I remember very little of the next few days. Sharra kept us all in the cave as long as she could, living on pools of water fed by springs. While the weapons systems employed by the grey brotherhood were not exactly your ordinary fission bombs and were fairly ``clean'', they weren't completely clean and we'd all doubtless already gotten a dose of radiation. Sharra and I might survive a walk through the falling ash outside, but nobody else would or did; bodies littered the hidden path off the mountain when we did move two days later.
In the meantime, it had rained furiously outside, which washed much of the haze out of the sky and cleansed the air. I awoke a couple of times in the cave but thought I was dead and went back to sleep again, or perhaps it was that I never awoke and merely dreamed that I was dead. In complete blackness and near complete silence, who is to know the difference? I thought I felt water being fed between my lips once or twice and smelled Sharra, somehow, through the reek of unwashed, frightened bodies and the fresh sewage being deposited around us in the cavern, the stench of the dead bats that already were beginning to decay in the sultry air.
It was motion that awoke me a third time, motion and sunlight filtering down through the shabby piece of cloth (somebody's old shirt?) being held between the sun and my head.
I lay still. My whole body was one enormous bruise or worse, being banged back and forth as we rocked our way down the rocky terrain, but for all of that I didn't hurt with the searing electric pain that had dominated the last day of my consciousness. Then the memory of what had been done to me flooded back and I wept like a child who has lost its best toy, which in a sense, I was.
I slept a bit again, and woke up close to dusk just as the truck was coming to rest in a forest glade against a hillside that faced back towards where we had come. The mountain was now some twenty miles away, and whatever it had been before it was a real volcano now. Hot lava spilled up over the side and flowed down its flanks, burying our path and the cavern entrance alike beneath a slowly moving stream of red.
Sharra saw me move and came around to rest beside me. I was grateful for the company, but wanted her to leave me so I could end it all, end the pain and the suffering, end the humiliation I felt even now as my urine passed like fire through the chewed and raw hole that was all that I had left of my penis or balls.
Then she put something - I think it was jerky of some sort or another - into my mouth in small pieces, and it was the most delicious thing I'd ever eaten. It actually drove the thought of pain and suicide away for a bit, for as long as I was chewing and my body getting the nourishment it suddenly craved, life was worth living again. Finally it was gone and I greedily drank the water that was offered to me. The body wants to live even when the mind has decided there is no point, but I couldn't move, and couldn't end it with her there. For one thing, she'd prevent it, I was pretty sure.
I felt her fingers gently caressing my hair, heard her voice telling me to rest, to sleep, that everything would be better with sleep. Yet another pinprick, and I slipped away to dreamland.
I was lying on smooth silk sheets, thrown over a mountain of cushions so thick that I could lie on them almost without pain. The air was fresh and clean and cool. I seemed to be in a tent. I held perfectly still, trying to place my surroundings, to remember just who I was and what I was doing, but my change in breathing must have been enough for them.
``He's awake,'' came a deep voice, a man I decided.
Hands gently took my shoulders and lifted me up to a half-sitting position, more hands packed in softness all around me to support me. I opened my eyes and saw that I was facing Hassan, in his tent. I couldn't tell if it was night or day. Of Sharra there was no sign.
``Feed him,'' continued Hassan.
I opened my mouth to protest, to tell him that there was no point in wasting food on the thing I'd become, but as I opened it delicate fingers popped a morsel of meat inside, and I saw that I was attended on both sides by handmaids who were wearing what is professionally required of handmaids in that country, that is to say, almost nothing (with the ``almost'' skillfully applied to make the end result even better than nothing).
What a mockery of my inability to enjoy it, to even care. It no longer had anything to do with me, even as a voyeur.
Still, the food was doing an ``exploding into unbelievable sensation in my mouth'' thing; saliva was literally drooling out of my mouth (to be napped up by handmaiden one, while handmaiden two diligently kept the mouth too full to talk, too full to weep, too full to do anything but chew and swallow, chew and swallow).
Every now and then number two would pause and number one, or number three (more handmaidens seemed to be behind me) put a large glass of watered wine to my lips for a deep pull.
This went on for longer than you can imagine. The bite sizes would vary from time to time - feeding me smaller bites to let my digestion get a bit ahead, as it seemed. In the middle I felt the urge to urinate and barely managed to wave my hands in the general direction of my waist before the blanket that covered my lower half was lifted to form a screen and delicate hands raised my knee and helped me roll a bit forward, then gently pressed some sort of vessel up against my groin.
