Warm, red, liquid ran in rivulets through the hills and valleys of my laughter. Like a cell within plasma, I hung suspended beneath the eyes of Gods. They laughed with me, their child of the chosen, their prophet, their ultimate sacrifice. Gladly I died for the sins of my brothers, for the ancient sins birthed of Colony. Hundreds of yards above, huge insects, glowing with hues of crimson-streaked blue, swarmed in a hurricane of falling fire. Swirling with embers, they framed a clear patch of night sky like angelic sentinels, waiting to guide my spirit home.
I, Oliver the fourth, great grandson of Oliver the first, looked into the eyes of my killer, and though my soul slipped through cracks of flesh, my smile remained locked in eternity.
—One day prior outside of Portertown—
Startled, the large insect took wing faster than I would have thought possible. A shadow fell across my brow, and I turned with my hand still poised in midair. I had been so close to finally touching one of these elusive, ethereal insects.
“Oliver, it’s almost night.” Nellie my younger sister of six years, emerged from around the trail’s curve, unaware of the forbidden encounter. She did not have the God’s gift of copper hair as I did, a sign of our divinity. Instead, she was cursed with dreadful flaxen locks. Despite her sinful nature, she gave my raised hand an innocent, wondering stare. Long ago she learned to never look me in the eye.
“What’s wrong?” she said, her smile fading with my frustration.
I borrowed her smile, lowered my hand, and said, “Nothing. What are you doing out here?”
“You’re supposed to be giving tonight’s sermon.” She said it demurely, being careful to keep her eyes averted. My mother still coddled her too much, made her feel a part of this family, much to my disapproval. And much to my annoyance, I realized that she was right; I had lost track of time because of the irisfly.
“Go back,” I commanded, waving her away. “Tell mother I’ll be there soon.”
She began to walk away faster than she had come.
“Wait,” I said. She stopped, but didn’t turn. “And don’t forget—”
“I know,” she interrupted. “I promise I won’t join the congregation.”
With a quick glance of her blue eyes, and a flash of tauntingly yellow hair, she departed.
“Gods be with you, little sister,” I whispered. “May they have mercy on your soul.”
Everyone was faithfully gathered near the fire ring under the waning light of dusk when I arrived, all wearing the tarp loincloths of the chosen.
“My brothers,” I said, opening my arms robed in roughly woven garb. “To the glory of the Gods, and the glory of Colony.”
“Glory of the Gods! To the glory of Colony,” all sixty of them repeated dutifully. Firelight made their features dance as if eternal flame burned beneath their skin.
I stepped up to our makeshift pulpit under the canopy of our temple, the enormous bombfruit trees. Their leaves spanned for miles above our heads, creating a rustling, undulating emerald sea that was slashed with sunlight by day, and melted into a deep, rhythmic, starless, darkness by night.
“We stand beneath the oceans of redemption.” I could see their eyes close and bodies quiver as the tone of my voice lowered with spiritual fervor. “Tonight we sacrifice to Taranis of the sacred triad, and to the Holy Trinity. Amen.”
On cue, the canopy of our temple groaned in wild air currents two thousand feet overhead. Giant leaves rolled like thunderous drums of Thor, and my voice rose to match it. “In the words of Isaiah, all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
More, “Amens,” and swaying half-naked bodies.
“Dukkha binds us all to the sufferings of life. Do not presume to question the authority of the Gods, for they held us in the womb of Colony to do unto as they pleased, and only the chosen survived the cleansing fires. But there are those among us who brand themselves dissenters, rebels, those that turned from their Gods, disobeyed the all mighty Colony, and have brought evil upon us!”
Everyone was really getting riled up now, all but my mother who stood silently, obediently, near the edge of the group, patient for her command. It was time.
“Brothers,” I yelled, “sisters! Do we worship the destructive vinnie that creates gold in its wake, and churns the fertile soil of our souls into a bleak landscape littered with the fragments of our morality?”
A chorus of, “No,” was hurled at me as if the word tasted of bile.
“Do we worship the golden gun, the enforcer of none and destroyer of all?”
Again, “No,” louder, more ferociously.
