"I oughtta kick your butt," said the figure at the end of the bar.
"No doubt you could do that, my friend," said the figure near the center of the bar.
"I just said I oughtta kick your butt." There was a bit more aggression in the voice.
"I'm not looking for trouble."
"Then wha'd you come in here for?"
"A glass of wine."
The planet known officially as Billabong Resources Mine 64 (and unofficially as Balls and Bung 64 or Billy's B&B) was wholly owned by the Billabong Resources Consortium. It was the only privately owned planet in the universe. In a billion or two years, it might amount to something, but at present, it was a world that consisted of dry, cratered land masses and nearly sterile shallow seas which contained enough oxygen producing algae to provide a thin atmosphere that would permit a human to survive without an external oxygen supply, assuming that the human would be content to remain flat on his back gasping for air.
"Wine?" There was less aggression in the voice this time. It had been replaced by a definite tinge of incredulity.
"Wine. Fruit of the vine; the work of human hands." The man at the center of the bar turned and addressed the bartender. "A California Cabernet, if you would. And ten minutes of oxygen, neat and no aromatics."
The quintessential company town, everything on the planet was controlled by the Consortium. There was of course the gold. The planet's reserves nearly doubled the supply of gold in the galaxy, and the presence of that much gold could have ripped the bottom out of the gold market, but since the cost of mining, refining and transporting bullion on a distant planet was enormous, gold remained prohibitively expensive for most uses except that for which it always excelled -- a store of value. And the Consortium masterfully managed its commodity. On Billabong Resources Mine 64, the gold was mined, refined into bullion, and then securely stored. Gold certificates were bought and sold on worlds around the galaxy at a price that was carefully controlled by the Consortium, and the investors paid the Consortium to keep it safe. That meant that of the eleven hundred and twenty-one people usually on the planet, one hundred maintained the highly automated mining and refining operations, one hundred and twenty worked in food service, housekeeping and healthcare, and eight hundred served in the small but well-equipped army that kept the planet locked down and off limits. One person was a company-provided chaplain. The assignment was rotated between denominations which volunteered a person for a six month tour. The current volunteer was Fr. Bruce Lordelo, a Catholic priest.
"Sorry, Reverend. You know that I got two casks of wine back in back. One says red, one says white. Don't know nothing about cabarets."
"I keep hoping your cellars would have expanded to include some nice varietals."
"Nope," the bartender said. "Same two barrels."
"Red will have to do."
The Consortium housed its employees in rather shoddy barracks out behind the equipment maintenance sheds. The complex included a shoddy cafeteria, a whorehouse and a bar. The cafeteria served reasonably good meals and charged the employees an unreasonably large sum for board. The whorehouse was usually empty because the men and women who worked there were required to have squeaky clean medical and background checks. Given the nature of the profession, that was a bit daunting, and as the Consortium charged for the examinations and the investigations, prohibitively expensive. The bar on the other hand, was always well stocked with plenty of beer, liquor and oxygen. The beers and liquors were all synthetic of course, flavored concentrates mixed with water and spiked with alcohol to taste, but the oxygen was the real thing, the result of the electrolysis of water, which there was plenty of on Billy's B&B, so it hadn't sat around in canisters anywhere, or been contaminated with any undesirable odors along the way to the nose. It could be ordered scented (with the aroma of oranges perhaps, or the smell of fresh mown grass), and it could be augmented with a mild hallucinogen. The customers in the swank big city bars on Earth favored the aromatics and the distraction of additives, but at the Billabong's mining operation, mostly people wanted to mollify the ubiquitous thin air headache with just plain oxygen.
"Reverend?" asked the contentious man.
"This here's the preacher your employer thoughtfully provides for the care of your non-drunk soul," said the bartender with a wry grin. "That's why you ain't met him yet."
"What the hell you doing here, preacher man?"
"Exactly," said Fr. Lordelo.
