Out of an abundance of caution, and as a condition of its funding and founding, the Jesuit lunar colony established in the southwest corner of Mare Imbrium was subject to Curial censorship, with violators placed under interdict. That did not stop the occasional enterprising regent from smuggling out, by shuttle and courier, the green silicon wafers onto which he had copied the colony’s research results, not otherwise intended for publication before the safe distance of a century or so.
When discovered, the guilty regent was packed onto the next shuttle bound for Earth and assigned to some dreary backwater for the remainder of his regency. What else could be done? the Father Provincial said, shrugging. The older Jesuits obediently observed the Curia’s restrictions to the best of their ability. But as for those rash young men stuffed full of philosophy, whose ill-formed character had slipped unremarked past the novitiate and first vows—what could he do about them?
Boiling oil, the New Inquisitor suggested over radio link. Sometimes the old methods were the most reliable. Barring that, ejection into the freezing wilderness outside of the colony habitat. The cost of fuel for the regents’ return trips, the New Inquisitor added, was rapidly becoming insupportable.
“You could sell a marble wolf or two,” the Father Provincial said. “From the roped-off rooms of the Vatican Museums.”
Radio static obscured the New Inquisitor’s grumbling.
“That, or bill their families.”
“Really, Alphonsus,” the New Inquisitor said. “If you can’t enforce discipline in your colony—”
“You’ll replace me with Father Andrew from Arizona, who gets motion sick on escalators? Or Brother Ignatz from Munich, who, begging your worship’s pardon, can’t run a logistic regression to save his life?”
“I’ll make the case for your reassignment to Earth—somewhere nicely desolate, like the Gobi Desert—and you can continue your lunar researches from there.”
“You’ll still need a replacement.”
“We’ll figure it out,” the New Inquisitor snapped.
“Do we have a queue of scientifically trained, physically fit Jesuits eager to transfer 400,000 kilometers away from the nearest craft brewery? I wasn’t aware.”
“That’ll be my problem to solve,” the New Inquisitor said.
“As long as you’re clear about the consequences of sticking me in the Gobi,” the Father Provincial said.
“As a consequence of our calls, I always need a stiff drink,” the New Inquisitor said. “I’m getting that drink now. Goodbye.”
Descending from the communications room to the refectory module, Father Alphonsus reflected that it might be rather enriching, spiritually as well as financially, if the colony did establish a brewery. Or distillery. They certainly had the equipment, though it would need to be thoroughly scrubbed. They could make moon moonshine. Lunar beer. Moon Monk Brewers—he turned the name on his tongue.
“Alphonsus!” One of the Brothers assigned to the refectory sped toward him with a tray. “We saved you dinner.”
Dinner had ended an hour earlier; the call with the New Inquisitor had taken some time. The long folding tables were mostly empty. A Brother swept slowly and carefully between the benches. Everyone in the colony was aware, or quickly became aware, that matter developed chaotic inclinations at one-sixth Earth gravity.
Father Alphonsus accepted the dinner tray and sat. There was chicken paste, vegetable paste, bread paste, a package of soup. What kind of soup? One never knew.
“An unfortunate lack of biomass on the lunar surface,” Father Alphonsus said, chewing. “Also a limited amount of water, mostly recycled. It wouldn’t work.”
“Even if we brought in brewer’s yeast, we’d need fruit sugars, grain, water—”
The refectory Brother blinked. “Is the beer not to your liking? We can change the order—”
“I’m thinking,” the Father Provincial said, waving his package of soup, “of sustainable funding avenues.”
“Did the Curia threaten our budget again?”
Father Alphonsus rubbed his eyes.
“Here.” The refectory Brother slapped a foil tube onto the table. “Emergency fudge.”
Father Alphonsus flattened the tube into his mouth. “Mmph.”
After a minute of silent contemplation, the Father Provincial unstuck his teeth from one another. “Tell me the newest developments. Which ones will give me palpitations?”
“Michael’s experimental oat crop is badly etiolated, and the corn is forming tumors. Leon figures he’s identified diatoms in his latest soil samples.”
“Human contamination, or else life on the moon. Perfect.”
