by Carlton Herzog
IF THE DEVIL EXISTED, then what might be his greatest trick? Would it be to convince man that he doesn’t exist? Or that he does, to induce decent people to commit unthinkable acts of cruelty and murder in the name of God? That might explain why many religious people believe in black magic rather than in themselves, would rather regulate a woman’s uterus than weapons of mass shootings, and support toxic politicians.

Captain John Russell offers a third perspective, namely, that evil is a natural feature of the human package. Whether he is right will not be relevant tomorrow. For today, he will be executed. The killing will not lack for pomp and ceremony. He will stand before seven masked shooters attired in gold-tasselled crimson robes and seven monoliths engraved with the lives of the saints. Thus, he will die under the approving gaze of celestial intent enshrined in two dimensions, a testament to the flatness of the earth and spirit now common and expected.

Russell’s troubles started two hundred years earth time, thirteen years dilated mission time, ago. He, along with eleven other men and women, had been chosen for the Icarus mission. Its goal was to explore Second Earth.

When Icarus was launched, its crew was revered as a band of heroes. Children flocked to science and math as never before. It was the golden age of enlightenment. It seemed that man had finally shrugged off the chokehold of irrationality and superstition and all things make-believe.

But outward appearances were not inward reality. Many people yearned for a return to simpler times. Life, they believed, was too fast paced, complex, and technical.

So, the Later Day Luddites watched and waited and schemed. After a few decades most people had forgotten about Icarus. There were more pressing problems on earth. War, famine, pestilence, and death. The Four Horsemen seemed unimpressed by man’s accomplishments in space and thought little of his newfound enlightenment.

Religion began to inch its way back up the food chain. Although science could describe physical processes, it was at a loss to explain the whys. Where religion offered simple concrete answers to age old questions such the existence of God, the creation of the universe, and standards for right and wrong, science raised more questions than it answered.

Gradually the religious model of the world displaced the scientific one. Politicians found it expedient to mouth religious platitudes and belittle science as the work of the Devil. To express non-belief, or any form of scepticism, was to commit political suicide in the hyper-religious climate that thrived a hundred years after the Icarus left.

John Russell came back to a world of few books. Most had been burned. Censorship was the order of the day. A minor slip of the tongue could mean twenty lashes. A major one could mean a visit from the New Revived Inquisition and in the extreme, life imprisonment or death.

The Master ran the world, aided by the Seven Holies, super-bishops who administered the seven continents. Dissent in any form was regarded as the work of the Devil.

When Russell landed at the spaceport, there were no marching bands or reporters to greet him. Instead, the ship was surrounded by the Holy Swords, which were the Master’s Personal Guard. Questions needed to be answered not the least of which being why eleven members of the expedition were missing. The Master’s Guard escorted him to prison for interrogation by the Grand Inquisitor.

As he sat in his cell, he tried to make sense of what was happening:

I am the only man to visit another star system and live to tell of it. And this is how they treat me? Has everyone gone insane? They treat me as if I carried an infectious disease.

The Inquisition was short and to the point.

Inquisitor: ‘What was your mission?’

Russell: ‘To explore Second Earth.’

Inquisitor: ‘There is only one earth. To say otherwise is blasphemy.’

Russell: ‘I stand corrected.’

Inquisitor: ‘You do indeed. The Master is of the mind that you visited an impostor world maliciously created to lure you from the path of righteousness. You are nothing more than the Devil’s errand boy sent to contaminate us.’

Russell: ‘I don’t think the Devil had anything to do with it because he doesn’t exist.’

Inquisitor: ‘The Devil’s greatest triumph is in convincing people he doesn’t exist.’

Russell: ‘Did you mean to say God’s? Because He certainly has me fooled.’

Inquisitor: ‘Your smugness betrays you. The New Bible teaches us that pride goes before the fall. But let us return to this later. Your report states that the other eleven crew members committed suicide on the return trip. How do you explain that?’

Russell: ‘On Impostor Earth, we met someone who called himself the Engineer. He appeared to us as a middle-aged man.’

Inquisitor: ‘Did you ever stop to think he might be Satan himself?’

Russell: ‘Not for one minute.’

Inquisitor: ‘What did he tell you?’

Russell: ‘He said that what we think of us as the universe is a power plant feeding energy into a higher dimension.’

Inquisitor: ‘That makes no sense.’

