Before they left Lunad on a stolen continent ship in search of the farthest god, Wasa’s job was water.
The Lunad Womens Prison was a pit built down into the moonrock, accessible only by a single hatch. The hydro converters were in the belly of the pit, deep in the water, grinding and groaning all night. Wasa slept in a cot near the wells. Her days were spent scrubbing the sides of the wells and lowering buckets to bring up water for the terrace girls.
The day that Vi came to her Wasa felt awful. Nightmares about little boys and their open pleading mouths stuffed with medical cotton had plagued her, and she was wondering how long it would take to drown in a well.
“Have you heard about us, The Lunadii?” Vi had asked.
Wasa pleaded ignorance, but really, she knew. Forget the guards, forget the forces of nature: The Lunadii was the prime authority in the prison.
“The closest Gods are just beyond Alpha Centauri,” Vi says now. They are in the control room of the continent ship. It is lit in orange and has vaulted ceilings and reminds Wasa of an abandoned church.
Wallace, the continent ship AI, stands next to her, clean in his work smock.
“Yes, this is what I’ve been told,” he says.
“How many are there?”
“Give me a fucking estimate.”
“Tell me about them.”
“How many times are you gonna want to hear this?” Wasa asks.
Vi sits down at one of the dead consoles and scrubs her face with her palms, which means she is pissed.
“The nearest Gods are, more likely than not, hostile to…” Wallace lets the sentence hang, unfinished.
“We’re pilgrims,” Wasa says.
“They will likely not regard you as such,” Wallace answers.
It is so empty in the control room that their breaths echo.
Of course, a functioning continent ship could house millions, but right now it contains forty three Lunadii gangsters, and Wallace and the Nav Officer. The Lunadii live in ad hoc villages in the wide thoroughfares surrounding the control room.
Every night Wasa and Vi sleep in the control room. Vi thinks it makes the girls feel better to have them there, separate—although only Wallace can really control the ship. But they can control him through something much more ancient and darker than a continent ship’s controls.
Every night, before she sleeps, Wasa walks through the villages. She talks to the women. She reminds them they are Lunadii. She reminds them that they were the toughest people that ever walked down into the pit of the Lunad Womens Facility. She subtly reminds them they were terrified when they were approached by Vi and her wild eyes. Wasa is not subtle when she reminds them of how proud they were once they’d proved themselves tough enough to be in The Lunadii, or how safe they felt with their new sisters at their sides.
Tonight Vi walks with her.
“You see Tyne back there? Skin and bones,” Vi says.
“We’re giving them all the food we can.”
“I know it.”
Back in the Lunad Facility, pleading ignorance with Vi hadn’t worked long. Wasa might have lived in the lowest extreme of the pit and only walked the terraces once, on her way down to the water, but of course she knew there was only one real power here. The guards lived close to the hatch and only walked the terraces during the day cycle. At night the whole place belonged to the gangsters, to the Lunadii.
Vi’s pitch was simple.
“If you want to keep sleeping next to the water, down here away from everyone, you’ll be our friend. I mean, why not? Without the Lunadii those pig faces would be fucking us every night like they were when I got here.”
Wasa agreed because she knew Vi’s subtext: Be our friend or die. Or worse, get traded to the pig-faced guards, a message written in her own blood on the back of her jumper—we don’t protect this girl.
Lunadii came down every night and Wasa let them lower each other into the wells to swim and drink their fill of the water. When they were lifted back up, swollen and wet and naked, scrawled in their homemade tattoos, they were always laughing. Not so bad.
But then one night Vi arrived with three other women, dragging a girl with them. Her hands were bound behind her and they rested her belly-down on the edge of the well while they tied her feet to a long rope.
“That’s drinking water,” was all Wasa could think to say.
“Shut up, or you’ll go in too,” Vi told her, then vaulted the girl’s feet so she flipped and fell into the well, screaming down into the darkness.
Vi’s enemies never lasted long.
In the control room of the continent ship, Wallace explains the difficulties of the closest gods, the angry ones.
“Each has its own star system. They inhabit the star itself, but their influence extends significantly beyond it, to the planets. Beyond even that.”
“They’ll stop us,” Vi says.
“It is a likely outcome that they will interfere with the ship.”
“How do you mean?” Wasa asks.
“The gods are all different. Judging specifics is problematic.”
