The Felt Cross
© 2005 by Julie Rollins
Captain Nelson kept his sweaty palms concealed within his uniform’s pockets while his space cruiser, the Spica, orbited the desert planet Antimare. The red scarred terrain filled most of the view screen, but Capt. Nelson’s blue eyes scrutinized a much closer object on the screen. Less than three kilometers away, a mammoth gray spaceship hovered like a ghost against the never-ending night of space.
“Do we have an ID yet?” the captain asked.
“Negative sir,” an officer replied. “The computer has no record of this kind of ship.”
Capt. Nelson remained composed. “I see. It appears we have a first-contact situation. This is every captain’s dream.” And nightmare, he added silently. He felt the eyes of the bridge crew watching him.
“Sir, the unidentified ship is launching a smaller craft.”
“Send Ramirez and a response team to meet them,” Capt. Nelson ordered.
He kept his sweaty hands in his pockets, watching as the transport with Ramirez’s response team launched and flew out to meet the alien shuttle. Both ships descended for the planet until they shrank to pinpricks against Antimare’s red surface. When the shuttles disappeared, Capt. Nelson took a deep breath of the filtered cabin air. He noted the time and commenced staring at the view screen, willing it to show him more.
“This is Ramirez; we have landed,” came a voice from the console. “The external camera is malfunctioning, so I’ll only be able to give you a verbal report. Research team and security are stepping out. The alien ship is resting on the ground about thirty meters away. Oh—!”
Capt. Nelson pulled his hands out of his pockets.
Ramirez continued. “They’re coming out of their ship. They have four, no six, limbs—four legs, two arms, and a long prehensile tail. Wow! I’m going closer.”
The captain stuffed his hands back into his pockets.
“I see twelve of them,” Ramirez spoke in a tense voice. “They look like big insects. Exterior is smooth, mottled green and gray. They’re picking up the objects offered by the research team, examining them.” He gave a nervous laugh. “They seem as curious about us as we are about them. Now one is…oh no—no! Stop! Somebody stop! Wait!”
The sound of lasers and screaming men came from the speakers.
“Ramirez, what’s happening?” Capt. Nelson called in a tight voice.
Grimacing, the communications officer spoke in a controlled voice. “Ramirez, tell us what’s happening.”
“They’re killing us!” Ramirez screamed. “Idiots! We should have—yaaah!”
An inhuman roar exploded through the channel, cut off by static. Capt. Nelson turned his eyes to the hovering mother ship. Its gunports opened, releasing a volley of lasers. The Spica shook.
“Return fire!” Capt. Nelson barked.
Lasers blazed and found their marks on the alien ship.
“Target any area that looks vital!” the captain shouted, clinging to a rail.
As soon as the alien shuttle returned, the mother ship broke away.
“They’re fleeing, sir!” an officer cried. “We won!”
“We’ve won,” Capt. Nelson conceded. But did we just start a war? he wondered silently. Ramirez, what in Hades happened down there? Sighing, he stared at the computer’s scrolling damage report.
“Full speed to outpost Atlantis!”
“But, sir, shouldn’t we look for survivors?”
Capt. Nelson shook his head. “We must send news of our engagement to Fleet Headquarters. Then we can return and search for the response team.”
“Yes sir,” the officer replied.
Deep inside, Capt. Nelson knew there were no survivors.
* * *
Victor sat in his cramped quarters, engrossed by the report in his hands. His shift on the Deneb was over, so he indulged himself in study.
“What are you pouring through now?” asked Ben, his roommate.
“I’m reading about our first encounter with the cardillas.”
Ben wrinkled up his nose. “An unclean race if ever there was one.”
Victor looked up. “Why do you say that?”
Ben folded his thick arms. “They may part the hoof but they don’t chew the cud.”
“Neither do people.”
“The cardillas are monsters!” Ben raised his index finger. “Just look at how they treat us.”
“We’re at war!”
Ben drew his stocky frame erect. “Aha! And who started the war?”
“Actually, we don’t know what started it.” Victor pointed to the report. “All our witnesses were killed. The lasers heard in the final moments came from our own men.”
Ben’s face soured. “So, what are you saying? That the cardillas didn’t have weapons?”
“Amen! The response team was found crushed. The cardillas didn’t use hand lasers on humans until after this encounter. The raid on Outpost Atlantis two days later went very different.”
“It was a good thing Capt. Nelson arrived the day before to warn them,” Ben said.
“Good for us, not for the cardillas.”
Scowling, Ben leaned forward. “Whose side are you on?”
Victor’s hand went to the large red cross sewn to his tunic. “I just want to know the truth. It would be tragic to write-off a sentient race over a misunderstanding.”
“Misunderstanding?” Ben blew out his breath. “They’ve killed thousands of us. The cardillas have had plenty of time to clear up any misunderstanding.”
Victor tapped his finger on the file. “There’s more going on than we know. I don’t want to condemn them out of ignorance; you should understand that, Ben.”
Ben tapped the yellow Star of David on his tunic. “You don’t have to remind me. At least I’m not a glutton for punishment, like you. A person could spot your big red cross a kilometer away!”
“There, you see?” Ben spoke in an accusing voice, “You wear that cross like a badge of honor.”
“It is a badge of honor.”
“Not to others.” Ben grimaced. “This star brings me enough shame as it is.”
“But you’ll never give it up,” Victor said in a gentle voice. “We both have our faiths and we’ll continue to wear our crosses and stars if that’s what God requires of us.”
“You mean what men require of us,” Ben grumbled. “The secularists hate all believers. They’ve banned us from college, ousted us from positions of power, and denied us any job in the sciences.”
“But we’re not banned from the libraries.”
Ben snorted. “Of course not. If we educate ourselves, we might be tempted to recant our beliefs.”
Victor’s brown eyes looked down at the report. “We can still influence people.”
“How?” Ben thundered in his righteous indignation. “I’m a climate technician on the Deneb. I fiddle with dials and repair conduits, a no-brainer. This is the best job an Ancient Orthodox Jew could ever have. And look at you—a sanitation technician! ‘Sewer Man’ they call you. You couldn’t find a more detestable job—unclean! How can we ever influence anyone besides our fellow outcasts?”
Victor responded in his typical calm manner. “Everyday the secularists see the decision I’ve made to serve Christ. It’s advertised by the felt cross here on my chest. When they see me study at lunch, and hear me debate their colleagues in a sane rational manner, it makes an impact.”
“They believe what the secular authorities say—that deeply religious people are mentally unstable,” Ben countered.
Victor smiled. “Not all believe that.”
Ben adjusted his yarmulke. “Well, at least you treat me with respect. At first, I thought you’d beat me over the head with a Bible—and your Bible is much thicker than my Bible.”
Victor laughed. “Ben, you’re one of the best cabin mates I’ve ever had. You keep the conversation lively.”
Ben raised an eyebrow. “Who was the worst you ever had?”
Wearing a sour expression, Victor stated, “A so-called brother whose cross was the size of a fly. He didn’t want to discuss God or Jesus, said it was a private matter.
“Once he even asked me not to kneel by my bunk when I prayed. He said it made him uncomfortable, like I was trying to prove I was better than him. I wasn’t even praying out loud! I told him it wasn’t my intent to offend him, but I would not let anyone limit my worship of God.
“The guy didn’t last a week before he requested a transfer. The next time I saw him, the cross was gone, and he was wearing common clothes, studying to be a teacher. He never could look me in the eye.”
