We Have Discerned a Potential Deal

by J.P. Sullivan

On his way back from Aldebaran, a particular salesman stopped by the Vatican. “I’d like to buy it,” he said.

“Well, it’s not for sale,” said Father Delgado.

“Not exactly for sale,” said the salesman. “But we don’t need a price tag to make a deal.”

“We’re not an auction house,” said the priest. “The statue’s a masterpiece. Part of Church heritage. World heritage, actually.”

The two are nearly the same thing, Father Delgado might have added, but he was short of breath. He leaned his arms against the balustrade and wished he had lost more weight. So much for a New Year’s resolution. All those stairs, the locked door that always stuck, a half-dozen galleries, plus the private laboratory showing, and then finally the balcony, with more stairs in between. Stairs! He cursed stairs. Guided tours were never something he’d imagined doing in seminary.

“If you ask me,” said the salesman, “You’re being a mite disingenuous.”

Delgado’s knees hurt. But the statue was on the move, and that meant he had to move, too. If the boys from the restoration laboratory so much as jostled it, he’d have their heads. “Eyes open! It’s an original Bernini!”

“I wasn’t aware they manufactured a lot of un-original Berninis.” The salesman had introduced himself as Marlin, Marlin Kay. He’d repeated it, just like that. “The sculptor is of what you might call an aged vintage.” He spoke in a Southern American drawl. Delgado had learned his English in Britain, and this flavor of it felt like a voice fallen out of some obscure mythology.

The colonnaded loggia overlooked the papal gardens; the plants were so green they looked painted that way. It was too early in spring for the tourists, and too early also for their breath not to fog in the early morning cold. Delgado liked to bring patrons here, the wealthy ones. This view was not normally afforded to guests of the Museum. All the shrubs and hedges fanned out across manicured lawns, where they interlaced with geometric precision. The modern noise of Rome was cushioned by trees and stone.

Though newly restored, the angel was still losing a longer battle. It had no wings left, only vestiges. Its smiling face was halfway lost to time. But Delgado still felt the rumbling tension of adrenaline in his palms as he watched the men wheel it by. He’d personally assisted in designing the base. Even if the distance was only a few hundred meters, every step was a risk. If it cracked, he’d be inconsolable.

He talked to distract himself. “When Bernini made bronzes,” Delgado told Kay, “he crafted molds out of plaster. Those plasters were the prototypes of his statues. Anyone else’s plasters would have been destroyed, probably. They take up a lot of space.”

“Clearly someone thought a master’s were worth keeping around.”

“Yes, so they survived, and they’re worth all the more for it. If a bronze is an original Bernini, then this is an original original; it has his fingerprints, his direct intention. But after five hundred years, it’s basically made of dust. The angel hasn’t even been fired. It’s more like paper than marble, and we haven’t been able to use the traditional techniques. We’re doing very interesting things with cellulose, and if you were interested in supporting—”

“See,” said Kay, “You tell me it’s not for sale and then you give me a sales pitch. We call that mixed messages where I come from.” He tore a piece of paper off a yellow legal pad. “If you can’t make any decisions, take that offer to whoever can.”

Delgado was very good at soliciting donations. He had hoped for a watershed—the Museum’s first interstellar backer. Even if this wasn’t quite formal patronage, the sum written on the paper did have a startling number of zeroes. Would deaccessioning one masterpiece be so bad, if it funded the whole Museum? The Vatican was lousy with masterpieces.

“Just one question,” Delgado said.

“That being?”

“Did you have to park the spaceship there?”

They looked up.

Floating overhead was the lonely black wedge of the salesman’s rare and singular vehicle. Green lights winked silently upon its tapered wings.

“Well.” Kay shadowed his brow and looked into an otherwise empty sky. “I didn’t anticipate anyone else needing the spot.”

***

The Consortium’s arks first appeared between the clouds of a summer morning, pale and vast and unambiguously foreboding. The sky vanished first over Paris and then darkened over Shanghai. More arks arrived as the day continued, soon looming over a half-dozen cities and also one strip mall in a humid corner of South Carolina. This last emergence drew a few questions, but most people were understandably preoccupied. Everyone had seen the relevant movies, and more or less knew what to expect from moments like this.