“Do we eat the vile flesh of the golden bombfruit?”
Not waiting for the obvious chant to follow, I shouted, “Bring forth the sacrifice!”
My mother disappeared for a few moments, someone threw more strips of bombfruit bark upon the fire, and then she reappeared, pushing a blindfolded, entirely naked, figure before her. The girl’s thin body trembled, her knees gave way, and she fell to the mossy ground. With dignity, I stepped off the stone pulpit and strode towards her quivering back. Silence began to ripple along with my cloak as I approached our saving grace.
“With your sacrifice,” I said to the weeping girl, “our sins will wash away. The Gods will once more bless Colony and bring about the change necessary to rid us of this plague of disbelievers.”
My hand snatched the scrap of hide from her eyes and with zealous conviction I stared into the infernal depths of my sister’s soul.
* * *
I’ll never forget the day little Nell came to us. My mother had disappeared the night before, but late the next day she walked into the hut holding something in her arms. At first I thought it was a bundle of young vinnie steaks until the bundle moved.
“Welcome your new baby sister,” she said, lowering her arms for me to see.
My six-year-old eyes lit up with excitement. A sister!
“And,” she continued in a whisper, her whole body slumping like soft clay, “your father has come home.”
Behind her, through sparks of shining motes into the gloom of our dwelling, emerged a man of copper-red hair and glinting eyes fractured and flashing with something deeper than sunbeams. I hadn’t seen this man in over two years, and now he returned with spiritual fever, damnation flying like spears from his fingertips, and a little girl of golden hair. It wasn’t until many years later, after my first encounter with the Gods, did I find out why he had returned, and who my sister truly was.
* * *
Her blood should have been on my hands this night. My blade of sharpened stone pressed into the flesh of my palm. It amazed me, especially during sacrifices, that the soul was protected by something as thin as flower petals. She didn’t scream as I approached, for that I almost admired her. I saw a sudden movement from my mother, a twitch of the hand, a cringe, but I didn’t have time to acknowledge it, for they descended from the stars.
As the congregation swayed and chanted, a bright light burst in the sky, carving out each leaf from the obsidian canopy. It was like the sun had fallen from the heavens and crashed into a viridian ocean, creating rolling waves that thrashed and roiled above our upturned faces. I let the crude knife thump into the moss as we stood in shocked amazement, watching. In blazing blue-white light, the Gods roared above the trees, shaking them with their fury as they passed. The roar of their holy vessel began to soften, then ten miles away, hell rained down. We gasped, shouted, or prayed as bombfruit whistled invisibly through the air all around us like screaming angels. A section of the distant canopy was incinerated, and a giant circular light descended in a flurry of glowing embers. For once, I was speechless, having witnessed a true miracle. My father had foretold their coming.
“The glory of the Gods,” I shouted over the chaos, “the glory of Colony!”
Soon we were all chanting, the flock eventually turning to face me as the vessel, only half a days walk away, landed to await our arrival. Finally I calmed everyone down, though many still sobbed in joy, and I raised my arms.
“My brethren, we have just witnessed a miracle”—more ‘glory of the Gods’ and ‘to Colony’—“we must gather ourselves, gather our spirits, and our humble faith, for they have come to cleanse our sins!”—frenzied chanting and blessings—“now return to your homes, and at dawn we shall greet those that gave us life.”
After a lot of handshaking, weeping, blessings, and questions, I realized that my mother and sister had slipped away.
* * *
“You must reach them first.” Elena Tarsi fumbled with the latches of the old trunk that had been hidden underground in case they arrived, and now they had.
“Let me do it.” Nellie gently pushed her mother’s hands aside, smiling, and undid the leather straps.
Her mother, Elena, burst into tears.
“You knew this would happen someday,” said Nell, not looking at her as she pulled the contents of the trunk out and laid them on the moss.
“But it’s—it’s too soon,” Elena stuttered between gasps. “You’re too young. Don’t do this.”
The night sky rustled, a few starlit windows opening and closing with the wind, and Nellie looked into the shadowed gleam of her mother’s eyes.