Sighing wearily, Victor returned to his report.
* * *
Victor’s stack of reports lay spread out on the cafeteria table, nearly covering its entire surface. He sat so engrossed in his study that he didn’t see Ben approach with a food-laden tray.
“I hope you don’t mind if I drip ketchup on your notes,” Ben teased. “You barely left enough room for me to rest my elbow.”
“Sorry,” Victor muttered. “I’ve been doing a lot of cross-referencing.”
“So I see.” Ben cleared a spot, settled in and bit into his fish sandwich.
“Well, what is Sewer Man up to today?” asked a haughty voice.
Victor looked up.
“Oh no, it’s the dreaded Voltaire—Atheist, Secularist,” Ben said in mock terror.
“Dr. Voltaire,” the intruder retorted with narrowed eyes. “And I was not condescending to talk to you, Ben—Orthodox Jew.”
“That’s Ancient Orthodox Jew,” Ben corrected. “We’re the stubborn ones who don’t change.”
Voltaire snatched a folder out of Victor’s hand. “What is this?” He scowled.
“What’s wrong, Dr. Voltaire?” Ben taunted. “Is Victor’s reading material too advanced for you?”
Voltaire’s pale blue eyes locked onto Victor. “Do you understand this?”
“Yes,” Victor replied in a modest voice.
Voltaire hastily perused the other folders. “What are you doing with these? They have nothing to do with sanitation!” he spoke in a sharp accusing voice.
“I may be labeled ‘unstable’ because of my convictions, but the library is still open to the public.” Victor folded his arms and smiled benignly.
Voltaire grunted. “I suppose even the mentally unstable are entitled to a fluke of intellect.”
“He could beat you in your own field, Voltaire!” Ben challenged. “Victor is self-taught in Biophysics, Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Molecular Biology, and Genetics—to name a few.”
“Self-taught?” Voltaire released a haughty laugh. “Any moron can make that claim.”
Ben’s great beard quivered. It soon became evident that he was laughing. “Oh, yes,” Ben sputtered. “Any moron can claim to be self-taught, but no moron can pass the examinations. The library computer doesn’t care who you are when you take an exam. Of course Victor can’t get credit because people with God convictions are ineligible.”
Voltaire drew himself up. “Sewer Man is obviously a defective human. He fails to better his life, clinging instead to a detrimental denounced worldview.”
“Amen!” Victor said and resumed his studying.
“What a waste of mind,” Voltaire sneered.
Ben pointed to Voltaire. “What a waste of soul.”
Scowling, Voltaire strutted off toward the cafeteria line.
“Listen to this, Ben!” Victor pointed to a report. “A captured pregnant cardilla was tortured by scientists with an orange electric prod.”
Ben covered his mouth. “Um, Victor—”
“Then they cut her open and removed her eggs. The hatched offspring had the same vocal patterns as their dead mother.”
“Victor,” Ben pleaded in a choked voice.
“And the offspring cowered when a lab tech tried to measure them with an orange ruler. It’s like they were expecting—”
“Victor!” Ben snapped. “I would like to enjoy my brief lunch without gory descriptions!”
Victor looked up sheepishly. “Sorry, but don’t you see it?”
“The cardillas have inherited memories! That’s why they learn so fast, why they never make the same mistake twice. Each time we fight them, they learn from us, improving their techniques with every skirmish.”
“When someone is left to pass on the information,” Ben mused. “The last skirmish we wiped out the whole band.”
Victor raised a finger. “Not all of them. The cardillas walled themselves up in a tunnel, as they usually do when they’re overwhelmed. Afterward, a repair worker noticed a soft spot in the tunnel walls.”
Ben shrugged his shoulders. “So?”
“The worker sifted through the soil and found a cluster of eggs. Don’t you see? This is why the cardillas always return to an area where their forces were annihilated. They’re trying to recover information…inform-ation stored in the eggs.”
Ben rubbed his untrimmed beard. “But surely our men know that by now.”
Victor gave him a sober look. “Perhaps they do, but I’ve found no record of anyone putting the pieces together. Everyone is so specialized—scientists, soldiers, sanitation crews—but they hardly communicate with each other.” Leaning forward, he lowered his voice. “Ben, this could be the cardillas’ undoing.”
A delighted smile spread across Ben’s face. “Hey, it would be nice to have the upper hand and rid the cosmos of them.”
Victor shut his folder. “That’s exactly what the government would do—except for a few they’d experiment on.” He shuddered. “That would be wrong.”
Eyes glowering, Ben hissed, “Whose side are you on?”
Victor met Ben’s skeptical eyes. “The cardillas are sentient beings made by God. We don’t know what happened on Antimare. The only way we will find out is if the cardillas tell us.”
“Tell us? We don’t even know their language!” Ben retorted. “And I don’t think they would be happy to tutor you.”
“We need another chance, a second start.” With a grim face, Victor stacked his reports. “I will have to pray about this.”
* * *
Ben rested in his bunk as Victor typed on his keyboard.
“You’ve been awfully quiet these past three days,” Ben remarked.
Victor signed off and leaned back in his chair. “I suppose it’s time I told you. I’m resigning as sanitation technician.”
“What?” Ben sat up. “Don’t tell me you’re going to recant and take up a career!”
“No, no, never! I will die with this big red cross on my chest.” Victor bowed his head.
“Then what are you doing?”
“I have to try something very dangerous.” Standing up, Victor faced Ben. “I named my replacement. His name is Columba. You’ll like him.”
“Where are you going?” Ben pressed.
“To a place from which I don’t expect to return.”
Ben’s eyes widened. “Are you going to join the underground?”
Victor shook his head. “No, if things don’t work out as planned, I’ll take my old job back and you’ll have me for a cabin mate again.”
“Then I’ll just pray that things don’t work out.”
“No, Ben, if this doesn’t work, thousands of men and cardillas will die. When Columba arrives, he must see all my notes.”
Ben’s brown eyes blinked. “You’re leaving your notes?”
“I’m leaving everything—except my Bible. There is a slight chance I might get to use it, but I doubt it.”
“What are you going to do?” Ben’s eyes pleaded. “Please tell me!”
“If I tell you, you’ll try to stop me. This involves something greater than you and I.”
Exhaling loudly, Ben watched him. “When will you be leaving?”
Victor felt the cross on his shirt. “When we reach the planet Hermes. If I were you, I’d stay on the ship. Let someone else go down with the repair team.”
“Just trust me in this,” Victor pleaded. “I love you, Ben.”
“And you want to see me ‘saved,’ I know.”
Victor wore a soft smile. “I only want the best for you.”
Ben chuckled. “What you perceive to be best for me.”
“I will miss you.”
Ben looked away. “And I’ll miss you.”
* * *
Ben and Victor sat beside each other as the transport descended to Hermes’ surface.
“You’re stubborn,” Victor muttered.
“I’m a Jew,” Ben replied. “We are born stubborn.”
“You should have stayed on the ship.”
Victor sighed. “I’ll tell you later when we’re by ourselves.”
The ship set down outside the damaged science station, and the late afternoon light painted the arid landscape a dull red.
“The cardillas sure messed this place up,” Ben noted. “Oh well, more work for me.”
Victor questioned a local worker. “Excuse me, can you show me where the invaders made their last stand?”
