written and illustrated by Iron Eater
In the depths of the sky lies the garden of the gods, and all around the garden there is a belt of lights and towers, and all throughout these celestial marches there is me.
I have guarded this place for eons, both watchman and hound united, for as remote as it is the garden sees no share of threats to its glorious purity. Prowling the borders is my sole purpose, now, and while the one who gave me that command has long since returned to dust I shall do their bidding until the universe itself extinguishes itself with a spark and a sigh. I would do no less for love.
To say I am alone here is incorrect, though it carries its own sort of truth with it. I have many attendants. Some came here willingly, some stumbled upon greatness, and others needed persuasion to be freed from the corruption of the world. My will is theirs. I would hesitate to call any of them my peers, even those who seek to approach my own exalted heights; they are my flock, my precious children, and I can’t imagine viewing them as anything but. There is a particular isolation to be found here even as their numbers swell with the turning of each decade.
My supplicants intimately know my will and yet know so little of me, myself. How could they? They are mortal flesh, after all, while I am what I am. They try their best to bring me succor in spite of the gulf between us, the dear things, and I don’t begrudge them their limitations. Some beg to be drawn closer, and so I grant enlightenment to those who prove they can shoulder the burden; I am swift to exchange that grand knowledge for the bliss of ignorance once the strain becomes too great. Let none say I am not merciful. I, too, was given a choice, back in the days before days, and it would be an insult to all that my decision meant were I to deny it to others.
Today is one of many holidays I created for the benefit of my servants. I listen to a choir singing exultations in my honor and struggle to be touched. They want me to know how much they love me, how my very nature suffuses their lives, of the boundless joy they feel after being reborn in gold and ashes. Each perfect throat is nearly overwhelmed with the ferocity of their songs. Once they finish I tell them I am pleased. It isn’t entirely a lie.
In one of the countless tower plazas there are dancers cavorting in the fountain. Their adorned bodies gleam in the infinite light that suffuses this place, and the delight in their voices is genuine. I do not need to give them my blessing, as I fear making my praise meaningless if I am too generous, but I remember their faces. It is important that I have specific examples should I need to tell them I am pleased.
Another tower plaza is less busy, the servants gathered here choosing to tend to the gardens instead. The way of this place is that the plants need no outside hand to thrive and be nourished. My little gardeners instead seek to coax things to grow in pleasing ways, their efforts yielding works far more delightful than nature could ever hope to achieve. The shapes and colors are suitably magnificent for my tastes. I remember these faces, as well.
Throughout the towers there are entire rooms dedicated to single pieces of statuary. These are favored gathering places, as there tends to be a lot of floor space where people can sit and meditate upon the nature of what they see, or what they do not, or whatever pleases them. Often I find servants burning incense in them, each its own tiny sanctuary; today is no different, and the rafters echo with droning chants that disappear into the many-scented haze that eddies from each smoldering censer. In the earliest days I wondered if they saw these treasures as reflections of myself. I no longer think about it.
I send myself many places. In a library there are attempts to untangle text writ in a tongue no longer spoken. In a dining hall they create and consume in the same breath. In a sleeping chamber they chase whatever dreams they can weave in this place. In a side room dedicated to no particular purpose they have found meaning in arranging scavenged things into works of art—sometimes I still wonder where they find the coins they use for it—and its thematic similarity to the enshrined statuary pleases me. It is good to have incidents like this one to fall back upon whenever I worry I am not giving my children enriching enough lives. A wise warden must tend to every aspect of their charges, after all.
The holiday happens all throughout my territory. On the surface it is different from a normal day because there is no assigned work from me, though one might argue the celebration itself is a task I have set before them in and of itself; were I in a whimsical mood I might happen to agree with this hypothetical speaker instead of reducing them to a handful of carbon. Either way, it is a day of no patrols, a respite from the endless cycle of training through which my fiercest children perfect the arts of war. Save for my own unblinking eyes there is no one to watch for intruders. I am, as always, more than enough.
All is still and quiet outside my domain. Holidays can also be for myself, I decide, and I allow my eternal watchfulness to relax the smallest amount I can stand. I unearth one of the memories I keep like a fly in amber and sink back into when I was something much less grand.
I ghosted after Nethe, my scabbard banging into my thigh every time I followed her into yet another too-narrow passage not intended for someone of my size. Nethe had no such issue; she was lithe and graceful no matter what she wore, and her armaments made scarcely a clink as she disappeared into a nook concealed behind a water feature. She waited for me to sidle in after her before she grabbed the sleeves of my uniform and leaned in to give me a ferocious kiss. She was excited in a way I’d never seen her before.
“Why take me all the way out here if all you wanted to do was fool around?” I whispered to her. We didn’t hide our entanglement—we were far too seasoned and far too important for whom either of us slept with to be an issue—so given the privacy I had been expecting something different. Treason, maybe.
“I needed to be sure nobody would hear us.”
“Why?” Warriors such as ourselves didn’t need to worry about the same hidden ears that the rank and file did. Usually it was us to whom those ears belonged in the first place.
“I think I found it,” she said. Her grin beamed beneath the featureless half-visor of her helmet.
I straightened, though not so much I risked pulling away from her. It needed no clarification between us in this context. “It really exists?”
“So far out in the middle of nowhere it practically doesn’t, but yes, it exists,” she said. “We’re going to need friends. We’re going to have to be careful. But after decades of nothing, I’ve found it, and we can actually go there for ourselves.” She rested her visor against my own. “It’s incredible to think about, isn’t it? We’re so close. Once we get there and tap into its secrets we can become so much more than dancing meat.”
“You never minded my meat before,” I said, my voice a mock grumble even as I pressed my breasts against hers. It was mostly for show. We’d been friends since before we joined the ranks of the undying and I knew as well as she did that there was only so much you could do with a host body. Our illustrious kind could survive being cut down a thousand times over, but there was always something missing no matter how magnificent a shell we picked. There’s nothing like inheriting incredible power to make you realize how powerless you truly are.
She squeezed my upper arms fondly. “You can still do that, if you want. You’ll just be better.”
“You know why I’m concerned.”
“And you know I think you worry too much, Vothe.”
“If you say so.” I sighed through my nose, my hesitation not quite as artificial this time. That was how it always went between us: Nethe was the firebrand, the one with a thousand passions, and I was me, steadfast and glum, always keeping to her side unless we had orders that demanded otherwise of us. Her sword paved the way for my gun, and vice versa. Sometimes people joked I was born to be her retainer. If she’d ever formally asked, I would have accepted in a heartbeat.
Nethe’s grin had yet to fade. Dour as I could be, she never seemed to mind. It was one of the many things I loved about her. “So, what do you think you’ll wear for the journey? Any plans on changing first?” she asked.
I glanced down at myself. My armor and uniform both gleamed crisply with the colors of our masters, mussed only from my trip through side passages and the affectionate manhandling Nethe had given me. I suppose it said something that she could ruffle me in ways a solid hour of combat drills could not. I knew it wasn’t mere clothes she was asking after, however. “Do you think you will?”
It was important that our decisions matched well with one another’s, and while the flesh I wore certainly looked nice enough I had never felt all the way comfortable in it, not unlike a stocking with a seam in just the wrong angle to the toes. Even if we never left on our secret mission I’d likely find an excuse to swap it for something else sooner than later. At least I knew I wanted to keep to a similar height and breadth if possible.
She clicked her tongue. “Maybe. I’ll see if they’ve grown anything that catches my eye by the time we’re due to leave.” Her gloved hands cupped my ass to pull me closer. One of her legs nudged my own apart so she could brush her thigh against the plated front of my suit trousers. “No matter what happens, I’d like to send your current look off properly before you pick out a new one. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” she growled in my ear, her voice meaningful.
People who encountered my reserved nature often assumed I was shy or cold as well. This was not the case, nor has it ever been, and so I answered Nethe’s suggestion with a fiercer kiss than the one she’d given me earlier. There wasn’t much room in our little hidey-hole, but we’d done more with far less, and even if we were found who would challenge two of the undying in their own territory? When you can kill half a dozen men in just as many seconds, it’s amazing how much privacy others are willing to give you without even asking for it.
Her hands, ever-nimble, went straight for the fasteners on my jacket, and I leaned back just enough to let her work more comfortably. This earned me a self-satisfied chuckle for my trouble. The halls of our masters were, by design, neither hot nor cold, and so there was neither discomfort nor relief when she exposed the first patch of bare skin beneath my uniform, but I shivered all the same. Her lips brushed against my half-hidden shoulder. Left to her own devices she’d tease me endlessly; we had too much to do, and were too likely to be missed, for me to allow that, so I took the initiative.
