A botched baptism left her with facial scarring, but god always took care of the faithful. She believed that, even as her brother ran off and became a heretical terrorist. When she accidentally commits blasphemy by modifying one of god’s helper machines she finds herself on the run in search of a place where she can simply be left to her own devices…
(reading time: 1 hour, 8 minutes)
Born-again Birth Defect
Humans walked a dark Earth for thousands of years. They were ravaged by disease, the teeth of great shadow beasts, and the cogs of their own societal machinery. When their suffering was sufficient it moved Honweh, almighty god, to reveal himself. He descended to the plane of man and brought with him astonishing gifts to prove his divinity: magnetism to pull the metals of the Earth, coalfire and steam to drive winter’s bite away, trapped lightning to immolate the dark predators and the nightmares, mirrors so man could see his own soul, and plastic to coat the works of man and starve out the diseases that dwelled on Earth’s moist surfaces.
Honweh also brought with him his great justice that organized the races and creeds of humanity. All were united in worship of him. Honweh guided this adoration like an artist guiding a paintbrush and built incredible cities of bronze, brass, and lead. As his concern for the humans grew, Honweh made the decision to move his Ancyclopedrae, his book of immutable records, to Earth along with his other belongings, making Earth his home.
And so he remains, ruling the kingdom of man with kindness, wisdom, and discipline.
-First Summation, Honweh’s Glory
Two children played in the sewers beneath the city of Promenth. These were not the sewers for waste and runoff, which would not be suitable for habitation, but the second set, for Promenth’s used holy water and other fluids blessed by Honweh and his disciples the Reverden. Blessings did not hold long in the liquids of Earth, so it was best to wash them away before they could be used in heretical ceremonies or misguided attempts to fertilize a year’s crops.
These sewers were the home of Promenth’s lowest classes of people and contained mostly struggling artisans and clerical workers. Their homes were makeshift structures built into the large bronze and copper basins of the sewers. Down there they were free from taxation, but also the sun’s warmth.
The children played in a narrow pipe, getting their finest Sunday clothes all wet in the exact manner their mother had warned them not to. They were brother and sister, united in their efforts to catch sewer frogs and then release them back into the water that had lost most traces of its blessing. The girl was the younger of the two at only seven years old; her name was Greta Tihder and she was wearing a light blue ruffled dress with little yellow shoes that clicked and banged on the metal grates near the pipe’s flow. Her older brother Gerrot was eleven. He wore a gray suit with sleeves that were a little too short. At the moment he had his shirt unbuttoned and a small frog was trying to hop its way out of his shirt pocket.
Gerrot estimated they only had time for three or four more frogs before their mother called them back for the ceremony. Today was to be their baptism, accounting for the itchy hand-me-down attire that restricted their antics. Normally parents waited until children turned thirteen to soak them in Honweh’s water so they could be born again under his wing. It represented the transition from innocent childhood into the responsibility of adulthood. After they were brought to god’s attention by being showered in his blessings, it would become their duty to worship. They could no longer rely on his natural affinity for the planet’s younger things and would have to earn his love with faith, labor, and tithes. Gerrot and Greta were to receive theirs earlier because someone in town had supposedly gotten their hands on some very pure holy water that had spent almost no time in the sewers. A stronger blessing could mean that Honweh would pay more attention to them, so it made sense to bless as many children as they could that day. The poor laborers and attendants of the sewers had no chance of purchasing holy water from a genuine Reverden, so these recycled supplies were the best they could afford their progeny. A baptism was essential if you ever wanted a chance to move out of the sewer and into the city. If you were not a child of Honweh, you were not above livestock to the people of the sky-scratching towers above.
An object dropped from an opening over their heads. A rush of water came with it and scared all the frogs away. Gerrot took one look at the object bobbing up and down in the water and then released the frog in his pocket. He ran over and bent down to fish the thing out.
“What is it?” Greta asked.
“It’s a fish,” Gerrot grunted as he stood back up. In his hands was a clear plastic bag knotted at the top and filled with water. A black and orange splotched fish swam in small circles inside the bag.
“How’d he get in there?” Greta queried further.
“Somebody put him in there dummy,” Gerrot explained. “It’s a pet. Mom says you can win fish in bags like this at carnivals. He’s ours now.” Gerrot tucked the bag under his jacket and hunched over to see how much he could hide its silhouette, which made his sleeves appear even shorter.
“But we didn’t win anything,” Greta said. “Mom and Dad won’t let us have a pet.”
“Which is why you’re not going to say anything, okay?”
“I don’t like lying.”
“If you don’t lie, nobody will take care of the fish and he’ll die.”
“Kids! Come on back!” a voice echoed down the pipe. It was their father calling them in. Greta, still very uncertain what to do about the fish, turned and skipped towards the voice. She didn’t hear the sound of her brother behind her.
“Are you coming?” she asked.
“I’ll catch up,” Gerrot said and waved her away.
“Maybe if we name the fish ‘Nofish’, we don’t have to lie,” Greta suggested. “If mom asks if we have a fish we say ‘Nofish’. That’ll work right?”
“Sure whatever. Just go catch up to Dad or he’ll get mad at us,” Gerrot said. Greta turned and skipped around the bend, leaving Gerrot alone. He pulled the fish out once more and held it up. Blessed water naturally generated light, so he could see the little creature very clearly. If he squeezed, the bag would pop, the fish would fall, and it would suffocate on the grate. He had the power to end the fish’s life in so many ways. His fingers tightened on the plastic and he saw lines of stress appear on its surface. The fish swam in faster circles as its only recourse.
“Don’t worry Nofish, I’m a kind god,” Gerrot comforted it. His grip loosened. “I won’t let you down.” He returned the bag to the safety of his jacket and took off running down the pipe, in the opposite direction of his family.
The baptisms were normally held inside the church, but because so many children were on the list today the ceremony was moved outside to a public basin and onto a sunken stage normally reserved for theatre troupes and water puppetry. The stage was circular, surrounded by four tiers of seating, and flooded with three inches of water. The area was completely packed with bodies shuffling, smiling, and nudging each other. Proud mothers performed last minute touches on their children’s outfits. Greta, third in line, looked around apprehensively. There was still no sign of Gerrot or her father who had taken off looking for him. Greta’s mother stood in the second row of seating, tears of pride in her eyes.
Greta had removed her shoes with the rest of the children before stepping down into the stage. She wiggled her tiny white toes in the cool water. While she was busy bending down to clean some shiny metal flecks out from under her toenails, the holy water arrived. Two teenage boys in blue robes carried it up to the altar inside a glass bottle that was a meter long and topped with a metal figurine. The little statue was a sewer angel, a sort of patron saint to the people of the pipes; its wings were more like the fins of fish and its halo dripped with moisture. The two boys hefted it up to the altar and placed it in a metal holder that angled the top of the bottle down.
“There it is,” Egan the lucky declared to the crowd, hands stretched towards the cavernously high hammered copper ceiling of the basin. Everyone quickly hushed so that all you could hear were the drops of water falling from the rusticles above. “These children,” he opined while walking along the line and occasionally touching a cheek, “will truly be our greatest generation.” Egan the lucky was not a sanctioned Reverden, but his father who lived in the city above was. He often told the people of the basin how he felt unlucky when he was banished to the sewers for covetousness, but now he was convinced it was a stroke of good luck because it allowed him to preach the perfection of Honweh to the city’s discarded denizens. Having been raised under Honweh’s sun, he was obviously the most qualified to run the basin’s religious services and to perform things like baptisms and weddings. He was in his upper fifties and disguised his bad posture and flabby physique in a robe with a plush and ornately patterned hood that looked like a python constricting a lion’s mane. Around his neck he wore a heavy lead pendant of two hands cradling the Earth, not unlike the way Gerrot had held the stressed plastic of Nofish’s bag. It was the official symbol of Honweh. “Let us begin, while the waters remain p…”
“Let me go!” a child’s voice interrupted Egan. It and the sounds of splashing turned everyone’s heads. Greta’s father was wrestling Gerrot to the back of the line by his shoulders. “I don’t want to do it!” Gerrot howled. Their father must have squeezed very hard, because Gerrot shut down and bowed his head. Greta leaned down and saw his face turn a pale purple.
