Tully brought the skiff in from the south. The blue mountains of Maya’s feet rose against the sky, each toe adorned with a massive gold ring inlaid with cobras crowned with lotus blossoms. By the looks of the gold and white flags, the feet had already been claimed by the Vatican. It must have galled Pope Innocent XVI to accept the UN award for the feet of a Hindu god.
The god’s legs rested to one side, knees slightly bent, thick thighs leading to the fleshy invitation of her belly. Tully couldn’t see the upper arms, but her lower right arm lay across her midriff, while the lower left arm lay flung to the side, a cosmic afterthought. Immense gold bracelets at the wrists framed the wealth of rings on both hands. Beyond her breasts would be the treasures of her shoulders and head. This looked to be a good haul. Plenty of gold and industrial grade diamonds in the rings; uranium and other heavy metals could be extracted from the bones.
A rush of wind brought the mingled smells of iron, copper, patchouli, and a special scent that was distinctly . . . Maya. Tully couldn’t think of any other way to label it. The think-boy who figured out a way to bottle that scent would make millions.
Marco nodded in the direction of the UN flyers patrolling the boundaries of the fall zone. “The dogs are out in force.”
Tully allowed himself a moment to admire the view of the younger man against the fore rail. Dark skin, dark hair, nice ass. Too bad Marco had signed on as a helper. Tully made it a point to never mix business with pleasure.
“They’re just doing their jobs,” he said.
Marco looked up. “How long did you say we have?”
Tully squinted at the flyers circling the distortion in the air high above Maya’s midriff. The tangle of colors, the improbable angles that echoed in his joints, made them want to bend in sympathetic symmetry. He returned his attention to the controls. Gates always made him a little queasy. “It’s still small yet. The UN says three days, maybe four.”
He eased the skiff around Maya’s toes to the tops of her feet, dark with henna. Workers on the maze of scaffolding in the ankle creases watched them pass overhead. A message ping warned that the skiff had violated Canadian airspace and should depart immediately. With a slurp of coffee and an acknowledging ping, Tully turned the skiff over the ankles to Maya’s calves. The Canadians had ground-to-air missiles.
Maya had settled into the ground five, maybe ten feet. In the muggy heat, it wouldn’t take long for the god’s skin to pale to a meaty gray, then she would start to swell. And stink. It would be bad. With any luck (and a returned call from Ali Bob), they’d be long gone by then.
A mob maybe five hundred strong milled around the Red Cross tent city set well back from Maya’s outflung left hand. They screamed at the flyers, at Her Most Revered Corpse, at the scrapper teams plundering Maya’s remains, at the aid workers searching for survivors in the surrounding rubble of stone, steel, and shattered lives. Radio chatter claimed at least three million dead, possibly as high as five and a half million.
Marco settled on the front deck. “You think the mummers are already here?”
Tully took another sip of coffee. After the bumpy eighteen-hour nonstop to the sub-continent and the four-hour flight inland, the inside of his eyelids felt like 40-grit sandpaper. “I’ve never been to a fall where the mummers didn’t get there first.”
Marco put his back to the railing, dada locks flapping around him. “I used to think about them all the time as a kid, you know? I still have every issue of the Mummers’ Parade.”
Great, a fall fanatic. Tully hadn’t scoped that out when he took Marco on. It was going to be a long scrap.
Dagda fell first, his ornate leather armor filled with the sun and his hair a gold tide in the Irish Sea. Millions dead, two-thirds of Dublin destroyed. Numb with grief and the scope of the devastation, the search for survivors continued until the sky split wide and the worms tumbled down for the feast.
Massive, eyeless, segmented horrors, they swarmed over the body, tied themselves in knots to gouge out massive chunks of flesh and bone. They devoured every bit of skin or drop of blood, no matter where it fell — concrete, wood, stone, metal, or human flesh.
Twelve hours later, the sated worms rose from the devastation and returned through the hole in the sky to the unknown, leaving a cold, sinking confusion in their wake.
