Dark Sci-fi. Humanity is an endangered species, but it's not alone:It still has its gods.
| Another scream issued forth from the house, piercing the starless night. Peter's gut tightened with an anxiety that seemed to match the increased intensity of Elena's pain. The scream died gradually, followed by calm voices attempting to soothe Elena. The murmuring had its effect on Peter as well, the knot in his stomach loosening slightly.
His nephew Jacob sat across from him, idly carving on a plank of wood. The boy had fidgeted during the last scream and the knife had slipped barely missing his palm. No, that wasn't right: he was seventeen now, a man now. Not a boy. Jacob's wife was one of the calming voices inside the house.
A slight breeze fluttered the leaves of the apricot tree and across Peter's cheek, a brief courtesy on a warm summer night. An omen of impending punishment for his and Elena's sins, or just a breeze foretelling a thunderstorm on a warm starless night? Peter didn't know. It was known that the gods punished the older with greater frequency. After all, the longer you lived the more time you had in which to sin. The priest even said it, when they read from The Book. They knew why it happened, 'The gods punished the children for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation'.
Elena screamed again, bringing a tightening to Peter's stubbled jawline. Another breeze, slightly stronger, briefly swept the auburn hair from his forehead. His jaw relaxed, his teeth unclenched. Peter was sure he smelled rain on the wind this time. Besides, hadn't they been punished enough with the gods' plan for Sarah? The memory of the putrid scent of her burning hair and flesh still made him retch.
Sarah had only been ten, full of life and curiosity. Peter remembered the last conversation they'd had over breakfast that morning. â€śDaddy, will you teach me to ride today? Please?â€ť
Peter stroked her long blonde curls, â€śI can't today, Sunshine.â€ť
â€śBut Maria's only nine and she's already riding!â€ť Her green eyes, just like Elena's, pleaded with him.
â€śWhen I get back from the consul next week. I'll show you a couple of things Maria's dad didn't know to teach her. Okay? Is it a deal ?â€ť
A pout displayed on her lips, â€śYou promise?â€ť
Her voice became excited â€śWhen you get back, the project Ms. Ballock has us doing will be done!â€ť
â€śI can't wait to see it.â€ť Peter kissed her on the forehead and walked to the door. â€śDon't cause your mother any problems while I'm away.â€ť
He had made it only fifteen or so miles down the road before Deputy Lebrae rode up on him at full gallop, informing him there had been an accident.
The next scream contained a renewed level of pain and exhaustion that didn't die as quickly as the ones before it. Peter could hear a hushed undercurrent of urgent encouragement from Jacob's wife, Ashlin. He glanced at Jacob who no longer tried to distract himself with carving and stared slack-jawed at the house, anxious anticipation painted on his face. It was the mirror image of the solemn dread Peter felt in the pit of his stomach.
A baby's cry began in the house. Peter stood and allowed himself a fleeting moment of tempered relief. He dared to hope: maybe it was okay. Seconds passed like cooling wax, slowly making its way toward the base of the candle. Peter made his way to the front door as it began opening.
Ashlin stepped out cradling the baby wrapped in cloth. Her gaze didn't meet Peter's, only the ground. She shook her head confirming what her eyes already betrayed. He knew. They'd had three perfectly healthy children; they were certainly against the odds to hope for a fourth. The loss of Sarah those years ago and their grief wasn't enough penance. He could hear Elena's tearful pleas from inside. As though they could undo the gods' will, Peter thought bitterly.
â€śUncle Peter...â€ť Ashlin whispered.
He held out his arms accepting his child from her. He folded back the cloth it was wrapped in revealing the curious baby blue eyes of his little girl. Peter re-wrapped her and cradled her to his chest. He turned towards Jacob, â€śWe won't be needing a new one. You can stop.â€ť
Jacob let his fingers slacken and the wood fell to the ground.