“You shut your mouth and accept the blessing,” their father growled in his ear. “It’s for your own good.” Greta had never seen her father be so rough. She looked back at the holy water bottle and wondered why her brother was so upset. The liquid was clear… there was an angel on top… what could be wrong with it? “I’m sorry Egan, please continue,” their father said. He did not release Gerrot’s shoulders and stood in line with him for the duration of the ceremony.
The first two baptisms went very well. The children stepped up to the bottle and kneeled down if the mouth of it was too low. Then Egan twisted the sewer angel and a stream of liquid poured out of her halo and onto their faces. It was just enough to thoroughly wet their hair and make Greta wonder if it would be inappropriate to hold her nose. Holy or not, she didn’t want anything flowing up her nose.
“You’re next little lady,” Egan said to Greta with an outstretched hand. She stepped up to the bottle and looked at her mother. She smiled. She looked at her father. He smiled. She looked to Gerrot. His head was cast so far down that she couldn’t see his eyes. She could see his feet in the shallow water, still encased in sopping shoes.
“Do I close my eyes?” Greta asked Egan quietly.
“Yes,” he replied softly. “You don’t want to be blinded by the light of god. Hold your breath too. It’ll only take a second.”
“Okay,” Greta said and took a deep breath. She tried not to puff out her cheeks so she wouldn’t look silly. Egan twisted the nozzle and released the waters. It felt normal at first, just like swimming in a pool and having your head break the water’s surface. Then it started to burn. Greta pressed her hands to her face and shrieked as red steam emanated from between her fingers. It didn’t burn everywhere, just certain seemingly arbitrary lines: in small slashes on her lips, long swoops across her cheeks, an arc on her forehead, and in her eyes. The most excruciating pain was in her eyes. It felt as if she remained on Earth but her eyes had fallen out of her head and rolled across the scalding rocks of the underworld. She was certain that if she ever opened them again she would only see hellfire and grinning demons.
She sobbed hot tears, fell over, splashed into the water, and curled up like a small lizard being electrocuted to death. She did not want to be a child of god.
twelve years later
The basin marketplace was full of life on that Saturday morning; the freshest and most temperamental seasonal crops from the furthest reaches of the sewer had come in the night before. There were huge white water radishes with their lily pad-like stems, sweet marsh grasses, barrels of live fish and crawclaws, and cushion-sized steamed mussels displayed in their own shells. Every stand had a cloud of grabbing hands in front of it, all the jostling and bumping made worse by the large wire baskets all the women held.
Greta kept her distance. She always waited until the clamor died down. Her parents didn’t need the largest or freshest ingredients anyway; they always tacitly accepted whatever she cooked. Besides, there were lots of visitors from other basins milling about and she didn’t want to frighten any of them. She pulled her cream-colored hood a little further over her face and then adjusted her spectacles. Thick enough to be telescope lenses that could see the sun’s distant relatives who never wrote, Greta had needed the glasses since her baptism. Without them the world was a whitish blur, like that first bright blast of a firework before all the colors rain down.
Something bumped into her, almost making her drop her basket. She turned to see a Droidil hovering by. The machine turned in the air and looked at her. She’d found them quite frightening when they first started showing up in the sewers five years ago, but their unwavering politeness quickly won her over.
“I must apologize young lady,” the Droidil said in a voice like an echoing frog croak. “I did not see you there.” Droidils were the only speaking things that ever called her young lady. The sterile compliment stung, but Greta hid her feelings well.
“That’s alright,” she said. She stared into its one large eye that looked like a whale peeking through a ship’s porthole. Its mantle rose above its eye like the back of an armchair, inflating and deflating rhythmically. Its six plastic tentacles hung in coils below the eye and were tipped with the various instruments it needed to perform its duties. Two of them were carrying a wire basket like hers. No part of it touched the ground. They were another marvelous gift to mankind from Honweh. He’d built them from plastic and piping and then breathed reasonable intelligence but very little life into them, creating obedient servants. Only the surface dwellers had received them initially, but over time stolen ones, broken ones, and strays made their way into the pipes where they were re-purposed and sold. The Droidil excused itself and went about its business.
“Did you hear what that Harratix fellow has done now?” Greta overheard someone say.
“No, what?” another voice replied.
“He’s blown up a post office on the surface! Mailed the bomb there he did! I can’t imagine why the workers didn’t catch it. Did they think a ticking box meant someone had gone and mailed a clock?”
“It makes you wonder why Honweh doesn’t just smite him.”
“Even if he blew up ten post offices, he wouldn’t be important enough to draw the almighty’s attention. He has bigger concerns! It’s not his fault if people abuse the freedoms he gives us. We need to remember he protects our spirits, not our bodies or the letters we send.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
Greta ignored the rest of the conversation and went over her shopping list in her head. Let’s see, she thought. Skinned watermoles for the stew, dried fingerlings for father, buorangs to keep scurvy at bay… She walked along the stalls quietly, bouncing her basket on her knee. The crowds would thin in about ten minutes and then she could get what she needed. After that it was back home to cook dinner. Then she would sponge the floor, which would be followed by some relaxation time where she could read Honweh’s Glory. She still had to go over the questions Egan had assigned for that week’s spiritual classes.
Like Egan discovering the ‘luck’ of his banishment, Greta too had come to appreciate the routine her baptism forced on her. All of the important decisions were already made. She would stay with her parents and inherit their home after they passed. Until that day she would do her share of chores, worship regularly, and work part time cleaning Droidils. As for a husband…
Greta reached out to grab a tin of salted fish when a young man’s hand touched hers.
“After you,” he said, pulling his hand back and smiling at her. Greta grabbed the tin quickly, placed it in her basket, and offered a mouse squeak of a thanks before trying to scurry away. “Hold on,” the young man said, tapping her on the shoulder. “I’m not from around here and this place is proving a little intimidating. Would you mind… showing me around perhaps?”
Greta turned and pulled back her hood, giving him a full look. Her glasses were fogged from her own breath and her hair was flattened by the hood. Two hands holding the planet, the emblem of Honweh, was scarred into her face. The lines of the interlacing fingers had become cuts in her lips that revealed her gums. The fingertips made her nose look like a piece of cheese nibbled on by rats. The top of the Earth was a deep red line in her forehead that created wrinkles that should not have shown up until she was an old woman. Greta’s teeth were beautiful, white, and straight, but no one ever got to see those. She thought it might traumatize people to see her face smiling, or it might induce nightmares of cackling goblins. So she just looked at him with an apologetic expression. She had tried to avoid showing him.
“Oh… I’m sorry,” he sputtered. His hand rose instinctively to cover his mouth, but he at least had the presence of mind to stop it halfway there and lower it again. Greta turned away and went back to her shopping. Did I pick up the buorangs yet? She wondered, digging through her basket. With all of her obligations, there was no time for a husband anyway.
Later that evening Greta was in the middle of her shift at Richard’s Scrub and Wash. She wore a rubber suit and long-sleeved blue rubber gloves to protect her from the muck she removed from the droidils. The droidil washing bay was back behind the building on a grate overlooking a reservoir. The wall was lined with thick brown hoses, each with plenty of small leaks. Six droidils were lined up in front of her, hovering but dormant. Their eyes would remain gray and lifeless until their owners came to claim them. Greta scrubbed foamy circles into the back panel of one as hard as she could in an effort to remove pink lines of mold in its seams. She bent over, ignored the pain in her lower back, and soaked the brush in her bucket of soap once more. She pulled one of the tentacles up near her face and scrubbed the small shears it was tipped with. It must have been used by one of the local water vegetable farmers because it also had a spade, an insecticide sprayer, and a small harvesting bag.
