ORIGINAL FICTION: "Curse the Darkness" (Part 1)

Kevin Long
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The pilot was in the half-empty cafeteria, shoveling down her breakfast. She paused to take a long drag on her cigarette, and saw an intern leading a nervous looking young man in. The intern caught her eye, and she waved him over. The two men threaded their way through the tables. She quickly downed a swig of orange juice, and stood just as they reached her.

“Major Pari Bhatnagar,” the intern said while bowing slightly, “May I present Jal Khambatta; Mister Khabatta, may I present Major Bhatnagar.” She shook the young man’s hand.

“Pleased to meet you,” she said, somewhat indifferently.

“Likewise,” he said, with genuine, if jittery, enthusiasm.

“Will that be all?” The intern asked.

“Yes,” Pari said, “No, wait, would you please have the waiter bring over an SAB for mister Khabatta?”

“Of course, ma’am,” he said, and scampered away backwards, never taking his eyes off them, never bumping into a thing. The two of them sat down. She took another drag on her cigarette, then noticed it had gone out. She issued a mild Hindi profanity, and fished out another cigarette.

“You smoke?” Jal asked.

“Do I smoke?” she laughed, “Child, not only do I smoke, I am the best smoker in the world!” She rattled this off almost like it was a standard verbal riposte. “Check this out,” she said. She exhaled, lit the new cigarette, brought it to her lips, and sucked the entire thing down to the filter in one incredibly long drag. Her eyes glazed over slightly as she breathed mentholated plumes out through her nose. “Lungs like a zeppelin!” she said.

“What’s a zeppelin?” Jal asked. She didn’t answer, merely looked annoyed. The waiter appeared and put a plate down in front of the young man, who didn’t really look at it.

“May I have some coffee, please?” He asked.

The waiter quickly snapped a look at Pari, who just as quickly said, “No Coffee before a flight.” The waiter smiled; relieved he didn’t have to explain the regulations, and backed away. “No coffee for twenty-four hours before a flight. Standard rules,” she said, “You’ve got plenty of orange juice there, though, it’s good for you, drink up. Free refills.” He looked at his breakfast tray.

“That might pose a problem. I had a lot of coffee yesterday afternoon. Will I still be able to fly?”

“It’s more of a tradition than a rule,” she said, “Don’t sweat it, but don't tell anyone.”

“What’s an SAB?” he asked, poking at his food with a fork.

“’Standard Astronaut Breakfast,’ she explained. Steak and Eggs. Eat up, it’s good. The eggs are a little bland this morning, though. Throw a little hot sauce on ‘em.” He whispered a prayer, then tentatively sampled the food.

“How is it?” Pari asked. A middle aged man moved up behind her carrying a tray, but Jal wasn’t really paying attention.

“Much heavier than I’m used to for breakfast. It’s more like dinner. Is this a rule, too, or a tradition?”

“In the Major’s case, it’s more like a superstition,” the newcomer said, patting her on the shoulder. She startled slightly and jumped to her feet. After moment, Jal realized he was supposed to get up, also.

“Jal Khambatta, may I present Doctor Arav Tamil Nadu,” Pari said, “Doctor Tamil Nadu, mister Khambatta.” The doctor put down his tray, and they shook. He, too, had the Steak and Eggs, and an extra glass in his left hand.

“I brought you some more juice,” he said.

“Bless you,” she said, and started a third cigarette. They all sat down, and the doctor meticulously set into dissecting his meat.

“It’s very nice to finally meet you in person,” Jal said.

“Likewise,” Arav said, “You presented us with a very interesting problem.” Pari sopped up the last of her egg-goo with some toast, and snapped for the waiter.

“Seconds, please,” she said as he took her plate.

“I take it you’re not Hindu,” Jal said.

“Despite sounding like a question, that’s the first thing you’ve said to me that wasn’t a question,” Pari said, “And you’re wrong. I’m just sort of an ‘Istara Ravivara’ Hindu,” she joked.

“’Easter Sunday Hindu?’ I don’t get it…”

“It’s an old American term,” Arav explained. “Loosely translated, it meant a Christian – usually a Baptist for some reason – who only went to church for Easter, Christmas, funerals, and weddings.”

