We eat what we can and then sit facing each other, forlorn.
“What now?” says Six Blade.
“The sun’s stopped,” says Six Sheath, weeping. She wipes her face with her lower tentacles and wraps the others around me and Six Blade. “The world’s coming to an end.”
When we were young, we’d eat a third of the flowers fresh, and dry the other third for the road, and leave the final third to replenish the fields. We’d feel the air change temperature as we worked, and see the majestic trundle of the sun and the moon. We’d work certain that the universe was a place full of change and energy and hope. Now, though, I look at Six Blade and they look at me and we see the same thing in each other. That we’re desperate to comfort Six Sheath, and desperate to believe she’s wrong. But also that we need comforting ourselves, for what she says is true. The world’s stopped turning. What clearer sign could there be that the universe is dying?
There’s nothing for it: we have to split up and find our own way until we’re plump enough to mate again. We’ve enjoyed each other’s company, and Blade and I slept in Sheath even when we weren’t copulating or eating, so it’s a difficult farewell. I watch them amble off in opposite directions, and both stop and look back at me. When they do this I feel a weight in my stomachs like someone had slipped stones down my gullet while I slept.
It’s worse for Six Root. He doesn’t understand why they’re leaving him behind. He watches them go with the world reflected, limpid and curving, in the clustered domes of his massive eyes. Then he turns to me, huge face blank, palps waving, confused beyond the capacity of his sweet and simple mind to comprehend.
“It’s alright, old chum,” I say. I saddle him and usually he resists, but this day he just shudders and sweeps the dust with his tentacles. “Let’s go to the plains. We’ll find doughfruit and sugarroots.”
That’s enough to cheer him up. I, though, am not so easily swayed.
Six Root is stuffing his face with hard-fleshed sugarroot when a dome of molten light buds from the ground not far away. I look at the beast and he seems curiously unafraid of it and that emboldens me too. We approach together.
The hemisphere is incandescent and cold and quivers like a giant eyelid. After a short while it blinks, and disappears. Six Root snorts and I step back into him, half to comfort, half to be comforted.
The light leaves a small crater behind, and something comes crawling out of it. A clumsy and unsteady thing, moving on four trunks which emerge from a crumpled white body studded with dials and pipes and lights. It turns its bulbous head towards me and I see immediately its face is a smooth coppery surface with neither eyes nor nose nor antennae.
I fall flat on my face.
“Oh Divine One,” I say. “Oh Potentate From Beyond.”
The figure coughs, and falls flat on the ground. A few moments pass. Then He stirs.
“Goddamn it,” He groans. “I forgot to bring a drink.”
The god speaks without warning. “Your sun stopped?” He says.
I leap to my feet and then fall to my knees. “Yes, Lord.”
“So that’s… six minutes ago. Wow.” He looks at the now-eternal sunset and then turns his face to me. “Don’t worry, it’s just tidal locking. What’s your name?”
“Six Whetstone, oh Lord of—”
The god turns and looks at Six Root. The beast swings his head around and they stare at each other as if in deep communion for a very long time. Then the god starts stroking him and Six Root rumbles, deep in his throat, and relaxes.
“Don’t call me ‘lord’,” says the god. “And for God’s sake get up. My name’s Waters.”
“Waters, Lord? You’re the Lord of Water?”
“No. I’m just Waters. I’m not the Lord of anything. How come you speak English? I’ll bet they taught you. They taught you, didn’t they?”
“This language we’re speaking. English.”
“This is the language of the gods, Lord.”
“So they did teach you!” He crosses his arms. “Dicks. What else have they told you? Actually, nevermind. Are you from around here?”
“My mates and I follow the bloomings, Lord. But… the bloodflowers died and so we split up and…”
He loses interest and turns to look at the sun. “Which way is it to the intersection of null on null?”
“The what, Lord?”
“The, um…” He waves one of his hands as if trying to snatch something out of the air. “The Navel of Heaven? The—ah, Genesis Point!”
