Letter From The Editor - Issue 38 - March 2014

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Issue 30
Stories
Sojourn for Ephah
by Marina Lostetter
Dragonslayer
by Nathaniel Lee
Write What You Want
by Eric James Stone
Constance's Mask
by Nick T. Chan
The Last God-Killer
by Grá Linnaea & Dave Raines
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Shaken to the Bone
by David Lubar
Orson Scott Card - Sneak Preview
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Writing Fantasy

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-   -   -   -   P   r   e   v   i   e   w   -   -   -   -

Sojourn for Ephah
    by Marina J. Lostetter

Sojourn for Ephah
Artwork by Eric Wilkerson

I cannot get the Bishop to hear me, and his are the Ears of the Church. The Holy Scrolls were written for an infant race, an infant intelligence. There is another layer to the stories -- a hint at something fundamental about the universe -- but the Church continues to teach them at face-value. I feel a hair's breadth away from it, like the knowledge is under my fingernails and I have only to dig it out.

-- Personal Journal of Father Aaron, Parish Pastor to Our Lady of the Skies cathedral

"Come quickly," Brother Landers called to me. "There's -- there's something strange out on the vestibule."

I flipped the page as he spoke. Private time was scarce, and I often used mine to go over the documents Father Aaron had bequeathed to me. He'd discovered a new -- or, lost -- aspect to our studies, but failed to impart his revelations before passing. The spine of the heavy, leather-bound volume squeaked as I shut it.

"Some thing?" I asked.

Brother Landers was given to fits of excitement, making it difficult to distinguish between a summons of real urgency and self-indulgent rushing.

"A . . . a creature. On the steps. The people -- they're pouring inside to get away from it, Father."

With an effort I hefted the journal back onto the shelf between my favorite tomes on quantum mechanics and cosmology. "A lion, or a --"

A clammy hand curled around my wrist. I turned from the shelf and saw sweat on his brow.

"Father . . . It's like nothing I've ever seen." He made a warding sign. "It has the look of a demon."

Before he could say another word I ushered him out of my study.

Making our way as fast as dignity allowed, we marched through the crossing and across the nave. Worshipers trickled through the cathedral's open airlock, fresh off the city streets. Anxious whispers passed between them, and their darting eyes revealed true confusion.

"There are still more outside, in the square," Landers said. "They fear to mount the steps, even for a chance at sanctuary."

Six inches of folded steel marked the barrier between our house of worship and its foster city. I lifted the hem of my white deacon's robes as I passed over the threshold.

The bright mid-day glare from Chandra -- this system's star -- confused my vision for an instant. Even blinded I could tell the atmosphere was strained and unnatural. Though I could sense a crowd of people, all was silent.

"There, Father. There." Shielding my eyes, I followed his quivering finger to the northern corner of the steps, where the foundation of the landing pad met seamlessly with the docked cathedral.

If it had stayed still I might have mistaken it for one of the sculptures. It lay curled against the smooth stone steps, a heap of limbs, hiding its face. Sunlight glimmered off its skin in a silver iridescence. A mane of coarse, gray hair cascaded from its crown and shoulders like a great theatrical headdress.

There was something about the thickness of the limbs and the texture of the skin that was familiar. Very . . . human. Perhaps Landers had jumped to conclusions. It wouldn't be the first time.

But any doubts about its strangeness were dashed as soon as it stretched one long, thrice-kneed leg. I gasped as it scrambled to curl into itself again.

"Where did it come from?" I asked.

Landers shrugged. "No one saw." He twisted the sleeve of my robe. "Shall we alert the authorities? The colony military, perhaps?"

The people on the square watched us intently, huddled in groups around the statues and transplanted Earth trees. One brave man ascended the steps, using brother Landers and me as a shield.

"No, they'll find out eventually. Right now we need to get it out of sight before it causes full-on panic."

There was no question -- this thing wasn't from the colony. Was it from another part of the planet? The records stated only minor native life forms -- mostly single-celled, like in all the other systems -- nothing like this.

Landers' face twisted in disgust. "You can't mean to bring it inside --"

"We are all God's children," I reminded him curtly. And where else could I take it? "You need to find Bishop Krier. Let him know what we've found."

He nodded obediently, then hurried down the steps.

