The Dasheter’s four sails had been furled upon the ship’s arrival here, directly beneath the Face of God. The great sheets, each with a symbol of the prophet, were now rolled into tight bundles tied against horizontal booms at the top of each mast. The brass pulleys and pivots of the rigging were lashed down so that they wouldn’t endlessly clink together.
Webbings of rope ran up the side of each mast, the interweave loose enough to allow a hand or foot easy purchase. Standing on the ship’s foredeck, wooden planks creaking beneath him, Afsan looked up at the lead mast. Although he knew it to be of constant thickness from top to bottom, the mast seemed to taper as it reached for the sky. The rope webbing hung loosely to one side, the breeze only occasionally strong enough to move the heavy cords. The mast swung dizzyingly from port to starboard and back again, the topmost part slicing through the sky like an inverted pendulum. At the pinnacle was the lookout’s bucket, so tiny, so far way.
And behind it all, gloriously, the Face of God, now slightly less than half lit in the morning sun. Bands of orange and beige roiled across its oblate shape.
Now that they’d arrived at the halfway point of their voyage, new lists of chores had been distributed. For the duration of the trip, Afsan would be responsible for a shift in the lookout’s bucket every ten days. Today was his first.
The climb up to the bucket looked arduous and frightening. Still, whoever was up there now — Afsan half closed his nictitating membrane to cut the glare from the Face high above — Mar-Biltog, it looked like — would already be mad that Afsan was late in relieving him. Given the tight confines of the ship, displeasing another was never prudent, and Biltog was particularly short-tempered. Afsan reached out to grab the web of ropes.
By hand and foot, he pulled himself up. His tail lifted from the deck, and he felt the weight of it dangling behind him. He tilted his head up to counterbalance it.
The climb was indeed difficult; Afsan was not used to such effort, and having been aboard the Dasheter for over 130 days now, with no room to run, he was perhaps a tad out of shape. The sun, bright over his shoulder, felt good on his back as he continued up. But with each successive body-length of height, the mast swayed through wider and wider arcs. It was uncomfortably like scaling the neck of that giant thunderbeast. Afsan briefly closed his inner and outer eyelids, trying to fight vertigo. He’d resisted motion sickness throughout the voyage so far; he’d be strung up by his tail sooner than give in to it now — especially since, with the swaying of the mast, he’d probably leave a wide swath of vomit on the deck below.
Higher and higher still. The mast, brown and old, still showed the chopping marks of the blades that had hewn it. Afsan decided it was better to focus on those marks rather than on the sight of the bucket swinging wildly back and forth between the lit and unlit hemispheres of the Face of God. Unlike the thunderbeast’s weaving neck, the rocking back and forth of the Dasheter was fairly regular. With an effort of will, Afsan found that he could anticipate it, and that helped quell his stomach.
His hands were getting tired and sore from the climb. His feet were too callused to be hurt by the ropes, but Afsan had forgotten just how heavy his own tail was. Still, he pressed on and at last made it to the top of the mast.
The webbing came right up to the lip of the bucket. The bucket itself was made of vertical planks arranged in a circle. Biltog, standing within, did not look happy.
"You’re late," he said.
Afsan couldn’t execute a proper bow while still holding on to the climbing web, but he dipped his head as much as he could. "My apologies. I simply lost track of time."
Biltog snorted. "If there’s one skill I’d expect an astrologer to have, it would be precise timekeeping." Afsan dipped his head again. "I’m sorry." Biltog nodded curtly and hauled himself out of the bucket, grabbing onto the web of ropes next to Afsan. For his part, Afsan swung first one leg and then the other into the bucket. It was good to be able to lean back, putting all his weight on his tail.
His job up here was simple: scan the horizon for anything out of the ordinary. The view was spectacular. Far below were the twin diamond hulls of the Dasheter, connected by the thick joining piece. He could see Quintaglios moving about the deck. Even at this late date, it was easy to tell crewmembers from pilgrims, for only the former walked with complete steadiness across the swaying deck.
Afsan was amused by the dances of the individuals, how each changed course to give everyone else wide clearance as they passed. He had never seen it from this perspective before. The smaller — and therefore younger — Quintaglios always started to veer out of the way first, but even the oldest would also make at least a token effort to move aside as well. The pattern wasn’t as smooth as that drawn by objects in the sky, but it seemed to be nearly as predictable.
Looking out to the horizon, there was nothing but water, an endless liquid vista, waves moving from east to west. There was something soothing about the unembellished vastness.
