“The Antithesis of Virtue” by Aimee Ogden

Zsiuze returns to Vertex the same way she left it: screaming.

Or not to Vertex itself, precisely, not that realm whose name the Great God Tau wrote with His own hand. Rather it is the sodden underbelly of that world that pulls her in. The packet of energy to which she has bound herself to make the crossing is meant for the use of the witch-queen of Karnot, and it is in Karnot where Zsiuze lands.

Her body, freshly remanifested as rubbery sinew, is half-buried in the flesh pit where Queen Ekati’s constructs writhe and twist. Zsiuze’s consciousness reasserts its dominance over unresponsive limbs. She drags herself up and out, past the slavering-tongued wolfbeast that thrusts in a glut of tentacles, past glass-lined amorphous maws where nameless meatparts are ground to paste. Past other things so foreign that to attach a familiar concept to them would be Sin.

No. Zsiuze’s jaw tightens, as if she could grind that idea to dust between her teeth. There’s no such thing as Sin now. Or if there is, this is not it. A viscous limb tests her tanglesuit. She shakes it off, crawls faster, until she can heave herself onto the soft wet shore and remember how to breathe. When she can, she pulls off her gloves and examines the backs of her hands. The fine webwork of white scars is there. She’s still herself, whatever that means.

Ekati must already know she is here. Zsiuze stands, despite the dizziness clotting her senses. The nauseous twists of space and light around her fail to align to rational geometry even when the spots clear from her eyes. Never in her life-before did she visit Karnot. The world-beneath is everything that Vertex is not: an absence of organization and purpose. No, that is not quite so. Its purpose is to oppose the virtue of Tau’s world, to collect everything he casts aside and recycle it into His antithesis.

Karnot is where Zsiuze belongs.

She staggers forward. If Karnot had a center, where would it lie? In Vertex there could be no mistaking Tau’s Seat of Sovereign Reason. However many times He folds in and reorganizes the world, however often He rewrites His rules based on His latest calculations, an inherent logic places the Seat at the natural heart of that new cosmos. But Karnot–

A lightless void glides toward Zsiuze, devouring all in its path. One of Ekati’s guardians? Zsiuze casts her grasp on logic aside and wrestles her way up a tower that bleeds off in would-be fractals. One fragment comes away with her and floats off, carrying her out of the void’s path. The void does not deviate from its course to follow. She watches a pair of humanlike beings disappear without complaint into the unfillable darkness. Perhaps they expect to be recycled and reborn. Perhaps they did not understand what was happening to them. Perhaps, worst of all, they did.

Beneath Zsiuze, her carriage shifts. A hundred eyes like tiny dewdrops open. Zsiuze lifts her hand out of those glittering sockets. “I’m sorry!” she gasps.

A voice, from above and beneath and from secret places inside Zsiuze she thought long abandoned, speaks. What would you, Daughter of Virtue?

“I need to speak with your Queen.” Holes burn through the fabric of the sky. Zsiuze tries not to look at what lies on the other side. “Tell her–” Zsiuze bites her tongue. “Tell her I’m the Banished Cupbearer.”

The creature folds in upon itself, and a serrated chasm opens beneath Zsiuze. She spins as she falls, and every rotation deeper into the nothingness shakes loose a new regret. She puts her hands out before her face, as if to block the sudden stop that is coming. As if to call back some of the power once given her. But she tore the godwire free from her own skin, every coil and arch, and godhead does not come when the fallen crook a finger.

She plunges toward an ending. When it strikes, it jars her so hard that her soul strains to break free of its bindings.

* * *

Zsiuze opens her eyes.

Across a table from her, in the glitching void that must pass for a room, sits Ekati herself. Sourceless light plays illusions on the witch-queen’s features. “Drink,” she says, and Zsiuze holds an asymmetrical glass in one hand. Warmth swirls the green-gold liquid inside. The last time she met Ekati face to face, it was on the field of battle, and Zsiuze had a chromodynamic scythe in her fingers, not a beverage. “I promise, Daughter of Virtue, if I wished your death, there would be no need for pretty charades.”

It is harder to look at Karnot’s chaos goddess than Zsiuze expected. Zsiuze lifts the flute to her mouth and wets her lips, holding Ekati’s gaze. Ekati is nothing like the Great God Tau, and at the same time, she is in every aspect his reflection. The goddess is human-shaped except for a pair of extra legs that bend backward from her pelvis. She wears no clothing or ornament. Her skin is obsidian shot through with shifting viridian veins. Whether this anthropomorphic appearance is some small concession to Zsiuze’s comfort or Ekati’s preference, Zsiuze doesn’t know. Ekati was human once, before she and the Great God entangled themselves with AI, before they became their own Szilard engines to harvest entropy from the cosmos’s unloved mirror matter. An endless entropy sink, that let them carve out this pocket universe. Though like Zsiuze she has been cast from grace, Ekati was once a creator too. Zsiuze wants to love her.

