3090 words, short story
Madhav Tamboli almost missed the vein. It was hard to inject the antidote while surrounded by his praying colleagues. He tried to blend with the others, rocking with the noise of the priest at the altar. Madhav punctured his skin and gasped; the chemicals crawled from the needle through his blood vessels. It was a feeling like ice crystallizing just beneath the surface. He set his jaw and refused to shudder.
After he made sure there were no prying eyes, Madhav stashed the narrow syringe into an inside pocket. He felt the antidote curl around his lungs, making each breath harder than the last. It turned less severe, though every inhale tugged at his innards. The Children of Confucius hadn’t told him it would affect his breathing. But it was only fair, he had kept information from them as well. He knew they wouldn’t have agreed to the LSD coursing through his mind. It hadn’t fully hit him yet, though each emotion was crumbling at the edges. The turbulence was just around the corner, a supercell brewing along the horizon.
It was better this way. Madhav didn’t want to remember the next few hours accurately.
The priestess’ voice grew and wavered, falling like waves through the mass of engineers crying silently to the words. The last words they would ever hear. There was such a peaceful look on all of their faces. Upturned lips, accepting of imminent death. He tried his hardest to mimic that look of docility. He really did.
But his damned knees hurt. The bronze floor was mercilessly solid, and he could feel every jolt and vibration from the giant engine only yards below. So much raw energy clawing at the thin fabric of their cloaks. Nobody seemed worried about that. They were all going to die in the next minute anyway.
The sermon finished and the priestess stepped down from her pedestal. She was so young for a woman of the church. Neck and breasts still firm, no signs of decay. Madhav stared at the front of her cassock, imagining cleavage. He stifled a giggle. So sinful. How much farther was he from Goddess’ Kingdom now? But he lived by different rules these days. Why else would he be here, not fearing his death?
Only the ship’s groaning could be heard when the priestess walked away. She had left a little device on the altar, encrusted with jewels and gold-trimmings. A pretty wooden box, set in a glowing spotlight which seemed to come from nowhere. Their life’s work sat in an oaken package, the seeds of Goddess. Madhav swallowed dryly.
It was only them. Caught in this metal sphere, around twenty men and women. He knew most of their first names, knew some of their last names. Knew all of their nicknames. Madhav and his colleagues used to chat over coffee, bringing up the latest political scandal to distract themselves from the mounds of work on their desks. Sometimes they’d just talk about a wedding that only certain people were invited to, gossip about if a random coworker’s kid was really as smart as she claimed he was.
They shed tears of joy as the hiss of neurotoxin filled their eardrums.
Madhav focused on his hands. He counted his fingers. Anything but think about how many ounces of Sarin was being pumped into the air. He had taken what they had told him would be the antidote. If it worked, he would watch as his peers’ lungs went slack. If it didn’t he would be gasping for oxygen in a heartbeat.
A bulky man named Timothy fell on his back with a wheeze. A few others followed his lead. And Madhav was still breathing. Fast as fuck, but still breathing. He kept staring at his dark skin, watched the neurotoxin glisten along his forearms like dewdrops. Pretty.
Static burst in his left ear. And the Children of Confucius came through on the other end, franticness barely restrained through the airwaves.
Madhav was on his feet, Madhav was reaching for the altar. Hands outstretched like a sinner begging for salvation, stumbling towards the light of divine providence. The box sat there as the glow from above gradually waned. The dewdrops on his arms trapped the escaping light, glittering along his body. They were bright as hell. Couldn’t stop looking at them.
He reached the box when the last engineer crumpled to the floor. Goddess, it was beautiful. Shining amber in his glow, edges soft like an oil painting from Origin Earth. Madhav caressed it like he would’ve done to the priestess. Barely touched the surface, lingering over bright spots of interest. He soaked in the jewels’ resplendence. He couldn’t help tearing up at his life’s work.
The Children broke the silence, cutting into his ear with their white noise screeches.
“Is it secure?”
“Yeah, yeah it’s secure.”
Did he always sound like that? His words fell from his lips and tumbled to the bronze floor, fracturing on impact. They scuttled to the dark curves of the room, leaving only their imprint on the surface of his retinas.
“Get out of there,” they said.
Madhav swung around to see the wall behind him crack open. It was a silent explosion, no smoke. He could taste the smell of burning metal. A few corpses slid across the room. He cradled his bejeweled child as he leapt over twitching legs.
The hallway was so clinical and sharp. All grays and blacks and whites, no more curved bronze. Monitors stuck out at awkward spots, relaying beautiful data which curled around the ceiling like tobacco smoke. Symbols of Goddess everywhere, an endless grid of Earths printed above his head. Each one from the original empire, rendered in an elegance that only minimalism could convey. He saw Pangeas, he saw Laurasias, he saw Gondwanas. Pure, holy planet worship.
