Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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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

The Last God-Killer
    by Grá Linnaea & Dave Raines

The Last God-Killer
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

Sing, O goddess, of great Andern, and of his wrath.

This line I stole from an ancient writer named Homer. I have millions of such texts in Recorded Mind, and Contemplative Mind suggested this as an epigraph. My writing does not belong in the same class as Homer's. However, I believe it is fitting to replace Achilles' name with that of Andern the god-killer.

And fitting irony, that the goddess cannot sing, being dead at Andern's hand.

It was day thirty of our silent pilgrimage from earth to the goddess's paradise on M89. Daily I uploaded my experience to the All-Net: sight, sound, scent, even touch and taste, twenty-four hours a day. I used low-def and 2-D to conserve bio-energy, holding off the aging process as much as possible. Later I would need Full Immersion recording, and I would Record nearly to my own death; but during travel, essentially nothing happened.

"Don't truck much with your kind." It was the first time the god-killer spoke to me and to the extent I could be, I was shocked that a man who kills gods would be so conservative. It was more common for those aligned with an old god to dislike the non-born, such as Recorders like me.

"My kind? Unnatural abominations, you mean?" Often it was better to say their words before they did.

Recording Mind noted my increased heart rate and small adrenaline spike. Contemplative Mind kept me centered and pleasant. I smiled; from long experience I know that smiling puts people at ease.

But he never looked at me. "There's already too many damn people. We don't need to make more."

His old-fashioned attitudes showed his age more than his body did. Even so, I observed that his eyes peered sharply from a bird's-nest of subtle shallow wrinkles; skin puckered on the tops of his hands: after multiple anti-aging treatments, these things forced themselves onto the body. The whites of his eyes had turned slightly yellow. Every day, at precisely 0900 and 2100 hours, he laid his hand on the medbot and it pumped molecular-repair bots into his circulatory system. I worried that either one of us might not even last the journey.

I am a Recorder. Our abilities burn up our cells and double our aging process. The oldest recorder in history died at forty-nine of an embolism. I am forty-three.

Humans could only speculate how many gods still existed. Once easy to identify, they'd become scarce, but Delight was almost certainly the last of the majors. When gods were plentiful, life was certainly more orderly. People like Andern felt that their lives were not their own back then, but I don't see how that has changed. I have no soul and don't need to worry about anything past physical existence. Born-humans say I miss subtleties.

Without the gods, there are no heavens. With no heavens, there is nothing after people die, which seems to be how they want it. Still, a god-killer's job makes them hated by half the people and feared by all.

The next day I heated some nourishment while Andern used the shower bag. When he stepped out I presented his clothes. While he dressed he saw that I'd folded out the eating table.

"What the null is that?" His voice pitched down in a way I hadn't heard before.

"I meant no harm. After yesterday's discussion I assumed you might enjoy a meal together."

He barked a laugh. "We exchanged three or four words."

Before I thought to censor myself, I said, "You initially spoke six words, I replied with nine and you replied with an additional twelve."

He looked at the ceiling and I waited. He let out a laugh that went on for minutes. Eventually he said, "I'll eat a meal with you."

"That's an additional forty-three words."

"Don't push it."

Delight first attacked when we reached the nominal margins of M89.

An alarm vibrated the air and the ship shuddered. Ship's voice said, "Quantum storm. We are experiencing a quantum storm. Energy peaks will consume the ship in fifteen seconds. Fourteen . . ." I wasn't well-trained in emergency response, but I attempted to initiate meditative calm while I yelled, "Ship! Instruments!"

In an instant the wall glowed with telltales and icons, most of them red. "Ship! Reduce power --"

"Belay that," Andern growled.

"Nine seconds . . . eight . . ."

"Andern! You heard. There are energy peaks!"

"I said belay that order. Ship, continue on course, present power."

"Aye aye, sir."

Beneath me the ship gave another shudder. We had only seconds to live. "Andern, we must --"

"Recorder. Calm down!" He looked at me with contempt. "I thought you beasts had some kind of mind control. I didn't know you panicked so easily."

"Well . . . but there are energy peaks."

"Recorder. Have you ever been in a quantum storm? Have you ever even heard of a quantum storm?"

I did a fast data retrieval. "No."

"There is no such thing as a quantum storm. Delight is playing with your mind."

I wanted to argue, which Recorders never do. I engaged Contemplative Mind and attempted to reduce my breath rate. Still my pulse raced. My muscles were locked. The ship continued safely.