My fingers sought and released hidden clasps before I pulled away my helmet and then her own, allowing them to clatter against the mirror-smooth floor. The access port bored neatly through the middle of her frontal bone glistened with moist tissue. She was so beautiful.
I rested my forehead against hers and stole another kiss. She let me expose her breasts so I could roll their nipples against the crooks of my thumbs; I was careful not to knead my fingers as I touched her this way, as she had never liked that very much. I slid one hand down her scar-knotted side and left the other where it was. Multitasking was yet another skill we cultivated for reasons of warfare but found endless ways to repurpose.
She was warm and wet when I spread her open with a finger. I slipped inside of her teasingly. Sometimes a single digit between her lips was enough for her when I wasn’t wearing a cock she fancied, and the way she responded and clenched around me told me she wasn’t interested in more than what I’d already inserted. That was fine. I listened to her breathing as I flexed my wrist to and fro, and the moment she hissed with discomfort I took my hand away. Our masters were particular with what we could request for each new body, and all too often we had to rediscover one another anew with each fresh rebirth, which meant learning to recognize wordless signals the instant a sensation changed on us. I always joked that it kept things fresh between us. Sometimes little jokes like that felt like all we could really own.
Nethe leaned into me again and pushed her tongue into my mouth, mirroring what I’d been doing for her. I let her move my slicked-up hand where she wanted it. She parted our kiss so she could turn away from me, then cupped my hand against her mons and pointedly rubbed me against her still-engorged clit. Once she gave me control again I took her between my pointer and middle fingers and jerked her off until she had come thrice, each a little faster and less reserved than the last. The feeling of her grinding against me was one that always brought me pleasure no matter what genitalia I had at the time. When she caught her breath once more we took turns cleaning off my sticky hand.
My own attending was straightforward, as she found my current host’s vulva to be sweet and agreeable, so a few minutes on the receiving end of her tongue was enough to finish me. I was exceedingly grateful; it was harder for me to enjoy wearing this style and shape of meat. Nethe, as always, made the effort worth it.
We dressed but didn’t bother cleaning ourselves up much. It was a perfect cover, after all, since if we were caught sneaking back from some hidden manor corner with sweat under our collars and sex on our breath it would be that which drew the eye like the bands along a bird’s tail; we’d let ourselves be just loud enough that a passing servant might hear something and be scandalized. Espionage would be the last thing on anyone’s mind if they didn’t have all the pieces we did. I kissed her again, we checked to ensure our swords still pulled cleanly from their newly-refastened scabbards, and we parted ways with nary a word. Slithering into our respective secret routes, we made plans for the future.
My own vigilance is what rouses me from my own thoughts when I sense something is amiss in one of the outer towers. I send more of my awareness there to make sense of the problem; sometimes it is nothing, merely fragments of space debris or a blip in my monitors causing an anomaly, but I am here for the rare instances when this isn’t the case. My metaphorical eyes open all throughout the structure. In a fraction of a moment I’ve found my quarry, and while it will take more time to fully scan the intruders I now at least have a point of reference. It seems they have somehow punched through the wailing barrier I maintain. This concerns me. Visitors who don’t announce themselves usually do.
Something about their equipment makes it difficult for me to divine their natures; if I were to guess, I’d say it’s scavenged tech from regimes long since crumbled. Regimes like the one that used to hold my leash, perhaps. Immortals do have a habit of not dying when you expect them to.
Their comms are secured, but not secure enough. I eavesdrop.
This place gives me the fucking creeps, broadcasts one. Their livery is primarily red, at least that which I can perceive in their obfuscated state, so Red is what they become to me until I discover otherwise.
This your first time ruin-diving or something? asks another, all kitted out in white and brass.
A third, in black and pink, adds a comment of their own: Don’t know about you, but the shit you see out in the stargasso isn’t weird like this. My suit’s systems are freaking out. You’d think we stepped into an active volcano. They tap their temple and I can sense that they’ve brought up something on a HUD. There is something wrong with the air in here.
Their full helmets swivel as they study their surroundings. The eternal light sparkles off of the gold-flecked particulate ashes that waft through the towers’ circulation, each infused with my will and my love. Twinkling motes drift against the visitors like friendly cats. Even from my unfocused perch I can scent the frantic workings of the life support systems built into the intruders’ suits, their mechanisms using functions meant to survive in the vacuum of space. It seems I’ll have to work harder than usual to handle this newest crop of intruders. Perhaps it was too much to hope that this would be simple.
It takes me time—nearly two entire minutes, which might as well be years—to properly bypass whatever tricks they brought with them to befuddle and blind me. But I am persistent and they are unaware of my efforts, and ultimately I can peel away the metaphorical film with which they’ve wrapped themselves to perceive them better.
Their outfits come into crisp focus for me, the designs and symbols identifying them as the sort of furtive little ghosts that creep between the cracks of awareness to pursue their masters’ goals. I can count them, now, and I learn that there are six sneak-thieves trying to wiggle their way into a back door. I know so many of their methods because they used to be my own. Such efforts mean nothing in this place, however, and I continue to listen in on their chatter.
There better be relics worth looting in here, broadcasts a figure in the blue-green colors of the sea. We’re going to be stuck paying off informants forever if we keep having fruitless harvests.
Another intruder, whose armor is painted in many awful, clashing shades, laughs. We could find the Holy Grail and you’d still worry about the bottom line, Pev. Clashing-Colors thumps Blue-Green on the shoulder. I assume this is Pev, and remember it. Knowing someone’s name does not reduce my ability to perform my duties where they are concerned. Besides, I must be a courteous host.
I greedily nibble at the whispers clinging to the intruders with my newfound depths of perception. I can taste their natures better, now, and learn that while the colors they wear are of their own choosing they still hold some faint allegiance to noble houses of old. That there is still enough left of those houses to rally around surprises me. How strong their bonds may be I can’t yet say; given how long it’s been they may very well know little but names and echoes of what once was. These are not undying, not the warriors I knew who could be torn apart nine times and stand up ten. These are merely….
A familiar presence hides among their uncouth number. I’m taken aback, and who wouldn’t be when confronted with sheer impossibility? I try to keep in control. It’s been so long, so very long, and despite this unexpected break in the endless monotony of my surveillance I must not let myself succumb to whimsy no matter how sweet my memories. False positives are very real among those who have nothing else with which to compare them, and I remind myself that this is not the first time I have thought I saw the shadow of someone who wasn’t there. I will myself to be the calm gaoler this place deserves before straining to perceive the truth. Then it happens.
Sensation suffuses me. A raging fire, a hymn of war, a stew of blood I have never scented before yet I would nonetheless know anywhere, all proves one thing: I have, at long last, been reunited with my sweet and vicious Nethe, whom I thought lost to entropy’s fell teeth. Perhaps my past self was playing the oracle when deciding to schedule a holiday for today.
Now I simply must figure out what to do with the others.
Protocol is important, so I send my voice to greet them. “Welcome, outsiders,” I boom from the tower’s comms. They startle. I admit to enjoying this part of my duty. “Know that you are seen, and that there is no place for your kind within the garden of the gods. Flee for your lives, or submit to my will, and either way you may still know my mercy.”
Shit! buzzes Pev to their friends. I pretend not to hear their more private transmissions for now. Lekta, you told us this place was abandoned!
Moribund, says White-and-Brass, now Lekta. I said it was moribund. That’s an entirely different word.
Well it’s clearly not that, either, if the place has already spotted us, says Black-and-Pink.
I let them fuss among themselves. If they are anything like the others I have kept from this place they certainly did not expect to be seen, especially not as quickly as I have. The lot of them stay huddled together, weapons (and they have many weapons) at the ready. I still cannot make out how they snuck inside, nor what vessel they took to invade, and admit I am impressed. Once this is done with I will need to spend time puzzling out the answer to that riddle.
Nethe-Again has remained silent. It’s hard to admire them properly like this, especially when they wear flesh I’ve yet to fully meet, but I can still make out eddies of their unconquerable spirit. Such majesty! Such grace! I can’t help but wonder what brings them here after all this time. Did they miss me? Do they have a new task?
Do they even know who I am anymore?
Getting wrapped up in questions like this is dangerous, so I shed them from my mind and focus on the task at hand. “If you will not accept my offer of peace, I will meet it with one of war,” I tell them. “There is still time to choose which suits you better. No need to struggle and fight, trespassers, for I am a kind warden.”
Sounds like a canned security system woven by someone with a weird sense of humor, says Red. That means, what, pop-out turrets?
