Rectory-Town of Lazarus, Gethsemane
"And he said to them, 'Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?'" - Luke 24:38
He'd forgotten the last time he'd been in old Lazarus, and yet the town hadn't changed at all. Far off in the distance, the grand Cathedral of St. Alphons the Confessor rose like a colossus from its perched cliff side domicile. Seabirds soared from her parapets while interstellar craft hovered low, no doubt delivering the month's supplies to the ever-isolated monks and warriors of the Knightly Order. Yet here, far below the grand citadel in the town of laypeople, Enoch felt small. The salt and smoke in the air filled his lungs, and reminded him of when he'd first come to Lazarus as a lowly seminarian into the Church. He remembered walking these same streets with his fellow initiates, performing sacraments in the nearby chapel down the street, and making the annual pilgrimage up to the Cathedral; praying at each Saintly shrine before performing a final communion before the golden altar in the Cathedral itself.
To think that thirty years later he'd return as the man he was now was comical. Enoch sighed and skirted himself into the shade of a nearby alleyway, fumbling his hands into his jacket and taking his flask into his shaky hands. When the lukewarm liquor hit his tongue it burned, and it still burned all the way into his stomach before becoming a merciful and soothing warm numbness. God knew he'd need a drink before this meeting, and no doubt a handful more after. With luck, the entire homecoming would be a blur.
Pushing himself back into the light, with a renewed spirit he forced himself down the crumbling concrete walkways. Lazarus had never been a populace town, being made up mostly of merchants, pilgrims, and laypeople working for the Cathedral, but now it seemed nearly abandoned. The few vehicles that puttered their way down the streets were ancient mechanisms, no doubt brought in during colonization, and the people seemed just as old. Of course, Enoch couldn't exactly criticize others for looking their age, he himself hadn't exactly aged with grace either. Perhaps in some way a look of decrepitation was the natural state for those thrown to the colony worlds, far from the light of de-aging therapies and other 'wonder treatments' so often praised by Roman socialites and Core World media icons.
"Or maybe I'm just an old cynical bastard."
Enoch quietly welcomed himself into the foyer of the Chapel, the echo of ending Mass welcoming him as he crumpled into a chair and waited. Centered on the furthest wall, on display within a shining golden frame, rested an icon of the Savior. Below it, a simple sign saying:
Christ welcomes you!
Morning Mass at 6 A.M (Coffee Hour at 7:30!)
Dinner hosted in the main hall at 5 P.M (Thank you to Brother Angelo and Sister Maria!)
Evening Mass at 6 P.M
Let us worship Christ and make Christ known!
Like magic, the smell of warm coffee wafted into the foyer, and hushed conversation mixed with the tip-toeing of the congregation as they passed through the foyer. Though he was sure no one paid him any mind, Enoch still sat up and adjusted his jacket, the eyes he felt on him were his own alone.
"Father McClellan! I'm glad you could make it!"
Enoch's eyes widened and a faint smile formed on his face as he looked up and into the eyes of Father Romero. Romero was an older man, far older than Enoch at least, and had easily doubled in size since Enoch's seminary days. Yet his smile was just as warm and his laugh as full and plump as his waistline. For a man no doubt nearing 70, he looked as though he was still in his prime.
"Well I had business on Gethsemane anyway, and after all it's not like these anniversaries come every day," Enoch replied, embracing his old mentor, "Oh and please, just call me Enoch. No need for all the formalities between friends."
For a moment Enoch detected the faintest frown on Father Romero's lips, but his eyes lit up once again and he gave a firm nod.
"Of course, of course. Well come with me and we'll chat in my office."
Enoch nodded and the two men departed through the main hall. This time Enoch knew the congregation's eyes were on him as they passed the coffee hour, he couldn't help but swear he heard faint whispers and feel eyes like daggers on his back as they slipped away into Romero's study.
Like the rest of Lazarus, Romero's study had remained nearly the same as when he'd apprenticed those years ago. A false fireplace sitting over the heating unit; desk littered with old notes, sermons, and countless text cartridges to plug into the digi-reader. Perhaps the only difference was Romero's desk chair, now looking more like a bean-bag on a swivel with more cushioning than seat.
Romero waddled across his office and made himself at home behind his desk, leaning down and, with a wink to Enoch, bringing up an ancient looking cognac bottle.
