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The Curie Priest
    by Chris Phillips

The Curie Priest
Artwork by Tomislav Tikulin

The fueling station orbiting Sirius B was a hulking mass of necessity, blending a mismatch of smooth hulls and derelict subsections like a garbage heap constructed of everything from gutted ships to half-finished aluminum buildings jutting out at odd angles.

When Stepan Tinett was awoken by yet another call from his dead son, he phoned in sick and left the apartment like normal, not telling Loisa where he was going or why. He didn't feel guilty about withholding the information from his wife because even if he had shouted that he was off in search of a curie priest she wouldn't have heard a thing. She was out of control and stuck in a world full of poisoned memories. The priest could fix that. At least, so Stepan hoped.

Before he left the apartment, he tossed all the toys back into his son's bedroom, cursing the anti-grief counselors as he did it. It was a morning routine that defied mourning. Stepan shook his head. His son might be dead, but thanks to his wife, and the counselors she had hired, the memory of Jem lived on in a macabre ritual they all played day after exhausting day.

Stepan kept a firm grip on his identification card as he shoved his way through the lower marketplace. Overhead, fluorescent lights buzzed, coating everything in the washed out glow of dulled luminance. Most of the lights were busted, and occasionally his foot would crunch into the glass of a discarded bulb trampled under thousands of feet until the shards became fine as sand. The salty scent of sweat multiplied by body heat enveloped him.

But what dominated the press were the atomboxes, glowing nuclear furnaces harvested from the nearby star needed to power a starship up to speed. Most sat in cases the size of a small child, which took four men to lift because of the lead required to shield the radiation. Even with the shields, some leaked around rusted-out rivets. It was why the powers that be pumped radioprotective drugs through the water systems. At least, that was the rumor. They would only do that if the population's health somehow influenced bottom-line profits.

A scrounger with burnt fingertips wearing a gray shawl that might turn white if he washed it stepped in front of Stepan and said, "Set you up good, I will. No cracks. Prices are glowing!"

"Local." Stepan was a short, balding man with tiny fingers perfect for typing in mining commands all day. His father had been a scrounger, but Stepan had risen to the ranks of lower management.

Searching for a spacer who might buy an atombox, the man's eyes gazed past him.

Stepan grabbed the man's arm and spun him around like a small child. "I hear there's a curie docked?"

The man backed away as if Stepan had exhaled a breath full of radon.

"Not sick," Stepan said, assuring the man. "Just need a curie priest."

"No other reason for a curie." The man spat out the word and covered his face with the dirty shawl as he spoke. "Bay four, I hear. Stay away if you ain't peeling."

Bay four was the lowermost subsection of the station. Normally, a hundred smaller freighters would be docked, giving their captains a chance to trade or refuel. The space was enormous and open. If the ceiling had been painted blue Stepan would have sworn it was his childhood home, a place he had loved before his father had stolen them all away to this backwater heap of metal and bodies obsessed with harvesting starlight.

But the ceiling wasn't sky. And the bay was empty except for a mid-sized vessel about twenty meters tall by a hundred meters wide. It had an avian shape about it with a dented chrome hull that reflected Stepan's weary expression as he approached. On the top and bottom of the vessel, the symbol of the curie faith stood out in sharp, crimson paint: a circle broken by a vertical line. Nobody would approach such a vessel unless they were dying from radiation poisoning.

When he was ten paces from the ship, a vaguely feminine voice from inside hissed through a static-laced intercom, "Are you searching for relief or revenge?"

"What does that mean?" Stepan stood at what he thought was an entrance, an archway dominated by a series of symbols he couldn't interpret. He wanted to shove his way inside and get this over with.

"It means what it means." There was a pause as the speaker crackled. "You're not sick. If you're here for revenge I can assure you that it wasn't my fault. And I am truly sorry for your loss, but really . . . was just another step along the path."

Stepan glanced around for a secret camera, but he guessed it was obscured within all the markings. He suppressed another impulse to pound on the door until they either dragged him inside or sent someone out to face him. He took a long, deep breath until the impulse passed. Scroungers like his father behaved in such ways, and Stepan liked to think he was beyond that. Yes, light-years beyond.