Tully set down at a clear point halfway between Maya’s ankles and the backs of her knees. Ten minutes later, the UN approved his acreage request, and together he and Marco secured the skiff, pitched their tents, and set the claim lines. This close, the smell of patchouli was overwhelming. It coated the inside of Tully’s mouth, clung to his clothes and hair.
A dozen or so other independent scrappers had set up similar camps. A few had already set their hooks and started torching lines into the blue skin to mark for later harvest. So long as they stayed clear of the choice bits, most corps and countries didn’t have a problem with the smaller licensed operations picking at the scraps.
While Marco made fresh coffee and heated dinner pouches, Tully went around to other camps for introductions and scuttlebutt. One or two crew chiefs greeted him with suspicion, newer claimants judging by their high-strung nerves and clean skiffs, but seasoned scrappers welcomed him with cautious camaraderie.
Farther down the calves, he was pleased to find Lovie Tepaka leading her own team. They’d worked together at Maniitsoq when Sedna fell, and he’d pulled her out of the wreckage in Athens back in ’21 when a stretch of scaffolding collapsed under the weight of Athena’s skin.
Lovie offered him a flask and a comfortable crate for a quick sit. “You hear about Richmond and his crew?”
Tully took a sip, passed the flask back. “Yeah. Did any make it out?”
“Not a one. The UN said they lost maybe a thousand men and a couple of million in hardware to the worms.”
Tully let out a low whistle. “Were their estimates off for the gate?”
She shrugged. “No idea. I’m just glad I got held up with repairs. You?”
“Just came off of Apollo and couldn’t close on the payout in time. I did okay, though.” He did even better if he didn’t count how Edgars and Victor had walked after hearing the news, or how he’d had to scramble to find a new hand willing to sit on call until the next godfall. Tully couldn’t blame them, though. There were old scrappers and bold scrappers, but . . .
Lovie nodded and took a drink. She offered the flask a second time, slipped it back in her shirt pocket when he refused. “It’s rough work, you know? Just because you make it in doesn’t mean you’ll . . .”
Her words gave way to uncertainty, a touch of darkness and fear not at all like the Lovie he knew.
Tully slid his foot to the side until his knee bumped hers. “Hey.”
Lovie blinked, shook her head. She gave him a lopsided smile. “Sorry. Scrapper brain. You know how it is.”
“All the time.”
The touch of fear returned, then settled out in her shrug. “It’s like it’s on the tip of my tongue.”
Tully understood that, too, fear and all. Scrappers made their livings off of death. Forgetting things was the best way to stay sane.
Lovie looked past him and made a small, irritated sound. “Shit. Mummers.”
“Hmmm?” Tully turned around in time to see a troupe of masked figures in brightly colored robes, playing drums and bells, go by in two skiffs. “Yeah. Marco was asking about them.”
“One of your new boys?”
“The only one.”
Lovie looked at him sidelong. “He cute?”
“Of course. Knows his shit, too.” Tully watched the troupe skirt the outside of the claims barriers. “He’s hot on the mummers.”
Lovie spat in disgust. “You kidding me? When Ukko fell in ’23 they came skulking around our camp in the middle of the night saying they only wanted to touch our torch sites so they could celebrate him. We got so tight for time driving them off that we almost didn’t make it out before the alarm sounded. Nearly lost our entire haul.”
The mummers stopped on the far side of Maya’s knees to make camp, well away from the Red Russians’ extensive claim to the thighs. The whisper of their bells was lost in the whine and sizzle of torches as nearby crews methodically butchered the dead god.
Tully hitched his shoulders. “It takes all kinds.”
She shook her head. “I never thought I’d see the day when you went soft.”
He stood, putting his hands to his lower back. “It’s nothing about soft. I just don’t see a reason to pull a gun when the other guy’s got nothing but a butter knife.”
Lovie laughed long and hard and got to her feet. She slapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the Tully I know. Hey, what about Maui? I thought you’d be busy fishing by now.”
Tully grinned. “I get a big enough payout this time, and I will be.”
She slapped him on the shoulder. “Keep the dream alive, man.”
