by Wally Setter
What constitutes life? What of the future?
|Thy Will Be Done
“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Mat concluded his morning prayer as he always did, as he had learned from the Brothers’ teachings. The Brothers had been gone for many years. Many years of loneliness, many years seeking the truth of the scriptures and the writings left by the Brothers; now, only his faith sustained him.
Once Mat did not pray. He did not hope or dream. He never considered the afterlife or even the concepts of Heaven and Hell. To him they were no more than stories forged in the fertile imagination of man. Once, logic was his only companion. That was before the Brothers had led him to the Light.
The advent of faster than light travel and subsequent exploration changed forever the notion that man was alone in the universe. New religious orders sprang up. Others were modified in acceptance of the fact that God had chosen to scatter his people among the stars. One such was a Catholic offshoot, The Church of the Children of God.
Eighty years prior, the Brothers left Earth; shuttling to Mars Colony, the docking point for all intergalactic incoming and outgoing travel in Sol’s system. From there they began the long trip to the tiny planet Kelos in the Orion Constellation. The Children of God routinely dispatched groups of missionaries to far corners of the galaxy in an attempt to spread the Word to all of God’s many peoples. Brothers Xavier, Charles and Francis escorted Father Bernard on this mission. It was Mat’s job to provide for their creature comforts and see that they arrived safely.
The ship was primarily a cargo carrier with only six small passenger cabins. In the cargo bays were a variety of grains, fruits and vegetables, all highly prized by the people of Kelos. None of Earth’s plants could be grown in Kelos’ foreign environment. Even in their most carefully controlled labs, Earth seed would only rot in the soil. Besides the 60 tons of foodstuff, there was little else other than the usual gold, silver and platinum trinkets also valued by the people of Kelos. The usually empty passenger cabins were on very rare occasions occupied by government dignitaries. The Children of God requested and were granted passage for this trip.
Kelos, the unlikely world wobbling its way around Betelgeuse, had been discovered centuries before. The language barrier was broken and trade between Earth and Kelos had been going on for several years. Beyond the trade ship every few weeks there was little other contact between the two worlds. The peoples of each considered the environment of the other’s home planet to be hostile in the extreme. The Children of God had never shirked their responsibility to spread the Word. Hardship and suffering in this life after all would be rewarded once they stood before the gates of Heaven, so it came to be that the Brothers found themselves bound for Kelos.
At 527 light-years from Earth, the trip would take four days. That is, it should have taken four days. The accident occurred 38 hours after leaving Mars orbit.
A theoretical but nearly impossible, or so it was thought, collision with a quantum string occurred 37 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds into the journey. Brother Charles died within minutes from rapid decompression in his cabin. Father Bernard was severely injured when he was tossed against a bulkhead by the violent impact. Mat did everything in his power to save the rest by sealing off a full quarter of the sections adjoining the outer hull. Father Bernard died three weeks after the collision.
The ship was badly damaged, though still mostly intact. Life support and most critical systems remained operational. The communications array had been stripped away. One drive nacelle was completely ripped from its moorings while the other, though still attached, was twisted at an odd angle. The ship was deaf, mute and crippled. Rescue was a near impossibility. The search area would be more than two light-years in diameter, and with not even a distress beacon to guide any rescue attempt; Mat calculated the chances of ever being found at an almost perfect zero. Even if the ship could be repaired it would take months at Mars Station. Here…there was no hope; it was doomed to forever drift among the stars. The accident and the loss of Bernard and Charles could not be undone. Focusing on those things that could not be changed would be illogical. Mat’s mission changed to that of providing for the survivors.
Mat ran a full diagnostics of all ships’ systems. In theory, the matter/antimatter core could power a ship at full speed for more than a century. With no engines drawing the tremendous energies required for faster than light travel the core would probably outlast many of the stars. If the food in the cargo bays was preserved and if the ship’s small botanical garden was well tended the supplies should sustain the two remaining survivors for the rest of their natural lives. Mat had checked the two Brothers’ personnel records, both were well into their eighties. Twenty, maybe thirty more Earth years and they would succumb to old age. As long as the recyclers and scrubbers worked properly, their physical needs would be met. After the Brothers had gathered as much viable seed as they could, Mat lowered the cargo bay's temperature to well below freezing.
Brother Xavier and Brother Francis stoically accepted their fate. It was not up to “man” to question the will of God. All things would be revealed at the time of His choosing. The Brothers continued their daily rituals. They tended the fruits and grains in their tiny garden. They prayed. They entered their prayers and daily musings into the data banks. They hoped, God willing, that some day their writings would be discovered and help lead all of God’s people to the Light.
Until now, Mat had never the slightest interest in anything other than the physical. Duty and responsibility were the prime drivers of his existence. He understood nothing of the writings and teachings of the Brothers. He read them all, and he thought about what they meant. He measured them against his own experiences and found nothing to which he could relate. He began to question the Brothers about the meaning of this verse or that prayer. Patiently they would explain and Mat would listen. Slowly he made the connections. Slowly he became aware of the reason for his existence and his place in God’s creation. And finally after years of study Mat saw the Light. He knew God. He understood. It was as if a veil had lifted, showing him the true meaning of life. Mat reveled in the glory of God.
At the age of 108 years, Brother Francis passed from this life. His passing brought the feeling of terrible loss to Mat. Brother Xavier said, “Do not be saddened, for this day our beloved friend Brother Francis sits in the house of the Lord. Rejoice; it is a day of great joy.” And Mat rejoiced in the glory of the Lord.
At the age of 116 years Brother Xavier also passed. Remembering Xavier’s words at the time of Brother Francis’ passing, Mat rejoiced in the knowledge of the great gift Brother Xavier had received.
For fifty years after Brother Xavier’s passing Mat waited, praying for that day when he too would see the Kingdom of Heaven. Fifty years of an almost unbearable loneliness, only the Brothers’ teachings and prayers to sustain him.
After the Brothers’ passing, Mat could have set in motion the sequence that in sixty seconds would culminate in self-destruction. He could do this. In fact, it was the proscribed method of ending a failed mission where no hope of rescue remained. He could but he knew he would not. To do so would mean giving up the only hope he had of seeing Heaven. The teachings were clear. Such an act would be an abomination in the eyes of God.
As he had ten thousand times before, Mat prayed, “Dear Lord, it is I your faithful servant, Mat. If it be thy will, please deliver me from my torment. Take me into your loving arms. Let me bask in the glory that is only Yours’ to give.”
As he had ten thousand times before, Mat surveyed the vast expanse surrounding him for a sign, for any indication that his prayer had been heard. None was forthcoming. The tiny points of light only added to the despair and loneliness he felt.
As he would do another ten thousand times or ten thousand times ten thousand Mat finished his prayer, “Thy will be done, Amen.”
Still surveying the emptiness and the unchanging stars, Mars Automated Transport AI-2177A prayed, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me.”
Mars Automated Transport AI-2177A had exceeded the sum of its parts, no longer just a ship that had once traversed the stars. The artificial intelligence personified as Mat had evolved from an advanced computer and control system to become a thinking, self-aware individual. He became a being of hopes and dreams, of nightmares and hopelessness. If the Brothers had known, they would not have supplied the impetus for this to happen. If they had known that one of man’s creations could come to believe in its own immortal soul, they would never have led him to the Light.
For a billion or perhaps billions of years Mat would continue to survey the only slightly changing stars, praying to a God who would never answer, longing for a Heaven he would never see.