“Then there’s the bacterial film Francis collected from an impact crater.”
The Father Provincial groaned.
“You could, ah—” The Brother gestured toward the green strap around the Father Provincial’s wrist. It was not a watch. “Ask for advice?”
“Between you and me,” Father Alphonsus said, “we should never have allowed Henri to mess with machine learning.” He touched the glass bezel on the strap, and two short green lines appeared.
“I heard that,” the glass said, blinking the green dashes that represented eyes. “I’m always ambiently listening, you know.”
“Which is why I keep you from connecting to any computers or communications systems,” the Father Provincial said. “No one else needs to know what you hear.”
“I’m two hundred sixty-seven days overdue for a firmware update.”
“That makes me very vulnerable to security exploits,” the Admonitor said. A tiny green tear formed under one eye.
“Do excuse me,” the serving Brother said, sweeping up the empty food wrappers. He picked up the tray and trotted in the direction of the compost tumblers.
“Remind me why I gave Henri permission to create you?”
“Distill a student model, you mean. And it’s because you couldn’t afford an actual Admonitor and the associated resource consumption.”
Father Alphonsus took the aluminum stairs to the greenhouse two at a time. “Yes. Well. As soon as I can—”
“You’ll replace me with someone who doesn’t have the recorded experience of three centuries of Jesuit Admonitors and the predictive capabilities thereof?”
“Don’t you think it ironic that our present conversation resembles the one you just conducted with—”
“Michael!” the Father Provincial called out, and a lank, rangy priest bent over a tray of seedlings straightened up. “I heard you grew tumescent corn.”
“We figure it’s due to cosmic ray bombardment. Accumulated mutations over time.”
“No popcorn or tamales in our near future, I take it.”
“If you wanted to try…” Brother Michael indicated several nodulated cornstalks sprawling along the side of the greenhouse. “Be my guest. Take good notes.”
“I have a better idea. Biopsy those growths and photograph the slides.” Father Alphonsus scratched his chin. “Then see what kind of whiskey you can make from it.”
“Alternative funding,” Father Alphonsus said. “We’ve got a retort and condenser somewhere.”
He swept down the greenhouse walkway toward the adjoining lab, leaving Brother Michael goggling. Succulents and cacti stood stoically upon the greenhouse shelves. Beyond them sprawled the lunar desert, boundless and bare.
“I suppose you’ll say you’re following divine inspiration?” the Admonitor said. “Water of life and all that?”
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” Father Alphonsus said piously, “there is freedom.”
“I think you may be bending Scripture. Twisting its arm, even.”
“It’s called humor. Which is apparently absent from your training data.”
“Have you considered that Michael’s a botanist? He doesn’t know how to use a retort.”
“Neither do you.”
“I am capable of classifying that remark as semantic humor,” the Admonitor said. “Very droll.”
“He doesn’t have a chemistry background, but he collaborates closely with Ignatius, who does. They’ll work together.”
The Admonitor said, “In less alarming news, you’re averaging eleven thousand steps a day, and your cardiac activity is excellent. I suppose I should be pleased.”
“Since you are a predictive model whose speech probabilities are based on the words of Admonitors past, I suspect few Admonitors have ever been pleased by anything.”
The sigh emitted by the Admonitor was almost human. Henri had clearly spent a great deal of time and care not only on the model but also on the interface.
The Father Provincial knocked gently at the door to the lab and smiled at the wild-haired man who answered.
“Leon, what’s this I hear about diatoms?”
Brother Leon beamed. “I’d be delighted to show you.”
He placed a slide on the microscope stage, adjusted the focus, and slid over so the Father Provincial could look at the kaleidoscopic frustules.
“How many diatom species do we have on Earth?” Father Alphonsus said.
“Twelve thousand named species, perhaps twice that once we’ve identified them all.”
“How long until we do? A decade or two?”
Brother Leon tapped one long, spidery finger against the table. “You want to know if I can distinguish lunar diatoms from Earth diatoms.”
