A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.
Oh, sit back down. We have time for one more, don’t we? And while we finish it off, I can tell you the story of how Wright took on God and beat him. Or maybe he didn’t. To tell you the truth, I’m still not sure who won this round. But I can tell you the story, and you can judge for yourselves.
This one started with a message from the Council of Elders of the Theocratic Republic of Bethel, which I’d never heard of before, and I’ll bet you haven’t either. They offered quite a lot of money if Wright would solve their problem. But they wouldn’t say what the problem was. In fact, their message said quite specifically that they refused to tell us what the problem was.
So I was ready to file the message under “cranks” and send the standard rejection letter. But I wasn’t quick enough, or careful enough, or sneaky enough—however you want to look at it. Wright had seen the message over my shoulder, and he was intrigued for some reason.
“You don’t even know what the problem is,” I protested.
“Look—they addressed me as ‘Senator,’ ” he said, pointing out the word. “I like that. It shows proper respect.”
“That title’s only worth anything on Pevunghia,” I reminded him, “and you’ll probably never go back there. And don’t forget, I’m a Pevunghian senator, too.”
“Yes, but I’m the genius.”
“If you were smart enough to say more than ‘Problems Solved’ in your advertisements, you wouldn’t get messages from cranks like these.” I had looked them up while we were talking. “Look at this. The Theocratic Republic of Bethel is a haven for fanatics. It sounds like these Bethelites believe that pretty much everyone else in the universe is going to hell.”
“But they seem to have money.”
“Maybe they’re industrious. I’ll give them that. They probably think anyone who doesn’t work sixteen hours a day is going to hell on the express liner. Oh, look here—it says ‘large mineral reserves.’ That has to help. But look—they’re a hundred light years from anywhere. Why would you want to go to such a backwater?”
“It’s an interesting problem.”
“You don’t even know what the problem is!”
“That’s what makes it interesting.”
He was wearing that smugly blank expression of his, and suddenly it occurred to me that I must be wrong. “You do know what it is, don’t you?”
“Oh, not precisely,” he said. “But it’s perfectly obvious what kind of problem it must be.”
And that was all I could get out of him. So in two days we were off to the stickiest part of the sticks.
• • •
There are no regular liners to Bethel. The Council of Elders hired a grubby old charter for us, a tub that was built for commuter routes and had been very inexpertly converted for long-distance travel. I won’t catalogue the indignities we suffered. You can just add it to the long list of unpleasant voyages Wright has dragged me into. Just once I’d like somebody to have an insoluble problem at some five-star resort on the trunk line.
Wright spent the whole trip immersed in the Primary Testament, the Bethelite scriptures. It seems these Bethelites believe that there have been three great revelations in history. The first was to Moses et al. in what they call the Tertiary Testament, the second to Jesus Christ as described in the Secondary Testament, and the third to Wilbur C. McClusky. The three revelations ascend in importance, and the one to the prophet McClusky, being primary, includes the other two, or at least the greatest hits from the other two.
This was as much as I could be bothered to learn about Bethelite theology, and believe me even that was a slog. Wright kept trying to persuade me to read the Primary Testament, but I told him I’d rather stare straight ahead and pick at the peeling paint in the so-called stateroom if it was all the same to him.
“Did you know that God loathes a pillar?” Wright said, à propos of nothing.
“Column, pillar, whatever. God hates them. Domestics 3:14: ‘God loathes a pillar, and into a house with columns he will not enter.’ It’s in the Tertiary Testament, too. Deuteronomy 16:22: ‘Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord thy God hateth.’ ”
“What good is a God with a pillar phobia?”
“He also hates sand bugs,” Wright added.
“I imagine I would, too. I don’t know what a sand bug is, but I already hate them just from the name.”
“There’s quite a list of things God hates in here. God seems to have strong opinions on architecture and interior design. Get them wrong, and God won’t have anything to do with you.”
“What’s got into you?” I asked him. “You don’t even believe in God.”
“Well, of course I do,” he replied.
This came as a complete surprise to me. “What? I’ve never seen you give any indication of it.”
“I believe in God as the most reasonable and parsimonious explanation of the phenomenon of existence. What else do you expect me to do? I leave God alone, and God leaves me alone, and I think we’re both perfectly happy with that arrangement.”
That, I suppose, is a complete statement of Wright’s theology.
