I am starving. Performing miracles for you—manifesting money from the air; deconstructing diseases; repairing broken bodies, imbalanced minds—costs me energy, and entropy nickel-and-dimes my soul day by day. So my hunger never leaves me, only grows. And there is no food for me here; I have foresworn eating anyone else. I am resigned to die.
But I do not expect to die anytime soon; I am, for now at least, the only god here; there is no one here to kill me. I will yet last tens of thousands of Earth years. And before I am spent, I intend to transform the Moon into, by human standards at least, heaven.
Agnethe loves God. Not me; her god is an ancient vitaphage from Earth.
There she is now, kneeling in the front pew at the Church of Thaddeus the Forgotten. It is mid-afternoon, a time when everyone who can is working. She gave up her shift to a jobless man named Asad, who needed money badly. She does not want to use much energy—calories are hard to come by these days—so she is praying rosaries until sundown. Decades dangle from her fingers.
Thaddeus the Forgotten is an uncomfortable church: there used to be cushions, but they kept being stolen; it is cold, because heating is expensive on the Moon, and because no other bodies are there to help warm it. But it is easily the most beautiful place in Origin City. Through the cupola you see the Earth, huge and effulgent. It fills the church with otherworldly light.
But it is the exception; beauty on the Moon is usually prohibitively expensive. Tabernacle, monstrance, altar, pews, cross: all are printed natively here from processed regolith that over time leaks fine, sharp dust. The pews have whiskbrooms and pans for sweeping it off the kneelers, lest worshippers rise from them with perforated pant legs, bloodied knees.
But those brooms mostly go unused these days. The laity now imitate Agnethe, who sits in the first pew every Sunday and kneels heedlessly upon the regolith. On one momentous Sunday they saw her rise to take Communion with two round bloodstains on the pant legs of her white, standard-issue jumpsuit. When it was her turn and she extended her tongue for the flesh of God, the priest, Father Fugit, asked her if she was all right.
Only then did she notice her knees. She answered with an airy smile that she was fine. She did not realize she was bleeding; she had been focused on the Miracle. She laughed at her own silliness.
Father Fugit did not laugh, nor did the laity. Quite the contrary: now the entire congregation of the Church of Thaddeus the Forgotten bleeds from their knees for their sacrament.
You will not have the technology to discover my home solar system for eons yet. But my people know you. You are the only other planet we have found with life so far. Our supercluster seems to be life-poor.
My people? We have language, we have art, we have laws, we have history stretching back to almost the birth of the galaxy.
We do not have bodies as you know bodies. You have not yet named the state of matter that constitutes us. Imagine an intelligent mountain that can take any shape it wishes—a cluster of faint lights over a bog; a tusked boar-god 300 feet tall; a single, doughty whip-poor-will, or perhaps just its song; an electromagnetic field—and you begin to imagine us.
Like you, we feel small and abandoned in a universe of mindless physics. We ride our planet through a pageant of stars, ignorant and reverential. We cannot define qualia either.
We live and die and fear death. We live longer than you, but time is always short when you know life will end.
Agnethe lives in Origin City, population 2,700. It is not a city in the Earth sense, as there is no endemic government on the Moon. The city is privately owned by 23 corporations who only semi-cooperate with one another.
From a distance it looks like a hamster course. Habitation modules for living and commerce are linked like PVC pipes; there are power plants and recycling centers and printing facilities and helium refineries; there are “docks” where bus-sized lunakhods wait to ferry workers to the mines and rovers arrive with metals and rocks and regolith. Urine is recycled into water, feces into a porridge of diminishing nutritional returns. Power from the sun is plentiful, but energy is a monopoly on the Moon and therefore scarce.
Everyone living on the Moon is poor. The owners, the bosses, the HR vice-presidents and advertising executives all live on Earth. It is almost exclusively miners who actually live and work in Origin City. They came to the Moon lured by job ads that promised wealth and offworld adventure. But their wages barely cover the cost of living in space. There are uniforms to buy, equipment to rent, insurance workers must by law purchase. The workers are paid in the local money, “origins.” It has no value on Earth.
