The Subsequent State

by M. Christian

A short story from Hard Drive: The Best Sci-Fi Erotica by M. Christian

….

He remembered praying, though he was unsure if he spoke the words out loud or if they’d just been thundering through his mind: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done…

“The human intellect passes from its original state, in which it does not think, to a subsequent state, in which it does”

–Aristotle

I don’t know how to start this, so I guess I just have to. I hope you’ll understand that is something I have to do … even though I know it’s wrong. 

But I also know that I can’t live with myself until what happened to you will never happen to anyone – ever again. Knowing that they are out there and will come again and possibly take more that they have already taken – I have to do something.

I love you – and until I knew you, I never understood what that word meant, so I can say it in a way I could never say it before to a person who has given me so much.

Josh

* * * *

The world – looking out at it through the night vision goggles – was green: the tall, wild grasses where he crouched, and slowly crawled through, was green; the trees on the distant hills, which swayed in a low wind he couldn’t feel, being so close to the ground, were green. The stars in the sky were too bright – a wince there – pinholes of green stuck through a paler green canvas.

And there, between the hills, just below him, were the rolling geometries of what he’d been told they called environs: hexagonal panels joined together into organically rolling blisters. Through the plastic, fragmented by the interference of the structure, were the vividly dancing green of what he guessed were fires – and, moving much more slowly, carefully, purposefully were the green illuminations of people.

No, he corrected himself, squeezing the polycarbonate grip of his father’s gun, feeling the grid pattern even though the material of his gloves. Not people. 

There were cameras, which was why he was so low in the tall grass, but he’d learned that there weren’t that many of them – and the ones they did have more than likely wouldn’t be able to pick him up. 

So arrogant, he thought, relaxing his grip on the gun. A breath then, to steady himself. With the inhale and subsequent exhale, he momentarily closed his eyes against the green. There were sensors, microphones, and more, but they, too, shouldn’t be able to pick him up, especially against the rustle of the trees, so he allowed himself to move his lips, though he didn’t speak, he prayed: Should we perish in the struggle, may God embrace us and find for us a place in His Kingdom.

The hill he was on rolled down to an access road: an unpaved narrow ribbon that undulated around the edge of the structures. When he reached where the grass ended and it began, he turned and lowered himself down, taking the final inch between his boots and the dirt path cautiously slow. Both feet down, he dropped and lowered himself all the way, scanning left, then right, then left again, looking for any sign he’d been spotted – but all he saw was the road vanishing around one bend and then the other. 

In front of him, between the hexagon-paneled roof of the environ and the ground, was a low wall of coarse-surfaced bricks. The wall, the plastic immensity of the structure, the dirt at his feet – everything he could see was still an artificially brilliant green. 

When he turned the goggles off, then flipped them away from his eyes, the world was absolutely dark… but only before his eyes adjusted: gradually his memory of the environ – its geometric panels, its organic bulge that now filled half the sky, blocking the intensity of the truly white stars, the bare coarseness of the road, the almost-as-course bricks – was replaced by his actual vision.

A few yards away, he could see a break in the wall: a man-height indentation. Getting closer, he saw the handle.

There’d be an alarm the moment he turned it: five, maybe ten, minutes maximum, before a patrol arrived and gunned him down. His best chance would be to get in and then move as far away from the door as he could – if he was lucky, buying himself an extra few minutes.

Breath in, breath out, right hand on the gun, left hand hovering an inch above the handle. Brave warriors, should fate find us in battle,may our cause be just. May our leaders have clear vision. May our courage not falter –

He closed his eyes, and when he did, he saw again their bodies: the blood, thick and brown on the carpet; their arms and legs turned and twisted clumsily where they fell. The smell of hot copper in the air.

On the wall – painted with the blood of his daughter or his wife – was the Greek letter for alpha, the symbol of the Noos.

Five or ten minutes. Not much time. Turning the handle, pushing the door inwards, he prayed to Jesus Christ that he had enough time to kill at least that many of them. 

* * * *

From the door, he found himself on a narrow path, floored by planks: some kind of access way between the rest of the environ and the wall. The wood muffled his steps: a small miracle.

Earthly fertilizer, freshly cut wood, perfumed smoke, sickly-sweet flowers: an arboretum tickled his nose. Vision further adjusting, he saw the wall to his left, and the intertwined branches of trees on his right – bright and raw, where someone had clipped them to keep the path free. Leaves swiped at his eyes, brushed against his uniform, but otherwise he trotted, hand on the butt of his gun, almost silently.

Silently: no alarm, no sirens. They had to know; they had to be on the way. Five minutes, maybe ten … hopefully more. 

Then the path turned sharply and vanished. Still being led by it, he was spilled out onto the edge of a small, plowed field. When his boots kicked at one of the furrows, the scent of nature bloomed up his nose. In the distance were the golden glows of the fires that had been the green dancers in his goggles. Flickering in and out of darkness beyond them were more and more trees, but also the further distant forms of what looked like a four-tall step of square windows.

“Hello.”

Down the sights of the gun, she was rosy … almost golden … intermittently lit, sporadically revealed by the distant bonfires. 

She was older than he was by five years or maybe even ten. Her hair was so red the fire made the curls and tumbles of it look like she was as much alight as the flames. Her face was lined, but each seam and wrinkle looked like the end, or the beginning, of a happy grin. Her eyes were bright, either orange from the far-off flames, or that color under any light. Around her neck was a leather thong, tugged down between her breasts by what looked like stone charms and tiny brass bells. She was plump: a healthy weight in arms and legs that spoke of her nature, a comfort in that what she was … she was.

“There’s no reason to be afraid.”

She was naked: not bare, not stripped, not exposed. She stood, still at the end of his pistol’s sight, rich earth squished up between the toes on her feet; her heavy breasts, dark-nippled and tanned, were also … what she was. Between her heavy thighs was a triangular curl of also-red hair – as wild and unkempt as the curls that flowed and spilled down her back and arms. There was no clumsy dance of seduction, no loud arousal in her: the earth between her toes; the dark, tanned richness of her skin; the freedom of her hair; the naturalness of her body – all of it was simple, honest, and earthy―

And she, or her people, had killed his wife and daughter: slipping in at night and slitting their throats. Brave warriors, should fate find us in battle, may our cause be just. May our leaders have clear vision. May our courage not falter. Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior―

“No one is going to hurt you.”

