Then, after an eternity, a door at the far side of the room slid open, and Kretz pointed at it. Awkwardly, as his boots seemed to stick to the floor, Howard moved forward. Out onto a metal platform…. and froze in the doorway.

            He was looking out onto more emptiness than his mind could deal with. Tiny points of light turned in the blackness. And there was no end to it. He knew that he was screaming, but he couldn't help himself.

            Eventually Kretz had to pull him inside. The door to the terrible nothingness closed. Howard just stood there. Even the bones looked familiar and safe compared to that.

            "It is now safe to release the helmet seals" a voice said—the same voice that had spoken from the box.

            Voices in your head! A sure sign of demonic possession! Brother Galsson had been right.

            Kretz lifted the helmet off Howard's head. "I could not prepare you," he said.

            Howard shook his head, slowly. "What was that?"

            "That was you would call 'the heavens,'” explained Kretz.

            "Not heaven," said Howard, sitting down, slumping against the wall. "Not hell either. That is a place of hellfire. Out there it is just dark."

            "It is, out here, far from the light of the sun."

            "But it is so big. So open. Where is the end of it?" Howard was still stunned and fearful.

            "We're not sure if there is one," answered Kretz.

            Howard's next words surprised himself. But they were drawn from somewhere deep inside his mind. "We've been so small. How could we be so small in the face of something so great? We have hidden away from it."

            The alien cocked his head in that oddly human gesture. "It is both frightening and magnificent."

            "Yes. Both frightening and magnificent," said Howard. He'd never had the experience that others had described of a spiritual enlightenment. And now, in the midst of his fear and the smell that came from the suit… he knew that he had finally done so. "I have looked on the infinity of God," he said humbly. "And I was very afraid. What were the spots of light, Brother Kretz?"

            "Suns. Very far off suns."

            Was it not written “And the sun shall not smite thee by day…”? So that was what it referred to.

            "The brightest one you saw is ours. Miran is the second world orbiting it."

            Kretz had obviously learned to recognize Howard's blank look. "That is where I came from. My spacecraft crossed the heavens to come here."

            Howard stared in awe at the alien. "How could anyone cross that?"

            Kretz narrowed his lips in his smile. "Howard. As I said to you: This 'New Eden' of yours is a spacecraft. Or, rather, your whole world is part of a spacecraft. We saw you crossing the heavens and came to find out what you were."

            Howard wrestled with this one. "New Eden is also definitely this thing you call a spacecraft?" Yes. He remembered that Kretz had said that before. But that was before it meant anything to him.

            "Yes," Kretz nodded. "Much bigger than ours, intended for a far longer journey."

            Howard looked at the metal floor. "I believed… in my heart of hearts that New Eden was all that really existed."

            Kretz shook his head. "There are millions and million of worlds out there. Orbiting around hundreds of millions of suns. They're many thousands of times bigger than New Eden," said the alien, cheerfully compounding Howard's turmoil. "I suppose in a way, you are naturally going to be frightened…"

            "You don't understand," said Howard, interrupting, fierce feeling overwhelming politeness. He had to tell someone, and Kretz was the only person there was to tell. "I have been kept in a tiny little cage all my life. With limits. Limits on what I could think. Limits on what I could do. It chafed me. But I did not know why. I didn't even know that I was inside the cage. I feel as if I've been a chick growing inside an egg. I didn't know there was an outside to the egg. Why didn't you tell me?!"

            Kretz smiled. "I was not sure that you could deal with a bigger universe. Your kind have lived in a very sheltered and protected environment for many generations, even if you did build this ship."

            "I don't think some of us would deal with it too well," admitted Howard. "Someone like Brother Galsson, probably couldn't. It still frightens me, but another part of me wants to go out and see it. See all of it."

            This definitely amused Kretz. "There is rather a lot of it. I will settle for seeing if we can get to my spacecraft. I must be honest with you, Howard. If we can go along the outer skin of the habitats I don't really need you, except perhaps as security. I wanted a human with me if I had to venture back inside. I am very afraid of your kind."

            Howard was a little puzzled by this. But he'd heard what Kretz had said about the next space habitat. He was part way to understanding just what a habitat was, now. It would be a world such as his own New Eden. A tiny enclosed piece of greenness and light in an infinity of blackness. But that Eden had been taken over by striped-faced snakes.

            He took a deep breath. "But if you cannot, you will need my help. So: let us go and find out."

            "Very well. Put on your helmet again. It is important that we move quite fast out there."

            Howard knew that it would be it was the most courageous thing he'd ever done. But somehow, he could not have resisted trying again. He took a deep breath. Held up a hand to stop Kretz. "Brother. I will try not to look other than at my feet as I may slow you down. Will you lead me?"


About Eric Flint

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