by Antonio Bellomi
The object was substantial, but not really huge. For uncountable centuries, it had followed a route that was not recorded on any spatial chart, like a comet that follows a path of its own, the origin and the end of which nobody knows.
The object was black, metallic, and did not emit radiation of any kind. It resembled a meteorite, a simple pebble of space, but it was not, because it had been forged by an alien intelligence. It had no visible means of propulsion, no boosting motors, and yet it sped through space just below the speed of light, maintaining the speed its mysterious builders had set when they had launched it into a vast hyperbola that would never have an end.
Encounter with man had not been accounted for.
* * *
Father Oneis felt uneasy in the over-adorned lobby of the Vatican. The couch was too soft and he felt he was sinking through its precious red velvet cover. A dozen ancient prelates were staring at him from the pictures hanging from the walls and they looked as if they were questioning him with severe eyes.
“What are you doing here?” they seemed to ask him. “You, small unworthy space priest, what can you have to say to His Holiness? This is the place where the very essence of Christianity is converging. This is the core of enlightened thinking. This is no place for you.”
A door creaked slightly, and when it opened, a middle-aged priest with slanted eyes came through. He was Monsignor Abykaev, the private secretary of His Holiness Pope Karim II, the third pope originating from Kazakhstan.
“His Holiness will receive you in a short while,” he rasped with a voice that held no sympathy.
“Thank you,” Father Oneis answered meekly, and his hands tightened around the metal case he kept in his lap, which was enveloped in a black velvet sack. He had never separated from it for months now.
Monsignor Abykaev watched him silently, examining the little, unimpressive priest who must have pressed all possible buttons at all hierarchic levels to be granted a confidential meeting with the Holy Father without revealing the reason for his request.
“You understand this meeting you have been granted with the Holy Father is absolutely unprecedented and disrespectful of any standard procedure,” Abykaev said to Father Oneis when he finished his scrutiny. “And in my opinion it should not have been granted anyway,” Abykaev concluded with a sour smile.
Monsignor Abykaev did not like to be overruled. It was his job to schedule the appointments of the Pontifex, and he had taken badly the pressure an important Roman cardinal had exerted on him. But, powerful as he was, in the end he had been compelled to give in.
Father Oneis did not reply, restraining himself with difficulty. He knew he had been fortunate to be granted this meeting, and he did not want to risk losing everything with a rash answer.
Monsignor Abykaev looked at his watch. “Follow me,” he said haughtily. “The Holy Father will see you now.”
* * *
Pope Karim II was seated behind a huge desk on the top of which lay not a single sheet of paper. His appearance was still youthful in spite of his seventy years. He was an imposing figure with a crown of white hair that gave him an air of fatherly benevolence. His eyes were severe, but not hard. They were the eyes of a man who did not like to waste time and knew he had a superior mission to accomplish, a man who did not allow himself to be hindered by any kind of obstacle.
Under his pontificate the traditional procedures had undergone a radical revolution, and now the reins of the Church were firmly in his strong managerial hands. Artificial ornaments and pomp had been abolished, and although many people in the Vatican had looked askance at his innovations, in the end they had to bow more or less graciously and accept the new style.
The Pontifex held out his hand, and Father Oneis kissed his ring, an homage to the symbol, not the man, the last homage remaining, perhaps.
“Please, sit down,” Pope Karim II told him amiably. “I was told you have an important communication for me. Cardinal Ponzio was very persuasive. I can give you fifteen minutes.”
“They will suffice,” Father Oneis said. He sat down, keeping his metal case in his lap.
The eyes of the Pontifex fell on it, but Karim II did not say anything. He waited for the other to speak first.
“As you know, I recently arrived back on Earth from an interstellar expedition in the Canopus region,” Father Oneis began. “I am... was... the ship’s chaplain.”
Pope Karim II nodded. He did not say anything, but his grey, probing eyes clearly invited Father Oneis to continue.
“It had been an absolutely routine voyage,” the priest went on, “till the day our route crossed the path of an unknown object of alien origin.”
“A spaceship?” the Pontifex asked.
Father Oneis shrugged. “It is difficult to say. The object was a huge metallic ovoid travelling at sub-light speed, but it appeared to have no external engines. We were able to progressively slow it to a relative halt in space with repulsion rays. I will spare you the technical details. Then we put on our spacesuits, entered this ovoid, and discovered there were actually no engines inside! It was just an artefact, probably of unknown alien origin, and inside it there was only this case.”
While speaking, Father Oneis slipped off the velvet sleeve and placed the metal case, some eighty centimetres long and thirty centimetres high and wide, onto the top of the desk.
Pope Karim II raised an eyebrow at this breach of protocol, but he just said, “Go on.”
Father Oneis caressed the case with veneration. “Only this case, you understand. An alien artefact had been launched into the cosmos at a speed just below that of light, travelling on a course that would carry it farther and farther with no possibility of coming back, all just to shelter this case.”
“I would think of it as a sort of mausoleum,” the Pontifex said. “And I imagine you discovered what the case contained, did you?”
Father Onesi nodded gravely. “Yes, I did. It was not difficult to open it. The cover was sealed but the laser cut it easily.”
There was a knock at the door and presently Monsignor Abykaev peeped in. “You Holiness, the fifteen minutes have expired. The Ambassador of the United Americas is waiting for you.”
Pope Karim II waved him away with his hand. “Not now! Just find a good excuse to postpone the appointment. And I don’t want to be interrupted again.”
“But...” his personal secretary protested.
