And on the first day, Aren awoke. He felt quite serene. There was air, and light wreathed in smoke, but no gravity. He blinked a few times and tried to orient himself. The incense floated in front of him, its tip giving off a bright glow that was covered in a globe of gray fog. There was just enough ambient light in the room for Aren to see the walls around him, and that faint brightness, combined with the fog and the tip of light from the incense, made him feel as if he were watching the first tendrils of a sunrise.
He’d been onboard the chapel for longer than he could remember. Years, likely. Time took on a different meaning when you were divorced from most of its effects, away from the material world. There was the diurnal cycle, certainly—the chapel was in orbit around a planet—but Aren’s own version of a full day, which was a few hours longer than a complete rotation, had long since overridden it. He had stopped experiencing time as discrete, parceled units, and now saw it as one unbroken stream, running from the constantly moving now toward that misty end in the distance. A lot of his perceptions had changed, here in the celestial chapel.
He wasn’t alone, and was thankful for it; being alone up here would unquestionably have driven him mad. The other monks tended to their duties same as he did, albeit at different hours— everyone had their own version of a full day. The only time they were sure to meet was during one of the two communal litanies in the prayer room. The arrangement gave him all the privacy he needed between himself and God, while ensuring he retained the lifeline of a quiet but supportive community. Aside from reciting the day’s prayers, he would often not speak a word for weeks. It helped. He’d had a lot of thinking to do, over the years, and it had run into dead ends more often than he could count. He’d needed all the time God had seen fit to grant him. He extinguished the incense—it was the only fire allowed onboard, and was never to be left unguarded—then pushed away from the wall and floated through the exit.
He entered a corridor lined with Egonics immersion chambers. Each construct, several times his size, combined extensive databases of Scripture—audio recitals, holograph images of extant manuscripts, even various sensory replications of holy sites—with a fully enclosed capsule whose dark interior came replete with any number of virtual interfaces. It would react to its occupant’s every move, look, blink, twitch, breath, and brain wave, providing him with organized masses of data with which to contemplate the original true word.
Aren gently brushed his fingers over them as he passed by, enjoying the small bumps and ridges on their elongated surfaces. Reality and time became very much internal concepts when one was a monk in orbit, and, just as with the daily prayer sessions, it helped to ground oneself from time to time. It kept the mind from straying too far off the true path. When he’d first come here, his thoughts had been a muddle. It had taken him long, so very long, to regain even the capacity for thinking clearly. He knew he’d had what those in secular circles elsewhere in the cluster persisted in calling a breakdown, but what in the empire was called—if you were a holder of any stature, at least—a crisis of faith.
He floated into the common area, where the other monks were enraptured in their work. He knew them all by name and they knew him; there was no need for greetings. Aren grabbed hold of a handle in the wall, steadied himself, and watched quietly. He hadn’t even needed to stop here, but he wanted to experience this little world in motion. He had come to feel quite a lot of affection for his fellow men, tinged as it was with regret over wasted time.
The work onboard the space station involved human oversight of semiautomated experiments, most of which included some manner of biological component. The Amarr Empire was vast, its citizens making a home out of practically every manner of environment to be found in the cluster, and it was in constant search for ways to fulfill their base needs. Sustainable crops. Clean water. Faith.
Joining the floating chapel involved some degree of training for the hardships of space, but did not require a heavily scientific background. It did demand the capacity to focus—just focus, even for years—on the same repetitive tasks, until one had imbued them with so much purpose and force of habit that one could no more err in them than one could err in breathing. It had occurred to Aren on more than one occasion that the process of rebuilding his relationship with God had occurred along a rather similar path.
The problem, one of three that had broken Aren’s will in the distant past and eventually forced him to confront a number of unpleasant truths, was that while the Amarr Empire was easily the most devout, faithful, and spiritual of the four major factions in New Eden, it was also the hungriest. They were expansionists, and it was incumbent on their people to create wealth, conquer new territories, subjugate the people who lived in those territories, and play a highly complex political game that started with the slaves and ran all the way up through the commoners, the holders, the heirs, and even the empress herself.