“Our secret would have been known tonight, whether they came or not. You would have stopped Oliver from the sacrifice, and he would have known.”
Elena nodded into her hands, her fingers squirming like frightened worms.
“Go,” she whispered.
Nellie leaned in, but Elena pushed her hands into her daughter’s shoulders and held her gaze steady.
* * *
“Look Nell.” My tiny eight-year-old arms trembled as I lifted her up. “I found their home.”
Nell squealed and clapped her chubby hands together. “Down!” she demanded. I smiled at her endearingly stubborn nature, and put her down.
The leaves were turning gray in the forest near town, and we would surely be in trouble for not returning before nightfall, but I had stumbled across something wonderful. Hundreds of irisflies clung to the enormous bombfruit trunks in the distance, or else thrummed their magical wings, darting like dancers through the sinking light. Four feet long, they resembled a cross between an old world wasp, a praying mantis, and a dragonfly, but with shimmering bodies that refracted light into a prism of glittering color. They were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Why they were deemed dangerous and forbidden, my young mind couldn’t understand. As far as I saw, they must be akin to angels from my great grandfather’s stories.
A shout made my heart race, and I whirled around to see our father stomping towards us, anger branded into his snarling face.
“Get away from here,” he growled, grabbing my arm and yanking me up.
A pitiful whine whimpered from my pouting lips, and tears stung the backs of my eyes. Nell, on the other hand, just stared, shoving a few fingers into her mouth.
“How dare you disobey me.” He dropped me into a sobbing heap. “Take the girl”—he never called her Nellie, or my sister—“and get back to your mother.”
With a terrified shudder, I picked up Nell with a strength I didn’t know I possessed, and ran as fast I could back to our small hut.
That night I learned what it meant to anger my father and bore the scars ever since, and I learned who to blame. Not my father, not myself, but my little sister. She was the cause of my pain, the cause of our destitution, even the cause of everything wrong with our fledgling society.
“Gold,” my father explained the next day as I lay recovering from his lashes, “is the color of sin. Men dig into the earth for its wicked qualities, but ultimately it digs into their hearts. If you destroy the gold, you destroy evil. You understand, boy?”
I nodded, a slave to his words.
“Your sister’s hair is golden. Do you know why?”
“Because,” my voice wavered, “she has sin?”
“Smart boy.” He smiled, and my heart filled with a longing, a desperate desire, to earn that smile over and over again. “You can tell the sinners from the saved, not just from their actions and their words, but from their hair gilded with greed and infidelity.”
“I think, Oliver, that it’s time you walked the pathway of our ancestors.”
He stood, looked down with approval then left me to ponder these revelations.
* * *
“She’s gone,” replied my mother, staring defiantly into my eyes that were towering a good six inches above hers. “You’ll never get there first.”
Shelves of wooden plates lay smashed on the ground in the wake of my rage. After returning home, following the miraculous event at the sermon, I found only betrayal and despair. My chest heaved, my hands shook, and I must have resembled my father, for my mother whispered, “Oliver,” and I knew she meant him.
“Deceiver!” I screamed with tears running down my face. My lungs felt as if they were collapsing, spearing my heart, raw and bleeding, until it protruded from my chest for the world to see. My mother and sister had betrayed me, had betrayed us all. Searching her face, I knew, then and there, that she would have never let me spill Nell’s blood tonight.
“You villainous witch,” I hissed.
She only raised her chin, nostrils flared, and spurned my authority, my very divinity.
“You’ll both die for this,” I growled just like my father.
Clutching my great grandfather’s diary, his gospel of the truth, I turned heel and strode towards the open door with a lamp in hand.
“It’s too late,” she said without shame. I paused in the doorway. “She’ll reach your Gods first.”
With glacial anger, my head slowly rotated to face her. “My Gods?”
Now her fear leaked through, realizing what she had just admitted to.
“Our Gods,” I said calmly, “will aid me as they always have. And you will know their justice when I return.”
Cloak whirling, I disappeared into the deep night to stop my traitorous sister from destroying us all.
