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Denizens: 11 - Saint

“I rounded a bend, and there in front of me was something I can only describe in the haziest of terms. I’m still not really sure what it was; part vision, part of it really there. To this day, I still can’t adequately describe what I saw.”

Jonathan Edge, a brilliant scientist confined to a wheel chair and a recruit to the Hermes project to investigate huge creatures reported to have been sighted in the sea depths, was told a strange tale by his friend-to-be Father Sean Driscoll.

Brian William Neal writes exciting and intriguing science fiction. His characters are so real you feel as though you have read about them in newspapers and magazines. For earlier chapters of this hugely entertaining novel please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

Oxford, England
February, 2033

Jonathan Edge leaned back in his chair in front of his computer terminal, stretched his cramped arms, and for the tenth time that morning pushed his rimless spectacles back up on to the bridge of his nose. Vaguely, the thought registered that he really ought to get around to having the laser surgery, and do away with the old-fashioned lenses altogether. Such trivia, however, did not stay in his mind for long; there was simply too much going on in there already.

He stared out of the windows of his study, in the ground floor suite of rooms that he had occupied for most of his academic life. A fire burned softly in the grate, and the room was cozily warm in contrast to the cold day outside. The rain was falling gently, and the grounds of the college looked, as always, quiet and peaceful. The trees were leafless, their stark branches looking, to Jonathan, a little forlorn against the gray sky, and the quadrangle was deserted. Most of the faculty had gone for the weekend, and no classes were being taught. The view from these windows usually afforded him comfort, but today it was short-lived. For today was the day, his last day in England, and still he had not told Sean.

Jonathan touched the switch that fed power from the mini-fusion cell to his chair’s drive mechanism and steered it out of the room, heading for the dining hall where he would get his lunch. The fourth member of the Hermes team was a slight man in his early thirties who, had he been able to stand, would have measured only five feet six inches in height. He had fine, sandy hair which he kept neatly groomed at all times; he was not excessively vain, but he was determined to keep himself neat and tidy, having seen how some people with his disability sometimes had a tendency to let themselves go. Also, he disliked the popular misconception that a scientist had to look disheveled, and act eccentrically. His bespectacled countenance was open and honest, friendly and attractive in a mousy way, and those who knew him, either well or in passing, were all agreed that he was a man who was impossible to dislike.

Jonathan had known from an early age that he was special, and more intelligent than his contemporaries, or just about anyone else he knew, for that matter. This might have set him apart from his schoolmates (and later, his colleagues) had it not been for his sunny disposition, and his willingness always to help and be considerate of others.

Jonathan was in no respect arrogant or superior; in fact, he was quite the opposite. Friends and associates found him modest and self deprecating; a little distant, perhaps, although this could easily be excused as a result of his mind operating on a higher plane than anyone else’s. It had been like that throughout his school days; now, at Oxford, he was among minds with which he found some intellectual rapport.

His father, himself a rugby “blue” at Oxford, who had gone on to represent his country in that sport, had discovered early on that his son had no interest in any game that required physical contact. As Jonathan’s house master at prep school had said, rather smugly (he being a somewhat poetic and sensitive soul), “I’m afraid there’s little point in trying to force Jonathan to participate in these violent games, Mr. Edge. There is simply no harm in the boy.”

This made what happened at the end of his first year at Christ’s College all the more tragic and senseless.

The police report said simply that the driver had been drunk. This, of course, hadn’t made any difference to Jonathan. The sixteen year-old had been walking back to his dorm after a night at the local cinema when a car had mounted the narrow pavement and struck him.

He had been hurled across the street and had hit a lamppost, and had felt something give way in his lower back. As he lay on the ground, a light drizzle falling on him and misting his glasses, he saw people coming out of the pub across the street, attracted by the noise of the accident. Lying there, he realized he could not move his legs, and he knew immediately what had happened.

Once he was safely hospitalized, the doctors confirmed the worst, what he himself already knew. His spinal cord had been severed, and there was no chance he would ever walk again.

