The Preacher's Daughter

byhammingbyrd7©

At 11 PM UCT on January 2, Eliana finally reported to her military superior at Judah's primary cathedral complex. She was startled to find her placement interview had been redirected to a Governor, a CL-16 Priest named Zaafir, someone with much higher rank than she was expecting. After a formal but friendly exchange of introductions in his spacious office, Zaafir began the placement interview with a totally unexpected question.

"Commander, have you ever considered applying for Conservation Ranger?"

Eliana blinked. "Sir? No sir, not for years." She thought about saying more, but then decided to let Zaafir take the lead.

"You've met all the academic requirements, excellent marks too. Why such a concentration?"

"Yes sir, thank you sir. Ecological studies were a childhood passion for me."

Zaafir nodded quickly. "And your military survival courses are acceptable substitutes for Ranger field requirements. Your qualification is almost complete. Did you know the six-month journey-test is the only credential you lack for permanent Ranger certification?"

"Uh, dimly I guess." Eliana finally forced herself to smile. "Sir, may I ask where these questions portend?"

He didn't answer directly. "Ever heard of a place called Treraksroset?"

"Treraksroset?" Eliana paused for a moment. "No. I'm guessing from the sound, ancient Scandinavia?"

"Wow, you are good! Yes, the name refers to the location where three ancient countries used to meet, Sweden, Norway, and Finland."

"Uh huh. And what's there now sir?"

"Well, the environment is still there of course. Plus a new two-person Ranger station. The Animal Conservation Guild at Cairo has been asking the military for months if we had any volunteers to join a Ranger cadet applying for full certification. What do you think of the idea?"

"Not what I was expecting sir, that's for sure. But I don't want to reject the idea outright. Let me think for a moment." Eliana paused and considered what the assignment would mean, six months of isolation in an arctic wilderness area. The assignment would not be particularly physically difficult or dangerous. Modern Ranger stations were state-of-the-art facilities. The six-month field assignment was in large part of psychological test, determining the candidate's ability to handle the isolation and the relationship with their single partner.

"What's the Citizen Level of the other candidate sir? Can you tell me how old she is?"

"A high achiever I think, like you. Wait. I take that back. You're in a class by yourself." Zaafir typed at his terminal. "Made CL-6 just two years ago, Judgment of 9568. So you'd be in command of the station." More typing... "Thirty-six years old now." Zaafir paused for a moment and then finished with, "His name is Basel."

Eliana stared at him. "A man sir?! You're asking me to live isolated with a man I don't know for six months?"

"Do you have a problem with that?"

"I might." Eliana took a deep breath. "I guess I was being presumptuous, but aren't Rangers almost always female?"

"Well, not always..." More typing... "Worldwide there are currently 983 certified Rangers... about 96% female... almost 4% male."

"And aren't the male Rangers the husbands of female Rangers?"

Zaafir paused for a moment. "I'd have to query personnel files to answer that, and I'm reluctant to do that without a real need. But I'll concede your point. It's very rare for a man not married to a Ranger to apply for the job."

He sighed and then looked Eliana in the eyes. "But don't you think it's unfair that Basel is having trouble with his certification just because he's a guy?"

Eliana felt bewildered. This placement interview was going in a totally unexpected direction. "Well... Yeah, probably. Sir, I support full gender equality, I really do. But why is this particular issue a military concern?"

Zaafir nodded. "Uh huh. I was wondering when we would come to that." He took a deep breath and then frowned. "The Holy! Something unusual happens and nobody seems to care!"

"Sir?"

"About 48 hours ago, a meteorite landed in the Treraksroset area, from the tracking telemetry right on top of the station."

"Wow! What did the station report?"

"It's not turned on yet. That's part of the certification testing. But I was speaking in metaphor. There's nothing to suggest the station itself was hit. But we did have a meteor strike close by. Or at least we should have."

"Should have sir?"

Zaafir sighed. "There was a major snow storm in the area at the time. We lost satellite visuals at about 10,000 meters."

"Uh huh. And radar?"

"The blip came in so fast, we didn't have the chance to align the radar satellites. We have a visual sighting only."

"Oh. Have you identified the impact point?"

"No, and that's what's bothering me. Unfortunately it's not bothering anyone else."

