In the Land of Gods and Monsters
On the first day of summer in the Year of the Hawk, when the wind came hot and dry from the west and the fat red sun stood high overhead in a pale blue sky, the fists of the Titans rained down like hammers on the City of the Gods.
Which is to say, of course, that the Titans finally tired of the Bullshit of the Gods, and decided to de-orbit a half-million crowbars onto Their heads. When the dust had cleared and the craters had cooled, the Titans’ soldiers followed behind—dozens of great lumbering things carrying thousand-kilo linear accelerators, and hundreds of man-sized ones with rifles and burners, quick and lean and lithe as cats.
We were watching all of this, Tara and I, from the top of the bluffs on the eastern side of the Valley of the Gods. When elephants fight, it behooves the mice to pay attention. One never knows when one of them might drop a piece of cheese.
“That makes no sense,” Tara said when I told her that. “Elephants didn’t have any cheese. They were vegetarians.”
I turned to glare at her.
“Do you recall the Parable of the Five Merchants?”
“I hate it when you do this.”
“When I do what?”
“You know. The parable thing. Any time I call you out for spouting gibberish, you pull out the Parable of the Blah Blah Blah and pretend that whatever nonsense you were just gassing on about actually means something. It’s really annoying.”
I shook my head.
“Oh, how sharper than a serpent’s tooth is the tongue of an ungrateful child.”
She rolled her eyes, and turned back to the battle.
* * *
Hours later, we picked through the ruins of the City of the Gods. We’d watched from the bluffs as the Titans had dropped, one by one, like marionettes whose strings had been cut. The last ones had panicked, had tried to flee, but the Gods were merciless in their vengeance. None had left the valley alive.
“I don’t understand,” Tara called down from the back of a Titan who lay face-down in the rubble at the city’s outskirts. “This thing could have picked up one of your cheese-eating elephants and broken it in half. How do you kill something like that?”
I shrugged, though I doubted she could see.
“This is the City of the Gods, daughter. The Titans were fools to challenge them.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I guess you’re right about that. They made a mess before they died though, didn’t they?”
I looked around. What had been a gleaming kaleidoscope of marble monuments and stone amphitheaters and thousand-meter lace-delicate towers was now little more than a field of rubble and smoking craters.
“That they did,” I said. “And what did it gain them?”
“Who knows?” Tara climbed carefully down along the Titan’s flank, hung briefly from a fold in its leathery skin, and dropped the last two meters to the ground. “Who knows what they were looking for?”
“Truth,” I said. The motives of both the Titans and the Gods were as opaque to me as I imagined mine might have been to an insect.
We made our way around the head of the fallen colossus. One eye, big across as my outstretched arms, was open and staring as we passed. It was blue flecked with gold, with a wide black pupil—the only part of the creature that was clearly human. Beyond it, the barrel of a burner jutted out between two broken marble blocks.
“Score,” Tara whispered. She approached the weapon slowly, nudged it with one foot, then bent to grasp it with both hands, and carefully pulled it free. She brought the stock to her shoulder. Her finger curled around the trigger.
“Careful, daughter,” I said. “Recall the Parable of the Field Mouse and the Owl.”
“Bite me,” Tara said. A searing white beam leapt from the barrel, and a burst of plasma and vaporized stone exploded from the last remaining wall of the building the Titan had destroyed as it fell.
“That was unwise,” I said. “If you draw the attention of the Gods…”
I had a number of parables in mind that would have illustrated my point, but before I could deploy them, a voice rose up from the rubble.
“Hey. Little help here?”
Tara froze, her mouth half-open.
“Seriously,” the voice went on after a moment. “I know you’re up there. I can hear you breathing. Some assistance would be very much appreciated.”
I looked at Tara. She gestured toward a jumble of stone blocks near the spot she’d targeted, one eyebrow raised. I shrugged. One cautious step at a time, she picked her way across the rubble until she stood looking down, the burner aimed between her feet.
“Thanks,” the voice said. “Pretty sure that’s mine. Mind handing it down?”
“No,” Tara said. “I don’t think I’ll do that.”
The block Tara was standing on shifted under her feet. She took a quick step back, and brought the burner to her shoulder.