Afsan rotated slowly in the bucket, scanning the horizon through a complete circle. Nothing broke the waves anywhere. So simple, so uncomplicated.
And yet, as he looked, it seemed, perhaps, that the horizon fell off to his left and right. It didn’t matter which direction he looked, the effect was the same. Perhaps, maybe, hard to say. But it looked like it curved away. Or is that just me seeing what I want to see? Afsan thought. Last night, he’d convinced himself of something new: that the world was round. Now he was even claiming that he could see the roundness.
And yet. And yet. The effect was persistent. No matter how hard he tried to force his eyes not to see the gentle sloping, it was always visible, always there just at the edge of certainty.
Overhead, though, was the most glorious sight of all. In the time it had taken Afsan to climb the mast, the Face of God had gone from almost half lit to a fat crescent, a vast sickle of orange and yellow and brown arcing across a fourth of the sky.
Afsan tilted his head back, his tail bowing under the shift in weight, and looked straight up. What are you? he wondered.
Are you God?
The Prophet Larsk had certainly thought so. When he’d been a child, Afsan, like all his age, had memorized Larsk’s original proclamations, the speeches the prophet had made in the central square of what is now Capital City. "I have gazed upon the Face of God," Larsk had said. "I have seen the very countenance of our creator…"
But the Face of God did not look like a Quintaglio face. It was orange and yellow and brown, not green; it was round, not drawn-out; it had many eyes, not just two; its mouth had no teeth — if that great spot, oval and white, sometimes visible on the Face was indeed the mouth.
And yet, why should God look like a Quintaglio? God is perfection; a Quintaglio is not. God is immortal, requiring no food, no air. Quintaglios have muzzles lined with teeth and terminated with nostrils precisely because they are not immortal, because they need material sustenance to live. And Afsan knew that two eyes were better than one, for with two came depth perception. Surely the ten or so that wandered across the Face were that much better than just two?
Even as the crescent waned, Afsan found himself spellbound by the play of colors across it.
But no! No. It is not the Face of God. It cannot be. Afsan’s tail muscles twitched in frustration, there being too little room in the lookout’s bucket for a proper slap.
He’d worked it all out. He knew.
The Face of God is a planet.
But if that is true, where is God? What is God?
There is no God.
Afsan flinched. His pulse quickened; his claws jumped from their sheaths. The idea frightened him.
There is no God.
Could that be so? No, no, no, of course not. Madness to even think such a thing. There must be a God. There must be!
But where? If not here, where? If not the swirling object above his head, where? If not looking down upon the pilgrims from high above, where?
Afsan’s stomach knotted, and he knew it wasn’t just from the constant swaying of the bucket.
Quintaglios exist, he thought.
And if we exist, then someone made us.
And that someone must be God.
Well, that was simple enough. All right, then. God existed.
But who created God?
The mast moved to and fro. A stiff breeze played over Afsan’s features.
God just postpones the inevitable. If everything requires a creator, then God requires one, too.
He thought briefly of a children’s astrology class he’d taken kilodays ago. His teacher had been trying to explain the rudiments of the universe — Land being a huge island floating down the endless River. But one of the other youngsters — a visitor from a Pack that normally roamed farther north in Arj’toolar province — had said no. The way she’d heard it, Land balanced on an armorback, the sturdy four-footed animal holding everything up on its thick bony carapace.
"Ah!" the instructor had said. "But what does the armorback rest upon?"
The girl had replied immediately. "Why, another armorback, of course."
The instructor’s tail had swished with delight. "And what does that armorback rest upon?"
"A third armorback," said the girl.
"And that armorback?"
"And that armorback?"
But here the girl had held up her hand. "I see where you’re trying to go with this, teacher, but you can’t fool me. It’s armorbacks all the way down."
Back then, Afsan had clicked his teeth quietly in amusement. But it wasn’t funny now. Was God just like that girl’s armorbacks? A way of postponing the final question? A way of endlessly putting off dealing with — with — with first causes! And Afsan, smug back then in his superior knowledge, was guilty of the same self-delusion, the same acceptance of easy answers. Either God was created by something else, and that something else was created by yet some greater something, and on and on to infinity, or it was possible to exist without a creator. Well, the former case was patently ridiculous. And if the latter case was true, then, well, then there was no need for a God.
No need for a God.
But what of all he had been taught? What of the great religion of the people? The mast swayed.
