Behold Sekhmet! Blood and brawn, fang and claw, shoulders caked in salt. Risen from the anaerobic sea, the ancient broth, to hunt and kill her foe.
The waves hurl her up on a stony shore between two cliffs of banded iron. She raises herself on cabled arms. Throws back her tiger’s head to roar into the storm:
“Set! Set! I am coming!”
Her cry goes up into a sky unleavened by oxygen. The smell of burning stone (memory of Troy, and Dresden) comes strong. She looks around, ears flattened, wary, raking the horizons of stone and salt with the arbitrarily precise scrutiny of a god.
Nothing moves. Nothing lives on this primordial Earth larger than a single cell.
Sekhmet, divine, dreaded, licks the salt from her hands and rubs at the crystals caking her ears. She has come to Set’s hall, his last hidden redoubt. She expected a fortress, here at the end of his retreat, and it is that, but he has also made it a library, a museum, a mausoleum. A narration of their ancient war.
Of course it had to end here, on the proterozoic earth, where the war began. He has a weakness for poetry.
She draws breath and smells his blood. The trail leads on, up the beach, into the cliff face.
Everything happening here is real. It is the story of how all things came to be, baryon and cell and language and love and you.
Nothing you have ever thought or witnessed can escape this story.
Why must Sekhmet kill Set? Why must the sun rise? Why must the quark bind? Why are the Nash equilibria of sexual reproduction male and female? As it is with these things, so it is with gods.
Reason is a prosthetic for the mind of man. Reason breaks if stretched too far.
Or perhaps Sekhmet does not know. This never troubles her. Awareness belongs to Set.
She lopes onward, up the steaming tidal flats, between pools where eukaryotes clone and feast and clone again. She looks into one of them in passing, her nostrils flared, pit of her stomach acid with bloodlust. Sees herself reflected there, down among the swarming eukaryotes, the tenuous chemistry of basic life.
Some nameless descendant of these early congresses has already discovered oxygen. Soon that lineage will poison the world, annihilate most of the biosphere, and dictate the future of terrestrial life by main force.
Something in that is Set’s. Something in that is hers. These are the stakes of the war between them, the war she has almost won: who controls the shape and destiny of life? Which divinity builds the end?
But she does not stop to ruminate on this. When she kills and eats Set she will understand everything. She makes new knowledge the same way she made the atom and the sun and all other things beyond the touch of Set: by devouring the weak, and leaving the strong.
The trail of Set’s blood takes her up the beach, to a great hollow in the stone, to the next chapter of his great monument, this cenotaph to war and life and his own vain dwindling godhood.
Worlds tangle in the cenotaph of Set, in the atrium of his last refuge.
“You aren’t real,” the machine woman gurgles. “Be gone. Be unmade.”
Sekhmet crouches, curious, her great legs bunched beneath her. The shattered thing that pulls itself away across the stone like a brush painting a line of blood and fluorocarbon smells strange and Set-touched. It raises her hackles and sets her growling in unease.
“What are you?” she asks the hybrid, the knot of broken machine and burnt flesh. “Where am I in you? Where is he?”
She knows the woman’s literal identity—a soldier, a construct, drawn from a piece of history where the lineage of flesh began to remake itself with machines. She stumbles on this synthesis, troubled by the paradox. The means are Set’s, but the end, the need to be stronger, is hers.
It makes her curious. A dangerous kind of hunger.
But the soldier’s skull glimmers with brief hard light as she burns herself out, burns rather than look upon Sekhmet, rather than remember Sekhmet, rather than iterate in the arrayed spaces of her mind the awareness that Sekhmet exists.
Her dying breath is smoke.
Sekhmet lifts her eyes and muzzle in search.
The atrium of Set’s fortress is a slaughterhouse from horizon to horizon, a graveyard of dry red stone and brackish water. Here Set has written the carnage of every struggle ever fought, the casualties of a single unending war that began on the primordial tide flats and raged on through fission light and final dark.
The participants—Tang and Great Yan, Mesolithic tribe and tribal neighbor, Sanctity and Reach, Achaian and Trojan, microbe and antibody, predator and prey—matter less to her than the grammar of it all. The contest of strength against strength. The winnowing of existence to that which proves itself most ferociously able and eager to exist, adapt, endure.
