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In A Lifetime

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Your heritage is from the Golden Star -- you have the classic Golden nose, your family sings traditional Golden songs, you put a Golden token in front of the Goddess's altar -- but you were born on a spacecraft, and by the time you learn to read you've seen more of the Distant Stars than some people see in a lifetime.

...okay, at that point you've mostly just seen them from their interstellar shipping docks, far above the edges of their atmospheres. The margins are thin in this business, and your mothers don't want to waste time shuttling you down to visit the surface when you're too young to appreciate it.

Still counts.

The dock-workers and passengers from all these places have different accents, different expressions, different memes...but they all speak of the same Goddess. This new engine could shave a week off their travel time, Goddess willing. If they're late with that delivery, Goddess only knows how much the profits will drop. For the Goddess's sake, just do your homework.

After one particularly nasty magnetic storm, when half the ship's systems are still on the fritz, you ask, "Did the Goddess save us?" (In the past hour, you sure heard lots of people asking her to.)

Your mothers look at each other in stricken concern, then one of them bends down to explain, and that's when you learn that the Goddess isn't the vague ethereal force you've been picturing all your life. She was a real, solid, physical person, and for decades now she's been asleep. If she actually woke up and came to someone's rescue, you wouldn't be able to mistake it for anything else.

The next time your ship has a delivery to the Temple, they block off a whole day to take you inside and make an actual pilgrimage out of it.

You watch the acolytes place offerings on the altar -- not symbolic tokens on a tiny model, but real things on a real marble pillar, in front of a statue that reaches all the way up to the vaulted ceiling. You listen to a ritual recitation of the history of the Goddess, how she liberated all humanity from something so terrible nobody will say its name. You learn that her two steadfast companions, the Titans, still rest here in this very temple -- not that pilgrims get to see them. Their chamber is considered so sacred, even the acolytes barely go in.

At some point it comes up that the Goddess doesn't approve of animal sacrifices, so you ask, in that case, why your family just delivered so many sheep. One of the acolytes laughs and points out that the ordinary people who work here still need to eat.

She has a Golden Star accent. Every one of the Distant Stars is represented in the population of the Temple, which floats through space like a tiny star of its own. Or rather, since it can power up and make its own travels if the need ever arises, like an incomprehensibly-huge version of the ship you call home.

Before leaving on the next delivery, you ask how a person gets to be an acolyte.

Someone with a Flowing Star accent gives you an answer about eating your vegetables and keeping up with your studies. You're old enough by now to suspect when adults are messing with you, but you also know they don't like being called on it, so you put the question aside to revisit when you're older.

(You never turn down vegetables after that, though, just in case.)

People who don't live at the Temple tend to think the job is all praying and making offerings, maybe with some hanging-flowers-on-the-statues in between.

Well, there is some of that. And some cleaning. Quite a lot of cleaning, really. But most of the grunt-work is left to the entry-level acolytes, and after you've done it for a few years, the Elders steer you and your fellows into more specialized roles.

Growing up on the front lines of interstellar trade, you didn't just pick up an ear for accents. Turns out you have a head for numbers, a feel for economics, and an eye for good deals. An internship in Acquisitions & Accounting quickly becomes a full-time role.

It also doesn't hurt that, when a Burning Star delivery crew starts making excuses for why they'll need a bonus before they start unloading, you aren't fooled. You just put on your sternest eyebrows and give them a dressing-down that puts the fear of the Goddess in them.

All in the Temple's formal register, of course. You could've done it in coarse Burning argot, but as an acolyte, there are boundaries you need to maintain. If you let yourself get too familiar, it will dishonor the Goddess.

If you were trading on the docks above their Star, this extra-polite speech would make you seem like an out-of-touch paper-pusher. Here in the loading area of the Temple, with your voice ringing off the pillars and a two-story portrait of the Goddess towering at your back, the crewmembers quail in their boots and rush to obey, with extra personal offerings added at the end.

Later on, you come across a group of younger acolytes in the kitchen -- one of Burning Star descent, blushing redder than the beets she's unloading, and a few from other Distant Stars, excitable and giggly. Seems they've picked up a line of Burning slang they can't figure out, but they know it's something filthy, and the fact that their friend finds it too embarrassing to translate only makes it that much more interesting.

"Oh, leave her alone and get back to work," you scold.

"Yes, Elder," mutters one, with a Shining Star accent and gentle sarcasm. (Well, it's not like you didn't know everyone thinks you're as bossy as the people a few ranks above you.)

But her friends are already scrambling to stand at attention, and one of them nudges her quiet with an elbow to the ribs. "Sorry! Whatever it means, it probably doesn't honor the Goddess. Sorry."

"If you really must know," you say, and tell them what it means.

They're all bright red when you turn on your heel and stride out.

You've lived at the Temple for most of your life by now, and in all that time, you've never once seen an acolyte try to present the Goddess with an offering of cute animal shapes.

It does get accepted, because Her Radiance is kind and forgiving, or at least not too picky when she's asleep. But from now on you're going to be more proactive about steering this acolyte' more appropriate directions.

Your fellow Elder also notices the situation, but, as usual, isn't nearly as concerned about propriety as you are. "Since you're so committed," she says one day -- with a false brightness in her Shining accent that would make anyone suspicious -- "how about a special job?"

The enthusiastic acolyte perks right up. "If it's to serve the Radiant One, I'll do anything!"

Okay, apparently it wouldn't make everyone suspicious.

She does balk a little at the actual suggestion -- and even if she hadn't, you would've attempted to shut this down, because seriously, that's too sacred for just any acolyte to go in! -- but the other Elder talks you into it. And, well, it's not like this girl's problem is being clumsy or inconsiderate. If anyone can clean the Titans' chamber with the care it deserves, it's her.