“I could get you your own droidil,” a voice offered from behind her. Greta recognized the voice even though she hadn’t heard it in a few years. If it was anyone else she would have turned around and politely told them only employees of Richard’s fine cleaning establishment were allowed back there. Instead she just kept scrubbing the shears.
“Oh my, what have I done to warrant a visit from the terrorist Harratix Tihder?” she asked, her voice bleeding sarcasm. She took orders from anyone who gave them, except for him. She felt a little thrill since she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this rude to someone.
“You can still call me Gerrot,” Harratix said. “I didn’t stop being your brother.”
“You left. What would you call that?” she asked.
“I didn’t leave. I escaped. Besides, you know I had to take the worst part with me,” he reasoned. Greta finally turned to see what had become of her brother. He was wearing a waterproof coat the color of a dusty old brass horn; she could see the tip of a scabbard hanging out from under the bottom of it. His face still bore the same scars hers did.
After Greta had been burned by the holy water and taken away to heal, it was decided to continue the ceremony. These things happened sometimes. So the rest of the children in line were kept there by their parents and brought up one by one. In total, four children that day wound up with the mark on their face.
“What did you mean when you said you could get me a droidil?” Greta asked flatly, not letting her brother see any emotion. “Would you steal me one?”
“No you’d have to steal it, but I could make it listen to you.”
“I wouldn’t steal anything,” she shot back. She felt just like she did the day of the baptism, telling him she didn’t want to lie about Nofish.
“Stealing is a matter of perspective. If everything belongs to Honweh, all you’re really doing is moving it without permission.”
“Word games are the last resort of devils when they have righteous spears to their throats,” Greta quoted.
“Keeping up with your scripture I see,” Harratix said. “Have you learned anything new from it? Figured out why he marked us have you?”
“The mark is a blessing,” Greta insisted. She dunked her brush into the bucket and dollops of foam flew everywhere. Then she went back to scrubbing the droidil’s back even though she had cleaned that spot already. “It’s the same as everyone else’s baptism; Egan just didn’t have the official training. He was like an old man painting; sometimes the brush shakes in his hand.”
“You’ve painted a false picture yourself,” Harratix said. “I’ve learned the truth. On the surface. What happened to us is called a born-again birth defect. Improper holy water or application can cause it. The blessing bounces off… burns away.”
“You’re lying,” Greta cried. She rubbed her eyes on her sleeve to get rid of the tears, but suddenly felt the sting of soap. Her glasses fell off, but she just went back to scrubbing and sniffling.
“Don’t cry,” her brother consoled. “It’s a good thing. We were never truly blessed, so Honweh doesn’t see us. He can only track his true children. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Greta did not think it was wonderful. Far from it, she was horrified. Was it true? Was every single prayer she uttered since her baptism nothing more than breath? Was all her anguish for nothing? She’d always been able to deal with her mark when it had a point. It was a sign that Honweh had a spot for her. That spot was as an obedient and helpful daughter who spent much time reflecting on the almighty’s wonderful creations. Men had to look past her, because her spot was just out of their field of view. What was her spot now if her brother spoke the truth? A moldering splotch on a collapsing gourd… a grave she’d dug and knelt in for years.
“Why are you here?” she asked with impotent anger.
“To see my sister,” Harratix said. “To convince her to come with me.”
“To the surface. You have no idea how much the sun enriches you… it’s far greater than Honweh’s books and Egan’s gnarled, foolish, old hand on your shoulder.”
“Honweh made the sun too.”
“You’re insane. Of course he did,” Greta snapped. “Why would I go with you? I’ve heard everything you’ve done. You’re the charred morbid part of the grapevine everywhere I go. Bombs here. Murders there. How dark is your soul now Gerrot? Do you sleepwalk into banks and rob them? Huh? Why are you doing all this?”
“I’m doing it because Honweh is a liar,” Harratix snarled. His fists tightened and he approached his sister. She recoiled a little when he was just inches away. For a brief moment she thought he might strike her. Gerrot always did have a little more color in his cheeks than was healthy. His expressions softened when he saw her fear. “He’s a liar. He doesn’t care about anything other than being worshipped.”
“He raised us from the darkness,” Greta whispered. She pulled off her gloves and placed her hands flat on her brother’s chest.
“Maybe,” Harratix said and embraced her. “There’s so much he keeps from us. Why the book? If he is all powerful, why does he keep a book of records? Can’t he remember it? I’m going to find the truth.”
“Why do you need swords and bombs to find it?” Greta asked pleadingly.
“Do you remember what father said after the baptism, when he decided to let me keep Nofish?”
“Yes. He said you deserved it for becoming a man in Honweh’s eyes. That you might understand Honweh’s burden when you cared for a living thing yourself.”
“That’s it dear sister. A man in his eyes. I won’t be that. I must be a man in my own eyes. I’m not blessed, and I don’t need to be. Nobody does. It’s just to bring you in line. Dull you. Make you another feather in the headdress. They won’t listen to words… but they can’t ignore it when their headdress is on fire.”
“I can’t go with you,” Greta said. “I won’t do those things.”
“I figured you wouldn’t. At least let me show you something. It will help you to leave if you ever decide to.”
“Okay,” Greta said, backing up and allowing her brother to move. Harratix approached the freshly scrubbed back of the droidil and pulled a wood-handled screwdriver from his jacket. He gently forced its edge into the back panel’s seam and popped it open. Greta had cleaned hundreds of droidils, but never seen one’s inner workings. Mostly it was a jumble of dull gray tubes all connected to a white plastic cylinder suspended in the center of the cavity. The cylinder had an insignia painted on it that looked like a drop of blood wreathed with lightning. Harratix pointed at the cylinder.
“That’s the power source,” he said. “If you removed it, the droidil would crash to the ground and cease to function. All you need to do to remove it is slide the top and bottom panels counterclockwise.”
“I don’t understand,” Greta said, “How is plastic a power source?”
“The cylinder is hollow. The power comes from what’s inside. A life not lived.”
“What do you mean?”
“A miscarried child.”
“No,” Greta denied. Her lower lip curled in out of horror. There’s no way I’ve been scrubbing infant coffins this whole time, she thought. “Honweh would not do this to one of his children.”
“Honweh is a caretaker, not a father,” Harratix said. “He does not feel our pain. Why do you think it’s considered heresy to open one of these?”
“I didn’t know that,” Greta admitted. Suddenly she felt like she’d just knocked a large glass antique over and the sound of its shattering had drawn the gaze of a thousand eyes. “Please, close it back up.”
“Very well,” Harratix conceded, his mission accomplished. She had only needed to see inside it. He picked the panel up off the grate and popped it back into place. Greta stuck her face up to it and analyzed the seams to make sure he hadn’t left a mark.
“How does this help me leave?” she asked, trying not to think of the human sprouts that may or may not have been inside the droidils.
“If you empty the cylinder and place a small animal inside, alive or dead, the droidil will become yours. It will obey all your orders and fight to protect you, something very valuable for people who have just left their homes beneath the rest of the world’s toilets. Depending on the animal you put inside, it will experience a few hiccups. Furry things work the best and wind up the smartest, bugs barely work at all.”
“That’s horrible,” Greta groaned. The whole thing sounded like just the kind of pagan ritual she’d always been taught to avoid in school. Never trust a person who finger paints with entrails, Egan had always said. Besides, there was no way she could ever… empty… a droidil if it contained what Harratix claimed. The sight of such things would surely make her faint.
The siblings hit a moment of silence. They both felt the collision of their two worlds, like two bubbles that could merge but wouldn’t out of fear of popping entirely. He couldn’t convince her to come with him and she couldn’t convince him to seek forgiveness. Harratix turned to leave.