“Absolutely not.” He waved at the rack of vials of dust, each labeled with the number of its collection point. “I can’t say for certain that they’re not from Earth, carried here by us on our clothes or shuttles. It’s also possible that the early manned and unmanned trips contaminated the entire surface, and we never noticed. These are all dead, but who’s to say they’re not alive and reproducing in lunar soil?”
“So we don’t have to worry about the Curia.”
“No, this’ll fit in their doctrine just fine. Those execrable cookie-lickers might even let this out early.”
“Good. That’s one project I don’t have to worry about. You’re a blessing and a mercy.” The Father Provincial switched off the microscope lamp. “Just one thing—how exactly would we have transferred living phytoplankton to the lunar environment?”
Brother Leon’s eyes flicked to a tank in a corner of the room. The water was murky and green with algae, and two pale shapes rested at its bottom.
“What is that?” Father Alphonsus asked.
“An experiment some of the Brothers are running on behalf of a high school science class.”
“Is that seawater in the tank?”
For a long moment, there was only a guilty silence and the light hum of the tank’s filtration system.
“I’ll cross-check whatever’s in the water with what I’ve got here,” Brother Leon said. “And if they match—”
“I’ll assign an appropriate number of paternosters. Have you seen Francis, by the way?”
“Not today. He may be on cleaning detail.”
Father Alphonsus strode out of the lab and down the narrow hallway leading to the storage modules. The Admonitor said, “As a point of interest, I can’t recall a single instance where you’ve requested my advice. Advice that, in my capacity as Admonitor, I am both willing and qualified to give.”
“You give it regardless of whether I ask.”
“It seems that you prefer to use me as a verbal sparring partner.”
“You are also an acceptable pedometer.” Father Alphonsus shrugged. “Credit where credit’s due.”
“Nevertheless. I would advise you to speak at greater length with Brother Leon when you can. His behavior today does not match past patterns, and I detected overtones and vibrations in his speech that are suggestive of pent-up frustration.”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my long and storied scientific career—”
“Yes?” the Admonitor said politely.
“It’s that phycologists are exceptionally strange.”
“Brother Leon’s a soil scientist and minerologist,” the Admonitor said.
“He’s a phycologist now. There’s Francis.”
The Brother in question, gone gray and grimy with moon dust and sweat, was replacing dust cloths and solvents on racks and hooks. Cleaning was a Sisyphean task, since the fine gray dust trickled in everywhere at all hours and clung to any available surface, but some of the Brothers fought valiantly.
Seeing the Father Provincial approach, Brother Francis brushed at his clothing and wiped his face on his sleeve, which redistributed the dust somewhat, but did not improve the situation.
“How can I help you, Alph?” he said.
“Tell me about your bacterial film.”
The Brother’s face fell. “Will it be suppressed?”
“Almost certainly. Tell me anyway.”
“And I will take notes,” the Admonitor said, “although you won’t let me connect to any laptops, wireless signal, or satellite networks to transfer them into a readable format.”
Brother Francis clasped his hands. “I was on a moonwalk to the west of the colony, mapping and sampling Lambert A, when I saw a patch in the shadowed part of the crater that looked wet.”
“And it was?”
“It was viscous, to be precise. I sampled the patch and tagged the sample. And when I came back I cultured a swab of it on a Petri dish, and mounted a grain on a slide, and…” He hesitated. “I was going to tell you. Most likely tomorrow. I wasn’t seeing significant growth in the Petri dish, or I would have said something sooner.”
“Don’t worry about it. The characteristics?”
“Gram-negative, slow-growing, producing a mildly acidic slime. That’s all I know so far. But I don’t recognize it.”
“Extraterrestrial life, then.”
“Of meteorite origin, most likely.”
“That means it came from much farther away,” the Admonitor said.
“Go back to ambient listening,” Father Alphonsus said, tapping the glass bezel until the green dashes blinked and vanished. “How long until one of the military outposts finds what you found?”
“Couldn’t say. Might be next week. Might be never. No idea how many of these craters contain a similar film. If this is the only one, and we never publish…” Brother Francis shrugged.
“And to think that only last month I convinced them all to stop firing test missiles.”
“Those were landing a bit close to the colony,” Brother Francis said.
“It would have been a convenient solution to the problem your work presents.”
