I grew up believing that my family were leaders among men. I grew up believing I was worth more than others. Then one day my mind connected the dots between two facts and a new worldview appeared to me. I was lost between two worlds, and I did not know which way to go. Only my friends kept me grounded. I picked them well, and often they did not have the approval of my father. Perhaps that is why I picked them. One reason at least. But the very best were always worthy of it. I trust them with my life. And sometimes they remind me that not all that is lost cannot be found.
Charles looked up after the departing shuttle, a pinpoint of light so high in the sky even his eyes could barely see it. It was amazing how the Peloran did that so easily, so silently. It would have taken an American shuttle twice as long to make the climb, and it would have been far louder. He had thought American technology to be so amazing. He had seen it advance beyond anything he imagined in the last century. The last months had forced him to see the worlds for what they were.
The Peloran and their Shang enemies were far more advanced than anything America had ever produced. Had they chosen the conqueror’s path a century ago, mankind would never have stood a chance. Charles wondered once again why the Shang had waited a century. And he wondered why the Peloran had never tried to conquer them at all. He did not like the thoughts that came to his mind when he wondered on such things.
“Hey,” Jack interrupted his thoughts and Charles turned to look at the man who spoke in a far more sincere tone than he usually used. “If something important comes up, call me.”
Charles felt a flicker of surprise at the younger man’s statement and the look on his face. He had a feeling. Charles nodded, accepting the warning it betrayed. Matters were not as quiet as they appeared. Charles could feel it too. But now was not the time to deny his men and women a chance to relax. “Thank you for the offer. I will keep it in mind. Now go enjoy your liberty.”
“Yes, sir!” Jack shouted back with a jaunty salute, and turned to amble away. The man stepped between Betty and Jasmine, reached his arms out to grab each of them around the waist, and pulled them along with him. “Come on, girls. We’ve got some fun to track down.”
“Yes, Jack,” they chorused in matching amused tones.
Charles shook his head, wondering if Jack truly realized what was happening. Probably not in words. He did not seem to be a man who considered the future. Charles shared a look with Dorothy, catching her amused approval of the situation. Charles pursed his lips, wondering which members of that trio were the luckiest to be alive. After a moment, he sighed and wished them all a little more luck. He had a feeling they would need it.
“That will be very interesting to watch,” Christian said and Charles nodded. His wingman betrayed his normal ability to understate things rather well.
“Indeed,” Charles said and turned to scan every ship approaching or leaving the landing field. Then he flicked his eyes back to Christian. “Now I do believe I remember telling all of you to go enjoy your liberty.”
Christian nodded. “I heard you. But I know you. You have something planned. I won’t let you do it alone.”
“It is family business,” Charles said with a shake of his head, considering once again the large shipping industry his family ran out of New Earth. They were powerful here. If they found out what he planned, they would not be happy with him.
Christian just smiled at him. “I said I knew you. Family is the only thing that would have you walking on eggshells right now. I’m in.”
“You do not even know what it is,” Charles said with a dismissive gesture and turned to follow in the path of his men and women.
“I don’t have to,” Christian returned and kept pace with his commander. “I’m in.”
Charles stopped and gave Christian a very long look. Christian met his gaze and Charles saw the stubbornness in his eyes. “I am not going to talk you out of this, am I?”
Christian just smiled and shook his head.
“Fine,” Charles grumbled and began walking again. “But you will follow my lead. Understood?”
“Understood,” Christian said and followed Charles to the terminal.
Charles walked through the automatic doors and stopped as he saw the Christmas decorations filling it from one end to the other, from floor to ceiling. It was an impressive collection of Christmas trees covered in lights, Yule logs burning in fireplaces, and man-sized candy canes hanging from lights. Santa’s sleigh flew through the air above everybody’s heads, pulled by nine little reindeer, with Santa waving and hohohoing at the people below. A nativity scene nestled against one wall, just outside the main traffic pattern so it could escape the arriving passengers intact. And a Christmas carol played from speakers embedded throughout the terminal, bringing tidings of good cheer to the arriving passengers.
“Impressive,” Charles whispered and began to make his way through the crowd of passengers walking out of a boarding ramp connected to another craft.
