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The God Engines

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The God Engines

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Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Subterranean Press, 2009

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Fantasy
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Hugo- and Nebula-nominated Novella

Captain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this -- and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given.

Tephe knows from that the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It s what he doesn t know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put -- and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely...

Author John Scalzi has ascended to the top ranks of modern science fiction with the best-selling, Hugo-nominated novels Old Man's War and Zoe's Tale. Now he tries his hand at fantasy, with a dark and different novella that takes your expectations of what fantasy is and does, and sends them tumbling.

Say your prayers...and behold The God Engines.


It was time to whip the god.

Captain Ean Tephe entered the god chamber, small lacquered, filigreed chest in hand. He found blood on the deck, an acolyte spurting one and lying shivering on the other, and the god prostrate in its iron circle, its chains shortened into the circle floor. The healer Omll muttered over the acolyte. The god giggled into the iron its mouth was mashed into and flicked its tongue over red lips. A priest stood over the god, just outside the circle. Two other acolytes stood against the wall of the chamber, terrified.

Tephe set the chest on a table filled with discipline instruments. He turned to the priest, Croj Andso. "Explain this," he said.

Andso bristled momentarily. His nominal rank was not less than the captain's. But this involved the Righteous, and thus Tephe's position of authority in this case was higher than Andso's.

"The Defiled was refusing its orders, and so I had Drian here discipline it," the priest said. His eyes tracked to the long iron pike that lay just outside the god's circle. A spatterline of blood trailed from it to the acolyte Drian. "The Defiled trapped the pike as Drian thrust in and pulled him into the circle. It bit him and released him only after I had it ordered driven into the floor."

Tephe addressed the healer Omll without taking his eyes off the priest. "How is the acolyte?" he asked.

"The Defiled took a mouthful of flesh from him," Omll said. "Off the shoulder. The bone is ripped out and vessels ruptured, and he has lost a lot of blood. I am sealing the wound but the wound is needful. Healer Garder will have to supervise the healing from here. His skills in this area are advanced of mine."

"Why did he not come?" Tephe asked.

"There was not time," Andso said. "Healer Omll happened to be passing outside when the attack occurred. He entered the chamber when he heard the screaming."

Tephe nodded briefly. "Apologies, healer Omll."

The healer nodded in response. "With your permission I need to bring acolyte Drian to the healer's bay."

"You have it," Tephe said. "Priest, if you will have your other acolytes assist the healer." Andso gestured to the other acolytes, who did not need to be told a second time. They lifted Drian off the floor and carried him out of the chamber, quickly. The captain was alone with the priest and the god.

Tephe reached to the floor and picked up the pike, examined the head. "I want to know how this happened, priest," he said.

"I already explained what happened, Captain," Andso said, tightly.

"You explained what happened," Tephe said. "I said I wanted to know how." He hefted the pike. "Where did this pike come from?"

"It was in our stores," Andso said. "I had it brought out when the Defiled refused its orders."

Tephe touched the head of the pike. "Did you examine it before you had it used?" he said.

"There was no need," Andso said. "Our supplies are certified by the Bishopry. All our instruments of discipline are second-made iron, Captain. They have to be. You know that."

"You must have marvelous faith in the Bishopry," Tephe said, "if you do not believe you must examine your own inventory."

"And you do not?" Andso said, straightening. The captain was edging into blasphemy, and that, at least, was in the priest's ambit. "Do you doubt the Bishopry, Captain?"

The captain glanced at the priest but did not reply. He hefted the pike again and thrust it savagely into the prone body of the god, the cutting spike of the weapon driving toward the flesh of the god's back.

The pike shaft bent; sharpened spike dragged roughly across godskin, catching but not cutting. The god giggled again, wheezy. The priest's eyes widened.

Tephe pulled back the pike and threw it on the floor, outside the circle, between him and the priest. "I do not doubt the Bishopry, Priest Andso," he said. "I doubt other men. You know that fleet merchants and suppliers are more concerned with cash than their souls. And you should know that profits made passing third-made iron as second-made are the difference between a good month and a bad one."

From the floor, a whispering sing-song. "'Third-made binds, second-made wounds, first-made kills,'" said the god, and giggled again.

The priest stared at the pike, and then looked up at the captain. "I want to question the quartermaster," Ando said. "He procured these supplies. It was his responsibility to ensure the certification was genuine."

"Quartermaster Usse is dead," Tephe said, sharply. "Along with three of his staff and ten other of our crew, in our late engagement off Ament Cour. If he is to blame for this, then you may be assured Our Lord has called him to task for it. You need not concern yourself further with him. And whatever his sins, priest, it is you who chose to accept a forged bishopric certification on faith. Your acolyte may pay for it."

