(This is part three of the story. Part One is here, and Part Two is here) The origin of the earliest fire temples is a subject of much debate, both on historical and theological lines. The earliest Zoroastrian scripture makes no mention of sacred flame whatsoever, so it clearly wasn’t there from the outset. Even so, the earliest fire temples are very ancient indeed, so it’s difficult to know exactly when the practice originated. Most Zoroastrians believe the first of these sacred fires were set by the great God Ahura Mazda Himself, and all other sacred fires are derived, either directly or indirectly or spiritually from these. The embers in the hamster wheel of the Sacred Fire Device came from the ancient and holy fire at Udvada, oldest one burning on the subcontinent, and the only one that existed prior to the seventeenth century. The Udvada fire was said to be carried by refugees – after many adventures – to India from an original temple in Persia in the eleventh century. How much of this was truth and how much of it was legend, no one knew. Jal was fully aware of the potential difference between facts and faith in this matter.
There were several times when the Udvada fire had been moved over the last twelve hundred years, generally during crisis, war, disaster, sometimes hidden in caves for extended periods of time, sometimes its whereabouts and status were disturbingly unaccounted for. The most recent of these periods was sixty-eight years earlier, during the seventh-and-final war with Pakistan when it was rumored that… Well, no matter. Jal was, after all, an idealistic young priest. Part of that was knowing the importance of symbols and continuity. Another part of that was not casting doubt on such things. He squelched the thought in his mind and tried, without success, to sleep.
Pari and Priyanka broke their embrace, naked and sweaty, in a small room about the size of a closet. Both were breathing hard. Pari reached for a towel and a bottle of water.
“Well?” she said. Priyanka looked flushed by a post-coital glow, but distant and brooding.
“Good,” she said noncommittally.
“Just ‘good’? Not a worlds-shattering deluge of passion to rock you to your very core?”
“No. Just ‘Good.’”
“Bavva,” Pari said, and chucked a wadded up towel at her.
Priyanka smiled, “I mean, obviously I liked being with you, but…”
“But it wasn’t all you’d fantasized about?”
“Not really, no. Not to be rude.”
“Yeah. Zero-G sex is one of those things old-timey science fiction writers used to spend all their time fantasizing about. It comes up a lot in the genre, but the fact is it’s not all that good. Be glad you’re not straight – hetero sex is terrible in weightlessness. Or so I’m told.” Priyanka arched an eyebrow. “Well think about it: What’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion?”
Priyanka pondered it for a moment. “Ohhhh….” She said, “I get it.”
“But you know what genuinely is amazing? Low-G sex. When we get to the moon, I promise you you’ll totally lose yourself when we…”
At the mention of the moon, Priyanka’s mood instantly went from distracted and brooding to flat-out depressed. “I need to be alone,” she said. Unexpectedly chastely she looked away while Pari got dressed, and didn’t say a word. Ten minutes later, in a smoking room, Pari was sucking down cigarette after cigarette in one or two drags and wondering what the naraka had just happened.
The ISRO Uttarkhand was one of a dozen Indian ferries that took people back and forth between Kaksagarva and Strongarm city. Like the space station it called home half the time, it was more pragmatic than aesthetic, merely a double-hulled inflatable Kevlar bubble about the size of a house, with a water in between the hulls, acting as a passive radiation shield. Below this living area were some cargo racks, and below that were large fuel tanks, and landing gear. It was as ugly as it was distinct, and as the ferries had all been built at different times, and repeatedly modified over the years, no two of them looked particularly alike. The inside of the bubble itself were several grated circular decks affording no privacy, and a central shaft that connected all the levels with the control room. The outer walls of each deck was dotted with what passed for cabins - sleeping closets, they were called - and a few bathrooms. Food came from dispensers around the central shaft. This was Pari’s normal assignment, her normal ship, and she was happy to get back to it, even if it meant three days without cigarettes. It was nice to be busy with something apart from handholding the priggish young Parsi cleric. A full load would have been thirty passengers, but this trip was underbooked at about half that for some reason.
Added to which there was Priyanka, who had remained distant both emotionally and sexually. Plenty to keep her occupied. Seriously, what had happened with that girl? She ruminated, When they’d met she’d been so giddy and over-the-top excited about everything, and pretty much the moment they’d made love, she slipped into an ever-blackening mood. Could she be manic depressive? Who was manic depressive anymore? It was like the easiest mental disorder to fix… Two days out from Kaksgarva, she bumped – literally – into Arav, who was coming out of his sleep-closet.
“Don’t tell the kid, but there was a problem with the tin man,” he said.