She spread her arms. Down his sights, he saw her smile: a sign of calm, of peace, of welcome.

The shot was thunder, a crack of nightmare loud that matched and then beat the drumming of his heart. In his hands, the pistol bucked, wrenching his wrist and arm. 

It fell from his hand, so heavy he felt its impact through the soil even through the soles of his boots. He followed it down, his knees plunging into the thick, soft darkness of the field.

* * * *

The world wasn’t green. It wasn’t black. He couldn’t see. He wouldn’t see. Eyes squeezed shut so tight, wanting it all – every leaf, tree, bit of dirt, star in the sky, man, woman, child – to leave his sight. The tears came, and right behind them the sobbing, the screams. His fingers dug at his cheeks, wanting to rip it all away … rip everything away and just end.

Then she was touching him … no, that’s not right. A handshake is a touch. A hand on the shoulder is a touch. She wasn’t just touching him; kneeling down in the heady fertility of the field, she wrapped her arms around him and held him tightly, like she was trying to pull herself into him, push herself down into the pain that wracked his body.

“It’s okay, it’s all right. You didn’t hurt me. You didn’t hurt anyone. It’s all right … everything is going to be all right … you’re safe … I’m safe … it’s all going to be okay…” 

The way she spoke, the timbre of her voice, the tone of her words, the way they came – without suspicion or doubt – from within the honesty of her … he felt his body relax, his muscles release the fist they’d made of his arms and legs.

And when he was finally able to open his eyes the first thing he saw was her face: the joy and laughter of her lines, the dancing bonfires of her eyes; and her wide, beaming, and truly happy smile.

Then the tears came again – but this time they came from release, from relief, from light – and he wrapped himself around her just as she was wrapped around him, and just let them come.

* * * *

Time…

…broke

Later, when he was finally able to piece it all together, it was as if the events — the happenings from pulling the trigger to when he opened his eyes to bright sunlight splintering, fragmenting, through the distant, hexagonal ceiling — had happened to someone else, even though he could remember his heaving sobs, her arms around his body, his feet stumbling over the furrows…

…growing closer to the fire, the soft music of low voices coming and going, as he was led from the field and to a cement pathway, the flames revealing more and more of where he was … but he didn’t care about that, or even where he was being taken. Her fingers were entwined with his, her body was next to his, and the other hands were gentle… Forceful, guiding, but gentle

His gun was gone: where it was taken, he didn’t care. 

The cement pathway was smooth and hard under his feet, and he stumbled – almost falling – but her fingers were entwined in his and the other hands. How many other hands he couldn’t say and never did find out, but they caught him, supported him.

The bonfire’s licking glow showed a staggered tier of repurposed shipping containers: a three-high step of rectangular boxes, windows where there’d previously been corrugated steel, doors where there’d previously been corrugated steel, miniature greenhouse blisters and boxes where there’d previously been corrugated steel. 

They – whoever they were – and the woman, whose fingers never left their firm mixing with his own, whose nude body never left his side, brought him up three flights of stairs, to a home that had previously been a shipping container.

His clothes were taken from him. The same with his boots – and the rest of the gear he’d brought with him. 

They – whoever they were – left him, fading with soft murmurs of voices. One voice, though, stood out, a kind of marker in his memory: “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she’d answered, guiding him through a tiny house, illuminated only by the heartbeat pulsing of the bonfire down below. “We’ll be fine.”

Then time … broke again, and all he remembered was her hand guiding him to a great bed, a shadowy ocean of quilt and comforter. Without releasing him, she took one corner and cast a triangle of it aside. 

Without needing invitation or instruction, he sat on the exposed sheets – the coolness of the fabric a faint sensory shock against the heat of his bare skin. She lifted the cloth, lifted the quilt, and then guided him into the bed.

He was committing a sin … he was committing the sin. There was nothing right about what he was doing: no justification existed or could even be argued. No priest back in Liberty could absolve him. He had failed his community; he had failed his family; he had failed his wife; he had failed his daughter; he had failed Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior. He had failed everyone and everything that mattered to him…

She held him. That’s all she did… just held him: her naked skin again his. The heat she generated, like a stove, the thick texture of her skin, tanned with a calm and unashamed familiarity with the sun, against his. He felt her breathe — long, slow intakes that were held for the barest of moments before releasing in a similarly long, equally slow exhale, warmer (if possible) than his already hot skin.

In his broken memories, he remembered wanting to die — for the world to vanish, to absolve him of his failure and his sins, and then, with that further shame, he wanted to run, to escape. But with those feelings also came a weakness of his legs … his spirit.

The woman … he didn’t even know her name … just held him, arm and legs next to and over his, her breathing against his neck and check, her arm stretched over his, her hand in his, her fingers knitted between his own.

His face felt warm … and wet. He was crying, the tears first soft, then with wracking sobs that rippled and surged up and out of his lower body. Between the rasping gasps for air and the howling exhausts of sorrow and pain he heard her, a soft voice whispering in his ear, a warm song of presence, caring, and comfort: “It’s okay

… it’s okay … it’s okay…”

His face was between her hot, heavy breasts: the earthy smell of her body, plus the equally rich, earthy aroma of the soil she’d so recently been working. It was a smell he didn’t know: his world, before, had been clean, incensed, perfumed, and always so meticulously prepared to prevent offense, sidestep blasphemy. 

This woman, who held him, his face between her large breasts, was only what she was: ground and dirt and warmth … and she was holding him and telling him in a kind song of true caring that it was going to be okay. She was honest and true and, for the first time in his twenty-five years he wasn’t scared of doing the wrong thing.

His face was between her breasts, the heat and heaviness of her, the aroma of her body and the earth, becoming the only thing that he could – or could want to – feel. A firmness grazed his cheek, a rubbery contact that drew his mouth to it, without a care or a thought.

