Chapter 9: Why Stories Are Sacred
Jack leaned back in the driver’s seat,
crossed his arms across his chest, and stared out at the deepening night. The
first bright stars began to appear, one by one, and Jack found himself
inventing constellations in the lovely, unfamiliar patterns. Alpha the Dog. The
slightly crooked sword or spear thing. The hot waitress with one arm behind her
back. The frosty beer mug. The dart with the bent tip.
Behind him, he heard Kim settle into a bunk. Dominic threw his jacket on another. “You coming?” Kim asked Jack.
Jack didn’t look back. “I’ll take first watch.” First watch would keep him farther away from Dominic, which made it at least somewhat less likely one of them would kill the other in his sleep.
“You’re crazy,” said Dominic. “You’re about to drop.”
“So are both of you guys,” said Jack.
Kim quirked her head to the side and her brow crinkled. “The sensors are online. We don’t really need a watch.”
Jack turned slowly in his chair. He shrugged. “Nothing on this trip’s been what we expected. And the sensors haven’t exactly been dependable, you know? Anyway. It can’t hurt.”
Kim shrugged, conceding the point. “Then I call the last. I want some real sleep.”
Jack shrugged again. He found his paperback in his jacket pocket and pretended to read. He wasn’t really in the mood for pulp sci fi, but holding the musty old book made it easier to ignore Dominic. Or it did until heard Dominic rummaging around in one of the lockers and realized what he was after. Jack heard a click, followed by a chime. He turned his chair around.
Dominic placed his hand on the grip of a weapon — a little too big for a pistol, and little too small for a rifle. The computer’s automated voice spoke: “Mission Specialist Vance, Dominic, Recognized. Jack heard a snap as the magnetic locks disengaged and the weapon was activated. He offered the weapon to Jack. “Here. You might need this.”
Jack raised his eyebrows and regarded Dominic. “Huh. Ray gun.”
Dominic sighed, and closed his eyes, and shook his head. “Just take the sodding thing, won’t you?”
Jack eyed the heavy weapon cautiously. “What the hell do you think I’m gonna shoot? Way up here?”
At that exact moment, a shadow passed over dome of the rover’s windshield and a mighty SKREEEECH tore the night. Jack jumped in his seat; only his safety belt kept him from cracking his skull on the ceiling. His heart pounded like a fusion-powered jackhammer.
Dominic leaned down to peer forward and shrugged. “Anything you deem necessary.”
Jack glared at him again, and then turned to look out at the night.
A huge creature with a long, pointed beak and a dagger-like point on the back of its head circled above them on leathery wings, dark against the blacker dark between the stars. It shrieked and Jack jumped again. He turned back to Dominic. “What the hell was that?”
“Pterosaur,” said Kim, who had joined them. “I think so, anyway. I’d have to look it up to be sure. It’s hard to tell in the dark.”
Jack watched as the flying monster circled again, screeched, and sped away.
# # #
Dominic settled into his bunk. Sleep would probably be a long time coming, but he figured he’d give it a shot. He’d wound up with the middle watch by default; every wink would count. Before he flicked off his light, glanced over at Kim. She was fingering her silver necklace, the one with all the religious symbols. Her eyes were closed and her head was bowed. Her lips moved slowly, but she wasn’t speaking, not aloud, anyway. When she realized Dominic was watching, she turned away, blushing.
Dominic smiled. “For a minute there, it looked like you were praying.”
“Really?” Kim turned back to him and frowned thoughtfully. “I must have been doing it wrong, then.”
“They didn’t teach that in Sunday School?”
Kim shrugged. “They didn’t get a chance. I never went. My parents weren’t exactly what you’d call religious.”
Dominic felt his eyebrows rising. “But you are?”
“I think so. Maybe. I’d like to be, I think. I guess I’m not exactly sure what it means. Not really, anyway.”
“Seems like that would be easy enough to look up, yes?”