Afsan felt his faith crumbling around him, shattering like an egg. And what would burst forth from the shell shards?
What was Afsan about to unleash on the world?
For a few heartbeats he tried to convince himself that this knowledge was a wonderful thing, a great liberator. For did one not live in fear of God? Did one not comport oneself so as to gain favorable standing in the afterlife, such standing decided at the sole discretion of the supreme being?
But then it hit Afsan with an unexpected forcefulness.
He was afraid.
If there was no God, there was just as likely no afterlife. There was no reason to behave properly, to put the interests of others ahead of one’s own.
No God meant no meaning to it all, no higher standard by which everything was measured. No absolutes of goodness.
Below him, Afsan heard faint sounds. He looked down upon the twin diamond decks of the Dasheter, far below. Standing at one side was the ship’s priest, Det-Bleen, moving his arms in graceful orchestration. The pilgrims were arranging themselves in a circle, each one facing out. Their tails all aimed in toward a central point directly beneath the Face of God. They tipped their heads back, looking straight up. And they sang.
Songs of hope.
Songs of prayer.
Songs of worship.
The music, when audible above the wind and the slapping of waves, was beautiful, full of energy, of sincerity. Clearer and brighter than the other voices, Afsan could hear the magic of Prince Dybo’s singing.
They’re together, thought Afsan, united in worship. For it was only through the church, through the religion, that Quintaglios saw fit to join forces for anything beyond the hunt.
The sacred scrolls said that in heaven there was no territorial instinct; that there, in the calming presence of God Herself, being in the company of others did not bring out the animal within. The church taught that one must work together, hold one’s instincts in check, that to do so was to bring oneself closer to God, to prepare oneself for the unending bliss of the afterlife.
Without a church, there would be no such teachings. Without such teachings, there would be no working together, except, maybe, to fell the largest of beasts, the greatest of prey. Without working together, there’d be no cities, no culture.
In one heady moment, Afsan realized that the church was the cornerstone of the culture, that the role of Det-Yenalb was more important than that played by Saleed or any scholar, that the cement that bound together a race of carnivores, a breed that had territorial imperatives fundamental to their being, was the belief in God.
Below him, the pilgrims rotated on the deck, their muzzles now facing in so that they looked straight at each other: together, conscious of their union, but calm, instincts in check, under the kindly influence of the Face of God. Slowly they lifted their muzzles again and began to chant the words of the Eleventh Scroll.
The Eleventh Scroll, thought Afsan. The one about working together to rebuild, about how God sends landquakes not out of spite or anger, but to give us yet another reason to hold our instincts at bay and cooperate.
But Afsan knew the truth.
He could not lie. Anyone could see that he was lying, for only an aug-ta-rot, a demon, could lie in the light of day.
Science must always advance.
The mast swung far to port, paused for an instant, then swung far to starboard. Afsan looked down again. Directly beneath him was open water.
In a horrible flash it was clear to him.
There was a way.
A way to keep it all secret.
To keep the dangerous truth unknown.
He could jump. He could put an end to himself.
Not just now, of course. Not with water below. Assuming he wasn’t knocked unconscious breaking through the surface, Afsan could swim alongside the ship for days.
But if he jumped — now! — with nothing but hard wooden deck to break his fall, he’d be finished, instantly. There’d be no prolonged death, just a snuffing out like a lamp being extinguished.
He’d never have to let the world know what he knew, never have to share what he’d discovered, never risk dissolving the glue holding civilization together.
It would be for the best. Besides, no one would miss him.
Afsan stared down over the edge of the bucket, watching the ship move back and forth beneath him.
No, of course not.
What he’d discovered was the truth. And he would tell that truth to all who would listen.
He had to. He was a scholar.
Quintaglios are rational beings. Perhaps there was a time, in the distant past, when we needed a God. But not in these enlightened days. Not now. Not anymore.
His resolve hardened. He was still too cramped to slap his tail properly, but he gave it a good try.
The truth, then. And to the darkest pits with the consequences.
Nodding to himself, he scanned the horizon.
Say, there’s something —
No. Nothing. For an instant, he’d thought he’d seen something far, far off, splitting the waters. But it was gone now. He rotated slowly, looking in each direction for anything out of the ordinary.
As the day wore on, the sun moved higher and higher into the sky. The narrow crescent of the Face of God waned into nothingness. The vast dim circular bulk of its unilluminated side hung above Afsan’s head, a pale ghost of its former glory.