"Don't worry," teases your fellow Elder, as the grand doors close with the acolyte on the other side. "If the Goddess decides to smite her, you can blame it all on me."

"Oh, I don't expect anyone to be smitten," you grumble. "That doesn't mean Her Radiance won't be disappointed."

And it's true, for all your disapproval, you don't expect anything really dramatic to happen here --

-- which means you don't even get to feel a moment of vindication when a deafening GONG rattles every object and every wall around you.

You and the other Elder share a look of stricken concern, then you're both running together for the doors, pushing them open, calling out, "Acolyte?! What's going--"

In the face of a pillar of radiant fire, wreathed around a towering silhouette with a single crystal shard blazing at the summit, the rest of the question dies on your lips.

Your mothers were right. You absolutely can't mistake it for anything else.

In spite of your most desperate attempts to keep her in line, the acolyte who loves the Radiant Goddess finally claps back at the new ruler of Paradise.

She's in the middle of a defiant sentence when they both vanish. You're sure she's been turned into another of those planet-ravaging comet-demons, if not killed on the spot...instead, the next time you see her, she's wearing a lot of jeweled veils and calling herself the High Priestess and blushing about how cool the Old God is.

The rest of you keep choking out prayers, mostly insincere except for the parts where you're begging for your lives. In between, you and your fellow Elder end up hiding out in the Titans' chamber -- the one place you hope might still have traces of protective radiant divinity in the air.

You sit together in an alcove. (It is sparkling clean.)

For the first time in decades, you feel like swearing.

"Are we to blame for this?" wonders the other Elder out loud, then corrects herself: "Am I to blame for this? When I sent the acolyte in here, and she woke the that what summoned the Old God back, somehow?"

"Correlation is not causation," you say, automatically using your lecturing-voice in spite of everything. "For all we know, maybe she was already coming...and that acolyte's actions were the only reason we lasted as long as we did."

What you don't say out loud, what you're barely ready to admit to yourself yet, is that maybe it's your fault. Telling that acolyte to suppress her inappropriate feelings (and since the Radiant One turned out to be much less divine than anybody realized, were they ever that inappropriate in the first place, really?) clearly didn't help. If, instead, you had encouraged the girl...if the Goddess had been able to draw on her love to grow stronger....

Maybe you should stop calling her "the Goddess." Even in your head.

But it's the habit of a lifetime, and you've had no success in breaking it by the time one of the older acolytes bursts in. She's another girl with a head for numbers and an eye for deals -- she was your up-and-coming Temple accountant until last week -- and now she's being ordered to give the Old God back massages. "Elders! She left!"

You both sit bolt upright. "What?"

"I was with the Exalted One..." She winces at the epithet they've been ordered to use, but presses on. "...and that acolyte came in -- Elders, she's been breaking the hypnosis! It has to keep getting renewed! And I don't think it worked this time -- she was trying to act like it did, but she's not very good at it --"

That girl, Goddess love her, her earnestness might save you all, but more likely it'll be the death of you first --

"-- and the, the, you-know-who, she said they it was time to kill the Radiant One for good, then took the acolyte and left!"

You're on your feet before you can think. "Sound the bells for prayer! Bring everyone together!"

The other Elder follows you out, baffled. "What for? She'll come back eventually, and it's not like we can hold her off!"

"No. We can't. But the Radiant One defeated her before -- and not just by turning her own powers against her. There was always one thing that didn't come from her."

...and, let's be honest, in this scene the vast majority of it is going to come from one excitable, flighty, simple, devoted, loving acolyte.

But that doesn't mean the rest of you can't do your bit.

Turns out the profit margins for trading between the Distant Stars get a lot higher when they've been smushed together into a single Home Star. The people who were in it for the interstellar fuel costs and dangerous multi-week spaceflights are inventing new jobs as scientific explorers, while everyone else gets to slash their prices and still make a tidy profit.

People can even afford to hang around and visit between jobs.

...even if the All-Goddess did put the Temple in the middle of the planet, which is not the most convenient choice. (If you want to see the stars these days, you have to take a really wild elevator ride first.)

Your mothers are long dead, but you still have relatives (and family friends, and family friends' relatives, and childhood friends, and people who swear they were childhood friends and you've just forgotten) whose work brings them to the Temple. They give you insights into how people from every culture feel about their quasi-new Goddess and her recently-ascended High Priestess -- it's mostly positive -- and in return, you answer their questions as best you can.

There are a lot of questions.

Even if you restrict it to the biggest ones, like "What?" and "Who?" and "How even?"

It's too big a job for one Elder. Handling all the new pilgrimage crowds is almost too big a job for all the Temple staff put together. It doesn't take long before you decide to franchise...or rather, before you talk to the High Priestess and convince her to franchise, then start coaching her through the process of setting that up.

She may be immortal now, but you're not, and you've started thinking seriously about retirement. You want to leave this with a firm foundation when you go.

The Priestess pores over your map of prospective building sites -- one for each country, all to be worked on at the same time, so nobody feels they've been neglected out of divine bias. "All these new Temples are going to need a lot of cleaning," she says anxiously. "Where will we get so many people who want to be acolytes?"

You sigh. When people ask what the Radiant Priestess is really like, you try to focus on the earnestness and the determination and the admittedly cute pancakes, not so much this part. "Your girlfriend is omnipotent, remember?"

You know -- perhaps better than anyone who isn't isn't the immortal shaper of all creation -- that the next generation is out there. All the Goddesses have to do is look.