“If you don’t learn to fucking speculate,” Vi says.
“Outcomes include a given god hurling a found projectile at the ship.”
“We have shielding,” Wasa says.
“Outcomes include more than one projectile. Consider a thousand rocks. Consider a million.”
“Rain us to pieces,” Vi says.
Wasa steps to the edge of the light in the control room and thinks about what it must be like with a full crew. Noise; uniforms; the ceiling echoing the busy, official life below.
In prison, rumors are instantaneous. Wasa had heard about the continent ship even in her pit. The word was this: On its way back to Earth, a visiting continent ship had come to rest on Lunad. It was a publicity stunt, promotion for the new colony. From Earth the ship looked like a city resting atop the moon.
The ship was bound to hover geosynchronous over the Indian subcontinent. Over two years it would take on thirty million people. On the last day of boarding it would drift toward the sun, gathering energy to leap out of normal space. The destination was a colony thirty light years away, through the wedge of free space opposite the angry gods. At the moment the ship stopped at Lunad Womens Facility there was a crew of ten, and most of the ship was dark and uninhabited.
Who would’ve thought the Lunad Facility was dangerous? It’s a small prison buried in the moon with a guard to prisoner ratio of one to three, and if you’ve seen the pictures, it was medieval. Close to the hatch stone hallways opened up into tight kill zones flanked by gun positions. In a riot the whole place went black and the guards used night vision. In the worst case the hatch had autobolts that shot it closed, and turned Lunad into a large, locked cell.
Vi’s Lunadii gangsters had friends everywhere, though, not just in the water pits. There were girls, the young and pretty ones (thank god I’m not pretty, Wasa thought during her first month on Lunad) who had heard the pitch from Vi too. Be Lunadii or die: and they were sent up to the guards. They became lovers with certain guards and in bed every night slowly worked secrets from them.
When the continent ship stopped at Lunad it was all the guards could talk about.
By now Wasa and Vi had become friends, and when Vi mentioned the continent ship, Wasa knew exactly what to do.
“We should take it,” she told Vi one night.
But Vi couldn’t plan, and other Lunadii were used to the pit and couldn’t picture something as ambitious as hijacking a continent ship. Wasa had to plan the whole thing. One night cycle the pretty girls sliced their lovers’ femoral arteries and opened the locked doors. Lunadii poured through the kill zones and into the armory closets. Vi herself had night vision goggles on when the darkness fell; she also had a shotgun. She moved through the stone hallways sloppily blasting away at guards and even their pretty-girl lovers who were running toward her, shouting her name. Before Wasa knew it they had the last CO strapped to a table in the mess hall. Vi was giddy, laying knives by size in rows as she explained it to him.
“You’ll tell us how to get on that continent ship. We’ve had years to think about how to hurt you. Between us we have centuries. Millennia.”
In the end he gave up every password and gate code and the Lunadii streamed through into the continent ship.
Back in her old life, Wasa had designed continent ships. Or not exactly: she had worked in a government office that oversaw the construction of them. Her job was to review the plans and compare them to the progress reports being transmitted from the edge of the solar system. She had dusty old AI programs, very sub-Wallace, to help her, and they spent days comparing blueprints to bot-cam shots of bare, grey construction. When the reality of the ship didn’t match the plan they sent new instructions to the bots. After construction was finished a fixed number of the construction drones were attached to its vast outer shell and blew in focused explosions to propel the continent ship back to Earth for the finer work of solar harvest plating and the installation of a city-sized light speed engine, lifted up into the hole in its belly that would be closed behind it.
Her only original contribution to the design of the continent ships she worked on was the idea of communal water pits.
The engineers had been passing around angry rants about the amount of faux grav needed to keep water flowing through the miles and miles of plumbing hairballed in the walls of the ship. So, simple: make the colonists walk to a well for water. Not far. A quarter mile. But the faux grav cascades can be centralized. And the colonists can take part in this ancient human activity, walking, drawing water, forming communities.
Wasa had been married to a quiet, gentle man. Summoning his memory, as she sometimes did in the pit at Lunad or even now on the continent ship, was to be with a soft-shoed ghost.
He’d been a different man at the trial.