I peed like a racehorse. This time it didn't hurt so much.
At no time in this process was I permitted to stop chewing or drinking.
Finally, as the third, no, the fourth tray full of food had been taken away and I was literally bulging around the middle fit to burst, they relented and I was permitted to lie back a bit and get by only with occasional sips of straight wine, no longer watered. My eyes were beginning to dance and I was trying to figure out what had happened to most of the pain, for I actually felt pretty good. Disgustingly gorged, but pretty good.
``Sam Foster, before you go back to sleep, you must know some things. You do not need to speak. It would be good of you to nod from time to time to show that you understand, but I do not demand even that from you - I will read from your eyes alone whether or not you are following my words.''
``First of all, be aware that it is now the morning of the fifth day since you utterly destroyed the grey brotherhood. The last remnants of their forces on Mina have been obliterated by space attack. At most a handful still live, nearly helpless without their protecting DEMigod, and are being hunted down one by one even as I tell you this. The components of that DEMigod on other planes, as well, are being destroyed as they are vulnerable and weak without the unifying center. Shelmor himself may not die (for how can one slay one of the true immortals?) but he is weakened to the point of irrelevance for a thousand years or more, as without a DEMigod beholding to him he will have to work directly with sentient beings, and the gods - with a few exceptions - no longer remember how to do this.''
``After we parted we dared not linger too near the trail, but we did stop in the nearest town to do some, ah, `extensive' bartering that first delayed us and then caused us to set up a short trade cycle in the neighborhood that actually I found quite profitable. Thus it was that when the white light of your success was painted across the sky, followed by an unmistakable blast of wind and a ground shock so strong that it threw down weaker houses in the villages thirty miles away from the center, I was only three days ride from here. I took a day to collect that which I needed and set out right away.''
``Second, Sharra is sleeping behind you, as she has been for fifteen hours now. She had not slept for four days when she drove you into our camp last night, and will probably not awaken again today. She is well, do not worry.''
``Third, you must know that you are both the greatest heroes to come along in many ages. To exterminate the grey race like the termites they resemble, while suffering great pain and showing great bravery - it will become an epic whose merest reflections down the planes will astound and delight the listeners of a myriad of worlds. You will be honored wherever you go. I myself consider myself to be your humblest servant, your obedient slave. Whatever Sharra did to make this come to pass, yours was the idea that succeeded, the idea made flesh and blood with your sacrifice of flesh, and of blood.''
``Fourth, you must not deceive yourself into thinking that as a hero you are safe. Right now you and Sharra are the targets of a manhunt that has only just begun, and the only reason that you are even approximately safe right now is that the entire solar system is currently the locus of one of the largest interstellar dogfights ever recorded. All the gods (save yours and mine) have their representatives, angels and demons alike, overhead, forming alliances of convenience according to their fluctuating interests.''
``More people are dying every minute overhead than die on this world in a year. If you go outside the flashes of that war are clearly visible through the morning sky. All of these groups would wish to take you alive to present you both (whether you like it or not) as their champions; all of these groups would kill you to keep others from so doing.''
``Fortunately, none of them will make it to the surface until the issues above have been resolved, and my computers project that this is most unlikely to occur for at least the next 36 hours. There then will follow a period of one to three days for them to restore satellite coverage, land representatives to scour the planet without violating the non-interference customs, and perhaps find you, at least if you are still here to be found.''
``Fifth - are you listening now? Please nod. Good, excellent. Be aware that I know what you must be feeling now. You are defiled, defaced, mutilated. You may be a hero, but what difference does it make if you are no longer a man. Sharra will no longer love you but will keep you like a pet, a thing she once loved as a man but now cares for as a charge. Your scars will never heal, your voice will change and your beard vanish, your wounds will mark you as a eunuch, only fit to gradually grow plump and guard the harem of some virile man, eh? Yes? Is this not what you think? So there is only one thing to do? To end it!''
I began to weep, quietly, at his saying that which I could not say. But I knew, also, that he would not deny me a sharp blade and a few minutes of peace in which to use it. I nodded my head, my tears being dabbed from my blurring eyes by maidens one and two indifferently, who were also making quiet cooing noises as one might make to an unruly child.
