Category Archives: First Intermission: The Fall

Joe Bell encounters strange things on dark roads.

There Was a Man

Joe Bell gently lifted the newborn off the dead woman. He hoped the boy hadn’t noticed her going so still. He was certainly crying like he had. He wrapped the baby in his jacket. God help him if he let the kid catch his death now.

He looked back down at the child’s mother. Could he have done something? Did he do something wrong? If he had ignored the woman’s plea to stay put; if he had dragged her bodily to his truck and booked it to the nearest country clinic, would the boy in his arms still have a mother?

Regardless of whether her end had come from his error or hers, the lady from the sky had trusted the trucker with her child, and that was as close to sacred as he could imagine anything being. Even more than she herself had been.

He couldn’t risk moving her body, not now. A baby could be explained away if they were stopped by someone; a dead woman, not so much.

“S-sorry,” he managed to get out as he turned to head back to the road, blinking back tears. He was grateful her eyes were closed.

A few hours later, Bell stood in the middle of his rented cabin at the Sandman Road Inn, trying to rock his unexpected travelling companion to sleep. Calling it a cabin was being generous. It was more of a tent made of drywall, left standing all year round. He worried that if it rained, the whole structure might be washed away. Still, he’d at least been able to shell out the extra dollar a night for a mattress, and he’d been able to give the baby a whore’s bath in the toilet block.

He was still just the “the boy”, or the “baby”. He didn’t know if he had the right to name him.

He wasn’t crying right then, but Joe still hoped he would sleep. There was something disquietingly aware in those moss green eyes. They followed his own, like he understood everything that had happened to him. Were his eyes even supposed to be green? He remembered someone telling him white babies were all born with blue eyes, unless they were Polacks.

Joe was fairly sure the baby was no Polack.

He was hoping sleep would delay hunger, too. He had no idea where to find milk powder at this hour. He had no idea if the kid even took milk. He might need moon dust for all he knew. It was yet another imponderable question about the child’s future, both near and beyond. Bell had already ruled out leaving him on an orphanage’s doorstep. Even if that didn’t feel like the coward’s way out, he couldn’t help but imagine it leading to the poor boy’s insides being spread out over some quack’s workbench.

Joe’s mother was dead, he had no sisters, and none of his brothers were married. There was his cousin Agnes, but that bridge was only held together by ash.

He could always bring up the boy himself. No, not even worth considering. What kind of father would he make—a bachelor trucker hauling cargo up and down the country all year round? What would he do, homeschool the kid in the truck’s cabin? What other option did he have?

The baby started wailing again, louder this time.

Joe sighed. “I know, buddy, I know.”

There was a knock on the door. Bell froze. Could it be the army, here to question him about that poor woman? Who could have seen him on that deserted spit of road? Or maybe it was the police come to take the baby? Why? Was there any law against a man going around with a kid?

The knocking grew more insistent.

Joe looked down at the screaming baby, forcing a smile he did not feel. “Looks like room service is here.”

If the increase in pitch was any indication, the boy did not appreciate the joke. He set him down on the mattress and opened the door, cursing the owners of this dive for not putting peepholes in their doors.

The man waiting on the other side looked like he had been the single recipient of all the Depression’s hardships. Poor fella couldn’t even afford shoes and pale flesh drooped around his mouth like a basset hound. His faded blue overalls were stained a sickly yellow by the road inn’s neon masthead. The tattered straw hat he wore was missing its top, gray hair poking out of it like wisps of mold. There was a dazed, sleepy expression in his eyes.

Joe decided this was probably a neighbour of the moment, here to complain about the crying. Uncharitable bastard.

He grinned embarrassedly. “Sorry, pal,” he said over the noise. “Wife stepped out for a bit of fresh air, and the baby’s pining. You know how it is.”

The man grinned back. Far too much. “You are lying,” he said cheerfully, barging his way past the trucker. Before Joe could stop him, he was standing over the baby. “That is some exquisite camouflage, I must say. I should take pointers.”

The baby’s cries ceased. An angry air hung between him and the intruder.

Joe grabbed the man’s arm. “Now look here—”

The man’s face exploded, something fast and sharp lacerating Bell’s chest and flinging him into the wall hard enough to crack it like eggshell.