* * *
Snaking roots and moss still covered the pathway to our ancestors, but my father had discovered and opened the gates. Through the eyes of a child, my father was nearly a God himself. I stared up at him in awe at his omnipotence, his incredible ability to speak with our creators. He walked through a doorway almost invisible under the hanging foliage, and I followed. We passed into a steel corridor, and I paused in shock. Never had I seen so much steel. Though it was eroded and stained with age, I was impressed that the temple of the Gods would be molded from something so indestructible and precious. As we traveled further in, I marveled at the strange wiry things protruding from cabinets and at the circular clear holes spaced along the ceiling. When we arrived at our destination, however, nothing amazed me more than the faces of the divine.
There were three of them, curved but rectangular, all glowing, blinking, and moving with symbols I couldn’t decipher. There were three thrones in front of the strange portals that my father called, “Monitors,” and he sat down in the middle one as if it were meant for him. With trepidation, I climbed into one next to him and watched as he began to speak. I nearly peed myself when a voice spoke back.
“Descendent of Oliver,” it said, “Colony thanks you for your loyalty and cooperation.”
* * *
Lamp in hand, I could see the bright blue glow far in the distance. Was my sister nearly there? Would I overtake her before she unleashed her hell? Gasping with exertion, I shook my head. Of course I would succeed. I had the Gods on my side. Something made a loud buzzing and humming noise high above in the darkness, but I couldn’t see what it was. Ignoring the sounds, I took a deep breath, and pushed myself harder, the lamp fire bouncing and threatening to extinguish. As if drawing power from it, I clutched the diary until my fingers tingled with numbness.
Many times I had to rest, regain my breath, then push onward, but I assumed Nellie would be doing the same, especially considering what she was carrying. Dawn was still a ways off, but so were the Gods. It would be close to sunrise by the time I reached them, or by the time Nell reached them. No. I had to have faith.
The humming noise was growing louder the closer I came to the destruction left behind by the vessel’s arrival. Eventually I saw a faint orange glow within the canopy. I was nearly there. My heart leapt with fear and joy, then I saw her. Nellie’s silhouette ran as if the hounds of the condemned were on her heels, and they were. No longer was she the innocent young girl of yesterday. All I saw now was a rebellious, heathen like the rest of Portertown, a dangerous, deadly weapon. I should have slit her throat.
Her skinny form, a few hundred feet ahead, hesitated, slowed then turned. I continued to advance at a jog, envisioning the feel of her neck snapping between my hands.
“Don’t move,” I shouted. “I just want to talk, Nell.”
I could see the sweat glistening on her face, and the odd way her torso bulged. In just a few more strides, a few more seconds, I would be able to grab her. I stopped to set the lamp down, the fiery light in the distance negating its need.
“Just talk with me,” I pleaded with palms raised. “Think about what you’re doing.”
“What I’m doing?” she spat, starting to retreat. “What about what you’re doing?”
I could see the unbridled insanity and ferocity in her wide eyes, and something else. She threw her arms up, giddy with laughter.
“It doesn’t matter, though,” she said, her laughter turning into hysteria. “We’re all just echoes of echoes.” She danced in a circle, shrieking, “Echo! Echo!” I took two strides nearer before she noticed.
Like a trap snapping shut, the shrieks ceased, she froze, and her glare tore right through me. The sudden eye contact momentarily shocked me. It had been years since we’d made eye contact like that, and I realized that it had all been a ruse. She’d never been afraid of me, maybe at first, but she’d been toying with me for quite some time now. This realization incinerated a hole through my being as gaping as the one within the treetops.
“I’ll be sacrificed,” she taunted, skipping backwards, “but not to the Gods, not to Colony, and not by you.” With a smirk and a wink she shot away, and I lunged.
Her hair tickled my fingertips, and my lips parted in murderous rancor. Digging my feet into the soft moss, I hurled myself after her. All the muscles in her legs were straining to escape, to fulfill her mission, but the bulges tied to her sides were cumbersome. My arms pumped forward, reaching, ever closer, four strides, three strides, two. We were only a short sprint from the ring of blue light, which I now saw was a huge ship. Glancing beyond her back, I saw shapes in the glow, humanoid silhouettes. With one last surge, I stretched out my hand and softly touched the back of her arm. She screeched and tried to twist away, but her maneuver only brought her closer to my grasp.
