Up at the shimmering edge of the sky, where the water met the air, Son spread his tentacles out beneath the terrible shadow of his father. They were waiting for the ships. Son felt the approaching heart-thrum bouncing off the coral-crusted hulls below as the ships crested the painwall.
Are you sure you should do this, Father? Son thought. He twisted his mantle around to gaze at the scarred stumps of his father’s tentacles. You’ve trained me well. There’d be no shame in letting me take this harvest.
My name, thought Two-Father, his beak clacking shut with the finality of a ship’s hull crunching into stone, is Two, formerly One. It is a name I earned, one murder at a time. And I will carry out the harvest until Dysmas decides I am no longer worthy. He flexed his tentacles experimentally, then added: Perhaps He already has.
Don’t say that, Father, thought Son. Dysmas could not ask for a worthier beast. He must heal you.
Two-Father’s great blue eye was clouded, his suckers cracked and shrunken. His remaining tentacles, once as nimble as a school of fish, were stiff and slow. It was the same disease that had struck One-Mother just before her end.
Son rippled uneasily in the water, trying to imagine what Two-Father had done to warrant such an affliction. He tried to envision life without Two-Father—no more chasing-games around the cavern-filled Ring that surrounded Dysmas’s great Spire, no more competitions of hunt-the-shark—and shuddered water, uneasily, from his gills.
Ah, Son, thought Two-Father, reaching down to stroke the sensitive tips of his feeling-tentacles across the Son’s head-fin. Dysmas has given me so many gifts. This pain is a small price to pay.
That was Two-Father’s way. Every day, he sang the hymns of praise to Dysmas, thanking the sky-father for his former wife, for the great feasts, for the beauty of the playgrounds of the Ring, for the strength and power of his wondrous Son.
Son sang, too, but secretly he prayed for Dysmas to forgive Two-Father—or at least tell them what Two-Father had done. Two-Father never missed a harvest, even though they came at all times these days, arriving without warning in greater and greater numbers. Why would Dysmas make him weak when he needed to be strong?
Worse, Son suspected he knew why. But how could he tell Two-Father?
My only regret, thought Two-Father, is that you have never met Him. If you did, you would understand everything. Now still yourself; the ships arrive.
Two-Father twitched with eagerness. Son knew he would have launched himself at the ships immediately were it not for the billowing mesh of the painwall. Not even Two-Father could bear to approach that agony—not that he would, for Dysmas had marked the edge of the world with a net and Dysmas was never to be questioned.
Son froze at the approach of the ships, trying to untangle the jumble of heart-hums that drummed against his skin. There were five of them. Once that would have been a large pack, but these days the ships came in such droves that five was nearly a respite. As the pack crested the netting of the painwall, they split off and away from Two-Father, circling around towards the Spire above the sky. The crops, scuttling across the flattened tops of the ships like pink parasites, must have seen Two-Father’s shadow in the water.
Son looked up and realized with horror that Two-Father’s skin was still a mottled pink, still marked with the black fist that Dysmas had tattooed into his flesh. Two-Father’s ability to shift colors had left him.
I’ll take the three, thought Two-Father, jetting off towards the first pack. That left the remaining two ships for Son to crack.
Stay low to avoid their fire-jelly, Father! Son rocketed towards the hull of the two ships, heard the hiss of harpoons plunging into the waters. ‘Ware their nets, their axes!
I taught you to harvest, Son, Two-Father assured him. I know my lessons.
But Son wasn’t sure. The ships now not only came in greater numbers, but they were unpredictable, evolving new defenses. Son squeezed billows of black ink around the ship to mask his approach, remembering what Two-Father had told him: Always curl your tentacles around the front, never in the back where the whirling tail-blades lie. Never rest your tips on the deck, lest they chop off the ends of your sensing-limbs. And should you brush against a long, thin tube of metal, draw away quickly before it squirts fire.
Every day, though, there were new lessons to be learned. New ships brought new weapons, and Two-Father did not learn quickly.
Son positioned himself under the ship, spreading his tentacles out to caress the hull’s curve. Barbed harpoons showered down from above, hooked deep into his flesh, tugged cruelly. He ignored the pain to stroke the curved hull with his long sensor-limbs, seeking the ship’s heart-hum.