"Sir?"

"The storm cleared a few hours after impact. There was a standard sweep of the area, radar and infrared. Absolutely nothing."

"What about visuals?"

"There's not much. The area is in 24-hour darkness now."

"Oh of course. Sorry sir."

Zaafir shrugged. "The military Priesthood Governors officially voted to ignore the event."

"But not you sir?"

"I don't like mysteries, and the lack of an impact crater is gnawing on me."

"Well, how big was it? Could it have skipped out of the atmosphere?"

"Ah, good point. It was coming in at a very shallow angle. But no, it didn't skip. It definitely landed somewhere. Size? A few meters across maybe, five at most."

"Ah, well, something that small, maybe it burned up in the atmosphere."

"That's the official conclusion. But we tracked it down to 10,000 meters, and there was no sign of disintegration up till then."

"Ah... A lot of snow in the area sir?"

"Yes, quite deep."

"Perhaps it struck and caused an avalanche that buried the impact site."

"Other people are very comfortable with that explanation. There was no trace on the infrared scans though. Avalanches generate a lot of frictional energy."

Eliana paused for a long moment. "Then that would be my assignment sir? To find a buried impact crater?" In some sense, the mission sounded quite ridiculous, and Eliana had to stop herself from laughing.

"Well, once you're up there, I hope you'll stick it out and let the other cadet get certified. But it would be good for your credentials too. You'd be a full Ranger, with permanent legal rights to be in any conservation area in the world. That's about half the land mass of the planet."

"Yes, I know." Eliana sighed. "And that does have a certain appeal sir. But committing myself to live with a man I don't know for six months? Do I have any other choices for assignment?"

Zaafir nodded and then laughed and pointed to a pile of papers nearby. "Are you joking? I have over four dozen requests from around the world with proposals for you, both Priesthood and Guild. Eliana, you have a huge number of choices. You can go in any direction you want. I brought up the Ranger position because of the meteor. Cairo doesn't see it as a Conservation issue, and the military has decided to drop it. If you decide against it, I'll have to drop the issue too."

"I see. How long until I have to decide sir?"

Zaafir sighed. "I'd like to give you all the time you want. But I'm going to catch hellfire very soon for not having someone work these other proposals with you."

Eliana nodded. "I understand... Would a couple of hours be okay?"

Her superior looked at her gratefully. "That would be very okay. Thank you for considering this." He looked at the time. "Report back here by 2 AM."

"Yes sir." They exchanged crisp salutes and Eliana left the office.

Eliana wandered about the cathedral complex for a while, stopping briefly at a cafeteria for an excellent lunch. Afterwards she was walking a deserted corridor towards the main Sanctuary when she saw a heavy wooden side door leading to a meditation chapel. An etched plaque by the door announced the chapel was reserved for Command Class and above. Eliana almost passed it by before stopping and laughing at herself.

Her ID clicked the door open and she entered a small oval hall with a domed oval ceiling. The room was in the shape of half an egg. There were perhaps a dozen plush meditation chairs before an abstract altar at the other wider end of the oval. The altar was made of multiple large smooth crystal prisms washed with trickles of water and lit from below by a variety of slowly moving blue lights at the bottom of a pool. The prisms reflected and sparkled and threw peaceful arcs of bluish light onto the dark curving wood above. As her eyes adjusted to the reduced light, Eliana decided that the effect was quite beautiful and closed the door behind her. As a Priestess, she rested her body into a soft leather chair and silently began to Pray.

"My Holy, so great and good and kind, your child needs your guidance. Help me make this decision, help me make a good choice, help me become what you want me to be."

The room was delightfully silent except for the gentle sound of the water falling off the prisms. Eliana tried to relax her body, but her mind was in turmoil.

"I'm so shy!" she wailed in her mind. "I can work and serve and command with men, I'm just fine there, but socially?! Oh Holy, I get so nervous! Six months alone with a man?! How can I do this?! So many of my age mates are married now, Batshir and Liraz are even planning for children! And I feel like such an awkward duck around men at parties. How will I act, how will I feel living in such isolation? I don't know which would be worse, worrying that he thinks I'm pretty, or worrying that he thinks I'm not. Eliana, stop that! That's not a Prayer!"