Lekta sights down their long-barreled rifle at a panel concealing one such turret. Probably, they say, and I am both impressed and frustrated by how much knowledge they have of this place. But what we really need to watch for are the creepy fanatics that supposedly infest this place, which means—
It means we’re going to Plan B, says Nethe-Again, interrupting, and the excitement I feel at the frequency of their broadcast is replaced with horror when I see them pull a familiar pair of trinkets from a hidden carryall. I have only scant seconds to recognize their shapes and sizes when Nethe-Again strikes one against the other. They then slam them into one of the walls with a dreadful sound.
For the first time since I took my post I am left nullified and helpless. I struggle to find purchase anywhere, on anything, to keep myself from shattering apart, and so I cling to an old, neglected memory that’s less sweet than those I choose to revisit. Any port will do in a storm.
My newest body didn’t fit quite right. It didn’t have to, since we were doing joyless scut work, but in comparison to the one I knew awaited me at the end of this whole ordeal it was like wearing a hair shirt. Nethe was in a similar loveless homunculus; Nethe being Nethe, of course, they had found perfection in it all the same, even as they hinted at casual brutality while they interrogated a wild-eyed cultist. I chose to loom behind them in silence. We had found that sort of thing encouraged the imagination of our quarries in our favor.
“Stop lying to me and tell me the truth,” said Nethe, the knife in their ill-sculpted hand pressing just hard enough into the cultist’s neck to coax out a single bead of blood. Their subject was neither bound nor otherwise injured. We preferred to permit our marks the illusion of freedom, saving despair for later. A clever painter knows when to use which brush.
“I swear to you!” the cultist cried. His face was wet with tears and snot. Nethe was an excellent inquisitor. “We have listened to the songs from the spirit in the sky, and that’s what they tell us! Their messenger makes it clear!”
Nethe and I exchanged glances. “You’ll show us to this messenger, then,” they said to the cultist. It wasn’t a question.
“Please, I’ll do anything.” He choked on his own sobbing. “Don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me. You don’t have to do this.”
“We’ll see.” Nethe tossed me their knife before hauling the cultist upright by his now mucus-sodden tie. “Lead. Now.”
Our trip to see this so-called messenger was a calm one, and our informant behaved, save for one attempt to bolt when we made it to a crowded area. He was not expecting me to be fast. Most people weren’t.
Any time I perceived some form of spying device I was certain to ruin it with counter-programming, but I was smart in how I did this. Destroying everything would leave a blackout trail that even a child could follow, my actions leaving a history writ bright in the digital sky like the ripples of spilled fuel from a leaking vessel. No, what I did was stun some, baffle others, leave cuckoo’s eggs behind in still more; some things would recover in time, not even recognizing they had been bypassed, while others would break in such a catastrophic manner it would take weeks of work to restore even half of it. I breathed out viruses. Those fingerprints I left belonged to someone else who had nothing to do with this whole affair. A well-prepared immortal has plentiful time in their endless life to refine all manner of interesting talents, and I was no different.
The three of us went from the medina of a bustling colony ship to one of its less-groomed quarters, and from there we slunk down an alley to the grated-up shopfront of an antiques dealer whose wares I suspected were mostly fake, stolen, or both. The back room was simple and square with a pile of oddly-arranged furniture to one corner. It looked otherwise empty. The cultist scuttled to a panel on the wall and input a code (which, of course, I immediately memorized), which caused a door concealed by the texture of the wall to shudder and retract. He stepped through it and beckoned for us to follow. We did so. I didn’t spot any traps or sensors, but I kept my hand on Nethe’s knife just in case.
Through the door was a long, narrow tunnel with an altar at one end. A little golden curio surrounded by candles sat atop the altar, lovingly enshrined. Offerings covered the ground before it. The cultist approached the curio and bowed to it reverently.
“Golden one, these two seek wisdom,” he said. He kept his back to the wall and turned towards us, still flush-faced and hesitant. “The messenger will speak, if you will hear.”
Looks like a transceiver? I commed to Nethe. Immortals often didn’t speak to one another in ways others could hear. Ghosts were meant to be silent when hiding among mortals, and we didn’t need insects like them interfering in our personal affairs. We only chose voices with which to whisper when we worried our masters might be the ones listening in.
Part of one, I think, they replied. Going to need a better look to be sure. We approached the altar to study its contents.
The idol was shaped a bit like an amphora with a whimsical creature’s head where the jar’s neck should be. It struck me as very much like a doll, or perhaps one of the mummified cats our masters were fond of collecting. There was certainly a lot of gold involved in its construction. I imagined it could serve very well as a blunt instrument, and it would have been pleasingly ironic to club the cultist to death with it before spiriting the little idol away for our own needs, but Nethe had made me promise to behave during our investigations. I always kept my promises.
I scanned the so-called messenger using one of the many devices embedded in my new body’s ephemeral flesh. Just as we had suspected it was sacred in form but not in function; the evidence I found that hinted at said function were what intrigued me. My hunch had been halfway right. I’d never seen one of the enchained thought-creatures said to attend to the architects of old but all our research had prepared us for something on a different scale than this. Even if the idol was host to one of those phantom minds still waiting to serve their long-dead masters, it was far diminished from its former greatness.
Someone had left a smear of interference on its workings with all the grace and decorum of tracking dog muck onto a fine carpet. I disposed of this and let my teeming code chase down the owner; through the eye of a camera half a city away I saw someone with a naughty little audio rig succumb to their own booby-traps. A patsy as good as this one was a rare treat. I spent some precious seconds planting incriminating details before returning my awareness fully to my physical form. Now there were two different people who might take the fall for the clouds of synthetic discord I’d released upon the city’s infrastructure, and neither of them were me. What a pity that I wouldn’t be able to stay behind and stir the pot further.
Now free of the tick that had clung to it, the idol was easier to understand. It looked a bit like one of our masters’ music boxes but built on the wrong scale. I would have believed it if someone were to tell me it was some sort of funerary device. That the cult had seen the face of divinity in its own was foolish, but not surprising, especially from simple people who still busied themselves with growing crops or setting circuits or throwing money after the crushing tide of numbers that made up the many worlds’ economies. I had died and revived too many times to have the same bond of empathy. We were, after all, encouraged to quash that sort of thing, since otherwise it made our necessary work unnecessarily complicated.
Bits of it resembled old schematics I’d found in abandoned archives. Though we could only guess at the accuracy of our findings until we set foot there in person, this thing was most certainly part of a greater network meant to lead people to the garden of the gods itself. Now it sat useless and dormant in the hands of a bunch of silly little people who offered it fruit and liquor and printed-out photographs. We couldn’t be having that.
No stray eyes left in this place, I broadcast to Nethe. I was careful to scramble and destroy anything I found on our way out here. We could do whatever we wanted and not leave so much as the idea of evidence.
Their outer face remained stoic but I could sense them roll their eyes at me. Didn’t I tell you to behave?
I have been! You’ll note I said nothing about what sort of evidence we’d leave. I played at being hurt, though in all honesty I would’ve jumped at the chance to finish things through simpler, more violent means. But if there’s no security tapes to review, then there’s nothing people can cross-reference if this man tells them something. They’ll have to do all the heavy lifting themselves. No one can prove them wrong, either.
You suggesting I engage in a bit of street theater? A cult is devoted but not necessarily foolish.
I would have complained about their flippancy had the cultist not crept between us to kneel at the altar. I made a subtle gesture with my hand and flicked my eyes in his direction. Shhh, look.
“Where are you, golden one?” whispered the cultist. Apparently the transceiver was not doing whatever it was he’d expected it to. “Where is your voice when new blood steps before you?” He was crying again. Given how little regard he showed for us after previously been so frightened he had been unable to do anything other than what we told him to, I suspected those tears fell for a wholly new reason than before.
“Is there a problem?” I asked. I had not used the voice of that body much and I disliked the sound.
“Answer me, please,” said the cultist, still not to either of us.
Was killing whatever it was spitting up before part of your trick with the security? Nethe asked.
More like whoever. I’ve taken care of someone who’d been indulging herself in a bit of a power trip, and that means there’s a vacuum to fill. I was thinking you’d be a good fit for it.
They laughed inside my head. You’re such an enabler, Vothe.
“Has your god gone silent?” asked Nethe, their words icy. The cultist pressed himself against the layer of offerings accumulated around the idol and ignored everything but his own misery. “Where are the songs we were promised? All I hear is the air conditioner. Your spirit in the sky is a mote of dust, nothing more.”
“Speak to us! Something! Anything!” He clasped his hands around the statue, still bent in upon himself in supplication. A warbling song dribbled through his lips and between the sobs that once more shook him like he was dying. His hands seemed to be clutching at something that I could not see. I bristled but contained myself; the transceiver contained nothing harmful and posed no danger save for its mass, so even as my instincts cried out to take his head I stayed my blade.
