From the outside, the Priory of the Contemplative Void looked more like an echinoderm than a cathedral, and not at all like a typical space station. The stony-gray spires and gothic buttresses stuck out evenly on all sides, lit by abstract stained glass windows, running lights, and the distant stars. At one end of the station's central shaft, four gargoyles stood sentinel around the outer hatch of the docking bay. They stared, grim and sober, out into space. Their gnarled faces were cast into inverse shadow by the lights around the hatch.
A rocket-propelled ellipsoid approached. It was sleek, but painted a tacky shade of teal. The side read "Barracuda Spacebus." Two passengers sat in the grimily-upholstered viewing lounge. One was an incoming novice, young and frightened, sitting stiffly on the fuzzy blue bench with her bags piled next to her. The other was a man who had his nose pressed up to the viewport, watching the priory.
The novice stared at him. She'd glimpsed his face as he'd entered the room, just after the last of the other passengers had left. He looked familiar - the scruffy, unshaven chin, the pale and untidy hair, the eyes that didn't so much sparkle as fizz like a carbonated beverage. Not so much the wild grin he was known for, if he was who she thought he was: He'd only glanced at her briefly, but when he had, he'd just looked irritated. Still, she couldn't tear her gaze away. Was it really him?
Finally, sick of seeing her pale, wide-eyed reflection in the window like some kind of awestruck ghost, he turned to her. She opened her mouth slightly, but made no other movement.
"Yes," he snapped, "I'm Doomsday Comet. No, I won't play anything for you on my guitar, nor whistle anything, hum, or beat out a rhythm on my knees. I won't autograph it, either, no matter what 'it' is. Particularly not if it's my album."
She shut her mouth again. Her eyes watered slightly.
"Wouldn't you rather look at the priory?" he asked. He gestured at the window. "I presume you're going to be spending the rest of your life there. Me, I'd be a bit curious. I mean, I am curious, and I'm just here as a tourist."
She sat silently.
"It's pretty impressive. More impressive than my face. I'm just a musician, you know?"
"Or not," said Doomsday. "Your call. But stop staring at me!"
"I," she said.
"mabigfanofyours," she muttered.
Doomsday sighed and shook his head. "You and everyone else," he said.
"I have your album," she said. "I don't know if they'll let me keep it as a novice, but I have it just in case. It's the only one I brought."
"I'm flattered," he said, stonily.
Doomsday sighed again.
"Will you s-sign it?" she squeaked.
Doomsday said nothing, merely turned back to the window. Ahead of the space bus, the hatch opened.
"Novices aren't allowed to have guitars," said the Ostiary.
"I'm not a novice," said Doomsday.
The Ostiary glanced uncertainly down at his clipboard, then back at Doomsday.
"Says here you are," he said.
"Not me, her. She's the novice." Doomsday jabbed a thumb at the novice, who was standing anxiously behind him, shifting her weight from foot to foot. She stood directly in front of her enormous pile of bags, apparently trying to shield them from view, as if the Ostiary could possibly miss them.
The Ostiary looked down at his clipboard again.
"I don't understand," he said. "I don't see you on the list."
"Is it a list of novices?"
"Yeeess..." The monk drew the word out, as if he himself wasn't sure.
"I'm not a novice," said Doomsday. "That's why I'm not on the list."
"I don't..." He looked down at the clipboard again. "Novices aren't allowed to have guitars," he said. "I don't see a note here about allowing you to have a guitar. The Provost of Initiates would have a note here if you were to be allowed a guitar."
"Is he in charge of novices?"
"I'm not a novice. So I don't think he has a say in it, one way or the other."
The Ostiary flipped the page over, looked at the blank page under it, and furrowed his brow.
"Let me see the list," said Doomsday.
The Ostiary handed it over. It read:
That was all.
Doomsday grabbed the pen and added a new heading: "Non-Novices." Underneath he scrawled "Wreinjer Commet," and as an afterthought, "is to be allowed a guitar and anything else he wants while aboard this space station, by order of Wreinjer Commet, Provost of Non-Novices, appointed by Wreinjer Commet as per his authority as a non-novice."