Wasa’d had three children, three boys: Nat—five; James—two; and Vik—one. One night she drowned them in the kitchen sink, one by one, oldest first, and laid their bodies out on the tile countertop like fish. She couldn’t remember it at all. Coming to herself in jail, as therapists and lawyers showed her the footage from her kitchen cam, as her husband screamed about the vanished boys—not so quiet now, Samuel—Wasa felt like someone was taking her blood, mouthful by mouthful.
She had known what she was doing, the judge decided.
The prison shuttle was a spoked honeycomb of coffin-sized containment units and Wasa was strapped to a table and slid into one. Next stop Lunad.
It was almost a year later that the Lunadii stormed the ship. Wasa sprinted on with the first of them. What the women did to the crew was horrendous. But Wasa told them there was only one they couldn’t touch: The Nav Officer.
Continent ships are so complex that an officer corps is an anachronism. No human could run the show. And a group of humans trying to make decisions at light speed, that was ridiculous. Instead, each ship had a cutting-edge AI program. As a hologram it walked the hallways and sat in on meetings and visited communities in the huge ship. This continent ship has Wallace, a complete hologram deity. To make sure that each AI would wield its power wisely, they were raised with human children, usually in an officer’s family. Wasa and her husband and boys had once visited a commander’s house and saw his toddler running around with a toddler AI program. They played and conspired. It had a name and everything. This was the best security system anyone knew: teach the AI to respect life by raising it like a child. Wallace had been raised by a host family in Colorado, with their daughter, who would become a Nav Officer on this very continent ship.
In that sense, the problem of the angry gods has only one solution.
Wasa and Vi open the supply closet by shooting the bolts. Inside, the Nav Officer sits tied to a chair, reeking of her own feces, blindfolded, her hands in two bloody bundles at her sides. Wasa has made sure Wallace would be there. At the sound of the door the woman shifts and moans.
“I’m thirsty,” she says.
The rough-hewn walls stink of mildew.
Vi steps closer. “You saying that makes me want to kill you, good idea or not.”
Vi lifts the woman’s hand to the table and unwraps it. She has three fingers left, and no fingernails. Vi rips off a length of duct tape immobilizes the woman’s hand.
“What do you think of that?” Vi asks.
“It hurts,” the woman screams. “Please.”
But Vi had been talking to Wallace.
“I’m still unclear as to your motivation,” he answers.
Vi raises a hammer and shatters the woman’s hand. She chokes on her scream and lashes her head side to side.
“My motivation, you dumb motherfucker? What do you think?”
“The angry gods,” Wasa says.
“You hope that torturing her will motivate me to find a novel solution to the problem of the closest gods,” Wallace says.
“Yes, dummy. Get us past the gods.”
“Or watch us cut this girl apart,” Wasa says.
Wallace’s expression cracks. “Please. I was raised with her. She is my sister.”
Bullshit, Wasa thinks. She’s your control panel.
Before they can hurt her again, Wallace starts to speak.
He has been thinking about a solution to the problem of the angry gods. It has only been theorized, and would be, he hopes, unknown to them.
The engine of the continent ship is a kind of potentials machine. Theory suggests that the moment a plotted course is engaged a billion ships pop into existence for just a second, one for every direction the actual ship might take. In the skull, the experience of it will be pure light, every neuron firing at every other, the brain going small-scale supernova.
“This technology did not exist when the gods left Earth,” Wallace says. “There is a chance that they will not predict its use. And that in that small fraction of time, if they decide to attack us, there is a larger chance they will destroy other ships, not us.”
Vi smolders; Wasa stares. This is the best Wallace can do.
“Okay,” Wasa says. “Do what you’re going to do.”
“Go wait with the other Lunadii,” Wallace says. “I will begin the computations.”
Vi and Wasa wait in the village outside the control room, watching the Lunadii laugh and play cards with strips of fabric.
“I used to pray to Old Tokoloshe,” Vi admits.
“You did? Why?”
Vi shakes her head. “ ‘Cause she was the one who got things done, dumbass.”
Hundreds of years ago vessels very much like continent ships were put together in the Oort belt and tugged close to Earth. Cities were different then. Narrow squalid streets were abandoned by police: tribes of children would skin you. Block to block wars raged. Anything more than rolling in armored columns or digging the occasional filthy well was beyond most governments.