The man pointed with a grimy finger. “In the mining tunnels, just beyond that hill.”
After thanking the man, Victor headed for the tunnels.
Ben tagged along. “Now will you tell me what you’re doing?”
“You have work to do, Ben. Your crew will be offended if you run off with me.”
“Stop it! I’m going to stick with you until I get a decent answer!”
Whirling around, Victor faced him with an anguished expression. “All right, I’ll tell you. Then, perhaps, you’ll take cover and save your hide when the time comes.” Victor ran his fingers through his brown hair as sweat beaded on his forehead. “Do you remember what I said about the cardillas revisiting every site where their comrades all perished?”
Ben’s eyes went wide. “Oh, no.”
“That’s right. They’re coming here when the eggs are ready to hatch.”
Ben’s beard quivered. “And when is that?”
“Forty-two days from when they were laid. They could arrive any minute.”
“What wonderful timing!” Ben spat. “We’ve got to notify security!” He turned to leave.
Victor caught his arm. “No, this is the opportunity I’ve been praying for.”
“What are you talking about?”
Bowing his head, Victor said, “I need you to trust me like never before. Please, do not call security. Let whatever happens…take its course.”
Ben watched him with dark wary eyes. “All right.”
Victor paced with his Bible clutched to his chest. As the sun set, a dark shadow swooped down from the sky.
“They’re coming!” Ben cried.
Victor faced him. “Keep yourself hidden no matter what happens.”
“That should come naturally!” Ben retorted as his stocky bulk dove behind a boulder.
The ship landed in front of the tunnel, and ten cardillas scurried out. Victor’s chest heaved. His hand rubbed the felt cross on his chest. He looked back at Ben with an intense beseeching expression.
“Tell Columba everything you see today—everything. Goodbye my friend!” Victor sprinted for the cardillas.
Panicking, Ben stood up. “Wait! Victor, you fool! They’ll—”
Victor ran up to the cardillas and knelt before them. He spread his arms, revealing the red cross on his beige tunic. Three cardillas surrounded him while the rest retrieved the eggs. Victor remained calm, inert. One of the cardillas struck him with a jointed arm, knocking the man over.
“No!” Ben cried as he peered over a boulder.
Victor clutched his Bible to his chest and curled up. The other cardillas seized him, pulling on his limbs, beating on his chest.
“Jesus, open their eyes!” Victor cried.
The creatures dashed his body to the ground and trampled it. Shouts sounded from behind Ben as a detachment from security arrived. With haste, the cardillas loaded their eggs into the ship and fled. Ben ran to Victor’s bloodied form as the enemy ship streaked into the sky.
“Victor, Victor you fool! What were you trying to prove?” He knelt beside the twisted body. “Voltaire was right. You’re mentally unstable!”
He looked into Victor’s face frozen by intense pain into an expression of incredible pathos.
Ben cringed. “No, I didn’t mean it, Victor. You’re saner than the rest of us on the Deneb. Voltaire is the fool, a soulless fool.”
A medic examined Victor. “I’m sorry; he’s dead.”
Grabbing a fistful of dirt, Ben poured it on his head and raised his voice in mourning. The medic backed away, startled. Ben bellowed and wept without shame.
“God Most High, have mercy on this man’s soul. He was a righteous Gentile!” Ben cried.
As the sanitation crew took away Victor’s body, Ben followed, chanting prayers in Hebrew.
* * *
The door chime rang.
Ben remained in bed. He had no desire to engage the world yet.
The chime rang again.
Sighing loudly, Ben rolled over. The door hissed open as a man stepped inside.
Growling, Ben sat up. “I’m mourning.”
“And I’m Columba.” The man set his travel bag on the floor. “I grieve with you over Victor. He was a dear brother to me.”
“He was the closest thing I had to a Gentile brother,” Ben grumbled. “I still don’t understand what he did. Victor was so bright, so reasonable …”
Columba fingered the red cross spread across his chest. “Perhaps he left some clues regarding his actions.”
“I see you wear your cross like he did, big and bold—like a crusader,” Ben prodded. “Well, Victor left his files for you in a neat stack beside the computer.”
Columba sat down. “Since I don’t start work until tomorrow, I’ll read through these now.”
* * *
Two weeks later, Columba rubbed his blue eyes and looked at the clock.
“Aren’t you going to sleep? You have a big day ahead of you tomorrow,” Ben chided.
“I finished my study, but I’m too troubled to sleep.” Columba shut down the computer.
“Did you find out why Victor did it?”
“Now I’m awake!” Ben peered down from his bunk. “What was his reason?”
Columba rubbed his dark disheveled hair. “Victor was trying to give us a new start with the cardillas.”
“I’d say he failed dismally,” Ben said in a bitter voice.
“Victor fully expected to die.”
Ben’s expression grew thoughtful. “Looking back on the way he acted those last days, I can see that now. He looked…tormented.”
“Victor loved living. He would not lay his life down on a whim.” Columba sighed. “No, it was for a just cause.”
“Getting pulverized by the cardillas was a just cause?” Ben let out a snort of disgust, but his eyes watered. “Victor ran up to those cardillas and knelt on the ground, like he was waiting for his own execution. The cardillas eagerly obliged him too. They beat and trampled him as he pleaded with his Jesus to open their eyes.”
Ben rubbed his haggard face. “When security came, the cardillas fled with their eggs. The beasts didn’t fire a shot.”
“It was a reconnaissance mission, not a strike,” Columba noted.
Ben shrugged. “Whatever. I told security what Victor had learned—that the cardillas always return for the eggs of a failed mission.”
“And after that we destroyed the next group that tried to retrieve eggs, but the pattern didn’t hold.” Columba pointed to the stack of files. “The cardillas remained true to form and didn’t repeat that mistake.”
Ben nodded. “The authorities ruled Victor’s death a suicide. No interviews, no interest in the materials a lowly sanitation technician had gathered. Those idiots!”
Columba slipped under his covers. “Now it’s up to someone else to continue Victor’s work.”
“And what will you do now?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to wait for the right time, the right opportunity.”
Ben lay back down. “Well, don’t ask me to view another martyrdom. Once was enough, thank you!”
* * *
Columba placed a bowl of oatmeal on his tray and moved down the food line.
“Aren’t you going to have low-fat bacon and eggs like a good little Gentile?” Ben teased.
Columba smiled. “On hard days I always have oatmeal. It soothes my troubled stomach.”
They found a table and sat down.
“Here comes the captain,” Ben whispered.
Capt. Dana glanced around and walked awkwardly over to their table. “You must be Columba, Victor’s replacement.”
Columba nodded. He knew better than to expect the captain to shake his hand. “What can I do for you, sir?”
The captain shifted his weight as if uncertain how to proceed. “Victor was a…fine man. The brightest of his kind I ever met. I was always amazed that he refused treatment.”
“You mean recanting his core beliefs, sir,” Ben corrected.
The captain winced. “Although Victor was listed as mentally unstable, I was as shocked as anyone by his suicide.”
Columba stopped stirring his oatmeal and stared into the captain’s eyes. “With all due respect, sir, Victor’s death was not a suicide. It was a sacrifice. There is a difference, you know. The first is a selfish act, for the perceived betterment of the self, sometimes with the added motivation of revenge. But the second is a self-less act, where one gives up their cherished life to preserve the lives of others.”
Capt. Dana wore a humoring smile. “And whose life did Victor save?”