“Did the fire go out?” She asked, legitimately concerned.
“No, but the wheel did stop spinning for an hour or so. The embers are still going, though, I checked the temperature. The air feed alone was enough to keep it going. For a bit anyway.”
“You designed it to be redundant?”
“Not intentionally. I’m just that good, I guess.”
“Show me,” she insisted, so he took her to another sleeping closet that the device had been stashed in, and they laboriously lugged it out. She looked at the swinging needles. All of them showed acceptable tolerances, as far as she could tell. The temperature gauge was pegged exactly where it should be.
“Why did you use these old piece-of-crap indicators?” she asked.
“They don’t use much power,” he said, “And the ISRO agreement says it has to be completely self-contained, no recharge.”
“Mmm,” she grunted. “How did you fix it? You can’t open the thing out here, can you?”
“No, that’d be a breach of the contract, and the Colonel of this tub –“ “Hey! Watch it! He’s my Colonel and this is our tub, and we like it!” “ – sorry. Anyway, he’d probably chuck it overboard.”
"So how did you fix it?” “I just kicked it really hard a bunch of times. I figured the hamster wheel must’ve come slightly off balance, and wasn’t spinning free. It was making noises. I figured kicking it might knock it back into place, and it worked. Not like I had any other options.”
Pari put her ear to the machines ‘chest’, “I don’t hear anything.”
“Right. That’s because it’s spinning well, if you could hear it, that’d mean it was spinning badly. Check the RPMs if you don’t believe me.”
She did. They were fine. “Ok, your secret’s safe. Question?”
“Why are you helping the kid? I mean, you seem to have a genuine interest in this. Generally you just sort of slap stuff together and barely pay attention.”
“True. I’m lazy. You ever read the Bible?”
“Obviously not. I barely read my own scriptures.”
“Ok, are you familiar with the Christmas story?”
“Not very. Jesus was born. That’s all I know.”
He rolled his eyes. “Are you aware of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism?”
“Yeah, that I know. Christianity grew out of Judaism sort of like Buddhism grew out of Hinduism.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that, but close enough. We believe Judaism was a valid religion started by God to set up Christianity. Kind of a first stage to the rocket, if you will.”
“Well, in the Gospel of Matthew – “ he saw her eyes glaze over in theatrically feigned boredom “ – the birth of Christ is attended by Zoroastrian priests. Magi they’re called.”
That caught her interest, “Huh. That’s odd, isn’t it?”
“It is indeed. Why would the Bible include emissaries from another religion? I mean, they’re presented in a positive fashion, they’re looking for Jesus specifically, they’re warned by God about a trap at one point. These are not Christians, and they’re not Jews, but they’re not portrayed as bad or evil or pagan or whatever. That’s fascinated me for a long time.”
“What does it mean?”
“Lots of theories, but nobody really knows. My own not-uncommon take on it is that Zoroastrianism might have been legitimately founded by God, too.”
“So you think the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is the same as this ‘Ahura Mazda?’”
“Well, let’s just say I strongly suspect He could be. So I jumped at the chance to help. In fac –“
“THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE SRI LANKAN LIBERATION ARMY,” a voice screamed from the PA system, “WE HAVE TAKEN CONTROL OF THIS VESSEL. YOUR COLONEL AND CREW ARE DEAD, AND WE WILL BEGIN KILLING PASSENGERS ONCE EVERY HOUR IF THE INDIAN GOVERNMENT DOES NOT ACCEDE TO OUR DEMANDS.”
“Pavitra bakavasa!” Pari exclaimed.
“Isn’t that Priyanka’s voice?” Arav asked.
“Pavitra bakavasa!” Pari exclaimed again, by way of saying ‘yes.’ “Get suited up!” She shouted at Arav.
With a booming stage-voice that made full use of her zeppelin-sized lungs, Pari shouted, “Everyone get suited up! Lifeboat drill! Everyone get suited up NOW!” Given the relatively small quarters, and the grated floors, all the passengers and attendants could hear her. Most turned to look, some looking confused, others with the panic setting in. “Omkar,” she yelled at the nearest steward she could see, “Get these people suited up and tethered, then she turned to Arav, who was already fumbling his way into his clear plastic emergency suit. “Good boy,” she said. “You get done, you make sure the kid gets suited, then you help the others ok? And make sure you’re tethered.”
“Yes ma’am,” Arav said. All of this had taken less than a minute.
“THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE SRI LANKAN LIBERATION ARMY,” Priyanka’s voice repeated.
*** To be continued next week... (And trust me, it really gets hoppin')
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!