Descendants ascendance - Editor
One True Faith
by Tracie McBride
Alia shivered at the side of the pool despite the humid heat. The raspy monotone voice of the Shostark irritated her. The planet’s emanations had wreaked havoc on his genes; his hairless and earless head, scaly purple-hued skin, and distorted vocal cords suggested that he was one of a handful of humans who were fourth generation Vermanian. She felt faintly ill at the prospect of her descendants looking like that. Not that she intended to have any Vermanian descendants, or any descendants at all, for that matter. Even if she had wanted to, the birth rate on Vermania was so low, even the birth of a mutant like the Shostark was greeted with joy. She switched her attention to the distant sound of the sandstorm battering the surface of the planet somewhere overhead. Seven more months, and she’d turn eighteen. Then she’d be on the next shuttle off this Godforsaken planet and away from these creepy heretics.
The Shostark took a ladle, dipped it into a polished obsidian bowl, and cast its contents over the waters. A coarse grey ash settled on the surface. He murmured a final incantation, and then motioned to the mourners. Aunt Celia and Uncle George, Xavier’s parents, were first. They entered the pool hand in hand, briefly submerged themselves, and then climbed out the other side. Their white robes clung unflatteringly to their bodies and ash stuck in clumps to their face and hair like a virulent skin disease. Aunt Celia stumbled as she stepped away from the pool. Her face contorted with grief as she accepted the Shostark’s steadying touch at her elbow.
Alia hung back until she was the last person left to enter the pool. Trembling, she clenched her fists at her sides. Not for the first time, she silently cursed her family’s prosperity. If her aunt and uncle hadn’t made a fortune mining on Vermania, her parents would not have purchased one of the few remaining licenses and moved here to join them. They wouldn’t have been forced to forsake their Earthly religion. Aunt Celia and Uncle George wouldn’t have been able to afford the full funeral rites for their son, and right now she would be receiving a ceremonial daubing on her forehead instead of having to bathe in her dead cousin Xavier’s ashes.
The water looked muddy from the passage of the mourners before her. Swallowing her revulsion, she descended into the pool and completed the ritual as quickly as she dared. Her skin felt gritty from the remnants of ash coating her. Her wet mourning robes outlined every curve of her body, and she felt a surge of triumph as she noticed several of the male mourners looking at her with unguarded lust.
Xavier used to look at her like that. She had wielded her vow of chastity like a weapon, revelling in his pain as he had reached out to her again and again, only to be rejected every time. She’d even heard whispers that it was her treatment of him that had destroyed his fragile hold on sanity and sent him walking on the surface unprotected in a sandstorm. Her face flushed with anger at the thought, and she ducked her head, tipping her long blonde hair over her face to hide her flaming cheeks. She glanced sideways from behind the curtain of hair to check the Shostark’s reaction. He was looking at her too, but his expression was unreadable. She looked away and followed the other female mourners into an antechamber to get dressed.
Someone is in her room, standing over her bed. Her mouth works as she tries to call for help, but she cannot make a sound. The intruder leans close to her. It is Xavier. He reaches his hands out to her and takes hold of her shoulders. His skin changes on contact with hers, large purple scales forming and spreading up his bare arms like a stain. He flings the bedclothes aside and tears her nightgown from neck to hem. She opens her mouth again to scream, and it suddenly fills with sand. She is coughing and choking on it, trying to clear it from her throat. It spills onto the floor with a sound like a whisper. Xavier lowers his weight onto her naked body as she fights in vain to draw a breath…
“Are you feeling alright?” her father said at dinner one night. “You look terrible. And this is the third night in a row that you haven’t touched your dinner. You should see a Shostark.”
Privately, she had to admit that she felt terrible. After Xavier’s funeral, she had defied the ritual proscription against bathing and had washed off the remnants of Xavier’s ashes as soon as she had got home, but it felt as if the grit had seeped through her pores and settled under her skin. The nightmares had unsettled her to the point where she was afraid to go to sleep. She felt constantly restless and irritable, and couldn’t concentrate on even the simplest task.
“No, thanks. I’d rather go to a real doctor. Oh, except, I forgot,” she said sarcastically, “the Shostarks won’t let any real doctors step foot on Vermania, much less set up practice. Instead we have to put up with their mumbo jumbo.”
