The Secret Protocols of the Elders of Zion

by on Aug 2, 2011 in Short Fiction | 0 comments

by Lavie Tidhar

It was afternoon, after school had ended for the day. Sash had been working in the hydroponics gardens, helping the adults with the delicate work of picking the buds. It was flowering time, and the ganja plants were at the end of their cycle.

It was then, with her hands sticky with resin and her skin tingling pleasantly from the work and the heat, with Mama Kingston”s deep, melodious voice saying “a good harvest, child, a good harvest” with a throaty chuckle, when Sash felt about herself the presence of Jah in everything she did and was profoundly happy: it was then that Sash discovered, for the first time, the existence of the Secret.

At first, she didn”t understand what she was experiencing. Such a thing had not been part of her before, had not seemed possible. And yet, although through the ebb and flow of Jah about her, she could sense everyone on Zion: Mama Kingston”s presence that was itself like a budding flower, Father and Mother at their quarters, mother anxious, father a calm presence that permeated through Jah; though she could sense all and feel all, she had become aware—and how she had she could not, herself, say—that there was something else, something she could not feel, could not see.

It was like a blight in the perfect harmony of Jah, a strand of impurity running through the ever-present smoke. It had made Sash stop, although she didn”t drop the buds.

“What is it, child?” Mama Kingston said, and Sash shook her head mutely, uncertain.

She could feel Mama Kingston”s gentle concern carried through the smoke, and a small part of her mind sent back reassurance for the old woman: I”m fine, and there is nothing wrong.

“Perhaps you’d better call it a day,” Mama Kingston suggested. She took a long drag on her ever-present doobie and exhaled loudly; the joint was cigar-shaped and the smoke was blue and thick and dissipated slowly in the air, carrying a sense of quiet amusement back to Sash.

Mama Kingston always made you feel she knew more than she was letting on.

Sash gave her the buds she had been able to collect and went to wash her hands before leaving the ganja fields through the gate leading to the playground. Some of her friends were playing by the lake; sunlight glinted on the silvery surface from the small artificial sun moving position at the top of the great dome. Early afternoon, shadows lengthening, leading to a warm evening.

Sash went and sat by the water a little way away from her friends. She needed to think, needed solitude. She breathed in, a deep breath that brought smoke carousing into her lungs; the smoke entered her bloodstream and wound its way into her brain, reaffirming Jah.

She exhaled, trying not to let her doubt, her confusion, escape with the smoke. She needed to think.

There were two thousand people on Zion. She could sense each and every one of them as they moved throughout the asteroid, sparks of life intertwined into the web that was Jah: Mama Kingston and her team in the gardens, tending to the plants; Uncle James’s crew, further away, working in the fisheries: a sense of exuberance, hunger, the hint of smoked-fish scent. She breathed again, concentrating on further, further. She sensed old Cass’s vague, happy tune in her home garden, and close but separate, her nephew Charlie’s daydreaming. She reached farther, farther, to the fields, the cattle pens, the labs, the docks: everything seemed as it always was, calm, serene, complete. The world the way she had always known it.

And yet it wasn”t. And yet something was missing, something was hidden. Some grand purpose was exposed to which she was not a part.

The docks. Smoke eddied and swirled above the lake, carrying with it a surprise.

Charles! She sensed his relief and his excitement as his presence, his spark re-entered Jah.

He was back!

She got up, worries momentarily forgotten, and ran, hoping she could catch him before he got home.

As Sash approached the docks Charles’s presence grew stronger. She breathed in Jah while trying, for once, to make her own part in it small, so that she could surprise Charles with her presence.

Sash loved the docks. They were the one area of the asteroid that could be entirely cut off from the rest of the world, and they were gigantic: enormous halls carved in the rock, seeming to her like the hatching ground for a kind of larva from which the ships rose and flew, as beautiful as butterflies.

“Got you!” She heard the laughter in his voice and felt strong, dark arms grab her and lift her, high into the air, just as Charles’s presence came rushing into her brain through the smoke, happy and strong and close, so close, and she hugged her brother, inhaling the sweat coming off him and the scent of far, foreign, exotic places on his clothes.

