“And You opened for us Eternity.”
Father Rillem was performing the Funeral Service, to which he was now so accustomed that it required a stern effort not to allow the familiar words to blur his attention into a rote performance. The congregation needed and deserved better.
“And so we send forth our sons and daughters…” he paused, while the congregation murmured their litanies of names—so many names—and sank into silence again.
“…in the secure hope of being restored unto them in Your Presence.”
“Make it so, Creator, we beseech You.”
“Give us the fortitude to fight on, and let Your Avatars and Handmaidens uphold us, even as they enfold our sons and daughters into Your endless Justice and Mercy.”
“Make it so, Creator, we beseech You.”
Methodically, reverently, he finished the Service, and then, as the congregation sang the final hymn, he returned to the vesting-room and replaced the heavily-decorated robes back in the armoire. Resuming the white-piped dark green duster of a Congregational Pastor, he circled around through the back corridor to be at the sanctuary doors when the congregation left. It was the most exhausting part of the service, acknowledging, looking at, really seeing each person who stopped to greet or thank him, tear tracks on the women’s faces (and even a few of the men—it was no shame to shed a few tears at a Funeral Service, after all,) the still-choked voices, and worst of all, the eyes. Half-blind with grief, or worse, dead of all feeling, bewildered (especially the children, painful stabs of heartbreak each one,) angry, beseeching as though somehow time could be made to run backward…
He felt wrung out, sucked dry and then some, after these Funeral Services. It was what he’d committed himself to as a priest, all those years back, but no one could have seen, then, the magnitude of the demands that would be made on the Church and all of the Creator’s Servants.
Last out was his bride, who wordlessly took his arm as he nodded to Delart Morkam the verger. He put his hand over hers on his arm, patted it gently. Their children, and their two grandchildren, had all been back in West Avart Warren, a bare five hundred klicks from Rayki. He’d tried to comfort her, and himself, again and again, with the reflection that the Conflagration would have come upon them without warning, giving them no time for panic or agony, just a quick and merciful translation to Eternity. She’d pretended to be comforted, and he’d pretended he believed her comforted, and that was all they could do for each other.
“Can you make it back to the Pastorage, my dear? I’m called to a meeting at the Chancery in,” he glanced at his ringwatch, “a quarter hour.”
“Yes, of course, Rillem. I’ve a committee meeting, remember? It’s Daughters of Mercy afternoon,” her shoulders lifted a couple of millimeters. If pastoral work was often a burden for a priest’s bride, it had its mercies, too. Linvet had always been a capable organizer and never had the need for her talents been greater. One could, for a time, overlay grief with the focus on work.
“Yes, certainly. It slipped my mind. You’ll look after the emergency housing recommendations?”
She nodded. “We’ve more than three thousand cubages identified that can be converted. I’ll let you know for the Ecclesial Report.”
“Thank you.” They exchanged a squeeze of hands, and he turned to make his way to the Chancery. Linvet’s handclasp stayed with him, but the warmth it had momentarily evoked faded quickly as he took his comp from the pocket of his duster and called up the figures he had to present at the meeting. It was not good, not good at all. In so many ways. Creator grant them the resources of courage and imagination, not to mention power and cubage and everything else, to deal with the problems.
“I would bring your attention, Reverences,” he was saying, nearly half an hour later, “to the bottom line figures.”
“Of the total eight hundred forty-seven thousand survivors, three hundred and twenty-seven thousand are evacuees. The balance are the population of Moonstation, military and civil servants on outsystem or orbital deployment, and the various populations of colonists, researchers, transients and others who happened to be at extraplanetary facilities.”
“So it should not be surprising that the imbalance between men and women is so great, nor that the number of surviving children is so pitifully low. One hundred and sixty-six thousand women, one hundred twenty thousand or so of childbearing age. But of those, more than eighty-one thousand are married women with living spouses—colonial families, residents of Moonstation, women who joined their husbands on civil service deployments, and so on.”
“Which leaves,” Rillem looked around the table at the lengthening faces of the Ecclesial Council, “about thirty-eight thousand women of childbearing age, single or widowed. And of those,” he shook his head, “a substantial percentage represent women in military service, a good many of whom have experienced radiation exposures at levels placing their childbearing capacities at risk.”
He opened his mouth to continue, then shut it rather helplessly and shrugged. The facts were the facts, and all of the Council members had copies on their comps. He waited for the inevitable questions.
“Father Rillem, what is the margin of error on this census?” the Archprelate of Warrest spoke first, as the senior present.
He shook his head. “Naturally there is some considerable margin for error, Reverence. We have had excellent cooperation from the military authorities, and their data are probably the most reliable. The civs have been most cooperative but only the colonial data and the municipal census from Moonstation can really be considered accurate. Everything else is, well…” he shrugged apologetically, “iffy, at best. The evacuees were counted and re-counted in several locations at several times, consolidating that was a challenge. We tried to err on conservative side, but even if our margin is as high as ten or fifteen percent…” he trailed off. Heads nodded, and faces got gloomier, if possible.
“How recent is the colonial data?” Prelate Edrell of Avatar Kanstan’s asked, hopefully.
Rillem shook his head. “Colonial Affairs had just done their biennial census as part of the appropriations request. The figures are no more than a quarter to a half year out of date.” No hope, there.
There was a long silence. Prelate Viggen of All Martyrs murmured “And more than five hundred and twenty thousand men under sixty, single or widowed.”
Prelate Reervin shook his head, grimly. “It should not surprise us so much. Women do not work at orbital manufacturing facilities. Women are few and far between at the levels of senior researchers, scholars, and students at scientific facilities. We discourage military service for women, and thus less than, what, five percent? –of the surviving military are female. Even in the colonies, we hesitate to send women until the colonial security is assured, and then only as wives of qualified colonists.” He sighed. “A tragic irony, that our care to protect women has resulted in so few survivors.”
“Indeed,” the Archprelate of Stellan Down said dryly, “but it is the corresponding abundance of males that poses the greatest challenge. It’s taken more than a hundred years to transform dueling custom to nonfatal combat. Are we now to see a revival of men killing each other off for the chance at a bride?”
A cold chill seemed to settle in the room. The Archprelate of Warrest broke it, looking from the faces of the Council members, back to the podium, and nodding to Rillem. “Our thanks, Father, for your report, however upsetting the facts. If there are no further questions for Father Rillem?” He verified with a glance at his colleagues, and then nodded again. “Go with the Creator’s blessing, Father.”