Yet the invaders offered only a straightforward question:

“Would you like to make a deal?”

***

“He went to fucking space,” whispered Violetta, with her customary intensity.

“Profanity,” Delgado reminded her.

“Fucking space,” she reiterated. She pointed to where Rome’s ark loomed at the horizon, just barely visible through the chapel’s open doors.

Some people still distrusted the merits of letting it stay parked over the city, but the Consortium had solved all of the outstanding Italian deficit problems in exchange for the aerial real estate, so on balance Delgado considered it a pretty good deal.

Violetta was the Museum’s Deputy Director, these days; a single text message about Marlin’s offer and she’d appeared like an apparition of Our Lady of Accounting. “Which one’s the spaceman?”

Delgado pointed. Marlin Kay (the spaceman) was at the back of a VIP tour group, methodically working his way through a chicken wrap.

“He looks very…normal.”

“There’s nothing normal about his pocketbook. You saw the quote.”

“I don’t trust it.” Violetta adjusted her veil. She was dressed formally in alb and stole, the garb of a deaconess. Violetta had been among the first women thus installed in fifteen hundred years. This was not liberalization, the Vatican insisted; the utilization of women in the liturgy was in fact only an arch-conservatism, a return to a more ancient norm. “What do aliens need with religious art?”

The VIP tour group drifted freely about the exhibit. Most were Korean oligarchs with links to a particular multinational. Their focus on icons of Christ afforded time for murmured conversation.

“Just because his bosses aren’t human doesn’t mean they don’t have human motivations,” said Delgado. “Maybe they’ve got their own museums.” Even an alien, he felt certain, would appreciate the Renaissance masters.

The eldest of the tour group was a Mrs. Park, whose wrinkled skin resembled vellum first crushed and then imperfectly smoothed. She broke from the pack, tugging along a granddaughter. “My granddaughter has a question,” she told Delgado.

“I’ll try to have an answer,” said Delgado, while Violetta exhaled her impatience.

“Jesus,” the child said, “didn’t look like that, did he?” She pointed to a distant wall.

The portrait in question was of the style common in the early quattrocento, when Botticelli and Michelangelo and a dozen other masters had clustered together in an impossible coincidence of genius. The Christ painted on the wall had long hair, brown and curling at the ends, his eyes a piercing blue.

“No, probably not,” said Delgado.

“What did he look like?”

“Well, the Bible doesn’t say. Every country has their own idea, and he’s everybody’s savior, so who knows? Maybe he looked more like you.”

The kid rolled her eyes. It was a bit of a stretch, Delgado had to admit.

To the elder Park, he added, “Part of what makes Him so special is His universality. There’s an especially remarkable Ethiopian Christ in the African gallery that you might consider exploring on your second day.” He always felt a need to champion the less popular collections. But it was the Vatican, and everybody wanted to see an Italian Jesus.

Don’t you get tired, his cousin had asked him once, of looking at him all the time?

Well, it was a fairly limited series of subjects in the religious collections, that was true, but somehow, Delgado had never quite lost his sense of wonder.

That was what had brought him to the Church in the first place—that sense of mystery. As a young man he’d walked the pilgrimage along the Camino to the Santiago de Compostela; at its terminus he was thinner and tanner and still dithering over his plans to enter Holy Orders. But there was something about it, something about that cathedral. He’d stepped inside and craned his head and beheld all the majesty of a more classical age, and all at once he was struck by such feeling, enough to put a sense of the electric in his toes. “Oh, just do it already,” an old woman had told him then, unprompted; at the time, he had thought it God’s answer to his vocational dilemma. More recently, it had dawned on him that his mystical experience was maybe just holding up her progress down the aisle.

The tourists returned to their perambulations, Violetta’s suspicions unresolved. “The notion that he spends years kicking around the local spiral arm, learning who-knows-what from a pack of green-skinned peddlers—”

“We don’t know what they look like—”

“And then he comes back suddenly just looking to buy some religious sculptures? It’s ridiculous. Don’t sign until we know his game.”

“Pardon me,” said Kay, at Delgado’s elbow. “I couldn’t help but overhear you speaking to the young lady.”

Violetta and Delgado trained their eyes on him.