“Mum is going to make you wash!” she squeaked, and he laughed and lifted her up in the air again before setting her safely down on the ground.

“Did you miss me?” he asked, and before she could reply there was something in his hands, something small and wrapped and foreign: a present.

“What is it?” she demanded, and Charles laughed and said, “You can open it now, or you can wait until dinner. What would it be, chiquita?”

Sash was still trying to decide when she heard a cough and, turning, saw a man she didn’t know; he was standing a few paces back, in the shadow of Charles’s ship, and she had not known he was there.

She had not known he was there. Charles’s hand rested on her shoulder, quietening her. His presence engulfed her, calming her, knowing her concern and warning her to be silent.

“Chiquita, this is Wan Chong,” Charles said. “He came with me on the ship to meet with the Elders. Wan, this is my sister Sash.”

Wan Chong stepped forward, extending his hand to her solemnly. “It is a pleasure to meet the sister of my friend,” he said. His hand felt dry and smooth against Sash’s.

“Hi.”

Wan laughed. Sash marvelled at the sensation; she could feel his hand and the warmth of his skin; she could hear him, the voice with the strange, flat accent, the small laughter; could see him, the almond eyes, the dark hair, the full lips; smell him, even—sweat intermingled with an unfamiliar, herbal musk that must have been artificial—yet she could not sense him, could not perceive him beyond those aspects. She inhaled deeply from the air, from the smoke, and found Wan’s presence as a hole in the seamless presence of Jah, a place where the smoke did not go.

“Sash, will you go home and tell Mum and Dad we’re coming?” Charles said. And, don’t say anything, a whispered note curling like smoke. She nodded.

“I hope to speak with you soon,” Wan said politely. “Perhaps you can tell me a little of your life in this extraordinary place.”

Sash nodded again, mute, and ran away, furious questions tumbling through her mind, flying away in all directions so that people turned and stared as she passed them.

Life was suddenly full of questions: first the Secret, then the stranger, two inexplicable things in one day.

She ran all the way home.

* * *

Father’s laughter rang through the house at a comment Wan had made. His white teeth shone in the light of the many candles scattered throughout the room, and he twisted a long, thick dreadlock between the fingers of his right hand, while in his left he held a large, newly-prepared joint.

It was, Sash realised, something to do with the Secret. The rich smell of ganja wafted throughout the room, but that is all it was: a smell. The presence of Jah was somehow diminished, the holy herb acting not as a medium of sharing, of communicating love and closeness, but merely as a recreational drug!

“That is very good,” Wan said. “Will I be wrong to suggest that this weed is far superior to the kind you have supplied us with so far?”

“Well,” Father said, “not superior as much as different. It’s a new strain—a combination of two ancient African varieties, Swazi Red and Malawi Gold, gene-spliced with some of our more experimental sativa.”

“It induces mild euphoria and a gradient boost of energy over several hours,” Mother said. She was busy rolling, brown fingers working deftly on the table. “It could be ideal for your mining industry both as a recreational drug and for purposes of labour.”

Wan inclined his head. “Interesting. We should discuss terms later. Thank you—” He accepted a joint being passed from Charles. “Of course, what really interests me is the research you are conducting. I would like to hear more of your experimental strains.”

Sash watched him, fascinated by the fact she could not read him beyond the physical. She noticed how little he actually inhaled, how he let the joint smoulder in the ashtray for most of the time, passing it on as soon as he judged it prudent. He was being careful with the smoke, almost as if he were afraid to reveal any more of himself than he had to.

And her parents were co-operating! Using a kind of ganja that was—she searched for a suitable word—that was castrated. Why would they use a weed that did not embody Jah within it?

There was a moment of silence. Then, “Of course,” Mother said smoothly, “I will arrange a tour of the plantations for tomorrow, and you can discuss research with Mama Kingston, I am sure she will be obliging.”