“I guess Nofish probably died a few years ago,” Greta blurted out as her brother was almost through the door. She had no idea why their pet had come to mind. On the night Gerrot disappeared, he had taken the fish with him and hadn’t left so much as a note.
“He’s still here,” Harratix said. “Even he loves the sun.” With that, her brother the terrorist was gone. Her head filled with all the dripping sounds of the hoses. It was a tad disappointing to pick up the soap bucket again…
eight months later
Things for the both of them had intensified as time passed. Harratix’s name grew more infamous; much of the recycled paper the people of the sewers used had pieces of his face left on them because of how many wanted posters were in the mix now. The Reverden had released an official decree, straight from Honweh, that Harratix was in league with demons that sought to separate man from god. This decree was easy to believe for Greta given what else she’d heard about her brother in recent months: he had torched a religious boarding school and kidnapped twelve of its students, he’d forged medical documents that allowed members of the poorest classes to imitate wealthier citizens, and he had spread false rumors of an impending world flood that Honweh planned to use to cleanse the planet of humans.
Greta on the other hand had grown even more reclusive and regimented. She had told Egan of her brother’s visit during a confessional session and he had advised her to double her spiritual efforts to ward off any demons that may have tried to transfer to her during the encounter. Everywhere she went she now carried her ragged copy of Honweh’s Glory. Once she had read up on the exceedingly complex deception tactics of demons, she was again comfortable washing the droidils. Her brother had been forced to lie about their contents in order to corrupt her. Honweh would not recycle the bodies of babies to make servants for the wealthy. It’s insane I even entertained that horror, she frequently told herself.
Her parents didn’t need to hear about the visit. They’d built an icy barrier around the memories of their son and while they were not terrible human beings, their hearts were not warm enough to melt that barrier. They had no son. Everyone who thought so was just confused. Their only child was actually a daughter, and she was such a help now that her dear father had become crippled. Two months ago he had gotten his leg caught in a small drain and the suction had nearly severed it from his body. Now it hung off his side, greenish and cold. His mother kept it wrapped in bandages and both Greta and her held their hands over it and prayed daily for Honweh to heal him. Until that happened though, Greta had some of her father’s responsibilities to shoulder. In order to maintain her job, her chores, and her spiritual studies, Greta was now only getting five hours of sleep every night. The dark circles under her eyes didn’t bother her because her glasses and scars obscured them. Things could have continued this way for her indefinitely if not for one more discarded gift from the surface.
The droidil washing bay was absolutely packed with idle machines. There was a massive agricultural project going on in the basin where tons of sand and silt were being removed from filters around the sewer and transported to a dryer section to be used as soil. Most of the town’s droidils had been rented to handle the labor, so now Greta needed to get the resulting mud off of thirty machines in one evening. Only about a third of the way through, she started getting fatigued. Strands of her hair were glued to her forehead with perspiration. There were solid black stripes of muck under all her fingernails. She was scraping a dried blob of chewing gum off a general labor unit, with hand-like grabbers tipping all of its tentacles, when she heard a splash. She twisted the nozzle of the dripping hose in her left hand and listened carefully. For a moment she could only hear the flow of the large pipe the washing bay fed into and the usual plink plonk of dripping fixtures.
Meeeey. Greta looked around for the source of the sound. Meeeeeeeey. Hearing it twice moved her to tears. It was the most pathetic and desperate thing she’d ever heard, like… like… Like a life not lived, Greta suddenly thought. Meeey. It was getting weaker and softer. Greta dropped the hose and got down on all fours to look through the holes in the grate. Sometimes debris from the pipe got stuck under there. At first it all looked like the usual garbage: disposable plastic hymn cards, massive moss-like patches of mold, shattered glass bottles, and the occasional green and black salamander. Meey. One of Greta’s tears fell through a grate hole and hit the source of the mewling on the forehead. It cried out one last time as if a hammer had just dropped on it. Mey.
If the creature had had the strength to look her in the eyes, Greta’s heart might have broken so completely that only a softly beating pile of dust would be left. The source of the sound was a black and white kitten that could not have been more than two weeks old. Its drenched fur clung to its limbs. Its paws kneaded the air weakly while the rest of it was deathly still. Its tiny body was being forced deeper into a brownish pile of muck by the pipe’s current. Greta watched one of its little white spots vanish into the filth.
“Oh dear god,” she said aloud and ripped her heavy rubber apron off. She ran to the edge of the grate and threw herself into the water. It was cold but bright, the way fading holy water always was. Some of the bubbles from her nose rolled up her face with a tingling sensation. The sound of the running water surrounded her as she swam under the grate and everything became spotted with shadow. The water was shallow enough for her to walk, but her feet slipped several times on the scum. “I’m coming baby,” she called out to the kitten. “I’m coming for you!”
By the time she squeezed herself into the tight space between the grate and the pile of pipe waste, coating her underclothes in a putrid layer of green and brown, the poor creature had one half of its face buried. She pressed her own back into the filth to stay steady and had to tilt her head because of the grate. This allowed her to gently raise the creature and cradle it against her chest. Its mouth opened and closed a little. I changed my mind, she thought. I want to hear the sound again. Please baby… please make the sound. Its eyes closed but its labored breathing did not stop.
“No, don’t go to sleep,” she begged. “You’re so little… I know you think you can dream the pain away but you can’t. Stay awake baby… stay awake.” Greta wished she had a little pill of sunshine she could force into the kitten’s mouth or slip under its eyelids, for that was the one thing her brother had said that she believed in: the healing power of the sun. Alas, they were more than a kilometer underground. She had no money to pay a veterinarian and no time to get the creature to one. It’s a tragedy, she thought. The word repeated in her head, coming more frequently than the kitten’s breath. Tragedy tragedy tragedy. It echoed in her soul. Agedy agedy. Then there was only a little of the word left. Edy. She’d named the cat in its final moments. His name is Eddy.
Suddenly she gripped Eddy closer to her chest and used her other arm to pull herself along the grate. It took all her effort to keep Eddy’s head above the water. He had a name. That changed everything. Things with names had souls. Things with names all have the same name: mercy. They all ask for it. They all repeat it to the sky in hope, a hope that the forces will be gentle with them.
Greta knew mercy. She’d read the stories and envisioned the kindness. It was her duty, one of the pillars surrounding her spot in the eyes of Honweh to show mercy. It didn’t matter what rule she broke or whose property she ruined, because this is what a truly loving god would want. When the time came, she could just explain how Honweh had demanded it of her.
Once she had forced her way back onto the cleaning bay she approached the droidil she’d just finished cleaning and picked up her scrub brush. She forced the mold scraper on its handle into the seam of the droidil’s back panel and popped it open. Then she set the kitten delicately on the ground nearby, hoping she would hear a noise of protest but only receiving silence. She twisted the top and bottom off the machine’s central canister to separate it from the rest of the tubes and then looked at the red insignia. The droidil body bobbed in the air a few times until its tentacles went limp and it hit the metal. She had to open it. She had to, but she didn’t have to look. Greta stepped back to the edge of the grate overlooking the water and closed her eyes tightly. Then she lifted the lid on the canister and turned it over. She heard something hit the water. Whatever it was it didn’t make a heavy sound like a stone; it was… messier. Greta opened her eyes, but the contents had already floated away. She hurried back to the droidil.
“Eddy?” she sniveled, face close to the kitten’s. He did not respond. She placed two fingers on his chest and felt no heartbeat. “No, no, no…” she cried and gently lifted the little body. It was just small enough to fit into the canister. She lowered Eddy delicately and looked at his face one last time. If he survived, that face would be replaced by one mechanical lens. The pitter patter of paws would become the gentle hum of a fan. Will it be much of a life at all? She wondered. “I’m sorry Eddy,” she said before twisting the top of the canister back into place.