“Very,” Christian answered with awe in his voice. “They don’t celebrate in small measures here, do they?”
“Indeed,” Charles said and navigated them towards the nearest exist. They stepped out and Charles scanned the Christmas-decorated city street before them. “How do we get there again?”
“That way,” Dorothy said with a wave of her hand.
Charles followed her wave beneath the Christmas lights and wreaths. They did not speak more than some occasional directions on their way. Charles had never been one for small talk, and in that way Dorothy matched him perfectly. She was always there, watching, waiting, ready to help. She was the perfect partner.
Christian was not bad either, most of the time. They turned a corner and Christian whistled at the sight before them.
Charles nodded as he looked up at the grand stone cathedral that towered into the air above them. Arches held up the entryway roof that protected the massive wooden doors from the weather. A cross crowned the peak of the roof, and a massive bell tower reached up into the sky from the side of the building. It was a truly grand cathedral that reminded him of some of the finest New England churches he’d seen.
As they approached the front door, he saw a small nativity scene off to the side. As the distance dropped, he realized it was human-scale and gulped as he put the cathedral into its correct scale.
“Whoa,” Christian whispered.
Charles and Dorothy shared a smile, but Charles had to ask. “You are certain this is where he is?”
“Yes,” she answered and cocked her head to the side in amusement.
Charles let out a long breath as they finally reached the steps and walked up them. The doors opened with the perfect creak of wood on iron hinges that he expected to hear from a building that looked a millennium old. That it could not possibly be more than two centuries old was all the more impressive. Somebody had taken extreme care in crafting this building. They walked into the grand cathedral and Charles heard their footsteps echo on the smooth stone floor, bouncing off the walls and ceiling far above him. His eyes scanned up to see the suns shining in through stained glass windows showing scenes from the Bible. He recognized Noah’s Ark and several scenes with Jesus, but most of the others were a mystery to him. The Bible had not been one of the books his family encouraged him to study.
“This is amazing,” Christian said, his voice echoed through the solemn building, and Charles had to agree.
This was easily a match for any cathedral he’d seen back home. Not that he had many occasions to go to them, other than marriages and funerals.
“Could you watch the entrance please,” he asked with a look towards Christian. “Make sure nobody tries to disturb us.”
Christian pursed his lips and looked around once more. “Who are you meeting?”
Charles sighed and shook his head in wry amusement. “Someone I never expected to see in a place like this.”
“You knew him well?” Christian asked.
Charles nodded. “He was one of my best friends.”
Charles shrugged. “We have not been in contact for some time. But we parted as friends. I would like to think the friendship remains.”
“And this?” Christian asked with a wave encompassing the cathedral.
“This is a surprise,” Charles said and turned back to Christian with a smile. “But it is not a deal breaker.”
“Good.” Christian nodded and turned away. “I’ll keep a look out for you.”
“Thank you,” Charles said and walked to the front of the sanctuary, past row after row of hard wood pews that had to be a pain to sit in. They looked to be the same pews he remembered from Uncle Theodore’s funeral, the ones that kept him sitting straight up and unable to relax. He gritted his teeth, assuming that the priests or pastor or whatever liked it that way. He hadn’t thought John would be one of them, though. He gritted his teeth and sat down in the front pew to look up at the massive cross on the wall behind the choir stands. He blinked and looked at Dorothy in surprise. The pew was perfectly carved and comfortable to sit on.
She smiled at him in amusement again and sat down on his right. He gritted his teeth. He was not entirely pleased at the idea of being so amusing to her, but he saw the humor of the situation.
The man Charles had come to see walked into the sanctuary in a simple black suit. He smiled at Charles with a warm gaze and spread his arms out in a welcoming gesture. “How can I hel-” he froze in mid sentence, staring at Charles, and recognition filled his eyes. “Chuck!” he shouted, happiness filling his voice, and rushed forward to wrap Charles up in a bear hug.
“John,” Charles said to his old friend in a strained voice, struggling against the crush of John’s arms.
John released him and stepped back with a smile, turning his attention to Dorothy. “And who is this vision of beauty you bring with you?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. “Has someone finally tamed you?”
“I am Dorothy,” Dorothy answered and pointed to the rank pin on her uniform. “We are partners,” she finished with a smile.
