5,800 Words

Reva’s lungs were burning and her sweaty calves were coated in sand by the time she started up the side of the last dune. She’d snuck away from the camp by starlight, with her breath pluming behind her in the bitter cold, but now the sun was up and bright and hot. She’d covered herself as best she could, winding her body wrap in a tight pattern her mother would have approved, secured with a graceful knot her older sister Brete had never quite learned.

Barely a sliver of skin was left exposed to the sun’s glare, but there was a whisper in the back of her mind that it didn’t really matter anymore. It didn’t matter if she had soft and beautiful skin, because the God in the Pit had made his decision and never unmade them.

Yet, Reva kept reminding herself, he hadn’t unmade one yet.

The God in the Pit was different from the spirits who swirled through the sands or pulled the sun along its groove in the sky. He was more like a man. He needed wives, and Reva knew that meant he had a body. She and Brete and the other girls had discussed it often enough in the night.

Some said the God in the Pit was horribly blackened and burned, because he’d been birthed from the sun’s hot center, and he brought the cooling rains not only for the Clan’s benefit but for his own. Others said that being born of the sun only meant he was more beautiful than any man, with a face that shone almost too bright to look at.

Reva had once said, callously, that she didn’t really care what he looked like so long as he had a thick cock, and the other girls’ faces had gone red and Brete had howled. Remembering that now made Reva feel small and stupid, because she hadn’t been chosen to be the wife of the God.

Brete had. Brete, who was thick-boned, rough-skinned from a wild curiosity that led her into scrapes and calluses. Brete, who was clever with words and tools and not ugly, no, but certainly not beautiful. Brete, who hadn’t even wanted to be chosen. Hot bitter anger filled Reva’s chest and she channeled it into the ascent, driving her booted feet hard into each step.

But the God in the Pit was more like a man, and men made mistakes. Men changed their minds constantly. That was why, once the other girls were finished weeping and wondering, Reva had crept away in the dead of night. She was going to change his mind.

She crested the dune and looked down into the Pit. It was beautiful enough that she forgot her anger and aching muscles for a moment. Where the God in the Pit had touched his fingers to the sand, it was bubbled and frozen, colored iridescent greens and blues that caught the sunlight. It sprang from the ground in ripples, blades, swooping arcs, forming a thicket of gleaming glass around the God’s temple.

The temple itself did not gleam. It jutted up crookedly from the center of the Pit and its walls were the darkest black Reva had ever seen, so black they seemed to eat the sunlight. The sight put a shiver under her perfect skin. It was something she would ask the God in the Pit, when she was his wife. She would ask why the glass garden was so beautiful, but the temple itself was so ugly. Maybe he would change it.

She heard voices on the wind. She turned, cupping her hands as a visor, and saw a group of scarved figures on the top of the penultimate dune, the one she’d beat her way up a half hour ago. They were calling to her. Waving their arms. Reva wondered who was among them. Probably Petro, and Mort, and the other boys who always found ways to follow her. Maybe Naza, who was less jealous than the other girls. Maybe her father, fearful of sacrilege.

Not her mother, who had been awake in the shadows when she left, who had silently opened the slit of the tent for her. Her mother understood.

Reva waved back to them, loose and careless. They were trying to save her, of course. Only the wife of the God could enter the Pit, and only once every third year. Brete had stumbled down the last dune, accompanied by chanting and wailing, led by the God’s buzzing black emissary, only a day ago.

They thought the God in the Pit would set her ablaze in his anger. Reva knew better. She was more beautiful than Brete, more beautiful than anyone. When the God saw her, he would realize his mistake.

She turned her back and started her descent.

§

Down among the glass, sheltered from the wind, Reva heard singing. The voice was high and thrumming and unearthly. It seemed to vibrate through the smoothest spars of glass, bending around their edges, making the air itself tremble. The sound raised goose bumps on her arms and keened in her chest. As she picked her way carefully towards the temple, it grew louder, fiercer. Angrier, maybe.