“About Jesus, that is. Well. I don’t usually like to talk about corporate policy, but you did a real world-class job showing me around today, and I was wondering—when all this is done, would you like to see something from our archives?”

***

The Consortium handled their business mostly by mail. Traditional post, in fact. Much effort had been expended on identifying where the letters originated from, or where the stationery was sourced, but after frustrating all the world’s detectives, it seemed that the letters materialized fully-formed in the mailboxes of the world, having worked their way through the logistical chain unnoticed until the final sorting. We Have Discerned a Potential Deal, they began now.

The first eight had read, You Have Been Selected.

No one famous was chosen, and no one turned down the offer of employment. As mysteriously as the letters had arrived, the new hires vanished, whisked off after mailing the self-addressed stamped envelopes provided within.

Then they came back in sleek black uniforms, piloting vessels of their own and speaking only obliquely of the time away. They offered deals, demanded purchases.

It wasn’t exactly clear what the Consortium wanted with Earth resources, since their own were effectively infinite, but nobody thought too hard about it, precisely because the deals were so transparent. Their human intermediaries made it plain. Give us this, we’ll give you that. Unambiguous.

On a particular month, they requested a Pablo Picasso, a medallion once worn by Haile Selassie, an original copy of the Magna Carta, and fifteen defective pens.

In exchange for these goods were delivered a fortune in rare earth metals, five years’ rain for arid Ethiopia, an undiscovered antibiotic, and a superior ballpoint design.

The excitement of first contact led to a mundane reality. To meet man’s neighbors and discover them friendly, that was a surprise. But the relationship they wanted with man was strictly commercial. Earth offered a manufactured universe the most tantalizing of goods, the only kind of goods worth buying: originals.

***

Marlin Kay clicked the end of a curiously handsome pen. “Now, my little gift would be for your eyes only, you understand.”

“It’s the Vatican,” said Delgado. There were at least as many secrets as there were crooked bank accounts. “We know how to do discretion.”

They turned a flagstone corner in the shadow of the Pinacotheca. Their shoes echoed noisily as they went by, Violetta blind to the sundry masterpieces, the mosaics wrought by geniuses of the arts. To her it was just the office.

Delgado’s office, unfortunately, was among the least glamorous. They arrived at the dingy workroom where he aspired to spend as little of his time as possible. A Swiss guardsman loomed amidst the bushes not far outside.

Marlin eyed the guardsman’s halberd as he sat down. “Do those boys actually know how to use those things?”

“It’s not the ones you can see that you should worry about,” said Violetta. “It’s the ones hiding behind the curtains with machine guns.”

Marlin shrugged and produced a sleek black tablet computer from among his effects. “Times change. Would it be a safe bet for me to suppose that the two of you are students of history?”

“Art history, at least,” said Delgado.

“My superiors know history, too. By biological necessity. The Consortium’s board members are centuries old. And they’ve had their eyes on Earth for a long time.”

“Meaning,” Delgado surmised, “they have a detailed record of Earth’s past?” How far back did it go? What did it cover? To be a fly on the wall at the Council of Nicea…

Before Marlin could answer, Violetta blurted out, “What’s it like?”

“The recordings?”

She stared at him. “Space.”

“Mostly empty,” he said, not well pleased with the tangent.

She stared longer. “Come on,” she said. “Give me some details. Did they take you to other planets?”

“Just the one,” said Marlin. “But I saw a few more once I got my keys. Took the scenic route back. There’s a planet, Gliese five-hundred-something, it’s called around here. Tidally locked to the sun. On the one side, the sun never sets. On the other, the sun never rises. But in the twilight in between, it’s cool as the coast of France, with water just as blue. The sun never sets. Can you imagine that, a resort where the evening light runs forever? That’s romantic. It’s the kind of place where angels dwell.” He brushed away a lingering shred of lettuce, his chicken wrap vanquished. “That’s where I want to put your statue. And hell, with the money you get, you might be able to buy a ticket.”

Delgado was startled by the buzzing of his cell phone. That meant exactly two things, during work hours. Either his ancient mother had called to try and persuade him to go back to law school, or it was his boss’s boss.

You have complete authority to decide whether or not we sell, the screen read. Everyone else is awfully busy with the preparations for the synod.