“Yeah,” the voice said. “I wouldn’t fire that thing again if I were you. Don’t want to call down the Middle Finger of the Gods, do we?”
“Finger of the Gods?” Tara asked. “Is that what killed you?”
“Well, technically speaking I haven’t been killed yet—but yeah, that’s what took out Mikey over there.”
Tara glanced up at the fallen Titan. I took a step toward her.
“Daughter,” I said. “We should leave now.”
“No,” the voice said. “You should get me out of here. Also, you should give me back my Gods-damned burner. Then you can leave.”
Tara stepped forward, and peered down into the rubble again.
“What will you trade?”
“What, for my burner? I don’t have to trade for it, honey. It’s mine.”
She shook her head.
“Not for your burner, Titan. That belongs to me now. What will you trade for your ass?”
“Tara,” I said. “Please. Come away with me.”
“No,” Tara said. “This is an opportunity, father. It’s like finding a genie in a bottle. I will not let it go.”
“You know,” the voice said. “You’re really being kind of dickish about this.”
“Quiet,” Tara said, then turned to me. “If he won’t trade with us, maybe the Gods will?”
“Daughter,” I said. “Tara. Please. Recall the…”
“No,” she said. “No parables. This is happening, Dad.”
“So,” the voice said. “You guys are Archaics, huh? How’s that working out for you?”
Tara scowled into the rubble.
“Archaics? We’re human, you mean.”
“Semantics. Get me out of here, and maybe we can do something about that?”
I took two quick steps forward.
“Enough. Tara, come away now.”
I stopped short as she turned the burner toward me.
“What, exactly, do you mean by that?”
Her eyes were locked with mine, but she was speaking to the Titan.
“What I mean,” it said, “is that if you get me out of here alive, we can mod you right up. Medical nanos, third-gen immune system, arrested senescence—hell, we can even throw in a nose job if you want. You can be one of us. How does that sound?”
I looked at Tara. She looked at me.
“Go,” she said.
I shook my head.
“Daughter. Please. You cannot…”
“I can,” she said. Her finger rested lightly on the trigger of the burner.
“Yeah,” said the Titan. “She totally can.”
I took another step forward. My daughter, my only, raised the burner to her shoulder. I opened my mouth to speak, but there were no parables for this.
“Go,” she said again.
After a moment, I heard the hiss of the burner, and then the pop and crack of splitting rock. I kept walking, past the great Titan and beyond, to the break in the city wall where we’d entered an hour before. At the top of the first rise outside the city, I paused for breath and looked back. I could see Tara, a tiny figure, reaching into the space between the rocks. She leaned back, straining, then pulled a slab of marble up and cast it aside. A blue-tinged arm reached up toward her. She took its hand.
And then, the Finger of the Gods reached down. Tara wavered on her feet. The blue arm fell limp, and my daughter, my only, dropped to her knees. I thought to call to her, but my throat clenched and my voice failed me. Instead, I watched in silence as Tara shuddered, toppled forward, and disappeared into the hole.
* * *
Attend to the Parable of the Ungrateful Father.
Once, very near to the end of all things, there was a foolish old man. He had a daughter, strong and proud and beautiful, who should have been the joy of his life—but he mistook her strength for arrogance, and her pride for conceit. Her beauty, which should have brought light to their dark little home, only made him fear that someday she would be taken from him.
And then, one day, she was.
This parable has no lesson—or at least, none that I have the heart to tell.
* * *
Hours later, I was still sitting on the hillside—afraid to go to Tara, unable to leave her—when the prophet sat down beside me.
“Afternoon,” he said. “What brings you to the City of the Gods?”
I turned to look at him. He was neither old nor young, short nor tall, fat nor thin. He had close-cropped black hair, empty blue eyes, and skin the color of worn leather.
“You know what brings me here,” I said.
His mouth twisted into a smile, and he raised one thin black eyebrow.
“Why would I know that?”
I looked away.
“You are a prophet, are you not?”
“A prophet? Well, maybe I am at that. Shall I tell your future?”
I turned back to him, my face twisted into a scowl.