You could have told me, when we met in battle, of the worlds you knew before, she thinks. About the starholds and the people who live in them. About humanity and our cousins.

You could have told me that He is not really a god.

But it was never Ekati’s goal to educate the world-above, only to tear it down. Zsiuze swallows a tiny sip. When it glides past her tongue, it tastes of love turned sour. When her mouth and mind have cleared, she says, “Thank you for safe passage here.”

“No need to thank me for what I never freely gave.” A smile distorts Ekati’s face, rewriting smooth proportions in ripples of nightmare. “Your arrival is a splash in the pool. I delight in surprise, but so rarely get to enjoy it.”

“I imagine you were surprised when the Great God Tau cast you down,” Zsiuze says, without thought.

Ekati’s eyes widen so far they tear her head in half. The new fault line across her cheeks hinges backward, and from the open chalice of her skull, a lily unfurls. Its ivory petals vibrate when she speaks. “Yes, Daughter of Virtue, I was. And I am surprised again, to hear you call him great. If you seek my help restoring yourself to glory, you are sadly mistaken.” The petals wilt and drift into the cavity below. “Though we may yet put you to some use in Karnot.”

“I’m not here for Grace.” Zsiuze flinches from the offer in Ekati’s words. Cold-hot droplets from her glass trace the godwire scars on her wrist. “I’m here to destroy Him.” Not Him, she reminds herself, merely him.

Once, in another life, she knelt in patient attention while Tau told her how all the gods ever devised were a half-glimpsed reflection of himself: a cosmic background radiation of understanding. Each iteration of religion was another attempt to perceive his existence here. Zsiuze tried to explain these things too, after she was sent away. Of course, she hadn’t enjoyed the benefit of an acquiescent audience. And he’d believed in the Truth of what he said. After Zsiuze’s fall, Truth was a broken beast that would bear no further burden that she asked of it. For that alone, she will never forgive him.

A knotted wreath of greenery now sits in Ekati’s place, tendrils reaching for Zsiuze. Tasting her conflict, her fear, her desire for…things best not named in Karnot’s shadow. One coils about her ankle; another snakes across her lap, up her back, around her throat. Testing for a reaction. Zsiuze takes another sip of her drink.

“Another surprise,” says Ekati finally. The vines shift, producing the facsimile of a face. “But wrapped in riddles, which I am less fond of. There is a certain necessary structure to riddles. A shared understanding of meaning, metaphor. I would destroy that which created me, she says, and you turn the words this way to show one thing, that way another.” Razor-wire teeth smile through a tear in the vines. “For what sin were you cast out, Daughter of Virtue?”

“Are you saying you don’t want him gone?” Zsiuze leans forward, stopped by the sudden tension of the vine about her neck. “Tau said that for Vertex to exist and enjoy its exaltation, Karnot must exist too, and suffer in opposition. I didn’t think you’d buy into the false reassurance of symmetry. But I’ve been wrong before.”

Her thighs tense, as if to push her out of the chair. But the vines at her throat and foot are joined by a proliferation of others. They wrap about her, hold her fast. When instinct sets her straining against them, they tighten. “A strange thing, that you’d speak to me of symmetry,” says Ekati. No loose botanical tangle remains in her seat; the witch-queen’s voice comes from all around. “You are not my mirror-image, Daughter of Virtue. No more than Tau is.”

The nothingness around Zsiuze shifts. Space slashes in upon itself, dragging Zsiuze along. Her body is a Klein bottle, bereft of boundary, no separation between surface and glistening enervated innards. “Please,” she chokes.

“Ah!” Ekati’s laugh wafts from the void. “Our Cupbearer remembers her manners.”

Reality condenses. Zsiuze remains in the chair but what binds her is not taut organic matter. Coils of godwire bite into her flesh, vibrating with the presence of deity. It has been so long since Zsiuze knew godhead. Sacred or profane, it makes no difference to her now. Her muscles soften, which only lets the godwire tighten its grasp. The pressure splits her tanglesuit. Blood squeezes between bright-shining filaments and drips into nothingness. Zsiuze’s head lolls to the side, and her body shudders with proximity to epiphany. Just a little longer, she thinks, and she’ll have the unifying principle behind the Nine Isometric Conjectures; she’ll reconcile an apeirogon into Euclidean geometry–

Godwire evaporates in hissing steam and Zsiuze pitches onto a floor that did not exist a moment before. She smears it with blood and saliva as she fails to rise. At the other end of the massive hall, a nebula writhes in heliotrope and gold. “Imagine,” says the Ekati-nebula. “I could tear out your larynx and mend the wound with godwire. Bind your lips with the same. I’d fill your flesh with the need to sing my praises and no way to do so.”

Zsiuze should bargain. She should show Ekati her value, make her case as indispensable right hand. Instead she says, against the floor, “You were human once, too.”