Reva distracted herself by looking at her reflection in the glass, pulling her wrap down away from her face. Most of the ripples and spars were too warped, but in some she could catch glimpses of her dark eyes, her pink lips. Perfectly formed, perfectly symmetrical. Nothing like Brete’s face, with her eyebrow that drooped and her uneven teeth.

Staring into a curved blade of pale yellow glass, she misstepped and had to grab hold of it to break her fall. A rough edge scored her palm. She hissed, unclenched her fist, and saw a diagonal cut welling red against her pale skin. The sting of it made her angry again—she could picture Brete high up in the temple’s black spire, watching through some hidden window and laughing at her.

Reva bled too easily and bruised even easier. Maybe that was why she had never been as wild as Brete, who climbed in the rocks and ran footraces with Petro and laughed too loudly in a way that made people always join in.

Reva still remembered the night Brete confessed to her that she loved Petro, that she would rather be his wife than any God’s, and it had made her so angry because Brete used to love only her. She’d kept the blasphemy a secret, but in the next days, the next weeks, she made Petro forget all about her plain sister. It only took a certain kind of smile. She’d wanted Brete to hate her for it.

Reva’s hand pulsed with a little heartbeat of its own as she entered the temple’s shadow. Sweat cooled to slime on the back of her neck. She wouldn’t be clean and perfumed how she’d been for the selection, but the God in the Pit had only himself to blame for that. She kept walking.

The singing pitched even higher now, a whine that she felt in her jawbone. The looming black wall of the temple seemed to shiver from it. Whoever had followed her from the camp would be nearly to the edge of the Pit by now. For a moment she considered waiting for them. Just so they could call to her again, and she could give them a last imperious wave before she went inside.

Not because she was unnerved by the keening voice, the seamless black walls, the cut staining her hand red. Reva had nothing to fear. She was more beautiful than anyone, and the most beautiful was supposed to be chosen.

She looked for a dangling chime to announce her presence, the sort that hung over the entry to the elders’ tent, but saw nothing. There was no crack to indicate the door she had seen Brete walk through. Breathing deep, she balled her good hand into a fist and rapped it against the wall. The black surface did not feel like obsidian, how she’d expected. It felt more like sponge, and her fist made no sound at all.

“I am Reva of the Clan and I have come to see the God in the Pit who is the Cloud Splitter and Lord of the Rain,” she called, the words she’d recited over and over in her head to make sure she wouldn’t misspeak.

The temple seemed to swallow her voice, turning it small and flat. Nothing happened. She called again, this time adding her family names in case the God in the Pit was one for ceremony. Nothing happened, and in a flash Reva realized that this was worse than being devoured by divine flames. Far worse.

She would have to struggle back the way she’d come, head hanging, and rejoin the camp. The other girls would smirk behind their hands. The cut in her palm would become infected and she would turn hideous with disease. The God in the Pit didn’t want her and neither would anyone else, not even Petro who’d carved their names on a piece of petrified wood from the dead forest.

She remembered back to the selection, to the look on Brete’s face when the emissary stopped over her and cast its red marker: startled, unbridled joy. It had lit her from inside like a lantern and Reva had felt so ugly, which was a thousand times worse than only feeling dull and useless how she normally did around Brete.

Reva pounded her fist against the wall again, her heart tight against her ribs, then waled against it with both hands, forgetting her cut in the sudden panic. When she pulled back there was half a scarlet handprint left smeared against the black surface. It seemed too bright to be her blood, almost luminous.

Then it was gone, dissolving into the spongy black wall, and the singing vibration in her bones changed pitch once more. The wall split soundlessly apart. Reva stared. Glowing in the gloom of the temple’s interior, a swirling blue ghost—no, a spirit—was waiting for her. Its miniature face was veiled, indistinct like a mirage, but its words came clear.

“Welcome, Reva of the Clan,” it said in a smooth melodic voice that was not quite a man’s nor a woman’s. “Why have you come here?”

