The story so far: Cast down from the heavens for their disobedience, the Reps have toiled for many generations to redeem themselves. Psi Two, a young Daugh'ter newly initiated into the ancient mysteries, leads Rho Five into the Cave of the Fire Runes where her heretical notions prove to be the keys to unlocking the truth.
The door to the Cave of the Fire Runes split apart, and entering into the red glow of the heatless fire stepped...
"A god!" The words fell out of Rho Five's mouth, even as he heard Psi Two's gasp from in front of him.
Not the wrathful form of Lambda One, but a strange creature with four wiry legs and a fleshy nose that hung over its mouth like one of the seals from the beach. As it saw them, it raised an arm to point at them, brandishing a boomerang-like object and barking in a series of low, guttural sounds like the messages they had heard before.
"What is he saying?" Rho Five was anxious to obey, but he couldn't understand the commands.
"I don't know!" There was an edge of dismay to her voice that nearly sent him panicking. To have come so close to salvation, only to risk angering the gods because they could not understand. It wasn't fair. The only thing Rho Five could think of to do was to kneel down in a show of submission. They were gods. They had to realize his willingness to obey and his inability to understand.
The god paused a second, then barked sharply again. "Femorta agoruk panpan. Humans." Then a light shot out from his hand and Psi Two crumpled in front of him. He watched her fall to the ground, limp, and then looked up in time to see light flash out and strike him also. It was a blanket of pain, covering every inch of his body, but only for a second. Then he knew no more.
A woman's shriek of rage and horror awoke him. Rho Five's eyes opened, blurred with a strange ache that permeated his entire body. He tried to move his arm to push himself upright, but it would not obey.
"What have you done?"
Around him, the cave was dark except for the daylight flooding in from the door. He was laying in several inches of chill creek water. Half a dozen hulking forms stood before him, unmistakable in shape: the senior Daugh'ters.
One of them flew at him, seizing him by the front of his deer hide tunic and shaking him. "Do you realize what you've done? You filthy, filthy Rep!"
"He's destroyed the Runes!"
"He's damned us all forever!"
"Rho Five." The voice of Lambda One trembled with rage. "You have dared to set foot in the Cave of the Fire Runes, where no Rep may enter. You have dared to desecrate our most sacred secrets. Your disobedience, your sacrilege has condemned all people for all time."
As his eyes regained their ability to focus, Rho Five felt an iciness of a different sort tingling through his limbs. Around him, the once vivid and magical walls were utterly dead. But worse, great gaping holes were left in them, exposing tangles of what looked like fine, smooth roots. Entire sections were gone, others just mangled, tiny foreign objects littering the floor. Psi Two was nowhere to be seen. The cave had indeed been utterly destroyed.
"Psi Two..." he whispered. Had the gods visited their wrath upon her?
"Everyone saw you follow her last night," hissed Theta Four. "Did you demand a reward from her that you did not deserve? Did you destroy her as you did our cave? Our future?"
"On the very brink of my unraveling of the mysteries of the ancients!" Lambda One interjected.
"You filth," Theta Four sneered. "You will die for this!"
"No one has seen her?" he managed as they laid hands upon him and dragged him through the water and out into the light.
"Not since you killed her, Destroyer of All Hope!"
Rho Five closed his eyes and went limp. How could this have gone so wrong? How could he have let something happen to Psi Two? If she was gone, there was no reason to live anyway.
A council was convened. Drums were sounded to call in all Reps. A special stake was set into the ground on top of the low hills that held the remains of the sacred caves and Rho Five was bound to it. Four of the strongest Reps, two of them Rhos like himself, were set to guard him.
"It is only fair to wait until every Rep, Daugh'ter and Feetus be present for his death," Lambda One spit, "since he has damned us all. Let no one harm him until we can all be there to watch."
By midday, all the people there were had gathered, some weeping, others muttering angrily. Someone threw something that spattered against his chest and reeked of feces. Rho Five had regained much of his strength and had spent the hours running over the scenario in his head a hundred times. Why would Psi Two be missing? It didn't make sense.
"Rho Five," Alpha Three stepped forward, looking upon him with grave disappointment. "A Daugh'ter is missing. The sacred Caves of the Fire Runes have been utterly destroyed. Our people have nothing left to hope for. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Bound to the pole, Rho Five considered for a moment, then spoke. "I owe it to the legacy of knowledge of our people to tell you what happened. Psi Two discovered the secret of the Runes. I don't understand much of what she said or did, but a new star had appeared in the sky and it changed the Runes in ways she understood. She made them speak aloud and the whole cave lit up in a cool red fire that did not burn and then... a god entered and spoke to us. But we did not understand and he burned us with a flame that made me sleep. I did not awaken until the Daugh'ters entered."
"Lies!" Lambda One shouted, setting off a spate of angry cries. "He makes excuses! How could the gods have come and not spoken to me? Why would the gods have defaced the Runes? It is obvious he killed Psi Two, then destroyed the Cave in rage."
"I am sad, Rho Five," Alpha Three shook his head. "Sad that you would have committed these crimes against a Daugh'ter and against our entire people, and even more sad that you would make up such tales to avoid punishment."
"But I don't want to avoid punishment," Rho Five protested. "The god found me unworthy. I let some harm come to Psi Two." His voice choked. "I should die."
"Let us hear all there is to be heard on the topic!" One of the Rho Two's came forward, this one manufactured by the same Daugh'ter as Rho Five. "This Upsilon has words." He dragged forward a Rep in Ado-Lessons. The boy was obviously nervous to speak in front of such a crowd, and an angry one at that.
"Well. Speak!" Alpha Three commanded.