There were grand structures in place, both physical and spiritual, to sustain and feed a complex balance of power between all forces in the empire, and holders such as Aren played a pivotal part in maintaining it. He had been dissatisfied with this arrangement for a long time, but as with many before him, he had believed he could improve the system from inside, and had worked without rest for entirely too long with entirely too little to show for it: some improvements to his own holdings, a few token concessions from the house he served, and nothing more.
An exhausted wreck, Aren had suffered a crisis of faith, renounced his title, given his possessions to charity, shut off all communications with friends, family, and allies, and retired to the chapel in the sky. A place of quiet contemplation, where their tasks would keep them occupied and, more to the point, sequestered and silent, while they considered their place in God’s hierarchy. A place offered only to holders, partly because commoners were considered to need nothing more than the planet-bound temples in the places where they lived, and partly because holders in crisis still wielded considerable political power and were considered best kept at arm’s length.
There was no communications equipment onboard except for emergency transmitters, and even if a monk lost his mind and used them to call for his evacuation, it was well known that a ship would arrive, staff would make inspections, and then the ship would leave again without taking on passengers. If necessary, the staff might also leave behind extra supplies of sedatives, or, in extreme cases, administer a concoction of nanobots that’d travel up the subject’s bloodstream and into his brain, where they’d do a little reconfiguring of his hypothalamus. Anyone of sound mind who wished to leave could wait for the shipping vessels that passed by every so often to bring supplies and other needed goods.
Aren allowed himself to hover there for a few moments longer, then pushed off and floated out of the room. He took a few slow turns along the way—there were no swift movements here, not unless you wanted to turn your inner ear into a gyroscope—and eventually progressed to a quiet part of the station that held little of any nominal interest: items in longterm storage, unused or broken equipment, processed and sealed waste materials from various experiments. Refuse. Sometimes it was good to get away from people entirely. With the way the Amarr Empire was structured, you could barely ever be alone. If you weren’t playing politics, or meeting dignitaries, or answering the requests of commoners, you were, even if engaged in private prayer, always surrounded by the slaves.
Aren floated up—or what he decided was up, at least— to a small cubbyhole on the other end of the room. There was a window there that looked out onto inky blackness, and there were harnessed storage containers that formed a semienclosed space reminiscent of an attic he’d often visited during his childhood. He reached in between two of the containers and pulled out one of his most prized possessions: a dog-eared paper copy of the Pax Amarria. He had Egonics access to all its texts in holographic form at his whim, and while all monks were strongly encouraged to avoid the temptation of physical possessions—not just out of sanctity, but to avoid reminders of their past lives—this was one he knew he couldn’t be without.
He opened it to a random page and began to read, but his mind kept coming back around to the idea of privacy, and all those quiet slaves who had been so browbeaten and afraid that they were easily ignored.
He had professed to believe in slavery. The empire had been built on that foundation, and the degree to which its continuation was ingrained in the collective psyche was second only to faith in God himself. To be against slavery was to be against the Amarr Empire. Some discomfort was patiently tolerated—not of the slaves themselves, who didn’t warrant that amount of concern, but of the those poor holders whose duties involved dealing with the slaves and watching their inevitable suffering whenever a rebellion broke out. It tested the spirit, but it worked, and it was necessary. Slaves were not to be abused; they held value and were the reason the empire had been able to expand to such an extent.
The slow realization that slavery horrified and disgusted him to his very core had completely upended Aren’s life. Not only had he lost his taste for the rigid hierarchy professed by the faith, both of this life and the next, but he began to feel that the very existence of slavery was an affront to any just and decent God, not to mention all his followers. It was anathema to a civilized, religious society of any kind.
At the time, he couldn’t possibly express this. In fact, he’d tried to deny it for much longer than he cared to admit. But eventually he couldn’t stand it: not one more day where he’d strike someone out of a ledger because they’d died, away from their homeland, nor yet another night when he’d tally the endless man hours worked on the fields, down in the mines, and in the distant depths of the asteroid refineries, for no reward other than the lauded glory of the Almighty.
Aren sighed, rubbed his eyes, and looked out the window. He hadn’t seen his own family in a long time, and whatever hours he’d worked here he could no longer count. He’d arrived at what he felt was a bitter truth, and his stay up here had managed to make it bitter still, full of further doubts and worries. He was tired now. Calm, and peaceful at last, but tired.
