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Short Fiction: "The Penderite Tabernacle"

AeternisSep 14, 2021, 2:24:14 PM

When he reached the edge of the balcony, Grand Hierophant Toloni out his arm to encompass the view. "She’s beautiful, isn’t she.” 

Captain Sandra Ibsen couldn’t help but agree. The starship below, half-covered by scaffolding in a specially built docking cradle, was far larger than any vessel that had any right to land on a planet’s surface, but despite its size and the reinforced structures which allowed it to rest on its keel, it had the clean lines and graceful elegance of a much smaller vessel. If it weren’t for the antlike figures of the techs and shipwright workers scurrying about on the scaffolds, she might have thought the vessel no larger than a cutter or ship’s pinnace. 

The old man, leaning on his two-meter-high scepter of office, said nothing, but the smirk tugging upward on his thin lips suggested that he had expected Sandra to be taken aback. 

“This is...” Sandra leaned on the railing and looked down to the open-air shipyard below. There must have been thousands of humans living and working in the facility. “I thought the Penderites didn’t-” 

“We reject over-reliance on technology, Captain Ibsen.” Toloni shrugged. “But we are not so inflexible as the Amish or the Samarites. When necessary, we will use the tools of the age.” 

“When you requested my presence, Your Eminence, this is not what I expected.” Sandra had grown up among Penderites on Hercules – she'd even been sent by her parents to train at one of their religious academies. She had, however rejected the ascetic life of a Sister Priestess before completing her course of study, left the academy, and hopped aboard a tramp freighter bound for Vorkuta. The unsmiling honor guard of the Grand Hierophant had been something of an alarming welcome party when she had landed on Earth. 

“Then our efforts have not been in vain.”  Toloni pointed to the vessel in the cradle. “We have labored in great secrecy on this. I wish to hire you as a ship-commander for the Holy Tabernacle.” 

“Me?” Sandra took a step back. She had just completed a contract skippering a small passenger-liner on a milk-run route between Earth and Maribel, but the vessel below was at least twice the tonnage of anything she’d been responsible for in the past. “That’s at least a five-hundred-million-credit-” 

“One point four billion Confederated credits so far.” The old man coughed, as if admitting the figure hurt him. “It may have been two billion if we had not done much of the work ourselves.” 

The idea of the Holy Order of Penderites recruiting a staff of technically savvy engineers and shipwrights, either from its own converts or from those outside the faith, was simply too much for Sandra to bear. The order was large and wide-spread throughout explored space, but to sell enough wealth to raise billions of standard credits must have nearly drained its coffers even so. Penderites lived simply, with little technology, and avoided access to the datasphere which suffused the lives of most of the citizens of the Reach. In their view, living closer to the land, Earth’s or that of another life-bearing planet, helped them form and strengthen a relationship with God. 

“That’s not a transport ship, Your Eminence.” Sandra pointed to the lines of still-empty hollow sockets running down the sides of the ship. “You’re fitting it for combat. I’m not qualified to command a cruiser of war.” 

“You wound me, Captain. We do not engage in warfare. Our creed forbids it. We are arming Holy Tabernacle, yes, but only as a means of self-defense.” 

“Who would attack a Penderite-flagged vessel?” 

The old pontiff smiled. “Come. You must want to see her up close. Once you have, perhaps you will understand.” 

Despite the old man’s age, he quickly outpaced Sandra on the stairs leading down to ground level. Breathing hard and cursing the order’s idea that an elevator constituted over-reliance on technology, she trotted to catch up with him as he walked out into the vast courtyard. She noted the Kosseler crests on crates stacked between the barracks and workshops which she passed by. If the Order was importing parts and equipment all the way from Ori to build a ship of war, the government had to know about it – and if they weren’t doing anything about it, that meant the Grand Hierophant’s project had almost certainly received official sanction, and perhaps covert financial support. 

The walk to the cradle was longer than Sandra expected, perhaps because she had still underestimated the scale of the facility. Despite the orderly gridwork-arrangement of the structures raised around the ship’s cradle, she suspected she had walked more than a kilometer before the sweeping hull of Holy Tabernacle loomed above her head. She would have checked this figure on her wrist computer, but the Order had forced her to leave the device and all her other computer hardware in a locker at the checkpoint at the edge of the temple grounds. 

Waving aside a pair of armed guards, the old man led up a steep ramp to a hatch in the ship’s side, still showing no sign of slowing down. Several techs installing crystalline circuit-blocks into access panels near the airlock jumped to their feet and bowed their heads at the pontiff’s approach, but he paid them no mind. 

Inside the ship, Sandra had hoped to find the Penderites using lifts, but she was dismayed to find Toloni leading her to another damnable stairwell and headed up. She had lived more than half of her life in half-gee shipboard conditions and climbing interminable stairs in Earth gravity was simply exhausting. 