Beneath her, the floor shatters. She cries out, puts up her hands to protect her face. But there is nothing to protect it from. When she lowers her hands, the tanglesuit is uncut. She and Ekati sit at a table. A banquet spread covers the vast distance between them, smells and sights that wet her mouth with saliva. False sunlight gleams upon silverware and porcelain–neither Vertex nor Karnot has a sun, of course, it is the endless meal of outside entropy that lets Tau and Ekati feed their worlds. Sunlight is a borrowed memory from the universe outside. Zsiuze has lived in the light of other suns, and, reluctantly, turned her back on it. “Is any of this real?” she asks.

“Real? Unreal? In Karnot we don’t make those words bear the same weight that you do in Vertex.” Ekati’s voice is smooth as the cream-and-berries in the bowl before Zsiuze. Whether by memory or accident, the witch has taken on a shape much like she wore when she and Zsiuze last faced in battle: her face a copper mask without nose or mouth, her body naked and human in all but the excess of perfection in each marble limb. “Here. Change into something more appropriate.”

The tanglesuit dissolves into a simple white shift. Zsiuze blinks at the godwire scars on her arms: a stark reminder of why she is here. The shift’s soft cloth strokes her body, like the memory of an embrace. She has not been touched since her exile began. There were those in the wider universe who would have lain with a wild-eyed refugee from a strange world, but thoughts of return consumed her. Here, though. Now, though. She swallows past the dryness in her throat and reorders her mind. “Thank you for your attention to my comfort.”

Ekati’s arm sweeps in a broad gesture. The chance to play gracious hostess amuses her. “I presume, Cupbearer, that what you mean to offer me is a close acquaintance with Tau’s defenses.”

“Yes, and no.” Zsiuze’s stomach hardens against the beautiful food before her. She pushes the bowl away. “You were part of Vertex once, too. You know how he reorganizes everything every time he arrives at a lower-energy solution. There’s no floor plan to Vertex that’s endured all the time I’ve been–” Several adjectives choke her. She settles on: “Gone.”

Ekati sits up straight, feet on the floor. She lifts a hand and an anti-deterministic blade quivers into being. Zsiuze’s teeth set on edge, before the causality-warping hum begins to roll off the vibrating edge. “An assault on every wall of Vertex, then. My constructs will tear the realm limb from limb, while you and I enter Tau’s private sanctum undetected–”

“There’s no such thing as undetected when it comes to bringing a deity into Vertex,” says Zsiuze quickly, before Ekati’s battle-thirst gathers momentum. “He’ll know. Besides–the outside walls of Vertex are idealized fractals. You’d need infinite constructs to attack each one.”

“A cowardly choice.” Ekati flings herself back onto the chair, arms and legs akimbo. “Perhaps it’s not yourself for whom you fear the fall of Virtue’s blade, but for those who will raise arms against you.”

“It’s not cowardice to spare life. I don’t want your constructs to die, either.”

“Those who abide by the law of Vertex will not love my rule.”

“Then they can make their own choices. The ones we were denied.” Zsiuze will die to see that they do. So will Ekati, though she doesn’t know it yet. “The people of Vertex are the same as you or I ever were.”

A jagged crack runs down the length of Ekati’s mask, from brow to chin, but it does not fall away. Zsiuze does not want to see what lies beneath. “No one in all the worlds is the same as me.”

Zsiuze draws a small quantum of power from the miasma that surrounds Ekati. A very small amount, but dangerous anyway, if Ekati should refuse to let herself be so consumed. Zsiuze never would have dared to do such a thing to Tau, would have always waited for invitation before reaching for Him. For him. But Ekati only tilts her head to the side, and Zsiuze shapes what she has taken into a superimposition: a being both fallen and sanctified. Deep in her throat, Ekati hisses, but does not absorb the quantum back into herself.

“We broke the same rule,” says Zsiuze. “I thought because he let me understand so many things, he was setting me aside for some great purpose.” Stupid to believe that she, among all the other Cupbearers, might have been so elevated by his hand. Zsiuze is not, never can be a god. Though she has some idea what the right sort of deity might look like. “You thought yourself an equal, too.”

Ekati sighs, and the foundations of the world tremble. “Not a mistake to see yourself thus. But a mistake to hang the millstone of Sin upon it.” She lets one hand fall, open and beckoning, toward Zsiuze. Zsiuze wants to reach out and clasp those stained-marble fingers, as if that would seal this pact together, but she fears what else she might affirm with such a touch. “So, Daughter of Virtue. What, exactly, would you have of me?”

Too many answers to that question. They jostle, fighting to be the first. “A god cannot enter Tau’s Seat undetected. But a human woman could. And if his attention were elsewhere …”

“A human woman could also see herself crushed by the merest thought from Tau.” A laugh. “Not that I would discard that option. A woman who thirsts for one god’s blood may find her tastes hard to slake.”

“I won’t go unarmed.” Zsiuze’s projection warps into the shape of a dagger, small and curved and not truly silver despite its gleam. “That’s where you come in.”