"It's in my mind?"

"More precisely, it's through your senses. Recorder, on this trip, you'll experience delights of all kinds. Be prepared to ignore them."

"The ship blowing up is delightful?"

"There is a delight in encountering danger and overcoming it, a delight to which I am especially susceptible. You were manipulated."

"I didn't know."

His voice softened. "All right. I made a mistake. I clearly should have briefed you on the way here. I'll fix my mistake as soon as I can. But listen, you must promise me when action is called for, let me do the acting. You can stand by and watch all you want. Do not act. You are not competent to face Delight, let alone kill her, and I will not let you bollix up this mission. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Now I'm going to sleep." He lay back on the eating table, not bothering to flip up its padded underside.

I stood there a while. I wondered if this man, who had no reservations about killing gods, would hesitate to kill a Recorder.

I sat in one of the two council chairs. I thought I heard distant laughter like little tinkling bells. Mind control. I initiated meditation.

We find gods by observing cosmic anomalies; where physics bend and the universe is distorted, we suspect a god is near. The black hole at the center of M89 is twenty-two light years from the center of that galaxy, which should not be. Delight exists on the edge and draws the black hole from the center with her own attraction.

Gods are killed, not with knife or gun, but with bare hands and all of one's will. It's a risky business. Six out of seven god-killers do not return from their task.

Why do they risk their lives? Contemplative Mind throws out hypotheses: gods upset causality and distort the universe, as Delight did M89. Or the gods offend our sense of reason and order. Or the gods meddle in human lives, which control cannot be borne.

I never report these contemplations. Until now, until this last confrontation between god and god-killer. An era is passing.

We approached Delight's constellation along its flat plane. It resolved from a fuzzy line to a flat oval, eventually articulating into a white hot disk. Even to my critical eye, the transition from single hot mass of stars to individual systems and suns was sudden and caught me off guard. One would assume the goddess would consider herself the most important thing in the galaxy and exist in its very center, but she was on a small planetoid, in a indistinct system arbitrarily near the edge of the galaxy.

The ship had already begun its slowdown a week earlier, but Delight's planet rushed into our view disturbingly like a head-on collision. We didn't feel the stop. We were just suddenly immobile in the upper atmosphere of Delight -- the planet named for the goddess. I noticed Andern hadn't watched as we approached.

We sat in silence for fifteen minutes before I thought to ask what we would do next. Right when I'd decided to ask, he spoke.

"We'll take the drift shuttle. I need to prepare, but the descent will give me time." He glanced at the planetary display. "We're not any safer here than we will be out there…" He looked at me. ". . . or on the surface."

I wished for something to pack, or instructions, but he simply pulled a compressed clothes bag from storage. He expanded this and pulled out a white shirt and vest, and a belt that looked organic, covered in small snap-pockets and tools. He undressed and dressed without modesty while I watched him.

"You may not speak to the god. You may not touch the god. You may not help me in any way."

I nodded. Every god-killer had said this in the past. The words never changed.

To have something to do, I asked. "Do you require nourishment before we go down?"

He shook his head, snapping boots to his feet. Then he looked up at me. "I want you to prepare a protein pack. Heat it, open it and put it into a plate. Then I want you to clean up, and package away the food into a leftover container."

I was confused, but tried to understand why he was asking me to do this. Eventually I asked, "But, why?"

He was almost fully dressed. "So you'll have something to do. Your energy is putting my teeth on edge."

I noted this for future records, tagging the information for future Recorders how not to annoy god-killers as they worked. As if I would ever join a god-killer again, as if there would ever be another one.

A drift-shuttle works on a similar principle as our space-faring ship. Just as our starship bends time for energy and is snapped back to Earth while recouping the stolen time, a drift-ship just falls, spinning like an old oak seed.

The surface grew slowly closer. I observed an ocean that covered sixty percent of my view and we drifted toward a reddish land mass.

The land mass came to take up my entire view and I saw that we were headed for a coastal area. This soon formed into tangled red forests and cliffs that stood against violent waves.

"How did we know where to find . . ." I wanted to say "her." But we weren't to refer to gods by name or gender. ". . . the god."

Andern patted the linen doll on his belt. "This is a genuine worship totem, given freely by a true believer."

"That's against the law."

"It is, but there's always someone."

I wanted to ask how a god-killer convinced a true believer to give him a religious totem, but it seemed impolite.

He said, "The laws are flexible enough that I can do my job."