"Why are we here? One of the fundamental philosophical and theological questions. Good starting point." Fr. Lordelo slipped the tubing of the cannula around his ears and fit the nasal prongs in his nose. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The figure at the other end of the bar was quiet, his brow furrowed in thought, a process that may have been hampered by the considerable amount of alcohol in his blood.
"No," he said at last. "I mean what the hell are you doing here in a bar?"
"Penance," Fr. Lordelo said. When there appeared to be no recognition of the term from the figure at the end of the bar, he continued. "Atoning for my sins?" The man continued to stare blankly. "Paying for my indiscretions?"
"Why don't you just say what you mean," said the man. "Or do I have to come over there and kick your butt?"
"My bishop assigned me here."
"To this bar?"
"Of course not to this bar," said Fr. Lordelo with a tinge of impatience in his voice. "He exiled me here to this God-forsaken hole of a planet on which the only fragile umbilical to civilization is the tub of red wine in the backroom of this establishment."
"You tick him off, or what?"
"You might say that."
"So wha'd you do?"
"I slept with his kid sister who, in my defense, is ten years older than I am and suggested, indeed insisted upon, the whole affair."
A hearty, long laugh burst out of the figure at the end of the bar. Still laughing, he picked up his drink and moved around to the seat next to Fr. Lordelo. "I like you," slapping the priest on the back and taking a seat next to him. "Honest and stupid. The man fits right in, don't he, Al?" The question was addressed to the bartender.
"R'yan here thinks he knows a thing or two about women," the bartender said to the priest.
"I married six of them, and I've slept with a dozen or so more," R'yan said. "Every one of them a mistake. The name's R'yan B'ritn'rmal," he said holding his hand out to the Fr. Lordelo.
"That's spelled with three apostrophes -- which, I might add, he puts in different places every time he signs his name," said the bartender.
"Fr. Bruce Lordelo," the priest said taking the proffered hand.
The colonization of the galaxy had differed from previous migrations of mankind, in that religion had played little or no role. When, as an example, the Americas were being peopled by the European nation states, there was a strong undertow of religion. Many of the explorers and settlers were motivated by religious idealism, and the various Christian churches were highly involved in the politics of the governments that sponsored the explorations. From Cardinal Richelieu's championing a Catholic French presence to challenge the English colonies, to the Puritan movement whose values of hard work and distaste for religious autocracy primed the American Revolution, to the evangelical zeal that the Jesuits infused into the Spanish presence, religion fomented the European expansion into the New World.
The world was a far different place when the time came for mankind to move once again. Religion had lost its place in the governments of the globe. In the secularized world, where answers to increasingly complex problems were seen as needing to come from the tangible, pragmatic values of science and technology, religion was increasingly seen as disruptive and divisive, the stuff of superstition and fiction. While no one sought to cloak their ventures in religion in order to gain blessings (or funding), religion remained a vestigial element of the exploration of the galaxy. No longer a full partner in the expeditions, religion none-the-less stowed away in the crew quarters and in the hold. It made itself useful when it could. The Consortium, for example, found that the presence of a holy man of some sort provided an inexpensive way to staff the government mandated Employee Assistance Program at its remote installations.
"Bruce, I've got good news for you, and bad news," R'yan began. "The bad news is that despite what you think, your woman is not the cause of your problems. You are."
"She's not 'my woman,'" protested Fr. Lordelo.
"Well, now, see? You're already half way there. She is not now, nor has she ever been your woman. Nor is she to blame for you getting yourself shipped out here to the arse end of the galaxy. See what I'm saying? It's your own fault."
"She came on to me ..."
"Held a gun to your head, did she?"
"Threatened your mother with grievous bodily harm?"
"Fed your dog poison and withheld the antidote?"
"What's the good news?"
"The good news my friend, is that you're in the perfect place to come to grips with your problem."
"Yeah, I know," said Fr. Lordelo rolling his eyes. "The stark beauty of the edge of civilization, staring into the eyes of the universe, mano a mano with nature."
"No, not really. It's true that you ought to spend at least one night out on one of the beaches here. If you can drag enough oxygen canisters with you and have some good thermal underwear, you can get one hell of a view of the stars, and there are no bugs. But, what I was referring to was the real power in the universe."