Ekati tips her head back and laughs. “I see, Daughter of Virtue. And what I see pleases me.” Zsiuze’s cheeks flush, to have a god’s approval poured out upon her, like melting wax between her fingers. Ekati’s laughter fades, but she studies Zsiuze carefully. Zsiuze is very aware of the space afforded by the table between them. Electric breath fills her lungs and keeps her heart beating. She listens, and when she is bidden, she speaks.

* * *

They talk a long a while of specifics. Ekati sometimes answers forthrightly, sometimes dances around the question. Zsiuze senses her attention when it flags, and knows it would not be wise to let the witch-queen grow bored. She asks that their plan proceed on the morrow–before, she says, more time passes and Tau realizes her presence in Karnot.

Ekati scoffs. “Time as you know it does not exist in my realm. A frankly tedious arrow to obey! We will go on Tau’s tomorrow, or his yesterday, or perhaps before you even left Vertex. It is all as one. Take your rest till then, Daughter of Virtue.” She waves a hand and a door opens in the wall.

Thusly dismissed, Zsiuze makes her courtesies stiffly. There are other things she wishes to ask, desires too profane to name. She traded sanctity for freedom once before and shouldn’t recapitulate the choosing. She turns toward the door, muscles twitching and begging, and says, “Who were you, before Tau?”

She looks back over her shoulder to find that Ekati has changed once again. The body she wears is still human, but its former perfection has washed away. Purple veins peep through the pale flesh of thighs and breasts. Her face, free of its mask, is lined about the eyes and mouth, though her brow is still nearly smooth. She walks across the room and kneels before Zsiuze, takes her hand and raises it to her mouth. Her tongue scrapes across Zsiuze’s skin. “I could do it,” she said, her words muffled by Zsiuze’s fingers. “Give you what you want. Godwire. I could bend you around my presence, warp you into the image of me.” She manifests a flask of wine as black as blood and a simple wooden cup. A smile stretches her lips strangely. “You were Cupbearer in Vertex once. What, Daughter of Virtue, would you bear for me in Karnot?”

Zsiuze pangs to be consumed by godhead again. No. But there are other things on offer here, still dangerous if not as deadly. “I won’t be your Cupbearer.” She takes the flask, tips it in the hollow of Ekati’s collarbone. Wine pours down over Ekati’s breasts, the soft folds of her belly. The witch-queen does not resist when Zsiuze pushes her backward onto the cold stones. Zsiuze sucks sweet, dark wine off Ekati’s knifepoint nipples, from the dimple of her navel, and then she is drinking deep from the stranger vintage of the god’s own body. Is this how you tasted when you were alive? Zsiuze wonders, because it is easier to put her mind to such questions than to think of the god who never offered her to partake of such mysteries.

Her tongue drives deeper. Into Ekati’s cunt she whines once, and grinds her hips against the floor between the witch-queen’s legs.

Something brushes Zsiuze’s temple, and she comes up for air. The tufts of dark hair on Ekati’s cunt part around a slender, gleaming phallus. Godwire, Zsiuze thinks, or rather godmetal, and her hips strain toward the monstrosity. The witch-queen tuts softly, pulls Zsiuze’s face up to hers and drinks deep of her own sex from Zsiuze’s swollen lips. “Something more temporary, perhaps.” The phallus brushes against Zsiuze through the fabric of her shift, and each contact is a blast of white-hot static nothingness.

Destruction is Ekati’s domain, after all.

A funny thing, thinks Zsiuze, from a billion light-years away, with the witch’s mouth on her breast and her cock a hairs-breadth from Zsiuze’s thigh. Either god would as soon destroy her as look at her–Tau out of anger at her return unbidden, Ekati for a moment’s passing entertainment–and she would rut herself into oblivion on the godwire if allowed. Her grasp on the future grows diffuse for all its tensile strength, a spiderweb shaken by a hurricane. What chance has she, when all three powers of Vertex and Karnot are prepared to end her?

Her destruction lies ahead. She knows its name and its dark shifting shape. But not yet. She yanks her shift up and thrusts herself upon what Ekati offers. The twin gifts of pain and glory cushion her fall into oblivion.

* * *

Zsiuze wakes naked and alone on cold granite.

Stone below. Above her, the void. The room is floor, and nothing else. Ekati’s attention wanders.

At the far end of the room, an enormous spider rests on a web of entrails whose endpoints disappear into nothingness. When Zsiuze approaches, the creature’s chelicerae twitch. “I dreamed of Twofall. Do you know that world?”

“No.” A tentative step takes Zsiuze closer to the spider. Her bare feet squelch in the web’s dripping fluids. “Is it far?”

“As far as it is possible to be, and as close as thought.” The spider drops to the ground beside Zsiuze, making her stagger. “I studied there once, long ago.”

“What was it like?”