The thing’s head now resembled an open blossom, a bone-tipped stamen undulating at the centre of its glistening petals of flesh. Dozens of lumps twitched beneath their skin, tearing open to reveal an array of china-blue eyes. “Sorry about that,” gurgled deep from within it. “The fauna here can get aggressive.”

Joe lay slumped behind them, trying to breathe through broken ribs. The cuts on his chest were burning like his own blood had turned to acid. Despite all this, he managed to get back to his feet and charge the monster. “You leave him—”

He was slammed against the ceiling this time, his attempt to brace himself earning him two sharp cracks from his legs. The creature let him drop back to the floor.

“For crying out—one second.”

The thing proceeded to drop all pretense. Joe heard a dry, almost hollow thump as the false man’s skin began to peel. Not splitting apart to reveal something, so much as literally peeling, like a piece of fruit being slowly stripped of its outer layer, the skin hanging like a loose sack from one end of it. What lay underneath made the trucker dry heave. It was like some kind of landborn coral—hundreds of interconnected, tumorous veins, the missing link between plant and animal, all pulsing and writhing and yet still surprisingly dry. His eyes parched just from looking at the thing, as if he were standing in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Then the thing began to move. It lacked what Bell would have called limbs, much the same way that it lacked a face, or anything else beyond that strange, protean mesh of tendrils, lined with those wretchedly human eyes. It could still move though, the openings between the tendrils elongating and thinning as it stretched itself, the mass almost folding towards him.

The cancer-worm loomed over Joe, hollowing out into a black tunnel of teeth and hooks.

I’m going to die, the trucker thought to himself. The pain of his broken legs was smothered by adrenaline, but that wasn’t helping him move any. This thing is going to kill me, and the kid… he’ll be lucky if he just gets eaten.

The beast lunged at him, only to halt just short of his face. Ichor dripped onto his forehead. It reared up again, emitting an awful, keening shriek, before falling upon him again. Still, no contact.

Was it toying with him? Joe was filled with rage, even stronger than the fear. Rage and shame and self-loathing. He’d failed. He couldn’t save that poor, fallen woman, and now he was going to let her son die, too—  

The ceiling vanished, leaving the room open to the sky. There was a man. He had stars for eyes and a cloak of night, and he towered over Joe and the worm.

No, the trucker realized. It wasn’t “a man.” The haze of fear and confusion evaporated, and all that was left was him, looking down at himself. The giant seemed to regard his other self with bemusement, but also pity. It was the most aggravating thing in the world.

“Just do it,” said Joe. “Whatever needs to be done, just get it over with.”

He became an exception in the laws of physics. An edge case in everything. He decided how the world reacted to his presence, and how he reacted to it. It was too much, he was too much. He needed to whittle it down to something he could use.  

Luckily, there was something to work with. It was both new and ancient. It was men in circus leotards smashing cars on boulders. It was angels ripping apart tanks in newsreels. It was Hercules holding up the sky. It was himself, beating back death with his bare fists.

Joe rose to look the monster in the maw. His feet did not touch the ground.

“Get out.”

He punched the thing right through the wall. Holding no delusion that would be enough to kill it, he shot out of the room after it. The sensation was exhilarating. He could move in any direction he wanted without the slightest effort. He didn’t move through the world, the world moved around him.

The thing had come to rest near the toilet bloc, and seemed to be abandoning its formless state for something more defined. Tendrils were knitting together into long, crustacean arms, with which it pulled a small, bronze cylinder out of the centre of its mass. It swung around to look at the incoming human projectile with two bulbous collections of eyes.

What looked like a miniature sun fired out of the cylinder, momentarily turning night into day. Joe swooped low to dodge it, letting the sphere sink into the earth like its older brother dipping below the sea.

He tackled the monster to the ground, laying into it with his fists. It hissed and churned beneath him, desperately searching for an arrangement of cells that would let it escape him. It grew mouths to bite him, but their teeth broke on his skin. New orifices spewed something that smelled faintly of sick, and made the grass beneath them sizzle. Barbed tendrils tried wrenching off the new superman to no avail.

Drunk with newfound might, Joe forgot his fear. How had this mewling, formless lump inspired such terror in him?

Then it ate him.