She quickly returned the canister to the droidil and closed the back panel. After a moment the droidil raised itself back into the air, although it held its mantle at an odd angle. It spun slowly for a minute and made a few stuttering low noises. Greta was afraid that touching it might send it flying off some predetermined path and smash it into a wall. Its rotation came to a stop, facing her. Its eye was still a blank gray, but the mantle mostly straightened itself out. The tentacles coiled up close to the body.
“Eddy?” she asked again. The eye bloomed into a yellow circle with golden stripes. A pupil appeared and stretched towards the top and bottom of the lens, becoming very cat-like. It turned its head back and forth, pupil dilating with every object it focused on. It raised one claw-tipped tentacle and analyzed the limb. Once it lowered the limb it stared emptily for a moment before focusing back on Greta. It floated towards her. She instinctively took a step back, but the droidil kept coming. It bumped into her chest gently and stayed there. Unsure what to do, Greta wrapped her arms around the mantle and hugged it.
“It’s alright,” she cooed. “You’re alright now.” As the embrace continued she looked at the other idle machines all covered in filth. Then she looked at the one rubbing against her, all white and sparkling. Anointed, she thought. I baptized Eddy. Saved his soul.
The droidil backed up to look into its savior’s eyes. They both looked at each other through thick lenses. Although his life had been extremely short, Eddy was suddenly sure he would never see anything so beautiful as Greta Tihder’s scorched face.
“My name is Eddy?” he asked her, voice soft and airy like a pan flute.
“Yes,” Greta said with a smile. She put her hand on Eddy’s mantle, which she imagined would correspond to a kitten’s forehead, and rubbed gently.
“I… am no longer a cat?”
“Well, I guess you still are. You just need this shell.”
“What happened to me?”
“I’m not sure. You nearly drowned. You must have fallen into a drain somewhere or…” she stopped talking. Or been thrown away, she finished in her head. “I put you in there to make you better.”
“You saved me,” Eddy said and rubbed up against her once again.
“Everyone deserves to live their life,” she said and felt a twinge of pain in her heart. Her dream of the sun momentarily escaped her imagination and burned inside her chest. How long would that ball of light bounce around inside her and cause such random upheavals?
“I will live my life with you,” Eddy stated. He said it the same way someone might say that the next spring was bound to be the fairest and most flower-filled one yet. Greta swallowed hard. She looked at the other droidils. Her responsibilities came flooding back in.
“Your shell doesn’t belong to me,” Greta said. I’ve ruined someone’s servant. Someone’s property, she thought. “I… I’m going to be in so much trouble.”
“I will protect you,” Eddy said resolutely. He hovered a little higher and scanned the room, looking for the trouble.
“You can’t. It’s not like that… Oh, what am I going to do? I could go to prison. This is theft!” Panic welled up inside her and her breathing became loud and shallow. Never. I’ve never done anything this wrong before, she thought. Her initial certainty that she could explain Eddy away as an order of mercy from Honweh had faded. After all, Honweh was not there to confirm her story. Greta thought of going to her parents, but was disturbed by the lack of hope in that option. She knew her parents loved her, but they had loved Gerrot as well until he became a criminal. At the very least she would lose her job. Without that income her family would have nothing until her father’s leg healed. If it heals, she thought. Panic turned into shame and more fat tears. The path before her, distinguished by a single line of footprints that had been walked by countless prior girls, was now a spinning dust devil. The way forward seemed to vanish in front of her.
“Everything is ruined,” she sobbed.
“I will fix it,” Eddy said, lowering himself back down and nuzzling her chin with a plastic flap.
“You can’t Eddy. It’s a human problem. I broke the law! I’ll be disowned. I’ve failed Honweh. I’ll never get to see the sun.”
“The sun!” Eddy exclaimed. He did a flip in the air. “I’ve seen it. The sun will fix your sadness? I will take you there!” Eddy reached out two tentacles and wrapped them around her shoulders. The other pair wound tightly around her waist. Before she had time to shout, her feet lifted off the ground. As they ascended further she saw her boss Richard open the door to the washing bay and look up at them. He shouted something. The shock of flight, which to most people would be exciting but felt to Greta like she was plummeting into heaven for her punishment, combined with being caught red-handed stealing a droidil caused her to faint.
The holy sewers were very confusing, especially so for Eddy; he was too excited about showing Greta the sun to bother making a mental map or marking pathways he’d already ventured through. They encountered ten dead ends, three of them twice. One of the pipes was so narrow that Greta would have had an attack of claustrophobia if she had been awake. Instead Eddy pulled them through the dry tube quietly, most of the spider webs gathering on his mantle.
At one point Eddy burst through a manhole cover in another basin town and startled the passersby. One of them shot at him with a plastic pistol. Frightened, Eddy smashed into the awning of a tool shop and sent scraps of cloth and wood flying in every direction. He did his best to keep the unconscious Greta out of the debris and escaped by once again shooting straight up towards the basin’s roof.
After about four hours of labyrinthine but generally vertical travel, Eddy found a hatch to the surface. A human would not have had the strength to open it single-handedly, but it only took one of Eddy’s tentacles to lift it. The great brass circle fell over and slammed onto the floor. Eddy pulled Greta through. They were in an abandoned church. The drain was at the center of a shallow anointing pool used to bless livestock and equipment, but it hadn’t seen water in years. Eddy gently set her head on the blue-tiled edge and floated off in search of a cushion. There was a great bullet-shaped window before her. It had once held glistening stained glass full of green and yellow leaves, but it had been shattered so that only a few jagged fragments remained.
The sun’s light poured through the opening and filled the pool. Greta bathed in it for several minutes, the warmth bringing her back to consciousness. She moved her fingertips as if twine was wound between them. I feel something, she thought. What is that? After a few minutes of recovery and watching flecks of dust dance in the rays of light, Greta realized it was just the sun she felt on her fingers. The whimsical urge to gather those rays and weave them into a warming blanket for her recovering father hit her.
She would not see her father again. Though her portal was nothing more than a circle of metal, Greta was in another world and already profoundly addicted. No matter how she worried about her parents, nothing could tear her from the sun. It could burn her a hundred times and she would always come back. It was a thing both great and indifferent, which Greta had never fully conceived of before. Everything below was the will of Honweh: mysterious, enigmatic, but purposeful. The sun was so wild in comparison, bearing no shadows at all. Greta took off her glasses and let the light blur everything. A few more motionless moments convinced her she had been dissolved and absorbed into the light itself. Can Honweh see me now? She wondered. Or does he need glasses?
two years later
“Eddy, wait up,” Greta called after her droidil. His attention span was short, but he rarely bolted away from her like that. She skipped between the pools of stagnant water in the cobblestone street in order to protect her skirt and shoes. Clothing without stains was exceptionally hard to come by as an undocumented girl from the sewer, so she was always careful. If she was lucky she could snag two or three outfits from a charity drive every six months or so. A boutique was out of the question as they would surely ask her for a P3: a portable plastic portrait. They showed every surface citizen’s face as a series of miniature bumps on a white plastic card, but you could only get one made with a valid birth certificate and a seal from the Reverden.
Eddy’s shadow flitted down an alley. The street sloped downward aggressively, streams of water running along the edges. Promenth had been terrorized by a bellowing thunderstorm for the last two days, and only now did the sun begin to scratch through the overcast skies. Greta had spent most of those days hiding under a rug in the custodian’s closet at the library where she volunteered. She couldn’t get paid without a P3, but volunteers for mostly abandoned public services were rarely investigated. So while she spent her days acting like an upstanding citizen, her nights had her rotating between cozy hiding spots and locating food money any way she could: checking prayer wells, gathering glass and aluminum for reuse, and handing out advertisement flyers for local businesses. It was just enough to get by and it was a damn good thing Eddy didn’t need to eat.
So what the devil is he chasing? She wondered. She stopped for a second as a pure ray of sun broke through the clouds and touched her. She closed her eyes, angled her face up into it, and breathed deeply. Sometimes she swore that was the only nourishment she needed.