At first I feared it would act like a cornered animal when I approached. I braced myself for an attack. "Hello there," I said gently, as if to a puppy.

It quivered, and my heart contracted. It must be afraid.

I'd seen many new breeds since setting out to serve the colony planets -- forced mutations and strange mongrels. Unique creations of science and industry. But this being seemed unrelated to any of them.

It did not respond to cooing, but when a man on the square let out an expletive it lifted its head. Its face was like a child's drawing -- it showed a likeness of humanity without being human at all. The proportions were wrong, the movement was wrong. It was both fascinating and off-putting.

What was an alien entity doing with a human likeness?

Pausing less than a body-length away, I repeated my lame attempt to communicate. "Hello?"

"He-low," it said softly, clearly mimicking.

With a stretch, it turned over and unfurled onto its back, fully exposing itself. Though its legs were unusually long and ended in what looked more like slippers than feet, its arms were very much like mine. And its mass of hair -- flowing like the clumps of decorative grass on the square -- framed a similarly heart-shaped face.

I could handle its odd extremities and the grotesque simplicity of its features, but its countenance sent a cold shiver up my spine. Black eyes glinted beneath its coarse brows, and they shone with a deep-seated intelligence. Noticing that, I took a step back. Its gaze fixed on me, tracking every twitch I made.

My entire body tensed with excitement. The sudden feeling that I'd come face to face with a universal secret unnerved me, and I fought the urge to flee from the overwhelming emotion. Was this . . . first contact?

My heel slipped another inch in reverse, but I caught myself. I would not let the flock see me cower. The people looked to me for reassurance. If I lost control we'd have chaos.

Teetering dangerously, the creature rose fully erect, a head above myself. Several people in the crowd cried out.

At its chest were two large swells, like a woman's breasts covered in a fine sheath, and the junction between its legs was round and smooth. But the creature was clearly naked. It looked incomplete, with only hints of anatomical correctness, like a doll.

Its lack of genitalia was somehow more shocking than if a harem of naked women had stood before me. Forgetting my fear and its strangeness, ashamed for it, I rushed forward to cover it with my robes.

No strike came, and it did not shy away. It let me wrap the cloth around it without gesture or expression.

Thinking to lead it, I grabbed its forearm. The flesh was clammy and tore easily in my grasp, like the cooked skin of a fish. Its arm split wide from the inside of its wrist to elbow, exposing what should have been a great gash through muscle, right down to the bone. Instead, it was all the same. The inside of the arm was made of the same substance as the exterior. It did not bleed or ooze, and the creature appeared un-pained.

I let go quickly, and the alien covered its wound. I wanted to apologize, to fix whatever I'd just done, but the words never formed in my brain.

"Come," I eventually said.

Together, sheltered by my robes, we strode through the airlock and into the cathedral.

Cries of, "Dear God," were uttered by worshipers and clergy alike. The creature nuzzled its face into the crook of my neck. As we passed by, people fell to their knees in prayer.

I took it back to my study, unsure of what else to do. It looked too much like a person to treat it as an animal, and yet its foreignness was too unsettling to ignore.

My robes slipped away from its gray skin as I moved to offer it a seat. When I turned back it had already made itself comfortable on the floor.

Its mannerisms were unassuming, innocent. And not like an it at all.

Instinctually, I knew it was a she.

With her hand -- which was more like a mitt -- she began tracing patterns on the hardwood floor.

I thought first to attend to her injury, but there was already little sign of it. The flesh -- or whatever it was -- must have ripped cleanly.

Folding white fabric across my lap, I took the red leather chair I'd retrieved for her.

"What are you?" I asked.

She looked up, and those dark eyes narrowed. She was deciphering things, learning, calculating. "Arrr . . . oooo?" she said.

"You are not native to this place," I thought out loud. "But, if you are not of this world, how did you arrive on my steps?" No one saw anything, if Landers was to be believed. But, people -- or beings -- don't appear out of thin air. "Where did you come from? What planet? Do you know?"

Suddenly she stood, approached my bookshelf, and pulled down Father Aaron's journal.

I was on my feet in an instant. "No -- no."

The volume was too heavy for her, and it fell to the floor. It landed on her foot with a disheartening squelch, but again she remained unmoved.

She didn't act as I'd expect an interstellar traveler to act. Her body seemed detached from her mind, and I could sense her intellect, but also an extreme naiveté. This was no explorer before me, no scientist or conqueror.