Best advice he’d gotten all year.
Odin, Guan Yin, Raven fell in the space of a year. Tnee Kong and Jok two years later.
Hardline Christians claimed the end times were upon the world, and all should repent. Buddhists saw the end of the Wheel and settled down to wait. Environmental activists blamed European conservatives, Israel the Hebrew States, Egypt the West African Collective, Canada the United States, Space Proponents the Grounders. Suicide rates spiked worldwide. Thousands of godfall survivors went mad. Troupes of godfall fanatics took to traveling from site to site to honor the corpses of the dead gods.
Where had the gods come from? What had happened to them? And what were the worms?
The top two inches of Maya’s skin curled over itself and dropped slowly to the deck of the skiff secured halfway up her lower calf. Properly cured, the epidermis could be fashioned into fireproof leather or body armor that could stop a .50 caliber round. The trick was getting it off the body without passing out from the stench of patchouli and burning meat. Tully extinguished the torch, set it on the plank, then climbed down the scaffolding to the skiff three meters below.
Marco stacked the folds of blue skin into large, non-reactive plastic bins. Buckets at the corners of the box spigots captured anything expressed under the weight of the folds. He wore a godskin jumpsuit and industrial grade nitrile gloves identical to Tully’s. “This shit gets worse all the time.”
The complaint sounded low and fuzzy through the comm in Tully’s breather.
Tully stripped off the breather, gagging with that first breath. Someone had filled his mouth with dead rats and cotton and added lead weights to his eyelids. He and Marco had set to work immediately after dinner the night before and hadn’t slept more than a dozen winks apiece since then.
He pulled off his welder’s goggles. “Still pays well, that’s all we got to . . . where the hell are the spare filters?”
“Don’t ask me. They were there when I changed mine out a little while ago.”
“Well, they’re not there now. I can’t work up there without . . . here they are. You got to put things back where they belong. We don’t have time to go looking for every little thing.”
Marco stared at Tully for a tense moment then turned back to stacking. “Whatever, man.”
Fuck. Tully ran a hand through his hair. “I’m going to make some coffee.”
Tully went forward and set water to boil in the thermos. All around the skiff, scrapper crews worked double time stripping everything of value from the dead god, an efficiency of gore. Far above, a swarm of flyers surrounded the gate as it throbbed and thrummed, intent on mapping its every nuance.
He was getting too old for this shit. His father had been a scrapper before he’d settled down to raise a family. Exercise, fresh air, good money, his father said. The good old days. He never mentioned the broken bones, the stench, having to leave a payout behind or risk not making it out in time.
Tully dropped two coffee bags into the now-boiling water and waited. He would make it big with this haul and catch the first flight out to Maui. No more scrapping for him.
When the thermos timer flashed, he filled two mugs and carried them aft. He nudged Marco with an elbow. “Hey.”
The younger man looked over his shoulder, squinted through his blood-splattered goggles.
Tully held out a mug. “Take five.”
Marco pulled off his breather and accepted Tully’s apology.
They sat together in caffeinated silence until Marco spoke up: “What’s it like for them, you think?”
“The Indians. They had another god fall. This is, what, the third? Fourth?”
Tully rubbed his eyes. “India is a country, Hinduism is a religion.”
Marco rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean.”
The coffee was defective. Tully didn’t feel any more awake. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you have to get it wrong. Does India care? Sure they do. They just lost millions of people and a major city. Do the Hindus care? Of course. Ganga, Shiva, and now Maya. Three gods in eight years line a lot of wallets, but it can’t be easy on the faith.”
Marco grunted. “You think they still believe?”
“The Christians are still hanging on after Jehovah fell, so why not the Hindus? Seems to me they’d have the better claim. They still got hundreds of gods to go.”
The silence stretched another few sips. Marco crumpled his cup. “I saw the mummers last night while you were setting up the bucket feeds down below. They were singing and dancing up a storm, the skiffs all lit up like they were having a party or something.”
Tully stifled a yawn. “Mmmm.”