Other questions occurred to me, but at that moment, the drift ship met the ground. I felt increased gravity and heard a popping sound as the landing claws dug into the soil.

"We're here." said Andern needlessly.

The hatch was loud and slow. Andern hopped out as if sucked by vacuum. When I followed, I saw him lying on the earth, hands buried in sharp-looking grass.

The air smelled a bit of coriander and I sneezed. Andern rolled the back of his head against the dirt. Before I could ask what he was doing, he said, "Been on the damn ship too long. Need to ground myself." He barked a short laugh. "If I was spiritual, I'd say I needed to pull energy from the dirt." He laughed further. I do not understand why.

I came down from the door and stood a respectful distance from him, waited for his instruction. No two god-killers acted the same before a kill. Some were jovial, others somber. Some needed time to prepare, others rushed in.

"Going to be here for a while. Sit if you like."

I felt curious about his hands in the dirt and weeds, so I took off my zip shoes and under-socks. I stepped carefully into the grass near his hands. The grass felt itchy and cold. I waited to observe if the feeling would change.

Andern tilted his head, looked at my bare feet and laughed again. Chuckling, he unstrapped his boots and put his own bare feet in the grass. He seemed more alive in this moment than in the entire previous forty days.

He said, "Damn grass is scratchy."

The path to Delight's temple was almost implausibly long and arduous: narrow paths choked by vines, paths that would disappear and cut back on themselves, a million shades of red trees that leaned together in confusing fractal patterns. Sometimes the next machete hack would reveal a small clearing, other times a cliff.

After hours of this, Andern paused and lowered his machete -- the only technology he'd let either of us bring to the god's temple.

He muttered, "Clever god. Knows I'll enjoy this more if I have to work for it."

The jungle swirled and disappeared and we stood on the steps of a Temple like no other: a mélange of Gothic arches and flying buttresses and Corinthian columns of marble. Ridiculously, a laser light show flashed behind intricate stained-glass windows. I dropped into high-resolution, full senses, but had to reduce the gain to avoid overdriving the Recording. My breath rate sped up, my breathing grew shallow, adrenaline coursed through my system, my eyelids involuntarily opened wide to take it all in. I could feel myself burning out, but I grinned: I experienced delight. Or Delight.

I reminded myself that to serve I had to be vigilant: Delight would try to manipulate me, but I would not be duped, not again.

Andern waved me forward and we ascended the steps. He pushed at the massive engraved doors. I leaned on their stone casing.

"How do I know this is real?" I asked Andern.

He seized the right-hand door and pulled on it. With a grinding rasp, it opened. "Real or unreal, it doesn't matter, as long as I don't let it distract me."

In that moment I forgot his age.

The first room we entered was clearly intended for me.

To the right were scrolls and palimpsests, worn with age, and priceless. Edison's phonograph sat on a workbench and played a scratchy voice and next to it screens displayed data so fast even I couldn't memorize it.

And among these mileposts of information transfer, I saw my own Recordings.

Andern pushed me along the red carpet, past the workbench. The shadows almost pulled at me. Come observe, linger, enjoy.

I was thinking unclearly, helpless to stop. I stepped off the carpet to the right.

Andern touched some kind of tool at his belt, something I did not recognize, and looked at me significantly. Angrily.

"Follow me," he said.

Sweating, I disconnected the self-centered portion of my neurology where curiosity resides, living narrowly in Recording Mind as we walked through pools of light to the doors opposite. Still, I gawked the whole time.

Once we achieved the opposite side, Andern touched me on the upper arm -- the first time he had done so. "You have successfully navigated the temptations of Delight. I wonder what she has in store for me."

Without hesitation, he gripped the doorpull and opened the doors.

The light was dim, but I boosted gain in the visible spectrum, and saw the edges of chaos. No pathway led us on. No light illuminated doors at the opposite side. We stepped into a pool of dim blue light; as we did, music accompanied us, strangely gentle but building quickly.

Andern shouted at the ceiling, "I am not happy." The music built in tempo and intensity. I thought I heard incongruous tinkling bells.

The blue light moved with us as we pressed forward. Weapons poked into the circle of our lit area, some broken, most in perfect condition. I could find no pattern. There was a spear of fire-charred wood, a lady's dagger, a rapier. A full suit of Roman armor lay next to a full suit of English plate armor. Arrows lay in scattered piles, and occasionally we'd pass a longbow to shoot them with. Andern picked his way through, ignoring blades, crossbows and increasingly modern projectile and energy weapons.