John smiled at her. “It is a pleasure to meet you.” Then he granted her a beaming smile. “I can’t remember the last time he brought a pretty girl into church.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” she returned.
“Easy, you old lecher,” Charles said, a hint of the amusement he felt leaking through the gruff warning he was trying to project.
John harrumphed and gave Dorothy a smile of pure innocence. “I don’t know what he’s told you, but I put aside my youthful indiscretions long ago. The Lord has made me Faithful but He did not blind my eyes,” he finished with a wink.
Dorothy accepted the implied compliment with a nod and a smile.
John returned his attention to Charles and sat down on his left. “The lack of rings suggests she’s not making an honest man out of you. So what brings you here?”
Charles turned to see the amused smile on Dorothy’s face. He shook his head and sighed before answering. “Questions.”
John gave him a speculative look. “We all have questions, but somehow I didn’t expect you coming here with them.”
Charles shrugged. “I was not coming here. I was coming to you.”
“Ah,” John said in understanding. “I must warn you that my answers may not please you.”
“I know,” Charles said with a doubtful look around the cathedral. “But I have always trusted you.”
John nodded. “And you still can.” He spread his hands out wide again. “How can I help you?”
Charles chewed his lower lip, considering how to say it. Then he sighed and dove right in. “Have you dealt with aliens out here?”
John pursed his lips and let out a long breath. “Well, I’ve dealt with the Peloran of course. And some Arnam. Some of the others. Not many alien converts yet though. Why do you ask?”
Charles pursed his lips. “My family has…extensive business interests.”
John’s lips thinned in displeasure. “I know,” he said in the closest thing to a cool tone he’d used since seeing Charles.
Charles shook his head. “Of course. I am sorry. Teacher mode kicking in again.”
John waved that away as water under the bridge and smiled again. “What are you beating around the bush about?”
Charles matched his smile, happy to have a friend he could turn to. “I am trying to find if the names they give us are truly their names or…if they are choosing names that have meaning to us.”
John blinked and Charles could see the wheels turning in his mind. After a few seconds, John frowned and looked directly at Charles. “You lost me. Could you start from the beginning, please? I have the feeling this is important.”
Charles smiled. He had gotten his friend’s attention. That was good. He would need it. “My family sent negotiators to the Roderan homeworld. It is named Svarga.”
John rubbed his jaw and nodded. “I gather that means something to you. What?”
Charles leaned back in the pew. He had John. Now he just had to pull him in. “I have done some research, and it happens that Rod and Svarga were ancient Slavic gods worshiped in what is now Russia before that came in and took over,” he finished with a wave at the cross.
“Oh,” John said in a voice that suggested deep contemplation. “That’s…interesting.”
Charles smiled. “Yes. Then there are the Peloran and the Arnam.”
John frowned. “What about them?”
Charles cleared his throat. “The people who created them came from a planet called Albion, and the name the Peloran call them is the People of Danaan.”
John’s frown deepened, and Charles saw him pull something out of a deep memory. “Isn’t Albion another name for…the British Isles?”
Charles chuckled, impressed that John had remembered that little datum. “Yes it is. The People of Danaan settled in Ireland possibly…four thousand years ago according to our histories. It is also in some traditions a name given to the Otherworld. The Celts of old believed they could literally travel to another world where everything was different and yet similar to our own world. For some it was a world of dreams, and for others it was a truly different world.”
John rubbed his jaw in deep thought. “That’s…very interesting. I suppose this ties into the Shang’s arrival, doesn’t it?”
Charles nodded in approval. “Yes.”
John licked his lips, looking uncomfortable with the discussion. “I thought that was ruled a hoax.”
Charles smiled. “It was ruled a hoax, by the best experts Washington could buy. You know my family owns HW News, right?”
“Well, I saw the order to the media to report the hoax. I also saw the original transmission and all the tracking information our satellites could generate on it. It came from the Shang fleet, not from that rogue satellite.”
“Damn. Sorry, Lord.” John said with a glance towards the cross. He turned back to Charles and shook his head. “So are you going to say that something called the Shang actually were on Earth in the past?”