A hissing sound drew her attention, so she broke away from the spot of warmth and followed it around the back of a butcher shop. The alley was empty except for several garbage cans overflowing with fat trimmings and bone fragments. A few cats ran past her and kept going, glad to escape the horror that had cornered a few of their friends.
Eddy had all four of his tentacles held wide like he was trying to hug a redwood. He closed in on four shapes he had backed into a corner. The shapes hissed and bristled like the steam-powered horse brushes Greta had once seen being used at a Promenth race track. (In a pinch a handful of oats and apple slices from a racehorse’s feedbag made an adequate breakfast, even if it did taste a little like the bag.)
“Eddy what are you doing?” she asked, craning her neck around to see if anyone watched them. Many people, some with badges and stern faces, had asked her how she managed to afford a droidil, a query she always brushed off by saying she was merely a wealthy woman’s assistant and was tasked with watching over the valuable machine. Occasionally, Eddy’s abnormal behaviors, such as nuzzling strangers and touching all the goods at the seafood stands with his dirty tentacles, required more creative fibs.
“Mother?” Eddy asked the largest cat he’d cornered. The cats continued to hiss and squeeze against each other. “Sisters? It’s me! Do you not remember? Do I look so different? I remember you!” The cats bolted under Eddy, who tried to grab at them. His tentacles missed and went clunk against the stones. Eddy spun around and tried to follow them but Greta grabbed him by the mantle. He dragged them both down the alley and scuffed the front of Greta’s shoes in the process.
“Eddy stop!” Greta urged, trying not to lose her grip on his slippery plastic.
“You don’t understand Greta. That was my family!”
“I know, I know, but they don’t recognize you. They can’t.”
“Why not?” Eddy asked, slowing to a stop. Greta released him and got her feet back on the ground. “I recognize them. I remember the way she used to carry me.” He rubbed the back of his mantle. “She’d bite me right here and carry me around. And she’d put me down and lick my fur. Sometimes I tried to get out of it but she always pulled me back and held me down. It didn’t hurt though.”
“You’re smarter than them now Eddy. They can’t recognize you. It’s just not in them.”
“We’re all alive,” Eddy reasoned. “That’s in all of us. They should know. I just need to remind her.” Eddy tried to leave again but Greta held him back by gently grabbing one of his tentacles.
“You’re not a…” Greta stopped herself. Who am I to say? She thought. What counts as alive? He doesn’t feel hot or cold. Hunger or thirst. Fatigue. No dreams. No inspiration. No ambition. He feels though. He feels more than I did in the basin.
“I’m not what?” Eddy asked. Despite his face being composed of one eye that never shifted, it seemed he was about to sob.
“You’re not furry anymore,” Greta said and hugged him. “Without the fur they can’t tell.”
“I can buy a fur coat,” Eddy suggested.
“We don’t have the money for that baby,” Greta whispered and rubbed the rim of his eye.
“You’re right,” Eddy admitted. “I wish they paid you at the library.”
“I would have to work in the Reverden library,” Greta replied.
“Why is that one so much better?” Eddy asked.
“Well, it’s where god keeps his books,” she joked. Her smile faded a second later though. She remembered something her brother had said the last time they spoke: If he is all powerful, why does he keep a book of records? Then she thought about all of Harratix’s activities. He never left Promenth. There was a whole planet of cities out there, and yet every bomb he planted and every propaganda poster he distributed was in and around Promenth. He’s looking for something, Greta suddenly realized. He’s looking for the Ancyclopedrae. Greta tried to remember everything she’d learned about Honweh’s volume of records. It grew on its own, adding every second of history to itself. It was immutable by all except for its creator. If he can’t change it, why would he want it? If he could change it… would that change the world? Does writing in the book alter the world? Can you make people change? Die? Greta lost herself in these thoughts, something she never had the time to do in the basin.
Over the next few days she thought of her brother constantly. He had been right about much; while the surface was beautiful and bright, it was no more a place of kind and holy behavior than the basins. There was violence, lies, hatred, and only some of it was instigated by Harratix. Honweh’s blessings were all handed out by men and the same people seemed to receive them constantly.
Her thoughts turned to the Reverden library. It was very close by, but Greta had never seen anything more than the tip of its tower over a few other buildings; she was much too afraid to get that close to such a holy place. It was guarded all the time and it never opened its doors to the public. If she was seen there she could be in irons within the hour, weeping and trying to say that her P3 was just ‘misplaced’. Maybe that’s where all my blessings are, Greta thought. They’re just misplaced.
One drizzly evening she found herself with a significant amount of energy after finishing her shift at the library. It was a Friday night, so she would be safe to sneak into the closet and spend the weekend there nibbling on the breads and dried fruits she had hidden inside a trashcan. For some reason though, her legs felt full of electricity. They shook and tapped and the thought of folding them up under her for two straight days seemed intolerable.
When all the lights were switched off she snuck Eddy out of the closet and he flew her up to the roof access, where they could get in and out even after the doors were locked. She stood on the roof for a few minutes and scanned the horizon for a place to visit even though she already knew where she was going. Her mind had decided without the consent of her fears that they needed to visit the Reverden library. So now her body was pulling itself in that direction and there was little she could do to stop it. Since Honweh can’t see me, he’ll never notice if I just take a peek. I’m allowed to do that. I’ve been a good girl… I can look at whatever I want.
Eddy dropped her just a few hundred feet from the library. He tried to follow her but she turned around and placed her hands on the rim of his eye as if it was a pair of rosy cheeks.
“I don’t want you to follow me Eddy,” she said.
“I want to see the library too,” he whined.
“I know, but it’s too dangerous for you. I’m probably going to get caught anyway,” she said. Greta realized it was hard to care about her freedom. There wasn’t much the police or Honweh could take. She could no longer make herself smile with a handful of table scraps. “I want you to go find your mom Eddy. Find a scrap fish behind one of the markets and bring your mom a present. She might recognize you then. After you catch up you can come find me at our library. Okay?”
“Will you get hurt?” he asked. “The hurting is for me, remember? I can’t feel it anyway.”
“I’ll be fine Eddy. Now go on, do as I ask.” Eddy gave her a long tight hug and flew off into the darkening sky, looking back four times to make sure she was still safe.
When she was certain he was gone Greta stuck her head around the corner to get her first look at the library. It was larger than she had imagined, with one central tower rising above three others of varying heights. There were many windows filled with elaborately decorated blue glass. They looked strangely uninviting, as if the only things that stood an inch or so behind them were brick walls. The front gate was guarded by two men in purple uniforms with plastic rifles slung over their shoulders. Greta’s scar was embroidered over their hearts. She could just barely hear them talking to each other, something about a play they’d both seen having atrocious acting.
Though the library was a tad more colorful than most of Promenth’s buildings, she found it disappointing. Surely god’s library was less drab on the inside. It must have just been a case of a dull shell holding the brightest of pearls. Is the Ancyclopedrae in there? She wondered. Is there an entry for me? No… it can’t be a whole entry. A footnote maybe. A stain on the page. Just… something. Let there be something.
A small panel of glass popped open in one of the topmost tower windows. Greta, surprised, tried to focus in on the faraway movement. Something shifted back and forth behind the window with haste. Then a white dot appeared and dropped out of the window. The glass closed back up as the dot swooped downward. It flipped in the air twice and sailed left and right before Greta realized it was coming very close to her. She immediately held out her hands and tried to guess its landing spot. It veered to the right, and so did she. Her left leg sank into a deep muddy puddle, the water rising up through her knee high sock in an instant. She ignored the chill and pulled herself to the left. The white shape was very close now… close enough that she could tell it was a paper airplane like the ones her brother had used to fold and throw at Egan when he wasn’t looking. It sailed past her. Greta turned and ran after it. The plane veered again and flew straight into her face, its tip crinkling against her forehead. She struggled to catch it before it hit the ground and was ruined by the wet cobblestones. She crushed it in one hand once she had a grip on it and pressed it against her chest. What had she just done exactly? A piece of paper had flown to her… was it to her? She did chase it a little… A piece of paper from the Reverden Library. It was most likely just a scrap, something discarded by the misbehaving child of a library employee perhaps.
