After the initiation ceremony was over, Fentus made his way to the High Sadalbak’s rooms at the top of the Grand Dome, as he had been instructed. The old priest was staring out of the window toward the industrial district, currently obscured by a violent storm of red dust, and he addressed Fentus without turning away from the vista.
“So, my boy, you are one of the Order now. There is much for you to learn, and with time all things will be revealed. But your particular aptitudes … well, the Sadalbak Council has watched your progress closely. You show great promise. And so there are things you must know sooner than the other initiates.”
“I am honoured, Father,” grunted Fentus.
The priest turned away from the window and trotted to his seating pad. His black eyes seemed to drill into Fentus’ very heart. “Honoured? Perhaps some would consider it so, yes. But not blessed – for knowledge is not always a blessing, my boy. Which is why it is only handed to those who are ready for it.”
“I’m not sure I am ready, Father.”
“Aye – and your humility is a mark of readiness. Or so we have to assume, for time runs short. You know, of course, the Doctrine of the Return?”
Fentus nodded his assent.
“What you do not know is that the window of time for the Return is drawing to a close.”
“But Father,” said Fentus, “it is written that we should not be concerned with when They Who Lifted Us will return. It is written that They will come in the fullness of time, when both we and They are ready.”
“Indeed, my boy, it is so written. But what is written is not all of the story. Join me.” The old priest trotted back to the window. “Tell me what you see, boy.”
“The factories, Father, and the food plants. And the dust.”
“Yes, the factories and the food plants. The legacy left to us by Them. But they do not grow as fast as once they did, my boy. They do not grow as fast as our numbers.”
“But if the factories do not grow, then we … forgive me, Father.”
“Don’t apologise for thinking, my boy. Not when we’re alone, at least. No, you are correct. If the factories do not grow, then supplies will become scarce. The unrest will increase. Already the apostates grow bold, proclaiming that They have abandoned us, that They will never return. This knowledge must be kept secret – though for how long that will be possible, I do not know.”
“What if …” Fentus’ tongue felt thick in his mouth. “What if the apostates are right, Father?”
The old priest’s snout twitched with humour. “Blasphemy, from one so new to the Order? No, I jest. You ask the right questions, boy. If the apostates are right, then things will worsen, with no prospect of salvation. The texts and speech left to the First Ones by They Who Lifted Us contain much which is not in the Book of Them. One thing that is stated repeatedly is that the factories were made to keep growing for far longer than we would have to wait for Their return.”
“Then … then, did They lie to us, Father?”
The priest snorted in genuine anger. “Do not blaspheme too far, boy, privilege or not. No, we cannot believe They lied to us, for then our lives would be devoid of all purpose, and the apostates would be right. We must believe that They meant to return. And so we must assume that something has prevented them from doing so thus far.”
“But what can we do, Father?”
The High Sadalbak seemed to deflate and hunch over, suddenly looking his full thirty years. “That’s what we don’t know, boy. And that’s why we need you, and the others like you. The intelligent ones who still believe, despite the doubts. There is much that They left with us that was not meant for us to use, but the High Council believes that perhaps we can learn its ways, and use it to summon them. Such learning will be your duty, boy, when you are trained. But I believed you should know the truth, to save you making guesses.”
“I am honoured, Father,” said Fentus. “I will not fail you.”
The old priest sighed again. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, my boy.” He looked up above the roiling dust clouds toward the Blue Star, the Urth where They had come from. “I fear we may have enough of those to deal with already.”
[For origin junkies: I saw this post, and it kinda just wrote itself from there. And the Friday Flash Fictioneers have a new member – go and try out Dan Pawley’s first offering, “Transportation”.]