Sash saw a look being exchanged by her father and Charles. Wan inclined his head again, then rose from the table in a slow, graceful movement. “I thank you again for your hospitality. If you will excuse me—it has been a long journey, and I am not used to such high-quality weed as this.”

The adults all rose with him. Sash remained seated on her cushion.

“Good night.”

“Good night.”

Wan departed, Charles with him.

“Sash, it’s time for you to go to sleep.”

“But Dad…”

“And try to stay out of Mr. Chong’s way.”

Sash retired to her room in a huff, still turning the unanswered questions in her head.

* * *

In the dream, she was floating through interstellar space on the back of the kite that was Charles’s present. She felt no discomfort—the sensation was somehow similar to diving, a leisurely, slow movement through warm liquid—and she knew she was dreaming. It was nice.

Space wasn’t empty, Sash knew that. Space was full of stuff: rocks, debris, spaceships, gas. There was a lot of gas in space. In the dream, the gas was warm and vibrant. It was Jah, like the smoke that was Jah but different, somehow bigger, more encompassing, at the same time majestic and comfortable. Sash laughed with delight in the dream, feeling herself lost in the multitudinous strands of Jah, her consciousness expanding, filtering through space, through suns, through moons and planets and life, until she knew all and was all and she was god and a part of god and love filled her soul the way smoke from a bong fills the devoted’s lungs.

In the dream she was floating, and she was one with Jah, and she was happy.

* * *

Sash woke the next morning feeling excited. Fresh, sweet air filled the room and brought with it tendrils of smoke carrying the promise of a wonderful day.

She lay back and listened to Jah:

From the docks, the thoughts of Ophir and Gordon and Shell, a sense of hard labour and sweat, the three of them sounding so much alike that they felt at times like one person; from the food gardens the scent of cut grass rose up to meet her, and the feel of the sun on naked skin; from nearer by, Mother’s restless movements, anxiety over… she couldn’t tell.

And from the hydroponic gardens…

Her mind seemed to expand, drawing in more smoke as it infiltrated her brain and built new, complex images there. She could do more than sense and feel: she could see, and hear.

“Dr. Kingston?” Wan seemed put out; Mama Kingston’s slow amusement filtered to Sash through the smoke.

Mama Kingston titled her head, just so. “Guilty as charged.”

The moment of confusion passed from Wan’s face so quickly that Sash was made to wonder if it was there at all. Then she realised it wasn’t her own thought. It was Mama Kingston’s, the surface of her mind made visible to her for a brief moment. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Doctor.”

“And you too, Dr. Chong. I’ve read your work on air-borne information systems with interest.”

Wan’s face, smooth and smiling. He was still as closed to Sash as he had been before; it was a disconcerting experience.

“I believe,” Wan said carefully, “that I am only treading in the footsteps of others.”

Mama Kingston inched her head again. Sash found herself looking through her eyes for a flicker of a moment, and in it she saw Wan with a new emotion: caution.

“My work in that field is long in the past,” Mama Kingston said. Her fingers moved in her lap, sure and unhurried, rolling a joint. “These days I am more interested in the possible properties of plants.”

“Nevertheless,” Wan said. “It has occurred to me it might just be possible to use the smoke of such plants as a medium of communication. Since THC already alters several neurotransmitter systems in the brain, if you could modify it—”

“If,” Mama Kingston said.

“—then you would have an active agent that would enter the bloodstream, be rapidly absorbed and reach the brain in less than twenty seconds. If you could make it carry information—”

“If,” Mama Kingston said.

“—then you would have an active, airborne communications network made of people.” Wan smiled slowly, like a butterfly expanding wings.

“Yes,” Mama Kingston said. She lifted her hand and revealed the completed joint with a flourish. “That is a clever idea. Of course, such a system would be extremely limited, if you stop to think about it. It can only operate in a relatively-small, closed space. It would be slow—the larger the volume of space, the slower the network it will be.”

“Like a hollowed-out asteroid?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “And it would be an open network,” he said. “What one node on the network knows every other node potentially knows.”

“Or any agent introduced into the system,” Mama Kingston agreed. “Like the old ham radio networks. Yes?”