Columba returned the smile. “That will become evident in time, sir.”
Wearing an uncertain look, the captain cocked his head and moved on to the officers’ lounge.
Ben leaned over. “That was bold.”
“So was your comment.”
“Against my better judgment, I’m getting attached to you, Columba the Bold.” Ben folded his arms. “You’re solid, like Victor was.”
“And I can see why Victor was fond of you, Ben the Brash.”
Ben laughed. “That’s good.” His smile faded to a sour expression. “Oh no. Voltaire—Atheist Secularist is heading our way. Look out for his ‘haughtier than thou’ attitude.”
“He must hate believers if he took ‘Voltaire’ for his official name.”
“Volt-air, the name is shocking,” Ben mused. “Re-volting too. For once, I’m glad we’ve dropped the practice of using surnames and middle names. One name is bad enough for Voltaire.”
Voltaire strutted up, oblivious to Ben’s comments. “So, this must be Sewer Man’s replacement,” Voltaire sneered. “Do you think you can fill his shoes?”
Columba scrutinized Voltaire. “Perhaps.”
“They shouldn’t be hard to fill.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Ben muttered.
Voltaire gave Ben a condescending glare. “Any moron can clean up a mess.”
“And it’s usually the bigger morons that make them,” Ben shot back. “When secular authorities stuff religious geniuses into brainless jobs, it only proves the authorities value power over reason, and control over truth. After all the years they’ve tried to regulate and exterminate believers, we’re still here.”
“Not all of you,” Voltaire replied snidely. “Where are the Hindus? And most of the tribal religions perished in the modernization of their cultures.”
“That was going on long before your people got involved,” Columba stated in a calm voice. “You can’t take credit for the demise of Baal worship, the abandonment of the Greek and Roman pantheons, or for the mass conversion of African tribalists…to Christianity.”
Voltaire clenched his jaw. “What is your official name?”
“No, after the Celtic evangelist who helped spread Christianity in Scotland. The name means ‘dove.’”
Voltaire smirked. “When I was eighteen, I chose my name to honor one of the great minds of the enlightenment.”
“If anyone was unenlightened, it was Voltaire,” Ben whispered.
“I chose to stand against the darkness, bringing the light of sanity and reason,” Voltaire proclaimed.
Ben laughed. “If you want to find darkness, you could start by looking in your own mind.”
“At least I have the intelligence to be on the winning side,” Voltaire spat.
“Winning or whining?” Ben asked. “No, Voltaire, you’re nothing but a vain opportunist.”
Voltaire bent his menacing form over the table. “At least I’m something you’ll never be.”
“What? A despised little dictator?”
“A doctor!” Voltaire pointed to the yellow star on Ben’s coat. “You could have received a Ph.D. for all your studies in exchange for your star.”
Ben’s beard shook and his eyes blazed. “The only thing I’d exchange this star for would be a giant red cross like the one Victor wore!”
Voltaire spun around and stormed off.
“I can’t believe I said that,” Ben muttered. He looked at Columba sheepishly. “No, I’m not converting. Victor would have been shocked by what I said.”
Ben ate the rest of his lunch in stunned silence.
* * *
Columba pored over his reports. “Victor, you may have done it, I pray you’ve done it, but I’ll have to move fast.”
Using the computer, he called up the latest reports of cardilla activity. “Can it be? Lord, this is too good to be true! Too good to be a coincid-ence!” He typed some more. “Yes! I see the pattern now!”
Ben peered over his bunk. “What are you doing?”
“We may have a second chance to communicate with the cardillas.”
Ben sat up. “No, no, no! Stop! You’re sounding like Victor did before he—”
“Victor’s death may have opened the way, but the way will shut soon if…”
Columba looked up at Ben. “So far, the cardillas have never come in contact with a registered Christian—except Victor.”
“Get to the point.”
“The cardillas pay careful attention to detail and learn from each encounter.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “I’ve heard this before.”
“Victor went and showed them he would not fight them, even to defend himself. He may have caught their attention.”
“That big red cross of his always caught attention,” Ben retorted. “But what if they didn’t notice? What if they just squished him like a bug, not caring that he happened to wear odd clothes?”
“That’s what I’ll have to find out.” Columba typed in a command. The screen flickered and went blank.
“What are you doing?” Ben asked, alarmed.
“I erased all my files.”
Clasping his hands, Columba bowed his head. “Because I know when and where the cardillas will strike and I don’t want you to interfere.”
“You’re not going to—“
“Yes, I am. Just like Victor.”
Ben’s eyes went wide. “Not again! Don’t do this to me!”
“I’ve left a copy of my work, and Victor’s, with a trusted sister. And I think you’ll be satisfied with my replacement.”
“I don’t want you to die!” Ben pleaded.
“I don’t either,” Columba answered in a soft voice. “I pray that Victor did all the dying for me. If not, then perhaps there can be no reconciliation with the cardillas.”
“When will you be leaving?”
Looking up at Ben, Columba cocked his head. “Good try, but I’m determined to keep when and where a secret from you!”
“I’ll be watching you.”
“Watch all you want, it won’t matter.”
Ben sighed. “Who will stand with me when Voltaire comes to taunt?”
* * *
The Deneb stopped to service two outposts damaged by cardillas. Ben watched the sky warily as he kept Columba in sight. On their third assignment, the planet Isis, Ben was a jumble of nerves.
“What are you watching for, Ben?” a worker teased. “You look like Chicken Little, waiting for the sky to fall.”
“Sorry,” Ben muttered. He refocused part of his mind on the task of repairing the panel before him. “Let’s try re-routing the auxiliary power through conduit C. Once the main generator is online, we can use conduit B to bring the environmental controls back online.”
He looked up. Columba was gone.
“Excuse me!” Ben pushed away from the group of workers.
Columba’s cloak fluttered as he ducked behind a rock.
Ben ran after him. “Wait!” Rounding the rock, he spied his friend running down a narrow ravine. “Columba, wait!”
By the time Ben caught up with him, Columba was seated on a rock, smiling. A worn Bible rested on his lap.
“Well, this was good practice,” Columba replied casually.
Ben wagged a finger. “You won’t sneak away from me that easily.”
“You kept up fairly well for being out of shape.”
“I’ll start using the exercise room as soon as we return to the Deneb,” Ben vowed, wheezing.
Columba hopped down from the rock. “Time to go.”
Ben headed back to the base. “I’m going to work out so hard you’ll never be able to give me the slip. And I’ll build muscles so I can wrestle you to the ground. Then you’ll never reach those cardillas! I’ll—”
With a jolt, Ben realized his friend hadn’t said a word. He spun around. Columba had vanished.
He ran back to the rock. Which way did Columba go? A ship briefly eclipsed the sun and landed in a winding gorge. Ben ran after it, chastening himself all the way down the gorge.
“Stupid…idiot…how could you…blind…fool…”
He arrived at the bottom of the ravine, fatigued and breathless, just in time to see Columba sprinting toward the ship.
“No!” Ben wailed feebly.
But Columba was too far ahead. He raced up to the ten cardillas gathered beside the ship, knelt before them, spread out his arms, and waited. The cardillas hesitated. Ben’s pulse pounded. Maybe they wouldn’t harm Columba. Maybe Victor’s sacrifice did open their eyes. A cardilla struck Columba, sending his Bible flying.
“Jesus, show them!” Columba cried.
He curled up as the cardillas encircled him.