Charles smiled. “Very close. It was the Shangdi. The Emperors of the Shang Dynasty of ancient China were supposedly sons of Shangdi, the ultimate god of their mythology.”
John sighed and covered his eyes with one hand. “Why didn’t anybody report that when the Shang first arrived?” he asked in a pained voice.
Charles let out a long breath. “They did. In China. From what I uncovered on American news sources, they tried. But every fax and cast that published it was hacked and burned. The rest fell in line pretty quick.”
John frowned. “How do you know this?”
Charles gave John a dangerous smile. “Because one of the hackers that did the burning is on my father’s permanent payroll.
John’s frown turned angry. “You’re describing an organized disinformation campaign by the government about the Shang,” he said in a dangerous tone that Charles well remembered from their youth.
Charles aimed a firm nod at his friend. “Yes, I am. The Shang did tell us that they are our gods. They did tell us that they have returned. I have seen the proof that they told us that. Either they are telling us the truth, or they are lying. Either way, we were made to believe they did not. Why? And what is the truth of the matter?”
John set his teeth and looked up at the cross. “If they were lying, then our course is pretty clear. We tell them to stuff it, right?”
Charles smiled as the shadow of the man John had once been slipped through the calm pastoral form he took now. “Right.”
John turned back to him with a grim look. “The other possibility is a bit more tricky.”
Charles met his look without any hesitation. “That is a profound understatement.”
John sighed. “And you’re here, talking to me, because you’re looking for…what…guidance? From me?”
Charles smiled and pulled in a deep breath before answering. “Yes.”
John turned to Dorothy. “You have anything to add to this conversation?”
Dorothy shook her head. “I am sorry. I do not know.”
John frowned and aimed a long, considering look at her. “Aren’t you a cyber?”
Dorothy smiled again. “I am. But I was born Terran, so what I remember is Terran history, not Peloran. I am not…cleared to know the Peloran histories. I could ask the Peloran members of my family, but…I would receive the same answer anybody else gets when they ask.”
“No answer at all,” Charles supplied when John looked curious. “They neither confirm nor deny any question about our past, saying that it is our history and our task to learn it.”
John scratched his chin. “That does match my experience with them,” he said with a nod of his head.
“The difficulty is that we only know the aliens who have come to us. We cannot go to them. Our hyperdrives cannot travel that far, and Peloran hyperdrives are…hard to acquire even for my family.”
“So we can’t go to them and study their own histories?” John asked, a look of interest behind his eyes.
“Exactly,” Charles returned. “The Peloran make it more difficult by not using race names like we are used to. They use names based on who people came from. To them, I am Charles of William, not Charles Edward Hurst. The Albion were the People of Danaan, which some of our mythologies recognize. The Peloran are the People of Govaan, which does not seem familiar. The Arnam have their own name too, which is also unfamiliar. Though I have found that to them we are the People of Awdaan.”
“Adam,” John whispered, a thread of pleasure in his voice.
Charles smiled at the slim thread he’d given his friend. “Presumably.”
John frowned. “So do they call the Chinese that?”
Charles frowned as well. “As a race, yes, but from a cultural perspective, they are called the People of Huang. He was the first great Chinese Emperor who united China.”
“Interesting. So what do they call us?”
Charles smiled. “The People of Washington.”
John chuckled. “I should have seen that coming, I suppose.”
“Yes, you should have,” Charles said with an answering chuckle.
John clicked his tongue against his teeth in deep thought. “It occurs to me that naming a people like that would require a deep understanding of their history. It could take some time to develop that.”
Charles smiled again, glad to see the mind of his friend fully engaged in the discussion. “Yes. Do you remember that Aneerin spoke perfect English and several other languages when he made Contact? They were obviously watching us long enough to learn our languages. Now I have a theory that they may have been watching us at least as far back as the twentieth century, but it is just a theory that matches some questionable reports from the past.”
John chewed his lower lip. “Tell me.”
Charles cleared his throat. “Have you ever heard of the Foo Fighters?”
John gave him a confused look. “The rock band?”
Charles coughed to disguise a laugh. “The things the rock band named themselves after.”
John’s eyes narrowed. “No, I haven’t.”