Only his legs had been affected; he still had full use of his upper body, including his arms. Considering the severity of the accident, and the dismal prognosis, everyone said he took the news remarkably well. Inside, however, Jonathan was devastated.

Fortunately, his brain was in no way impaired; when he returned to the college a year later, he threw himself into his studies. Such was the power of his intellect, he completed his degree at the same time as his classmates, despite having missed a year. He continued his studies in mathematics and physics, branching out into astrophysics. He had hopes of one day getting into the space program, either in Britain or the United States. Out there, as he liked to call it, there were no wheelchairs, and in the weightlessness of space he would be anyone’s equal.

As he studied the universe and its workings, Jonathan began to take an interest in religious matters, something in which he had shown only a passing curiosity before the accident. In the scriptures, he began to find a peace, and an answer to his most asked question: why me? At first, the studies were not much more than recreational, as much therapy for his shattered soul as the daily exercises in the gym were for his broken body. He tended to avoid the overly pious members of the university bible study group, the dreaded “God Squad”.

As he delved more deeply into the scriptures, he began to take an interest also in their origins. He poured through the ancient texts and age-old tomes, using his photographic memory to absorb everything they contained. With the assistance of a friend whose field of study was ancient languages, he taught himself to read, speak and write passable Aramaic, the language of biblical times.

He still tended not to mix with most of the Christian Studies group, whose blind zeal and unquestioning faith he found restrictive and against his natural scientific curiosity. The one exception was a young Irishman from the wilds of county Clare, Sean Driscoll. He had been a physics major who had switched to divinity studies after experiencing, it was rumored, a revelation. The exact nature of this inspirational disclosure was not known, although there were many speculations. Several of his peers maintained it was just another boozy Irishman’s story of ghosts and banshees; Jonathan, however, would have none of that and went, typically, straight to the man himself. He had spoken to the Irishman a few times after Sean had changed his major, and Jonathan considered him a man of decency and honor.

He approached the young man one day in the college library and expressed his interest. At first, Driscoll had been wary; he had been the butt of too many jokes, and was not about to provide another dilettante with some free entertainment.

“Sure, and you probably want a juicy ghost story to amuse yer clever pals,” he had replied to Jonathan’s query. Jonathan’s reply had been direct and to the point.

“I’ve heard of all the speculation and humor at your expense, Driscoll,” he had said. “Now, I’d like to hear it for myself, straight from you.”

The Irishman studied him closely. “Why?”

Jonathan shrugged. “I’m studying to be a scientist, a seeker after truth. You ought to be able to understand that; after all, career wise, it was your first choice.”

Sean had smiled at that, a slow smile that eventually lit up his dark, lean face. Then he had clapped the slight, bespectacled young man on the shoulder, and wheeled him to the Irishman’s favorite pub, where they had found a quiet corner.

There, over pints of Guinness, the story had emerged. Slowly at first, then with ever-increasing trust, Sean had told the full tale of his conversion. Had such a story come from anyone else, Jonathan might have been skeptical; the Irishman, however, was obviously a man of the highest integrity, and Jonathan believed him unreservedly.

Driscoll had been on a visit the previous August to his parents’ home in Ennistymon, a few miles from Liscannor Bay, county Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. He had been struggling of late with an inner turmoil over the direction his life was taking, and was wondering at a feeling of frustration and a lack of fulfillment. Like most of his people, he and his family had always had ties to the church, although none had ever entered its service. On the first night of his visit, he took a stroll after dinner. The sun was about an hour away from setting, and the air was warm and pleasant.

“There is a path,” said Sean, “just out the back gate of the property that leads to the coast, about a mile or so. It winds around the shoreline, cliff wall on one side, sheer drop to the sea on the other. It narrows to about six feet in places, but there’s no real danger.

“I rounded a bend, and there in front of me was something I can only describe in the haziest of terms. I’m still not really sure what it was; part vision, part of it really there. To this day, I still can’t adequately describe what I saw.”

“A ghost, a spirit perhaps?” said Jonathan, fascinated by the Irishman’s tale.

