Athra’s golden strawberry sun tinted the dropship pink. A coastline beneath the streaking craft bristled with sandstone cliffs, broken promontories, and a thousand wet rocks masquerading as islands. Some rocks were covered with the ruins of ancient lighthouses. Where their rubble had spilled into the sea, it now supported diverse marine habitats.
Outlines in clay brick marked where fishing villages once crouched beneath soaring overhangs. Stairs wound up, up, up snaking canyons, testifying to the advantages of water-based travel for the villagers. During the ages of Athra’s post modernization, however, the last holdouts had traveled by any means available to this or that glittering metropolis across some distant horizon.
Apart from getting older and more decrepit, nothing changed here.
Clearing one last promontory, the dropship skittered above a shallow azure bay. A nonsensical arrangement of pipes and tubes, many, dozens of meters across (several, hundreds of meters tall) emerged from the sea floor. Constructed using ceramic alloys yet unidentified, their original purpose remained a mystery.
During the twenty or so thousand years between interstellar societies, superstitious people worshiped the pipes as gods. Each tube had a name. Scholars were divided on original pronunciations. Most translations opted instead for typical demonic fare. The tallest cylinders puffed steam, demonic in a way; and even in modern times, the sight impressed tourists gathered in lookout points on the cliffs.
Navigating between steam columns, the dropship aimed for the center of the enclosing horseshoe. Every square meter of the bay’s dry geology had been carved, shaped, and built into some expression of ritual architecture in honor of the steaming demons. Varying in style from megalithic to baroque, platforms, columns, façades, balustrades, ramps, stairs, obelisks, circles, chapels, and cathedrals piled so high in ruin, the natural sandstone lay completely obscured beneath their fallen debris.
It was neither one structure nor a hundred. Digging invariably revealed more structures underneath. Toward the center of the horseshoe, however, some of the ruin had been restructured to accommodate a contemporary lifestyle. Laminated cedar planks, curved into discs and bowls reminiscent of floral arrangements, formed vast decks. These supported elegant, minimalist structures realized in diverse materials - primarily glass and tropical hardwoods.
The dropship caught one last updraft.
That carried it over the elaborate ruin to the top of the cliff. There, it settled on a pad of sandstone treated for the arrival of atmospheric transport vehicles. A safe distance away, dressed in an alternating wrap of black and gold plastiweave fibers, the Crone stood beside a Brutor male shaped into the form of a cylinder nearly three meters tall. The fragile woman and her golem waited for the dropship to come to a full and complete stop before advancing. She was halfway across the treated sandstone pad when a panel separated from the dropship’s hull and a beautiful young woman in severe clothing disembarked.
Sister, darling, darling, sister, the two women exchanged in succession.
“It’s fabulous of you to come,” said the Crone.
“It’s fabulous to be here in one piece,” replied Sister Maguelone. “Where are the werewolves?”
The Crone gestured inconclusively as she led her guest away from the landing pad.
“Oh, you know.”
“I don’t, actually,” said Maguelone. “That’s why I asked.”
“Well, I don’t know either,” conceded the clone.
“You’ve lost track of a dozen three hundred kilogram cybernetic werewolves?”
“Well, I didn’t ‘lose track’ of them, sweetie. It’s just that….”
The Crone focused on descending a sweeping staircase of aged granite blocks.
“One step at a time, darling.”
“Just that I wasn’t delivering packages, vaporizing rocks, and scavenging wrecks for Inherent Implants or Chemal Tech for waived reprocessing rights or because I wanted to say ‘right away’ a thousand thousand times, darling. I needed to learn things about interface primitives and signal carrier waves.”
“So you could teach three hundred kilogram cybernetic werewolves how to hack our sensory implants and make us forget they were there?”
“Exactly, darling! Aren’t I a genius?”
“It’s funny that today’s talk is about God.”
“I’m a nun. Why shouldn’t I talk about God?”
“Because God is going to punish you for creating monsters.”
“Nonsense. The divine plan for life is for life to become more complicated.”
“Life didn’t create implant hacking werewolves.”
“Of course it did,” countered the Crone.
“You spliced slaver hound DNA with Sebiestor….”
“I’m alive,” insisted the Crone. “Life therefore created life more complicated than itself.”
“Can these creatures reproduce?”
“Oh, not the old fashioned way,” conceded the Crone. “Infertility is a natural byproduct of nano-cybernetic mutation. But if one of the boys finds a non lycanthrope with the right protein pair… things, one in a few billion members of the Sebiestor population, the process works more or less the way the old stories say.”
“What about the girls?”
“We don’t talk about the girls, darling. They’re the other side of the species equation; and very mean.”
“God is going to punish you. And everyone around you.”
Sister Maguelone glanced from side to side.
“Nonsense, sweetie…. Professor Kalaikkounen!”
The Crone and Maguelone flowed onto a mezzanine terrace one third of the way up a megalithic open air amphitheater. Dressed in meticulously fashionable attire, several dozen other guests ascended and descended marble steps. Sipping sparkling wine and nibbling on nibbly things, they mingled around assigned seats.
Each seat was a sarcophagus two or three thousand years old. The lids had been removed, and now lined the outer ring of the amphitheater’s walls. The stone slab facing the stage had also been removed from each sarcophagus, turning it into an open box. Rare wood and ivory lined the interior. A large couch upholstered with durable beige canvas hung from a support frame just above the base - allowing the occupant to swing if desired.