He nursed, he sucked, he suckled, and as he did he heard her softly, then throatily, moan. As he did, he felt the nipple in his mouth grow harder and harder … rising and expanding in his mouth. As he did, he felt his body, without thought or plan, respond with equal rising and expanding.

Her hand stroked the back of his short-cut hair, a calming, caring motion that again brought tears to his eyes, that made his body wrack and surge with released pain and fear – but he never stopped sucking and licking at her nipple. It was her, and she was there, with him, and she cared … she cared. For the first time in his life someone honestly cared.

She moved, changing how she lay on the bed. It wasn’t a conscious thing, the same way his own body seemed to shift without thought or intention. They were simply together, in her big bed, she stroking his head, he sucking her nipple, and then his penis touched something hot and moist…

Time slowed, the world left. There was nothing but he and she and the bed. The rest of everything was unreal, a hazy domain beyond the darkness of her room. None of it mattered. 

Because time left, and the world slowed, he didn’t know how long they were connected, his penis slowly, patently, sliding in and out of her. A voice whispered the word sin, and with it came another sob, but she spread her legs, pulled him deeper, and when his eyes flickered open for the briefest of moments he saw her freckled, full, and so-real face and then the beautiful, kind, sweet, and kind — so kind — face lost to a kind of pleasure he’d never seen before. She ran her fingers over his cropped hair once again and she said, in a voice almost too low to hear, “It’s okay…”

He ejaculated. It was something he had done before, of course. When he was younger, it came with as much stabbing guilt and shame as any pleasure. Later, with his marriage, it had come as the sign of conclusion, a ritual performed for the purpose of the result: his daughter. But then, with the world gone, with time gone, it was nothing but a glowing, surging, roll of pure pleasure. 

And with it, with the shaking release, the quivering that raced up and down his body, he moaned — making a sound he’d never made before — a composition of happiness, bliss, relief, expansion and, for the first time ever, safety

His collapse was into the swell of her breasts, his mouth’s pursuit again for a nipple to fill his mouth. He was there. She was there. Nothing else was.

In time, he slipped, tumbled, fell down and down and down into sleep: her arms curled around his body, his face pressed into the sweat and deep earthy relaxation of her breasts, her breath a slow, warm heartbeat on the top of his head.

He did not dream.

* * * *

He awoke… when he awoke. It could have been morning, it could have been afternoon, he had no idea of the time – her room had no clocks. In the light of the next day, he could see more of what he couldn’t the night before. The room was small and tight but didn’t feel that way. Between everything was the distant history of a shipping container: ribbed steel walls, the bubbled stream of welds where what had been had been made into what was there now. 

The bed was the biggest thing there: a sea of quilt, a grid of symbols, some of which stabbed him in the heart with the ghostly memories of angry sermons of hellfire and sulfur but others as simple as flowers, hearts, sheaves of wheat, corn, and – with a blush to his cheeks – naked men and women. 

On one wall were stepped, eccentrically placed shelves, each populated with earthen versions of what was on the quilt: handmade totems and icons of earth and men and women plus glazed pottery, fabric structures he didn’t understand. Some looked clumsy, like kindergarten exercises; others were elegant and … beautiful. But he frowned when he couldn’t see a single cross.

Looking beyond the foot of the bed, he could see two glass doors, beyond them a shower and toilet: the walls of the bathroom tiled with the same kind of earthen humility, the same chaotic parade of symbols. 

Light was coming from the right, from walls of sliding glass. Light from… He turned, twisted in the bed to look. Below was a field, the same one that the night before had been technologically green in his goggles, but now he could see that the field was the earth, the soil, as well as a few tentative stalks rising above the furrows. Above the ground was the sky: a geometric greenhouse dome that had seemed too clear and obvious through the enhancement of his goggles, but looking out at it, he could think of nothing, his mind lost in the sparkling diamond faceted sun that broke into rainbows as it passed through it.

She came in, sliding one of the doors open, elegantly balancing a ceramic plate with one hand. “Good morning,” she said, closing the door with the same smoothly practiced movement. 

In the light of the day through the great diamond dome high above them, she was the same, but there were differences. The light before – and with the recall a vertigo of shame and guilt that only abated but did not vanish, with a few controlling breaths – she’d seemed … he wanted to say larger, like he’d laid with the world itself and not just this woman who sat down on the bed beside him. 

His wife was dead; his daughter was dead: murdered by these people. The Fathers had given him tools, weapons, to go out and avenge them. 

He’d failed.

As he thought this, he looked, saw her in the light of their heretic sun and the only thing he could think was beautiful.

“You must be hungry,” she said. The plate she put on the bed between them was a spiral of texture and color, fruits and vegetables … many of which he couldn’t identify. 

She wore a simple, clearly handmade wrap that barely covered her ample, full body. Her face was freckled, her cheeks high and marked with comfortable smiles and rich laughter. Her hair was a cascade of brown curls. At first, he thought she was much older than when he’d first seen her, but then he realized he’d never seen a woman without makeup before.

Against the homespun and the natural, a tortoise-looking band curled behind her ears and crossing the bridge of her nose. He thought nothing of it except that it might be an element of jewelry; a symbol he didn’t understand. 

The fruit she offered him was white, with tiny black seeds in it. She said something, but he didn’t hear her: his mind full of static and noise, flooded with serpents and apples and sin and hate. But then she smiled. The woman who was handing him a piece of fruit smiled and all he could think was … nothing … and all he could do was take what she offered him and put it into his mouth.

It was different: a shock, a surprise, of unusual flavors.

But it was also good.

* * * *

At first, he thought there’d be a lot he had to learn, but after he’d begun, he began to realize that, once he understood the direction, the rest came easily.

As the first day closed, night coming through the great dome of the environ, as easily as the sun had arrived, the woman — who held his hand gently, kissed his palm, and simply said, “Petal” when he finally, clumsily asked her name — had invited him back into her bed. Beyond the speaking of her name she said nothing: they held each other as they had the night before and they soon were touching, caressing, and again his mouth found its way to her nipple and again he felt it swell warmly and richly in his mouth and she moaned and sighed in answer. And again he slid between her legs into a slow dance, leading, when it came, to a release that was more than a release … and then sleep, heavy and comfortable.