"Rumors say that you do more than usher the dying to their rest," Stepan said.

No response from the voice.

"Rumors say you help the living. That's what I'm here for, the living." He thought of his wife in their quarters, lying to herself about the truth. The incessant buzzing of countless phone calls from his dead son pressed against his skull until he thought it might split open, revealing his weakness to the world. If his supervisors caught wind that Loisa was cracking up then it might change his status, and that would harm the future he was trying to build.

"A void in the path?" The voice spoke quickly.

"What?" Stepan wondered if all the other rumors were true. Were the priests in these ships just out their minds, tainted by the radiation that surely seeped from their pores?

"Tell me short," the voice said. It sounded excited. "The loss is denied, yes?"

"My son died fifty seven days ago. A faulty atombox broke open near his school. The man transporting it was executed, but revenge doesn't matter. About fifty children were exposed to high doses. So far over twenty have died, including . . . " He had been about to say his son's name, but the word would have squeaked out, layered with emotion, showing weakness. Stepan clenched his jaw and forced out the name like a breath laced with fire, "Jem."

"You have closed the void, said goodbye. But I'm guessing you have a wife or a husband that hasn't?"

"A wife."

"How far off the path has she strayed?"

"I don't know what that means." Stepan slowly punched the cold metal of the hull and sighed, wondering if they were even speaking of similar things.

"She hasn't accepted Jem in the beyond?" the voice asked.

Stepan perked up. They were on the same page, staring at the same word in a book he never thought he'd have to read. "No . . . no she hasn't! She even hired an anti-grief counselor."

The voice in the speaker hissed . . . or it might have been the static. But after several minutes of Stepan saying hello into the open air the door in front of him slid open. A small girl, a child, about half his height stepped out. Her body had the vague shape of a woman swaddled in silvery robes. Her head was shaved but her forehead was marked with a tattoo of the crimson circle and its bisecting line.

Stepan backed away from the girl as if she were an atombox cracked in half and ready to decay everything in the vicinity. Who knew how much radiation flowed through her body?

"You should have told me about the anti-grief counselors when you first approached. What their kind does is a crime."

Stepan cocked his head. There were about half a dozen such companies on the station, providing services out in the open. "Not a crime on this station."

"A moral crime then." She draped the end of her robe over her arm. The heavy fabric shimmered and for a moment Stepan wondered if it was laced with metal . . . with lead. It would make sense to keep the girl's poisoned body contained.

"It's wool, not lead." The girl laughed. "We don't sleep in emptied out atomboxes either."

Stepan swallowed. Could the girl read his thoughts?

"All psychics are charlatans," she said with a grin. "Show me the way."

Stepan blinked. "Where?"

"To your wife. To the void."

"You're . . . a priest?" Once or twice he had seen such priests from afar, the safe distance, but he had always assumed they'd be older.

The girl squinted at him with yellowed eyes that belonged to the dying. It was as if she already had a foot in the beyond, standing in a place where she could hear his unspoken thoughts. "Most of us don't reach our middle years. While normal people shuffle toward the beyond we run at great speed, searching for the path everyone takes through the universe."

"You mean faith?" The word sparked a distant memory as it escaped his mouth. Back home, before his father stole his life of wind and water, his mother had taken them to the temple. The curie acolytes spoke of the importance of the pattern and the path that everyone walked through the circle of existence. For a time, Stepan had wanted to join the curie acolytes, explore his own faith, but his father had laughed and shipped them off to the black soon after.

In transport, as the family puked their guts out because it had been their first exposure to high doses of radiation, his old man had called him weak even as he vomited beside Stepan. But the pay was worth it. A decade as a scrounger could earn a person more than fifty decades of working planetside.