“It’s beyond that is the City of Slivers. Westwards. Yonder.”
“The City of Slivers? That’s—who rules there?”
“The Flower That Blooms Eternal, Lord.”
“Her.” The god balls his fists. “Alright, fine. Take me there. Can you do that?”
I look at Six Root. He doesn’t object. He just lays his huge antennae back against his body, oblivious and content and drowsy.
“Yes. Yes, of course, Lord.”
“Also, I’m not here to give revelations and shit, alright? I’m not a god. I’m not going to do miracles, alright?”
“As you say, Lord.”
“I don’t suppose you’re ever going to stop calling me lord, are you?”
“I shall if you can show me a miracle, Lord.”
I’m mortified the instant the words leave my mouth and I close my eyes and brace myself for punishment. Thinking, damn it, you and your stupid, diarrheal mouth. But the god chuckles.
“Funny.” He appraises me. “I’ve got a good feeling about you, Six Whetstone.”
Remember that. Remember that a god once had a good feeling about me.
Here is more blasphemy: I begin to feel sorry for Him.
We come to a plain dotted with shallow lakes and stop by one so Six Root can drink. On the far bank is a warburnt village with a few ragged tents squatting amidst the bony ruins. Equally ragged-looking people waft about amongst those, spectral things, with faces like recent amputees slowly realizing the extent of their loss. They stare across the gently wrinkled waters at us, but when God Waters waves at them they scatter like they’d seen a hungry sandspider erupt from its burrow.
“What’s their problem?” He asks.
I think long and hard before I answer. I tell myself if He thought I was funny before, perhaps He’ll indulge me again.
“They hate the gods, Lord,” I say. “They hate what You’ve done to the world.”
“What the hell did I do? I just got here.”
“You and Yours created the world.”
“Actually, it was just me. ”
I’m not sure I believe him. There are liar gods, after all. Trickster gods and jealous gods and gods who are malign because that’s their purpose in the universe. How could this odd specimen riding around on Six Root’s back like an overgrown tick possibly be the Creator?
He can tell I don’t believe Him. It doesn’t seem to bother Him.
“Well?” He says. “Why do they hate me?”
I gesture to the lake. “These are craters, Lord. Beneath the hills that way, and there, are buildings. This was a great city once, long ago, but it was destroyed in a war. The weapons used against it were poisoned and the folk who live here have been sick ever since. The gods who came here refused to cure them—they said they were being punished for their ancestors’ sins. So these folk have lingered here in the twilight of their civilization in the hopes that one day they’d recover. We called them the Hopeful Ones. Or, sometimes, the Hollow Ones, on account of their stoicism. It was rare to see one smile, but they still did, sometimes. But now the sun’s stopped and they’ll never have enough light to grow their crops again. They’ll move, or they’ll die. They’ll abandon the stories of a hundred generations, or they’ll die for them. They blame You for the cruelties they must visit on themselves. They hate You and Yours for turning Your back on them.”
God Waters stares at the village. In the nooks and shadows, tired eyes stare back.
“They weren’t cured because we have no idea what makes them sick,” He says. “Just because we made this place doesn’t mean we know everything about it.”
“How can that be, Lord?”
“Processing power, man. If I wanted to know everything about your universe I’d need a processor with as many units as there are variables here, and god knows we’re nowhere near that sort of power, even at your shitty resolution. We don’t know half of what’s going on here, and we’ll never know. That’s why I came here. The rest of those dicks wouldn’t even let me look.”
“Those other gods of yours. They’re dicks. All of them.”
“That’s blasphemy,” I say quietly.
“Even if I say it?”
“Fine. Try this on for size, then. The only thing that makes me special is that I figured something out. I figured out that nothingness is unstable. It decays, always, into something. It splits into inconsistent and unstable systems: quantum foam, baryonic matter, mathematics. It goes from total equilibrium to disequilibrium, and then decays back into equilibrium.” He sighs. “Your world exists because I wanted to prove that. That’s the only reason. Nothing that’s happened in your universe has a purpose. It only happened because I wanted to prove a point.”