She behaved like a fledgling out of its nest for the first time.

I had an infant on my hands. But an infant what?

She wiggled her mashed foot free, then set to work on the book, leafing through, never looking at the text, always at me.

When she'd laid hands on every page, she spoke. "Are you Aaron?"

I didn't answer right away. She couldn't be mimicking; I hadn't mentioned Father Aaron. "No. I'm Thomas."

"In here, Aaron mentions a maker of man. Are you a man?" Her intelligence had grown keener over the last few minutes.

"Of course."

She nodded thoughtfully, seemingly pleased with the answer. "Can you introduce me to your creator?"

"It's called prayer," I said, out in the nave. Father Timen was about to read from the Holy Scrolls, but first everyone had to approach the Lord. "With it, we speak to our creator. We thank Him for all He has done for us."

We stood at the back of the pews, mercifully unnoticed. I'd given her a black velvet cloak, like those the Sisters who buried the dead wore. It was risky to take her out amongst the people, but I was excited by her miraculous grasp of our language. What learned man could resist acting as first ambassador to a new intelligence? She wanted to learn, and I had the desire to teach.

In my memory I'd never seen the cathedral so full. Every worshiper sat with eyes screwed shut, neck bent, and hands clasped as though they meant to wring blood from their palms. I spared a glance for Ephah -- that's what the alien had asked to be called -- but her attention was fixed on the crowd.

Though no one spoke their prayers aloud, it was obvious what they were asking of God: Spare us from the creature.

But she was not something to be feared. Studied, perhaps. Nurtured, for sure.

"It is appropriate to thank your maker for His work?"

"If one truly believes, it is required."

"I see." She brought her hand to her mouth, pensive, and I noticed it was no longer mitt-like. In place of the round stump were long, elegant fingers -- tipped, even, with sharp nails.

It wasn't just her speech that was rapidly evolving. Her body was morphing, growing, becoming more defined.

It reaffirmed my suspicion: she was new. "Where did you --"

With careful strides, like a practiced skater taking to the ice, she moved away from me, towards the pulpit. Worried she'd spook the congregation, I pulled at her cloak, but she let it fall. The memory of her split skin kept me from reaching for her arm.

Father Timen continued with his service, his attention firmly on the Scrolls.

"Ephah!" My hoarse entreaty sounded loud, but she either didn't hear or simply ignored me.

There was something unusual about her gate -- she moved as if unattached to her surroundings. Yes, there! Her feet weren't even touching the floor. She rose further, and I could see her soles reflected in the polished marble.

I faltered, unsure of what to do, and my inaction cost me the room. There was a shout, a collective gasp, and then a wave of people climbed up and over the pews. Several benches toppled, and successive smacks rang out when cherry wood met marble. The congregation swirled in a mass of pushing and shoving. Children had their mother's hands ripped away in the sudden frenzy. Someone sobbed.

"Stop," I held my hands out to the crowd. "Please, she won't hurt you." It sounded ridiculous, even to me. Here was something so foreign we had no explanation for it. Yet I was treating her like any other lost soul who'd stumbled upon my doorstep. I didn't know what else to do, how else to react. I'd been trained to preach the word of God and to turn no one away -- not the deformed, not the disabled, not the simple, and not the criminal. Everyone deserved to receive the love of God, even she.

My words went unheeded. The people brushed past me as though I were just another tapestry dangling from the ceiling. A man fell to the floor and his hand was crushed by a heavy boot. I hurried to his aid, afraid the crowd would trample him.

And all the while, Ephah continued to rise into the air. She lifted her arms towards the intricate designs on the domed ceiling and threw back her head. Her long mane floated free, as though gravity had no power over her. A low harmony seeped from her lips, and she spoke unearthly words.

"Thomas!"

I whirled at my name and was met by the bulging, red face of Bishop Krier.

"What have you done, Thomas?" His wide-eyed gaze shone with fury. "You've brought a demon amongst us!"

Landers huddled behind the Bishop, his mouth hanging open like a fly trap. He looked paler than before. I feared he'd faint.