“You ever think about them? Why they do all that shit?”
Marco sucked on the ends of his mustache. “Why not?”
Tully considered their progress since the first cut. They should be able to make it to the top of Maya‘s right calf by early afternoon. If they busted ass, they could make it a third of the way up her left calf before midnight. “No harm, no foul, so long as they keep away from my operation.”
“Yeah, but what’s in it for them?” Marco persisted. “It’s not like the gods can hear them, so why the big party every time one of ’em comes floating down from the sky? You never hear about them getting excited about the scavengers.”
Tully chuckled. “Dead gods don’t eat you if you get in the way.”
The younger man fiddled with the cuffs of his jumpsuit. “Yeah. Listen, if it’s okay with you, I was thinking about heading that way tonight. Check them out, see what’s going on.”
Tully shook his head. “No can do. I need you here.”
“What’s to need? It’d only be for a couple of hours, and the radio says we’ve got two days at least.”
Tully yawned with his whole body. Maybe he needed a coffee IV. “A couple of hours is another five yards of skin. You signed on to work, not get a leg up with a tambourine band.”
Marco snorted. “Work shit. I can go when we bed down.”
“If we can spare the hours, you’re going to need to sleep so we can keep going.”
Marco laughed; the sound died when he noticed Tully didn’t join in. “That’s bullshit. You know that, right?”
Tully pointed to the gate writhing far overhead. The unraveling knot of reality had taken on a blue iridescence the color of Maya’s skin. “I know what I see, and that says you stay.”
Marco threw his cup into the garbage. “Fuck that, man. You can’t make me work all the time. I got rights.”
Not enough coffee, never enough sleep, and Marco mouthing off. Not what Tully needed. “Sure I can. You work or I slash your percentage.”
Marco got to his feet. “The hell you will. It’s a piss-ass fifteen percent, but it’s mine. We got a contract.”
Marco glared down at him with such pure loathing Tully had to laugh. He stood, topping the younger man by a good three inches. “You got to live long enough to collect, kid. Get on up there with the torch, and I’ll spell you here. I want at least another eight yards before we break for lunch.”
By the time Pele fell on Kilauea, humanity had learned to identify the look of the gate that set the tocks ticking for the worms’ arrival.
The dead gods promised resources to a starving world: gold, uranium, calcium, iron, sulfur, phosphates, diamonds, and more. Soon every country had a plan to get scrapper teams to a godfall site and safely away before the worm gate opened.
The faithful revolted against this final insult. The bombing of Mecca when Jehovah fell on Jerusalem and nations divided the remains. The dirty nuclear strike that wiped out Rio de Janeiro after Ci’s harvest. How the Odinists gutted the Icelandic president and eight members of his cabinet when they approved the butchering of beautiful Baldur.
You will not take our gods from us, part them out like so many fish or bits of wood, they said. We shall remember. We shall overcome.
The world answered with grim practicality. Look to the dead for your memories. We do what we must to survive.
Ali Bob’s arrival an hour after lunch saved Tully from listening to more of Marco’s whining.
The broker peered into the skiff’s hold with his flashlight. “Not much to show for your work, eh?”
Tully snorted and leaned against the aft rail. Ali Bob claimed to have his father’s sex appeal and his mother’s love of fine clothes. Tully could have added bad breath, body odor, and a few less complimentary qualities to the list, but the man usually paid the best prices so he kept quiet. “Give me a break. We hit the clock last night and haven’t so much as stopped to take a piss.”
Ali Bob dropped the flashlight in his linen suit coat pocket. “Ah Tully. Always so poetic.”
Fifty meters overhead, Marco secured the last of the scaffolding to the topmost edge of the lower calf. “Good to go!”
Tully moved to the skiff controls. “Hang on a minute.”
He roused the engines, released the hooks, and guided the skiff up until it hovered below the top scaffolding planks. While Ali Bob wiped his hands clean, Tully helped Marco secure the mooring hooks. He passed Marco the torch. “Get on it.”