The synod? texted Delgado.

The synod! No one told you about the synod? Do you ever get out of the Museum? Do you actually know anyone in the Curia?

Delgado reflected that the pontificate had got a lot of mileage (from the twentieth century and well into the current one) out of rejecting all things having to do with the Curia, and he had tried to learn from the example. Meanwhile Violetta cross-examined Marlin for details of off-world gravity and breathability while Delgado composed his reply. On what topic?

On whether or not aliens have souls. The results of the bishops’ meeting will form the draft of a motu proprio. It’s all hands on deck.

Delgado asked, What’s the papal inclination? and received no reply. Of course there was no reply. The only thing more opaque than politics was clerical politics.

“So,” Kay wrapped up, “It’s got spikes longer than your arm, but I reckon they’d make excellent house pets.”

Delgado realized he had already made his decision. “I’ll sell it to you.” The revenue would fund a whole new exhibit space.

Marlin grinned as they shook hands. “You won’t regret it. And if you’re involved in earmarking acquisitions, invest some money toward Giovanni Battista Moroni; he’s underrated, but the boys upstairs have a more complete picture of emerging trends.”

There was a contract to sign, and several people who had to sign it. Violetta left to grease the gears. But the money didn’t seem to be what was on Marlin’s mind.

No, he focused on his tablet. There was something about its glow, a certain green-blue pallor, that Delgado did not well like.

“You’re familiar with Pontius Pilate,” said Marlin, as the reflected color shifted.

“I am a priest,” Delgado reminded him.

“I always felt a certain sympathy for the man. Just trying to do his job, puts it to the crowd, and he winds up taking the fall for their bad decision.” He shook his head.

And then he turned the tablet around.

Delgado leaned in to better see the screen. A wearied man leaned upon a balcony, deep furrows rent through his heavy brow. His nose was aquiline, his knuckles swollen, and his outfit unmistakably a Roman toga.

Delgado reached for the tablet. “Are you telling me that’s really—”

Marlin kept it just out of reach. “Oh, it’s the real thing, all right.”

The frame panned outward. Below the Roman clustered a throng of people, their hands in the air, ground hidden by their multitudes. “Bar-abbâ,” they chanted. Barabbas, as Delgado knew the name. Did that mean—was this really the scene from the Gospel? “It has to be a fake,” said Delgado. “No company could have records from two thousand years ago.”

Your company has records from two thousand years ago,” said Marlin, as he turned off the screen. “I believe they call them the Gospels. The Consortium just had a head start in recording technology.”

Later, Delgado wandered to the back rooms of the gallery. He walked past glass-covered manuscripts illuminated by monks of prior ages, to where Bernini’s angel awaited its final installation.

It was already gone. Vanished like the Consortium’s hires. When he went outside, Marlin’s ship was gone as well.

Delgado’s phone beeped. Marlin had texted him.

Watch the news tomorrow.

***

Coffee in hand, Delgado considered the face of Caesar. The imperator loomed on the cappuccino place’s tiny screen. His hand raised up in formal adlocutio, the gesture of a general addressing his troops. The legions of Rome gathered in their thousands. Subtitles carried the message clearly, even though Delgado was no great Latin scholar. The tribes of the Helvetii threatened to cross into Illyricum and Cisalpine Gaul, and armies would move in answer.

What impressed him most was the quality of the Consortium’s recording. Despite all the time elapsed, it had no loss, no compression artifacts, and the audio popped like never-used vinyl.

Caesar was a tall man, in robust middle age, and his eyes were intense and dark. He wore the armor of battle and wore authority like a garment.

But Delgado simply could not take him seriously. Caesar’s voice was high-pitched and nasally. His accent was strange bordering on silly. It was like a puppet tyrant, bleating command to an army that hadn’t been clued in to the joke.

Sic transit gloria mundi, Delgado reflected, in what little Latin he knew.

He remembered the chanting of the crowd: Bar-abbâ, Bar-abbâ

***

It’s really quite simple,” Marlin explained to a newscaster, having traded his black suit for an impeccable summer white. “Some time ago, a Consortium drone set up shop outside Earth orbit, and tuned in with a lot of sophisticated ears. Isn’t perfect, of course. Can’t watch everyone. But they’ve got some very delicate algorithms that you and I couldn’t really wrap our heads around. As far as important events are concerned, my associates have a fairly complete picture. They’ve been watching for a long time.”

