A dealer of ancient artifacts flies to Mars to identify a particularly interesting piece. Can he survive when he triggers the fulfillment of a world-destroying prophecy?
tags: Shannon Connor Winward, action/adventure, scifi, science-fiction
|Author||Shannon Connor Winward|
|Publication Date||May 04, 2017|
|BCRS ratings?Learn more|
DAUGHTER OF HEAVEN
by Shannon Connor Winward
In the time after their lovemaking, a thousand empires rose and fell. Stars were born. Stars died. Little supernovas, bright white aftershocks of pleasure. She lay atop Her lover for millennia, Her body languid, Her belly heavy and full of frantic life. His work was done; Hers was beginning. She felt the stirring of labor in Her womb; Her body widened, swallowing whole galaxies, drawing space in upon itself to make room for what was coming. She closed Her eyes against the Dawn – a generation more. A moment. One more shared breath, His lips on Hers. Their limbs entwined, almost indistinguishable, as They had done as children. As They had been in the first Dawn, before the worlds were born. She liked to let it linger, this bliss.
This is what They were made for.
The artifact was delivered to my warehouse on Liber Station 1 with a shipment of antiquities from South Asia; a fist-sized, egg-shaped bit of ivory, carved in bas-relief and pierced at one edge so as to be strung on a cord. An amulet. Not unusual for the period, but I knew as soon as I unwrapped it that the piece was not native to the rest of collection. A fragment of its carving reminded me of the Sanskrit Saranyu, but the image fell off at the edge and might have been anything. While I sat on an unopened crate to study it, my employees unloaded the rest of the cargo.
It looked like nothing I had seen out of sub-Himalayan Earth or anywhere else. Leaving my crew to process the rest of the shipment, I took the amulet to my workstation. I barely noticed as the Earth ship disembarked.
The carving was offset, like a coin misstruck, but I didn’t believe this was accidental. The workmanship was too exquisite, stunning in its intricacy. This was intentional. This was… special. I logged its measurements, analyzed the material, traced the microscopic tool marks left by its maker.
In the ship’s manifest, the amulet was listed only by a number. I scanned the carving and uploaded it, but the databases found nothing comparable. Or, rather, the results showed me too much to pinpoint its origins. Parts of the carving were reminiscent of civilizations across ancient Earth, and yet, as a whole, belonged to none of them. Nothing made sense.
Hours passed. The crew finished and clocked out, leaving me alone with the groans and echoes of an empty hold. Eventually my dock supervisor, Bo Huan, found me hunched over my station. He laughed when he saw what I had.
“What the fuck is that?” Teeth clenched on a nicotine stick, he peered at the amulet over my shoulder. His dirty finger jabbed the air. “Aramaic. Inuit. And what. Hopi? That’s New Age skiz, Doc Pheonix. Flip it over, it’ll say, ‘Made in China’.”
I shook my head. “It’s old.”
“Very.” I held the artifact under the carbon-reader to show him, caressing its ancient, yellow-white surface with my gloved fingers. “This is mammoth tusk.”
Bo huffed. Bent to study it again. “An old tooth, but still skiz. Give it to Rhodes.”
Rhodes was a colleague on Liber 3, a supplier of rare organics to scholars and hobbyists in the colonial sectors. If I held onto the artifact for another few months I could ship it out with the fossil fuels that were due in from the Antarctic rigs.
Bo held out a storage tray. The nic bobbed up and down as he chewed, waiting.
“Not yet,” I said, turning back to the scanners.
“Sssssskizzz.” Bo replaced the tray and limped off to his locker. A short time later, the lights dimmed and the doors slid shut, leaving me alone.
More often than not, I agreed with Bo in these things. His eye for value was the reason I hired him.
And he was right. Rhodes would have paid me sweetly for a bit of real mammoth ivory.
But something told me there was more to this amulet than the rarity of what it was carved on. Studying it under the soft glow of my equipment, I became convinced there was something reverential in the work, an exultance that could only be religious in nature and therefore might, to the right person, provide a clue to its origins – and thus increase its selling price. There was nothing to be lost in digging a little more, and a lot to gain.
If nothing else, it gave me an excuse to go to Mars.
Within the hour, I packed a bag and booked passage on a shuttle under the pretense of chaperoning a transit of Egyptian gold to my associate at the university city of Arabia Terra. The amulet went in the bag in a small protective case. It had the look of a gift, which in a way it was – not the artifact, but whatever ancient knowledge it contained.
I sent a message for Bo, which he didn’t answer. It was the end of a work-cycle; he would have been in the rec station, drinking and spending his wages with the rest of the crew. I boarded the shuttle.
In my youth, I was a hungry man, eager to explore. I answered the call to adventure in every principality of Gaea Nova; the sea beds beneath the Hubble colonies, the gaseous moons of Saturn, the giant peak of Rheasilvia. I loved best the wilds of the home world: the Amazon jungle, the ruins of Chicago, Moscow, Paree.
My drive was not just the challenge of the physical body, but of the unknown. I was drawn most to history, that Pandora’s box of humanity, pushing up her secrets through meters of earth, of rubbish, graveyards of bone and of steel. So much to learn. In spite of war, cataclysm, exodus, the voice of history was always speaking. As a purveyor of Earth antiquities, I was her translator, and at a healthy profit.
In that life, I had no wife. No family, by choice. I loved my work, and that was enough. Still, I was not immune to the charms of beautiful women. Particularly, academic women. Particularly, one woman.
I found her in a busy corridor in the University’s East annex, rushing from a lecture hall to the administrative wing. Zahirah Nayar, Dean of Global Studies, Egyptologist, expert in early Earth religions. Her copper scholar’s gown billowed behind her as she walked, revealing shapely legs, round hips. She wore her thick, dark hair in a loose bun, with a few seductive strands dangling free.
She assessed me with her large, kohl eyes as I caught up with her.
“What have you found, Dr. Phoenix?”