"What about the gold?"
"You're about to tell me that the gold could buy me happiness."
"A common misperception. Consider for just a moment what we do here."
"You mine gold."
"Now see, there's where you're wrong," said R'yan. "We change matter into energy."
There are not many rules to govern conversations in bars. In fact, there really are only two. The first is that anyone can say anything they want. The second is that nobody has to believe anything they hear. Most patrons understand these rules, and therefore are uninhibited with what they say and take no offense at being held in contempt. A corollary result of this arrangement is that credentials mean nothing in a bar, so that the medical opinion of the janitor carries equal weight of that of the physician. The holy man assigned to Billy's B&B, be that priest, imam, sadhu or monk sooner or later discovered the bar and learned the rules.
"Is that so?"
"Consider," R'yan said leaning closer to the priest and speaking authoritatively. "My job could be described as digging holes in the ground for the purpose of obtaining lumps of metal, and for most people in the galaxy, that's all the reality there is to my job. The average school girl in Toledo, Ohio or the grocery clerk on the Orion Colony will probably never have reason to know who I am or what I do, but they may well have reason to know that what I do gets done, because in the time before human memory began, it was decided that the metal I would find could be endowed with incredible power."
The priest stared at R'yan. "Is this a joke?"
"Are going to sell me a nose ring that will lower my cholesterol and improve my regularity?"
"Absolutely not. What I tell you is the truth."
The priest said to him, "The truth, eh?"
"It was decided," R'yan continued, "that this particular metal would control the actions of man. It has so much power that we construct temples to keep it in, and surround the temple with men who we say must die before they allow anyone to enter into its presence. In every city throughout the galaxy, men talk of it, men barter for it, and men covet it. With it, men obtain the apartment building in Toledo where the school girl lives, or buy the inventory the Orion clerk stocks on his shelves. By an act of human will, the metal I mine has such energy that if I were to stop doing my job, shock waves would begin to ripple out from here to every corner of the galaxy."
"I'm guessing," Fr. Lordelo said "that with two more drinks, the very fabric of the universe will be rent asunder."
"No, no, no. With gold, I can rattle windows, shake the dust off the rafters and get everyone's attention, but ..." R'yan paused dramatically. He leaned in close to the priest and continued in a hushed tone. "But to really make a difference, to tap in to the ultimate power in the universe, I need a woman."
"I'm sorry. I don't think I can help you there."
"Don't need any help, preacher man. They're everywhere in the galaxy. When I want one, I'll know where to find one. But what I was referring to was that with a woman, I could do more than rattle the windows and loosen the bricks of the corner offices in the financial district. I could alter the course of the universe," the miner said. "I could create life! And that's what you've got to do. I know you been knocked off your horse, but you gotta get right back in the saddle, you know what I mean?"
"R'yan here thinks he knows a thing or two about reproduction," the bartender said to the priest.
"R'yan, look, I ..." Fr. Lordelo began.
"Now, Bruce, I know what you're thinking," R'yan said cutting off the priest. "You're thinking that a man with my life experience must have known what he was doing, but the truth of the matter is I was as stupid as you are."
Fr. Lordelo arched an eyebrow.
"I'm not judging you for jumping in the sack with the boss's daughter. Hell, I probably would have done it myself if I had been in your shoes, assuming you had shoes on to begin with. But you have to admit that when you got all snuggly with this woman of yours, you weren't thinking of anything but yourself, were you?"
"You might not have even been thinking at all. You were just kind of chicken hypnotized. She just ran her finger down your beak, and you couldn't move, could you?"
"R'yan here thinks he knows a thing or two about chickens," the bartender said to the priest.
"Look, R'yan ..." Fr. Lordelo began to look irritated.
"I understand, Bruce," R'yan said again cutting him off. "Been there a time or two myself. But now I know better. Next time I'm with a woman, it's going to be because she and I want to change the shape of the universe."
"Not to put too fine a point on it, but you and she will not be the authors of life."
