Axis Mundi

“Axis Mundi” is deeper into the sci-fi spectrum than most of my stories and much longer, but what started as a fairly straightforward space-cannibal story turned into something very different… This story was originally published in the esteemed FLAPPERHOUSE.

 

CAPTAIN ELISHA DRIFTS BACK TO HER BODY. Sedative fog curls around her edges for a long, liquid minute before she remembers she has eyes to open. Lids slide across her sclera, a syrupy-sweet motion that tingles her spine like some small secret pleasure. Her forearms feel hot and then cold, as catheters spit the next layer of the wakeup cocktail into her blood. Already, the induced euphoria’s fading, shepherding the last of the delirium and confusion away to be replaced by a conscious, knowing glee. They’ve arrived.

Her new stateroom smells of wood and leather, warm aromas painted in crimson and deep oak hues. The armchair creaks as she moves, and smartbands retreat into its folds like startled snakes. The catheters slip from her flesh, spraying a thin mist of skinbond to cover their tracks, and constrict away into the arms of the chair.

Her vision drifts to a far wall, her eyes looping on a pleasing swirl in the burlwood, where Mithradates projects her feeds in layers of soft amber light. The most important detail rises to the surface in pulsing cobalt: No one has followed. Right up until their unscheduled departure, no alarms were even raised.

Now the slip is over, only a few hours passed, and the slick ebon needle of her new ship, the Mithra, drifts above the ecliptic of Gliese 667C. Mithradates maps the bewildering orbits of the neighboring stars and the six rocky planets around 667C, adjusting for any local eccentricities since the stellar event. The third star, a dull red coal, squats at the center of a tangle of scorched planets. Elisha waits for Mithradates to find any sign of their quarry, but so far she only sees the purples and oranges of worlds and moons.

The nausea arrives as she scans the display, inevitable postslip vomit rising up at the back of her throat. A small basin of burnished silver extends on a silent pseudopod, awaiting her purge. Everyone must sleep during the slip, and only Goetsch claims to have conquered the purge. Elisha could have asked Mithradates to confirm, to see if it’s just more bluster from the mission’s XO, but she’d rather let the man keep his boasts.

With a twinkling of glass bells, a white dot appears in the orbital map, then another. The Odin, and the Yggdrasil. The ghost ships, in the shadow of the third planet. Elation rises up in her, along with something else. Elisha leans into the gleaming mouth of the basin and gags before her throat unlocks to spray a hot foam of sweet pepper bisque, her last meal before their covert flight from Terrapin Yards.

As she blots her lips with a soft cloth, the remains of the first slipprobe from the Reclamation Society appears on Mithradates’ map. Closer in, trailing the orbit of the third planet, it’s just a few hundred thousand kilometers from the Odin and the Yggdrasil. It reads as a scattered cloud of pinprick fragments in the readout, the slip engine still bleeding weak exotic energy signals even a few weeks after the probe’s demise. The second probe, following hours after and launched at great risk of detection, had been more circumspect. From a high and silent orbit, it brought back word of Odin and theYggdrasil, their distant silhouettes barely visible in the shadow of the dead world.

If there were still survivors aboard, separated by more than 900 years of cultural and technological drift, they would need to be approached with cautious grace. Her spine crawled with excitement at the thought, as if the universe had unfurled to give flesh to her dreams.

When they had told her about the probes, she’d thrown every ounce of social capital she had to get the Reclamation Society’s nomination, abandoning the last of her studies. She’d been the one to propose the theft of her mother’s ship, the Mithra, and she and Goetsch had arranged to patch the ship’s entity, Mithradates, in secret. In the end, they were the only possible crew. She bent and twisted the world to deliver them to this moment.

More sounds, ringing steel this time, as Mithradates tells her the rest of the crew are awake and ready to begin. With his new software, he vibrates with excitement, almost as eager as her to begin. A third tone, hollow wooden chimes, and Mithradates paints new information in the air above the Odin and the Yggdrasil. Her brow furrows. The numinous excitement that suffused her since her selection fades into the background. She leans closer to confirm what Mithradates is showing her.

Around the great sphere of the Yggdrasil drifts a cloud of objects, an accretion disc of ablative armor shrapnel from a thousand years of micrometeorites, drifting screws and abandoned tools, and corpses. Thousands of frozen corpses, lashed by ropes. Loops and whorls of the dead sketching glyphs and geometric shapes drift around the ghost ship, held close by the Yggdrasil’s gentle gravity.

 * * *

The two other members of her crew float at the galley table, feet looped into velvet footholds to keep from drifting, still queasy and gray from the slip. They pull steaming bulbs of coffee, mate, or less rustic stimulant broths from the maker, one after another. Elisha floats over and hooks her feet in. In the silence, as they shake the dust from their drug-addled brains, Elisha calls up her own briefs on the two other generation arks onto the table, working the well-worn text smooth with repetition. Even before she’d joined the Society at academy, these tales of the age of conventional thrust had been her bedtime stories.