I wasn’t in the best mood by the time we reached Bethel, which by the way has no station at all, so that the rusty old shuttle they sent up had to dock with us directly. That’s never a good sign. And the shuttle pilot was a taciturn half-deaf fellow who muttered to himself but would hardly say two words to us the whole way down. Perhaps he thought we were irredeemable heathens. He was probably right, but at least he could have been polite about it.
As we came down to the surface, my mood did not improve. The landscape was rocky—not colorful, picturesque rocks, but dull beige rocks, rocks that looked like they came in bulk from a discount rock outlet. A few scrubby patches of ill-tended earth vegetation only emphasized the ugly barrenness of the rest of the landscape. Obviously the Bethelites had got this section of the planet cheap because nobody else wanted it.
So I was all ready to make a miserable grump of myself as soon as Wright and I got to whatever grubby hovel the Bethelites had set aside for guests. I would wait that long because I’m always polite in public. One of us has to be polite, and from long experience I know it’s not going to be Wright.
But then the shuttle door opened, and there she was.
For a moment, I thought the Bethelites must have captured an angel. The late-day sun was behind her, and her golden hair glowed like a halo. Her blue-trimmed white robe billowed in the warm breeze, successively outlining different parts of her anatomy, each more delightfully perfect than the last. She smiled at us as if she were genuinely pleased to be here of all places, and I began to think that there might be something to this McCluskyism after all. I knew that I had come face to face with the love of my life.
“Grace be to you and peace from God and his servant Wilbur C. McClusky,” the radiant vision said. “Welcome to Bethel, the house of God.”
Privately I thought that God could afford to live in a better neighborhood. But I am a professional, after all. “Thank you,” I said. “I’m John Pulaski, Mr. Wright’s assistant, and this is Thomas Aquinas Wright.”
“Very pleased to meet you both. I’m Rahab the deaconess, and I have been called to be your guide.”
Our guide! How absolutely delightful. I was going to need constant guidance—I could tell that already. “That’s very kind of you,” I said. “After Mr. Wright and I have had a chance to settle in and wash up, you can show me the sights. I mean us. Show us the sights.”
“Of course,” my delightful Rahab responded. “We get so few visitors that I’m sure everyone will be happy to see you. Oh! The youth division is weaving mats today! That’s always very exciting to watch.”
“When can I get to work?” Wright demanded, making no attempt to conceal his grumpiness. Small talk and sightseeing both annoy him, and small talk about sightseeing must have been excruciating for him. So I was prepared to keep it up indefinitely, but Rahab answered Wright before I could prevent her.
“Oh, I’m sure the special committee could meet with you right after evening prayer. Until then, I can show you to your rooms, and then we can see the sights.”
Wright made a “piff” sound that I chose to interpret as acquiescence.
“We’d be delighted,” I told Rahab. And I certainly meant it, for myself anyway. I was already seeing the best sights, so I was already delighted. I was delighted to walk behind her and watch the way the robe outlined some of her best features. I was delighted to listen to her musical voice as she apologized for our having to walk because “the cart needs work.” I was delighted to see the golden sunlight playing through her even more golden hair. I was delighted by pretty much everything, right up to the moment we reached the appalling dump that Rahab identified as the guesthouse.
“I’m sorry,” Rahab said, and to give her credit she was clearly embarrassed. “I thought the place had been cleaned, and—I, uh, I’ll get someone right away, and I’ll…”
I could actually see tears of frustration and embarrassment welling up in those perfect blue eyes, and nothing should make my beautiful Rahab weep. “Please don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’m sure we can make—”
“It’s a dump,” Wright said. “I’m not staying here.” He ran a finger over the top of a small table near the door, revealing quite a different color under the uniform layer of sandy dust.
Of course Rahab was crushed. I think she wanted to dissolve into dust herself. And of course I couldn’t let her be crushed. So I did something very much against my principles: I volunteered.
“We’ll be fine,” I insisted. “I’ll get started cleaning up, and I’m sure it will take no time at all if you send someone over and we work together.”
Rahab looked so wonderfully grateful that I was sure I’d said the right thing. She promised again to send someone right over, and she smiled at me, and one of those smiles was worth any amount of labor.
And that was how I ended up spending the whole first evening of our stay in Bethel dusting and scrubbing and chasing out sand bugs, which are harmless but not exactly welcome in the well-ordered home. Apparently they’re about the highest form of animal life in Bethel, apart from the humans, and after three hours of cleaning and still no sign of the promised help, I was making some comparisons between the humans and the sand bugs that were not entirely to the advantage of the humans.