Greta jogged over to a lit street lamp so she could get a better look. She unfolded the crumpled plane carefully. The paper seemed commonplace enough, if old and musty. Upon the paper was a short paragraph.
Reverden Library- A building in which many holy and unique texts are stored for use by Honweh and his most trusted worshippers. See (History) for more details.
Below that there was additional information. It did not look printed like the first portion, but was written with a lighter ink in the most flowing and elegant handwriting she had ever seen.
Greta Tihdr cannot be seen or heard by the guards of the Reverden Library.
She crushed the paper noisily and held it tightly in her fist. Maybe if she didn’t read it again nothing would happen. Her spine seemed to shrivel within her as she looked around for the guard that must have been about to arrest her. She knew that paragraph was about to change her life, but she had no idea how. Someone in the Reverden Library knew her name. They sent her this message. They made a point of giving her some information. Greta Tihdr cannot be seen or heard by the guards… is that true? It has to be. They knew my name… That building. Facts live there. The truth lives there. Nothing that comes out of there could possibly be a lie. Honweh’s stationary couldn’t lie any more than he could. The material just wouldn’t support falsehoods. The papers of god must blacken and shred under a lying pen. They must. Greta pocketed the piece of paper and analyzed the front gates. She stomped her foot against the cobblestones as loud as she could and prepared to flee. Neither of the guards looked her way.
“Hello?” she shouted to them. It drew no response. “Hello!” she screamed and then clapped both her hands over her mouth. She’d never been so loud in all her life; her voice sounded like it had caught fire. That’s my scream, she thought. It’s true. They can’t hear me. They can’t see me… I’m supposed to go in.
The closer Greta got to the front doors, the more profusely she sweated. She stepped lightly, unwilling to strain the blessing that kept her hidden. One of the guards moved, causing her heart to skip a beat. He merely scratched his forehead and continued to stare ahead. She ascended the stairs to the door. A deep breath. She raised her hand and knocked quickly, thonk thonk thonk.
The door swung inward. It was very dark inside; all she could see was a shape hovering before her. The shape reached out an appendage that was long, flat, and light blue. It looked rather like an incredibly thick cloth bookmark. It curled upward a few times, beckoning her inside. She stepped over the threshold. The chill outside was immediately replaced by stagnant, dry, toasty air. It felt like the kind of late summer day that made wood stiffen and crack into aggressive splinters. The shape before her soundlessly retreated, its one extension remaining in view and continuing to gesture to her. It urged her down a long hallway. Greta was so frightened that she didn’t have a chance to be curious about the shelves and shelves of books that they passed. If her eyes wandered she could be struck down for viewing some knowledge not meant for human eyes.
It led her to a wide set of spiral stairs with an iron railing and ascended up the spiral’s middle, its appendage sliding across every bar with a soft fwip. Greta ran after it and maintained enough composure to only slip every tenth stair or so. Her left hand was wrapped around the railing to steady her while her right kept her glasses glued to her face. By now they were nearly opaque with rain and exhalations. The stairs stretched out above her with no end in sight and before long she’d cast aside any notions of remaining respectfully silent as she huffed and puffed her way upward. At first she’d thought it was her imagination pulling the stairs further apart, but soon realized that there was in fact a greater distance between them now. The distance grew as her stamina began to flag. She cast aside her raincoat and let it sink between the steps to the floor so many stories below. The sound of its landing did not reach her.
The last step was so far from the previous one that she had to leap to grab it. It was only after she’d pulled herself up into a new chamber that her foolishness dawned on her. She looked back down the hole and saw the distance she could have fallen. She gasped in shock at the daring of the last few moments. I don’t even know who I am anymore, she thought. I would never do that… and yet I just have. This girl’s head of mine… born empty… filled with dreams and hopes that are always dripping out. I’m silly… What could I possibly find in here? Honweh’s never had time for me.
“I’m pleased you could join me,” a voice behind her said plainly. It had that familiar electric echo to it. Greta rolled over on the floor and ogled the resplendent machine before her. Easily the biggest droidil she’d ever seen, its mantle stood some six meters high and flared out into eight curling fins as soft and delicate as silk curtains. A plethora of tentacles hung underneath it, some tipped with the flat bookmark shape she’d already seen, others with sharp shining pen nibs the size of garden trowels, and still others with triangular blades sheathed in translucent plastic. They all waved silently in the air like kelp in a slow current. Its blue eye was set in a convex lens that swiveled independently of the mantle. The pupil was enormous and full of tiny winking lights like stars slipping in and out of their afternoon nap.
“Who… who are you?” Greta asked the machine. She got to her feet, brushed herself off, and finally took the time to clean her glasses on the edge of her dress.
“I am the librarian,” it stated. “Built by Honweh to guard and maintain his book of records, the Ancyclopedrae.”
It’s here, Greta’s brain blurted. She took a step to the side and glanced past the droidil. In the middle of the chamber there was a colorful granite pedestal set into the floor. A circle of wooden floor around the pedestal constantly rotated, giving Greta a 360 degree view of the book hovering over the pedestal. The volume was two meters high itself and clothed in strange purple leather. Each corner was fit with brass and there was a metal structure making the book’s spine look very much like its namesake. The front bore Greta’s scar.
“Is that it?” she asked quietly and pointed.
“Why… why did you bring me here?”
“To finally give you the blessing you’ve always deserved.”
“Honweh is… blessing me?” Greta started to cry, but anger almost immediately turned the tears hot. She pulled on her hair for a moment, trying not to scream, which proved much more difficult than before now that she knew she could.
“Now?” she asked, blood boiling. “Why not before? Why not when I needed it? Why does my face look like it should be coated in hot wax and used to seal envelopes?” She bit her lower lip. That was too much, she thought. He’ll strike me down for being ungrateful.
“Please calm down,” the droidil suggested without a hint of emotion. It reached out with a blue paddle that gently contoured to her shoulders and urged her to take a few steps forward so they could both look at the Ancyclopedrae. “Honweh is not involved. The blessing will just be a gift from me to you, like the plane I sent you. I am surprised it got to you as I’ve never tried throwing anything before; it was delightful… but rather suspenseful near the end.”
“The plane…” Greta muttered, having temporarily forgotten the note. She pulled it out of her pocket and opened it once again. “How does all this work? How could anyone but Honweh keep those men from seeing me? It’s granted that men normally look past me anyway, but this was different.”
“The paper I sent you was excised from the Ancyclopedrae,” the droidil explained. Greta immediately dropped the scrap. The droidil caught it silently and stored it away in a cloth pocket on one of its fins. “I modified it so you could enter the building undetected.”
“So the handwriting below the printing was yours?” she asked, working to puzzle everything out.
“It’s true then. If you write in the Ancyclopedrae you can change the world.”
“It is the record. If it’s recorded, it must have happened.”
“Why does he need it?” Greta asked. This question had weighed on her more than any other. Her own suffering could be justified and explained away with a thousand different proverbs from scripture, but that simple discrepancy was always in the way. “He is god. He can remember everything. Why risk a human destroying all his work with nothing but a pencil?”
“I’m afraid it takes something a little finer than a pencil to mark the Ancyclopedrae,” the droidil said. There was a slight chuckle in its voice, the first hint of any emotion Greta had gleaned from the machine. “It has to be one of these,” it said, holding up its six nib-tipped tentacles.
“But why does he need it?” Greta asked again. “He’s omniscient! Omnipotent! Omnibenevolent!”