Nearby crews crawled their way up Maya’s fleshy calves, ants conquering a tree brought down in a storm. Three acres ankle way, Lovie’s team peeled away massive strips of epidermis and sectioned off the first layers of the dermis from the lower calves. Above the knees, the Red Russians stripped muscle and fat from both thighs. Only that morning they’d shot down two skiffs that had nosed too close to their claim.
The largest crews had teams on the ground to suction run-off blood and viscera into fifty-five-gallon drums. Radio chatter had it the Japanese working the left shoulders had figured out a way to automate the entire ground clean up.
Ali Bob mopped his brow and gestured over the side of the skiff. “Those buckets are filled with blood?”
Tully nodded. “Yeah, most of it from box run off, but three from burn weepage. We should have twelve, maybe fourteen, by the time we pack it in. Get me a couple more men and another skiff and I can double that, maybe triple.”
The broker folded his handkerchief and returned it to his breast pocket. “My crews are already spoken for. You are aware —”
The high whine of the torch split the conversation in two. Ali Bob’s penciled eyebrows expressed his opinion of the interruption. He leaned in towards Tully and continued. “You have heard that the gate is growing faster than expected?”
“What? Really?” Bad news. Very bad. Tully looked at the sky. The gate still thrummed blue but didn’t seem any larger. Not really? Maybe? He didn’t have the sensors and gadgets to tell for certain. “Nothing’s come over the radio. Are you sure?”
“Am I ever not sure when I share information?”
True. Ali Bob always gave good intelligence. “Any idea why?”
The broker spread his hands, palms up. “The humidity? The equinox? The phase of the moon? The average rainfall on the Serengeti? My sources did not say. Sometimes the gates open faster than others. You know that.”
“Well, did you bother to tell anyone else?”
Ali Bob arched a brow and sniffed. “Of course.”
That was a load off. How long until word came across the radio? “How long do we have?”
“Until midday tomorrow at the least. I would, however, make certain to stow your harvest in case of the unexpected.”
Easy for him to say. “Crap.”
“Have you seen the French water drill? Cuts through dermal and subdermal like that —” Ali Bob snapped his fingers. “— and straight to the muscle. Such clean lines, too. Three months ago at Hongor, I watched a team excise whole tendons from Ay Dede, three meters long at least. Now, you harvest muscle tissue and tendon and I can offer you double the going rate for your poundage. Doctors in Istanbul are scrambling for all the muscle tissue they can get to study limb regeneration.”
Tully rubbed his face. He needed sleep, not borderline panic. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
He pinged Marco’s comm. Marco grunted in acknowledgment. “Change of plans. Clear a space. I’ll be right up with a torch.”
A three-note signal sounded over the radio. “Gate update on all channels. All channels, gate update in three, two, one . . .”
Tiamat. Amaterasu. Dionysus. Osiris. Marduk. Hera. Monkey. Ah Muzencab. Xi He.
Research hinted that more worms left a godfall site than arrived. Other research suggested the worms devoured one another in the frenzy, driving the numbers down. No hard numbers could be obtained to support either claim.
Godstuff expanded new horizons of scientific discovery, lifted developing countries out of suffering, and challenged the underpinnings of philosophies and religions worldwide.
Tully jerked his head up, blinking against the glare of a passing searchlight from a UN flyer overhead. An uncomfortable warmth spread over his left thigh and knee. He looked down, swore, and turned off his torch. How long had he been asleep? Couldn’t have been too long. “Marco?”
The younger man was nowhere to be seen. Not in the skiff, not on the ground as far as he could tell. Louder: “Marco?”
The comm line remained clear.
Searchlights from UN skiffs swept back and forth over the beleaguered corpse, catching the glistening stretches of bare muscle and fat. Spotlights from the ground made taffy of the workers’ shadows, stretching them to impossible lengths. Local crews pushed themselves to eke out the last few feet of harvest before they had to abandon Maya to the scavengers. From farther up the body came the muted pop of ribs pulled free. Or maybe vertebrae. He was too tired to tell.
