and almost fell before righting himself and peering into Marley’s face. “Hey baby,” he slurred, “Why don’t you come and have a little dance and a little toke with me?”

But before he could finish the sentence, Tomás had reached around Marley and grabbed him by the collar. Shielded by the crowd on the walkway, Tomas then gave him an illegal shake and thump and tossed him back onto the dance floor. It was never legal to use any form of violence on Halliburton’s, even in self-defense. Of course, the bad guys used it easily enough. They had less to lose, and prosecutions were rare. Not enough manpower.

Some of the man’s friends saw him land on the floor and rushed over to him. One of the men pointed in their direction as he said something excitedly to his friends, who turned and glared at Marley and her family as they continued to descend the walkway.

“Freaking Catholics!” yelled another of the men. “Guess the president gave it to you tonight! Now, you’re illegal!” He made an obscene gesture. “Ha ha ha ha!” he brayed, his laughter echoing far out into the sphere.

But then Marley’s group descended out of his vision and to the lowest rung, where they continued on to the train that took them to their village. It was late when they reached home, and Tomás was going to head to his place, but Marley’s dad stopped him. They all sat down on the faintly curved aluminum “sofa,” and Marley’s dad broke out the whiskey. Each of them, except Laney, of course, sipped an aluminum thimble-full.

After they sat thoughtfully for a moment, Marley’s dad held out his jigger and said, “Fill ‘er up again, Mary. I guess this night will be worth remembering someday—as the day we turned into rabbits.” They all knew he was speaking metaphorically. He dare not speak the actual words out loud, under the assumption that everything was bugged. The new restriction would be unbearable, but everyone knew a way around it: the Combs. Now, they would need the Combs more than ever.

What Marley’s dad meant was that they would have to go underground, like rabbits. She had expected him to say something like that, because they would not give in. They would not give up their faith. The Church would be underground. If they ever got a priest, he would be underground. It was not the first time Catholicism had been forbidden. It wasn’t the first time on Halliburton’s, either, despite the colony having been advertised as more free than Earth. As it turned out, that “freedom” meant you had to conform even more openly to secularism. It made for a lot of burrows. The Combs.

Actually, they had been expecting this new law, along with the Church’s apparent complicity, for a long time. Every passing day had given more evidence of the Church’s confused response to government pressure. Marley’s family had been part of the movement to reverse that, to recapture tradition in the Church. They had achieved some discussion of the issues in Rome, and in the process had gotten for themselves shadowy, quiet parishes of tradition. Their traditional parish in Florida was the hardest thing on Earth to leave. They had done so only with the intention of fixing the situation as rapidly as possible. When they had left Earth, the Church seemed to have gained some momentum toward tradition, toward Restoration, but it had faded again. Or rather, as Marley put it to herself, the Church seemed to have found a way to mouth solemn bits of traditional doctrine just before it sneaked in liberal practices, and many people were fooled.

That they’d been expecting this turn of events didn’t make the new law any easier to take, though. And there seemed to be no solution. They had tried to run to the colony. But the colony was just like Earth.

Well, except for a bigger black market. A lot of that back-alley commerce happened in the Combs, which could not be electronically snooped because it was so heavily shielded. Down under the habitats, between the living surface and the inner surface of the outer hull, was the area that had been built first, by robots, before people ever came to the colony. It was a big, empty space designed to be used for storing nonessentials and anything that would shield from radiation. Everything that could be stuffed between the habitat level and the hull was put there—at first, space rubble the debris sweepers hauled in. Then, after the people came, the colony’s sewage, dried into bricks once the water and organic compounds were extracted. Later, the dead were “buried” there. All necessary. Because of the radiation, of course. The colony interior had to be shielded from the radiation of the sun. It could cause all kinds of savage effects on organic matter.

So the dead found their final resting place there. The dead shielded the living. And the living found a place to hide.

They called it the Combs, short for catacombs, according to the Catholics. Everybody else said it was named for a guy back in the day—Mike Combs or something like that—who’d first come up with the idea of a near-Earth orbit space colony. Initially, the government was going to name the whole colony after him, but Halliburton said no. So then they started to call the shielded space the Combs. But the catacombs explanation worked, too—for Christians, life was more and more like life in old Rome. Only the bots that buried the dead and compacted the trash were allowed there. It was illegal for any of the colony’s residents or visitors to go into the Combs.

