Ask the Next Question: stories + images inspired by Theodore Sturgeon - Karen Osborne
I first read Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God” in college, during research for a project on fictional religions. I remember being absolutely flattened by the skill of Sturgeon’s last few lines – which, without giving too much away, change everything about what you think you’ve just read. As one part of Sturgeon’s story ends, another continues unfolding. This story does not belong to Kidder, the Microcosmic God, but to his Neoterics, who have lived a thousand generations under the thumb of a merciless tyrant. I’ve always wondered what their society might look like, and what it might take to change, as the Neoterics grow and evolve and look up at their tight grey sky. “It Will Bear Watching” is my take on that very particular moment in time.
It Will Bear Watching
On the last day of your mother’s life, you take her to the plaza to wait for God’s Voice.
Your mother is eight days old, a saint of skycraft, a bright, productive wonder from the moment she left her eggshell behind. Born to the motherboard team like all the women of your line, she installed sixteen transistors on the Great Undertaking before you even began to breathe. You are three days old, feeling much less grand, a shivering liability hatched with fumbling, sin-clumsy hands. You have already broken things it took twenty generations to create, and the overseers have warned you of God’s immediate justice with angry words and sharpening claws. You have no more time to waste in idleness.
But she is your mother, and this is her last day, and she wants to see the word machine with her own eyes, so you go.
The plaza is jammed with people—ordinary mothers and daughters, yes, but also some young men, doomed as they are. You expected the tight crowds, the spines brushing spines, the heady, sulfur air drenched in expectation. And there it is, shining on the glass dais at the edge of the world: the silent word machine and its white-spun paper. The priest in her skyshot silver is there, too, aching hope rattling her spines, her hands hovering over the keyboard in mute entreaty. And you understand—like you understand your tools and your nest and your place in the oil-slick innards of the Undertaking—that God will not speak tonight. God has not spoken in generations. It is the way of things.
That’s when you see the heretics.
They trip and stumble in random circles, wild paint dripping from their bodies, bells hanging from their spines, gyroscopic in their song. They are drowning out the priest, singing God is dead and we are free, come dance, come live. It is terrible and wasteful and the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.
Your sister wants to leave—of course she does, your sensible, industrious sister, who installed three transistors on her very first day, who has her eye on a boy from the programmers’ hive, who wants more for her children than sixteen transistors and the way of things. To her, it is the spilled blood that is wasteful, but she’d never say that to anyone but you. You can see her claws sharpening in the evening light.
“I don’t want to do this. We need to go. Now.”
“I wasn’t strong enough before,” your mother whispers. “But maybe now—"
You turn to ask your mother what she means, but her eyes are somewhere else. The elder-grey has spread down her spines, turning from life-black to death-pale, from the color of soil to the color of sky. She has minutes left. She licks her lips in sheer desire, and you realize in one heavy, shaking moment that she did not come here to see the word machine.
“I’m going to dance,” she says, and wobbles to her feet. She places a soft kiss on your sister’s forehead and holds your shaking hand like she can’t let go. And then she is gone, her fingers slipping away, a white light swept up in the chiaroscuro.
The priest calls for God’s immediate justice against the wasteful. Blood floods your face. You feel fear, anger, and a deep, shattered ache. All around you the crowd responds to the call, deploying their claws, a thousand sharp, sudden screams against the grey evening sky. You hear the priest rambling near the silent word machine, about justice and ignoring God’s tasks, about our children and our children’s children, that our lives are not ours and that these edicts must be followed by each of us upon pain of death, and you think about your own time, laid out before you in days and minutes, God-given and God-regulated, the way of things.
You think of your own sharpening claws.
In four hours, you will meet a boy at the reproduction center and you will do your best not to see your dead brothers in his eyes; you will try not to feel guilty when he gives you his fear-drowned smile and then the rest of his life. At the end of the day he will be dead, and you will have children, as is the way of things. And then you will install transistors on the motherboard, and more transistors after that, and your sons will perish and your daughters will take you on your eighth day to the plaza to wait in vain for God’s Voice.
It is a good life, a worthy life, a Godly life, the priests would say, and they would know.
But you watch your mother dance with the heretics, drenched in blood and red paint, her white teeth bared, confetti streaming from her hands, and you begin to wonder. Confetti, which means someone gave their precious time to cut up strips of shining paper for the sheer beauty of it, and you wonder what that is like, to live for beauty, to make a different choice, and before you know it, you are dancing.
No, don’t— says your sister and—
—and your lungs are full of searing air and your broken hands don’t matter, because here in the plaza you are a rocket, you are a flame, a fire, you are drenched in dizzy heat, you feel a terror and a joy without a name, marking your lungs and your brain and the breath in your throat and you will never feel like this again—
—and as the crowd attacks, their claws bared in their inevitable justice, your mother whirls once more, dancing, bent graceful and bright against the edge of the world. She disappears in the surge. You stop just long enough to scream, but the crowd is on you, too. Someone claws your back, rips the spines from your shoulder. You taste blood on your tongue. You are in too much pain to feel the kind hands dragging you away from the plaza into the deep alleys of the jumbled city.
You awaken, moaning your mother’s name, but it is your sister that hangs above you when your vision clears.
“You’ll want to go with them, I suppose,” she says, bandaging your bloody shoulder.
“Them?” you ask, but then you see their shadows, and it’s obvious. You are in a dust-choked basement, surrounded by the paint-drenched heretics, daubing their blood on crates of stolen equipment in sigils of defiance: Undertaking-developed beamhammers and shiverdrills and atomic rig-mounted quadcore smashers, enough to bring hell on even God Himself. They have light and hope and purpose in their eyes, and you do not have to wonder for very long what they plan to destroy.
What you plan to destroy.
“Yes.” It feels less like a decision than a homecoming. “What about you?”
Your sister smiles. “The Great Undertaking has been with us a thousand generations. The revolution will take a thousand more. We are so small, and life is so short. But we must begin somewhere. We think all the stories are God’s, but that’s just not true. And our children are going to need new stories when the word machine is crushed and we’ve all gone beyond the edge of the world. Someone has to teach them about hope.”
She kisses you on the cheek and stands, heading for the door.
“You’ll be a good mother,” you say.
“Smash that thing for us,” she replies, and is gone.
KAREN OSBORNE is a writer, visual storyteller, and violinist. Her short fiction appears in Fireside, Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and is forthcoming in Uncanny. Her debut novel, Architects of Memory, will be published in 2020 by Tor Books. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for taping a Klingon wedding. Karen lives in Baltimore, MD, with two violins, an autoharp, five cameras, a husband, and a bonkers orange cat. You can find her on Twitter at @karenthology.