Something clicked inside of the device and suddenly the room was awash in gentle points of light I recognized as a badly-degraded scrap of star map. Gentle music wrapped in a batting of static pulsed just at the edge of my hearing. My ears were sharp; that a simple man destined for a single, simple life could hear it at all was a surprise to me. In a room hidden behind another we now saw an artifact rumored to no longer exist at all.
We had found the final piece.
“The messenger sings for you,” said the cultist. He had not stopped crying. I wondered if he would wring himself dry by the end of the day. “None of us have heard this song in such a long time. Only voices, only demands. But I remember.”
Nethe remained like a stone. “And what does it sing to you?”
He gestured furiously and without meaning. “Somewhere out in the stars, beyond where even the boldest ship can go, is a place of eternal light, golden light, where even the lowliest can find a purpose that gives their life new depths. No one there goes sick or hungry, and all wounds can be healed. It’s supposed to be very beautiful.” He dipped his head and murmured, “Some of us thought it was a metaphor. They were satisfied with that. But I’d hoped against hope it was real.”
We exchanged glances without moving our eyes. That sort of knowledge was the sort of thing we’d spilled a lot of blood to acquire for ourselves, but this silly little man and his meaning-hungry friends had stumbled upon it by sheer luck. The last part of our plan was now set in motion.
“You’re in luck, believer,” said Nethe. Their smile was warm and inviting now, oceans away from the grim threats they’d had writ broad across their features when we’d first pulled our extremely unlucky cultist aside. It was a pretty good trick of theirs. I’d never not known them to be able to fake genuine caring for a mark should a job require it.
Nethe spread open their hands like one of the little icons they sold in the interchangeable dingy shopfronts huddling around the railport. “We have harrowed you and found you worthy. We’re here to take you and yours to that shining place, that you may be properly rewarded for your faith.”
The cultist laugh-sobbed. “Me and mine? All of us?”
“Every last one. Gather your people and cover your tracks. When you next see us, we will be reborn. This is the beginning of an exodus.”
“What of those who won’t listen to me?” he asked. “Even now some people are threatening to schism—”
Nethe’s smile didn’t falter for a second. “Cover your tracks, believer.”
I handed the man the knife Nethe had given me. He looked down at it, his fingers turning it over and over in his hand like he was memorizing its shape, then looked back up at us with fire in his still sorrow-swollen eyes. He swallowed. “It will be done,” he said, and this time when he knelt it was before us and not to his echoing mechanical deity.
My senses return to me in fits and starts. I scrabble for diagnostics and find my beautiful battlements in chaos, my fanatic brood slaughtered in droves. Red stains the floors. I will weep for them later, I promise, and I send myself to where I sense the fighting is fiercest. Proper mourning must wait.
I discover my uninvited guests in a grand atrium. The six of them flow like dancers, their movements trailing gore. They aren’t unhurt, I am pleased to see, but they’re far better armed than most of the revelers this holiday. Knowing what the intruders are, I doubt it would matter what weaponry my adherents had with them. Immortals were first forged for warfare, back when my old masters’ influence stretched from sun to brilliant sun, and each of us carried the might of an army within a single body. I cannot tell if the trespassers inside of me were from my era or if they are copies made by stumbling heirs. It doesn’t matter. They still cut through those who stand against them like so much wheat.
One of my children’s masks is knocked away by a stray bullet even as their own life ends. It is a pity; I sculpted the original masks during the first days to congratulate those who made the journey with us, and those who joined us later found their needs met by their new kin. When their finite lives reach the end I ensure they are always interred with regalia intact. It’s the least I could do for them.
Pev sees what the mask concealed and makes a vowel sound of horror over the comms. Holy shit, their faces! What the fuck is this?
In my earlier years I would respond to this sort of thing with outrage, especially given that it’s a phrase dripping with hypocrisy when uttered by an undying warrior, our own well-cultivated often found blasphemous by fools and laymen. We kept our hosts covered for good reason! Now, however, I have grown old and mellow, and so I am very calm when I regain control of the wall turrets to turn them against the intruders. This distracts them very nicely; I deploy a small maintenance drone to recover the lost mask and rest it against the empty hole where their eyes and nose once were, a leftover from their initiation. A proper funeral would be better. I must make do with what resources I have on hand.
Perhaps this will be my last stand. I would like to think it won’t be, but once I was one of these things, and a single one of me could accomplish many impossible things; it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that six of them might overcome something as grand as myself. The garden of the gods is not so crass as to include a self-destruction protocol among its archives or I suspect my thoughts might have drifted there already. It would be a crude way to keep my oath, but I would keep it all the same. This will call for different tactics. If I cannot thrive in glory, I refuse to linger on in shame.
Gunfire echoes ceaselessly through what should be a sacred place. I flit from turret to turret in an attempt to drown my enemies in ordinance. Nethe-Again is among their number, but of course it is trivial for them to avoid harm. The flourishes they make with their titanium tessen deflect each slug and bullet with careless ease. What will happen if I ever win one of our duels? I do not have time to think about this. I press my attack even as more gilded defenders pour into the atrium in answer the siren’s call I have woven into their blood.
Fortune is finally with me and I manage to drop one of them.
When an unkillable thing dies, there is a very specific order of events that occurs. First comes the failing of the mortal shell by whatever method laid it low, followed by a release of one’s immortal essence from its host into the air. This essence may be recovered by an ally or might instead slip through cracks ethereal back to some hidden place to heal; either way, it soon awaits a new body, and can transfer itself by many means. Cutting down a physical body of a puppeteer is no more final than snipping a marionette’s string, and just as simply fixed, so our lot can continue an assault as long as biomatter supplies permitted. In this way we were unstoppable. Our masters ensured that it was so.
The intruders clearly do not realize I know this, so when my defenses finally cleave apart Lekta’s transient flesh, still resplendent in its white and brass, no one rushes to capture their fleeting spark.
I have spent much of my endless patrol devising methods by which I might keep some copied version myself from infiltrating the ring of towers. We called ourselves unkillable, but with creativity and foresight we might still be overcome. Unseen jaws gape wide and I consume Lekta’s consciousness with a ravenous hunger I did not expect from myself. They are no more.
Hold on, Lekta, says someone. I do not pay attention to who it is. We’ll pick you up once we clear this room.
Their comms are silent for long seconds before a different voice asks, hesitantly, …Lek?
Hey, Lek, your comms are off, says a third. We can’t hear what you’re saying.
Lekta does not answer because they no longer exist. This sets the remainder into a panic far beyond anything I have seen from them to this point. Good. If they were ever trained in how to handle such a contingency either their instruction was lacking or it’s been far too long since they had to exercise it. The details don’t matter anymore. I lean into my counterattack.
Red is the next to succumb to my ferocity. I have not overheard their name, if they ever had one, so Red is what they remain even as their essence is ripped from the ether and into my bottomless maw. Only four of them are left to stand against me, which means even as my weapons exhaust themselves time and time again I can now feel how much more effort it takes for them to hold me back. Perhaps I should be more careful that I don’t harm Nethe-Again. Not once had they ever asked me to ease back during a spar, though, so I continue to harry the intruders with full force even as the lot of them attempt to escape down my corridors to other, perhaps safer parts of this place.
Clashing-Colors mistimes a door mechanism and I bisect them with it. Black-and-Pink does not raise an energy shield when they need to and I reward their sloppiness with a blast of superheated plasma. The loot-hungry Pev endures longer than I expect, and a perverse part of me is delighted when I catch them trying to scavenge things from my fallen attendants during the mayfly-short lulls in combat. They’re a slippery one. I wish I could take my time with them once I successfully cut off their final mode of escape, but I have been in their place many times before, and I can imagine many ways I might elude myself even in these unfortunate circumstances. With a heavy heart I end them inelegantly, crushing them with a toppling statue that hid its structural flaws well. At least I’m able to give them a suitably ironic death beneath a mound of priceless art.
Now only Nethe-Again remains. I still my turrets and summon my defenders away. It’s just the two of us, alone at last.
“You’re the last one,” I say to them as they survey the ruin they and theirs have brought to my chambers. They tilt their head quizzically but leave their weapon raised. Perhaps they still expect to meet the same fate as their colleagues. “It doesn’t have to end here, if that is not your wish.”