Peter turned and slowly walked down the path to the road. The wind was steady at a few miles an hour now, bringing the scent of rain and the coming storm ever closer. They needed the rain. People would be genuinely happy of the promise it held for the crops. It would bring Peter no more relief than their politely feigned smiles would on Sunday when he and Elena went to mass. Just them and two children. No baby. It left Peter numb inside. He'd anticipated this. Dreaded it, but had been left with hope. His little girl clutched to his chest shattered that hope at birth. He was numb.
Peter turned onto the road heading through town. He knew the way to his final destination, though he'd never been; everyone knew the way. His feet carried him past modest houses and farms, his daughter stirring lightly in his arms. He passed the Miller's farm. Michael and Rosa were staying there for the night. How would they explain to them where the baby in mommy's stomach had gone? The baby they'd felt move. The baby that they'd talked to for months.
He was approaching the town's center and the pyre, clean and stocked with wood always ready. It had taken years for Peter to stop remembering Sarah on the pyre every time he passed the town center, but this night with a new daughter resting against his chest, he remembered. The flames had already leapt into the air licking wood and flesh by the time he'd rode back. The body of the town didn't wait for him to return. They never waited to light the pyre; as it said in The Book, 'it is profitable for you that if one of your members should perish, it should be cast into the fire and not that the whole body be cast into hell'. Of all of them, why Sarah would choose the unbroken colt to attempt to ride. No. It wasn't Sarah's fault; it was his own. The gods had punished them, and Sarah was the penance the gods had chosen. And now they'd chosen their new price for his and Elena's sins.
Peter made his way around the hard packed dirt road that circled the pyre. One foot after another, one foot fall closer to the other side of the pyre.
The moon cast slight shadows veiled by the clouds as he made his way through the other half of town, the pyre a slowly shrinking silhouette at Peter's back. The wind had picked up slightly muffling the little sucking sounds from his little girl. They hadn't discussed any names for the baby. It was superstitious Peter knew, but discussion of names before birth was said to increase the risk that the child would be born a nameless. She was a nameless. She belonged to the gods.
Peter reached the edge of town as lighting flickered on the horizon. The wooden sign post stood as mark that would tell anyone the end result of Elena's pregnancy. There was no need for a new one.
He passed through the gate of the wooden fence that enclosed Purgatory 9, latching it behind him and continuing down the road away from town. The wind rustled the leaves of the light woodland to the right of the road that concealed the horizon from view. The foolish thought entered Peter's mind, surely the same one that entered every parents, but was never spoken aloud: They could try hide what she was. But if tales of such past attempts weren't enough to discourage such an act, the recent memory of what happened a few years ago in Purgatory 2 were. First, a quarter of the population wiped out by the wrath of the gods for attempting to deprive them of a nameless. Then another quarter of the town decimated by itself in the aftermath of vengeance. Trying to hide what his little girl was would only delay the inevitable at extraordinary cost.
Peter turned onto a coarsely worn foot path through the trees that made for a rocky outcropping in the distance. A path traveled too often, but there were those that thought it would be better if it were walked more often. Only the priest and those yet to have begun raising a child could really believe such a thing. That the nameless were blessed. They entered heaven without sin, whole. No purge of evil from their soul. That's not how Peter wanted any child of his to enter, deprived of a full life prior. This little girl should live a full life, and see him die of old age and enter heaven before her. Just as Sarah should have. It was said, such an idea was born of selfishness. The wish to delay a glorious blessing bestowed on a nameless, who would be taken immediately to the paradise of heaven without having to first endure the suffering and pains of life. It was a selfish thought by someone jealous of the gift given to a nameless at birth. But Peter knew: no parent believed it.
The wind whispered ever more urgently through the leaves at the edge of the clearing at the base of the outcropping the path had brought him to. An occasional drop of rain fell to the earth unshielded by the trees. There in the center at the base of the rock sat the wooden cradle. Its meshed metal canopy, to protect from predators until one of the gods came to claim the nameless and ascend with them to the heavens. Peter was being selfish. His own desire to raise his daughter was tempting the gods to unleash their wrath on the whole town. More, it was threatening to deprive her of paradise. How could he deny her what was best for her out of his own selfish desires?