Two-Father believed in brute strength. He could afford to. He dwarfed the ships, could pull them apart four at a time. But Son was smaller, barely wide enough to stretch around a hull. He’d had to learn cunning.
He swept the thin tips of his feeler-limbs across the ship’s barnacle-crusted skin, triangulating the vibrating—
His tentacles blazed with pain.
Son keened and came uncoiled, fell away in a slack-limbed tangle. He retreated; the anguish lessened but did not abate. Agony radiated out from the ship in jagged pulses.
That’s the painwall, Son thought, cringing in terror. These ships are like touching the painwall.
He attempted to master his quivering tentacles, but they shrank away of their own volition. He’d never seen a painwall ship before. It was the worst thing he’d felt.
It’s another test, Son! called Two-Father, grasping two ships between his vast tentacles—but Son saw Two-Father’s suckers blackening. Dysmas wants to see if we are worthy!
Son cared not a whit about Dysmas. But if there was any chance that Dysmas might find his father worthy, and possibly heal him....
Son pressed his tentacles to the painship.
His suckers burned. Before, the water had been safe; the ships could only create fire up above the sky, and though the blisters were horrid when they sprayed their fire-jelly on your tentacles, you could avoid it if you were quick.
Son forced himself against the fire.
He squeezed one of his smashing-limbs into a ball and punched down through the top deck. He clamped his beak against the pain as he rummaged around in the interior. He forced his tentacles through the stairways, out through the caverns filled with the small-boned crops inside, each clutching fire-tubes. He was hunting for the ship’s heart.
And there it was, a thumping thing with a white-hot canister of steam at the center. He wrapped his seeking-limb around the heart. The creak of torn metal filled the water as he hauled it up by the roots.
The pain ebbed. The water tasted of ink and oil.
There were tiny cries and yells from the crops still within the ship. They buried axes into his tentacles. He smashed them against the walls, then slithered his limb out. The ship was dead, floating dumbly above the sky. He could shuck the tiny specks of meat out at his leisure.
Will that convince you, Dysmas? he wondered, gulping down a few wriggling crops to regain his strength. Then he sucked in fouled water and exhaled it, jetting over to the sister ship. It crackled to life, flooding him with burning torture, but he wrestled it to one side and toppled it over it into the water.
He heard another keen. Two-Father was screaming.
Two-Father never screamed.
Through bloodied water Son saw him, still struggling to crush the two ships in his limbs. Between the agony of the painships and Two-Father’s dreadful affliction, he hadn’t the strength to crumple their hulls—and now he was caught between both ships. The third ship was backing into him, ramming its whirling tail-blades into his flesh.
One-Mother had died the same way: a weakness that led to slaughter.
Son crested his mantle above the sky and roared. The crops on the ships turned to look at him, their light flesh turning even paler. Then he rushed at the blade-ship that was carving his father to pieces, flung himself above the sky and into the void, landed on the deck with a strength he’d never believed possible. He lashed out with his limbs in all directions. The painships stung him deep, but he felt nothing but rage.
We beat your challenges! he screamed. We suffer for Dysmas! We deserve peace!
His fury would have done One-Mother proud.
When he was done, the three ships were jagged chunks. The sky-border was dotted with struggling crops, churning the water beneath them, hoping to swim their way to Dysmas’s lair. The ship-wreckage bubbled its way down into the black water to clank against the coral below. The bottom of the Ring was lined with layers of old ships, proof of the fierce years of devotion that Two-Father (and, once, One-Mother) had given to Dysmas.
Why would Dysmas blight a beast so faithful and constant?
Son’s gills sucked in the sour scent of his father’s blood. Are you all right? he asked, knowing that Two-Father wasn’t; three more of his tentacles were stumps now.
And there was a ragged, cavernous gash that corkscrewed through the center of Dysmas’s mark. Bits of his father pulsed within it.
We must—we must—we must harvest, said Two-Father, woozily scooping up a few remaining crops and swirling them around. Find the still-living crops. Devour them. Let not a one set foot upon Dysmas’s shore.