Finally we walked a narrow path, piles of weapons on either side, taller than us. My magnetic alignment biotech suggested our path had been more or less a straight line from the entryway.

We stepped into an open area, piled weapons looming like cliffs at our back. A lone double bladed battle-axe lay in the open. It was mounted on a long staff, made of some steel alloy, or perhaps ceramic; a baby spotlight highlighted its soft sheen and hard edges.

I snorted at the transparency of Delight's efforts: did she think Andern would pause for the axe, having made his way through the weapons?

Yet Andern did pause. I noted a light varnish of sweat glossing his forehead; his body odor grew increasingly pungent. His hands rose from his sides toward the axe, as if on their own. I felt this was a mistake. Yet Andern had warned me to avoid taking an active role. Would he consider warning him to be an activity? I had already done so once . . .

Too late. Andern stepped forward, leaned down and gripped the staff. With a heave and a grunt, he lifted it off the floor and held its blade before him.

"I thought you had to kill with bare hands?" I pitched my voice as neutrally as possible.

In reply he inclined his head forward.

The worship center.

It began with rocks. First, a more-or-less cylindrical rock balanced on end, with some kind of oil glistening on its top.

Andern swung his axe at the upright rock and cast it down, cloven. The axe was not damaged.

"The weapon is not for killing. It is for desecrating. Gods know I love this," he said.

I lifted my eyes from the rocks to the rest of the lit worship center. I saw altars, stone tables, wood tables.

And every altar was desecrated.

Some with foul liquids. Some were shattered as if by a mighty hand. Some were cut apart, almost surgically. Andern idly smashed some larger stones as we tiptoed through the rubble.

At the far end of the room, the final altar was still intact. Its huge surface was covered with toys spinning gleefully, women and men dancing half-naked, two warriors clashing, wounding and spontaneously healing. On its edges, coals glowed, and the charred scent of slowly grilled beef filled my nostrils. Smoke rose: light blue incense mingled with charcoal-gray from the meat.

I found the scene ridiculous. But I infer that Andern was positively affected, for the pulse in his neck was visible and elevated to quite alarming levels, and his gaze flicked constantly from one detail to another.

At last he stepped forward.

Before his foot hit the floor, War appeared, blocking his path.

The recording of Andern's victory over War was the most referenced in history. Tall and massive, muscled and nimble, the god wore no clothes. Even though we couldn't think of the god's as having gender, War was obviously a "he."

War smiled to show teeth filed to a point. Where he spat, the floor sizzled.

Andern's fingers whitened on the shaft of the axe.

I said. "Andern, War is dead."

"I killed War myself," said Andern. He shook his head, like he was trying to convince himself. War took a menacing step forward.

Andern's muscles twitched and he looked back at me. I was supposed to keep silent, but his face almost looked as if he was pleading. Not knowing what to say, I shook my head.

With a sigh, Andern dropped the axe. Its ring reverberated long. War took another menacing step toward him.

Andern let his shoulders drop and reached out as if to place his palm on War's chest. At his touch, War faded away.

"Almost lost myself there." Andern's cheeks flushed red and he breathed hard with a rasp. Yet he smiled.

I captioned my Recording of the event with part of an ancient poem: "And drunk delight of battle with my peers / far on the ringing plains of windy Troy."

Andern paused, dwarfed by the altar. It clanged and whirled, dancers spun above us. Behind the altar was an archway.

I tried to review my recording to track how long we'd been traveling through the temple, but time dilated my memory like a dream. If this didn't end soon, I'd burn myself out. If I couldn't get back to the shuttle, my recording would be lost. I shuddered.

Andern waved a hand and I followed him through the archway. New music began, fast strings and horns.

Delight's sanctum was much simpler than either of the previous rooms. On either side of us steam rose from pools of water. The music swelled and fountains burbled from the pools. Pinpoint lights made the water into a fantasia of color.

Huge curtains screened the far wall. These, too, changed color. At our entrance, the entire wall, ten meters high, illuminated.

As we approached, the floodlights dimmed and spotlights rose on the curtains, brightening a smaller central portion, and a simple tiny altar placed there. It seemed to me that as we walked forward, we walked from the far expanse of a magnificent temple into an intimate sanctuary. Yet I could detect no change in the physical building.

Bells chimed, their sound almost lost in the music. I heard something like a soft chuckle.

