Crucible and Flame, Part 9
 
The girl’s fingers tightened around the scuffed ball she’d been throwing when the alarms sounded. Her knuckles cracked from her grip as he tried not to cough. It hurt so much when she coughed. Each breath was agony. Her lungs felt like they were filled with acid. The air in the small shelter, robbed of its oxygen, was slowly killing her. She tried to lift her head off the metal grating of the the shelter floor, but it slammed back down, conjuring stars in her vision. She curled in on herself, bringing the ball up to her mouth, biting into its stitched seam. She stared at her mother and father, crumpled on either side of her little brother. Their eyes, closed. The false smiles of reassurance painted just for her, gone. Their chests heaved with the same agony she felt with every poison breath. She wanted to cry but there were no tears left, after the terror of the explosions, the pushing mobs out of their mind with fear, the pain in her arm where neighbours had crushed in to get past her when she stumbled. Finally, finally, her bone-dry eyes began to flutter closed. Distantly, she felt the pressure change as the airlock opened. Her ears registered pain she was too tired to scream about as more air was lost. Someone was coming, but they brought nothing to breath with them. Through half-closed lids, she watched shadows grow on the wall, heard the crackle of fire. Then, impossibly, there were several more people rushing over her. Fingers at her throat, hands gently lifting her parents, her little brother. Then someone’s arms reached gently around her. She was turning in the air. There was a fire burning in the shelter. She tightened her fingers in someone’s shirt. She looked up. Into the eyes of a stranger, dressed in Commons clothes. His face was burned, the skin of his cheek raw, red, sizzling... but he was smiling. He lifted her across his chest, half over his shoulder. She could see him reaching behind, grabbing another space-suited hand. That hand grabbed another, and another, each form carrying someone in their arms. She saw her mother’s eyes flutter open as another rescuer lifted her to her feet. Then the Ferryman led them through the Flame. Alive. They were alive. They were saved. She gave up the fight. The orange flickering disappeared behind drooping eyelids faded. At long last, she let sleep take her. # Foster collapsed on the steps of the church. Hours and hours of ferrying survivors through the fire had overcome even the reinvigoration every Walk brought. His body might be renewed, his physiology reset to that new first adrenaline-filled walk through the bonfire in the Commons of ship 227, but his mind reeled under the load of so many crossings, so many lives lost…so many, many more nearly lost. But for the Tender’s faith, and for the Ferryman’s…for Foster’s…faith…his trust in the old man, they would have been lost. Overcoming a lifetime of terror, he had walked into the bonfire...and oh yes, he had burned. Then he had passed through the other side, falling to his knees and staring at the lit tinder inside the open supply canister he had carried through with him. That’s how it had begun, with him crying out in agony, and the Tender pushing him flat, snuffing out the sizzling flesh on his cheek, the flames on his shirt. Then Cabel made him stand, nodding and murmuring encouragement. He ripped Foster’s shirt roughly, then walked him to the edge of the flame. On the other side, Foster’s shirt was whole, his face searing again, his shirt aflame again. That’s how it happened every time now: a bright moment of pain, followed by the elation of being alive -and the press of terror that came with remembering where he was, what was happening. Quickly, men in black and orange spacesuits would prop him to his feet, give him another supply canister filled with unlit tinder and push him back into the flame. He walked through dozens of times, lighting new sparks. Then Cho was yelling to his men, and they were locking arms with each other and the Ferryman, and they went through. He followed the spark to different places. Each place was horrible, full of flame, or bodies, or choking, dying men and women breathing toxic air all across Ship 227. Once he stepped out into vacuum. He still remembered the feeling of his skin boiling as the men in space suits turned him around and flung him back into the Flame. He remembered the sensation of every spark, returning un erringly where survivors waited for him to make multiple trips. There were only so many he could take across at once…and he wouldn’t lose anyone else today. How many had he walked? Hundreds. Thousands. Laying there on the Church steps, fighting off sleep and reliving the pain of crossing into the vacuum, he felt someone press a damp cloth against his face. The angry, charred skin of his cheekbone raged against the contact, and Foster jerked violently to sitting, eyes popping wide… and then he felt the touch of the cool wet fabric easing the booming message of his nerves. It must have been laced with some topical anaesthetic to work so quickly. Every crossing brought that agony back too, now, along with the singed, sweat-dampened clothes the Tender had given him. He nodded his thanks, and let his eyes close again. He lost track of the time. A minute later -or an hour, he had no clue- the Ferryman rolled over. The Commons had been lit up under a patchwork of white and yellow emergency lighting. Emergency shelters had been inflated all around, but the bodies overflowed them, lying and sitting in exhausted clumps, with IV bags and dermal patches doing what they could to ease the pain, too-few emergency inhalers doing what they could to reverse scarred lungs. All alive because of him. He didn’t feel pride. Only anger he hadn’t moved faster, hadn’t saved more. Tender Cabel staggered out of the crowd and knelt, then fell, beside him. “Told you you’d have fun here on our boat,” he mumbled. Foster turned his head and managed something like a smile. “Sure did." “You saved us, Ferryman. You saved all of us." Foster’s lips twitched upwards. “Lucky I was in the neighbourhood." Cabel cackled. Foster focused his eyes on the thin, little man collapsed on the steps across from him. “How did you know I could do it? Start a new spark?" Cabel seemed to become even smaller. It took a minute for him to find his words. “Told you my family has a Ferryman?” Foster nodded and waited. “When your family own’s a sixtieth of Earth, you can make even a God do things they don’t want to do." That was all he said. “Ferryman!” Hernandez and Lieutenant Cho tramped up the stairs. The wooden steps bounced with each stomp, and Foster and