The ships were huge armored structures full of computers that could hold the minds of those rich enough to buy and have themselves uploaded into them. Heads of state and industry, mostly. The old pictures show processions that stretched ten miles, rolling feasts, thousands of citizens hemmed in by soldiers and jamming their faces with food. At the root of the procession was the wealthy leader, and at the end of it was the ship. Pictures show this too: the leader stepping up a long metallic plank, lying down into a couch of nested cable, and plugging in to it. The leader was uploaded, a perfect copy of her mind created in the ship.
But this was just a transit phase. Once the new ship launched and found its own star, it would fall into it. The ship and the leader’s body would flash out of existence, but the real magic of the ship was that when superheated it became a spreading net of AI neurons. A trillion-trillion connections, a blazing nuclear soup; the leader’s now-godlike mind became one with the star.
Two hundred years after the ships left Earth, governments had changed, wars passed. Cities reformed.
The gods began to talk.
Certain sects still prayed to them by pointing transmissions in the direction they’d gone. The prayers were answered, never directed to the governments in power, but to the faithful. The angry gods had been the first to leave, and were the closest to Earth. They were despots when they were human, and sent monologues of hatred and fear. Vi’s chosen one, Tokoloshe, was known to tell you secrets about those you loved—only things to hurt them with: if they were cheating, who they owed money to, just what kind of betrayal could push them into suicide. Praying to Tokoloshe gave you weapons. There were other angry gods. Fantus. Sin. Hound. William the Lonely. They sat in a half-orb, spread out light years from Earth, eating any space probe that came their way.
But there was a God beyond them, Asha. During life she’d been a leader of a small North African city collective. Those who prayed to her said she answered with hope. We are, all of us, fragments of stars, she taught, a part of the lifecycle of vast incandescent beings that ended their lives by casting new matter in all directions. Some of this matter sat cold in meteor belts. Some of it got up and walked around. Some of it achieved consciousness.
“Why did you give up on Tokoloshe?” Wasa asks.
“Couldn’t live for Toko anymore. All she ever wanted me to do was hurt things.”
“I never prayed to any of them,” Wasa says. “My dad told me they didn’t exist.”
Vi laughs like she is about to say something, then Wallace’s solution hits them like an ocean of light.
Wasa wakes up first. Vi is next to her, dazed and grumbling. She pulls Vi to her feet and they run to the control room.
Wallace stands in the center of the room, glacial in his work smock.
“My conjecture was correct,” he says. “When we neared the wedge of space understood as the influence-area of the closest gods—the angry gods, in your parlance—ship sensors indicated that numerous objects were being propelled toward us. At that moment I ordered the ship to light-speed just past the closest gods.”
“To where?” Vi asks.
“Procyon. As you requested.”
“Yes. The objects directed at us almost all missed, destroying some of the alternate versions of us that were created by the light speed drive. The paralyzing light you experienced was the result of the emergence of a billion different yous and the almost-instantaneous flash out of existence of those same yous. That is according to the theory behind the engine, of course.”
Vi steps forward. Wasa recognizes the look she has as joy, but to Wallace it probably looks like rage.
“See?” she says. “I knew your genius would come out once we started cutting things off of the Nav Officer.”
“I was raised with her,” Wallace answers. “She is my sister. Please remember that.”
“I got all kinds of sisters. All out there in that village,” Vi says. “Remember that.”
Walking out by herself, brave from Wallace’s success with the angry gods, Wasa finds a survivor of the crew down the vast way from the farthest Lunadii village. He is out near the boundaries of the hall light, crouched behind a tree in a dead orchard, snuffling in the false-dusk. His leg is bandaged in a filthy rag. He doesn’t so much as flinch when he sees her.
The nameplate on his uniform says Belker.
“What did you eat this whole time?” she asks.
An exhalation: “Leaves.”
“This dead shit?”
“You all didn’t take very good care of the ship.” She points at the rows of dead amra trees, hog plums clustered in deflated stacks.
“We let them die. We were going to have the colonists dig them up and replant.”
“People need something to do on a ship.”
Belker shifts uncomfortably.
“You going to kill me?”
“I could. I could bring Vi out here.”
“Whoever that is,” Belker winces, “sounds like a bad person.”
“Where are we?”
“We passed the angry gods.”
He breathes in a different way. “No one’s ever done that.”
He winces again and he seems younger, the way kids are when they’re in pain.
“Stay here,” Wasa says. “I’ll be back.”