Maybe that wasn’t the right word. It didn’t chew him, and its digestive juices could do nothing to him, but Joe was engulfed by the thing all the same. It was a strange experience, being eaten by something that didn’t really have a mouth. The creature warped, its top and sides expanding around him like some sort of wave. He pulled back his fist with a growl, ready to beat and tear his way free of the thing, and surged forwards. The creature’s extended ends meshed together behind him, and everything was dark. He didn’t care. He started clawing. Then, it was gone. He was under the stars once more. No, among them. There was moisture in the air. He looked around himself, searching for his wayward foe, for the truck, the cabin. Anything. There was nothing to be seen, except steppes of clouds dusted by moonlight. He roared, aimless fury building up in him with nowhere to release.

Then he felt it. A touch on his mind, a caress from a hand the size of a mountain. It hurt, yet there was no malice there—only a plaintive fear.  He had never felt anything like it before, but still he recognized it immediately. The child’s cries matched his mother’s, it seemed. He turned towards the horizon, and sped forward through the empty sky.

The visitor congratulated itself on thinking to pack the micro-vortex. It might have been in real trouble otherwise.

What an odd night it was. First, after centuries of glacial pursuit, it’d managed to snare itself a gravid star-goddess… and it let itself be knocked out of the sky by a podunk Gatekeeper. The alien reminded itself to pay this world’s moon a visit if all went well.

A herd of the planet’s most successful wildlife had been spooked out of their hovels by the noise of their fight. Milk-heavy mothers with their mates and calfs holidaying in the shadow of their world’s latest geopolitical spat; vagabonds hauling foodstuffs and their kind’s latest approximations of technology across the continent; ashamed lovers in search of a safe place to rut.

They gawked and screamed, and one or two of them even fired primitive projectile weapons at the visitor, stinging it like insect bites. A few poison laden belches and envenomed darts took care of all that               

Peace restored, the visitor took a moment to work out its body again. Much as it valued its species’ hard-won morphological freedom, it liked having something to look at in a mirror.

An idea occurred.

It stepped through the broken wall of the cabin. The child was floating above the mattress, hugging his knees with a thumb jammed between his gums.  

Imitating the human nursing instinct even with no eyes on him, the visitor observed. Can’t say this creature isn’t method.

“It’s alright, little one.”

The infant turned towards the source of the voice. The speaker was a tall, queenly featured woman with cornsilk hair and lilac eyes, draped in a red, toothed gown, one eye over her left shoulder lazily watching the room.

The child so dearly wanted to believe it was her, but even so new he wasn’t that foolish. The woman was too pale, and he could never imagine his mother smiling so cruelly. More importantly, when he touched her mind, it felt like claws being scraped across stone.

The imposter approached him. “I’m not going to hurt you child. That thing with your mother? An accident, mostly, blame my aim. I just wanted to show you two off to some colleagues of mine. I mean, what do you really have to look forward to here?”

It risked putting its hands around the baby, pulling him close. “Good boy. Now let’s get a move on.”

As the visitor stepped over the bodies it had felled, it pondered the way forward. It considered swallowing the star-god for safekeeping, but decided that wouldn’t be necessary. Not when he was being so cooperative. Then there was getting back to the ship. The visitor could sprout a perfectly serviceable pair of wings if it wanted, but that would require leaving behind a great deal of biomass and knowledge. And it had already been left so ignorant by the crash…

Instead, it headed for where the humans kept their vehicles. It went for one of the larger cargo-haulers, deciding that having a bit of weight to throw around might prove useful on the road. The key was easy enough to bypass, one of its elegant fingers elongating and flattening to replicate its grooves. Luckily, the nervous system it had borrowed from that farmer had some experience with these vehicles.

“We’re on our way,” it said brightly to the child in passenger seat as the engine roared to life.

They drove for some time. The young star-god wondered what had happened to Joe. Did he still live? If he did, would he ever be able to find him? And if he did, what good would it do?

He sensed something bright and angry and familiar high above them.

Joe Bell stared down at his truck as it chased its own headlights. God damn it, he could actually see through it if he squinted hard enough, like his gaze was turning metal into glass. He’d been relieved for a second when he first spotted it, and saw the child’s mother driving. Her resurrection would only be the third most miraculous thing he’d witnessed that night. But then he felt the waves of despair coming off the boy.   