Once miners can no longer work—not “if” but “once,” for even if they are not injured on the job, eventually they will lose too much muscle mass in the Moon’s weak gravity to be productive—they become almost instantly destitute. The wise ones use their insurance settlements to purchase a one-way ticket planetside. If the settlement is enough to cover it.
Those who do not or cannot run out of money soon enough, and with their constitutions ruined, they have few prospects to earn more. They dine on charity shit-paste when it is offered, but it is offered too infrequently for most metabolisms. Most days they subsist on their body’s own fat and organs until they have eaten themselves out of life.
Agnethe is a miner, too. But she is new to the job. She ran Origin City’s health clinic until a few months ago: what the locals call the “animal shelter.” Because if you have to stay more than a week, goes the joke, they put you down.
My crime was vitaphagy. Like you, we need food for sustenance. Unlike you, our only food is each other. Reproduction was food production for most of our history.
But recently—within the last 700,000 years—we as a people have decided that consumption is an unforgivable wrongness. That eating is evil.
This new morality coincided with the discovery of other life in the supercluster. Specifically, of you.
We learned how frighteningly fragile life on Earth is. You are unalterably locked into unaccommodating, inflexible bodies. You are so particular about your needs—only this small range of temperatures, only that abundance of air, all of this water and gravity and countless other fussy nutritional needs—that, from our perspective, you seem almost petulant about life. If you cannot stay alive in exactly the way you demand your environment to be, you die. It is positively bratty.
We, by contrast, live for eons, and even if we never eat even once during our lifetimes, we can reproduce hundreds of times before we die of starvation. We are a resilient, macrobian, proliferant species. How little we appreciated our good fortune.
But once we had perspective, destroying other life to sustain life became morally repulsive: and suddenly, the most detestable of crimes.
The punishment? Execution was impossible without being hypocritical. So we decided on the next best option: the “slow execution.” We would exile vitaphages.
It itself is a grand hypocrisy, of course. What did we think happened when we sent all the vitaphages to the same planet? “We are not forcing them to eat each other,” we told ourselves. “That’s their choice. The evil is on them.”
We share this trait with you: we can make rationalizations sound palatable.
Once exiled, the vitaphages of course cannibalized one another, as predicted. But the thing no one could have guessed is that they would become your elves and duendes, your nightmares realized and your miracles manifest, your every god and every evil spirit.
As the lunar day ends, Agnethe leaves the Church of Thaddeus the Forgotten. She emerges from the doors of the simple church into a passageway. Its temperature is in the single digits. Since they are communal, the corporations are supposed to share the cost of heating them. So they are always inhospitably cold.
Agnethe heads left, toward the market. She rubs her crossed arms as she walks, bites down to stop her teeth from chattering. And then, with a spark of joy, she remembers the tube of paste the priest gave her. She pulls it from a pocket and, with gusto, rips it open with her teeth.
As she walks she sees Virgil sitting against the wall. He reminds her—I have heard her whisper as much—of her father, when he was dying. The gauntness, the stiffness of movement, the same confused lights dancing in his pupils.
“Hi, Virgil,” she says cheerily as she nears.
“Please, I’m so hungry!” Virgil answers.
She notes two empty tubes of paste wrung flat and lying next to Virgil. “What would any of us do without Father Fugit?” she says aloud, before smiling and giving him hers.
He notes with wide and grateful eyes that the end has already been bitten open. He shows Agnethe his razed gums before sucking on the tube blissfully, looking at her with great yellow moon-eyes.
Since he did not say grace, Agnethe says “May God bless it for you” before heading once more for the market.
I abhorred vitaphages with all the sanctimony of the rest of my people until I became one. No, even now. We forgive ourselves crimes for which we condemn anyone else.
