The Eudaemonia, in orbit above Uozo
A team of EVA engineers perform pre-flight checks on the shuttles and the docking modules. They clamber across the vessel, like pinpricks against the structural vastness of the spine. Beneath them hangs the great orb of Uozo, crested by the sunrise, orange and blue and whorled in silent, flowing white. The majesty of the sight aches in every human heart onboard, and for the EVA crews most of all. From space their world had once looked like this, a garden-home of shining colours, before the comet rendered it an ash-shrouded tomb.
“Like Earth”, one engineer whispers over the comms.
“Like Earth”, echoes another.
They had all lived terrestrial lives that to them seemed only decades ago, not the near-millennium it was in truth. From the perspective of their current selves they’d had the neuroscan and in the blink of an eye been transposed 800 years into the future, to be told they were dead and the planet dead with them. Reborn not into the paradise the Church had promised, but a horizonless world of pressurised habs on airless moons. The planet beneath them now was a dream restored.
“Rejoice then brothers,” their Vested-level supervisor calls out, “for this virgin paradise shall be yours”
“Praise the Progenitors!” the cry goes up, and like a wave of raw emotion takes them all.
"Praise the Progenitors! Praise the Progenitors!"
“Praise the Progenitors!” Expedition Commander Jannik Strohmeier greets each brother as they are deposited still steaming from the resurrection tanks. As Commander he had been decanted first, reborn a couple of hours ago. Now he watches the nano-styli weave muscle fibre and knit bone, as quantum-computed molecular algorithims reassemble his crew out of raw organics. Incredible; when Strohmeier was first resurrected on Callisto almost twenty years ago, the process took over a month. When they departed, it had taken over a week - and over the course of their long voyage the shipboard AI had optimised the process to mere days.
The Eudaemonia had made a journey from the Martian dockyards to the furthest reaches of the solar system, crossed the gateway out in the Oort, traversed the vast Nexus itself and travelled the expanse of the inner Zhuza system. Anyone making it over such unthinkable distances wasn’t just going to go to sleep for the ride. Every gram of mass counted, it was hard enough getting a ship out here in a mere six years without having to pack on enough life-support systems to keep a meat crew alive. Instead, only their neurographs had been stored. The ship had already been in orbit for almost nine months while the drones towed in asteroids, processing the raw minerals and complex organics needed to construct the resurrection module.
The lights switch to green and a res-tank chimes as it finishes its occupant. The fluids drain, the restraints unlock and the glass slides open, and out floats someone Strohmeier had decidedly not been looking forward to seeing on the other side. His second-in-command, and a drooling fanatic, an actual honest-to-goodness believer in alien gods and the secret artefacts.
“Ah, my friend”, Alexis Reza grins inanely, coughing up floating globules of amniotic fluid, “I only wish we had been here for the crossing into the Nexus. Imagine - to behold the work of the First Ones all around us!”
It's impressive, Strohmeier’s forced to admit, how instantly Reza seems to have gotten used to his new body. The Head Mentor kicks off from the tank like an athlete off the poolside, gliding over to the uniform rack with practiced ease. For Strohmeier it took an hour of retching before the tremors stopped and his proprioception was even working properly. It’s like the man’s propelled by the power of his faith alone. Or more likely his dog-like loyalty has won him a couple more gene-tweaks than Strohmeier’s ever been rewarded with.
“How many have been decanted? How soon do we make planetfall?” Reza asks, already having worked his way into a jumpsuit.
“EVA guys are already out and running the checks. Give them a couple more hours and they’ll be done, a couple more and we’ll have everyone done” Strohmeier gestures to the tanks.
The Chief Mentor isn’t really listening. He's drifted over to the porhole, gasping with awe - “Ah, Progenitors above! Alhamdulillah, selamat maju jaya!”