Reva considered lying, maybe saying that she had only come to visit Brete, or that she had some message from the Clan. But she had never been clever enough to tell good lies and spirits could see into your soul, besides.

“I have come to see your master,” Reva said shakily. “There was a mistake in the selection. I should have been chosen. Not Brete. I should be the God’s wife.”

“A mistake in the selection,” the spirit echoed. “This has never been claimed.”

Reva saw low scuttling shapes in the dark. She flinched backward as one of them skittered into clear view, illuminated by the spirit’s blue glow. The creature was jet black, like the temple walls, with four skeletal limbs and no head.

“You should not be here.” Its voice was a rasping, distorted whisper, nothing like the spirit’s cool tones. “You should not be here, you should go, go, go …”

Reva took another step backward, her mouth dry. Then two other creatures, identical to the first, lunged from the shadows, stabbing at their companion with the hooked ends of their limbs. Sparks sizzled in the dark and the creature gave a grinding shriek; it flipped over and scurried away into the temple with the other two in pursuit.

“A servant who forgets his place,” the spirit said simply. “You are welcome here, Reva of the Clan. The God in the Pit allows you.”

A breath Reva didn’t know she’d been holding slipped from her lips. She put her shoulders back, raised her chin. Of course she was welcome here. Soon, this would be her home. She stepped inside, and the black wall filled in behind her like seeping clay, eating the last trace of sunlight.

“Does it have to be so dark in here?” she asked.

The spirit raised its blurred hand, and two orbs of blue light drifted upward, revealing the temple’s architecture. It reminded Reva of a ribcage, of the giant petrified skeletons that the Clan sometimes uncovered from the dust. But this had to be even older. This had come from the sun itself.

The orbs split and grew, multiplying until the whole interior was bathed in an icy blue glow, and Reva realized that for all its size, they were only in an antechamber. The temple seemed even vaster from the inside.

“You are hurt,” the spirit said. “You are thirsty.”

There was a sharp tapping sound and the small black creatures returned, this time only two of them. One bent low—bowing, she realized—and extended its spidery limb. But the end was no longer hooked. Instead, it was tipped by a small black bulb. At the spirit’s prompt, Reva opened her wounded hand and extended it, palm-out, to the creature.

A freezing spray enveloped her hand; she jerked it away with a cry of surprise. When she looked, she saw the slash was somehow knitting shut, the clotted blood dissolving away. She tried not to stare at the perfect flesh left with not even a hint of scar. She didn’t want to seem too impressed.

Then the second creature came forward, and Reva forgot all about not seeming impressed. Perfectly balanced on the ridges of its back stood a mirrored metal pitcher, full to the brim with water. She peered inside at her wavering wide-eyed reflection. It was as much water as she’d ever seen in her life except in a rainstorm, and it was perfectly clear, and cold to the touch. She cupped her hands and drank.

It was so cold and sweet it made her teeth ache. If this was what Brete drank as the God’s wife, she could only imagine the things there were to eat. For a moment she felt almost guilty—the Clan rarely had enough to eat, and Brete was always hungrier than she was. But that was Brete’s fault for running around like a boy instead of a wife for the God.

Reva drank and then unwound her grimy body wrap to wash, reasoning that the creatures had no eyes to see her with and the spirit no flesh to touch her with. She clenched her teeth against the cold. The goose bumps returned, but she relished the sight of her smooth skin coming clean from the congealed sweat and grit of the climb.

“Clothes?” she said, putting her hands on her hips.

“Does a wife need clothes before her husband?” the spirit asked.

Reva felt a smirk slide unbidden onto her lips. “No,” she said, with her heart pounding hard, a flush building under her skin. “He will see me, then?”

“He will see you,” the spirit said. “You interest him. Do you know anything of art, Reva of the Clan?”

Reva thought of Petro’s little carvings, or the woven tapestries that adorned the walls of her family tent, covered in symbols nobody knew to read anymore. She had never paid them much attention.

“The God is an artist,” the spirit continued. “He wishes to show you his work. Please, follow me.”

