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Science Fiction Friendship

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Mankind will never be able to truly understand the infinite. Man sees the ocean and calls the horizon infinite even though we have maps of its finality. Certainly they can place infinity in terms of a mathematical concept and they have labeled things like the universe itself as infinite. Yet if you were to ask them to hold that infinity in their mind, to imagine what it might be like to move in a direction past the speed of light and never run out of room to fly, their ape brains fail and they return to their comfortable, finite tools and concepts. This is why man is awed when faced with infinity. This is why, Josheb thinks, man is cowed when faced with a god.

Josheb and Reed were compelled to follow the barefoot slaps in the dust to the evening's service. Try as they might, their feet could find no other path at this time of day. On either side of the throng, the bone spurs of old cement buildings jutted from the rusty flesh of the soil, detritivorous technology of the gods blooming from the remaining mineral resources. Oily and black and rainbow iridescent, the god’s wires thickened and converged with the crowd on its way to the plantation church that presided over Josheb’s desiccated town. 

“I pray it is me,” Josheb said to Reed.

“I hope it’s no one,” Reed replies without looking at his friend.

Josheb’s thick brows knit together as he stares at the sooty curls on the back of his friend’s head, moving single file through the growing mass of sun-tanned bodies to stay together. 

“It has to be someone,” Josheb preached to the rear of his friend’s skull. “The gods require a doula every day.” 

“Maybe, maybe not," Reed replied. "I think they’re using us for more than they say.”

The friends came to a halt. In perfect unison, every brother and sister of the mob froze in place. A breath passed amongst them all, then another, and another, all in perfect unity. Silence fell as they felt the gods vibrate through the strings of reality. Their eyes were pulled to the empty altar, marble white against the slick hull of the plantation ship that was slowly harvesting away the remnants of human technology. Yet empty as the altar was, not a single face could turn away. There, where a priest should stand on holy days, came a coalescence of air, a heat shimmer felt in every heart more than it was seen in their eyes. A god.

Their unified breathing continued, growing in pace and pitch. As Josheb watched, he saw the shoulders in front of him grow slack, rigid postures become loose, and in his peripheral vision he could tell that every single face wore the same smile he could feel creeping across his own. You are human, god seemed to say. Not a statement, a command. They did not refer to Josheb or Reed or any other individual, but to them all. You are one people, one tribe, one organism with many hands and feet. The sun on their naked skin had removed many of the differences of race, but the gods had removed the rest. Not a face among them was ill with disease. None appeared older than twenty-five. Every lost limb and scar and infirmity had disappeared with the coming of the gods. 

We are human, Josheb thought, and you are divine. How Reed can think to criticize your purpose is beyond me. Please, elect me as doula today. I am ready. He let the sense of belonging wash over and through him, let it strum upon his nerves until the fingers on his hands blurred with ecstatic trembling. The crowd’s unified panting threatened to hyperventilate when finally, they felt the energy behind the altar shift. It plucked upon a thread of its energetic self and the cascade of power drew eyes to it magnetically. As one, the gathering turned their faces to follow the vibrating thread to its destination. 

The convergence of their eyes seemed to follow a dew drop through the air, a mote of holy water on its way to anoint today's chosen. Josheb watched along with the thousands as the energy made its way toward him, his heart threatening to burst from its cage of bone to greet it.

But then, mere feet away, the blessing dipped as though it had lost its purpose and fell not on Josheb, but on Reed’s brow, sizzling there, illuminating his look of shock for all to see. The cheer of the crowd ripped through the silence as the god faded back into its ship. The naked slap of flesh rang out as bodies crowded closer to seize Reed, the anointed doula, and hoist him onto their shoulders. They shouted their congratulations up at him, faces rapt with the same joy that pulsed through Josheb and bid him follow. Clenching his fingernails into his palms, Josheb trailed after the crowd. 

He wanted to feel elation for his chosen friend in his own soul but the grinding of Josheb’s teeth was too loud. As they carried Reed past the feeding fountains, their porous troughs oozing pink nutrition, Josheb yearned for the selfless joy he saw in the plastic grins on every face. He could feel it tickling the hairs on his body, put there by the gods if only he could let it in. Josheb watched Reed swiveling his head around frantically. When Reed finally spotted his friend in the crowd, Josheb had drawn the corners of his lips up to his ears but he could feel that the crinkling of his sun-brown skin didn’t reach his eyes. Perhaps Reed saw this or maybe the cloying dust kicked up by so many feet had simply aggravated Reed’s eyes, for Josheb thought he saw a tear streak its way down his friend’s face into the tangle of his beard.