It was not real geniality, Sash realised. Mama Kingston’s outward appearance hid deep concentration, a tautness of thought she only usually exhibited during her work in the labs. Whatever was going on, it was important.

“Ah,” Wan said. He tilted his head marginally, imitating Mama Kingston. “But could an agent infiltrate the system? It seems to me the key to such a remarkable network would be the protocols it employs. The rules of communication. Without them, all you would be left with is smoke.”

Mama Kingston lit the joint; sparks flared in the air. “Smoke and mirrors?” she said, and suddenly smiled. “It is a fascinating theory, Dr. Chong. You should put it in a paper and publish. But unfortunately none of us, Zionists or Corporate American or anyone on Earth, for that matter, have—to the best of my knowledge, at least—the technology, or even the theory, for doing something like that. Would you like to try it?”

Wan looked confused for a second.

“This.” She made to give him the joint.

He waved it away. “No, thank you.” He blinked, the first time Sash had seen him do so. “You are right, of course. It is only a theory. An unlikely one at that. And it occurs to me that, since the moment I landed on Zion, there has been smoke all around me. It’s in the air as thick as a mist. And yet it did nothing to me. After several minutes I almost stopped noticing it.”

“I hope so,” Mama Kingston said. “As you know all the Cannabis Sativa from Zion has—the most part at least—beneficial smoke, or a non-poisonous one in any case.”

“Yes,” Wan said. “It reminds me of the Beneficial Virus phenomenon in the Nineteen Eighties—” he stopped at Mama Kingston’s look of amusement, and added, almost defensively, “I read about it. It was a self-replicating program, but instead of causing damage like most viruses it professed to be beneficial by performing data encryption on the user’s request.”

Mama Kingston puffed on the joint. “Are you sure you don’t want to try some? No?” Sash felt the smoke course through Mama Kingston’s bloodstream as clarity, pure and cold. “You seem to have a tendency to make everything analogous to a computer system, Dr. Chong. An interesting approach, but like your theory of human networks, eventually fanciful.”

Wan rose with that fluid motion Sash had already seen. “Indeed.” He bowed to the sitting Mama Kingston then turned as if to leave. “By the way,” he said, “I was surprised when the little girl, Sash, showed up at the docks. We weren’t expected, we made no advanced communication, and there was no one but myself, Charles and the three technicians in there until the girl came.”

Mama Kingston tilted her head. “Yes?”

“I wonder how she knew her brother was there. That’s all.” And with that he turned away and Sash felt herself snapped out of the vivid scene in her head and found herself back in her room, clutching at the pillow with fingers that were frozen as if all that remained of her were a skeleton.

Charles left the next day, taking Wan with him. This time, she didn’t go to the docks.

It was all, Sash began to realise, a part of the Secret. She knew what protocols were—they were simply rules, governing communication—and she understood what Wan was talking about. What it boiled down to was simple: Wan knew—even if he didn’t understand—about Jah, about the spirit of Zion, and for some reason he wanted to use that knowledge for his own purposes. And Mama Kingston didn’t want him to have it.

Wan’s visit was a warning. Give us the Secret, or else. But… Sash turned it over in her head as she helped Ijahman in the hydroponic gardens. The old man moved deftly through the rows of plants, picking buds with careful, exact movements. He seemed at one with the world around him, and through the smoke Sash could feel the surface of his mind, contemplative and calm.

But…but it wasn’t the real Secret. She didn’t know how she knew it, but she did. Wan only thought that was the Secret. But, somehow, there was a deeper level, hidden underneath even the existence of Jah, a shared Secret that wasn’t shared with her.

“You seem perturbed.” Ijahman’s voice roused her from a contemplative inactivity. “Perhaps you should take the rest of the day off.”

Sash looked at him. The short, grey hair, cropped at the temples; the piercing, brown eyes beneath imposing eyebrows; and through the smoke, a gentle, deep awareness that engulfed her like a blanket.