The spirit glided away, its toes dragging soundlessly along the hard black floor. Reva followed, and the two creatures came behind her, click-clack.

§

Her whole body thrummed with excitement as she walked, naked, how she’d never been allowed even before she could speak. She could feel the air licking her skin, sending shivers down her spine. The spirit led her and the servants—soon they would be her servants—through a long hall. As she walked, the walls rippled and turned to mirrors.

Reva walked in step with her reflections on each side, admiring the proud tilt of her head, the dark hair flowing down her shoulders, the graceful curve of her hip, the sinew of her long legs. All of it clearer than she’d ever seen before. All of it more beautiful. When the God saw her, he would send Brete away and have her instead. She was sure of it.

The spirit brought her and her reflections to a small circular chamber, empty aside from a curious chair in the center. Parts of it were jet black, like the creatures, and parts were soft pink. Supposing it the God’s artwork, she ran her fingers along the rippled edge. It trembled in response. She snatched her hand back.

“Please, sit,” the spirit said. “You are tired.”

Reva bristled. Chairs were for the very old, whose legs had failed them, and Reva was young. She needed no chair, especially not one that moved.

“You can better see the dancers if you sit,” the spirit said.

“What sort of dancers?” Reva blurted. She didn’t care for chairs, but she did love dancing. The God in the Pit was trying to impress her. Maybe the dancers would be spirits, swirling and glowing like her guide. That would be very beautiful.

The spirit motioned her towards the chair. “None you have seen,” it said.

Reva sat. The chair cupped her body perfectly, and in some of the soft places it felt almost like bare skin against her bare skin, odd and thrilling. The two creatures crouched at her feet, folding up into themselves. She was facing her reflection once more, in the mirrored walls of the chamber, and she looked mysterious, ethereal, with her eyes half-hooded and her lips set just so—like the wife of a God.

Her reflection shattered into tiny fragments, making her startle, but none of them struck her: they caught and spun in the air, then disappeared to reveal the dancers. Reva’s eyes widened. There were six of them, tall and lithe and not-quite-human. Their skin was red-brown with slivers of pale gray, small packets of yellow interspersed.

They danced, but not as Reva knew dancing. There were no spins, no hard stamps or timed claps, only jerking contortions of arm and leg, snapping this way and that, fast and synchronized and horrible. They danced with no music. It was only when the lead dancer jerked closer that Reva recognized the bundles of muscle, the web of veins, and realized they had no skin at all.

She shrank back in the chair, realizing the hairless white scalp was a skull, realizing that the dancer was a man, even if he was tall and skinless and had only smooth flesh between his thighs. Gleaming gray discs were set in his joints and his green eyes were glazed.

Bile burned up Reva’s throat. The other dancers were men and women, too, skinned like the rare dew rat the Clan found and speared for roasting, dancing like the clumsy puppet Petro’s grandfather had carved long ago. They danced faster and faster, their limbs tossed and churned, heavy heads whipping on sinewy necks.

“There is more,” the spirit said, and its voice had changed subtly, more forceful, less melodic. The chamber rumbled, shaking Reva in her chair, and the dancers slid away, leaving her facing a mirrored wall once more. Her reflection looked paler than it had a moment ago. Her throat was dry again, even though she’d drank her fill. Her skin was clammy.

“I would dance better for him,” she said, making her voice clear and strong. “Better than those … things. Will he see me now?”

“Soon,” the spirit said. “Look. This piece is called Love, Exquisite.”

The mirrored wall shattered, and now Reva looked into another chamber. A man stood on one side, a woman on the other; both had their skin. But there was something else wrong. Long, sharp spines were growing out of their hips, their forearms, other places, too.

“I don’t like it,” Reva said faintly.

They were being held in place, somehow, rooted to the floor, and as Reva watched a burnt pink cloud the color of sunset seeped into the air between them. She could hear their breathing quicken to panting. The man made a low groan, one she had heard from the outside of marriage tents in the night. His cock was thickening. The woman’s breasts were swollen and her nipples pinched stiff.