"She's not . . . She's not . . ." But how could I explain? Bishop Krier was not like Father Aaron and me. He did not think critically, analytically, or scientifically. He couldn't see the remarkable being, the fantastic find. All his beady eyes perceived was the unusual, which he translated as unnatural. She'd done nothing demon-like since Landers had found her, except --

"It's speaking in tongues!" Krier said, spraying me with spittle. "How dare you put this house in danger? How dare you put these souls in danger?" He made a warding sign. "The authorities are on their way, but they'll be useless against a servant of the Evil One. Landers, Timen! Bring me nectar from the Holy Flower, we must cleanse the cathedral."

Grabbing my collar, he pulled me close. I could smell the inner-city on him. He'd been out at the tea houses preaching to the business men. "You had better hope we can contain it, cast it out -- if it defiles even one mind, I'll not only have its influence excised from you, I'll have your influence excised from the Church."

He cast me aside with a shove, then hurried to the airlock. Once the last person had fled, he shoved his shoulder into the heavy door. It closed with an ominous thunk. "No one goes in or out until we've rid ourselves of this infestation."

Landers returned with a bottle of nectar. "But, sir, the colony police --"

"They'll wait 'til we're through."

"Sir, she's not a demon!" I protested. Though, of course, I had no proof. Only my instincts.

The Bishop snatched the bottle from Landers. "Then, pray tell, what is it?"

Just then, Ephah's muttering ceased and gravity became her master again.

The others froze, so I ran to her. She needed protecting.

I wrapped her in my arms and noticed immediately that she'd changed again. Her skin was pinker, though still mostly gray, and her face no longer looked a caricature. There was more detail on every part of her -- fine hair grew on her arms, and her strange breasts had tiny, budding nipples. A splattering of dark freckles covered her nose and cheeks.

And I made another observation: her chest did not rise and fall against mine. She did not breathe.

"What were you doing?" I asked, then stole a glance at the Bishop. What if she didn't give a child-like answer like I expected? What if the others were right? Did they see something I didn't? Had I been tricked? Wouldn't the Evil One disguise his servants and give them powers to disarm?

"I was praying." She perceived the worry on my face. "Was that not the proper thing to do? They were thanking their creator," she gestured at the empty, upturned pews, "so I thanked mine."

"They are one in the same, creature," the Bishop said.

Then she laughed, and it reminded me of tinkling wind chimes. "I did not create them." She skipped back, out of my arms. "I have not created anything besides myself. Not yet."

"The blasphemy!" Krier raged behind his desk.

I had no retort. How could I profess her an innocent being when she claimed to be a god?

"I have never heard of such devilry! Claiming to be its own creator. What is its aim?"

"I don't think she meant any offense. She's alien to this world; I'm not even sure she understood what she was saying --"

The Bishop held up his hand, "Enough."

They'd fashioned a cell for her down in the crypts. Even in a flying cathedral the dead had to be buried in consecrated earth. The Bishop said the blessed dirt and pots of holy nectar would keep her contained. But for good measure, they'd stuffed her in a tomb.

It felt wrong to imprison her, but what I'd seen and heard was unforgivable. To pray to one's self, to claim godhood . . . I could think of few acts more damning.

"What will you do with her?" The strain in my voice was evident. Every word was taxing.

"At this point you should be more concerned with what I'll do with you, Thomas. I thought you'd shape up after Aaron passed away. He filled your head with silly, dangerous ideas. It's his fool influence that made you drop your guard and let a servant of evil in." Though he was angry, I could hear an underlying tone of self-satisfaction.

Maybe he was right. Perhaps Aaron and I were too inquisitive -- always looking for hidden layers and ignoring what was right in front of us.

Maybe my hunger for information left me vulnerable to the Evil One's attacks.

But I was at peace with my pursuit of knowledge. I had wondered, at first, if searching for more was the right thing to do. I'd prayed to the Lord about it, and afterwards felt calm. Surly if there was something dangerous about my digging, God would have revealed my error, not filled me with serenity.

Looking into the Bishop's eyes now, I felt anything but peaceful. Perhaps my tranquility had been imagined, and Ephah was my punishment for seeking knowledge I had no business knowing.

"Repent, Thomas," Krier said plainly. "Go to your chambers and beg for forgiveness. If the Lord sees fit to be lenient, I'll know."

Without a word I took my leave, grateful to be rid of his presence.