“The world wore a kirtle of emerald green, and her belt was a dozen shining moons. In her universities, we tore down the walls of the universe and sat astride the rubble, laughing.” Pedipalps quiver. “I would have liked to go back there, someday.”

Zsiuze lays a hand on the carapace, cool as old bone. She does not lie and say, perhaps you will, someday. Nor yet: perhaps I will visit, if I may. Both lies echo with their hollowness.

The witch-queen says, “Tau has never had the will to truly destroy me. My soul sings at the thought of his end, and yet. And yet.” The spider’s first two sets of legs fold, and her thorax strikes the stone floor hard enough to crack it. Zsiuze falls on bruised knees. “No. This is a trick. The Daughter of Virtue came here to slay the beast, not her master. Unless–”

The spider lurches forward, carapace scraping tiles. The pedipalps clasp Zsiuze about the waist. “Ekati!” she cries, and braces her feet against the slashing chelicerae. Her knees bend despite her best efforts.

The strength in her legs won’t save her. For the second time she snatches a quantum from Ekati, and for the second time offers an image for the witch-queen’s consumption. In it, twinned figures dance themselves to death. She adds a superimposition to one of the figures, so that sometimes it is of a size with the other, and sometimes it is dwarfed by its match’s terrible majesty. A mating vow in reverse. A promise of mutual annihilation.

The pedipalps give one last shudder of effort. Then they part, dropping Zsiuze onto her tailbone. Instinct sends her scrambling backward, but the spider does not follow. Zsiuze releases the quantum, which disappears into one of the spider’s bottomless eyes. “I thought,” says Ekati, “I thought…”

The cracked carapace rocks side to side. A much smaller form squeezes between the jagged edges: neither spider nor woman, but a colorless protoplasm that pours to a stop between Zsiuze’s knees. A pseudopod stretches across the gap between the nameless thing and Zsiuze’s taut-muscled brow. “I think it would be best to go now,” says a voice, wet and muffled. “Before one of us says something we regret.”

The pseudopod retracts into itself, and returns bearing a dagger of the finest godwire, as delicate as what once adorned Zsiuze’s skin. With it, a sheath of black leather, to keep the singing metal away from Zsiuze’s too-willing flesh. She takes it without a word. Acceptance is the greatest thanks she can offer. She would rather plunge it into her own breast and sing hymns of fractal grace with her last breath. “Are you ready?” she asks.

Within the churning blob, a glimmering quantum appears and twists free of the amorphous body. This quantum will never return to Ekati; the dagger’s blade drinks it down. A secret syringe, to introduce Ekati’s poisonous chaos into the perfect rigor of Tau.

Or at least that is how Zsiuze has let Ekati understand it.

Zsiuze jams the sheathed weapon into her waistband, then extends a hand to Ekati. The colorless gelatin condenses, then twists upward in something like a human shape. A god’s unfinished thought: soft thumbprints where eyes should have been laid, vague lumps suggesting the shape of elbows or knees. A fingerless protrusion clasps Zsiuze’s hand, and Zsiuze is moved to speak. “I would have liked to see Twofall, as you saw it.”

“Twofall?” The witch-queen’s laugh is clear and ringing, though she lacks a mouth to give it form. “I unraveled that world to make my own.” Her proffered protrusion ripples. “Time to go,” she says, and it is.

* * *

Vertex is different, and the same.

Zsiuze stands alone in a twisting hallway. She recognizes the soft arc of the curving walls as a Fibonacci spiral. Diamond portals inlay the pale mother-of-pearl walls, doors that open to machine rooms and dining halls and leisure palaces. A design pleasing in its simplicity. There is always a center to Vertex, but a higher-order function would have taken more time to puzzle through. Tau’s reorganizations sometimes prioritize new levels of complexity, different aspects of order that intersect and build on one another.

She starts walking, then running. Somewhere in Vertex, an Engineer is noticing a mass imbalance in the great system; elsewhere an Energy Attendant is trying to account for a 0.0004% increase in resource use. If in Karnot time’s arrow has no tip, here in Vertex it is sharpened to a knife’s point. Every moment Tau does not know she is here yields a greater probability of success. Every moment until then is a widening chasm of odds.

She runs faster.

If only the tunnel Ekati tore through the fabric of Vertex had penetrated closer to the heart of this place. But its aim was as random as anything devised by Ekati. Zsiuze follows the curve of the spiral inward, downward.

Around the bend, three Cupbearers emerge from a portal, naked and laughing. From a pleasure hall, with the scent of sex still clinging sweetly to them. Zsiuze should run past, before they think to look more closely at her. Instead she stops before them, her eyes snared in the silver webs that map their perfect bodies. “What is that all over you?” says the youngest, recoiling from Zsiuze. “Why are you–why are you wearing clothes? Are you an Engineer? Are you lost?”

“Her wire,” one of the others cries. The third stifles a scream. “Her wire is gone!”

The soft dismayed look in the youngest’s eyes curdles. “Fallen,” he says, “you should not have come back here.”