``Sam, my friend, I knew that you would forget. You are too little time among us, and Sharra is old, far older than I, and even less inclined to understand what it is to us to be used as you were used although she has likely endured far worse. Oh, Sam,'' and here he leaned forward and put his hand on my arm, looking right into my eyes from only a few feet away. ``Don't you remember that you will heal!''
Finally I found my voice, pushing the wineglass away for a moment and leaning forward myself. It was a bit rusty from disuse after all the screaming, the tears, and the food but I croaked out ``Truly? Even from this?''
``Sam, I promise you as your brother, as your friend, as your father. Even from this. Even so have I myself done. And her,'' he indicated with his eyes she who still slept behind me, ``She has healed from far, far worse. Many times. She is an angel whose name is already legend, an angel who is what many gods might wish to be. She has died the full death a dozen times and been resurrected, with the memories of her deaths only one of the prices to be paid. She has almost died - missing eyes, breasts, limbs, infected with horrible diseases, poisoned, raped, flayed - well over half a hundred. She has been dealt more pain than you or I can imagine, yet she faces her battles without flinching and with such patience that even I am filled with only admiration.''
``Yes, Sam, you will heal. From something this serious it will not be overnight, but in a hundred days, maybe even fifty if you let my girls keep you stuffed like a young goose, you will wake up one morning and it will all be back, unmarked and perfect. This is the gift that she gave you even before this particular enterprise began.''
``So do not seek to end it all, my brother. Life is sweet, and revenge sweeter. Once again you will be able to frisk after the joys that await you at the hands - and mouths, and other parts, of a willing young maiden, even one such as these. I will leave you now, and take but one of them with me to enjoy even in this way. I leave to you my tent and all the rest, that they may care for you and restore you the sooner to the delights of the world.''
``Tomorrow, if you are able, we will ride. In fact tomorrow we will ride whether or not you are able, so meditate on being able as rapidly as possible lest we drag you on a stretcher. I have a place where you may be able to hide until the search for you dies down. I also have certain claims to press on behalf of my own lord god, who has long and patiently awaited this day and has plans and machinery in place that will soon convince those squabbling above that they have come too late and done to little to be invited to this particular feast. ''
``Sam Foster and Sharra will be known to have left this world; a clear trail will be be laid to other parts of the multiverse where her presence would be a great hardship to many. This will cause the many to call off their hounds here and concentrate them there in defense, because if you could do this to the grey ones here in their place of greatest strength, what could you do there to them and theirs?''
``Beyond that, you and she together will have to choose your trail. All that I can do is to vow my own personal active support, and, I think, the acquiescence of my god in your continued independent existence. Who knows, an actual alliance has arisen out of many a less auspicious beginning. However, she holds firm in her own allegiance and you, as yet, have declared none.''
``My last piece of advice, my son, my brother, is to not be overhasty to declare allegiance, even to my very own god. I think that this advice is probably unnecessary, as at the moment you are unable to do anything but think clearly as you lack that which so often makes men think otherwise. However, it will grow back, and as it does, it may make you foolish where now you are wise. I do not solicit your worship of my god; I merely advise you against making a full commitment to hers or any others.''
He stood up to leave, but before he left I couldn't help but answer this last point.
``Hassan, you don't have to worry about the latter part. You see, I already have picked the god I will support,'' I said with a glint in my eye.
He lifted a quizzical eyebrow and stopped at the mouth of the tent to hear what I would say.
``Sharra pointed out that there is a God beyond the gods, as unknowable to them as they may be to me, and hence unknowable by me as well. This is the only God worshipped on my world, although they know it by many names and bequeath upon it their many natures and project upon it many foolish myths to explain things that they do not understand. I do not consider your ``gods'' to be gods at all - merely men. Immortal, perhaps, although how one can know that until one has lived forever I do not know.''
``You are not talking about ``religion'' at all, you are talking about politics. The biggest, nastiest political mess the multiverse has ever known. Worse, it is in historical terms feudal politics. Well, in my world (as I'm sure has happened on many, many worlds) feudal systems are remarkably stable, until one day, the people wake up and they are not. On that day, they create a state based on the beautiful illusion of freedom and human rights, and cast their former rulers into prison or cut off their heads. In the metaphorical twinkling of a historical eye, the whole system changes from kings to a democracy.''
``That's my religion. God with a capital G, who is my God and yours as much as the God of the gods. Freedom with a capital F. Something worth fighting for. And if the god-kings get in the way of it, well, something worth fighting against.''