“I don’t understand,” Sash said. Ijahman nodded. He laid one light, wrinkled hand on her shoulder and said, “You will have time to understand, Sash. You are already beginning to.” His voice was smoky and melodious, like that of the ancient singer he said his parents had named him after. “These are difficult times for Zion. You already saw one visitor—I suspect in the next few months there will be more. You are one with Jah. Remember that, when the time comes, and you will be ready.” He lifted his hand and smiled at her. “Go home, Sash. There will be time.”

So she did. She left the gardens but didn’t go straight home. First the lake, where she swam with Tui and Moi, Morgan’s twins, whose thoughts were as quick and liquid as water and often interchangeable; she dried herself in the dawning light of the sun and walked home as the lights began to sprout like poppy flowers in the houses and streets.

As she neared home, the smoke seemed to coalesce thicker, and suddenly she was in another vision, hearing and seeing with another’s ears, another’s eyes.

“It is a heavy price,” Father said. He sat by the large window, a box in his lap. “But it might be worth paying.”

“If it buys us what we really need,” Mother said. She was sitting on the other side of the room in a lotus position, her eyes closed. “If it buys us time.”

There was a third presence in the room, Sash realised. The one she was seeing this through. A presence that smiled inwardly, because it knew Sash was there with her.

Mama Kingston.

“Time,” she now said, “is the one thing we may not have. Wan Chong is not an Independent. He represents his people—and it is his people we must be wary of.”

“But can’t we use them instead?” Mother said. “Can we not buy the engines from the Yanks? Charles says they have the best fleet this side of the Belt. And they understand money.”

Sash felt Mama Kingston shake her head. “Dr. Chong wants from us what we cannot give. He perceives the nature of God as a tool, to be used by the Americans to their advantage. No. I am afraid we shall hear from Dr. Chong again, and before the agreement on the current shipments of sativa is even finished.”

Blinking the vision from her eyes, Sash found herself at the door of her house. It opened, and Mama Kingston appeared in the doorway. There was a warming kind of complicity in her eyes, and as she stepped out of the house she said, “There will be time, Sash,” and smiled, and walked away wrapped in tendrils of pale smoke, leaving Sash on her own, expectant and confused in equal measures.

In the dream, Sash floated in space, a disembodied focal point that grew in stages, encompassing everything around it. Zion was in the dream, and Jah, greater than ever before, a constant, murmuring presence like comfortable pillows at her back. She could see all, feel all, and she was happy.

* * *

Ijahman’s prediction of more visitors came true. The next summer, Charles had come back from the outside with another visitor, a young, quiet man called Amnon. Sash had known the moment Charles’s ship had docked, but this time she did not run to meet him. Instead she waited at home, sending out her anxiety for him to come quickly through the floating web of the smoke.

Amnon was tall, and his movements were those of someone who spent most of his time in places of no, or little, gravity. He had dark, curly hair and green eyes, and he was from something called a kibbutz. He was also, confusingly, a Zionist, though that apparently meant something else where he came from.

He and Charles seemed to be good friends. Charles had told her he had spent almost the entire year on Amnon’s kibbutz, which was similar to their own habitat although it didn’t spin, and that he brought him to Zion to meet Mama Kingston and Ijahman. He didn’t say what the meeting was about, and so Sash knew that it had to do with the Secret.

The present from Charles was a model of a starship. The artist imagined an aerodynamic shape, shining metal, fins; Sash didn’t know what a starship might look like, but she suspected it would not be anything like the model.

“This is good,” Amnon said. He sat on a cushion and the smoke from his rollup engulfed his head like a halo. “How come we never get this at the co-op?”

Charles laughed and shook his head; dark dreadlocks fell from him like a cascade of black stone. “We keep the really good stuff right here,” he said, and Sash felt his laughter swim at her through the smoke.

“It’s not…” Amnon said, a question mark directed at Charles.

“No.” And through the smoke, disquiet. “Sash, go and see if the Elders would care to join us for dinner tonight. Mum’s making her jerked chicken.”

Sash left in a huff; Charles and Amnon were engaged in quiet conversation behind her.