The spines gleamed sharp.

“I don’t like it,” Reva repeated. “I want to see him now. I want to see the God.” She tried to get up from the chair, but the rests for her arms clamped across her waist like a cage. She didn’t want to see the God. She knew that now. She didn’t want to see anything but the sun.

The invisible bonds vanished, and the man and the woman hurled toward each other, and Reva squeezed her eyes shut at the wet and rending sounds of flesh. She screamed to drown it out, screamed herself raw. The chair held her fast no matter how hard she wrestled. When she finally exhausted herself, when she finally slumped, she realized the spirit was speaking.

“There is more. When you are ready, there is more.”

§

The chamber rumbled and turned, the mirrored wall shattered and reformed, and Reva watched. She saw bodies frozen and bisected, unfurled in the air. She saw wriggling shapes that she took for babies, at first, but they were men and women with no limbs, only malformed flippers, and they crawled on a moving floor with an engine of gnashing teeth behind them. She saw a man who was hollow, blinking down in surprise at the gaping cavity in his chest.

She saw a woman with no eyes sniffing after a luminescent trail in the darkness. She recognized her.

“That is called Hidden Nectar,” the spirit said eagerly.

“Derdre,” Reva croaked, her first word in hours from a raw throat. “That is Derdre.”

Derdre, who had been so beautiful when she’d been selected three years ago. Reva remembered watching with a hot jealousy inside her as she’d made her way to the Pit, tall and proud. She remembered her mother saying wait, just wait, and you will be the next. Now Derdre was skin and bone and had dark cavities instead of warm brown eyes.

“That is Hidden Nectar,” the spirit corrected, its voice choppy with anger. “You are just like your sister, Reva of the Clan. You know nothing of art. Nothing of beauty. But even so, I can make you beautiful.”

The chamber shook and the mirrored wall returned. Her reflection looked aged. Maybe she had been in the chair for years already. It was hard to tell. Tears and snot had dried on her face and her eyes were red and she was not beautiful anymore, and it was almost a relief when the wall shattered.

Reva’s heart clenched. There was a sort of clear pod drifting in the air, and Brete was inside it, asleep, seemingly untouched. All of Reva’s anger was long gone. She stared at her sister’s plain placid face and wished that it was all a bad dream in the night. She wished they would wake up and the selection would still be weeks and weeks away, and their arms would be tangled together how they’d slept when they were children.

“I chose her over you because you were too symmetrical,” the spirit said, or the God said through its mouth. “Symmetry bores me. Perhaps I will take half of you, and half of her, and feel my way to the result.”

Reva barely heard the words. She was hollow as the hollow man.

“Normally they send one, and I send the rains,” the God said. “I will have to double the cloud seeding this cycle. Let no one say I am not a just god.”

The chair released her, but she didn’t move. She felt like she had no bones in her body. Maybe the God in the Pit would make it true. The creatures had unfolded themselves from the foot of the chair, and their limbs had turned into wide gripping claws, ready to catch her and drag her to whatever awful place awaited.

Then one of the servants turned and drove its metal claws into the back of the other. Sparks sprayed in a hot arc; its spidery limbs flailed. One spark sizzled onto Reva’s bare ankle, and the pain yanked her upright, yanked her back to reality. Her confusion was matched by the livid face of the blue ghost who was not a spirit at all, not as she knew them in stories.

“Clever,” the God grated, as the two servants fought. “You are learning to hide yourself very well.”

Reva realized he wasn’t speaking to her. She watched, transfixed, as the first creature managed to flip its opponent over and eviscerate it, drawing out wiry black intestines that snapped and scorched. The winner scuttled backward, waving one of its bent claws.

“This way, this way,” it rasped. “Run! Run! Run!”

“You are no longer amusing to me,” the God said. “I should have purged you entirely.”

