God-Eaters

by Joshua M. Young


“That one, there,” Peiromai said, voice hushed, almost reverent, “there’s a god aboard it.” He pointed out the flight deck window at a medium sized c-ship, too small for a god. Peiromai spoke of impossibilities.

“The Kadmon,” I said. The Kadmon was demigod only, but ancient and powerful and steeped in legend. Birthed by the Pinakes, the Library Goddess; older than his creator, her lover and her child—the gods were incestuous both sexually and chronologically—and I’d eat him with the same relish that I’d consume his progenitor-lover.

But my own lover shook his head. “No, not just the Kadmon. A real god. Older than the Kadmon, wiser than the Pinakes.”

“Nothing is older than the Kadmon.”

“Nothing human,” Peiromai said. “It’s an alien god we’ll eat tonight.”

***

The world about which we had found the Kadmon had been chosen carefully. It was prosperous enough to have traffic, but not so advanced or prosperous as to control that traffic. When we seeded the orbit with passive dust, no one took notice; when the dust became active in the vicinity of the Kadmon and detonated, no one responded. Those who were there chose to look the other way. A great many c-traders had developed keen self-preservation instincts in the gigaseconds spent trading.

The Kadmon’s ship was a tough thing, not so fragile as to be crippled by something like dust. It could certainly be staggered, however, and when Peiromai and I boarded, it was unable to defend itself.

***

The Kadmon was another story altogether. One arm was charred and shattered, his face bloody, cooling fins erupting from his back as his bones struggled to repair the injuries. My mouth watered at the ozone-smell of smart matter.

Even injured, even missing an arm, the Kadmon was a force of nature. He fell on us moments after we boarded his ship, lashing out at Peiromai with a meter-long smart matter blade. The stroke rent Peiromai’s boarding armor; the backstroke nearly took off both our heads. Peiromai fell backwards. I dove to the side and gained a shallow gash on the throat, cauterized with waste heat from the blade.

Peiromai lashed out with a monofilament whip, but the Kadmon dove forward, losing the tips of his cooling fins instead of his own head. A flawless roll made suddenly awkward by the fins brought him up within Peiromai’s arms, and the blade went through the underside of my mate’s chin and out through his skull. A blur of movement, and Peiromai’s head fell apart like a melon.

Hunger and rage threw me at the Kadmon, teeth bared, the array of god-killing weapons that would preserve the precious smart matter forgotten.

The Kadmon was merciful. The dregs of rationality inside my skull expected a blade through the eye; instead, it went through my heart. Debilitating, crippling, but the all-important brain remained intact.

The pain, though, was impressive.

***

My time sense was gone, the forever ticking digits behind my eyelids absent for the first time in memory. My bone-self had gone quiet, no longer whispering to me, offering hints about the universe. I had become the Kadmon’s prisoner, arms stretched out to either side, hands embedded all the way to the wrist inside the wall. He had at least allowed me to sit and enough flexibility to shift from one numb buttock to the other.

The Kadmon was hale and whole, no longer missing his arm; his expression was serene, but his hair was damp and shiny lumps of med gel were visible near his collar. He’d likely spent more than a little time immersed in a med vat. I wondered about my own wounds, but before I could ask, the Kadmon said, “Ushki. God-eaters. You know who I am?”

“An ape ascended to godhood. The pet of the bitch-goddess, the Pin―”

He crouched slowly, a thoughtful look on his face until the very moment he slammed my head into the wall. I grinned, trying desperately to ignore the pain, and said, “And dinner. I can smell your bone-self, ur-human. The scent of the smart matter in your marrow. I’ll crack you open and feast on the god-tech inside you while your flesh rots.”

Hatred and disgust mingled in his eyes. I knew what he was seeing. Utterly hairless, digits that were more talons than fingers, skin turned gunmetal by the saturation of smart matter. Baselines and those who kept the baseline form rarely viewed the ushki as human.

“I don’t know what to do with you.”

“I know what to do with you,” I told him, and licked my lips.

For a long moment, I thought he might kill me. But the moment passed and the Kadmon shook his head and turned away. His back was smooth and utterly human. The cooling fins would’ve retreated back into his bones when the crisis and aftermath had resolved.

“You gods,” I spat. “Pretending you’re human. Even your bitch puts on a human shell. You may have been born on the Cradle, Kadmon, but you’re less human than I am.”

“And yet,” the Kadmon said, “were you in my position, you’d be cracking open my femur as we speak.”

Not a lot of use arguing that one, I suppose.

***

After some time, the ship lights went down, and I dozed fitfully. The weight of my body pulled uncomfortably on my shoulders and wrists, and sleep was hard in coming and harder in staying. When morning came, I opened my eyes to find the Kadmon crouching next to me.