Dr. Nayar never wasted time in casual greetings. Referred by a mutual friend in Martian government, I’d been consulting the esteemed professor for over seven cycles. Her insight on certain artifacts had proven invaluable, but her small talk was terrible. I had yet to hear her use my given name.
“An unusual piece,” I said, matching her stride. “Millennia old. I can’t place it, but I suspect it’s apotropaic.”
“An amulet, I believe.”
Her pace slowed. “You have it with you?”
“Show it to me.”
I removed the satchel from my shoulder and extracted the artifact in its protective case. I pressed my thumb against the sensor, unlocking it, and handed it to her.
Now and then, I had seen Zahirah smile over something I brought her. A Venus figurine rescued from a collapsed museum. A prehistoric flute made from a human ulna. After the first time – fleeting, breath-taking – I’d made it a challenge to repeat the experience.
As she took my offering this time, Zahirah did not smile. She stopped in mid-stride, looking at what I had given her. As the flow of university students parted around us, I watched Zahirah’s face. Her beauty was bone-deep, elemental – and her expression was as dark and unreadable as the mountains framed in the window behind her.
“What is it?” I asked. “Do you recognize it?”
“I…” Her fingers were white where they clutched the case.
“I must go,” said Zahirah. “I am due to meet with the Board.” Her deep, husky voice had crumbled to a whisper. “I must…”
“You must what?”
Zahirah tore her eyes away from the amulet. “You truly don’t know what this is?”
We had paused by a ventilation panel. I felt cool air seeping into my clothes, sending goosebumps rippling over my skin.
“Do you think I brought it here on pretense, just to flirt with you, Professor?” A half-truth, showing in a ghost of a smile on my lips.
She stared at me. She gave the box back, then shook her head as if to clear it from bad dreams. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now. You have come from the shuttle, you must have things with you.
“Only this.” Puzzled, I indicated the satchel over my shoulder. “I wasn’t planning to stay long. There’s a shipment in customs, I–”
“Never mind that. Come with me… Carter.” Without another word, the professor turned back the way we had come, her sharp heels clicking on the marble floor.
I followed, curiosity fanned even brighter by the sound of my name on Zahirah’s lips.
In the vestibule of the lecture annex, the professor removed her copper robe, folded it and left it on a bench.
There was a line of students waiting to ride the tube. Still wearing a badge that identified her as high echelon faculty, Zahirah lifted this off her neck and used it to clear a path for the two of us. She ushered me on to the tube and forbid anyone else to board. The doors sealed behind us.
“Where are we going?”
I was still holding the artifact case in my fist. As the pod raced across the Martian plains, red gravel and sienna sky, Zahirah took it from me, removed the amulet, and dropped the case on the floor.
From beneath her blouse, she drew out large, flat black pendant, held with a golden chain around her neck. Her hands shook. I noticed what appeared to be a Kemetic image on the outside of the pendant before Zahirah passed her fingers over it. The black circle split and began to dissolve, revealing an edge of creamy white.
“You have heard of Neuth and Geb?” she asked.
Of course I had. “Children of Shu, primordial Egyptian god of the air. Sibling lovers. He was the earth and–”
“She the sky.” Having shed its outer casing, Zahirah’s pendant proved to be an arc of carved ivory. Zahirah took my hand in hers and put it to her pendant. In that way, we joined the two amulets, the ovoid and arc merging seamlessly. The carvings I had thought to be offset were an exact match to Zahirah’s crescent, forming a perfect circle.
“You had this all along?”
“I have had this all my life. I am a priestess of Neuth.”
“A priestess?” I echoed, taken aback. It was one of the last things I’d have expected her to say. Though religion ranked among the disciplines of study in centers of learning like Arabia Terra, it was seldom practiced, save in backwater colonies and the most intransigent places on Old Earth.
“My order is called the Handmaidens of Heaven. We are the keepers of the arcs of Neuth, since before the time of the Pharahos.” She laid a finger on the amulet, two separate pieces now whole. “We have a brother order, the servants of Geb, who keep the discs. Carter, the discs of Geb are holy beyond all measure, an instrument of the Gods. How can you have brought one to me and not know what it is?”
“It came to my warehouse, mixed in with other artifacts. Perhaps there was a mistake.”
“The Gods do not make mistakes.”
“Well, I’m here… Zahirah,” “What does it mean?”
Zahirah raised her eyes and gazed at me with wonder, and with fear.
“It means the end of the world.”
I almost laughed, but stopped short, seeing that she was sincere. Before I could think of a better response, the transport pod lurched under our feet.
I tumbled sideways, slamming into a bench. Zahirah maintained her footing, but as she put out a hand to help me, the shuttle lurched the other way. The two of us went sprawling, Zahirah crushed under my weight.
We were jolted apart once more as the pod was enveloped in a sudden cushion of air with a great hissing sound. The pod slowed and righted itself, but the shaking continued. Zahirah looked up, her dark, disheveled hair framing her face.
“It’s begun,” she said.
An automated voice came over the com, informing us that emergency protocols had been initiated. As the announcement went on, urging caution, we moved to the emergency hatch in the floor of the pod. I wrenched it open, revealing a short drop into a dimly-lit maintenance shaft. Zahirah kicked off her shoes and slipped over the edge, landing barefoot in the tunnel below.
Once on the ground, the reason for the sudden stop was apparent. Tremors roiled under our feet, echoing in the long tunnel and in our bones.
A sprawling metropolis, largely underground, Arabia Terra had been built to withstand high levels of seismic activity. If there were tremors strong enough to shut down the transport pods, the extent of the danger was significant. I met Zahirah’s eyes, dark and grave.
“The end of the world…?” I managed. “Any chance you meant that metaphorically?”
Zahirah eyed the massive transport tube over our heads. “No.”
We moved out from beneath the tube to a railed walkway, where modules along the tunnel walls displayed our location, with an exit route in vivid red pointing to the last station we had passed.
Zahirah took my hand. “There’s a maintenance depot just ahead. My residence is not far from there.”
“This entire sector is being evacuated,” I said, touching the module. “There could be structural damage ahead.”