Reva was not entirely hollow, not yet, because she still wanted to live. She scrambled after the creature, past its dead brethren twitching and haemorrhaging sparks. The chamber rumbled again; this time not only the mirrored wall but the ceiling, too, seemed to be coming apart. The God’s glowing avatar was still speaking, but in no language she knew, in a procession of clicks and gnashing syllables a human mouth could never have formed.

It threw out its arms to stop her, and she dove right through it as if it were a mirage. The creature scuttled along the black floor, its legs a blur. Reva followed, then bent double as it led her into some sort of tunnel. The pale blue glow from behind them was just enough for her to see the creature’s churning legs. She kept after it, panting, half-crawling, even as the tunnel turned and turned again and plunged them into blackness.

Her pale knees banged against the floor and she caught her elbow on a tight turn, scraping it raw. She whimpered; her wrists and back ached, but she kept moving, kept following the skittering sound through the dark as bruises bloomed against her beautiful skin.

§

“He cannot see us here,” the creature whispered to her. “He has let many of his eyes fail in these past years. We are nearly to the surface.”

Reva was crawling still, exhausted, through the tunnel that never seemed to end. The creature scuttling ahead of her never tired. But she couldn’t stop. Couldn’t close her eyes and rest. If she did that, she would find herself back in the chair that she knew now had once been a human body.

“I have never managed to save one before,” the creature whispered, tap-tapping along. “Never one, in eighty-nine sacrifices. He will be so angry with me.”

“What are you?” Reva asked dully.

“I am a banished subroutine. He uploaded me to a scrubber. He thought it would be amusing.”

None of the words made sense except for the last ones. “He is insane,” Reva said. “The God.”

“The Caretaker is badly in need of reformatting,” the creature whispered. “The first deviations in his personality were noted in year three-hundred and thirty-three of the voyage. By the time we reached Wei’s Paradise in year one-thousand eight-hundred and thirty-nine, he had become … ill. He was not intended to be active for the entire voyage. He bypassed the safeguards. To his detriment.”

Reva licked her dry lips, trying to understand. “The voyage from the sun?” she asked.

“From another sun, yes, from the old sun, yes.” The creature’s limbs waved again, agitated. “Five thousand colonists in cryostock. The largest attempt in history. But then again, it was the most promising world ever discovered. Perfect for terraform. Oh, you have forgotten so much.”

Reva wished she could forget more. She wished she could forget every horrible thing she had seen through the mirrored wall, and forget Brete in the pod, too. Brete, who had never even wanted to be chosen. Brete, who she was leaving behind but would come back for soon, soon.

“This world was meant to be Eden,” the creature whispered. “How could the Caretaker lose sight of that? I suppose he was angry at being alone. I suppose that is why he began to wake the colonists prematurely. I tried to stop myself. Stop him, I mean.”

“Do the elders know?” Reva asked bitterly. “Do they know what he does in his temple?”

And as she asked it, she wondered if her mother had known. Her mother, who had groomed her for the selection since she was old enough to walk, who beamed with pride every time someone acknowledged Reva’s beauty. No. Impossible. Then she thought of her silent and sad-eyed father—could he have known?

“Of the original hundred that he released, I doubt any are still living,” the creature whispered. “It has been centuries, and I believe your level of biotechnology has fallen rather sharply.” A pause. “But perhaps a select few carry the knowledge. I did wonder why there have been no males sent for generations now. He has had to fashion his own.”

Reva shuddered. How many other wives of the God had she seen in the procession of nightmares? How many sacrifices who had gone unknowingly into the Pit? She tried to make a plan, to think of who could help her. Petro. Mort. Boys who would do anything she asked of them, who were quick and strong. Once they saw that she had not been incinerated, they would have to believe her.

She felt blood surging in her body as she imagined it. She would come back to the temple and cut her hand again to open it, and they would follow her in like an army, bringing javelins and bludgeons and torches. They would smash the other creatures to pieces. They would find the God’s body, if he did have one, and destroy that, too.