“I’m going to let you lose,” he said, “On the condition that you behave yourself.”

“If I don’t?”

The Kadmon’s eyebrows inched up. “An interesting consequence of your particular mode of enhancement is that the smart matter in your body is cohesive, but only just. You might as well have an abacus in your bones, for all the computing power you leverage. But that’s what you get with stolen smart matter, I guess. It doesn’t really like talking to the other stuff inside you.”

“And?”

“I spent the night hacking your bone-self. You try anything, and I’ll break the cohesion of your smart matter. The nanomachines in your bones will begin attacking each other, and you will likely die a very painful death.”

The wall pushed my hands up and out, and I wondered if it’d been waiting for a cue from the Kadmon or if it was sentient enough to have a sense of dramatic timing. I rubbed my wrists, tried to flex my shoulders. “What’s to become of me, if I behave?”

“I’m burning for a fairly low-tech world right now. A dozen megaseconds or so, ship time. You’ll be left there with your bone-self in a deadened state. Your ship I’ll sell somewhere further down the line. Until we get to your destination, you’ll be a guest.”

“You could kill me, save yourself the trip.”

“I could,” the Kadmon agreed.

***

The Kadmon locked himself away for a short time each ship-day. The same room each and every day, located in the living area of the ship and locked at all times.

It was perhaps a day and a half before hunger and rage overcame me. I prowled the corridors and, finally, when the Kadmon emerged from his sequestration, I attacked. By all rights, I should’ve died then and there, but he had placed far too much faith in either my self-preservation or my integrity. I took him by surprise and drove his skull against the bulkhead. Wood paneling shattered and the Kadmon slumped to the ground. For a moment, I considered how best to butcher him, whether to leave him living to witness me eat his bones. Peiromai’s blood called for…

The door hung ajar. Inside, I caught a glimpse of red carpeting and the same dark wood paneling I’d seen elsewhere. The room inside was sparsely decorated, a handful of unfamiliar symbols carved into the walls. A pair of intersecting wooden beams hung above a cabinet, once gilded and ornately carved, now scorched and vacuum ablated, which sat on a dais opposite the door. A candle sheathed in red glass burned next to it. I felt, in some subtle way, that I was intruding on something.

“It’s an alien god,” Peiromai had said. Words forgotten in a hunt gone terribly wrong.

I had invaded a ship, intending to attack and mutilate its owner, all without qualm. Now, I felt wrong.

An alien god. Something unknowable, inhuman. The Kadmon had enshrined it, evidently worshiped it. Some sort of subtle brainwashing, a field flooding the room. I took a step toward the shrine, felt my knees buckle. I’d just driven the head of a god through a wall, but I felt unaccountably weak, blood streaming from my nose and eyes and ears, through my pores, grayish red with hemorrhaged smart matter…

The Kadmon’s alien god was a conqueror, hostile. My legs finally gave, and I fell onto the dais, an outstretched, bloody arm knocking the god from its perch. Pale wafers cascaded out and onto the carpet.

It was only as I fell that I realized the Kadmon was standing in the doorway. For the first time, I felt fear when I met his eyes.

***

He hauled me off the ground by the collar. I felt fabric stretch and tear, but it held. Only just; in its deadened state, my bone-self couldn’t coordinate reinforcement.

“You have no idea, god-eater, how much I want to kill you.”

“Then do it,” I snapped. “Decaseconds ago you told my bone-self to kill me. Then you stopped it. Why? Just finish it. Save yourself the trip.”

He opened his fist; the deck hit me hard and I gasped.

“Clean up your blood.”

***

The Kadmon and I dined later in the ship-day on fresh foods procured from the world of our ill-fated ambush. He ate with quiet grace; I ate awkwardly, picking at some nameless fruit and thinking of smart matter, warm, slick with fresh blood. My mouth watered, but my stomach turned as I thought of my own smart matter-laden blood oozing from my skin.

“I hate you,” the Kadmon said, “I hate your people for what they once did to me. For what they did to others. But that was a long time ago and a long way away. Your people aren’t what they once were.”

I looked up, surprised. His words were quiet and conversational, as if we’d been pleasantly talking the whole meal.

“You’re worse. Before, you were a bunch of trust fund kids playing at archaeology. Now you’re pirates, cannibals.”

“Why don’t you kill me?” I felt my eyes moisten, and I cursed the deadened state of my bone-self. I was stressed and had no way of controlling it.

“I would have earlier, if you’d been anywhere else. But that place has been dedicated to the Living God. It’s not a place for death.”

“And now you’re not killing me why?”

“Because I am a human being, not an animal. To kill you now would be to succumb to my hatred, to be a machine of meat souped up with smart matter. The Living God made me better than that. Better than instinct and emotion.”