“No!” Ben screamed, finding his lungs.
The aliens turned and saw him.
“No!” Ben cried again, backing up. He was in the open, completely vulnerable.
A cardilla snatched up Columba’s limp body, and another took his Bible. They quickly boarded their ship and left. Ben watched, stunned, as the ship roared out of sight.
“They didn’t attack me,” he muttered. “They just took Columba. Why didn’t they attack? Columba! I don’t know if you’re dead or alive! They struck you…you must be dead.”
A security detail scrambled down from the rocky ridge. Kneeling down, Ben took a handful of dirt and poured it on his head.
“What happened?” asked a man armed with a laser.
Ben bowed his head. “They took Columba.”
“The new Sewer Man?”
“They took him.” Ben’s bearded chin trembled. “He ran out and knelt before them, just like Victor.”
The guard swore. “Man, when they classified you guys as mentally unstable, they weren’t kidding!” Turning, he shouted back to the men behind him. “Looks like another suicide.” He chuckled. “Another sewer-cide.”
Ben got up and staggered away to a lonely place where he could mourn in peace.
* * *
Capt. Dana stood on the Deneb’s bridge, browsing through the reports coming from the planet below. The colony on Athena was thriving.
“Sir, sensors are picking up an approaching ship,” an officer called. “It doesn’t fit into the regular shipping schedule.”
The captain tensed. “Can you identify it?”
“In a moment, sir.”
A heavy silence engulfed the bridge.
“It’s the cardillas, sir!”
“Battle stations!” the captain barked. The cardillas had been hiding for six months. Why? And why attack now?
“Sir! Sir!” the communications officer called. “I’m receiving a transmission from them—it’s in English, sir! They’re sending a visual as well.”
“English?” Capt. Dana scowled. “They’ve never tried to speak to us in our own language. How did they learn it? Put it on screen.”
The view screen flickered and displayed the transmitted image.
“Greetings from the Cardilla Empire,” a man spoke.
Capt. Dana squinted at the bearded speaker with long hair. A great red cross covered his worn tunic. “Columba!” he breathed in amazement.
“I come to you as an ambassador for the cardillas. After a disastrous first contact, they wish to try once more to dialogue with humans.”
“Open a channel to them,” the captain said hastily. “Columba, this is Capt. Dana speaking.”
Columba smiled. “I was hoping you were still in command of the Deneb. We have much to discuss.”
“How do we know this isn’t a trap?”
“I understand your caution and believe you will agree to my suggestions. If you check your history logs, you will find the location of Athena’s first landing sight on the southern continent. I will take a small craft and land there. Send a contingent of scientists and doctors to examine me and determine if I am a threat. It’s time we cleared up the misunderstanding of Antimare.”
Capt. Dana stared at the screen with a guarded expression. “A reasonable request. Will you be alone?”
“Yes. And I’d like to see Ben, the climate technician—as a personal favor.”
“Perhaps,” the captain said. “We’ll meet you at the old landing site.”
* * *
Columba waited in the science shuttle as the last battery of test results came in.
“Well, you’re healthy,” a doctor noted. He pointed to the red cross on Columba’s tunic. “You still wear that?”
“With all my heart,” Columba answered.
“Hasn’t changed a bit, flaws and all,” the doctor muttered. “It looks like he’s clean.”
A door opened and Capt. Dana stepped inside.
Columba rose. “Captain, sir! I didn’t expect you to come in person.”
“Sit down,” the captain said. “You’ve been through a lot of tests and you must be tired. It’s been three years since you’ve disappeared. It must have been a terrifying experience.”
“It was, but brave Victor prepared the way. He paid a much higher price than I.”
Capt. Dana sat in a chair. “Let’s start at the beginning. What happened on Antimare?”
Sighing, Columba leaned against the bulkhead wall. “Cultural differences turned deadly. The cardillas were curious about us. Since the Spica didn’t attack them initially, the cardillas assumed our intentions were peaceful, benign. They sent out a landing team hoping we’d understand that they desired contact. We followed.”
Columba ran his fingers through his mane of dark hair. “At first the encounter seemed to go well. Unfortunately, the cardillas are very tactile explorers, touching things whenever possible. They had no idea we would feel threatened by being handled.
“So, when the curious cardilla scooped up our men during first contact, the security team panicked and killed three cardillas. The remaining cardillas quickly put an end to our men.”
Columba wagged his head. “They viewed our actions as the highest form of treachery. If we had shot the mother ship on sight, they would have been more understanding, but seeing us display peaceful intentions and then attack them without cause…it enraged them. The cardillas were certain we were a completely uncivilized immoral race.
“Now they know better. When Victor offered himself, they attacked him, but Victor never fought back. This puzzled them deeply. They debated the meaning of his gesture. Were there divisions of humans, some violent and some peaceful? Was he a prisoner, sentenced to face them as punishment? Why didn’t he defend himself?
“Then I came along. The cardillas recognized my unique attire and tested me. When I responded the same way as Victor, they took me for study.”
Capt. Dana flinched. “That must have been awful!”
“It was scary,” Columba admitted. “Once I was on their ship, they handled me and turned me over and over, passing me from one cardilla to another. I stayed limp and prayed quietly…and sometimes not so quietly. My ribs ached from where they struck me.” He chuckled. “By the time I learned their word for pain, my ribs were healed.”
“You can speak their language?” the captain asked.
Columba nodded. “The last three years have been a mutual learning experience. The cardillas are a wonderful race, full of as many virtues and vices as humans.”
Capt. Dana’s eyes brightened. “Do you really think we can coexist peacefully?”
“Yes, if both sides are willing. The cardillas understand the tragedy of our first contact. They wish to try again.”
“It will not be easy to convince my superiors,” Capt. Dana said with a troubled scowl. “Some may think it’s a trap. We can’t go from mortal enemies to bosom buddies in an instant.”
Columba sighed softly. “I shared much of our history with the cardillas. To show their goodwill, they have withdrawn from all sectors where humans are present. They will respect your desire to be left alone, if that is what your leaders decide.”
Capt. Dana nodded. “Sounds reasonable. My ship is within range of a relay station. Let me contact my superiors and see what they say.” A crooked grin appeared on his face. “They’ll be chagrined to learn what two ‘unstable’ men have accomplished.”
Returning a level gaze, Columba replied. “Perhaps they’ll see Christian convictions as an asset rather than a liability.”
“Don’t count on it.”
Columba broke into a cautious smile. “I’m not.”
* * *
Capt. Dana took another sip from his lukewarm coffee as he stared at the computer in his quarters.
“Come on, make up your mind!” he fumed quietly.
Fleet Headquarters had kept him waiting for three hours. The screen flickered and Admiral James appeared.
“Capt. Dana, your orders are to take Columba into custody for questioning. If he does not cooperate, you are to use ‘persuasion’ on him, but don’t kill him. The cardilla ship is to be destroyed immediately.”
Capt. Dana balked at his orders. “Sir, don’t we want this war to end?”
“Of course we do, Captain, but these things must be handled by the proper people. Our superiors are very upset by the…damage done by these unstables. We will send our professionals to contact the cardillas and undo Columba’s negative influence.”
“That might be hard, sir. Apparently Columba is very well known and respected among the cardillas.”
The admiral gave a curt nod. “True, but if the general population hears about Victor and Columba, there will be questions, and questions lead to anarchy. Already our lawmakers are introducing legislation to ban all unstables from the libraries. We’re going to have to curtail their freedoms to preserve society.
