Authors: James F. David
"My name is Mark Shepherd. We have invited you here to witness the launch of the spaceship
. Today we will demonstrate our technology by putting a satellite into orbit. Like the Soviet Union's first satellite,
, our satellite will broadcast only a simple message."
Shepherd paused, and looked at the sparse crowd and then continued.
"We know you expect us to fail, so we will proceed with the launch immediately. After the launch we will distribute information about our launch capabilities and our fees."
Without another word Shepherd turned and walked to the pad, signaling toward the airplane hangar. With the sound of metal on metal the doors slid apart, slowly revealing a dark interior.
"They're awfully serious about this," Simon said, snickering.
Christy was puzzled. She had expected a long sermon designed for the nonbelievers drawn by the flyer, followed by an announcement that the launch would have to be delayed for spiritual or technical reasons.
Leaning back, Symes said, "What are they planning? There's no rocket on the pad and that hangar isn't big enough to hold one that could put a payload in orbit."
"Not to mention the blastoff would kill everyone in the stands," Simon added. "They are delusional."
The doors finished opening and a tractor appeared pulling a trailer. Laughter spread through the spectators.
The machine on the trailer was nothing like a rocket. There were two large steel spheres separated by a latticework of steel tubing. In the middle of the latticework was a small satellite, with a dish antenna and folded solar panels. On either side of the satellite were two halves of another sphere. A small electric cart carrying three men followed the bizarre craft. Two of them were wearing space suits. One of the men in suits wore a patch over one eye.
The sparse crowd continued to snicker and point. Simon laughed hardest of all. Symes became serious, leaning forward. Christy watched with interest. The satellite looked real enough, right down to gold foil shielding on some of its parts. The spheres on either end were identical and sat on round bases. There were hatches built into the top of both spheres. "Rising Savior" was stenciled on both spheres and painted below the name were American and Christian flags.
was in the center of the concrete pad the tractor was unhitched and returned to the hangar. Ladders were placed against the spheres and two assistants opened the hatches in the tops. Then the two men in the silver space suits climbed the ladders and disappeared inside, the hatches securely latched. Then the clamshells were closed over the satellite. Next, the pad was cleared but then nothing happened for several minutes. Then the man called Shepherd returned to the podium.
"There will be a slight delay while they straighten out a communications problem."
"Next will come the announcement that there are technical difficulties," Simon said.
"What do you think those spheres weigh?" Symes asked.
"They're fake—probably wood," Simon said.
"They're steel," Christy corrected. "From the look of the carriage it's riding on I'd say it's a ton."
"Whatever it's made out of," Simon said, "it's not going anywhere."
Christy inched forward on her seat when Shepherd came back to the microphone.
"The technical difficulties have been worked out and we are proceeding with the launch. If you have sunglasses you might want to put them on."
Christy noticed that George Proctor put sunglasses over his closed eyes. The pad was still ringed by members of the sect who now pulled sunglasses from their pockets and put them on.
A whine came from one of the spheres and then the other. The noise rose quickly in pitch and then passed out of human hearing range. Then the base the spheres sat on began to glow, the light expanding like an inflating balloon, enveloping the entire craft. Christy closed her eyes, then turned her head to protect her eyes. Just as the light became painfully bright it dissipated. Christy blinked away the dots on her retinas, looking back to the strange craft. Particles of dust began to dance around the craft forming a small dust cloud. The cloud expanded, soon reaching the audience, who covered their faces as it passed. When it did, Christy's skin prickled and the hairs on her arm stood erect. When she looked back the
was three feet off its carriage and still climbing.
"It's a trick," Simon said. "It's a balloon. It's got to be."
The craft continued to rise and then stopped twenty feet off the ground where it hovered. Cameras flashed.
"I told you," Simon said. "They've got it on wires or something."
was moving again, picking up speed. Now silent, the crowd gasped in amazement as the craft rose higher than the buildings, then picking up speed, the
shrank to a dot and disappeared.
The shocked crowd sat in silence, then excited murmuring began.
Some bolted for their cars to spread the news. Symes pulled a cellular phone from his pocket but paused in mid-call. Looking at Christy he said, "What can I say?"
"Say you just witnessed a miracle," she said. "It's the truth."
Radioactivity, penicillin, microwave cooking, even Cool Whip, are all the products of serendipity. Never underestimate the role of chance in progress.
CHRIST'S HOME, CALIFORNIA
fter the launch, members of the Fellowship passed out information packets. No high-gloss brochures, no color printing, just black and white on both sides, stapled at the corner. At the top was a Scripture verse: "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens . . . " Isaiah 40: 26. Next there was a picture of the spaceship
, followed by a description of its lift capability. The next page described the satellite just launched, its orbit, and where to tune to pick up its signal. The rest of the pages listed the kind of space services the Light in the Darkness Fellowship was offering and a list of rates—all in the millions of dollars and indexed to the type of orbit desired. Nowhere could Christy find a technical description of how the
managed to rise.