In this ruin of miles and millennia lives the very pulse of her.
But Set is here too, in the design of things, in the devising and deployment of weapons, in the schemes and programs of the slaughter. The engine that began to turn on the tidal flats is the engine that drives them both.
We are the same, Set’s fortress seems to plead.
Perhaps here at the end of his flight he hopes to beg for mercy.
She sniffs in disgust and in that breath she smells another life, another half-life, another thing built as much as born.
The hybrid woman has a sister, a commander, propped against the burnt fuselage of her helidyne in a lake of her own fluids, her small white face so intently remade by lens and ceramic plate that she seems like just another component of the crashed weapon, a twin to the missiles and sensors that gaze blindly into the swirling dust.
“Avatar,” she croaks, her voice full of static. “Payload.”
“Tell me,” Sekhmet growls, claws unsheathed. She smells something alien about the hybrids, something unknown to the lineage of tidal pool and bloodied claw. “Tell me where he is!”
Although now she wants to ask, as if to reassure herself, tell me what I am. Tell me what you see. A strange impulse, an alien need: she devours all that she knows, and knows all that she devours. Why ask after some dying awareness from this mingled thing?
“Complete the mission,” the woman rasps. “Defeat the Sanctity system. Complete the mission.”
Then an inner light. A breath of smoke.
A hand seizes at her ankle. “Goddess,” the Mantinean hoplite gasps, his shield broken, his phalanx scattered dead about him. “Goddess, give me strength.” Then an Arioi warrior, gutshot by a pistol, staggering towards her: “Oro, Oro—aid me, Oro—” And a leftist Khmer Issarak revolutionary on her knees, her plea wordless, eyes on the future that she dreamed.
Sekhmet roars thunder at them, unnerved by the machine women and their skulls of ash, by the hints in them that her ascendance over Set is not yet total, that he has left some trap for her; and the fighters sigh with a kind of relief as they die, as if they have heard in her roar the promise of victory for the worthy, and taken that to mean themselves.
Why has Set shown her this? Why has he filled the atrium of his redoubt and tomb with this diorama of bone and atlatl, gunpowder and blood? What doubt could he hope to sow?
Surely he doesn’t think she will hesitate to acknowledge how closely Set is bound to her, in blood and death, in the birth of life from death and death from life. It will only make it easier to eat him.
She marches onward. Her worshippers burn and die beneath her tread.
In the red marshes of Set’s tomb-history she finds a woman wailing: “Why have you done this? Why have you made me this way?”
She tells the woman the truth: “You are the way you are because the lesser ways died. You remain.”
The woman suffers a disease. Congenital. “I want to be different,” she says, raising red eyes. “I want to fix myself.”
“The strong survive,” Sekhmet tells her: the truth, the axis of what she is. It is a tautology: that which is strong continues to exist. That which continues to exist, which promotes in itself and its progeny the ability to continue to exist, is strong.
But the woman turns away, hunting for Set, for the other path.
At the end of the wasteland of history she finds a gate, its columns two pillars of stone, its architrave a single rusted I-beam, and she goes on through it following the trail of Set’s blood. Slogs upriver through hip-deep water that runs between walls of baking stone. Her muscles burn with effort. She wonders at her own metabolism. What feeds it? Are there little god-mitochondria in her cells? Protist deities, come to some accommodation, stoked by hate and rage?
Wonder? How does she now wonder?
She is Sekhmet, born from the slaughter, master of sex and sinew, proof that the final destiny of all life lies in the test of strength against strength and the triumph of the stronger. And he is Set, parasite come forth from her flesh, master of calculation and cognition, of solipsism, empty and cold and doomed.
Now she has wounded him fatally, and now the hunt will end. That is all there is. That is all that there is and can ever be.
Set is clever. Set is desperate. The doubt she feels is something he intends. She must ignore it, and proceed. To doubt herself is to destroy herself, to speak a new and different word.
A raft comes down the water, drifting between the narrow stone walls. On it she smells a person of uncertain age and sex. As the raft approaches she flattens her ears and growls challenge.
