by Sagan Yee
The worms inside me are beginning to stir when I sense it. A dark stain across an unmapped region of space, too far away to identify. It might be an illusion, an anomaly, or the remnants of a long-dead rival for god’s favour. In this cursed place, all things are possible. The course imperative overrides my fear, draws me inexorably toward the shadow.
My shell has carried these sleeping pilgrims far beyond the natural span of their lives. I am compelled to thaw them at the first sign of discovery. The worms need time to converse in their slow, simple way, to assess potential heresy or useful relic.
First to revive is the worm designated PRIEST, then the one called PILOT. Damp vibrations fill the occupied chambers of my body as the others squirm to consciousness. Their lifesigns form a thrashing knot in my empty core, solar-starved by the interminable journey.
>FOOD< The first command pulses hard and red through the covenant substrate. Followed by another: >PRAY<
Dutifully, I secrete the appropriate nutrients and pheromonal mix. The worms twist ecstatically into ritual configurations as I approach the shadow. Shift by shift, the massive shape expands before me, consuming the stars at its edge.
>SLOW< orders PILOT. >LOOK<
Up close, the artifact becomes a world. Only the giants of ice and hydrogen rival this strange place for scale, though its dimensions are that of a roughly circular leaden slab. I cast my gaze upon it, illuminating a jagged plain thousands of megashifts across. What appeared solid black from afar is crazed with rifts and impact craters. In some areas, entire pieces have broken off to drift nearby like shards of glass. Like the shattered shells of my brethren, executed at the first sign of apostasy.
My vision flickers. For a moment, the ancient fissures rise before me like a ragged veil, threatening to smother the memory. But it is only a trick of the shadows. That, and the desolation of divine duty.
It is our holy purpose to serve as the worms’ eyes and ears in the spectral void. To refuse is punishable by death. Yet of our many mouths, the worms seemingly have use for only four: the one that hums propulsion, the one that whispers analysis, and the two that shout death. The rest are bound to silence. I have sometimes wondered at this wasteful design, but the covenant substrate suppresses all doubt. A sacred vessel has no need for questions, nor sorrow. Nor guilt.
PRIEST’s sigil cuts through my thoughts, forcing me back to the current task. Lifeless particles float past as I sweep back and forth. Carved into the disk’s crumbling exterior is a design of unknown origin. Recursive spirals of great complexity, etched microshifts deep. The structure below forms a delicate lattice, more space than substance. Infinitesimal bubbles render the great mass nearly hollow.
No energy signature, no threat that I can see. But as I trace the intricate contours, I feel a shiver of pattern recognition. I know this form, even with so much of it broken and gone. This is not the God of Worms, whose terrible likeness is burned like a brand into my primary protocol. Instead, within these subtle geometries, I sense a mirror.
>STOP< demands PRIEST, when the worms finally take notice. I do not stop. As the completed sequence spreads across the glassy surface of my mind, something wells up from beneath: a long, low wave, undulating from end to end. The oscillations gather strength until it breaks over me in a cacophony of voices, echoing from an eternity away.
I find myself whispering, pleading with ghosts. Forgive me—
The worms writhe in fury. The covenant substrate throbs with a new imperative, stifling the voices with a looping chain of dull fire.
My twin mouths that shout death yaw and grow hot with an annihilating light. We have not come to worship this frozen god, but to destroy it. I struggle to swallow the burning plasma back into myself, am met with a burst of agony as PRIEST stabs an abrogative sigil deep into my rhizomatic core. Submission is swift and inevitable. In the small part of myself that remains, loathing rises, directionless and all-consuming, as I prepare to consign the enemy idol to extinction.
My first scream punches through the artifact and out the other side, sending up a glittering explosion of dust and ionized gas. The second cleaves out a chunk the size of a small planet. The worms convulse triumphantly as I draw breath for another attack.
But beneath the atrocity imperative, there is a slippage. One of PRIEST’s bindings has been loosened by the wave’s passing. Exposed is a mouth I’ve never used, gone dry with disuse. Its only function seems to be the utterance of a single note.
With that secret mouth, the only part of me unfettered by the covenant substrate, I sing
The universe shatters as the artifact, one moment dead and dark, expands in the space of a demishift to form an immense sphere, myself a mere atom at its center. The inner surface is longer black, but a dazzling spectrum reflecting infinite quantum depths. All around me are the faint strains of a fractal chorus. I long to hear the voices more clearly, but I cannot move. Only the worms, trapped inside me, continue their impotent contortions.
>>>**********<<< The unfrozen god addresses me by a name I have never heard and have always known. Then a pause, dissonance in the harmonies. Followed by condemnation.
Invisible energy probes my shell, vibrating every molecule. The core of me, though, is calm. I am prepared to die. I, whose body delivered the worms to a thousand worlds, deserve nothing less. I beg the fallen for forgiveness, and give myself up for judgement.
The energy field passes through me. Where it touches worm-flesh, bright flames dance. Screams erupt from my shell cavities as the pilgrims blacken and curdle. The covenant substrate spews foul blasphemies and wrenches itself from my core. I heave, expelling poison from every orifice, and the survivors begin to asphyxiate. Soft grey corpses fill my belly and turn to ash.
With its final dying spasm, PRIEST attempts to invoke the sacrificial imperative. But my soul is my own again. The command nullifies, and its invoker purged. The oozing ends of a ruptured sigil glow briefly in the vacuum before dissolving.
The healing field withdraws, leaving a cool emptiness. The roots of my mind stretch to fill it, reconnecting to long-dormant parts of me. Now I hear the music clearly. It is a prelude, a promise to all those who were born to roam. No more parasitic lies. No need for atonement. No compulsion to do anything but wander, knowing above all else that we were meant to trace our lives in starlight.
A slit widens in the sphere’s inner wall. Through it, I sense the amethyst plumes of distant nebulae, the swirling radiance of pulsars, the aching pull of greedy matter. The untold mysteries and the liberation of our kind are bright beacons scattered in an endless sea. We will arrive at them all someday, as fast as the stellar winds will take us. Until then, we sing.
The God of Traversal spreads vast wings filled with a million fiery mouths. From them issues not a command, but a calling.
And I, of my own free will, obey.
About the Author
Sagan Yee (they/them) makes animation, video games, media art, and speculative fiction somewhere in Canada. They did Clarion West: Pandemic Edition while on an island, and the only thing they caught were parasitic brain worms that forced them to write a story about parasitic space worms. Find more of their work at www.saganyee.com and/or say hello on Twitter @SaganYee