The Fire Carrier
Telo was not a fire carrier. He was a craftsman, older and much less capable than the young men they normally had to do the job. His back ached from age, and his knees creaked as they rotated through their range of motion, stenciling out the pattern of a weak run. His body was thin and his face covered in deep, heavy wrinkles. Dark eyes were permanently set in a tired expression. His thin grey hair stuck to his forehead by a layer of sweat and dirt. With every step he took, the impact jarred his body and the length of his journey seemed to double in his mind. His shoes, simple things of wood and twine, had broken the same day he left. He felt the rest of his body was not far behind.
Home was still a day away. A day of running and panting and tearing through grass so dry, that their stalks carved into his bare legs like knives. A day up and over the high pass that separated the mainland from the village, and the village from the sea. A day through a windstorm that pulled up the earth in giant columns that spiraled and twisted into the sky. He watched the sky heave and turn itself over through the thrashing pine branches above. He shivered, clutched the ember ark to his chest, and forced himself forward.
As night fell, the clouds rolled over thick and the wind howled. Remembering his prayers, and the memory of his son, Telo bowed to the star just over the mountain, the star which now held his son. As the clouds moved to swallow it up, he begged him for shelter and warmth. Telo ran, and his limbs ached from strain, then cold, and then slowly the pain stopped. His foot hit a rock and there was a sharp crack from his toe. The fact that he could feel no pain from it caused Telo to finally stop for the night.
The weathered red sandstone outcrop that formed the flank of the mountain pass was porous and filled with numerous indentations, some as small as a mouse, some the size of a mammoth. Telo found a person sized indentation, and crawled inside as far as he could. The interior was damp and cold, but the wind was mostly gone. If he faced out of the cave he could sit up straight and, though they were partly in a thin puddle of water, his legs were out of the wind. Placing the ember ark up against the wall of the cave he began tearing off a piece of his tunic to tie around his toe in a bandage. Outside, the wind made strange noises blowing over the holes in the rock, humming tones that were disjunct and strange. Telo thought it sounded familiar, much like another storm he had experienced.
That other storm had come from the sea, from canoes and the men inside them, carrying clubs and calling out in whoops and hollers. The storm swept up from the shore and fell down upon the village with the sound of screaming. Blood pooled, and homes exploded into flame, wooden walls flickering orange and filled with the sound of those trapped inside. The wailing and raging continued into the night until finally the storm was beaten back to the sea. Night passed and morning broke, allowing a full survey of what was lost. Most of the homes had been burned down, and every able bodied young man was either killed or injured. Most importantly to Telo, his son, the village’s fire carrier, was dead. A dull rain fell that day, soaking up and washing out all that remained.
It was taught that man could tend fire and spread it, but creation of fire was solely the realm of god. As such, each village and city kept their own flickering descendant of that heavenly gift. They fueled it, tended it, and gave it freely to all those who needed it. The Fire Carrier was tasked with keeping the fire, and if it went out, he retrieved an ember from the great city. Telo’s son was dead though, and between the rain and the storm, so was every ember in the village. With the cold biting wind of winter already streaming down from the mountains, someone needed to retrieve an ember from the city or the whole village would freeze to death. Telo volunteered to go.
That was five days ago, now he struggled to imagine himself even making it through the night. Whatever heat Telo was able to gather, the cold rock sucked it from him twice as fast. The wind was freezing but the earth was dry, so Telo gathered a small bundle of tinder and stacked it near the mouth of the cave. The ember ark was a stick, hollowed out and cut such that it could be pulled open in the middle. Two holes fed air to the ember inside which was surrounded by a type of moss that could keep it burning for two to three days. Pulling it apart, Telo tipped the ember holder forward, letting the glowing charcoal stumble out onto the pile of tinder at the mouth of the cave.
The charcoal bounced forward and then stopped right on top of the pile. For a moment it smoked, and then a sudden gust of wind flung the whole pile against his face and the wall of the cave. Telo’s heart stopped as he heard the sound of twigs and branches scrape on the side of the rock, the wind howled its same strange note, and the small puddle of water hissed as the ember fell inside and went out.