As I entered the twilight of my life—my home is a rogue planet and has no sun, but I adore your turns of phrase—I grew hungry. I fought the hunger, as my people said I should, for as long as I could. But my hunger ate me first. Then, I simply became the vessel for its desires.
Late in my life, when I should have been making preparations for my dissolution, I instead made a child. Specifically to consume it.
Imagine filling a bathtub with water. (The water here is the matter of which our bodies are made. It is unavailable in the Milky Way.) You sit in the tub for awhile, and when you exit, you leave in the water a bit of your ghost. That water is now a living thing, haunted by your afterimage, and your own child. This is how my people reproduce.
My child was a knowing, ready thing when it was born, capable as a newborn shark, carrying the information I had accumulated in my life, able immediately to contribute as a member of our culture. But because it was newly made, it was sleepy and languorous, trusting of its parent’s love.
I absorbed it into me, ghost and all. Its life turned to silence within me, and its matter joined my matter. And I was utterly sated.
I never would have confessed if I had not been discovered. But mine was a notably different body: more massive, capable, aware. I failed to hide my newfound vitality from others. It is hard to hide the lust for life when, after long absence, you rediscover it.
I was accused, charged, interrogated, found guilty. They shoved me through a one-way wormhole and dumped me on Earth.
It is dim and growing dimmer in the market as day becomes night.
The market is warmer than most public places in Origin City: the self-service shops are manned by robots who leak electricity all day long, and for much of the day the place is full of bodies emitting heat. But warmer is not necessarily warm. Any thermometer would show it is, at best, less cold than the halls.
Nevertheless, when she enters the market Agnethe feels as though she is wrapped in a sudden zephyr. She smiles, exhales with relief.
The robot sales clerk at The Armstrong Equipment Rental Emporium is malfunctioning, can no longer move. The shop owner back on Earth has not seen enough of a decline in sales, however, to warrant repairing it. It therefore has not been fixed. So it cannot force Agnethe out of the shop after closing time; it can only repeat, all night long, “The Armstrong Equipment Rental Emporium is closed. Please complete your final purchase and exit the shop.” After a while she does not hear it anymore and falls asleep inside a large storage bin, the kind miners rent to haul moon rocks. She wears a medical mask from her days as a physician’s assistant to prevent herself from inhaling too much particulate regolith.
She wakes a few hours later—curled like a fetus inside her storage bin, finally warm—to sounds of despair coming from somewhere outside the store. A man’s voice. She rises to investigate.
The market’s deserted, but there is plenty of light, thanks to the vending machines. Agnethe follows the voice, eyeing the food dispensers peevishly—she could blow ten-days’ salary on a single meal here—to its source.
He is not someone Agnethe recognizes; he must be newly homeless. He is young and by Moon standards well-fed. He wears, as she does, the white, standard-issue jumpsuit, the standard-issue boots. No hat.
He crawls along the floor, mumbling, searching for something. “It was right here,” he keeps repeating. That, and profanities.
Agnethe approaches him, making sure to step loudly so that he hears her coming. “Did you lose something?” she asks.
The man turns to face her. His eyes are confused, his eyebrows angry, his mouth agape and wary. But then his face releases its fear—Agnethe has that effect on people—and says, “My water bottle. I just had it! Water’s so expensive, but the bottle too?”
After a sigh, he says to her, “I’m Hari, by the way.” He gets up from hands and knees. It takes him a few moments to rise; he has, as they say in Origin City, “the weakness.”
Hari extends his hand. “I lost my job. I’m saving every origin from now on. I don’t suppose you know where I can get some food cheap?”
“The Church of Thaddeus the Forgotten,” Agnethe says immediately, shaking his hand. He is weaker than he looks. “Ask for Father Fugit. He might have food tomorrow. He’ll give it to you for free, but if you pay a little he can feed others too.”
“Do you have to be a member?”
“Really? I’m surprised they don’t try to convert you.”
“They don’t. Where’s your hat?”
After a rueful pause: “Sold it.”
