Stranger Skies: Chapter 1, Falling to the Future
She was falling so fast, so hard, plummeting like a dying Ice Crown Starling.
Yes. The bird. Desperately she tried to change — her humanoid figure stretched like elastic, briefly, then bounced back into its shape.
She was falling faster, hurtling to the ground below, and she was stuck in the form of a bipedal ape. Her powers weren’t working.
How did this happen to me?
Silva had always hated Council meetings.
They were never on a consistent schedule — every ten years, every century, every week, timing pulled out of a hat it seemed — and they pulled her away from her home and her children.
Worst of all, she had to appear human. Or humanoid. Terrans weren’t the only bipedal ape-like mortals represented at the meetings of the Council of Divinity.
Terran was her least-favoured form. She only did it to appease the various other gods at Council. Even so, it made her blood boil to even have to — talk about anthropocentric!
Or perhaps it was just civilization-centric. She’d noticed other gods of the wild areas were held to the same standards as she was, yet Zeus could appear in any of his myriad animal forms and she’d certainly never seen anyone ask Djehuty to remove his ibis head.
But her standard four-pawed, white-furred, form of lupine grace was just too much for them. Even her new form of green and white Ice Crown Starling — she’d grown quite fond of the avian in her new territory and the bird got along with her cubs quite well — even that wasn’t good enough.
She would have spent time with the other wild gods, but not every god showed up to these meetings. Representatives of pantheons — as such, many of the wild gods elected to stay on their planetary homes, in the wilds. Why come to a stuffy meeting where they couldn’t be themselves, if they had the option not to?
She had no pantheon. She was Lady of the True Woods — the only deity the wolves and their cousins needed.
All her complaining aside, however, the Council did do good work in the universe and she was glad it existed. After the cataclysms that shook earth and various Terran species alike, the Council worked to pull various gods and put them elsewhere. They’d pulled not only Silva but all her children too: wolves, coyotes, huskies and various wolf-dog hybrids. She and her packs now were safe in the wilds of newly-colonized-by-Terran-apes Tau Ceti.
Well. Newly-colonized so far as she was concerned. The Two that ran this council had a different idea of space and time. The Twins. Or perhaps they were spouses; no one was quite sure. They had ageless eyes — mirrors of silver. Insanity swirled in those depths.
No one really knew their names, either; they were slippery words lost to time itself. All you could be sure of was they started with a consonant, perhaps — but whether it was J or T or Z or something else was anyone’s guess.
The Twins were not omnipotent, though. They shared that with all Council-members and delegates. Which wasn’t to say their followers on various worlds didn’t believe they were omnipotent — a small amount did.
It just wasn’t true. If it were — if any god were omnipotent — there would be no need for a Council.
The Twins, however, were in charge of Council meetings and the Council itself. They’d created the space in which the meetings were held — apparently the architecture was beautiful, but Silva preferred her forests over high reaching columns and luxurious rooms for each pantheon. The rooms were in a u-shaped building that surrounded an atrium and the meeting hall rested on the side that contained no rooms. It was all open to the sky — the sky being the whole wide universe. The Council grounds floated through space, sometimes near suns, sometimes not. Starlight winked down on the grounds and time had no meaning.
It could drive someone mad.
Silva approached this Council meeting much as she approached all of them: with a weary, resigned feeling of dread.
She was in her winter den in the True Woods on Tau Ceti, curled up against the cold. She could have chosen not to feel the cold but there was no point in being in wolf form if one was not going to experience all one could. Besides, arctic wolves were well-insulated. She would never freeze to death.
She felt the tug and she lifted her white-furred muzzle from underneath her tail. A ball of light floated in front of her face; her amber eyes regarded it warily.
Sighing, the huge, white lupine got up and padded after the ball of light, her nails clicking on the stone floor of her cave. She walked out of the cave and into the forest, following the dancing will-o-the-wisp through the trees. Light bounced off her fur and she was sure she glowed as brightly as the full moon that was her symbol.
She smelled wolf nearby. Her children came to see her off.
Stay true to my teachings, she told them. I shall return shortly.
Soon she reached the portal. The ball of light disappeared through it. It stood tall and swirled with green, black, brown — the colors of the woods.
It was a nice touch.
Silva changed forms. Now a short Inuit woman in a white parka and mukluks stood where the wolf had been. Silva grimaced, looking at the portal with distaste. She probably hated this part more than anything else.
At least I can see Etan again. In the absence of other wild gods, Silva had become close with the genderqueer god of the harvest from the planet Thoebe. It was probably fair to say that Etan was her only friend at Council. She hadn’t seen jhen in ages.
She steeled herself for the portal — she’d get to see Etan.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped through.
Electricity sparked all over her skin, even through the parka and mukluks. She gritted her teeth and wished she had her thick, wolf-fur coat on. Though perhaps it wouldn’t have helped, either.
