IN A SOLAR ORBIT,
in a spaceship,
in a church,
in a scratchy monk's habit,
in a film of perspiration,
Bart stood balancing a powdery white bowl on a gray tile. His hands were clammy with sweat, and all he could think was, I'm going to drop it.
That would be bad, as the bowl was worth more than most people earned in a lifetime -- or, at least, it would be, once the glaze coating had been fired. Bart was pretty sure the bowl was Brother Peter's work. He knew that Peter had been trying to perfect a blue glaze for almost two years now, and so that would most likely be its final color. It was impossible to tell from the unfired glaze, but Bart had seen some of the test tiles, the azure of an abyssal sea. One day, the bowl in his hands might grace the dining table of a king or the president of some interplanetary corporation.
That's if you get it to the altar without tripping. Bart looked up from the bowl and down the great hall of the cathedral, past the stained-glass tableaux, past the statues of the saints -- Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler -- past the monks in their stalls, to the chancel where the Abbot prayed. Fifty steps. He had made the trip a thousand times, but this was the first he had been allowed to carry a piece to the kiln.
"Just pretend it's full of thirty-year-old, single-malt scotch. That way you won't drop it," Gary had whispered to him just before Bart left his stall. "Oh, wait: That's if I was carrying it." Bart had tried to impress the seriousness of the ritual upon Gary. Pyros was the most important of their annual rites. It was when the monks offered the Sun their wares of the wheel and the kiln. Soon they would know whether His Divine Light had embraced those offerings. "Yeah, and what your gross revenues should come to for the year," Gary had added with a smirk.
Bart felt another bead of sweat trickle down his cheek and cling to his chin. He edged the bowl out of the way a second before the drop broke free and dripped onto his toe. The bowl wobbled on its tiny three-point stand.
Brother Aelred turned at the sound and scowled. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing. I just --"
At the far end of the church, the Abbot stood, then bowed his head to the Sun. "We humbly offer these, the fruits of our labors, to our Heavenly Father, and pray that they may find favor even in the scrutiny of His Divine Light."
That was their cue.
"All right," whispered Brother Aelred, putting a hand on Bart's shoulder. "Follow me." Then he took his place at the head of the procession immediately in front of Bart and they started walking toward the altar. Each of the nine monks carried a bowl, cup, or other vessel coated in the white, unfired glaze.
Light poured through the stained-glass windows of the cathedral, daubing the monks' dull robes with color, heating everything. No wonder he was sweating. Our sweat cleanses us, as Brother Aelred was fond of saying. But feeling the drops break from their pores and make their reckless dashes down his back, Bart felt anything but clean. His habit was soaked.
One foot in front of the other, he thought. Just forget about the bowl. He looked past Aelred toward the altar. They reached the choir, where two rows of stalls faced each other across the church. In each stall was a monk, following in his hymnal, chanting his responses to the Abbot's calls from the altar. Bart counted the brothers under his breath as he passed between the rows: forty-one monks. Then the nine of them in the procession. Plus Gary. And of course the Abbot. The entire ship's company was present.
He tried to watch the path ahead of him, but out of the corner of his eye he caught something moving. Something black. It was Gary's shoe, sticking out from where his ankle rested on one knee, jiggling. Church was the only place that Bart had seen Gary nervous. From the moment he sat down, he fidgeted.
Aelred caught the movement too, and Bart saw him scan Gary with a glance as they passed. Stillness of the body is the first step to stillness of the mind. Gary looked up and stopped jiggling his foot. A moment later, he uncrossed his legs and planted the foot on the stone floor, squashing the impulse.
It was not as if Aelred held any authority over Gary. As the ship's pilot, Gary could probably tell Aelred what to do -- at least in an emergency. But of the fifty-two souls aboard the Prominence, Gary was also the only non-monk -- unless you counted Bart, who was still only a novice.
Two steps up and they were in the chancel. Nearly there. Aelred placed his offering upon the altar, knelt briefly, and then backed away. Bart's turn. He genuflected, careful to keep his bowl level, then placed it next to Aelred's. He stepped away, relieved. The rest of the monks followed.
When the altar could hold no more offerings, the monks filed from the chancel and stood in a line down the middle of the choir. Well, not quite the middle. The monks were careful to stand just to one side of a set of bright tiles running from the altar and down the exact center of the space.
The formation of the kiln was Bart's favorite part of the ceremony. The Abbot retreated to the pulpit and stretched wide his arms. As he brought them together and clasped his hands in prayer, the walls and ceiling of the chancel began moving inward. In half a minute, they enclosed the altar in three walls of a booth. Then the oven window, a slab of thermopane, swung into place from beneath the altar, completing the kiln. At the same time, a screen beneath the cathedral's clear vaulted roof withdrew so that the columns seemed to support the starry sky itself.
Now in full sunlight, the monks put on their sunglasses.
This part always made Bart a little nervous -- even when he was sitting in one of the choir stalls. Outside the Prominence, a series of mirrors turned to the Sun. They would soon concentrate His Divine Light into a beam that would creep up the floor of the church to the kiln. In seconds, the pieces inside would heat to thousands of degrees and the powders coating them melt into the Copernican Order's renowned glazes.
Bart couldn't help but wonder what would happen should that beam stray from the heat-absorbing tiles marking its path. He had come aboard the Prominence when he was nine -- almost six years ago now. Each time he attended Pyros, he imagined the same awful sight: the concentrated beam of His Divine Light slicing through the assembly, turning the monks' robes to flame as they tried to scatter from its lethal path. But there were too many of them, and the rows between their stalls too small for the faithful to escape, screaming and climbing over one another. And today he would be standing right next to the beam's path.
Once, he had confessed his fear to Brother Aelred.
"You mustn't think such things," said the Prior gently.
"But it could happen. Couldn't it?"
"No," said Aelred. "The mirrors are controlled by the computer. Even if the beam were to wander from the ordained path, the computer would cut power to the motors controlling the first mirror and a spring would instantly turn it away, deflecting the beam into space." Aelred's answer surprised Bart. He had expected something more like, "Sol would never permit such a terrible thing to befall His faithful -- especially during Pyros, the most fervent hour of our worship."
Oddly, he took more comfort in Gary's answer to the same question: "Gosh. I guess we'd all die." And then, after a second's thought: "Horribly."
He looked up and saw Gary grinning at him. He must have recalled the same conversation. Bart cast his eyes down again as the bar of light crept past his feet. He could feel the heat on his toes. The incense scattered over the path flashed