Back in my study, I took Aaron's journal from the shelf, as well as my copies of the Holy Scrolls. Yes, I would repent, but first I had to understand. Had I been wrong to take Ephah in? I was certain these texts would make the answer clear to me.

I'd witnessed a terrible sin, and a false deity could only have one goal: to steal our souls. Such a being had to be evil. And only demons were evil.

But my feelings told me otherwise. I sensed no cruelty. The same deep emotions that had led me to God in the first place -- that had told me He was real -- told me Ephah was what she seemed: infantile and innocent.

If Ephah wasn't evil, then she wasn't lying. Either she truly had created herself, or she didn't understand the meaning of the word.

If she didn't understand, then she must be an alien, as I'd originally suspected -- a foreign creature from a far away land. She'd made an effort to reach out and comprehend our ways, and had unsuspectingly broken cultural laws in the process.

Yes, that was the most logical conclusion. She was an alien -- fantastic, but only in the most down-to-earth sense of the word.

But, what if she'd known exactly what she was saying? If she truly was her own maker . . . that changed everything.

Pouring over the pages, I revisited every helpful lesson I could think of, but I couldn't put my finger on what I was searching for. I wanted confirmation that my need to help her was also God's desire, that my instincts about her significance were correct. I felt she'd been sent to impart the information Father Aaron had failed to give me. There was a purpose in our meeting, if only I could find it.

But was that a silly man's folly? Did I miss Aaron so much that I had latched onto the first thing I could label as a sign?

Shaking off the doubt, I went back to my fundamentals. "In the beginning," I read aloud, "there was only God." That meant no universe -- an absence of everything, save our creator.

I had to look at the words a different way, not like I was the one learning, but as though I were writing them. If I were God . . . Thinking it made me ill; was this more blasphemy? Trying to understand the thought processes of the divine felt simultaneously wrong and right. If I were God, trying to explain myself to my creations -- if I wanted something with a limited experience to understand me and my ways -- I'd need to set things out in terms it could comprehend.

That was part of the key, wasn't it? If God didn't want us to try to understand, why send us the Scrolls? Why feel the need to explain anything?

In the beginning, there was only God. If God's beginning were before the beginning of time, then he could simultaneously always exist and have a finite inception. If there is no time, there is no always. So, if God had a beginning, that meant he was his first creation.

I have not created anything else, yet, Ephah had said. Implying there was more to come.

And no one had seen her arrive. She'd simply appeared, from nothing.

A passage from Aaron's journal suddenly took on new meaning for me. I quickly thumbed through to the page.

"There can be no doubt," I read, "that the scriptures are not meant to be the end-all be-all of the history of everything. God did not see fit to include descriptions of the other planets in the Scrolls. Planets many colonists now call home. But is it not clear why they were left out? What would boggle the young human psyche -- only freshly civilized -- more than new worlds? God does not tell us that which we cannot handle. If God deigned to speak today, his words would be far different from those he spoke to our ancestors. Yet the message would remain the same."

Was that what was hidden in the scriptures? Were there hints about the true nature of creation? Things God did not think we could handle then, but would discover over time?

Not just about us, though. About the universe. About existence. About the origins of God Himself?

After reading, I knew there was only one way to assure myself. If I felt God was speaking to me through Ephah, I needed to speak back.

I knelt before my bookcase. The other clergymen would watch me if I went to an alter, and this prayer had to be private.

Clutching my hands to my chest, I closed my eyes and lowered my head. Silently, I reached out, asking for guidance, for the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. To have clarity of vision, and clarity of thought.

When I finished, I stood, tall and square, with a renewed confidence in my own judgment -- and the realization that I must save Ephah.

"Let me see her," I demanded.

"I'm sorry, Father, but the Bishop says you are not allowed down." Landers stood in my path, blocking the entrance to the crypt, his arms crossed. He tried for an air of authority but couldn't keep his uncertainty hidden.

A sudden jolt sent us both careening to the side.

"What was that?"

"We're leaving dock," Landers said. "The police threatened to break in, so the Bishop ordered the cathedral ascend to orbit."

"Why would the police --"

"Since the creature was found outside the cathedral they insist it falls under their jurisdiction. But it's a demon, Thomas. You don't think the Bishop could just hand it over and watch it tear the colony apart? The lay people don't know how to deal with these things."