The Eyz Hayim is now a dusty mausoleum lying in a crater on a dead world. The collected last logs and transmissions of the crew as they prepared to euthanize their entire culture, once they’d understood that the planet they’d chosen would never support life, are the stuff of modern myths. Their command vessel, the Adonai, found a stable orbit and vented its atmosphere into space, in order to preserve the last words of their people, a culture already unique in all the stars after 200 years of isolation.

What happened to the Ashvattha and her crew is less understood. Elisha has heard nearly every theory, but in the end, the simplest one seems the most likely: At some point during the centuries-long drift, the people of the Ashvattha split into multiple factions, the nature of the disagreement lost without hope of understanding. The incident occurred mere months before they reached their target star, where it appears that the command vessel Siddartha intentionally reoriented to point toward the mother ark, and accelerated rapidly into impact, destroying both ships.

Elisha had spent long hours reading the glittering debris field in orbit around Tau Ceti like tea leaves, but no revelation emerged. It remains, simply, a graveyard cloud to be mapped and avoided by the new colonists arriving at the fourth and fifth worlds by the expanding cloud of the slip.

But the Yggdrasil remained a phantom. Early slip probes that passed through the Gliese 667C system noted only the inhospitable worlds, scoured clean by the stellar event observed a few centuries prior, and presumed that any colony on the third world would have been blasted to ash. The star would have remained just an unusual entry in the expanding catalog of systems if the Society hadn’t sent their illegal probes.

Elisha clears her throat to get her crew’s attention and then clucks her tongue in a stuttering rhythm to summon Mithradates. He answers by unfolding in the air above the galley table, a moss green and amber cloud of lines and points that solidifies into a model of the system. Goetsch blinks rapidly, brushing his shaggy hair from his brow as he adjusts fogged-over eyes onto the display. Flynn reaches into her breast pocket for her lenses and jaw piece. Flynn’s pathological rejection of augmented ware nearly cost her position on the expedition, and Elisha has to suppress a small shudder of irritation at the affectation.

“First thing’s first,” Elisha intones, “As you’ve gathered from the general calm, we got away clean.” She takes a moment to savor their grins, mirroring her own giddiness. “Even if they scrambled right after our departure, they’ll have little hope of reading the direction of our slip. Mithradates’ most-likely is that we have days, at least.”

Goetsch and Flynn raise their drinks, and Elisha returns the informal salute.

“Now for the situation at hand: As we knew, the planet’s dead. Mithradates has identified what might be the shadow of a few human structures, but he thinks it’s most-likely just noise in his pattern recognition.” The display in the air swims as she speaks, diving down toward the planet to focus on the image of a few squarish impressions against a flint gray plain. “During the instability, the star ejected a sizable portion of its corona, blasting the planet down to the bedrock. The ocean and atmosphere flashed right off. We’re not going to find anything there.”

“How damaged are the ships?” Goetsch interjects before Elisha can shift topics. “Do we know how they survived the instability?”

Mithradates is already displaying his most-likely before Elisha can respond, mapping spherical waves of superheated plasma across the breakfast table. They wash over the little world, sterilizing the surface. In the shadow of the planet, the Odin and the Yggdrasil dance in a calm eddy in the solar storm, a complex twirling orbit that keeps them both hidden on the dark side of the world from the face of the star.

“Good piloting,” Elisha answers, “and remember they didn’t have reliable synthetic entities. They did it manually. Probably lasted more than a few years, in a constant state of alert. And it left both ships pretty cooked. The Yggdrasil’s ablative armor is all but gone, and neither ship has anything in the way of long-range transmitters. But they’re still here, and Mithradates is seeing some pretty strong indication that many major systems are still on. They may predate our makers, entities, and slipdrives, but these ships were bleeding edge when they launched. They’ll be on backup or tertiary support systems but – both ships are still filtering air, nutrients, and water.”

“Someone’s home?” Goetsch’s eyebrows raise. “Do we know for sure?”

Elisha can feel the weight of her response. She already knows, but she hasn’t said it aloud yet. The word, hanging in the air, makes it real.

“Yes.”

* * *

They argue for hours, poring over the data and Mithradates’ most-likely models.

The Odin has lights in one section, tiny pinprick portholes glowing in the visible spectrum, and they’ve cycled once in the 12 hours they’ve been observing. There are humans onboard, clustered around the lit habitats. Unmistakable thermal and electrical signatures drifting through the dark corridors of the Odin, at least 700 of them. There’s a rudimentary short-distance antenna, cobbled together from the remains of three unrelated systems, probably just enough to keep Odin in contact with the Yggdrasil. Mithradates can track the other systems on board, but there’s not much to parse. Water and air filtration, nutrient reclamation. The Odin is self-sufficient, for now; the water system’s on its last leg, bound to fail within a decade.

When it comes to the Yggdrasil, Mithradates glows in apology, tells them it can’t provide a most-likely scenario, only unsatisfactory guesses. There are no lights, and the heat’s too great, with no individual signatures, just one pulsating thermal smear. Perhaps the air temperature’s tropical inside, but Mithradates sees no sign of functioning heat sinks or generators that might account for the readings. After weighing several increasingly outlandish theories, Mithradates decides that there’s likely no one alive on board, and that some systemic failure is producing the heat.