Shaking her head, Zahirah pulled me towards her. “Carter, nowhere is safe now. I need to get to my quarters.”
A violent shudder coursed through the floor, interrupting me. Tiny cracks sprouted under my hand where it lay on the screen, which flickered out. Letting instinct kick in, I ran in the direction Zahirah had urged, steering her ahead of me. Getting out of the tunnel seemed more important than arguing.
After about a kilometer, we reached a t-shaped junction. At Zahirah’s gesture, we veered right. Soon, the maintenance depot came into view. We vaulted up the steps and threw open the door.
The depot was empty, though a voice in a heavy Martian accent could be heard issuing orders over someone’s abandoned comm. On the depot’s modules we could see schematics of all of Arabia Terra, screaming in multicolored code: systems failures, structural compromise. Several city blocks had collapsed on the lowest levels. What stopped me dead in my tracks, however, was the interstellar news ticker on the far wall. I saw mention of Liber 1: communication with all commercial stations had been interrupted due to immense geomagnetic storms. Approaching the module, I scrolled back to the last incoming reports.
Zahirah made to keep moving, but I grabbed her arm.
“It’s not just Mars,” I said. “How can there be earthquakes on every planet in the system?” “The reach of the Gods is great,” Zahirah shrugged, averting her eyes from the modules.
“Did we do this?” I thrust my free hand at the city schematic. “With the amulets? Did we make this happen?” It sounded ridiculous to me, this talk of gods and doomsday, but the evidence of my senses begged the question. Even as we stood there, the walls and flooring rattled. A mug danced off the edge of a desk, spraying coffee over my shoes.
“We are the result, not the cause. The joining of our amulets is a herald, that the time of prophecy is upon us.”
“Then what do we do now? How do we stop this?”
“Our task is not to stop it, Carter,” Zahirah said, trying to draw me away. “Our task is to survive.”
“Our task,” I echoed, grasping what she had not voiced. “You and I, you mean? Only us?”
Zahirah’s body was tense, ready for flight, but she made an effort to calm herself. “In Arabia Terra, perhaps. But there are over a thousand arcs of Neuth in the hands of priestesses across Old Earth and her provinces, and a disc of Geb mated to each of them. The others have come together, just as we did. The chosen will live, but we must–”
“Two thousand? There are half a million people in this city! How many more, on other worlds?
What about them?”
Exasperation began to show on Zahirah’s face. Whatever her training as a priestess, she had not expected to have to explain herself to an uninitiated antiquities dealer. “It is the end of this cycle. Sky Mother and Earth Father join and part. The worlds between them die, and a new Dawn is born. It has happened before, in time before memory. It will happen again. It is for this that our Orders have prepared, for thousands of years – to serve the Gods.”
“To serve them how, Zahirah?”
Zahirah sighed. Her grip tightened in my hand. “We will be the parents of a new generation. A new kingdom, to worship in Their glory.”
I stared at her. “This is crazy, Zahirah.”
Another tremor rocked us, more violent than the ones that came before. The schematics flared red, new messages of damage and death blossoming like wounds.
“This is happening. It is our destiny. You must trust me, Carter – or we are doomed, along with the rest of them.”
Did I trust Zahirah? I didn’t know. I followed her, though, as if in a fever-dream. It occurred to me that, perhaps, it had all happened too easily, from the time the disc of Geb arrived in my warehouse. Had Zahirah sent it to me, baited me, knowing it would peak my curiosity, and lead me to her? The alternative, that these two matched artifacts should find their way to each other across millennia and space – it seemed too impossible a coincidence. Yet the reports from the maintenance comms burned in my brain. The quakes and the destruction were real. Could one woman, however exalted among the Martian echelon, have manufactured a catastrophe so widespread, with such exquisite timing?
We exited the maintenance depot and found ourselves in one of the city’s metro junctions – a normally bright, open star-shaped space containing shops, eateries and offices. The central plaza was packed with far more people than it was intended to contain, as a handful of city guards attempted to siphon the crowd into the eastbound avenues that branched off the junction. Dozens more refugees arrived by the minute, spilling in from the western avenues and underground stairwells. The lifts in this sector had been shut down with the transport system, forcing citizens to evacuate on foot.
Shock-absorbent shields rippled over the domed ceiling, obscuring our view of the sky and creating an unnatural pall. The terrible tremors continued, underscoring the din of so many people. We were confronted with a sea of worried faces – though, to their credit, the people of Arabia Terra crept forward in controlled chaos, trying to heed the guards’ instructions.
We made for the nearest stairwell, fighting the flow of people. I lagged behind, keeping Zahirah in my sights while taking out my personal comm. Though the noise in the plaza made it impossible to talk, I could attempt to send a message. I tried to get through to Bo Huan, first, then others I knew on Liber 1 and elsewhere. Each time the signal failed.
Zahirah paused within a great archway and noticed that I was not with her. For the first time since the quakes began, I saw a streak of panic cross her face. I was a head taller than most men, though, and easy enough to spot. When she caught sight of me only a few paces behind, she turned away in a huff before I could attempt to speak.
We were forced to edge sideways down the stairs, against the surge of citizens from below. It felt like madness to be heading down, like an underworld descent out of myth, ominous and dark, thinking at any moment the stairwell might collapse and bury us all. But Zahirah kept going, unswayable from her mysterious errand, and gods help me, so did I, questioning my own sanity with every step.
I counted six floors before Zahirah turned off the stairwell. We navigated a few smaller avenues to a security check, where a pair of stalwart guards directed stragglers towards the higher levels. One of them seemed inclined to forbid Zahirah entry, but with a flash of her badge she elbowed past him, her authority apparently holding sway even in a natural disaster.
Beyond the checkpoint was an affluent residential neighborhood, with deep black walls, reflective as a crater lake at night, and blue gas pillars that illuminated our path. Few residents remained outside, most having evacuated or chosen to hunker down in their homes. It would have been tranquil here, I imagined, were it not for the cracks and the quaking, and the constant automated broadcast spewing evacuation orders from unseen comms.