"What will they do? The military --" They wouldn't understand. The secular courts didn't subscribe to demons and visions and the Church's claims of good versus evil. What would they do if they thought we had something dangerous or illegal on board? Especially now that we'd openly flouted the law?

"Let me down," I said, reaching past him for the gate. "The Bishop doesn't realize what he's doing. He's putting us at risk for no reason."

"You put us at risk when you decided to bring that thing inside."

I felt like tearing my hair out. "Landers, she's not a demon. She didn't ask for our devotion, she doesn't want it. She's not a false god, and she's not a rival god. She doesn't pose a threat to anyone, she's --" I could tell by his hard stare he wasn't hearing me. "I'm going down."

"No. It'll get in your mind, make you do horrible things. Don't you care about your soul?"

"God wants me to help the helpless," I said. He looked at me strangely, uncomprehendingly. Without another word I shoved him aside and let myself in. The gate squeaked on its hinges.

Quickly, I descended the steps. This was all wrong. The colony military and the Church were about to come to blows over a thing neither of them comprehended.

But God had shown me the way. Or perhaps he'd just helped me to order my thoughts and open my eyes. Either way, I knew what she was: not demon, not alien. She didn't belong here. This wasn't her universe -- she hadn't created her universe yet.

The transition from stone to graveyard dirt felt unnatural even though I expected it. Dim lamps clicked on over each tomb as I passed, giving me just enough light to see where my feet landed.

A glint of yellow led me to the empty pit they'd thrown her into. Twelve blown-glass jars, filled to the brim with the golden nectar, surrounded the grave at even intervals. Across the tomb's top they'd laid an unornamented slab of stone from the burial reserves.

Four iron hooks were attached to the slab's corners. I grabbed hold of one and threw all my weight in reverse. With a few tugs it began to slide, and with that first effort I was able to move it just enough to peer inside.

"Ephah?" It took a moment for my eyesight to adjust. They had her bound and gagged. Strange measures against something supernatural, I thought. The ropes bit into her flesh, forming deep gouges much like the rip I'd first put in her arm.

Why didn't she blink her black eyes and escape? How could human physical measures mean anything against a deity?

But her metamorphosis . . . when she'd appeared she wasn't fully formed. Incomplete. Was I seeing a time before immortality, when a god could still be destroyed?

Did our God come into being this way? Did he appear in another creator's universe, malformed and weak? Did he learn there? Did he attempt to recreate what he saw?

Did its inhabitants persecute him? Trap him? Hurt him?

Is this where pain and suffering come from?

Too many questions. I had to focus on what was directly in front of me.

Struggling with the reach, I stretched out to remove her gag. Her lips were free, but she stayed quiet. She didn't plead, or thank me, or relate a plan. Her face was flat and expressionless.

"I'm going to get you out," I said.

Ephah didn't respond. She just stared blankly.

"Ephah?"

She turned towards me, ever so slightly. "I was thinking," she said, as if that explained everything.

"Do you know you -- How do you create? How did you appear?"

"I think, therefore I am. I wanted to exist, and so I did."

"Why did you appear here?"

She shrugged, an oddly human gesture. "I found a place to come through, and I did. I didn't know what sort of form to take, so I mimicked the things I sensed."

She'd looked like something a child had made because she was. Taking on the color of the steps, the relative shape of the people, the bushiness of the grass -- she'd formed herself with a limited comprehension of the characteristics she was trying to reflect.

"You thought yourself into existence? So, just now, were you creating?"

"I was trying."

"Nothing?"

"I'm having trouble tapping into your God's energy. Perhaps it's all this solidness -- I can't break it down to use it. I need freer access to . . . to . . . I don't know what to call it. To your God's basic form of energy."

I knew what she meant. "Radiation. You need a star."

After an exhaustive effort, I safely removed the cover stone and freed Ephah from her bonds. I tried to hide my revulsion when I pulled the cords out of her wounds.

No one disturbed us. Landers was too much of a coward to follow me into the crypt. Far off, I could hear chanting. The Bishop was busy preparing for an exorcism.

Monstrous, xenophobic imbecile. If he'd let her go she would have left our world of her own accord.

"Come on. We have to get you to an emergency shuttle."

I held out my hand, afraid to grab for her, and she took it without question. We plodded through the dirt and up the stairs to the gate.