Stepan was now approaching his twentieth year on the station. With the savings he'd earned in lower management they could afford a comfortable tract of land on any midgrade planet. His supervisor had hinted that the company would make him an offer before the year was out, promote him yet again, but even before his son Jem had died, his mind was set to get out while he still had all his teeth and most of his hair. At least, that's what he told himself. He wouldn't know until the offer was in front of him.

His father had lasted eight years before the old man wandered onto the deck of a curie ship without ceremony or goodbye. Sometimes Stepan wondered what the man saw before he crossed into the beyond and prayed to whatever shred of faith he had that he never had to find out.

The girl beside him chuckled as if he were the child. "Yes, I mean faith. With it we can understand our place in the pattern, but without it voids form. The more gaps the more chaos, the more chaos the less civility. And without that we lose society. Death should be embraced if life is to have weight . . . beauty." With that, the girl turned and started away from the ship.

For a moment, Stepan indeed felt like a child listening to an acolyte speak to the masses standing before the heavy altar. Priests never entered a temple unless they were dead. Their bodies secured in lead-lined coffins, which the altars were then constructed around so that every temple was symbolically fueled by faith. As he hurried after her, he wondered where the girl would end up, and how much devotion she might inspire.

When they entered the long corridor of the marketplace, people screamed, diving out of the way to make a path for the curie priest. Most hid behind atomboxes even though they were just shielding themselves with more radiation. Stepan followed her at a distance, but once they were halfway through the streets she paused and turned to him.

"I don't know where I'm going." She held out her tiny hand as if in challenge.

Stepan stared as if the delicate fingers were molten red and ready to burn him to the bone. If he didn't take it his fear would be obvious, which would give the priest control. His father had taught him that much at least. Fear drew out the patterns of dominance.

She smirked and nodded toward a nearby glove sitting discarded among the overturned mess of a table.

Stepan ignored the glove and took the girl's delicate hand. It was cold and soft to the touch. People nearby gasped, and the looks of horror reserved for the priest transferred to him. Distantly, he hoped nobody from his team found out. But he shoved that fear away too, drinking in their expressions and savoring the control. If he walked up to any of them they would give him whatever he wanted at whatever price. The realization sparked his hope. If his wife could be cowed out of her insanity then a bit of exposure was worth it.

"Your strength may be a weakness," she said, squeezing his hand. "Learn to bend and you'll travel far, I think."

Since he had no idea how to respond to that, he grunted. And with deliberately slow steps, he guided the curie priest to his quarters. She released his hand and he opened the door. From behind, the eyes of the anti-grief counselors dug into his back. The company watched from unseen cameras set up around the apartment, for which his wife had paid large sums.

The small residence was dominated by a single large room with a kitchen and living room shoved together. The open space was separated by a long lavender sofa. To either side lay bedrooms with cramped bathrooms attached. Since it was just the two of them, downgrading to a smaller unit would save a fortune, but they wouldn't have had room for all of Jem's stuff.

Even though Stepan had taken a moment and thrown the toys back into his son's pointless bedroom before he went out to find the priest, they again lay scattered about the apartment. Building blocks of half-finished trees and planetside houses rested on the coffee table ready to be completed tomorrow by unseen hands, only to be torn down the next day for another mockery of a child's imagination. The anti-grief counselors were good at their work. Drawings of trees Jem had never painted, or seen, clung to the refrigerator, and even his smell, little boy sweat and candy defiled the air. More than once, Stepan wondered how the anti-griefs had manufactured his son's scent.

Some nights, as he lay naked in the open living room of the apartment, he could imagine that his son lay sleeping in the next room. The family was whole and tragedy had never touched them. His bare body, which he would never expose out in the open if his son had been alive, brought him back to the sanity of reality. Jem was dead. It was a childless home filled with disgusting reminders.

"What is it you wish me to accomplish?" the curie said.

"What?" Stepan stared down at the strange creature, unsure how to answer.

She said, "I know what I wish, and I will get it, but I find it best to be open about motives."

For a moment, he wanted to ask what she was getting out of all this, but he shook off the desire. If the long hours spent at temple were any indication, he wouldn't understand or even care about her answer. "My wife is broken." Images of the disabled machines surrounding his mining station came to his mind. "I want you to fix her mental programing. Show her the truth."