The newscaster wondered what the purpose of that might be for a race that disavowed any interest in history.

“They’re certainly aware of our interest. It’s what you call a low-investment, high-yield strategy. You’re a red-blooded American, aren’t you?”

Jim Snow, a populist of a certain kind, had to admit he was.

“The painting’s awfully nice, but wouldn’t you love to see Washington cross the Delaware in high definition?”

***

The next day, large sections of several cities were on fire and several famous mosques had been damaged.

Marlin Kay had released a list of especially interesting records. The promotional montage showed first Sumeria, then Babylon. Next, King Henry; soon, Abraham Lincoln. Behold Stonehenge, freshly-hewn. Greece before the color faded from its statues. Tantalizing glimpses of pasts well known and also some forgotten. They spoke of truths that would upend millennial misapprehensions. Certain famous prophets might well have been captured on video.

Each recording had a price. Some of them could put a significant dent in an entire country’s domestic product.

Grand Mufti Nur al-Din, speaking from Damascus, denounced these as false images, conjurations of idolatrous minds fixated only on profit. German Chancellor Goltz likewise observed that Hollywood was not so far off from producing computer-generated imagery of similar quality. Why believe, without proof?

Thus inspired, a cooperative venture of several leading universities identified a spot in central France that corresponded strikingly to the landscape surrounding Caesar’s camp in the recording. No small amount of consequence rode on the results of their findings. For the historians, certainly there were professional considerations, but for nations founded on myths, here was a chance to prove that someone upstairs had been watching along—and that they had the facts.

After tearing up a highway and some abandoned barns, they found evidence of a semi-permanent encampment, well over two thousand years old. The clincher was the corroded remains of equipment from the Legio XII Fulminata, a legion founded by Caesar himself.

The truth of history, said a particular salesman, was now on offer.

The next day, a letter materialized in the Vatican post, addressed to the pope himself: We Have Discerned a Potential Deal.

***

“We’re not interested in buying,” said Delgado, who would normally have been nowhere near a meeting that merited the use of the Raphael rooms. But then, the synod was underway, and the Powers That Be had decided he had a useful working relationship with Marlin, and thus shouldn’t be wasted.

Fully seven different orders were represented along the length of the conference table they’d dragged into the room. Delgado wasn’t sure what they expected to gain from using the frescoed chamber. Did they think the majesty of Rome could overawe someone who’d traveled between worlds?

Marlin reached into his briefcase. “I never said anything about a sale. In fact, I brought a gift for all of you.” Marlin held a manila folder by its corner. He gripped it casually between his thumb and forefinger, and it dangled there, dangerous. “It’s a picture of an historical figure. I think you’re all going to like it.”

Delgado felt his fingers flex against the table’s varnished wood.

Brother Aloysius Nzeogwu, S.J., asked, “Who is it?”

“A beloved church father,” Marlin said, the folder still suspended. He did not need to elaborate.

With a lazy movement of his wrist, Marlin let the folder slip from his fingers. Down it fell, down to the wood of the table. It slid several inches across the glossy surface. Delgado found himself exhaling in relief when it stopped. Someone else, one of those nameless brothers, would be the one to pick it up.

Then Marlin pushed it forward, the rest of the way to Delgado’s chair. “I imagine you would have personal curiosity,” he said.

Delgado placed his hand over it. “How do we know it’s real?”

Marlin gestured at one of the frescoes on the wall, where miracles were in eternal progress. “Well, isn’t that the shoe on the other foot. I suppose you all will have to take it on faith.”

Brother Aloysius’s chair creaked noisily as he leaned in. “You have access to the Consortium’s whole archive? You’ve reviewed it, personally?”

“Don’t look so dour. Even if I don’t hold with Rome, I’m a Christian too, you know. And I can tell you that my faith has never been stronger.”

Delgado felt the bones and sinews in his fingers creaking as he opened the folder.