In relentless synchronicity, the mob’s marching steps carried Reed from one purification site to the next. Near the orgy pits he was bathed in the outdoor showers by many hands, soaped and washed and soaped again until not a speck of red dust could be seen. Josheb had pressed into the crowd, reaching out his left hand to cleanse his friend but at the last moment he found his hand reluctant to join in the task. He merely stole some of the suds off Reed’s shoulder and wiped them across his own brow.

The masses meticulously moved Reed to the bivouacs and supply. Without letting him touch the dirt, the brothers and sisters covered him in the only piece of clothing familiar to them anymore, the vestments of the doula. A clear helm set glittering halos around Reed’s dripping curls, the suffocating rust-red mesh swallowing each limb before the airtight zipper closed around his back. The suit completely obscured his form, sleeves and legs dangling well past the end of his limbs. The haste of the mob was evident now, spontaneous woops of excitement rending the air as Reed was rushed from the light of the sun into the shade of the Mitrotita. 

Josheb pressed his bare feet in a careful rush, barely avoiding a stumble amongst the carpet of fleshy wires leading to the dais. Already the Mitrotita had opened its umbilical, spotlighting the knot of black wires where Reed was to fulfill his duties. Josheb had to get there first. He must speak with his friend. He could see his friend’s eyes fixated, not on the dais that was their destination, but on the previous doula’s living in the shelter of the floating Mitrotita, her inky hull returning their skin to a white that seemed to sanctify them in the gloom. Many of their limbs had already grown back on a steady diet of gene therapy and dense nutritive slime supplied by the supportive wires all around. They nodded their head in recognition of their newest member. Reed merely stared.

Slick with sweat and sick, with a loose heart string somewhere beneath the mass euphoria, Josheb waited at the dais in the place of honor. Reed was gently laid face heavenward, the glare of the Mitrotita’s umbilical opening hiding his expression from Josheb as he stood over Reed's right shoulder. Seven more brothers and sisters joined them at the dais, one at each shoulder, one at each hip, and one at each hand and foot. The supplicants faced the dais like flowers awaiting rain, faces illuminated by the steady beam of light from the ship overhead. 

“Reed,” Josheb crooned over the twanging of the loose thread in his chest, “blessed are you and blessed be this day.” He tried to mean the words as he said them but their texture was sand as they rolled off his tongue.

“Josh, get me out.” Reed’s whisper barely carried through the helm and over the murmur of the crowd. 

Josheb stared resolutely up at the home of the gods as he replied, “Josheb," he said firmly, "thinks you ought be honored by being doula for the gods.” 

“Josh, please. This isn’t right! They aren’t telling us everything.”

Josheb looked down sharply, “You are calling the gods liars?”

“They took everything from us, Josh! All our tech, all our history—”

“Distractions and temptations and divisions of humanity. Think upon what we have received in return! Health and happiness and purpose.”

“We’re cattle, Josh! We eat and fuck and lay in the sun. You and I, we’ll have no legacy at all. No one will remember us.”

“You are being ungrateful. Blasphemous.” Josheb’s whispers were beginning to draw the gaze of the nearby brothers and sisters. He lowered his voice even further but the venomous thrum of his heart could no longer be hidden. “This IS our legacy. What we can do for the gods. You need not be remembered as Reed when you finally join them as an immortal being of energy.”

“Claim contamination, Josh, I’m begging you.” Reed’s words slurred out as the oxygen in the doula's vestments depleted.

“The only thing contaminated,” Josheb said, “is your thinking. Fear not. You will have much time to consider. Yesterday’s and tomorrow’s doulas will be able to teach you.”

Energy sang from the ship. The gods were among them, spreading joy and belonging, but they could not seem to soften Josheb’s erect posture or loosen the balls of his fists. Four crystalline tubes slid from the Mitrotita's umbilical opening with a sensuous hiss. As they reached the dais, Josheb and the seven brothers went to work. While the tubes were fitted airtight to a series of interlocking mechanisms near Reed’s hands and feet, Josheb went to work with three of the brothers winching down thick leather straps by Reed's shoulders and groin. One click tighter. One more. It wasn’t enough to block out air, the blood flow itself must be completely shut off. 