“Now, you have your orders. I expect them to be carried out immediately.”
“Yes sir.” Capt. Dana turned off the computer. “In other words you want me to murder the truth,” he told the blank screen.
So, another crackdown had begun. How many brilliant minds of conscience would be snuffed out this time? Wandering over to a mirror, he stared at his pale reflection. How many times had he sat in silence while his superiors plotted new ways to restrict and isolate the “unstables”? Their viciousness had appalled him, but he’d done nothing to stop them.
“Capt. Dana? Capt. Coward!” he spat, slamming his fist into the mirror. The polished metal buckled. “But never, never, a Capt. Judas!”
* * *
Ben gave a cry when the door slid open. “Columba! Hallelujah! You’re alive!”
Columba embraced his dear friend. “Ben, it’s a wonder to see your face again!”
Ben glanced around to make certain they were alone. “Listen, the captain has an urgent message for you. Fleet Headquarters wants the cardilla’s ship destroyed and you ‘persuaded’ until you tell them everything about the cardillas. He’s expecting another crackdown on the unstables.”
Columba rubbed his dark trimmed beard. “I wasn’t expecting this.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve gone naïve!” Ben spoke with an incredulous face.
“I wasn’t referring to them,” Columba replied soberly. “Why would Capt. Dana warn me?”
Now Ben frowned. “Yes, that is a puzzle. It gets even more intriguing. Here’s the access code to the emergency public communication channel, courtesy of the captain. I don’t know what you told him. I almost refused to be his messenger. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was trying to set us up. Still, I’d always thought he was a decent man.”
Columba took the slip of paper. “This will cost the captain dearly. I guess I should be going. Come with me and we’ll keep you safe.”
Eyes brightening, Ben whispered, “A very tempting offer! Do they have kosher food?”
Columba laughed. “You can survive without violating your conscience. The cardillas will respect you far better than your coworkers.”
“Then take me!” Ben cried.
As soon as they were on Columba’s ship, Ben reached up and tore the yellow star from his chest. Holding it in his hand, he glared at it. “No more shame!”
* * *
The sharp shackles constricted Capt. Dana’s wrists.
“Move along,” the guard ordered.
Sighing quietly, the captain increased his shuffling pace. The trip to Fleet Headquarters had been brief, too brief. After a humiliating arrest in front of his bridge officers, Capt. Dana had spent the rest of the trip in the brig. No one visited him. But Capt. Dana had been far from idle. Locked away from all distractions, he wrestled with his thoughts, his values, and his soul. He determined to cling to his painful course to the end, to finish well.
The guard paused outside a large set of double doors and spoke to a sentry. “Tell the bailiff the prisoner is here.”
The captain rubbed his sweaty fingers against his shirt. This was it. The door swung open and he was escorted inside. Admiral James turned and glared at him. Capt. Dana’s peers sat in rows around him with expressions ranging from disbelief to intense hatred.
The judge peered down from his monstrously high bench. “Capt. Dana, you have been charged with high treason and failing to obey direct orders. How do you plea?”
Capt. Dana looked around the hostile room. “Not guilty, Your Honor.”
The judge wore an annoyed look. “Not guilty?”
“That’s right, Your Honor.” Capt. Dana’s heart beat wildly at a sudden rush of inspiration. “Not guilty by means of mental instability.”
“What?” Admiral James shouted, rising to his feet. “Of all the low-ball dirty tricks!”
“Silence!” the judge thundered. With a look of revulsion, he turned toward Capt. Dana. “Do you have evidence for your claim?”
“Yes sir. I’m a…I’m a Christian, sir.”
The admiral seethed but the judge merely glanced down at the file before him and stated, “Capt. Dana, I have you listed here as an atheist secularist.”
“I was an atheist, sir. My conversion happened gradually. And since you classify Christians as mentally unstable, that is the evidence for my claim.” Capt. Dana wanted to smile, but he didn’t, knowing it would only infuriate the judge.
“And when did this ‘conversion’ take place?” the judge asked in a hard tone.
“When Victor perished, I began to seriously question our policy toward people of religious convictions. I never met a sharper, more rational, yet dedicated man. Then Columba came and broke through to the cardillas. He is another outstanding citizen. I admired him for his foresight and courage.”
Capt. Dana looked over at the livid admiral. “But the thing that pushed me over was Admiral James’ immoral order, sir. Everything became clear, like night and day. I didn’t want to have any part in another purge.”
Raising his shackled hands, Capt. Dana stared at the strangling cuffs. He was going to go all the way. They were going to kill him anyway. “I will have no part in the murder of the truth. If being a Christian renders a man mentally unstable, then you should have pity on me. If one can be mentally stable and a Christian, then render your judgment…but give people of faith their rights. In this hour, see your own hypocrisy!”
The judge shook with anger. “You are out of line to be judging us! I will not tolerate this contempt of court, and I will render my judgment now!”
Capt. Dana steeled himself for the verbal blow.
The judge spoke with slow measured words, as if savoring the venom within them. “This court finds the defendant, Capt. Dana, guilty of all charges—including contempt of court. You are stripped of all rank, and I sentence you to termination in the science lab. There, you will repay part of your debt to society!”
A deathly pause followed.
“Sir, I have one final request,” the former captain spoke in a low voice. “I would like my files updated to show that I am a Christian, and my official name changed from Dana to Daniel.”
The judge’s eyes glinted with malice. “Very well. To demonstrate that we do have some compassion on the mentally unstable, we will fulfill your request. I will order a clothier to bring you a fresh set of clothes so you may die tomorrow…a Christian.” He spat the last word as if he couldn’t stand the taste of it in his mouth.
“Thank you, sir.”
* * *
Columba relished the amazed expression on Ben’s upturned face. The cardilla’s atrium was truly a wonder. Intertwining red and orange vines rose to the glass ceiling eight floors up. Giant orchids, a meter in diameter, sprouted from the vines at regular intervals. Darting like squirrels, small scarlet-haired creatures chased each other up and down the vines. A scaly opossum-like animal hung from its prehensile tail, watching them with green compound eyes. Breathing in the sweet, yet earthy, smells, Columba pulled down one of the green and purple spotted leaves, turned it over, and passed it to Ben. Clusters of clear bubbles clung to the underside.
“Smell this,” Columba instructed.
Ben wrinkled his nose and sniffed cautiously. “Oranges?”
Columba laughed. “That’s what I thought when I first smelled one too.”
A “leaf” fluttered down, unfolded, and glided away.
Ben ducked. “What was that?”
“A hrrrakanan,” Columba answered, rolling his r’s in a growly voice. “The cardillas brought a little bit of their home planet with them. Don’t worry most of the things here are harmless.”
“Most?” Ben asked, raising an eyebrow.
Snickering, Columba said, “You’ll be fine so long as you don’t eat the poisonous creatures.”
Ben made a face. “Small chance of that.”
Some buffalo-sized cardillas moved peacefully through the atrium, grazing on the lower plants.
“Is this their cafeteria?” Ben asked.
“You could say that, although they eat most of their meals in private.” Columba scratched his beard. “It’s more like a picnic to them.”
Striding up to the nearest cardilla, Columba rubbed his hands along her glossy side. The cardilla responding by picking up Columba and running her many jointed fingers over his body.
