Fire

Phoenix Subsiding (2005)

I remember very little of this story. It’s science fiction, obviously, since everything I wrote at the time was SF. Beyond that… something about religion? Me nerding out over interplanetary colonisation? Something along those lines.

 

Phoenix Subsiding

In the eyes of the young man, the griffin spread its wings, silhouetted divinely against the golden circlet of the Sun. The image vanished as the man blinked and brought his hand up to his throat. He traced the delicate silver neck-chain down to the crucifix that hung from it, his finger and thumb squeezing the emblem of the star that cored it. His robes rustled at the small movements, and the sound and feeling of the cloth touching his skin brought him from his reverie. The smells of the room filled his nostrils; plastics, sterile metal, and the smell of humanity that drives out emptiness.

He turned away from the window that looked out into deep space, turning his back on the light of the Sun. His eyes had been protected by the mirrored and tinted reactive plastics that offered a portal out into space, but regardless, gazing for too long at the system’s source of light and heat could leave a man dizzy. Instead he let his eyes rove across the few other people in the habitat’s observation room. Most of those here were eating, or reading, or engaging in other recreational activities. One middle-aged woman was looking right at him, but as his gaze met hers she dropped her eyes to the tablet that lay in her lap.

The young priest, decked in the robes of the Solite Christians, knew that his attire marked him. He considered speaking to the woman, as she had been examining him. No, he decided, first I meet with the Father.

With his arms folded into the front of his robes, he walked serenely from the room, leaving the woman and the Sun behind. Outside he turned down the corridor, towards where he knew the habitat’s chapel should be.

In the centre. We constructed this.

The young priest was intimately acquainted with the history of the Solite denomination of Christianity. He had been raised by religious parents, who had grown up together in the habitats of old Earth, and who had joined the Solites at an early age. They had rejected the chaos and whirl of the habitats and migrated to the small orbital settlements around the Sun, Sol, where the Solite faith was rooted. Here their only son had been born, and he had been raised within one of these enclaves, and had entered the priesthood itself as soon as permitted. After years of study and meditation upon his faith, he had left the enclave where his life had been spent, and travelled to one of the asteroid habitats that orbited Earth. Here he would be working alongside Father Doherty, a purportedly elderly priest who was in need of a new partner. The young priest, whose name was Jonn Prefect, eagerly anticipated the challenges that lay ahead.

The halls of the habitat were quiet, only two or three other people walking past Jonn as he travelled, twisting this way and that along the sometimes decorated, sometimes plain corridors. Lost in thought, he did not acknowledge the other walkers, nor they he. After a time, he came to the chapel, and stepped into its brightly lit interior. A man in blue overalls whistled as he mopped the tiled floor.

‘Excuse me,’ Jonn enquired. ‘Do you know where Father Doherty might be?’

The cleaner looked him up and down and gave him a smile. ‘Sure, lad. He’s just along behind the pulpit, in his office.’

‘Thank you,’ said Jonn. The cleaner nodded and returned to his whistling, the mop sliding rhythmically back and forth across the floor. Jonn strolled past, avoiding the wet spots.

He knocked on the plastic door behind the pulpit, and a voice from within told him to enter. He had barely opened the door before he was told to sit down and make himself at home. He entered and took a seat, scanning the contents of the room as he did so. A few bookshelves, loaded with a small number of paper books. A deactivated computer terminal. A small potted tree that grew crazily in several directions – one of the zero gravity breeds that had been successfully introduced into environments with artificial gravity – with a recycler beside it. A desk with a few scattered ornaments and a data tablet upon it, behind which the elderly priest was seated. He smiled a tight little smile, his eyes creasing as he did so, and nodded to Jonn.

‘I take it, then, that you’re here to assist me,’ said Doherty. ‘Well, I shan’t drift. You know who I am, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Father Prefect. An interesting name; Terran, like mine. Most pleasant.’

Jonn smiled back at the man. ‘Yes. My parents grew up on the habitats, and moved to the Throne orbital before I was born.’

‘And you have lived on the Throne orbital your entire life, yes?’ Jonn merely nodded in reply, and the old man leaned back with a sigh, hands gripping the desk. He continued, ‘Well, Jonn, you might find asteroid Escortia substantially different than Throne. I believe I visited your home, once.’

‘I understand that the good people of Escortia will adhere less rigidly to the faith than those of Throne,’ Jonn replied, his face blank. ‘Indeed I somewhat look forward to dealing with the faithless.’

‘Do you now?’ the old man murmured. There was silence for a few awkward moments. Then:

‘Jonn, do you know what happened to Father Wilhulm?’

Jonn frowned. ‘Only that he departed from his position here.’

‘He abandoned the faith, Jonn. I believe his specific intentions were to volunteer as an alpha subject in the new wave of machine-meld tests, but that is irrelevant here. What is important is that he turned his back on God and on Sol.’

The younger priest only deepened his frown in reply, his eyes gazing questioningly at his elder, who in return sighed in a deep, tired, world-weary manner.

‘The people here feel much as Wilhulm does, or did. They have turned away from us, or they never accepted us.’

‘You say “us”,’ Jonn observed. ‘You should say “God” or “Sol”.’

The old man ignored that and continued. ‘I’ll make this brief for you, Jonn. You can digest it later. Escortia and her sister habitats, indeed most of spaceborne humanity, are of course heavily reliant on technology in every way. Thus scientific education and research are a given. Similarly, it is commonly recognised that our communities grow increasingly more independent and egalitarian, compared to what the ground-huggers of Earth knew – and to an extent still know. This has steadily birthed a stubbornly independent and deeply intellectual new wave of philosophy and society amongst most of the habitats and orbitals. What this means to the Church of Solite Christianity, Jonn, is that most people feel they no longer need us. They publicly question every aspect of the faith, from our presence here to the basis of the Solite belief system.’

Father Doherty paused and glanced away from Jonn, towards the computer terminal. ‘Increasingly I do not deliver sermons, but oversee poorly attended debates.’

‘This can be changed,’ said Jonn, leaning forward with his fingers pinching his neck-chain. ‘I… perhaps a fresh perspective is needed here?’

Father Doherty smiled again, sadly. After a brief pause, his eyes again met Jonn’s. ‘Go home, Father. I believe you should digest what I have told you, and study Escortia’s public datanets via your terminal. You will begin to understand what I mean. There will be a lot for you to learn over the coming times.’

‘Yes, Father,’ replied Jonn, standing slowly. ‘I will. I will learn how to return the faith to Escortia. Good day.’ He turned and left the office.

Behind him, an ironic half-smile tugged at Father Doherty’s mouth, even as a sadness entered his eyes, and the wings of the griffin therein sagged dejectedly. He said nothing, merely returned his attention to the data tablet before him.

[‘Phoenix Subsiding’, Shaun Green, 2005. Cover image taken from Wikipedia.]

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