Hassan just stood there, his look enigmatic. I fell back into the soft cushions, suddenly exhausted, and felt many small hands moving here and there, easing my clothing and my position to one of complete comfort. As I drifted off into a healing sleep, I heard him reply one final time: ``But of course....''
A few weeks later, Sharra and I stood outside a forbidding stone ruin on the edge of the desert to the far north. It was cold as shit outside, too cold even for crena; I was bundled up in furs. My two swords were slung over my shoulder - Julie and her new sister, as yet unnamed.
Tara (who had been shipped up here on the very quiet indeed by Hassan to rejoin us) was off romping around in the surrounding rocks and dried scrub, bound and determined to find any threat before the threat found me. She had not liked the damage done to ``mama'' when I was out of her control and was feeling exceptionally protective and demonstrative.
The new sword was my parting gift from Hassan, who delivered on every one of his promises and then some. His group now more or less ran Mirath, with a very light hand as far as the local populace was concerned but an iron fist as far as the many god-factions where concerned. His years mapping out many, many of the gates on the planet had been well-rewarded as he had used a half-dozen new ones (including my gate, dammit) to transport in a complete modern planetary defense starting literally the minute the grey ones' military complex no longer trumped such a move. By the time the invaders from space attempted to land, or send in a force by means of the relatively few gates they controlled, it was no longer possible to do so, at least if you wanted to get down alive.
Perhaps in recognition of the fact that we handed him a plum on a platter that he had been unable to reach on his own over a thousand years or more of trying, he had a new sword engineered for me to match Julie. A very, very serious sword. It made even Julie (who he had ``worked on'' some to bring her a bit more up to date as far as state-of-the-art steel is concerned where it could be done without damaging her, the least of which was restoring her temper) into a paring knife in comparison.
On the surface of things, the sword was plain old watered steel (that happened to be stainless, nay, corrosion-proof steel), with a beautiful pattern-welded moire dancing up and down its glistening metal. Inside, however, it was literally the most advanced blade a very old culture of metalworkers and physicists knew how to produce. He claimed that it was very unlikely to need sharpening and was most unlikely to break. Also that if it did need sharpening, I wasn't going to do it by hand or with any tool I was likely to find out in the world.
Hassan then demonstrated both counts by taking the sword and whacking it as hard as he could, with edge and side alike, on a case hardened steel anvil. The sword couldn't, actually cut through the anvil in the middle. However, it cut grooves right into the steel of the anvil that were five millimeters deep at least, and it would cut small pieces off of the corners or horn of the anvil.
Whacking the sword on the side didn't mark it in any way. Putting the sword edge up on the anvil and hitting it with a sledgehammer straight down at the metal did split the anvil right in two and left a centimeter-deep groove in the sledgehammer head that momentarily wedged the edge. However, even a microscope showed no flaws whatsoever when examining the edge and the side of the blade where it was whacked. He then wedged the leading six inches or so of he blade into a long thin crack over a door and proceeded to hang his not inconsiderable weight from the pommel. It didn't bend terribly far down, and sprang back perfectly straight when his weight came off of it. It would have pried the elevator door in the dark monastery open without breaking, I could see right away.
It was as big a blade as a fairly heavy saber - between a saber and an actual broadsword in width. It was also a bit longer than I'm used to, although the balance was so perfect one didn't at first notice. Yet it was lighter than Julie overall, with an unusual weighting of the pommel and the sword itself that made it carry a lot more power in its stroke out on the sweet spot, so to speak. Fast enough to really fence with a wicked point and a long reach, but the edge was unbeatable by anyone not willing to wear inch-thick steel armor as a defense.
On the trip I had amused myself by lopping down two inch thick trees with a single blow, to see if I could make the sword show any sign of wear at all. No luck - even tree sap refused to stick as the blade had a teflon-like quality - it was ``dry slippery'' if you know what I mean. I didn't actually have to kill any bandidos during the one attack that was mounted on us as my sword had cut straight through the swords of my opponents, leaving them holding unarmed hilts, whereupon they all ran away.
So I was a happy camper and feelin' mighty mean. I didn't really want to try it out on an allosaurus, but I had private bet with myself that it would cut one off at the knee with one blow, bone and all, if it came to that.
Other things were coming along as well.