Kim shook her head. “I’m looking for experience, not knowledge.”
“I just … I think there’s a hole in all of our lives that longs to be filled. Maybe that hole is God-shaped. I don’t know. I just … I need answers, Nick.”
“You’re a scientist. That’s pretty much the business you’re in, yes? Answers, I mean.”
Kim nodded. “Of course it is. I just … I think there’s more. Questions beyond what science was meant to answer. A deeper reality beyond the equations. Something … well, ineffable.”
Dominic sat up in his bunk. “If they’re all ineffable and what not, why bother trying?”
“Because I think that’s what we’re made for,” said Kim. “Like I said. There’s a … a hole in our lives. We’re always longing till we fill it.”
“What happens then?”
“I don’t know,” Kim admitted. “Maybe we long more, and for something even bigger. Everything we learn increases our capacity. Knowledge makes us bigger, so we can ponder bigger questions, and maybe even bigger ones after those.”
She fingered her necklace again. Dominic nodded at the symbol charms, each one unique and shining. “You pretty much have to pick one of those, don’t you?”
Kim quirked her head to the side. Her dark eyes were wider. “Why?”
“Don’t they kind of … contradict?”
Kim frowned. “I don’t know. Believing God spoke to Moses isn’t the same as saying God just spoke to Moses, is it?”
Dominic smiled again. “So you believe God spoke to Moses. Burning bush, stone tablets, whole nine yards.”
Kim shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know. Maybe. But it seems to me, the language of God is parable and story.” She ran her fingers through her dark hair. “That’s why stories are sacred. Does God need history to get the point across? Or just the stories? I think when you reduce sacred stories to mere history, you trivialize them.”
“So just metaphor then,” said Dominic.
Kim shook her head and scooted closer to the edge of her bunk. “Okay, see, the word I’m going to quibble with is just. I don’t know if there really was some … some holy fire rising from that desert mountaintop. Maybe there was. But if not, it’s because the metaphor is for something so much greater, so much farther above our ability to comprehend, that the image, for all its majesty, doesn’t begin to do it justice. Metaphor isn’t less than true; it’s more than true. Greater truth.”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?” Dominic waggled a finger at Kim. “You’re looking for God.”
“Of course not. I’m looking for the capacity to look for God.” Kim smiled. “Our discoveries make us bigger. What about you? Isn’t there a hole in your life?”
Dominic smiled, shrugged, and turned away. He flicked off his light without answering. A few minutes later, he heard scratching. He glanced over, and saw Kim scribbling in her notebook. Working her equations again, he supposed. He crossed his arms over his chest and slumped back down in his bunk. Several long minutes passed before he closed his eyes again.
# # #
At the controls, Jack’s face was stone. He watched the still night for a long time. The slightly crooked sword was higher in the sky. Upside down now, the bent dart looked more like an old-fashioned tobacco pipe. He thought about changing its name.
He turned back, just for a moment, just in time to catch Dominic staring at the holo picture of Anna. Dominic turned it off quickly. Too late. Jack turned back to the window, shaking his head, telling himself that he didn’t have time to feel angry and sad. As usual, he didn’t listen to himself.
He tried not to think about Anna, or about that lifetime-ago night in that dive bar with Dominic, the last night they’d been best friends. The last night they’d been bothers. That didn’t work, either.
Actually, dive might have been a little too kind for Lacey’s Honky-Tonk in Houston, but it was favorite with astronauts and wannabes, mostly because the beer was cheap and the music didn’t suck nearly as badly as you’d think. The three pool tables were worn but crowded, and a neon sign that predated Project Mercury promised ice-cold abst Blue R bbon.
The bar had been crowded that night. Jack had been talking to a babe, a big-haired blonde with a little too much makeup (usually a promising sign). What was her name again? Jessie? Jessica? Joan. Something with a J. No, wait. Alison. Yeah, that was it. Jack had been about to close the sale, but she’d just laughed and touched his arm. A few minutes later, she’d left with her friends. She didn’t even leave her number. Jack shrugged and went to look for Dominic. This had to be Dominic’s fault somehow. No way he’d have struck out that badly if his wingman had been there to have his back.