“It is quite something” Strohmeier admits. He can’t pretend the sight doesn’t stir him either. A whole new world. A living world. Back home in the anodyne corridors and capsules of Site Epsilon, Church nanotech can fulfil almost any material desire. Their HHUD’s can project hallucinatory vistas of open skies and rolling fields - but nothing can replicate the things they all remember from Earth - the touch and taste of the open air, the sensation of full g or of breathing soil underfoot. He is among the only humans who will ever experience these things again.
"Luar biasa! I have only seen it for a moment from above, and already I think it will be hard to return, even to the fold of the Church, once our work here is done!"
"The idea of a planet underfoot again..." Strohmeier agrees. No matter how much he loathes the man, at a time such as this his enthusiasm is still infectious. One good thing Reza'll have done for him then. After all this planet will be his home now. The true believers will likely euthanise themselves before the return journey, thinking their spirits will transmigrate to their next bodies. Most of them killed themselves before the voyage, in fact. Certainly Reza did. But Strohmeier never believed in that. Surely the fact there’s still a copy of him living and breathing on Callisto disproves it.
In truth, he’d want to stay even if there was a way to get his consciousness back to the solar system. Out here he's far from the grasp of the Church, from Corinealdi, Ben Abbes and all the rest of that cabal. He’d never been much of an Autologist, his wife had been. She’d only pressured him into getting the scan a few months before the comet came, and well, he wasn’t going to deny her the desperate hope of being reunited in the afterlife. Only turns out it wasn’t so desperate a hope, and he had never truly accepted being reborn into a world where the Church was all that was left.
Trouble is, there are two types of people who volunteered for the missionary voyages. The ones like him who wanted to get away from it. And the ones like Alexis Reza, who love and serve the Church with all their heart and soul. And unlike with Reza, it’s not always easy knowing who is which.
“Join me in a song of praise, brothers!” the Chief Mentor exclaims, trying to keep the newly resurrected distracted from the pain.
As Commander, with all his commanderly responsibilities, Strohmeier can excuse himself from joining in. He pulls up a random data file on his HHUD and moves his eyes conspiciously from left to right, to look like he's actually reading it. But he makes furtive glances at his fellow expeditionaries as they sing, hoping to glean from their facial responses some modicum of insight. He could be surrounded by potential allies in faithlessness, who dare not show themselves, or just as likely by zealots who don’t make such an outward show of it. He wonders if any of them are watching him out of the corner of their eyes, and thinking the same.
Anyone besides Reza, Strohmeier doesn't know so well. He barely met them all before the launch. They’re mostly Practitioner-level believers who’ve been living on the Ark orbitals. The ever-faithful, forgotten masses who the Church bled dry on Earth, but now has no more use for in the afterlife. They doubtless jumped at the chance to serve Autology in any way more meaningful than vegetating on the basic Church regimen of free drugs and HHUD porn.
“Commander, if you have a moment?" someone calls from above. Ah. That's Science Officer Malorie McGowan, so fixated on her terminals he'd hardly noticed her floating overhead, monitoring surface telemetry from the planet below. He got to know her a little better. And she is not like the Arkers.
“-So probes indicate the atmosphere's highly toxic - which, well let's be honest is unsurprising given that it's fucking orange. Not exactly un-breathable, a good amount of oxygen down there, but the concentration of sulphur dioxide's high enough to damage your lungs if you inhale it for more than a couple minutes. Also - how's this for an exotic touch - the air's swirling with vanadium pentoxide dust, so that'll cause severe irritation and inflammation to any exposed skin. Not that you'd be stupid enough to expose any anyway. As for potential biohazard risks, well we'll have to get fauna and flora samples first to analyse native biochemistry"
Despite himself Strohmeier smiles. "Copy that, McGowan"
He could almost bring himself to like her. She brings a touch of levity to proceedings, acts the least culty, the most like a normal human being of anyone he's met in years. Anyone he's met since Earth, he thinks piercingly.