Inside was a series of glossy high-resolution photographs, unglamorous in their candid simplicity. They depicted a bearded and curly-haired preacher. First in the dirty places of an ancient city, then in the countryside underneath olive trees, last in the company of Romans. He spoke to crowds, a sun-browned Palestinian, his nose crooked, his stature significantly below average. Christ looked distressingly mundane. Ugly, even.

A series of discontented murmurings spread about the table as more and more of the gathered laity and religious got their chance to look.

“This is good news,” Brother Aloysius tried to reassure the room. “Consistent with what we’ve always known. How many people have tried to say Christ never lived at all? Even if he’s not inspiring to look at, it’s ultimately a vindication of the faith.”

“Now,” said Marlin. “Now, now. What my inner salesman wants to know is—are you willing to bet on that?”

No one spoke.

“I’ve given you all advance warning on this so that you can have a statement ready for when Jesus goes out to the world.”

Delgado realized he was standing. Why was he so alarmed? Christ was real. They had proof! But… “To everyone?”

“Well, yes,” said Marlin, with a smile. “Why wouldn’t I share it with everybody?”

“Kings and queens and vague talk of prophets got you riots,” he said. “Do you realize what this will do?”

Marlin steepled his fingers. “I was speaking with my superiors, and I floated a similar thought.”

“Then don’t put it out,” said Delgado, not without private reservations. “Some things should stay ambiguous.”

“In fact, they did not share my concerns. In this case I’m only the messenger. They urged me to release the full suite of recordings, including the truth of all the miracles, and the contents of all the sermons. These pictures? That’s just the preview. We have Christ’s entire ministry on record. We know which parts are true, and which parts are fables. I reckon it’ll change the way the whole world thinks about religion.”

Murmurs circulated about the room, as uneven as the tiled mosaic floor.

“But,” said Kay. “They did approve an alternative sale. If you were to purchase all those recordings in advance, then they’d be your sole property. And you know that to the Consortium, discretion is everything. We could keep things just between us.”

It took a moment for that to sink in. “You’re blackmailing us,” said Delgado.

“Now that’s awfully harsh. I prefer to think of it as an option for exclusivity.”

“Blackmailing us with something that might not even be true.”

“If I devoted my life to a religion, and I had the chance to find out proof-positive whether or not it was the real thing, I’d jump at the chance. You say we’re touting bogus product, but maybe you’re just afraid of being caught in an even longer lie.”

Delgado grit his teeth. The church, he’d told his atheist cousin once, was more than a creed. It was a living institution, a vast network of ministry and charity, a tie to bind lives and towns and nations. More than philosophy was on the line. “So what’s your price to keep the recordings under wraps?”

“The Vatican,” said Kay, smiling. “We want you to sell us the Vatican. The whole thing.”

***

“It’s called an infomatrix,” said Delgado, staring at a glowing science-fictional object that was nearly but not entirely a cube.

“I am too old for this shit,” said the pope.

“Profanity,” said Delgado.

“It’s a jubilee year,” groused Pope Innocentius XIV. “I get a plenary indulgence every time I walk through the door.”

“I’m still going to speak to your confessor,” Delgado warned him.

Pope Innocentius XIV raised his hands in a wordless gesture of surrender. Of course, Delgado knew him better as Carl Schmidt, head of the Vatican Observatory and lately the ultimate in uninspiring papal compromise candidates. They also happened to be old friends and serial text message exchangers.

With all the curtains closed, the papal office felt like a tomb. A faint layer of dust clung to the ends of the drapes. The not-quite-cube sat on a table that looked almost like a pedestal; the light emanating from its core revealed motes of the omnipresent dust as they drifted through the glow.

The pope asked, “It’s in here? Everything having to do with the early Church?”

Delgado scanned an extraordinarily long instruction manual. “I thought you were busy with the synod.”

“I was busy with the synod, but, you know, you had to go and sell that idiot the Bernini, so here we are.”

“I don’t think you can quite pin this one on my sale.”

The pope flung his hand toward the table. “Why is it a cube?”

“The unique topographical qualities of the infomatrix ensure quantum, multi-dimensional encryption, a microcosm of the Consortium’s infallible Grand Archive,” Delgado read from the manual. “Offered up-front as a good-faith gesture, whenever a client should approve the deal, it unlocks instantly.”

“But why is it a cube? What are we supposed to do with a cube? Does it have plugs? Did they forget to send us the matching USB converter?”