"And if it breaks her?"

"She's already broken."

"And if it breaks you?"

Before he could answer, the door to the apartment opened. Stepan involuntarily jumped and cursed himself, disgusted at how nervous the priest made him.

His wife Loisa staggered in, wearing a full-body radiation suit. The things cost a fortune and were worthless in the long run since no amount of protection could fully shield a person day and night. He guessed the anti-grief people were responsible in some way. No doubt they had a sale or something.

Loisa removed the helmet and cocked her head. "You're home?" Her eyes narrowed as they took in the priest and what her presence might mean. Her voice became sharp. "What is that doing here? It's not safe for Jem!"

Stepan held up his hand. "No . . . we're not safe. We need help and she's the one to give it." He wasn't sure about the statement, but he did his best to keep the doubt away from his words.

Loisa stepped toward the door, fumbling with the helmet to save herself from the girl. Stepan shook his head. The girl priest might be strange, but it wasn't like she was a busted-open atombox.

A small island stood in the center of the kitchen. On it lay a child's backpack with half completed assignments scattered about. His son's shaky handwriting dominated the script, but Jem had never so much as seen the paperwork. Underneath it all, a telephone buzzed.

Loisa paused by the door, torn between the chirping and running. After a moment she said, "Aren't you going to answer that?"

Stepan sighed and dug out the phone from underneath the papers, cringing as he touched the abominations of his son's legacy. The screen of the receiver, slim and shiny, read Jem. Stepan smacked it back down against the table and said, "It's your son."

Loisa, oblivious now to the curie priest, dove toward the phone. For a moment, Stepan wanted to snatch it away and smash it to the floor. His father would have done that and then laughed. Since he wasn't his father, he gripped the edges of the counter until his fingertips turned white.

"Hello?" Loisa said, gasping. "Jem?"

As she listened, a serene calmness spread across her features as dopamine flooded her brain. He could mark the tide line with his fingertip. Loisa laughed, tears in her eyes, and said, "That's okay sweetie. You just be sure to call us when you leave, rent a security shuttle if you have to. Don't worry. We can afford it." She clicked off the phone and gave him a smile that didn't quite touch the rest of her face.

Stepan wondered how the anti-grief people had captured his son's voice, and guessed that they probably had an illegal program embedded into the station's com system, recording everyone's voice in case a death suddenly became an opportunity.

"That was Jem," she said, her face a mix of pain and dazed happiness. "He's staying over at Dustin's until the boys finish their homework. I don't like him walking home so late, so I told him to rent a security shuttle. They're pricy, I know-"

"Your son is dead," the curie priest said. Until that moment she had watched from a distance, studying the exchange. She licked her lips and continued, "This home is a break in the path, clear as a shattered crystal sphere. Ignoring the pain only makes it worse, invites other cracks to form."

Beside them, on the countertop, the phone rang again. The name read Jem. Before Loisa could move, the curie priest snatched it away, slipping it into her silvery robes. "Humans weren't meant to live so close to starlight, the eyes of the gods. That's why I'm here. This is where most cracks form. This is the battleground. Allow enough cracks and everything will shatter."

"What is she talking about?" Loisa said, pointing at the girl. "Stepan! Get me the phone! What if Jem needs something?"

"He's dead," Stepan said, the words dull and bitter in his mouth like week-old coffee. He had said the words before, screamed them even though he knew they wouldn't do any good. But now he clung to each syllable to remind himself of the truth. Too often, it was easy to squint and see the toys and scattered bits of his son's life not as leftovers, but as his wife saw them, markers of life. Each piece of plastic and each little drawing a reassurance that Jem was alive. At times like that, Stepan missed his own father. The man would have taken him by the neck and beaten him until he saw the truth, reforming weakness into strength.

Stepan had never laid a hand on Loisa before, but during those weak moments late at night and alone, he could imagine it. The thought shamed him until he drifted off into a dreamless sleep, grateful that he hadn't inherited his father's rough hands.