“Your latest paper was a masterwork,” said the Crone effusively. “This is my god niece, Maggie.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Maguelone.
Professor Kalaikkounen was a short, plump Deteis gentleman of indeterminate age, thinning hair, and rosy cheeks. His eyes flickered constantly over every detail in his field of view. He bobbed his head and bowed politely several times.
“Professor Kalaikkounen is the foremost authority on Outlandish Radio Blobs,” said the Crone to her god niece. “He may have cracked the code on their formation.”
“The similarities with our cluster’s recent experience is too remarkable to ignore,” said Kalaikkounen.
“We’ve had recent experience with an ORB?” asked Maguelone.
“The big bang in Jovian space, darling,” said the Crone.
“Tiny in comparison to a true ORB,” said Kalaikounen, “but strikingly similar.”
“Isogen-5 could cause an explosion millions of light years across?” asked the younger woman.
“A shockwave millions of light years across,” corrected Kalaikounen enthusiastically. “Imagine a sufficient quantity of that mysterious compound interacting with the accretion disk of a sufficiently super massive galactic core.”
“Interacting, you say,” said Maguelone. “But do you mean intentionally introduced?”
“I neither rule intention in or out,” said the professor affably. “Perhaps an incredibly rare O-type hypergiant rich in that enigmatic substance found itself too close and fell in….”
“Tearing the horizon inside out!” exclaimed the Crone. “Isn’t it exciting, sweetie?”
“I’ve seen a disturbing accretion disk,” said Maguelone.
“Down the wormhole!” cried the Crone. “It’s true, Professor.”
“What happens to a civilization in a galaxy that hosts an ORB burst?” asked Maguelone.
Professor Kalaikkounen chuckled.
“Erased,” he said.
“By the hand of a punishing god!” cried the Crone. “Let’s begin the summoning. Everyone, places please. Places please, everyone.”
The guests drifted to their assigned sarcophagi. Some began to swing. The Crone descended the amphitheater’s steps, and then climbed awkwardly to the stage. A gilded divan with sturdy canvas cushions waited for her beside occult paraphernalia and a circle of enigmatic black steel.
“Mr. Mephistopheles,” said the Crone. “It’s showtime!”
An Athran karakul with jet black wool and bright eyes sprang up through the dark metal circle. As the small creature leapt around his holographic pen, the audience murmured approvingly.
“I’ll put it to you plainly, devil,” said the Crone.
“There is a first time for everything,” purred Mephistopheles.
The audience murmured approvingly.
“Has God closed her eyes?” asked the Crone.
“No,” said the devil, shaking his adorable head.
“Were they ever open?”
“Much as I would like to believe you,” said the Crone, “I’m afraid it can’t be so.”
“Absolutes are problematic.”
“If there existed one observer who saw into every box,” said the Crone, “then every furrier would be alive or dead and all vibrations would stop. Uncertainty, however, has thrown back every challenge. There can be no such observer.”
Mr. Mephistopheles pondered for a while.
“What is the smallest moment?” he asked.
“The fastest speed divided by the shortest distance,” answered the Crone. “Or the other way around. You all know I’m bad with math and worse with units.”
The audience murmured that it was so.
“What is the difference between the smallest thing and the smallest moment?” asked Mephistopheles.
The Crone pondered for a while.
“There is no difference,” she said.
“Where is the smallest thing?” asked the devil.
“It is uncertain. I see! You contend God is blinking.”
“Quickly,” said Mephistopheles.
The audience chuckled.
“But every time she opens her eyes,” complained the Crone, “the contents of every box are revealed.”
“For one observer,” countered the devil.
“One is enough,” the Crone countered back.
“When did that observer look?” asked the coal black sheep.
“It is uncertain!” said the Crone. “So there is room for divine sight after all. Refreshments!”
The audience clapped. Refreshments were topped off.
“When God opened her eyes the first time, was the Light already there?” asked the Crone.
“The potential of light was realized,” replied the devil.
“Ein Sof. First the Crown and last the Kingdom! I’ve had a vision of Seven Hierophants.”
“Does it end well?” asked Mephistopheles.
“One hierophant is destroyed by Initiative,” said the Crone, “and one thrown into chains by Vanity. Doubt chases the third into exile. The fourth walks a path illuminated by Loyalty. The fifth dines on the fruits of Patience; the next, Humility. The last drops all burdens in Resolve.”
“I see it,” said the small black sheep. “But our Messiah spurns his Prophet.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Refreshments!”
Refreshments were topped off.
“Previously,” said the Crone, “I considered the observable universe only a fossil of the divine corpse.”
“Fossils teach many lessons,” said Mephistopheles.
“They do,” agreed the Crone.
“What do you consider the observable universe now?” asked the karakul.
“A petrified shell.”
“With the creature still inside?”
“If all it took to see God was staring into the vacuum….”
“We observe the vacuum’s space, not God. But we cannot observe the smallest thing.”
“I see,” said Mephistopheles.
“Or the hole it might leave behind. If you got one smallest moment away……”
“You would be petrified.”
“I would be fabulous as the smallest pillar of salt.”
The audience clapped approvingly. Refreshments were topped off.