Andern snorted and reached for his belt. He brought out the worship totem that he had acquired from a true worshiper. He laid it on the altar with a hand on either side. With strain of his arms, he ripped the totem in two.

Delight appeared beside Andern. She was in the form of a small woman, perhaps a meter and a half tall, voluptuous. She wore simple dress, seemingly a single piece of light cloth, its colors shifting with every movement.

He reached out to her neck, dropping half of the totem as he went. She leaned in and placed her hand on his shoulder and whispered in his ear. He flushed. She continued whispering.

I raised my perceptions to hear the conversation but the orchestral noise drowned out her voice.

He giggled.

Delight kept whispering. Her face shifted, sliding from expression to new expression, and even from appearance to new appearance. I was confused by how immensely appealing she was to me. I now believe she stimulated my programming to Record that which is new; to trap me in my personality and to delight me.

But her effect on me was clearly secondary to the delight she brought Andern. She took his hand in hers and placed his other hand on her waist. Gracefully, she nudged him into dance. The two of them coordinated perfectly, as if they had been dancing together for fifty years.

The music modulated into a waltz. Andern clasped Delight close to his chest; their legs brushed as they danced.

Finally the dance ended. Andern bowed gracefully; Delight did him a courtesy.

Andern looked exhausted. The pulse in his neck beat alarmingly and his hands trembled. I wondered if he needed the ministrations of the medbot in the ship.

But by Andern's own command, I could not interfere.

"Stay with me, my love," she said. "Dance with me. Eat the fruits of my garden, fruits forbidden for eons." She held up a hand that now had grapes in it.

An apple would have been too ordinary, I suppose.

Andern chuckled. In a gravelly voice he said, "Alas, fair maiden, I am old. In my time, I have tasted deep of the grape. But my palate is no longer so sensitive."

"Then let me restore it." She plucked a grape from the bunch and placed it on his lips, pushed until he allowed it into his mouth. Slowly he bit down, and the brilliance of ecstasy covered his face. His pulse sped faster.

Delight cast her gaze down demurely. "Would you like another?"

"No." He restrained himself, but it cost him: the faint lines in his face deepened, his mouth twisted into a frown.

"Very well." She plucked another grape and put it in her own mouth, bit down. A glistening drop of juice, dark purple, appeared on her lip.

Resigned, Andern held out his hand. Delight put her small hand in his big one.

I was commanded not to interfere. And yet I recalled the old poem, and in a low but clear voice I recited:

"Though we are not now that strength which in the old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are,

One equal-temper of heroic hearts . . ."

As I spoke, Andern's gaze sharpened and though he never looked at me, he straightened up, and his hand clamped down on the god's. She winced.

I continued.

". . . heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Andern brought his other hand to her neck.

Delight, wheezing through his grip, said, "The job of gods was to teach. Then to warn. Then to be. Now it is our job to die." She closed her eyes.

And then Andern killed Delight.

The music had stopped. The room was bare stone. Dazed, the god-killer looked around.

He said,

"How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breath were life . . ."

It hadn't occurred to me that the god-killer was a fan of heroic literature, but I suppose he would be.

Andern's vital signs were dismal. He staggered and fell to his knees. His heart beat irregularly, indicating impending acute coronary syndrome. As I listened to his internal process, I realized I was still in high definition mode and that my own systems were entering the first stages of failure. I dropped into minimal recording mode, but I could still feel my own death imminent. I wasn't used to feeling fear.

I attempted to dampen the emotional response, but that taxed my systems further. I focused on my breathing and prepared for the trip back to the ship. No matter what, I would upload my experiences.

Andern leaned back to sit on the floor. "My work is accomplished."

Another voice, a new voice, quiet and serious, echoed around us. "Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me . . . you and I are old."

A figure crouched beside Delight's supine body. It was vague, hard to discern, muted. I couldn't tell if my eyes were starting to fail. It caressed Delight's cheek with a grey hand, and she disappeared.

Andern drew a breath with difficulty. "I've killed the three death gods."

Death waved its hand. "Let us set the stage." A touch, and Delight's altar became a pyre, piled high with wood, reeking of fragrant oils. "I am here for you."

We fell into blackness and Andern's face lit up as if fluorescent.

Dimly, by the light of Andern's face, the grey figure moved closer, hands open in welcome. "You are great, O Andern. You have done the gods a service and I shall give you your due."

"You have been my desire. All along." Andern's voice held a note of surprise, as if he just realized something important. "I will defeat you at the last. My will is still strong . . . Death, thou shalt die."