“I’ve seen a hundred worlds,” Zsiuze says, though they have already hardened their hearts against her. She would have to take them there, show them Dyson spheres and starholds and the people who live there, how they drink down knowledge as heedlessly as they drink water. How they choose Virtue on their own terms. And she cannot, has not even a borrowed quantum of godhood that would let her play such scenes before them at this vast remove of space and time and meaning. She stretches out a hand, as if she might touch the taut godwire that limns the curve of a shoulder or hip. As if she could absorb a glimmer of Tau secondhand. “This one is broken.”

“We aren’t the broken ones.” The tallest Cupbearer takes a step toward her. “You are.”

Against the small of her back, the dagger whispers battle-frenzy and blood. She must use it. She cannot use it. “You don’t understand,” she says. How could they? She didn’t know until she had the light of a thousand suns to see by. “Please.”

The youngest twists a wrist and a chromodynamic spear appears in his hands. Its tip points at Zsiuze’s navel. “Mercy would be irrational. Tau showed you grace once by offering true exile. You shouldn’t have come back.”

“You never should have transgressed…in…the first place,” the tallest says. The words draw out dreamy and slow. Zsiuze’s muscles clench as all three Cupbearers’ faces slacken. Tau, nearby?

Clattering claws jolt Zsiuze into movement. From around the bend in the hall, a she-wolf races, and crushes the youngest in massive jaws; three more shred the remaining Cupbearers into a mist of blood and tangled wire.

Zsiuze falls back against the wall, a scream grinding to dust in her throat. But the wolves don’t come for her. The lead she-wolf, masked in gore, speaks in Ekati’s voice. “Mourn later, Daughter of Virtue.”

“I came here to save them too,” says Zsiuze. Her stomach heaves, but there is nothing to vomit up.

Black lips peel back from stained teeth. “They didn’t want your saving.”

“I don’t care!” Saliva sprays from Zsiuze’s lips. “All of this was never to let you destroy Vertex, or remake it in your image.”

“We’ll claw one another to pieces over the bones of the future later.” The wolf’s neck bends, and she tears at ragged muscle. “For now, go. Tau must know I’m here. I will lead him a merry chase, but you must find his sanctum.” The four wolves watch Zsiuze go as she staggers down the hallway, leaving scarlet footprints in her wake.

* * *

Sourceless, omnipresent lights flash and dim as Zsiuze spirals tighter into the core of Vertex. She does not see another Cupbearer, nor any lesser worshippers. Confined to their present location for the duration of Karnot’s foray, perhaps, or too occupied with ecstasy to be aware of intruders. Or maybe they are all waging a glorious war against Ekati and her constructs.

Where the spiraling hallways disappears into itself, there lies the heart of Vertex. Zsiuze steps inside and feels herself both torn apart at the seams, and crushed down to the size of an atom. When the world solidifies, she looks up into Tau’s sanctum. The room is a rhombic spirallohedron, and when Zsiuze stares into its tessellated faces, they overlay her image with the truths of the universe. She should conceal herself, prepare for Tau’s return. Instead she forgets how to blink.

Then the shattered reflection of her own face is joined by another. Not a face, properly speaking: a hyperbola from which projects a voice like the memory of a man’s: “Once more uninvited into My inmost thoughts. What punishment greater than exile can a second offense warrant?” A pause. “Your wire …”

The absence of that all-obliterating rush of divinity claws at her ribcage. “You’d let your Cupbearers face Ekati alone?”

The spirallohedron lances inward. Zsiuze jumps away, but no human being moves faster than a god’s will. Cold Logic binds her limbs, pulls tensed muscles taut. She and Ekati planned for the contingency that Tau would discover Zsiuze before she discovered him, of course. But a dagger slipped neatly into his heedless back would have been easier.

Tau’s countenance warps. The hyperbola becomes the space between a double helix of nucleotides, its ends tapering off into infinity; in the middle, an industrious assembly of polymeric machinery manipulates the twinned strands. “I find less and less purpose in rousing Myself from My private thoughts,” he says, in the busy noise of the polymerase. “As you well know, it was a Cupbearer who routed Ekati the last time she thought to cross my borders.” Behind him, the faces of the spirallohedron ripple in pale rainbow hues. “I would say that I trust My current servants no less than I trusted you, but of course that cannot be true. Once the poison of doubt has been introduced, its taint forever lingers.”

Poison. The spark of Ekati at her back writhes at the mention of its name. Zsiuze tests the boundaries of the Logic that holds her. No flaw that she can see. She must keep him talking. Force him to leave her an opening, and then drag herself through it to some kind of salvation. “Please let me go. I want to talk to you.” She cannot say she only wants to talk. If Tau detects a lie, he’ll destroy her, flense fickle flesh from bone. A scorched skeleton has nothing to hide. For the same reason, she cannot fling certain blade-sharpened truths at him: They do not worship you in the starholds of Aza Ashijah and Lys Prime. They do not admire you feebly, as they would admire the shadow-shapes cast on a cave wall by a small and flickering fire. They have set their own worlds ablaze with truer Virtues than yours. She wets her lips. “As we used to be able to do. Before.”