Tully scrambled down to the skiff, hitting the deck two steps before he expected. He clutched the scaffolding until the world stopped shaking. “Marco?”
In the musty, sour space below deck, he found Marco’s bloodstained jumpsuit and breather in a heap on the younger man’s bunk. “Shit.”
The faint buzz of an echo came from Marco’s breather.
Tully ripped off his own breather, swallowing past the upswell of bile. Suit and breather left behind, same with the rifle in the rack. He hurried back to the deck and looked thighward. No sign of Marco, and the mummer camp was lost in the glare of the work lights. “I don’t need this right now. I. Don’t. Fucking. Need. This.”
What to do? What to do? Drag Marco back to the job? Had to find him first.
Tully focused on the bloody expanse of his harvest claim stretching to an equally bloody gate far overhead. Red? How did it get red? What happened to blue? Never mind.
Coffee. More coffee. Tully made himself a quick thermos, burned his tongue on the first swallow. “Fah.”
He’d left the torch perched on the corner of the scaffolding. Should he pack it up? Another swallow, and a third. He’d have to finish the packing, secure the barrels of blood and plasma down below. Load the skiff himself. It would go faster if Marco had hung around. Fucking Marco. Fucking mummers. Fucking fuck fuck!
The radio was filled with the usual prep chatter for clear out. Crews called in commands, supply requests. A few called in for load-out clearance. No news about the gate. If he held off until dawn to load out, he could get at the subdermal layers, maybe even the fat or some of Ali Bob’s muscle. A bigger payout meant fishing and no more scrapping. Ever.
Screw Marco. Let him live it up with the tambourine brigade. He’d drop the kid off at the nearest bus stop on the way out.
Tully carried the thermos, a spare breather, and the rifle back up the scaffolding. He was stupid tired, not tired stupid. You never worked a scrap alone without a gun in easy reach just in case.
He sparked the torch to life and set to work. Forty grueling minutes later, the strip of epidermis came away and dropped to the skiff. He set to work on the dermis, not particularly concerned with size or shape, only finished work. No payout if he didn’t get the scrap out. He eased the first chunk down the first two rungs and let it drop. One down, who knew how many to go. He exhaled and kept working.
Cut, twist, pull, drop. The cut lines blurred; his hands began to shake. Blood and bits of detritus splattered his goggles. Three pieces, four. Patchouli curled insidious and thick through the filter. Five, six. Had he finished the coffee already? Tully shook his head and kept working.
The world began to run like watercolors in the rain, spilling over his hands. Maya smiled down at him, wide blue lips opening to devour his name in the wild abandon of her hunger. The torch traced a path across the sky, a bright white star carving his name on the back of her tongue. Maya would swallow him whole and let him fish out the rest of his days. Yeah, Marco could rot in the belly of a scavenger. It would serve him right, running off like that. Dumb kid. Dumb . . .
The torch dropped from Tully’s hand. He jerked backwards and went down on his right knee. It popped, and a grinding fire exploded up his leg. His stomach clenched and he barely got the breather off before the coffee came rushing out of his mouth and over the railing.
Bone ground against bone, screaming under the skin. Tully dropped to his side, praying someone would knock him out, cut his leg off, fucking kill him it hurt so bad. He lay there until the haze of red pain receded, staring up at the dull black sky. No stars, nothing but the occasional UN flyer and the red gate twisting in on itself.
Tully began to cry. He couldn’t do it. No way he could pack it all in now. Make it down to the skiff and the radio? Hell, he couldn’t even reach the gun to fire a couple of shots to attract attention.
You got to live long enough to collect, kid.
Tully closed his eyes, only for a moment, and fell into Maya’s waiting mouth.
Isis. Buffalo Woman. Inanna. Amadioha. Ngalyod. Pan.
The godfall treasures inspired a greed that shattered treaties, destroyed governments, left millions dead, and millions more homeless. The have-nots became the haves, the haves became the want-mores. Riding on the coattails of that greed came the realization that the worms could open their massive mouths and someday take it all away.
One by one the gods fell, and humanity learned to adapt.