She took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. "My Holy, love of my heart. You are the potter, I am the clay. Guide me, mold me, help me become what you want me to be..."

And the time passed in the quiet room. Eventually Eliana felt her body relax as she made her decision, all her tension and worry being drained by her loving Guide. It was Eliana's faith that this was a sure sign of making a good decision. Not necessary a right decision. She thought that often the boundaries between decisions are not as simple as right and wrong. But Eliana felt deep peace now and knew she was had picked a good path. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," she whispered in her mind. "Your guided child is extremely grateful."

Her eyes opened. She still had a little time but saw no need to delay. Eliana got up and stretched and headed back to Zaafir's office.

Chapter 3. Cold Start

Time: January 7, 9570 5:54 AM UCT

"It was a good idea, Commander. I thought we were going to find the problem here too."

Eliana stared at the dead consoles in front of her and replied back to her companion, "Basel, please log that command flow appears to be working, and that the problem appears to be internal to the fusion unit." She paused for a moment in the super-frigid room as Basel spoke into his suit's audio log and then asked him, "Any ideas?"

"Is there much else we can do? These packs are sealed assemblies. The Fusion Guild would go nuts if we opened one up."

"Oh, I wasn't suggesting that. Clean-lab-only for breaking fusion seals, I know the standards."

"Commander, I suggest we concentrate on getting our communications up. Maybe we can call Sidon for advice."

"Without main power, getting the satellite link up will take an hour..." Eliana frowned. "As a last resort perhaps. And I don't know what the fusion e-techs could tell us that we don't already know."

"Well, not just Sidon. We could ask to be evacuated."

"Oh, getting tired of my company already huh?" Eliana was trying to make a joke, but realized she was so tired it probably didn't sound that way. She tried to soften her voice and said, "Basel, part of the certification testing is not asking for help."

Eliana thought she heard Basel give a humph noise through his arctic survival suit. He came over and shined a light on a dark display by her side. "It's -59C in here! We'll have an even harder time getting certified if we're frozen to death!"

Eliana humphed back. "You're the one with the physics background! The prime power pack is supposed to be self-starting! Come up with something!"

"Acknowledged Commander! Working on it now!" Basel stomped over to the non-responsive power core and stood before it motionless.

Eliana thought his move was more to get away from her than to do anything constructive. "Oh hell," she thought. "Did I really have to talk like that? I came close to snapping at him! We've been at this for what, close to six hours now, and he's still looking to me for leadership. Well, not that he wants to..." Eliana sighed and thought again how tired she was, in addition to being numb from the super cold. Her arctic suit had superb insulation and the active heaters were protecting her from serious frostbite, but her tired mind and cold body were demanding that she take a nap, and that just wasn't possible now.

The last few days had been a whirlwind of activity. Zaafir had her flying a jump jet to Cairo less than 24 hours after she accepted her assignment. There was a huge amount of paperwork to go through to have Eliana become a registered member of the Animal Conservation Guild, and it was done in a rushed manner. Eliana later found out from Basel that a number of the construction Guilds that had built the Ranger station were furious with the Cairo Guild. They said it was not in their design requirements that the station would be left inactive and unpowered for so long in such a super cold environment. They were threatening to void their warranties.

Basel! Eliana wasn't sure what she had been expecting, but Basel certainly wasn't it. In general, men typically had an easy time socializing with women. Men could expect frequent offers for dating throughout their lives, sometimes from a single woman looking for a date, but more often from a pair of women who were interested in polygamy or often just a sexual tryst without any commitment at all. Eliana would sometimes laugh to herself as a child and wonder how ideal the men must think the setup was. But ten minutes after dropping in to introduce herself at Cairo, Eliana decided Basel was just as shy about socializing with the opposite sex as she was.

And here they were now, six hours into their 180-day test and off to a very difficult start. They were on Level-2 of the four-level station, one level below ground in a ten-meter diameter circular area filled with the central controls of the station. The only light was from their arctic suits plus an extra battery light Basel had brought down from Level-4 storage around 2 AM. At midnight when the jump jet had lifted off, they had both been expecting to climb down the access ladder and simply turn the station on and sack out in toasty comfort a few hours later.

Eliana stared at the back of her companion. "And he clearly was not expecting to be the subordinate member of the team. Give him some credit for adjusting to that."