“No. I’m going to bring you some food.”
As Wasa gathers food, Vi stands near her, chewing a piece of leather. Wasa focuses on hoping that Vi does not ask her whom the food is for. The village is quiet around them.
“What’s it going to be like?” Vi asks. “To meet Asha.”
“I don’t know.”
“I picture lots of light.”
“What do you think she’ll do with us?”
It is the same question and Wasa doesn’t answer it.
“The guy I killed that got me in Lunad… Wasa, I didn’t have to. I killed him because I wanted to,” Vi says, out of the blue.
“That fucker put his hands on my sister. She has Downs Syndrome. We’re too poor to get her resequenced. The motherfucker puts his fingers in her. She comes home crying, man, these big sad eyes—Wasa, you wouldn’t believe how mad I got. So I found him and got all flirty. I got him drunk. He’s wearing this nice leather coat. As he’s talking and talking I go to the bathroom then walk up behind him and real subtle trickle lighter fluid all over the back of his jacket, then down his neck. I could see it mix with his sweat. In my other hand I had the lighter.”
Vi raises the leather to her mouth and bites.
“Here’s the thing,” she says. “I saw him again today in the hallway, walking right at the edge of the light.”
“The man you killed?” Wasa asks, staring at the food she is collecting.
“The same.” Vi’s mouth is dry and her chewing sounds like grinding bones. “Let him stand in one place long enough. I’ll kill him twice.”
Belker is grateful for the food, but doesn’t say it. He eats the bacon and eggs that Wasa brought for him, mouthful after mouthful. The orchard is quiet around them.
“Wallace tell you yet?” he asks.
“Tell me what?”
“We’re close to the last god. To Asha.”
“How do you know?”
Belker shrugs and rests his hand on his belly. It must be some kind of spaceman’s instinct, Wasa thinks, thus and such a distance past the angry gods is Asha. Easy to figure out.
“You know what they say about the gods?” he asks.
“They’re dreaming about home. And we’re the dreams.”
Belker sighs and places the empty food tray next to him.
“Sure it is, Wasa. Stupid.”
The next day Wallace appears to Wasa as she walks through the village. It is empty and had been that way when Wasa woke up.
“Where is everybody?” Wasa asks.
“Internal sensors locate the Lunadii in different parts of the ship.”
“I don’t know. They walked out into the hallways.”
“There’s no power. It’s dark for miles out there.”
“Yes. And they left individually, each alone.”
“I should get Vi. Bring them back. We’re close to Asha, right?”
“They must’ve wanted to be alone,” Wallace says.
Wasa looks around the empty lean-tos and welded-open drums that the Lunadii have been living in.
“I’ve come to ask you to let the navigator, my sister, go,” Wallace says.
“Why would I do that?”
“Why not? In two days the ship will have fully decelerated. Whatever happens, it will depend on the god, or on you. But certainly not on me maneuvering the ship.”
Wasa thinks about it.
“Vi,” she says, wondering how she’d feel about letting the Nav Officer go.
But when she finally decides and walks back to the supply closet she finds Vi there too. They go at it together, cutting the tape that holds the Nav Officer in place and gently raising her to her feet. Vi even smoothes her hair. When the woman’s blindfold is removed and she sees Wallace something passes between them and she bursts into tears. He settles next to her, whispering a song.
Vi and Wasa sit with food spread out on a drum between them. There isn’t much left, only enough for one meal scavenged from the upended containers the Lunadii stripped. But who cares, Wasa reasons. We have arrived at Asha, the last god. If nothing is here we might as well starve—we’re not spacemen.
“I followed him,” Vi says, biting a sandwich.
“The man you burned?”
“Yes. I didn’t finish the story. I burned him and he ran out into the alley. He fell down. I hit him with a trashcan and killed him. They tried me for murder.”
“He’s here? You followed?” Wasa asks.
“But I lost him. He walked out into the darkness.”
Wasa chews her own sandwich and tries to comprehend the vastness of the ship around them. Bot cam views fill her mind. Miles and miles of hallway, of open parkspaces, of the wells in between, of areas that were seeded into forests by arks fired out to the distant construction sites—dead forests in the darkness. You could die walking in a continent ship and never see the same hallway twice.
Not that it matters in the dark.
“I haven’t seen any weird shit yet,” Wasa says.