Charles pulled in a deep breath. “Back during World War II, there were…reports from Allied and German pilots of craft that flew in formation with them. The Allies called them Foo Fighters because they could not figure out what they were.” Charles shrugged. “They actually had another word on the front, but it was sanitized back Stateside and you probably don’t want me saying it here,” he said with a wink.
John chuckled. “I’ll trust your instincts on that.”
Charles gave him an innocent shrug. “Well, these Foo Fighters never opened fire on either side, they just flew with them for a while, matched every move the pilots of the time tried, and then flashed away whenever they felt like it. They did things only a craft with gravitic controls could manage. Now these are just reports and stories, but…they were usually cigar-shaped, almost always with small fins or wings.”
John’s eyes widened and he rubbed his jaw in thought. “Cigar-shaped?”
Charles nodded. “A big long tube with some fins for weapons or wings.” Charles lifted one hand up. “Now most reports had them as silver, not white, but I’m betting you recognize the general shape.”
“The Peloran,” John supplied.
“The Peloran,” Charles agreed.
“Damn. Sorry, Lord,” he said with another glance at the cross.
Charles shook his head. “Then there were the flying saucers and the giant triangular ships of the Twentieth and Twenty First centuries. All rumors of course. Unidentified Flying Objects. Unconfirmed just like the Foo Fighters.”
“But the Shang fly circular ships,” John said with a sigh.
“And the Roderan ships,” Charles added with a nod. “If they stood on end they would appear triangular to someone looking at them from below.”
“Wow,” John whispered with a shake of his head. “That is a mindjob.”
Charles aimed a very serious look at his old friend. “If any of those stories are real, then they have been watching us for hundreds of years.”
“And if they’ve been watching us that long, how much longer have they been watching us?” John asked.
Charles raised one finger. “Exactly.”
John shook his head. “I don’t know. It seems like a mouthful to accept.”
Charles shrugged. “Arthur C. Clarke said it long ago. Advanced enough technology will look like magic to someone who does not recognize it.”
John nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense, and I can even see it, from a theoretical point of view of course,” he noted with a stern look.
Charles smiled, accepting the conditions of the argument with good grace.
“Let’s take this idea all the way,” John began. “Let’s say that there really was some alien named Shang who started China. Wouldn’t you say then that maybe there was a Zeus that visited Greece? And what about the Egyptian or Celtic gods? Charles, if we are thinking on this route, every single culture on Earth has stories of gods that came to them with unearthly powers. Are you making the argument that these were all Big A Aliens from actual other worlds?”
Charles nodded very slowly. “I think that is an argument we have to study. Contact was a century ago, but other than conspiracy networks nobody has made a real serious study into any of this. In a century. Why not?”
John cleared his throat. “Because they’ve always been considered crazy in the past.”
Charles nodded, wondering if John would bring up what he’d thought of.
“Fine. I’ll bite. But why did they leave?” John asked. “If you were a great and all powerful alien who is worshiped as a god, why would you leave? Those old religions are gone. Barely remnants and memories of what they used to be. If I were a god, why would I let them forget me?”
“That is a good point,” Charles whispered. He let out a long breath and chewed his lower lip. Then he looked up at the cross on the wall. “You may not like this, but a couple thousand years ago we did have a pretty important person show up and say he was the Son of God. And the crazy cult that he spawned spread out to all corners of the world, and supplanted almost every existing religion.”
John shook his head again. “You’re right. I don’t like that idea.”
“I’m just taking the discussion to the end point,” Charles said with an apologetic smile.
John smiled back. “I know. But I mean there is an actual problem with the idea. And not just from a reactionary theologian,” he added with a wink.
Charles relaxed back into the pew and waved for John to continue.
John licked his lips. “If God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit were just some alien space traveler playing with the local population, why haven’t they returned? Face it, Chuck, a glowing man floating down from the sky would be an easy illusion to generate with Peloran technology. Even now, most of us would probably fall for it, but realistically they should have pulled it two or three centuries ago at the latest. After World War II or the Second Great Depression would have been the times to do it. The Peloran have the tech to pull it off but they didn’t try. If what you say is accurate, the Shang did try it after the Peloran made Contact, but it didn’t stick. Most of us didn’t even realize they had. Why didn’t they try earlier, when it might have worked? If they’ve been coming here long enough to be the gods of our ancient religions, why not take advantage of those times to show everybody that the old gods have true power? Christianity would have had some real hard times expanding into many of the places we did if the locals could point to things they’d actually seen their gods do in their own lifetimes.”