Delgado touched the cube. A surge of something not quite like electricity tickled his palm.

Images shimmered to life in the air, projected as if by some obscure holography.

Persons of Import series, file 9876: Yeshua Bar Yôsēp̄, Itinerant Preacher.

This special preview has been prepared to help you make your purchasing decision. Remember: Buildings can be replaced. Faith, once lost, is more difficult to restore.

Delgado eyed the floating text. “That’s subtle.”

“I will not be the pope that lost the Vatican. But I won’t be the pope that lost the Church, either.” For a moment, he looked very much like a young astronomer again, dabbing at his brow with a kerchief. “What do we do, Julio?”

Delgado stared at the cube. “Well, we both got this far on faith,” he said at last. “We have to trust that it wasn’t misplaced. Let the truth get out. Because honestly, if we were wrong, don’t you want to know?”

“I don’t,” said the pope. “I don’t know.”

“Then let’s buy it,” said a woman’s voice, from the door.

Delgado frowned. “How long have you been there?”

Violetta squeezed through the narrowest opening in a door that had never quite closed. “Look, it’s obvious. We buy it. And then we don’t watch it. What was it you said during the meeting? ‘Some things should stay ambiguous.’ Buy it and bury it.” She turned to the pope. “Not even you need to watch it.”

“You have to watch it,” said Delgado. “You more than anyone. You’re the pope, for goodness’ sake.”

“You’re right,” said the pope, looking at the letters hanging in the air. “I have to watch it.”

Delgado exhaled, and glanced at the manual. “Then touch it again. And it’ll play.”

I have to watch it,” said the pope. “You two get out.”

Delgado paused. “Excuse me?”

“Get. Out.

The pope could be very loud when he wanted to. And Violetta wasn’t the only one lurking near the door.

Escorted by dour Swiss guards, Delgado’s last sight upon exiting the room was the pope alone, hand poised below a field of shifting lights.

***

Everyone that had met with Marlin Kay lingered outside the papal office. None of them had been allowed to leave. The Guard saw to that. So there they stood and there they sat, in a long hall of cold marble.

Aloysius scowled at his watch. “How long’s he been in there?”

“Five hours, so far,” said Delgado.

It was six before the door opened.

The pope came out, tired and small. His vestments hung heavy on him, like they were cut for an even fatter man. “I finished watching,” he said.

When no one else spoke, Delgado felt obliged. “And? What’s on it?”

“Preparations to leave the Vatican will begin tomorrow.”

Voices erupted as a storm. The pope ignored them, tottering along down the hallway to the papal apartments somewhere out beyond. The Guard strained to stay a swarm of priests and brothers and lay ministers from trampling him with their questions. It wouldn’t be long before the entirety of the Curia knew something had happened.

It was even less time before Delgado realized he was alone at the doors to the office.

This presented a dilemma.

Surely, he reasoned, surely he couldn’t be blamed for having a look. Just a brief glance. A cursory examination. Not even God could hold that against him.

He kept on telling himself that right up to the very moment he wormed his way back into the papal office, slinking to where the cube had gone forgotten in the furor surrounding the pope himself.

Above the device, a group of dirty fishermen clung to a storm-wracked sailing ship, shouting at someone out of frame. Was this really that story?

Fingers shaking, Delgado placed his hand to the cube. He had to see. If Christ was Lord—and surely, surely He was—then He would walk on those very waters.

At the touch, the image roared to life. Delgado could practically smell the salt, feel the spray. The frame stayed steady even as the boat shook violently, thrashed by wave and water. The apostles within howled their dismay. One among them, back to Delgado, pointed through mist and fog to a distant and ephemeral shape.

But the next voice he heard came from behind him. “What the hell are you doing?”

Oh, dear. He’d left the door open.

At the far end of the hall, Violetta, flanked by pike-wielding guardsmen, flung an accusatory finger. “Get him away from that thing!”

Delgado had exactly enough time to do exactly one thing. He decided to close and lock the door. In later recollection, he reflected that this may have been rash.

The pounding started almost immediately. Those were thick doors. There was no way they—

Wham. The frame splintered from the force of a booted foot. Not enough to break. But it would, if that kept up.