Protests were loud and long when the Fellowship shooed the visitors out of the compound and then escorted them down the road to the edge of their property. Christy and Simon were accompanied to their plane by two tight-lipped members of the Fellowship. Simon questioned them but they only referred him to the handout they had been given. Once in the air Christy had a change of heart. Shouting over the roar of the engine she said, "I want to stay. Can you put me down somewhere near here."
"I can, but I don't think you'll get any more out of them."
"That ship hasn't come down yet. I'd like to be here when it does."
"They won't let you close."
"They'll have to say more eventually. Besides, it will be dark soon. I don't like flying in these little planes even in the daylight. Why don't you stay over too?"
Christy didn't really want Simon to stay. Tomorrow was Sunday and there wasn't a church in the compound. She was hoping they would come out to worship.
"I can't stay," Simon said. "I have something I need to do."
Simon's face darkened as he spoke and his voice wavered slightly.
Simon found an airstrip on the outskirts of Christ's Home and dropped her off, then flew off to the north just as the sun was setting. Christy rented a car from a gas station and drove into Christ's Home. She hadn't planned on staying over, so she stopped at a Wal-Mart for toiletries, nightgown, jeans, and a sweatshirt.
Christ's Home was strangely quiet, the streets virtually empty. One pass through town revealed only two motels—the Eternal Rest and the Sandman. The Eternal Rest sounded a little too final so she pulled into the Sandman. The lobby was empty. The sound of a TV came from a back room—a sports report. She rang the bell and a middle-aged woman appeared, smiling pleasantly.
"Hello, dear. Would you like a room?"
"How many nights will you be staying?" she asked, passing Christy a registration card.
"Did you come to see the launch?"
"Yes. Did you see it?" she asked, looking up from signing the card.
"Just through binoculars. I want to see one up close sometime."
"Are you a member of the Fellowship?" Christy asked, pushing the card to her.
"Yes I am, Miss Maitland," she said, reading the card.
"How many are there in the Fellowship?"
"I don't really know. Most of the town is, and there are branches other places. We had members from San Antonio stay with us once. Nice folks."
"Here comes the report, Evelyn," a man called from the back room.
"Excuse me, will you. It's about the launch." She turned to go, then paused. "You can come too if you want."
Christy followed her into a sitting room furnished with a couch and recliner. Dominating the room was a wall-screen TV. A man sat in the recliner, two children in his lap.
"Floyd, this is our new guest, Miss Maitland," Evelyn said. "That's Daniel, and that's Faith," she said, indicating the children.
Floyd was thin, except for a noticeable potbelly. He had pale blue eyes, and wore a carefully trimmed mustache, his hair and mustache the same reddish brown. The crown of his head was bare, giving him a monkish look. The boy resembled his father, with pale blue eyes set in deep sockets, his face round, but showing signs of reshaping into the strong angular features of his father. His hair was blond. The little girl took after her mother, brown hair decorated with pink barrettes, brown eyes set in a thin face—pretty, but not with the striking eyes of her brother.
"Nice to meet you," Floyd said. "As soon as the commercials are over they're going to have a report."
A beer commercial followed a car commercial, then the newscast was back. A picture of the
from the information packet appeared behind the woman newscaster.
"In the believe it or not category we have a report from California that a religious sect called the Light in the Darkness Fellowship claims to have used some sort of spaceship to put a satellite into orbit. We'll let you, our viewers, judge for yourselves."
A poor quality video showed the
lifting from the ground, hovering, and then continuing. The video ended when the ship shrank to a dot. Then the newscaster was back—smiling.
"Perhaps it's powered by cold fusion," the reporter said. "And so it goes."
Floyd hit the mute button when the reporter turned to national politics. "She doesn't believe it," Floyd said, disappointed in the coverage.
"They will," Evelyn said.
"NASA should know it's there. They track those things," Floyd complained.
"Come on, Christy. I'll get you a room," Evelyn said.
Evelyn insisted Christy take the room above the office. "It's the quietist," she assured her. Once in her room, Christy flipped through the channels looking for news. She was still channel surfing when someone knocked on the door.
"I'm sorry," Evelyn said when she answered. "I didn't know you were so famous."
"That's not what Floyd says. Anyway, we wondered if you wouldn't like to
to services with us tonight. There's a special worship on account of the launch."
"Sure. But I'm wearing the best clothes I have."
"You're fine, I'm going like this. We have to leave soon. Floyd likes to get a front pew."
Floyd and Evelyn honked the horn five minutes later and she climbed into the second seat of a white minivan. The kids were buckled into the seat behind her. They turned east at the intersection in the middle of town, then drove through a residential section, mostly small two- and three-bedroom ranch-style houses. New construction was scattered through the area suggesting a modest building boom. Abruptly the homes ended and they climbed a brush-covered hill. It was too dark to see far, but it appeared to be undeveloped land. After a steep climb they leveled off and she could see the church—a simple A-frame with a large fellowship hall attached. Spotlights lit a large cross on the end of the church. The gravel parking lot was half full of cars.
"Dad, do we have to go to service?" Daniel asked, shouting past Christy.
"No. They'll have activity time for you guys."
"Hooray," Daniel yelled.
"Yea!" Faith echoed.
"Get us a good seat, Floyd," Evelyn said. "I'll show Reverend Maitland the view."