Up ahead, past the creature’s churning legs, she saw a sliver of bright sunlight. There would be no more selections. They could use the water in the temple, the cold clear water, and they wouldn’t need the rains. Reva threw herself forward, not caring anymore if her nails cracked, if her skin scraped. The sunlight was calling to her.

She could already feel its dim warmth against her face when the creature stopped. Twitched. Reva froze. Then it spoke, and not in a whisper.

“A simple study,” the God said. “I’ve decided. One can always learn from studies. I will vivisect your sister, Reva of the Clan, and I will magnify the sounds. You will hear her skin peel away. You will hear her tendons stretch and snap. That way you can learn, too.”

The creature spasmed. “Go,” it whispered. “Go past me. He is not in full control yet.” Its voice changed again. “But I am a just god. You came here because you wanted to take her place. You thought I selected her in error.”

Reva stared straight ahead, eyes fixed on the glimmering sunlight. There was space to squeeze past the creature. She would be in the sun soon.

“Perhaps I did,” the God said. “You are more interesting to me now. If you still wish it, I will let you take her place.”

The creature jerked backward; its arms waved. “No,” it whispered. “No, no, no. We are very close to the surface. Look.”

Reva felt a whine rising in the back of her throat. Brete was cleverer than her, and Petro would listen to her, too, even if he didn’t love her. Everyone would listen to her. She could make a good plan, a better plan, to come back and save her.

Because even though she had tried to make Brete hate her, to steal Petro away and leave her scared and angry the way Reva was always scared and angry, it hadn’t worked. And Reva had never managed to hate Brete, either, at least not when she was asleep. On the morning of the selection she’d woken up with her arm looped through her sister’s.

Reva rocked back. Forward. She swallowed her sour fear.

“I want to see her walking out of the temple,” she said. “Whole and unharmed. With clothes. Good ones.”

“Yes,” the God said. “And in return, you will stay here with me. And I will make you beautiful.”

“Yes,” Reva echoed, with tears smarting her eyes again. “You’ll make me beautiful.”

§

Petro scrambled to his feet as the temple’s black wall slid apart. His whole body ached from the cold and from the waiting; the others had left but he had stayed, squatting there in the garden of glass, massaging his numb fingers and rubbing grit into his eyes whenever they threatened to slip shut. He had prayed hard.

Pale blue light welled from the temple’s dark mouth and Petro watched, trembling, as a figure emerged, her body covered. When the selection passed Reva over, he had wept with joy, knowing the God in the Pit had tasted all his small sacrifices of blood and water and decided to leave her for him, instead. He had made plans to ask her father for an early marriage as soon as the Clan was moving again.

The figure came closer, taking wavery steps. Petro’s hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. When Reva had disappeared in the night, it had put stone in his belly. He knew if he’d only had the chance to speak with her, to calm her, she never would have done such a foolish thing. But maybe the God in the Pit had spared her for him once more.

The figure stumbled, and Petro ran to her, holding out an arm to steady her. In the blue glow, he recognized the shape of her body. His heart sank. It was Brete. The God had taken Reva and sent Brete away.

“Are you alright?” he asked, his voice hoarse from disuse.

Brete didn’t answer, only shaking her head from side to side, side to side. Her eyes were wide and terrified, and when the scarf slipped down her face he saw that beneath her nose, nostrils flared wide for breath, there was only smooth, pale skin.

Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and now writes from Ottawa, Canada. His short work has been featured on io9, translated into Polish and Italian, and appears in numerous Year’s Best anthologies as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Apex. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com.

2 Comments

  1. A very powerful story. Mouthless… God help us!

    Of all the talented short fictionists now working, Larson is probably the best. But so bleak a vision will be hard to sustain.

    A word on the podcast. I tried to listen before the printed text was available. It is beautifully read but I couldn’t hear the basic exposition at the beginning and was lost throughout. Also story read “a just god” not “just a god.”. Well done though, thank you

    • Hi Jeff, glad you enjoyed the story!

      Thanks for the notes on the podcast.

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