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June 05, 2023

Extinction's Brink 05

By Alexandra Queen

Rho Five awoke to the warm touch of sunlight on his back. The earth underneath him smelled rich, green, alive. Not a winter smell. His eyes fluttered open. Grass, but so short! Bushes were growing nearby, with a light copse of trees not far behind them. As his eyes focused, he saw a russet colored fox regarding him calmly. As he pushed himself up to look around, the fox trotted cautiously off. To all intents and purposes, it appeared to be a balmy, late spring day.

He glanced up at the sky and then fell backwards onto his elbows in shock. Tall spires of... rock?... crisscrossed the sky in cells, as if some enormous bee was building honeycomb in the sky. The sky was blue, but there was no sun. Instead, unwavering fires blazed at the junctures of the honeycomb.

He could only be in the land of the gods.

A surge of joy carried Rho Five to his feet and he leapt into the air with a shout of joy, startling several birds out of the trees. "Psi Two!" he shouted. "I'm here!" The bitterness of the past nine years fell away from him. The gods had looked into his soul and judged. Far from being the cause of eternal banishment for his people, Rho Five had been found worthy of the highest honor -- to return to the heavens and serve the gods. And Psi Two. "I won't let you down!" he cried out to her, to them, to the heaven around him.

He spent the next several hours exploring his new existence. The heavens were somewhat smaller than he anticipated. The lights in the sky were dimming almost imperceptibly as he finished pacing the perimeter of the valley he was in and stood before the modest stream that flowed out from a cave opening. He had climbed to the tops of the range of rocky hills that bounded the meadows and copses of trees. There, he had touched the sky itself. It had been cold, smooth and hard beneath his fingers. The rock here had a strange feel to it, also. It filled him with a vague sense of mistrust.

On the bright side, several of the trees were bearing fruit. There were raspberry vines and blueberry bushes, and a number of plants that were good to eat. There were birds and a few game fowl, and he saw several fat rabbits. No sign of deer or large game, but there were fish in the stream, and frog eggs attached to some reeds. He had already snacked on a crayfish plucked from under a rock. There looked to be plenty to eat. From the size of some of the herbaceous plants he recognized, there were no harsh winters here. And not many people.

There was a trail through here that showed booted footprints, but they all seemed to be the same person. Rho Five had bent to study them, comparing them to his own feet. About the same size. Rep or Daugh'ter? Maybe a god, for all he knew. Out of the corner of his eye, movement had distracted him. When he turned, he had seen the spade-shaped leaves of a thick vine-like plant quivering, but nothing else. A bird perhaps. This was a lonelier place than he had expected.

Now he stood at the mouth of a cave, watching the gray-green water tumble out busily. The smooth path continued in. The air coming from the cave wasn't as cool as it should have been. Rho Five had been in caves before, but something about this spoke of the handiwork of the gods, like the Cave of the Fire Runes. He hesitated, unsure whether he should enter. Well, Psi Two had told him that the Fire Runes were not just for Daugh'ters, and she had been right about everything else. Cautiously, Rho Five entered the cave.

The interior of the cave was composed of a reasonably spacious passage. There was a draft through here, and the air carried the scent of sunlight and meadow, not deep earth. Fish pooled in the cool, sheltered water, darting in all directions as he leaned over to peer at them. Rho Five continued along the path. At the branching point, the passage led to a small chamber, perhaps fifteen feet square. A slanting hole let in a thin beam of daylight, enough to see by. Despite being formed from the rock, something about it seemed unnatural, like the Cave of the Fire Runes or the inside of the gods' star. Rho Five inhaled deeply and decided that the scent was wrong. This could still be a good shelter, but it didn't seem to be naturally occurring. This whole land seemed somehow contrived.

There was still just enough light reflected in to see by when he reached the stone net. It blocked the passage with thin, strong strands as thick as his thumb. He could reach an arm through, but that was it. He waded into the stream, startling several enormous bass the size of his thigh, but the bars of the grate went down deep into the stone at the bottom of the streambed. Picking up one of the smooth rocks from the bottom of the water, Rho Five climbed back out of the stream and tested their strength. The rock in his hand flaked and crumbled as he struck them, but they showed no sign of wear. Instead of a brittle chipping sound, like rock on rock, they made a strange ringing sound when struck.

He sat back on his heels and studied the situation for a moment. Was he trapped here in the heavens?

Footsteps on the other side of the net alerted him. Rho Five was just rising to his feet when a form became dimly visible in the shadows on the other side.

"What is all that racket... oh, my genome!"

For a second, Rho Five was rendered completely speechless. There she was, alive and well, blue eyes wide as she stared back at him in total surprise. Then he found words, flinging himself at the net with joy, smiling through to her. "Psi Two!"

"What?" the woman on the other side of the net blinked, and suddenly the fog of fantasy cleared from his eyes. The woman in front of him was much taller, perhaps more delicate. The spirit and arrogance was missing from those blue eyes as well. She looked very like Psi Two, as if she had been manufactured from the same Daugh'ter, but there would have been no mistaking the two of them. "Who are you?"

A dull feeling in his chest kept Rho Five from responding as quickly as he should have. He was here to serve. Not just Psi Two, but any god or Daugh'ter in this place. That's why the gods had redeemed him after all. He vowed not to let his disappointment affect his duty. He sighed once, to will his lungs to fight that sorrow. "Rho Five. I'm here to do your bidding."

"You... wha... no-o-o!" the woman stammered. "Oh, no. No, this is not going to work. My...? No. This wasn't funny." She didn't really seem to be talking to him at first, but then she cleared her throat and addressed him. "You're here to do...? No, wait. What did they tell you?"

Rho Five watched her with the beginnings of a frown. This was truly not what he expected of Paradise. "What did who tell me, Daugh'ter? I've talked to no one since the gods brought me here, but I have listened closely to the stories told by the Daugh'ters."

The woman who was not Psi Two looked even more bewildered than he was. Her mouth kept opening and closing so that she looked more like one of the bass in the stream than like Psi Two. "...I'm sorry, I'm afraid your dialect must be different enough to affect translations. What do you mean 'gods'? And are you saying 'daughter' or 'doctor'?"

"Daugh'ter," he repeated. "Bearer of the wisdom of the gods. One who holds the power of manufacturing Reps."

"Manufacturing replicants?" A sudden light seemed to go on in her eyes. "Oh! No, this isn't a cloning facility. I'm a little relieved. For a minute there, I was worried they brought you here to... ah... nevermind." She grinned a little wanly, giving a sheepish bob. "I'm Psi 2487627. Boy, am I glad you're a Rho and not another Psi series. If you could have told what I was thinking, you'd be laughing your head off at me." Her eyes got slightly buggy, then she gave a forced merry laugh and shut up.

Rho Five peered through the grate for a moment. This Psi 24... whatever was a bit odd. But that long string of numbers was just like the Daugh'ters told in the stories. He looked forward to listening to the teachings this new Daugh'ter would tell around the fire in the evenings. Once she calmed down and wasn't so flustered. "So... you can read my mind?" he asked politely.

"I gotta go," the Daugh'ter blurted, adding a bright, cheery smile as an afterthought.

Heaving a sigh, Rho Five sat down on the edge of the stone path and took his remaining moccasin off, setting it down carefully beside him and then dipping his feet again in the water of the stream.

Religion had just seemed so different when he was a Feetus.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-02-21
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