“I’m not especially devout,” Pari volunteered.

“’Lord, help my unbelief,’” Arav said, but Jal didn’t get it.

“What exactly are we doing, anyway, guys? I’ve been instructed to shepherd you two all the way to Strongarm, and provide whatever services you need, but beyond that my orders are rather vague.” Arav explained…

***

In the twenty-second century, the earth’s moon was a boomtown, with a dozen different countries and corporations running mining operations that ranged in scope from ‘merely huge’ to ‘terrifyingly bowel-wateringly godlike.’ Though all these outposts were more-or-less self-sufficient in terms of life support and food production and water supply, they weren’t colonies in the strictest sense of the word. Though the largest operations might employ as many as ten thousand workers on site, they were more like crew on an oil drilling platform at sea: They signed on to do a dangerous, grueling job for one to five years, they earned the big rupees, and if they survived they went back to earth to their families. The ratio between the sexes was roughly ten-to-one, and if prostitutes were factored out of the equation, the ratio was more like twenty-to-one. Few people lived on the moon permanently, and such as did were mostly eccentrics, or osteoporotic retirees who preferred low-gravity agility to being bedridden on earth, or such workers as had sustained injuries that prevented their return to the motherworld.

Regardless of who owned which moonbase, regardless of what language they spoke, regardless of what religion or nationality or race or level of education they had, almost all of the workers had one thing in common: they were poor enough that a one-in-five chance of dying on the moon seemed preferable to abject indigence on earth. As such, lunar workers tended to be extremely blue-collar and recruited from the lowest echelons of society. It was seen as way out, an escape from pauperism. If one survived, and if one hadn’t blown everything on booze, drugs, and hookers at the company store by then, the pay was fairly awesome.

Among these hopeless poor were Parsis – Indian Zoroastrians. By the twenty-second century, they were but tiny minority of only a fewscore thousand souls. Their relationship with larger Indian society was like a somewhat milder version of the discrimination Jews had once faced in Europe: They worked hard, they valued education, a few had managed to make some very significant careers in Hindu society, but for the most part, they were somewhat isolated, somewhat mistrusted, and above all else, desperately poor. Per capita, more Parsis signed up for lunar factory work than any other group. There were now several thousand on site, a large enough number that the absence of any means of religious observance for them was becoming awkward.

***

Pari, Arav, and Jal walked through the terminal as she finished up her fifth cigarette and absently checked out some of the girls milling about. They crossed a line of “Free Sri Lanka” protesters.

“I don’t get it,” she said, “So there’s a lot of you guys in Strongarm, so what? There’s lots of temples and shrines and mosques and synagogues up there, even some churches, so just build one of your own, and then send up a priest.”

“That’s our plan,” Jal said, “I’m the priest.”

“Huh,” Pari said, contemplating obvious youthfulness for a beat before continuing, “So what do you need me for? You just file a construction request and get cracking. Not that it’s not nice to work with you again, Arav, but Why did ISRO pull me off my regular detail to hold your hand?”

“Well, it’s not that simple, you see, there’s an artifact they need to ship up in order to properly consecrate their house of worship,” Arav said.

“So pack it in foam, and ship it up.”

“I guess you could say it’s pretty fragile,” Arav said.

“So use extra foam.”

“It’s not that kind of fragile,” Arav said.

“So insure it, and have someone on the other side ready with a glue gun.”

“That won’t work. This is a really complicated thing to ship, arguably the most complicated thing ever shipped across space,” Arav said.

“Ok, so use a really, really lot of foam.”

“It would burn the foam,” Arav said. This got Pari’s attention. Specialty cargos were one thing, dangerous specialty cargos were another entirely.

She stopped cold in the hallway, and said, “Why would it do that? What the naraka kind of religious relic is this?”

“It’s fire,” Jal said, “Our religious relic is fire.”

***

As with most monotheistic faiths, Zoroastrianism strictly forbids the worship of idols. It takes this limitation a bit further than most, and eschews the use of iconography of any sort, fearing such visual touchstones would, themselves, become a kind of idol. The only valid symbol recognized in Zoroastrianism is fire. Fire is not a physical thing in the same way as rocks or a pieces of wood are, and therefore can not be an idol.