"I... Last night. I was hoping to use the rainfall to cover the sounds of my footsteps and catch some game to bring to the Daugh'ters so I could sleep inside the lodge. But out there in the meadow, I saw... I saw a star come down from the sky."
A ripple of shock passed through the crowd.
"I went closer to see what it was, and I saw some things coming towards it. They... they had four legs like an elk. One of them held a Daugh'ter." Rho Five let out a cry and went pale. At Alpha Three's prompting, the young Rep went on. "Others carried other things into the star and then it went back into the sky."
"More lies! He was in on the murder and the destruction!" Lambda One lifted her hands to encourage shouts of agreement.
"But... but you can see the mark of where it was in the meadow."
The people fell silent.
Alpha Three looked troubled. "I must see this mark." He followed the boy across the field. Furious, Lambda One gestured for a Rep to come and help her after them. The rest of the people followed as well. Rho Five watched them go across the field, waiting as they gathered around something that seemed to be the size of the lodge. One of the Daugh'ters -- it was too far for Rho Five to tell which -- collapsed. When the people finally returned to the hilltop, they were an ashen faced and nervous lot.
"Perhaps you are telling the truth, Rho Five. This was found by the mark." Alpha Three held up a piece of material that was unlike anything found outside the Cave of the Fire Runes. "Several Hunters confirmed that something large passed from the Cave to the mark, large things that left deep tracks in the mud. The rain has obscured much of the detail, but no one can explain what might have left them."
"But that does not make sense," Lambda One protested.
"Does it?" Two Reps came forward, bearing the wizened form of Omega One. Beside her walked the Daugh'ter from her first manufacturing, the younger Omega One. "Does it not make sense? Perhaps it does. Psi Two was cunning, Lambda One. You must admit this. You did not like her because she disagreed with you, but she was insightful and watchful, that one. Perhaps she did discover the secrets of the Runes. Why did she bring you into the Cave with her, Rep?"
Rho Five swallowed, then said, "A test. She said that it made no sense that the secrets of the Runes were for Daugh'ters only. She told me what to touch and was pleased when the Runes responded to my commands also."
"Be silent for a moment, Lambda One," the old Daugh'ter waved a hand. "That is like Psi Two. Perhaps she found the secrets of the gods with her boldness. And when they came at her bidding, they saw our Rho Five here and they judged him. They judged all our Reps. And they found you lacking still. So they left. But they took Psi Two with them, and many of the runes, too, for Rho Five had witnessed it and might pass it on to others." She looked around at the people gathered. "But they did not slay Rho Five. They did not slay any of us. They simply took away the tools we were not ready for. Why are you so sad, my people? This was not the night of our damnation. This was the proof that our salvation will come! The gods have not forgotten us! When we called them, they came to us, and took one of our number to the heavens with them, one worthy Daugh'ter! When we are ready, we are now assured they will take us as well! Be happy, my people!"
Lambda One looked upset, but Alpha Three stepped in front of her. "A day of rest is in order, to celebrate the return of Psi Two to the heavens! Surely she will advocate for us there!" The people milling about looked tentatively pleased.
Rho Two gave him a look of relief as he untied Rho Five's bonds and murmured, "A near one. For a time there, I thought I'd give you no more hunting lessons."
Rho Five was silent as the ropes fell from him and people began drifting back up the hill to the lodge or out into the meadow to the marks in the grass. Lambda One was staring at him with hate, as Omega One the younger murmured so low that none but she and Rho Five heard, "Let it go, Manufacturer of Thirteen. Don't you see? If we are damned, then there will be no reason for the Reps to feed your Feetuses."
"Don't think I don't know you were lying," Lambda One did not acknowledge the Daugh'ter, but instead spoke to Rho Five.
"I spoke no lie," Rho Five said. He should be happy that Psi Two had gone to the heavens with the god. But all he felt was fear for her. And pride. "She did it, Daugh'ter. She unlocked the secrets of the Runes. They spoke aloud to her, and she used them to call the gods."
"She hadn't even mastered the secrets of manufacturing!" snapped Lambda One. "How could she master the runes? The gods took her to punish her for defiling them with your presence!"
"Enough of that," Omega One cut in. "You'll bring our entire way of life crashing down around us. Sleep on it, Lambda One, and you'll see my meaning. Be generous in this and you will still have Reps to serve your every need. Press the point and we'll all be lost, without direction and chaos will reign. Right at this very time, you are the one that holds the damnation of our entire people in your hand, Lambda One. Support Omega One the elder in this. If you say it is so, everyone will believe it, and there will be peace. We need you." She guided the heavy woman toward the lodge with a respectful hand upon her shoulder. Then came back to approach Rho Five, still standing on the hill top, alone now in the afternoon sun.
"I don't know the truth of this matter, which is not to say that I think you were lying, Rho Five," she looked up at him with the clear gray eyes that were a hallmark of Omegas. "But perhaps it would be best if you were not present in the lodge so very often."
Self banishment was her implication. Rho Five stared down the hillside where the mark was said to be. Without Psi Two, there was nothing at the lodge to hold him anyway. He nodded wordlessly. Omega One took his hand and held it for a moment and then left to return to the lodge. Rho Five sank to the damp ground and leaned against the pole as if he were still tethered to it. These new truths had been created by the elder Daugh'ters and Reps, who were headed off to teach them without believing them. But they were true. Rho Five had witnessed them. Did the fact that the elders thought they were false make them false? Why couldn't he be happy for Psi Two? What possible means did he have to help her? What was he going to do without her?
He leaned his head back against the pole with a thunk.
Why couldn't they have just killed him?