“It is hard to argue against that.” Charles shook his head. “I do not pretend to have all of the answers. All I have right now are questions. Questions that no one credible has asked in a century. And I believe that we must ask them if we are ever to find our place in the universe.”
“They are very interesting questions,” John said and looked back up to the cross. “But I doubt they are true.”
“Why?” Charles asked with real curiosity. “Your God is an alien by definition. He created the universe. He created Earth. He lives in Heaven, a very literal other world. He sends his angels to Earth to interact with us. They are not of this world by the very words of your Bible!” Charles stopped for a moment and looked around until he saw the stained glass window showing Jesus lifting up into the sky. “There. Right there. It shows him leaving Earth and returning to his home. To another world. What makes you doubt that he is just another alien in a universe full of them?”
John smiled and relaxed back into his pew. “Believe it or not, Charles, that is actually a question we have asked ourselves. Contact was not easy on the Christian church.” John laughed. “Many people still believed that God created us and only us and we would never find anyone else anywhere out there when the Peloran showed up. That was a rude surprise to their beliefs.”
“I remember,” Charles said. “That hurt attendance.”
“It did,” John answered. Then he shrugged. “And it didn’t. Many people left and lost their faith. And many people questioned everything they knew and came to us for answers. The media at the time reported much on those who left and little on those who came back. It was the ‘End of Religion’ as the news called it. They didn’t want to muddy their narrative, you see. But do you know what happened next, Charles?”
“No,” Charles answered and looked around the inside of the cathedral. “But considering how we used to talk back then, I am very surprised to see you here.”
John nodded. “Weddings and funerals. What other reason did we have to walk into a place like this?”
“Exactly,” Charles said and turned back to his old friend. “So why this?”
John smiled. “Because I had questions. And I met some very smart pastors who had some very good answers.” John sighed and looked around the cathedral again. “Charles. I don’t believe Jesus was just some random alien who came here to play around with us. His teachings would be different if he had been. He taught us to love one another. He told us to be nice to people. To treat others as we would be treated. He taught us not to judge other people. He turned water into wine so we could have a wedding celebration. He fed people so they could stay and listen to him. He washed people’s feet and declared himself a servant.”
John shook his head and gave Charles a long look. “What power hungry alien with delusions of grandeur would come thousands of lightyears in search of making people worship him as a god, but then teach ideals like that? They would come with thunder and lightning and demand that they be worshiped. Just like the Shang did.”
“True,” Charles said slowly.
John smiled. “So, did you really come here to talk about this?”
Charles sighed and shook his head. “No. I came asking for your counsel on a more terrestrial matter.”
“Well,” John said with a laugh and patted his old friend’s shoulder. “I happen to have some experience with that now.”
Charles snorted and looked around the cathedral. “I bet you do.”
John sobered and looked Charles in the eyes. “What is it, Charles?”
“My family,” Charles answered with a heavy heart. “I am tired of the corruption, John. Sick and tired. We break laws with impunity and then buy off those who should stand against us. We protect those who are loyal to us from any prosecution as long as they remain at our side. We buy the government itself and make it dance to our whims. We are the very pinnacle of the idea that some people are above the law. I can no longer support the corruption, John.”
John nodded very slowly. “Your father did not like it when I spoke similarly.”
Charles looked away from his old friend. He had chosen his family back then.
“Charles, there are many people who think they have the power and the right to do as they will. To rule us like gods, to demand our worship, our offerings, and our sacrifices,” John said with the air of a man who remembered it all very well. “Many who demand that we do as they say. I do not say they have no power. I say they aren’t worthy of us standing with them.”
“I see,” Charles said and looked back at his friend. “I do not think I ever thought of it with those words.”
John smiled. “The question is not their power, Charles. It is their worthiness. We never could have stood against the Shang a hundred years ago. They could have conquered us with ease. But that would not have made them worthy of our allegiance. But the Peloran? They’ve never asked anything of us. And now when the Shang attack, they stand with us. Why? What do they gain from fighting with us? What have they asked in return?”