Fuck that. As the Children of Confucius said, throw divinity and gods into the fire.
Then he heard the sirens, and he heard the static screaming in his ear. The Children weren’t happy with him just standing there, they needed him to move. They said that there were people right on his trail, dammit, they were moving in fast. He was gonna be shot through with bullets if he didn’t get his ass moving. So he chose a direction and started running.
The hallway kept curving around and all that he looked for was the hatch. That’s what they told him should be his priority. That was his only way out, his only way to escape with his baby. The box was still there in the crook of his arm, more polished than his engagement ring.
Engagement ring. He still wondered what the point of that relationship had been. She was modestly beautiful, definitely. When she put her hair up in just the right way and shimmied into something with muted colors like an ocean bed. Her eyes always caught him, though. Green and irresistible because they only had an interest in him. Curved perfectly, like the rest of her.
He had met her on the job, and he had died with her on the job. No, that’s not true. His heart was still pumping while hers lay dead in that bronze room. Her body was lifeless and cold while his gleamed under the fluorescent lighting above.
Madhav should have said goodbye to her. Maybe before the priestess had started talking, maybe when they had been beginning to kneel. Because it would have been nice to say how much he had loved her, how much she had meant to him and all of the required sentiments before the toxins had choked her oxygen flow. He could have cried like he was doing now, held her close for a minute so that all of his friends from work thought he cared.
He had loved her, right?
“Hurry up,” the Children said from behind their radio waves. He was unlocking the hatch.
A crack and a hiss and he was inside. The hatch closed behind him, killing the sirens. His heart still hammered against his ribs, though. So he found a place to lay the box in the tiny cockpit, covering a curved LCD screen wedged between a spectrum of switches and wires. The dashboard was such a simple layout, spread before him like a map. Clusters that led to nowhere. Routes which circled in on each other like Ouroboros, like Shiva statues his great-Grandparents brought from their Earth. Nothing close to the 3D lattices he toyed with while creating his child. His fingers flew through the perfect sequence, letting the cockpit hum to life.
“Make sure to broadcast your distress signal,” the Children said. “Detach from the Reborn Cathedral and don’t stop for anything. We’ll rendezvous with you where we deem safe. Good luck.”
Madhav triggered detachment, and felt the jolt of his pod separating from the cathedral. He flipped on a monitor as he leaned back in a worn leather seat, watching the rear camera view. The dark circle of the hatch receded, just a speck on the smooth hull. The cathedral was a cosmic Leviathan, glittering with antennae outcroppings and small tinted strips, reinforced glass ports. The gaudiest object in space, engraved with the name of each corporation and religious denomination involved in its production. He knew that his and his colleagues’ names were stamped on there somewhere, probably where all the school kids could point and gawk when they opened up the structure like an amusement park.
There was a screech which vibrated through the cockpit, and white shards spun into view of the camera. Narrow construction girders, or what was left of them. Flying about at deliberate trajectories. Sperm cells.
Security collected in black crevices of the cathedral’s hull, submerging him in hail requests. They were gray spikes, twice the length of his pod and flying towards him at relativistic speeds. A plume of gasses evaporated from their hulls, revealing the turret mounds placed on their sides. Smooth as hell, they flew around the Cathedral and lined up in grids; Madhav saw their weapons’ heat maps on a small screen hooked to the side of his chair. He thought of replying with the pre-recorded message the Children had given him. No, he could do better. He held down the record button.
“Don’t shoot me, don’t puncture this vehicle. Because I have the seed here with me, I have a baby Goddess. And it’s my responsibility to keep her safe, because I created her and cried over her and bled for her until she was perfect, until she was something any of us would be proud of. So you don’t take a child from her father, you don’t take her from me. Or I’ll destroy her. I really will, I’ll smash open this fucking lid faster than you can put your railguns on rapid-fire. Long live the universe with no Goddess. Don’t shoot me.”
He collapsed in the chair as his voice was broadcast on repeat. The box—his baby—demanded his attention. The reflections of the screens made fractal patterns along the wood. Always shifting, becoming something more complex than he could fathom before devolving into primitive geometries. Madhav watched it as he glided away from the cathedral.
They were still screaming at him through the little ear piece. They weren’t happy about something, probably about how he handled himself back there. Probably something about his improvised message. But he was drifting on lysergide now, Madhav could have cared less.
They didn’t use to scream at him. Like those years ago when he had walked into their hideouts, where the Children offered him a smoke like he was a long lost brother.
They had talked to him in a way that made just so much sense. What sermons used to be when he had been a kid, a level of directness and practicality that left him bawling like a toddler. They had said what he had always been afraid to confront. Something that, if true, would force him to realize how much of his life was wrong.
The ruins of the Corealis Empire wanted him and his fiancée and eighteen other geniuses to rebuild a god, and bring back the old order. But the Children of Confucius wanted change.