There stood Brother Landers, his back a more formidable barrier than the bars. We had to get by him without raising the alarm.

I'd brought pieces of Ephah's bonds just for this purpose.

Horrified at what I was about to do, I tapped him on the shoulder. "Brother," I said softly, aiming to disarm. His head turned, and I swiftly slid a portion of cord through the bars and around his neck. He choked and struggled, but I held fast. I pulled it tight enough that he had to concentrate on his breathing. Then I tied each of his limbs to the bars, all while Ephah looked silently on.

I swung the gate outward, and he moved as if part of it. "I'll come back and free you," I promised him. "But I can't let Krier have her. God told me . . ." But I couldn't explain well enough for him to believe me. There had been no burning bush, no booming voice -- just a feeling. "Please forgive me."

For want of a deep breath, he couldn't call out. But hatred burned in his eyes. All respect was gone; never again would he call me "Father."

There was no time for regrets.

We had to sneak past the assembled exorcists. Luckily, the Bishop was more concerned with placing spiritual roadblocks than physical ones. Brother Landers appeared to be the only person on guard duty; the rest of the clergy formed three circles -- two in the nave and one in the crossing.

In the center of each ring were vials, pots, and bowls of the holy nectar laid out in the sign of our lord. Around the vessels were open scrolls, and chalked directly onto the floor were commands meant to expel the demon.

A low rumbling hum came from each of the groups, and Krier called out various prayers above the din.

God will not heed you, I thought as we passed, using the intricate reliefs and tapestries of the walls to our advantage. He only aids us against evil, not against beings we ignorantly fear.

Unfortunately, my fledgling god lacked any sense of urgency. As we made our escape she dragged her feet. I could tell she was enthralled with learning, using all of her senses -- which I'm sure extended well beyond my five -- to pull in every detail of our circumstance.

We made it past the grand alter, into the elevator, and up to the control deck without incident. But there our good fortune ended.

I was about to take the side access to the shuttle bay when the red emergency lights began to blink. A voice came over the com system. "Our Lady of the Skies, this is the Colony 37 police force. You've illegally left your docking and have an unidentified animal in your possession. As it was found within city limits it is our responsibility to see to its safe disposal. Return to port immediately and prepare for boarding. If you do not comply, we will be forced to send a military vessel to retrieve it."

The Bishop could hear them, loud and clear -- they used the emergency channel, which was always open. But there was no way he'd turn back. He thought he was saving their souls. Krier would rather get shot out of the sky than hand over a demon to the unordained.

Suspicious, I brought up the viewing screen. As I'd feared, a cruiser already sat a few thousand miles off the Epistle Side, waiting for instructions.

I had to get Ephah out quickly, before the Bishop sent someone to respond. I checked our orbit.

Except, we weren't in orbit. The cathedral was headed towards the system's star -- already we had passed one of the hot, rocky inner planets. I could only assume the Bishop thought to hide us in Chandra's glare. He hadn't counted on a military cruiser dogging our trajectory.

Ephah and I couldn't just shoot off in a shuttle. The cruiser would see us. But perhaps if we clung to Our Lady's underbelly she could keep us shielded from the authorities long enough for Ephah to create.

The access tunnel opened and we doubled over to avoid scraping our heads on the low ceiling. Five compact hatches led to five cramped escape shuttles. I picked the one furthest left and unceremoniously shoved Ephah inside.

"Take a seat," I said. I helped her buckle in, then rushed to the helm.

Under my control the shuttle moved deftly from dock. The bay's airlock disengaged, and we sailed seamlessly through.

Like a tick looking for the choicest bite, the shuttle edged along the cathedral's underside until I found a spot to hide. I switched on the electromagnetic landing gear, and we settled down in a depression on the hull.

"I need to open the solar shield. It won't let the star's full force in, but hopefully it will be enough," I said. She needed the power . . . but what about me? Energy-devouring god I decidedly was not. The shuttle was one-roomed; where would I hide? I paused for a moment, realizing I was about to be eradiated with her.

But the thought did not terrify me. I was not angry or saddened. I felt no desire to run, only a deep calm.

A familiar calm.

This was the right thing to do. I wasn't just saving a single being; I was saving an unborn universe. Next to that, my own well-being meant nothing.