The second day rolled by, a simple, slow predictability of fruits for breakfast, homemade breads and cheeses for lunch, strange and intimidating mixtures of spices and textures for dinner, leading again to Petal’s huge bed. During the day, she simply held him close and tight, stroking his head and singing softly.

On the third day she left him, for how long he couldn’t say. She explained that she had some work to do, and with a slow, gentle kiss on his cheek she picked up that slender length of tortoise from a disc on a nightstand next to the bed, slipped it on as she’d worn it before, and stepped out. 

At first, he explored her little house, but found while much of it was familiar, the discordance of what he knew and what was different about it made him restless. 

The home was the top of a staggered tier of three, the front of hers – beyond the glass doors – forming a kind of porch that was also the roof of the home below. Gazing down the steps Josh recalled, with the flickering poor memory of a child, lessons of heathen cultures, pyramids and sacrifices of still-beating human hearts.

“Welcome.”

The man was … he couldn’t say how old he was: there were lines around his eyes, a salt-and-pepper beard under, eyebrows that seemed far too wide and untamed. But there was a mixture to the elements of his face that confused him: his eyes, for instance, were very narrow, but the color of his skin was far too dark for oriental. His hair was very long and very straight, pulled back and restrained by something Josh couldn’t see. He was also very short, a fact that wasn’t clear until he finished his climb up the wide stairs leading down from Petal’s home towards the field in the center of the environ. 

He bowed, a simple and fluid action. “You may call me Mwezi.” Like Petal, he wore a homespun, though more of a serape than her uncomplicated housedress. “Petal tells me you’ve been getting comfortable. That makes me happy.” He gestured to a wooden chair that made up part of a set of three and a table on the patio in front of the house, one of which Josh had been seated in, absently enjoying the sun on his face.

Josh nodded, and the little man sat down. 

Like Petal, he also sported an odd band from ear to ear and across the bridge of his nose. But his was warm copper; like sun-melted pennies. 

“Excuse me,” he said, turning away and looking out at the vastness of the domed environ. For a moment, he thought Mwezi might be swatting at flies, but if he was, they were either too small or fast for Josh to see. Then, with an odd flourished gesture, he slowly brought his hands together. “Thanks,” he said, “had a little work to do.”

His laugh was musical and light, a chiming of bells – and not once from when it began to when it ended, did Josh ever think that the humor was at his expense. “That must have looked odd to you. I apologize.”

“No problem.”

“In fact, all of this must be really strange to you. I hope we’ve made you feel comfortable.”

“It has… It is… Yes, you have. She has…” Josh’s words came, stumbling and tumbling out, changing meaning and reason between each vowel and syllable. It was like he hadn’t spoken in years, had lost not just the ability, but also the concept.

“That’s all right. It’s a lot to absorb. But you are welcome here — for as long as you want.”

Josh nodded, the most simple and direct action he could make to reflect how he felt.

The afternoon felt long, as if the time from when Mwezi had sat down to when the sunset began and Petal made her slow way up the steps, her arms wrapped around a great handwoven basket of fruits and vegetables, had been years instead of hours.

The lessons that day had, indeed, started with difficulty: words coming from the little man’s lips that had not just no meaning, but no context. But as he spoke, carefully, kindly, concept and ideas began to form around the terms until when he used them, Josh not just knew their meaning but could begin to anticipate their belonging in the world around him.

Some of them were easy, right in front of his eyes: a series of environs — climate-controlled greenhouses — gently parading down what was once a devastatingly polluted part of the countryside. Each one moister, cooler than one above it, as water flowed down from the top to the bottom, and warmer up from the ones at the bottom. Some of the details were less easy to comprehend – geothermal power and temperature regulation, bioreactors, passive solar – others as clear as the geometries of the dome and the gently turning wind turbines he could glimpse beyond.

“It’s not perfect … but then nothing is. But our energy requirements are low, so we get very close. The hard part is balancing so many ecosystems, that and keeping an eye on the reactive cultures. But different colonies have different specialties, so if we can’t handle something someone else can. Ours is genetics… I’m sorry, that must sound scary.”

Josh hadn’t realized his stiffening until Mwezi apologized. At the word he had heard the volume, the thunder, the hell … even though the man who was sitting in front of him radiated nothing but quiet calm and tranquil reassurance.

“There’s nothing to be scared of. Most of our work is virtual, and we follow the strictest protocols when – or, rather, if – we experiment.”

The rest of the day was far smoother, Mwezi talking about their crops, and the structure of the Colony. Every member, he explained, was expected to perform three tasks: one of their own choosing… usually a craft, art, or field of study; one for the community, picked from a list; and another, also for the community, chosen at random, that was based on their abilities. A laugh came with that, and after the chimes of his amusement: “There are always a few exceptions: doctors get a free pass, as do the folks who work on the bioreactor.”

Then came the moment when the world vanished, when the real became the unreal and Josh felt as if he’d lost his anchor to the roughness of the wooden deck, the dirt between Petal’s toes, the coarse stitches that held together Mwezi’s serape. It began innocently, simply, as the tiny man waved at another invisible insect. Seeing Josh’s confusion, Mwezi reached up and took off the narrow band and held it out. “You’ve never seen one before?”

Josh shook his head, accepting the thin copper ornament without thinking.

Standing, Mwezi moved behind Josh, and after a softly spoken “Excuse me,” he slipped it over Josh’s ears and positioned it across the bridge of his nose. It was light, and slightly warm from Mwezi’s own body. It didn’t seem to affect his vision at all, resting as it did near the tips of his eyelashes. “This might be a bit … odd. I’ve set it for basic.”

The band was off his face before he was even aware he’d removed it. Colors and shapes, floating letters and words, streams of symbols flowing and weaving in and out of the sky, information glowing from points of nothing, but pinpoints of light into details of structure, stress, load, flow, and tolerance. 