Eons later, and he found himself here. Averting his ritual sacrifice, stealing the blueprints for Goddess, and escaping from dozens of military drones. The Children blared at him, asking him why the hell he wouldn’t respond.
Madhav laughed until his throat went sore.
Alarms flared in the cockpit, telling him how close the cathedral’s warning shots came to puncturing his hull. He couldn’t bring himself to concentrate on that. Instead, just like before, he reached for the box. He lifted it slowly, gently. Placed it in his lap. And he started laughing again.
Years. Devoted to this box. Just to watch himself steal it from its purpose, and take it to death. Because Goddess was bad. Having Her watch over them was what led to fracture, what led to their ancestors being whisked from their Earths.
Staring into the grains of wood, he saw the stars. The same stars that he would watch from the lower orbital ring. The ones that he and she would sit and watch. The two of them had been enmeshed in wires, making out under the faded 4K display he would prop up each night. Have that night sky on repeat, yeah. Let her strip under digital stars.
Staring into the jewels, he saw the music. The corporate ditty that came out vaguely warped over ancient speakers. Those ceiling speakers rattling with repeating sax riffs and slow vocals, static filling the negative space. Always that same song, commercial battle cry of some long-forgotten brand. He and his boys would eat under the music’s shade, talking about whatever their teenage hormones demanded of them.
All of these times were ones of beautiful decay. A fusion of perfection and desperation that was only possible because Madhav lived in shit. Because he lived in the world that Goddess conceived. Now he was taking that beauty away.
The Children had always told Madhav how much of a pawn he was in the fallen empire’s plans. How much more he could accomplish if he finally accepted what he had doubted since he first put on his Sunday best.
But he couldn’t resist a look at divinity, so Madhav pried open the lid. The eye of Goddess stared back at him.
It went on infinitely, blues that kept getting brighter the closer he looked. Like stained glass, an endless hall of windows. Each time his pupils shifted focus, the orientation altered. The colors lightened, darkened, flew across the spectrum. It spread out from the box, trickling along his wrists. He let it pool in the curve of his palms, staring at his childhood.
He was nude in front of it. No, in front of Her. This was him, Madhav Tamboli, all out in the open. Every thought, action, regret, and wish spilled from his chest and fell out like a burst dam. They were all pinpoints of light and shadow, covering the dashboard. His life would not stop. More pieces flew from him to make this mosaic of a person. It drew on memories he could barely remember; when his cousins sung to each other over the hum of the TV, when he helped Nana with dinner. These were given equal weight as the monumental events, the ones he would brag about at cocktail parties and in coworkers’ beds. They all glared at him with a frankness he could not separate from.
Madhav had to look at Goddess to look at himself. And he realized how special She truly was. The spinning lights surrounding him told the truth, like a whirlwind of emotions and honesty that wouldn’t stop stripping him away. She meant more than he could understand. And this was only Her seed, not even Her matured form. Not as the glorious woman She had used to be, an elegant machine spinning off into the void.
Glass shattered in his mind and the alarms increased in volume. He contacted them, the Children of Confucius, his voice laced with something he couldn’t understand.
“I made a mistake. A huge mistake. Right now, I’m holding my child in my hands and She’s crying. Because I see the true way now, I see what I must do. And it’s not this. No, it’s not this. Brothers and sisters.”
He paused as a metal slug punctured the inside of the cockpit. The hole in the ship sealed itself, saving him milliseconds before the capsule decompressed. He turned back to his ear piece.
“Brothers and sisters, I am the father of Goddess.”
He input new coordinates, throwing the ear piece to the ground. He did not need to hear their whining. No, what he needed to focus on was escape. Escape from the ruins of the empire. Escape from the Children of Confucius. It was time to find salvation. Give birth to Genesis, become Jesus and Buddha and Olodumare. Bring Her back like it was supposed to be. Go back, back to Earth. It might not be his Earth, or his great-Grandparents’ Earth. But it was an Earth, a holy planet. And it would do. He would return to the motherland. Landing in fields of saccharum and sunlight. Taking with him the baby, returning to the planet that always started it all. No matter what dimension, no matter what time period. Earth was at the center, the beating heart of the multiverse.
The camera view blurred as his pod took to his new directions. The cathedral swung out of sight, and only a map of dense stars could be seen. He settled into his chair, preparing for deep sleep, as he and Goddess sped into the night. He ignored the shots at his ship, he ignored his ETA of one hundred and twenty-four years. Instead, he let the ship cradle him. Let the ship drop the temperature. Let the ship hook him up to yards of IV tubes and needles and medical probes. Even more chemicals entered his bloodstream, chilling his body until it was as if somebody hit pause.
Even if he made it to Earth, to India, it would take him more than a century. But time was irrelevant. He had found faith again. Madhav smiled as his body froze to a standstill.
The father of Goddess flew into hyperspace.