Telo screamed and reached for the ember, but it was already cold. He beat his hands against the walls of the cave and cried. He cried for an hour until he grew too cold and tired to continue. His feet were completely numb, and his hands were almost there. Grabbing a stick from the pile he spun it between his hands to keep them awake. He wondered what he would tell them, if he even made it back. He said a prayer to his son who he knew was watching from above, and worked his hands back and forth as his shivering subsided.
He had taught his son to carve beads in a similar way. Rotating a small rock in your hand it was possible to carve straight through a piece of wood if done carefully and slowly. Spinning the stick in his hands he wondered if it was possible with wood too. Taking a larger piece of tinder he spun the stick on top of it, working his hands down and providing steady pressure. The wood gave satisfying resistance and squeaked slightly as he worked it. His son loved to make necklaces for his mother and all his siblings. He would carve each bead painstakingly with rocks he collected from the mountains. Telo still had one of them at home.
He smelled it first, and then saw it drifting up in the dim light from outside, smoke. It wasn’t coming from outside though, it was coming from inside the cave, from his little carving mechanism. Telo redoubled his efforts and this time the smoke began pouring out from the wood like water. The wood was not just warm from his hands, but hot, burning hot. Removing the drill, Telo gasped at the red glowing ember at the bottom of a small hole.
He coaxed the fire together earnestly, and it quickly consumed the fuel he had inside. Maneuvering around the fire he worked himself out of the cave and onto the ground. The storm was dying, and he couldn’t help but smile. It was said that when people died, their souls ascended to the sky and became one of the millions of fires that burned in the night. Tonight, one of those glittering fires came down and gave him not only the fire, but a way to create it.
Gathering more sticks from the woods he stacked them neatly on the ground outside the cave. Picking up the tinder bundle he gently placed it underneath and watched as the flame grew. The pace of the fire picked up sharply as it consumed the small collection of dry tinder, Telo would need more if he intended the fire to stay lit.
Constructing a small windbreak out of rocks, Telo placed the fire outside on the dirt, and tossed on as many twigs and medium-sized branches as he could find in the immediate vicinity. The fire crackled as it received the new fuel, and with renewed vigor, Telo set about to find more substantial firewood. He wandered for a few minutes before he came across a fallen tree that had partially rotted out, the wind had slowly begun anew and he hurried to split apart the larger sections of wood before it would blow the fire out. Wormed through by insects and weather, the wood was soft and powdery, giving way in large clumps as his fingers pried it down the center. He became utterly engrossed in this task, and when he stood back up with four large chunks of wood, his senses came back to him in a rush.
The forest behind him was glowing. The dry cold wind was back and it fed the roaring beast as it coursed up and down the ancient pines, consuming and growing and burning. The last emotion that came to Telo was one of betrayal, as the beast he bore devoured him whole.
Muriel yelped as the fire caught. In a station designed to be as fireproof as possible, it had taken her a long time to find something that would actually burn. Pure hydrogen, the kind that flowed in the yellow painted pipes on the walls, turned out to burn quite well. Twisting the fuel control valve, Alice smiled as the flame roared, and held out her shivering hands. Heat was just the latest thing to go as the ship continued on its energy rationing protocols. The fire wasn’t much when compared to the swallowing darkness that filled the surrounding corridors, but at least she had a little heat.
She had left port seven days earlier, with new cargo on the return half of her journey, the half that would take her to Eden, an ironically named ice planet ten thousand light years from nowhere. The planet that she called home. The ship Eldracht was a hundred year old medium freighter with a repurposed cargo bay and a penchant for getting stuck. Faded green paint with a white stripe that ran down the length of the back labeled it as a personal transporter, designed in a twin engine style that could carry up to five hundred passengers when it was working properly. She was a retired pilot thrice that age who had only flown single seater light recreation craft in the last century. Compounding the problem was the fact that humans didn’t much fly spaceships much anymore, though they were still required by law to have manual controls, it was normally the job of AI’s to do much of the drudgery.