* * *

“What did you think of your present?” Charles said over the table. He said it casually, but Sash felt in the smoke around her a collective caution, a mutual tautness of thought.

“Is that what a starship looks like?” she asked. To her left, Amnon shook his head. “Maybe,” he said. “It would be nice if it did…”

“No one has built one,” Father said. “Yet.”

That “yet”; again a tautness.

“I hear the Chinese are close to having the technology though,” Mother said. “What do you think, Amnon?”

Amnon looked up, wistful look gone. “The Chinese, the Malay, the North American corporations, the Japanese, the Africans—everyone wants starship drives. It’s almost as if they are all waiting so they could just leave, take off in a random direction and look for a planet or two of their own. It will be here—if not now then in five, ten, a hundred years—but it will be here eventually.”

“And you?” Father asked. “The Israelis? Will you go off in search of a new planet?”

“Maybe,” Amnon said, and the wistful look was momentarily restored; for Sash, it was as if his emotions, though not a part of Jah, were nevertheless understood. “It would be an adventure.”

“How close are you?” Mama Kingston said. Sash was aware of Mama Kingston and Ijahman’s presence beside her like one presence, entwined in mutual love that surged about them in an eddy of whirling smoke. “Really?”

After a moment of silence Amnon laughed. “That isn’t something I can really discuss.” He looked at Sash and winked. “Right now.”

After that, everyone went back to their food and afterwards the conversation turned to other things, business matters that Sash found dull, all about kilograms of weed and exchange rates and machinery; soon after she went to sleep.

* * *

In the dream Sash was leading Zion behind her; she was a dark giant, striding through space, and the rock that was Zion dragged behind her like a grey sack.

In the distance she could see the Milky Way, and form complicated constellations in the stars. She knew that when she woke up, the position of the stars would remain fixed in her mind.

Ahead of her was Jah, giant and amorphous, calling to her.

She swam through space, Zion behind her.

* * *

Mama Kingston and Ijahman were sitting together in the garden outside their house; flowers of burning colours grew everywhere, a giant sunflower rising above Amnon’s head like a yellow serpent.

“I admire your efforts,” he was saying. Sash saw him through Mama Kingston’s eyes. “Yours is truly a communal society, when my own is still struggling to establish itself.” He toked on the doob he was holding. “Perhaps you’d agree to let some of us come here and try your life for themselves?”

“Something like your own Volunteers?” Ijahman”s voice, quiet. He nodded. “We would be glad to.”

“Then they would help with your project. We’ve arranged the principal exchange—we can certainly trade the equipment for the weed, and your terms are generous.”

Mama Kingston”s eyes found Amnon’s: Sash felt her determination, as well as her like for the young man. “Would you be coming back?”

“Maybe,” he said, and smiled, so that he looked for a moment like a carefree child. “It would be an adventure.”

She came out of the vision on the shores of the lake. It seemed to her that she was beginning to see a pattern emerging from the smoke, silken strands of meaning that joined together in a whispering web. Jah whispered all around her, sharing and comforting, and from afar she could sense her mother calling for her; the moment stretched, and she stood still until the sun faded in the distance and darkness settled on Zion.

* * *

She dreamt again that night; by now familiar constellations burning against a background of infinite dark. Zion was there, a rock hurtling through space, and Jah was there: it wrapped tendrils of smoke around the rock and embraced it, and Sash could now see the borders of Jah’s shape, changing and expanding beyond intergalactic space, touching suns and planets and life.

She knew she would remember the dream; for in the moment before waking she felt the presence of Mama Kingston’s form beside her and take her hand, and they watched the shape of Jah together, and shared in its all-encompassing love.

* * *

Charles had left Zion again, and with him Amnon. Sash spent longer at the hydroponic gardens, helping Mama Kingston, and at night she dreamt. When Charles returned Wan was with him; and Sash watched his conversation with the Elders through Mama Kingston’s eyes.