"If he does, he will be with Our Lord," Andso said.

"And gloriously so," said the captain. "But I imagine at his age, not gladly." He kicked at the pike, sending it skittering toward the priest. "Destroy that," he said. "Pray over the ashes. And then go through your remaining instruments. All of them. I expect a full accounting by fourth bell, forenoon tomorrow."

"Yes, captain," Andso said, after a minute.

"That is all," Tephe said.

Andso look surprised. "You do not want my assistance?" he asked.

"This is a task given to captains," Tephe said. "Not to priests."

"Very well, Captain," Andso said, stiffly. "I leave you to your task."

"Wait," Tephe said, and motioned at the god. "Loosen its chains."

"Captain?" Andso said.

"Loosen its chains," the captain repeated. "I want it able to sit."

"I advise against it, Captain," Andso said. "The Defiled must be made low."

"It will be low enough when I am done with it," Tephe said. "Now, priest."

Andso went to the controls which unspooled the chain, and then released the lock on the chain.

"It is still on the floor," Tephe said, after several seconds.

"So it is," said the priest. "But it is so by choice."

"Very well," said Tephe. "Go."

The priest left.

"You may rise," Tephe said, to the god.

"To sit is not to rise," said the god.

"Then you may sit," Tephe said.

"The iron is cool," said the god. "It likes us well."

"As you will," Tephe said, and walked back to the table. He retrieved the small chest and walked toward the god, stopping close to the edge of the iron circle. He set the chest on the floor at the edge, in the line of the god's sight.

"Do you know what is in here?" he said.

"Treasure," whispered the god, mockingly, into the floor.

"So it is," said Tephe, and bent down to open the chest, to reveal a whip, flecked with metal.

The god hissed, slowly, sadly.

"You have not seen this before, because you have not given me cause to use it before," Tephe said, taking the whip, gently. "And so I will explain it to you." He held out the handle. "The handle is bone, taken from a god My Lord killed with His own hands. I have heard that My Lord took the bone from this god while it still lived. But I do not know the truth of it."

"We know the truth of it," the god said.

"The leather is godskin," Tephe said, ignoring the god's reply. "The skin of the same god whose bone serves as the handle. This skin was taken while the god lived, that much is truth."

"We knew of it," the god said, still on the floor. "The god yours killed. We felt its pain. We marveled at how long your god suffered it to live, harvesting bones and skin remade, sustained by despairing followers who could not bear to see their god so, but could not bear a life without it. So terrible. With the coin of faith and cruelty your god purchased that pretty, pretty whip. You do not understand the cost of what it is you hold."

"The gods do many things their followers are not given to understand," Tephe said. "What I do understand is that the bones and skin of a god alone do not make this something you would fear. For your fear, there are these." Tephe pointed to the splinters of metal, woven and embedded into the whip.

"Yes," the god hissed again.

"Single made iron," Tephe said. "It is as described in our commentaries: 'Born in the heart of a star, as it died and strew itself into darkness. Never collected to melt in the dust of aborning planets. Never made a third time in the fire of a human forge.'"

He held it closer to the god, but still outside the circle. The god flinched from it. "Look at the iron," Tephe said. "Unfashioned in itself but set and secured into this whip. And it is as you said. Third made iron binds, second made iron wounds, single made iron kills."

Tephe set the whip back into its case. "I do not know why this is. Why single made iron can kill a god. I know only that it can. I know the gods fear death more than do men. I can kill you with this, god."

The god raised its head. "You do not name us as the others," it said. "You do not call us 'Defiled.' We have heard this before. We would know why."

"You do me service," Tephe said.

"But you do not use our name," said the god.

"I am not a fool," Tephe said. To name a god was to give it power.

The god smiled. "You do not even think it," it said. It set its head back on the iron.

"What I think," Tephe said, "is that you should swear to me that you will follow your orders. That you will bring us to Triskell, where we are expected in the morning."

"Why should we do this thing," asked the god.

"Because you are commanded," Tephe said.

"No man commands us," the god said.

Tephe reached into his shirt and pulled out his Talent, the iron cypher held by a silver chain. He held it toward the god. "Do not play games," he said. "You know well what this Talent signifies. On this ship I bear the Talent of command. It means on this ship, my word is as My Lord's. God though you are, you are yet His slave. And as you are His slave in all things, on this ship so are you mine. I command you in the name of My Lord. And I command you bring us to Triskell." Tephe placed his Talent back into his shirt.