In the glare of fire still pouring down from the charred canopy, my triumphant expression met her horrified one as I dug my fingers into her arm then the other, and threw us both to the ground. Her scream drowned even the deafening buzz from the sky, the distant shouts, and gunshots. Gunshots. Momentarily bewildered, I looked up in reaction to the sounds of unholy gunfire. I witnessed small human shapes emerging from the glow, and thought, “But the Gods would not have guns,” before I felt nails scrape across my jaw.
A confused moment of struggle, a slap, a punch, a knee to my groin, and suddenly a powdery substance was thrown into my eyes. Pushing myself away, screaming in pain and shock, I scratched at my eyelids. By the time I opened them again, wet and stinging, she had reached the ship. I heard more gunfire, more shouting, and above it all the horrendous buzzing.
“Don’t,” I croaked, trying to stand.
She raced straight into the group of shadows, straight into the arms of our saviors.
“Don’t,” I whispered.
Then the world exploded.
In an avalanche of sound, debris, and fire I was thrown into the air like a dry leaf. I thought that I had perished, that I was nothing but a floating spirit, until I crumpled and rolled, coming to rest with broken limbs on a bed of burnt moss. For eons I lay there as embers floated down from the stars, and my consciousness wandered from dream to reality until I no longer knew one from the other.
* * *
“Get away from me.” I shoved my two-year-old sister to the ground, and she looked up at me, confused and hurt.
After the lashing and the horrible truth from my father, I couldn’t stand the sight of her. She reached her arms up to me with pleading love in her eyes, and whimpered my name, “Ahwahber.”
“Shut up,” I said, pushing her arms away. “Leave me alone.”
She began to cry.
“I hate you,” I cried in return.
Then unable to hear her pitiful, hiccupping sobs anymore, I turned and ran into the woods behind our hut. I ran until my legs could run no further, then I collapsed, and tucked them under my chin. For hours I stayed there, curled upon myself, rocking and crying not because of the lashing, or the words my father had said, but because I loved my little sister. And now I was supposed to hate her.
The next day, my father took me back to the room of Monitors. They reminded me of insect eyes, and I felt insignificant under their black, knowing lenses that could see into the universe.
“Colony,” my father said, sitting in the middle throne, “I brought him.”
One of the eyes changed color and new symbols darted across its surface. “Thank you Oliver the third. Welcome Oliver, fourth descendent of Oliver first born.”
I picked my nose. My father slapped my hand away, motioning for me to reply.
“Hi,” I said meekly.
“Oliver the fourth,” crackled the voice, “Are you willing to preserve Colony, and obey my commands as your father has?”
Wide eyed, I looked to my father for guidance. He nodded.
“Okay.” My childish voice sounded so miniscule, so unimportant, for such a sacred duty.
“We are extremely grateful for your father’s help and his efforts will not go unnoticed. With the loyalty and information he has given us, the Gods will grant you and yours eternal life.”
Later I learned that he was the one who had uncovered the old command module, its ruins covered in decay, but not unsalvageable. Portertown had been built a few miles away, and the relic of our ancestor’s arrival was left to rot from time and memory, until now.
“When your father can no longer aid us, it is up to you, young Oliver, to continue his work. Will you do this?”
Hands in my lap, I looked up into his strong, rugged face, then back to the whirring Monitors, and swelling with pride I followed in the footsteps of our legacy.
When I was only thirteen, after my father died from a hunting accident, I continued his work. And with the help of Colony, our Gods would come to save us.
* * *
“Nell.” Her name trickled through my cracked and bleeding lips while chaos erupted all around me.
Pain shot through my entire body, I couldn’t move, but I still held the gospel in my hand. I could feel my mind slipping away like the dying embers drifting earthbound.
“I don’t hate you.” I blinked, and tears—or was it blood—slid down my cheeks.
