Pastor Melitus shivers. Not from the cold. The harvest festival is almost upon him, although there is nothing seasonal about the weather. With its thin atmosphere and its proximity to the sun, the planet’s surface is a searing 70 degrees — hot enough to boil reptilian blood, and far too hot to harvest anything but minerals. Here there are no seasons, the occasional red sandstorm all that passes for weather.
This God-forsaken prison colony is his third mission. His most recent one was on a lunar outpost in the Second System, and before that he spent 10 Standard Galactic Years on Luciflex where the occupants all slaved in the molten mines. This mission has been his most difficult. The prison inmates — the most hardened criminals in the Galaxy — are beyond salvation, and the guards are a godless lot.
As for the indigenous life forms, the Quiffos, Pastor Melitus has long since given up trying to communicate with them. The previous incumbent, Pastor Jakob, claimed some successes, but, for Pastor Melitus, carrying the Word of God to the aliens has proved a thankless task. He has had to accept failure. The highest form of life native to the planet, the grotesque, nine-limbed Quiffos are considered intelligent, although their grunting, wheezing, burbling efforts at English more resemble the sounds of an old man dying of emphysema than any human language.
He slips on his cassock and leaves the sacristy. It’s a poor excuse for a chapel with pew spaces for a congregation of no more than 50. Not that that’s likely to be a problem. Pierrepoint, the prison warden, will attend the service with his wife, and he has promised to rustle up a few of his juniors — maybe three of them. The rest are less certain: some military personnel, perhaps, and there are three transports in the dock. He might get one or two from each ship, if he’s lucky.
The pastor is finding it difficult not to surrender to despair. He has to continually remind himself that the Almighty won’t object to the size of the church nor the number of those present.
He checks his watch. With a slight tremor in his hands, he throws open the doors and steps outside. The sun is high in the sky, bathing everything in an even, soft light, filtered by the envelope of the massive dome. The ambient temperature is a steady 25 degrees, the humidity, as always, a comfortable 15%.
He casts his gaze about. Towering above the chapel on his left stands the administration block, a kaleidoscope of glass, to his right the military barracks and beyond that, the massive, brooding bulk of the prison. There are no worshippers. He checks his watch again. Five Standard Galactic Minutes to go.
What if no one turns up? Another riot in the prison would stop the warden and his staff from attending. Could this be the first harvest festival ever to score a duck anywhere in the Seven Systems of the Galaxy? And if that happened, surely his whole mission would be deemed a failure. He might be sent back to Luciflex to minister to the enslaved miners for the rest of his days. A ring of icy sweat breaks out under his collar.
He scurries back inside and drops to his knees on a pew. “Dear Lord, I know I have tried your patience in the past, praying for an easier posting, and I know my faith has wavered from time to time, but I have devoted my life to the ministry. You know the sacrifices that I’ve made in your name. Dear Lord, please grant me a congregation this day. Don’t make me bear the shame of an empty chapel on the day of your harvest festival.”
He hears a noise behind him and turns. Filling the doorway stands a figure in silhouette, its nine boneless limbs writhing about its body.
The alien lurches forward, and the pastor backs into the sanctuary of his pulpit. Moving with disconcerting speed and agility, the Quiffo approaches the altar. It is carrying a loose brown bundle with something squirming inside. It places the bundle before the altar and takes a place in the front pew, supporting its hideous head on two of its appendages. It is followed by another Quiffo, and another. A total of six Quiffos enter. Each drops a squirming bundle before the altar and perches beside its companions on the front pew.
Pastor Melitus raises his eyes to Heaven and prays a silent ‘thank you’ to the Lord. “Welcome, friends,” he says. “If you’ll all stand we will start with a hymn.”
The Quiffos shuffle about, rearranging their limbs. The pastor starts the tape recorder and the chapel fills with organ music. He begins to sing and the Quiffos are inspired to join in, filling the chapel with a cacophony of sounds the like of which has never before been heard in any Christian chapel anywhere in the Seven Systems.
“All things bright and beautiful…”
© JJ Toner