He had to get the kid out of there, but what other tricks did the creature have up its sleeve?

Focus on the fuel tank, a small, insistent voice told him. It was like his conscience was putting on an accent.  

What good would that do? Joe wondered.

Just do it.

Joe frowned at the tank on the underside of the cab. There was a spark, and the black sludge turned into liquid sunshine. A fraction of a moment later, the truck exploded.

“Shit-shit-shit-shit-shiiiiit!” Bell screamed as he plunged towards the fireball. He ripped the door off the burning cabin, dreading what he’d find inside.

What he found was the creature slumped smouldering on the wheel. Next to it, the boy sat dressed in ash, embers glowing in his hair, kicking his legs quite happily.

Joe smiled, reaching into the cabin for the child.

He almost fell out of the air. Just managing to catch himself, he attempted to reorient. His vision was swimming. He could barely feel the heat of the fire, but he was sweating as if he did. The wounds on his chest were still burning.

He looked down his blood soaked shirt. The flesh around the cuts was puckered and inflamed, leaking green pus. The veins of his chest looked like they were clogged with soot.

The baby looked at Joe questioningly.

He smiled back at him. “Come on, kid. Let’s go find somewhere for you to rest your head.”

Sarah Allworth was jolted from her dream about Adolf Hitler and the mountain of peeled bananas by the sharp knocking coming from downstairs. She rolled over in bed to try and rouse her husband. She whispered, “Jonah,” a shake, “Jonah!”

He groaned, “What is it, sweetheart?” still half-convinced he was asking Katharine Hepburn.

Another round of knocking.

“That!”

Jonah looked at the alarm clock. In the darkness, he couldn’t make out any numbers, but he could make out words: too bloody early.

“Why on Earth would anybody be knocking on our door at this kind of hour?” his wife asked.

“Don’t know,” he replaced blearily. “Very polite burglars?”

Sarah frowned. “Not funny. We should go down and tell them to clear off.”

“Wouldn’t that just be giving them what they want?”

More knocking, more demanding this time.

“Whoever it is clearly aren’t going to let us get any sleep till we do.”

The couple made their way to the threshold. Just in case, Mr. Allworth brought his softball bat. He opened the door.

A sweat drenched, bloodied young man fell through, but did not hit the ground. Good thing, too. His legs were bent at the most unnatural angles. In his arms was an ashen baby boy.

“What on—”

The man shoved the baby into Mrs Allworth’s arms. “Please, take him,” he panted. “Please-I-I can’t keep going. Flew for hours. Don’t even know what country I’m in… is it night time again?” He grabbed Mr Allworth. “If that thing comes here, you light it on fire. It won’t stop moving if you don’t—”

He couldn’t speak anymore. Time broke down for Joe Bell. There was the sensation of being carried, of being in the back of a moving car. The woman, still holding the child, kept asking him his name. As if that mattered.

A country clinic, lights being flicked on. Needles breaking against his skin. Someone mercifully holding an ether rag under his nose.

It’s alright. You did your best.

He had, hadn’t he?

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Strange Things on the Side of the Road

Joe Bell’s weary eighteen-wheeler trundled down a Montana backroad that had yet to be troubled by the New Deal, and so continued its leisurely slide back into nature unimpeded. Every few feet, a pothole would launch him a fraction of an inch off his seat.

Bell was in two minds about the potholes. On the one hand, they kept him awake like not even the bennies could. On the other, he was pretty sure all this jostling was grinding his spine away at both ends. To think he’d gone into trucking because of what the mines had done to his dad…

He hoped to God his cargo was faring alright. He didn’t want to think about how the trainees at Camp Corthins would react to a trailer full of broken radio parts and busted tires. He was even less eager to find out what the base’s men would do if he presented them with a crate of whiskey soaked glass shards. Not when they’d paid him half up front.

It wasn’t really smuggling, was it? It wasn’t like he was a fifth columnist, on his way to trade military intelligence to a U-boat captain in exchange for future control of Great Falls. Why shouldn’t the troops be able to enjoy a stiff drink while they guarded America against the Nazi menace? If anything, he was doing his patriotic duty.