The matter of the bodies ringing the Yggdrasil still lingers. They stare in silence as Mithradates shows them the vast network of corpses lashed together by crudely-made ropes of plant matter, frozen in the vacuum. In a few microseconds, Mithradates correlates the degradation of the corpses and other points of data to shade the map with time. The oldest corpses, the simplest circles of six to ten bodies, bound head to feet, date from the time of the instability, or just after. The most recent, still two or three hundred years old, are massive, coiling, helical structures made of hundreds of bodies, split, flayed, and rendered to create complex shapes hundreds of meters wide.

Mithradates can’t offer a definitive reason for this behavior. He wants to suggest a ritual form of burial, but the large clusterings don’t match the patterns of a natural cycle of death. Too many young, healthy, and incomplete bodies. The oldest bodies are still whole, but the newer, more ambitious structures are knit with individual limbs and torsos, with almost no heads. The most-likely is some form of ritual sacrifice practiced for a century or so after the stellar instability, and then abandoned. Did the colonists run out of people to sacrifice? The corpse-ropes remain a cold pebble in Elisha’s gut, an ugly blemish on what was poised to be the most important event of her life.

Once they’ve aligned the original plan with their new information, Elisha hesitates giving the order. She wants to hover in this last moment forever, like the glorious second of anticipation just before you tear the wrapping paper off a present. But Flynn reaches out with a manic grin, and cuffs her on the side, sending them both drifting away from the blow.

“Let’s go,” says Flynn, “Let’s start talking.” She glares at Goetsch in a challenge. He narrows his eyes, dragging his bushy eyebrows into a low flat line, and scrunches his mouth to one side.

“They attacked the probe, looking at the wreckage. Probably lobbed something blind and dumb at it, scored a lucky strike, but that means they’re aggressive,” he says. “We approach, slowly. I set the speed. I say when we rabbit, no questions. Yay?”

“Yay,” Elisha says, jaw clenched.

“Yay,” says Flynn, eyes locked on Goetsch. “If you somehow feel threatened by an unarmed preslip spaceship, we can bug out, but you’ll never hear the end of it.”

“If you’re pissed, you’re alive, Flynn. I want to do this as much as anyone.”

Elisha doubts that. She feels the pull of the moment, waiting for her in the future, just beyond the cloud of corpses.

 * * *

They come in slow, the slender shape of the Mithra running dark and silent. Tiny fusion reactors on chameleon eye pods align together and cough, accelerating them down towards the orbital plane. Elisha feels a creeping pressure on her chest as they watch the vast round bulk of the Yggdrasil resolve from the stars through Mithradates’ simulated observation dome. The uncanny sensation of standing on the outside of the ship always makes Elisha a little giddy, but now she’s too busy staring at the third planet. A cinder, scorched and steaming, it strikes her as somehow profane, upsetting in a way she isn’t prepared for.

As they approach, Mithradates begins to buzz, drawing up new most-likelies for the Yggdrasil. He has a better view of plant matter on the surface of the ship as well as the Odin, in tiny frozen fields, covering micrometer strikes, patching cracks in the ancient hull. He sees a clearer picture of the vast interior, and estimates that the biosphere of the ship has been drastically altered, and may indeed be supporting a very small human population.

“This is the same plant as on the corpse rings?” asks Elisha, and Mithradates gives her a most-likely, comparing a few dozen images of frozen purplish flesh, sharp webbed ridges and clusters of fine tendrils. “That’s not Terran, is it?” The answer is almost-certain.

Elisha tries to reconcile any of this new information with her expectations. It’s like trying to put together two pieces from different puzzles. She should have been ready for the unexpected, she chides herself for letting it affect her so much, but she can’t let it go. It’s the shape of a word on the tip of her tongue, just out of mind, and it gnaws at her.

She’s putting too much weight on this expedition, she realizes, she’s been willing it to match to her old personal fantasies of contact. She takes a deep breath, and squares her shoulders and unhooks her feet, letting the gentle acceleration of their approach hold her against the leather couch in the center of the operations lounge. Let it go. Exhale.

This is still important. These are still people who need help. Inhale. Exhale.

Thrust ceases for a moment, and the couches sway as the lounge reorients itself inside the Mithra’s hull. Mithradates flips and adjusts their feeds, and they sink back to the couches as the Mithra slows to approach.

When they are just a few kilometers out from the Odin and Yggdrasil, Elisha turns on the running lights, a warm welcoming swirl of pulsating colors. They have no way of knowing if the Odin has sensors, but there are actual portholes, physical windows made of half-meter thick plastic. As long as they have eyes, the survivors can see the Mithra.

They drift closer, alive with color and light. The Odin is an enormous, ugly, ancient-looking vessel with gaping wounds in her lower decks. The Yggdrasil hangs like an moon, so unlike any other craft she’s seen. Elisha conjures on a gentle spotlight, and plays it across the Odin’s pitted and weathered hull with her fingertips. She sees only the reflected black of space from the portholes on the upper decks, where they’d seen lights earlier.