“Don’t sell this one,” Agnethe says and places her standard-issue hat on his head. His neck is infirm. “May God bless it for you.”
After a moment he removes the hat and, smiling, holds it out to her. “I couldn’t. You’ll freeze.”
Hari, bewildered, laughs. “Why should you freeze and I live?”
“Because you can’t catch me!” she says and takes off at a run.
I do not know how exactly it happened. I know only through the rumors and titillating hearsay I enjoyed, along with all my kind, when incomplete reports came back from Earth for those hundreds of thousands of years. But the exiled vitaphages set themselves up as your world’s supernature.
They seemed to have conflicting motives. Some wanted to help you evolve, gave you advice, made crops grow when nature did not cooperate, answered your questions with abstruse prophecies that they then did their damnedest to realize. Others killed you out of malice, or played pranks on you as a kind of malign entertainment. Those became your kappas, your Coyotes, your poltergeists, your soucouyants, your will-o’-the-wisps. Still others revealed themselves to you and accepted your worship. They could disintegrate and materialize any of the four mundane states of matter as easily as you can exhale; could kill life, burn cities, and perhaps most importantly, battle the other gods. The vitaphage you called Moloch demanded human sacrifice of you, but it protected you, too. It ate many enemy gods before it itself was eaten.
A gigantomachy spanning ages ensued. Gods feasted on gods until only a few remained. From your perspective, over time magic dwindled in the world. The vitaphages, once so vocal, once so involved in your fate, spoke less often to you. The Age of Miracles passed. The few vitaphages who survived—the strongest, most merciless, most cunning—hunt for gods to devour to this day.
This is why when I came to Earth, I expected I would be killed almost instantly. I could try to consume others myself. I would try, I knew suddenly; I would fight with all the savagery and deception I could muster.
But ultimately, what was the point? What kind of a life was it to constantly fear ambush, to be friendless and ostracized, banished from everything I have known and loved, and my only recourse to commit, without surcease, the crime that had ruined what remained of my life?
Perhaps I should kill myself. I could ejaculate all the matter I control at once with a single thought. I spent years on Earth gathering the courage to do so.
At first I made myself as invisible as possible to the predator gods who would make a meal of me, and that meant hiding from humanity as well. But over time I could not help but learn about human civilization. You were much more evolved than anyone back home knew. I had never dreamed before my exile that you had settled your moon…
Suddenly I had cause for hope. I surrounded an outbound rocket—I could have flown there, but doing so would have cost me a great deal of energy, significantly shortening my life—and rode it all the way to Origin City.
Agnethe is running toward the Incubators.
The habitation modules of failed business ventures are moved to the west side of Origin City until they can be sold or repurposed. But they serve a purpose now. The homeless of Origin City squat in those habitation modules, dark and unventilated though they may be. They sleep together in piles for warmth. Sometimes they share food, sometimes they steal food, sometimes they fight over food. Their fights are grim caricatures of battle; they are shakingly weak, all of them, and getting weaker. They know it.
Hari reminded Agnethe that today was the last day of the month. The day when layoffs happen.
Agnethe reaches the passage to the Incubators. There used to be an airlock door here, but it was torn off its hinges to let a little air and heat pass into the Incubators. A crooked sign that reads “No Trespassing” hangs by one screw. The darkness beyond is impenetrable.
Cautiously, always keeping a guiding hand against a wall, Agnethe picks her way into the Incubators in search of the newly bereft.
Agnethe knows the Incubators as well as anyone, but they change as habitation modules come and go, and the darkness and cold make it hard to remember anything. It is all too easy to get lost.
That one word stops Agnethe midstep, there in the perpetual tenebrae of the Incubators. She cocks her head. Heaving breaths, castanetting teeth, hands beating arms for warmth. She moves toward the sound.
“Stay back,” she hears, a woman’s voice, throaty with cold, rasping with phlegm. “You’ll catch it.”