Holy Tabernacle is a vessel designed for one mission, and it is of utmost importance that this mission succeed.” Toloni waved his staff, whose crystalline head barely missed scraping on the overhead panels, for emphasis. “We can crew the ship with lay Penderites who have come to us from your profession, but we lack officers. If you accept this job, you will be responsible for recruiting officers.” 

“I can... Do that.” Sandra tried and failed to keep her breathlessness from showing in her voice. “Except gunnery... officers.” 

“That has already been arranged.” 

Three decks up from where they had boarded, the Hierophant abruptly left the stairwell and led Sandra into a wide corridor that appeared to extend across the breadth of the ship. A pair of the Hierophant’s honor guards in their gaudy parade uniforms stood on either side of a heavy hatch at the midpoint of this long hall. The moment they spotted the Hierophant, they stood at attention, heads bowed and antique bayonet-fixed rifles resting on their shoulders. The men didn’t look up as the pontiff and Sandra approached, but she could tell as Toloni withdrew a large key from his robes and fitted into an archaic-looking tumbler-lock that they had both surreptitiously taken her measure and inspected her visually for weapons. 

“Remove your shoes, Captain Ibsen.” The Grand Hierophant leaned on the key until it turned, the tumblers within clicking audibly into place. “The deck beyond is holy ground.” 

Still recovering her breath, Sandra knelt to loosen and slip off her shoes, trying to recall from her partial religious instruction what sort of place might be within. As far as she knew, a Penderite only removed their shoes in a place believed to contain the very real presence of God. There were no such places in the Penderite enclave or Penderite religious academy on Hercules. 

As soon as she stood in her smartfabric socks on the cool deck, Toloni pushed the hatch open. Unlike most shipboard hatches, it was hinged to open inward like the double doors of a static building, and it swung open easily even for his thin arms. The space beyond was dimly lit, but before Sandra’s eyes could adjust, the Hierophant grasped her wrist and led her in. 

“Do you remember what the original Tabernacle was built for, my wayward Sister?” 

Sandra looked around, seeing incongruous oil-lamps hanging from the buttressed pillars on either side of her. The space within was surprisingly small, but high-ceilinged, and she realized it was some form of onboard chapel. 

“To allow the Children of Israel to pay homage to their God in their wanderings, Your Eminence.” Sandra replied. Perhaps the Grand Hierophant meant to visit his widely distributed faithful – a tour of the largest Penderite enclaves would indeed be a novel step for the technologically-skeptical order. 

“Yes, but... There was more.” Toloni stopped at a vast, heavy curtain that ran the length and height of the compartment. “It was the very seat of God, and so is this ship.” 

Sandra remembered her old lessons. Those who stepped through the curtain in the original Tabernacle without being extensively sanctified had been struck dead. Despite the increasingly agnostic attitudes which had dominated her life as a spacer, she shied away from this forbidding shroud. 

“God has spoken to us, Captain. The Order of Penderites will not long be safe on Earth. Ancient Iberia will soon reject us, so we will remove the holy things from this land.” Toloni turned away from the curtain to Sandra. “Dark times are coming. Will you come back to the Order in this time of need?” 

Sandra swallowed, terrified but strangely at peace. “I... I will, Your Eminence. You can count on me.” 

Toloni smiled warmly. “I knew I could, Sister. Come, let me show you your quarters.”

- - - - - - -

(Banner art by JaeCheol Park.)

The Penderite Tabernacle was originally written in about 90 minutes to a self-guided challenge earlier this year and posted as a Minds+ exclusive. It became a Datasphere Catalog entry during a week I was sick over the summer and didn't have time to write a new story for that Tuesday's entry.

The Penderites have been a facet of the setting since early on, though they're not the most prominent of religious sects. Sort of a space-age take on the Mennonites or Amish of our day, they are a strongly pacifist Christian sect which tends to live in tight-knit, isolated communities with little interest in modern technology. The Penderite sect is centered in a temple complex on the Iberian plain of Earth, a sprawling network of largely stone structures devoted to simple monastic pursuits. The priests of this facility, led by the Grand Hierophant, participate in a set of secret rites developed by the sect's founder in the 23rd century.

Though they avoid technology in their day to day life, the Penderites don't consider human artifice evil in itself. Instead, they see it as a potential distraction from fealty to God, family, and the community. They have no qualms about booking passage on spacecraft when necessary to make pilgrimages or found a new Penderite community on a colony planet, and though they are pacifists who take religious objection to any offensive action (including military service), they defend and police their own communities with any modern weapons they are capable of operating and maintaining.

The Penderites are well known despite lacking any primary datasphere footprint and avoiding urban areas wherever possible. Most colony worlds have a few enclaves of this sect's faithful, and they are generally regarded as responsible, if standoffish, neighbors.