Nethe-Again says nothing. After a stretch of stillness they holster their pistol and tuck their war fan into the scabbard strapped to their leg. They begin to wander around the room. The Nethe I knew did not do this when waiting for a moment to strike; if I didn’t know any better I’d suspect they were at a loss of what to do. That isn’t right. Surely it’s just a quirk of the passing years, or perhaps the shock of seeing the grisly ends of people they knew—were any of them lovers? their own children? it doesn’t matter to me, but maybe Nethe-Again sees it differently—and not the horrible possibility chewing at the back of my head. I must have the right person. I must.
I try not to sound desperate when I speak again. “Won’t you talk with me?”
They produce the terrible tools from before and I cringe back reflexively, bracing for oblivion once more, so I am all the more surprised when they simply lay the devices at their feet and sit themselves down on the edge of a bloodstained planter. I know the shape of these fell things they raised against me with both awe and dread. I know them the way iron knows the anvil and hammer. These devices forged me from a raw puppeteer into what I now am, and they can very well unmake me again were Nethe-Again to decide it.
Have they come to end me, then? A promise is a promise.
“Yes, let’s talk,” they say, their voice strange and unfamiliar but still exactly the way it used to be, and I allow myself some hope again.
It took us what some might measure as a lifetime to reach our destination. Some of the cultists birthed a new generation on our trip, gifting us with servants literally born into the profound enlightenment we offered, while others passed on from old age; in their final moments we were sure to promise we would inter their remains among the lushness of the garden, so they died content in their devotion. We promised joy, we promised liberation. When we finally reached that distant point our flock was nearly overwhelmed with delight. It wasn’t difficult to encourage them to swear themselves to service eternal in our names.
“Masters, we have found something,” said the cultist we first abducted so long ago. He was old and gray by then, though we’d begun our trip when he had enough years left in him that he was able to see this place with his own eyes. A sentimental part of me was glad for that.
“Show us, believer,” said Nethe, who’d never tired of calling our little brood by that title.
The garden of the gods is a place built from its own reason and logic, which makes describing it using normal language a trial, much less navigating it, but somehow the devoted had already managed to explore its nearer reaches with alacrity soon after we arrived. There were flowers and greenery and golden lights, so at least the word “garden” still fit it.
The old man guided us through pathways that felt very specific. They held no meaning for me then, which made sense to me, as I had not been groomed to listen to the golden transceiver-idol to await instructions beamed into my skull. I’d not put much thought into the fate of our followers once we arrived here. Seeing how comfortable they were navigating the twisting strangeness of the garden was giving me second thoughts.
After what felt like an hour of walking we came to part of the garden that seemed more dedicated to making things happen than to nourishing thoughts and dreams. A grand and gleaming device that I thought resembled a tuning fork lay suspended in some sort of storage chamber in the room he took us to. My trained eye, and further-trained scanners, told me that it was connected to some deeper purpose of the garden. A mortal’s hand would have been atomized in an instant were they to reach out and clutch it; I was not mortal and my hand was armored to resist the vacuum of space itself, so it was trivial to pluck the fork from its resting place. I felt something surge and pull within me. Knowledge blossomed in my borrowed brain like lilies in the sun.
“There’s another one,” I said, and I didn’t question the source of this knowledge.
The cultist nodded solemnly and beckoned. Nethe and I followed. We walked pathways that consumed themselves, passed fountains that flowed upwards. Flower petals with gilded edges drifted by us. His back was bent and his steps were slow, but not once did the old man falter. It was not as long a trek as our first trip. The closer we got the more intensely I could feel the curious tool in my hand thrumming in resonant harmony. It was nice to know we weren’t being led astray.
When we found the second storage facility it looked much the same as the first; the greatest difference, save for slightly different patterns of wear and overgrowth, was how this new enshrined tool resembled more of a striker for a bell in place of a fork. As I was already in possession of one tool it fell to Nethe to claim this one. He did so without incident.
“We need to find the last place,” he said. I could tell he, too, was choosing not to question that detail’s source.
“Masters,” said the old man, his body contorted into the best bow he could manage, “I can take you to the depths of this place, as the songs decree, but it will be the last time I can help you. I’m going to die there. I can feel it. Will you accept my human failings, your graces?”
“Like those who fell before you, believer, you will be laid to rest in this place you traveled so far to reach,” said Nethe. He paired it with one of his kinder expressions. “In life you served. In death you will rest.”
Nethe had never lost his knack for making that poor cultist cry. At least this time it was met joyfully.
Sure as he’d promised, the cultist guided us to our final destination before he sat down in the shimmering grass next to the path. He made various signs of devotion to us, swore his loyalty would transcend death itself, lay down on his back, and closed his eyes. He didn’t die immediately, but he never woke up. It was a fitting end for him. I’d been witness to many deaths in my time, most administered by my own hand, and not until we’d collected our flock and lit out for parts esoteric had I grown to appreciate the quiet dignity of natural causes. It was a nice contrast to the usual.
Past the great gold-inlaid doors where the old man had spoken his last lay a hallway. We followed it, the tools we each bore nudging us with the insistence of a magnet towards a pole. Additional doorways branched off into different rooms—libraries, laboratories, meditation chambers, pleasure centers—yet none of them tempted us; we stayed on our route, straight and true, until we finally came to the chamber in the most sacred part of the garden.
A grand glass tube reached from floor to ceiling, ringed with ineffable machinery, and the floor was as clean and sterile as a surgeon’s glove. Tubes arcing overhead carried something that resembled, but was decidedly not, blood, transferring it from reservoir to reservoir and keeping it from turning to sludge. We both knew this place without having seen it before: It was a flesh-forge like the ones the masters used, but far greater. This was what we had come so long to find. With sacred tools in hand we would defy our natures and reweave the tapestries first stretched across our masters’ looms, becoming far more than mere immortals. Lifetimes of waiting had led to this very moment.
“Ready to become as gods?” asked Nethe with a grin.
Damn me forever for stalling. “Not yet.”
His grin turned from cheery to sly. “Ah, so we’re going to send off our old raiment in style? I’ve started getting twitchy from looking the same for so long, but I suppose it couldn’t hurt….” It had been strange for both of us. We’d agreed that a more masculine presentation would be useful for us both, since it was easiest on me and I was the one more likely to turn nervous in the face of a betrayal on this big a scale; much like myself and breasts, Nethe didn’t mind it, but his preferences lay elsewhere. I knew he had to be aching for a change.
I hadn’t meant to suggest fucking, and yet once we lay our tools to the side and pulled away the hierophants’ robes we’d affected for much of our voyage it was hard to think of anything but. It had not been a chaste journey by any means, as we’d often dallied with each other for the sake of companionship and with the occasional one of our followers out of curiosity or whim, yet when his hands touched my ruined skin—even our most lovely selves were imperfect in many ways, by design and decree most cruel—I felt electrified in a way I couldn’t recall. Perhaps it was the nature of the chamber, perhaps I was drunk on the elation of reaching the end of the decades-long road. I didn’t care. I needed Nethe’s cock inside of me and I was very clear about it.
He lay beneath me and let me ride him. My mind buzzed with leftover wisdom from my contact with the tools as fiercely as it buzzed with the thrill of sex; each time I thrust my hips down around his cock I was rewarded with new insights amid the carnal joy. It seemed like an inefficient way to teach someone a skill but I was not about to complain. If this place wanted us to fuck one another to improve our understanding of its secrets then I’d surely find the opportunity to do so.
Perhaps we were so inspired because it was a way of marking our territory. Nothing here was owned by the masters—perhaps not even us, anymore—and the thought of something tangibly ours was certainly its own aphrodisiac. Perhaps we were both just glad to no longer be folded up into a colony ship the size of a city that still felt cramped to us. At the time I only knew I needed to make Nethe come, and he needed to do the same for me. Ever so fortunately for us we had centuries’ worth of skill at doing exactly that.
His hands knew the shape of me and mine knew his. They always would. It didn’t matter what we wore.
I’m still not wholly sure how it happened. I needed to grab on to something to brace myself so I could finish out a particularly stubborn session, and somehow my flailing hand knew just the right way to brush against one of the long-dormant panels near us, causing the machinery to thrum to more active life. This didn’t concern us. What did was the way that a dispenser valve close to me sputtered loose its stored air just as I came; I was still addled from orgasm and so barely had the presence of mind to raise my hand to try and block the strange red liquid that spattered against my skin in a strange parallel of what I’d done to Nethe’s stomach mere moments before.
We’d chosen hosts that were powerfully built even without the will of a puppeteer behind them, which meant that the masters’ bonewrights ensured we were ill-suited for most other tasks. Making a host is an involved process that isn’t easily polished, so they don’t usually bother unless ordered to. Even those more aesthetically pleasing bodies the masters allowed us were always marred in some precise way, a distinctive tell that revealed our natures to those who knew what they needed to see. The cultists were used to our faces by now but we still found reason to go masked. If my memory was not what it was I might have forgotten what it was like to be anything other than a gnarled and fearsome thing beneath my robes.