Catch what? Ah: the woman must have shown signs of sickness. A contagion could wipe out the entire population of not only the Incubators, but all of Origin City. She would be banished.
Agnethe moves carelessly toward the woman, calling, “It’s much more likely you have hypothermia than anything infectious. My name is Agnethe. I am from the Origin City Outreach Initiative.”
“What’s that?” calls the woman.
“We help people in need. Oh, sorry!” says Agnethe cheerfully, apologizing for running into the woman, who is huddled on the floor.
There is something about Agnethe that makes people think the best of her. Though she just more or less kicked this woman, the woman is warming to her. “It’s okay,” she says, wary but wondering. “I never heard of the Origin City Outreach Initiative.”
“It’s new. Did you lose your job today?”
“Months ago. Then I got sick.”
Agnethe kneels next to her. She holds out her hands. “Take my hands,” she says. “What’s your name?”
“Elsa,” says the woman. Eyes already are abysmal radiation detectors, and in the Incubators they are almost useless. Yet despite the gelid darkness, Elsa’s hands find Agnethe’s unerringly.
Agnethe gasps. From her reaction, those hands must be corpse cold. “You need to get warm right now,” says Agnethe.
The woman begins to protest, but Agnethe stands and pulls her up by those hands. “Go to the marketplace and find the Armstrong Equipment Rental Emporium. Crawl into a bin and ignore the robot. You’ll be warm in no time.”
The woman stares at the place where Agnethe’s face must be. She has many things to say at once—her mouth is moving, formulating—and she has trouble deciding where to start. Finally she settles on: “They’ll quarantine me.”
Agnethe sighs. Elsa’s right: and Agnethe knows all too well that quarantine is worse than homelessness. She had worked for months as the only non-robot employee at the “animal shelter.” She had little say in anyone’s care. Actuaries on Earth decided when treatment was merited, when euthanasia. Agnethe followed their orders, felt she was powerless to do otherwise. Even when that meant assisting her father’s suicide.
Then one night—this is among Agnethe’s most vivid and relentless memories—God came to her in a dream in the form of Father Fugit and told her she was a monster, but that even her sins would be forgiven.
She quit the animal shelter the next morning and started mining.
Agnethe holds both of Elsa’s hands tightly. Hers are warming; Agnethe’s are getting colder. “Okay,” Agnethe says. Then, after one more reassuring squeeze, she lets the woman’s hands go and begins to undress.
Elsa cannot see Agnethe, but she hears the zipper. “What are you doing?”
“You need more clothes,” says Agnethe. She starts to take off her jumpsuit, realizes she forgot to remove her boots, laughs, removes her boots, then finishes removing her jumpsuit. She is in the darkness of the frozen-air Incubators, choosing to give Elsa, a woman she has just met, the last protection she has against the cold in the hopes that it will prolong Elsa’s sickly, actuarially unlikely life. She believes in a god that a vitaphage invented long ago. Almost certainly that vitaphage is dead by now. It may have intended good or ill or amoral entertainment for itself; I do not know. Whatever it intended, Agnethe believes in its message, or at least the message that its worshippers have collaged over thousands of years into a scripture. The end result is she is more or less committing suicide for the sake of a sick woman she just met and who will probably die soon even after this intercession.
It is fascinating.
Elsa allows herself to be dressed; Agnethe has that effect on people. She removes Elsa’s boots and dresses her in her jumpsuit, first one leg, then the other, then the arms, then zip, Elsa’s in. She puts Elsa’s boots back on, then her own, then stands.
Elsa faces Agnethe, grabs both of her bony shoulders. “There is no such thing as the Origin City Outreach Initiative, is there.”
“Thank you,” she says and embraces Agnethe. “I am warmer already. Eat with me, and then I’ll give it back to you.”
“No. Keep it. Father Fugit will get me another.”
Elsa pauses a long time. Her body language, invisible to humans in this blackness, tells the world she knows she should not keep the jumpsuit. But she says, “Eat with me, at least.”
