It was the perfect hiding place. You needed somewhere to lie low for a while. Maybe a long while. Someplace nobody would want to look, even if they thought you might be there. So you discreetly asked around as you traveled outward through the Third and the Fourth, general destination already in mind. By the time you approached the Habitable Edge, you had a short list of Outer Cults that seemed relatively harmless, relatively safe, at least relative to what you'd left behind.
The first one didn't work out. The Reflection of the Past into the Future in the Mirror of Today seemed friendly enough, had pride in their technologically oriented faith and the artisans to match, but it was a facade, limited to those initiates who had contact with the outside. Once you were inside, the Reflection were regimented, unutterably dour, and had some frankly perverse rules about kissing your fellow acolytes, to wit, that you weren't supposed to. So obviously that wasn't going to work. You left in a hurry in a Reflection exosuit, since they'd taken yours, and theirs were much nicer anyway.
You'd come shortly afterward to the Forge of Tides, the enormous and stately Great Vessel that was the first and foremost temple of the Pelagic Communion. You weren't sure what a tide was supposed to be, at the time, or exactly how they went about forging one. The doctrine seemed harmless enough, and they didn't go in for really outré augmentation or dangerous swarmsongs. Plus, you liked their blue and silver aesthetics, their tapestries, their songs, their food, and the undercurrent of joy and purpose that ran through the place. Also they didn't mind if your exo still had a Reflection paint job, or if you smooched a subdeacon here and there. The heat would die down eventually. They'd be easy.
Well, they'd been easy. Until the most suspicious mind on the Forge of Tides found you out, and called you in.
"Sister Rina," the First's curate asks you, "how long have you been with us, now?"
"Two years, about."
"The perfect acolyte the whole time... but just an acolyte. Odd, hmm? Eventually most seek the deeper truths of faith. You, on the other hand, seem excessively content with our surface rituals and services."
"The routine suits me. I find it calming."
"As do I. In that, we are alike. But the First is concerned about your spiritual development."
"Her concern is indeed an honor."
She closes the door to the office, sits down behind her desk.
"Cut the shit, Rina." For a moment, the piety drops; you hear an echo of your buried self in that voice. "I've heard you talk to the other acolytes on godly and temporal matters alike. I think you're quite worldly, and much smarter than you let on."
"It's true that I'm diligent studying the holy texts," you hazard.
The curate leans across the desk towards you. You realize that, though you know most everyone else in the temple-ship by name, including the First (it's Vashri), you've never learned the curate's name. She's a lean face framed by deep copper curls under a rich blue hood, a sharp voice in the halls. She's "the curate", the ever-diligent shadow at the First's side, no name. You think maybe this isn't an accident.
"Okay. Yeah. I am. But I don't really want to talk about what I did before joining the Communion. Do you?"
She dodges the question, makes a flat statement in response.
"Once in a while."
"Hiding from something?"
"Do you ever think upon what'll happen when it finds you?"
"'When'? Is that a threat, Curate?"
"An observation. Here at the furthest edge of creation, it's easy to see that the Spiral is infinite... but it grows so slowly, by the pace of human lives. Someday your fear may find you within the Spiral's current bounds. Why would you not make your faith a weapon in your hand against that day?"
"I just want to pray the String of Azure Jewels every night, read from the Book of the Sapphire Sea at service every seventhday, and not wind up doing whatever it is that puts newly promoted priestesses in the Forge infirmary, or its mortuary. Is that so wrong?"
A curtain twitches aside at the far end of the room.
"I believe what Sister Roslyn is trying to convey is this," the First says as she emerges from behind the curtain, smoothing her navy robes edged in silver: "You could be doing more with your potential than hiding from it."
The First, high priestess and head of the Pelagic Communion, is short, dark of hair and eye, and kafi-skinned, but with odd gray undertones that suggest some sort of radiation hardening augmentation in her past. She's severely beautiful for all that, and right now, looks somewhat disappointed with you.
You genuflect. Can't hurt.
She continues, "I'd hoped, as she has, that eventually you'd 'cut the shit'. But maybe it's my turn first. Do you understand, Sister Rina, really understand, what we hope to accomplish here?"