Flynn calls up a small panel in the air and tinkers with the lights, cycling through color schemes, rhythms, and intensity. They wait. Elisha’s light passes over another porthole and she sees a brief flash of movement, the impression of a pale head vanishing from view. Her heart leaps and she can’t stop the corners of her mouth from rising.

“Mithradates, can you play that back?”

A screen unfolds within the dome, stabilizing on a closeup view of the window. Elisha’s light creeps across the porthole at quarter speed, illuminating a white face for a split-second. It’s fast, and they don’t have a perfect recording, but Mithradates gives them a few most-likely composite images of a face: male, bald, elongated skull, covered in markings.

She can barely control her breath as the excitement returns, washing out the doubt like a flash flood. “Can we see an overlay of where you think the people are?” she asks, and Mithradates maps a field of probable locations of humans inside the Odin, showing little hot orange silhouettes clustered around the portholes, peering out of the darkness. She moves the light slowly, and they slide out of view as she approaches. A little shiver runs down her spine.

“Are we getting any transmissions from them?” Goetsch asks, and Mithradates gives him a negative with a red pulse. “Well, should we try?”

“I think it’s about time. You feel like running?” Flynn asks with a grin, but Goetsch frowns and shakes his head.

“This is unnerving, but I don’t think it’s dangerous yet. I just don’t like it. Send a hail.”

Mithradates sends the text the Reclamation Society has agreed on, a brief paragraph in all the most-likely languages of the original expedition. A vague, mealy stew of platitudes and grandstanding written as much for posterity and to project legitimacy as it was for communication. It embarrasses Elisha every time she sees it, as much as it embarrassed her to write it, revising her original draft with Society feedback from a dozen academies.

The message goes out across all the most-likely bands the Odin might have, as well as a few unusual methods, including coded pulses on the surface of the ship. On each channel, the message repeats, asking for a response.

Silence from the Odin. The watchers aboard stop fleeing from the light, and stare openly with blank faces, wide flat mouths like gashes in the white belly of a fish. Huge shining eyes inside too-large skulls. Hairless, eyebrows and eyelashes plucked, fields and ridges of scar tissue where the follicles were destroyed.

Elisha finds herself wishing they would hide again, or respond to the message. They feel less and less like people as she watches them stare back at her. She turns off the spotlight, but she can still see them, vague shapes in the dim glow of the Mithra’s lights.

The message repeats, and on a low frequency microwave band, Mithradates reports a response. A squelch, just a blip of information from the Odin’s transmitter, but it’s enough.

“Contact,” says Goetsch, and turns to Elisha to wink. “They’re pinging again.”

Mithradates throws a display across the void, a oval of shredded static that begins to resolve into an image. Somewhere inside the Odin, an ancient camera points into the dim corner of a chamber. The walls are filthy, layered in centuries of dust and organic detritus. Elisha fights the sudden sensation that she can smell the wet, filthy air on the other side. Her lungs feel somehow sullied and dirty. Some warm diffuse glow paints the scene a sickly yellow.

There’s a flurry of motion, as a figure drifts into view and locks a pair of giant golden eyes directly on the camera. A naked youth, can’t be older than fifteen. Up close they can see the extent of the scarification covering his hairless face and head. A pale, nearly lipless mouth works frantically around a mouthful of shattered teeth. It seems as if the youth is looking directly at Elisha now, through the gulf of space and time, begging her for something. There is no sound, but still he begs, his owl eyes filling with tears. He snaps his head to the right, the expression going slack. The signal ends, and the round window collapses. Elisha stares at the Odin, floating just ahead of them, silent and black.

“What just happened?” Goetsch asks, knowing full well no one has an answer.

“We’re lucky they still know how operate a two-way,” sighs Flynn. “Lets cut them a little slack for not remembering etiquette.”

“Start the signal again on that same band,” Elisha says, “maybe they’ll hail back.”

The signal returns in under five minutes. The viewpoint’s of the same room, now pointed straight against one moss-covered wall. There’s a light, flickering just offscreen to illuminate the wizened face of an ancient woman with cloudy eyes that stare straight into the camera. She’s grinning, too wide and too severe, and her filed-down teeth look like tiny gray nubs in her pale gums. Another electric chill cascades through Elisha, she can’t separate the fear from the anticipation.

The old woman speaks in a voice like the flexing of a broken branch, a cacophonous reedy rasp, spitting out a series of hard syllables over the hissing static on the band. Flynn is in motion, playing back the audio on a half dozen repeaters analyzing stresses and sounds.

“That was Lingua,” says Goetsch with a grin, before Flynn can confirm. “Weirdest accent I’ve ever heard, but it’s not one of the old languages.”

“Mmm,” Flynn says with an edge of irritation. “We got lucky. They had five or six languages spoken on the manifest, including the one that would become the Lingua. Could have been any of them.”

“So we don’t need a linguist after all,” he says, digging further until Flynn scowls.

“Language isn’t words,” she mutters, and flicks at the cloud of data around her, subvocalizing to Mithradates. Beneath the old woman a shifting series of words appears, providing Mithradates and Flynn’s most-likely transcription of what she’s saying, adjusting for a thousand-year shift in phonemes and cognates.