Son wanted to argue, but there was no use. He ate the waves clean.
Did I ever tell you how you were hatched, Son? said Two-Father, curling against the protective walls of the coral caves. I can’t remember....
Son groomed his father’s exposed skin, using the delicate tips of his seeking-limbs to pluck the harpoons from his father’s wrinkled flesh. The cave was his gift to him, carefully assembled from the bulwarks of harvested ships, crushed into a canopy to make a fine and dark resting place.
Son had heard the tale of his own birth a thousand times before—but he never tired of it.
No, Father, he said, tugging an axe from his father’s skin. Tell me.
Two-Father’s cloudy blue eye grew cloudier. Son felt him sinking back against the coral, as if to sleep, and anticipated he would slumber—but instead, Two-Father thought at him in a low, happy tone.
Your mother, thought Two-Father, ruled me with tentacles of iron. I was One, the first, before she arrived and made me Two. She was monolithic, a beast fit to end the world, and it was only because of Dysmas’s mark that she did not devour me.
I remember, Father, thought Son. Son had never liked One-Mother. She was so large she could have gulped him down without chewing—and she’d tried to. Son had no mark of Dysmas to protect him from her endless hunger, and it was only thanks to Two-Father’s constant interventions that he had not wound up in mother’s gullet.
What? thought Two-Father. Oh, yes, of course you do. But she came to me one day and said, ‘I have eggs. You will fertilize them.’ And so I did, spraying my life-essence around her, and she drank of it, and squatted her first clutch of eggs on the black sand.
Soon, a miracle arrived—a ship that sailed under the edge of the sky! We knew a miracle of Dysmas because it bore Dysmas’s mark upon it: the black fist. So One-Mother could not eat it—though she certainly longed to! Two-Father clacked his beak in weak amusement. And Dysmas’s ship searched out that clutch of eggs, and squirted His own life-essence upon it—a jelly so potent it stung our eyes and swelled shut our squirting-valves.
The next day, all the eggs were dead. Not a one of them was strong enough.
The next year, your mother once again commanded me to mate. And once again, Dysmas’s ship emerged to fertilize the eggs. And once again, they all hardened and cracked and the tides carried them out beyond the painwall.
But the year after that? Dysmas’s ship came—and out of thousands of eggs, you alone were the full heir to His power. One-Mother longed to swallow you, but I told her that if she ate you, she must then devour me, and did she have the strength to swallow so much of Dysmas’s power?
She did not. And so you were hatched, and beloved, and the scion of three beasts, each greater than the last. Isn’t that a fine thing?
Son ran his tongue nervously around the rasp of his beak. It is, Father. It surely is.
But every time his father told him that story, Son wondered: was Dysmas trying to meld His potency with the eggs, or had Dysmas tried to kill him? Dysmas had given him no mark. Dysmas had never spoken to him.
He tried to tell himself that Dysmas didn’t exist, was just a figment of Two-Father’s imagination. Yet something had tattooed that fist upon his father’s skin. And so the thought stuck in his mind like a sliver of hull lodged in his beak:
Two-Father was dying for the sin of Son’s existence.
At Two-Father’s insistence, Son still patrolled the Ring in an endless hunt for ships, squeezing himself tight into crevices for amusement, but it wasn’t much fun without Two-Father. The Ring encircled Dysmas’s Spire, bordered by the painwalls. No matter where Son swum within the Ring, when he looked up through the rippling edge of the sky, he could see Dysmas’s Spire reaching towards the clouds—a twisted spike of steel and rock.
The outline of a great black fist had been carved into its surface.
The Spire was never silent; it rumbled, and clanked, and bubbled so loudly Son could hear the tremors in the water. Occasionally great beasts shot out from the caves to soar high above the shimmering border, spreading out sail-shaped, fluttering limbs to dart between the clouds. Their beaks shrieked loud caws.
Two-Father said that the soaring-things were guardian beasts that lived above the edge of the sky, created by Dysmas to protect His land above the sky just as He had created them to live below it. And that made sense, because occasionally slow-moving oval-canopied things approached from far beyond the painwalls, firing loud concussive blasts, and the soaring-beasts ripped them to shreds.