"Will be if she's not taking the pills."
"No, I mean that you will not create life. Neither you nor she is capable of generating life by any other method than one that has been given to you, and of the one that's been given to you, true authorship lies elsewhere. You control none of the elements except the decision to participate in the process."
"Next time you're with a woman, ask her who's in control," R'yan said and nudged the priest in the ribs.
"There won't be a next time for me," said Fr. Lordelo. "I have recommitted myself to my vow of celibacy."
"Then you need to find yourself a job where you can tap into some power."
"I have such a job."
"What," R'yan said. "Company shrink?"
In the macroscopic world prior to the 20th Century, religion provided an explanation of the invisible. It provided a reason for the cycle of life and death, and since life, death and the unseen were universally present in human existence, religion was a universal experience. The revolutionary advances in mankind's knowledge over the next two centuries stripped away much of the mystery of life. Man's vision was now microscopic and advancing continually in magnification and resolution. Religion had less and less relevance in the discussion of life and death, and the stories of the unseen were seen by the increasingly sophisticated human mind as little more than childish fiction.
Yet the corporate mind with its vast knowledge of the way things are did not always allay the angst that seeped into the individual adrift in space or aground in a hostile environment. The new man on Billy's B&B, with his head pounding, struggling to suck enough oxygen from the thin atmosphere, sought out a place that understood that he needed, at a very visceral level, assurances that he would not die. He did not need an explanation, he needed a drink. It was precisely for this reason that the bar was the most successful and ubiquitous human institution in the galaxy. Drinking is elemental to life. The offering of a drink is elemental to human life. Providing a drink honors the life found in the other, and providing a place to drink invites that life to abide, at least for a time, in peace -- the needs of the body and the needs of the soul addressed at once.
"Priest? What an effete occupation," R'yan said.
Fr. Lordelo, brow furrowed, looked sideways at the miner.
"What?" asked R'yan, feigning concern. "Was it something I said?"
"Just wondering if you know the meaning of the word effete, other than knowing it as the plural form of ef-foot?"
"Look," R'yan said in accordance with the rules of the bar. "All I'm saying is that religion is something that means nothing."
"Ever been to church?"
"No, of course not."
"Ever studied any theology?"
"Ever even watched a show about religion on the History Channel?"
R'yan shook his head.
"Then how do you know that what I do is useless?"
"My paternal, multiply-great grandfather's whole family was wiped out in the Inquisition. That tells me all I need to know."
"The whole family? Including all the kids?"
"The whole lot of 'em."
"Sorry for your loss."
"Yeah, well I guess we all have something to be sorry for, eh?"
"Ah," said the priest. "At last we have a point of agreement."
"We all have something we're sorry for. Indeed, my mole-like friend, that idea is my stock in trade. Consider your own condition: you regret that you are not in control of your universe, you regret that you do not have the things you want, and so you burrow into commerce and sensuality in a vain attempt to order the world to your liking. You pour yourself into digging and fornicating with the misguided belief that these things will fill the void in your soul."
"The reverend here thinks he knows a thing or two about your soul," the bartender said to R'yan.
"Assuming I have a soul, which I doubt, I'm pretty sure it's not been voided."
"And so this place is what you were meant for? This environment provided for you by the Billabong Resources Consortium here on this oasis in the stars provides for all of needs? Your have a profound sense of intimacy and belonging? You are awash in self-confidence, independence and freedom?"
"All that stuff don't matter," R'yan said waving a dismissive hand. "I got a plan, and I'm working the plan."
"Make me some money, find me a woman, have me a kid -- change the world."
"And you assume you have enough time to do that?"
"And you believe you'll be alive tomorrow?"
"Of course I do."
"Because I've been here every tomorrow my entire life. At worst, I got a fifty-fifty chance of being alive tomorrow, and those odds are better than you can get in any casino in the universe."
A corollary to the two rules of bar conversation is that conversations need not make any sense. Indeed, bar conversations are very much like a good break in billiards where the racked object balls are sent careening every which way, and the conversation may follow whatever subject is pocketed.