Maya spit Tully out and he slammed into the railing. He put weight on his right leg to stand and fell back with a scream, a spike of fire rammed through his knee.
The scaffolding lurched again. Tully gripped the railing and pulled himself upright, biting through his lip with the focus of a pain he could control. Voices and the clamor of sirens filled the night. Metal screamed against metal. The scaffolding bucked under him. Maya jerked, rumbled, twitched on the Richter scale. No, something inside her moved.
Above spun the gate, an angry throbbing red. White threads curled around the edges and dropped from the hole, swelling, stretching, black mouths gaping. They fell on Maya’s belly like calving glaciers, ripples causing the body to convulse. Worms. The gate was open and the scavengers had come for him. “No.”
He was going to die in the belly of a worm.
Fear trumped pain. Tully tumbled to the skiff and dragged himself to the controls. Over the staccato radio chatter and the howl of lifter engines came a strange hollow chanting from below, the tinny jangle of tambourines. He pulled himself along the rail until he reached the front of the skiff.
Far below, in the strobe and shadows of the UN searchlights, figures moved at the base of his claim. He caught the flash of gold, the swirl of scarlet. How many? Five? Seven? More? The figures gathered around the blood buckets, and there came the pop of a seal breaking open. Tully clutched the rail. “Hey! The gate’s open! Get out of there!”
He swung the skiff spotlight around and down. A dozen mummers stood around the buckets, hands raised. One looked up at the light with a fixed, filigree smile, then turned its attention to a figure on its knees in front of one of the buckets.
“Are you crazy? I said the gate is open!”
Maya’s body jerked again, her flesh trembling under the assault of hunger. The skiff bounced against the god’s bloody flesh with a meaty, metallic squelch that trembled through the deck.
The mummers didn’t move. The kneeling figure turned its face to the light, and Tully’s reality slid sideways. Marco stared up at him with filmy, white eyes, lids swelling and stretching to seal them away from the light. His mouth stretched beyond the limits of flesh, a lipless black pit ringed with jagged teeth. “I am become. I am become,” the younger man sang above it all. “I am hunger, and I am become.”
Other voices joined his. Tully swung the light around and something twisted and maggot white bored through his mind. Worms as far as the eye could see. One scooped up a mouthful of people and debris. Another plunged headfirst into Maya’s bloody flesh, twisting itself to tear away chunks of muscle and fat.
Crowds of mummers raised their hands and sang as the scavengers rolled and thrashed back and forth, shattering matchstick scaffolding, sending men and women screaming to their deaths. Worms everywhere, sliding over one another to reach Maya’s body. Fires burned unchecked, equally hungry and destructive. Black smoke poured from punctured fuel tanks, blotting out the stars.
Reality jammed a railroad spike through Tully’s left eye, the god eye sacrificed for knowledge. He focused the light on his hired hand far below. No one left behind. No. One. “Marco! We have to get out of here! We —”
Marco dipped both hands into the bucket and bent his head to drink. The mummer’s chant rose to a strange ululation that clashed with the strident voices coming over the skiff radio: “All remaining crews are to evacuate the site immediately. Repeat, all remaining —” “Get your skiffs out of here! Leave the carts, dammit!” “- immediately. UN forces —”
And Lovie’s voice: “Tully, are you still there? Jesus Christ, get your ass out!”
Marco lifted his bloody face to the light. His eyes bulged like blind fruits above the black maw, bone white hairs burrowing into his cheeks. In the pool of light, Marco stretched like old-fashioned newspaper putty, distorted along the X&Y to an infinity shown in his beatific, bloody smile.
Tully’s mind filled with a throbbing sonic scream, the gut-wrenching sound to herald the end of all things. Death, rebirth, and death again. People, civilizations, gods. Changed, made new. Renewed. People made new. The death of faith, the birth of reason, someday to cycle round again.
Marco expanded, became a bloated, corpse white, writhing creature of endless hunger for sweet god flesh and all reality beyond. As the newborn worm plunged into Maya’s bloody flesh, the mummers raised their arms and sang its praises.