Elisha has to read the text closely to even consider that it might be in Lingua. The vowels are all wrong, the O’s swallowed and elongated almost into a low vibration of her throat, and the normal hard plosives came out like hissing fricatives. Occasionally she utters a word that neither Mithradates nor Flynn can account for, some local variant with no meanings without an entire cultural history for context.

“Praose Goawhd, wayve woughted foar <unknown phrase> ah tho-“

With the subtitles rapidly improving, Elisha starts to adjust to the alien pronunciation, until she can almost understand what the old woman is saying.

“Transmit,” she says at once, “both ways. Let’s speak.” She looks to Flynn, who nods once.

“Praise God,” the old woman continues. The dark beads of scars covering her bald skull shift and flow like a wheat field in the wind. Mithradates throws up a potential model that has manipulation of the scars via facial muscles as a second layer on the communication, but the theory evaporates a few moments later. “Praise be <unknown phrase> who drew you from the outer dark. Glory be to the guardians of God, may they pass into It for all eternity.” Tears build in the corner of her eyes, and she shakes her head to fling them away.

“Greetings,” Elisha says, momentarily losing her prepared words in the aftermath of the woman’s confusing prayer.

“I cannot see you,” the old woman says, nodding in apology, “but I hear your words. You are <unknown phrase>. You are human.”

“We are human,” Elisha confirms, trying to speak with the measured enunciated pace Flynn has drilled her with. “We are relatives of your ancestors. It is a great honor to find you living. I am Captian Elisha, of the vessel Mithra, representing the Reclamation Society. What my we call you?”

The woman raises one spidery hand, covered in colored and dyed scar patterns. The nails are gone, torn away to leave little fleshy nubs at the tip. She taps her breastbone.

“I am No One,” she says. “You are No One. We are all No One until God <unknown phrase> our flesh. Until then, we serve.”

“Oh hell,” mutters Goetsch beneath his breath, and Flynn exhales sharply, sending him a subvocal command to be silent. She’s scanning a few models that reinterpret and re-parse the words to change the meaning. Elisha hopes she misheard it.

“If it pleases you, I will call you No One, but my name is Elisha. I am a citizen of a culture descended from your own. We are separated by nearly a thousand years, but we have a common origin.”

“Our history has wounds upon it,” the woman intones, seeming not to hear Elisha. “We cannot <unknown verb> that the truth was always passed on. We have known heresy.”

Elisha’s feet are looped into the couch, but she feels as if she’s drifting. None of her expectations are solid, and she struggles to hold onto the moment. Flynn senses her confusion. The linguist works her jaw and sends Elisha a non-verbal, an encouragement, and a reminder of the planned questions.

“Are you in any immediate danger? Do you require medical attention?” No One cocks her head at this, as if the idea is absurd, so Elisha changes tact, and advances down the list. “What can you tell us about how you came to be here?”

No One shifts her body, short stumps of her teeth flashing as she works her thin, dark lips. “You wish to know the Matter of God…”

“We wish to know the story of how you came to be, whatever you can recall,” Elisha offers, but No One waves one long-fingered hand.

“Your vessel is too small…” No One says, after a long silence. “How did you <unknown verb> the night ocean?” Mithradates spits out a most-likely interpretation, but Elisha already understands, and the question fills her with a solid sense of purpose.

“When your foreparents left their home world, they were limited by the laws of the universe, as they understood them. They travelled faster than any human before them, but it still took them nearly 500 years. Do you understand this?” No One waves her hand, a gesture Elisha takes to mean either a dismissal of the question, or a command to hurry. “We have learned much in that time. One of the things we have learned is how to bend the space between two points, and slip across the gap. We left another star less than a day ago.”

Elisha opens her mouth to continue, to ask if this crude explanation of the slipdrive makes sense, but No One’s reaction stops the words in her mouth. The old woman is crying, great gasping sobs that are as much joy as grief, and her dark lips spread into a wide grin. The signal cuts out with a massive burst of noise. The three of them are left in the silent dome staring at the drifting Odin. Countless faces peer back from blackened windows.

“I do not like this,” Goetsch says, in a flat tone that Elisha knows will brook no argument or discussion.

“Try to see it from her point of view,” Flynn offers, “They’ve lived in what is effectively a prison for generations. This is… a lot to take in.”

“No, that last part of the signal. It wasn’t just an overload. Mithradates is chewing on it, but it’s… actually taking him time. Let’s hold off until they’re ready to speak again, see what that was.”

As if in response, the microwave band squawks again, and a portion of the dome fills with No One’s scarred face. The grin remains, a wide string of flattened teeth. Behind her drift a half dozen figures, all hairless and scarred. They’re naked, pale and delicate limbs floating in the air, but they all wear the same mad grin, and spheres of water build up at the corners of their eyes.

“We have conversed with God <unknown phrase>. God has <unknown verb> us our brothers and sisters would come to break the chains of light that bond us. And so you have.”

“I don’t see any other communications traffic with the Yggdrasil. The anomalous signal was sent to us, not the ark.” Goetsch mutters. Flynn swivels her head to fix him with a stare. Elisha catches sight of Flynn’s eyes, and can see that she too is rattled. Too many strange variables at play, and they’ve fallen far off script. When the pause is too long to bear, Elisha feels the pressing need to fill the void, and asks the first thing she can think of.