“My companion will need time to adjust to your ways,” Columba spoke in the cardilla language.
Setting Columba down, the cardilla addressed Ben. “How can we ease your adjustment?” she asked in clear English.
Ben gasped. “Do all cardillas know English?”
“No, but the language is spreading fast through our people,” she replied. “Does this surprise you?”
“Yes, but I suppose it shouldn’t. I was told of your keen memories.” Ben stepped closer and extended a hand. “Would you mind if…I touched you?”
“If you touch her, you must allow her to touch you back,” Columba warned. “Otherwise you will appear rude.”
“Oh.” Ben winced.
Columba smiled at him. “She will be gentle.”
Ben’s shy fingers felt her hard mottled skin. “Amazing. They are not at all like I imagined.”
When he finished, she picked him up, gently running her fingers over him. She focused on his yarmulke. A second cardilla trotted up. The intricate brand on his shoulder indicated his high rank. Columba placed his hand on the new cardilla’s head. The creature returned the gesture.
“What is the news, Shagrrrin?” Columba asked in English.
Taking Columba’s cue, Shagrrrin replied in English. “All is going as planned, however we received a secret message from Fleet Headquarters.”
“Fleet Headquarters?” Ben sputtered. “Our Fleet Headquarters?”
“That is correct,” Shagrrrin answered.
He passed a thin clipboard-like object to Columba, and the female cardilla set Ben down. Columba stared at the message on the board. Ben joined him.
“I don’t believe it!” Ben growled.
Shaking his head, Columba replied. “There’s no sane reason not to. We’ll have to act fast.”
* * *
The clothier stood in Daniel’s cell and held up a beige tunic. “Now, where would you like your cross?”
“On the chest,” the former captain said.
“Of course it will go on your chest,” the clothier spoke as if addressing a small child. “But where on your chest?”
Daniel gestured with his shackled hands.
The clothier’s eyes widened. “My, that’s quite a big cross. You’ll use up all my red felt.” He made a clicking sound with his tongue. “Very well. It will be ready by tomorrow.”
* * *
Daniel’s knees ached as he knelt beside the worn bunk. One of Victor’s close friends had heard about Daniel’s sentence and sought him out. After hours of conversing and instruction, Daniel had the knowledge he needed to face his impending death. Now he was alone, awaiting his transfer to the science wing. What indignities would he suffer? How long would he endure the certain agonies to come until death delivered him?
The door slid open. Daniel rose and a guard entered and unlocked his shackles.
Am I going to be freed? Daniel thought with a wild pang of hope.
The clothier stepped inside. “Ready for your new clothes? I had the guard unshackle you so you could change.”
Sighing in disappointment, Daniel stripped off his barren military uniform. Is this what it’s like to die? he wondered. You strip off one body and put on another? But I already feel dead. Capt. Dana died but Daniel will live forever.
“I hear you had a scant breakfast,” the clothier said casually. “Only a little bread and a shot of wine.”
The captain slipped into the beige cotton tunic. “It was communion.”
“Not much for a last meal if you ask me,” the clothier muttered.
Daniel ran his fingers lovingly over the great red cross. “More like a last supper.”
The clothier left as the guard slapped the hard cuffs around Daniel’s wrists. After the guard stepped out, the door slid shut. Daniel was alone once more. His shackled hands continued to caress the felt cross. Felt cross. Yes, he felt that cross. So had Victor and Columba along with millions of other believers. All who followed the narrow path of doing what was right would feel that cross. It brought pain and it brought joy. It brought death and it brought life.
He pondered the odd juxtaposition of opposites bound up in that simple symbol. It reached up and down, left and right, the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical. It represented the humiliation of Christ, and it represented the victory of Christ. How could one symbol evoke so many powerful emotions? The door hissed open.
“Capt. Daniel, come with me,” a guard barked.
With trembling legs, Daniel shuffled after him. Captain. The guard had called him captain even though he’d been stripped of rank. Daniel would have chuckled at the slip if his situation had been less dire. The guard led him through the maze of corridors and out to the main hall.
“This isn’t the way to the science wing,” Daniel whispered to himself.
After a few more turns, he discerned their destination. They were headed for the War Room! Why? His escort spoke to the guards on duty outside and they opened the great double doors to let Daniel pass. Daniel entered the large round room. He found it filled with screens, computers, and chaos. Captains and admirals stood shouting, arguing, and debating.
“Admiral Nelson, I must protest this course of action,” a captain spoke with vigor.
Daniel hesitated in mid-stride. Admiral Nelson? When did he get promoted from captain?
Admiral Nelson’s alert eyes found Daniel. “Here he is,” the admiral called in an authoritative voice that cut through the din.
The room went silent as all faces turned to Daniel.
“It’s for you,” Admiral Nelson said.
Daniel didn’t understand until Admiral Nelson pointed to the large screen. Columba’s live image stared out from the screen, waiting. Beside him stood a cardilla wearing a beige vest with a red cross on it. Stunned, Daniel staggered up to the main speaker’s console and cleared his throat.
The man on the screen squinted and blinked. “Capt. Dana?”
“I changed my name to Daniel.”
“Among other things!” Columba said with a light laugh. “It’s good to see you!”
“Not as good as it is for me to see you, I assure you!”
Columba frowned. “Have they hurt you?”
“No, not yet. I was sentenced to termination in the science lab.”
Columba’s frown turned into a great grimace. “I’m glad we were able to intervene before they tortured you. I have demanded your release.”
“Is that possible?”
“Where’s your faith?” Columba’s eyes shone. “Sometimes the Lord works in mischievous ways. I assume you’ve been isolated from all news the last two days?”
Daniel released a sigh. “The world could have ended for all I know.”
“And it may soon,” a captain muttered.
Wearing an expression of great relish, Columba said, “Capt. Daniel, the past three days we have been flooding all the public communication channels with the truth about the cardillas, Victor, and me. We also released the transcript of your trial, courtesy of a sympathetic source. Once the public had all the facts, they were outraged.”
A man sprang up and tried to push Capt. Daniel aside. It was Admiral James…only Admiral James wore a captain’s insignia. He’d been demoted!
“You’re out to ruin our civilization!” Capt. James shouted at the screen. “You’re the enemy of reason, the enemy of society!”
“The people are tired of seeing friends and family abused because they believe in God,” Admiral Nelson countered. “After all these years of trying to stamp out religion, we’ve failed. It’s time to recognize them as full citizens.”
Capt. James bristled. “Never! They’re unstable, unpredictable—”
“Uncontrollable, courageous, refusing to surrender their convictions in the face of incredible adversity,” Admiral Nelson shot back.
“Gentlemen,” Columba chided. “Once you restore Capt. Daniel to his rightful position, you may debate at your leisure. I’m certain you’ll all be very busy for the next few months, but the cardillas insist on the captain’s full reinstatement if you wish to pursue a treaty.”
Admiral Nelson nodded to the guard. Daniel stared in disbelief as the constricting shackles were removed.
“Welcome back, Capt. Daniel,” Admiral Nelson said. “You’re on shore leave until the Deneb returns from Atlantis.”
“You can’t just turn him loose!” Capt. James protested. “He’ll stir up more trouble!”
“If we don’t restore him, the cardillas won’t sign the treaty,” another captain shot back. “We need to end this war. Need I remind you, Capt. James, that many people were not satisfied with your mere demotion? Your rejection of Columba’s first attempt at reconciliation and your attempt to murder all involved may yet land you in court. The people want peace!”