"It's hard to believe, even to myself, you know. Forty years in the ministry. If you went back in time and told that little runt I was at 28 that I'd be spending my life preaching I'd have called you a lot of nasty names. But the Lord works in mysterious ways, doesn't it Enoch?"
Without asking, Romero poured both of them their drinks.
"I'd certainly say so Father. Though surely you aren't feeling any regrets about your ministry? You did some amazing work in Rome back in the day, I still quote that thesis you wrote on Old Earth Papal encyclicals."
Romero chuckled, "I imagine if His Holiness were here he wouldn't like some of what I said in that one. But I couldn't help myself, I've always felt a tad skeptical of Papal infallibility. Not that it matters too much, we've had the Grand Abbot since both of us were twinkles in the eyes of our forefathers."
"Well, cheers to the Grand Abbot then! Long may he guide the Church." Enoch replied.
Once again, a burn followed by relief. Enoch felt his muscles calm and the ache of his hands subside. The conversation drifted for awhile, questions about how Rome was, reminiscing about seminary, ministry life. Finally, after nearly an hour had passed, Romero's look became more serious and he straightened in his chair.
"You know Enoch, I know about what happened in Rome."
The air became still, and almost instinctively Enoch's eyes fell to his feet alongside his stomach. Yet, he remained silent.
"What happened to that girl wasn't your fault, son. You know as well as I do, ministry is a burden as much as it is a blessing. We minister to the poor, the needy, and those often left behind on other worlds. Sometimes we save them, bring them into the Church and give them new meaning, but it isn't always in our control. We can only advise, give faith and pray that the Spirit works in those we speak to."
"You know damn well that she didn't just fall back to her vices. Samantha had become one of us, she was on her way to joining an order. What happened to her was not natural, Manuel. There was darkness involved." Enoch said, his knuckles white and his teeth grinding.
"But where is your proof, Enoch? I have just as much faith in the goodness of men as you do, but we can't pretend that man isn't just as likely to fail as he is to succeed. It might seem hard to believe, but sometimes people do just fail."
"Open your eyes! Look around you, Manuel. Forty years in the ministry, fifteen in Rome. It doesn't take a seat on the Holy Council to read a headline. People across the Core worlds are vanishing in the dead of night. Mothers, Fathers, children. This... Evil. It is taking anyone, from the selfie-obsessed club-tourists in Rome's under-city to farmers on Gethsemane. We've seen it happen right in this very town. You expect me to believe none of these are connected? I know you, I studied under you for a decade and I know your mind as well as I know mine. You know it's true too. Every damned Cleric and Acolyte on Rome has heard of them, but no one knows a thing. So, if the Church won't look into all this then I will... For her sake."
Romero became quiet, and almost like flipping a switch Enoch saw his age finally start to show. His faded blue eyes, sunken and tired, his lips curved into a thoughtful and anxious frown.
"If you're serious about this Enoch, I won't stop you. But I will voice my concerns about you, my son. Five years ago you didn't drink, now I didn't even have to ask if you wanted to. You don't shave, you smell like the gutter outside a bar, and your clothes don't look like they've been washed in a month. It's one thing to want justice, to want to understand the cruel fate we're sometimes dealt. It's another to become obsessed, to chase shadows and conspiracies where they may not exist... I won't deny the rumors, the Church has certain voices that believe there is more happening in our space than we know. Some say it's cult activity, perhaps some heretics from Zion or Lord knows where in the fringe. Others say Demons, and even more say the Black Sun is behind it. I don't know for certain what to believe, I'm an old man Enoch. My days of asking questions and hunting for answers is behind me, and in truth I'd say they're behind you as well. But if this is really, truly what you want to do. Then as your mentor, no, as your friend, I'm obligated to help you."
Romero reached under his desk again, and after a moment pulled up data chip and a tablet.
"If you want to talk to some of these voices, read what's on that chip. I'll set up a meeting for you on Rome. But I'm warning you Enoch, there is no turning back from this path once you're on it. Few who join ever leave alive, and those that do come back with more scars than they know what to do with."
Enoch took the tablet in his hands, the duroplastic cold to the touch, and placed the chip into his jacket. He looked up at his mentor, more questions now than when he'd arrived.