“Welcome back, Silva.” The receptionist was a god-made tulpa — a thought form. Every few meetings the Twins made a new one, with a new personality.
This one seemed to like to flirt with Silva. She disliked such behaviour but forced herself to be polite.
“Hello, Inani,” she said, smiling as she signed her name in the log book. “Has Etan checked in yet?”
It soon became apparent that Etan was missing.
Silva had been one of the last to check in, as usual. Etan was usually closer to first — the staggered timing of the portals was always the same and Thoebe was always far before Tau Ceti. (She didn’t know how they organized the staggered timing. It wasn’t alphabetical in any language.)
She asked around. Not a single other god had seen jhen.
Finally she reached the other Thoeben representatives. Perhaps jhe’d stayed home for this meeting.
Her hopes were dashed as soon as she saw the answering look on Shodaveth’s face.
“Etan’s gone missing, Silva,” ze said with some regret. “We don’t know where jhe is either.”
“How is that even possible?” she asked, despair flooding her.
Ze shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe ask the Twins.”
“Maybe.” She murmured her thanks and wandered off. She didn’t know if she could speak with the Twins. They sort of…frightened her.
Scaredy-wolf, she thought disgustedly.
She forced herself into conversation with other gods — as much for companionship as to find out whatever else she could about Etan’s disappearance. Soon she noticed a disturbing trend.
It wasn’t just Etan. Other gods were missing, too.
“I thought perhaps he’d fallen through another portal,” said Koari, the Lientin goddess of the hearth. Her brother had disappeared ages ago. “But even if he did land on another planet, why wouldn’t the deities of that world send him back? Or at least let me know.” Koari frowned and kicked the ground. “I miss him. He was always wandering. Well, that was in his nature. But he always came home.”
“I’m sorry,” Silva said. It was insufficient but Koari didn’t seem to mind.
Other gods too. None of the more popular ones seemed to be missing but the ones with smaller followings, the ones with fewer planets to move about to…they were disappearing slowly. There seemed to be a trend of gods of outsiders going missing — the god of wanderers, a goddess of prostitutes, a few gods of the wild from some smaller pantheons, some queer gods. Silva didn’t like that. Something smelled, like bear spoor.
Silva went back to talk to Etan’s pantheon after the morning meeting on the second day. She was going to get to the bottom of this.
“When was the last time you saw Etan?”
The question was abrupt and possibly rude. It took Shodaveth a minute to answer. “I suppose it was last Council meeting.”
“Do you think…is it possible jhe could have fell through another portal?”
Shodaveth’s face said ze had never considered this. “Maybe. Not sure why jhe wouldn’t just get sent back, though.”
She told zim about the other gods that were missing. Shodaveth’s eyes widened.
“You should bring this up at tomorrow’s meeting.”
“Why not you?” Silva was far from political. She liked to stay invisible.
Shodaveth shrugged. “They may not listen to me. The Twins are rather…”
“…Old-fashionedly Terran?” she asked wryly.
Ze laughed. “Yes. Besides, you’re the one playing detective. You’ve got all the cases, not just one.”
It was a good point. She resolved to work up the courage by morning.
When she did, she fairly regretted it. The Twins shut her out — they didn’t seem at all concerned with the problem.
“It’s a non-issue. Thank you, Silva,” the vaguely-female one had said and then they’d turned to the next item on the agenda — some concern of the Hellenics regarding land disputes between their followers and another pantheon’s followers over on Betelguese, or something. Silva stopped listening. She was fuming that her concern would be pushed aside so easily.
Sometimes you just couldn’t win with the Twins.
“Maybe you should have brought it up,” she muttered to Shodaveth after. “I’m too wild to listen to.”
“And I’m too queer,” ze said, smiling. “I can see why Etan liked you. Come hang out at our quarters tonight. We’ll have some laughs.”
She did and she didn’t regret it. The gods of Thoebe knew how to party. Made sense, as most of them were queer and queer gods always knew how to party better than their heteronormative counterparts. She’d known Etan was from a mostly queer colony but she hadn’t realized how much fun jhes pantheon could have. Other queer gods were there too — she saw Dionysos and Lilith, Coyote and Raven, Loki, Idaz and Tel from the planet Baiffe, Koari and Cenel of Lienti, and even Brighid. This last surprised her, for she’d never envisioned the Irish goddess as particularly queer in any fashion.
Brighid smiled askance at Silva and knocked back her whiskey. “You should read the myths of St. Brighid sometime.”
Silva frowned. “Aren’t you a goddess?”
“There’s enough overlap.” Brighid shrugged, then straightened, looking positively predatory. “Excuse me. There’s someone delectable over there I’d like to snog.”
Silva watched the fiery goddess stalk over to the Baiffen goddess of lust. Idaz looked positively ecstatic at the Terran deity’s attentions.
Despite being goddess of a species that had very little in the way of homosexuality or gender variance, Silva had always felt more comfortable with queer gods than with any other sort.