“A prophet is not a fortune teller. A prophet is the mouthpiece of the Gods.”
He gave me a mocking half-bow.
“Apologies, sir. Please forgive my ignorance.”
I looked back to the city. I could just make out Tara’s boot jutting out of the Titan’s grave. The prophet shifted beside me.
“You know,” he said finally. “She’s not really gone.”
“She is,” I said. “I saw her fall.”
He shook his head.
“She’s not. That body is dead, admittedly—but we’re more than these bodies, aren’t we?”
I spat into the dust.
“Is my daughter in paradise, then? Is she singing hosannahs to your masters now?”
The prophet laughed, and for just a moment, I wondered if I would be able to kill him.
“Oh my,” he said. “That’s perfect. You do know we’re not really gods, don’t you?”
I stared at him. He raised his hands in surrender.
“Easy, friend. No offense was intended.”
“I am not ignorant,” I said, emphasizing every word. “I know what you are.”
“Then you know what I mean when I say that your daughter is not gone.”
I looked up. A lone vulture circled above us. As I watched, it spiraled down, finally coming to rest on the body of the giant below. I closed my eyes. The prophet’s boots scraped against stone as he stood.
“Can you give her back to me?” I asked.
I opened my eyes again. The prophet was walking away from me, back down to the City of the Gods.
“We can,” he said, without looking back. “But first, there is a price to be paid.”
I climbed to my feet, and I followed.
* * *
Attend to the Parable of the Foolish Merchant.
Once, in the distant long-ago when such things still existed, there was a great city by the sea. A merchant lived there, wealthy and fat and eminently self-satisfied. He sold baubles and bangles to men even wealthier than himself, and though he took pains to humble himself before them when they entered his shop, he secretly prided himself on his ability to play his customers for fools.
One day, just as he was preparing to close his shop after a particularly profitable day, a final patron stepped in out of the heat of the evening. He was neither old nor young, short nor tall, fat nor thin. He had jet-black hair, and skin the color of worn leather. The merchant watched with growing impatience as his customer paced slowly around the shop, touching this and that, pausing occasionally to study one item or another, then moving on.
“Sir,” the merchant said finally. “The hour is late. I must ask you to choose.”
The customer turned to look at him for the first time.
“Very well,” he said. “I choose all.”
“All?” asked the merchant. “The cost…”
“Is nothing,” said the customer. “Name your price. I will pay it.”
The merchant smiled, and gave a number that was ten times the value of everything in his shop.
“Done,” said the customer.
The merchant’s smile grew wider.
The customer reached into the merchant then, and took all.
The lesson of this parable is a simple one: only a fool seeks to bargain with the Gods.
* * *
The prophet led me through the rubble of the broken city, to a half-collapsed marble temple at the edge of a deep crater.
“There,” he said, and gestured toward the darkened entryway. “The Gods await you.”
I bit back the urge to slap the smirk from his face.
“I told you,” I said. “I am not ignorant. I know what you are. I know that we made you.”
The prophet shrugged, and his smile became wistful.
“Humans have always made their gods. It’s a failing of the species.”
I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, he was gone.
* * *
It was dark inside the broken temple. I groped my way along a hallway until the walls dropped away. I stopped then, took a shuffling step forward, and stopped again.
“I am here,” I said.
I sat down carefully.
“I will go no farther,” I said. “Show yourselves.”
“I told you,” a voice said. “The pit was a waste.”
I was in a circular room, perhaps a dozen meters across. Two steps in front of me, the floor fell away.
“It’s bottomless,” the voice said. “Nice, right?”
“It’s not bottomless,” said a second voice. “It’s just really, really deep.”
“Semantics,” said the first voice. “It’s bottomless for all practical purposes.”
“Disagree,” said the second voice. “Presence or absence of a bottom would have made a great deal of difference to our corporeal friend here if he’d stumbled into it.”
“Moot point,” said the first voice. “He didn’t.”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t.”
“You still could,” said the first voice. “I mean, we went to a lot of trouble to put that pit there. The least you could do is to give it a try.”
I closed my eyes, breathed in deep, and let it out.
“I did not come here to test your pit for you,” I said. “I came here for my daughter. The prophet said you could give her to me.”