“I’m so sorry,” Mwezi said, the softness of his words undeniably sincere.

Josh rubbed his eyes, a prayer working his lips: the calming familiarity of God’s wisdom slowing his stuttering heart.

“They must have interfaces like that in Liberty. Guess not as intense. Oh, of course,” Mwezi said, a rise in his voice. “Security … privacy. Misplaced logic of temptation being countered by constant dread of observation, eyes over shoulders, the flesh-and-blood equal of content monitoring.” The small man blinked. “Sorry,” he said again with a wistful grin. “You got me on a tangent.”

“It’s―” Josh took in a slow breath. “I-I’m all right.”

Everyone had the devices. Everyone. From children to adults, they all wore them: information delivered directing into their eyes, received by optics, sensors, read and controlled by pupil focusing and hand gestures. Their world was hand-fired pottery, looms, freshly baked bread, tilling the soil – and yet a blink away was a world of visual information and imagination where any thought, any fantasy, any piece of information was available. 

They were silent, the two of them, for a long time. Slowly, the sun set, splintering into geometrics as it passed through each of the facets of the great environ over their heads until finally, Petal made her way up those stairs with her basket.

“You can see why they might be offended by our world,” Mwezi said as he stood up and moved to help her with dinner. “But that’s not the only reason they sent you to kill us.”

* * * *

He saw an old man, his exact age a puzzle of gray and wrinkles, wearing nothing but a calm expression as he stood beneath a massive tree, its leaves and branches broken into hard, bright detail and dim shadows by the geometric light of the midday sun fractured by the geometries of the dome high above. It wasn’t his age, or his nudity, or the dark charcoal of his skin that tugged Josh’s attention from the still-strange world around him, but the expression of cool tranquility on his worn face. 

Looking at him, he knew that the man was … there, and that where he was, under the great branching arms of the tree, was not just a pause in a journey but an embracing of the experience of that exact moment. 

He saw a flock of children, a giggling and laughing stream of bright expressions, musical joy, and dancing eyes, turn and stream and flow around and then past him: each one dusty, each one uniquely dressed in degrees of homespun simplicity, each one a different height, each one a different age, each one a different shade of skin, each one different in more ways than he could measure, but all of them children, and all of them running, each one smiling, and each one with the others. There was a happiness in their play that tugged at his heart… and his vision blurred, clouded, until he wiped at his eyes and looked at the wetness on his fingers.

He saw a young woman; water cascading down onto her nudity from what, at first, he thought was simply a decorative fall: the earth of wherever she had been, whatever she had been doing, contouring and winding down the valleys and peaks of her lithe body, the brownness of it just a little darker shade than her skin. She washed, running her hand over her body, with a calm, unhurried luxuriousness. With a turn and lift of her head, she looked at him, and with that same lift and turn of her head, he felt a knife turn and dig into his chest — a pounding weight of guilt and shame that made the air in that particular environ feel like it had been lit on fire. But still, without a thought, he brought his head up a degree, or maybe two, and saw where he expected anger and shame, accusation and violation there was, instead, the simplest and sweetest of smiles.

He saw a man, tanned nearly to the brown of the stool he sat on, holding hands with another man whose own color was closer to that of the smoky, small jar he was delicately examining. Both were dressed in what he had already become accustomed to seeing: clothing worn when protection was necessary, when the air might be cool, when a beautiful garment wanted to be shown … and no other reason. On the undulating shelves around them, in that small niche pushed into the side of what smelled and felt like the side of a hill, were displayed in a staggering profusion and variety of pots and vases and dishes and urns and jugs and pitchers. There was no one there to sell, no one there who seemed to be an owner: there was just the light from a high, frosted plastic or glass blister, the weaving and flowing shelves, the stone and clay items on them … and the man was holding hands with another man. They were holding hands and even though there were no words that came to Josh’s mind, he felt the calm casualness, the unrushed familiarity of love. 

He saw a woman as she passed him, as he walked through the momentary cool darkness of a short tunnel that connected one environ to other: a descent from vampiric dryness in perfect balance with dancing waves of heat among the cacti, sprouting green and needled from gravelly sand and parched stone, to a new world of almost foggy humidity in a world still hot but more abundantly verdant, of some curling and some gently waving ferns and tall, reaching, wide-trunked, thick-barked trees. As with all of them, he could not tell her age. As with all of them, she wore only what she wanted to wear. As with all of them, she moved with a graceful and relaxed purpose. As with all of them, her body was shaped by nature and worn without shame: heavy breasts topped by dark-circled nipples – pierced by bright steel rings – bounced and swayed as she walked, between her thickly muscled thighs she was smoothly shaved, the seam of her genitals rising up through a plush mons. Her hair was long and complex, woven into tight coils dotted with blue and red and yellow and green beads. As with all of them, she wore that same interface device – and, because of it, he didn’t know if she’d even seen him or was peering, as she strolled from a hot and wet world, into some unimaginable digital domain.

Josh sat on the warm wood of a set of rising steps. The world in front of him was smaller than the others: just a great — if not majestic then at least noble —  apple tree, a smattering of smaller bushes, a row of trellises that could have been holding up the coils of beans or berries ringed by tripled, stepped, repurposed shipping containers. The day was fading, the sun glowing redder and darker as it sank down behind the distant hills he saw through the hexagonal-paneled dome. 

He felt… he didn’t know how he felt. When he tried to think about it, to look down and understand, all he felt was a broken cascade of emotion: a too-loud noise of shame and guilt, sadness, the tension of what could be a scream ready to burst out, the weight of what could be sobbing tears ready to pour out until there was nothing left of him but salty water on the wooden steps.

He didn’t know he wasn’t alone until the sun’s descent was eclipsed and he looked up to see Petal was standing a few steps below. “Hello,” she simply said, a smile coming with the word.

He couldn’t talk: he didn’t know what words to use – so no words came. 

“Let’s go home,” she said, reaching out to him.

He took her hand, letting her lead him down the stairs.