He handed the clipboard back to the monk, who scowled.
"There's no need to be like that," he said. "I'm not stupid."
"Fine, yeah, whatever," said Doomsday. "Can we move along, here?"
The Ostiary looked at the clipboard again. "'Wreinjer Commet'?" he asked, "who's that?"
"That's me," said Doomsday. "Obviously. And you're not pronouncing it right. It rhymes with 'ranger' sort of."
"Yeah, that's me."
"Oh. Huh. I thought you were Doomsday Comet. You know, of Doomsday Comet and the Rogue Asteroids. You look just like him."
"Imagine that. Must be a crazy coincidence," he said, daring to hope that maybe for once someone would associate him with his real name instead of his stage name.
"Could've sworn. It would explain why you have a guitar. Also, the Provost said to keep an eye out for him. Was he on the bus with you?"
"I wouldn't know. I've never met him. Now, if you could just tell me where my room is-" He tried to push past the man, but the Ostiary blocked him with monkish solidity.
"Hold on," said the Ostiary. "You can't come through here if you're not either a novice or Doomsday Comet. This is a private priory. We don't allow visitors unless they get permission from the Provost."
"Oh," said Doomsday. "Um. Could I get you to believe that I'm a novice after all?"
"Sorry, I have a signed note from the Provost of Non-Novices that says you aren't," said the Ostiary, holding up the clipboard.
Behind Doomsday, the novice named Ellen had been edging closer and closer. Now she reached out for the clipboard, and the page where Doomsday's name was signed.
"Um, uh," she said, "um, do you mind if, maybe, could I have that?"
"So why are you here, anyway?"
The Senior Provost's chamber was at the top – or, if the station's rotation-produced faux-gravity was to be believed, the bottom – of one of the station's three largest towers. They radiated equidistantly from its equator, as if the station were some sort of cobblestone lionfish.
Not that it really was built of stone, of course. The station's medieval appearance was merely a clever facade – for the most part. The monks did use real, handmade candles, made from real beeswax, which was harvested from real bees kept aboard the station, though the wicks were treated with some highly non-traditional chemicals to reduce the oxygen consumption of the flames. Doomsday had spent the hour before his meeting pestering the beekeepers, curious to learn the techniques of zero-g beekeeping. The apiarist-monks, it turned out, preferred to keep their secrets, as well, and he'd walked away with nothing for his efforts but a couple of stings.
"Sightseeing," said Doomsday. "Didn't we discuss this?"
"People don't come to this priory to sight-see. They come here to contemplate the mysteries of the universe."
All four of the square chamber's walls featured the abstract stained-glass windows Doomsday had seen from outside. They were built with two layers of glass, between which a candelabra was ensconced. The candle flames cast glittering, flickering patches of colored light around the room. Doomsday tried not to stare at the splotch of green covering the right side of the Provost's severe nose.
"Contemplating the mysteries of the universe, sight-seeing – aren't they kind of the same thing?" asked Doomsday. "But I think you've misunderstood me. I'm not here on this station to sight-see." He pointed to an ornate and colorful orrery on the Provost's desk. "I'm here because I want to go sight-seeing there," he said.
Beledde IV was a gas giant renowned for its stunning, many-hued whorls and strangely regular patterns. It boasted a dozen noteworthy moons, each with a distinctly different view of the mother planet. From the priory, it was nothing more than a fuzzy blob, too large and dim to be a star, but too indistinct to suggest anything else in particular. Even if it had been visible through the stained glass, the bright and stylized orrery was a better visual representation of it than the thing itself.
"There? The planet?"
"The moons. I want to tour them. No, not that kind of a tour," he said, noticing the Provost's gaze dropping to his guitar case.
"Oh," said the Provost. "I see. It did seem odd to me that you'd come all the way out here, only to stay a single night with us in the monastery. But I suppose this is just the closest place you could find transportation to."
"It's a beautiful monastery," Doomsday assured him, "even if the acoustics are off."