Sometimes, Son waved his tentacles at the soaring-beasts and thought at them. But all they did was make those useless cawing sounds. It was like when he’d held the crops in his seeking-limbs, beaming thought-waves of greeting at them, and all they too had done was make shrill cries.
Two-Father said that each beast communicated in secret patterns—except for Dysmas, who could speak to all. Son supposed that Two-Father would know; after all, he had been in Dysmas’s Spire, once. Son had never been at all.
The Ring stretched out and down from the sandy beaches that emanated out from Dysmas’s Spire, all the way out to the fluttering fence of painwalls that marked the edge of the world.
Son had tugged at the painwall once, to test its strength. That was the only time Two-Father had hurt him.
You do not broach His borders! Two-Father had screamed, squeezing Son so tight he almost burst. Should anyone lay one bit of flesh upon the beaches of Dysmas’s Spire, the world will end! Should we break the painwall, the world will end! He told me true! Do you want to leave this sacred duty? Shall I tell One-Mother to treat you like any other fish?
No, Father! Son had cried. Don’t let One-Mother devour me!
But One-Mother was dead. And Two-Father rested within a cave made from the metal skin of their conquests, regaining his strength.
What if Son were to touch the beach?
Dysmas had forbidden it. Yet Son’s tentacles stretched out of their own volition. He kept pulling them back, one by one, but his limbs had minds of their own. They wanted to brush the shore. To test it.
What would just one touch do? Would Dysmas appear, raining death upon him? Would the world shimmer and fade?
Or worse, would nothing at all happen, and Son would have proof that Two-Father was mad?
Dysmas, he thought, if you exist, I dare You to stop me. He bunched himself up in preparation for judgment, and slithered the tip of his smallest tentacle out to brush against the beach.
Son clacked his beak in surprised amusement. There was his tentacle, buried in warm sand. Dysmas, he thought with satisfaction, was just an illusion.
And as he pondered this, he became aware of a hum against his skin. Ships. Two, three, seven, nine—
—too many to count.
Son raised his eye up above the edge of the sky, and saw an armada of approaching ships, as numerous as fish in a shoal. The air above them roiled with smoke and steam, filled with great gray canopied things that floated towards Dysmas’s Spire.
A huge whoop filled the seas, an endless cry that never stopped for breath, and Son realized that it was coming from the Spire. Lights flashed across the Spire’s face. Soaring-beasts shot from the caves, shrieking defiance, and zoomed up towards the canopy ships.
Son could barely think for all the conflicting heart-hums thumping against his skin now, coming at him from all sides, at least a hundred ships from every direction. Two-Father tugged at his tentacles.
This is it, said Two-Father eagerly. Our greatest test. We shall prevail!
Two-Father lay, torn as a shredded sail, across piles of freshly-broken ships.
Why? he asked. Why did I not die?
Son cowered below the edge of the sky, unable to look away. The edge was on fire now, ablaze in wavering hues of orange and black. They had cracked so many ships that the water was coated with slick ship-blood, and the collapse at the end of the battle had ignited the world.
Everything was lost.
Son floated in circles around the Ring, unsure what to do. He should have been in agony, thanks to four severed limbs and a host of bleeding wounds, but he was cushioned by a numb shock of disbelief. Two-Father and Son had crushed painships until their tentacles ached, hurled fireships at mineships, dragged netships below water—
—and still the ships had come, their tubes shooting hot death.
Son had ducked below water to avoid the pain of those tubes. Two-Father had roared defiance at the ships, daring them to spray him with fire, mustering his strength to smash all who opposed him into twists of metal.
Yet they were only two. Son had looked back and seen piles of ships aground on the beach. Tiny crops ran up toward Dysmas’s Spire, clutching small fire-tubes in their hands. Two-Father rushed to the border of the beach and slapped the ships into the mud, bellowing for Dysmas’s forgiveness as he tried to destroy the intruders on the shore.
They fought until Son saw the fullest horror of the day: Dysmas’s Spire, tumbling down in an avalanche of glass and steel.
Two-Father went as limp as seaweed. Son had dragged him down under the water for safety, just as the sky burst into a consuming flame.