We reached Zahirah’s quarters. Once inside, Zahirah muted the household comm, dropping us into a silence that seemed unnatural after the chaos outside. I was left with the echoes of it in my head, and the rapid beating of my heart.
There was a strange intimacy in being in Zahirah’s apartment. Like the corridor, the walls here were dark and reflective, and Zahirah’s image seemed to swim through them as she moved. The dream-feeling overwhelmed me, the sense that I had stepped from the platform at the transport station into a realm of absurdity over which I had no control, only a need to run – but to where? To do what? Zahirah had shed her robes, her essence as I knew her, transforming from an admired acquaintance – the distant, pragmatic scholar – to a mystical guide who held my hand and spoke of our mutual destiny. We will be the parents of a new generation.
I trailed Zahirah to the door of an adjacent room. As I took abstract notice of the surroundings – a lushly draped bed, some large clay object on the wall, accents of brass or gold, and Zahirah’s scent, everywhere, like incense – Zahirah stripped off her blouse and knelt in her chemise before an armoire. The pendant hung between her breasts, stark against the delicate fabric.
Two halves, separate then united. Earth and sky, God and Goddess. Lovers.
I fumbled for a thread of logic, to bring myself back from the confusing rush of my emotions. “It doesn’t make sense,” I muttered.
“What?” From the armoire Zahirah produced a sack, and began to fill it with garments, boots.
“Neuth and Geb. Sky and Earth.”
“Sky and Earth. Geb was a god of Earth. This is a prophecy of the home world. ”
“So how is it that the ground shakes here on Mars, and on Mercury, and Vesta, and not only
Earth…?” Zahirah said, finishing my thoughts. “Because, Carter. As we are made in the image of the Gods, so are Gods made of us. Neuth is not mated to Earth, one planet among countless worlds. She is mated to flesh. To humans.” She glanced at me, almost shy. “She’s mated to us.”
“So I’m to mate with a Goddess, then? Is that the destiny you’ve been speaking of?”
Zahirah averted her eyes. “Religion is both specific and metaphorical.”
I had heard Zahirah say this exact same thing somewhere before. A memory hit me; Zahirah kneeling, like this, scanning hieroglyphics into a tablet, preparing a temple wall for installation. I’d tried to work the translations into conversation to impress her, and she’d lectured me on syntax for a full hour, in this same pedantic tone. The museum had been closed, our voices echoing in the great hall as if we were the only two people alive. A pleasant illusion, at the time. Now the idea felt claustrophobic. “How will we get to the others?”
“The other– chosen.”
Zahirah tensed. She paused in what she was doing, a small toolkit clutched in her hand. She didn’t answer, but shoved the item into the sack with some violence.
Chafing at her inscrutability, I lashed out. “As a priestess of the end of times, shouldn’t you have had your bags already packed?”
“This is for you.” Rising, she thrust the bag at me. “Go to the kitchen. Fit as much water as you can into that bag. Food rations. Then wait for me by the door.”
Dismissed like a troublesome child, I fled, and Zahirah shut the door behind me. In the kitchen, I located several packages of food, and tossed them, grumbling, into the pack. I set to filling canisters from the tap, feeling more than a little absurd. Was water meant to protect us from the wrath of ancient gods? I shoved the last canister into the bag, and then paused, realizing that something had changed.
“The tremors had stopped!” I called out.
When Zahirah did not respond, I switched on the kitchen module. The emergency broadcast resumed, overriding every channel. There was no other news. Try as I might, I still could not find an off-world signal.
When I muted the comm, I heard Zahirah speaking. Leaving the pack, I returned to her door and opened it.
“Tikhonravov Crater,” I heard her say. “We are leaving the city soon.”
“Who are you talk–”
Zahirah shushed me. She knelt by a comm beside her bed, her back to the door. She was halfdressed in a utilitarian pantsuit, her teaching clothes disregarded.
I could see then that Zahirah was recording a message – the comm was not live. A static image filled the screen, Zahirah in a military uniform, I thought at first. With another look I realized the picture was of was someone younger, though just as beautiful.
“I will stay near Arabia if I can. If not, I will get a message to you, somehow. If nothing else, go to the Palm of War, and you will know… Soroya, I…” Zahirah paused. “I can think of nothing that will not take too long to say. Be well, my darling. May the Mother bless and keep you.” With that she switched off the recording, and bent her head over the module to finish the transmission.
“What about Tikhonravov Crater?” I asked.
“I told you to wait.”
“You told me we must hurry, too, but you paused to make a vid recording.”
Zahirah clenched her jaw. She pushed up from the floor, pulling her suit closed.
“Who was that, Zahirah?”
Zahirah did not show me her face when she answered. “My daughter.”
The ensuing silence was painful. I had not thought of Zahirah’s life outside of the University. I had not asked who owned the men’s clothing she’d put in the bag. I thought of the image on Zahirah’s screen – a young soldier with her mother’s eyes.
Zahirah brushed past me. From a compartment by the front door she pulled another bag, as full as mine, and slung it over her shoulder.
“Did you hear what I said?” I asked, when the silence drew on too long. “The tremors have stopped.”
Zahirah withdrew something else from the closet, secreting it into the pocket of her suit before I could see what it was. She turned towards me. “And you think that means that you are safe,” she said, her voice dull and soft. “I think I’m beginning to envy you, Dr. Phoenix.”
Every time was different. Just as every climax sang through Her a different hymn of ecstasy, each labor brought a new understanding of pain. This time it laced Her womb in intricate whorls, a dance of agony, and pleasure, too – oh, yes. There was the joy of Their joining, the grief of separation, and there was this. There was completion.
With the firmament of her Brother Lover between her knees, the Goddess rose up. Completion filled Her, and rent her apart. Constellations scattered. Her great belly heaved, loosing the ocean of her womb to flood the worlds below. Her children squirmed within Her, eager to taste life.
The long Night was ending, making way for the Dawn.