Charles smiled. “So far, just me.”
John blinked and pulled back in confusion.
Charles’ smile grew and he decided to explain. “The Cowboys. We fly off the Guardian Light now. Aneerin asked for that after the Battle of Fort London.”
John smiled in understanding and steepled his fingers, considering things for several seconds before answering. “What does he gain by doing that?”
“Well, he has taken heavy losses in his fighter groups, so we are helping to keep his squadron in the war.”
“Yes, that would be the foremost reason, the public reason, the reason that can be sent to the media so everything can look good to the civilians. Do you know another reason?”
Charles pursed his lips and shook his head. “No. Perhaps…understanding? I have learned more about them in the last month than the rest of my life put together.”
John shook his head. “That is how it helps you. How does it help him?”
“Well,” Charles began, considering the question very carefully. “It is possible that us understanding him is important to him.”
“True. Do you want to bank our survival on that guess?” John asked with a frown.
Charles scratched his chin. “No.”
“Good. I only see one source of action here, Charles,” John said with a nod of approval. “If what you say is true, we know what the Shang want. They want us to serve them. We don’t know what the Roderan want. We know what the Peloran say they want. Friendship. But is that true? They have power. And they appear to be worthy. But is that true?”
“I do not know,” Charles said with a shake of his head. “But I certainly question it.”
John reached his hand behind the pew and pulled a Bible up. “Good. Now you have to find out what they want. Really want. And you are in a good position to do that. Take this with you.”
Charles gave a firm shake of his head. “You know I do not believe.”
“I know,” John said with a smile. “But if you truly want to study about gods and men, you really have to study some of the source material.”
Charles looked at it doubtfully. “I suppose. But I can get a portable copy for study.”
John chuckled. “Ah, but I practice throwing a real book at people when they need it. Real paper and leather makes an impact that electrons never will. Take it, Chuck. Read it. There’s a lot of information in these pages that can be helpful, even if you don’t believe. A favor for an old friend.”
Charles shifted uncomfortably on the pew and looked at Dorothy.
She shifted her head to the side and smiled, signaling her agreement.
Charles sighed and reached to take the Bible out of John’s hands. He shook his head and looked at it with a raised eyebrow. “So where would I start?”
John laughed and tapped the leather cover with one finger. “Why, ‘In the beginning’ of course.”
Charles shook his head and pushed himself up onto his feet. “Right. I should have seen that coming.”
“Yes. You should have,” John said with a smile and clapped his old friend on the shoulder. “It’s good to see you again, old friend.”
“And it is good to see you, old friend, ” Charles said and grasped his friend’s hand. Then he rose to his feet and let out a long breath. “I need to go.”
“I understand,” John said and looked towards the back of the cathedral. “Your friend out there is getting antsy. Where did you meet him?”
Charles followed John’s gaze and sighed. “He is a volunteer, like me. A Cowboy.”
“Do you trust him?” John asked in a suspicious tone.
Charles looked directly into his old friend’s eyes. “I trust him with my life.”
“Good,” John said and pushed Charles towards the entrance to the cathedral. “You should talk to him then. He might be more use to you as a co-conspirator than as a door guard.”
Charles paused for a moment to study his old friend. Then he shook his head and took the long walk back to the doors.
“And don’t wait so long before coming back again!” John shouted as the doors opened.
Charles looked back once more, gave his old friend a wry smile, and left. The doors shut behind him and Christian turned to face him.
“How was the meeting?” he asked and turned back to scan the empty street for anything dangerous. Like a stray dog or a sketchy looking squirrel.
“Enlightening,” Charles answered and studied his wingman closely. He wondered what kind of parents would name their son Christian. They certainly were nothing like the parents Charles had grown up with. And perhaps that was a good thing. He gave Christian a speculative look.
“What?” the other man asked.
Charles shook his head and began walking down the stairs. “Just something an old friend reminded me of today.”
“I see,” Christian said and followed him down the stairs. “Are you going to tell me?”
Charles smiled and turned onto the street with a bounce in his step. “I do believe I will, actually.”