“Do as I said,” the Pontifex ordered him, and then he returned his gaze to Father Oneis. In Karim’s eyes a vivid light shone. “Go on.”
Monsignor Abykaev shot a venomous glance to Father Oneis, but drew back, closing the door.
“What were the contents of the case?” Pope Karim II asked, and Father Oneis squirmed uneasily because he felt as if the Pontifex had already read the answer from his thoughts.
“Bones,” he answered. “Just human bones.”
Silence followed, and it was full of tension.
“Go on,” the Pontifex prompted him.
Father Oneis gulped, then said, “Nobody aboard the ship was interested in those bones, and they gave them to me for incineration. They were only interested in studying the alien artefact itself.”
The priest fell silent and stroked his brow, realizing he was perspiring in spite of the air conditioning. “At the time of the discovery, I had no immediate duties, so I decided to make a detailed examination of the bones before incinerating them. In my youth I had studied palaeontology, so I knew how to set about it.”
As the eyes of the Pontifex bored into him, Father Oneis hesitated, almost too scared to continue. Then he resumed in a low voice,
“I performed all routine examinations, to ascertain if those bones were really human and eventually the sex, the age at the moment of death, how old the bones were.” His voice trembled. “Your Holiness,” he stuttered, “they were human bones, of a young male, who died at about the age of thirty-three years after an atrocious agony two thousand four hundred years ago... and...”
The face of the Pontifex was now very pale. “And?” he prompted.
The voice of Father Oneis became a whisper. “And then I had a misgiving, a blasphemous misgiving, Your Holiness, and I compared the DNA of those bones with the DNA database of my own computer. I found a match with the DNA of the organic traces of a holy relic, the Holy Sindone, the Shroud of Turin!”
The Pontifex closed his eyes and an expression of intense suffering suffused his face.
“They were the bones of Our Lord, Your Holiness,” Father Oneis whispered, then his voice became strident with tension as he continued. “The bones of Our Lord! But surely this is not possible, because Our Lord was resurrected on the third day, on the third day he was resurrected...” he repeated mechanically.
The Pontifex opened his eyes again and they were pools of infinite sadness. “Do you realize the true meaning of what you have just told me?” he asked softly. “All of our religion is founded on the assumption of the Resurrection, on Our Lord Jesus Christ being resurrected on the third day and ascending to heaven to join his Father, not for his remains to be placed into an alien-made mausoleum!”
Father Oneis lowered his eyes and twisted his hands. “This is the reason why I worked hard to have this meeting with you, Your Holiness. I am just a poor priest. This is too heavy a burden for me. I can only submit my findings to your infallibility.”
Infallibility... what an irony, Karim II thought. Then he recovered, and his glance again transfixed Father Oneis. “Did you tell anybody of your findings?”
The priest shook his head. “No, I did not.”
“And nobody must know of it,” declared the Pontifex harshly. “Do you understand? You will have to keep this secret forever. I know, this is a huge burden for you, a suffering you will have to live with day after day, year after year. But such a revelation would lead to catastrophic consequences for all of us.
“It is not just the destiny of the Church that is at stake. In the past, even when we have had to face appalling challenges, we have always fought and won. In the course of our history we could overcome all sorts of heresies and even defeat the rampant atheism of a hedonistic society, but now it is the entire structure of our civilization that is at peril, because the very cornerstone of our religion would be undermined!”
Father Oneis nodded gravely. “Nobody will hear anything from me,” he said with energy. “I made a vow of obedience and I am determined to keep it, Your Holiness. Your will be done.”
Pope Karim II rose to his feet and walked around his desk to clasp Father Oneis in a strong embrace.
* * *
The case was heavy for a seventy-year old man, but Karim did not ask anybody to accompany him while he went through the armoured door of the most secret vault of the Vatican. The vault was deeply hidden dozens of metres under the surface, and only the reigning Pope could keep the key and had the right to enter there.
The heavy armoured door closed behind him. The old Pope felt a sudden attack of claustrophobia, but he pulled himself together and continued on along the steel-walled corridor until he reached the small crypt at the end.
Here, on a long red marble altar, a dozen cases lay one next to the other. They were made in different shapes and with different metals, but their size was more or less the same as the case the Pontifex was carrying with him. When he reached the altar he laid the case next to the last one on his right.
He stared at them for a long moment and his eyes were full of tears. “Oh, My Lord,” he whispered. “Which is your infinite mystery?”
Each case was labelled with an engraved gold plate: Damascus A.D. 80, Antiochia A.D. 203, Paris A.D. 1211, Samarkand A.D, 1512, and so on: Boston A.D. 1996, Tycho Crater, Luna A.D. 2050, up to the last, or rather now the second to last, Aldebaran IV A.D. 2324.
“Everything about you is so mysterious, my Lord,” Karim said with a quivering voice. “You were resurrected, and you climbed into heaven, but your bones have been found at different times in every part of the Earth and of the Universe. And all of them are unquestionably the bones of the same man who was crucified two thousand four hundred years ago. They have the same DNA as the organic traces found on the Holy Sindone, which the laboratory examinations state to be a cloth of medieval making.
“But then, how is it possible that the same DNA on the Sindone is found on pre-existent bones, and how is it possible that all these bones are identical and that they are the bones of Our Lord Jesus Christ?” The old Pope knelt on the marble step and folded his hands. “I would like to understand, my Lord, I want to understand, but you remain an elusive mystery and I am left with only my faith to support me.”
There was a long pause, then from the lips of the Pope the ancient words flowed: Pater Noster qui es in caelis...
Copyright © 2009, 2010 by Antonio Bellomi