“I can’t. It’s too cold. I will check on you tomorrow.”
“Thank you again,” Elsa calls after her. But Agnethe has disappeared entirely, like a kindly spirit who, having done its good deed, vanishes until the next time it is needed.
But Agnethe is no spirit. She very much has a body. And that body is cold. She is moving dangerously slowly.
She has almost two hours yet before the Armstrong Equipment Rental Emporium will reopen for business. It would be enough time to sleep a little, and more importantly, to warm herself.
But cold enervates her muscles, stultifies her mind. She walks hunched and stumbling, head bowed. The only thing keeping her upright is her worry. Over and over she whispers: “How will you go to church, Agnethe? How can you go to church now?”
It takes me a while to figure out what she means; I am still new to humans, their bodies. But finally I understand: she is naked. She cannot go to church naked.
That really should not be her first concern, however, now that she has fallen down.
She will freeze to death soon if she does not get up. She knows this, so she begins to pray. “I am unshriven,” she whispers to a vitaphage who, even if it is still alive, is on a different planet. “I can’t die unshriven!”
The idea inspires her to struggle mightily to rise. But her quivering muscles fail her. She falls, hard, splays out on the burningly cold floor. Weeping now, she says no, no, no between draughts of air that only cause her to lose heat more quickly. In a hoarse voice she calls, “Elsa!” but Elsa is too far to hear.
Then, in a softer, wet voice, she says, “Forgive my sins, father.” I do not know if she means her god or her actual father.
And there is no way to ask her. She dies.
I was terrified of being discovered. The more I exerted myself, the more energy I expended, the more I would make my presence known to the other vitaphages, and the more of a target I would become. The Moon was a gift, a way to escape a barbaric fate. I would not squander it.
So, I vowed when I came to the Moon not to behave like a god or ghost or uncanny force. I did not want attention from creatures who could not understand me. I would stay quiet. I might have to starve to death, but at least I would be no other vitaphage’s meal.
There is no way to ask whether she meant her father or her Father. But I grow curious. I surround her, enter her.
Agnethe’s pneuma is gone, but the machinery of her life is all in working order: muscles, circulation, digestion, brain. The only thing missing is her qualia. But I can restart the machine without it.
The first thing I feel is her hunger. Agnethe was at least as starved as I am. Yet she gave away food and did not take it when it was offered.
My entire being concentrates into one lone thought: there are no other vitaphages here. They cannot detect me from Earth; I am utterly safe from detection here. There was no reason, therefore, not to save Agnethe. None except irrational fear. An overwrought sense of self-preservation.
In that instant, hunger loses its power over me. Hunger is smaller than the whole of me, for the first time since I ate my child. I am able to think again.
Agnethe’s mind, dead as it is, remains a library of her thoughts and logic and memory. At once I know it in its entirety, the way you can see the entirety of a dimensionless point in space. Such despair; such a death drive. But it is also a succinct guide for actionable goodness. Computer code for the procedures of altruism. It is beautiful.
I stand Agnethe up. I am her soul now. I heat her body through, cure it and repair it, fill her muscles with power. I open and close her hands. I use the eyes and ears and nose of her body, taste her mouth with her tongue. I feel the cold killing her skin cells, so I create an aura of warmth around her. Then, remembering that nudity will not do in human society, I materialize a white, warm jumpsuit over her body.
I smile. It fills me with pleasure to make Agnethe’s body smile. “Agnethe,” I say aloud, “if you were me, what would you do?”
She would pull atoms from the air and reshape them into food and water. She would warm and light Origin City. She would heal the sick. She would pull origins from the sky and let them fall like stars among Originators until money became meaningless. She would summon palaces from the regolith. She would grant universal comfort, succor, freedom. As a start.
“Okay,” I tell dead Agnethe, using her own mouth. I will do these things. Until the gods consume me or I starve.
© 2016 by Carlos Hernandez. Originally published in The Grimm Future. Reprinted with permission of the author.