“You mentioned the Matter of God. Can you tell us more?”

“God would prefer to tell you,” No One murmurs, the syllables warm and liquid with reverence. Elisha hardly needs Mithradates and Flynn’s transcript to understand the woman’s strange pronunciations now.

“And, how do we speak with him?” Elisha asks, feeling her skin prickle and go cold. She’s on the edge of a cliff she can’t put a name too, and gravity is tugging.

“God is Yggdrasil.”

No one breathes in the command lounge. Elisha is sure she misheard No One.

“I think the Society made a mistake,” Goetsch subvocalizes. “We’re in over our heads here. They worship a derelict.”

“Don’t you dare rabbit, Goetsch, this is not a threat, it’s just unusual,” Flynn hisses. “The Yggdrasil and the Odin held complete biospheres, it carried them here, made their colony, and saved them from the stellar incident, and has been their home ever since. That’s more like God than any other folk tale.”

Flynn’s theory is too sound, too neat. Elisha knows that it can’t be correct, as much as she wants it to be. There’s nothing logical or sane in No One’s shining eyes. This is no cargo cult. This is something else. She half-wishes Goetsch would pull the switch, sending the Mithra back to a safe distance. She needs time to digest.

“God says, there are four of you on your vessel,” No One says. “Three humans and something else. What is the other one?”

Goetsch spools up a half dozen feeds, shaking his head, then slides the reports over to Flynn and Elisha. The Odin has no functioning sensors that he can see. Nothing to scan them, nothing to distinguish passengers. The feed camera has only shown Elisha’s face, as per the Societies protocol. Goetsch throws up another cluster of feeds from Mithradates, an orange warning somewhere deep in his autonomous system, in maker control. He glares at Flynn and Elisha, eyes hard. Elisha feels the moment slipping out of her grasp.

“How do you know that, No One?”

“No One does not question God. It speaks, we listen.”

“When did you first know God?” Elisha twists the conversation, feeling a fierce protective urge to keep No Ones’s questions away from Mithradates, even as a cascade of little errors streams across her feeds. “When did he first speak to you?”

“You <unknown phrase> us mad,” No One says with a sympathetic cock of the head. It looks like sympathy and concern, but Elisha knows that body language will have shifted as much as words in a thousand years. “God was here, on the third world. He made us welcome, so that we might <unknown verb> him. He called to us, and we came, crossing the night ocean. When the star unfurled, desperate to undo the creation, God saved us as we saved him. And together, we waited. We waited for you.”

The last fragments of her fantasy fall to the floor, replaced by a swirling fog. These people are too far gone, driven mad by generations of scarcity and desperate survival. Elisha finds herself unaccountably angry, disgusted and embarrassed by the old woman’s mania, and lashes out with the only weapon at hand.

“Tell us about the bodies, around the Yggdrasil. What happened?”

“We did not speak God’s language, nor it ours.” No One says, waving her hand again in dismissal. “It took time and flesh to learn.”

“Is there anyone alive, aboard the Yggdrasil?”

“They are all alive. They are one with God. We few <unknown phrase> remain, suffering the separation, so that we might speak for them. Only three of you are flesh, God sees the false <unknown phrase>, and demands an answer: Who is the fourth mind?”

“Elisha,” murmurs Goetsch, “I think they did something to Mithradates. I don’t know how, we never dropped our counter measures for a second, but there was something in that signal.”

The small errors compound on the feeds, still nothing threatening, but now Mithradates admits with a sheepish tone that he may have been compromised, and that the maker subsystems are no longer responding. He doesn’t have anything like a most-likely to explain how, but he’s confident they can cut the signal and reboot him to flush the corrupted nodes.

“No One,” Elisha says, barely holding her frustration in check, “Much has changed since you were-”

No One’s face constricts into a pinched mask of rage, and she keens aloud, one high note. The other scarred faces take up the cry, a dissonant swelling of sound that overwhelms the audio feeds. The screen goes blank with another burst of static, and the chord hangs in the air like a foul miasma. A distortion passes across the dome of the lounge, and the image of the Odin and Yggdrasil suspended in front of them ripples.

“We’re done,” says Goetsch, “let’s move,” and not even Flynn challenges him. Elisha sits back into the couch, and secures her feet into the stirrups, ready for the acceleration. Goetsch pulls up a panel in the air, and executes a prepared sequence.

The dome vanishes.

Elisha sees the cold sterility of the room’s true walls without Mithradates’ images and overlays, and feels suddenly naked and entombed. She clicks her tongue, awaiting the entity’s response. Silence. The Mithra drifts in the void.

“Shit. Shit. Shit,” Goetsch hisses in the still air. Elisha can hear his tongue clicking frantically in time with her own. “Mithradates is gone.”

“No,” Flynn whispers, “No, he’s-”

The ship lurches as sudden acceleration throws them against the couches. One of Flynn’s legs slips from the stirrup, and she crashes back against the curved wall, her trapped leg twisting beyond the bone. Mithradates’ simulated dome reappears, washing the claustrophobic chamber away with a vast and yawning chasm. The Odin and the Yggdrasil loom above them, swelling to fill the vista.