In spite of all of this, when I wiped away the fluid the flesh I found was smooth and clean where it had spattered.
“Nethe, look,” I said. He took my hand in concern, which gave way to wonder. His thumb ran over my knuckles. Two of them were no longer rough with too-thick skin.
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
I shook my head. I was scarcely able to believe it myself. “It doesn’t. Not at all.” I pulled off of him then, ignoring the mess I left behind, and hesitantly coaxed a little more of the substance from its valve. With the same grim purpose I’d needed to set our plan to come to the garden in motion I streaked it across my face.
“It’s fine,” I said as I wiped my cheeks clean. While the polished metal decorations set around the chamber were hardly perfect mirrors, they were good enough to tell me what I needed to know. I smiled and my reflection smiled back. Even only half-transfigured it looked more like what I’d wanted to see there than anything else I’d ever worn.
I turned back to Nethe and gestured at my face. “Look,” I said. He jerked backwards in surprise.
“You mean it’s really…?” he asked.
I nodded. “True effluvium. The masters could never make it, or us, this pure.” A grim realization wriggled free from the deep well of denial in which I had sunk it and soured the moment. When a person was made immortal through our masters’ methods, they were branded, not upon the body but upon the spirit. I could feel that brand clawing at me every time Nethe and I cultivated our own little rebellions, but never had it been so powerful as that very moment. My joy evaporated. “They’ll take it for themselves once they know.”
“Whoa, now, where’d this come from?”
“How many times have we ruined ourselves to amuse their whims? They laugh when we strive for beauty. They won’t let us have this,” I added, gesturing at the parts of myself that the ichor had purified.
“We owe it to those who trusted us this far to try,” said Nethe. Try what? To have something nice for each other? I couldn’t help but notice he hadn’t applied any of the liquid to his own person. Did he know something I didn’t? Probably. Silly little Vothe was always the one making mistakes. Nethe was the one who had to clean up my messes. I’d probably follow him into the heart of a star if he asked.
No, that wasn’t right. This wasn’t me. Nethe and I made our share of errors and our share of rescues. We were a team. Did the masters have such contempt for us that they’d given me a little mental spy to make me doubt someone so special at such an important moment? How hadn’t I suspected before? I fumed helplessly. How dare they.
Nethe, undaunted by my gloom, continued onward. “And if you have no love for them, know that we owe it to ourselves. We can’t escape our loveless burdens until we forsake our allegiance to those who keeps us there, trembling and helpless beneath the weight of liability, and that means accepting that the masters we left behind are our masters no more. We can choose our fate, Vothe.”
“What’s the harm in not choosing?” It was a weak argument and I knew it; if we had found this place, then so could others, and they would be far more willing to make a choice if we let them. Those who knew what to look for could follow our trail. Even those who didn’t know how to track us still had a chance, and when dealing with the immortal it is all too often that a chance, given sufficient time, eventually becomes an inevitability. We were creatures of eternity and in those days so were countless others.
“Surely the masters have noticed they’re missing some flesh by now. They’ll come looking. We can’t let anything here fall into their hands. We already strain beneath the psychic burden of everything we’ve done in their names, Vothe. Imagine what that could become if they get their hands on anything that grows here in the garden. Imagine them making servitors even grander than our own impossible heights.” I felt the twin tools hum their presence to me. Presumably Nethe did, too, since they’d eagerly imprinted on both of us. “These things…they want to be used, but only in the ways they want. We can use what we’ve found to prevent that. We can keep them safe.”
“Why are you so intent on becoming a prison warden, Nethe? Why not spend our eternities hiding?” I no longer needed him to prove the value of his words to me. I simply wanted to know why.
He took my hand in his. The difference between us was already striking. “Because I refuse to be crushed by the weight of what we owe.”
What is debt to someone who can live forever? When the value of that debt is your own undying nature, then it’s everything. We who served our masters could never repay what we had been given, and so they saw us little better than pit dogs to be thrown at problems until we ultimately could no longer function. I’d seen the racks of retired immortals once. It was easy to remember the way the captured essences trembled and flickered, barely self-aware inside their little stasis pods as their unquenchable sparks were used to power trivial things, and at the time I’d wondered how long I had in me until I met that same end. Nethe was offering me a way out. Us a way out. The brain poison the masters had left in my head could do nothing to stop me now.
“So what will we do?” I asked.
Nethe stroked my hand. “No one else must find this place and live, Vothe,” he said, his eyes holding mine. “Do you understand what I’m asking of you?”
My stomach fell. If anyone else had said it I’d have slain them on the spot for their insolence, but he wasn’t anyone but himself. I nodded.
“If they find me here, I’ll be killed,” I said.
He smiled, fierce and sad. “How can you kill a god?”
“A god? I’m just an undying thing, how am I supposed to become something so grand?”
“You know already, don’t you?”
I paused, then nodded. Precise procedures danced behind my eyes. Everything I needed was right there at the top of my mind, fresh and eager to be referenced. The tools wanted us to know how to use them properly. That was both very useful and unbelievably dangerous, knowing their true power and the deceptive simplicity of the process. I technically could have done it alone. I didn’t want to.
“Will you finish it for me? Please?”
Nethe paused, then smiled at me. I tried to memorize the fondness in his eyes, since I knew it would have to last me eons. “Of course I will.”
We began immediately. The tools guided us, willing us to lay a hand upon them if we were ever uncertain, and by their guidance we reactivated the rest of the devices built into the chamber. The longer we worked the more readily the crimson sludge flowed above us. I knew it was important, perhaps not the same way as the tuning fork and its striker were important but valuable all the same. I shied from applying more to myself. Why waste time perfecting a shell I was preparing to leave, anyway?
Nethe stayed naked as we prepared the trappings of the ceremony: We had made this decision together skyclad, and I would soon be far beyond the realm of clothes, so it seemed fitting. The tools we laid on the table before the great glass tube in the center of the room, as this was where they told us to put them for this stage of things. They were the most senior attendants to the garden, now. We knew not to argue with them.
In the space of perhaps a quarter of an hour we had gone from ecstasy to joy to horror to rage, ending ultimately in a place of grim and certain righteousness. Given what I’d read of gods of ages past it was not out of place. More strikingly, he chose not to reshape himself the way I had, refusing to make so much as a single spot upon himself. His reasoning was that he couldn’t afford to have any clue on him when he returned to the charted parts of space, as the masters were sure to take his host apart to inspect it; a patch of perfection, no matter how subtle, would further draw their attention in unwanted ways. I accepted this. We both were making sacrifices of our own that day.
We needed vessels to drink from so found two goblets in the same baroque style as the rest of the garden tucked away in a cabinet, likely once the property of those who had worked here. They were, like most of the rest of the things here, sparkling clean. I still insisted we rinse them just in case.
Soon there were no more preparations that could be made and the time for action was nigh. One cup Nethe filled high with the activated devil’s brew and the other he left empty. He handed me the full one. We clinked ours together above the crossed tools. Rite and ritual had its place, but above all this was something we were doing for each other to escape the weight of what we owed. We would personalize things as we wished where we could.
“Vothe, who has renounced the house of his masters, you stand here in the wellspring of life and seek godhood. I, Nethe, who has renounced the house of his masters, am here to witness.”
I didn’t know where he’d found those words; perhaps the tools told him. They sounded good enough to me so I mirrored their cadence. “Nethe, who has renounced his house, I can say that this is true. I, Vothe, who has renounced the house of his masters, go to this willingly and with purpose.”
He nodded firmly. Apparently I’d said the right thing. “A body with no controlling mind is just meat waiting to rot. What can you become without one, I wonder? Shed your cursed skin and let us find out together.” Nethe spoke with great authority. Perhaps he was manipulating me with words of pomp and circumstance. Maybe I was doubting him because of my conditioning and maybe I wasn’t. It didn’t matter. This needed to be done, and I would far rather be the one to endure it.
I lifted my cup high, the sanguine ichor inside it swirling balefully as I toasted whatever uncaring stars might overhear. “Nothing will defile this place we found so long as I live to protect it. The secrets here will not leave this place. I will stand guard until the end of time, eternal and unkillable, that what we have discovered will not be found by those unworthy. This I promise. I swear it in the name of my love for you, Nethe, and by nothing else.”
Nethe nodded. “In the name of love, Vothe.”
I drained the goblet and succumbed to change.