"Not actually," said Fr. Lordelo.
"Not actually what?"
"That you remember always being alive is no indicator that tomorrow you will be. And in fact the odds are not fifty-fifty. Every day you survive diminishes your chances. At sixteen, for instance, it is really highly unlikely that you or any of your friends will die. But by the time you're in your seventies, half of everybody your age will already be dead and the rest will be dropping like flies."
"Well, I'm not gonna worry about who's dead and who's not."
"Exactly, and that is precisely my point. You believe that you will be alive tomorrow, and for that matter, for quite sometime to come. It is that belief that informs your decisions about what you are going to do next. If in fact you believed that you would die tonight, your decision making may be entirely different."
"And yet," Fr. Lordelo continued. "And yet, your belief about whether or not you will be alive tomorrow has absolutely no effect on whether you will or will not survive the night. Your continued existence is independent of your belief, but, whether or not you are going to be alive tomorrow could seriously impact your belief and consequently the decisions you make."
There may be only two rules to a bar conversation, but there are myriad ways to measure it -- volume, for example, especially in a crowded bar. Raucous shouting and laughing is almost always the sign of good times. Choice of topic can be telling -- the weather is always a safe topic, something that passes time without the need for exposure or commitment. How long one holds the floor is a measure of who is in control of the conversation. This "time of possession" tactic can ensure that the spin of the conversation goes in the direction that the speaker wants.
"So in your case," Fr. Lordelo continued. "You may be right, you may have a long life ahead of you, and your decision-making is sound. Then again, you might be wrong, you may be dead tomorrow, and all of your scheming will be for naught."
"Right," said R'yan. "Fifty fifty."
"Although it may be that you have a long life ahead, you could decide to live as if you didn't, a typical Type I error. Or indeed, you may be slated for expiration in the morning, and you simply refuse to accept the possibility, a classic Type II error."
"Then again, you may decide that you won't die tomorrow because you have too much to do, thereby coming to the right conclusion but for absolutely the wrong reason."
"Type III error?"
Fr. Lordelo nodded. "Or you could just decide to go fishing this weekend and assume that since you have plans, the issue of your longevity has been cleared up, which obviously it hasn't."
"What the hell you talking about, Bruce?"
"There's a lot of ways to be wrong."
"The reverend here thinks he knows a thing or two about being wrong," the bartender said to R'yan.
"Knowing when you're wrong is the first step to getting it right." said Fr. Lordelo, sipped his wine, and drew a long, deep breath of oxygen.
"And you think you know what's right, do ya?"
The priest gave a little noncommittal shrug.
"What? You don't know what's right, or you don't know if you know what's right?"
"Knowing what's right is a tricky business; lots of variables to consider, and most of those are unknowable."
"No offense, Bruce, but you don't sound like much of a priest."
"Depends on what you think a priest is."
"Don't matter much to me. I mean, you guys are like tits on a fish as far as I'm concerned, but I would have assumed that you would have a pretty good idea of what a priest is."
"R'yan has a point there, Father," said the bartender. "Would have thought you'd know a thing or two about the preaching business."
"I admit, I have had some time recently to think about that," Fr. Lordelo said. He picked up his wine, leisurely swirled it around the glass, held it to his nose and inhaled. He grimaced. He swirled the wine once more than held the glass up at eye level. "Do you see that?" Both R'yan and the bartender squinted at the glass.
"See what?" R'yan asked still squinting.
"Look at the sides of the glass, just above the level of the wine. What do you see?"
"Huh," said R'yan. "Looks like drops forming, and they're running down the sides of the glass."
"Do you know what they're called?"
R'yan shook his head. The bartender shrugged.
"Wine legs. They're called wine legs, and some people would tell you that you can tell the quality of the wine by observing these legs. They have been seen as a measure of the quality, sweetness or viscosity of the wine, even a tell-tale sign of when the grape was harvested, but the truth of the matter is that no matter what someone may attribute to them, they are nothing more than a sign that the drink contains alcohol."
"Now I know a thing or two about wines," said the bartender.