He sipped his coffee, lukewarm and spiced with Marlboro ashes. The road lay long ahead of him, twilight spreading a pale blanket over the grass that lapped hungrily along the edges of the asphalt and the distant, tiny towns whose lights competed with the first stars. Through the radio, a crackly but luckier 1942 spilled into the smoky cabin. A 1942 where the biggest concern facing the people of Wistful Vista was Fibber McGee clearly being a compulsive liar1.

Joe didn’t begrudge them their fun. Someone had to have a good time out there. Otherwise, what was even the point of all this?

The world shook with a sound like the moon falling out of the sky. Joe slammed the truck’s brakes, the lurch sending the wheel into his solar plexus and knocking all the wind out of him.

Is it the Japs, he thought as he caught his breath. The Germans? This far inland?

Once he had recovered, Bell opened the door and jumped down from the cabin. He wasn’t sure whether or not it was wise, or even if he should stay on the road at all. But the idea of being blown up and not even knowing what had done it scared him more than the blowing up itself.

He found no bombers, zeppelins, or missiles up there in the evening sky. Did people even use zeppelins for that anymore?2 Joe didn’t know and didn’t care. What he did care about was the plume of smoke rising from under the horizon.

No, not smoke: a heat mirage, twisting and spiraling up into the air like vapourised glass. The winter stars behind it shone in colours Joe didn’t have names for, distorted and magnified like reflections in raindrops.

There was one star in particular that drew his eye. It was violet, and far larger than any of its sisters, a diminutive night-sun. It took Joe a few seconds to realize that it was getting bigger. And the ground was starting to vibrate beneath his feet…

The star screamed over his head, sending him ducking as it slammed into the field behind him, sending up earthen wings of dirt and bedrock.

It had come to rest by the time Bell dared take his face off the road. He could see it, whatever it was, glowing softly at the end of the channel it had cut into the earth: a hot coal spat from the hearth of Heaven.

His first thought was some new wonder-bomb. After that, he wasn’t so sure. If it was going to explode, it seemed to be taking its sweet time. And why would the Germans or whoever waste a wunderwaffe on an empty stretch of road? It wasn’t even the highway. Were they aiming at him? The absurd notion almost flattered him.

It then occurred to Joe Bell that, if that thing really was some cutting edge piece of enemy ordinance, it might net him a reward.

He fished a flashlight out of the truck’s glove box—along with his revolver. Even if there hadn’t been a war on, it never hurt to be prepared on lonely country roads.

The first thing Bell noticed as he walked along the trench was the lack of heat coming off it. He didn’t know much about comets or the like, but he would have expected its impact zone to be red hot. For how cool this gash in the landscape was, it could have been made a million years earlier.

The ground was glassy, waves of multicoloured silica fading from red to purple to blue. Joe found himself recalling that broadcast of War of the Worlds four years past3.

He slowed as he approached the glow. He could almost make out a shape in it—lots of shapes, in fact—but whenever he tried looking directly at it, his head started throbbing.

The glow started to fade. Or maybe it started to take shape, resolving itself as it dimmed, taking a form he could almost see, almost recognize.

He raised his gun.

The glow died away completely, and he was left looking at a regal-featured young woman, bereft of all clothing, lying prone on the ground. The woman was also very, very pregnant, to the point where it looked like she wouldn’t be for very long.

Joe dropped the revolver. For the first time in his life, he felt the sense of awe that his Sunday school teachers had tried so earnestly to impart in him when he was a boy.

Breathing rapidly, the woman dug grooves into the hard, glossy ground with her finger. She stared pleadingly at the trucker with wet, purple eyes. Then she said words which shattered the air between them and sent shards of pain through Joe’s teeth. Words that were never meant to be heard by creatures with ears. They were in no language Joe had ever heard in his life, but that didn’t stop him from knowing exactly what they meant:

Help us.”

The goddess had approached the Milky Way slowly. She wasn’t in any rush—it had only been a few hundred millennia since she had left for the Great Filament. There, she had reacquainted herself with kin she had not spoken with since the universe was less than half its present size, sharing the songs and sorrows of a thousand civilizations both nascent and venerable.

She had done other things, too, both more and less comprehensible to lower toposophic beings.

Centuries of moments passed as she felt the intergalactic void grow thick with hydrogen, dust, and lonely stars.