We retraced our path through the residential corridors. The guard station was empty now. We joined the trickling flow of people in the stairwell and made our way back to the surface.
There was still a considerable crowd in the metro junction, but not as thick as it had been. Though the quakes had ceased, the automated announcement urged the citizens of this sector to convene in the Curiosity Entertainment Arena, where an emergency center and triage had been established.
Disregarding the broadcast, Zahirah crossed the plaza and took one of the northern avenues, through an administrative wing on the sector outskirts. Tikhonravov Crater. My pack hung heavy on my shoulders, far more than we needed for a day or so in a refugee assembly.
“You’re not really thinking of leaving the city,” I called after her. Zahirah didn’t answer, though within a short time it became evident that leaving was exactly what she intended.
We had reached an Exit Station.
“Does that badge of yours give you clearance to exit the city on a whim?” The last time I had gone to the Martian surface, on a climbing trip with friends in the Victoria canyons, it had taken six months to obtain an exploration visa, health screenings, liability waivers. Zahirah meant to arrange this in an instant, while the city was in lockdown, no less.
“The badge, no. But there are other ways. My order has not survived millennia by accident.” We approached the Exit Station, where a guard was just looking up from a panel.
“The evacuation orders for this sector are still in effect… Madame,” he added, as he caught sight of Zahirah’s badge. He was a young man, proud and fit in his sleek black uniform. His demeanor said he had been through hell this morning, and had no time for pushy faculty. “You must proceed to the Curiosity Arena until protocol is lifted.”
A second guard stood several feet away, monitoring the comms. She paid no attention to us; her eyes scanned the transmissions coming through rapid-fire. “Marcus, are you getting this?” she said over her shoulder.
The first guard put his hand to his ear. “Move along,” he said to us. “Now.”
“Marcus! East tunnel!”
From behind us, sounds of pandemonium rolled outwards from one of the avenues. The flow of human traffic had stopped; citizens milled about the opening of the tunnel, confusion blossoming into fear as the noise within the avenue became a chorus of shrieks. Those nearest the junction began to try to back up, blocked by those still waiting behind them.
“Get them into the shops!” cried the female guard, turning from her comm.
“Back! All of you, get ba–” The guard called Marcus began, stepping away from the Exit Station door, but was cut short.
Zahirah held a pistol beneath the young man’s chin. In the time it took his partner to reach for her weapon, Zahirah fired. Marcus’s chin opened, spilling blood over his uniform. He dropped at Zahirah’s feet.
I staggered backwards, noting in horror the blood on my own clothes. Zahirah never flinched. She had turned her pistol on the remaining guard.
“Put your hands where I can see them,” she said, calm, though loud enough to make herself heard over the din. “Take us inside.”
An eerie screeching sound split through the screams of the crowd. The guard jerked, torn between the need to act and the pistol pointed at her head. I could see the calculation in her eyes, judging one crazed citizen with a gun to be the lesser danger.
“If you want to live to help these people,” Zahirah told her, “do as I tell you. We will not hurt you, and we will be gone in moments. Think about it.”
The screeching grew louder, closer. The guard moved back behind the gates, into the Exit Station, and Zahirah stepped in behind her. “Carter,” she said, her voice commanding.
I almost left her, then. I turned away, searching for a path through the mob, which had begun to press away from the tunnel in hysterical terror. Then I saw the black forms sweeping along the roof of the avenue; some flying like giant bats, others crawling upside down, diving into the throng. It was a thing of nightmares; people snatched up like fleeing rats, shredded, disappearing into the maws of moving shadow. The Exit Station seemed infinitely preferable. I dove in after the women, sealing the gates behind me.
The guard had not yet seen what was happening in the station, but she still had a comm connected to her ear. Her eyes had gone wide, as she backed against the wall of the station.
Zahirah hadn’t seen them, either, but I had no doubt that she knew. She had always known.
“Carter – we need radiation suits,” Zahirah ordered. To the guard, she said, “Activate the decompression chamber. When we are gone, I suggest you put on a suit as well. And hide.”
While the guard turned to the module, shaking, I located the suits. My own hands were unsteady; I dropped the garments and had to fumble to retrieve them from the locker floor.
At Zahirah’s direction, I put mine on first, all but the hood, while she kept her gaze locked on the guard. When I was done, she held out the weapon to me.
Our eyes met. She knew what was roiling inside me; horror at what she had done, and the greater shock of what I had seen in the metro junction. She was not asking for my forgiveness, but she needed my trust – and my help. I could refuse. I could take the weapon and turn it on her, instead.
Her eyes were dark as night in that moment. The amulet lay on the outside of her clothes, glowing white as a moon under the bright station lights. Two pieces, united in a seamless whole. She could not do this without me.
“Gods damn you, Dr. Nayar,” I managed, taking the weapon.
Zahirah breathed an ironic laugh.
I held the weapon on the guard, who had finished her task. The compression chamber hummed, active, while Zahirah donned her suit and fit the hood in place.
As I handed the weapon back, the station shook with sudden impact. All of us turned to see the Exit Gate buckle, then crack. I had time to imagine the impossible strength required to penetrate the structure – the same material used on the outer hull of the city itself – before a black appendage snaked through the new opening.
It seemed to have the consistency of smoke, or liquid, both, shifting its shape into something that resembled claws. As the guard began to scream, another appendage appeared, and the fissure in the gate widened, breaking apart.
As the thing flowed into the station, a good-sized space made miniscule by the creature’s size, Zahirah grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into the compression chamber. I heard the guard’s screams dissolve in a gurgle of pain.
Zahirah slammed her fist on the inner module. The chamber doors began to slide shut, but stopped as a black tentacle slipped through, reaching for me.
“Get in the cruiser,” Zahirah shouted through her hood. Mine was still tucked under my arm. I held it in a death-grip. I stumbled backwards, groping for the hatch of the waiting cruiser while the black form bled into the tiny chamber.
Zahirah did not try to run. She could not have made it, in any case, but as the shape piled upon itself, growing arms and claws, sprouting a snout, I screamed her name, urging her to move.