An error is introduced into the nucleotide chain; a cog in the assembly apparatus excises the misplaced monomer before continuing. “It is not an easy choice to withhold Grace. Especially from one who was once as loved as you. But forgiveness is not easily obtained.” The removed nucleotide spirals out of sight. “Even less so when you commit the same sin for which you were originally condemned.”

There is a slight relaxation of the bindings on Zsiuze’s hands. She could not beg forgiveness without appealing to Tau himself, and if he does not leave his Sanctum anymore, she could not appeal to him without violating it. When he is angry, Tau’s Logic slips. Zsiuze has the rare gift of waking that fire of rage in him–though she would not have called it a gift the first time it burned her. “Then I am unforgiveable?” She must twist this into a question, to bury the falsehood deep. What she does now is beyond the reach of absolution. But it must be done. She loved him once, loves him still, aches for his embrace even now. But she loves rightness more. He would be glad of that, she thinks. She thinks.

“You were My most beloved. For that I gave you mercy. There is no true Reason in destroying sentience, no opportunity for the reformation of Logic.” Tau’s voice trembles. The helix cleaves apart and each strand bends in on itself, creating a three-dimensional labyrinth of quartz cut to perfect right angles. Zsiuze’s mind longs to work through it, following each right-hand turn to a safe solution. Instead she sifts through Tau’s words for warp or weakness. If victory is to come, it will come left-handed and backward. But with his shift to solid stone, his tone grows more confident. “Every choice has its cost, and what Reason may be forfeited with the end of a mind may not counterbalance the pain of its existence.” Confidence softens into gentle wisdom. “Perhaps I may yet find the source of your errors.”

“Destroy me for my own good?” No flexion in her fetters. A tacit agreement on her part that there is something to be gained as well as lost from her death. The labyrinth flickers in red and gold, and Zsiuze’s chest splits open along her breastbone. Wet spongy lungs quiver in the open air; her heart, heedless of its exposure, shudders and keeps time. Pain spills out where blood does not; Zsiuze’s breath still comes and her vision doesn’t stain black. Tau will keep her alive while he takes her apart. He wants her to know the flaw that marks her. She cannot fault him. She wants the same. “Your beloved Cupbearer?”

Once beloved. And Cupbearer no longer.” Nerves unspool from secret places in muscle and bone. Tau draws them into tidy lines. The glistening tangle of viscera comes next, as if he would read the omens from her bowels, and finally the blue-grey knots of veins. All these perused and studied; laid straight, they reach to the farthest corners of the spirallohedron, thirsty roots with no hope of water. “If you held the deepest place in My heart, then you did more damage when I carved myself clean of you.”

Her wrists are little more than sagging dermis on bone. Slowly, while his attention turns inward toward wounds old and new, she bends a hand toward freedom. Her fingertips brush the dagger’s handle. With Ekati’s chaos in hand, she can sever Tau’s Logic at its inception. With it, she can drive the poison home and begin the long hard crawl through all that must follow.

She lacks the strength to pull it more than an inch out of its sheath. Only now does Zsiuze give in to the cry of pain Tau’s ministrations have called forth. She cannot fail, not so close.

But Tau is still speaking. “If I must lose you,” he says, “I would lose you in one last communion. Perhaps then I could see …” The labyrinth’s walls unravel, and where they come apart, they do so in sinuous snakes of godwire. Zsiuze’s breath hitches. She needs this. She cannot let this happen.

“I have loved you, Zsiuze of the Gentle Spirit,” says Tau, not kindly and not cruelly but some confusing average of the two. “Regret is not logical, and yet, I know it. Perhaps, with further reorganization …”

The wires reach past the rends in Zsiuze’s clothes, work their way into slack muscle. She screams, and Tau seizes as he understands why she is there. Too late, it’s all too late, and whether or not regret is of Logic, it is of Zsiuze, and through the godwire Tau lances into her with a thousand flensing knives.

Behind her back, her fingers grope not for the dagger handle but for its blade. When she squeezes, it slices her to the bone. But the spark of Ekati is there, irradiating Zsiuze with her presence through the godwire wound. Zsiuze grasps it and forces it into herself.

At first she is overcome. There is a gulf too vast to measure between feeling a god’s nearness and containing it. To do both at once strains the seams of her being. But then Tau retreats–the only rational position in the face of approaching destruction–and before he can unwind the godwire that knits her flesh, she sends Ekati down along those lines.

The poison works. Tau’s Logic shatters along jagged lines. Through the godwire and through her own blunted power, Zsiuze catches what she can of that subverted perfection and drinks it down. It is like drowning in an ocean of her god’s cold decaying flesh, but with every shred she adds, she feels a new piece of Vertex awaken to her, and she keeps those pieces from folding in on themselves as best she can. Even in the instant since Tau’s end, some are too far gone to salvage, and Zsiuze cries out for what she has lost.