He pulled back her cloth wrap so he could see her face clearly in its entirety, and smiled. â€śYou're not nameless darling. Your name is Emily, after my mother. It's the name your mother and I will never speak aloud. But will call for you by it when we get to be together again, when we've finally earned the right to be with you in heaven.â€ť Peter kissed her on the forehead, â€śI love you, my little angel.â€ť With that, he placed her in the cradle, and took a step back.
A tear ran down Peter's cheek as he pulled his knife from the sheath on his belt. He knew he was doing the right thing for his little girl. Lightning flashed again in the distance briefly painting itself on the steel of the blade. The strike was close enough this time to be heard after a few seconds, and muffled the small outcry of pain as he brought the knife down.
Peter walked to the wall of rock, cleaning the blade with a cloth handkerchief from his pocket before re-sheathing it. He found what he was looking for. The nameless stone was set in the rock face, perfectly round and flat, distinctive from any other. He placed the sliced palm of his hand against it and felt it give, accepting his blood and penance. The gods would know his daughter was ready to enter their kingdom. He removed his palm and the stone rebounded out.
Peter wrapped his hand in the handkerchief, and glanced at Emily again. She had begun to protest the occasional drop of rain landing on her face. No matter; he smiled. One of the gods would come for her and take her to heaven where she would never know any form of discomfort again. He wasn't allowed to stay and wait. Doing so would invoke the gods' wrath. He turned and made his way from the clearing, and back to the path.
Gorin had received an incoming transmission from a defect beacon near one of the human villages at 23:07 hours. He followed protocol, logging the time, location, and his acceptance of the reclamation task. He could have refused the task and allowed signal to be sent to the next in line, but the benefits of the reclamation might outweigh the cost of the wetness and chill of going out in this down pour. So he had gone to the landing zone getting soaked along the way, hoping it was worth it.
He pulled his ident tag and waved in front of the skiff's center console. It came to life and began to hover a meter or so off the ground and he flipped on the particle disruptor field. The rain and wind immediately ceased around the skiff. Gorin selected the beacon location on the display screen, and set a direct intersect trajectory. With the disruptor field in place the skiff traveled as though it would in a vacuum with no worries of impact or turbulence of any kind. He elevated to two-hundred feet, and engaged the autopilot set to accelerate to 1200kph. No need to disturb anyone by breaking the sound barrier. At that speed he'd be at the beacon in less than 10 minutes anyway.
Lighting attempted to strike the skiff only once during the trip. The PDF sphere grew brightly momentarily, while the charged particles of the bolt slipped around the sphere and continued on towards another target on the ground. The autopilot handled the deceleration when it neared the beacon's location, and came to halt two-hundred feet above the rock outcropping. But Gorin resumed control from there. After all, there were limits to what technology could do. He flicked on the lights, and brought the skiff down into the adjacent clearing free of trees.
He shut the PDF off and hopped down. The storm was considerably calmer here. He picked up the wailing infant. It was wet, but not soaked as it would have been at the colony. He laid the infant on the floor of the skiff and returned to his previous altitude, setting it on a return course at a slower speed so he would have a little time to investigate the defect.
Gorin folded back the material it was wrapped in. He knew immediately what the problem was, it had been logged before. Non repairable. Blue eyes, clouded. Nonreactive pupils; it was blind. It would be productively useless. He could relinquish his claim right and put it up as a community offering, as charity. No one would want it but Sarith and he'd claim the damned thing as another pet. It would result in no favor of gratitude by the community.
Oh well, at least it smelled good. Gorin sank his serrated teeth into it as close to the shoulder as he could before tearing his way down towards its fingertips, ripping flesh from bone. The thing made horribly shrill sounds at first, but quieted before he'd finished with the other arm and both legs. So tender, at least it wasn't a complete waste of a time. He lowered the PDF long enough to toss the remains of the carcass when he was done.
Authors Note: Well, if you've made it this far and are currently reading this: Please leave a review, or a rating. Let me know what you thought of this piece. Thank you,