“What point does their suffering prove, then, Lord?”
He tsks. “Haven’t you been listening? It doesn’t prove anything. It wasn’t even supposed to be. They weren’t supposed to exist, you weren’t, this… thing I’m riding wasn’t. We didn’t even know any of you existed until… until it was too late to do anything about it.” His voice softens and drops. “Now that I say that, though, it sounds so bloody shitty it makes me want to throw up.”
Stories like this are supposed to be interesting, I know. But sometimes they’re just sad.
We halt when the dust storm becomes too intense and rest in Six Root’s shadow. After some time the great beast growls and peers off into the haze, and following his gaze I pick out a cluster of bobbing lights approaching. A contingent of soldiers in the spiky white uniforms of the City of Slivers emerge from the gloom, and behind them is a figure identical in every way to God Waters. I kneel and touch my head to the floor.
“Lady of the Dark,” I say. “Forgive my impertinence in existing in your presence.”
“Oh, get up,” says God Waters. The soldiers hear Him and lie flat on their faces. “You know we’re not gods.”
“Is that why you’re here?” says She Who Blooms. “To wreck everything?”
“Is this why you didn’t want me to come?” snaps God Waters. “Because you didn’t want me to tell them all you’re just an old nerd with gout and hair you’ve dyed so much it comes off in clumps when you comb it?”
They glare at each other for a few moments. Strange how obvious it is, even when They have no eyes. Then She Who Blooms signals the soldiers back. She waves me off too, but God Waters puts His hand on my shoulder.
“He’s staying here,” He says. “I like him. He speaks straight.”
“Fine.” She sits, in the dust, cross-legged like an ear-cleaner on the streets of Her city. “What’re you doing here, Waters? You didn’t come here just to torment me. Where’s your adjustor module?”
“Don’t need one.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. This is why we didn’t want you in here. You’re careless, and if— ”
She Who Blooms stiffens. “What?”
“Stage four. I found out yesterday.”
“Stage four?” A pause. “How— ”
“I don’t know. But, come on. It’s pancreatic. It was always going to win.” He reaches out and takes Her hands. “It’s over, Jane.”
They sit there for a long time with the dust slithering about Them, like statues of Themselves, raised and forgotten by a civilization itself long erased. I pick over their words. Their words are like the cogs and springs and wires in some ancient technology. On their own they make sense but put together they become some code beyond my understanding. Still, I don’t move, and I don’t ask. I listen, for that is what one does in the presence of the Gods.
She Who Blooms pulls back Her hands. “This isn’t a trick, is it? You’re not just saying that to excuse being here?”
“Piss off. I’m not that much of dick.”
“Yes, you are.”
God Waters hangs His head. “Alright, fine, I am. But it’s not a trick.”
“Goddamn it, James.” She watches Him for a long time. Then She shakes Her head. “Well, fine then. What do you think?”
“Of your creation. What else?”
“It’s kinda sad.”
“No shit. This is why we told you not to initiate the procedure.”
“There’s no way you could have known this would be the result.”
“It was always going to be something like this.”
“No, it wasn’t. It was going to be clean and empty. Just mathematics.”
“Says the man who proved complexity comes from simplicity.”
“You want me to say I’m sorry, right? That I regret it?” He shakes his head, four, five times. “I don’t regret it. I proved you all wrong.”
“At what cost?”
God Waters spreads His arms. “You call this cost? This is sad, sure, but sad things can be beautiful too. It’s just a matter of how you look at it.”
“I have looked at it. More than you have. I’ve spent millions of their years trying to stop them from making the mistakes we made. I’ve watched empires rise and fall, and a billion lives pass, like that.” She clicks Her fingers. “All it’s taught me is that nothing is worth anything. Everything we’ll ever know is just a small blip in an ocean of stillness.”