“Dr. Kingston.” Wan’s voice was calm, patient. “Please do not see me as an enemy. Our way of life, our way of thinking, are similar to yours. We, too, are a family, a unit, we, too, live together in harmony—as much as is possible at any rate, I admit.” He smiled. “What you have developed here—and please do not bother to deny it—is remarkable. It is amazing. We would like to learn from you, nothing more.”

“You do not understand,” Ijahman said. “The nature of Jah.”

Wan looked at him, but Ijahman fell quiet. A frog croaked by the pond.

“If you had such ‘technology’,” Mama Kingston said, “what would you do with it? What can be used to bind people together can also be used to bind their minds.”

“That is not our intention.”

“Perhaps.”

A silence fell; the shadows began to lengthen.

“It must be difficult,” Wan said, almost apologetically, “to be an independent entity of your size. You must feel vulnerable, sometimes.”

Sash felt Mama Kingston’s concentration through the smoke, and her reaction, travelling through the smoke around her until it reached everyone on Zion: a shudder of complex emotions, each screaming a threat.

“We,” said Mama Kingston, and there was a slight emphasis on the word, “do not seek financial rewards.”

“And yet you need money badly enough to trade with my corporation, and badly enough that you trade with the Israelis? Yes, of course I know you have been dealing with them.” He waved his hand in the air. “Why is it that a non-materialist society suddenly requires so much money? Before you hardly let a word, let alone your weed, come out of Zion.”

“We…” Ijahman said, then sighed. “You wouldn’t understand. We seek to be one with Jah.”

Wan shook his head. “Enough,” he said. “We require the technology. We require the protocols. We require your research—all of it. Please don’t think refusal is an acceptable answer.”

He stood up, that cat-like motion again. “I will be leaving within the hour,” he said. “One of our ships followed me here, and it should be ready to pick me up. Please inform your docking crew—if you haven’t already done so.”

The vision blinked, was gone. But Sash didn’t have time to think about what she’d seen. A foreign ship—here! She had to see it.

She arrived at the docks panting. She felt Ophir, Gordon and Shell as disgruntled, angry presences, working at the consoles. Charles stood with Wan, unsmiling, his dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail.

“Sash, what are you doing here?” Charles asked, angry.

Suddenly Wan smiled. “She must have come to see my ship,” he said. “She knew it was here.”

“Enough.” Charles said with a cold clear fury.

Wan inclined his head.

Sash ignored them for the moment. She studied the ship.

Sash felt somewhat disappointed. The ship was painted a grey-black, almost passing for a rock itself; the shape was a disc, thick and yet elegant, and large. It was five times the size of Charles’s ship, and Sash got the unnerving feeling that inside, very many more strangers were examining her.

“Goodbye Wan,” Charles said. “I hope we meet again under better circumstances.”

Wan inclined his head again. “Goodbye, Charles. Please think carefully about your future. I mean that as a friend.”

Charles didn’t answer but took Sash’s hand in his, and they walked to the air lock. Beyond them, the hangar emptied of air. The giant doors began to open, revealing empty, cold space beyond. The American ship rose and was gone from the asteroid like a bee departing from a flower.

* * *

Charles left Zion again shortly after. Sash didn’t know where he’d gone. A few harvests later Amnon returned, and with him a group of pale tall men and women who, in the following months, wandered from one side of Zion to another like a group of migrant workers. A new feel stole over Jah, of shared excitement and suppressed expectation. It came as a shock to Sash when she first felt the presence of that group, like tendrils groping for light, at the edge of her consciousness. They were joining Zion, Mama Kingston had told her, and with every passing day their presence became more and more substantial, until Sash learnt to know every personality like a distinct beacon, a part of the great commune that was Jah.

The docks were busy with new cargo, both coming and going, but Charles had not returned.

Time passed. And Sash dreamt as Zion waited.

“We are coming closer,” Mama Kingston said. They stood together in the dream, watching the great tendrils of Jah reaching through space toward Zion.

“It is so far…” Sash felt the words dissipate into space.

In the dream, Mama Kingston smiled. “It has taken Jah’s message a very long time to reach us,” she said. “It would take an equally long time for us to be united with Jah.”