I looked into her dark eyes and awed at what I'd had the privilege to discover: the young face of God. Here she was, before the omnipotence that comes with creating worlds and rules, before the loss of innocence that comes with ultimate knowledge, before worship and praise and thanks.

Hot streams ran down my cheeks. In that moment I couldn't keep my thoughts to myself. "I shall be your first martyr," I said.

Ephah looked at me with unknowing eyes. She did not understand, and that was beautiful.

I could not dally. Even if the cruiser failed to notice us, someone in the cathedral was sure to discover the missing shuttle.

These were my last moments, and I drank them in with fervor. I felt complete. My two passions -- for cosmology and religion -- had come together and fused before my eyes. This was what Father Aaron and I had sought all these years together: the physicality of the divine. Had God allowed her to appear on our vestibule for a purpose? Did He want me to understand? Did He know I would help her?

Or was this a great serendipity of existence?

I pushed the questions out of my head. Even at the end, I was still grasping for understanding.

I typed in the code that gave me access to the forward shield, and at the same moment the communications board lit up. Either the Bishop or the military -- perhaps both -- had found us.

Quickly, I released the solar layer. Covering my head, I ducked beneath the dash, not quite comfortable enough with my fate to let the radiation hit me straight on.

Ephah's eyes snapped towards the bright star, staring at it directly. Her eyes and face appeared to blur, but the fogginess quickly resolved into a glow. Her hair already stood on end, and she unbuckled herself to float freely within the cabin.

The shuttle's insides grew hotter, and within moments I was sweating. I wiped the droplets away from my eyes. I couldn't miss this.

She lifted her arms, and light shown from her fingertips. I waited impatiently for her to dissolve out of existence, away into her own universe, but she did not leave.

"Go!" I said, my tone laced with urgency.

"It is not enough," she replied calmly.

The shuttle jerked and vibrated. Someone had fired a warning shot.

"I must have the full output of the star," Ephah said.

The air was so heavy I couldn't breathe. And the metal around me was too hot to touch -- everywhere my skin brushed against it blisters erupted. This was going to be a painful death.

Ephah twisted in an unusual way, her strange knees folded in the wrong direction, and her arms shot out dramatically to each side. She looked like she meant to push against the shuttle walls, though her fingers did not touch them.

In the next moment my world exploded. The escape shuttle burst apart at every closure and seam, reduced to its basic parts in the blink of an eye.

And I was now suspended in space, fully exposed.

Ephah floated beside me, her face pure calm and her body pure power. I reached towards her, expecting no response, but she took my hand. Looking into my eyes, she smiled. Her glow brightened, became blinding.

And then there was nothing.

"You do not belong to me," Ephah said.

I didn't hear her with my ears, or see her with my eyes. I couldn't feel my limbs, or my heartbeat.

"I cannot make you a part of my universe," she said.

I wasn't dead, but I also wasn't alive. Ephah must have saved me, but where were we now? Not in her universe, and not in mine.

There was something I'd wanted to say before, but had missed the opportunity. "Please, don't recreate the fear you saw," I pleaded. If there was a chance at a pure universe, I had to take it. "Forget what they did to you, and just remember my help. Don't create more suffering."

"True happiness and true suffering are both birthed from knowledge. If I refuse to create suffering; I refuse to create knowing." She was different again, wiser. She'd evolved further.

"I cannot make you a part of my universe," she said again, "But if I send you back you will die." She was trying to get me to understand something. "If you let me, I will save you as He saved me."

"What do you --" But I knew.

Ephah had helped a god -- my God? -- just as I had helped her. And now she . . .

It was a cycle, of salvation and creation.

"Right now you are weak," she said. "Too weak to do anything but linger. You will linger for eternity -- except there is no eternity, because there is no time -- and you will forget yourself. But, eventually, something will slip from my universe into this place and make you remember. And then you'll follow that spark and visit my world. And knowledge will be your friend and enemy, just as it was mine." There was a dual happiness and sadness flowing from her. She was remembering.

"I will teach my creations what you reminded me of, Thomas: compassion, compulsion to aid the helpless, the acceptance of ignorance without fear. And when you emerge, one of them may see me in you. I can only hope."

There was a softness in the nothingness, something I could only liken to the most chaste of kisses. And then she was gone.

And I was alone in the time before time, waiting for my turn to be reborn.

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