In unison, Josheb and the three tightened and tightened and tightened the straps, Josheb’s left hand burning with the effort. He glanced at his brothers on the dais. Ecstasy and sweat poured in equal measure. His eyes fell on Reed. Panting in the waning oxygen, his face showed only fear. Blasphemous fear. The climax of the ceremony had arrived. The pumping of the winches came harder and slower, the grunts of effort lusty. With a great cry, the tubes were attached. With a final raucous moan, the winches made their final click.

Except Josheb’s. At the moment of maximum effort, he once again found his left hand reluctant, the song in his heart dissonant with the energy of the gods. 

The light from Mitrotita blasted down with blinding heat. Josheb and the brothers stepped from the dais but not a soul shielded their eyes. No matter how many days, how many doulas, the birth of a god was a spectacular thing to behold. 

A dense fog full of fractal light and shifting mirage crawled down the crystal tubes to where Reed panted, desperately trying to pull oxygen from dead air. The fog paused at the joint between tube and vestment, hesitating, coy. Then, it thrust itself forward, penetrating the vents. Every brother and sister arched their spine, pelvises forced forward by the current slicing through their nerves, eyes closed to better experience the delightful pain.

Except Josheb.

He watched, fascinated, as Reed’s arms convulsed behind the rusty fabric, bending in ways impossible for human joints. Muffled as he was by the glass helm and the moans of the mob, Josheb was the only one to see Reed scream. Head thrown back, Reed’s eyes danced while his jaw unhinged, arteries and tendons pulsing. Condensation formed on the glass from the heat of his cry as red stains blossomed against the rust of the vestment’s sleeves. 

The writhing stopped. Up the crystal tubes rose four, ovoid lumps of energy. New gods. Unseen to the mass below, they were tenderly packaged into plantation ships of their own. Energy pulsed from the space-side hull of Mitrotita that night as every other. Four ships slipped between strings of reality on their way out into infinity. On their way to find four more worlds to harvest. 

The brothers and sisters slumped around Josheb. Bones limp from the experience, they sank to their knees, heads bowed and palms raised. Many were nearly asleep already but a scritching on the dais dragged their eyes up once more.

Something was happening to Reed. The glass helmet, designed to snap free as soon as the gods departed the doula’s flesh, had not been released. Reed’s right shoulder was twitching. He seemed to have fainted from the experience but in his rest, a fog was leaking from his nose and mouth. A fog full of fractals.

It swirled and danced in the current of Reed’s breath. Then, sharpening its droplets into needles, penetrated the pores of Reeds flesh. Light seemed to squirm and dance beneath the skin. Everywhere the light went there were hollows and pockets, the sunken trails of eaten bone and swallowed sinew. Where the skin fell away, blood spurted, spraying the inside of the helmet. Soon enough there was no organic material left. Just the light of god where Josheb’s friend had once been, glowing through a blood-slick helmet.

The newest egg slid up the right arm of the doula garb, now splendidly red from head to foot. The egg found its way up the tube to the Mitrotita, pulsing brighter than its siblings, fed on a more nutritious endometrium. 

A cheer broke forth from the prostrate crowd, brothers and sisters weeping their delight at the birth of a fifth god that day. 

“Blessed be brother Reed!” they cried, “First of us to join the gods!”

Quietly, Josheb walked to the dais. Alone amid the weeping, he unfastened the vestments and collected the helmet from where it fell, a pool of blood swilling around the bottom. He walked through the kneeling figures, many dipping fingers into the helmet to anoint themselves in the hope of becoming gods.

But Josheb knew the truth. He had collected the vestments to assume the responsibility of scouring them for tomorrow’s doula. Normally this task was left until morning, when the rust of the previous night had set into the fabric.

But Josheb knew the truth. 

This blood must be washed out tonight. It was not worthy to stain his doula garb. 

August 06, 2022 02:33

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2 comments

Debra Porter
03:30 Aug 11, 2022

This was fascinating and frightening at the same time. Your word choices were excellent and flowed beautifully. What an interesting way to interpret the topic. Excellent story.

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Yves. ♙
18:09 Aug 08, 2022

Clearly we have AMAZING competition here. It takes no small amount of skill to fit this much story, and this many elements, into such a small space, and yet you not only did so but made that plot shine with a clear opening, build-up, climax, and resolution. I felt satisfied in a way I rarely do when I finished reading, because everything had worked perfectly in harmony. And, of course, I have to specifically shout out not just your butter-smooth syntax but specifically your descriptive powers, which were on point in every single paragraph. I...

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