I suppose the wild and the queer have a lot in common, she thought as she stumbled back to her room that night. Historically, queerness was on the margins. So were the wilds. And the Twins didn’t like to listen to either. No wonder Etan and I got along so well. She frowned, feeling worried now. Her friend was still missing, and she’d spent the night partying.
It was too late to do anything about it now. She rounded the corner and reached her room, intent on going to sleep right away.
Someone was stepping out of her door.
“Hey!” she yelled, and the figure took off.
Instinct took over. Silva instantly changed back into her large, arctic wolf self and loped after the intruder.
Her room was on the opposite side of the atrium, on the thirteenth floor. She ran after the figure through several hallways until she emerged on the other side of the building, in the open hallway that overlooked the atrium. The figure was gone.
She put her front paws up on the railing and looked down into the atrium. The figure was streaking across the open space, to the other side. Silva changed shape again, becoming an Ice Crown Starling. The small green and white feathered bird dove down, following the figure as fast as possible.
Through more hallways she chased but she could not keep up. The figure was too fast.
She put on a final burst of speed and got close enough to see it was a goddess she chased. The goddess went through a door and slammed it against Silva’s beak.
She changed forms again, becoming human again, and rested her back on the wall opposite the door, trying to catch her breath. She would have stayed in her avian form, but the bird’s eyesight wasn’t as good as a human’s — she wanted to read the placard next to the door.
The rooms belonged to the delegates from Min.
The next day was the last one. She tried, again, to bring up the problem of the missing deities in the council meeting, to no avail. No one seemed to be interested — or rather, those who were interested lacked the social power to make themselves heard.
She glanced over at the Minae delegates from time to time. Mi, the chief deity and the one Silva was sure she had chased, studiously avoided the wolf-queen’s gaze.
She hunted down Mi after the meeting.
“You know something.” She cornered the taller woman in one of the hallways of the meeting building.
Mi’s violet eyes regarded Silva’s amber ones coolly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She shoved past Silva.
The wolf-goddess caught the other deity’s arm. Mi turned and glared; Silva didn’t flinch. “Where’s Etan?” She could smell Mi’s deception; it was ranker than skunk cabbage in summer.
Mi smiled unpleasantly. “Certainly not here. Last I heard, jhe was mortal in my lands. Very sad. Nothing I could do.” She ripped her arm away from Silva’s shocked grasp. “Don’t even think of coming after me, bitch. It’ll only end in pain for you,” she said over her shoulder, sauntering off, back towards her rooms.
Silva shook her head. Etan was…mortal? On an alien world? How did that even happen?
Lack of belief.
They’d all heard the legends, of course. If your followers lost belief in you, you would lose your godhood. She just hadn’t thought they were true.
But it was the only explanation.
Grim determination suffused her. She was on the hunt now and she would not give up the scent. Someone had to rescue Etan and if the rest of the Council would do nothing, then it was up to her.
She ran to the reception desk. “Hi, Inani,” she said, giving the tulpa her best smile. “Can you do me a favour, and look up the indigenous life forms in Min?”
“Min?” Inani’s voice registered innocent surprise. “Bit backwater. What’s so special about there?”
Silva shrugged, trying to make the action somewhat flirtatious. “Simple curiosity.”
Inani already had the appropriate screen up on their display. “Min. Small duchy on largest of the Hearthbird Islands on the planet Osecou…” Inani spoke slowly, and Silva tried not to fidget with impatience. The portals would open soon! She was running out of time.
“Indigenous life, here we are. Ungulates, avians, humanoids, equines, lupines, a million arthropods, reptiles….”
“Lupines? Wolves?” Silva interrupted.
“Yes. After a fashion. Canines, too.”
“Thanks, Inani!” Silva was already dashing away, so fast she didn’t hear what the tulpa shouted after her.
The portals into the Council always arrived at the reception area, but the portals out were always from the atrium. Silva supposed there was a reason for this but she didn’t know it. All she knew was that she had to get there now.
She slowed as she rounded a corner, and stood behind a column at the edge of the atrium, waiting.
The Minae delegation hadn’t left yet. They stood at the side, waiting for the Norse gods to head out. Thor and Loki were bickering again; this was no surprise. Silva waited patiently, watching Odin go through the portal last. The the portal closed and a new one opened in its place.
It swirled violet and orange. Mi and the rest of her entourage stepped up to it and, one by one, went through.
As the last god went through the portal Silva sprinted to it from behind her column, a blur across the atrium floor. She stopped in front of the portal for a split second and then, before she could let fear seize her, she stepped through.
Every inch of her screamed with fire. This was not the gentle buzzing electricity of her home portal. This was flesh-searing agony.
She tried to change forms. Her powers had fled. She plummeted to the snow capped fields below. Freezing air whipped past her; the cold was so intense it burned her skin more. Her parka may as well have been thin muslin.
This was it, she realized. She was going to die now.
With what seemed a thousand pounds of gravity pressing down on her, she landed.