III: Valid Prayers

"The two spirits, then, when dwelling in the same habitation, are at discord with each other, and are troublesome to that...in which they dwell. For if an exceedingly small piece of wormwood be taken and put into a jar of honey, is not the honey entirely destroyed…?”
-Shepherd of Hermas: Book of Mandates, Fifth Commandment (of Sadness of Heart, and of Patience)

She's going to fall past the cathedral-ship, miss it for all its size. The light of the smoldering planet trembles against the void, warping perspective.

She lets the lantern drift to the side, desperation in the most gentle movements, letting each link of the chain lay exactly the way it needs to, catching in a nest of gargoyles. The chain pulls taut. She crawls along drooling tongues and flared bat-snouts. Her limbs feel watery. It would be so easy to let go.

She climbs onto the stone plain of the cathedral-ship. Stands up too soon. Her lungs tighten at the barren planet sprawling across the horizon of the ship. Volcanic plumes burst like fireworks, their towering rage tiny as embers. The surface of the planet is like burnt skin. Void-black fissures crack the skin into jagged continents. It seems to her like one of those dreadful celestial promontories afforded to figures of scripture, a little ledge of the universe carved out so they can stare into hell and repent.

She feels she might fall at any moment, iron boots turned light as thatch. Would it be so bad to turn her face from all other faces and surrender to unfeeling lava and black rocks? No, they are not even those things, they are a texture. A painted backdrop on an enormous stage. All planets are the same, and she always rides the same ship, masterful prop haulers dressing up the only sphere in the universe, shining bright lights for the sun.

She limps across the field of ochre prayers engraved to armor every surface of the ship against the void, interlocked as chainmail.

Halfway across, the red bracken of the prayers is broken up by patches of gold like crushed daffodils. Huge illuminated letters spell a name: Grain of Rice. She thinks of the lumbering ships she infiltrated and sabotaged, defenses rigged into their hulls to ward off privateers, bandits, and the hungry dark. The concussive burst that launched another agent into the void, drifting helplessly through boundless night. Strings that alerted lanterns to micro-leap, just a few seconds, but enough to make unrecognizable anyone outside the ship.

Why does she fear death now, and not then? She has so much less to live for. Why only in this most desperate and pathetic state does she fret over fire and needles and darkness? The resilience of vermin, perhaps. All she ever was, compacted tight as a cockroach.

Colossal prayer wheels rotate the circumference of the ship, rings of stone divided into ensigilated segments, reels on a liturgical slot machine. She climbs across a wheel, fingers gripping an indentation symbolizing “vespers”. The wheel grinds to a stop, nearly bucking her into the void as it locks into place, each wheel aligning so the symbols of “dust shaken from sandals” are in a column. She walks them like a tiled street.

Her boot sinks into nothing. The panorama of the burning planet leaps up around her, she flails, terrified breath fogging the inside of her breather mask, then her sole strikes metal. A little hatch, recessed into the stone.

The ship is repetitively made. A maze of stone corridors and chambers, with a small book of hours hanging from a chain every four intersections. She thumbs through it. Prayers and hymns for safe hyperspace travel, customized for every hour of the journey. Enough for seven months of unique worship.

The longest hyperspace journey previously recorded, to her recollection, is four months. Mining for precious minerals in the dead edges of the void. And that’s a round trip.

This is one-way.

She enters the nave of the cathedral ship. Stained glass windows rise to each side, jeweled cliffs dimmed by the void.

Where are the people? The book of hours showed a packed schedule. There should be a hundred ordained sailors running around. She pulls up the ship manifest on a strip of powered vellum. 600 paximathia rations. Far too few for a ship of this size.

The stained glass glows, flooding the nave with garish radiance. Saints sundered by the topaz light of false stars, crystal blue rivers flowing past heretics cooked alive by solar lenses, citrine suns made of radial segments studded with eyes.

She jumps as the lantern starts talking. “An unusual choice of imagery for the Church. That last one is from a sun cult that believed each mote of sun was a glance of the god, lesser versions splintering from the eye at the heart of the sun, the light of perfect vision, so perfectly illuminating that it might as well be blind, that it needs to create flawed, transient beams of itself to experience the world. Witnessing the guilty and the innocent, the beautiful and the ugly.”