Mithradates’ barks a dozen warnings on his return, most predicting his own imminent failure. The entity can’t give a most-likely for the cause, can only highlight a series of unexplainable interferences directly on his physical substrate, culminating with the Odin’s transmission moments before the crash. The Odin is hailing them again, and although Elisha screams at Mithradates to block the signal, No One’s face fills the dome. Behind her, the choir still hums a vile and slithering chord.

“God forgives your sins,” she sighs, her luminous eyes down cast. “God has turned the heart of your false mind, as It will yours.”

Elisha becomes aware that Flynn is screaming, her twisted leg still binding her to the couch. But it’s not a scream of pain. She’s pointing at the dome. At the Yggdrasil. The vast pockmarked sphere catches the light of the star, and Elisha sees it too.

From a hazy patch of frozen plant matter, something slithers into the night. A vast, braided rope of vines, steaming and cracking in the vacuum, reaches across the gulf. It freezes and shatters as it flows, tendrils across its surface cracking and drifting away, but from deep within the writhing mass, more vines emerge, flowing like water before they succumb to the primal cold.

They can do little but watch. Mithradates will only answer their queries with a stuttering series of lights and sounds that Elisha interprets as an apology.

The winding indigo tentacle splits at the tip and unfurls like a hand. One tendril freezes solid, cracking off and spinning away, and fresh vines burst from beneath the hardening carapace of ice to continue the slow, grasping motion.

Mithradates takes them right into the tentacle’s grasp, towards the oceanic bulk of the Yggdrasil. The Mithra’s hull shudders as the many-fingered hand closes around and locks them fast. Goetsch’s head slams sideways into the edge of the coach, and the impact jars Elisha so hard she bites the inside of her cheek. Flynn stops screaming when the motion forces another unnatural joint into her leg, and her eyes go dull and glassy against her pale face. The frozen web of vines envelops them, and begins to slide back into the opening, pulling the Mithra down to the surface of the ark.

The impact is almost gentle, sending soft reverberations down her spine as the Mithra slides into an organic dock made of indigo frost-covered flesh. Mithradates apologizes again, far away and quiet, and the images in the dome vanish. Flynn’s ragged breathing fills the dark, cramped space. Goetsch is up, fumbling with the buttons on the door’s physical panel, as Elisha struggles to free her feet. In Mithradates’ absence, the straps are reduced to mere dumb webbing, and she tears the tips of her fingers before she works herself free.

Elsewhere in the ship, they can hear the chimes of alarms and warnings as their airlock vents into the Yggdrasil’s atmosphere. Elisha’s ears pop violently when the pressure equalizes. Goetsch wraps his hand around a small yellow shock prod, holding it like a talisman out ahead of him and pulls the lounge door open. He vanishes down the hallway, the air swirling with his passage. A smell wafts towards her from outside, fecund and sweltering, like the raw interior of some great beast.

Elisha drifts to Flynn, checking for a pulse and finding only a faint hummingbird flutter. She clucks her tongue like a reflex and subvocalizes to Mithradates to administer emergency care but of course, there is only the thundering weight of his absence. She probes the dull walls, unfamiliar and alien without Mithradates’ overlays, in search of the compartment of emergency supplies but she cannot remember where it is.

From outside, she hears the whisper of something touching the walls, smooth flesh against metal and wood. The air stirs and it agitates the alien smell. It’s somewhat like ginger, a pungent spice on top of something else earthy, nauseating, and complex. Goetsch drifts through the doorframe, dragging his fingertips to slow his flight.

“It’s too late,” he whispers, looking back down the long central spine of the Mithra. “Sorry. We’re breached. Mithradates didn’t even get a chance to call for help, and all we have are the dumb mechanicals. We weren’t ready for this, Sha. Dumb fucking kids playing explorers.”

“We should stay here,” Elisha whispers, “We should stay here, barricade the lounge. Flynn needs us. If we can get Mithradates back online, we can launch the slipbeacon.” She doesn’t know if she’s pleading with a friend or giving an order to a subordinate, but he shakes his head, beads of sweat drifting away into the air.

“And then what? No one knows were here. You think the Society is going to take responsibility when we don’t contact them? We’re already gone. This thing got us. Came right in through the maker on that signal. I just… I just want to see it. You should too.” He grins, and Elisha can see rivulets of blood limning his teeth. “Here’s your contact.”

Elisha feels her tongue, heavy in her mouth. It feels like a slab of meat, not part of her body at all, and she knows he’s right. She nods once, and drifts back to Flynn, undoing the footstraps that trapped her shattered leg.

“We can’t leave her here,” she says, anticipating Goetsch’s impatience. “We go together.”

But he’s already gone, back down the hallway. Elisha follows, careful to protect Flynn’s leg, but it still bends and flows at unnatural angles as she pulls them down the spine of the ship.

