I wrote this piece in 2013, but I’ve had the concept since around 2004/5. Monks in Space. A space monastery in the Kuiper Belt. Excellent.
The First Chapter
It was Brother Isador, returning from a baptism on a nearby asteroid, who found the drifting escape pod. The spherical capsule had long since burnt out its distress beacon, but the polished reflective surface made a spark in the darkness that caught Isador’s attention. As he neared it he scanned for transmissions – none. He would certainly find nothing more than the remains of a lost soul forgotten in space.
But he didn’t. Matching trajectory and velocity at about thirty metres he saw a movement through a tiny, trapezoid window. Then a face. A haggard and desperate face. Isador offered a brief prayer of thanksgiving for the preserved life within the pod – and a prayer that he might serve his maker in preserving that life further.
He approached, programmed a tiny rocket drone to thread a cable through a projecting rung, fired it, and powered up all his boosters to begin to slow the pod’s flight. Once in the hangar beneath the refectory and with the gentleness of the abbey’s air on his cheeks, Isador and the other monks wrestled with jammed catches and an electronic lock coded in an unfamiliar script. They opened the hatch and found a man inside, unconscious and breathing shallowly in the remnants of his thin air. He had a wasted and enervated body, lank and dirty hair. He wore an old-fashioned suit that seemed to have been fitted to a larger, form. How long had he been drifting in space? Neither the pod nor he could tell the monks, who carefully carried him up to a cell and laid him on clean sheets.
They took turns to watch over him, and pray, each returning to their own forms of prayer learnt decade since – or much more recently. The Abbot too watched over their uninvited guest, sometimes passing comment with the brother whose turn it was to sit in the spare room, or sometimes taking the opportunity to pray together, to talk, to learn of one another, while the man with the gaunt face slept on the bed before them.
They trimmed his beard, cropped his hair, measured his body fat, took samples from his blood and his lung tissue, fed him with intravenous supplements, cleaned and salved the grazes, sores and cuts that covered his hands arms. They watched his breathing patterns shift, his eyes roll and flicker beneath their lids, saw him slip into a fever and surrender to the grip of nightmares from which he could not wake.
“When he thrashes, I fear he will hurt himself even more, father,” said Brother Duncan to the Abbot. “Perhaps if we prepared one of the zero-g cells and moved him there?”
“He will not heal without gravity, Brother Duncan. We are designed subject to it – and I think that this man has spent far too long without its grip. We may have to restrain him – but gently.”
Duncan nodded and went to fetch some straps he could pad with sheets and cushions before the next round of nightmares began. The Abbot surely knew what it was to be suffer sickness of body… However, it was not long before the restraints were unnecessary. Two nights later the man passed through his period of nightmares and seemed to settle into a deeper, more peaceful sleep. The brothers had been caring for him for over three weeks now and despite their avowed abhorrence of gossip, speculation as to his identity was rife. Increasingly, once the awful experience of watching an unconscious man tied to a bed shuddering and moaning had passed, more than one brother would come to sit in the little cell on the rock-plast chairs, or stand with clasped hands in their characteristic statue-like poise, sometimes talking, sometimes praying aloud or under their breath, in worship and prayer and in battle for the soul that had been brought to them.
So it was one Tuesday afternoon, about an hour before Vespers, that Lemuel, whose turn it was to watch, together with Copus and Leonidas, who were not generally found in each other’s company, were sitting and standing in the cell, talking.
“No, no. He couldn’t have been from the nearby stations,” said Copus decisively. “From his condition he had obviously been out in space for some time – and travelling at a fair click, Isador said. Besides, that sort of pod is much more likely from a ship than a station. It must be one of several.”
“We didn’t find any others,” replied Leonidas. “Other pods might have been able to help him.”
Copus frowned. “They might easily have been scattered – very easily, if there was an explosion.”
It wasn’t plain where Copus sourced his expertise in these matters, but he plainly felt that an explanation was both necessary and an important preparation for the care of their guest.
Lemuel remained quiet. He was watching their patient’s face. The breathing was regular, firm, like a man asleep but about to wake. The face was lined, but not darkened by exposure to the sun or the grey distant stars, rather soft, but with many secrets. Deeply-hollowed eyes. The signs of strain around the forehead and loosened furrows on his skin.
“He will awake shortly,” said Lemuel. “We will see if he can speak.”
So they stood to wait, retreating into prayer again.
At thirty-six minutes past noon, the stranger awoke. Leonidas’ eyes flickered to the console where heart-rate, lung inflation, serotonin levels and the other crucial readings throbbed gently. And then for a minute, they studied each other, the men in their habits and the man on the bed. He turned slightly, looked around the cell, and returned his gaze to them.
Copas spoke. “Welcome in the name of Christ, to the monastery of St Basset in Belt.”
The man gave a short chuckle. “Space monks. What else should I have expected?”
The Second Chapter
He told them his name was Anatoliy and seemed well enough to get up from his bed, so they gently began to show him around the house. There was no anxiousness – no worry about how he had come to be there, and the brothers were not about to riddle him with questions – so they simply walked along the polished corridors, past the long glazed galleries, through the now quiet refectory, past the humming chapels, into the church proper, the library, before reaching the herbarium, where Brother Frobisher was trimming currant bushes. Their guest seemed to change in the rich, sweltering air. “I would like to sit here a while, and rest,” he said. “Might I do that?”
Copas nodded. “Of course. A guest should treat this house as though he owned it, and we were the visitors. We will bring you a chair.”
“No need. I shall sit on that bench by the glazing.”
Copas nodded. “Perhaps you might want to spend a little time in a prayer of gratitude. God has called you from the deeps and given you life.”
The man nodded a sceptical nod. “I am very sensible of how fortunate I am, brothers.” Copas couldn’t resist a small smile and then they withdrew, to return to their own cells, to report to the Abbot, pray for their guest, and then return to other duties.
He sat by the glazing, the lush green of the piled leaves on one side, the emptiness of the solar system on the other. The rock beneath the monastery fell away steeply here, becoming the asteroid’s flank. The slow spin was barely noticeable – the distant sun like a hole in the milky-grey sky, fading darker to where the other stars also claimed a corner of space. He peered out, tried to calculate the direction of his home, gave up and leant against the glass.
In the kitchen Lemuel was singing old songs as he cleaned and wiped the floor. It had been a long time since the monastery had received a guest from the hand of the Lord, and he was eager, interested. What would be called out from each of them? Every new relationship was another set of opportunities for the Lord to change, remake, teach, challenge. Even if he were to stay only briefly, already this guest had begun to change his hosts. Copas’ need to protect him, coupled with a curiosity; Leonidas edge of suspicion – quite a natural reaction, all considered.
But there were other things to consider, too. The asteroid had entered a portion of empty space. Travelling faster than much of the belt, several million kilometres further out, they periodically lost contact with the mining communities, the small nations scattered among the rocks. The belt was always in flux. Like a sea, he supposed. But he had never seen a sea. How would they sustain themselves? He had no grasp of the times and distances – Brother Humberto was much more likely to be able to give him an answer. But it could be months before they made contact again. All in God’s time. He carried on worshipping, turning his concern into a prayer for their sustenance, thanks for what they had already received.