"What men have you on this ship?" asked the god.

"I have three hundred eighty souls at the moment," said Tephe. The Righteous had been brought from Bishop's Call six months earlier with four hundred twenty men aboard, but battles and illness had reduced their number.

"Three hundred eighty good men," said the god.

"Yes," said Tephe.

"Then bid you them step outside your precious ship and push," said the god. "I do not doubt you will be at Triskell in the morning."

Tephe took the whip from the case, stood, and lashed hard into the god, the slivers of iron tearing into its flesh. The god screamed and kicked as far as its chain would allow. Godblood seeped from the gash.

"A lash for that," said Tephe, and after a moment lashed the god a second time. "And a lash for the acolyte Drian." The captain coiled the whip with the godblood and flesh still flecked on it, knelt and set it back into the chest. "If the acolyte dies, you will answer for that as well."

The god tried to laugh and sobbed instead. "It burns."

"It burns, yes," agreed the captain. "And it will burn further. Wounds from single made iron will not heal without the grace of the faithful, as you know. Your wounds will rot and increase, as will your pain, until you die. Unless you swear to obey me."

"If we die, you are lost out here," said the god.

"If you die, our Gavril will send a distress call, and we will be soon enough gathered," Tephe said. "I will be called to account, but the truth of it will be plain enough. Our Lord does not long suffer those who will not obey." Tephe motioned to the chest with the whip. "This you should know well."

The god said nothing and lay on the ground, stuttering and suffering. Tephe stood, patient, and watched.

"Make it stop," it said, after long minutes.

"Obey me," Tephe said.

"We will bring you to Triskell, or wherever else you require," said the god. "Make it stop."

"Swear," Tephe said.

"We have said what we will do!" shouted the god, its form rippling as it did so, into something atavistic and unbeautiful, a reminder that when The Lord enslaved other gods, He took their forms along with their names. The ripple ceased and the god resumed its enslaved form.

Tephe knelt, opened the service knife he kept in his blouse pocket, jabbed it into the meat of his left palm, praying as he did so. He cupped his right hand underneath his left, collecting the blood that flowed out. When enough collected, he stepped into the iron circle and placed his hands on the god's wounds, coating them with his own blood, letting the grace in his blood begin its healing work. The god screamed again for a moment and then lay still. Tephe finished his work and then quickly stepped outside of the iron circle, mindful that the god's chains were slack.

"Now," he said, holding his palm to stop the bleeding. "Bring us to Triskell."

"We will do as we have said," said the god, breathing heavily. "But we must have rest. Triskell is far, and you have hurt us."

"You have until eighth bell of the Dogs," Tephe said. "Tell me you understand and obey."

"We do," said the god, and collapsed again onto the iron.

Tephe collected the chest and exited the chamber. Andso was waiting outside with his acolytes. "You are bleeding," he said.

"The god has agreed to carry out its orders," Tephe said, ignoring the observation. "See that it is prepared to do so by eighth bell of the Dogs. For now I am allowing it to rest."

"We must first discipline it for acolyte Drian," Andso said.

"No," Tephe said. "It has had enough discipline for the day. I need it rested more than you need to punish it further. Do I make myself clear."

"Yes, Captain," Andso said. Tephe walked off toward his quarters to stow his chest, and then to the bridge, where Neal Forn, his first mate, waited.

"Have we an engine?" Forn asked, when Tephe was close enough that his question would not be overheard.

"Until Triskell, at least," Tephe said, and turned to Stral Teby, his helm. "Triskell on the imager, Mr. Teby."

Teby prayed over the imager and a map of stars lifted up, floating in a cube of space. The Righteous symbolized at the far edge of the map, Triskell diagonally across the cube from it.

"Sixty light years," Forn said, looking through the imager. "A hard distance in any event. I have no wonder why the god took its pause."

"We have our orders, Neal," Tephe said. "As does the god." Tephe rubbed his left palm, which had begun to throb. "Stay at post," he said. "I will be back before evening mess." He exited toward sick bay, to see if healer Garder was far enough along with acolyte Drian to tend to his own, smaller wound.

* * * * *

"The gods have become restless," the priest Croj Andso said, to the officers seated in the captain's mess, at the conclusion of the evening meal.

Captain Tephe frowned. Andso was already on his third portion of wine. His was from his own stores, not the watered wine a ship's captain, by custom, furnished for his own table. The priest's wine was unadulterated, as was increasingly his tongue. And this last comment, pronounced with an unseemly levity, was at odds with what the captain had seen the god do to the acolyte Drian.