"But what's that got to do with being a priest?" R'yan asked.
"When people see a priest, they see a lot of things, mostly based on what they've been told. Maybe they think a priest is some kind of holy man, held to and living a life morally superior to others. Obviously, I can personally attest that's not the case. Sometimes they think a priest is some kind of magician, able to pull divine favors like rabbits out a hat, but I assure you that none of the hats I own is a warren of good fortunes. Or perhaps they see him as simply the proprietor of the religion store, hawking his services like a lawyer or an apothecary.
"But like the wine legs, the reason for our existence as priests is really much simpler -- we are merely signposts along the Way, pointing in the direction of the Truth."
"That it?" asked R'yan. "That's how you spend your life?"
"Indeed, I do. And ..." Fr. Loredo paused while he swirled his wine and watched for a moment as the wine legs announced the presence of the alcohol. "And, it is a an honorable and satisfying occupation when the Way is busy with the commerce of life, with a steady stream of people moving about looking for meaning in their lives.
"However, my friends, I have to admit, that at present, I feel as if God has seen fit to post me, perhaps quite justifiably, somewhere in the Ninth Circle of Dante's Hell."
"The place of Betrayers? Bah." R'yan waved his hand to dismiss the thought.
"What do you mean, 'bah?" The priest was obviously taken aback.
"You'd never get as far as the Ninth Circle. You're not bright enough, Bruce."
"He's probably right, Reverend," said the bartender. "I know a thing or two about the Inferno, and I doubt seriously that you'd make it past the Eighth Circle, although perhaps the Eighth Pouch of the Eighth Circle, the place of false counselors, or the Ninth Pouch with the Sowers of Scandal and Schism."
"Naw, naw, naw," said R'yan. "Old Bruce here succumbed to the charms of a woman. He didn't scandalize nothin'."
"The Sixth Circle then," said the barkeep. "He might fit in with the Heretics."
"Heretics? Does he look like a heretic? Naw. If you ask me, he'd never made it past the Second Circle."
"Ah," said the bartender with a slow nod of assent. "Sins of the flesh. Would be most appropriate, given of course the Reverend's lusty past."
"I don't have a 'lusty past.' It was a single indiscretion." Fr. Loredo said. "Which, incidentally, I confessed with sincere contrition, and for which I am offering appropriate penance."
"The preacher's lusty past is not the issue," R'yan continued ignoring Fr. Loredo's protestation. "It's his lusty present that wouldn't get him past all the women in the Second Circle. I mean there's Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and countless others just blowing around the Circle. I mean you look at the women you know are going to hell, and they're all pretty hot. Old Bruce here wouldn't be able to keep his eyes off them."
"I would too. I have given my word," Fr. Loredo said, and then in response to the incredulous stares he was given, added, "again."
The bartender and the miner looked at each other and burst into laughter. R'yan slapped a hand on the priest's back. "You're all right, Bruce."
"This one's on the house, Reverend," the barkeep said as he refilled Fr. Loredo's wine glass.
"And I won't be kicking your butt," said R'yan. "Leastways not today."
"How very kind," said Fr. Loredo with as much sincerity as he could muster.
"I got to get to work, Bruce," R'yan said and downed the last of his drink. "The guy I'm relieving is probably cursing me now for being late. Perhaps hell will freeze over and I'll see you on Sunday."
Fr. Loredo raised his glass in a parting gesture as R'yan left the bar.
"If I know anything about R'yan," said the barkeeper, "it'll be a month of Sundays before you see him at one of your services."
"The seeds have been sown," said the priest.
"So you said, Reverend."
"Well, no, I mean ... that's not what I meant."
There are not many rules to govern conversations in bars, even after all the years and all of mankind's wandering in the stars. Indeed, there really are only two. The first is that anyone can say anything they want. The second is that nobody has to believe anything they hear. Things, however, are said, and things inevitably are heard, and along with the ubiquitous drinks, the needs of the body and the needs of the soul are addressed, even, and perhaps most especially, in the most removed of places.