Floyd picked Faith up and took Daniel by the hand, then hurried off with the children while Evelyn walked Christy around the outside of the church. The exterior was covered with T-111 siding, the plainest and cheapest siding Christy had ever seen on a church. There were no adornments, the exterior covered by a thin layer of white paint. While the building looked cheap, the view was spectacular. The lights of the town lit the valley below and distant lights shone as far as the horizon.
"The Fellowship bought the land when we first moved out here. The first thing we did was build this church. Funny thing was that by the time we had our first worship it was too small. We've pushed out the walls a couple of times to make more space but it doesn't seem like we can keep up."
"How many worship with you?"
"Fifteen hundred regulars. We have three services Sunday mornings. We better get inside. Floyd doesn't like saving seats. He hates turning people away. He thinks it's unchristian."
The starkness of the church's exterior was matched by the interior. The walls were nothing but painted Sheetrock; there was no stained glass or chandeliers. Three sections of seats were divided by two aisles, and there was a small balcony in the rear. A piano and organ sat on either side at the front and rows of folding chairs were laid out for the choir in an alcove behind the pulpit. A cross on the wall behind the choir was the only adornment. The pews were polished wood with no padding, although a stack of pads were kept inside the door for those who didn't have enough natural padding.
Floyd was three rows from the front and waving frantically. Evelyn scooted in next to him, leaving Christy on the aisle.
"I thought you'd never get here," Floyd complained.
"Oh, Floyd. No one minds if you save seats. Especially if you have a guest like Reverend Maitland."
"It's not like we're waiting for a parade—this is church," Floyd whined. "This is an unusual congregation," Christy said. "In most churches the back pews fill first."
"That's true enough here, too," Evelyn said. "But tonight's special."
It was twenty minutes before the service started and by then it was standing room only. The crowd was all adult, the children diverted to the fellowship hall where teenagers entertained them. The organist began with a prelude and then two men and a woman took seats on the platform—there was no choir. Christy recognized one of the men as Mark Shepherd, the spokesman at the launch. The service began with praise songs. The congregation stood, singing them all from memory. Christy knew only a few and stumbled over second and third verses. The singing went on much longer than Christy preferred and the hard wooden pew felt good when they finally sat down again. The church bulletin listed Scripture reading as the next item and Mark Shepherd stepped to the pulpit. He had no Bible. Suddenly he ducked behind the pulpit and reappeared a few seconds later wearing earphones with a microphone attached.
"Tonight's Scripture will be read by Ira Breitling," Shepherd said.
The sanctuary broke into thunderous cheers and applause and people shouted "Praise God" and "Hallelujah." Shepherd let them exhaust themselves before he moved on.
"Ira? Can you hear me, Ira?"
Static crackled over the poor-quality speakers hanging from the ceiling beams. Then a man's voice could be heard.
"This is Ira Breitling aboard the spaceship
in orbit around planet Earth."
Again the congregation erupted. When it was silent again, Shepherd asked Ira to read the Scripture. Christy recognized the passage from Psalms.
" 'Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me," even the darkness will not be dark to you,- the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.'"
No shouting now, only silence as the voice from space finished. Softly someone said, "Praise God." Then Shepherd closed with a prayer thanking God for supporting them on the long road they had traveled and promising the Fellowship would be faithful to His call.
Now Mark stepped away from the podium and spoke into the microphone, communicating with those in space. Then he came around to the front of the podium, the congregation quieting.
"Sandy, we're ready to begin the satellite transmission."
The speakers crackled again and a woman's voice said, "Beginning transmission now."
A tense pause followed, then from the speakers came a deep male voice.
" 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.' "
The congregation listened to the entire first chapter of the Bible but the transmission didn't end, the voice went on to the next chapter. Mark signaled someone behind him and the voice faded out.
"Now the entire world will hear the word of God," Mark said.
Again the congregation cheered and praised God. Christy leaned over to Evelyn. "Is the broadcast coming from the satellite you launched?"
"Yes. Isn't it wonderful?"
Smiling politely, Christy didn't ask whether the transmission would be in all the world's languages.
Bubbling with excitement, the congregation chattered and giggled like children. More singing followed but no sermon or collection. When Christy thought the service should be ending, candles were passed out, a paper ring slipped over the candle to protect the hand from dripping wax. Floyd took an extra candle when they came by. Another prayer was offered and then ushers lit candles at the beginning of each row. Christy's candle was lit and then she lit Evelyn's who then lit Floyd's. When all the candles were burning they stood and followed Mark Shepherd and the other leaders out the door. The children were waiting, the older children with their own candles, and they joined the procession. Daniel and Faith found their parents, Daniel carrying his own candle. Floyd lifted Faith to his hip and gave her the extra candle, lighting it with his own. She smiled broadly and looked down to Daniel.
"Looky, Daniel. Daddy got me a candle," Faith said excitedly.
The children were noisy but the adults silent so Christy honored the silence, not asking where they were going. They passed through the parking lot and into the brush on the far side. A trail had been cut, but the ground was uneven. They walked slowly in the dark, the candles providing little light.