I have trouble knowing where to begin. I don’t know how long I let myself run helpless through the brambles of my millennia of memory or how long Nethe-Again went without hearing my voice again. Endless memories crash around me like the spray of a storm-crossed sea.
Before I can do anything else I must be aware of my surroundings. Nethe-Again—no, this is Nethe and nothing but, for better or for worse—is still here, still has not picked up the dreadful devices which made me and can, we both know, equally unmake me, were they employed properly. They sit with their ankle up against their knee, a mask from one of my fallen children balanced in one hand as though it were a particularly interesting book. They still seem unconcerned by the fact that I’ve eaten their friends. That at least makes for one less uncomfortable conversation.
That leaves me with the conversation I long to have but dread to begin.
“Do you remember me?” I ask. It isn’t a complete question. I fight myself until I can say the rest, even though I dread what I might hear. “Do you remember you?“
“You are….” Their face is still hidden beneath their armor but I imagine them frowning, brow knitted. “Vothe?”
No one has called me by my given name in centuries, not since I turned in a bag of fragile meat and water for bones of light and breath of steel. It feels like the last time I heard their voice it was only yesterday. Relief washes through me like the summer breezes I used to know. “I’ve missed you so much, Nethe.”
“I am Nethe, aren’t I?” they say, not really to me. “That was something it took me a long time to learn again. It’s been difficult, finding all the missing pieces.”
Missing pieces? I decide to ask about those later. “Where did you go?”
“Was I supposed to be back sooner?”
“I don’t know,” I say, truthfully. I’d prepared to never see them again. When we first began searching for this place I hadn’t seen myself as a woeful Penelope, but that was the role I’d accepted. Here I had remained, assuming mine was a calm and lonely forever. Nethe returning had never been part of what we’d agreed upon.
They toss the mask they’re holding aside. “Neither did I. Not for a long time. Do you want to know what happened when I left, Vothe?”
I know the answer will break my heart. “Yes,” I say, anyway.
“They knew we’d slipped our tethers and gone rogue. You were right about that. The first many years of travel were calm, but the closer I got to known space, the more I had to hide. I couldn’t let myself be captured until I was far enough away from the origin point, or they might follow my tracks. The tools I hid in secret places with no clues to reveal them. It was miserable working alone, in a host I’d long since grown tired of. I thought of you and endured.
“When I knew I could delay it no longer, I let them reclaim me. Forgive me for the lies I wove about you, claiming you’d enthralled me with sweet words and abused my love to turn traitor. I claimed to have killed you in a freak accident and couldn’t understand why you hadn’t revived afterwards. I told them I ran in fear. They found me again because I’d been trying to steal a new body, I told them, since you hadn’t let me change out of something you fancied. You know how we’re taught to reshape the truth when a task demands it, Vothe, but it still hurt to say these things.
“The masters felt that a mere soldier with the knowledge of how to end something endless was something too dangerous to be permitted to exist, but they also still believed me too valuable to destroy. They needed a hawk who’d still return to his perch.
“So they did what any efficient owner would do: they returned me to stasis, broke away the parts they felt I no longer needed, then put me into a fresh body with no memory of who you were or what we’d done. In this manner I was a useful tool once more.”
I have not had any love for our masters for a long time. Any doubts that I might be a spoiled, unreasonable child for defying them, though, are reduced to dust by Nethe’s testimony. The masters will never know how fortunate they are that I am very, very far away from them now.
“But you escaped?” I ask. Clearly they somehow did, or they would not be standing here before me and calling me by my name.
Nethe laughs, ruefully. “Only in the sense that a performer’s trained beast escapes when its owner dies. The masters are gone, Vothe, and I don’t know who did this or how they managed such a wondrous feat, but it wasn’t for a long time that I realized I was left abandoned with a mind long since sundered. I fumbled for meaning for some equally lengthy spell. Learning that restoring myself was a thing that could be done was difficult for someone whose mind has been shaped to refuse the teeth of the key of enlightenment. I’ve had to come a long way home.”
That Nethe thinks of this place they set me to guard as home delights me. “But you’re here, now,” I say. “You recovered the tools and recovered yourself.”
“More or less,” they agreed.
“Why come with those…others?” I wasn’t sure how best to call the now-dead undying. Why had they worn ancient colors of loyalty if there were no masters left to serve?
“It’s easier to get where you need to be if you can convince people there’s something in it for them if they help. I didn’t want to make the trip alone, especially given how well I had hidden these, and I knew the difficulty inherent in finding them again would make the others greedy for more. They’re what our peers have become, you know. I needed you to see that you’ve missed nothing by stepping away from what you used to be.”
“But will anyone miss them?”
“No one’s left to.” They don’t elaborate. Going off of what they’ve already told me I decide to be satisfied with this answer for now.
I could easily admire them for hours, but this holiday for myself must extend to all those who are welcome in these halls. “From the hands of your enemies you have been delivered,” I intone, using one of the many benedictions my flock enjoy. “What can I give you to celebrate this reunion?”
Nethe stands. It is a purposeful stand, so I ensure to listen to what they have to tell me next: “Let me see you.”
This makes no sense to me, since they know how this works already. “You already are. I’m in the air, I’m in the walls.”
“That’s not all of you, though. Show me your heart, Vothe. It’ll have the last piece I need.”
“Need for what?” I ask, though I already suspect the answer.
“To be whole again.”
I can’t argue with such a request.
I’m nervous that they insist on bringing the tools with them, as the dual devices are the sole thing in this entire stretch of the cosmos that might harm me, but they assure me it’s better not to leave such artifacts unguarded. This is certainly true. Wary but still eager, I guide them to one of the many rooms that house transport vessels, the ones that have been forbidden to my followers since I was first transfigured, and Nethe already knows how to launch themselves from the barrier ring towards that which lies beyond it. I tuck my consciousness into a corner of the vessel to ride along with them. They don’t say much during the trip. I have never had myself broken before, only sculpted, so I couldn’t hope to know how they feel.
The presence of the tools is hard to describe, save that I feel my connection to them both growing more powerful with each mile Nethe travels towards the center. I have been dismembered in the past—an occupational hazard of an ever-living soldier, nothing unusual—and the sensation reminds me of how my old hosts would ache for limbs they no longer had. I remember the resonance of the fork upon impact with the striker. How could I forget that which changed the very frequency of my being? Maybe Nethe plans to sound them for me again, as a gift. I wouldn’t mind that.
Soon enough the vessel moors itself at one of the many little starports built into the garden. I can feel the tools more intimately than ever, now, and bask in the familiar majesty I’d missed ever since Nethe took them away to be hidden. Nethe themselves, upon stepping out to rest their boots in the sacred soil once more, cranes their neck to look around.
“This was choked with overgrowth the last time I was here,” they say. Their fanciful helmet tilts as they study the now-exposed architecture.
“I see to it they stay clean,” I say, eager to talk again. Gone are the choking vines and discolored weeds we knew, gone is the unkempt impossibility that made the place eager to configure itself into a puzzle box of frustration to those it didn’t recognize. Now things grow more vibrantly and their shifting paradigms are nurtured by a guiding hand. Were I the sort to permit visitors I would always be ready for them.
“Even with no one using them?”
There really is no concrete reason I do this, so I answer plainly: “A god must have a hobby.”
This coaxes a chuckle from them. What a fine sound to hear in this place! I shift the lighting in the garden to something atmospheric and my consciousness trails along after Nethe as they walk. I trust they can forgive me for my enduring affectation for fireflies.
We follow the path we’d taken together during our first visit to the garden. I am just as skilled a guide as the old cultist was back then, and with my guidance Nethe does not lose their way at any point. Perhaps if they choose to stay later we can explore some of the farther reaches. I know them, of course, just as a map of a station terminal knows the lay of the station, but the idea of experiencing the garden through the eyes of someone who doesn’t have it written into them pleases me. Perhaps Nethe will notice things I take for granted and make them new for me again. I’d like that.
The little cairn in the grass is at odds with the grand doors next to it, which draws Nethe’s eye; they dip a hand into their pocket and produce another stone to rest atop the marker where the old man breathed his last. It is not the sort of touching act I would expect from them. Has being shattered changed them that much? I can’t dwell on thoughts like this. I throw wide the doors and beckon Nethe into the facility depths, down the corridor that leads to where I’ve been standing watch since they left me to my task. Once again we ignore the enticements branching from the corridor. Our goal is clear.
Nethe steps through the final door into the chamber with the great glass tube and buckles over.