“You think it’s Asha,” Vi says. “But it’s not. That guy I saw was real.”
After they finish eating Vi curls up in a discarded blanket on the deck and goes to sleep. Wasa takes half a sandwich through the dead orchard. She finds Belker unmoved, chewing a leaf.
“Here’s this,” she says, “if it seems better.”
He smiles and rubs his hands together and the sandwich is gone in two bites.
When he is done he looks at her.
“Was it so bad on Lunad?”
“All I heard was that it was nice. Everyone has their own room. Good faux grav. Contact with Earth.”
“We had cells, most of us. I slept next to the water pits. And I don’t have anyone on Earth to contact.”
“Sounds like it wouldn’t matter where they put you.”
She settles down across from him.
“Your crime confuses you,” he says.
Wasa is breathless.
“Yeah.” He pauses for a long time. “It seems like crimes only fall into a couple categories. One of them is when you do something you don’t understand.”
“I don’t even remember it. But I do understand what we did to you,” she says, “and I don’t regret it.”
“You needed the ship.”
“Maybe when you need something badly enough you should kill for it,” he says.
Is he trying to manipulate me? Wasa wonders.
“There’s no should or shouldn’t. There wasn’t a choice. We…” She stops, restarts. “I couldn’t live in that pit.”
“But what now? All your friends are gone.”
“Yes. I’ve seen them walk past the orchard, out there.”
“I know. I think they’re seeing their victims. Vi did—she saw this guy she killed. Asha is showing us our crimes.”
“But not you?”
“No. Not yet.”
After awhile Wasa leaves Belker and goes to find Vi again. Her coat is still bundled into a pillow, but where she’d slept on the deck is empty space.
Vi is gone, and Wasa is terrified.
“Vi!” she yells. “Where are you? Help me!”
The sound booms through the empty hallways. Nothing. Something steps lightly behind her.
Certain moments unweave the life that preceded them.
Wasa is standing in an empty continent ship looking at her eldest son.
“Mama,” Nat says.
Wasa falls to her knees; Nat walks and she scrambles up, and follows.
Time hasn’t changed him. Nat is a confident child. He walks with his shoulders back, his soft brown hair falling over his forehead.
“Is it you?” she asks. “Where were you?” Something inside her crumbles. “Baby, I am sorry. So sorry.”
He doesn’t answer. She stumbles after him into the darkness.
Nat raises his hand and it begins glowing.
They are walking down a wide corridor, the walls on each side scalloping up into the blackness above. She can smell the water in the darkness—they are heading to the wells. At last Nat stops and sits down and the light from his hand disappears. Wasa sits too. They are right on the edge of the water pit.
“Mama,” Nat says again.
“My boy,” she says. “My boy. My boy.”
She can only think about questions. Where have you been, Nat? Are the other boys there? Do you still have dreams about cats walking across the roof, their paws ringing like bells? Do you still whisper to yourself as you’re walking?
Are you ever cold?
He lets her hold him. His hair tickles her cheek. She weeps deeply, so much it hurts her bones. Finally she comes to herself.
“Are you Asha?”
“Was Belker too?”
He smiles, nods, cups her face in his warm palms, and speaks.
“Why did you come to me?” The voice is timbered with an accent she can’t place.
“I don’t know,” Wasa answers.
“I’ve heard many, many prayers. And I know this. Forgiveness is another word for living on through pain.”
The boy stands, a dim shape in the darkness, and places hands on her shoulders.
“This ship will be taken in to me. The star that is me. All of you, The Lunadii, will become part of me.”
Wasa embraces the boy tightly; she knows that soon she will have to let him go. The ship, herself: It will all burn.
“I have been gone so long,” Asha says. “And it is so cold out here. I almost forgot…”
The boy touches Wasa’s chest.
“This weakness. This blessed, broken weakness.”
They are together in a moment that might last forever, that might stretch like a root through other moments: her son’s birth, him shouting from a tree branch, his life struggling out of him in bubbles.
And now they fall backwards, holding each other through darkness, and finally splash.
Mike Buckley is a practicing futurist who uses Science Fiction prototyping to inform corporate/governmental policy. His work has appeared in anthologies like The Best American Non-Required Reading, In the Shadow of the City of Angels, and Spot Lit. He has also been published in national journals like The Alaska Quarterly Review.