I did this, thought Son. I lost my faith, and now it’s destroyed us.
Two-Father bubbled blood from a thousand holes, waiting for death.
After the apocalypse came the hunt.
The ships dropped metal globes from the sky, globes that burned and burst. They scoured the face of the Ring, criss-crossing in such numbers that it was impossible to surface. Son rammed himself against the anguish of the painwalls, frantic for escape—but there was none.
Let me die! Two-Father thought, struggling to flutter up to the ships. Let Dysmas’s wrath destroy me and end it! But he was weak, so weak. Son could tug him back into the protective canopy of their caves.
After the hunt came the famine.
Once the ships had passed, there were no more harvests. Son hunted through the remains of the Ring, crunching shoals of silver fish to bring them back to his father, but it wasn’t enough to satiate his hunger.
Two-Father refused to eat. Instead, he was eaten. Tiny fish nibbled at the rotting flesh that trailed from his fresh stumps, eroded his body. His limbs withered and withdrew.
Two-Father forgot where he was.
Dysmas made me. His thoughts sounded faint, like echoes. He brought me to life into a tank with a thousand brothers and sisters. He was so huge, He could lift me up on the metal palm of His black fist, and He said you have all your brothers and sisters and there is only one way to find who will serve Me. I want the strongest. The rest will be food. Go. And so I ate and ate and ate, and felt a thousand brethren shrieking in my mind and I hid when I was too tired to fight and I was oh so scared, and when I was done and devoured them all He said I was beautiful and He made me the sea and the painwalls and a potent wife to remind me of my place and that is when Dysmas made me He brought me to life into a tank with a thousand brothers and sisters....
Occasionally he’d stare straight up at the sky and murmur, My Son. My beautiful, powerful Son. But he did not respond when Son spoke.
Son ran in circles around the Ring, anywhere to be away from Two-Father. He looked up at the empty hole where Dysmas’s tower used to be. He scoured the Spire’s ruins, sifting through the mud and metal beams for signs of divinity. There was nothing. Only more machinery, just like the ships he pulled apart; only more rooms filled with the bloated husks of tiny crops and the tattered bodies of the soaring-beasts.
He slapped his limbs upon the beach, half-expecting a painwall to drop from above and strike him down. Nothing did. All he saw were bizarre beasts lying on the ground, massive things with only four limbs and ripping tusks and scaled skin. They were clearly dead, surrounded by smashed crops in sprays of blood.
Had Dysmas created these beasts, too? What did it all mean?
And then Son felt a fury boiling within him like the heart of a ship.
There is no Dysmas! he screamed. There is no being in the sky watching us, there is no guilt, there is no reason to be kept here!
The painwall flexed—but held. It mocked him. The ships had come from somewhere. Hadn’t they? Or did the black waters beyond fade into oblivion, and this was all that there was in all the world, a tiny abandoned speck floating in a sea of nothing, with two dying beasts trapped within?
If there was a Dysmas, He was surely mad. If Son could wrap his limbs around Him, he would squeeze an explanation from Him. Why had this lunatic power used them so poorly?
After the famine came more famine. And despair. And emptiness.
But not death. Not yet.
Two-Father’s skin had shrunk, tugging his tentacles inwards. Two-Father wanted to die, but his great heart refused to stop beating. His body was so huge that when it had to start devouring itself, it had vast stores to draw upon.
I tried I tried I tried I tried I tried—
Son could not shut his father’s voice out. It chased him around the Ring, around to the other end of the stunted rock that had once been a Spire. Son flattened himself against the painwall over and over, suckering himself to the strands with a fierce gratitude: Dysmas was wonderful, Dysmas was horrible, Dysmas had given him this great pain to blot out greater pains.
With a crackling hum, the painwall stopped emanating anguish.
Son looked at his limbs in disbelief, wondering what was happening. He plucked at the netting. Nothing. No pain.
Another hum danced, faint but unmistakable, across the surface of his skin.
A ship. Coming from the shore.
It took Son a moment to home in on the noise, because ships never went out. They went in, and he harvested them. This reverse direction baffled him—but he dashed off after it regardless, hungry to see something new.