He tucked the book in between the containers, touched his fingers to the cold glass of the window, then floated away as the condensation from his fingerprints slowly faded into nothing. He headed for the prayer room. Not the one he’d left—that had simply been an empty space in which he sometimes lit incense—but the proper hall of assembly.
It was full of stars. Every surface that wasn’t glass was gilded, ranging from a darker, coppery hue in the naves, all the way to a pure, unadulterated shine in the sanctuary at the end of the hall. Overhead the glass was paneled in subtle polygonal ways, as if it were an empty kaleidoscope.
Depending on where he chose to position himself, Aren could look up and see different parts of distant space, magnified as if they were right in his own constellation. It was an astonishing effect, made all the more potent by its subtlety. The monks were not told about it, and did not discuss it with newcomers; it was left up to every arrival to discover. Only after the collective had heard the gasp of surprise did they acknowledge the fact that the onlooker was looking at distant stars.
The reason was never discussed, but anyone belonging to the Amarr Empire would understand it in a heartbeat. Here are our borders, it said. The empire is much larger than you imagined, and this grand, wondrous expanse is yours to think of, to maintain, and to grow.
The first time he’d seen it, he’d been crestfallen. The idea of the empire expanding throughout the cluster felt like a cancerous infection to him. It was already the most expansive of any living faction, and he feared its hunger, its need to dominate the world. He’d wanted it to pull back, look inward, reexamine old values, and fix itself.
As he sat in the nave he remembered that feeling, and how long he’d kept it in his heart. It was an angry and dissatisfied one, but not invalid or unjustified. He had simply come to terms—slowly, begrudgingly—with what it should have been directed at all along.
He stroked a hand over the golden pew, and gave the stars one last, long look. It was time to leave.
Aren let himself float out of the assembly, and headed toward the dark room.
Every Amarr place of gathering, every house of worship, every chapel, church, and cathedral had one room just like this, and it was usually the first one you passed upon entering. There were times when you needed an absolute absence of distraction, an inviolable time and space reserved only for you and the Almighty. No burning incense, no whisper or murmur of monks at work. No stars.
It would have no windows and no lighting, and its walls would be thick. It would let in air, because you could not always know how long you needed to be in there, but the air would be funneled in from secret and labyrinthine channels that would not allow a single vibration of sound to be carried with it. If the door was open, you entered. If it was not, you would not knock, and you would not wait around. The door was open, and Aren entered.
After the door had closed behind him, he closed his eyes and waited. Shapes made of light and colors revolved in front of him. His ears picked up the rustle of his clothes, the sighs of his breathing. His skin itched.
He sat still. Eventually the shapes faded. So did the sounds, which graduated to his heartbeat, then a high-pitched whine, and finally nothing. He had been gradually relaxing his muscles, and they started giving him the wonderfully soothing paradox of a leaden, heavy feel even as he floated in weightlessness.
He opened his eyes to such utter darkness that it went beyond the concept of light; and he listened fiercely for any sound, any sound at all.
There was nothing. He was in a void, rendered formless except for the shape of his very thoughts.
With those thoughts he spoke to God.
He had come to this place, all that time ago, burdened with awful truths. He belonged to an empire that professed love for all its people, but bound them in a rigid hierarchy, enslaved its strangers, and thirsted always for more, more, more. Once he had finally opened up to his feelings, he had done so in force and rejected equivocations. The faith and the Lord and the flock all disgusted him. No excuses could be made for the way the Amarr Empire was run.
A hierarchy rooted in belief was obviously flawed because it couldn’t be questioned nor taken apart and rebuilt with ease when it wasn’t working efficiently. A society kept running by slavery allowed itself to discriminate against its own people at a fundamental level of human rights. An empire in constant expansion was impossible to treat as a peaceable entity, particularly when that expansion came at the cost of other societies. These three facts had accreted on his soul until their weight had finally broken him.
He had believed himself an outsider, and he had not been sure if he had lost his faith, or whether the faith was impossible to truthfully sustain if it demanded that he accept the world it resulted in. He had fled, which was a cowardly act, but his mind had been in disarray and his body weakened to the point of collapse; there had barely been anything left of him at all, let alone the will to openly rebel.