"To bring about the Ocean Dream," you say. "To add to the forming isolas at the Edge a new place for new life, water as far as the eye can see." It's a basic tenet of the Communion.
"A reasonable answer. For an acolyte of six months. Do you believe it's possible?"
"Yes, of course, First."
The curate rolls her eyes, but says nothing.
"Okay," the First asks. "How?"
"Through our prayers and..."
She gives you a hard stare. You decide to take a bluntly truthful tack:
"...yeah, I have no idea."
"Neither do I. Our prayers are only meant to be a focus. They connect us with an ancient strain in the nanoswarm, offering some of us visions of the Ocean Dream, a template for contemplation --- for who among us has ever seen an ocean? I'd hoped at one point that enough of us praying together could command the nanoswarm to make the Dream manifest, here at the Edge, where, by way of the Pilgrims, the swarm shapes source dust into concrete reality."
"It's not working," the curate says. "So we started looking for a different angle."
Not so pious after all, it seems. Under other circumstances, you might grow to like the curate.
"Sister Roslyn is correct. We've begun experimenting with Armours to get the Pilgrims' attention."
You raise an eyebrow. "Wait, really? That's it?"
"You could have become a priestess and we would have told you. My mistake," the First admits, "has been that our volunteers --- and they have all been volunteers, I swear it --- have been ordinary faithful, trained to be Pilots. And there's a certain failure rate, and it's quite high. Whereas you, and a few others, we know to be, or to have been, Pilots. And by the depths, sometimes it's hard to train you to be faithful."
"I was hoping you'd come to belief yourself, but two years... I think now that I should have simply asked. And now, having failed to ask, and failed to sow faith, I must correct my error, and insistently request that you fully commit to the Pelagic Communion."
"So you want me to what, get out there in an Armour, wave my arms at a Pilgrim until it notices me, and explain the Ocean Dream to it?"
Somehow the Pilgrims seem even bigger up close, further in than the Forge of Tides dares venture. Huge glowing humanoid shapes, pressing unsupported against a vast wall of darkness, or in groups, drawing even more colossal shapes from within it.
You're not the only one in the small group of ornate Communion-built Armours brushing up against the Edge. Roslyn is here. Vashri is here. Vashri insisted on a lack of titles for the attempt, saying that among Pilgrims, she was far from any kind of First.
A few others as well. They're not bad, none of them, as Pilots go, but they don't have your technique. If only you were sure that your technique mattered out here, you'd feel a lot happier.
The quality of space itself is strange, dense, transduced oddly by the Armour onto your skin. Your thrusters struggle to push you closer. Your Armour, which you've named the Coelacanth after a legendary and ungainly ocean creature that another priestess told you about, is armed, but nothing it carries would do a damn thing against the forces at work here.
"Ambient swarm gradient's fucked," you mutter. "Try compensating with a larger intake aperture; we're about as close as we can get, but we can go a little further." Then, bothered by a lifted voice at the edge of your hearing, "Hey, who's singing on comms? Knock it off, keep the channel clear just in case."
"I was thinking about a song," Vashri says, wonderment in her voice. "The first one I ever heard out here."
Think quieter. You brush your curly hair out of your face, a habitual gesture of self-calming.
"I can't think quieter," Vashri replies, and you're pretty sure you hadn't said that out loud.
Also, your hair is straight and short, and it doesn't get in your face. Roslyn's might. But you're not Roslyn. Are you? What's going on?
You see light glowing off nothing, feel it as a physical presence. A Pilgrim appears before you. Huge. Many, many times your size.
"All right," Vashri says, as if you were simply singing in a seventhday service. "All together now."
You know the chosen swarmsong already and you can sing it just as well as anyone here. You're not sure if you believe it'll work. But everyone else seems to. You can feel them out here in the strange light. They'll believe for you, and you'll believe with them.
You meant to hide yourself away from trouble, here on the Edge, but now you feel elemental, above trouble, above fear, above doubt.
As you sing, you reach out your Armour's hand, and laugh softly as water blooms from weapon ports, fills with waving green fronds, and the sparkling shapes of darting fish. The power you tap feels as if it could remake anything.
For the first time, you can clearly imagine the ocean that will be.