The God Waters shakes His head. “No.”
“Which part, no?”
“All of it. The darkness doesn’t matter. There’s no one there to see it and so it may as well not exist. You think a flower doesn’t matter because it blooms alone in a desert? No, right? It just makes it all the more beautiful.”
“You’re just trying to excuse yourself.”
“I don’t need to excuse myself to you, Jane. Or anyone. I came here to die and I’ll do it without regret. I’m good, cheers.”
They fall silent for a long time. The wind stiffens, briefly, and then subsides. The sky clears and the stars come out, a glittering host watching as if they know this will be a conversation repeated for a thousand years. I too feel that, and also as if listening to God Waters speak had blown away some obscuring dust in my heart. I was seeing some truth, some blood-warm and comforting revelation, that I couldn’t quite comprehend yet.
She Who Blooms stands. “Fine. I’ll cover for you.”
She nods. “Take care, Waters.”
She walks to where Her soldiers are waiting and they head off together. We watch until they melt into the dark. Then God Waters lies back, exhaling.
“Stuck-up bitch,” He mutters.
We pass a village by a small oasis, half burning, half already burned. The unshifting winds are pushing a dune over the waters. The fish who live there are dead, and without the sun the villagers have no crops either. Two men are dragging another through the street and he’s bloodied and missing limbs and probably already dead. An old woman is watching, weeping, from a doorway. In the village square, a group of young women are hammering at a bloodstained altar. Their blows chip flecks of shrapnel off the thing, but it refuses to shatter with the obduracy that comes with being unconcerned by something so petty as being hated.
Farther along, a group of bandits have holed up in an old town. They ride through the streets on clattering steampowered chariots, wielding guns and hooting in some language neither I nor God Waters understand. They’re pagans, bandana-wearing, their eyes small and hostile and suspicious. They gather in the town square and burn books and then smear the ash on their faces. They call themselves the People of the Ashes, but the townsfolk call them Bookeaters when they’re not around, and mock them and spread stories that one was caught screwing a pig. But in public they’re quiet and respectful. They never look the Bookeaters in the eye and never argue with them and always, always, give them what they want.
In the hinterland of Genesis Point is a vast abandoned farm. The fields are bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before—bigger than a lake, bigger than the sea. They run endless and changeless for hours and hours alongside us. The same tall green-stemmed plant topped with the same drooping yellow flower, and the same fence with its neat wooden posts and cruel-looking webbing of metal wire jostled by the breeze. We’re fully on the night side of the planet now, and the stars are shining overhead and the flowers don’t know that they’ll shine forever. The farm’s dying, and it’s a holocaust on a scale I’ve never even considered. Fathoms of living matter turning dry and limp and pungent. Entire empires of pollination and procreation and predation decaying into particulate chaos. I stop and stare, dumbfounded and breathless.
This is what I really see:
In a village, the halting of the sun brings about the fall of the family that ruled the oasis for a hundred generations. They were once kind and wise, but in the years that followed they became inbred and obsessed with their own cleanliness. They forbade anyone from their village to travel and monopolized trade with the outside world. They told the villages that to sacrifice their children to their ancestors was the highest of honours and ensured the sun moved in the sky, and came to believe this themselves. So when the sun sets and doesn’t rise again, they implode under the accumulated weight of guilt from a lie they realize is now in their blood. When the villagers gather in front of their house and demand answers, they of course have none. They’re butchered and the village rejoices. The old woman crying in the doorway is crying tears of joy.
The town where the Bookeaters are bullying the ordinary folk has seen folk like this many times before. For years the land was bountiful and the grain piled in silos like winter snowfall, and so the townsfolk were content to let them come occasionally and take what they like. Some even saw it, perhaps, as a species of charity. But now there isn’t enough food and the townsfolk are angry and some of them are pointing out that charity to the undeserving denigrates the giver and coddles the receiver. Some of them are beginning to lay caches of guns, and spread the arguments necessary to convince people to kill and die without fear or regret. There is a smell in the air like aerosolized blood and God Waters tells me without hint of prophecy that it’s the aroma of blood about to be spilled.