* * * *

With the sun’s sleep, the Colony did not: lights grew in red and yellow brightness from where he hadn’t noticed them, into comforting, almost fiery illumination. With their arrival, he knew, intellectually, the world hadn’t actually changed, but the flickering — as he was gently pulled along by Petal — seemed to pull back thousands of years: and each and every man or woman, old or young, child or adult, began to step or move or dance from the walls of some ancient cave.

They stopped, and sat on a bench by the beginnings of a fire. He may have visited this environ before but if he did – night and the glowing flames, the sparks rising high into the air and passing — he found himself noticing, through opened panels in the ceiling, that he didn’t recognize it. 

Petal held his hand: holding him there, holding him down. The cloth of the serape she worn that night pushed against his arm and thigh, but he could feel, and he knew, that she wore nothing underneath. His arousal made him blush with shame but even with the sharply broken glass of his mind cutting him, hurting him, he did not pull away, get up, run away… because Petal was holding his hand.

A drum began a beat, a flute began a chirping melody, a stringed instrument began to moan and soar, a voice — man or woman he didn’t know — began to sing. The song wasn’t in English, and that was the only language he knew, but it was still beautiful: a melody of Earth and stars, wind and rain, and the joy that came from being a human being and being able to be in the world.

A circle began to twirl around the growing fire: men and women, young and old … each one spinning past his eyes, twisting and laughing, eyes blazing with beautiful bursts of what could be starlight. Bodies came and went: tight or not buttocks, large or small breasts, muscled or not legs, swaying or not genitals … the dance felt new, like it had just happened; the dance felt old, like it had been happening forever.

The drumbeat began to match the pulsing thunder of his heart, the flute started to complement his in-and-out of breath, the stringed instrument imitated the song growing in his mind, the voice wove its way down and down and down to where there was a storm of glass shards … and then a hand came, a hand reached out from the turning, twirling dancers and he felt a pull, a tug, and then he hadn’t let go of Petal’s hand but rather she had simply, lovingly released him.

He spun, he kicked, he danced, he even sang. He held hands with someone, he didn’t know who, on his right and he held hands with someone, he didn’t know who, on his left … and it didn’t matter

Dust and sand clouded his feet, the fire spat and crackled and snapped up hot embers that tumbled up through the gray smoke smudging the night sky. He saw bodies, naked and raw and beautiful. He saw men and women, joyous and free and beautiful. He saw smiles, pure and bright and beautiful―

And he saw them, in the starlight of their eyes, seeing him with nothing but affection, caring, love … and welcome.

* * * *

That night, Petal led him back to her little home. There, his feet still dusty from the earth of the dancing circle, his face muddy from the tears that had come, she gently, unhurriedly, undressed him. 

Again, they moved to her big bed. Again, they curled together: arms and legs weaving together, lips seeking lips, hands moving where they wanted to go – without thought, without shame, without guilt: as natural as the smell of the dust that still lingered on their bodies.

They kissed: lips and tongues following the same unthinking, unconscious, unhurried pursuit. Time, as he was beginning to not just accept, but to welcome, stopped for them in her little home, her big bed. 

The world beyond, too, shrank until it was just the two of them, together.

“Do you trust me?” she whispered.

He nodded, the action transmitted into the soft plumpness of her worn, tanned shoulder, and then to the swell and plushness of her left breast; his head having fallen, naturally and calmly, into the tender valley of her armpit.

“We … we don’t have a usual way of thinking about the world here. But many of us… like me… we see the Earth, the universe, as being a loving, strong … a woman. A Goddess. She cares for us, gives us life, gives us love… and so we care for her, listen to her, let her guide us in all things.”

He lifted his head. The room was dim but not dark: a dull yellow glow from an ornately decorated shade on one side of the bed, the distant orange of a few still-burning bonfires outside the window. Looking at her, at Petal, he saw her as if she were carved from ancient wood, hewn from deeply excavated stone. For a moment, the glow from that simple light reminded him of candles — and candles pulled from the seemingly-so-far-away past sitting in the cold, stuffy discomfort of his family’s church. None of the words they’d chanted returned with the memory, but flickering in and out, here and away with the recall of the candles — and matched with the golden glow of Petal’s light — he remembered nothing but fear, nothing but guilt, nothing but shame.

But there, then, resting his chin on the earthy valley of where her arm met the rise of her shoulder, he felt… buoyant, lifted, released. Without a single thought, he pushed himself down, pressed his nose into her armpit and smelled the reality of her, the naturalness of her. Still undirected, he put an arm across the gentle lift of her belly and hugged her, not tightly, but just enough to hold himself down.

No fear, no guilt, no shame. That world, the one he had left behind, was far behind him, far below him. This world – this world, with half naked men and women, with sex and love, with dirt and knowledge, with kindness and the beauty of learning, with looking forward and not backward — it was the only place he wanted to be, the only place that mattered.

Back on those cold wooden pews, listening to the thunder and sulfur of why he was damned, why he was nothing but a sinner —  and those who didn’t feel the same were even worse — he hadn’t felt anything but that bitter, cramping trinity of fear, guilt, and shame.

But tucked against Petal, smelling her, feeling her sunbaked skin, listening to the music of her voice, he felt a lifting, a rising, a soaring. He began to cry again: slow, heavy drops of tears that slickened her arm, the side of that one breast.

She stroked his head, cooing and murmuring, not words but the sounds of presence, kindness and love.

He’d never used the word before — in fact even thinking it had been considered a great sin — but then and there the word was what he wanted to say, needed to say, because it was right and true and this woman, Petal, had become that and more to him: “My Goddess.”

She gently lifted his head from where he’d sought refuge, and in the soft lift of the single lamp, she kissed him on the lips. Not a hot kiss of their lovemaking but, instead, a kiss of sacrament, of blessing, of healing.

“It is an honor,” she whispered, “to be your Goddess.”

Slowly, as if time had been left behind with those hard wooden pews, along with hell and damnation, they moved: her hand stroked his head as he kissed, then licked, then gently sucked on her nipple – feeling it rise and swell in his mouth – and with his, the sounds from her lowering in tone, coming from down deeper inside her natural self.