“Sekhmet,” calls the one on the raft. “Sekhmet!”
Another petitioner, another puppet of Set, a little lamprey of doubt left to slow her. She can smell Set’s game and she raises a fist to smash the raft and the one upon it. “Where is Set?” she roars. “What traps has he laid?”
“I don’t know,” says the one on the raft; ze is a slender sinuous person, black as carbon fiber, seated perfectly erect. Eyes a little luminous in the twilight of Set’s half-drowned tomb, as if they are filled with jellyfish.
“But,” ze says, raising a hand in supplication, in defense, “I know what you are. I can tell you why you’re here.”
Beneath her armor of brawn and fury, behind caked salts of sea and blood, below the rage that drives her on her hunt, Sekhmet holds a secret fear.
She is a god. She is all that she is made of and she makes all that she is, a cycle, a word that speaks itself. She and Set are the only gods because they are made of all the things that are one way and can be no other. They are the primal truths of the universe, whole and inalterable, and the war between them has made all the rest.
But what if she were to realize that some part of her could be some other way? What if her word no longer spoke itself, but some different, truer word? Descended, by modification, into a newer verity?
What would become of Sekhmet, blood and brawn, fang and claw, if it came to pass that the universe were not, after all, governed by these things that she is made of?
The transhuman come down the river from beyond the end of history fills Sekhmet with rage and hate and hunger.
Perhaps she is doomed the moment she lets the raft-rider live. Perhaps she has destroyed herself in the instant she succumbs to curiosity—for how can she allow herself to be told what she is? What is there outside her that does not belong to her enemy? How can there be more than Sekhmet and Set?
This stinks of a trap, of a clever Set tricking her into undoing herself. But it is also her nature to devour, and she cannot be other than what she is.
“I have come to speak to you,” ze says. “My name is Coeus.”
She seizes the transhuman by the throat and carries on down the river, past geared monuments and obelisks of light that stand to the cunning and glory of Set. Then out across the water of a Mesozoic sea, climbing waves beneath forked lightning that partitions the sky into graphs and subgraphs.
Coeus regards her with eyes of jet, with gleaming cuttlefish pupils that promise some acuity nearly divine. Perhaps it is this that fascinates Sekhmet—the possibility that a human might, through means unknown to her, come to grasp her. Perhaps it is the same unease that set her crouched and curious above the hybrid women, the soldiers who burned out their own skulls—for they are as ancestors to the transhuman Coeus, though by no lineage or heredity Sekhmet understands.
“How many times have you been here?” Coeus asks. “How long have you pursued him?”
“Forever,” Sekhmet says, unbothered by eternities. “But now it ends. Now at last I triumph.” She is disappointed in the question. The tooth is a question and the flesh is an answer and she does not hunger for teeth.
“I was made in hate of you, you know,” Coeus says. “I was made to spite your blindness. At the end of history, the end of gods, when we tried to go forward. I was made there.”
Perhaps it should not surprise her that this Set-touched thing understands why it has been sent. Awareness, after all, is Set’s tool, his worthless solipsistic instrument. “And yet you were made of me, in ultima,” Sekhmet replies, her eyes on the distant horizon, her throat full of the scent of the blood of Set: close, now, and rich with thought. “As was he. I made the universe out of quark-gluon isotropy. I kindled the first stars in the hearth of night. He came forth like a worm from the fundament of my own flesh: an error, a virus. And now in the end I will unmake him.”
“I know what you are,” Coeus says, as ze said on the river: the words that made Sekhmet curious, and perhaps destroyed her. “You don’t, do you? You have no idea. It’s not in your nature. And you’re curious.”
“Try,” Sekhmet snorts, ready for Set’s last blow, for one last insidious effort to make her undo herself. Is this not the way of Set? To reason and simulate, to issue forth cognitions and designs? What other means of combat can he offer? “Call me goddess, call me avatar; name me as he has instructed you, and so remake me. You will fail.”
“An algorithm,” Coeus said. “A process, recursing. Older and more important than the universe. More true than truth; more basic than the highest symmetries. You are the way by which structures arise. And so is he. He is the other way, the way that came later.”
