Benjamin scrolled through the Book’s table of contents; the little tablet contained every sanctioned story that had ever been recorded in the Zianon Empire. One of the happily-ever-afters would be perfect, and he needed a perfect story for a perfect day. Blood rushed to his head, heating his cheeks with happiness at the thought of finally holding his newborn daughter. He slid the Book in his pocket, and then pressed cool palms against his face.
Suze would be here any minute. She always chided him for being emotional. She’d been on the second contact team after the Zianon scouts had rediscovered his home planet, Red Hope. When they’d first met, she’d said his emotional outbursts were endearing, but lately… No. No use thinking of that today. Not when everything was about to change anyway.
He looked at the canister across from him, all blinking lights and feeding tubes and circulating amniotic fluid while she sucked on her toes without a care in the world. She was perfect, absolutely perfect. He clutched the two roses — one red, for Suze, one white for the baby — to his chest. The sterile bag they were in crinkled as he held it close, but if he closed his eyes tight, he was sure he could make out their sweet scent.
The door swooshed and he jumped to his feet. “Suze—”
A tall woman entered and scanned his retinas; the bright lights momentarily blinded him. He heard her toggle a few more inputs before she shoved a stylus at him. “Read, then imprint here to give consent.”
Still blinking away dots from his vision, Benjamin read the document. No. He shook his head so violently it made him dizzy.
The woman pushed him onto his chair, then set the stylus on his lap. “I know it must seem unbelievable, but fetus x954yz8332-s9821’s potential is undeniable.”
Benjamin’s mind blurred, coherency shattered. He managed to choke out a syllable. “Suze—”
“Citizen Kasten has already relinquished custody of fetus x954yz8332-s9821. We just need your imprint, then you’ll have more credits than you could possibly spend.” She scrolled down the document. “You even get an option for another child allowance.” She tapped the screen. “Please hurry. The window of time to begin the process is very small.”
Benjamin shoved his hands in the pocket of his coverall and initiated a sync with Suze. The room faded until all he saw was Suze, exquisite Suze with her shoulder-length black hair, cunning eyes, and delicate features glowing with joy. The lavender fragrance she was so fond of tickled his nose. She smiled at him, a smile that for once went all the way to her eyes. “Can you believe it? I’m going shopping now. All the feeds will be clamoring for us to give interviews. I’ve already got over a thousand requests in my inbox. We’re going to be so famous. Meet me at Alfonso’s for dinner.”
Benjamin’s chest clamped painfully around his heart. “But what about the baby?”
Suze beamed. “She’ll be incandescent! Now…” She assessed him, head to toe. “I’ll buy you some new clothes while I’m shopping. See you later.”
“They want to take our baby and all you can talk about is clothes shopping? I can’t believe you already agreed to give our baby away.”
Her eyebrows drew together, etching a little “v” between their perfect arches. It was a familiar expression. Benjamin had seen it countless times, always whenever he said something hopelessly backworld. She spoke slowly, her voice full of the exaggerated patience twined with pedantic tones that one uses with a child. “We’re not giving her away. She was never ours. You can’t own a person anyway. And, she’s a goddess; she’s for everyone to share.” Her voice dropped, full of reverence. “And not just any goddess, but a major goddess. Do you know how rare that is?”
Benjamin tried to remember everything he’d learned about the deities of the Zianon Empire_._ Red Hope couldn’t have one until the planet’s reintegration with Zianon was complete. He looked at the canister where his baby was wriggling around, still sucking on her toes. He couldn’t reconcile it with what he imagined a goddess would be. “She’s our baby.” Benjamin had meant say it in a firm, outraged voice, but it came out more as a plaintive whine.
Suze sighed. “My parents warned me about partnering with someone from a Lost World. I ignored them. I’d thought, I’d hoped…” She slumped; her eyes gleamed with almost-tears. “I’m sorry Ben. I should never have taken you away from your home. I’m sorry for that, and I’m sorry for what I have to do now.” She abruptly cut the signal.
When the sync faded, the white-clad official had gone. In her place stood a man in luminous, silver robes. With snow-white, inch-long hair spiked in all directions, dusky blue skin, and eyes glittering like the night sky, he was without doubt the most beautifully handsome man Benjamin had ever seen. He was also, without doubt, a god. An angry god.