Sean took a healthy pull from his pint of dark, creamy stout, and nodded. “Aye, you might say that. Although, to put it that way sounds a bit Irish, banshees and daemons and all that.” He was quiet for a moment, then continued.

“Anyway, the…spirit, if you like, it spoke to me. Oh, not in any words I could hear; it was more like it was inside my head, images, suggestions, like that. Now, being Irish, I’ve been brought up on tales of supernatural happenings, ghosts and such, and I remember thinkin’ I should have been terrified. But I wasn’t. There was this wonderful feelin’ of peace and …love, I suppose, comin’ from the thing, and I felt perfectly calm, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

“I don’t know exactly how long it was there, but I suddenly realized I was alone on the path, with nothin’ but the wind for company. The vision was gone, but it had left me with somethin’. From that moment on, I knew, I just knew what I had to do with the rest of my life, that my true callin’ was not science, but the church.”

When the story had got around, as these things do in such a close community as a university campus, some of Sean’s less-than-Christian colleagues had hinted that he had been finding the scientific curriculum too difficult, and had invented the whole burning bush scenario so that he might drop out and save face. This was subsequently refuted by the “accidental” disclosure by a sympathetic tutor that, up until his conversion from mildly interested party to devout believer, Sean had been recording an A-minus average over all of his subjects. This was better than most of his detractors, and the scurrilous rumor was quickly laid to rest.

Jonathan, hearing the story directly from Sean, had no doubts as to its veracity. The two began spending more time together, in the deepest theological discussions, and after a short time, Jonathan began attending Mass with Sean.

At first, he merely sat at the rear of the college’s Catholic chapel and observed. Then, as his visits became more frequent, he began to experience a peace similar to that he had felt when studying the scriptures. This time, however, the feeling was much more profound. He discovered that he took great comfort in the rituals of the service; the quiet voice of the priest, the flickering candles, the offering of the Eucharist.

His favorite time of all was the celebration of the Mass at Easter, when the priest conducted the service in Latin. Jonathan gave himself a crash course in the language, so that he could understand a large part of the Mass, and the ancient ritual afforded him great peace and tranquility.

Finally, although he never for a moment considered abandoning his goal of scientific pursuit, Jonathan confided in Sean his intention to take instruction in the holy rituals of the Catholic Church.

“Are you absolutely certain it’s what you want, Jonny?” the Irishman had asked, as he pushed Jonathan’s wheelchair around the college grounds. The day was gray and bleak; a light drizzle was beginning to fall, and Sean held an umbrella over them both. “Yes, Sean, I’m certain,” Jonathan had replied. “I’ve given this a great deal of thought, you know. I don’t feel your call to the priesthood, but perhaps God wouldn’t mind a lowly scientist in his corner.”

Sean thought for a moment. “What denomination were you raised?”

“Tell you the truth, I’m not really sure. My folks weren’t really churchgoers when I was a kid, and Dad was too busy with his work and his rugby to take much time for religious instruction. Better just say Church of England.”

They walked in silence for a while, and then Sean stopped by the entrance to the chapel. “If you’re really sure about this,” he said, leaving Jonathan to go the rest of the way to his dorm alone, “I’ll speak to Father Ryan after Mass, and let you know what he says tonight.”

Despite Jonathan’s determination, it was still three months before he felt ready to take the plunge. He had not realized how much there was to learn; small details that those raised as Catholics learned as children, Jonathan had to learn from scratch. In addition, he had to keep up with his other studies, although there was none of the slanderous comment that had followed Sean’s conversion. The Irishman may have had an A-minus average, but Jonathan’s was off the scale. A simple A-plus did not begin to convey the brilliance of his intellect; even so, it was still a very busy time.

Jonathan gained his Master’s about the same time that Sean completed his novitiate. Two years later, newly capped and wearing the purple robes of a Ph.D., Doctor Jonathan Edge gathered with friends and family over from Ireland to witness the ordination of Father Sean Driscoll, Catholic priest.