Both voices burst into laughter.
“The prophet?” the first one said. “You mean Doug?”
“He was screwing with you,” the second voice said. “Your daughter was helping one of the Altered. We hit her with a fifty gigawatt gamma-ray laser. She is dead. Every single cell in her body is dead. Every bacteria and virus that was in her or on her is dead. She is not coming back.”
“That said,” the first voice said, “we could conceivably reconstruct her for you.”
“Well, sure,” said the second. “We could build you a new her, pretty much just like the old one.”
“Lot of trouble, though,” said the first voice. “We’d need to be properly motivated.”
“Right,” said the second. “So what do you think, friend-o? Can you motivate us?”
* * *
Attend to the Parable of the Boy King.
Once, in the days when there were still enough men to need rulers, a great king died in battle, and left the ruling of his kingdom to his only son. The new king was a child, nearly too small to mount the throne—but he was king nonetheless, and his word was law.
On the first day of his rule, the king ordered his chief advisor to stand on his hands as he advised him. When the advisor could not find his balance, the king summoned the headsman.
On the second day of his rule, the king ordered his new chief advisor to stand on his hands. This man had spent the night practicing, but after a moment or two of balance, his arms gave way, and he fell. The king summoned the headsman.
So it went, day after day, advisor after advisor. Some pleaded. Some argued. Some wept. All lost their heads, until finally only one advisor was left—the youngest and most junior of them all. When the king ordered him onto his hands, he did not plead, or argue, or weep. He simply asked, “Why?”
“Because I am a child,” the king replied. “It is my nature to love foolishness.”
He snapped his fingers then, to summon the headsman. Again, the advisor asked, “Why?”
The king smiled.
“Because I am also a king,” he said. “It is my nature to punish those who disobey me.”
The lesson of this parable? Nothing is more dangerous than power in the absence of wisdom.
* * *
I looked around the empty room. The voices were silent. I climbed slowly to my feet.
“If I fall into your pit,” I said, “will you bring her back?”
The voices were silent. I took a single step forward.
“I have nothing else to offer,” I said. “Will you bring her back?”
The voices were silent. I took a second step. My toes curled over the sharp edge of the pit.
“Bring her back,” I said. “Please.”
The voices were silent. I closed my eyes, and I fell.
* * *
The pit was exceedingly deep. As the voice had said, though—it was not bottomless.
* * *
“Wake up, old man.”
I opened my eyes. I was sitting on a hard white bench, in a bright white room.
Tara sat beside me.
“Daughter,” I said. I opened my mouth to say more, but my voice broke, and I could not. Tara reached up, stroked my cheek with one hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“All is forgiven,” I said, and wiped my eyes clear. “Come home with me.”
She gestured, and the walls of the room disappeared. We sat at the pinnacle of a fairy tower, a thousand meters above the City of the Gods. She smiled sadly, and leaned her head against mine.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “I am home.”
* * *
Attend to the Parable of the Apotheosis.
Once, there was a father who loved his daughter more than life. She, though—as children have since the days when the Gods lived only in our minds—did not love the life that her father had made for her. Being a woman was not enough for her.
And so, she became a God, while he returned to his empty home.
From the bluffs above the City of the Gods, the father looked for his daughter from time to time, hoping to catch a glimpse of her face in the window of a fairy tower, or to see her wandering the tumbledown streets.
He never did.
Months became years.
Years became decades.
To his surprise, the father found that his body did not wither, did not fail, until he began to suspect that perhaps the Gods might have played a stranger joke on him that he had imagined.
The Earth turned. The rivers dried. The sun grew fatter and redder by the year.
Finally, very near the end of all things, the father determined to return to the City of the Gods. If his daughter would not come to him, perhaps he could go to her?
The lesson of this parable is yet to be written.
Edward Ashton lives in Rochester, New York, where he studies new cancer therapies by day, and writes about the awful things his research may lead to by night. He is the author of the novels Three Days in April and The End of Ordinary, as well as several dozen short stories which have appeared in venues ranging from the newsletter of an Italian sausage company to Louisiana Literature and Escape Pod. You can find him online at edwardashton.com.