Starborn

starborn

Rafe held his thumb in front of the scanner and waited for its blue light to turn green, for the soft whisper of the door beside the scanner as it slid into the wall, and entered the temple. He had no idea why The Powers That Be insisted on keeping this old relic clean but it was an easy job and it paid well. Rafe knew a good deal when he saw one and if the Universe wanted him to listen to music all night while he cleaned a few rooms no one used anymore, far be it from him to say otherwise. He popped in his earpiece and headed for the supply closet while his favorite playlist started up. 

There wasn’t much to it really, cleaning rooms that were never dirtied. There was hardly even any furniture in the place, just a collection of mats and cushions, some side tables here and there, a bare altar and some white pillar candles, never lit, in thick brass holders on the altar itself. Rafe couldn’t even remember what kind of temple it had been, the gods having departed so long ago. All he knew was that he could dust off the tables, wipe down the walls and ceiling with an extendable dust mop, polish the altar and candles, pound out the cushions to dislodge whatever particles had made themselves at home since his last shift, vacuum the mats and the thin strip of carpet that led from the door to the altar and mop the floor in a couple of hours, sometimes less. That left the rest of his shift to get comfortable on some of the cushions that he placed against a wall, prop his holoflex pad on a nearby table and relax with some vids and whatever snacks he’d brought with him. 

Rafe knew there were security cameras everywhere, including inside the temple. Someone must have noticed that his job didn’t require a full eight-hour shift but in the five years he’d done it, no one had ever said a word. He was paid on time, every week with a standard three percent increase every year. No one bothered him, he didn’t have to talk to anyone and he never had to break his back or work over time. Sure it got boring once in a while and maybe a little lonely at times but it was a damn sight better than most of the jobs his friends had or not having any work at all. He even did a little better than everyone he knew working in Production or Transport. Forget the military. That option had never even crossed his mind. Rafe’s parents couldn’t afford extra schooling so he never had a chance at any of the corporate jobs or even a teaching position, not that he’d wanted one. When he finished his mandatory schooling at age 16 his dad had brought him down to the Maintenance Hub and asked his boss to see what he could find for Rafe. Just something to get him in the door. The last maintenance tech assigned to the temple had retired only the week before. It seemed like a great way for Rafe to get his foot on the ladder.

Little did Rafe’s dad know, Rafe had no intention of climbing up that ladder. He would work this job until they retired him out at a full pension, same as his predecessor. Rafe wasn’t interested in a career. He had his own place, a standard-issue studio on the interior, enough to get by and save a little and plenty of time to spend with his friends. He spent hours getting paid to watch holos and read whatever books he’d downloaded. He even took the occasional nap. What else did a man need? A wife someday, maybe. Maybe not. Rafe wasn’t looking for any more responsibility. He was 21, he had everything he needed and the future would take care of itself.

When his shift ended, Rafe cleaned up his empty food containers and his holoflex and shoved them into his pack, put the cushions and table back, made sure he didn’t leave a mess behind him, locked the cleaning supplies back in the closet and set the timer on the lights inside the temple to shut off ten minutes after he left. Swinging his pack over his shoulder he scanned himself out the door and into the corridor, waiting until the door slid shut and he heard the satisfying click of the lock snapping into place. He had promised his parents he would stop by for breakfast then he’d grab a couple of hours sleep and maybe he’d have time to catch up with his friends later at the canteen.

Rafe arrived for his next shift as he always did, with minutes to spare and his pack over his shoulder. He was tired today, having skipped a few hours sleep in favor of dinner with his buddies. No matter. He’d finish up quickly and sack out on some cushions for a few hours. Nothing he hadn’t done before. Rafe scanned himself into the temple and stopped in his tracks a few steps from the door. The cushions that he’d put away 16 hours earlier had all been moved to the center of the floor, arranged neatly in rows, as though waiting to be sat upon. Someone must have been in here, Rafe told himself, trying to slow his panicking heart and get his breathing under control. He had no idea why but he would check it out with management. Obviously, he couldn’t be the only one with access, someone had decided to come in and set up the cushions for some reason. It was nothing. Calm down Rafe, you’ll sort it tomorrow.

He worked quickly, putting the cushions back, cleaning up and putting the supplies away as fast as he could. Sleep was out of the question. He tried to settle in and read a little but he couldn’t shake the unease that settled over him. When reading didn’t work he tried videos and then messaging his friends, who were mostly at work and didn’t answer. It was a long night and for the first time, Rafe wished he didn’t work alone. At the end of his shift, he practically launched himself out of the temple, barely waiting for the lock to engage before he half-ran towards the Maintenance Hub. His manager was off for the next few days. Rafe would have to wait for his answers.