“I am Celar-DX.” He paused, as if giving Benjamin time to digest the fact that he stood face to face with the god of one of the major arms of the Milky Way and one of the most powerful deities in the empire. “Did you want more money? Or perhaps you think to be a god? To hold her fate in your hands?”
Hot tears spilled heedlessly onto the stylus. Benjamin’s words came out in a ragged whisper. “I only wanted to hold her in my hands. To love her.”
The god ‘s face softened. “Merely selfish, then. Know this, solar systems will run through her veins, the stars of the universe will shine in her eyes, billions of lives will thrive under her nurture and will love her in return. Do you think your love is better than all that?” He pointed to the stylus that still perched on Benjamin’s lap. “Time is critical at this stage. We must start within five minutes to maximize her potential.”
Benjamin’s hand hesitated over the screen. “Were you like her once? Did your parents give you away?”
“My potential was discovered, and my parents relinquished custody.”
“Did you ever wish they hadn’t?” The god glowed so bright, Benjamin’s eyes clamped shut in pain, and he feared that he’d offended the deity. Then the glow faded, and he opened his eyes.
The all-powerful being, overseeing the running of hundreds of planets and billions of lives, smiled. “I have no desire to contemplate being any other way.”
“Did you ever meet them? After?”
“No.” Celar-DX’s face was inscrutable.
The thought of never seeing his daughter twisted his gut in knots. “Was it lonely, not having parents?”
“Zianon was my parent.” Celar-DX touched Benjamin’s cheek. “There are few that would ask personal questions of a god.” He tapped the stylus that still perched on Benjamin’s lap, but then cocked his head to one side as if listening. “Ah. The choice is no longer yours. Citizen Kasten has withdrawn her sponsorship and all of your temporary rights have been revoked. You will be deported, effective immediately, and returned to your native planet on the next available transport. Your escort is waiting outside the door.”
Suze had abandoned him and left him powerless. The betrayal spun inside him like a black hole. Shoulders slumped, Benjamin stared at the door expecting it to immediately spew soldiers to immobilize him. He spoke bitterly with a mouth gone suddenly dry. “Why aren’t they taking me away yet?”
“I have not allowed it. I allow you thirty seconds to choose. Whatever you decide, I will enforce your decision.”
The unexpected compassion brought tears to Benjamin’s eyes, but he blinked them rapidly away before they could cloud his vision. “Why?”
“Call it a god’s whim. I am not meant to be understood, only obeyed and adored… as she could be. She is a goddess, regardless of any decision. Would you have her be nobody’s goddess when she could be the goddess of billions? Quickly now, your answer.”
The stylus slipped to the floor. He clasped trembling hands together. The god stood before him, one instantiation of a limitless being, not a helpless one like Benjamin. The answer came out like a sigh. “Let her be like you.”
“Do you relinquish custody willingly?”
The doors opened. Instead of a troop of soldiers, a team of doctors with carts of equipment invaded the room. In moments, his daughter’s — no the goddess’s — canister was covered with blinking, beeping equipment. The color of the nutrient feeds changed to a rich, golden brown.
Benjamin stood with the god stood in a corner of the room and watched the transformation. He fixed every detail of the memory in his mind. The antiseptic smell of the efficient doctors, the honey-sweet smell of the nutrient feed, the numerous lights on the equipment, flashing like stars, the gleaming wires, the way she danced in the canister — everything. He didn’t want to forget a detail when they took him back to Red Hope. “Thank you.”
The door opened and more equipment came in.
Benjamin was pressed against the wall. “I’m surprised they haven’t kicked me out yet.”
“They knew I wanted you to stay during the initial stage. But, they will need all the space in the room, and you should leave soon.”
Benjamin nodded. “Back to Red Hope. Seat with my name on it on the next transport, right? How much time do I have?”
“You are not required to go to Red Hope unless you want to. You have a new sponsor.”
“I have sponsored you.”
The magnitude of it took Benjamin’s breath away. “Do you do that often?”
“This is the first time.”
Benjamin couldn’t stop smiling. “And you did it for reasons that won’t be disclosed because the whims of gods are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals?
“Exactly. Will you stay or go?”
“I want to be wherever she is.”
The god nodded. “I predicted as much.”
Benjamin allowed the god to guide him to the door. Just before exiting, he knelt and wedged the small book between the wall and a humming piece of hardware. He didn’t need to pick out a story for the goddess; his daughter would make her own story.