Only trouble is her record says something else. She's a Vested-level believer from Site Lambda. Doesn't mean she's a zealot, you might think, Strohmeier's Ordained-level himself. But then you look at her file. Canadian astrobiologist in her past life, joined the Church after the death of her husband in the anti-Autology riots and quickly climbed the tiers. Almost certainly a true believer then, and with an axe to grind against anyone who isn’t. What else could explain the transfer she requested from her cushy job at Site Epsilon to the rugged Lambda re-education facility on Ganymede?
“Hey, Mtakwenda", she calls out to their sec-officer, "not that we'll know anything much 'bout the natives till we biopsy one, but if we're going by the resilience of terrestrial arthropods to massive tissue damage, you'd better print off some nasty munitions as precaution. Might I suggest a nerve agent?"
Rui Mtakwenda's field stripping a coilgun to check for printing defects. "Eu vou pensar em algo melhor" he replies.
McGowan nods, "o que você quiser".
Strohmeier's not any surer what to think of Mtakwenda than of their Science Officer. File says he was a Brazilian PMC in his past life, now head of the Eudaemonia’s security detail. Only Practitioner-level, but the man has Autologist helixes scarified onto his arms and chest, which he actually specified he didn't want the res-tanks to fix. He wears little icons of Ishimura and Ben Abbes round his neck. Isn’t it all too much for only a mid-tier believer? He's either trying to hide a lack of devotion, or he's an absolute fanatic who just cant pass the courses.
"We haven't come all this way to kill, doctor", Reza reprimands, "we came to teach".
"Yeah well helps to be prepared. And well, whose to say a little positive reinforcement won't help the teaching?"
Mtakwenda laughs. Reza does not, only gives them both a stern look and drifts away. This is the thing. She behaves so flippantly that Strohmeier can't help but hope she's a secret unbeliever. He's seen people sentenced to fates worth than death for less than what she's just said. But why would she have survived all these years, why would she have been selected for the mission, why would Reza not demand to have her shoved back in her tank and disassembled, if she wasn't actually a proven believer through and through? She works at the Ganymede penal colony, for gods sake, probably experimenting and doing god knows what to the non-conformists. The fact she seems so undevout probably means the opposite. But he can't figure her out. He can't figure any of them out yet apart from Reza.
And if he makes the move and decides to trust any of them, Strohmeier can’t really afford to be wrong...
Six years ago, Site Epsilon, surface of Callisto
They were invited into the Chairman’s offices just as he was finishing a sermonstream. In Mandarin, this one, totally different to his bombastic English style that Strohmeier was familiar with. The Chairman didn’t move around or gesticulate towards the heavens, he spoke measuredly towards the camera, punctuating points with simple gestures of resolve and certainty. His accent was unrecognisable. As the stream finished and the studio lights came up, Strohmeier realised there were women splayed over the sofas and on piles of cushions on the floor. They looked drugged out of their minds, faces slack and glazed in expressions of unthinking adoration. So, Strohmeier noted to himself with little surprise. Turned out what they said about him was true.
“Welcome my friends”, Oumar Ben Abbes greeted them with the usual hearty, jovial introduction of his streams, voice booming in that avuncular, quasi-african accent that the Tunisian-born Chairman must have been putting on. “Let me embrace you!" He seemed to have switched back into his English-speaking persona the moment the cameras had stopped rolling. "Come. Come I have the greatest of news for you today.”
“Ch-Chairman I feel blessed to be in your presence” Reza blustered, overcome by emotion, or perhaps by the gripping force of Ben Abbes’ embrace - he was a big man. “It was your videos that brought me to Autology. That saved me! Nobody would help me, I-I walked past the Autology centre in Koja district every day and never imagined it held all the answers, until - until-”
“-It is alright my son. You do not need to praise me. It was you who completed the courses, your strength and your commitment in following the program that brought you here. I only showed you there was a way. But the power-” he placed his hand over Reza’s heart, “was always within you”.
The Chairman withdrew from the embrace, and gestured for them to sit, reclining into an armchair as Reza wiped the tears from his face. “That is the teaching of Autology, and that is why you are both here today” Ben Abbes always raised a didactic finger as he spoke. “The Church has very great need of you, friends, of your talent and ability”.