Back in his quarters, his safe and cozy little studio, Rafe tossed sleeplessly on his bunk. Something gnawed at him from the edges of his consciousness but skittered away every time he tried to focus on the thought. He didn’t remember anything about the old gods of Earth. No one talked about them anymore, not since his great-great grandfather’s time when they’d left their dying, smog-choked planet for space had anyone bothered with it. Rafe couldn’t even be sure why anyone had built a temple in the first place. Granted the station was huge, not even filled to capacity yet four generations later but still, why keep something that no one used or needed? Gods were for the earthborn, the people who saw spirits among the trees and in the wind, who watched their sun god pull a chariot of fire across the sky each day, who heard the hammer of the gods in the thunder and the tears of their gods in the rain. Rafe was the fourth generation to be starborn. What did people who could build a world of their own and fly among the stars need with gods? They were gods. At least, that’s what Rafe had always believed, deep in the back of his mind where such things were kept but never spoken about. ‘It was nothing’ he assured himself ‘A mistake, easily cleared up. There are no gods. Not out here anyway. Stop being an idiot.’ 

That night Rafe scanned himself into the temple again, having finally convinced himself he was letting his imagination run away with him when he stopped dead again. The cushions were back in their neat little rows, with the side tables now carefully arranged at the front, near the altar. He nearly fainted. Rafe steadied himself, reminded himself of his mantra of the last few days that there was obviously a day shift tech now, who was keen on arranging things. Maybe they’d just forgotten to inform Rafe. Heck maybe someone was even pulling a prank on him and watching the security footage for a laugh. Who knows? He would find out when his manager got back but in the meantime, there was no point in losing his head about it. Rafe cleaned as quickly as ever and made himself comfortable, catching up on the latest episodes of his favorite shows. He couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. His shift couldn’t end soon enough.

Rafe headed back to the temple on the third night, dragging his feet. He was being ridiculous. There was nothing weird going on, just get in there and get to work. He should put in for another job. He’d coasted on this one too long anyway. Once inside the temple, Rafe’s heart nearly exploded in his chest and he was afraid he might wet himself. The cushions were lined up again, the little tables set to the front of the altar and the candles on the altar were lit. Rafe took off running, nearly slamming into the door before he could scan it open and ran all the way back to his studio. He took a personal day and spent the night under the covers trying to talk himself out of a full-blown psychological break.

On the fourth night, the night before his boss returned, Rafe gathered his courage and faced the temple door again. He could do this. He would do this. He held his thumb up to the scanner and let himself back in through the door. As expected, the cushions were aligned, the tables set to the front and the candles still lit. Still? Again? They had hardly burned down at all. If they were still burning from the day before wouldn’t they have melted down by now? Rafe forced himself to enter the room. The heaviness settled into his chest almost immediately, dragging him down like a man under water. Rafe kept walking. He had remembered something about gods, something he’d read somewhere. The gods liked gifts. Tribute. Rafe didn’t have much but he had a little. He reached into his pack as he came to the row of tables and pulled out an apple. Feeling foolish, Rafe put the apple on the little table in the center of the row, the one directly in front of the altar. 

“Here you go.” Was that what you were supposed to say to a god? Rafe felt a lightness in his chest. The air warmed slightly and Rafe felt his muscles begin to relax. The unseen eyes that watched him were still there but less menacing now, more comforting. Rafe cleaned the temple but left the cushions and tables where they were, making do with the hard wall at his back and his holo in his lap. He let the candles burn until his shift was over when he blew them out. He would bring something better tomorrow. 

The next night Rafe brought oranges and the night after that a sandwich and so on. He felt comfortable in the temple again, more so than he ever had. He couldn’t wait to get to work. Every day he brought an offering and every day the one from the night before was gone. It occurred to him that he had never asked his boss who was coming during the day and it was possible that someone back at the Maintenance Hub was having a good laugh at his expense. Let them laugh. He was happy to spend the night at the temple now. Boredom and loneliness had evaporated as had his uneasiness when the temple first came alive. He could feel that it was alive even if he could never put the sensation into words.

Two weeks after the cushions first found their way into their tidy rows, the temple spoke to Rafe. 

“I am Arianrhod.” Rafe jumped about six inches off the ground. It was a whisper, no more. The wind rustling through leaves, a sigh. Had he heard it? Imagined it? 

“Who’s there?” Rafe called out, feeling stupid.

“I am Arianrhod,” the voice said again. Light, feminine, gentle. Attached to no one. It took everything Rafe had not to run again. “Who are you?” he asked but the voice fell silent. 

In his quarters, Rafe logged onto the station’s network and searched the archives for any mention of Arianrhod.

Arianrhod (pronounced ahr-ee-AHN-throd) in the ancient Welsh pantheon, the goddess of the moon, stars, fertility, rebirth, and the weaver of cosmic time and fate.

That settled it. Someone was screwing with Rafe. He would scour the temple for hidden mics. He would go to his boss and find out who was going in when he wasn’t there. He would demand the camera footage if necessary. This stopped now and Rafe would go back to his calm, pleasant, easy life. Gods and goddesses were not real and it irked him that he had fallen for such an obvious prank.