“And the cardillas want to throw us into chaos by destroying our social structure!” Capt. James retorted with a balled fist. “It’s their way of dividing us!”
“It’s our social structure that’s dividing us!” another captain shouted.
Admiral Nelson raised his hand to quiet them. He wore the slightest of smiles as he turned to Capt. Daniel. “Go and enjoy your well deserved freedom.”
“This will only encourage insubordination!” Capt. James fumed.
“Restoring Capt. Daniel is a small price to pay,” Admiral Nelson answered in a calm voice.
Capt. Daniel left the war room as the occupants resumed their verbal battles. He stepped into the hall and the ruckus died down as the great doors shut. The near silence stunned him. Moving down the hall, the captain listened to the whisper of his shoes. He was free. The universe was in chaos, but he was at peace. There would be debates, political turmoil, and changes in the law, but he was steady, solid.
Once more, his hand reached up and touched the felt cross.
* * *
Columba sat down with a tray. Leaning forward, he drew in a deep breath, relishing the aroma of bacon and eggs. “Ahhh. How I’ve missed the smells of home.”
Ben smiled beside him. “It’s been two years since I’ve tasted food designed for the human palate. While the cardillas may have kosher food, there’s nothing like the familiar, is there? My tongue has been very homesick.” His nostrils drew in the aroma of the steamed fish on his plate. “It does smell wonderful.”
As Columba sprinkled salt on his eggs, he remarked, “Well, I can’t say the past two years have been dull. It’s been amazing to watch the social changes both in our society and the cardillas’.” He leaned forward and whispered, “By the way, I finally found out who sent us that secret message from Fleet Headquarters.”
Swallowing so fast he grimaced, Ben sputtered, “Who?”
“Admiral Nelson. He was furious that his superiors were more interested in keeping the status quo than in ending the bloody war.”
Ben sipped from his glass. “I suspect he also felt guilty over his involvement in our disastrous first contact.”
“Very possible.” Columba picked up a piece of bacon. “Now that you have your full freedom and rights, what do you intend to do?”
Ben eagerly cut up the rest of his fish. “Apply for a promotion! I can qualify for a job two levels above my boss.” Raising his loaded fork, he looked upward with a smile of delight. “And I’ll have more time to study the blessed Scriptures.” He took a bite of fish. “Mmm. God is good.” Ben pointed his empty fork at Columba. “What about you?”
Columba swallowed his bacon. “I’m taking a sabbatical from my post with the cardillas. I’ve applied for a temporary assignment in the Biology wing. They were very impressed by my test scores and are eager to learn about the cardillas.”
Ben stopped chewing. His shaggy brows lowered over his brown eyes. “The Biology wing? Would you be working with Voltaire?”
“Actually I’d be working over Voltaire.”
“Ha!” Ben crowed. “God is bringing vengeance upon our enemies. Oh, I can hardly wait to see the look on Voltaire’s nasty face!”
Columba winced. “Actually that’s not what—”
“Look!” Ben hissed. “It’s the captain and he’s coming this way!”
Columba rose. “Good morning, sir!”
“Good morning, Columba, Ben.” Captain Daniel extended his hand.
Columba stared at it for a moment before he shook it. “This is a rare honor, sir.”
“And one I hope will become more common,” the captain returned. He extended his hand toward Ben as well.
Ben’s beard quivered as he grasped the hand.
Capt. Daniel rested his hands on the table. “Really, it is I who am honored. Because of your selfless actions, we have peace with the cardillas, and the freedom to pursue our faiths without harassment.”
“The laws may have changed, but there will still be harassment, sir,” Columba stated. “Sometimes it will be subtle, other times not so subtle.”
Capt. Daniel cocked his head. “Well, I will do my best to make certain you are respected on this ship. Good day to you.”
“Good day to you, sir,” Columba and Ben chorused as the captain left.
They resumed their meal in thoughtful silence.
Just before Ben finished his roll, he looked up. “Ha! Here comes Voltaire! It looks like he’s heard about your application, and he isn’t pleased.”
Voltaire walked up stiffly and cleared his throat. “Hello, Columba, Ben.”
“Trying to act civil now, are we?” Ben taunted. “Unfortunately it doesn’t come very natural for you, Voltaire.”
Voltaire kept his eyes on Columba. “I have been ordered to tell you…that your application has been accepted. Congratulations,” he said in a flat voice.
“I’m surprised you didn’t choke to death on those words,” Ben spoke with glee.
But Voltaire didn’t return the barb.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Columba offered.
Ben flashed him a startled look.
“Thank you,” Voltaire stammered. He took a seat.
Columba’s brown eyes stared at Voltaire, studying him. “I want to tell you something, Voltaire. I have no intention of punishing you or making your job difficult. Do good honest work, and I will see to it you are rewarded like the next person. Do you understand?”
Voltaire’s eyes mirrored confusion, but he merely nodded and said, “Yes sir.”
“You may go now,” Columba said gently.
Voltaire sulked away.
“I would have gloated,” Ben grumbled. “You let him off way too easy! Have you no sense of justice?”
Columba looked at Ben. “Mercy triumphs over justice.”
Ben aimed a finger at Columba. “The man is wicked! A malicious pernicious villain, ripe for punishment!” He spit in Voltaire’s direction.
“That may be true, but look at him,” Columba answered calmly.
Ben growled and glared at Voltaire standing in the food line. “He does look…beaten doesn’t he? Why? After what you said, he should be relieved!”
“Mercy is freedom to some, but a millstone around the neck to others,” Columba noted.
Ben threw his arm out toward Voltaire. “Do you mean this is some sort of Christian revenge?”
Columba wagged his head. “No. It is my hope that Voltaire will be won over. I would rather see a wicked man change than perish.”
“You’re too soft,” Ben grumbled.
“Imagine Voltaire as a kind compassionate man,” Columba prodded.
“You won’t,” Columba countered.
“I don’t want to!” Ben snapped. “Come on, let me gloat over Voltaire’s discomfort! I still believe in justice.”
“Vengeance is the Lord’s,” Columba gently chided. “And that’s in your Bible, too.”
Ben bowed his head and grabbed his yarmulke. “I hate it when you do that. Why can’t you stick to your ‘New Testament’?”
Columba laughed, eyes flashing mischievously. “And give you an excuse to write me off? Never!”
Ben stared at Columba’s chest. “You’re still wearing that big old cross. You don’t have to do that anymore. See, I’m not wearing my star and I’m still a Jew.”
Smiling, Columba answered, “I know.”
“So why do you continue to bear that mark of disgrace?” Ben paled. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean it like that.”
Columba chuckled. “It’s okay, Ben. I understand.” He looked around at the crowded cafeteria. No one else wore a star, cross, crescent, or any other religious symbol. “I feel like we’ve lost some of our distinctive-ness,” Columba noted in a quiet voice. “Now we look just like everyone else.”
“And that is a bad thing?” Ben asked with a raised eyebrow.
Tapping his cheek, Columba remarked, “It used to be more obvious who held deep convictions.”
Ben huffed softly. “You are impossible to please. I almost think you welcome persecution.”
“Not really. There will certainly be more in the future,” Columba stated. “I will always wear the cross on my heart. Perhaps I will take it off my tunic, but for now I just want to feel it…and remember.”