Her younger brother Samuel guffawed. “You’re so hot for the One True Faith back on Earth,” he said, waving his fork at her, “but that’s the biggest pack of mumbo jumbo I’ve ever heard. ‘Thou Shalt Not’ this and ‘Thou Shalt Not’ that—and who was the genius who came up with the whole ‘burning in hell’ idea? I’d take the Shostarks over those lunatics any day.”
“You’ve been on Vermania too long,” she said. “The Shostarks have brainwashed you.”
“And you have been here too long too,” said her mother, “if you have forgotten what it was like on Earth. Poverty, disease, degradation—we’re lucky to have escaped it, and we’ve got the Shostarks to thank for our good fortune.”
“The people on Earth suffer because they sin,” said Alia. “I won’t suffer because I keep myself pure. As soon as I turn eighteen, I’m going back to Earth to train to be a High Priestess, and you can’t stop me.”
“You’re right,” her mother said calmly. “I can’t stop you once you’re eighteen. But right now, you are my responsibility. You will consult a Shostark tomorrow, and that is final.”
The Shostark that attended Alia was so mutated, she couldn’t even tell its gender, if it even had one. Its eyelids opened and closed vertically, and its fingers were partially fused together with flexible fleshy webbing which was the only visible part of its body that wasn’t covered in dark purple scales.
“Describe your symptoms, please,” it said in a flat atonal voice.
She crossed her arms across her chest and leaned back in her chair. “If you Shostarks think you’re so good, you should be able to tell just by looking at me,” she sneered.
It blinked several times before answering. “Under our care, nobody dies on Vermania except from old age or serious accident. And yet, you don’t trust us.” It cocked its head to one side. “Why is that?”
Alia snorted. “We’ve got this stinking planet to thank for that, not you. Nothing can survive here, except for us – if you can call this living. It’s like Vermania is hermetically sealed.”
The Shostark twisted its scaled face into a smile. “What a perceptive child you are,” it said. “Open your mouth, please.”
Alia defied its request for several seconds, and then sullenly complied. The Shostark leaned forward and scraped a forefinger around the inside of Alia’s mouth before she had time to protest. It sat still and silent, staring unwaveringly at its forefinger for a full minute. Alia squirmed in her chair.
Finally it broke from its trance. It slowly lowered its finger and met Alia’s gaze.
“Ah,” it said.
Even although she professed a lack of faith in Shostark medicine, its air of solemnity unnerved her. “What? What is it? What’s wrong with me?”
“There is nothing wrong with you,” said the Shostark. The hair on Alia’s neck prickled at the stress it placed on the word ‘wrong’. “When was the last time you had sexual intercourse?”
“How dare you!” Alia spat. “I am a devotee of the One True Faith. I’m only going along with all this Shostark bullshit because my family makes me. I am keeping myself pure so I can become a High Priestess when I return to Earth.”
The Shostark smiled again, wider than before, and swayed slightly towards her in a way that reminded her uncomfortably of a cobra about to strike. “I regret to tell you,” it said in a tone that suggested anything but regret, “that your path lies elsewhere.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You attended a funeral recently, did you not?”
“Your cousin’s funeral. Your young, male cousin’s funeral.”
The crawling sensation under Alia’s skin had intensified. Eddies of nausea began to swirl in the pit of her stomach, and she felt the first pulses of a headache that promised to incapacitate her before the afternoon was out. She rose on shaky legs and backed away from the Shostark, her chair clattering to the floor. A small paring knife lay on a side table next to a bowl of fruit, and she snatched it up, unsure of what she would do with it but needing the spurious security it gave her to hold something between herself and the Shostark. “Tell me what is going on,” she said, “or so help me…”
“You’re pregnant,” it said.
The knife slid from her limp fingers. “Impossible,” she whispered.
The Shostark shook its head. “The energy of the Universe strikes a delicate balance on Vermania—few die, few are born. But this exquisite balance allows that energy to vibrate strongly. Our most fervent wishes are often granted, and in ways that some might indeed call ‘impossible’. Your family craved wealth, and now they have it. Your cousin Xavier’s deepest yearning was to join with you, and now he has achieved a more intimate union than he could ever have imagined. And you…you want to be worshipped.”
It slid from its seat and knelt at Alia’s feet. “And now you carry in your womb the first fully mutated human Vermanian. We cannot tell how far the mutation will go, but we know it will be magnificent. Our wishes, too, have been granted.” The Shostark’s eyes glittered as it bowed and touched its forehead to Alia’s sandaled feet. It rose, and then bowed again, repeating the obeisance over and over, Alia’s howls of anguish all but drowning out the accompanying chant.