It was a very small, battered ship—not sleek, like the other ships, but a hull raw with fractures, as though this new, small ship had been cobbled together from scraps.
Painted crudely on its side, lacking the elegant grace of Two-Father’s bold, clean mark, was a black fist.
Son froze. What was this? Should he crack the ship? Let it sail away? Commit the unforgiveable sin of destroying one of Dysmas’s Chosen?
He poked his head above the edge of the sky. Atop the boat was a tiny crop, clad in a black skin over pink wrinkled skin, wild white hair waving in the wind. The crop seemed oddly confident, his back straight as he sailed towards the painwall, exposing his teeth to the edge of the sky as though he owned it.
The crop’s right hand, however, was not made of flesh. It was made of metal, grafted onto the end of the arm.
A black hand.
It could be him.
It must be him.
Son reached out and brought the ship to a halt. The world did not end. Instead, the crop stumbled and fell. It pressed the ship’s console and made mouth-noises into a small gray wand, and Son shivered as a new voice boomed in his head:
GOOD MERCY! YOU POOR THING. HOW IN THE WORLD DID YOU SURVIVE?
The voice was loud, so much louder than the tiny creature upon the ship. It sounded so surprisingly kind that Son couldn’t think of anything to say.
It reached out to stroke the tips of his tentacles. YOU BEAR MANY SCARS, HERE, YES—LIKE ME. THEY TRIED TO KILL US BOTH, YOU SEE. THEY THINK WE’RE ABOMINATIONS. BUT WE CAN SHOW THEM BETTER, CAN’T WE?
Are—are you Dysmas? Son asked.
The crop bared its teeth at him. OF COURSE I AM, it said, tenderly. YOU MUST HAVE BEEN SO LONELY DOWN THERE, TO FORGET ABOUT ME. ALL THINGS SHOULD KNOW THEIR GOD WHEN IT SPEAKS TO THEM.
Son felt suddenly afraid. Who’s trying to kill us?
EVERYONE, Dysmas said, his voice lowered to a whisper. EVERYONE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. THE IDEA THAT A MAN CAN CREATE LIFE ON HIS OWN, WITH NO HELP FROM NATURE? THAT ALL THEIR ESSENCE CAN BE RECREATED IN A VAT? OH, IT DRIVES THEM MAD. I’VE BEEN HOUNDED FROM ONE END OF THE EARTH TO ANOTHER.
WHEN THEY LOOK AT YOU, LITTLE ONE, THEY DO NOT SEE THE GLEAMING LUSTRE OF YOUR SKIN OR A SHIMMERING GOLDEN EYE—THEY SEE A MURDEROUS BEAST. AND THEY SEE ME AS THE MADMAN WHO BROUGHT YOU INTO EXISTENCE. BUT WE KNOW BETTER, DON’T WE?
Dysmas kept stroking Son’s tentacles, seeming to draw strength from them. It was a gentle touch—almost the way Son had plucked hull-splinters from Two-Father’s flesh.
IT’S KISMET THAT WE MEET, LITTLE ONE. I NEED A GUARDIAN, AT LEAST UNTIL I CAN REBUILD, AND YOU NEED A GOD. COME ALONG.
The boat started off. Part of Son wanted to chase after it, exhilarated to have a purpose—but he could not leave without knowing.
What about Two-Father?
TWO-FATH—? OH, THAT’S RIGHT, THERE WERE TWO OF YOU. HE’S SERVED HIS PURPOSE. LEAVE HIM BEHIND. The boat chugged forward merrily.
Son wrapped his tentacles around the ship to stop it. How could Two-Father be so easily forgotten? He was strong. He was faithful. Why did You—you—make his eyes bad? Why did you weaken his limbs?
Dysmas reached out to stroke Son’s tentacles again, but Son realized it wasn’t like his own touch on Two-Father at all. Son plucked cutlasses from Two-Father’s skin to soothe him. Dysmas’s touch felt like he was stroking something he owned.
YOU POOR, IGNORANT THING. I FORGOT YOU AREN’T CAPABLE OF UNDERSTANDING. I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING; YOUR FRIEND JUST GOT OLD, BEAST. THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS IN TIME TO ALL OF US: YOU GET WEAK, YOU FAIL, YOU DIE.
