UT: REFUGEE CRISIS/ DARK TERRITORY
As The Gift of Fire burst free from the subspace tunnel, its steersmen felt a pang of regret. The exodus from their home planet had been nearly catastrophic. The priests, the Fire Bearers, had saved the Sacred Fire, but at the cost of leaving the other strata to fend for themselves against the Cold Ones, without the warmth of the Sacred Fire to guide them.
The steersman’s betrothed had been among those, hopefully, that escaped on The Pillar of Fire, the ship bearing the artisan and worker strata. She had been so proud of him when he had been accepted, an elevation from his station, as a pilot for the religious strata, the rulers of their world.
Neither one of them could’ve fathomed that his skills would be required one day to help the Fire Bearers vacate their world, or that he would be separated from his intended.
He tried not to think about her, he tried to focus on the task at hand. And there was much to focus on. The ship had taken a pounding, first from the cube, and then from the rough journey through the void, and not all of the obstacles had been naturally occurring. They had had to fight off marauders and other brutes, but they had also made some allies along the way, and it was one of those meetings that provided a route to this patch of space, far away from the Cold Ones.
One of the newfound allies, of a species once enthralled to the Cold Ones, had recognized their sculptures and artwork idolizing the Fire Beings that had visited their backwater world millennia ago and left behind a spacefaring civilization. The Fire Beings had changed everything, and the Aodh owned so much to them. When he had overheard the monks excitedly discussing their discovery that they might have found the home of the Fire Beings, the steersman knew that he would where that the ship’s course had been set.
It was a cold comfort, but the steersman had been heartened that the priests had left information with whatever newly made friends along the way as to their intentions. He could only pray to the Fire Beings that The Pillar of Fire, The Ring of Fire, carrying the laborers, and The Rain of Fire, bearing the military strata, also found their way to them. The steersman had left as many beacons behind as the priests would permit.
“How distressing is our situation?” A sonorous voice eased into his thoughts, dispelling them. He knew the voice immediately. He quickly placed the ship on autopilot, turned and kneeled, hands planted and his eyes staring at the ground.
“Rise Steersman,” the Prelate implored, blessing him with a touch on the shoulder. The pilot rose slowly, overwhelmed that the high priest would speak to him, much less touch him. The smaller, wizened man favored him with the gentlest smile. “Return to your duties, I will try not to disturb you.”
“You-you could never do such a thing,” he stammered. The Prelate chuckled, his purple eyes twinkling. He was dressed in orange and violet raiment befitting his station, though lacking his plumed miter. The crown of his hatless head was burnt orange, hairless, and smooth, unlike his face, which bore the violet sun carving that formed a circle from just below his lips to his forehead.
“That is very kind of you to say, but you know how our order frowns upon falsehood.”
“I was not bearing falsity!” He declared, wincing at the sharp tone of his voice. “My apologies,” he said quickly. He knew it was folly to even speak untruths around any of the religious strata, especially the Prelate. All of them were mind sharers. And all of his deepest thoughts could be laid bare at the Prelate’s whim.
The Prelate waved a hand. “None was taken. May I take up position beside you?”
“Of course, of course,” the steersman moved out of the way, and the head priest, the leader of their civilization, stood beside him. His hearts welled with pride as he gazed out at the stars, with the Prelate at his side. The high priest was clearly awed in a way that surprised an old space hand like the steersman. He seemed nearly as overwhelmed as the pilot had just been seconds earlier.
“Truly the Universal Hearth is a wondrous foundry,” the high priest remarked. The steersman couldn’t disagree. “And it is a good omen that we went through the fire to arrive at this place, our new home. It was like a rebirth.” Behind them the slender corridor breathed plasma fire, like some legendary beast.
The steersman nodded in agreement, though he couldn’t quite agree. Journeying through the spatial flexure had wreaked havoc on the ship’s shields and structural integrity system, but nearly obliterated main propulsion. The ship’s power grid was overtaxed keeping the vacuum from invading through all of the breaches and fractures crisscrossing the ship. Soon the grid would short out, leaving them without propulsion or life support, not to mention unguarded from the radiation and the other vagaries of space.
The steersman had long since jettisoned all of the escape pods, in a canny attempt to deceive a relentless hunting party. At the time the priests had backed his suggestion, even over the objections of some of the other pilots. They had trusted his judgment, and it had saved them only to perhaps doom them later, because now there was no escape, even for the Prelate, if the ship encountered more trouble. And what scans still worked told him that The Gift of Fire was far from safety. A minefield of plasma storms and gravitational anomalies remained in front of them. The flexure had helped them avoid the intense tetryon fields suffusing the space around them, but only leave them victim to a very dangerous region of space.
The spouts of plasma spraying before them, some licking the benighted ship, and rocking it back and forth stressing the shields further, would have been beautiful if he was not caught in the middle of them. It was a riot of color, flames more magnificent than any he had witnessed during the fire ceremonies back home. It was as if they were within the engine room of the Universal Hearth, witnessing the combustion that kept the cosmos functioning.
“So, I ask again, how distressing is our situation Steersman?” The Prelate asked again. The pilot paused, not able to formulate the words. “I see,” the priest said, understanding.
“I am confident that I can get us through this maelstrom, but the continued pounding the ship will take as a result will drain our remaining power reserves. If we are fortunate,” he began.
“And we will be,” the Prelate interrupted, his purple eyes shining with an unshakable faith.
The steersman gave his leader a few moments of respectful silence, before he continued. “After we exit this expanse, I don’t know how much longer the ship can hold up.”
The Prelate tapped his wrinkled, hairless chin, as the steersman’s diagnosis sank in. “We might be the only survivors left of our kind,” he intoned solemnly, “So we must do all that we can to make sure that the Sacred Fire never goes out.” He looked at the steersmen squarely, “Do all you can to get us past this chaotic space, and then send a call for distress.”
“Are you certain?” The steersman couldn’t help but ask, for once forgetting his place. “But this sector of space is unknown to us, what if a hostile force intercepts our message?”
“We have made enemies along the way,” the high priest nodded sagely, “but also friends. It is the will of the Universal Hearth to determine which we will find here. For all we know the Fire Beings are just waiting on the other side of this hell for us, ready to collect their children.”
“I understand,” the Steersman replied, vowing to bury his doubts behind a determined mien. He wasn’t as trusting as the priests or monks, but then again, he didn’t possess their knowledge of the universe. It was above his station. And now that the high priest had made his wishes known, the steersman would do all within his powers to see them realized. He quickly turned to his task, setting up an automatic call for help in all known languages that would start transmitting as soon as they had vacated the expanse.
“Now all we can do is wait,” the pilot remarked, unable to remove the grim expression from his face.
“And pray,” the Prelate added, with a far more cheerful tone, but no less wary countenance.