Russell: ‘You asked me what he said. I understood him to mean that large celestial objects—planets, stars, and galaxies—all spin on an axis and rotate around a centre of mass. The Engineer’s race extracts and harvests a portion of that circular motion along with its dark matter, dark energy, and gravity. They use that energy to manufacture other universes. It is their version of a windmill or water turbine—both of which permit the conversion of kinetic energy to electrical.’

Inquisitor: ‘What else did he say?’

Russell: ‘Man was like extremophile bacteria that live in the cooling ponds of nuclear power plants. The difference between man and his bacterial counterpart is that the bacteria do not believe that the nuclear plant was created just for them or that they occupy its centre. According to him, we crow about being superior to the other creatures on the earth and reek of self-righteousness in all our endeavours.’

‘The Devil certain played with your minds as one might expect. Why can’t you see that they succumbed to temptation from the Devil disguised as this Engineer?’

‘Astronauts are trained to deal with the effects of deep space isolation. When all else fails, we can resort to hibernation to quiet our minds. The idea that humans are nothing more than arrogant bacteria is no great revelation to the scientifically minded. I suspect that there is some hidden variable in play that accounts for the suicides. I looked but couldn’t find anything in their blood to account for the behaviour. But my tools were limited. I suggest thorough autopsies to look for brain abnormalities. Lesions. Neurotransmitter imbalances.’

‘The bodies have been burned since they may be vessels for Satan’s corruption. As for you, do you believe you are nothing more than a bacterium in a cooling pond?’

‘One could argue that conceptually the idea fits the observable facts. I do not however see that as sufficient grounds for anyone ending their life. In an otherwise cold dead universe, life in whatever form it takes is precious and ought to be cherished. Better to light a candle than capitulate to the darkness.’

‘Whether you admit it or not, you were all touched by the Devil himself. For he has power to assume a pleasing shape. That he appeared as a mild-mannered technician should come as no surprise. He always pretends to be a gentleman. How did the others die?’

‘The day after we left Impostor, Captain Arch Clemens committed suicide by stepping out of an airlock without a suit. Major Hendriks, Captain Reynolds, and Lieutenant Mullins hanged themselves. Another six opted for cyanide they had manufactured in the lab. None left a note.’

‘It came down to me and Colonel Clemens, our team leader. I found him inside the airlock about to space himself. I got on the intercom and asked him why. His words are acid-etched on my brain.

‘ “I am nothing but a hunk of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones. My self-awareness of that is an existential liability. I cannot live except as a self-deceiver who must lie to himself about himself, as well as his unwinnable situation in the world.” ’

‘With that, he punched the airlock open and was sucked into space.’

‘How did that make you feel?’

‘Sad, disappointed. Clemens—tough, always upbeat—reminded me of the great explorers like Shackleton and Perry.

‘Colonel Clemens’ negative words carry the indelible stamp of the Devil. Did you ever stop to think that your crew might have been possessed?’

‘I have never believed in possession. After all, it would mean the Devil would have be something of an optimist if he believed he could make people worse than they are.’

‘Such flippancy in the face of death. Yet, it carries the seed of truth, for we all fall short of the glory of God. But you forget that the Devil is a fallen angel, a crafty insidious thing, bloated with pride. A being whose very essence is implacable hate, patient cunning, and a sleepless refinement of device to inflict revenge. To do that, he turns men’s heart cold and fill the graveyards.

‘Let me refresh your memory as to John’s Revelation as to Satan’s end game: “I looked and there before me was a pale horse. Its rider was Death and Hell was fallen close behind him. It was given power over the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and the wild beasts of the earth.”

‘If you but repent, then you may yet be saved. Given the hardships you endured on your long voyage, I might be persuaded to recommend leniency. I can only save you from the firing squad, if you renounce Satan and all his works, and then commit your remaining days to service in the Church.’

Russell: ‘A generous offer, but one I cannot in good faith take. I cannot renounce what doesn’t exist. I am not Galileo. Where he abjured the Copernican view of the solar system to avoid the block, I will not. Not from some excess of morbidity induced from my voyage or the caustic and humbling observations of an alien, but from my right as a sentient being to make up my own mind about personal matters of faith. While I do not look forward to my imminent death, I take solace in the truth that death by firing squad is quick and painless. As for the Devil, Good Father, fret not, for should he come for my soul or yours, I’m sure he’ll leave empty-handed.’




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