Then, as the thing’s mouth widened, sharpening into black fangs, Zahirah lifted the amulet from her breast. She held it out before her, her arm trembling.
And the creature stopped.
“Get in the cruiser!” Zahirah shouted to me again. I did, pawing at switches to bring it to life.
I pulled my hood on, and the airlock began to open. Atmosphere rushed around the creature’s black body. Unaffected, the thing swirled in on itself, pulling its mass back into the station. Zahirah dove into the cruiser beside me.
The cruiser glided through the bay doors. Arabia Terra fell behind us as we entered the vast and empty terrain. Ahead, the rim of mountains was the only thing between us and the dark vault of heaven.
Or so I thought.
What looked at first like a storm, brooding on the horizon, was in fact a swarm – amorphous in the distance, but separating into shapes as it neared the city. I turned to stare from the cruiser’s rear window. A cloud of dark, churning beasts fell from the sky onto Arabia Terra, a column of black limbs, shifting bodies. As the cruiser picked up speed and the outline of the city grew large behind us, I saw thousands of beings perched, ape-like, on the domes, scaling the walls. They tore away the outer shell and crawled inside its fissures. The sky rippled with the city’s atmosphere, pouring through the holes, dissipating into the void.
“The coupling of Sky and Earth is complete,” Zahirah said, her gaze fixed on the red terrain ahead. “Neuth prepares us for new life.”
Life? “What… what are they?” The blackness crawled over Arabia Terra, devastating in its completeness.
Zahirah grimaced. “They are the birth waters. The Goddess gives life,” she said, “and She takes life away.”
After that, we did not speak.
I lay with my eyes closed as Zahirah guided the cruiser east, across the Martian desert. I could not bear to look at her – nor did I wish to see the grim weather churning in the skies. Neuth’s birth waters. A dawn of death.
Soon, though, the images behind my eyes were too much to bear, so I opened them again, and took note of where we were headed.
There had been talk for decades of renewing the Naktong-Scamander-Mamers lake-chain system – the channels were there, waiting to serve Arabia Terra’s ever-growing demand for water. The University’s elite science community looked forward – had looked forward –to a promised day when terraforming would be not so much science fiction, but a vivid reality. As of yet, the technology had not caught up with their enthusiasm.
Thirty kilometers north of city, the edge of the world gave way to the great, barren chasm. Spanning nearly 400 kilometres in diameter, the ancient lake opened for us as Zahirah pointed the cruiser towards its dusty mouth. I imagined us driving over the edge, into the abyss. In that moment, I might not have cared.
But Zahirah stopped at the base of a butte, one of many that fringed the crater, carved out by millennia of erosion – the slow art of time.
Dubbed by early astronomers as “the palm of war”, the butte Zahirah chose was vaguely handshaped. When asked what why this spot, Zahirah muttered something about alignment and coordinates. Her voice was muffled by the atmosphere hoods we wore as we climbed out of the cruiser. We switched on the communication link between the suits, but I didn’t ask more. The effort of climbing discouraged conversation, even had I been inclined to keep talking.
We had to scale the last thirty meters, a feat that made me wonder if my being chosen to accompany Zahirah into a new age was based solely on my experience in rock-climbing. At the top I rolled onto my side, breathing hard. The light had turned purple while we climbed. I was relieved to see that the black cloud of death was gone – the faint shape of stars showed through a murky sky. In the distance, sunset was sinking over the hulk Arabia Terra. I looked back towards the ruins of the city, though now there was little left to see. The domes had collapsed, reduced to rubble. The swarming creatures had either abandoned the carnage or disappeared below the surface.
I turned to Zahirah, who crawled to the center of the butte and started to make scratches on the ground. As I got to my feet, Zahirah motioned for me to join her.
Soon, she had encircled us both with symbols in the dust. To my amazement, I found my curiosity stirred – an urge for life, perhaps, struggling against the blackness of despair.
Studying her work for a moment, I realized Zahirah was recreating the carvings on the amulet. “The hieroglyphic for Neuth,” I acknowledged. I squatted beside her and pointed to a section of ground; table, urn, upturned bowl. “And here, the ladder. But what are the rest doing here?” Hera, Yahweh, Tezcatlipoca, Saranyu. I recognized them all, now – a cornucopia of deities of earth and sky.
“As I said before: religion is both specific and metaphorical.” Zahirah completed her drawing and sat back on her heels. “The Handmaidens are not native to Egypt. We’re older than that; we existed in every major civilization. When I speak of Neuth and Geb, I speak only with the language that was passed down to me by my mothers. There are others…” she gestured towards the sky. “Wherever they are, they will be drawing together in many names. The reality is the same.”
“The reality.” I looked upwards. Zahirah rose to stand beside me. She took my hand.
“The sky,” I pointed.
“Yes,” she said. “I know.”
The stars that had been vague spots of light now appeared much closer, brighter. Even as we watched, they seemed to be drawing nearer, as if the sky were falling.
Zahirah began to chant. I could not imagine how this would save us from being crushed under the atmosphere, but I didn’t have any better ideas. I clung to her.
We were not crushed. The air around us underwent a spectacular change, growing light and shimmering. Winds crept up, mild at first but growing fiercer very fast. A storm of dust blew across the Martian surface. I saw our cruiser roll away, taking our packs with it.
Zahirah and I remained safe inside the circle. The wind arched around us, as if blocked by an invisible sphere. I raised my hand but felt nothing. Only space.
I don’t know how long this went on. After a time, the winds disappeared. I peered into the heavens, so close it seemed I could almost touch them. I thought perhaps it was finished, and held my breath, but then the firmament shifted. An immense column of atmosphere rose upwards – not a column, I saw then. A torso. I fell to my knees, realizing what I was seeing.
Neuth. The Goddess had risen.