“What is the Church’s will?” Reza asked, voice trembling with passion.
“Yes, I too am eager to serve” Strohmeier parroted, with what must have been obvious but plausibly deniable insincerity.
He looked Ben Abbes in the eye and mentally dared him to give a sign - just a smile that wasn’t the big dumb smile he always had, or a slight narrowing of the eyes, a slight tilt of his head. But there was no change. Even though he knew that he knew. He must. He must have felt it. That Strohmeier saw through him, knew his secret. That the great Oumar Ben Abbes, the favoured of Ishimura, the second prophet, the beloved of millions, didn’t really believe in a word he said. Didn’t really believe in the Progenitor dimension or the alien artefacts or any of this shit. But he gave no sign.
Instead he simply gestured to one of his followers. “Fadiah…” Ben Abbes said softly to the girl, and wordlessly she came over, and knelt between his thighs. Alexis seemed flustered and looked embarrassedly at his feet, blushing despite the fact that this kind of thing was, in principle, absolutely in accordance with Autologist beliefs. Strohmeier just wondered why Ben Abbes did it. If the Chairman was trying to impress him or establish his dominance it was having no such effect. Strohmeier was married. Being married, in fact, had rather slowed his ascent through the ranks, Autology taking a dim view of commitments to anything besides the Church. But he’d stood by her. If he’d left his wife like Ben Abbes had his, maybe he’d be sitting in his place by now. But unlike the Chairman, climbing to the top of Autology had never been his life's goal. Being a member of this cult at all had never been something he'd asked for.
“The task the Presidium has given you is great, my friends”. Continuing as though nothing in particular was going on, Ben Abbes flicked a finger to share his display, a hallucinatory wall of text and images appearing in front of them on their HHUDs. "This is the report the Outreach Office has put together on the Volzhkerix species. Primitive, these aliens, according to what Owner records we have been permitted to access. Isolated from foreign contact. An optimum candidate for the Church’s very first extrasolar missionary expedition. The first step on our path towards the multiversal ascension, and an eternity of delight for all mindkind” his eyes burned with fake fevour at the words. “I would go myself, forgoing these comforts” he patted Fadiah on the head, “but the faithful need me here to guide them through the sacred tiers of self-understanding-”
“Of course you would, your Autoscience”, Strohmeier couldn’t resist the jibe.
“Please,” Ben Abbes waved a hand dismissively, “call me your brother, as you would any other believer”. If he noticed the slight he still kept up the act and gave no sign. “Or father, whichever you prefer”.
Strohmeier wondered if the Chairman ever came out of character.
“I-It is a great honour, Bapak, to be selected for this glorious undertaking” Reza blurted with obvious excitement, his embarrassment instantly forgotten. “Until now we have heard only rumours of the great ship being constructed. Is it ready? When do we depart?”
“Six weeks my friends! I am glad to say it. Ishimura himself would smile upon such eagerness. Though - you shall not be departing, as such. The great vessel cannot be overburdened on its long journey. Only your neurographs will be taken. If you wish to reach the new world, it will be necessary to release your spirit from its vehicle of flesh - as before on Earth"
Strohmeier barely resisted snorting.
"A second resurrection would be an honour indeed" Reza exclaimed.
'Truly" Ben Abbes tapped on his armrest and Fadiah crawled away. "Should you accept this gracious offer, my brave friends, I promise you that all Autology shall know your names".
Strohmeier sat back pensively. Unlike Alexis Reza he needed to think. If he went then he, or at least a version of him - but one as real as he was himself - would never see his wife again. But then...to be free. To be free of the surveillance, the endless courses, the gnawing indoctrination, all of it - even of her, he guiltily admitted, for she was as much a fanatic as anyone else he was wary of on Callisto. Even if it was not truly himself that would enjoy it - he wasn't going to kill himself after all - perhaps it would give him some comfort to know that somewhere out there, far away from here, he had found peace among the stars. The very thing Autology had promised, but never given him.