Meanwhile, Wright had gone out with Rahab for evening prayer (the idea of Wright praying amused me for a moment before I went back to my default state of quiet fury) and his meeting with the special committee, which apparently was a subset of the Council of Elders formed to deal with the problem they refused to tell us about.
The help finally arrived about three hours after I’d started, by which time I’d done nearly everything myself. I sent the snotty teenager off to find some clean linens, which was the single useful thing he managed to accomplish before Wright returned with the glorious Rahab.
“Much better,” Wright declared, glancing around the little parlor of the guesthouse. Then he turned to the useless teenager. “It’s very good work. Can you accept a gratuity?”
And the little twit did, if you can imagine that.
I didn’t say anything at the time, because I couldn’t afford to make a bad impression on the divine Rahab. But as soon as she left me alone with Wright, I admit I relaxed my politeness a little. Not that it did me any good. Wright wasn’t interested in my complaints, and what he’s not interested in he doesn’t hear.
So eventually, out of boredom, I decided to ask him how his evening had gone. “Did they tell you the thing they wouldn’t tell you? Or are you as much in the dark as ever?”
“They told me nothing,” Wright replied. “But they made it perfectly obvious what they want.”
“How?” I demanded. “Did they point and make faces?”
“You mean they apologized for bringing us to this ugly hole in the galaxy without telling us what they want?”
“No.” Wright was almost smiling, which is very rare. “They apologized for our having to walk everywhere, because all the carts are broken and the mechanics promised they’d be fixed by now but haven’t got around to them yet. They apologized for the broken window in the common room, because young hooligans smashed it and the glazier said he’d be there last week, but you know how it is. They apologized for the shuttle pilot, although I’m not sure what was wrong with him. They apologized for our having to double-lock the doors at night, but there have been several burglaries lately, and they know perfectly well who’s responsible, but what can you do?”
“What can you do?” I snorted. “You can lock the burglars away somewhere, that’s what you can do. Or you can give them a good thrashing if you’re the old-fashioned sort. I don’t see how any of these are your sort of problem. You could solve them all with a little bit of discipline.”
“Yes, you could,” Wright agreed. “But they couldn’t. God wouldn’t like it.”
“Who c——” and then I stopped, because it occurred to me that “Who cares what God likes?” might sound like a stupid question to religious people. So I contented myself with asking, “What do you mean, ‘God wouldn’t like it’?”
“You didn’t read the Primary Testament. Aphorisms chapter eight, verse thirty-two: ‘Not seven times shall you forgive, and not seventy times seven, but seventy times seven times seventy times seven.’ ”
I tried to do the math in my head, and the result I came up with was, “That’s a lot of forgiving.”
“Also,” Wright continued, beginning to pace as he always does when he’s in the grip of an enthusiasm, “Aphorisms 15:12: ‘If you forgive not, neither shall you be forgiven.’ And Wit & Wisdom 2:27: ‘Forgiveness at a price is not forgiveness.’ And a number of other passages to that effect. The Bethelites believe that their eternal salvation depends on their offering absolute and unconditional forgiveness. No repentance or promise of amendment required. There are a lot of other things their salvation depends on, too, but that’s one of the big ones.”
“So if you don’t forgive people, God sends you to hell?”
“It’s one of the many offenses that incur eternal damnation,” Wright said.
“Well, that doesn’t seem fair. God should have to play by his own rules.”
“God plays by the rules revealed to Wilbur C. McClusky. That’s the root of the problem.” He was pacing back and forth so quickly it was like watching a tennis match. “The constitution of the Republic says that the Council of Elders must be made up entirely of Bethelites. So it is. And that’s the only government they’ve got. There’s no other executive, no separate judiciary. And every good Bethelite on the council believes that he’ll go to hell if he doesn’t forgive unconditionally. Now, that probably worked when the Republic was a hundred people or so. But now they’ve got about forty thousand in various settlements, and the Council can’t manage them anymore.”
“So what do they want you to do? Thrash some malefactors? That doesn’t sound like your sort of thing.”
“Only Bethelites can govern. What they need is some way to govern effectively without God sending them to hell.”
“And how are you going to give them that?”
He stopped in front of one of the rickety wicker chairs. “I have absolutely no idea.” He flopped down in the chair—by some miracle it didn’t collapse—and his face lit up with just about the brightest smile I’ve ever seen on it. “I have no idea at all. Isn’t that wonderful?’’
Well, I knew that meant he’d be up all night having fun with his little problem. And that meant he didn’t need me, so I went to bed.
Continues in Part Two.