“Why do you call the Pinakes that?” I asked.

“The Pinakes isn’t a god,” he said. “She didn’t make me, she healed me when I was mostly dead. She is wise and beautiful and I love her, but, ultimately, she is still a human soul inside a matrioshka brain.”

***

The Kadmon told me a ridiculous Cradle legend about the origin of the universe and a god who didn’t start human and ended up being made of bread and wine after he became human in order to die. The Kadmon was the last of this god’s worshippers, and the god salvaged from a broken space station, teraseconds old.

At the end of it all, I mocked him, clapping my hands and shouting, “You, Kadmon… you’re nothing more than a god-eater!”

I expected him to lash out. Instead, he laughed and cleared his plate from the table.

***

I sat alone in the mess for a while, a bowl of unfamiliar fruit on the table in front of me. I was stung by my failure to truly needle the Kadmon, irritated by the fruit whose names I didn’t know. Did I even know the name of the world? Maybe my bone-self could’ve told me, but the fact of the matter was that it had been Peiromai who had made the choices since we mated, my parents before that. I was a creature of hunger and instinct, thoughtless reflex.

A machine of meat.

Less human than the Kadmon. Less human than one of the hated gods.

***

The Living God was not very lively, all things considered. The Kadmon left the door to his altar unlocked now, and I regularly watched him kneel and meditate with his hands clasped in front of his chest, without any apparent concern for his safety. After a kilosecond or so of this, he would consume his deity’s body and drink his blood. The origins of the ushki hunger are opaque to me, but I knew that one does not worship a god by eating them.

***

The Kadmon, I realized one morning, had made a habit of misplaced trust. In his god of bread and wine, in me, in his ability to dominate software and smart matter. Strange symbols barraged me when I first opened my eyes, and it took a bewildered decasecond to understand that this was my time sense, once again active and desperately begging for input from a standardized pulsar in order to function accurately. It is perhaps true that the harvested smart matter in the ushki body is at best tenuously connected, but every child is born with a bead of indigenous smart matter formed in the womb. It is this organ that enslaves the harvested material. It is this organ that had been chipping away, silently, at the Kadmon’s unattended slaveware.

I held my hand in front of my face and flexed my fingers. An array of tools emerged from my skin with each flex, blades and monofilament whips and half a dozen data interfaces.

No primitives for me. No life of starvation. I let the image of the Kadmon, butchered and stripped of smart matter, blood seeping into the carpet of his sanctuary, play through my head. The ozone smell of my own smart matter whipped my appetite into a frenzy and I fought to keep it down, to bring it back into check. It would be an animal’s reaction to stalk the Kadmon now, stupid and instinctual. Keep it low key, keep it routine, wait, wait for the chance to strike, be human…

***

I considered the Living God’s altar, and then dismissed it. For all his apparent vulnerability, the Kadmon had been surprised there once already. I could not imagine that he would not have prepared some sort of defense during his meditations. But then, twice I’d tried to kill the Kadmon; why should any place be any less defensible? The Kadmon’s confidence was a weakness, but I was certain that he would not have a baseless confidence. I liked the idea of the altar. There was something poetically just about destroying someone as foolish as the Kadmon at the foot of a foolish alien god who became human just to die.

Several ship days passed, three hundred kiloseconds or more, my time sense forever begging for the pulsar synchronization, my bone-self whispering more and more in my ear, hunger growing with every second.

Be human, be rational. Plan.

The Kadmon meditated, and I watched. The ship drew ever closer to the world in which the Kadmon planned to imprison me.

More than machine. More than hunger. Act only when the time is right.

***

“If you are going do something,” the Kadmon finally said, from his knees, his back to me, his hands clasped before his god, “now is as good a time as any.”

A whiff of ozone and a blade I hadn’t realized existed dissolved back into smart matter. “You said this isn’t a place for killing.”

“It’s a fine place for killing,” he said, a trace of humor in his voice, and I remembered the Living God’s death, nailed to his own holy symbol, “it’s just not a good place for me to kill you.”

“You killed my mate.”

“Did you love him?”

“What kind of question is that!”

“A straightforward one.”

“Does it matter? He was my mate!”

“The more like gods you folks become, the less like humans you are. You’re viruses, ushki god-eater, attacking the individuals who link and preserve civilization in the galaxy. There’d be no star travel without individuals like the Pinakes, and you’d devour her in a heartbeat, if you could.”

I leapt at the Kadmon, a long stabbing blade of smart matter emerging from my open palm. It went through his torso, just slightly off center, and he fell forward. I dissolved the blade, kicked the Kadmon onto his back, began pummeling him.