His time on the station had helped, first to settle his nerves and let his body heal, then to slowly begin examining his thoughts in a calmer, increasingly rational state, and finally to gain perspective on the empire and all it stood for. He had come to firmly believe that you could not understand certain parts of life unless you had been given the opportunity to stand outside them.
What he saw every time he looked at the planet below him, with all the people living there, was a kingdom of hope, aspiration, and stark, unflinching realism. There were hundreds of planets like this one, and while all of them might be governed—or at least guided—by ideals, those ideals were implemented by flawed, fallible human beings. No matter whether they called themselves Gallente, Caldari, Amarr, or Minmatar, or even if they belonged to one of the pirate factions scuttling around on the outskirts of space, they had ideals, and they tried to live by them, because otherwise their societies would fall apart.
Belief might put the hierarchy beyond question, but it also gave its people something they could aspire to. Yes, for a few lost souls the faith merely added another layer of deceit and intrigue to shroud themselves in, but for most people, it gave them ideals and a sense that they could serve a truly greater good. If there was nothing else to aspire to, people would find something. They would look for whatever they thought would bring them the most happiness, and without faith, they would turn to material wealth and inevitably ruin themselves in the process. The Caldari had created hierarchies without faith, and the corruption that ensued had eventually caused a blooddrenched revolution.
Slavery was unfair, brutal, and horrible. There was no getting around that. But what Aren had gradually come to realize was that it existed practically everywhere. Not in the oversimplified, sentimental sense that all work was drudgery and that the poor were doomed to be downtrodden, but in a very real, systematic, insidious fashion. Every society in New Eden had a class of people who were forced to do the menial— or demeaning—jobs, and who were punished if they did not. There were various terms for these kinds of social conditions, but most of them obscured the fact that the people suffering under them had no choice in the matter and never would.
The Amarr were the only ones who had dared to be honest and gone to the lengths of codifying the situation, so that some lines of mistreatment would not be crossed. Slaves in the empire would get health care far beyond that of the Gallente poor dying in the streets of the Federation, and it was forbidden to let a slave’s well-being suffer beyond what was necessary for their work. Efforts were made to keep families together whenever possible. Slaves could request training in various vocations and could aspire to a better life, but the empire was honest about what limits were placed on them, and did not maintain some mockery of freedom where in reality there was no freedom to be had.
You might remain a slave, but if you worked hard enough and smart enough, your children or their children could eventually become free, and at that point, their newly granted freedom would be unquestionable: No hidden barriers, no empty promises, no withholding of rights. There was a necessity to force people into hard labor, because otherwise a great deal of the citizens would suffer, so the empire did it, openly and without hesitation, and then provided a clear-cut way out for those who earned that right. None of the others did the same, or could with full sincerity ever guarantee freedom for those on the lowest rung of the ladder. The Amarr Empire was honest, even as that honesty painted it as the villain of civilization.
And if it had to be done—if society had to have structure, and if that structure had to force a class of people into servitude—then not only were these the best ways to do it, but there was no longer any excuse for letting the rest of the world go on unaffected. The empire needed land for its citizens, and it needed more people—who, yes, would become slaves—to work that land in whatever way was needed to ensure food, housing, and safety for themselves and everyone else.
Of course it was a complicated argument. Of course it couldn’t be simplified if all you cared about was philosophy and pure ethics. This was real, and it took heed of real people, their proclivities, problems, and inevitable clashes. It was, to Aren, the most human attempt at trying to live a good life as an entire society.
It wasn’t right. It wasn’t just. But it was as close to those values as anyone could get, and if it had to be done, in order to provide deep spirituality, firm structure, and food for the hungry, then this was the least worst way to do it.
So Aren spoke to God, and asked forgiveness. He floated in that void beyond the darkness, listening and looking for confirmation.
Time passed. He felt no hunger or tiredness. His conviction, so hard won, did not waver.
And eventually Aren left that room, and retired to his quarters. He would request passage on the next supply ship that God saw fit to send. He would rejoin the empire, instead of looking down on it from the darkness. He had won the war with himself. He loved the world, the Lord of its creation, and every living being in it.