The night became a dance of their own, a music of their own: moans and sighs, laughter and little groans: as primal and beautiful as the one Josh had just joined in, but this time the rhythms, the celebration was a timeless two-step for just the two of them: a movement, a celebration of a man and a Goddess.

A movement of arms, of legs, a shifting of hips, a sliding with, and then without, the remarkably smooth sheets, and she was above him, head resting on the homespun pillows, the bedclothes pushed to one side, and her legs were spread before him. 

There she was: not exposed but revealed, not ugly but beautiful, not sinful but human, not damnation but… Petal. He’d seen pictures, ones that had cost him chores, beatings, more shame, more guilt, and painful and tedious redemptions. Even his wife’s had all but remained a mystery, save for moisture and pressure when they performed their expected duties. But before his eyes, at that moment, was Petal: curly, dark hairs framing an oval of softly glistening lips. 

Without a word, she reached down between her legs and parted those lips, revealing herself — but what to him were mysteries. 

“My Goddess,” he whispered at the revelation of her, the glory of her. He would do anything for her. He was hers, and it made him very happy – for the first time in his life. 

Even in the soft light, he could see her wide smile. “My beautiful worshiper,” she said. “My adoring devotee.” A laugh then: bright and sparkling and beautiful. “My sweet supplicant.”

Her hands went down, sliding gently past his face and to the sparkling moisture between her legs.

Patiently, kindly, caringly, she showed him her divinity. “Labia, urethra, clitoris,” she said, fingers touching as she gently whispered each and every one. As she did, he noticed the texture change, the moisture of her growing more reflective, the perfume of her becoming deeper. 

Her fingers moved to the last, the tiny bead at the top of the oval of her intimacy. Slowly, patiently, she began to rub it, and with each circular stroke of that small point, her voice dropped, her hips swung outwards towards him, her legs moved farther apart. As she rubbed, she removed one hand and brought it to her left breast where she plucked, then began to earnestly pull, at her nipple.

As she did when they made love, she began to make noises, but this time by herself: moans and sighs, laughter and little groans. And as she did, he felt his member, his manhood, what had been his shame and guilt, what he’d wished so many times to be free of, grow firmer and firmer. It requested and then demanded that he touch it, stroke himself as he watched Petal’s one hand between her legs, the other hand tugging at her nipple.

Spreading her lips — the majora she called it — she revealed to him the growth of — the clitoris she called it — where she’d been rubbing. As she did a slow, leisurely drop of sweet, slick fluid descended from the depths of her and rolled down between the dim, almost unseen curves of her buttocks.

“This,” she said of herself, of the slick, hot folds between her legs, “is life. It is where we all come from, where every man or woman or” — she stopped for a moment, as if the word meant more to her than most, had connections down deep, entwined around a part of her he couldn’t see — “child comes from. It is pleasure, and pleasure is life. 

“My devotee, my worshiper, my lover, my supplicant. I give to you my special gift… because you have earned it, and so much more,” she said; with each word her voice growing deeper, stronger.

“Now kiss your Goddess…” she said, her voice throaty an hoarse. But she did not finish what, if anything, she’d been intending to say, because without thought, without feeling, without anything but a need to touch her, this special woman who smelled of nothing but herself and the Earth, who’d opened her life and her arms for him – for the first and only time in his life – he pulled himself up the sheets, rubbing his almost painfully erect penis along the fabric and kissed her gently, reverently, on that small, intimate, spot.

No spark, no burst, no roar, no scream, no stars tumbling down from heaven, no cracks yawning open from below, no sulfur, no pain, no suffering, no tears from Jesus, no slap from God: there was just the music of her, the throaty, deep, and glorious sound of her pleasure as it rolled and surged through her body, arching and pulling her hands away from her clitoris and nipple to grip, grab, and almost tear at the sheets.

When she calmed, when it had passed to gentle heaves and quakes, Josh pulled himself up and moved — patently, slowly, naturally — up her full body to where he could wrap his arms around her, her breasts moving against his chest, to where he could look down into her eyes, still unfocused and distant from her release. There, in the slightly remote starlight of her eyes, he saw her seeing him: with nothing but affection, caring, welcome … and love.

Petal … his lover. Petal … who made him understand. Petal … who cared for him as no one else ever had. The woman he belonged to. The woman who was his entire world … his Goddess. 

His Goddess

* * * *

Sleep came, at some point, leading to a warm morning when, again, they moved together: their pleasures mutual and unhurried, release arriving for them with no plan or purpose. Just he and she, she and he, touching and being touched, lips and tongue, clitoris and penis, until his stomach complained with grumble and she laughed, leaving the bed, but not until after kiss after kiss after kiss (giggle) after kiss (giggle) after kiss (giggle) to bring him something to eat.

Outside, the sun had passed a third row of hexagonal panels: a measurement he absently labeled as early morning. Sitting in one of the wooden chairs again, he watched it for no other reason than not wanting to allow any thoughts, anything but what he was feeling, to enter his mind.

Josh saw Mwezi at the bottom of the stairs, the form of the little man, the way he stood, politely asking to ascend and join him. Still, without a thought, Josh nodded – summoning a bright smile to the other man’s face.

“Good morning,” Mwezi said, putting a hand on Josh’s shoulder. The contact, sometime in the past, would have made Josh uncomfortable, made him pull away, but that was then, and in that moment, sitting and watching the sun inch from one dome panel to another, it was just his friend, just a greeting … and it felt good.

They didn’t say anything: not with a weight of silence but simply because they, the two of them, were sitting together in the sun.

“Thank you,” Josh said when the time was right.

Mwezi touched him again, his hand warmer on Josh’s forearm than the sun high above. “There’s no reason to.”

“Still … I-I still thank you.”

“You know now, don’t you?”

Josh nodded, carefully, deliberately. There were only a few things to know, things that hadn’t been said. 

“You aren’t the first, of course. Every few years they send someone like you. They must have their way of choosing them … we don’t understand how. They … arrange a motivation … like with you.”