Rafe stopped at the Maintenance Hub on his way to the temple that night but his boss was seeing to a problem in one of the shuttle bays. No matter, Rafe would search the temple for mics first and circle back later. He messaged his boss through the holo that he needed to speak with him tonight. When he got to the temple, everything was still arranged as it had been, the candles were alight but the air was sharp and cold, having lost its warm welcome. Of course, it was his imagination. Air didn’t have feelings. He finished his job then searched the room top to bottom looking for a mic or a camera or a device of any kind. Nothing. Puzzled, Rafe moved cushions against a wall, set up a table and sat down with his holo and his snacks, ignoring the cooling air that nipped at his fingertips. Halfway through his grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, his holo buzzed with an incoming message from his boss.

“Hey, Rafe, what’s so urgent it couldn’t wait until tomorrow?”

“Hi Otto, I was just wondering if you could let whoever’s coming in on day shift know that he’s been leaving the cushions in the middle of the room. If he could push them to the side it would save me some time. Oh and let him know not to light the candles. I’ve had to put them out every night this week.”

“Rafe, we don’t have anyone on day shift. No one uses that temple, I’m not sure why we bother to clean it every night much less every day too.”

“Oh. Ok, well someone’s getting in here. Could you check the camera replay and see who’s been hanging around in here during the day?”

“We don’t have cameras in there. It’s the only place on the station where they don’t work. Not sure why but apparently no one could ever get a feed so they stopped trying.”

The hair on the back of Rafe’s neck prickled. No camera? No mics? No day shift? What the hell?

“I just pulled the scanner records,” Otto’s voice intruded “You’re the only one who’s been in that room in five years, buddy. I doubt most people even know it’s there.”

“Oh..ummm.ok. Thanks…”

“Everything ok?’ Otto’s sounded concerned.

“Yeah, no I’m good. I’m good. Thanks. It’s fine.” Rafe ended the connection. Arianrhod, the Goddess of the Stars, the Weaver of Time and Fate. She had moved into the only temple that remained. The lights cut out and Rafe screamed like a little girl. He ran for the door, leaving everything behind and nearly jammed his thumb through the scanner in his haste to get out.

Rafe brought offerings to the temple every night after that and spoke to the voice as if to an old friend, but the voice remained mute. He took his time cleaning, making sure it was perfect. He found some pretty tablecloths and a couple of nice wall hangings at the commissary and draped them around the place, adding a few more candles and a basket for the offerings. He’d read about some of the ancient religions burning incense and after some convincing he’d gotten one of his friends in Production to model and print some. Rafe laid it out with the new candles and every night the candles and incense would be lit when he arrived. The air was warm again, kind, he might even have called it loving. But it was silent still. For a year Rafe kept to his routine, until one night when the voice spoke again.

“The place of your sustenance will be the manner of your doom.” 

Rafe pulled out his earpiece. “Arianrhod?”

“Where you gather together is where you will meet your end, or overcome it.”

Was there a particular reason gods and goddesses always spoke like that? Rafe wondered. How about ‘Here’s a problem, this is what I need you to do.’

“Umm, I’m going to need you to spell it out for me, Arianrhod,” Rafe said aloud. Silence.

“Arianrhod? Are you there?”

“Always,” she breathed “Where you gather, so gathers your fate.”

Rafe tried to talk to her again but no matter how much he pleaded and cajoled, she didn’t answer.

‘The place where we gather. Where we gain our sustenance?’ Rafe thought. ‘The canteen? Which canteen? There must be a hundred of them on the station.’ Not where we gather, where YOU gather. The canteen between his quarters and the temple?

Rafe grabbed his holo and messaged his boss. 

Otto messaged him back three hours later.

“I don’t know how you found it, but it’s a good thing you did. We’d all be dead in a matter of days if you hadn’t messaged me when you did.”

A hardy little bacterium, distant cousin to Earth’s C. metallidurans had developed in the tubes where refuse from Rafe’s favorite canteen was blasted out into the vacuum of space. It had eaten away enough of the metal inside the tube to disrupt the sensors and was days away from compromising the station’s hull. A leak like that would have been catastrophic, especially since it was going on unmonitored. The bacterium was expunged, the tube repaired and the new little pest renamed Rafaellus metallidurans after the unassuming temple janitor who saved the day. There was even a nice little credit bonus added to his account for his heroism. The Powers That Be went to work on a backup sensor system and new protocols on how to deal with new bacterial threats and Rafe went back to caring for his temple.

Word got out, as word always does, that Arianrhod had spoken through her beloved janitor priest and soon people began coming to the temple to make offerings, give thanks and pray for boons. Arianrhod never said much but Rafe could tell that she was happy. They would need a bigger temple before long.

Arianrhod, Goddess of the Stars and the Moon, of Fertility and Rebirth, Weaver of Time and Fate, had found her lost children in the vastness of the Universe and had come to shepherd them through the darkness. 

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