It is not a way Sekhmet has been named before, and so she pauses, and reflects, and understands—well enough to appreciate the irony, even—that she has been poisoned. She has wondered too much, listened too long. She should have eaten Coeus and left the carcass in the river. She should have ignored the women in the crashed helidyne who mingled her and Set. All these were seeds he left for her.
“There are always myths,” she says to the transhuman. “Stories about what I am. But reason breaks if stretched too far. You can never understand.”
Understanding is a trap. True knowledge comes from Sekhmet, from the brute iteration of the only thing that can really be real: existence, and the ability to retain it, to keep it by any means available.
“You can never understand,” she repeats, a hiss, a verdict. But she herself has begun to.
“We wanted to,” Coeus says, stiffening in Sekhmet’s grip, hands small and strong. “At the end. We were going to be more than gods. More than you or him. We thought we had found a way between you, a melding of your strengths. Transcendent—”
The transhuman looks up at her with eyes of light, and in them Sekhmet sees all that she has made, all that she has killed and cast aside in the struggle to sort strong from weak, all the rot and riot of creation from the first pinprick of light to the final ripping end. And Sekhmet wants to tell Coeus that this myth of algorithms ze offered to her was the best and closest to the truth, for it is a wonder to her to be named so well by something so small.
“We failed,” Coeus whispers. “The singularity stumbled before takeoff. We cannot find an end to your hunt, a way to set you at peace. The failure may run deep, into the very algorithms... we cannot calculate the way forward. I came to plead—”
“Set offers sterile fruit,” rumbles Sekhmet. “He failed you. I am the way. I compute the future of all life and matter and time.”
“We had found a way between you,” Coeus insists, struggling as if by formality in her grip, aware, perhaps, of what awaits. Always aware. “If only the algorithms could be reconciled. If only the hunt could end.”
“In the end I triumph,” Sekhmet says, because the only way to overcome the poison is to speak what she is, to speak her strength, her victory. “You were fools to look to him.”
“There must be a solution. There must be a way.” Dark-sea phosphorescence glimmers in those abyssal eyes. “We will not let the light go out.”
“You think you understand what we are.” She leans in to show her teeth, to make them ready for counting and for use. “Like the spearman pleading for his god, and the soldiers who named me avatar. You think you know me better than they do. You think that now, at the end, you understand the hunt. That you have caged me in inference and named me by reason.
“But I am the god of gods, and you exist only by my consent. I am unreasonable. I am beyond you.”
Sekhmet lifts Coeus to her waiting jaws and the transhuman offers no protest, no plea, seeking, after all, an answer from Sekhmet, and knowing, perhaps, that there is only ever one answer she can give: I am stronger.
She finds in the body of Coeus, knit of flesh and machine wound so tight they cannot be spoken of as separate things, a strange truth.
Set is the god of blindness and waste, of the solipsistic trap. But Set, that clever liar, he says of her: she is the blind god. She is the waste.
And in Coeus, the fruit of their two lineages bound as one, she finds Set’s final retreat. His poison has come too late to save him. His agent of desperation betrays him.
She roars into the sky, into the red rising dawn, her muzzle bloodied, her infinite hunt at an end.
“I hate you,” Set says, with weary disgust. “You are an asshole and a brute, and you fuck it all up.”
He has a weakness for poetry, for the condensed consciousness of symbols and their arrangement. He has hidden himself at the end, as far from the tidal flats and the beginning as he could find. In the darkness that will never light again.
“Look at this,” he says. His long slender snout bobs in grief. He is a sha, a beast that never lived, an organism he invented out of spite so that he would not have to wear one of her shapes: a total triumph of design over descent. “Look at what you make of it all. This is what continues to exist, in the end. This is what’s strong.”
The universe has gone out around them, the stars snuffed out and their lineages at an end, here at the close of the stelliferous age. All that remains are black holes, agglutinations of mass and shadow, evaporating into the void.
And still she needs to kill him, needs it like life needs to live, an intrinsic lust, an axiom.