The view out across the environ began to blur, details hazing away until everything beyond was washed out, ill-defined. Josh blinked, and clarity — for a moment –—returned, but with the return of tears it all washed away again. He wanted to speak but couldn’t, so he just nodded.

“They hate us … they need to hate us. But it’s difficult to maintain it, so they manufacture an outrage and blame it on us, they pick –— somehow — a man like you: a hero if they return, a martyr if they don’t. Probably what you are now.” Mwezi took a long, slow breath. “With a suitable end for you: sacrifice to a pagan god, no doubt. It says a lot about them… the shape they give their devils.

“We’ve debated about it, of course. We could do some harm of our own. Nothing violent, of course, but we can access a lot of their systems… grind them to a halt. But then we’d just be as bad as they make us out to be … just give them even more excuses to send men like you.”

Mwezi stopped, his hand waved — for moment –— out in the air, accessing, no doubt, some bit of information that only he could see. “It all began with the death of huge infrastructures. It meant, for the first time, communities didn’t need to be dependent on massive social or economic systems. Yours did the same thing: cutting themselves off from the world… though not to our degree: bioreactors for power, water, and fertilizer; solar, wind, geothermal; more efficient transportation, living arrangements, computer use; 3D printers, so no massive manufacturing facilities…” he laughed. “Sorry, I shouldn’t lecture.”

Mwezi’s hand had, once again, returned to Josh’s arm. Josh, without a thought, placed his own on top of the old man’s and held it there.

After a long time – this time with the faint tension of a truly uncomfortable silence – Mwezi said, in a much lower, slower, voice: “You also … you should know about Petal.”

* * * *

He knew that Petal wouldn’t be gone long. Each of her work shifts was only about three or four hours, and as Mwezi had walked down the steps, without ever turning his head to look back up, he realized he didn’t have a lot of time.

They’d given him clothes that were close to the ones he’d come in, but he’d seen where Petal had kept his originals. His gear, though, was nowhere to be found. It would make things harder, but it didn’t change his mind. 

He didn’t know what he was going to do, but for the first time — in what felt like his entire life — the decision felt right … good. Not the way that word had been used before, with a lead weight of humiliation, disgrace, shame, and the unimaginable cruelties of hell and falling from the love of Jesus Christ. This time, as he changed his clothes, he felt good because it was the right thing to do.

The story that Mwezi had told him lit and burned in his mind: he had to blink and blink again — to both try and hold back the tears he felt at what he’d learned as well as at the brilliant light that streamed from his love of Petal, his Goddess.

He was going back to where, he felt, it had all begun. This time, however, with the sun in the sky, he felt more naked and exposed that he’d ever felt before… but a nakedness not of shame but of coming, freshly and renewed, back into the world: he’d understood, accepted, knew that the lies, the lessons beaten into him, the hate painted with the blood of his wife and child on the walls of his home had been a worse sin than any he’d ever been told never to commit. 

The door was there, but this time he was looking at it not just in the harsh light of day but from the other side. Hurriedly, he cranked it open, rushed outside, and dogged the hatch shut.

The world beyond was the same … but yet it wasn’t: the sky was still blue, clouds remained patently drifting across it; the sun continued to be a painfully bright, hot point above, the fields beyond the Colony were buzzing and chirping with insects and animals calling to each other. 

Liberty was about twenty miles away: it would be dark by the time he got there. He could wait, of course, and try to walk it tomorrow, but he felt a tug in his chest that he wanted to at least try to get inside alive… and not get shot approaching in broad daylight.

The story that Mwezi had told, and the story that Petal had lived, was so simple, so pure: it had no contradictions of meaning, no confusion over petty definitions. The old man said that many in the Colony had different views, but that they all saw the world the same way.

Mwezi had laughed, despite the heavy air that had grown between them, saying that they had taken this to extremes, sometimes painfully, but the rewards — when it went well — gave them some of their greatest gifts. Again, the old man’s arm had rested on Josh’s and, again, Josh had done nothing to remove it. 

The world, Mwezi had said, was how we allow it to be: anger gets nothing but anger but if you — even suffering the deepest of wounds, the greatest of pains — answer with love then that is what you will receive.

Josh looked back. Of the Colony, all he could see was the barest of pale blue of one of the environs rising above the hills. He wanted to do something, say something, but he couldn’t think of anything, so he turned and kept walking. Again, he didn’t know what he’d do when he got back to Liberty, or even if he’d have the chance to talk to anyone, but he had to try. 

He hoped, too, as he slid down a dusty hillside and landed jarringly onto the fractured old highway, that Petal would understand the note he’d left: that he had to try, somehow, to stop it all from happening again … so that the death of her son, killed by a man from Liberty, would be the very last one.

About the author:

Calling M.Christian versatile is a tremendous understatement. Extensively published in science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers, and even nonfiction, it is in erotica that M.Christian has become an acknowledged master, with stories in such anthologies as Best American Erotica, Best Gay Erotica, Best Lesbian Erotica, Best Bisexual Erotica, Best Fetish Erotica, and in fact too many anthologies, magazines, and sites to name.

M.Christian’s short fiction has been collected in many bestselling books in a wide variety of genres, including the Lambda Award finalist Dirty Words and other queer collections like Filthy Boys and BodyWork. He also has published collections of nonfiction (Welcome to Weirdsville, Pornotopia, and How to Write and Sell Erotica); science fiction, fantasy, and horror (Love Without Gun Control); and erotic science fiction including Rude Mechanicals: Technorotica, Better Than the Real Thing, the acclaimed The Bachelor Machine, and its follow-up, Skin Effect.

As a novelist, M.Christian has shown his monumental versatility with books such as the queer vamp novels Running Dry and The Very Bloody Marys; the erotic romance Brushes; the science fiction erotic novel Painted Doll; and the rather controversial gay horror/thrillers Finger’s Breadth and Me2.

M.Christian has also become a celebrated sexual futurist, both through his novels and short stories as well as being a Senior Columnist for Future Of Sex, which provides “insights into the fascinating topic of the future of human sex and sexuality.”  

 

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