She was home, or on the fringes of it at least. She made a beeline for the nearest blue supergiant, lagging only slightly behind the light thrown off by her own titanic form. Even at those speeds, swimming through that layer of Creation, it still took her the better part of an age. She could have used any one of the loopholes in casualty her kind had opened at the beginning of all things, but time didn’t bother her much. She used the years to ponder all she had learned of at the gathering. A rogue star had been recaptured by the gravitational pull of its mother-galaxy. The species that had in the meantime evolved on one of its satellites underwent a centuries long nervous breakdown as the night sky slowly opened a hundred thousand accusing eyes. Another race had harnessed their newfound knowledge of genomics to rid themselves of self-awareness, their entire people slipping into an eternal, preconscious dream.

She wondered if there was a lesson in either story, but her attention was diverted back to the blue giant. She poured herself into the sun, until her substance was nigh impossible to separate from its plasma.

A moment later, two hundred light-years away, the goddess streamed from a blitzar like a ribbon of woven light.

Stars have long memories, stretching all the way back to when the whole cosmos could fit on a pinhead with space to spare. For the privileged few who know how to spark their reminscience, they become a superhighways of swollen, decrepit giants, branching off into the back roads of their younger, more vital siblings.

On a small, rocky world juggled between two points of light, drought plagued a dwindling, precarious tribe. They were a newly emerged mutant strain of their kind, blessed and cursed with that compound of fragility and hunger that most often gives rise to intelligence. They prayed in their pagan manner to the sky for rain.

The goddess idly stirred some molecules in their atmosphere, and the rain poured down.

She cultivated life the way a child throws starfish back into the sea. Crews of asteroid battered starships wondered at how their atmospheres didn’t evaporate out into open space. Scientists on dying planets awoke with strange, mad ideas in their heads. Organic molecules were gently coaxed into forming simple amino acid chains in the oceans of virgin worlds.

Eventually, she found herself in the domain of a typical enough yellow dwarf. Its one life-bearing world was faintly familiar. There was a name, from a cousin’s borrowed recollection.

Earth. Yes, that was it. The homeworld of an unremarkable oxygen-nitrogen breathing species known as man. Her relatives (as well as some less discriminating slavers) had spread them all around the Local Group of galaxies. She was mildly surprised that the original population had persisted so long.

She fell into a casual orbit over the planet. She noted the Gatehouse on its one moon, a green mote in Selene’s eye. Her grandfather had been so keen on that project. As a courtesy, she dumped a few million childhoods4 worth of data into its quiet, sullen computers. The Gatekeeper signalled his thanks.

Turning her gaze back to the planet below, the goddess took stock of what the Earthmen had gotten up to since her cousin checked in on them.

The human race had made a respectable go at civilization, all things considered. Her cousin’s memories spoke to a thinly-peopled race with only rudimentary stonework to their name, decimated by volcanic eruptions and the occasional mass abduction to other worlds. Now they numbered in the billions, and had settled virtually every habitable patch of land on their planet, while building up a material culture fuelled chiefly by the burning of ancient concentrations of life, with some early but determined experiments into the breakdown of matter.

There were all the usual vices of civilization—the tribalism, the short-sightedness, the hunger—no more or less than any other species the goddess knew of. She wished them the best, which coming from her had some weight.

She was about to pull away from the planet when she spotted something that shouldn’t have been there. All across the globe were scattered pockets of miracles. Men becoming comets, women channeling lightning and revenge itself; a young girl healing the sick and the lame.

This in and of itself was not unexpected. Like all inhabited worlds of a certain age, the Earth had its share of gods and other numinous beings. Except, she could see that many of the miracles were not their handiwork. Not even most of them.

They were hers.

It was undeniable. She could see herself in so many of them. Her hopes and nostalgia, her loves and heartbreaks, even passing fancies she’d thought when this sun was still forming in its stellar nursery.

For the first time since she and everything else was young, the goddess was afraid.

A spear lanced into her. Sour, unfamiliar notes of pain rang out across her entire being, hot and bright like a kugelblitz. Searching wildly for the source of the attack, she glimpsed the stars parting, a dark disk slipping out from between them. A lattice of spacetime tethered it to the spear.

Through layers of metal and flesh, she saw its pilot, and its intentions for her.