“You’re a theologist.”

“I keep tabs on the enemy.”

She wonders when the demon was separated from its kind. If it was a religious capture or just a secular poaching. It must have been very young, before it grew the ability to leap through reality. It will never know the giddy freedom of its wild counterparts, swimming through immense tracts of space like fish through water. A ship will always burden its back.

She knows that weight because she dreamt it. The pain of demons cannot be kept to themselves, it worries the air.

“The sun-worshipers taught that day was created so humans could perform their better selves, and night was a diurnal feast of fools where they could vent their baser needs. But on the world most zealous to this faith, their orbital machines eventually achieved permanent day, and night became a heresy. For the worlds under their control that lacked this enforced day, all faithful were required to take vesper pills that kept them asleep at night, safe from temptation. Church services were ritualized drug tests, wafers changing color on their tongue if their system lacked this drug.”

“Was the cathedral-ship built by them?”

“No. Their empire died a long time ago. One of many ancestors to the colorless Church. Their ideologies were too specific to colonize the universe.”

“Too specific?”

“The edges weren’t shaved off. The Church gives people the same nothing everywhere.”

Brightness grows as she nears the end of the ship. There must be more than one lantern yoked in the chancel. A sun of demons.

The walls hum with abrasive, consuming light. Her shadow is like a spear.

Is the lantern whimpering?

The cathedral runs like watercolors around her, floor tiles dizzying as tide. The demon sun is leaping.

The Church had once been distant as the stars. In the isolated boomtown of her childhood, they landed only a single Iron Chapel, that steepled carapace that flies through the void like a seed and sinks into the earth like a spear, equipped with automated confession booths and phonograph sermons, evangelism without risk. Some people found solace in it, you need something to cling in that lonely place by the drained sea, but mostly teens got high on lizard blood and kissed awkwardly on the metal pews as a long-dead priestess droned through a needle.

Then she joined the Outfit. One of the hands that got dirty so the Church could remain clean.

You shall not spill blood without declaration

You shall not fly under an assumed banner, for the light of the god shall not be concealed under a rock nor travel in the night

In recent years she’d noticed the increasing ecclesiastical checkpoints, the beadles and deacons with their tiny black books of geo-shibboleths (asking what time the sun sets, measuring bone structure against the gravitational deformations of restricted worlds). But her single-minded focus on her missions had always allowed her to cut through the vagaries of culture. Beliefs were masks, everything was a tool. Ebbs of tolerance and hawkishness were natural responses to economic anxiety, everything would return to normal.

To create a ship this vast without her knowing about it meant the Outfit must have cut her off long ago, gave her distracting missions as they stuffed her clone with real knowledge. Or maybe it was all in plain sight on the weekly briefings, buried in dull inventory of mining yields and trade convoys. The construction and maintenance of churches, basilicas, shrines, so easy to siphon off a shipment of stones here and there, patiently constructing the cathedral-ship around a dead planet, pebbles trickling through the void…

She walks around aimlessly in a daze before she realizes she’s awake, retinas tattooed with prism prayers, hands fluttering across the friezes. The light has subsided to merely extreme levels, but the humming won't go away.

Lanterns don’t sound like that. It's a softer sound. She feels like a bug drawn to a sweet smell. Is this her nature? Is there another path she can take?

She steps quietly, sticking to the wall, keeping an eye on the balustrades of the upper floors. But walking slowly doesn’t change the path I'm walking.

In the distance she sees the rood screen separating the nave from the chancel, ornate lattices of gold glowing at the edges with the unbearable radiance of the demon sun, like the end of the ship is submerged directly in the immolating sea of a star.

The rood screen casts a long maze of shadows. She stays in their skeletal shade, afraid of the light, winding her way to the giant stone steps below the golden screen.

A hundred urns are arranged on the steps. She climbs past them. The usual decorative excess of the Church.

Wait.

The humming is in her gums now. She lays a hand on an urn and feels the vibration. Pulls the lid off.

The urn echoes with something like singing. A phonographic device? Or something like the pipes of an organ?