Cabel both groaned. “We’ve got to rotate people out of engineering. There’s a crack in the reactor shielding. Until we get that fixed, an hour's exposure is the most I’m willing to risk for anyone.” Strong hands clasped Foster and lifted him to his feet, not unkindly. He helped as best he could, and gasped gratefully as Cho roughly pushed a fresh dermal patch to the eternal burn on his face. He wordlessly nodded thanks as the fresh chemicals in the patch took the edge off again. “No rest for the Ferryman,” he sighed, and tugged on the front of his shirt. “How do I look,” he yawned to Cable. “You look like shit,” Foster mumbled. “So do you,” The Tender chuckled, and yawned again. “Better than first time I saw you, though." Foster’s eyes shot open. He put a hand to his freshly patched cheek. “Wait!” he said, his voice shaking. “Please, just a minute.” He scrambled alone back into the Church. It was dark, with the light of the braziers sacrificed to the flame in the Commons square. He half-ran, half-staggered onto the dais and through the door into the Tender’s home. He stumbled against the sink on one wall of the small room, and stared in the mirror. The white patch on his cheek covered the spot where numbers had been burned in with lasers, nine hundred years in the past. With trembling fingers he ripped the patch away. The numbers on his cheek were gone. Burned away. He sagged against the counter, gaping down at his clothes: the simple pants with rope tie at the waist and spun fabric shirt, one arm burned. This was how the Flame spat him out now. Cabel had been his crucible. Cabel’s love for his flock, refusal to give up on the dying whale of Ship 227…hell, even his name. The man had given Foster a new name, new life, reborn in a new Flame. Foster remembered, then, what Cabel had said that first day, about Ferrymen, flames and reincarnation, and he laughed, and laughed. # -38 YEARS LATER- Captain Philip Columbus Cho waited for Foster at the bottom of the Church steps. “Still don’t know why you made me wait so long,” he grumbled. The Captain smiled, and only the lines that crinkled around his eyes betrayed the passing of four decades. “Don’t be a dumbass,” Cho said under his breath. “Every body riding this whale would space me if I let anything happen to you. You’re just lucky my wife was on your side." They shared a quiet laugh, then, looking out over the hundreds assembled. It was less than a quarter of the ship. Cho’s first regulation after the Crisis was to limit who could gather where, based on how irreplaceable their skill set and experience base was. And no more than twenty percent of the ship could assemble in any section at once. “You know, he’d kick you in the ass for this,” Cho said as they crossed together to the Flame. “He had it coming,” Foster murmured fondly. “Foster,” called almost every face they passed, and he swelled up inside with joy for knowing each name, and returning the greeting. Cabel really would have kicked him in the ass for what they were about to do. Too bad, Foster thought with a grin. 227 had been in-system for four years, ship time. Drones had carried sparks of their Flame to every planetary body, including the blue-green world Cho and Foster were about to name and claim. The road had been long, but Cabel kept them on track, didn’t let them fight and tear each other to pieces so close to the goal. And when he’d left them, his memory had seen them through the last five years. A dozen feet from the Flame, a woman stepped into their path. Alicia Cho had been a child when Foster hand scooped her up and carried her and her family back through the flame. Now she was his best friend’s wife, a mother, and a leader on the ship. Cabel had loved her like a father, been so damn proud of her. Her eyes were wet with happy tears as she kissed her fingers and then laid them the cool ceramic of the urn she and her children had made with their own hands. That was right. Foster swallowed hard as she stepped back to the side. Another woman, tentative, met his eyes. When he nodded, she stepped out, kissed her fingers, and touched them to the urn. Then next dozen paces took hours. Everyone in the Commons touched their fingers to the urn, then left the section so that others could come and say goodbye just the same. Everyone. Everyone, on 227 came, and touched the urn, before the three of them finally stepped through the flame. # On a cliff above an ocean, a Flame guttered, and Cho and Foster stepped out. They’d been here for years, but it was Foster’s first trip down. Ridiculous, he’d always thought, to be so protective of him now they were home. The sky was a touch more purple than blue. Cho snorted in annoyance when Foster’s clothes changed as always, but the oxygen tank and breather stayed in place, slung over his shoulder. Foster grinned. They’d enjoyed a thousand discussions about what stayed where and what changed when Ferrymen walked. Foster smiled, remembering that time they’d drunk too much and Cho had written messages on Foster’s face in permanent ink abs pushed him through the Church Flame, just to see. The air burned, just a little. He didn’t take a breath from the canister, he let the slightly acrid, slightly thin air into his lungs. A body could last for half an hour or more down here, even without the canister. Even that was a miracle, so very far from where their ancestors had been thought up. He closed his eyes and experienced the world with his other senses. The warm wind was pushing against his skin. Even though the crashing waves were so far below, the pungent mossy/seaweed smell fought with the hay-like aroma of the matcha drying in the shaded fields behind them. The two men didn’t speak, as they crossed to the metal rails of the lookout. “Welcome home,” Foster whispered, as Phil removed the lid. Together, they poured the ashes into the wind, and the sea. As they returned to the Flame, a honeybee buzzed across their path. They thrived here, he was told. They all would thrive here, all of the Tender’s flock, on this world they now gave his name. Foster took another moment, taking it all in. A purple sky. Gentle green leaves and buzzing bees. The wind, slapping at his cheek just hard enough to sting, like a chiding push from a friend now long gone, before Cho touched his elbow. Only a little sad, really -because he knew he would soon return- Foster returned to his flock. Months or years, or decades, it didn’t matter. This world’s riches would feed them all, near and far, as they built and bred and lived, and changed the world. Soon enough, he would ferry every man, woman and child to Cabel’s world.
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