The pain infiltrated her past and colonized all her futures. Through the haze of it, she wondered how the vessel could have escaped her perception. How long had it been following her?

The Gatehouse fired off a relativistic volley, striking the ship and sending it spinning down into the blue expanse spread out below them.

The spear tore out of the goddess. She saw moments of her life stream out of the wound. Weakly, she thanked the Gatekeeper for his aid, however late it was.

She made an attempt to escape the Earth’s gravity well, to bathe her wounds and burn away the poison spreading through her in the sun. It was no use. She knew that at best she would die in the abyss between worlds.

Her child would too.

She did her best to insulate the unborn godling from the blight, and let the Earth embrace her.

The goddess fell. For the first time in aeons, she felt the whisper of an atmosphere envelop her. She sifted through the history and present of the world rapidly rising to meet her, trying to figure out what visage would least provoke the natives. A native of one of their northerly continents, she decided. Male would have been ideal, but there was the Law of Similarity to consider. It would have been inconvenient in her present circumstances as well.

She hardly felt it when she smacked into the planet—not on top of everything else.

As soon as she had lungs, the goddess gasped. Time. She had never experienced it like this. A river driving her unceasingly downstream. The future—what little of it was left—was cut off completely, and the past existed only in memory. And the pain. Her new nerves felt it so keenly.

She felt her child move within her, and it brought her focus. The pain didn’t matter. She need only endure it for so long.

A native creature was towering over her, cloaked in shadow, starlight reflected in his eyes. The horror of it was paralyzing. All that consciousness sunken into one perversely centralized, fragile mass. How did it live, dependant on so many immutable, easily disrupted structures? What kind of life was she leaving her child, shackled to such a form?

Help us.”

The creature—a male, she noticed—flinched at the sound of the True Speech. Still, he knelt down by her side.

“…Jesus, lady,” he said, his voice rougher than any she could have produced even if she’d tried. “What even is help to you? I can get you to a doctor, I think.”

She saw the lights playing behind his eyes. They were tinged amber by awe and that instinctive fear of things divine, but he did want to help her, she could see clear as anything.

With a grip that could have reduced corundum to dust, she took hold of the man’s hand. “No,” she said in his tongue. “Just stay here. Please.”

The man nodded mutely.

He held her hand through the entire birth, even as her grip almost crushed his hand. Naively, she realized, she had expected the experience to mirror her other children’s births. Those had been intellectual exercises more than anything else. This, though, was nothing but instinct, and pain, and blood. Every now and then, the man told her to push, as if she had any other choice. Strange little thing, he was.

She heard her son’s cries as he tasted air for the first time. The man caught him before he hit the glassified soil. Not that it would have done him any harm if he had.

The man, wearing a smile beaten out of anxiety and relief, handed the goddess her son.

She studied the wet, wailing thing in her arms. Near as she could tell, the child’s vessel resembled a perfectly formed juvenile male of the species. Good, she thought. That would make things easier for him.

He was so warm.

With a fingernail, she cut his cord.

She let her head fall back. The sun had set completely by then, and the stars were out in force. The goddess had never seen them from this vantage point: their light bent and lensed by gravity, obscured by thousands of feet of oxygen and nitrogen. And yet, she was glad she had gotten to see them this way.

The river was washing her out into a dark, endless sea. She had held out hope that shunting off so much of herself might preserve her from the spear’s poison. That she could stay with her child. She had at least ensured that he could stay, though. She saw her place in the paradox, and decided to fulfill it. It was only polite. “I bequeath you…” She smiled tiredly. “…I bequeath you… me.”

With the minutes she had left, she let herself savour the feel of her son’s breath breath against her skin as the lights above her started to dim.

She was aware of the man’s hand in hers. To her relief, touch was the last to go.


1. A 1942 where all Amos Jones and Andy Brown had to worry about was people realizing they were both white.

2. As it happened, Joe Bell was born into one of the rare, blessed clusters of timelines where airships were a passing fad.

3. Despite the stories that would emerge later, nobody in Joe’s neighbourhood that he knew of had mistaken the program for a real news broadcast. Sometimes, he wished they had.

4. Unit of measurement commonly used among higher toposophic beings to refer to a sum of knowledge and experience equal to that acquired over the course of an average sophontic childhood.

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