Loisa lunged toward the phone.

The curie priest grabbed Loisa's head with both hands.

Loisa screamed.

"Let her go!" Stepan said, reaching out and grabbing the girl's arm.

"You wanted my help," the curie said, digging her nails into Loisa's scalp.

Stepan released the girl.

From the folds of her robe, the phone rang.

The priest's hands trembled as she stared into Loisa's eyes, searching for something unknown to Stepan. The curie leaned in close and quickly chanted, "Suffering is the only guarantee. Suffering is life. To deny it is to deny death. Without death there can be no path. And without that, life is meaningless." The priest kissed Loisa, muffling her screams.

The phone stopped ringing.

The violence became too much. Something inside him broke as the weight of guilt smothered out all rational thought. Stepan yanked the priest away from his wife. The curie let go without resistance. Her face was placid, as if nothing had happened.

"What did you do?" Stepan screamed into the priest's face, knowing that he was the image of his own father. His body shook, and he feared what he might do.

Loisa's body shuddered as she clutched her hands to her face.

The chirping of the phone started again, somehow desperate despite its lack of emotion.

"When you're ready," the curie priest said, completely composed, "I'll be on my ship. You're not your father, Stepan, but that doesn't mean you won't share his fate if you remain so close to the edge of life. Find a planet, cling to the center of the path and stay away from the eyes of the gods. If they see you, they might decide to take you home."

With that, the priest gave him a look of compassion, a strange expression that didn't belong on her severe face. She placed the phone at Stepan's feet and walked away.

He called after her, "What did you do to my wife? Look at her! You didn't fix anything!"

"Learn how to bend," the curie said as she moved into the corridor.

She was gone.

Stepan wanted to follow her and pry some simple answers out of her twisted words. He had invited her into his home to repair things, and she ended up attacking his wife? At his side, his fist clenched over and over, a reflection of the increasing rhythm of his heartbeat.

He paused. Years ago when they had first arrived at the station, Stepan had become an expert at reading his father's hands. Open and flat were okay, even nervous tapping was fine. But when the old man clenched them or pressed one fist into the palm of the other, popping knuckles, it was time to hide.

Learn how to bend.

Stepan guessed his father had never bent his will until the old man took those last steps onto the deck of a curie ship. The act itself was an admission of weakness. Stepan paused. Why hadn't he ever seen it that way before? After a long breath, the reason came to him. He was holding his father up as an example of strength. As he stared down at his empty palms, the notion of idolizing such a man took his breath away.

The phone continued its incessant chirping from the floor. With her back to the countertop, his wife's body shook with deep, convulsive sobs. Her body seemed to shrink inside the massive radiation suit until it nearly swallowed her.

Images of clouds and sky from a childhood he had nearly forgotten came to him. It was a distant place that something deep down inside had insisted he wouldn't see again. For the first time, he wondered how many credits were in his retirement account. Would it be enough to leave the station? It would have to be. Why had he never thought to inquire before?

He reached down, picked up the phone, and said, "Hello?"

"Hi daddy," Jem said, happy and full of life. "Is mommy there?"

Numbness spread throughout his mind. He couldn't leave the station without his wife, and she was tied to their son's memory. No matter how much money they had saved up, he knew she would never let go.

He could abandon her or continue to pretend. After a moment, he realized that he didn't have a choice.

He knelt next to her, touching her with a gentle hand. The gesture felt awkward, foreign. How long had it been since he offered her comfort instead of anger?

Stepan pressed the phone into her hand. "It's for you." His voice cracked. "It's our son."

A moment lingered where nothing happened. A heavy silence sat in the room. It was as if all of them had passed into the beyond. Loisa glanced at the name on the screen and rejected the call. She slid the receiver across the room.

As the phone begged them for attention once again, they held each other, husband and wife, and shared the grief that had been ignored for so long. Finally, he had given in and taken one step toward accepting her pain. And together they would stare into the void as they clung to the path . . . to each other.

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