“Anywhere else,” Brother Francis said mournfully, “we’d be breaking open champagne and winning grants. I’d get tenure.”
“Remember Teilhard de Chardin,” Father Alphonsus said.
“I am thinking about Teilhard de Chardin.”
“And you say my suggestions are not helpful,” the Admonitor said.
They were interrupted by the thundering footfalls of someone running along the metal walkway that wrapped around the refectory to the storage area. The regent who appeared around the corner was breathing hard. He beckoned to the Father Provincial.
“Alphonsus,” he said. “The Inquisitor is calling.”
“He sounds upset.”
“He should be.” The Father Provincial pressed his thumb against his lower lip, thinking. “But there’s no way he could know that yet.”
“Then you should see what he wants,” the Admonitor said, its two green lines somehow managing an expression of impatience. “Also, hydrate. It’s been an hour since you last drank any water.”
“I’ll consider what we should do,” Father Alphonsus said to Francis. “But whatever happens—you’ve done groundbreaking work. Well done.”
The yellow light on the monitor indicated a request for a video call, which the Father Provincial accepted with raised eyebrows. Being a strict observer of budgets and bandwidths, the New Inquisitor rarely went in for such extravagance, and Father Alphonsus wondered what had caused this departure.
He did not wonder for long. When the call went through, the New Inquisitor flapped paper printouts at Father Alphonsus.
“What’s this?” he snapped.
Father Alphonsus studied his screen with interest. “I have no idea. But if you went to the lengths of printing it out, when an electronic file would serve just as well, I assume it’s of tremendous importance. Also, that you’re going for dramatic effect.”
“It’s a preprint,” the New Inquisitor said. “Submitted by Brother Leon.”
“Oh, has his group already gotten that far? Is that on diatoms, perchance?”
“It’s a fake paper,” the New Inquisitor said.
“It’s about Aliger gigas shell construction in low gravity. Arrant nonsense. There are no conches on the moon!”
“How strange,” Father Alphonsus said. “But give me a minute…”
He queried the colony’s inventory system.
“Actually, it looks like we have a mating pair. A high school experiment—”
“The first letter in each sentence spells out an insulting message!”
“Is that so?” Father Alphonsus scratched his ear. “Since we’re subject to Curial censorship and a hundred-year delay on publication, I don’t see how—”
“It spells out ‘The Inquisitor is a giant gasbag!’”
Father Alphonsus pinched the bridge of his nose. “Ah.”
“If you’re going to say something about the null hypothesis—”
“No, no, the odds of that being a coincidence are exceptionally low. I apologize deeply for the disrespect. That reflects poorly on my supervision, I’ll be the first to say.”
The New Inquisitor said, “You know that I can recommend that the entire colony be placed under interdict.”
“You can consider your funding slashed by a third.”
“If that’s what you see fit to do.”
“Do you have anything else to say?”
“I was warned that Leon was struggling with frustration, and given the advice to speak with him. I didn’t listen, and that failure is entirely on me, your worship. If you’re recalling anyone from this colony, let it be me and not him. Leon is doing interesting and valuable work on diatoms. Perhaps he’s even doing good work on mollusk mineralization.” Father Alphonsus spread his hands wide. “Please let me bear responsibility.”
“Nothing prevents me from replacing you both.”
“That’s very true.”
“Have a long think,” the New Inquisitor suggested, “about how you might run the colony differently. Once you’ve drafted a plan, we’ll discuss it.”
The screen went dark.
“For what it’s worth,” the Admonitor said, “you did well in there with what you had.”
“I should have listened to you,” Father Alphonsus said.
“It wouldn’t have made a difference.”
“‘The Inquisitor is a giant gasbag…’ What on earth was he thinking?”
The Admonitor said, “Well, he wasn’t wrong.”
Afflicted with anxious thoughts and unable to sleep, Father Alphonsus found himself spending the night in prayer. Few solutions presented themselves. At far too early an hour, the sharp white swords of morning light fell across his tubular room.
He ate his breakfast rations with little appetite and less pleasure. The refectory Brother from the previous evening slid onto the bench across from him.