“How could you?” I demanded, punctuating each word with a blow. My bone-self did nothing to regulate the flow of emotion, hate and rage and hunger overpowering my internal software. “You, here, lording over mortals, holier than thou, hoarding your technology for yourselves! You killed a human being and didn’t even flinch!”

And then my mouth was full of the Kadmon’s flesh and smart matter and there was a moment of sudden stillness, the Kadmon not struggling, I not devouring.

“Tell me this is human,” he said.

My stomach cramped; when I clutched at my side, he said, “Fight it. Prove that you’re better than your hunger. Prove to me that you’re human.”

Human, rational, plan, don’t succumb, don’t give in, don’t lash out…

Lash out I did, a monofilament whip unspooling with a vicious slash of an arm, but it went wide, I didn’t kill him, the Living God’s holy symbol falling in two. Tears, hot with rage and frustration and mixed with the Kadmon’s blood ran down my cheeks. After a moment, maybe a decasecond, the Kadmon pulled my head to his chest, stroking my scalp with awkward, jerky movements.

“It’s okay,” he whispered, “I’m proud. You’re doing good, you’re just fine…”

In that moment, I knew I had missed on purpose. I wrapped my arms around him and pressed my cheek against his battered flesh. “The hunger, Kadmon. It’s always there. Always gnawing. How did we get to be like this? We were normal people once, weren’t we?”

He pondered this for a moment, hand hesitating for a fraction of a second before he spoke. “I suspect your ancestors found that scavenger archaeology wasn’t getting them where they wanted to be.”

“Where was that?”

“The legendary home of the gods,” the Kadmon said, “The Cradle. Earth, from where all our ancestors hail.”

“And you.”

“It was a long time ago. I suppose your ancestors assumed that a more aggressive archaeological method would locate the Cradle faster. Harvest smart matter and index the data fragments in it. The rest of it… Maybe the fastest way to index that data was internally. Maybe”—and here he glanced up at the altar—“they sought to participate in the nature of the gods and find the place that way.”

“Kadmon…”

“Yes?”

“Kill me?”

I felt his muscles tense. “Please,” I begged him. “I can’t live like this, not as a… god-eater. A cannibal, always starving. Death is better than that world you’ll leave me on.”

“If,” the Kadmon drew the word out, as though buying time to think, “If I could help you, rid you of those instincts—”

“You’d change my very nature?” My stomach cramped again, and I fought down a wave of nausea and hunger, as though my body were rebelling against the thought. “Will you take my memories, too?”

“No. Those you keep; to wipe your thoughts would be death.”

***

The medical bath was a horizontal tube of transparent material, empty and hinged open. I sat inside, naked, freezing, fighting the urge to cover myself in the Kadmon’s presence. For his part, he was a gentleman, or else revolted by the ushki form. He sat on the edge, patiently explaining what would happen during my return to the baseline body of my ancestors. “The Pinakes herself printed my ship,” he said, “and the sick bay knows what it’s doing. The uniquely ushki organs and features of your body will be removed or altered to baseline. I imagine that your bone-self will fight hard against reprogramming, and that it’ll take some time for everything to shake out properly. Maybe megaseconds. But in the end, I think you’ll come out okay.”

I nodded, shivered.

“Sorry it’s so cold. I don’t know why these things are always like that.”

Shrug.

“Ushki.”

“Yes?”

“I’ve never asked your name.”

I opened my mouth, but the thought of my old life tasted foul. “It doesn’t matter. Name me, Kadmon. Give me a name for my new life.”

The Kadmon laughed. “Anastasia, then,” he said, as if he expected me to know what it meant.

“It’ll do. Flood the tube, Kadmon. Wash away what I was.”



Joshua M. Young lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife, son, and two more feral cats than the optimal number of feral cats. (Ideally, zero.) He holds a Master of Divinity from Ashland Theological Seminary, and yes, he’s quite aware that writing this kind of stuff isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a trained theologian. A lifelong lover of science fiction and fantasy, one of his earliest memories involves some confusion with a Klingon Bird of Prey and an X-Wing in the middle of a theater showing The Search for Spock, and, once upon a time, he could select the desired Robotech novel from his bookshelf, in the dark, by the feel of its spine. (Don’t ask why that was a necessary skill. He couldn’t tell you.) He has been published in numerous anthologies, including Planetary: Mercury, Storming Area 51, and Tales of the Once and Future King. He can be found blogging at SuperversiveSF.com.


“God-Eaters” by Joshua M. Young. This story was originally published in Sci Phi Journal. Copyright © 2015 by Joshua M. Young.


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Comments

  1. I may be crazy, but this kind of story is exactly what I'd expect from a trained theologian. ;-)

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