Death paused, only moments away from gathering Andern to itself. "You speak as if I were a god." Its quiet voice filled the room. "You speak as if I were a projection of your wishes, or an embodiment of some human emotion. As if will power could defeat me. Andern, poor man, beloved man, killer of gods -- I am no god. I am reality."

Though Death grew no taller, its presence filled the room. It opened my eyes to the decay all around me, the loss of energy experienced by every oxygen atom in its mad chase around the room, the dust falling as the stone slabs coyly disintegrated, the gradual and undetectable slowing of this planet in its orbit, the galaxies as they fled from each other to some vast unguessable end.

"I am reality," said Death. "I am everywhere, I am the Universal Mind in action: on my left shoulder is Entropy and on my right Decay. You have killed the myths and images that kept you from seeing me. I am the universe as it is. There is no longer anything between you and me." Death crossed its hands in front of its waist. "Are you happy?"

"I will defeat you," says Andern. "I will live."

"You will not. Your body is worn-out, the wounds of your mind are grievous. Andern, it is time."

Andern screamed, "I defy you! I summon my will and my power . . ."

"And your Delight?" Death kneeled down to Andern. "And your Love? War is no longer, yet Death continues. Plague is no longer, yet Death lives. Use your will and your power, then, and keep me from you."

Death opened its arms.

Andern's face clenched like some primitive mask, hard as wood. My eyes became fuzzy, but perhaps I saw Andern shiver.

Death kept its hands crossed. "It is no use, my friend:

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods."

"Testify for me, Andern," Death continued. "You, the greatest god-killer of them all: open the eyes of your people to Death. Record, if you like, your last testament." Death gestured at me and I felt my age-related debilities slip away; physiologically I was a young Recorder. Even as I dropped into full immersion recording, I began to cry. From the shock of the physical change, I am sure.

Death held its hands out. "Your Recorder is waiting."

"I defy you," whispered Andern. "And that is my testimony. Till the end of time, we defy you. If god-killers cannot kill you, we will find another way: science, technology, virtual life, something. Death, thou shalt die."

It was still impossible to bring Death into focus, but it looked sad. "If only that were true." It looked at its grey hands, then at me. "These are only symbolic, of course. They could just as easily be . . ." rapidly, they cycled through brown, deathly black, rosy white.

Almost like a lover, Death laid a white hand on Andern's shoulder. Andern collapsed into Death's arms. But it was a ruse. Andern's own hands came up suddenly, gripped Death's throat, and squeezed.

Death allowed it until Andern's breath came in gasps. Finally the pulse in his neck peaked, beat once, paused, beat again, and stopped.

Death let out something like a sigh and picked up the inert body.

It drifted to the pyre. "Tell them, Recorder," said Death, "how Andern God-killer fought; how he died and what he said." Death laid Andern on the pyre and gestured. One corner of the wood fired, then another. Death was still, even as the flames spread.

"But why?" I said. "Why repeat Andern's words?"

"People want to live in the real world. This is it."

I felt a chill at that. My perfect memory brought back an image of Delight. I found I missed her.

Death made me perceive the body of Andern the god-killer as it was, terribly old and pushed far beyond its capacity. Already escherishia coli in his blood multiplied; decomposition began even as the fire grew.

And once again the Temple of Delight became richly sensual: the smell of burnt pork, which was Andern's flesh burning; the smell of leather tanned over a fire, his skin. His hair smelled like sulfur, while his blood smelled coppery, metallic. There was perfume, a musky sweetness, which I researched later: it is cerebrospinal fluid. The bacteria in his body began to die in the flames. Boiling fluid hissed.

My last functioning recording was of a vague figure whose white hands flickered orange and red in the glow of the fire; and of Andern God-killer at last consumed by his lifework.

Something in my interaction with Death left me unable to enter Recording Mind. I spend this long trip home grappling with my experience in Contemplative Mind.

The stretch drive pulls me back to earth, back in time. As if it rewinds history and brings Andern back to life. As if it undoes our entire trip. But no: I am alone.

Death's words confuse me.

Is humanity better off without the gods? Were gods merely human creation? Perhaps. Their deaths do not mean the end of human experience, nor of mine.

I do not know what the born-humans will do with Death's message. In forty days I will be home and I have . . . I don't know how much time I have anymore to contemplate this.

I experience fear of death. I experience curiosity about what humanity will do with Death's message.

And in contemplating my memories of Andern God-killer, I experience delight.


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