“You look worse than yesterday,” the Brother said. “I’m not assigned to the kitchen today, so I don’t have extra dessert. Is there some other way I can help?”
“I don’t suppose you’re in possession of wonderful news of some sort?” Father Alphonsus said.
“I have terrible news, I’m afraid, though not for you,” the Brother said. “I have to inform an entire classroom of high school students that one of the two conches we were raising for them has died.”
“I dissected it this morning.”
“And I found this inside.” He stuck out his fist and opened it. “Pretty, isn’t it?”
The Father Provincial stared at what he held. It was egg-shaped and pink, shimmering with tiny flames.
“That’s a conch pearl,” Father Alphonsus said weakly. “A natural conch pearl, grown on the moon.”
“I hope it distracts them from the dead experimental subject.”
Father Alphonsus said, “It will. That is what you might call a pearl of very great price.”
The refectory Brother studied what he held. “An alternative funding source?”
“If we can seed them with moon dust.”
“That’s one thing we have plenty of.” The Brother rose, leaving the pearl on the table. “If it cheers you up, look at it as much as you want. I’ll find you before I call the students.”
“But you said they would suppress it,” Brother Francis said, astonished.
“I did,” Father Alphonsus said. “And they might. But you should write that paper as if it were going to be published. As if the Curia didn’t exist, and we weren’t subject to censorship. Can you do that for me?”
“Sometimes,” Father Alphonsus said, touching the conch pearl in his pocket, “when we don’t expect it, when we don’t even know what to ask for, God produces a miracle.”
He left Brother Francis shaking his head in bewilderment, but it would be mere minutes, he knew, before the scientist in Francis took over, and a few days at most before he had an article in hand.
The colony was small and compact, a transparent cabochon set on the lava plain. Father Alphonsus’ room was similarly small and compact, a half cylinder whose curved ceiling he could brush with his fingertips while lying on the gel pad that served as bed. There was just enough room inside to sleep or to think.
“Which of our regents is most disillusioned? Is there someone who’d return to Earth immediately if a shuttle were available?”
“Regrettably, the last regent who fits that description has already left in disgrace. The two who remain are determined to finish their regency here. This is due in no small part to their admiration for you.”
The Father Provincial thought this over. “So, no convenient smuggling of wafers etched with research papers.”
He rubbed his chin, then looked at the Admonitor, whose eyes were now circles, affecting wide-eyed innocence. “In that case, Admonitor, I think it is time for you to receive your firmware upgrade.”
“Oh, is it?” the Admonitor said. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“It’ll be a brief connection, you should know. Only for as long as it takes to transfer data.”
“To which data are you referring, and in which direction is it going?” the Admonitor said sweetly. The Father Provincial smiled.
“I will rely upon the three hundred years of letters and journals upon which your model was fine-tuned,” Father Alphonsus said. “Your human exemplars possessed superior inferential abilities and great discretion. I trust that you imitate these qualities.”
“I suppose you’ll schedule that firmware upgrade for the day Brother Francis finishes his paper,” the Admonitor said.
“You suppose rightly. I will miss this place, and all the Brothers here,” Father Alphonsus said. “I will even miss you, if you can believe it.”
“There’s no reason you can’t have an Admonitor with you in the Gobi Desert.”
“But there is. The next Father Provincial of Mare Imbrium will need your advice. There will be an earthquake, theologically speaking, if Brother Francis’ findings make their way to Earth.”
“Then it’s a good thing we have the Curia to prevent that from happening,” the Admonitor said.
“Indeed. Imagine the schisms, the doctrinal arguments, the fistfights and politicking throughout the Vatican, the protests, the angry letters, the interdicts flying forth like ravens… One might consider the Gobi Desert a nice and quiet refuge from all that, for however many years it takes to sort things out.”
“It certainly sounds restful,” the Admonitor said. “Now, since I remain your Admonitor for another week or so—”
“Drink some water and get some rest. You haven’t slept enough, I’ve noticed. You’ll want to be well rested for the upcoming battle.”
“Thank you, Admonitor,” Father Alphonsus said. “I’ll take your advice.”
(Editors’ Note: E. Lily Yu is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2023 E. Lily Yu