Jack found Dominic at the bar drinking shots of Irish whiskey. Jack felt his brow crease. There were a lot of empty glasses there. Now what the hell was wrong with him? It wasn’t like he’d struck out. He hadn’t even tried talking to anyone. Well except for the bartender, anyway. Jack slid onto the stool next to him. Dominic slugged another whiskey.
Jack ordered another longneck and shook his head. “Did you see that babe back there?” Jack held up his thumb and forefinger, just a few centimeters apart. “Nicky, I was this close, this frickin’ close to getting her number.”
“No doubt your reputation precedes you.”
Jack sighed. “We need to start hanging out somewhere where the babes don’t know us.”
Dominic kept his attention focused on his whiskey. “That rules out pretty much everywhere within about a seven-thousand nine-hundred and eighteen square mile radius of Houston, then, doesn’t it?”
“No kidding. Wonder what they’re drinking on Jupiter Station?”
Dominic didn’t look up from his glass. “Tang, I imagine.”
Jack frowned. “You okay, man?”
Dominic finished his shot and help up a finger. The bartender brought him another. Dominic downed it without looking up. “I am working very hard not to tell you what an astonishing idiot you are.”
Jack looked around, and then shook his head. “Uh, did I miss a meeting here?”
Dominic turned and glared at Jack with bloodshot eyes. “Why on earth do you need that bimbo’s number when you haven’t called Anna in, what, three weeks?”
Jack held up his hands. “Jeez. I didn’t know you were, like, keeping score here.”
Dominic poked Jack in the chest. “Anna’s special, Jack. If you’re too astronomically stupid to see that, then you bloody deserve all the empty, lonely years that’ll be waiting when you finally manage to grow the hell up.”
Jack returned the glare. “Huh. Now that you mention it, pot, that kettle is black.” Jack reached for Dominic’s whiskey. He frowned again. It was empty. The abst Blue R bbon signed flashed on, turning the empty glass blue.
“If I’d met someone like Anna, you can be damn sure I wouldn’t be here. Or anywhere else she wasn’t.” Dominic signaled the bartender again.
Jack took a sip of his beer. “Well thanks. Mom.”
He took another sip, and another. Then he set the empty bottle down, turned, and left. Dominic didn’t look up. Jack didn’t look back.
Jack had spent the next three or hour hours skulking through the empty streets of New Houston, hands in his pockets, scowling. He found another bar near the drowned quarter and thought about going in. The beers were starting to wear off. When he reached for the door and pulled it open, he saw his reflection in the glass and stared at it for an uncomfortably long moment. He let the door close in front of him and moved on. It was starting to rain.
He thought about going home. He didn’t. He thought about going back to the bar to find Dominic, either to make things right or to beat the living snot out of him. Either one would do, really. He didn’t do that, either.
By morning, the rain had stopped. The sun was up when Jack happened to find a flower shop. It was already open. He stopped. For a long moment, he looked inside without moving. He took a deep breath.
Dominic, this is absolutely not because I in any way think you might be right.
He opened the door and went in.
Thirty minutes later, Jack was walking to Anna’s apartment, carrying a bundle of at least three-dozen red roses — all they’d had. As he neared her door, he glanced up at her balcony, just to see if her light was on.
Anna was there, wearing a bathrobe. She wasn’t alone.
As Jack watched, Dominic took Anna in his arms and held her for a long moment.
Jack didn’t know how long that embrace lasted. He didn’t wait to find out. He walked away without looking back.
He left the flowers in a dumpster and walked faster, hands thrust in his pockets, head bowed.
He wondered if it was going to rain again.
# # #
In the rover, Jack watched the night, remembering and thinking about holes in lives. His eyes were cold.