The thought reminded Eliana how quickly she decided to accept this assignment without thinking of the practical implications. Ranger was a lifelong certification, but the Conservation Guilds had an age requirement of fifty years maximum for applying for the job. They had found through long experience that the older applicants as a group did not stay with the job.

"The Holy," thought Eliana. "I'm not considering this to be a permanent career either. And Basel! As a CL6 he was almost guaranteed to get a junior citizen as a partner, not a Commander. Eliana, you know the social norms. As a commander, how many women would be tempted to dominate Basel in a setup like this, perhaps even sexually dominate him? I'm not going to, but he doesn't know my character yet. Hell! I can't remember ever mucking up a leadership role this badly."

"Commander?"

"Huh?" Eliana turned to her partner. "Yes Basel?"

"What if it's not the power pack? I'm thinking your first idea might still be correct."

"It's not getting the command to turn on?"

"Yeah."

Eliana waved her arm at the disassembled control panel. "But we're getting strong output from the signaling lasers."

"Commander, strong doesn't mean correct. What if the cold is deforming the optics?"

"What? Oh! You think the power core is getting blurred commands?"

Basel shrugged, the gesture barely visible in the dim light and super-bulky clothing. "It's possible Commander. I've never heard of anyone trying to dead-jump a power pack this cold. Prime units are normally left on from the moment they leave Sidon assembly." He pointed to a control unit nearby. "That booster battery there is Sidon factory issue. I think it was meant to keep the power pack warm, but it's completely drained."

Eliana nodded. "Do we have enough reserve to warm the pack ourselves?"

"It's not obvious. Almost all the batteries in the station are uncharged. I was lucky to find something for the extra lights. I think it was a fluke."

"Yes, that's part of our certification, charging everything from the fusion pack, I know. Basel?"

"Yes Commander?"

"I apologize for being short with you before. Your concern for our safety is completely valid. What do you want to do?"

"Huh?" He looked at her for a long moment. "About evacuation? Really?"

"Yep. You understand the engineering here better than I do, and thus the risks. You make the call."

"I'd be inclined to..." He stared at her for a moment. "You don't want to give up, do you Commander?"

"No. But Basel, I'm feeling so sleepy, I don't want to trust my judgment anymore, not where I might get us killed."

Basel stared at her. "Wow..."

Eliana was silent for a moment and then blinked. "Huh? Wow? Wow what?"

"I never... Oh, nothing..." More silence. "Commander, I know you're the person in charge, know you'll take all the demerits if we give up. Let me take another shot at this."

"Okay. Need any help?"

"I'll let you know sir." And he turned and began working with the hardware.

"Sir?" thought Eliana silently. "Did he just call me sir? That was the first time! Thank you Basel. I know what that means, for a man to call a woman sir. I'm just not sure how I've earned your respect."

And the time passed. About thirty minutes later, they made a complete sweep of the station and found a partially charged battery in the medical bay on Level-3. They both worked to free it from a medical unit. There was a fair bit of predawn light coming in from the southern windows. Eliana made a comment that the dawn looked almost here.

"It is almost here," Basel agreed. "But it's not going to get here, not today. I think the sun was due south at around 6 AM today UCT, about two degrees below the horizon. That's as close as it gets for now. This time of day, it skims horizontal just below the horizon."

Eliana nodded. "I know what you mean. I've lived at Bandar Arenas for the last six years."

"Ah, a capital girl, huh?"

"Yeah, that's me." They were soon back down in the Level-2 darkness working on the primary system.

Eliana stood near Basel as he worked, adding the light from her survival suit to his. There was nothing else for her to do as he worked. She occasionally clapped her arms and hands to keep warm.

After a time she looked down and saw her suit was the only light source for the room. "Basel, is your suit functioning okay?"

"Almost... got it! Brrrrrr!" Eliana heard his teeth chatter, and then the room became blindingly bright with light. Basel called out happily. "We're on-line! Prime pack now delivering one hundred kilowatts usable power!" He stood up and jumped up and down to get his blood flowing.

As Eliana's eyes adjusted to the light, she saw wires from Basel's suit leading into the heating assembly. "You were heating the power pack with your suit?!"

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