Lights glow around the maker in the hall, a recessed cubby filled with an vibrant, alien green. A thick slime of plant matter is printed right onto the forgeplate, reeking of something sharp and alive. She can see where the slime has flowed and forced itself between the wood panels, deep into the guts of the ship. She imagines it coating the physical matter of Mithrdates mind. A biological hack, printed from their own compromised makers. She wants to scream, to tell the universe that it’s not fair, they couldn’t have known how to do any of this. But it’s right there for her to see and smell.

Something slithers at the far end of the corridor, casting indecipherable shadows in the emergency lighting, and the air shudders with a wet, cracking sound. Her body floods with cold and liquid fear, prickling her skin and stealing her breath, but she moves faster, even as Flynn begins to moan in her grasp. She’s so close now. The smell is overpowering and the air so thin she finds herself gasping for breath.

But Goetsch is right, she has to see.

She lets go of Flynn’s hand, and kicks off the ridged walls, leaving the comatose woman behind her. At the base of the spine she bounces off the end panel, and reorients her self to look down into the breached chamber of the ship, where the hull of the Mithra touches the hull of the Yggdrasil.

For a few swirling moments, her mind cannot fully comprehend what she sees. Her eyes see the countless fractured skulls with cloudy eyes embedded in the flesh of the massive plant. She can taste the hot copper of Goetsch’s blood in the air, and feel the warm flush of urine against her thigh. She can hear the slithering, yawning world beyond the breach, the interior chamber of the Yggdrasil. But she cannot accept it as a whole.

Not just yet.

When she does, she begins to scream.

A tentacle of purple flesh, flowering at the end into a dozen digits, floats in the air. Without a vacuum to slow and freeze it, the plant moves like a viper, shuddering and lined with thorny webbed vanes like a lizard’s crest. Three of the digits are probing the walls of the room. Another cluster of four tendrils are engaged in the slow dismantlement of Goetsch’s body. They’ve already twisted off one of the mans legs and as she watches, his left arm twists free, trailing a shiny beaded trail of blood in the air. Another digit laps the blood from the air. A few more tentacles are holding his head, digging into the raw stump of the neck and tearing at his jaw.

Embedded in the stalk of the wriggling vine are heads without jaws. Outside the gaping breach, in the Yggdrasil, there’s a vast jungle of swaying purple, dotted with skulls. Some are mere dark bruises in the plant’s flesh, but she can see thousands of human heads. Living heads, Elisha realizes, as hundreds of eyes track her silently. Still more eyes are clouded over, twitching and vibrating in their sockets, or dead and liquefying.

Here, at the base of the tentacle thrust deep into Goetsch’s skull, a pair of shining blue eyes watch Elisha. The upper half of a child’s face stares at her from the waxy surface of the plant.

Flynn’s limp body finishes its slow drift down the spine, jarring Elisha from her stupor. She turns to grab her friend and flee, to gain whatever seconds she can, when one of the digits, still smeared with Goetsch’s blood, reaches out and wraps around her throat.

She claws her hands upwards, to pry the thing from her neck, but it only tightens. Vines wrap around her shoulder, her knees, immobilizing her. They extend the sharp webbed vanes, biting through her coveralls and into her skin. They tighten again.

She wants to scream, but she cannot inhale. The webbed vanes bite deep again, and she feels one of her arms give way. The noose of vines squeezes her ruined shoulder, and the arm leaps away from her on a fountain of blood. She tries to look away, but all she sees Flynn, mercifully unconscious, as the woman is flayed and rendered.

Elisha’s legs go, one, then the other, and then the pressure at the base of her skull begins. She feels a shining wave of elation at the thought that she might die. The pressure builds, until it pops, flesh and thin bone giving way.

The last thing Elisha feels is the indescribable strangeness of something blossoming inside her skull.

***

Elisha drifts back to her body. She opens her eyes and sees her arms gliding past, wrapped in one thin vine. The pale white hands seem to wave goodbye. She wants to say goodbye too, but she doesn’t have a jaw.

But it’s all right, because she’s never been happier. The flashed image of her missing body still burns and crackles, a holy, glorious pain. Orgasm in a phantom limb. She shudders with happiness, her tear ducts clenching uselessly.

Her body will go to feed God, and she will tell It everything she knows. She would have offered herself willingly for the reward of becoming one with God.

It speaks directly to her, as it cradles her skull in its flesh. She knows how happy she has made God, and in turn how happy It has made her. They are new lovers. She can feel the hundreds of thousands of minds within God’s great body. Somewhere she can hear Goetsch, his mind a stuttering stream of praise for God. She can feel some small fragment of Flynn screaming, as Elisha herself had done before God filled her with light. She can feel all of them, a vast choir to God’s glory, and still she knows that she is special.

This is fate. This is the point that all worlds orbit around, the holy center. Without the miracle of the Yggdrasil, God would have been extinguished from the world, Its gifts denied to the galaxy. Without the Mithra, God would have stayed a prisoner above a dead world. But man and God were meant for one another, and Elisha will be at Its side when a billion years of waiting bears glorious fruit.

She is an prophet. She has brought God the gift of the slipdrive, and the knowledge to use it. God once covered a world, and now, thanks to her, It will stretch across the stars.

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2 thoughts on “Axis Mundi

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