Now, nine years and many brilliant scientific papers later, Professor Jonathan Edge, incumbent of the chair of mathematics at Christ’s College, devoted most of his time to his work. He still saw Sean, on average twice a week; the Irishman had been given a parish in North Hinksey, five miles outside Oxford town. They had dinner every Thursday evening, either at the parish or the college, and played their weekly chess game. Also, Sean heard Jonathan’s confession every Sunday after Mass.

In what spare time he had, Jonathan read novels, mostly science fiction, which was how he viewed the Hermes project when he first heard of it. However, when he discovered it to be a serious under-taking, he made it his business to learn everything he could about it. The scientific principles that it was seeking to prove flew in the face of everything he had learned about space and time, but the sheer audacity of the project left him breathless with excitement and admiration. The more he discovered, the more he became convinced that this was what he was meant to do. In this grand scheme, he saw a perfect opportunity to serve both science and his god.

Tentatively, he had put his name forward to the Dean of the college, who had passed it on to the people he knew who were connected to the project. Naturally, when they heard that none other than the brilliant Professor Jonathan Edge was interested, all other candidates had faded to a distant second place. Jonathan was immediately accepted with open arms and grateful thanks.

The hardest part, Jonathan knew, would be telling Sean. The priest had always been careful not to give advice too freely, but to allow Jonathan to come to his own conclusions, make his own decisions, and to turn to the church only if he felt the need. But now, Jonathan would somehow have to find a way to tell his friend goodbye.

They met in Sean’s private apartments behind the church. The Irish priest was quiet while Jonathan spelled out everything about the project, and when he had finished, they sat in silence, each alone with his thoughts. Finally, Sean rose and walked to the sideboard, where he poured them both a glass of Irish whiskey. Returning to his chair by the fire, he handed one drink to Jonathan and said, “You say there’s a small chance you might not make it back, Jonny. I think you forget who it is you’re talkin’ to. Remember, I was a physics major before I got the call. Not in your league, of course, but if I retained anythin’ at all from my studies, it’s more than just a chance, it’s a bloody near-certainty.”

Although he had been a priest for nine years, Sean was still inclined to profanity in moments of emotion, a failing for which he regularly did penance. Saturday evenings were a particular time of contrition for the Irishman, as he usually spent the afternoons watching the local football team play, and often shocked bystanders with his roared advice as to what the referee should do with his whistle.

Now, he went on more quietly. “I’m not goin’ to try and talk you out of it, or influence you in any way. I’ll be your counsel, or not, as you like. But I will be your friend, and I’ll do my best to understand.”

Jonathan looked at his friend with great affection. “It’s important to me that you understand, Sean. I think you’re probably the only person who can. I’m not going to lie to you, not that I could; you’re my priest as well as my friend.

“None of us, not the team or those who’re sending us, knows what we’re going to find out there.” He paused before continuing, his words slow and measured. “But I think this is what it’s all been for; my conversion, I mean. I think I’m finally being given a chance to use the brain God gave me. I also think I have something to do, that there is some task I must perform, and I think I’ll find the answer out there, on my own road to Damascus.” He smiled slightly. “They say God has a way of appearing in the most unlikely places. If that’s true, then maybe I’ll find Him out there, too.”

Sean looked at him indignantly. “Well, I should bloody well hope so! If you don’t, then my life to date has been a waste of time. Of course He’s out there, ye daft bugger!”

Jonathan smiled again, then grew serious once more. “I’ve been trying to lead up to this, and now I can only come right out with it. I’m leaving for America tomorrow, Sean.” He smiled wryly. “That’s top secret, by the way, but if I can’t tell you, then I can’t think of anyone who should know about it.”

He paused again, uncertain of how to proceed. All of the past ten years or so, from his first meeting with the young, earnest Sean Driscoll right up to this moment, seemed to telescope down to a single instant in time. It was a moment he wished could last forever.

They sat quietly for a while, and then Sean rose from his chair and left the room. A few minutes later he reappeared, wearing his holy vestments. He drew his chair close beside Jonathan’s wheelchair, and sat beside his friend. The fourth member of the Hermes team smiled at his friend and priest, and after a moment began the words he had come to know so well.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…”


***

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