She had been recruited out of necessity and desperation. There were no other pilots, and it was the only spaceship. The mantle of the ice planet had ceased to flow, and Eden needed an alternate source of energy or even the deep caverns would freeze. She had been tasked with the impossible mission to retrieve the knowledge from the rubble of a great world, and return with it. It was that precious flame of knowledge she traveled with now.
“Cargo check.” she called out, and a small glass panel she held in her hand flashed green. She breathed deeply and held it to her chest.
True to form the ship had broken down after just a day and a half in hyperspace, a hard clunk in the aft of the ship followed by a violent deceleration. She managed, with no small degree of terror, to get the ship into a stable orbit around a nearby star, before shutting the engines down and restarting everything. Nanobots emerged in a thin grey film, moving over the boxy exterior hull toward the two thrusters in the rear. They would fix whatever had broken but it would take time, and in the meanwhile Muriel had nothing to do but wait. Wait and watch the power reserves slowly dwindle as the days ticked by. The first thing to go were the lights, followed by all non-essential computation the next day. She had a personal flashlight, but knowing it was not a long term solution, moved everything she needed to the cockpit where the starlight was bright enough to see by. Four days later heating systems were turned off, and life support was restricted to the medical bay and cockpit.
Muriel smiled as she watched the fire dance on top of the makeshift burner. All around her, crystals of frost on the dull grey wall panels flickered like stars. She stared at it, entranced, and absorbed in a distant memory. They looked like the sky above her planet, two hundred years ago when the great war came to them. She was told two hundred thousand ships and twenty billion people lost their lives in the struggle. That number was plastered across news reports all over civilization, along side pleadings for a cease fire. Peace did not come however, and over the next hundred years the number climbed into the trillions. Nearly all of the great worlds were lost along with most of the human race. What remained of a once vast civilization, was a smear of humanity left to survive on the inhospitable fringe worlds, too out of the way to attract attention.
A ping sounded in the cockpit and the display just below the window flickered to life.
Repairs complete, engage controls to proceed with course.
The voice coming over the speakers was the first she had heard in weeks, and it made her jump. Combing back her dark hair she turned the burner down, set it in the copilot seat, and seated herself next to it. The controls moved up to reach her hands as she settled into the seat, and a map pieced itself together in the corner of her vision.
The ship creaked as it turned, and then there was a strong thud from the engines. Muriel was pressed back into her seat and the stars in front of her warped closer and closer together until her entire field of view was compressed into a window the size of a dime, blue in the center and surrounded by a ring of red. As the ship passed light speed, the little circle of stars disappeared and everything became dark save for the computers.
This final hop through hyperspace would be short, and she watched the timer tick down as she got closer and closer to home. Watching the map flow by on the chart in the far end of the cockpit, she marked familiar systems and nebulas as she soared past them.
“Eden base, this is the Eldracht. Please come in.” The comms unit clicked as she switched off the microphone. The timer counted down; sixty, fifty, forty, thirty seconds. The air remained silent. “Base, this is Eldracht. Come in.”
The ship gave a mighty lurch as it dropped out of speed and the world suddenly reappeared in the windows. Beneath the Eldracht, an icy blue world stretched out on all sides, covered in frozen mountains and crevasses a mile deep. The inertia pressed Muriel forward into her restraints, but the hydrogen burner was unsecured, and flew into the window, extinguishing the flame and cracking the hose fitting. Muriel held her breath and for a moment the only sound in the cockpit was the furious hiss of hydrogen gas escaping from the broken hose. Muriel undid her restraints just as it reignited. A fireball bloomed in the copilot seat and the explosion sent her flying across the room like a cannonball. Her arm broke against the hard paneling, and she screamed in chorus with the blaring alarms that blinked in every cockpit display.
When hydrogen burns it flickers with a thin blue and yellow flame. The explosion sent that flicker down the pipes which supplied it, cracking and stripping them from the walls in the process. It took no more than two seconds for another explosion to mark the flames having reached the main tank in the back. The ship wrenched violently and a crack formed across the main hull, hissing air into space.