Sash felt the echoes of all Zion’s people behind them, watching the dream together. Then, like a heated cleaver cutting through ice, a voice shook her into instant wakefulness:

“You are about to leave Belt space,” the voice said, the polished American accent hurtling like a boomerang through the small world. “Halt your trajectory immediately. You will not be warned again.”

Wan’s voice, emotionless, clear throughout the asteroid. Sash got up and ran outside, looking for Mama Kingston.

She found her at the labs, talking to Amnon and Ijahman. The labs had changed a great deal since Wan first came to Zion; they now looked less like a place of research and more like a command centre.

“Sash, this is no time…” Amnon said, but Mama Kingston silenced him. “What is it?”

Sash felt her heart burning inside. “It’s Charles,” she said. “He’s in pain. I can feel it.”

“Charles?” Emotion flickered and disappeared on Mama Kingston’s face. “You can sense him?”

In lieu of an answer, Sash closed her eyes. Charles’s pain came to her like flashes of lightning, and a voice, careful and cultured and distant:

“Tell me!”—Wan, standing above Charles. She could feel small, tight wires holding Charles down, cutting through skin. “Where does the technology come from?”

Beside her, she heard Mama Kingston draw a deep, sudden breath.

“Is this proof enough for you?” she suddenly demanded. Sash opened her eyes. Mama Kingston was facing Amnon. “Did you feel it?”

“Yes, but how?” he said. He spoke slowly, as if he were confused. “The smoke…it’s a local network. It can’t cross space. It’s impossible.”

“Have you taken the same dim-witted view as the Yanks?” Mama Kingston was almost shouting. Through the smoke the same tautness Sash had felt in her before was encompassing everything. “Jah is not a computer. It is a consciousness. A presence. And Sash is the first of us who no longer needs the physical supports to sense it.”

“I…” His face changed, the look of confusion exchanged for one of determination. “Yes.”

“We have no time left,” Mama Kingston said, her voice suddenly gentle. “We must activate the engines. Will you stay, or will you go?”

A long moment passed in silence. Sash felt Amnon’s internal struggle, Mama Kingston’s steely patience, Ijahman’s quiet confidence. And through it all Charles, and lashes of pain, and Wan’s voice, demanding, “Is it extraterrestrial? It is extraterrestrial?”

“Yes,” Amnon said again, and suddenly smiled. “It would be a real adventure.” And he turned away from them and went to sit by the controls, his hands moving as he concentrated, and his thoughts, straight and narrow like metal spears emerged into the smoke and travelled away, directing, ordering, shaping.

“Charles!” Sash cried, and through his pain she knew he felt her, and he said, “Go…” as pain exploded once more and his consciousness was gone like smoke on the wind.

Sash was numb as Ijahman led her outside and back to her house and helped her sit in the harness besides her parents, their faces grim, and strapped her in.

There was a group sigh, hasty movement, as all over the asteroid people were strapped into their secure cocoons; Sash opened her mind and felt it connect with Mama Kingston’s, heard her voice speak over the machines to Wan and his people, felt the command that operated the giant engines constructed in secrecy on the outer skeleton of Zion, and as acceleration, sudden and scary and stifling, took hold of her body and pushed her into the border of unconsciousness as she felt Charles’s mind again, like an echo, and in the vast unimaginable distance of light years and human years, Jah’s presence like a beacon of love, and she dreamt again as her body was pushed and pushed, of Jah and of Zion, travelling away at increasing speed, travelling away to meet up with Jah and be one with Jah.

There were no more secrets. The giant engines pushed them away from the American fleet, away from the asteroid belt, on a journey toward the outskirts of the solar system and beyond, into interstellar space.

She felt her mind sink into darkness as the growing acceleration affected her body. It would be only momentary, she knew, and when she woke she would be on her way, they would be on their way like pilgrims on the road that leads, at long last, to God Himself.


More from Lavie Tidhar:

Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman, published by HarperCollins, and the forthcoming Camera Obscura. Other works include the novella Cloud Permutations, a linked-story collection HebrewPunk, and many others.

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