“I have to know,” Delgado shouted as he stumbled backwards. “I have to know the truth!”

He couldn’t hear Violetta’s answer. It came from beyond the door, muffled, strident.

The door shook again. It sagged in the frame.

“Damn it,” Delgado muttered. He picked up the cube and dashed for the far side of the chamber. He flung open the opposite door and stumbled out, momentarily blind.

The lone guardsman at the hall’s distant end gaped at the spectacle of wind and rain and boat, refracting wildly against the ceiling as Delgado fumbled and nearly dropped the cube.

The door in the office behind him broke apart. Wood clattered against marble tile. “Grab him,” someone shouted, and the guard ahead sprang at once to action.

Looked like he wasn’t going that way, either. Delgado whirled to the nearest junction. Just beyond waited a beckoning flight of stairs.

Stairs! Why did it have to be stairs?

He took them with a speed he thought long ago lost to youth. He didn’t even use the rail. Adrenaline thudded through him, electric; with both hands he held the cube, staring at the slow progress of the apostles on their rickety craft. “Come on,” he yelled at them. “Show me a miracle!”

He burst out onto an exterior balcony. An alarm was ringing inside the building. Oblivious heads on the grounds below gawked and turned.

The boat dimmed in daylight. But it was still there. The apostles were still there. And out by the opposite coast, emerging from the night-time dark, came a man’s silhouette. The savior’s silhouette. He reached the water’s edge. And as he took a step—

This concludes the preview selection of our presentation. To unlock the full truth of Christ’s miracles, please contact your local Consortium representative.

“Rewind!” Delgado hammered his palm against the cube. There were six hours of content on that thing! Something had to tell the truth. “Rewind, damn you!”

Steps pounded on the stairs behind him. Delgado shouldered through the next door over. That would bruise later, he knew. But he didn’t care. He had to know!

He looked up from the cube to plot his next move.

And found himself staring down the barrel of the gun.

A young blond Swiss fellow—dressed in a no-nonsense suit—stood on the other end of a very impressive Heckler & Koch.

It was the ones hiding behind the curtains with machine guns that you had to worry about.

***

At the climax of the Church’s jubilee year celebrations, Pope Innocentius XIV proudly declared the beginning of a new era of ministry: Sentient aliens, by God’s grace, most assuredly had souls. With the aid of Consortium technology, an entirely new Vatican would soon be constructed, one that would last the test of eternal time. Novel building technologies would ensure a truly everlasting seat for the chair of Saint Peter, in a striking new style that even Michelangelo would envy.

Alas, Christ didn’t seem like he was going to be very important, back when they were making their recordings, so no, sadly, the Consortium didn’t have his ministry on video. But the Church’s interstellar benefactors would assist with the removal of the old, decaying buildings of the Vatican.

That the original Vatican would be reassembled for extraterrestrial viewing beneath the perpetual sunset of Gliese 581-G was left out of the public reports.

***

Some few days later, still under the cloud of papal disapproval, Father Julio Delgado checked his mail. One envelope lay inside the mailbox, and atop it lay an oddly handsome pen. He glanced up, momentarily, to where the Consortium’s ark loomed over metropolitan Rome. He used his fifth finger to shred open the seal.

We Are Opening a Museum, said the letter inside. And also: You Have Been Selected.

A man so committed to the truth, it suggested, would make an excellent docent. Perhaps he might even find opportunity to proselytize.

As it turned out, though their appetite for religion varied, even aliens could appreciate the Renaissance masters.



J.P. Sullivan is a former Hollywood gofer and current editor for manga publisher Seven Seas Entertainment, pursuing a master's degree by night. Grand Prize Winner of the 2017 Baen Fantasy Adventure Award and a graduate of the 2016 Clarion Writers' Workshop, J.P.'s work has appeared in such magazines as Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show and Galaxy's Edge. Feel free to drop a line on social media via @JP_Sullivan, or visit jp-sullivan.com.

"We Have Discerned a Potential Deal" was originally written at the Clarion Writers' Workshop, responding to a double challenge from World Fantasy Award-winning author Andy Duncan: tell a story from an atypical perspective, and (for the love of God) put a spaceship in it!

Copyright © 2018 by J.P. Sullivan.



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