A little nubble was differentiating itself out of the mass of scar tissue between my thighs. A patch at the bottom itched like all hell where the scabs were falling off to reveal another interesting patch of fairly loose skin underneath. Something like nipples where budding up on my chest as the flayed skin all over my body grew back. I was still Hungry all the time (with the capital H) but generally, things were as all right as they could be for an ill-tempered castrato.
Sharra looked at me differently now. In a way things were clearer between us, as there was no possibility of sex being in the way of my feelings for her or her me, although I still slept with her for the warmth and comfort and sometimes used my hands to help her get off when she was pretty clearly horny and acting a bit crabby because of it. OK, and love, and love. I did love her, I just didn't own her or vice versa. I knew she was tough as old leather under that crusty but delectable exterior, but didn't care. She knew that I was nobody to be trifled with, however old I might have been, and that I wouldn't grow physiologically older than I was right now for at least 100 years or thereabouts. There was time to work out relationship issues, if there were ultimately some that needed to be worked out.
Why, if we both lived to a million our age difference would be completely negligible.
The ruin we were approaching was her long-sought drop point, a gate belonging to her particular deity. Hassan had cleared out most of the private gates and operations of everybody else who was not of his religiopolitical faction, but he had left Sharra's god's temples strictly alone and had indeed ``facilitated'' amazingly rapid transit that on two legs of the journey actually used modern conveyances that saved us weeks of travel time and much risk.
Inside we expected to find two things. One was, at long last, a satellite uplink bio-interface to her DEMigod, where she could update her backup image with all of her latest experiences and receive new programming and data and all that. Only after this was done could our love have a decent chance of surviving an initial death - I didn't see a Sharra clone who had never actually met me reading about how much she loved me and coming to jump right into the sack with me.
Her DEMigod would incidentally debrief her - get her intelligent outlook on events while dumping her implant and learn everything there was to know about the crushing of the grey brotherhood as seen through her eyes. It was conceivable that it would permit me to make a backup copy of myself as well, even without any obligation of fealty or further service - I'd helped to do in a single try what literally thousands of its agents had been crushed trying to accomplish over thousands of years, as the gods worked on a different time scale than I was used to.
The second thing that we would hopefully find was a gate, this one to pretty much anyplace in the multiverse. Sharra had promised to send me anywhere they had coordinates for, and to provide me with things like my own implant, local money, and a cover story for most of them. Of course she thought she was going to succeed in recruiting me to her favorite team, and that the two of us would be going away someplace we were assigned to to solve the next massive problem on the list of critical problems her god and DEMigod faced. Possibly after a short vacation.
I personally doubted it, although only in a sort of diffuse third person way. I actually had an open mind - willing to be convinced but not willing to be seduced, hoodwinked, fooled, bribed or threatened into doing any damn thing at all. I also intended to ask them for something that I was pretty sure they wouldn't grant - to meet their ``god'' and do a little awareness raising in person. Since this was (metaphorically speaking) like a frog asking if it could please meet the pope before donating its legs to the pope's dinner table, I had a wee bit of doubt that this would fly, but one never knew.
I also had something of a hankering to return to Sind-a-Lay and see how my revolution was coming along. That was one starfish I wasn't quite done with throwing back into the sea. There was also lots happening around Hassan; sticking around on this planet certainly wouldn't be boring. In addition, Hassan had offered me what amounted to carte blanche on a whole lot of resources with absolutely no visible strings attached, here or elsewhere, on behalf of his deity. Education, weapons, wealth, a palace on a developed world with lots of nubile young ladies or (if I preferred) a bit of adventure as a semi-immortal mercenary.
My problem was sheer ignorance. More than anything else, I needed to spend six months or even a year or three just going back to school. History, physics, mathematics - maybe learning a bit of chemistry was advised. After all, I had time - time enough to learn, time enough to think, time enough to make choices that would, of course determine the course of my life, for however long that life might prove to be. I could even decide to just plain disappear - the multiverse was a big place, easy to get utterly lost in. Hassan actually intimated that disappearing for a decade or two would actually be a great idea, if I could get away with it.
However, decisions like this would be for another day. Tara came bounding up to me, rowling in her happy tone that the area was quite deserted. I hauled my rapidly healing body up off of the rock I'd unconsciously leaned back on, clapped my numb fingers together couple of times to try to warm them, and we hurried down the slope together after Sharra, who was just disappearing through what appeared to be a pair of massive doors. Doors that led to doors that led to doors that led - anywhere.
I just hoped that it was warm inside.