The world was changing. I could feel it. Despite the terror all around me, all I could see was the beauty, all I could feel was a buoyant peace. I began to smile, to chuckle, then the laughter crashed over me in a wave of absolute knowing. Even though my ribs had snapped like brittle twigs, and my stomach cramped with blinding pain, I continued to laugh. Now, on my singed bed of death, I saw how incredibly beautiful and simple everything could be, had always been.
“Nell,” I gasped through laughter, “Nell, I found their home.”
Then an angel descended. It hovered a moment, I felt a stabbing fire in my chest, and I looked into the eyes of my killer.
* * *
Fires raged all night and into the morning, while angry swarms of irisflies swirled like a storm, looking for more of their attackers. The sun eventually drove them away, and nothing remained but ash and smoke, and a tiny glint of copper amidst the destruction. Soon after, the enforcers of Portertown came to investigate their act of terrorism.
* * *
“Do you think he knew that Elena and Nell were on our side?” said a young man carrying a golden gun.
Elise Porter, one of Portertown’s elected leaders, stared down at the corpse with copper-red hair shining in the sunlight.
“Elena said that he didn’t know until last night. And I don’t think he ever knew that Nell was only his half sister. Poor girl, to grow up in that family. At least she got to those corporate bastards first.”
They surveyed the smoldering wreckage above and below. A mile wide gaping hole let in a cylinder of sunshine, spotlighting what was left of the destroyed spaceship.
“Fucking nut,” mumbled the enforcer, touching the gun at his side out of habit.
“Definitely lost his mind at the end.”
“What do you mean?”
“See the white powder?” She knelt down to point at Oliver’s mottled face where blood had begun to coagulate and bruise. A powdery substance clung to his eyelashes.
The man barked a laugh. “Nell threw the shit in his face? He must have had one hell of a trip.”
“I’m sure he did. The powder from irisfly wing is certainly one way to go out. Heightens the senses, gives feelings of bliss, and if taken in excess creates hallucinations.”
“No wonder Nell wanted to take some before she—” The man caught himself and dropped his gaze. “Sorry.”
“She was going to do this no matter what we said.” Elise blinked and cleared her throat. “She was just so young.”
Elise nodded. “Elena was also brave to put up with a psychotic cult leader.” She glared at the dead man. “Without her we might all be in chains right now, or shot.”
“Without her, we wouldn’t have this idiot either.” He motioned at Oliver’s corpse.
“Pointing fingers is pointless,” said Elise. “Might as well point all the way back to when Colony didn’t abort us all.”
The enforcer blushed as she continued, “We’re all to blame.” She tilted her head at the conglomerate of cells and atoms that had once been called Oliver much like the ones before it.
“It was an irisfly?” asked the man.
With a glance up at the fluttering remnants of the giant hive destroyed in the explosion, she shrugged and said, “Looks like a stinger right to the chest.”
“Serves him right.”
She shook her head, “Nothing.”
“He contacted Earth,” said the man. “They sent one ship. They’ll probably send another.”
“Then we’ll give them an even bigger welcome.”
She noticed Oliver’s pale fingers curled around a still intact book made of rough material and pried it from his grip.
“What’s that?” asked the enforcer, raising his eyebrows.
“The mind of a mad man.”
She examined the old diary titled, The Gospel. Randomly she opened to a page and read in fading letters: I have seen demons. The wing of irisfly is the devil’s tool! These creatures are dangerous and— She flipped to the second to last page where the handwriting was hastily scrawled. Today we depart to find and kill the terrorists. Porter has proven to be more foe than friend, and I will be sure that his evil seed does not—a few sentences were illegible—the rocket will be launched and Colony will endure! To the glory of the Gods! To the glory of Colony!
She closed the book, shaking her head.
“What did it say?” said the enforcer.
Her blue eyes searched the destruction, the death, the beginning of a long, difficult war between her people and their creators that wanted to strip their lands and their lives.
With a shrug, she replied, “He believed in the wrong Gods.”
Someone shouted for more hands to quench the fires, and the enforcer jogged off to help. She stared up at the wide circular dome of blue sky, like a giant iris staring back.
“But now his Gods,” she said to no one, “can see us.”