Or rather, not Zsiuze, for she is more than herself now, she is fractured and fragmented godhood. This dreadful new greatness tears at her humanity, and she binds it up tightly. She needs all of it she can hold on to.

Once she has gathered up all she can of herself and Tau, the center holds. Not in a stable state: for What-was-Zsiuze, Ekati-laced logic is poison too. But there is an antidote for this sort of sickness.

She falls to her knees and the spirallohedron cracks under the weight of her hands. The fragmented ends of the godwire peel away from her bones; its nearness newly repulses her, and she does not need it now to tell her Ekati approaches in triumph. What-was-Zsiuze is fraying around the edges but she smooths herself into the human shape she called her own–as it appeared before Tau’s handiwork. When the spirallohedron bubbles inward to admit Ekati, all the witch-queen sees is the fallen Cupbearer, small and broken even in victory. An easier target for the taking. That is fine. When What-was-Zsiuze looks up at Ekati, all she sees is the mighty queen who could not claw her way back into Vertex without a human’s help. She, at least, knows better than to underestimate broken things.

The Ekati-wolf licks its chops, re-tasting Cupbearer blood. “Strange,” she says, looking around at the mottled walls and shredded wires. “I thought Vertex would fall apart from its foundations. Is it done?”

“There was a life for me, out there.” What-was-Zsiuze dares not answer her with a falsehood. It is not done, it is barely begun, and she does not begin to guess what will happen if she tests her newly gained Logic with lies. She is so cold. Life and warmth recede from her, a tide that rolls ever outward and never returns to shore. “In the starholds. Those other worlds.”

Hair bristles along the wolf’s back. Preparing to fight. Ekati would destroy Zsiuze now, unmake her from this world and all the rest. For her, Zsiuze’s purpose is spent, and her interest nearly gone as well. Best not to keep souvenirs with a history of devouring what they love.

What-was-Zsiuze makes herself stand and reaches out to unravel a tendril of Ekati’s power. She dares not use her own, not yet. She cannot show Ekati that which she is not already looking for. Again, the asking is small, and Ekati lets her take it. With that borrowed strength, she unwrites the wolf-shape and replaces it with a human body forged from familiar ligament and bone. A woman’s half-smile and dimpled navel, the maps of ancient lines at the corners of eye and mouth. There is still a faint point to the teeth–either a moment’s carelessness from What-was-Zsiuze, or Ekati’s subconscious effort to cling to the wolf-shape, to hold a predator’s shape long enough to do a predator’s task. What-was-Zsiuze’s goals may still be accomplished if Ekati’s jaws snap around her throat now, if the witch-queen drinks down blood richly stained with deity. More likely that stain that will unmake her, the same way Tau was unmade. A vessel is needed, to safely mix the two. To compartmentalize, set aside, sanctify.

What-was-Zsiuze crosses the mirrored tiles of the spirallohedron. Her remade body wears the same sex-and-battle-torn rags, bears the same scars. “The dagger,” Ekati says, shoulders suddenly sharp, and What-was-Zsiuze smiles. The blade skitters across the floor to be forgotten. Ekati relaxes into the moment: a short reprieve before she writes the ending to Zsiuze’s story. Once there was a Cupbearer who clawed her way back into Vertex, she served her purpose well and was destroyed. The space between them falls away by halves, an infinite journey that What-was-Zsiuze cannot quite find a way to end. Ekati collapses the paradox by leaning forward and crushing her lips against What-was-Zsiuze’s.

What-was-Zsiuze’s ice-cold touch parts Ekati’s mouth in a gasp. At that opening, What-was-Zsiuze makes herself a godwire tongue and thrusts it inside, betraying Ekati with a kiss.

Heat flows one way, from Ekati’s raging enthalpy into half-alive Zsiuze: in deference to the laws of thermodynamics, and to the will that the almost-god imposes on the transaction. She drinks down Ekati, in the same way she did once before and in very different ways too. Their intelligences twine together in the vessel that was Zsiuze, theirs and Tau’s. In some places they are bound intractably together; in others they repel each other to the very limits of what the vessel tolerates. Where they meet, they spark and sear.

Change is painful. But it is necessary. What-was-Zsiuze closes her eyes. When she opens them again, she is something new: twin Szilard engines churning in eternal opposition, outweighed and anchored by the remains of three human minds.

What-was-Zsiuze smiles, and reaches out to rewrite the name of the world.

Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes stories about sad astronauts, angry princesses, and dead gods. Her novellas Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters and Local Star debuted early in 2021 from Tor.com and Interstellar Flight Press, respectively, and besides Kaleidotrope, her short fiction has also appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Analog, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She also co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge, a magazine of fun and optimistic speculative fiction. For updates, you can follow her on Twitter: @Aimee_Ogden.