Beyond this, fire is a very good allegory for God: it obviously exists, though it is not a solid, a liquid, or a gas, and hence is ephemeral in an obvious sense. Much like God, it is beneficent: It casts out the darkness and the fear that comes with darkness. It can be used to purify things. Its warmth sustains people in winter. It can be used to cook meals and boil water. Its smoke reaches up to heaven, but the flame itself stays firmly on the earth. It reacts – after a fashion – to outside stimuli, and it can likewise reproduce after a fashion. Though not life in the conventional sense, fire is very much alive in its own way.

This can be taken as an allegory for God, who lives, though not in the same way as anything in His creation. With fire, as with God, should you handle it carelessly and without respect, you will get hurt.

***

“So you guys worship fire,” Pari said as some stevedores wrestled the bulky sacred flame machine off the dolly and into the passenger seat. It was particularly stupid looking, like an armless, headless robot from a 1950s Science Fiction Film.

“No, we do not,” Jal said, “We worship the only God, Ahura Mazda. Fire is not God, but it is the supreme poem in praise of God.” He said it with such fervor that she was taken aback momentarily.

“Catchy slogan,” she said.

“It’s not a slogan, I just made it up right now.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“You are one idealistic young priest, Jal,” Pari said.

“I am one idealistic young priest, Pari,” Jal agreed, copying her tone exactly. They smiled at each other.

The stevedores fussed with the device a bit more, strapped it into the seat, and headed out. The passenger cabin looked much like the inside of a mid-sized commuter airliner. There were twelve rows of seats, two to a side, with a walkway down the middle. The only difference was that there were no windows, and the seats were actually just padded vertical platforms with lots of straps.

“Speaking as a smoker, I see some inherent problems with this plan of yours,” Pari said.

“Which are?” Arav asked.

“Well, obviously, weightlessness inherently smothers flame,” she said.

“I never really understood that,” Jal said. She looked at him quizzically.

“What?” He said defensively. “I’m a priest, not an engineer. I wasn’t involved in the technical phase, that’s what we hired him for,” he jerked his head towards Arav.

“Fair enough,” Pari said, “Ok, on earth I decide I want to smoke a glorious, wonderful, tasty, life-affirming cancer stick. Normally I smoke Gold Flake, but it’s a special occasion, let’s say, so I’m splurging on a Gold Navy Cut. I light my match, and it burns for several seconds as I ignite my cig and take a drag, filling my lungs with squeaky-clean smoke. Because they’re filtered, you see…”

“I don’t think the filters actually…”

“She’s being sarcastic, son,” Arav said.

“Now, I try the same thing on a space station, and the match doesn’t work. Why?” He thought about it for a moment, then admitted he didn’t know. “Think about it,” she urged. What direction does smoke go? Up? Down? Sideways? Backwards and to the left? What?”

“Up, obviously,” Jal said.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I guess the smoke is lighter than the air?”

“Exactly,” Pari said, “Well, not exactly exactly, but close: The fire is hot, therefore its waste – smoke and Carbon Dioxide – are hot, too. Heat rises, which carries that crap away from the flame. In weightlessness, however, there is no ‘up’ nor ‘down’ nor weight as such, so ‘lighter than’ is a useless concept for our purposes.”

“Therefore the carbon dioxide and smoke don’t go anywhere, they just build up around the match and smother the flame?” Jal asked.

“Bright boy,” Arav said. “Of course there’s ways around this. If you keep the flame in a steady but gentle airflow, it’s not really a problem. That’s what they do in smoker’s rooms on the space stations and on the moon: blowers on one side, suckers on the other. Can’t do that on a shuttle, though, or a ferry. Smoking is strictly forbidden. Too dangerous.”

“Yup,” Arav agreed, “Hence my clever little toy here,” he patted the headless robot-looking thing on the armless shoulder. There was a coincidental beep, then a voice over the PA announced they were going to start loading the other passengers. Pari excused herself and headed up to the flight deck.

***

Continue On to Part 2 here http://www.republibot.com/node/5873

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Copyright 2014, Kevin Long

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Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who has written three full-length anthologies, and has a fourth one coming out any week now. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here and his Smashwords page here. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his books are here, here, and here. Check out his site, and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support!

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