"Surely a famous musician would want to visit somewhere that's more populated? More urban? Less quiet? We don't usually get celebrities around here."
"I've decided I could use some time alone to recuperate," said Doomsday. "I never asked to be famous, you know. It gets frustrating. Sometimes I need to do my own thing. Follow my own groove. You know?"
He thought back to the incident that had driven him here – the mob of crazed fans that had chased him from the Ortakkus system. They'd gotten themselves a custom-built fleet of spaceships, each ship shaped like a letter. From Doomsday's vantage point, the ships had spelled out:
Do osw a
tC o md e
One m experienced consistent difficulty settling on which was the right way up, and the y had gotten lost somewhere en-route. The rest had pursued him with bumbling and ferocious enthusiasm, furiously broadcasting his music on every wavelength, and spamming his comm systems with awkward praise until he'd finally lost them by conveniently wrecking his spaceship in a nearby asteroid belt. He'd been rescued by a hermit who didn't speak a word of his language but could still hum the first few bars of the first song on his one and only album.
Doomsday did not get along well with his fans at the best of times, but this incident had been some sort of last straw or another. He'd decided to take his wanderings to a particularly quiet and obscure corner of the galaxy. Maybe – just maybe! - the inhabitants of the moons of Beledde wouldn't have heard of Doomsday Comet and the Rogue Asteroids at all.
"I'll assign Brother Frederich to be your guide," said the Provost.
"My guide?" Doomsday was taken aback. "I didn't ask for a guide. I only wanted lodging."
"Nevertheless," said the Provost, "he'll be going with you. He has business on one of the moons, so he may as well. He'll be heading out there anyway."
"Er, look," said Doomsday, "not that I'm ungrateful, but this was supposed to be a solo gig. A personal thing. I don't need anyone else tagging along. No offense to Brother Frederich, I'm sure he's a wonderful person."
"Ah, I see, so you brought your own spacecraft? Maybe in the guitar case?" It was the only piece of luggage Doomsday had with him.
"Oh, um. No. No, I didn't. Not a bad idea, though, hey? A spaceship that can fit inside a guitar case. That would be pretty clever. Tricky to engineer, but clever. I wonder if I could commission such a thing?"
"Perhaps. Nevertheless, the craft we keep aboard this station aren't for rent. We need them for monastery business. So if you don't have a vehicle of your own, your options are to go with Brother Frederich, or to wait here until the space bus returns in three months." The Provost smiled and steepled his fingers together. "Or you could try to hold your breath and get there on foot. I don't recommend that option. I hear it has a high fatality rate."
"Ah," said Doomsday. "I see," said Doomsday. He looked down at his lap. "Very well," he said, "but if this Frederich guy asks me to autograph anything..."
"I suspect he won't. You can meet him tomorrow."
"You call this a spaceship?" asked Doomsday.
"Yes," said the man, levelly. He wore a white-bordered, charcoal-gray scapular over a simple black tunic, a long cowl, gloves, and boots. Underneath the cowl, he had a large, solid face and short, dark, curly hair.
"You must be Doomsday," he said.
"You must be Brother Frederich."
"Father Frederich," the man corrected.
"Father?" Doomsday raised an eyebrow. "What, did you rank up while I was sleeping? The Provost called you 'Brother'."
"To him, I am a Brother. To the unenlightened, such as yourself, I am Father."
"Oh yeah?" said Doomsday. "Listen, I'm not really one for titles."
"I might be willing to let you drop it. Eventually. If you earn the right. Show some respect to my ship, for a start." The man's arms were folded, the wide sleeves draping beneath them like a bow tie.
"Yeah, but-" Doomsday turned back to the ship. "But look at the thing!" He slapped a frayed, faded hose that dangled from the left jet-strut. "Is it even space-worthy?"
"Yes," said Father Frederich. "She is."
Doomsday ran his hand over the chipped paint of the outer hull. "'Cupped Hands'," he read. "What a dumb name."
"Please do not touch her," said Frederich.
"That's 'Father Frederich'."