Would I see what I do now if I wasn’t what I’ve become? The essence of the undying is invisible to the mortal eye; a god, however, has no trouble studying its fluctuations, especially not with five more such bright sparks still fresh on my metaphorical tongue. It’s like watching a glass sphere full of water break in reverse like some novelty of film, the spilled fluid rushing back up to fit a solid form that itself must be reconstructed. Their essence falls apart and comes back together again several times, each time the fit of the pieces slightly more accurate, until at last a bright and perfect sphere is left behind. I can hear the tools singing in celebration. I think of my flocks of dead adherents and those who are still alive and sing for me this way even now. One echoes the other. That’s probably by design.
When Nethe stands again, they look straight at me, and I know it is them looking back at me and remembering what was taken from them.
“Vothe, who has renounced the house of their masters, I have returned.”
I want to embrace them, I want to peel away their armor and see who they wear beneath it, I want to play and dance and ravage their body with my own, but I do none of these things, as now I am a god, and these are actions unavailable to the divine. It took the cultists we brought with us some time to adjust from having their twin avatars walk among them daily to one becoming ethereal and the other vanishing entirely. Over the generations the dogma adjusted itself, and the mental conditioning I provided through my influence took care of the rest. I became a house with many rooms, ignoring how my central hub, the very point of what was me, sat empty. The watchman is best served not dwelling on their isolation.
But now, in this moment, no matter how brief it may be, I am not alone.
“It’s been a while,” I say, because the Nethe I knew enjoyed my knack for understatement.
“Yes, it has,” they say. The tools they carry continue to sing. It’s getting distracting.
I need answers, which means I must ask questions. “You’ve made yourself whole again. You’ve recovered that which was hidden. What now?”
“Now?” asks Nethe. They sigh. “Now I have to figure out what to do next.” They place the tools on the table in front of the glass tube, pull up one of the little floating chairs that dots the room, and sit in it backwards with their legs splayed out to either side of its decorative backing. “Forgive me if it takes me a bit to adjust. I’m still the same as always when it comes to achieving my goals.” Same as always probably means prone to listlessness as they deal with abruptly losing their purpose. Nethe has never been very good at letting themselves relax between tasks.
As they have yet to attempt to unmake me with those things that created me anew, it’s probably safe to make small talk. “So what had you been doing with yourself before looking for your own shards?”
“For sport, nourishment…?” Nethe, even a depleted version, seems like a fine choice as a hunter. That they managed to harry me back to my own hidden lair is proof enough of that.
They shrug. “Some of your adherents keep slipping free and causing mischief. Apparently devotion to your teachings is contagious, so sometimes a call goes out for any undying who might be willing to cull their numbers. I have one of those prodigal daughters to thank for helping me realize what had happened to me, in fact.”
This is news to me. Perhaps that was why the intruders had seemed to be so familiar with some of my tricks. “Ah? She shared her wisdom with one she found worthy?”
Nethe shakes their head. “I was putting down an infestation in one of the far colonies when I inhaled a golden fleck that burst from the empty space behind her mask. I expected it to corrupt my masterless mind and make me into a rampaging fanatic-thing in the wretch’s own image. Instead it nudged the first of many missing pieces into the light. I didn’t know what I meant until later, but that’s when it started. Sadly, no matter how many more I exterminated and no matter how many particles I consumed in hopes of finding a second auracle, that was the only fragment of myself I unearthed. The rest required some improvisation.”
“I’m happy to hear it,” I say. “Escapees, though? I notice when I hemorrhage followers from time to time, but generally I assume it’s because they died. Mortals tend to do that, you know.” I try not to sulk too badly—I don’t wish to be that sort of god—but I can’t help but add to that. “My containment protocols are regularly revised just to be on the safe side.”
They smirk and swivel to and fro in their chair. “Your security is impeccable but they keep escaping all the same. Your followers are a bit of a menace to more civilized systems.”
More civilized systems made us and more civilized systems would see us torn apart for treason for far less than what we’ve done, so this doesn’t inspire much sympathy. A unifying menace is probably good for them in a world without the old masters. “That sounds like their problem to me.”
Nethe chuckles again. “I missed you, Vothe.”
“And I, you.”
They leave their chair to pace around the room, buzzing with nervous energy. They can’t stop fiddling with the tidy artifacts I’ve kept clean and functioning. Sometimes they stare up at the loops of passages that still pump strange brew throughout the garden, forever leading towards and away from the grand tube like a fanciful heart. My heart. I am everywhere throughout the garden and throughout its belt of battlements, but I am also always here. What remains of Vothe does not leave the center.
“I’m glad I could bring these back,” they say, gesturing at the tools still resting before me. “They belong here, not where some sticky-fingered adventuresome sort could get their hands on them.”
“Why hide them in the first place if you were just going to bring them back?”
“It was necessary at the time,” they say, and that is a very Nethe sort of answer. They change the subject before I can press them further. “Are you happy here, Vothe?”
What kind of question is this? My will is the truth here, my whims are reality. “I’m a god, Vothe.”
“But are you a happy one?”
“I don’t regret my decision,” I say, which is true enough in its own way. I have a purpose and it’s dear to me. I couldn’t always say as much.
They hum thoughtfully and continue their busy orbit through the room. “Do you know why I brought the tools back?”
“You just said: To keep them safe.” Are they testing me?
“Partially, yes. Partially because once I found one” —here they gesture to the striker, which is exactly as they left it— “many more parts of the puzzle became known to me, and unearthing the second showed me even more. But more than partially,” they add, “I did this because they asked me to.”
“They were homesick?”
“You could say that,” says Nethe.
Another question comes to me. “What else did they ask you to do?”
“They asked me to talk to you, if you were still capable of it. Apparently they’ve seen many gods in their time. Who knows what’s happened to those by now. Unmade, maybe.” Familiar dread creeps back into my thoughts upon hearing this. Am I to meet that same end? Have I somehow displeased them? Which them do I even mean? “When you first spoke to me I didn’t know how much of you was left behind those words. The tools suggested I stall. They gave me a method to do so and it worked. I’m sorry for spilling so much pious blood, but I assure you it was a necessity. Now they’re in their rightful place and all is well again.”
“Then I welcome them home, and will see to it that they are treated with the reverence they deserve.”
They continue drifting from station to station. Their pacing has slowed over time. “You’ll guard them and the garden, then?”
“And you’re still set on remaining here until the universe itself is no more?”
Nethe comes closer to me. I wish I could see their face but their body language is resigned. “You shouldn’t have to be shackled to this place in solitude.”
I refuse to panic despite being struck temporarily speechless by this decree. “No one else can be allowed to reach the garden. No one else must touch the tools. This is too big a treasure to go unguarded, especially now, with all the elements collected again. I won’t abandon my duty.” I won’t because I promised them I wouldn’t. Even if I hadn’t, I can’t abandon it anymore. It’s all I have.
They stroke my glass. Had I a body I’d shiver. “You don’t have to,” they say. It is then that I see the chalice in their hand, and I can’t help but laugh.
“You know what you’re doing, don’t you? There will be consequences, Nethe, on a scale matching the very fullness of space.” Perhaps the others’ absence has already gone missing. Perhaps whatever methods that allowed them to travel out this far with such implied speed will mean I have more visitors at my doorstep, armed with similarly cunning weapons. Perhaps in accepting my dearest companion into my inner sanctum, I have already signed my own death warrant. Perhaps none of that matters anymore.
Nethe remains serene. “Then in the name of our shared heritage I will face them.” Then they down their cup in a single swallow before turning to the tools. It turns out I probably could have finished the procedure myself after all.
The fork and striker resonate throughout the occurrence. Soon it is done. My heart—our heart—burns fiercely. The remnants of Nethe’s mortal shell, armor and all, turn to ashes and flutter away to nourish the distant parts of the garden, much like mine did when I chose to accept godhood. Seeing this happen through new eyes makes it all the sweeter. In certain parts of the garden, those which had lain fallow no matter how much I tended to them, unreal flowers bloom.
I can already see how this endless task will be easier with a friend back at my side. We are bodiless things, truer to our undying selves than ever before, and Nethe thrums with delight as I show them how to make an entire planet-scaled structure into a shared host. I teach them how to project themselves to my followers—our followers, now, not that they ever truly forgot the ghost of their old diad—and how to work the defenses. I teach them how to encourage, how to embolden, and how to tend to a garden of humanity. I teach them how I improve the faithful and let these transfigured souls seek their own mysteries. I teach them many things, and they are a quick learner.
They teach me how an intangible fleshless god can still have an orgasm and grant that to another, putting methods which can consume the essence of an immortal to far more delightful uses. I can be a quick learner, too.
In the depths of the sky lies the garden of the gods, and all around the garden there is a belt of lights and towers, and all throughout these celestial marches there is us.