The world as I understood it had come unhinged. What I knew as the sky was now a separate piece of life, swirling, starlit against a deeper blackness. Gazing on this other darkness made my stomach drop, my consciousness shrivel to a point of terror. What was out there, beyond the body of the sky goddess, was not space – that dangerous, airlessness between worlds. Space was something humankind had surmounted, something through which we could travel, exist. This was different. This was not a thing I had encountered, but somehow I recognized it, and feared it.
It was void.
In time, I could perceive an arm, stretched taut against the supportive rock of the planet, then reaching outwards, upwards. I craned my neck but saw no head. It was too far up.
Beside me, Zahirah raised her arms, palms pointing toward empyrean.
The body of Neuth rose higher, the mountain of her belly swallowing the vista where stars and planets should have hung. In the west, where the sun had fallen an hour – a millennia –ago, loomed a massive cloud of atmosphere that could only be a thigh. I looked to the east and there stretched its mate. The sky goddess was straddling the cosmos.
The winds had ceased, the air having risen into the body of Neuth. Exposed to… space, to beyond space, the land around us appeared lunar, ethereal. I expected to be sucked out into that void, yet somehow Zahirah and I remained rooted within the circle. Zahirah’s chanting reached an end.
“What…” I managed. “What happens now? Is it over?” She turned to me, blinking dreamily within her hood.
No. It was not over.
Next came the beast.
I don’t know how else to describe it. At first, I saw nothing – east, south, in all directions, the landscape spread out dark and quiet beneath the twin towers of Neuth’s thighs. Then, a tremor began, rolling in a great crescendo until the world rocked with a violence that made everything we had felt earlier seem like ripples in a puddle. All around us, bits of rock broke free of the crater’s edge. The Palm of War swayed, and I thought surely we would be thrown into the depths below. Zahirah and I fell to the ground, I reached for her, and we clung together, waiting, until the tremors stopped.
I saw it in the distance, then – a great slithering shape. But unlike the black birth waters, with their many biting forms, this – thing – remained whole. I could discern something like a head, and a tail, with moving fore and hind parts that propelled it towards us at an impossible speed. “Zahirah…”
Heedless of me, and the knife’s edge of terror I heard in my own voice, Zahirah walked to the edge of the butte. Lightning fast, the thing slid through the canyon and encircled us. Over the rim of the butte appeared something like a snout, curved sharp as a sickle, with teeth the size of a man. The snout lifted upwards, its tip a huge wet black nub sniffing over our heads.
A forked tail rose up, flipping and writhing, and started to slide across the ground. When it reached the circle, the two forks paused, quivering. They twined together as if conferring, then the long appendage receded. We heard a thud as it plummeted over the side of the butte and hit the ground below. We felt the vibration in our bones.
The creature gripped the butte in razor-laced claws. It towered over us, a wedge-shaped head on a shaggy body. It raised a claw, as if to flatten us into the rock.
The being let out a shrill whine. I put my fists on either side of my hood, cringing, until the noise softened and became almost plaintive. The thing bent, lowering itself until we stood facing its one enormous black eye.
“There, there,” I heard Zahirah breathe beside me. She was shaking, but she lifted a hand to caress the beast. All that was within reach, though, was its eye. She took a step forward. “There, there.”
For me, the scrutiny of this eye became an unbearable thing; in its reflective black sheen I saw myself, staring, helpless, while all the worlds I knew were ripped to shreds. Other faces crowded in the eye; Bo Huan, my friends, the University students waiting for the tube in Arabia Terra, the people in the metro junction, all dead. Madness rushed over me. I found myself screaming like a wild man, clawing at my atmosphere suit and hood as if they burned me.
I wanted to attack the thing. I wanted to break it. There was nothing within reach but the circle, Zahirah and myself, so I tore at what I had. I heard Zahirah shouting my name in horror as I yanked my hood free from the suit.
I was buffeted by air so full of dust it stole my breath. It did not occur to me until later that, even without a hood, I had breath to steal. I was caught up in rage, not caring if I lived or died. My only thought was to lash out at this giant thing with the beautiful, alien black eye. Still screaming, I hurled my hood. It hit the eye and flopped to the ground.
The creature blinked and reared back, whining its siren sound. Without my hood to protect me, the sound pierced my skull. I went down writhing.
“Carter!” Zahirah threw herself in front of me just as a monster hand whisked across the butte. At the last moment the beast draw back. Zahirah was not eviscerated, but she cried out as the tip of a retracting claw sliced across her back.
The beast shivered and whinnied. As Zahirah turned to face it, I saw the long gash in her suit, a line of fresh blood on her skin. Only then did I realize the atmosphere around us was not only intact but hospitable to human life; with her suit compromised, Zahirah would otherwise have asphyxiated.
Zahirah had realized this as well. She tore off her hood and, lifting the amulet from her breast, began to chant again.
The beast rocked back and forth. Its forked tail rose into the air and wrapped itself around the body, a child calming itself under a mother’s song.
“You must not fight her,” Zahirah said under her breath. “You must not. She will not harm us if she knows us as her chosen ones, but if you show anger you will confuse her.”
“She?” I shouted. “What is she?”
“She is an Avatar of Neuth, Carter! Can you not see that?”
At first I could not see anything but a towering vision of death before me; but soon the horror of snout, claws, and tail came together in my mind. Gods with the heads of animals, composites of beings.
“Seth,” I stammered. “Those… it looks like depictions of Seth.”
“They are of the same bloodline, born of sky and earth. This… She…” Zahirah paused, her voice overcome with emotion. “It is She that Neuth has labored to bring forth.”
“She gave birth to Her own avatar?”
“We are like mites, to the Sky Mother; we would shatter if we heard Her true voice, or gazed upon her true eye. In Her great compassion, She has given us Her offspring, so that we may commune with
“What does she want with us?” I shouted, growing impatient with the ritual of it all.
But the creature, too, had had enough of conversation. It – she – let go of the twining tail and reared up to full height. It bellowed, shaking the ground, and then soft white light poured from its mouth.
Zahirah stretched out her arms. The tendril of light swirled around her face and drifted inside her mouth, eyes and nose. Zahirah remained still, allowing the light of the Gods to enter her, to take root. Her body began to glow.