The same melody is coming from the rest of the urns.

Can’t get distracted. She has to act before anyone knows she’s here. Before the demon sun carries the ship outside the universe.

She lowers the lid and something slithers from the urn, knocking the lid from her hand. It shatters on the floor with a ceramic bark.

A pale, knobby arm waves like a stalk of seaweed. She jumps back, nearly knocking an urn down the steps.

A human couldn’t fit in there.

She places her hands on the rim of the urn and takes a deep breath. Her chin tilts a few times as she fights the urge to look away.

At the base of the arm a mouth sits like a crown fallen down a suddenly shriveled person, teeth spread around the shoulder. The mouth moans a hymn. Even this distorted she recognizes the birthmark under the lip like a permanent coffee stain.

It’s her birthmark.

She hears something beyond the tidal hymns. Is someone coming? Or was it just gears grinding in the walls?

Revery crouches in the shadow of the rood screen and listens for footsteps. She sets the lantern behind an urn and slides herself down the steps, staying low between the rows.

“Boo!”

She tumbles down the steps into the light of the demon sun, completely exposed on the open floor of the hall, her torn evening dress stained with blue coolant, gritty with orange sand, shriveled pink petals in her hair, boots sticky with rhubarb, the dust of her clone’s heel on her back.

She tries to hold her dress together while shielding her eyes against the furious light. It penetrates her skin, irradiates her hand like a claw of amniotic red.

Bad Revery stands at the top of the steps next to a woman in cardinal’s furs. The cardinal says, “What is the minimum anatomy required to complete a prayer? This is the dilemma we posed to the theologians. And the chirurgeons.”

Revery looks around for a weapon. A loose tile to fling, prayer beads to garrote, anything.

“Your doppelganger’s deal was to give us the secret of her fleshShe’d scored on a secret aptitude test they’d embedded in the schoolhouse. Something about her having “reinforced blood”. The Outfit offered her a leg and a future. . To tell us how a clone eluded the inevitable disease of your kind, the so-called Other Collapse Disorder. A secular term that would have us believe it to be a mere affliction of the body as opposed to what it truly is: the manifestation of the god’s wrath in every cell of your counterfeit flesh.”

She could run, but she knows her strength wouldn’t last the length of the hall.

“Once we mastered this secret, we made a hundred and twenty demi-doppelgangers. Auto-prayers. Capable of more prayers per minute than the most devout abbess.”

An urn cries out from a malformed mouth, a wet sound she’d have confused for the slopping of a cesspool if she didn’t know the source.

“In order for their prayers to be valid, they must be capable of pain. Capable of dreams.”

Revery thinks of a hundred and twenty vases throbbing with her stunted brain. Can almost feel their thoughts on her skin like mosquitoes.

“They’ll never know you like I do,” she says to her clone.

“Soon you won’t know anything at all, sweetheart.”

Revery tries to keep the sadness off her face. It hurts to talk to her clone in front of this stranger. I’m not getting it back. Whatever the black mirrorTheir memories were divided between their bodies so if they were captured, they couldn’t reveal the plans of the other. Laying under the dark mirrors as the quality of light passed between them like clouds rolling across the face of the sun. took from us. From me. I’m being punished with the worst parts of myself.

She thinks of that verse. If there be any trace of sin it shall corrupt the whole, and that soul shall not enter the sun.

I should have fixed myself.

The cardinal stares at her inky eyesShe steps back so the full light of the mirror lamp hits her.

Her eyes are inky black.

The lights of the ship go out. She goes to the cockpit and starts a diagnostic check. Galvanic skeleton down. Emergency bacteria lights turn on, painting the walls feverish red.

Wait.

She touches her eye. This used to be a prosthetic. But it’s soft and warm as the other eye now.

The crash into the deep void set off a a symmetrical process. It guessed what the other eye was like from the first one.
. “The god has painted the blackness of her heart on her body.”

“That’s a new look,” her clone says. “Reminds me of the bodies we found in that derelict ship outside Heptacost, lantern shattered, nails overgrown and curled like talons. Are you weird like them now? Are you a big weirdo?”