Everyone said it was haunted. Everyone expected the radiation to work some kind of mischief on whatever organic DNA it could find. Some believed they just saw ordinary spirits, good ones and bad ones. Whether haunted or tainted or both, the Combs was heavily shielded from the habitat level on the one side and from the hull on the other, with both electronic and visual shielding. It was also shielded horizontally both by the materials packed into it and by actual wall-shields. In the end, the authorities believed they might have overdone things. They could not get human workers to go into the area, and despite the hype over the “intelligent” bots, the fact was, they were stupid, next to useless for unaided surveillance.

Everybody who went into the Combs did so on the sly, working around the cameras. The Combs hid many secrets. Marley’s family had a private entrance to the Combs. Others did, too. No one knew all of the mazes of the Combs. It was kind of like the colony’s own lost continent.

“Fill ‘er up,” Marley’s dad said again, faintly. It was, of course, a joke. He was speaking of a teaspoon. Whiskey was dearer than gold on the Halliburton’s. But they sat on their aluminum couches in their aluminum habitat on humanity’s first space colony, sipping their teaspoon of whiskey and mourning the newest development in secularism: an official, co-opted state religion. And the Holy Father had sat right there with the others, seemingly going along with it. They felt–scalded. That’s what betrayal felt like. Their skin felt burned. Their hearts felt hot.

From this day forward, practicing Catholics—those who would not deny Christ as the Way and the only Way to the Creator Father, as He had said numerous times—would be officially illegal. There could be no Christ the Savior God in the new religion–maybe just Jesus, the good man, a prophet perhaps. Not God.

How would they live now?

Tomás stood up to leave. He had to rise early the next morning to make a run to the asteroid.

“Will you be back by supper tomorrow?” Marley asked. He ate with her family often.

“I hope so,” he said. “Things are so bad on the asteroid, though, it’s hard to say what will happen. Always chaos and delays!”

Tomás had to fill up the pod with the processed mineral ore, aluminum, lead, and silver as well as with minerals to be used in the colony’s farming or oxygen synthesis. Then, once back to the colony, he had to offload all the materials to the manufacturing sectors, on the docks where Marley worked.

Marley walked Tomás to the entrance. He looked troubled.

“Do you remember Maki? The Catholic Asian girl?” he asked her. She nodded. “I hope she’s on duty tomorrow; I want to talk with her. Maybe there’s some way I can help. It’s really bad for the women there.”

“Wait,” Marley said, and kissed him on his chin. She dashed to the storage cube by the door and pulled out a small rosary. Pressing it into Tomás’s hand, she said, “Give this to her. Tell her I’ll pray for her, and ask her to pray for me.”

Tomás gently drew her closer to him and kissed her on the forehead. She lifted her mouth to his, and they kissed tenderly.

“Do you think we’ll have to forget about a priest now?” he asked.

Marley thought for a moment. She glanced around, and then put her arms around his neck and discretely repositioned herself so that her face was shielded from the cameras.

“Look,” she said, leaning back to look up at his face. “Things didn’t seem any better back in the day. Catholicism has been illegal in the past, too! Remember Henry the Eighth? They had no priests then, or only a couple priests they had to hide! But they didn’t give up. And we won’t either.”

He smiled at her determination. But sadness filled his eyes.

“Have faith!” she said, grinning hopefully at him. “So we won’t get any help from the Vatican now; nothing new about that. Let me try again, see what I can do. There has to be a way.” Marley looked thoughtful, the expression Tomás loved best. “Maybe there’s a black market for priests.”

“Okay,” is all he said, but his voice was relaxed again. She could always affect him that way. He squeezed her hand goodbye and walked down the quiet habitat street to his single guys’ dormitory—a home that colony administration knew nothing about. It had been set up—in violation of mandatory mixed-sex dormitory rules—by Catholics in this Catholic neighborhood, who had rules of their own.

The path Tomás walked along consisted of pebbles instead of vegetation, because pebbles were cheap on the asteroid. It was a very Japanese landscape. The amphitheater now glowed above him, lit like the quarter moon. The real moon, actually in its quarter phase as viewed from Earth, but in its dark phase as viewed from the colony, showed ghost-like through the observation window. In a couple of hours, the window would frame the black Bernina Harrison asteroid where Tomás was headed in the morning.