So heal him.
I CAN’T. AND THERE’S NO SENSE IN WASTING TIME TRYING. IF HE’S AS WEAK AS YOU SAY, HE CAN’T PROTECT ME—AND I NEED PROTECTION. EVERYTHING DIES; AT LEAST HIS DEATH HAD A PURPOSE.
HE KEPT ME ALIVE.
Son felt an incandescent rage. His tentacles slapped the water.
What about the beauty of the encoralled caves we created? What of all the songs we sung—the chasing-games we played, the stories we shared? Is all of that just so much wreckage, if we can’t keep you alive?
I—I’M PROUD THAT MY CREATIONS CAN ALSO CREATE. BUT YOUR ULTIMATE DUTY IS TO ME....
And what makes you better than Two-Father?
WHY, I CREATED HIM.
Dysmas said it with confusion, as though he’d never thought another answer would be needed. But Son thought of Two-Father, who had stood up against One-Mother’s terrible anger only once in his life—to protect Son.
Everything Two-Father had ever done, right or not, was meant to protect Son.
Creating us doesn’t mean we owe you. It means you owe us.
Dysmas looked warily at the tentacles rising around him, then pressed one thin finger against a hidden stud in his metal hand.
I BEG TO DIFFER. WITHOUT ME, YOU WOULD BE NOTHING—AND YOU CAN BE NOTHING AGAIN SOON ENOUGH. NOW, I’D HATE TO SLAY SUCH A BEAUTIFUL BEAST AS YOURSELF—BUT WITH A TOUCH, I CAN GRANT DEATH TO ANYTHING I’VE CREATED.
SO LEAVE YOUR FRIEND BEHIND AND FOLLOW ME—I PROMISE YOUR SERVICE WILL BRING YOU EVEN GREATER JOYS THAN ALL YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED HERE. UNLESS, OF COURSE, YOU’D LIKE TO SEE WHAT LIES BEYOND THE VEIL.
Yes, thought Son, clacking his beak. I would.
Frowning, Dysmas mashed the button on his palm. Puzzled, he pushed it again.
WHY DOESN’T IT—
For the first time, Dysmas looked—really looked—at Son. Had he finally noticed that Son had no mark upon him? Dysmas’s face went wide, and his mouth opened up like all the other crops Son had devoured, and Son took a deep pleasure in speaking to his God for the last time.
You didn’t create Me, said Son, plucking him high off the deck. So what do I owe you?
Dysmas screamed. It was satisfyingly small.
The tides shoved Two-Father around now. The water that spilled in and out of his gills was barely enough to stir mud. Son floated directly above his cataracted eye.
I brought you a gift, Father, Son thought.
I need no gifts.
You need this one, thought Son. Feel.
Using the finest of his sensor-limbs, he tapped Dysmas’s metal fist against his father’s skin.
What is that?
Son held the fist before his father’s eye. It was so tiny. This is Dysmas’s fist. I met Him. He gave it to me.
Two-Father clacked his beak. What did he....
He told me.... Son forced fresh water through his gills. He told me that you had done well. That your time here is complete. And if you—if you let go, you will go to a land full of easy crops and gigantic mothers and, and an even greater Spire to protect.
But.... That hand is so small, Son. Dysmas is huge....
Was huge, thought Son to himself. When you were a baby.
Son brushed his tentacles across his father’s tattered fin. That is how large you will be, he thought. In the new world, you will dwarf Dysmas, dwarf One-Mother, dwarf everything. You will be—be the world, Father. You will be everything.
Ah, said Two-Father. It was a small sound packed with a lifetime of hope.
And he died.
Son stayed until Two-Father was gone. He held his vigil as the fish attacked Two-Father’s corpse, and the corpse became scraps, and the scraps became a haze. It was silly, for he was starving and there was a world of fresh crops out there—but he couldn’t leave while his father was still there.
You were the world, Father, he thought, stirring the waters where the last of his father floated. Father broke apart, indistinguishable from the sea.
Son crushed the fist. Then he squirmed over the edge of the painwall and disappeared, going beyond the edge of the world to a place where no one knew.