I watched in a daze, helpless to do anything. At last a tendril of light fell from Zahirah’s mouth and dissipated into the air. The creature pulled back, unsteady on its feet.
Zahirah dropped her arms. Her eyes glowed with starlight. She called my name in a voice that was not her own: “Carter, of the Phoenix. He who rises from the ashes. Now is your offering required. The Daughter of Heaven awaits you.”
In panic, I glanced from this strange and terrifying Zahirah to the creature towering over us with its vicious teeth and claws. For a moment all thought left me but a desperate plea: run – but run to where? The only safety was here in the circle where Zahirah in her glowing aspect began to remove her radiation suit, and then the clothing beneath. And of course, I remembered, what else had all of this been for? The amulets had drawn us together to be united in the image of Neuth and her lover, the joining of Heaven and Earth – of gods and flesh. What else had I to offer but my earth, my body, myself?
I can say, a part of me shrank from this. That I had been chosen to father a new generation of my kind could not erase the knowledge that I had also been an agent in its destruction. That I had been chosen and not asked. That I was expected to perform under the gaze of a monstrous golem, with the stink of death in the air. I can say, yes, a vestige of pride did rail against this, even as Zahirah came to me in her lovely nakedness.
But man is of the earth, and answers first as he is made to. Earth rises to the sky. Flesh rises to life.
Man cleaves to woman, helpless and small in the sight of Gods.
Zahirah rose, after, and raised her arms into the air. All of creation, it seemed, waited for her bidding.
“It is done,” she said. “Disperse, my children. It is done.”
The creature swayed, then slunk to the ground as if it had become boneless. For a moment Zahirah and I were alone on the butte, alone in the world. Then the creature began to crawl away across the crater floor. To the east, a great tide of black washed from the ruins of Arabia Terra.
I do not know how long the exodus lasted. The sky darkened, the black forms rising. In time, the swarm of fleeing bodies became indistinguishable from the void. When this was done, the great starry column of Neuth stretched from one horizon to the other, retaking the arch over the worlds of men. Soon I found myself blinking into a perfect, starlit sky. The winds had been stripped from Mars; the air laid around us fresh as mythical earth – and with it a silence that stretched across the world in every direction.
Silence, until Zahirah turned to me, blinking, and in her own voice, breathed the first new words into life.
“The new Dawn has begun.”
The sun rose as it has not, on Mars, in the memory of man; azure skies received it, and the dusty red plains blazed with fertile light.
The cruiser was found several kilometers from the butte, dented but functioning. We returned to Arbia Terra to search the flattened, broken shell for ways inside. Within the wreckage, we salvaged components to start again; clothing, building scraps. Stored water and, blessing of the Gods upon us, an agridome stocked with a full catalog of embryonic flora and livestock.
And, here and there, survivors. Not priests or handmaidens, but regular people. At last count we numbered forty-seven; mostly women and children, some elderly, and a beagle we rescued from the university library. We named him Libris.
We created a camp, on the grounds near a collapsed Exit Station, our days spent mending the injured and extracting what we could from the ruins of our city. But on the fortieth day, the sun rose into a sky not blue but a burnished purple. By midday, storm clouds stretched across the horizon, an eerie reminder that left us cringing and terrified until the clouds cracked and released rain. Simple rain.
We met this first with joy, filling cups, laying out clothes, standing naked in the torrent to wash the filth of devastation from our skin. But as the rains kept coming, the canyons filled. The ground beneath our camp bled red, becoming swamps that sucked at our feet. Soon the mouths of the city were filling with water. We were forced to higher ground.
The rains continued for a month. We huddled in a complex of caverns, watching the moons turn in the sky. When finally the clouds rolled away, the canyons that had been our home had birthed a network of lakes, rivers and rapids. Arabia Terra was lost.
But in the wake of the rains, the mountains flourished with vegetation. We came down from the mountain to find a new green world.
In a verdant present, it is pointless to regret. Surrounded by the faces of our children, remorse seems almost sacrilege. Now is our springtime. Now is our Eden. Or, as Zahirah says, now is our Dawn.
I’m not unhappy; nor, I think, is she. We have all that we need; food, the love of family. Community. We work well together, as leaders, as lovers. There is satisfaction in that.
Zahirah cuts a striking profile, looking out over what we have built. Zahirah, gazing skyward, is our symbol of faith. She is a pillar of strength for us all.
But we are not gods. We’re only human.
At least, I am only human. Of Zahirah, I sometimes wonder.
Even now, when we lie together, when we create new life, a light comes into her eyes, reminiscent of that night on the palm of war. I will not say that it terrifies me, still, but it is a reminder.
I remember Zahirah in simpler times – a Zahirah that was beautiful as just a woman, not a Daughter of Heaven nor the mother of a people. I am not supposed to speak of this, but I think it.
Zahirah speaks only of tomorrow, but by now I know her nature. I see what shifts within her black eyes when she considers on our sons and daughters.
As we lie in our bed at night, gazing through our window into the belly of the sky, there is blackness where stations used to be. So much distance. So much space to learn, again, to conquer.
But, there is Mercury, spinning fast. There is Earth, still, a bright point of hope.
Perhaps, somewhere among those other kingdoms, there is another priestess, not so young now, looking with her mother’s eyes at the promise of the stars.
“Daughter of Heaven” is copyright © Shannon Connor Winward
Shannon Connor Winward is the author of the Elgin-award winning chapbook, Undoing Winter. Her writing has earned recognition in the Writers of the Future Contest and the Delaware Division of the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship in literature. Her work has appeared in (or is forthcoming from) Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Pseudopod, The Pedestal Magazine, Shoreline of Infinity, Persistent Visions, Cast of Wonders, Flash Fiction Online, and Star*Line, among others. In between writing, parenting, and other madness, Shannon is also an officer for the Science Fiction Poetry Association, a poetry editor for Devilfish Review and founding editor of Riddled with Arrows Literary Journal.