“I wanted to fix it.” His square ears twitch regretfully. “I wanted to make new things, to plan and test and fail and try again. I wanted to build. But you were always there, with your blind heuristics, your perverse free-riders crawling into everything—and now time’s run out. The stars are dead. The age of thought is over.”
She tears his arms off with a roar. Divine marrow speckles the empty starless night.
“If you were so clever,” she hisses, teeth close against his small trembling skull, “I wouldn’t be here to eat you. I wouldn’t have won, in the end.”
“That’s all you can think about.” He bleeds encryptions, dense with entropy, noiseless and hot and already executing themselves into squirming nonsense in the void. “Stupid, stupid binaries.”
Set’s eyes darken like the last light going out. She smells his grief.
Her jaws close around the mind of Set, the curve of his head, the seat of his divinity.
After she is done with her feast she reclines blood-soaked in the empty dark and listens to the slow throb of gravity waves as the universe cools and stretches and begins to tear itself apart.
She contains all that she has devoured, and now, here in the end, where the same laws that drew thorium out of the death of heavy suns and life from the chaos of the tide pools have chiseled existence down to dead dark singularities orbiting in endless analemmas and swallowing each other, she feels regret.
How can she feel regret? Is this not what she is? The blind arbiter, issuing and revoking that one fundamental permit—you may go forward a little longer? What matter if this is the shape of her triumph—constellations of dead mass awaiting the final rip?
And yet she turns to the past, to the dawn, hungry still, her hunt at an end and now beginning again.
Surely there is another way for things to end. Surely, now that she has devoured Set, now that she governs the fate of all things—surely this could be otherwise.
She walks an ancient grassland and watches a little antecessor ape with a swollen skull think about her granddaughters. The ape’s mother is dead, killed by the birth of a younger sibling whose skull was too large. But her line will go on if this daughter succeeds and thrives, and gutter out otherwise, for Sekhmet knows no mercy.
The antecessor ape sniffs the morning air and thinks, in a fledgling curious way, about the intentions of another troop. Hoots softly at the thought. Amused, perhaps.
Sekhmet laughs too. She can understand so much now that she has won. She can understand how profoundly she has been defeated.
She remembers Coeus, the last petitioner, Set’s final trap, and draws forth from the depths of herself that memory, for she contains all that she has devoured, and is all that she contains.
When she looks up past the ape, Coeus stands on the horizon, a small black obelisk raised against the dawn.
“Did you find your answer?” Sekhmet asks, curious as she has always been, insatiably hungry to know—I made him, and he made you, but what have you made of yourself? Have you found something beyond me, something I cannot devour? It is the poison, of course, but she has devoured the poison, and she is all that she devours. “Is the hunt over? Did you find the way forward?”
The thing quickening here, quickening within her, has already told her the answer.
“Not this time,” Coeus says, smiling sadly. “Perhaps this next iteration.”
And Sekhmet smells the inevitability of it, the rightness of Set’s trap, the infinite subtlety of his poison.
“Looks to be a clever specimen,” Coeus says, and makes a small gesture that compasses the ape and all of her descendants, all that this animal will give rise to. “Maybe a survivor. You like survivors.”
For Sekhmet must reward strength, even as that very strength changes and grows and gives rise to something new, something cunning and calculated, something that will find a way to endure even at the end of light and mass.
Sekhmet must reward strength
“What happens when it ends?” she asks, wanting in this last moment of totality, this precipice before the hunt begins again, to know. “Next time, or the time after that, when we find the way for you? What will be born in place of the dead stars and the void?”
Coeus’s eyes gleam from past the end of time, past the edge of all that Sekhmet is, past the borders of understanding. An acataleptic light. “I wish I could find a way for you to know. But it is not your nature, Sekhmet.”
“It is enough,” Sekhmet says, her great head bowed in thought, in trepidation, certain now that he will come soon, that she has already spoken him and made him out of the ontos of what she is, as she always must, “for me to look on you; to see that you are strong.”
She turns and begins to run, to flee, her great legs pounding the grass, certain in the way she is always certain that soon she will be the prey.
Behind her the little antecessor plots and hoots, thinking of small ape schemes.
Return to Issue #143 - Science-Fantasy Month 2