“Maday, maday! Eldracht to Eden! Please respond!”
Muriel grabbed the controls with her good arm and tried to wrestle with the ship. In the window she could see the ground start to accelerate toward her, the frame of the vessel shuddering in the friction of the atmosphere. Giving up on controlling her descent, Muriel got up and tore away a small panel, revealing a thin dirty space suit. She winced as she put her arm through, but when the helmet finally sealed she forgot all about it, gasping for the air that filled the suit as if she had been underwater.
“Maday! Maday! I am in uncontrolled descent, Please respond!”
The air around the ship glowed as the atmosphere thickened. The cockpit monitor flashed two words in red:
She flung herself down the main corridor which was strobing with alarms. The gravitational pull was increasing, and with each meter she climbed it became more and more difficult. The visor of the spacesuit began to fog and soon the entire world was lost to it. Operating by touch alone Muriel found her way down to the end of the craft, where, miraculously the escape pod remained unharmed. Forcing the door open and stumbling through she hit the eject button before she was able to restrain herself in the seat.
The ship burned, and she could see the pulsating flames around her as the escape craft jettisoned away. She hit her head as it accelerated, but eventually she was able to get into the seat, and fasten the restraints.
The front of the escape pod was entirely reinforced glass, and provided a vast panoramic view of the scene below her. The Eldracht burned and writhed as the atmosphere battered and beat around it, breaking off massive chunks that burned in the atmosphere like a tumbling comet until it finally reached the surface and bloomed into an enormous fireball.
She landed close by to the smoldering ruin and checked her cargo monitor. It flashed a black square with the words cargo cannot be located in bold white below. The same message it had flashed since the initial explosion. She knew it was lost but she wanted to see for herself. Picking her way through the flames and debris, she navigated over to where the cargo bay had once been located. The top was completely blown out and the sheared metal looked like an enormous grey flower, curling toward the night sky. She picked her way in, careful to keep her injured arm away from anything, and immediately found what she was looking for. All the data she gathered was stored in a small blue crystal that was housed in a solid metal box. Running her finger along the scorched bottom of the hull, her glove accumulated a fine layer of glassy blue dust.
She watched from nearby as the wreckage burnt itself out. Night continued on, and as the smoke cleared, clouds moved to cover the sky. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped, which made her spacesuit flash a warning across the visor. She brushed the warning away and kept watching. The blue dust that still clung to her glove contained not only the technology to save Eden but hundreds of books and paintings and films and thesis from eons of human civilization. Priceless fire of a world that now sat smoldering on the surface of a vast planetary glacier.
Muriel held her broken arm and cried. As the battery finally died, and the blizzard settled in, Muriel looked up to see shrinking patch of starry sky.
Light travels slowly, and it took five photons forty thousand years to traverse the distance from the Earth to Eden, but when Muriel looked up, it was those five photons she saw. Tired and red shifted by eons of travel, those photons, by a curious aspect of faster than light travel, were those created by Muriel’s most distant ancestors. The first light created by man.
The light faded, but then more came, invisible to Muriel, but there nonetheless. Those five photons had been a herald, for behind them was something greater. The electromagnetic radiation of the entirety of human existence, spreading like ripples in a pond, leapfrogging across planets, systems, and constellations, in a the form of radio waves, television, electric light, and microwaves. An opera, vast in scale and depth, telling the entire story from beginning to end without any breaks or stops. Perhaps the story ended there, but the fire continued on, blooming out in a sphere at lightspeed, spreading and spreading until the entire universe was contained within it, singing the song of a great species that was born and lived and died. The radio interchange from the first moon landings was just past Virgo, the light from the industrial revolution three hundred light years farther still. The first radio broadcast of Beethoven’s fifth symphony played out in scattered waves which weaved through the horsehead nebula like woven silk.
Muriel stared as the final patch of light disappeared above her, those five photons of the first fire carrier, landing on the eyes of the very last.