Gods above! Hear this plea! Hear this priest!As was decreed when the sins of our fathers became too great,As was decreed when the gods of the sky could no longer forgive for the transgressions of our predecessors,As was decreed when the wrath of the sun god scorched the land,As was decreed when the seas boiled,We, The People, ask your forgiveness,We, The People, send forth our best,We, The People, through them shall know thy divine will,We, The People, shall fast and await their return.
I led The People in our supplications to the sky gods. As I did so, I could barely hold onto consciousness. The heat. These oppressive robes. I was nearly delirious. Thank the Sheltering Earth Mother, part of priest training was to attempt to acclimate, as close as humanly possible, to the surface temperatures. Eventually spending hours doing tasks in the heavy robes of our order.
I finished the annual service and turned to the 49 individuals stripped down and only carrying flasks of water. They would go face the gods of the sky, the night, the stars and the sun nearly as bare as the day they were born. They would race or travel from the cave mouth to the heliostatic temple ten kilometers away. There they would make a sacrifice and race back. Should any return, the gods have finally forgiven humanity of its sins and would return the world to paradise.
Or so went the lies we priests fed the people.
I blessed the runners, the ones who would leave in seven groups of seven. May the sky gods and the earth gods strike their bargain through them. Through them, mankind might be redeemed. I uttered the prayers. Showing a false piety. Giving them hope when there was none.
There was no return. There was no way for a human to race through temperatures that extreme above the surface. There was no way a human could survive the exposure. The heat, night or day, was so great, most would be dead before they made it a kilometer. No one would even make it to the probably mythical, or if not long destroyed, temple.
Never mind return.
With great cries in tongues, the first seven were piously cheered with barks and calls to run up into the light. Hopefully none would fall before they reached the surface. Having the people see the gods were so angry as to cast down all of the people's envoys before they reached the surface had happened and had devastated The People's morale for years.
None fell before the first group reached the brightness. Thank the earth gods.
The next septimum left just as quickly, with just as many holy calls and cries. And all made it to the surface.
And again. And again. And again. All raced to the surface. All made it this year. Good.
I led the people in their chants and services for 40 days and 40 nights. Sending away those to exhausted to continue and having them replaced within The Elect. And after 40 days and 40 nights, none returned. They could not have. It was impossible. I could not tell The People this.
I dispersed The Elect and sent them back to their lives. There would be more food now, with our numbers 49 less. There would be more water. There would be a celebration the gods of the earth still protected us from the wrath of the gods of the sky. Despite celestial divine anger. Despite the damnation the surface held. We still endured.
What they did not know, what they could not know, what we could not ever let them know, was the runners were not going forth to seek penance from the gods of the sky: there was none possible. They had damned this world and would not be turned from their ultimate purpose of destroying it. The Great God Sol had grown red and bitter and old with age. There was no surviving Her final wrath: she and her sisters would not tolerate humanity even beneath the earth much longer.
No, the anointed runners were sacrifices. Human sacrifices. They were sacrifices to the gods of the earth. Their bleached bones littering the surface from all these millennia humanity had been cast into the pit. And should they end, the world would end; the gods of the earth would cease their protection.
And the world would end.
I talked with one of the brothers of one of the runners and expressed hope that despite the time being longer than what the Sagan Codex said, his brother would still return. I slapped his back in a hug. A hateful hypocritical hug.
And I walked deeper into the gloom Humanity's home had become.