Before the captain could comment, Neal Forn spoke. "You call them 'gods,' Priest Andso," he said. "It was my understanding you were given to calling them 'defiled.' And that indeed you cannot be parted from the term, even at great cost."

From the far end of the table, Andso narrowed his eyes at the first mate. Forn was seated at the right of the captain, who sat at the head of the table. Andso was by tradition seated at the foot, although Tephe knew well enough that Andso regarded himself at the head, and the captain at the foot. Between the military and religious heads of the Righteous were the off-duty officers of the ship, who over the course of time habitually seated themselves in a vague approximation of their loyalty to either pole of duty.

Tephe had long noted the unconscious seating arrangement but neither said nor did anything about it. They were all loyal to him in any event, and he was loyal to His Lord. He did wish His Lord had not chosen Andso as His priest, or at least, had not chosen him to be His priest on the Righteous.

"It is not a difficult thing, Parishioner Forn," the priest said, his address reminding the first mate, as the priest often did, of his subordinate status under Their Lord. "They are gods, they are also defiled. When one is in the presence of our particular defiled god, as I often am, it is meet and appropriate to remind the creature that it is, in fact, defiled, and a slave, and bound to obey my commands. And the commands of the captain," the priest added, noting perhaps the incremental arch of Forn's eyebrow. "Among the faithful, such as yourself and the others on this table, we may discuss them generally and dispassionately, as a species. Just as one may discuss dogs generally, without describing them as 'unclean,' which they are."

"But a dog neither knows nor cares if you describe it as 'unclean,' Priest Andso," Forn said. "Nor do we bid a dog to bring the Righteous through space or hold the ship and its crew safe from harm."

"If you have a point, Parishioner Forn, I regret to say that it escapes me at the moment," Andso said, swirling his wine.

"My point, Priest Andso, is that this ship has a god for an engine," Forn said. "A god who is angry and spiteful, and who will with opportunity do any of us harm, as your acolyte so recently learned. I am a good and faithful servant to Our Lord, as all here know, and hold no task higher than to bend to His command. Yet I am practical. Practicality teaches me that if one wishes one's engine to run well, one does not throw sand into its workings. Or in this case give it additional cause to hate us."

Andso took a long drink to finish his wine, and then motioned to a standing acolyte to refill his cup. "It will hate us regardless, because that is all it knows, and all it would know. And as you are a good and faithful servant of Our Lord, Parishioner Forn, of which I have no doubt," Andso uttered the last of these words with a unmistakable curl of his lip, "then you also know from the commentaries that Our Lord requires us to not only adore and honor him in the fullest measure, but to chastise and pity those whom He has brought low. 'They are the defiled, without measure of redemption, and faithful declaim their rank.'" He raised his cup to his lips once more.

"I admire your scrupulous adherence to the commentaries, Priest Andso," Forn said. "I wonder if you have a similar fervor for the portion of the commentaries which read 'He that has drink for a pillar finds it falls when he does lean upon it.'"

Andso paused in the motion of a swallowing and in doing so choked himself, spraying a little of his wine onto the table. An acolyte rushed to the priest with a kerchief; Andso snatched it, daubed his lips and chin, and flung it back at his acolyte. He turned to the captain. "You offer your first mate much freedom, Captain Tephe."

"I would think you would be gratified that he is so learned in the commentaries, Priest Andso," Tephe said, and then raised his hand quickly as the priest's face began to mottle. "Nevertheless I agree that this line of conversation has gone as far as it is to go. I am better interested in your first statement, when you said that the gods are getting restless. Perhaps you might speak more on this."

Andso stared for a moment, considering his next action. Tephe watched him, impassively. He had learned that given enough time, the priest would do the minimally acceptable thing; it was only when he was rushed that his arrogance overtook him.

Finally Andso forced himself to relax. "Very well, captain. After our incident today with the Defiled" – Andso shot Forn a glance – "I used the Gavril to talk to several priests on other ships."

"You engaged the Gavril without my permission?" Tephe said, straightening. It would explain why Lieutenant Ysta was absent from the captain's table this evening. Gavrils were given the Talent to speak to each other no matter how distant, and thus one was stationed on each ship of the fleet. Nevertheless, every God-given Talent took its toll with use, and it was wearying for any man to reach across space and find another single mind. If Andso had used the Gavril to contact several ships in rapid succession, Ysta might need a day to recover.

Andso looked back at the captain, mildly. "It was ecclesiastical business, Captain," said the priest. "And as you know, for such matters I may use may own discretion when using ship resources."