Where the farm is there had once been an expanse called the Forest of the Night. It was an ancient realm of giant trees that blotted out the sun with their sky-spanning canopies. In the cloistered dark beneath them were giant fungi and luminescent creatures and a silence as thick and silky as incense smoke. In the present, already shoots of long dormant fungus are soaring through the green regularity of the doomed yellowflower crop like the budding spikes of some subterranean monster. Already the soil crawls with mycelia and the lazy buds of things that need neither sun nor people to thrive. The Forest of the Night is returning. It has outlasted. It has endured.
I learn these things, and something else also. That, though I know what I see when I see myself, perhaps I’m mistaken about that too.
We conduct the last few fathoms of our journey beneath a strangely beautiful roil of clouds that threaten rain but never actually burst. They’re illuminated by Genesis Point’s distant purple glow. The brighter it gets, the more ill I feel, as if there was a string running through my head and it had begun vibrating and churning my brain and my balance. Six Root feels it too, and so too must all living things, for the hinterland of the Most Sacred is utterly lifeless.
We get to the blasted ruins of a tree and I’m functional enough to see that it’s not a tree at all but some great spiking crystal sticking out of the ground and branching into a dazzling fractal brush. Six Root collapses, and then I fall too, retching, beside him. God Waters slips off and joins us. He tries to rise, but His limbs are shaking and it takes Him a long time.
“I’ll go on from here,” He says.
“Lord,” I say. “You… You can’t.”
“The radiation’s killing you.” He retches. “Turn back.”
I look at Him. I know that inside that strange suit He’s a broken thing and that soon He’ll cease to exist. I know that He feels much like I do, and the thought is as wondrous as it’s horrifying. I want to get up and hug Him and comfort Him, but what comfort can something like me offer a god?
He seems to know what I’m thinking. He kneels again, and wraps His arms around me.
“Cheers,” He says. He squeezes. “You didn’t have to do this.”
He helps me up. I stare at His faceless head for a long time, with a sour taste in my mouth that could be from the air or else from within me.
He grips my shoulder. “I know I’m supposed to give you some wisdom, right? But I don’t have any. I just had a theory, and I made your whole world to prove it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it.” He shudders and falls silent. Then He continues. “But I meant what I said. I don’t regret it. I think if I could have created you alone, it would have been worth it. You’re a good person. If you’re good, there must have been billions of people like you, right? Billions who lived and died and did good while they were here. I got to create good. That’ll do me.”
“You are… god…”
He shakes His head. “No. No, and I’ll tell you why. Gods are owned by their worshippers. And worshippers are owned by their gods. They love each other because they’re supposed to. I don’t think you’re a good person because you worship me, man. I think you’re good because, even if you didn’t think I was a god, you could’ve bailed when Jane got me, or convinced me to join someone else or something. But I know you saw me as I am, and I know you wanted to help. And I know you’d’ve helped even if I was just some bum lying in the desert.”
I hang my head. This isn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear some bittersweet insight into the ways of the universe. The God Waters squeezes my shoulder.
“I’m off.” He takes a few steps away, then looks back. “This isn’t the end of the world, Six Whetstone. It’s a beginning, and those’re always hard.”
He walks off in dwindling silhouette until he’s swallowed by the distant light. Six Root nudges me, and I lean against him. We turn to follow our footsteps back the way we came. But somehow they’re already gone. There’s no wind or water, but also no sign in the dust that we ever came this way.
I look back towards Genesis Point. There’s nothing there but light.
“Come on, old chum,” I say, and nudge Six Root.
We brace against each other, and strike off, as if for the first time.
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