Revery turns to the cardinal. “We both know the Church’s stance on sisterselfing. Shouldn’t you be exterminating her too?”

The cardinal says, “Haven’t you heard? By holy decree, all clones are given amnesty if they surrender their double. She is a human now. Her soul is visible to the god. You’re just an echo, fading fast.”

“You can’t possibly believe that. I know your policies. You voted on the council that launched 33 clones into the sun. Can you really look at her and say she isn’t cut from the same dirty cloth? That she won’t fuck up your precious plans through her, what did you call it then, ‘miscloven derangement’?”

“Are you familiar with the concept of liturgical west?”

Revery wants to scream. It’s like listening to one of those phonograph sermons.

“For a cathedral to face west is beautiful to the god. So the compass directions inside a cathedral are decided internally. It doesn’t matter if the cathedral faces the wrong direction, if we had to build around a swamp or a ravine. If it faces east outwardly, the altar faces west inwardly. It is a separate world.”

The cardinal rings a bell between her white-gloved fingers.

“Do you see? Inside these walls we have made a new way. West is where I say it is.”

Mechanical organs play diagnostic melodies, their notes corresponding to temperature, galvanics, lantern light.

“It’s a long leap. Let’s make you comfortable.”

A beadle crosses the hall, devices of detainment clattering from her staff. A gold nimbus fans around her head, tiled with solar panels. So gaudy Revery almost misses the trickle of drool on her chin.

The cardinal says, “A spike at the base of the nimbus goes directly into the brain, warming it with the gifts of the sun. As we draw closer to our destination, the light will reward her.”

Revery tries to act nonchalant, because being impaired like that while still alive is terrifying for her. But it’s like that one morning after her leg was amputated, when she woke from the nicest dream and jumped out of bed, banging her face against the floor. That courage is in Bad Revery now. Trying to put weight on it just brings a tremble to her lip.

Bad Revery puts her hand over her mouth to hide her smile, not because she cares if anyone sees it, but because she thinks it lends a certain style to hold one’s hand that way.

The beadle unscrews one of the devices hanging from her staff and sprinkles moth larvae over Revery. “You’re such a brat,” Revery murmurs to her clone as caterpillars eat the clothes from her body.

The beadle squeezes a sponge on her forehead. Numbing vinegar trickles down her face, robs the resistance from her body.

They lower her into a coffin of sun salt, ice-hot grains clinging to her clammy skin. The trance of the salt tugs at her eyelids. The grains are taken from the slumbersea of Mist-pearl-stay-dry, the planet with hungry waters.

“No, wait, please.” She knows when she shuts her eyes she’ll be helpless for as long as the hyperspace leap. Naked before her worst enemies.

Bad Revery hovers over the coffin. “You should have gone and had a life of your own. But I don’t think you can. You’re drawn to me like a moth.”

“You stole my light,” Revery says, trembling with the effort of staying awake.

“Shhhh. You’re blocking the varnish.”

Her clone kisses her goodnight. As Revery’s eyes close, she studies the face of her other self between fluttering eyelids. Is that doubt? Remorse? Or just the blur of sleep eroding the waking world into sediment to be swirled in a nightmare flood?

The salt stirs below her, making a sound like gravel being pushed aside. Parasite tendrils sniff for ways inside her. Carrying nutrition, seeking waste, keeping sleepers alive.

Dark without ceiling or floor. The sensations of the parasite burrowing inside her amplified to winding, veiny hallways and lamprey-faced jackals chasing her through petrified forests.

Then time happens, time like being blackout drunk in deepest fog. This is the most merciful part, because she feels the least here.

Then, in the boundless night of the trance she sees a distant torch.

Another.

Another.

The demons burn like captive stars. She had a dream like this once. Where she was staring up at the sky and she was suddenly pulled toward the pinpricks of light that burned hard enough to penetrate the void. The safe little dots became burning oceans of white fire. Was it a dream? Or are the cracked ruins of her memories filling with the weeds of her delirium, a sickness of stories, a pit of rats feasting on human prisoners and converting their noble flesh to debased gristle?

She sees another light, separate from the others. A familiar, spiteful radiance.

The demon is so much bigger in here.