The spotlight popped and sprayed Tully with shards of hot glass. The world went dark for whole seconds before the gate aurora and the strobing lights of fleeing ships brought it back to life. Far below, the mummers, the thing Marco had become, were gone.
Tully stood at the rail, unable to move, until a yellow spotlight from above pinned him to the deck. A voice, harsh and commanding: “Get your ass up here now!”
He turned his face to the light, stepped away from the rail, and collapsed.
A cargo skiff. Rough hands. Lovie’s voice from somewhere near: “Get us clear!”
Up, up, up they went and headed north at full speed. Away from the god, away from the worms. And something else Tully couldn’t remember.
Two men carried him down below to Lovie’s bunk space, stripped him out of his jumpsuit, splinted his knee. Lovie clambered down the stairs soon after, shaking with anger and something more. Fear. She was afraid. “What the hell were you thinking, huh? Were you trying to get yourself killed? Jesus, Tully, I can’t believe you.”
One of the men shot him up with something. Tully’s bicep burned and then a languid warmth poured through him. “Sorry. I had to —”
“Had to what? There’s nothing so important that you needed to hang around back there. You heard the claxons. You could have been killed.”
“I wanted to get to the buckets.” Tully blinked the world back into focus. “Yeah.”
Lovie dismissed the men, grabbed a towel, and began to clean his face and hair. “Next time leave ’em. What about your new man?”
Something white and barbed slithered through Tully’s memories and out again. He looked at the bulkhead.
Lovie swore and kept working. She fed him sips of whiskey until the world took on a golden hue. “I should have left you, you know that, right?”
Tully nodded, drifting in the shallows of her words.
“I should have, too. Those things were, were . . .”
Her hands stilled on his cheeks. She looked over his head, her gaze distant, fixed on something he could almost see and was terrified he might. “There were things, weren’t there? I thought . . .”
Tully licked his lips. “Thought what?”
Lovie shook her head and chuckled under her breath, an uneasy, brittle sound. “Never mind. It’s not like I could ever leave my man Tully behind.” She stood. “Anyway, I’m heading topside. You rest here, and I’ll check on you later.”
He grabbed her hand. “Don’t leave me.”
She leaned down and kissed him on the lips. “I got to check on my boys. I’ll be right back.”
Tully couldn’t breathe. He smelled patchouli and blood, heard the distant ringing of tambourines. He held on tight to the only proof he had that he hadn’t been left behind while the scavengers devoured his world. “But you’re coming back, right?”
He couldn’t make sense of the words, but they felt important so he said them.
“I said I would, didn’t I?”
He nodded — “Yeah, yeah you did.” — and let her go, his hand cold without someone to hold onto.
Another kiss, and Lovie walked out, closing the door behind her.
Tully settled back on the pillow, thoughts circling themselves like sharks. He’d ask Lovie for another shot of whatever it was when she came back. She was coming back, right? She wouldn’t leave him alone with . . . something.
Tully shivered in spite of himself and burrowed under the thin blanket. He stared at the bulkhead until visions of scavengers gave way to fishing boats off the coast of Maui, and he closed his eyes.
About the Author
Xander M. Odell lives in Washington state with their husband, sons, and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a dog. Their has appeared in such venues as Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, PseudoPod, Cast of Wonders, and PodCastle. They are a Clarion West 2010 graduate, and an active member of the SFWA.
Their collection of speculative fiction holiday stories, THE TWELVE WAYS OF CHRISTMAS, and debut short story collection GODFALL & OTHER STORIES are available from Hydra House Books.
Support them on Patreon at: http://patreon.com/writerodell
About the Narrator
Anson Mount is perhaps best known for playing Captain Christopher Pike on Star Trek: Discovery. Previous roles include Cullen Bohannon on the AMC television series Hell on Wheels, and Black Bolt in Marvel’s The Inhumans. He and his producing partner Branan Edgens host their own podcast called The Well, featuring interviews and stories about creative inspiration from some of today’s most dynamic artists, celebrities, thinkers and innovators.