"-This thing looks ready to come apart at the seams. The hull is pitted," he thumped it, "the struts are warped, the landing arms are, well, landing arms.... What model is this, anyway?"
"She's a custom job. Please refer to me as 'Father Frederich'."
"Look, I know it's hard to get parts out here, and I'm not exactly the safety inspector, here, myself, but there are limits, yeah? I mean, what, is this a fission engine? I mean, really? Aren't those illegal in this cluster?"
"Yes," said Father Frederich, stiffly, "except for several models that got grandfathered in. Such as the Powerstar-650, which is what I have. It was the later models where they started to cut corners. No Powerstar has ever had an explosive fault."
"What about radiation leakage?"
"Very rarely, and only in cases where the engine was poorly maintained."
"That's 'Father Frederich', not 'Buddy.'"
"-this whole ship looks poorly maintained," said Doomsday.
"It is as you say – hard to get parts out here. But I assure you," said Father Frederich, who was starting to turn red, "I take very, very, very good care of my ship. You'll notice she is free of rust, well-oiled, everything is carefully fitted..."
Doomsday looked over the Cupped Hands again. She was a small ship, more boxy than sleek, with a pair of stubby wings to hold propulsion jets and a trio of bulging, round coolant tanks in the back. There were more dangling hoses, as well as exposed wires and ugly reinforcement beams bolted on here and there. To be fair, Father Frederich was right: There was no rust, and the welds looked extremely solid.
"How come the paint's flaking, then?" demanded Doomsday.
"I happen to think that for a functioning spacecraft, paint is not the most important component," said Frederich, testily. "Forgive me if I've prioritized other components. I assure you, as soon as I can get more paint in, I'll touch it up. Just for you, Mr. Doomsday."
"Actually, it's 'Wreinjer', not 'Doomsday'. 'Doomsday Comet' is my stage name," explained Doomsday. "I prefer not to use it."
"It's 'Father Frederich', Doomsday," said the monk. "Now, listen: The Provost has told me to take you with me, and I will, even if I'd rather not. Or, if you want, you can wait for the space bus. But if you're coming with me, then this is the ship we're using. Take her or leave her."
Doomsday squirmed. "Three months..." he said.
"If it makes the run at all. Sometimes they skip our stop."
"Right," said Doomsday. "Well. You know, I always did say that the old fission reactors are more reliable than they're given credit for."
"Good," said Father Frederich. "Then hurry up and get in."
Ella Sprewett's pile of bags still sat on the floor in the docking bay. The monks had forbade her to bring them to her room, since earthly possessions - or those associated with any other planet, for that matter - were forbidden to novices. Nobody had gotten around to doing anything else with them, though, so they still lay where she'd left them.
She had no problem sneaking to the docking bay. The monk in charge of discipline had just gone away on some business, so nobody was watching her much.
There was one particular zipper attached to the lumpy, red bag that sat on top of the pile. She grabbed this and pulled - and when she reached the edge of the bag, kept pulling, unzipping a seam on the bag below, and the suitcase below that, revealing that the whole pile was a single unit with a single hollow space inside.
The space contained a man. He unfolded himself and stood up.
He had artificially darkened skin, and his blonde hair was radiation-bleached in the front, both characteristics marking him as someone who spent a lot of time in space suits – the part of the hair that was bleached was the part that might hang down in front of a transparent visor. This wasn't some leathery old belter, though, or a scarred navyman. His hair was impeccable, his skin flawlessly smooth. Nor was he wearing a space suit now. Instead, he wore a stylish butter-yellow shoulderpatch suit, cut perfectly to his narrow frame and completely unmarred by stain or crease. He wasn't smiling, and his eyes were flat.
He stretched. "About time," he said. "Is he here?"
"I saw him on the space bus," said Ella. "I don't know where he is now. Somewhere on the station, I suppose."
"Good," said the man. He pulled a saxophone from the bag. "Very good," he said.
On the side of the saxophone, there were words written in big, jagged black letters: "Bad Omen." He put the instrument to his lips, but did not play.