"You might have informed me as a courtesy," Tephe said. "The Righteous is without its Gavril now."

"Parishioner Ysta was fine when I left him," Andso said. He had returned to drinking. Tephe chose not to say anything further but glanced over to Forn, who nodded and motioned over one of the servers. He would have someone visit Ysta. "And in any event I learned what I needed to know, which is that our 'engine,' as your first mate describes it, is not the only one which has been refusing orders of late. On three other ships, the gods have also resisted or have had to be disciplined. This has all been since Celebration of the Immanence."

"Four instances in ten days," Forn said, returning to the conversation. "That does seem an unusual amount."

"When you consider that in the entire year previous there were but three such rebellions, it is most unusual," Andso said.

"Is there cause?" Tephe said.

"Of course not," Andso said. "Aside from these Defiled testing their boundaries, as does any trapped predator. They would wish to assert to us that they are yet terrible creatures, instead of the slaves of a greater god. They howl to the stars, Captain." Andso punctuated the comment with a heavy swallow of wine, and then pointed at Forn, unsteadily. "And this is why we must be constant in our reminders to them of their status, Parishioner Forn. Words. They have power. To name a god is to give it power. To deny it such is to take it. Only a little but even so. To celebrate Our Lord in its presence weakens it, and when we call this thing Defiled we lower it and raise Our Lord, because He is the one who enslaved it. You know, Parishioner Forn, what keeps the Defiled bound in that circle."

"I assume it is the iron in its chains," Forn said.

"It is faith, Parishioner Forn!" Andso said, too loudly. "Iron is but a simple metal. What gives it its quality to hold and wound and kill is our own faith in Our Lord. This is why I am here. To tend to your faith, each of you. And if every officer on this ship were as you, Parishioner Forn, the Defiled would have long ago slipped its bonds." Andso waved at Captain Tephe. "And then not even our captain's precious Talent of command would avail him of..."

"Enough," Tephe said, suddenly and severely. "Priest, you are drunk. I suggest you retire."

"I was already weary, Captain," Andso said, and pushed back his chair. An acolyte unobtrusively positioned himself to take the priest's unsteady arm; Andso angrily waved him away and looked around the table. "I will tell you something, all of you," he said. "A priest has no Talent – no thing of Our Lord to hang on his chest, to give him a Power. Do you know why? Because a priest is of Our Lord! His own hand, His own arm, His own tongue. I have faith, my parishioners. I am faith in Our Lord embodied. Faith, gentlemen. Without it we are lost." Andso glared directly at Forn. "I will see you on the morrow, Parishioner Forn. We will discuss your faith."

"Yes, Priest," Forn said. Andso weaved out of the captain's mess, trailing acolytes and the muttering of the table.

Tephe leaned toward his first mate. "I believe that your faith is strong, Neal," he said, quietly.

"Amen, so it is, Captain," Forn said. "Strong enough to survive this priest."

"He was a better priest, once, or so I have heard tell," Tephe said.

"I imagine this was before he made provision to travel with his own stock of wine," Forn said.

"I believe he makes such provision because he is aware how much better he once was," Tephe said.

"So," Forn said, and then shook his head, lightly. "I do not doubt his faith any more than my own, Captain," he said. "And I know he is the presence of Our Lord on the Righteous. I do wish Our Lord had seen fit to be present in a worthier vessel. If the priest is right that it is our faith and not iron that truly binds the god, then we sorely need our faith."

Tephe looked at his first mate with the very lightest of reproach. "Our failure at Ament Cour should not decrease our faith, Neal," he said.

"Neither yours nor mine, Captain," Forn agreed. "But our defeat weighs heavily on the crew, as does this rebellion by our god." Forn leaned in closer to the Captain. "And more than that they hear rumors of other late defeats and failures in the fleet, and that Our Lord is newly set upon by other gods. Priest Andso's foolish comment here at this table that other gods were restless will also find their way to the crew. Captain, the crew is unused to failure and defeat. Their faith is now put to the test."

Tephe sat back and considered his second in command. "I understand now why you deflected the priest into a pointless conversation about terminology," he said, to Forn. "And I acknowledge to my regret it is I who brought him back to it. My apologies, Neal."

Forn smiled. "He would have come round to it again on his own behalf. I but delayed him a moment at best." He became serious again. "My point, Captain, is that if there were a time where faith were needed to grow, this is that moment. Priest Andso is the man to whom such task is given. That drunken, petty, stupid man. I fear for it."

Copyright © 2009 by John Scalzi


The God Engines - John Scalzi

- valashain


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