“He is and he isn’t,” the droidil said, obscuring things further. “Honweh knows everything about the people that have accepted his blessing. He is all-powerful in the sense that the physical world bends to his will. His goodness is the grayest of his virtues… for that’s what goodness is. It doesn’t carry the mathematical values of gravity or light. It’s merely how decisions cut through the ever-shifting vapors of human emotion. Honweh’s goodness is not the same as your goodness, or mine, or your brother’s.”
“What do you know about my brother?” Greta asked nervously. Perhaps this was still some kind of trick. A minute from now those nibs could be pressed painfully against her throat in an effort to extract information from the sister of a ruthless terrorist. She took a step backwards.
“Please relax Greta. I promise I will not harm you. Your brother is… sort of a parent to me. As is Honweh. I know for a fact that no one shares your struggles more than I, because I have read it.”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand any of this.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. You’re the first company I’ve had in a number of years other than these books. I promise in a few minutes it will at least make… enough sense.”
“Alright,” Greta allowed.
“It is understandable that you do not recognize me. It has been a very long time since you saw me.”
“We’ve met?” Greta asked, dumbfounded.
“The circumstances were quite different then,” the magnificent droidil said, that slight chuckle popping up again. “My whole world fit inside your brother’s palm. All I could do was swim in circles and hope he didn’t drop me.”
“You can’t be…” Greta started. But why can’t he, she thought. If Eddy can, he can. “Nofish? Is it really you?”
“I had a bit of a growth spurt,” the droidil joked.
“But how? Why? I thought Harratix took you with him when he left.”
“He did. It was impressive how he managed to both take care of me and start a movement to overthrow Honweh. Of course, I couldn’t appreciate it until he gave me this body.”
“Harratix was here!? In god’s library! With the book! Why is everything still the same? Why would he not change things? If he’d been here I would expect the very surface of the world to flip like a playing card, putting Promenth in the dirt so the sewer pipes flow with nothing but sunlight.”
“Did you wonder why the language was so plain on the piece of the book I gave you?” Nofish asked.
“Well yes… I never thought I’d be able to understand a book meant for god.”
“You’re mostly right. For every word you see there are two hundred trillion more between them. And two trillion trillion more that are implied. While it’s a relatively simple matter for me to put a blessing of invisibility on you, doing something like altering a person’s nature is infinitely more complicated. Any attempt to alter a living being without Honweh’s knowledge would merely create a suffering monstrosity or twisted demon. Harratix knows this and is waiting patiently before he makes his move.”
“What move? What does my brother want? Why did he leave you here?”
“Harratix broke into this library years ago and, utilizing nothing other than his cleverness, tricked the droidil into shutting itself down. After that he removed its core and replaced it with me. I am one of your brother’s secret weapons that he will unleash on Honweh when he returns. As you can imagine, it pays dividends to have someone peeking at the Ancyclopedrae.”
“Wait… when Honweh returns? Where has he gone?”
“Honweh has been vacationing inside the sun for close to six years now. He enjoys doing the backstroke through its fires.”
“Vacationing! Why would he need to do that! I’ve read his wisdom a thousand times and I may not be able to read that book but I know what the god I grew up with is like. He doesn’t take vacations.”
“Greta… you are Honweh’s god as much as he is yours.”
“Nofish, this doesn’t make any s…”
“It will if you let go of your old ideas. It’s time to drop them Greta. They are moldering loaves; they can nourish you no more. You must understand new ideas if you are to find happiness.”
“What new ideas?” She asked, close to tears again. She thought about Eddy and wondered if he’d found his mother yet. She thought about him pretending to eat something next to his mother, pressing some little glob of pork fat to his plastic face.
“The idea that Honweh is a man-made god,” Nofish said.
“It was very long ago,” Nofish started, trying to compress history even more than the Ancyclopedrae did. “Humans were in the dark. They took a man and they used their hearts and minds to elevate him. They believed in him. Droves of humans all believing in him rabidly… it combined every weak spark of divinity that each of them had. On their own the sparks could do nothing, but together they transformed a revered man into a god. Mawnweh.”
“Why are you describing heathen lore? I’ve never heard of any Mawnweh. There is only Honweh!”
“In a sense you’re right,” Nofish conceded, which calmed Greta down some. Mawnweh became Honweh the same way that droidil became your companion Eddy. The process was the same anyway, there were actually many steps between the two… Dolweh, Qenweh, Slepweh…”
“Nofish please, I’m not following…”
“I’m sorry, let me get back to the important parts. Although Honweh is mighty… he is not beyond man, for that is his source. He can know anything, but his memory is as weak as yours. That is why he keeps the book. He can create whole worlds, but he suffers from sloth and selfishness as much as any man. This is why the human world has its troubles. It puts its faith in the incapable.”
“Honweh… is just a man?”
“A man in a body so powerful it doesn’t even have to exist in the physical world if it doesn’t want to.”
“What is Harratix’s plan?” Greta knew the answer already. Her brother’s efforts to ‘end the injustice’ always sounded a little false to her. He loved his friends, his sister, his pet fish, but not more than he loved himself.
“When Honweh returns, Harratix will attempt to remove the man and place the divine crown on his own head,” Nofish said. He sounded a little saddened, like a boy waking up to find his drunkard father passed out on the kitchen floor.
“And you’re going to help him?” Greta asked.
“I owe him everything,” Nofish offered. “I will do as he asks, yes. He might succeed. If he does I don’t imagine things will change much. He will offer a new set of commandments, perhaps place a few new heavenly bodies in the sky, perhaps create new golems like me… but after that he will grow bored and forget what he used to stand for. He’ll rename the Reverden and let them do all the smiling and healing and blessing while he gallivants across the sky, indifferent to us. Eventually someone will dethrone him.”
They both stood there quietly for a few minutes. Greta, despite all the world shattering news, only thought about Nofish and Eddy. Her friends. Eddy would put her needs ahead of everything else. Baptisms. Reputation. Purity. Eddy only needed Greta, without the trappings of Honweh. Without the scars that were supposedly her duty to bear.
“Why did you bring me here?” Greta asked Nofish. She stroked one of his tentacles gently to show the question was not aggressive. He seemed to appreciate it as his eye moved a little less rapidly and his tentacles hung lower.
“I didn’t have much time to come up with a plan,” he admitted. “I saw you outside the library and I just wanted very much to give you a gift. You were such a good little girl when I last knew you. The book showed me your life. You accepted the pain of others as your own… suffered in silence… I will not see you suffer anymore.”
Nofish pulled his tentacle away from her and flew over to the Ancyclopedrae. He slipped a flat tentacle into one of the pages and forced the huge book open. Its metal spine clicked into place. He removed the plastic sheath from one of his blades and made four quick swipes across the page with automaton precision. A tiny rectangle of paper landed on one of his tentacles.
He hovered back over to Greta slowly, careful to not let the scrap float away. He lowered the tentacle and presented the paper to her. She picked it up and read it.
Greta Tihdr- A scarred girl.
“It’s my entry,” Greta said.
“It is your gift,” Nofish added. Is that all I am? She thought sadly. A scarred girl? Trillions of words between the words… some of them must be the real me.
“Thank you Nofish, but… what do I do with it?”
“It is your fate,” the droidil explained, “you can do with it whatever you like. Wherever you go now, whatever you do… it will always be you. No one is pulling the strings. No one is walling you off from the world because your life is in your own hands.”
Greta placed the scrap in her pocket and thanked Nofish profusely. It took her a few minutes to appreciate how liberating the gift really was. Has there ever been a better present? She wondered.
They talked for a while and set up another visit in a few days. When Greta stared down the hole she climbed through she was once again afraid of the jump. She touched her pocket and thought about the possible fall. There was no god to catch her. There never had been.
Somewhere in the city streets Eddy was being Eddy: simple, kind, and warm-hearted. There were so many places they could go and things they could see. A scarred girl and a machine that had once been a kitten. Blessed creatures. Greta jumped.