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Qibla

Aaron Knuckey lives and writes in Springfield, IL, storied home of Vachel Lindsay, Abraham Lincoln, and an increasing rogues gallery of former governors. His work has previously appeared in Every Day Fiction.
Arif stood beside Lisa in the middle of the huge, holographic Milky Way that dominated the flight deck, his prayer mat tucked under his right shoulder. "I appreciate your help, as always, Lieutenant Newsom," he said.
Her smile was warm despite the icy blue light illuminating it. "We're both off shift, Arif. Call me Lisa, please." Arif returned the navigator's smile as she took two steps toward one of the ghost galaxy's far arms. "Here we go. Amelia?"
A kind, sterile voice came from nowhere. "Yes?"
"Can you pin a marker on Registry Number SOL 000.001?"
A bright amber dot appeared in a dark, nondescript sector of space.
"Great. Now our position, please?" Lisa requested.
A neon red arrow popped into existence on the far side of the hologram from the amber dot, several degrees over the galactic plane, traveling at a slow but discernible pace from the Core. Lisa jogged to a console, her fingers danced over several translucent keys, and she then turned to Arif.
"It looks like you're going to want to set up shop in Hydroponics and face the starboard bulkhead this evening. That should be nice and peaceful, I would think. No petty officers stepping over you as you pray at least."
"That will be a pleasant change," Arif replied with a laugh, "But I will miss their questions, I must say. They often lead to fascinating conversations."
"I can only imagine. Well, have a good night; I hope none of your prayers are intercepted along the way." The navigator turned to enter the main passage.
"That's not really how it works, Lisa, but your kind thought is appreciated."
The lieutenant stopped and leaned against the portal. "How does it work, Arif? And please forgive me, I'm sorry for asking, but ever since we began our little arrangement I've wondered but have been afraid to ask. But hell, if everyone else on this tub is nagging you, I might as well. Why exactly does God hang out on the glassed husk of the old wombworld?"
The supplicant stood statue-still at the question.
"Oh Arif, I'm sorry, I'm an idiot. If I've..."
And then he burst into a hearty gale of laughter, one so powerful he had to steady himself with a hand on a nearby console. The Officer of the Watch, who had been quietly sitting in the conn, visibly jumped at the bray, quite startled. "Oh, Lisa, you haven't offended me, and I hope my outburst hasn't offended you. I've just never heard it put quite that way."
Lisa raised a corner of her mouth cautiously. "I'm not offended, but I can't say I'm any less confused."
"Of course not. Would you care to escort me to Hydroponics? I'll try and explain on the way."
After a brief apology to the Officer of the Watch, Lisa trotted into the causeway beside the waiting Arif. "Shall we?"
"Certainly."
The pair strode through the cruiser's ventral causeway. The foot traffic was light since it was still the middle of second watch and the few spacers they passed diffidently hugged the passage walls while exchanging salutes.
"My faith is old, Lisa, which I'm sure you already know, and obviously founded on Old Earth. Well, Ancient Earth, actually. Its followers are taught to pray towards the city where our Prophet was born. The act is a sign of commitment; when we devote the small portion of our day to the act we are participating in a covenant. We're not trying to aim our prayers at God and then launch them his way. He is everywhere, even here, right now. Does that make sense?"
She nodded diplomatically. "Well, it certainly makes sense intellectually, Arif. Do I necessarily believe it? That's an entirely different conversation. I'm sorry."
"There's nothing to be sorry about. This isn't an attempt at conversion, just an explanation." They slowed and stopped at an unshuttering viewport and gazed out at a receding nebula's watercolor wings.
"And it's not just your religion, Arif," Lisa continued, suddenly flustered by her unbelief. "It's all of them. Buddhism, Christianity, Jovian Enrapturism, the whole list. They just never made much sense to me. The uncertainty of it; the lapses in knowledge played off as enigmatic mysteries or mysticisms."
Arif smiled wryly. "I understand. Be assured that while I may find God perfect, that feeling doesn't necessarily extend to dogma. My father explained it to me this way: Religion is like trying to explain rocket science with bottle rockets. You do know what a bottle rocket is, Lieutenant?"
Her face flushed at some unspoken memory and she nodded in the affirmative.
"Good. Now, a parent might use a bottle rocket or firework to explain the basics of propulsion to a small child, but it certainly won't instruct them in Classical Mechanics or the trick of achieving escape velocity. But does it give them the idea? Does it plant seeds? Quite possibly."
A hint of steel entered Lisa's voice. "I would hardly call the entirety of the human race a gaggle of children, Arif. Surely you can't think that, can you?"
He didn't meet her eyes. He just continued to stare out into the vastness. "The followers of my faith have another ritual, you know. The Hajj. We haven't been able to perform it for 200 years, however."
"Why?"
"Because it is a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Prophet's City, on Earth. Earth, whose entire surface is now just a waste of silicate and sand."
Several long, silent moments passed. "I'll never defend the War, Arif, but that's hardly the whole story. Thanks to the Diaspora we've progressed exponentially. We've literally risen from the ashes. That counts for something"
"So we broke something irreplaceable and then ran from the consequences. You're quite right; that's definitely not the response of a child. Good evening, Lieutenant, and thank you again."
Arif drummed his fingers on the prayer mat as he left Lisa alone with the void.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 14th, 2017




- Aaron Matthew Walter Knuckey

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